All Happy Families (Jeanne McCulloch) — The “poor little rich girl” story is familiar to most readers, but Jeanne McCulloch manages to make it fresh in this gracefully written memoir. The book opens on her wedding day, as her father lies in a coma in a nearby hospital, and goes on to examine three failed marriages — her own, her parents’, and her in-laws’.
The High Season (Judy Blundell) — This is the quintessential beach book! The High Season is the most entertaining book I’ve read in a long time. Ruthie Beamish abandoned her art career to direct a small museum on the West Fork of Long Island. Now a board filled with social climbers wants to oust her, and Ruthie faces losing not only her job but her beloved waterfront home. Take this one on your next vacation, whether you’re on the beach or not.
Now My Heart is Full (Laura June) — I was puzzled by this book. If the author had submitted any one of the chapters for a high school writing assignment, she would have received an average grade and a recommendation to review basic grammar and usage. (You do not LAY down on a bed. You LIE down. You LAY your weary body down on a bed. And on and on . . .) The book is poorly constructed, haphazardly jumping around. I just don’t understand: a) how a book like this was published, when so many worthy manuscripts never see the light of day and b) how the many grammatical errors slipped by the editorial staff at Penguin.
Visible Empire (Hannah Pittard) — I love books where several plot threads come together in an unexpected way, and I love books based on little-known events in history — so Visible Empire hit my sweet spot. In 1962, an Atlanta-bound jet crashed in Paris, killing 121 passengers, most of whom were prominent in Atlanta society, who’d just finished a cultural tour of Europe. Pittard imagines the aftermath of this tragedy, focusing on several characters connected to the deceased passengers.
Don’t You Ever (Mary Carter Bishop) — In this honest and moving memoir, journalist Mary Carter Bishop discovers she has a brother she’s never met, and becomes obsessed with getting to know him and uncovering the secrets of her family’s complicated past.
That Kind of Mother (Rumaan Alam) — I didn’t much care for Alam’s earlier novel, Rich and Pretty, so I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised that I wasn’t crazy about That Kind of Mother either. I thought it was going to be about transracial adoption, and it did touch on that topic, but the novel focuses on the main character, an uninteresting woman who miraculously becomes a successful poet.
The Book of Essie (Meghan MacLean Weir) — Seventeen-year-old Essie Hicks is the youngest daughter of an evangelical preacher. Nearly every move she makes is filmed for the TV reality show featuring her family. When she becomes pregnant, the producers, aided by her conniving mother, spin the story by planning a wedding — to be aired on TV, naturally. It’s all rather unbelievable, until you remember the Duggar family (“19 Kids and Counting”) and their fall from grace — and you’ll keep turning the pages. The Book of Essie, Weir’s debut novel, is an adult novel, but it reads like YA and is perfect for teenagers.
Less (Andrew Sean Greer) — Last year’s Pulitzer Prize winner for fiction is that rarest of all literary prize winners — a comic novel. The readers I’ve discussed this book with seem bewildered about why Greer’s novel won the prize. After all recent winners have been about the violence of slavery (The Underground Railroad), the legacy of the Vietnam War and the immigrant experience (The Sympathizer), and the horrors of World War II (All the Light We Cannot See). How does a story about a middle-aged gay man traveling around the world to avoid his ex-lover’s wedding compare to these lofty works? Read it, and prepare to be dazzled. The blurb on the Pulitzer website describes the book better than I ever could: “A generous book, musical in its prose and expansive in its structure and range, about growing older and the essential nature of love.”
Clock Dance (Anne Tyler) — You can’t go wrong with Anne Tyler, and this book was, like all of hers, enjoyable, with her trademark quirky characters and a Baltimore setting. But it lacks the depth and poignancy of her best books. The beginning of the novel, set in the South and the West, is promising, but as soon as Willa, the protagonist. gets to Baltimore the parade of lovable oddball characters begins — which is where I lost interest in Willa, who is the biggest doormat you’d ever want to meet. Her husband is portrayed as an insensitive jerk, but I was on his side all the way.
The Mars Room (Rachel Kushner) — There’s been lots of hype for this book (it was just longlisted for the 2018 Man Booker Prize, and Kushner is a two-time National Book Award nominee), but I was underwhelmed. It’s the story of a stripper who’s serving life in prison for murder — and if you’re wondering if she’s guilty, yes, she is. (This is not a spoiler.) Kushner is asking readers to examine the question of how much control we actually have over our lives, and also to consider our system of mass incarceration. The writing is excellent, but the story failed to engage me emotionally.
The Taster (V.S. Alexander) — The story of a young German woman who, out of desperation, becomes one of Hitler’s “tasters”, this novel was fascinating from a historical point of view. The writing is nothing special and the characters aren’t well developed, but the descriptions of the inner workings of Hitler’s retreats and bunkers make the book worth reading.
The Locals (Jonathan Dee) — Just after 9/11, a wealthy New Yorker, Philip Hadi, moves his family to their vacation home in the Berkshires, and quickly becomes involved — perhaps over-involved — in local politics. Meanwhile, Mark Firth, a contractor who’s remodeling Hadi’s house, faces his own problems. As the novel progresses and tensions between the locals and the interloper escalate, Dee introduces a cast of characters in fictional Howland, Massachusetts, each with a distinct voice. The Locals is reminiscent of Richard Russo’s upstate New York novels — but with a bit more of an edge. There’s plenty of material for a book group discussion; I’d start out by asking why Dee included the the first chapter, narrated by a New York City con artist who never becomes important to the story.
Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows (Balli Kaur Jaswal) — A fun and surprisingly insightful mashup of romance, mystery, and literary fiction, Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows is really the coming-of-age story of a young Sikh woman in London. Through her job teaching uneducated women in a close-knit Punjabi community how to share their stories, Nicky begins to learn who she is and how to navigate her way through life.
The Great Believers (Rebecca Makkai) — One of my favorite novels of the year, and the only one that’s moved me to tears, The Great Believers tells the story of Chicago’s AIDS crisis in the 1980s through the eyes of Yale Tishman, the development director at an art gallery. Makkai skillfully weaves the story of Yale and his community with two others that are almost as compelling: that of Fiona, his deceased friend Nico’s younger sister, who loses her daughter to a religious cult and goes to Paris to track her down, and Nora, the elderly owner of a valuable art collection she wants to donate to Yale’s art gallery, against the wishes of her family. Don’t start this book unless you have plenty of time, because you won’t want to stop.
Beauty in the Broken Places (Allison Pataki) — In this heartfelt and inspiring memoir, historical novelist Allison Pataki chronicles the year after her 30-year-old physician husband’s stroke, which happened on on a flight to Hawaii when the couple was expecting their first baby.
The Dependents (Katherine Dion) — The Dependents is a lovely and quiet novel that will linger in your mind long after you turn the last page. In its beautifully rendered exploration of relationships — between husband and wife, parent and child, and friends — it reminds me of Alice McDermott’s fiction. Another reviewer mentioned that the book reminded her of Wallace Stegner’s Crossing to Safety (I assume because of the focus on the lifelong friendship between two married couples), and that is high praise indeed.
A Place for Us (Fatima Farheen Mirza) — This is a solid, well-written (but not great) family story about Indian immigrants in California. I think I’d have preferred it if it were narrower in scope and shorter; as it is, the plot meanders a bit. Still, it kept my interest and the characters engaged me. Good for fans of Pachinko.
The Bookshop of Yesterdays (Amy Meyerson) — I had high hopes for this book — after all, it revolves around an independent bookstore. I enjoyed the literary references and the bookstore setting, but the mystery was easy to figure out and the characters were uninteresting.
The Fact of a Body: A Murder and a Memoir (Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich) — When she was a law student, Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich spent the summer working on an appeal for a convicted child murderer, Ricky Langley. An avowed opponent of the death penalty, Marzano-Lesnevich found herself wishing for Langley’s execution. As she examined the case, eventually spending years studying every detail, she came to a new understanding of her own painful childhood and a radically different view of the legal system. This is one of the best nonfiction books I’ve read in years.
The Lost Family (Jenna Blum) — Peter Rashkin, an Auschwitz survivor tormented by guilt over the wife and daughters he failed to save, opens a popular restaurant in the United States and marries a beautiful young model, June Bouquet. I was interested in Peter’s story, not so much in June’s. If you’re looking for a World War II novel, there are much better options.
I’ll Think It, You Say It (Curtis Sittenfeld) — Readers who claim they don’t like short stories haven’t read Curtis Sittenfeld’s stories. This collection will make a convert out of anyone. I kept telling myself — “Just one more . . .” and before I knew it, I’d read the whole book.
Happiness: A Memoir: The Crooked Little Road to Semi-Ever After (Heather Harpham) — Heather Harpham became pregnant and then was abandoned by the father of the baby . . . later, after Harpham spent months dealing with her infant daughter’s life-threatening illness, the father decided to show up and take some responsibility for their sick child. Now, they are raising their two children together. Harpham is a lovely writer, but I just couldn’t get over the fact she decided to welcome her partner, novelist Brian Morton (whose books I now never want to read) back into her life.
The Perfect Mother (Aimee Molloy) — A group of new moms goes out for a few drinks, and at the end of the evening, one of their babies has been kidnapped. I’ve read better books about adjusting to the pressures of parenthood, but the “whodunit” was top-notch. And this is a spoiler, but I have to mention that the kidnapped baby is ALIVE AND SAFE at the end of the book.
American Panda (Gloria Chao) — Yet another YA novel about a girl who feels different from her peers, American Panda distinguishes itself by focusing on the college (rather than high school) experiences of a teenage girl. Mei is a seventeen-year-old freshman at MIT, and her tiger parents threaten to disown her for any behavior outside their cultural norms.
Love, Hate & Other Filters (Samira Ahmed) — This YA novel about a Muslim girl growing up in a Chicago suburb, is another “fish out of water” story about a teenager struggling with cultural differences. The author, drawing on her own experiences, writes well and creates sympathy for her protagonist, but there’s not much original about the novel.
The Female Persuasion (Meg Wolitzer) — Greer Kadetsky is a freshman in college when she has a life-changing encounter with feminist icon Faith Frank (who closely resembles Gloria Steinem). After graduation, Greer goes to work for Faith’s foundation, while her longtime boyfriend, Cory Pinto moves abroad for a a consulting job. After he returns to the United States, events force both Greer and Cory (who are two of the most endearing characters I’ve come across in contemporary literature) to re-examine everything they’ve valued. Another 2018 favorite!
Alternate Side (Anna Quindlen) — You can never go wrong with an Anna Quindlen novel, and this is one of her best. Nora and Charlie seem to have everything: a brownstone on a quiet cut-de-sac in New York’s Upper West Side, surrounded by long-time neighbors who throw great parties, college-aged twins who love their visits home, and terrific jobs. But when a parking dispute turns into a violent incident, life begins to unravel.
The Girl Who Smiled Beads (Clemantine Wamariya) — A very young survivor of the Rwandan genocide tells her heartbreaking story of loss and survival. With her older sister, six-year-old Clemantine Wamariya fled her home and wandered throughout Africa in search of safety, finally receiving asylum in the United States. Extremely moving; reminiscent of Ismael Beah’s A Long Way Gone.
Laura and Emma (Kate Greathead) — This is an odd book, and not to everyone’s taste, but I loved it. Not much happens; it’s a character study of a woman named Laura, who comes from a very privileged background in New York but has never felt that she fits in. When she gets pregnant by accident, she raises her daughter, Emma, on her own. The writing is just perfect; Kate Greathead has a unique voice that resonated with me. Perfect for readers who enjoyed Emily, Alone by Stewart O’Nan. Both are the opposite of page-turners, but I found them more compelling than any thriller.
The Friend (Sigrid Nunez) — I absolutely adored The Friend by Sigrid Nunez, about a writer who loses her dearest friend but finds solace when she becomes the reluctant owner of the Great Dane he has left behind. It’s a lovely, unsentimental story about grief, friendship, and the bond between people and their pets, filled with the narrator’s thoughts on reading and writing. If you love dogs and literature, you’ll savor this jewel of a book. This will definitely make my list of favorite novels at the end of the year.
The Night Diary (Veera Hiranandani) — Based on the experiences of Hiranandani’s father, who as a child endured a harrowing journey across the Pakistani/Indian border during Partition, this novel tells the story of the largest forced migration in human history through the eyes of a twelve-year-old girl. Technically middle-grade fiction, our YA book club enjoyed The Night Diary and thought it was a great book for adults as well as kids.
Stay With Me (Ayobami Adebayo) — Terrific for book clubs, Stay With Me is the poignant story of a Nigerian marriage. Yejide and Akin fall in love at university in Nigeria in the 1980s, a time of political turmoil. When they are unable to conceive a child, their families urge Akin to take a second wife. I don’t want to reveal more than that, but I urge you to read this beautiful novel.
Speak No Evil (Uzodinma Iweala) — Harvard-bound Niru is the pride of his successful Nigerian immigrant parents — until they accidentally learn that he is gay. This short and beautifully written novel, about family, friendship, and identity will break your heart.
The Hazel Wood (Melissa Albert) — You’ll either love or hate this quirky mashup of fantasy and reality. It starts out as a conventional YA story about a teenage girl who feels like an outcast at her New York private school and befriends another lost soul. When the two enter a world of twisted fairy tales, the book shifts gears, turning dark and confusing. The writing is gorgeous, and if you suspend disbelief, you’ll enjoy the author’s imaginative powers.
Educated (Tara Westover) — This is my first “I couldn’t put it down” book of 2018. It’s the amazing true story of a young woman raised off the grid in a strict Mormon fundamentalist family. Not allowed to attend school or visit doctors, Tara Westover was used as slave labor in her family’s scrap business, suffering life-threatening injuries multiple times. Through incredible strength and some lucky breaks, Westover got herself to college and eventually to graduate school at Cambridge.
The Great Alone (Kristin Hannah) — Hmmm. This #1 bestseller kept me turning the pages on a recent beach vacation, and I loved learning about Alaska. But the writing is subpar — lots of blankets of snow and buttery sunshine — and the characters were stereotypical and uninteresting.
An American Marriage (Tayari Jones) — Married just a year, Roy and Celestial are adjusting to marriage when Roy is arrested for a crime he didn’t commit and sentenced to a lengthy prison term. Through letters, we see Celestial’s commitment unraveling, and when Roy is released early, matters come to a head. This is an insightful portrait of flawed but appealing characters facing a no-win situation. I was a little bothered by a plot hole and would love to discuss this book with other readers.
Heather, the Totality (Matthew Weinstein) — This is a very weird little book. I can’t decide if it’s brilliant or just plain bad, and the reviews are equally divided. (See the article in Library Journal, “What to Make of Heather, the Totality.”) Perfect for book clubs, especially those looking for short books. Our group joked that we spent more time discussing the book than it took to read it.
Wild Bird (Wendelin Van Draanen) — Wren, a troubled teenager, is sent to a therapeutic wilderness program when her parents have run out of options. It’s a well-crafted and moving story, but one best suited to YA readers.
Tell Me More: Stories About the 12 Hardest Things I’m Learning to Say (Kelly Corrigan) — Corrigan’s trademark wisdom and self-deprecating humor shine in this series of personal essays. This is the perfect gift for your sister, mother, daughter, or friend.
Everything Happens for a Reason: And Other Lies I’ve Loved (Kate Bowler) — At age 35, Kate Bowler, a divinity professor and new mother, found she had Stage IV cancer. A scholar of the American prosperity gospel, which asserts that God will bless the deserving with health and wealth, Bowler is forced to confront uncertainty. She laces her heartbreaking memoir with wit and humor. Start at the end of the book — Appendix 1 (“Absolutely Never Say This to People Experiencing Terrible Times: A Short List”) and Appendix 2 (“Give This a Go, See How It works: A Short List”).
Exit West (Mohsin Hamid) — Some books are best enjoyed and appreciated by solitary readers, while others demand discussion. Exit West, a finalist for last year’s Man Booker Prize, is one of the latter. It’s the story of a young couple, Saaed and Nadia, who escape their war-torn country through a series of magical doors. Fans of The Underground Railroad will love this novel.
Sing, Unburied, Sing (Jesmyn Ward) — Last year’s National Book Award winner is a beautifully written story about, among other things, the legacy of slavery. I had to slow myself down while reading it to savor the language. Usually, when ghosts show up in a book, I put the book down in disappointment — but I can’t imagine this novel without the ghosts.
Mothers of Sparta: A Memoir in Pieces (Dawn Davies) — These essays are all spectacular and some of them will break your heart — the titular essay, in particular.
The Perfect Nanny (Leila Slimani) — Plenty of controversy has surrounded this book, which is loosely based on a real-life case in which a nanny murdered her charges. I don’t think the author is trying to make any judgments about working women. Rather, she skillfully depicts the progression of mental illness.
The Immortalists (Chloe Benjamin) — Reading the jacket copy might make you think this book is a work of magical realism, but it’s really a family story — but a very creative one. Four children visit fortune teller who claims to be able to predict the day each of them will die. The rest of the novel follows each sibling’s path through life, asking the question: how much control do we have over the trajectory of our lives?
The Woman in the Window (A.J. Finn) — This is a solid suspense novel that doesn’t quite live up to the hype. But what could? It kept me engrossed on a long plane trip, even if I didn’t find the ending completely surprising. Hitchcock aficionados will enjoy the film references.
Far From the Tree (Robin Benway) — The National Book Award winner for Young People’s Literature in 2017, Far From the Tree tells the affecting story of three siblings, given up by their birth mother, who find one another as teenagers. I’m a little surprised this won the National Book Award — it’s very good but not exceptional.
Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI (David Grann) — The author of The Lost City of Z, which I loved, has written another outstanding “truth is stranger than fiction” page-turner about a buried piece of history. In the early part of the twentieth century, the Osage Indians, who’d been banished to what the government thought was a useless piece of land in Oklahoma, discovered oil. Their newfound wealth led to a shocking and coldblooded plot to murder many of them — a plot that was uncovered by the fledgling FBI. The photos of the people involved (victims, and their family members, villains, and heroes) add to the tragic and compelling story.
Grist Mill Road (Christopher Yates) — This ambitious novel starts out with a bang — literally, as a teenage boy repeatedly shoots a female classmate with a BB gun as another boy watches, leaving her for dead. Soon, the characters are introduced as adults and we learn that the victim and the observer are married to one another. Through each character’s version of events, we go back to the day of the crime, eventually learning what really happened and why. The twist was a big disappointment, and I closed the book feeling that I’d been cheated.