Favorite Books of 2020

Talk about a weird reading year. I don’t even know what happened. (I mean, I do. A global pandemic happened.)

Even though I read 110 (potentially 111 if I finish my audiobook today) books in 2020, my reading year largely sucked. Usually when I’m writing this list I have to whittle it down from at least 20 books and it’s a rather painstaking process, but this year my list kind of wrote itself. Which is good in the sense that I’m spending much less time on this blog post but also kind of a bummer that I’m not coming away from this hell year with more favorites. But you know what, it’s fine, here at 10 books that are all equally incredible and that I recommend wholeheartedly.

First, some stats:

7 are by women
3 are translated, 2 translated by women
1 is Irish (record low for me!) (though – it’s 2 if you count Maggie O’Farrell)
3 are nonfiction
3 are by authors of color
4 have something to do with Shakespeare, lol

10. The Plantagenets by Dan Jones

“No royal dynasty would ever again hand down the Crown with such security and ease for as many generations as the Plantagenets did between 1189 and 1377.”

This was recommended to me by Brandon Taylor after I asked Twitter for a nonfiction rec about the Medieval English monarchy that wasn’t too heavily academic, and this ended up being exactly what I was looking for. A very unexpected side effect of reading Shakespeare this year is that I fell unbelievably in love with the history plays and I was looking to supplement that reading with some real historical context, and if (god knows why) you’re in a similar boat, I highly recommend The Plantagenets. This is dense reading–not in the sense that it’s laden with academic jargon, indeed it’s written in rather accessible language–but it’s over 500 pages, every one of which is crammed full of indispensable information. So it’s the kind of book you need to take your time with, but it’s also never a chore; if you’re interested in this period of history, this could not be more gripping.

9. This is Shakespeare by Emma Smith

“We make Shakespeare mean what we want him to mean.”

I don’t really listen to podcasts, but my friend Abby suggested I check out Emma Smith’s Approaching Shakespeare podcast so I decided to give it a try and quickly fell in love. Smith is an Oxford lecturer who recorded her lectures and uploaded them to that podcast–in each lecture she examines a different play through a particular question (“why doesn’t Marcus give Lavinia first aid in Titus Andronicus,” for example, or, my favorite: “is Lear a little too sad?”). In This is Shakespeare she turned her lectures into an essay collection, examining 20 plays each through a unique lens, and the result is an utterly invaluable resource for Shakespeare lovers. Smith is an intelligent, incisive writer, and she almost always succeeded in inspiring me to think about the plays from an angle that I hadn’t previously considered. It was a joy reading this and the only downside to it is that she doesn’t have an essay for every single play.

8. Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982 by Cho Nam-Joo
translated from the Korean by Jamie Chang

“Jiyoung became different people from time to time. Some of them were living, others were dead, all of them women she knew.”

I was curious about this international bestseller when it was first published in English earlier this year, but also, because of the way I’d heard some people talk about it, I expected to be slightly underwhelmed by it. On the contrary, it punched me right in the gut, despite–or indeed because of–how prosaic it is. This book is a story of a woman crumbling under the strain of unrelenting misogyny, and it’s stripped down to its very core. This is not a poetic, flashy, romantic book; it’s perfunctory, it’s candid, and it’s utterly unapologetic. I found it all the more successful for that fact, and it’s really stayed with me.

7. The Spinning Heart by Donal Ryan

“My father still lives back the road past the weir in the cottage I was reared in.  I go there every day to see is he dead and every day he lets me down.

I’m a big Donal Ryan fan but for whatever reason I’d never read the book he’s arguably best known for. Thankfully it was worth the wait. Set in post-Celtic Tiger Ireland, The Spinning Heart chronicles the impact of the recession on a close-knit rural community. It’s a short novel and it follows too many characters to remember, but its emotional impact is devastating and Ryan’s writing, as always, is lyrical and evocative and just so pleasurable to read. This really cemented Ryan as one of my favorite writers.

6. Long Live the Tribe of Fatherless Girls by T Kira Madden

“When I think of my father, I think of my heart breaking in stages. A dull pain, then piercing. Electric. Still, somehow, gradual.”

I listened to half of this book on a flight to Los Angeles (pre-covid, obviously) and it was honestly disappointing that the plane had to land, I was enjoying this book THAT much (and I HATE flying). This essay collection was just… so tender and heartbreaking while also being emotionally fortifying; it tore me apart and then I somehow felt more whole after reading it. This collection’s nonlinear structure was executed impeccably–the final essay ties the whole thing together in ways you weren’t even expecting.

5. Abigail by Magda Szabó
translated from the Hungarian by Len Rix

“Never before had she been in such a strange building, with such a tangled branching-out of corridors.”

I enjoyed Szabó’s The Door last year but Abigail really blew it out of the water. This coming of age novel set in an austere boarding school against the backdrop of World War II is one of the most effective things I’ve ever read about the loss of childhood. At times it’s a funny and playful book–the protagonist, Gina, is headstrong and fiery–and at times it cracks your heart open as Gina’s emerging awareness of the horrors of the world around her begin to creep inside the walls of her horrible academy. As someone who’s read quite a few campus novels, this is unlike any of them, in the best possible way.

4. Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell

“It is to him she speaks in her disordered mind, not the trees, not the magic cross, not the patterns and markings of lichen, not even to her mother, who died while trying to give birth to a child. Please, she says to him, inside the chamber of her skull, please come back.”

This historical novel pushes William Shakespeare into the background and instead reimagines the lives of those closest to him, namely his wife Agnes and his son Hamnet, who died aged eleven. In Hamnet, O’Farrell examines the relationship between life and art but she does so with such a deft hand that it’s a much gentler, subtler, and more unexpected novel than you might imagine from its premise, but it balances historical detail with innovation in a way that I found absolutely striking, and its treatment of grief is poignant and devastating. This is a beautiful, haunting book, and I’m very glad it won the Women’s Prize.

3. Tender is the Flesh by Agustina Bazterrica
translated from the Spanish by Sarah Moses

“There are words that are convenient, hygienic. Legal.”

Tender is the Flesh is a bold, grotesque, horrifying piece of work. A dystopian novel which satirizes factory farming to its shocking and inevitable conclusion, it imagines a world where humans eat human meat, and it spares the reader absolutely no details of this new and disturbing reality. This is a hard book to read, but I also found it to be an utterly engrossing examination of the ways we allow our ethics to be shaped by those in positions of power. This book is disgusting and unforgettable.

2. The Glass Hotel by Emily St. John Mandel

“There is exquisite lightness in waking each morning with the knowledge that the worst has already happened.”

Emily St. John Mandel set the bar so high for herself with Station Eleven that I was almost afraid to pick this up, but she knocked it out of the park with The Glass Hotel. On paper, this book doesn’t sound very good at all–most summaries of it mention Wall Street and a Ponzi scheme and that’s when my mind starts to wander–but the sum of this book is greater than its parts. It’s a gorgeous, quietly affecting novel that focuses on the lives of a handful of characters and examines whether our choices make us who we are and whether we can ever outrun our pasts. It’s subtle, nuanced, structurally exciting, and one of the most haunting things I’ve read all year.

1. The Complete Works of William Shakespeare

“Not marble, nor the gilded monuments
Of princes, shall outlive this powerful rhyme”

Surprise, surprise.

Seeing as he’s, you know… Shakespeare, it feels weird to say that Shakespeare was never really on my radar as a reader. I’d read maybe six or seven of his plays before this year and although I’d actually enjoyed them all, I’d be lying if I said that reading the Complete Works of Shakespeare was ever a goal of mine.

Well, evidently, all that changed this year with an email from my friend Abby in March, inviting a group of friends to read A Midsummer Night’s Dream over Zoom a few weeks after covid hit the U.S. and everyone was feeling frantic and panicked and miserable. Shakespeare has been the biggest solace for me in an otherwise atrocious year–there’s the social element, of course, of using this as an excuse to hang out virtually with some of my closest friends once a week, and there’s the element of performance, of pushing myself out of my comfort zone and challenging myself in a way that I never thought I would.

But then there’s also the plays themselves–the words and the stories and the characters. In a year where it truly felt like society as we knew it was crumbling around us all, there was something so immeasurably satisfying about reading these words written ca. year 1600, words that have moved and shaped countless people across the centuries, and finding comfort there. Reading through Shakespeare’s works on the one hand served as a project, something to keep my mind occupied away from the horrors and anxieties of 2020, and on the other hand, it was one of the only things this year I found actual, genuine pleasure in. I think Shakespeare and 2020 are always going to be deeply entwined for me in the future, but I also know I discovered something that isn’t just a passing fad for me as a reader. The only thing more exciting than the fact that I’ve read all of Shakespeare’s plays is the promise that I get to do it all over again.


What was your favorite book of 2020? Comment and let me know!

Favorite Book Covers of 2020

This is a sort of fun, meaningless post that I always have a lot of fun with, so let’s do it!

Unlike my best and worst lists, for this post I do like to stick with books that were actually published in 2020. So, here are some of my favorite covers of the year:

  1. It is Wood, It Is Stone by Gabriella Burnham (One World)
  2. No One Asked for This by Cazzie David (Mariner Books)
  3. The Lightness by Emily Temple (William Morrow)
  4. True Love by Sarah Gerard (Harper)
  5. The Prettiest Star by Carter Sickels (Hub City Press)
  6. Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell (Tinder Press, UK)
  7. My Dark Vanessa by Kate Elizabeth Russell (William Morrow)
  8. Hysteria by Jessica Gross (Unnamed Press)
  9. The Exhibition of Persephone Q by Jessi Jezewska Stevens (FSG)
  10. The Island Child by Molly Aitken (Canongate, UK)
  11. The Everlasting by Katy Simpson Smith (Harper)
  12. Tender is the Flesh by Agustina Bazterrica (Scribner)
  13. Tender is the Flesh by Agustina Bazterrica (Puskin Press, UK)
  14. Notes on a Silencing by Lacy Crawford (Little, Brown, and Co)
  15. Daughter from the Dark by Marina & Sergey Dyachenko (Harper Voyager)
  16. Topics of Conversation by Miranda Popkey (Knopf)
  17. Rest and Be Thankful by Emma Glass (Bloomsbury)
  18. If I Had Your Face by Frances Cha (Viking, UK)
  19. I Hold a Wolf By the Ears by Laura van den Berg (FSG)
  20. The Majesties by Tiffany Tsao (Atria Books)

What was your favorite book cover of 2020?

Most Disappointing Books of 2020

HERE WE GO.

I feel like this year more than ever I’ve seen so much ‘worst books of the year lists are pointless and mean-spirited’ discourse so friendly reminder that if you don’t like this kind of content you are more than welcome to simply keep scrolling!

But for all my pointless and mean-spirited followers, let’s do this:

8. Topics of Conversation by Miranda Popkey

This book was the disaster women subgenre at its most generic and forgettable. I wish I had more to say about it but I honestly cannot remember this well enough to complain about it, I just remember feeling like I was wasting my time. Isolated things I remember from this book: a pool, sex, Italy, bad writing, California? The end.

7. Such a Fun Age by Kiley Reid

This book had a good, important, and topical conceit, and it proceeded to bash the reader over the head with it for 300 pages without the slightest bit of finesse. It’s a perfectly serviceable bookclub book but its literary merit… eludes me (something that would bother me less had it not been longlisted for the Booker). Also, I have never in all my days encountered a child–real or fictional–more annoying than the one in this book, my god.

6. The Most Fun We Ever Had by Claire Lombardo

This book had all the potential in the world to be a fun, mindless, salacious drama; instead it took itself so seriously despite having nothing of any consequence to say. There is no character development in this novel, no insight, no nuance–AND IT GOES ON FOR OVER 500 PAGES. It’s just one-note characters arguing with each other about their one character flaw and it’s executed with the most embarrassing sincerity that I just have to think about this book and I cringe.

5. Death in her Hands by Ottessa Moshfegh

My Year of Rest and Relaxation and Eileen are two of my favorite books but this is the second year in a row that Moshfegh made it onto my most disappointing list; last year with her collection Homesick for Another World–which at the time led me to conclude that Moshfegh only works for me when she writes novels, but Death in her Hands was a novel and it was a hot mess, so, Moshfegh and I are on rocky footing going forward. The fact that it took me about 5 months to read this under-300 page book should say it all; it’s dull, meandering, repetitive, and not half as insightful or revelatory as it thinks it is. I also found the narrative voice thoroughly unconvincing. Plus this book is so similar to Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead and it has nothing to recommend itself over Tokarczuk’s, which is a stunning novel.

4. The Illness Lesson by Clare Beams

Generic, anemic, and unsatisfying, The Illness Lesson is a book that had lofty ambitions that fell flat on their face. This book was all style and no substance and the style wasn’t even that good to begin with.

3. Girl by Edna O’Brien

I can’t believe the Women’s Prize had enough of a hold over me that I actually read this. What an utter mess. Tone deaf, unfocused, and shoddily constructed. It’s well-researched (though I remain unconvinced that it was appropriate in any way for a white Irish woman to publish a novel like this), but it exposes the horrors experienced by the women abducted by the Boko Haram at the expense of good writing or storytelling or character development or… anything that could have recommended it. Terrible all around.

2. Dominicana by Angie Cruz

In this book–a bizarrely flat and uninspired melodrama–the main character, having just been choked by her husband to the point of losing consciousness, flees, terrified, and runs into her cute brother-in-law. This is the dialogue that follows:

“He pulls out a cigarette from his jacket pocket. You leaving without saying good-bye?

It’s not like you’re ever around, busy with all your girls. I say it in a voice I don’t recognize. Why am I flirting? Now? And with César!”

It’s a no from me.

1. Saltwater by Jessica Andrews

I read this book on January 1, 2020, and in doing so I fear that I cursed us all. Sorry.

I hated this book… so much. The prose was labored, overwrought, and trite; the characters were paper-thin; and the whole novel was disgustingly anti-Irish, despite the narrator having grown up in Donegal. Quoting from my review:

Regarding the narrator’s grandfather’s childhood in Ireland, after establishing that he slept in his aunt’s barn, this paragraph is, quite literally, the only information we receive about that period in his life:

“Auntie Kitty rationed the hot water and made anyone who entered the house throw holy sand over their left shoulder, To Keep Away The Devil. Her husband was in the IRA and they housed radical members of Sinn Féin in their attic.”

Poverty, religious fanaticism, and the IRA – there’s only one stereotype missing here; oh, wait:

“I have noticed that many of the young men in Donegal have shaking hands. […] I ask my mother what it is that makes them shake. ‘It’ll be the drink,’ she says, sagely.”

Anyway if that’s not enough to convince you, the writing was just… so weird, so contrived, so bad, I promise if you open the book to literally any page there will be a passage this awful and perplexing:

“Redness cracking. Fissures forming. You are falling towards us, rich and syrup-soft. Flesh roiling. Bones shifting. Tongues over bellies and fingers in wet places.”


So that’s that! What was your worst book of 2020? I promise I’ll actually start reading your end of year lists this week.

Best Books of 2019

Here we are!  At the time I’m writing this I’ve read 110 books this year, though I’m hoping to finish a few more before the new year.  In any case, it’s not a record number of books read for me – in fact, it’s something like 20 fewer than last year – and quality, as always, varied.  I didn’t feel like I was having a particularly stellar reading year, but when it came down to the wire of putting this list together, there were about 15 books that I realized I was willing to go to war for, so even if there were a lot of duds for me this year, there were also a lot of stand-outs.

Honorable mentions to: In the Dream House by Carmen Maria Machado (this one in particular – I had a crisis about my last slot but refused to expand this list to 11), Disappearing Earth by Julia Phillips, Walk Through Walls by Marina Abramović, and Rough Magic by Lara Prior-Palmer (incidentally, this one was a 4 star read for me at the time, but in hindsight it looks like I need to bump up its rating).

A few stats about this year’s final list:

4 are nonfiction (a record!)
4 are Irish/Northern Irish/about Ireland/Northern Ireland
2 are translated, both translated by women
7 are by women
1 is by an author of color (do better, me)

So, here we go!

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10. Know My Name by Chanel Miller

“In fact I need you to know it was all true. The friendly guy who helps you move and assists senior citizens in the pool is the same guy who assaulted me. One person can be capable of both. Society often fails to wrap its head around the fact that these truths often coexist, they are not mutually exclusive. Bad qualities can hide inside a good person. That’s the terrifying part.”

Chanel Miller’s account of being sexually assaulted while unconscious by Brock Turner was always going to be an impactful and harrowing read, but it would do Miller a disservice to imply that the subject matter and cultural conversation surrounding this book are the only reasons why it’s appearing on so many best-of-year lists.  This book has been such a commercial and word-of-mouth success because Miller is an extraordinary writer, end of story.  This memoir is bold, righteous, angry; but it’s also thoughtfully structured and elegantly written.  I oppose the concept of ‘required reading’ for a lot of reasons, but I can highly recommend that everyone read this who is able to.

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9. The Man Who Saw Everything by Deborah Levy

‘Hello, Saul. How’s it going?’
‘I’m trying to cross the road,’ I replied.
‘Yes,’ she said, ‘you’ve been trying to cross the road for thirty years but stuff happened on the way.’”

This was my first Deborah Levy so it’s probably too soon to proclaim myself her number one fan, but my god was this a brilliant place for me to start.  I was riveted by this book; I found it so intellectually stimulating with its impeccably bizarre structure and its clever trail of bread crumbs that Levy leaves the reader before you’re fully aware of what she’s doing, but I also found it so full of heart.  I was expecting to be challenged by this book, but I wasn’t expecting to be so moved by it.  And no, I’m not saying anything about the plot as I’d implore you to go in blind.

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8. The Bird Tribunal by Agnes Ravatn
translated from the Norwegian by Rosie Hedger

“A more dependable person, that’s what I had to become, a woman in possession of a firmer character. If not now, then when? Out here I had what little I needed: solitude, long days at my disposal, a small number of predictable duties. I was liberated from the watchful gaze of others, free from their idle chit-chat, and I had a garden all of my own.”

I made it a priority to read more women in translation this year, and this odd little novella was the highlight for me.  Set in an isolated fjord town, it follows a woman who’s recently quit her job to become a caretaker for a reticent and sullen man who draws her into his life while keeping her at a firm distance.  I hesitate to categorize it as a thriller in the American marketing use of the word, but I was beyond thrilled by this book, staying up late into the night so I could see how this train wreck was going to end.  A brilliant gothic and atmospheric story that reads like a modernized classic.

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7. A Spell of Winter by Helen Dunmore

“‘I saw an arm fall off a man once,’ said Kate.”

This was probably the biggest surprise of the year for me, which I only picked up as a part of a long-term goal I’m working toward of having read all of the Women’s Prize winners.  It’s not that I expected to dislike it, but reviews are a bit middling, and I think I was expecting it to be fine, but not a stand out.  But my god, did it ever stand out.  A Spell of Winter is a devastating gothic tragedy, subversive and unexpected and harrowing and twisted and just fucking brilliant.  This single book made such an impression on me that it left me wanting to read Dunmore’s entire (extensive) catalog.

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6. Maus by Art Spiegelman

“I know this is insane, but I somehow wish I had been in Auschwitz with my parents so I could really know what they lived through! I guess it’s some kind of guilt about having had an easier life than they did.”

I believe this gets the distinction of being the only book to make me cry this year – and I didn’t just cry, I bawled.  I won’t get into the plot because I feel like everyone on earth had already read this before I did, but if by some miracle you haven’t yet, read it.  This is one of the most disturbing yet beautifully composed things I’ve ever read.  The interplay between Spiegelman’s text and illustrations is just masterful.  It’s a modern classic for a reason.

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5. Constellations by Sinéad Gleeson

“Leaving the home on that last night, I kiss her hands. You were so important, I tell her. You were so loved.”

This is one of those books that broke my heart and then managed to mend it again.  It’s usually the case with essay collections that some are notably weaker than others, but I didn’t think a single one of Gleeson’s essays was out of place in this collection.  All of these threads about death and illness and the female body and the lack of autonomy given to the female body in Ireland all dovetail into a singular, sensational book that has stayed with me ever since finishing it.  An absolute must-read for fans of feminist nonfiction and Maggie O’Farrell’s I Am, I Am, I Am.

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4. Tell Them of Battles, Kings & Elephants by Mathias Énard
translated from the French by Charlotte Mandell

“Night does not communicate with the day. It burns up in it. Night is carried to the stake at dawn. And its people along with it—the drinkers, the poets, the lovers. We are a people of the banished, of the condemned. I do not know you. I know your Turkish friend; he is one of ours. Little by little he is vanishing from the world, swallowed up by the shadows and their mirages; we are brothers. I don’t know what pain or what pleasure propelled him to us, to stardust, maybe opium, maybe wine, maybe love; maybe some obscure wound of the soul deep-hidden in the folds of memory.”

This book is like an alternate history story told as a fever dream and I loved every bizarre second of it.  Énard imagines that Michelangelo accepted an invitation to travel to Constantinople and design a bridge for the Sultan Bayezid II, and the result is a sort of East-meets-West fable, brought to life by Charlotte Mandell’s stunning, lyrical translation and Énard’s lush and evocative setting.  I have never felt more immersed in a novella and I have never been sadder for one to end.

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3. A Girl is a Half-formed Thing by Eimear McBride

“Him anxious. Not at all like. But I am happy. Satisfied that I’ve done wrong and now and now. What now? Calm sliding down into my boat and pushing out to sin. He’s on the shoreline getting small.”

This wasn’t my introduction to McBride, having read and felt rather mixed about The Lesser Bohemians.  But there is nothing mixed in my feelings about her debut, the single most depressing thing I’ve ever read after A Little Life, and one of the best meditations on trauma that I’ve ever read.  McBride’s singular, fragmentary style works so well in this book that it’s one of the best cases of harmony between style and content that I can think of.  Major trigger warnings for just about everything, particularly sexual assault, so I wouldn’t recommend this to everyone.  But god it’s good.

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2. The Fire Starters by Jan Carson

“The Troubles is too less a word for all of this.  It is a word for minor inconveniences, such as overdrawn bank accounts, slow punctures, a woman’s time of the month.  It is not a violent word.  Surely we have earnt ourselves a violent word, something as blunt and brutal as ‘apartheid.’ Instead, we have a word like ‘scissors’, which can only be said in the plural.  The Troubles is/was one monster thing. The Troubles is/are many individual evils caught up together. (Other similar words include ‘trousers’ and ‘pliers’.) The Troubles is always written with a capital T as if it were an event, as the Battle of Hastings is an event with a fixed beginning and end, a point on the calendar year. History will no doubt prove it is actually a verb; an action that can be done to people over and over again, like stealing.”

In the biggest plot twist of the century, my favorite novel of the year belongs to my least favorite genre, magical realism.  That just goes to show Jan Carson’s power.  This is a sharp and funny and piercing story about a near-future resurgence of the Troubles, in which someone in Belfast has begun to light a series of fires around the city.  It also follows two men, an older man and former paramilitary, and a young doctor who fears that his newborn daughter might be a Siren.  Like a lot of Northern Irish lit, this is a book about how terror starts at home, about how you never know who you can trust, about how a legacy of violence leaves lasting scars on a community.  It’s also written with wit and warmth and a compelling sort of unease.  Please read it.

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1. Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland by Patrick Radden Keefe

“Dating back to the Iliad, ancient Egypt and beyond, burial rites have formed a critical function in most human societies. Whether we cremate a loved one or inter her bones, humans possess a deep-set instinct to mark death in some deliberate, ceremonial fashion. Perhaps the cruelest feature of forced disappearance as an instrument of war is that it denies the bereaved any such closure, relegating them to a permanent limbo of uncertainty.”

Speaking of the Troubles.  On February 27, I wrote in my review: “I wish it weren’t only February because the statement ‘this is the best book I’ve read all year’ does not carry very much weight when we still have 10 months to go.”  Well, we made it, Patrick.  December 29 and this is my book of the year – in fact, it never had any real competition.  This is a nonfiction true crime account of the disappearance of Jean McConville in 1970s Belfast; a story which Radden Keefe weaves together with a relatively comprehensive history of the Troubles, all while also investigating an effort made by Boston College in the twenty-first century to curate an oral history of the Troubles.  This book has everything – it’s engaging, heart-wrenching, informative, thoughtful, measured, compassionate, brilliant.  Nothing I read this year left a stronger impression on me.

So there we have it, my best books of 2019.  What were yours?

Most Disappointing Books of 2019

I’m going for the ‘most disappointing’ angle rather than ‘worst’.  My ratings for these books range from 1 to 3 stars.  Otherwise I think this speaks for itself.  Here we go!

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10. Homesick for Another World by Ottessa Moshfegh

I discovered Ottessa Moshfegh in 2018 and devoured her two novels My Year of Rest and Relaxation and Eileen, so it was with excitement that I approached her short story collection Homesick for Another World, but my god this did not work for me.  I find that her novels succeed because of, or in spite of, her fantastically unlikable protagonists, because over the course of a full-length novel she has the space to adequately explore her protagonists’ psyches.  Not so in short stories, where characters seem to be awful for the sake of provoking the reader into thinking ‘oh, how awful’; there never felt like there was much depth beyond that and it started grating before too long.  All that said, the final story in this collection was a standout.  If you’re going to read one, make it that one.

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9. Notes to Self by Emilie Pine

This was a case where the disappointment arose from the fact that this book seemed so tailor-made for me; I can rarely go wrong with Irish feminist essay collections, and this one has been SO critically acclaimed that I was confident of its brilliance before even starting.  It just fell flat for me.  I felt like Emilie Pine never managed to say anything new or novel in any of these essays.  Some worked for me more than others, but a few weeks after finishing not a single one stands out to me.

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8. Praise Song for the Butterflies by Bernice L. McFadden

A perfectly adequate book that I had to watch spontaneously self-combust before my eyes with an ending that effectively destroyed everything that came before it.  Full, spoiler-filled thoughts here.  But basically, this should win an award for the worst ending of all time.  No exaggeration.

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7. The Dragon Republic by R.F. Kuang

I’m not a big fantasy reader, as you may have gleaned, but a childhood love of Harry Potter left me with a lifelong desire to find another fantasy series that, if it doesn’t have that same impact on me, as least comes close.  That’s why I was so thrilled to find The Poppy War, an engaging, propulsive, original-yet-comfortingly-familiar, darker-than-dark fantasy debut that blends Chinese military history with Chinese mythology.  I unreservedly loved every minute of it and eagerly started an ARC of The Dragon Republic months before it was due to come out.  I didn’t even bother finishing it by its publication date, because reading this book ended up being like pulling teeth.  The stakes felt low, the repetition grew wearisome, and the least interesting characters and conflicts were pulled to the forefront.  I’ll still be reading the third and final book in the trilogy when it’s published, and I still adore The Poppy War, but The Dragon Republic was a massive, massive disappointment.

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6. The Cassandra by Sharma Shields

In my review of this book I cited that my issues with it were: the characters, the plot, the themes, and its failure as an adaptation.  So, in short, I didn’t like a single thing about it.  This was an incredibly shallow, ill-conceived Greek mythology adaptation that placed the Cassandra figure in Hanford, the research facility in the U.S. that developed the atomic bomb during WWII.  Everything was one-dimensional to the extreme; the plot constantly drove the characters and not the other way around, which is something that I especially hate.

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5. The Power by Naomi Alderman

The Power, my least favorite Women’s Prize winner that I’ve read, is set in a dystopian future where suddenly girls have developed the ability to generate electric shocks from their fingertips.  It follows a group of characters, not one of whom has a distinct personality, across several years, meandering through their lives in a way that managed to side-step any real plot or action, instead focusing on extremely tedious details that managed to kill any momentum that Alderman was trying to achieve with the novel’s framing.  I hated this so much I was skimming it by the end.

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4. Valerie by Sara Stridsberg
translated from the Swedish by Deborah Bragan-Turner

This fictionalization of Valerie Solanas’s life bored me to tears.  I didn’t get on with Stridsberg’s writing and I just didn’t care enough to try to engage with… whatever she was attempting to achieve with this book.  It read like a series of ideas without any semblance of a narrative to ground them; I found myself wondering why this was bothering to be a novel and not a long-form essay.

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3. On Swift Horses by Shannon Pufahl

I haven’t even written a review of this yet, but I’m thrilled I was able to finish it in time to include it here.  I hated this.  It follows two characters in the postwar US, Muriel and Julius, both vaguely discontent with their lives.  The dust jacket tells you more than that, but I’m not going to, because it turns out it’s one of those cases where the dust jacket narrates the entire plot to you.  Nothing happens in this book; the characters are indistinct (I could not think of a single adjective to describe Julius aside from gay – that’s still the only thing I know about him); the writing is dreadful (it is trying so hard to sound Deep and Literary that it manages to say nothing of real importance for 300 pages); this ultimately reads like a very, very, very unpolished first draft of something that has potential buried somewhere very deep inside it.

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2. The Club by Takis Würger
translated from the German by Charlotte Collins

A German orphan infiltrates one of Cambridge’s elite dining clubs in this bizarrely terrible… I don’t even know what this was trying to be.  Thriller?  Character study?  Potent social commentary?  It managed to be none of the above, with writing so laughable these are actual lines from the book (tw for sexual assault):

“I couldn’t stop thinking about how wounded she had seemed when she told me about being raped. I wondered what it meant for us.”

“Basically, I was living proof that money, a place at Cambridge, and a big dick don’t make you happy. Fuck.”

 “Charlotte fell asleep on my elbow. After my parents’ death I’d thought I could never love again, because the fear of losing someone was too great. I had grown cold inside. Now here was this woman, lying on my arm.”

‘I’m not going to play this game much longer,’ I said. 
I got up to leave, but she grabbed my hand.  I could feel her strength.  She was so strong I didn’t dare move.  I knew I would do everything Alex asked of me.

The girl would be raped, I would testify against Josh in court, and he would receive his punishment.  I would have to allow this crime to take place, otherwise the Butterflies would just keep doing it to other women.  Perhaps that was why old people walked with a stoop, bowed down by the weight of decisions which may have been right but still felt wrong.

So SUFFICE IT TO SAY this is hands down the worst book I have read in my life.  The only reason it isn’t #1 here is because the conceit of this list is ‘most disappointing’ rather than ‘worst’, and frankly I didn’t have any particular expectations going into this.  But it was still so bad that it had to get the #2 spot.

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1. When All Is Said by Anne Griffin

An elderly working class Irish man looks back on his life and toasts the five people who had the biggest impact on him in When All Is Said.  This gets the coveted #1 spot, because of all the books on this list, this is the one that seemed like it would be the most up my alley.  It’s sad, it’s dark, it’s Irish.  But this really did not work for me; it’s told in the first person and I never believed Maurice’s narrative voice (much too polished and articulate for an older working class man) and because of that, I never really believed any of the rest of it.  It was too articulate, too on the nose, and too emotionally hollow of a reading experience for something that promised to break my heart.  I don’t think I experienced a single emotion while reading this aside from vague annoyance.

So there we have it, my worst/least favorite/most disappointing books of 2019.  What are yours?

Favorite Book Covers of 2019

Kicking off my end of year round up series with a fun one: favorite covers.

To be completely honest with you, I don’t think 2019 was a very strong year for book covers.  While compiling this list I kept finding myself drawn to 2020 releases, but I wanted to stick with books published this year.  That said, there were some highlights!  It’s interesting to me that I was drawn to a lot of busy covers this year (with notable exceptions) when in general I describe my taste as preferring minimalist cover design.  Case in point: this is probably my favorite cover ever.  But for whatever reason, these are the ones that won me over this year.

I’m also (evidently) a sucker for the white text on a black and white photo design.  Sorry.

I’m also including one title from late 2018 that I hadn’t included in my previous year’s post.  Sorry sorry.

 

  1. Throw Me to the Wolves by Patrick McGuinness (Bloomsbury)
  2. On Swift Horses by Shannon Pufahl (Fourth Estate, UK)
  3. Find Me by André Aciman (FSG)
  4. Night Boat to Tangier by Kevin Barry (Canongate, UK)
  5. On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong (Penguin Press)
  6. Lie With Me by Philippe Besson (Scribner)
  7. The End of Loneliness by Benedict Wells (Penguin Books)
  8. Liar by Ayelet Gundar-Goshen (Pushkin Press)
  9. Divide Me By Zero by Lara Vapnyar (Tin House Books)
  10. Valerie by Sara Stridsberg (FSG)
  11. Tell Them of Battles, Kings & Elephants by Mathias Énard (New Directions)

What’s your favorite cover from 2019?  Comment and let me know!

My Life in Books, 2019

I’m not sure who created this meme, but I’m borrowing it from Laura!

Using only books you have read this year (2019), answer these questions. Try not to repeat a book title.

In high school I was Homesick for Another World (Ottessa Moshfegh)

People might be surprised by All My Puny Sorrows (Miriam Toews)

I will never be A Natural (Ross Raisin)

My fantasy job is In the Dream House (Carmen Maria Machado)

At the end of a long day I need Ordinary People (Diana Evans)

I hate A Spell of Winter (Helen Dunmore)

Wish I had The Power (Naomi Alderman)

My family reunions are Troubles (JG Farrell)

At a party you’d find me with Bottled Goods (Sophie van Llewyn)

I’ve never been to The Heavens (Sandra Newman)

A happy day includes Cleanness (Garth Greenwell)

Motto I live by The Trick is to Keep Breathing (Janice Galloway)

On my bucket list is Forest Bathing (Qing Li)

In my next life, I want to have Rough Magic (Lara Prior-Palmer)

Tagging whoever wants to do this!

Favorite Films of 2018

Last year I listed my top 5 films that came out before 2017 and then my top 5 of 2017, but I found that my favorites this year didn’t follow a similar pattern at all.  In fact, there are only two pre-2018 movies that I thought was worth mentioning in this post, but I loved them way too much to leave either of them out.

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Divines (2016)
Director: Houda Benyamina
Starring: Oulaya Amamra

This is a French-Qatari film that you can hopefully still find on Netflix, and if you can, you should all watch it immediately.  It follows a teenage girl, Dounia, played by the incomparable Oulaya Amamra, living in a Romani suburb outside Paris, who hustles for money alongside her best friend.  This film is raw and desperate and heartbreaking and beautifully shot and beautifully acted and it just destroyed me.  Go watch it.

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I, Tonya (2017)
Director: Craig Gillespie
Starring: Margot Robbie, Allison Janney

A fictionalized account of the life and career of former U.S. figure skater Tonya Harding.  I was dreading watching this, to be completely honest; I was positive that it wasn’t going to be for me as I tend to really dislike sports movies.  But it’s easily in my top 3 of the year.  I thought the fusion of fact and fiction was inspired, it hit all the right comedic beats but still proved to be something much heavier than I was expecting.  Margot Robbie gives the performance of her career; that scene where she’s crying while fixing her makeup is something I just felt in my bones.  This is one I watched twice and I loved it even more the second time.

Now, onto all of the fantastic films of 2018:

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9. A Quiet Place
Director: John Krasinski
Starring: John Krasinski, Emily Blunt

This masterfully creepy horror film could have been much further up my list, but I thought the emotional climax came too soon and the film ended too abruptly and I’ve felt vaguely dissatisfied with the lost potential ever since.  But still, this is horror done right as far as I’m concerned: relying more on primal fear than gore, with an undeniable emotional core that doesn’t verge too heavily into corny territory.  This fully deserved all of its accolades as far as I’m concerned.

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8. Eighth Grade
Director: Bo Burnham
Starring: Elsie Fisher

This pared down comedy/drama about middle school is one of the most emotionally honest things I have ever watched.  Emotionally honest to a fault, even; I was also That Quiet Girl all through school and this film hit a bit closer to home than I’d have liked.  In a lot of ways it’s a paint-by-numbers coming of age drama, so don’t go into this expecting any innovations for the genre, but it’s one of the best-acted renditions of this story I have ever seen.  If the stupidly talented 15-year-old Elsie Fisher isn’t nominated for an Oscar I will be very upset indeed.

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7. Mamma Mia: Here We Go Again
Director: Ol Parker
Starring: Lily James, Amanda Seyfried

Listen.  I don’t want to hear it.  I know I have a ~dark and edgy~ reputation to uphold but don’t care.  Lily James is a ray of sunshine and ABBA has been a constant source of joy in my life since childhood.  I loved every moment of this dumb movie.  And it is FAR superior to its predecessor, imo.

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6. Calibre
Director: Matt Palmer
Starring: Jack Lowden, Martin McCann

This thriller follows two friends who go on a hunting trip in Scotland and end up shooting and killing a child by accident; it then deals with the psychological ramifications as they attempt to get away with what they’ve done.  This film is a train wreck you can’t look away from, which is one of the highest compliments I can give something.  This is just a wonderfully tense melodrama-turned-revenge-saga, and Lowden’s incredibly moving performance provides the required amount of pathos.

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5. Mary Queen of Scots
Director: Josie Rourke
Starring: Saoirse Ronan, Margot Robbie

This is probably the only film on this list that got panned by critics and audiences alike, and in a way, I kind of get it.  The trailer is misleading as hell (Margot Robbie is barely in it), the pacing is… not great, the screenplay lucks out in being elevated by superb performances.  But I don’t really care about any of that, to be completely honest: I found this riveting.  I’m someone who tends to veer toward all things indie and art-house, so I understand the compulsion to contrast this to The Favourite in order to tear it down, but sometimes a good old fashioned period biopic is all you need.  This got the job done, as far as I was concerned.  It was flawed but I loved it.  And – I say this as a HUGE fan – I firmly believe that this is Saoirse Ronan’s best performance yet.

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4. Widows
Director: Steve McQueen
Starring: Viola Davis, Michelle Rodriguez, Elizabeth Debicki

When four men are killed while attempting to pull off an armed robbery, their widows join together to pull of a heist of their own.  This is probably the best premise of any film I have seen all year (maybe ever?), and thankfully the film itself lived up.  (Also – this was the only film Colin Farrell was in ALL YEAR, you guys.  I had to rest all of my hopes on this.)  I was expecting an action movie and got a character study instead, and I am perfectly happy with that.  The performances were truly exceptional across the board, but Elizabeth Debicki and Daniel Kaluuya really stood out to me.  Why this isn’t getting more awards season attention is beyond me.

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3. American Animals
Director: Bart Layton
Starring: Barry Keoghan, Evan Peters

Based on a true story, American Animals is a sort of dark comedy about a 2004 library heist, in which four students attempted to steal an Audubon book valued at several million dollars from a rare books collection.  In a sort of documentary style, interviews with the real people portrayed are interspersed throughout the film, though the events themselves are performed by their fictional counterparts, who are the film’s emotional anchors as well as the main players (Barry Keoghan stands out, as he always does).  I’ve watched this film twice and both times I was so, so impressed by the creative liberties it takes to tell this story in a way that engages its audience; the first time I watched this I couldn’t make sense of which elements were real and which were fictionalized, and I loved it all the more for that.  This is storytelling done right.

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2. Thoroughbreds
Director: Cory Finley
Starring: Olivia Cooke, Anya Taylor-Joy, Anton Yelchin

A privileged teenage girl enlists her friend’s help to try to kill her stepfather in this beautifully shot dark comedy.  This film is visually stunning, twisted, hilarious, tense, and deliciously melodramatic.  The climactic scene is one of the most interesting shots I have ever seen and it will forever be seared into my brain.  Both leading women give performances that are utterly unforgettable – I couldn’t even choose which of them is stronger.  Anton Yelchin’s tragically inert character gives the film an even more macabre undertone, given the actor’s untimely death before it was released.  Everything just comes together to form something striking and dynamic and haunting.

I so desperately wanted this to be my film of the year, a spot it held until I went to the movies again yesterday.  So now, of course, it just has to be:

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1. The Favourite
Director: Yorgos Lanthimos
Starring: Olivia Colman, Rachel Weisz, Emma Stone

Yorgos Lanthimos is my favorite director; I don’t know how to explain the strong connection I feel to his brand of insanity, but I have been simultaneously amused, disturbed, and deeply moved by something in Alps, The Lobster, and The Killing of a Sacred Deer (I have not yet seen Dogtooth in its entirety).  So to say I had high hopes for The Favourite is an understatement, but it managed to exceed my expectations.  It’s not even my first or second favorite film by Lanthimos and it still blows this year’s competition out of the water.  Blending absurd humor with a story that is, at its core, deeply sad, The Favourite is a captivating and unconventional film about love and power, that gives us three of the best written female characters of 2018 cinema.  It’s fresh, it’s funny, it’s oddly unsettling, and it deserves all of the hype and more.  And if anyone can figure out a way for me to marry Rachel Weisz, do kindly let me know.

So, there we have it.  What was your favorite film of 2018?

Best Books of 2018

Mamma mia here we go again.  I’ve read a grand total of 131 books so far this year which far and away exceeds any of my former records, and narrowing this list down to 10 was a little torturous.  But I will say, even though I read so many fantastic books this year, my reading year on the whole wasn’t as strong as the last couple of years have been.  Although I loved each and every one of these books, I’m not sure any of them would make my list of top 10 favorites of all time.  I also didn’t have a definitive #1 favorite, whereas last year East of Eden blew all of its competition out of the water.  I guess this just goes to show that quantity =/= quality.  Who’d have thought it?!

But enough rambling, let’s get into the books.

Honorable mentions, in no particular order, all of which I want to talk about but I feel like a 20+ favorites post would get boring for all of you: The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo by Taylor Jenkins Reid, Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss, The Poppy War by R.F. Kuang, In Our Mad and Furious City by Guy Gunaratne, Tin Man by Sarah Winman, On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan, The Italian Teacher by Tom Rachman, When I Hit You by Meena Kandasamy, How to be Both by Ali Smith, and My Year of Rest and Relaxation by Ottessa Moshfegh.

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10. Vita Nostra by Marina & Sergey Dyachenko, translated by Julia Hersey.  Look at me starting off my books of the year with fantasy!  Who am I!  But this spot was very well-earned, as Vita Nostra is one of the most singular and spectacular books I’ve read in my life.  It follows Sasha Samokhina, a young girl manipulated into attending a magical school filled with eccentric teachers and incomprehensible lessons.  I was expecting a rather run of the mill fantasy novel, but instead I got something esoteric and darkly horrifying that enchanted me from start to finish.  Full review here.

There are concepts that cannot be imagined but can be named. Having received a name, they change, flow into a different entity, and cease to correspond to the name, and then they can be given another, different name, and this process—the spellbinding process of creation—is infinite: this is the word that names it, and this is the word that signifies. A concept as an organism, and text as the universe.

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9. Dopesick by Beth Macy.  This book is a masterclass in how to fuse the personal and the professional in nonfiction.  Macy treats the subject of the opioid crisis and its innumerable victims with the compassion they deserve, but also remains factual and informative.  I learned so, so much from this book, and it was written in such a starkly compelling way that I didn’t want it to end.  I’d recommend this to absolutely everyone.  Full review here.

Opioids are now on pace to kill as many Americans in a decade as HIV/AIDS has since it began, with leveling-off projections tenuously predicted in a nebulous, far-off future: sometime after 2020.

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8. The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker.  It has been well documented that I am a pretty big fan of Greek mythology and the Iliad in particular, and that I live for a good retelling.  Pat Barker’s feminist spin on the Iliad proved to be everything I ever wanted and more.  It follows Briseis, a Trojan captive given to Achilles as a war prize, and does a spectacular job at giving voice to the female characters who litter the background of Homer’s epic.  Barker put her own unique stamp on this story while honoring the original to such an extent that I wanted to reread the Iliad (yet again) the second I finished.  Full review here.

Men carve meaning into women’s faces; messages addressed to other men.

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7. The Blood Miracles by Lisa McInerney.  The Glorious Heresies was one of my books of the year in 2017, so it’s with great pleasure that I can say that its sequel also earned a place on my end of year list.  In fact, I think I loved The Blood Miracles even more.  It narrows down the first book’s bird’s eye focus to just one of the main characters, and it happened to be the one character that I was the most invested in, so I was riveted by every single second of this bleak and tragic account of Irish drug deals and gang violence.  Lisa McInerney’s writing just thrills me.  Full review here.

This, like so many of Ryan Cusack’s fuck-ups, begins with ecstasy.

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6. The Pisces by Melissa Broder.  On the surface, this isn’t the kind of book I like.  If you look at how this is commonly shelved on Goodreads you see Romance, Fantasy, and Magical Realism – that should be strike one two and three right there.  But I gave it a try and my god was I glad that I did.  This book was everything I didn’t even know I needed.  Lucy is one of the most unnervingly realistic protagonists I have ever read about, and the thematic depths to which this mermaid erotica novel dove were… unexpected, to say the least.  And it has one of the most unforgettable endings I have EVER read.  This managed to be both hilarious and haunting.  Full review here.

I’d been wrong about death … There was no gentle escape. When I had taken those Ambien in Phoenix I thought there was a peaceful way to just kind of disappear. But death wasn’t gentle. It was a robber. It stole you out of yourself, and you became a husk.

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5. The Idiot by Elif Batuman.  I’m not Turkish-American and I didn’t go to Harvard.  But otherwise, I have never read a book where I’ve seen myself reflected on the page more starkly than in The Idiot.  The simultaneous disillusionment and fascination with academia that characterize Selin’s first year of college were so, so real to me, as was her obsession with the function of language.  This cerebral, plotless work is not something that I would recommend to most people, but I couldn’t help but to feel a very strong connection to it.  Full review here.

“Even though I had a deep conviction that I was good at writing, and that in some way I already was a writer, this conviction was completely independent of my having ever written anything, or being able to imagine ever writing anything, that I thought anyone would like to read.”

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4. Asking For It by Louise O’Neill.  This is hands down the best YA novel I have ever read.  It doesn’t patronize its reader or tread lightly with its harrowing subject matter.  In fact, it’s almost viscerally painful to read at times.  Louise O’Neill takes on the subject of rape culture through a criminally under-examined lens, and highlights the fact that victims of sexual assault aren’t always going to be very nice people, they aren’t always going to behave and respond to trauma in one particular way, but they are every bit as deserving of justice and compassion.  This book’s rawness and honesty really struck a chord and I’ve been unable to put it out of my mind since reading it early this year.  Full review here.

They are all innocent until proven guilty. But not me. I am a liar until I am proven honest.

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3. Conversations With Friends by Sally Rooney.  I think Sally Rooney is one of the most perceptive writers working today.  The little observations she makes about human nature are subtle and searing.  Rooney’s character work in both Conversations with Friends and Normal People is just outstanding – she writes about real, ordinary, flawed individuals who I somehow desperately want to read about, despite how real and ordinary and flawed they are, or maybe because of that.  Full review here.

Gradually the waiting began to feel less like waiting and more like this was simply what life was: the distracting tasks undertaken while the thing you are waiting for continues not to happen.

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2. Self-Portrait with Boy by Rachel Lyon.  This is one of the first books I read in 2018, and it has haunted me all year long.  This is probably the best book about art and artists that I’ve ever read, which asks of its protagonist in a startlingly harsh way how much she’s willing to sacrifice to achieve her ambitions.  I just loved everything about this.  The antiheroine is one of the best I’ve ever read, the atmosphere of a Brooklyn neighborhood that I’m quite familiar with was rendered perfectly, there’s this one scene where the protagonist is trying on a dress that was so vivid I will never, ever forget it, and the final sentence made me cry.  Just, read this book.  Full review here.

The very act of recall is like trying to photograph the sky. The infinite and ever-shifting colors of memory, its rippling light, cannot really be captured. Show someone who has never seen the sky a picture of the sky and you show them a picture of nothing.

Still I have to try.

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1. Milkman by Anna Burns.  I mean… it has to be my book of the year, doesn’t it.  I gave it 4 stars and then I changed it to 5 stars; I was sure it was too niche to make the Booker shortlist and then I gradually became convinced that it was going to win.  I would say that this book crept up on me, but that implies past tense and I’m not positive that this book is done with me.  I still think about it constantly, and I think it is one of the most masterful things I have ever read.  This is a stylistic and thematic feat. Full review here.

“The day Somebody McSomebody put a gun to my breast and called me a cat and threatened to shoot me was the same day the milkman died. He had been shot by one of the state hit squads and I did not care about the shooting of this man. Others did care though, and some were those who, in the parlance, ‘knew me to see but not to speak to’ and I was being talked about because there was a rumour started by them, or more likely by first brother-in-law, that I had been having an affair with this milkman and that I was eighteen and he was forty-one.” 

What was your favorite book of 2018?  Comment and let me know!

Most Disappointing Books of 2018

Some of these books I hated, some of them just disappointed me.  Some I went into with high expectations, some managed to slide under my already low bar.  But, whatever the reason, here is a list of books that I wanted so much more from.  These are books that I read in 2018 but were not necessarily published this year.  Here we go:

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10. The Wicked Cometh by Laura Carlin.  The fact that a neo-Victorian lesbian thriller was able to be this perfunctory and devoid of passion is just tragic.  This sounded like it could have been wonderfully gothic and haunting and sensual, but instead it’s riddled with melodrama and convenient plot devices and utterly inane characters.  The protagonist Hester waxes eloquent about her love interest Rebekah for 300 pages straight, and in none of those 300 pages does Rebekah display even one (1) personality trait.  Full review here.

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9. Snap by Belinda Bauer.  If you haven’t read Snap, you couldn’t be blamed for thinking that the sheer amount of vitriol for this novel and its Man Booker nomination may stem from snobbery and a bias against genre fiction.  If you have read Snap, you will know that that is not at all the case.  This novel is filled with plot holes wider than the Grand Canyon.  I don’t even know what the worst part was: the running commentary on how pregnant women are essentially moronic (apparently ‘baby brain’ doesn’t mean ‘where did I leave my car keys,’ it means ‘my house was broken into and the burglar left a death threat on my pillow, but I won’t tell my husband, I don’t want to worry him!’), the fact that the police literally used a teenage child to help them with an investigation by having him break into someone’s house, or the fact that the killer’s motive was so contrived and contradictory that the entire premise of the novel falls apart once the whodunnit is confirmed.  (*Spoiler: the murderer killed Jack’s mom because they ‘snapped’ in a moment of madness, but the murder itself involved kidnapping this woman and driving her to another location, bringing her out into a field, and stabbing her, all of which took some sort of premeditation and lasted something like half an hour…?  Can a ‘moment of madness’ last half an hour?!)  Full review here.

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8. Asymmetry by Lisa Halliday.  I am so TIRED of this kind of novel.  The kind that’s lauded by critics as some kind of literary masterpiece simply because the whole thing is an elaborate experiment that hinges on a gimmick which (imo) was predictable in the first place.  Maybe I’d have gotten more out of this if I had any feelings toward Philip Roth other than apathy, I don’t know.  I just thought this was so badly written and just a complete waste of time.  Mini review here.

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7. The Woman in Cabin 10 by Ruth Ware.  This is one of the most bizarrely structured thrillers I’ve ever read.  Locked door mysteries are some of my favorites, but there were so many guests and staff on that damn boat that the locked door element felt like it never really came into play since I couldn’t even begin to keep all of the potential suspects straight in my head.  And once we find out the killer, rather than the genre-typical final showdown that lasts a chapter before the book ends, we’re only about 60% into the book and we spend the rest watching the protagonist trying to get to safety… which we’re sure she’s going to, because, you know, it’s a thriller, and that’s how thrillers end.  This book was like listening to someone telling in a really rambling story that started out interesting but quickly became tedious and you’re too polite to tell the person talking that they should just quit while they’re ahead, so you’re just awkwardly trying to inch away while they go on and on and on and you just want to shout OK I GET IT.  But the final nail in the coffin for this book was its frankly glib treatment of mental illness:

Lissie says she finds the notion of chemically rebalancing your mood scary, she says it’s the idea idea of taking something that could alter how she really is. But I don’t see it that way; for me it’s like wearing makeup – not a disguise, but a way of making myself more how I really am, less raw. The best me I can be.”

Right, because painting on my face every morning because I’ve been socialized to accept that I’m not desirable to men unless I do that is EMPOWERING, and definitely equivalent to needing to take meds to function.  I have never been closer to flinging a book across the room than when I read this.  Full review here.

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6. Girls Burn Brighter by Shobha Rao.  I feel like the phrase ‘torture porn’ gets thrown around a bit too readily where depressing literary fiction is concerned.  I don’t think a book automatically falls under this category just because sad things happen.  Do these sad things serve a narrative or thematic purpose?  If so, I do think there’s value in telling these stories.  But Girls Burn Brighter took this to a frankly ridiculous extreme.  The two girls at the center of this story are raped, drugged, mutilated, starved, and otherwise abused for hundreds of pages after the author makes her point (which wasn’t all that revolutionary to begin with – that there is a certain female-specific resilience to compensate for the kind of injustices that women are forced to endure).  I mean, one of the characters who has suffered horrifically throughout the entire story is raped yet again about 20 pages from the end of the book, which has absolutely nothing to do with the narrative at that point, because why the hell not!  Plus, the entire book is building toward a payoff that the author then deprives the reader of, and I also didn’t care for the writing style which just seemed to be trying too hard to be ‘pretty’.  Full review here.

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5. The Girl in the Ice by Robert Bryndza.  To be fair to this book it did give me 2 of my favorite sentences that I read all year.  First, we’re treated to the most questionable description of an escalating argument in literary history:

‘I said, I’m now in control of this crime scene and I’m ordering you to step aside!’ shouted Sparks, losing it.”

Yes, ‘losing it,’ you did read that correctly.

And then we get to witness the villain’s eloquent and emotionally wrought confession:

“‘You think you can analyze me. Rationalize what I did, why I killed? I did it because I CAN.’”

Bryndza ALSO introduced ‘the figure’ as a gender-neutral term and kept going with that throughout the whole damn book.

So.  That was fun.  Full review here.

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4. The Summer Children by Dot Hutchison. I loved The Butterfly Garden but the next two installments of this series were… not good.  All of The Butterfly Garden‘s maturity kind of evaporated and we were left with two books that were almost painfully juvenile.  What could have been an intense and harrowing read ended up being hard to take seriously as we were treated to hundreds of pages of FBI agents having sleepovers and reminding each other that it’s ok to not be ok and other similarly obnoxious moments of transparent fan-service.  And the extent to which Hutchison is obsessed with her own characters is more than a little embarrassing to read – we have to endure paragraph after paragraph of the protagonist being praised by the narrative for her competence and it’s just so tiresome.  Full review here.

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3. How To Be Safe by Tom McAlister.  I understand what this pro-gun-control satire was attempting but my god was it obnoxious.  McAlister seemed so proud of himself for writing this book in the first place he didn’t extend any effort toward plot or character development, and it resulted in something as tedious as it was poorly written.  Also the audiobook was terrible.  Full review here.

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2. The Child Finder by Rene Denfeld.  It’s a bit strange that the sappiest book I’ve ever read is a thriller of all things, but here we are.  Here we have another case of ‘author obsessed with their own protagonist’ – Naomi Cottle can do no wrong and my god is this woman attractive (I know this because every man she comes into contact with wants to have sex with her immediately).  I could go on and on about how this whole book is trite and overwritten and saccharine, but I will just leave you with a quote that speaks for itself:

“I loved you then. I loved you, no matter where you came from. No, scratch that.” His voice floated up to her. “I loved you because you came from wherever it was. It must have been a magic place to produce you.”

Naomi felt something deeper than crying, a flush in her womb. “Are you trying to talk your way into my bed?” she asked, her voice thick with emotion.

“No.” His voice sounded warm. “I’m trying to talk my way into your heart.”

Full review here.

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1. Days Without End by Sebastian Barry.  I’m giving this book the coveted #1 spot because the rest of this list didn’t give me the same crushing disappointment that this one did.  On paper, this should be everything I love in a book: it’s Irish, it’s literary, it’s sad, it’s historical, it’s about a queer relationship, it’s blurbed by Kazuo Ishiguro.  What I hadn’t counted on is that it is also just painfully boring and written in almost impenetrable dialect.  If you click with the bizarre narrative voice that fuses dialect with lyricism in a way that I found stilted and arbitrary, you probably won’t have any problems with this book, but if you struggle on page 1 you will struggle all the way through, which I found out the hard way.  Full review here.

What were some of your most disappointing reads of 2018?  Comment and let me know!