I always like to wait until as close to the end of the year as possible to determine my favourite books of 2018, in case I read something incredible in the very last days of the year. Sure enough, three of my favourites this year were books I read in the last two weeks. I’m even a bit hesitant to make this list now, with a day and a half still to go, in case I finish another book and realise it was one of the best, but I’ll chance it. Here are the top 10 books out of the 50 I read in 2018; I highly recommend adding them to your TBR (To Be Read) for 2019, and as I am busily shelving books to the “to-read” list on my Goodreads account, I would love if you shared your favourites as well!
Circe by Madeline Miller (393 pages, pub. 2018)
Circe is a goddess, of course, but it is her cleverness and her fortitude—for better or worse—rather than her magical ability, that gives her strength in this retelling by Song of Achilles author Madeline Miller. She is a compelling antiheroine, with equal capacity for mercy and cruelty, and the author’s depiction of her multifaceted character makes for an engrossing take on the classical figure. The novel is written in prose, but Miller’s lyrical writing brings to mind the poetic verse of the Greek mythology on which it is based.
Pachinko by Min Jin Lee (496 pages, pub. 2017)
Generation-spanning novels focusing on relationships (familial or otherwise) and identity seem to be the theme of my reading year, and Pachinko is a perfect and enthralling example. The characters are complex, flawed, and marked by their resilience and loyalty. The story offers a domestic focus in the face of a wider political landscape, offering questions of national pride and familial loyalty whilst dealing with prejudice and external conflict. The writing is understated but deeply moving, bringing a historical setting I knew almost nothing about to life.
Spinning Silver by Naomi Novik (480 pages, pub. 2018)
I love a good fairy tale retelling, and I especially love a good fairy tale retelling that offers a feminist perspective or incorporates cultural elements. Spinning Silver does both, with a female, Jewish protagonist replacing Rumplestiltskin in turning silver into gold in a world inspired by eastern European folklore. It’s a book about agency, from the perspective of a multitude of characters who don’t find their places in the world but instead claim those places for themselves, spun into a traditional fairy tale style.
From a Low and Quiet Sea by Donal Ryan (192 pages, pub. 2018)
Divided into four sections, this novel tells the story of three characters and, in the final chapter, crashes their stories together like waves against the shore. Ryan’s prose is beautifully poetic, using imagery and dialect to offer insight into the thoughts and feelings of a grieving refugee, a disaffected young man, and an old man’s deathbed confessional. Despite the lyrical prose, the story is grounded in each character’s humanity, and threads emotion through the atmospheric writing.
A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara (736 pages, pub. 2015)
This has been on my to-read list since its publication a few years ago, but I took advantage of the short, rainy days of Wellington winter to finally read it. This book is an emotional odyssey, spanning decades of deep relationships full of love and misery. It’s not a quick or easy read, and it’s one of the most depressing books you’ll ever encounter, but it is absolutely worth the time and effort. The characters and their connections are complex in a way that will make you care deeply for them as though you, too, are entangled in their lives and relationships.
Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie (276 pages, pub. 2017)
Home Fire is the latest Women’s Prize for Fiction winner, and since last year’s winner (The Power by Naomi Alderman) was my favourite book of the year, I was definitely excited to pick this one up. It lived up to expectations. The story of two Muslim families in the UK told through five viewpoints of family members, the novel is loosely based on the Greek myth Antigone but is thoroughly modern in its exploration of political, national, and familial identity, culminating in a tragedy of Greek proportions.
The Changeling by Victor Lavalle (448 pages, pub. 2017)
This is a modern fairy tale, but in the vein of original Brothers Grimm rather than a sanitised Disney-esque version. This dark, atmospheric story brings the uncanny into a story of a father’s grief, mixing witchcraft, folklore, family, and technology into a creepy, compelling tale. It’s a fine example of magical realism for the way it adds touches of mystery and magic to a NYC setting that is so real-world you might find yourself looking over your shoulder next time you’re in the city, just in case.
The Radium Girls by Kate Moore (479 pages, pub. 2017)
This is the first book I read in 2018, and it set a standard for the rest of the year. This is the story of the women who worked in factories in the early 20th century, painting watches with radium so the dials would glow in the dark. Unbeknownst to them, the radium they were in contact with each day was highly toxic, and the story becomes an intense legal battle with the factory owners who knowingly let them fall ill and die in agony from bone-destroying radium poisoning. The book is thoroughly researched, informatively written, and offers a captivating tribute to these women’s brave fight for justice.
The Yamas & Niyamas: Exploring Yoga’s Ethical Practice by Deborah Adele (192 pages, pub. 2009)
One of the teachers at the yoga studio I used to go to in Pennsylvania often read to us from this book during the opening meditation or during savasana. When I left, I was curious to read the whole book. This guide offers an explanation of each of the yamas and niyamas, two of the limbs of yoga that encompass ideas like nonviolence, truthfulness, and self-discipline, written in an accessible style for beginners and long-term yogis alike. Even those who don’t practice yoga would surely benefit from its loving message.
Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert (288 pages, pub. 2015)
This book was the surprise of the year for me. I had always avoided it despite recommendations from my writer friends because I thought it would be full of Eat-Pray-Love woo. It is, in places, but it’s also a smart, pragmatic guide to stop letting your fear stifle your creativity and to start letting your creativity become a part of everything you do. It’s an argument about imposter syndrome, writers’ block, and all the things that hold us back from just enjoying the process, written in a conversational, loving, and humorous way.