When I posted my Top 10 Children’s Books before last Christmas, one of my friends asked if I had a Top 10 Books of 2018 list in the works.
Of COURSE I did!
Well, not at that very moment—but I thought it would be fun to develop one after the new year. Then I got bogged down with a Facebook fast and this post about Disney World… So, a few months after anyone probably cares about 2018’s top tens, here it is.
I’ve divided my top ten into different categories, so I didn’t have to perform the terrible task of counting down to my number one book. (I love them all, but I love them all differently). To develop my list, I went through my Goodreads account and listed out all the five-star book ratings I gave in 2018. If there was more than one five-star book for a particular category, I was forced to pick my favorite of two or three.
Since I reviewed all of these on Goodreads already, I’ll be brief here, linking to the Goodreads review at the end of each one. I’ll also be spoiler-free.
Best Historical Fiction: The Wonder by Emma Donoghue. I actually don’t prefer historical fiction in general, so the fact that this one got me SO HOOKED was a feat. I loved the mystery; I loved how the imperfect, full-of-faults main character grew on me; and I loved the masterful pacing that kept a slow-boiling plot interesting. The historical details about the Irish Potato Famine and Florence Nightingale were dropped like the best fantasy world-building, leaving me eager for more (as opposed to bored to tears with all the research some historical fiction authors cram in). It was just fluffy enough and just literary enough to keep my brain working while helping me zip through it. Possibly interested? Read the Goodreads review here.
Best “Christian Living”: True Beauty by Carolyn Mahaney and Nicole Whitacre. I won’t make any claims that this book is a big new deal. Most of the truths in it are truths I’d heard before. But it met me at the just the right time, after I’d realized my views on beauty were far more skewed than I’d realized. In this newfound understanding of my need for good teaching, this collection of teachings on beauty was wholesome medicine…even life-changing, freeing me from a constant nitpicking at my appearance that I’ve been slave to my whole life. I’M FREEEEEEE…. LET IT GO; LET IT GO! Read more here.
Best Re-Read: Hamlet and Beowulf. I can’t pick; don’t make me pick. The former is the play that made me want to become an English major; the latter is the work I spent most of grad school mining and translating. So I already loved them, but I loved them even more this time, and it’s all thanks to C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien. Reading more about Lewis’s philosophy of education in Alan Jacobs’ biography The Narnian has completely revitalized my interaction with the texts I teach in Brit Lit. And this year, I finally took the time to read Tolkien’s essay “Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics,” which is famous for saving Beowulf from being discarded as having outlived its critical usefulness. It was glorious. I understood more of Tolkien’s mind in writing Lord of the Rings, but I also learned a lot personally. Glowing Goodreads reviews are here and here.
Best YA: The Rithmatist by Brandon Sanderson. I loved it for so many reasons, mainly that it took the YA tropes you’re familiar with from Harry Potter and….messed with me with them. He knew what I was expecting, and he tricked me, multiple times, and I love when an author can do that. He made some daring choices in doing so. Caveat, however: I was nearly in despair to learn that, after an ending that needs a sequel, no sequel is in the works. This series has been on the very back of Sanderson’s backburner for years. I recommend it! But not if you like closure. My Goodreads review promises a blog post; I’m still planning on that one.
Best Fantasy: Mistborn by Brandon Sanderson. This book made me cry because of the sheer skill of his set-up, of all the possibilities that he was opening up and that I knew, based on my knowledge of him as an author, he would pay off. It was like being handed a big promise: “You know these threads, these countless threads I’m weaving of interpersonal conflict and personal need for growth and magic system coolness and all these brief mentions of things that seem unimportant but will probably come into play later? I vow, as solemnly as if it were a wedding vow, that I will fulfill all these promises, and you will not be disappointed.” And I wasn’t. SO MUCH GREATNESS. Want to read more details about why it made me cry? Check it out on Goodreads.
Best Nonfiction: Chanterelle Dreams, Amanita Nightmares: The Love, Lore, and Mystique of Mushrooms by Greg Marley. Anyone who is my Facebook friend knows that I fell in love with mushrooms last year. This book is the reason my friends now text me pictures of the fungi growing in their yards. One of my friends, who does Charlotte Mason homeschooling, is all about “living books”: nonfiction books not just cobbled together for a profit, but born of the infectious passion of the author. I think this is one of those. He won my trust with his careful, but enthusiastic expertise, and I am now filled with desires to eat morels and chanterelles and spout cool facts about poison. My understated Goodreads review is here.
Best Parenting Book: Parenting by Paul Tripp. I have said to my husband many times that I am a better parent when I am reading a parenting book; therefore, I aim to be always in the midst of one. This is one of the very best of those books. Every single chapter I read, I would think, “Cap needs to read this. I need to read this again. Lord, help me remember this!” I would actually have anxiety about not being able to remember all the gold in each chapter. One of my friends shared her strategy with this book, which I plan to use the next time through: write one or two notes from each chapter on an index card, carry it or post it somewhere, and let those be your takeaways: you can pick up other things the next time through. The funny thing is, Tripp’s saying the same thing over and over again—something I am desperate to remember: my kids need the Gospel, and whatever I do as a parent should be aiming at, and hoping in, that very Gospel. It’s so centering, and it has dramatically affected our family. Read my Goodreads review here.
Best Science-Fiction: The Lost World by Michael Crichton. I am not generally a Crichton fan because I like character development and he likes competent scientists being competent. But this audio book was just FUN, especially narrated by Scott Brick. It is nothing like the terrible movie, and that makes this perhaps one of the biggest and best-kept-secrets from a general public relatively familiar with Crichton. I loved the characters, even though they still didn’t have arcs, and was genuinely fearful for them. I was cheering during one particular chase scene involving a motorcycle, a velociraptor, and a middle-schooler with a gun. See more on Goodreads here.
Best Middle Grade: Where the Mountain Meets the Moon by Grace Lin. This book was enchanting, mesmerizing, uplifting. I listened to it on audio book almost as if in a trance. It is a delightful book that will woo you with moonlit symbols and interweaving legends and make you ultimately see life as more beautiful. The whole experience is a magical stand-alone. Hear me rave more about it here.
Biggest Surprise: Challenger Deep by Neal Shusterman. Holy wow, this book made me glad to be human. Having had negative reactions to other books about mental illness, and not liking to wallow in depressing topics, I was not expecting to like this at all. But it was amazing. I was put in the position of rooting for the main character on two levels: on one, desperately wanting him to be free of his illness, but on another, identifying so closely with him that I was rooting for him within his hallucinations, too. That’s skill, to hold me on two different levels at once. I loved the Faulkner-esque puzzle of figuring out how his delusions reacted to his real life. And bonus points for the book’s cool backstory: Shusterman’s own son suffered from schizophrenia, and this book is from father and son’s joint efforts. I loved even more about it, which you can read as a bullet-point list here.
Honorable Mention – Best Modern Literary Fiction: Life of Pi by Yann Martel. This was technically four stars because I didn’t enjoy every minute of it, and even considered much of it a slog. But when I came to the end and realized what he had been driving at, I thought about it so much I had to write an essay about it. Any book that makes me have to write an essay just to work my thoughts out is a book that has won its place in my heart. Forget the Goodreads review; read the essay here.