2018 Reads: I would love to hear your own recommendations, reactions, and/or reviews in the comments below!
This is not meant to be an official, academic list. I have included all books that I remember reading this year (there were more! I may add later), not just those I loved, in no particular order. I would love to hear your thoughts.
My 1-5 star scale:
*: Hated it, and/or couldn’t finish it
**: Apparently I don’t give this rating. Likely I would describe it as “meh.”
***: Liked it. Not particularly memorable, but would recommend if you’ve got extra time on your hands/are in need of a book fix.
****: Loved it.
*****: Loved it, unforgettable. Must-read (genre- and theme-dependent, of course, according to your tastes).
The List: Books I read in 2018, and my thoughts
*****Pachinko, Min Jin Lee
A must-read for those interested in family sagas, historical fiction, and literature that challenges dominant narratives. It tells the story of several generations of a Korean-Japanese family — a take on 20th century Korean & Japanese histories and societies unlike any I have ever read. It also speaks to the immigrant experience, in a context new to most U.S. Americans (and rarely discussed in Japan). The characterization is powerful and nuanced, the plot gripping. I stayed up late into the night to finish it.
*****Ghosts of the Tsunami: Death and Life in Japan’s Disaster Zone, Richard Lloyd Parry (2017)
This masterpiece of non-fiction is the result of twenty years’ experience as an investigative journalist in Japan, six of which Parry spent intimately involved with communities recovering from the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami. It is the first book I have ever read (or in-depth story I have ever heard) of a tsunami from the point of view of those who survived it. It pieces together the testimonies of hundreds of survivors, including many family members of those who did not survive, in one of the most gripping, harrowing accounts I have ever read of any event. It gives irreplaceable insight for English-language readers into the events during and following the tsunami, as well as to the philosophies surrounding death in Japan. I highly recommend, with the caveat that reading it at bedtime gave me nightmares. Genre: Non-fiction. Ages: high school-adult.
*****Throne of Glass series, Sarah J. Maas (2002-2018)
This eight-part series, begun when the author was just 16 years old and writing on a self-publishing crowd-source site, came to its satisfying closure in October 2018. It is one of the best YA fantasy series I have read for a long time, featuring complex characters that develop in interesting ways over the course of the story, non-stop adventure, highly creative magical elements, and a cast of child and teenage (and later young adult) characters who do not obey the conventions of earlier genres or generations. My high-school age students and I have enjoyed geeking out over these books. Genre: YA Fantasy. Ages: high school-adult.
*****Betsy Tacy series, Maud Hart Lovelace (1940-1955)
This was one of my favorite series as a child, when I read books 1-4, having no idea they went on into the protagonists’ adulthood! Betsy, Tacy, and their best friend Tib were at times more real to me than my own friends, who I knew for only a short time as we moved from school to school. First published in the 1940’s, the novels follow Lovelace’s own growing up in the 1910s in rural Minnesota (and later Minneapolis), and are lush with sociocultural details from that time period. As my own great-grandmother was growing up in Minnesota at the exact same time, these books have become particularly meaningful to me as an adult; but as a child I was simply captivated by the beauty of the friendship between the characters, and how lifelike their stories felt (from a child’s point-of-view). This fall I went on to read the entire ten-book series, and grieved when it ended. Genre: Children’s-Adult Fiction. Ages: 5-95 (Books grow with reader; all lovely as an adult).
****The Rules of Magic, Alice Hoffman (2018)
Twenty-two years after publishing her iconic Practical Magic, prolific author of New England magical realism Alice Hoffman has released the prequel to that tale. As I am still mid-book, I can only say that I am thrilled to be immersed once again in the world of the witchy Owens family, and fascinated to learn the stories of the previous generations. (Note: I am giving it a tentative four stars: have not finished it, and too early to tell immediately.) Genre: Magical realism. Ages: Adult.
*Update: I finished reading! I do not want to spoil, so I will only say that I highly recommend, especially for Hoffman fans.
*****Who Fears Death, Nnedi Okorafor (2010)
After reading this book many years ago when it first came out, I had the privilege of re-reading it with two classes of junior and seniors in World Literature this Spring, which I co-taught with the awe-inspiring educator Leah Dunbar. Set in post-apocalyptic sub-Saharan Africa, this novel tells the story of Onyesonwu, whose name means Who Fears Death in Igbo. Onyesonwu and her band of best friends set out to redeem their world from the oppressive, brutally violent racist and misogynistic structures that surround them, in a story unlike any I have ever read, drawn from Nigerian culture and folklore. Although Okorafor wrote this as an adult book, many students mentioned this as the first novel they had ever actually enjoyed reading, and were absolutely engaged from beginning to end. Genre: Post-apocalyptic Saharan sci-fi. Ages: Adult (though also read and enjoyed with high school juniors and seniors, with some courageous talks around sexuality, racism, and sexism.)
***1/2 Crazy Rich Asians Trilogy, Kevin Kwan (2013-2017)
A nod to this trilogy, which I gulped down at the end of summer in preparation for the release of the highly anticipated Hollywood film. A very fluffy read that is a fascinating look into the lifestyles of Singapore and Hong Kong’s uber-rich and famous-in-spite-of-themselves. I thoroughly enjoyed these books, and would read them again, if only to keep track of the list of fabulous places and foods they mention. Genre: Beach read. Ages: adult.
*****You Know Me Well, David Levithan and Nina La Cour (2016)
I bought this book as a gift for one of my GSA students for whom I was a Secret Santa, and read it in less than 24 hours before giving it to her. (I do not like to gift books without having read them, but this one looked too good to resist, so I compromised by deciding to give it a quick read.) And…wow. This book so beautifully captures the intense beauty and angst of youthful love and friendships, in alternating chapters written by two of the lions of contemporary YA LGBTQ fiction. p.s. My students who read it also highly recommend. Genre: YA lit. Ages: teen-adult.
****The Disenchantments, Nina La Cour (2012)
After reading You Know Me Well, I decided to read this one by Nina La Cour, and am glad I did. This book tells the story of a foursome of best friends (to top it off, they are also a girl band and their roadie/manager/BFF), who set off on a West Coast road trip the summer before they start college. Once again, La Cour beautifully captures the intensity of that period of life, with a mid-90’s San Francisco-to-Seattle backdrop that brought tears to my eyes more than once. An ode to that time and place. Genre: YA lit. Ages: teen-adult.
***Everything Leads to You, Nina La Cour (2014)
Yes, I went on a Nina La Cour binge. This one, set in Los Angeles, was fun — I especially enjoyed its exploration of what goes into making an independent film — but did not resonate as deeply as the aforementioned two. Genre: YA lit. Ages: teen-adult.
*The Power, Naomi Alderman (2016)
Full disclosure: I have very rarely been a fan of satire, and this book was no exception. This satire was widely heralded, and may indeed be one of the most important of our times, but truth be told, I pretty much hated it. The premise was fascinating — what would happen if girls and women had the ability to physically torture and kill their aggressors, at the mere touch of their hand? — but is so brutally executed, and unconvincingly concluded, that I am only glad I read it so that I can knowingly discuss it with its fans. I know I should give it more than one star for being decently written, but I just can’t. I feel physically nauseous whenever I think of this book. Genre: Satire, sci-fi. Ages: adult.
***Shadow and Bone trilogy, Leigh Bardugo (2012-2014)
This is a fun YA trilogy for those looking for a fix after finishing the Throne of Glass series. Interesting world-building, swashbuckling action, heartache and heartwarming love stories. Also, grapples with the question: what would you do if you had the innate ability/power to take over the world? Genre: YA fantasy. Ages: teen-adult.
*****The Hate U Give, Angie Thomas (2017)
Rarely have I read a more timely piece of YA fiction. This novel tells the story of 16-year-old Starr Carter and her community, in the wake of the killing of her childhood friend by a police officer. Far from the political posturing/overt hatred often provoked by the Black Lives Matter movement (and other challenges to institutionalized racism), which tends to dominate mainstream discourse, this book invites us to step into the lives of a community devastated by the loss of a beloved child. I cannot recommend highly enough. Every U.S. American should read this book. Genre: YA lit. Ages: teen-adult.
*****The Poet X, Elizabeth Acevedo (2018)
I was about halfway through this genre-defying book when I realized that it was the work of a spoken word poet I have loved (and taught in my classes) for years: Afro-Dominican wunderkind Elizabeth Acevedo (see “Afrolatina”, “Hair”). Written as a journal in spoken-word form, this novel (?) tells the coming-of-age story of 15-year-old Xiomara Batista, Harlem public school student and erstwhile dutiful Dominican daughter as she questions the social and religious restrictions placed upon her, and finds her own voice. If you do not think you like poetry, do not be daunted: it is incredibly accessible. (And if you do, you’re in for a treat.) I could not put it down; read it in 1 1/2 sittings. I am already planning curriculum around this book. Genre: YA lit, poetry. Ages: teen-adult.
*****Born a Crime: Stories of a South African Childhood, Trevor Noah (2016)
Oh my goodness. I loved Trevor Noah before, but now I am a super-fan. Growing up in apartheid South Africa as the son of a Black South African mother and White Swiss father, Noah spent most of his childhood in hiding, for fear of his being removed from his mother’s family: as the title implies, his very existence was illegal, in a social structure that required everyone to fit into a neat racialized category. In his characteristically humorous style, Noah tells incredibly painful stories of that time period in South Africa from his own uniquely multifaceted perspective, while shedding light on our own racialized categories and institutions in the U.S. I would like to teach this book, too. Genre: memoir. Ages: teen-adult.
*****All teaching books by Linda Christensen (2000-2017)
If you are a literature teacher looking for ideas for lesson plans, look no further. I have never read any teacher-writer who inspires me more than Linda Christensen, all while giving highly practical, step-by-step advice. Genre: teacher lesson plan lit. Ages: adult.
***1/2 Harry Potter and the Cursed Child by JK Rowling (2016)
In need of a HP fix? This is the script to the stage play that tells the story of our beloved characters, 20 years hence. I can claim absolutely no objectivity on its quality, so am giving it a tentative 3 1/2 stars. For diehard fans, it is an indispensable read. Let’s argue about how good/bad it is! Genre: play script, fantasy. Ages: teen-adult.
*Laika, Nick Abadzis 😦 😦 😦 (2007)
Oh my God. I am putting this book on the list because I read it, but I honestly wish I hadn’t. It is a graphic novel that tells the story of Laika, the dog sent to space by the Russian space program in 1957. If you are an animal rights activist looking to convince others of (or at least get them to question) the ethics of animal experimentation, look no further. Incredibly harrowing, and heartbreaking. (Spoiler: after months of torture, the dog dies in the end.) Genre: historical graphic novel. Ages: teen-adult.
****Diary of a Tokyo Teen, Christine Inzer (2016)
Released in 2017, this graphic novel was written by then-17-year-old Inzer, visiting her grandparents’ homeland…Japan! A fascinating and fun teen’s-eye-view of Japan (and a quick read). We will be keeping this one on our shelf at home, and buying a copy for Tomo’s Japanese immersion school library. Highly recommend. Genre: graphic memoir. Ages: teen-adult.
*****Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain by Zaretta Hammond (2014)
Another teacher book: this one talking about the neuroscience behind culturally responsive teaching. Hotly argued in my grad school cohort (the more conservative amongst us claimed that the brain science was inaccurate), I find myself returning to it time and again for bare-bones advice and accessible visual descriptions of what I aspire to as a teacher. Accuracy of the science aside (I am unable to speak to this, as a non-scientist, although it *is* well-researched and cited), I found this book very useful in thinking about how to build rapport and best support students. Genre: teacher lit. Ages: adult.
***The Last Black Unicorn, Tiffany Haddish (2017)
I cannot honestly remember this book very well (which is why I am giving it three stars), but I read it and enjoyed it…while I had some reservations, as I recall. Haddish is a true survivor, overcoming what could have been a crippling child- and young adulthood to become a star comedic actress. What I do remember is that I laughed aloud, would read it again, and would like to discuss it with whoever reads it. *Warning*: if “raunchy” bothers you, I recommend steering clear. Oh yes, it’s coming back to me now…! One thing that bothered me about this book, now that I think on it, is that it was ghostwritten by notorious “fratire” author Tucker Max, who I find repulsive. I wondered if it would have lingered on her sexual exploits to the degree that it did without his hand in it. Genre: memoir. Ages: adult.
*****The Night Circus, Erin Morgenstern (2011)
This book. THIS. BOOK! If you are a fan of circus literature, magical realism, haunting love stories, and/or Victorian-era fantasy, this is the book for you. I do not want to say too much about it, as I am almost afraid to talk about how much I loved it, and do not want to spoil anything. So good. Genre: magical realism. Ages: teen (?)-adult.
***The Glass Castle, Jeannette Walls (2005)
This book came with the curriculum I inherited for 10th grade literature here in Tokyo. I would never in a million years have chosen it for 10th grade, particularly for a group of international Catholic school girls in Tokyo (or maybe any literature class, as there is simply too much else I would prioritize), but I am glad I read it. It tells the story of Walls’ childhood in the 1960’s and 70’s, daughter of U.S. American counter-culture parents who walk the line between principles and simple insanity. Also a beautiful testimony to the power of siblinghood. Sound familiar? I thought so, too. Genre: memoir. Ages: teen (?)-adult.
**1/2 Of Mice and Men, John Steinbeck (1937)
I know, I know: How did I make it through five years of graduate education in literature (not to mention a lifetime of bibliophilia) without reading Steinbeck?! This novella was another of the aforementioned 10th grade curriculum I inherited, and I can only say…meh. While I respect Steinbeck for depicting characters that are not only White, male and middle-class (as he was), in this day and age, reading non-white and non-male characters who serve merely as foils, metaphors, or illustrations of the agony lived by the (White male) protagonists feels very dated. And when every single woman in the book is sexually assaulted, and we are led to consistently feel compassion for the assailants?…meh. Genre: historical fiction. Ages: teen (?)-adult.
*Never Let Me Go, Kazuo Ishiguro (2005)
I picked up this book because Ishiguro won the 2017 Nobel for Literature, and is a Japanese-British author, to boot. (I am on the look-out for culturally relevant books for my students and myself.) But…honestly, I couldn’t even finish this one. It was that disturbing. Set in Britain in the near future, it tells the story of a group of young people raised in an idyllic (?) boarding school with a horrifying (to the readers, not necessarily to the characters) secret. I do not want to say more in case you decide to read it, but I will say: I’m pretty over dystopic fiction at this point, unless it makes me think deeply about society, and consider how we might improve it. Which at this point narrows down basically to George Orwell’s 1984, as far as I’m concerned. I could not figure out the message of this book (which I will admit I “finished” by reading reviews/synopsis/critiques about). Why read about dystopias, when we have our very own brewing at home? Feel free to disagree. Genre: sci-fi. Ages: teen-adult.
***I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter by Erika L. Sanchez (2017)
I am giving this three stars because I remember that I enjoyed it, but honestly I read it while we were getting ready to move across the ocean, so I don’t recall much about it other than that. I would likely give it four stars otherwise. (I only give five to those I find so memorable that they make the world stop when I read them, no matter the circumstances.) Genre: YA fiction. Ages: teen-adult.
***The Lightning Thief, Rick Riordan (2005)
I read this series-starter at the behest of many of my middle school-age friends, but honestly: I wasn’t that impressed. Yes, the premise is clever (to bring Greek mythology into the here-and-now), but some of the (Greek-)God(s)-Bless-America ideals on which it rests set my teeth on edge, and I was turned off by the fact that it is essentially a very classic boy book. (I have to admit that I was also miffed by the fact that when I later read Mr. Riordan’s blog post on his own book recommendations, they were written almost exclusively by male authors. (Except for Hunger Games — eyeroll — and the feline phenomenon Warriors — solid choice.)) To each his own, I guess. Genre: middle-reader fantasy. Ages: middle school-adult.
****My Brother’s Husband, Gengoroh Tagame (2014-2017)
My partner gave me this one for Christmas, in our ongoing quest for culturally relevant LGBTQ lit. It tells the tale of Yaichi, whose estranged twin brother’s widower shows up on his doorstep soon after the funeral. While Yaichi struggles to accept this loud, hairy, gay foreigner, his elementary school-age daughter embraces him delightedly. While it might seem incredibly tame to the Western reader, in Japan it represents a remarkable cultural opening to the possibility of LGBTQ visibility. (It won the Japan Media Arts Award for Outstanding Work of Manga from the Agency of Cultural Affairs.) Tagame is an out manga artist best known for his yaoi hentai (“boy love” erotica); I believe this is his first foray into mainstream lit. A worthwhile read, if only to get a window onto Japanese perspectives on homosexuality, and the evocative pen-and-ink drawings. Genre: manga (graphic novel). Ages: middle school-adult.
**** (?) Exit West, Mohsin Hamid (2017)
I picked up this slim volume at our school library here in Tokyo the day Winter Break began, and will admit that I have not finished it (I tend to read 2-3 books at a time). This is a beautiful, heart-wrenching portrayal of displacement and migration, taking into its scope pieces of planet all over the globe. Nadia and Saeed are a young couple falling in love in an unnamed country on the precipice of war. Like millions of others, they are faced with the decision as to whether or not to travel through one of the millions of mysterious black doors that have appeared all over the world, connecting the global South with the global North. Will they stay where they are, risking certain death amidst their loved ones, or will they step through one of the doors, losing everyone and everything they know, in a bid for survival? On their journey, they will come into contact with thousands of others, along with glimpses of those that they never met, weaving their story into the tapestry of humanity’s story, the story of our world at a crossroads. A powerful metaphor for our times, bringing to mind the mid-career works of Jose Saramago. Highly recommend. Genre: sci-fi, political fiction. Ages: adult.
…What did you read this year? I would love to hear your own recommendations, reactions, and/or reviews in the comments below!