2018 Book Reviews

I always love seeing everyone’s recommended reading lists at beginning of the new year, so in 2018 I decided to keep a log of all my books with brief reviews. I meant to publish this at the beginning of Jan, but alas, I’m pregnant and have been sick and solo parenting for much of the month… so here we are on Jan 16th. Better late than never?

I use the term “review” lightly, as these are mostly quickly jotted down impressions – hardly fully formed thoughts on each book. But maybe you’ll find something that piques your interest! And even better, if you have any thoughts you’d like to share on any of these books, I’d love to hear them! Lastly – please share your own favorite reads of last year. I’m always looking for new books.

 

(1) Defiant: The POWs Who Endured Vietnam’s Most Infamous Prison, The Women Who Fought for Them, and the One Who Never Returned by Alvin Townley

This was a book club selection. If you think this is an odd choice for a book club comprised of many naval aviator spouses – you’d be right! This was a powerful, emotional book that had me sobbing, but I’m so glad I read it. The POWs’ courage, leadership, and resilience are inspiring, but I also loved how Townley focuses on their remarkable, er, defiant wives. Highly recommend.

(2) 1984 by George Orwell

I read this because I felt like it was one of those books I should have read by now. And now I have.

(3) Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders

Nearly everyone in my book club hated this – but I say give it a chance! Admittedly, I struggled in the beginning. It’s a very unconventional narrative and it took me a little while to figure out what was going on. But once I did, I really enjoyed it. It’s imaginative, humorous, and very sweet and tender in some parts. I particularly liked the ending – If you’re up for a challenge, give this a try.

(4) Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? by Mindy Kaling

This was disappointing. I wanted a light read, and while this elicited a few chuckles from me, overall I though most of the humor fell flat.

(5-9) Mary Poppins/ Mary Poppins Comes Back/ Mary Poppins Opens the Door/ Mary Poppins in the Park/ Mary Poppins in Cherry Tree Lane by P. L. Travers

I hate to say it, but I think Mary Poppins is one of the rare instances of the movie being better than the book. The Mary Poppins of the books is, as Elisabeth realized by book 3, “Not very nice.” In fact, she’s downright awful and basically gaslights Jane and Michael throughout the series. Some of the other characters are delightful, but I could do without Mary Poppins herself. Stick with Julie Andrews.

(10) The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

Excellent book chronicling the journey of an escaped slaved, Cora, on a literal underground railroad. Parts are gruesome and heart wrenching (unsurprising, given the topic) but it was one of the best books I read all year.

(11) Beartown by Fredrik Backman

I read this because I loved A Man Called Ove. This, about a small hockey town rocked by scandal, is completely different from Ove, but I enjoyed it. Interesting characters, deals well with some relevant, complex topics.

(12) Rise of the Rocket Girls: The Women Who Propelled Us, from Missiles to the Moon to Mars by Nathalia Holt

I really, really wanted to like this. But good grief, was it dull. Had I not felt like a traitor to my gender, I would have ditched the book halfway through. The women in the book were all undoubtedly remarkable trailblazers, but the book focused so heavily on the technical aspects of their work, while relegating their personal stories and struggles to trite observations like, “Jane wore a daring pantsuit to work!” or “Susie went on the pill!” that I couldn’t maintain interest. I’m very willing to admit that if you are more science-minded than I, you might enjoy all the details on the developing space programs. This just wasn’t for me.

(13) Night by Elie Wiesel

What is there to say about this? An important work that everyone should read.

(14) The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows

I adore this book. It is lovely. You should read it. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll get all the feels. Please note – while the Netflix film is sweet, it does not nearly capture the wonderfulness of this book.

(15) Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng

Solid page-turner. I thought that Ng’s debut novel, Everything I Never Told You, was better written, but this was a more intriguing story.

(16) Washington: A Life by Ron Chernow (audiobook)

This audiobook took me months to get through (it’s long, folks), but after spending months with George, I was a little teary-eyed when I reached the end of his story. As I understand, you won’t find a more comprehensive, in-depth biography of our first president.

(17) Before We Were Yours by Lisa Wingate

This was very meh. I could’ve done completely without the present-day narrative of a southern woman trying to figure out her family’s past. The story of the children ripped from their home in the 1920s and placed in a criminally run adoption agency (based on true events) was much more powerful. This story had so much potential, but could’ve been better written, in my humble opinion. Also, I have a hard time reading about children suffering, and there’s a good bit of that in this book.

(18) One Summer: American, 1927 by Bill Bryson (audiobook)

I LOVE Bill Bryson. I did not love this audiobook. Bryson – a Midwesterner by birth who has lived much of his adult life in Great Britain – has an unusual hybrid of an accent, sort of like Madonna when she was married to Guy Ritchie. It threw me off, as did Bryson’s habit of sounding startled by his own writing. Anyway. Bryson covers everything from Charles Lindbergh to Babe Ruth to Calvin Coolidge to Al Capone and much, much more. Most of it was interesting; some of it was funny. Oddly, I think I would have appreciated the humor more if I had read the book rather than listened to it. This would not be the first Bryson book I’d recommend, but it was a perfectly satisfactory audiobook for a long drive.

(19) The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11 by Lawrence Wright

This was totally engrossing and very educational for me, but I struggled with the very graphic descriptions of various terrorist attacks – especially that of 9/11, which left me weeping.

(20) The Burning Girl by Claire Messud

Eh. I don’t know why I read this. Fairly dull account of a troubled junior-high friendship. Not much resolution at the end, and not worth it.

(21) Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI by David Grann

So good! Fascinating yet horrifying true crime story about the widespread murder of Osage Indians in the 1920s.

(22) Exit West by Mohsin Hamid

Interesting, quick read – especially in light of today’s immigration debates.

(23) Empty Mansions by Bill Dedman and Paul Clark Newell, Jr.(Audiobook)

This was okay. Frankly, I was more interested in the story Huguette Clark’s father than by the reclusive heiress herself, but her story held my attention well enough. Unfortunately, the book is not one that offers much resolution, at least not for me.

(24) Educated by Tara Westover

One of my must-reads of the year. I’m sure you’ve heard about it, and it lives up to all the hype.

(25) Manhattan Beach by Jennifer Egan

I didn’t love this book, but I didn’t hate it. She’s obviously a talented writer – it’s a beautifully written book. It was just a little slower than I hoped, and I never got very invested in the story.

(26) We Were the Lucky Ones by Georgia Hunter

I loved this book. This is based on the true story of a Polish-Jewish family spread around the globe during WWII. It’s an emotionally draining book, but (no spoiler here) the title suggests there is a happy ending, which got me through to the end. It’s an amazing, downright miraculous story.

(27-29) Pippi Longstocking/Pippi Goes on Board/Pippi in the South Sea by Astrid Lindgren

I loved Pippi when I was little – who wouldn’t? She could do whatever she wants and eat candy all day and had a house full of treasure! The first in the series is the best, but Elisabeth enjoyed the entire series.

(30) Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff

I hated – HATED – this book. Reviled, loathed, abhorred it with every fiber of my being. Every character is awful. It’s overwritten. (I get it, Ms. Groff, you know a lot of big words.) I forced myself to read this because it was so critically praised but the whole while wanted to stab my eyes out with forks. I don’t get it. I don’t get why this book was so  praised. What am I missing?

(31) Into the Water by Paula Hawkins

This was disappointing. I’m a fan of thrillers, but I haven’t really read one since Gone Girl or Girl on the Train that I’ve truly enjoyed. This was dull, frankly.

(32) Destiny of the Republic A Tale of Madness, Medicine and the Murder of a President by Candice Millard

So good! This book seamlessly interweaves the stories of James Garfield, his assassin, and Alexander Graham Bell. Really interesting and informative. The chapter on the 1880 Republican National Convention was riveting. Really! And that was just about Garfield’s nomination. Imagine the rest of the book! I didn’t know much about President Garfield before reading this. He seemed like an extraordinary man.

(33) The Immortalists by Chloe Benjamin

Four siblings meet a psychic who tell them each the day they are going to die. The book explores how each goes on to live their respective lives. The novel dragged at points, and some characters were certainly more engaging than others, but overall it was an interesting, thought-provoking book.

(34) Modern Lovers by Emma Straub

Fine, unexceptional novel.

(35) I’ll Be Gone in the Dark by Michelle McNamara

This was not quite what I expected. The narrative often felt disjointed to me, perhaps because it was finished posthumously. I enjoy true crime, but this also didn’t quite offer the resolution I was hoping for or expecting.

(36) Bittersweet: Thoughts on Change, Grace, and Learning the Hard Way by Shauna Niequest

I picked up this book as a filler book while waiting for a library book to become available. I’ve known lots of people who have enjoyed Neiquest as a writer, and I did as well. What I didn’t know that she deals a lot with her miscarriage in this book, and as I had just had one, it was kind of an emotional read. I also found – surprisingly – that I could relate as a military spouse to a lot of what she writes about. I appreciated her honesty and her warmth and humor, even while discussing tough topics.

(37) The Complete Tales of Winnie-the-Pooh by A. A. Milne

This is just the most perfect book. A. A. Milne captures the imagination of a child so perfectly. If you’re a parent who hasn’t read this, you will definitely cry at the end. Just a warning.

(38) We Were Liars by E. Lockhart

A wealthy east coast family is hiding the truth behind an accident that the protagonist is struggling to recall. This book has one of the most unexpected twists I’ve encountered in a long time. Truly left me shocked.

(39) Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle by Betty MacDonald

I loved this when I was little, although reading it as a parent – not so much. It’s very dated, but it’s humorous reading it from a modern parenting perspective. Elisabeth thought it was funny, and even wanted to try out some of Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle’s disciplinary techniques. Particularly the one where she encourages the parents to let the kids stay up as late as they want.

(40) Pachinko by Min Jin Lee

This book started off slow, but I quickly became engrossed. A beautifully written, rich story. One of my favorites this year.

(41) Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward

I have mixed feelings about this book. It was a powerful story, but it was torturous to get through and often made me physically uncomfortable. Racism, poverty, drug addiction – it covers it all in harsh, devastating reality. Perhaps reality is an odd word to use since, as the title suggests, ghosts play heavily in this story. An interesting, intense, sad book that I almost quit reading twice because – as I’ve mentioned before – I hate reading about child suffering or neglect, and there’s quite a bit of that.

(42) Hey Ladies! by Caroline Moss and Michelle Markowitz

I needed a light read, and this was that. I was expecting this to be laugh-out-loud funny, but this went beyond parody into ridiculousness.

(43)  First Women: The Grace and Power of America’s Modern First Ladies by Kate Brower (Audiobook)

I was hoping for something a little gossipy to get me through a long drive, and this did not disappoint. Maybe I was reading too much into it, but it seemed very pro-Hillary (it was published during her 2016 campaign) and surprisingly anti-Michelle Obama. Weird, because who doesn’t like Michelle Obama? Would love to hear if anyone else who has read this got the same impression. Not a super in-depth, intellectual book, but I learned a few things about our modern First Ladies, and it made good road trip entertainment.

(44) Turtles All The Way Down by John Green

I think I saw this on many lists of books to read so read it without knowing what it was. Fine YA novel, but not really my cup of tea.

(45) The Leavers by Lisa Ko

I just didn’t love this. The book broaches a lot of timely, important topics (immigration/deportation, adoption, etc.) but I really disliked almost all the characters, even the ones to whom I was sympathetic.

(46) The Great Believers by Rebecca Makkai

This is a heavy, grim read (it alternates between the AIDS epidemic in 1980s Chicago and contemporary Paris, where a mother is searching for her estranged daughter) but it’s a captivating story and very well written.

(47) The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett

Elisabeth enjoyed this (especially reading the “Broad Yorkshire” accents). It’s amazing how slow-paced it feels compared to contemporary literature – which is not a bad thing! I did find myself frustrated that the narrative gradually shifted from Mary’s transformation to almost exclusively Colin’s. Oh well. It’s a classic. You should read it.

(48) Nine Perfect Strangers by Liane Moriarty

I enjoyed this! After a couple of heavy reads, Liane Moriarty was the author I needed. Her books aren’t exactly light, but the characters are generally likeable, there’s humor to balance the darker elements of the story, and they are all generally page-turners. This fit the mold.

 

I also began but have not finished Kitchen Confidential by Anthony Bourdain and Leonardo da Vinci by Walter Isaacson. I do intend to finish them in 2019. Now your turn – what books left an impression with you this year? Loved? Hated? Let me know!

 

1 Comment

  1. I’ve read about half of what’s on your list. You might be closest to being my book twin though. You probably have the closest range of books to mine, minus the fantasy that I also enjoy.

    I just finished listening to I’ll Be Gone in the Dark and, yes, it was disjointed and I felt totally let down in the end – basically they found the guy and that was it. I needed a little more about him.

    I read also A Man Called Ove and loved it and then Beartown – great book, but hard to read. But I now have all of his books on my TBR because I loved Ove so much. Also, I think I may have a new sub-genre of books I like with cranky old men in them.

    Sing, Unburied, Sing – I threw up while reading the first chapter. Not sure if they were directly related but the goat butchering didn’t help. I finished just to be done with it but it wasn’t my favorite.

    I listen to a podcast called What Should I Read Next from which I add a lot of books to my list. She’s talked about a lot of the books in your list, so I suspect you may listen too.

    Some of my favorites this year were
    Doc by Maria Doria Russell (audiobook)
    After Camelot: A Personal History of the Kennedy Family – It read like a juicy celebrity bio and was fascinating to me
    The Neapolitan Novels by Elana Ferrante – I finished them this year, a mess of Italian families and women trying to go places in post WWII Naples
    Devil in the Grove – Eye opening to the racial injustice in Florida in the 1960s
    The Great Alone by Kristen Hannah – it is very tense in parts but a great story

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