The Best—and Worst—Books I Read in 2018

I crave reading. I was the kid who read the back of the cereal box while eating breakfast. I spent so much time at the public library as a child that the librarians ignored the five-book maximum for me because they knew I’d be back a day or two later.

But when I started MelEdits in 2013, my reading slipped because the habits I had formed were no longer available. I read during my D.C. Metro train commute, which provided at least 40 minutes of reading a day. I also believed strongly in taking a full break from work during my one-hour lunch, so I read while eating. But those designated times disappeared in 2013.

In 2017, I vowed to become a voracious reader again. It was hard at first—paying attention to the words on the page was a challenge to my scattered, social-media–trained mind. It was scary to think what scanning, skimming and scrolling had done to my brain. But I kept at it, and after about two weeks I could get lost again in a book without my thoughts being pulled away or getting distracted by a movement in the room.  

I joined the Goodreads Reading Challenge in 2017, reading 25 books that year. In 2018, I challenged myself to read 30 books, but I wildly surpassed that. I’m on my 52nd book of the year as 2018 ends and I race to finish the last 150 pages before January 1.

The Goodreads challenge has been a fun way to keep track of the books I read and analyze the types of books I enjoy as well as discard. I’ve always known I like historical fiction, memoirs, psychological thrillers and crime dramas. But I discovered this year that I can handle literary books if there is a fast-paced plot. Too many pages of description and I get bored quickly and move on to the next book. (I’m talking to you, “Bel Canto.”) I learned that I have to like at least one character in the book. If I’m not rooting for someone, I don’t care what happens to anyone (as was the case in Jane Harper’s disappointing sophomore effort, “Force of Nature.”)

But when I find strong characters that I like, a plot continually moving forward and an interesting story, well, I’m in heaven. Here I present the best and worst books I read in 2018.

Best Fiction of 2018

My favorite books of the year have one thing in common: I fell in love with the characters and wanted the best for them.

1. “The One-in-a-Million Boy” by Monica Wood (published in 2016). This was my favorite book of the year. I would never have picked up this book from the jacket description, but Anne Bogel, host of the podcast “What Should I Read Next,” kept recommending it to guests, so I borrowed it from the library. I fell in love with every character in this book. Wood is a master storyteller. In the first few pages, you learn that an 11-year-old boy has died. You get to know this quirky, awkward, joyful, curious child and instantly, fiercely love him. His working “never made it big” musician father sets out to finish the boy’s commitment to help a 104-year-old lady with chores around her house—but only because his ex-wife asked him to and he’s overcome with guilt at being a poor father. The story takes off from there, as you get to know each of these people and how they interacted and loved the boy. I was sad to say goodbye to these characters when I finished the book.

2. “Station Eleven” by Emily St. John Mandel (published in 2014). Running a close second was this unique take on an apocalypse. I love a good apocalypse story, and this told a tale I’d never heard before. It wasn’t all darkness and violence. The structure is beautiful and impressive and gives the sense that all the characters and the plot are leading up to something, that they will all meet at one spot, and I could not wait to discover what was going to happen. I read the entire 330 pages in 24 hours.

3. “Exit West” by Mohsin Hamid (published in 2017). Another book I devoured in 24 hours (which is rare for me). I encourage you not to read the book flap or other reviews before picking up this book, because they give away too much. Instead, just be open and go along where the author takes you. This is a love story about Nadia and Saeed, who are the only two characters named in the book, in an unnamed Middle Eastern city that is falling to extremists. The author’s writing is poetic, lyrical, heartbreakingly beautiful—he squeezes meaning and emotion out of every phrase. I didn’t notice until I was nearly finished with the book that it has very little written dialogue, but the ever-present narrator describes the characters and their feelings so well that I felt like I knew them deeply.

4. “Everything I Never Told You” by Celeste Ng (published in 2014). I’m a little late to the party with this one, but I was thrilled to discover Ng’s storytelling this year. “Lydia is dead. But they don’t know this yet.” is the first line of this book. This was one of those books this year that showed me I need books that are plot-driven and have characters I love, which Ng gave me. It’s a heartbreaking story about a family, as we go back in time and look at everyone’s life from their perspective as we build up to Lydia’s death. Why she died is a mystery that kept me intrigued throughout. This is a story about not belonging, trying to meet parents’ expectations, parents living their dreams through their children, and a family moving through grief in different ways. But even with all their flaws, I loved this family as I hoped for their healing.

5. “The Passage” by Justin Cronin (published in 2010). This book was written for me: apocalyptic vampires. But it took me eight years to pick it up because it’s nearly 800 pages. As a teenager and young adult, I was never intimidated by long books, but now I don’t want to commit that much time to one book when there are so many others calling out to me. I loved this book’s vivid storytelling and the depth of many of the characters. And I would call it a page-turner, as much as a tome can be one. However, the length did get to me, and I don’t think I’m going to read the rest of the trilogy. But if you like apocalypse stories and don’t mind long books, I highly recommend “The Passage.”

6. “Before the Fall” by Noah Hawley (published in 2016). Hawley tells the story of a plane crash in which only two people survive. You know from the beginning who dies, and then the book looks back at each person and who they were in the days leading up to the crash, in part to try to figure out why the plane crashed. I don’t typically love books that are mostly flashbacks, but this was well done, with one chapter on each person entwined with chapters about the main survivor in present day.

The @goodreads challenge has been a fun way to keep track of the books I read and analyze the types of books I enjoy as well as discard. These are the best and worst books I read in 2018. @MelEdits  Click To Tweet

Best Memoirs of 2018

I love a good memoir. In fact, I read 16 memoirs out of 52 books this year. Here are my three favorite.

1. “Educated” by Tara Westover (published in 2018). I’m not the only one to put this at the top of the best books this year. Westover’s remarkable life is matched by her storytelling. She shares with us her shocking, extreme fundamentalist upbringing—she never attended school and wasn’t even home-schooled, and her parents did not believe in doctors or medicine that wasn’t her mom’s herbal concoctions. Her dad was paranoid and was constantly prepping for the end of days. It’s sadly fascinating to see how all of this affected each of the seven children differently.

2. “I’ll Be Gone in the Dark” by Michelle McNamara (published in 2018). I’m cheating a bit to call this a memoir because it’s a true crime account of the Golden State Killer. But it’s also a memoir of a writer obsessed with the case, and it’s easy to argue that that obsession is what led to her early death. I’ve read a lot of true crime and psychological thrillers, but this book is terrifying. I read this before the killer was caught later this year, and just knowing he was still out there (even though he was likely an elderly man and lived across the country) made me want to sleep with the lights on. Because McNamara died before finishing the book, some of it, especially the last section, was put together by a researcher friend and an investigative journalist friend. But that only strengthened my curiosity and desire to know who the killer was. I was not surprised when DNA led them to arrest a suspect this year. I was so enthralled in the case that I would have been more surprised if he had already died. He felt just too real and too scary to not still be out there.

3. “Born a Crime” by Trevor Noah (published in 2016). Noah’s story of growing up in apartheid and post-apartheid South Africa is fascinating and horrifying. This is not the apartheid you may have read about or remember as it fell. Born to a white father and black mother, Noah’s existence was illegal. He struggled to fit in anywhere. While the book is funny at times, you wouldn’t guess Noah is a comedian because this is not a “here’s all the funny stories about my life” book. This is a smart, straightforward account—and a tribute to his strong, amazing mother—of his bizarre childhood.

Most Disappointing Books of 2018

These four books were ones I was greatly looking forward to—and even pre-ordered each of them—because of their authors’ past record. While I finished all four, I did not enjoy them, and I was frustrated at the end.

1. “The Great Alone” by Kristin Hannah (published in 2018). Hannah’s “The Nightingale” is one of my favorite books in the last few years. But “The Great Alone” was a huge disappointment. The story started out too slow, and I never connected with the 13-year-old main character. I also admit to getting frustrated reading about a family led by such a violent man. I just wanted him gone and didn’t want to read about him anymore.

2. “Force of Nature” by Jane Harper (published in 2018). I loved Harper’s debut novel, “The Dry,” so I was really looking forward to her second novel. But I found this highly disappointing. The character Aaron Falk is in her first mesmerizing, cinematic book, but neither he nor any of the other characters are fleshed out here. Everyone was one-dimensional, plus of the five women who went on this nature retreat, nearly all of them were unlikeable.

3. “The Flight Attendant” by Chris Bohjalian (published in 2018). Bohjalian is easily one of my favorite authors, and I read everything he writes. But this one really missed the mark for me. I did not care about the main character or what happened to her, and I was bored with the plot.

4. “A Spark of Light” by Jodi Picoult (published in 2018). I have read all of Picoult’s books and always look forward to them. But I was so disappointed and frustrated with this book. There are two main problems: the structure and the politics. The book is told in reverse. We jump into the middle of a hostage scene at a reproductive health center that provides abortions. We don’t know what is happening or who each character is. I am guessing that is meant to mimic the confusion and fear of the actual hostage situation, but all it means is that I already know who is dead, who the hostage taker/murderer is and who the hostages are—and yet I don’t know them as people, so I am not that invested in their lives or what is happening. Then, the book goes in reverse, telling us about each person and how they got there. It takes away all the suspense. The other main problem: Picoult tries so hard to cover all sides of the abortion debate, providing facts and figures and explaining procedures, that it comes across as too clinical in parts, instead of being an engrossing novel.

Worst Books of 2018

If I truly hate a book, I give myself permission to stop reading it. These were four books many people love that I started and abandoned this year.

1. “What Alice Forgot” by Liane Moriarty (published in 2010). With so much attention on “Big Little Lies” the past few years, I thought I would try out Moriarty. I was intrigued by the plot of this one: Alice bumps her head and wakes up thinking she’s 29. But she’s really 39, with three kids, about to be divorced and living a life she would never have wanted or guessed for herself. But the writing seemed like a comedic beach read. The tone didn’t match the seriousness of the plot, and I felt discombobulated.

2. “Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI” by David Grann (published in 2017). So many people raved about this book, and I’m fascinated by the topic. But the writing felt like reading a textbook, without the narrative storytelling that great non-fiction books excel at.

3. “Sourdough” by Robin Sloan (published in 2017). This book made me realize I don’t like quirky.

4. “Bel Canto” by Ann Patchett (published in 2005). I’ve heard so many good things about Patchett’s writing that I decided to give it a try. I even pushed myself to read 50 pages, about 30 more than I wanted to. But I did not care for all the internal monologue and I didn’t care about the privileged man who starts the book. In short, I was bored.

And there’s my dissertation on the best and worst books I read this year. What did you read and love? What was disappointing to you?

Happy reading in 2019!

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