I read SO many wonderful books in 2018, it was hard to narrow this list down! But after a lot of thought, here are my 10 favorite books of 2018.
Middlemarch by George Eliot
Dorthea Brooke longs to do something great in her life that will allow her to make the world better. She imagines herself marrying a man who will do something famous, a man like Pascal or Milton. Or Edward Casaubon, a neighbor who is working on the Key to All Mythologies. Dorthea marries him, full of idealistic dreams, and quickly is disappointed. She then must grapple with her ideas and ideals, trying to understand how she can fill her new role as Mrs. Casaubon.
Tertius Lydgate is a young doctor just arrived in Middlemarch with dreams of making some kind of medical advance. He is a good doctor, but not the best judge of character. He marries Rosamond Vincy, a beautiful, and ultimately vain and selfish woman, and finds that to keep her happy, he might have to change his own plans for his future.
Middlemarch is about much more than these characters; the cast is large and the story really is about the town of Middlemarch. Eliot’s themes focus on questions of religion and vocation, and of the importance of doing our best to know the other souls who live around us. Dorthea, for example, must learn how she can pour her religious idealism and passion into making her own time a better place. Eliot suggests that had Dorthea been born in a different time or place, she might have joined a convent and done great religious work, becoming another Saint Theresa of Avila. But that path is not open to her in early Victorian England, so Dorthea must discover what path is available. The tragedy of Rosamond is that she does not wish to try to understand other people; they should know what she wants, and deliver it. But in the few moments where she does put herself in someone else’s shoes, she effects great good.
Eliot’s brilliance is in her characters. They are real, vivid, and wonderfully rounded. The characters you like have serious flaws, the characters you dislike have good qualitites. Her descriptions and meditations and comments are brilliant, vivid, and often humorous. Middlemarch really is one of the greatest novels I’ve ever read.
The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon
Joe Kavalier moves to New York, fleeing Prague from the encroaching Nazi threat at the last possible second. He there meets his cousin, Sam Clay, who is about his age. Sam is an ideas guy, and when he realizes Joe can draw, he spots their opportunity: With his stories and Joe’s drawing, they can start writing a comic book together. In 1930s New York, the Golden Age of comic books is just getting underway, and Joe and Sammy are on the ground floor of the phenomenon.
While the story does follow their business and creative successes (and failures, and setbacks), Kavalier and Clay is really about the two boys. Quiet and intense, Joe falls in love with Rosa, and also struggles with anxiety over his family’s situation back in Europe, and eventually develops survivor’s guilt. Sam is enthusiastic, outgoing, and friendly with everyone, but begins to realize that he’s not attracted to women.
The novel follows these two cousins over roughly twenty years, as their experiences in the first few years of their partnership have long waves. I really loved the characters, and loved watching them grow from their late teens to middle age. Chabon did a marvelous job of allowing his characters to grow and age without becoming something different from themselves. It was a marvelous story, and well deserving of the Pulitzer Prize.
The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Brontë
Gilbert Markham is a young English gentleman farmer. His little community is set to gossiping when the beautiful and secretive Helen Graham and her son move into Wildfell Hall, the old home of the area’s squire. Gilbert and Helen become friends, but when rumors begin to spread about her, Gilbert asks Helen for the truth. She gives him her journal to read, and what follows is the account of a young woman who believes she can change her husband, but learns how wrong she is. Helen’s husband is verbally abusive, an alcoholic, and an adulterer. The story is really Helen’s; the bulk of the book is about her experience coming to terms with her horrible marriage and working out how she can deal with her marriage while still holding true to her own personal principles. I didn’t always agree with Helen’s perspective, but I could always admire her. It is a marvelous story. I read it quickly, staying up until the wee hours to finish it, something I rarely do with classic fiction. I believe this is one of, if not the first English novel to address topics like alcoholism and terrible marriages, and even though so many things have (thankfully) changed, I think its treatment of these topics is very timely.
(Also, fun fact: Anne had heavily researched the medical and psychological impact of alcoholism and the book is very accurate based on the latest research of her time)
The Four Quartets by T.S. Eliot
This is a long poem divided into – you guessed it – four quartets, each named after a place: “Burnt Norton,” “East Corker,” “The Dry Salvages,” and “Little Gidding.” I had studied “Burnt Norton” in an Eliot class, but hadn’t read the rest of the quartet, and this really isn’t a work that should be read in pieces. In October, I picked it up and slowly worked my way through it over a weekend, reading and re-reading each section as I went along.
This is also not a poem for beginner poetry readers. I love Eliot, and have read a lot of his works. All of them are challenging, and this one is a doozy. That said, it was absolutely worth working through, and is a poem that I’ll understand better each time I read it. I’m not quite sure I can really describe the poem; it has a narrative I can’t repeat, themes I only vaguely grasp. It’s elusive and slippery on purpose, and makes more sense on reflection, at a distance, than while you’re actually reading it. I think that Eliot is mainly trying to make sense of incarnational time. How can an event in time also be out-of-time and for all time? Really, such a complicated topic deserves a complicated poem.
So why did it make my top 10 list? Because I’m so proud of myself for wrestling through it and beginning to understand. And because it is a stunning poem. Even if you’re not quite sure what he means, exactly, Eliot’s use of language is beautiful, evocative, and so, so skilled.
The Odyssey by Homer, translated by Emily Wilson
This is one of the oldest works of Western literature, and Wilson’s translation gives it a freshening that I think it really needed.
The poem follows Odysseus, trying to get home from the Trojan war. He is blown off course, and then angers Poseidon, making it a really hard task, one that ultimately takes ten years. On the journey, he meets all kinds of mythical characters and challenges, many of which are still part of our cultural vocabulary (Circe, the Sirens, the Cyclops…). The story also follows his wife, Penelope, and son, Telemachus, who are waiting for Odysseus to come home. A host of suitors, sure Odysseus is dead, want to marry Penelope, and they are rudely eating them out of house and home.
I’ve read this story before, but never imagined it would make my top 10 list. Wilson’s translation is just fantastic. She has dispensed with the traditionally highfalutin’ language and padded descriptions in favor of a lean, fast-paced, but still beautiful translation. I was amazed by how quickly I read this, and how much I enjoyed it; even sections I had previously found tedious were now entertaining. Furthermore, Wilson chose to let her translation reveal the “problematic” elements of the Odyssey; for example, instead of quietly translating various words as “servant” or “maiden” or so on, she uses the more accurate term: “slave.” Several translators had also chosen adjectives with negative connotations to make certain characters seem worse than the original portrayed to make the protagonists look better; Wilson refrains, instead pointing out the moral ambiguities of the poem in her introduction.
Speaking of the introduction, that section, and the translator’s note, were very informative and worth reading. I also appreciated that her notes in the back contained a summary of each book (chapter); very helpful for first (or second or third) time readers.
Circe by Madeline Miller
This novel is difficult to summarize without spoilers, so I’ll just say that it follows the life of Circe, from before her birth to — the end of the book (she’s immortal, you know, and #spoilers). Circe grows up in the palace of her father, Hyperion, generally ignored until she discovers she has a different kind of power from the other immortals. Her ability to control the qualities of plants and manipulate the natural world earns her the title witch and banishment to a solitary island. The turning point of the novel, although not the climax or the end, comes when Odysseus and his crew visit her.
This is really a story about identity. Circe doesn’t really fit anywere, and, forced to be alone, she slowly, over a long time, comes to understand and accept herself. Miller’s knowledge of mythology and the ancient world is scholarly and extensive, and as a result although this is essentially a mythology re-imagining, it feels very real and very grounded. And Miller’s prose is just gorgeous.
The Bedlam Stacks by Natasha Pulley
Merrick Tremayne has been invalided out of the British East India Company, where he was a botanist and basically a smuggler. But he is asked to join one last expedition to Peru to recover Cinocha cuttings. The Company is having problems with malaria in India, and wants to begin a plantaion there so that they have easy access to quinine, the only cure for the disease. Merrick is asked to go not only because of his prior experience, but also because his family has connections to a Peruvian town called New Bethlehem. When Merrick arrives in New Bethlehem, he begins to learn what those connections are, and discovers the world is a little more magical than he thought.
This is another book where the characters are the biggest draw. While there is plenty of action in The Bedlam Stacks, it is Merrick and Raphael who kept me reading. I love this genre, historical fiction with just a touch of magical realism, and this one was the best of the three or four I read last year. It was, overall, a lovely story with lovely writing, and I can’t wait to see what Pulley does next.
The Tiger and the Wolf by Adrian Tchaikovsky
This fantasy novel is the beginning of a series. Maniye is the daughter of a Wolf chieftan and the Tiger queen he had killed after Maniye was born. In this fantasy world, the Iron Wolves control the Crown of the World, and Maniye’s father, a secondary chief, has his eye on the head chief role. When Maniye learns that he plans to marry her to the man who killed her mother as part of his plan for personal advancement, she runs away. In her running, Maniye meets many people, both from the Crown of the World and from the Sun River Nation to the south. As it turns out, there may be something much bigger brewing…
The aspect of this book that sold me was the world building. It is so incredibly nuanced and unique; I’m constantly blown away. Tchaikovsky has considered his world down to the metals used in weapons and the different cultural habits of each tribe. In this world, each person is born with a human and an animal soul, which is determined by their birth. So, the members of the Wolf can shapeshift into wolves, the Deer into deer, the Bear into bear, and so on. But Maniye has two souls, Tiger and Wolf, a fact she works hard to keep secret, and one which might tear her apart.
I will say that the plot and the characterization in this book was weaker than many of the others listed here, although still very good. Also, the story took a while to get going. In the end, the worldbuilding more than made up for any flaws. At the moment, I’m reading the sequel, and so far enjoying it even more.
Strange the Dreamer/Muse of Nightmares by Laini Taylor
I’m cheating a little and counting these two books as one, since they are essentially two halves of the same story.
Lazlo Strange is an orphan who works in his country’s national library and learns all he can about the maybe-mythical city of Weep. Hundreds of years ago, this city was an important one in the world, but then suddenly all contact with and from it vanished. When Lazlo was a child, the name of the city also disappeared, and people took to calling it Weep.
One day, a delegation from Weep arrive at the library, looking for help to a particular problem. Lazlo is thrilled, and although he isn’t picked to be one of those who are brought to Weep to work on the problem, his knowledge of the language and the friendship he develops with the leader, Eril-fane, leads to his inclusion.
Lazlo’s history and all that I’ve described takes about the first third of Strange the Dreamer, and to talk about any more would be too spoilery. Suffice it to say that what had caused Weep’s problems, and what causes problems still, is not what anyone expected, and Lazlo is more helpful than he imagined. Muse of Nightmares picks up exactly where Strange left off, and finishes the story.
Weep’s history is marked by violence and subjugation, from which they were only recently freed, and memories are long. The fear, hatred, and sorrow caused by their past is still fresh, and while the delegates are brought to solve a practical problem, it is this emotional problem that the book is more concerned with. Can a cycle of hatred and vengeance be broken after so much suffering? And how?
Taylor’s writing is beautiful, and these were definitely my favorite YA books from this year (and the only ones to make my top 10). While not perfect, I liked that she tackled themes that are important and relevant, and did it in a way that was nuanced and compassionate. Lazlo is the hero, but his heroism is that of a kind man, a loving human, not a warrior. Love and communication, understanding and kindness are what win the day, and we desperately need more of those things.
Sabriel by Garth Nix
I kind of picked this book up on a whim at the used bookstore, and then immediately kicked myself for not grabbing the rest of the trilogy. This is another fantasy, of the old-fashioned kind.
Although from the Old Kingdom, Sabriel has grown up at a bording school in Ancelstierre, which is a (mostly) non-magical realm that feels like Edwardian or early 1920s England. At school, she has learned a little magic, and her father, the Abhorsen, has taught her more. When he fails to visit on her eighteenth birthday, Sabriel realizes something is wrong, and travels to the Old Kingdom for the first time to find him. She quickly discovers that even with her training, the Old Kingdom is very different from the world she knows, and that her father’s disappearance is even more serious than she had imagined. Joined by a talking cat named Mogget and a man named Touchstone, she journeys through the kingdom-without-a-king to find her father.
This is such a wonderful fantasy. It doesn’t try to do anything too wild, but is itself very well. The Charter Magic and the Old Kingdom are well drawn and still, months later, the world is very vivid to me. I love Mogget so much, and Sabriel is admirable for her determination, her kindness, her willingness to grow.
The story’s themes include friendship and life and death, and it does get a little dark at times. But because it is a good-and-evil story, I was okay with that darkness, which is never glorified. It was just so satisfying and enjoyable to read, and is one of those books I wish I had discovered ten years ago. I have since bought the rest of the trilogy, and am excited to dive back into this world.
I am interested by the fact that, although the largest percentage of my reading last year was YA, there are only two YA books on this list (Strange and Muse). The rest are from the adult age category, and consist of an old favorite genre (fantasy) (2), classics (4), and a surprising number of more literary works (3). I’m looking forward to seeing how my reading develops in 2019.
Have you read any of these books? What were your favorite reads in 2018? Let me know in the comments!
Most of the pictures here (except the cover-only images) are from my Instagram account WiththeClassics. If you haven’t already, go check it out!