What I Read in 2018, Part 2

I read twelve books in 2018 that I really liked. Female authors are heavily represented in this list. I know I said in the last post that one male author would make an appearance on this list, but I decided at the last minute to add a few more books, so there are actually two and a half men. The half is because of Charles Todd, who is actually a mother/son writing team.

So here they are, in kind of an eclectic arrangement.

The two novels that had the most interesting structures to go along with their stories were

I loved the way Louisa Hall got into the life of J. Robert Oppenheimer.


I know everyone was talking about this book last year. I avoided it for a while because of all the hype, worried that it wouldn’t live up to it. I liked it, especially Saunders’s style.

Two other works of historical fiction I really liked were

A lovely take on the civil rights movement.

Transcription: A Novel by [Atkinson, Kate]

Nice World War II spy drama, though the twist didn’t quite work for me.

My two favorite family stories were

Stunning characters.


I have to admit I picked up Lee’s book for its brilliant cover, but I stayed for the story.

The rest of my favorites were the latest installments in mystery series that I follow.

Paretsky is still at the top of her game.

The most chilling title of the year.

The Maisie Dobbs series keeps getting better because of Winspear’s excellent work with character development.

Ian Rutledge is still a favorite character.

I never not want to know what Peter Ash is up to.

Ah, that little village.

Up next, nonfiction of 2018.




What I Read in 2018, Part I

2018 proved to be an interesting year for reading. For me, it was not a year of lots of totally amazing books, but I did read lots of good books. My 2018 books are the ones I read in 2018, though they may not have been published that year.

Today’s post is about the novels I rated with 5 stars on GoodReads. That means I found them exceptional and continued to think about them long after I finished reading.

Image result for 5 stars

A few observations about these 5-star novels. First, all the authors are women. This isn’t unusual for me. Many years ago I began making a conscious effort to read more women, and now it’s a rare thing for me to pick up a book by a man. I haven’t been doing all that great with racial diversity, though I’m trying to be more conscious of that, too.

Second, all but one of the 5-star novels is a work of historical fiction. This also isn’t unusual. I love historical fiction, and it’s always my go-to choice for reading.

Third–and this is unusual–I gave 5 stars to only four novels this year. Most years I’ve struggled to keep it to a manageable ten, but there was a real dearth of novels I truly adored this year. But as you’ll see in the next post, I liked many novels.

So, what are those four great books? Here they are, in the order in which I read them.

Image result for an american marriage

New York Times bestseller, Oprah’s book club–Tayari Jones’s stellar novel deserves every accolade it garnered. Brilliant characters, expert plotting. A lovely, haunting novel about the possibilities and limits of love and marriage.

I don’t know why it took me so long to find this book. Maybe I noticed it because of this year’s big anniversary of the publication of Little Women. Kelly McNees did a wonderful job of re-imagining a part of Louisa May Alcott’s life without turning the historical Alcott into an ahistorical character. I’m very, very picky about historical fiction that features a recognizable historical person, and McNees hit all the right notes.

White Houses by Amy Bloom

Ironically, Kelly McNees also published a novel this year about Eleanor Roosevelt and Lorena Hickok, called Undiscovered Country. I haven’t read it yet because I want to put a lot of distance between that and Amy Bloom’s incredible novel that delves into the same relationship. I didn’t want this book to end. After all the nonfiction accounts I’ve read of Roosevelt, Bloom’s fictional version makes her come alive.

I had no intention of reading this novel. All the hype made me suspicious, and I’m not a big fan of dual timeline plots. But it was on the new book shelf at the library, so I figured I might as well give it a try. It is marvelous story about the far-reaching consequences of the AIDS crisis, and it’s sad and a bit sentimental without being sappy or mawkish.

Next up, a longer list of novels that I liked. (One male author makes an appearance.)



Part VI: Best Books I Read in 2016

I first read Jane Eyre when I was about 12 years old. My grandmother had sent my parents home with stacks of old books that had been moldering in her basement. I was intrigued by the hefty, no-frills volume: plain green cover, no illustrations, funky smell. I loved the heroine’s name. I loved the story.

The title page to the original publication of Jane Eyre, including Brontë's pseudonym "Currer Bell".

I’ve reread Jane Eyre several times since then. I’ve read other Brontë novels and I’ve read up on the Brontë sisters. I’ve also been fascinated, and usually delighted, with how contemporary authors have reworked Jane’s story.

Mystery writer Joanna Slan wrote a pair of novels that continued Jane’s story after she married Rochester–and took up amateur sleuthing.

In Patricia Park’s reimagining, Jane is a half-Korean half-American orphan living in modern day Flushing, Queens.

In 2016, one of my favorite Jane Eyre-inspired novels was:

Jane Steele is every bit as strong-willed as Jane Eyre (and the former is also aware of the latter), but she is determined to secure an inheritance she believes is rightly hers. Steele doesn’t hesitate to deal decisively with people who’ve wronged her. This is a wonderfully inventive story.

Another very good novel that I read in 2016 that featured a vengeful woman was:

The young Englishwoman Mary Jebb swears to pay back the man she holds responsible for her arrest and subsequent deportation to Australia in the late 1700s. The novel has a great Gothic vibe and some pretty interesting recipes.

Tomorrow: strong entries in long-running mystery series.

Part V: Best Books I Read in 2016

Yesterday I revealed my favorite book from 2016, the lyrical, haunting:

Image result for thomas jefferson dreams of sally hemings

Slavery is at the heart of that story, and it takes center stage in two other novels I really liked in 2016.

The first is:

Image result for underground airlines ben winters

Winters, who’s already made a name for himself as the author of the fine The Last Policeman trilogy, chillingly imagines a United States in which slavery has survived into contemporary times. The “Hard Four” states are determined never to give it up, and the federal government is required to support these states, including assisting with the retrieval of fugitive slaves. Victor, a successful bounty hunter, pursues a runaway called Jackdaw and finds much more than he’d ever imagined. Though Winters wrapped up this story line, it’s clear this has series potential.

The second is:

National Book Award winner, New York Times bestseller, Oprah’s book club–Whitehead’s book has had quite a year. Historical fiction with a wash of steampunk, Whitehead’s underground railroad is an actual train beneath the surface that carries runaways North. Cora, fleeing from a Georgia plantation, makes stops along the way, in locations that seem to offer some version of freedom.

If you can manage, it would be fascinating to read all three of these books one after the other. The horrors of slavery will never leave you.

Tomorrow: two works of historical fiction that feature women and revenge.


Part IV: Best Books I Read in 2016

Judging by the historical novels I normally gravitate towards, my favorite book from 2016 shouldn’t appear on this “Best” list. It’s the kind of book more likely to end up on one of my “Worst” lists.

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My favorite novel of 2016 focuses on real-life historical figures, my least favorite kind of historical fiction. And one of those figures is a founding father. In my own real life as an academic historian, I haven’t leapt on the founding father bandwagon to devour big, bulky biographies of the men who kickstarted this country. And though I’ve heard some of the songs, I haven’t listened to the entirety of Hamilton or schemed to score a couple of tickets.

I still hold a grudge because those guys couldn’t see that the “course of human events” involved so much more than white men.

The first couple times I saw this novel–the one that turned out to be my favorite–on the library shelf, I passed it by. I looked at the title, winced, and left it there. Then one day I decided to add it to my check-out pile. It was a library book. It didn’t cost me anything. If I got frustrated with the first few pages, I’d just return it.

I didn’t get frustrated. I became mesmerized. This is the novel I think about more than any other from 2016:

Image result for thomas jefferson dreams of sally hemings

In my reading, O’Connor doesn’t romanticize what happened between Jefferson and Hemings, nor does he reduce Hemings to a one-dimensional victim.

The two best reviews I’ve read of the novel come from the always astute Ron Charles and the novelist Jean Zimmerman.

Charles concluded his review:

“Ultimately, this is a book in vigorous debate with itself, just as strange and contradictory as the author of the Declaration of Independence. With its magically engineered collection of fiction, history and fantasy, and particularly with its own capacious spirit, Thomas Jefferson Dreams of Sally Hemings doesn’t just knock Jefferson off his pedestal, it blows us over, too, shatters the whole sinner-saint debate and clears out new room to reconsider these two impossibly different people who once gave birth to the United States. It’s heartbreaking. It’s cathartic. It’s utterly brilliant.”

Here, Zimmerman highlights Sally Hemings:

“…after reading this novel I would love to know Sally Hemings…. She is one of history’s numberless mystery women, but she comes thoroughly and thrillingly alive in O’Connor’s telling.”

History is full of “numberless mystery women.” My fascination with them is the reason I so admire O’Connor’s novel.

Check back tomorrow, when I recommend two novels about slavery.