BRL Best Books of 2018

Some of you may remember that I keep a paper book journal in addition to my Goodreads account for book tracking. When I read a book that particularly moves me I give it a star in my paper journal, which equals a five-star rating on Goodreads. As I looked over my 2018 reading I realized that TWENTY books had rated a star this year! So I had some choices to make as it came time to make my Top Ten List for the year. Without further ado, here are my favorite books of 2018. (Note: I’m a huge backlist reader so not all of these books were published this year.)

In no particular order:

  • The Book of Joy: Lasting Happiness in a Changing World by Dalai Lama XIV, Desmond Tutu, Douglas Carlton Abrams (2016). This was a life-affirming, uplifting audio book that truly inspired me. I learned a lot about the friendship between the Dalai Lama and Bishop Tutu, and how each man approaches life’s challenges with grace and equanimity.
  • How Many Miles to Babylon? by Jennifer Johnston (1974.) Set in Ireland in WWI, this beautifully written novella explores the growing friendship between a young member of the landed gentry and one of the workers on his family’s estate as they both set off to fight in the war. Truly moving with a devastating ending.
  • An American Marriage by Tayari Jones (2018.) Just a gorgeous, emotionally probing book about two people who fell in love with the best of intentions – and then life throws them a horrific curveball that reverberates for years. It’s a beautifully told relationship story with well-drawn, believable characters. Unforgettable.
  • Kitchens of the Great Midwest by J. Ryan Stradal (2015.) What a surprise! A book that had been on my TBR list for a few years and I’m so glad I decided to read it. It was one of those absorbing reads that made me want to ignore my family for a few days. Linked short stories, all centering in some way around the character of Eva, a young woman in Minnesota with a passion and a gift for cooking. Foodies will love it, but anyone who just wants a good story will enjoy it too.
  • Born A Crime: Stories From a South African Childhood by Trevor Noah (2016.) The BEST AUDIO BOOK I’VE EVER LISTENED TO. Funny, surprising, illuminating, moving. I learned so much about South African history through this story of Noah’s unlikely existence. I can’t say enough good things about it. It’s one I would read (or listen to) again for sure.
  • Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin (1956.) This novel is exquisitely written and emotionally tough. A portrait of a man utterly in denial about who he truly is. David, a young, rootless, white American living in Paris in the 1950’s, has a fiancee he’s running away from when he meets a handsome Italian waiter and falls in love. His denial sets off a tragic chain of events for everyone involved. Baldwin is a genius! I intend to read everything he’s written.
  • The Library Book by Susan Orlean (2018.) I recently wrote about this one, but it’s just a gem of a nonfiction book, about the importance of libraries today and Orlean’s emotional connection to them through her late mother, as well as a gripping true-crime account of the devastating library fire in L.A.’s Central Library in 1986. Lots going on here, but Orlean weaves all the strands together beautifully.
  • Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman (2017.) That rare super-hyped novel that is worthy of all the praise. What starts off as a quirky portrait of a lonely young woman who doesn’t connect well with other human beings becomes a moving and warm-hearted novel about unexpected connections and the capacity for change and growth. A lovely book that I will definitely read again someday.
  • Brother by David Chariandy (2018, first published in Canada and the UK 2017.) Not one word wasted in this slim but powerful novel about two brothers growing up in a poor, multi-cultural part of Toronto in the 1980’s. There is tragedy here but there is also terrific beauty and great love, especially in the character of the boys’ Trinidadian immigrant mother, who works herself to the bone to provide for her sons and tried to give them a better life. I just adored this.
  • The Sun Does Shine: How I Found Life and Freedom on Death Row by Anthony Ray Hinton (2018.) Another book I recently read and can’t stop talking about – thank you Oprah! Hinton’s ridiculous sham of a trial for crimes he didn’t commit will make you angry, and his emotional journey living on death row in Alabama for 30 years will move you, inspire you, and make you question your beliefs about the death penalty.

51mPEE0qUtL._SX336_BO1,204,203,200_Honorable Mention: Anything is Possible by Elizabeth Strout (2017.)  Linked short stories, a companion piece to Strout’s My Name is Lucy Barton. Spare prose and heartbreaking, real characters in small town middle America. Strout is a hell of a writer.

 It’s been such a good reading year. Have you read any of the books on my list? Do any of these pique your interest?

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BRL Best of 2017 and Year End Reflections

It’s that time again, friends, when we’re all taking stock of our reading and making plans for next year.  This has been a good reading year for me overall, although I didn’t fulfill many of the goals I set for myself at the year’s beginning.  I still read some enlightening and entertaining books, participated in the #AnneReadalong2017, the R.I.P. Challenge and Reading Ireland Month, and hit a new Goodreads Challenge goal!  So without further adieu, here is my Best of 2017 list (in no particular order.)

  1.  Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders.  Moving and inventive, unlike anything else I’ve ever read.  Saunders is a master of the human heart and a risk-taker.  I will read anything he writes.
  2. The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead.  Searing, violent, suspenseful, and unforgettable.  Whitehead’s finest work to date.
  3. At Mrs. Lippincote’s by Elizabeth Taylor.  A witty, melancholy novel WWII British marriage and motherhood with a feisty heroine.  I’m delighted to have finally discovered Taylor.
  4. My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout.  Some have loved this, some haven’t, but for me it was beautiful and devastating in the best sense.
  5. The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas.  A young black heroine teens can relate to, a realistic and loving family, and a heartbreaking exploration of police brutality in a poor African American community.  I’m thrilled this has become a best seller and is being made into a movie.
  6. The Stranger in the Woods by Michael Finkel.  My only nonfiction to have made the list.  I just adored this slim, page-turning book about a real-life hermit in Maine who survived the elements and eluded capture for decades.
  7. The Watsons Go To Birmingham 1963 by Christopher Paul Curtis.  A gem, a book I recommend for everyone.  Warm, funny, and heartbreaking all at once.  A great way to introduce a very heavy topic (the Civil Rights Movement and the Birmingham church bombing) to younger readers.  I listened to the audiobook and it was terrific.
  8. Exit West by Mohsin Hamid.  I was captivated by this slim novel that mixed fantasy, dystopian, and contemporary literary fiction elements to create a moving exploration of love and war in an unsettled age.
  9. Anne of the Island by L.M. Montgomery.  The third book in the series, this one focuses on Anne at college.  I loved reading about her being on her own and making friends, having fun before settling down into a more conventional role.
  10. Rilla of Ingleside by L.M. Montgomery.  The last book in the series, I was take by surprise by how much I loved it.  Darker than the rest, I was enthralled and moved by how the women of the community rose up to meet the challenges of World War I and the emotional toil of sending beloved sons and brothers overseas.

As for the numbers, here are my final reading stats for 2017:

Total books read (as of 12/27/17:) 90

Fiction: 77

Nonfiction: 12

Poetry: 1

Mysteries/Thrillers: 13

Graphic Novels/Comics: 3

Audiobooks: 6

Authors of Color: 18

Middle Grade: 15

YA/Teen: 11

Rereads: 7

Goals I Completed:

Read 6 YA books.

Read 6 middle grade books.

Choose 6 “random” reads.  I was trying to inject more “whimsy” into my reading life.

Goals I Didn’t Complete:

Authors of Color at 35% or higher.  Nope.  I only read a measly 20%.

Authors in Translation.  Not a one.  UGH.

There were other goals I didn’t complete but those were the biggest ones and I won’t bore you with the others.  As I’ve mentioned before, I am a mood reader, I hate reading off of a list (even one I make myself!), and I just don’t do well with self-imposed goals.  (I’m definitely an Obliger, if you follow Gretchen Rubin’s Four Tendencies personality framework.)  Which makes sense that I was able to complete my challenges and readalongs, because those all involved OUTER accountability.  Anyway, next year I am setting NO READING GOALS whatsoever.  I am just going to enjoy reading whatever I want, wherever my curiosity takes me.  I may participate in readalongs and challenges, I may not.

So, how about your own reading goals for 2017?  Any that you’re proud of reaching, or sorry that you didn’t reach?  Have you read any of my Top Ten?  What did you think? Talk to me in the comments below! 

 

 

Big Reading Life Best of 2015

It’s time for another Best Of list!  Do you ever get tired of reading those?  I don’t, actually.  It’s fun to see what really got people excited in 2015.  Last year, when I began Big Reading Life, I only included books that were published in 2014.  This year, I decided to go with my ten favorite reading experiences of the year, no matter when the book was published.

Here we go!  (In no particular order, and with a one word review:)

A Brief History of Seven Killings – Marlon James.  Masterful.

We Have Always Lived in the Castle – Shirley Jackson.  Classic.

My Salinger Year – Joanna Rakoff.  Nostalgic.

Fates and Furies – Lauren Groff.  Fierce.IMG_2076

Dietland – Sarai Walker.  Subversive.

Between the World and Me – Ta-Nehisi Coates.  Powerful.

The Shelf: From LEQ to LES: Adventures in Extreme Reading -Phyllis Rose.  Fun.

A God in Ruins – Kate Atkinson.  Heartbreaking.

Dept. of Speculation – Jenny Offill.  Raw.

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian – Sherman Alexie.  Just read it.  (Okay, that’s more than one word, but this YA novel is everything – hopeful, hilarious, heartbreakingly sad – it’s got it all and you just have to read it.)

Goodreads tells me I read 77 books this year.  Of those, 17 were written by authors of color.  My main reading goal this year was to increase my numbers from a paltry 7 titles last year.  So 17 is better than 7, but it’s still only 22% of the total.  Room for improvement.

I didn’t re-read Middlemarch, nor did I complete Love in the Time of Cholera, which were my other stated reading goals.  I tried with the Garcia Marquez, but it just didn’t hold my attention.  It happens!

As you look back on your own reading year, I hope you accomplished some of your reading goals, and if you didn’t… well, I hope you enjoyed the journey anyway!  I certainly did!

 

 

 

Favorite Books of 2014

There are so many books from 2014 I haven’t yet read, like A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James, The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters, and All the Light We Can Not See by Anthony Doerr.  I look forward to reading those soon – they look amazing. But these are my ten best for 2014:

1. Station Eleven – Emily St. John Mandel

2. The Southern Reach Trilogy (Annihilation, Authority, and Acceptance) – Jeff VanderMeer.

3. All Joy and No Fun: The Paradox of Modern Parenthood – Jennifer Senior

4. Bad Feminist – Roxane Gay

5. Brown Girl Dreaming – Jacqueline Woodson

6. Yes Please – Amy Poehler

7. Stone Mattress – Margaret Atwood

8. The Vacationers – Emma Straub

9. The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry – Gabrielle Zevin

10. Little Failure – Gary Shteyngart

The first two on the list are some of my very favorite reading experiences ever. Station Eleven is just luminous – gorgeous writing and a compelling story.  It deserves all the hype and praise it’s received.  And then some.  It will be a book I re-read in the years to come. The Southern Reach Trilogy is just… awesome.  Imagine X-Files meets LOST.  Mind-bending, thought-provoking, page-turning.  It totally opened up a new world of sci-fi-ish reading for me.

Anybody else have some favorites from 2014?