My favorite books in 2018

Goodreads says I read 41 books this year. I’m going to pick 10 of my favorites, just because, hey, 10 is a nice round number. I’ll even helpfully divvy them up by genre. Interestingly enough, my favorites were fairly evenly divided among these three categories; some years, that’s not the case. I’m linking each to my review on my website, Rated Reads, where you can get the full review and my content rating on each.

So here goes:


The 7 1/2 Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle: On occasion, a book comes along you just don’t want to spend much time trying to describe because you don’t want to give anything away about the original way it’s set up. This novel about a murder with a “Groundhog Day”-like twist and a man trying to stop it from happening — even though it already happened decades ago — was just plain cool. I couldn’t put it down.

coincidence makersThe Coincidence Makers: Here’s another book that’s utterly original and clever and about which I don’t want to give too much away. And it left me just sitting dumbfounded when I read the last page. I was in awe at the complexity of the story and how every piece fit together in ways I never saw coming. I thought the premise of the book was clever but I had no idea the direction the book would take, its tone and messages. The story had much to say about what love is, and I had to sit quietly and savor it all for a while.

Once Upon a River: Diane Setterfield’s third book doesn’t pack the surprise punch of what I consider a gold standard for gothic stories, her first novel, The Thirteenth Tale, but that’s OK. This story did have a feel to it of mystery, of the touch of the supernatural, but it’s more human and weighty, more well-rounded, and quite satisfying emotionally.

The Death of Mrs. Westaway: This was my introduction to author Ruth Ware, and I am a sucker for gothic tales (as is evidenced by my previous paragraph). The tale of a young woman in dire need of funds who can’t help but take the opportunity presented her to possibly finagle some from the estate of a recently deceased woman was good enough I’m going to be reading more of Ware’s books.

Young adult

Legendary (Caraval, book 2): The magical immersive game experience at the heart of this book and its predecessor promises/warns its participants that they will get swept away. That’s true also for readers. I lapped up every last little bit. Now awaiting another book in the set. Impatiently.

million junes

A Million Junes: I was moved by the loveliness of author Emily Henry’s The Love That Split the World, so I was eager to read this second book of hers. It’s a beautiful story about love and loss, about grief and vengeance and finally being able to let go. It’s said that the best fiction is the truest, and this story struck so many true chords. I loved the characters, their flaws and strengths, the wonderful heritage the main character carries with her because her father planted it in her through all his stories that were just a bit too outlandish to be completely true but somehow still were at their core. I loved all the bits of magic floating through the story while it still was grounded in reality.

Furyborn: In one era, a young queen with tremendous magical power brings her land to ruin. A thousand years later, a young bounty hunter is just trying to survive, but she gets pulled into a faction that’s rebelling against the ruthless leader of the empire. And the two women are somehow connected. I was blown away by this story. It raced along at high speed, and I could not put it down. The world of the book is fascinating; the two women are complex characters, facing complex dangers. The stakes are high and the action is practically nonstop through 500 jam-packed pages. I cannot wait for more; luckily, the sequel is coming fairly soon.


I’ll Be Gone in the Dark: One Woman’s Obsessive Search for the Golden State Killer: A true story not just of a rapist and killer who terrorized several areas in California, but the writer who spent years digging into the story and trying to solve the case. The writer died before finishing the book, and the alleged killer was caught just this year, shortly after publication. Compelling reading.

The Library Book: The story about a fire that ruined hundreds of thousands of books in Los Angeles Public Library, but also just a paean to books and libraries. Irresistible for book lovers, and doubly good in the masterful hands of writer Susan Orlean.

The Future of Humanity: What will happen when our planet (sooner rather than later) becomes uninhabitable? Michio Kaku explores the possibilities open to us in the next century and more. If you’re a science junkie, whether it’s astronomy, space travel, robotics, quantum physics or technology, this book is an absolute treat. Thought-provoking and even riveting.

Books that spark the imagination

It’s no secret I love to read. I am in awe of the amazing imagination of so many writers. But some books aren’t just imaginative in and of themselves; some actually stimulate and feed imaginative thought. For some reason, I’ve found these books tend to be ones aimed at middle readers (maybe it’s because that was a time in my life I felt most free to explore and imagine: now that might be another topic to consider). A couple of cases in point:

Chasing VermeerAnything by Blue Balliett. Reading her books is like attending a class for gifted students. I can say this because I myself had the privilege of going to special “gifted and talented” classes when I was in my middle-school years, and they were fun and fascinating and inspired us to think “outside the box.” I LOVED them. Balliett’s books feature protagonists who either attend a special school that focuses on inspiring kids to think differently while learning (in Chasing Vermeer, The Wright 3, and The Calder Game) or whose parents inspire them to imagine and think creatively (Hold Fast). She introduces all kinds of fun and interesting concepts to young readers, many of whom might not have had the opportunity to attend these kinds of enrichment classes. Her writing truly gets those brain juices flowing and makes all of the topics come alive, whether it’s art or architecture or the rhythms of poetry or the things you can do with pentominoes. She uses puzzles and riddles and hidden messages and makes readers do a little work, though it’s too fun to really think of it as such. Reading these books makes me feel like a kid again, set loose in a gifted-classroom setting.

The other book that gave me that same wonderful feeling is one a friend reviewed for my website, Rated Reads. As soon as I read the review of Chris Grabenstein’s Escape from Mr. Lemoncello’s Library, I knew I had to get a copy from my city library, first for my 11-year-old to read, and then for me to escape into.

LemoncelloThis one centered around the amazing resource that is a library, and it incorporated similar mind-expanding elements: riddles, puzzles, mysteries and clues to piece together. It featured the most amazing library that any kid (or kid at heart) could pretty much just live in, if given the opportunity. Just reading about the cool gadgets and state-of-the-art electronics incorporated into this fictional library made me almost drool with jealousy for the kids in the book who got to use it. And it features a rich, eccentric game-manufacturing benefactor who makes it all possible, á la Willy Wonka. Only this is better — as much as I love chocolate, this library sounds far more like a dream come true to me. Games, prizes, and a night spent locked in an amazing library? Yes, yes!

If you want to reawaken the creative kid in yourself, read these books. If you want to do so for your child, hand the book over to him or her.

Witty librarian writes a strong memoir

So I finished reading Josh Hanagarne’s excellent memoir last week and am still feeling the urge to gush. This book just works on so many levels that I feel compelled to recommend it to a lot of friends, for all kinds of reasons. I’ve written a full review on my review website, Rated Reads, but I’ll share a bit more here.

First, I like to laugh, and this book made me laugh. Check. Second, I felt I had a bit of insider’s knowledge because Hanagarne was raised Mormon and talks a lot about Mormonism, such as scripture stories, the experience of serving a mission for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and a lot of other little cultural touchstones. Since I’m LDS myself, I felt I could really appreciate what he was talking about. At the same time, he explains things so well that readers who aren’t Mormon won’t miss out. I think he handles that really nicely. But I got a big kick out of some of his stories, like the one when he’s a young boy talking about Ammon and all the cut-off arms in his Sunday school class. (See my review on Rated Reads for more information or the original account in the Book of Mormon, Alma 17: 18-39, and you can better appreciate the humor).

I also enjoy learning about what it’s like to deal with particular life challenges. In this case, Hanagarne helps readers get a little idea of what it’s like to live with Tourette Syndrome. He explains it really well and makes it funny as well as informative. His way of telling his personal experience with this syndrome helps readers appreciate what it’s like without feeling sorry for him. We just get to know Josh, who has these annoying tics and outbursts.

He has loved to read for pretty much his whole life, his mom being the great kind of mom who took him to the library at a really early age and read to him and with him. So he talks about favorite books and authors. He is now obviously a librarian, and he shares stories about all the wacky people and situations he encounters working at a large library in downtown Salt Lake City. He so clearly loves books and being able to work in a stronghold of information (despite the wackiness) that it’s just great fun to read what he writes about books and libraries. Great quote from the book:

A library is a miracle

Last, and this ties in to my previous point about his faith background: he has struggled with faith off and on for a lot of his life, wanting to have the strong faith that his mother so clearly has and wants to instill in her family, but just not always “feeling it.” Faith involves both knowledge and feelings, essentially, and he talks a lot about how he has often wondered about what he feels and doesn’t feel in that regard. I liked that rather than being at a point of anger at God or bitterness about organized religion or the LDS faith in particular, he is at a point of just not knowing, of being uncertain. He wants to “feel it” and can cite several specific (and beautiful) examples of when he did have a prayer answered or a concern addressed by God, but for much of his day-to-day life, he just doesn’t feel a connection with the divine when seeking it through prayer or other religious activity.

Hanagarne shows no antagonism but expresses more of a sense of loss, of the “pieces of his life” not “fitting together” and meaning the big thing they used to mean. He worried that his mother, especially, would be angry or distraught (“I’d pictured a maternal rebuke, disappointment and tears, … a guilt trip…”) when he told her he was going to stop going to church because he wasn’t “getting anything out of it anymore,” but she just told him, “The older I get, the more I see that people just have to live their own lives and make their own choices. I’d be lying if I said I like this. I don’t. … But you’re my son and whatever happens, we’ll all still love you and that won’t change.”

I love how he expresses his search, his experiences, his feelings and non-feelings, and his uncertainties. I love his dialogue with his mother. It’s all so honest and real, and what I’d say is a view on an ongoing process. I love how supportive and still hopeful (I thought) and faithful his mother is as they talk.

I feel hopeful for him, too. He is blessed, and we’re all lucky enough to be able to read about his story, the warmth, the wonderful family love, the fun, all mixed in with the challenges of regular life and the specific challenges of Tourette’s.

Parents’ and schools’ responsibility to young readers

So I received an email through my Rated Reads site, asking me for guidance on resources that can provide information about content in books for younger readers. It got me thinking again about the place for parental involvement and potential restrictions on books for elementary-school students. I suppose I’m a little late to the game in terms of this topic because Banned Books Week was over a month ago, but here goes anyway.

Before I say anything else, I’d like to make clear that I am against “censorship” in general (let me restrict this discussion purely to books). That entails actually suppressing and forbidding the viewing or use of particular passages or entire books. It’s not my place to decide what kind of content should be completely forbidden, and it just sets a bad precedent. I wouldn’t want someone else to have the power to forbid what is viewable by me or my family members.

So while I am against forbidding things entirely to most readers, parents and educators do have a responsibility to young children to make sure they read material that is appropriate for them. Even then, I hesitate to ban books entirely because, while I wouldn’t want a child getting hold of soft porn, for example, I wouldn’t agree with those people who were eager to ban Harry Potter because of its theme of magic.

What I am a proponent of is information. That’s why I started Rated Reads, a modest effort though it is. But at least it’s something. We have nearly 1,000 books featured with content ratings and moderately detailed paragraphs explaining what kind of potentially objectionable content is in each book. I firmly believe that each reader and, in the case of children, each parent should be able to have resources to find information that will allow him or her to make a decision.

I would like to think that books that are selected for a children’s library are going to be appropriate for young readers and acceptable to most parents, both in thematic content and possible sex, violence, or bad language. But young readers who are ready for young adult books, for instance, deserve to not be shocked by what they read or to have their parents be shocked. There are a lot of great young adult books that are fine for younger readers, that don’t have strong language or detailed violence or sex scenes. But there are just as many that I wouldn’t want my younger kids reading.

Since elementary schools generally have limited space, I think it would be wisest to select books that will be most age appropriate and least objectionable to parents. But at the same time, there may be a few YA books that would be great reads, in terms of stimulating thought on various topics, that might be nice picks for those libraries. And some of those might have some violence or other scenes that could be objectionable to parents or their kids. In these cases, it seems it would be particularly smart for everyone to include a kind of electronic ping with further information for the student and her parent when it comes to checkout time. This would allow parents to give a yea or nay to their child reading that book; a note could be sent home before the book is approved for checkout, providing details about why that book could be a poor choice, including themes, sex, violence, and language.

Now there are going to be some parents who are very careful about using this system, saying no to some books and yes to others based on their consideration of the information provided; there are definitely going to be other parents who simply won’t care. And that is their business. If I were that child’s teacher, or a fellow parent, I might not agree with those parents’ decision, but it wouldn’t be my responsibility to override or actively disagree in some other way. As long as a parent hasn’t been declared unfit, it is his or her responsibility to make decisions regarding his child, and that needs to be respected.

But there is no doubt in my mind that more information should be available so readers and parents of readers can make more informed decisions. I don’t think it’s always possible or practical for a parent to read every book a child would like to read, becoming the child’s first reader. We just need more information. Again, that’s why I’m doing Rated Reads. But I’d love to see more coming direct from publishers or something similar (I suppose that’s kind of another topic, but in brief, I don’t see why it would be so hard for the editor to include a brief description that states how much language or sex or violence is in it…). There’s simply not enough information available about most books.

So. What are your thoughts? Do schools sometimes need to be more cautious about what they choose to stock in their elementary libraries? Do parents need more information, and how should it be provided? And what about junior highs/middle schools and high schools?