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.

‘Authenticity’ and vulgarity in books

Those of you who have paid some attention to my biographical information (if not, take a look at “about”) will know that I run a book review website, Rated Reads. There are quite literally thousands of blogs out there that review books. What there are not nearly so many of are websites that try to provide information about the content of those books reviewed. I have been a book reviewer for probably 15 years now, and I’d say I have done it as “professionally” as is possible; I’ve written for newspaper book pages for all that time, I was the book page editor for one newspaper for a couple of years, and I’ve been a member of the National Book Critics Circle for probably 10 years. So I’d like to feel that I know a little something about book reviewing.

Since it has been well known among my acquaintances what I do in the reading sphere, many people have asked my advice on books, from all kinds of angles. What I concluded some years back was that there was a hole in available information out there about book content. I am a Christian and have been raised in particular being taught that it is wise to avoid using vulgar language or watching movies or TV shows with vulgar content, so it follows that I would want to avoid books with vulgar content as well. And those friends of mine who came from a similar background would often ask me what kinds of books I’d enjoyed that were also mostly “clean” when it came to content.

But there are no ratings systems available for books. There are many reasons for this, but the hole in available information remains nonetheless. I just thought I could do my part to fill in that gap, just a little bit. So I started Rated Reads four years ago. I’ve noticed now more blogs devoted to a similar objective: to just provide some information about book content to readers who care about sexual scenes, violence and offensive language. Some out there in the world today may criticize the movie or TV ratings systems or think they’re silly, but I think most people understand and agree that they have value in providing information that allows viewers and parents of under-18 viewers to make better decisions regarding what they watch. So I would think that logically most people would agree that having information available in a similar fashion for books would be desirable and welcome.

The naysayers have generally left Rated Reads alone. There have been a few occasions, however, when an individual who doesn’t share my values or the values of those who use the site or simply doesn’t appreciate that anyone in the world might have different values than he or she has makes disparaging comments about what I and my reviewers are trying to do. In those few cases, I have gently reminded those commenters that the site exists to provide information for those who would like to limit offensive content in what they read. They can disagree, but some people value what Rated Reads is trying to do.

As a reader, I find it laughable that some writers and readers continue to insist that, in order for their work to be “authentic,” it must contain graphic material. I think that there are a few occasions that this is actually true, but it isn’t true for nearly the number of occasions it becomes a sticking point. Writing about and for teenagers tends to get the most attention here, for some reason.

Let me just say this: I was a teen once. Yes, it was 25 years ago, and yes, it was perhaps a slightly nicer time in which not quite every scary or bad or dangerous or vulgar behavior was out in the open, and media reflected that. (An example: I distinctly remember the big fuss over George Michael’s song “I Want Your Sex.” Some radio stations simply would not play that, so there was a version called “I Want Your Love.”) Today, I am of the opinion that pretty much everything is now out in the open, rather than hidden behind doors, spoken of only in whispers. But I heard bad language when I was growing up; I heard sexual references. So I remember what it was like to be a teen and to hear and see things.

I can also say this: I have two teens. My oldest is almost 16, and she talks to me about everything. She is bombarded by vulgar language and talk about all kinds of dangerous and sad behavior. And even though, technically, students aren’t supposed to be allowed to use vulgar language at school or in the classroom, teachers have mostly given up on trying to reprimand or give any consequences. So my very tender, gentle and sweet child constantly hears peers using “f-” this and “f-” that and sexual language and all kinds of things that she simply doesn’t want to hear. (She doesn’t have a lot of choice in what she hears in class or in passing, but I will make clear that she does have a choice what she hears from friends. She has chosen friends who are like-minded in that they don’t use bad language, and if she does have friends or classmates with whom she interacts regularly who are inclined to use bad language, she has politely asked them to refrain from using it, and they have always graciously tried to honor her wishes because they like and respect her.)

So when it comes to media, including movies and books, yes, I can wholeheartedly agree that “reality” is not pretty in many respects. But just because some teens, or even many teens, are involved in dangerous behaviors or use vulgar language doesn’t mean that ALL do. My daughter has plenty of friends who don’t have sex and who don’t use rough language. This isn’t she or I being unrealistic or seeing through rose-colored glasses; it is a fact. There are plenty of great teens out there who aren’t having sex or using rough language.

Just as we can choose friends who are like-minded, we can choose media that reflects our values as well. My daughter doesn’t want to hear offensive things at school, so she certainly doesn’t want to come home and deliberately choose to read a book that has offensive material, if there are other options. I want her to have a place that she can feel comfortable, where she ISN’T surrounded by vulgarity. That is our home. And our home’s media options reflect that place of comfort and security. I don’t bring offensive media into our home. It is a sanctuary, as much as is possible, from the world of so-called “reality.” And our home life is just as “real” as what’s going on outside it — actually, more so.

So I appreciate the authors who can craft great works of literature without bringing in some of that “reality.” I’ve read many wonderful books with fully-formed characters who interact in a true-t0-life fashion with each other, with stories that are clever, that are witty, that are wise, that transport me, that make me think, that help me experience places and things I wouldn’t get to otherwise. And those books have felt absolutely real. They’ve been authentic; they have struck a chord in my heart and soul. I love those books and I give thanks to the authors who don’t feel the need to insert offensive material to make them more “authentic.” Generally speaking, I have found that the books that have used lots of strong language and detailed sexual scenes could have gotten their messages across equally well without that stuff. And all too often, those “markers of reality” have been poor substitutes for good writing. I don’t want to read a mediocre work, period, let alone by an author who thinks that inserting lots of nasty “reality” will instantly make it real. Why waste my time with that stuff when there’s just SO much good literature out there, so much I can’t possibly ever read it all?

I know well enough what’s out there, what kind of depravity and vulgarity and sadness exists. I am not so isolated or insulated that I’m completely ignorant. But I don’t have to wallow in filth just because I know it exists. Life is difficult enough for everyone that there’s no reason to choose to bring things into our lives that are filthy or degrading. We all have struggles, we all have challenges to work through. And good literature does reflect that fact. But it also can reflect that we as human beings can triumph over the bad, that we have the strength and the light in us to choose good and to be good despite the difficulties we encounter. And I’m going to choose to read books that don’t bring unnecessary vulgarity into my mind. I’m also choosing to run a website that provides necessary information so others who want to make informed choices can do so.

Readers who don’t agree with me can go ahead making their own choices. That’s fine. But respect that not everyone wants to consciously bring filth into their lives. And authors, if you write books with lots of bad language and sexually explicit material, you must appreciate that not everyone will want to read it (and parents have the right to monitor what their younger children or teens read). Most likely, you’ll have a broader audience if you could limit the offensive material you write into your book. The concept holds true just as it does for R-rated movies versus G- or PG-rated movies. More people do go to see those movies with more “family-friendly” content. They don’t have to be “cheesy” or trite or “unrealistic” just because their ratings aren’t “strong.” There have been some excellent “clean” movies, just as there are some excellent, authentic “clean” books. Consider making your writing the best it can be without using offensive material as a crutch to make it “true to life.” I, and many other readers, will thank you for it. Profusely.