TOP SHELF: Favorite Books Read in 2018
Every year begins with a new grand plan, and I had aspirations to write more often about the books and other literary/writing news of note. I did not. You all don’t need me to tell you it’s been a long year, and between the daily slog of the news, plus some additional health problems, I found it difficult to summon the words.
However, you don’t need a list of my excuses. Let’s just end the year right and talk about some of my favorite books that I read in 2018.
Favorite Fiction: Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier
On a long train ride to Portland and back, I inhaled this classic novel for the first time. It has so much to say about obligation, communication, and social class, and I enjoy the spin it puts on a Jane Eyre -esque story. You don’t have to love all these people to find why they make the decisions they do interesting.
This paragraph, early on in the book, made me think, Yes, I am in for something great here:
This house sheltered us, we spoke, we loved within those walls. That was yesterday. Today we pass on, we see it no more, and we are different, changed in some infinitesimal way. We can never be quite the same again. Even stopping for luncheon at a wayside inn, and going to a dark, unfamiliar room to wash my hands, the handle of the door unknown to me, the wallpaper peeling in strips, a funny little cracked mirror above the basin; for this moment, it is mine, it belongs to me. We know one another. This is the present. There is no past and no future. Here I am washing my hands, and the cracked mirror shows me to myself, suspended as it were, in time; this is me, this moment will not pass.
I also have this as a literal book-on-tape, narrated by Jean Marsh (who would make an excellent Mrs. Danvers), which I have yet to listen to. It is slightly abridged, and I wanted to read the full novel first. For 2019, I am ready.
Favorite Non-Fiction: 21st Century Yokel by Tom Cox
Part memoir, part love letter to the English countryside, I was enamored with this wonderful, funny book. Tom Cox has a lot to say about nature, animals, and being oneself, even if oneself might not be as profitable as being known as “the guy who wrote books about his cats.” (Though his talk of his and his parents’ cats is pretty great.)
I wouldn’t say I’m typically a nature-writing reader, but this is the sort of semi-weird and amusing stuff I like, also full of side notes about books and music and people met along the way:
I told her that I’d recently fed my local badgers peanuts, and she said she went a step further and made peanut butter sandwiches for her local ones every day at dusk. The badgers had come to expect this and, with time, even view it as their right, but one evening when they arrived in her garden with their typical punctuality she realized she was fresh out of peanut butter. She searched her fridge and freezer, but the only slightly appropriate meal she could find was a dish of oldish ratatouille from her freezer which, if she was honest, she wasn’t sure if she was ever going to get around to eating. ‘They loved it,’ she told me. ‘But they ran off with the dish afterwards.’ She paused and a wistful mood appeared to overcome her. ‘I really liked that dish,’ she added.
I also read his collection of short stories this year, Help The Witch, which I enjoyed a lot. In short, I’m probably game for anything he wants to write.
I did not read a lot of poetry compared to previous years, but what I did read was excellent. Shannon Barber has written a very real collection celebrating the messy, the loud, the queer, the black, and the see-sawing mechanics of everyday survival. After finishing it, I wished I had read it sooner. Released on the small press Lark Books, I doubt Gasoline Heart got the attention it deserved. Barber’s been out here writing up a storm for years — poetry, fiction, and nonfiction — and I always look forward to seeing what she has coming up next.
Favorite Book That Made Me Laugh Like a Loon: We Are Never Meeting in Real Life by Samantha Irby
During some low-power days, health-wise, I read this in bed and laughed so much I could temporarily forget how bad I felt. I’d read Samantha Irby’s blog, bitches gotta eat, for years, and I was already familiar with her having health issues of her own. She can write about serious topics like health, family, and navigating love in such a smart way that is full of both gallows humor and realistic insights. Listen to the Roxane Gay blurb on the cover here. Yes, it really is as close to perfect as an essay collection can get.
(PS: I also read Roxane Gay’s excellent memoir, Hunger, this year, and you should read that one too. Get to getting!)
Favorite New-To-Me Audio Drama: Bernice Summerfield: Epoch by Mark Wright, Jacqueline Rayner, Tony Lee, and Scott Handcock
Bernice Summerfield began as a companion to the Seventh Doctor in a series of Doctor Who novels published during the TV show’s hiatus. Created by writer Paul Cornell, “Benny” has gone on to have adventures of her own in other novels, and for the past two decades, in audio dramas produced by Big Finish. Because I listen to… a lot … of BF Doctor Who audio adventures (and have a semi-obsessive knowledge of the show in general), I’d heard of her character — an occasionally-in-time-but-definitely-space-traveling archaeologist full of quick wit —but never got around to listening before now. I started with what was available on Spotify: Epoch, released in 2011.
Played by Lisa Bowerman, Benny is great, funny, and interesting alongside excellent and sometimes mysterious characters. Though the stories made reference to things that had previously occurred, it was not vital to completely know to what she was referring in order to enjoy what was happening. I listened to everything available on Spotify, and I’ll definitely investigate more.
Favorite Thing That Made Gallstones A Tiny Bit More Bearable: Doctor Who: The Silver Turk by Marc Platt
Speaking of Doctor Who audio adventures, here’s a “favorite” (and by favorite, I mean terrible) circumstance I did not expect to have this year! Around Halloween, Big Finish had a sale on some of their spookier stories, and having heard The Company of Friends (which also features Bernice Summerfield, so I gave it a re-listen this year), I wanted to explore more of the Eighth Doctor’s adventures with Mary Shelley.
While I’m sure I would have enjoyed this 19th century Vienna-set Cyberman adventure without my gallbladder giving me the sort of pain usually reserved for childbirth, I think it speaks highly of a story that it can be good enough to distract oneself, even just a little, from that amount of internal strife. Now there’s a blurb for you.
All that aside, Mary Shelley makes for an excellent, capable companion, and I highly recommend her short run of adventures.
Favorite “How Did You Manage This Feat?” of a Book: The Talented Miss Highsmith by Joan Schenkar
File Patricia Highsmith under “All Your Faves Are Problematic.” She was a terrible person to almost everyone, and this biography isn’t going to make anyone like her, but it gives insight to what made Highsmith the complicated, cranky, but compelling writer she was. She was queer (in both sexuality and in the sense that she was odd), gender nonconforming before we ever really had the term, survived an attempt at conversion therapy, and otherwise made her way through life by self-medicating her undiagnosed mental illnesses.
What makes this book a feat though is its scope: Joan Schenkar went through (not exaggerating) thousands of Highsmith’s notebook pages, interviewed still-living people who knew her, and tackled all the rest of her various archives to create this 700 page biography. Schenkar is neither gushing nor accusatory, and this was perfect a die-hard like me.
Favorite Graphic Novels That I Recommended To Everyone All Year: On a Sunbeam by Tillie Walden and Black Bolt: Vol. 1: Hard Time by Saladin Ahmed and Christian Ward
Though I don’t remember how I first came across it, On a Sunbeam was first made available as a free webcomic (and is still available that way!) before being picked up by a publisher. It’s a gorgeous story set in space, filled with friendship, love, and queer and nonbinary characters. The artwork is outstanding, and I am so looking forward seeing any of Walden’s other work.
Black Bolt is one I picked up when Amazon had the Kindle version on sale because I follow writer Saladin Ahmed on Twitter and enjoy his sensibility about the world. Though my husband is familiar with the Marvel Comics universe, I had no real knowledge of Black Bolt as a character at all. This was one of those times where saying “Ah, what the hell, let’s give it a go” really paid off. Christian Ward’s artwork is perfect, and the story is perfectly understandable for a newbie like me, smart and full of feeling. Also, there’s a giant dog.
Now, some stats, if you are into that sort of thing: I read/listened to 85 books this year (click through for the full list).
44 of those were audioplays, mostly of the Big Finish variety, but there were also some full cast adaptations of Neil Gaiman in there too.
18 novels/novellas (although one of these was one volume of ALL the Narnia stories. My son and I read them before bed, among other books this year.)
5 graphic novels
3 poetry collections
2 short story collections
5 memoirs (including Fun Home, but I didn’t count it above in the graphic novels)
1 writing craft
3 social justice
Reading goals for 2019? I’m always looking to increase the number of women I read. Though the Doctor Who-centric stuff is not without women writers, many of the same men write a lot of these stories that I consume like candy. I’d like more gender parity overall.
My house is filled with hundreds of books I’ve yet to read, and I’d like to really put a dent in those shelves in the coming year. My hope is that my health levels off enough to where I zone out in front of Netflix a little less, and I can again start telling you about all the fantastic things I read, more than once per year. In the meantime, you can follow my progress on Goodreads, without which I’d probably be very bad at tracking all that I’ve read.