• Kara Cushway

My Top Reads of 2018

Updated: Jul 26, 2019

It’s that time of year again (she said, as though she’s been doing this for eighty years and isn’t the freshest of newbies): time to post the list of my favorite books from the year.

This list is of the books I read in 2018 that I highly recommended to multiple people, or wished I could have written an essay about. It’s when I was reading these books that I wished I had more people in my life who actually enjoyed reading so we could both read these books and then discuss them together, the way my family discusses movies on the drive home after seeing them in the theater.

The following books aren’t ranked or rated in any way, but are instead taken right off my Book Tracking Spreadsheet (okay, okay, you can stop laughing now) chronologically, based on what time of the year I read them. If any book was highlighted on the spreadsheet (which all of these were), that means they were outstanding in some way, and are all basically at the same level of awesomeness. Off we go!

The Bear and the Nightingale by Katharine Arden

I’ve never been known for being on top of new books. This one was published in early 2017, but I’d had the hardest time getting my hands on it even though I pinned it probably four times to my Books & Reading board on Pinterest, which means I must’ve really wanted to read it. Do you know what this book reminded me of? A couple other books, as a matter of fact. Namely, Wildwood Dancing and, partially, The Dark Mirror, both by (who else?) Juliet Marillier, my favorite author. The main character’s personality, the house, the setting where the characters lived – these elements brought to mind the sisters in their twisting Romanian castle, fighting through the depths of a dark winter, from Wildwood Dancing. And I was reminded partially of Tuala in The Dark Mirror, with her power and the way she was so close to being forced into an unwanted marriage. The fact that this story had such similar themes to what I love to read about, but was set in a whole new world from that I already know and love in Marillier’s books, is what made The Bear and the Nightingale exciting for me.

You’d love this book if: you like books set in old Russia, traditional fairy tales, and/or magic in your literary fodder.

The Alice Network by Kate Quinn

I don’t usually gravitate toward WWII novels, simply because I often feel like I’ve read every type of story set in that era that I could possibly want to read. But the reason that this book made it onto the list of best books of 2018 for me is because it was gripping. I can’t think of the last time I used that word in any context, but that’s the word for this story. Not all of it, I feel compelled to clarify; but especially the part that took place during the war, which was told as a parallel story to the main thread. A female spy? In Nazi-occupied France? Working cheek-to-jowl with the enemy? I couldn’t read it fast enough, and those elements that made me love the book scared me as well, which doesn’t happen to me too often, especially when I already know the ending of that thread thanks to other elements of the present-day story. (Trying not to give anything away if you haven’t read it yet and want to.)

You’d love this book if: you have a spring vacation you want to take a book along on, you love to read about WWII, or you’re a Francophile.

The Dovekeepers by Alice Hoffman

Oh my gosh, you guys. If I could just express in words how impressed I am with this book. I kind of lied when I wrote the opening blurb because if I were rating these books, this would be #1 of 2018. Kind of kidding, but kind of not? This book was amazing, and half of you might be rolling your eyes right now: Kara, it’s Alice Hoffman, what did you expect, mediocrity? If you read my post on My Top Reads from 2017 (linking that post here), you remember that I also included a book of hers on that list, too (The Museum of Extraordinary Things, aka my very first Hoffman book), so I shouldn’t be surprised she’s back again for my 2018 list, either. Yet here I am, surprised. *insert shocked Pikachu meme here*

What can I say to convince you this is the best book ever? It’s set in a time I chose to interpret as slightly post-biblical, yet the characters are so far from what we all think of as the stuffy Proverb-pushers of today. They’re raw and real and a little frightening, and the stakes are high till the very end. This book could be described as an epic instead of a novel, though it’s perhaps not quite as long as The Iliad.

You’d love this book if: you have ever loved another Alice Hoffman book, you are looking for an off-the-beaten-path romance, or you love desert settings or movies like The Gladiator. But in truth, it’s a great choice for anyone looking for words to read.

Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman

I’m always impressed when a book makes me laugh out loud because I find it so difficult to write laugh-out-loud humor myself. Additionally, the last book I read that truly made me laugh out loud was Feeling Sorry for Celia by Jaclyn Moriarty, back in high school. (Side note: we picked that book from the library because my sister’s name is Celia, and it was a good decision. I remember staying up late to read, and crying from laughing so hard. My parents were trying to sleep and I remember hearing them chuckling as they listened to me laugh.)

But this book wasn’t just a funny one; it had real substance to it, and some parts were genuinely sad, which I feel makes a funny book better. Straight humor comes off as one-note, doesn’t it? Yet if you throw in a few serious queries or a bit of devastating backstory, the humor is so much more meaningful and uplifting. It’s that way in life sometimes, I guess. Which is part of the reason why I loved this book and recommended it many times this year.

You might love this book if: you’ve ever been depressed, you want something funny/ridiculous/hopeful to read, or you enjoy books set in contemporary Scotland.

The Girl Who Drank the Moon by Kelly Barnhill

I had a pretty strong juvenile fiction streak this year. I don’t tend to like to use the phrase “juvenile” when referring to books because it connotes immaturity, and that couldn’t be farther from the truth in a lot of juvenile fiction. But it’s not quite “young adult” literature, so juvenile fiction it will stay for now. The Girl Who Drank the Moon was such a pretty, fantasy/magical-realism-type novel, and I can’t resist me some good magical realism or romps through the wildlands of fantasy realms.

You might love this book if: you like coming-of-age stories, you enjoyed watching The Quest for Camelot as a kid, or you have The Giver on your bookshelf.

The Tea Rose by Jennifer Donnelly

I was enraptured by this story because, like The Dovekeepers, it spanned years and delved so deeply into its characters and their motives that by the end I felt I had, for once, actually been given the whole story. That doesn’t happen very often anymore, I find. I mean, I’m all for inferring the true ending of a book, and I don’t technically need the author to say “they lived happily ever after,” but whatever happened to tying a story’s loose ends up in a bow and presenting it as a neat little package to your reader? Sometimes it’s nice to get that out of a novel these days. We already work so hard at everything else in our lives as it is. And what kind of person wouldn’t love reading about (as I posted on Instagram in a fit of passion over this book) “tea, industrial-revolution-era London, late 19th century NYC, and badass women entrepreneurs”?

You might love this book if: you like any of the elements listed above (read: tea, industrial-revolution-era London, late 19th century NYC, badass women entrepreneurs), you wish your husband was a gay man at times so he could intuit your emotions better, or you have to sit in the middle seat on a long flight.

The Fever Tree by Jennifer McVeigh

The other day I was trying to figure out why “Fever Tree” sounded so familiar to me when I picked up a bottle of Fever Tree ginger beer from World Market, and it’s because I had just read this book. This was a stunner, you guys. I practically ripped through it, and I was so impressed by the writing style and skill that I had to share it immediately on Instagram, and with my aunt, who I usually send good book recommendations to - usually if they’re in the Pride and Prejudice-romance vein, since we share a love of that era as a major element in our literary and theatrical entertainment.

I have read books set in Africa before, but these were mainly Egyptian-bordering-on-Middle-Eastern in their settings (see The Dovekeepers, above), and none of them were ever set in the horrific world of diamond-mining South Africa. The main character in this novel is so intensely helpless and almost snooty that she provides the perfect – and starkest – contrast to the other hardworking, practical characters that people this story. To me, her disgraceful ineptitude at pretty much everything during the majority of the novel made her epiphany and subsequent change of character as the story developed that much more satisfying.

You might love this book if: like me, you haven’t read many books set in Africa, you love books where a character changes substantially and visibly by the end of the novel, or it’s the hottest part of summer, and/or you’re on a cruise ship.

Have you read any of these books, or are you planning to? Share them with me in the comments! I’d absolutely LOVE to nerd out with you! And be sure to check out my other book recommendations on the blog! Here's my link to 2017's Top Reads, and here's one to a list of great beach reads!


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