I love reading, but I don’t love feeling as if I have to read something. I enjoyed many of the books I was assigned in college, yet didn’t always like having to stick to a syllabus. That’s why I’ve never participated in any online reading challenges. I don’t want reading to feel like homework.
One of my favorite book blogs is Modern Mrs. Darcy. I was looking at her 2019 reading challenge and realized this one actually excites me. At only 10 categories, it’s not too long, and there are plenty of options for every requirement so I won’t feel pressured to read specific things.
Today I’m sharing some possible reads for each category. Who knows if I’ll stick to this list, but at least I’ll have a plan. (And I love plans.) Maybe these books will inspire you if you’re doing the challenge, too.
1. A book you’ve been meaning to read
This list could be ridiculously long since I have so many unread books on my shelves. (One of my 2019 reading goals is to lower that number.) For this task, I’m choosing a book that I’ve owned for at least a year. These are the ones I’m most excited to read right now:
Sometimes when I really love an author, I’ll hesitate to read everything they’ve written because I want to know there’s still a book out there by them I haven’t read yet. (Especially when there are many, many years between new releases, DONNA.) Is that weird? Maybe. Probably.
This category is going to stretch me more than any of the others because I tend to read a bit narrowly when it comes to fiction. I mostly stick to literary fiction, thrillers, and mysteries. Here are some titles that are definitely outside my comfort zone, but intrigue me nonetheless:
I’m back after a Christmas break and am so excited to finally be sharing my favorite books of 2018. My favorites are determined by what books earned 5-star ratings from me on Goodreads. I’m stingy with my stars, so a 5-star book is one that had great prose, a strong viewpoint, and a story that stays with me. Out of the 60 books I read in 2018, only seven earned 5 stars. Five of them are 2018 releases, and two are backlist titles from the same series. Toward the end of the post, I’ll also list some honorable mentions. These titles are in random order as ranking them caused too much literary stress. Let’s get started!
The Female Persuasion by Meg Wolitzer
The Goodreads Summary:Greer Kadetsky is a shy college freshman when she meets the woman she hopes will change her life. Faith Frank, dazzlingly persuasive and elegant at sixty-three, has been a central pillar of the women’s movement for decades, a figure who inspires others to influence the world. Upon hearing Faith speak for the first time, Greer–madly in love with her boyfriend, Cory, but still full of longing for an ambition that she can’t quite place–feels her inner world light up. Then, astonishingly, Faith invites Greer to make something out of that sense of purpose, leading Greer down the most exciting path of her life as it winds toward and away from her meant-to-be love story with Cory and the future she’d always imagined.
Why this book is a favorite: This book stands out to me because the relationship that receives the primary focus isn’t Greer and Cory, but Greer and Faith. I haven’t read many books that focus on female bonds, much less a relationship that features a woman over sixty. I appreciate the feminist slant of this novel and think Wolitzer tells a compelling story. After I read this book, I wrote that it was one that would stay with me, and that’s turned out to be true.
Calypso by David Sedaris
The Goodreads Summary: If you’ve ever laughed your way through David Sedaris’s cheerfully misanthropic stories, you might think you know what you’re getting with Calypso. You’d be wrong.
When he buys a beach house on the Carolina coast, Sedaris envisions long, relaxing vacations spent playing board games and lounging in the sun with those he loves most. And life at the Sea Section, as he names the vacation home, is exactly as idyllic as he imagined, except for one tiny, vexing realization: it’s impossible to take a vacation from yourself.
Why this book is a favorite: I’ve been a Sedaris fan for years, and have read all of his essay collections. I’ve enjoyed each one, but I think Calypso might be his best. I laughed out loud several times, which hardly ever happens when I’m reading. Sedaris is hilarious, but what I admire about him is his ability to write both comedy and tragedy so well, and sometimes even on the same page. Calypso stands out because of that skill.
Educated by Tara Westover
The Goodreads Summary: Tara Westover was 17 the first time she set foot in a classroom. Born to survivalists in the mountains of Idaho, she prepared for the end of the world by stockpiling home-canned peaches and sleeping with her “head-for-the-hills bag”. In the summer she stewed herbs for her mother, a midwife and healer, and in the winter she salvaged in her father’s junkyard.
Her father forbade hospitals, so Tara never saw a doctor or nurse. Gashes and concussions, even burns from explosions, were all treated at home with herbalism. The family was so isolated from mainstream society that there was no one to ensure the children received an education and no one to intervene when one of Tara’s older brothers became violent.
Then, lacking any formal education, Tara began to educate herself. She taught herself enough mathematics and grammar to be admitted to Brigham Young University, where she studied history, learning for the first time about important world events like the Holocaust and the civil rights movement. Her quest for knowledge transformed her, taking her over oceans and across continents, to Harvard and to Cambridge. Only then would she wonder if she’d traveled too far, if there was still a way home.
Why this book is a favorite: If this book had been a novel, I would have thought the story was too outlandish. The fact that Educated is a memoir makes it powerful and unforgettable. Westover’s story is fascinating from beginning to end, and her writing is fantastic too. That combination makes for a book I could hardly put down. I finished this in a couple of days because it’s so engrossing. There’s a reason why this book has been receiving so much praise. It’s certainly deserving.
The Great Believers by Rebecca Makkai
The Goodreads Summary: In 1985, Yale Tishman, the development director for an art gallery in Chicago, is about to pull off an amazing coup, bringing in an extraordinary collection of 1920s paintings as a gift to the gallery. Yet as his career begins to flourish, the carnage of the AIDS epidemic grows around him. One by one, his friends are dying and after his friend Nico’s funeral, the virus circles closer and closer to Yale himself. Soon the only person he has left is Fiona, Nico’s little sister.
Thirty years later, Fiona is in Paris tracking down her estranged daughter who disappeared into a cult. While staying with an old friend, a famous photographer who documented the Chicago crisis, she finds herself finally grappling with the devastating ways AIDS affected her life and her relationship with her daughter. The two intertwining stories take us through the heartbreak of the eighties and the chaos of the modern world, as both Yale and Fiona struggle to find goodness in the midst of disaster.
Why this book is a favorite: There are skills certain authors have that astound me. One of those skills is writing a lengthy novel with a lot of fully-developed characters and another is telling a story that goes back and forth between timeliness in an effortless way that makes perfect sense. Rebecca Makkai achieved both of those feats with The Great Believers. A lot is going on in this novel, yet Makkai never lets the story get away from her. It’s a beautifully constructed novel that’s full of love, friendship, tragedy, and healing. I said these titles are presented in random order, but I think The Great Believers is my number one pick this year. It’s outstanding.
In the Woods (Dublin Murder Squad #1) by Tana French The Likeness (Dublin Murder Squad #2)by Tana French
NoveList Summary for In the Woods: Twenty years after witnessing the violent disappearances of two companions from their small Dublin suburb, detective Rob Ryan investigates a chillingly similar murder that takes place in the same wooded area, a case that forces him to piece together his traumatic memories.
NoveList Summary for The Likeness: This novel finds Detective Cassie Maddox still scarred by her last case. When her boyfriend calls her to a chilling murder scene, Cassie is forced to face her inner demons. A young woman has been found stabbed to death outside Dublin, and the victim looks just like Cassie.
Why these books are favorites: Tana French is the best thing that happened to my reading life in 2018. I read a lot of thrillers and mysteries this year, and none of them are as good as her Dublin Murder Squad series. (I’ve only read two of the six books so far. I want to savor this series.) Both Rob and Cassie are fascinating and complex protagonists. The cases in both of these books kept me guessing. French creates such a strong, moody atmosphere and sense of place, a combination that made me feel as if I’d actually been transported to Dublin. I cannot recommend these books highly enough and am looking forward to reading the next volume.
Small Fry by Lisa Brennan-Jobs
The Goodreads summary: Born on a farm and named in a field by her parents–artist Chrisann Brennan and Steve Jobs–Lisa Brennan-Jobs’s childhood unfolded in a rapidly changing Silicon Valley. When she was young, Lisa’s father was a mythical figure who was rarely present in her life. As she grew older, her father took an interest in her, ushering her into a new world of mansions, vacations, and private schools. His attention was thrilling, but he could also be cold, critical and unpredictable. When her relationship with her mother grew strained in high school, Lisa decided to move in with her father, hoping he’d become the parent she’d always wanted him to be.
Small Fry is Lisa Brennan-Jobs’s poignant story of a childhood spent between two imperfect but extraordinary homes. Scrappy, wise, and funny, young Lisa is an unforgettable guide through her parents’ fascinating and disparate worlds. Part portrait of a complex family, part love letter to California in the seventies and eighties, Small Fry is an enthralling book by an insightful new literary voice.
Why this book is a favorite: When Small Fry first appeared on my radar, I had little desire to read it because I wasn’t interested in Steve Jobs (or so I thought). As I started reading all of the Best Of lists for 2018, I kept seeing this book pop up. My library had the ebook available, so I decided to give it a try after all. I ending up devouring this story within a couple of days. Lisa Brennan-Jobs tells a complex and moving story from beginning to end, and it’s her story, not the story of Steve Jobs. I’m always interested in how relationships work, and the tumultuous bond between Lisa and her father is one I won’t forget. If you like memoirs, don’t miss this one. It’s heartfelt, vulnerable, and compulsively readable. I loved it.
Other Books I Enjoyed This Year
Providence by Caroline Kepnes
The Recovering: Intoxication and Its Aftermath by Leslie Jamison
This Will Be My Undoing: Living at the Intersection of Black, Female, and Feminist in (White) America by Morgan Jerkins
I’m Still Here: Black Dignity in a World Made for Whiteness by Austin Channing Brown
The Witch Elm by Tana French
Fire Sermon by Jamie Quatro
And Now a Little Something for the Stats Nerds
Fiction vs. Nonfiction: These numbers don’t surprise me. I’ve always read a bit more fiction than nonfiction.
Formats: Though I really do enjoy audiobooks, my number is so low this year because I’ve been opting for podcasts instead. I got a Kindle Paperwhite this past year, so the high number of ebooks has a lot to do with how much I enjoy that device.
Books I Own vs. the Library: Since I work for libraries, the library number is always high. One of my goals for 2019 is to read more of my own books, though. I’d like to see that number be 50% or higher next year.
That’s it from me this year. In case you missed it, my reading goals for 2019 can be seen here. If you like what you see on this site, please make sure to share it. Thanks for reading!
A few years ago, I chose all kinds of reading goals for myself. I didn’t complete any of them, felt like a failure, and decided not to set any goals for the next couple of years. But even though I’m happy with my reading life, I know it can get even better, so I’m back to the goal-setting this year. There’s a caveat, though: I love reading, am a mood reader, and refuse to make it feel like work, so these goals are more like loose guidelines. I’d like to see these goals happen, but if they don’t, that’s okay too, as long as I tried.
Goal #1: Read more books by people of color.
Less than 10% of the books I read this year were written by a person of color. I’d like that number to be much higher for two reasons. The first is that reading helps develop empathy and understanding toward people who don’t look like me. The second reason is that people of color aren’t always provided with the same opportunities white writers are given, so it’s important to seek out and support their work.
Goal #2: Read more books in translation.
I only read two books in translation in all of 2018. Two. That’s a shame since there is a plethora of great literature throughout the world that I’ve been ignoring. This goes along with goal #1, but I’d like to read more about different cultures and experience new-to-me settings. If you have suggestions for this goal, I’d love to hear them.
Goal #3: READ THE BOOKS I ALREADY OWN.
This goal is in all caps because I’m yelling at myself; it’s that important to me. I love working in libraries, but the one problem is that I’m regularly checking out new books. I read book reviews online, decide I need to read a book immediately, place a hold, and check it out so it can sit in a tote bag with 15 other new releases. This wouldn’t be a big deal if I didn’t have hundreds (yes, hundreds) of unread books at home. I’m immensely grateful for the books I have, and I need to follow through and acknowledge that privilege by actually reading them. I have plenty of titles by people of color and even a few in translation, so working on this goal will help me with my other goals, as well.
Goal #4: Read 75 books.
Reading 50-60 books a year is my reading sweet spot. That’s my natural range, but I think I could read even more if I were consistently mindful of how I spend my time. I know I could read more if I scrolled Instagram less and read on my phone instead. I could read more if I remembered to put my Kindle in my purse every day. There are times when I’m tired and don’t want to think, and the mindless scrolling is perfect for those times. But I rely on it too often and know I can make better use of the hours I’m given in a day.
Those are my four goals loose guidelines for 2019. Do you set reading goals? If so, what are some of yours? I’d love to hear them.
If you’ve spent much time browsing your local library or bookstore over the past few years, you’ve probably noticed how many books have “girl” in the title. If you search Google with “girl trend in book titles,” you’ll get 143,000,000 results with front-page articles talking about why this has become such a trend. I also thought it would be interesting to search my Goodreads account to see what “girl” books I’ve read, and was surprised to know that I’ve read 28.
Today I’m sharing some of my favorites. Let’s jump in!
The Girls by Emma Cline
Inspired by the Charles Manson cult, The Girls is centered on Evie, a young woman growing up in Northern California during the 1960s. When Evie meets Suzanne, she’s curious about the older girl’s life and is drawn to her magnetism. Suzanne introduces Evie to Russell, a cult leader, and Evie’s life is irrevocably changed.
To be honest, I didn’t love this book when I read it. I thought it was definitely good, but I didn’t think it would be a book to which I gave much thought. I was wrong about that, however. Evie’s story is one that’s stayed with me, and that’s partially due to Emma Cline’s ability to write so well about universal urges such as acceptance and belonging. If you haven’t read this yet, it’s worth your time.
Funny Girl by Nick Hornby
It’s the 1960s, and Barbara Parker is a young beauty queen living in Blackpool. What she wants, however, is to be Lucille Ball. Parker decides to set out for London where she transforms into Sophie Straw and eventually gets her own BBC TV show. Funny Girl explores Sophie’s rise to fame, her time on television, and the relationships between the people she meets in her new world.
This novel has received a lot of mixed reviews, but I found it to be charming and well done. If you’re an audiobook fan, I highly recommend listening to this book as the excellent narration added a lot to my reading experience.
Final Girls by Riley Sager
Quincy has built a nice life for herself, but her past continues to haunt her. She’s a “Final Girl,” the only survivor of a brutal massacre that took the lives of her friends years before. There are other final girls out there, and when one of them dies, another comes looking for Quincy, convinced their lives are in danger too.
This book was nearly impossible for me to put down thanks to the riveting suspense Riley Sager creates. Final Girls is creepy, thrilling, and twisted. The concept for this book is compelling, and Sager does an excellent job following through and delivering a satisfying story.
Mad Girl’s Love Song: Sylvia Plath and Life Before Ted by Andrew Wilson
I didn’t know much about Sylvia Plath except for what everyone else knows: that she was a young, gifted writer who killed herself. Curious about her life, I picked up Mad Girl’s Love Song, a biography of Plath’s early years. I thoroughly enjoyed learning about Plath’s rise as a writer, what she was like as a teenager, and seeing what a strong work ethic she possessed. If you know next to nothing about Sylvia Plath (or even if you know quite a bit), this biography has a lot to offer.
Girl at the End of the World: My Escape from Fundamentalism in Search of Faith with a Future by Elizabeth Esther
As you might have guessed from my fondness for The Girls, I like stories about cults and fundamentalism. It’s no surprise, then, that I read and liked Elizabeth Esther’s memoir Girl at the End of the World. Esther grew up as part of the Assembly, a fundamentalist church her family ran. She suffered abuse, fear, and felt trapped in such a confining world. After marrying and having children with another church member, Esther and her family escaped and built a new life for themselves. Parts of this book are hard to read, but Esther’s strength, resilience, and willingness to forgive are inspiring.
What are some of your favorite books in this category? I’d love to know!
For me, December means Christmas, time with family, copious amounts of hot chocolate, and lots and lots of book lists. I like seeing what books people have read and enjoyed in a year, so “best of” lists are always exciting. As I read through the lists that interested me, I thought it would be fun to go back through my Goodreads log and see what my favorite books have been in the past, so today I’m sharing my top five books from the last eight years. An asterisk denotes a lifetime favorite.
2010: Stoner by John Williams* My Name Is Asher Lev by Chaim Potok Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Johnathan Safran Foer* Jesus Girls: True Tales of Growing Up Female and Evangelical edited by Hannah Faith Notess A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan
2011: Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose by Flannery O’Connor* Cathedral by Raymond Carver Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea by Barbara Demick The Poetry of Rilke by Rainer Maria Rilke (trans. by Edward Snow)*
2012: The Secret History by Donna Tartt* Surprised by Oxford by Carolyn Weber The Complete Stories by Flannery O’Connor* Tell the Wolves I’m Home by Carol Rifka Brunt Glaciers by Alexis Smith*
2013: Night Film by Marisha Pessl* Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail by Cheryl Strayed Frances and Bernard by Carlene Bauer My Bright Abyss: Meditation of a Modern Believer by Christian Wiman Disgrace by J. M. Coetzee
2014: The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt* An Untamed State by Roxane Gay Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay Dept. of Speculation by Jenny Offill
2015: The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro Go Tell It on the Mountain by James Baldwin Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides* This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage by Ann Patchett Gilead by Marilynne Robinson*
2016: A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara* Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs by Johann Hari Destiny and Power: The American Odyssey of George Herbert Walker Bush by Jon Meacham Sweetbitter by Stephanie Danler You Will Know Me by Megan Abbott
2017: The Mothers by Brit Bennett Big Little Lies by Liane Moriarty The Nix by Nathan Hill Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng
Are any of these books on your favorites list? What books have stood out to you over the past few years? I’d love to hear about them.
One of my favorite podcasts is What Should I Read Next? with Anne Bogel. As a longtime listener of the show, something I’ve repeatedly noticed is how often guests say they dislike a book because it doesn’t have any likable characters. The reader is unable to relate to or root for the characters which prevent them from enjoying the book. I’ve noticed this in some book reviews, as well.
Whenever I hear such a thing, I always pause and wonder why liking or relating to a character is vital for some readers. When I read, my priorities are good writing and a strong story with excellent characterization. Characters can be truly despicable people as long as they’re written compellingly and with dimension.
One of my favorite mysteries is Gone Girl, and the two protagonists are both unlikable and untrustworthy. Gillian Flynn crafted such a well-written, suspenseful story that such a thing didn’t matter to me; in fact, it made the novel even more exciting.
But there’s also been a case where unlikable characters have backfired. Earlier this year, I read Social Creature by Tara Isabella Burton. Here’s the review I posted on Goodreads:
I’ve had the hardest time deciding what I think about this book. One of the reasons I was drawn to it was because I’d seen it compared to Donna Tartt and Gillian Flynn, two writers whose work I love. While I understand why one would make those comparisons, Tartt and Flynn offer a subtly and complexity that I just didn’t see in this novel. I was interested enough in the story to finish reading it, but I can’t say I truly enjoyed the process due to the outlandish nature of certain characters and their rather gross behavior. One thing I did really like, though, was how this book used social media to explore how addictive likes and comments can be when you’re desperate to be seen and loved.
Social Creature didn’t work for me for a number of reasons, and one of them was because of the characters. They were unlikable for sure, but my problem with the characterization went deeper than that because their badness seemed more clichéd than real and organic to the story.
The unlikable characters in Gone Girl (whose behavior was also outlandish) seemed ideally suited to the world Flynn created for them, whereas the unlikable characters in Social Creature seemed contrived. It was as if Flynn wrote her novel because she thought of these interesting people and wanted to explore their story and Burton wrote hers because she thought of an exciting plot.
There’s nothing wrong or right about either method. Social Creature got some rave reviews, and I know people who despised Gone Girl. Literary likes and dislikes are subjective, and every reader has the right to read whatever she wants without judgment.
To be honest, I’m not sure there’s much point to this post, but I just wanted to get out some of the ideas I’ve been stewing on. I always like getting feedback from readers, but I’d love it even more for this post.
Do you like or dislike books based on unlikable characters? What are some examples of books that did or didn’t work for you? What’s the most important quality when you’re looking for a good book? Let me know in the comments below.
WHAT: A Southern writer known for her short stories, novels, essays, and literary criticism. She was a devout Catholic who suffered from lupus.
WHEN: Born March 25, 1925; died of lupus on August 3, 1964
WHERE: Born in Savannah, Georgia; died in Milledgeville, Georgia
WHY SHE MATTERS: O’Connor has a fiction style that’s all her own. She blends the spiritual and the grotesque, the comic and the tragic, moments of grace and moments of violence. Her work still provokes passionate conversations and shocks with its surprising twists. Her nonfiction writing is full of humor, vulnerability, and spiritual insights.