Wednesday, January 1, 2020

The Decade's Top Twenty: 2011-2019: A Recap

During the past nine years I have maintained this blog, and my reading lists on it, with varying degrees of accuracy. Some years every nonfiction and quality fiction book I read was faithfully recorded, others, not so much. Even with the lazy years and being one year shy of a decade, it is humbling to look back and realize that I recorded 620 books as read over the last nine years; I remembered to record an average of 68.9 books a year. In America, the mean average (the number inflated by the most avid readers) is 12 per year, but the median (meaning the number read by the typical reader) is only 4 per year. My goal as we enter the third decade of the 21st Century is to faithfully record every nonfiction and quality fiction book I read (I love romance novels but do not track those) and see what my number is at the end of 2029.

I thought it would be fun to do a Top Twenty list of the the number one fiction and nonfiction picks for each of the nine years the blog has been active plus a couple of wild cards. That means these twenty books have beat out six hundred(!) others to make the list. At the end, just as I do on my annual lists, I'll list each year's top audiobooks, which usually amounts to one or two from each year. Some titles include some kind of a synopsis, others don't. Some titles are linked to their review; hover your cursor to check, as they ended up looking different colors and states of underline here.

The Recap:

Top Ten Fiction:
2011: The Book Thief by Markus Zusak (World War II Germany: an ordinary German neighborhood...narrated by “Death”...profound)
2012: Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas
2012: The Poisonwoood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver
2013: The Painted Veil by W. Somerset Maugham
2014: The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd (Hetty and Sarah will live inside my head for a very long time.)
2015: Bohemian Gospel by Dana Chamblee Carpenter (Strongest novel I have read in forever; originality; deep characters; great setting; tight plotting)
2016: The Lilac Girls by Martha Hall Kelly (I received a galley of this novel and began talking about it weeks before it was available to the public; my enthusiasm never waned all through the year. Considering that books I read at the beginning of the year sometimes get short shifted when it comes to the weeding process for the "Top Ten" list, it speaks volumes about how memorable this one truly is.)
2017: The Heart’s Invisible Furies by John Boyne (John Boyne is best known for his stark, shocking novel, The Boy in the Striped Pajamas. He has managed to take all the emotion that he poured into that YA novel and double it in his newest adult release, The Heart’s Invisible Furies. This novel explores those universal questions: who am I?, where do I come from?, and where am I going? Layer in an intricately wrought exploration of love, and you have a novel being justifiably hailed as “transcendent.” As I think back on reading this tale, it isn’t plot twists or even the characterizations that come into my mind. It is the way the book deposited a lump in my throat and a tightness in my chest every time I cracked open its cover.)
2018: The Great Alone by Kristin Hannah (If you follow my reading life, you might recall that I really hated Hannah’s much lauded The Nightingale. Taking that into consideration and the fact that the last book I read that was set here in Alaska, Dave Eggers’s Heroes of the Frontier, was just flat out awful in every regard, I had darkest depths of a crevasse expectations for The Great Alone. Since I wrote a review for this novel, I’ll direct you there for more of my thoughts.)
2019: The Lost Queen by Signe Pike (This is one of those genre bending novels that will appeal to a variety of readers. Between its covers you will find an historical fiction telling of the life of a real queen, Languoreth, in sixth century Scotland. Set in the era of the confluence of ancient pagan beliefs and Christianity, the novel is imbrued in a spirit of mysticism and taut with the kind of conflict that only an all out brawl to preserve ones' way of life can render. This novel will obviously find favor with readers of historical fiction and those who have a fascination with ancient Scotland, but those who love fantasy, myths and legends, strong woman protagonists, and atmospheric writing will also find much to love here.)

Top Ten Nonfiction:
2011: Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand (World War II Pacific theater/biography: fantastic writing; story so amazing in parts it is difficult to believe it is not fiction)
2011: The Fear by Peter Godwin (Contemporary Zimbabwe: possibly the most powerful book I have ever read)
2012: Ghost Soldiers by Hampton Sides (nonfiction)
2013: The Boys in the Boat by Daniel James Brown
2014: Four Queens: The Provencal Sisters Who Ruled Europe by Nancy Goldstone (A wonderful story of four sisters who’s lives paint a vivid picture of life in thirteenth-century Europe.)
2015: In the Kingdom of Ice by Hampton Sides (Not as good as Ghost Soldiers, but still has characters you tuck away in your heart and a fascinating tale.)
2016: The Way to the Spring by Ben Ehrenreich (Without a doubt, this book gets my vote for the work that hasn't received near the attention it deserves. It is difficult, as an American writer, to write a book about the side of a conflict--in this case the Palestinians living in the Occupied Territories--that most Americans do not support. Given recent decisions made by the Israeli court system regarding illegal actions by Israeli settlers in the Occupied Territories, I would love to see more American readers give Ben's book another look.)
2017: The Fact of a Body: A Murder and a Memoir by Alexandria Marzano Lesnevich (I knew from the moment I finished this true crime story that it would be my number one nonfiction of the year. It is just that striking; I’ve never read another book like it. The author tells the story of her own abuse woven into the fabric of the story of a death penalty criminal for whom she has been tasked to prepare a legal defense. It is a story of wrestling with demons, finding moral footing, and exploring whether truth can ever be an absolute. If you struggle with dealing with an abusive past, this might be too intense for you; for all others, this is a must read. This would be a fabulous, fabulous book club selection!)
2018: In Extremis: The Life and Death of the War Correspondent Marie Colvin by Lindsey Hilsum (One of the biggest issue that I tend to have with biographers is that they fall in love with their subjects. It would have been easy for Hilsum, who was both a friend and a colleague of Marie Colvin, to do so. Marie Colvin is, without a doubt, the most renowned female war correspondent of all time and was loved by those who spent time with her in the world’s darkest places for her willingness to help, positive attitude, courage, and passion for the mission she felt called to—that of shining a light on the most egregious happenings so that the world could not claim ignorance. For all her wonderful attributes, Marie Colvin fought some sizable personal demons every day. Lindsey Hilsum shows her readers that part of what made this woman so awe-inspiring was that everything didn’t come easily for her, that as dark as her professional world was, her personal world often shone rather less than bright, too. This is an outstanding, if at times grim, biography that I recommend to anyone curious about imbedded war correspondents. recommended for book clubs)
2019: The Thousand-Mile War by Brian Garfield (This is a work of military nonfiction, which isn't usually my favorite genre by a long shot. However, Garfield, who wrote fiction thrillers, was clearly passionate about his subject and brought all his storytelling skills to the table. The book, a history of Alaska's Aleutian Islands and the role they played in World War II, was chosen by me as part of a high school Alaska History curriculum I wrote and taught last school year. All of my students and I approached the book with a bit of hesitation due to its length, boring cover (shallow, I know), and potential to be very dry. We were all pleasantly surprised and soon found ourselves immersed. Garfield showed his suspense writer chops, keeping up a brisk pace and setting a vivid scene, but what he did best is something not all thriller writers do well: he made us really, really fall in love with the men at the heart of his tale and care about what happened to them. Despite its length and 1960s publication date (mid-20th century history books tend to lack the narrative flair of those written in the 21st), this work is highly readable and engaging.)

Top Audiobooks:
2011: Parrot and Olivier in America by Peter Carey
(narrated by Humphrey Bower, who does such an excellent job with Parrot’s and Olivier’s voices that I thought there were two separate narrators)2011: The Book Thief by Markus Zusak
(narrated by Allan Corduner, who is absolutely pitch perfect as the narrator, “Death”)
2012: Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston, narrated by the incomparable Ruby Dee.
2013: North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell, narrated by Juliet Stevenson
2014: The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd (Powerfully told through the excellent narration of Adepero Oduye and Jenna Lamia.)
2015: No audios listed for the year
2016: A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James (This complex tale of life in Bob Marley's Jamaica earned its author a well-deserved Booker Prize. Although the novel only earned three stars from me, its prose, scope, and characters definitely deserved much higher honors. The reason I rated it so low was because the subject matter and language (both profane and dialectal) made it such a difficult read that I cannot say that I truly enjoyed it. The audio--which featured an ensemble cast of narrators: Robertson Dean, Cherise Boothe, Dwight Bacquie, Ryan Anderson, Jonathan McClain, Robert Younis, and Thom Rivera--was very helpful to anyone who struggles to read the dense dialect of an unfamiliar culture. One huge downside to listening to this one is that it shifts lighting fast through a large cast of characters and back and forth along a very lengthy timeline. The voices used for some of the characters were so close that if I missed the announcement of who was speaking, or came back to listening after pausing it for a time, I was quite lost. Overall, though, I think the audio is the way to go with this one if you struggle, as I did, trying to read the dialect in print.)
2017: Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi (This was another book that was strongly in the running for my number one fiction slot this year. I’m glad the audio is so fabulous, allowing me to give this story of two sisters, one sold into slavery, the other married to a slaver, its due. This novel, which reads like a series of interconnected stories, traces the descendants of both sisters for three hundred years. The audio can get a little challenging to follow who is narrating, but the quality of the narration makes up for those issues. Whether you do it in print or audio, this is a must read! If you would like to read my full review, you can do so here.)
2018: Beartown and its conclusion, Us Against You, by Fredrik Backman (Narrator Marin Ireland not only masters voices for each of the characters, she successfully conveys all the subtle emotional nuances needed to accurately impart the message behind the happenings in Beartown. There was some criticism that Marin Ireland didn’t attempt Swedish accents or that the publisher didn’t select a Swedish narrator for the audiobook, but I disagree. Her performance is so pitch perfect in every other regard. I also feel that a Swedish narrator would have taken the global aspect away from the story, which is written in such a way that it is not obviously set in Sweden. Because an American narrated the story, I could absolutely picture this tale playing out in any hockey crazy small American town. Fantastic story. Fantastic narration. What more could you ask for?)
2019: The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse by Louise Erdrich (This is narrated by Anna Fields, a narrator that was completely new to me. Everything from her individual voices to a tone that leant the novel just the right amount of gravity made this the perfect road trip listen as we drove through the area in the US where the book is set.)
2019: Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (This is narrated so ably by Adjoa Andoh that at times I would have sworn there was more than one narrator. Not only did she master and consistently deploy all the many accents of this vast cast, she gave each of those voices character attributes that made them breathe: the jaded, exhausted med student single mother, the impatient elderly relative, the opportunistic house-husband.)

2019: The Top Ten

This year's Top Ten is extra fun because these are the books that will define the end of a decade for me. Numbers-wise, this has been the worst year in recent memory, with only sixty-five books read. I can't remember the last time I read less than seventy, and only a shocking few--twenty-two--were print. In general, the books were far shorter than normal as well. If you would like to see my complete list of 2019 reads and my stats, you will find them HERE. A list of all my five star books is HERE. On the plus side, for the first time in a very long time, I completed a fairly sizable challenge, the Reading Women Challenge. My results are HERE. Despite having a smaller pool of contenders, this year's Top Ten could easily have held their own in any reading year.

Top Five Fiction:
It was a difficult decision settling on the best of my five fiction selections. The first three books on this list were all strong novels, and I loved them all for different reasons. In the end, my number one fiction of 2019 is Signe Pike's The Lost Queen.


The Lost Queen is one of those genre bending novels that will appeal to a variety of readers. Between its covers you will find an historical fiction telling of the life of a real queen, Languoreth, in sixth century Scotland. Set in the era of the confluence of ancient pagan beliefs and Christianity, the novel is imbrued in a spirit of mysticism and taut with the kind of conflict that only an all out brawl to preserve ones' way of life can render. This novel will obviously find favor with readers of historical fiction and those who have a fascination with ancient Scotland, but those who love fantasy, myths and legends, strong woman protagonists, and atmospheric writing will also find much to love here.










The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse by Louise Erdrich was also a huge hit for me this year. Storytelling at its finest is on display in this story of a priest, Father Damien, who has spent his life serving the Ojibwe. An intricate web is woven out of the priest's own secrets and those of a nun, Sister Leopolda. The twining together of their lives and Father Damien's end-of-life wrestling with truth at all costs is told against the backdrop of the dissipation of traditions and the dying of a way of life. This novel is all about character and moral dilemma.





Roses by Leila Meacham was a huge surprise for me and another that spoke loudly in my mind as I tried to select the number one novel of 2019. I had never heard of this novel or its author and selected it on a whim while perusing ideas for a multi-generational novel for the Reading Women Challenge. I was in Texas at the time and wanted something that was set there. This novel follows three founding families of a small east Texas town, spanning the twentieth century and three generations. All about legacy, this narrative is centered around choices made at pivotal moments and the trickle down affect they can have on the ones we love the most.



Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, while not at the top of my list, was a novel that I pondered a lot while I listened to it and after. Its immigrant subject matter is definitely timely, but I think it will hold its own in any decade, as there will always be movement of peoples around the globe. I loved how unapologetic this novel is and feel that that is what sets it apart from other novels I've read in this genre. Even though I have never been an immigrant in the US, I was raised overseas and laughed aloud at how Adichie's characters perceived their adopted country and its natives. The point that she makes--that everything American isn't the only way or even the best way--is very valid and makes for reading that is in turns humorous and poignant.



The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy seems to be one of those books that is either a hit or a miss with people, and I can see why. The first half of this story--about an Indian family and how caste and racism can result in a chain of events that begins slowly and gains momentum until the climactic moment that ruptures their lives--was slow moving and full of nebulous plot lines. That, combined with prose that was a bit too formulaically sprinkled with figurative language for me at times, left me doubting the book would get more than three stars out of me. However, once those plot lines began to weave themselves together, Arundhati Roy's ingenious grasp of story crafting swept all other considerations away and sealed this novel's spot in my Top Ten.


Top Five Nonfiction:
Choosing my number one nonfiction is always tricky because there is such a vast variety of material. This year was different in that one book really grabbed me. The biggest surprise came by way of the book's genre. Brian Garfield's The Thousand-Mile War had me from start to finish.

The Thousand-Mile War by Brian Garfield is a work of military nonfiction, which isn't usually my favorite genre by a long shot. However, Garfield, who wrote fiction thrillers, was clearly passionate about his subject and brought all his storytelling skills to the table. The book, a history of Alaska's Aleutian Islands and the role they played in World War II, was chosen by me as part of a high school Alaska History curriculum I wrote and taught last school year. All of my students and I approached the book with a bit of hesitation due to its length, boring cover (shallow, I know), and potential to be very dry. We were all pleasantly surprised and soon found ourselves immersed. Garfield showed his suspense writer chops, keeping up a brisk pace and setting a vivid scene, but what he did best is something not all thriller writers do well: he made us really, really fall in love with the men at the heart of his tale and care about what happened to them. Despite its length and 1960s publication date (mid-20th century history books tend to lack the narrative flair of those written in the 21st), this work is highly readable and engaging.



Blood and Thunder by Hampton Sides would have been the book that all my reading friends, having seen my list of 2019 five star reads, would have predicted would be my top nonfiction pick of the year. Don't get me wrong. I loved this book about the conquest of the American West, focusing on Kit Carson's three pivotal decades from the heyday of the mountain man to the dying of both his way of life and that of the Navajo and other Native American tribes. That said, I feel like Sides chose a topic that was a bit too vast with this one. In his other books such as Ghost Soldiers and In the Kingdom of Ice, Sides was able to tell a tighter story that focused on the men at the heart of his tales. While you do get a good feel for Carson, I think I was a bit disappointed that it wasn't on the same visceral level that you get to know the men in Garfield's Alaska, the level that Sides normally delivers on. As a history, Sides definitely still delivers in his fantastically narrative five-star way, but because history is, for me, about the people who made it, Garfield gets top billing.



Spineless by Juli Berwald was bound to be a winner for me as I am endlessly fascinated by the creatures at its heart: jellyfish. This is one of those books that the entire time I was reading it I was constantly saying, "Did you know...?" to anyone who was nearby. In addition, I related in an intimate way with the author of this natural history memoir. Juli Berwood, like me, put her own academic pursuits on hold to raise her family and then gradually drifted back to them as her children grew more self-sufficient and made fewer demands on her time. The biggest complaint reviewers have about this memoir is that there is either too much personal narrative or too much natural history, dependent upon what the reader wanted or expected. I found it the perfect balance of both.



Men We Reaped by Jesmyn Ward was one of the first books I read for the year and one that stayed with me. While I could not identify at all with the subject matter--the author's loss, over the span of five years, of five young men who were important in her life, losses that stemmed from growing up black in the poverty and racism of rural Mississippi--I felt that reading this book helped me to better understand and sympathize with their reality. We cannot walk in each other's shoes, but books by someone from the inside which so clearly, for the understanding of outsiders, unpack the experiences of their people can go a long way towards building a bridge across racism and class divides. This is a beautiful eulogy that gives a greater meaning to the all too brief lives of those young men.



Heartland by Sarah Smarsh is another such book. When I first read about the book, I thought that is sounded like one big long excuse. I couldn't have been more wrong. Just like Jesmyn Ward, Sarah Smarsh is able to look at herself, her community, and her country and see, without excuses or judgement, both the micro and macro picture of poverty in working class middle America. While Ward's book is about black poverty, Smarsh's tells the story of white poverty. As with Ward's book, this is cultural commentary at its finest and from someone on the inside. Reading these two books together was extra eyeopening. 



Top Audiobooks:
This year two audiobooks, both from books that made my Top Ten, both so different from each other, really stood out equally among this year's listens:

The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse is narrated by Anna Fields, a narrator that was completely new to me. Everything from her individual voices to a tone that leant the novel just the right amount of gravity made this the perfect road trip listen as we drove through the area in the US where the book is set.

Americanah is narrated so ably by Adjoa Andoh that at times I would have sworn there was more than one narrator. Not only did she master and consistently deploy all the many accents of this vast cast, she gave each of those voices character attributes that made them breathe: the jaded, exhausted med student single mother, the impatient elderly relative, the opportunistic house-husband.


Reading Women Challenge 2019 -- COMPLETE!

reading women
Learn more about Reading Women HERE.
For 2019, I decided to try a new challenge, the Reading Women Challenge. Not that I had much hope of succeeding. Challenges for me tend to be more of a roadmap for what I'd like to read during a given year, and I rarely succeed at them. This challenge, however, proved to be an exception to the rule. 

As the year progressed, I noticed that I was making very good headway and was thoroughly enjoying the books I read, which motivated me to continue. The Reading Women Challenge encourages the reader to read books by and about women and makes your reading life a bit more focused by giving you specific guidelines to follow as to what you read. I followed the spirit of the challenge to the letter; all of the books I read were by female authors and had women as their subject or protagonist.

Many readers, even women, find upon analyzing their reading that they read books that are predominantly written by men and about men. When I looked at my reading life from the previous few years, I discovered that for me that wasn't necessarily true. Regardless, I decided to give the 2019 challenge a go.

I would like to give a shout out to my many friends and family who responded with great enthusiasm to my Facebook post requesting suggestions for the 2019 categories. You will see many of your suggestions reflected in the books I ultimately read. Thanks for helping to make my reading year wonderful! I look forward to all your suggestions as we move forward into the next decade. 

If you would like to see the 2020 Challenge list, you can find it HERE.

Here is my completed Reading Women Challenge 2019:

Reading Women Challenge 2019: (This challenge celebrates women, as authors and subjects. For more info: readingwomenpodcast.com)

1. Mystery/thriller by a WOC: My Sister, the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite (⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️)
2. Woman with a mental illness: Sybil Exposed by Debbie Nathan (⭐️⭐️⭐️)
3. Author from Nigeria or New Zealand: Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️)
4. About or set in Appalachia: The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek by Kim Michele Richardson (⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️)
5. Children's book: Becoming Madeleine by Charlotte Jones Voiklis (⭐️⭐️⭐️)
6. Multi-generation family saga: Roses by Leila Meacham (⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️)
7. Featuring a woman in science: Rosalind Franklin: The Dark Lady of DNA by Brenda Maddox (⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️)
8. A play: A Raisin in the Sun by Lorraine Hansberry (⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️)
9. A novella: The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman (⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️)
10. About a woman athlete: Run the World by Becky Wade (⭐️⭐️⭐️)
11. Featuring a religion other than your own: I, Tituba, Black Witch of Salem by Maryse Conde (⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️)
12. Lambda Literary Award winner: Another Brooklyn by Jacqueline Woodson (⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️)
13. A myth retelling: Circe by Madeline Miller (⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️)
14. A translated book published before 1945: Ourika by Claire de Duras (⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️)
15. Written by a South Asian author: The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy (⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️)
16. By an indigenous woman: The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse by Louise Erdrich (⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️)
17. From 2018 Reading Women Award shortlist: Hunger by Roxane Gay (⭐️⭐️⭐️)
18. Romance of love story: I Owe You One by Sophie Kinsella (⭐️⭐️⭐️)
19. About nature: Spineless by Juli Berwald (⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️)
20. Historical fiction: The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane by Katherine Howe (⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️)
21. Bought or borrowed in 2019: The Lost Queen by Signe Pike (⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️)
22. Read because of the cover: The Death of Mrs. Westaway by Ruth Ware (⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️)
23. From a series: The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet by Becky Chambers (⭐️⭐️⭐️)
24. YA book by a WOC: Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo 
25. BONUS: By Jesmyn Ward: Men We Reaped (⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️)
26. BONUS: By Jhumpa Lahiri: Interpreter of Maladies (⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️)

#ReadingWomenChallenge

Wednesday, February 27, 2019

When You Read This by Mary Adkins ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️⭐️


When I was offered an Advanced Reader's copy of Mary Adkins’s debut novel, When You Read This, I was a bit skeptical. The book has a very serious theme: a woman passes away tragically young; how do her death and her final wishes affect those she leaves behind? The epistolary format of the book, composed mostly of blog entries, emails, and text messages, seemed a little irreverent to me. However, I enjoyed Maria Semple’s Where’d You Go, Bernadette?, which also utilizes an epistolary format, so I decided to give it a go.

I’m so happy I did. Through the blog posts of Iris (the woman who passed away from cancer) and various forms of communication primarily involving her boss, Smith; her replacement at work, Carl; and her sister, Jade, this novel achieves flow and a lovely arc of emotion as those left behind find their way through grief and living and come to terms with how they can honor Iris’s final wishes in ways that also honor their goals for their own lives and help them come through Iris’s death more in touch with themselves.

Watching Jade and Smith process their shared grief as they read through blog posts and drafts that Iris left behind resonated with me. I lost my mom and my daughter within ten months of each other four years ago. After their passing, I thought about so many things that I wished I had done with them or spoken about with them. I realized, in particular with my mother, how many questions I had never asked her, questions for which I will now never have the answers.

I think most readers will feel a kinship with the characters in this book and be able to identify with those left behind after Iris’s death. The only reason this book didn’t get a fifth star from me is something which in another reader might be why they would give it a fifth star. I didn’t like some of the humor in the book. Sometimes it felt forced and other times it seemed silly or inappropriate. Other readers might like this aspect of the novel because it keeps it from being too somber.

If you have never tried an epistolary novel, this one would be a great place to begin as it utilizes a number of elements characteristic of this format and does so in an effective manner. If you are already a fan, I think you will enjoy this novel immensely. The only people I might caution against this book are those who have very recently lost a loved one as some of the humor might not meet you where you are right now. 

Monday, January 14, 2019

2018: The Top Ten


In 2018, I didn’t have as many five-star reads as I did in 2017—only nine, five fiction and six nonfiction, as opposed to a total of sixteen, ten fiction and six nonfiction. In 2016, sixteen books also garnered top honors. Historically, I tend to be a bit tougher on my nonfiction reads, and this year, for the first time ever, I read more nonfiction than fiction. Usually, though, including this year, they are fairly close, so I don’t know if that can really explain my somewhat lackluster year. To be fair to the books that did earn five stars this year, the ones that did shine did so brightly.
This year’s top ten rose to the top of a pile of 77 total reads—the lower end of average for me. Here are the basic stats:

Total number of books: 77
Total fiction: 34
Total nonfiction: 43
Number of print books: 35
Number of pages read: 11,688
Number of audio books: 42
Number of hours listened to: 523

2018 Top Fiction:

This year’s top novel was a difficult choice, but there was one book that I talked about more than any other. It could be that it is set where I live, or it could be that I went into it with very low expectations. No matter the reason, here it is:

The Great Alone by Kristin Hannah snags Lit in the Last Frontier’s top fiction read of the year. If you follow my reading life, you might recall that I really hated Hannah’s much lauded The Nightingale. Taking that into consideration and the fact that the last book I read that was set here in Alaska, Dave Eggers’s Heroes of the Frontier, was just flat out awful in every regard, I had darkest depths of a crevasse expectations for The Great Alone. Since I wrote a review for this novel, I’ll direct you there for more of my thoughts.

2018 Fiction Runners-up:

Rounding out the other four fiction slots, in no particular order, are:

If the Creek Don't RiseIf the Creek Don’t Rise by Leah Weiss: This book is fabulous example of Southern Fiction and was recommended to me by two of my favorite readers, a Tennessee lady and a North-easterner. I found it interesting that two friends of mine who don’t share a common reading circle and who generally enjoy different books from each other would both rave about this evocative and wrenching debut. Within its own genre, If the Creek Don’t Rise was also chosen by the Southern Independent Booksellers Association as a top pick. As is common in Southern Fiction, this book is drenched in that slow burning melancholy of lives that happen to a person—as opposed to lives mastered—and the systemic inability to alter your trajectory once on it. I wanted so much for our protagonist that I just had a terrible feeling wouldn’t be within her grasp. I read this outstanding novel at the very beginning of the year and even then had no doubt that it would make this list; I cannot recommend it highly enough. recommended for book clubs

As Bright as HeavenAs Bright As Heaven by Susan Meissner: Meissner is one of the many, many authors whom I have never read and always mean to “get to.” I read the synopsis of this novel in the publisher’s pre-publication marketing and was drawn to its unique plot line. Set in 1918 Philadelphia, this lovely, character driven novel centers on a mother and her three daughters, newly arrived in the city when the Spanish Flu arrives and alters all of their lives beyond imagining. I loved every minute of following these women as they built not the life they had anticipated but one even richer in love, accomplishments, and service. recommended for book clubs

Us Against You
Us Against You by Fredrik Backman: This novel is the conclusion to Swedish novelist Backman’s Beartown; you absolutely must read that novel first. Both novels are set in a small, rural Swedish town and show what can happen when priorities become skewed. I enjoyed both novels, but the finale earned the fifth star because the plot didn’t always go in the direction I thought it would (or wanted it to), the characters that were interesting in the first book became riveting in this one, and the conclusion of the message was profound without being trite.

In Every Moment We Are Still AliveIn Every Moment We Are Still Alive by Tom Malmquist: Another great work from a Swedish writer, this one is very different stylistically—Malmquist’s writing is far more spare and artistic (he is a poet), and this is an autobiographical novel (the main character is tellingly named Tom). His style, tone, and personal engagement are perfect for this stirring story of a man trying to go on in the wake of his wife’s death, a death which has left Tom alone raising their baby daughter. This is not an easy read from start to finish, but it is short (again, not surprising from a poet) and will leave you thinking about it for a very long time.

2018 Top Nonfiction:

As the year began to draw to a close, I had five five star nonfiction reads and no idea how I would decide between several of them for the top slot. In December I read Lindsey Hilsum’s standout biography of Marie Colvin, and I knew without a doubt that I had found a winner. So, Lit in the Last Frontier’s top spot for nonfiction goes to:

In Extremis: The Life and Death of the War Correspondent Marie ColvinIn Extremis: The Life and Death of the War Correspondent Marie Colvin by Lindsey Hilsum: One of the biggest issue that I tend to have with biographers is that they fall in love with their subjects. It would have been easy for Hilsum, who was both a friend and a colleague of Marie Colvin, to do so. Marie Colvin is, without a doubt, the most renowned female war correspondent of all time and was loved by those who spent time with her in the world’s darkest places for her willingness to help, positive attitude, courage, and passion for the mission she felt called to—that of shining a light on the most egregious happenings so that the world could not claim ignorance. For all her wonderful attributes, Marie Colvin fought some sizable personal demons every day. Lindsey Hilsum shows her readers that part of what made this woman so awe-inspiring was that everything didn’t come easily for her, that as dark as her professional world was, her personal world often shone rather less than bright, too. This is an outstanding, if at times grim, biography that I recommend to anyone curious about imbedded war correspondents. recommended for book clubs

2018 Nonfiction Runners-up:

The other four nonfiction books that earned top honors, in no particular order, are:

Shoe Dog: A Memoir by the Creator of NikeShoe Dog by Phil Knight: This might look to be an improbable book to make the top ten of someone who reads as much serious nonfiction as I do, but there is a lot to like here. Phil Knight is the founder of Nike, and this is the story of how a college project—that absolutely no one thought was plausible—morphed into a fantastic success story. A former collegiate runner, Knight shares what drove him as an athlete and how he used the mental attributes and knowledge of equipment honed as a competitive runner and the networking connections made during those years as the driving factors in beginning and then growing Nike. This story is inspiring and fast paced. Even if you have no interest in beginning a business, it is a great read about an iconic product and the man behind it.

The Radium Girls: The Dark Story of America's Shining WomenRadium Girls by Kate Moore: Until I read In Extremis in December, it was looking like this work would be my top nonfiction of the year. Another book that covers many micro topics in the course of telling its central tale, this story of small town America and unscrupulous company practices made many, many “best of” lists this year. During the first decade of the 1900s, paint containing radium began being used to paint numbers on clock faces and aviation equipment because the paint glowed in the dark. This book tells the story of the young women—whose small, deft hands were particularly suited to the minutia of the work—who painted the faces of the watches, clocks, and instruments. By the 1920s, it was becoming apparent that these women were all suffering terribly—and dying—as a result of their work. The book tells of their desperate fight during their dying years to get justice from the companies they worked for and bring awareness to their plight.

The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of CancerThe Emperor of All Maladies by Siddhartha Mukhergee: I am very late to the reading party with regard to this book depicting the history of cancer. If you have read a broadly about the history of disease, then a good portion of this book will be a refresher course on the topic but from the standpoint of how that history relates to cancer. It was yet another work that was a strong candidate for my top nonfiction spot. The reason I didn’t select it was because I don’t think it is a book that will have the universal appeal of In Extremis. There are times when the book gets a bit bogged down in medical jargon, and if you don’t come at the subject with a decent knowledge base and interest in the subject, you will likely end up skimming a bit. If however, it is a subject you enjoy, you will love this book.

Ticker: The Quest to Create an Artificial HeartTicker: The Quest to Create an Artificial Heart by Mimi Swartz: My dad and I had been talking about the research that led to the artificial heart. I was pretty positive that it had its genesis at the University of Utah (where I had heart surgery), but my dad was positive it began in Austin, Texas. Shortly after our discussion, I saw this book in its publisher’s new book marketing. Dad was correct, and this is the story. I loved this book! Mimi Swartz does a great job of making not only the history of the artificial heart interesting and understandable to the layperson but of bringing to vibrant life the many researchers. The book also tackles the path that any medical device takes to FDA approval, the ethical issues, and the emotional and familial stressors of the researchers. While this book is an easier read than The Emperor of All Maladies, I still felt it lacked the broad appeal that might have earned it my top spot. That said, the artificial heart is one of the most significant medical milestones of the twentieth century, and this readable history will find many devotees.

Nonfiction Near Miss: I only had one extra nonfiction title that didn’t make the top five: Nine Continents by Xiaolu Guo

2018 Top Audiobook:

BeartownBeartown and its conclusion, Us Against You, by Fredrik Backman were the absolute best audiobooks I listened to this year. Narrator Marin Ireland not only masters voices for each of the characters, she successfully conveys all the subtle emotional nuances needed to accurately impart the message behind the happenings in Beartown. There was some criticism that Marin Ireland didn’t attempt Swedish accents or that the publisher didn’t select a Swedish narrator for the audiobook, but I disagree. Her performance is so pitch perfect in every other regard. I also feel that a Swedish narrator would have taken the global aspect away from the story, which is written in such a way that it is not obviously set in Sweden. Because an American narrated the story, I could absolutely picture this tale playing out in any hockey crazy small American town. Fantastic story. Fantastic narration. What more could you ask for?

2018 Big Miss: Spies in the Congo: America’s Atomic Mission in World War II by Susan Williams. It baffled me that someone could manage to take a spy story, set in colonial Africa and based upon the secrecy of the hunt for uranium, and make it so incredibly boring. This book desperately needed an editor to weed out the minutia and bring into focus the heart of what should have been a fascinating tale.

Hopefully you will have a chance to add one of these outstanding books to your stack! I wish for you all a wonderfully bookish year!