“When I was ten, I read fairy tales in secret and would have been ashamed if I had been found doing so. Now that I am fifty I read them openly. When I became a man I put away childish things, including the fear of childishness and the desire to be very grown up.”-C.S. Lewis
The year 2018 has been a great year for books. Not only have we seen diverse titles do well both popular and critically, but I feel like the discourse has (mostly) been a really productive place for examining what different genres of literature can do right and where they need to evolve.
For myself personally, this year has been a fun year because I have, after a lifetime of denial, gotten into romance novels and it’s honestly been a great boon to my mental health. The reason I included that C.S Lewis quote at the top was because I think it is a good reminder of how we put ourselves into these false mindsets of what it means to be a sophisticated reader. Read what makes you happy and what makes you a better person.
Here are ten books that were not only excellent in 2018 but made me feel as I read them.
10) A Duke by Default: Reluctant Royals by Alyssa Cole
Why I loved it:
Alyssa Cole is such an amazing writer because you can tell the kind of research she puts into every piece. In A Duke by Default, we follow Portia Hobbs, a New York City socialite who takes an apprenticeship with a swordmaker in Scotland as part of a series of steps in her personal recovery process.
Yes, the book is fun and sexy, but I really enjoyed how it touched on recovery as part of Portia’s journey. So often when we follow characters who are trying to get over past addictive habits they are shamed, and supporting characters push the lead closer and closer to the edge in this tragedy tango. Cole allows Portia to be a flawed human and still deserving of love and understanding, which we could all use a bit more of.
New York City socialite and perpetual hot mess Portia Hobbs is tired of disappointing her family, friends, and—most importantly—herself. An apprenticeship with a struggling swordmaker in Scotland is a chance to use her expertise and discover what she’s capable of. Turns out she excels at aggravating her gruff silver fox boss…when she’s not having inappropriate fantasies about his sexy Scottish burr.
Tavish McKenzie doesn’t need a rich, spoiled American telling him how to run his armory…even if she is infuriatingly good at it. Tav tries to rebuff his apprentice—and his attraction to her—but when Portia accidentally discovers that he’s the secret son of a duke, rough-around-the-edges Tav becomes her newest makeover project.
Forging metal into weapons and armor is one thing, but when desire burns out of control and the media spotlight gets too hot to bear, can a commoner turned duke and his posh apprentice find lasting love?
9) If You Don’t Have Anything Nice to Say by Leila Sales
Why I loved it:
I reviewed a lot of really great young adult books this year, but when I was going through this list to pick which would be on this list, If You Don’t Have Anything Nice to Say kept rising to the top. It touches on the internet culture and woke-wars that exist so aptly that I’m glad it exists for younger audiences.
Winter Halperin is a deeply unlikable protagonist who says a really terrible thing, but it does allow us as the readers to ask ourselves if the energy spent into shaming her is worth it in the end, and why is shame sometimes the only way to get people to see their mistakes?
Before we go any further, I want you to understand this: I am not a good person.
We all want to be seen. We all want to be heard. But what happens when we’re seen and heard saying or doing the wrong things?
When Winter Halperin―former spelling bee champion, aspiring writer, and daughter of a parenting expert―gets caught saying the wrong thing online, her life explodes. All across the world, people know what she’s done, and none of them will forgive her.
With her friends gone, her future plans cut short, and her identity in shambles, Winter is just trying to pick up the pieces without hurting anyone else. She knows she messed up, but does that mean it’s okay for people to send her hate mail and death threats? Did she deserve to lose all that she’s lost? And is “I’m sorry” ever good enough?
Decide for yourself.
8) Well, That Escalated Quickly: Memoirs and Mistakes of an Accidental Activist by Franchesca Ramsey
Why I loved it:
I don’t think any book can encapsulate the joys and lows of working on the internet any better than Franchesca Ramsey has in Well, That Escalated Quickly. Chronicling her success from the viral internet video “What White Girls Say . . . to Black Girls” to her current life as an activist/influencer, Ramsey uses the book as a guide to help those emerging now, teaching how to be aware of navigating the messy space that is the internet. Especially when it comes to dealing with trolls.
Franchesca Ramsey didn’t set out to be an activist. Or a comedian. Or a commentator on identity, race, and culture, really. But then her YouTube video “What White Girls Say . . . to Black Girls” went viral. Twelve million views viral. Faced with an avalanche of media requests, fan letters, and hate mail, she had two choices: Jump in and make her voice heard or step back and let others frame the conversation. After a crash course in social justice and more than a few foot-in-mouth moments, she realized she had a unique talent and passion for breaking down injustice in America in ways that could make people listen and engage.
In her first book, Ramsey uses her own experiences as an accidental activist to explore the many ways we communicate with each other–from the highs of bridging gaps and making connections to the many pitfalls that accompany talking about race, power, sexuality, and gender in an unpredictable public space…the internet.
WELL, THAT ESCALATED QUICKLY includes Ramsey’s advice on dealing with internet trolls and low-key racists, confessions about being a former online hater herself, and her personal hits and misses in activist debates with everyone from bigoted Facebook friends and misguided relatives to mainstream celebrities and YouTube influencers. With sharp humor and her trademark candor, Ramsey shows readers we can have tough conversations that move the dialogue forward, rather than backward, if we just approach them in the right way.
7) Barracoon: The Story of the Last “Black Cargo” by Zora Neale Hurston
Why I loved it:
Zora Neale Hurston is one of America’s most important authors and folklorists, and in 2018 a previously unpublished work of hers was found. Based on her 1927/1931 interviews with Cudjo Lewis, Barracoon tells the story of his kidnapping and enslavement into the Atlantic slave trade, fifty years after it was outlawed, and subsequent enslavement in the United States.
If you need a reminder of the brutality of slavery and just how near we still are as a nation to its legacy in terms of generational divides, Barracoon shows how close the legacy of slavery is to our modern day.
In 1927, Zora Neale Hurston went to Plateau, Alabama, just outside Mobile, to interview eighty-six-year-old Cudjo Lewis. Of the millions of men, women, and children transported from Africa to America as slaves, Cudjo was then the only person alive to tell the story of this integral part of the nation’s history. Hurston was there to record Cudjo’s firsthand account of the raid that led to his capture and bondage fifty years after the Atlantic slave trade was outlawed in the United States.
In 1931, Hurston returned to Plateau, the African-centric community three miles from Mobile founded by Cudjo and other former slaves from his ship. Spending more than three months there, she talked in depth with Cudjo about the details of his life. During those weeks, the young writer and the elderly formerly enslaved man ate peaches and watermelon that grew in the backyard and talked about Cudjo’s past—memories from his childhood in Africa, the horrors of being captured and held in a barracoon for selection by American slavers, the harrowing experience of the Middle Passage packed with more than 100 other souls aboard the Clotilda, and the years he spent in slavery until the end of the Civil War.
Based on those interviews, featuring Cudjo’s unique vernacular, and written from Hurston’s perspective with the compassion and singular style that have made her one of the preeminent American authors of the twentieth-century, Barracoon masterfully illustrates the tragedy of slavery and of one life forever defined by it. Offering insight into the pernicious legacy that continues to haunt us all, black and white, this poignant and powerful work is an invaluable contribution to our shared history and culture.
6) Born to Be Wilde: The Wildes of Lindow Castle by Eloisa James
Why I loved it:
Eloisa James got me into romance via this third book in her The Wildes of Lindow Castle series, was such a delight to read. Her heroine, Lavinia, is a fantastic character, and reading the push and pull between her and Parth was fantastic. I also appreciated James having Parth be a mixed race male lead, proving once again that diversity in any genre is possible if you want it to be.
For beautiful, witty Lavinia Gray, there’s only one thing worse than having to ask the appalling Parth Sterling to marry her: being turned down by him.
Now the richest bachelor in England, Parth is not about to marry a woman as reckless and fashion-obsessed as Lavinia; he’s chosen a far more suitable bride.
But when he learns of Lavinia’s desperate circumstances, he offers to find her a husband. Even better, he’ll find her a prince.
As usual, there’s no problem Parth can’t fix. But the more time he spends with the beguiling Lavinia, the more he finds himself wondering…
Why does the woman who’s completely wrong feel so right in his arms?
5) The Prince and the Dressmaker by Jen Wang
Why I loved it:
I cried, I smiled, then I cried some more. Jen Wang crafted one of my favorite romances of the year with The Prince and the Dressmaker. It was such an excellent story, with fantastic queer representation in Prince Sebastian. Frances was always incredible with her drive and creativity , despite having to craft her own image outside of Frances. Not to mention the art is fantastic, with some of the best outfit designs I’ve seen this year. It’s a book I will never get tired of revisiting.
Paris, at the dawn of the modern age:
Prince Sebastian is looking for a bride―or rather, his parents are looking for one for him. Sebastian is too busy hiding his secret life from everyone. At night he puts on daring dresses and takes Paris by storm as the fabulous Lady Crystallia―the hottest fashion icon in the world capital of fashion!
Sebastian’s secret weapon (and best friend) is the brilliant dressmaker Frances―one of only two people who know the truth: sometimes this boy wears dresses. But Frances dreams of greatness, and being someone’s secret weapon means being a secret. Forever. How long can Frances defer her dreams to protect a friend? Jen Wang weaves an exuberantly romantic tale of identity, young love, art, and family. A fairy tale for any age, The Prince and the Dressmaker will steal your heart.
4) Not All Dead White Men: Classics and Misogyny in the Digital Age by Donna Zuckerberg
Why I loved it:
As someone who loves the classics, but hates the “Western” elitism that comes out of discourse around them, Donna Zuckerberg’s Not All Dead White Men was a welcome read. Zuckerberg reclaims Greek and Roman antiquity and highlights how the alt-right has taken this period and reshaped it to fit their narratives of misogyny, rather than having a real understanding of the history.
A virulent strain of antifeminism is thriving online that treats women’s empowerment as a mortal threat to men and to the integrity of Western civilization. Its proponents cite ancient Greek and Latin texts to support their claims―arguing that they articulate a model of masculinity that sustained generations but is now under siege.
Donna Zuckerberg dives deep into the virtual communities of the far right, where men lament their loss of power and privilege and strategize about how to reclaim them. She finds, mixed in with weightlifting tips and misogynistic vitriol, the words of the Stoics deployed to support an ideal vision of masculine life. On other sites, pickup artists quote Ovid’s Ars Amatoria to justify ignoring women’s boundaries. By appropriating the Classics, these men lend a veneer of intellectual authority and ancient wisdom to their project of patriarchal white supremacy. In defense or retaliation, feminists have also taken up the Classics online, to counter the sanctioning of violence against women.
Not All Dead White Men reveals that some of the most controversial and consequential debates about the legacy of the ancients are raging not in universities but online.
3) On a Sunbeam by Tillie Walden
Why I loved it:
Tillie Walden is pretty much a genius. One of the youngest Eisner Award winners ever for Spinning, her first graphic novel memoir about her years coming-of-age as a competitive ice skater, Walden published the fantastic follow up in On a Sunbeam. A science-fiction story with a romance at its core, it’s a beautiful story of people try to find and re-build one another together.
Through our protagonist Mia, we get to experience her memories of love, loss, and adventure. Paired with stunning visuals, On a Sunbeam is the kind of story that leaves you wishing there was just one more page.
A ragtag crew travels to the deepest reaches of space, rebuilding beautiful, broken structures to piece the past together.
Two girls meet in boarding school and fall deeply in love―only to learn the pain of loss.
With interwoven timelines and stunning art, award-winning graphic novelist Tillie Walden creates an inventive world, breathtaking romance, and an epic quest for love.
2) No Ashes in the Fire: Coming of Age Black and Free in America by Darnell L. Moore
Why I loved it:
No Ashes in the Fire appeared on my desk and from the moment I read the back it connected with me. In his memoir, Darnell L. Moore discusses his experiences growing up as a Black gay man in America. It is a story fairly close to my own as a Black queer woman and at every page not only could I connect to his fears, but also his hopes.
Moore doesn’t just fill the book with tragedy, but also with the love he has for his family, his community and the desire to see Blackness do better for all its people. It’s a heartwrenching page-turner with imagery you won’t be able to forget.
When Darnell Moore was fourteen, three boys from his neighborhood tried to set him on fire. They cornered him while he was walking home from school, harassed him because they thought he was gay, and poured a jug of gasoline on him. He escaped, but just barely. It wasn’t the last time he would face death.
Three decades later, Moore is an award-winning writer, a leading Black Lives Matter activist, and an advocate for justice and liberation. In No Ashes in the Fire, he shares the journey taken by that scared, bullied teenager who not only survived, but found his calling. Moore’s transcendence over the myriad forces of repression that faced him is a testament to the grace and care of the people who loved him, and to his hometown, Camden, NJ, scarred and ignored but brimming with life. Moore reminds us that liberation is possible if we commit ourselves to fighting for it, and if we dream and create futures where those who survive on society’s edges can thrive.
No Ashes in the Fire is a story of beauty and hope-and an honest reckoning with family, with place, and with what it means to be free.
1) How Long ’til Black Future Month? by N. K. Jemisin
Why I loved it:
One of the greatest living sci-fi/fantasy writers today, N.K. Jemisin released a collection of short stories at the end of November. I hungrily devoured it and relished its pages because Jemisin is always great at surprising me at every turn.
In the sandbox of both our world and parallel universes, Jemisin is able to play with our narrative and emotional expectations through her thoughtful and brilliant writing. If you have felt intimidated picking up one of her series, this collection is a great way to get a taste for her style.
N. K. Jemisin is one of the most powerful and acclaimed authors of our time. In the first collection of her evocative short fiction, which includes never-before-seen stories, Jemisin equally challenges and delights readers with thought-provoking narratives of destruction, rebirth, and redemption.Spirits haunt the flooded streets of New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. In a parallel universe, a utopian society watches our world, trying to learn from our mistakes. A black mother in the Jim Crow South must save her daughter from a fey offering impossible promises. And in the Hugo award-nominated short story “The City Born Great,” a young street kid fights to give birth to an old metropolis’s soul.
What were some of your favorite books this past year?
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