Best Books I Read in 2018... and Reading Stats


Out of 10 books I read this year, 9 were published in 2018, 2 were short stories/essays collections, one of them nonfiction. A few of these were chosen by Amazon’s editors among “Best Books of the Month”, and among the “Best of the Year”; for the most part I concurred. These are the literary works that I rated four stars or higher this year.


The Largesse of the Sea Maiden: Stories by Denis Johnson (♦♦♦♦½): is a collection of five stories varying in themes, styles, and lengths. Some were naturally more successful than others, but all were of great quality. The ones that resonated with me the most were the last three stories (i.e. ‘Strangler Bob’, ‘Triumph Over the Grave’, and ‘Doppelgänger, Poltergeist’)—atmospheric ones with somber undertones.


Knowing that The Largesse of the Sea Maiden is the last book Denis Johnson wrote before passing away, I wonder if he saw his end near and wrote about its meaning and transcendence. Whatever the case, in doing so Denis Johnson left us with a collection of short stories that is introspective, meaningful, and lofty.  (Released Date: January, 2018)


A Doubter’s Almanac by Ethan Canin (♦♦♦♦): is not only a novel about the curse of genius in three generations of the same family, but it is also a heartbreaking—and at times hilarious—personal and family saga spanning fifty plus years, covering all along themes such as the fine divide between genius and madness, addiction, obsession, betrayal of trust, and how life’s achievements are and should be measured.

A Doubter’s Almanac is written in lyrical prose, and is divided into two parts, with each chapter—further divided into bite-size subchapters—titled as a method to develop a mathematical proof. I was misguided by that because I assumed it was going to be a novel about success, when it was actually quite the opposite. Despite the protagonist’s many flaws, he was a fascinating character to read about...  (Released Date: February, 2016)



The Cloister by James Carroll (♦♦♦♦): has three separate storylines that happen more or less timelessly. In medieval times we follow the story of Peter Abelard and HĂ©loise from the time they met to the fate that befell them. In modern times we follow two subplots. First, the story of Jewish father Saul Vedette and his daughter Rachel, who live in Paris during the Nazi-backed Vichy regime. Saul is a scholar of medieval studies writing a book that may challenge conventional thinking on the postures of Abelard towards the Jews. Rachel assists him, but the roundup of Paris’ Jews by French police in 1942, along with their temporary imprisonment at Vel’ d’Hiv, and subsequent transfer to a concentration camp, change their lives irrevocably. Last, circa 1950, we meet Catholic priest Michael Kavanagh who is shaken by an awkward encounter with a long-lost friend, which triggers in him a soul-search, a quest for answers, and a final reckoning.


I liked James Carroll’s writing style from the very beginning. The novel was a solid four stars from start to finish, though I felt that some passages, especially the ones in which Peter Abelard discussed his theology, dragged a bit. It may be a matter of preference, but abstract ideas tend to bore me; theology is no different in that regard.  (Released Date: March, 2018)


Circe by Madeline Miller (♦♦♦♦): I had a somewhat uneven experience with Circe. I was blown away by the first half—Circe’s life among the Titans, her love for Glaucus, her banishment to the island of Aiaia that brought on her mastering of witchcraft, her liaison with Hermes, and her delivery of the Minotaur. Circe’s abuse by stranded sailors, and their transformations into pigs were tedious passages to read, partially because Madeline Miller made a point of reminding us that all those men behaved alike. The appearance of Odysseus was a nice change of pace in the novel. His vivid memories of the Trojan War came alive in full glory. When Odysseus left and Circe’s motherhood began the novel became overwhelmingly tedious again, but with Penelope’s arrival on Aiaia, towards the end, the book recovered the magic of the first half.


Circe is a book that should be read with as little interruptions as possible because it is a very literary novel, full of beautiful imagery that is hard to visualize effectively when you abandon a passage midway. Circe requires full immersion, but it pays off in the end. Despite some misgivings, I thought this novel was very good overall, and made me want to follow Madeline Miller’s career further.  (Released Date: April, 2018)



Calypso by David Sedaris (♦♦♦♦½): is a collection of twenty-one essays—digressions really—on a variety of topics, whose underlying themes are aging, mortality, and relationships (David Sedaris with his family and his partner of thirty years).

Most essays are funny, some outrageously so, written in a very accessible language and style, as if Sedaris were having a conversation with the reader. A gifted storyteller, Sedaris has directed a camera lens inward as much as towards others. The result is a very polished work—vivid, candid, and heartfelt—that shines a light on the microcosm inhabited by David Sedaris and his loved ones. They are one imperfect yet utterly fascinating family to get to know.  (Released Date: June, 2018)


The Silent Companions by Laura Purcell (♦♦♦♦): is a splendid, beautifully written gothic novel, with images that rightly convey the atmosphere of isolation, helplessness and danger that two society women experience while living with three female servants in a dilapidated mansion in the village of Fayford, England, in 1865, where none of the villagers want to work at. The story switches back and forth in time as we meet one of the women’s ancestors in said mansion in 1635, and another woman in an insane asylum, circa 1867, piecing together her identity in the aftermath of a tragedy.

Right at the introduction of the novel, the publisher warns that this book shouldn’t be read at night, but I think it is precisely at night, or after dusk, amidst the most deafening silence, that this story works best. The Silent Companions has a sense of menace, an undercurrent of potential unreliability that gives depth and edge to this novel unlike anything I have encountered before in my reading. It helps that most characters have secrets and reasons for keeping their guards up at all times; those secrets are slowly revealed to great effect. Add to those elements a neglected mansion with an enigmatic headmistress, wounds that don’t heal, mysterious messages in the dust of a nursery, wooden companions that may or may not move...It’s a spook fest.  (Released Date: March, 2018)

Once Upon A River by Diane Setterfield (♦♦♦♦): I still have a chunk to finish so I will post my review at a later date, but this novel has been consistently good, original and enthralling from the start. I don’t foresee a change in rating, if only for the better. (Released Date: December, 2018)

Reading Stats
Books read: 10                  Total Pages Read: 3,909
          Fiction: 9                 Nonfiction: 1            Re-reads: 0

Shortest Reads: The Largesse of the Sea Maiden by Denis Johnson (192 pages)   
                           Calypso by David Sedaris (272 pages)

Longest Reads: A Doubter’s Almanac by Ethan Canin (550 pages)
                         Once Upon A River by Diane Setterfield (480 pages)

Favorite cover: Bellewether by Susanna Kearsley

Favorite new authors (to me): Madeline Miller, Denis Johnson, David Sedaris

Most beautifully written: Circe by Madeline Miller 
                                           Once Upon A River by Diane Setterfield

Most memorable characters
          Best ensemble cast: Circe, Calypso, The Silent Companions
          The devious/twisted: Hetta from The Silent Companion

Comments

  1. Great! You made it a year of quality reading. I am happy that Circe made your best list. It will be on mine. I just got Once Upon A River from the library. Looking forward to it! On to the New Year right? Are you also going to do a best movies list?

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    1. You are going to like Once Upon A River. I won't be releasing a "best list" of movies since I haven't watched nearly as many this year as years prior. They seem to be taking longer to come out on rental. It's possible that if I catch up in time between now and March, I might publish a belated list of titles.

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  2. That's a good year of reading, with lots of new-to-you authors and a mix of genres and publishers. I loved Circe, so I'm pleased you liked it despite some misgivings. I have both The Silent Companions and Once Upon a River to read in 2019!

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    1. Circe was mostly good, so I couldn't not include it. I hope you enjoy the other two as I did. I didn't read many books but the ones I did were good quality. It helped that I changed my approach as how I requested ARCs; I went for word of mouth and critics and publishers' titles that were expected to make waves long before they had been published. It seems that approach paid off. Also, I read more contemporary fiction than historical fiction, which is not what I expected. I hope to catch up next year with some Netgalley titles I requested in the past (this year included) and some titles from my TBR to see if I start making progress with those.

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  3. What a visually interesting way to present your year in reading. I think I need to add some of your "best books" to my TBR list.

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    1. Thanks, Dorothy. Well, I did have two book in common with you this year. I recommend all of them. This is the first year that I loved nearly all of the ones I read. :-)

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  4. Carmen, looks like you have had a good year of quality and diverse reading. Currently, I am reading Bellewether by Susanna Kearsley and after reading others' thoughts, I have put The Silent Companions by Laura Purcell on my wish list. Happy reading and a Happy New Year!

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    1. Thanks for visiting, Jessica. Happy New Year to you as well! :-) Yes, the number of books was small but the quality was high. I hope you enjoy Bellewether and The Silent Companions. The latter was my favorite of the two.

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  5. Nice list! I haven't read any of these so your reviews gave me much to consider and think about. I think I'd like to check out the Denis Johnson most of all. I feel sad for the literary world that he is gone. The Setterfield novel looks good. I'm sure to be on a waiting list for that.

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    1. Thanks, Susan. The Largesse...may not be everyone's cup of tea but I liked it a great deal, plus it piqued my interest on the rest of his works. I already bought Jesus' Son on sale.

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  6. Great to see Setterfield on here - it's going to be one of my next books.
    Lynn :D

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    1. Good to know, Lynn. I think you are going to like it. :-)

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  7. You had a great year Carmen. I loved Calypso and The Cloister sounds excellent to me. Have a great week.

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    1. Thanks for visiting, Diane. Calypso was superb, as was The Cloister.

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