My Favorite Books of 2018

The end of the year is finally here, huzzah! While the real world has been busy and stressful my reading life has gone much better. Escapism for the win! 😉

So here’s my yearly list of favorite reads. Just like last year there’s an even mix of romance, other fiction, and non-fiction, and authors from marginalized groups show up in a big way. Let’s jump into it, with the titles listed in reverse alphabetical order by title, just because:

26073085White Rage: The Unspoken Truth of Our Racial Divide by Carol Anderson

This book left me infuriated, shocked, and heart-broken in turns. Court cases may have guaranteed African-Americans equal rights, but this book showed me that they needed to be fought for outside of the courts two and three times over.

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Warday by Whitley Strieber and James Kunetka

Suppose the US and the USSR had a nuclear exchange in 1984. What would happen? Where would get targeted and why? What would the days, weeks, months, and years after look like? Strieber and Kunetka dive deep into all of that in this epistolary-esque account of their travels around America some five years after “Warday”. It’s chilling and brings the aftermath of nuclear war to life.

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Syncopation by Anna Zabo (Twisted Wishes #1)

An m/m romance with an aromantic protagonist written by a non-binary author, centering on a Queer rock band? Yes, please! Add in some BDSM elements, great characterization, and the best anaphylactic shock I’ve read and I’m in love.

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The Lonesome Bodybuilder by Yukiko Motoya, translated by Asa Yoneda

Weird, wonderful short stories that spin out realistic absurdities while examining the role and status of women in Japan. My favorite piece is An Exotic Marriage, a novella about a husband and wife who find themselves resembling each other in more concrete ways than you’d expect.

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Invisible: How Young Women with Serious Health Issues Navigate Work, Relationships, and the Pressure to Seem Just Fine by Michele Lent Hirsch

Part memoir, part anecdote, and part research, Invisible does an amazing job looking at women society deems “too young” or “too pretty” to be sick. Own voices for health issues and being queer, it’s full of thoughts and discussions us relatively healthy folk have never even had to think about while being intersectional to the hilt. Maybe the most underrated new release I’ve read this year.

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Hello Stranger by Lisa Kleypas (The Ravenels #4)

Historical romance based on the first woman doctor in England is totally my thing. Kleypas’ writing is as solid as ever with an extra dose of suspense and some great story arcs for secondary characters as well as the main couple.

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Ghachar Ghochar by Vivek Shanbhag, translated by Srinath Perur

A short book that builds up the story in layers, one chapter at a time. We look into the lives of different members of an Indian family and their rags to riches story… but how did they get all that money so quickly, anyway?

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Command and Control: Nuclear Weapons, the Damascus Accident, and the Illusion of Safety by Eric Schlosser

The history of nuclear weapons, which is more like a history of nuclear near-accidents, and a gripping account of an incident at an American missile silo. If you’ve never heard of the Damascus Accident don’t look it up now – let Schlosser guide you through it minute by minute in a great example of narrative nonfiction.

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The Chateau by Tiffany Reisz (Original Sinners #9)

A flashback set in the Original Sinners series, The Chateau is great for anyone that’s already in love with Nora, Soren, Kingsley, and the rest of the gang. It’s a gender-flipped and toned down version of The Story of O and includes a killer mind fuck.

35656812All Passion Spent by Vita Sackville-West

The character work in this classic is just great. Lady Shane’s husband, a prominent politician, has died and her children have gathered to decide what to do with mother. When she proclaims her own wants, maybe for the first time in their lives, the kids have no idea what to make of it.

There we have it, my favorite books of 2018! What was your top read of the year? Are there any new releases you’re anticipating next year?

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Letters from Max: A Book of Friendship by Sarah Ruhl and Max Ritvo

36904320In 2012, Sarah Ruhl was a distinguished author and playwright, twice a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. Max Ritvo, a student in her playwriting class at Yale University, was an exuberant, opinionated, and highly gifted poet. He was also in remission from pediatric cancer.

Over the next four years–in which Ritvo’s illness returned and his health declined, even as his productivity bloomed–the two exchanged letters that spark with urgency, humor, and the desire for connection. Reincarnation, books, the afterlife as an Amtrak quiet car, good soup: in Ruhl and Ritvo’s exchanges, all ideas are fair, nourishing game, shared and debated in a spirit of generosity and love. “We’ll always know one another forever, however long ever is,” Ritvo writes. “And that’s all I want–is to know you forever.”

Review:

Ruhl is a playwright, but she originally wanted to be a poet. (“I began to think there was a kind of equation for playwrights—indifferent-to-bad poets made good playwrights,” she writes.) Ritvo tried his hand at writing plays in Ruhl’s class but quickly returned to poetry. They kept in touch, writing emails between visits and poetry readings.  Ruhl adds context when letters miss some of the story – when Ritvo’s cancer returns, the treatments he goes through, and the joys they share when they are able to meet in person.

Going into this book I was expecting the letters, expecting the cancer, expecting the thoughts about life and finding meaning.

I was not expecting the poetry.

Some loop closed by old age,
the droop of an old man’s head
conferring a measure of acceptance,
head already looking at the ground, thinking:
when will a hole open up
and I’ll fall into it?

(Ruhl)

They send poems back and forth, first ditties written long ago or in stolen moments, but they evolve and add another layer to the correspondence.  Images posited in letters, something as simple as the comfort of soup, are transformed when put into verse. It’s like I’ve been given the key to their shorthand, and a key to their linguistic hearts.

I connected with some of the poems more than others. I especially liked Ruhl’s – the images, the language, and the friendship-ly love hit me in the gut. Ritvo’s poetry doesn’t have the same punch but his letters make me think all the same.

When I see you I am happy
even when you’re sad.
Meet me at the carousel
in this life or the next.
Meet me at the carousel
I’ll be wearing red.

(Ruhl)

My eyes sometimes glossed over with the religious talk, but it’s neat seeing things from the perspective of a Catholic turned Buddhist and a Jewish boy turned atheist. Your mileage will likely vary.

A touching, beautiful look at the end of a life through the eyes of two poets.  Bring some tissues.

On My Way to Liberation by H. Melt

Liberation cover 3How do you imagine trans liberation while living in a cis world? On My Way To Liberation follows a gender nonconforming body moving through the streets of Chicago. From the sex shop to the farmers market, the family dinner table to the bookstore, trans people are everywhere, though often erased. Writing towards a trans future, H. Melt envisions a world where trans people are respected, loved and celebrated every day.

Review:

Haymarket Books recently had 90% off sale on all their ebooks, so you can bet I was all over it!  This is one of the four nonfiction books I picked up and, by virtue of being a chapbook, the shortest at 28 pages.

Melt, who is trans and genderqueer, writes directly about their experience.  We sit with them as they are misgendered, deadnamed, and forced to deal with injustice every day.

But they won’t stop murdering.
Stop legislating. Stop imprisoning.
Stop claiming we are ruining our
countries, families, friendships
and futures too.

When every day
we awaken to
build them
anew.

I’m grateful that Melt put their lived reality down on the page for others to experience – the emotion comes through loud and clear. However I’m not the biggest fan of the poetry itself.  The work’s missing oomph for me, that punch that makes you want to sit with a poem after you finish it, or go back and reread it immediately.  Some of the images will rattle in my brain for a while yet but the words themselves will unfortunately fade more quickly.

Dance All Night by Alexis Daria (Dance Off #2.5)

42379549Broadway hotshot Nik Kovalenko is a confirmed bachelor. Ballroom champion Jess Davenport is a bona fide Scrooge. Last year, they shared a midnight kiss at a New Year’s Eve party that made both of them believe—briefly—in the magic of the holiday season. The magic was cut short when Nik went on tour the next day, but he never stopped thinking about that kiss—or Jess.

When the holidays roll back around, Nik runs into Jess again. He doesn’t want to spend another year pining for the Scrooge who got away, so he tells Jess he’ll stay if she’ll give him a shot at being her Christmas Present.

Jess thinks he’s full of it, but she agrees to three dates. If Nik can make her believe in holiday magic in a place as un-wintery as Los Angeles—and convince her that he’s ready to stick around—she’ll give him a chance. But he won’t know until New Year’s Eve. If she kisses him at midnight, he’ll have his answer…

Review:

This book is exactly what I needed, exactly when I needed it.  Work has been rough lately and being able to escape into this book on the train ride home was just the thing.

The good:

  • Women of color written by a woman of color – excellent. (The author is Latinx.) The heroine has curly hair and it comes up several times in the plot, as in, ‘Hey, I’m coming over to sleep tonight and I’m bringing my satin pillowcase.’
  • Nik is probably the sweetest hero I’ve ever read. Not calculating sweet, or saccharine sweet, but – he thought of and did that because his freakin’ soul is just sweet. I’d give examples but I don’t want to spoil anything because:
  • The book is novella length and perfectly fits its pages. It’s all A plot, no subplot, and the story doesn’t feel stretched out or rushed. All of the emotional beats are here.
  • There’s a nice dose of holiday spirit, from sweater parties to family dinners. Nik’s family immigrated to the US from Ukraine and I enjoyed learning about Eastern Orthodox holiday traditions.
  • The Dance Off isn’t filming but there is still dancing, yea! Nik is a Broadway dancer more than a singer/actor, and the scenes where they dance as a couple are lovely.

The not-so-good:

  • The only thing I can think of is that Nik may be a little too perfect, but it’s not a thought that crossed my mind while reading. He’s the right kind of perfect for me.

A wonderful read to heal your heart and get into the holiday spirit, and the perfect book at the perfect time for me. I’m excited for the next book in the series, slated to come out in 2019, yea!

Thanks to NYLA and NetGalley for providing a review copy.

Crudo by Oliva Laing

36638609Kathy is a writer. Kathy is getting married. It’s the summer of 2017 and the whole world is falling apart.

A Goodbye to Berlin for the twenty-first century, Crudo charts in real time what it was like to live and love in the horrifying summer of 2017, from the perspective of a commitment-phobic peripatetic artist who may or may not be Kathy Acker.

From a Tuscan hotel for the super-rich to a Brexit-paralysed UK, Kathy spends the first summer of her forties trying to adjust to making a lifelong commitment as Trump is tweeting the world into nuclear war. But it’s not only Kathy who’s changing. Political, social and natural landscapes are all in peril. Fascism is on the rise, truth is dead and the planet is hotting up. Is it really worth learning to love when the end of the world is nigh? And how do you make art, let alone a life, when one rogue tweet could end it all?

Review:

I picked up this book because it was shortlisted for the Goldsmiths Prize, one of my favorite literary awards.  I had already tried and put down a Cusk book (her writing just isn’t for me) so this was my second try at finally reading a winner (alas, that didn’t happen, either).

It took me a while to get used to this book and the writing.  I was on high alert, looking for all kinds of Prizeworthy! things, but I should have let myself sink into prose and not worry so much.  When I was finally able to do that, aided by a big fuzzy blanket and a hot water bottle, the pages flew by.

CrudoThe main draw here is the writing, and there’s just barely enough plot to keep me interested.  We follow the narrator through the summer of 2017 as the book acts as a snapshot of that scary, uncertain time. (We are still in scary, uncertain times, but it’s nice to think at least some of it is past us, don’t you think?)  It brought back some vivid memories for me, worded more beautifully than I could ever manage.

I see why Crudo was shortlisted and why so many people love it.  I was able to enjoy it once I got used to the writing style, and holy cow what writing, but not enough to tip it into four stars.

Little x by Elna Holst (A Tinsel and Spruce Needles Romance #2)

42835577Malmö, Sweden, 1996

Sofie Andersson is a dyslectic born under the star sign Aries, who drives the local buses for a living. Her hobbies include knitting terrible hats and intermittent lesbianism. This December she is on the point of moving into her first flat of her own, figuring out her place in the world, when an instant attraction to a handsome stranger leads her to question everything she’s taken for granted.

Review:

I picked up this story because it’s from a LGBTQIA+ publisher that I love and because it’s an f/nb romance. How often do you see that? It’s a short story so I won’t say much beyond the blurb.

The good:

  • The author is LGBTQIA+, and I think this is the first romance I’ve read with an intersex protagonist.
  • Roz is misgendered often, being addressed as he when they use they/them pronouns, but it’s usually corrected quickly on the page.
  • The story is set in Sweden in 1996, something I haven’t seen before.

The not-so-good:

  • The writing and plot are confusing. We’re introduced to lots of people quickly and given the barest of connections between them – mother, best friend, older sister.
  • Some past events are alluded to but glossed over.  It turns out this is the second in a series but I didn’t realize that until after I finished.
  • Little attention is paid to the where. Conversations feel like they’re floating, not anchored to a space. I started assuming location – the best friend is a fellow bus driver, so they must be at the depot, I guess. And so on.
  • The conflict, which revolves around Roz having to go back to America at the end of the semester, is sloppily handled.

A quick read thanks to its length, and I love seeing a f/nb relationship on the page, but it could have been much better.

Thanks to Nine Star Press and NetGalley for providing a review copy.

Nightwork: Sexuality, Pleasure, and Corporate Masculinity in a Tokyo Hostess Club by Anne Allison

 

22878618Anne Allison performed the ritualized tasks of a hostess in one of Tokyo’s many “hostess clubs”: pouring drinks, lighting cigarettes, and making flattering or titillating conversation with the businessmen who came there on company expense accounts. She describes in detail a typical company outing to such a club—what the men do, how they interact with the hostesses, the role the hostess is expected to play, and the extent to which all of this involves “play” rather than “work.”

Allison seeks to uncover connections between such behavior and other social, economic, sexual, and gendered relations. She argues that Japanese corporate nightlife enables and institutionalizes a particular form of ritualized male dominance: in paying for this entertainment, Japanese corporations not only give their male workers a self-image as phallic man, but also develop relationships to work that are unconditional and unbreakable.

Review:

Nightwork is a good book in that it does exactly what it says on the tin – discuss hostess clubs in Japan from a sociological and anthropological standpoint. The problem is that it’s hard to recommend to almost anyone.

First, the subject matter.  Hostess clubs are establishments where groups of men, usually on company expense accounts, go to socialize with colleagues and potential business partners.  Hostesses are assigned to each table to light cigarettes, pour drinks, and keep the conversation going.  It is not a place of prostitution or a sex club, and the better the establishment the less the chance of anything outside a casual touch.  They don’t sell sex, they sell the idea of sex.  The hostesses and “mama” ( club owner) make men feel smart and sexy and desirable for a hefty hourly rate.

I picked up this book because I’ve heard about hostess clubs the entire time I’ve been in Japan, but I’ve never known anyone who has been to one.  They’re not as common as they used to be, I gather, and I’m not friends with any management types who have an excuse to visit on their company’s dime.  A few early chapters outline what a usual visit is like, how the clubs are arranged, and why companies see visits as an investment in their employees.

The book carries a huge caveat with it, though – it has become extremely out of date.  The author spent a few months as a hostess in 1981, and the book itself was published in 1994.  Many of the cited works are from the 70s and 80s, and I’m sure research has advanced in the intervening 30 years.

Textbook-y and sometimes dry writing aside, that time disconnect makes this book hard to recommend.  If you don’t know what Japan looks like now you may be tempted to apply everything to the current day, but you can’t.  Some insights carry over, but not all of them.  There’s no way to suss out which is which unless you’re already at least knee deep in the culture.

If you study Japan and/or speak Japanese and know the culture you’ll get some value out of Nightwork. However those with a more casual interest would do better looking elsewhere.