Commentary by Barrie Olmstead
As a librarian who has enjoyed a long career as a book selector, I can attest to the fact that this is the time of year when librarians, booksellers and editors start pondering the best books of the year. Exceptional reviews from multiple professional reviewers and resonance with everyday readers determines what titles are considered “best books.” If a book makes the cut, especially across various lists, it will retain staying power, remain in print longer, launch book clubs and influence the literary culture. Get ahead of the curve on holiday gifts for book lovers and check out some of these strong contenders.
Standout memoirs this year are characterized by the processing of trauma through writing. They include Tara Westover’s “Educated;” Terese Marie Mailhot’s “Heart Berries;” “All You Can Ever Know,” by Nicole Chung; and “Heavy: An American Memoir,” by Kiese Laymon.
The best of 2018 romance has been quirky and multicultural, and features unlikely couples. I recommend “The Kiss Quotient,” by Helen Hoang; “The Wedding Date,” by Jasmine Guillory; and “Josh and Hazel’s Guide to Not Dating,” by Christina Lauren.
Authors writing general and literary fiction have dealt with contemporary issues in an artful way, touching on topics such as racism, the American Indian urban experience and women’s rights. They defy easy categorization. I expect to see the following titles on lots of book club lists: “Red Clocks” by Leni Zumas; “An American Marriage,” by Tayari Jones; “There There,” by Tommy Orange; and “Asymmetry, by Lisa Halliday.” The latter title bears rereading.
Short stories can be a hard sell to readers who are conditioned to want novels, but the following authors, both new and seasoned, have reinvigorated the genre with thematic collections. Top choices are: “Florida,” by Lauren Groff; “You Think It, I’ll Say It,” by Curtis Sittenfeld; “Your Duck is My Duck,” by Deborah Eisenberg; and “Heads of the Colored People,” by Nafissa Thompson-Spires.
The incomparable Kate Atkinson and Tana French are both back and winning in the suspense category, while Stuart Turton has debuted an occult thriller with more than enough twists to keep the reader guessing. The following are recommended for mystery and suspense lovers: “Transcription,” by Kate Atkinson; “The Witch Elm,” by Tana French; “The 7 ½ Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle,” by Stuart Turton; “City of Ink,” by Elsa Hart; and “The Third Hotel,” by Laura Van Den Berg.
Poetry can convey adverse experience with even greater depth than fiction and memoir. The volumes released this year are no exception and include: “If They Come for Us,” by Fatimah Asghar; “New Poets of Native Nations,” by Heid E. Erdrich; and “Wade in the Water,” by Tracy K. Smith.
Michelle McNamara’s account of the case of the Golden State Killer was published posthumously and received well-deserved accolades, with increased interest after the killer was apprehended in California earlier this year. Standouts for investigative journalism: “I’ll Be Gone in the Dark: One Woman’s Obsessive Search for the Golden State Killer,” by McNamara; “Amity and Prosperity: One Family and the Fracturing of America,” by Eliza Griswold; and “American Prison: A Reporter’s Undercover Journey into the Business of Punishment,” by Shane Bauer.
Hidden histories, particularly with regard to the accomplishments of women, continue to educate and enthrall. Some great picks: “Broad Band: The Untold Story of the Women Who Made the Internet,” by Claire L. Evans; “Fly Girls: How Five Daring Women Defied All Odds,” by Keith O’Brien; and “The Woman’s Hour: The Great Fight to Win the Vote,” by Elaine Weiss.
There are many more genres and authors to highlight from the past year, as well as unexpected gems. Visit your local library to find out the staff’s recent favorites, as well as gift ideas for avid readers and great book club choices to kick off 2019.
Olmstead is the Adult Services Librarian for Lewiston City Library. She worked for the Sacramento Public Library for 12 years as a branch librarian and as a book selector. She reads everything and also enjoys hiking, knitting and yoga. Send her some of your faves from the past year at firstname.lastname@example.org.