Last year, in the whole 365 days. Of all the 131 books read. Of all the seconds and minutes and other increments of time that elapsed.
I only gave 6 five star ratings.
Yes. Six. I only truly actually loved six books during an entire calendar year.
Compare that to the 1.5 months that have thus far taken place within what we call “2018.” I’ve read 37 books (yes, feel free to congratulate me in the comments below) AND I’VE GIVEN FOUR FIVE STAR RATINGS BOIIIIII.
I AM SO EXCITED I COULD SHOUT. WHICH I TECHNICALLY AM DOING, BECAUSE AS WE ALL KNOW, CAPS LOCK IS THE INTERNET EQUIVALENT OF JUST ACTUALLY COMPLETELY SCREAMING LITERALLY FOR REAL.
So, without further ado (there’s already been a whoooole lot of ado), let’s get into it.
My favorite reads of 2018 (so far).
Sussex, England. A middle-aged man returns to his childhood home to attend a funeral. Although the house he lived in is long gone, he is drawn to the farm at the end of the road, where, when he was seven, he encountered a most remarkable girl, Lettie Hempstock, and her mother and grandmother. He hasn’t thought of Lettie in decades, and yet as he sits by the pond (a pond that she’d claimed was an ocean) behind the ramshackle old farmhouse, the unremembered past comes flooding back. And it is a past too strange, too frightening, too dangerous to have happened to anyone, let alone a small boy.
Forty years earlier, a man committed suicide in a stolen car at this farm at the end of the road. Like a fuse on a firework, his death lit a touchpaper and resonated in unimaginable ways. The darkness was unleashed, something scary and thoroughly incomprehensible to a little boy. And Lettie—magical, comforting, wise beyond her years—promised to protect him, no matter what.
“I remember my own childhood vividly…I knew terrible things. But I knew I mustn’t let adults know I knew. It would scare them.” -Maurice Sendak
Considering how obsessed we are with the idea of childhood as a culture, it’s pretty wild that no one can capture it quite like Neil Gaiman.
There are a lot of movies about boring white-straight-male aspiring writers in their 30s being taught how to LIVE WHIMSICALLY by a manic pixie dream girl. There are books about the beautiful wonder of a child’s perspective. There are millions and millions and millions of TV shows depicting the dramatic trials and tribulations of the high school experience (as lived by gorgeous twenty-three year olds).
But none of it feels true. Maybe only Neil Gaiman can remember what it’s like to be a child.
It is wondrous, and beautiful, and whimsical, and even dramatic. But it’s also dark and scary sometimes. Inexplicable things happen, and the world seems uncontrollable, which is magical and horrifying. That’s childhood.
That’s also this book.
The Ocean at the End of the Lane is actually terrifying.
It’s magical, but probably not in the way typically associated with fantasy novels narrated by children. It’s magical in the way that I felt the world was when I was a child. As it turns out, that’s much more magical. And much more amazing to read about.
This book is so, so short, and so devastatingly lovely. It’s beautifully written and emotional. It made me scared and it made my heart hurt and it made me smile.
I want to quote more of it, but really I want to quote everything. Maybe I’ll just excerpt ever-longer passages until I trick you into reading it?
So, better idea, just read it yourself.
Bottom line: It’s 181 pages. What would it hurt to read it read it read it read it read it?
The Last Tycoon, edited by the renowned literary critic Edmund Wilson, was first published a year after Fitzgerald’s death and includes the author’s notes and outline for his unfinished literary masterpiece. It is the story of the young Hollywood mogul Monroe Stahr, a character inspired by the life of boy-genius Irving Thalberg, and is an exposé of the studio system in its heyday.
“They were smiling at each other as if this was the beginning of the world.”
There are very few writers whose careers you can trace through their work like F. Scott Fitzgerald.
The kind of charming immaturity of This Side of Paradise; the polished, profound (if a little thematically evident), career-defining The Great Gatsby; Tender is the Night, a decade’s attempt to live up to Gatsby; and, finally, The Last Tycoon, the book that finally would’ve done so.
AND FITZGERALD JUST HAD TO GO AND DIE IN THE MIDDLE OF IT.
I do not know how to review this book. I am completely, truly, one hundred percent sure this would have been Fitzgerald’s greatest. Maybe not his most well-read (Gatsby is perfect for high school underclassmen reading lists – theme-filled AND obvious) but definitely his best.
“These lights, this brightness, these clusters of human hope, of wild desire—I shall take these lights in my fingers. I shall make them bright, and whether they shine or not, it is in these fingers that they shall succeed or fail.”
This book, even in its incompleteness, is so subtle and evocative and nuanced. The characters are what Gatsby’s could have been if they were more people than images. Fitzgerald treats his women better, even his minorities better.
1930s Hollywood is as glamorous and seedy and fascinating as one of Gatsby’s parties – and as Fitzgerald himself pointed out, a much needed escape from the war burgeoning as he wrote.
“People fall in and out of love all the time. I wonder how they manage it.”
Reading this is an experience. It’s kind of like if you were assigned a translated book for school, and you read two thirds of the wrong translation before giving it up and Sparknoting the rest. Thorough Sparknoting, but Sparknoting all the same.
It’s interesting, and it provides a unique look, but god the whole time I was just wishing that Fitzgerald lived to finish this work.
Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe he would have gotten too wrapped up in it – made it too much like Gatsby, rewritten the themes as too obvious, changed the ending or added more motifs. Maybe Kathleen would have gotten the treatment Daisy Buchanan did. Maybe it would have always been way too overshadowed by Gatsby to get any attention.
But we’ll never know. And it feels like the worst thing ever that we’ll never get the chance.
Bottom line: I loved this so, so, so much. Fitzgerald, man. If only you had another year.
“How different it all was from what you’d planned.”
Eleanor West’s Home for Wayward Children
Children have always disappeared under the right conditions; slipping through the shadows under a bed or at the back of a wardrobe, tumbling down rabbit holes and into old wells, and emerging somewhere… else.
But magical lands have little need for used-up miracle children.
Nancy tumbled once, but now she’s back. The things she’s experienced… they change a person. The children under Miss West’s care understand all too well. And each of them is seeking a way back to their own fantasy world.
But Nancy’s arrival marks a change at the Home. There’s a darkness just around each corner, and when tragedy strikes, it’s up to Nancy and her new-found schoolmates to get to the heart of the matter.
No matter the cost.
THIS BOOK CHECKS ALL OF MY BOXES. Seanan McGuire may be…inside my very mind as we speak. (No but actually I kind of wish???)
First off, this book is teeny as all get out and oh MAN I love a short book!!!
Come to think of it…I really love a short book. Three five star ratings so far this year, and they’re clocking in at 173 pages, 181 pages, and a whopping 190 pages.
Maybe I just hate reading?
No no no no I will not get distracted from the fact that this is the literary equivalent of someone hacking my Ok Cupid profile to build my perfect match. (I do not have an Ok Cupid profile.)
In addition to being the perfect length (which is to say, just a touch above nonexistent), this is also my ideal genre??? Say it with me: WELL DONE MAGICAL REALISM BABY!!! (Sorry if the improvised “baby” prevented you from saying it with me.)
This book is about a boarding school for children who have fallen into other worlds (magical ones!) and been unceremoniously dropped back into our boring old magic-less one. (Boo! Can you imagine.) Think Wonderland (!!!), Narnia, etc.
Which brings up two MORE ways this book is perfect for me! One, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (my favorite book ever of all time, in case you’re new here) is canon in this world. Two, MAGIC BOARDING SCHOOL. Who doesn’t loooove that trope.
Another perfect thing: a touch of MURRRRDERRRR?!?!?!?! Yes! Murder! We have blood and mystery on our hands folks! (Hopefully not literally. That sounds unpleasant. You may want to hand sanitizer that sh*t. Except not actually because that cute lil keychain Purell you’re holding is CONTRIBUTING TO ANTIBIOTIC RESISTANCE YOU LOON.) (Sorry for all the caps lock in this one. I’m excited.)
And perhaps the most perfect thing of all: This book is so diverse it puts literally every other book ever to shame. In 173 pages, this story contained more solid representation than pretty much every YA fantasy I read last year COMBINED.
Our protagonist, Nancy, is asexual. A pal of hers is trans. Essentially every single character is of color or non-gender-conforming or non-straight and there is so much mental illness rep it makes me griiiiin EAR to EAR. Which is actually a very off-putting image. But don’t let the creepiness of my physically improbably smiling deter you from this book please.
To conclude: amazingly short + wonderful magical realism + Alice + boarding school + murder + mystery + effortless immersive diversity = I am one happy camper. Dare I say…the happiest camper.
It is an ordinary Tuesday morning in April when bored, lonely Charlie Fisher witnesses something incredible. Right before his eyes, in a busy square in Marseille, a group of pickpockets pulls off an amazing robbery. As the young bandits appear to melt into the crowd, Charlie realizes with a start that he himself was one of their marks.
Yet Charlie is less alarmed than intrigued. This is the most thrilling thing that’s happened to him since he came to France with his father, an American diplomat. So instead of reporting the thieves, Charlie defends one of their cannons, Amir, to the police, under one condition: he teach Charlie the tricks of the trade.
What starts off as a lesson on pinches, kicks, and chumps soon turns into an invitation for Charlie to join the secret world of the whiz mob, an international band of child thieves who trained at the mysterious School of Seven Bells. The whiz mob are independent and incredibly skilled and make their own way in the world—they are everything Charlie yearns to be. But what at first seemed like a (relatively) harmless new pastime draws him into a dangerous adventure with global stakes greater than he could have ever imagined.
Sometimes, a book just clicks. Right away. No work required: it grabs you from the beginning and absolutely refuses to let go, even when you’re like, Uh, hey, book? I have to go to sleep. It’s three a.m. Or, Excuse me, book? If you could just…I don’t know, chill out for a second? I have places to be and cupcakes to sell and you’re making it impossible for me to put you down thankssomuch.
This book is a monster and did not even PRETEND to listen to me. Repercussions of this book’s asshole-ish-ness include: my tip jar was relatively empty on that particular Saturday, and I had one of the most fun reading experiences of my entire human existence.
It is, honestly, a fair trade. I simply do not have the time to explain that the pink frosting is just vanilla getting in the Valentine’s Day spirit when I could be squeezing in a few more pages of nonstop adventure.
I am now questioning whether the cupcake-selling motif of this review is muddling the point. I work in a cupcake shop? So that’s why I’m being like this.
I should not be surprised at all that I loved this so much. This book follows a band of child pickpockets, living in Marseille, France, in 1961.
The cover is beautiful.
(And so are the ILLUSTRATIONS, for God’s sake. As if it weren’t enough for this book to have illustrations generally (as every book should) (yes, double parentheses, because f*ck you), IT IS ILLUSTRATED BY THE MASTERMIND BEHIND THE ART IN THE MYSTERIOUS BENEDICT SOCIETY. If you don’t know how I feel about The Mysterious Benedict Society, you don’t know me at all. Technically that series makes up 5% of all the five star ratings I’ve ever given in all my life??? So pretty much YOU SHOULD STOP READING THIS RIGHT NOW AND GO READ THE MYSTERIOUS BENEDICT SOCIETY. IMMEDIATELY. You absolute fool.)
Forcing myself to move on: Its cast of characters is completely full-on amazing. I’m talkin’ adolescent vagabonds ranging from identical Senegalese twins to a Southern belle to a cockney girl who can disappear in any crowd to a Russian kid they call The Bear to KID WITH EYEPATCH.
Because on top of everything, the diversity in this book is fairly astounding.
Also, it is FUNNY. And since when are books funny? Like don’t get me wrong, huge book fan over here, but they’re not exactly a nonstop barrel of laughs. It’s just hard to laugh when you’re also holding a brick of pages in your hands and reading words off of them? Is this relatable or not?
All of this is to say that this book made me laugh. Against the odds, apparently.
And the WRITING! Oh, man, the writing. The descriptions. The narration. The second-person addresses to the audience! I could straight up write a love letter to the voice of this story. Adding it to my to-do list now.
But most importantly of all: this book never stops being exciting.
I talk about how much I love middle grade adventure almost as much as I talk about my adoration of well done magical realism, but there’s a goddamn reason for it my guy. Middle grade adventure is what YA could never be: an exciting read with no gross heavy romance to detract, a lot of solid friendships, typically a good sense of humor, and a pretty consistent dose of diversity.
And this book is one of the best examples of that potential for magnificence since its royal highness The Mysterious Benedict Society itself.
ONE OF THE MOST FUN READING EXPERIENCES OF MY LIFETIME.
Bottom line: My new master plan, after conquering the world and forcing everyone to give Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland five stars, is to make all of us start being middle grade book bloggers. Stuff like this is just way too good to miss out on.
It’s…surprisingly fun to talk about things you actually like. Refreshing. I should do this more often.
Although that would require liking more books and I just…don’t know whether that’s going to happen.