Happy new year (…in February. Oops.) I try to get these lists out of the way in January, but I’ve been very busy with
avoiding my thesis so pardon my lateness. One might also question the point of having a review blog if the only thing you post is year-end top 10 lists, but whatever. I like making lists and apparently suck at writing full reviews so here we are again. I’ll try to be better this year? Maybe. We’ll see!
In 2018 I made my personal reading record (of new books in documented history, at least) with 65 books, a marked improvement from last year’s 52. Now of course quantity is not everything, but I’m really pleased that I managed to read so much more this year. A significant factor in this is that I discovered my city library’s ebook collection and started reading more on my iPad and even – gasp! – on my phone, something I would never have even considered not that long ago. But reading is reading so the ends justify the means or whatever. Another significant factor is the aforementioned thesis avoiding… But on that note, I actually read WAY more than what I listed on Goodreads because I did so much thesis research, but I don’t count that unless I read the entire book, which I rarely have time to do.
Most of what I read was Young Adult, as per usual, which my list definitely reflects. Actually I think I may have focused a bit too disproportionately on YA, but more on that later. I also had a pretty heavy emphasis on LGBT themed books, which is also unsurprising, but something I’m pleased about anyway. I’m also pleased about how much easier it is to find queer books these days! Progress! But anyway, more on my stats and such after the list.
And now let’s get on with it! (Also fyi most of these mini reviews don’t really contain summaries, because I’m terrible at writing them. Sorry!)
1. Far From the Tree (Robin Benway)
While I maintain that these lists are not in any specific order of preference, it has become customary to start out with my undeniable favourite and who am I to break a pattern! Far From the Tree is AMAZING. In addition to being just beautifully written and supremely lovely, I think it’s a great testament to the potential of YA to tackle tough subjects gently, with such intelligence and grace and I feel like people do not often give the genre enough credit for this. Long story short, read this book in one sitting, ugly cried into my pillow and reread it multiple times.
Far From the Tree tells the story of three biological siblings who were separated as children, and how they rebuild and reevaluate their respective family situations and their relationships with each other. I’m terrible at summaries so I’ll leave it at that, but this book is BEAUTIFUL. Some of you might know that I’m weak for sibling and family centred stories, so I guess it’s little wonder this was right up my alley. This is a complex, multifaceted story about identity, family and love, and I highly recommend it to absolutely anyone in search of a beautiful, heartbreaking yet hopeful story. Or just a good cry, this book is great for that purpose as well.
2. The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue (Mackenzi Lee)
This was the first novel I read this year right at the start of January and boy, what a kick-off! I. Love. This. Book. My wonderful best friend Emma got me this book for Christmas and I spent the first half of January 4th reading this in one go, and the rest screaming at all my friends about how amazing it is. And luckily every one of my friends who reads it seems to agree!
The best way I can describe this book is that reading it feels like reading really good fanfiction. Like you know the REALLY good kind? With like lots of unresolved sexual tension and fluff and feelings and aahhhhh!!! To me this felt a lot like that. A lot of books tend to make me cry, but getting me to squee and flail and fangirl aggressively is something that novels that aren’t fanfic rarely accomplish. So kudos for that!
All in all this book is incredibly cute, but also exciting and touching and funny. The plot can get kinda silly at times and it has some flaws, but all in all it was one of the most enjoyable reading experiences of the year. Also this book had some of the best disability representation I’ve ever seen in YA. And representation in general, to be honest, it was a proper feast in that regard. Oh, also worth mentioning that there was a sequel published in 2018, The Lady’s Guide to Petticoats and Piracy, that I also read and enjoyed, but it didn’t get me in the feels quite as much as this one. But consider it an honourable mention, I guess!
3. So You Want to Talk About Race (Ijeoma Oluo)
Time for a non-fiction double feature! (I’m not sure why I’m always insistent on lumping non-fiction books together in my year-end lists but oh well. If it ain’t broke…) I honestly don’t have much to say about this book, other than it is truly excellent and so, so necessary. This book should be required reading for anyone (but especially us white people) navigating the world and social media in times like the ones we currently live in.
This book can be helpful in both providing tools to defend your views when arguing with racists (as I’m sure we all find ourselves doing every once in a while…), but also in shining a light on the inevitable shortcomings and pitfalls I and many others, as well-meaning white people, are bound to stumble into occasionally. All in all it’s just an excellent read, both informative and emotionally captivating, not to mention beautifully written. Honestly just give it a read. Trust me, you need it.
4. Can We All Be Feminists? (edited by June Eric-Udorie)
My other non-fiction favourite of the year is this incredible essay collection edited by June Eric-Udorie (who is only 20 years old and that fact is in no way giving me a massive inferiority complex, no ma’am!) which I picked up fresh off the new releases shelf of Gay’s The Word when visiting London in October. Like So You Want to Talk About Race, this essay collection feels very timely and necessary, and I highly recommend it to (white) people who are interested in making their feminism more intersectional and understanding why not everyone is effortlessly comfortable adopting the label “feminist”. (By the way by recommending these books to white people specifically I am not suggesting that these were written for white people, but as a white person I feel confident saying that other white people could definitely benefit from the experience.)
I used to be one of those “oh, everyone who believes in gender equality is a feminist” and “we should all be feminists” lobbyists until not too long ago, but having gained a slightly better understanding of intersectionality, I now understand that it’s not always quite so simple. This book was not necessarily a comfortable or an easy read, but what it definitely was was enlightening, educational and, at times, truly mindblowing. Of course not every essay was equally strong and with all essays being built around the same central question (see title), there was bound to be some repetition. But all in all that didn’t lessen the impact this book had on me, and I really truly recommend this collection for any and all feminists and maybe-feminists and questioning feminists out there.
5. Circe (Madeline Miller)
One of the best things to happen to me this past year was getting to join the ranks of my friends’ entirely wonderful book club, affectionately called the “shitty fantasy book club”. Lately we have diverged from the theme of shitty fantasy, however, and read all sorts of books (of varying quality), and in the summer we tackled Greek mythology and I was reunited with Madeline Miller.
A few years back Miller’s previous Greek myth retelling, The Song of Achilles, wreaked havoc in my friend group by making everyone cry over gay Greek boys. I loved Achilles as well, but it wasn’t quite the emotional soul destroyer for me that it was for many of my friends, not sure why that is. I should definitely give it a reread at some point, but I digress. I was still excited to read more Miller, because while I’m not necessarily huge on historical/mythological fiction in general, Miller is a fantastic storyteller and I had no doubt that she would deliver with Circe as well.
And boy, did she ever! Circe tells the story of, well, Circe, a goddess and a sorceress and, well, the original witch more or less. It’s also a story of identity and strength and loneliness and growing as a person and recognising your own power. Circe is not the most fast-paced book out there, but I actually really enjoyed the slowness and the thoughtful, introspective nature of the narration. Miller weaves together many different myths and makes them her own in a way that is at the same time awe-inspiring and very easily accessible even to people with only marginal knowledge of the mythology. Reading this book lead to a lot of googling about “wait, woah, that myth is connected to Circe as well?” and that was very fun.
Also one of the characters was literally called Perse which means ass in Finnish and that was EXTREMELY fun because I am five years old.
6. All American Boys (Jason Reynolds & Brendan Kiely)
Time for a “YA books about heavy political topics” duology! First up is All American Boys, which is one of the fairly many YA books dealing with themes of racism and police brutality. This one is of slightly older stock, having been published in 2015, but it still felt very timely (obviously, as if things have changed much in this regard the past three years…) and I really enjoyed how this book dealt with the subject matter.
This book was coauthored by Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely, Reynolds writing the POV of a black boy (Rashad, who is attacked by a police officer) and Kiely writing the POV of a white boy (Quinn, who witnesses the attack and knows the officer who did it). I felt that this approach was definitely a strength and I really enjoyed the dual perspective. It allowed the authors to address various different aspects of the story and delve deeper into its themes, but didn’t water it down by coming to some bullshit “I guess we’re all equally wrong and to blame” conclusion, which it easily could have done. In my opinion it also dodged the most obvious white saviour traps this kind of story could easily trip over, but as stated earlier, I am white, so my views on this topic are bound to be biased.
Either way, I really, really loved this book, and if you’re looking for a nuanced take on themes of racism and police brutality, I recommend giving this one a go. This could also be a great vehicle for introducing younger readers to these troubling but all too timely concepts.
7. Girl Made of Stars (Ashley Herring Blake)
TW: sexual assault, rape
YA book on a tough political topic the second! This book has much in common with All American Boys and I loved it just as much. This book tells the story of Mara, whose world falls apart when his twin brother Owen is accused of raping her friend Hannah. With themes of sexual assault and harassment dominating the news cycle pretty much all year, I understand if it’s not something you want to bring into your fictional reading as well, but honestly this book was worth the pain.
And it was painful, I won’t deny that. The central dilemma of whether to believe your beloved brother whom you have known literally all your life or your dear friend whom you trust and know to be truthful is incredibly hard-hitting – and realistic, unfortunately. Many of us have had to grapple with the realities of a celebrity we admire turning out to be less great than we had pictured, and that readjustment can be incredibly hard to do, not to mention when the person accused is someone close to you, even family. So yes, this book was an intense read and obviously a GIANT trigger warning for sexual assault and rape is called for. But even if it was a tough read – or precisely because it was – this book was one of the best reading experiences of the year to me. It cost me almost a whole night’s sleep because I couldn’t put it down once I’d started, and had to spend a while bawling after I finished, but it was so worth it. I highly recommend giving this one a go, if you can.
8. Autoboyography (Christina Lauren)
Back to the slightly softer side of things! With some more YA, who could’ve guessed it! This was definitely on the fluffier side of YA romances I read this past year, and I looooved it. It wasn’t all fluff either, with the story focusing on two boys falling in love in a largely Mormon community and the struggles they face both individually and together in regards to identity, community and sexuality. But oh boy was it also cute as heck! I reread the last few chapters of this book SO MANY TIMES just to relive the feels and swoon while clutching my heart over and over again.
Much like The Gentleman’s Guide, this was also fanficcy in a good way, but I’m starting to think that’s just because I have read so much m/m fanfiction so I just associate all feels-inducing gay stories with that… Hmm. Regardless, a very lovely read and if you’re looking for quality gay YA, this is a good book to turn to!
9. Nousu & Tuho (Liv Strömquist)
And now for something completely different! These last few entries are a pretty big divergence from the rest of the list and probably won’t mean much to non-Finnish/Swedish readers. But whatever, it’s my list!
Liv Strömquist is a Swedish comic artist and she makes some of the most amazing comic essays on various societal themes and power structures, such as love, capitalism and class, and just a wide range of political topics. I read two books from her this year, but this one, called Rise and Fall was my favourite. Her approach is hilarious and her style is delightful, and reading her comics made me simultaneously very happy and very angry at the world, which is a pretty good balance at the end of the day. Some of the political jabs went a little over my head because I’m not all that familiar with the Swedish political scene, but most of it was universal enough for me to appreciate without the cultural insight. But then again I am Finnish, so I did probably understand a bit more than someone further outside the Nordic cultural landscape might.
Anyway, as one of those nasty lefty feminists I acknowledge that I am very much part of the choir she is preaching to, but honestly I wish more people from the political right would give her works a read, it might give them a thing or two to think about. Or not. What do I care.
10. Vihan ja inhon internet (Emmi Nieminen & Johanna Vehkoo)
Slightly in the same vein as the previous one, here’s some more political non-fiction in comic form! Or not comic, per se, but some sort of graphic non-fiction study on the online harassment culture that has become a national problem in Finland and all over the world in the recent years. Basically this book, whose title roughly translates as The Internet of Hate and Loathing, examines the culture of online harassment, trolling, doxxing and threats especially women have to deal with when daring to express an opinion online, particularly when that opinion has to do with opposing racism.
The book approaches the topic from several angles, consisting of stories from people who have at some point become targets of organised hate campaigns online, studies and hard data about this harassment, and stories from people who have been at the other side of the screen, partaking in these campaigns and writing hateful comments about others. The stories were accompanied by beautiful comic illustrations, and while the massive size of this book made it a little difficult to read, it was worth it to see the art in full size.
Much like Strömquist’s comics, this book falls squarely in the category of “informative, engaging and depressing as hell”. This book was an incredibly interesting read, but it also made me really sad and anxious because how is this shit allowed to happen, what is going on, why do people do this?!?!?! and so forth. But despite the exhaustion this book brought on, I’m very glad I read it and I’m exceedingly glad that it exists. It is a cautionary tale of the dark, terrible sides of the internet, but also a survival guide and a motivational speech for us to keep going despite the hate and harassment.
Phew, made it to the end! Now it’s time for everyone’s favourite part: Random statistics and reading resolutions that I will most likely entirely fail to commit to! Wooo!
In my last year-end review I mentioned that my goals were to read more Finnish literature and read more books by authors of colour. Sad to say pretty much failed when it comes to the first goal. Out of the 65 books I read in 2018 only 13 were in Finnish, and only six of those were actually originally written in Finnish. And those books were as follows: two poetry books, one collection of comic strips, one non-fiction about the internet (see list above) and two kids’ books from the 80s. Oh dear. I did actually read two more books by a Finnish author, but they were originally written in Swedish, soooo… Not exactly a stellar record. I admit that I have some difficulty with taking up books that are in Finnish, and I’m not sure why exactly that is. It is definitely something I wish to look into and try to correct in the future. So… more Finnish literature in 2019?? We’ll see.
I did much better with my second goal, happy to report! Whereas in 2017 only 17% of the books I read were written by people of colour, in 2018 I did much better with 29% of the books being by authors of colour, and nearly 22% being by women of colour! I’m actually quite pleased with that, even though in the grand scheme of things less than 30% is still pretty dismal. But it’s a significant improvement and a path on which I intend to continue. If you’re wondering why I insist on pointing out these percentages and why they matter to me, well, long story short, diversity and intersectionality are core values for me and I see no reason why I shouldn’t try to implement them in my reading as well. Maybe I will write a more lengthy post about the topic later, but for now let’s just say that I read to experience new worlds and perspectives and if all those worlds and perspectives are white (and/or male) then that is just depressingly limiting. Also 83% of the books I read were written by women so that’s pretty neat! But that stat has been well above the 50% line for a while.
Oh, I also pledged to hate read less and I have definitely managed to do that! Only one one star book on Goodreads last year that I read with the full knowledge that it would be crap, and I got that out of the way in January. Well done, me!
In 2019 my goals are to improve on that Finnish literature thing and continue with my diversity challenge, but I would like to implement some additional challenges, those being reading more books by authors (of colour) from outside the US (and books set in other places) and reading more books that aren’t YA. The first point raised has to do with the fact that even with the better percentage of POC authors, most of those authors are from the United States. So while there is greater diversity in general among the authors whose works I’ve read, a lot of those voices are still coming from an American perspective and the stories tend to be set in the US as well. So upping the diversity stakes by trying to include more stories from outside the West as well. Secondly, I feel like I have slightly pigeonholed myself when it comes to genre, because I read so much YA. As much as I love YA and maintain that it is often overlooked and underestimated for no reason, there are often limits to the stories that are being told in YA, and – as much as I loathe to admit it – I may have grown out of many of those stories. I will certainly not stop reading YA and feel no shame about my enthusiasm for it, but I want to get to the habit of reading other kinds of stories and different kinds of books in general as well.
So there we go! Sorry about this monster of a blog post and about it being so late, but whatever, got it done eventually! I hope and intend to blog more this year, but I always do, don’t I… Eh, we’ll see! Happy 2019!