50 Favorite Books of 2018

  • November 26, 2018

It's awfully pretentious to declare books "the best," but these are among our faves of the year. They challenged, entertained, surprised, and/or enlightened us, and we hope you'll love them as much as we did!


In no particular order:

How to Write an Autobiographical Novel: Essays by Alexander Chee (Mariner Books). Reviewed by Gretchen Lida. “Despite its many subjects, How to Write an Autobiographical Novel is above all a book on writing. As I read, I underlined, highlighted, and snapped photos of quotes. While I sometimes do this with other books, it felt as though I couldn’t pick up Chee’s collection without a pen at the ready. It’s as if it were written for those who know the struggle of writing as the world watches, as well as the struggle of writing when no one else cares.”

The Promise of the Grand Canyon: John Wesley Powell’s Perilous Journey and His Vision for the American West by John F. Ross (Viking). Reviewed by Paula Tarnapol Whitacre. “The author’s own outdoor experience serves him well in describing Powell’s expeditions. After several mountain ascents, Powell eyed the most daring trip of all: descending from the headwaters of the Green and Colorado rivers to the then-unknown canyonland, ‘the final — and strangest — piece in the American jigsaw puzzle left by nearly a century of continental American exploration.’”

The Library Book by Susan Orlean (Simon & Schuster). Reviewed by Kitty Kelley. “As a writer who reveres libraries and genuflects to librarians, I was predisposed to embrace The Library Book by Susan Orlean. I just didn’t expect to fall in love so quickly. But by page three, I was head over heels when I read how she made magic of the mundane. Strolling through the grounds of the Central Library in Los Angeles, she noticed: ‘Pigeons the color of concrete marched in a bossy staccato.’ God really is in the details.”

The Moralist: Woodrow Wilson and the World He Made by Patricia O’Toole (Simon & Schuster). Reviewed by Elizabeth J. Moore. “In the end, the real takeaway from O’Toole’s book seems to be that the true nature of Wilson’s heritage has never been resolved. Trying to do so could keep Wilson scholars busy well into our current century.”

Other People’s Love Affairs: Stories by D. Wystan Owen (Algonquin Books). Reviewed by Mariko Hewer. “Unusual relationships are at the heart of Owen’s stories, which delve to voyeuristic depths. From a naive young man drawn to an unhappily married older woman, to a shabby, yet still sensuous former dancer, the characters in Other People’s Love Affairs are strongly reminiscent of Alice Munro’s ordinary — yet by no means dull — affairs of the heart. This is the beauty of both Owen and Munro: They nudge open the door to hidden psyches and invite us to step inside.”

A Terrible Country: A Novel by Keith Gessen (Viking). Reviewed by Nathan Chadwick. “A Terrible Country has been years in the making. Gessen’s first novel, All the Sad Young Literary Men, was published a decade ago. In the meantime, he has become a leading literary voice in the United States, helping to create a connection between his birth country, Russia, and his home country, the United States. With its humor, empathic characterization, and great timing, this book is a hell of an important read.”

Circe by Madeline Miller (Little, Brown and Co.). Reviewed by Ellen Prentiss Campbell. “Miller is a gifted storyteller. She knows her Homer, presenting the story with a different slant, but with language rich in classical metaphor and cadence. Her degrees are in Classics; she later studied dramaturgy. A former teacher of Greek and Latin, she now tutors these subjects, as well as Shakespeare. Her knowledge and passion for story and character come through on every page and surely contribute to a novel that begs to be read aloud.”

The Royal Art of Poison: Filthy Palaces, Fatal Cosmetics, Deadly Medicine, and Murder Most Foul by Eleanor Herman (St. Martin’s Press). Reviewed by Gretchen Lida. “Luckily, we have New York Times-bestselling author Eleanor Herman to help us navigate an aspiring widow’s bulging cabinet of nasty concoctions with her new book, The Royal Art of Poison. This fantastic work combines morbid curiosity and royal gossip. In it, readers will not only find out about who could’ve poisoned whom, but also why and with what. Lovers of Tudor history, costume dramas, and high fantasy will rejoice.”

The Immortalists: A Novel by Chloe Benjamin (G.P. Putnam's Sons). Reviewed by Bob Duffy. “In the siblings’ tales, author Benjamin shines a subtle light on the bonds of kinship and familial love, counter-balanced by the freedom, or willingness, to choose one’s own path. The Immortalists is a rich and rewarding novel, sure to rank among the very best of 2018’s crop, and one to be re-read and savored for years to come.”

Eternal Life: A Novel by Dara Horn (W.W. Norton & Company). Reviewed by Felicity Long. “What if an author of literary repute wrote a book about living forever? And what if that book contained not a single vampire or zombie, but rather a woman — everywoman, if you like — who impulsively enters a bargain with God to exchange her mortality for the life of her ailing child? Such is the premise of Eternal Life, a tour-de-force examination of the role death plays in a meaningful life; of love — both maternal and romantic — that endures beyond time; and of the relevance of religion in a changing universe.”

So You Want to Talk About Race by Ijeoma Oluo (Seal Press). Reviewed by Jenny Ferguson. “The book is divided into chapters that tackle issues such as the myth that class is a bigger problem than race or what racism and micro-aggressions actually are. But what makes So You Want to Talk About Race such a strong addition to books that address race is that the author also turns her eye toward much more complex issues like intersectionality, the school-to-prison pipeline, and cultural appropriation with wit and heart.”

The Taking of K-129: How the CIA Used Howard Hughes to Steal a Russian Sub in the Most Daring Covert Operation in History by Josh Dean (Dutton). Reviewed by John R. Wennersten. “The Taking of K-129 sets a high bar for nonfiction books about the interplay of government secrecy and maritime engineering. Occasionally, Dean offers the reader too much technological detail, but this is a modest criticism. Now that Soviet submarines are again on the prowl in the ocean lanes of digital global communication, Dean’s book is a refreshing and instructive retrospective on how the Cold War of the past continues to influence the Cold War of the present.”

An American Marriage: A Novel by Tayari Jones (Algonquin Books). Reviewed by Amanda Holmes Duffy. “Many love stories are bittersweet, but they aren’t traditionally American. Perhaps America is too devoted to the myth of the American dream to take such complexity on board. But in this novel, Tayari Jones puts more sadness and nuance into the American romantic narrative. She tells a different kind of love story that many will respond to because, ultimately, it rings true.”

Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom by David W. Blight (Simon & Schuster). Reviewed by James A. Percoco. “This sweeping, accessible work offers a microcosm of American life during the 19th century, as Douglass — born sometime in 1818 (he never knew the month of his birth) and passing in 1895 — was at the forefront of most of the critical issues of the era, all of which revolved around slavery and race.”

The Boy at the Keyhole: A Novel by Stephen Giles (Hanover Square Press). Reviewed by K.L. Romo. “This clever psychological thriller reads like a quiet introspection into the vivid imagination of a young boy. Is he going mad? Or does Ruth expertly skew the facts to make it seem that way? Tension builds as small details are revealed one by one, the story slowly building to a surprise ending that will leave readers saying, ‘Wow, I didn’t see that coming!’”

Peach by Emma Glass (Bloomsbury USA). Reviewed by Bryana Fern. “In Peach, Glass’ characters become her patients, and we experience the world through Peach’s eyes. Peach’s need is to be believed, to be seen. And Glass gives her center stage. The attention to detail and organic sound in individual syllables, twining and weaving in a mesmerizing dance, is unmistakably potent in Peach. From the very first sentence, Glass asserts her prowess and control of language, showing remarkable restraint in molding the most powerful images.”

The Clockmaker’s Daughter: A Novel by Kate Morton (Atria Books). Reviewed by Sara Dahmen. “The titular clockmaker’s daughter, Millington herself, is the main protagonist in the novel, though we don’t understand her significance until the book races to its close. Like Leslie Parry’s Church of Marvels, The Clockmaker’s Daughter offers readers the opportunity to piece together the story in such a way that they will reel for days afterward, shocked at the conclusion but understanding exactly how everyone fits together like a perfectly designed jigsaw puzzle.”

The Rending and the Nest: A Novel by Kaethe Schwehn (Bloomsbury USA). Reviewed by K.L. Romo. “The Rending and the Nest left me with indelible images of the oddities contained within its pages, and I am moved by the prose which so eloquently describes a world that contains both bizarre atrocities and an innate hope for the future. This dystopian tale impresses upon us the importance of each of our stories, and that love and caring for one another is the only way to survive and start again.”

Tomb Song: A Novel by Julián Herbert; translated by Christina MacSweeney (Graywolf Press). Reviewed by Jenny O’Grady. “Among his Spanish-speaking fan base, Herbert is known for his dazzling language, and this, his English debut translated lovingly by Christina MacSweeney, does not disappoint. Simultaneously gorgeous and dirty, he brings us poignant moments of beauty only to quickly destroy them with the filth lurking naturally behind. This is his life — driven by opium one moment, by love or sense of duty the next — and how he chooses to see, feel, and write it.”

Sadness Is a White Bird: A Novel by Moriel Rothman-Zecher (Atria Books). Reviewed by Philip K. Jason. “Searing in its beauty, devastating in its emotional power, and dazzling in its insights, Moriel Rothman-Zecher’s debut novel, Sadness Is a White Bird, is, I promise you, like nothing you’ve ever read. If I’m wrong, you’ve been luckier than I have. His particular vision of today’s Israel, told through a coming-of-age story, will break your heart.”

West by Carys Davies (Scribner). Reviewed by Suzie Eckl. “Had West simply been about one man’s journey into the American frontier, I might not have found it satisfying. Had it simply been about the women he left behind or even his complicated relationship with a young Shawnee, I might not recommend it to another reader. But I believe that Davies has achieved something striking in this small volume: As Frederick Jackson Turner viewed American history through the lens of the frontier, she has examined the power — and perhaps failure — of storytelling through the lens of the American West.”

Happiness by Aminatta Forna (Atlantic Monthly Press). Reviewed by Ren Meinhart. “Happiness, the latest novel by award-winning author Aminatta Forna, sneaks up on you. It is deceptively low-key, devoid of dramatic peaks, and filled with effortless, relaxed prose that begs you to curl up with a blanket and read it on a cold, rainy day. Then, out of nowhere, you realize it’s so much more — an ambitious and moving story with real heft, written by an accomplished artist.”

The Judge Hunter: A Novel by Christopher Buckley (Simon & Schuster). Reviewed by Drew Gallagher. “The Judge Hunter is a satisfying romp through America in the 1600s and leaves the reader sensing the ripeness of what Buckley might be able to do with the 1700s…and perhaps hoping that Benjamin Franklin had a little-known brother-in-law.” 

Ahab’s Return: or, The Last Voyage by Jeffrey Ford (William Morrow). Reviewed by David Raney. “But Ahab’s Return isn’t so much a rewrite of Moby-Dick as a kind of alternate history, posing the question: What if Ahab didn’t go down with the ship (or the fish), caught in a harpoon line and dragged to his death? What if Ishmael, writing for the 1853 equivalent of a supermarket tabloid, made that up? And what happens when Ahab comes to town looking for revenge, the truth, and his wife and son?”

Returning by Yael Shahar (Kasva Press). Reviewed by Philip K. Jason. “Returning is an extraordinary and challenging book on many levels. It attempts to make the intangible as close to tangible as possible. It engages readers in a kind of time travel that has nothing to do with science fiction. It might remind some of paranormal romance, but the stakes are much higher.”

Hadrian’s Wall by Adrian Goldsworthy (Basic Books). Reviewed by Ronald Mellor. “Since Goldsworthy is perhaps the leading military historian of ancient Rome in the English-speaking world, it is no surprise that his historical analysis of Hadrian’s Wall is first-rate. But his book is also noteworthy for its admirable synthetic treatment of the archaeological remains.”

The Price of the Haircut: Stories by Brock Clarke (Algonquin Books). Reviewed by Robert Allen Papinchak. “Clarke is outrageously inventive. He has a masterful command of voice, style, and character, and an off-key humor which is often mind-boggling. His narrative strengths and exceptional control of the short-story form resemble the robustness of Jhumpa Lahiri’s Interpreter of Maladies and Denis Johnson’s The Largesse of the Sea Maiden. They also call to mind the postmodern shenanigans of John Barth, Donald Barthelme, and Robert Coover.”

South Toward Home: Adventures and Misadventures in My Native Land by Julia Reed (St. Martin's Press). Reviewed by Sarah Creech. “Move aside, bourbon. Reed prefers scotch in her highball. Her essays defy Southern stereotypes page by page (no odes to whiskey here) and illustrate the lush, hot, menacing world of the Mississippi Delta. Her unique persona and voice rise above all the best attempts to compare her to other writers. She’s the perfect literary ambassador for the South, its idiosyncratic style of entertaining, and its memorable mannerisms.”

Rome Resurgent: War and Empire in the Age of Justinian by Peter Heather (Oxford University Press). Reviewed by Bob Duffy. “Rome Resurgent is singularly rich in detail, as well as in informed insight into a period balanced on the cusp of the empire’s transformation from Roman to Byzantine. And just beyond the frame of this saga lies the shattering emergence of Muslim hegemony in the Middle East and the African Mediterranean.”

Cloudbursts - Collected and New Stories by Thomas McGuane (Knopf). Reviewed by Mark Gamin. “Cloudbursts includes most of McGuane’s previously published stories and adds eight new ones for a total of 45 wonderful narratives. His men are mad, bad, and/or vulnerable and pang-filled; his women are usually tough enough to take chances at which the former would demur. The sexes get along with each other reasonably well, so long as their relationships are not formalized — wedded bliss in Cloudbursts is rare.”

1983 - Reagan, Andropov, and a World on the Brink by Taylor Downing (Da Capo Press). Reviewed by Larry Matthews. “Taylor Downing’s 1983: Reagan, Andropov, and a World on the Brink is a terrific book that should terrify anyone who reads it. It is a must-read for students of the Cold War and for anyone who thinks nuclear brinkmanship is a productive way to conduct foreign policy. The book is a chronicle of a time when the United States and the Soviet Union came close to destroying civilization in a confrontation of thermonuclear insanity.”

Kudos by Rachel Cusk (Farrar, Straus and Giroux). Reviewed by Alice Stephens. “And that’s the final image of this beautiful, groundbreaking trilogy: a woman watching from a safe but ‘heaving’ distance as a man asserts the cruel privilege given to him as a male. It is a strangely empowering end: a woman riding the troubled sea, coolly observing what’s happening on the shore.”

The New Negro: The Life of Alain Locke by Jeffrey C. Stewart (Oxford University Press). Author interview by Joye Shepperd. “At almost a thousand pages, every chapter of The New Negro is a tutorial. Stewart gives the reader a detailed view of life in the early 20th century with full-on portraits of black Victorianism, Harvard, Oxford, and the nuances of leadership through Locke’s engagement with Roscoe Conklin Bruce, Roland Hayes, Booker T. Washington, and W.E.B. DuBois.”

Hidden Tapestry: Jan Yoors, His Two Wives, and the War That Made Them One by Debra Dean (Northwestern University Press). Reviewed by Delia Cabe. “Throughout the book, Dean dips into the history of World War II in perfect doses — enough for the reader to gain a feel for the lived experiences of Yoors, Annabert, and Marianne without bogging down the story. Her riveting descriptions breathe life into events that many of us are familiar with. Like an artful documentarian, Dean whisks us from the panorama of wartime to close-ups of our main characters, each trying to survive. Because of Dean’s ability to balance the narrative, I found myself caught up in each of their lives, wondering how the three would come together.”

The Sea Queen: A Novel by Linnea Hartsuyker (Harper). Reviewed by Carrie Callaghan. "Linnea Hartsuyker turns the pages of the history books relatively far back, to 9th-century Scandinavia, when King Harald was attempting to unite all of Norway. But her writing is immediate and urgent, and she bridges the chasm of those centuries with a breath. Ragnvald, Svanhild, Solvi, and Hartsuyker's other characters set their grappling hooks into the reader’s heart. As with her first book, The Half-Drowned King, Hartsuyker gives us flawed yet sympathetic characters who each have a reason to earn our affection, and whose interests are pitted against one another. The result is a book about impossible choices, all spun across a vivid historical world that ought to bring nightmares but instead mixes beauty with acceptance." 

Lincoln’s Last Trial: The Murder Case That Propelled Him to the Presidency by Dan Abrams and David Fisher (Hanover Square Press). Reviewed by Talmage Boston. “Dan Abrams and David Fisher’s book adds a new layer of understanding about how Lincoln’s mind worked as a consummate trial lawyer, and how that mind provided the platform for his political prowess. More than a century and a half after his assassination, books like Lincoln’s Last Trial serve to inform readers of the man’s unique genius that has led to our unwavering recognition of him as our nation’s greatest hero.”

Eunice: The Kennedy Who Changed the World by Eileen McNamara (Simon & Schuster). Reviewed by Kitty Kelley. “Eileen McNamara writes with grace, elegance, and diplomacy, never making moral judgments on harsh facts. If she were not doing laudable work as chair of the journalism program at Brandeis University, the Pulitzer Prize-winning writer would make an excellent secretary of state. Her fine biography of Eunice Kennedy Shriver champions the overlooked sister, who deserves as much, if not more, applause than her celebrated brothers in establishing the family’s monumental legacy.”

Bruce Lee: A Life by Matthew Polly (Simon & Schuster). Reviewed by James Tate Hill. “That Lee accomplished so much in such a brief life recalls Alfred Kazin’s assessment of Jack London, another icon of masculinity who died very young: ‘The greatest story Jack London ever wrote was the one he lived.’ Reading Matthew Polly’s Bruce Lee, one finds a life far richer and more fascinating than his movies could convey.”

The New Inheritors: A Novel by Kent Wascom (Grove Press). Reviewed by Jennifer Bort Yacovissi. “Wascom is a careful student of history, and his portraits of America are riven with many of its seamier episodes. Sometimes these are used as telling asides, and other times they are woven seamlessly into the backdrop of his stories. Kemper remembers ‘hearing her mother say that the U.S. had dressed Cuba as a woman in torn clothes on the verge of being raped, then kindly shoved Spain out of the way and took our turn.’”

Extreme Conservation: Life at the Edges of the World by Joel Berger (University of Chicago Press). Reviewed by Emily Strelow. “The writing is bright and engaging, borderline ‘CSI’ thriller at times, like when he encounters a mysterious ‘death assemblage’ of muskoxen frozen in ice. Berger has written a book about conservation, yes, but there is something here for every type of reader.”

The Dogs of Detroit: Stories by Brad Felver (University of Pittsburgh Press). Reviewed by Ellen Prentiss Campbell. “These can be read as true horror stories, as cautionary tales, or as imagined front-line reporting (sometimes almost surreal and hallucinatory). Brutally honest, Felver explores the effects of emotional and financial scarcity on families. Many of the parents and children on these pages subsist in economic and social circumstances ripe for breeding violence and hatred; many are perpetrators or victims of abuse — and sometimes both at once.”

Road to Disaster: A New History of America’s Descent into Vietnam by Brian VanDeMark (Custom House). Reviewed by Tom Glenn. “Quibbles aside, my judgment is that Road to Disaster is a fine and much-needed history. This is the book I’ve been waiting for — a thorough and thoughtful history of what led to the war that shaped my life.”

Leadership in Turbulent Times by Doris Kearns Goodwin (Simon & Schuster). Reviewed by Talmage Boston. “With the release of Leadership in Turbulent Times, Doris Kearns Goodwin has performed a feat of contortion even the great Houdini never attempted. She stands on her own shoulders. To execute such a dazzling move requires two traits: massive shoulders and unique powers of agility. In raising her newest historical analysis above her prior work, the esteemed historian proves she has both qualities.”

Adrift - A True Story of Tragedy on the Icy Atlantic and the One Who Lived to Tell about It by Brian Murphy with Toula Vlahou (Da Capo Press). Reviewed by Eliza McGraw. “‘Shipwrecks are a standard crisis setting,’ Murphy writes. ‘First, there are questions about what supplies to bring or leave behind. Then, it gets more interesting because castaways bring unique personalities and inclinations.’ This is actually what happens in Adrift, which has a standard disaster-chronicle beginning but picks up speed and depth as the narrative moves along.”

Baby, You’re Gonna Be Mine: Stories by Kevin Wilson (Ecco). Reviewed by Robert Allen Papinchak. “The unnerving stories in Baby, You’re Gonna Be Mine, though supersaturated with unhappiness, also examine what it means to be human. The only path to surviving is to keep running and keep breathing. The sad irony of the human comedy is that, more often than not, it is steeped in tragedy.”

A Cloud in the Shape of a Girl: A Novel by Jean Thompson (Simon & Schuster). Reviewed by Sally Shivnan. “Jean Thompson’s new novel draws the reader in with character and plot — the lives of a young woman, her mother, and her grandmother unfolding in ordinary and not-so-ordinary messiness across decades. But what ultimately holds the reader enthralled is the chance to witness Thompson’s exceptional powers of observation when it comes to the smallest, most subtle reactions people have to each other and to the ebb and flow of life around them.”

Waiting for Eden: A Novel by Elliot Ackerman (Knopf). Reviewed by Julia Tagliere. “This is a tautly written, gripping read that, in the best tradition of war-related fiction, reminds us in unflinching detail of the awful cost of battle. However, it also, surprisingly, pays homage to other genres. Part mystery, part thriller, part unconventional love story, Waiting for Eden explores with gravity and sensitivity the profound questions of love and fidelity, duty and honor, and how one creates a life worth living.”

A Light of Her Own: A Novel by Carrie Callaghan (Amberjack Publishing). Reviewed by Sarah Shoemaker. “Though most of Leyster’s life beyond her painting has been lost to history, Carrie Callaghan, in her debut novel, A Light of Her Own, has brilliantly re-imagined this woman who dared to believe herself the equal of her male Artists’ Guild co-members. In richly descriptive prose befitting Leyster’s lustrous work, Callaghan tells the story of the young Judith in her early twenties, her parents having years before disappeared from her life, and her younger brother barely able to keep himself alive.”

Famous Adopted People: A Novel by Alice Stephens (The Unnamed Press). Reviewed by Rui Zhong. “Even the most casual observer of North Korea can sketch out double-crossing, intrigue, and the deeply survivalist nature of its politics. Alice Stephens’ debut novel, Famous Adopted People, harnesses these characteristics into a darkly comedic game of cat and mouse.”

The Tangled Tree: A Radical New History of Life by David Quammen (Simon & Schuster). Reviewed by Jennifer Bort Yacovissi. “Quammen is the master of deconstructing complex, obscure scientific concepts and reconstituting them into coherent, understandable, and illuminating narratives. In The Tangled Tree: A Radical New History of Life, he does this primarily by focusing on the people behind the science who, in a very short period of time — whether working with or against each other — have changed much of what we thought we knew about evolution, heredity, and, yes, the origin (and definition) of species.”

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