By Daniel Ford
My approach to cataloging 2018’s best books was simple: go big or go home.
When considering all of the wonderful fiction and nonfiction published this year, I couldn’t imagine narrowing the list to just 30 or 35. So on the counsel of music guru Mike Nelson (who’s year-end list of the top 100 songs is an annual delight), I included 50 genre-bending, mind-meltin’, eye-ball-poppin’, literary-booty-shakin’, keep-me-up-late-at-night-day-job-be-damned books that defined the past 12 months.
A word to you bookworm trolls out there ready to take me to task: I only considered books I’ve read (which is why books like Esi Edugyan’s Washington Black, Kellye Garrett’s Hollywood Ending, Chloe Benjamin’s The Immortalists, Peng Shephard’s The Book of M, and Kiese Laymon’s Heavy are giving me side-eye from across my desk). Feel free to further damage my bank account by sharing your favorites in the comments section.
Be sure to frequent your local independent bookseller this holiday season. This list wouldn’t be possible without the continued support and terrific recommendations from our friends at Trident Booksellers & Café, Belmont Books, Brookline Booksmith, Porter Square Books, Books on the Square, Kew & Willow Books, RiverRun Bookstore, Sherman's Maine Coast Book Shops, and I Am Books. Keep reading, everyone!
50. Alice Isn't Dead by Joseph Fink
A book based on a podcast? What’s not to love?!
49. All the Pieces Matter by Jonathan Abrams
I love that this book made Mike Nelson ask Jonathan Abrams, “Is Michael B. Jordan okay?”
48. My Old Faithful by Yang Huang
Yang Huang crafted 10 nuanced stories that center around a close-knit Chinese family. She packs plenty of humor and empathy into everyday machinations that reveal so much about the human condition.
47. The Third Hotel by Laura Van Den Berg
One of those books you’ll want to read again immediately after you’re done. That fingernail…
46. Founding Martyr by Christian Di Spigna
We’re partial to Joseph Warren because he hailed from Boston, but this is an excellent exploration of one of our forgotten Founding Fathers. Di Spigna’s narrative flourishes put him in the same historical writing category as Nathaniel Philbrick.
45. In the Hurricane's Eye by Nathaniel Philbrick
Speaking of Philbrick, his Revolutionary War trilogy finale is the perfect reading companion to Di Spigna’s Founding Martyr. It was such a treat to follow an exhausted, irritable, and, ultimately, triumphant George Washington on the path toward Yorktown.
44. Burning Down the Haus by Tim Mohr
All of us should take lessons away from East German punks during the Cold War. Bring the music and revolution to the streets!
43. The Blue Kingfisher by Erica Wright
Kat Stone’s snark and heart was exactly what 2018 needed. Erica Wright continues to impress in this private investigator series.
42. Sex and the City and Us by Jennifer Keishin Armstrong
Where do you go after writing about “Seinfeld,” perhaps the best TV comedy of the 1990s? Obviously, the answer is you chronicle another show vying for that crown that features daring fashion and shoes, cupcakes, and feisty female friends. Jennifer Keishin Armstrong brings readers directly into the writer’s room and doesn’t shy away from some of the more divisive issues involving one of HBO’s signature comedies.
41. Listen to the Marriage by John Jay Osborn Jr.
Deliciously claustrophobic. An intense one-afternoon read.
40. Trust Me by Hank Phillippi Ryan
The only thing better than Hank Phillippi Ryan’s Trust Me was her social media promotion of the book.
39. The Friend by Sigrid Nunez
Perhaps the perfect book for writers who love dogs.
38. Silver Girl by Leslie Pietrzyk
A great recommendation from The Animators author Kayla Rae Whitaker. She called it haunting in her review, and I couldn’t agree more.
37. These Truths by Jill Lepore
Jill Lepore is still tops in my book for historical writing. A much-needed examination of American hypocrisy.
36. The Witch Elm by Tana French
Tana French steps away from the investigator’s point of view and inhabits a happy-go-lucky fellow whose destiny is changed irrevocably after being beaten to an inch of his life. Gripping fiction with an end you’re sure to wrestle with.
35. White Dancing Elephants by Chaya Bhuvaneswar
Chaya Bhuvaneswar’s debut short story collection features some of my favorite characters in 2018. Her stories are raw, honest, and, at times, thrilling.
34. There There by Tommy Orange
While I may not have been as in love with this book as the majority of its champions, I’m certainly glad Tommy Orange’s debut exists. I admire its ambition and Orange penned some truly beautiful, and searing, sentences.
33. The New Negro: The Life of Alain Locke by Jeffrey C. Stewart
Jeffrey C. Stewart’s National Book Award-winning biography of Alain Locke—writer, philosopher, and advocate for the arts—grabbed me from the macabre first chapter. Exceptional nonfiction writing.
32. Locked Gray/Linked Blue by Kem Joy Ukwu
Speaking of unforgettable characters, Kem Joy Ukwu’s debut Locked Gray/Linked Blue has more than its fair share. You won’t forget a single one.
31. Eat the Apple by Matt Young
Anyone who auditions new Writer’s Bone taglines (including “The Final Stop on the Way to Bonetown”) live on the air deserves to land on this list. Oh yeah, Matt Young’s memoir is great. You should read it.
30. Back Talk by Danielle Lazarin
I read Danielle Lazarin’s Back Talk way back in February, so I revisited a few stories before writing this post. Still terrific!
29. Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens
Writing can be isolating, but it’s nothing compared to the isolation Delia Owens’ main character Kya faces in her debut Where the Crawdads Sing. A wonderfully drawn character study wrapped in a thrilling mystery.
28. Heart Berries by Terese Marie Mailhot
“I wanted as much of the world as I could take, and I didn’t have the conscience to be ashamed.”
Terese Mailhot, everyone. Brilliant memoir
27. The Line That Held Us by David Joy
David Joy’s third outing is really a stunner. The novel’s terrific, and unexpected, ending will haunt you.
26. House of Nutter by Lance Richardson
Lance Richardson’s explores the life of rebel Savile Row tailor Tommy Nutter through the prism of brotherhood, fashion, and the AIDS crisis in the 1990s. A fitting narrative for the man responsible for dressing the Beatles for their “Abbey Road” cover.
25. Providence by Caroline Kepnes
Sean Tuohy has been (lovingly) calling Caroline Kepnes’ Providence a “kitchen sink” book. I don’t know how she made all these elements work, but, hot damn, she did. A compulsive and twisted novel.
24. What Remains of Her by Eric Rickstad
Every time Eric Rickstad reads his work at a live event, you can hear a pin drop. The only reason my heart didn’t stop reading his new one was because I was lying on a beach in Greece.
23. Calypso by David Sedaris
David Sedaris’ latest collection of essays mixes his trademark humor with a deeply personal meditation on the grieving process. I identified with this line in particular: “Anyone could tell that we were related, even someone from another planet who believed that humans were as indistinguishable from one another as acorns. At this particular moment of our lives, no one belonged together more than us.”
22. A Lucky Man by Jamel Brinkley
Ah, we’ve reached the point in this list where it became unbearable to find the right order. Jamel Brinkley’s short story collection might go down as my favorite of all time.
21. Robin by David Itzkoff
I wore out a cassette tape of Robin Williams’ “A Night at the Met.” I stole so many jokes from it in middle school, he could have sued me. He’s one of my favorite performers of all. Reading David Itzkoff’s biography made me mourn his passing all over again. The last chapters are simply devastating.
20. The Fighters by C.J. Chivers
A harrowing, necessary account of modern soldiers and warfare.
19. Sunburn by Laura Lippman
A pitch perfect thriller. The gold standard for modern noir. Bonus points for its 1990s setting.
18. Heart Spring Mountain by Robin MacArthur
I felt like I was eavesdropping on these characters lives. Robin MacArthur combines sparse, moving prose with an isolated, wooded setting.
17. The Emperor of Shoes by Spencer Wise
Having gotten to know Spencer Wise a little bit this year, I’m not convinced we’re not related in some way. His debut is very much a novel I wish I had written. Plus, shoe dogs!
16. Beneath A Ruthless Sun by Gilbert King
Gilbert King’s Beneath A Ruthless Sun puts a human face on our criminal justice system. This book details the twisted aftermath of a rape of a privileged white woman in Florida in the 1950s. It reads like a thriller at times, but it never loses an ounce of humanity or empathy.
15. Tin Man by Sarah Winman
Also a strong candidate for book cover of the year! Her main character Ellis ranks high on my favorites for the year. Beautifully written.
14. Give Me Your Hand by Megan Abbott
The master of literary female friendships does it again. Sure, there’s a dark plot afoot, but it’s the character work Megan Abbott does in Give Me Your Hand that pushes it far beyond its genre.
13. I'll Be Gone in the Dark by Michelle McNamara
A modern day In Cold Blood. Michelle McNamara never lost sight of the most important aspect in any true-crime narrative: the victims. An unbelievable talent gone much, much too soon.
12. Crux by Jean Guerrero
A daughter and father saga set against the backdrop of American immigration and living as a minority in the United States. Perfect blend of journalism and memoir.
11. The Fighter by Michael Farris Smith
Michael Farris Smith punches his way to another level in his latest novel. Barred-knuckled storytelling at its best.
10. How to Stop Time by Matt Haig
A wonderful book about memory, hope, despair, and melancholy with guest appearances by famous historical figures.
9. November Road by Lou Berney
Pretty sure my copy of Lou Berney’s November Road is still smoldering on my nightstand. Berney penned a thrilling noir and deftly used the Kennedy assassination without overplaying his hand.
8. An American Marriage by Tayari Jones
Could. Not. Put. This. Book. Down. What Tayari Jones does with the epistolary middle section is divine. This novel includes maybe my favorite passage of 2018: “Celestial isn’t the kind of singer you would want at your wedding. While her mother is a gravity-defying soprano, she is a scotch-and-Marlboros alto. Even when she was a little girl, her voice was like the middle of the night.”
7. What Should Be Wild by Julia Fine
What Should Be Wild’s main character Maisie has the power to kill and give life, which, as you can imagine, has complicated her life. The ending is a deliciously dark treat.
6. America for Beginners by Leah Franqui
I’m so grateful to Adam Vitcavage for putting this book on our radar. Leah Franqui has a tremendously bright future and I can’t wait to read the characters and stories she crafts next.
5. Friday Black by Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah
Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah is an essential new voice. This is a truly special collection.
4. If You Leave Me by Crystal Hana Kim
Crystal Hana Kim’s debut is epic in scope, but that didn’t stop me from binging it in two nights. I don’t say this lightly, but this reading experience was very similar to the one I had with Min Jin Lee’s Pachinko. The perfect blend of structure, character, and story.
3. Waiting for Eden by Elliot Ackerman
Elliot Ackerman raises the bar with each novel. His third is incredibly haunting. Readers accompany a wounded soldier “imprisoned in his own mind” for 192 pages. Yes, you will not be able to breathe through any of them.
2. A Place for Us by Fatima Farheen Mirza
Beautifully written and structured, Fatima Farheen Mirza’s debut A Place for Us gave our top book quite a run for its money! Mirza’s voice is most welcome on the literary scene, and we can’t wait to see what she writes next.
1. The Great Believers by Rebecca Makkai
There’s no other book on this list that I discussed or recommended more than Rebecca Makkai’s National Book Award finalist The Great Believers. Without a doubt, Yale Tishman is my favorite character of 2018. Be warned, you’re going to need all the tissues while reading this book.
Trick by Domenico Starnone, Homeplace by John Lingan, The Woman in the Window by A.J. Finn, The Mars Room by Rachel Kushner, The Cabin at the End of the World by Paul Tremblay, Florida by Lauren Groff, The Paper Life They Lead by Peter Crerand, Green by Sam Graham-Felsen, The Gunners by Rebecca Kauffman, Speak No Evil by Uzodinma Iweala, The Italian Teacher by Tom Rachman, You All Grow Up and Leave Me by Piper Weiss, Bluff by Michael Kardos, From the Corner of the Oval by Beck Dorey-Stein, Little Comfort by Edwin Hill, Winter Loon by Susan Bernhard, Swift Vengeance by T. Jefferson Parker, The Incendiaries by R.O. Kwon, Wit’s End by James Geary, and The Masterpiece by Fiona Davis