Daniel Ford counts down our favorite books of 2018. Read on to find out which novel landed in our top spot!
Every month, the Writer’s Bone crew reviews or previews books we've read or want to read. This series may or may not also serve as a confessional for guilty pleasures and hipster novels only the brave would attempt. Feel free to share your own suggestions in the comments section or tweet us @WritersBone.
Disappearance at Devil's Rock by Paul Tremblay
Sean Tuohy: Daniel Ford and I spoke about this book, and he said it kept him up at night and that he kept checking to make sure the closet door hadn't opened. After spending a sleepless night finishing the novel, I totally agree. Fast-paced and always making the reader double guess what's coming next, Tremblay’s novel builds a world that is all too believable, which makes it much more terrifying. After a young boy goes missing in the local forest, a small New England town begins to notice a figure looking into windows (I kept looking out my window to make sure there was no looming outside).
There’s a scene that made my skin crawl that don’t want to give completely away, so I’ll just say it was all the more horrifying because of how relatable and simple it was constructed. A woman enters a bedroom and feels something (or someone) lurking nearby…
It was enough for me to shut the book and make sure I was alone in my room.
Daniel Ford: This book scared the pants off me. The novel is so well crafted and tense that I wanted to pull a Joey Tribbiani and put it in the freezer. My favorite line from Tremblay during our podcast at Brookline Booksmith was, “Why not take my favorite place in the world and make it creepy?” Clearly, a sign of a deeply troubled mind…(plus, he likes math!). Can’t wait to see what Tremblay writes about next!
Seinfeldia by Jennifer Keishin Armstrong
Daniel: I stole a line from author Joe Hill and described Jennifer Armstrong’s new book Seinfeldia as “aggressively readable.” It’s a terrific read for anyone that loves television or great reporting, but for me, the best part was the time and effort Armstrong put into highlighting the writers of the show that weren’t named Jerry Seinfeld or Larry David. The creative process for “Seinfeld” was so innovative and invasive, leading many of the writers to have pseudo-out-of-body experiences while living their lives outside the writer's room.
Using a breezy, yet incredibly researched, narrative style, Armstrong lovingly tells the tale of the “ultimate underdog story in television.” Real life “Seinfeld” characters—including the man who inspired Kramer and the actor who played The Soup Nazi—blur the line between reality and television, giving the book its beating heart. The show, which arguably is still relevant thanks to reruns and endearing publicity stunts, could not have found a better chronicler than Armstrong. (Okay, maybe a grumpy Larry David providing commentary for the episodes he hates the most, but still!)
Sadly, nothing I say can compare to the truly inspired tweet by Derek Thompson, a senior writer for The Atlantic, earlier today:
Eligible by Curtis Sittenfeld
Stephanie Schaefer: Curtis Sittenfeld’s modern retelling of one of my favorite novels, Pride and Prejudice, is an entertaining beach read. The book, which deals with similar themes as the original, focuses on a 21st century Bennet family, headed by a stubborn patriarch and money-hungry matriarch who hope to marry their five unwed daughters off to rich suitors. Sittenfeld successfully takes the traditional tale and weaves in present-day fads (think CrossFit, Paleo diets, and reality television). The sarcastic humor and over-the-top characters make for a page-turner even if some aspects of the plot seemed far-fetched. I highly recommend it to anyone looking for a light-hearted read this summer.
Originally featured in Songs, Stories, and Spirits.
Dr. Knox by Peter Spiegleman
Sean: Dr. Knox is the right mix of simple, but fast-moving, plot lines with strong and interesting characters, which creates a great summer read. Dr. Adam Knox is trying to keep his head above water. His underfunded clinic is about to be shut down, and his side business as a no-questions-asked doctor to the stars and Los Angeles lowlifes is not cutting it. Things get worse when a woman on the run leaves her son in the doctor's care, and soon after he discovers gangsters and soldiers of fortune are searching for the boy. With the help of his ex-Special Forces friend, Knox must try to find the boy's mother without losing his life in the process. The standout in this book is Knox, a man filled with demons that he desperately wants to escape from. He just wants to do good in the world, but too many years of witnessing awful acts of violence have left him drained and on the edge of losing his mind.
Black Flags: The Rise of ISIS by Joby Warrick
Daniel: In a recent episode of “Friday Morning Coffee,” Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Joby Warrick said that storytelling helps people understand things. His book, Black Flags: The Rise of ISIS, proves once again that a narrative structure can inform without distorting reality. Warrick’s engrossing, and important, depiction of the rise of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and ISIS puts the daily headlines we’ve become desensitized to into proper context.
Of all the key players in Black Flags, al-Zarqawi looms the largest for good reason. It’s entirely likely that some other organization like ISIS would have arisen in the aftermath of the U.S.’s invasion of Iraq, however, as Warrick points out, “personalities matter,” and ISIS took on al-Zarqawi’s violent and criminal personality. There was even a point when Osama bin Laden distanced himself from the terrorist and his organization because of the group’s brutal actions.
National security, for better or worse, is a key issue in the current Presidential campaign, which is why Black Flags is essential reading. Warrick cuts through the political responses to ISIS and gives the reader a clear view on who the enemy really is and why ISIS's origin story is important to understanding its current state.
You Will Know Me by Megan Abbott
Daniel: Reading Meg Abbott’s You Will Know Me is like marveling at a snake slowly unwrap itself, and then being blindsided when it sinks its fangs into your tender flesh.
The novel is just as unsettling and hair-raising as Tremblay’s Disappearance at Devil's Rock because it also grounds itself firmly in a reality that is all too close. If two loving parents bankrupting their family to realize their daughter’s Olympic potential doesn’t make your stomach churn, then you might be able to handle all the lies, betrayals, and tension that follow a tragic accident that throws a tight-knit community into turmoil.
You Will Know Me is insanely well paced and structured. Every revelation will make you lose your breath and compel you to keep reading (even if it’s well past your lunch break and Excel spreadsheets beckon). There’s a damn good reason The New York Times called Abbott the “maestro of the heebie-jeebies." The reader doesn’t know who to trust, or who to trust enough to figure out what the hell is going on, which makes the mystery and darkness all the more creepy.
I couldn’t agree more with author Paula Hawkins, who called You Will Know Me, “unbearably tense, chilling, and addictive.” If this book were cigarettes, I’d be buying two cartons a day. Go out, buy the book immediately, and smoke up!
An Honorable Man by Paul Vidich
Daniel: As if I didn’t need enough stress in my life after reading Abbott’s You Will Know Me…
As I pointed out during my interview with the author, Paul Vidich’s An Honorable Man is an old school spy novel in the best sense. Set in 1953, the novel exudes a quietness and uneasy tension, however, the hunt for a mole in the CIA pales in comparison to the deep character studies Vidich writes to perfection. George Mueller comes off as a sad sack spook, tapped to do one more job where he can nurse his hidden pain and let the bloodthirsty next generation take over. However, he proves he’s good at the spy games while also genuinely carrying around a bruised heart that refuses to develop any scar tissue. He’s a character you root for, while at the same time not completely trusting.
There are moments in An Honorable Man, much like in John le Carré’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, that make you feel like you’re intimately eavesdropping on people’s lives. At times, I half expected Mueller to leap out of the page, lead me out the door, and double bolt the lock.
Vidich’s novel also provides a cautionary tale to our current political melee. We may have evolved past Joe McCarthy’s tactics, but, considering the current contest for President of the United States, we must ask ourselves, how far have we really come?
Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Stein
Daniel: Where has this book been all my life? I had seen it’s bright, inviting neon cover in bookstores, but for some reason never even picked it up to read the first couple of pages. What a dope!
On a recent trip to Portland, Maine, I finally picked up a copy at the charming Sherman’s Books and Stationary. I was hooked immediately after reading, “Lost in the shadows of the shelves, I almost fall off the ladder.” From there, we learn why our hero Clay Johnson, witty and resourceful Millennial that he is, is tending shop at a musty old San Francisco bookstore owned by the mysterious (and super old) Mr. Penumbra. The store isn’t what it seems, and a colorful cast of characters band together to find out its secrets. There are moments of outright hilarity, warmth, and keen insights into the plugged-in world we live in.
I devoured this book on the beach in one day, and loved every single moment of it. If you’re looking for something exuberant and uplifting to read this summer, put this novel at the top of your list.
(Also, I have it on good authority that the book cover glows in the dark!!!)
A Man Called Ove by Fredrick Backman
Daniel: A Man Called Ove is quietly, and devastatingly, profound. Featuring an old curmudgeon trying to find his bearings, this novel could have easily been a caricature or a literary version of the Disney movie “Up.” However, Fredrick Backman's emotional and comedic touch ensures that Ove’s journey from tortured (and suicidal) old crank to neighborhood protector is a hearty example of feel-good fiction. The emotions don’t come cheap and aren’t cloying, but hit you at the right moment for the right reasons. Ove’s world is full of zany neighbors, mischievous stray cats, and a wife who constantly reminds him from the beyond why life is still worth living. This book had been on my to-read list forever, and I’m kicking myself for waiting so long to crack it open. Let me channel Ove for a second… “Don’t make the same mistake this bozo did, go out and buy read this now, goddammit!”
The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead
Daniel: When in doubt picking your next read, always listen to Oprah! Can’t wait to dig into Colson Whitehead’s new novel The Underground Railroad.
Here’s the premise:
Cora is a slave on a cotton plantation in Georgia. Life is hell for all the slaves, but especially bad for Cora; an outcast even among her fellow Africans, she is coming into womanhood—where even greater pain awaits. When Caesar, a recent arrival from Virginia, tells her about the Underground Railroad, they decide to take a terrifying risk and escape. Matters do not go as planned—Cora kills a young white boy who tries to capture her. Though they manage to find a station and head north, they are being hunted.