Jonathan Abrams

The 50 Best Books of 2018

The 50 Best Books of 2018

Daniel Ford counts down our favorite books of 2018. Read on to find out which novel landed in our top spot!

17 Books That Should Be On Your Radar: March 2018

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.


The Fighter by Michael Farris Smith

Daniel Ford: Pardon the pun, but Michael Farris Smith’s latest novel The Fighter (out March 20 from Little, Brown and Company) knocked me out cold. Southern noir just doesn’t get much better than this. We’ve been following Smith’s work since his debut Rivers, and it’s been a true pleasure seeing his work progress with each new novel. The Fighter is an intense read for myriad reasons, and you’ll have to set it down a time or two to swig a shot of bourbon or take a cold shower, but Smith infuses this book with the honest, empathetic humanity that’s become the hallmark of his fiction. This is no holds barred, campfire storytelling, and, frankly, I’m jealous as hell that Smith is so good at what he does.


I'll Be Gone in the Dark by Michelle McNamara

Daniel: I made the mistake of reading the late Michelle McNamara’s I’ll Be Gone in the Dark right before going to bed. I made sure my trusty Louisville Slugger was close by before I finally shut my eyes (after jumping at every shadow, of course). Sean Tuohy and I interviewed McNamara way back in 2014, and we came away from that discussion convinced she was more passionate about her work than anyone we had talked to up to that point (and maybe since). To see her words in print a few years after her death is a surreal experience, but a welcome one. Yes, McNamara’s investigation into the Golden State Killer takes her into some shadowy corners, however, owing to McNamara’s natural inner light, the reader never feels completely engulfed in darkness. I'll Be Gone in the Dark is an exceptionally well-crafted and researched narrative by a skilled writer and investigator who was taken from us much, much too soon.


All the Pieces Matter by Jonathan Abrams

Daniel: What better way to explore “The Wire,” truly the greatest television show ever made, than with an oral history? Jonathan Abrams’ discussions with the cast and crew yielded just as much magic as what ended up on the small screen. Andre Royo’s protective and brotherly feelings toward his character Bubbles. Idris Elba literally drinking J.D. Williams under the table. David Simon fighting with HBO in order to write and execute his exact vision. The City of Baltimore embracing a cinematic version of itself that hemmed closer to reality than any show on record. Fans of “The Wire” will love every word, and every television junkie will appreciate the craft and love that went into making it.


The Book of Unknown Americans by Cristina Henriquez 

Melanie Padgett Powers: I read this book while traveling to Guatemala, which was fitting because it's about Latin American immigrants in the United States. It’s lovely and poetic, but sad and frustrating because of its timeliness. It really brings home what immigrants are facing in this country today. The book focuses on one family, but after a while you start to learn about their neighbors’ stories too. These are fully developed characters with lives you rarely see portrayed in books and whom most of us don’t get to know in real life. For that alone, it’s worth a read.


Speak No Evil by Uzodinma Iweala

Daniel: Uzodinma Iweala’s incredibly powerful second novel Speak No Evil is staring at me right now. I feel like it’s been glaring at me since I finished it. His characters are still speaking to me, and his narrative is still punching me in the gut. Iweala’s first novel Beasts of No Nation was adapted as a Netflix original, and readers will be lucky if that happens again with this novel. Just masterful and utterly devastating.


Adam Vitcavage: Set in at the rise of drag culture in the late-1980s, The House of Impossible Beauties by Joseph Cassara liberally takes historic members of the Latin New York City club scene and reinterprets them. Anyone who thinks this novel will simply be about drag competitions or the club scene will quickly learn it is a family drama. Angie and Hector Xtravaganza want to create a safe space for people like them. They are joined by a sensitive trans girl named Venus, a fashionista named Jaunito, and a butch queen named Daniel. There are only flashes of the club world. Instead, the novel follows the main characters navigating their personal lives. They turn to turning tricks near the piers to pay for money, attempt to pass as female models, and learn that love is even more complicated than they thought.


My Old Faithful by Yang Huang

Daniel: I marveled at what Yang Huang was able to pack into her slim short story collection My Old Faithful. Huang’s exploration of a close-knit Chinese family through everyday experiences (both in China and the United States) is expertly wrought, and her themes are as timely as they are timeless. The author employs an earthy, subtle humor that suggests an older soul at work. Very much looking forward to Huang’s appearance on the show so I can figure out how she pulled it off!


The Beloved Wild by Melissa Ostrom

Daniel: Author James Tate Hill doesn’t mess around with book recommendations. When he shares a book with us, we know it’s going to be great. Melissa Ostrom’s young adult novel The Beloved Wild (out March 27 from Feiwel & Friends) is no exception. Harriet Winter, the novel’s indomitable main character, is so determined to decide her own future that she leaves home with her brother disguised as an orphan named Freddy. Ostrom charmingly crafts a tale filled with internal and external battles, and it’s no surprise that Publisher’s Weekly called the book, “Pride and Prejudice with a western backdrop.”  


Daniel: I picked up Joe Fassler’s Light the Dark at Sherman’s Books, one of my favorite bookstores in Portland, Maine. This book has been on my radar ever since Caitlin Malcuit’s interview with Fassler last September. I always look for an added dose of literary inspiration while on vacation, and this collection ended up being the perfect complement to treats from The Holy Donut. Fassler asked some of today’s best known authors, “What inspires you?” The answers, from the likes of Stephen King, Junot Diaz, and Roxane Gay, will be buzzing in your head long after the caffeine (or in my case, sugar) leaves your system.


Daniel: Nathaniel Philbrick, author In the Heart of the Sea, Bunker Hill, and Mayflower, is one of my favorite writers. I was completely charmed by his personal memoir Second Wind, which was recently re-published by Penguin Books. I don’t know anything about sailing, but, being an author myself, I know a thing or two about persistence in the face of adversity and disappointment. Philbrick’s quest to reestablish his Sunfish sailing bona fides is not only filled with watery mishaps and questionable navigation, but also spirited family competition and bonding. The author always infuses his historical narratives with some of history’s more colorful characters, but I’m glad to see his own personality on full display here.


Melanie: As a native Hoosier and fan of the movie “The Fault in Our Stars,” I have been curious about John Green for several years. When he first started publishing his books, I was too old to be in his young adult audience, but any avid reader certainly heard how he was changing people’s perceptions of young adult books. Reading Turtles All the Way Down makes me want to search out more of his books.

In this book, he gives us Ava, a 16-year-old girl with a severe anxiety disorder that affects her relationships with everyone around her, including her mother, best friend and a former friend she reconnects with. Green has OCD, which allows him to know exactly how to put Ava’s anxiety into words that many of us can relate to—or learn how our loved ones with anxiety feel. I quickly developed a big sisterly love toward Ava and her friends, and I cheered her on as she struggled with her disorder while also trying to play “Encyclopedia Brown” and unravel a local mystery. 


Call Me Zebra by Azareen Van der Vliet Oloomi

Daniel: Azareen Van der Vliet Oloomi’s Call Me Zebra is deliciously erudite. Her use of language and her word choices perfectly match her characters. The story centers on Zebra, an Iranian exile living in New York City. The hyper-educated heroine is the keeper of her family’s vast knowledge, and attempts to retrace the journey she took with her father en route to the United States years before. I’ve been slow-reading this book, not wanting to rush through my time with Zebra and the rest of the novel’s eclectic cast of characters. I’ve laughed. I’ve gotten misty. By the time I’m finished, I know I’m going to be ready for more from this exceptional new voice.


Mercy Dogs by Tyler Dilts

Daniel: Find a fedora. Eat a good meal in Southern California (perhaps at one of Danny Beckett's favorite joints). Dig into Mercy Dogs. Repeat.


Author’s Corner

By Michael Farris Smith, author of The Fighter and Desperation Road

Gods of How Mountain by Taylor Brown

Taylor Brown writes like the landscapes he creates, the winding rivers and misty mountain tops want to drift into romance, but that ain’t gonna happen. His stories are wound with love and despair and I don’t expect this to be any different. (Gods of How Mountain is out 3/20 from St. Martin's Press.)

High White Sun by J. Todd Scott

You can’t help but get a little dust in your mouth when you’re reading about the reckless Texas of J. Todd Scott. High White Sun (out 3/20 from G.P. Putnam's Sons) is the follow up to The Far Empty and I can already feel the hot Southwestern wind pushing against my face.

Country Dark by Chris Offutt

I’m sneaking out of March and into April (April 10 to be exact) with this one. Country Dark is Chris Offutt’s return to fiction after too much time away, and this is a story that will make you grit your teeth and open your heart, at the same time.


NovelClass

Listen to the Season 2 premiere of NovelClass, live from The Dean Hotel in Providence, R.I.!

Also, start reading Swamplandia! by Karen Russell and tune into Dave Pezza and Caitlin Malcuit’s discussion on March 26.

21 Books That Should Be On Your Radar: January 2018

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.


Heart Spring Mountain by Robin MacArthur

Daniel Ford: Sean Tuohy once said that he felt like he was eavesdropping on the characters in John le Carré’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. That’s exactly the reading experience I had with Robin MacArthur’s Heart Spring Mountain. Perhaps it was the Vermont setting (after Tropical Storm Irene’s devastation) or the author's sparse, moving prose. Or maybe it had something to do with Vale’s desperate search for her estranged mother Bonnie that made this novel feel so much more personal and haunting. Whatever the reason, I thoroughly enjoyed getting to know some of the most passionate, emotional, broken, and fiercely independent characters I’ve ever encountered in fiction. MacArthur also earns all the bonus points for mentioning “Helpless,” one of my favorite Neil Young songs.


Daniel: I felt like I was taking a writing course every time I cracked opened Hanif Abdurraqib’s exceptional essay collection They Can't Kill Us Until They Kill Us. Abdurraqib uses his poetic sensibilities to deftly comment on everything from music and pop culture to race relations and familial losses. I recently suffered the loss of a relative, and this paragraph in particular put all of my grief in sadness into perspective:

“I’ve started other years at funerals, in hospital rooms, in studio apartments with my phone off entirely. So in spite of the newest realities that we must confront and stay uncomfortable with, I’m hoping that I get to stick around for a while. I am hoping, mostly, that we all get better at wishing on the things we need, even in darkness.”

Yes, Abdurraqib can flat out write. I look forward to following his work going forward.


Rabbit Cake by Annie Hartnett

Daniel: I loved every word of Annie Hartnett’s Rabbit Cake. After a mother tragically drowns, a family slowly becomes unglued. Your heart would ache on every page if not for main heroine Elvis Babbitt’s curiosity and pluck. From the father’s parrot that speaks in their mother’s voice to Elvis’ psychologically fragile sister Lizzie, hell-bent on setting a world record in “rabbit cake” baking, this novel will have you laughing and crying in equal measure.        


The Smart One by Drew Yanno

Sean Tuohy: A sleek and fast thriller that would make Robert Ludlum proud. Screenwriter Drew Yanno's The Smart One is the type of thriller you rarely find on bookshelves. Tightly written, the novel follows a noted author living in semi-retirement who is called by the widow of a small-town doctor. Hidden in her late husband's belongings she has found a list of names. Soon the author finds himself in the crosshairs of deadly men who want the list back. Yanno writes at a clipped pace but doesn’t lose any of the character or story. This is a "strap yourself in" kind of novel.


Dreamland by Sam Quinones

Daniel: Sam Quinones’ exploration into the opioid crisis reads like a thriller. He tracks the epidemic’s rise from a small drug trafficking state in Mexico to Midwestern towns softened by economic distress and doctors overprescribing pain medication. Paired with his testimony to a Senate subcommittee investigating the crisis, Quinones’ narrative not only provides necessary background information for current events, but also offers some possible long-term solutions for struggling communities. Dreamland is essential reading, and a worthy testament to the power and promise of shoe-leather journalism.


Mike Nelson: For almost two decades, Bob Boilen has hosted NPR's "All Songs Considered," a show that serves as a platform for new music (and new musicians) to get to the ears of hungry music lovers. In other words, to get into my ears. In discovering and featuring [typically young] artists, Bob (can I call him Bob?) gets to talk to them, gets to know them, and gets to package their stories up into a great little book. In Your Song Changed My Life, Bob (I'm calling him Bob) talks to 35 different musicians about the songs that inspired them. It's unpredictable, it's enlightening, and it's a fascinating way for me to get my hands on ideas of old music to listen to. This thing spans from Smokey Robinson and Jimmy Page to Leon Bridges and St. Vincent, so even if you don't want to read the whole thing (which is less than 300 pages, so, grow up), you can borrow it from a library or from me I guess, and just pick out the stories you want to know.


The Wanted by Robert Crais

Daniel: A near-perfect thriller. Robert Crais’ no-frills writing and witty dialogue make an intriguing plot even more enjoyable. It all starts with a worried mother whose concerns grow after discovering her son is flashing new clothes and jewelry. Once Elvis Cole starts digging into the case, all hell deliciously breaks loose. Cole and his stoic partner Joe Pike will be making plenty of return appearances on my reading list.


Winter Of The Wolf Moon by Steve Hamilton

Sean: Steve Hamilton never disappoints. The second in the much beloved Alex McKnight series finds the sometimes-PI helping a young woman who believes she’s in danger. When she disappears, he must find her before it’s too late. You feel comfortable in McKnight’s world (despite the suspense) and you’re happy to see familiar faces. The mystery at the core of the story pulls you in, but you stay for the characters.


Neon in Daylight by Hermione Hoby

Daniel: I’m a sucker for a New York story, and this is an exceptional one. I can feel the heat from the summer of 2012 bubble up under Hoby’s intoxicating prose and creep back under my skin. This line in particular hooked me early on:

“It was only now—a master’s degree completed dutifully, pointlessly; a commitment to a Ph.D. made miserable, uncertainly—that she realized the world truly did not give one single shit whether you’d done your homework.”

Amen. Plus, there’s a cat named Joni Mitchell.


Daniel: Plenty of thriller/mystery/crime novels have featured unreliable narrators since Gone Girl and The Girl on the Train debuted. Which is why I went into A.J. Finn’s The Woman in the Window with some trepidation. However, once I met Anna Fox, a troubled acrophobic woman, and read his outstanding prose, any and all doubts were erased. This book is sensational. Yes, there were suspenseful moments. Yes, you had a red herring or two. But the meat of the book is really about this woman, what she’s dealing with, and how people in general deal with and struggle through loss. It’s a character study wrapped in a good mystery. Pour a glass of wine (or ten), keep an extra light on, and allow your heart to palpitate with every page.


Boys Among Men by Jonathan Abrams

Mike: This is the stage of my life where I'm obsessed with the NBA. And let me tell you something about the NBA. It has the absolute best characters and best stories in sports. Jonathan Abrams took a fascinating angle to tell a great number of stories in his second book, Boys Among Men. Abrams takes a look at all the high schoolers who jumped (or tried to) straight into the NBA from 1995-2005, before a new age minimum was enforced to enter the league. This is not a book about basketball; it's a book about stories. It has triumphs, tragedies, and players needing their friends to bring them trash bags full of clothes at the airport because they're so inexperienced they don't know to pack a bag when you travel. What more do you want?


Celine by Peter Heller

Daniel: When I first read Peter Heller’s debut novel The Dog Stars, I thought there would be no way he was ever going to top it. Heller ended up raising the bar with The Painter in 2015, and then delivered an unforgettable main character last year in Celine. Celine is an older, aristocratic PI who works out of her Brooklyn apartment and has an absurdly good success rate. With the help of her monosyllabic, but highly competent, husband, Celine sets out to track down a damaged young woman’s missing father (who is presumed dead by all accounts). All of that is fine and good, but it’s to Heller’s credit that he takes deep dives into all his characters’ backstories. His prose is a joy to read, and the themes he touches on meld so well with the characters that populate this world. I could read an endless series about Celine and her cohorts. 


Two Kinds Of Truth by Michael Connelly

Sean: Harry Bosch is back! I love when the grizzled Los Angeles detective returns to bookshelves. Bosch finds himself in a tough spot when an old case comes back to haunt him. Connelly knows how to design a fast-paced and heavily detailed story that yanks readers by the collar and takes them on a journey.


Class Mom by Laurie Gelman

Daniel: Jen Dixon’s crackling sass is just what you need to survive the winter. She’s a badass kindergarten class mom who really does have a heart of gold. Laurie Gelman’s debut is consistently hilarious while also empathetically touching on universal themes.


Into the Black Nowhere by Meg Gardiner

Daniel: Clear your sleep schedule. Cancel all other reading. Meg Gardiner’s follow up to UNSUB drops Jan. 30.


Author’s Corner

By Erica Wright, author of All the Bayou Stories End with Drowned (out now from Black Lawrence Press) and The Blue Kingfisher (out Oct. 9, 2018 from Polis Books).

Indictus by Natalie Eilbert

While calling a new poetry release “hotly anticipated” always seems like an inside joke, I have been eagerly waiting for this collection. Eilbert’s lyricism is simultaneously tough and vulnerable, an acknowledgment of the defenses necessary to survive in an increasingly cruel world. Moreover, her poems live in our modern age, never shying away from mentions of technology or even the occasional Applebee’s. In “The Limits of What We Can Do,” which appeared in The New Yorker, she writes, “I like poetry because there are no miracles in it.” Perhaps no miracles, but Eilbert’s poems do possess a beguiling forthrightness and Indictus—which confronts issues of sexual assault—couldn't be more important for our time.

Walk in the Fire by Steph Post

This aptly named sequel to Lightwood burns with a dangerous intensity. Post has created one of the most memorable gothic noir novels in recent memory. In this outing, Judah Canon begins to embrace his family’s criminal obsessions, trying to fill his father’s shoes without putting his loved ones in danger. That plan quickly falls apart in a thriller populated by all manner of malcontents in backwoods Florida, including a snake-loving preacher lady more interested in green than God.

Mama Amazonica by Pascale Petit

This unique and timely collection explores Petit’s traumatic childhood through the lens of ecology. As with all the best fables, pain is transformed, becoming something more manageable. Specifically, the mother here is viewed as a variety of animals and flowers. In her masterful poem “King Vultures” (which we published in Guernica), Petit imagines her life in reverse, beginning with her mother’s death and ending with her own birth. When writes, “The king vultures have followed me in / and someone is zipping up my roof with a scalpel,” it’s hard not to shiver at the raw intensity. In her award-winning collections, Petit creates her own, new mythological.

Bird Odyssey by Barbara Hamby

Air Traffic by Gregory Pardlo

I’ll resist making a bad “Planes, Trains & Automobiles” joke while mentioning that two of my favorite poets have nonfiction books coming out later this year. Hamby’s Bird Odyssey exposes the writer’s love of travel, taking her readers through Siberia, Memphis, Ithaka, and beyond. In Air Traffic, Pardlo considers his volatile relationship with his father, an air traffic controller who lost his job after participating in a strike. Pre-order thumbs ready, right?

Listen to our most recent podcast with Erica Wright:


#NovelClass

The new #NovelClass spin off launches on Feb. 1!

Dave Pezza will be hosting the podcast’s first live event on Feb. 21 in Providence, R.I. We’ll be discussing Stephen King’s The Shining.

Listen to Dave Pezza's introduction to NovelClass Season 2 on SoundCloud!