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.
How to Stop Time by Matt Haig
Daniel Ford: On the surface, knowing that you’re going to live for a couple hundred years (or more) sounds pretty awesome. However, as you march through time, you’ll likely be faced with some of the same questions Tom Hazard grapples with in Matt Haig’s new novel How to Stop Time. Sure, you may be lucky enough to have drinks with William Shakespeare or F. Scott Fitzgerald, but how many people can you stand to lose? How are you going to live with decisions that set the course of decades, or even centuries, of your life? As Tom discovers, his “gift” is much more a curse than anything else. While Haig does infuse his main character, and much of his narrative, with a sweet melancholy, he also builds time and time again to a hopeful crescendo. Haig beautifully balances an in-depth character study with a thrilling plot that weaves in and out of history and time.
An American Marriage by Tayari Jones
Daniel: Believe the hype—Tayari Jones’ An American Marriage is exceptional. This novel was on our radar even before Oprah picked it for her book club earlier this month! Appearing as though they are the embodiment of the American Dream, Celestial and Roy’s marriage is already showing signs of strain when Roy is wrongly imprisoned for a crime he didn’t admit. The nuanced and layered narrative that follows Roy’s incarceration and beyond speaks to Jones’ extraordinary gifts as a storyteller. She explores all of the characters that populate this book from every angle in an empathetic, honest way, while also subtly and poignantly commenting on marriage, friendship, and black life in America.
Back Talk by Danielle Lazarin
Daniel: Short stories, when done right, leave you wanting more. I demand novels featuring all of the women found in Danielle Lazarin’s incredible debut collection Back Talk. There’s not a bad note in any of these stories.
All the Names They Used for God by Anjali Sachdeva
Adam Vitcavage: Across nine exquisitely surreal stories (out Feb. 20 from Spiegel & Grau), Sachdeva covers a wide array of characters and settings. The opening story is about a pioneer woman longing for her husband who is away. The title piece is set in modern day war-torn Africa. A later story takes you to the future. Like all good collections, her stories are thematically cohesive. They explore large-scale influences like nature and religion and how they influence us on an everyday basis. Reading the book reminded me of the sci-fi anthology television series “Black Mirror.” Everything is always seemingly normal, but just a little off kilter.
Talking Pictures: How to Watch Movies by Ann Hornaday
Daniel: Talking Pictures by Washington Post film critic Ann Hornaday is essential reading for film buffs. Hornaday dissects filmmaking into its distinct characteristics and explores what critics think about when watching and reviewing a movie. What choices did a director make that paid off (or didn’t)? How much does star power matter when it comes to casting? How do sound, cinematography, and colors work together? Hornaday also includes plenty of examples of both good and bad films, and each chapter will likely make you think about classic movies (or guilty pleasures) in a fresh way.
Eat the Apple by Matt Young
Daniel: Judging by Matt Young’s writing prowess in Eat the Apple (out Feb. 27 from Bloomsbury USA), he could have easily written a more linear, and perhaps more tongue-in-cheek, war memoir that would have fit in nicely with some of the other veteran literature we’ve read the past couple of years. However, owing to his literary chops, Young played with form, structure, point-of-view, and, I’m assuming, his own memories to produce a searing, brutal look into American men at war. I couldn’t help but think of Joshua Mohr’s memoir Sirens while reading Eat the Apple because of how much honesty and thoughtfulness Young brings to moments that read more like Bukowski fiction rather than real life.
The Leavers by Lisa Ko
Daniel: I don’t know what took me so long to read Lisa Ko’s National Book Award-nominated debut The Leavers, but it was well worth the wait. The novel starts with Deming Guo’s undocumented immigrant mother, Polly, leaving for work at a nail salon and never coming home. Ko switches perspectives between Daniel, the name a foster family bestows on Deming, and Polly, whose disappearance is more layered than you can possibly imagine. Needless to say, both characters lives are upended and shaped by this initial act, and their paths are infused with longing, disappointment, anger, regret, and resentment. Ko, of course, offers timely commentary on immigrant life in today’s United States, but also astutely discusses how those themes collide with family, friendship, and finding your true self.
Thief in the Interior by Phillip B. Williams
Daniel: I thought poet Phillip B. Williams’ was a powerful read before I heard him read “Bound” aloud on a recent podcast episode (see below). That’s what I love about poetry; whatever is on the page isn’t static. There’s not only a symbiotic, and constantly changing, relationship with the author and his words, but also a completely independent one that exists between the finished poem and the reader. Williams’ collection Thief in the Interior has a chameleon-like skin, seemingly changing colors and styles line by line, poem by poem. Williams, during our chat, said that poems are never finished—they’re just eventually “abandoned.” That’s certainly not the case for the reader. You’re going to want to keep the poems in this collection around for a good long while.
All the Castles Burned by Michael Nye
Adam: Male adolescent friendship is very rarely portrayed in fiction. Well, it is. But usually their friendship has to be tied to the extraordinary. It’s about finding a kinetically gifted stranger or battling Pennywise the Clown. That’s not so much the case for Nye, who uses basketball and distant fathers to link his main characters together. We follow them in high school during the 1990s and then again decades later. The two bounce from brother-like friends to violent adversaries and back in this quick, yet challenging, read.
Read Adam’s interview with Michael Nye in Electric Lit.
Daniel: I started reading Danielle L. McGuire’s At the Dark End of the Street: Black Women, Rape, and Resistance after Oprah mentioned Recy Taylor in her powerful Golden Globes speech. The book not only sheds light on the sexual violence that black woman faced in the Jim Crow South, but also provides an exploration of Rosa Parks’ life before she changed history on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama. This isn’t easy reading by any means, and it shouldn’t be. The #MeToo and #BlackLivesMatter movements exist for a reason, and both organizations (as well as the NAACP) have roots that go back farther than you might imagine. As Oprah said, Recy Taylor died at 98 without receiving any kind of justice for the horrendous, inhuman crime inflicted on her. Maybe if we look back for at least a few minutes before setting our sights on the future, we can institute positive change for all minorities going forward. (We’ll also need a government that has actually read a book, but that’s a different story).
Thanks, Obama: My Hopey, Changey White House Years by David Litt
Daniel: Yes, David Litt’s memoir about his time as one of President Barack Obama’s speechwriter is cheeky, informative, and a much-needed dose of hope (there’s that word again!) for today’s bleak political times. However, more importantly, Litt answers one of the most important questions of any age: where are the best bathrooms in the White House and the West Wing?
Self-Portrait with Boy by Rachel Lyon
Adam: Set in 1990s Brooklyn, Lyon’s main character accidentally takes a photograph of a boy falling to his death. The rest of this debut novel shows what decisions an artist has to make when someone else’s tragedy will be shown to the world. The book allows readers to question what they would do when art and tragedy collide. It had me reminiscing about the Falling Man photograph from 9/11. It’s an interesting book for any writer who may or may not be inspired by someone they know.
Feel Free by Zadie Smith
Daniel: Even if the essays in Zadie Smith’s new collection Feel Free weren’t thoughtful and brilliantly written (they are), Smith’s forward would be worth the cost of the book and then some. “Reading involves all the same liberties and exigencies as writing,” Smith writes. She also warns against being ambivalent “in the face of what we now confront.” Hear, hear!
By Kew and Willow, a Queens, N.Y., bookshop
The Inquisitor's Tale by Adam Gidwitz is one of the most engaging middle grade books I've ever picked up. The sheer amount of research Gidwitz did to tell this story of three saintly children and one holy greyhound in medieval France is astounding. On top of that, though, the writing is incredibly clever, the story is funny, moving, and fast paced and it never feels bogged down or heavy because of the subject. The pages are also illuminated like a medieval manuscript, so the book is beautiful as well as entertaining.
The Best We Could Do by Thi Bui is a graphic novel memoir in which the author tries to understand her place as a new mother, and in the world at large, by exploring her family's escape from South Vietnam in the 1970s. It is incredibly insightful and beautifully drawn. It captures the unsettling creep of war very well, how the family observed small changes, and sometimes large ones, over time that finally culminated in the realization that they would need to leave their homeland. I wound up crying on a bus as I finished this book the first time I read it, and I only had the advanced reader's copy at the time, with pencil sketches in place of actual art.
Did You Ever Have a Family by Bill Clegg is beautiful yet devastating novel. Almost immediately, I found myself completely immersed and connected to each character as they try to overcome a tragic loss. Each chapter is told from a different perspective, it was so engaging and, in a sense, enjoyable to put the pieces together and see how they interconnected in the end.
A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara is an 814-page book that’s tough emotionally but completely worth the heartache. Ninety percent of the time I read a passage/page and had to close the book because I was blown away by the amazing writing; Hanya is phenomenal. I advise having a box of tissues next to you at all times!
Having read Every Day by David Levithan a few years back, I’m not surprised to say that it still sometimes finds its way back to me. I love it (and you should too) for a few different reasons. The romantic storyline feels typical of any young adult novel but asks us a difficult question: what do we fall in love with, the body or the mind that lives there? Can we even separate the two? The writing is unpretentious and easy to fall into (which is probably one of my favorite things about reading YA—it almost never seems like they’re trying too hard to impress). Finally, there’s the fantastical aspect of it. I know usually we’re looking for an explanation of what’s happening and how it works, but Levithan doesn’t give that to us; it’s left to the reader to think about the mechanics of it. While for some it might be frustrating not to know, for me it’s always been a treat to flex my imagination muscle.
NovelClass is now its own podcast! Listen to Dave Pezza’s introduction and all of Season 1 on iTunes and Spotify! Also stay tuned for information for the live Season 2 premiere in Providence, R.I., later this month (where Dave and a panel of experts will be discussing Stephen King’s The Shining).