Daniel Ford counts down our favorite books of 2018. Read on to find out which novel landed in our top spot!
By Daniel Ford
To date, I’ve read 96 books in 2016, which is up from the 87 I read last year. Since you’ve already called me a nerd in your head, please allow me to further strengthen the case. Those 96 books add up to 37,872 pages, myriad reading devices, and two dried out eyeballs. I also managed to get engaged, help build a website at my day gig, edit and shop a novel, and feed and bath myself.
While I’m troubled by the direction the United States and the world are headed in, I’m just as confident that art and literature will continue to inform, illuminate, and ignite a global citizenship that needs to be more engaged and educated than ever before.
30. Everyone Loves You Back by Louie Cronin
Matthew Hefti’s main character is writing a letter to a lifelong friend, but he could have easily been writing a letter to the ongoing conflicts the United States has been involved in since 2001. Hefti is a talent to watch, and he delivers a heartfelt and moving debut.
27. Lay Down Your Weary Tune by W.B. Belcher
During a “Friday Morning Coffee” episode earlier this year, author Richard Dalglish implored writers not to forget about craftsmanship. There’s no finer example of craftsmanship than Zadie Smith’s new novel Swing Time. Smith asks big, important questions, and I hope that readers debate the answers throughout the new year.
25. We're All Damaged by Matthew Norman
Eddy Harkness isn’t the hero the real world (or the fictional one he inhabits) deserves, but he certainly is the one we need. In Eddy we trust!
23. The Infinite by Nick Mainieri
Nick Mainieri’s debut features two of my favorite characters from 2016. Jonah McBee and Luz Hidalgo’s fervent and turbulent relationship sets off a chain of events that leads to an unexpected conclusion. The Infinite is one of the best debuts I’ve ever read.
22. The Most Famous Writer Who Ever Lived by Tom Shroder
The Most Famous Writer Who Ever Lived is essential reading for aspiring authors and journalists. Tom Shroder explores his Pulitzer Prize-winning grandfather’s life while also recounting his own writing career. The passionately researched narrative will fill up your creative tank.
21. Christodora by Tim Murphy
The more I learn about Tim Murphy and his work, the more I like him. His effortless nonlinear storytelling in Christodora perfectly complements his damaged, but tenacious, characters and his exploration of the AIDs epidemic. It’s a gut-wrenching read, but a necessary one.
20. The Loved Ones by Sonya Chung
Sonya Chung puts her characters through hell throughout her sophomore novel. Their responses to tragedy and inner demons don’t make them the best human beings at times, but you’ll easily fall in love with them despite their myriad flaws. The Loved Ones also features one of the most haunting and beautifully sad farewells you’ll ever read.
19. Disappearance at Devil's Rock by Paul Tremblay
Joe Hill’s brand of apocalyptic fiction ranks alongside Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven and José Saramago’s Death With Interruptions. Much like those works, The Fireman features a harrowing (and down right sexy) epidemic, a sense of humor, and characters you wouldn’t mind spending damnation with. Hill is one of fiction’s best world builders, and his enthusiasm for the craft of writing is infectious. (His live readings also tend to feature kazoos!)
17. The Nix by Nathan Hill
Considering that Nathan Hill’s debut novel tops many year-end book lists, The Nix is arguably ranked too low here. That’s a testament to the quality of fiction we read in 2016. The Nix is a compulsive read that, at times, gets weighted down by some of its pop culture and societal critiques. However, since 2016 proved to be a bitch of a year culturally and politically, I’d much rather have too much of Hill’s wit rather than not enough.
16. Louisa by Louisa Thomas
Louisa proved to be a very welcome and refreshing look at Revolutionary War-era America. Louisa Thomas explored the life of Louisa Adams, our first foreign-born First Lady. While Mrs. Adams does spend a good chunk of time recovering from or feigning illness, she proves more than a match for her surly, ambitious, and misunderstood husband (everyone’s favorite dinner guest, John Quincy Adams).
15. Dodgers by Bill Beverly
If “The Wire” had decided to spend a whole season devoted to a road trip with Bodie, Wallace, Poot, and D’Angelo Barksdale, I imagine it would have resembled something close to what Bill Beverly crafted in Dodgers. It’s a thriller with real heart and muscle, thanks in large part to its conflicted main character East. The opening chapters are written as if they were fired from a gun, and set the tone for the rest of the novel’s coming of age journey.
14. Bobby Kennedy by Larry Tye
The Kennedys have been dissected ad nauseam, however, Larry Tye finds a fresh angle to examine the life of Robert Kennedy. Tye follows John F. Kennedy’s younger brother’s astounding political transformation from his days working as a lawyer under Senator Joe McCarthy to his tragic campaign for President in 1968. Bobby Kennedy is unsparing and objective, but also gives RFK aficionados plenty of new reasons to admire their hero.
13. Youngblood by Matthew Gallagher
Matthew Gallagher’s novel Youngblood is right up there with Elliot Ackerman’s Green on Blue, Ross Ritchell’s The Knife, Ben Fountain’s Billy Lynn’s Halftime Walk, Kevin Powers’ The Yellow Birds, and the aforementioned A Hard and Heavy Thing. Essential reading for anyone trying to make sense of our foreign policy and understand the men and women who execute it.
12. My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout
Elizabeth Strout’s short novel, My Name is Lucy Barton, hit me with the right words and subject matter at the right time. A book about healing, motherhood, and love.
11. Why We Came to the City by Kristopher Jansma
Kristopher Jansma’s prologue, interlude, and epilogue are the most beautiful words ever written about New York City. His prologue in particular captures everything I feel about the city I’ve loved since childhood. This novel is a must read for anyone that’s been ensorcelled by the Big Apple’s many temptations.
10. Seinfeldia by Jennifer Keishin Armstrong
It’s nice to know that the creators of one of the best sitcoms of all time were as eccentric as the characters many of us have come to love. Jennifer Keishin Armstrong discovers one great story after another about “Seinfeld” and its writers’ room. She also lovingly investigates the show’s curious, quirky fans who have kept it relevant well past its final episode. Seinfeldia is a breezy, energetic read that will have you binge-watching the show on Hulu by the time you’re finished. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.
9. Underground Airlines by Ben H. Winters
Ben H. Winters is the master of dystopian fiction, and he outdoes himself with Underground Airlines. In the novel, the Civil War never happened, slavery still exists, and a slave catcher desperate to repress and erase his past takes on an assignment that threatens to crack his carefully manufactured persona. This book is an absolutely thrilling and original tale that should shake a few assumptions of your own.
8. This Side of Providence by Rachel M. Harper
During a recent podcast interview author Jade Chang advised aspiring authors “to be ambitious.” Anyone who has read her debut novel The Wangs vs. the World knows how wonderfully ambition can pay off. Chang reinvigorates the immigrant narrative through the eyes of Charles Wang and his hilariously flawed family. Like many of the novels on this list, The Wangs vs. the World stress tests and critiques all of the tenets of the American Dream, but does so with an abundance of mirth and cynical optimism.
6. Everybody's Fool by Richard Russo
Megan Abbott’s novel should have been titled, You Will Hold Your Breath The Whole Time. I barely survived reading this incredibly tense and finely crafted mystery; I can’t imagine what it was like writing it. She has more than earned the “maestro of the heebie-jeebies” distinction from The New York Times.
4. The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead
The Underground Railroad is why fiction exists. The novel serves as a brutal reminder of the past and a cautionary tale for how easily we can slip into easy violence, subjugation, and intolerance. Colson Whitehead has established himself as one of the great voices in fiction.
3. Fallen Land by Taylor Brown
Taylor Brown’s achingly beautiful debut established itself as my favorite book of 2016 way back in August 2015 (I read an advanced copy leading up to its January 2016 pub date). It took two special novels to knock it off the top spot. After going back and rereading a few chapters while preparing this list, I was reminded of what made the book such a joy to read: hearty prose, snappy and spare dialogue, earthy characters, and a hard driving plot.
2. The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen
We met a lot of memorable characters this year, but there was only one Frank. Be Frank With Me is an unforgettable debut that everyone should read. (And, according to the author, the paperback edition can easily fit in a stocking!)
Any of these books could have been added to the top 30. I wrestled with this list for days. I'm just grateful that I got to read so many great novels and nonfiction titles this year! Give plenty of love to these authors’ books as well!
Valiant Ambition by Nathaniel Philbrick, Whatever Happened to Interracial Love? by Kathleen Collins, Perfect Days by Raphael Montes, Thanks for the Trouble by Tommy Wallach, Seven Sins by Karen Runge, A Single Happened Thing by Daniel Paisner, The Last Days of Magic by Marc Thompkins, The Duration by Dave Fromm, The Girls by Emma Cline, An Honorable Man by Paul Vidich, The Far Empty by J. Todd Scott, Come Twilight by Tyler Dilts, The Unseen World by Liz Moore, Nefarious Twit by Tony McMillen, The Point Is by Lee Eisenberg, and Born to Run by Bruce Springsteen
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.