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2018’s recommended reads: Our favorite books of the year

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It has been yet another fantastic year for the written word, with many tremendous literary offerings hitting shelves in 2018.

Reviewing books is easily one of the best parts of my job. I’ve been lucky enough to read dozens of books over the course of the past year. While I’ll admit that I tend to seek out works that I know will resonate for me – and hence usually enjoy the books I review – there’s no denying that there are always some that particularly stand out.

This is not your traditional “best of” list – that’s not my style. Instead, consider this a collection of recommendations. These are suggestions; I enjoyed them, so I thought that you might as well. Bear in mind that this is not a comprehensive list. I’m just one man – there are scores more books out there, exceptional literary works that I simply never got a chance to read. That said, I feel confident that these are quality selections.

So are these the best books of 2018? I don’t know – it’s all subjective. What I can say is that every one of these works captured my imagination and my attention … and perhaps one or more of them will do the same for you.

In no particular order, here are my recommended reads from 2018.



The Immortalists – Chloe Benjamin

We all want to get the most out of the lives we live. But how might your life’s path change if someone told you the day on which it would end?

That’s what happens to four children living in New York City in the late 1960s in Chloe Benjamin’s novel “The Immortalists.” What follows is a decades-spanning family epic, one that follows the Gold children as they move through the world. They grow and change and even thrive, but never manage to escape the lengthy shadow cast by that fateful day in 1969. It seems like a simple conceit – and it is – but there’s nothing simple about the vivid richness of the resulting narrative.

“The Immortalists” is a story about stories and the power that belief can hold over us. It is a story about the meaning of family and the many faces of love. It is beautifully written, sharp and tender in ways that ring loud with thought and truth. Chloe Benjamin is a dynamic and gifted literary voice, one we should look forward to hearing again and again.

(Full review:

The Overstory – Richard Powers

Everyone has heard the expression “can’t see the forest for the trees,” but few have stopped and unpacked how bleak the repercussions of that outlook might be.

That truth is a foundational underpinning of “The Overstory,” by National Book Award-winning writer Richard Powers. A group of seemingly disparate people are each drawn in their way to nature – to trees. Their paths are very different ones, though they find ways to connect – some thoroughly, others glancingly or tangentially. They are the trees that make up this forest.

This is an exceptional work from one of the greatest novelists of his generation, a book that lingers in the consciousness long after the last page is turned. The narrative interweaving is as quietly intricate as any root system, with each story both supported and supportive. It is mesmerizing to read and nigh-impossible to put down.

(Full review:

The Largesse of the Sea Maiden – Denis Johnson

The best short fiction embraces the limitations of the form and turns them into foundational strengths. There’s a power in brevity that many writers can never fully harness, their work coming off as either overwritten or clumsily truncated.

But when someone displays a true mastery, literary brilliance often follows.

And so it is with “The Largesse of the Sea Maiden,” a quintet of stories from the late Denis Johnson that explore the writer’s fascination with the freaks and fakes that exist on the fringes of society. Each one of these five tales can be held up as a masterpiece and a masterclass, evocative and emotive even as the unsavory seediness and/or deliberate disconnect displayed by the characters bubbles and oozes to the surface. It is a brilliant and idiosyncratic crawl along society’s underbelly, a place of duty and desperation where sadness and strength aren’t mutually exclusive.

(Full review:

My Sister, the Serial Killer – Okinyan Braithwaite

If someone dear to us is in trouble, we help them. But at what point do the larger ethical and moral ramifications of our help become unconscionable to us?

That’s the underlying concern in Oyinkan Braithwaite’s dryly funny, no-nonsense debut novel “My Sister, the Serial Killer.” An older sister with a wavering and resentful devotion to the younger – a devotion that extends to cleaning up some unpleasant messes – questions the motives behind that devotion.

It’s a spare and biting look at just how deep our familial bonds can flow – and what blood relations do when another’s blood is spilled. It is the kind of bold, fearless writing you don’t necessarily expect from a first-time novelist. Braithwaite evokes darkness without being exploitive or overly bleak; there are lights that burn in the shadows that she casts, though not for long.

(Full review:

The Outsider – Stephen King

Stop me if you’ve heard this one: Stephen King is one hell of a writer.

“The Outsider” is a pulpy, propulsive tale reminiscent of some of his earlier highlights. Yet even as he elicits memories of his own creepy stylings from 30 years ago, he infuses that throwback thriller with pointed references to the present. The end result is a book that is somehow both Now and Then, where early King and late King combine with an eerie smoothness. It is dark and creepy and thought-provoking and engrossing – everything you hope for from Stephen King.

It's packed with twists and turns both subtle and overt; the mysteries and thrills it presents compel even as they challenge. He has built on sand without compromising his structure’s integrity – a remarkable feat when you think about it. You just never know when the floor is going to disappear beneath your feet, which provides an ever-tingly tension that makes for dynamite reading.

“The Outsider” is a darkly engaging ride of a read that demonstrates once again that King is still performing at the height of his powers. 

(Full review:\

Noir – Christopher Moore

If you were to put together a short list of the consistently funniest authors currently working, Christopher Moore would be on it. Probably near the top.

With his latest book “Noir,” Moore ventures into some new territory. Well, new in a chronological sense anyway. It’s the story of a guy tending bar in San Francisco during the post-WWII years. He’s just trying to get by when he’s swept up into a weird, wild, wide-ranging plot involving secret societies and flying saucers and mysterious government operatives and poisonous snakes and all sorts of strangeness. Oh, and there’s a dame.

There’s always a dame.

There are few writers out there as consistently, concisely funny as Christopher Moore … and none funnier. “Noir” is another top-tier edition to Moore’s bibliography, a hilarious and intelligent genre exploration that captures his energetic and entertaining grasp of both the sublime and the ridiculous.

(Full review:

This Body’s Not Big Enough for Both of Us – Edgar Cantero

Detective fiction is riddled with genre clichés and tropes, but there are also plenty of ways to subvert the expectations that come from noir.

For instance, what if instead of a single two-fisted, whiskey-swilling, Spade-esque detective, you had two? And what if they were brother and sister? What if they were twins? And what if they were twins who inhabited the same body? Not conjoined twins, mind you – one body, two people.

Well, then you’d have A.Z. Kimrean, the protagonist(s) of Edgar Cantero’s “This Body’s Not Big Enough for Both of Us.” The book is a weird, occasionally hallucinatory trip - it’s built on a foundation of detective fiction, but really, anything goes. Rapid-fire references and allusions abound; the dialogue crackles with anarchic wit. It’s a comic thriller unlike any you’ve ever read starring a character(s) unlike any you’ve ever experienced; it is self-aware and subversive in all the best ways, driven by unconventional heroes and unexpected villains. A remarkable work from a remarkable writer.

(Full review:

Heartbreaker – Claudia Dey

Considering the wealth of recent works that marry genre conventions with literary fiction, you might think that there’s little left in the way of potential surprises.

And then you read something like Claudia Dey’s “Heartbreaker” and realize that there are creative powerhouses out there continuing to strike literary gold. It’s a novel about coming of age and motherhood and sexual politics wrapped in a sci-fi dressing of alternate history and cult dynamics. It is powerful and thought-provoking and unrelentingly weird – both in the tale and in the telling.

“Heartbreaker” is unlike any other book you’re likely to read this year. It is strange and smart in the best possible ways, a triumph of the weird that commingles the poignant and the perverse. It’s a masterful work from the pen of a magnificent writer.

(Full review:

Gods of Wood and Stone – Mark Di Ionno

Baseball as a metaphor has long proven fertile ground for stories of fathers and sons, of passion and regret, of failure and triumph.

Mark Di Ionno is the latest to use our national pastime to tell such a tale with “Gods of Wood and Stone.” Now, this book isn’t ABOUT baseball – not really. It’s more that it is built AROUND baseball, using the game as a lens to focus the narrative. And what a narrative it is, a story of relationships and disappointments, about the regrets that haunt us and the damage caused by the decisions we make. It’s a tale of loneliness and obsessions and the power of passion.

This book is outstanding; it’s thematically complex and emotionally challenging while also being a compelling as hell story with thoughtful ideas that just happens to be exquisitely readable. It won’t hurt if you’re a baseball fan, but it’s not necessary – good books are good books.

(Full review:

My Year of Rest and Relaxation – Otessa Moshfegh

There are those who rail against the world, who do everything in their power to strike back against any real or imagined powers that hold them down. And there are others who want nothing more than to remove themselves from the fight, to check out until their problems have somehow solved themselves.

The unnamed protagonist of Ottessa Moshfegh’s “My Year of Rest and Relaxation” falls very much into the latter category, a young woman who on the surface appears to have it all, yet desires to completely ignore the world as it rolls on around her … and is willing to go to some extreme measures to achieve that ignorance.

It’s an outstanding effort from one of our great young writers. It is a funny, sad and delightfully weird book, starring the sort of broken person in whom Moshfegh specializes. It is smart and soulful and absolutely one of the best books of the year.

(Full review:

Lake Success – Gary Shteyngart

What if you looked around one day and saw all the success in the world … only it wasn’t what you wanted?

That’s Barry Cohen’s question in Gary Shteyngart’s “Lake Success.” It’s a story of discontent among the one percent, a look-in on the lives of people whose problems are both wildly different and oddly similar to our own. It’s also a sharp, whip-smart deconstruction of the American Dream – one in which the dreamer discovers that maybe they didn’t really want it to come true.

One might be tempted to file “Lake Success” in with the standard “rich guy protagonist on a journey to self-discovery” subgenre of literary fiction. But Shteyngart’s self-awareness and sense of humor help him subvert that formula even as he embraces it.

It’s a hell of a read, is what I’m saying. This book is thought-provoking and relentless while also being narratively engaging; characters and ideas are treated with equal value, which is not always the case in literary fiction.

(Full review:


The Library Book – Susan Orlean

To Susan Orlean, a library is more than a mere building. It is a concept, a great notion that should be celebrated. She notes the necessary evolution of the modern library in the digital age without devaluing the contributions that came before. What libraries are might change, our society’s need for them will never fade.

Her “The Library Book” uses a single foundational event – the massive fire that took place at the Los Angeles Public Library over 30 years ago – to construct a paean to libraries, leaning into LAPL-related specifics while also spinning off into thoughtful and celebratory musings on the intellectual, cultural, historical and political impact of libraries.

“The Library Book” is ideal reading for any bibliophile. Book lovers tend to be library lovers … and library lovers will recognize the kindred spirit residing on every single page of this book, a shared affection for an institution that had a fundamental impact on who they became.

(Full review:

The Grandmaster: Magnus Carlsen and the Match That Made Chess Great Again – Brin-Jonathan Butler

The game of chess is built upon universality and its basic meritocratic structure – the more skilled player almost always wins.

You would think such a game would have deep appeal to the American psyche. That isn’t the case, however – not since the too-brief 1970s dominance of Bobby Fischer has the United States paid much attention to the game. But when the World Chess Championship landed in New York City in 2016, Brin-Jonathan Butler was there for it.

His chronicle of that battle between Norwegian wunderkind Magnus Carlsen and Russian Sergey Karjakin - the first WCC contested on American soil in two decades - is “The Grandmaster: Magnus Carlsen and the Match That Made Chess Great Again.”

It’s an insider’s look at a match that was considered almost a foregone conclusion at the onset before turning into a battle for the ages featuring one of the greatest finishes in chess history. It is also an examination of the history of the game as well as the state of chess today, both here and abroad.

(Full review:

Rocket Men: The Daring Odyssey of Apollo 8 and the Astronauts Who Made Man’s First Journey to the Moon – Robert Kurson

While history most clearly remembers Neil Armstrong’s first steps on the moon back in July of 1969, he and his crew were just the latest in a long line of astronauts who took many first steps of their own – steps that led to the planting of a flag somewhere not of the Earth.

Robert Kurson’s “Rocket Men: The Daring Odyssey of Apollo 8 and the Astronauts Who Made Man’s First Journey to the Moon” tells the story of one such step – the mission undertaken by Frank Borman, Jim Lovell and Bill Anders to become the first men ever to travel to the moon.

From meticulous research and hours of interviews springs a lively narrative, one that brings the bravery and brainpower of all involved to vivid life, a fascinating reminder of what mankind can do when we set our collective minds to something. The voyage of Apollo 8 was an incredible feat in a tumultuous time, illustrating the many kinds of courage necessary to reach for the sky and change the world.

(Full review:

Into the Raging Sea: Thirty-Three Mariners, One Megastorm, and the Sinking of El Faro – Rachel Slade

On Oct. 1, 2015, the merchant ship El Faro ran into Hurricane Joaquin off the Bahamas and sank, killing all 33 of the crew members and leading to months of questions about how something so tragic could have happened … and who should be held responsible.

Rachel Slade offers a look at the disaster with “Into the Raging Sea: Thirty-Three Mariners, One Megastorm, and the Sinking of El Faro.” Through hours of research and hundreds of interviews – along with transcripts of voice recordings of El Faro’s final hours – Slade dives deep beneath the surface of this tragedy, introducing us to those involved and offering a meticulous analysis of it all.

This is a story that needed to be told; that it was told so eloquently is a welcome bonus. The loss of 33 lives was tragic and unnecessary; those lost deserve to have their voices heard. With this book, Rachel Slade gives them that chance.

(Full review:

Playing to the Gods: Sarah Bernhardt, Eleonora Duse, and the Rivalry That Changed Acting Forever – Peter Rader

Sarah Bernhardt is one of the most legendary names in the world of the theater. Eleonora Duse’s name has been lost to history, unfamiliar to all but the most devoted of theater historians. But once upon a time, they stood shoulder to shoulder.

Peter Rader’s “Playing to the Gods: Sarah Bernhardt, Eleonora Duse, and the Rivalry That Changed Acting Forever” explores this once-storied and largely-forgotten chapter of theater history, looking at the relationship between two women who ascended to the heights of their profession, but took drastically different paths to get there.

The book captures a vivid snapshot of the mutual orbit held by the gravity of these binary stars. Both women were larger than life – one from the inside out, the other from the outside in. It’s an entertaining and immaculate look at the primordial beginnings of the modern stage.

(Full review:

Football for a Buck: The Crazy Rise and Crazier Demise of the USFL – Jeff Pearlman

The NFL is one of the last vestiges of American monoculture. In a world where the zeitgeist moves faster and faster every moment, there are few entities that are as familiar, as entrenched, as overwhelmingly present as the NFL. Football is America’s sport and the NFL IS football.

It could have been different.

Jeff Pearlman’s “Football for a Buck: The Crazy Rise and Crazier Demise of the USFL” tells the story of the last pro football league to pose a serious challenge to the NFL’s domination. In the mid-1980s, the USFL looked poised to assume a spot alongside the NFL in the American sporting landscape. The pieces were there to succeed, but thanks to massive egos and more than a little hubris, the league flamed out.

It is a frantic, funny history of a football league that was a glorious, flawed experiment, a football league whose renegade existence helped shape not just the sporting landscape, but the cultural landscape that followed.

(Full review:

8-Bit Apocalypse: The Untold Story of Atari’s Missile Command – Alex Rubens

Alex Rubens’s “8-Bit Apocalypse: The Untold Story of Atari’s Missile Command” is a look at the world of video games – and the culture at large – through the lens the Atari classic “Missile Command.”

Through that one game, Rubens examines the explosion of the industry in the late 1970s and juxtaposes it with the Cold War political climate of the time – a comparison for which “Missile Command” was uniquely suited. It also allows for a look at how video games in general have impacted – and continue to impact - the culture at large.

This is a sharply-told representation of a specific place and time. That specificity helps create an exceptional piece of retrospect that throws the ultimate importance of a game like “Missile Command” into sharp relief.

(Full review:

The White Darkness – David Grann

We have always sought to explore the unknown. There have always been men who want to be the first to be somewhere, the first to do something. The spirit of adventure runs strong with some – too strong to ignore and so strong as to lead to truly astonishing accomplishments.

In “The White Darkness,” David Grann offers up Henry Worsley, a man whose lifelong affinity for the idea of polar exploration and the men who pioneered it led him to become a polar explorer himself. His devotion led to incredible feats, Antarctic adventures the likes of which we hadn’t seen in nearly a century.

It’s a story of how we might share the triumphs of the past while pushing forward along our own path, a tale of victory and defeat, of determination and desire. It’s an enthralling examination of what drives someone to attack the ice at the bottom of the world, all while crafting a vivid sensory recreation of the harsh nature of that place.

(Full review:

The Stowaway: A Young Man’s Extraordinary Adventure to Antarctica – Laurie Gwen Shapiro

What would you be willing to do to gain the opportunity to experience an adventure of a lifetime? What risks would you take to take part in something historic? How far would you go? Would you travel to the ends of the earth?

For Billy Gawronski, the answer to that last question was “Yes.”

Young Billy is the star of Laurie Gwen Shapiro’s “The Stowaway: A Young Man’s Extraordinary Adventure to Antarctica.” It’s the true story of a teenager who wanted nothing more than to take part in a great adventure – specifically, to be a part of Richard Byrd’s expedition to Antarctica. And with nothing more than overflowing reserves of desire and chutzpah, Billy made it so.

“The Stowaway” brings history to life in the manner of the very best nonfiction. It is a compelling tale well-told, introducing us to a headstrong and courageous young man that we might never have met otherwise. And that would have been a real shame.

(Full review:

Last modified on Wednesday, 05 December 2018 15:26


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