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The Best Books of 2018 (Sort Of)

By Dustin Rowles | Industry | December 31, 2018 |

By Dustin Rowles | Industry | December 31, 2018 |


After limping along as a book reader after the twins were born, I vowed in 2018 to read books as voraciously as I had before I had kids. I joined the Cannonball Read to help motivate me to do so. They’re kicking off their 11th year there next week, and I encourage everyone to join. Unfortunately, while I did meet my reading goals over there, I kind of failed to keep up with my reviews (sorry mswas!), because I spend so much time writing here and at Uproxx that I didn’t have anything left in the tank to write reviews for the CBR.

All the same, another carrot that kept me going was the idea I had to rank all the books I read this year as a post on the last day of 2018. It’s pretty self-indulgent, I admit, but it kept me motivated. Also, reading is an expensive pastime, so this allowed me to justify it (at least to myself) as a “business expense.” (Yes, I realize I won’t be able to write these “business expenses” off under Trump’s new tax plan, but give me this, OK?)

Anyway, I found myself looking forward to writing this all year long, and I didn’t want to embarrass myself in front of my friends, so I made an effort to read as many books from as wide a variety of voices as I could. Before we hit the rankings, however, here were the “best” of 2018 (an absurd notion, of course, because who could possibly read all the books that were published this year? It’s more like, these are the “best” books that I read this year, according to me, and maybe that means something to you, and maybe it doesn’t, and maybe you hate everything I love and vice versa and you can start taking reading recommendations from the bottom of the list).

Best MysterySomething in the Water by Catherine Steadman
Best YAAn Absolutely Remarkable Thing by Hank Green
Best MemoirEducated by Tara Westover
Best HorrorBaby Teeth by Zoje Stage
Best FictionAn American Marriage by Tayori Jones
Best BookUs Against You by Fredrick Backman

Apologies, but I don’t read much fantasy, and I don’t read enough nonfiction to feel like I can weigh in on that category, either.

At any rate, here’s my self-indulgent ranking of the 64 books I read in 2018. Thank you all for shaming me in my mind into reading more so that I would not make an ass of myself here, and seriously: I cannot recommend joining the Cannonball Read enough. It’s a great community of readers who support and validate one another, which makes reading a lot more fun.

1. and 2. Beartown (2017) and Us Against You (2018) by Fredrick Backman — I really can’t say enough about this community of characters that Backman has created. It’s Friday Night Lights with hockey, and these two books are the best books I’ve read in a few years. It’s mostly good people trying to do good things in a town of good, though sometimes misguided people. I got lost for hours in these pages, and I genuinely never wanted these books to end. I would kill to see Jason Katims bring them to life in a television series.

3. An American Marriage (2018) by Tayori Jones — Beautifully written, heartbreaking, gut-punching, absolutely masterful novel about a middle-class African American couple trying to maintain their marriage when the husband is imprisoned for a sexual crime he didn’t commit. If you’re a white dude who doesn’t understand privilege yet, this will do the damn trick.

4. Little Fires Everywhere (2017) by Celeste Ng — Goodreads needled at me to read this for a year, and I kept putting it off because it didn’t sound that interesting. I was wrong. It could not be more up my alley, a brilliantly written fantastic family drama, and if I’d read it in 2017, it would’ve been my favorite book of that year.

5. Educated (2018) by Tara Westover — I’m a tough audience for personal memoirs. I usually find them overwhelming, but this one was a doozy. It’a fascinating account of a woman who grew up in what is essentially an evangelical Mormom family and who wasn’t allowed to go to school. The first half is her experiences growing up sheltered, and the second half is basically her in college coming to terms with everything she missed growing up alienated from the world, like learning about … civil rights and the Holocaust for the first time. As a college student. Westover’s life was insane.

6. Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe (2012) by Benjamin Alire Sáenz — It’s a fantastic coming-of-age novel about a teenage kid dealing with identity issues on a number of fronts: He’s a geeky, Mexican gay kid. If you like Love Simon, you’ll love this, and if you like Lin Manuel-Miranda, he reads the audiobook. It’ll blow you away.

7. An Absolutely Remarkable Thing (2018) by Hank Green — An absolute gem from the brother of John Green. Hank Green’s debut novel explores our obsession with social media and social-media fame through a mysterious alien invasion. Funny, quick-witted, and an absolutely marvelous and quick read.

8. A Man Called Ove (2012) by Fredrik Backman — This is the book that turned me onto Fredrik Backman, and if you like Tom McCarthy movies like The Visitor or The Station Agent, you will love this one, too.

9. I Liked My Life by Abby Fabiaschi (2017) — Easily the weepiest book I read this year. It’s sort of a less grim Lovely Bones about a woman who committed suicide but whose spirit sticks around and tries to help her daughter and husband move on. As someone whose father took his life, it moved me. A lot.

10. Something in the Water (2018) by Catherine Steadman — Fantastic, intense gaslighting mystery thriller that begins with a woman digging a grave. The story jumps back in time, and we spend the rest of the novel trying to figure out who is in that grave. Fantastic writing — a cut above the typical Ruth Ware, and more on the Gillian Flynn level.

11. Baby Teeth (2018) by Zoje Stage — What a trip of a horror novel this was! It’s about a little girl who doesn’t speak, but torments and tortures her mother — who she wants to kill — while acting all sweet and innocent around her father. Great writing, intense story, and one of the best horror novels I’ve ever read — sort of like the gaslighting Omen.

12. All We Ever Wanted (2018) by Emily Giffin — A very touching, fast-moving and lovely novel about parents dealing with teenagers in the harrowing social media era. It’s pretty instructive on what the right thing to do if your kid ends up in a high-school social media scandal.

13. Severance (2018) by Ling Ma — Really good post-apocalyptic fiction with a super dry sense of humor. The satire is subtle, but also incredibly cutting.

14. There There (2018) by Tommy Orange — Superbly written but bleak fiction about a number of Native American characters in the Oakland area who are ultimately tied together by an event. Great book, but a tough read.

15. Sharp Objects (2006) by Gillian Flynn — This one was a reread ahead of the series, and it was as good as the first time around, although just as bleak and harrowing.

16. Everything I Never Told You (2014) by Celeste Ng — Aside from Backman, Ng became another new favorite author for me in 2018, and while this one wasn’t quite as good as Little Fires Everywhere, goddamn, Ng knows how to write a great family drama.

17. If I Was Your Girl (2016) by Meredith Russo — Sort of a John Hughes-like novel, only the main character is a trans woman. It’s a lovely, sweet, and heartfelt novel. As the author (who is also trans) notes, it’s unrealistic to expect that this sort of situation could happen in small-town in the South right now, but trans kids should have romantic fairy tales, too.

18. The Long and Faraway Gone (2015) by Lou Berney — I spent much of the year searching for the perfect private detective mystery, and this one hit the damn spot.

19. The Kind Worth Killing (2015) by Peter Swanson — Likewise, if you’re looking for a good, modern Double Indemnity, this one will do the trick.

20. City of Thieves (2008) by David Benioff — This was another reread, although I didn’t realize it until about 25 percent of the way through the book, when I thought, “Hey! I’ve read this already!” It’s plenty good enough, however, that it still holds up on the second read, but not so good that I remembered it from when I read it the first time around probably a decade ago.

21. and 22. The Fourth Monkey (2017) and A Fifth to Die (2018) by J.D. Barker — I feel like a read a lot of serial killer/detective mysteries this year, but this was my favorite of the subgenre. I believe it gets compared a lot to Silence of the Lambs and it’s not an unfair comparison.

23. Less (2017) by Andrew Sean Greer — A really great book, mind you, but I see why it won the Pulitzer — it’s a book by a middle-aged white guy about a middle-aged white guy watching as the literary world passes him by. There were probably a bunch of middle-aged white guys on the Pulitzer committee who felt this one hard.

24. I’ll Be Gone in the Dark (2018) by Michelle McNamara — I’d probably have liked this even more if I’d waited a couple of weeks to read it, after the Golden State Killer had already been caught. It was a brilliant, meticulously searched novel, but when I read it, the identity of the serial killer remained stubbornly elusive. Two weeks later, he had a name and a face.

25. Lincoln in the Bardo (2017) by George Saunders — A goddamn delightful book — witty, brilliantly written, and fascinating — and yet, I just didn’t really care for it that much. It was more like two dozen short stories than it was a novel, and I found it difficult to invest much in any of them.

26. Britt Marie Was Here (2014) by Fredrick Backman — Backman became one of my favorite authors this year, and this was another reason why: A lovely book about a fastidious, busybody older woman who leaves her husband after he cheats on her and has to make her way on her own in a small town where she ends up coaching a kids’ soccer team made up of castoffs.

27. Juliet, Naked (2009) by Nick Hornby — It took me a lot of years to finally get around to it, but with the movie coming out, I finally settled down to read it, got through it in about half a day and loved it so much that I never even bothered with the movie because there’s no way it could have compared.

28. Outsider (2018) by Stephen King — I loved the first half of this novel, which felt like a tightly written legal thriller … until Stephen King invariably wrote himself into a corner that only supernatural elements could get him out of.

29. The Death of Mrs. Westaway (2018) by Ruth Ware — A good mystery, but not one of Ware’s best.

30. Circe (2018) by Madeline Miller — If you love Greek mythology, this is a fantastic novel and I couldn’t recommend it enough. Unfortunately, I don’t give a damn about Greek mythology, and as great as this book is, it’s not enough to get over that hump. It’s not the book’s fault. It’s the readers.

31. Sing Unburied Sing (2017) by Jesmyn Ward — The most lyrical and beautifully written book I read this year — it’s bleak as hell, haunting, and chilling, but also a bit over my head, to be honest. It’s a lot to unpack.

32. The Book Thief (2005) by Markus Zusak — It took me a long time to finally get around to this, and it was good, and I probably would have liked it even more were it not for my brain’s weird bias against fantasy. I’ll say this, however: It was good enough that I was mostly able to overcome it.

33. From the Corner of the Oval (2018) by Beck Dorey Stein — A former transcriptionists in the White House takes us through her experiences working in the Obama Administration. It’s such a lovely, delightful reminder of how good things used to be when we had people in the White House who we could look up to and be inspired by.

34. West Cork (2018) by Sam Bungey and Jennifer Forde— One of those audible originals, a true-crime podcast about the unsolved murder of Sophie Toscan du Plantier in 1996. It’s a pretty riveting case, though not quite up to the level of Serial.

35. A Stranger in the Woods (2017) by Michael Finkel — A pretty great nonfiction book about the last known hermit, but I suspect its appeal is somewhat limited to Mainers.

36. Before the Fall (2016) by Noah Hawley — A solid relationship drama about a guy in a plane crash who saves another boy in the crash — they’re the only two survivors — and how that man ends up involved in the boy’s family.

37. The Wife (2018) by Alafair Burke — A pretty good gaslighting book about a woman who marries the perfect man until he turns out not to be the perfect man at all, which she figures out when her husband is accused of sexual assault by a college intern.

38. The Cabin at the End of the World (2018) by Paul Tremblay — I liked it! But I’d heard so much about it from elsewhere that I came into it with huge expectations and it didn’t quite live up to those expectations. I kept waiting for the end of the world to arrive, and it neve really did.

39. One of Us is Lying (2017) by Karen McManus — A pretty solid Breakfast Club murder mystery YA novel that was such a light and quick read that I barely remember any of the details.

40. My Grandmother Asked Me To Tell You She’s Sorry (2013) by Fredrick Backman — Something of a minor Fredrik Backman novel. It’s well written, and it’s lovely, but it gets a little too lost in a fantasy world for my liking. This was sort of a completist thing for me.

41. The Hike (2016) by Drew Magary — When all that business went on with Drew Magary a few weeks ago, it reminded me that there was one book of his that I hadn’t read yet. I didn’t like the story very much — it’s a fantasy book — but I love Magary’s voice enough that it didn’t really matter.

42. Asymetry (2018) by Lisa Halliday — Superbly written literary fiction that’s basically three novelas, the third of which connects the first two. As well written as it was, however, I didn’t find the stories particularly compelling.

43. Small Fry (2018) by Lisa Brennan Jobs — Again, I am a tough audience for memoirs, and I usually find them underwhelming. This one, from the daughter of Steve Jobs, was no exception.

44. Small Animals (2018) by Kim Brooks — A pretty fascinating look into the way parenting has changed in the last generation told from the perspective of a good mom who was arrested for leaving her kid in a locked car on a nice day for a few minutes. It’s interesting, although a little too dry and academic for my liking.

45. The Punch (2008) by Noah Hawley — A fine family drama from the creator of Fargo and Legion, but not particularly memorable.

46. Mr Mercedes (2014) by Stephen King — I watched the first season of the television show last year, and decided to read the book ahead of the second season. It was so faithfully adapted into a series, however, that the book contained zero surprises, and after having read Outsider, I lost interest in season two of the series.

47. Elevation (2018) by Stephen King — A very fine Stephen King novella with wonderfully written characters and, per usual, a lousy ending.

48. Midnight at the Bright Ideas Bookstore (2017) by Matthew Sullivan — A murder mystery set in a bookstore. It sounded a lot better than it was, but it was OK!

49. The Nest (2016) by Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney — It was fine, I suppose. A family drama with a bunch of unlikable New Yorkers fighting over an inheritance.

50. Shining Girls (2013) by Lauren Beukes — Another novel about a serial killer who commits sexual crimes upon women (this one written by a woman) that is brutal and violently graphic, but no more interesting than most, even with a time-travel element.

51. Dirty Job (2006) by Christopher Moore — I was in a bad book rut and decided to try out a Christopher Moore book for the first time because I know he used to be a big deal in these parts and I thought it would be an easy way to break the slump. Great book, but not my sort of thing. I don’t know why, because everyone I know seems to love him, but he doesn’t work for me. At all.

52. All the Bright Places (2015) by Jennifer Niven — A YA book described as a cross between Fault in our Stars and Eleanor and Park. It is not either one of those, but it’s OK.

53. Silver Screen Fiend (2015) by Patton Oswalt — Picked up a remaindered copy because I love Patton Oswalt, and it was fine, although more about living in Los Angeles than it was about movies.

54. Fear (2018) by Bob Woodward — Good book that was very well researched (what else would one expect from Woodward), but honestly, it didn’t reveal anything we didn’t already know about this White House.

55. Sadie (2018) by Courtney Summers — I think the young-adult audience for which this was intended probably liked it a lot more than I did, but I found it to be a not particularly compelling story about a young woman searching for the killer of her little sister, while a podcast host tracked the events from a couple of days behind the search. Again, I think this was less the fault of the book and more of the reader (that’s me!)

56. Annihilation (2014) by Jeff VanderMeer — I watched this one ahead of the movie, but disliked it so much that I never bothered watching the movie. Sorry, Roxana.

57. The Perfect Mother (2018) by Aimee Molloy — This will probably make for a pretty compelling movie (and I understand that Kerry Washington has already signed on as the lead), but this murder mystery about a group of women from the same birth group trying to discover what happened to one of their missing babies never managed to grab me.

58. All the Missing Girls (2016) by Megan Miranda — Sort of a pedestrian missing girls mystery, made no less pedestrian by the fact that the events are told in reverse chronology, although it makes the unreliable narrator all the more frustrating.

59. Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows (2017) by Balli Kaur Jaswal — Sort of a much better written Fifty Shades of Grey set in India. I wanted to like this one — and some of the characters I really did like — but the erotic fiction bored me to tears and preoccupied entirely too much of the novel.

60. Fire and Fury (2018) by Michael Wolff — More gossipy but not nearly as good as Bob Woodward’s book on Trump. I felt gross reading it.

61. The Alienist (1994) by Caleb Carr — I read this years ago and didn’t care for it very much, but reread it again ahead of the series and found it to be even more unremarkable. I always tell myself that I want to read a serial killer book, but aside from J.D. Barker’s series, they’ve all been varying levels of disappointing to me this year.

62. The Chalk Man (2018) by C.J. Tudor — As basic as serial killer mysteries come.

63. The Wife Between Us (2018) by Greer Hendricks and Sarah Pekkanen — I have no idea why this one was such a big success this year. Seemed like a pretty pale Gillian Flynn knock-off.

64. Truly, Madly, Guilty (2016) by Liane Moriarity — I liked her Big Little Lies, but truly, this was the most maddeningly tedious book I read in 2018. It never grabbed me, and it just kept going and going and going and I hated it.

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Dustin is the founder and co-owner of Pajiba. You may email him here, follow him on Twitter, or listen to his weekly TV podcast, Podjiba.

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