Welcome to Book Riot’s guide to the best books of 2018! We’ve got something for lovers of every genre and readers of all ages, and best-sellers along with hidden gems. Enjoy!
In 2018, a huge number of Americans revealed themselves as racists and bigots. It’s unfortunate most of them will never read American Like Me; it might serve as a reminder of what this nation actually stands for.
Beautiful words written by folks from across the arts: authors and comedians, actors and musicians, the children of immigrants or immigrants themselves, American Like Me unfurls the gorgeous tapestry of my America, where the descendant of Russian-Jewish immigrants, who grew up keeping kosher and missing Friday night dances, can be a writer and cosplayer and speak Spanish and Arabic.
And I won’t give up on it.
Anatomy of a Scandal
I knew as soon as I’d finished this book in January that it would be my favourite read of the year. This story of an MP accused of sexual assault by one of his employees is deftly told from the points of view of his wife and of the barrister prosecuting him. It’s easy to read in the best of way – the writing is so good that it’s effortless to follow along with, and the story is so intriguing and full of tension that you just want to keep reading. Not only that, but it’s also incredibly timely in two important ways: for its part in the #MeToo conversation, and what it has to say about the British Establishment and what they can get away with.
“But tell me what it’s really like…” As a woman in her 30s anticipating pregnancy in the next few years, I have implored many friends with children to give it to me straight. While I’ve gotten a hint of the realities of pregnancy, birth and early motherhood, nothing has quite captured the tumultuous emotions every new mother feels quite like Meaghan O’Connell’s breathtakingly honest memoir. She navigates her new reality (and ambivalence) deftly and terrifyingly unvarnished. Her clear-eyed perspective was only enhanced by a narrative that is appealing to those with (or contemplating) children and those who want nothing to do with them.
Anger is a Gift
This book broke my heart. Moss is a gay black teenager with anxiety who lives under the shadow of having seen his father killed by police. When his school installs metal detectors, Moss and his friends take a stand against their school increasingly treating them like criminals. The resulting clash escalates until it reaches crisis. The heart of this story is its cast: Moss has a friend group of mostly people of color, most of whom are queer (including trans, nonbinary, lesbian, gay, bisexual, and asexual characters), and I became really invested in their dynamic. Devastating and resilient, Anger is a Gift is well worth the heartbreak.
This has been my year for nonfiction, and nothing has truly satisfied the in-depth exposé feel that I’ve been looking for like Carreyrou’s book. The book is masterfully reported, casting an intense and uncompromising eye on the deceit and fraud that occurred at Theranos, a medical tech company, under the leadership of Elizabeth Holmes. Their promise of an industry-changing diagnostic tool was just that: a promise, a dream, and ultimately a lie. The author takes his investigation beyond one start-up company, though, showing the unbridled optimism and unchecked power that allows this type of fraud to occur.
Children of Blood and Bone
In an kingdom that fears the magic that is her birthright, Zélie Adebola trains in secret. In a kingdom where the royal family has risen to power on the ashes of the last generation of magicians, a prince hides his curse. What happens when they meet is nothing short of enthralling. Think Black Panther meets X-Men, with a dash of Game of Thrones thrown in, and you’ll get a glimmer of what’s in store for you. Author Tomi Adeyemi has created a rich, vibrant, and thrilling world where nothing is certain and anything is possible. Taking inspiration from African myth and culture, it’s a refreshing break from the Euro-centric fantasy norm.
In Circe, Madeline Miller takes a character who makes a brief appearance in the Odyssey and gives her a voice. The daughter of the sun god Helios, Circe is exiled to an island and you watch her life as she grows up knowing that she desires different things than her family, how she handles the loneliness of her exile, her own desires and how she does and does not want to use her powers. Although there are appearances from famous characters of Greek mythology, this story is not just for those who love mythology. Instead it is about the power of looking at a story from another perspective and how women are often incorrectly viewed by the world.
This gorgeous debut novel follows a woman named Kimiâ through several timelines: her adult life in France, where she’s trying to get pregnant; her childhood in Iran, before her family fled political persecution; and stories from her family history, going back to her great-grandfather. It’s a moving multi-generational family story, an immigrant story, and a queer woman’s story, and I’ve been thinking about it all year. Kover’s translation feels seamless and the prose flows beautifully, bringing these characters, Iran, and France to vivid life. If there was a must-read translated novel from 2018, for my money, this is it.
In Justina Ireland’s alternate-history YA novel, the Civil War ended when the dead rose and started eating everybody. Seventeen years later, Jane McKeene’s set to graduate from combat school, where she and other black students have spent years learning all they’d need to know to protect well-off white people from shamblers. But the shamblers turn out to be the least of Jane’s problems (hint: the big problem is all the racism) when she stumbles upon a despicable scheme hatched by Baltimore’s white elite. Dread Nation is terrifying, timely, and necessary, anchored by a whipsmart heroine I’d follow into battle any day.
Educated: A Memoir
Tara Westover’s parents were off-the-grid survivalists living in the Idaho mountains. Their distrust of government, schools, doctors, and their neighbors created an isolated, violent, and misogynistic home life. After seeing one brother go to college, Westover taught herself just enough to pass the ACT and enter Brigham Young University. Westover has the clear, honest perspective on her upbringing she needs to write a compelling story, making this memoir both hopeful and deeply sad in the space of single paragraphs. It’s an example of the danger of isolation and the value of education, especially for smart, determined young women.
Everything’s Trash, But It’s Okay
The title perfectly sums up 2018: everything’s trash, but it’s okay. With her signature humour and abbreviations, Dope Queen Pheebs is here to make you think and laugh. From the problems with modern feminism to interracial dating tips to body image, Everything’s Trash, But It’s Okay is smart, hilarious, and endlessly charming. Robinson offers sharp insights peppered with jokes, abbrevs, and personal anecdotes. This essay collections was exactly what I needed. I recommend the audiobook!
As a Floridian, I’m used to seeing my state portrayed in books, but writers (especially ones who aren’t from here) seldom get us right. They rely on tiresome clichés and Florida-Man stereotypes. Lauren Groff is not one of those writers. In this short story collection, Groff shows off the real Florida in all of its elegant strangeness. In this wild and many-faceted state, the landscape—and the people—can never truly be tamed.
Girls Burn Brighter
Set primarily in India, this is about friendship: the fierce, fiery kind of friendship that exists between two girls who understand their place in the world as girls, their place in society as girls in India of a lower class, their place in society as girls who can only rely and depend upon one another. Savitha and Poornima only spend a small portion of the book together, but it’s the spark between them that keeps them connected through tragic event after tragic event. Great writing, unforgettable voices, and a powerful reminder that passion sparks, ignites, and keeps the flame of friendship burning. An adult book with mega YA crossover.
Heart Berries: A Memoir
Heart Berries is a powerful, poetic memoir about Terese Marie Mailhot’s experiences growing up on the Seabird Island Indian Reservation, trying to make sense of her difficult childhood and early adult years. She writes about her fascinating and complicated mother, her abusive father, her struggles with mental illness, her efforts to gain an education, her experiences growing up Native American, and so much more. It’s gorgeously-written, haunting, moving, and just genius. This year it found a lot of readers and became a best-seller, and I’m so glad it’s getting the attention it deserves.
How to Write an Autobiographical Novel
I read this book way back in May, and I still think about it constantly. In these expansive and many-layered essays, Chee explores identity, memory, and the shifting kaleidoscope of thought and experience that shapes a life. His subjects are wide-ranging, from AIDS activism to family history, and every essay illuminates something essential about being a human in the world. He is at his best when tackling the messy, lonely reality of being a writer. I’ve never encountered such a raw, honest, visceral description of the writing process. I can count on one hand the number of essay collections that have moved me to tears; this is one of them.
McNamara’s posthumously published book about her investigation of the Golden State Killer, a serial rapist and murderer active throughout California in the ‘70s and ‘80s, is one I’m sure everyone’s heard of, and completely worthy of all the hype. True crime can be difficult: what’s meant to be interesting can end up too exploitative while what’s meant to be objective can end up too indifferent. But I’ll Be Gone in the Dark doesn’t fall into these traps. McNamara’s writing is sensational but empathetic, explicit but humane, relentless but vulnerable. It breaks my heart we’ll never get more of it, but what we do have is a masterpiece.
Alexa Martin had me at first hashtag. After discovering her NFL-star boyfriend’s been scoring with other women, Marlee Harper dumps him, eager to leave that world. But she didn’t expect Gavin Pope – a former fling – to join the team as its hot new quarterback. Intercepted is such a buoyant romance, enveloping readers in a world of girl power and hilarious banter among its characters. Marlee’s need for independence and the pacing of her and Gavin’s romance get to the crux of this indelible debut – it’s about a woman who doesn’t want to be defined by her relationships but wants to do the defining, and that’s exactly what she does. #Blessed
The night before his biggest college game, basketball phenom August West goes to a bar to decompress and meets Iris Dupree, and the attraction is instantaneous and undeniable. A relationship at that time, however, is impossible. The timing isn’t right. As August rises to basketball stardom and Iris claws her way out of an unimaginably painful situation; these two realize that a connection like theirs isn’t easily broken. Kennedy Ryan weaves a tale that is raw and brutally honest. Long Shot isn’t an easy read and there are times you may want to turn away but you won’t, because pure love, power, and resilience seep through every word.
My Sister the Serial Killer
Korede’s sister Ayoola is a real beauty, with a long string of boyfriends who have a tendency to wind up dead. As the dutiful older sister, Korede has become accustomed to cleaning up her sister’s messes (literally). But when the coworker Korede has a crush on begins to show interest in Ayoola, things get even more complicated.
Dark, sharp, and intriguing, this was a book I could not read fast enough. It was the kind of book I literally couldn’t put down, glued to the ebook reader on my phone while I was supposed to be chaperoning a field trip at the time (whoops). Tense and sardonic, this book does not disappoint.
My Year of Rest and Relaxation
This was a book that left me completely satisfied. Fulfilled by perfect prose, a perfect ending, and a perfectly unlikable narrator that I loved. The story follows our narrator as she decides to cleanse herself of her old life by sleeping away her problems. She is supported in her endeavor by a psychiatrist who is so over-the-top nutty, she seems more hallucination than real, and the sleeping pill cocktail she is prescribed to fight the dubious psychiatric disorders she’s diagnosed with. The pills leave her an apathetic zombie who sleeps, watches Whoopi Goldberg movies, and visits the local bodega to buy coffee and cigarettes. I saw the ending coming a mile away, but I still anticipated it with bated breath. This was hands down my favorite book of 2018!
New Poets of Native Nations
The last time an anthology of contemporary Native poetry was published, there were no cell phones, and only computer scientists knew about the internet. I was still French rolling my jeans. In other words, calling this a much-needed anthology is literally the understatement of the century. Editor Heid E. Erdrich (Turtle Mountain Band of Ojibway) chose work by 21 poets whose first books were published after the year 2000. The poems showcase the wide diversity of styles, perspectives, and languages in which Native poets are writing today. The anthology is a joy to read, from Erdrich’s inspiring introduction to the author notes at the end.
Next Year in Havana
Chanel Cleeton’s Next Year in Havana is the book of my soul and finally gave me the #ownvoices Cuban representation that I’ve been looking for my entire life. Set during two time periods, one during the 1950s and the other during the present day, this historical fiction follows two strong-willed Latinas as they live through two very different times in Cuba. This novel is all about self-discovery, forbidden love, Cuban politics and history, and what being Cuban truly means, whether you’re born on the island or not. This book combines the strife and resilience of Cubans and celebrates our heritage, and it quickly became my favorite novel of all time. This is one book you won’t want to walk past in a bookstore.
You may have heard political pundits claim Hillary Clinton lost the 2016 election because black and brown voters didn’t show up, but in One Person, No Vote, Dr. Carol Anderson pushes back against that claim with a clear, concise, and compelling exploration of racialized voter suppression from Jim Crow through today. People of color didn’t fail Democrats; they were systematically excluded, disenfranchised, and discouraged from turning out to the polls. This book is impeccably researched and perfectly argued. It’s a must-read for anyone interested in politics, policy, and polling.
Beyond legitimate concerns around the ethics of AI, reproductive challenges, and environmental degradation are actual, singular, beautiful human lives–people who make battles for better worth fighting. The secrets we keep and the prejudices we navigate rise to the surface of Andromeda Romano-Lax’s lovely, heartrending near-future novel, which is set in Japan. Dark realities (including human trafficking) loom, but it’s the vulnerable-but-tough and irreplaceable characters who stick with you.
Remixes of classics and myths are already an easy way to get my attention, but the premise of Pride is like Grade A, extra-strength, deluxe edition catnip. A Pride and Prejudice remake set in Bushwick with all characters of color and Afro-Latinas as the Bennet (Benitez) sisters that tackles gentrification, classism, and identity politics?! SOLD. The audio version takes the awesome up a notch with narration by Elizabeth Acevedo (swoon), whose tone and cadence are a perfect match to the swagger and attitude of main character Zuri. It’s poetic and soulful, Jane Austen classic with Afro-Latinx heart.
Buff Male Nanny. Enough said, right?
Rafe is the low in angst, fluffy and cute novel you’ve been looking for your entire life. Let me tell you that you have found it. In this romance story, Dr. Sloan needs a nanny to watch her kids, but she never thought she would find her love match as well. Rafe is our buff nanny who will easily enchant you with his sweetness and care for Sloan and her children.
We don’t get a lot of male nanny heroes, or if we do, it’s never their choice of career. But in Rafe, this is not the case. Rafe loves doing his job and you see it pretty early on. This book is really fluff on fluff and I absolutely adore it.
Rage Becomes Her
Women have a lot to be angry about but our society ignores, gaslights, and punishes us for expressing our anger. In Rage Becomes Her, feminist warrior Soraya Chemaly validates women’s rage using studies, surveys, and personal accounts that reveal the true extent of misogyny’s stranglehold on virtually every aspect of our culture. If you’ve ever been asked, “Why are you so angry?” this book will help you articulate your rage and–equally important–use it more effectively as a tool for change. And if you’re of the male persuasion, this book will help you better understand the social and structural inequalities women have to deal with everyday.
Rock Steady: Brilliant Advice From My Bipolar Life
Rejoice! Ellen Forney has given us a guide to navigating life with a mood disorder. Using her experience living with bipolar disorder, Forney shares her tips ‘n’ tricks for handling all aspects of mental health: sleep, human contact, meds, therapy, etc. At the end of each chapter, there are cute merit badges to keep you going! While she mostly refers to bipolar, this advice could be applied to many mental illnesses — and is good for all humans in general. It’s all done in her classic, light-hearted style and is just so lovely and wise. This is a wonderful book to keep on your shelf for when things get hard.
I never expected feminist horror to be my jam, but Sawkill Girls proved me wrong. On Sawkill Rock, girls have a history of going missing. Marion’s sister is the latest victim. The sheriff’s daughter, Zoey, is determined to get to the bottom of the mystery and is certain it girl Val has something to do with it. And maybe she does. Either way, all three girls get mixed up in a whole lot of supernatural trouble.
The prose is gorgeous and the creep factor is just right. It’s everything you could want in a book: girls being bad, girls working together to fight bad guys, queer girls getting a happy ending, and teenage girls smashing the patriarchy.
So You Want to Talk About Race
No one ever taught me how to talk about race. I can recognize racism. I can recognize microaggressions. I’ve gotten better at speaking up for myself and others, but So You Want To Talk About Race has been an absolutely indispensable source of knowledge and courage. We will never be perfect in conversations around race, but Oluo offers solid information and permission to fail, as long as we try. Oluo does so much labor via her book that most of us are ill-equipped or unwilling to do. I now require all the self-identified allies in my life to read this book before they talk with me about race and it has definitely leveled-up our conversations.
In the 2 years since Older’s Infomocracy debuted in mid-2016, it has often been difficult to envision alternative ways of being and knowing and governing in a seemingly broken world. Thankfully, those years have also given us the rest of The Centental Cycle, which State Tectonics concludes. To the very end, as the novels’ radically different system of government finds itself under attack and struggling to evolve, Older refuses both utopian faith and dystopian despair. In their place, she offers a kind of speculative hope. Ultimately, State Tectonics is a worthy end to its series, a useful tool for imagining futures, and a truly great read.
There are so many reasons I love this rock band romance. It has the intensely emotional and electric connection between band leader Ray and new drummer Zavier. It has Carl, the most villainy villain I read in 2018. It has aromantic representation. It has kinky sex on a tour bus. But the very best thing about Syncopation is the relationships between and among the bandmates. Ray, Dom, Mish, and Zavier love each other in a way that’s messy and sometimes hurtful but is always deep and steadfast. The central relationship between Ray and Zavier is immensely satisfying, but the best love story in Syncopation is among the found family of bandmates.
The Calculating Stars
In the first in Kowal’s Lady Astronaut duology, a meteor hits Washingon, DC, starting a potentially extinction-level global event. The space race is now a fight for the survival of humanity, and as the program accelerates, pilot and calculator Dr. Elma York decides women should get to go to space too. This alt history sci fi confronts sexism, the stigma against mental illness, climate change denial, and intersectionality—York confronts her white privilege as her WOC coworkers struggle for recognition and inclusion. I couldn’t put this book down.
The Kiss Quotient
Stella Lane is an econometrician. She gladly spends her days immersed in numbers and algorithms. After a coworker implies she doesn’t know how to date (and do other things), she comes to the obvious conclusion that research and evaluation is the best way to go. Her solution is to hire a male escort to teach her the ways of the bedroom and of the heart. Which leads her to Michael, who is working part-time as an escort to pay his mother’s medical bills. I read this book back in April and it has stayed at the forefront of my mind. You’re going to laugh. You’re going to cry. You’re going to…well…never mind.
The Library Book
I’ve admired Orlean’s works of immersive journalism since reading The Orchid Thief in my 20s and becoming obsessed with the entire genre. Her latest — a long time coming — is a love letter to libraries, but also so much more. Using the massive 1986 fire at the Los Angeles Public Library as a jumping off point, she explores selfless librarians and shared knowledge and the essential role of libraries in our communities in a sprawling work of heavily reported and researched genius. I was transfixed the entire time.
The Line That Held Us
David Joy writes in The Line That Held Us that “some people were born too soft to bear the teeth of this world.” And the Appalachian world of Joy’s novels have plenty of teeth. In his third novel, Darl Moody accidentally kills a member of the ultra-violent Brewer family. And Dwayne Brewer will follow the trail of bloodshed until he hunts Darl into the most nightmarish corners of the Appalachian Mountains. This is a tale of family and friendship; redemption and revenge. Joy writes poetic thrillers filtered through a tradition of Flannery O’Connor and William Faulkner. And The Line That Held Us establishes him as truly The Bard of Appalachia.
The Mandela Plot
I’ve read a ton of books this year, but The Mandela Plot has stuck with me. First of all, it’s one of the most intensely gripping books I’ve ever read, but without resorting to cheap tricks. And I appreciate the way it doesn’t let anyone off the hook in its dissection of the spectrum between cowardice and heroism in apartheid-era South Africa.
The Poet X
Any book that is equally gorgeous on the outside and the inside, with a PERFECT author narration on the audiobook, that I read in one sitting because I can’t put it down is obviously an automatic pick for Best Book of the Year! The Poet X is a lyrical coming-of-age story about Xiomara Batista finding her place and voice in this world, and against her strict upbringing, that will leave you pumping your fist in the air and awaiting anything Elizabeth Acevedo may write. Run to this book!
When was the last time you hugged a book? This book’s oversized, floppy shape allows for a little hugging, so don’t worry about hurting it when you’re done devouring this darling graphic novel. Set in the fin de siècle era, it tells the story of Sebastian, who is old enough to marry, but isn’t ready to trust someone with his secret: he never feels more alive than when he’s in clothing designed for women. After he sees an absolutely outrageous contraption created by Frances, he hires her to be his dressmaker. As Lady Crystallia, he is all the rage. All thanks to Frances. But his elation might get in the way of an amazing friendship.
The Reckonings: Essays
This book of essays grew out of a question Johnson was asked: what did she want to see happen to her kidnapper and rapist? She touches on that, and so much more: ideas of justice, empowerment, racism, poverty, environmental destruction, family, anger, survival, love, and what it means to make art, and why. These essays are not always easy to read; they demand the reader face what’s on the page, head-on and unflinching, and stay with you long after you’ve read the last word. These are urgent and necessary essays that also feel timeless. This is one I’ll reread over and over and get new ideas and insights each time.
The Wedding Date
Romance has always been a feminist genre and it’s been getting more feminist and intersectional recently, and no book demonstrates that better than this one. It depicts an interracial relationship with frank discussions about white privilege, while maintaining the light, sexy rom com clichés that make me love romance novels. This push and pull begins with a stalled elevator where, shortly after meeting him, Alexa agrees to be Drew’s fake girlfriend at a wedding. The laughs and the swoons are big with this one, and after this steamy debut, Guillory is almost certain to become a romance powerhouse.
The Witch Elm
We all know that Tana French is a magical mystery-writing unicorn, but her latest book, The Witch Elm, is truly astounding. Toby is a self-professed lucky guy whose life takes a decidedly unlucky turn when he is attacked and left for dead. As he slowly copes with his injuries, he thinks he’s found refuge at his uncle’s home…until a skeleton is discovered inside a large elm tree on the property. This is an achingly slow-burn mystery that’s also a dark portrait of a person realizing that he can no longer trust his memories of who he is, or what his life used to be.
Tomorrow: A Novel
“Venice, May 1815, 127 years since I lost him.” Tomorrow is the story of an immortal dog searching for his lost master through the ages. The tale alternates between the dog’s adventures with his master in the past and his search in the present. Unfolding with gorgeous language, Tomorrow has an oddly spiritual quality that made me want to savor every passage. Last year, one of my favorite reads was Ka: Dar Oakley in the Ruin of Ymr by John Crowley, the story of an immortal crow on a journey of the soul, marking human history through his travels. Tomorrow has a similar feel, tackling humanity, loyalty, friendship, and love through a dog’s eyes.
Trail of Lightning
Natural disaster has consumed North America, but the Navajo reservation has survived. Old gods and powers have returned to the Diné people but some things from ancient legend aren’t so pleasant. Maggie Hoskie isn’t pleasant either, but she is who you call to bring down a monster. Raised by a demi-god to be a deadly weapon, Maggie is bad with people but good with a shotgun. When a simple hunt reveals sinister warnings, Maggie is forced to enlist Kai, a young medicine man as beautiful as he is powerful. Roanhorse breathes new life into the monster hunter genre with a post-apocalypse Indigenous world as raw and unapologetic as its heroine.
This book is a moving, enraging, personal account of the Flint water crisis. Hanna-Attisha, the author, is a pediatrician who helped expose the crisis, and the book was a wonderful mix of history, biography, and detective story. The story told in this made me SO MAD at what happened in Flint. This was so riveting that I managed to read a large chunk of it while on a plane with my eight-month-old baby. What the Eyes Don’t See appealed to me not only as an urban geographer, but also as a parent and a reader. This book stayed with me long after I finished the last page.
What You Want to See
What a book! This second installment in the new mystery series about bisexual PI Roxane Weary is even better than the first in the series, which I also thought was great. Roxane is definitely one of my favorite fictional imperfect characters now. Lepionka also does an amazing job of the complex characterization of her on-again off-again girlfriend Catherine, her (sort of?) ex Tom, a queer teen girl befriended in book one, and all the secondary characters. The detective plot was complicated, layered, and a little hard for me to keep track of at times–keeping me on my toes! Murder and fraud!