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The 16 best books I read in 2018

From sci-fi to litfic to essays, here are the best books of the year.

Amanda Northrop/Vox

No one person can possibly write a comprehensive list of the best books that came out in 2018. Hundreds of thousands of books are published every year in the US alone, not to mention in the rest of the world, and it is physically impossible for one person to read and form an opinion on all of them.

So I am making no claims about being definitive or exhaustive. Instead, I have compiled a personal list of the 16 books I most enjoyed this year. I have tried to cast a wide net in my selections — below, you’ll find books for adults and books for children, fiction and nonfiction, fantasy and literary fiction. These books brought me joy and fascination in a long and harrowing year, and I hope that they will do the same for you.

Fiction

The Strange Fascinations of Noah Hypnotik by David Arnold

The Strange Fascinations of Noah Hypnotik is a corkscrewing, trippy little book about a teenage boy who gets hypnotized and wakes up in a subtly different world. But really it’s about being a teenager, and feeling at once as though you are on the cusp of some great and terrifying change and also as though nothing in your life will ever really change and you will be trapped forever; as though you are surrounded by people and yet are the loneliest person in the world. Plus, between Noah’s taste in music and the swirling atmospherics, there’s a lot of David Bowie.

Children of Blood and Bone by Tomi Adeyemi

Children of Blood and Bone is Afrofuturist YA, and it’s beautifully written. The first of a planned trilogy, it takes place in a rich, fully realized fantasy world that is based loosely in West African cosmology, where magic has been driven out — until one girl becomes the key to bringing it back.

The most satisfying thing about this novel is its unapologetic tropiness; this is a world where sworn enemies meet in each other’s dreams before they become lovers. And the way it builds those tropes around its black characters is both gripping and absorbing.

Social Creature by Tara Isabella Burton

Social Creature by Tara Isabella Burton Doubleday

Social Creature, by former Vox religion reporter Tara Isabella Burton, is what happens when a theologian with a fantastic vintage wardrobe writes a book about sin: It understands the value of a fantastic outfit to create spectacle and build atmosphere, but while the plot structure is that of an addictive and fast-paced thriller, its concerns are philosophical and profound, and its sentences are beautifully balanced.

At the center of Social Creature is the co-dependent relationship between striving and anxious Louise, conning her way to the center of the New York literati scene, and narcissistic Lavinia, who pulls Louise into her world and then slowly drains the life out of her.

As their relationship steadily grows more toxic, the tension ramps up: There’s a murder, and there’s a coverup, and there’s as much sex and violence as anyone could ask for in a thriller. Most compelling of all is the book’s portrait of a decadent Manhattan that shimmers with glamour, but has something rotten at its core.

Stronger, Faster, and More Beautiful by Arwen Elys Dayton

This little gem of YA science-fiction is told in six vignettes, starting just a few years from now and ultimately arriving in traveling to a very distant future. It imagines a world in which humans begin to hack their biology, molding into their own bodies the body parts of dead loved ones, or machinery to replace broken organs, or animal parts to give themselves special new abilities.

This new frontier of physical modification is met with outrage, terror, and delight, and Dayton’s six vignettes — each focusing on a different young person who’s been affected by the technology at a different stage in its development — thoroughly explore its possibilities both for progress and for exploitation.

Freshwater by Akwaeke Emezi

Freshwater by Akwaeke Emezi Grove Press

Freshwater is an electric debut novel, steeped in Nigerian cosmology, about a girl born with a god spirit in her head. The god spirit is supposed to kill her, but it doesn’t, and as the novel goes on she finds herself occupying a liminal space: between male and female, god and human, living and dead.

What is most thrilling about this book is reading the voice of the spirit in the heroine’s head. It calls itself we, and while it narrates only sections of this book, its id-driven capriciousness and god-like arrogance make it unforgettable.

The Witch Elm by Tana French

Tana French is one of the greatest crime novelists writing right now, and in many ways, that’s because when she writes about crime, she’s writing about power. Her latest novel, The Witch Elm, is about systemic power, about social privilege, and what happens when that privilege is taken away.

It centers on Toby, a straight, white, able-bodied man who as the book begins is smugly certain that he understands the world as it really is, and that all the women and gay people and people of color he knows who complain about the world are hysterical whiners.

Then Toby is badly injured in a robbery gone wrong — and in the aftermath, as he struggles to recover, he finds that some of his privilege has vanished. His experience of the world is suddenly a lot closer to the stories he used to roll his eyes at. And because Toby is now implicated in two different crimes, that world just got a lot more dangerous.

The Mere Wife by Maria Dahvana Headley

The updates in this modern-day Beowulf retelling are clever, but my favorite part of The Mere Wife is the twisty linguistic games it plays. Maria Dahvana Headley spirals her way around the famous invocation that begins the poem (“Hwæt!”), beginning each section with a different translation of the word. Each pulls different resonances out of the air. And even in its title, the book puns tellingly on the distinction between Beowulf the warrior, or aglæca, and the mother of Grendel, the monster, the aglæca-wif.

Pride and Prometheus by John Kessel

Pride and Prometheus by John Kessel Saga Press

Here’s what Pride and Prometheus made me realize: The Creature in Frankenstein and the plain sister in Pride and Prejudice, Mary Bennett, are two of the most lonely and two of the most solipsistic characters in the Western canon. And it turns out to be surprisingly moving when the two of them meet in this sweetly melancholy mashup.

It’s a move that makes the flaws and the strengths of both characters shine brightly. Mary brings the Creature’s unthinking and violent misogyny into high relief — but she can also appreciate his desperate hunger for affection and his miserable love for beauty. The Creature can’t abide Mary’s cranky virtue signaling — but he also becomes the first figure in her life to see her nerdy intellectualism as a plus. Despite its jokey-sounding premise, this is an achingly sincere book.

How to Be Famous by Caitlin Moran

How to Be Famous is a #MeToo novel, more or less, and what is surprising about it is how joyous it is. It’s the second in Caitlin Moran’s series of autobiographical novels, this one focusing on Moran’s alter-ego Morrigan as the character tromps cheerfully through London in the mid-’90s as a teenage celebrity music journalist. And, inevitably, she tromps straight into the embrace of a predatory man.

As gross as the man who preys on Morrigan is, Moran’s voice always sparkles and fizzes. She’s writing this book as a love letter to her teenage self, and to all teen girls, and she’s not going to let the terrible men who target teen girls stop her from celebrating the hell out of them.

Spinning Silver by Naomi Novik

Spinning Silver is not exactly a fairy tale retelling, but it feels like one. It’s a fantasy novel built out of fairy tale tropes, and it manages to feel true to the shivery, eerie rhythms of folklore-based fairy tales, while at the same time keeping its twists and turns organic to its characters.

Parts of it are a little bit Rumpelstiltskin: One of the main characters is caught in a magical bet in which she is forced to spin silver into gold. Parts of it are a little bit Beauty and the Beast: The two heroines both find themselves trapped in marriages to monstrous men — although there’s reason to think that the girls might be a little bit monstrous themselves. All of it is rich and unsettling and incredibly lovely.

The Merry Spinster by Daniel Mallory Ortberg

The Merry Spinster by Daniel Mallory Ortberg Henry Holt and Co.

The fairy tales collected in The Merry Spinster are as bright and sharp and painful as knives. Most of them follow the beats of a Grimm fairy tale — Cinderella, say, or The Seven Swans — but they travel well past the traditional horror of a Grimm story and into the deep, existentially terrifying swamp of emotional vampirism. These stories take place in a world full of witches and monsters, but the most horrifying thing of all is what happens when someone who loves you assumes that you have already said yes when you haven’t.

The Female Persuasion by Meg Wolitzer

What makes The Female Persuasion a great feminist novel is that it’s not actually a novel about feminism. Its two lead characters — college student Greer and Gloria Steinem analog Faith — both devote themselves to feminist activism, but over the course of the novel, it becomes clear that a fight for equality is not the only thing that motivates them. They both have political convictions, but what really makes feminism attractive to Greer and Faith is that it offers each of them a chance to earn attention, admiration, and even hero worship.

This is a portrait of two complex, perhaps unlikeable women who are unapologetic in their ambition, but willfully blind as to what their ambitions truly aim for. Their political leanings are beside the point.

Nonfiction

99 Glimpses of Princess Margaret by Craig Brown

Ninety-Nine Glimpses of Princess Margaret by Craig Brown Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Poor Princess Margaret: so fun, so funny, so trapped in the terrible job of being the queen’s younger sister. Craig Brown’s deconstructed biography tracks her life through 99 different themes: Margaret in newspaper announcements, Margaret in words added to the dictionary during her life, Margaret featuring in the fantasies that leering men record in their diaries.

Ultimately, Brown paints a sympathetic but unsparing portrait of a frustrated intelligence lashing out in petty cruelty at a world that has given her nothing to do with her life. (Plus, it taught me this fun fact: Margaret used to glue matchbooks to her cocktail glasses so that she could light a cigarette without putting down her drink.)

How to Write an Autobiographical Novel by Alexander Chee

How to Write an Autobiographical Novel is a gripping exploration of how we cope with our trauma through the stories we tell ourselves. In this achingly vulnerable collection of essays, Chee delves into the process of writing his first novel, Edinburgh, and in the process dealing with the sexual abuse he suffered as a child — and all of the stories he told himself about it afterward to try to deal with it.

Barracoon by Zora Neale Hurston

Barracoon by Zora Neale Hurston Amistad

The vagaries of publishing mean that sometimes we get to list a book by Zora Neale Hurston, who died in 1960, as one of the best books of 2018. Hurston wrote Baracoon in 1927, but it went unpublished until this year, and it’s stunning. It’s Hurston’s account of her interview with Kossola, a man who was born in Africa before he was kidnapped and sold into slavery.

Kossola survives Middle Passage, slavery, and the Jim Crow south, so his story serves as a kind of synecdoche of the trauma of race in America. “How does one sleep with such memories beneath the pillow?” Hurston asks of him. There is no good answer.

Feel Free by Zadie Smith

The thing that always strikes me about Zadie Smith’s nonfiction is that even when she gets well into the weeds of literary theory, her prose stays just as beautiful as it is in her fiction. Some novelists let their voices go flat when they write essays, but Smith always pays attention to the rhythm of her sentences, to her evocative imagery.

In Feel Free, she is mostly concerned with issues of the self; her essays chase the question of whether anyone can be said to have a strictly defined self, and whether that question is even worth considering in the Trump era. The ideas here are heady but compelling, and the prose stays grounded and rich and lovely.

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