Given the insane number of books I read in 2018, I decided to forego my usual Year’s Best rundown in favor of separate lists for varied categories.  Today, for example, I’m offering up My Top 20 Reads of 2018 Published Before 2018.  General fiction, non-fiction, sci-fi, horror, fantasy, crime & thrillers, YA, graphic novels – there’s something here for everyone.  

#20. The Unseen World by Liz Moore

Ada Sibelius is raised by David, her brilliant, eccentric, socially inept single father, who directs a computer science lab in 1980s-era Boston. Home-schooled, Ada accompanies David to work every day; by twelve, she is a painfully shy prodigy. The lab begins to gain acclaim at the same time that David’s mysterious history comes into question. When his mind begins to falter, leaving Ada virtually an orphan, she is taken in by one of David’s colleagues. Soon she embarks on a mission to uncover her father’s secrets: a process that carries her from childhood to adulthood.

The heartbreaking tale of a girl losing her father to Alzheimers turns into an intriguing mystery as young Ada discovers secrets from her father’s past. Just when you think you know where it’s going, it surprises you.

#19. The Only Girl in the World by Maude Julien

Maude Julien’s childhood was defined by the iron grip of her father, who was convinced his daughter was destined for great deeds. His plan began when he adopted Maude’s mother and indoctrinated her with his esoteric ideals. Her mission was to give him a daughter as blonde as she was, and then to take charge of the child’s education. That child was Maude, on whom her father conducted his outrageous experiment—to raise the perfect ‘super-human’ being.

The three lived in an isolated mansion in northern France, where her father made her undergo endless horrifying endurance tests. Maude had to hold an electric fence without flinching. Her parents locked her in a cellar overnight and ordered her to sit still on a stool in the dark, contemplating death, while rats scurried around her feet.

How did this girl, with her loveless and lonely childhood, emerge so unscathed, so full of the empathy that was absent in her childhood? How did she manage to escape?

Maude was sustained by her love of nature and animals and her passion for literature. In writing this memoir, Maude Julien shows that it is possible to overcome severe trauma. She recounts her chilling and deeply moving story in a compelling and compassionate voice. 

Reminiscent of The Glass Castle, but bereft of its humor, this memoir is nevertheless a shocking and captivating read, detailing the author’s cloistered upbringing and a childhood replete with bizarre familial rituals. Much respect for Maude Julien who survived the experience and found the strength to reflect and write about it.

#18. The Fact of a Body: A Murder and a Memoir by Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich

Before Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich begins a summer job at a law firm in Louisiana, working to help defend men accused of murder, she thinks her position is clear. The child of two lawyers, she is staunchly anti-death penalty. But the moment convicted murderer Ricky Langley’s face flashes on the screen as she reviews old tapes―the moment she hears him speak of his crimes―she is overcome with the feeling of wanting him to die. Shocked by her reaction, she digs deeper and deeper into the case. Despite their vastly different circumstances, something in his story is unsettlingly, uncannily familiar.

Crime, even the darkest and most unsayable acts, can happen to any one of us. As Alexandria pores over the facts of the murder, she finds herself thrust into the complicated narrative of Ricky’s childhood. And by examining the details of Ricky’s case, she is forced to face her own story, to unearth long-buried family secrets, and reckon with a past that colors her view of Ricky’s crime.

But another surprise awaits: She wasn’t the only one who saw her life in Ricky’s.

An intellectual and emotional thriller that is also a different kind of murder mystery, The Fact Of a Body is a book not only about how the story of one crime was constructed―but about how we grapple with our own personal histories.

A raw and honest account of how one woman’s involvement in the legal defense of a convicted child-killer spurred her to lay bare her own painful past, and reconsider her support for capital punishment. A tough yet insightful read that, ultimately, lead me to reassess my stance on the subject – although, in the end, my opinion remains unchanged.

#17. You Were Never Really Here by Jonathan Ames

Joe has witnessed things that cannot be erased. A former FBI agent and Marine, his abusive childhood has left him damaged beyond repair. He has completely withdrawn from the world and earns his living rescuing girls who have been kidnapped into the sex trade.

When he’s hired to save the daughter of a corrupt New York senator held captive at a Manhattan brothel, he stumbles into a dangerous web of conspiracy, and he pays the price. As Joe’s small web of associates are picked off one by one, he realizes that he has no choice but to take the fight to the men who want him dead.

An economical and brutal read.

#16. American War by Omar El Akkad

Sarat Chestnut, born in Louisiana, is only six when the Second American Civil War breaks out in 2074. But even she knows that oil is outlawed, that Louisiana is half underwater, and that unmanned drones fill the sky. When her father is killed and her family is forced into Camp Patience for displaced persons, she begins to grow up shaped by her particular time and place. But not everyone at Camp Patience is who they claim to be. Eventually Sarat is befriended by a mysterious functionary, under whose influence she is turned into a deadly instrument of war. The decisions that she makes will have tremendous consequences not just for Sarat but for her family and her country, rippling through generations of strangers and kin alike.

#15. The Fall of Lisa Bellow by Susan Perabo

When a middle school girl is abducted in broad daylight, a fellow student and witness to the crime copes with the tragedy in an unforgettable way.

What happens to the girl left behind?

A masked man with a gun enters a sandwich shop in broad daylight, and Meredith Oliver suddenly finds herself ordered to the filthy floor, where she cowers face to face with her nemesis, Lisa Bellow, the most popular girl in her eighth grade class. The minutes tick inexorably by, and Meredith lurches between comforting the sobbing Lisa and imagining her own impending death. Then the man orders Lisa Bellow to stand and come with him, leaving Meredith the girl left behind.

After Lisa’s abduction, Meredith spends most days in her room. As the community stages vigils and searches, Claire, Meredith’s mother, is torn between relief that her daughter is alive, and helplessness over her inability to protect or even comfort her child. Her daughter is here, but not.

#14. Everything, Everything by Nicola Yoon

My disease is as rare as it is famous. Basically, I’m allergic to the world. I don’t leave my house, have not left my house in seventeen years. The only people I ever see are my mom and my nurse, Carla.

But then one day, a moving truck arrives next door. I look out my window, and I see him. He’s tall, lean and wearing all black—black T-shirt, black jeans, black sneakers, and a black knit cap that covers his hair completely. He catches me looking and stares at me. I stare right back. His name is Olly.

Maybe we can’t predict the future, but we can predict some things. For example, I am certainly going to fall in love with Olly. It’s almost certainly going to be a disaster. 

Don’t let the fact that it’s a YA novel dissuade you from picking up this incredible book about a sick girl whose life in isolation is transformed by her teeming interest in a new neighbor. And just when you think you’ve got it figured out, author Yoon thoroughly upends those quaint expectations in brilliant fashion.

#13. Good Me, Bad Me by Ali Land

Milly’s mother is a serial killer. Though Milly loves her mother, the only way to make her stop is to turn her in to the police. Milly is given a fresh start: a new identity, a home with an affluent foster family, and a spot at an exclusive private school. 

But Milly has secrets, and life at her new home becomes complicated. As her mother’s trial looms, with Milly as the star witness, Milly starts to wonder how much of her is nature, how much of her is nurture, and whether she is doomed to turn out like her mother after all. 

When tensions rise and Milly feels trapped by her shiny new life, she has to decide: Will she be good? Or is she bad? She is, after all, her mother’s daughter.

I started this book late one night, figuring I would read the first 50 pages before turning in. Two hours (and 338 pages) later, physically exhausted but mentally wired, I’d completed one of the best psychological thrillers in recent memory. 

#12. The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver

The Poisonwood Bible is a story told by the wife and four daughters of Nathan Price, a fierce, evangelical Baptist who takes his family and mission to the Belgian Congo in 1959. They carry with them everything they believe they will need from home, but soon find that all of it — from garden seeds to Scripture — is calamitously transformed on African soil. What follows is a suspenseful epic of one family’s tragic undoing and remarkable reconstruction over the course of three decades in postcolonial Africa. 

An emotionally exhausting but incredibly rewarding read about a missionary family’s experience in late 1950’s Congo.

#11. We Need to Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver

Eva never really wanted to be a mother – and certainly not the mother of the unlovable boy who murdered seven of his fellow high school students, a cafeteria worker, and a much-adored teacher who tried to befriend him, all two days before his sixteenth birthday. Now, two years later, it is time for her to come to terms with marriage, career, family, parenthood, and Kevin’s horrific rampage in a series of startlingly direct correspondences with her estranged husband, Franklin. Uneasy with the sacrifices and social demotion of motherhood from the start, Eva fears that her alarming dislike for her own son may be responsible for driving him so nihilistically off the rails.

#10. Kings of the Wyld by Nicholas Eames

Clay Cooper and his band were once the best of the best — the meanest, dirtiest, most feared crew of mercenaries this side of the Heartwyld. 

Their glory days long past, the mercs have grown apart and grown old, fat, drunk – or a combination of the three. Then an ex-bandmate turns up at Clay’s door with a plea for help. His daughter Rose is trapped in a city besieged by an enemy one hundred thousand strong and hungry for blood. Rescuing Rose is the kind of mission that only the very brave or the very stupid would sign up for.

It’s time to get the band back together for one last tour across the Wyld.

#9. Those Across the River by Christopher Buehlman

Failed academic Frank Nichols and his wife, Eudora, have arrived in the sleepy Georgia town of Whitbrow, where Frank hopes to write a history of his family’s old estate-the Savoyard Plantation- and the horrors that occurred there. At first, the quaint, rural ways of their new neighbors seem to be everything they wanted. But there is an unspoken dread that the townsfolk have lived with for generations. A presence that demands sacrifice.

It comes from the shadowy woods across the river, where the ruins of Savoyard still stand. Where a longstanding debt of blood has never been forgotten.

A debt that has been waiting patiently for Frank Nichols’s homecoming…

#8. House of M by Brian Michael Bendis and Olivier Coipel

The Marvel event of the decade is here! The Avengers and the X-Men are faced with a common foe that becomes their greatest threat: Wanda Maximoff! The Scarlet Witch is out of control, and the fate of the entire world is in her hands. Will Magneto help his daughter or use her powers to his own benefit? Starring the Astonishing X-Men and the New Avengers! You know how sometimes you hear the phrase: and nothing will ever be the same again? Well, this time believe it, buster! Nothing will ever be the same again! 

#7. Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption by Bryan Stevenson

Bryan Stevenson was a young lawyer when he founded the Equal Justice Initiative, a legal practice dedicated to defending those most desperate and in need: the poor, the wrongly condemned, and women and children trapped in the farthest reaches of our criminal justice system. One of his first cases was that of Walter McMillian, a young man who was sentenced to die for a notorious murder he insisted he didn’t commit. The case drew Bryan into a tangle of conspiracy, political machination, and legal brinksmanship—and transformed his understanding of mercy and justice forever.

Just Mercy is at once an unforgettable account of an idealistic, gifted young lawyer’s coming of age, a moving window into the lives of those he has defended, and an inspiring argument for compassion in the pursuit of true justice.

Similar to Alexandria Marzano-Lesenevich’s “The Facts of a Body” in that both are non-fiction accounts of a young lawyer’s attempt to save a convicted murderer from death row. Still, as much as I enjoyed Marzano-Lesenevich’s book, it didn’t cause me to reconsider my long-held stance on capital punishment. This book did and, for that, it earns 5 stars. 

The statistics and true stories that pepper Just Mercy are as staggering as they are outrageous in their indictment of a justice system stacked against the poor and people of color, where abuse of power is often ignored, even accepted, and authority figures can, literally, get away with murder. 

#6. Children of Time by Adrian Tchaikovsky

A race for survival among the stars… Humanity’s last survivors escaped earth’s ruins to find a new home. But when they find it, can their desperation overcome its dangers?

WHO WILL INHERIT THIS NEW EARTH?

The last remnants of the human race left a dying Earth, desperate to find a new home among the stars. Following in the footsteps of their ancestors, they discover the greatest treasure of the past age – a world terraformed and prepared for human life.

But all is not right in this new Eden. In the long years since the planet was abandoned, the work of its architects has borne disastrous fruit. The planet is not waiting for them, pristine and unoccupied. New masters have turned it from a refuge into mankind’s worst nightmare.

Now two civilizations are on a collision course, both testing the boundaries of what they will do to survive. As the fate of humanity hangs in the balance, who are the true heirs of this new Earth? 

#5. Black Chalk by Christopher J. Yates

It was only ever meant to be a game played by six best friends in their first year at Oxford University; a game of consequences, silly forfeits, and childish dares. But then the game changed: The stakes grew higher and the dares more personal and more humiliating, finally evolving into a vicious struggle with unpredictable and tragic results. Now, fourteen years later, the remaining players must meet again for the final round. Who knows better than your best friends what would break you?

#4. The Long and Faraway Gone by Lou Berney

In the summer of 1986, two tragedies rocked Oklahoma City. Six movie-theater employees were killed in an armed robbery, while one inexplicably survived. Then, a teenage girl vanished from the annual State Fair. Neither crime was ever solved.

Twenty-five years later, the reverberations of those unsolved cases quietly echo through survivors’ lives. A private investigator in Vegas, Wyatt’s latest inquiry takes him back to a past he’s tried to escape—and drags him deeper into the harrowing mystery of the movie house robbery that left six of his friends dead. 

Like Wyatt, Julianna struggles with the past—with the day her beautiful older sister Genevieve disappeared. When Julianna discovers that one of the original suspects has resurfaced, she’ll stop at nothing to find answers.

As fate brings these damaged souls together, their obsessive quests spark sexual currents neither can resist. But will their shared passion and obsession heal them, or push them closer to the edge? Even if they find the truth, will it help them understand what happened, that long and faraway gone summer? Will it set them free—or ultimately destroy them?

#3. Penpal by Dathan Auerbach

How much do you remember about your childhood?

In Penpal, a man investigates the seemingly unrelated bizarre, tragic, and horrific occurrences of his childhood in an attempt to finally understand them. Beginning with only fragments of his earliest years, you’ll follow the narrator as he discovers that these strange and horrible events are actually part of a single terrifying story that has shaped the entirety of his life and the lives of those around him. If you’ve ever stayed in the woods just a little too long after dark, if you’ve ever had the feeling that someone or something was trying to hurt you, if you remember the first friend you ever made and how strong that bond was, then Penpal is a story that you won’t soon forget, despite how you might try.

It offers, not the visceral horror of most contemporary works in the genre, but a masterful, steadily mounting sense of apprehension and dread. 

In retrospect, a few narrative bumps, but this book was so unnervingly effective, I have to give it a rare 5 stars.

#2. You by Caroline Kepnes

When a beautiful, aspiring writer strides into the East Village bookstore where Joe Goldberg works, he does what anyone would do: he Googles the name on her credit card.

There is only one Guinevere Beck in New York City. She has a public Facebook account and Tweets incessantly, telling Joe everything he needs to know: she is simply Beck to her friends, she went to Brown University, she lives on Bank Street, and she’ll be at a bar in Brooklyn tonight—the perfect place for a “chance” meeting.

As Joe invisibly and obsessively takes control of Beck’s life, he orchestrates a series of events to ensure Beck finds herself in his waiting arms. Moving from stalker to boyfriend, Joe transforms himself into Beck’s perfect man, all while quietly removing the obstacles that stand in their way—even if it means murder.

Hoowee! One of the most intense reads in recent memory. Our charming protagonist is an unhinged stalker, but it’s the calculated way he operates that makes him both utterly terrifying and incredibly fascinating. This one will keep you up nights – while you’re reading and long after.

#1. How to Behave in a Crowd by Camille Bordas

Isidore Mazal is eleven years old, the youngest of six siblings living in a small French town. He doesn’t quite fit in. Berenice, Aurore, and Leonard are on track to have doctorates by age twenty-four. Jeremie performs with a symphony, and Simone, older than Isidore by eighteen months, expects a great career as a novelist. She’s already put Isidore to work on her biography. The only time they leave their rooms is to gather on the old, stained couch and dissect prime-time television dramas in light of Aristotle’s Poetics.

Isidore has never skipped a grade or written a dissertation, but he notices things the others don’t and asks questions they fear to ask. So when tragedy strikes the Mazal family, Isidore is the only one to recognize how everyone is struggling with their grief and perhaps the only one who can help them–if he doesn’t run away from home first.

This book ranks right up there with some of my all-time favorites and definitely makes my Desert Island Reads shortlist.

Read any of the aforementioned?  What did you think?  Agree?  Disagree?  Weigh in with your thoughts!

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David Ryan
David Ryan

I read ‘Children of Time’ and it changed how I looked at spiders. I actually gained some appreciation for them

Kent Donnelly
Kent Donnelly

Have you ever read James Hogan’s “Inherit The Stars” series? These really drove my love for good science fiction.

gforce

I really like the sounds of a number of those, especially “Good Me, Bad Me”. I wish I didn’t have so many books already in my “to read” pile! smile

I think I mentioned to you that I had read “Penpal”, and I completely agree to how disquieting it is. I think it’s one of the few books I’ve read in recent memory that actually would keep me awake at night thinking about what was going on after I would put it down. Very creepy, but not in an outright horror sort of way.

Currently, I’m reading Scalzi’s follow up to “Old Man’s War”, “The Ghost Brigades”.

TheOtherOne
TheOtherOne

I am amazed at the number of books you read, Joe! Puts me to very deep shame…

I’ve read ONE book this year (published 2006) but it’s made a deep impression on me. It’s not a fictional storybook so probably doesn’t count here but if you thought Avatar was all science fiction then you should read ‘The Hidden Life of Trees’ by Peter Wohlleben. I’ve recommended it to several people and they’ve felt the same after reading it…

I may seek out your ‘Children of Time’ though, especially after reading David Ryan’s comment… 😉

shinyhula

Yeah, these books all sound pretty creepy! I did enjoy the movie version of Everything Everything, now I’ll need to go watch You Were Never Really Here, the trailer looks compelling. Lately I’ve lost my ability to withstand suspense; I tend to put down the tablet and take a break when stuff gets too intense. I had a hard time getting through this season of Travelers; no one was safe this season. Plus I felt they were mocking the Trevor/Grace ship; all that preamble but no actually snogging?! Brad Wright is getting a lump of coal from Romance Santa.

mlrts

Very cool, thanks for the summaries and recommendations!

Tim G
Tim G

Joe,
You probably know this, but the book “You” was made into a TV series. It was on this past season on Lifetime Network, and next season will move to Netflix. Don’t know if you would want to watch it or not.

Lauren
Lauren

Just Mercy was the Go Big Read book at UW Madison a couple years ago (where I go to college). Go Big Read is where I think the chancellor of the university picks some important book that everyone should read, and the freshmen are all given a copy. I unfortunately lost my copy before I got around to reading it. I’ll have to read it at some point.

Ponytail
Ponytail

The majority of these sound really good. Thanks for doing all the leg work and reading them for us, giving your summary and best picks.

Anna707
Anna707

Hi Joe – long time reader of your blog but not usually a commenter. I read “The Unseen World” about a year ago and liked it very much – I thought it was moving and beautifully written. Spotted Adrian Tchaikovsky on the shelves of the library where I work just this morning and didn’t pick it up, but on the strength of your review will now do so. Thanks for the recommendations.

Tammy Dixon
Tammy Dixon

Woot! I’ll definitely find a few good reads for me in this list. Thanks! I haven’t read or heard about any of them.

Kat Karena

So I printed off your list and took it to Dymocks and Kinokuniya the two biggest book stores in Sydney CBD. I was shopping for books for my friend Ana. My friend Ana is a book addict, so much so that her children growing up were allocated hours to watch on tv dependent only on how many books they read a week.

The only book out of your list of 20 either store had was “You” by Caroline Kepnes. I was put off a bit because it looks like they’re making a Netflix out of it. I hope it’s a good book but I don’t always want a good book to be made into a film, it takes away the intimacy I feel when I fall into a story late at night.

So I ended up getting a whole lot of other stuff. One of them caught my eye was “Grief is a the thing with feathers’. by Max Porter. It caught me right away it’s strange – like Stranger Things strange, yet insightful, emotional without any maudlin or indulgent feel. But it’s still gut smacking. It’s very good.

My pen friend in California died February this year. I still cry. That’s why the title caught my attention.
She was some 20 years older, I’d been writing to her since 1995. The words of Somerset Maugham describes her well:

“It may be that (s)he never will be famous. It may be that when her life at last comes to an end she will leave no more trace of her sojourn on earth than a stone thrown into a river leaves on the surface of the water. But it may be that the way of life that she has chosen for herself and the peculiar strength and sweetness of her character may have an ever-growing influence over his fellow men so that, long after her death perhaps, it may be realized that there lived in this age a very remarkable creature.”

There’s something about writing letters to each other, still time at night when your thoughts are free and and a friend an ocean of distance away from you, contrariwise makes it safer to be close.

I wrote a song I recorded for her, one verse was:

“Sometimes, I admit I wonder at the words upon the screen
How just mere words can bind us, with faces still unseen
But few we trust to share with, those words we will not say
So quiet in the night we write and give our hearts away.”

No luck with finding all those books, but Max Porter’s book was an understanding. I recommend it.

David Issel

Based on your recommendation, I picked up a copy of CHILDREN OF TIME by Adrian Tchaikovsky…

You really should have warned us about the spiders…