Favorite Books of 2018
As I sit here writing this, I am staring at a stack of three books: “American by Day,” by Derek B. Miller; “November Road,” by Lou Berney; and “The Feral Detective,” by Jonathan Lethem. I have not read them yet. Despite lacking these potential contenders for stars in 2018, MBTB's “best of” list contains a whopping 18 TITLES. I mean to get to these three books, so don't be surprised by an addendum in the near future. — Barbara
In the meantime, here's the whole enchilada to date:
Give Me Your Hand — Megan Abbott
I found this word in “Give Me Your Hand,” and it perfectly describes Megan Abbott’s newest book: ferocious. Megan Abbott can plumb the depths of darkness almost better than any current writer. She shades the darkness, where others merely paint it black. Her horror grows from an intensity that builds slowly. At the end, the other shoe drops as though there were a bomb inside. Two teenage friends become something other than friends as adults. But what are they to each other?
Green Sun — Kent Anderson
The combination of metaphor, poetry, grittiness, and exposition of human foible and grace in “Green Sun” are hard to beat. (Plus, I don't often come across a crime novel that pays homage to the “rosy-fingered dawn” of “The Iliad.”) Hanson, star of other Anderson books, is now a cop in Oakland in the early 1980s. He is the master of disarming ignitable situations by himself. He quiets drunk bar customers and a crowd of screaming people with equal finesse. The dark can illuminate, if you are Kent Anderson.
Transcription — Kate Atkinson
Innocent, acerbic, 18-year-old Juliet Armstrong enters WWII with unformed ideals and gets caught up in a side eddy formed by the maelstrom that engulfs the UK. Atkinson’s dry humor, sly characterizations, and quirky storylines are worth every penny.
Snap — Belinda Bauer
Belinda Bauer could teach a master class in how to plot the unexpected. She takes every cliché and trope and trashes them. You think you know where Bauer is going because you’ve read sooo many crime stories, but you really don’t. You shake your head at what seems to be an obvious mistake or easy way out that Bauer has taken, and it turns out you are the one who deserves the head shake. The ace thief, nicknamed “Goldilocks” in Tiverton, England, is a 14-year-old boy who confounds the police.
My Sister, the Serial Killer — Oyinkan Braithwaite
Set in contemporary Lagos, Nigeria, Oyinkan Braithwaite’s debut novel, “My Sister, the Serial Killer,” slams its way through to the end. Bam, bam, bam! There was great writing, careful construction, and a totally unexpected ending. And, in fact, Korede’s sister, Ayoola, is a serial killer.
Red White Blue — Lea Carpenter
Two stories are braided together in this poetic and beguiling spy/father-daughter novel. Anna discovers her father was a spy. Her desire to learn more about him leads to her own self-evaluation. Although the spy bits had substance, they weren’t overly meaty, and that’s good. Anna was Phi Beta Kappa, worked for the prestigious Ford Foundation, and had a mission and an independent life before marrying Jake. What is she now if she is not Mrs. Jake? The novel is also about Anna, and that’s good, too.
The Truth As Told by Mason Buttle — Leslie Connor
Recommended for 8-12-year-olds, grades 3-7
Mason Buttle is a good, good boy. Moonie Drinker is a good, good dog. They make “The Truth as Told by Mason Buttle” shine like the sun. In the world created by author Leslie Connor, Mason is the tallest, sweatiest kid in the seventh grade in what was once a rural community that is now being overtaken by housing developments. He has dyslexia, synesthesia, and a sweet innocence. All of these personal characteristics have doomed Mason to a sad, shy life. The police keep coming back to ask Mason about the death of another young boy. What does Mason know?
The Woman in the Window — A. J. Finn
“The Woman in the Window” has a strong first-person voice; a set-up influenced by “Rear Window,” the fabulous book by Cornell Woolrich and movie by Alfred Hitchcock; and a cry-worthy reveal about two-thirds of the way in. For a debut novel, there was nary a stumble. Anna Fox, the woman watching out of her window, is fairly sharp and witty, despite her perpetual chemical fog. (What is her story anyway?)
The Witch Elm — Tana French
Tana French is Irish. She embraces her country’s mythos and quirks and produces book after book of brutal human nature combined with a touch of the fey. In “The Witch Elm,” childhood friends, now grown, must come together to solve one last mystery: Whose skeleton was tossed into the old wych elm?
Force of Nature — Jane Harper
Let us return to now not-so-dry Australia, first visited in “The Dry,” with Federal Agent Aaron Falk. This time a woman who was spying on her employer for the police has disappeared. “Force of Nature” delivers a wonderful story, with flawed and human characters, especially that of Falk, who is still trying to heal from the events of “The Dry.” On its own merits this book is strong and vibrant. The rains that spit, fall, and gust throughout the book play a malevolent background music.
City of Ink — Elsa Hart
Really, this star is for the whole series so far (three books), because I only discovered it this year. 18th-century Chinese detective Li Du is the Sherlock Holmes of China. With an eccentric group of associates, he deciphers the indecipherable.
The Dime — Kathleen Kent
Okay, okay. This was published in 2017, but I didn’t review it until the beginning of 2018. It’s my list; I’m including it. One of the delights of “The Dime” is learning the derivation of the title. Betty Rhyzyk used to be a cop in Brooklyn. Now she tracks down bad guys in Dallas, Texas. She was tough in Brooklyn. She is tough in Dallas. Kent charges through her story with fast-paced action and solid characterizations. From the dead uncle whose advice Betty still channels to the grumpy colleague who constantly busts her chops, Kent makes the surrounding personnel three-dimensional with just a few strokes.
Who Is Vera Kelly? — Rosalie Knecht
Toggling between stories set in the late 50s and 1966, “Who Is Vera Kelly?” does not display a distracting and dizzying juggle. Rather, the earlier story lends direct coherence to the 1966 story. So refreshing. In 1966, Vera is a spy for the CIA in Argentina. She is smart, wily, and intrepid, but not foolhardy.
The Mars Room — Rachel Kushner
Romy Leslie Hall occupies the “lower bunk in room fourteen of unit 510 of C yard.” Her life is circumscribed by the prison’s boundaries in Stanville, California. She is in prison for murder, with a lifetime to repent and no hope for redemption. Author Rachel Kushner describes the small lives of Hall and her fellow prisoners and their desire to make it somehow more meaningful or joyful. (Although revenge sustains some of them just fine.)
The Widows of Malabar Hill — Sujata Massey
Keeping to her mission to introduce us to other cultures, Sujata Massey presents her latest book, “The Widows of Malabar Hill.” It’s set mostly in 1921 Bombay, India. Perveen Mistry has had a long and rocky road to becoming the first female solicitor in Bombay. Perveen’s past story is heartbreaking and her present story is a triumph of stubbornness.
The Other Side of Everything — Lauren Doyle Owens
This is an elegant debut novel. Unlike some of the more “literary” novels I’ve read lately, crime is at the heart of this book. Who is killing retirees in a southern Florida community? An odd combination of neighbors are the primary characters. At the point when Owens resolves the murders, so much has broken free in these characters’ lives. That is the strength of her story.
The Chalk Man — C. J. Tudor
“The Chalk Man” is an impressive debut by British author C. J. Tudor. She takes well-used suspense tropes and twists them around. The result is a surprising story. Reminiscent of the group in Stephen King’s “Stand By Me,” the 12-year-old kids in “The Chalk Man” range through deep and dark woods, bicycle to each other’s homes, and work out a secret code to communicate. Several tragedies, including finding a dead body in the woods (you knew that would happen), hit them and their town. Then they grow up and the childhood story finds another chapter.
White River Burning — John Verdon
The fictional town of White River is set in upstate New York, and it is burning because of race riots. The situation may become even more combustible if the murders of two police officers and two African-Americans are not solved. Call in Dave Gurney because he’s, you know, Dave Gurney. This is the sixth book in Verdon’s series, and it’s a winner.