Erin Larson: Book Reviews & Essays

The Best Books I Read in 2018

I won’t bother you with a lengthy preamble, but I would like to clarify one thing before I begin: this is a list of the best books I read in 2018, not a list of the best books published in 2018 that I read. I tend to stay away from new releases because they oh-so-rarely live up to the hype (although a few exceptions do appear in this list). I also did not include certain titles from currently-unfinished series, either by the author or myself, as I much prefer reflecting on completed works (although you will find an exception to that imposition in this list, too). Enjoy!

 

Top Ten Books (organized alphabetically): 

 

Blood Meridian or The Evening Redness in the West – Cormac McCarthy

I would have read Cormac McCarthy’s Western classic years ago if I had known how deeply indebted it was to my all-time favorite English text, Paradise Lost. Allusions abound to Milton’s masterpiece, perhaps most prominently a scene in which Judge Holden, like Satan, creates gunpowder. Blood Meridian draws also from Moby-Dick and other great works of literature, but it never feels beholden (pun intended) to them, creating instead a text which is audacious and challenging in its own right, culminating in one of American literature’s most chilling endings.

 

The Electric State – Simon Stålenhag

Although Simon Stålenhag’s alternate history sci-fi tale (it takes place in 1997, although it may as well be the near-future) features prose, which is plain but crisp and clean, the heart of this moody dystopia lies in his breathtaking artwork—it skews closer to hyperreal than photoreal, although its evocation of oil painting is unmistakable (Stålenhag does his work digitally). He depicts a world consumed by consumerism, a world in which leering advertisements loom so large that they scar the sky and people have wasted away while in the thrall of VR, the helmets bound to their skulls like ghastly protrusions even after death. Through this world journey a girl and her robot on a quest whose importance only becomes clear as it comes to its conclusion.

 

The Forever War – Joe Haldeman

The Forever War never quite captured the cultural zeitgeist the way other sci-fi classics such as Starship Troopers or 2001: A Space Odyssey did (the lack of a film adaptation probably didn’t help), but it holds its own against the other greats of the genre. The story is straightforward: a young man named William Mandella is recruited into a war against an alien species, but getting to the interstellar battlefields requires travel at near-lightspeed. (You can probably guess where this is going.) So even though Mandella is only involved in the war for a few years, decades—and eventually centuries—pass between each of his visits to Earth, and cultural norms shift accordingly. The Forever War captures the unique horror of returning to a home you no longer recognize, of finding yourself left behind politically, economically, technologically, and, perhaps worst of all, socially. This is a mournful, melancholy masterpiece of classic science fiction.

 

Grendel – John Gardner

It is always with great trepidation that I approach classic stories re-told from new perspectives; I’ve found that they rarely contribute anything meaningful to the conversation surrounding the original work, nor are they enjoyable to read in their own right. Grendel is the exception. Gardner shades the Beowulf story with unexpected depth and pathos, to be sure, but he also uses its framework as an opportunity to explore the existentialist philosophy of the 20th century in unorthodox fashion. Grendel is as vivid and vital as the text from which it was derived.

 

Invisible Cities – Italo Calvino

I didn’t love Calvino’s classic If on a winter’s night a traveler…, so I was surprised to find that Invisible Cities—arguably an even more challenging, experimental work—completely captured me. Beyond a flimsy frame story, there’s virtually no plot to speak of: Invisible Cities is comprised primarily of fifty-five descriptions, each no more than a page or two, of fantastical cities. Each is a work of boundless imagination (as a writer, this is a book I want always by my side on the off chance that I will absorb even a tenth of its creativity through the osmosis of proximity), but they elucidate aspects of human nature in ways that no novel ever could.

 

Labyrinths – Jorge Luis Borges

Labyrinths is the Inception of short story collections: Jorge Luis Borges bends and warps and twists your mind in ways you never thought literature could do, often in fewer than ten pages. These stories resemble philosophical thought exercises more than narratives. Imagine, for example, an author writing Don Quixote in the 20th century. Not a single letter is different from Cervantes’ masterpiece as it exists to us. Would it be the same book? Would it generate identical responses from critics? Of course not. Because art is inextricable from the context in which it arises; if the context changes, the art changes. Or what about Jesus—why does the Son of God not play the Judas role in the story? Wouldn’t it be a greater sacrifice to go down in history as the most infamous, most hated betrayer of all time, than to be resurrected? Borges’ brain teasers are like the literary equivalent of an intense workout, and they are just as rewarding (if not more so!)

 

Obama: An Intimate Portrait – Pete Souza

Obama’s official photographer creates a visual chronicle of 44’s presidency in Obama: An Intimate Portrait, a lavish book featuring images that not only showcase the talent of Souza himself, but capture the places and people encountered by a world leader going about their daily business. More so than any textual account has or probably ever could, Souza’s photography helped me gain a sense of what holding such a high office would entail both personally and professionally. But perhaps most importantly, Obama: An Intimate Portrait is a celebration of its subjects. It is difficult not to be charmed by the playful normalcy of both the Obama family and the White House staff, which reminds us that, surprising as it may be, politicians are also people.

 

The Silmarillion – J.R.R. Tolkien (edited by Christopher Tolkien)

The Silmarillion has, to put it mildly, a reputation. “It’s like reading the Bible,” people say, and they’re referring to the parts of the Bible where name after name after name is listed. It’s true—there are a lot of names in The Silmarillion, and its archaic syntax and mythic tone can be off-putting. But in no other work does Tolkien display such an exemplary command of story, character, or language, and it crackles with so much energy that its most iconic moments become seared onto your soul: who could forget Morgoth’s confrontation with Ungoliant after fleeing Valinor, Turin gazing into the eyes of Glaurung, or Ancalagon the Black crashing down on the peaks of Thangorodrim? Who could forget Fëanor, Fingolfin, Luthien, or Eärendil? I doubt any book will ever unseat Paradise Lost as my all-time favorite, but The Silmarillion—which has much in common with Milton’s masterpiece—came frightfully close. It is one of the finest achievements in English literature, a work which towers over The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings and cements Tolkien in his rightful place as a defining writer of the 20th century.

 

The Stormlight Archive (The Way of Kings, Words of Radiance, Oathbringer) – Brandon Sanderson

There are so many things that annoy me or don’t appeal to me about Sanderson’s work: his plain prose, his preference for high fantasy rather than low, and the tendency of his female characters to blush at least once per page, just to name a few. But The Stormlight Archive (of which three of its ten planned books have been released) is a work of such breadth and such depth that it’s hard not to fall in love. One of my favorite aspects of the series, at least in the first two novels—an aspect which I haven’t heard anyone talk about—is its geographical intimacy, which, in the realm of epic fantasy, feels subversive. And that’s to say nothing of Stormlight’s thematic concerns, which skew towards the progressive nature of science fiction rather than regressive obsessions of traditional fantasy, lending it a vibrancy and kinetic energy that is so often lacking in the genre. I can’t wait for the next book (and the next, and the next, and the next…).

 

The World of Ice and Fire – George R.R. Martin (in collaboration with Elio Garcia and Linda Antonsson)

Books like The World of Ice and Fire are blatant cash grabs more often than not, but this companion to Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire is as textually rich as the series from which it is derived (and visually even more so, as the evocative artwork alone justifies its existence). The history of the Targaryen dynasty—some of which has now been published in Fire & Blood—is riveting, the history of the Seven Kingdoms themselves enlightening, and the history of Essos tantalizing in its brevity. The text is also framed as an in-world document written for King Tommen Baratheon (his recently-deceased predecessors, Robert Baratheon and Joffrey Baratheon, have been awkwardly stricken from the document—a delightful detail!), which highlights the malleable relationship between history and storytelling as the political bent of the book skews in favor of Tommen’s immediate family. The World of Ice and Fire provides you with the tools to piece together much (but not all!) of Martin’s mythology, creating a tapestry of diverse cultures which will enrich your understanding of Westeros and the lands far, far beyond.

 

Honorable mentions (organized alphabetically):

 

Amadeus – Peter Shaffer

Although it lacks the subtlety of its film adaptation (particularly in the climatic confrontation between Mozart and Salieri), Amadeus remains a riveting portrait of our obsession with genius.

 

Between the World and Me – Ta-Nehisi Coates

When it comes to the experience of being black in America, there is perhaps no more essential text right now than Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me. This is required reading.

 

Brief Answers to the Big Questions – Stephen Hawking

Not only is Hawking’s Brief Answers to the Big Questions intellectually stimulating, but it showcases his exceptionally lucid language and infectious wit (qualities which were desperately missing from a similar book, Neil deGrasse Tyson’s Astrophysics for People in a Hurry).

 

The Chronicles of the Unhewn Throne (The Emperor’s Blades, Providence of Fire, The Last Mortal Bond) – Brian Staveley

Traditional fantasy this may be, but Staveley’s tale of three royal siblings handling and mishandling their empire after their father is assassinated is a rip-roaring adventure.

 

A Day in the Life of Marlon Bundo – Jill Twiss

Trust me, just read this one.

 

Equus – Peter Shaffer

Amadeus will always be closer to my heart, but Equus is undoubtedly a greater triumph on the page: this tale of shame and sexuality, of what you see and what you imagine, is unforgettable.

 

The Epic of Gilgamesh – Anonymous

Widely considered to be the first great work of literature, The Epic of Gilgamesh is a story not only chock-full of adrenaline-pumping action, but a deeply thoughtful meditation on mortality.

 

Goodnight Moon – Margaret Wise Brown

No, I’m serious. This bedtime book for children is a Lynchian nightmare. The picture on the wall depicting a rabbit using a carrot to fish for another rabbit. The old lady whispering “hush” (who is she?). And the most bone-chilling page in all of English literature, those two black words etched upon a blank white background: “Goodnight nobody.” Lovecraft has nothing on this.

 

The Hate U Give – Angie Thomas

A resonant, landmark work of young adult literature (not since The Fault in Our Stars has there been an entry this pivotal in the demographic), The Hate U Give encapsulates America and refracts it with a clarity that only fiction can provide. This is a good book and an important one.

 

If You Give a… series (If You Give a Mouse a Cookie, etc.) – Laura Numeroff

This playful series of picture books is obviously delightful, but they are also fiendishly clever in their ability to teach kids empathy by showcasing cause and effect and by placing children in the shoes of their parents, guardians, or caretakers. Even better, some entries in the series feature unobtrusive genderbending. What’s not to love? (And Felicia Bond’s art, of course, is perfect.)

 

Infinity Gauntlet/Infinity War/Infinity Crusade – Jim Starlin

Starlin’s three iconic comic sequences from the early 90s (the first of which, Infinity Gauntlet, served as the inspiration for the 2018 blockbuster Infinity War) are compelling stories full of twists and turns, but Gauntlet and Crusade feel especially timely in their respective portrayals of the destructive power of masculine insecurity and a blinding inability to see shades of grey.

 

Insignificant Events in the Life of a Cactus – Dusti Bowling

Finally! Here is a middle grade book which not only features a disabled character, but does something far more important—relentlessly subverts the tropes of disability in fiction on almost every page. Additional thoughts here: https://www.decorah.lib.ia.us/erin-larson-book-reviews-essays/2018/childrens-and-young-adult-literature-in-2017-pt-2-three-mini-reviews

 

Jagannath – Karin Tidbeck

An eclectic, eccentric collection of Scandinavian-flavored short stories which will make your brain tingle. Tidbeck surprises and delights over and over again, and I want more!

 

A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms – George R.R. Martin

The three previously-published novellas collected in A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms are serviceable stories, but they shine in their worldbuilding: they take place in the aftermath of a civil war—much like America, the war ended…but it didn’t really end—and every encounter simmers with the tension of unknown political ideologies and unresolved violence.

 

A Little History of Philosophy – Nigel Warburton

A Little History of Philosophy should have been called A Beginner’s History of Western Philosophy, because you won’t get much out of it if you have an even passing familiarity with the most famous Western philosophers (Eastern philosophy is ignored altogether). But if you’re dabbling in philosophy for the first time, there are few better places to start than here.

 

Moby-Dick; or, The Whale – Herman Melville

Yes, Moby-Dick is a bloated novel suffocated by relentless descriptions of ships and whales. But it is also exuberant with a playful, violent, desperate energy, and it’s shockingly funny. The first and final thirds of the book are as good as anything in the history of American literature.

 

No Time to Spare: Thinking About What Matters – Ursula K. Le Guin

Le Guin’s wry wit and wisdom is on full display here in this delightful collection of essays, all of which were written in the final few years before her death in early 2018. This book is a treasure.

 

The Shadow Campaigns (The Thousand Names, The Shadow Throne, The Price of Valor, The Guns of Empire, The Infernal Battalion) – Django Wexler

Django Wexler’s fast-paced flintlock fantasy features multiple female and queer POV characters, which (sadly) makes it feel ten years ahead of its time. The Shadow Campaigns doesn’t quite stick the landing, but the ride is more fun than most of the dour dirges that plague the genre.

 

Slaughterhouse-Five, or The Children’s Crusade – Kurt Vonnegut

What do I really need to say here? Slaughterhouse-Five is a classic, and deservedly so.

 

Tales From the Perilous Realm – J.R.R. Tolkien

Freed (mostly) from the bounds of Middle-earth in this collection of short fiction, Tales From the Perilous Realm showcases Tolkien’s talent for constructing tales which will astonish and delight adults as well as children. These stories have been unfairly overshadowed by The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, and it would be a shame not to bring them out into the light.

 

They Both Die at the End – Adam Silvera

They Both Die at the End proves that it’s not the end of the story that matters—it’s how you get there. Additional thoughts here: https://www.decorah.lib.ia.us/erin-larson-book-reviews-essays/2018/childrens-and-young-adult-literature-in-2017-pt-1-three-mini-reviews

 

The Twenty Days of Turin – Giorgio De Maria

An Italian cult classic in the vein of Lovecraft, The Twenty Days of Turin is a weighty political allegory (although it’s not as reductive as that description implies) which will haunt me for years.

 

Warbreaker – Brandon Sanderson

Featuring two distinct and dynamic female POV characters and Sanderson’s now-famous clockwork-precise storytelling, Warbreaker is a satisfying novel which stands on its own.

 

We Are Okay – Nina LaCour

We Are Okay is the literary equivalent of wrapping yourself in a blanket with a cup of cocoa on a snowy winter night. Additional thoughts here: https://www.decorah.lib.ia.us/erin-larson-book-reviews-essays/2018/childrens-and-young-adult-literature-in-2017-pt-2-three-mini-reviews

 

Where the Sidewalk Ends – Shel Silverstein

This is one of those books I avoided as a child because people wouldn’t stop recommending it. Strangely, I’m glad I did; as with The Giving Tree, I don’t believe I would have fully appreciated Silverstein’s ceaseless creativity or ability to inhabit literature’s liminal spaces as a youngin’.

 

An outlier worth mentioning:

 

Remnants – K.A. Applegate

I approached Remnants with some hesitation. Written (at least partially; Applegate does rely on ghostwriters) by the author of Animorphs and at the same time as her masterpiece, fans seemed to agree that it was a lesser series and that it flubbed the ending. They’re correct: Remnants concludes on an abrupt, awkward note which fails to resonate with its key themes. And yet. And yet. The first thirteen of Remnants’ fourteen books (and especially the first nine) are as challenging and thrilling as anything I’ve ever read. Following a group of survivors who leave Earth shortly before a massive asteroid collides with the planet, the series flits between subsets of science fiction, from disaster drama to Cronenberg-esque body horror to postapocalyptic to…not cyberpunk, but something that shares much of its DNA (Remnants was released between 2001 and 2003, and you can tell; the influence of The Matrix is evident on virtually every page). It is also, arguably, even more disturbing than AnimorphsTV Tropes audaciously, and accurately, calls it “one of the darkest things ever written.” This is a series marketed to children ages eight to twelve, and it features vivid descriptions of (including but not limited to) characters being impaled, mummified, dismembered, shredded, drowned, flayed, depacitated, stabbed, incinerated, eaten by parasitic worms, eaten by a malevolent cannibalistic baby, and eaten by mutant cockroaches. And that’s to say nothing of the psychological torment they endure, such as being awake and paralyzed for five hundred years or trapped in a lifelike simulation of the demented third panel of Hieronymus Bosch’s The Garden of Earthly Delights. As in Animorphs, though, Applegate uses these horrifying scenarios to unpack deep themes. Remnants is largely refracted through the prisms of community and isolation, particularly the ways in which we bond with those like ourselves and demonize those who are different (one eerily-prescient entry in the series features the human characters building a literal wall to cut themselves off from literal aliens). This dichotomy is brought to the forefront by the diverse cast of characters, many of whom are POC or disabled and intensely aware of how those qualities characterize their relationships. Racial, sexual, political, and socio-economic discontent also simmer beneath the surface of the series, shading Remnants with subtle resonances which would impress me even in adult fiction. And yet. And yet. I can’t in good conscious say that it was one of the best things I read in 2018 because the ending simply does not satisfy the requirements of strong storytelling. That said: you should still read it.

 

By Erin Larson

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