I can't make you a list of Best Books that have been published in 2018 because I haven't read all of the books published in 2018. What I can do is reflect on the books I have read this year and let you know which of them has stayed with me — which books I'm still, weeks or months later, thinking about. To me, a book's longevity is its most important quality. I can read the most beautiful sentence in the world, but if that sentence doesn't set some chain reaction off in my mind, it's basically worthless. This week, I'm going to examine the books that really made a mark on me in one way or another — the books that changed me, the books that still live with me, the books that affect the way that I interact with the world. Perhaps you disagree, or perhaps you think some other book is way better than my selection. That's fine; send me an email or tweet at me and we can talk.
My poor, battered attention span! Just like last year and the year before, it's been a tough year for me and fiction. with the world continually erupting into the kind of geopolitical chaos that Tom Clancy couldn't imagine on his worst day, it takes a lot of effort to focus on a novel for any length of time.
So the novels on this list are noteworthy not just because they're great books that moved me intellectually and emotionally — though that is also true — but also because I finished reading them in the first place. In this second year of Donald Trump's presidency, that's an achievement of its own.
Three novels by local authors — about as different from each other as can be — haunted me throughout the year:
The Lost Girls of Camp Forevermore by Kim Fu, which transfixed me with its examination of how the past connects with (and transforms) the present. Everyone I've recommended Lost Girls to has been hypnotized by the book — it marks Fu as an author whose new work is deserving of your immediate attention.
Lawn Boy by Jonathan Evison is a hand grenade of a book — a salvo in the class war. Set on Bainbridge Island, where the haves hire the have-nots to manicure their stately lawns, Lawn Boy is a novel and an economic treatise and a bracing reminder that sometimes literary fiction is way too elitist for its own goddamn good.
Sketchtasy by Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore challenged me to consider a whole beautiful universe that existed in the same city in which I spent my youth, but that I treated as something completely invisible. It's a glamorous, dirty, stunning story of queer culture in 1990s Boston, and it's just as lively and perilous and angry and fun as a night out on the town with your wildest friends.
Perhaps it's because the world in which we all live is fast becoming a dystopia, but I didn't read much science fiction/fantasy that worked for me this year. Only two books failed to fade into vapor as soon as I set them down:
The Sky Is Yours by Chandler Klang Smith is a huge, gallumphing monster of a novel — one which swallows the whole world and regurgitates it into something brand new. There's social satire and adventure and maybe some romance and more than a little Jane Austen wrapped up in this book, and ten million other things besides.
Suicide Club by Rachel Heng is a different kind of dystopian story. It's set in a world where immortality is within our grasp, but we screw it up in the same way we always do. While the impulse to go big and wide with this kind of high-concept is understandable, Heng keeps the scope and the stakes of the story at a relatable human level.
And it's not a new book, but the reissue of Roxane Gay's short story collection Ayiti captured my imagination in a way that short story collections rarely do.
The books in this list have provided me with all the pleasures that a good novel brings: a sense of being transported, a feeling of living outside one's own skin, a thrill of imagination. Next year lands in the valley between the joyous chaos of the midterm elections and the dutiful march that is the 2020 presidential elections. Hopefully at this time next December, this list of novels will be twice as long — but for now, for this moment in history, these books were exactly what I needed.