Best Books of 2018

I know this title is a bit misleading, but this is the same as I’ve done for the past ten years. These are my favorite books I read in 2018. Most of them were not published in 2018.

Best Literary Fiction:

Less by Andrew Sean Greer

The novel opens with Less as a failed novelist, whose lover of nine years has just invited him to his wedding to a different man. The way Less tries to avoid the wedding is to accept invitations to speak around the world at events no prominent novelist would be caught dead at.

The problems of Less have to do with heartbreak and aging and figuring out what makes a life worth living and being remembered and finding love. These are timeless issues found in great art throughout history.

The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco

The Name of the Rose isn’t a historical work or pure fiction or a mystery novel or postmodernist metafiction or theology. It draws on a bunch of sources and amalgamates them to a strange hybrid a reader from any of these backgrounds could appreciate on a different level.

Runner up:

The Gunners by Rebecca Kauffman

This was quite good. It’s nothing new or groundbreaking, but it’s a theme well worth revisiting. A life is more than the sum of its parts.

We all feel guiltier than we are. We all think we play a bigger role in other lives than we do. We can never know another self fully. Some things will forever be a mystery, and that’s okay. Secrets almost always cause more problems than you think they will. People are cruel. People are unbelievably kind.

The most interesting aspect was how the novel kept circling back to a few key events from different points of view to reveal more and more.

Best Mystery:

Mystic River by Dennis Lehane

Mystic River has incredible depth to it. The atmosphere of the neighborhood plays a big role. Each of the characters have a history with the others. In the first few pages, we get a horrific scene that carries on thirty years later to create guilt and pain between two of the main characters.

The characters are all deeply flawed, and one of the best parts of the novel is to see how small mistakes can escalate quickly into terrible, life-changing moments through perfectly understandable overreactions.

Best Book on Writing:

The Anatomy of Story by John Truby

I’ve always thought of books like The Story Grid to be the gold standard on macroscopic elements of story. I’ve reconsidered my opinion.

This is the book all people should use in constructing an organic and compelling story. This teaches the essential elements without using a strict formula like other methods that follow the hero’s journey a bit closer.

Truby’s method is the way to go for original construction of a story with a character-centric focus.

Best Sci-Fi:

Remembrance of Earth’s Past (full trilogy) by Liu Cixin

The trilogy is truly an “ideas” book. It’s kind of fascinating how strong the ideas alone were to keep me wanting to read. The plot definitely waned at points and character motivations were weak, but I didn’t really care.

The Three-Body Problem by Liu Cixin is unlike anything I’ve read before. It’s pretty difficult to explain why, because I don’t want to spoil anything. Part of the fun of this trilogy is that there are M. Night Shyamalan type twists (things that make you rethink everything that happened before and make it all make sense).

When these types of plot twists happen once at the end of a book or movie, it feels like a cheap gimmick and can be off-putting. When they happened dozens of times across this book trilogy, they left me in awe of the structure of the narrative.

You’ll think you’ve finally got a grasp on things near the end of Book 2, and then you learn that you had no idea what was really going on. Like I said, there are dozens of these, and each time you think it can’t happen again, it somehow does.

I can’t recommend this trilogy enough if you’re into hard sci-fi.

Best Fantasy:

Deadhouse Gates by Steven Erikson

This is a tough one. There were times I couldn’t put it down; there were times I couldn’t pick it up.

Overall, Erikson is one of the best writers I’ve ever read. This universe is richly detailed, the characters well-drawn, and so much about it is completely original (none of the standard copying Tolkien but then change a few things to pretend like you didn’t).

The best novels take effort to read, but this has so many characters, many of whom don’t intersect the first book in the series.

But I’ve put it on this list for a reason. I think it’s worth the effort now that I’ve spent several months away from it. I will definitely be reading the third book in the series next year.

Runner up:

The Dresden Files by Jim Butcher

I read at least three in this series this year. They somehow keep getting better. The formula has become a bit predictable: take traditional story monster like zombies or vampires or necromancers or whatever.

Each novel has a different one. Place this in modern-day Chicago. Hilarious chaos ensues.

What makes them so compelling is the premise of a modern-day wizard detective with all the hard-boiled tropes. Magical occurrences cause deaths in the real world. Most people don’t believe the magical part. The tension and fascinating worldbuilding Butcher creates to keep this alive is great.

They are also genuinely funny with recurring gags. They are light, fast reads. This makes you want to keep going from one to the next.

Certainly, the first few weren’t great, but all of the ones I read this year deserve a mention on this list.

 

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Year of Mysteries, Part 9: The Name of the Rose

I’m honestly a bit shocked at how resistant I’ve been to this book the whole year. I knew it would be “hard,” so I kept putting it off. But I love Infinite Jest and Gravity’s Rainbow and a bunch of hard books.

This book has a reputation it doesn’t deserve. I didn’t think it was hard at all in the same way those other ones are. It’s actually written in a very similar way to the way I write. There are so many interesting layers to this book that it will be hard to discuss the “mystery novel” aspect, because that was only one piece (and kind of the least interesting).

Early on, we get one of my favorite characters. He can’t speak any known language, but he’s lived in so many places that he’s developed his own. It takes from all the common languages and merges into a strange thing anyone can understand.

Eco doesn’t do this in the abstract, either. The speech is written out fully. This character is a synechdoche for the book itself. The Name of the Rose isn’t a historical work or pure fiction or a mystery novel or postmodernist metafiction or theology. It draws on a bunch of sources and amalgamates them to a strange hybrid a reader from any of these backgrounds could appreciate on a different level.

Eco doesn’t hide the pieces. They are all in plain sight through the characters. We have Jorge de Burgos representing Jorge Luis Borges. We get William of Baskerville representing Sherlock Holmes. And the title itself is obviously a reference to Romeo and Juliet.

…Or is it? Eco actually tells us the true inspiration is a Latin verse by a Benedictine monk named Bernard of Cluny. Since Eco was a semiotician, I have to believe he also had Wittgenstein in the back of his head, too.

What is the mystery?

The narrator travels to a monastery, and upon arrival there is a mysterious death of one of the monks. He appears to have thrown himself from the window of a library. Over the next few days, many more deaths occur.

This occupies the main narrative momentum, but I basically want to not discuss this further. Anyone who reads this book for the mystery is in for a shock. Let’s get back to the references.

Everyone sees some of the obvious Borges references here from his famous stories. But if you’ve read Labyrinths, you might start to think every single story in the collection gets referenced.

Much of the early part of The Name of the Rose has to do with navigating a complicated labyrinth (Labyrinths, The Garden of Forking Paths) to get to the library (The Library of Babel). They must crack a code (Death and the Compass, The God’s Script). They speak theology to each other (The Theologeans, The Three Versions of Judas). Issues of authorship with the narrator (Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote). Strange language spoken by the characters (Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius).

I think I’ve made my point. It’s not just “The Library of Babel,” like many people believe. It’s almost a transformation of the themes of the full collection of stories into a novel.

Another fascinating, easy to overlook aspect of the book is the chapter summary at the start of each chapter. At first, I thought they were mere summaries. But they got long and weird and pretty humorous as they went on.

Most people probably skip them thinking they offer nothing but a summary. Here’s one:

In which, though the chapter is short, old Alinardo says very interesting things about the labyrinth and about the way to enter it.

It doesn’t say much, but it teaches you something important: these summaries will provide commentary in addition to the summary. Here’s another:

In which the labyrinth is finally broached, and the intruders have strange visions and, as happens in labyrinths, lose their way.

If these were just summaries it shouldn’t provide commentary on the length of the chapter or how “interesting” a certain conversation is or remark “as happens in labyrinths.” I grew to love these summaries as much as the chapters themselves.

I’m not sure what else to say. I’m excited to re-read this. I think it will be as exciting as the first time through as I catch more and more references and understand the themes better.

I must caution that this is absolutely not for everyone, but if you find any of this post interesting, I can’t recommend this book enough. It is brilliant and well-deserved of the praise it has received over the years.

Year of Mysteries, Part 8: The Last Place

Woops. I just realized the title of this series changed from “Year of Mystery Novels” to “Year of Mysteries” at Part 5. Sorry. I try to keep this consistent for searching purposes.

The main point of this series was to examine the mystery novel genre. There are people that read a few a week. There’s something about the genre that keeps people coming back.

I feel like my book choices to this point have basically avoided the “typical mystery.” Pretty much every book in this series is considered a “classic” or has been award winning. In other words, there’s nothing typical about them. Hundreds of new mystery novels come out every month, satisfying readers of the genre without the fancy prose of award-winners.

I went to my local used book store and went to the mystery section. I wanted to pick something at random to get a better feel for what a generic, contemporary mystery novel felt like.

This was a bit hard. The first few I picked up were classified as “suspense thrillers.” I wasn’t opposed to this, but I also couldn’t tell if there was an actual mystery from the back cover. I finally grabbed The Last Place by Laura Lippman.

It was by a bestselling and award-winning author, but this particular novel hadn’t won awards. This made it the perfect candidate.  Unfortunately, it turned out to be the seventh book in the Tess Monaghan series, even though nowhere on or in the book told me this.

I read it anyway.

The novel definitely references some stuff from previous books, but it is perfectly readable as a standalone. I assume this is one of those slow character growth things that happens over multiple books.

Tess is the main character, and she is a private investigator. She has anger management issues and basically messes up a child molester. So she gets assigned a community service project by the courts and has to investigate a police department. She checks up on five unrelated murders to make sure they followed procedure, etc.

As it goes on, she finds out that all five have major issues and are unresolved and are possibly related.

The first thing I noticed was the solid prose style. I often read literary stuff, which tends to be fancy. I also read fantasy, which tends to be wordy. This book had that pristine, clean style that I tend to call “bestseller” style.

I can’t go into all the details here, but it just means few adverbs, active voice, just enough description, pared down sentences, etc. It really makes the book come alive fast in your mind without any excess thinking or confusing sentences.

This brings up the next point. This was a page-turner through and through. I also can’t remember the last time I read something like that. I’d say it’s almost too polished. If you’ve studied plotting and structure, you can see how each scene is crafted to raise the stakes and complicate the plot just enough to push you along.

One thing I think this book did better than any of the other mysteries was to provide a lot of red herrings. At one point, the investigators discuss the possibility that the male killer could actually be a female. They go into depth on how this could be pulled off, despite being married, by referencing Boys Don’t Cry.

I found myself thinking: what? No way! Wait, but maybe. 

It was never meant to be taken all that seriously, but little things like this added up to keeping me unsettled. Whenever I thought maybe I was getting a handle on things, something would come up to remind me that I just didn’t have enough information yet.

I was thinking about characterization, since I recently wrote a post on it. One character has a quirky “thing” they do. This is often one of those cheap techniques that give readers a false sense of depth.

He’s really into movie quotes and says them all the time. Each time it happens, you think, oh yeah, that’s the guy that does the quote thing. This made the character more into a caricature than a fully fleshed out character.

Overall, this was a fast and enjoyable read. I definitely understand why people tear through these at the rate of a couple a week.

If you’re following along, I really only have one book left on my list: The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco. I’ve been avoiding it, because I’ve heard it has a beastly beginning that’s almost impossible to suffer through. We’ll see…

 

Year of Mysteries, Part 7: The Intuitionist

This was a somewhat enjoyable, quick read, but I had a lot of problems with it.

The Intuitionist takes place in a strange alternate world. It’s presumably alternate history, because much of the politics has to do with integration and Lila being the first female, black elevator inspector.

But it’s not quite our world, because there’s a huge bureaucracy of elevator inspectors, including a training institute (Institute for Vertical Transport), professional society, and even textbooks on philosophical schools of thought on proper inspection techniques.

The setup of the novel is that Lila Mae Watson is an “Intuitionist” inspector with an impeccable record. She inspects elevators by riding them and “intuiting” any problems. This is opposed to the school called the “Empiricists,” which inspect the old fashioned way: getting into the innards with their hands and eyes.

One of Watson’s elevators goes down, and she suspects it was sabotaged to make it look like the Intuitionists are untrustworthy. There’s also other political motivation going on with it being an election year.

So far, so good. This is quite a great premise setting up a way to discuss serious issues surrounding theory of mind, epistemology, etc.

What were my problems with it?

Well, there’s this idea in art that if you treat something as serious, no matter how unbelievable and silly it is, you can get it to come across as believable. But this takes really committing to the idea.

Whitehead commits.

This world is full of tons of details from what such a society would look like, yet I just never really bought the concept. I think part of the problem was that it tried to do too much, especially with the race aspect, which I haven’t even brought up yet.

I think the book would work better if she was set up because she was black or if she was set up because she was an Intuitionist. Trying to have it both ways created a lot of unnecessary awkwardness, and it softened the force of truly committing to one theme. By splitting the difference, neither came across as particularly compelling.

I’ll try to explain this a bit more.

The novel works on a speculative fiction level without bringing race into it at all. The Empiricists want to get rid of the Intuitionists. They are looked down upon both within the world of inspectors and in the world at large.

It makes sense that someone would set up the main character to have one of her elevators fall. Then the world can blame her for not “properly” examining the elevator, and the whole Intuitionist school of thought takes a hit for more “reliable” methods (though, statistically intuitionists do better, a clever twist Whitehead put into the world).

It would work brilliantly as both a mystery plot and as a work of speculative fiction in which Intuitionists play the role of a scapegoated, marginalized population.

In fact, when race gets brought up, it’s almost like an afterthought and thrown in because that’s Whitehead’s “thing” rather than working naturally in the novel. The book will be in the middle of something else, and then it kind of pops up randomly: oh, yeah, and you’re black! So it’s probably that, too!

So, as astute readers, we’ve noticed this is what Whitehead wants to do, and we’re a little annoyed that characters keep implying this conflation of race and Intuitionists. But then Whitehead commits the ultimate writing sin, and he decides he doesn’t trust readers to figure this out (though it’s sooo obvious).

A character says:

“So I don’t know what the official story is, but you get the gist from his speech. He’s making it into a political thing because you’re an Intuitionist. And colored, but he’s being clever about it.”

No. Just no.

I mean, is it still an allegory if the writer flat out tells us what the pieces mean?

If, as a writer, you’re ever tempted to talk directly to a reader like this through a character because you’re afraid they haven’t caught on, then you’ve done something wrong. If you’re that worried, make it clearer through subtext some other way. Or, as I’ve proposed, maybe just clarify what the themes and metaphors are instead of trying to conflate a bunch of stuff.

After such on-the-nose dialogue, I kept expecting our main character to blurt out at some point: I chose the elevator profession because it raises and lowers people to different social strata with the rich bankers having parties on the roof and the lowly doorman at the bottom. The elevator is the great equalizer. Anyone can move to any position in an instant as long as good inspectors keep them working.

Yikes. I wish I could say such a moment never came, but it did. It was a much pithier and eloquent formulation:

…horizontal thinking in a vertical world is the race’s curse.

As I said, it definitely kept my attention with a unique premise and fully fleshed out speculative world, but it could have used a lot more focus and subtlety. Not to be mean, but it reads like a first novel, and that’s what it is. The flashes of the more confident Whitehead we see in his later The Underground Railroad are in here, and they are brilliant when they happen.

I’ve seen this book compared to The Crying of Lot 49 and Invisible Man. Both are apt comparisons, but I’d rather read the former for political conspiracy theory paranoia and the latter for its excellent racial commentary than something that tries to do both at the same time, just worse.

Year of Mysteries, Part 6: A Crime in the Neighborhood

This month I read A Crime in the Neighborhood by Suzanne Berne for the Year of Mysteries. I’m not going to wait to the end for spoilers, so be warned!

This book reminded me a lot of Mystic River, the second book we did for the series, in that it presented a crime and then immediately shifted away to how that crime affected a neighborhood, relationships, and characters.

I’d even hesitate to call this a true mystery, because almost none of the plot involves solving the crime. The crime ends up not being solved at all!

Overall, I liked this book but didn’t love it like Mystic River. I think this came from how unsatisfying it was. We have literally only one suspect. The main character gives us tons and tons of evidence to show that he did it. All I kept thinking through the whole book is how obvious a red herring this was.

I felt like Berne wrote herself into a corner. If it turned out to be the only suspect, it would be unsatisfying because of how obvious it was. If it turned out not to be him, it would be unsatisfying because of how obvious of a red herring it all was.

And I get it: the book is not about the murder! So let’s get to what it’s really about.

The novel does a great job in showing how one moment that doesn’t even fully involve someone can permanently shape the rest of their life. The narrator is an adult retelling these events from her ten-year-old self, and we get a believable set of emotionally complex reactions from her surrounding the events of that summer.

One particularly good aspect of the book was the prose, considering the voice was a ten-year-old. Many writers use children as an excuse to be lazy, but Berne nails the naivete and immaturity of tone while still having clear and sophisticated prose style. This is no easy feat, and really added to the atmosphere of the novel.

The book did suffer from a “soggy middle.” I’d say this is a quintessential example of why people use a “Mid-Act 2 twist” to keep the forward momentum. Nothing of the sort happened here. I couldn’t tell you anything that happened in the middle of this book even though I just read it. The main character goes about her days with pretty much no progression or complication.

I also think the book suffered from trying to be about too much. It had a tight focus on the main character’s family, a looser focus on the neighborhood, but then it tried to throw in a bunch of stuff from the 70’s, like Watergate, as a backdrop.

I get that there’s a parallel of themes she’s trying to draw on: the country lost its naive innocence about government in the same way Marsha lost her naive innocence from the crime. But it’s too loose and not exactly parallel (or contrary) to succeed. For example, Marsha had a bunch of evidence and turned out to be wrong, whereas the Watergate evidence was correct.

So I’m just not sure on this one. I flew through it in a few days once I got started, but it felt unfocused and unsatisfying in the end. Since I liked Berne’s writing so much, I’m interested in checking out her later works to see if it evolves into something I like as a whole more.

As usual, I give the next book in the series in case you want to follow along. It will be: The Intuitionist, by Colson Whitehead. I’m pretty excited to get some speculative fiction aspects into one of these.

Year of Mysteries, Part 5: Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow

I’ve put off writing about this book, because I was left pretty conflicted on how to feel about it. As a mystery, it was deeply unsatisfying. But as a novel, it scratched some itches I didn’t know I had.

The book drew me in quickly. It starts with the death of a boy. It looks like an accident of falling off a roof. But Smilla’s Inuit heritage allows her to read other signs in the snow. Plus, it comes to light that the boy was deathly afraid of heights and would never play on the roof.

It turns into a classic small girl against big machine of the police/government. The book beautifully weaves in a bunch of language for different types of snow, and we start to see how someone could be attuned to signs in the snow.

One particularly enlightening scene was a description of how jumping would leave certain snow impressions depending on the direction of the jump. I started to believe she had “real” signs of foul play from the snow instead of just some abstract “feeling.”

The book uses a lot of politics of opposing forces like Greenland/Denmark, Inuit/European, and Tradition/Science. It worked as a literary device to make the reader empathize with Smilla feeling like an “other” in the world. My guess is these were real-world politics and not just invented as a device.

The translator did a great job. The prose had an almost Proustian quality to it. He would do deep dives on mundane things, and it somehow felt interesting and relevant. Other isolated sentences were strange and wonderful and humorous at the same time.

Here’s one of my favorites:

Bertrand Russel wrote that pure mathematics is the field in which we don’t know what we’re talking about or to what extent what we say is true or false.

That’s the way I feel about cooking.

At some point near the middle, this book totally loses its focus. It goes off in strange directions, and we lose sight of the original mystery. One might say the mysterious death at the beginning is the “inciting incident” of the novel, but it is not the focus of the novel.

I won’t reveal the ending except to say that although we get a definitive answer to who/why the boy was killed, the ending leaves it ambiguous as to whether the killer is caught and/or killed himself. This worked in the context of the novel as a general book about ambiguities and life, but it didn’t work as a conclusive ending to a murder mystery.

We veer so far off course of any intentional investigation by the end that learning the truth feels almost accidental. I think this is the source of dissatisfaction. It’s like the information happened to the main character rather than the main character bringing about the information through her deliberate actions.

Once I resigned myself to the fact that I was reading something different from what I thought it would be, I was able to settle in and enjoy it on its own terms. The book is well worth reading as an intriguing work of literature dealing with interesting linguistics. It is probably not for a fan of traditional mystery novels.

If you want to follow along, the next book in The Year of Mysteries series will be A Crime in the Neighborhood by Suzanne Berne.

Year of Mystery Novels, Part 4: The Big Sleep

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The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler is probably my least favorite mystery novel of the year so far.

Let’s start with the good. Chandler’s style of writing is amazing. It’s full of sentences that contribute to the noir atmosphere. One of my favorite examples is: “Dead men are heavier than broken hearts.” It obviously makes no sense as a description, but it says so much about the attitude and psychology of the main character, Philip Marlowe.

Paying attention to the little things pays off. For example, when Marlowe enters a used bookshop early on, he asks for a highly specific book. I thought this was the author filling the book with needless detail, a boring bad habit of some writers. But in actuality, it’s a book that doesn’t exist, so the fact that the used bookseller didn’t know this showed they were a fraud. This payoff only comes to readers paying attention to this type of thing.

So I thought the writing style and layering in of small details that pay off were excellent. In fact, maybe the best of all the mystery novels I’ve read this year.

The problem is that I had a very hard time picking the book up when I stopped reading it for a session. I just wasn’t invested in the plot or characters. I think this had to do with the fact that this “hardboiled” subgenre is a slower burn. It’s more about gradually exposing a much larger situation. This means the tension comes from the context you’re given rather than an immediate threat or mystery or suspects.

I don’t even have to reveal too much of the plot to discuss what felt off. I think a lot of the character actions were unmotivated. People are murdered, but I found myself thinking: really? Over that? I know they were “criminals,” and by that I mean “producing pornography” and “being homosexual,” but it’s not like they were mob bosses hardened to murder. It was too extreme for the context.

Everything in the plot felt more like convenience than truly motivated action. I get that we have to look at it through the lens of the time. “Revenge porn” is bad enough today, having naked pictures loose of the daughter of a high-ranking person back in the 20’s could destroy that person. I get that.

But I never really felt the danger or tension or potential catastrophes from the way the novel was told. It was like a big puzzle, and each piece had been placed there for the purpose of completing the puzzle and not as a truly motivated plot point.

Maybe I’m the only one that felt that way, because this is a pretty universally praised book. One of the cool things about it was that you see basically every hardboiled detective trope in this book, as it was the first of its kind.

I think I’m going to take a brief break and then come back with something modern. It hasn’t occurred to me before now that people might want to read along with me. I’ll be doing Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow by Peter Høeg. I’ve heard it might upset the “purists,” but I’m trying to get a variety over the course of the year.