What were your favorite books of 2018? I put that question to our GeekDad and GeekMom writers. While many of these books were published this year, the only real criteria I set was that they read it this year, regardless of publication date or whether it was actually reviewed on the site. So, without further ado, here are the best things we read this year!
I’m always terrible at picking favorites, because there are just so many books that I like, but I’ll try to narrow it down at least to a small(ish) stack.
This one, at least, was easy: Kate Milford’s series for middle grade readers continues to enchant and delight, and Bluecrowne was no exception. Bluecrowne links together the stories from Left-Handed Fate and Greenglass House, plus the Arcana stories (Boneshaker and The Broken Lands). All of the stories take place in the same world and had some links here and there, but in Bluecrowne a lot of it comes crashing together, and it’s spectacular. Read more about Bluecrowne here.
I fell in love with Auxier’s writing years ago with his debut novel, Peter Nimble and His Fantastic Eyes, and so I’m always eager to see what else he’s got up his sleeves. Sweep is about child chimney sweeps, and one in particular who meets a monster made of coal. It’s magical and fanciful, but it also digs into some of the harsh realities of life as a sweep, contradicting such portrayals as the cheerful sweeps in Mary Poppins. There are some heartbreaking moments that will make you cry, and triumphant moments that will make you cheer. Read more about Sweep here.
Munmun is a young adult novel, set in a world in which your body’s physical size is tied to a special bank account. The ultra-rich are literal giants, and the poor can be smaller than rats. The story is told from the point of view of a “littlepoor” kid who’s trying to scrape his way up to a medium size, possibly by getting his sister married to a wealthy middlerich guy. The tone of the book reminded me a little of Feed by M.T. Anderson, because of the new slang and also because of the way the narrator reveals things to the reader that he himself isn’t quite aware of. It’s a creepy dystopian vision of wealth inequality, and I found it really thought-provoking. Here’s my Stack Overflow about Munmun.
This book (which I read in 2018 but haven’t managed to include in a Stack Overflow yet) is a young adult fantasy novel, set in the United States after a climate disaster has redrawn all the maps and unleashed old gods and monsters. Maggie Hoskie is a monster hunter, gifted with supernatural powers, and she has been hired by a small town to find a missing girl. What made this book stand out for me is that it’s fantasy that draws from Native American mythology and blends it with modern speculative fiction, and the result is a real page-turner.
This comic book (highlighted in this column) is a series of chapters that interweave to tell the story of a group of neighborhood kids, bringing to life a rich fantasy kingdom they’ve built using cardboard boxes. I love the way the book switches between the kids in their cardboard costumes and sets to the world of their imagining, with an evil sorceress, a daring rogue, a stoic robot, and more.
I finally got around to the Unbeatable Squirrel Girl series in 2017, and picked up the seventh and eighth trade paperbacks in 2018, and it continues to be fantastic. This year my five-year-old finally got in on it, too, so she’s been making her way through them as well. I love everything about it: the humor, the friendships, the way that the women are portrayed, the way that Doreen Green (aka Squirrel Girl) fights problems not just with her fists but with her brain, the ridiculous footnotes at the bottom of every page. The end of the eighth volume is where Erica Henderson says farewell, and Derek Charm is taking over starting in the ninth book, which I just realized is out now! Excuse me while I run to the bookstore…
The Delilah Dirk series is still a household favorite, and we love following the adventures of this brash, fearless, swashbuckling young woman. The latest volume follows her (and her faithful companion Selim) as they search for the Third Pillar of Hercules, a legendary sunken city. Read more about Delilah Dirk here.
Nick Harkaway is another author that I’m quite fond of—his books are weird literary fiction, with strands of unreality mixed in. I wouldn’t call it magic exactly, but it’s not strictly realism. Gnomon is all about the surveillance state: it depicts a future London in which cameras see all, and a computerized system looks for patterns in behavior so that police can apprehend most potential criminals before they act. But, of course, there are problems and gaps, which leaves room for a central mystery that will lead you through books within books before it’s all over. Gnomon really got into my head, so much so that I had an entire Stack Overflow devoted to exploring its themes.
Dictionary Stories is a collection of short (sometimes very short) stories, composed entirely from those sample phrases and sentences from dictionaries. Jez Burrows sifted through a lot of different dictionaries, and created little pieces of fiction that are brilliant. There are funny stories, sad stories, creepy stories, and some absurd lists. You can read more about Dictionary Stories here.
I’ll end my lengthy list of favorites with this one: a coffee-table book that explores the use of typography in movies, specifically those that portray the world of the future. From 2001 to Blade Runner to Wall·E, Addey tracks the font choices that help the audience think “this is the future” and shows us the ubiquity of Eurostile and Bank Gothic. (I just spotted one this past week in a board game … set in the future.) Read more about Typeset in the Future here.
Mary Robinette Kowal’s Lady Astronaut Novels: The Calculating Stars and The Fated Sky
Kowal takes her Lady Astronaut of Mars short story and expands it into two novels: The Calculating Stars and The Fated Sky. A meteor impacts the Atlantic Ocean near Washington, DC, in 1952. This event causes the need to start the space program several years earlier than in our timeline. These books tell the story of Elma York, a human computer for the space program, and her husband Nathanial the chief engineer. As with Kowal’s other works, the timeline is meticulously researched and it shows. I’ve had the opportunity to work with NASA, and Kowal undisputedly captures the feel of the early space race, personalities, and the feeling of working together to move out into the Solar System.
OathBringer by Brandon Sanderson
OathBringer is the third book in Sanderson’s Stormlight Archive series. This epic fantasy series has world-building that’s just about the best I’ve read, and the characters are realistic, flawed, and interesting. You can easily compare The Stormlight Archive to A Song of Ice and Fire, The Wheel of Time, or The Kingkiller Chronicles. They’re cut from the same cloth. OathBringer is roughly 1,400 pages, so it took me a while to get through it, but it was one of the best books I read all year. Worth every page.
Artemis by Andy Weir
A close second was Andy Weir’s second novel, Artemis, the tale of Jazz Bashira, a young smuggler who’s grown up on a moon colony in the near future. Artemis was good, but not nearly as good as The Martian. What I enjoyed about the book is Weir’s technical writing and the interesting sci-fi story he’s able to create. What I didn’t enjoy is the fact that he does not write women well. Jazz Bashira is a woman in her twenties who behaves like a teenaged boy. The character wasn’t always believable, but thankfully this wasn’t enough to ruin what was otherwise an enjoyable story.
Good and Mad: The Revolutionary Power of Women’s Anger by Rebecca Traister
Good and Mad has had a lot of press coverage, and I was surprised when it came up on my hold queue a mere three weeks after requesting it. Traister’s book is a rich look at how women’s anger has been at the root of powerful American social movements and also at how that anger is constrained and punished. While she ranges across history, she focuses especially on this moment in time, when we’re seeing another powerful surge of women’s anger and the changes it’s effecting. I suspect this book will have a large contingent of women readers, but I urge men to read it as well, since it illustrates the blatant and subtle ways that men’s anger is prized while women’s anger is silenced.
Trust Me I’m Lying: Confessions of a Media Manipulator by Ryan Holiday
Trust Me I’m Lying is both eye-opening and nauseating. Holiday, from the vantage point of a successful media manipulator, shows how easy it is to get stories (regardless of their truth) to run in large media outlets. Some view his book as a playbook, and some view it as a warning. It changed the way I look at the Internet, even though I knew about some of his tricks already. While it came out a few years ago, he has continued to update the e-book at least with new examples.
The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate — Discoveries From a Secret World by Peter Wohlleben
The Hidden Life of Trees, in addition to keeping my run of subtitled books intact, totally changed how I think about and look at the trees all around me. I now think of them as social creatures that can communicate long distances and shape the ecosystem to meet their needs. It is humbling to imagine the millions of years they have on us.
So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed by Jon Ronson
Does the punishment fit the crime? This is a question that will come up often as you read Ronson’s interviews with people whose lives have been destroyed because of relatively minor transgressions. It highlights how toxic and destructive viral hatred can be on the Internet, where people cavalierly send death threats and your negative search results follow you forever.
The Woman Who Smashed Codes by Jason Fagone
If you wanted to write the perfect book for me, you could do worse than a herstory book featuring code breaking and World War II. Elizebeth Smith Friedman was one of the founders of modern cryptography, and the way she got there never fails to surprise. She uncovered Nazi spy rings in South America, broke up smuggling rings during Prohibition, and more.
I’m picking favorite books from three areas this year. Those that I reviewed in my 5 Reasons to Read posts, my favorite Word Wednesday book, and my favorite book that I read that I really should have reviewed but ran out of time. This one also doubles up as my favorite children’s book of 2018.
The Psychology of Time Travel by Kate Mascarenhas
A locked room mystery with a time-travel twist. What could be better than that? Maybe a soupcon of dark dystopia, which is exactly what Mascharenhas adds with her controlling villain of the piece. Great characters, a strong quartet of female scientists, a sensitive portrayal of mental health issues, and a truly great reinvention of the time-travel premise made The Psychology of Time Travel my favorite novel of 2018. Read my full review here.
History of the World Map by Map
I love DK books and I love maps, so this book was always going to appeal to me. It has beaten off some pretty stiff competition for me to declare it as my favorite Word Wednesday book of 2018. It’s the perfect blend of word and image, with the maps telling most of the story, supplemented by strong sidebar explanations. History of the World Map by Map covers global history form the advent of homo sapiens right up to global network coverage and it’s a fascinating read from start to finish. It’s a great book to dip in and out of, delivering a comprehensive of overview that prompts a quest for further and deeper understanding. Read my full review here.
A Darkness of Dragons by S.A. Patrick
A Darkness of Dragons is a children’s fantasy aimed at ages around 9 and upwards. It features a world where music is a form of magic, controlled by “Pipers.” The story, on the face of it, is a standard 3-hander adventure, boy-boy-girl. Except one of the boys is a dracogriff and the girl has been turned into a rat.
My son absolutely loved this tale, which is quite dark in places. It’s set in a world that lives in fear of the legend of the Piper of Hamlyn. It features a host of great characters and an intriguing adventure storyline. There are acts of selfless heroism, a deliciously misleading prophecy, and a cataclysmic finale, that had my son hiding behind his pillow as I read it to him. S.A. Patrick’s writing is wonderfully descriptive, perfect for reading aloud. The is the first book in new a series, (the ending is left open) and we can’t wait for the second installment.
The Books of Earthsea: The Complete Illustrated Edition by Ursula K. Le Guin
A favorite series has been rereleased as an edition complete with all of Le Guin’s writings and a lecture. It’s lovingly treated to illumination with artwork by Charles Vess after over four years of collaboration with Le Guin to ensure that her vision is what we also see. It’s currently being read by two other people in my household, and I have fallen in love with it all over again. A full review will be coming soon!
Uninvited by Jamie Wyman
Uninvited is the third in author Jamie Wyman’s Etudes in C# series, following tech geek Catherine Sharp through her adventures dealing with a veritable petting zoo of gods and goddesses in modern day Las Vegas. This latest offering released in late 2016 took some time for me to get to, but I’m glad I waited until I had the free time to really enjoy the whole series as it exists so far. The only downside is that there are two more books that haven’t been finished quite yet, and I’m not a patient person. You can buy a physical copy here, or a Kindle version here.
Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman
I thought this book would just be about an eccentric woman in England who would just turn out to be a big nerd like me. But it ended up being somewhat different from what I expected. There was so much more to the story. Instead, you go on a journey, along with Eleanor, learning about her and about her life as the story unfolds, bit by bit, until you see the whole truth. There are a few funny bits, but it’s definitely not a comedy. It’s a story about people and how we get to be who we become. I listened to this book in audiobook form, and I highly recommend consuming it in that fashion. The narrator’s voice helps flesh out Eleanor’s character, totally nailing her emotions (even the hidden ones).
Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan
If I had to classify this book in a bookstore or library, I might put it under general fiction, but it’s really a mystery. A mystery about a bookstore that’s open 24 hours a day but has few customers. A bookstore that really makes no sense. The main character, Clay, wants to figure it all out, and this book tells the story of his search for clues, pursuing the leads they bring, and finally learning what the bookstore is all about. One thing I liked about this book, which is hard to find in stories generally, is that there really wasn’t a bad guy. There wasn’t anyone for me to dislike. It’s filled with colorful characters that you’d want to learn more about. Some of them even deserve their own book!
How to Stop Time by Matt Haig
Reminiscent of The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August but much lighter and less mysterious, How to Stop Time gives the reader a glimpse into what it might be like if you lived for centuries. The story includes a bit of intrigue, a touch of romance, and a lot of wondering how the story will end. This book helped me discover Matt Haig, and I look forward to reading his other books. (He’s also a great person to follow on Twitter!)
The Land of Stone Flowers by Sveta Dorosheva
Do you believe in fairies? No? Well, most fairies don’t believe in you, either. Nor gnomes, pixies, or others in the magical realm. At least according to a book entitled The Land of Stone Flowers. But don’t worry. A few of the magical creatures believe. And they have been taking notes. The Land of Stone Flowers was assembled by Gnome Khaft, an editor who spent three years among the humans, and afterward gathered stories from other creatures who had spent time with humans too. This book is the collection of their human knowledge which has been shared with great comedic and fantastical effect. Everything is wonderfully illustrated in various styles with plenty of detail for study. Read through the book and you just might learn something new about humans yourself! Read my full review.
A Note of Explanation by Vita Sackville-West
In the 1920s, an extremely detailed, functional, and gorgeous dollhouse was made for then-Queen Mary, the grandmother of Queen Elizabeth II. One of the many rooms in the dollhouse was a library, filled with miniature books that could actually be read. Miniature books written by notable writers of the time, such as A.A. Milne and Arthur Conan Doyle. Vita Sackville-West, another well-known writer of the time, wrote A Note of Explanation to add to that dollhouse library. The story had mostly been lost to time, but it has now been brought back in a larger size for those of us who don’t have dollhouse-sized hands. Gorgeous illustrations done in the style of the period accompany the story and carry it along. The book also includes a brief history of the dollhouse itself, but you’ll want to dig further into the dollhouse’s history on your own. Read my full review.
Spinning Silver by Naomi Novik is a reworking of the folk tale of Rumpelstiltskin that at first grounds the story firmly in reality but then spins it back out into the land of the fey and a world that connects with ours only on the very edges. It’s the story of Miryem, the daughter and granddaughter of moneylenders, who hardens her heart and becomes the success her father couldn’t be; Wanda, the peasant girl who is drawn into Miryem’s family to pay off her father’s debt, but who comes to be much more than just a servant; and Irina, the plain daughter of an ambitious nobleman who finds herself married to the young, witch-born tsar. The world-building is rich and detailed, settled firmly in the Jewish community and the royal court of an Eastern European kingdom, before it ventures into the icy world of the Staryk, the (slightly terrifying) winter fae. The characters are just as rich, with layers of light and darkness, and depths that take their time in being revealed. Plus, the cover is gorgeous.
Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder by Caroline Fraser is a deeply researched, comprehensive, Pulitzer Prize-winning biography and the kind of book that had me yelling at friends about every other chapter’s revelations (especially the post-Little House timeline–let’s just say that the Wilder’s daughter, Rose Wilder Lane was, uh, something). It’s not just the “real” story of the Little House books, though–the historical context Fraser provides to surround the Ingalls/Wilder/Lane family life is an eye-opening look at Manifest Destiny from the ground level, so to speak.
Star Wars: Han Solo written by Marjorie Liu, with art by Mark Brooks and Olivier Coipel, collects #1-5 of the 2016 Han Solo Marvel run. I’m a little bit behind the times here, even after seeing Mark Brooks at a really excellent panel at DragonCon. Mostly, that’s because the Star Wars extended universe has always been hit-or-miss with me and it had been too easy to grab other things off my towering TBR stack and not take the risk. My loss, though, because this one was stellar. The characterizations were dead-on perfect for an immediately post-ANH setting, the art was gorgeous, and the story itself was compelling. I read it on Marvel Unlimited but then went and bought a copy just so I could have it even if I didn’t have an internet connection.
Whispers Underground by Ben Aaronovitch, narrated by Kobna Holdbrook-Smith, is the third of the Peter Grant urban fantasy/mystery series about a young, biracial London police constable who works for the branch of the department that handles the supernatural. The series itself is like a cross between Harry Potter and the X-Files, which is fun enough as it is, but the audiobook version gets a tremendous boost from Kobna Holdbrook-Smith’s vibrant, dynamic narration. Every character has their own distinct voice and London itself is always lovingly drawn. In this one, we get to run around the Underground with a bonus wintry, snowy city making everything that much more picturesque. This series tends to the gory side, so I have to take a break between each book (which is part of the reason I’m only just now finishing up Book #3, but I’m always happy to get back to them.
What were your favorite reads from 2018? Let us know in the comments!