Tuesday, January 01, 2019

Favorite Books of 2018

If you review stuff at all, you have to do an end-of-year list to sum it all up -- I'm pretty sure that's a law somewhere. Since Antick Musings has turned into a book blog (despite my half-assed efforts over the years to do other things), that means it features a list of my favorite books at the end of each year. Because I'm grumpy and opinionated, they will be odd choices. Because I'm puckish and contrary, I insist on doing my list at the very end of the year, and counting only things I actually read that year, not some arbitrary publishing calendar.

(I've been doing this since this blog started; see previous entries for the years 2017, 2016, 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, and 2005.)

My rules have gotten codified in relatively simple terms, so here they are again:

The Rules:

  • My list is finalized on the last day of the year, so it includes all my reading for the year.
  • This is a list of "favorites," not "bests."
  • I try to favor recent/current books -- but this rule has been bent in years when I read fewer books.
  • My reading includes many genres and formats, and the list mixes that all together.
  • I pick a favorite for each month, to make a top twelve.
  • And each month gets a narrative including other notable books I read then.

The Field:

Since I was doing Book-A-Day this year, I read more books in 2018 than any year since I started keeping track (1990, when i graduated college), a total of 433. That's way up from 2017's 139, 2016's 161, 2015's 175 and 2014's 383. (2014 was also a Book-A-Day year -- 2011-2013 averaged a bit over 150).

Still, that's not a lot of books compared to what gets published, and I did a lot of re-reading this year. More seriously for some possible readers, the vast bulk of that was comics (graphic novels, BD, whatever you call it), and some of you, I know, can't stand some or all of that stuff.

But a book can only be someone's favorite if that person reads it, so it's what I had to work from. And here's what was worth remembering and celebrating in a year of Book-A-Day reading:


I read a lot of worthwhile books to start off the year, across several different genres. In non-fiction, there was the smart and puckish The Emergency Sasquatch Ordinance by Kevin Underhill (an exploration of "crazy laws" actually researched and written by a working attorney) and the data-soaked Nabokov's Favorite Word Is Mauve by Ben Blatt (a textual examination of a whole bunch of famous and/or major writers). I re-read Teri S. Wood's big SF comic Wandering Star in the gigantic newish Dover edition, and found it just as true and humanist as it ever was.

Welcome returns included Mimi Pond, with her second volume of comics memoir The Customer Is Always Wrong, and Tom Gauld, with the collection of mostly-book-related cartoons mostly from The Guardian, Baking With KakfaSatania, a big, stunningly drawn graphic story from Vehlman and Kerascoet, had a lot of meaty moments but didn't quite have the punch of their earlier Beautiful Darkness. Steven Brust had a new Vlad Taltos fantasy novel, Valista, with his usual sly wit and a unique take on the locked-room mystery.

I only read J.M. Coetzee's 1980 novel Waiting for the Barbarians -- which is not genre, but not a thousand miles from genre, either -- this year. I often say a good book is one that's still good no matter how late you read it: that's definitely the case there.

But it came down to a three-way contest for my favorite, among three modern comics creators -- two telling fictional stories and one reporting from a foreign country, but all striving to show real life with real people. Sarah Glidden's Rolling Blackouts was an honest, multi-faceted look at the thorny, maybe unsolvable Israeli-Palestinian situation. Jeff Lemire's Royal City, Vol. 1 began a strong family story in a decaying city. And, in the end, I had to give the nod to Cyril Pedrosa's Equinoxes, another family story with amazing ambition and reach.


I don't like to make old books favorites of a new year, since that feels like cheating. So I'll just mention re-reading the big fat hardcover collection of the beginning of Howard Chaykin's American Flagg!, a great action-dystopian comic from the '80s, fizzy with its own energy and ideas. Similarly, Another worthwhile collection of older work: Julia Wertz's Museum of Mistakes, which pulls together just about all of the comics from the early "Fart Party" era of her career.

In newer books, Jeff Lemire's standalone graphic novel Roughneck was another strong story of hard-hit people in a punishing Canadian landscape of small towns and few opportunities. Louis Undercover is a similarly emotionally powerful story, by Fanny Britt and Isabelle Arsenault, about one boy and his father. And my favorite of the month was the magnificent Spinning by Tillie Walden: a memoir of her childhood and teen years spent competitive figure skating and how those experiences have colored and pervaded her whole (still short) life to date.


I'll start off this month with the old book, which I disqualify for consideration in 2018 because it's from 2003. The Night Country is a great borderline-horror novel by Stewart O'Nan, who I'm coming to believe can write absolutely anything he puts his mind to. In some of the same territory is Nothing Left to Lose, Dan Wells's last book about teenage psychopath and monster-hunter John Wayne Cleaver.

Another novel slightly too old for consideration was Nicholson Baker's 2009 book The Anthologist, which had a slightly wider field of view than his other books I've read but the same intensity of focus.

The rest of my candidates are all graphic novels. Particularly timely is The Best We Could Do by Thi Bui, an intensely personal memoir about her immigrant family and life -- I wish I could make a million "build the wall" assholes read this, or live through something similar. You & A Bike & A Road is lighter on the surface, the story of a trip across the Southern US, but cartoonist Eleanor Davis finds deepness in all of the moments of that trip.

And the book I keep thinking about is Charles Forsman's powerful I Am Not Okay With This, which takes the themes of a thousand lesser comics -- teen angst, mysterious power, restless youth -- and transmutes it into something unique and special.


Once again, I'll start writing about May with the book that can't be my favorite because it's too old: P.G. Wodehouse's 1932 collection of magazine writings, Louder and Funnier. It is just as loud and as funny as it should be, and still a joy to read three generations later. Similarly, I re-read Dave McKean's great graphic novel, Cages, in its semi-new edition -- but, again, that book is about twenty years old now, depending on how you date it. Another old book: Bruce Chatwin's unique travelogue, In Patagonia, as much the story of his family -- which may be fictional, or at least apocryphal -- as it is the story of his trip. And I re-read Tom Stoppard's famous first play, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, which you don't need me to tell you about.

I was very impressed by The Vision, a story about Marvel Comics's favorite android, by Tom King and Gabriel Hernandez Walta: it's pretty rare that I consider a superhero story for this year-end roundup. Also really strong was Joe Ollman's comics biography of a quirky, little-remembered writer, The Abominable Mr. Seabrook.

Top of the month was the chilling, powerful graphic novel Voices in the Dark, adapted by Ulli Lust from the original novel by Marcel Beyer, with an English translation adapted by Nika Knight from John Brownjohn's translation of the novel.


I found fewer books from this month to call out: maybe I was working through the obvious good stuff by this point in the year, maybe I was just getting tired. This is also the month where I dove into the reading-project side of Book-A-Day, which I'll get to in a moment.

I liked the prose and the point of Eating Aliens by Jackson Landers, both a book about going out to hunt, cook and eat invasive species in the USA and a passionate call to do more of that. And I enjoyed I.N.J. Culbard's comics adaptation of the classic Lovecraft novella The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath; all of Culbard's Lovecraft adaptations have been gems.

Nearly taking the crown this month was a great memoir, My Father, The Pornographer by Chris Offutt, about his farther (the fantasy and SF writer Andy Offutt), about family, and about two tons of porn.

But the best book of the month came out of the reading-project side. I ran through the entire Dungeon series, written by French creators Joann Sfar and Lewis Trondheim with various artists (including both of them, for various books), and a number of those books could be called out here: The Night Shirt and Soldiers of Honor in particular. And the most powerful book of the month was from that series as well: The Depths by Sfar, Trondheim and artist Patrice Killoffer (in French, Les Profondeurs), the back half of the book Dungeon Monstres, Vol. 3: Heartbreaker.


This was the month where the re-reads really kicked in, with an every-Monday series of posts on the Hernandez Brothers' Love and Rockets, which ran through the end of the year. Keeping to my general rule, none of those books can be favorites for 2018 -- but they're great books by great cartoonists.

Similarly, this month and later I re-read major works by Alan Moore and various artists (six volumes of Swamp Thing), Grant Morrison mostly with artist Richard Case (three or six volumes of Doom Patrol), Mike Baron and Steve Rude with occasional fill-in artists (nine volumes of Nexus), art spiegelman (The Compleat Maus), Matt Wagner and a lot of different collaborators (four volumes of Grendel Omnibus), Tim Truman (four volumes of Scout and Scout: War Shaman), and Eddie Campell with occasional assistance (two volumes of Bacchus). All of that is ineligible for the 2018 list; all of it is great comics that is worth your time and attention.

In newer comics that I read in June, there was the crazy Demon saga by Jason Shiga, in four volumes. Nagata Kabi's My Lesbian Experience With Loneliness was a tough memoir to read, but deeply worthwhile. From France, there was the amazingly nutty Mickey's Craziest Adventures by Lewis Trondheim and Nicholas Keramidis, the often nerve-wracking true story of Guy Delisle's Hostage, and the quietly serious On the Camino by Jason.

But my favorite of the month, for once, wasn't in comics form: I got to Charles Stross's Laundry Files novel The Delirium Brief slightly late, but it was worth it.


Again, there were a lot of great book-format comics: the translated short stories in Manuele Fior's Blackbird Days, the memoir of Kristen Radtke's Imagine Wanting Only This, the quirky appeal of Eleanor Davis's Why Art?, the YA graphic-novel equivalent of power pop in Hope Larson's All Summer Long.

I almost picked Brazen, a collection of short comics biographies by Penelope Bagieu of interesting and ground-breaking women, as my favorite, but it will have to settle for being runner-up.

Because one of my favorite writers was back after a long hiatus: James Alan Gardner launched a new series of fantasy novels about superheroes in contemporary Waterloo (Canada) with All Those Explosions Were Someone Else's Fault.


In the doldrums of summer, I read a lot of things that were either too old to qualify (Steve Erickson's great first novel Days Between Stations, the front half of Baron and Rude's Nexus, Dave Sim's first phonebook collection Cerebus, more Love and Rockets) or that just didn't thrill me enough (no names here).

I'm not going to make Martha Wells's great second "Murderbot" novella Artificial Condition the favorite of this month mostly because I think I may need to hold a slot for a later volume at the end of the year. But it's definitely up there.

Which leaves me with Tom Perrotta's most recent novel Mrs. Fletcher for August: it's a sharp book about today's sexual mores by the current master of stories about suburbanites. (That may sound dismissive, but a huge number of Americans are suburbanites, and we need muses, too.)


The token old book that doesn't qualify for this month is P.G. Wodehouse's great 1936 story collection Young Men in Spats.

Some excellent comics-format stuff that also passed under my eyeballs this month -- Come Again by Nate Powell, another atmospheric, creepy story from a master; My Boyfriend Is a Bear, a cute, wonderful maybe-metaphorical romance by Pamela Ribon and Cat Farris; and All the Answers by Michael Kupperman, a deep dive into family history and repression.

But my favorite of the month was Kristen Gudsnuk's Henchgirl, which revitalized the "tell the story from the villain's point of view" idea and delivered several metric tons of fun storytelling.


This one was a tough choice, with four strong possibilities. I reluctantly counted Carla Speed McNeil's The Finder Library, Vol. 1 out of contention due to my long-standing "no old stuff" rule; it's several years old itself and collects the beginning of her great SF comics series starting from the mid-90s.

Jen Wang's The Prince and the Dressmaker was a lovely, almost fabulistic story about being yourself and finding your authentic life, and I'm sure it will be beloved by an entire generation of readers who need that message.

I'm holding another slot at the end of the year for Martha Wells's "Murderbot" series, so I'll just point out that it is totally awesome through the third book, Rogue Protocol, which I read in October.

So the favorite for this month is the devastating, DeLillo-esque Sabrina by Nick Drnaso, which I fully expect will be a lot of people's top graphic novel for the year. It is that powerful.


Starting again with the old ineligible stuff: I finally read Larry Marder's work in the big wonderful Beanworld Omnibus, Vol. 1, but that's all work from the '80s and '90s. Slightly newer, but still all reprint, is the great single-volume collection of Evan Dorkin's occasional comic Dork.

From the present day: Pam Smy's Thornhill was a creepy, excellent story in a hybrid comics/prose format that I've been seeing popping up a little bit more and more -- it may turn into a genre with a name one of these days. And Zander Cannon's third collection of his current comic, Kaijumax: King of the Monstas, was another amazing melange of prison-story, monster-movie, crime-fiction, and just plain drama.

Top of the month, though, was the second collection of a webcomic: Strong Female Protagonist, Book Two by Brennan Lee Mulligan and Molly Ostertag. It's got a smart, often-political edge and a definite point of view, wrapped up in a distinctive version of the superheroes-in-the-real-world plot.


Everything that I want to mention for the last month of the year was actually recent: does that mean I finally caught up on my re-reading and older books? (No: not at all. But maybe I momentarily paused. There are always more old good books than any of us can read.)

In comics, I loved the third big collection of the comic about British women at university, Giant Days: Not On the Test Edition, Vol. 3, written by John Allison and drawn by Max Sarin and Liz Fleming. And the front half of Matt Wagner's big trilogy-ending superhero semi-autobiography was also impressive in Mage: The Hero Denied, Vol. 1.

I finally caught up with the first book of Jeff VanderMeer's "Southern Reach" trilogy, Annihilation, which is one of the best creepy books I've ever read and which makes me want to get the two follow-ups immediately.

But best for the month, and summing up the whole year, is the fourth book in Martha Wells's "Murderbot Diaries," Exit Strategies. She's maintained a magnificently balanced, snarky tone through the whole series (three of which I read this year) and created one of the great robot characters in all of SF. (And maybe strike the word "robot" from that last sentence, too.)

And so I end up with...

2018's Top Twelve

  • All Those Explosions Were Someone Else's Fault by James Alan Gardner
  • The Delirium Brief by Charles Stross
  • The Depths (in Dungeon Monstres, Vol. 3: Heartbreaker) by Joann Sfar, Lewis Trondheim, and Patrice Killoffer
  • Equinoxes by Cyril Pedrosa
  • Henchgirl by Kristen Gudsnuk
  • I Am Not Okay With This by Charles Forsman
  • Mrs. Fletcher by Tom Perrotta
  • Sabrina by Nick Drnaso
  • Spinning by Tillie Walden
  • Strong Female Protagonist, Book Two by Brennan Lee Mulligan and Molly Ostertag
  • Voices in the Dark by Marcel Beyer and Ulli Lust
Those are the most memorable books I read this year. I recommend all of them to all of you, whoever you are.

You might hate them, of course: that's how taste works. But I think they're all worth reading even if you hate them; I've had a lot of books like that in my life, goodness knows.

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