As with every annual list of top books, I only included the books I read for the first time this year, regardless of when they were published. It was a decent year for reading, with a nice mix of new writers and old favorites, and these were my top ten favorite reads of 2018. What were yours?
10. The Lottery and Other Stories by Shirley Jackson
I’ve read some of her novels and individual stories before but this was my first full collection of shorts by Jackson, and it was a truly excellent collection, where even the most mundane and suburban of stories were laced with a growing discomfort and harrowing fear. You can see where creative minds like Stephen King or David Lynch may have been inspired by the terrible things hiding in plain sight in typical suburban lives. “The Lottery" may speak about societal horrors committed in the name of tradition, but that story is only the start. Jackson's tales are certainly still relevant, and plenty in this book put a real scare into me.
9. Rules for a Knight by Ethan Hawke
This little book by the famed actor was quite the surprise, sort of like a fictional version of Rilke’s Letter’s to a Young Poet, in the sense that each chapter focused on the traits and characteristics needed to become a truly honorable knight, or just a decent human being. The book is about a father's journey and his preparations for a battle from which he never returns, so these last parting stories are his advice to his children, and to us. They never feel overbearing, no matter the topic, be it discussions of solitude, humility, forgiveness, honesty, courage, grace, pride, and patience. Hawke draws on the ancient teachings of Eastern and Western philosophy and does so in an accessible and enjoyable manner. Definitely worth the time, and beautifully bound as well!
8. World, Chase Me Down by Andrew Hilleman
This book was a lot of fun, blending a turn-of-the-century kidnapping caper with frontier shootouts, globe-trotting adventure, romance turned bad, and courtroom drama all in one sprawling dramatic tale. It reminded me a little of The Revenant mixed with Cormac McCarthy’s border trilogy and the DiCaprio/Hanks film Catch Me If You Can. Hilleman is able to weave a sardonic sort of humor into the otherwise desperate tale, keeping things from getting too bleak or brutal. There are weak spots and relationships that don't quite feel genuine, and the final courtroom speech dragged a bit, but overall this was very enjoyable and I’d highly recommend it if you’re a fan of adventurous westerns.
7. Haunted Nights edited by Ellen Datlow and Lisa Morton
I bought this one in the spring and waited most of 2018 to finally dive in during my month of horror every October, and I’m glad I waited for just the right time. This was a really solid collection of spooky takes of all styles, from folklore-driven stories to more modern fare, and even a sci-fi offering. Each one takes place on Halloween night, which is a very cool theme. I find most anthologies, especially horror anthologies, really hit or miss, but this one was super fun and consistently good throughout. I think there was only one story I quit on, so high marks! Definitely recommended if you want to get in that Halloween spirit!
6. Double Bird by Bud Smith
This was an astounding collection of surreal, endearing, wild, hilarious, strange, and deeply poignant stories about common people in bizarre situations and bizarre people in common situations. They're the types of stories that are waving a fistful of sparklers in your face with one hand and showing you the beating heart of the most exposed and bare emotions with the other, so watch closely as you read. You may think he's being weird for weird's sake, but there's always something else going on in Bud's layered tales. One of the best short story collections out there. I loved this book and I hope you do too.
5. Hunter S Thompson: The Last Interview edited by David Streitfield
As a fan of Hunter S Thompson, it can be difficult seeing new books about him come out so long after his death because while some biographies and memoirs related to him have been good, others have felt gossipy or flat compared to his own books. But this one is a nice addition to the growing library about Hunter’s life because they’re his own words. These interviews are presented in chronological order and most haven’t appeared in print before outside of their original magazine or newspaper publications, so having them all in one place, including his last official interview with a very young journalist, was really nice to see. He’s in typical Hunter form here—irreverent, contradicting, playful, opinionated, cagey, and insightful.
4. Homage to Catalonia by George Orwell
A fantastic account of the Spanish Civil War by the famed author of 1984 and Animal Farm. Orwell left his comfy life in England to dive into the muddy, rat-filled trenches of Spain in order to fight alongside the worker's militia united against fascism. A democratic socialist at heart, he found the Stalinist party-controlled version of communism domineering and nearly as bad as Franco’s fascism rolling across Spain like a plague, and this experience shaped the political and social beliefs found in his later works. His descriptions of both city life and trench warfare are clear and accessible, filled with scenes of Barcelona, the idle hours between fighting, daring raids, harrowing political betrayal, and finally his escape from the war. It’s a must read for any fans of Orwell, war memoirs, and historic examinations of the evils of political orthodoxy.
3. The Secret History of Twin Peaks & Twin Peaks: The Final Dossier, both by Mark Frost
You get two for one here because they absolutely need to be read together. For Twin Peaks fans wanting the full arc, I recommend watching season one, then two, then watching David Lynch’s film Fire Walk With Me (and perhaps even Mulholland Drive after that for some deep world building), and then read Secret History, watch season three, and end with The Final Dossier.
The Secret History is an incredible enhancement upon the larger myth and mystery that was always lying in wait behind the seemingly typical murder investigation of Laura Palmer, which was anything but typical. The book widens the scope of what's really going on in those dark woods surrounding the town, and hints at why such dark things crawl out of our own souls, or into them, as certain cases may be.
I see complaints about this book being a bunch of X-Files fan fiction, but this is because people expect X from Twin Peaks when Mark Frost gives you Y, and Z too. The complaints are short sighted, and I for one thoroughly enjoyed the multi-layered story that is taking place in this book. Let me put it this way, if you liked all three seasons of Twin Peaks, you'll like this book. If you found the third season and parts of the second frustrating and weird and dull and lacking, you may not like this book.
As for The Final Dossier, it’s a far quicker read that doesn't go as deep into the specifics concerning some of the biggest, most cosmically terrifying questions that remained after the final season (you'll want online forums for that, and there are a lot of great, reasoned, and detailed theories out there) but this book does offer clues, suggestions, background info, and by the end it gives you a powerful message. Even so, it did feel rather quick, but combined with Secret History, you have a damn good companion to the TV series and films.
2. West of Sunset by Stewart O’Nan
This was my surprise of the year. I always heard great things about the next book on this list, but West of Sunset was a total unknown when I bought it in Chatham, NY, that it’s one I ended up loving. With clear descriptive writing, a heartbreaking story, and a gorgeous backdrop, O'Nan gives us an all-too American ending to the story of one of the "Great American Writers" of the 20th century—F. Scott Fitzgerald. With plenty of cameos by famous actors, directors, producers, writers, and more, the book feels like the story of golden-era Hollywood as much as Scott and Zelda's final years together, which were rife with alcoholism, self-destruction, infidelity, madness, desire, terrible choices, nostalgia, and heartbreak. If you love old Hollywood, F. Scott Fitzgerald, doomed romance, or the 1930s, this is the book for you.
1. Helter Skelter: The True Story of the Manson Murders by Vincent Bugliosi with Curt Gentry
Good lord, this was intense. Everything I heard about this book being a “must read” was true. Yes, it's quite long, and yes, the bulk focuses on a dragged out trial with multiple stages and mountains of evidence, but the story of these murders and the Manson Family lifestyle revealed in pieces over the course of the 600 or so pages still managed to keep me up late into the night, night after night. And damn, the LAPD comes out of this thing looking really really bad, with some detectives going beyond ineptitude into willingly indifferent when it came to solving the case. The defense attorneys came out looking befuddled as well. In any case, I'm glad I finally read this, and it will be hard to shake some images out of my head. Monsters are out there, we pass them all the time, and that might be the scariest thing about the Manson Family murders—you never know who will turn out to be a twisted, brainwashed psychopath. A long, in-depth, but fascinating and frightening book, and definitely the best one I read in 2018.