Let’s get this out of the way up top: Yes, I agree, you wouldn’t think a cultural history of Oklahoma City would make for a compelling book. (I’ve had this conversation a lot this year.) But Sam Anderson’s Boom Town is the most engrossing piece of writing I’ve read all year. The book weaves together the story of the city’s founding—it was opened to settlers at the stroke of noon on April 12, 1889, which encouraged a lot of conniving and far less actual civil planning—with that of it stealing the Seattle Supersonics and attempting to turn the newly constituted Thunder into a dynasty.
As an editor and a reader, I’m obsessively focused on narrative structure; Boom Town is so successful in part because its organization initially comes off as almost random but ends up feeling meticulously planned. Switching from the story of a longtime local meteorologist to that of the various attempts to create streets after the city was founded to that of Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook’s various beefs in the course of three chapters ends up making perfect sense. I read several great books in 2018, but Boom Town is the one I can’t stop thinking about. - Megan Greenwell
Have you ever read a book that knows, exactly, your deepest insecurities and articulates them back to you with terrifying precision? I’m very torn about whether or not I want you to experience that feeling, but still, I can’t help but recommend Nevada, a novel by Imogen Binnie, and A Safe Girl To Love, a short story collection by Casey Plett. Both were books I was loaned this past summer, and they also happened to be the very first fiction I had ever read by and about trans women. They were, at times, excruciating. After one passage in Nevada, I screamed into my pillow. After the end of the final story in Safe Girl, I threw the book on the ground. These books understood me and my anxieties perfectly—everything about sex and appearance and desires and relationships all rang true, often in ways I hadn’t quite been able to admit to myself before.
But if I’m making these books sound like horror shows, it’s also true that they had an undeniably positive impact on my life and sense of self. Technically, I came out and changed my name over two years ago, but I don’t think I really started to get a hold on what that meant until this summer, in part because these books both challenged and inspired me to think critically about how I exist in the world while also celebrating it. Neither of these books are the boring empowerment narratives we’ve become used to in works about marginalized people. Most often, they illuminate the mistakes and the shitty behaviors and the missteps that queer people—and everyone, duh—take as they try to justify themselves to the world (and to themselves). These are not heroines to model my life after; they’re just people who understand and have thought more deeply about life outside gender norms than I previously had. Nevada and Safe Girl should be must-reads for anyone who has trouble empathizing with trans girls, because they put you in the mind of one and do not censor even a single weird hookup.
I got my first-ever tattoo just last month—a combined male/female gender symbol just below my collarbone. It was an act of dominance, something I did to symbolically assert my control over the body that’s caused me so much stress in my life, and I love it so much. Superficially, I’ve recently become more comfortable with dressing and expressing myself in ways that don’t fit neatly into a male or female box, and on a deeper level, I don’t skittishly shrink from conversations or look for corners to hide in when I’m out in public. I have mentors and friends and faith and privilege to thank for all of this, absolutely, but I also have Binnie and Plett. Their work was a mirror that let me see all the cracks in myself, but also allowed me proudly discover that I’m nowhere near as broken as I feared I might be. - Lauren Theisen
It’s hard to talk about Severance, Ling Ma’s sardonic take on modern capitalism and the millennial ennui of the 2010s, without diving into specifics of Candace Chen’s slowly devolving New York. What you need to know is this: Severance is partly a zombie story, partly a commentary on office cultures, and entirely hilarious and bleak. It made me hate New York and love New York in equal parts.
I kept returning to a scene that ends up being rather inconsequential but also highly representative: Candace and her ex are caught up by a hurricane—one that bears more than a passing resemblance to Hurricane Sandy. They end up at a Puerto Rican restaurant, staring a super storm in the eye. It should have been terrifying, but in Ling Ma’s world, it’s an opportunity to think of all of the things her characters could get done if the storm was “bad enough to cancel work the next morning but not so bad that we couldn’t go to brunch instead.” The apocalypse is rarely this funny. - Luis Paez-Pumar
The first book in this series, Annihilation, got plenty of buzz this year after its movie adaptation became something of a critical hit. If you watched the movie and are now curious about the trilogy, or if you read the first book but are hesitant to dive into the next two, allow me to encourage you to take the leap.
Over the course of the three books, author Jeff VanderMeer manages to create one of the trippiest, most unsettling, and richly conceived sci-fi worlds you could ever ask for. The books are constantly weird, and although they are stuffed with plenty of mysteries and inscrutable moments that would make great fodder for obsessive sleuths with Reddit accounts, VanderMeer manages to avoid letting the work fall into that same trap that so much science fiction and fantasy falls victim to, in which it becomes little more than a Puzzle to be Solved by the most dedicated fans.
I rarely knew exactly what the hell was going on while I was reading the books, and still didn’t understand everything upon finishing the series. But thanks to the quality of VanderMeer’s writing and his gift for building and releasing tension, my stumbling was more of a pleasure than a bother. I didn’t need all the answers mapped out for me, I just wanted to enjoy wandering around in his deeply strange world for as long as I could. - Tom Ley
The time to stop unearthing forgotten stories of those in power abusing said power is, in my mind, never. What Julie Brown did over at the Miami Herald in its Perversion of Justice series was, at its core, pretty old-school reporting. She went through the court records, police reports, and interviewed several women who said they had been in their early teens when they were sexually abused by Palm Beach billionaire Jeffrey Epstein. Anyone who worked as a reporter in South Florida (myself included) heard the rumors about Epstein—that there was more, that it was so much worse than what came out, that he got a sweet deal. Brown did the work—and it’s hard work—to turn rumors into facts. The entire series is excellent and well worth your time. - Diana Moskovitz
There are people, smart people who are friends with I presume rich inner lives, who consider this book and subsequent trilogy to be a slog, and the reasons they think it’s a slog are all the same reasons I adore it. Red Mars is the hardest of hard science fiction, John W. Campbell’s wet dream, a chronicle of the very-near-future colonization of Mars. And believe me when I tell (warn) you that it spares no detail, no CO2 concentration, no quantification of tensile strength of a building material, no observation on the composition of regolith. There are entire sections, pages upon pages long, that are nothing but geology and geography. If you are into that sort of thing, this is heaven; I found myself awed by the sheer mineral beauty of a world that has nothing but mineral to offer, at least on the surface.
But at heart it’s a book about ideas. Each section is narrated by a different main character of the “First Hundred,” as they grapple with each other on questions of politics and philosophy. Should the Mars colony be viewed as an outpost of Earth, subject to its laws and mores? Or is this an entirely new world, beholden to nothing but what its citizens can conceive? If so, should that be a synthesis of the best idea of Earth, or something entirely new? Should violence be acceptable in deciding achieving the desired outcome? And, above all, the big question: Should the planet be terraformed, and to what extent? The book takes place on Mars, but it’s not about Mars at all. It’s a story about what it means to be a part of human society, or, more strictly, what it could and should mean. - Barry Petchesky
In 2018, I joined a book club. To be honest, I only actually went once. But I’m glad I’m still on the mailing list, because it resulted in my discovery of “Bloodchild,” a 1995 Hugo Award-winning short story by sci-fi author Octavia Bulter; easily the most engrossing 20 pages I’ve ever read. The story is set in a dystopia in which an insect-like race of aliens, the Tlic, has enslaved a colony of humans, after discovering that human bodies make ideal hosts for Tlic eggs. The Tlic live among the humans, as an integral part of the family unit, and require that each human family must select a child to act as an egg host.
The best sci-fi is able to take a simple hypothesis—what if, in the future, “x”—and explore its implications to shine light on humanity as it is, or where it is headed. Without spoiling the twist, the questions Bulter is able to ask and answer based on this simple premise in barely 7,500 words are worthy of an entire novel. “Bloodchild” is a sci-fi dystopia, an alien invasion story, visceral body horror, a meditation on familial love, and a pregnant man parable all rolled into one. I read it on my commute home three months ago and haven’t stopped thinking about it since. - Anders Kapur
Having one’s sanity and sense of solid ground eroded by Being Too Online is surely the defining experience of this political moment. To my mind nobody has told that story more honestly than Nick Drnaso, whose graphic novel Sabrina can be savored in a single evening, only to haunt all your idle moments for the next 200. Without spoiling too much: he lays out a perfect schematic of how tragedy and the internet can send an otherwise healthy person hurtling down a conspiratorial rabbithole. One second you’re living in peaceful cohabitation, the next you’re under the spell of a daily Alex Jones-style tirade. Drnaso’s clean panels and economy of line make you feel like you’re hearing a debilitating, dark joke in a brutally flat deadpan. (The joke is just, uh, all of us.) - Giri Nathan
The cluttered and musty thrift store from which I bought my first Jesse Ball book—The Curfew, which was also what I wrote about in this space last year—closed late last winter. It’s a dog groomer, now, and I don’t even think of it as a new business. The experience of discovering that book at random was thrilling—I read the first page in the store, and then the second, and knew that whatever it was I was reading didn’t belong in a place like that—but the experience of working my way through the rest of Ball’s catalogue this year offered a different sort of pleasure. He has a clean and unadorned style that runs throughout his books, which read like fables without seeming faux-naive or precious, that is honestly not the sort of thing I usually seek out. He has both a taste and a knack for storytelling puzzles and impossible geographies, which is not necessarily what I look for in my novels, either. It seems increasingly clear that he’s my favorite novelist, but I’m not entirely clear on how that’s happened.
A Cure For Suicide, which Ball wrote in 2015, is his sixth book. It hit me much harder than any of the others, not because it is less abstract—it is also maybe a little bit less abstract, but still unfolds in a world not recognizably our own governed by opaque and ambiguously benign bureaucracies—but because of how strongly various non-abstract emotions move through it. It’s a sort of mystery in the manner of his other books, which is to say it’s more about strange things revealing themselves in fits and starts than it is about who did what, but it’s also both deeply sad and about sadness and very specific kind of loss. It’s about that, and it’s also about what those things take from us and, grudgingly, give us. I’d imagine it would land as powerfully in any moment as it did for me in this one, but then I wouldn’t know. I read it in this year, from within my life, and it knocked me flat. - David Roth
I picked up this old-timey crime noir this summer on a whim when I was bored and it turned out to be the most fun thing I read all year. Set in 1930s Los Angeles, it features hardboiled private eye named Philip Marlowe who says things like, “I was neat, clean, shaved and sober, and I didn’t care who knew it” and “I sat there and poisoned myself with a cigarette and listened to the rain and thought about it” and “Such a lot of guns around town and so few brains.” It’s impossible not to read it in a sleuth voice, which is inherently funny, plus the plot itself isn’t as predictable as you’d think. - Laura Wagner
Here is what happens in Hernan Diaz’s In The Distance: a tree-sized Swedish guy named Håkan gets lost sometime in the mid-1800's and tries to make his way across the entire American continent, from left to right, to find his older brother. The spectrum of possibilities is as wide as Håkan’s mind is empty, and Diaz writes with extreme care the story of a brutal life spent dissolving into nature’s grandeur and witnessing the horror and cruelty of a United States hell-bent on getting west. America is simply too wide for Håkan to find what he needs, but all he knows is the journey towards his brother, so he keeps searching.
What results is a pristine combination of Siddhartha and Red Dead Redemption II, a meditation on life, nature, the cycles that move as well as root us, and also the chaotic greed of a society that sees only empty land to be filled. The representation of physical land is something that Diaz is especially concerned with. Settlers see the continent as a void, an empty place of despair to be conquered and civilized, but even the most hell-blasted salt flats can be a place of wonder and discovery to Håkan and those who seek to commune with nature. Håkan is an observer, a blank mind to be inscribed upon as he experiences everything for the first time. Things break bad, things break good.
And so Håkan walks onward, and then he walks onward some more. - Patrick Redford