I read all the time as a kid. Allllll the time. At some point, that stopped and while I still accumulated books (because I love physical media, I still very much enjoy the purchasing of actual books), I wasn’t reading them nearly as much as I was storing them on a shelf. I’m not big on New Year’s Resolutions but three years ago, I decided I was not happy with my reading output and vaguely vowed to “read more.” In 2016, I read 23 books. In 2017, I upped it to 33. In 2018, my goal was 45 books and, thanks in VERY large part to the angels at Audible who are doing the Lord’s work, I messed around and read 52. I like making lists, I like ranking things for no real reason, and I like large writing projects and so, I have chosen to write far too many words on all the books I read last year and hope you will at least browse through for some potential recommendations and thus, make the many hours I have spent on this in neglect of my wife, child, and friends seem worthwhile.
I did not include within this list the books I took on in 2018 which I had read previously. These included: “A Wrinkle in Time” by Madeline L’Engle, “Slaughterhouse 5” by Kurt Vonnegut, “Fahrenheit 451” by Ray Bradbury, “The Breaks of the Game” by David Halberstam, and the “Red Rising” trilogy by Pierce Brown. All of these books would likely land somewhere in my top twenty for the year, with “Breaks” and the “Red Rising” trilogy coming in at or near the very top, but it didn’t feel right to count re-reads in the same group as new-reads. But just as a side recommend, the “Red Rising” trilogy is pretty much always available on Audible and iBooks/Kindle sales and I loved them even more on the second reading and you should give them a chance if they are even a little bit your thing.
45. “The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O.” - Neal Stephenson and Nicole Galland (Audiobook)
As a Stage 8 Completionist, I am physiologically incapable of quitting a book, movie, stupid sports team that hurts me over and over again, etc. (I actually quit two books this year and my therapist is very proud of me.) “DODO” reeeeaaalllyyyy put that to the test both in terms of the story and the sheer length of the book. As an 8-10 hour read, “DODO” would’ve been harmless enough; as a near-30 hour read, “tedious” began to take on a whole new meaning.
44. “Old Records Never Die” - Eric Spitznagel (Book)
The subtitle for this book could’ve been, “The Author of this Book is a Truly Miserable Person and You Will Hate Him a Little More with Every Page You Turn.” I commend authors for not sugarcoating their life stories in autobiographies (see below) but woof, at some point, some serious soul-searching might’ve been in order for Mr. Spitznagel.
43. “Signal” - Tony Peak (Audiobook)
This was an Audible Original with a promising-enough premise that very quickly fell into a jumble of tropes. Worse yet, the reading was grating and even the sound mix was bad. I finished the book and moved on without formal complaint but apparently enough listeners did complain because a few weeks later, Audible emailed me to say they felt “Signal” wasn’t up to their standards and they gave me a free credit to make up for it. Because Audible loves me and they want me to be happy.
NOT GOOD BOOKS
42. “Pilot X” - Tom Merritt (Audiobook)
As with “DODO”, time travel proved to be too tricky a concept for the author to navigate here. Too much of “Pilot X” felt like an intensive explainer on gobbledygook while the rest felt like it was trying to find ways to work around said gobbledygook. At least this book was short and forgettable enough.
41. “Dreams and Shadows” - C. Robert Cargill (Audiobook)
I like Cargill quite a bit and his career path has provided some inspiration for my own prospective writing “career”. “Dreams and Shadows”, however, took its dark fairy tale premise way, way too far for my tastes and I ended up being bummed out by the story most of the time. It’s a shame, really, because I liked the characters and Cargill’s writing (see below) but altogether, it was a bit of an unpleasant read/listen.
40. “Mongrels” - Stephen Graham Jones (Audiobook)
Pulpy and harmless, “Mongrels” should’ve found its way into the mediocre category with no aspirations of reaching further. But I found that every time the book started to find its way, to gain some momentum, Graham Jones would move into a tangential storyline or make an unnecessary shift to a side character and it wore me out after a while.
39. “At the Mountain of Madness” - HP Lovecraft (Audiobook)
Lovecraft’s influence on genre writing is, of course, quite substantial. His actual writing has never been my cup of tea, however, and his masterwork (or at least his most popular work) proved no different for me.
38. “Beacon 23” - Hugh Howry (Book)
I read the “Silo” trilogy by Howry a couple of years ago and really enjoyed it. “Beacon” was a much less inspired effort, albeit a quick, easy read. The setting is interesting enough but the story just doesn’t get anywhere and Howry seems to want to build out the world but never does.
37. “Last Year” - Robert Charles Wilson (Audiobook)
There are stretches of “Last Year” that I really enjoyed and the central conceit (a mirror, as it were, that allows the people of the present day to pass into a certain point in the past and vice versa) is well-thought out. Wilson deserves real credit for that as, in my experience, books like this often fall apart in taking a two-sentence idea and turning into a world. I never developed any attachment to or interest in the characters, though, and that was necessary for the book’s back third to come together, I think.
36. “The Spaceship Next Door” - Gene Doucette (Audiobook)
This book fell right in line with the average dime store sci-fi paperback from the 40’s and 50’s. It’s a fun idea, it reads easily, the writing is competent, and I forgot almost every detail of the book basically the second I finished it. Nothing wrong with that and at the time, I needed a nice, easy palate cleanser like “Spaceship”, and it did its job adequately.
35. “Why Should the Devil Have All the Good Music?” - Gregory Alan Thornbury (Book)
I was very excited about this one as Larry Norman is an extremely interesting figure about whom not much has been written over the last 25 years. Unfortunately, Mr. Thornbury’s writing style pales in comparison to his gifts as a researcher. To call this book “dry” would be a great understatement; much of it reads like a very boring doctoral thesis. I started reading “Devil” in July and it was literally the last book I finished on the year after having set it aside numerous times.
34. “Shadow of the Lions” - Christopher Swann (Audiobook)
When we’re on a road trip, Lindsey and I usually listen to an audiobook to pass the time. Finding something that appeals to both of our sensibilities and that won’t be scarring to our five-year-old if he happens to take his headphones off for a few minutes isn’t always easy. Thus, a lot of times we end up settling on a mystery/thriller, though it’s not my favorite genre. “Lions” fit the bill on one of our trips and it was just about exactly what I expected: the story was relatively interesting, the reader was solid, the writing was fine, and it passed the time on a long trip. That’s about it.
33. “Something in the Water” - Catherine Steadman (Audiobook)
As noted with “Lions”, mysteries aren’t my genre of choice but this one came highly recommended by basically everyone in the entire world and also it was already available in a friend’s Audible account that I hypothetically have access to (free book!). I really enjoyed this one for a while and I’m willing to extend some latitude to characters in this kind of book who must make poor decisions in order for the book to be, you know, a book. But at some point, I found myself internally screaming at the main character to, “JUST ONE TIME MAKE ONE GOOD DECISION FOR THE LOVE OF EVERYTHING THAT IS GOOD AND HOLY JUST MAKE ONE GOOD DECISION PLEASE!!!” It was exhausting and I was angry by the end of it despite the quality of the writing/storytelling overall.
32. “The Queen: Aretha Franklin” - Mikal Gilmore (Audiobook)
This was kind of a crash-course in Arethaology that Audible put out as one of its “Originals” selections shortly after her death. As such, it reads more like a longform article on The Queen of Soul more than an actual book, relying extensively on quotations and passages from other books and memoirs. It serves its purpose by giving the reader a Cliff’s Notes version of Aretha’s life but that’s about the extent of its value.
31. “The Sea of Rust” - C. Robert Cargill (Audiobook)
As I said previously, I like Cargill significantly more than I liked the first book of his I read this year, so I came back for more. “Rust” still had its issues, but it had some real peaks and he explored a sci-fi trope (a post-human world) from a unique perspective.
30. “Deadpool and Cable” - Rob Liefield (Book)
The only comic book/graphic novel I read this year (after taking on several last year) was at points very fun and at points extremely disjointed. Some comic collections work well as a whole, some do not. This set was too inconsistent to really hit the mark but I still enjoyed the reading more often than not.
29. “Renegades” - Marissa Meyer (eBook)
I don’t like stepping into a book series without knowing what I’m committing to up front and thus, “Renegades” is sort of a worst-case scenario for me. Between the time I bought the book on sale and actually read it a few months later, it went from what I thought was a one-off to an announced trilogy (the second book dropped at the end of 2018). This book is, on its own, totally passable and solid enough but I’m not sure I cared enough to read the series and yet there are some questions I’d liked to have answered annnnddd I’m trapped.
28. “Moonglow” - Michael Chabon (eBook)
Chabon is a truly GREAT author and his “Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay”, which I read for the first time last year, is a masterpiece. I was very excited for “Moonglow”, billed as part memoir, part family history, but it was a slog to get through. The writing is, of course, excellent, it’s just the story, focusing primarily on Chabon’s maternal grandfather, that drags and drags and drags. Every time I was close to putting it down entirely, however, Chabon rediscovered the better elements of the story and pulled me back in.
27. “Six Years” - Harlan Coben (Audiobook)
Another road trip pick, Coben is a master of the “elevated beach read”, a talented writer who could probably pen the next “great American novel” if he wanted but instead pumps out an annual easy read that’s 15 percent better than most of the paperbacks you find in an airport. (I’m not knocking Coben for this, by the way; he’s a genius and I’m very jealous.) “Six Years” is basically the quintessential Coben: great concept, incredibly competent writing, total cookie-cutter ending that could’ve been predicted within the first 50 pages.
26. “A Hobbit, A Wardrobe, and a Great War” - Joseph Loconte (Audiobook)
Few authors have had a greater impact on my life than JRR Tolkein and CS Lewis so it’s only natural that I’d enjoy a book about their wartime experiences and post-war friendship. Someday, I’ll get around to the more substantial works on both of their lives but Loconte’s book served as a quality crash course on the both of them and highlighted, at great length, the friendship that propelled them toward greatness.
25. “We Are Legion (We Are Bob)” - Dennis E. Taylor (Audiobook)
“Legion” was a fun read with a quality concept and self-contained enough that I didn’t feel the need to carry on into the rest of the series. I wish that Taylor would’ve cut the pop culture/nerd culture references by 20 percent, however, though I suspect these references are exactly why the series has a strong pull amongst its target audience. After a while, I felt like the Star Trek callbacks and the like were shoehorned and distracted from Taylor’s own worldbuilding which is actually quite good.
24. “Dead Run” - Dan Schultz (Audiobook)
I don’t read much true crime and when I do, I prefer reporting on the facts of a case rather than an investigation into what might have happened. “Dead Run” fits that bill and Schultz does an excellent job of delving into all parts of this story without allowing the telling to become stale or boring.
23. “When Giants Walked the Earth” - Mick Wall (Audiobook)
Led Zeppelin is my pick for the greatest rock band of all-time and I’ve had this book sitting on my shelf for years. (I am very good at buying large books and very bad at actually reading them, as it turns out.) I finally accepted the inevitable and snagged the audiobook and it was...not a fun read. I knew enough about the respective heydays of Jimmy Page and Robert Plant going in to know what I was getting myself into but there are long stretches of this book I found aggressively unappealing. Still, Wall is a fantastic writer, his research is unparalleled, and I think he tried to keep the book from becoming a full-on celebration of debauchery and bad behavior despite the band’s best efforts to make it so.
22. “Do Over” - Jon Acuff (Audiobook and Book)
I’m not big on self-help/motivational books but I love Acuff so I started reading “Do Over”, like, three years ago hoping it would give me a bit of a push in my writing and podcasting endeavors. I got about two chapters in, had a panic attack, freaked out, and quit. I revisited this year in a much better headspace and with life a little more settled and got a lot out of my reading, including some quality strategies that I’ve used over the last few months.
21. “The Fold” - Peter Clines (Audiobook)
Like “We Are Legion”, this book came recommended to me by a couple of my most trusted nerd friends and these nerds did not disappoint! I’ve read some Clines previously (not to be confused with Ernest Cline of “Ready Player One” fame) and usually came away more impressed with his ideas than his writing. For me, this was a big step in the right direction and I enjoyed it enough to plan on reading his follow-up this year.
20. “The Boy on the Bridge” - MR Carey (Audiobook)
This is, I believe, the third year in a row in which I have read a book by Carey, who came up as an outstanding comic book writer. “Boy” exists in the same world as Carey’s 2014 novel “The Girl with All The Gifts” (which I HIGHLY recommend) and proves a worthy successor. Carey has a way of conveying dark, heavy material in a sort-of detached manner that keeps the bleakness of his world from weighing down and bumming out the reader, which I greatly appreciate.
19. “The Dry” - Jane Harper (Audiobook)
Far and away the best mystery/thriller I read this year and one that actually kept me in suspense up until the final fourth or so. I dug the setting, I thought the mystery element was both mysterious and interesting, and the reader for the audiobook was excellent. Perhaps a bit predictable in the end but the conclusion was still satisfying in spite of that fact.
VERY GOOD BOOKS
18. “The Princess Diarist” - Carrie Fisher (Audiobook)
I had gone back and forth on whether or not I was going to read “The Princess Diarist”, heartbroken as I was over the loss of American Treasure Carrie Fisher and not one for celebrity relationship tell-alls/gossip/what have you. But a listener recommended and sold me on the audiobook (which was read by Fisher before her death) and I’m glad I bought in because Carrie Fisher was a wholly unique gem and her writing was always her greatest skill. Even when the story drifted into territory I didn’t necessarily care about (and it often did, frankly), Fisher’s self-deprecating wit and her magnificent voice kept me totally engaged.
17. “Let’s Go (So We Can Get Back)” - Jeff Tweedy (Audiobook)
Turns out I only read two music-related books this year despite my historical predilection to the genre. I’ve always loved Wilco and Tweedy is a fascinating figure to me, stuck somewhere between a surly, 70’s rock-star and a sensitive modern rock-star. “Let’s Go” has grown on me since I read it in the fall, and I’ve come to appreciate some of the aspects I was unsure of during the reading. Plus, I love when a writer reads his/her own book, especially when it’s non-fiction, and Tweedy as the reader here was a serious bonus.
16. “Norse Mythology” - Neil Gaiman (Audiobook)
Something I discovered about myself while reading “Norse”: I have more of an appreciation for mythology (Norse, Greek, or otherwise) than I actually care about mythology. Through the course of this book, I kept finding myself tuning out or choosing to listen to something else entirely despite A.) How INCREDIBLY well-written this book is, B.) How much I LOVE Neil Gaiman, and C.) How much I SUUUUPPPPERRRR love Neil Gaiman’s voice (*Heart eye emoji*). Somewhere along the line, I realized my disconnect with the book was due exclusively to my internal “meh” to classic mythology in general and I had peace.
15. “The Girl Who Drank the Moon” - Kelly Barnhill (Audiobook)
Just about every person in the civilized world has some familiarity and/or appreciation for fairy tales and thus, it’s a genre that receives a lot of attention in literary and film form. What I loved about Barnhill’s approach here is instead of trying to write a “modern fairy tale” or a “play on a fairy tale”, she just wrote a fairy tale! No modern twist, no attempt at being edgy, she just wrote a very good, vibrant, classically-inspired fairy tale and the result is a smashing success in my estimation.
14. “Brilliance” - Marcus Sakey (Audiobook)
As with “Renegades”, I purchased “Brilliance” having no idea it was the first chapter in a series (it’s possible I’m not paying enough attention to my book choices). Unlike “Renegades”, there is no question regarding my interest in carrying on with this series in the future. “Brilliance” borrows from a bevy of similar books and graphic novels that came before it but Sakey’s characters are quite strong and they carry the book through any potential dips in the originality of the story. I expect I’ll finish out this trilogy in the coming year.
13. “Shoe Dog” - Phil Knight (Audiobook)
Recently, a gentleman in a fine dining establishment questioned my political leanings based on the pair of Nikes I was wearing. I can only imagine how angry that person would be if I saw how highly I rated this book. Mostly memoir with a sliver of business strategy worked in, I found “Shoe Dog” riveting from start to finish. My one complaint is the book cuts off in the early 80’s before Nike became NIKE and, frankly, there’s a lot more Knight could’ve gotten into and I wish he had.
12. “Difficult Men” - Brett Martin (Book)
Another one that’s been sitting on my shelf for years, “Difficult Men” delved into the first run of Peak TV programming (The Sopranos, The Wire, The Shield, Deadwood, etc.), the lead characters therein, and the showrunners/creators who brought them to screen. Martin did so with sufficient depth and through the lens of an auteur, letting each man speak for himself rather than interjecting too much in the way of his own personal biases/preference. In doing so, he gives the reader some great insight into each of their respective processes as well as a good sense of who is and is not someone with which you might ever want to hang.
11. “The Graveyard Book” - Neil Gaiman (Audiobook)
This was my first book of the year which is ironic given that it had been sitting in my Audible unlistened to for at least two full years, maybe three. I mentioned my love for Neil Gaiman earlier and while “Graveyard” is purposefully slighter than some of his grander world building efforts (“Neverwhere” and “American Gods”), it is no less enjoyable or clever. He is a master of story and there is an ease with which his tales float off the page (or off the earbud, as it were) that is almost unmatched. And, again, Gaiman’s voice alone is worth the price of a download here.
10. “The Chris Farley Show” - Tom Farley (Audiobook)
Not the easiest read I took on this year but I’m glad I did. I adored Chris Farley as a youth and I continue to adore the memory of him as a soon-to-be decrepit old man. The oral history format utilized here serves the material very well and gives everyone who had a part in Farley’s life, from high school on up to his untimely death, a chance to be accounted for in their own words. I laughed remembering some of my favorite Farley bits and cried during some of the tougher spots (not always easy to explain to your child why you’re crying while doing the dishes, but he’s pretty much used to it by now). This is a really well-structured book that fully encapsulates its subject’s many highs and devastating lows.
9. “Everybody Always” - Bob Goff (Audiobook and Book)
Bob is hero of mine and one of the most genuine people you could ever hope to meet. His enthusiasm for life and his fellow human beings is unbelievably infectious and that jumps off every single page of “Everybody Always.” Bob’s first book, “Love Does”, got all kinds of press a couple years ago and rightly so but I actually think this book does a better job of inspiring the reader than his previous effort did.
8. “Basketball (And Other Things)” - Shea Serrano (Book)
I was in the middle of “BAOT” when 2017 came to a close so I carried it over to the New Year and enjoyed every page along the way. I have a bookcase full of sports books and while there are better “basketball books” than this (books that tell an important story or rank the best players in NBA history or follow a team through a significant season or whatever), I’m not sure there are many better “books about basketball”. David Halberstam’s aforementioned “The Breaks of the Game” may very be the greatest basketball book ever written but does it have chapters titled, “If 1997 Karl Malone and a Bear Swapped Places for a Season, Who Would Be More Successful?” (the bear, for sure) or “If You Could Dunk on Any One Person, Who Would It Be?” (Miles Teller, obviously)? No, Halberstam did not write those chapters so, point Serrano.
7. “The Book of Lost Things” - John Connolly (Audiobook)
If I may be honest, I love Audible’s various sales throughout the year but often times, the books I’m able to pick up in these circumstances end up cluttering the back half of my year-end list. (See: numbers 45, 42, 41, 40, and more.) This was the outlier in 2018, a book I picked somewhat half-heartedly and ended up loving. Connolly’s book has touches of “Alice in Wonderland” and “The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe” with a hint of Gaiman mixed in to make it darker and more epic than both. “Lost Things” is an excellent read that may end up on the elusive re-read list someday in the future.
6. “Conference Room, Five Minutes” - Shea Serrano (eBook)
Pretty bangin’ year for Serrano, assuming he is as pumped to be featured on this very important list as I imagine he is. “Five Minutes” combines two things that I love: pop-culture essays and The Office and the result could not have been more glorious. Any book that begins with a Stanley Hudson “Shove it up your butt” joke jumps straight past “good” and immediately becomes “great” in my view. Also, I’d like to take this opportunity to apologize to the person sitting next to me on my flight from Dallas to Phoenix this summer who had to witness me try so hard not to LOL that I ultimately began choking after reading said Stanley Hudson joke.
5. “The Name of the Wind” - Patrick Rothfuss (Audiobook)
There are nerds and then there are high fantasy nerds. I’ve often been the former but never really the latter as I’ve typically kept my reading to the shallow end of the fantasy pool. For example, I did not read “Game of Thrones” until after the show began and I’ve never picked up a Terry Brooks tome. This was something different for me, then, and I highly enjoyed this reading. Rothfuss’ worldbuilding (probably the last time I’ll use that term for this list, sorry) is exquisite and his connection to his lead characters is evident from the very early stages of the book. “Wind” is also a little more accessible than other high fantasy novels I’ve picked up over the years; it’s not Rowling-accessible, mind you, but perhaps Tolkein-accessible and that’s enough for this nerd.
4. “X” - Chuck Klosterman (eBook)
Klosterman is one of my very favorite authors and I tend to gravitate toward his essays more than his book-length work. I’d put off reading “X” for over a year because I thought of it as a sort-of greatest hits album and assumed I’d read most, or all, of the works collected therein. Well, number one, I was wrong; there were plenty of entries in this collection that I’d never read before. And number two, even those that I had read were just as interesting and engrossing the second time around as they were in their respective original formats. Klosterman’s unique questions and thought process surrounding virtually any subject he approaches makes even the most common celebrity interview, usually a total tune-out for me, a must-read.
3. “Children of Time” - Adrian Tchaikovsky (Audiobook)
I continue to think of sci-fi as my favorite genre (at least on the fiction side of things) but I am often disappointed or nonplussed by the sci-fi I read. While I quite enjoyed “Brilliance”, “The Fold”, and others, “Children of Time” was the big winner in the sci-fi category this year and likely would remain at the top in most years. It’s a complex story told in three parts spanning across space and time and yet, Tchaikovsky is able to not only hold the reader’s attention rapt, he keeps the book on track, never letting it get lost in its own complexities. It’s dense sci-fi, to be sure, but it’s dense because the story calls for it, not just for the sake of being dense. So, while I can’t say it’s an easy read, it is a supremely good read that is just as strong in execution as it is in concept.
2. “Hi, Bob!” - Bob Newhart (Audiobook)
Seeing as how I am a living human being who has a heart, I love American Treasure Bob Newhart and I value his influence on comedy as highly as any other contributor of the last 50 years. “Hi, Bob!” is a short, easy listen (it is only available via audiobook) that plays more like a longform podcast than anything else and allows him the opportunity to talk to other very funny people (Will Ferrell, Lisa Kudrow, Conan O’Brien, etc.) about comedy, life, and everything in between. The reverence that each comedian has for Newhart is palpable, but these are real conversations between peers and the dynamic works so beautifully.
1. “Hits and Misses” - Simon Rich (eBook)
My favorite read of the year by leaps and bounds. Rich is an actual, literal, comedic genius who has authored some of the funniest short and longform stories (not to mention scripts) of the last decade. But “Hits and Misses” is his masterpiece. Every story in this collection is a good one but the peaks are absolutely brilliant and truly hilarious. I’m not a particularly fast reader as most of my actual “eyes on page/screen” reading comes late at night after everything else is done and I’ve usually only got a few minutes to spare. But I read “Hits and Misses” in two, maybe three sittings total, including once when I tried to read in bed while Lindsey slept and ultimately resulted in my leaving the room because I couldn’t stop cackling out loud. I know I can be prone to hyperbole, but I genuinely cannot remember ever laughing as hard and as frequently while reading a book as I did with “Hits and Misses” and I imagine I will revisit the better stories many times again in the future.