In libraries and bookstores, you often hear the phrase, “so many books, so little time,” and that never rings truer than at the end of a year! Looking back, it’s staggering to survey not just the sheer amount of books published in 2018, but to appreciate how many vibrant new voices (came to the literary stage.
Difficult subject matter was explored with journalistic grace in non-fiction, while memoirists have begun to reinvent that genre. Fiction writers developed some captivating character studies that followed surprising plot twists, while other novelists rejuvenated the telling of short stories with subtly profound links between each narrative.
Tommy Orange, There, There
Tommy Orange wrote a stunning debut that tells a loosely threaded narrative of 12 individual Native Americans each on their way to the Big Oakland Powwow. It’s a multigenerational cast of characters each dealing with a variety of struggles, be it with their identity, traumatic memories, violent pasts, in tones that strike for dry humor as well as poignant catharsis. Each well-defined character is on a steady journey back toward a sense of restoration, recovery, normalcy, or a renewed spirituality. Watch Orange’s interview from the 2018 Miami Book Fair >
R.O. Kwon, The Incendiaries
For her first fiction novel, R.O. Kwon starts you off with a love story between two young college students, but transitions quickly into a tense tale of dangerous zealotry, doubted devotion, and buried grief. Phoebe Lin finds herself losing control of her relationship with Will Kendall, as she’s drawn into a secretive and extremist cult founded by a charismatic former student of their alma mater. When the religious group they belong to bombs several buildings and kills five people, Phoebe attempts an escape, with Phil, obsessive and potentially dangerous, in hot pursuit. Kwon’s prose-like narrative adds radiance to the otherwise troubling subject matter and makes it hard to put down. Watch Kwon’s interview from the 2018 AWP Book Conference >
Tomi Adeyemi, Children of Blood and Bone This highly acclaimed introductory piece of a planned trilogy set in West Africa conjures a vivid world of dark magic, danger, and heroism. With a spellbinding narrative recalling J.K. Rowling, Adeyemi invites you to the world of Orsha, where we experience the aftermath of an evil Maji’s attempt to rid it of magic and hope. Fantastic creatures and vengeful spirits inhabit mystical lands for our protagonist to venture through, on her way to stopping a tyrannical crowned prince, while she steadily learns more about honing and controlling her own powers.
Michelle McNamara, I’ll Be Gone in the Dark
This is the haunting true story of a serial rapist turned murderer known as “the Golden State Killer,” who terrorized residents of California for more than a decade in the 1970s and 80s. McNamara, a gifted true-crime journalist, tragically died while investigating this case, having exhaustively pored over police reports, interviewed victims and even embedded herself in online true-crime communities obsessed with this case. It provides a snapshot of American history as well as a portrait of McNamara’s tireless dedication to find the violent suspect behind the killings. (Joseph James DeAngelo was arrested in April, mere weeks after this book debuted).
Ada Limón, The Carrying – Poems
Limón’s latest and most profound collection of poetry brings you narrators deep in existential contemplation, but voicing those ponderings with a lithe vocabulary resembling a dream-journal. With a musicality to her meter that varies between minimalist wisps and fervent storms, she portrays a range of experiences, coming to terms with hard truths, rediscovering lost joys, and substantially altering our perspective, or our grasp of the everyday. Her grace with the written word has made her a previous finalist for the National Book Award. Watch Limón’s interview from the 2018 AWP Book Conference >
Esi Edugyan, George Washington Black
The titular character is an eleven-year-old field slave on a Barbados sugar plantation in the 1800’s who is chosen to be the manservant to a naturalist/explorer/inventor and abolitionist known as Christopher Wilde. While this exposes our protagonist, known as “Wash,” to a world of imagination, science, and daring, he is forced to flee when he is wrongly accused of a murder. Edugyan’s book follows Wilde and Wash as they evade bounty hunters along the east coast aboard a ship captained by a cryptic hunter, where they encounter a range of interesting and nefarious characters in their shipmates. As the pages turn, Wash is whisked away across the ocean as his evasive course becomes a journey of discovery, seeking the true meaning of freedom.
Tayari Jones, An American Marriage
Jones’ acclaimed novel explores the bonds of love in extreme circumstances, against a larger background of race and mass incarceration. Set in Atlanta, we follow newlyweds Celestial, an artist on the cusp of establishing her career, and Roy, a young executive chasing the American Dream, as they set out with intent to build a life together. But much of the story is told in letter form as a means of documenting a derailment of their married life, as we experience the strains upon their bond both during and after Roy’s incarceration. Watch Jones’s interview from the 2018 LA Times Festival of Books >
Kiese Laymon, Heavy: An American Memoir
Essayist Kiese Laymon lays bare the strain of carrying a lifetime’s worth of weighty secrets, deceptions, abuse and violence in his acclaimed memoir. By attempting to unpack and put to rest the secrets and lies he and his mother spent a lifetime avoiding, Laymon asks himself, his mother, his nation, and us, as readers, to confront the terrifying possibility that few in this nation actually know how to responsibly love, and even fewer want to live under the weight of actually becoming free. Watch Laymon’s interview from the 2018 AWP Book Conference >
Lauren Groff, Florida
Groff has been a finalist for the National Book Award, the National Book Critics Circle Award, the Kirkus Prize and the LA Times Book Prize. This collection of stories spans characters, towns, and expansive time periods, but its setting, Florida is a constant throughout each chapter. In an intriguing way, Groff takes the Sunshine State and all of its characteristics and stormy climes, and almost anthropomorphizes them with the turbulent emotions, wary dispositions, and suddenly shifted circumstances of the characters portrayed in each story. Watch Groff’s interview from the 2018 AWP Book Conference >
Tara Westover, Educated
Tara Westover lived the first seventeen years of her life having never set foot inside of a classroom. This memoir details her life as the daughter of survivalists living off the grid and preparing for the apocalypse from their abode in the mountains of Idaho. Readers follow Westover her as a young adult eager to educate herself, learning enough mathematics and grammar to pass the ACT and be admitted to Bringham Young University. This is a harrowing story of a quest for knowledge and offers a very unique coming-of-age story told with insightful and dynamic narration. Watch Westover’s interview from the 2018 National Book Festival >
Luis Alberto Urrea, Broken Angels
A beloved patriarch known affectionately as ‘Big Angel’ has summoned his entire family for one last unforgettable birthday celebration. Miguel Angel De La Cruz, in failing health and coming to terms with his own mortality with as much grace as can muster, winds up suffering the loss of his nearly 100-year-old mother just as his own party is about to begin. This accentuates the catharsis, sentimentality and sadness of a warm and woeful weekend spent among a Mexican American family in Southern California. Urrea has written a coming-to-America story through the lens of a patriarch’s expected passing that opens up a heartfelt odyssey ruminating on the complexities of love between siblings and the legacies passed down through generations. Watch Urrea’s interview from the 2018 LA Times Festival of Books >
Nick Drnaso, Sabrina
Drnaso’s 2018 graphic novel is the first of that genre to ever be nominated for the esteemed Man Booker Prize. With hauntingly beautiful illustrations and muted tones, Drnaso tells the story of the disappearance of the titular character, and an airman in the U.S. Air force who is drawn into a web of conspiracy theories and subterfuge. Sabrina is an exploration of a troubling yet all-too-relatable existential numbness, with characters deciphering twisted truths and staving off aching powerlessness, captured with artful imagery.