Best Books of 2018 by our Reviewers, Sally Drake and Mark Mindel

   Sally's Top Ten Books of 2018   


Heavy    by Kiese Laymon

When people have the courage to tell the truth about their life, they lift us all up. This memoir about a black man from Mississippi confronting his beloved mother about their painful, traumatic past; facing American racism and all its structural, political, economic and personal affronts, and dealing with his own dangerous coping mechanisms including exercise addiction and gambling as he navigates his way through academia is the bravest story I've ever heard. I am filled with admiration and awe for this man. And while it would appear that we have very little in common there were moments when I understood exactly what he was saying (extreme exercise for example is a demon with consequences that knows few differences between people). This memoir will teach you. Be brave and read it.


Becoming     by Michelle Obama

The life story of the great-great granddaughter of a slave from North Carolina and the daughter of working class parents who raised two kids in a 900-square foot apartment in the South Side of Chicago who worked her way through the Chicago public school system, Princeton and Harvard Law School, managed a high-powered, civic-minded career and fell in love with a fellow young lawyer who would eventually become the first African-American President of the United States of America.  Michelle Obama’s story is a truly authentic American story of grace, determination, focus and hard work. It is a story that will fill you with awe, inspiration, joy and hope. It is a story that will remind you of what makes this country truly great, of the opportunity that is there for good people to succeed and the opportunity for those people to use their success to make the world a better place.  This is a stunning memoir.  Michelle is a remarkable woman and reading her story will make you believe again in hope, in the power of decency and empathy, and the potential of our country to be a place where we, together, lift each other up.


The Library Book        by Susan Orlean

Reading this book was a joyful, engrossing, wondrous experience. The Library Book tells a deeply meaningful and human story about the Los Angeles Central Library. It is sweeping and detailed, describing with history, anecdote and character study the power of books and libraries to connect us, to move us forward, and strengthen our democracy. This book is a timely reminder of the poignant and significant influence that books and, more importantly, the sharing of books, has to enrich us as individuals and citizens in countless, beautiful ways. It’s a love story that will deeply resonate within anybody who treasures books.


The Great Believers      by Rebeccas Makkai

This is a beautiful and heartbreaking novel about the AIDS crisis in Chicago in the late 1980s when the virus spread virulently and violently through gay communities, and gripped the nation in fear and unfounded bias that delayed research and treatment. It was a turning point in American life and this novel has the important function of reminding us of that time and how destructive fear and discrimination are. But it is also about the power of love, especially in times of crisis and how we connect to survive. There were so many poignant moments in this novel and it is a very emotional read.


There There      by Tommy Orange

This debut novel is about Native Americans living in Oakland, California. Told from the perspective of inter-linked characters whose lives collide in one of the most dramatic literary scenes I’ve ever read, this novel is groundbreaking, brilliant and powerful. Identity, dislocation, searching, myth and storytelling are all themes this novel explores through the often broken but extremely human lives of its characters. The city of Oakland is a character in and of itself, a pulsing, complex place that the characters in this book are both running from and to just as they are from their personal struggles. This novel is fast-paced and often thrilling, and it takes focus to keep track of the many characters moving swiftly through dramatic situations. It also tells a very important and very uniquely American story about urban life, cultural tradition and change, identity and place.


White Houses      by Amy Bloom

Eleanor Roosevelt is one of my heroes for so many reasons including her devotion to her beloved friends. This is a story (historical fiction based on letters, biography and news accounts) about a remarkable relationship between two women who were far ahead of their time. I have read many books about Eleanor Roosevelt but knew little about her friend Lorena Hicks, an important figure in her own right who overcame a rough and traumatic childhood, led a brave and strong life and had great influence on the Roosevelt legacy. This is ultimately a love story of the best kind: complicated, passionate, true.


Improvement      by Joan Silber

A wonderful novel about the impact of the constant, innumerable, random and planned interactions and connections we have throughout our lives. This is the first Joan Silber book I read which I admit shamefully since she is one of America's greatest living writers. Since finishing Improvement, I've read the equally brilliant novel Household Words and a short story collection, Ideas of Heaven. Silber is a beautiful writer, graceful and compassionate in her character development and discovering her was one of my happiest 2018 reading accomplishments.


The Friend    by Sigrid Nunez

A mesmerizing and affecting novel about grief and love. The story is about a woman who takes the dog left behind when its owner, her lifelong friend and mentor, dies unexpectedly.  The dog is traumatized by the death and the woman is barely capable of caring for it but their connection both contains and reflects the intensity and complexity of the friendship between the two humans and is achingly beautiful and poignant. The Friend won the 2018 National Book Award.


Asymmetry      by Lisa Halliday

This inventive book is really 3 novellas, linked by theme rather than character or plot.  The first story is about the relationship between a young woman (Alice) and a famous writer (Ezra Blazer) much older than she, believed to be based on Halliday’s relationship with Philip Roth.  The relationship is complex and both tender and depressing. All relationships are imbalanced, this one particularly by the age difference, fame and wealth. But Alice is smart and empowered and Halliday’s perspective does not victimize but rather explores what this complicated love means to each.  The second story is about an American born Iraqi man (Amar) detained at Heathrow Airport on the way to visit his brother in Kurdistan.  The Kafka-esque nature of this story through which we learn about Amar’s life and family explores cross-cultural identity particularly in the post 9-11 era. The final story goes back to Blazer in a late-life radio interview that exposes more about his personal past.  The three stories interact in perspective--connecting and revealing in fluid ways thoughts about family, love, identity and American culture after 2001. 


Educated       by Tara Westover

A devastating memoir by a woman who grew up in an isolated, rural Idaho Mormon town raised by survivalist parents with extreme anti-government ideologies.  She eventually leaves, earning a PhD from Cambridge University but struggles constantly with guilt, remorse, identity and understanding her place in the world. What she survives is far beyond religions extremism—it is the trauma associated with abuse, severe mental illness and secrecy. I finished this book emotionally exhausted. I greatly admire Westover and I’m also very sad for her. Hers is a heartbreaking story that I think is extreme but not necessarily rare. Educated is a tough, admirable book with an important glimpse into an American way of life not well understood.


   Mark's Top Ten Books of 2018   

The President is Missing     by Bill Clinton and James Patterson

I'd love to know how much of this book Bill Clinton actually wrote because it's one of James Patterson's best thrillers in quite some time. On the other hand if Patterson, who has basically has been shipping out his writing to other authors of late, wrote the majority of this one, you can say he's back with a vengeance! This thriller was hard to put down as America faces a cyber attack of the biggest kind, one to take down our entire infrastructure. Clinton's insight into the inner circle of the presidency plays a huge part in this story, no doubt. Bill also slips in a little of his own political agenda at the end, but, hey, he has presidential and writer's license to do so. You really can't put this book down once it gets going! Here's hoping they team up again!


The Punishment She Deserves      by Elizabeth George (Linley #20)

The master of English detective writing, Elizabeth George, is at it again with her 20th Inspector Thomas Lynley novel. Lynley, the Earl of Asherton, as always is partnered with his Scotland Yard working class gal, Detective Sergeant Barbara Havers, and of course their conflicting personalities (both in gender and class and HOW they go about detecting) always seem to balance out and aid them in solving an unsolvable crime! Which is: did the vicar kill himself as Ludlow police have determined, or was it a well-disguised bloody murder? Well as you wade through the near 800 pages of mystery, misdirections, and clandestine activities through the many intricate stories weaved together in this picturesque medieval English town, you will have to ride along with his lordship and Barbara as they try to figure things out! The title involves three "Shes" who deserve punishment and by the end you will pretty much have it sussed out! A pretty good story, init?*

*Liverpool slang for “Isn’t it?”


Crimson Lake      by Candace Fox (My favorite new author!)

Five star selection! CANDICE FOX IS a can't miss author! This up-and-coming Aussie sure knows how to weave a tale of suspense as she portrays 3 or possibly 4 separate crime stories into one! Our hero Ted, a Sydney detective thrown to the wolves, or should we say crocodiles?, when accused and tried for a crime he was in the wrong time and place for but didn't commit, moves up into the Northern territory of Australia, about an hour North of Cairns even, to get away from it all and hooks up with private eye and former juvenile murderess, Amanda (released for good behavior for a crime she didn't commit?). The partners try solving the mysterious disappearance of famous author, Jake Skully, while secretly looking into each other's former 'crimes'...and it all makes for many interesting twists. Throw in two gestapo-like cops, the media still chasing Ted after his case was suddenly dismissed from lack of concrete evidence after he spent months in prison, and some interesting town folks and you have yourself a fun read! Fox has already completed the sequel, Redemption Point, due out soon in the US of A! Can't wait.


Holy Ghost (Virgil Flowers, #11)       by John Sandford
Virgil Flowers is to Minneapolis law as to what Raylan Givens (TV Series, Justified) was to Lexington, KY. Unorthodox that is to say. The longhaired, cowboy hat-wearing deputy of the Minnesota Criminal Bureau of Investigation is called to the small town of Wheatfield, MN (population 600) where an apparition of the Virgin Mary at the local Catholic church has the town turned upside-down. First to take advantage of this are Mayor Wardell Holland and his 18-year-old sidekick, JJ Skinner who open up a profitable mom and pop (or in this case, Batman and Robin) General Store. Could they and their 30-year-old friend Janet "Jenny" Fischer (who spends a LOT of time in the bedroom with young Skinner) be behind the "miracle" sighting? Meanwhile, people start getting shot right around the church, which could be a huge downer for the newfound success of the town. Enter Virgil Flowers who quickly becomes frustrated as people start being murdered right in front of him and Virgil himself is hit with a bow and arrow of all things. Can Virgil solve the murder mysteries and save the town? You'll have to read it to find out.


Fifty-Fifty       by James Patterson and Candace Fox

Candice Fox from Australia is one of the best new authors. In Fifty-Fifty she co-writes with James Patterson as well as on her own. The Sydney Morning Herald said that “in her willingness to go to the dark side and turn it upside down, she is a daring Antipodean original.” You'll love her books. This is the sequel to Never, Never....and continues with the troubled detective Harriet (Harry) Blue who is out to prove her brother innocent while fighting crime in the Outback! Must read.


Past Tense      by Lee Child (Jack Reacher #22)

Reacher visits sleepy Laconia, New Hampshire in search of any vestiges of his father's history. Stan Reacher, a military man, like Reacher himself, vaguely mentioned it as where he grew up. History starts repeating itself once Jack Reacher begins turning up some family history; not all of it good. And at the same time, a young Canadian couple gets stuck in a motel when their car breaks down about 20 miles north of Laconia in a dead-end town named Ryantown. Ironically, the owner of the motel is Mark Reacher, a distant relative of Jack's. The people at the no-name motel are up to no good (think "The Most Dangerous Game") and the two stories intertwine. Can Jack act fast enough to save the Canadians from his "cousin"? Fast-paced action you won't want to put down.


Twisted Prey      by John Sanford

Having moved on from the Minneapolis Bureau of Criminal Apprehension to the US Marshall's office, Lucas Davenport has basically been given free reign to choose cases to his liking, most often those with great physical risk to himself and the criminals he pursues. Lucas is once again on the tail of Senator Taryn Grant, a psycho/sociopath who rose to her position through nefarious means and only Davenport and US Senator Porter Smalls, also from Minnesota, are wise to it. Now Grant hires an assassin to kill Smalls and when it doesn't succeed Smalls calls in Lucas. What follows is typical Sandford/ Davenport material...a lot of action! Who wins? Stay tuned, or better yet, read it for yourself. This is the 28th in the Prey Series, which has also spun off ten Virgil (he's a former Davenport deputy...think Raylon of Justified fame) Flowers novels.


The Late Show  by Michael Connelly (Rene Ballard #1 Harry Bosch #29)

Loved this new LAPD detective and (hopefully) new series. Got a kick out of the cameo mention of Harry Bosch (one of the victims was a waitress who aspired to be an actress and was an extra in a Bosch movie). Renée Ballard, the new detective introduced here is very similar and dissimilar to Harry.  She’s a loner, has a dog, and loves the beach (in fact is kind of homeless- she works the night shift and sleeps on the beach in a tent). Renée is a kick-ass detective with a solid compass like Harry, and also plays loose with the rules like Harry. You will like the intertwining of 2 or 3 different cases and of course the detailed explanation of police procedure.  Hope Renee' sticks around and maybe even interacts with Harry himself in the future.


Crime Scene       by Jonathan and Jesse Kellerman (Clay Edison #1)

Excellent inaugural novel by authors Jonathan Kellerman and son, Jesse.  It is a new series about Coroner Detective Clay Edison, a former NBA prospect point guard at Cal (he was about to break Jason Kidds's assist record before he tore his ACL) who now works for the Alameda County Coroner's office (think Berkeley). A seemingly easy case, a former professor dies falling down stairs. It looks like an accident or natural causes -- heart attack-- leading to the fall, but the prof's daughter tells the cops he was murdered, just like his former grad assistant was years ago, who also was found dead at the bottom of the stairs. Edison becomes entrenched in the case,and hooks up with the daughter in more ways than one....

A novel you can't put down. The crime stuff is great, but the personal stuff even better! Can't wait to read the sequel.


Pieces of Her      by Karin Slaughter

The Georgia Peach is at her finest in her newest novel about a daughter who finds out she really doesn't know who her mother is....32 year old Andrea Oliver has been floating through life without a real purpose, and lives in the garage above her mom's house. Good ole loveable mom, Laura Oliver. Until they are attacked by a deranged killer in an Atlanta mall and her mom goes all John Wick on the guy. We actually follow the story two ways....one as told by Andrea in the present as she goes on the lam trying to figure out who her mother is and two as told in 1986 by Jane Queller, a reticient, but rich, and extremely talented concert pianist who is mixed up in a cult-like gang. Picture Patty Huerst. And somehow these two stories intertwine in a bizarre and unique way....


*Mark advises that all books in the series he recommends in his column are worth reading.


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