Best Fiction & Poetry of 2018

Below I’ve chosen my top 12 fiction releases from 2018 (eight of them happen to be by women!). Many of these books have already featured on my blog in some way over the course of the year. To keep things simple, as with my nonfiction selections, I’m limiting myself to two sentences per title: the first is a potted summary; the second tells you why you should read it. I’ve also highlighted my three favorites from the year’s poetry releases.

 

  1. Orchid & the Wasp by Caoilinn Hughes: From the Iraq War protests to the Occupy movement in New York City, we follow antiheroine Gael Foess as she tries to get her brother’s art recognized. This debut novel is a potent reminder that money and skills don’t get distributed fairly in this life.

 

  1. Bitter Orange by Claire Fuller: Fuller’s third novel tells the suspenseful story of the profligate summer of 1969 spent at a dilapidated English country house. The characters and atmosphere are top-notch; this is an absorbing, satisfying novel to swallow down in big gulps.

 

  1. The Only Story by Julian Barnes: It may be a familiar story – a May–December romance that fizzles out – but, as Paul believes, we only really get one love story, the defining story of our lives. The picture of romantic youth shading into cynical but still hopeful middle age really resonates, as do the themes of unconventionality, memory, addiction and pity.

 

  1. The Immortalists by Chloe Benjamin: Summer 1969: four young siblings escape a sweltering New York City morning by visiting a fortune teller who can tell you the day you’ll die; in the decades that follow, they have to decide what to do with this advance knowledge: will it spur them to live courageous lives, or drive them to desperation? This compelling family story lives up to the hype.

 

  1. An American Marriage by Tayari Jones: Roy and Celestial only get a year of happy marriage before he’s falsely accused of rape and sentenced to 12 years in prison in Louisiana. This would make a great book club pick: I ached for all the main characters in their impossible situation; there’s a lot to probe about their personalities and motivations, and about how they reveal or disguise themselves through their narration and letters.

 

  1. The Italian Teacher by Tom Rachman: Charles “Pinch” Bavinsky is an Italian teacher; as a boy in Rome in the 1950s–60s he believed he’d follow in the footsteps of his sculptor mother and his moderately famous father, Bear Bavinsky, who paints close-ups of body parts, but along the way something went wrong. This is a rewarding novel about the desperation to please, or perhaps exceed, one’s parents and the legacy of artists in a fickle market.

 

  1. The Incendiaries by R. O. Kwon: A sophisticated, unsettling debut novel about faith and its aftermath, fractured through the experience of three people coming to terms with painful circumstances. Kwon spent 10 years writing this book, and that time and diligence come through in how carefully honed the prose is: such precise images; not a single excess word.

 

  1. Unsheltered by Barbara Kingsolver: Kingsolver’s bold eighth novel has a dual timeline that compares the America of the 1870s and the recent past and finds that they are linked by distrust and displacement. There’s so much going on that it feels like it encompasses all of human life; it’s by no means a subtle book, but it’s an important one for our time, with many issues worth pondering and discussing.

 

  1. Southernmost by Silas House: In House’s sixth novel, a Tennessee preacher’s family life falls apart when he accepts a gay couple into his church. We go on a long journey with Asher Sharp: not just a literal road trip from Tennessee to Florida, but also a spiritual passage from judgment to grace in this beautiful, quietly moving novel of redemption and openness to what life might teach us.

 

  1. Little by Edward Carey: This is a deliciously macabre, Dickensian novel about Madame Tussaud, who started life as Anne Marie Grosholtz in Switzerland in 1761. From a former monkey house to the Versailles palace and back, Marie must tread carefully as the French Revolution advances and a desire for wax heads is replaced by that for decapitated ones.

 

  1. Motherhood by Sheila Heti: Chance, inheritance, and choice vie for pride of place in this relentless, audacious inquiry into the purpose of a woman’s life. The book encapsulates nearly every thought that has gone through my mind over the last decade as I’ve faced the intractable question of whether to have children.

 

  1. Florida by Lauren Groff: There’s an oppressive atmosphere throughout these 11 short stories, with violent storms reminding the characters of an uncaring universe, falling-apart relationships, and the threat of environmental catastrophe. Florida feels innovative and terrifyingly relevant; any one of its stories is a bracing read; together they form a masterpiece. (I never would have predicted that a short story collection would be my favorite fiction read of the year!)

 

My 2018 fiction books of the year (the ones I own in print, anyway).

Poetry selections:

 

  1. Three Poems by Hannah Sullivan: These poem-essays give fragmentary images of city life and question the notion of progress and what meaning a life leaves behind. “The Sandpit after Rain” stylishly but grimly juxtaposes her father’s death and her son’s birth.

 

  1. Comfort Measures Only: New and Selected Poems, 1994–2016 by Rafael Campo: Superb, poignant poetry about illness and the physician’s duty. A good bit of this was composed in response to the AIDS crisis; it’s remarkable how Campo wrings beauty out of clinical terminology and tragic situations.

 

  1. The Small Door of Your Death by Sheryl St. Germain: St. Germain’s seventh collection is in memory of her son Gray, who died of a drug overdose in 2014, aged 30. She turns her family history of alcohol and drug use into a touchpoint and affirms life’s sensual pleasures – everything from the smell of brand-new cowboy boots to luscious fruits.

 

What were some of your top fiction (or poetry) reads of the year?

 

Tomorrow I’ll be naming some runners-up (both fiction and nonfiction).

33 thoughts on “Best Fiction & Poetry of 2018

  1. I still really want to read Southernmost and of course I loved Unsheltered and that will probably make it into my top ten, although I’m reading so much at the moment it might get knocked off its post, you never know (and as I’m about to comment on in your other post, I now understand these are books published this year – d’oh!).

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  2. The Orchid and the Wasp sounds great, and I loved Florida. I liked An American Marriage, but was even more impressed by Jones’s debut, Leaving Atlanta – I’m hoping to read more by her in 2019.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. I don’t think so, but I was able to order a second hand copy of Leaving Atlanta online and they are all available on Kindle. I’m hoping that after the success of An American Marriage that they reissue her back catalogue here.

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  3. Several on your fiction list that I’ve loved this year – Little, Bitter Orange, The Immortalists – although sadly not Orchid and Wasp. I still have Florida sitting on my shelves waiting to be read and am hoping for a UK publication for Southernmost.

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      1. Unlikely. I buy 90% of my books online. We have an online vendor, takealot.com, which acts as an outlet for amazon.com. BTW, amazon will not ship directly to our country because of endless problems with our postal service – theft & non-delivery. Sigh.

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    1. I’ll look that one up, thank you. I haven’t completed my statistics yet, but I think my numbers are down on poetry this year, which surprises me. I feel like I almost always have a volume of poetry on the go, but I get through them more slowly than fiction.

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  4. I’ve read two of your list: Benjamin and Rachman – loved both, but particularly the latter. Fuller and Barnes are in my bedside piles, and I’d love to get my hands on Little and Orchid and the Wasp. I didn’t realise the Sheila Heti was a novel – can’t say it attracts me though. Three Poems was great too.

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    1. The Heti is more like autofiction, as is all her stuff as far as I know — very much drawn from her life, with little attempt at fictionalization. This particular book was perfect for me for my situation and time of life, but I know others have found it indulgent and dull.

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  5. I have a few of these fiction titles on my TBR, and An American Marriage will be on my Top Ten list when I write it, which will be sometime in the next two days.

    I intend to do better on poetry next year. I somehow didn’t read a single collection.

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  6. It’s been a year of reading some wonderful books for me as well. Since I’ve joined several groups on groups.io that read and discuss quality literature I’ve read through the Booker Prize short listand a few from the long list as well. One of my favorite books read this year is “The Overstory”, by Richard Powers which, in my humble opinion, should have won. I’ve just finished “There There”, by Tommy Orange, which is composed of the intertwined stories of eleven characters, all Native Americans; the book leads up to a pow-wow in Oakland, CA. I won’t spoil the ending for you, but will simply state that the good guys mostly win.

    Thanks for your recap. I’ve read several that you listed and have added others to my to-read list.

    Karen

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I fully expected The Overstory to win the Booker Prize. It didn’t quite make my Best-of list, but it’s on today’s runners-up list.

      I’m 1/3 of the way through There There, which I’m reading as part of my panel judging for the National Book Critics Circle’s John Leonard Prize for the best first book of 2018. I’m enjoying it very much so far. The voices are so distinct.

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