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Babe Ruth, the Beastie Boys, e-mail follies, and romance for today: Our staffers recommend the best reads of 2018

The staffs of the Inquirer, Daily News, and recommend books they loved in 2018. There are stories, themes, and characters here for all gift-giving and reading tastes.

Michelle Obama's "Becoming" made our list.
Michelle Obama's "Becoming" made our list.

Happy holidays from everyone at the Inquirer, Daily News, and Big readers that they are, our staffers have unwrapped their book recommendations for 2018 just for you. They’re a wide range of people, and you’ll find a wide range of books: best sellers, romances, mysteries, memoirs, top fiction and nonfiction. You’ll be delighted and impressed by their taste, as I always am: In the titles below you may find the perfect book to give this season.


Last Stories by William Trevor (Viking, $26). “The Irish master’s melancholy short stories graced the pages of the New Yorker for decades,” writes Brian Leighton. “He died at age 88 in 2016 but left behind one last volume of finely crafted stories for us to treasure.”

Pachinko by Min Jin Lee (Grand Central, $27). Grace Dickinson nominates this sprawling, emotional saga of a Korean family over four generations, exquisitely written and almost universally admired.

Paris in the Present Tense by Mark Helprin (Overlook, $28.95). John Baer gushed over this novel: “Modern-day Paris, terrific central character, great story of love, loss, twists and turns, all presented with prose so good you’ll want to read it slowly.”

The Sparsholt Affair, by Alan Hollinghurst (Knopf, $28.95). “Pretty much anything by this esteemed British novelist is worth savoring,” writes columnist Kevin Riordan, “and his latest is no exception.”

Ah, romance

Consumed by J.R. Ward (Gallery, $27). This was “an outstanding romance this year,” writes our newsroom romance maven, Lidija Dorjkhand. “Sizzling romance and action mark a great start to her new Firefighters series.”

Dark Sentinel by Christine Feehan (Berkley, $27). This novel “was a real surprise,” Dorjkhand writes. The 32nd book in her Carpathian vampire series is “an urgent, exciting entry … because of the smart, brave heroine who literally kicks ass.”

The Kiss Quotient by Helen Hoang (Berkley, $15). Bethany Ao writes “this love story about a woman with Asperger syndrome and a Vietnamese American male escort is a satisfying one.” I liked it a lot, too.

Stories made from truth

Beneath a Scarlet Sky by Mark T. Sullivan (Lake Union, $27.95). James Swan liked this novel, based on “the true World War II story of Pino Lella, an Italian who guided Jews across the Alps into Switzerland. … A perfect companion piece to All the Light We Cannot See” by Anthony Doerr.

Varina by Charles Frazier (Ecco, $27.99). Cynthia Henry likes this novel spotlighting the wife of Confederate President Jefferson Davis. Frazier (Cold Mountain) “resumes his exploration of the consequences of ‘being on the wrong side of history’ in the Civil War,” Henry writes. “The best scenes capture the immediate aftermath of Sherman’s march through the South.”

American destinations

America is Not the Heart by Elaine Castillo (Viking, $27). “This sprawling first novel from a Filipino American author tells the story of one Filipino family that settled in the Bay Area but spans generations, continents, and political leanings,” writes Juliana Feliciano Reyes. “I loved it most for its thoughtful and often heartbreaking exploration of class.”

The Hellfire Club by Jake Tapper (Little, Brown, $27). “Maybe it’s the 1950s setting,” writes Ellen Gray, “but this D.C.-set thriller from the Philly-raised CNN anchor reminded me fondly of Allen Drury’s Advise and Consent. Come for the McCarthy-era gossip – complete with Kennedys! – but stay for the reminders that political dysfunction didn’t start with any recent election.”

Lake Success by Gary Shteyngart (Random House, $28). Becky Batcha likes this story in which “a disgraced hedge-fund manager drives south with the one he loves (himself, at the outset) on Greyhound. Shteyngart hooks you with his humor … but the novel’s strongest suit is its compassion for a cast of only-in-America characters.”

Forever is not enough

Eternal Life by Dara Horn (Norton, $25.95). Resident expert on the undead Joanne McLaughlin calls this “the canny, often funny story of Rachel, a woman who cannot die. Getting things right gets no easier even after 2,000 years of trying.”

The Immortalists by Chloe Benjamin (G.P. Putnam’s Sons, $26). Wendy Ruderman calls this novel, which has landed on a lot of “10 Best of 2018” lists, a “beautiful and thoughtful narrative that got me thinking: If I knew the exact date of my death, would I live my life differently?”

There will be shudders

The Death of Mrs. Westaway by Ruth Ware (Gallery/Scout Press, $26.99). Batcha writes that the British mystery master dishes up “a creepy old mansion populated by an old-money family of schemers. And then comes the snowstorm.” Brrr.

The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson (Penguin Classics, $16). “Yes, I have watched (and loved!) the Netflix series,” writes Aubrey Whelan. “No, it’s nothing like the book. And, yes, the book, which turns 60 in the new year, is one million times better and scarier than the show, and it’s because Jackson never really explains what’s going on, barely reveals the ghosts, and lets your fevered imagination fill in the blanks.”

The Perfect Nanny by Leila Slimani (Penguin, $16). I was going to recommend this international sensation, a book on a lot of best-of lists, but Marie McCullough saved me the work. “This is a quick read that opens with a bang” and makes the reader want to keep reading, McCullough writes. “I liked how the author plumbed modern class, race, working motherhood, and the tensions of upward mobility.”


Fatally Flawless by Philly writer Saleem Roberts (The TMG Firm, $16.95). Metro columnist Jenice Armstrong writes that this 1990s-set page-turner “revolves around the lives of Mya, Takia, and Raven – the most fashionable girls at Philly’s Overbrook High School. Their close friendship is put to the ultimate test as the girls navigate the mean streets of Philly.”

Freya by Anthony Quinn (Europa, $19). An empathetic story of two women and their friendship in postwar London, it is one of my favorite 2018 reads. Sometimes you like Freya and Nancy and sometimes you don’t, but you keep on loving them.

Hey Ladies!: The Story of 8 Best Friends, 1 Year, and Way, Way Too Many Emails by Michelle Markowitz and Caroline Moss (Harry N. Abrams, $16.99). Erica Palan writes this is “a story of millennial female friendship told entirely through the email chain of a group of friends.” She calls Hey Ladies! the very definition of a book that’s funny because it’s true, but “sometimes it was so real that I found myself groaning in shame. I will never again start an email to my girlfriends with, ‘Hey ladies!!’ ”


Luzzara: Another Look by David Maialetti (Centro Culturale Zavatinniti/ Spazio Corriere, $28). The Inquirer photographer traveled to the town of Luzzara in north-central Italy, where photographic artist Paul Strand created a celebrated photo study in 1953. More than 100 of Maialetti’s black-and-white images reexamine the town and its people.

On Desperate Ground: The Marines at the Reservoir, the Korean War’s Greatest Battle by Hampton Sides (Doubleday, $30). “This history of the Chosin Reservoir battle keeps the amateur history reader engaged while still appealing to military buffs,” writes Erin Arvedlund. “The former Outside magazine editor casts a 30,000-foot view with lilting and colorful writing.”

Pop Culture Matters

Beastie Boys Book by Michael Diamond and Adam Horovitz (Spiegel & Grau, $50). “The two surviving Beasties write a fun, easy-to-read history of their influential hip-hop group,” writes Matt Breen, calling it “a great look at how the genre was born and what New York City was like in the 1980s. Plus, it includes a cookbook.”

The Big Fella: Babe Ruth and the World He Created by Jane Leavy (Harper, $32.50). Nick Cristiano writes, “Building her narrative around a 1927 barnstorming tour by the Sultan of Swat and his Yankees teammate Lou Gehrig, Leavy shows how Ruth — and his visionary business agent, Christy Walsh — set the template for the world we live in now in terms of the mass-marketing of celebrity.” Frank Fitzpatrick loved it, too: “The most insightful, detailed and well-researched bio of the Bambino ever,” he writes. “The myth remains. The man is exposed.”

Underdogs: The Philadelphia Eagles' Emotional Road to Super Bowl Victory by Zach Berman (Running Press, $26). Come on, you knew this’d be on our gift-giving list. Inquirer sports guy Berman takes you behind the scenes for the stories, the people, the big win.

America as we are

Amity and Prosperity: One Family and the Fracturing of America by Eliza Griswold (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $27). A true Pennsy tale, with a dark pun in the title. We’re in fracking country, and everyone is about to learn what we sacrifice to keep the money and oil flowing. Reads like a novel.

I’ll Be Gone in the Dark by Michelle McNamara (Harper, $27.99). Molly Eichel calls it “so much more than a true-crime story” about the Golden State Killer. It’s really about McNamara herself, who died during the final stages of writing. “McNamara was dogged in her pursuit of her subject,” Eichel writes, “and her passion comes through on every page.” Sarah Todd concurs: “this book checks all the boxes and weaves in the author’s obsession with the case in beautifully tragic detail.”

Tell Me How It Ends by Valeria Luiselli (Coffee House Press, $12.95). Ao writes that this 2017 collection of questions asked of migrant children about to be deported “wound up being one of the most important books I read this year, packing knowledge and emotion in a brief volume.”

Leaders and how they lead

Leadership in Turbulent Times by Doris Kearns Goodwin (Simon & Schuster, $30). I was ready to recommend this one, then Bill Marimow, vice president of strategic development for Philadelphia Media Network, came along and wrote that Pulitzer-winner Goodwin “reviews the personal and political histories of Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and Lyndon Johnson to unravel the qualities that made them great leaders. In all four cases, Goodwin skillfully dissects the influence of their parents, the setbacks – political, personal, and ,in FDR’s case, physical – that preceded their greatest triumphs, and the crises that forged their legacies in American history.”

The Third Revolution: Xi Jinping and the New Chinese State by Elizabeth Economy (Oxford University Press, $27.95). Trudy Rubin, who should know, calls it “the clearest and most readable description I’ve found of how Xi has consolidated power, reasserted Communist Party control, harnessed the internet, and promoted a more assertive Chinese foreign policy.”

Life stories

Barracoon: The Story of the Last “Black Cargo” by Zora Neale Hurston (Amistad, $24.99). One of the happiest discoveries of the book-reading year. In 1927, celebrated author Hurston (Their Eyes Were Watching God) interviewed Cudjo Lewis, then 86 and the last surviving person to be sailed across the Atlantic into slavery. Somehow, it was never published until now.

Educated by Tara Westover (Random House, 28). Henry praises this “brutally honest memoir” that offers “a rare look at life in a survivalist compound in Idaho and at a girl who taught herself enough math, music, and literature to get out.”

The Man Who Caught the Storm by Brantley Hargrove (Simon and Schuster, $26). I was blown away by this shattering biography of Tim Samaras, daddy of all storm chasers.

Becoming by Michelle Obama (Crown, $32.50). The former first lady’s “deeply personal memoir is a dramatic peek” into her backstory, says Elizabeth Wellington. “Not only is Obama a wonderful writer, her story, that starts on the top-floor apartment of a small house on Chicago’s South Side and ends in the hallways of the world’s most powerful address, is an authentic, no-holds-barred account of who Obama really is: a striving black woman just trying to make it.”

Catching the renaissance

African American writing in this country is having an honest-to-goodness moment. These vibrant authors connect you with what’s happening now on the page and in our lives.

Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward (Scribner, $17). This is the main title for the 2019 One Book, One Philadelphia program. Why not read along?

Friday Black by Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah (Mariner, $14.99). This late-breaking collection of edgy, fresh stories about life at the mall, sports, and the challenges of blackness comes from an unmistakable new voice.

American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin by Terrance Hayes (Penguin, $18). A book that was written, it seems, right this moment. Sonnets, yes, but 2018 sonnets.