I read so many great books in 2018, but I’ve managed to whittle them down to a list of twelve. Many of these books were not published this year, and the list includes both fiction and nonfiction. I highly recommend all of the books featured here. So, without further ado, here, in alphabetical order, are my favorite reads of 2018.
Kenobi by John Jackson Miller
I’m a huge Star Wars fan, but I honestly haven’t read much of the old “Expanded Universe” of novels from the pre-Disney era. Starting this year, I decided to rectify that situation. Boy, did I pick a fantastic place to start! Kenobi had just about everything I wanted out of a novel about Obi-Wan’s time on Tatooine after the events of Revenge of the Sith. This novel is basically a Western set on Tatooine, with Obi-Wan as the archetypal silent stranger with a tragic past and a heart of gold. There’s terrific action, intrigue, and suspense to be had here, and a terrific climax that I won’t spoil. If you’re a Star Wars fan, you owe it to yourself to read this book, even if it’s no longer canon.
Lincoln’s Melancholy: How Depression Challenged a President and Fueled His Greatness by Joshua Wolf Shenk
As someone who has struggled with depression my entire adult life, I found Lincoln’s Melancholy to be a fascinating read. While we can’t empirically prove that Abraham Lincoln suffered from clinical depression, a powerful circumstantial case can be made, as seen in the pages of this book. What I found most interesting and uplifting, is that while Lincoln clearly suffered intensely with his particular malady, he didn’t let it destroy him. In fact, he used the personality traits that many would see as defects as fuel to propel his various achievements. After reading this book I have even greater respect for the man who, more than any other, is responsible for preserving our Union.
The Proverbs of Middle-earth by David Rowe
I’m a huge fan of the legendarium of J.R.R. Tolkien, so I was looking forward to reading this book. But I was surprised to discover that The Proverbs of Middle-earth actually exceeded my expectations. What I thought would be merely a collection of wise sayings from the world of The Lord of the Rings turned out to be so much more. This fantastic book is in fact an extended and detailed discussion of the origins and cultural context of the unique wisdom traditions of the various Free Peoples of Middle-earth. Any fan of Tolkien’s work will find enjoyment in this immensely fascinating and readable volume.
Raptor Red by Robert T. Bakker
Raptor Red was one of my favorite novels as a child, and doubtless many other fellow dinosaur enthusiasts who grew up in the 1990s will remember it fondly. I hadn’t read the book since childhood, and I decided to revisit it this year, hoping that it was really as good as I remember. Thankfully, I was not disappointed. Raptor Red is a truly phenomenal book. It follows the adventures of a Utahraptor in the Early Cretaceous. Telling a story like this from a dinosaur’s point of view was a daring gamble, and it pays off in spades. All of the saurian characters are well fleshed out, memorable, and even relatable! I can’t praise this novel enough. There’s such a dearth of quality dinosaur fiction out there, but Raptor Red stands out as one of the classics of the genre. If you love dinosaurs, this is a must read.
The Restless Wave: Good Times, Just Causes, Great Fights, and Other Appreciations by John McCain & Mark Salter
I’ve long been an admirer of the late Senator John McCain, and I was proud to cast my first-ever vote in a presidential election for him back in 2008. The Restless Wave is the final book he wrote before his untimely passing, and it covers his life and experiences from the 2008 presidential campaign up to his final battle against cancer. There are many fascinating insights into the major political figures of recent times, including Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, and Ted Kennedy. McCain pulls no punches, excoriating the Russian despot Vladimir Putin and sharply criticizing the populist nationalism of the Trump era. This book makes a fitting epitaph for a genuine American hero.
The Riddle of the Dinosaur by John Noble Wilford
Despite being over thirty years old, The Riddle of the Dinosaur is one of the best nonfiction dinosaur books that I have ever read. It tells a sweeping history of the science of dinosaur paleontology, from the 1790s when Georges Cuvier postulated the extinction of species all the way up to the then-present-day of the mid-1980s. It covers some of the hot controversies in dinosaur science at the time: the debates over warm-bloodedness in dinosaurs, the dinosaurian ancestry of modern birds, dinosaur sociality, and the mysterious extinction of the dinosaurs (a controversial topic to this day). Popular science at its best, The Riddle of the Dinosaur deserves a place on any dino enthusiast’s bookshelf.
The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs: A New History of a Lost World by Steve Brusatte
The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs is definitely a candidate for the best popular science book about dinosaurs in recent memory. Paleontologist Steve Brusatte delivers a terrific overview of the current state of dinosaur science. I could not put this book down! Brusatte takes his readers on an unforgettable journey from the dinosaurs’ humble origins in the Triassic Period, all the way to their dramatic and cataclysmic demise at the end of the Cretaceous. Other highlights include two terrific chapters on my favorite dinosaurs, the tyrannosaurids. Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs deserves to be on the short-list of truly great books on the subject, alongside other notables such as The Dinosaur Heresies and The Riddle of the Dinosaur.
This month marks the fiftieth anniversary of Apollo 8’s daring orbit of the moon. To be honest, I didn’t know much about the mission until reading this book. I fear that Apollo 11 and the later lunar missions have overshadowed the triumphs of Apollo 8. Robert Kurson’s book Rocket Men provides a well needed corrective. Even though I knew the general outcome, I was on the edge of my seat through much of this book. You truly get a sense of how do-or-die this mission was, and of the extremely slim margin for error. Kurson also provides insight into how chaotic a year 1968 was. I found many eerie parallels to present day America. Apollo 8 gave Americans hope when there was little to spare. I highly recommend this book if you’re at all interested in the history of manned spaceflight.
The Seven Storey Mountain by Thomas Merton
If you’ve been following the work of Bishop Robert Barron, you’ve doubtless heard him rave about the writings of Thomas Merton, particularly his spiritual memoir The Seven Storey Mountain. I decided this year I was finally going to give the book a shot. I must admit, it took me a while to get into it. The style is a bit self-indulgent and the early chapters feel pretty slow, but I soon became enamored with Merton’s circuitous path from bland atheism and relativism to the Catholic faith, and ultimately to a Trappist monastery. This book has been hailed as a modern equivalent to St. Augustine’s Confessions, and honestly, that’s not far off the mark.
Spaceman is the inspiring journey of astronaut Mike Massimino. There was a lot I could identify with in Massimino’s story: He’s a fellow Long Islander with a working class Italian Catholic upbringing, and big dreams. I could relate to his struggle to make those dreams a reality, his rough time in graduate school, and a low point where he was ready to give up on his goal of becoming an astronaut. But Massimino persevered and became one of the select few humans to experience earth orbit in the International Space Station. If you’re interested in space travel, or have ever struggled to pursue a dream, I can’t recommend Spaceman enough.
Tales from the Perilous Realm by J.R.R. Tolkien
A wonderful collection of J.R.R. Tolkien’s shorter fiction and poetry, Tales from the Perilous Realm deserves a place on the shelf of any Tolkien fan. Among my favorites are the wonderfully silly and enchanting stories “Roverandom” and “Farmer Giles of Ham” as well as the incredibly touching “Leaf by Niggle.” Also included as an appendix is Tolkien’s landmark essay “On Fairy-stories.” Highly recommended to fans of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings as well as fantasy fans in general.
To Light a Fire on the Earth: Proclaiming the Gospel in a Secular Age by Robert Barron with John L. Allen Jr.
If you’ve been paying close attention to the Catholic world in recent years, you’ve no doubt heard the name of Bishop Robert Barron. Founder of Word on Fire Catholic Ministries, Barron is perhaps the greatest living Catholic evangelist and apologist. This book is the product of a series of conversations between Bishop Barron and journalist John Allen Jr. This book is wide ranging; topics covered include science and faith, prayer and the supernatural, the spiritual life, evangelization, the Church’s role in the modern world, Barron’s own life story, and much more. If you’re a fan of Barron’s work as I am or are even slightly interested in the fate of Catholicism in our increasingly secular age, check out this informative, highly readable book.
Have you read any of the book on this list? If so, what did you think? What are your favorite reads of 2018? Let me know in the comments section below!