Friday, December 7, 2018

Best Books I'm Not Recommending for Christmas

I’ve been not recommending books for Christmas for some years now, and I thought I’d make a change this year.

I’m still not recommending books – I’ve always believed that the books one reads are so personal that you yourself are the best judge of what you’d like to read. But it’s a good thing to look back over the year to see what books I’ve read. Books have always been an important part of my life (ask my wife), and for that I can credit (or blame) my mother. I still remember her reading Grimm’s Fairy Tales to me, using an oversized edition published by Platt & Munk in the 1920s (I still have the book). 

So each year I’ve been writing this blog, I’ve posted a list of the best books I’ve read during the year – best fiction, non-fiction, poetry, mysteries, and more. This year, I decided to do something different, and note only the books I considered the very best, with a few honorable mentions.

In looking over the more than 200 books I’ve read in 2018, I’m not surprised at how much poetry I read – it’s what comes when you write a weekly post for an online poetry journal like Tweetspeak Poetry. I was (a bit) surprised by how many British books I read – fiction, plays, history, non-fiction, and mysteries. My reading definitely has a British accent.

Here are my best books I read that I’m not recommending, based on my reading in 2018. Note that some were not published in 2018; I read old novels, classics, and old history books.


It was a good year for poetry. Highlights for me included The Chance for Home by Mark Burrows, The Fall of Gondolin by J.R. R. Tolkien, Transplant, Transport, Transubstantiation by Marjorie Maddox, and The Bell and the Blackbird by David Whyte. 

The collection that left me rather stunned, however, and gets my “best of 2018” nod is The Hanging God by James Matthew Wilson. I reviewed it this Tuesday at Tweetspeak Poetry. This sums up the review: “I’ve been impressed by many poetry collections, but only a tiny handful have left me feeling undone. The Hanging God is one of them.”


A lot of good mysteries are being published and re-published. I read several of the British Library Crime Classics this year, and they were all good (the series has been going on for several years now, and there are more 100 old mysteries on the list). This was also the year I discovered Israeli noir – D.A. Mishani and Jonathan Dunsky (Dunsky’s Ten Years After is a great read). Guy Fraser-Sampson published A Whiff of Cyanide (which I’ve read) and The House on Downshire Hill (which just came out last week), in his Hampstead Murders series. And Damian Boyd published another Dick Nixon novel, with Dead Lock. I read several Shetland novels by Ann Cleeves and two Inspector Gamache novels by Louise Penny – and they’re two of the best mystery writers out there.

My best read of the year in a tough, crowded category is William Brodrick’s The Day of the Lie. It was published a few years ago, and it is still a riveting book. This one could have gone in the general fiction category as well – it’s rare to find a book that plumbs the depths of the “banality of evil” like this one does.

Children’s / Young Adult Fiction

Some really wood writing is happening in the children’s and YA genres. Not surprisingly, a lot of adults read in the YA genre to escape the gratuitous sex and violence so commonplace in adult fiction. The Boy in the Striped Pajamas by John Boyne is observing a tenth anniversary this year; I’m not sure I would place this story of Auschwitz in the YA category, but there it is. The Charlatan’s Boy by Jonathan Rogers could go in adult or YA fiction. Shawn Smucker’s The Edge of Over There is a wonder.

A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness is an outstanding book about a boy’s fears of his mother’s cancer. His world is fast disappearing, and the only way he has to deal with it is his imagination. And there’s this monster, who wants to tell him three stories.

Historical Fiction

This was the year I started reading, in earnest, historical fiction written by contemporary writers. I read two by Andrew Taylor, The Silent Boy (French Revolution) and The Ashes of London The Fire of 1666) that were both outstanding. The Letters of Ivor Punch by Colin MacIntyre is set in the 19thcentury and based on a true story; The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry is also set in the 19thcentury. Dark Territory by Jeffrey Hunter is set in 17thcentury Britain and America. I Iolo by Gareth Thomas is a biographical novel about a Welsh poet – and forger – in the Romantic era. The Radio Signal by Friedhelm Rudandt is set in World War II and is likely more non-fiction than fiction. Stephen Kiernan’s The Baker’s Secret is also set in World War II, but in Normandy, a mile from the D-Day invasion site.

My “best of the best” goes to Glass Island by Gareth Griffith. It’s set 100 or more years after Britain abandons Britain. It’s infused with research and context. And it tells a good story about a fateful battle – what led up to it, and what happened after it.

Christian Fiction

Some, perhaps most, Christian fiction is formulaic. A lot is not well written. But some good fiction, some really good fiction, is being published. It’s books like Can You See Anything Now? by Katherine James. And The Unveiling by Suzanne Wolfe. And Hurt Road by Bruce Stewart. And Send Down the Rainby Charles Martin (I could read anything by Martin).

Any of those could have been my “best of the best.” But I settled on Lights on the Mountain by Cheryl Anne Tuggle. It’s about the lingering of the past, the dynamics within families, the endurance of everyday life. A beautiful, moving novel.


If you want to read how Mark Twain helped publish Ulysses Grant’s memoirs as the general was dying from throat cancer, Grant and Twain by Mark Perry tells a great story. Tyndale by David Teems explains the man who printed the first English Bible – and paid for it, while God’s Secretaries by Adam Nicolson focuses on the men who translated the King James Version of the Bible. Tolkien: Maker of Middle-earth, edited by Catherine McIlwaine, is a blockbuster of a companion book for the Oxford and Morgan Library exhibition of the same name. John Garth’s Tolkien and the Great War describes how World War I shaped Tolkien and his writings.

Best of the best is War Poet: Alan Seeger and His Rendezvous with Death by Michael Hill. This study of an American who joined the French Foreign Legion to fight for France on the Western Front in World War I tells you much about war poetry, America, and the war.


Peter Ackroyd is continuing his History of England series. I read Revolution, which takes you from the Glorious Revolution of 1688 through Napoleon. Dominion, next in the series, covers the 19thcentury. Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby looked at some very recent history – starting with the Brexit vote in 2016 – and asked how the country could go forward in Reimagining Britain. Eleanor Parker’s Dragon Lords looks at the Vikings.

These are all British writers, and the British do history well. This was a tough one, but I finally settled on Mercia: The Rise and Fall of a Kingdom by Annie Whitehead. She does some incredible detective work to tease out the story of an important Anglo-Saxon kingdom.

General Fiction

The Boy Made of Blocks by Keith Stuart, on how a family copes with a child who has autism, would fall in the “popular fiction” category, as would The Light of the Fireflies by Paul Pen. More literary works are Autumn by Ali Smith, Beast by Paul Kingsnorth, and Havergey by John Burnside.

It’s British writer Mark Haddon’s The Pier Falls that gets my best of the best nod. A collection of short stories, it has a title story that is a gripping, almost minute-by-minute account of the collapse of a seaside pier. You won’t stop reading it. And Haddon’s novel The Red House tells the story of a family spending a week in the countryside, and it’s just as good as The Pier Falls.

Top photograph by Jaredd Craig via Unsplash. Used with permission.

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