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The year in books - 2016's recommended reads

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This year has been a phenomenal year for the written word. So many brilliant works – fiction and nonfiction alike – appeared on bookshelves in 2016.

Reviewing books is one of the most enjoyable parts of my job. I've had the opportunity to read dozens of different works over the course of the year. And while almost all of them had something significant to offer, there are a few that stand apart from the rest.

Consider this list a wide-ranging collection of suggestions regarding works that you might enjoy. It is far from comprehensive; after all, there are plenty of amazing books out there that I simply never had the opportunity to experience. Still, this list is packed with outstanding work.

Whether or not these books are the “best” is a matter of conjecture - it's all subjective, really - but there's no doubt that each and every one of them captured my attention and my imagination. Perhaps you'll find one that does the same for you.

In no particular order, here are my recommended reads of 2016.

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Fiction

The Fireman – Joe Hill (William Morrow)

Joe Hill is one mighty fine storyteller. And he’s never been operating at a higher level than he is with “The Fireman,” a story of a fiery, world-ending virus and one woman’s efforts to save herself and those most important to her. It’s a sprawling 700-page epic that manages to hold your attention with every single sentence.

This book is a sweeping, haunting tale of civilization’s collapse and the hard-fought individual battles that must be won in order to survive. The world Hill gives us is one that is filled with horrors, but also with moments of humanity.

“The Fireman” burns bright and hot; it’s a work both powerful and thoughtful.

The Girls – Emma Cline (Random House)

One of the most hyped literary releases of the year, Emma Cline’s “The Girls” had to deal with some sky-high expectations. The bar as set was going to be tough to clear.

But Cline’s fictionalized riff on Charles Manson, the people who surrounded him and the horrifying deeds done in his name manages to live up to the hype, creating a wildly compelling story of one young girl’s descent into the darkness of a particularly destructive cult of personality. It’s an incredible combination of coming-of-age story and dark memoir; Cline certainly shines with her debut novel.

“The Girls” is a moving, memorable work that warrants every bit of attention it received.

Hag-Seed – Margaret Atwood (Hogarth Shakespeare)

I’m officially in love with the Hogarth Shakespeare series, in which noted novelists are enlisted to provide their own interpretations of the Bard’s classic works. “Hag-Seed” – the fifth book in the series – features literary legend Margaret Atwood taking on “The Tempest.”

When a man is deposed as the director of a small Shakespeare festival, he almost falls apart. Instead, he delves deeper into the work, digging ever deeper into his own interpretation of “The Tempest” until the opportunity arises for him to not only bring his vision to life, but to possibly set things right along the way.

Smart and wonderfully meta, “Hag-Seed” is a fascinating read.

The Wonder – Emma Donoghue (Little, Brown, and Company)

Few writers in today’s literary realm have the ability to render the small writ large like Emma Donoghue. “The Wonder” is one more example of her capacity to make intimate relationships feel epic in scope.

This historical fiction explores a woman’s relationship with faith via her assignment to confirm or debunk a “miraculous” young Irish girl who supposedly can live without eating. And through that journey, we see that there are shadows between truth and fantasy – and that’s where faith lives.

“The Wonder” is a beautifully-written book. There’s sorrow, but also the small joys that can be wrung from sorrowful times. It is a work of mystery and faith, one with compelling characters, a meticulously detailed setting and a handful of genuine surprises.

Nutshell – Ian McEwan (Nan A. Talese)

One of the weirder books on this list, “Nutshell” is a story of marital deceit and betrayal, but one with a perspective unlike any you’ve seen before.

A woman plots with her husband’s brother to take control of her husband’s assets; her husband has no notion of the depths of her deceit. In fact, there’s only one witness to the full breadth of the many machinations – her as-yet unborn son.

“Nutshell” is basically “Hamlet” if Hamlet was still in the womb. That’s it in a, well … in a nutshell. The book should feel gimmicky, but instead it’s a thoroughly engaging reading experience thanks to McEwan’s deep talents.

A Doubter’s Almanac – Ethan Canin (Random House)

What is the true cost of genius? How does a single-minded fanatical brilliance impact the rest of one’s life? What effects does it have on interpersonal relationships and one’s sense of self? Great problems require great solutions, but those solutions can often prove to be obstacles in their own right.

Ethan Canin’s “A Doubter’s Almanac” explores the consequences of genius through a once-brilliant mathematician undone by ego, hubris and the staggering struggles inherent to brilliance. We see both his past and his present as we learn just how much damage great intellect can inflict upon itself.

“A Doubter’s Almanac” is an ambitious work both epic and intimate – a nuanced and impactful tale.

Zero K – Don DeLillo (Scribner)

Any list of the greatest living writers has to include Don DeLillo. His books are part of the modern canon of American literature; he’s written great books over the past four decades. But he’s far from resting on his laurels – in fact, he’s still producing quality work.

“Zero K” is a meditation on the nature of death, the meaning of love and the trappings of technology, a dual-pronged story exploring one man’s brush with the possibilities of immortality and the consequences therein.

While the book has its flaws, it largely overcomes them through the still-exquisite prose stylings of DeLillo. He’s a literary master – and his skills are on full display here.

Underground Airlines – Ben H. Winters (Mulholland)

There’s a fairly straightforward question at the heart of “Underground Airlines.” Many purveyors of alternate history have asked “What if the South won the Civil War?” Ben H. Winters asks something a bit more complicated – “What is the Civil War never happened at all?”

This story of a modern world where slavery stubbornly retains its hold is both bleak and discomfiting in its plausibility. From a single tipping point, we see an entire world extrapolated – a world that is surreal and unsettling while maintaining a high degree of familiarity.

A challenging and controversial book, “Underground Airlines” is a fine example of just how thought-provoking it can be when literary and speculative fiction are skillfully united.

The Pier Falls – Mark Haddon (Doubleday)

The sole short-fiction collection on this year’s list, “The Pier Falls” offers up an incredibly diverse set of stories – nine in all – that explores a variety of genres, all with equal skill and impact.

The stories range from speculative fiction to hyperrealism to metafiction to historical fiction and then some; each tale stands on its own merits, but the nine are bound together beautifully through Haddon’s themes of loneliness, isolation and the consequences of our choices.

“The Pier Falls” is marked by Haddon’s exceptional skill and his ability to simplify complex themes and complicate simple ones. A case could be made that this is 2016’s finest short-story collection.

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Nonfiction

American Heiress – Jeffrey Toobin (Doubleday)

For those of a certain age, the name Patty Hearst is a sort of cultural shorthand, representative of the revolutionary weirdness that engulfed America in the 1970s. But to many us, she’s little more than a historical footnote.

But there’s a lot more to it than that. Jeffrey Toobin’s “American Heiress” does a deep dive into the entire Patty Hearst saga – her kidnapping, her supposed brainwashing and enlistment into the SLA, the subsequent trial and her odd return to normal life, leaving behind a wealth of questions still unanswered.

Well-researched and narratively compelling, “American Heiress” is an incredibly detailed look at one of the strangest stories in recent American history.

Ahead of the Curve – Brian Kenny (Simon & Schuster)

Brian Kenny is one of the most outspoken of modern baseball analysts, choosing to rail against conventional wisdom whenever it detracts from the reality laid forth by the numbers.

“Ahead of the Curve” is a funny, smart introduction to the world of sabermetrics – one put forth by a passionate lover of the game whose desire to understand trumps everything else. It’s a primer of sorts, but with plenty of insight for even the most dedicated seamhead.

Advanced statistics have given analysts a new, data-driven way to look at baseball. It’s people like Kenny who will remain on the vanguard, pushing for new and interesting ways to explore and evaluate the national pastime.

Welcome to the Goddamn Ice Cube – Blair Braverman (Ecco)

Sometimes, you come across a book that you expect to be good, only to have it turn out to be great. For me, that was “Welcome to the Goddamn Ice Cube.”

Blair Braverman’s memoir tells the story of the lifelong pull she’s felt from the North, leading her to live on glaciers and move to Norway and become a dogsled musher. It’s also the story of a woman’s determination to carve out her own place in the world.

“Welcome to the Goddamn Ice Cube” is a chilly breeze blown across a snowy field, a cup of coffee shared around a tiny table on a frigid morning, a full-tilt dogsled ride that is both dangerous and under control. It is simply spectacular.

But What If We’re Wrong? – Chuck Klosterman (Blue Rider)

I’ve always been a fan of Chuck Klosterman’s brand of analysis, bringing a keen intellectual curiosity to an exploration of popular culture.

But I straight-up had my mind blown by “What If We’re Wrong?” Klosterman’s basic conceit – questioning whether we might be wrong about our fundamental understanding of how the world works, but that the wrongness won’t be clear until farther into the future – leads to a wide range of head-spinning notions presented in a manner that is both thoughtful and humorous.

Packed with wild ideas explored with the help of outstanding figures in their respective fields, “But What If We’re Wrong?” is a clever, compelling read.

Life Moves Pretty Fast – Hadley Freeman (Simon & Schuster)

As someone with a deep and abiding affection for the cinema of the 1980s, there was little chance that I would dislike Hadley Freeman’s “Life Moves Pretty Fast.” I’m on board with any book that assigns deeper meaning to the nostalgic highlights of my adolescence.

But the thoughtful, nuanced depth of Freeman’s exploration is what makes this book far more than some sort of Hughes-ian highlight reel. By unpacking some of the subtle (and not-so-subtle) themes inherent to 1980s cinema, she arrives at some surprisingly universal truths.

“Life Moves Pretty Fast” is a book inspired by nostalgia, but by no means bound to it. Any fan of 80s movies is going to find a lot to like here.

A Brief History of Vice – Robert Evans (Plume)

For as long as there have been people, there have been vices – things that are enjoyed despite (or perhaps because of) the fact that they could be considered bad for us. Robert Evans decided to start digging and see just how deep that particular rabbit hole goes.

The result is “A History of Vice,” a look back at the assortment of vices – drugs, sex, what have you – that have served a vital role in the advancement of our civilization. The book combines thoughtful, meticulous research and coarse humor to create a read that is both hilarious and informative – a rare thing indeed.

Smart and funny with whiffs of Plimpton and Thompson, it’s a fantastic read.

Last modified on Wednesday, 21 December 2016 12:13

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