Tuesday, December 20, 2016

The New Dork Review 10 Best Books of 2016

Well, we've made it (almost!) through 2016, and while it was a troubling year in many respects, it was another great year in books. Here are my 10 favorites (plus a few under-the-radar hits, as well.)


10. Everybody's Fool, by Richard Russo — What a treat — indeed an absolute gift from Russo to his fans — to be able to return to North Bath and visit our friend Sully a few years after the events of Russo's fantastic 1993 novel Nobody's Fool. But this great story is really about the goofy, troubled small town cop Raymer, and his many problems. Sully's still around quite a bit, though, and this is a must-read for Russo fans (of which I am one of the biggest). 

9. Dark Matter, Blake Crouch — I liked this well enough when I finished it in September, but I sure didn't think then it'd end up on this list. But I still constantly think about how original and fun to read it was, so here it is! A trippy, time-traveling, mind-messing thriller — just a really fun, cool book. 

8. Nutshell, Ian McEwan — What a bizarre little novel! It's a retelling of Hamlet, only told from the point-of-view of a fetus. And strangely — and I know it's a leap of faith to believe me on this — it works! This is easily McEwan's best novel since Atonement

7. The Underground Railroad, by Colson Whitehead — This year's National Book Award winner is every bit as harrowing, shocking, inventive, and incredibly well-written as you've heard. If you only read one book on this list, given the current state of things, make it this one. Essential.

6. Behold The Dreamers, by Imbolo Mbue — This tale of immigrant hardship really messes with your emotions. Just when you think you know who you're supposed to be rooting for in this novel, Mbue turns all expectations on their heads. But what's really great about this novel is how it shows that maybe the American Dream has become corrupted by a corrupt system, and may actually not be available to everyone anymore. A sobering conclusion, to be sure — but presented in a terrific, profound story.

5. Commonwealth, by Ann Patchett — 2016 is the year Ann Patchett moved into my top tier of favorite writers, and this book is one of the main reasons why. About how complicated family relationships can be, it's Patchett's most personal novel, and certainly among her best. This novel also includes the best first sentence and best first chapter of anything I read this year. (Tip: You don't have to do this to enjoy Commonwealth, but I'd suggest you read her fantastic, personal essay collection This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage before you read Commonwealth — the collection sheds a ton of light on the story she's telling in Commonwealth.)

4. Homegoing, by Yaa Gyasi — Probably the most common book on everyone's "best of..." lists this year, I can't not include it. For the writing, for the commentary on race and privilege, for how it all comes together in a beautiful ending, I really loved this book.

3. A Gentleman In Moscow, by Amor Towles — This is one of the more purely pleasurable reading experiences I've had in a long time. Towles's protagonist — a Russian count sentenced to house arrest in a fancy Mosow hotel — is one for the ages. Towles' sentences and dialogue crackle with wit and humor, and there's plenty of plot to keep this story moving quickly. 

2. The Nix, by Nathan Hill — Another safe choice, yes, but this debut novel is incredible. It really is. Covering everything from politics to geeky internet gaming to entitled millennials, every sentence in this novel (including the one that spans 12 pages) is carefully crafted and nearly perfect.

1. Version Control, by Dexter Palmer — MORE PEOPLE NEED TO READ THIS NOVEL. It's such an original, fiercely smart piece of fiction — but not the least bit difficult or inaccessible. At its core, it's the story of a family in crisis. I won't say more — you just have to read this, and be surprised at all its twists and turns.


Here are a few under-the-radar novels I really loved this year, too: 

Problems, by Jade Sharma — Not for the faint of heart, this short, graphic and explicit, subtly hilarious debut novel tells the story of a hot-mess, drug-addicted woman in NYC who can't seem to get out of her own way. But amidst the mess, there are these little pieces of self-awareness and profundity that lead us to believe all may not be lost for this character.

The Infinite, by Nicholas Mainieri — A violent, gritty, atmospheric, action-packed novel, this takes place in post-Katrina New Orleans, as two teenagers — Jonah and Luz — try to make their flagging relationship work. Luz, pregnant, is sent by her undocumented immigrant father back to Mexico to live with her grandmother. Jonah decides to go "rescue" her. Along the way, both run afoul of violent Mexican drug lords. When Mainieri isn't writing pulse-pounding action scenes, he's astounding you with his description and sense of place. It's an amazingly accomplished debut novel!

Heat & Light, by Jennifer Haigh — A precise, smart, contemporary tale of a small quiet town in Pennsylvania in which loyalties begin to fray because of a big loud energy company that invades the town to sign its residents up for fracking leases. If you've seen the movie Promised Land, this is a better take on the idea presented in that movie — that greed and environmental destruction team up nicely to destroy values, neighborliness, and good manners. The best part of this novel, though, is Haigh's command of character — these are real people you feel like you know.