LJ Best Books 2016

A jury of our peers discussed, debated, disagreed, and finally declared LJ’s annual Top Ten Best Books of the year, selected by our editors, as well as Top Five lists for genre fiction, nonfiction, poetry, graphic novels, and SELF-e titles. VISIT THE WEBSITE

Fiction from Ball, Brown, Kelly, Kundera, Lynch, Makkai, Markovits, Roosevelt, Tucker + Debuts | Xpress Reviews

Week ending July 10, 2015

Ball, Jesse. A Cure for Suicide. Pantheon. Jul. 2015. 240p. ISBN 9781101870129. $23.95; ebk. ISBN 9781101870136. F
cureforsuicide071015Ball (Silence Once Begun) has written another thought-provoking novel. In the thoroughly enigmatic beginning, a man awakes in a strange place knowing absolutely nothing about himself or even about being a person. Someone known as “the examiner” is his minder and teacher, telling him that he has had an accident in which he almost died and is recovering. Through the side narrative of the examiner, however, it becomes evident that the man has become this way because of an injection and that he is in an artificial society called the “Process of Villages.” The second part, a tragic parenthesis, illustrates the purpose behind the injections; if we have not already guessed from the title, the participants in Part 1 have opted into an alternative to taking their own life. The last section is a form of backstage conversation, showing the intersection of the examiners and the examined.
Verdict Here, the bleakness of Kafka’s The Trial meets tragedy that is weirdly reminiscent of John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars, with the burden of self and the possible solutions looming large. An interesting statement about personal ontology and the role of forgetting; highly recommended.—Henry Bankhead, Los Gatos Lib., CA

Brown, Holly. A Necessary End. Morrow. Jul. 2015. 400p. ISBN 9780062356376. $25.99; ebk. ISBN 9780062356390. F
The desire to be a mother can be all consuming to the point of obsession. That certainly is true for Adrienne. Her husband, Gabe, is willing to support her but is not so desperate. After all, they have already been duped by a birth mother who didn’t carry through with giving them her baby. Why suffer through that heartache again? As such, when Leah shows up on their doorstep, pregnant and willing to give up her baby, Gabe is less than overjoyed. Not so Adrienne, as this seems like a dream come true. Leah wants to live with them and start a new life in the San Francisco Bay area, and Adrienne is more than willing to help her out. Friends and counselors warn that this is a bad move, but Adrienne turns a deaf ear and once Gabe finally agrees, what could go wrong?
Verdict After her acclaimed debut, Don’t Try to Find Me, Brown follows up with another thriller that will give fans of domestic noir the perfect summer escape. The characters, while a bit two-dimensional, do provide enough interest to keep readers turning the pages at a fast pace. [See Prepub Alert, 1/12/15.]—Robin Nesbitt, Columbus Metropolitan Lib., OH

Fraser, Ronald. Drought. Verso. Jul. 2015. 240p. ISBN 9781781688977. pap. $19.95; ebk. ISBN 9781781688984. F
[DEBUT] John, a weary British journalist, is investigating a suicide in the Andalusian village of Benalamar. The year is 1957, and this small village has not recovered from the effects of the Spanish Civil War. A severe drought is plaguing the land, and its citizens are starving. While landowners, sharecroppers, wealthy foreigners, and those in the ineffectual legal system argue about land use, irrigation, and building a dam, the situation for Miguel, a headstrong young farmer, becomes overwhelming, and he’s pushed over the edge when he finds out that his love is unrequited. As we piece together through John’s words the reasons for this tragic series of events, the unrelenting heat and sun play as large a part in the story as any of the other characters.
Verdict The late Fraser (Blood of Spain) is a well-known author of nonfiction, with a focus on 20th-century Spain and oral histories. Unfortunately, this novel does not engage the reader, as Fraser’s writing style keeps the characters at a distance, making it hard to empathize with their circumstances.—Lisa Rohrbaugh, Leetonia Community P.L., OH

Glaser, Rachel B. Paulina & Fran. Harper Perennial. Sept. 2015. 256p. ISBN 9780062377340. pap. $14.99; ebk. ISBN 9780062377357. F
Paulina, a wild, strident art student, is drawn to esoteric Fran from the moment she sees her. The two form an immediate bond over a school trip, well aware of its obsessive nature; Fran is enamored with Paulina’s acerbic persona, convinced that she is a rare diamond of a friend—hard and dazzling. Paulina is helplessly attracted to Fran’s lack of guile and the coolness she exudes with little pretense. Their friendship is shattered over a shared boyfriend, driving the girls to hatred no less passionate than their love. Despite their very different paths to adulthood, each finds the other in her thoughts time and time again.
Verdict Glaser’s (Pee on Water) prose is merciless, exposing each girl’s stormy insecurities and the careless vanity that proves their undoing. However, the continued impulsivity and thoughtlessness of the characters wear thin, and their consistent unpredictability makes for little to no emotional development as the novel progresses.—Ashleigh Williams, School Library Journal

Kelly, Cathy. It Started with Paris. Grand Central. Aug. 2015. 464p. ISBN 9781455535415. pap. $15; ebk. ISBN 9781455535408. F
Best-selling novelist Kelly follows up her 2013 novel, The House on Willow Street, with this overcrowded tale. The novel starts with childhood sweethearts at the top of the Eiffel Tower, where Michael proposes to Katy. The prolog is romantic and sweet, but the rest of the novel never quite lives up to that promise. Kelly switches from the proposal in Paris to the couple’s home in Ireland and how the upcoming nuptials affect their friends and family. This is primarily the story of three women: Leila, Vonnie, and Grace. Each has a connection to the couple, and each is dealing with her own issues. While all three of these characters are interesting, readers will feel the most empathy toward Leila, who has recently divorced. Unfortunately, the author also introduces a slew of secondary characters, making the story difficult to follow.
Verdict Kelly is an international author with throngs of fans who will clamor for her latest. This novel, with way too many characters (some not fully realized), may disappoint them.—Nanci Milone Hill, Boxford Town Lib., MA

Kundera, Milan. The Festival of Insignificance. Harper. 2015. 128p. ISBN 9780062356895. $23.99; ebk. ISBN 9780062388230. F
In contemporary Paris, Alain contemplates the navel as the new source of female seductive power even as friend Ramon relinquishes his plan to attend a crowded Chagall exhibit and instead enjoys the lazy indifference of strolling through the Luxembourg Gardens. Ramon runs into D’Ardelo, who has just found out that he does not have cancer but in a fit of pique he himself cannot understand tells Ramon he’s in fact dying. Though Ramon has always considered D’Ardelo a fool, he arranges for Charles and Charles’s partner, Caliban, to cater a supposedly final birthday/cocktail party for D’Ardelo, meanwhile regaling Charles with the story of Stalin telling a group of craven associates about killing 24 partridges in a hunting expedition. Stalin is joking, simply testing his associates, and the false gravity with which they respond is exactly what renowned Czech-French novelist Kundera has been skewering since The Unbearable Lightness of Being. Thus does he give us all a dismissive slap in the face for our obsessive and self-serious hunt for meaning and importance.
Verdict In the end, as the characters wander through a nearly surreal performance of sorts in the gardens, Ramon urges D’Ardelo to embrace his insignificance and enjoy the children’s laughter. Paradoxically, this fable-like tale seems a little lightweight for such intent urgings, though Kundera fans and other serious readers will enjoy the intellectual workout. [See Prepub Alert, 11/25/15.]—Barbara Hoffert, Library Journal

Lynch, Paul. The Black Snow. Little, Brown. 2015. 272p. ISBN 9780316376419. $25; ebk. ISBN 9780316376440. F
They say you can’t go home again, and that’s certainly true for Barnabas Kane. After emigrating from Ireland and riveting steel on city skyscrapers for years, Barnabas returns home with his American wife, Eskra, and son Billy. Barnabas buys land and cattle, and the family enjoys a measure of prosperity until a mysterious fire destroys his barn and livestock. Tragically, a farmhand also dies in the fire. Barnabas doesn’t want to ask for help, but when he swallows his pride and reaches out, he is met with mistrust and even coldness. He thus finds himself angry and increasingly isolated from Eskra, who cannot believe he canceled their insurance; from sullen teenager Billy, often absent and getting into trouble; and certainly from his neighbors, who call him a “local stranger.” Even the family horse takes ill, and their dog disappears. What results is a memorable novel of endurance and the aftermath of tragedy.
Verdict Following Red Sky in Morning, this novel is appropriately titled. Imagine a dark, damp, cold atmosphere pressing down on remote Irish farmland but also pulling the reader into the narrative of this Irish pastoral novel and into the bleak world of the Kane family. No light reading here but lovely in its own way.—Shaunna E. Hunter, Hampden-Sydney Coll. Lib., VA

starred review starMakkai, Rebecca. Music for Wartime. Viking. Jul. 2015. 240p. ISBN 9780525426691. $26.95; ebk. ISBN 9780698195523. F
musicforwaratime071015Several of the stories in this new collection (following The Hundred-Year House) are inspired by the author’s own singular family history; her grandfather was the architect of Hungary’s infamous Jewish Laws before World War II, while her grandmother was a heroic, antifascist Hungarian novelist. Some of the historical tales read like fables, a fact acknowledged by the author herself in a parenthetical meta aside at the end of the first story: “(But I’ve made it sound like a fable, haven’t I? I’ve lied and turned two women into three, because three is a fairytale number.)” While more than a few of the stories are set in wartime Hungary or among Hungarian immigrant families in postwar America, the subject matter and settings range widely, most strikingly in a delightfully strange and amusing tale about a lonely Chicago woman who coughs up a hairball that grows into a time-traveling Johann Sebastian Bach. Makkai is a musical writer with a strong voice, and this work is reminiscent of Elizabeth McCracken’s recent collection Thunderstruck, in tone if not in content.
Verdict Themes of guilt, loss, survival, and memory infuse the entire book, which is rife with sentences that will stop you in your tracks with their strangeness and profundity.—Lauren Gilbert, Sachem P.L., Holbrook, NY

Markovits, Benjamin. You Don’t Have To Like This. Harper. Jul. 2015. 448p. ISBN 9780062376602. $27.99; ebk. ISBN 9780062376626. F
In 2009, a group of Yale graduates move to Detroit, where classmate Robert James, a successful hedge fund manager–turned–community planner, is crafting his vision of urban revitalization. Buying houses in a blighted neighborhood, they begin rebuilding (and gentrifying) the area under the mistrustful eyes of the poor, black residents who have remained. Greg Marnier, a friend of James who’s looking for a direction for his life, joins him, renovating a house in the heart of the neighborhood. Thing go swimmingly at first. More residents move in, stores open up, and President Obama even visits to give the project his blessing. Greg’s romantic relationship with Gloria, a black schoolteacher, seems to encapsulate everything positive happening in the community. But then, a fight between one of Greg’s friends and Nolan, a longtime resident—and the racially charged trial that follows—reveal festering tensions that will ultimately doom the project.
Verdict Markovits (Imposture), named one of Granta’s Best of Young British Novelists in 2013, offers a low-key first-person narration and tight blend of fact and fiction to give the novel the feel of a fictionalized memoir. Unfortunately, though this approach imparts a sharp sense of realism, it also undercuts much of the drama to be mined from the economic and cultural disparities Markovits depicts.—Lawrence Rungren, Andover, MA

Mauritzson, Erik. Grendel’s Game. Permanent. Jul. 2015. 360p. ISBN 9781579623982. $29.95. F
[DEBUT] Chief Superintendent Walther Ekman of Weltenborg, Sweden, receives a boastful letter from Grendel, a professed cannibal. Ekman’s 30 years of policing experience and psychiatrist Jarl Karlsson’s profile lead them to conclude that Grendel is a brilliant psychopath with a personal vendetta against Ekman. After Rodger Westberg, the son of a prominent local politician disappears, Ekman’s team discovers a connection between Grendel’s victims and multiple unsolved robberies and missing persons cases. Further investigation leads Ekman to interview Westberg’s fiancée Stina Lindfors, whose past is linked to several of the murders. After Ekman identifies Grendel, his life is forever changed.
Verdict Mauritzson’s debut novel delivers a succinct plot, tight dialog, and excellent description of the chilly Nordic scenery of southern Sweden. Fans of Henning Mankell’s Wallander series will enjoy Mauritzson’s evocative description of the relationships between Ekman and his colleagues. However, the villain is not well developed.—Russell Michalak, Goldey-Beacom Coll. Lib., Wilmington, DE

Roosevelt, Kermit. Allegiance. Regan Arts. Aug. 2015. 400p. ISBN 9781941393307. $27.95; ebk. ISBN 9781941393901. F
Between 1941 and 1945, our government interred tens of thousands of Japanese residents, many of them U.S. citizens, on the dubious grounds that they threatened our national security. With the war ending, the question became what to do with them. Thousands had signed papers renouncing their citizenship; the law stipulated that they be deported. Cash Harrison is a well-placed Philadelphian. He works first as a law clerk to Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black and then for Attorney General Francis Biddle, and we watch him grow as he tries to persuade someone—anyone!—to reverse the government’s decision to expel these people. But governments don’t like to admit the errors of their ways.
Verdict So many characters appear on these pages that it is hard at times to keep a score card, and there is a second mystery to be solved that muddles things up, but Roosevelt (constitutional law; Univ. of Pennsylvania; In the Shadow of the Law) is an elegant writer and acute observer of life along the Beltway. Anyone who likes Scott Turow’s legal thrillers will like this one as well.—David Keymer, Modesto, CA

Tucker, Neely. Murder, D.C.: A Sully Carter Novel. Viking. Jul. 2015. 304p. ISBN 9780670016594. $27.95; ebk. ISBN 9780698140516. MYS
Tucker’s second mystery (after The Ways of the Dead) rings with authenticity. Newspaper columnist Sully Carter is lunching on the Potomac when police discover a murder victim floating near “the Bend,” a scrubby patch of land rife with drug use, prostitution, and frequent violence. The floater, recovered in front of a boatload of tourists, is Billy Ellison, the son of an influential, prominent black family in Washington’s social and political circles. Sully relentlessly digs into the case despite warnings from the Ellisons’ attorney and eventual suspension from the newspaper. A toughened, cynical investigator, Sully draws on his prior experiences as an overseas correspondent to ferret out closely held information in DC; his foolhardy and unswerving swagger is endearing. The Ellison family tree reveals sordid details about slave ownership, the paternal line, and the slave pens that sat in the Bend during the antebellum era. A network of contacts with local drug rings and the police force enables Sully to piece together minutiae where others fall short.
Verdict Displaying a fantastic ear for dialog, Tucker delivers a harrowing and compelling story, brimming with authentic street talk and local idioms. His characters are also convincing, true to life, and diverse. While the novel shares similarities with works by George Pelecanos (Drama City; The Double) in terms of locale, subject matter, and a flair for replicating everyday speech, Tucker’s voice is very much his own.—Jeffrey W. Hunter, Royal Oak, MI

Van Alkemade, Kim. Orphan Number Eight. Morrow. Jul. 2015. 400p. ISBN 9780062338303. pap. $14.99; ebk. ISBN 9780062338310. F
orphaneight071015[DEBUT] In van Alkemade’s fiction debut, which was inspired by her family history, a hospice nurse confronts her childhood trauma when she must care for the woman who caused her disfigurement. After a series of illnesses in 1919, the four-year-old orphaned Rachel becomes the subject of questionable medical experiments performed by Dr. Mildred Solomon. These tests leave Rachel with permanent alopecia, making her the object of various cruelties and isolation. Years later, an adult Rachel works at Manhattan’s Old Hebrews Home, and none other than Dr. Solomon comes in as her patient.
Verdict The story of how Rachel gains agency—psychologically, bodily, and romantically—never feels forced. This is not a plucky orphan narrative; ingrained years of submissive behavior often make it hard for Rachel to get out of her own way. Though van Alkemade defaults to telling rather than showing, Rachel’s moments of courage still feel earned. Her burgeoning feelings for another girl at the home are treated with depth and help the story stand out from others. The premise and lesbian representation make this a solid recommendation for fans of Jodi Picoult and Sarah Waters.—Liza Oldham, Beverly, MA

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