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

World Fiction for Fall: These 16 Important Titles Let Readers Travel Far

redstarFilloy, Juan. Caterva. Dalkey Archive. (Argentine Literature). 2015. 440p. tr. from Spanish by Brendan Riley. ISBN 9781628970364. pap. $14.95. F

caterva291715“They were huddled together under the bridge,” Katanga, Viejo Amor, and the rest, a caterva (or rabble) of seven homeless, philosophical old souls trying to ignore the burning garbage as they ponder oppression and revolt. Think Vladimir and Estragon, more politically engaged and without the existential doom, whose Godot is a police detective come to take Katanga away. What follows is a swift, immersive story as the men regroup and think deeply on the meaning of life. ­VERDICT Caterva was cited in Julio Cortázar’s classic Hopscotch, but the prolific Filloy (who died in 2000 at 106) has been in the shadows; this splendidly enjoyable work highlights him for English speakers.

Fo, Dario. The Pope’s Daughter. Europa. 2015. 241p. tr. from Italian by Anthony Shugaar. ISBN 9781609452742. pap. $17. F

Given her notoriety and the racheted-up psychodrama of Showtime’s recent The Borgias, it’s at first almost off-putting but finally refreshing to read Nobel Prize winner Fo’s low-key account of Lucrezia Borgia, the Pope’s daughter. This debut novel initially reads like history and, as it closes in on Lucrezia herself, offers crisp dialog and stage-setting narrative—not surprising, as Fo is primarily a playwright. Fo strips away the smoky layers of myth to present the Borgias in their essence, with Lucrezia shown to be more sinned against than sinning. VERDICT Pleasurable, to-the-point reading for those who eschew fanfare.

Haddad, Hubert. Rochester Knockings: A Novel of the Fox Sisters. Open Letter. Oct. 2015. 309p. tr. from French by Jennifer Grotz. ISBN 9781940953205. pap. $16.95; ebk. ISBN 9781940953212. F

Award-winning Tunisian-born author Haddad (Palestine) does something unexpected, escorting us back to mid-­18th-century America to resurrect the Fox Sisters, among the founders of Spiritualism. In clean, lustrous prose, he offers not a paint-by-the-numbers account but a lively interpretation, starting with strange knockings in the Fox family’s new Hydesville, NY, home and young Katie’s proclaimed communion with the spirit of a jingle-singing peddler murdered there. Soon, the whole family is encouraging the enterprise. VERDICT Sinuously ambiguous regarding spiritualism, this well-wrought novel will appeal widely.

Khadra, Yasmina. The Dictator’s Last Night. Gallic. Oct. 2015. 112p. tr. from French by Julian Evans. ISBN 9781910477137. pap. $12.95. F

The most shocking thing about this effortless first-person reimagining of Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi’s final hours is not that Gaddafi remained adamantly arrogant but that his cruelty and megalomania are revealed to have stemmed from crushed pride. As in works like the prize-­winning The Swallows of Kabul, Khadra, the pseudonym of former Algerian army office ­Mohammed Moulessehoul, capably delivers an understanding of life, politics, and violence in the Middle East. VERDICT A solid companion to the many books, fiction and nonfiction, now appearing on this part of the world.

redstarKhoury, Elias. Broken Mirrors: Sinalcol. Archipelago. Jan. 2016. 500p. tr. from Arabic by Humphrey Davies. ISBN 9780914671299. pap. $24; ebk. ISBN 9780914671305. F

Having fled war-torn Beirut for France 20 years before, Karim Shammas returns home, perhaps because he’s homesick, perhaps to hunt his father’s killer. Perhaps, too, he wants to find Sinalcol, his “spiritual twin,” a shadowy figure whose nickname he’s inherited. Yes, he’s trying to see himself, but all the mirrors are broken. “The war will never end because it’s inside us,” says one character, and, indeed, war wreckage and culture clash here lie so close to personal wreckage and familial clash as to be indistinguishable. VERDICT Within a finely rendered sociopolitical framework, Lebanese novelist Khoury (Gate of the Sum) dives down deeply to portray enduring personal pain.

redstarKurniawan, Eka. Beauty Is a Wound. New Directions. Sept. 2015. 480p. tr. from Indonesian by Annie Tucker. ISBN 9780811223638. pap. $19.95; ebk. ISBN 9780811223645. F

This English-language debut of trending Indonesian author Kurniawan opens with beautiful prostitute Dewi Ayu arising from the grave after 21 years and encountering her child Beauty, whom she had cursed with ugliness. The initial feeling of legend, dare one say magic realism, is quickly overtaken by the brutal facts of Indonesian history, from the last gasp of Dutch colonialism to World War II and the bloody battle for independence and against presumed Communists. VERDICT A lush, raucous, and fabulous saga.

oblivion91715redstarLebedev, Sergei. Oblivion. New Vessel. Jan. 2016. 292p. tr. from Russian by Antonina W. Bouis. ISBN 9781939931252. pap. $15.95; ebk. ISBN 9781939931290. F

Opening in stately fashion and unfolding ever faster with fierce, intensive elegance, this first novel discloses the weight of Soviet history and its consequences. A young man who as a boy owed his life to a reserved neighbor he calls Grandfather II grows curious about the man’s past and finally unearths his connection to the terrible prison-camp system barb-wired throughout the country. The language is precise yet lyrical, with much revealed through dreams, as if the Soviet reality were otherwise too awful to touch. VERDICT Highly recommended for anyone serious about literature or history.

redstarMakine, Andreï. Brief Loves That Live Forever. 144p. ISBN 9781555977122.

redstarMakine, Andreï. A Woman Loved. 256p. ISBN 9781555977115.

ea. vol: Graywolf. 2015. tr. from French by Geoffrey Strachan. pap. $16. F

Exemplified by the revelatory Dreams of My Russian Summers (1997), Makine’s novels tell the story of the Soviet Union, but with a different shading each time. The recollections of a middle-aged man limpidly if impressionistically revealed, Brief Loves sums up the fleeting moments of real feeling he (and other Soviet citizens) saw fit to capture as “a revolt against a world in which hatred is the rule and love a strange anomaly.” It’s particularly poignant, even for Makine, and every scenario has bite. In A Woman Loved, young filmmaker Oleg Erdmann is taking a big risk with a new film about the life and heatedly extravagant loves of Catherine the Great. History is seen as a film set, “a gory animated cartoon,” and life as “a grotesque vaudeville,” so what’s the difference? Even as he ponders our inescapable grand-scale playacting, Makine zeroes in on Oleg’s split Russian-German identity—just another shading in the complex Soviet reality. VERDICT You don’t have to love all things Russian to appreciate Makine’s urgent storytelling.

redstarMujila, Fiston Mwanza. Tram 83. Deep Vellum. Sept. 2015. 200p. tr. from French by Roland Glasser. ISBN 9781941920046. pap. $14.95; ebk. ISBN 9781941920053. F

Somewhere in Africa, in the City-State, a region in secession, wheeling-dealing Requiem joins with writer friend Lucien, freshly home from Europe, at a down-and-dirty bar called Tram 83. In an atmosphere drenched in sex and music, drugs and blackmail, Requiem slickly tries to negotiate the publication of Lucien’s recent stage-tale with weasly publisher Malingeau. The writing, which has all the edgy darkness of the best street lit, sometimes mimics the bar’s background jazz in its syncopation and the occasional quick-burst, broken-sentence, run-on format, with the bar regulars feeling like a Greek chorus. VERDICT Born in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Mujila has turned out a multiaward-winning debut that’s decidedly cool and juicy.

Nothomb, Amélie. Pétronille. Europa. Oct. 2015. 122p. tr. from French by Alison Anderson. ISBN 9781609452902. pap. $15. F

In this razor-sharp fable by award-winning French author Nothomb (Life Form), an author named Amélie Nothomb with a passion for champagne finds a comvinion—that is, a drinking companion—in a fan named Pétronille. There’s something altogether odd (and, intentionally or not, sometimes not quite real) about their relationship, and as Amélie encourages Pétronille’s obvious writing talent, the story gets darker and more bizarre. VERDICT Not for your average women’s fiction fan but wonderfully disturbing stuff for the more serious-minded; the end is an absurdist shocker readers will embrace or deplore.

Plenzdorf, Ulrich. The New Sorrows of Young W. Pushkin. Sept. 2015. 160p. tr. from German by Romy Fursland. ISBN 9781782270942. pap. $16; ebk. ISBN 9781782270942. F

Obviously modeled on Goethe’s classic The Sorrows of Young Werther and itself a modern German classic, originally published in the 1970s, this dazzling novel captures youth’s energized rebellion against social strictures—here, cold and clammy East Germany. Plenzdorf follows the adventures of the bold and beautifully drawn Edgar Wibeau, who storms out of his apprenticeship and ends up squatting in Berlin. He burns through his life and crashes like Icarus, but what a ride. VERDICT Not a history lesson but universal portraiture; younger readers will identify, older readers will recall just how Edgar feels.

Spiegel, Nadja. Sometimes I Lie and Sometimes I Don’t. Dalkey Archive. (Austrian Literature). Sept. 2015. 144p. tr. from German by Rachel McNicholl. ISBN 9781628970623. pap. $14. SHORT STORIES

Unassuming Anne doesn’t mind the men entangled with her companion, a violinist named Meta whose songs have a Volga sound (“I wish you’d let me kiss you some time, Paul says, and he kisses Meta and I say nothing”). A woman caught between her mindlessly mean mother and actress sister prevaricates (“Did you like it? my sister asked…. I said Yes and couldn’t remember anything about the play, only about No”). Clearly, in this collection Austrian prize winner Spiegel draws indelible, tilted portraits of (mostly young) people hungry for love and a sure sense of self even as they run up against everyone else’s needs. VERDICT Sparkling reading beyond the conventional.

Tabucchi, Antonio. Tristano Dies: A Life. Archipelago. Nov. 2015. 160p. tr. from Italian by Elizabeth Harris. ISBN 9780914671244. pap. $18; ebk. ISBN 9780914671251. F

Dying Italian Resistance hero Tristano hires a writer to hear him tell his story, which he relates in swelling, stream-of-consciousness style that slips between first and third person, starting with his killing a German soldier in Athens and falling for black-eyed Daphne. But he often digresses (“So let me philosophize”), reflecting on life and art, roses and light. VERDICT Gorgeous if a challenge for those who want things plain, this will please smart readers ready to applaud the energized imagination of the late Italian master.

Thomas, Chantal. The Exchange of Princesses. Other. 2015. 336p. tr. from French by John Cullen. ISBN 9781590517024. pap. $16.95; ebk. ISBN 9781590517031. F

laurus91715In 1721, the debauched regent of France decides to marry 11-year-old Louis XV to the four-year-old daughter of Spain’s Philip V, also marrying his own roguish 12-year-old daughter to the heir to the Spanish throne. This exchange of princesses is delivered with cool-eyed cinematic detail—not surprisingly, as Thomas’s Prix Femina–winning Farewell, My Queen became a film, as this book will be. ­VERDICT A brightly polished portrait of royal pomp and custom for historical fiction fans with big-picture tastes.

Vodolazkin, Eugene. Laurus. Oneworld. Oct. 2015. 352p. tr. from Russian by Lisa C. Hayden. ISBN 9781780747552. $24.99; ebk. ISBN 9781780747569. F

Winner of Russia’s National Big Book Prize, this saga of 15th-century Russia captures both its harshness and its radiant faith in a narrative touched by the miraculous. Arseny is born in 1440 near the Kirillo-Belozersky Monastery and raised mostly by his grandfather, who teaches him to be a healer like himself. Plague takes the remaining family, and after further tragedy our hero launches on a pilgrimage across Europe, surviving violence, princes, and holy fools before becoming Brother Laurus. VERDICT Engaging sweep; for all readers.

Barbara Hoffert is Editor, Prepub Alert, LJ

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Barbara Hoffert About Barbara Hoffert

Barbara Hoffert (bhoffert@mediasourceinc.com, @BarbaraHoffert on Twitter) is Editor, LJ Prepub Alert; past chair of the Materials Selection Committee of the RUSA (Reference and User Services Assn.) division of the American Library Association; and past president, treasurer, and awards chair of the National Book Critics Circle.