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

Top Fall Indie Fiction: Best Bets Beyond the Big-House Titles

redstarBanasky, Carmiel. The Suicide of Claire Bishop. Dzanc. 2015. 384p. ISBN 9781938103087. $24.95; ebk. ISBN 9781938604843. F

suicideofclairebishop11315In 1959 New York, Claire Bishop, young and pretty but a willful, heavy-drinking fabulator who married Freddie to escape what felt like a doomed life, is sitting for a portrait he has commissioned for her birthday. She’s drawn out by the artist, Nicolette, who then paints a shocking portrait of Claire’s broken-bodied suicide. In 2004, the earnest, schizophrenic West sees the portrait of a woman’s suicide that he’s convinced has been painted by a woman named ­Nicolette with whom he’s been trying to connect. But given the time difference, how can that be? Debut novelist Banasky offers a brilliantly, sleekly told puzzle piece that snares readers to the end. VERDICT Highly recommended.

Bible, Michael. Sophia. Melville House. Dec. 2015. 128p. ISBN 9781612194721. pap. $15.95; ebk. ISBN 9781612194738. F

The Right Reverend Alvis T. Maloney lives on a boat because the bank took his home, was nearly defrocked for inappropriate behavior with female parishioners, and enjoys snorting heroin with chess buddy Eli. Clearly, he’s not your typical reverend, and the provocatively named Bible is not your typical novelist, offering punchy little paragraphs that examine the collision of the sacred and profane in language that’s sparkling and decidedly raucous. Soon he’s taken Maloney and Eli out of the wicked South and sent them on a money-making chess-tournament tour that ends with a game played with live pieces in that modern Sodom and Gomorrah, New York. VERDICT Not for those easily offended and not just a hoot, either; we’re all searchers.

Blackwell, Elise. The Lower Quarter. Unbridled. 2015. 368p. ISBN 9781609531195. pap. $16.95; ebk. ISBN 9781609531201. F

Once a victim of sex trafficking, ­Johanna found her calling as an art conservator while staring at a dirty painting after being forced to the floor by a client. Now, having been rescued by Clay, scion of an old-money family and self-styled avenger of wrongdoing, she restores art for private clients in New Orleans. Eli, an accomplished artist and Puerto Rican nationalist jailed for “repatriating” works of art, is employed by the Lost Art Register. He ends up in New Orleans on assignment to find a missing painting linked to a murder victim police nearly missed as Katrina swept into town. VERDICT The deft unfolding of the underlying mystery is rich with characterization and atmosphere and can be appreciated by a wide range of readers. From the author of The Unnatural History of Cypress Parish.

redstarCoates, Lawrence. Camp Olvido: A Novella. Miami Univ. 2015. 98p. ISBN 9781881163572. pap. $15. F

Winner of the 2015 Miami University Press Novella Prize, this starkly beautiful work delivers a sense of entrapment most of us can barely imagine. Esteban Alas, an opportunist who runs liquor to migrant labor camps in 1932 California, is asked to mediate between an arrogant landowner and one of his workers. The migrant children are falling ill, and this desperate father wants release from his contract so that he can return home with his son and seek healing from a curandera. The violence that results is both shocking and inevitable, changing Esteban’s life forever. VERDICT Simply and affectingly told, this short fiction from multi-award-winning author Coates should lead readers to his full-length novels (most recently, The Goodbye House).

redstarElliot, Julia. The New and Improved Romie Futch. Tin House. 2015. 416p. ISBN 9781941040157. pap. $15.95; ebk. ISBN 9781941040164. F

Divorced from beautiful Helen and barely clinging to his business, washed-up South Carolina taxidermist Romie Futch hangs out mournfully with other loser friends. Then he answers an ad placed by the Center for Cybernetic Neuroscience, located in Atlanta, which is seeking research subjects willing to have humanities data downloaded into their brains. In a bid to remake his life, Romie signs up and is soon using language that might stump a Ph.D. But all does not go as planned, starting with his homecoming blackout. Then there’s the 1,000-pound hogzilla, another victim of lab intervention now marauding through the countryside, that Ronnie aims to bring down. VERDICT A send-up of self-improvement schemes and self-serving science, this wise and funny book by Elliott (The Wilds) treats its characters tenderly and glimmers at the end.

Goolrick, Robert. The Fall of Princes. Algonquin. 2015. 304p. ISBN 9781616204204. $25.95; pap. ISBN 978161620603115.95; ebk. ISBN 9781616205386 .F

Best-selling author Goolrick (Heading Out to Wonderful) does a neat trick in his new novel: he creates an irresistible read narrated by a despicable individual you would never want to meet. Set in high-flying 1980s Manhattan (“money, that year, was the most tangible avatar of the zeitgeist”), it features a character who wants it all and treats people like playthings, easily discarded; the opening scene, involving a card game as job interview and the narrator’s arrogant triumph, chillingly reveals the mind-set here. But what goes up must spiral down, and we see our antihero scrambling; it’s no surprise when the name Ozymandias graces the text. VERDICT Deeply readable and unsettling.

redstarKloss, Robert. The Revelator. Unnamed. 2015. 256p. ISBN 9781939419507. pap. $16; ebk. ISBN 9781939419644. F

With his mother dead at his birth and his father dead at the plow not long after, Joseph is taken in by a farm family that uses him cruelly, and he grows into an angry man. Fleeing the farm with blood on his hands, he is taken in by a shopkeeper and ends up consorting with various lowlifes until he has a vision of a “dread beast” that compels him to build a church of sorts. The resulting portrait of spiritual leader as madman, (a figure we know too well), is delivered by Kloss (Alligators of Abraham) in fiery, near-biblical prose that uses the second person, implicating us all. VERDICT Set in 19th-century America, this epic has the feel and dark, ferocious beauty of Kent Wascom’s The Blood of Heaven.

Reidy, Dave. The Voiceover Artist. Curbside Splendor. Nov. 2015. 310p. ISBN 9781940430553. pap. $15.95. F

In this debut novel (following Reidy’s story collection, Captive Audience, an Indie Next Notable Book), Simon Davies is a stutterer in his twenties who stopped speaking for 18 years after a traumatic incident with his father. Now he’s up and talking, having rebuilt his voice, and has bravely decided to become a voiceover artist—never mind that actor brother Connor scoffs and girlfriend Brittany has decided not to come with him to Chicago to pursue his dream. The narrative unfolds via different voices, with that of talent agent Elaine Vasner particularly memorable. Reidy smartly takes us just up to Simon’s first, not wholly unalloyed, triumph, paralleled by bittersweet family moments. VERDICT An appealing portrait of one individual’s struggle.

Revoyr, Nina. Lost Canyon. Akashic. 2015. 320p. ISBN 9781617753534. 26.95; pap. ISBN 9781617753541. $15.95; ebk. ISBN 9781617753626. F

Attorney Todd Harris, real estate agent Oscar Barajas, and Gwen Foster, a black woman overburdened by a job working with at-risk youth, are brought together by their personal trainer, Tracy Cole, for an adventuresome hike in the Sierra Nevada. Tracy is remarkably blasé when asked whether they’ll encounter danger, which they certainly do: they find themselves caught between white supremacists and Mexican drug runners in the wilderness, which certainly pulls together this disparate group. What makes this latest from Revoyr (The Age of Dreaming) more than a suspenseful tale of survival and personal growth is the slowly worked out differences of race and class, well articulated throughout. VERDICT An absorbing read with good social context.

Saterstrom, Selah. Slab: On That Hallelujah Day When Tiger & Preacher Meet. Coffee House. 2015. 186p. ISBN 9781566893954. pap. $16.95; ebk. ISBN 9781566893961. F

Since Tiger is an exotic dancer–turned–performance artist, it’s not surprising that this chronicle of her shifting fortunes in the darkly decadent South is presented in two acts, with Act I: Tiger offering scenes like “Tiger Goes to the Dogs” and Act II: Preacher featuring frequent biblical incantation, though the title character was simply named Preacher by a mother wanting something better for her son. Tiger’s Act I meditations would be called rambling if they weren’t so absorbingly, concisely written; they end with Tiger sitting on the slab that’s all Katrina left of her Mississippi home. In Act II, as Preacher suffers an accident, a fortune teller brings Tiger a vision of the coming ruin. VERDICT Not for fans of continuous narrative but weirdly wonderful.

Sen, Chaitali. The Pathless Sky. Europa. 2015. 320p. ISBN 9781609452919. pap. $17; ebk. ISBN 9781609453015. F

Brilliant yet somewhat feckless John Merchant meets Mariam at college, and their on-again, off-again affair unfolds against the backdrop of political and military violence in their unnamed country. Mariam is from the north, marginalized and scorned, and John tries to protect her from news of government bombings there, even as he becomes momentarily involved with her roommate. The narrative carries this star-crossed couple from first kiss and breakup to reunion, marriage, a lost child, and student protests at the college where they work that entrap Mariam and leave John struggling to save more than their marriage. VERDICT The paralleling of political and personal tensions makes this well-written if longish debut particularly effective; readers who like big-picture novels will enjoy.

redstarThornton, Mark R. Kid Moses. Arcade: Skyhorse. 2015. 176p. ISBN 9781628725711. $19.95; pap. ISBN 9781431402656; ebk. ISBN 9781628726336. F

kidmoses11315An American-born wilderness guide in Tanzania, Thornton clarifies the harshness of life in Africa through the story of a boy named Moses. Abandoned by his mother to a cruel uncle after his father’s death, Moses runs away and hangs about the harbor of Dar es Salaam. Then he and friend Kioso impulsively leap on a truck that takes them far from the city and are separated, with Moses hunting guiltily for Kioso and committing an act of violence in defense of another friend. VERDICT Though Moses is embraced by moments of kindness, his is a rough, tough life forthrightly told. And it’s told without stooping to graphic excess, which means you trust it implicitly. Highly recommended for all fiction readers.

Unsworth, Emma Jane. Animals. Europa. 2015. 256p. ISBN 9781609452896. pap. $17; ebk. ISBN 9781609452995. F

Unsworth follows up her Betty Trask Award–winning debut, Hungry, the Stars and Everything, with a tale of female friendship. Wannabe novelist Laura focuses most of her energies on best friend Tyler, a let’s-party-until-we-drop sort with whom she consumes prodigious quantities of alcohol. With all their wild ways, there’s barely room for Jim, the classical pianist Laura plans to marry. (There’s an unlikely couple.) Jim has stopped drinking for the sake of his career and wants Laura to get a grip, but this is not a novel of one young woman’s finding the light. At the bittersweet end, Laura is true to herself. VERDICT Darkly hilarious, though it does sober up, this novel is a twentysomething cri de coeur that enlightens even as it exasperates.

redstarWood, Jeff. The Glacier. Two Dollar Radio. 2015. 160p. ISBN 9781937512415. pap. $14.99. F

Rendered partly as prose poem–like paragraphs strung down the pages like a necklace and partly as sharply delivered play-script (actor Wood is a founding member of the experimental film/art group Rufus), this novel highlights the hollowness of rapid suburban growth at the turn of the millennium. A surveyor named Jonah survives in a self-storage unit, squawking over the radio with Sue and Gunner, who says, “I was from here and now it’s all one big fucking cemetery.” Caterer Simone negotiates the concrete and fluorescence of a looming convention center. And a mud man, “like a ghostly aboriginal,” haunts the narrative as a reminder of what’s been lost. ­VERDICT Gorgeously and urgently written; don’t be intimidated by the format.

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.