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 Spring Indie Fiction: This Season Brings 14 Worthy Titles Beyond the Mainstream

hex.jpg4416Blackman, Sarah. Hex. FC2: Univ. of Alabama. Apr. 2016. 360p. ISBN 9781573660563. pap. $19.95; ebk. ISBN 9781573668675. F
Alice Small, who grew up lonely in the backwater South Carolina town of Elevation, her mother having died in childbirth, relates the story of her mother’s life, her own life, and her close bond with friend Ingrid, whom she calls Thingy. Her audience? Thingy’s daughter, Ingrid the Second. Undercurrents of violence and Aunt Thalia’s small-time cruelties are rendered exactly, but what’s remarkable here is how seamlessly the story moves into gorgeously rendered fantasy worlds, recalling everything from the Brothers Grimm to Lyudmila Petrushevskaya but grounded especially in Cherokee legend. VERDICT Sarah Addison Allen for ­sophisticates, with touches of Louise Erdrich and Alice Hoffman.

Cann, Dana. Ghosts of Bergen County. Tin House. Apr. 2016. 288p. ISBN 9781941040270. pap. $15.95; ebk. ISBN 9781941040287. F

In perfectly balanced prose, debut novelist Cann tells the story of Gil and Mary Ferko, who move to New Jersey’s Bergen County as young parents and are devastated when infant daughter ­Catherine is killed in a hit-and-run accident. While Gil connects with bad-news Jen Yoder, an old classmate with vague acting ambitions who pulls him into heroin use, Mary Beth remains shut indoors. That Mary Beth spots the flickering image of a pigtailed girl and Jen once walked away after witnessing a man’s death are factors tied together in an escalating mystery. VERDICT Absorbingly written, this will appeal to readers of literary fiction as well as high-end mystery.

Carswell, Sean. The Metaphysical Ukulele. Ig. May 2016. 208p. ISBN 9781632460264. pap. $16.95. SHORT STORIES

Cofounder of Gorsky Press, Carswell (Madhouse Fog) has great fun pulling off his intriguing idea: using a ukulele to link stories featuring admired authors. Herman Melville absconds with the ukulele given him by a possibly cannibalistic Polynesian girl, Jack Kerouac strums along with farmhands as he travels the open road, Chester Himes swindles an instrument from a Parisian house band while consorting with Richard Wright and James Baldwin, and Flannery O’Connor leaves behind her ukulele after a short-circuited evening with a beau. In each, the ukulele is unobtrusive yet resonant; O’Connor’s loss echoes others in her life, and the tale about Richard Brautigan’s ukulele is as satisfyingly off-kilter as the author himself. VERDICT Unexpectedly entertaining; most readers will enjoy.

de Krester, Michelle. Springtime: A Ghost Story. Catapult. Apr. 2016. 92p. ISBN 9781936787432. pap. $11.95; ebk. ISBN 9781936787449. F

In Miles Franklin Award– winning de Krester’s atmospheric fable, Frances and Charlie have moved from Melbourne to lush, cerulean-skied Sydney so that she can take up a research scholarship on 18th-century French portraits at the university. One morning, as Frances walks their dog along the river, she spies a woman in an old-fashioned pink dress tending to a garden, and she has a sensation that time has somehow tilted; the woman isn’t really there. Spooky moments follow, the relationship between Charlie and Frances grows tenser, but does Frances really believe in ghosts? VERDICT This brief, absorbing read has just enough portraiture, moodiness, and fine language to stay with the reader long after the cover is quietly closed.

redstarDurcan, Liam. The Measure of Darkness. Bellevue Literary. 2106. 256p. ISBN 9781942658047. pap. $16.95; ebk. ISBN 9781942658054. F

measureofdarkness.jpg4416When architect Martin Fallon awakens from a coma after being knocked flat by a snowplow, he suffers from “neglect syndrome”: his spatial sense is lost, so that he can’t visualize the Guggenheim Museum as he imagines walking up New York’s Fifth Avenue. So much for his career; he senses his colleagues angling away while visiting him at the Dunes, the much-touted facility where once estranged brother Brendan has placed him. After effecting an escape with Brendan’s help, Martin grows increasingly distraught and seeks comfort and understanding in the life story of Soviet architect Konstantin Melnikov. VERDICT In this beautifully written work, readers experience Martin’s caught-breath panic and, as suspense mounts, anxious concern about what Martin was really doing on the road when he was injured.

Eteraz, Ali. Native Believer. Akashic. May 2016. 320p. ISBN 9781617754364. pap. $15.95; ebk. ISBN 9781617754593. F

M. is a second-generation American uninterested in religion, in love with his gorgeous Amazon of a wife, and determined to enjoy the fruits of his homeland. But at the party he and Anne-Marie are hosting for colleagues, trouble starts to surface. Anne-Marie again voices her opposition to having children, and M.’s overbearing boss is dismayed to discover a Qu’ran shoved away on a top shelf (above the works of Nietzsche and Goethe, no less). Suddenly M.’s professional prospects dim, and he launches a freelance career that brings him in touch with Muslim communities. VERDICT In bitingly funny prose, first novelist Eteraz (known for his memoir, Children of Dust) sums up the pain and contradictions of an American not wanting to be categorized; the ending is a bang-up surprise.

redstarLock, Norman. The Port-Wine Stain. Bellevue Literary. (American Novels). Jun. 2016. 224p. ISBN 9781942658061. pap. $16.95. F

In this third in the “American Novels” series (set in 1844 and as polished as its predecessors, The Boy in His Winter and American Meteor), an impressionable young Philadelphian named Edward Fenzil reveres both surgeon Thomas Dent Mütter, a collector of medical oddities, and gothic master Edgar Allan Poe. Increasingly identifying with a murderer whose ghastly skull he has received as a prank, Edward sees himself in Poe’s story “The Port-Wine Stain” (down to a presumed stain on his check) and accuses Poe of stealing his life. VERDICT An enthralling and believable picture of the descent into madness, told in chillingly beautiful prose that Poe might envy.

Ntshanga, Masande. The Reactive. Two Dollar Radio. May 2016. 212p. ISBN 9781937512439. pap. $15.99. F

Winner of the 2013 PEN International New Voices Award, Ntshanga captures South Africa’s dark 1990s through the story of Lindanathi. Convinced that he is responsible for his brother’s death, Lindanathi is HIV-positive and rarely employed, spending his days sniffing glue and paint thinner, hanging out with friends Cecilia and Ruan (who says “the damned should stick together”), selling antiretroviral drugs (ARVs) to get by, and generally avoiding his case manager, who wants to see records of his CD4 account. A big offer to buy the friends’ surplus supply of ARVs puts Lindanathi at a crossroads. VERDICT Ntshanga offers a devastating story yet tells it with noteworthy glow and flow that keeps pages turning until the glimmer- of-hope ending.

redstarPorter, Max. Grief Is the Thing with Feathers. Graywolf. Jun. 2016. 128p. ISBN 9781555977412. pap. $14; ebk. ISBN 9781555979379. F

In this remarkable debut, a man grief-stricken by his wife’s sudden death stumbles around the house, ignoring his writings on Ted Hughes’s poetry and unable to care for his two boys. Then he answers the door and is whacked backward by a huge, decayed-smelling crow, the mystical black embodiment of his sorrow. A self-described trickster there both to torment the man (“For a little break in the mourning, I will give you something to think about”) and to push him through his suffering, Crow speaks oracularly in shimmering passages that alternate with those of Dad and Boys. VERDICT Like a prose poem in its splendid language but with its own swift flow, this is highly recommended for ambitious readers.

genius.jpg4416Rayfiel, Thomas. Genius. Triquarterly: Northwest Univ. 2016. 208p. ISBN 9780810132467. $18.95. F

Kara Bell, who escaped Witch’s Falls, AR, for doctoral studies at Columbia University, must return home because she has stage 3 non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. As she greets her infuriatingly possessive mother, loving if laidback brother, and oblivious Miss Pitts at the senior home where she once worked, Kara tries desperately to explain that she’s not moving home permanently. In fact, she wants to track down the family of the father she never knew, ostensibly to find a donor match that could save her life. She’s also seeking an old friend, and though their encounter ends in ashes, it’s ultimately liberating for Kara. VERDICT Both deeply affecting and rat-a-tat sharp, this new work from Rayfiel (In Pinelight) will ­entertain all readers.

Sawhney, Hirsh. South Haven. Akashic. May 2016. 296p. ISBN 9781617753978. pap. $15.95; ebk. ISBN 9781617754579. F

In this luminous debut from Wesleyan professor Sawhney, also editor of the anthology Delhi Noir, Siddharth Arora stumbles under the burden of having lost his mother at age ten. He can lean some on his older brother but finds little comfort from his strict immigrant father, Mohan Lal, who cannot comprehend his pain and shifts Siddharth to a new school. There, Siddharth is derided as the nerdy one, his only friend initially the “loser” girl Sharon. His difficult coming of age in an ordinary New England suburb entails heartrending betrayal. VERDICT With Siddharth’s immigrant family adding interest, the story captures precisely the heartache of growing up.

Sidhu, Ranbir Singh. Deep Singh Blue. Unnamed. 2016. 256p. ISBN 9781939419682. pap. $14; ebk. ISBN 9781555979379. F

In the opening chapter of this forthright and moving first novel from the author of Good Indian Girls: Stories, Deep Singh calls himself a lost boy. Living with his Indian immigrant parents in a conservative California town during the Reagan era, Deep has more on his plate than ordinary adolescent anguish, wrestling with both prejudice and family tension as he seeks escape through love of an older, married women named Lily. But his passion backfires; Lily herself is conflicted by her Chinese American heritage, and Deep is eventually blamed by his mother for a tragedy involving his mute brother. Yet the seeds of redemption are there. VERDICT Swift, dense, and touching; for most readers.

Wang, Esmé Weijun. The Border of Paradise. Unnamed. Apr. 2016. 256p. ISBN 9781939419699. pap. $16. F

Growing up in postwar Brooklyn, David wholeheartedly believes everything his immigrant Polish parents say about their Novak Piano Company: the pianos are important not just to the world of music but to America itself. He’s also enchanted by beautiful Marianne Pawlowski when she sings at their house, but their engagement is broken off; David’s incipient mental illness emerges after he sells the company he inherits as an adolescent, and his life flounders over decades. Though readers know from the beginning that David will commit suicide, his decline is heartbreaking. VERDICT A well-wrought multigenerational novel that also appeals for its honest look at mental illness.

naturalwayofthings.jpg4416redstarWood, Charlotte. The Natural Way of Things. Europa. Jun. 2016. 208p. ISBN 9781609453626. pap. $16; ebk. ISBN 9781609453633. F

In an utterly remote and barren part of Australia, ten young women are starved, sedated, dressed in outlandish Puritanical garb, and led about like dogs. Yolanda can’t even remember how she got there, but it soon emerges that they are all being punished for past sexual sins. Making her U.S. debut with a novel that won the Australian Independent Booksellers Award as Best Novel and Best Book of the Year, Wood effectively renders the captors’ brutality and the women’s Lord-of-the-Flies struggle to survive. But it’s the eventual bonding (particularly between Yolanda and the somehow familiar Verla) that is the novel’s triumph. VERDICT A shocking and vital work 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.

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