In keeping with this column’s end-of-the-year tradition of highlighting favorite titles, a number of readers’ advisors have surveyed their bookshelves and pulled novels they have deeply enjoyed.
Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad (Doubleday. Aug. 2016. ISBN 9780385542364. $26.95; ebk. ISBN 9780385537049) is an important work of storytelling about slavery, with moments of fantasy that surprise and engage the reader. Caesar, a slave recently arrived, identifies Cora’s strength and asks her to escape with him from a gruesome plantation. For the journey toward freedom, the author uses the concept of an actual train with secret stations that take Cora from Georgia to North Carolina to Indiana. The fear of being identified and returned to her owner is palpable throughout, and the suffering from slavery shows that Cora’s fortitude and perseverance are truly heroic. [An LJ Top Ten Best Book of 2016.—Ed.]
Few authors mine the tragicomic chaos of motherhood, marriage, and middle age better than Maria Semple. With Today Will Be Different (Little, Brown. Oct. 2016. ISBN 9780316403436. $27; ebk. ISBN 9780316395601), Semple introduces us to Eleanor Flood, an erstwhile illustrator whose madcap neuroticism goes into overdrive when she learns that her husband harbors a secret. She drags her eccentric son, Timby, and their dog Yo-Yo along on a screwball search for the truth doused with wry observations, revealing flashbacks, and an excerpt of The Flood Girls, a heartbreaking graphic memoir–within–a–book drawn by Eric Chase Anderson. The result is a funny, brutally honest meditation on one woman’s quest for happiness that’s hidden in plain sight.
Children of Earth and Sky (NAL. May 2016. ISBN 9780451472960. $27; ebk. ISBN 9780451472960) proves Guy Gavriel Kay is a master worldbuilder, reimagining history and creating multilayered stories. Here, Kay moves from his recent explorations of the Far East to an equally fascinating but perhaps even more obscure locality—the Adriatic coast. Like most of Kay’s novels, this one is complex, political, and filled with memorable characters. The conflict involves the triangle of trade, policy, and warfare among the powerful city-state of Seressa (read Venice), the rather piratical port of Kay’s Senjan (coastal Croatia), and the Osmanlis (the Ottoman Turks). Within this backdrop, Kay’s characters live, love, and die for their ideals, families, and nations.
Those of us who are addicted to audiobooks always argue that a narrator can transform a book. That’s exactly what happens with Julian Fellowes’s Belgravia (13 CDs. 16 hrs. Hachette Audio. Jul. 2016. ISBN 9781478941484. $35). Juliet Stevenson’s incredible narration creates a cinematic experience as she uses her voice to set scenes, conjure images, and fashion characters that leap from the pages. Set mostly in 1840s London, this delightful family saga features issues between upstairs and downstairs, a disputed inheritance, a secret love child, and a rich cast of characters—both real and fictional—as well as historical detail. Stevenson’s spot-on accents and cadences make this a diverting and delicious confection from the creator of the Edwardian phenomenon Downton Abbey.
Christodora (Grove Atlantic. Aug. 2016. ISBN 9780802125286. $26; ebk. ISBN 9780802190437) is a wonderfully ambitious debut that spans 40 years and chronicles the impact of AIDS on individuals and communities—particularly New York City’s East Village. With pitch-perfect detail, author Tim Murphy goes back to the early years of the epidemic, through the struggles between AIDS activists and medical bureaucrats, then to life in New York today. But this is no simple, realistic account. Instead, Murphy has created an intricate and powerfully plotted novel that picks readers up and bears them along—back and forth, from the past to the present, from one character to another, finally reaching its haunting yet satisfying conclusion. Still, for all that this book embraces, it is at its heart a love story.
The marvelous A Gentleman in Moscow (Viking. Sept. 2016. ISBN 9780670026197. $27; ebk. ISBN 9780399564048) by Amor Towles offers up much to savor for those who enjoy deft writing. The characterizations are telling and delightfully detailed. The style is high, a bit arch, and addictively welcoming, melding into a novel that is hard to put down. The story begins as the Bolsheviks sentence Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov to house arrest in Moscow’s glamorous Metropol Hotel, finding him an irritation—if not a threat—to the state. Towles creates a shimmering atmosphere and a mass of quirky happenings and, in so doing, enthralls readers in his multiple plots.