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

Regular & Irregular Books of the Season | What We’re Reading

I was desperate this week for book talk from my colleagues at LJ/School Library Journal and beyond; so much so that I basically begged people to return to the fold and praised to the skies WWR stalwart contributors who come through nearly every week. This week, Stephanie Sendaula,  Kate DiGirolomo, and newest LJ crew member, Ellen Abrams (who’s filling in for new mom Stephanie Klose), discuss what they’re reading, in addition to the regulars whose musings we love so much. Come closer to the fireplace and read along with us.

tanaf-trespasserEllen Abrams, Guest Editor, LJ Reviews
I am not typically a mystery reader. I usually only read them for work, and that is how I discovered Tana French. Her latest powerhouse is The Trespasser (Viking), and it is one helluva read. French’s use of lingo is superb, and her plotting gets better with every book. All of her novels are tangentially related in that they concern the inner workings and criminal investigations of the so-called Dublin Murder Squad, which I believe French invented. I don’t know if cops in Ireland palaver the way French has them doing it, but if they don’t, they should. It’s colorful, vulgar, and so in-your-face, you can feel the spit. But you’re just reading, so you stay dry. Our victim is Aislinn Murray, who has been found quite lovely yet very dead in her own perfect little apartment. Antoinette Conway, tougher than dirt, and her partner, ginger-haired Steve Moran, who have an enviable and effective nonverbal shorthand understanding of each other, have been given the case, and they are anxious to make it stick. Maybe this will be the case that finally earns them the respect of the rest of the squad of wankers. French weaves a speedy back-and-forth yarn, with emotional truths, misunderstandings, false leads, and enough family drama, that it had me flying through the pages.

weir-henryviiiwivesMahnaz Dar, Assistant Managing Editor, LJS
In light of how awful things are of late (or should I say “unpresidential?”), I decided to take a break from the 21st century and delve into the world of the Tudors. I had put down Alison Weir’s The Six Wives of Henry VIII for a bit, but I began reading it again this weekend, and I’m loving it. One of my favorite parts is Weir’s eye for details of ordinary, mundane life. For instance, I learned that though the world of the royal court seems glamorous and full of intrigue, it was actually more than a little messy. The men of the palaces, for example, often used the palace floor mats as makeshift privies (and there were plenty of pets roaming the halls to add to the general waste), thus, after a few weeks, things were pretty gruesome. So off everyone went to another palace while the skeleton crew stayed behind to clean up! Fun, fun times.

markuszusak-bookthiefKate DiGirolomo, SELF-e Community Coordinator
As I’m sure is true for most of my coworkers, I’ve got stacks of books waiting to be read and what feels like no time to get through them. Determined to at least tackle part of the pile, I’ve started with Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief (Knopf). It’s a novel that I’d always heard amazing things about and built up in my head to be one of those life-altering reading experiences. I’m only a couple of chapters in, but I’m already struck by the gorgeous prose and unexpected, yet sadly appropriate narrator—Death. World War II is certainly a frequent subject in fiction—and for good reason—but I’ll be curious to see how Zusak handles his setting in the middle of Nazi Germany. I suspect that this will have to end in tears.

 

whites011615Liz French, Senior Editor, LJ Reviews
After a break to devour The Whites (Holt) by Richard Price writing as Harry Brandt, I returned to pleasure reading Margaret Atwood’s Hag-Seed (Hogarth). And what a pleasure! Atwood is so good at the Shakespeare rewrite (of The Tempest), modernizing and customizing in many clever ways. She places the action in a correctional institution, and has a lot of fun with the convicts’ use of only period-appropriate swear words. (In her acknowledgements, she doffs her cap to The Shakespeare Insult Generator). That alone is genius, and there’s lots more to like.

I found a library scene in Hag-Seed. After being betrayed by his crafty second-in-command Tony (Antonio), sacked by the theater company before he could stage his version of The Tempest, and before he hatches an elaborate act of revenge, our hero Felix (Prospero) is looking for solace. He heads to his local (Canadian) branch:

He went to the library and took out books. Surely he should use this opportunity to read all those classics he’d never made it through in youth. The Brothers Karamazov, Anna Karenina, Crime and Punishment…But he couldn’t do it; there was too much real life, there was too much tragedy. Instead he found himself gravitating to children’s stories in which everything came out all right in the end. Anne of Green Gables, Peter Pan. Fairy tales: Snow White, Sleeping Beauty. Girls left for dead in glass coffins or four-poster beds, then brought miraculously back to life by the touch of love: that was what he longed for. A reversal of fate.

“You must have grandchildren,” the nice librarian said to him. “Do you read to them?” Felix nodded and smiled. No sense in telling her the truth.

No library scenes in The Whites, nor in Jami Attenberg’s All Grown Up (Houghton Harcourt), which I’m reviewing for LJ. But there is a mention of National Public Radio:

We listen to NPR for the first two hours on the road, the strange comfort of bad news reported in reasonable tones, my mother sliding in and out of commentary. She buys pretty much everything NPR is selling, but she has her moments of doubt: some reports seem superficial to her. “What would they do if they had more time with that story?” she wonders. “Two more minutes on the lives of the people who grow the vegetables we eat, would it kill them?” I ignore her.

selzer-holmes-whitecitydevilTyler Hixson, Editorial Assistant, SLJ Reviews
I recently finished Erik Larson’s The Devil in the White City and was enthralled by the story of H.H. Holmes, the man who supposedly lured young women into his “murder castle” against the backdrop of the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair. While I loved this book and was fascinated by the World’s Fair and the nefarious Holmes, I felt that Larson wasn’t as in-depth with his depiction of Holmes as he was with the history of the fair—I was left wanting. Lo and behold, what comes in the mail this past week but a shiny new April 2017 ARC of Adam Selzer’s H.H. Holmes: The True History of the White City Devil (Skyhorse), which solely covers the life of Holmes, his crimes, and his trial. Selzer claims that he found hundreds of documents that were previously undiscovered or inaccessible to other contemporary Holmes writers; I’m only about 100 pages in, but the sheer number of notes and sources leads me to believe he’s telling the truth. The author debunks many of the Holmes stories that have pervaded popular culture since the fair—the “murder castle” was never actually used as a hotel, Holmes didn’t murder the old couple that sold him their pharmacy when he first arrived in Chicago (they were actually in their 20s, and gave statements to the police when Holmes was arrested for insurance fraud)—and casts doubt on others (Holmes claimed to murder Minnie Williams, while eyewitnesses claim to have seen her with Holmes months after her disappearance; despite newspapers stating that Holmes murdered dozens of women during his time in Chicago, he most likely killed three). I haven’t reached the part about his trial, but I can’t wait. Definitely less “narrative nonfiction” than Devil in the White City but just as riveting.

thenix.jpgthumbLisa Peet, Associate Editor, News & Features, LJ
As I feared last week, the New York Public Library sucked my digital copy of Nathan Hill’s The Nix (Knopf) back into the ether on Friday afternoon when I had 30 pages (out of a hefty 620) left. And the thought drove me so nuts that I ran all over the office until 15 minutes before I left for the weekend, when I found a copy I could borrow (thank you, Susan, and the Book Room!). I ended up liking it a lot, too. It was a shaggy dog of a story, but I think Hill pulled it off really nicely, particularly for a debut—it managed to avoid the same type of pitfalls that I felt tripped up Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch, which it reminded me of a little. There are some great interwoven story lines about the 1968 Chicago Democratic Convention protests and massively multiplayer online role-playing games, Norwegian mythology, conservative politicians, academia, publishing, Iraq, Allen Ginsberg, “Choose Your Own Adventure” books, and Occupy Wall Street. It’s jam packed but fun and surprising, and my attention never flagged. So, I recommend it to all the usual suspects who like a big fat story.

Jane Alison’s Nine Island (Catapult) was a shorter read, and it was outstanding. Ovid’s tales of transmogrification set the tone for what is a very smart, funny, offbeat novel that muses on the male gaze, the female gaze, love, lust, loneliness, self-sufficiency, and how hard it is to care for even—or maybe especially—what you love (including, maybe especially, yourself). It’s also gorgeously descriptive, making me almost wish I’d waited a couple of months to read it when I’m in Miami, where it’s set. But no matter…it’s also a good antidote to a New York cold spell in December, not just tropical but generally thawing. This one seems to be a bit under the popular radar, which it shouldn’t be. Definitely one of my very favorites of the year.

kendi-racistideasStephanie Sendaula, Associate Editor, LJ Reviews
I’ve been slowly reading this year’s National Book Award winner for nonfiction, Ibram X. Kendi’s Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America (Nation). I’m taking my time with this book because Kendi presents eye-opening information and because I’m coreading along with Twitter–turned–IRL friends. I’ve been reading and tweeting my thoughts as I go along, both to those reading with me and anyone else who might be interested. I’ve enjoyed the feedback I’ve gotten from people who aren’t necessarily following the book with us, but who are catching parts of our long-winded thread here and there.

LJ’s reviewer Thomas J. Davis says, “Using examples ranging from the 1600s to the present, the author exposes the ideas that have formed the foundation of racial discrimination, employing as tour guides prominent Americans such as Cotton Mather, Thomas Jefferson, William Lloyd Garrison, W.E.B. Du Bois, and Angela Davis.” I recently finished the Mather section, which touches upon how religion was used to subjugate African Americans and also describes the clashing voices of segregationists, assimilationists, and antiracists—three groups still clashing today in the wake of the recent presidential election. This is not easy reading, but it’s necessary and ever so timely.

hyde-thegiftHenrietta Verma, WWR emerita
At the moment I’m reading The Gift (Vintage), which, despite its title, is not a weepie by Nicholas Sparks. It’s Lewis Hyde’s semischolarly examination of the mechanisms, traditions, beliefs, and obligations involved in the gift economy (think everything from tribal customs to organ donor registries) and of a particular case of gifting: using one’s artistic ability to benefit others. This book is very intriguing by itself, and I highly recommend it, but adding to my enjoyment is a related publishing intrigue I’ve noticed. The several editions of the book all have different subtitles, some more suitable for harassment-free subway reading than others. The 1983 edition is subtitled Imagination and the Erotic Life of Property; 2006, How the Creative Spirit Transforms the World; and the 2007, 25th anniversary edition, Creativity and the Artist in the Modern World.

Since you may have time over the holidays, try a related essay by Martin Paul Eve, “ ‘You Have To Keep Track of Your Changes’: The Version Variants and Publishing History of David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas.” And if anyone can point me toward writing on why Haruki Murakami’s books are serialized in Japan but published as single volumes elsewhere, I’d love to read it. Meanwhile, happy holidays from all the readers in my house to all the readers in yours.

 

 

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Liz French About Liz French

Library Journal Senior Editor Liz French edits nonfiction and women's fiction reviews at LJ and also compiles the "What We're Reading" and "Classic Returns" columns for LJ online. She's inordinately interested in what you're reading as well. Email: efrench@mediasourceinc.com, Twitter: @lizefrench

Comments

  1. Douglas Lord says:

    Awesome picks! I’ve often wondered how it is that the building at 123 William Street in NYC doesn’t simply collapse in on itself due to the immense brains of the editorial staff there creating a big whooshing tornado of intellect and good looks.
    ~ Doug Lord the Book Dude

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