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

Great First Acts | Debut Novels

ljx170302webHoffertTOP

After the big-name holiday rush, spring ­typically brings a host of fresh debut novels, and this year is no exception. From astute coming-of-age titles to high-profile pop fiction to books heard ’round the world, these will be the most talked-about debuts of the spring season.

Books are selected for this list based on strong reviews, media buzz, overall industry interest, and personal reading. Though a few date back to February, most are publishing from March onward, with some key July titles featured.

The next edition of “Debut Novels,” slated for the July 2017 issue, will cover many more of the best debuts appearing in the summer. For now, enjoy these spring ­firsts.

at home

Akkad, Omar El. American War. Knopf. Apr. 2017. 336p. ISBN 9780451493583. $26.95; ebk. ISBN 9780451493590.

In a searingly relevant work, Egyptian-born, Canadian-based journalist El Akkad imagines a second American Civil War, in which six-year-old Sarat Chestnut is herded into a displaced persons camp with her family and eventually trained as a weapon of war. “Gripping and frightening.” (LJ 3/15/17)

Chancellor, Bryn. Sycamore. Harper. May 2017. 320p. ISBN 9780062661098. $27.99; ebk. ISBN 9780062661111.

When old bones are discovered in a nearby ravine, folks in Sycamore, AZ, assume they belong to troubled teenage newcomer Jess Winters, who disappeared 18 years ago. Edged with suspense yet really a fine meditation on small-town life; Chancellor won the 2014 Prairie Schooner Book Prize for her story collection, When Are You Coming Home?

Cottrell, Patty Yumi. Sorry To Disrupt the Peace. McSweeney. Mar. 2017. 288p. ISBN 9781944211301. $24; ebk. ISBN 9781944211318.

Estranged from her white parents, Helen is shattered by the suicide of her adoptive brother, Korean-born like herself, and flies home to find out what happened. Instead, she compellingly finds herself. A Discover Great New Writers pick; Helen’s is “a sharp, fresh voice that draws readers in.” (Xpress Reviews 3/10/17)

Fuller, Alexandra. Quiet Until the Thaw. Penguin Pr. Jun. 2017. 288p. ISBN 9780735223349. $25; ebk. ISBN 9780735223356.

Beloved for the string of gorgeous memoirs begun with Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight, Fuller here depicts the Lakota people of South Dakota’s Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, particularly two cousins in conflict. Fluidly written, with no sanctimony and plenty of dark humor; bound to provoke.

Hartnett, Annie. Rabbit Cake. Tin House. Mar. 2017. 344p. ISBN 9781941040560. pap. $15.95; ebk. ISBN 9781941040577.

After her mother drowns while sleep-swimming, Elvis Babbitt gamely pulls herself through while shoring up her clueless father and troubled, sleep-eating sister Lizzie. “Elvis is a charmer, and the novel is as delicious as the rabbit cakes Lizzie bakes in abundance.” (Xpress ­Reviews 3/10/17)

Heiny, Katherine. Standard Deviation. Knopf. May 2017. 320p. ISBN 9780385353816. $25.95; ebk. ISBN 9780385353823.

In this debut novel, after the celebrated collection Single, Carefree, Mellow, ­Graham Cavanaugh and his highly energized second wife need his reserved first wife’s help with their middle schooler, who has Asperger’s. “Humor in the vein of Nora Ephron or Nick Hornby.” (LJ 3/15/17)

Ludwig, Benjamin. The Original Ginny Moon. Park Row: Harlequin. May 2017. 368p. ISBN 9780778330165. $26.99.

The big launch title from Harlequin’s Park Row imprint, this affecting work features a gifted 14-year-old with autism who’s found love and safety in a new home with her Forever Parents but desperately wants to return to her abusive mother. “Ludwig’s stunning debut grabs his readers by the heart and refuses to let go.” (LJ 3/15/17)

Ko, Lisa. The Leavers. Algonquin. May 2017. 352p. ISBN 9781616206888. $25.95; ebk. ISBN 9781616207137.

When Deming Guo is 11 years old, his Chinese immigrant mother vanishes, and he spends a rebellious adolescence wondering what happened. Winner of the PEN/Bellwether Prize for Fiction; “highly skillful…an emerging writer to watch.” (LJ 3/1/17)

Minick, Jim. Fire Is Your Water. Swallow: Ohio Univ. Mar. 2017. 352p. ISBN 9780804011846. $26.95.

After fire claims the family barn in rural 1950s Pennsylvania, Ada loses faith in God and hence her astonishing ability to heal. But a young man brings her love and, finally, renewal. “Appealing characters and an inventive plot…this belongs at the top of every spring reading list.” (LJ 3/15/17)

Stansel, Ian. The Last Cowboys of San Geronimo. Houghton Harcourt. Jul. 2017. 208p. ISBN 9780544963399. $23; ebk. ISBN 9780544963412.

In contemporary Northern California, a man kills his brother and rides away on horseback, avidly pursed by the victim’s wife. There’s suspense, of course, but this is mainly a fierce and luminous study of sibling rivalry and complicated love, intensified by the rush of hooves. From a PEN/Bingham finalist.

Watts, Stephanie Powell. No One Is Coming To Save Us. Ecco: HarperCollins. Apr. 2017. 368p. ISBN 9780062472984. $26.99; ebk. ISBN 9780062473004.

Billed as an African American Great Gatsby, this work quietly but powerfully unfolds a story of dreams and disappointments in a modest North Carolina community that’s seen better days, as magnified by the reappearance of a now-rich J.J. Ferguson. “Believable and gratifying without being pat.” (LJ 2/1/17)

ljx170302webHoffert0082

BRAVO BRITISH ISLES

Cocozza, Paula. How To Be Human. Metropolitan: Holt. May 2017. 288p. ISBN 9781250129253. $26; ebk. ISBN 9781250129260.

Out of love and on leave from work, Mary finds comfort in the presence of a gorgeous red fox that has taken to visiting the back garden of her home in the London suburbs. But the neighbors are disturbed. “A compelling, unsettling, and wholly original debut.” (LJ 3/1/17)

Lally, Caitriona. Eggshells. Melville House. Mar. 2017. 264p. ISBN 9781612195971. $25.95; ebk. ISBN 9781612195988.

Whimsically charming Vivian lives in a house inherited from her aunt and walks Dublin’s streets in search of portals to the fairy realm, as she believes that she’s a changeling. An Irish Book of the Year finalist and LibraryReads pick; “[a] sensational first novel.” (LJ 1/17)

Rooney, Sally. Conversations with Friends. Hogarth: Crown. Jul. 2017. 304p. ISBN 9780451499059. $26; ebk. ISBN 9780451499073.

When Frances and Bobbi perform ­spoken-word poetry together in Dublin, they capture the attention of journalist Melissa, but Frances’s increasingly out-of-control flirtation with Melissa’s louche actor husband threatens to upend everything. Smart, persuasive, and never self-indulgent; a London Book Fair buzz book from a rising Irish star.

Spufford, Francis. Golden Hill. Scribner. Jun. 2017. 336p. ISBN 9781501163876. $26; ebk. ISBN 9781501163890.

A Somerset Maugham award winner in nonfiction, Spufford triumphantly tries out fiction with a tale set in 1740s New York, where a stranger arrives at the counting house with an order for a whopping £1,000. Winner of the Costa First Novel Award and a UK Sunday Times Novel of the Year.

WORLDWIDE

Alyan, Hala. Salt Houses. Houghton Harcourt. May 2017. 320p. ISBN 9780544912588. $26; ebk. ISBN 9780544912380.

Palestinian American poet Alyan clarifies Middle East displacement by chronicling a family repeatedly uprooted after the Six-Day War of 1967. “By placing readers inside the hearts and minds of one Arab family scattered from Paris to Boston to Lebanon, [Alyan] beautifully illustrates the resilience of the human spirit.” (LJ 2/15/17)

Atogun, Odafe. Taduno’s Song. Pantheon. Mar. 2017. 240p. ISBN 9781101871454. $24.95; ebk. ISBN 9781101871461.

Nigerian musician Taduno returns to an unrecognizable homeland and learns that his girlfriend has been abducted by government agents. Should he save her or support his people by challenging the powers that be? “Atogun’s simple, direct prose is the perfect vehicle for the complex questions he poses…. Thoughtful readers will be enthralled.” (LJ 2/15/17)

Bassingthwaighte, Ian. Live from Cairo. Scribner. Jul. 2017. 336p. ISBN 9781501146879. $26; ebk. ISBN 9781501146893.

A Fulbright grantee who worked in Egypt with refugees from Iraq, ­Sudan, and the horn of Africa, Bassing­thwaighte crafts the story of four people caught in Cairo as President Mubarak’s regime falls. Forthright, deeply relevant, and ­revelatory.

Hamilton, Omar Robert. The City Always Wins. Sean McDonald: Farrar. Jun. 2017. 336p. ISBN 9780374123970. $26; ebk. ISBN 9780374716332.

Cofounder of the Palestine Festival of Literature, Hamilton takes us to Cairo as his idealistic protagonist joins the battle in Tahrir Square, then lands in disillusioned exile in New York. Forceful, astonishing writing and a piercing insider’s look at Egypt’s failed revolution.

Himes, Julie Lekstrom. Mikhail and Margarita. Europa. Mar. 2017. 384p. ISBN 9781609453756. pap. $18; ebk. ISBN 9781609453749.

In 1933, Soviet writer Mikhail Bulgakov bangs up against intensifying censorship and is pursued by the secret police even as he falls for brashly beautiful Margarita, who inspires his celebrated The Master and Margarita. “A whirlwind tale of romance and intrigue that approximates, if not exceeds, the talents of one of Russia’s most heralded authors.” (LJ 2/1/17)

Kalfar, Jaroslav. Spaceman of Bohemia. Little, Brown. Mar. 2017. 288p. ISBN 9780316273435. $26; ebk. ISBN 9780316273404.

In this wackily original story, Czech astronaut Jakub Procházka grabs the chance to become a hero while atoning for his father’s Communist past by undertaking a dangerous solo mission to Venus, during which he encounters a large and possibly imaginary spider. “A heady concoction of history, social commentary and irony; highly recommended.” (LJ 2/1/17)

Statovci, Pajtim. My Cat Yugoslavia. Pantheon. Apr. 2017. 272p. tr. from Finnish by David Hackston. ISBN 9781101871829. $24.95; ebk. ISBN 9781101871836.

A pet boa constrictor and a talking cat? Clearly, this is a fabulist take on some very real issues, as the son of Muslims who fled Yugoslavia when it imploded faces life as an immigrant and a gay man in straitlaced Finland. “Statovci is a ­tremendous talent. This debut novel…has an intensity and power that demands a second reading.” (LJ 2/1/17)

Trasi, Amita. The Color of Our Sky. Morrow. Apr. 2017. 416p. ISBN 9780062474070. pap. $15.99; ebk. ISBN 9780062474087.

Originally self-published, this novel deals intimately with the lives of women in India as it alternates between Tara’s memory of the kidnapping of Mukta, a girl her father took in, and Mukta herself, daughter of a temple prostitute. “A skillful tapestry of story­telling with contemporary appeal.” (LJ 2/1/17)

ljx170302webHoffert0081

Coming of Age

Assadi, Hannah Lillith. Sonora. Soho. Mar. 2017. 208p. ISBN 9781616957926. pap. $16; ebk. ISBN 9781616957933.

In this raw yet dreamily written coming-of-age story, teenage Ahlam—of Palestinian and Israeli descent like the author—grows up alienated in Phoenix and with like-minded friend Laura ­finally runs off to New York. Universal prepublication praise.

Buntin, Julie. Marlena. Holt. Apr. 2017. 288p. ISBN 9781627797641. $26; ebk. ISBN 9781627797634.

Relating the story of 15-year-old Cat, new in town and drawn to daring, desperate Marlena, Buntin captures a destructive yet essential relationship with ongoing consequences. A Discover Great New Writers pick; “an exceptional portrait, disturbing and precisely observed.” (Xpress Reviews 3/10/17)

Firmani, B.G. Time’s a Thief. Doubleday. May 2017. 320p. ISBN 9780385541862. $26.95; ebk. ISBN 9780385541879.

In Firmani’s immediately absorbing story, working-class Barnard student Francesca “Chess” Varani is entranced by supremely self-confident and self-involved classmate Kendra Marr-­Löwenstein, but involvement with ­Kendra’s family has its costs. “A compelling story of youthful infatuation, love, and disillusionment.” (LJ 2/1/17)

Magariel, Daniel. One of the Boys. Scribner. Mar. 2017. 176p. ISBN 9781501156168. $22; ebk. ISBN 9781501156182.

Slim and sharp as an ice pick, Magariel’s debut features teenage brothers whose father has triumphantly won them in a vicious custody battle. Readers soon ­realize that this might not be such a good thing. “The nerve-jarring narrative develops unexpectedly and insightfully; a satisfying if disturbing read.” (Xpress Reviews 3/10/17)

Ruby, Ryan. The Zero and the One. Twelve: Hachette. Mar. 2017. 272p. ISBN 9781455565184. pap. $14.99; ebk. ISBN 9781455565191.

At Oxford, charismatic and vainglorious New Yorker Zach charms shy, bookish Owen, an English lad who’s the first in his family to attend university. But Zach is on a collision course with death. “Astute psychological insight and a suspenseful unfolding to a shocking end.” (Xpress Reviews 3/10/17)

Wang, Weike. Chemistry. Knopf. May 2017. 224p. ISBN 9781524731748. $24.95; ebk. ISBN 9781524731755.

A graduate student in chemistry at a rigorous Boston-area university, the sharp, self-aware narrator of this engaging work is having doubts about her career aspirations and her boyfriend. Named a “Most Anticipated Novel of 2017” by Entertainment Weekly, the Millions, and Bustle, and they were right.

SPINE-TINGLERS

Kies, Thomas. Random Road: A Geneva Chase Mystery. Poisoned Pen. May 2017. 318p. ISBN 9781464208003. $26.95; pap. ISBN 9781464208027. $15.95; ebk. ISBN 9781464208034.

Brought low by alcoholism, reporter Geneva Chase is back at her hometown newspaper, ready to redeem herself by covering the worst crime scene she’s ever seen—the savage killing of six people in a gated community. “A suspenseful story…a compelling voice.” (LJ 3/1/17)

Love, Melissa Scrivner. Lola. Crown. Mar. 2017. 336p. ISBN 9780451496102. $26; ebk. ISBN 9780451496126.

Ostensibly the dutiful girlfriend of gang leader Garcia, Lola is actually the knife-sharp, tough-as-bullets brains behind the operation. And now she’s got to save her own skin. “This adrenaline-charged debut will thrill readers as they discover one of crime fiction’s most captivating protagonists yet.” (LJ 2/1/17)

Obregón, Nicolás. Blue Light Yokohama. Minotaur: St. Martin’s. Mar. 2017. 416p. ISBN 9781250110480. $25.99; ebk. ISBN 9781250110497.

Newly reinstated Tokyo police inspector Iwata inherits a troublesome case: an entire family has been slaughtered and the symbol of a large black sun left behind. “This gritty story…establish[es] ­Obregón as a fresh, up-and-coming voice in crime fiction.” (LJ 2/1/17)

Welsh, Kaite. The Wages of Sin. Pegasus Crime. Mar. 2017. 400p. ISBN 9781681773322. $25.95; ebk. ISBN 9781681773865.

A former debutante victimized by sexual assault and now one of the few brave women at a Victorian-era medical school, Sarah Gilchrist recognizes an anatomy class corpse as a working girl she met at a clinic and immediately investigates. “Sarah is a spunky but historically accurate heroine; one hopes [for] a long-­running series.” (LJ 2/1/17)

ljx170302webHoffert0080

SF/FANTASY

Donnelly, Lara Elena. Amberlough. Tor. Feb. 2017. 400p. ISBN 9780765383815. $25.99; ebk. ISBN 9781466893412.

In a wildly reimagined world where social conservatives are rising, a gay double agent working for resistant Amberlough City (think the Weimar Republic) gets himself and his burlesque-performing lover in trouble. “Donnelly’s striking debut brings a complex world of politics, espionage, and cabaret life to full vision.” (LJ 2/15/17)

Honeywell, Antonia. The Ship. Orbit: Hachette. Apr. 2017. 336p. ISBN 9780316469852. $26; ebk. ISBN 9780316469890.

The world is in ruins, and as refugees pour into Britain, the government ­determines to toss out those who aren’t registered. Lalla’s father has been building a ship for their escape, but it can only take so many. “A stunning debut.” (LJ 3/15/17)

James, Vic. Gilded Cage. Del Rey: Ballantine. (Dark Gifts, Bk. 1). Feb. 2017. 368p. ISBN 9780425284155. $20; ebk. ISBN 9780425284131.

In a darkly fantastical world where the lower classes must serve the magically gifted upper-class rulers for ten years, a teenage boy dreams of rebellion, his sister of a better life, and a nasty young aristocrat of using his dark gifts for his own ends. A LibraryReads pick; “—excellent.” (LJ 12/16)

Ward, Catriona. The Girl from Rawblood. Sourcebooks Landmark. Mar. 2017. 400p. ISBN 9781492637424. pap. $15.99; ebk. ISBN 9781492637431.

At a gloomy early 1900s English estate, young Iris is enjoined not to form any relationship lest she set into motion a terrible family curse. Naturally, she rebels. Best Horror Novel at the British Fantasy Awards; “Ward’s layered and skillfully crafted novel pulls elements of classic gothic and horror and weaves them together in a remarkable story.” (LJ 2/1/17)

ljx170302webHoffert0079

POP FICTION

Eberlen, Kate. Miss You. Harper. Apr. 2017. 448p. ISBN 9780062460226. $25.99; ebk. ISBN 9780062460240.

When two young people repeatedly cross paths after meeting in Florence, their love looks meant to be. Publication is slated in 24 countries, the book buzzed big at the American Library Association’s (ALA) Midwinter Meeting, and LJ’s reviewer calls it “a must read for all romantics.” (forthcoming LJ review)

Emmich, Val. The Reminders. Little, Brown. May 2017. 320p. ISBN 9780316316996. $26; ebk. ISBN 9780316317016; lib. ebk. ISBN 9780316500951.

Mourning the death of his beloved Sydney, Gavin asks Joan, a friend’s ten-year-old daughter, blessed with a remarkable memory, to relate everything she recalls about Sydney in photo-finish detail. “Emmich captures the voices of Joan and Gavin…brilliantly; quirky, touching, and addictive.” (LJ 2/15/17)

Honeyman, Gail. Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine. Pamela Dorman: Viking. May 2017. 336p. ISBN 9780735220683. $26; ebk. ISBN 9780735220706.

Socially maladroit Eleanor Oliphant bonds with her office’s bighearted IT guy, and together they heal. Short-listed for the Lucy Cavendish Fiction Prize and a buzzing book at ALA’s Midwinter; “exquisite, heartbreaking, funny, and ­irresistible.” (LJ 2/15/17)

Nicorvo, Jay Baron. The Standard Grand. St. Martin’s. Apr. 2017. 368p. ISBN 9781250108944. $26.99; ebk. ISBN 9781250108951.

In this refreshing work, an army trucker gone AWOL before her third deployment joins a Vietnam vet at his family’s seen-better-days Borscht Belt resort, now a halfway house for homeless veterans. But a nasty multinational corporation wants the land. “Nicorvo carves out something truly original.” (LJ 2/1/17)

Strawser, Jessica. Almost Missed You. St. Martin’s. Mar. 2017. 320p. ISBN 9781250107602. $25.99; ebk. ISBN 9781250107626.

If Violet and Finn have the perfect marriage, why does he abandon her on holiday and take their son to her best friend, demanding that she hide them? “Fans of smart women’s fiction mixed with a fast-paced plot should not miss this startling first novel.” (LJ 1/17)

Taylor, Ann Kidd. The Shark Club. Viking. Jun. 2017. 288p. ISBN 9780735221475. $26; ebk. ISBN 9780735221499.

Coauthor with her mother of the best-selling memoir Traveling with Pomegranates, Taylor offers a first novel featuring Maeve Donnelly, who’s attacked by a shark at age 12 yet grows up to be a ­marine biologist. The writing is fluid, the surface beautifully calm, and Maeve’s depths thoughtfully revealed.

Winawer, Melodie . The Scribe of Siena. Touchstone. May 2017. 464p. ISBN 9781501152252. $26.99; ebk. ISBN 9781501152276.

Studying research on the Black Death, neurosurgeon Beatrice Trovato time travels to medieval Siena and falls in love with a city under disastrous threat. “Lovers of meticulously researched historical fiction and time-travel narratives will be swept away.” (LJ 2/15/17)

ON THE HORIZON

Camerota, Alisyn. Amanda Wakes Up. Viking. Jul. 2017. 336p. ISBN 9780399563997. $26; ebk. ISBN 9780399564017. women’s

The coanchor of CNN’s New Day chronicles the career ups and downs of a starry-eyed reporter in a job like hers.

Clemmons, Zinzi. What We Lose. Viking. Jul. 2017. 192p. ISBN 9780735221710. $22; ebk. ISBN 9780735221727. literary

A young woman of mixed South African and American heritage faces her mother’s illness; from a Literary Hub contributor.

Fallon, Siobhan. The Confusion of Languages. Putnam. Jun. 2017. 336p. ISBN 9780399158926. $26; ebk. ISBN 9780735215566. literary

After the sparkly collection You Know When the Men Are Gone, a much-anticipated debut novel about army wives in the Middle East.

Habash, Gabe. Stephen Florida. Coffee House. Jun. 2017. 304p. ISBN 9781566894647. $25. literary

PW fiction reviews editor Habash relates the crazy coming of age of an offbeat, ambitious young wrestler.

Sager, Riley. Final Girls. Dutton. Jul. 2017. 352p. ISBN 9781101985366. $26; ebk. ISBN 9781101985373. thriller

A heatedly buzzing book about three girls who all survived horrific acts of violence, with slasher movie echoes.

This article was published in Library Journal. Subscribe today and save up to 35% off the regular subscription rate.

Share
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.

Comment Policy:
  1. Be respectful, and do not attack the author, people mentioned in the article, or other commenters. Take on the idea, not the messenger.
  2. Don't use obscene, profane, or vulgar language.
  3. Stay on point. Comments that stray from the topic at hand may be deleted.
  4. Comments may be republished in print, online, or other forms of media, per our Terms of Use.

We are not able to monitor every comment that comes through (though some comments with links to multiple URLs are held for spam-check moderation by the system). If you see something objectionable, please let us know. Once a comment has been flagged, a staff member will investigate.

We accept clean XHTML in comments, but don't overdo it and please limit the number of links submitted in your comment. For more info, see the full Terms of Use.

Speak Your Mind

*