December 23rd, 2016
Best Books of 2016 – Biography!
Much to my delight, 2016 was another furiously busy year for biographies – and mostly a very good one, with strong entries appearing several times in every month. Biography is my own favorite type of book to read, and there were some months when I read so many good ones I could temporarily dream of reading nothing else (although if such a job were to present itself – say, the biography editor of some big academic press – I know I’d turn it down; there are too many treasures scattered everywhere across the literary landscape to justify provincial reading)(but still, it’s a nice little dream). This made for an excellent reading year, but it also made the process of narrowing things down to this list extra difficult. Nevertheless! Here are the best 10 biographies of the year:
10. Hume: An Intellectual Biography by James Harris (Cambridge University Press) – We begin with a biography that likely isn’t for the novice, a deeply abstruse examination of David Hume’s personal identity as illuminated in his writing. James Harris does a fantastic job of keeping the whole endeavor mentally thrilling, although I’d imagine many readers would appreciate the book more if they read a full-dress biography first.
9. Orson Welles Vol. 3: One-Man Band by Simon Callow (Viking) – This third, penultimate volume in Simon Callow’s monumental biography of Orson Welles covers the years from 1967 to 1964, during which Welles was a loudly disapproving expat who abandoned the standard studio system and made some of his greatest movies on his own hook. As usual in this multi-volume masterpiece, Callow brings his own priceless trove of theatre experience to the task of trying to explain the ways of Welles to lesser mortals.
8. Frederick the Great by Tim Blanning (Random House) – I went into this volume skeptical that it could even begin to compete with Robert Asprey’s life of the great King of Prussia, which came out thirty years ago. But Tim Blanning does a nimble, smartly readable job – not a better book than Asprey’s but a worthy other book on the same subject. You can read my full review here
7. Frederick Barbarossa by John Freed (Yale University Press) – This sprawling life of the magnetic 12th century German emperor is not only stuffed to the rafters with crisp, judiciously-chosen learning but also charged with a kind of arch, humorous creativity that makes the whole thing an improbably light read. You can read my full review here
6. Bush by Jean Edward Smith (Simon & Schuster) – Speaking of improbable! As great as my admiration for biographer Jean Edward Smith has always been, I was certain that this book, an account of the life and presidency of a Chief Executive whose term in office was not only incredibly divisive but also incredibly recent, would be skewed and lopsided and much more illuminating of Smith than the subject. But the book was a revelation of objectivity and insight.
5. The Idealist by Justin Peters (Scribner) – This book about hacker and Internet-era thinker Aaron Swartz, who killed himself in 2013, likewise bristles with insights, although they’re much harder to read in this case, since the whole subject of Swartz is maddeningly frustrating both for the elements it includes and the elements it will never include. This is the first essential book on Swartz, and it may also be the last word. You can read my full review here.
4. Henry IV by Christopher Given-Wilson (Yale University Press) – Historian Chris Given-Wilson faced a nearly impossible task in pulling the life story of this pivotal monarch out of the background where it’s always been relegated by the more famous story of his son, who was immortalized by Shakespeare. I was amazed and pleased by how smoothly Given-Wilson managed to succeed. You can read my full review here
3. John Quincy Adams: Militant Spirit by James Traub – Recent years have seen a small boom in very good popular biographies of John Quincy Adams, and that trend continues with this excellent, appropriately acerbic political life of the country’s sixth president and most conscientious Congressman. You can read my full review here
2. Not Pretty Enough: The Unlikely Triumph of Helen Gurley Brown by Gerri Hirshey (Sarah Critchton Books) – Not in a million years would I have imagined that any author could make an epic, enthralling book out of the life story of a brittle, mantid social climber like Helen Gurley Brown, but Gerri Hirshey somehow does it, giving the irrepressible author of Sex and the Single Girl the kind of chatty, tough, knowing biography she herself would have loved to think she merited.
1. The Civil Wars of Julia Ward Howe by Elaine Showalter (Simon & Schuster) – If Helen Gurley Brown was an unlikely subject for a toweringly good biography, how much more so Julia Ward Howe, the brilliant but icy poet, suffragette, and abolitionist who gave to the world the bloodthirsty lyrics to “Battle Hymn of the Republic”? And yet Elaine Showalter approaches the woman’s life and times with an almost novelistic gusto in this, the best biography of 2016. You can read my full review here.
December 22nd, 2016
Best Books of 2016 – History!
The field of history-writing displayed its usual dazzling variety in 2016, with commercial titles ranging from 120-page large-type bestsellers containing not one single actual fact to 120-page monographs containing not one readable sentence – and the whole spectrum in between. But as great as that variety was, there were some common strands running through a great deal of it, and one of those was a very well-done turning to the Braudel-style “Big Picture,” books that worked on broad canvases and took invigoratingly fresh looks at old, established subjects. Several such books are on the list this time around of the best history books of the year:
10. Battling the Gods: Atheism in the Ancient World by Tim Whitmarsh (Knopf) – In lively, fast-moving prose, Whitmarsh tells a broad-strokes version of a story often curiously overlooked: the long history of atheism, particularly in classical times. For as long as humanity has believed in gods, a certain percentage of humans have called the whole thing so much nonsense, and this book gives readers a very engaging new version of their story. You can read my full review here
9. Final Solution: The Fate of the Jews 1933-1949 by David Cesarani (St. Martin’s) – Considering the sheer number of books published every year about Nazi Germany and the Holocaust, it’s astonishing that David Cesarani’s big book, very handsomely produced by St. Martin’s, should feel so new. Like Timothy Snyder’s Bloodlands from six years ago, Final Solution takes a subject a subject so well-known as to be a self-contained orthodoxy and examines all its assumptions from a fresh stance of objectivity. The result is amazingly thought-provoking; no Holocaust library is complete without this book.
8. Apostle: Travels Among the Tombs of the Twelve by Tom Bissell (Pantheon) – At first glance, the central gimmick of this book – Tom Bissell traveling to the various places traditionally held to be the final resting places of the Apostles and then cleverly relating the tourist-style lore of such places – seems disappointingly shallow, a kind of Stations of the Cross version of Bill Bryson. But Bissell doesn’t disappoint: he digs into his subject and delivers a rich cross-section of early Christianity. You can read my full review here
7. Strange Gods by Susan Jacoby (Pantheon) – This book, too, could easily have been trite in the hands of a different writer – but Susan Jacoby is so reliably superb as a writer and historical thinker that I went into this book expecting great heaps of fascinating stuff, and that’s exactly what I got: a thoroughly rigorous and, you should pardon the term, spirited study of the personal and social mechanisms involved when a person (including a great many famous people) decides to switch from believing in the existence of one imaginary being to believing in a different one. You can read my full review here
6. East West Street by Philippe Sands (Knopf) – The heart of this extraordinary book is the author’s painstaking detective work into the lives of the two men who created and elaborated on the concepts of both “genocide” and “crimes against humanity” – two men who, it turns out, were both law students at Lviv University in the early decades of the 20th century. But Philippe Sands both broadens and deepens that inquiry by mixing in disarming amounts of his own family history, and the book that results is one of the most invigorating ideological excavations since Daniel Mendelsohn’s The Lost.
5. Blood in the Water: The Attica Prison Uprising of 1971 and Its Legacy by Heather Ann Thompson (Pantheon) – The full, frustrating horror of the Attica uprising, which involved over at thousand inmates and eventually provoked a violent military response, is laid out in these pages in scrupulous detail, and Heather Ann Thompson charges the details with real page-turning pathos – and in the process sheds new light on almost every stage of the event.
4. Brothers at Arms by Larrie Ferreiro (Penguin Random House) – This amazing book is only partly about the subject most readers would think about when they think about the American Revolution; as Ferreiro’s clear, vivid prose rolls on and on, the typical account of the Revolution shrinks and shrinks, until it’s just one pocket conflict in a sprawling hemispheric war between the British Empire and its enemies. Absolutely eye-opening. You can read my full review here
3. The Vanquished: Why the First World War Failed to End by Robert Gerwath (FSG) – As with so many books on this list this year, Robert Gerwath’s study of the First World War and its sprawling, complicated aftermath is very briskly paradigm-resetting. Gerwath presents a far broader canvas of the Great War and the cataclysmic thunderclap of violence it unleashed than any comprehensive account to appear in years. You can read my full review here
2. How to Survive a Plague by David France (Knopf) – The underlying contrast of this great, heartbreaking book – that David France could use such lively, gorgeous prose to describe such an ugly, depressing catastrophe – is just one of the many fruitful contrasts France puts to use in crafting the definitive narrative of the AIDS epidemic. He turns a clear, unsparing light on the many different personalities involved in the fight to understand and fight both the disease and the public’s perception of its victims. His book and Blood in the Water are two superb examples of contemporary-events historical writing at its finest.
1. The Slave’s Cause by Manisha Sinha (Yale University Press) – The paradigm-shifting in Manisha Sinha’s monumental book, 2016’s best work of history, happens along lines of agency: the long history of the abolitionist cause in North America is broadened to include the intellectual ardor, the idealogical cold anger, and the life-endangering heroism of the many Africans, slaves and former slaves, who fought for the cause right alongside the better-known white leaders of the movement. You can read my full review here
December 21st, 2016
Best Books of 2016 – Guilty Pleasures!
The “pleasures” part of Guilty Pleasures is self-evidently easy to define, but the “guilty” part is much trickier, since books find so many different ways to be worthwhile. Even so, there are some reading experiences that are clearly more self-indulgent than others, some books that are more likely to be found in the junk food aisle of the book-market than the wheats & grains aisle. I read a great number of these gaudy thing every year and love them dearly, and these were the best of them from 2016:
10. Star Wars Propaganda by Pablo Hidalgo (Harper Design) – This oversized slipcased picture book is a kind of brightly-burning singularity of geekhood: it’s a collection of propaganda posters from all the various political regimes in the fictional landscape of the Star Wars universe. We get recruitment posters and morale-boosters from the Old Republic, the Empire, the Rebel Alliance, and more: we get the back-stories of the posters, the biographies of the poster artists (not the Palo Alto freelancers using Painter X3, mind you – no, the biographies of the fictional artists living and working in that galaxy far, far away), and accounts of the works’ reception. In other words, it represents hours and hours of perfectly worthless pure enjoyment.
9. New York Times Book of the Dead by William McDonald (editor) – This big, beautifully-designed book is a collection of the obituaries of famous people, all of which ran in the pages of the New York Times over the course of the last century, and it, too, represents a sinkhole of time that might otherwise have been spent reading the latest fat biography of Karl Marx. But there’s an undeniable guilty pleasure in reading these often tart and always eloquent parting shots at the great and the mighty.
8. Inside Venice by Toto Bergamo Rossi (Rizzoli) – For page after page of this sumptuous book, readers are taken behind Venetian doors that are usually closed and encouraged to gawk with abandon. Well more than half these stellar dwellings are vanity projects undertaken by the super-rich; poking around the tasteful furnishings in these photos will teach you nothing about the history or culture of Venice, nor will it teach you anything about the lives of the people behind the furnishings. But the gawking itself sure is fun. You can read my full review here
7. Fifty English Steeples by Julian Flannery (Thames and Hudson) – Some of the books on this list earn their “guilty” status at least in part by their expensive opulence, and this huge, heavy Thames and Hudson production is certainly one of them: fifty classic English church steeples, all laid out in architectural detail on heavy paper, for $85. Julian Flannery makes this abstruse subject matter as accessible as it’s ever likely to be, but the book is nevertheless a fairly wicked indulgence. You can read my full review here
6. Ice Station Nautilus by Rick Campbell (St. Martin’s) – Techno-thrillers are almost by definition guilty pleasures: the one-dimensional characters! The extremely specific tech! The endless brand name mentions! The guilt here comes from the fact that virtually any reading you could be doing instead would be better reading, and yet some of these authors work hard for their paychecks. Case in point is this crackerjack story of two cutting-edge submarines, one Russian and one American, locked in a tense struggled far below the polar ice cap. You can read my full review here
5. Skitter by Ezekiel Boone (Atria) – The second volume in Ezekiel Boone’s “Hatching” series earns its guilty pleasure status the old-fashioned way: with endless hordes of evil, carnivorous spiders. The story here continues from The Hatching, in which an old, long-vanished species of awful arachnids returns to the modern world to wreak havoc and consume humans, and with every page of it you read, you can feel your IQ eroding just a bit more – and yet you keep reading, which is surely a hallmark of guilty pleasure.
4. The Fireman by Joe Hill (William Morrow) – Likewise this slick, stickily readable thriller about a plague sweeping through the ranks of mankind; this time the plague isn’t killer spiders but rather spontaneous combustion, but the writing – full of boring one-note characters and clogged with every cliché imaginable – guarantees that regardless of the threat, the aforementioned brain-erosion will commence virtually from the first page. You can read my full review here
3. MEG: Nightstalkers by Steve Alten (Tor) – If there’s a book-series that all but defines the guilty pleasure in all its sickly, glorious contradictions, it’s the “Meg” novels of Steve Alten, all starring Carcharadon megalodon, the super-sized giant killer sharks that terrorized Earth’s oceans 20 million years ago. In the world of these atrocious, wonderful novels, the megalodon lives and eats people in the present day, and this latest volume in the series continues the confrontation into the next generation of both sharks and shark-fighters. It’s sheer, finny lunacy, the foremost must-not-read on our list.
2. Show & Tell: The New Book of Broadway Anecdotes by Ken Bloom (Oxford University Press) – “Broadway anecdotes” is such a calm and even way of talking about the particular kind of hysterical collegial bitching of which only members of the acting profession are capable – there are plenty more accurate titles this fantastic gossip-fest by Ken Bloom could have had, but none of them would have been family-friendly. One after another beloved, legendary name in the entertainment industry walks into the spotlight in these page just long enough to dish the dirt on everybody else – before yielding the stage to somebody who’ll dish the dirt on them in turn. It’s all beneath you, but you’ll keep on reading gleefully just the same.
1 Sharks (The Collector’s Edition) by Michael Muller (Taschen) – This, the guiltiest of guilty pleasures in 2016, is a display-sized collection of the stunning nature photography of Michael Muller, and if you were to stick to the ordinary $70 hardcover put out by Taschen, you’d be comfortably in the range of the guilty pleasure. But in order to really earn this #1 status, Taschen also produced a deluxe version of the book, complete with an alternate cover designed to simulate the view from inside a shark observation cage – a great white shark flashes its rows of teeth just behind a grillwork of metal slats. The price for this deluxe edition? $1750. Now that’s a guilty pleasure.
December 20th, 2016
Best Books of 2016 – Nature!
Nature made headlines in 2016 for predictably awful reasons. A gorilla was shot dead because careless human parents let their child wander into his jail cell; the year was once again the hottest on record; an American political administration came to power openly intent on raping the planet; even such tourist-friendly creatures as giraffes were revealed to be on the slide to extinction, etc. But at least one positive note could be found in the world of letters, where plenty of first-rate books were written on science and nature topics. Here are the best of them:
10. The Book of Frogs by Tim Halliday (University of Chicago) – The oversized dimensions of this book are a fitting tribute to the full wonder and glory of its goggle-eyed subjects! All the world’s frogs, from all their various environments, brandishing all the weird adaptations they’ve developed to survive, and each with a glimpse of how big they are in real life … a feast for frog-ophiles! You can read my full review here
9. America’s Snake by Ted Levin (University of Chicago) – Of course, not all reptiles are created equal! Ted Levin’s passionate, eloquent book is a prolonged love letter to the American timber rattler, a horn-faced engine of venom that Levin nevertheless finds not only beautiful but inspiring. And regardless of how many times you yourself may have been bitten by this allegedly peaceful creature, you’ll certainly find the book’s prose beautiful and inspiring. You can read my full review here
8. The Wood for the Trees by Richard Fortey (Knopf) – This book too is a love letter, in this case Fortey’s love letter to the four acres of woodland he owns in Oxfordshire, seen and finely examined month-by-month during the course of a year. He studies the plants and animals of his little domain and seamlessly fills his readers in on the history every root and branch and creeping thing, and it’s all so charmingly done that you’ll finish it wanting to go out poking around in woodland yourself.
7. Tracking Gobi Grizzlies by Douglas Chadwick (Patagonia) – It’s true with many genres, but it seems particularly true with nature books: the oddest, most unlikely subjects can inspire great books. In this beautifully-produced thing full of photos, wildlife biologist Chadwick travels to a remote corner of the Gobi Desert to track, study, and eulogize the isolated species of grizzly bear that lives there – about four dozen individuals on the precipice of extinction, and yet Chadwick somehow imbues his book with optimism.
6. Man’s best friend is the subject of dozens of books every year – all kinds of books coming at this most familiar of subjects from all kinds of angles – but it’s only infrequently that a year boasts so many first-rate results. In Being a Dog by Alexandra Horowitz (Scribner), the inner world of the dog’s stunning array of senses is imagined about as well as a human could imagine it; in Shannon Kopp’s incredibly moving Pound for Pound (William Morrow), the horrifying world of dog shelters forms the backdrop for a gripping story of the bond that develops between one woman and one special dog (you can read my full review here); in Dawn of the Dog by Janice Koller-Matznick, a thought-provoking theory about where the domesticated dog ultimately comes from is laid out in clear, evocative prose (you can read my full review here); and in Pit Bull by Bronwyn Dickey (Knopf), one of the most unjustly vilified breeds of domestic dogs is given a spirited and thrillingly emotional defense. It’s rare for any year to bring me even one dog book that’s a must-have for my permanent bookshelf on my single favorite subject in the world – so I was overjoyed that 2016 brought me four.
5. Ice Bear by Michael Engelhard (University of Washington Press) – It’s something of a pattern on this particular list this year: we swing from adorable, worthy animals to hate-filled engines of death and destruction, all the while somehow praising excellent books. In this case we’re not talking about the murderous timber rattler but rather the murderous polar bear, the one-ton arctic monster with the mind of a chess master and paws that come equipped with flensing knives. And yet Engelhard likewise does a fantastic job of not only fleshing out the history and folklore of the polar bear but also in creating a fairly sympathetic picture of the animal along the way.
4. What a Fish Knows by Jonathan Balcombe (FSG), Other Minds by Peter Godfrey-Smith (FSG) – Thanks to ongoing and groundbreaking research being conducted in many places all over the world, the topic of animal cognition has never been better served by the publishing industry, and 2016 saw two excellent examples, Jonathan Balcombe’s high-spirited attempt to understand the strange world of fish, and Peter Godfrey-Smith’s more wide-ranging investigation into the truly alien mental world of the octopus. Both books were full of fascinating science, and both left deep impressions long after I’d finished them.
3. Coyote America by Dan Flores (Basic Books) – We return to canines with this lyrical and gripping look into the world of Canis latrans, the coyote. Flores does the same kind of excellent job that Engelhard does, giving his readers not only the natural history and current conservationist issues but also the rich folklore behind these most adaptable of all wild canines. It was yet another dog-related book that made its way to my permanent shelves. You can read my full review here
2. Eruption by Steve Olson (WW Norton) – The list swerves from the natural world and its various inhabitants to a natural disaster, one of the greatest and most dramatic in American history: the eruption of Mount St. Helens in 1980. Steve Olson writes a fully-detailed account of the whole thing, prelude, cataclysm, and aftermath, and he invests the story not only with a great cast of characters but also with page-turning sense of dramatic tension – not the easiest thing to do when all your readers know how your story turns out. You can read my full review here
1. Collected Essays on Evolution, Nature, and the Cosmos by Loren Eiseley (Library of America) – Every so often, the Library of America turns from immortalizing the wan posturings of John Updike or the random brain-dribbles of Kurt Vonnegut and makes an absolutely inspired editorial decision, and this two-volume set collecting the writings of the great naturalist Loren Eiseley, including his masterpiece The Immense Journey, is one of those decisions. Eiseley’s every prose work warrants re-reading and cherishing, and as icing on the cake, the people at Library of America made the boxed set a thing of beauty. The combination guaranteed that this set would never have any real competition as the year’s best nature book.
December 19th, 2016
Best Books of 2016 – Historical Fiction!
The sub-genre of historical fiction was jumpingly energetic in 2016, full of authors taking chances with standard narrative frameworks and voices, profitably complicating standard reader sympathies, and importing varying doses of fantasy to blur and quicken the factual underpinnings (this was the year that saw, for instance, the story of doomed Lady Jane Grey turned into a fantasy-infused YA romp). Once upon a time, this kind of genre-bending inventiveness might have offended the sensibilities of purists (myself included) who for years had judged historical fiction by its fidelity to historical fact. But it’s tough to stay irritated with stylistic innovations that can give rise to books like Mason & Dixon or Wolf Hall, and the unpredictability of it all is enticing too. Hence the occasional oddball on my list of the ten best historical novels of the year:
10. The Death of Shakespeare, As It Was Accomplished in 1616 & The Causes Thereof by Jon Benson (Nedward LLC) – Benson’s whopping big debut novel is very firmly in the anti-Stratfordian camp of those who maintain William Shakespeare’s famous plays were written by somebody else. In this case the candidate is the Earl of Oxford, and with more verve and sheer detail than has ever been crammed into a novel on the subject before, Benson, you’ll pardon the term, dramatizes just how and why the world’s most famous imposture was pulled off. The author also published a nonfiction companion to his magnum opus, and it’s mighty enjoyable too – but this one’s got more derring-do!
9. Margaret the First by Danielle Dutton (Catapult) – The Margaret in question here is the inimitable Margaret Cavendish, the Restoration-era publishing and public intellectual phenomenon who confounded her own contemporaries and has largely confounded the analysis of later ages. Danielle Dutton’s novel bristles with exactly the right kind of manic, quasi-uncontrolled multi-faceted energy that typified Margaret Cavendish herself, and it’s sharp characterizations are uniformly excellent.
8. Toru: Wayfarer Returns by Stephanie Sorenson (Palantir) – The element of narrative inventiveness that runs through the first two books on this list is in full gallop in this third one! Stephanie Sorenson’s impressive debut, the first in her “Sakura Steam” series, is set in 1852 Japan in the Tokugawa Shogunate, but an alternate version of history full of the usual “steampunk” trappings of clunky, precocious technology – which would be entertaining enough, but Sorenson wisely resists resting on her peppy premise; in addition, he gives her readers two main characters of very appealing complexity and likability.
7. All True Not a Lie in It by Alix Hawley (Ecco) – Another incredibly impressive debut novel here, this one a rollicking story of Daniel Boone as narrated by Boone himself – and as written with infectious bounce and joy by Hawley, who understands the internal logic of the tall tale with pitch-perfect nuance and thereby gives her Daniel Boone an utterly memorable voice.
6. Barkskins by Annie Proulx (Scribner) – We go from debut novelists to an old pro with this enormous story about multiple generations of New World logging families, a strange and richly-detailed saga around which Annie Proulx wraps the omnipresent aura of ecological devastation very lightly, so that the overt environmental notes you expect when reading hundreds of pages about people who think the Earth’s natural resources are infinite don’t actually get sounded until almost at the book’s coda. Instead, Proulx unfolds a terrific tapestry of personalities unlike anything she’s written before. I read this at a gallop my first time through and then much more slowly my second time through, and it thoroughly impressed me both times.
5. Then Arthur Fought by Howard M. Wiseman – The main narrative twist in this crackerjack novel (another debut) will be familiar to readers of Evan Connell’s Deus Lo Volt!: Wiseman takes the outward form of a medieval chronicle and maps it onto a story of King Arthur that’s rooted firmly in historical fact. The result is like no work of Arthurian fiction ever written, a kind of mytho-history as much as it is straightforward historical fiction; like Paul Kingsnorth’s The Wake from last year, it’s a genuinely exciting variation on “counter-factual” alternate narrative, a straight-faced but incredibly readable historical reconstruction of an Arthur who never in fact existed – but one you’ll end up wishing really had existed, thanks to Wiseman’s understated artistry.
4. Jane the Quene by Janet Wertman – This first volume in the Janet Wertman’s “Seymour Saga” is likewise a debut novel, this one centering on the smart, unassuming young woman who would become the third wife of Henry VIII and the mother of his only legitimate male heir. With only a few exceptions, historical novelists have never quite known what to do with Jane Seymour, but in this first book, in a series of gentle and well-realized scenes, Wertman proceeds from the somewhat daring understanding that both Jane and Henry were human beings as much as they were dynastic players or playthings. All the usual ferocious Tudor politics rage around the contours of her story, but at its heart is a well-done and at times quite touching tale of a friendship taking shape.
3. The Great War Won: A Power of Recognized Superiority by James Emerson Lloyd (Dreadnought Press) – This tremendously impressive book is the final volume in the author’s epic trilogy narrating the First World War from the perspectives of a sprawling cast of characters both real and imagined, all of it told with a storytelling authority that’s curiously strengthened rather than undercut but the book’s own subtle counter-factual threads. The whole trilogy is a magnificent achievement in historical fiction, and this concluding volume is the strongest of the three.
2. The Kid by Ron Hansen (Scribner) – You know a figure from Old West history is extra-tricky for fictionalizing when that figure defeats even the efforts of the great Larry McMurtry, and yet McMurtry’s 1988 novel Anything for Billy could more accurately have been titled Anybody But Billy for the way it brought every other character to life except its main one, that most unlikely of all American folk heroes, Billy the Kid. Amazingly, where McMurtry and everybody else has failed, Ron Hansen, author of the superb The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, completely succeeds and makes his success look effortless.
1. The Ornatrix by Kate Howard (The Overlook Press) – We finish with yet another incredibly impressive debut, Kate Howard’s story of a young woman named Flavia who’s banished to a convent in part because she has a vivid birthmark covering half her face, a birthmark resembling a bird in flight. At the convent she becomes the “ornatrix,” the beauty-technician, of an imperious woman nicknamed La Perfetta, who turns out to be a refugee from the loud and dangerous world of Renaissance Italy that lies just outside the convent’s walls. The sheer skill with which Howard etches the personalities of her two main characters would be a marvel even in an author’s tenth novel – in a debut it impresses all the more.
December 18th, 2016
Best Books of 2016 – SFF!
It’s depressing but true: 2016 had something of a phoned-in feel when it came to genre fiction – enough to make a die-hard genre reader to look wistfully at some earlier years. With SFF – the combined genre guaranteed to cheese off purists of either sci-fi or fantasy (but employed here because sci-fi and fantasy are in fact the same thing, the one dressed in a soiled black concert T-shirt and the other cosplaying in elf ears) – this was certainly the case in 2016: uninspiring fare as far as the eye could see. But as always, there were exceptions that made all the hunting and the disappointment worth the effort:
10. The Last Days of New Paris by China Mieville (Del Rey) – This slim novel – the story of two unlikely allies thrown together in a fantasy-slipstream version of a 1950s Paris in which the Nazis and the Resistance are still fighting things out – has the feel almost from the first page of being a second-tier Mieville novel, and sure enough, its execution is looser and more scattershot than in this author’s great books. But second-tier China Mieville is still better than the first-tier efforts of most SFF writers – certainly good enough to make this list.
9. The Last Mortal Bond by Brian Staveley (Tor) – This big, satisfying volume was the conclusion to Brian Staveley’s “Chronicle of the Unhewn Throne” trilogy, in which this smart, challenging author brings together the story he’s laid out about the inhabitants of a fantasy realm – and in particular three very dissimilar siblings – facing the desperate attempts of a creepy elder race to rid the world of lesser peoples. By the middle of the second volume, I had a pretty good idea of where Staveley would take this series … but I kept avidly reading right up to the end.
8. Children of Earth and Sky by Guy Gavriel Kay (NAL) – Kay’s sprawling novel, lovingly working several very intriguing fantasy-world variations on Renaissance-era Europe, is at first glance an oddly disjointed thing, a collection of character-lives without any real cohering plot other than the background of the novel’s history, in which a fantasy-variation of the Ottoman Turks are poised to conquer everything in their path. Living their lives in the shadow of this threat is a handful of well-realized characters who have varying degrees of connection to it – which means the whole thing shouldn’t really work as a dramatic story, and yet it very much does. I credit rock-solid storytelling.
7. The Waking Fire by Anthony Ryan (Ace) – The latest novel from Anthony Ryan is a typically broad-scale and pleasingly ambitious thing, in this case a dwindling resources novel: in his new fantasy-world, harvested and treated drake-blood can impart fantastic powers to the select few humans who can handle it, but the drakes are failing – and the world whose finance and industry are built on their blood is now scrambling to find a rumored new kind of drake to take their place. Ryan takes this fairly standard stuff and works it up into a first-rate adventure starring a trio of very well-drawn characters reluctantly facing the greatest adventure of their lives.
6. Arabella of Mars by David Levine (Tor) – In his debut novel, David Levine invents an alternate Regency era London that has developed its own daffy-but-effective technology and managed to create a colony on Mars, which is home to our delightful young heroine, Arabella Ashby, who’s a genuine alien when her mother sends her back to Earth and who must figure out a way against all odds to return to Mars in order to save her family. It’s a completely captivating mix of whimsy and wonder that should have revolted me and instead kept me spellbound.
5. Sleeping Giants by Sylvain Neuvel (Del Rey) – Another superb debut novel, this time Sylvain Neuvel’s story of young Rose Franklin, who discovers the existence of a huge, enigmatic metal hand buried in the US badlands and devotes her life to unraveling the riddle of what this thing is and where it came from. There was an indeterminacy about the novel that I didn’t always feel was completely under the author’s control, but the frequent stretches of first-rate narrative more than compensated – and I loved how assuredly the author conveyed the premise’s underlying strangeness.
4. A Gathering of Shadows by Victoria Schwab (Tor) – I doubt that anybody who read A Darker Shade of Magic, the terrific first book in this series by Victoria Schwab, wasn’t eager for the sequel; this story, about four very different alternate versions of London and one of the few remaining individuals possessing the power to travel between them at will. That Traveler, a dreamy young man named Kell, comes from “Red” London, and in this latest book both he and his adoptive family and friends must confront, among other things, the threat of the worst alternate London of them all. And while it’s true that something of the first-in-a-series elan of A Darker Shade of Magic is missing from this sequel, this is still one fine, captivating adventure.
3. The Lyre Thief by Jennifer Fallon (Tor) – Jennifer Fallon’s latest book is the seventh installment in her “Hythrun Chronicles,” which would ordinarily be very nearly sufficient in its own right to disbar a book from appearing on one of these lists. But it had been some time since I read any of the earlier books set in this particular fantasy world, and that gave me the distance I needed to see what a fresh, fast-paced job Fallon does at making each of these books stand-alone accessible to newcomers. This is the story of a clever, headstrong young princess seeking to thwart the machinery of her own royal marriage, and it’s also the story of a daring thief and a desperate prince, and Fallon invests it all with such infectious humor that I feel certain I’d have enjoyed it just as much if I’d never read any of the earlier books.
2. The Blood Mirror by Brent Weeks (Orbit) – This fourth book in Brent Weeks’ “Lightbringer” series isn’t quite the stand-alone success of The Lyre Thief – if you haven’t read the earlier books in the series, this doorstop will be nearly unintelligible to you – but read as a big chapter in that larger story, this is a tremendously good outing, fleshing out a great deal more of the world Weeks has created, in which light is magic, and fleshing out as well his central cast of characters, particularly his best creation, the obnoxious-yet-indispensable Kip. And the author’s extended action-sequences are, as always, ingeniously thrilling.
1. Night of the Animals by Bill Broun (Ecco) – Just as we began this list with a startlingly surreal, original stand-alone novel, so too do we end it, with Bill Broun’s amazing debut novel Night of the Animals, the best SFF novel of 2016. One one of its many levels, it’s the story of a half-sane derelict named Cuthbert Handley, who’s on a mission to free all the animals caged in his dystopian London’s zoos and thereby, maybe, hasten the advent of the Lord of Animals, but the book has many other simultaneously-unfolding layers of mania and epiphany, all of it told in prose that glows with confidence.
December 17th, 2016
Best Books of 2016 – Mysteries!
Despite their separate category here in the Stevereads year-end roundup, murder mysteries are always guilty pleasures at heart. After all, YOU aren’t the one getting murdered, nor are you (except for a few particularly unlucky souls, one imagines) the one tasked with solving a murder; as an old friend of mine used to chuckle when asked why he loved the genre: “What I like most about whodunnits is that I’m not the who and I don’t have to sniff out the dunnit.” And in 2016, that guilty-pleasure aspect of the genre was its saving grace, because most of the other good bits you might find in a murder mystery – good writing, original plotting, stuff like that – were conspicuously absent. A sub-standard year for mysteries, in other words, but there were still highlights:
10. Eleven Prague Corpses by Kirill Kobrin, translated by Veronika Lakatova (Dalkey Archive Press) – All praise to the folks at Dalkey Archive for taking a chance at bringing out this intensely strange, slim set of ten linked stories sketching in a series of murders in Prague and featuring a pair of unlikely narrators gradually filling in a larger plot that may or may not have happened at all. This was one of the smartest murder mysteries I’ve read in years and certainly one of the oddest.
9. The Silence of Stones by Jeri Westerson (Severn House) – This is the seventh book in Jeri Westerton’s series of medieval murder mysteries starring brooding, somewhat violent “tracker” Crispin Guest is every bit as convoluted as all the earlier books and every bit as electrically involving, this time involving the theft of a mystical artifact and a King Richard II who’s very testy for Guest to get it back. Westerson gets better and better at honing in on her tortured hero’s inner workings, and this is the best outing so far.
8. Journey to Munich by Jacqueline Winspear (Harper) – This twelfth installment in Jacqueline Winspear’s unfailingly charming and gripping novels starring the dauntless Maisie Dobbs in her alliance with the British Secret Service, in this case a daring mission to travel to Nazi Germany incognito in order to rescue a man from Dachau. By this point Winspear has these Maisie Dobbs adventures down to an exceedingly winning science – they never fail to delight.
7. When Falcons Fall by CS Harris (NAL) – This series set in the early years of the 19th century and starring dashing, strong-willed Sebastian St. Cyr, Viscount Devlin, this time investigating both his own family history and an alleged suicide in a small Shropshire village. Harris excels in creating vibrant characters, and as usual there are plenty of twists and turns to keep the plot rushing along – and there are plenty of digressions about the news of the time that wonderfully flesh out the story.
6. Dearly Departed by Hy Conrad (Kensington) – This was an utterly delightful murder mystery starring mother-and-daughter professional travel agents and amateur sleuths Fanny and Amy Abel, whose task as the novel opens is as outlandish as it is smile-inducing: a client, maid to a series of wealthy employers, has died, and she’s left instructions for those employers to scatter her ashes all around the world. The tour that results is quickly decked out with foul play and murder, and Hy Conrad writes it all with such winking gusto that you reach the end much, much too soon, hoping for another adventure.
5. The Service of the Dead by Candace Robb (Pegasus) – For this one we go back to the Middle Ages, back again, in fact, to the reign of Richard II, this time in a intricately-scaled little mystery starring young widow Kate Clifford as she struggles to make a life for herself in a city of York broiling with political unrest. It took me a few books to acclimate myself to the peculiar storytelling rhythms Robb uses in these books, but it’s an effort very much worth making.
4. The Ides of June by Rosemary Rowe (Severn House) – A Year’s Best Mysteries list would hardly be complete without an entry from ancient Rome, and this year has two! The first is this latest – the sixteenth, Gawd help us – in Rosemary Rowe’s series of adventures starring level-headed and redoubtable freedman mosaic-maker Libertus in a second-century Roman Britain the author has researched down to its last potsherd. In this latest story, our hero’s patron has received dire threats against his life and his family’s safety, and it’s up to Libertus (who’s now – Gawd help us – sixty) to save the day. These books also take some getting used to, particularly the strange, lilting diction Rowe sometimes gives her characters, but as with all the other series entries on this list, the effort pays off.
3. Trade Secrets by David Wishart (First World Publication) – Set more than a century earlier than Rowe’s book is this latest caper by David Wishart starring smart-mouthed Roman sleuth Marcus Corvinus, who’s also getting on in years, as evidenced by the fact that his daughter is now plenty old enough to embroil him in mysteries, as she does in this book – one of the two mysteries Wishart poses this time. The book crackles with wry humor and clips along at a terrific pace, and Wishart keeps you wondering until satisfyingly late in the game how the two murders are connected. Reading this latest book reminded me all over again that I could read David Wishart all day long.
2. The Eloquence of the Dead by Conor Brady (Minotaur Books) – We wander almost all the way out of the past and into the present with this gripping murder mystery set in Victorian Dublin and starring dour Sergeant Joe Swallow as he investigates the case of a murdered pawnbroker as the case grows more and more complicated. Swallow is a wonderful character, drawn with appealingly minimalist effort, and the supporting characters this time around are likewise superbly drawn. Conor Brady puts this cast in a very convincingly hard and gritty setting and then gives his tale one violent shake after another.
1. The Woman in Blue by Elly Griffiths (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt) – Despite the preponderance of historical fiction on the list this time around, the best murder mystery I read in 2016 was a contemporary: this eight installment in Elly Griffiths’ series of books starring consulting forensic archeologist Ruth Galloway, whose complex personal history with DCI Harry Nelson adds a terrific undercurrent of tension to this story about religion-motivated threats and murders in the Medieval Norfolk town of Little Walsingham. Griffiths fills her tightly-controlled narrative with sneaky eloquence and some of most believably adult dialogue currently going in the genre.
December 16th, 2016
Best Books of 2016 – Romance!
Even in the darkest of times — and, although the fact may not be immediately apparent, 2016 was the darkest year in United States history – the Romance genre can be relied upon to divert, to catch me up in all its fictional squabbles with their ironclad-foretold outcomes, to take my mind off the rest of my reading, let alone the outside world. This year was no exception, and neither was it an exception in displaying – despite my best intentions, I swear! – my sweet-tooth for Regency historicals, although a always there were plenty of great exceptions. These were the books – with their gaudy covers and smiling, hard-working authors – that I turned to during the year when I wanted to be sure if my welcome, and they didn’t disappoint. These were the best of them:
10. My American Duchess by Eloisa James (Avon) – Mary Pelford, the funny and very endearing American heroine of this sparkling Eloisa James novel, has a commitment problem: she’s jilted two men on the way to marriage already, and now that she’s moved to England and is engaged to a perfectly decent man, she’s determined to change her ways – until she meets the imperious Duke of Trent and the sudden domination of personal chemistry that James writes so well takes over.
9. The Darkest Torment by Gena Showalter (HQN Books) – For a total tonal shift, we move to Gena Showalter’s “Lords of the Underworld” series, which is neither funny nor endearing! This latest book stars grim and ruthless undead assassin Baden, who arrives in the mortal world from the underworld and is quickly and efficiently paired by Showalter with a feisty dog trainer named Katarina while the two have fast-paced adventures. Showalter is a past master of unlikely but nevertheless convincing steamy connections between her characters, and this book certainly provides.
8. Forbidden by Beverly Jenkins (Avon) – If any romance writer is going to be able to hook me on a drama set in Reconstruction-era Nevada rather than Regency-era London, that writer is Beverly Jenkins, and she easily did just that in her new book, in which successful businessman Rhine Fontaine owes a good deal of his prosperity to the fact that only his immediate family knows he’s a former Union Army soldier “passing” for a white man. His growing relationship with a young woman named Eddy Carmichael – who has dreams of her own – turns into just the kind of complicated, often frustrating dynamic I’ve come to expect from this fantastic author.
7. Marrying Winterborne by Lisa Kleypas (Avon) – There’s a businessman also at the heart of Lisa Kleypas’s wonderful latest book, but the only thing Rhys Winterborne shares in common with Rhine Fontaine is that they’re both very easy on the eyes; Rhys is a self-absorbed prick whose wealth has made him arrogant – and who’s therefore ripe for falling in love, in this case with a classic Kleypas heroine: Lady Helen Ravenel, who’s far more insightful and assertive than she seems. And as an added bonus, the love-plot is complicated with all the real-world obstacles at which this author excels in throwing in the way of her star-crossed lovers.
6. Duke of Sin by Elizabeth Hoyt (Grand Central) – One of the pleasures of reading books-in-series is on full display in this latest romp by Elizabeth Hoyt: sometimes, in a romance series, you can follow one secondary character through many stories, always wondering what would happen if that character got a story of their own. In Duke of Sin, this happens gloriously to one of the most intriguing characters in Hoyt’s “Maiden Lane” series, Valentine Napier, the Duke of Montgomery, a sly charmer who in this novel meets his perfect foil in stubborn, sensual housekeeper Bridget Crumb. No romance author beats Hoyt at repartee and quick, funny scenes, and there’s plenty of both in Duke of Sin.
5. Out Rider by Lindsay McKenna (HQN Books) – There are precious few quick, funny scenes in Out Rider, an installment in Lindsay McKenna’s series of contemporary Westerns set in Jackson Hole, Wyoming – this is a somber book laced with threats of violence, and McKenna writes it all with terrific engaging energy. It’s the story of haunted ex-Marine Devorah McGuire, who takes a job at Grand Tetons National Park in order to escape her complicated past and there begins to fall in love with laconic horseman Sloane Rankin. McKenna specializes in portraying wounded, guarded souls slowly coming to feel trust – but she’s also no slouch at thriller-style plot-tangles, and both of these talents are in top form here.
4. Claimed by a Highlander by Margaret Mallory (via CreateSpace) – Many’s the time I’ve been frustrated by the Highlander romances that are such a fixture of the Romance genre; many’s the time they’ve disappointed me by reading essentially like Regency romances in kilts. No such worries in this fantastic romance by Margaret Mallory, which is shot through with the kind of raw-edge savagery that should define this particular sub-genre. The Highlander in question here is massive warrior Rory McKenzie, who’s bringing the disgraced Lady Sybil Douglas on the long and perilous journey to his family castle in order to marry her. Mallory infuses her story with a refreshingly amount of research and historical texture, but her two main characters would feel alive in any setting.
3. Immortal Defender by Lisa Hendrix (InterMix) – As usual with a Lisa Hendrix novel, there’s a lot going on in Immortal Defender, the latest in her “Immortal Brotherhood” series: our hero, Torvald, is a member of a Viking crew that was cursed by a sorceress to live forever as were-beings (in a fairly blatant bit of Romance symbology, Torvald himself becomes a stallion every night!). The story finds him in Tudor England studying with the leading alchemists at the Court of Queen Elizabeth in the hopes of breaking the curse – and it’s here he meets independent widow Josian Delamere, who very nearly steals the whole novel … which is no easy feat, considering the other main character is an immortal Viking were-pony. And the true marvel of the book is that Hendrix remains in complete, smiling control of all this insanity right up until the very satisfying climax.
2. An Improper Arrangement by Kasey Michaels (HQN Books) – Regency-era London is the setting for this first in a new series by the always-delightful Kasey Michaels, in which brusque war hero (and newly-installed Duke) Gabriel Sinclair is ordered by his aunt to escort young heiress Thea Neville through the dances and ballrooms of the “Little Season.” Readers can guess from Page 1 what will happen between this headstrong miss and her broad-shouldered chaperone, but thanks to our author’s vivacious storytelling, the predictability of the plot won’t bother Romance readers one little bit, they’ll be having so much fun.
1. The Earl’s Complete Surrender by Sophie Barnes (Avon) – This latest chapter in Sophie Barnes’ “Secrets at Thorncliff Manor” series ripples along with such skill and joy that it just had to be my pick for Best Romance of 2016: in the labyrinthine vastness of Thorncliff Manor, two people are surreptitiously searching for the same thing – both James, the Earl of Woodford (that’s him you see getting ravished on the novel’s cover, the lucky devil) and Chloe Heartly are both on the hunt for a code-book that’s crucial to uncovering a deadly conspiracy, and when the two reluctantly join forces, Barnes puts the plot in full gallop, to absolutely captivating effect.
December 15th, 2016
Best Book of 2016 – Debuts!
As usual, the survey of a year’s fiction debuts is nerve-wracking. Here are the luckiest of the lucky, the few out of the hopeful many who dreamed of achieving the damn-near impossible and getting their debut fiction through the gauntlet of agents, editors, publishers, and bookstore buyers and into the hands of potential readers – and after all, what more telling index of a genre’s weakness can there be than this crop of fortunates being talentless, entitled popinjays? Every year I dread that the freshman class – whose work I’ll be reading, for good or ill, for decades – will show no promise at all, and every year I get to breathe easy in the presence of some genuine talent. 2016 was no exception, and these were the best of the debuts I read:
10. A Stairway to the Sea by Jeff Newberry (Pulpwood Press) – Florida’s Gulf Coast comes alive in this thoughtful and incredibly readable novel centering on Deputy Sheriff Justin Everson, caught in a haze of exhaustion and grief while trying to unravel the death of dubious local Iraq War veteran. Florida has a knack of producing writers who excel at the capturing the atmospherics of the place, and now a major new voice is added to those ranks.
9. The Longest Night by Andria Williams (Random House) – This amazingly assured debut is set in 1959, when a married couple is posted to a small town where the husband, Paul, is tasked with overseeing one of the country’s first nuclear reactors. He discovers a major problem and a major cover-up, and the crisis deepen the problems in his marriage to Nat, who develops secrets of her own. Williams presents it all with the clear, whittled prose of a thirty-year veteran.
8. The Expatriates by Janice Yee (Viking) – Yee’s tremendously involving debut plays expertly on the variations in the lives of its three central characters: a twenty-something Columbia grad, a tragedy-shaken mother of three, and a wealthy woman yearning to have a child. The book’s plot-lines occasionally waver (and needless to say, since this is a work of fiction written in the 21st century, the ending is flubbed almost to the point of cancellation), but the character-insights on almost every page are haltingly good.
7. Shaker by Scott Frank (Knopf) – Frank’s irresistible main character, professional leg-breaker Roy Cooper, is fresh from committing one contract killing when he stumbles upon what may very well be another and gets caught up in a very public news story before he can extricate himself. The novel that unfolds from this pleasingly contorted premise is by turns wry and surprisingly moving.
6. Grief is the Thing with Feathers by Max Porter (Graywolf Press) – If any debut novel in 2016 edged close to the status of “critical darling,” it was this tiny thing by Max Porter, the story of a grief-stricken father and his two sons who are visited by the talismanic Crow straight out of the poetry of Ted Hughes. Critics rhapsodized over Porter’s lyrical, brutal prose, and reader word-of-mouth was uniformly enthusiastic – and in this case, the renown is completely warranted: this is a novel of grief fit to stand beside Madison Smart Bell’s The Year of Silence.
5. Your Heart is a Muscle the Size of a Fist by Sunil Yapa (Lee Boudreaux Books) – This book – the unlikely narrative of many lives intersecting at the World Trade Organization protests in Seattle in 1990 – was likewise a critical success, and likewise for good reason: Sunil Yapa takes the most seemingly off-the-wall elements and somehow forges them into a very effective novel.
4. Break in Case of Emergency by Jessica Winter (Knopf) – Whatever ground this workplace-novel loses by being just a bit easy and derivative, it more than regains by being so pointedly ferocious; it’s the story of a woman named Jen who takes a job at a feminist nonprofit group and quickly finds herself mired in a soup of lunatic office politics Jessica Winter captures with gleeful malice. In this admittedly otherwise fairly somber list, this book will make you laugh – and nod in recognition.
3. The Nix by Nathan Hill (Knopf) – Hill’s blazingly talented big debut novel presents its main character, listless college professor and failed writer Samuel Andreson-Anderson, with an unlooked-for crisis: his estranged mother has made the headlines by assaulting an odious Presidential candidate, bringing her past into his present in hilarious and moving ways. You can read my full review here.
2. Pond by Claire-Louise Bennett (Riverhead Books) – By rights, the fragmented, surrealistic antics of this slim debut, with its hallucinatory prose and showy linguistic pyrotechnics, should have annoyed me enough to warrant its inclusion on a very different list, but the sheer writing genius on display here is as impossible to deny as it is impossible to summarize. It almost immediately won me over, and it guaranteed that I’ll be reading this author as long as it pleases her to write books.
1. The Castle Cross the Magnet Carter by Kia Cothron (Seven Stories Press) – There are many conspicuous qualities in this, the best fiction debut of 2016 – there’s tense, beautifully-controlled prose, there are excellently-drawn characters, there are evocative settings – but the most gripping quality of Kia Cothron’s big debut novel is its power. This is the story of two pairs of brothers, one white and one black, growing to manhood in the South in the second half of the 20th century, and from the first page, the unstoppable power of the forces that will bring these men together rumbles under every plot twist. The result is an incredible and often astonishing reading experience.
December 14th, 2016
The Best Books of 2016 – YA!
2016 was a watershed year for me when it comes to Young Adult fiction. Prior to this year, I’d thought of the YA genre as a sludgy cesspool of second-rate prose, a place where talentless authors pander to the insecurities, inexperience, and near-cosmic megalomania of the average teenager – a genre, in other words, that could make somebody like John Green a wealthy, beloved literary icon. And I wasn’t wrong to think that – but in 2016 somebody (dammit, Francina!) finally got through my head a key concession: YA, like all other genres, is a spectrum. 95% of it is might be crap, but the remaining 5% will be worth the reading-time even of people who aren’t teenagers. So in 2016, I started looking for YA that might actually please me (recalling, as I should have recalled much earlier, how often it’s done so in the past), YA that was actually excellent. These were the best of what I found:
10. Spartak: Rising Son by Steven Coulter (Jubilation Media) – I admit I was attracted to this book initially by its, um, striking cover art – but Steven Coulter’s debut turned out to be a lot more than just a pretty face! This fast-paced story set in a dystopian future that bears a great many disquieting similarities to our present day stars a young hero named Spartak Jones and rips along with scarcely a pause and such sure-footed action sequences that you won’t notice the smart social commentary until after it’s got its hooks in you. An amazing debut.
9. The Bone Sparrow by Zana Fraillon (Disney-Hyperion) – The little boy at the center of this astonishing story was born in a refugee detention center in Australia; he’s never known any other home, but his imagination teems with exotic worlds – he’s a natural storyteller, born into a world that’s concerned only with survival. I was struck most by the subtle ways Zana Fraillon ups the surreal aspects of her fairly simple plot until the whole thing seems to resonate on a semi-mythical level.
8. The Odds of Loving Grover Cleveland by Rebekah Crane (Skyscape) – The setting of this novel – a summer camp for “at-risk” teens exhibiting the whole textbook range of social and psychological pathologies – initially seems much too hackneyed to yield anything heartfelt, and yet Rebekah Crane makes it work, drawing readers into the story of Camp Padua through the reactions of her main character Zander, one of the best-drawn and most-memorable characters on this list.
7. The Bombs That Brought Us Together by Brian Conaghan (Bloomsbury) – There are lots of echoes of John Crowley in this gripping novel about teenager Charlie Law, who lives in Little Town, which is carefully ordered but which borders a realm called Old Country where things are very different. When Charlie meets a young refugee from Old Country, the two worlds begin to collide in ways that I found both convincing and ultimately moving.
6. The Memory of Things by Gae Polisner (St. Martin’s Griffin) – “Moving” certainly describes this story about young Kyle Donohue, who watches the smoldering Twin Towers on the morning of September 11. When he’s hurrying across the Brooklyn Bridge trying to reach the city, he encounters a little girl covered in ash and wearing battered costume-angel wings, and the odd, unpredictable relationship that unfolds from there is spellbindingly done.
5. The Boy Who Killed Grant Parker by Kat Spears (St. Martin’s Griffin) – When Luke Grayson, the main character in this strange, powerful meditation on identity, is exiled for his sins to live with his preacher father in rural Tennessee, he comes directly into contact with a bully named Grant who’s managed in one way or another to bully the entire town. The confrontation between Luke and Grant, and its startling, gradually-unfolded aftermath, is the dramatic payoff of this remarkable read.
4. The Fixes by Owen Matthews (Harper Teen) – Like so many books on this list, the heart of Owen Matthews’ novel is a spiky, troubled friendship, in this case between harried, well-meaning Eric and enigmatic Jordan, who at first encourages Eric to let go of some of the anxieties caused by his overbearing father but then gradually starts encouraging more questionable behavior. It’s a familiar YA plot, but Owen Matthews writes it with terrific energy, making the whole thing memorably fresh.
3. The Sun Is Also a Star by Nicola Yoon (Delacorte Press) – In some ways, this is the weakest entry on this list, mainly because it rests more than the others in the lingo of standard broad-appeal YA. But Nicola Yoon’s story, about cool, logical Natasha and pressured, repressed Daniel, quickly rises above its lazier tendencies and becomes a completely winning story of first love.
2. Holding Up the Universe by Jennifer Niven (Knopf Books for Young Readers) – This sleek, professional little novel is also built along familiar lines: Libby Strout, once known to the tabloids as “America’s Fattest Teen,” enters high school carrying burdens of grief and insecurity, and there she meets Jack Masselin, whose strut and charisma hide burdens of his own. But as with a few books on this list, this one rises above its predictable premise and delivers a genuinely moving tale.
1. We Are the Ants by Shaun David Hutchinson (Simon Pulse) – The dilemma of this crackling good book, by an easy margin the best YA novel of the year, is one familiar from the daydreams of many a bullied high school student: young Henry Denton holds the fate of the world in his hands – literally. The aliens who abducted him have presented him with a doomsday ultimatum for all life on Earth, and Henry is fighting to find reasons to avert it. His family life is in shambles, and his personal life hasn’t begun to recover from the suicide of his boyfriend – and in jangly, addictive prose, Hutchinson (whose The Five Stages of Andrew Brawley was also mighty good) makes the whole odd story pull together beautifully.