This month’s book recommendations include works by Karen Dukess, Laura Lippman, Colson Whitehead, Bianca Marais, Daniel Ford, Tim Murphy, Zara Raheem, and more!
By Daniel Ford
To date, I’ve read 96 books in 2016, which is up from the 87 I read last year. Since you’ve already called me a nerd in your head, please allow me to further strengthen the case. Those 96 books add up to 37,872 pages, myriad reading devices, and two dried out eyeballs. I also managed to get engaged, help build a website at my day gig, edit and shop a novel, and feed and bath myself.
While I’m troubled by the direction the United States and the world are headed in, I’m just as confident that art and literature will continue to inform, illuminate, and ignite a global citizenship that needs to be more engaged and educated than ever before.
30. Everyone Loves You Back by Louie Cronin
Matthew Hefti’s main character is writing a letter to a lifelong friend, but he could have easily been writing a letter to the ongoing conflicts the United States has been involved in since 2001. Hefti is a talent to watch, and he delivers a heartfelt and moving debut.
27. Lay Down Your Weary Tune by W.B. Belcher
During a “Friday Morning Coffee” episode earlier this year, author Richard Dalglish implored writers not to forget about craftsmanship. There’s no finer example of craftsmanship than Zadie Smith’s new novel Swing Time. Smith asks big, important questions, and I hope that readers debate the answers throughout the new year.
25. We're All Damaged by Matthew Norman
Eddy Harkness isn’t the hero the real world (or the fictional one he inhabits) deserves, but he certainly is the one we need. In Eddy we trust!
23. The Infinite by Nick Mainieri
Nick Mainieri’s debut features two of my favorite characters from 2016. Jonah McBee and Luz Hidalgo’s fervent and turbulent relationship sets off a chain of events that leads to an unexpected conclusion. The Infinite is one of the best debuts I’ve ever read.
22. The Most Famous Writer Who Ever Lived by Tom Shroder
The Most Famous Writer Who Ever Lived is essential reading for aspiring authors and journalists. Tom Shroder explores his Pulitzer Prize-winning grandfather’s life while also recounting his own writing career. The passionately researched narrative will fill up your creative tank.
21. Christodora by Tim Murphy
The more I learn about Tim Murphy and his work, the more I like him. His effortless nonlinear storytelling in Christodora perfectly complements his damaged, but tenacious, characters and his exploration of the AIDs epidemic. It’s a gut-wrenching read, but a necessary one.
20. The Loved Ones by Sonya Chung
Sonya Chung puts her characters through hell throughout her sophomore novel. Their responses to tragedy and inner demons don’t make them the best human beings at times, but you’ll easily fall in love with them despite their myriad flaws. The Loved Ones also features one of the most haunting and beautifully sad farewells you’ll ever read.
19. Disappearance at Devil's Rock by Paul Tremblay
Joe Hill’s brand of apocalyptic fiction ranks alongside Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven and José Saramago’s Death With Interruptions. Much like those works, The Fireman features a harrowing (and down right sexy) epidemic, a sense of humor, and characters you wouldn’t mind spending damnation with. Hill is one of fiction’s best world builders, and his enthusiasm for the craft of writing is infectious. (His live readings also tend to feature kazoos!)
17. The Nix by Nathan Hill
Considering that Nathan Hill’s debut novel tops many year-end book lists, The Nix is arguably ranked too low here. That’s a testament to the quality of fiction we read in 2016. The Nix is a compulsive read that, at times, gets weighted down by some of its pop culture and societal critiques. However, since 2016 proved to be a bitch of a year culturally and politically, I’d much rather have too much of Hill’s wit rather than not enough.
16. Louisa by Louisa Thomas
Louisa proved to be a very welcome and refreshing look at Revolutionary War-era America. Louisa Thomas explored the life of Louisa Adams, our first foreign-born First Lady. While Mrs. Adams does spend a good chunk of time recovering from or feigning illness, she proves more than a match for her surly, ambitious, and misunderstood husband (everyone’s favorite dinner guest, John Quincy Adams).
15. Dodgers by Bill Beverly
If “The Wire” had decided to spend a whole season devoted to a road trip with Bodie, Wallace, Poot, and D’Angelo Barksdale, I imagine it would have resembled something close to what Bill Beverly crafted in Dodgers. It’s a thriller with real heart and muscle, thanks in large part to its conflicted main character East. The opening chapters are written as if they were fired from a gun, and set the tone for the rest of the novel’s coming of age journey.
14. Bobby Kennedy by Larry Tye
The Kennedys have been dissected ad nauseam, however, Larry Tye finds a fresh angle to examine the life of Robert Kennedy. Tye follows John F. Kennedy’s younger brother’s astounding political transformation from his days working as a lawyer under Senator Joe McCarthy to his tragic campaign for President in 1968. Bobby Kennedy is unsparing and objective, but also gives RFK aficionados plenty of new reasons to admire their hero.
13. Youngblood by Matthew Gallagher
Matthew Gallagher’s novel Youngblood is right up there with Elliot Ackerman’s Green on Blue, Ross Ritchell’s The Knife, Ben Fountain’s Billy Lynn’s Halftime Walk, Kevin Powers’ The Yellow Birds, and the aforementioned A Hard and Heavy Thing. Essential reading for anyone trying to make sense of our foreign policy and understand the men and women who execute it.
12. My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout
Elizabeth Strout’s short novel, My Name is Lucy Barton, hit me with the right words and subject matter at the right time. A book about healing, motherhood, and love.
11. Why We Came to the City by Kristopher Jansma
Kristopher Jansma’s prologue, interlude, and epilogue are the most beautiful words ever written about New York City. His prologue in particular captures everything I feel about the city I’ve loved since childhood. This novel is a must read for anyone that’s been ensorcelled by the Big Apple’s many temptations.
10. Seinfeldia by Jennifer Keishin Armstrong
It’s nice to know that the creators of one of the best sitcoms of all time were as eccentric as the characters many of us have come to love. Jennifer Keishin Armstrong discovers one great story after another about “Seinfeld” and its writers’ room. She also lovingly investigates the show’s curious, quirky fans who have kept it relevant well past its final episode. Seinfeldia is a breezy, energetic read that will have you binge-watching the show on Hulu by the time you’re finished. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.
9. Underground Airlines by Ben H. Winters
Ben H. Winters is the master of dystopian fiction, and he outdoes himself with Underground Airlines. In the novel, the Civil War never happened, slavery still exists, and a slave catcher desperate to repress and erase his past takes on an assignment that threatens to crack his carefully manufactured persona. This book is an absolutely thrilling and original tale that should shake a few assumptions of your own.
8. This Side of Providence by Rachel M. Harper
During a recent podcast interview author Jade Chang advised aspiring authors “to be ambitious.” Anyone who has read her debut novel The Wangs vs. the World knows how wonderfully ambition can pay off. Chang reinvigorates the immigrant narrative through the eyes of Charles Wang and his hilariously flawed family. Like many of the novels on this list, The Wangs vs. the World stress tests and critiques all of the tenets of the American Dream, but does so with an abundance of mirth and cynical optimism.
6. Everybody's Fool by Richard Russo
Megan Abbott’s novel should have been titled, You Will Hold Your Breath The Whole Time. I barely survived reading this incredibly tense and finely crafted mystery; I can’t imagine what it was like writing it. She has more than earned the “maestro of the heebie-jeebies” distinction from The New York Times.
4. The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead
The Underground Railroad is why fiction exists. The novel serves as a brutal reminder of the past and a cautionary tale for how easily we can slip into easy violence, subjugation, and intolerance. Colson Whitehead has established himself as one of the great voices in fiction.
3. Fallen Land by Taylor Brown
Taylor Brown’s achingly beautiful debut established itself as my favorite book of 2016 way back in August 2015 (I read an advanced copy leading up to its January 2016 pub date). It took two special novels to knock it off the top spot. After going back and rereading a few chapters while preparing this list, I was reminded of what made the book such a joy to read: hearty prose, snappy and spare dialogue, earthy characters, and a hard driving plot.
2. The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen
We met a lot of memorable characters this year, but there was only one Frank. Be Frank With Me is an unforgettable debut that everyone should read. (And, according to the author, the paperback edition can easily fit in a stocking!)
Any of these books could have been added to the top 30. I wrestled with this list for days. I'm just grateful that I got to read so many great novels and nonfiction titles this year! Give plenty of love to these authors’ books as well!
Valiant Ambition by Nathaniel Philbrick, Whatever Happened to Interracial Love? by Kathleen Collins, Perfect Days by Raphael Montes, Thanks for the Trouble by Tommy Wallach, Seven Sins by Karen Runge, A Single Happened Thing by Daniel Paisner, The Last Days of Magic by Marc Thompkins, The Duration by Dave Fromm, The Girls by Emma Cline, An Honorable Man by Paul Vidich, The Far Empty by J. Todd Scott, Come Twilight by Tyler Dilts, The Unseen World by Liz Moore, Nefarious Twit by Tony McMillen, The Point Is by Lee Eisenberg, and Born to Run by Bruce Springsteen
Every month, the Writer’s Bone crew reviews or previews books we've read or want to read. This series may or may not also serve as a confessional for guilty pleasures and hipster novels only the brave would attempt. Feel free to share your own suggestions in the comments section or tweet us @WritersBone.
Christodora by Tim Murphy
Daniel Ford: I was completely enthralled by Tim Murphy’s heartbreaking novel Christodora. The novel features deep, well thought out, damaged characters that were hard to let go once the story ended. Much like Rachel Harper’s This Side of Providence, Christodora is an emotional ride that never suffers from syrupy sentimentality because of Murphy’s straightforward prose and sharp dialogue.
Nonlinear storytelling has been a literary trend of late, and can be tough to pull off. However, Murphy makes it look effortless, bouncing from character to character across multiple decades without ever losing narrative steam. The Christodora, the building in the East Village that the Traum family inhabits, is just as much a character as Milly, Jared and their adopted son Mateo, and really anchors the narrative while it sways in and out of each decade. Murphy never delves into cliché and captures the city I fell in love with more than many of the other New York-centric novels that have come out in recent years.
Murphy’s unblinking exploration of the AIDs epidemic also gave me a refresher on the early AIDs fight, as well as explaining issues that those with HIV and AIDs still battle with today. He paints a real human face on the epidemic and, for me at least, kicked away some of the complacency I felt toward recent medical breakthroughs.
This book is well worth the tears and anxiety it is sure to induce.
DF: Tom Shroder’s insightful, personal investigation into his Pulitzer Prize-winning grandfather MacKinlay Kantor is the perfect tonic for despairing authors and journalists.
Kantor, who won said Pulitzer for his novel Andersonville in 1956, is endlessly fascinating. His childhood and early adulthood were marred by a rapscallion father, he suffered through poverty and bad breaks to become a respected author, made friends with the likes of Ernest Hemingway and John D. MacDonald, won the Medal of Freedom for his reporting during World War II, and published more than 30 novels.
Kantor’s rise to fame (and subsequent fall) was entertaining and wonderfully researched, but I was most struck by the personal elements in Shroder’s narrative. His relationship with his grandfather, Kantor’s relationship with his degenerate father, the remarkable women that kept this family together over the years, and Kantor’s dogged pursuit of the written word had me completely spellbound. And as an amateur historian myself, I also loved Shroder going into detail about his research process at the Library of Congress and everywhere else he found bits and pieces of Kantor’s story.
Shroder also absolutely nails what it’s like suffering through writing highs and lows. His journey as a writer eerily mirrors Kantor’s at times, and in some ways serves as a time capsule for journalists who came of age at the end of the 20th century. However, despite the obvious technological and format changes writing and journalism have undergone in the 2000s, the writing path still has similar perils, and Shroder offers plenty of useful tips and humorous anecdotes for those crazy enough to still want to pursue these maddening fields. The Most Famous Writer Who Ever Lived filled my creative tank and gave me the inspiration I needed to flood the world with more words.
Before we move on, I’ll leave you with this poignant quote from Kantor that Shroder unearthed:
“I wish that all writers might have as good of friends as I have owned and still own. Writing is desperately lonely business. It is scarcely worth living for in itself. But friends help to keep you going.”
The Thunder Beneath Us by Nicole Blades
Lindsey Wojcik: Thunder certainly rumbles throughout author Nicole Blades's second novel. In a flashback prologue, main character Best Lightburn literally experiences thunder beneath her feet as she walks across an icy lake in Montreal with her two brothers one Christmas Eve. When the ice cracks and all three fall in, Best's survival instincts kick in and she climbs out of the lake as the only one alive.
When we meet Best in present day New York City, a decade after the accident, she's a magazine writer with an arsenal of descriptive adjectives for vagina. With the opener, "Coochie. Vajayjay. Box. Beaver. Taco. Vadge. Bajingo. Lady Garden. Call it whatever you want; the goddamn thing just killed my career," readers are immediately drawn into The Thunder Beneath Us.
Present-day Best seems to have it all—she’s a rising star in the New York City magazine world, she’s dating a hunky actor, and has fabulous socialite friends. However, in New York City, this type of luck doesn’t last long in fiction without some sort of drama or angst rising up from the depths. In Best’s case, she is internally struggling with the guilt of surviving the horrible accident in her youth. Naturally, this plays a major role as her life begins to unravel. Best gets in her own way throughout the course of the novel and struggles to find a way to forgive herself, so she can heal and ultimately find happiness.
Blade crafts a distinctive voice for Best and the supporting cast of characters, and when the thunder settles, readers will find that compassion for the human condition that Blades hoped to achieve with The Thunder Beneath Us.
Be sure to read my full interview with Blades, and then go out and read the book!
The Nix by Nathan Hill
Gary Almeter: A big part of what makes protagonist Samuel Andresen-Anderson likeable, in addition to his redundant surname, is his love for the Choose Your Own Adventure books. I couldn't help but recall the wonder with which each of those books—each decision, each new world, each potential destiny—filled me as a kid.
Author Nathan Hill fills The Nix with that same wonder. The book meanders and careens through 1968 Chicago Riots, the oppressive tranquility of rural Iowa, the chaos of 2011’s Occupy Wall Street, wealthy suburbs filled with unsupervised ‘80s kids, modern day academia, and ancient Norway. Hill has a keen awareness of the idiosyncrasies that make each event unique, and why they have made Mr. Andresen-Anderson distinctly disconnected.
The book follows Samuel as he endeavors to reconnect with his mother—accused of pelting an uber-conservative Wyoming politician with rocks—who abandoned him decades ago. He struggles to connect with his students, his grandparents, and his “friends” who play "World of Elfscape," an online fantasy game.
Along the way, Hill skewers modern popular music and politics, as well as a ton of other things that deserve to be satirized. It can often feel like a bit much, but the consummation and/or dissolution of the connections in Samuel's life really propel this timely narrative.
At Home by Bill Bryson
DF: I have been a huge fan of Bill Bryson’s ever since my cousin’s husband lent me I’m a Stranger Here Myself and A Walk in the Woods (which was recently made into a film starring Robert Redford and Nick Nolte). However, after slogging through A Short History of Nearly Everything, I took a break from the travel writer, more content to re-read A Walk in the Woods once a year rather than dabble in his newer material.
Following my trip to London earlier this year, I picked up Notes From A Small Island and caught the Bryson bug again! I quickly ordered some of the books I missed during my asinine hiatus, and hunkered down with At Home: A Short History of Private Life.
Bryson investigates every room in his house—a former Church of England rectory located in “a village of tranquil anonymity in Norfolk”—and quickly gets lost in a wonderful swirl of delectable forgotten history and entrancing trivia. The prose features Bryson’s trademark cheekiness, and never groans under the weight of all the fascinating (yet incredibly arcane) tales the author uncovers.
I can’t tell you how many conversations I had with family and friends while reading this book that started with “Did you know…” Like, did you know that the French were once known for “pissing in chimnies” and defecating in staircases, or that the invention of hydraulic cement made the Erie Canal possible, or that fires killed as many as six thousand people a year in America during the 1870s?
Listen, if that doesn’t send you running to your local bookstore, then I don’t know what will. At Home doesn’t belong in the attic (where Bryson begins and ends his homebound journey), it belongs in your hands.
The Murdery Delicious Blood Stone Secret by Peter Sherwood
DF: First our haunted Halloween collection and now “Books That Should Be On Your Radar?” What’s next for Peter Sherwood, a Pulitzer?!
Like Sean Tuohy mentioned during his intro to last week’s “Friday Morning Coffee,” Sherwood’s finale to the Murdery Delicious is much like the author himself: “very witty and very smart.” We find Reynald and Willoughby Chalmers, “a little older, perhaps wiser, and undoubtedly more terrified,” and trying to survive the perils of the Blood Stone Manor with their wives and children. The Murdery Delicious Blood Stone Secret is chock-full of Sherwood’s theatric dialogue and whimsical prose.
I always feel better about literature and writing whenever I finish a Sherwood yarn (not to mention hungrier!), and this novel was no exception. It’s been a real joy tracking Sherwood’s progress as a writer, and I can’t wait to see what he comes up with next. While I hope that this isn’t the last time we see with the Chalmers brothers, if it is, then it is more than a fitting (and ghostly!) conclusion to their adventures.
The Best American Short Stories 2016, edited by Junot Díaz
DF: I read the Best American Short Stories collection every year, but I typically don’t include it in “Books That Should Be On Your Radar” because I end up liking individual stories more than the overall compilation. The 2016 edition is a strong collection, however, and clearly (and positively) influenced by author Junot Díaz’s personality and style. Like any anthology, there are hits and misses, but Díaz made some inspired choices that led to a more eclectic, cohesive, and diverse reading experience. I found something that tickled my literary brain in just about every story, even the ones that didn’t quite work for me. There are also some absolute powerhouses that I expect to return to for inspiration, including Louise Erdrich’s “ The Flower,” Lauren Groff’s “For the God of Love, for the Love of God,” Meron Hadero’s “The Suitcase,” Smith Henderson’s “Treasure State,” Ben Marcus’s “Cold Little Bird,” Karen Russell’s “The Prospectors,” and Sharon Solwitz’s “Gifted.”
Collections like the Best American Short Stories and The O. Henry Prize Stories (next up on my reading list) are invaluable tools for aspiring writers who to gravitate to the short story form. These volumes also include contributor notes, which allow the authors to share their motivations and writing processes. In Best American Short Stories 2016, John Edger Wideman’s note includes a real gem: “A story desires and sets out to see what is there—and sometimes finds a bridge—with a history, names, walkers, jumpers, memories, etc.—so starts across.” Amen!
Starting with famous author Tony McMillan, “Books That Should Be On Your Radar” will now feature recommendations from our favorite authors. Or in Tony’s case, authors we tolerate. Enjoy!
Tony McMillian: I loved Sisters Brothers by Patrick deWitt. My favorite ongoing comic book right now is Head Lopper by Boston boy done good Andrew MacLean. Also, Skullcrack City by Jeremy Robert Johnson was damn fine, and transcends Bizarro the way Van Halen transcends butt-rock. Quote me.
Oh, and Notes from the Shadowed City by Jeffrey Alan Love is a fully illustrated book that's as lyrical in its prose as it is in its artwork.
Be sure to listen to the audio version of "Books That Should Be On Your Radar!"