Hit List: Gazette reviewers give their take on the top books of 2016
Wondering what books you may have missed this year that should be on the top of your to read list as we head into a new year? Our reviewers have gone through their list of books they’ve read this year and were asked to chose their top five favorite reads this year — a task that they said was very difficult — painful even. Here they are.
Choosing five books as my favorites of 2016 was a hugely difficult task. To make it easier, I limited myself to debut fiction, and even then I ended up with a list of six — three novels and three story collections. All six, it turns out, are by authors with an Iowa connection.
l “What Belong to You” by Garth Greenwell
Garth Greenwell’s “What Belongs to You” is exquisite. It is my favorite book of the year.
Greenwell, who resides in Iowa City and earned his MFA in fiction from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop last year, has penned a story of frustrated longing and unconventional friendship rendered in a beautiful prose style that owes much to his background as a poet. It would be difficult to overstate what Greenwell has accomplished in “What Belongs to You.” This affecting novel will long linger with readers.
l “Private Citizens” by Tony Tulathimutte
Tony Tulathimutte’s novel may be called “Private Citizens,” but his narrative approach gives his primary characters very little privacy. Rather, the graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop takes us deep inside the heads of his characters, laying bare their basest insecurities and the everyday contradictions that threaten to upend their lives. It’s late 2007, and four friends—Cory, Will, Henrik, and Linda—are attempting to find their individual and collective way post-college in San Francisco.
“Private Citizens” sizzles with the sort of generation-defining energy that Douglas Coupland’s “Generation X” possessed.
l “The Nix” by Nathan Hill
Nathan Hill, a native Iowan who worked for The Gazette for a time and now resides in Florida, has written a fast-paced, satirical novel. “The Nix” is centered on a mother and son whose long estrangement comes to an end when she is suddenly in the national news for attacking a conservative politician.
The book’s title refers to a ghost who tricks you by offering something irresistible that will eventually be your doom. “The Nix” is, itself, irresistible, and offers readers only rewards.
l “A Lesson in Manners” by Misty Urban
The characters in the 10 stories that make up Misty Urban’s “A Lesson in Manners” are bound together by longing. The Muscatine author’s characters are hoping against hope for change in their lives. The collection, which won the Serena McDonald Kennedy Award, is lovely from beginning to end. Urban leavens the heartbreak of her stories with flashes of humor, even when characters are at their lowest point.
“A Lesson in Manners” is the work of a sure-handed storyteller with insight into the heart and its deepest desires.
l “Goodnight, Beautiful Women” by Anna Noyes
Anna Noyes’s collection, “Goodnight, Beautiful Women,” is made up of loosely connected short stories. Some feature women coming of age under difficult circumstances, others feature women looking back with regret, and some explore the relationships between the two. Noyes, a recent graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, lays bare the desperation her characters feel, and the myriad—often self-destructive—ways they attempt to deal with it.
It is tempting to call “Goodnight, Beautiful Woman” a promising debut. But it feels far more like promise fully realized.
l “November Storm” by Robert Oldshue
Robert Oldshue’s debut short story collection, “November Storm,” is the 2016 winner of the Iowa Short Fiction Award, and deservedly so. Oldshue, who is a practicing physician in Boston and an instructor at Harvard, has produced an impressive set of stories filled with distinct, vivid characters.
Each story has its foundation in a medical situation, but Oldshue is adept at embodying various perspectives, fully considering the emotional weight of a given scenario, and crafting convincing, individual voices. “November Storm” is exceptional work.
As a reviewer I tend to be drawn towards international literature and works from small presses. My top five books of the year are all works that challenge conventional, linear notions of storytelling: a murder mystery that begins with the guilty party; the history of a country told through shifting comic styles. These books stretched my imagination — and my worldview.
l “The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye” by Sonny Liew
Renowned artist Liew creates an extensive comic archive by a fictional artist that depicts both the history of Singapore and the evolution of comic art. A breathtaking historical work.
l “So Much for that Winter” by Dorthe Nors
In two novellas about life after a breakup, Danish author Nors uses unconventional storytelling methods to demonstrate how modern life has both veered from tradition and become constrained by archaic conventions.
l “The Heart” by Maylis de Kerangal
One thing happens in this book: a heart is taken out of one body, and placed into another. But author de Kerangal takes this everyday miracle to a level of the sublime by weaving together the stories behind every hand that touches the heart on its journey.
l “The Bulgarian Truck” by Dumitru Tsepeneag
A quasi meta work about a man writing a book called “The Bulgarian Truck,” Tsepeneag’s work is a firm example of oneirism literature, a moment founded by the author in response to the stark narrative restrictions placed by Ceausescu. A work of imaginative rebellion.
l “The Hour of the Wolf” by Hakan Nesser
A murder mystery told, in part, though the eyes of the guilty party, Nesser’s gripping crime novel is filled with suspense, moral quandary, and just the right amount of humor.
Terri LeBlanc said it was hard to narrow the list down to just five favorites with so many good books out there this year.
l “The Crescent Spy” by Michael Wallace
A Civil War historical fiction novel set in Louisiana involving a female journalist turned spy with secrets of her own that could cost her dearly as she moves behind enemy lines. The Crescent Spy is a good dose of American history and action with just a teeny-bit of romance.
l “Paper & Fire” by Rachel Caine
In this is the second book in The Great Library series, Caine takes the struggle between the Jess and The Library to new heights which leaves the reader wondering the nature of the Burners and how much power The Library truly wields.
l “Magruder’s Curiosity Cabinet” by H.P. Wood
With a curious cast of characters, none more important than another, H.P. Wood is able to capture the essence of Coney Island near the start of the 20th Century and produce a delightful story of what it means to be human and how one can craft their own meaning of family.
l “A Deadly Affection” by Culyer Overholt
Fans of mysteries, medical history and strong female characters will enjoy Overholt’s debut novel, which is full of unexpected twists and turns.
l “Salt to the Sea” by Ruta Sepetys
This gut-wrenching World War II novel, based on a little known true event — the sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff, is told from five different points of view and offers a peak behind the enemy lines. You are in for a true treat if you listen to the audiobook.
Dale Jones includes a few thrillers in his top five list. But the former Gazette sports editor also loves a good sport’s story and a book by local author and another former Gazette employee Dale Kueter made his top five list.
l “Paradise Sky” by Joe R. Lansdale
A magical yarn about true-life cowboy Nat Love, an African-American cowboy with the well-earned moniker Deadwood Dick. It’s a marvelous period piece replete with real-life characters and written in captivating style.
l “Night School” by Lee Child
The author is in top form in this installment of the best-selling Jack Reacher series, taking the lone-wolf protagonist back to his U.S. Army days in Germany. It’s a testament to Child’s skills that he transforms Reacher into a team player and still maintains enough “Reacher” to satisfy his legion of fans.
l “The Animal Keepers” by Donn Behnke
A heartwarming true story about a special-needs student who lends a most poignant quality to a state-championship cross country season at a Wisconsin high school. Readers don’t have to be sports enthusiasts to be moved by this book.
l “Extreme Prey” by John Sandford
The Cedar Rapids native takes his popular Lucas Davenport character to Iowa for a political thriller that is almost a travelogue featuring the Hawkeye state, including a most memorable visit to the Iowa State Fair. The long-lived “Prey” series is most definitely alive and well.
l “Motel Sepia” by Dale Kueter
The former Gazette reporter delivers an eloquent look at early race relations in Cedar Rapids in a fact-based novel. A strong sense of time and place drives this well-researched and fascinating account of a couple who helped blaze a trail for minorities.