If there’s been one annoying element in the media this year, besides fake news that is, it boils down to seeing the same headline over and over again in at least a dozen different places. After coming across the same ‘The Best Books of 2016’ a thousand times over, I decided to give our my ‘Best 20 Books of the Year’ list a different name. After a while, I launched an open and desperate appeal for help in the face of failing miserably when trying to think of an original and catchy title. Luckily, a writer whose work I very much admire, gave me the wonderful suggestion that I could name our list of this year’s best fiction, How I Survived 2016.
A title really can’t get more original than that. How else have we survived this convoluted year of electoral drama if not without the aid of some truly soul-searching, gut-wrenching, heart-breaking, and redemption-seeking fiction? I don’t know about the rest of the world but fiction served as a ray of light in the dark, providing a safe place when real life just got too intense and hostile for anyone’s liking. As relentless arguments with family members, co-workers, and soon-to-be former friends over the two leading presidential candidates started to get ugly, many of the books on this list were there to see us through. At least for a little while.
Political trauma aside, this year was incredibly good for fiction. We felt compelled then to include at the end of our list, an ‘Honorable Mention’ shout-out for those books that aren’t in the final twenty, but definitely deserve abundant recognition.
1) All the Ugly and Wonderful Things by Bryn Greenwood (St. Martin’s Press): Wavy Quinn and her little brother Donal are the children of a lucrative meth lab enterprise owner. One day Wavy meets one of her father’s thugs, Jesse Joe Kellen, and the two develop an unconventional relationship that will be questioned and tested by a cruel turn of events.
2) At the Edge of Summer by Jessica Brockmole (Ballantine Books): Luc Crépet and Claire Ross meet when they’re young in the French countryside and Claire is brought to the home of Luc’s parents when she is left an orphan, with only an absent grandfather who cannot for the moment, take care of her. The two develop a friendship that will be tested by time, distance, and the outbreak of war in France.
3) Behold the Dreamers by Imbolo Mbue (Random House): A Cameroonian family moves to New York City amidst dreams and hope for a better life, just before a financial crisis obliterates the economy and puts their newly-found happiness in jeopardy.
4) Bright, Precious Days by Jay McInerney (Knof): The story about Manhattan yuppie couple Russell and Corrine Calloway who were first introduced in the 1980s with Brightness Falls, comes to an end. 2008 sees the country in the brink of financial and political turmoil and Russell and Corrine teeter between feelings of unhappiness and dissatisfaction regarding their marriage. The situation becomes more precarious when the man with whom Corrine had an illicit affair six years ago walks back into her life, raising doubts about what she really wants.
5) Cruel Beautiful World by Caroline Leavitt (Algonquin Books): The year is 1969 and Sixteen-year-old Lucy runs away with a much older man with whom she is having a secret sexual relationship and who also happens to be one of her teachers. Lucy’s decision will have dire effects on the lives of everyone around her.
6) Happy Family by Tracy Barone (Hatchette Books): Cheri Matzner, abandoned in a hospital by her young birth mother is adopted by a couple who have experienced their own personal tragedy. While her adoptive mother suffocates her with affection, her father at best ignores her. This polarity becomes an inescapable influence in Cheri’s life and her personal relationships.
7) I Will Send Rain by Rae Meadows (Henry Holt): As the terrible years of the Dust Bowl begin in Mulehead, Oklahoma Annie and Samuel Bell along with their two children, have to contend with how the threat of famine and losing their farm begins to tear their family apart while it also pulls them away from each other.
8) If I Forget You by Thomas Christopher Green (Thomas Dunne Books): A lyrical and narrative work of art, this novel weaves the tale of Henry and Margot, two young lovers who meet in college, and are wretchedly torn apart by unforeseen circumstances. More than twenty years later and entirely by chance, they meet again on a New York City street.
9) Nutshell by Ian McEwan (Nan A. Talese): In a clever twist on Shakespeare’s Hamlet, an unborn babe while in the womb hears and feels everything happening outside, including his mother hatching a plan with her debauched lover (who happens to be the unborn child’s uncle), to kill his unsuspecting father.
10) People Who Knew Me by Kim Hooper (St. Martin’s Press): In the aftermath of September 11, 2001 Emily Morris makes a choice that will change her life forever, faking her own death and escaping to California with a new identity. But when Emily is diagnosed with advanced stage breast cancer, she realizes that she must secure the future of her thirteen year old daughter, even if this means facing the people she left behind all those years ago.
11) The After Party by Anton Disclafani (Penguin Random House): 1950s Houston socialites Joan Fortier and Cece Buchanan have been friends since infancy. Cece has always been Joan’s shadow, and is quick to bail her out when she gets in trouble. But soon Cece will begin to ask herself, how much friendship is too much?
12) The Comet Seekers by Helen Sedgwick (Harvill Secker). A story that reaches across time while weaving the destinies of two broken and lonely people, Franςois and Róisín, in the middle of Antarctica, thrown together by familial ghosts and comet sightings through centuries.
13) The Girls by Emma Cline (Random House): In the mid-1960s, Evie Boyd is frequently on her own, trying to find something that fills the void of her dysfunctional family life. The day that she sees a group a girls dancing in the park, Evie cannot help wanting what they have: absolute freedom. But instead she becomes trapped in a world of terrible violence from which she might not be able to escape.
14) The Lesser Bohemians by Eimear McBride (Penguin Random House): One night in a bar, aspiring eighteen-year-old actress Eily meets Stephen, a man in his forties and also an actor who like her, has led a very troubled life. As Eily and Stephen begin to fall in love, they suddenly realize that their turbulent past may not allow them to have a future.
15) The Next by Stephanie Gangi (St. Martin’s Press): When Joanna DeAngelis dies, she’s stuck roaming this world as a ghost for who knows how long. Joanna decides that if she’s in this world, she might as well set some things right, and the first item on her list is the former younger lover who left her for another woman.
16) The Outside Lands by Hannah Kohler (St. Martin’s Press): Having been a surrogate mother to her brother Kip her whole life, Jeannie can finally focus on her own family when he is shipped off to Vietnam. But a series of events will make Jeannie question her life and what she really wants from it.
17) The Summer Before the War by Helen Simonson (Random House): With a charming Austenesque style, Helen Simonson portrays the local minutia of a small country village in Sussex right before the outbreak of World War I.
18) The Versions of Us by Laura Barnett (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt): In this complex and engaging novel Eva and Jim run into each other by accident on a cobbled Cambridge street. Or do they? This novel travels through roads not taken in a spell-binding way.
19) Watching Edie by Camilla Way (NAL Publishing Group): One night while trying to deal with the stress of being a single mother to her newborn baby girl, Edie receives a visit from Heather, a lost friend from a past she would rather forget, threatening Edie’s very existence.
20) With Love From the Inside by Angela Pisel (G.P. Putnam’s Sons): Grace Bradshaw sits on Death Row in a South Carolina prison accused of murdering her infant son. When she receives her execution date, Grace becomes desperate to get in touch with her estranged daughter Sophie, who she hasn’t seen in eleven years.
Honorable mention: The Regulars Georgia Clark, Brit Marie Was Here Fredrick Backman, The Hopefuls Jennifer Close, A Fine Imitation Amber Brock, The Curious Charms of Arthur Pepper Phaedra Patrick, Three Martini Lunch Suzanne Rindell, The Wangs vs. the World Jade Chang The Mortifications Derek Palacio, The Fate of the Tearling Erika Johansen, and Monsters: A Love Story Liz Kay.
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