Thursday, January 5, 2017

Top Ten of 2016

Perhaps my favorite post of the year is the very first one I write: the "Top Ten" post for the previous year's favorites--not necessarily books printed in that year but books I read that year. Every year, I force myself to single out ten of the best of my five star reads--combined fiction and nonfiction--and the single best audio narration of the year. Some years the choice is agonizing. Hyperbole, you say? If you think that, you are clearly not a bibliophile. Don't feel too unwelcome; I'm still happy you are here. 

Perhaps your next read can be one of these books, which are listed in the order in which I read them as opposed to the order of how much I enjoyed them. If I wrote a review, you can view it by clicking on the book's title.

The Novels:

The Lilac Girls by Martha Hall Kelly: I received a galley of this novel and began talking about it weeks before it was available to the public; my enthusiasm never waned all through the year. Considering that books I read at the beginning of the year sometimes get short shifted when it comes to the weeding process for the "Top Ten" list, it speaks volumes about how memorable this one truly is.


The Son by Philipp Meyer: I didn't write a review of this wonderful epic novel of a family and the land that binds them, but don't think that was because my enjoyment was lacking. While painting my house, I often would do "just one more wall" or find some ratty looking trim just so I had an excuse to keep listening. I haven't enjoyed an epic novel nearly as much since my Clavell and Michener phase in the 1980s.

The Book of Murder by Guillermo Martinez: As part of my participation in an Olympic reading challenge, I read this little Argentinian gem. I am not a big mystery fan, but this book captured me with both its plot and its beautifully spare prose.

To the Bright Edge of the World by Eowyn Ivey: Eowyn's debut novel, The Snow Child, put this Alaskan writer on international bestseller lists. In my opinion this sophomore effort far outshines Ivey's debut. In addition to the review you can read if you click on the title, I put together another post of personal pictures taken in the area in which the novel is set and at an exhibit about the real life people who were Eowyn's inspiration. Click here if you would like to access that post.

Girl at War by Sara Nović: This was another novel that I read for the Olympic challenge. It is a haunting debut written by a young Croatian writer whose work I look forward to enjoying in the future.

The Nonfiction Works:

The Way to the Spring by Ben Ehrenreich: Without a doubt, this book gets my vote for the work that hasn't received near the attention it deserves. It is difficult, as an American writer, to write a book about the side of a conflict--in this case the Palestinians living in the Occupied Territories--that most Americans do not support. Given recent decisions made by the Israeli court system regarding illegal actions by Israeli settlers in the Occupied Territories, I would love to see more American readers give Ben's book another look.

Being Mortal by Atul Gawande: Yes, I am very late to the party with regards to this book. If you haven't read it yet, please create a place for it on your short list. This is absolutely one of those books that is so relevant to being human that every person needs to read it. Since I had just lost both my daughter and my mother in less than a year, I put it off for a bit, but I wish I hadn't, as it would have been just what I needed to hear as I went through that time of raw grief.

Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu by Joshua Hammer: For centuries, Timbuktu was the finest center of scholarship and the greatest repository of manuscripts in the world. This fascinating book--another I think deserves more attention than it has received--takes you on a grand adventure through the intellectual history of this African city and the modern day librarians' desperate efforts to save these irreplaceable treasures from the Muslim extremists who burn them as heretical. Once again, don't walk away from this one just because I didn't write a review; it merits a place on your short list.

The River of Doubt by Candice Millard: Yet another book that I waited far too long to read! The audio of this telling of Teddy Roosevelt's near disastrous journey down this South American river was very well executed. Unlike many history books, which can be difficult to follow on audio, this story lent itself very well to that format. It is another book for which I hope my lack of review doesn't affect your decision to add it to your "must read" list.

In Cold Blood by Truman Capote: This masterpiece of narrative storytelling set the bar very high for all the "true crime" works that followed it. The writing of this fast-paced accounting of the killing of an innocent family in their farm house is so rich and compelling that you are sucked in, as if into the complex plot and vivid characters of a masterfully crafted crime novel. If you missed this father of the true crime genre, don't let my lack of a review keep you from adding it to your TBR.

The Audio Books:

Since I listen to a large proportion of my books each year, choosing a single audio is always very difficult. This year I am going to honor just one, but I am also going to give an honorable mention to three that deserve the credit.

A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James takes top honors in my audio category. This complex tale of life in Bob Marley's Jamaica earned its author a well-deserved Booker Prize. Although the novel only earned three stars from me, its prose, scope, and characters definitely deserved much higher honors. The reason I rated it so low was because the subject matter and language (both profane and dialectal) made it such a difficult read that I cannot say that I truly enjoyed it. The audio--which featured an ensemble cast of narrators: Robertson Dean, Cherise Boothe, Dwight Bacquie, Ryan Anderson, Jonathan McClain, Robert Younis, and Thom Rivera--was very helpful to anyone who struggles to read the dense dialect of an unfamiliar culture. One huge downside to listening to this one is that it shifts lighting fast through a large cast of characters and back and forth along a very lengthy timeline. The voices used for some of the characters were so close that if I missed the announcement of who was speaking, or came back to listening after pausing it for a time, I was quite lost. Overall, though, I think the audio is the way to go with this one if you struggle, as I did, trying to read the dialect in print.

Audio Honorable Mentions:

The Passage and The Twelve by Justin Cronin: If you are looking for a trilogy to listen to for sheer enjoyment, this is the one. The final book, The City of Mirrors, was released in the fall of 2016, but I haven't yet read it, as I am waiting for my library to order the audio. These books are so outside my usual genre (in truth, I have never read anything like them), that I almost passed them by. One of my reading buddies convinced me that the science and the world building were such that I just had to read them. He was so right! The basis of the plot, a virus that is carried outside an American government laboratory, sounds so over utilized, but where Cronin takes it, infusing it with just the right amount of the supernatural, makes the books among the most riveting I have ever read. Definitely do the audios, the first of which is narrated by an ensemble of Scott Brick, Adenrele Ojo, and Abby Craden. Scott Brick carries the narration of the final two on his own. The audios are incredibly compelling, perfect for your commute or chore time listening. Although they do shift between locations and characters, I never had any trouble following the narration.

The Son by Philipp Meyer: Since this marvelous epic made my Top Ten for 2016, I won't expound on it too much other than to say that the narration by Will Patton (really, need I say more?); Kate Mulgrew; Scott Shepherd; and Clifton Collins, Jr. was perfectly cast. The print version of the novel was very well-received, both by the critics and the reading public. The audio elevates the story to a whole new level.

Swing Time by Zadie Smith: This was my final read of the year and it just missed being a five star book. I felt that the book, with its lush prose, en pointe characterizations, and depth of insight (which reminded me at times of David Foster Wallace) came to a disappointingly rushed conclusion into which the readers, instead of being led, were dumped. It was jarring and unnecessary and cost this novel its fifth star from me. That said, Pippa Bennett-Warner gives an absolutely five star narration in which every character, even all of the females, were given distinctly singular voices and accents. Chronicling the life of two young women in London in the early 1990s, the novel drew me because I too was a young woman there during that time frame, but I think that any reader would find commonalities with the characters that people Zadie Smith's novel. 

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