December 17, 2016

  1. The Sympathizer

Betsey and I agree that the best book we read this year was, without a doubt, The Sympathizer, by Viet Thanh Nguyen. It won the Pulitzer Prize, so it’s supposed to be good, but that doesn’t always translate. This book, though, is so consistently smart, darkly funny, and culturally revealing that I felt as enlightened as entertained. The first-person narrator of this book has one of the freshest, most honest voices I’ve heard in a long time, which is saying something given that he’s a spy.

Betsey says, “In the tradition of All Quiet on the Western Front and The Things They Carried, this book is bound to become a classic on the psychological effects of war and its aftermath. Cunning and astute, the author repeatedly lulls you into complacency, and then attacks. The final section of this book is especially intense, and I almost didn’t finish, but ultimately the truth, no matter how devastating, made this book great.”

  1. The Girl With All the Gifts and The Tsar of Love and Techno

My second favorite novel this year is The Girl With All the Gifts, by M. R. Carey. This story is easily the most original and engrossing zombie apocalypse story I’ve ever read or watched. I was enthralled from the start by the eponymous girl, her gifts, her friends, her enemies, her frenemies, and the events that unfold around them. And the brilliant ending satisfied me on all levels—characters, plot, ideas, everything. If you like to watch good characters and clever ideas develop in a post-apocalyptic setting, this book is for you.

Betsey’s second favorite novel is The Tsar of Love and Techno, by Anthony Marra. She says, “The Tsar of Love and Techno is so fast-paced, funny, and oddly sincere, it’s easy to gloss over the underlying story of how crime, corruption, and greed have come to define the making of modern Russia (and the whole world?). While it is technically a collection of stories, the characters overlap throughout, and it reads like a novel written from multiple perspectives.”

  1. The Three Pines mysteries and My Brilliant Friend

Third on my list is not a single novel, but a series. This year I read four books from Louise Penny’s Three Pines/Inspector Gamache mysteries set in rural Quebec: The Cruelest Month (#3) through Bury Your Dead (#6). These are easily among my favorite all-time go-to reads (or “listens”—the Audible narrator is excellent). Penny’s characters are heroically normal, honestly complex, deeply loving, and exquisitely funny. The mysteries are fascinating in every book, and the setting wonderfully permeates the stories on all levels, but the characters are what rank these books so high for me. I truly wish I could visit the sleepy (but somehow murder-filled) village of Three Pines and help solve one of the murders—even if it’s just by sipping scotch and swearing at my neighbors.

Betsey’s number three is My Brilliant Friend, by Elena Ferrante. She says, “My Brilliant Friend has been one of the most popular books of the new century, so I had to give it a try and wow was it worth it! It addresses the complicated nature of female friendship as well as the brutality of poverty and how it affects women.”

  1. The Rosie Project and The Rosie Effect

The delightful Don Tillman duology by Australian writer, Graeme Simsion, captures the next highest spot on my list. I have not laughed out loud as often or as heartily in a long time (maybe since reading Sherman Alexie and Dan Savage books in 2007) as I did while reading these stories. As someone who has worked with highly functioning autistic folks (and as someone who may be a little farther along the Asperger’s spectrum than you might think), I so appreciated the many awkward social situations in which the main character, Don, finds himself floundering. Rosie and the love story are pretty awesome, too. This is top-notch sensitive, humorous fiction. (p.s. For the record, I thought the second book was only a smidge behind the first in story quality and entertainment value.)

Betsey says about The Rosie Project, “It was totally enjoyable. It helped me understand Matt a little bit more…”

  1. The Elementals and At the Water’s Edge

Fifth on my list, and the book I’ve been most excited about lately, is The Elementals by Michael McDowell. This book is so fascinatingly creepy that I literally couldn’t put it down (in the form of my phone’s Audible playback). Recently “rediscovered” 70’s/80’s horror writer Michael McDowell (most famous for writing the screenplay for the classic Tim Burton film Beetlejuice) sucks you in with accessible characters going about their business in the creepiest situations as if it was all mundane. It’s when the characters themselves start to freak out that you realize you should have been freaking out from the start. This is an original and moody Southern Gothic haunted house story with oddly likable characters and a memorable setting.

Next on Betsey’s fiction list is At the Water’s Edge by Sara Gruen (most famous for Water For Elephants). Betsey says, “At the Water’s Edge was absolutely my favorite guilty pleasure this year. This book is reminiscent of Edith Wharton, but with less social commentary and more sex.”

  1. The First Law series and books with Native American themes (The Tenderness of Wolves, Jimmy Bluefeather, and Barkskins)

Since I listened to four of Joe Abercrombie’s epic fantasy novels this year (100 hours worth?), I figured they should rank pretty high. I read all three books in the First Law trilogy (starting with The Blade Itself), as well as Red Country, book #6 in the series (in the First Law World series). There’s plenty of fighting and magic and swearing in this series to satisfy any fantasy buff, but what I love are the appealing characters and their clever dialogue. The interior monologues of one of the main characters (a somewhat reluctant Inquisition interrogator) are so exquisitely ironic and self-deprecating that you can’t help questioning your own moral capacities as you find yourself rooting for a person you’d normally consider truly despicable. In short, Abercrombie really knows how to write good characters that keep you engaged for thousands of pages.

Next on Betsey’s list is a trio of excellent books with Native American themes: The Tenderness of Wolves, by Stef Penney; Jimmy Bluefeather by Kim Heacox; and Barkskins, by Annie Proulx. She says, “I read a number of books this year with Native Americans as characters, and while the tribes represented span from the Atlantic to the Pacific, I feel like for the first time I’m learning about their authentic societies, not the romantic ideal.”

  1. Mr. Wigg

Another fun Australian find was Mr. Wigg, by Inga Simpson. This is a sweet, simple story of relationships and the successful cultivation of stone fruit. It makes you think, smile, and maybe shed a tear. Betsey agrees that this is a great family story with some authentic down-under flavor.

  1. The Girl on the Train and Wildlight

Betsey didn’t like The Girl on the Train, but I loved the way this thriller unraveled. The multiple narrators device doesn’t always work, but I thought author Paula Hawkins handles it deftly. The intriguing characters, thrilling plot, and narrative structure all work smoothly together to keep you turning pages (or hitting the play button).

Another of Betsey’s Australian fiction favorites was Wildlight, by Robyn Mundy. She says, “Set in Tasmania, and richly evocative of the place, this book tells a great story about family and self-discovery.”

  1. Fuzzy Nation and Five-Star Billionaire

It’s hard to describe this weirdly appealing science fiction book. It offers a righteous fight against a soulless corporation, a snarky main character, a cute furry alien species, and an exciting courtroom battle. The story of the book’s creation is also pretty cool.

Betsey enjoyed Five-Star Billionaire, a novel set in China by Tash Aw. “It’s not the deepest book you’ll ever read,” she says, “but it has great characters and good storytelling, and it’s a lot of fun.”

  1. The Hired Girl

This engrossing and thought-provoking historical young adult novel is my lone young readers entry in the year’s best books. While it’s not as good as The Ables or The Green Glass Sea (young adult novels that made my list in 2015 and 2012 respectively), it’s close. Set in 1911, this book gracefully handles issues of class, gender, and religion from the first person perspective of a young woman with courage and a love of books.

Some of our Honorable Mentions:

The Other Hand / Little Bee, by Chris Cleave: (a good novel on a tough subject by a British author whose friend runs a little book shop in Sydney and who told us we should read it)

The Broken Shore, by Peter Temple: (a gritty Australian mystery)

The Three Body Problem, by Liu Cixin: (Chinese science fiction with fascinating ideas but only decent characters and execution; I hear the sequels are better…)

The Mysterious Benedict Society, by Trenton Lee Stewart: (a fun, if a little too long, young adult novel about smart kids solving a big mystery)

Station Eleven, by Emily St. John Mandel: (an almost-but-not-quite-awesome post-apocalyptic novel)

I hope this list gave you at least one or two books to consider reading in 2017. Our list of non-fiction favorites will be coming up soon….