The fic­tion we loved in 2016

The Denver Post - - LIFE & CULTURE -

With its heady mix of books that both spoke to our time and ripped us right out of the present and down the rab­bit hole, 2016 was a good year to be a bib­lio­phile.

Here’s what we loved from 2016, but don’t daw­dle: Use your hol­i­day time wisely and get caught up on your read­ing now. With a Ge­orge Saun­ders novel out early next year, 2017 is al­ready shap­ing up to be a great year to bury your nose in a novel.

News of the World By Paulette Jiles (Wil­liam Mor­row)

It’s post-Civil War Texas, and Cap­tain Jef­fer­son Kyle Kidd trav­els alone, do­ing live read­ings of the news for small-town residents — that is, un­til he agrees to re­turn a young girl kid­napped by the Kiowa tribe to her rel­a­tives near San An­to­nio. Jiles is a poet at heart, and in this Na­tional Book Award fi­nal­ist, she crafts a beau­ti­ful story that’s short in words but long in feel­ing. — Em­i­lie Rusch

The Un­der­ground Rail­road By Col­son White­head (Dou­ble­day)

Cora un­der­takes an Odyssean jour­ney when she es­capes the vi­o­lence of the Ran­dall plan­ta­tion to ride the Un­der­ground Rail­road, which White­head clev­erly en­vi­sions as a phys­i­cal rail­road with secret sta­tions. By twists and turns, Cora flees from one in­sid­i­ous new form of racism only to land in another, all while be­ing chased by the no­to­ri­ous slave catcher (and well­wrought arch-vil­lain) Ridge­way. Poignant, beau­ti­fully writ­ten and paced for all-at-once read­ing, White­head’s lat­est tome was the un­sur­pris­ing win­ner of the Na­tional Book Award for 2016 fic­tion. — Jenn Fields

The Woman in Cabin 10 By Ruth Ware (Gallery/Scout)

This Hitch­cock­ian thriller about a travel writer on the maiden voy­age of a small 10-cabin cruise ship who thinks she wit­nessed a mur­der is dark and twisty and will keep you guess­ing. That’s largely be­cause the nar­ra­tor is not re­li­able. She’s had too much to drink, and the 10th cabin is of­fi­cially empty for this trip, so no one has seen the woman she’s con­vinced has been thrown over­board. Be warned: Al­though this story starts strong, the book wraps up quickly with a rather un­ex­pected (and depend­ing on your per­spec­tive, un­de­served) happy end­ing. But it’s worth your time to try to un­ravel the ini­tial mys­tery. — Sara B. Hansen

Here I Am By Jonathan Safran Foer (Far­rar, Straus and Giroux)

Is it pos­si­ble to ful­fill your du­ties as a par­ent, lover and child at the same time? Foer’s long-awaited third novel ex­plores the dis­so­lu­tion of a Wash­ing­ton, D.C., fam­ily in gritty (and of­ten beau­ti­ful) de­tail while pick­ing at the densely knot­ted re­la­tion­ship be­tween Jewish Amer­ica and Is­rael. The au­thor searches for mean­ing in this 21st cen­tury mar­ried cou­ple’s minu­tiae like a lit­er­ary his­to­rian: Ev­ery text ex­change begets para­graphs of con­text, each si­lence deaf­en­ing af­ter anal­y­sis. When it doesn’t get dizzy with its self­aware dot-con­nect­ing, “Here I Am” is an odd com­fort in an un­prece­dent­edly com­pli­cated time. — Dy­lan Owens

The Won­der By Emma Donoghue (Lit­tle Brown)

Anna is an 11-year-old with strong re­li­gious con­vic­tions who goes on a months-long fast in 19th cen­tury Ire­land in this sec­ond novel by the au­thor of the smash hit “Room.” Is it a miracle or a fraud? A Bri­tish nurse trained by Florence Nightin­gale is called in to in­ves­ti­gate and, in time, gets to the bot­tom of the case — which is more sor­did than mystical. Look past the book’s flaws (go ahead: sus­pend that dis­be­lief ) and you will get car­ried away in this page­turner. — Bar­bara El­lis

The Tres­passer By Tana French (Vik­ing)

French is a mas­ter crime nov­el­ist, and you can’t go wrong with any of her gor­geously writ­ten, ex­pertly plot­ted Dublin Mur­der Squad books, each of which is nar­rated by a dif­fer­ent de­tec­tive. The lat­est in­stall­ment fol­lows the tough, prickly An­toinette Con­way, who is as­signed to in­ves­ti­gate what seems like a rou­tine do­mes­tic case and is on the outs with her en­tire squad. — E.R.

Homego­ing By Yaa Gyasi (Knopf)

In sep­a­rate vil­lages in West­ern Africa, two half-sis­ters come of age in dif­fer­ent worlds: Ef­fia is mar­ried to a white slaver; Esi is taken, sent to Amer­ica and sold into slav­ery. Gyasi’s de­but fol­lows their de­scen­dants, through wars on both con­ti­nents, through the an­te­bel­lum South, into jaz­zage Har­lem, up to the present day. Trauma trav­els through gen­er­a­tions on both sides of the fam­ily tree, but there’s still hope amid the strug­gle in this pow­er­ful ta­pes­try of a fam­ily whose his­tory is still feel­ing the ef­fects of slav­ery. — J.F.

Miller’s Val­ley By Anna Quindlen (Ran­dom House)

Quindlen’s lovely, lyri­cal writ­ing and abil­ity to tell a mean­ing­ful story never fail to im­press. A fam­ily is faced with los­ing its flood­prone an­ces­tral land in the fic­tional Miller’s Val­ley when the govern­ment tar­gets it for a reser­voir. You will fall in love with hero­ine Mimi Miller, and see your own up­bring­ing and home­town — or maybe your­self — in her story. Quindlen’s skill at de­pict­ing the cir­cle of life re­sults in a sat­is­fy­ing, ele­gant novel. — B.E.

Nico­tine By Nell Zink (Ecco)

Why shouldn’t a jour­ney of self-dis­cov­ery start in a sweat lodge and con­clude in an in­ten­tional com­mu­nity (a squat, re­ally) where residents are united by their ad­vo­cacy for peo­ple marginal­ized by to­bacco use? Nell Zink’s poppy satire tracks Penny, a bright but emo­tion­ally stunted young woman who is re­cov­er­ing from the death of her beloved shaman fa­ther, as she un­earths the truth of her past and steps into her bright fu­ture. — Dana Coffield

The Muse By Jessie Bur­ton (Ecco)

It starts a bit slow, but “The Muse” blos­soms into a com­pelling tale about how two women ex­press their cre­ative tal­ents. One is a painter and the other a writer; both have to cope with racism and sex­ism in their re­spec­tive times. Bur­ton’s book is beau­ti­fully writ­ten, and the cen­tral mys­tery will keep read­ers guess­ing. If you haven’t read Bur­ton’s “The Minia­tur­ist,” put it on your must-read list, too. — S.B.H.

Com­mon­wealth By Ann Patch­ett (Harper Collins)

A sin­gle kiss seals the fate of two fam­i­lies: The adults are split by the di­vorce, but for the chil­dren, it’s more com­pli­cated, more nu­anced. Patch­ett is a mas­ter sto­ry­teller — you can taste the or­anges, feel the hu­mid­ity, pick up un­der­tone in a quip of di­a­logue — and “Com­mon­wealth” is a tome by a writer at the top of her craft. Pick it up and just try to put it back down. — J.F.

To­day Will Be Dif­fer­ent By Maria Sem­ple (Lit­tle Brown)

Sem­ple — au­thor of the pop­u­lar 2012 comedic novel “Where’d You Go, Ber­nadette” (which is be­ing made into a film di­rected by Richard Lin­klater) — re­turns with this breezy read about Seat­tle mom Eleanor Flood, an an­i­ma­tion artist who has an acer­bic wit and lit­tle pa­tience for fools. Sem­ple, who wrote for the tele­vi­sion shows “Ar­rested De­vel­op­ment,” “Ellen” and “Mad About You,” has cre­ated a de­pressed, mean-spir­ited, for­get­ful, self­cen­tered, scat­ter­brained and some­times un­lik­able main char­ac­ter that you can’t help but fall in love with. “To­day will be dif­fer­ent,” the book be­gins. And it is — sort of. — B.E.

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