The Best Books I Read in 2016

*As a quick note, the links I’ve added for purchasing physical books will direct you to my favorite local indie bookstore in Central North Carolina, Flyleaf Books in Chapel Hill, but finding independent bookstores near you is very easy…just do a search here. I am also linking the e-books to the kobo reading app, which allows you to choose which indie bookstore gets your money, honey.

The Dead Duke, His Secret Wife, and the Missing Corpse by Piu Marie Eatwell

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In 1897, an elderly widow in London claims that two men who supposedly died 15 years apart, one a successful merchant and the other a rich and reclusive duke, were in fact the same man. While that claim alone and the legal evidence needed to prove it would make a good enough story, this one is further complicated by the fact that the widow’s claim would have made her children heirs to millions.

In the Victorian age of privacy and suppressed sexuality, this sensational story of elite members of society committing serious sins for decades gained a global spotlight and jump-started the tabloid industry. It’s easy to understand why the legal battle, which lasted for over a decade, went Victorian viral, with its revelations about the dark underbelly of gentility with double-lives, bigamy, murderess governesses, mad wives in attics, secret passageways, and empty coffins.

Available in hardcover, paperback, and e-book

Dreamland: The True Tale of America’s Opiate Epidemic by Sam Quinones

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An impressive work of investigative journalism that examines the modern opiate epidemic in America. This is extremely reductive of the argument, but in a nutshell Quinones argues that this epidemic is caused by four factors: 1) the ingenuity of black-tar heroin dealers from one tiny town in Mexico, 2) the unethical and highly profitable marketing campaigns led by a handful of pharmaceutical companies, 3) the economic decline in post-industrial America, and 4) the decision to distinguish freedom from pain as a basic human right, leading to huge changes in how pain is conceptualized and treated. 

Quinones weaves an extraordinary story, including the personal journeys of the addicted, the drug traffickers, law enforcement, and scores of families affected by the scourge, as he details the social, economic, and political forces that eventually destroyed communities in the American heartland and continues to have a resounding impact. My one critique is that Quinones fails to address the racial implications of opiate addiction and the labelling of opiate-related deaths as an epidemic, as it seems to me that the attention the issue has now attained seems to have only come from its impact on white, middle- and upper-class communities.

Available in hardcover, paperback, and e-book

LaRose by Louise Erdrich

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This is not the first book I’ve read by Louise Erdrich (The Round House, The Painted Drum) and it will certainly not be the last (Future Home of the Living God, which is set to be published in November this year). Considering the lack of Native American voices represented in the publishing industry, I continue to be surprised by how many people know the work of Sherman Alexie but not Louise Erdrich, who is herself a member of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians. If you haven’t read any of her work before, LaRose is a fantastic example of her ability to portray the way stories persist and shift over time, remaking themselves with each generation.

Landreaux Iron, an Ojibwe man, a loving husband and father, and a recovering alcoholic, accidentally kills his neighbor’s son while hunting. To atone for his actions and against the wishes of his wife, he gives his youngest child, 5-year-old LaRose, to the bereaved parents. LaRose is the fifth of that name in his family, each one special in their own way. As we learn the stories of the LaRoses that came before, we also see the most recent boy become a bridge between families, between loss and redemption, between youth and adulthood, between the contemporary and traditional, and between each LaRose, who all serve as healers of tragedies.

Available in hardcover, paperback, and e-book

Milk and Honey by Rupi Kaur

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I debated for a long time writing a separate review for Rupi Kaur’s raw, vulnerable, bittersweet collection of poems. I never did and to this day I am unable to say whether my silence on this book was due to the abundance of thoughts and feelings reading it caused or just due to my own laziness.

The collection is separated into four parts: 1) the hurting, 2) the loving, 3) the breaking, and 4) the healing. The hurting encompasses experiences of hurt from childhood and adolescence, whether self-inflicted, inflicted by those you love, or inflicted by society. Here is one of my favorite poems from this section:

emptying out of my mother’s belly

was my first act of disappearance

learning to shrink for a family

who likes their daughters invisible

was the second

the art of being empty

is simple

believe them when they say

you are nothing

repeat it to yourself

like a wish

i am nothing

i am nothing

i am nothing

so often

the only reason you know

you’re still alive is from the

heaving of your chest                                                                                  (p. 33)

The loving is about the first big love…the one that changes the way you see yourself and your place in the universe. At first it is magical and explosive and filled with wonder. It seems to fill the holes that are left inside of you. For the first time, you think you might heal. But sadly, the loving ends and becomes the breaking, where you are confronted by how many new ways you can be hurt. This is where the bulk of the poems fall and fully expresses the destruction, shame, anger, and sadness that walks hand in hand with the imperfection of people you love, including yourself. But finally comes the healing, which reminded me greatly of a line from Albert Camus, “In the depths of winter, I finally learned that within me there lay an invincible summer.” Kaur finds strength from both the fall and the rising and a new definition of beauty:

i want to apologize to all the women

i have called pretty

before i’ve called them intelligent or brave

i am sorry i made it sound as though

something as simple as what you’re born with

is the most you have to be proud of when your

spirit has crushed mountains

from now on i will say things like

you are resilient or you are extraordinary

not because i don’t think you’re pretty

but because you are so much more than that                                                        (p. 179)

Available in paperback and e-book

Monstress Volume 1:Awakening by Marjorie Liu

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I’m not a huge graphic novel person, as I tend to respond much better to words than images and sometimes find the “graphic” element of graphic novels getting used to make up for lackluster prose. However, there are most definitely times when words alone won’t cut it, and this is one of those times.

Set in an alternate, war-torn, matriarchal Asia, we meet Maika, a teenage girl who is struggling to survive the trauma of war, and who shares a mysterious psychic link with a monster of tremendous power. Monstress is gruesome, beautiful, horrifying, and splendid. It is a dark science fiction and fantasy epic with all of the humanity of Saga and all the visual splendor of art deco master Erte. Marjorie Liu and Sana Takeda take eastern and western comic storytelling traditions and styles and create something wholly their own.

Volume 1 is available in paperback and e-book. Volume 2 (which I have not read yet) will be available in paperback in July.

The Romanovs: 1613-1918 by Simon Sebag Montefiore

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I know not everyone is as much of a history nerd as I am and so they might not have the patience to sit through over 700 pages of carefully reconstructed lives of Russia’s most famous family (second place goes to the Putins and third place the Baryshnikovs…consolaton prizes are in the mail). It took me an entire year to make my way through this beast of a book, but it was worth it. After all, it has been described as a “blood-spattered, gold-plated, diamond-studded, swash-buckled, bodice-ripping, and star-crossed… chronicle[s] of fathers and sons, megalomaniacs, monsters, and saints.”

Montefiore addresses important, but prosaic questions about the details of life within the Romanov regime and highlights some of the ways in which the Romanovs managed to defy expectations at every turn. It is also a great read in light of how important Russia has become again in the realm of American politics. It sheds light on the ruthless and autocratic tendencies that have almost always been at the heart of Russian politics. Montefiore’s compassionate and incisive portraits of the Romanov rulers and their retinues, his liberal usage of contemporary diaries and correspondence, and his flair for the dramatic produce a narrative that effortlessly holds the reader’s interest and attention despite its imposing length.

Available in hardcover, paperback, and e-book

Mischling by Affinity Konar

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Warning: NOT FOR THE FAINT OF HEART! This is a heart-breaking literary work that tells the fictional story of two twin girls, Stasha and Pearl, who become subjects of scientific interest to Josef Mengele in Auschwitz. Despite the horrific backdrop of WWII and Mengele’s experiments, this exquisitely written novel focuses on survival, bravery and familial bonds. The horrors are very real in this book and some critics have gone so far as to call it “torture porn” and to say that Holocaust narratives of this kind do more harm than good. I understand their point and do believe that for some people reading this book could be traumatic, but I still think Konar successfully shows the horrors that actually existed at that time as well as the powerful force of love that was so crucial to survivors. So with that in mind, I will not judge you for skipping this book as a beach read.

Available in hardcover, paperback, and e-book

The Shadow Land by Elizabeth Kostova

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How do I know that the Elizabeth Kostova I fell in love with when I read The Historian is back? Because, just like her first novel, I read The Shadow Land until the sun came up and my eyes were strained and my heart was beating fast and my head was spinning with visions of a place I’d never been. The central character actually begins this deft novel in an urn, only to emerge as one of the most memorable characters I’ve encountered in a long time.

Alexandra, a young woman from the Blue Ridge Mountains, travels to Bulgaria in hopes that life abroad will salve the wounds left by the death of her brother. Soon after arriving in this elegant East European city, however, she helps an elderly couple into a taxi and realizes too late that she has accidentally kept one of their bags. Inside she finds an ornately carved wooden box engraved with a name: Stoyan Lazarov. Raising the hinged lid, she discovers that she is holding an urn filled with human ashes. When she tries to return the ashes to the elderly couple, she finds they have disappeared and she is now the subject of unwanted attention.

More than just a mystery (as good of a mystery as it is) answering who is Stoyan Lazarov and what happened to him, Kostova’s new novel also attempts to answer questions about how a nation that has brutalized itself for decades can possibly recover. The storyline involving Alexandra, which I found slightly tedious, pales in comparison to the story of Stoyan, another name I can add to the list of fictional men I’m in love with, and the story of Bulgaria.

Available in hardcover and e-book

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And let us not forget three 2016 books I previously reviewed: Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi, The Girls by Emma Cline and Wintering by Peter Geye!

Homegoing is now available in paperback and e-book

The Girls is now available in paperback and e-book

Wintering is now available in paperback and e-book

 

June 15, 2017 Nancy Books No Comments

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