The Best of 2016


Random House Books for Young Readers: The Door Before (100 Cupboards Prequel) by Nathan D. Wilson

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The Underground Railroad

The Underground Railroad

by Colson Whitehead

The Underground Railroad tells the story of Cora, a slave who makes a break for freedom early in the novel. Fleeing the horrors of the plantation and an almost demonically persistent slavecatcher by the name of Ridgeway, Cora is aided on multiple occasions by the Underground Railroad.

Instead of the metaphorical organization from history, Colson Whitehead's Underground Railroad is an immense network of actual underground railways taking fugitive slaves from station to station. Whitehead writes: "Two ... [ Read More » ]

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American Ulysses: A Life of Ulysses S. Grant

American Ulysses: A Life of Ulysses S. Grant

by Ronald C. White

Ulysses S. Grant's reputation nosedived in the 20th century, but a new generation has begun to rehabilitate his legacy. Historian Ronald C. White (A. Lincoln) combines exemplary scholarship and storytelling in American Ulysses, a monumental and well-illustrated re-evaluation of an extraordinary character, life and career.

White begins with the strong influence on Grant of the Puritan "priority of the community over the individual." He was a sensitive, introverted child, patient, hardworking, ... [ Read More » ]

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Another Day in the Death of America: A Chronicle of Ten Short Lives

Another Day in the Death of America: A Chronicle of Ten Short Lives

by Gary Younge

Born in Great Britain to Barbadian parents, Guardian journalist Gary Younge (The Speech) has lived in the United States for more than a decade and struggles to understand the nation's gun culture. His confusion intensified when he discovered the increased likelihood of gun violence affecting black children like his own. Another Day in the Death of America is a result of his interest in the disturbingly neglected fact that seven children, on average, die each day in the U.S. because ... [ Read More » ]

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Balls: It Takes Some to Get Some

Balls: It Takes Some to Get Some

by Chris Edwards

In this bold memoir about gender dysphoria and gender confirmation surgery, Chris Edwards explains, "That feeling of finally being complete--of being who you really are--trumps everything." It ultimately takes Edwards more than three decades and 28 surgeries to realize his consummate body, but in 1974, at five years old, he already knows his true gender. It's everyone around him who seems confused. When Edwards, through the help of an amazing counselor, is finally able to share his battle with ... [ Read More » ]

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Being a Beast: Adventures Across the Species Divide

Being a Beast: Adventures Across the Species Divide

by Charles Foster

The premise of Being a Beast is as misleading as it is wacky: a man tries to live as a badger, then as an otter, a fox, a deer and a swift, in order to understand what it's like to experience the world as a wild animal. But beneath the surface, this series of philosophical essays represents nature writing of the highest order: probing, intellectual, alert, funny and astonishing.

Charles Foster (The Sacred Journey) is an Oxford fellow and self-described "writer, traveller, veterinarian and ... [ Read More » ]

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Boy Erased: A Memoir

Boy Erased: A Memoir

by Garrard Conley

Garrard Conley's haunting and introspective memoir, Boy Erased, recounts his 2004 freshman year in college--the year his deeply religious Arkansan parents discovered he was gay and sent him to be evaluated at Love in Action (LIA), a fundamentalist Christian ministry that adapted Alcoholics Anonymous's 12-step program for gay conversion therapy.

The only son of evangelical Missionary Baptist parents, Conley was often required to help his ordained father in his ministering duties. Conley's entire ... [ Read More » ]

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Evicted: Poverty & Profit in the American City

Evicted: Poverty & Profit in the American City

by Matthew Desmond

Matthew Desmond, a Harvard sociologist, spent years embedded in a trailer park and then Milwaukee's North Side to research Evicted, where he came to know the eight families whose stories feature prominently in this study of American poverty.

Evicted is a thorough, and infuriating, picture of the role that housing plays in the cycle of poverty ("one of the least studied processes affecting the lives of poor families"): how much money low-income families spend on rent; the many ways that these ... [ Read More » ]

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Ghostland: An American History in Haunted Places

Ghostland: An American History in Haunted Places

by Colin Dickey

In Ghostland: An American History in Haunted Places, Colin Dickey (Cranioklepty) travels the country to investigate possessed locales and gain insight into their spooky legends. But rather than assembling a mere compendium of the nation's scariest anecdotes of the supernatural, he takes a savvy turn into the sordid annals of American history and discovers truths far more unsettling than phantoms in the night.

Salem, Mass., thrives on tourism dedicated to its infamous 17th-century witch trials, ... [ Read More » ]

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Lab Girl

Lab Girl

by Hope Jahren

With good humor, plenty of science, scattered literary allusions and the occasional sarcastic zinger, Hope Jahren's Lab Girl is the sublime memoir of a plant research scientist and her struggles to find professional success, love and family.

With only a start-up financial commitment from Georgia Tech, Jahren and Bill, her lab tech sidekick, cobbled together a science lab out of flea market odds and ends. Bill lived in his van as Jahren feverishly applied for federal research grants. The ... [ Read More » ]

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Mincemeat: The Education of an Italian Chef

Mincemeat: The Education of an Italian Chef

by Leonardo Lucarelli, trans. by Lorena Rossi Gori, Danielle Rossi

In Mincemeat: The Education of an Italian Chef, debut author and chef Leonardo Lucarelli chronicles a haphazard career in professional kitchens throughout Italy, working long hours amid inept sous chefs, illegal dishwashers and unscrupulous owners, with lots of sex and prodigious amounts of drugs. It's not the first version of this story we've seen, but it's one of the most personal and heartfelt.

Born to hippie parents in India and raised in Umbria, Lucarelli went to college to study anthropology ... [ Read More » ]

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The Narrow Door: A Memoir of Friendship

The Narrow Door: A Memoir of Friendship

by Paul Lisicky

The Narrow Door is a striking memoir of love and loss by Paul Lisicky (Lawnboy). At its center are the life and death of Denise, Paul's longtime best friend; in parallel, Paul and his husband slowly pull apart. The ups and downs of these two relationships define the story Lisicky tells, but they also give him space to muse on larger questions: the craft of writing, competition among writers, the meaning of love and events in the larger world.

Paul mets Denise in the early 1980s, when they were ... [ Read More » ]

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The Selfishness of Others: An Essay on the Fear of Narcissism

The Selfishness of Others: An Essay on the Fear of Narcissism

by Kristin Dombek

In The Selfishness of Others, essayist Kristin Dombek (her work appeared in The Best American Essays 2014) looks at the common belief in "a kind of selfishness we increasingly fear, judging by the rising chorus that calls the young and the bad boyfriends by the same name as the murderers: narcissist." Popular self-help literature describes the narcissist as an empty shell, a fake that only pretends to have emotions and selfhood. But then, she says, who is doing the pretending? How is it ... [ Read More » ]

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The Singing Bones

The Singing Bones

by Shaun Tan, foreword by Neil Gaiman

The folktales and fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm "have never been illustrated like this," writes Neil Gaiman in his lyrical introduction to The Singing Bones by Shaun Tan (The Bird King; Tales from Outer Suburbia). By "like this," Gaiman means with dramatically lit photographs of Tan's exquisite, primal sculptures that "suggest" more than "describe." "The Frog King," "Hansel and Gretel," "Rapunzel," "The Singing Bone," "Jorinda and Joringel" and 70 more are represented by very short excerpts, ... [ Read More » ]

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Tetris: The Games People Play

Tetris: The Games People Play

by Box Brown

Box Brown (Andre the Giant: Life and Legend) turns his attention to the complicated history of one of the greatest video games ever made in Tetris: The Games People Play. Brown's cartoonish art style--distinctive in its eye-catching black-and-yellow color palette--allows him to break down into accessible pieces thorny topics such as game theory, the psychology of gaming, copyright law and the byzantine bureaucracy of the Soviet Union, Tetris's home country.

Brown starts with Alexey Pajitnov, ... [ Read More » ]

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The Universe in Your Hand: A Journey Through Space, Time, and Beyond

The Universe in Your Hand: A Journey Through Space, Time, and Beyond

by Christophe Galfard

What are gluons and how are they related to quarks? Why can't we see what the universe looked like before it was 380,000 years old? What exactly is space-time and why is "empty" space anything but? If these questions make your head hurt and heart race, have no fear: Christophe Galfard, a theoretical physicist from Cambridge University and former graduate student under Stephen Hawking comes to the rescue with The Universe in Your Hand: A Journey Through Space, Time, and Beyond.

The Universe in ... [ Read More » ]

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When Breath Becomes Air

When Breath Becomes Air

by Paul Kalanithi

In May 2013, Paul Kalanithi was a sixth-year resident in neurosurgery at Stanford. Twenty-two months later, he was dead at age 37 of lung cancer. When Breath Becomes Air is the frank and moving account of his striving to excel in one of medicine's most demanding specialties while his life was shadowed by the terror of a terminal illness.

Kalanithi's memoir divides into two distinct narratives: first, the road to early success in the medical profession, a journey that included a detour for ... [ Read More » ]

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The Vegetarian

The Vegetarian

by Han Kang, trans. by Deborah Smith

Yeong-hye was an ordinary woman--a trait her husband appreciated--until she made the shocking decision to become a vegetarian. In South Korea, this is unusual and socially scandalous; her family reacts by trying to force her to eat meat. "I had a dream," is all she says in explanation. Han Kang's novel The Vegetarian recounts Yeong-hye's choice and its consequences.

Three sections tell the story from different perspectives: Yeong-hye's disgusted and frustrated husband; her brother-in-law, a video ... [ Read More » ]

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Underground Airlines

Underground Airlines

by Ben H. Winters

After successfully fusing the detective genre with apocalyptic speculative fiction in his excellent Last Policeman trilogy, Ben H. Winters has created another masterly genre-bender with his novel Underground Airlines. Set in a United States where the Civil War never happened--Abraham Lincoln was assassinated soon after his election, and to avert war, the government passed a series of compromises allowing slavery to continue in slave-holding states. In the present day, the states have ... [ Read More » ]

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Smoke

Smoke

by Dan Vyleta

Smoke is set in England, "a century ago, give or take"--a familiar yet strange land where, when the wicked lie or sin in thought or deed, they release Smoke: thin white wisps, or oily black and oozing, or yellow or green, depending on the crime. They might smoke through their mouths, or the pores of their skin. It is a remarkably convenient way to judge people. Or so it seems.

With this premise, Dan Vyleta (The Crooked Maid) introduces a world of action, intrigue and challenge. Smoke is ... [ Read More » ]

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Lily and the Octopus

Lily and the Octopus

by Steven Rowley

Steven Rowley's first novel, Lily and the Octopus, is a startling, scintillating experience, both funny and emotionally wrenching: a story that shatters all expectations.

Ted Flask has a contented home life with an aging dachshund named Lily. They are comfortable in their routines: pizza on Sundays, Monopoly on Fridays, talking about cute boys on Thursdays. They have inside jokes and holiday traditions. Lily holds up her end of conversations, although as a dog she is of course distractible, and her ... [ Read More » ]

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The Kindness of Enemies

The Kindness of Enemies

by Leila Aboulela

In her marvelous and nuanced fourth novel, The Kindness of Enemies, Leila Aboulela (Lyrics Alley) uses historic conflicts to illustrate Islamophobia's pernicious legacy and its ominous reverberations in the present day. Natasha Wilson is a scholar teaching in Scotland in 2010; her work focuses on the Sufi leader Imam Shamil, who spearheaded the resistance against Russians invading the Caucasus in the 19th century. Natasha's most promising student, Oz, happens to have descended from Shamil, and the ... [ Read More » ]

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Imagine Me Gone

Imagine Me Gone

by Adam Haslett

In Imagine Me Gone, his second novel, Adam Haslett (Union Atlantic) takes another giant step toward fulfilling the promise of his earlier work with a story about mental illness and the devastating effect it can have on an utterly ordinary family.

Narrated in alternating first-person sections, Imagine Me Gone spans roughly four decades in the life of this family headed by John, the depressive father from England, and Margaret, his American wife. Their oldest son, Michael, seemingly ... [ Read More » ]

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Homegoing

Homegoing

by Yaa Gyasi

With her first novel, Yaa Gyasi crafts a captivating and potent narrative. Homegoing alternates between the parallel lineages of Ghanaian half-sisters Effia and Esi. Born in an 18th-century Fante village, Effia never knows her mother, a slave to the girl's father, who flees to the nearby Asante village, where she later gives birth to Esi. As the girls grow up, Effia is given in marriage to a British slave trader; Esi, captured and raped by slavers, bears children destined for continued ... [ Read More » ]

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Good Morning, Midnight

Good Morning, Midnight

by Lily Brooks-Dalton

Lily Brooks-Dalton's debut, Good Morning, Midnight, is a post-apocalyptic novel that barely mentions the apocalypse--"the last news from civilization, over a year ago, had been of war," but there's never mention of the specific calamity that seems to have overtaken the entire world. Brooks-Dalton instead focuses her attention on characters already at the fringes of human civilization, struggling to deal with the utter isolation of a mysteriously quiet earth.

The narrative toggles back and forth ... [ Read More » ]

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A Gentleman in Moscow

A Gentleman in Moscow

by Amor Towles

Amor Towles's first novel, Rules of Civility, won readers' hearts with its strong sense of time and place, fully realized characters and richly evocative voice. A Gentleman in Moscow repeats the feat and more.

In 1922, Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov appears before a Bolshevik tribunal, accused of "succumbing irrevocably to the corruptions of his class." He responds with quips, and is sentenced to house arrest in the luxury hotel where he has lived for the last four years. "Make no mistake: ... [ Read More » ]

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Four Reincarnations

Four Reincarnations

by Max Ritvo

Published shortly after his death at age 25, Max Ritvo's collection of poetry, Four Reincarnations, is a sobering yet joyful examination of life and its unraveling. Ritvo battled cancer for nearly 10 years, and he breathes in the full tragedy and routine nature of death simultaneously, with an astounding ability to wring varied emotions, physical sensations and ambiguities out of the poems. They scramble the senses by painting sprightly, synesthetic landscapes: "The sound of burning vegetables/ is ... [ Read More » ]

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Eligible: A Modern Retelling of Pride and Prejudice

Eligible: A Modern Retelling of Pride and Prejudice

by Curtis Sittenfeld

What if Jane Austen set Pride and Prejudice in contemporary Cincinnati? In Eligible, Curtis Sittenfeld (PrepAmerican Wife) turns an iconic comedy of manners into a sly and entertaining social satire and story of loves lost and found.

The characters and plot are immediately recognizable, though the novel is wholly a Sittenfeld original. New Yorker Liz Bennet is a magazine writer who returns to Cincinnati to help care for her father after his heart attack. Jane, the eldest sister, ... [ Read More » ]

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Dodgers

Dodgers

by Bill Beverly

Dodgers is a road trip novel, a coming-of-age novel, a crime novel--and more. Bill Beverly's debut, about four black kids from Compton confronting white Middle America for the first time, is as durable and expansive as the early-winter trees 15-year-old East notices along the Iowa-Wisconsin border: "rooted hard, grew up tall, muscular, their bare limbs grabbing all the air in the world." On a mission to the Midwest for their top dog, Fin, are four gang members: East, who has risen from ... [ Read More » ]

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The Chimes

The Chimes

by Anna Smaill

In a London torn apart by civil war, a monastic society called the Order lives in seclusion, writing music to be played on the Carillon, a giant organ crafted from pure palladium. The population outside the Order's walls hears two melodies: Onestory, in the morning, which tells of the war, and Chimes, in the evening, which erases all memories of the day. Citizens are left with only "bodymemory" in order to do their tasks, and vague "objectmemories." Attempts to recover the past are crimes of "blasphony." ... [ Read More » ]

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The Angel of History

The Angel of History

by Rabih Alameddine

Jacob, the aging Arab American poet in The Angel of History, has kept company with death for years, watching his every close friend wither away in the AIDS epidemic. Now Death is holding court with Satan and a host of saints in Jacob's San Francisco apartment, the poet's fiendish cat Behemoth their only audience, as Jacob flees in search of his sanity. With Jacob's story, Rabih Alameddine (An Unnecessary Woman) conjures an elegiac comedy with aplomb, his incantations rich with sincerity and ... [ Read More » ]

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