This is a series of reviews of my favorite books published between 2010 and 2019. These are shorter reviews of good reads published in 2016.
The Power by Naomi Alderman (2016)
What can I say about this book? I know it will be very divisive–some people will love it, some will hate it. I loved it. It posits what if a power awakens in women, an innate ability to generate electric power, so that they can defend themselves and hurt other people, so that they, in just a few years, become more powerful than men? I found this book exciting, challenging, uncomfortable, sometimes horrific, and just thought-provoking on so many levels: our assumptions about gender roles, about power structures, about religion, about history and who writes it. And it’s also just a really good story, with lots of characters you care about and back-stabbing and power plays and revolution.
Good Morning, Midnight by Lily Brooks-Dalton (2016)
This was a lovely and melancholy literary science-fiction story that takes place after civilization has ended for unknown reasons. The story alternates between two viewpoints: an astronomer stranded in the Arctic Circle who makes a treacherous journey across the tundra, and an astronaut aboard a spaceship returning from a mission to Jupiter to a mysteriously silent Earth. This was a quiet and absorbing character-driven novel that I found quite moving.
The City of Mirrors (Book 3 of The Passage Trilogy) by Justin Cronin (2016)
The last book in The Passage series provides a satisfying ending to the trilogy. In keeping with the previous two installments, The City of Mirrors is massive and covers a long period of time, again focusing on the stalwart survivors we have gotten to know so well over the series, now returned to Kerrville, Texas. Although the threat of the original Twelve had been eliminated in the previous book, the first victim of the virus–and the most powerful of the original vampires–remains. He is Zero (Timothy Fanning), and he is holed up a ruined New York City. Zero’s back story is long enough, and interesting enough, to be a novel in itself. Knowing it gives this villain dimension and helps us understand his obsessions. He is also patient, naturally, given his extended lifespan. I won’t say more, for fear of giving anything away–only that this book contained all the nerve-wracking suspense, depth of character, and epic scale I have come to expect and love in this series, and it offers satisfying closure for all of these characters who we have stuck with through so much.
The Wonder by Emma Donoghue (2016)
An English nurse goes to rural Ireland, hired to watch over a “miracle” girl who seems to live without eating, but the nurse suspects a hoax. It took me a good long while to get into this book, but in the end, I found it to be very moving. The characters were well drawn. At first, I really didn’t like Lib, the nurse, nor was I supposed to. She was snobbish, judgmental, and dismissive. But as we spend more time with her, we come to see her also as lonely, guarded, a victim of tragedy, and in the end, a person who shows bravery when faced with a difficult moral choice. This story comes down very hard on religion, which wasn’t an issue for me. Although I was sometimes a bit shocked by Lib’s attitude toward the lower-class Catholic Irish she found herself living in close quarters with, I tend to agree with the ultimate stance the novel takes on how harmful religion can be. As always with Donoghue’s historical novels, this was well-researched and strongly evoked its time and place, while adding just a veneer of the nineteenth-century gothic.
When We Were Animals by Joshua Gaylord (2016)
In a small town somewhere in America, when the children reach adolescence, they breach. On the nights of the full moon, they give in fully to instinct and run wild and naked in the streets. Everyone else stays indoors. There is sex, there is violence; anything can happen, and almost everything is allowed. Lumen Fowler, who narrates the story looking back on her teenagehood as a suburban housewife, is a good girl who does not believe she will breach like the others. Is she wrong?Clearly, this story is a literalization of coming of age, of the wild, out-of-control feeling that most of us experience in adolescence. It is also a meditation on whether we are right to suppress our instinctive animal natures as we do. The teenage Lumen is a compelling character, who reads and reasons and struggles with herself. However, the scenes featuring the adult Lumen were the ones I found truly chilling, and those elevated this book for me above yet another coming-of-age story.
The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe by Kij Johnson (2016)
This novella is a response to H. P. Lovecraft, his genius and his deficiencies–in this case, his erasure of women from his work. I have not read the Lovecraft novella that inspired this work, but I didn’t feel it was necessary. Johnson tells a wonderful quest story about an independent, older woman who must travel through the Dreamlands in pursuit of her student, the granddaughter of one of the Old Ones, who has absconded to the Waking World. The writing is really fantastic (much less muddy and confounding than Lovecraft himself), and the female characters are inspiring. A good read.
The Fisherman by John Langan (2016)
After having suffered tragic losses, Abe and Dan take to fishing for consolation. Following a hard winter, Dan suggests fishing at a new place Abe has never heard of: Dutchman’s Creek. On the way there, they stop at a diner for breakfast, where they hear from the cook a long, strange, and unbelievable story about the place. This novel has the story-within-a-story format, not one of my favorite conceits, but it works here because of the old-fashioned style of the storytelling: part Washington Irving, part Herman Melville, part H. P. Lovecraft. Needless to say, Abe and Dan don’t heed the warnings and go on to Dutchman’s Creek, where they encounter something terrible. I can’t say that I completely understood what was happening at the end, but the unusual and horrific imagery of the final scenes more than made up for that. A solid horror tale.
Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood by Trevor Noah (2016)
There were several parts of this memoir that I found laugh-out-loud funny, but this was also a moving account of the relationship between a truly admirable woman and her son, as well as an insightful look at race set against the backdrop of apartheid and South African culture. A good read altogether.
Greener Pastures by Michael Wehunt (2016)
Greener Pastures is a nicely curated collection of weird stories. With only eleven stories, this collection is an ideal length, and each story is distinct from the others. Wehunt’s stories are weird, atmospheric, disturbing rather than scary, with an Appalachian flavor. Yet even though they deal with bizarre subjects–a man changing into a swan, a mountain that bleeds, women falling from the sky–the underlying themes are very familiar, dealing with such core human experiences as loss, grief, longing, and loneliness, and I think that’s what grounds these stories. Wehunt also includes brief story notes, which I always appreciate; I like to know what inspired short stories and why they were written.