Saturday, December 17, 2016

Five (or seven) GOOD things to come out of 2016



Since 2016 has been such a rotten year in general, it is always nice to find something positive to focus on. One bright light I can give you is my "Top 5 Favorite Books of 2016." As in past years, it seems that once again, I need to squeeze in more than just five. This year, I have two books tied for second place, which is a bit of a surprise - but you'll understand that better when you read below. I'm also going to put two books in my fifth place spot, since I cannot decide which of these I liked better, so I can't relegate either one to the honorable mention slot (for which I have nothing this year). That said, this is quite an eclectic collection of books, and I can assure you that the pleasure I got out of each of these books also differed one from the other. Let the countdown begin… (links in the titles are to my full reviews of these books).


#5 - Fall of Poppies by various authors / Little Nothing by Marissa Silver (tie)


Further to what I noted above, I cannot think of two books that differed more than these two. Fall of Poppies is a collection of short stories, each one written by a different author, that center on November 11, 1918 - the end of the First World War. Every one of these stories is an absolute gem, and not only was I able to recall why I love the writing of authors I already knew (such as Heather Webb and Jessica Brockmole), but I also got the opportunity to discover new historical fiction writers to fall in love with. Their various writing styles combined with different approaches to the subject matter was what made me give this collection a full five stars.

Little Nothing by Marissa Silver is one of the more beautifully written books I've ever read. In this book, Silver brings us a story that blends fantasy with reality into a hybrid fable of the weird and the wonderful, of loss and of love and so much more. As someone who generally shies away from the fantasy genre, that Silver succeeded in getting me to put this book on this list is a huge achievement.

#4 - The Whole Town's Talking by Fannie Flagg


It’s a Fannie Flagg book; need I say more? Seriously, this is a real charmer of a novel, which has an interesting twist. On the one hand, we revisit many of Flagg's characters from several of her other novels, and thereby discover the full history of the town of Elmwood Springs from its humble beginnings to present day and beyond. On the other hand, Flagg innovates with this book by adding a touch of unexpected magical realism to the story, with conversations between deceased residents in their town cemetery. This may sound slightly morbid on the surface, but I can assure you that Flagg's naiveté of language combined with dollops of humor and her enchanting characters makes this into something quite magical. There's also a lesson here about the state of rural America today, which I wish more people could listen to (even if it does sound somewhat political). No wonder we've seen this noted on other top lists this year.

#3 - My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout


This is another one of those books showing up on best-of 2016 lists, including on the Goodreads shortlist for best book of the year in the fiction category. In this story about relationships and self-understanding, Strout makes us both feel and see her characters. More importantly, after you've finished reading, I believe you'll feel you really know and understand them. However, what really made me love this book is how she did all that with a surface of simplicity that belies the complexity that lies seamlessly underneath.

#2 - Britt-Marie was Here / And Every Morning the Way Home Gets Longer and Longer by Fredrik Backman (tie)


Here's your double-whammy from the amazing Fredrik Backman, who got my #1 spot in 2014 and 2015 (and he came devilishly close to achieving that this year as well). His first publication this year, Britt-Marie was Here, is the story of one character from his novel of last year, My Grandmother Sends her Regrets and Apologises (aka My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She's Sorry). While the previous book (where Britt-Marie is a minor character), has some elements of fantasy (mostly in the minds of his protagonists, Elsa and her grandmother), this story is solidly set in reality throughout. True to form, you won't find a page where you one kind of emotion bubbles up, making you smile, chuckle, guffaw or try to suppress that lump in your throat.

No, Backman didn't publish two full-length novels this year; this second one is a novella, whose title is almost longer than the book itself. In this story, Backman returns to using those somewhat fantastical/magical elements of connection between his protagonists that he used in My Grandmother. This time, he takes us along a journey between Noah, and his grandfather during his last days before his death. Yes, you had better buy some extra tissues before you read this slim work. (By the way, if you happen to be into betting, you would be wise to put your money on his upcoming novel Beartown getting onto my top five books of 2017 already.)

#1 - Flight of Dreams by Ariel Lawhon


Now you know that any book that kicks Backman off the #1 spot (with two chances to grab it, no less) MUST be amazing, and I promise you, this book is exactly that. The premise here is that the real reason why the Hindenburg burst into flames on May 6, 1937 is still somewhat of a mystery. Ariel Lawhon gives us an amazingly exciting work of historical fiction, employing the flight's actual manifest, to build a cast of fascinating characters and invent a new theory of the accident. Lawhon says in her afterward that she's "desperately proud" of this novel, and I'm utterly confounded that this novel hasn't shown up on any of the best of 2016 book lists I've seen. Personally, I think this is the finest piece of historical fiction writing I've ever read. Therefore, this is my little correction of that mistake. Brava, Ms. Lawhon, and congratulations: you not only gave us a spellbinding novel, but you also gave us my favorite book of the year!


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