The year 2016 is quickly coming to a close, and it’s time to reflect on all of the reading I’ve done this year with my list of the most compelling books of 2016. These are books that long after I finished reading, I find myself still thinking about them.
Jeffrey Toobin, whose book was the basis for the FX smash TV series The People v. O.J. Simpson, turned his attention to the Patty Hearst kidnapping in American Heiress. Toobin brilliantly immerses the reader in the mid-1970s as he tells of wealthy heiress Hearst’s kidnapping by a group of ragtag political extremists, and what happened when she became an ally to their violent cause.
Mysteries and thrillers were tops on my reading list, something different for me. Chris Bohjalian’s novel The Guest Room shows how easily one mistake can turn the life of a happily married father into a nightmare. You can feel a pain in the pit of your stomach as his life unravels after a bachelor party, and the ending is shocking.
|The Guest Room|
Lisa Lutz’s The Passenger opens with a woman’s husband lying dead at the bottom of the stairs and her on the run. We discover she was already on the run for something else and when she is saved by a stranger, their lives become entwined. You’ll hold your breath the entire time you’re reading.
Irish writer Tana French’s latest Dublin Murder Squad mystery The Trespasser is the best of the series so far, with a protagonist, detective Antoinette Conway, who is tenacious as she maneuvers her way in an all-male environment to solve a murder that hits close to the squad.
Much of the fiction I read this year was just outstanding, and emotional. Caroline Leavitt’s Cruel Beautiful World, set in the early 1970's, follows a 16-year-old girl who runs away with her teacher, and how that affects her sister and Iris, the woman who raised them. Iris’ story moved me most, and these characters are unforgettable.
|Cruel Beautiful World|
Louise Erdrich’s LaRose starts out heartbreaking, as a man accidentally kills his best friend’s young son and, following his tribal tradition, gives his young son to the grieving parents as amends. This beautifully sad book is filled with the fascinating characters affected by this act, and the writing is devastating.
Jennifer Haigh’s Heat and Light tackles the topic of fracking and how it impacts the lives of a small Pennsylvania town where the factory work is gone and people are torn between saving their environment and making enough money to survive. Haigh’s brilliant novel especially resonates in today’s atmosphere.
|Heat and Light|
Richard Fifeld’s The Flood Girls is set in a small town as well, in Montana. Rachel comes home to make amends for all the trouble she caused and befriends her teenage neighbor, a young man who doesn’t fit in. Again, the characters here are so well-drawn, and the ending is just shattering.
|The Flood Girls|
Deanna Lynn Sletten’s Finding Libbie is a novel that didn’t get a lot of attention, but should have. When a young woman finds a wedding photo of her father with a woman not her mother, she sets out to find out what happened to the bride. It’s about first love, the difficulties of marriage, and the heartbreak of mental illness and addiction.
Anthony Marra’s The Tsar of Love and Techno perfectly places all of the pieces of the puzzle in a story that spans a century, telling how a 19th-century Russian painting affects a variety of people. Given the current interest in Russia, this one is a must-read, and Marra is a genius storyteller.
|The Tsar of Love and Techno|
And finally, the book that everyone (including Oprah) has on their list: “The Underground Railroad” by Colson Whitehead. I don’t normally like books that everyone loves, but this one is incredible. Cora's story, a slave who runs away on a literal underground railroad, is just one punch to the gut after another. Every American should read it.
|The Underground Railroad|
Diane La Rue is a member of the National Book Critics Circle and blogs about books at http://bookchickdi.blogspot.com. You can follow her on Twitter@bookchickdi, and she can be emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org.