As a literary agent, I spend a good bit of time reading. When I find a gem, a book that stands out, I can’t wait to share it. The books that cross my desk include fiction and non-fiction, self-help, history, and memoir. This list includes my favorites of 2016, and a few I would skip if I had to do it again.
A Great Reckoning, Louise Penny – While at Book Expo America, I was privileged to hear Louise Penny speak. Penny is the author of 12 novels featuring Chief Inspector Armand Gamache. I wasn’t familiar with her work, but I was intrigued by her writing journey. In her first book, Still Life Penny uses a painting and an art competition to introduce us to the town of Three Pines. In her latest book A Great Reckoning (2016), Penny returns to Three Pines where a map discovered in a renovation may hold the key to a long-unresolved murder. Highly entertaining, infused with compassion for the people who populate the village of Three Pines, and guided by the ethics and wit of Inspector Gamache, Penny’s books won’t disappoint fans of police procedurals or mysteries.
The Orphan Mother, Robert Hicks
As a fan of Robert Hicks’ first novel, The Widow of the South, I was thrilled when the follow-up novel The Orphan Mother came out in September. Fair warning, put aside a long weekend for this book because once you start reading, you won’t be able to put it down. Set in the aftermath of the Civil War, at the beginning of Reconstruction Mariah Reddick, a former slave shows us the struggles of those who tried to navigate the issues left unresolved by the Civil War and those that arose from it. In The Orphan Mother people are forced to confront their past while navigating an uncertain future. Hicks is a master storyteller. He draws vivid and compelling characters and tells carefully researched and compelling stories set in the deep south. The Orphan Mother is the unforgettable story of one woman's heroic struggle in the face of overwhelming adversity and the undeniable strength of a mother's love that will stick with you long after you close the book.
The Underground Railroad, Colson Whitehead
Winner of the National Book Award and a New York Times bestseller, The Underground Railroad has been called “a magnificent tour de force” chronicling a young slave's adventures as she makes a desperate bid for freedom in the antebellum South.
A slave on a cotton plantation in Georgia, life is hard for all the slaves, but it is especially bad for Cora. As she approaches womanhood, she knows that life will become increasingly fraught and dangerous for her. After Caesar, a slave from Virginia arrives, he tells her about the Underground Railroad and they hatch a plan to escape. Their plans change after Cora is forced to kill a young white boy who tries to capture her.
Rather than a metaphor, Whitehead’s Underground Railroad is a secret network of tracks and tunnels that operates beneath the Southern soil. Just as they believe they've reached safety in South Carolina, they learn Ridgeway, a relentless slave catcher, is close on their heels. Forced to flee again, Cora embarks on a journey that takes her from state to state in search of freedom.
Whitehead brilliantly re-creates the unique terrors for black people in the pre–Civil War era, his narrative seamlessly weaving the saga of America from the brutal importation of Africans to the unfulfilled promises of the present day. The Underground Railroad is a tale of one woman’s ferocious will to escape the horrors of bondage and a shattering, powerful meditation on the history we all share.
Truly, Madly, Guilty, Liane Moriarity
When searching for comparative titles for a women’s fiction book we were considering representing, I came across Liane Moriarity author of Truly, Madly, Guilty. Moriarity is a genius at taking everyday life and reflecting it back to us in surprising and thoughtful ways. Her characters are engaging, her storylines provoking, and her writing is fast-paced and funny. We see ourselves in her stories and our friends and families in her characters. My guilty secret is that after reading Truly, Madly, Guilty I binged on Moriarity’s other novels.
The Forgetting Time, Sharon Guskin
I almost missed out on this book because the first chapter is awful. What a shame that the editor didn’t recommend ditching an unnecessary and confusing opening chapter. I'm glad I stuck it out because what followed was one of the most imaginative and provocative books I read last year.
The story focuses on a single mother and her son. The boy has a vivid imagination that at times borders on disturbing. The older he gets, the more eccentric his behavior becomes. At first convinced her son Noah was precocious and creative, Janie is forced to seek professional help when Noah’s preschool director threatens to remove him from school for telling disturbing stories about being shot and held underwater. After being told her son is exhibiting early signs of bi-polar disorder, Janie seeks another explanation for Noah’s behavior. She finds doctor Jerome Anderson, a professor of psychology, who he threw everything away to pursue an obsession: the stories of children who remembered past lives.
Anderson has spent his life searching for a case that would finally prove his theory correct. When he hears about Noah, he thinks he may have found that case. Desperate to find answers Janie agrees to work with Anderson to find Noah’s family from a past life. Gorgeously written and fearlessly provocative, Sharon Guskin’s debut novel explores the lengths we will go for our children. It examines the regrets we have at the end of our lives and hopes we harbor at the beginning, and everything in between.
Bettyville, George Hodgeman
At Aspen Summer Words, in July, I heard George Hodgman read from his book Bettyville and his story hit home. My husband Kim and George have a lot in common. Both gave up careers, lives, and parts of themselves to take care of their mothers. Both of their mothers had dementia. Both thankfully remembered who their sons were, but struggled to remember who they had been.
We read the book out loud. If you haven't done this since you were a kid, I highly recommend it. Near the end of the book, we came to a passage about cinnamon rolls, the Amish, and bonnets and we laughed until we had tears streaming down our faces. Gut laughter. As readers, we need these passages filled with laughter to soften the tears that come when we read the about the end of those whose stories we have come to love.
Memoir is tough. Writers often write to work through things, as therapy, or because have a compelling story they need to tell. But readers need more. We need to be entertained and to learn something. I learned so much from George and Betty. I learned about the beauty and the hardness of a Missouri life. I learned that the secrets we carry and the conversations we leave unspoken can do us damage and hold us in a half-life. I learned that we are often harder on ourselves than anyone else and certainly more than we need to be. I learned that we are not the only ones doing the best we can to help others make their way into the sweet-here-after. I learned that as difficult as those times are, they are punctuated with moments of love and recognition and yes laughter. And I learned that there are good men, the Kims and Georges, who step up in ways that are beyond words. And for all that I'm am one grateful reader.
Half a Life, Darin Strauss
In his senior year in high school, Darin Strauss accidently killed a girl. One minute he was driving along, a happy, carefree teenager with summer plans, heading off to college and the next he was a young man sharing his life with a young woman whose life was extinguished too soon. Beautifully written, tragically unfortunate, but ultimately uplifting Half a Life is a book worth reading and passing along. Any of us can find ourselves in the wrong place at the wrong time. It is how we choose to live after life happens that makes our life worth living both for ourselves and those whose lives we touch.
Dear Data, Georgia Lupi and Stephanie Posavec
I’m a bit of a geek. I love data and well-conceived infographics. I am a huge fan of letters, the hand written kind. Notes on paper, like the ones we used to pass in school. And post cards. Facebook, Instagram, and email all have their place, but there is something about scribbles on a page that brings a story to life.
Dear Data reproduces in pinpoint detail the full year's set of cards, front and back, providing a remarkable portrait of two artists connected by their attention to the details of their lives—including complaints, distractions, phone addictions, physical contact, and desires. These details illuminate the lives of two remarkable young women and inspires us to map our lives, including specific suggestions on what data to draw and how. Dear Data is a captivating and unique book for designers, artists, correspondents, friends, and lovers.