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The Best Books of 2016 So Far

Here are the best books of the year so far, as picked by Chicago Review of Books staff—Adam Morgan, Lauren Yamaoka, Timothy Moore, Sara Cutaia, and Lori Rader-Day.

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Believe it or not, 2016 is halfway over. In many respects, it’s been a terrible year. We’ve lost a slew of irreplaceable artists like David Bowie, Prince, Bill Cunningham, Zaha Hadid, and just this weekend, Elie Wiesel. But at least it’s been a great year for books. Here are the best books of the year so far, as picked by Chicago Review of Books staff—Adam Morgan, Lauren Stacks, Timothy Moore, Sara Cutaia, and Lori Rader-Day.

* * *

9781939419569_4ce75Age of Blight by Kristine Ong Muslim
Unnamed Press, January

Age of Blight was the first book I read in 2016, a perfect escape from the longest nights of the year. Over at Electric Literature, I called it “haunting, fearless, and wildly imaginative. In spare, deceptively simple prose, Muslim writes the kind of unpredictable stories you want to re-read the instant you finish. It’s a difficult book to classify; it is ‘literary’ ‘horror,’ ‘science fiction,’ but more than anything, Age of Blight acts as a ruthless look in the mirror.” —Adam Morgan

 


geniThe Lightkeepers by Abby Geni
Counterpoint, January

From my Chicago Review of Books review: “When a nature photographer, Miranda, arrives for a year-long stint to capture the local wildlife, she’s stunned by the surreal nature of the place. ‘I am half-convinced the islands are not rooted at all,’ she says, ‘but move around whenever my back is turned, taking up brand-new positions elsewhere.’ The Lightkeepers is similarly chimeric, constantly shifting from mystery to travelogue to natural horror and beyond. For the first one hundred pages, Geni is content to build tension and atmosphere through pure, distilled prose, forgoing any direct attempts to kickstart the plot. And then, violence. In the end, Geni’s transcendent novel is as merciless, strange, and coldly beautiful as the islands she describes.” —Adam Morgan


9781937512392_dc7cdSquare Wave by Mark de Silva
Two Dollar Radio, February

De Silva’s debut novel has the steepest learning curve of any book on this list, but once you grasp what he’s doing, the payoff is immense. From colonial Sri Lanka to a future, dystopian America—and from weather modification technology to microtonal music—Square Wave is an intellectual thrill-ride. If you find disorienting prose intimidating, here’s de Silva’s reasoning for placing epistemological obstacles in your path. —Adam Morgan


evensonA Collapse of Horses by Brian Evenson
Coffee House Press, February

From my Chicago Review of Books review: “Unanswerable questions and unforgettable images are at the heart of every Brian Evenson story. If you haven’t read any of his fiction yet, you need to get your shit together … His prose is unmistakable, often exploring the darker side of humankind’s subjective, easily confused condition … A Collapse of Horses, is another fascinating, ruthless volume of weird fiction. Like his landmark collection Fugue State, at times the stories feel like a sudden onset of schizophrenia.” —Adam Morgan


9781594634635_4748d

What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours by Helen Oyeyemi
Riverhead, March

When Kelly Link recommends a book, you read that book. And What Is Not Yours did not disappoint! Not that I expected it to, as Helen Oyeyemi has proven herself a great craftsman before. Flirting with the speculative, Oyeyemi weaves stories about living puppets and their puppet masters, old diaries not meant to be opened, ancient libraries, and secret gardens. It’s hands-down my favorite book of the year thus far. —Sara Cutaia

 


9781468312485_d25de Septimania by Johnathan Levi
Overlook Press, April

Septimania blew me away. “Jonathan Levi’s first novel since 1992’s A Guide for the Perplexed won me over in chapter one,” I said back in April. “Thanks to a fateful meeting in St. George’s Church, Whistler Abbey in 1978, a young Cambridge history scholar discovers he is the heir to a secret kingdom with the power to select popes, influence international affairs, and a vast library hidden beneath the hills of Rome. Intellectually fascinating and emotionally powerful, the tale that follows is a poignant meditation on youth, love, myth, history, and quantum theory.” —Adam Morgan


41rNSDwnb0L._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_The Black Maria by Aracelis Girmay
BOA Editions, April

The Black Maria isn’t just the best poetry I’ve read this year, it’s also one of the most powerful and memorable collections I’ve read as an adult. In the words of our own Sanya Noel: “a haunting, blistering, vital examination of the African diaspora from 15th-century slave ships to Neil deGrasse Tyson … More than any other question, The Black Maria forces us to ask ourselves if anything has truly changed [since the slave trade].” —Adam Morgan

 


9781612195148_5ff48The Mirror Thief by Martin Seay
Melville House, May

The different Venices. Three different time periods. 600 pages. Martin Seay’s debut novel is the weirdest, most ambitious thing I’ve read this year. It shouldn’t work, but it does. For every 50 pages, I spent at least an hour on Wikipedia in a desperate attempt to keep up with Seay’s intellect. I failed, of course, but I came away from the book feeling like I’d truly experienced something. —Adam Morgan

Editor’s note: We published a conversation between Seay and Billy Lombardo at Printers Row Lit Fest, including a behind-the-scenes look at the making of The Mirror Thief.


9780765378002_04242 Too Like the Lightning by Ada Palmer
Tor Books, May

Science fiction written in the vernacular of the Enlightenment? Sign me up. In the words of our own Sara Cutaia: “Too Like the Lightning simultaneously dips its toes in the past and soars into the future, bathing in the imaginative possibilities of technology and society, revealing how even the smallest shifts can destabilize a utopia. Bursting with historical and classical allusions, Palmer’s political and social commentary is as astute as one would expect from a scholar. At times, her prose can be daunting, but the reward—a host of fascinating ideas—makes the book well worth the discipline required to finish it.” —Adam Morgan


9780738747620_962a2Quiet Neighbors by Catriona McPhearson
Midnight Ink, May

The latest novel by award-winning mystery author Catriona McPherson is both haunting and haunted. Characters hiding from the chaos of the real world—chaos of their own making, usually—find sanctuary, friendship, love. And since they’re hiding out in a dusty Scottish bookshop full of bookish treasures and mysteries, well, they’re essentially living the booklover’s dream. McPherson has a twisty way with plot and a witty way with phrasing. If you can’t run away from it all this summer, depend on McPherson to take you on a voyage anyway. —Lori Rader-Day


9780345505002_ed86cThe City of Mirrors by Justin Cronin
Ballantine Books, May

When I first took a look at the 2016 publishing calendar, the final volume in Justin Cronin’s postapocalyptic-horror-adventure trilogy was at the top of my to-be-read list. If you loved The Passage but struggled with The Twelve, book three has a lot more in common with the former than the latter. While some critics complained about the villain’s backstory and the flash-forward epilogue, I found both sections quite moving. With The City of Mirrors, Cronin cemented his trilogy as the century’s first truly essential horror epic. —Adam Morgan


9781101947135_dfa2eHomegoing by Yaa Gyasi
Knopf, June

An ambitious debut from 26-year-old Yaa Gyasi, Homegoing was one of this spring’s highly-anticipated releases, complete with a blurb from Ta-Nehisi Coates. It’s a book that lives up to the hype and then some. In a mere 300 pages, Gyasi deftly moves through time and place, spanning 18th-century Africa to modern-day America, and sharing the stories of 14 vibrant, interconnected characters. As if the scope of the book weren’t enough, Gyasi tackles an enormous range of topics: from the African slave trade to mental illness to Alabama’s convict-leasing system and being black in America. Heartbreaking yet lyrical, this is at once an engaging and important novel that should be on the top of your reading list for 2016. —Lauren Stacks


9780812998603_1aa97The Girls by Emma Cline
Random House, June

Alternating between 1960’s California and the present day, The Girls follows Evie Boyd as she becomes entangled, at just 14, with a cult reminiscent of the Manson family. As an adult, she struggles with the trauma of her youth. While many critics focus on the cult and its enigmatic leader, Russell, what I really love about this book is Emma Cline’s deft abilities at writing characters, their relationships, and the different ways we inflict violence and perpetuate misogyny in obvious, but also insidious and heartbreaking ways. The writing is powerful, the story thrilling. It would be a page-turner if I didn’t keep stopping to re-read sentences that wowed me. Believe the hype. —Timothy Moore

2 comments on “The Best Books of 2016 So Far

  1. Pingback: How Brian Evenson Wrote His New Sci-Fi Novella, ‘The Warren’ – Chicago Review of Books

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