2016 has been a delicious year for reading, a state of perfect bibliophilic equilibrium wherein the “read” stack and the “to-be-read” stack have stayed even most of the time. Here are my favorites of the year so far, with helpful links to Indiebound so you can buy them at a bookstore near you:
(1) DEAR COMMITTEE MEMBERS, Julie Schumacher
An epistolary novel that consists of a series of hilarious and brutally honest letters of recommendation written by a cantankerous English professor at a small, second-rate liberal arts college who’s painfully aware that his best writing is two decades behind him. In dozens of what are supposed to be boilerplate missives, he can’t help digressing to lament the sacrifice of the English Department on the altar of the STEM fields, infuriate his ex-wife and two ex-girlfriends with inappropriate overtures and reminiscences, suffer foolish students not at all, but endearingly (though usually wrong-headedly) go all out for those few students in his creative writing seminar who, despite their propensity to write about vampires, bloodshed, and drug-fueled sex, demonstrate real talent. A great character, and a funny, poignant read!
(2) MONSTERS: A LOVE STORY, Liz Kay
Stacey is an emotionally stifled poet whose husband has suddenly died and left her a single mother in Omaha. She doesn’t know how she feels about her husband’s death, because she’s never dared look too closely at any of her feelings. She’s getting through each day with alcohol and gallows humor until she meets Tommy DeMarco, a handsome A-list actor who wants to make a movie out of her novel-in-verse. Tommy has his own issues, which manifest in a lot of sleeping around and an inability to emotionally commit to anybody. Against their better judgment, Tommy and Stacey begin an affair that is the worst thing for each of them, but might also turn out to be the best thing for both of them. Watching these two snarky, damaged, and flawed people grope their way through a twisted, believably raw, yet ultimately rootable relationship was just the thing my summer needed.
(3) EVERYTHING I NEVER TOLD YOU, Celeste Ng
What a gorgeous, harrowing book. Beautifully written, profoundly felt, with characters deeply flawed yet also trying so hard to be good that it’s impossible not to love them. From its chilling opening lines — Lydia is dead. But they don’t know this yet. — this is an intimate exploration of a family whose 16-year-old daughter has just drowned in the neighborhood lake in what the police say was a suicide (but was it?). The family is an interracial one in the 1970s, when Chinese Americans were viewed with suspicion and even disgust, so the story explores this experience as well as the stifling effect of sexism on ambitious women who felt trapped in their own families and how that played out in how they raised their daughters. There’s a lot going on here, and Ng’s writing carries it easily.
(4) WE NEVER ASKED FOR WINGS, Vanessa Diffenbaugh
In her second book, The Language of Flowers author Vanessa Diffenbaugh describes the complicated love that binds a young unwed mother and the two children she struggles to raise even as she herself tries (and fails, at least at first) to grow up. As in her first book, Diffenbaugh depicts parenting as a conscious choice, not an accident of reproduction, and a difficult one at that, but ultimately rewarding. Set in a forgotten, impoverished community of illegal immigrants near San Francisco, the book puts its flawed protagonist through the wringer, but it’s ultimately about hope, second chances, and finding strength you didn’t know you had.
(5) SARONG PARTY GIRLS, Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan
In Jazzy, Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan’s lively, sassy narrator, a cultural phenomenon finds its voice: the young, status-obsessed Singaporean women who roam Singapore’s glitzy nightclub scene in spike-heeled swarms, bent on snagging the ultimate trophy, a white, ex-pat husband. Jazzy is determined that she and her two fellow “sarong party girls” will snag their “ang mohs” before they age out at the horrifying age of 28. But what starts out as a fun romp through hilariously over-the-top nightclubs deepens as the book goes along, as Jazzy begins to question what it really means to be a woman in Singapore, and faces her own hedonism with an honest eye. It’s also written entirely in Singlish, a singsong distillation of English, Chinese, Malay and other languages that — don’t worry — is easy to read. I loved this book: it’s fresh, smart, sneakily heartwarming, and unlike anything else out there.
(6) JUNE, Miranda Beverly-Whittemore
This is such a great, rewarding read. Told in two interwoven narratives, one in the present and one in 1955, the story weaves a tale of heartbreak and the redemptive power of family that’s full of unexpected twists and reveals. In the past, 18-year-old June is about to marry a man she barely knows in a small Ohio town that becomes the fallback shooting location for a movie starring the handsome, Cary Grant-esque Jack Montgomery, and shares with him a brief, doomed passion. Sixty years later, June’s granddaughter Cassie inherits the decaying mansion where June once lived — and, to her surprise, the entire fortune of Jack Montgomery, whose will claims her father as his previously unacknowledged son with June. Soon Jack’s daughter Tate, a famous actress in her own right, shows up with her entourage to demand a DNA test. Complications ensue, and Cassie winds up trapped in the house not only with Tate, her man Friday and her PA, but Tate’s half-sister, all of them working through complicated histories both familial and romantic.
I hope this gives you some great ideas — after all, there are still two weeks left of summer!
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