2016 has been a good year for fiction and short story collections, and I’ve made the most of it by reading almost 100 fiction titles this year. It probably helped that I attended three different book festivals around the state in the past several months (San Antonio, Kingwood, and the state festival in Austin) because festivals often bunch three or four authors into single sessions, ensuring that attendees are exposed to writers and books of which they may have otherwise never heard.
2016 Fiction Top Ten
1. A Friend of Mr. Lincoln – Stephen Harrigan – Abraham Lincoln is one of the best-known presidents in the history of the United States, so most people are familiar with the story of his life. They know about the poverty of Lincoln’s boyhood, the prodigious strength he developed as a teen, his debate skills, his presidency during the Civil War, and his tragic end. The most common gap in most peoples’ Lincoln biography is the time during which he was a young lawyer and aspiring Whig politician – the 1830s and 1840s. Stephen Harrigan’s novel, A Friend of Mr. Lincoln spans precisely this period of the young Lincoln’s life. Harrigan recreates a well-meaning, but flawed, young Lincoln in the process of deciding what kind of man he wanted to be.
2. News of the World – Paulette Jiles – What could possibly be more intriguing a main character in a book about Reconstruction Era Texas than a seventy-year-old retired Army captain who makes his living traveling the vast state as a “professional reader” of newspapers? Perhaps a ten-year-old girl who has spent the last four years of her life as a captive of the band of Kiowa who butchered her parents and little sister in front of her would do it. And then, if you have these two characters cross paths, as Paulette Jiles does in News of the World, you have the makings of one of the most remarkable plots of the year.
3. I Will Send Rain – Rae Meadows – It has not rained on the Bell farm in almost three months. Samuel Bell, his wife Annie, and their two children have never seen a drought like this one, but unlike some of their neighbors who have already abandoned their own farms, the Bells are determined to hang on until the rains return. Samuel and Annie tell themselves that it cannot possibly last much longer – but both know that if next year’s growing season is anything like this year’s they will end up dead broke and homeless. And that’s when things really go bad.
4. LaRose – Louise Erdrich – It is difficult to imagine anything more devastating to a man than accidentally killing his best friend’s only son, but Landreaux Iron does just that when the little boy somehow manages to get between Landreaux and the elk at which he has just taken a shot. But according to Ojibwe tribal custom there is a way for the Iron family to recompense Dusty Ravich’s parents for their loss: all the Irons have to do is give LaRose, their youngest son and Dusty’s best friend, to Pete and Nola Ravich to raise as their own. And that’s what they do.
5. The Underground Railroad – Colson Whitehead – From what I understand, there is some controversy about Colson Whitehead’s decision to fashion his novel about the Underground Railroad into a one that fits firmly into the alternate history genre rather than to write a more traditional piece of historical fiction on the subject. Frankly, that is precisely what drew me to the book in the first place. I have found that novels of alternate history, as opposed to more traditional historical fiction, often reveal the more essential truths about motivations, emotions, and what was really happening behind the scenes. Whitehead’s novel is no exception. He artfully uses the alternate history genre to hammer home the harsh realities of one of the most brutal experiences in human history: slavery. In the process, he spares no one, be they black, or be they white.
6. Underground Airlines – Ben H. Winters – Underground Airlines is set in the present day but Winters alerts readers early on with the insertion of a striking United States map that things are just a little bit twisted in this version of the present day world. Three things about this map are very, very different from the one that is so familiar people around the world: Texas, one of the most recognizable state-shapes on the map, is labeled as “Republic of Texas (Disputed); there is a color-coded legend identifying “Slave States” and “Free States;” and four states are clearly shaded in as slave-holding states. The four slave states are Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and Carolina (the Carolinas having merged into one state) and, for obvious reasons, the rest of the country refers to them as the “Hard Four.”
7. Work Like Any Other – Virginia Reeves – The novel, set in 1920s rural Alabama, tells of an electricity visionary whose dream of electrifying the family farm his wife inherited inadvertently destroys two families, one of them his own. The novel is filled with haunting characters that suffer greatly because of the actions of one man. None of them is perfect – far from it – but they need each other if they are to survive what has happened to them. The ultimate question they all have to answer now is how willing they are to forgive Roscoe Martin – and themselves – for what happened.
8. Fields Where They Lay – Timothy Hallinan – As Fields Where They Lay opens, Christmas is just days away and Junior’s worst nightmare has come true. He is spending all of his normal waking hours – and many others he would much prefer to be asleep – inside the Shopping Mall from Hell. The mall has already lost all its anchor stores, much of its third floor is locked up tight, and most of the businesses still able to keep the doors open are just hoping to hang on long enough to bank a few Christmas sales dollars before calling it quits in January. Even worse, Junior has been forced to listen to the same recording of a “The Little Drummer Boy” so many times that he has to look in a mirror every so often to see if his ears are bleeding.
9. The Jealous Kind – James Lee Burke – Thanks to a combination of selective memory, old movies and television shows, and iconic musical memories, we tend to think of the 1950s as a simpler, safer time that went by too quickly. That’s as true for those of us who actually lived through the decade as it is for those of who simply wish they had. I doubt, however, that Hackberry Holland’s grandson, Aaron Holland Broussard, would agree. Aaron, the latest addition to James Lee Burke’s Holland family tree series (and the main character and narrator of The Jealous Kind), sees the decade differently from the vantage point of his Houston neighborhood.
10. Hag-Seed – Margaret Atwood – Margaret Atwood’s Hag-Seed is the fourth book in the Hogarth Shakespeare series that began in October 2015. Crown Publishing has invited a group of notable novelists each to retell one of Shakespeare’s classic plays as a Shakespeare-inspired novel in their own style, and Atwood’s Hag-Seed is based upon Shakespeare’s The Tempest. Atwood has cleverly insured that even those readers unfamiliar with The Tempest will recognize the connections between Shakespeare’s plot and her own modernized version of it by making her main character a formerly successful theater director who now spends his time teaching a literacy class at a local prison. Felix, that director, has his class perform one of Shakespeare’s plays each year as a way of encouraging them to read and study on their own – and this year they are doing The Tempest.
(So there you have it, the Book Chase Fiction Top 10 for 2016. I do reserve the right to modify the list if one of the 2016 books I will be reading between now and the end of the year knocks me off my feet with its sheer awesomeness – but that is unlikely to happen.)