Seattle Times book reviewers share their fiction and nonfiction favorites from the past year, from the challenging to the sublime.
The first week of December is one of my favorite times of the year — not because of the holiday buzz, not because of the waning light (definitely not that), but because I get to compile The Seattle Times best-books list.
I’m pleased to report that 2016 was an extraordinary year for fiction, from the challenging (Annie Proulx’s angry doorstop “Barkskins”) to the sublime (Paulette Jiles’ perfect slim novel “News of the World”). Nonfiction provided a crash course in genetics (Siddhartha Mukherjee’s “The Gene”), a memoir of the declining fortunes of poor whites in America (J.D. Vance’s “Hillbilly Elegy”) and biographies that inquire into the fraught nature of creation (Claire Harman’s “Charlotte Brontë: A Fiery Heart”).
Thanks to The Seattle Times’ capable corps of reviewers — they helped me compile this list. And special thanks to my colleague Moira Macdonald, who filled in for me this fall while I took a much-needed break.
“The Throwback Special” by Chris Bachelder (Norton). A group of middle-aged men gather each year at the same hotel to re-create one of the most gruesome football plays in American football history — the 1985 play in which New York Giants linebacker Lawrence Taylor sacked Washington quarterback Joe Theismann, breaking Theismann’s leg in several places and ending his career. This National Book Award finalist in fiction is anthropological in its study of how American males interact, drop-dead hilarious and a wistful look at the things that bind us. — Mary Ann Gwinn
“Imagine Me Gone” by Adam Haslett (Little, Brown). Haslett (“Union Atlantic”) moves with penetrating wit between the points of view of a father, mother, daughter and two sons as he traces a family’s legacy of mental illness. Love, concern and unexpected comedy prove as central to his tale as exasperation and dread, making this a novel that’s stayed in my mind like no other has this year. — Michael Upchurch
“News of the World” by Paulette Jiles (William Morrow). The life of an aging ex-army captain is changed when he agrees to escort an orphan girl across Texas in this fictional recounting of what happened to pioneer children who were captured by Indians and later returned to their former lives. Jiles, a poet turned novelist, is an exquisite writer. — Ellen Emry Heltzel
“Mercury” by Margot Livesey(Harper). A novel as fast-moving and slippery as the element, “Mercury” uses an obsession about a horse as the catalyst for a probing study of family bonds, friendship, loyalty, duty and the shady difference between right and wrong. — Melinda Bargreen
“The Last One” by Alexandra Oliva(Ballantine). Seattle writer Oliva makes an impressive debut with her first novel, in which a young woman competes in what appears to be a grim and realistic reality-TV show. As the story unfolds, we don’t know what is “real” and what is a very well-executed television program. Oliva is one to watch. — Doug Knoop
“Thomas Jefferson Dreams of Sally Hemings” by Stephen O’Connor(Farrar, Straus and Giroux). In this extraordinary work of imagination, O’Connor re-creates the tormented relationship between Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings, his slave and common-law wife, using every literary form going — Hemings’ imagined diary, magical realism, actual excerpts from writings of Jefferson’s former slaves, and the voice of the dispassionate historian. A brilliant, unsettling book about power and its abuse. — Mary Ann Gwinn
“Commonwealth” by Ann Patchett(Harper). Patchett’s semi-autobiographical novel of two families who are torn apart by an adulterous affair and spend the rest of their lives recovering is clear-eyed, funny and ultimately hopeful. — Mary Ann Gwinn
“Barkskins” by Annie Proulx(Scribner). Marred by a simplistic view of history and the timber industry, Proulx otherwise plays to her strengths, with colorful characters and graceful descriptions of the landscape in this woodsman’s version of manifest destiny. — Ellen Emry Heltzel
“Lovecraft Country” by Matt Ruff(Harper). Monsters and rogue sheriffs take turns terrorizing African American protagonists in this reprise of 1950s racism; Seattle author Ruff’s accounts of haunted houses, carnivorous beaches, and cheap, conniving wizards are sharply humorous, authentically voiced, and weird enough for any fan of the pulp fiction they spring from. – Nisi Shawl
“Swing Time” by Zadie Smith (Penguin Press). Smith’s latest is a sprawling, rewarding study of the friendship arc of two biracial, working-class London girls with a shared love of dance. — Misha Berson
“Daredevils” by Shawn Vestal(Penguin). Vestal’s gripping coming-of-age and bursting-out-of-Mormonism novel is set in rural 1970s Idaho. His young protagonists, inspired by daredevil Evel Knievel, launch a risky, fast-paced flight of their own for freedom, in an arcing trajectory toward self-discovery. It’s a wild and rewarding ride. — Tim McNulty
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“The Underground Railroad” by Colson Whitehead (Doubleday). Whitehead’s novel, winner of this year’s National Book Award for fiction, brilliantly re-imagines the fabled network of escape routes for runaway slaves in the American South as an actual, subterranean rail system, in a moving tale of brutal oppression and the quest for freedom. — Tyrone Beason
“Ninety-Nine Stories of God” by Joy Williams (Tin House). A collection of fiction for our fractured times from a modern master — funny, profound and redemptive. Williams’ God believes in reincarnation because “it explains so much,” and wants to compete in a demolition derby. — Jeff Baker
“Another Brooklyn” by Jacqueline Woodson(Amistad). Woodson’s first book for adults in 20 years uses memory fragments that land with the concentrated power of poetry to tell the story of four girlfriends in 1970s Brooklyn and how their bonds unraveled. — Claudia Rowe
“Once They Were Hats: In Search of the Mighty Beaver” by Frances Backhouse(ECW Press). A deep dive into the world of — and an appreciative “attaboy” for — this truly busy mammal, tracing its history from flourishing to nearly extinct to triumphant, tree-chomping return. — Melissa Davis
“The Earth is Weeping” by Peter Cozzens (Knopf). This detailed account of the United States’ 19th-century wars against Native Americans provides historical background for the passions aroused today over the Dakota Access Pipeline at Standing Rock. — John B. Saul
“Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life” by Ruth Franklin (Liveright). Jackson, author of the horror classics “The Lottery” and “The Haunting of Hill House,” showed an astonishing range, publishing eerie fables of scapegoating and loneliness as well as domestic humor, all while caring for four children and an intellectually detached husband. This biography examines her divided soul and is an elegy for a talent snuffed out too soon. — Mary Ann Gwinn
“Charlotte Brontë: A Fiery Heart” by Claire Harman(Knopf). There have been many biographies of Charlotte Brontë over the years, but Harman’s had this dyed-in-the-wool Brontë fan mesmerized: the details of life at Haworth are told with an almost cinematic vividness, and the excerpts from Brontë’s recently published letters add a moving intimacy. — Moira Macdonald
“The Pigeon Tunnel” by John le Carré (Viking). This incisive and witty memoir, by the man who long ago set the gold standard for modern espionage novelists, is a glittering treasure chest of great stories — about the making of le Carré’s books as well as his own extraordinary career as a British spy at the height of the Cold War. — Adam Woog
“Landmarks” by Robert Macfarlane (Penguin Books). Simply one of the best nature history books I have read in years, “Landmarks” is a stunning paean to the beauty of language, the craft of writing and the power of nature. It is truly a book that will force you to rethink your relationship to the world around you. — David B. Williams
“The Gene: An Intimate History” by Siddhartha Mukherjee (Scribner). This in-depth examination of genes and genetics, by the oncologist-turned-author of “The Emperor of All Maladies,” is many things — a natural, social and medical history, as well as a predictor of humanity’s future once the ability to manipulate genes is fully accomplished. A challenging, scary and necessary book. — Mary Ann Gwinn
“On Trails — An Exploration” by Robert Moor(Simon & Schuster). An Appalachian Trail thru-hiker explores his fascination for established paths — why they form, evolve and persist or fade — by traveling from Botswana to Borneo and beyond for answers. — Irene Wanner
“The Nordic Theory of Everything: In Search of a Better Life” by Anu Partanen(Harper). Highly annoying, to the point where I almost wanted to smack the self-satisfied author, this book nonetheless made me think harder than anything else I’ve read this year about how America could do better for its people in the realms of education, health care, workplace possibilities and … well, attitude. — Melinda Bargreen
“Valiant Ambition” by Nathaniel Philbrick (Viking). History at its most compelling: Philbrick tells the fascinating story of Washington’s long struggle to win the Revolutionary War, of the fractious young Republic and of Benedict Arnold’s surprisingly central role in it all. — Kevin Hamilton
“Midnight in Broad Daylight” by Pamela Rotner Sakamoto(Harper). Sakamoto blends meticulous research with radiant storytelling to relate one family’s harrowing experiences during World War II, both in America and near ground zero in Hiroshima, Japan. — David Takami
“The End of Karma” by Somini Sengupta (W.W. Norton). New York Times correspondent Sengupta’s new offering, a beautifully written memoir and sociopolitical study, chronicles not only the many challenges that confront India’s young people, but also how they attempt to push past their karma or destiny and rewrite it. — Bharti Kirchner
“The Civil Wars of Julia Ward Howe” by Elaine Showalter(Simon & Schuster). This biography of the author of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” demonstrates that perseverance against oppression is an ongoing effort that continues from one generation to the next. Howe’s life story provides lessons about a national history that has never been less than complex. — Barbara Lloyd McMichael
“Hillbilly Elegy” by J.D. Vance (Harper). Before Nov. 8, Vance’s account of his family’s stop-and-start mobility out of Appalachia was the memoir of the year. At the dawn of the Age of Trump, it’s essential. — Jeff Baker