The best books of 2016 (so far)
We're only five months into 2016, but before the summer beach reads and big fall releases pile up, here are some of the best books of the year — so far.
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"What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours" by Helen Oyeyemi
At 31, Oyeymi is something of a literary prodigy: She wrote her first novel while still in high school in England. She's published five more books since then. Her latest, a short story collection, was hailed by NPR as "flawless."
"It's another masterpiece from an author who seems incapable of writing anything that's less than brilliant," the review said. The stories in the collection all center on keys, and toy with fairy tale tropes in inventively twisted ways.
There is a secret library, an abandoned baby and unsettling, possibly possessed puppets, but Oyeyemi treats even the most fantastical elements with grounded emotion.
"The Association of Small Bombs" by Karan Mahajan
News of bombs exploding in markets and stadiums and busy streets seems to pop up every day, but Mahajan's novel picks up where the headlines leave off. Set in Delhi, the novel begins with the death of two young brothers in a crowded marketplace — victims of a small bomb left by a radical group.
The boys' close friend, Mansoor, survives, but Mahajan traces the difficult path set out for him in the bomb's aftermath. He also follows the brothers' grieving parents — and the bomb-maker himself.
"Smart, devastating, unpredictable, and enviably adept in its handling of tragedy and its fallout," Fiona Maazel wrote in The New York Times Book Review. "If you enjoy novels that happily disrupt traditional narratives — about grief, death, violence, politics — I suggest you go out and buy this one. Post haste."
"Shelter" by Jung Yun
Spare and suspenseful, "Shelter" introduces readers to a young, mixed-race family, the Chos, who find themselves underwater in their mortgage and their marriage. This post-recession novel peels back the layers of emotional damage that the financial crisis wrought. And although Kyung and Gillian are raising a beloved son, the shadows of their own childhoods are ever-present.
When Kyung's parents must move in with the young family, the deep wounds of his childhood — and questions about his own ability to be a good parent — flare up. Yun offers glimpses of family secrets as if a searchlight has illuminated them briefly, but as the novel continues, those secrets are fully exposed.
"Mr. Splitfoot" by Samantha Hunt
"Mr. Splitfoot" is an eerie and electrifying read — mixing modern and gothic, and blurring the line between the living and the dead. The book follows Nat and Ruth, two foster children eager to escape the grasp of their fanatically religious caretaker. Their ticket out of the home is talking to the dead: They make money passing messages from the deceased to the grieving population of upstate New York.
The book's parallel story line is set decades later, when Ruth's pregnant niece sets out on foot for a cross-state journey that leads her toward a mystery in the woods. Even if the supernatural is not your cup of tea, the frenetic style of "Mr. Splitfoot" will sweep you up in the book's wildly unraveling reality.
"13 Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl" by Mona Awad
Awad's novel follows Lizzie from an unhappy teenager to an adult with an identity crisis: Even as Lizzie loses weight to escape others' torments, she stumbles into new levels of despair. The book is split into 13 distinct portraits of Lizzie over the years, as she battles her weight and her own insecurities. The darkly comic book isn't afraid to shock and humiliate.
Awad said that even using the word "fat" came with baggage. "I knew it was a charged term but that is why I put it on the cover of the book," she says. "Because I wanted to unpack it, and I wanted to challenge it, and I wanted to complicate it. "
"Version Control" by Dexter Palmer
This is more of a book with wild science than a science fiction book. Yes, there's a time machine — but Philip, the physicist who invented it, would prefer you call it by its proper name: a causality violation device.
While Philip flounders in his career, dismissed by his colleagues, his wife Rebecca has started to notice there's just something off with the world. Her co-workers at the dating service call center aren't quite as she remembered them, and even the president speaking on TV seems different than he should be. Is reality coming apart at the seams?
NPR wrote, "It's exhilarating. It's exhausting. And the ending is a virtuoso performance that yanks the brain as it disorients the heart."
"The Nest" by Cynthia D'Aprix Sweeney
This is one of those books where the publishing story had the potential to overwhelm the book itself. The literary world was abuzz in 2014 when Ecco snapped up the rights to the book for seven figures. That kind of money is sometimes tossed at literary prodigies, the gossip went, but Sweeney is over 50 and "The Nest" is her first book.
The book, however, lives up to the hype. It follows the Plumb family, a set of wealthy New England siblings just months away from receiving a massive payout from their joint trust fund. That is, they were until their black-sheep brother crashes his car while drunk, with a 19-year-old waitress riding shotgun. The accident puts their trust fund, "The Nest," into jeopardy and emotional chaos ensues. Sweeney's wit is on full display, chronicling the damage money can cause to relationships.
If it helps, Amy Poehler found it "intoxicating."
"The Queen of the Night" by Alexander Chee
Chee packs drama and delight into this dark slice of historical fiction, which follows legendary opera singer Lilliet Berne. The soprano is the toast of the French capital, but has never had a role written exclusively for her.
When she finally gets her original libretto, it comes with strings attached: Berne realizes the story is based on her own secret past: her bleak childhood on a Minnesota farm; her time in a traveling circus; her detour into French brothels. These are secrets she doesn't want to be spread.
Chee pairs Berne's personal drama with the political: The novel takes readers through intrigue at the French court and the 1870 siege of Paris. He scatters real historical figures in with his fictional intrigue, as Berne searches for her betrayer and slowly reveals her secrets.
"All the Birds in the Sky" by Charlie Jane Anders
Think fantasy and sci-fi can't coexist? Anders smashes them together in this genre-bending flight of fancy that puts time machines, magicians, the end of the world and San Francisco all together in a blender.
Childhood friends Laurence and Patricia, who haven't seen each other for years (with good reason), are reunited to harness their respective powers and possibly save the world. There are robot fashion models, a chance for romance and enough geek references to delight nerds and non-nerds alike.
"What Belongs to You" by Garth Greenwell
"What Belongs to You" is a beautiful novel that broaches a subject often kept in the shadows: the world of hustling — gay men paying for sex. Greenwell tells the story of an American teacher working in modern-day Bulgaria, and Mitko, the young hustler he becomes enamored with.
The teacher first meets Mitko in a public restroom, and returns there again and again, paying for sex. As the teacher confronts his own feelings about their arrangement, he tries to unravel Mitko's tangled life story while revealing more of his own.
The novel explores the ideas of desire and shame, and when the two collide.
"The Regional Office is Under Attack!" Manuel Gonzales
Super-powered female assassins. A mysterious oracle. And a travel agency?
In Gonzales' send-up of action movie tropes, a travel agency is just a front for a highly trained group of deadly women with mysterious powers who fight against the "amassing forces of darkness." But someone has double-crossed the agency and — as the title suggests — the regional office is now under attack.
Gonzales ping-pongs between a teenage recruit roped into the chaos, a high level admin who just happens to have a robotic arm and the unwitting office workers caught in the crossfire. In the interstitial chapters, Gonzales provides an academic history of how the agency began and the dark secret at its core.
Full of winks and sly nods, "The Regional Office" is a literary romp through pop-culture stereotypes.
"The Vegetarian" by Han Kang
Kang's eerie novel perfectly fulfills the blurb from Lauren Groff that graces its back cover: "Terrifying and terrific." (Groff is the author of "Fates and Furies," President Obama's favorite book of last year.) This book is not for the faint of heart.
When Yeong-hye, a young woman living in Seoul, finds herself plagued by disturbing dreams, she decides to become a vegetarian to cleanse herself. Her body's transformation becomes increasingly bizarre as her family and friends watch her Kafka-esque deterioration. The book is split into three perspectives, as Yeong-hye's husband, brother-in-law and older sister narrate her metamorphosis.
"Evicted" by Matthew Desmond
The economy may be on a path to recovery after the 2008 crisis, but eviction rates are still at record highs across the country. Desmond's book is arguably the most comprehensive study of this crisis.
A Harvard professor and a MacArthur Fellow, Desmond embedded himself in low-income neighborhoods in Milwaukee for more than a year to understand the emotional and economic impact that comes with losing your home.
"If incarceration had come to define the lives of men from impoverished black neighborhoods, eviction was shaping the lives of the women," Desmond writes. "Poor black men were locked up, poor black women were locked out."
"All the Single Ladies" by Rebecca Traister
Today, only 20 percent of Americans are married by age 29, compared to nearly 60 percent in 1960. The rise of the single woman is at the heart of Traister's book, which traces the roots of the trend and its social impact.
It's not a new idea, Traister writes. Throughout history, when doors have opened (or have been broken down), women have poured through them — embracing birth control, becoming the majority of students enrolled at colleges and universities, holding political positions. The fact that fewer women are walking down the aisle isn't because women have changed, but because their choices have changed.
Traister cites the influence of powerful single women from Queen Elizabeth to Charlotte Bronte, and interviews everyone from Gloria Steinem to current college students about the role of single women in modern culture.
"When Breath Becomes Air" by Paul Kalanithi
When Paul Kalanithi was in the final year of his residency, training to be a neurosurgeon, he was diagnosed with stage 4 lung cancer. He was 36. His life transformed in an instant, from doctor to patient.
Married with a young a daughter, he struggled with the diagnosis, but he didn't stop working. Even after undergoing chemotherapy, he returned to his residency, and he wrote about his experiences.
Kalanithi died in March of last year at age 37, less than two years after his diagnosis. His memoir, "When Breath Becomes Air," was released in January. In it, he explores the big questions: What does it mean to live a full life? And what does life look like in the face of death?
"Seven Brief Lessons on Physics" by Carlo Rovelli
So you want to know a little something about quantum mechanics...
Rovelli's eminently readable dispatches on physics are sheer joy for science enthusiasts. Even if you failed your high school physics class, his explanations of Einstein's theory of relativity, gravity and black holes will challenge and delight you.
You'll never think about particles the same way again. Go ahead and get to know the cosmos — after all, you live in it.
"The Lonely City" by Olivia Laing
What does it mean to be lonely?
That question is at the center of "Lonely City," Olivia Laing's meditation on solitary lives.
Laing's own loneliness inspired the book: She writes about the years she spent in New York City in her mid-30s, wandering the streets and the art galleries. She became intrigued by the idea of loneliness in art, and the book focuses on how it shaped Edward Hopper's iconic "Nighthawks" painting, and the work of Andy Warhol and Henry Darger.
"Girls & Sex" by Peggy Orenstein
The birds and bees are out — sexting and slut-shaming are in. The sex talk has become infinitely more complicated.
Orenstein's exploration of the modern sexual landscape for teens is honest and insightful. She interviewed more than 70 young women between the ages 15 and 20 about their experiences — and the many mixed messages they receive from parents, peers and the media.
"One of the things that I really took away from this research is the absolute importance of not just talking about [girls] as victims, or not just talking about them as these new aggressors, but really surfacing these ideas of talking clearly and honestly to girls about their own desires and their own pleasures," Orenstein told NPR.
"City of Thorns" by Ben Rawlence
Half a million people live in Dadaab, in the desert of northern Kenya. But none of the homes are permanent, and nothing grows except thorn bushes. The refugee camp was supposed to be a temporary solution, but it's been operating since 1992.
In "City of Thorns," Rawlence tell the stories of nine people who live in Dadaab, the largest refugee camp in the world.
"What we see is these images of refugee camps, of large hordes of people suffering or drowning in boats. And what I've tried to do with this book is to give you the ground-eye view of what it's like through the eyes of these people," he told NPR.
"A Mother's Reckoning" by Sue Klebold
Sixteen years ago, Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris opened fire on their fellow students at Columbine High School. They killed 13 people before killing themselves.
In "A Mother's Reckoning," Dylan's mother, Sue, grapples with her son's violent act, and tries to reconcile the horror with the boy she raised. Drawing on videos and writings that Dylan left behind, along with her own journals, Klebold tells her family's story with unflinching honesty.
The profits from the sale of the book are being donated to mental health research.