We review more than 8,000 books per year, and these were the 10 most-read reviews of books published in 2016.
10. The Fireman
In Hill's superb supernatural thriller, the world is falling apart in a maelstrom of flame and fury. A spore dubbed Dragonscale infects people, draws patterns on their skin, and eventually makes them spontaneously combust—and it's rapidly spreading. School nurse Harper Grayson volunteers at a local hospital in Concord, N.H., until it burns down. Soon she discovers that not only is she infected but she's also pregnant. As the beautiful filigreed markings of Dragonscale start to flourish on her body, she vows to do anything to bring her baby safely into the world. Her husband, Jakob, doesn't want the baby and attacks Harper when he realizes she wants to keep it. Harper flees and encounters John Rookwood, a near-mythical figure known as the Fireman. He takes her to Camp Wyndham, where the infected have learned to control and harness what they call the Bright—the flames that smolder just beneath their skin. Harper finds purpose there, but Jakob has found a purpose too: he's joined the Cremation Crews, brutal marauders who kill the infected on sight. When the peace of the camp is threatened, Harper, John, and their friends band together. The good-hearted Harper is a captivating heroine, the peaceful eye in a storm of evil that threatens to harm everyone she holds dear, and it's impossible not to root for her. Hill has followed 2013's NOS4A2 with a tremendous, heartrending epic of bravery and love set in a fully realized and terrifying apocalyptic world, where hope lies in the simplest of gestures and the fullest of hearts.
9. The Heavenly Table
With furious prose and a Faulknerian eye for character, Pollock (The Devil All the Time) populates his second novel with dozens of memorable people who embody America’s headlong leap toward the future in the early 20th century. In 1917, everything changes for the Jewett brothers—Cane, the capable one; Cob, the “slow” one; and Chimney, the hothead—upon their father’s sudden ascension to the “heavenly table.” With the exploits of their pulp fiction hero Bloody Bill Bucket fresh in their minds, the brothers embark on a violent journey north, escaping the backbreaking, fetid swamps on the Georgia-Alabama border and their lives under the thumb of sadistic landowner Maj. Thaddeus Tardweller. In southern Ohio, aging farmer Ellsworth Fiddler and his wife wait for their prodigal son to return home after a brief absence, during which he may or may not have enlisted in the United States Army to fight in Europe. Facing inexorable change—automobiles, airplanes, the machinery of war and agriculture—Ellsworth and others who frequent the local mercantile are “in agreement that the world now seemed head over heels in love with what tycoons and politicians kept referring to as ‘progress.’ ” But the Fiddlers cannot fathom how their lives will be transformed when the Jewetts ride into town on a crime spree that has made them the most wanted men in the country. Set against the backdrop of America’s involvement in WWI and the rise of motorized and electrical technology, Pollock’s gothic, relentless imagination seduces readers into a fertile time in America’s history, exploring the chaos, wonder, violence, sexuality, and ambition of a nation on the cusp of modernity—and the outmoded notion of redemption in a world gone to hell.
Sharma’s debut novel is an uncompromising and unforgettable depiction of the corrosive loop of addiction. Maya is a young woman living in New York with her husband, Peter. She has an afterthought of a job at a bookstore, is sleeping with a former professor, and regularly does heroin. Following a trip to Peter’s parents’ house for Thanksgiving, during which Maya tries to stop using, Peter leaves her (“You make me feel like an employee,” he says to her) and the professor breaks off their affair. Maya’s not-very-happy life descends further, becoming a cycle of sleeping with Internet strangers for drug money, attempting to quit, and then resuming. Sharma structures the novel in short bursts of prose, alternately jumping around or lingering in a scene. Despite the floaty plot, there is a propulsive energy in Maya’s story, guided by her askew yet precise perspective: “This is the way heroin addiction works: You take four classes thinking you will keep yourself busy, but then you mess it up because you’re always high... And so then, what’s the point of getting clean? To return to a mostly empty life?” Some readers may find the subject matter too difficult, but in Maya’s voice, Sharma has crafted a momentous force that never flags and feels painfully honest.
7. The Mirror Thief
Seay’s debut novel is a true delight, a big, beautiful cabinet of wonders that is by turns an ominous modern thriller, a supernatural mystery, and an enchanting historical adventure story. The first stop is present-day Las Vegas, where an ex-Marine turned manhunter named Curtis Stone descends into the Strip’s seedy underworld to track a famous gambler named Stanley Glass through the prefab canals of the Venetian-themed hotel and casino, but finds instead a mysterious book called The Mirror Thief. On that note, the narrative jumps back to 1958 in Venice Beach, at the dawn of the Beat poetry scene, where Stanley is a small-time con artist obsessed with the enigmatic Adrian Welles, author of The Mirror Thief. Finally, and most sensationally, readers are treated to the subject of Welles’s book himself, the man called Crivano, who in 1592 embarks on a dangerous mission in the Italian Venice, gorgeously rendered as a fantasia of conspirators, alchemists, and heretics caught between the dangers of plague and the Inquisition. Without realizing it, Crivano, Stanley, and Curtis are searching for the same thing: the mystery hidden behind mirrors (both literal and figurative), through which, as Welles writes, “you meet the stranger you have always been.” In sum, this is a splendid masterpiece, to be loved like a long-lost friend, an epic with near-universal appeal.
6. The View from the Cheap Seats: Selected Nonfiction
This collection conclusively proves that Gaiman is just as accomplished an essayist as he is an author of fiction (The Ocean at the End of the Lane) and comics (The Sandman). Echoing Rainer Maria Rilke’s sentiment that “To praise is the whole thing,” the collection is about building things up, not tearing them down. Gaiman’s paeans to books, libraries, and bookstores, which tellingly are grouped together at the start, are heartfelt gems that capture the joy of reading. The author’s eclecticism finds him writing on many disparate subjects; Gaiman is as deft analyzing Batman and G.K. Chesterton as he is describing the plight of Syrian refugees in Jordan. The most meaningful piece is titled simply “Make Good Art”—the 2012 commencement address for the University of the Arts in Philadelphia. The speech is in the same category as David Foster Wallace’s “This Is Water” in terms of wisdom per square inch. Gaiman’s words capture the importance of making art that is sincerely one’s own. With this volume, Gaiman has shown that his nonfiction rivals his much-lauded fiction.
5. The Girls
A middle-aged woman looks back on her experience with a California cult reminiscent of the Manson Family in Cline’s provocative, wonderfully written debut. Fourteen years old in the summer of 1969, Evie Boyd enjoys financial privilege and few parental restrictions. Yet she’s painfully aware that she is fascinated by girls, awkward with boys, and overlooked by her divorced parents, who are preoccupied with their own relationships. When Evie meets “raunchy and careless” Suzanne Parker, she finds in the 19-year-old grifter an assurance she herself lacks. Suzanne lives at a derelict ranch with the followers of charismatic failed musician Russell Hadrick, who extols selflessness and sexual freedom. Soon, Evie—grateful for Russell’s attention, the sense of family the group offers, and Suzanne’s seductive presence—is swept into their chaotic existence. As the mood at the ranch turns dark, her choices become riskier. The novel’s title is apt: Cline is especially perceptive about the emulation and competition, the longing and loss, that connect her novel’s women and their difficult, sometimes destructive passages to adulthood. Its similarities to the Manson story and crimes notwithstanding, The Girls is less about one night of violence than about the harm we can do, to ourselves and others, in our hunger for belonging and acceptance.
4. Everybody's Fool
When Doug Raymer, chief of police of the forlornly depressed town of North Bath, N.Y., falls into an open grave during a funeral service, it is only the first of many farcical and grisly incidents in Russo's shaggy dog story of revenge and redemption. Among the comical set pieces that propel the narrative are a poisonous snakebite, a falling brick wall, and a stigmatalike hand injury. North Bath, as readers of Nobody's Fool will remember, is the home of Sully Sullivan, the hero of the previous book and also a character here. Self-conscious, self-deprecating, and convinced he's everybody's fool, Raymer is obsessed with finding the man his late wife was about to run off with when she fell down the stairs and died. He's convinced that the garage door opener he found in her car will lead him to her lover's home. Meanwhile, he pursues an old feud with Sully; engages in repartee with his clever assistant and her twin brother; and tries to arrest a sociopath whose preferred means of communication are his fists. The remaining circle of ne'er-do-wells, ex-cons, daily drunks, deadbeats, and thieves behave badly enough to keep readers chuckling. The give-and-take of rude but funny dialogue is Russo's trademark, as is his empathy for down-and-outers on the verge of financial calamity. He takes a few false steps, such as giving Raymer a little voice in his head named Dougie, but clever plot twists end the novel on lighthearted note.
3. Before the Fall
Emmy-, Golden Globe–, and Peabody Award–winning television producer and screenwriter Hawley’s fifth novel is a masterly blend of mystery, suspense, tragedy, and shameful media hype. When a corporate jet carrying 11 crashes into the ocean just 16 minutes into a nighttime flight from Martha’s Vineyard to New York in August 2015, only two people survive—Scott Burroughs, a middle-aged former drunk and minor artist, and a four-year-old boy. Scott saves the boy, swimming to shore and into a frenzy of media-shaped hero worship, federal investigations of terrorism and criminal activity, and sudden media-driven accusations of financial exploitation. Hawley cleverly uses flashback chapters for each of the passengers to reveal that one victim was a wealthy mogul, head of a 24-hour cable news network that didn’t just report the news, but proudly manufactured it; one victim was a Wall Street financier about to be indicted for money laundering; and the other victims, including an armed bodyguard, also had curious pasts. Scott’s life is an escalating nightmare of media hounding and federal suspicion. His only salvation is a thoughtful, deliberate NTSB investigator who focuses on facts, not speculation. This is a gritty tale of a man overwhelmed by unwelcome notoriety, with a stunning, thoroughly satisfying conclusion.
Reviewed by Heidi MacDonald
In this staggeringly imaginative second novel, Moore (Watchmen) bundles all his ruminations about space, time, life, and death into an immense interconnected narrative that spans all human existence within the streets of his native Northampton, U.K. Reading this sprawling collection of words and ideas isn’t an activity; it’s an experience.
The book is divided into three parts, each 11 chapters long, with a prelude and “afterlude.” The bookends involve Alma Warren and her brother, Mick, who as a child choked on a cough drop and died, only to be revived; their inquiries into the mysteries of death provide a faint glimmer of plot. The first section crisscrosses Northampton with startling chapters that introduce sad ghosts who drift around town, have sex with each other, and seek nourishment in the form of strange plants known as Puck Hats. Living characters include Ern Vernall, who survives a sanity-ending encounter with a talking painting while trapped on scaffolding, and Alma and Mick’s grandmother, May, who grieves the death of her too-beautiful daughter and becomes a “deathmonger,” overseeing local funerals and births. The second section takes place entirely between Mick’s death and his revival, with a long adventure in an afterlife only Moore could have imagined. The third and most difficult part is written in a series of literary pastiches, including a Beckett-like play and an entire chapter written in a language invented by Lucia Joyce, the institutionalized daughter of James Joyce.
Throughout, Moore conjures the specter of Joyce’s Dubliners, with dense paragraphs that go inside the minds of all the characters as they traipse about town. Some are stunningly aware of their location in Moore’s four-dimensional reality (Snowy Vernall, who experiences life as a constant state of déjà vu) and some painfully mired in a sordid now (mediocre middle-aged poet Benedict Perrit, who lives with his mother and finds inspiration only in the bottle).
Moore’s love of allusions, both historical and literary, leads him to create a web of references that may prompt attentive readers—and not just the future term paper writers who will find this a gold mine—to read along with a highlighter in hand. It’s all a challenge to get through, and deliberately so, but bold readers who answer the call will be rewarded with unmatched writing that soars, chills, wallows, and ultimately describes a new cosmology. Challenges and all, Jerusalem ensures Moore’s place as one of the great masters of the English language.
1. The Loney
A palpable pall of menace hangs over British author Hurley’s thrilling first novel, narrated by a London boy, “Tonto” Smith, whose affectionate nickname was bestowed by a parish priest who likened himself to the Lone Ranger. Tonto and his family undertake an Easter pilgrimage to the Moorings, a house overlooking a treacherous swath of tide-swept Cumbrian coast known as the Loney. Smith’s devoutly Catholic mother hopes that taking the waters at the nearby shrine will cure his older brother, Hanny, of his lifelong muteness. But the Cumbrian landscape seems anything but godly: nature frequently manifests in its harshest state and the secretive locals seem beholden to primitive rites and traditions that mock the religious piety of the visitors. Adding to the mystery is Coldbarrow, a spit of land turned twice daily by the tides into an island, where a man, a woman, and a pregnant teenage girl have taken refuge in a gloomy house named Thessaly. Hurley (Cages and Other Stories) tantalizes the reader by keeping explanations for what is happening just out of reach, and depicting a natural world beyond understanding. His sensitive portrayal of Tonto and Hanny’s relationship and his insights into religious belief and faith give this eerie tale depth and gravity.