Good books help us escape, celebrate, and survive the world we find ourselves in, and 2016 has been a banner year for transporting reads. The second half of 2016 in particular was packed with extraordinary literary achievements from both debut authors and seasoned, award-winning scribes. Whether you’re shopping for a loved one (and planning to borrow the book after, of course) or treating yourself to a final year-end read, you can’t go wrong with any of these stunning novels.
Homegoing, by Yaa Gyasi
This remarkable, bold debut, which spans 250 years, is a heartbreaking and thought-provoking look at seven generations of descendants from the Fante and Asante tribes of Ghana. Kicking off the story are half-sisters Effia and Esi, whose disparate lives remain linked, despite the fact that they’ve never met. Their children and grandchildren live on different sides of the Atlantic, but whether they’re involved in the Gold Coast slave trade of Africa or suffering under its effects in America, it’s the personal, smaller stories within that framework—stories of hardship, transcendence, wealth lost, and love gained—that will deeply move you.
The Girls, by Emma Cline
“These long-haired girls seem to glide above all that was happening around them, tragic and separate. Like royalty in exile.” Can you blame Evie, a bored, restless, 14-year-old, for becoming entranced by the group of young women (and their Manson-esque cult leader, Russell) she spies in the park in the late 1960s? Evie is especially fixated on Suzanne (a stand-in for Manson’s most famous “girl,” Susan Atkins), and recounts their interactions from the (relatively) safe distance of adulthood. Her rapt audience: a modern teen, Sasha, whose troubles and yearnings mirror Evie’s from years past. Psychologically astute and perfectly rendered.
The Underground Railroad, by Colson Whitehead
In this year’s tour de force National Book Award winner, acclaimed essayist, novelist, and nonfiction writer Whitehead imagines a pre–Civil War United States in which the Underground Railroad isn’t a metaphor but an actual train that carries slaves to safety. A brilliant genre mashup that combines elements of sci-fi and historical fiction, it’s an astonishing, must-read tale about a female slave on a Georgia plantation whose escape route takes her not just from South to North but through space and time as well.
Another Brooklyn, by Jacqueline Woodson
Though Woodson is perhaps best known for her children’s literature (especially the extraordinary, award-winning biographical book in verse Brown Girl Dreaming), her new book for adults is lyrical and poetic, too. Through the lens of an anthropologist who has come home for the first time in decades, it addresses the coming of age of August and her three best friends growing up in 1970s Brooklyn. “We tried to hold on. We played double Dutch and jacks. We chased the ice cream truck down the block, waving our change-filled fists.” Their journey into womanhood is fraught with tragedy, abuse, and betrayal—and a reminder that friendship can tie people together tighter than family.
The Nix, by Nathan Hill
Eleven-year-old Samuel didn’t notice when his mother began to leave him. It started with a “slow burglary”—a photo missing from an album, a dress gone from the closet—and culminated in abandonment: “Slowly, her presence in the house grew thinner.” As an adult living in Chicago, Samuel is an adjunct professor and writer whose heyday is behind him (according to the publishing world, that is). When his long-lost mother makes national headlines for a notorious act, he’s forced to confront the realities of the woman who left him behind. A humorous, satirical look at pop culture, social media, Norwegian myths, online gaming, and American politics, The Nix is a compelling, entertaining, and (even at 640 pages) fast read.
A Gentleman in Moscow, by Amor Towles
A follow-up to Rules of Civility (which tackled 1930s Manhattan), Towles’ latest historical novel takes place in Russia and depicts the life of Count Alexander Rostov, an “unrepentant aristocrat” sent by the Bolsheviks in 1922 to live out the rest of his days in the attic storage room of the Metropol hotel. As the world outside (he’s across from the Kremlin) passes him by, he adjusts to an existence devoid of the arts, leisure, and fine dining he is accustomed to. Yet in other ways his life is expanded immeasurably, as he creates an exquisite new world for himself. His relationships with the hotel staff, and a life-altering friendship with a child, breathe transcendent joy into every page.
Commonwealth, by Ann Patchett
A marriage-destroying kiss at a christening sets off events that include an outsider’s controversial retelling of the incident (the book-within-a-book is also titled Commonwealth) as well as a film adaptation of said book. Six stepchildren, left to their own devices during long summer months, are affected by their parents’ couplings and uncouplings in different ways, until they can no longer imagine a life in which their respective families weren’t blown apart. Moving back and forth through time, the novel, Patchett’s seventh, crackles with intelligent, memorable discourse and a wide variety of sympathetic viewpoints.
Today Will Be Different, by Maria Semple
Following her wildly successful sophomore book, Where’d You Go, Bernadette, Semple’s latest begins with a to-do list gone haywire. A modern, middle-aged wife and mother has taken stock of her supposed shortcomings and has decided to control, alter, or annihilate them for just one day. The results are hilarious, disastrous, and far-reaching. (What else can you expect from a television writer whose credits include Arrested Development, and whose engaging narrator, Eleanor Flood, admits, “I’ve been to nine shrinks in twenty years and I’m still like, ‘Wait…what?'”)
News of the World, by Paulette Jiles
Longlisted for the National Book Award, News is set in 1870s Texas, where elderly war vet and vagabond Captain Kyle Kidd finds himself traveling 400 long and dangerous miles to San Antonio with an “uncivilized” 10-year-old girl. The girl was captured and raised by the Kiowa tribe after they murdered her parents and sibling. As such, she speaks no English and doesn’t remember a time before the Kiowas took her in. Kidd intends to return her to her family, but as their journey subtly shifts from a relationship of survival into a true and heartfelt meeting of souls, he may not be ready to leave her with a group of strangers, even if they’re kin. Though Jiles’ research must have been extensive, it effortlessly enhances the narrative rather than bogging it down, and in an age of Westworld, it’s tremendously satisfying to root for the white hats to win the day.
Swing Time, by Zadie Smith
An unnamed narrator living in North London and her best friend Tracey, both biracial, navigate childhood dreams of becoming dancers. Only Tracey has the talent to succeed, but her star burns out quickly. Meanwhile, our narrator works as an assistant for a wealthy white pop star from Australia who’s obsessed with all things West African (from “saving” a village to adopting a child). Though her pivotal friendship with Tracey falls apart when the women are in their 20s, its effects never truly leave either of them, for good or ill. “I wanted to believe that Tracey and I were sisters and kindred spirits, alone in the world and in special need of each other,” the narrator says. A worthy successor to Smith’s previous novels, this is a brilliant narrative on identity, culture, race, and class.