I decided to read a book per week at the beginning of this year. For the most part I was ahead of schedule; then June came and I went to live in the Maine woods at a summer camp, and I fell back. Throughout the first six months I have read 28 novels. These are my top 10 so far. All were released prior to this year, but I swear I’ve been reading 2015 releases as well. I know this is about a month and a half too late, but here it is anyway. (Also: more reviews of recent reads coming soon…)
10. Swamplandia! – Karen Russell (2011)
Ava Bigtree is thirteen and lives at a crocodile theme park in the Florida Everglades. She narrates the decline of her family’s park as well as the deterioration of her family. Chapters alternate from her perspective as well as a third person account of her older brother’s quest to save the park.
This coming of age novel isn’t as straight forward as the synopsis might make it seem. There is an undercurrent of magical realism that separates this tale from other’s similar to it. Expect to scratch your head at moments, but understand that it’s all meant to unfold this way. I think “haunting” is used too often to describe are (I’m guilty of it myself), but maybe this is the only novel on this list to actually deserve to be called that.
9. We Need New Names – NoViolent Bulawayo (2013)
Zimbabwe can’t hold Darling forever. She is ten and already is tired of running around barefoot, playing games, and stealing fruit from the rich families. She wants to live with her relatives in America, and finally gets a chance when she’s a teenager. However, she soon realizes that perhaps the simplicity of her old life is more appealing than her new one.
The two contrasting parts of this story really catapulted it into my top 10. I’ve surprisingly read a lot about Africa as well as coming of age stories, but this one was something I couldn’t relate to. I mean that in a good way. It was so intriguing to see such a foreign story unfold. So many try to capture it, but it finally felt real because Bulawayo actually lived it.
8. Tell the Wolves I’m Home – Carol Rifka Brunt (2012)
Everything seems to fall apart when June’s uncle (and best friend) dies when she’s entering her teenage years. However, she finds solace in a stranger who her family doesn’t want her hanging around. June juggles her secret life, her love/hate relationship with her sister, and trying to receive approval from her parents in stride; all while trying to figure out who she is and who she wants to be.
Okay, I promise I read more than female coming of age stories. It’s just that they tend to be the ones that stick with me the longest. (Note: only one more “traditional” bildungsroman finds its way onto this list.) This may not be the most unique or best written, but it was the easiest. I immersed myself in this novel, and didn’t want to leave it. Some complain that it’s too much like a YA novel, but that’s exactly why it stood out. It wasn’t afraid to be simple.
7. All the Light We Cannot See – Anthony Doerr (2014)
Occupied France, World War II. That’s where we have a two interwoven stories about a blind girl and an orphan who joins the war to survive. Multiple timelines reveal how we got to a particular point when these two inevitably cross paths.
It’s easy to see why this won the Pulitzer Prize. It’s the type of story that contains all of the necessary elements for the media and public to gobble up. There are terrific moments scattered throughout the story, but it really is the epic scope of entire story that makes it special. It’s perhaps the book on this list that the majority of the general public would pick as their favorite.
6. Wolf in White Van – John Darnielle (2014)
Sean Phillips created a mail-in role playing game. He lives alone after a tragic accident when he was a teenager, and finds friendship through his subscribers. The novel follows his story as well as the repercussion of what happens when two players take his fantasy game a little too seriously.
I’ll go out on a limb and say that, unlike All the Light, this one would be the most polarizing for the general public. It’s unique. I haven’t read anything like it; from plot to writing style. There was something endearing about the – for lack of a better word – weirdness of the main character. The narration sets a tone that could only work for a story like this.
5. The Age of Miracles – Karen Thompson (2012)
Julia is eleven years old when the earth starts spinning slower. The world is going to end eventually, but that’s far off. For now, Julia still needs to grow up, go to school, and find love. There is a grand scope with real consequences underlying a simple, sweet love story.
What makes this basic coming of age story so endearing is the fact that it combines that simplicity with the horrific realization that everyone you’re reading about and connecting with will die sooner rather than later. It’s not a doomsday novel, but the gravity of the situation is like an annoying buzz in your ears that won’t go away.
4. We Are Not Ourselves – Matthew Thomas (2014)
This story follows Eileen, the daughter of Irish immigrants, from her birth in 1941 through her young adult life, marriage, and finally her final years. The epic novel follows this extremely driven female who deals with the patriarchy of America. Eventually she marries and the two have, fittingly, a son. She balances her life while taking care of her ailing husband and distant son.
This long, winding novel is heartbreaking. While other novels on this list are quite emotional, this was the only one that really made me want to curl up in a ball in my bed with the lights off and just think. I think that books rarely can tell an entire life story well in one sitting. Thomas is able to do that by focusing on interconnected moments and letting the reader fill in the rest.
3. Fourth of July Creek – Smith Henderson (2014)
Pete Snow is a social worker living in rural Montana when he comes across a near feral young boy. He becomes obsessed with the boy’s family, mainly his father, while trying to stay on top of his other cases and his personal life. This starts with a very narrow scope, but then saunters off into a larger one, but doesn’t become disjointed.
This is the type of story you wish never to see in the real world. It has timeless elements that seem a little overused at times, but work so nicely in this novel that it makes sense why Pete be an alcoholic. Sometimes writers chose to portray their character a certain way because it seems edgy, but it never seemed the case in Henderson’s work. If anything, it made it all that much more realistic; maybe too realistic.
2. Redeployment – Phil Klay (2014)
A real life war veteran wrote a collection of stories that were better than any war stories I have ever read before. They range from just before deployment, to the thicket of battle, to struggling with PTSD. Standouts include the title story that is a raw homecoming tale with no frills and a bleak tone. “Bodies” details the life of a soldier whose duty it is to pile up dead bodies from the roadways. Some are larger in scope and deal with generational disconnect between father and son war heroes.
Each story offers a complex look at the decisions young men took to join the Iraq War and the toll it took on them after they were out of it. Somewhere along the way someone will adapt these stories into one character (which could be very easy to do), but what was so weighty about this collection is that the experiences happened to a wide variety of young men, a theme that would get muddled in a Hollywood film.
1. Station Eleven – Emily St. John Mandel (2014)
This novel is about Kristen and her friends of traveling actors and musicians twenty years after a flu wiped out 99% of the world’s population. It’s about a famous actor named Arthur’s life and wives before the flu. It’s also about the immediate aftermath of the flu, and how Javeen tries to escape it. And more. Time and characters are woven together to reveal the true nature of human spirit.
Don’t let the fact that this is a “post-apocalyptic” novel deter you from reading it. In a sense, it isn’t. Kristen, who we spend the majority of the time following, doesn’t even remember what life was like before the flu. She was too young. Part of what makes this novel so great is that other stories like this have been told, but not with the flare that Emily St. John Mandel delivers. The smaller the significance may seem in this novel, the bigger a role it will eventually play. Mandel’s diction and tone reached near perfection during this story; she flawlessly balances the art house vibe with the mainstream one.