Our favorite book is always the book that speaks most directly to us at a particular stage in our lives. And our lives change. We have other favorites that give us what we most need at that particular time. But we never lose the old favorites. They’re always with us
The booksellers at Lake Forest Book Store are not, on the surface, a diverse group. For one thing, we are all female. We are also all middle-aged, which is a horrible term, but one for which I can’t think of an appropriate euphemism. This doesn’t mean that we all like the same books. All of us are committed to reading widely, always mindful that our job is to recommend books to all kinds of readers. We have individual reading tastes, but we are all the same in that no one wants to squander time on a poorly written or boring book.
Often, holiday shoppers ask for very specific recommendations — a sports novel for an eight-year-old boy, a picture book for a toddler, a Civil War history book for a grandfather, a cookbook for a newlywed couple. But often, customers just want to give a friend, relative, or business associate a really good book.
I emailed our booksellers, asking them to name their favorite book(s) of 2016. “This is so tough. DON’T MAKE ME PICK,” said one. She’s right; it’s hard to choose just a few titles from all the memorable books published this year. So here’s a list of books that our booksellers mentioned again and again as their favorites. These are books, fiction and nonfiction, that almost any reader who appreciates a well-written story will enjoy.
Molly says that “our fiction wall is, and has been this fall, packed with goodness . . . I Will Send Rain by Rae Meadows is one of my top choices. It’s a sparse telling of an Oklahoma Dust Bowl family and their struggles. It reminded me of Steinbeck and Cather. And new to our paperback table is a mystery that a customer turned me onto, I Let You Go by Clare Mackintosh. I could not put it down, and think it beats the pants off The Girl on the Train.”
Our buyer, Laura, said: “My favorite literary reads are The Nix (Nathan Hill), News of the World (Paulette Jiles), Mothering Sunday (Graham Swift) and Mischling (Affinity Konar). They are each so different (a sprawling contemporary story; a beautiful piece of historical fiction; a compact, compelling personal narrative and and a haunting World War II novel). My favorite heartwarming, simply lovely book is A Gentleman in Moscow (Amor Towles).” (Mine too!)
Almost every staff member listed News of the World as a favorite. Beth mentioned the “heartwarming relationship between an older man and the young girl he is commissioned to return to her home”, and Kathy remarked that she was “drawn into the adventure immediately.” I thought the writing was dazzling, and it was a joy to encounter a protagonist who is a kind and honorable person with unwavering morals. We’re all jealous that Max, our store manager and early champion of the book, got to sit next to the author at an industry dinner. (For my complete review, click here.)
Laura went on to say that “2016 was an amazing year for children’s fiction: Salt to the Sea (Ruta Septys), Wolf Hollow (Lauren Wolk), and The Inquisitor’s Tale (Adam Gidwitz) are sure to become classics!” I agree — and I think that the definition of a classic book for children is one that has timeless and universal appeal. As C.S. Lewis said, “A children’s story that can only be enjoyed by children is not a good children’s story in the slightest.”
Diane commented that “This was such a strong year for fiction! I read so many fantastic books– these are not in a particular order but two of them may be in my top-ten lifetime list. For all of them, the characters were so strong and the writing drove these books even more than plot/pace: Homegoing (Yaa Gyasi) Behold the Dreamers (Imbolo Mbue), The Mothers (Brit Bennett), News of the World, Wolf Hollow. Diane and I lead a YA book group for adults, and Wolf Hollow was one of our group’s favorites.
Susan R. loved Homegoing, saying that “reading it felt like unwinding a beautiful braid.” NPR’s Maureen Corrigan listed Homegoing as her favorite debut novel of the year, and I’m with her. Along with A Gentleman in Moscow, it’s the book I’ve given most often as a gift. Susan also picked The Nix as a favorite, “probably because I could relate to every time period in the story, and it kept me reading way past my bedtime”.
Kathy paired Mischling (fiction) and Irena’s Children: The Extraordinary Story of the Woman Who Saved 25,000 Children from the Warsaw Ghetto (Tilar J. Mazzeo; nonfiction): “They were fantastic reads and I couldn’t put either book down. Important books to read to remember the suffering of children at the hands of the Nazis but both offering hope and heroism.” Kathy also mentioned Trevor Noah’s terrific memoir about growing up in South Africa, Born a Crime.
Eleanor chose Lilac Girls, Martha Hall Kelly’s debut novel, which I adored as well. Anyone who loved The Nightingale, Salt to the Sea, The Invisible Bridge, or All the Light We Cannot See will find this book both unforgettable and hard to put down. Historical fiction at its best, the novel tells the powerful story of female prisoners subjected to medical experimentation at the hands of the Nazis.
Eleanor also enjoyed The Perfect Horse: The Daring U.S. Mission to Rescue the Priceless Stallions Kidnapped by the Nazis, by Elizabeth Letts. If you’re a fan of narrative nonfiction by Erik Larson and Laura Hillenbrand, you’ll love The Perfect Horse. The suspense is not whether the Lipizzaner stallions will be rescued, but how — and at what cost. The Christian Science Monitor calls the book a “perfect World War II rescue story”, and I agree.
Nancy’s favorite was The Summer Guest, by Alison Anderson. The “summer guest” in this elegantly constructed novel is Anton Chekhov, who develops a close friendship with Zinaida, a member of his host family. When Zinaida’s chronicle of their relationship surfaces more than 100 years later, it’s possible that literary history may be radically changed. (Read my complete review here.)
Susan P.’s pick was Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis, by J.D. Vance: “It is the poignant, inspiring, and eminently readable story of a young man overcoming the many drawbacks and disadvantages of his youth. Incisive and articulate, a very thoughtful examination of the issues of systemic poverty.”
Ann P. chose The Summer Before the War, by Helen Simonson (author of the beloved Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand.) It’s a kinder, gentler World War I book than most, focusing on a young woman who comes to an English village to teach Latin just as the war is breaking out. Charming and poignant, it’s perfect for anyone suffering from Downton Abbey withdrawal.
Beth picked Last Days of Night, by Graham Moore: “Intriguing, fast-reading historical fiction with ingenious yet familiar characters – Edison, Westinghouse, Tesla and J.P. Morgan. This book details the competition among the men to be the true inventor of the light bulb and amass the fortunes that follow.”
What are your favorite books from the past year?