Last year was such an outstanding year for literature that a top ten list just wouldn’t cut it. Horror, literary fiction, poetry, nonfiction, noir; every conceivable genre produced at least a couple of gems that deserve to be on this list. I started the year aiming to read 200 books, which is something I try to do every year. Work, looking for work, too many long books, and writing a dissertation were all elements that got in the way. That being said, I managed to read about 110 books, and here are the best 21 in no particular order:


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21. Floodgate by Johnny Shaw. This was fast, fun to read, packed with more action than a superhero movie, and showed a level of worldbuilding that makes it a novel that should be used to teach it. Shaw can do crime, violence, intrigue, and comedy, and all of those can be found in spades here.




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20. Death Confetti: Pickers, Punks, and Transit Ghosts in Portland, Oregon by Jennifer Robin. Robin is a performer, writer, and traveler whose life definitely belongs to the small group of those that should be written about. This collection of nonfiction takes place mostly in the streets, on public transportation, and in bars across Portland. The people and situations the author encounters are enough to make it a recommended read, but the outstanding and commanding way in which Robin writes about them make it an absolute must and earn the book a spot on this list.

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19. Slipping: Stories, Essays, & Other Writing by Lauren Beukes. One of the first authors to come to mind when thinking about writers who can move in and out of a plethora of genres while simultaneously sounding fresh and unique, Beukes has become a household name thanks to novels that are a bizarre, scary, wildly entertaining mix of science fiction, crime, and horror, and this collection offers more of that.

Image result for bruja wendy ortiz18. Bruja by Wendy C. Ortiz. What Ortiz does for the memoir here is comparable to what Flaubert’s Madam Bovary did for modern realist narration or what Capote’s In Cold Blood did for the nonfiction novel. Simply put, Ortiz’s “dreamoir” is a new thing and this book will be the starting point for a movement as well as the go-text for all upcoming memoirs that inhabit the interstitial space between reality, memory, very personal surrealism, and dreams.


Image result for magic city gospel17. Magic City Gospel by Ashley M. Jones. Going into a poetry collection without being familiar with the author’s work is always an adventure. With this book, the adventure yielded a treasure trove of southern imagery, a screaming celebration of roots and culture, and an unapologetically raw view of the female African American experience. This is brave, beautiful, necessary poetry that should be taught in schools and that undoubtedly becomes more important with each dumb step the country takes backwards.

Image result for a collapse of horses by brian evenson16. A Collapse of Horses by Brian Evenson. Evenson is one of the most talented living writers in the world, and this collection is full of stories in which he proves it time and time again. Sad, strange, creepy, touching, surreal, scary; if you can think it or feel it, Evenson does it here. The best short story collection of 2016 and yet another superb entry into the oeuvre of a man who seems to only get impossibly better with each new offering.

Image result for black wings has my angel15. Black Wings Has My Angel by Elliott Haze. The folks at the New York Review of Books know how to pick their classics, and this one is my favorite so far. A narrative that still resonates in modern noir’s DNA, this is a dark, twisted tale of love, violence, secret agendas, and the way plans have a tendency to crumble.

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14. Witch Hunt by Juliet Escoria. This book is full of the kind of poetry that reaches deep inside you, pulls out the ugliest things you have to offer, and then slaps you in the face with them, and Escoria does it all just by sharing her own life. Full of heartbreak, broken relationships, and crippling realizations, this book is what happens when a talented author decides nothing in her past is sacred and exorcises the demons by writing them out.


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13. The Incantations of Daniel Johnston by Scott McClanahan and Ricardo Cavolo. This is the only graphic book on the list, and it’s more of a surreal biography than a novel. Touching and magical, Cavolo’s art and MacClanahan’s words combine perfectly to offer readers a look inside the brain and soul of an outstanding artist tortured by mental illness and haunted by demons most of us can’t even begin to fathom.

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12. The Book of Endless Sleepovers by Henry Hoke. Sometimes a poet is capable of stuffing his entire life into a book, and that’s exactly what Hoke did here. The pain, awkwardness, drama, and discoveries of a child transform into the suffering, joy, and blossoming sexuality of a young man, and all of it is filtered through the author’s sharp mind and tender heart. By the time I was done with this, I wanted to ask a million questions, congratulate Hoke a million times on his accomplishment, and give him a million hugs.

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11. Chicano Blood Transfusion by Edward Vidaurre. El barrio has a heart that spans the globe, and Vidaurre taps into it to write poesía with a lot of truth and feeling. Readers will find the usual themes here, but also a range of new ones and different, unique experiences and memories. La poesía del barrio has a new voice in Vidaurre, and I can’t wait to see what he does next.



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10. Albina and the Dog-Men by Alejandro Jodorowsky. Just like no film director can compare their work to the bizarre visions created by Jodorowsky, no author can claim to bring together poetry, love narratives, and surrealism to the page the way he does. This is a long, sexualized, mythological fever dream that fits in perfectly with everything Jodoroswky has given us in his long, illustrious career.

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9. Glue by Constance Ann Fitzgerald. I read this book on my phone while sitting in my car. I didn’t plan on that, but the first few pages hooked me and the rest is history. This is a powerful, autobiographical narrative that deals with loss and coping. Fitzgerald shines at showing us that being broken and not knowing how to handle things is a perfectly normal part of being human.
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8. Mongrels by Stephen Graham Jones. Sure, this is a werewolf novel, but it’s also an outstanding noir, a fantastic YA narrative, an emotional family saga, and a great road trip tale. Jones has always managed to work in many genres at once, and this one stands amongst his best work to date, which is saying a lot.


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7. Disappearance at Devil’s Rock by Paul Tremblay. Anguish and loss are at the core of this creepy narrative. The disappearance of a young son is the vehicle Tremblay uses to scare readers, but it’s also the event he uses to deconstruct the way humans (re)act under pressure and how an event can make people collapse. This is another author than only gets better with each new book, and I eagerly await whatever he puts out next.



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6. The Fisherman by John Langan. I’ll keep this one short: the mythos book that will be talked about and discussed twenty years from now? This one.

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5. I Am Providence by Nick Mamatas. A scathing academic deconstruction of the Lovecraftian scene and its problems would collect dust in university libraries across the country, so instead of doing that, Mamatas wrapped it all up in a wildly entertaining and surprisingly funny novel about a murder at a Lovecraftian convention. If you care about the destruction of racism and misogyny but don’t mind doing it with a smile on your face, this book is for you.

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4. Novi Sad by Jeff Jackson. Post-apocalyptic fiction done right. Tense, gloomy, strange, and poetic. This is the shortest novella on this list, and it packs as big a punch as anything else on this list.




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3. Patricide by D. Foy. The best literary novel of 2016. Smart, fast, violent, philosophical, and possessing a depth that most literary fiction can only dream of. Foy is an author whose work will be talked about a lot in the near future. I suggest to start reading him now.





Image result for Swarm Theory by Christine Rice.2. Swarm Theory by Christine Rice. I could write ten pages on the way Rice weaved together a narrative about a whole town and all its denizens, but that would probably bore you. Instead, I’ll say this: Swarm Theory is the most impressive book about a town/plethora of characters that I’ve read since devouring Camilo Jose Cela’s The Hive, and remember that Cela got a Nobel in Literature in 1989.

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1. The Heavenly Table by Donald Ray Pollock. Along with Jones and Evenson, Pollock is a national treasure whose work constantly mesmerizes readers. Hilarious, vicious, filthy, and smart, this story of brotherhood, death, and crime was one of the few true literary gems published by one of the Big Five in 2016.

[REVIEW] Marigold by Troy James Weaver


King Shot Press, 2015
138 pages, $10.00, Paperback


Troy James Weaver’s Marigold speaks to suburban depression and 21st Century existentialism with a fresh new voice.  The novella focuses on a young man grappling with the issues of suicide and loneliness and their meanings in a seemingly meaningless society.  The piece opens with an epigraph by Franz Kafka: “The meaning of life is that it stops,” a quote that fits nicely into the Kafkaesque search for meaning that is the driving force behind the piece. Marigold is Weaver’s third publication and is published by King Shot Press which produces what it refers to as “literature for the unheard.”

In Marigold, Weaver appropriately casts a protagonist that is not original but rather plays the role of the everyman; he could be inserted in any existential fable.  In fact, Weaver seems to actively stray away from even naming his main character.  But he quickly establishes the lead man as somebody who is frustrated with life’s ambiguity through prose like “these lines point us toward our menial jobs, our stupid Wal-Marts.  The true rebels, the heroes to the causes of disorder and anarchy, are the martyrs who die in the easiest ways possible: accidentally.”  This Meursault-like character works in a flower shop, which is a superb setting, where he encounters different people but unites them in their struggle to make meaning of the world and their own demise.  These characters are also drawn very well, even though they are a bit clichéd.  There’s the kid-who-twirls-his-hair, the woman who will die from skin cancer and the tough Hawaiian and all of them are locked in this vicious battle for meaning.

The theme of the marigold as a parallel to the human condition is revisited throughout the novella with pages bare except a sentence or two of prose dedicated to the flower.  Weaver writes “Marigolds bloom from September to the first frost.  Then they die and return to the soil, where they wait for the next September sun.” And then later, “Marigold florets are often mixed with chicken feed.  Makes the yolks a brighter yellow, I’m told, for those who care for such things.  The marigold excerpts can be interpreted as chapter breaks but they can also be read as a reminder that life is shit, but it’s also kind of beautiful and it goes on.  This may summarize the thinking of the main character, who at one point even says “I know life can beautiful for a lot of people, but not for me.”

Suicide plays such a large role in the novella that a fitting epigraph might have been the Camus quote “should I kill myself or have another cup of coffee?”  There are a lot of darkly comic bits where the protagonist calls the suicide hotline and nonchalantly chats with the voices on the other end.  About halfway into the piece, one of the workers at the flower shop kills himself and the protagonist is caught in the moment surrounding the incident.  He muses, “he was more than a hair-twirling coworker, he was a human being.”  But then Weaver brings him back to life for the second half of the text.  The last few pages paint a beautiful picture of the meaning of life and the absurdity of suicide when the hair-twirling kid calls and Weaver writes “and suddenly I’m crying, too, and we are in this immense moment of existential togetherness, astray in the wilderness of being, but hand in hand.”  He goes on to say “’Listen closely.  You want to know the best way to kill yourself?’ He sniffs, says ‘yeah’ I tell him ‘that’s good I’ll tell you tomorrow.’”  And there is the hard-hitting punch that the novella has been building toward, the coup de grâce.  It’s the subtle call back to the marigold which, like life, is beautiful and meaningless and sometimes people care about it and sometimes they don’t but that doesn’t make it any less important.

Though Marigold is a strong work, it does almost feel like this has been done before since the theme of suburban existential angst is nothing new.  But the power of the piece is in the presentation. Weaver pushes the text at us in short bursts.  Rather than berate the reader with existential musings he presents us with a novella that, when considered as a body of work, is one large existential statement.

Books We Can’t Quit: The Great Fire by Shirley Hazzard




Review by Martha Anne Toll


I heard her on the radio; I found her book at the library. Neither sufficed. I had to own Shirley Hazzard’s The Great Fire. The leading man in this taut, beautiful novel is Aldred Leith—measured, strong, true—crisscrossing continents out of duty, curiosity, and ultimately love. Co-starring are Helen and Benedict Driscoll, seventeen and twenty respectively; together, a single force of nature. Winner of the 2003 National Book Award, The Great Fire inspires and intimidates. I would die happy if I could execute a single sentence as compact, poetic, and meaningful as any in this novel.

Here’s the opening, two sentences to illustrate the depletion of war:

Now they were starting. Finality ran through the train, an exhalation.

Continue reading

Books We Can’t Quit: To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee


Harper Collins Publishers

336 pages, $25.99


Review by Amanda K. Jaros


To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee, a book that has never gone out of print, is a particularly relevant story right now. This year, the book marks its 55th anniversary and is being celebrated in concurrence with the publication of Lee’s second book, Go Set a Watchman. Despite this much-anticipated release, I find Mockingbird significant today not so much because of Watchman, or the fact that it continues to be a staple of high school English classes, but rather, because every time I turn on the news I see stories of prejudice as our society continues its struggle for racial, sexual orientation and gender equality. Though Mockingbird was first published in 1960, in many ways it could have been written last week.

The story revolves around Scout Finch, an eight-year-old tomboy who spends her summers playing outside with her older brother Jem and their friend, Dill. The three play-act scenes of the townspeople’s quirky habits, they sneak out at night to lurk the neighborhood, and they are obsessed with their reclusive, and unseen, neighbor, Boo Radley. Radley is a phantom of speculation who inspires both fear and fascination in Scout. Continue reading

Books We Can’t Quit: Read-Aloud Poems Every Young Child Should Know, edited by Marjorie Barrows




Review by Susan Marque


I have been thinking a lot about home recently. The lack of having one, and my fourteen moves in the last four years, to various short-term rentals, which means I have few possessions. A thin, light green hardcover remains a symbol of home for me. It is one of the items that has always been with my parents, alongside a vase from my grandmother, and a numbered Lichtenstein lithograph. My parents have lived in six houses, in four states, taking a smaller amount of things with them each time they move. I have yet to own a home, have nothing in storage, and travel light.

Read Aloud Poems Every Child Should Know is out of print, but a couple of originals can be found. My mom sent me our brittle copy in the mail so that I could take a look at the poems again. (She made sure that I promised to send it back before my next move, wrapped it in tissue paper, and told me to do the same on its return.) Continue reading

Books We Can’t Quit: What begins with bird, by Noy Holland



167 pages, $16.95


Review by Brynne Rebele-Henry


Noy Holland’s 2005 story collection What begins with bird is a catalogue of conception. The female characters are a host of surrogates charged with the rearing of their own wombs, babies both imaginary and not, and the men are damaged bruisers, temperamental, mentally unstable fathers unaware of their growing broods, lumberjack drop-outs, quick to lose control. Tinged with love and the catatonia and soreness of afterbirth, Holland’s prose forms an ode to the lilt, bulge, hobble, and gilded calamity that is pregnancy, the fallopian galaxy of it, and to the burlesque that is parenthood. Holland frequently uses the garden of fertility as a metaphor— the stunted growth of roots that result in insanity, the barren ovaries of plains and mountains and the hardships of existing in a body—and equates the tangles of birth, abortion and menstruation to winter, when trees strip their own leaves in a form of reincarnation. Continue reading

Books We Can’t Quit: The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger


Little, Brown and Company

224 pages, $24.95 hardcover; $8.99 paperback


Review by Lisa Rabasca Roepe


I first read The Catcher in the Rye when I was in high school and I was best friends with one of our class outcasts—a boy, much like Holden Caulfield, who was misunderstood, who was smart but yet managed to be failing most of his classes, and, like Holden, was kicked out of school. Although, unlike Holden, my friend’s departure from school was only a temporary suspension brought on by him setting a fire in the guidance counselor’s office in an ill-fated attempt to destroy a test he had failed miserably.

 At the time, this book showed me it is OK to be an outcast, and Holden Caulfield, with his dislike of phonies and movies, and his concern for the ducks in the lagoon in Central Park South and his friend Jane Gallagher, became my hero.

 The novel follows three days in the life of Holden Caulfield. Many have speculated that Holden is telling the story to a psychologist while inside a mental institution. “I’ll just tell you about this madman stuff that happened to me around last Christmas just before I got pretty run-down and had to come here and take it easy,” Holden says.

 His tale begins on a Friday night, the weekend before Christmas break, and just after Holden has returned from New York City with the fencing club. The team had to forfeit their meet because Holden, their manager, left all the equipment on the subway. We also learn that Holden has been kicked out of Pencey Prep for failing every class except English, and it’s the third school he’s been asked to leave. His history teacher, Mr. Spencer, asks Holden if he has any concerns for his future. “Oh, I feel some concern for my future, all right.” Holden says. “Sure. Sure, I do. But not too much, I guess.”

 Holden goes back to his dorm room and goes to the movies with friends, even though he hates movies. It seems like a normal Friday night on campus until his “handsome roommate,” who is on a date with Holden’s friend, Jane Gallagher, comes back to their room. They get into a fight and Holden decides he’ll just leave school early, go to New York City, check into a hotel for the next three days and then go home.

 Over the next three days, we see Holden struggle with loneliness and depression (“I was feeling sort of lousy. Depressed and all. I almost wished I was dead.”) Eventually he sneaks home to see his sister, Phoebe, and leaves a note for her saying that he is moving out West and asking her to meet him at the Natural History Museum so they can say goodbye. Phoebe shows up with a suitcase and says she is going with Holden. Holden’s story ends with Phoebe on the carrousel and Holden standing in the pouring rain watching her and crying because he was “so damn happy.”

Since high school, I have probably read this book a half a dozen times. I have devoured everything else by J.D. Salinger—Franny and Zooey, Nine Stories, and Raise the Roof Beam, Carpenters—at least twice. I feel the same way about books as Holden does, “What really knocks me out is a book that, when you’re all done reading it, you wish the author that wrote it was a terrific friend of yours and you could call him up on the phone whenever you felt like it.”

 When I was younger, I wished I could have called J.D. Salinger and discussed Holden with him and told him about my friend who reminded me of Holden. I wasn’t aware of J.D. Salinger’s history with young girls and, in fact, I didn’t know about it until I attended the University of Iowa Summer Writing Festival and our teacher had us study For Esmé—with Love and Squalor. A few of the students were offended and refused to read or discuss the piece. I remember being annoyed with them because I just wanted to learn how to write like J.D. Salinger. Who wouldn’t?

 It wasn’t until last year when I read My Salinger Year by Joanna Rakoff and Salinger, the 720-page biography by David Shields and Shane Salemo, that I started to feel creeped out. The story of how a 53-year-old Salinger wrote a letter to Joyce Maynard after reading her article, “An Eighteen Year Old Looks Back on Life” in The New York Times makes me uncomfortable, especially since she dropped out of Yale to move in with him. Maybe she wanted to learn how to write like him, too.

 But I can’t turn my back on my one of my favorite literary heroes, Holden Caulfield. The Catcher in the Rye is a book that, regardless of its author’s life, I just can’t quit.



Lisa Rabasca Roepe is a freelance writer living in Arlington, VA. Her work has appeared in The Washington Post, The Mid, Mommyish and Good Housekeeping.

Book We Can’t Quit: North and South, by Elizabeth Gaskell


451 pages, $12.00

Penguin Classics


Review by Julienne Isaacs


Elizabeth Gaskell is a relatively unsung Victorian novelist, at least compared with Jane Austen, the Brontës and George Eliot. Like her contemporaries, Gaskell uses the marriage plot as a vehicle for female self-actualization and empowerment. But in my opinion, she surpasses them all.

Eliot has a superior knowledge of politics and a shrewd sense of community life, Austen has an ungodly talent for drawing-room drama, and the Brontës infuse gothic panoramas with intense sexual energy. These elements are present in Gaskell’s work, too, but she adds a generous social ethic and a talent for complex human drama. In North and South, Gaskell makes social concerns the core of a love story that is wonderfully readable more than 150 years after its publication. This is a novel I can’t quit, and can’t even skim. Continue reading

Books We Can’t Quit: The Member of the Wedding, by Carson McCullers

Houghton Mifflin Company
176 pages, $7.95

Review by Sara Watson

It is Frankie who compels me, with her particularly gloomy and yet somehow charming brand of adolescent anguish, to pull this book from my shelf again and again. And it is every exquisite sentence that keeps me reading through to the end. Check out this opening, easily one of the most beautiful in all American literature:

It happened that green and crazy summer when Frankie was twelve years old. This was the summer when for a long time she had not been a member. She belonged to no club and was a member of nothing in the world. Frankie had become an unjoined person who hung around in doorways, and she was afraid. Continue reading

Books We Can’t Quit: Castles Burning: A Child’s Life in War, by Magda Denes


W.W. Norton & Company
384 pages

Review by Désirée Zamorano

The Girl Who Lived

Nearly twenty years ago I picked up Castles Burning, A Child’s Life in War. It seared me as I read it; I did not put it down until I had finished it. Since then, each time I hear of war in the world, whether in Syria or the Ukraine, the Boko Haram or Iraq, I think of it again.
In the opening paragraph Magda Denes recounts how she as a small child begged for stories from her older brother, Ivan, stories they both loved: “The tales were always intrinsically just. They progressed from peril to joy; they spoke of an ordinary predictable world, where the virtuous were rewarded and the wicked were punished…Losses were restored and the near dead revived. Lack of caution was not a fatal error.” The author has announced precisely what this tale will not be.

Magda Denes’s ferociously unsentimental memoir starts in prewar Budapest in a Hungarian family of nearly aristocratic proportions. Within pages we watch the secular Jewish family move swiftly from a household of more servants than family members to the impoverished tenement apartment of Magda’s begrudging grandparents. The reason for this sudden change of lifestyle? The father sold all of their possessions to pay debts, buy 12 suits, 45 shirts, as well as first class passage for himself, and himself alone, to flee to America. From this first abandonment, our hearts are with this little girl. Continue reading