ALA Notable Books for Adults for 2016

25 very good, very readable, and at times very important fiction, non-fiction, and poetry books for the adult reader. Selected by a 12-member team belonging to the American Library Association, since 1944
In the Country
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In the Country

by Mia Alvar

About the book:  These nine globe-trotting, unforgettable stories from Mia Alvar, a remarkable new literary talent, vividly give voice to the women and men of the Filipino diaspora. Here are exiles, emigrants, and wanderers uprooting their families from the Philippines to begin new lives in the Middle East, the United States, and elsewhere—and, sometimes, turning back again. A pharmacist living in New York smuggles drugs to his ailing father in Manila, only to discover alarming truths about his family and his past. In Bahrain, a Filipina teacher drawn to a special pupil finds, to her surprise, that she is questioning her own marriage. A college student leans on her brother, a laborer in Saudi Arabia, to support her writing ambitions, without realizing that his is the life truly made for fiction. And in the title story, a journalist and a nurse face an unspeakable trauma amidst the political turmoil of the Philippines in the 1970s and ’80s. In the Country speaks to the heart of everyone who has ever searched for a place to call home. From teachers to housemaids, from mothers to sons, Alvar’s powerful debut collection explores the universal experiences of loss, displacement, and the longing to connect across borders both real and imagined. Deeply compassionate and richly felt, In the Country marks the emergence of a formidable new writer. From the Hardcover edition.


Notes:  Exploring the Filipino experience spanning decades and continents, these fully rendered tales express wonder and sadness leavened with humor.

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The Sellout
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The Sellout

by Paul Beatty

About the book:  Winner of the 2015 National Book Critics Circle Award in Fiction Named one of the best books of 2015 by The New York Times Book Review and the Wall Street Journal A biting satire about a young man's isolated upbringing and the race trial that sends him to the Supreme Court, Paul Beatty's The Sellout showcases a comic genius at the top of his game. It challenges the sacred tenets of the United States Constitution, urban life, the civil rights movement, the father-son relationship, and the holy grail of racial equality—the black Chinese restaurant. Born in the "agrarian ghetto" of Dickens—on the southern outskirts of Los Angeles—the narrator of The Sellout resigns himself to the fate of lower-middle-class Californians: "I'd die in the same bedroom I'd grown up in, looking up at the cracks in the stucco ceiling that've been there since '68 quake." Raised by a single father, a controversial sociologist, he spent his childhood as the subject in racially charged psychological studies. He is led to believe that his father's pioneering work will result in a memoir that will solve his family's financial woes. But when his father is killed in a police shoot-out, he realizes there never was a memoir. All that's left is the bill for a drive-thru funeral. Fuelled by this deceit and the general disrepair of his hometown, the narrator sets out to right another wrong: Dickens has literally been removed from the map to save California from further embarrassment. Enlisting the help of the town's most famous resident—the last surviving Little Rascal, Hominy Jenkins—he initiates the most outrageous action conceivable: reinstating slavery and segregating the local high school, which lands him in the Supreme Court.


Notes:  Poking the underbellies of many sacred cows, this biting social satire examines race, culture and politics in modern America.

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Did You Ever Have a Family
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Did You Ever Have a Family

by Bill Clegg

About the book:  This book of dark secrets opens with a blaze. On the morning of her daughter’s wedding, June Reid’s house goes up in flames, destroying her entire family – her present, her past and her future. Fleeing from the carnage, stricken and alone, June finds herself in a motel room by the ocean, hundreds of miles from her Connecticut home, held captive by memories and the mistakes she has made with her only child, Lolly, and her partner, Luke. In the turbulence of grief and gossip left in June’s wake we slowly make sense of the unimaginable. The novel is a gathering of voices, and each testimony has a new revelation about what led to the catastrophe – Luke’s alienated mother Lydia, the watchful motel owners, their cleaner Cissy, the teenage pothead who lives nearby – everyone touched by the tragedy finds themselves caught in the undertow, as their secret histories finally come to light. Lit by the clarity of understanding that true sadness brings, Did You Ever Have a Family is an elegant, unforgettable story that reveals humanity at its worst and best, through loss and love, fracture and forgiveness. At the book’s heart is the idea of family – the ones we are born with and the ones we create – and the desire, in the face of everything, to go on living.


Notes:  The aftermath of a tragedy and its rippling effects in a small Connecticut town.

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Delicious Foods
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Delicious Foods

by James Hannaham

About the book:  WINNER OF THE 2016 PEN/FAULKNER AWARD FOR FICTION FINALIST FOR THE 2016 DAYTON LITERARY PEACE PRIZE FINALIST FOR THE LOS ANGELES TIMES PRIZE FOR FICTION NOTABLE BOOK OF THE YEAR: New York Times, Washington Post A BEST BOOK OF THE YEAR: NPR, Kirkus, BuzzFeed, National Post, Kansas City Star TOP 10 BOOKS OF THE YEAR: Publishers Weekly TOP 15 BOOKS OF THE YEAR: BookPage Held captive by her employers--and by her own demons--on a mysterious farm, a widow struggles to reunite with her young son in this uniquely American story of freedom, perseverance, and survival. Darlene, once an exemplary wife and a loving mother to her young son, Eddie, finds herself devastated by the unforeseen death of her husband. Unable to cope with her grief, she turns to drugs, and quickly forms an addiction. One day she disappears without a trace. Unbeknownst to eleven-year-old Eddie, now left behind in a panic-stricken search for her, Darlene has been lured away with false promises of a good job and a rosy life. A shady company named Delicious Foods shuttles her to a remote farm, where she is held captive, performing hard labor in the fields to pay off the supposed debt for her food, lodging, and the constant stream of drugs the farm provides to her and the other unfortunates imprisoned there. In Delicious Foods, James Hannaham tells the gripping story of three unforgettable characters: a mother, her son, and the drug that threatens to destroy them. Through Darlene's haunted struggle to reunite with Eddie, through the efforts of both to triumph over those who would enslave them, and through the irreverent and mischievous voice of the drug that narrates Darlene's travails, Hannaham's daring and shape-shifting prose infuses this harrowing experience with grace and humor. The desperate circumstances that test the unshakeable bond between this mother and son unfold into myth, and Hannaham's treatment of their ordeal spills over with compassion. Along the way we experience a tale at once contemporary and historical that wrestles with timeless questions of love and freedom, forgiveness and redemption, tenacity and the will to survive.


Notes:  Themes of race, addiction, wage slavery and corporate greed coalesce in this startling, darkly comic coming of age odyssey.

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Black River
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Black River

by S. M. Hulse

About the book:  An Indie Next Title • An Indies Introduce Title • Long-listed for the 2015 Center for Fiction First Novel Prize “Impressive . . . [A] tough, honest novel by a surprisingly wise young writer.” — Washington Post “A complex and powerful story—put Black River on the must-read list.” — Seattle Times Wes Carver returns to his hometown—Black River, Montana—with two things: his wife’s ashes and a letter from the parole board. The convict who once held him hostage during a prison riot is up for release. For years, Wes earned his living as a corrections officer and found his joy playing the fiddle. But the riot shook Wes’s faith and robbed him of his music; now he must decide if his attacker should walk free. With “lovely rhythms, spare language, tenderness, and flashes of rage” (Los Angeles Review of Books), S. M. Hulse shows us the heart and darkness of an American town, and one man’s struggle to find forgiveness in the wake of evil. “Artful . . . Hulse evokes the Montana landscape in lyrical, vivid prose.” — Boston Globe “Hulse believes that grace happens in a look between two people, or a moment of holding back. A powerful elegy.” — Guardian


Notes:  This modern literary Western explores a man's redemptive journey and the possibility (and cost) of forgiveness.

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Fortune Smiles: Stories
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Fortune Smiles: Stories

by Adam Johnson

About the book:  WINNER OF THE NATIONAL BOOK AWARD FOR FICTION 2015 WINNER OF THE PULITZER PRIZE FOR FICTION 2013 WINNER OF THE SUNDAY TIMES EFG SHORT STORY AWARD 2014 By the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction winner of THE ORPHAN MASTER'S SON - for fans of international literary fiction, especially Hanya Yanigahara, Jonathan Franzen and Anthony Doerr. 'Unputdownable is an overused word, but at their best these stories are completely gripping.' Sunday Times 'Ironic, witty, super-intelligent' - The Times Adam Johnson takes you into the minds of characters you never thought you would meet – a former Stasi prison warden in denial of his past, a refugee from North Korea unsettled by his new freedom, a UPS driver in hurricane-torn Louisiana looking for the mother of his son. These are tales of love and loss, natural disasters, the influence of technology, and how the political shapes the personal. Tender, wry, utterly compelling, they show us humanity where you might least expect it.


Notes:  Humanity: quirky, disturbing, endearing, striving, resigned and fascinating.

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Prophets of Eternal Fjord
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Prophets of Eternal Fjord

by Kim Leine

About the book:  From the swarming streets of Copenhagen to the frozen villages of Greenland, The Prophets of Eternal Fjord is a grand, magisterial story of epic proportion. Earning rave reviews and scores of readers across the world, Kim Leine's masterpiece sweeping across the sea in a whaler and scurrying, panicked, from the Great Fire of 1795 arrives on American shores erupting with pathos, lust, faith lost and found, and a cast of characters clinging to life amidst persecution and calamity. Idealistic, foolhardy Morten Falck, the hapless hero, is a newly ordained priest sailing to Greenland in 1787 to convert the Inuit to the Danish church. He's rejected the prospect of a sleepy posting in a local parish and instead departs for the forsaken Sukkertoppen colony, where he will endeavor to convert the locals. A town battered by unremittingly harsh winters and simmering with the threat of dissent, it is a far cry from the parish he envisioned; natives from neighboring villages have unified to reject colonial rule and establish their own settlement atop Eternal Fjord. A bumbling and at times terrifically destructive mix of Shakespeare's Falstaff and Nathaniel Hawthorne's Arthur Dimmesdale, he's woefully ill prepared to confront this new sect. Torn between his instinctive compassion for the rebel congregation perched atop Eternal Fjord and his duty to the church, Falck is forced to decide where he belongs. His exploits in this brutal backwater include an accidental explosion after a night curled around a keg, a botched surgery, a love affair with a solitary and fatalistic widow, and an apprenticeship with an eager young scholar that ends in tragedy. Based on authentic events in the 1780s and '90s, The Prophets of Eternal Fjord moves from the quiet rooms of the Copenhagen bourgeoisie to the stark, hardscrabble village of the Fjord where Falck finds himself surprisingly at home. Kim Leine's textured, earthy prose evokes the sting of the cold, the itch of the wool, and the burn of the roughest swig of aquavit. In gritty detail, Leine reveals the corrosive effects of colonial rule both on the colonized, bitterly ground down as they are, and on the colonizers, compromised and corrupted by their baseless power. In rich, Dickensian descriptions, Leine charts the tragic events that intertwine seemingly disparate lives, illuminating the brutal and tender impulses of those seeking redemption and the shifting line between religion and mysticism. The Prophets of Eternal Fjord is a visceral panorama of a fragile colony caught in the throes of history, marking the American debut of a major international writer."


Notes:  An epic and evocative tale of colonialism in Greenland; translated from the Danish.

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The Tsar of Love and Techno
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The Tsar of Love and Techno

by Anthony Marra

About the book:  From the New York Times bestselling author of A Constellation of Vital Phenomena—dazzling, poignant, and lyrical interwoven stories about family, sacrifice, the legacy of war, and the redemptive power of art. This stunning, exquisitely written collection introduces a cast of remarkable characters whose lives intersect in ways both life-affirming and heartbreaking. A 1930s Soviet censor painstakingly corrects offending photographs, deep underneath Leningrad, bewitched by the image of a disgraced prima ballerina. A chorus of women recount their stories and those of their grandmothers, former gulag prisoners who settled their Siberian mining town. Two pairs of brothers share a fierce, protective love. Young men across the former USSR face violence at home and in the military. And great sacrifices are made in the name of an oil landscape unremarkable except for the almost incomprehensibly peaceful past it depicts. In stunning prose, with rich character portraits and a sense of history reverberating into the present, The Tsar of Love and Techno is a captivating work from one of our greatest new talents.


Notes:  Beauty and humanity are found in the darkest and grimmest of places in these interconnected pieces.

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The Sympathizer
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The Sympathizer

by Viet Thanh Nguyen

About the book:  A profound, startling, and beautifully crafted debut novel, The Sympathizer is the story of a man of two minds, someone whose political beliefs clash with his individual loyalties. It is April 1975, and Saigon is in chaos. At his villa, a general of the South Vietnamese army is drinking whiskey and, with the help of his trusted captain, drawing up a list of those who will be given passage aboard the last flights out of the country. The general and his compatriots start a new life in Los Angeles, unaware that one among their number, the captain, is secretly observing and reporting on the group to a higher-up in the Viet Cong. The Sympathizer is the story of this captain: a man brought up by an absent French father and a poor Vietnamese mother, a man who went to university in America, but returned to Vietnam to fight for the Communist cause. A gripping spy novel, an astute exploration of extreme politics, and a moving love story, The Sympathizer explores a life between two worlds and examines the legacy of the Vietnam War in literature, film, and the wars we fight today.


Notes:  A half-French, half-Vietnamese man serves as a double agent after the war, and struggles with the contradictions of his identity and loyalties.

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This Is the Life
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This Is the Life

by Alex Shearer

About the book:  Two estranged brothers come together when one of them discovers he has a brain tumor and the other emerges as his caretaker.


Notes:  Spare prose mixes with heart-wrenching humor in this gem of a story about two brothers coping with terminal illness.

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