The five finalists for the 2016 National Book Award for Fiction have just been announced, and with the NBA award ceremony just over a month away, (all you bibliophiles be sure to mark your calendars for Wednesday, November 16) you’ve only got a few weeks left to check out all of the amazing reads before the winners are announced. But with 10 authors long-listed in each of the four categories — nonfiction, poetry, and young people’s literature, in addition to fiction — that’s 40 books to read in about just as many days. Yikes. That’s a number that gives even an ambitious book-lover like myself pause. So how do you narrow down which National Book Award titles you’ll love, in order to get all your new faves read before the big announcement? The good news is with the lists now narrowed down to just five National Book Award finalists you can probably start there — at least until you have time to dive into all of the nominated reads. The even better news is that I’ve put together this handy list (hopefully) to help you determine what National Book Award finalist you should read, based on novels you’ve loved.
With a list that includes breakout hits like Karan Mahajan’s mind-blowing novel The Association of Small Bombs, and Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad, now a recent addition to Oprah’s illustrious book club, there’s no telling who will take home the award this year. Maybe it’ll be your own favorite — once you figure out which novel that is, exactly.
Here is the 2016 National Book Award for Fiction finalist you must read, based on your favorite novel.
1. If you loved Lord of the Flies by William Golding, read The Throwback Special by Chris Bachelder
Although much lighter in tone and content than William Golding’s Lord of the Flies, Chris Bachelder’s fourth novel, The Throwback Special, is nonetheless as vivid a case study of male group psychology as the 1954 dystopic novel. Bachelder tells the story of a group of 22 friends who gather together once a year to reenact one brutal, devastating play in NFL history: the moment when New York Giants’ linebacker Lawrence Taylor shattered the leg of Redskins’ quarterback Joe Theismann, effectively ending the QB’s football career live on Monday Night Football. Across the span of their 16-year tradition, the relationships between these middle-aging men shift and evolve — they navigate the typical power dynamics and bouts of jealousy, shared habits are discarded while others stubbornly remain, and a sophomoric sense of peer pressure lingers even though each of these men have stepped into the second half of their lives. But as they take inventory of all that the years have earned them and lost them, over the course of one weekend — the weekend that may prove to be the re-enactors’ last gathering — what each of these men must grapple with is the fact that the tradition holding them together might only be the latest of things they ultimately say goodbye to.
2. If you loved The Searchers by Alan LeMay, read News of the World by Paulette Jiles
The western novel that served as the basis for the classic John Wayne film by the same name isn’t quite as nuanced as Paulette Jiles’s recent novel News of the World, but both not only deal with similarly compelling themes — the trauma and acclimation experienced by children kidnapped and raised by Native Americans — they also take readers on a vivid ride across the American frontier in the aftermath of the Civil War. News of the World introduces readers to Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd: wanderer, widower, and war veteran who works as a traveling newsman, riding across Texas and reading newspapers to all those desperate for information from the rest of the world. During the course of his wanderings Captain Kidd is enlisted to transport a young, twice-kidnapped orphan, 10-year-old Johanna Leonberger, to her aunt and uncle in San Antonio. But what Captain Kidd didn’t realize is that Johanna doesn’t seem to remember her birth family at all, and the Kiowa Indians who raise her have become her family. He also didn’t expect to discover that Johanna’s relatives aren’t interested in taking Johanna on as their own daughter, and Kidd is forced to make a difficult decision — one that will change both his and Johanna’s lives forever.
3. If you loved The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid, read The Association of Small Bombs by Karan Mahajan
There is something about Mohsin Hamid’s voice in The Reluctant Fundamentalist, as he and his main character try to make sense of the impossible-to-understand racism, terrorism, and radicalism that increasingly permeate our world, that is chilling, and devastating, and unforgettable. It is in an equally disrupting, eye-opening voice that Karan Mahajan wrote The Association of Small Bombs. The novel greets readers in a Delhi marketplace, where brothers Tushar and Nakul Khurana are killed by a terrorist bombing while picking up the family television. The boys’ parents are devastated, and their surviving friend, Mansoor Ahmed, will live with the effects of such violence and terror — and lingering survivor's guilt — for the rest of his life. Operating parallel to Mansoor’s story is that of Ayub, a young Delhi activist, and Shockie, a Kashmiri bomb-maker, whose inner lives are as poignant and complex as two small lives can be, even though outwardly they are on opposite sides of right and wrong. The Association of Small Bombs is a striking, illuminating novel that explores the different journeys one might take from faithful to fanatical, and from victim to terrorist.
4. If you loved The Color Purple by Alice Walker, read The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead
Alice Walker and Colson Whitehead are two writers who challenge American racial consciousness in ways that make people really take pause and listen. Considered one of the — if not the — most anticipated literary novel of 2016, and named an Oprah Book Club pick this past August, Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad is a novel that re-imagines the underground railroad as an actual railway, with stations and steam engines, manned by a cast of characters who regularly risk both their safety and their lives in order to transport southern slaves to freedom in the northern United States. At the heart of The Underground Railroad is Cora, a slave from a Georgia cotton plantation who is determined to make her way northward even though her life is in danger at practically every moment. As she travels from city to city, she has to learn how to undo much of the conditioning of her life as a slave — changing her walk, speech patterns, and certain personality traits in order to act more “free”. And when she finally takes a temporary job in a Museum of Natural Wonders, Cora begins to wonder what it truly means to be free, and if freedom from certain circumstances only leads to a different kind of enslavement by others.
5. If you loved Purple Hibiscus by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, read Another Brooklyn by Jacqueline Woodson
Both of these spectacular novels deal with tales of girlhood — black girlhood in particular — and the places we run to and the families we choose in order to rescue ourselves from our circumstances. Jacqueline Woodson’s Another Brooklyn is the traditionally-YA author’s first adult novel in two decades, and introduces readers to an Ivy League-educated anthropologist named August, who is summoned back to her hometown of Brooklyn for her father’s funeral, and finds herself mired in decades of memories she’d long left behind. At 11-years-old and in the wake of her mother’s death, August banded together with a clique of three other girls who became one another’s surrogate family as they grew up beneath the shadow of national violence and Brooklyn’s drug use, crime, and poverty. Written through a series of short, poetic vignettes, Another Brooklyn reads like a love song to girlhood, drawing readers into the intimate spaces occupied by each of these four girls.
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