Great reads

An interactive guide to The Seattle Times' best books recommendations from the past few years.

Genre

Year

A Brief History of Seven Killings

Marlon James

2014 - Fiction, Mystery
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A tour de force, this saga is centered on the real-life attempted assassination of reggae legend Bob Marley in politically turbulent Kingston in 1976 and the little-known people who were involved with it. Told from different perspectives by an international cast of characters, infused with slick Jamaican patois and spanning decades, the novel is as challenging as it is transfixing, turning a moment in Jamaica’s modern history into an unflinching portrait of a people.

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A God in Ruins

Kate Atkinson

2015 - Fiction, Historical Fiction
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Not so much a sequel (to her brilliant “Life After Life”) as a dazzling overlay, Atkinson’s novel is the story of a man whose life spans the 20th century, told in time-bending bursts of lyrical prose.

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A List of Things That Didn’t Kill Me

Jason Schmidt

2015 - Nonfiction, Memoir
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Local author

This unusual coming-of-age memoir treads the line between social commentary and Young Adult literature through the pleasantly mordant voice of a youth being raised in 1980s Seattle by his drug-dealing single dad, who develops AIDS.

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A Sting in the Tale — My Adventures with Bumblebees

Dave Goulson

2014 - Nonfiction, Science, Nature/Environment
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Who knew bumblebees were so important? Goulson, British environmental scientist and founder of the Bumblebee Conservation Trust, travels far and wide, investigating why these crucial pollinators are in decline and how we can help their numbers increase.

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Above the East China Sea

Sarah Bird

2014 - Fiction, Historical Fiction
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Bird’s compelling novel explores heritage and identity through the intertwined stories, nearly 70 years apart, of two teen girls on the island of Okinawa, both impacted by war.

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All the Light We Cannot See

Anthony Doerr

2014 - Fiction, Historical Fiction, War
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Doerr, who has made a name for himself with some of the most original short stories of our day, spreads his wings majestically in this novel (a National Book Awards finalist) about two young people — a blind French girl and a brilliant orphaned German boy — caught up separately, and for a brief shining moment together, in the horror of World War II.

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Another Brooklyn

Jacqueline Woodson

2016 - Fiction, Young Adult
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Woodson’s first book for adults in 20 years uses memory fragments that land with the concentrated power of poetry to tell the story of four girlfriends in 1970s Brooklyn and how their bonds unraveled.

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Barkskins

Annie Proulx

2016 - Fiction, Historical Fiction
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Local author

Marred by a simplistic view of history and the timber industry, Proulx otherwise plays to her strengths, with colorful characters and graceful descriptions of the landscape in this woodsman’s version of manifest destiny.

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Beethoven: Anguish and Triumph

Jan Swafford

2014 - Nonfiction, Biography, Music
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Enormous, kaleidoscopic and exuberant, this huge Beethoven biography is a detailed portrait of the age as well as of the tormented man who gave us some of the world’s greatest music.

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Between the World and Me

Ta-Nehisi Coates

2015 - Nonfiction, Memoir, Social Justice
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This slim book by journalist Coates, winner of this year’s National Book Award for nonfiction, is an autobiographical letter from an anguished father to his teen son about what it means for them to be African American in the “Black Lives Matter” era. Coates has crafted a furious yet poetic call to action, imploring all of us to speak more honestly about the roots of racism and the concept of race itself.

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Black River

S.M. Hulse

2015 - Fiction, Western
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Local author

This Montana-based story, about a prison guard who returns to his hometown after decades away, is an intricate work that layers faith with broken promises, broken bones, and broken hearts. This is a story of people shaped irrevocably by place and circumstance.

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Blood Will Out: The True Story of a Murder, a Mystery, and a Masquerade

Walter Kirn

2014 - Nonfiction, Crime, Memoir
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True crime meets memoir in this smart and literate tale of a murderous con artist who befriends a curious young writer.

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Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant?

Roz Chast

2014 - Nonfiction, Memoir
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Chast’s graphic memoir about her battle to care for her quirky, stubborn parents as they face the end of life is funny, sad, informative, honest and brave, and represents another leap forward for the graphic canon.

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Charlotte Brontë: A Fiery Heart

Claire Harman

2016 - Nonfiction, Biography
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There have been many biographies of Charlotte Brontë over the years, but Harman’s had this dyed-in-the-wool Brontë fan mesmerized: the details of life at Haworth are told with an almost cinematic vividness, and the excerpts from Brontë’s recently published letters add a moving intimacy.

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Commonwealth

Ann Patchett

2016 - Fiction, Historical Fiction
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Patchett’s semi-autobiographical novel of two families who are torn apart by an adulterous affair and spend the rest of their lives recovering is clear-eyed, funny and ultimately hopeful.

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Daredevils

Shawn Vestal

2016 - Fiction, Young Adult
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Local author

Vestal’s gripping coming-of-age and bursting-out-of-Mormonism novel is set in rural 1970s Idaho. His young protagonists, inspired by daredevil Evel Knievel, launch a risky, fast-paced flight of their own for freedom, in an arcing trajectory toward self-discovery. It’s a wild and rewarding ride.

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Daughters of the Samurai: A Journey from East to West and Back

Janice P. Nimura

2015 - Nonfiction, History
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Nimura has written a superb and riveting history, the true story of three Japanese girls who were sent to America in the 1870s to be educated. She includes the fascinating context of their samurai origins, their journey by steamboat from nearly feudal Japan to San Francisco and beyond, their immersion in the Gilded Age and Christian life in America — and then their return to Japan, a shift in culture that is impossible to overdramatize.

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Days of Rage: America’s Radical Underground, the FBI, and the Forgotten Age of Revolutionary Violence

Bryan Burrough

2015 - Nonfiction, History
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Burrough provides a fascinating look at an almost forgotten era of homegrown terrorism, when “revolutionary violence” was waged by left-wing radicals in a wildly naive effort to lead the “oppressed” American working class to revolt.

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Disobeying Hitler: German Resistance after Operation Valkyrie

Randall Hansen

2014 - Nonfiction, History, War
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There have been so many World War II books that it’s getting difficult to find a new angle to grab readers’ attention. Hansen does: the story of the German leaders, military and civilian, who surrendered against Hitler’s orders — why they did it, how, and what happened to them.

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Dreamland: The True Tale of America’s Opiate Epidemic

Sam Quinones

2015 - Nonfiction, History, Crime
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This masterpiece of nonfiction narrative reporting tells two stories. The first chronicles the epidemic of addiction to OxyContin and other prescription opiates in Americans. The second — how a Mexican drug distribution network turned those same addicts into heroin users. Nary a word is wasted in Quinones’ telling, and the cumulative effect is devastating

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Empire of Sin

Gary Krist

2014 - Nonfiction, History, Crime
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Combining a deep knowledge of social history with an eye for scintillating detail, Krist walks us through the birth of New Orleans’ famed red-light district, Storyville, mixing prostitutes with pols, reprobates with reformers and, in the process, shining a light on America’s enduring capacity for hypocrisy.

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Epitaph: A Novel of the O.K. Corral

Mary Doria Russell

2015 - Fiction, Historical Fiction
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This novel tells the story of Wyatt and Sadie Earp from beginning to end, not stopping at the famous gunfight and its aftermath but following the couple to the end of their lives, inevitably shaped by that 1881 blaze of gunfire in Tombstone, Arizona Territory.

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Euphoria

Lily King

2014 - Fiction, Historical Fiction
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This riveting, beautifully composed novel, set in 1933 and based on the lives of Margaret Mead and her first and second husbands, features adventurous fieldwork in the Territory of New Guinea, a bitter love triangle and the strangeness of humanity’s cultures and customs.

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Fates and Furies

Lauren Groff

2015 - Fiction
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This absorbing, intimate account of a modern marriage moves back and forth in time and perspective, as it explores the coupling of two complex, seemingly charmed people.

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Finders Keepers

Stephen King

2015 - Fiction, Horror, Mystery
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The second novel in King’s proposed “Bill Hodges” trilogy is a fast-paced detective story involving the unpublished works of a respected, famous (and dead) author and a duffel bag full of cash. It closes with a single word that leaves readers clamoring for the finale.

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Fives and Twenty-Fives

Michael Pitre

2014 - Fiction, Historical Fiction, War
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This debut novel gives a realistic ground view of the war in Iraq and chronicles the difficulties of veterans’ re-entry into civilian society. Pitre served in Iraq twice and left the Marines in 2010 as a captain.

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Funny Girl

Nick Hornby

2015 - Fiction, Historical Fiction
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Smart, beautiful, strong young woman hits the big city, triumphs and falters, and finally, gratefully accepts the good in life; Hornby, a ridiculously gifted British novelist, uses his trademark unpretentious style to mold this familiar plot into a fresh, flavorful, moving, and hilarious love letterto early ’60s popular entertainment, London style.

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Going Into The City

Robert Christgau

2015 - Nonfiction, Memoir, Music
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Christgau is the self-described dean of American rock critics, and his memoir is a love letter both to a basically lost profession, and a lost era when rock ’n’ roll truly shifted culture.

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Grant Park

Leonard Pitts Jr.

2015 - Fiction, Historical Fiction
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This fast-paced novel by the Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist delivers as much rich plot development as it does a thought-provoking meditation on race and history that is pertinent to understanding today’s brand of discrimination and hate crimes.

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H is for Hawk

Helen Macdonald

2015 - Nonfiction, Memoir, Nature/Environment
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In her stunning, award-winning memoir, British writer Macdonald recounts how she emerged from a deep grief-based depression by acquiring and training a goshawk: the writing sings on every page and the twining of narrative strands (natural history, heavy emotional weather, love for a wild animal) is masterfully done.

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Hillbilly Elegy

J.D. Vance

2016 - Nonfiction, Memoir
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Before Nov. 8, Vance’s account of his family’s stop-and-start mobility out of Appalachia was the memoir of the year. At the dawn of the Age of Trump, it’s essential.

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Hotel Florida: Truth, Love and Death in the Spanish Civil War

Amanda Vaill

2014 - Nonfiction, History, War
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This group biography of six larger-than-life characters, including writers Ernest Hemingway and Martha Gellhorn and photographer Robert Capa, helped me understand the complicated strands of a conflict that served as a staging ground for World War II.

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Imagine Me Gone

Adam Haslett

2016 - Fiction
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Haslett (“Union Atlantic”) moves with penetrating wit between the points of view of a father, mother, daughter and two sons as he traces a family’s legacy of mental illness. Love, concern and unexpected comedy prove as central to his tale as exasperation and dread, making this a novel that’s stayed in my mind like no other has this year.

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Island on Fire: The Extraordinary Story of a Forgotten Volcano

Alexandra Witze and Jeff Kanipe

2015 - Nonfiction, History, Science, Nature/Environment
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Not as spectacular as recent eruptions in Iceland but with far greater repercussions, Laki is the most devastating eruption you’ve never heard of. Husband and wife team Witze and Kanipe use primary source documents and on-the-ground reporting to tell an amazing story about this world changing volcano explosion in 1783.

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Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption

Bryan Stevenson

2014 - Nonfiction, Memoir, Social Justice
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Heartbreaking stories of injustice at the hands of the U.S. criminal-justice system from McArthur “Genius Grant” recipient Bryan Stevenson, who has devoted his career to representing the most hopeless prisoners, sentenced to death or life without possibility of parole.

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Lafayette in the Somewhat United States

Sarah Vowell

2015 - Nonfiction, History, Biography
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The author’s retracing of the Marquis de Lafayette’s long-forgotten devotion and aid to the colonists of our country-to-be brings its readers to guffaws in some places and “awwwws” in others.

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Landfalls

Naomi J. Williams

2015 - Fiction, Historical Fiction
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A fictional account of a real 18th-century French maritime expedition exploring the Pacific Ocean before meeting its doom. Sly writing and startlingly different points of view make this a shape-shifting revelation of a book.

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Landmarks

Robert Macfarlane

2016 - Nonfiction, Nature/Environment
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Simply one of the best nature history books I have read in years, “Landmarks” is a stunning paean to the beauty of language, the craft of writing and the power of nature. It is truly a book that will force you to rethink your relationship to the world around you.

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Last Bus to Wisdom

Ivan Doig

2015 - Fiction, Historical Fiction
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Local author

The late Seattle storyteller Ivan Doig’s final novel, “Last Bus to Wisdom,” is a tender coming-of-age tale recounted by a precocious 11-year-old. It ranges boisterously across the American West while deftly exploring the vastness and vulnerability of the human heart.

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Leaving Before the Rains Come

Alexandra Fuller

2015 - Nonfiction, Memoir
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In her third memoir, Fuller’s prose is as lyrical and electric as ever. Telling the story of the making and undoing of her 19-year marriage, the book also reaches back into the history of Fuller’s eccentric, half-mad and fully maddening family. It is a charming, anxious and touching work.

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Let Me Be Frank with You

Richard Ford

2014 - Fiction, Short Stories
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Ford brings back his hallmark character, sportswriter-turned-retired-real-estate-agent Frank Bascombe, for a fourth book. This quartet of stories, set in Frank’s twilight years, cuts to the heart of what it means to age in America.

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Lila

Marilynne Robinson

2014 - Fiction, Historical Fiction
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In her third book detailing the life and times of the fictional Rev. John Ames, Robinson turns to his wife, Lila, a drifter who found refuge and respect in the preacher’s home. The novel portrays the psychological damage done by an unsettled childhood and artfully recalls a New Testament parable spotlighting the importance of compassion in the Christian repertoire.

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Limber

Angela Pelster

2014 - Nonfiction
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Filled with precise, poetical and sparse language, the essays in this unusual natural-history book reveal not just the life of trees but how they connect us to the greater world around us.

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Lost for Words

Edward St. Aubyn

2014 - Fiction
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A playful but nonetheless stellar book, this sendup of British literary culture is by (at) turns an exploration of fragile creative temperaments and a comedy of bookish ill manners — shot through with St. Aubyn’s usual linguistic virtuosity.

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Lovecraft Country

Matt Ruff

2016 - Fiction, Historical Fiction, Horror
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Local author

Monsters and rogue sheriffs take turns terrorizing African American protagonists in this reprise of 1950s racism; Seattle author Ruff’s accounts of haunted houses, carnivorous beaches, and cheap, conniving wizards are sharply humorous, authentically voiced, and weird enough for any fan of the pulp fiction they spring from.

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M Train

Patti Smith

2015 - Nonfiction, Memoir, Music
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This book, masquerading as a travel memoir by a famous rock star, is really a fluid, dreamlike meditation on loss, art, mortality and the sacred by a poet with a very sharp pen.

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Mercury

Margot Livesey

2016 - Fiction, Thriller
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A novel as fast-moving and slippery as the element, “Mercury” uses an obsession about a horse as the catalyst for a probing study of family bonds, friendship, loyalty, duty and the shady difference between right and wrong.

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Midnight at the Pera Palace: The Birth of Modern Istanbul

Charles King

2014 - Nonfiction, History
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This history of a tumultuous period in one of the world’s most fascinating cities uses a sumptuous hotel full of spies, fallen nobles and government operatives as home base for describing Turkey’s sometimes-rocky journey into the modern era.

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Midnight in Broad Daylight

Pamela Rotner Sakamoto

2016 - Nonfiction, History, War
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Sakamoto blends meticulous research with radiant storytelling to relate one family’s harrowing experiences during World War II, both in America and near ground zero in Hiroshima, Japan.

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Midnight’s Furies: The Deadly Legacy of India’s Partition

Nisid Hajari

2015 - Nonfiction, History
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Dramatic and suspenseful, this political nonfiction work, which deals with the 1947 partition of British India, delves deeply into the political and ideological rivalry between the leaders of the Hindu and Muslim factions, thereby providing a basis for understanding the subcontinental schism.

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My Age of Anxiety: Fear, Hope, Dread, and the Search for Peace of Mind

Scott Stossel

2014 - Nonfiction, Memoir
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Stossel is much more than an anxious guy who wrote a self-help title. He’s a dogged researcher who uses a profoundly troubling personal malady as a starting point to teach and encourage others. His highly entertaining way of telling the story — without soppy sentiment or any grinding of axes — is terrific, as is his refusal to take a hard line on this or that flavor-of-the-month treatment for anxiety.

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News of the World

Paulette Jiles

2016 - Fiction, Historical Fiction, War
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The life of an aging ex-army captain is changed when he agrees to escort an orphan girl across Texas in this fictional recounting of what happened to pioneer children who were captured by Indians and later returned to their former lives. Jiles, a poet turned novelist, is an exquisite writer.

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Ninety-Nine Stories of God

Joy Williams

2016 - Fiction, Short Stories
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A collection of fiction for our fractured times from a modern master — funny, profound and redemptive. Williams’ God believes in reincarnation because “it explains so much,” and wants to compete in a demolition derby.

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On Trails — An Exploration

Robert Moor

2016 - Nonfiction, Nature/Environment, Science
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An Appalachian Trail thru-hiker explores his fascination for established paths — why they form, evolve and persist or fade — by traveling from Botswana to Borneo and beyond for answers.

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Once They Were Hats: In Search of the Mighty Beaver

Frances Backhouse

2016 - Nonfiction, Nature/Environment
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A deep dive into the world of — and an appreciative “attaboy” for —this truly busy mammal, tracing its history from flourishing to nearly extinct to triumphant, tree-chomping return.

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Once in a Great City: A Detroit Story

David Maraniss

2015 - Nonfiction, History
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Maraniss’ well-written and researched book well remembers the city of Detroit in the early 1960s as a place where factories hummed, Motown rocked and the present gave little warning that Detroit would become a “city of decay.”

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Penelope Fitzgerald: A Life

Hermione Lee

2014 - Nonfiction, Biography
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The veteran British biographer does a brilliant job of telling the story behind the late-blooming novelist’s career, and how Fitzgerald’s comprehensive research and hard-won life experiences made their way — sometimes candidly, sometimes obliquely, always comically — into her novels (including “The Blue Flower,” “Human Voices” and the Booker Prize-winning “Offshore”).

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Purity

Jonathan Franzen

2015 - Fiction
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Franzen’s fifth novel finds parallels between Internet invasiveness and totalitarianism as it takes on toxic marriages, WikiLeaks-style whistle-blowing and more. Result: an antsy, globe-hopping existential screwball comedy.

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Rebel Yell: The Violence, Passion and Redemption of Stonewall Jackson

S.C. Gwynne

2014 - Nonfiction, History, Biography, War
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The story of Confederate Gen. Stonewall Jackson, whose rock-ribbed belief in the rightness of his cause and his talent for taking risks kept the Confederate cause alive. Gwynne’s talent for spinning a vivid narrative from historical research sets this story alight.

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Redeemer: The Life of Jimmy Carter

Randall Balmer

2014 - Nonfiction, Biography
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The president you were embarrassed to admit voting for emerges in this biography as a man of rare integrity and vision, a man who for a moment was perfectly in sync with the national temperament — and then disastrously out.

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Romantic Outlaws: The Extraordinary Lives of Mary Wollstonecraft and her Daughter Mary Shelley

Charlotte Gordon

2015 - Nonfiction, Biography, History
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This dual biography tells the extraordinary story of Mary Wollstonecraft, English pioneer for women’s rights, and that of her daughter Mary Shelley, who ran away with the married poet Percy Shelley, was shunned by English society and then wrote “Frankenstein.” Gordon interweaves the story of two extraordinary women with skill and sympathy.

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Seveneves

Neal Stephenson

2015 - Fiction, Science Fiction
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Local author

This novel by Stephenson, a Seattle-based speculative fiction author, had me thinking hard for weeks. The premise — something makes the moon blow up, creating an asteroid rain that will eventually kill everyone on Earth. Earth’s leaders have two years to figure out how to preserve the human race. Stephenson has thought out every angle— psychological, political, environmental, and has an expert’s grasp of the science involved

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Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life

Ruth Franklin

2016 - Nonfiction, Biography
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Jackson, author of the horror classics “The Lottery” and “The Haunting of Hill House,” showed an astonishing range, publishing eerie fables of scapegoating and loneliness as well as domestic humor, all while caring for four children and an intellectually detached husband. This biography examines her divided soul and is an elegy for a talent snuffed out too soon.

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Some Luck

Jane Smiley

2014 - Fiction, Historical Fiction
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Smiley puts her prodigious talent for characterization, her eye for detail and her knowledge of Iowa farm life to work in this story of a farm family, from the end of World War I to the 1950s. Best part — it’s the first in a trilogy.

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Sorcerer to the Crown

Zen Cho

2015 - Fiction, Fantasy
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Like the best-selling “Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell,” Zen Cho’s novel sparkles with Jane Austen-ish wit and thrilling clashes between feuding magicians. But she adds a biracial governess, a Malaysian witch and a British noble’s emancipated African ward to the mix, which ups this debut novel’s fun quotient as well as its diversity.

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Station Eleven

Emily St. John Mandel

2014 - Fiction, Science Fiction
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More than just another “dystopian future” novel, Mandel’s darkly lyrical tale begins with an actor collapsing onstage, then follows a handful of characters both forward and backward in time to give us an appreciation of art, love and the triumph of the human spirit.

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Swing Time

Zadie Smith

2016 - Fiction
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Smith’s latest is a sprawling, rewarding study of the friendship arc of two biracial, working-class London girls with a shared love of dance.

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The Cartel

Don Winslow

2015 - Fiction, Crime, Thriller
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This moving story about the havoc wrought by the War on Drugs in the country of Mexico is brutal, bloody and horrifying, as well as inspirational in its story of people who resist the cartels’ takeover. By the end of it you will get Winslow’s point — America is complicit in the carnage.

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The Civil Wars of Julia Ward Howe

Elaine Showalter

2016 - Nonfiction, History, Biography
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This biography of the author of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” demonstrates that perseverance against oppression is an ongoing effort that continues from one generation to the next. Howe’s life story provides lessons about a national history that has never been less than complex.

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The Earth is Weeping

Peter Cozzens

2016 - Nonfiction, History, War
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This detailed account of the United States’ 19th-century wars against Native Americans provides historical background for the passions aroused today over the Dakota Access Pipeline at Standing Rock.

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The End of Karma

Somini Sengupta

2016 - Nonfiction, History
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New York Times correspondent Sengupta’s new offering, a beautifully written memoir and sociopolitical study, chronicles not only the many challenges that confront India’s young people, but also how they attempt to push past their karma or destiny and rewrite it.

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The Gene: An Intimate History

Siddhartha Mukherjee

2016 - Nonfiction, Science
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This in-depth examination of genes and genetics, by the oncologist-turned-author of “The Emperor of All Maladies,” is many things — a natural, social and medical history, as well as a predictor of humanity’s future once the ability to manipulate genes is fully accomplished. A challenging, scary and necessary book.

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The Gilded Hour

Sara Donati

2015 - Fiction, Historical Fiction
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Local author

The Bellingham author brings her vast historical-novel experience to bear in a riveting saga of two women doctors in an 1890s New York City teeming with immigrants, orphans, vast wealth, oppression, romance and optimism — and there’s even an autobiographical twist.

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The Human Age: The World Shaped By Us

Diane Ackerman

2014 - Nonfiction, Science, Nature/Environment
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Sourcing the planet for environment-saving projects, and showing the wondrous minds behind them, Ackerman brings hard science to bear on hope.

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The Last Kind Words Saloon

Larry McMurtry

2014 - Fiction, Historical Fiction, Western
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This episodic tale of the prelude to the Gunfight at the OK Corral distills McMurtry’s career-long meditations on the fading Western frontier into a brief, laconic and almost impressionistic story — less meaty than the author’s previous novels, but no less captivating.

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The Last One

Alexandra Oliva

2016 - Fiction, Science Fiction, Thriller
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Local author

Seattle writer Oliva makes an impressive debut with her first novel, in which a young woman competes in what appears to be a grim and realistic reality-TV show. As the story unfolds, we don’t know what is “real” and what is a very well-executed television program. Oliva is one to watch.

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The Museum of Extraordinary Things

Alice Hoffman

2014 - Fiction, Historical Fiction, Fantasy
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Set in the socially turbulent early 1900s in New York, this magical tale combines history, mystery, romance and the theme of survival. Coralie, the only child of an obsessive, sinister and domineering scientist, must escape her father’s clutches to unite with her lover, a lone young photographer, estranged from his immigrant father.

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The Narrow Road to the Deep North

Richard Flanagan

2014 - Fiction, Historical Fiction, War
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Winner of this year’s Man Booker Prize, this novel is an unflinching journey through the unimaginable cruelty on the Burma Death Railway, that traverses the fragile boundary between beauty and suffering, memory and oblivion.

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The Nordic Theory of Everything: In Search of a Better Life

Anu Partanen

2016 - Nonfiction
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Highly annoying, to the point where I almost wanted to smack the self-satisfied author, this book nonetheless made me think harderthan anything else I’ve read this year about how America could do better for its people in the realms of education, health care, workplace possibilities and … well, attitude.

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The Oregon Trail: an American Journey

Rinker Buck

2015 - Nonfiction, History
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Although it feels a bit like an overstuffed mattress, this first-person account retracing the route of the pioneers via covered wagon is so exuberant that you forgive the lumps and enjoy the ride.

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The Orenda

Joseph Boyden

2014 - Fiction, Historical Fiction
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This transcendent novel about the Huron native people in 17th-century French Canada and the arrival of a Jesuit missionary priest, has an epic feel, both for its profound spirituality and shocking violence.

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The Paying Guests

Sarah Waters

2014 - Fiction, Historical Fiction
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No other book I read this year gripped me quite like this one. It’s a historical novel (set just after World War I, in a London where too many men never came home), a passionate love story and a meticulous thriller — and Waters lets us revel in every whisper, every creak of a floorboard, every hopeless gaze.

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The Peripheral

William Gibson

2014 - Fiction, Science Fiction, Thriller
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As the whip-smart so-called “hicks” of William Gibson’s latest novel pursue a murder investigation, this novel confronts us with cat-eyed Goths wearing animated tattoos, pocket hospitals replacing increasingly ineffective antibiotics, and the question of which split-off version of the road before us is real: the one in which a presidential assassination leads to global catastrophe, or the one in which wealth and tech imported from the future save us from our worst selves.

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The Pigeon Tunnel

John le Carré

2016 - Nonfiction, Memoir
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This incisive and witty memoir, by the man who long ago set the gold standard for modern espionage novelists, is a glittering treasure chest of great stories — about the making of le Carré’s books as well as his own extraordinary career as a British spy at the height of the Cold War.

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The Rise & Fall of Great Powers

Tom Rachman

2014 - Fiction, Mystery
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In his new novel, Rachman, author of the mordantly funny “The Imperfectionists,” introduces readers to the singular Tooly Zylberberg, a woman who, while trying to make sense of her enigmatic, globe-trotting past, discovers both betrayal and a criminal act of love.

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The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History

Elizabeth Kolbert

2014 - Nonfiction, Science, Nature/Environment
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Kolbert’s account of the burgeoning mass extinctions on Earth, from frogs to bats to coral reefs, was the scariest book I read this year.

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The Stories of Jane Gardam

Jane Gardam

2014 - Fiction, Short Stories
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Richly observant, unsparing yet empathetic, this collected short fiction by Gardam, one of Britain’s great late-blooming writers, is a treasure to savor — one story at a time, or on a reading binge.

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The Sympathizer

Viet Thanh Nguyen

2015 - Fiction, Historical Fiction
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In this audacious debut novel, the unnamed narrator is a double agent for the fallen South Vietnamese regime and the communist victors, and his depiction of the Vietnam War and its aftermath in America reads like a frenzied, feverish dream.

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The Throwback Special

Chris Bachelder

2016 - Fiction
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A group of middle-aged men gather each year at the same hotel to re-create one of the most gruesome football plays in American football history — the 1985 play in which New York Giants linebacker Lawrence Taylor sacked Washington quarterback Joe Theismann, breaking Theismann’s leg in several places and ending his career. This National Book Award finalist in fiction is anthropological in its study of how American males interact, drop-dead hilarious and a wistful look at the things that bind us.

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The Triumph of Seeds

Thor Hanson

2015 - Nonfiction, Science, History
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Local author

San Juan Island conservation biologist Hanson explores the easily-overlooked but fascinating key to much of life on Earth, from coffee beans and the nut in Almond Joys to ancient grasses and sticky burdock seeds, which inspired Velcro.

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The Underground Railroad

Colson Whitehead

2016 - Fiction, Historical Fiction
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Whitehead’s novel, winner of this year’s National Book Award for fiction, brilliantly re-imagines the fabled network of escape routes for runaway slaves in the American South as an actual, subterranean rail system, in a moving tale of brutal oppression and the quest for freedom.

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The Wind Is Not a River

Brian Payton

2014 - Fiction, Historical Fiction, War
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A thoughtfully conceived novel that is part war epic, part love story and part odyssey turned inside out, in which the wife sets off on a quest far from home while the battle-scarred husband tends to the flickering fire in his cave. Combining these his-and-her stories of mettle, juxtaposing constancy with adaptive flux, what emerges is a metaphorical alloy of survival.

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Thirteen Ways of Looking

Colum McCann

2015 - Fiction, Short Stories
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Violence hangs over McCann’s collection of short stories, each eloquent and haunting. The title story (taking up more than half the book), about an old man’s final day, echoes Joyce, but finds its own wondrously meandering stream of consciousness.

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Thomas Jefferson Dreams of Sally Hemings

Stephen O’Connor

2016 - Fiction, Historical Fiction
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In this extraordinary work of imagination, O’Connor re-creates the tormented relationship between Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings, his slave and common-law wife, using every literary form going — Hemings’ imagined diary, magical realism, actual excerpts from writings of Jefferson’s former slaves, and the voice of the dispassionate historian. A brilliant, unsettling book about power and its abuse.

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Valiant Ambition

Nathaniel Philbrick

2016 - Nonfiction, History, War
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History at its most compelling: Philbrick tells the fascinating story of Washington’s long struggleto win the Revolutionary War, of the fractious young Republic and of Benedict Arnold’s surprisingly central role in it all.

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