My Favorite Novels of the Decade

As we wind our way down to the end of the decade I will consume a whole lot of “best of” lists from magazines, newspapers, blogs and websites. I love me some lists. And I love to create my own as any regular reader of this blog can attest. In the next few weeks you can expect to see a post about my favorite films of the 2010s, my favorite albums of the decade, and my favorite albums of 2019. But I thought I’d start with a list of my favorite novels of the decade.

Please note that my lists reflect my favorites rather than what I consider to be the best. I’m not a professional critic of music, films or writing, and while I have opinions on these sorts of things I prefer instead to simply share the art that brought me joy. It’s harder to disagree when I’m not declaring that a book, album or film is objectively the best — I’m happy to do that over a coffee or an adult beverage if you are so inclined, but I write these posts to identify art you may wish to discover on your own to see if they also bring you joy.

So with that, here are my 10 favorite novels of the 2010s, starting with a few honorable mentions:

  • Love and Other Consolation Prizes by Jamie Ford (2017). This was a selection from my men’s book club this year that really jumped out. Ford weaves together a heart-wrenching story of immigration and survival that is beautifully told and very unique.
  • The Sellout by Paul Beatty (2015). It’s a book about a black man living in LA who wants to reintroduce segregation. Yes, it’s a satire. And yes, it’s biting and hilarious. Beatty won the Man Booker Prize for this novel, becoming the first American to win the prestigious U.K. award.
  • Lily and the Octopus by Steven Rowley (2016). I was not prepared for the emotional ride that this story about a man and his canine companion took me on. It was funny and sad, but ultimately a story of growth and survival.
  • The Water Knife by Paolo Bacigalupi (2015). Bacigalupi’s dystopian take on life in the American Southwest after the water dries up is one of the scariest stories I’ve ever read. It’s fiction, but it hits home so hard I almost wanted to move to Oregon directly after reading it. Check out my full review.
  • Back to Blood by Tom Wolfe (2012). No countdown of great novels is complete without Tom Wolfe. Back to Blood isn’t his best novel, but it’s pure Wolfe and that’s good enough for me. RIP Tom.
  • The Lonely Polygamist by Brady Udall (2010). What if a man with four wives and 28 children had a midlife crisis? It’d make for a darn funny novel. Udall also happens to be a member of the famous Mormon political family that includes a host of current and former U.S. Congressmen that spans generations.
  • Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan (2012). You’ll definitely enjoy the hidden secrets of this fictional bookstore in San Francisco. It’s a crazy, fun ride full of mystery and conspiracies.
  • There There by Tommy Orange (2018). One of the most talked about and best reviewed novels of the decade, Orange weaves together a selection of stories about Native Americans growing up on the hard scrabble streets of Oakland. Powerful, eye-opening, and important.

10. State of Wonder by Ann Patchett (2011). Patchett is one of my favorite novelists and State of Wonder is a great example of why. It’s an adventure story that takes place in the Amazon where a group of scientists are searching for plants that could lead to pharmaceutical breakthroughs and the huge financial rewards that come with it. Needless to say there is intrigue and ethical dilemmas. Patchett writes unique and developed female characters that give this old man better insight into the finer gender.

9. Ready Player One by Ernest Cline (2011). Rarely has a novel captured my teenage years as well as Cline’s futuristic tale of throwback video games and 80s pop culture. It’s dystopian and familiar at the same time, and god help us if we continue down the path toward all of us living in a virtual world. Such a blast of a novel, and just an “ok” film version if I’m being honest. If you are geek that came of age in the 80s (or just someone who loves the 80s) this novel will undoubtedly resonate with you.

8. The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell (2014). From the author of Cloud Atlas comes this hair-raising tale of supernatural beings with a not so pleasant plan for mankind and the group of mystics working to foil their plans. It doesn’t sound like a novel I’d be interested in from the sleeve notes, but damn Mitchell is otherworldly in his tale-telling abilities — perhaps the best storyteller and writer of his generation.

7. The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead (2016). This is perhaps the most inventive novel of the decade and it’s deserving of all the accolades it received when it was released including the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, the National Book Award for Fiction, and the Goodreads Choice Awards Best Historical Fiction. I’ve read three of Whitehead’s novels now and he is clearly one of the country’s best authors. I’m also looking forward to the upcoming Amazon series based on the book.

6. Moonglow by Michael Chabon (2016). Chabon has been churning out brilliant novels for decades now and he’s definitely among my favorite novelists. Moonglow is his best work in a long time and it’s so interesting in that it blurs the lines between fact and fiction. The story is a tribute to his grandfather, as told by a character named Michael Chabon. My full review is online.

5. A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki (2013). This Man Booker nominee is the story of a writer named Ruth who lives in the Pacific Northwest and one day while walking along the beach she finds a diary written by a teenage Japanese girl. The novel takes the reader back and forth to the life of the girl as well as the writer who makes it her mission (or obsession) to find out what happened to the young girl in the wake of the 2011 Japanese earthquake and tsunami. This story has everything I love — it spans multiple time frames, it has multiple narrators, it teaches the reader about history and about a different culture, it is contemporary, it provides life lessons, it is heartbreaking and uplifting, it is philosophical, it has rich and interesting characters, and it even includes a little physics and just the right touch of magical realism. 

4. Barkskins by Annie Proulx (2016). Proulx is an American treasure and now that she is in her 80s we should cherish every word she writes before her time runs out. She is the author of my all-time favorite novel, 1993’s The Shipping News, and she also penned Brokeback Mountain. Reading Barkskins seemed like a daunting task at first because it’s so dense, but I should have realized I’d end up enjoying every sentence of its 736 pages. Here’s my full review.

3. The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt (2013). This coming of age story about a 13-year-old boy who loses his mom in a terrorist attack has it all — fascinating story lines, interesting characters, intrigue, mystery, and so much more. The 2014 Pulitzer Prize winner for fiction kept me on the edge of my seat the whole way through and the story has stuck with me since. I haven’t seen the film yet, and I know it didn’t get great reviews, but I loved this novel so much I’ll definitely be streaming the movie once it’s available. It seems I really do love coming of age stories whether in books or movies (hint hint there will be a major coming of age story in my upcoming post about my favorite films of the decade). Don’t let the film’s bad reviews keep you from reading this novel as it’s clearly one of the best novels of the decade.

2. Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter (2012). I’m a sucker for stories that jump around from generation to generation and take place in multiple locations (see A Tale For the Time Being above). Walter’s satirical look at Hollywood culture takes the reader from Italy to L.A. and from the 1960s to today. The lives of the main characters are weaved in and around the story of the filming of 1963’s Cleopatra and the love affair between Liz Taylor and Richard Burton. I find it cool when writers mingle fiction with reality to give their fictional characters an anchor based in reality. Tarantino recently did this with Once Upon a Time in Hollywood and it worked great. Walter is an inventive writer and it’s impossible not to love Beautiful Ruins. There’s been a film version in the works for years but it hasn’t gotten out of development yet. I sure hope it does.

And my favorite novel of the 2010s:

The Orphan Master’s Son by Adam Johnson (2012). Winner of the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for fiction, The Orphan Master’s Son is a brilliant tale set in North Korea that pulls you in from the first moment and takes you along on a journey that seems impossibly hard to imagine. The protagonist is a young North Korean named Pak Jun Do who journeys from orphanage to soldier to prisoner. Apparently Johnson based this novel on interviews he did with North Korean refugees and it is based on stories they relayed to him about life inside the mysterious country. It is from this novel that I learned about just some of the travesties going on under the regime of the Kim family. I love a novel that can both entertain and educate and Johnson’s amazing novel does both using brilliant storytelling and beautiful prose. Johnson is a gifted writer and his future work will always be on my reading list. Plus, he’s an ASU grad so there’s a great Arizona connection. Fork ’em!

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