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!

Len’s Favorite Books of 2013

jess-walter

It’s really difficult to compile a list of the top books in a given year because like a lot of people I tend to read books based on their position on my “to read” list rather than by chronology. Some books sit on my list for a while before I pick them up to read, while others come out and immediately get elevated to the top spot. It’s not at all scientific – it’s quite random and based on mood. One thing that I did do this year without straying is read fiction and listen to non-fiction. I’m not sure why I did it – but for some strange reason I decided to listen to audio versions of non-fiction this year and read (eBook or paper) novels. So, here are the five best novels and five best works of non-fiction I read/heard this year:

Fiction

  • Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter (2012). I’d go as far as to say Beautiful Ruins was one of the best novels I’ve read in many years. I’m a sucker for novels that span generations and this tale takes the reader back and forth between the 1950s and present day and of course brings everything together at the end. A wonderfully crafted book that is funny, romantic,  adventurous and loosely tied to real events.  Like a lot of readers this was my first Jess Walter novel and I can’t wait to delve deeper into his  canon.

  • Pickett’s Charge by Charles McNair (2013).  More than two decades in the making, the second novel from Charles McNair was worth the wait. Pickett’s Charge is a crazy, odd, funny and downright surreal romp through the Alabama countryside with one of the most interesting characters you’ll ever want to meet. I’m proud to call Charles a friend and absolutely loved this crazy novel.

  • Back to Blood  by Tom Wolfe (2012). Back to Blood is not on par with Bonfire of the Vanities or A Man in Full, but it is a great read with wonderful characters and a sarcastic wit. I love Tom Wolfe and Back to Blood simply confirmed this for me. Wolfe fans old and new will love it

  • The Lowland  by Jhumpa Lahiri (2013). I love Jhumpa Lahiri and have read all of her books, and I have to say I think The Lowland is her best yet. One of the things I like best about reading fiction is that you get to see life through the perspective of diverse people. Lahiri brings her readers into the world of Indian-Americans and that is a unique experience for a white dude like me. On top of that she is such a beautiful and fluid writer that she is a pleasure to read.

  • Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore  by Robin Sloan (2012). Mr. Penumbra was a very enjoyable novel with a great plot and modern writing full of fun tech and geek references. I figured I’d like a novel that took place in a bookstore, especially one with a special secret that gives it a sort of DaVinci Code appeal. I also loved how Sloan brings in Google to play off the ancient intrigue of the secret society looking for clues to immortality.

Non-Fiction

  • Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail  by Cheryl Strayed (2012). Like so many stories I read I began listening to Wild on audio with few pretensions. I have read my share of “lost and found” stories, and I generally like them which was one reason I purchased Wild in the first place. What I loved so much about Wild was Strayed’s honesty. She bares her soul in this book and you can’t help but respect the hell out of her for it. I love that as a woman alone in the wilderness she shared her innermost thoughts about what she saw and most importantly who she met.
  • Who I Am by Pete Townshend (2012). Excellent autobiography! Townshend was honest, open and interesting. Highly recommended for any fan of The Who and rock & roll in general.
  • Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal by Mary Roach (2013). Roach takes listeners on a strange and sometimes gross journey down the alimentary canal, discussing the human digestive system from top to…er…bottom. Classic interviews with scientists and researchers who study things like the influence of the sense of smell on eating habits, understanding how stomach acid works from stories about animals and even one human who had a hole in their bodies so researchers could watch how acid dissolves food, and one about doctors who have seemingly cured recurring c-diff infections by transplanting another persons shit into the patient’s colon.
  • How To Find Fulfilling Work by Roman Krznaric (2012). They say when the student is ready the teacher appears, and such was the case this summer with this great little instruction book. I was inspired by Krznaric as well as those he discusses in the book and I’m fairly certain this book helped me feel comfortable about my decision to leave my job in San Diego and move to Phoenix without a job. It also made my decision to go to work for a nonprofit much easier. If you are at all uncertain about the path of your career, read this little book and do the exercises to find out what motivates you and how to find work that aligns.
  • Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln by Doris Kearns Goodwin (2006). I picked up this monster after having seen the film Lincoln last year — the film was based on a portion of the book. DKG leaves no stone unturned in this wonderful tale of how Lincoln convinced congress to support him with the emancipation proclamation. It’s really a story of political genius as much as the story of Lincoln’s life and presidency. At more than 32 hours it is not for the faint of heart though. But once I committed I had to see it through to the conclusion, just as Lincoln did when he decided to make a mark on the world with his presidency. Amazing detail that tells the story of perhaps the most crucial period of our democracy.

As always, for reviews of every book I read and to see what’s on my “to read” list feel free to friend me on Goodreads.