End-of-year fiction roundup

I’ve been a remiss blogger these last six or seven months, which means I have a hefty backlog of books, tv shows, and films that I keep meaning to write about here. At the start of November, I took a stab at NaNoWriMo, but houseguests arrived halfway through the month and my progress petered out. Now, with two weeks to go before the New Year, I’m making a resolution write more often, and how better to begin than with a list of five favorites that I read this year—and haven’t written about yet:

Conviction by Julia Dahl
I don’t often read crime fiction, but Conviction, which follows a freelance reporter in contemporary Brooklyn working to clear the name of a young black man convicted of murder in the early 1990s, has convinced me that I should be reading more of it. Julia Dahl has crafted a true page-turner that deftly addresses weighty topics like racism, police violence, gentrification, feminism, and the gig economy.

Normal People by Sally Rooney
I read Normal People straight through in two days, and then read it a second time a few weeks later. Normal People follows the friendship and romance of two characters, working-class Connell and affluent Marianne, from their final year of school in their hometown in rural Ireland, through their time at university at Trinity in Dublin. In some ways, the novel’s plot is a classic will-they-won’t-they, but issues like class and social capital are explored much more deeply here than in Rooney’s first novel, Conversations with Friends; and for me, Rooney’s depiction of how the power dynamic between Marianne and Connell shifts over time was just as compelling as her portrayal of the tenderness these two characters feel for one another.

The Woman Upstairs by Claire Messud
As someone who thinks a lot about cultivating supportive friendships and relationships while also pursuing creative and professional fulfillment, The Woman Upstairs offered me a vision of a kind of nightmare-future that awaits those who don’t have the nerve to admit what they really want and go after it. But what a haunting and cleverly executed nightmare-future it was! Would recommend to anyone who (like me) needs an occasional reminder that self-effacing modesty isn’t charming—it’s the enemy of your own happiness.

A Gathering Light by Jennifer Donnelly
This YA novel was published as A Northern Light in the US, so I was already a few chapters in when I realized that I had read this book as a teen. Inspired by a real-life murder case, this feminist bildungsroman in a turn-of-the-century farming community reminded me what it felt like to be a sixteen-year-old dreaming of life as a writer in the big city. It also has the most graphic depiction of childbirth that I have ever encountered in fiction—something which felt revolutionary in a novel meant for teens.

Half of A Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
I somehow managed to start this novel without realizing that it was a story about the Nigerian Civil War. I spent the first few chapters thinking it was going to be a coming of age story about a boy who leaves his village to work as a professor’s houseboy, or about two sisters, or about young academics falling in love; so it was all the more devastating when the war arrived and turned the lives of these characters upside down. I think what’s stuck with me most is the way Adichie not only made me love every single character but that she had the courage to show us those beloved characters doing terrible, unforgivable things in the midst of war.

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