Here are my top five, along with some honorable mentions:
Best Family Novel
This was a 1980’s period piece with a great sense of time and place and a complex family dynamic. It reminded me a little of Roxana Robinson's work. It also had a lot to say about forgiveness and regret. I wouldn’t say I'm interested in ballet, but this completely bowled me over and I hope it starts getting some attention on other year-end “Best of” lists.
Best Southern Fiction
This debut by a Kentucky native has an autobiographical fiction vibe and therefore all the details felt very authentic. It’s about class issues and graduate school romances and relatives with whom you disagree on politics. It’s also about simultaneously loving and hating the South. Shout-out to the author's mention of Richard Hugo's Degrees of Gray in Philipsburg, which it unearthed from the depths of my memory. Also, it made me book a trip to Cumberland Falls to see that moonbow!
When Casey Parks came out to her conservative rural Louisiana family in 2002, her grandmother responded by telling her about a neighbor she had in the 1950’s, a “woman who lived as a man” named Roy Hudgins. She asked Casey to try to find out what happened to Roy, which Casey does over the next decade, also using this quest to reconnect with her mother. More than the mystery of Roy, this is about growing up in the South in a religious family and then navigating the gap once you leave and become your own person.
Best Coming-of-Age Novel
This was a great evocation of an '80's childhood: friendship pins, sticker collections, plastic protractors, everything smelling like fake strawberries. The crux of this book, though, and what made it memorable and bone-chilling, is how things around you that seemed "odd" growing up were actually dangerous/abusive situations that as a child, you didn't have the capacity to understand. I think about this often.
P.S. This reads like memoir, but it's fiction.
Best Patricia Highsmith Homage
This was short and gripping and oh, my, that last line! If you liked this, try last year’s most Highsmith-esque novel, Who Is Maud Dixon.
Best Reason to Call Your Mom
I would have told you before reading this that I had little to no interest in genealogy, but maybe I do? Maud Newton investigates painful parts of her family history and looks at how that history has impacted her own life. I found this thrilling to read and it made me want to investigate recurring themes within my own family. Time says,
In grappling with her history, Newton explores intergenerational trauma, genetics and epigenetics, considering all the ways in which getting to know our ancestors can help us gain perspective on ourselves.
Best Time Travel
I keep seeing this compared to David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, but I found Sea of Tranquility much more absorbing and approachable. Think of it as sci-fi for people who don’t like sci fi.