Every year, I like to play along with The Morning News’ Tournament of Books. (You can see some of my general recommendations here, along with recommendations from the 2017, 2018, 2019, and 2020 tournaments.) This tournament is special, however. They’ve finally done enough tournaments in the past that this October brings a bracket of just past winners.
Here are some which I'm rooting for:
Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell
A series of interconnected stories ranging from historical to science fiction, this book won multiple awards when it was first published in 2004, and was even adapted into a movie. Although the differences between the sections can be jarring, the novel coalesces beautifully into a story about human connection.
A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan
My personal network found this title slightly divisive, but it’s one of my favorites among the entries in this tournament. Another book with interconnecting stories, this focuses on Bennie, an aging punk and record executive and his employee Sasha. The story alone is an entertaining story about interesting people making human mistakes, but what sets it apart is the way it plays with form, with many of the chapters completely different stylistically.
The Orphan Master’s Son by Adam Johnson
Pak Jun Do rises in the ranks of North Korea in a novel that mixes elements of thriller, coming of age, and romance. The son of an important man who runs a work camp for orphans, Jun Do learns about power early and eventually becomes a professional kidnapper. This Pulitzer Winner is propulsive and deftly deals with themes of propaganda and identity.
Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel
I can’t blame you if you’re not in the mood to read the story of a world twenty years after a flu pandemic completely changed human civilization, but maybe you’re like me and find dystopics oddly comforting right now. Regardless, this novel about how to keep art alive in a time of chaos is beautifully written. Featuring a traveling theater troupe moving through what’s left of North America from settlement to settlement, they become entangled with a dangerous prophet.
Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel
This massive novel about Thomas Cromwell won pretty much every award imaginable when it came out, and many worried that the sequels wouldn’t match up to the depth and rigor of this first volume. Now that they’re all out, you can sit (over many, many hours) and read in its entirety, Mantel’s thoughtful and compelling narrative about the oft-told story of Henry VIII’s court. This one also has a TV adaptation.
And of course, last year’s winner, Normal People by Sally Rooney.
Connell and Marianne go to school together, but that’s it. Yes, Connell’s mother cleans Marianne’s house, but he’s handsome and well-liked and good at soccer (football in this Irish book), and she’s the school’s untouchable loser outcast. But when they start hanging out at her house little by little they eventually develop a sexual relationship that turns into a deep intimate friendship when they go off to the same college. As they go through life, they grow and change and stay the same and have difficulty expressing how they feel and connect. I loved it. I didn't expect to - I read a bunch of articles calling Rooney THE MILLENNIAL NOVELIST and it mainly made me want to roll my eyes. But I was into it. Connell and Marianne felt like real people. I cared about them and I understood them. Of course, it's infuriating when people can't just say what they feel - but I can't say how I feel. For most of my life I've barely known what I felt, except for too much! This book was compelling and honest and real without being exhausting or a depressing mirror.