Reminder: This list refers to books I read in 2016, not necessarily books that were published only in 2016.
Last year, I had so few books that wowed me that I didn’t even post a list. This year, there were so many it was hard to pick just ten. (And so I didn’t: I picked ten or so.)
Here they are, by type, but not in any particular order. Most of my favorites this year were in the “fantasy” category, which is unusual for me.
Best Literary Fiction
News of the World by Paulette Jiles
Jiles’ novels often explore historical periods but with a poetic bent. Her books are unlike any others I have read. She does a great deal of research, and then dramatizes conflicts among people in the era about which she is reporting with an unstinting yet lyrical eye. She also employs a distinctive style of showing dialogue without any distinguishing punctuation, which makes it more a part of the narrative flow.
The Readers of Broken Wheel Recommend by Katarina Bivald
This is the story of Sara Lindqvist, who comes from Sweden to visit a pen pal, Amy Harris, in Broken Wheel, Iowa, and ends up opening a bookstore. I adored this book!
Shotgun Lovesongs by Nickolas Butler
With beautiful prose and interesting characters, this book earns your affection almost immediately. If you’ve ever lived in a small town, you will probably feel like you “recognize” Little Wing, the book’s fictional town close to Eau Claire, Wisconsin. The story is centered on six friends in their early thirties, all of whom are anchored to Little Wing by a deep sense of place.
The Bones of Paradise by Jonis Agee
This is a riveting book that I couldn’t stop reading, even though it included hard-to-stomach historical accounts of the Massacre at Wounded Knee and I didn’t like many of the protagonists, some of whom committed the most repugnant acts imaginable. But through alternating narrators, the author shows us the forces that drove these characters, and brings us to an understanding of the needs for either revenge or redemption that haunted them.
Most Impressively Written from a Literary Point of View
Anna And The Swallow Man by Gavriel Savit
To my thinking, this book exemplifies astonishing achievement in writing, both on the literal and symbolic levels.
This book takes place during the World War II and the Holocaust, and only has three main characters, each of which illuminates a different perspective: Anna, a seven-year-old girl when we first meet her, personifies both innocence and later innocence destroyed; The Swallow Man, a Werner Heisenberg-like character who, I think, represents the uneasy balance between knowledge (especially, technological advancement) and consideration for ethicality; and Reb Hirschl, who supplies the moral conscience of the story.
This stunning book allows for polysemic readings; in fact, it virtually requires readers to engage in the text more than most; one must not only fill in the blank spaces with what is generally known, as with details about World War II, but also with what can be imagined, such as who and what these characters really are. Reading this book is a thrilling collaborative process between the author and the reader.
Best Crime Fiction
The Trespasser by Tana French
This is the sixth book in the outstanding Dublin Murder Squad Series. The writing is excellent; French is expert at capturing dialogue and describing a scene so that you can see it yourself, and setting a mood so that you actually sense it, whether menace or hope or fear or anger. She conveys the thoughts of the characters in a way that ensures we know exactly how they feel.
Redemption Road by John Hart
John Hart is a very engaging writer. This book, about crimes possibly committed by a bad cop, had me pacing the room out of tension and suspense, and the ending was everything I could wish for.
Best Commercial Fiction
Before The Fall by Noah Hawley
The author of this novel is the Emmy, PEN, Peabody, Critics’ Choice, and Golden Globe Award-winning creator of the TV show “Fargo.” This story is a thriller-ish mystery but also a very clever political and social commentary that will resonate with close observers of the 2016 election season.
Most Cleverly Written – Adult Fiction
Jane Steele by Lyndsay Faye
If you could make a wish list for books, near the top might be this: how about a writer who has produced intelligent and entertaining historical fiction taking on a retelling of Jane Eyre, and enhancing it so that it omits the slower bits and adds very clever, innovative, and humorous ones instead? Who wouldn’t wish for that? And here we have it, with Lyndsay Faye and Jane Steele.
Most Cleverly Written – Young Adult Fiction
The Sun is Also A Star by Nicola Yoon
This National Book Award finalist (Young People’s Literature, 2016) about a Korean-American boy and a Jamaican immigrant girl who fall in love in New York is an exceptional book – funny, clever, heart-breaking, heart-soaring, and full of profound thoughts that should inspire its young adult audience to think more deeply about the world around them.
Best Childrens Books
Harlem Hellfighters by J. Patrick Lewis & Gary Kelley
In World War I, the U.S. Army was segregated, but this did not prevent African-Americans from joining. Between 350,000 and 380,000 black American soldiers played a pivotal role in the conflict. This book tells the story of one of those African-American units. The author served as Children’s Poet Laureate of the United States from 2011 to 2013, and he has won a number of awards, including for his poetry. The verse in this book testifies to his talents. The illustrations are outstanding.
The Case for Loving: The Fight for Interracial Marriage by Selina Alko
This excellent non-fiction book is about two Virginia residents, Mildred Jeter, part African-American and part Cherokee, and Richard Loving, a fair-skinned white boy. The two fell in love, but had to travel to Washington, D.C. to get married legally, which they did in 1958. Shortly thereafter, they returned to Virginia and took up residence. But interracial marriage was illegal in Virginia. This book tells their story as well as that of the landmark civil rights case Loving v. Virginia declaring that statutes preventing marriage solely on the basis of racial classification violated the U.S. Constitution.
Henry Ford for Kids: His Life and Ideas, With 21 Activities by Ronald A. Reis
I love so many aspects of this series of books for kids from the Chicago Review Press. They provide a complete picture of the life of the person being profiled, warts and all, demonstrating it is possible to applaud the accomplishments of acclaimed figures in history while at the same time admitting to more regrettable aspects of their lives.
A second great feature of this series is the inclusion of activities that not only relate to the subject, but tie in different aspects of learning, from language arts to science to architecture, etc.
Best Middle Grade Books
One Crazy Summer by Rita Williams-Garcia
It is the summer of 1968, and narrator Delphine, “eleven going on twelve,” is in charge of her two younger sisters, Vonetta, 9, and Fern, 7, as they fly out alone from Brooklyn, NY to Berkeley, CA to meet their mother Cecile, who left right after Fern was born. These girls are smart, sassy, and funny, and I was charmed from the first page. This delightful middle grade book won many awards, including that of National Book Award Finalist.
The Prince of Fenway Park by Julianna Baggott
Okay, okay, I didn’t read this in 2016; I read it in 2009. But with the Cubs breaking “the curse” and winning the World Series, it occurred to me that middle grade kids might find new reasons to love this wonderful book about a boy who tried to break the Red Sox “curse.” This charming and informative book features a mixed-race boy who helped lift the curse, and in the process, found himself. It got a number of awards and I thought it was terrific, in spite of being geared to the “middle grade” crowd.
Best Coming of Age:
All The Bright Places by Jennifer Niven
This book for young adults focuses on two high school seniors, Theodore Finch and Violet Markey. Both are very bright, but very troubled. This is not a light book; it is full of pain as well as beauty and packs an emotional wallop.
I’ll Meet You There by Heather Demetrios
This terrific young adult novel contains the best account of PTSD I have read in any novel, whether for teens or adults. It’s also just a darn good story about coming of age, romance, and life in a small town.
The 5th Wave Trilogy by Rick Yancey
This is one of the most clever, suspenseful, and scariest post-apocalyptic series I have read to date, and I’ve read a lot of them! And yes, there are bits and pieces of a lot of other well-known books in this one, but Yancey makes the tropes his own, and ups the suspense level enormously.
I hope that you, Reader, aren’t someone who thinks that a young adult trilogy about an invasion from outer space can’t possibly be a sublime, sweeping meditation on the meaning of life. Rick Yancey will prove you wrong.
The Queen’s Thief Series by Megan Whalen Turner
This is a terrific series. For those who fear the steep learning curve of many fantasies, these books won’t put you off at all. Most of the complexity is in the characterization and relationships. The writing and pacing are excellent, and there are plenty of twists that don’t seem “artificial” at all, but rather reflect the ongoing political machinations of the actors. Female characters tend to be stronger than the males, but the males won’t disappoint you. The romances are some of the most nuanced and realistic you’ll find in YA books. Prepare to have your heart stolen!
Uprooted by Naomi Novik
Uprooted made quite a few “Best Books of 2015” lists, for good reason. On the one hand, it’s like an old fairy tale, perhaps in part a retelling – maybe a role-reversed “Beauty and the Beast.” On the other, it’s fresh and creative and enchanting. The magic of this book would have to include the spell it weaves around the reader, from the very first lines.
This is an excellent young adult fantasy ranging over two books about a group of six smart, resourceful, and very likable members of the underclass of Ketterdam, an Amsterdam analogue, who are trying to con their way to a better life. I avoided them at first because I saw them described as “heist books” in the style of “Oceans Eleven.” They are so much more than that. The plot and pacing are terrific, and you won’t want the story of the main characters to be over. My only complaint? It’s only a two-book series. If you read them, you undoubtedly, like me, will want more.
The Captive Prince Trilogy by C.S.Pacat
When I began this trilogy, which consists of Captive Prince, Prince’s Gambit, and King’s Rising, all I really knew about it was that it was Australian fantasy fiction and had an ecstatic fanbase.
It’s not a story for everyone; in this fantasy world, cruelty and force are the norm. But for me, the strong characterizations, nuanced relationships, and the depiction of the considerate and delicate growth of a romance in such an unlikely setting won me over.
Throne of Glass Series by Sarah Maas
This young adult fantasy series has the usual mishmash of familiar themes from other fantasies and dystopias, ranging from Harry Potter to the Divergent series to Hunger Games. But Maas takes these elements and adds remarkably original additional plotting, well-integrated world-building, great characters who actually grow as the series progresses, and epic themes – in short, all elements of stand-out fantasy.
The Red Rising Trilogy by Pierce Brown
Morning Star is Book Three of another excellent fantasy series that began with Red Rising and continued with Golden Son. This fantasy employs all the great and timeless epic themes of war, power, fear, hope, family, loyalty, and love in an unforgettable story about the fate of mankind.
When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi
Neurosurgeon Paul Kalanithi died of metastatic lung cancer at age 37. When he was diagnosed with the disease in 2013, he set out to write a memoir, with his wife Lucy adding an Epilogue after his March, 2015 death. How do we manage to look death in the eye and face death with integrity? Kalanithi not only tells us, but shows us through the way he lived his final two years after receiving his diagnosis. Many reviews laud this book as life-affirming, and it is. In addition, it is replete with thought-provoking meditations on the meaning of life that have the immediacy and poignancy of one who must answer that question right then, at that moment. The author riffs on literature, shows his sense of humor, and shares many moments of joy. I laughed a lot, but cried more; this book filled me with a profound sadness. Nevertheless, I consider this book to be a must-read, and highly recommend it.
Thurgood Marshall may not have worn a cape and tights, but he was, nevertheless, every inch a superhero.
Wil Haygood takes us back to Marshall’s childhood to tell us what it was like for a young, smart, ambitious kid growing up in a world in which he couldn’t even use most public bathrooms or be admitted to many restaurants and hotels. But this never diminished his spirit and determination. On the contrary, it inspired him further not only to achieve, but to work for change for everyone else. And of course he succeeded beyond what anyone could have imagined.
Above all, this is a story of incredible courage, perseverance, and intelligence used to better the lives of millions of Americans.
Timothy Egan has both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award. Those who read his columns in “The New York Times” know he writes with empathy, conviction, and a great sensitivity to social justice. He shows all these traits in this excellent history of Thomas Francis Meagher (pronounced as Marr). It is also a history of the Irish, particularly from the 1600’s onward. The story is quite sad, with the life of Meagher a microcosm in a way of the experience of the Irish nation as a whole. Both suffered repeated persecution, but did not give in to despair. Rather, they were persistent, passionate, and dedicated to justice, family, hearth, kin, and country.
Thousands of books have been written about World War I, but this National Book Critics Circle Award Finalist manages to find a new way to interpret what happened. It follows four important players in the Middle East, one of whom is of course T.E. Lawrence, better known as Lawrence of Arabia.
In addition to stimulating macro-observations about the geography and politics of the region, Anderson tells a rip-roaring adventure tale. This consistently interesting book is an excellent introduction to a fascinating period of history.
Between the World and Me by Ta Nehisi-Coates
The author was inspired to write Between the World and Me by James Baldwin’s 1963 classic book The Fire Next Time, which Baldwin wrote in the form of letters to his nephew. Here Coates writes to his 15-year-old son Samori, both about what it means to be black in America, and about his overwhelming love – as well as hopes and fears, for Samori.
This powerful, riveting testimonial is also a confirmation that the personal is indeed political, especially in a country which is institutionally designed to favor whites over people of color, males over females, straights over gays, and paradoxically, myths over honesty. I consider it essential reading for Americans.
Best Graphic Novel
Saga, Volume Six by Fiona Staples & Brian K. Vaughan
This outstanding graphic novel series, often referred to as a “space opera,” is a story of the little family of Marko and Alana – a mixed-race couple – and their daughter Hazel. The family is struggling to stay together in spite of a war between their two races.
This is a tremendously entertaining “saga” whether you like graphic novels or not. This is not by any means a series for kids – you will see graphic (in both senses) depictions of childbirth, oral sex, anal sex, masturbation – just about anything you can think of (or more accurately, might have never thought of!).
This series is hilarious, moving, exciting, romantic, action-packed, and crazily mentally stimulating, all at once.
This was a great reading year. I’m looking forward to many more good books in 2017!