Monday, January 2, 2017

The Best Books I Read in 2016...

2016 might have been a year of loss and significant upheaval for our country, but I'll admit, it was one hell of a year for me as far as reading was concerned. I read 161 books in 2016—the most I've ever read (or at least since college, when I managed a bookstore and was able to read most of the day). This high total was the fringe benefit of a year of significant travel, downtime during a blizzard (and subsequent case of severe bronchitis), and most of all, some pretty amazing books.

As I've done for the last seven years or so, I went back through all of the books I've read and come up with a list of my favorites. Culling 161 books down was really, really difficult, so what I've done is come up with a list of 25, along with an additional 11 which just fell short of the very best but they're too good to miss.

I've linked to my original review of each so you can read more about each one. I'd love to hear your thoughts, and know which books you'd count among your favorites, even if you didn't read as much as I did! I'll list my top five (in random order) and then the remainder of the books will be in random order as well—ranking would be far too complicated!!

The Best of the Best

Dark Matter by Blake Crouch: What a ride this book took me on! This is an absolutely fascinating story of a man who wakes up to find out that the life he knew didn't exist, no matter how vivid his memories were. But which life is the dream, the one he is in now, or the one he remembers? Can he ever make it back to what he remembered, and if not, what will happen to him? Suspend your disbelief and get ready for your heart to start beating pretty fast. Read my original review.


We Are the Ants by Shaun David Hutchinson: This one was brutal and absolutely beautiful, and it absolutely blew me away. For the last few years, aliens have periodically abducted Henry Denton. The aliens have given Henry an ultimatum: Earth will be destroyed in 144 days, unless Henry makes the decision to save the world. All he has to do is push a button. But does Henry want to save the world? He has to decide whether humanity is worth saving or if letting the world end would also end his own emotional anguish. This is such an inventive, moving, beautiful book I won't soon forget it. Read my original review.


What Belongs to You by Garth Greenwell: Greenwell's debut novel is stunning, emotional, lyrical, and it quietly grabs you and doesn't let go. It is a novel about desire, and the desire to be wanted. It's about the struggle between following your heart and your libido instead of your head, and both the consequences and triumphs that come from doing so. Greenwell's talent is evident from the very first lines of this book, and his poetic use of language and storytelling ability sustains through the book's entirety. Read my original review.


When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi: Paul Kalanithi was an excellent neurosurgeon. At the age of 36, Paul was diagnosed with Stage IV lung cancer. Suddenly his life has transformed him from doctor to patient. This is both a reflection on coming face-to-face with one's own mortality and a commentary on the responsibility doctors have to help their patients and their families through that same reflection, whether it happens with some warning or suddenly. Easily one of the finest books I've read in some time. Read my original review.


Orphan X by Gregg Hurwitz: Holy freaking crap. This book absolutely rocked—every heart-racing, pulse-pounding second! When Evan Smoak (not his real name) was young, a man rescued him from a troubled life and he trained Evan how to kill. When he got older he became the Nowhere Man, the last resort for a person in desperate trouble. No one knows who the Nowhere Man is, but they know if they call him, he will help rescue them from a seemingly helpless situation. This book hit all of the right notes for me—fantastic action, more than a few twists, some excellent character development, and some pretty cool gadgetry. Read my original review.



More of the Best

I Will Send Rain by Rae Meadows: The town of Mulehead, Oklahoma, as with many towns in the Great Plains in the mid-1930s, cannot escape the drought. It's wrecking havoc on farming families everywhere. Annie Bell and her husband, Samuel are suffering—their crops yield little, and the whole town is paralyzed by the economic and emotional effects the drought is having. Meadows so perfectly captures the anxiety and fears of this terrible period in American history, how people were affected and how they coped. This seemingly simple story of a family dealing with adversity packed so much power and beauty. Read my original review.


Party of One: A Memoir in 21 Songs by Dave Holmes: This worked for me on so many levels, but mainly because, except for the fact that he was a former VJ on MTV and actually famous, we pretty much lived parallel lives. While there were so many moments in this book that I utterly identified with him (hell, we even had obsessions with many of the same male celebrities in the 1980s and 1990s), it was so enjoyable getting his take on what it was like to be a part of MTV in its late-90s heyday. This is a funny and at times emotional book about what it feels like to finally come to terms with who you are and finally not give a damn what people think. Read my original review.


The Serpent King by Jeff Zentner: Life is pretty tough for Dill Early. It wasn't always easy growing up as the son of a controversial Pentecostal minister who, along with members of his congregation, handled rattlesnakes and drank poison. The future looks bleak for Dill, but his two best friends, Lydia and Travis—outcasts in their own right—are there to attempt to cheer him up and support him. This is a book about how we can't let our lives be dictated by our families or our heritage, but it's also a book about friendship and how it frees and changes us, and how we must find the courage to act on our desires and wishes before it's too late. Read my original review.


A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles: In 1922, Count Alexander Rostov was sentenced to a lifetime of house arrest at the Hotel Metropol, where he had been living in grand fashion. But while no longer being able to step outside the hotel doors, and having to cram most of one's cherished possessions and family heirlooms into one tiny room might bring a lesser man to his knees, Rostov realizes how a life lived within one building can be just as full of excitement as one lived all over the world. Spanning several decades, A Gentleman in Moscow is rich with emotion, vivid storytelling, social commentary, humor, even Russian history. Read my original review.


Home by Harlan Coben: A crazy good thriller and all the feels, too? Hell, yes! Ten years ago, childhood best friends Rhys Baldwin and Patrick Moore were kidnapped during a playdate at Rhys' suburban New Jersey home. Ten years later, Myron Bolitar's best friend Win, who happens to be Rhys' cousin, receives an email tip that leads him to believe he might be able to locate at least one of the boys. There's some terrific action and suspense here, and you really don't know who you can trust. Read my original review.


Christodora by Tim Murphy: This is a richly told, beautifully written, and tremendously moving story about family, love, loss, ambition, battling one's demons, overcoming obstacles both physical and emotional, and the bravery needed to move on. While it's been referred to as an "AIDS novel," it relies just as heavily on the emotional, professional, and romantic struggles of its characters. Read my original review.


Good Morning, Midnight by Lily Brooks-Dalton: Lily Brooks-Dalton's powerful, haunting, contemplative debut novel is a meditation on loneliness, regret, ambition, love, and loss, through the eyes of two unique people. Does pushing people away make you stronger, or does it leave you more vulnerable? What is the price of achieving your dreams, of reaching the pinnacle of your career, if you really have no one to share that with? These are some of the questions pondered in this beautifully written book. Read my original review.


Another Brooklyn by Jacqueline Woodson: Another Brooklyn is a memory poem of sorts, a lamentation on lost youth and the intensity of adolescent friendships which burn with an intense heat for a period of time, only to leave behind the ashes of longing, anger, and regret. Woodson's prose is absolutely luminous in this book. I would read and re-read sentences and paragraphs, and find myself in awe of the language and imagery she used. This is a short book that has a lot of weight and depth to it, and it dazzled me. Read my original review.


The Enchanted by Rene Denfeld: This book was not at all what I expected, and it utterly blew me away. This beautiful book is narrated by a prisoner on death row, where the prisoners are kept in an underground dungeon of sorts. The narrator cannot speak, but he sees and envisions incredible things—golden horses who run hard beneath the prison following every execution, and tiny men that hammer away inside the prison's stone walls, carrying the gossip, threats, and laments from cell to cell. While there are elements of fantasy and imagination, this is a book firmly rooted in the realism of the criminal justice system. So unique and wonderful. Read my original review.


The Memory of Things by Gae Polisner: In Gae Polisner's exquisitely moving novel, 16-year-old Kyle is in class at Stuyvesant High School when the first of the Twin Towers collapses. Rushing across the Brooklyn Bridge, Kyle encounters a girl about his own age huddled on the bridge, covered in ash, wearing a pair of costume wings. She can barely speak, and doesn't know her own name, but Kyle makes the decision to bring her home with him. As Polisner herself said, "This is not a 9/11 story, but a coming-of-age story, one about healing and love. This is a story about hope." Unforgettable. Read my original review.


All the Missing Girls by Megan Miranda: This is what a thriller should be. Ten years ago Nicolette Farrell's best friend Corinne disappeared from their North Carolina hometown one night. No one could figure out what happened, although the investigation brought a lot of people's secrets to light, and made everyone a suspect. Ten years later, Nic returns to her hometown, and shortly after her return, another girl goes missing. After the initial set-up, the story is told backwards, from Day 15 to Day 1 following Nic's return home. Read my original review.


And Every Morning the Way Home Gets Longer by Fredrik Backman: On its surface, this novella seems like a very simple story about the special relationship between a boy and his grandfather, the many interests and loves they shared, and how much they learn from each other. But as you delve deeper, you realize this book deals with the fear that comes from memory loss; the everlasting nature of love; and the sadness of having to say goodbye to loved ones. Read my original review.


The Female of the Species by Mindy McGinnis: All I can say about this book is holy crap. Alex Craft's older sister was murdered three years ago, but the killer went free, so Alex took matters into her own hands. Injustice and cruelty make her angry. And violent. There is no character like Alex Craft. She's like a cross between Lisbeth Salander and Dexter, but with more vulnerability and heart. Although not for everyone, this is a great book with a powerful message. Read my original review.


The Sun is Also a Star by Nicola Yoon: When Daniel and Natasha meet unexpectedly one day, they're both utterly unprepared by the power of their connection. Yet while Daniel is a strong believer in love at first sight, Natasha believes love is governed by emotions that have no place in her life, especially when her family is being deported back to Jamaica in 12 hours. I'm not crying, you're crying. Read my original review.


Why We Came to the City by Kristopher Jansma: This is a powerful, beautifully written book about friendship, love, and how we tackle (and avoid) the challenges that life throws our way. It's about the cocky confidence of youth, the feeling that everything you want can be yours if you just want it badly enough, and how you handle it when things don't break your way. And it's a book about how one person can have a profound effect on you, even more so when they're gone. Read my original review.


Kids of Appetite by David Arnold: This is truly a special book, full of emotion, surprise, and beautiful storytelling, and it has found its way into my heart. This is a book about the bonds of friendship, preserving your own identity, overcoming tragedy, giving yourself (and others) a second chance, and the jumble of emotions which accompany first love. So well-told, so moving, for anyone who has struggled with loss, feelings of powerlessness, and being ostracized for being different when inherently you're the same. Read my original review.


The Mothers by Brit Bennett: While the elements of this novel's plot aren't necessarily unique, the puzzle pieces come together with great skill and beautiful storytelling. Bennett has created a narrative rich with emotion, secrets, and, yes, lies, and a pervasive sense of longing which makes this story even richer. Can we really outrun the secrets we try to put behind us, no matter whom they may hurt? Read my original review.


Highly Illogical Behavior by John Corey Whaley: When we're at our most vulnerable, how do we let our guard down to let people in when we've done just fine on our own (or so we think)? At what point do we put the needs of others over our own needs, and why do we let others force us to act in ways which make us uncomfortable? Read it and see why I am officially a John Corey Whaley groupie (not that he's asked). Read my original review.


Commonwealth by Ann Patchett: How can you resist a novel that starts with the line, "The christening party took a turn when Albert Cousins arrived with gin"? Patchett's newest novel explores the ripple effect that one impulsive action has not only on two couples, but the six children they have between them. Focusing mostly on the children, shifting focus and perspective through five decades, this is a fascinating, moving, tremendously powerful look at how blended families try to coexist, and the strange and powerful bond that exists among the children in these families. Read my original review.


A Tragic Kind of Wonderful by Eric Lindstrom: Mental illness is something many people, including teenagers, live with every day. These people often force themselves to deal with their illness in secret, hiding the truth from loved ones and friends for fear they'll be treated differently, that people will expect less (or more) of them, and that they'll always be thought of as a person with a mental illness rather than simply a person. But not letting those they care about see the truth means that they aren't willing to let themselves be truly known. This is beautiful, heartbreaking, and so accurate in its portrayal of the many shades of bipolar disorder. Read my original review.


More Not to Miss
You Will Not Have My Hate by Antoine Leiris

Siracusa by Delia Ephron

Guest Bed by Luke P. Narlee

All Our Wrong Todays by Elan Mastai

Before the Wind by Jim Lynch

The Summer That Melted Everything by Tiffany McKnight

Everybody's Fool by Richard Russo

A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness

Cruel Beautiful World by Caroline Leavitt

Faithful by Alice Hoffman

The One-in-a-Million Boy by Monica Wood

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