For once, I actually came up with a top ten list of books that actually sticks to ten books. Kind of.
There are some series in here I’m mentioning as a whole, so technically there’s a few more than 10. I created this list by looking first at what I rated 5 stars on my Goodreads page and then picking a few more that stood out as highlights of the year. In 2016, I rated 8 out of 105 books 5 stars, which–and I haven’t actually checked this but I’m almost positive is true–is a pretty major decline from 2015. I think I must be getting more strict with that rating, not reading worse books, because all but two of the 5-stars came in in the first half of this year, so we’ll see how next year goes with Goodreads ratings. Rest assured, all of these are and will remain new favorites of mine.
I didn’t rank them, but I have split this favorites list into three categories: nonfiction, fiction, and sequels of stuff I’ve read in years past (in both cases I loved the earlier books in the series too, so you can consider that a continuation of the fiction list, it just works out separate in my mind). This list is almost balanced between fiction and nonfiction selections which I find super interesting because overall I read much more fiction. There is a little bit of diversity of genre in the fiction group and I’ve tried to describe each one at least a little so that you can decide if it’s something for you or not. There are a couple that I think everyone can get something out of, but there are more than a few that I definitely don’t expect to be everyone’s favorite; I’m always happy to hear what you think.
March is a memoir by Congressman John Lewis, following him on Inauguration Day in 2009 as he reflects back on his youth as an activist in the Civil Rights movement. The story is spread out over three graphic novels–two of which I rated 5-stars. It’s the kind of thing that I finished and the immediately wanted to buy a thousand copies of and hand them out on the street corner because everyone. should. read. this. It’s history I knew from my high school American history classes, but it’s told in a way that helps bring a more personal experience to life.
I didn’t rate or review this one on Goodreads because I couldn’t ever figure out what to say about it. I still don’t really know because this was already super buzz-y in 2015 and it’s well praised. It’s also very personal so it’s hard to even begin to critique. For me, it was an important read simply because it unflinchingly offers a perspective I’d never really encountered before. And Coates is so strikingly intelligent, there’s a lot to absorb and contemplate. I feel like I’ve forgotten a lot of the specifics in the months since I’ve read it but the passage on 9/11 has stuck with me, and not for the reason you might think.
I pick up a Krakauer book every few years and every time I get re-blown away by the skill with which he handles information. This is carefully researched and reported and expertly tackles a topic that plagues every campus in the country by making it personal and diving deep into several cases in one small town. Definitely highly recommended.
Anybody who’s read M.T. Anderson before knows how well can write. His talent for detail and character serve him well in this non-fiction foray. I was introduced to Dimitri Shostakovich’s music in orchestra in high school and I have been forever after fascinated by what little I gleaned about his life and how his experience as an artist in oppressive communist Russia during the second World War impacted his work. This book doesn’t endeavor to capture all of Shostakovich’s life and work, but scales its focus perfectly to important works and moments in Shostakovich’s life and the devastating siege of Leningrad of 1941. You get a picture of the composer, arts in a totalitarian state, and a broader look at the impact of the siege on the people of the city in a way that is informative, but also creates a very readable narrative.
I’ve enjoyed all of Victoria Schwab’s other work that I’ve read (The Archived and Vicious) so I was expecting to like this but I didn’t realize just how much I would love it. It’s set in one city: London, but in four different parallel worlds one of which is home to Kell Maresh, a magician. Kell is the only one in his world with the ability to travel between these parallel worlds, powerful, but coveted and controlled by the royal family of which he is an adopted member. On a mission for his royal court to that of another London (i.e. ours in the late 18th century) he encounters Lila Bard, a pickpocket, who finds herself in a lot of trouble when she thieves a dangerous and powerful object from Kell.
The plot struck me as a little entrenched in a Lord of the Rings-style trope: they find and seek to destroy a deadly powerful object, battling the temptation its power offers them. Yet the story was completely enthralling, in part because its characters were compelling. Lila is reckless and daring and Kell is brooding and grouchy, but both have this buried desire to be free of what each considers a constraining life. Their strikingly different personalities make their interactions together hilarious and I should note that though you’ll find romance on the horizon in this series, it isn’t at all prominent in this first book; everyone’s busy with the imminent destruction of the world. I also found the dynamics of power in the world very interesting, the way Schwab structured magic and its consequences makes for some very compelling moments.
The one and only book I actually did a full review for this year! Goes to show how much it had me thinking. It basically took over my life for a week last March. It’s also the primary reason I wrote that disclaimer at the beginning about not everything on this list being for everybody because this goes to some pretty dark places.
A Little Life begins following four young men fresh out of college as they start their careers in New York City. An artist, actor, architect and a lawyer, sounds like the start of a walk-into-a-bar joke but after the first couple hundred pages (this book clocks in at 900 pages) we spiral in to focus on the lawyer, the enigmatic Jude St. Francis. The coming of age tale of four friends dissolves as the men find their footing professionally and officially enter adulthood and we begin to flash back to Jude’s traumatic childhood, interspersed with scenes depicting just how much his past impacts his present, throughout 30+ years of his adult life.
If you read the jacket blurb on this it says something about “breaking impossibly into the light” but I found it essentially devastating. It doesn’t break into any light at all really, not in any big way, but the abject misery of it all does make one appreciate the smallest moments of love and kindness and friendship that we see looking in on Jude’s adult life, though the most heart-breaking part of it all is how infrequently he realizes those moments for what they are. My chief enjoyment in this novel was a lot more meta than any moment of levity in the text itself. It’s so superbly crafted by Yanigahara, and emotionally, it hit me hard, which I appreciated. Novels are important to me and I love getting lost in a good story, but I have never in my life had a book take over my thoughts so completely both while and after I had read it.
None of this talk of it being sad is really making anybody want to read it, I know, but the fact that a story can do that is so amazing to me.
This series is little-known but had some buzz this year among the book people I follow on Tumblr and Instagram so I picked it up, even though on the surface it didn’t sound like something I would love nearly as much as I did.
The All for the Game books follow young runaway Neil Josten as he’s recruited onto an collegiate sports team purposefully stocked full of misfits with painful pasts. Their sport, Exy, is entirely fictional, easiest to explain as a full-contact cross between lacrosse and racquetball. It’s intense. Neil is loath to join the team as its star player has ties to some shady characters from his mysterious past and he knows that recognition could spell his demise, but driven by his love for the game and exhaustion with solitary life on the run, he joins the team. Things spiral from there as tensions flare between teammates while they strive to beat a truly frightening rival both on and off the court.
I have really hard time articulating why I loved these books so much. They’re so strange and kind of over the top in terms of plot, so it so easily could have gone in a direction I hated but I did enjoy the story even as I recognized a few flaws. I think what saves it from being completely overwhelmed by the plot is its varied and compelling characters and ensemble feel and the way it doesn’t flinch away from hurting those people to bear out the consequences of the high drama. It comes out feeling very visceral and real, though I can use my head and point out all sorts of places that things don’t make total intellectual sense. That said, if it can get me out of my head, it’ll probably do the same for a lot of other people too.
I started getting into romance novels at the tail end of 2015 and I read a bunch of them in 2016. There were a lot I just sort of liked, a few I genuinely hated and a small handful I loved. I loved this series in particular because of the way all of the books created characters and situations that made me feel like I was reading about real people, not caricatures of tropes. I mention the series as whole because I genuinely could not pick a favorite, and the first three of the four currently available are all acceptable entry points as each follows a new M/M pair.
I loved how naturally events progress between friends in Sutphin Boulevard, how personal flaws and external personal and professional pressures contribute to the conflict as they risk a long friendship to grow into something more. Sunset Park takes two characters from completely different backgrounds and doesn’t shy away from portraying how their misconceptions about each other strain their otherwise very sweetly uncertain romance. Then First and First takes a character you’ve grown to hate in Sunset Park and shows his self-consciousness and his passion while he navigates not only a new romantic connection who challenges him, but also a career change and some rocky family relationships. With this series, I stopped feeling like I was reading a trope-tastic romance novel and was just watching a bunch of people navigate their real lives, which I discovered was exactly what I wanted after a long year of trial and error in the genre.
Early this spring, over a year after I first started, I got all caught up on the Outlander series! It felt like a pretty major accomplishment. If you’ve been living under a rock somewhere and don’t know anything about Outlander, it’s a behemoth of a fantasy/historical fiction series that follows 20th century nurse Claire who is magically transported back in time to tumultuous 18th century Scotland.
I didn’t love every single book in the series, but overall I really enjoyed it. The first one, Outlander, is still my favorite because it balanced plot and detail the best. However, all of them, especially the middle books of the series so far, do tend to drag quite a bit. By this eighth installment though, the world has expanded well beyond its initial cast fairly narrow cast of major characters and I highly enjoyed every storyline this one followed. It is still monstrously large, but for the first time since Outlander, I think it really earned its length.
This is essentially the sixth book in a series so I won’t summarize the plot of this specific installment. If you haven’t already start with Mistborn: The Final Empire which follows a powerful young magician who falls in with a band of criminals to attempt a revolution against a powerful, seemingly immortal dark lord. The series containing The Bands of Mourning follows after the Mistborn series, taking the same complex magic and expanding the theology and philosophy of the earlier installments into a technologically advancing world centuries afterward.
Mistborn is one of my favorite trilogies in all of fantasy and the industrial revolution-esque Wax&Wayne/Era 2 trilogy was until this installment something I was enjoying but not loving quite as much. I can’t get into specifics without ruining lots of plot points, but this one expanded the world dramatically as it ventures far from the major city most of the rest of the series has centered on. I also absolutely adored the romantic subplot. I am game for a slow-burn between two unlikely characters any day. Unfortunately, it’ll be 2018 before this Era 2 series concludes, but you can trust I’ll be eagerly lining up in the early morning at the bookstore to get my hands on it it when it does.
Want to see what I loved in years past? Check out these:
End of the Year Book Survey (2013)