Best Books of 2016

It's been quite a year in terms of books.  Personally, I read 92 books (and counting!), up ten from last year, but not quite at my goal of 100.  If you want to friend me on Goodreads, go for it!

As always, there were some hits and some misses, but overall, I was really happy with what I read.  So many good books, so little time.  Here are my favorites from the past year.  Get reading and let me know what you think!

A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara -  I'm still thinking about this book months later, so it definitely stuck with me.  It's a behemoth, but damn it's good.  Original reviewThis book.  This book.  It was shortlisted for the 2015 Man Booker.  The book follows the lives of four friends who meet at a small liberal arts college and then move to New York City.  An actor, an artist, an architect, and a lawyer, they all struggle through their twenties, but gain money, success, fame later in their careers and lives.  The true protagonist of the story is Jude, the lawyer.  His backstory is weaved throughout the book, slowly giving the reader hints as to the horrific abuses that he experienced as a child and explaining his behavior as an adult.  This book is long, it is dense, it is incredibly graphic (the scenes of Jude's abuse are brutal), it is depressing, and it is truly haunting.  I thought about A Little Life for weeks after finishing it, which is not something that I often do.  

Fates & Furies by Lauren Groff - From what I've found, people tend to fall either into the love or hate camp on this one.  I'm on the love side.  Give me a good twist and some darkness and I'll take it.  Original reviewOh man, did I love this book.  So good!  We start with the Fates half of the book.  About to graduate college, lothario Lotto falls in love with the virginal beauty Mathilde.  Their love for each other is all-encompassing, eclipsing everything else in their lives.  They host potluck dinners in their tiny New York apartment, only to disappear into the hallway to make love.  As the years pass, this hungry love for each other never wanes, but only seems to grow stronger.  As Lotto moves from an out-of-work actor to a successful playwright, Mathilde is always by his side, supporting him.  And yet, when we switch perspectives in the Furies half of the book, was anything what it seemed?  Without giving anything away, just know that the prose is stunning and that Groff beautifully explores what a marriage is and how our own perceptions of a person, of a relationship, can be incredibly far from the truth. 

Missoula by John Krakauer -  After Brock Turner, this book feels more important than ever.  Original review - This book is hard.  It's brutal, in fact.  But it's also incredibly important.  Krakauer dives right into the entitlement that athletes often feel and in fact, are given, by the team, school, town that rallies around them, even when they are accused of horrendous crimes.  While a true story, Krakauer's writing is fluid and almost reads like a novel.  He provides important facts and background information, without ever coming across as a lecturer.  No one is left off the hook here, from the police officers to the attorneys to the community at large.  Some may call Krakauer biased (I'm not one of them), but given the evidence that he presents, it's hard not to see his point.

Dietland by Sarai Walker -  Still fun, dark, and smart.  We're going to need stuff like this going forward. Original reviewPlum is fat.  Obese, in fact.  But that life will soon be over.  Once Plum has her stomach-stapling surgery, her whole life will begin.  This time, she'll be Alicia.  That is, until she notices that she is being followed by a strange woman.  One who wears brightly patterned tights.  Plum quickly falls in with a group of women who live life outside of the perimeters society sets up for women.  As this is happening in Plum's personal life, globally, a terrorist group that goes only by the name "Jennifer" is performing acts of vigilante justice against rapists, pornographers, and the media.  Are the two groups connected?  I loved this book.  It was wickedly dark, funny, smart, and a great commentary on how women are expected to behave, look, act, eat, exist.  I had my mom read it, but I don't think she liked it as much as I did.  "Jennifer" was too violent for her taste.

The Dead Lands by Benjamin Percy -When I was a kid, I read a book where the main character's dad's girlfriend was a professional reader aka she read books to decide whether or not they would make good movies.  Can I have that job?  Also, this is my first pick for an epic television series.  Netflix, give me a call. Original review - Yes, yes, and yes.  Someone needs to make this into a movie or a series immediately.  In a post-apocalyptic future, a group of people live behind a wall.  Outside their walls, wild animals, more fierce than you can imagine, roam.  Inside, there is a serious shortage of water.  When a strange rider shows up from the west, some people realize that the only way to survive is to leave.  This is a re-imagining of Lewis & Clark and it is incredible.  The cast of characters are wonderfully diverse, their cross-country journey is in turns terrifying and delightful.  And when they arrive at their destination, everything comes to a head.  Fantastic.  Read it.  

Boo by Neil Smith -  I read a couple "YA" novels this year without knowing that's how they were marketed.  Regardless of their genre, there are great books out there.  This is one of them. Original reviewBoo, thirteen years old, wakes up in an unfamiliar room and is told that he is dead and he's now in heaven.  Boo, very intelligent and pragmatic, deduces that he must have been killed by his heart defect.  He quickly begins writing down his afterlife experiences to hopefully share them with his parents someday.  Boo discovers that heaven is segregated by age, with all who die at thirteen sharing the same town.  Everyone has a job, a way to contribute to the town, and Zig aka god, sends them the things that they need.  Johnny, a classmate, turns up in heaven after Boo has been there for awhile and claims that he and Boo were both murdered by a school shooter they call Gunboy.  Johnny believes that Gunboy is in heaven too and they need to find him to avenge their deaths.  This is such a smart, imaginative, gorgeous book.  I think it is marketed as YA, but I really enjoyed it and didn't feel that things were toned town in any way for a younger audience.  

Underground Airlines by Ben H. Winter -  I keep getting this confused with The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead, which I haven't read yet.  Both are fantastic. Original review - This book was FANTASTIC.  Pick it up right now.  Imagine a United States where the Civil War didn't really happen.  Instead, four states were allowed to continue the practice of slavery.  Victor, a black man, is a present-day spook working for the US Marshals, bringing in runaway slaves.  When he is put on the case of "Jackdaw", something immediately feels off to him.  He's good at his job, he's done this many times, but there is something about this one that isn't sitting well.  As he investigates further, we find out Victor's own story.  This was so well-written and feels so important to read in this time.  I can't recommend this enough.

Party of One by Dave Holmes -  I need all the humor I can get lately, and this was the perfect escape from reality. Original review - I've had a weird obsession with Dave Holmes since MTV's first Wanna Be a VJ competition, which he totally unfairly lost.  Anyway, he wrote a book!  I bought it for my mom and then read it myself the next time I was home.  It's perfect - funny, smart, sad, insightful, and self-reflecting.  From his childhood in a midwest home, his coming out at a diversity conference (one of my favorite stories), to his big move to New York City and his eventual job working at MTV, Holmes shows humility and humor.  There's also some really good behind the scenes MTV gossip.  It feels like a book your best friend wrote for you.  Loved it.

Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng - A gorgeously written story about a mixed-race family that you should read immediately.  Original review - This was my book club's December selection (I joined a book club!  It's great!) and luckily, it was a quick read in between all of the holiday insanity.  The story surrounds a Chinese-American family living in Ohio in the 1970s.  Each family member struggles with their identity as part of a mixed family in their own way.  When teenage Lydia disappears and then turns up dead, the family is forced to confront these issues head on.  Beautifully written and well-paced, this is definitely worth a read, even if there are some cliches.  The characters are all flawed, but in realistic ways, so even though I didn't like any of them, I understood their motivations.

Slade House by David Mitchell -  Is there another book in this reality coming out because I wouldn't mind that at all.  Original review - Really similar to The Bone Clocks, and even featuring some of the same characters, Slade House was such a fun read.  Slade House itself sits tucked into an alley and only accessible by a tiny garden door.  Every nine years, someone stumbles upon the house and then, well, disappears.  But what truly goes on behind that garden door?  Over the course of decades, the victims of Slade House, as well as their family members, unlock the dark secret of the house and search for revenge against an ancient brother & sister duo.  My only complaint was that the book was too short - I wanted more!

Wild by Cheryl Strayed -This led me to the incredible Cheryl Strayed's other writing, which is fantastic.  Keep up the good work! Original review - I wish this hadn't taken me so long to read.  I absolutely loved it.  The writing was incredible.  The story is beautiful and tragic and haunting and empowering.  I've spent most summers hiking in the White Mountains of New Hampshire on an annual three-day trek, which is nothing compared to Strayed's taking on the Pacific Crest Trail, but maybe because of that, I could feel the trail under her feet, feel the heat pushing down on her, hear the bumps in the night that scared her.  I've also lost a parent, and while my spiral afterwards wasn't as destructive and self-harming, I do understand those sentiments.  Cannot say enough about this book.  If you haven't read it, please do.

Luckiest Girl Alive by Jessica Knoll -  Yet another topical and incredibly important subject taken on in a heart-wrenching way.  I can't wait for the movie and to see what Knoll does next.  Original review - Ani has the perfect life.  She has an enviable magazine job in New York City, an increasingly tiny body, and a hot, not to mention rich, fiance.  She also hides a dark history in the form of her past life, as TifAni (do not get me started on the random capitalization of her name - it drove me insane).  As Ani's wedding approaches, her past begins to creep up on her in the form of a documentary being made about the "big event".  She starts to unravel, piece by piece.  I had some serious problems with this book, mostly that Ani is "faking" her life through expensive clothes and crash diets, but when she has what she always wanted - money, a hot fiance, a jealousy-inducing job, she is never happy or satisfied.  What is her end game?  Regardless of my problems, I enjoyed the book, thought it was well-written, and an interesting look at the pressures put on women today to "have it all".

Big Little Lies by Liane Moriarty - Already counting down until the HBO series premieres.  Also grabbing all the Liane Moriarty I can.  Original review - I'm going to be honest - I initially wrote off all things Liane Moriarty as chick lit.  It's my own fault, I should know better.  And now I do because I loved this book and found it smart, funny, and literary.  Celeste, Madeleine, and Jane all have children in the same kindergarten class in an Australian beach community.  While Celeste's life may look fabulous from the outside, she's hiding a dark secret.  Jane is a young, single mother trying to do the best she can for her son.  Madeleine is dealing with her own personal drama in the form of an ex-husband, his new wife, and their child, who also happens to be in the same kindergarten class.  When tragedy strikes at a school function, the truth comes out for everyone.  This was so fun!  A great read.  I'll be grabbing more Moriarty in the future.

Andersonville by Edward M. Erdelac -  This was dark and glorious.  I've thought about it often since I finished it.  There's so much greatness here. Original review - This book is not going to be for everyone, but I LOVED it.  Ok, short synopsis:  Barclay, a black man posing as a Union soldier, sneaks into the South's deadliest prison on a secret mission.  However, before he can carry out that mission, he has to simply stay alive in this horrific place, run by sadistic Confederate leaders who allow abusive prisoners, known as Raiders, to terrorize whomever they please.  We've got a Civil War story, a POW story, a prison camp story, so there's enough horror to go around.  Then things get supernatural in a terrifying way.  Without giving away too much, the horror of Andersonville Prison is not merely man-made.  There are supernatural beasts who essentially feed on human suffering also in play.  I say this book isn't for everyone because it's extremely graphic at times and incredibly violent throughout.  But there is a fantastic story here.

A Head Full of Ghosts by Paul Tremblay -  Still the creepiest thing I read all year. Original reviewWho doesn't love a good possession story?  The Barretts are your typical middle-class American family until money issues arise, Dad turns to religion, and older sister Marjorie becomes possessed.  Told by younger sister Merry a number of years later, the Barrett's story is one that could happen to any family.  When the opportunity arises for the family to take part on a reality show, they take it, believing that it could be the solution to their financial woes and to whatever has taken over Marjorie.  Smart, scary, and with a perfectly chilling ending, I loved this book.

Acceptance by Jeff Vandermeer - Really, the whole damn trilogy, which was so odd and unique that I'm not even sure how to talk about it.  Original review - In the third and final book of the Southern Reach trilogy, Ghost Bird and Control have made their way back to Area X.  I'm not sure what else to say about this other than it perfectly wrapped up the series for me.  The flashbacks to the land pre-Area X were wonderfully written and while the mystery was somewhat solved, there still remain questions that I'm perfectly happy were left ambiguous.  This trilogy was unlike anything else I've read and that is a very good thing.


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