All year long I’ve shared my reads with you, but now we get to get down to the good stuff: the best books of 2016. In order to make the lists manageable and catered to your interests, I’m breaking down the year’s best reads into three categories: Best Fiction, Best Non-Fiction, and Best Middle Grade/Young Adult. One thing to note: my Best Of lists consist of the best books I read in 2016, but is not limited to books published in 2016. Okay then, let’s talk fiction!
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Ready Player One by Ernest Cline
I put this on my Best of 2016 list way back in January, and I haven’t changed my mind. Dystopian, set-in-the-future, computer-gaming books would not normally be a genre I’d naturally pick up, but this book came highly recommended by several readers whose judgement I trust. It was also recommended that I listen to the audio version, narrated by my childhood crush, Wil Wheaton.
Set in 2044, Wade Watts’ United States isn’t much like the one we live in today. Thanks to a catastrophic energy crisis, most of the population can barely afford to keep themselves fed and housed. Mass migrations to the cities have resulted in most citizens living in “Stacks:” trailer home after trailer home stacked haphazardly on top of one another. With no family to speak of, and little resources, the socially awkward and introverted teenager finds comfort in the virtual world of the OASIS. When the creator of the OASIS and object of Wade’s deep admiration, James Halliday, dies and leaves his vast fortune to the first person who can unlock the hidden digital puzzles within the virtual world, Wade becomes obsessed. And when he becomes the first player to stumble upon the first clue, the game is on. What follows is a fast-paced journey through a virtual future, mixed with drama, humor, suspense and SO many fantastic references to the 80s. Even if you think this book isn’t for you, I beg you to give it a chance. I highly recommend the audio version – Wheaton is absolute perfection as Wade.
A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman
It seemed that 2016 was the year of elderly characters for me! I read several (The 100 Year Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared, This is Your Life, Harriet Chance!, Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand, The One-in-a-Million Boy, and The Curious Charms of Arthur Pepper), but I will never, ever forget Ove as long as I live. He’s my favorite geezer (very closely followed by Ona in The One-in-a-Million Boy).
Ove is the curmudgeonly, easily angered neighbor nobody wants next door. How hard can it be to mind your own business and follow the rules? In this day and age, it’s apparently very hard for everyone but Ove. Underneath the gruff exterior, there lies a deep sadness in Ove. He grieves for the love of his life, and wants nothing more than to join her … if only everyone around him wouldn’t make it so bloody difficult! Ove’s plans and carefully constructed world come crashing down when a new family moves in next door. Between the bumbling husband, nosy wife, and the chatty young girls, Ove can’t find a moment’s peace. And that’s before the cat moves in. Forget 2016, this is one of my favorite books of all time.
Be Frank With Me by Julia Claiborne Johnson
Reclusive, fiercely private and cranky author M.M. “Mimi” Banning hasn’t been seen or heard from since she published her Pulitzer Prize winning novel 30 years ago. After falling prey to a financial scam, she needs the money to keep from losing her home … so she must the world’s most anticipated follow-up novel. In order to do so, she’ll need a little help with childcare for her 9-year-old son, Frank. He’s no ordinary child: well read and familiar with every old Hollywood film, with a closet full of suits, spectacles and hats to help him dress the part, Frank is both charming and troubled. It will take someone special to care for Frank and live up to Mimi’s standards. Enter Alice, sent by her boss and Mimi’s publisher to do whatever it takes to give Mimi the time and privacy to finish her novel. Witty, funny and thoughtful, Johnson’s novel is a must-read.
Before the Fall by Noah Hawley
Scott Burroughs is a struggling painter and recovering alcoholic living a quiet life in Martha’s Vineyard when Sarah offers him a ride to the city on her husband’s private jet. Joining them on a Sunday evening flight are Sarah’s husband, head of a cable news network, her two children, Ben, an investment banker on the verge of indictment for fraud and his wife, the family security guard, the stewardess and two pilots. When the plane crashes into the ocean without warning 16 minutes later, only two survive: Scott and the couple’s 4-year-old son. Mirroring today’s vicious news cycle, Scott goes from being the hero to a suspect in a matter of days. What (or who) was behind the crash? Are Scott’s motives for building a relationship with the boy influenced by money? Hawley tells a fascinating and gripping story, keeping the reader on their toes and turning pages. This is definitely one of my top reads of the year – just don’t read it on a plane!
The One in a Million Boy by Monica Wood
It’s heartbreaking to fall in love with a character you already know is going to die. That’s what happens with “the boy” in this quirky novel by Monica Wood. Is it strange to call a story about an 11-year-old boy that dies quirky? Probably. But Wood manages to make a story that could be so easily overshadowed by death and sadness into story about hope, tenacity, acceptance and forgiveness.
When the boy is assigned to help 104-year-old Ona Vitkus as part of a scouting project, he embarks on a journey to do so much more than fill her bird feeders and sweep her walk. Obsessed with Guinness world records of all sorts, he inspires Ona to try for her own world records in the “Oldest” categories, starting with Oldest Licensed Driver. Ona makes the boy feel welcome and comfortable in his own odd skin, while the boy brings Ona companionship and joy that she hasn’t felt in years. His sudden death leaves a hole in her life and many others, including his estranged parents, Belle and Quinn. Belle asks only one thing of Quinn: finish your son’s scout requirement and spend the next seven Saturdays helping Ona around the house. Through Ona and the spirit of the boy, Quinn tries to work through the sadness and regret of being an absent father to a boy he never knew or understood.
Knowing the boy is going to die is indeed heartbreaking. Still, Wood gives the reader reasons to feel hope and joy through his presence and the other broken but lovable characters. I know cranky elderly characters with a hidden soft side seem to be a literary theme lately, and I can see how a reader might be done with the idea. But please don’t pass over this one just for that reason! Fans of A Man Called Ove or The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time should especially give The One in a Million Boy a read.
Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel
In the modern day, we like to think nothing short of a nuclear war could end the world as we know it. But in Emily St. John Mandel’s beautiful and haunting book, all it takes is a fast-moving virus. The Georgian Flu explodes around the world, killing anyone who contracts it within 48 hours. Highly contagious, it wipes out 99% of the world’s population. The few survivors suddenly find themselves in a world without transportation, communication, or electricity. Entire cities are deserted, leaving behind only corpses and the remains of a world that doesn’t exist anymore. Twenty years later, a troupe of artists, actors and musicians known as The Traveling Symphony wander from outpost to outpost, entertaining the survivors and trying to bring beauty into a bleak world. Welcomed by most, they are disturbed and frightened to come across a violent and controlling prophet who seeks to end their existence. As they travel to escape the prophet and bring missing Symphony members back to the safety of the fold, the author weaves together the past and the present to reveal the things that connect us even as the world falls apart around us.
The dystopian/post-apocalyptic genre doesn’t appeal to everyone, but if you’ve written them off as not for you I would encourage you to give Station Eleven a chance. I like to think of it as dystopian for the discerning reader. I was riveted from beginning to end.
The Nest by Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney
The Plumb siblings (Leo, Bea, Jack and Melody) have spent years dreaming, planning and getting themselves into financial trouble with only one thought in mind … it will all be fine after “The Nest.” The Nest is a trust set aside by their father long ago, meant to be nothing more than a modest midlife supplement, available to the children when the youngest turned 40. But thanks to some shrewd investing, The Nest is worth more than any of them could have imagined. At least it was, until Leo’s accident. With Leo facing an expensive divorce, a stint in rehab, and an injured young girl that needs shush money, the once glorious Nest is in danger of being depleted. You won’t believe this is Sweeney’s first novel. It’s juicy, filled with family drama, greed and lust. You’ll be sucked in immediately, pulling for some characters and shaking your head in exasperation at others. I read this for book club and the discussion was fantastic.
Lily and the Octopus by Steven Rowley
Lily the dachshund is more than just Ted Flask’s pet. She’s not just man’s best friend, she’s his best friend. On Thursdays they talk about cute boys. On Fridays they play Monopoly, and on Sundays they eat pizza. They’ve been together for 12 years, and Lily has seen Ted through highs and lows. He is particularly low, unhappily single after a six-year relationship ends and going through the motions in dating and therapy, when he notices a visitor. Lily has an octopus. On her head. Author Steven Rowley tells a tale for dog-lovers and regular humans (I make no promises for cat lovers) alike about the unique love humans share with their dogs. Based on his relationship with his own Lily, who developed a brain tumor that eventually took her life, Lily and the Octopus is a treat to read. You wouldn’t expect a book about a melancholy owner facing the death of his dog to be funny, but it is – Rowley has a way with words that invokes laughs without resorting to snark. But prepare yourself – you will be touched deeply and there will be eye rain.
Still Life by Louise Penny
My love for Anne Bogel’s book recommendations runs strong. I know she loves this murder mystery series a lot, but when guests on her podcast, What Should I Read Next, consistently brought it up as one of the 3 books they love, I knew it was time to pay attention. My initial stubborness at reading this book came from the fact that I don’t actively seek out murder mysteries and I especially don’t seek out an entire series of them. I have a hard enough time getting through my TBR list without adding a 12-part series to it! Well, I’m hooked! The series revolves around Armand Gamache, Chief Inspector with the Surêté du Québec. He’s the very best at his job, and in the first book he’s sent to the rural town of Three Pines. The quiet little town’s beloved resident Jane Neal has been found killed by a hunter’s arrow. Unfortunate accident or sinister plot? Only Gamache can find out. I’m on my fifth book in the series and I crave them like you would crave a warm fire and a hot mug of cocoa on a cold evening. I’m a big fan of books that are able to transport you to a place you’ve never been before and make you want to live there. I mean, other than someone from Three Pines getting whacked in every novel, the place seems quite lovely! I hope to finish the series in 2017, but will cry big fat tears when the last book is read.
The Martian by Andy Weir
When Mark Watney wakes up after the accident that nearly killed him he notices two things: he’s not dead, and he’s stranded on Mars. Alone. A sudden sandstorm wreaks havoc on Watney and his fellow Hermes crew members. In their rush to escape, he’s injured. The signals coming from Mark’s spacesuit indicate he’s dead, leaving his heartbroken crew mates no choice but to evacuate and save themselves. What follows is a fantastic story of survival, ingenuity, and sacrifice. Watney refuses to give up and die, and those back on Earth refuse to accept his return as an impossibility. I don’t typically enjoy science fiction, and early descriptions of the book painted it as very detailed and extremely accurate when it came to descriptions of space travel and life on Mars. I decided to move past my worries that it would be boring or over my head and chose it for “A book that intimidates you” for the Modern Mrs. Darcy Reading Challenge. I’m so glad I did. I thoroughly enjoyed the audio version. Did some parts get overly descriptive and deep into science and math? Yes, and I let them go right over my head. It didn’t interfere with my understanding of the story one bit. I enjoyed the movie every bit as much as the book, even with the weird Hollywood liberties they took with the rescue attempt.
Everyone Brave is Forgiven by Chris Cleave
Every time I pick up a book that takes place during World War II I wonder if it’s possible to add anything new to the story. Hasn’t everything already been written? And then I get swept away in a book like Everyone Brave is Forgiven. I learn something new and give thanks yet again to have never experienced war in my own front yard. Cleave’s novel is set in London in the early years of the war. While Alistair volunteers to serve his country, his friends Tom, Mary and Hilda are left behind. Alistair battles near-starvation and the loss of a limb while under siege in Malta, while the others endure the daily bombings in London.
It took me about 75 pages to get into the book, but once I did I couldn’t put it down. Beyond the subject of the war, Cleave’s characters grapple with love, loyalty, class and race. It is heartbreaking at times, and (trigger warning) a few passages are painfully descriptive in regards to war injuries and death. But it is also beautifully written, and I found myself re-reading passages for their beauty and writing down lines to remember always. (“But what good is it to teach a child to count, if you don’t show him he counts for something?” asks Mary of Tom in regards to her fondness for an African American student.) It is also witty and funny, and I found myself laughing out loud at the banter between the characters. Everyone Brave is Forgiven reminded me of everything I loved about All the Light We Cannot See – a gripping story, endearing characters and top notch prose – with the added fun of amusing dialogue between young friends.
You know my favorite fiction of 2016, now it’s your turn. What’s the best fiction book you read in 2016?