We read a lot of books in 2016. Now we want to share our favorites from among the books released last year. Our regular reviewers have shared their favorites below. Let us know in the comments or on social media what your favorite books of 2016 were!
David Nilsen, editor & lead reviewer (poetry, adult fiction, adult nonfiction)
So Sad Today: Personal Essays by Melissa Broder (Grand Central Publishing)
This one punched me hard and uncomfortably. Not that there’s a comfortable way to be punched, but…well, you understand. Broder vomits onto the page her most unflattering psychoses, and the result is a confessional you either won’t understand at all, or will understand all too intimately. “Honest” is a word we assign to books too easily, but some authors really do earn it.
Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi (Alfred A. Knopf)
Yaa Gyasi’s sweeping, engulfing debut novel covers over two centuries in the lineages of two Ghanan woman. Beginning in the 18th century with the British slave trade in west Africa and ending in the late 20th century in America, the book is both a powerful indictment of the complex roots of racism, but also an intimate exploration of the interior and relational lives of individuals. Gyasi is a gift, and at 26, she’s just getting started.
Constellarium by Jordan Rice (Orison Books)
This debut collection explores the poet’s identity as a transgender woman, and along the way touches on parenting, grief, young love, violence, and the integrity of the body. These themes are handled with generous reflection and a delicate grace, producing a gorgeous lyricism:
no sorrow in this. Sunrise, and the field aflame,
and she stirs in the light. There is no sorrow.
Square Wave by Mark De Silva (Two Dollar Radio)
De Silva’s debut is sprawling and unwieldy, just like the Hugo novels it made me think of as I read it. De Silva created exactly what he wanted to with this one, and kudos to Two Dollar Radio for not editing it down for narrative clarity. Clarity would defeat the purpose. Just…go along for the ride.
How the End Begins by Cynthia Cruz (Four Way Books)
Cruz’s penchant for evoking the ethereal and haunted without sinking into melodrama and camp is dazzling; the weight of these poems rests on the thinnest transparent ice, but they don’t fall through.
My tenure as Queen
Of an excruciatingly brutal
Has come now
To its end.
Dancers After Dark by Jordan Matter (Workman Publishing)
This visual treat celebrates the human body in both the natural beauty and disciplined talent of its subjects. Photographer Jordan Matter convinced dozens of top-level professional dancers to pose nude in public at night. No permits, no warnings, just guerrilla photography and the naked bodies of folks who have devoted their lives to using them for expression and meaning. This is a breathtaking photography collection.
Night Sky with Exit Wounds by Ocean Vuong (Copper Canyon Press)
I’m just gonna leave this here:
Because the difference
between prayer & mercy
is how you move
& there’s nothing
more holy than holding
a man’s heartbeat between
Hide by Matthew Griffin (Bloomsbury)
This novel chronicles two lives, intertwined and in descent. Frank and Wendell fell in love in the late 1940s when it was unaccepteble, illegal, and dangerous to do so, and have successfully kept it a secret for a half a century. They have weighed their love against the world and found the world wanting, and so have lived essentially as hermits in a country home. When Frank’s health–and mind–begin slipping, Wendell’s love is given the ultimate trial for life-partners as his lover slips into the twilight of how own autonomy and identity.
Look by Solmaz Sharif (Graywolf Press)
Creating poetry that is beautiful is hard, and so is creating poetry that is socially important. Poets who manage to do both simultaneously are treasures. In Look, Sharif provocatively turns the veiled, euphemistic language of the American war machine against itself by crafting poetry from words and lines in the United States Department of Defense’s Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms. The result is profound, at points humorous, and sobering.
Girls on Fire by Robin Wasserman (Harper)
Wasserman’s foray into adult fiction is electrifying. Set in a backward Pennsylvania town in the early 1990s, it begins with the shocking death of a local high school athlete. That death isn’t the book’s focus, however. Wasserman instead delves into the magnetic—but ultimately toxic–bonds between three high school girls who might or might not have had something to do with the death on the opening pages.
Two Worlds Exist by Yehoshua November (Orison Books)
The latest collection from this Orthodox Jewish poet is heavy with the inadequacies of this world, and possibly with those of his God as well. Delivered with a hushed weariness and an insistent honesty, November’s verses deal in grief, reminiscence, regret, love, parenthood, and, of course, faith. I have returned to this collection again and again in the last few months.
Melinda Guerra, regular reviewer (adult fiction, adult nonfiction)
The V Word: True Stories about First-Time Sex by Amber J. Keyser (Beyond Words)
Amber Keyser has gathered together a delightful, diverse collection of stories from straight, lesbian, bisexual, and trans women writing honestly about their first sexual experiences. The slim book does a great job at encompassing a wide variety of stories of sex and sexuality, while avoiding the limited and damaging understandings of virginity all-too-often inherent in collections like this
The Regional Office Is Under Attack! by Manuel Gonzales (Riverhead Books)
Strong female characters, assassins, oracles, origin stories, and the possible end of the world.I don’t know how much more to say about a book this good; read it.
Sex Object: A Memoir by Jessica Valenti (Dey Street Books)
Valenti captures for her readers the exhaustion and constant retraumatization that it is to live with a female body in a culture that assumes female bodies as commodities. Weaving together these truths with stories from her own life, she avoids the helpful-but-exhausting suggestions of how to ignore/laugh off/fight back, and instead offers her stories in a way that tells people “This is how bad it is. And it’s enough.”
Katy Goodwin-Bates, regular reviewer (YA fiction, adult fiction, adult nonfiction)
Here I Am by Jonathan Safran Foer (Hamish Hamilton)
By combining a dysfunctional family with (almost) real-life political conflict, Safran Foer basically wrote my perfect novel.
All the Birds in the Sky by Charlie Jane Anders (Tor Books)
An astonishingly assured debut novel, this set the bar high for 2016 reading in January. Following two childhood friends as their lives take very different paths, while the world goes mad around them, it remains one of my favourite books of the year.
The Natural Way of Things by Charlotte Wood (Allen & Unwin)
This very odd book is about a mysterious camp in the Australian outback, housing a motley crew of women whose incarceration is as confusing to them as it initially is to the reader. Wood’s novel is an excellent addition to my ‘Feminist Novels’ shelf.
The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead (Doubleday)
Often visceral, always compelling, Whitehead’s tale of slavery places the metaphorical railroad as a real one, transporting escaped slaves on a subterranean and often terrifying journey to freedom.
Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi (Alfred A. Knopf)
This doesn’t come out in the UK till January but, as it’s been out elsewhere for months, I’m putting it on here. Homegoing is getting plenty of well-deserved hype on Twitter and you should listen; it’s an astounding, sweeping story of interconnected families, starting in colonial Africa and ending in modern-day America. It’s truly wonderful.
The Smell of Other People’s Houses by Bonnie Sue Hitchcock (Wendy Lamb Books)
My favourite YA novel of the year; this will chill you with its depiction of frozen Alaska but warm you with its beautiful narrative of teenagers whose connections save them from tragedy.
Gemina by Jay Kristoff and Amie Kaufman (Knopf Books for Young Readers)
The sequel to 2015’s frankly sensational Illuminae, this is just as good as its predecessor. Using the same varied style as the first book but continuing the story aboard a different spacecraft, Gemina is the year’s best sequel.
Lydia: The Wild Girl of Pride & Prejudice by Natasha Farrant (The Chicken House)
A perfect example of light reading, Farrant’s Lydia tells the story of the youngest and most troublesome Bennet sister as she rants about her family and lusts after Wickham. It may have made Lydia my favourite Bennet sister.
Ian G. Wilson, regular reviewer (crime fiction)
The Perplexing Theft of the Jewel in the Crown by Vaseem Kahn (Hachette)
Kahn’s delightful jewel heist mystery is full of the colors of Mumbai. The ethical Inspector Chopra plunges his detective bureau into solving not one, but three puzzles. The atmosphere and characters are the selling points of this work, but the capers of the Baby Ganesh Agency’s personnel are entertaining and touching.
A Murder in Time by Julie McElwain (Pegasus)
McElwain’s first book is graphic and not for the faint of heart, but extremely well written and deftly plotted. Kendra Donovan is a tough ex-FBI agent attempting to catch a serial killer in early 19th century England. The time-slip element will be of interest to science fiction and fantasy fans.
Apothecary Melchior and the Mystery of St. Olaf’s Church by Indrek Hargla (Peter Owen)
From Estonia comes this dark mystery set in medieval Tallinn. Worth reading for the beautifully described setting alone, the book also features colorful characters and a strong plot.
The Waters of Eternal Youth by Donna Leon (Atlantic Monthly)
Leon’s twenty-fifth mystery featuring Commissario Guido Brunetti shows the good and bad sides of 21st century Venetian life in vivid color. Brunetti, his family, and his colleagues are genuine, compassionate characters. The mystery itself is a little weak, but the plot tugs at the heart strings.
Precious and Grace by Alexander McCall Smith (Pantheon)
The latest of Smith’s No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency novels set in Botswana is more of a study in solving problems than a strict mystery. Lovely depictions of interpersonal relations and a quaint formality of language are the highlights of this moving work.