Last December, I started the tradition of listing the best books I read in a given year. It's a little different from a typical "Best Books of 2016" list, because I don't always read a book the same year it's published - at least, I'm less prompt about it than I am with movies. But 2016 was a big year for books I'd been anticipating for ages, and many of the titles here were actually published this year. I've also got a few new-to-me books on this list, and one cherished and much-read novel that took on a new significance for me in 2016.
As always, whenever I write about books, my aim is to spark discussion. In other words, tell me your faves in the comments so my to-be-read pile can continue to grow into the stratosphere.
With no further ado, and in alphabetical order - the best books I read this year.
THE BONE CLOCKS
David Mitchell, 2014
David Mitchell is one of the most frustrating authors on the planet. He has a habit of waiting until the very moment you become absorbed in his narrative to change it into something else entirely. And then once you've settled into this new story, he changes it again. And then again. And again. Until you're propelled to the final page, and you realize that it was all the same story all along. Did I say frustrating? I meant rewarding. Challenge met with gratification.
The Cloud Atlas author returns to the time-hopping, literary sci-fi well with The Bone Clocks, a story about warring immortal mystics whose purpose is to either defend or attack the universal timeline, a battle that finds its home in a plucky British teen runaway named Holly Sykes. It's a magnificently weird story, one that you can't possibly predict but that, once its conclusion is revealed, feels as inevitable as the dawn.
Rainbow Rowell, 2015
Okay, so here's the thing: Carry On is, essentially, Harry Potter slash fiction with some slight adjustments. But fans of Rowell's writing know without being told that it's also so much more: a story of immense humanity and heart, an intimate exploration of sexuality and self.
It's actually a spin-off of a book I've oddly never read - the novel Fangirl, following Cath, a slash fiction writer who is utterly obsessed with the universe of Simon Snow, Rowell's Potter stand-in. But in writing snippets from Cath's imagination, Rowell became enamored herself, and ended up with an entire novel taking place in Snow's world. And let me tell you: that world is rad. I guess I'd better read Fangirl next.
THE CITY OF MIRRORS (BOOK THREE OF THE PASSAGE TRILOGY)
Justin Cronin, 2016
I didn't want to rank the books within this list, because every book here lived in my heart for a time and therefore feels a bit like my own baby. But make no mistake: The City of Mirrors is the book that moved me most this year, and the one that I looked forward to the longest. I've loved Justin Cronin's The Passage series since the first novel was published six years ago, and though I didn't expect or think to hope for half of what takes place in City of Mirrors, the trilogy's conclusion, it feels now that there could be no other way to end this grand, generations-sweeping poem - a poem that just so happens to be about a vampire-induced apocalypse.
Please read these books. I can't urge you enough. Cronin is a remarkable writer, elegant and strong, capable of transforming your brain into a canvas, and on that canvas he paints breathtaking scenes that will live there forever. The best recommendation I can give City of Mirrors is that I scuttled my every intention to review it, because it just meant too much to me. I didn't even want to write this blurb. I just want to give these three books to every person I meet, handing them off with a meaningful look and a simple, "Trust me."
Trust me. Read The Passage. Read The Twelve. And then read The City of Mirrors.
DISAPPEARANCE AT DEVIL'S ROCK
Paul Tremblay, 2016
I read Disappearance at Devil's Rock in February this year and reviewed it when the book was published in June. That means it's been almost a year since I read it, and half a year since I wrote about it, and yet its residence in my brain is even more assured now. This book got under my skin, a story that crops into my thoughts every so often though nothing seems to summon it. I'll suddenly think of a line, or recall an image, and at once I'm chilled, even in the middle of the day, surrounded by people.
Tremblay is, without a doubt, one of horror's best new writers, and his A Head Full of Ghosts headlined my favorite books of last year. This terrifying, lovely one-two punch has ensured I'll read every book Tremblay publishes from here on out.
AN EMBER IN THE ASHES/A TORCH AGAINST THE NIGHT
Sabaa Tahir, 2015/2016
Sabaa Tahir published the second entry of her three-part fantasy series this year, and the duo makes for a harrowing introduction to a dystopian world, one of slaves and soldiers, Scholars and Martials. With all of the texture and weight of a historical novel but with the ingenuity of a fantasy, Tahir has struck an unusual tone that is well-served by her breakneck pacing and decisive brutality. You'll fly through these books, but they'll stay with you much longer. Tahir's a bright new voice, utterly original and badly needed in a genre that can feel very of a piece with itself.
Joe Hill, 2016
In parts apocalyptic epic and achingly intimate portrait, Joe Hill's The Fireman is his finest novel yet in a body of work filled with homeruns. It's a joy following Hill's career, being there as his writing expands and deepens, and his latest novel is so enormous and profound that it's hard to imagine how he could possibly follow it. Not that I'm worried - Hill's just getting started.
It's rich with references - from Stephen King to JK Rowling, The Fireman is a reader's read, a book for book-lovers. Hill has an exceptional gift, the ability to feel like both author and fan, a writer who's getting as much of a kick out of his words as we are. That may sound self-congratulatory, but all I really mean is this: every word Hill writes is a joy, for him and for us.
John Langan, 2016
Langan's novel is an intricate nesting doll of horror, a memory woven into a story folded into a fable, a folksy testimonial to the power of both the written and spoken word that also happens to be one of the scariest books I've read in years. Two widowers cope with their loss by fishing, but their wholesome hobby takes them to Dutchman's Creek, a twisty little body of water with a dreadful history that spans centuries and dimensions.
You will be taken to the underworld, to upstate New York in the early 1900s, and into the friendship of two modern men - coworkers at IBM with nothing in common but the death of their wives - who survive their terrible grief only thanks to fishing and each other. And if you, like me, happen to be terrified of giant beasts hiding in watery depths, maybe don't, like me, decide to read this book in the bathtub. I swear, sometimes it's like I'm trying to give myself nightmares.
HARRY POTTER AND THE CURSED CHILD
J.K. Rowling, John Tiffany & Jack Thorne, 2016
After Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, I'm feeling pretty conflicted about all of these upcoming draws from the Harry Potter well. But Harry Potter and the Cursed Child is the perfect way to revisit beloved characters in a beloved world. This isn't nostalgia - it's movement forward, a crucial element to a story that never felt incomplete until this beautiful and unexpected completion.
THE LOOMING TOWER: AL-QAEDA AND THE ROAD TO 9/11
Lawrence Wright, 2006
Lawrence Wright is a tremendous writer, able to reveal the intricacies behind complicated movements - like Scientology and Al-Qaeda - with precision and insight. He is so thorough, so thoughtful, attending to every detail while driving the narrative along with astonishing momentum. The result is inexorable and heartbreaking, but mostly it's enlightening, bringing every reader into a place of information, badly needed regarding a monumental event in our nation's recent history that is still too little understood.
THE MIDNIGHT ASSASSIN: PANIC, SCANDAL, AND THE HUNT FOR AMERICA'S FIRST SERIAL KILLER
Skip Hollandsworth, 2016
Texas Monthly author Skip Hollandsworth - also responsible for Richard Linklater's wonderful Bernie - proves once again his deft touch at true crime with a heart-racing look at the first serial killer in these United States, a Jack the Ripper analogue who sliced his way through 19th century Austin.
This is a story for serial killer devotees, historical crime buffs and most especially for once and present Austinites, as the book provides colorful context for the building of Texas' Capitol City.
THE NEVERENDING STORY
Michael Ende, 1979
I've read The Neverending Story before. In fact, it was one of my favorite books as a child. But last year I purchased a gorgeous first English edition of the book (from a quirky old bookseller, and if we'd been in a dusty shop instead of a booth on the crowded San Diego Comic-Con floor, I'd be convinced that I was stepping into a real adventure), and I finally got around to reading that copy this year.
And it did something to me, the same thing it did to me when I first read it as a kid, the thing that all of the best books do. It stole me away and brought me back changed. No one can describe that feeling better than Ende himself:
Bastian Balthazar Bux's passion was books.
If you have never spent whole afternoons with burning ears and rumpled hair, forgetting the world around you over a book, forgetting cold and hunger--
If you have never read secretly under the bedclothes with a flashlight, because your father or mother or some other well-meaning person has switched off the lamp on the plausible ground that it was time to sleep because you had to get up so early--
If you have never wept bitter tears because a wonderful story has come to an end and you must take your leave of the characters with whom you have shared so many adventures, whom you have loved and admired, for whom you have hoped and feared, and without whose company life seems empty and meaningless--
If such things have not been part of your experience, you probably won't understand what Bastian did next.
(He stole the book. I understand, Bastian.)
This reading of Neverending Story lit something in me, reminded me of my own love of creative writing, a passion long left ignored in service of more responsible pursuits. It inspired me and moved me to action. I guess it did carry me on an adventure.
THE RAVEN KING (THE RAVEN CYCLE, BOOK 4)
Maggie Stiefvater, 2016
I've followed Stiefvater's The Raven Cycle (reviewed here) since her The Raven Boys knocked the breath out of me in 2012. Her writing is so spectacularly weird, her world a perfect marriage of mysticism and seeming mundanity. We've got modern-day teenagers living in Virginia and we have ghosts, a slumbering king, powerful ley lines and clawed, winged monstrosities who were stolen from a dream and work for good. In other words, we've got everything a body could need, horror and snark and deep magic - even a juicy love triangle for the kids.
SHARP OBJECTS/DARK PLACES
Gillian Flynn, 2006/2009
I've read Gillian Flynn's books backwards, starting with Gone Girl in 2012, then reading Dark Places earlier this year, and finishing up with her debut novel Sharp Objects just last month. It was a fascinating way to visit the author's imposing body of work, watching as her female protagonists become slightly more likable, her thorny edges grow a little softer.
And it really says something about how dark and thorny her later books are if Sharp Objects is the easiest read in the bunch. Flynn came out of the gate cutthroat and fearless, brazenly illuminating the darkest and strangest corners of humanity, always through the lens of a formidable woman the world just isn't ready for yet. Every book she writes demands you finish it in one sitting, dares you to put it down for even a moment.
TALKING AS FAST AS I CAN: FROM GILMORE GIRLS TO GILMORE GIRLS (AND EVERYTHING IN BETWEEN)
Lauren Graham, 2016
Oh my goodness, do I love this book. After rewatching the entirety of Gilmore Girls and writing about it, and then watching the four-part revival in one day and writing about it, what was left but to read Lauren Graham's book about the experience and then write about it? (Well, there are still a few things left - namely, to watch her starring turn on the great Jason Katims series Parenthood, which I've finally begun and, now midway through Season 2, can't believe I've waited so long to start, and to read Graham's debut novel Someday, Someday Maybe, which I intend to do right away.)
Graham is a great writer. Funny, wise, extremely kind. I listened to the audiobook (do it! Any images she includes can be found through an Audible PDF) read by Graham, and ended the book feeling like I know her, like she's my very best friend. That's probably weird and it's certainly inaccurate, but it's a weird inaccuracy that I will treasure. Fans of Parenthood and Gilmore Girls: read this book ASAP. It's filled with juicy behind-the-scenes gossip, but only of the good-spirited "I loved everyone on this set and making this show was a treasure" type, which is really all I want anyway.
THIS WORD NOW
Owen Egerton & Jodi Egerton, 2016
I wrote about This Word Now, Owen and Jodi Egerton's fun and practical guide to igniting the writer within, here on BMD, and it generated one of the most inspiring comment sections I've read 'round these parts. You guys all spoke about your own experiences trying to be a better writer. You encouraged each other and showed real curiosity in one another's work. It's telling that such a lively discussion was guided by this wonderful book, even one that many of you hadn't read yet. I hope more of you have by now, and that you'll pass it on to any friends who are struggling to get out that first word. This book will help, and they'll have a blast reading it in the meantime.
Currently reading: Nathan Hill's The Nix, 2016. I am LOVING IT so far.
On my most immediate to be read pile: Dennis Bartok and Jeff Joseph's A Thousand Cuts: The Bizarre Underground World of Collectors and Dealers Who Saved the Movies. Joe Hill's Horns, which was on my TBR pile last year so I really need to get on it. Rainbow Rowell's Fangirl and Lauren Graham's Someday, Someday Maybe (see above). Lawrence Wright's Remembering Satan: A Tragic Case of Recovered Memory. Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff's Illuminae. Lauren Beukes' Broken Monsters. Ruth Ware's The Woman in Cabin 10. And Jean Edward Smith's Bush.
Now you go!