It’s the end of the year, and that means: my twelve favorite books of 2016! Some of these were published for the first time this year, some of them I simply experienced for the first time this year, but either way these are the new contenders for my Top 25 Favorite Books Ever list, which I update every February. A small stipulation: I only allow myself to name one book per author, to avoid having an entire series filling up valuable spots on the list. I’m presenting my choices here in the order I read them; the fact that I am consistently unable to pick a single favorite book (hence my list of 25) means that I can’t organize my favorites from most- to least-liked. I love them all. If you’re interested in learning more about any of the books below, click the title to follow the link to my complete review of each book. Without further ado, here are my best reads of 2016:
- At the Water’s Edge by Sara Gruen. I already knew I loved Water for Elephants, so when I found this book on the new arrivals shelf at my library last January, I immediately picked it up. A historical fiction set mainly in Scotland at the end of the second world war, this book shows glamorous parties, the elusive Loch Ness monster, the ravages of war, and painful love, among other things. I like a little romance with a lot of adventure, and this book delivers.
- The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood. I only gave this one 4 stars when I read it, but the story and its ambiguous ending have really stuck with me through the year, and, I expect, will stay with me for a long time yet to come. A modern classic, this dystopian divides society in unconscionable ways. Our main character is the “handmaid” who is tasked with conceiving a child for a prestigious, childless couple–and she faces dire consequences for breaking the rules or failing to complete her job. But then she discovers a conspiracy that might save her life or drag her down deeper. I’m still speechless over the ending.
- Career of Evil by Robert Galbraith. This is the conclusion to Galbraith’s (aka Rowling’s) Cormoran Strike mystery trilogy. While I enjoyed each of these London-based detective stories, the third one, in which Cormoran’s past and Robin’s future collide with the investigator and his assistant, particularly stood out. In this book, the reader sees through the eyes of the killer as he narrows in on the series’ beloved main characters. The detectives must sort through a list of heinous enemies from Strike’s colorful personal history, any of whom could be out to kill him and ruin everything.
- Written in My Own Heart’s Blood by Diana Gabaldon. I’ve been a fan of the Outlander sereis’ plot (a time-traveling, supernatural, multi-cultural, adventurous romance) since my foray into the first book. That said, while the characterization in these books is always excellent, I’ve had some major issues with various writing techniques in the story’s layout. This volume, though, the most-recent release, finally seemed to realize Outlander‘s full potential and brought everything together in an explosive way. I’ll be tapping my feet and twiddling my thumbs impatiently until the next book is released and I can check my theories on some of the plot threads. Unfortunately, Gabaldon has announced on her website (rather unkindly, in my opinion) that the next book will not be released any time in 2017. If you haven’t started this series yet, you’ll probably have time to catch up before we can expect published copies of Go and Tell the Bees that I am Gone to begin circulating.
- The Secret History by Donna Tart. Another modern classic, this one follows a man retelling his horrifying experience in an exclusive Classics class at a small university in Vermont. The reader is informed early on that one of the six close friends who make up the entirety of the class has died at the hands of the others, and the narrator sets out to show the reader how this gruesome event came about and the disastrous effects of the student’s death. An eerie look into the darker sides of human nature, this novel takes ordinary, affable characters and twists them into criminals who can never escape their own monstrosity.
- In a Dark, Dark Wood by Ruth Ware. I’m relatively new to the thriller genre, so every time I pick one up I get a little addicted all over again. Ware is my new favorite thriller author, and I struggled so much to choose between this one and her new release, The Woman in Cabin 10. They’re both pretty phenomenal, but this one had a darkly tragic love story in the background that really sucked me in. A group of young women (and one man) gather in an isolated glass house during a snowstorm for a bachelorette party and fall prey to suspicious events and one malicious guest with murderous intent. This one’s a perfect read for a dark night.
- Hidden Bodies by Caroline Kepnes. In this…romance?…the reader follows a stalking serial killer who’s been unlucky in love and solves his problems with the people in his life by killing them. Again, Kepnes has two great books that I read this year to choose from, but this sequel (first book being You) has absolutely left me hanging and desperately needing the next installment. The mysteriously compelling murderer, Joe Goldberg, has moved to Los Angeles and left his DNA behind at the scene of a crime, but he’s finally found someone to love him and nothing seems more important. Love distracts him, though, and his failure to be careful on criminal endeavors turns Joe’s life alarmingly sideways at the worst possible moment.
- The Girls by Emma Cline. This look into Californian cult life in the 1960’s is less a thrilling murder mystery and more an introspective look on the female experience. The Manson-like cult in this novel brings everything to the surface for main character Evie, who tells it like it is: every thought, every impression, every failure and victory that girls of the modern era can understand so well. Evie just wants to be seen, and is fiercely loyal to the people who do see her, even if they’re destructive. There’s crime and death, but those are secondary to Evie’s search for self-realization and acceptance. Can she find her identity in time to escape its collapse?
- Ready Player One by Ernest Cline. I thought I didn’t know enough about video games and 80’s pop culture to give this novel a fair chance. But then I read it, and couldn’t believe I had ever hesitated. I had never realized how alike a game could be to a traditional story trajectory–this book is a series of games within a game, and the tension leaves readers on the edge of their seats, as they would be in the high levels of a complicated game with a joystick at their command. Knowing the games referenced in the book is an added bonus, but an interest in puzzles is the only requirement. And really, every book is a puzzle, so you can’t say you like books but don’t have any interest in puzzling out what will happen next.
- Golden Son by Pierce Brown. With the Red Rising trilogy, Pierce Brown ripped my heart out, stomped on it, and kept me coming back for more. If I really had to pick a favorite read of 2016, it would probably be one of the books in this stellar series. The plot opens with a lowly Martian slave who wants to live for more, and zooms through deadly games, conspiracies, duels, space battles, and oh so much more. No one writes betrayals like Pierce Brown. Fast-paced, unpredictable, and irrevocably addictive, this second book in the trilogy is one of the few sequels I’ve ever loved even more than the first book. I’ve never been so excited for a spin-off series, the first book of which you will probably find on this list next year.
- The Raven Boys by Maggie Stiefvater. I wanted to cut my list down to ten books, but I just couldn’t do it. Although in the past few years I’ve been straying from YA books, I’ve made an effort to check out a few of the big titles in that age bracket this year. The Raven Cycle reached its conclusion in 2016, and while I haven’t quite gotten to the final book yet, I had to mention my best YA read of the year so far, The Raven Boys. This supernatural story of friendship, discovery, magic, and love is so far from what I expected and written so engagingly that it immediately hooked me. Free of tropes and full of surprises, Stiefvater’s Raven Cycle is currently my favorite YA series, and restored my faith in an entire genre of books I was afraid I’d outgrown.
- A Court of Mist and Fury by Sarah J. Maas. This additional YA book (although I’d call it NA) caught me completely by surprise. After mixed feelings about the first book in this series–even knowing that readers largely preferred this sequel to the first book–I suspected I would be dropping this series after wading through another lukewarm novel; but this book reels readers in with countless surprises, and even where the plot becomes predictable it is utterly irresistible. Set in a high fantasy land full of salacious faeries and dangerous creatures, this adventurous love story reels in readers with its delicious prose and intriguing plot, and demands they pick up the next installment as soon as it is released in May.
This colorful dozen, along with a long list of second-best choices, have made 2016 a phenomenal reading year for me. (In fact, I’ve just finished reading Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian as my final book of 2016 and am somewhat saddened by the fact that there was no space left on this list for it.) I surpassed my goal in number of books, but more importantly, the books I read often exceeded my expectations and constantly renewed my love of literature. I have even bigger literary plans for 2017, so I’m anticipating even more reading (and writing!) greatness ahead and can hardly wait to share it with you all.
Have you read any of these books, or even added them to your own favorites lists? I recommend every one of them, and I would love to hear any recommendations you might have for me!
Wishing everyone a happy New (reading) Year,
The Literary Elephant