I couldn’t possibly name one single book as my favorite. There are too many great books I’d hate to betray that way. So each year I reflect on my reading by choosing a Top 25 based on new books I’ve read and previous lists. There are, of course, many more books that I’ve loved over the years, and only a couple have remained on the list since the very beginning. Putting them in order of favoritism is just as impossible as listing only one, so I organize them roughly in order of when I read the books, rather than which ones I love most.
This is the list I made in February. Since I was just starting my blog and I was on the fence about what I wanted to include, I put it off; now I’ve decided to try posting some other things between book reviews, and this list was one of the first things I wanted to share. By this time, I could already make a few changes because it’s been a rich reading year so far, but I’m a traditionalist and I learned early on that great books can get pushed out by temporary loves if I update too often. In the interest of keeping the most accurate lists possible, I update only in February. So without further ado, here’s my unaltered list of Top 25 Favorite Books of All Time, 2016 edition.
1. The Magician’s Nephew, by C. S. Lewis
What it’s about: A young boy and girl find a way to travel to different worlds, discovering all sorts of chaos and adventure before finding their way back home. Without quite intending to, they free a powerful sorceress from a ruined world and bring her to one that’s just beginning–Narnia. Even if they escape with their lives, their actions set all sorts of consequences in motion.
Why I love it: This is the first book of middle grade fantasy series The Chronicles of Narnia, which I began reading at age eight or so. The Magician’s Nephew is the prequel to the series, and has always been my personal favorite because it’s the least political and shows multiple worlds, adding depth and background for the most-known book of the series, The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe. C. S. Lewis is a great writer, and even though this series was written for children it’s one of those timeless works that I still enjoy picking up as an adult.
2. The Truth About Forever, by Sarah Dessen
What it’s about: A high school girl watches her father die, loses her boyfriend, and puts up with her mother trying to run her life. When Macy helps a catering company at one of her mother’s parties, she begins to accept that life doesn’t always go the way you planned, and applies for a job with them. As she grows closer with the caterers–especially Wes–she goes against her mother’s wishes, giving up perfectionism and finding her own way to grieve and move forward.
Why I love it: This was the first YA novel that I enjoyed enough to read over and over. It shows that perfection is impossible, that horrible events can lead to the best times, and that it’s not how well you plan but how well you deal with the unexpected. I was attracted to the concept that forever could be a finite length of time, and that for better or worse a person needs to make his/her own choices. Sarah Dessen has several popular books–I liked her writing enough to read them all–but this one stood out to me.
3. Hawksong, by Amelia Atwater-Rhodes
What it’s about: The shape-shifting leader of the Avians has known nothing but war with the neighboring clan of the Serpiente, and she’s sick of it. Everyone wants peace, but no one trusts each other enough to lay their weapons down. When Danica is advised to take the first trusting step by pledging allegiance to cobra king Zane, and naming him as her mate, the idea sounds absurd and impossibly dangerous. She has to overcome assassins, disapproval on all sides, and a lingering romance with her childhood sweetheart and protector.
Why I loved it: I’m really not sure. This was the first YA book that sparked an obsession in me, even though it wasn’t my usual type. There’s a mild romance, the avian/serpiente war is brutal and political, and the characters of this world are so vivid and tragic that I still can’t forget about them years later.
4. Burned by Ellen Hopkins
What it’s about: Pattyn is the oldest girl in a Mormon household, and she’s accustomed to a lot of rules and responsibilities from her abusive, alcoholic father and submissive mother. When Pattyn realizes just how firmly under their thumbs she’s been pinned and determines to follow her own beliefs rather than be squashed down by the men in her life,. She is sent away to live with her Aunt J. Far from home, she finally glimpses goodness in the world just in time for her parents to step in again and try to put out the hope she can see for her future.
Why I loved it: Ellen Hopkins writes powerful books about scary, real teen problems in beautiful prose poetry. The stories she narrates are completely captivating and eye-opening, and her visually aesthetic pages keep readers engrossed not only in her tales but in the way she tells them. Burned is the best of the best, shocking, addicting, beautiful and heart-breaking.
5. Looking for Alaska by John Green
What it’s about: In John Green’s first YA novel, Miles, who has a fascination with last words, goes off to boarding school for his junior year of high school. There he meets the enigmatic Alaska, among other new friends. Despite how close the two become, it seems that Miles is destined never to have her, and spends his year learning to appreciate her through the complications of their friendship. In the love, the grief, and the pranks, Miles seeks a Great Perhaps.
Why I loved it: John Green is a renowned YA writer for good reason. He creates characters that seem so realistic and relatable, all a little quirky but equally unique. Although he’s well-known for his most recent novel, The Fault in Our Stars, his first book holds a special place in the hearts of many who follow possibilities down unexpected paths. Tragedy is not always a disappointment–Looking for Alaska reminds readers to view death as something to grow from, rather than get stuck on.
6. Atonement by Ian McEwan
What it’s about: Young story-loving Briony is always looking for a tale to tell and a dramatic way to present it. When she catches her sister and their neighbor partaking in indecent acts in the library, she cries rape in front of their families and changes the lives of the budding romantics. When she realizes years later that she’s caused irreparable damage, she writes a happier ending to their story to atone for rash actions in her childhood.
Why I loved it: This was the first example of metafiction that I read and understood what it was, and I was fascinated by that concept. Also, I’m a sucker for a good romance/tragedy combination, and this novel is spot on in that regard.
7. Gone With the Wind by Margaret Mitchel
What it’s about: Scarlett O’Hara is the oldest of three daughters on the southern plantation Tara, and struggles to find a way to ensure the survival of herself, her family, and her home at Tara through the Civil War. Though she’s not exactly beautiful, she is charming, and uses that asset to full advantage in securing husbands, money, and favors that she needs to stay afloat. When the war comes straight to her door time and again and collapses her entire way of life, Scarlett must adapt and prove herself stronger than all of those failing acquaintances around her, perhaps at the cost of accepting true love.
Why I love it: This was not only the first (adult) classic that I read, but also my first historical fiction novel. Additionally, it was the first book I was enamored with despite a dislike for many of the main characters–though not always likable, the characters are certainly strong and captivating. The role of women in this time is especially fascinating to me. In any case, the easy readability of this novel opened all sorts of literary doors for me, on top of being a phenomenal story.
8. 1st to Die by James Patterson
What it’s about: SFPD inspector Lindsay Boxer faces a potentially deadly disease just as her career is heating up. She’s on the hunt to catch the culprit of the Honeymoon Murders with her new partner, Chris, but it’s a lot for Boxer to handle at once. The deaths tally up, treatments for her disease wear her down, possible feelings for Chris confuse her, but she’s determined to succeed and put the killer behind bars.
Why I love it: When it comes to crime novels, James Patterson books are the way to go. There’s a great mix of personal and professional challenges for Lindsay Boxer throughout the years, and the first book of this series is definitely one of the best. Every chapter is short and to the point, each story is suspenseful and wonderfully executed, and interest in the characters’ lives keeps the reader coming back for more. Patterson has many great novels and series, but The Women’s Murder Club books have been favorites since I picked the first one up on a whim and couldn’t put it down until I’d finished it.
9. The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
What it’s about: Nick has moved to Long Island, where he’s studying up for a job on Wall Street. Across the bay he can see his (married) cousin Daisy’s house, and soon discovers that his neighbor, the rich and enigmatic Gatsby has been watching her house, too. Nick quickly becomes a go-between in one of the strangest love stories, and is so affected by everything that transpires that summer that he does indeed write it all down in the book that will be called The Great Gatsby.
Why I love it: A love story with a tragic twist, who could resist? The book takes place in New York in the 1920’s, where life seems like one big party–except Gatsby’s parties are a ruse. Also, it’s a great example of metafiction, and the narrator is unreliable. Everything about this book drew me in: classic historical fiction romance with a surprise ending.
10. A Game of Thrones by George R. R. Martin
What it’s about: Several distinguished families in a high fantasy world are caught up in a political battle for power in the Seven Kingdoms. There are deadly feuds, applications of magic, and secrets around every corner. As the struggle continues, the fate of the entire world seems to be on the edge between prospering and collapsing, but no matter who will win the throne, nothing will ever be the same again.
Why I love it: This series is told from many perspectives in a well-constructed magical world full of complex characters. Everything about this story and the way it is told is intriguing, but I’m especially drawn to the characterization. Martin makes his readers fall in love with characters just in time for them to die, or turn to the dark side, or make the gravest possible error. There are infinite twists and turns, and nothing is black and white though everyone has an opinion. The suspense is never-ending.
11. 11/22/63 by Stephen King
What it’s about: A young man who teaches high school and is somewhat dissatisfied with his lot is told a life-changing secret by someone he would barely have considered a friend. The secret involves a time portal and a plot to change the course of history by preventing the death of John F Kennedy. Many things happen along the way, however, to make Jake doubt whether killing Oswald is the right course to take, and whether changing history is worth giving up the better life he’s forged for himself in the past.
Why I love it: Although Stephen King is great with horror stories, this sci-fi infused work of historical fiction is actually my favorite of his novels because of the wonderful characters in this book. Jake is an honorable, fascinating man, Sadie is perfectly awkward and realistic, and even Oswald is more interesting than I’ve ever found him in real history stories. I often have difficulty finding characters I feel any connection to in King’s books, though the plots are superb, but 11/22/63 was easy to becomw invested in. Also, I’m fascinated by books that manipulate time.
Check out my review of 11/22/63 here for more information!
12. Sister Carrie by Theodore Dreiser
What it’s about: Carrie has grown up in a fairly secluded household where her future looks small and unexciting. Her dreams are bigger than that, though, and she moves to Chicago to stay with relatives and move up in the world. The world, however, seems destined to keep her in her place. Carrie is set on making money and becoming fabulous any way she can, no matter the cost, and makes more changes in her life to reach her goals in New York, no matter who she may hurt along the way.
Why I love it: This story has great commentary on ambition and greed that makes for a cautionary tale. The characters aren’t always likeable, but they are strong, and it’s impossible to look away from the destruction that lies in their wake as money changes the very essence of their beings. It’s one of the few books I read for college that I thoroughly enjoyed having been assigned.
13. Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy
What it’s about: Two families that are slightly intertwined have very different experiences with marriage. Anna is determined to have the man she wants even if it means ruining her marriage and reputation. Levin has been forced to accept that he can’t have the woman he wants, but continues to hold her in his heart, a tactic that pays off quite well for him when he encounters the girl and tries again. The two love stories run opposite to each other, both with their challenges, but vastly different in outcome.
Why I love it: The parallels of the two stories are intriguing. Levin was actually my favorite character throughout the book, but Anna, as the title character, is also captivating and I did keep hoping her life would turn around. She seems perpetually at a turning point, but can never quite get going in the right direction. It’s a mix of love and tragedy based not on fate or unalterable circumstances, but on human nature itself.
14. The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath
What it’s about: A woman’s life begins as she slowly descends into madness while interning for a magazine in New York. Her experiences in the city are not what she expected and her confused reactions seem very different than those of the other girls she lives near and spends her time with. She spends some time in a hospital and returns home a very changed person, unable to find an occupation for her time and worrying about many things, including motherhood and her career.
Why I love it: The changes that mental illness bring to an otherwise ordinary life make this novel darkly beautiful and enigmatic. Even at her lowest points, Esther’s thoughts are profoundly moving and, at times, strangely relatable. This book is almost entirely focused on psychological aspects, and is both frightening and encouraging. It was a delightfully chilling summer read.
15. Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
What it’s about: Aspiring scientist Frankenstein sets out to answer the mystery of restoring life to something dead. Although he is initially proud of his creation, he soon sees it for what it is–a monster. Between the scientist and his creation, irreparable damage is done to Frankenstein’s family, and the two become enemies who must attempt to best each other to preserve or destroy the renewed life.
Why I love it: On top of the fascinating implications of restoring life to persons dead, the commentary on human nature and responsibility is still relevant today. The literal story is interesting in itself, and the reader is made to sympathize with Frankenstein’s monster in a way that draws attention to real life prejudices. The gothic nature of the narration makes the story both creepy and compelling. It’s a classic that’ll change the way readers look at the world around them.
16. Lying by Lauren Slater
What it’s about: This book is a memoir in which the narrator readily admits to fabricating many of her own statements presented as truths. An aspiring writer with an epileptic condition–or a metaphorical one–that changes the way people perceive her before they even know her endeavors not just to find her place in the world, but to force herself into the space whether she’ll fit or not.
Why I love it: I am irresistibly drawn to works that blur the line between fiction and nonfiction, and this is the best example I’ve found of that. A memoir is, by necessity, a work of nonfiction, but the narrator of this one repeatedly claims that she exaggerates and can’t be trusted. This is a book that left me constantly wondering what to believe, a puzzle with a hundred different solutions. It’s unpredictable and unique, simultaneously infuriating and endearing.
17. Sula by Toni Morrison
What it’s about: Two childhood friends from opposing backgrounds are deeply affected by an accidental death they witness and partially cause. As the girls grow up, both follow their family’s footsteps: Nel marries and settles down in a stable family, and Sula leaves to have affairs and cause a stir. When she returns, the community is in shambles, but turning against Sula allows them to unite and live in peace with each other, though Sula looses her only friend in the process.
Why I love it: Everything about this story is odd and surprising. Parts of the narration are provided out of chronological order, some elements of the story seem too bizarre to be possible, and the characters are like no one you’ve ever met. This is another book I read for college that I ended up loving, in this case for the quirky story and the phenomenal way it’s told.
18. Sharp Objects by Gillian Flynn
What it’s about: A small-time newspaper reporter returns to her hometown against her instincts to cover a recent murder story there. She becomes closer to her mother and half-sister while she investigates the case with an attractive detective looking for an in. Soon she realizes the murderer may be closer to home than she’d like, and the new deaths may have something to do with the death of her other younger sister.
Why I love it: This is a mystery/thriller from the author of Gone Girl with great twists and turns. Crime novels often become predictable and routine, but this one had the sort danger personally attached to the narrator that gives it an extra spark, and unique unpredictability. It’s dark and haunting.
19. Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen
What it’s about: A young man who’s just lost his parents and the veterinary practice he was planning to acquire after his college graduation runs away with the circus. There he learns the dangers of circus hierarchy for humans and animals, falls in love, and forges a home for himself with a troupe on the brink of collapse.
Why I love it: It’s historical fiction story told retrospectively as our narrator sits in a nursing home, waiting for one of his children to take him to the circus while it’s in town. It’s hard to decide which narrator to like better–the young man who makes an adventure of his grief, or the crotchety old man in the nursing home who still has tricks up his sleeve. All of the characters are bright and wily, and this novel shows a view of the circus far more entertaining than a front row seat to the show.
20. The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson
What it’s about: This nonfiction tale combines the architectural challenges behind the assembly of the World’s Fair in Chicago in the late 1800s and the uprise of a prosperous serial killer moving to the area around the same time, taking advantage of the influx of people to the city.
Why I love it: A doctor/murderer and an architect may seem like an unlikely pairing, but they fit together marvelously here. Also, the invention of the Ferris Wheel is a remarkable account. This book reads like a novel but conveys real history, including fires, floods, mysterious deaths, and for many, the Fair of a lifetime. The cover of this book so drew me in that I didn’t even realize it was a nonfiction book until I’d begun, but quickly discovered it was worth the read even though it wasn’t what I’d been expecting.
21. Church of Marvels by Leslie Parry
What it’s about: Four lives in New York in the late 19th century are set on course for collision by a fatal fire at a Coney Island side show and an abandoned baby. Follow two performers, a street worker, and a potential new mother into underground tunnels, an asylum, and the dirtiest corners of the city as they each seek something lost that leads them to each other.
Why I love it: Told from four perspectives, this novel is a wild ride through historical New York City, where no one is quite as they seem and justice may be impossible to grasp. It’s a powerful story of love, grief, and identity full of oddities and surprises.
Check out my review of Church of Marvels here for more information!
22. The Heart Goes Last by Margaret Atwood
What it’s about: In a not-too-distant dystopian world, economic collapse has left many middle class workers suddenly in dire circumstances, including our main characters, a young married couple. They try living out of their car, holding undesirable jobs that pay too little, and they’re sinking into poverty. So when they hear about a new program where volunteers are provided nice homes, stable jobs, and safety from the now-dangerous homeless population, they jump at the chance for a better life, even though it means living in a prison for six months each year. When they break the rules and make contact with the couple who share their house during those other six months, there are surprisingly drastic consequences.
Why I love it: People volunteer to be prisoners half of the year. That, in itself, was intriguing enough for me to pick up this book, and it did not disappoint. Additionally, Margaret Atwood is an incredible writer who creates completely unpredictable characters and crazy situations that are too bizarre to believe but too plausible to dismiss.
23. The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins
What it’s about: Our fallible narrator is a woman down on her luck, having lost her job, her husband, and her sobriety. She takes the train into London every day to keep up the ruse of employment for her kindly roommate’s sake, and becomes fascinated with the lives taking place on her old street. When she witnesses something suspicious and a woman turns up dead, Rachel becomes ensnared in a deadly investigation that turns suspicion toward her and even reveals something shocking about her marriage.
Why I love it: This is a narrator who has faults and makes mistakes, which makes the story seem so much more realistic. It’s an exciting mystery that leaves readers suspicious of every character and then reveals a truth that hits much closer to home for our narrator than she ever could have expected.
Check out my review of The Girl on the Train here for more information!
24. The Cuckoo’s Calling by Robert Galbraith (J. K. Rowling)
What it’s about: A popular celeb falls to her death from the balcony of her apartment, and several months after the case has been officially closed as a suicide, private detective Cormoran Strike is approached by the girl’s brother to prove that she was murdered. Robin, Strike’s new secretary, is happily engaged, but can’t resist the chance to learn more about investigative work and proves to be an invaluable aid to Strike in keeping the floundering business afloat and piecing together the mystery of the girl’s sudden demise.
Why I love it: It’s an out-of-the-norm crime novel with characters that feel real and lovable. Strike and Robin have a great relationship that’s just on the edge between platonic and romantic, and their efforts to track down the killer are both suspenseful and introspective. There’s a personal aspect in the mystery for Strike, which makes the novel even more exciting. Of course, as usual for J. K. Rowling, the story is irresistibly entertaining.
Check out my review of The Cuckoo’s Calling (and the rest of the series) here for more information!
25. Outlander by Diana Gabaldon
What it’s about: An ex-combat nurse takes a trip to Scotland with her husband after the end of WWII and falls through time. About 200 years earlier, she stands up from where she’s fallen and is instantly dragged off into 1740’s excitement. After Claire is “rescued” by a clan of Scotsmen, she can’t get back to her time portal easily and is molded into a functioning member of this new/old society before she has a chance to return to her own time. When her opportunity arises, however, she may be less willing to leave, despite the cruel threats of her husband’s ancestor who takes special interest in Claire and her new family.
Why I love it: This one’s a guilty pleasure. I actually had a lot of complaints while I was reading, but the story is very addicting and I consumed the entire series pretty quickly because I was so interested in the characters. I will definitely be picking up the next book in this series when it finally comes out, but I don’t anticipate this book staying on my list very long. I really enjoy stories that manipulate time, and the characterization is superb, but now that I’ve read all that there is I suspect the excitement will begin to wear down. It’s a temporary love, but a love nonetheless.
Check out my review of Outlander (and the rest of the series) here for more information!
Postscript: I realize the Harry Potter series is not on my list this year. It usually is, but I had too many other good books to name this time around and I feel like by this point it’s a given–if you’ve read it it’s probably a favorite, and if you haven’t, you probably should. Also, I don’t like to include multiple books by the same author in my list, and I wanted to reflect how much I’d enjoyed Galbraith/Rowling’s other series this past year.
What are your favorite books? Are any of mine on your lists? Do you have titles you think I should read? Let me know in the comments below!
The Literary Elephant