In the interest of staying “current” and reading the front list, or books that are published right now, sometimes we can overlook reading older books. Rediscovering titles from the “backlist” can lead to amazing finds. Though 2016 was really an awesome year for new books, we here at Book Riot have also read some amazing titles published before 2016. Here are some of our favorite older books we read this year.
Ex-Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader by Anne Fadiman
My favorite book I read this year was actually the first one I read this year, Ex-Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader, by Anne Fadiman. I was in a bad book slump for much of 2015, and I finally cured it by reading a tiny little book about books, one that is infused with an infectious passion for reading and the bookish life. I recognized myself in Fadiman’s childhood reminiscences growing up having a close relationship with parents who loved books. This was an excellent way to jump start the New Year and usher in a new era of reading, one with boundless promise and ambition.
Shadowshaper by Daniel José Older
I’ve gushed several times before about my love for this book, but I’m happy to do it again. Urban Fantasy (especially YA) has been my favorite genre for years, but I was starting to grow weary of it because nothing felt fresh. Then came Shadowshaper. This book completely blew me away and reignited my love of the genre. It’s so fresh and original and fun with a seriously cool main character. Anika Noni Rose’s brilliant narration of the audiobook only added to my enjoyment.
The Brain’s Way of Healing by Norman Doidge, M.D.
The Brain’s Way of Healing is the sequel to Doidge’s breakout book, The Brain That Changes Itself. Both books are about the science of neuroplasticity. The theory that the brain is plastic is not new; however, it was derided as pseudoscience throughout most of the modern era until recently. And let me tell you–it’s a total game-changer. The Brain’s Way of Healing explores the latest research and shares incredible case histories of people with Parkinson’s, blindness, stroke, and learning disorders who have improved dramatically with the help of therapies that harness the brain’s remarkable ability to heal itself. These therapies have the potential to change countless lives and this is by far the most exciting and hopeful book I read this year.
A Kind of Intimacy by Jenn Ashworth
This book starts out being a little uncomfortable, with its socially awkward narrator, Annie, moving into a new home a becoming a little too attached to Will, the man next door. But it doesn’t take long before Annie’s awkwardness starts to look creepy, especially when it comes to Will’s girlfriend, Lucy. I loved the way Ashworth built the tension in this disturbing novel. It was extremely unsettling to see how Annie mind works and how she’s able to win people over to her point of view and even lie to herself about her actions. It’s deliciously dark and satisfying.
A Hat Full of Sky by Terry Pratchett-Sonja Palmer
This is from the Tiffany Aching series. I started reading this series shortly before Mr. Pratchett went on to another great adventure, and oh it broke my heart to know the man that wrote this beautiful, kind, humanist books is no longer writing them. This is #2 of the series, so I recommend going out and getting #1 immediately, for humor and hope and the grit to keep going in a kind of depressing year.
The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen
There are usually a few books I don’t get around to for whatever reason and in 2016 I did a really good job of trying to read a bunch of 2015 books that I kept hearing great things about and I do not regret it. The Sympathizer won the Pulitzer, so of course I figured I should give it a try and it ended up hitting pretty much all of my buttons. This is unlike any other book you’ve read about the Vietnam war. Unlike most fiction on the subject, it’s not from the point of view of the Americans. It’s narrated by a Vietnamese man who is a spy for the Communist North infiltrated with a General in the South. It’s a genre novel as much as it’s literary fiction, with a plot full of crazy twists and turns. The structure is tricky, something I always enjoy, where the novel itself is actually a long written monologue: a confession to the narrator’s Communist captors. Nguyen is an astonishing writer and I could read this book over and over again.
The Quickening by Michelle Hoover
This book was incredible. I read it in a single sitting on a cold, snow day in April– probably the best setting to read a book like this. It’s a dark story about the ways people love and hurt each other, sometimes on purpose and sometimes by accident. It also hits all the things I love in a story: unreliable narrators, rural gothic, women’s voices, family secrets, and houses that become characters in their own right. The book asks you to think about big questions about death, family, isolation, and community. The prose is a beautiful but as spare as the rural landscape in the book. It’s not an uplifting story but it is wonderful and thought provoking. If you liked Gilead, I think you’ll enjoy The Quickening.
Written in the Stars by Aisha Saeed
Want to be broken? Read this book. A quick, single sitting read, Written in the Stars tells the story of Naila, a high schooler in Florida who has very conservative parents. After she gets caught going to a school dance with her boyfriend–a boyfriend she’s definitely not supposed to have, the whole family ships off to Pakistan. Her parents say it’s just for a visit, but it keeps turning into a longer and longer period of time. The writing isn’t complicated, but it’s compelling and heartfelt. Naila’s narration breaks your heart over and over again, and even though you know where the story is going, you just can’t help but hurt and cry for the agony and terror the poor girl is going through. What makes this a better read (for me) than some of the other heartbreakingly beautiful books I read this year is a bit of a spoiler, but I’m going to tell you anyway: it’s not all tragic. The ending leaves you with a little bit of hope. It’s still sad and heartwrenching, but you’re not going to spend hours staring at the wall afterward.
A Trifle Dead by Livia Day
This Australian small press find is a bit too saucy to call a cozy, a little too sweet for a hard boil, and precisely the perfect mystery read for me. The first in the Cafe La Femme series, A Trifle Dead follows the accidental crime solving and romantic adventures of cafe owner and pastry genius Tabitha Darling. It has one of my favorite ensembles in an ongoing series; even minor characters are written with depth and care. The narrative threads as well as the developing and established relationships are handled deftly, with both heart and humor. I do warn not to pick this up when you’re hungry, because the descriptions of Tabitha’s culinary creations are positively mouthwatering.
Written in Red by Anne Bishop
I don’t know why I took so long to pick this up, but I’m glad I waited until four books in the series were out, because I love nothing more than binge-reading. Urban fantasy is my go-to genre when I want a quick, absorbing read, and The Others series is just that. Meg, a blood prophet, escapes from an institution where she was forced to endure cuts on her skin that prompt her to have visions—prophecies that her captor sell. She stumbles onto a door that says “human law doesn’t apply here” which to her means sanctuary. She befriends the group of Others, shapeshifters and other supernatural creatures that live at the compound and serve as intermediaries between humans and the Others that can’t take human form. Tensions between humans and the Others are ramping up and Meg sees nothing but danger in the future.
This novel has very intriguing world-building, characters you can’t help but fall in love with, and great balance between suspenseful action and everyday moments. Not only am I anxiously waiting for the last book in the series, Etched in Bone, I’m also resolving to read more backlist this year.
The Mystics of Mile End by Sigal Samuel
I finally got to this book a year after it was published, and damn was I sorry I waited. It is such an amazing book, such a sure-footed, beautifully written novel that it’s hard to believe it’s her first. It’s one of those books that was so good I’m not quite sure where to begin describing it. At its core, The Mystics of Mile End is about family: a Jewish Montreal family comprised of Lev and Samara Meyers and their father David. David is a cynical professor of Jewish mysticism at McGill University, but has rejected the Orthodox faith in part because of his wife’s early death; as children both Lev and Samara have to hide their interest in Judaism and spirituality. Despite David’s avowed disinterest in religious practice, however, his children begin to notice strange behaviour as he (and they) grow older that suggests his spiritual interest in Jewish mysticism is returning. This is the beginning of a dangerous, disastrous path for David and then Samara, one that their brother.son and friends must save them from to avoid destroying their family. The Mystics of Mile End is a profoundly spiritual but also intellectual novel, the kind of book that is full of emotional truths that ring true. It has a lot to offer about human relationships, family, grief, queer identity, and, as trite as it might sound, the meaning of life. Samuel wonderfully sketches out some the ugly and beautiful truths of life and the similarly ugly and beautiful things human beings say and do.
I chose this book as part of a self-imposed post-election reading list. The story follows four Mexican girls living in Denver as they navigate their way through high school and college. Each of the girls are exceptional students and have dreams of succeeding after college. However, only two of the girls have immigration papers. As the book progresses, the bureaucratic difficulties encountered by the girls without papers becomes achingly evident. While writing this book, author Helen Thorpe was married to then-Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper (currently Colorado Governor). During the girls’ freshman year of college, a Mexican immigrant with ties to one of Hickenlooper’s restaurants shoots and kills a Denver police officer, making Colorado a passionately divided state regarding immigration. Thorpe expertly conveys the changes in attitude toward Mexican immigrants on both local and national levels during the span of the book. This book is narrative nonfiction at its best and an especially important read right now.
The Emperor’s Children, by Claire Messud
It’s possible that I was predisposed to love this book, since I was reading it on one of my favourite beaches and sometimes with wine, but I don’t think that’s the only reason I loved it so much. It also wasn’t even because I once met the author and she was lovely to me and it turns out we have way more in common than just our first names. This book drew me in from the very first sentence and usually, particularly with literary fiction, I have to work hard for the first few pages. The whole novel continued that way for me — right in the sweet spot of insightful, articulate writing that nevertheless reads easily. Also, rich-New-Yorkers-problem books are my kryptonite, as are books about college friends post-University. This one is populated with great characters whom I enjoyed getting to know on the page. In real life, I might punch at least two of them, but isn’t that half the fun of books?
Follow Her Home (Juniper Song Mystery #1) by Steph Cha
Cha has written a Korean-American amateur sleuth, comparable to hard-boiled detectives, who has a bit of an obsession with Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe. Basically, Juniper Song is everything I didn’t know I wanted–actually, needed. She’s smart, sarcastic, stubborn, loyal, and while technically not a PI she’s behaving like one now that she’s decided to help a friend out by looking into his father’s possible affair. Now if you’ll excuse me I need to go read the next two books in this great noir series.
The Visitors by Simon Sylvester
Sylvester does a fantastic job of transporting the reader to the Scottish coast in his hauntingly magical debut. Odd-girl-out Flora is on the cusp of adulthood and is anxious to leave her stifling island home behind for the big city. She anticipates a final school year of jaded ennui; a school assignment on Scottish mythology and a new and mysterious neighbor unite to challenge her final months on remote Bancree, however. Angsty, beautiful, and tinged with mystery this novel completely consumed me. Normally I am a plot-driven reader, but I found myself caring less about the mysterious disappearances and enjoyed settling in with Flo and Ailsa, her new neighbor and friend, as they developed and grew and revealed more of themselves. Not quite YA, not quite fantasy, this story is perfect for lovers of magical realism. It’s stark. It’ll stick with you. I want more.
Drops of God by Tadashi Agi, Shu Okimoto
I really can’t say enough about this manga series, which is all about wine. Everything about it is wonderful, from the art (I long for large-format posters of my favorite pages), to the fantastic characters, to the story. But really the best thing about Drops of God is how beautifully it expresses wine as both as an art and an experience. It’s no wonder that the wines featured in this manga–all actual, real-world wines, incidentally–sell out immediately in Japan; as soon as you read about them you want to try them. Also, I love stories about people learning things and making friends as they go along, and that’s what Drops of God is really all about. My only wish is that the rest of the series is someday published in English. Please, Vertical! Don’t leave us hanging!
Another Fine Myth by Robert Asprin
My favorite backlist title this year is actually a reread for me. It’s the first in the MythAdventures series, which I read most of in middle school. And I adored it just as much as I did then. Asprin, who died in 2008, had a marvelous sense of humor, and would go the distance for a pun or joke. And it worked for him! This series stars Skeeve, a noob magician apprentice whose master is killed by an assassin while summoning a demon. That demon, Aahz (think Grig from The Last Starfighter stuck in medieval times), needs Skeeve’s help recovering his magic, which was lost during the summoning. And since Skeeve is now out of a job, off they go on an interdimensional adventure in search of the assassin, and the solution to Aahz’s problem. Corny, whimsical, and delightful, Asprin reportedly based the adventures of Skeeve and Aahz on the Bing Crosby/Bob Hope road trip films. This was exactly the warm fuzzy feeling of nostalgia I needed in this dark year.
Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout
I don’t think I’ve ever loved a fictional character the way I love Olive. Someone recommended this book to me a few years back, but it wasn’t until I watched the excellent HBO mini-series starring Frances McDormand as the callous, infuriating, and emotionally complex Olive, that I decided to read the book. Through Olive’s eyes, we meet a cast of characters inhabiting the town of Crosby, Maine, where everyone knows each other’s business. Each interconnected story is more enchanting than the last. We meet the tragically dependent young widow, the alcoholic lounge pianist, the Anorexic teen, the young man grappling with suicide as he revisits his hometown. At the center of this is Olive herself: fierce, stubborn, and unapologetic. If you have a love/hate relationship with Six Feet Under’s troubled matriarch Ruth Fisher, you’re going to love Olive. And maybe despise her a little too. But for all of her harshness, underneath is a woman with deep regrets and pain of her own, if only she’ll share it with someone. Elizabeth Strout won The Pulitzer Prize for this novel, and it takes little effort to see why. This is a staggering book that celebrates life in all of its triumphs and tragedies. And for those that are fans of the HBO series, you’ll be delighted to know that the novel includes even more stories and characters that were left out of the limited episodes.
What were some of your favorite backlist books you read this year?