Jenn: My reading habits, which are already pretty broad, got even broader in 2016. The primary reason: the Get Booked podcast. I started on as a full-time co-host early in the year and while many of the questions we get are easy enough to answer, some are so specific as to require some exploratory reading. I try very hard never to answer a question with a book I haven’t read, unless I can get a rock-solid approval from someone else I trust. Happily, I read fast and I love doing research! And without those hyper-specific questions, I might never have discovered some of my surprise favorite reads of 2016. None of these books came out in 2016 and several of them are decades old, which just makes me even more delighted to have found them.
Holding Still For As Long As Possible, Zoe Whitall (2009)
If you had told me that this year I would find a queer, anxiety/trauma-sensitive version of Friends set in Canada in book-form, I would have been OVERJOYED. I felt actual glee as I read this on the recommendation of a fellow contributor. Centered around the experiences of Josh, an EMT in Toronto, Holding Still hops from one character to the next who spiral around each other as their relationships intersect and diverge.
Instant Mom, Nia Vardalos (2013)
On the other hand, if you had told me that I would become obsessed about an adoption memoir by the actress from My Big Fat Greek Wedding, I would have been highly skeptical. First, that such a book existed at all and second, that it would be so wonderfully good. Vardalos movingly (and hilariously) recounts her complicated journey to motherhood, including infertility treatments, multiple attempts at finding an agency through which to adopt, the moment in which she found her daughter, and then the incredible and complicated adjustment period as they became a family. You will laugh and cry (I know I did) — and if you’re thinking about adoption, Vardalos has a guide and resources for you as well!
This is Paradise, Kristiana Kahakauwila (2013)
I picked this up on the plane back from Kauai and ended up recommending it more than once. It’s rare to find a book about the Hawaiian islands that is by a Hawaiian and takes as its subject contemporary times; Kahakauwila is a hapa writer, and beautifully chronicles life around the islands in the here and now. The added bonus is that this is a short story collection, so you get multiple islands and perspectives. She’s a writer with a sharp ear for dialogue, an eye for detail, and a knack for pulling you in right away.
The Language of Baklava, Diana Abu-Jaber (2005)
I am not much of a cook, and I don’t read a lot of foodie books. But we get asked for them often and a fellow contributor pointed me towards The Language of Baklava, for which I have fallen hard. Diana Abu-Jaber is known for her fiction, but this memoir sparkles. As she looks back on her childhood and her complicated relationship with her father, she also meditates on the foods of her family (and, of course, includes recipes). This is such a funny and deep look at family and, while I will probably never cook any of it, the food sounds amazing.
The Maerlande Chronicles, Elisabeth Vonarburg (1992)
We’re always getting asked for hard sci-fi recommendations, and since I try to limit the number of repeat recs I often will scour used bookstores for options. Enter The Maerlande Chronicles, which I bought because I liked the cover and because it was translated (another box on the bingo card of recommendations!). This book is so quietly transgressive, so imaginative, and so beautifully told that I can’t believe I’ve never read Vonarburg before. If you’re a fan of Jemisin, Le Guin, and Atwood, you need to pick this up — but please note that it’s actually the sequel to The Silent City (my copy is on its way as I type).
The Mirror Empire, Kameron Hurley (2014)
Same reasons as above except fantasy — the number of people who need post-Game of Thrones recs is not small. And wow, is Hurley pulling no punches. If you’re looking for politics, violence (including sexual assault), magic, and fascinating new cultures, look no further. And if you’re looking for a writer who does that while turning all the typical tropes of high fantasy on their heads, SERIOUSLY READ THIS.
The Steady Running of the Hour, Justin Go (2014)
I can’t even remember what I was originally looking for when I found this book in the library, or how I found it, but I am so grateful to whatever whim led me to pick it up. This is the story of a graduate student who sets out to research his ancestry and claim an inheritance; it’s also the story of a pair of lovers during World War II who are separated both by war and the complications of their relationship. It’s a slow burn of a book, told in both first and third persons, and if you’re looking for a long book that will take you on a deep dive, this is it.
Uncovering Ray, Edie Danford (2015)
This is the first (and only) romance I’ve read with a genderqueer protagonist, and all I can say is GIVE ME MORE. Ray is genderfluid, struggling to get their life together, and also falling for a guy who seems to be Mr. Wrong on so many levels. Ray’s gender influences the story but is far from being the central conflict, and Danford balances family dynamics with a developing romance beautifully, giving this story real weight as well as a ton of sizzle.
Amanda: The Get Booked audience asks such specific and wide-ranging questions–I thought I was well-read before I started hosting this show, and now I feel like a newb! But it’s awesome, I get to do all this delicious research before every show and read, read, read everything I can find until I land on a gem that I know the question asker will love. I’ve found so many books I never would’ve picked up because of this show! Here are a few favorites from this year:
My Grandfather Would Have Shot Me by Jennifer Teege and Nikola Sellmair, translated by Carolin Sommer (2015)
We get a lot of questions from people who want World War II history books to give to their dads/grandpas, so I went searching for one that offered new insight or a fresh perspective. This memoir, about a black German woman who discovers her grandfather was commandant of the Plaszów concentration camp (the one in Schindler’s List), fit the bill. It’s complicated, personal, and fascinating.
After Birth by Elisa Albert (2015)
I picked this up while doing research for a listener who wanted books about fictional moms, and I love it so much. The main character has a one year old son and is still recovering mentally from his traumatic birth. She’s angry, bitter, and struggling with jealousy and resentment towards, well, everyone. I love this book so much because it lays bare the ridiculous things we expect new mothers (and only new mothers, not fathers) to know automatically and to feel without rational reason, and allows the main character to be honestly pissed off by it all.
Gunpowder Alchemy by Jeannie Lin (2014)
A listener asked for recommendations for a great steampunk read, and I took the request to the Book Riot contributors for recs. This was one of them, and it is so much fun! The basic idea of steampunk (what would happen if we added steam powered engines to THIS situation?) is inserted into 19th century China’s political situation, and shenanigans ensue! There’s also a nice (not very steamy) romance on the side.
She Matters: A Life in Friendships by Susanna Sonnenberg (2013)
I found this when I was researching books for a listener who wanted an audiobook to listen to with her best friend while they went on a road trip together. Sonnenberg’s memoir about the female relationships that have shaped her life seemed perfect, if a little serious for a road trip. But so much to talk about!
Smaller and Smaller Circles by F.H. Batacan (2015)
We get tons of requests for mysteries and thrillers for all kinds of readers, and I’d already heard such great things about this from other Rioters. This one hits a lot of buttons that I like in a recommendation for mysteries: diversity of author and location (it’s the first Filipino crime novel, and it’s written by a woman!), a noir sensibility, and it isn’t centered around violence against women.
Code Talker: the First and Only Memoir by One of the Original Navajo Code Talkers of WWII by Chester Nez and Judith Schiess Avila (2011)
Another excellent read I picked up to answer a WWII recommendation request. The Code Talkers were US Marines from various Native American tribes who used their languages to create complicated codes that the Japanese were never able to break. The code wasn’t declassified until the late 1960s, and is largely responsible for much of our success in the Pacific theater.
Devoted by Jennifer Mathieu (2015)
A YA novel about a teen from an extreme fundamentalist Christian family (think: the Duggars) who begins to question her church, her father, and her faith. I read this one for a listener who wanted books about characters who leave cults, and I absolutely consider this version of Christianity–one where women exist only to give birth, can’t wear pants, can’t be educated, can’t read books of their choosing or access the internet– to be a cult. It’s a book that will make you want to swoop in and save a lot of girls from this environment.