Here you have it! Book Riot’s favorite books of 2016.
On the surface, the Brooklyn that August knows is a child’s pleasure, full of the passionate friendships of girlhood and the characters who populate a child’s understanding of home. But there is another Brooklyn, a different Brooklyn, that lurks below the surface: a Brooklyn of white flight and self-loathing, of poverty and anxiety, of fear and loss. With the kind of evocative, affecting prose that only a poet with Jacqueline Woodson’s chops can pen, both Brooklyns — and their accompanying tales of love, loss, and memory — will stay with you long after you turn the final page. This short volume is sure to prompt second and third readings.
Burn Baby Burn
17-year-old Nora Lopez’s summer is about to get much hotter, with the serial killer Son of Sam on the loose and her brother’s trouble-making growing more and more worrisome by the day. This exploration of feminism, friendship, and the ways that family can at once be the best thing and the most frustrating thing in one’s life is unforgettable. Medina captures a girl on the brink of adulthood with palpable fear and tension caused both by her internal and external worlds.
As the world falls apart around her, Nora has to look deep insider herself to find the answers she needs. A novel that epitomizes what YA fiction does and does well.
Here Comes the Sun
A dark, beautiful, and fantastic novel that follows a family of Jamaican women with past traumas, secrets, and the desire for a better future. The further the novel dove into family secrets and relationships, colorism, and the contrast between the wealth of a high-end hotel and the poverty of its employees, the faster I turned the page. The lengths some will go to in the hopes of creating a better life–even if that means possibly destroying themselves and the ones they love—are gripping and heartbreaking, and Nicole Dennis-Benn has permission to break my heart any time.
Born in 17th-century Ghana, half-sisters Effia and Esi might as well live worlds apart. One marries an Englishman–a slaver–and moves into his castle; the other is sold into slavery and kept in the dungeon beneath the very same castle. From there, Gyasi weaves a story that spans continents, generations, and three centuries of history as she explores the consequences of colonization and the legacy of slavery in both Africa and the United States. This unflinching and unforgettable novel is creatively imagined and completely transfixing, and it is one hell of a debut. Gyasi has made her mark as a writer to watch.
If I Was Your Girl
If I Was Your Girl broke me in all the best ways. The novel—part New Girl In School, part Girl Discovers Herself—tells the story of Amanda, in both the Then and the Now. Debut author Meredith Russo takes a common trope and twists it into something wonderful. She builds thoughtful, thorough relationships of all kinds and brings life to a teenage girl learning to live her best life, and finally feeling the way she’s always wanted. The story is great, but the writing is spectacular, and all you’ll want to be doing is reading it—and all you’ll want to do when you’re done is wish you could read it for the first time again.
In the Country We Love
I’m not a celebrity-memoir reader, so I was surprised to realize that In the Country We Love by Diane Guerrero was a favorite read of 2016. Diane grew up in the United States as a child of undocumented immigrants. One day, she came home to find her parents had been deported. She was left behind. This is not a political book, but sadly, stories like hers have become politicized. This book works to humanize those stories, it works to build empathy among a populace that shouts “build a wall” at their brown citizens. This book was an important read leading up to the election, and it’s a necessary one in the world we find ourselves in now.
Infomocracy would have been a fascinating read in any year. But 2016 isn’t just any year. With truth and politics intersecting in unexpected (and unexpectedly brutal) ways, it’s no wonder that this book was met with so much enthusiasm. Infomocracy imagines a political future both fantastical and kinda plausible, where people vote in 100,000-person units and truth is defended by Information, a global institution that’s part-Google, part-UN. In doing so, it offers a provocative alternative to a broken present. At the same time, and just as importantly, it offers a ton of rip-roaring fun. And we could all use more of that—in 2016 and beyond.
Like the plants and trees that Hope Jahren studies, Lab Girl is the story of trying to find purchase. Purchase for a girl then young woman then professor who wants to live a life of science in a world that doesn’t particularly like science, and women scientists in particular. Months after listening to Lab Girl, that is what has stuck with me—Jahren’s will to define a life for herself as a scientist, mother, teacher, friend, and colleague that defies easy categorization or ready-made role. That she has created a meaningful life, insisted on and fought for that life, reminds us that it can be done.
Louise Erdrich’s latest novel focuses on the Ravitch and Iron families, linked by a shared tragedy, the accidental shooting of the five-year-old Ravitch son, Dusty, by Landreax Iron, father of five-year-old LaRose. LaRose becomes part of both families, and the book traces their bumpy path toward healing. Erdrich is remarkably skilled at traversing challenging emotional terrain, and this book is honest about the difficulties people face, both in the present and the past, but it’s not lacking in hope. Yet even the hope has a shadow side, which keeps it feeling grounded and real.
March: Book 3
March: Book 3 is a stunning graphic novel that must be read far and wide. The March series begins with a scene in John Lewis’s congressional office, on the day of Barack Obama’s inauguration. Through flashbacks, we get a most personal look into Mr. Lewis’s history with the civil rights movement and all that he has endured fighting for equal rights and equal voting opportunities. The graphic novel medium, and in particular Nate Powell’s stunning art, works perfectly to detail the brutal and heartbreaking work of the many people fighting for the most basic of human rights. Read the whole series, then share these books with everyone you know.
Saving Montgomery Sole
Mariko and Jillian Tamaki are non-stop when it comes to a certain brand of quirky, melancholy, and incredibly thought-provoking comic book. Mariko Tamaki’s YA novel Saving Montgomery Sole is no different. Saving Montgomery Sole centers on Montgomery, the driving force behind her club’s investigations into the paranormal. Parallel with her forays into life’s mysteries, Montgomery struggles with the homophobia in her small town that she fears will be directed at her two mothers. For any fans of This One Summer or Skim, this is a must-read.
Shrill: Notes From a Loud Woman
You might know Lindy West from the episode of This American Life where she confronts a troll who impersonated her dead father on social media. The essays in Shrill hit a perfect sweet spot between feminism and humor that had me texting my girl gang every 5 seconds with something new that had me laughing/crying/both, probably. (Kids of the 80s, you’ll love her high-school-band-geek-reading-high-fantasy-on-the-bus humor.) Equally wonderful via print or audio—she performs the audio herself!—Lindy West uses comedy to Hulk smash cultural taboos for women like being fat, having an abortion, not being down with rape jokes, and demanding to be heard.
Sleeping Giants is so unexpected, it’s completely mindblowing. A girl falls through the ground and lands on a giant metal hand that isn’t of human construction. Almost two decades later, that girl is in charge of a team studying these massive alien objects. Sound intriguing? It is, and all the more because of the way the story is told: interviews, emails, and data files. Neuvel creates suspense by only telling us parts of the story, and helping us put the pieces together along the way. It makes for a mesmerizing, all-consuming narrative that will leave you breathless with anticipation. Sci-fi fan or not, this book will stick with you.
The Association of Small Bombs
There are hardly any weeks which pass by without us coming across a news headline about terrorist activity somewhere in the world. If it’s not in a place near or familiar to us, even the best of us shake our heads and move on. Karan Mahajan’s book seeks to shake us out of such bubbles. It delves inside terrorism’s effects on the victims, survivors, and perpetrators. It hit especially close to home for me, as Mahajan talks about a ‘small’ bomb that goes off in a Delhi market and the years of damage that ensues. The prose is beautiful and lulling in contrast to the subject matter, and the characters and their relationships are painfully intriguing.
The Fire This Time felt important to me before the election, but it feels absolutely essential now. It’s an anthology of essays on race in America with a stellar list of contributors, including Edwidge Danticat, Kiese Laymon, Claudia Rankine, Isabel Wilkerson, and many more. It’s fabulous. The pieces are varied, ranging from essay to memoir to poetry. Each one is moving and powerful and each captures a different perspective on what it means to be Black in America today. Readers will come to this book for different reasons, but it remains required reading for everyone who cares about the American experience, past, present, and future.
A teenage girl’s mother commits suicide, and she deals with it by burying her sorrow in a relationship with her preacher’s son. One (terminated) pregnancy and a heap of secrets later, she’s trying to move on with her life. Her story is told by the Greek chorus of the elderly women who make her church, and so many churches like it, run. The writing is deceptively simple, and manages to contain complex truths about the simple choices we make as young adults, the secrets we keep, and the communities that help hold us together.
The Nest is a swings-for-the-fences, imperfect, but wildly ambitious debut that tackles Family in the tapestry of contemporary America: the four estranged Plumb siblings, now adults and fighting over “The Nest,” their shared trust. United against their eldest sibling, Leo, whose DUI car accident wiped out about all of the money, the three younger siblings find a reason to come together. If you’re the kind of person who rewatches The Royal Tenenbaums every year but feels like we need a version of The Corrections for the new millennium, pick up The Nest for some wicked wit propelled by a rich undercurrent of emotion and, ultimately, love.
The Obelisk Gate
The apocalypse happened. The continent known as The Stillness was split. The resulting volcanic activity filled the world with poisonous gas and ash, driving survivors into tiny communities from which they will never emerge, although if they are lucky, in ten thousand years, their descendents might.
While all the characters are trapped in small spaces, the world of The Obelisk Gate seems bigger than ever in this epic fantasy, the sequel to N.K. Jemisin’s The Fifth Season.
This book examines slavery, power, systems of oppression, and what it would take to make someone want to break the world.
The Queen of the Night
Lilliet Berne is the star of the Paris opera, a vocal enchantress with a mysterious presence. But hiding behind her famous persona is a history as an orphan, a carnival worker, and a courtesan. And when Lilliet discovers someone has turned her secrets into a story for a new opera, she must revisit her past to find out who threatens to upend her future. The Queen of the Night is a lush, captivating story of music, love, and betrayal, and Chee has woven a beautiful, intricate tale as decadent and gorgeous as one of Lilliet’s own dresses. I fell into this book like it was a feather bed and didn’t come up for air until I had finished it.
The Serpent King
The Serpent King is the southern-gothic YA novel I needed. It follows Dill, the musician son of a disgraced Pentecostal preacher, and his friends as they reckon with family secrets, class divisions, and modern southern identity. Zentner’s take on the misfit teen story is emotionally complex and carefully observed—seriously, be prepared to ugly-cry *a lot* while you read this book.
For me, what tipped the book from good to great is its strong sense of place. Zentner has real affection for the rural south and all the people who live there. The Serpent King offers up a portrait of the modern south that revels in its contradictions.
The sixth novel in the Dublin Murder Squad series is the best yet. The central murder of the book isn’t sinister or unusual, it’s a mundane death, probably from a romantic quarrel. But as Detective Antoinette Conway digs into the history of the victim, she starts to suspect a larger conspiracy. Conway is already an outsider in the department–it doesn’t matter how tough she is, she will always be a woman–and she struggles to work out real conspiracy vs everyday misogyny. The plot is a maze of twists and turns, the prose is razor sharp, and Conway holds it all together with a bold narrative voice.
The Underground Railroad
It is rare that a book lives up to the hype preceding its publication, but Colson Whitehead can. This book is not light and it is not easy. It forces you to confront the harsh realities of slavery and racism that are easy to forget and glaze over as time passes. But it is also not a historical account of The Underground Railroad. Instead this book utilizes the main character, Cora, to describe the crimes of our past, disrupt our views of history, and highlight the struggle that black people in America have to truly gain freedom. Your heart will be broken by this book, but it will be worth it.
The Wangs vs. the World
A business goes bankrupt. A now-bankrupt family goes on a road trip. Hijinks ensue. At the simplest level, this is what happens in The Wangs vs. the World. And that simplicity is where its brilliance lies. Jade Chang fills in the details of this straight-forward outline with beautifully portrayed, complex, and frequently hilarious characters. The members of the Wang family grapple not only with their financial downfall but the generation gap, family dysfunction, the immigrant experience, and the opportunities and obstacles of cross-country adventures. Mile by mile, page by page, Chang has created a family saga for the ages.
You Can’t Touch My Hair
After a long wait for the book that would shake me with laughter and lift me up, Phoebe Robinson took me to church–I shouted and praised my way through her memoir. From Black people secrets, to a history of Black hair, to the letters to Robinson’s biracial niece, this book spoke to me. Robinson discusses race and gender through her experiences, observations, and pop culture obsessions; she delivers the truth. I was left cackling and thankful that people who get the Black experience and live it are talking about it. Also, Jessica Williams’ foreword is no joke. Keep this book handy.
I read Your Heart Is A Muscle the Size of a Fist in February, and I immediately knew it was going to stick with me all year. Yapa narrates the World Trade Organization Protest in 1999 through numerous perspectives. He does give the rioters voice, but he also delves into the policemen’s heads and shows how some of them rationalize their brutality. He also gives the perspective of a Sri Lankan delegate, who is tired of these white Americans speaking for him. There’s so much frustration and anger laid bare on this page, layered in with complicated family histories and the mistakes we all make, and why we choose to keep fighting. Beautifully written and timely.