It’s been an interesting year for books, but I had a hard time picking my favorite books of 2016. In the past years, it’s been difficult to narrow down my new releases to just 10 books. This year, it was a challenge to come up with ten favorites. This is because I’ve been reading more backlist, and the new releases I’ve been reading have mostly been satisfying reads, but I haven’t been particularly passionate about a lot of them. I had lots of ‘three star’ type books. Good books, and ones I’ll recommend, but not life-changing books that inspire me. These, however, are the standouts.
The Serpent King by Jeff Zentner
I read this book in a day, and it left me supremely satisfied but also emotionally devastated.
This is the story of the last year of high school of a misfit group of friends: Dill, a talented singer/songwriter who happens to be the son of a snake-wielding Pentecostal preacher who is in prison for child-pornography, Lydia, his fashion-blogger best friend who dreams of escaping their small town, and Travis, the guy they hang out with who is more interested in the fantasy world of his favorite book series than life after high school.
The setting is as important and well-developed as the characters. Zentner makes the small Tennessee town come alive, without shying away from accurate depictions of rural poverty, a suffocating sense of the inevitable, complacency in the wake of obvious abuse, and hostility towards those who are different. The themes of growing up, finding one’s own identity, the power of friendship, and following one’s dreams will resonate with many older teens, but is also a good fit for adults who love coming of age stories.
Places No One Knows by Brenna Yovanoff
It’s a complicated and nuanced look at how difficult it can be to inhabit your own skin, especially in high school, and how sometimes, being around the right person can make it easier to just breathe.
Waverly works endlessly to maintain her image of perfection. Grades, running, friends—she does it all, and she’s the best. Popularity has been a game she’s played with her best friend, all Machiavellian high school politics. But Waverly isn’t really a vapid mean girl. She has a lot of thoughts and feelings rolling beneath the surface.
So many that she spends every night running because she’s unable to sleep.
Marshall has a bad home life. His parents are in a bad marriage because medical bills on top of an already precarious lower class status has made it financially impossible for them to part ways. Marshall uses drugs, booze, and girls he doesn’t care about to escape, and even though he’s smart, is failing at school just because he doesn’t see the point.
And even though they live in completely separate social spheres, their paths occasionally cross at school, and their both interested in the other.
But it’s only in Waverly’s dreams that they’re able to actually connect.
They talk and share and start figuring stuff out about who they are and what they want. There’s kissing, too. But only at night are they able to start baring their souls, sharing their true selves, and during school, in public, they continue to act like strangers, because the intimacy they share at night is just a dream.
Or is it?
This isn’t a novel you read for the plot, but for the voice. Waverly’s mental state is a bit enigmatic, and definitely complicated and layered. Marshall is earnest and tragic. Their both frustrating, in part, because they’re so real.
Exit, Pursued by a Bear by E. K. Johnston
This retelling of Shakespeare’s A Winter’s Tale is smart and thought-provoking while tackling a difficult subject. Hermione Winters is ready to conquer her senior year as captain of her school’s badass cheerleading squad. But while at cheer champ, she’s drugged, raped, and impregnated. What most struck me about this novel is the fierce protectiveness of Hermione’s best friend and the way that therapy was such an important part of the healing process. It’s not a book for every reader, but those who enjoy character driven YA from authors like Sara Zarr or Hilary T. Smith should check this out.
A Fierce and Subtle Poison by Sarah Mabry
I am usually down with anything that features magical realism or features a Latin American setting, so this was one of my most anticipated YA debuts this year. Lucas, the son of an American developer, spends his summers in his father’s hotels in San Juan, Puerto Rico. He is fascinated by the house at the end of the road, rumored to be cursed, and the local legends surrounding it. Curiosity leads him to meet Isabel, a girl whose touch is poisonous, even to herself. Drawing on the rich tradition of magical realism in Latin America, debut author Mabry weaves a rich, atmospheric tale inspired by Caribbean folklore that also subtly critiques modern day imperialism and colonization. The dreamy prose, detailed setting, chilling suspense, and open ended conclusion make for a unique combination that I found irresitible.
The Raven King by Maggie Stiefvater
I feel like telling you all about the end of a series is a bit like cheating, but I had waited a loooong time for the final installment of The Raven King to come out, and it was worth every excruciating moment. The four part series is about a girl named Blue who is the daughter of psychics, doomed to kill her first true love with a kiss, whose life becomes entangled with those of the Raven boys, who are on a quest to find the lost Welsh King of Glendower. It’s full of magic and mayhem, fast cars and cars that break down a lot; sadness and humor and lots of nerve-racking, adrenaline pumping moments and also the quiet moments and so much beautiful prose it makes my heart ache. I also highly recommend the series on audiobook. Will Patton is an excellent narrator, and I’ve read and listened to the entire series more than once.
The Winner’s Kiss by Marie Rutowski
Yet again, I’m recommending an entire series (but isn’t it nice to know the later books are satisfying?). I loved these on audio, too. It’s rare that a fantasy series isn’t about magic, but this alternate world is based on the colonization of the world by the Romans, and explores slavery, war, and politics, but also has a swoon-worthy romance. The plotting in this series is so well-paced, and the stakes are always raised higher just when you think the situation can’t get any worse.
Sweetbitter by Stephanie Danler
I just wrote about this title last week in my summer books preview, but I can’t help but mention it again. It’s really stayed with me. This review from a food, not book blog, really gets into the appeal of this novel.
What is noteworthy is that months later, I still think about this novel. The characters are all archetypes, but they feel so real, and the language is so vivid.
What is Not Yours is Not Yours by Helen Oyeyemi
I love short story collections, especially when I find myself too busy to get invested in a novel. These stories are all built around keys, both physical and metaphorical, and the interconnected vignettes were strange and beautiful and bizarre. Oyeyemi is a master storyteller. I love how she blends the realistic in with hints of fantastical, and is always asking questions and challenging the reader.
I know not all readers are fond of short stories, but I’d encourage you to check out this collection. I wasn’t a huge fan of Boy, Snow, Bird, but I was swept aways by these stories.
Hamilton: The Revolution by Lin-Manuel Miranda
It’s no surprise this made my list. I’m still obsessed with Hamilton, and this backstage pass to the making of the musical and the complete lyrics and story are essential reading for any fan.
Really, I was crying by like the second page. I checked it out from the library, but I want to own a copy.
Marked in Flesh by Anne Bishop
This is another cheat, because it’s the fourth installment in a series, but I binge-read all four books recently, and highly recommend them to any urban fantasy readers. In this alternate world, The Others—various forms of shapeshifters—are just leasing land to humans. They’ve ruled the Earth since the beginning of time and evolve and take on the characteristics of top level predators. Meg, a blood prophet held in captivity escapes and takes refuge in one of their settlements, slowly changing the residents as threats from a small sect of humans compromise the unsteady peace between The Others and humans. It’s a dark story with excellent world-building. Though the writing is simplistic, the characters are captivating and I found the books compelling without being able to fully articulate why I was so swept away in the story.
What are your favorite books of 2016?