While I read fewer books than usual in 2016, this annual edition of my Top 10 lists covers a fairly broad range of styles—a rock & roll bio, some YA classics, poetry, apocalypse lit, historical nonfiction, crime, noir, and more. Despite being a pretty miserable year, the good books kept me going. As usual for these lists, I only include books I’ve read for the first time in 2016, but the books can be from any year, brand new or decades old, so long as they’re new to me. I’d love to know what your favorites were this year as well, so feel free to add those in the comments section! Most of all, I hope you enjoy these if you haven’t yet tried them for yourself.
10. Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes
We start with an older classic that I read as part of a freelance project. It took on some personal importance for me as my day job involves working with intellectually and physically challenged individuals, so to imagine a form of treatment that might help boost one’s ability to learn and reason fascinated me in ways it might not have five or ten years ago. Watching the character’s transformation from disabled to genius was really well done here, and the downward trajectory is as frightening as it is tragic. This banned book should be an absolute must as yet another tool to help build empathy in the minds and hearts of younger readers.
9. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire by J.K. Rowling
I got into Potter late, just two years ago, and I’m still only working my way through the earlier novels. There was a point in this one, about halfway through, where I felt perhaps Rowling had created an unwieldy beast of a novel and was losing control, there was just so much happening and yet it felt like it was dragging, but, it the book righted itself and wraps of surprisingly well at the end, making the perhaps overlong journey worth it. As I said before, the Potter novels are much more like Agatha Christie stories dressed up in wizard robes. I think this is why she broke through with such force: her depth of storytelling with a style that blends mystery and magic all in one. Well done, this.
8. Galveston by Nic Pizzolatto
I’m willing to bet that, like myself, most readers came to read this novel because of HBO’s True Detective. But unlike TD Season 2, this novel doesn’t disappoint. It’s a gritty crime drama about an aging hired gun who finds himself betrayed and goes on the run, eventually getting caught up in another deadly web while trying to do right by a young woman and her daughter. But as often happens to anti-heroes, trying to do the right thing ends up going very wrong. The timeline jumps around from before, during, and years after the central story, but it works. The dialogue and action feels right, the characters are distinct, and like the TV show, the setting is very much part of the story here. If you liked the show, either season, get the novel.
7. Leningrad: State of Siege by Michael Jones
This nonfiction examination of the siege of Leningrad is both in-depth and intense, detailing the incredible mismanagement of the city’s defense by a series of bumbling, sycophant leaders and indifferent generals who sent an endless stream of soldiers into a meatgrinder of death. It also looks at the day-to-day life of citizens who had to endure endless shelling by Nazis, freezing winters without heat, and so little food that many resorted to eating the dead or killing each other for food. Finally, the book also points out the odious tactics of the Germans, who had no intention of invading the city and chose to starve the people out instead, as it was cheaper and safer. All in all, a horrific tale of the depths of human nature that also highlights some inspiring moments where citizens rose above the misery and tried to keep what good there was left in their world alive until the war and the siege ended. A frightening and inspiring chapter of WWII.
6. Field of Prey by John Sandford
This book surprised me. It was my first taste of Sandford's police thrillers, and I don’t typically read what you might call “airport novels” so I didn't have the highest expectations, but this truly creepy serial killer investigation hooks early and really runs. I like how Sandford sets up the case so that most of the details needed to catch the killer are there midway through the story, but near misses, overlooked leads, forgotten clues, a few unrevealed realizations, and a smattering of side stories all create a very realistic and tangled web, and the reader is just a little ahead of the investigators, which also creates nice tension. I wasn't sold on the protags early on, but they drew me in and I was invested soon enough. This was a good, eerie crime novel with plenty of twists and action that kept me up later than I expected most nights flipping through hoping to reach the end before dawn.
5. America Is Not the World: an anthology edited by Rachel Nix
In no other period of my life has such a poetry collection been as prescient and needed as this anthology, populated by as broad a spectrum of talented writers as you’ll find. And the title gets right to the heart of the matter: America is not the world. The poems are powerful and compelling, and from start to finish they implore you to see America through the eyes of others, hear the world through new ears, and understand how one struggle in one pocket of the world is directly tied to all, America too. Because we are not alone. We are not exceptional above all others. We are only America, and it is time we understood that. It is time we listen. This anthology—orchestrated with such exacting impact by Rachel Nix, brought to life by such beautiful wordplay and imagery by the authors—is the epitome of required reading, for Americans and everyone beyond.
4. A Hero of France by Alan Furst
A welcomed return to form for Mr. Furst. Like many of his more recent offerings, this one is less in-depth and atmospheric than his early espionage novels, although there's no lack of characters, adventure, romance, intrigue, and those wonderful aesthetic passages that put you right there on the cobbled streets of Paris in 1941. I savored each chapter as slowly as I could, but it's a quick read. The book did have some faults that are much more visible and prevalent in his last novel, Midnight in Europe, mainly that there are instances of Furst reminding the reader too often about who is who and why they are important or what they mean to do next. It got bad in Midnight, but only cropped up a few times here. The book easily could have been twice as long, with greater depth and detail, and we know he's capable of pulling it off, but if this is the type of novel he is going to offer at this stage in his career, slices of the story against the Nazis rather than whole epics, I'm still game.
3. The Revenant by Michael Punke
Vivid and fluid storytelling despite the fact that I thought the head-hopping from paragraph to paragraph would throw me off, but it seemed to work just fine here, and even the sudden backstory info-dumps didn't bother me. It's just a well-stitched together adventure story that is starkly different than the film, but this is one of those instances where both film and book have saving qualities and work well on their own. The ending of the book (the last few chapters) dragged a bit and came to a rather abrupt final scene, whereas the film added a more "Hollywood" ending that I do admit felt more satisfying and final. But the end of the novel is somewhat akin to Train Dreams or even No Country for Old Men in that nothing is really wrapped up in a bow for you, life for all its good and evil goes on, with or without us. Either way, well worth your time.
2. Trouble Boys: The True Story of the Replacements by Bob Mehr
It’s hard to put into words just how much reading this book meant to me. The Replacements have long been one of my favorite bands (if not my all-time favorite) for as long as I can remember, and I read this during an intense week dealing with doctors and solitary travel, so much of my time with this book saw me in waiting rooms, hotels, trains, and cafes alone, anxious over my own personal battles, which may have heightened my connection to the tumultuous times recounted here. It has been quite a while since a book sank its hooks into me so deeply, as I could hardly put it down, and being a huge Mats fan, it was like re-living the catalogue of albums I've come to love, but with SO MUCH depth. The personal demons and struggles of each member of the band, be it with themselves or with each other, add so many layers and insights to the songs and legends of the Mats. It was hard seeing them act so confoundingly self-defeating at times, to be so cruel to one another, to see them fall short over and over, but the balance of brotherly trust, creative development, and personal triumphs are there too. As Paul Westerberg says in one of his last Mats songs, this book is "sadly beautiful" and I highly recommend it to anyone even remotely interested in The Replacements.
1. Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel
By far the best book I've read in 2016, and it's not even close. Emily St. John Mandel weaves the different eras, stories, symbols, and characters found within this novel with such fluid perfection that had the book been five times as long I'd still be getting little to no sleep reading it late into the night. Her layered exploration of not just the end of the world and the survivors but of events that happened days and years beforehand across the globe and how they affected people and events decades into the new world is magic. It is genius, and I say that with no hyperbole. It's the kind of book that makes me look at my own novels and say, "I just can't do it, I can't work the same magic." But at the same time it pushes me to keep going, like a survivor in the snow, not knowing what comes next but knowing I can't just stop and lie down and die. A gorgeous novel that I highly recommend to all.