I didn’t mean to read quite as much “front list” as I have this year. 23 of the 45 books I will have finished were published in 2016. It’s probably inevitable, since being part of the Book Riot contributor community means that I tend to have my finger on the pulse of what’s coming out, and it’s hard not to get distracted by shiny objects.
Some of these 2016 books were great. Some were forgettable. Some were perfectly enjoyable but perhaps not worthy of the sometimes crazy amount of buzz surrounding their release. Here are my top 1o, and because I like to inflict existential crises on myself, I’ve forced myself to put them in ascending order of enjoyment — but in some cases it’s hair splitting and in others I’ve changed my mind several times.
And, well, I’m gonna go ahead and give myself an honourable mention, because people seem to be enjoying Walk with Us: How The West Wing Changed Our Lives, a collection of essays and quotes by and for and about fans of the show (and edited by yours truly), to celebrate the end of its tenth anniversary.
10. Eligible, by Curtis Sittenfeld
This was a fun contemporary rewrite of Pride and Prejudice. Yes, it was over the top at times — but so is the original. Yes, Kitty and Lydia were ridiculous: that’s half the fun of Austen’s novel. Curtis Sittenfeld stayed true to the character’s essences and I particularly enjoyed the 21st century Mr and Mrs Bennett. Also, short chapters helped this to fly by. And the gorgeous Book of the Month hardback made the experience even more pleasurable.
9. In Twenty Years, by Allison Winn Scotch
I know Allison a little from social media, and fell in love with this cover as well as the premise of the book — college friends reuniting almost twenty years — so I asked for a review copy. I thoroughly enjoyed it. The friends are almost forty, and their lives are in various stages of different kinds of disarray. We explore this with them – how did they get there? Can they make different choices or is it too late? And we relive some of their college years, too, which I love to do.
8. Up to This Pointe, by Jennifer Longo
Ballet novels are one of my kryptonites, and I’d heard good things about this one. We meet seventeen-year-old Harper Scott in Antarctica, where she has come to find herself or possibly just to hide from people and events back home. In alternating chapters, we find out about those people and events and follow her new life in the frozen darkness. The “back home” is the ballet part, and it’s set in a wonderfully well-rendered San Francisco. Harper is a highly likeable character, in love with dance and devoted to friends and family, and I really enjoyed spending time with her and the people in her life, and found myself rooting for her to make certain choices. The world of ballet is one of such emotional complexity, and this book does a wonderful job of exploring that and making the reader – this reader, at least – feel many of those complex emotions on a visceral level, too.
7. Good on Paper, by Rachel Cantor
I’d never read anything like this novel before. The main character is a literary translator – certainly something I’d never seen in a book, and a world I’m interested in and hope to make my own one day. And there’s no denying this novel is smart, esoteric, and high brow, with discussions of philosophy and methodology of translation and different readings of Dante – but it’s highly readable too. Good On Paper is populated by interesting characters and faithful to the messiness of life, and at times laugh-out-loud funny.
6. One True Loves, by Taylor Jenkins Reid
What happens when the husband you loved and thought was dead comes back into your life just as you are deliriously happy with someone else? I read this in three days, which for me is fast, especially when there’s no beach involved. It was a page turner and an easy read and I felt invested in the characters and their outcomes – the author did an excellent job of leading me through the emotional arc without making me feel manipualted. Highly recommended.
5. The Hopefuls, by Jennifer Close
There’s nothing I like more than a good DC novel, and this one didn’t disappoint. If you love and miss The West Wing, this is one book you’ll want to pick up. Jennifer Close gets so many things about DC and its culture so very right – she lives here (as do I, and I regularly bump into her at literary events) and it shows. She also knows political campaigns inside out – the bad and the ugly as well as the good. She writes honestly and convincingly about those aspects of marriage and friendship, too.
4. The Gilded Years, by Karin Tanabe
Karin Tanabe’s third novel is historical fiction set in the Gilded Age – hence its perfect title – and inspired by the true story of Anita Hemmings, who was the first African American to attend Vassar, where she “passed” as white. It’s wonderful, and I’m not just saying that because Karin is my friend – the characters really come alive, not least through some excellent dialogue. I particularly loved Anita’s roommate, Lottie, who is rich and privileged and larger than life in the best ways. (Best for a character in a novel, that is. Real life is another matter.) Always so fun to re-immerse myself in college years, too, which are so formative and were so happy for me.
3. Modern Lovers, by Emma Straub
I liked Emma Straub’s The Vacationers: A Novel quite a lot a couple of years ago — it was that elusive delight I find easy-to-read literary fiction to be. Modern Lovers was that, too, and another multiple point-of-view family-based novel. As in The Vacationers, I found the teenagers’ sections to be the most enjoyable. I binge-read it in two or three days, which automatically qualified it for a place on this list.
2. The Nest, by Cynthia d’Aprix Sweeney
I loved this much-buzzed-about book a lot – it’s at the Venn Diagram intersection of two of my favourite things: Rich People Problems and the quiet novel where not much really happens but where you get to observe people’s lives close up. I loved that we got multiple characters – it’s not easy to do well, or in a way that doesn’t confuse easily-confusible me, but the narrator jumps between them with agility.
1. The Mothers by Brit Bennett
The mothers in question here are the older women in a church, through whose eyes we see a developing relationship and its ensuing fallout, and who have a wise, enticing voice. I loved this book for many reasons, one of which was that I really enjoyed reading about a very recognisable church community in mainstream literary fiction, and Brit Bennett’s writing is deft and eloquent.