Once upon a time I had a blog. Then, I realized how much work it is to have a blog. So, in the totally non-fairytale-esque present, I am a blog-less being. Except for when I have something important to say. Like now. I want to share my Top 5 Books of 2016 – in 3 categories: Adult, YA, and Children’s… because sharing quality works of literature is always important.
Disclaimer: The following titles weren’t necessarily published this year; this year’s just the first time I happened to pick them up. Also, although I’ve separated the books into 3 different lists, please don’t let that stop you (a grown-ass adult) from reading something from the YA or Children’s List(s). I’m of the firm belief that a good book is a good book. It doesn’t matter if it’s sci-fi, fantasy, or historical fiction; it doesn’t matter if it’s written for an 80-year-old reader or an 8-year-old reader. Beautiful words and beautiful stories are for everyone.
With no further ado, I present…
#5) Attachments by Rainbow Rowell
Synopsis: Good friends Beth & Jennifer use their work e-mail to gossip about their daily lives. Their company, however, has a strict policy about using work e-mail for professional matters only. The policy is so strict, in fact, that they’ve hired someone to monitor usage. Enter Lincoln. His job (“internet security officer”) is to secretly read all e-mails and report inappropriate content. But he doesn’t report Beth & Jennifer, because he starts to feel like he knows them, like he’s part of the conversation, and he seems to be falling for Beth. By the time he realizes he’s head-over-heels for someone he’s never even met, someone he shouldn’t know anything about (but about whom he knows lots of intimate details), it’s too late to introduce himself and come clean. But oh, how he wants to.
Why I loved it: It’s quirky, romantic, and light. Written in e-mail format, it’s a super-fast read. It’s smart (but doesn’t make you think too hard). It’s sweet (but sassy enough to avoid being saccharine). Rainbow Rowell is my go-to author when I want to sit back, relax, and enjoy a feel-good story. I always come away from her books feeling as if she *gets* me, and that she gets *it.*
Things she *gets* (specifically in “Attachments”, but also in general):
- female friendship
- first love
- what it’s like to have a heart that’s ten sizes too big
- what it’s like to finally find someone whose heart matches your own
Who should pick this up: Ladies… especially 20 & 30-somethings (they’ll identify most with Beth & Jennifer and the problems they face, but I imagine older readers might dig it, too).
#4) All the Birds in the Sky by Charlie Jane Anders
Synopsis: Growing up, childhood friends Patricia Delfine and Laurence Armstead got each other through some particularly turbulent and traumatic times. That is, until one completely betrayed the other. After that, they go their very separate – and very weird – ways. Patricia ends up studying at a school for the magically-elite. Laurence ends up pursuing a more scientific path, inventing a gadget that allows (very minor) time travel. When their two worlds collide in an epic battle between science & magic – and the very continued existence of the planet is at stake – they have to define their relationship and what matters most to them – quick.
Why I loved it: It’s a strange, genre-bending novel, which includes some of my favorite things: robots, trees, birds, magic, romance, friendship, complex emotions. It’s the only thing that’s even come close to filling the void that was left in my heart when I finished Lev Grossman’s The Magicians trilogy.
Who should pick this up: Fans of fantasy & magic, guys & gals alike.
#3) Weathering by Lucy Wood
Synopsis: Ada returns to her childhood home in the English countryside for the first time in thirteen years. She’s come with her 6-year-old daughter, Pepper, to fulfill the sad task of spreading the ashes of her recently-deceased mother, Pearl, (with whom she was never close) and to sell the old farmhouse. When she completes the first task, Pearl’s spirit becomes trapped in the cold, gnawing river – and Ada, who has a difficult time getting her mother’s affairs in order and finding a buyer for the property, might not be leaving anytime soon, either. Will Pearl’s spirit find a way to break free? Will Ada’s?
Why I loved it: At first, I didn’t. I struggled through the beginning, wishing only to finish it so I could find something else to read. I felt as trapped as surely as Pearl & Ada. But that feeling didn’t last. Eventually, I found myself wishing the book would never end. Be warned, this is a slow-moving book – but the pace is completely befitting of the story. If you like fast action and snappy plots, this isn’t the book for you. It’s all about character-development and utterly gorgeous writing. If you can really commit – get cozy under some warm blankets and really settle in on a gray, dreary day – you won’t be sorry. Everything – from each carefully chosen word, to the particular ghostly-mechanics that Wood develops – is crystalline brilliance. As far as I’m concerned, this is Literature.
Who should pick this up: Word nerds. Poetry-lovers. English majors. Women, in particular, since it’s about three generations of women. Anyone who’s snowed-in.
#2) A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki
Synopsis: Oh, man. This is really tough, actually. This is a super-complex story. It’s about Nao – a sixteen-year-old Japanese girl, the victim of bullying and daughter of a Depressive, the grand-daughter of a very wise & revered Buddhist nun – who’s decided that the only way out of her miserable situation is to kill herself. But first, she wants to do something valuable with her life; she wants to write a biography of her grandmother. She sets about doing so in her diary. It’s also about a struggling author, Ruth, who lives on an isolated island in British Columbia. Ruth finds the diary – washed up after the destruction of a devastating tsunami – and tries to discern, desperately, if there’s anything she can do to save Nao or if it’s too late. It’s about growing-up, war, mental health, religion, mystery, time, physics, and the very act of writing itself.
Why I loved it: This was a perfect storm for me (no (horrible) pun intended). I’ve always been interested in religion and mythology. I think meta-fiction is really cool (pretentious, schmetentious). I love coming-of-age stories. I love when narratives are mostly realistic, but have subtle bits of maybe-magic. I love that all of the main characters are women.
Who should pick this up: People who are looking for a story that will make them think and work for it a little bit. Anyone who’s interested in learning about another culture. People who are interested in Zen Buddhism. Good for guys & gals alike.
#1) Cinnamon & Gunpowder by Eli Brown
Synopsis: Renowned chef, Owen Wedgewood, is taken prisoner by the notorious Pirate Captain, Mad Hannah Mabbot. In order to stay alive, he must prove himself useful by cooking a delicious meal for her every Sunday. The captain, when not stuffing her face with epicurean delights, is on a megalomaniacal mission to find “The Brass Fox” (like “The White Whale”), a notoriously clever thief, with whom she’s mysteriously obsessed. While she searches for him, she and her motley crew also do their best to take down the Opium Trade. “Wedge” is challenged in a myriad of ways while aboard The Flying Rose, and if he ever gains his freedom, he certainly won’t disembark the same meek, falsely-contented, unquestioning gentleman who was first smuggled aboard.
Why I loved it: It’s like someone peered inside my brain, found all of the things I love, and wrote this book just for me. It’s like a crazy mixed-up hybrid of 1,001 Nights and Moby Dick, with the addition of mouthwatering meals, an AMAZING heroine, and a pet bunny.
Who should pick this up: Foodies. Anyone looking for a book that has it all: adventure, romance, mystery, history, recipes…you want it, you’ve got it.
Young Adult Fiction:
#5) The Dark Days Club by Alison Goodman
Synopsis: On the eve of her eighteenth birthday, Lady Helen discovers she can see (and perhaps fight) demons. Will she have a hand in saving Regency-era London from dark forces, or will she bury her head in the sand and her hands inside of her fine silk gloves, where they belong?
Why I loved it: It’s been reviewed as “Buffy the Vampire Slayer meets Pride & Prejudice,” and I found that description to be pretty apt. Anyone who knows me knows that acknowledging as much is a very high compliment, indeed. One caveat: the pacing is not perfect. I felt that it started slowly and ended abruptly (it’s #1 in a series, with book 2 due out in January, 2017). But it wasn’t anything to keep me from being totally stoked about it – it just explains why it’s #5 on my list.
Who should pick this up: Buffy fans. Readers who are interested in the Regency-era. Fans of supernatural teen romances. Geared more towards the ladies.
#4) Lola and the Boy Next Door by Stephanie Perkins
Synopsis: Lola Nolan’s life is pretty fabulous. She’s a budding costume designer, living with her two dads in San Francisco, and she’s dating a sexy older boy (who’s the singer in a popular rock band). But when a boy from her past moves back in to the house next-door (with his beautiful, talented, Olympics-bound twin sister), he throws everything into question. Something happened between them in the past, something that causes Lola to feel an overwhelming mixture of hurt, embarrassment, and pain whenever she reflects upon it, and his reinstated presence causes her to react in completely unstable ways – throwing her previously fabulous life off-balance. How can she get things back to the way they were before? And which “before” does she want to get things back to?
Why I loved it: Sequins, colorful wigs, baked goods, late-night chats with the moon… what’s not to love? Perkins’ characters are perfect(ly imperfect). They’ll do things that annoy you, sure. They’re realistically-portrayed teenagers; that’s a given. But they’ve all got so much moxie and heart. This is book 2 in the “Anna and the French Kiss” series. They’re interconnected stories, but each book is dedicated to a different set of characters, so they can easily stand on their own. This one’s my absolute favorite.
Who should pick it up: The young-at-heart who are looking to swoon, and feel all the feels.
#3) The Diviners by Libba Bray
Synopsis: It’s 1926, and Evie O’Neil has just moved to the Big Apple. She’s proven to be too much of a burden – too wild & brazen – for her small-town Ohio parents. When the latest scandal becomes one scandal too many, they decide that Uncle Will, serious and stubborn professor & curator of a museum dedicated to the supernatural & the occult, will be just the person to keep her in line. What they don’t know is that all of Evie’s problems stem from a long-held secret: she has the ability to touch an object and discern its untold history. When a string of serial murders involving arcane symbols drawn on the bodies of the dead flummoxes the police and they come to Uncle Will for help, everything converges in a dark and fateful way.
Why I loved it: I’d been meaning to pick up this title for awhile, but had been putting it off due to the fact that it’s literally difficult to pick up. At 500+ pages, the thing weighs a ton. But a beautiful thing happened to me this year: I finally discovered audiobooks. I’d always had trouble with them before – my attention would wander; it’d stress me out trying to pay attention to the road and the story at the same time. I’d decided I just wasn’t that kind of learner. But January LaVoy, the voice actress who narrates Bray’s series, changed all that. (I’m so grateful to her. My commute to work is 100% improved now that I can “read” and drive at the same time. Even traffic is less infuriating). She does an amazing job. She gives a distinct, believable voice to each of the varied characters — the young, the old, the ageless; male, female, black, white, or without physical form. It’s a dark, captivating story, with compelling characters (and relationships), supernatural elements, ponderings on religion, class, race & philosophy. The villain is terrible: deranged, violent, powerful, and frighteningly convinced of his moral superiority — yet I was never too scared to listen to it while sitting alone in the dark.
Who should pick it up: Anyone looking for a good listen. People who are interested in incorporating some flapper slang into their vocabulary (“it’s the elephant’s eyebrows!”). History buffs. Halloween-enthusiasts. People who are interested in horror but not in gore or being psychologically-traumatized for life. LaVoy hones her craft even more in the second book of the series (oh yeah, it’s a series). I’m sure the print books are great, too – but if you you skip out on the audio, I think you’re missing out.
#2) I Am Princess X by Cherie Priest
Synopsis: Childhood friends May & Libby bond over creating a character together, Princess X — a katana-wielding, Converse sneaker-wearing, butt-kicking heroine –and writing and drawing her world. As they grow up, they keep the story going – until Libby and her mother die suddenly in a tragic car accident. May is inconsolable but she harbors a secret hope: the vehicle plummeted over a bridge, into a body of water, and Libby’s body was never found. Is it possible that she’s still alive? Or is May just writing another story to keep the despair from overwhelming her?
Why I loved it: I wish I liked graphic novels but I find the format challenging. It’s not that I don’t think they’re “literature,” it’s just that my brain’s not used to processing stories in that way. There’s a lot going on per page. What’s cool about this book is that it’s kind-of like sticking one toe into the graphic novel ocean. It’s mostly straight-forward text (in the traditional format) but it’s punctuated with comic panels – done entirely in purple ink – no more than a few pages each. There’s one drawing of the Princess having ghost tea with ghosties in her castle, that made me completely lose my mind in fangirlish adoration. I also like that it’s completely different from what I normally read, especially when it comes to YA. I’m usually drawn toward fantasy and romance when I reach for a Teen book. This was more of an illustrated mystery/thriller with a focus on friendship, a healthy dose of feminism, and *no* overt romance (!). There wasn’t a swoon-worthy guy in sight (for me, as a straight woman, anyway. I could see a guy falling head-over-heels for Jackdaw). And I was totally okay with that. It didn’t feel like there was anything missing.
Who should pick it up: People like me – those who are interested in but don’t feel entirely confident/comfortable with the graphic novel format. Punky girls who love a good strong, female character.
#1) The Raven Boys by Maggie Stiefvater
Synopsis: Blue Sargent comes from a family of psychics, but she’s without talent of her own. All she can do is amplify the power of those around her. She’s never really had a mystical experience to call her own, until she sees the spirit of the boy she’s prophesied to kill with first love’s kiss on the Eve of St. Mark, while sitting watch in the graveyard with her clairvoyant mother. Later, while waitressing at the local watering hole, she meets this same boy, very much alive, with his group of friends – all from Aglionby, the fancy all-boys boarding school in town. Although she’s sworn to avoid such blatant privilege, and although her life is different from theirs – hers is a female-centric, lower-middle-class existence – they form a strange, strong friendship. Together, they pursue the obsessive goal of one of the boys: find the tomb of lost Scottish King, Glendower, and awaken him in order to be granted a single wish. This isn’t your typical YA supernatural fare – it’s much more about Scottish legend and lore, and psychology than anything else.
Why I loved it: I loved it so much that I’m kind-of cheating. I didn’t read this for the first time in 2016. This was a re-read. The last book in the series (book 4: The Raven King) came out this year, and I wanted the story to be fresh in my mind when I dove in. Although the story itself is rich and complex, the real reason to read these books is for the characters. They honestly feel like friends. They’re so well-developed and so real, that I felt like weeping (I may actually have wept) upon completion of the series. They’re strong, and weak, perhaps in equal parts — and so, so unexpected. There’s a lot of diversity represented between these pages. Maggie Stiefvater is a brilliant, mural-drawing, ukulele-playing, Camaro-fixing, fainting-goat-owning genius. She’s my favorite YA author, by far.
#5) 27 Magic Words by Sharelle Byars Moranville
Synopsis: Sisters Kobi & Brook live with their grandmother in Paris, a happy existence but for the fact that Kobi misses her parents – who were lost at sea – something awful. Kobi has a secret, however, which helps her to cope. Actually, she has 27 of them. Before her mother, a writer, disappeared, she gave Kobi 27 magic words, written on post-it notes. Each word has the power to do something wonderful. The most important word is “Avanti!“, which, when spoken, allows Kobi to see her parents, stranded on a desert island – alive, healthy, and desperately planning how to get back to their children. When the girls’ grandmother gets married and plans to leave for her honeymoon, they must stay with their Uncle Wim back in America: in Des Moines, Iowa. There, Kobi faces all sorts of challenges – from learning to fit in at a brand-new school, to dealing with problems that are lodged much deeper.
What I loved: All of the beautiful, magical words! Barely 200 pages, this is a tiny gem of a novel. The characters are all well-written, even the minor ones. There’s an underlying message about class and social justice. There’s an exploration not just of the written arts, but the visual arts, as well (a once-famous painter & sculptor, struggling with dementia, lives next-door to Uncle Wim). Some books start strong and lag in the middle, but this one just kept getting better and better the more that I read, right up to the very end. There’s even a bunny in it, to boot. 🙂
Who should pick it up: Aspiring writers & artists. Anyone interested in the Creative Life. Kids in grades 4-6 who are strong readers. Kids who aren’t especially emotional or sensitive to sadness.
#4) Summerlost by Ally Condie
Synopsis: Cedar Lee’s father & autistic brother were the victims of a fatal car crash. Her mother has decided to try to escape the painful memories by taking Cedar and her younger brother, Ben, to spend the summer at a bright old house in Iron Creek. Cedar quickly befriends Leo, a local boy obsessed with the town’s annual Shakespeare festival and the mystery of one of its past players: deceased Iron-Creek-turned-Hollywood actress, Lisette Chamberlain. Was Lisette’s death a result of foul play? And could her spirit be haunting the town – and Cedar, in particular? If so, will Cedar & Leo find a way to set her free?
Why I loved it: This book had everything: diversity (both race and developmental); pretty descriptions of the natural environment (and of trees, in particular); an interesting setting (I love the house that the family rents, with its diamond window and different-colored doors); serious issue(s) – death & grief; and also, humor (of a type that both kids & adults will find appealing. I’m still laughing about codpieces). It’s tender, and silly, and lovely, and sad. And age-appropriate. It broke my heart (in a good way). It also made me really nostalgic, thinking about my “Leo” (who I met at the start of high school) – my friend who made me feel like I had a spot in the world, who, though we’ve grown up and don’t get to see each other often, I’ll like all my life (not in a longing, romantic way – but in a very special, platonic way). Condie is very good at nailing that coming-of-age feeling.
Who should pick it up? Theater fans. People who enjoy a good, cathartic cry every now & again. Middle-school kids (grades 5-8).
#3) A Snicker of Magic by Natalie Lloyd
Synopsis: Felicity Pickle’s mama has a “wandering heart.” They’ve never lived in any one place for long enough for Felicity to make real friends and feel like she’s “home.” When they pass through Midnight Gulch, her mama’s hometown, Felicity falls in love with the place and wants, more than anything, to stay. In order to convince her not to leave, Felicity knows that she has to prove to her Mama that the town is special. And to do that, she has to bring back the magic. Luckily, Felicity has a magic trick of her own to aid her in her quest. She can see words hovering in the air, important words, words from people’s hearts. That’s how she knows that there’s more to the town than meets the eye. And it’s how she knows that they’ve finally found the place where they belong.
Why I loved it: I’m a sucker for a book about the power of words. This one’s also about the power of ice cream.
Who should pick it up: Anyone who’s ready for a sweet story, and sentences that are just as sweet. KIDS! (particularly those in grades 3-5). I’ve read a lot of children’s books lately that seem better suited to adult readers. This isn’t one of those. Kids are capable of liking this book just as much as those of us with more fully-formed brains (usually more fully-formed, anyway). Good for both boys & girls.
Joint Synopsis: Both of these titles are “fox books,” so I’m cheating a little bit and listing them together. There’s no way I could pick one over the other, as they’re both incredible novels. Both are written from human & fox perspectives, in alternating chapters. That’s pretty much where the similarities end. Maybe a Fox is for a younger audience (grades 4-6); Pax is for kids who are a little bit older and more mature (grades 6-8). Maybe a Fox is about two sisters – and the fox is a girl, as well; Pax has a male protagonist and the fox is also male (both books are appropriate for any gender, though. Don’t let the sex of the protagonists limit the audience). Maybe a Fox is about loss, and overcoming grief; it’s set in Vermont and has a magical/spiritual element. Pax is more about finding yourself, and about finding peace in a time of war (it’s historical fiction, set around WWII). For more plot-details for each book, click on the above images (they’ll open up to Goodreads).
Why I loved them: Maybe a Fox is lyrically-written, an incredible feat given that its authorship is shared between two writers: Kathi Appelt & Sara Pennypacker. Appelt wrote the chapters from Sylvie’s POV – and Pennypacker, the fox’s. How they managed to create such a perfect, seamless book when two minds were necessarily compromising is an absolute wonder. I also loved the Vermont setting. The wilderness was like a character unto itself. And Pax? For me, it was all about characters – and one character, in particular: Vola. She’s a war vet, living in a cabin all alone, suffering from PTSD. She and Peter form a mutually beneficial adult-child friendship, and it is a thing of beauty. She’s one of my favorite characters from any book in recent years.
Who should pick them up: Grown-ups who are looking to learn valuable life lessons about strength and vulnerability. Kids who are looking to feel feelings.
#1) Tuck Everlasting by Natalie Babbit
Synopsis: Winnie Foster leads a very narrow, sheltered life. She feels resentful toward her family, who never let her have any fun or embark upon any adventures (not even exploring the woods on their property). The only friend she has is an old toad (who, truth be told, doesn’t seem that interested in being friends). One day, she decides to throw caution to the wind and disobey her elders. She journeys into the woods, and meets a boy, Jesse Tuck: accidental emissary from a mysterious family who never grow old, and never die. They bring her to their home while they decide what to do with her: a ten-year-old-girl whose knowledge of their secret could threaten everything they hold dear. Should they trust her? Should she trust them?
Why I loved it: I still can’t believe it took me this long to read this book. The writing is GORGEOUS. Absolutely gorgeous. And the lessons about what it means to be alive are among those that no one should miss. I actually listened to it on audio… but I think that was a mistake. Peter Thomas does a fine job narrating, but the prose is so lovely that I want to be able to savor it. I want to go at my own pace and touch my fingertips to the inky marks upon the page. It’s something to be treasured.
Who should pick it up: Everyone. Best for ages 9+.
Although not as glamorous as some, Natalie Babbit is counted among those celebrities that 2016 took from us. Honor her by experiencing her work, either for the first time or with fresh eyes.
Happy reading! And happy 2017!