Tuesday, January 03, 2017

Best Books of 2016, Part 2: My Top Ten Books of the Year.

It's that time -- to look back on my favorite books of the past year. At the beginning of 2016, I set my goal on the site, Goodreads, to read 60 books this year. It was a good (!) year, and I surpassed the goal, ultimately reading 105 books. If you follow this link, you can take a look at all the books I read in 2016 and my ratings. Note that not all books were published in 2016, of course, they just happened to be books I picked up over the year. In fact, because some of them were Advanced Reader Copies (ARCs), they won't be published until 2017.

One of the (many) things I love about Goodreads is its ability to rate books. In Part 1 of my "best of" entry, I did a run-through of my most highly rated books of the year (beginning with the most recently read). This mostly means any book rated 4 stars or higher. I quickly realized that reading over 100 books meant that entry became long quickly, so I separated my top ten favorite books of the year into this entry. You can find reviews of any of these via my goodreads site, or simply follow the link in each entry to the in-depth review in this blog. Happy reading in 2017 and beyond!!

So, in no particular order, my top ten favorite books read in 2016...

1.The Sun Is Also A Star - Nicola Yoon.This is an amazing story of two young people: most of it occurring across the day they meet. Told from the alternating perspectives of Natasha and Daniel, but interspersed with bits and pieces of history, facts, and small insights into the people with whom they come into contact on their one magical day, this is a beautiful, lovely, and touching story. Daniel readily admits in the novel that he's a cheesy guy, and yes, the story may be a bit cheesy at points, but boy, it draws you in immediately, and it's just... great. I really loved Yoon's first book, Everything, Everything, and I think this one may be even better. Daniel and Natasha spring to life in front of you, as you frantically flip pages, wondering what will become of these two people. The bit players in their life take on a life all of their own, thanks to the little insight you receive via their own chapters. I am just awed at how well this woman writes teenage characters - spirited, real, flawed, lovely characters. I read the second half of this book in one sitting, because I just had to see how it ended, and find out the fate of Natasha and Daniel. Indeed, the racial and immigration plotlines of this novel could not seem more timely, what with the Presidential Election and the current tumult America is undergoing. I wish this book was required reading of every citizen. This is not just a potential love story; this is a book that will make you think and make you cry. It's a love story of teens, it's an ode to New York City, and it's a tribute to both science and poetry.

2.The Animators - Kayla Rae Whitaker. This book is insane and amazing. It is a powerful, gut-wrenching novel that will drag you into its story and characters and eventually spit you out, exhilarated and exhausted. Sharon Kisses (yep, that's her real name) and Mel Vaught meet in college. Sharon is a reserved, talented girl from a rural Kentucky town. Mel is a out, tough, lesbian from Florida -- all bravado hiding a softer interior. The two form a fast friendship, bonding quickly over their art and their family histories: both come from dysfunctional families who have formed the girls into what they are today. Mel and Sharon pour this into their art, and they become talented animation partners, with their first movie showing a raw, truthful look at Mel's childhood and her mother, a rough woman who ended up in jail. The two are on the cusp of success -- tours, awards, artistic grants. But success comes with an edge: Mel starts drinking and turning to drugs, while Sharon doubts herself and her role in this brilliant duo. Suddenly, however, none of that matters when tragedy strikes the pair, and everything they've known changes in an instant. There was so much about this novel I loved and related to: the fast friendship of two girls in college; an actual lead lesbian character (but whose lesbianism wasn't her only defining aspect - how refreshing); Sharon and her doubts and insecurities - the way she feels as if she's disappearing into herself in her thirties; the way Whitaker so easily captured growing up in a rural town (Sharon's Kentucky hometown)... I immediately identified with both characters, although Sharon is our protagonist, and the one telling us our story. I won't lie to you: this book will make you feel uncomfortable. It's not a fun read, or really even a pleasant one. It's not a "feel good novel." It hurts--physically hurts--to read this book. Some of the novel is uneven, and it jumps around a bit. This is Whitaker's first novel, and I think she's only going to get more amazing as she goes, because you can look past this, and see so much power and force in this book. It's raw. It's the story of a friendship, and it's told so beautifully that you are completely drawn into Mel and Sharon's world. When you read this book, there is really nothing else going on in your life but this novel. Mel and Sharon are real, you love them, and you can see them in your mind. The storyline, for me, was unexpected, and, as I said, jumped a bit, but it worked. I had one issue with the end (a bit of a cliche about straight/lesbian friendship, but I won't go into it much, for spoiler reasons), but otherwise, found this novel to be energetic and forceful. It's dark, it's an ode to art and friendship and life, it's deep - I really have no words. It will take you to an exposed place inside of yourself, but you'll be glad it did. [Note: this one comes out January 31, 2017]

3.The Trespasser - Tana French. We're up to the sixth installment in Tana French's Dublin Murder Squad series and she's still going strong. In this one, we hear from Antoinette Conway, the partner of Stephen Moran from French's previous novel. Being a Detective on the Murder Squad isn't everything Antoinette hoped for. She isn't fitting in on the male squad--most of whom tease and prank her viciously--and she and Steve seem only to receive the most bland, boring cases. So when the latest case comes in--handed straight to Conway and Moran by their boss--it looks like much of the same: another domestic dispute. Beautiful, blond Aislinn Murray has been killed in her home. But as Antoinette and Steve investigate, they find things aren't exactly what they seem. I'll say it up front: this was an excellent mystery. Just a wonderful read. I love all of French's novels, but thoroughly enjoyed this one. Antoinette was a refreshing voice and completely relatable. Her case was interesting and well-plotted, leaving you constantly guessing. As per a typical French novel, you don't receive just a simple mystery; each of her books comes with a backstory. In this one, we see Antoinette battling her demons and her inability to fit in with her Squad. Are they really out to get her, or is it all in her head? It's true that French's books probably aren't for everyone. There's a lot of talking, a lot of expounding, and a lot of knowing what her characters are thinking. But, in turn, you're presented with characters who are so complex, so rich and in-depth. There's a humor to Conway, lending levity when needed, but also a dark side. She's bitter with the world for a reason. Because the entire book is told from her perspective, we're figuring out the mystery with her, learning facts and alibis as she does, and unraveling the plot along with our detective. Of course, we're limited to seeing the case from her perspective, too. As Moran and Conway try to determine who they can trust, so do we. The book expertly leaves you guessing with the plot; it takes you in one direction early in an incredibly convincing matter. It also skillfully takes you inside the Squad, allowing us to see not only how a case is run, but the inner politics. In this way, the novel is not just a well-crafted mystery but a lovely treatise on relationships and friendships and the lengths we go for both. I'm also left amazed at how much French can put into a novel. Her way with words is magical, and I just love her books, her stories, and her characters. I highly recommend this novel, or any of her earlier work.

4.Commonwealth - Ann Patchett. This is an expansive book, covering the lives of the intertwined Cousins and Keating families in a series of almost interconnected stories. They are linked, of course, and form the framework of Packer's novel, but almost seem as if they could stand on their own. They are also set against the backdrop of another Commonwealth: when Franny Keating, then in her twenties, meets famous author Leon Posen, she tells him the many stories of her misguided family. He spins them into the tale of his novel, Commonwealth, forcing the family to face up to some of their most awful losses and decisions in the starkness of print. Some of the chapters of COMMONWEALTH aren't always particularly exciting, but they are poignant, and there is a deepness to them. They offer an amazing insight into these families-- an almost "behind the scenes" look at five or so decades of their lives. The varying viewpoints of the narrators helps as well, and you can watch a Cousin or Keating child age in just a couple of chapters. It's also interesting to watch the spouses--so changed by the affair--and how it's affected their lives. Overall, this is a lovely book, tender in many ways, and a little heartbreaking. It's not a page-turner, but it's beautiful and leaves you thinking.

5.Good As Gone - Amy Gentry. Even though I'm tired of books with Gone or Girl in the title, this one still has to make the list. This novel hooked me from the beginning, and I tore through it less than two days. Anna and Tom Whitaker's lives are irrevocably changed the night their thirteen-year-old daughter, Julie, disappears. The broken parents remain in their home, hoping against hope that someday their daughter will return. And then, amazingly, one night the doorbell rings and there she is: Julie. Now a young woman, with a harrowing tale to tell of abuse and horror, but otherwise unscathed. And just like that, the broken family is whole. But is it? The novel starts out with Julie arriving home and then we hear from Anna and some of the other characters as the family adjusts to Julie's homecoming. But we also delve into the past, which adds this amazing layer of suspense and intrigue and leaves you slightly befuddled, completely invested, and flipping pages like mad. Gentry has created a book that is compulsively readable from a thriller standpoint, but also features emotionally damaged characters, struggling to survive after losing Julie for so many years. What I enjoyed so much about this book is that it's not only an excellent thriller, which keeps you guessing and wondering, but a nuanced portrait of a truly fractured family, who is still reeling from Julie's kidnapping. The interactions between Anna and her family is fascinating in itself -- Julie's sister Jane, for instance, has had her entire life basically formed around the disappearance of her sister. You don't always get explicit descriptions of their reactions, but you see it in every interaction and emotional attachment (or lack thereof) the family displays. Overall, this is a great thriller: a fast-paced read, with a plot that will have you guessing (and gasping) and turning pages long into the night.

6.Read Me Like a Book - Liz Kessler. This is a lovely gem of a book. It's the perfect blend of heartbreaking and funny. Ashleigh Walker's life is crumbling around her. Her parents are fighting constantly, she's not doing well in school, and her boyfriend, Dylan, doesn't exactly make her heart sing. Suddenly, the one bright spot in Ash's life becomes her new English teacher, Miss Murray. Young and hip, Miss Murray engages Ash in a way she's never felt before. She's even joined the debate club, for pete's sake, and started working hard on her English submissions. But there's more to it than that. Miss Murray makes Ash feel something else. Thanks to Kessler, Ash is no one-dimensional teen: she's intricate and her own person. As she deals with the agony of her parents' own issues, plus her own inner angst about her love life, your heart goes out to the girl. Kessler easily paints the angst one feels when in love with a teacher, especially if LGBT - coupled with the delusion that comes with youth, no matter your sexual orientation. Ash's feelings are so real, so strong, and she seems so alone. It's an excellent portrayal of what young teens go through as they wrestle with their sexuality (believe me, I know; it took me back to some tough times in high school). If anything, some of the resolution is a little too easy, a bit quick and forced at times, but it really doesn't diminish from the force of the book. Watching Ash grow up before our eyes is rather magical. There are some excellent comedic portions from the novel to balance out the heaviness, coupled with a great supporting cast of characters, including Ash's best friend, Cat, and some other youth she meets via school, family, and friends. The novel is perfect for teens struggling with their own sexuality, or needing to see someone "like them" in print, and those looking to support a LGBT best friend, but should also be given to parents of those teens -- as Ash's parents play a role in the story as well. Overall, I found myself completely wrapped in Ash's coming of age (and coming out) tale. Books with a true to life, multi-dimensional lesbian heroine are still sadly hard to come by, it seems, but Kessler's novel certainly tries to change that.

7.June - Miranda Beverly-Whittemore. There are really no words for this book. It's a beautiful and magical adventure. Cassie is twenty-five and living in the dilapidated mansion, Two Oaks, she inherited from her grandmother, June. The house is literally falling down around her: also a pretty good metaphor for Cassie's life. She's fled her life as an artist in New York and come to St. Jude, Ohio, to grieve for her grandmother and lick her wounds. That basically amounts to hiding in the house, ignoring the phone, and letting the mail (and bills) pile up around her. But even she can't ignore the constant ringing of the doorbell. With it comes some pretty shocking news: Cassie has been named sole heir to the fortune of the legendary movie star, Jack Montgomery. Considering Cassie only barely knew of Jack's name, this comes as quite a surprise. Why did this famous actor leave her his fortune? Did Jack know Cassie's grandmother, June? Suddenly Jack's two daughters show up, wanting answers as well, and Cassie's life will never be the same. The novel takes what should be a fairly simple event - figuring out whether Cassie is related to Jack - and turns it into a lovely, suspenseful read. I simply couldn't put this book down. The characters are so real, so fully actualized that they jump off the page. Cassie, June, June's childhood friend Lindie, Jack, the people of St. Jude - they are all there, truly vivid in your mind's eye. You're pulled into the spellbinding world of then versus now... the story twists between present day, told from Cassie's point of view and the 1950s, which is really accurately portrayed. I'm usually a contemporary fiction reader all the way, but this period portrayal is so well-done, and I loved it. The character of Lindie, especially, makes your heart ache. As the book flips between time and the story unfolds, you become completely enmeshed in the characters' world; Beverly Whittemore does such a good job of creating them that you feel with them and really become part of their lives. I am trying to think of any flaws, but I can't. I guessed at a few of the plot twists, but only narrowly before they happened, and it certainly didn't ruin my enjoyment of the story whatsoever. Cassie can be a frustrating character at times (read your mail, darn-it), but it's only because she's so well-created. Overall, this is really a beautiful, suspenseful book that brings you into its world.

8.I Let You Go - Clare Mackintosh. This was an excellent thriller-- a real surprise, honestly. One rainy evening, an accident occurs on a quiet neighborhood street. Walking home from school with his mother, young Jacob is hit by a car, and killed. Even worse, the car quickly backs up and drives away, leaving Jacob's mother shattered and Detective Inspector Ray Stevens and his team, particularly eager young DC Kate, to seek out answers. With her world ruined by the accident, Jenna Gray seeks refuge by the coast. She finds a small cottage, gets a dog, and tries to escape the nightmares of the accident that haunt both her dreams and waking hours. Meanwhile, Ray and Kate are forced to close Jacob's case, no closer to the suspect than when they started. But the two remain undaunted, working on the case in their off hours, and an anniversary plea one year after the accident turns up some potential leads. The beginning of the novel started out slow, and was so horrendously sad, what with Jacob's accident and his mother's terrible grief. Divided into several parts, things pick up immensely at the end of the first part, when Mackintosh throws in an excellent plot twist (I shan't say anymore so as not to ruin it). Mackintosh is excellent at conveying Jenna's anguish and the sadness that the accident causes. We also have a side-plot of Ray and his feelings toward his subordinate, Kate. Ray's home life is unbalanced: he's dealing with issues with his son, Tom, and his wife. The police subplot (watching them try to piece things together) is interesting, also. In fact, the book alternates in perspectives: we hear from Ray, Jenna, and one more character. In part 2, we go back in time for some of the characters, but remain in the present with Ray and Kate as they (much like us, the readers) try to solve this crime. It's an interesting technique and works surprisingly well. Jenna is a complicated character, but a well-drawn one. Overall, I quite enjoyed this book. I won't spoil anything, but I will say that there is definitely a trigger for domestic abuse/violence, so please be forewarned for that. There's a character in the novel who reminds me of the husband in that creepy Julia Roberts' film "Sleeping with the Enemy" (I'm totally dating myself here). As such I was up late reading one night, completely creeped out. However, that's the sign of an excellent thriller in my opinion. I raced through the last 2/3 of the book and really wasn't disappointed. There are several more twists, but they actually are pretty believable, not outlandish like in many thrillers. Definitely recommend this one (with the abuse caveat thrown in). A unique psychological thriller that's worth your time, for sure.

9.Eligible - Curtis Sittenfeld. If you thought a modern retelling of Pride and Prejudice--set mainly in present day Cincinnati--didn't exactly sound like a page-turner, no one could exactly blame you. But, nonetheless, you'd be quite wrong. Sittenfeld's novel imagines the Bennet family in our modern times; Mr. and Mrs. Bennet live in a rambling Tudor home in Cincinnati: broke and somewhat clueless as their house crumbles around them. Mrs. Bennet spends her time clucking around her five unmarried daughters: Jane, Liz, Mary, Kitty, and Lydia. The book revolves mainly around the perspective of Liz, a magazine writer in her upper thirties living in New York City. She and Jane, also in NYC, return home to their parents and younger sisters after Mr. Bennet has a heart attack, only to find the house and the family in a bit of a shambles. The book is amazing. It's been a while since I read "Pride and Prejudice," but even I can tell you that the novel does an excellent job of following the original plot without being annoying or cloying. It's Pride and Prejudice with lesbians and hate sex! The book comes across as familiar yet new, allowing you to ache, laugh, and rage at what feels like a group of old friends. Mr. Bennet is a trip, even while having a heartbreaking sadness and sweetness at his core (though some of his zingers are priceless). The younger sisters are as (nearly) vapid as to be expected--truly awful at times--for much of the book. But seriously, Lydia and Kitty loving CrossFit? It's awesome. And Liz is wonderful; you will adore this surprisingly realistic and modern Liz, with all of her foibles and issues: a truly modern Liz struggling mightily to keep her family together and afloat. As for Darcy, well he's as Darcy as ever. Somehow Sittenfeld has managed to truly capture the essence of Austen's Darcy and Elizabeth in her new characters. I don't know how, but it's funny and lovely all at the same time. Overall, I found this book funny, touching, and compulsively readable. The characters are truly characters: they are fully formed within moments of picking up the book. If you loved the original, you'll find this updated version enjoyable and imaginative, with a surprising depth behind it. If you've never read Austen's work (and you should), you will still discover a funny, sweet yet weighty story of a family trying to make it in this day and age.

10.The Expatriates - Janice Y.K. Lee. It sounds trite - the linked stories of three women, but this book is nearly magical. It details the lives of three American women living in the expatriate community in Hong Kong. Their lives and stories are linked in small and large ways, as they each traverse the difficulties of life and the consequences of their actions. The chapters are compelling and amazing: you truly feel as if you are there, with the characters, getting completely caught up in their lives and stories. It's one of those books where not a lot happens, yet in some ways, everything happens, and it's mesmerizing somehow. Lee has a unique voice for each character and they each become clearer and defined as the book goes on; they are so themselves that you can't ever imagine not knowing them, or how they would react to a given situation. Much of what happens is sad- in fact, there were times where I felt like my heart was physically hurting reading - but there is much redemption in the book as well. I truly found parts of it to be beautiful. The ending, which I felt like could have been too easy, or conversely, easily ruined, felt perfect somehow. My only complaint with this book? That it ended. After I finished it, I found myself standing at the sink later that evening, washing some dishes, and thinking, "oh at least I get to read my book later tonight" and then feeling nothing but profound disappointment that the book was over, and I was done being a part of these characters' lives. Lovely, poignant book.
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