Last year I decided to make 2016 new releases my guiding light in what I would order, read, and write about this year. To a large extent, I followed this quest. Many of the books I have read (more than half) were published this year. I thought this would make me more current, that I’d be like a “real” critic who had books to review every week and could say with complete authority that the best books of the year were indeed the best books of the year. I’m not so sure that was the best choice for me as I feel like I missed out on some of the backlist. Regardless, it has helped me get a better picture of books that were published this year. So, here I am, staring down late-December and the New Year, and confident with my choices. These are the Broke By Books Best Book of 2016.
Here are my 10 best books published in 2016:
The Nest by Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney (Literary fiction)
The Nest book is not perfect. It’s a little messy, and some elements seem like kind of a reach. But it is the book that gave me immense hope for the author’s future. It’s a crazy debut full of lots of energy, like a ball of unstable fusion. Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney’s saga follows the Plumb siblings, now estranged adults brought together by the eldest child, Leo, when his drunk driving accident drains their trust fund (“the nest”). Each of the siblings needs the money for different things. Jack, because he is hiding his enormous debt from his husband. Melody, whose twin daughters will not be able to afford the upscale, trendy private colleges they eye. And Bea, an aspiring writer who has to pay back her advance after she gets severe writer’s block without her big-brother Leo, her muse, her idol, her mentor, around. I wrote about why you should read The Nest before, and I included it as my pick for the Book Riot Best of 2016 list. For its astute observations about American society today, as well as Sweeney’s razor-sharp pen satirizing our country, and ultimately a plot built on emotion and heart, The Nest is a must read book of 2016.
Loner by Teddy Wayne (Literary fiction)
Loner is not easy to read. It’s not very long, either, but it’s concise and it’s creepy and unforgettable. In Teddy Wayne’s novel, our protagonist is David, a freshman at Harvard who hopes to rise in the school’s upper crest ranks early. David studies the popular elite members of his class and the exclusive clubs and plots meticulously on how to become like them. He’s also infatuated—nay, obsessed in the clinical and criminal sense of the word—with Veronica, a beautiful freshman who lives in his dorm. As we get sucked further into David’s world, told in riveting first person narration, we gradually witness how he loses his mind. It’s so subtly done, Teddy Wayne’s manipulation of the reader, that it is a bit like you’ve fallen down the rabbit hole but didn’t know it until you hit the dirt bottom. This novel is pretty short at 203 pages, but I could not pull myself away, even as David’s actions became more offensive, illegal, and creepy. Still, it’s a brilliant, very dark satire on Harvard, something I know a bit about because two of my best friends went to Harvard and I visited them their freshman year, and I also attended two Ivy League schools, so I’m familiar with that vibe. Wayne, a Harvard grad himself, nails that culture and environment so well.
Also, I hit the Big Time and my review on Litsy got reblogged by the Book Riot account. Pretty sick! #tastemaker.
A Study in Charlotte by Brittany Cavallaro (YA contemporary/mystery)
Another debut I loved, not so much for being perfect (it’s not) but for its great potential, A Study in Charlotte. This series updates the Sherlock Holmes stories to modern day America at an elite New England prep school attended by Charlotte Holmes and a newcomer, (James) Jamie Watson. In the Cavallaro mythos, the Holmeses and the Watsons train in their respective fields, criminology/investigation and medicine, and members of each generation always wind up working together. Jamie is captivated and practically in love with Charlotte, who is so closed off emotionally that she doesn’t allow herself to feel any emotions like love… or at least not without analyzing them. This novel, the first in a trilogy with the sequel set to be published in winter 2017, had some issues, mainly in the plotting. It seemed a little sloppy and patched together and could have used a visit from the plot doctor, but what really got me was a) Jamie’s narration, honest, endearing, almost heartbreaking in his loneliness and pining for Charlotte, and 2) the characters. Charlotte managed to be enigmatic without becoming a caricature. Read a longer analysis in my full-length review here on the blog.
Vinegar Girl by Anne Tyler (Literary fiction)
Vinegar Girl was fantastic, and I have never read anything else by Anne Tyler, so when fans say it’s “good but not one of her best,” I can’t wait to dig into the back catalog. This petite novel (237 pages) is a retelling of Shakespeare’s romantic comedy, The Taming of the Shrew. The novel is part of the larger Hogarth Shakespeare project, which invites authors like Anne Tyler, Margaret Atwood, and Gillian Flynn to reinterpret Shakespeare’s plays. I can’t help but contrast it with the Jane Austen Project, a similar undertaking to update Jane Austen’s works, a series that has struggled to produce a standout piece. I read Eligible by Curtis Sittenfeld, a modern retelling of Pride and Prejudice, and it was astonishingly awful. In contrast, Anne Tyler’s novel, also an update of a classic tale of courtship, succeeded with more insight and more wit. I loved headstrong Kate and her suitor, Pyotr. I enjoyed how Tyler translated the play in such a way that it wasn’t a straight plot-for-plot, character-for-character translation. The narrator is witty without being obnoxious and gossipy, which I think is one of the issues the Austen Project writers have fallen into. Vinegar Girl was a delight, and I’m happy to say I’m the author of EBSCO NoveList’s book discussion guide for Vinegar Girl published likely this January.
Patience by Daniel Clowes (Graphic novels/comics)
Man, what a trip! I read Ghost World earlier in the year having been a fan of the movie. Clowes has such a unique style, both visually and with writing. His characters have a spare-nobody, brutal sense of humor that’s so dark and bleak. So many harsh insults directed at others and the narrators themselves. Yet it is kind of refreshing, I think, even if it makes me feel a lot more bitter after reading. Anyway, of course Ghost World fans are dragging down Patience as not another classic from this beloved, quirky comic artist. But I think it occupies a different space, one with more ambition. Apart from the cosmic canvas that is Clowes’ lettering and psychedelic colors, the sci-i time traveling space trip that is Patience is a privilege to read.
Every Exquisite Thing by Matthew Quick (YA Contemporary)
I really admire Matthew Quick, an author most famous for The Silver Linings Playbook, which was adapted into an Academy Award-winning film. Quick, or “Q” as he refers to himself, writes stories about oddballs and misfits in a completely unpretentious style. In Every Exquisite Thing, Quick tackles the idea of a cult classic novel and cult classic author, building a poignant coming of age story about Nanette, who bucks the status quo and befriends—and falls in love with—another outcast, Alex. But nonconformity is serious business for Alex, more so than it is for Nanette. She is also pissed at the sheep she lives with and goes to school with, but she struggles to be the voice of reason against Alex’s more extreme emotions, moods, and anger. Quick captures that desire to overthrow the system and the painful moments when frustration and rage get taken too far, even beyond the power of love to overcome hate. I felt like this when I was in high school and spent the latter half as a communist/anarchist trying to disrupt the system (having worshipped Catcher in the Rye and all of Salinger’s work since freshman year). I grew older and softer, but I still catch myself thinking sometimes that my 17 year-old self would see me as a sellout. Maybe, but I’m a lot happier and better adjusted trying to fix what I can. I have a lot of love for this book, which takes risks and says things that matter.
Joe Gould’s Teeth by Jill Lepore (Nonfiction)
I loved this tiny book, Joe Gould’s Teeth, which grew out of an essay Jill Lepore wrote for The New Yorker. I wrote about how much I loved this book here on Broke By Books earlier in the year. Lepore chronicles the long, strange, sad saga of Joe Gould, an eccentric sociologist/linguist/artist who dedicated his life to writing the “Oral History of Our Time,” a big book that no one is quite sure ever existed. Gould was obnoxious, persistent, quirky and bizarre, also a friend of many of the leading Modernist artists and writers of his day who ultimately could not save him from what was very clearly mental illness, a sad fate at the hands of the barbaric treatment of the mentally ill in the middle of 20th century America. Lepore’s book traces Gould’s demise in the larger context of topics like, Psychology, the Harlem Renaissance, Eugenics, and Sociology. Driving the narrative is the mystery, did the “Oral History of Our Time” exist? If not, then where did it go? The book is one-part Indiana Jones literary adventure and one part damning account of how society fails—then as now—the mentally ill.
American Housewife by Helen Ellis (Literary fiction/short stories)
It is now occurring to me as I write this best-of list that some of my favorites from this year inspired me to write a blog post on this site earlier in the year. These are the books out of the 50+ I read this year, that moved me to feature them in a book review. If you read this blog regularly, you’ll see that I don’t often write straight book reviews. So the ones that get posted are about books that made a big impression on me. And one of those books is American Housewife by Helen Ellis. I wrote a big love-fest post that included a reading group guide back in June. As the calendar marches on ever closer to January 12 and therefore my final year in my twenties, I start to identify with this clever, witty collection of short stories about, well, American housewives more than ever. Maybe someday soon I will be a wife, certainly many of my friends are by now, and some of them have worked from home as I do, so it feels like we are “stay at home” ladies. I really enjoyed Ellis’ kind of absurdist-feminist take on the American housewife in her many moods, joys, and predicaments.
Highly Illogical Behavior by John Corey Whaley (YA Contemporary)
I took a class in Multiculturalism in the Library this fall, and I referenced John Corey Whaley’s Highly Illogical Behavior several times over for its celebration of diversity, including disability and LGBTQ. I just fell in love with this novel, whose style in some ways reminds me of Matthew Quick’s Every Exquisite Thing mentioned above, a sophisticated but understated narration that treats teens like grownups. Michael L. Printz award-winning author John Corey Whaley shows us the benefits and drawbacks about relationships forged in fakery but eventually lead to an authentic bond. Lisa is a pushy, ambitious perfectionist who is not above deception and bending ethics to meet her goal (kind of like Tracy Flick in Election). That means befriending Solomon Reed, an agoraphobic teen who has not left his house in more than four years. Lisa does this to try to “cure” him so she can win a psychology scholarship at an elite university, but of course she doesn’t tell him that is her mission. However, Solomon and Lisa become real friends, and into the mix comes Clark, her boyfriend of somewhat uncertain sexual orientation…someone Solomon falls in love with, further complicating matters. Highly Illogical Behavior is an awesome novel that shows the limits of friendship, romance, and healing.
The Geek’s Guide to Unrequited Love by Sarvenaz Tash (YA contemporary)
What a great debut novel! Sarvenaz Tash’s YA contemporary, The Geek’s Guide to Unrequited Love, is a delightful, funny, charming nerdtacular rom-com based around New York’s Comic Con. Graham is best friends with Roxy, his neighbor and co-author of a comics series. He’s kept his feelings for her hidden from just about everyone in the world except for her, and he’s convinced that he can take this year’s NY Comic Con and create the perfect scenario to confess his feelings and make her fall in love with him. Of course, the title has “unrequited love” in there, and that’s no accident. This was a totally fun read over the summer, a book I did not want to end and would stay up late to read. The Geek’s Guide to Unrequited Love is a promising debut from Sarvenaz Tash. (PS: I love a good nerd story, as you can see in my article about novels for fangirls and fanboys.)
So there you have it, my best books of 2016. What were your best books you read this year?
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