Somehow, without quite intending to, I will finish 2016 having read exactly 100 books. (I say this with confidence now having 3.25 days left in the year and 1.5 books to go, but I’m hoping claiming 100 a little early won’t jinx it). Since I read a wide diversity of books, it’s impossible for me to simply choose just a few to write about, so instead I like to do book superlatives, because then I don’t have to pick favorites and I also get to create categories to fit the books I really want to write about. It’s a win-win!
Before I jump in, I wanted to address two comments I frequently receive from people about my reading. First: “You must read really fast!” I’m actually a fairly slow reader due to the fact that for me to really process what I’m reading, I have to move my lips like I am mouthing each word, which basically means I read in my head at the same pace it would take me to read aloud. Of course, it depends on how dense the book is, but on average I’d say a 300 page book will take me 6-7 hours of reading time. I’m also not always reading literary fiction or works of research. This year in particular, I’ve read quite a few books that had little or no literary or educational merit and were just for fun.
The second comment I see often is, “I would love to read that much, but I never have time. How do you find the time?” I have a few answers to this. Practically speaking, I am a twenty-nine year old woman with a self-sufficient husband and no kids. While I often work 60 hours/week, I still have fewer demands on my free time than many other people do. Audiobooks have played a huge role in my reading life this year. I sometimes listen to a book on audio while also reading the hard copy and switch back and forth between the two. I listen to audiobooks while I’m getting ready in the morning, while I’m driving to work or running errands, and while I’m cooking dinner. I get at least 2-3 hours of reading in every day just by doing that. I also bring a book with me everywhere I go and take advantage of the small moments I get throughout the day. Five or ten minutes here and there really do add up.
If you’d like to see the full list of what I read this year, feel free to check out all of the titles on my Goodreads Reading Challenge. You can also read my superlatives from 2015 here. Now on with the show!
Grumpiest Old Man Book
A Man Called Ove by Friedrik Backman. Ove is the quintessential grumpy old man with plenty of opinions about all of the youngsters these days. All he wants is to be left to die in peace, but the young family who moves in next door isn’t about to let him. This book is heartwarming, but also made me excited to be a cranky old person some day.
Runner Up: The One-in-a-Million Boy by Monica Wood. Though this one has a 104 year old grumpy old woman (plus a quirky little boy), it still fits the category and was one of my favorite reads this year.
Most Thrilling Thriller
I went through a thriller phase this summer and into the fall, but I found myself let down by most of the ones I read. I think this is because thrillers set you up to expect some great twist and most of the ones I read either didn’t surprise me or just didn’t make a ton of sense. My top pick was I Let You Go by Clare Mackintosh which managed to be unexpected without being a wild dramatic twist. Big trigger warnings for domestic violence though.
More recently, I really enjoyed Before the Fall by Noah Hawley which also steered away from the last minute plot twist in favor of a reasonably paced reveal of what happened. But don’t read this on a plane.
Most Likely to Make you Want to Cook All the Foods
A Homemade Life by Molly Wizenberg which is both a memoir and a book full of recipes, reminding us of how food shapes our ordinary lives.
Runner up would be Sweetbitter by Stephanie Danler which I didn’t ultimately give a great review because I really disliked the main character, but it paints an incredibly vivid picture of life on the Manhattan restaurant scene.
Most Disappointing Book
I really hate to say this because this wasn’t a bad book at all, I just had very high expectations. I’m talking about Tana French’s latest Dublin Murder Squad mystery The Trespasser. I absolutely loved her previous five books (especially The Likeness) and had extremely high expectations for this one. It wasn’t a bad book, but it did drag for me a bit in a way her previous ones hadn’t, and I didn’t feel as connected to the detective as I have in her previous books.
Most Fun Book
Crazy Rich Asians and the sequel China Rich Girlfriend by Kevin Kwan. Both books are pure, voyeuristic pleasure peeking in on the lives of the filthy rich of Singapore and Hong Kong. These books also made me want to move back to Asia ASAP.
Book I Now Wish I Could Get Back the Hours of My Life I Spent Reading
We Could Be Beautiful by Swan Huntley. Rich White People Problems book except with completely flat characters and no development whatsoever and weird creepy incest-y relationships.
I also did not care for Jennifer Weiner’s newest book Who Do You Love although I usually find her books to be reliable feel-good reads.
Best Historical Fiction
The Nightingale by Kristen Hannah which is about two sisters living in occupied France during WWII, each fighting in her own way. (One of the best books of the year for me).
Runner up: Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet by Jamie Ford. Another WWII novel, this one focusing on the lives of Japanese Americans forced into internment camps in the US during the war told through the eyes of a Chinese American boy.
Best Contemporary Fiction
Tell the Wolves I’m Home by Carol Rifka Brunt. Just wow. I loved this book so much. I don’t even know what to say about it. Just read it.
Book I Can’t Shut Up About
Being Mortal by Atul Gawande. I mean, I really couldn’t shut up about this. I was bringing up the topic of end of life care and the inevitability of death like it was my job. This book manages to deal with a morbid subject with grace and compassion and truth. I think it’s a must-read.
Best New Series
This wasn’t a new series to the world, just a new series to me. Louise Penny’s Chief Inspector Gamache mysteries came highly recommended and they have not disappointed me. I will say that the first few were good but not amazing to me, but the further you get in the series, the better they are. These are the types of mysteries that are focused on character development, delving into the psychology of the characters and probing human nature. I will be finishing book 9 of 12 in the few days. (PS- You do sort of need to read them in order because sometimes they refer back to previous cases).
Bryan Stevenson’s book Just Mercy broke me and challenged me not to turn a blind eye to the injustices being enacted every day in my country through our prison system. After hearing Bryan speak last month I am even more determined that we all have a responsibility to work towards justice in our communities.
Furthest Out of My Comfort Zone
Ready Player One by Ernest Cline. I have little to no interest in video games or in 80’s pop culture references and yet this book completely charmed me. As a bonus, the audio book is narrated by Wil Wheaton.
Most Exotic Setting
This is a three-way tie between Enchanted Islands (Allison Amend) which is based on a real-life couple who were sent to be spies in the Galapagos islands pre-WWII (but only about 1/3 of the book takes place there), The House at the Edge of Night (Catherine Banner) which is a dreamy, multi-generational, Gabriel Garcia Marquez-esque book set on a small Italian island, and The Light Between Oceans (M. L. Stedman) which is mainly set on a mostly uninhabited island (more of a rock really) off the western coast of Australia.
Best Series Ender
Dreams of Gods and Monsters by Laini Taylor. This is the final book in the Daughter of Smoke and Bone trilogy and it is magnificently intense. Runner up goes to Winter, the conclusion of Marissa Meyer’s Lunar Chronicles. Both of these books run around 800 pages long so it’s a good thing they were worth it!
Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates. Written as a letter from Coates to his young son explaining what it means to be black in America. This is a book that everyone should read.
Dad is Fat by Jim Gaffigan. If you are familiar with Gaffigan’s stand-up, the book is very similar. I really enjoy his sense of humor.
Book That Made Me Cry
When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi. Yet another book I read this year about mortality, the reality of death, and the brevity of life. Reading the words of this thirty-something neurosurgeon who must grapple with his own terminal diagnosis and what’s really important in life. I dare you not to cry reading this man’s words and knowing he does not live to finish the book.
Best Rich White People Problems Book
Because this is a genre I actually enjoy now and again, The Nest by Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney is the ultimate indulgence. Four adult siblings who are within months or receiving a tidy inheritance, only to find that the “nest” has been plundered to cover the indiscretions of the eldest brother.
I was honestly blown away by Tiny Beautiful Things which is a compilation of essays Cheryl Strayed wrote in her Dear Sugar advice column at the Rumpus. I don’t always agree with her advice, but I was moved by her genuine compassion and authenticity which shone through in these letters. They are stunning.
Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver. I learned so much in this book recounting Kingsolver and her family’s year of dedication to eating only foods they grew themselves or sourced locally. For example, did you know that the ability to mate naturally has been bred out of American turkeys and the turkeys you eat at Thanksgiving are all the result of artificial insemination? Told you it was educational.
A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki. I’m not even exactly sure how to explain this book except to say that it was both intensely realistic, dealing very explicitly with things like mental illness and suicide, and also somewhat surreal. Which I think was the point. It’s difficult for me to tell you what this book is about and it’s probably better to just read a synopsis, but I will say that while this book had some disturbing parts and some strange magical realism towards the end, I still really liked it.
Best YA Book
I’ll Give You the Sun by Jandy Nelson. I love what this book had to say about art, why we create it and what makes it necessary. Noah and Jude are twins (Jude’s a girl, btw) who have always shared a special connection until some time in their 14th year, something breaks them apart. The story is told in alternating sections from Noah’s and Jude’s perspectives. Noah’s part of the story is told in the past, while Jude’s portions are told three years later. You get bits and flashes of what happened between them from each side until it all comes together in the end. Noah is strange and isolated, drawing constantly, misunderstood by his peers and desperately in love with the boy next door. Jude is rebellious and fiery, ready to crash and burn if that’s what it takes. Something tears them apart in a way that changes them completely, but they each only have half the story.
Eligible by Curtis Sittenfeld. This book is part of the Jane Austen project, a collective that invited several modern authors to modernize classic Jane Austen novels. I normally really hate re-tellings of classics. Especially modernizations. But this one (based very closely on Pride and Prejudice) just worked for me. Bingley is a famous bachelor after being on a nationally televised show called Eligible (like the Bachelor), Lydia and Kitty are obnoxiously into CrossFit and Elizabeth and Darcy have hot hate sex. Also, the whole thing is set in Cincinnati of all places and mentions lots of places I go when I’m visiting my in-laws there.
Celebrity I Now Want to Be Friends With
Padma Lakshmi after reading her book Love, Loss, and What We Ate. I never really knew anything about her before, but after reading this book I think she’s pretty impressive and much smarter than people probably realize. She’s also led a really interesting life–born in India before immigrating to America with her mother, working as a model in Europe in her early twenties, meeting and marrying Salman Rushdie, and later going on to become a television cook and a judge on Top Chef.
So, this book will really only work for you if you are a Jane Eyre fan or a fan of the gothic novel in general. This is not a retelling of Jane Eyre, but it is heavily inspired by it. Except in this novel, our heroine, Jane Steele, is an accidental serial murderer. I also love the cover design for this book.
If you’ve stuck with me this far, thanks for reading. Believe me, I did my very best to pare this list down to the ones I most wanted to talk about, and I still had to leave a few good ones out. I don’t have a specific reading goal for 2017 and I actually hope to do more writing, which would probably cut down on my reading time, but you can always follow my progress on Goodreads!
What were the best books you read this year?