Favorite Books of 2016

I was a reader as a kid and through college. After grad school, I worked in publishing for something like fifteen years, and during those years I did surprisingly little reading for fun. And then when my kiddos were really little, I think there were a couple of years in there that I finished zero books (not counting board books). For the last couple of years, though, I have been finding time to read, and I now think of myself as a reader again. In fact, I can think of at least twice in the last month (this busy month of holidays and family birthdays) that friends have asked me how I am or what’s going on and what has first come to mind is how my reading life is going (very well, thank you!). I finished sixty-two books this year, and though I am in the middle of several more, with only about five hours left in the year, I think sixty-two is going to be the final count. (January 2017 will probably start off pretty well as I’m set to finish three or four this next week.)

I read a lot of good books this year and only a couple of real clankers. These are my top 10 (in chronological order) and some honorable mentions:

Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption, by Bryan Stevenson ** One of the reasons I don’t write book reviews more often is because I really do find it so hard to summarize books. Stevenson is the executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery, Alabama, and here he tells (part of) his story of fighting against racial bias and inhumanity in the criminal justice system. The book is heartbreaking and infuriating, and I don’t think you could be unchanged after reading it. (I own this in paperback, but I think I loaned it out and I can’t remember to whom. No worries. I’m glad it’s out there.)

11/22/63, by Stephen King ** This was my first Stephen King, and it was so enjoyable. It is the story of a man who travels back in time to try to undo the assassination of JFK. It was thought-provoking and such a good story. Also, it was over 800 pages, and I wasn’t the least tempted to skim any of the storylines. If I ever went on the What Should I Read Next? podcast, this would make the “3 books I love” list (actually, that podcast is where I learned of it in the first place). I checked this baby out from the library.

Brown Girl Dreaming, by Jacqueline Woodson ** This was another book I learned of from the WSIRN podcast. It’s a prose-poetry memoir of a childhood in South Carolina and New York. I listened to it on audiobook (checked out from the library) read by the author. It is mesmerizing, and I would put in my top 10 favorites of all time. I keep meaning to read the print version too.

East of Eden, by John Steinbeck ** And this is another book that earns a spot in my top 10 all-time faves, probably even top 5. Beautiful writing. I probably couldn’t recount the plot exactly, but I can’t get the overall story out of my head. I listened to this on Audible, and I plan to get a print copy to re-read as well.

Kitchens of the Great Midwest, by J. Ryan Stradal ** This book was just fun. Something about it reminded me of Where’d You Go, Bernadette, by Maria Semple, a favorite from last year (but oh I hated this year’s Today Will Be Different, by Maria Semple). I don’t know that this would be a great book club selection, as I don’t know what you would discuss, but it was fun and foodie and quirky and totally enjoyable. I checked this one out from the library and have recommended it often throughout the year.

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, by Betty Smith ** I have started this several times and for unknown reasons have never finished until now. I loved the characters, loved the story, loved the book. I did listen to it on Audible, and I think that made the difference in getting me over the hump.

A Wrinkle in Time, by Madeline L’Engle ** Why have I never read this?!? I adored this and wish I had found it when I was eight or so. I will be introducing my kids to the series sooner rather than later. We found the third book in the series in a Little Free Library, so we went to the library to check out the first book and start at the beginning.

The Boys in the Boat, by Daniel James Brown ** Another Audible listen, another all-time top 5 (and my number 1 audiobook). I can’t stop raving about this book. I loved every single bit of it, from the story of Joe Rantz’s life to the descriptions of George Yeoman’s workshop and the wood used in the boats to the call of the races. I listened to much of this while driving, and during the description of the races, I was white-knuckling it just as if it were live. I have to think this book was enhanced by having it read by Edward Herrmann.

Another Brooklyn, by Jacqueline Woodson ** Yes, another by Jacqueline Woodson. I said to a friend that this was my favorite novel I read this year, and that still holds close to true/true-ish. I don’t think it will make my favorite books of all time, but it I really did love this one. It’s short, and I finished it in less than a day. I read the print version from the library and plan to listen to the audio version again before my book club discusses it next month.

Born a Crime, by Trevor Noah ** This is one of my favorite memoirs I’ve ever read (er, listened to). Read by the author, it tells of his childhood in South Africa. I had heard and read all kinds of good things, and it did not disappoint. I can’t say that it will have the lasting power of, say, East of Eden or The Boys in the Boat or even A Wrinkle in Time, and maybe it’s because it’s the last one I finished, but if you asked me right now, today, what my favorite read of 2016 was, I’d give the nod to Born a Crime.

Honorable Mention

The Bone Clocks, by David Mitchell ** This was the most challenging book I read this year, and it’s not for everyone. I keep thinking, though, that it’s just good literature.
The Paris Wife, by Paula McLain ** I had thought that I was going to have to admit that I like the idea of historical fiction more than I like the actual thing of historical fiction, but this book gave me hope that I can hold onto the claim of loving historical fiction. It sent me briefly into an Ernest Hemingway phase, but I think I remain not a big fan of Hemingway.
Coming Clean, by Seth Haines ** This is the story of Haines’s first thirty days sober after becoming addicted to alcohol while his youngest child was seriously ill. The subtitle is “A Story of Faith” and I loved it for its perspective.
Modern Romance, by Aziz Ansari ** Eye-opening and fascinating. I really enjoyed the audio version read by the author (with some funny asides just for the audiobook).
Lonesome Dove, by Larry McMurtry ** Yet another audiobook. I don’t know that I would have gotten through 945 pages of print, but I was completely caught up in the story and was sad to have it end “so soon.”