Best books I read in 2016

Behold the list of “Best books I read in of 2016”!

This year my reading was all about reducing the number of unread books on my shelves. I smashed my reading goal of 60 books – 68 books and counting! – and made a good dent in the list, but the project isn’t complete and will probably continue into 2017.

I couldn’t pick an overall winner for “best book” this year – not even a tie! – and most sections have more than one book listed. I really struggled to trim this list which is, honestly, the worst-best problem to have with books.

You can check out every book I read this year and my reviews here.

Best Fantasy

The Heroes by Joe Abercrombie

The Heroes by Joe Abercrombie

I don’t even know why I picked this book up. Well, I do, it’s big and by a well-known author and was $2 from a used book shop. Two dollars, people! This is exactly the attitude that meant my book buying ban had to be enforced at the start of this year.

I’ve tried to get into Abercrombie twice in the past and failed. I found his world too gritty, his characters unlikable and the plot too hard to spot from the start and give me something to care about. I thought he wasn’t a writer for me. Except, you know, when I find his books for $2. I really expected to start the year strong with this one – in that I’d be able to read a few chapters, decide it wasn’t for me, and – boom! – one less book to read on the shelf.

I was very, very wrong and I owe Mr Abercrombie an apology in the form of buying my way through his back catalogue over the next few years.

It’s a simple premise, one forty-eight-hour battle, three perspectives. The characterisation makes this book, I loved and hated all of them. They were complex and flawed and real, they had motivations and goals, internal and external motivations. The war wasn’t glossed over – there was glory and futility and horror in equal measure.

The pacing was exquisite, the action sequences masterful and the character development was perfect. It was all so good.

I’ve been plugging this book to everyone all year, but it tends to get dismissed as boring, unoriginal or not compelling. It is none of these things.

Reading Abercrombie’s previous books wasn’t required to understand and get into this one, though I’m sure I missed a lot of shout-outs readers of his other work would have noted.

Strongest fantasy book I read all year and all the better for it being a surprise hit.

The Fellowship of the RingThe Two Towers

The Return of the King

 Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien

You know I’d never read the full Lord of the Rings before this year? Never.

I’d done Fellowship a few times but always somehow, inexplicably, stalled halfway through the Two Towers. I know, I now don’t get it either.

I always felt vaguely guilty about not having read it. I read so much and so much of that is fantasy, I loved the movies, and it’s practically required geek reading. I used to wince when I’d tell people I hadn’t read it. So this year was my year, I had the full trilogy unread on my shelf.

I chose to do it in audio because I had nostalgic memories of falling asleep listening to the old BBC radio play as a kid and I’m really glad I did. The narration is excellent, the songs are sung rather than passages of text you skip over and I could speed it up to a less ponderous pace. I was also training for a really long walk while I listened to Fellowship, so that was ironic and fun as well.

I expected it to be dry and a slog and painful and something I was doing to prove a point. Except there’s a reason these are beloved. There’s a reason people keep coming back to these books. They hold up over time.

I loved Fellowship and really enjoyed the Two Towers. Return of the King was a bit rougher pacing-wise and I struggled a bit more. Overall though? I finally get it. Even though I “know how it goes” it didn’t stop the key moments being powerful. I teared up when Frodo and Sam were standing on the side of Mount doom, when the whole thing with Shelob went down. I felt sad when the Ents were talking about the need to go to war and how much they missed the Entwives, about the elves leaving Middle Earth. I was exhilarated with Eowyn slew the Witch King.

That’s the mark of a classic, the ones that feel fresh and powerful even though you know the turns.

The world sprawls in a way I don’t think I appreciated before reading it. I loved the little bits in the barrows or walking through forests or grasslands. The battles were the more boring parts for me, mostly because they seemed to happen off-screen and I found the pacing throughout a bit hit-and-miss[2], but it really helped me get an idea for what an “epic” fantasy looks and feels like. What a story feels like when it’s got a complete world and history and languages and people in it.

I feel like these are things everyone else has known for ages and I’m only just getting, but I’m really glad I’m finally getting it.

Best Sci-fi

Nemesis Games

Nemesis Games by James S.A. Corey

I had a hit and miss year with the Expanse series, but in the end they win my best sci-fi pick for the second year running!

I was worried that splitting the crew up in this instalment would weaken that camaraderie I’ve loved so much in previous books, but it actually enhanced it. I got to spend good lengths of time with each member of the crew and really dig into them individually. Naomi especially got some mad character development this book, but Amos and Alex were wonderful in their own ways, too. Holden almost took a back seat which I didn’t mind.

This seemed to take a little while to get going but once the plot kicked in it really kicked. The ending, in hindsight, seemed anticlimactic, but didn’t at the time. I think it just resolved rather than going for a second big event like these books normally do and I didn’t mind it.

The hook at the end of the book was wonderfully executed. I love how this book blew open the world a little larger, changed the game, and brought in new threats all while developing our existing world and characters (probably so we’re more across all of that in time to deal with what’s next).

If you’re not reading this series yet – read it or watch it ASAP.

Best Horror

The Shining

The Shining by Stephen King

I underestimated this book.

I really enjoy Stephen King, but most of the way through reading this I thought this was a 4 star book. It had a slow, but enjoyable lead up and initial time at the hotel, but it wasn’t spooky for me. Having seen the movie I knew about room 217 and “redrum”.

But then the climax hit and I realised I knew nothing (Jon Snow) about the Shining.

The Overlook as a possessive force completely changed my understanding of the story and made it richer. It makes Jack just as much a victim as everyone else, despite being the weakest link in the family the Overlook could find to exploit.

Changing that one element in the end is like changing how the knot is tied – it’s a different knot entirely, despite following all the same moves leading up to it. And it’s better. The resolution is more satisfying and has more depth than the movie version – I can see why King allegedly doesn’t like the Kubrick adaptation, despite the cinematic brilliance.

House of Leaves

House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski

This book blew away my previous conceptions of how books and written stories worked. Genius. It was long and strange and convoluted. It’s a book that you experience rather than read or understand.

It sticks in my memory differently to other books. Maybe it’s the non-fiction spin of it, maybe it’s the way you have to read it, as if exploring and pulling it apart. I don’t know, but it feels like something I did. Something I went through and learned.

I’m still fascinated by it.

Best YA/MG

Code Name Verity

Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein

This was one of the few books I “cheated” and bought this year. Audible had a sale and I’d heard nothing but good things about this book, especially the audiobook.

All the reviews and hype around this book tell me that it’s a beautiful story and well told and that it would break my heart. I don’t know if it broke my heart (though I did have something in my eye towards the end) but it was lovely. I liked the first half more than the second, but I loved the characters the whole way through.

When I talk to people about “Strong female characters” from now on I’m going to point them here. Both of these girls shot guns and were in a war, but they were defined by so much more than that and both were distinct people. The friendship at the centre of this book is deep and memorable and real. It’s what makes the book. It was always going to be what made the book. They are a sensational team.

The book was stunningly written and the audiobook narration was fantastic, the voices were real and they’ll stick with me, especially some of the scenes around the middle. It was a close contender for audiobook of the year, but didn’t quite make it.

There’s a sequel-ish book but I think I’m going to skip it. I loved this one and I think I just want to let it stand-alone as an experience. It’s perfect as-is.

Illuminae

Illuminae by Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff

This book is worth all the hype. Without spoilers it’s an explodey, stressful, high-octane thrill-ride from start to finish. The found documents style is ratty and raw and beautiful – I want to know how you pitch a book like this to a publisher! How you write a book like this. How you write a book like this as a co-authoring team! The character arcs were incredible and the pacing was intense – this book does not stop to take a breath and builds beyond what you think it can or will. It starts with a planet exploding and BUILDS FROM THERE.

This book is like YA fiction crack. The second one just dropped and I’m very excited to be able to buy it soon.

The authors are also both Australian – Melbournian! – which makes it extra special for me.

Welcome to Orphancorp

Welcome to Orphancorp by Marlee Jane Ward

Full disclosure Marlee is part of a writing group I catch up with regularly, but that doesn’t mean this little book isn’t incredible. Welcome to Oprhancorp won the Viva La Novella and then the Premier’s Literary Prize in 2016 for YA. It’s a crazy fast read – it’s a novella, you can do it in a day, but it packs enough heft to be a novel-length experience. It’s tough and beautiful.

The main character, Mirii, is has a unique and important voice and her experience pulls us through her last seven days at an Orphancorp – a realistically developed, original, and terrifying world. What really makes this story though, is the emotional core of it. The flickers of hope and secretive care the kids have for one another is simultaneously heartbreaking and heart healing. This is funny, raw, and makes you want to kick down the door of wherever you are and run for your own freedom.

Best Short Story Collection

Sourdough and Other Stories

Sourdough and Other Stories by Angela Slatter

Best collection of short fiction hands down for me this year was this one. It’s a collection of new fairy tales set in the same world but each separate and unique. Each one is exquisitely crafted, beautifully written and has a sting in the tail like good fairy tales should.

I’m deeply saddened that this was a limited print run and unable to be easily bought in paperback or hardcover (I read it in e-book format), but I also quite like that this book was a transient experience and not really able to be owned.

Bonus points for being an Australian author as well! I’ll certainly be tracking down a copy of Slatter’s other collections next year as well as her novel.

Best Non-Fiction

Packing for Mars

Packing for Mars by Mary Roach

I heard about Mary Roach from Chuck Wendig originally and was fascinated by her interesting topic picks for micro histories. I was itching for some good non-fiction this year and had run out of easily-accessible Bill Bryson options, so I picked up Packing for Mars.

It was a really interesting read, but not what I was expecting. With that title I expected an in-depth look at what we would need to get to Mars, and that’s sort of what I got, but what I got more was an in-depth look at the history of human space flight and the weird parts of the process a regular person doesn’t think about.

Roach is a fantastic narrative non-fiction writer. This is the first of hers I’ve read and I’m already looking forward to working through her back catalogue. She’s witty, clearly breaks down concepts, and emphasises the human element of her topics which I appreciate.

I think what I loved most about this book was how I kept running upstairs to talk to my partner with phrases that started with “Oh, I just read the most interesting thing…”, which would lead into us watching the crazy orbital mechanics required to land Rosetta on a comet.

Honourable Mentions

Every Heart A Doorway

Every Heart a Doorway by Seanan McGuire

Shades of Grey

Shades of Grey by Jasper Fforde

Changes

Changes by Jim Butcher

Fangirl

Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell

The Long List Anthology

Hugo Awards Long List Vol. 1 edited by David Steffen

Big Magic

Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert

 

Reading goals for next year

I almost did 70 books this year and, despite having some very long books straight out of the gate, I think 70 is a reasonable number goal to hit next year. If I reach it that’ll be the most books I’ve read in a year ever.

I’m planning to keep going with my goal of knocking down the books to read on the shelf which I predict will take me to midway through next year and then I’m going to let myself off the hook for the rest of the year and try to set up a sustainable buying/reading habit. I’ve also been alternating short fiction collections and nonfiction on my Kindle this year and really enjoying that, so I’m intending to keep that going as well.

This year was about purging the crap so I can see clearly; next year is about finishing that off and setting up sustainable, ongoing reading and book acquiring habits.

 

[1] Fun fact: my “really long walk” was, according to this map nothing compared to Frodo and Sam’s actual trek to Mordor. I almost did the bit from Cirith Ungol to Mount Doom, which, honestly, is the most important bit, right?

[2] For example: Frodo throws the ring in 5 chapters from the end. No-one needs a 5 chapter long denouement!

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