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Every year I like to do a round-up of the best books of the year. Since I don’t always read freshly published books, this isn’t technically a “best books OF 2016”; it’s a “my favorites that I READ in 2016.” However, that being said, many of them are pretty new. So let’s get started.

I read a lot of fiction and YA and this year it really showed. Only one of my favorite books that I got around to reading was nonfiction. So let’s start with that category, since it’s so small.

Nonfiction

the-geneThe Gene: An Intimate History, by Siddhartha Mukherjee. The author’s book about cancer a few years back, The Emperor of All Maladies, was excellent, and this book about the history of genetics, the code that informs all life, was just as informative and interesting. It takes readers on the odyssey of piecing together information about the human gene and genome since the early days, ending with the research and work that is happening now, in the decade after the completion of the sequencing of the human genome. The most recent research was news to me, and I found it fascinating and at times alarming. As Mukherjee posits about what we now know, “What will we do with this information?”

Fiction

Britt-Marie Was Here, by Fredrik Backman. An older woman who really, REALLY likes to have everything just so finds out her husband has cheated on her and goes out in search of work. She can only find a temporary position in a tiny town that’s on the verge of essentially closing up shop. She slowly gets pulled into the lives of the people who live there and finds herself truly “getting a life.” The book is gently humorous, tender and at times sad. It’s entertaining and sweet. There are too many wonderful metaphors for me to have kept track of, and I loved each one of them. I ended up taking my time reading the book because my life was busy, but I was able to savor it more that way, which was a bonus. A lovely book.

every-heart-a-doorwayEvery Heart a Doorway, by Seanan McGuire. Children have been known to slip through hidden doorways into other fantastical worlds. And some return to their everyday lives, for various reasons. Some do not long to get back to those worlds; others do. The latter consider those fantastical worlds their true homes and miss them terribly, always looking for that secret door to open again. Of course no one, including their parents, understands or believes their stories. But someone actually does believe their stories — and understands their longing to be “home.” Eleanor West runs a boarding school that caters to these children and teens, that tries to help them figure out how to move forward in a life that may never have them seeing that door again.

I cannot express just how truly unique this book felt. I’ve never read anything like it. The premise is clever but then the feel, the world, the execution of it all… just amazing. I felt transported.

Thrice the Brinded Cat Hath Mew’d, by Alan Bradley. This is the 8th Flavia de Luce mystery novel, and if you haven’t read any of the previous ones, go and start from the beginning. Now. And any year that has a new novel, most likely, it’s going to be on my best-of. These stories are technically murder mysteries but are more about their tween/teen heroine than anything else. She is curious, precocious, a lover of chemistry, an annoyed youngest sister and proud sleuth. This go-round wasn’t the most “mysterious” of all the mysteries; I saw much of it coming from a mile away. But, again, since it’s more about time spent with Flavia and her charms, and chuckling a good deal, that’s almost neither here nor there. I’ll keep reading as long as Alan Bradley keeps writing.

Uprooted, by Naomi Novik. In the valley near the Wood where Agnieszka lives, the Dragon, a powerful wizard who lives in a tower, takes one girl from the villages to serve him, then lets her go, every 10 years. The girls who will be 17 in that year fear the possibility of being chosen, and their families dread it. Agnieszka (and everyone else) is sure her beautiful best friend Kasia will be chosen, so they are all taken aback when at the last moment, Agnieszka is selected instead. She herself is completely unprepared and is devastated when the cool, detached wizard takes her, and then, inexplicably, starts trying to teach her how to do simple spells. It turns out she, as opposed to the other girls, who were just taken to be servants, has potential as a witch, and she and the Dragon must find a way to keep the evil power of the nearby (and encroaching) Wood at bay. The story is complex and rich in detail and atmosphere. It’s essentially a Polish fairy tale set in the 1500s, where magic is real. I was caught up in it but the reading was slow going. I didn’t just breeze through it. But that turned out to be a blessing by the end, which was hugely satisfying and led me to want to just sit quietly within the story and appreciate it for all it contained. Just lovely.

Young adult

Lady Midnight (The Dark Artifices, book 1), by Cassandra Clare. The Shadowhunters, humans with angel blood who fight demons, return in another series by Cassandra Clare. Those who have loved her other series (set in New York and Victorian London) featuring the defenders of humankind (or “mundanes,” as Shadowhunters call humans) will no doubt want to read this new one, set this time in current-day Los Angeles. I did love being back in the Shadowhunter world but I had a few quibbles. One, there wasn’t quite as much humor in this book as there was in City of Bones and other initial entries in the Mortal Instruments series. Two, these are teenagers. They admittedly have a great deal of responsibility, much more than the average human teen. But in these series, and in this new book particularly, they pretty much go about their business without much adult guidance and restraint. That’s kind of a plot point, but it leads to a lot of stuff happening that parents should know about if their teen is reading this new book/series. Not the best of Clare’s work, but I do love the world.

lady-janeMy Lady Jane, by Cynthia Hand, Brodi Ashton and Jodi Meadows. I LOVED, LOVED, LOVED this book. It’s laugh-out-loud funny, romantic and just a rollicking fun time. Plus, it turns a tragic romantic tale from history into a happy ending, that of Lady Jane Grey, the nine-day queen of England, and her husband, Lord Guildford Dudley, who were beheaded after Queen Mary took over as monarch and after the Protestant rebellion of Thomas Wyatt the Younger. What’s not to love?

The Love That Split the World, by Emily Henry. This is one of those rarer books about which I don’t want to share very much. Discovering the story and what’s happening is one of the joys of reading this book. It unspools just a bit at a time, revealing at last the bittersweet and devastating truth. It’s beautiful and heart-rending and just cool in its exploration of the reason behind the strange things the main character is experiencing. The end grabbed me and shook me and left me a bit emotionally exhausted.

The Skylighter (The Keepers’ Chronicles, book 2), by Becky Wallace. This is a sequel to a fine book, and it’s just a duo, rather than a trilogy. There’s a world of magic and royalty and intrigue, with a few dashes of romance. The story follows several threads from various perspectives and pulls them all together at the end. I enjoyed this second as much as the first (The Storyspinner) and am still impressed with the skill of the writer.

These Broken Stars, by Amie Kaufman and Meagan Spooner. An intergalactic war hero and a young heiress controlled closely by her father are stranded together on an alien planet. They hope for rescue, but as time goes on it seems less and less likely. The two have to figure out how to get along and how to work together. How to stay alive. Strange things start happening, particularly to Lilac, and the mystery of why the Icarus crashed becomes compounded by the mysteries of an empty but terraformed planet and strange visions and “whispers.” It’s part romance and part sci-fi mystery. About two-thirds of the way in, the action and mystery ratcheted up and I was compelled to just keep reading because it was so interesting. I really enjoyed the story.

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So it’s time to jump on that bandwagon and share what I enjoyed the most in 2013. Of course, since I didn’t read all the new and hyped books of the year, I can only include my opinions on what I did read, but I think it’s a pretty good list nonetheless. So let’s get right to it:

The best

Escape from Mr. Lemoncello’s Library, by Chris Grabenstein. A friend who really knows her YA/middle-grade stuff loved this, so I thought I’d check it out for myself and my 11-year-old. I got it from the library, handed it over to my young book-devourer, then enjoyed it after she did. It’s everything you’d want from a book for young readers: fun, clever, kind of adventurous, and highly imaginative. It made me and my daughter both wish there was a real library as amazing as the one imagined by Grabenstein. Every town needs a Mr. Lemoncello with deep pockets and a desire to give back to the community via a well-appointed library.

Just One YearJust One Year, the follow-up to Just One Day, by Gayle Forman. Forman can do no wrong when it comes to young adult/new adult books. They are utterly real and honest, with characters who are just as real. The stories are moving and touching without cheaply playing on heartstrings. This latest pair of books focus first on the young woman who falls for a guy during a trip to Europe and the one day they have together, then the guy. We get each of their perspectives and see how they come together initially, but, more importantly, how they grow individually so they could stay together.

Mortal Fire, by Elizabeth Knox. Knox proved she has solid writing talent with this first new book since her YA “duet” of Dreamhunter and Dreamquake. I can’t recommend her enough. The stories are mysterious and fascinating while delivering big on setting. Like Forman’s books, there is poignancy and sweetness without overdoing it. I gobbled them up. I wrote a whole post about Knox.

Me Before You, by Jojo Moyes. This British book was actually published earlier but hit it big this year through word of mouth in the U.S. — and rightly so. It’s a sweet story of two unlikely people falling for each other: a formerly successful businessman-turned-quadriplegic and the woman who’s hired to care for him and lift his spirits. It really tugs on the heartstrings and makes you think. Get a box of Kleenex ready.

Rosie ProjectThe Rosie Project, by Graeme Simsion. Here’s another that sparked lots of word of mouth, months before it was published. I was forced to wait to read it closer to its pub date, and let me say it was worth the wait. This was another story of unlikely love, this time between a man with Asperger’s and a girl who is definitely not the type of woman he’d expected to fall for. Clever, sweet, funny, insightful. I laughed, I read cute segments out loud to my daughter. When I feels the need to read passages out loud to family members, you know it’s good. Only drawback: a couple dozen f-words.

The Firebird, by Susanna Kearsley. I ran across the gothic-y The Shadowy Horses on my library’s e-book website and gave it a try. Definitely enjoyed it. Then when I saw this new book would be following one character from that book later in life, I felt I must read it as well. After being caught up in the two parallel stories in this newest book for a very enjoyable 500 pages or so, I wished there was more. Luckily, Kearsley has plenty of other books for me to enjoy in the same genre, and I got extra-lucky a few days ago to get some e-copies for a special $1.99 on Amazon. Life is good. If you like clean gothic tales, Kearsley is a must-read. And read a bit more about her and other fave authors on this post.

Now for some nonfiction:

The World’s Strongest Librarian, by Josh Hanagarne. I laughed, I was fascinated, I learned. This memoir took me inside the head and life of a really cool and smart guy who happens to wrestle with Tourette syndrome. It was so interesting and entertaining that I introduced it to my book club, and it made for a great discussion. Read more on my post about it.

Catastrophic Care, by David Goldhill. I already wrote a long post about this book on our health care system and what we deem to be “health insurance,” but what should be more precisely termed “health coverage.” In short, this book is what I think EVERYONE should read when talking about health care in the United States and the Affordable Care Act or Obamacare. It might take a little concentration for some readers, but this is another I read out loud from a bunch and dog-eared and underlined a ton. Just a must-read.

The most disappointing:

Life After Life, by Kate Atkinson. I have seen this on a number of “best-of” lists this past couple of weeks and still am stymied as to why that is. I sometimes think that editors and critics jump on bandwagons just because everyone else seems to think the book “should be” good. I thought the premise of this book was fascinating but that its execution wasn’t so hot. It just didn’t seem to “mean” anything. If everyone supposedly loved it because the premise was great but thought they were the only ones who didn’t “get” the bigger meaning and didn’t want to admit it, I wouldn’t be surprised. If you’d like to read more about my disappointment with this book, look at my original post.

Bellman and BlackBellman and Black, by Diane Setterfield. Dang it, this was so disappointing. I guess it was almost inevitable. I count her first book, The Thirteenth Tale, as probably my favorite gothic book. So that’s a lot to have to live up to. But this second book just didn’t deliver any big twists or messages. It kind of just went along, told its story, and said goodbye. Ah, well. Maybe she can write a third somewhere down the road and redeem herself just a bit.

There you have it, folks. I’m eager to see what 2014 brings in the way of great new books. Happy reading.

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