My favorite books from 2016

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.


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?”


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.

‘Clockwork Princess’ review and thoughts

Clockwork PrincessSo I just finished reading Clockwork Princess, the conclusion to the three-book series The Infernal Devices by Cassandra Clare. These books could easily be read by someone who hasn’t read Clare’s The Mortal Instruments series, or they could be savored by those of us who already have developed a taste for the deliciously entertaining world of Shadowhunters.

The brief story: in 1878 New York, a teenage girl is orphaned, and her brother invites her to join him in London. On arriving there, she is taken by women who essentially imprison her in their house and insist that she has special powers. They spend weeks training her to shape-change, and she is astonished to learn that she actually CAN turn into other people. Luckily, she is rescued by a dashing young man named Will, and Tessa is introduced to the world of Shadowhunters, people who are charged with protecting humans from the world of demons and other “Downworlders.” As it turns out, the “Dark Sisters” were only tools in the hands of the Magister, who has very scary and nefarious plans to destroy Shadowhunters. Tessa, as well as an army of mechanized creatures, are the main components of those plans.

Clare gets to have fun in this series continuing to explore the world of Shadowhunters, but she also gets to add in components of steampunk, via the clockwork-angel necklace that Tessa wears and the clockwork creatures the Magister has created. The other ingredients that work so well for her in the Mortal Instruments are all there: teens charged with safeguarding humanity and using lots of cool weapons to kill ugly and dangerous demons; intense love affairs and some good makeout scenes; secrets and curses that throw wrenches into those love affairs and make the characters dark and brooding but tender underneath; lots of action and fight scenes; mystery and intrigue; and even some great snark, cleverness and humor. When I first started this series, the pattern was so similar to the other books that I thought it was too much of a copycat. But I enjoyed the story and the characters so much that I couldn’t help but just throw myself into it anyway.

City of Lost SoulsNow that I’ve finished (and having read all five of the existing books in the Mortal Instruments), I find myself much more satisfied with how The Infernal Devices played out and concluded. When I finished the fifth book in the MI, City of Lost Souls, I was pretty annoyed with Clare. She simply got off the rails with the story and let it spin out of her control, like a wild dog in desperate need of obedience school. With the ID, she used a lot of her familiar elements but still crafted a story that is nicely paced and tamed. She tied up the series very satisfyingly and restrained herself. In fact, I felt completely happy with all of it, and I was teary-eyed with how the characters’ story lines were concluded. And having enjoyed City of Bones and the next few books in the Mortal Instruments, it was fun to tie together the characters from both series and see how they are related. When you get to know and love characters, it’s always wonderful to learn more about them.

I’d highly recommend the Infernal Devices series, and if you want to read City of Bones and its sequels, you might want to limit yourself to the first three or four books. But we’ll see. I’m hoping Clare can bring it all together and do it right in what I hope will be the real conclusion to the Mortal Instruments, which apparently will come in September 2014 and be titled City of Heavenly Fire. Next question is: how will the “City of Bones” movie be? So far, I approve of the casting. I just hope that the movie captures the humor of the books and not just the action and sizzling love stories. If it misses the humor, it will be a tragedy (which I do fear is a possibility: look at Harry Potter — those books had so much cleverness and wit that seemed to be largely missing from the movie adaptations).

Exciting book news

I must say there have been some recent announcements about publishing contracts that have caught my particular interest, mainly three that I can think of.

A few weeks ago, the most high-profile story was that J.K. Rowling will be publishing a novel aimed at adults, details of which will be released later this year. Now, I can’t find the reference, but I seem to recall reading that the book is already written, or at least that seems to be the implication. I’m not naive enough to believe that it will “live up to” the Harry Potter books, but there is no doubt that it should at least be worth reading. Rowling is a skilled writer when it comes to plot and characterization, and the wit and warmth with which she infused her stories were most welcome. As long as she brings those talents to the table with the new book, it should be a fine novel. But I don’t expect it to capture the world’s fancy as much as Harry; I don’t think that’s possible. But as a writer, I know that Rowling won’t be content to sit back and do no more writing from here on out. It’s not about earning more money; it’s about the compulsion to write. Once a writer, always a writer. It’s not possible NOT to write.

Now the other two announcements have been exciting for me. One is that Carlos Ruiz Zafón has a third book coming in the “cycle of novels” that began with The Shadow of the Wind and The Angel’s Game. Those two books were delightfully gothic and drew me in utterly to a fantastic world set in post-war Spain. Just the fact that they featured a “Cemetery of Forgotten Books” should be a hook for book lovers. I can’t wait to dive back in to that world in The Prisoner of Heaven. It looks by the website that it will be released there in June, and apparently, according to the U.S. Amazon site, it will be released on that same date here. Thank goodness! I was afraid I was going to have to wait longer. Sigh. Three more months. I am hoping that the third book is more like the second in terms of strong language (the first had 10-plus uses of the f-word, but the second only had one, which made me scratch my head a bit; authors tend to stay in the same pattern of that kind of stuff).

The last announcement also has me waiting eagerly. Young adult writer Cassandra Clare has written now two series of novels about the world of Shadowhunters, in her Mortal Instruments set and Infernal Devices series. Now I hear that she’ll be writing a third series, The Dark Artifices, about Shadowhunters, set in Los Angeles. One could argue that she’s milking it a bit much and the whole concept is getting old, but her writing is so deliciously entertaining that I’m not going to fault her that. Her characters are so enjoyable, the romance irresistible, and the writing laugh-out-loud funny. So I’ll be happy to belly up to the bar for more. Keep ’em coming, Cassandra!

Anyone else looking forward to some great new books?