I did not have the best of luck with front list books this year. There were a few notable strike-outs, but most were just okay. I debated whether or not to pare this list down to the few books that received four or five star ratings, but I decided to go with an even ten. Some of the books on this list did not receive my highest ratings, but all of them either have something important to say (and say it well) or are thoroughly enjoyable reads.
In previous years I made separate lists for fiction and nonfiction or I lumped them all together in one list. Fiction and nonfiction are such different animals, I think it is best to separate them. This year, I am making only one list, but dividing it into two parts: my top five novels of 2016 and my top five nonfiction books.
5. The Vegetarian by Han Kang, Translated by Deborah Smith
Synopsis: Before the nightmares began, Yeong-hye and her husband lived an ordinary, controlled life. But the dreams–invasive images of blood and brutality–torture her, driving Yeong-hye to renounce eating meat. This small act of independence interrupts her marriage and sets into motion an increasingly grotesque chain of events at home. As her family fights to reassert their control, Yeong-hye obsessively defends her choice. Soon their attempts turn desperate, subjecting her to ever more intrusive and perverse violations, sending Yeong-hye spiraling into a dangerous, bizarre estrangement from those closest to her and herself.
My Thoughts: The Vegetarian is not a pleasant book to read. In fact, it’s downright disturbing. When I first read it in August, I was a bit overwhelmed by the whole thing and I pretty much panned it in my Inkwell mini-review. My exact words were, “This was a bit of a letdown. The writing and imagery is amazing, but the story left me feeling flat.” “Flat” may not have been the right choice of words. “Cold” and “Icky” might be a closer fit. “Hollowed out,” perhaps? Regardless, this book did not leave me with a nice feeling or even a passionate opinion. But the more I distanced myself from it, the more I began to appreciate it. (The writing and imagery really is brilliant, by the way. Deborah Smith is a rockstar translator.) And the themes it explores–violence, female autonomy, the nature of humanity–though timeless, seem all the more pressing at the present moment. Despite my initial knee-jerk reaction, this book grew on me, and I would like to revisit it at a future date.
4. The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead
Synopsis: Cora is a slave on a cotton plantation in Georgia. When Caesar, a recent arrival from Virginia, tells her about the Underground Railroad, they decide to take a terrifying risk and escape. Matters do not go as planned and though they manage to find a station and head north, they are being hunted. In Whitehead’s conception, the Underground Railroad is no mere metaphor–engineers and conductors operate a secret network of tracks and tunnels beneath the Southern soil. Like the protagonist of Gulliver’s Travels, Cora encounters different worlds at each stage of her journey.
My Thoughts: The Underground Railroad is an alternate history layered with just a hint of magical realism. To be clear, there are no magical elements in the story, but it elicited the same feeling I have when reading magical realism. Now, I am not a big fan of magical realism, so for me, this is the book’s biggest drawback. Its greatest strength, and the reason I am including it on this list, is its striking commentary on the various elements of American society and American attitudes about race. You can read my full review here.
3. The Guineveres by Sarah Domet
Synopsis: To four girls who have nothing, their friendship is everything. The girls are all named Guinevere–Vere, Gwen, Ginny, and Win. They come to The Sisters of the Supreme Adoration convent by different paths, each with her own complicated and heartbreaking story. Gwen is all Hollywood glamour and swagger; Ginny is a budding artiste with a sentiment to match; Win’s tough bravado isn’t even skin deep; and Vere is the only true believer, trying to hold onto her faith that her mother will one day return for her. The nuns who raise them teach the Guineveres that faith is about waiting, but the Guineveres grow tired of waiting. And so when four comatose soldiers from the War looming outside arrive at the convent, the girls realize that these men may hold their ticket out.
My Thoughts: The Guineveres was one of the biggest surprises of 2016. I had never heard of it when three copies showed up on my doorstep in quick succession. It’s hard to ignore that. The Guineveres is quiet and slow-paced, but in good way. It made me pause to think a lot. The story explores a number of themes–friendship, love, betrayal, abandonment, the psychological impact of a strict religious upbringing, and the double standards that women are held to. It explores the lives of female saints, who were extolled for suppressing all desire and sacrificing themselves on the alter of martyrdom. You can read my full review here.
2. The Woman in Cabin 10 by Ruth Ware
Synopsis: Travel journalist Lo Blacklock has just been given the assignment of a lifetime: a week on a luxury cruise with only a handful of cabins. The sky is clear, the waters calm, the guests jovial as the exclusive cruise ship, the Aurora, begins her voyage in the picturesque North Sea. At first, Lo’s stay is nothing but pleasant, but as the week wears on, frigid winds whip the deck, gray skies fall, and Lo witnesses what she can only describe as a dark and terrifying nightmare: a woman being thrown overboard. The problem? All passengers remain accounted for–and so, the ship sails on as if nothing has happened, despite Lo’s desperate attempts to convey that something (or someone) has gone terribly, terribly wrong.
My Thoughts: The Woman in Cabin 10 was the most unputdownable book I read this year. It’s a thoroughly entertaining thriller and an effective commentary on our society’s tendency to gaslight women. If you like a good locked-room mystery, you’ll love this book. Read my full review here.
1. Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi
Synopsis: Sisters Effia and Esi are born in different villages in eighteenth-century Ghana. Effia is married off to an Englishman and lives in comfort in the palatial rooms of Cape Coast Castle. Unbeknownst to Effia, Esi is imprisoned beneath her in the castle’s dungeons, sold with thousands of others into the Gold Coast’s booming slave trade and shipped off to America. One thread of Homegoing follows Effia’s descendants through centuries of warfare in Ghana, while the other thread follows Esi and her children into America. From the plantations of the South to the Civil War and the Great Migration, right up through the present day, Homegoing explores how the memory of captivity came to be inscribed in the soul of a nation.
My Thoughts: Homegoing is the strongest debut novel I’ve read in years and I cannot recommend it highly enough. It reads almost like a series of interconnected short stories. Each chapter focuses on one character, alternating between Effia and Esi’s descendants. I was completely blown away by the vivid imagery, the depth of the characters, and the powerful language. You can read my full review here.The 10 Best Books of 2016Click To Tweet
5. Frackopoly by Wenonah Hauter
Synopsis: Over the past decade a new and controversial energy extraction method known as hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, has rocketed to the forefront of U.S. energy production. With fracking, millions of gallons of water, dangerous chemicals, and sand are injected under high pressure deep into the earth, fracturing hard rock to release oil and gas. Wenonah Hauter, one of the nation’s leading public interest advocates, argues that the rush to fracking is dangerous to the environment and treacherous to human health. Frackopoly describes how the fracking industry began; the technologies that make it possible; and the environmental destruction it leaves in its wake, creating what the author calls “sacrifice zones” across the American landscape.
My Thoughts: Frackopoly is the most important book I read this year, especially in light of recent political events that, I’m afraid, will further endanger our climate and poison our water supply. Wenonah Hauter’s history of the oil and gas industry and her analysis of its economic and environmental impact are spot-on. She cites all of her sources meticulously; you’d have to be willfully ignorant to read this book and maintain that fracking is safe and good for our society. While it can be a bit dry at times, Frackopoly is a must-read for anyone who cares about America’s children and energy future. Read my full review here.
4. When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi
Synopsis: At the age of thirty-six, on the verge of completing a decade’s worth of training as a neurosurgeon, Paul Kalanithi was diagnosed with stage IV lung cancer. When Breath Becomes Air chronicles Kalanithi’s transformation from a naïve medical student into a neurosurgeon at Stanford, and finally into a patient and new father confronting his own mortality. What makes life worth living in the face of death? What do you do when the future flattens out into a perpetual present? What does it mean to nurture a new life as another fades away? These are some of the questions Kalanithi wrestles with in this memoir.
My Thoughts: When Breath Becomes Air is a moving meditation on life, love, mortality, and what it means to die well. Kalanithi may have only lived to be thirty-eight, but he had a lifetime of wisdom to share. This is one of those books that anyone can benefit from reading. Its themes are universal.
3. Sad Animal Facts by Brooke Barker
Synopsis: Ever wonder what a mayfly thinks of its one-day lifespan? (They’re curious what a sunset is.) Or how a jellyfish feels about not having a heart? (Sorry, but they’re not sorry.) This melancholy menagerie pairs the more unsavory facts of animal life with their hilarious thoughts and reactions in over 150 hand-drawn illustrations.
My Thoughts: Sad Animal Facts is a delightful little book full of trivia, beautiful artwork, and plenty of laughs. An index in the back provides more context and detail for each of the facts in the book. It’s perfect for kids and adults alike, and makes a great gift.
2. Grunt by Mary Roach
Synopsis: Grunt tackles the science behind some of a soldier’s most challenging adversaries–panic, exhaustion, heat, noise–and introduces us to the scientists who seek to conquer them. Roach samples caffeinated meat, sniffs an archival sample of a World War II stink bomb, and stays up all night with the crew tending the missiles on the nuclear submarine USS Tennessee. She answers questions not found in any other book on the military: Why is DARPA interested in ducks? How is a wedding gown like a bomb suit? Why are shrimp more dangerous to sailors than sharks? Take a tour of duty with Roach, and you’ll never see our nation’s defenders the same way again.
My Thoughts: I love science. The weirder the better. So it’s only natural that my path would eventually lead me to pick up a book by the Queen of Weird Science, Mary Roach. It really is a match made in heaven. I absolutely loved learning about the U.S. Army’s war on diarrhea, the wonders of maggots, and the new developments in the field of genital transplantation. If you like science and want to be inspired and grossed out in equal measure, you will love this book.
1. Women in Science by Rachel Ignotofsky
Synsopsis: Women in Science highlights the contributions of fifty notable women to the fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) from the ancient to the modern world. It also contains infographics about relevant topics such as lab equipment, rates of women currently working in STEM fields, and an illustrated scientific glossary. The trailblazing women profiled include well-known figures like primatologist Jane Goodall, as well as lesser-known pioneers such as Katherine Johnson, the African-American physicist and mathematician who calculated the trajectory of the 1969 Apollo 11 mission to the moon.
My Thoughts: Women in Science isn’t lacking for style or substance. The illustrations are absolutely beautiful. I am completely in love with Ignotofsky’s aesthetic. The biographies of the fifty female scientists are short and sweet–perfect for adults and children. I really like long, meaty nonfiction books, so I’m surprising myself a little by choosing this as my favorite nonfiction book of 2016. What can I say? I love everything about this book. It’s inspiring, informative, and drop dead gorgeous.
What are your favorite books published in 2016?