Top Reads of 2016
I read a total of 57 books in 2016, far lower than usual, but it was a particularly busy year for me in regards to writing and other projects. Nevertheless, there were many great reads this year, so many that I would not be able to narrow them all down to just a few. So, here are my favorite reads, all categorized, because that’s how I roll.
Best Science Fiction Novel
Doomsday Book by Connie Willis. The more I read Connie Willis’ work, the more I admire her as an author. Doomsday Book was no exception. Set in Oxford—at a university in which historians are able to actually travel back in time to witness and experience the past eras they research—the story is split between Kivrin, who travels to the Middle Ages (one of the deadliest eras in humanity’s history), and Dunworthy, her mentor who is terrified to see her go and is left to face his own crisis in the present day as a sudden influenza outbreak flares up, forcing Oxford to go into quarantine. Dealing with disease as it does, it’s a dark story, although it is laced with Willis’ wit and humor. I especially loved Kivrin’s journey to the Middle Ages and fell in love (as Kivrin does) with the family that takes her in. A fantastic book, one that had me itching to read more in Willis’ time travel series.
Honorable Mention: Ancillary Mercy, by Anne Leckie, which was the conclusion to the Imperial Radch trilogy (the first book was featured on my list from last year).
Best Fantasy Novel
All the Birds in the Sky by Charlie Jane Anders. I’ve already talked about my reasons for picking this one over at Rhizomatic Ideas. Since you can read it there I’ll keep this short and just say this is a beautiful story of friendship and the threat of apocalypse, of magic and scientific discovery.
Honorable Mentions: Perdido Street Station by China Miéville, which is a challenging read as it presents some of the most complex worldbuilding I’ve read, and Signal to Noise by Silvia Moreno-Garcia, for it’s inventive magic, great set of characters, and Mexico City setting.
Best Horror Novel
The Ballad of Black Tom by Victor LaValle. An excellent tribute to the horrors of Lovecraft that doesn’t shirk from simultaneously exploring the more problematic elements of racism in Lovecraft’s work, The Ballad of Black Tom is the story of a young hustler in 1920s New York, who manages to hustle the wrong person and finds himself ensconced in the awakening of powers beyond his understanding. The story is weird and unsettling and bloody in all the right places.
Best Historical Novel
The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead. This is another one that I described over at over at Rhizomatic Ideas. I call this a historical novel, but it really falls into the scope of the speculative, as it’s an alternate history in which the underground railroad through which slaves escaped the South was an actual network of railroads under the Earth. The changes from history are subtle, working well to highlight Cora’s journey across a 19th century United States. A thrilling, moving, and powerful novel.
Best YA Novel
A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness. A monster made of yew tree and distant ages rears up out of the night to greet Connor, a young boy with monsters of his own. I loved this story, which is about heartache and imperfect people and stories in which the hero is not always the hero and the villain not always the villain. It’s a story that had me weeping big, sloppy tears by the time I reached in the end. The art also is lovely, dark and scratchy and beautiful.
Honorable Mentions: Jellicoe Road by Melina Marchetta and I’ll Give You the Sun by Jandy Nelson.
Best Short Story Collection
Get in Trouble by Kelly Link. Kelly Link is among my favorite short story writers, and her recent collection of stories, Get in Trouble, is an excellent illustration of why. These tales are raw and human, with interweavings of the speculative. Take “The Lesson,” for example, in which the magic is how the story unfolds. Two men, awaiting the birth of of an adoptive child through a surrogate mother, take a trip to an isolated island, where a bizarre, clawed creature once lived, now thought to be extinct, despite strange rustlings in the night. They are there to attend the wedding of a friend they haven’t seen in years, and through the bride’s wonderfully weird version of party celebrations and the discomforts of being disconnected from news from the mainland, it becomes clear that these two men love each other deeply and that that love is being strained by the stress of the adoption. It also becomes clear that the decadence they enjoyed in their youth no longer appeals to them. “The Lesson” is beautiful, honest, and my favorite in the book. Although every story in this collection is worth reading.
Honorable Mention: She Walks in Shadows, edited by Silvia Moreno-Garcia and Paula R. Stiles, a collection of lovecraftian tales told by women. And, always and forevermore, Bloodchild and Other Stories by Octavia Butler.
Best Graphic Novels
So many great graphic novel reads in 2016, so here are two top picks and a few honorable mentions.
Super Mutant Magic Academy by Jillian Tamaki. Mutants, witches, scientists, artists, spirits, wizards, immortals accumulate together in a high school setting inside the pages of Super Mutant Magic Academy, a graphic novel told in one to two page vignettes. Although this style feels a bit disjointed at the start, a larger portrait of the school and the students within evolves with each mini-chapter. Some of the vignettes str anchored in ordinary teenage angst — crushing on someone cute, school dances, and the joys and turmoils of friendship — that makes this strange world easy to relate to, while others are just delightfully bizarre — such as the everlasting boy, who experiences a variety of deaths, rebirths, and eternities. This fabulous graphic novel captures the chaos of teenage-dom with all its weird wisdom and foolish obsessions.
The Arrival by Shaun Tan. With no text, only gorgeous soft penciled, sepia-toned art, The Arrival tells a moving, heartfelt story.In a dark city, overshadowed by darkness, a man embraces his wife and daughter and then boards a steamship for another country, where he hopes to create a new life for his family. After going through a long process of immigration, he finds himself in a city he finds himself is bright and beautiful and strange. Although he doesn’t understand the local language, he fumbles his way into a room for rent and then seeks employment. Along his journey into shaping a new life for himself and his family, he meets other people from other countries who have migrated to this city as well. Each has their own stories, their own reasons for leaving home and making a new life for themselves. The Arrival manages to be both realistic and fantastical at the same time, elaborately bringing to life a strange world that also feels familiar.
Honorable Mentions: Nimona by Noelle Stevenson; Skim, written by Mariko Tamaki, illustrated by Jillian Tamaki; and Jane, the Fox, and Me by Fanny Britt and Isabelle Arsenault
Best Nonfiction Book
Creativity, Inc.: Overcoming the Unseen Forces That Stand in the Way of True Inspiration by Ed Catmull and Amy Wallace. Creativity Inc. is a history of the computer animation industry, a memoir of Pixar with all its ongoing success and challenges, and a guide for approaching the management of creative teams. It’s fascinating to read the stories behind many of the great Pixar films, and how the teams overcame challenges during development. I liked the Pixar approach to management (at least as it’s described in this book). Instead of presenting catchphrases, it illustrates the difficulties in management and how adaptability and self assessment in the face of change is vital. The approach embraces failure as a lesson more than something to be terrified of. I found this one to be fun and inspiring.
Best Poetry Collection
Southern Cryptozoology: A Field Guide to Beasts of the Southern Wild by Allie Marini. Choosing my favorite collection of poetry from 2016, Southern Cryptozoology is a standout in my mind. Although in full disclosure, I have to admit that Allie is a good friend of my, so feel free to take all this with a grain of salt, if you must. That said, I love this collection on many levels. The collection is a bestiary of strange creatures of the night and wilds, each with their own inner joy and rage and freedom. It’s a book I’m happy to read over and over again.
Honorable Mentions: God Went to Beauty School by Cynthia Rylant; Terra Incognita by Jennifer Martin; and An Animal I Can’t Name by Raegan Pietrucha — all wonderful collections.
What were your favorite reads in 2016?