Dark Horse

The 30 Best Books of 2016

By Daniel Ford

To date, I’ve read 96 books in 2016, which is up from the 87 I read last year. Since you’ve already called me a nerd in your head, please allow me to further strengthen the case. Those 96 books add up to 37,872 pages, myriad reading devices, and two dried out eyeballs. I also managed to get engaged, help build a website at my day gig, edit and shop a novel, and feed and bath myself.

While I’m troubled by the direction the United States and the world are headed in, I’m just as confident that art and literature will continue to inform, illuminate, and ignite a global citizenship that needs to be more engaged and educated than ever before.

Without further adieu, enjoy the 30 best books of 2016. Feel free to share your favorites in the comments section, on our Facebook page, or tweet us @WritersBone.

30. Everyone Loves You Back by Louie Cronin  

There was a lot to love about Louie Cronin’s debut novel. Cranky radio personalities, quirky Cambridge denizens, awkward love triangles, and jazz on vinyl all made Everyone Loves You Back one of the most fun reads of 2016.

29. Massacre on the Merrimack by Jay Atkinson          

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: Hannah Duston is a badass! Author Jay Atkinson’s passionate retelling of her story offers a glimpse of early American life and the steely resolve women needed (and still need) to brave the New World.  

28. A Hard and Heavy Thing by Matthew J. Hefti         

Matthew Hefti’s main character is writing a letter to a lifelong friend, but he could have easily been writing a letter to the ongoing conflicts the United States has been involved in since 2001. Hefti is a talent to watch, and he delivers a heartfelt and moving debut.   

27. Lay Down Your Weary Tune by W.B. Belcher         

This remains one of the best lines I’ve read this year: “We’re all here for one thing,” Eli says to Jack, “to find a live connection and hold onto it until it bucks us off.” Well done, W.B. Belcher. (Killer cover too!)

26. Swing Time by Zadie Smith

During a “Friday Morning Coffee” episode earlier this year, author Richard Dalglish implored writers not to forget about craftsmanship. There’s no finer example of craftsmanship than Zadie Smith’s new novel Swing Time. Smith asks big, important questions, and I hope that readers debate the answers throughout the new year.

25. We're All Damaged by Matthew Norman

I don’t think Matthew Norman’s main character Andy Carter truly recovers from getting dumping at an Applebee’s (and, really, who would?), but it’s fun watching him try to cobble his life back together. Midwestern sensibilities have never been so hilarious.

24. Dark Horse by Rory Flynn

Eddy Harkness isn’t the hero the real world (or the fictional one he inhabits) deserves, but he certainly is the one we need. In Eddy we trust!

23. The Infinite by Nick Mainieri

Nick Mainieri’s debut features two of my favorite characters from 2016. Jonah McBee and Luz Hidalgo’s fervent and turbulent relationship sets off a chain of events that leads to an unexpected conclusion. The Infinite is one of the best debuts I’ve ever read.

22. The Most Famous Writer Who Ever Lived by Tom Shroder         

The Most Famous Writer Who Ever Lived is essential reading for aspiring authors and journalists. Tom Shroder explores his Pulitzer Prize-winning grandfather’s life while also recounting his own writing career. The passionately researched narrative will fill up your creative tank.

21. Christodora by Tim Murphy

The more I learn about Tim Murphy and his work, the more I like him. His effortless nonlinear storytelling in Christodora perfectly complements his damaged, but tenacious, characters and his exploration of the AIDs epidemic. It’s a gut-wrenching read, but a necessary one.  

20. The Loved Ones by Sonya Chung

Sonya Chung puts her characters through hell throughout her sophomore novel. Their responses to tragedy and inner demons don’t make them the best human beings at times, but you’ll easily fall in love with them despite their myriad flaws. The Loved Ones also features one of the most haunting and beautifully sad farewells you’ll ever read.

19. Disappearance at Devil's Rock by Paul Tremblay 


Disappearance at Devil's Rock scared the bejesus out of me. Top-notch suspense. Paul Tremblay also experiments with his prose by featuring text conversations, fragments of diaries, and police interview transcripts.

18. The Fireman by Joe Hill

Joe Hill’s brand of apocalyptic fiction ranks alongside Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven and José Saramago’s Death With Interruptions. Much like those works, The Fireman features a harrowing (and down right sexy) epidemic, a sense of humor, and characters you wouldn’t mind spending damnation with. Hill is one of fiction’s best world builders, and his enthusiasm for the craft of writing is infectious. (His live readings also tend to feature kazoos!)

17. The Nix by Nathan Hill

Considering that Nathan Hill’s debut novel tops many year-end book lists, The Nix is arguably ranked too low here. That’s a testament to the quality of fiction we read in 2016. The Nix is a compulsive read that, at times, gets weighted down by some of its pop culture and societal critiques. However, since 2016 proved to be a bitch of a year culturally and politically, I’d much rather have too much of Hill’s wit rather than not enough.

16. Louisa by Louisa Thomas      

Louisa proved to be a very welcome and refreshing look at Revolutionary War-era America. Louisa Thomas explored the life of Louisa Adams, our first foreign-born First Lady. While Mrs. Adams does spend a good chunk of time recovering from or feigning illness, she proves more than a match for her surly, ambitious, and misunderstood husband (everyone’s favorite dinner guest, John Quincy Adams).

15. Dodgers by Bill Beverly

If “The Wire” had decided to spend a whole season devoted to a road trip with Bodie, Wallace, Poot, and D’Angelo Barksdale, I imagine it would have resembled something close to what Bill Beverly crafted in Dodgers. It’s a thriller with real heart and muscle, thanks in large part to its conflicted main character East. The opening chapters are written as if they were fired from a gun, and set the tone for the rest of the novel’s coming of age journey. 

14. Bobby Kennedy by Larry Tye

The Kennedys have been dissected ad nauseam, however, Larry Tye finds a fresh angle to examine the life of Robert Kennedy. Tye follows John F. Kennedy’s younger brother’s astounding political transformation from his days working as a lawyer under Senator Joe McCarthy to his tragic campaign for President in 1968. Bobby Kennedy is unsparing and objective, but also gives RFK aficionados plenty of new reasons to admire their hero.

13. Youngblood by Matthew Gallagher

Matthew Gallagher’s novel Youngblood is right up there with Elliot Ackerman’s Green on Blue, Ross Ritchell’s The Knife, Ben Fountain’s Billy Lynn’s Halftime Walk, Kevin Powers’ The Yellow Birds, and the aforementioned A Hard and Heavy Thing. Essential reading for anyone trying to make sense of our foreign policy and understand the men and women who execute it.

12. My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout

Elizabeth Strout’s short novel, My Name is Lucy Barton, hit me with the right words and subject matter at the right time. A book about healing, motherhood, and love.

11. Why We Came to the City by Kristopher Jansma   

Kristopher Jansma’s prologue, interlude, and epilogue are the most beautiful words ever written about New York City. His prologue in particular captures everything I feel about the city I’ve loved since childhood. This novel is a must read for anyone that’s been ensorcelled by the Big Apple’s many temptations.  

10. Seinfeldia by Jennifer Keishin Armstrong

It’s nice to know that the creators of one of the best sitcoms of all time were as eccentric as the characters many of us have come to love. Jennifer Keishin Armstrong discovers one great story after another about “Seinfeld” and its writers’ room. She also lovingly investigates the show’s curious, quirky fans who have kept it relevant well past its final episode. Seinfeldia is a breezy, energetic read that will have you binge-watching the show on Hulu by the time you’re finished. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.        

9. Underground Airlines by Ben H. Winters     

Ben H. Winters is the master of dystopian fiction, and he outdoes himself with Underground Airlines. In the novel, the Civil War never happened, slavery still exists, and a slave catcher desperate to repress and erase his past takes on an assignment that threatens to crack his carefully manufactured persona. This book is an absolutely thrilling and original tale that should shake a few assumptions of your own.  

8. This Side of Providence by Rachel M. Harper

One of the most powerful reads of 2016. Rachel Harper penned a tearjerker and beautifully developed the novel’s characters and themes. William Faulkner would be proud.

7. The Wangs vs. The World by Jade Chang

During a recent podcast interview author Jade Chang advised aspiring authors “to be ambitious.” Anyone who has read her debut novel The Wangs vs. the World knows how wonderfully ambition can pay off. Chang reinvigorates the immigrant narrative through the eyes of Charles Wang and his hilariously flawed family. Like many of the novels on this list, The Wangs vs. the World stress tests and critiques all of the tenets of the American Dream, but does so with an abundance of mirth and cynical optimism.

6. Everybody's Fool by Richard Russo

What a pleasure it was to revisit Sully and all of the misfits that live in North Bath, Maine. Richard Russo is one of my literary heroes, and he didn’t disappoint with this follow up to the classic Nobody’s Fool.    

5. You Will Know Me by Megan Abbott

Megan Abbott’s novel should have been titled, You Will Hold Your Breath The Whole Time. I barely survived reading this incredibly tense and finely crafted mystery; I can’t imagine what it was like writing it. She has more than earned the “maestro of the heebie-jeebies” distinction from The New York Times.

4. The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

The Underground Railroad is why fiction exists. The novel serves as a brutal reminder of the past and a cautionary tale for how easily we can slip into easy violence, subjugation, and intolerance. Colson Whitehead has established himself as one of the great voices in fiction.   

3. Fallen Land by Taylor Brown

Taylor Brown’s achingly beautiful debut established itself as my favorite book of 2016 way back in August 2015 (I read an advanced copy leading up to its January 2016 pub date). It took two special novels to knock it off the top spot. After going back and rereading a few chapters while preparing this list, I was reminded of what made the book such a joy to read: hearty prose, snappy and spare dialogue, earthy characters, and a hard driving plot.  

2. The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen        

Viet Thanh Nguyen’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel is great from the first line: “I am a spy, a sleeper, a spook, a man of two faces.” Nguyen crafts a timely, gritty tale that lives in the past, but has an eye on our uncertain future.

1. Be Frank With Me by Julia Claiborne Johnson

We met a lot of memorable characters this year, but there was only one Frank. Be Frank With Me is an unforgettable debut that everyone should read. (And, according to the author, the paperback edition can easily fit in a stocking!)

Honorable Mention

Any of these books could have been added to the top 30. I wrestled with this list for days. I'm just grateful that I got to read so many great novels and nonfiction titles this year! Give plenty of love to these authors’ books as well!

Valiant Ambition by Nathaniel Philbrick, Whatever Happened to Interracial Love? by Kathleen Collins, Perfect Days by Raphael Montes, Thanks for the Trouble by Tommy Wallach, Seven Sins by Karen Runge, A Single Happened Thing by Daniel Paisner, The Last Days of Magic by Marc Thompkins, The Duration by Dave Fromm, The Girls by Emma Cline, An Honorable Man by Paul Vidich, The Far Empty by J. Todd Scott, Come Twilight by Tyler Dilts, The Unseen World by Liz Moore, Nefarious Twit by Tony McMillen, The Point Is by Lee Eisenberg, and Born to Run by Bruce Springsteen

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8 Books That Should Be On Your Radar: June 2016

Every month, the Writer’s Bone crew reviews or previews books we've read or want to read. This series may or may not also serve as a confessional for guilty pleasures and hipster novels only the brave would attempt. Feel free to share your own suggestions in the comments section or tweet us @WritersBone.

Dark Horse by Rory Flynn

Sean Tuohy: Boston super cop Eddy Harkness is back in the second part of Rory Flynn's on-going New England-based crime series. After Beantown is hit by a hurricane, Eddy finds himself trying to discover the source behind a new, powerful street drug, while at the same time trying to keep the city from destroying itself from class warfare. As always, Flynn makes Boston as big of character in the book as he does Harkness. Dark Horse is a beautiful farewell letter to Dirty Old Boston and welcomes, somewhat begrudgingly, a modern city. As the city transforms, so does Harkness. He goes from a lone cop with nothing to live for to becoming a family man (although Eddy still finds himself battling his inner demons along with the heavy hitters on the street). Dark Horse is not only a great continuation of the Eddy Harkness series, but also cements Flynn’s legacy as the Voice of Boston.

Me Before You by Jojo Moyes

Stephanie Schaefer: I wanted to love Jojo Moyes’s much-talked-about novel, Me Before You. It was marketed as a romance, which I thought would be the perfect beach read for my recent trip to Miami. Luckily, I had the Florida sunshine to make up for lack of warm and fuzzy feelings the book left me with. Although I didn’t know the ending of the novel before I dove into it, I knew that it was going to be a tear-jerker (although I assumed that it would be sad in an uplifting way, kind of like The Notebook, and not sad in a “this is the most depressing thing I’ve ever read, I need to watch an episode of ‘Friends’ just so I can smile again” way.) I may be a sucker for happy endings, I can also appreciate drama when done correctly. There were moments of the book—interactions between the protagonist Louisa Clarke and Will Trayner, the disabled man which she cares for—that I did thoroughly enjoy, but ultimately the [spoiler alert] controversial ending was difficult for me to wrap my head around. Nevertheless, the novel was still a page-turner and I’m interested to see how it will come to life (maybe an ironic choice of words) on the big screen.

The Last Days of Magic by Mark Tompkins

Daniel Ford: Imagine if George RR Martin's A Song of Fire and Ice series had a sense of humor and characters (both good and evil) you didn't hate rooting for. What if instead of a bleak travelogue and mind-numbing palace intrigue you had a mystical Middle Kingdom burrowed within Ireland and shadowy Vatican magic hunters.

You don't have to imagine it because Mark Tompkins's novel, The Last Days of Magic, exists! My tolerance for fantasy is pretty low, but this novel never lost my interest. The characters are memorable (even the ones that don't make it to the end), and the story contains charming magical twists on humanity's Dark Ages.

My favorite character was Ty, a hulking, misunderstood creature bond to a man conflicted by emerging magical powers. I won't give away his fate, but his part in the tale made me fully believe in the world Tompkins built. He's an author to watch for sure.

The Fireman by Joe Hill

Sean: The world is burning in Joe Hill's latest terrifying tale. A young, pregnant school nurse watches in horror as a new virus spreads across the world, causing people to burst into flames. She eventually finds herself living with a strange community of survivors, and must find the mystical Fireman to help give birth to her child. Hill presents readers with a out-of-this-world story, but fills it with grounded characters that give the impression you've met them before. The Fireman is a solid read that will make you burn through the pages.

Diary Of An Oxygen Thief by Anonymous

Hassel Velasco: This book is an "autobiographical" recollection by an anonymous source that shares his experiences with alcoholism, low self-esteem, and the pain associated with the pleasure he received by emotionally abusing woman. A tough read at times, it highlights the horrible things we do to others, and the horrible things we allow other people to do to us.

Paper Girls by Brian K. Vaughan

Adam Vitcavage: This isn't technically a book, but all Writer's Bone readers should read it. Paper Girls is an ongoing comic series that just released its sixth issue; however, the first five are collected in a trade paperback edition. So, I'm going to count it as a book. Written by Brian K. Vaughan (aka, the genius who brought the world “Y: The Last Man,” “Ex Machina,” Runaways, Saga, and so much more), the series is a coming-of-age story about four preteens who work as paper girls in the late 1980s. Since it's a comic you should be aware that there is a wrinkle. It turns out the story is more like “Super 8” than anything else. And that’s a good thing.

Our main character, Erin, is shy, but kick-ass. She worries about fitting in, like most kids that age, but doesn’t let it consume her. Erin meets three other paper girls who are better developed than a lot of characters in traditional literature. There’s Mac, MacKenzie, “the first paper boy around here who wasn’t a…you know.” She smokes, is known to the cops, and has trouble in her family. She’s the leader and seemingly has the most to lose. Filling out the ranks are Tiffany and KJ. They’re a dynamic duo who have interesting characteristics but are clearly being lined up to be developed further down the road.

What is most appealing is Vaughan’s ability to balance the coming-of-age development alongside the sci-fi plot without giving too much to either side. It would be easy to forget that they’re 12-year-old girls when (slight spoiler) some kinds of aliens are in the picture. But in the midst of all of the havoc, the writing still holds a sense of earnest to it.

Valiant Ambition: George Washington, Benedict Arnold, and the Fate of the American Revolution by Nathanial Philbrick

Daniel: Benedict Arnold was a scumbag. There's no denying it, and Nathanial Philbrick doesn't make any excuses for the nation's most famous turncoat in his new book Valiant Ambition.

As a history nerd, I've always been more interested in the why rather than the how. Philbrick's narrative does an excellent job of explaining the particulars of Arnold's treachery, as well as place the event in its proper context. The Continental Army endures one low point after another after Washington orders the retreat from New York City, and American independence was far more precarious than it was a sure thing. Arnold could have easily been hailed a hero (by some) had the British won the war. He was an undeniable war hero who had given everything short of his life to the glorious cause. However, an inept, backstabbing Continental Congress (sound familiar?) and a deteriorating military situation caused the immensely arrogant Arnold to embrace treason. Even a final meeting with Washington couldn't sway him from his chosen path (you have to admire his cojones, if nothing else).

Like Philbrick's Mayflower and Bunker Hill, Valiant Ambition crafts classic historical events into relevant, readable nonfiction. The pages fly by, and the tale will have you drooling for the final leg of the series.

Daniel: Being from New England, I think I’m genetically pre-conditioned to love the Adamses. The family, for the most part, is smart, relentlessly educated, and politically engaged. I devoured David McCullough’s John Adams and Joseph J. Ellis’s First Family, and learned to love John Quincy Adams while reading Daniel Walker Howe’s What Hath God Wrought. One would think that would be enough of the Adamses for one man, right?

Wrong. Louisa Thomas’s biography of John Quincy Adams’s wife Louisa Adams not only paints the famous first family in a different light, but also adds a new, earthy chapter that stands triumphantly next to all other entries.

Despite frequently being overcome by illness, Louisa, our only foreign born First Lady, continuously demonstrates she’s flintier than she appears. She suffers humiliation after her father flees England penniless, bounces around Europe and Russia with Quincy Adams, endures miscarriage after miscarriage, has to bury several of her children, and must adapt to the United States while serving as a pristine example of republican virtue. The nascent country was very much an experiment rather than an established fact at this point, and its growing pains have a unique look and feel coming from the prism of Louisa’s worldview.

Thomas’s warm style keeps the pages moving, especially during Louisa’s harrowing journey from Russia to Paris in the midst of Napoleon’s return from Elba. If you don’t fall in love with Mrs. Adams after that tale then there’s really no hope for you. Louisa is a shining example of how popular history should be written. Be sure to throw it in your beach bag this summer! 

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