Everyone Loves You Back

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 

http://www.writersbone.com/book-recommendations/2016/8/3/10-books-that-should-be-on-your-radar-august-2016

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

More From The Writer’s Bone Library

7 Books That Should Be On Your Radar: September 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.

Everyone Loves You Back by Louie Cronin

Daniel Ford: Louie Cronin’s debut novel Everyone Loves You Back features everything I could ever want in a novel: Angtsy radio personalities, a bumbling love triangle, a fight with encroaching hipsters, and a New England sensibility. Yes, perhaps I’m biased because the book is set in Cambridge (where I work and across the river from where I live) and Cronin was the producer on “Car Talk,” one of my all-time favorite podcasts, but that doesn’t change the fact that the writing contained in Everyone Loves You Back is top notch. Main character Bob Boland, a humble radio show producer (something else I can also relate to), is trying to hang onto his neighborhood’s identity in the face of “urban treehuggers and uppity neighbors," while also attempting to bed two women after a small lifetime of loneliness and jazz on vinyl. It doesn’t help matters that his buddy Riff’s show, as well as the small radio station as a whole, is in a constant state of flux, or that one of the women Bob desires happens to work with him and the rest of the overnight crew. Wonderful shenanigans ensure (I also wouldn’t come to this novel hungry; Bob likes to eat).

Everyone Loves You Back is a breath of fresh air in the literary market. It’s so hard finding solid, heartfelt prose like this these days. The novel almost had a throwback feel to it; I can almost imagine it being produced as a mid-1990s dramedy (More crunchy and serious than “Wings,” but perhaps featuring a similar amount of mom-jeans and baggy shirts). As I wrote in my interview with the author last month, “Cronin’s passion for storytelling and bubbly optimism is infectious, and translates to every page of her fun debut novel.” Everyone Loves You Back is sarcastic, warm, earthy, and real. Be ready to shower it with plenty of literary love when it comes out on Oct. 21, 2016.

Read Daniel Ford's  interview with Louie Cronin .

Read Daniel Ford's interview with Louie Cronin.

Come Twilight by Tyler Dilts

Sean Tuohy: The Long Beach Homicide series reinvigorated my passion for the detective stories. Dilts breathed new life into the slowly decaying genre by refreshing the key elements all detective yarns need—interesting characters, a new city or culture to explore, and a solid who-done-it—and putting a modern spin on a gumshoe’s life.

In Come Twilight, we find an author firmly living up to all the potential we saw in the first three books of the Long Beach Homicide series. Danny Beckett's life is going well for the first time in a long time. He's got love in his life, giving him something to wake up for besides his job (which he’s still really good at). Of course, Beckett’s peace (although it’s still a begrudging peace on his part) is disturbed by trouble early on in the novel when someone tries to blow up his car.

Danny wants to put everything on the line to find out who is after him, and try to regain that peace, but is largely sidelined because he’s the victim for once and not the objective, determined investigator. This brings a completely new set of issues that Danny has to wrestle with, which is a perfect match for Dilts’s sensitive, conflicted prose. We’ve been saying Dilts is an author to watch since we started Writer's Bone. It’s time you started paying attention.

The Cursed Child by J.K. Rowling, John Tiffany, and Jack Thorne

Daniel: Yeah…

Listen, I loved being dropped in the world of Harry Potter again after all this time. I got goosebumps thinking about the gang at Station 9 ¾, I enjoyed seeing all of them become the corporate drones so many of us become after heroic beginnings (even if those heroics happened in your backyard while pretending you’re saving Lois Lane from harm), and I enjoyed the smaller moments between characters like Harry and his troubled son Albus.

But, whoa boy, does that storyline suffer from some serious high school creative writing class blues. Time travel plots? Was the ideas cupboard that bare? The Cursed Child was an amnesia subplot away from being an episode of “24.” And Ron, who I’ll admit wasn’t exactly my favorite character in the original series, is depicted as a cartoonish buffoon. I wouldn’t spend five minutes alone with his Dad jokes. The dialogue between all of the characters seemed forced and corny at times, the already meager plot kind of petered out at the end, and I felt more relief than satisfaction when I closed the book.

The Cursed Child isn’t as awful by any means, and it’s certainly worth a read. I also think it may benefit from a live performance; maybe something is getting lost in translation on the page and would be better suited to the stage. If nothing else, The Cursed Child will remind you how much you loved reading the original series, and may inspire you to pick up Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone and begin again (which I promptly did).

Bobby Kennedy by Larry Tye

Daniel: There’s something to be said for writing a fair, balanced biography—based on more than 400 interviews and prodigious secondary reading—and walking away a bigger fan of your subject than when you started. Larry Tye managed to do just that with Bobby Kennedy.

Being a liberal Democrat from New England, I am also predisposed to liking the Kennedys, however, I always find myself more interested in their faults than in their glossy, somewhat manufactured public image. Tye strips away all those public perceptions and really gets to the heart of who Bobby Kennedy was and why he mattered. From working with Joseph McCarthy (!!!) and rooting out organized crime to leading John F. Kennedy’s successful Presidential campaign (at an insanely young age), serving as U.S. Attorney General, and being elected to the Senate from New York State, Bobby Kennedy undergoes personal and political transformations that culminate in his spirited, and, in the end, tragic 1968 campaign for President. He’s quotable, shaggy-haired, and fiercely dedicated to his family and his country. As Tye points out, RFK would be skewered in today’s political climate for his evolving views on a whole host of issues, but his legacy should provide evidence that good politicians can change over time without being burned in effigy or eviscerated on social media.

Again, Bobby Kennedy is incredibly balanced, meticulously researched, and totally engrossing. It is not to be missed.

Read Daniel Ford's  interview with Larry Tye .

Read Daniel Ford's interview with Larry Tye.

Where Men Win Glory by Jon Krakauer

Sean: Jon Krakauer wonderfully tells the tragic story of Pat Tillman, the NFL player who gave up a $3 million dollar contract and joined the U.S. Army in the days following 9/11.

The book bounces between Tillman's life and the earlier events in Afghanistan—the Soviet invasion, the rise of the Taliban—and then details how Tillman’s life ended following the U.S. invasion. The following cover-up by the Army regarding Tillman's death by friendly fire, and how government officials tried to benefit from his death, are shown in troubling detail. Filled with great interviews and deeply researched, this is a great book that any reader of current events will eat up.

Dead Wake by Erik Larson

Daniel: A lot of nonfiction on this list! I love it.

As I mentioned in my feature essay about my recent trip to Canada, my older brother and I share an affinity for history. Erik Larson is one of the authors we follow religiously, and I’m ashamed how long it’s taken me to pick up Dead Wake. With some helpful nudging from Tom Ford (the principal, not the designer), I finally did and loved every harrowing page.

Dead Wake tells the story of the Lusitania’s doomed trip across the Atlantic. Larson expertly sets the scene, describing a world at war and an isolationist U.S. foreign policy led by a man more intent on getting some from Edith Galt than focusing on global issues. While the stories of those who survived the Lusitania’s sinking, as well as those who didn’t, are heartbreaking, the truly remarkable aspect of this work was Larson’s recreation of life aboard a German submarine. Who wouldn’t sign up for tight quarters, suspect craftsmanship, ever-changing weather patterns, a pissed off Royal Navy, and, oh yeah, the very real threat of sinking to the bottom of the ocean and never being found?

The best part of my reading experience was that Larson himself liked a snarky tweet I sent out while reading the book. You can’t beat that!

The Far Empty by J. Todd Scott

Daniel: I lost a bunch of sleep reading J. Todd Scott’s terrific debut novel. The Far Empty rumbles like a freight train, picking up steam as it goes. The novel features meaty, broken characters that weave in and out of trouble throughout the story. The plot keeps the pages moving, but it’s the multiple narratives and internal struggles that forced me to mutter, “Just one more chapter…,” several times after midnight.

Much like Dilts, J. Todd Scott exhibits a muscular, yet sensitive, potential that’s only going to get stronger over time.

And in honor of Scott’s inclusion in this month’s “Books That Should Be On Your Radar,” I went back and fixed the audio on our podcast so we don’t sound like we recorded it in an oil drum. Give is a listen and add The Far Empty to your fall reading list.

Also listen to the audio version of "Books That Should Be On Your Radar!"