Julia Claiborne Johnson

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

6 Books That Should Be On Your Radar: April 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.

Be Frank With Me by Julia Claiborne Johnson

Daniel Ford: Johnson’s utterly charming debut novel landed in my hands by happenstance. I was perusing the stacks at Porter Square Books, waiting for W.B. Belcher’s reading to start, and Be Frank With Me’s robin’s egg blue cover caught my eye. “I will not buy a book. I will not buy a book,” I muttered as I walked away. After Belcher’s Q and A ended, it took me all of five minutes to snatch a copy from the display shelf and hand the cashier my money.

Structured around a reclusive author, an insecure assistant, and an eccentric and immensely lovable 9-year-old, Be Frank With Me will move anyone who has ever been labeled “different” or “outsider.” It’s heartwarming without being cloying, serious without being dark or overbearing, and laugh-out-loud funny. Frank, whose love of Old Hollywood and debonair style, will be the character that sticks with you weeks after you’ve read this, but Johnson fleshes out his supporting cast in just the right way that you’ll be rooting for all of them by the final chapter.

Run, don’t walk, to your nearest bookstore (fine, online if you must) and buy this book. As Frank might say, “Allons-y!”

DisneyWar by James B. Stewart

Disney Wars.jpeg

Sean Tuohy: There’s quite the story behind the colorful and family friendly multi-billion dollar company that gave us our childhood memories. Stewart’s book depicts how Michael Eisner took the once-fading Disney, put on the glass slipper, achieved wild success, and then lost it all. A deep and heavy read.

The Throwback Special by Chris Bachelder

Gary Almeter: Every year, a couple dozen men converge on a chain hotel located somewhere off I-95 to re-enact the "Monday Night Football" game played on Nov. 18, 1985. That’s the one where New York Giants linebacker Lawrence "LT" Taylor broke Washington Redskins' quarterback Joe Theismann's leg being broken in two places and ended his career. The men have a lottery to determine who gets to be who, and then they don equipment, jerseys, helmets, and engage in a precisely choreographed re-enactment of the play.

The absurdity of this is tethered by the fact that all of these men—about whom we purposely know so very little except that all are entrenched in middle age—are struggling with the most mundane issues the other 51 weekends of the year. Marital issues, financial problems, issues with children, and questions about career choices all coalesce with the drama of the re-enactment.

Ultimately, the men have to ask what it means to be a participant in life, what it means to be an individual, what it means to engage in ritual, and what it means to be a man. The book isn't really about football, although some familiarity with the game, as well as the play in question, might be helpful. It wasn't a bad play. It's not until they ran the play that the Redskins had any regrets. Which is, it turns out, much like life.

High Dive by Jonathan Lee

Adam Vitcavage: Many books use true events to propel fictional characters into breathtaking stories. Jonathan Lee's novel does what Man Booker Prize-winner Marlon James did in A Brief History of Seven Killings, but on a completely different level. In September 1984, a bomb went off in a British hotel trying to kill the Prime Minister. While the book is technically about the event itself, it’s more so about the lives of random and not-so-random people involved with the fateful day. Sounds serious, but what Lee does so well is that he was able to write a moving story while also using sly humor in all of the correct places. The main reason for picking the book up—even if the plot isn’t something that appeals to you—is the mere fact that Lee’s writing style is ace. Something all aspiring writers should study.

Thanks for the Trouble by Tommy Wallach

Daniel: A teenager who can’t talk and rips off guests at hotels. A mysterious woman with silver hair and a healthy bankroll. There may be some added enchantment in the world Wallach creates in Thanks for the Trouble, but lead characters Parker and Zelda generate the real magic. The pair grapples with weighty themes throughout the novel, however, Wallach’s sharp, witty prose and rapid-fire dialogue ensures that the tone never becomes depressing or maudlin. Parker’s new experiences reflect the Young Adult genre (as Wallach explained to me during our podcast), however, those experiences feel fresh and original thanks in large part to Parker’s lack of speech and reliance on a notebook to communicate. Much like Be Frank With Me, Thanks for the Trouble is sensitive without being melodramatic and is devoid of clichés and red herrings. It is a bittersweet story, well told, which makes it a welcome respite from cable news and lesser fiction.

This Side of Providence by Rachel M. Harper

Daniel: Harper's second novel features a Puerto Rican family on the wrong side of the tracks trying to stay together in the face of prison time, drug addiction, and foster care. Told in a multi-narrative style, This Side of Providence contains a plethora of memorable characters.

Cristo, the loyal son, whose young shoulders feel the weight of responsibility for taking care of his sisters when his mother lands in jail. Luz, the brainy conscience who doesn't share her brother's loyalty 100 percent, but who loves and misses her family when they are inevitably separated. The teacher struggling with an eating disorder who attempts to bring order and stability to the kids' life. The drug dealer with a heart of gold. An absent father burning with regret and shame. A mother, whose prison time is briefly a blessing, who can't escape her old life despite her overwhelming love for her children. And Trini, the youngest of the family, whose brief chapter is just as wrenching and devastating as anything Faulkner wrote.

These are characters well worth spending time with, even when they're living through their darkest hour. Harper expertly toggles from one from the other, weaving a tender, provocative story that never lacks for heart.

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