Kristopher Jansma

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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7 Books That Should Be On Your Radar: July 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.

Seven Sins by Karen Runge

Sean Tuohy: Deeply unsettling but overwhelmingly enjoyable, Karen Runge’s Seven Sins leads readers down a winding dark path where every twig that snaps makes you shutter, and every shadow sends a chill down your spine. In seven stories, Runge masterfully sets the tone as she dives into a world of the unnatural horror. I plowed through this collection of short stories in less than an hour. I was unable to put the book down, or contain my fright, as I read Runge's pitch perfect prose. She designed a true page-turner with stories that ranged from unholy love between mother and son or the secrets a seemingly lovely grandfather hides behind his smile. Seven Sins is truly one of the best short story collections of 2016.

Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng

Daniel Ford: I know, I’m super late on this novel. I’m ashamed that it took me this long to read it. Celeste Ng’s gripping, heartbreaking novel about a family torn apart by a daughter and sister’s death won myriad awards in 2014 and 2015 for good reason. It starts with the opening line: “Lydia is dead.” Other than, “Luke Skywalker has vanished” at the beginning of “The Force Awakens,” it’s one of the best openers I’ve read in a long time. Everything that comes after is exquisitely written and structured. Each member of this mixed race family experiences the mystery of Lydia’s death differently. The anguish and trauma of losing a loved one would be cause enough to unravel the most stable of family cores, but the Lee clan comes close to dissolving thanks to an undercurrent of secrets, lies, and misunderstandings. Ng weaves between past and present, putting the pieces of the puzzle together while twisting your emotions at every turn.  It’s a master class in storytelling; one you should enroll in as soon as humanly possible.  

Why We Came to the City by Kristopher Jansma

Gary Almeter: The first six pages of Kristopher Jansma’s Why We Came to the City are so good that I think it would be wholly appropriate to remove Alexander Hamilton from the $10 bill and replace him with Kristopher Jansma. They are that good.

I am someone who moved to the city—two cities actually; I moved to Boston right out of college and then to New York City with my fiancée—and Jansma captures the feelings associated with the endeavor. It can be invigorating, corrosive, fun, awful; debilitating, riotous, enchanting, and dreadful all at the same time. His book adeptly chronicles a few years in the life of a group of friends who have been close since their college years in Ithaca, and how they navigate their new lives and new dynamics in New York City. The city gives them much and the city takes much from them. 

Jansma does a spectacular job of capturing the many varied relationships each character has—romantic relationships, employer-employee relationships, mere friendships, relationships that come from networking, and relationships that aren’t quite relationships yet but are on the cusp of being so—and rendering each with great authenticity. He makes them a family. Additionally, he examines each character’s relationship with the city authentic and vibrant. Sometimes the city is a muse or mistress, other times it’s an archenemy instigating both the suffering and joy of each protagonist. Jansma has a reverence for the city but it never becomes hagiography. He finds the absurdity in the city as well.   

Jansma also has a joie de vivre for the creative process. It is apparent in the way he writes; the way he effortlessly captures the unique imagery of New York; and the way his sentences simultaneously meander and get exactly to the point. Sentences like, “She’d live with him in a refrigerator box, in a nursery rhyme show, a teepee, an igloo, or a fortress made of couch cushions. Let the doubters doubt. Let the future be unsure. In a city of eight million, they’d always be two.”

The Girls by Emma Cline

Daniel: Emma Cline’s debut novel The Girls has landed on all manner of “Best of” and “Perfect Summer Read” lists since it’s debut in June. The book follows a wayward teenage girl during “the violent end of the 1960s” as she drifts ever closer to an enigmatic recluse on the brink of exploiting his “followers” for his own nefarious means. There’s no question of Cline’s talent; she expertly sets a tone and a mood, and her sharp, observant descriptions allow the reader to feel, taste, and see everything the main character, Evie Boyd, experiences. There’s no romance attached to this coming-of-age tale. Evie is a damaged adult when we first meet her at the beginning of the novel, and that darkness is amplified more and more as we learn more about what hell she walked through in the service of fitting in and being a part of something not connected to her absent/self-involved parents. I did like that this was a deep character study, however, my one criticism is that the story seemed to be building to an end that kind of just petered out. I felt like the end didn’t quite match the slow burn that simmered throughout the novel. Perhaps that was the point. Maybe Cline was trying to illustrate that we think our lives are gearing up for some big moment defined by fireworks and the ashy aftermath when it’s really just a series of events we muddle through to try to figure out who the fuck we are. Regardless, The Girls is a stellar debut and should find its way to your nightstand or beach bag this summer.

The Duration by Dave Fromm

Daniel: Am I biased because Dave Fromm said we had a “cool website?” Yes. Did he also happen to write a funny, tender, and gut-wrenching novel about friendship, growing up, and the tug between home and the wider world? You beat your ass he did. We all have that friend you can’t give up on no matter what he does (I’m pretty sure I’m that guy to a bunch of people) or what problems are infecting your own life. Fromm takes that theme and adds in horrible breakups, drug addiction, and an endearing quest for a mysterious rhino horn. The prose makes you feel like you’re at a bar back home during the holidays while nursing a beer and listening to your friends tell tall tales about past exploits. You’ll laugh out loud at times for sure, but you’ll also experience an overwhelming sense of nostalgia for that time in your life when you didn’t have everything quite figured out and everything seemed to hang on a thread. Those who made it can look back and smile at the fire that touched our skin, while those who didn’t can only dance in the flame and wonder what might have been. That’s how The Duration made me feel, and I’m willing to bet you’ll have a similar reaction when you tear through this novel in one or two sittings.

The Second Life of Nick Mason by Steve Hamilton

Daniel: Edgar Award-winning author Steve Hamilton recently published novel The Second Life of Nick Mason has garnered praise from the likes of Stephen King, Don Winslow, Michael Connolly, and Lee Child.

Here’s the synopsis:

Nick Mason is out of prison. After five years inside, he has just been given the one thing a man facing 25-to-life never gets, a second chance. But it comes at a terrible price.

Whenever his cell phone rings, day or night, he must answer it and follow whatever order he is given. It’s the deal he made with Darius Cole, a criminal kingpin serving a double-life term who still runs an empire from his prison cell.

Forced to commit increasingly more dangerous crimes, hunted by the relentless detective who put him behind bars, and desperate to go straight and rebuild his life with his daughter and ex-wife, Nick will ultimately have to risk everything–his family, his sanity, and even his life–to finally break free.

A good crime novel not only needs a good premise, it needs a main character and an opening line that grabs you right away. Hamilton delivers for sure. Here’s the first line of The Second Life of Nick Mason:

Nick Mason’s freedom lasted less than a minute.

Needless to say, this book was stapled to my hands once I started it. That line perfectly captures the tension of the novel and contradictions Nick Mason faces as he adapts to his new “mobility,” rather than his out right freedom. Read it and then listen to Sean Tuohy's podcast interview with the author.

We Could Be Beautiful by Swan Huntley

Adam Vitcavage: The thing about this book is that it comfortably lays somewhere in between breezy beach read and an in-depth look at a wealthy woman’s psychological makeup. It leans a certain way every chapter. It's about a rich, white, 40-something-year-old woman who might annoy you at times. She wants to be loved, but as the story progresses, she discovers who deserves trust and what it means to be honest with another person. What is most interesting about this novel is that Huntley has a keen insight into this world. She was a nanny for a wealthy family and watched from an incredibly close distance before realizing there was a story to be told. We Could Be Beautiful is the on the cusp of literary fiction that both you and your mother can enjoy this summer.

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