Matthew J. Hefti

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

More From The Writer’s Bone Library

8 Books That Should Be On Your Radar: February 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.

Lay Down Your Weary Tune By W. B. Belcher

Daniel Ford: “I wrote this book for you!” W.B. Belcher said to me during my interview with the author. Boy, he wasn’t kidding. A reclusive folk music icon with a shadowy past, a writer/musician yearning for a second chance, a tortured love story, and small town politics are all themes that hit me right where I live.

Belcher’s hero, Jack Wyeth, has exhausted all of his best friend’s good will and is about to be kicked out on his ass when he gets an opportunity to ghostwrite folk hero Eli Page’s life story. The job takes Jack to the small town of Galesville and the banks of the Battenkill River, where he’ll confront not only Eli’s deteriorating mental health, but also his own troubled backstory. Every sentence of this novel is strummed from the heart, and Belcher tees up questions every angsty creative type has considered (without providing anything but ephemeral answers, of course). 

“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.”

Damn, that’s good stuff. I look forward to buying Belcher a beer when he comes to Cambridge in March and toasting the live connection he created with his memorable, earthy characters and heartfelt prose.

Ghettoside by Jill Levoy

Daniel: For lovers of true crime and current events, Jill Levoy’s Ghettoside is a must read. In fact, it should be required reading for all American citizens. Levoy lays out the grim statistics regarding black homicide in Los Angeles, and the U.S. as a whole, toward the beginning of the book, and then, through exceptional reporting, masterfully illuminates the startling numbers through the eyes of police officers and victims’ families in Southern Los Angeles. While Levoy frames the book around the murders of Dovon Harris and Bryant Tennelle, she never fails to put their deaths in broader context—revealing how urban communities actually operate and how the limited resources detectives operate with affect the way authorities police violent crime.

I couldn’t help but think of Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me and David Simon’s “The Wire” while reading Levoy’s narrative. All have added to my understanding of an America I don’t know or quite accurately grasp. The issues of race, proper police procedures, and poverty should (and I hope will) be debated throughout the 2016 Presidential election, which makes Ghettoside all the more relevant.   

Your Heart is a Muscle the Size of Your Fist by Sunil Yapa

Gary Almeter: It makes sense that the alluringly bright cover of Sunil Yapa’s debut novel features a blurb from Colum McCann, author of Let the Great World Spin (a book that takes place in the midst of Philippe Petit's Aug. 7, 1974 walk between the twin towers of the World Trade Center). Yapa's book also takes place in one, similarly chaotic day, this one on Nov. 30, 1999 amidst the WTO protests of Seattle. I think it must take ambition, creativity, and a little bit of experimentation to be able to create a novel that packs all its action into a single day. Think of James Joyce's Ulysses, Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf, Michael Cunningham's "The Hours," Anne Tyler's road trip novel Breathing Lessons, and Ian McEwan's Saturday.

I could give a hoot about the WTO and delegates and international trade. And luckily one does not need to in order to love this book (which I did). Yapa has a great time (like McCann did with 1974) recreating the fear and tumult that was the latter half of 1999. Its opening line, "The match struck and sputtered," jolts us back to a time before vaping was king. The characters confront, avoid, bypass, stumble into, and battle with one another. Their problems are somehow simultaneously huge in the way they affect one another and minute in the face of the geopolitical issues being discussed in the hotel around which they congregate.

It was a far more tumultuous, and interesting, time than we might recall and Yapa renders it beautifully.

The Exploding Detective by John Swartzwelder

Sean Tuohy: John Swartzwelder's writing was the heart and soul of the “The Simpsons.” After leaving the world of television writing behind, he turned to novels. If you like peeing yourself or snapping a bone from laughing so hard then pick up this goofy, off-the- wall novel that features a mix of noir time travel, super heroes, and humor. This short (but really, really funny) book follows Frank Burly, a dim witted private detective, who bumbles through his fight against crime with an exploding jet pack.

My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout

Daniel: I’m ashamed to say that I haven’t read Olive Kitteridge, Elizabeth Strout’s Pulitzer Prize-winning short story collection. I know there is an equally well-regarded HBO mini-series based on the book that I also haven’t consumed. After reading Strout’s recently published novel, My Name is Lucy Barton, I’m going to have to recalibrate my reading/viewing priorities.

Lucy Barton lands in a New York City hospital for nine weeks following what should have been a routine surgery. Her harried husband is taking care of her daughters as she struggles to recover. She awakes one day to find her mother at the edge of her bed. The two have never had the best relationship, and her mother’s visit slowly reveals the depths of Barton’s complex family life.

I’m a sucker for books that play with the idea of memory and family drama, so I clung to all the foggy reminiscences the two characters had in the short time they were together. Despite being incredibly short, the novel packs an emotional punch that will linger on your cheek well after you’ve moved on to your next read.   

A Hard and Heavy Thing by Matthew J. Hefti

Daniel: The last couple of years have seen really quality fiction tackle the wars in the Middle East, including Phil Klay’s Redeployment, Ben Fountain’s Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, Eliot Ackerman’s Green on Blue, and Ross Ritchell’s The Knife. Author Matthew Hefti’s sensational debut novel belongs right alongside those works.

Hefti novel employs an innovative structure that gives the story a deeply personal foundation. Levi, the book’s main character, is writing a letter to his lifelong friend Nick to say goodbye before he kills himself. Inspired by 9/11, Levi and Nick both served in the armed forces overseas, and were wounded both physically and emotionally. The two friends bond, and are drawn into conflict, over military snafus, the same woman (the deliciously broken Eris), and coming home to a world much different (for them) than the one they left.  

Hefti’s narrative (which is interrupted by Levi’s second-person insights) is incredibly well paced. There were times I had to catch my breath because I was living and dying with each sentence. Hefti beautifully captures the struggles our veterans face in coming home from the fog of war. As I said earlier, life is different for them, while it’s been the same for everyone else. It’s clear that Hefti fell in love with all of his characters because he provides them with such depth and emotion, which, of course, will make you fall in love with them just as hard.    

I also have to respect any author who inserts himself into his own novel. During our podcast interview, Hefti said, “Levi is all Levi and Nick is all Nick,” but he couldn’t resist adding himself into a tense scene in the middle of the book. As a fellow writer, I cheered out loud when I read it. The writing process (especially when dealing with a heavy topic like this) can be drudgery, so I applaud any effort to make it as fun as possible.

Massacre on the Merrimack by Jay Atkinson

Daniel: Hannah Duston…what a badass! Jay Atkinson’s nonfiction narrative follows a 39-year-old settlers’ wife who is captured by Indians—who smash her week-old child up against a tree—and ends up dealing out brutal justice to her captors in order to escape back to what’s left of her family. Atkinson, a Massachusetts native, intersperses New England’s rich history between Duston’s harrowing plight, which gives the reader a much deeper understanding of the political and sociological issues facing early North American settlers. Readers are also sure to love Goodwife Bradley, whose story is featured in the chapter named “The Fate of Other Captives.” She’s every bit as badass as Duston, and showcases the same bravery and flintiness exhibited by Atkinson’s main heroine. Danger, sacrifice, and death surrounded colonists during that era, but Duston and the other woman show the type of steely resolve necessary to hack out a living in a wild, ungoverned country. In Atkinson’s own words, “As a storyteller, what’s not to like?”

The Revolution Was Televised by Alan Sepinwall

Daniel: I honestly can’t remember what it was like watching my favorite television shows without reading Alan Sepinwall’s reviews and recaps (which can be found on I held off on buying earlier editions of The Revolution Was Televised in anticipation of the author’s additional thoughts on the "Mad Men" and "Breaking Bad" finales. Stephanie Schaefer smartly chose the book as my birthday present last month, and I finished it in two days. The Revolution Was Televised features interviews with a variety of showrunners—including the three Davids (Chase, Milch, and Simon), Vince Gilligan, and Matthew Weiner—analysis on some of my favorite shows (“Buffy The Vampire Slayer,” “The Sopranos,” and “Friday Night Lights”), and Sepinwall’s breezy, charming writing style. I also gained an appreciation for shows I didn’t necessarily enjoy (“Lost” and “24”), and found new shows to explore once I’m done binge-watching “The Americans” (“The Shield” and “Oz). This book is essential reading for television junkies.