Matthew Norman

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: May 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.

The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen

Daniel Ford: Nguyen recently won the Pulitzer Prize for his debut novel, and for good reason. Set in the aftermath of the fall of Saigon and South Vietnam in 1975, The Sympathizer follows a double-agent refugee as he suffers through the death of close companions, shady political and military maneuverings, and his troubled family history. Since the novel also acts as a historical narrative of the end of the Vietnam War, one anticipates the violence, horror, and dysfunction; however, one might not expect the deep and dark humor Nguyen injects into his prose. The pages fly by without feeling weighted or overly somber. Horrible things befall our duplicitous hero, some as a direct result of his nefarious actions, but you can’t help rooting for him to walk away from his chosen path in one piece. The Sympathizer is a powerful mediation on brotherhood, the immigrant experience in the U.S., and, of course, war. And because his novel is so good, we won’t hold it against Nguyen that he beat out Writer’s Bone favorite David Joy for the 2016 Edgar Award for Best First Novel.

Dodgers by Bill Beverly

Sean Tuohy: Bill Beverly mixes the dark, urban violence of the inner city with the coming-of-age hopefulness and angst of The Catcher in the Rye. The book follows four teenage gangbangers from Los Angeles on a cross country journey to commit a murder. The novel is sparse and fast-paced, and moves from hardcore street crime to the lightheartedness of teenagers finding themselves in a wild world. One moment you’ll find tears welling in your eyes as you read a scene between a teenage boy and his mother, and, by the next chapter, you are gripping the book with growing tension. Dodgers can be picked up with ease, but can’t be put down lightly.

Everybody’s Fool by Richard Russo

Daniel: It’s hard for me to be objective about Richard Russo. I read Nobody’s Fool at an impressionable age as both a reader and a writer. I fell in love with the cantankerous Sully and his down-on-its-luck hometown. It’s always the first example I use when championing well-written character studies. I also have fond memories of bonding with my mother discussing the book (and the movie adaptation starring Paul Newman). I have obviously enjoyed the rest of Russo’s work—including the Pulitzer Prize-winning Empire Falls, Straight Man, and Bridge of Sighs—but there’s a bit of Nobody’s Fool’s DNA buried in my own that supersedes all the other novels.

As you might expect, I was thrilled when I learned that Russo’s recent novel Everybody’s Fool returns to Sully’s North Bath, New York. Ten years have gone by, and our favorite curmudgeon faces something that he can’t ignore or talk his way out of—a potentially life-threatening diagnosis. The early reviews of Everybody’s Fool have been fabulous, and from what I’ve read I can say that the praise is well deserved. Russo proves that when done right, returning to an age-old friend can be a blessing instead of a curse. The author’s prose and dialogue are as sharp and warm as ever, and his humor remains second to none.

I know I’m not going to be able to resist binge reading the rest of Everybody’s Fool, but I plan on savoring every page the best I can. I learned what kind of reader and writer I was while reading Nobody’s Fool. I think I’ll decide what kind of man I’ve become while reading Everybody’s Fool

A Single Happened Thing by Daniel Paisner

Daniel: Daniel Paisner's novel is nostalgically charming for anyone who has loved the game of baseball. I can’t tell you how many times I consulted Baseball-Reference.com during the two days I devoured A Single Happened Thing. I came to love baseball during the 1990s, an admittedly wild time for the sport. You had superficially beefed up sluggers, colorfully awful expansion teams, and plenty of New York Yankees championships. Into this scrum, Paisner drops in “a Manhattan book publicist who believes he's been visited by the ghost of an old-time baseball player.”

Imagine if Ray Kinsella, the main character in Shoeless Joe (the inspiration for my favorite movie “Field of Dreams”), wasn’t just thought crazy by his neighbors, but by his loving wife. Would he have risked financial ruin and built the field if it were going to threaten his marriage? Paisner explores this possibility by making David Felb’s biggest critic and doubter his hardworking, and relentlessly lucid, wife. Felb isn’t entirely alone in his delusions though. His “tomboy-ish” daughter Iona inherited his hardball heart and has a chance encounter with the mysterious Fred “Sure Shot” Dunlap, which ensures she doesn’t drive her old man right to the asylum. Their relationship is the backbone of the novel and every scene with the pair should stir even the most cynical baseball critic.

One of my favorite quotes from the novel is: "It's difficult to hit as well...but we don't give up on the notion." The same can be said for writing, don’t you think?

We're All Damaged by Matthew Norman

Gary Almeter: This book is just great. You get to spend a couple weeks in the life of Andy Carter, a complicated young man who certainly doesn't have everything together, but someone who is funny (both intellectually witty and "fall down the stairs" funny), sensitive, and determined to be the most authentic Andy Carter possible. He's simultaneously iron-willed and compliant; irreverent and sensitive; insecure and self-indulgent.

Norman tells Andy's story with confidence, adding humor to the sad parts and profundity to the funny parts. He peppers every page with intriguing pop culture references. They paint a really vivid picture of Andy and his world and his state of mind. And sometimes they're just fun. And sometimes they serve as launch pads for some real insight (like what will archeologists think of our culture when they dig up an iPod with Wham!'s "Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go" on it?). The narrative is propelled by Andy's eagerness to connect with his dying grandfather, as well as an imminent SCOTUS decision about gay marriage. Like the conundrum that is Andy, Norman makes death and equality fun topics too.

Through it all, Andy maintains an astounding sense of humor and is quick to make keen observations about the absurdities, and pain, of life in the 2010s. But it's not all absurd. There is a tenderness and genuineness to Andy that makes him, and us, grateful for the community around him.

Bucky F*cking Dent by David Duchovny

Adam Vitcavage: A lot of people might not know the dude who hunted down aliens on “The X-Files” and drank and fornicated his way through writer's block on “Californication” studied literature at both Princeton and Yale. David Duchovny actually has some other writing credits to his name, and his most recent book, Bucky F*cking Dent, is a can't miss. Duchovny says this isn't a baseball book, but a story about fathers and sons, as well as a romance set against the hardball backdrop. The titular Dent is a real-life hero or villain, depending on if you’re a Yankees or Red Sox fan, in a tiebreaker game to get into the playoffs in 1978 (Spoiler alert: Dent crushes a homer, and all the hearts in New England, over the Green Monster.) But again, this is about more than baseball. Duchovny's prose is nothing to scoff at. He brilliantly tells this story in an earnest way. Don't be surprised if you start seeing his name pop up more often in the literary world. There's no doubt that he has more fiction stored away, waiting to be read by the world.

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