Underground Airlines

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: October 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 Sellout by Paul Beatty

Daniel Ford:  I hadn’t heard of Paul Beatty or his work before I learned that his recent novel The Sellout was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize. I was instantly intrigued by the racial satire’s premise, which I’ll include here since I don’t think I could do it justice:

Born in the "agrarian ghetto" of Dickens—on the southern outskirts of Los Angeles—the narrator of The Sellout resigns himself to the fate of lower-middle-class Californians: "I'd die in the same bedroom I'd grown up in, looking up at the cracks in the stucco ceiling that've been there since '68 quake." Raised by a single father, a controversial sociologist, he spent his childhood as the subject in racially charged psychological studies. He is led to believe that his father's pioneering work will result in a memoir that will solve his family's financial woes. But when his father is killed in a police shoot-out, he realizes there never was a memoir. All that's left is the bill for a drive-thru funeral.

Fueled by this deceit and the general disrepair of his hometown, the narrator sets out to right another wrong: Dickens has literally been removed from the map to save California from further embarrassment. Enlisting the help of the town's most famous resident—the last surviving Little Rascal, Hominy Jenkins—he initiates the most outrageous action conceivable: reinstating slavery and segregating the local high school, which lands him in the Supreme Court.

After quickly procuring a copy, I devoured The Sellout in two nights. It would actually be more accurate to say it devoured me. It’s a compulsive read, and each page contains biting, dark humor (which will make you laugh out loud more often than not) and poignant insights into the African-American experience in this country. The prologue alone is enough to scar your brain and soul in all the right places. I am very much looking forward to reading the rest of Beatty’s work, including The White Boy Shuffle and Slumberland

The Unseen World by Liz Moore

Daniel: Liz Moore’s The Unseen World starts innocently (and deliciously) enough. Ada is helping her father prepare and host an annual dinner with his lab colleagues. The lobster bibs are tied (this book is set around Boston after all), the conversations are sophisticated, lively, and smart, and Ada proves more than a serviceable bartender and sommelier (despite her youth). However, it doesn’t take the reader long to figure out that not all is well with Ada’s father, a man she has worshipped her entire life for his intellect and work ethic. David embarrassingly forgets the answer to his legendary riddle, which is the first crack in his carefully crafted façade. His mind continues to falter, breaking apart Ada’s entire existence and leads to a much different coming of age than she imagined.

Some readers might be put off by the novel’s early slow burn and decade-hopping, however, those who reach the book’s second half will be rewarded with a thrilling and poignant conclusion. Ada’s quest to unravel her father’s final riddle brings together all of the author’s mediations on technology, family, and love expertly.

Underground Airlines by Ben H. Winters

Daniel: As I mentioned during the audio edition of September’s “Books That Should Be On Your Radar,” I would caution readers not to tackle Ben H. Winters’s Underground Airlines and Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad back-to-back. You might have a heart attack. It’s incredible how complementary and inventive these novels are. Whitehead imagines the Underground Railroad as an actual railroad, complete with tracks, conductors, and hidden stations, bringing his heroine from one nightmare to another.

But what if the Civil War and subsequent Constitutional amendments never put a stop to the tragedies so viscerally described in The Underground Railroad? Winters helps provide an answer. He invented a world in which slavery was never abolished. Lincoln’s assassination (in this world, coming before he took the oath of office) brings the country together, but only to save the Union by codifying slavery in the Constitution. The “Hard Four” states, and their rigid adherence to slavery, disrupt everything from international relations to intercontinental travel.

Underground Airlines follows Victor, a slave catcher who works for the U.S. Marshals Service, as he stalks yet another escaped fugitive. During his hunt, Victor does his best to suppress the memories of his past and ignore the complicated questions he has to face while fulfilling his objective. It’s a thrilling plot, which is made so much more harrowing because of the parallels to our current political, economic, and social ills. The world Winters crafts in Underground Airlines may not exist, but the underlying ugliness at its foundation is certainly alive and well.

Read Daniel Ford's interview with  author Ben H. Winters .

Read Daniel Ford's interview with author Ben H. Winters.

The Windchime Legacy by A.W. MyKel

Sean Tuohy: The Windchime Legacy is a 1970s spy thriller written by an author who disappeared after publishing two best-selling novels. This novel actually feels like six put together, making for a fun rollercoaster ride. The book splices the styles of Ian Fleming and Robert Ludlum and adds a dash of Michael Crichton.

A supercomputer runs a network of spies who have microchips implanted into their brains, which will explode if one of the agents tries to leave the program. When one of the designers of the program tries to defect to the Soviet Union, the program's top agent must recover him.

The clothing styles and the sexist language coming out the main characters’ mouths may scream ‘70s, but the technology in this novel feels contemporary. Don’t over think the over-the-top fun and just enjoy the wild ride.

Red Right Hand by Chris Holm

Steph Post: I just got back from Bouchercon 2016 in New Orleans and so, of course, my current taste in reading has been running toward the crime and thriller genres. Chris Holm's Red Right Hand has been at the top of my TBR list for a while and so I'm glad that I finally dove right on in.

Holm's Red Right Hand, the second in a series starring badass anti-hero Michael Hendricks, offers up everything you could want from a classic thriller: fast-paced action, sharply drawn characters, and a plot brimming with intrigue. Hendricks, a hit man who takes down other hit men, walks a narrow, but wavering, moral line between the other factions in the novel, the FBI and a secret organization known as the Council.

Red Right Hand is a tight read that continues from The Killing Kind—the first novel in the series—and sets up what should be a thrilling conclusion to the Michael Hendricks saga.

Nicotine & Private Novelist by Nell Zink

Adam Vitcavage: Nell Zink’s 2014 debut novel The Wallcreeper was great. Mislaid, released a year later, was terrific. This October’s Nicotine somehow manages to top both of them. The German-based author’s third novel is about Penny Baker, a straight-laced business school graduate from a family of rebels. Circumstances find her in her family’s old home, which has been renamed “Nicotine” by a friendly group of anarchists. The book features Zink’s tremendous prose and sharp wit. It’s beautifully funny and poignant. That may sound like a cliché that writers use to describe literature/film/television/etc., but it’s completely true when it comes to Zink.

Also be sure to check out Private Novelist, which collects two early novellas that the author wrote for her friend, Israeli writer Avner Shats. If you do, you’ll see that this trifecta of novels released during the past three years weren’t a fluke and you’ll understand why Nell Zink is one of the most important writers of the 21st century.

Nefarious Twit by Tony McMillen

Daniel: If you’re an author friend of ours and you get married, you automatically get added to “Books That Should Be On Your Radar.” Those are the rules.

It also helps that Tony McMillen’s Nefarious Twit is cleverly structured, darkly funny, and filled with his trademark (and brilliant) illustrations. I couldn’t help but think of Hunter S. Thompson and Tom Wolfe as I read it. The narrative doesn’t move so much as slosh, as if David O. Russell was standing behind McMillen and telling him how he was going to film it. 

McMillen described himself as a “failed Bruce Springsteen character” when we met at Rory Flynn’s booze-fueled Dark Horse debut earlier this year, so he’s pretty much our hero. As Springsteen might say, “Tony, you ain’t no beauty, but, hey, you’re all right.”

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