I read more than 75 books this year, so this was by far the hardest list to make, and I already disagree with it. Not the books on it – these are by far the best books I read this year (that were published this year). If you are subscribed to my newsletter, none of these will surprise you. But how did Jennifer Egan’s Manhattan Beach land so far down the list? What about Stephen R. Donaldson (my favorite author of all time)?! Alas, choices must be made, so I may fight myself in the comments. Here’s my list!
(And before you ask, no, Empathy for the Devil isn’t on here. But you should definitely read it, too).
1. The Refrigerator Monologues by Catherynne M. Vlaente
Three pages into this book, I desperately wanted to read every comic never written in Catherynne M. Valente’s fictional comics universe. An intentionally obvious mash-up, analog to Marvel and DC, the book is set in the underworld, where a group of women lament their treatment. It’s a pointed take on how women have been traditionally treated in comics (the title is a play on the term “Women in Refrigerators” coined by Gail Simone). You’ll (probably) recognize Jean Grey, Harley Quinn and more. This book is fun, challenging and really special.
2. Six Wakes by Mur Lafferty
Six Wakes is a locked room mystery set in outer space. With clones. It opens with the laws regarding cloning, and Lafferty builds such a compelling, credible world that when she begins to dismantle it, it’s shocking in all the right ways. You’ll keep guessing till the end. You’ll be wrong. And you won’t mind at all. You’ll be too busy marveling.
3. All Our Wrong Todays by Elan Mastai
What if someone invented a time machine, went back in time and accidentally changed the past so that when he returned to 2016, it was a primitive wasteland? Pretty awful, right? Now what if that 2016 was our 2016? What if the “real” 2016 was essentially The Jetsons? Meet All Our Wrong Todays. Mastai plays by his own rules and delivers a masterful tale.
4. The Painted Gun by Bradley Spinelli
I had no idea I was so into tough-guy detective fiction. (I should’ve known, because I love films like Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang.) But Deep Vellum (my favorite local book store) sent me The Painted Gun and wow is it terrific. At the cusp of the information age, a self-appointed information-gathering professional is hired to find a missing girl. And then he’s mailed a masterful painting… of himself. In his own house. It only gets weirder from there, and you end up in Guatemala for a bit.
5. The Stone Sky by N. K. Jemisin
I read all three Broken Earth books this year. They are a staggering work of fantasy. There’s nearly nothing I can say about them without spoiling some truly masterful reveals. So I’ll just say this is some of the most impressive writing I’ve read in years. And sticking the landing on a final installment of a trilogy is no easy task. Jemisin sticks the landing like the master she is.
6. Her Body and Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado
This was a National Book Award finalist. It’s a short story collection that’s varied and creative. They’re feminist literary horror. These stories are haunting and challenging – both as a human and as a fiction writer.
7. Myth of Equality by Ken Wytsma
There’s been a lot of talk in the last couple of years about privilege and race. Cultures of color have been having navigating these conversations for generations; white people just haven’t. Enter Ken Wytsma’s excellent new book. With compassion, clarity and wisdom, Wytsma walks us through these concepts in ways that are accessible and life-giving. This is a hugely important book, particularly for the white church.
8. Beyond Colorblind by Sarah Shin
Another incredibly important contribution to the continuing conversation on race in the Evangelical Church. Shin takes on the claim made by many (white) Christians to be ‘colorblind’. She demonstrates why ethnic identity is good and gives practical tips on how to build cross-cultural friendships. This book offers a powerful vision for what the church can look like, and gives us a road map to get there.
9. Meddling Kids by Edgar Cantero
What if the Scooby Doo gang grew up to be twenty-something losers? And what if, maybe, it’s because their last case wasn’t just an old man in a mask… but something… darker? This book was a blast. I listened to the audio book, which was performed excellently, but this book was written to be read. If you can get a hard or e-copy, read it that way!
10. Seventh Decimate by Stephen R Donaldson
My favorite author of all time put out the first book in a new fantasy trilogy. Of course I’m going to love it. This book surprised me at every turn, becoming something far beyond what I expected. We got to talk with Steve on the StoryMen, and we had a fascinating conversation about truth and knowledge in the age of Alternative Facts. If that doesn’t whet your appetite for this book, I don’t know what could!
11. What the Hell Did I Just Read? By David Wong
David Wong writes for Cracked.com. If you don’t know what that means, you may not like his John Dies at the End books. This is the third installment in this series, and it’s the most extreme horror-comedy I’ve ever read. Both in that the horror is totally insane and the comedy is laugh-out-loud funny. This book is transgressive in all the right ways.
12. Manhattan Beach by Jennifer Egan
Jennifer Egan’s last book, A Visit from the Goon Squad, is one of the best books I’ve ever read (it won the Pulitzer so that’s not a minority opinion). To say I had high expectations for Manhattan Beach is an understatement as high as those expectations. And she did not disappoint. It’s historical fiction set in New York during World War II. Egan’s prose masterfully creates tension through compelling characters rather than plot MacGuffins, and she’s simply a brilliant writer.
13. Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmy Ward
Sing, Unburied, Sing won the National Book Award for fiction so it hardly needs further endorsement from me. But it was really beautiful in difficult and heartbreaking ways. Ward tells the story of a fractured family on the Gulf Coast of Mississippi. She manages to investigate race and poverty without feeling preachy. And if you’re not sure at first whether the book is drifting into magical realism, don’t worry. It accelerates full speed before too long.
14. Scythe by Neal Shusterman
This is the only YA book on my list this year, but wow it’s great. Set in a future where humanity has conquered death, the Scythes are tasked with population control. How can humans possibly choose who lives and dies justly? When two teens are selected as apprentices, they’ll learn what it takes to play the Reaper. Hurry – book two comes out in just a couple of weeks!
15. Exit West by Mohsin Hamid
Another book of magical realism that hits you out of nowhere, I got Exit West in one of the first books I received in my Deep Vellum subscription. Wow. It begins as the story of two young Arabs who will become refugees. They fall in love in the middle of a falling city. And then they find a door to another place. Can their love survive displacement?
16. American War by Omar El Akkad
This possible future dystopian account of the fallout of the Second American Civil War is haunting. The all-too-believable account of how the States divided is woven into a powerful narrative of the new American refugees. This book is powerful and heartbreaking Iand doesn’t deserve to be so far down this list!).