My Favorite Books of 2016

Once upon a time, a long, long time ago, I had a book review blog. And while I don’t blog there anymore, I certainly didn’t stop reading and I definitely didn’t stop having opinions about what I read. So once a year I like to share my favorite books, the ones I’d recommend you pick up as well. Let me know what you’re reading and loving, too!

If you have a macabre fascination with cults (like me), try The Girls by Emma Cline.

I’ve always been interested in books about cults, and this is probably the best one I’ve ever read. Set in California in the 1960s, the story follows Evie, a young teenage girl who is drawn in to a group of hippies—mostly women—living on a decrepit ranch off the grid with a charismatic leader who dreams of becoming a celebrity folk singer. The book captures the feeling intensity of wanting to belong to something at that age, of searching for intimacy and excitement. It shows a certain type of young woman—sexual but aloof, powerful in her confidence and ease, her messy hair and wrinkled clothing—and Evie is drawn to the leader of these girls, wanting to be like her, feel loved by her, be part of her world. But people are going to end up dead.

If you identify with tales of disaffected youth or like a dark coming of age tale, try Purity by Jonathan Franzen.

Apparently this was the year of me reading books about young girls being lured into organizations by charismatic older men. I loved Franzen’s The Corrections and didn’t much care for Freedom. Purity felt like a return to the style of The Corrections, but Franzen’s voice has matured. I still feel like he has a woman problem, but nonetheless, I liked Purity. Young Pip takes an internship The Sunlight Project, an organization ferreting out the world’s secrets and using them for good, based in a remote valley in Bolivia. Isolated from the world she’s known, Pip draws the attention of the Julian Assange-type head of the Project, Andreas. Soon she’s not sure what’s she’s doing in Bolivia. Andreas has promised to help her find the identity of her father, whom her mother has hidden from her for her whole life. Is she just waiting for those answers? Does she believe in the Sunlight Project? Is she just glad to be out of her dead-end call center job in Oakland? Or is she trying to exert her sexual power over Andreas…or vice versa?

If you like Chinese historical fiction or stories of reincarnation, try The Incarnations by Susan Barker.

A few years back I read Life After Life and was kind of obsessed with it. Since then, books about past lives have been a draw, so I picked up The Incarnations. Set in modern-day Beijing, the story follows taxi driver Wang and his stalker, who claims to be his literal soulmate, with whom he has shared his past six lives. This mysterious figures leaves letters for Wang detailing the lives they have lived together—as slaves on the run from Genghis Khan, as a fisherman and English captain during the Opium Wars, as two concubines in the court of the Ming dynasty. The souls are yin and yang—they complete each other and destroy each other, again and again. An addictive read.

If you want a peek into New York high society’s golden age, try The Swans of Fifth Avenue by Melanie Benjamin.

Reviews of this book have been love/hate, but I really enjoyed it. The story follows Truman Capote’s friendship with a group of New York socialites in the 1950s. As a period piece of New York, it’s lovely, showing the transition from the graceful socialites of the 50s to the celebrity culture that rose in the 60s, leaving many of Manhattan’s elite behind. It’s also an interesting look at Truman Capote, painting him as a social climber who recognized that these Manhattan swans (his name for the women who befriended him) were using him as a gem in their collection of artists and writers. It shows how he at first uses this to his advantage, forges at least one true friendship, but ultimately lets his addiction to fame drive him to ruin.

If you love gothic horror stories, try Slade House by David Mitchell.

If you asked me to pick my two favorite authors (I get two, because I say so), I’d easily pick David Mitchell and Margaret Atwood, so it’s no surprise their newest books made this list. But I think this might be David Mitchell’s most accessible book to the uninitiated. This creepy gothic horror novella centers around Slade House, a hidden residence in London that lures victims in once every nine years. But for those who are familiar with Mitchell’s work, you’ll also catch links back to many of his previous books in the expanding, lightly interconnected world Mitchell has been building over the past decade.

If you can’t wait for The Handmaid’s Tale on Hulu, try The Heart Goes Last by Margaret Atwood.

While not as revolutionary as some of Atwood’s earlier work, The Heart Goes Last has her characteristic extraordinary world-building balanced by thoughtful character studies and chilling moments that make you think “oh my god, this could really happen!” The story is set in a poverty-filled world in which the central couple, Charmaine and Stan, are living out of their car trying to keep safe from roaming gangs of street thugs. They decide to enroll in an experimental government program in which they will be provided with everything they’ve ever dreamed of—a home in a safe, gated community with paid, stable employment. The only catch? They’ll have to spend every other month in the community’s prison system.