I read a lot of amazing books in 2016! 47 books in total (not counting rereads of Harry Potter and The Fellowship of the Ring) and I gave 5 stars to 34 of them, which you must admit is a pretty good ratio. So let’s get to it.
Number 1. The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison
The is a book that I’d never heard of. I just picked it up one day while browsing in the library, and it took me completely unawares. The Goblin Emperor is a very complex story full to the brim with politics in this world of elves and goblins and elf-goblins. A world the reader has to try to navigate while keeping track of what feels like over a hundred names and titles and places, all mouthfuls, including formal and informal pronouns and titles and names that change depending on the situation and status of the person in question. The writing is incredibly crisp and clever. I fell deeply in love with the characters, particularly Maia, a half-elf half-goblin who by some twist of fate finds himself on the throne. Maia, the emperor who does not want to rule, who only wants everyone to be happy and healthy and safe and doesn’t understand why he’s not allowed to do that. As much as I love characters that are full of flaws, it’s the completely selfless and self-deprecating underdogs that I love the most. And Maia is certainly that. And yet his life at court is fraught with peril as he faces discrimination and hatred from the elven nobles… here is my spoiler-free review.
Number 2. Dragonhaven by Robin McKinley
This book is pure gold. I know others who have read it and found it too dense and slow, but I loved everything about it. You think you’ve read about dragon-raising before, but Robin McKinley brings the trope of teenage-boy-fosters-baby-dragon to a whole new level of brilliance. A level that is so intense, so specific, so blow-by-blow, so all-consuming, that you immediately realize, yeah, this is the only way that could possibly happen. The protagonist, Jake, is blunt about his feelings while also full of sarcasm, and the book is narrated in such a way that it almost feels like one long monologue. The world the story is set in is also fascinating–a contemporary, normal world, except that dragons exist. The whole story takes place in a dragon conservation park called Smokehill. I think it’s because the book goes into so much detail about the day-to-day keep of Smokehill, and the cost and stresses of the people inside and the misguided opinions of people on the outside, that it feels so real. It’s like reading a book about any other nature preserve, zoo, and/or national park. Except, you know, with dragons. The progression of the plot is great, all of the trials and suffering and twists and problematic people and good luck and instinct and family flux and research and mistakes and discovery–it all meshes together perfectly and makes the book a joy to read from start to finish. Highly recommend to all lovers of dragons, science, and magical realism. My full review is a lot more detailed and includes a few more excellent quotes.
I’d pretty much always secretly believed that she was, you know, intelligent, more like humans are intelligent than like dogs (or mynah birds) are intelligent, but I also knew I was loopy from the strain of the relationship that was keeping her alive… But I also thought about Mom and Katie and I figured it’s just part of momming that you think your kid’s wonderful. Even if you’re a human and your kid’s a dragon.
Now you just sit there and think that back at yourself for a minute. Why do dragons live quietly in caves and human beings have invented global warming and strip mining and biological warfare and genocide? Who’s the real winner here in the superior species competition? What dragons do is think. That’s what they’re really good at. Like it or lump it.
Number 3. The Martian by Andy Weir
I am not a scientist. I am not even that big of a sci-fi fan, really. And this book is far more sci- than -fi. But I certain got caught up in this story from the start. This book feels like it could literally be a record of a real Mars-mission-gone-wrong. My favourite thing about The Martian is the narration. Narration can make or break a story, and this is some of the best. It was easy to get lost in the world of a single astronaut stranded on a dead planet, because the words feel like they come from Mark himself, like he’s just telling you the trials of his day each night before he goes to sleep. There’s nothing flowery about the language; it gets right down to business. It’s both a joy and a trial following Mark through his various adventures and misfortunes. It’s an experience reading this book. It’s not something you can just sit back and enjoy. You’re part of it, as the reader. You’re not only rooting for Mark from the very beginning, but you begin to really grow attached to him until you can’t bear the thought of things going wrong for him (again). Here’s my full, spoiler-free review.
It’s a strange feeling. Everywhere I go, I’m the first. Step outside the rover? First guy ever to be there! Climb a hill? First guy to climb that hill! Kick a rock? That rock hadn’t moved in a million years!
Number 4. The Little Country by Charles de Lint
2016 was the year I finally discovered Charles de Lint, at the recommendation of my father. I devoured every book of his I could find, but this was my favourite. Full of magic and quaint English countryside and standing stones and little people and the thread of traditional music woven throughout… yes please. I think a common feature of Charles de Lint’s books is a large and diverse cast of characters, all with their own motivations and goals and ways of seeing the world, all in grey areas of morality with only one or two who are truly evil. The Little Country is no exception. The characters are frustrating and terrifying and relatable and real, and their development is excellent. The imagery is stunning, the magic is fresh and unique, and it’s all tied up in myths and legends and traditional folk music and I loved it! Here is my spoiler-free review. Some other favourite de Lint books I read in 2016 include The Onion Girl, Memory and Dream (minor spoiler alert), and Trader (all Newford books, all read out of order, oh well).
“Doesn’t matter how poor you are, you can still be kind. Doesn’t cost a tuppence, and maybe those you’re kind to won’t be kind back, but at least you’ll have the satisfaction of knowing that you tried to leave the world a bit of a better place, even if all you had to spare was a smile.”
And hadn’t there been a music playing, just before the light took her away and brought her here? A wonderful, heart-stopping music that brought tiny chills mouse-pawing up her spine when all she did was just think about it? A music that when you heard it, you realized you’d been sleeping through your life, because what it did was it woke you up. Suddenly and completely.
Number 5. The Rest of Us Just Live Here by Patrick Ness
This is a quirky, semi-lighthearted book about a world where superheroes and monsters and people with magic exist, but the story centres on the normal people who have to go on living their lives in spite of the chaos and destruction caused by all of the “indie kids”. The concept is funny, but the conversations and development and relationships between the characters are really heartfelt. Also I found the main character, Mikey, incredibly relatable. This was the first book of Patrick Ness’s I’d read after Chaos Walking, and I was pleasantly surprised to find that he could be just as brilliant a writer without destroying my heart. My review is short, but there are some more quotes in it.
“Not everyone has to be the Chosen One. Not everyone has to be the guy who saves the world. Most people just have to live their lives the best they can, doing the things that are great for them, having great friends, trying to make their lives better, loving people properly. All the while knowing that the world makes no sense but trying to find a way to be happy anyway.”
“I wonder if realizing you’re not sure about stuff is what makes you a grown-up?”
Number 6. More Than This by Patrick Ness
… And then I read this, which just shows that while Mr. Ness is perfectly capable of writing lovely, lighthearted things, it’s the soul-crushing stories that he enjoys writing most. This book is very sci-fi, very YA, slightly painful, very bewildering, and took me so long to process that I couldn’t really write a comprehensive review. A faint outline of the story is that it’s about kids who wake up in a post-apocalyptic world where humanity is completely living in virtual reality, and these kids have to survive in this empty world while also trying to figure out where all of the people are who are still “sleeping”. None of Patrick Ness’s books are my first choice (you know I love high fantasy more than anything else), but he always manages, within the first few pages, to pull me in so completely that I forget about anything else while I’m reading. His books make you question everything you read and root for the heroes harder than you thought possible, with all of your heart. This book is a puzzle from start to finish. And all of the puzzle pieces have razor-sharp edges.
“There’s more than this,” Seth says. “So let’s go find it.”
Number 7. The Thessaly books by Jo Walton (The Just City, The Philosopher Kings, Necessity)
Never have I read philosophy so quickly or with so much attention and investment. These books are so full. They’re stuffed with so many things to think about that by the time I finished each one, I felt like my brain was all wrung out. It’s a utopian/dystopian sci-fi/fantasy like none I have ever read before. Greek gods, time travel, potentially sentient robots, art and music and the pursuit of excellence, and so many questions. The first book, The Just City, is about humans and gods and robots trying to build Plato’s Republic and discovering many flaws in the plan as they go. It’s a page turner because of the narrative, because of the dynamic characters and hopes and fears and potential disasters at every turn, but it’s also so philosophical. Each chapter is riddled with expertly-worded dialogue on the nature of Truth, happiness vs. excellence/justice, choice, freedom and volition, souls, etc. etc. etc. The second book is mainly about picking up the pieces in the aftermath of the failed experiment, and the third gets… really weird (but the writing is still brilliant and the story still fascinating). Here’s my review of the first book, which does not contain spoilers.
“Plato wanted to give people something to aspire to. That’s why he isn’t here, he didn’t really imagine it as a possibility, just as something to encourage everyone to think, and to work toward excellence. In reality, while we aim for excellence, we’re always living on somebody’s dunghill. But that doesn’t mean we’re wrong to aim to be the best we can be.”
Number 8. The Farseer Trilogy by Robin Hobb
The very first line in my review for the first book was “I am undone”, and that about sums up my feelings throughout this trilogy. Even after reading The Rain Wilds Chronicles in 2015, I was not prepared to have my heart trampled so quickly and so repeatedly throughout these books. Robin Hobb is relentless with the treatment of her characters, with her manipulation of your feelings and perceptions and fears, with the complexity of her storytelling. It is incredible. Again, an underdog protagonist who finds himself swept up in the politics and intrigue of court life; Fitz as a narrator becomes so close, so vulnerable to the eye of the reader that you can’t help but love him and just wish that he had the chance to find some small measure of happiness. Spoiler alert: he doesn’t. One of the most interesting things in these books to me was the constantly shifting relationships between Fitz and those close to him, as he struggles to trust and fears to love and constantly puts himself down. And like in The Rain Wilds Chronicles, the main villain in these books is expertly written and perfectly hateful. Robin Hobb’s character writing is some of the best I’ve ever read. Here’s my spoiler-free review of the first book, and my spoiler-filled reviews of the second and third books.
“Not all men are destined for greatness,” I reminded him.
“Are you sure, Fitz? Are you sure? What good is a life lived as if it made no difference at all to the great life of the world. A sadder thing I cannot imagine. Why should not a mother say to herself, if I raise this child aright, if I love and care for her, she shall live a life that brings joy to those about her, and thus I have changed the world? Why should not the farmer that plants a seed say to his neighbour, this seed I plant today will feed someone, and that is how I change the world today?”
Number 9. After Hamelin by Bill Richardson
This is actually a book that I read for the first time when I was around eleven, and only just happened to come across it in a used bookstore last year. I loved it as a child, and now, not only does the writing hold up, but I find myself imagining reading it to children myself. After Hamelin is the story of a deaf girl who rescues the children spirited away by the Pied Piper. It has a fresh, silly quality to it like Roald Dahl, while at the same time being sprinkled with poetic language and heartfelt moments. The main character, Penelope, is darling, both as a child and as an elderly woman as she recounts the tale of her adventures. It is a whimsical tale, rambling and silly and imperfect, but I do love it and I do want to share it with my students when I have them. Also, there are dragons.
I say I have made it a rule not to preach. However, anyone who is 101 has earned the right to break her own rules. Once in a while, at least. And so, I am going to give you one piece of advice. Pause once a day and relish the moment. Look around. Notice the colours, the smells and the sounds. Take them in, for that moment will pass and no one can say what the next moment will bring. I know this better than most.
Meeting a dragon is like falling in love. Even though you have never experienced it before, you will know when it has happened.
Number 10. Come, Thou Tortoise by Jessica Grant
This is a precious book that I never would have found had I not happened to stop in at a local independent bookstore when I was early for work one day… Heartwarming and entertaining and sad, it’s the story of an eccentric young woman (Audrey, known by all as Oddly) going back to her hometown to deal with the aftermath of her father’s death by a freak accident. It is also the story of her pet tortoise, Winnifred, who was left in the care of some friends and wants nothing more than to escape and make her way back to her human, but can’t do more than think about it while making a running commentary on the lives of the people she’s been left with. It’s such a unique book in terms of the characters–one of them so full of the boundless imagination and reckless determination of a child, the other a mere tortoise. It’s also unique in terms of the writing style, because there are no quotation marks and no question marks–which gives the narration a sort of dry and ironic tone. Quite delightful (and this summary is more than I wrote in my very lazy review, so I’ll not link that).
Number 11. The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin
This book was so cool and interesting, let me tell you. The idea of a planet of human beings with no gender is fascinating, especially looking at familial and societal structures as well as how the main character, a human ambassador to the planet, views and interacts and judges the Gethenians. The book gets quite political and sociological, but it also delves deep into the friendship that grows between Genry (the human ambassador) and Theram/Estraven, and that is really what I loved the most about the book. Genry learns so much through this relationship, not only about the planet Winter and its people, but also about himself. It is a tale of love and discrimination, of survival, of the concept of war, of kindness and of humanity. It’s brilliant. Here’s my review, which has some more quotes as well as a bit of a critique on one aspect of the book.
It is a terrible, thing, this kindness that human beings do not lose. Terrible, because when we are finally naked in the dark and cold, it is all we have. We who are so rich, so full of strength, we end up with this small change. We have nothing else to give.
I certainly wasn’t happy. Happiness has to do with reason, and only reason earns it. What I was given was the thing you can’t earn, and can’t keep, and often don’t even recognize at the time; I mean joy.
Number 12. Buffering: Unshared Tales of a Life Fully Loaded by Hannah Hart
This may be the book that affected me most, mentally and emotionally, in 2016. Hannah Hart is one of my favourite humans; but those of us who are fans of her as a YouTuber, the bright, shiny vitality of a personality that is Hannah Hart as she presents herself to the world, could never have imagined anything close to a backstory like this. I admire her and the incredible strength and courage it took to let it all out into daylight after thirty years of being bottled up (at least in the public view). There tends to be an inclination to dismiss books written by YouTubers because so many YouTubers have been publishing books lately… I wasn’t expecting brilliant writing, but I was completely blown away. Buffering is equal parts raw, deep, heavy, heartfelt, soul-achingly real, but also wonderfully charming, light, and funny. And the language and detail and word choice and everything is just so precise and fitting–it’s a memoir that reads like a gut-wrenching urban fantasy novel, like Charles de Lint but more personal, more impactful because it’s real. The way she tells her life story you can see it play out like one of those indy films that leave you with tears choking up your chest and a deep sense of connection with the world. Hannah is one of those strong and humble and honest souls who survive a traumatic past to become a force for good in this world. She is still struggling and learning and processing and growing, and she acknowledges that. Buffering is another reminder that everyone has their demons, or as I like to put it everyone has their bitterness, and it is often difficult to see from the outside, especially when they are someone you admire. It takes a lot of trust for them to show it to you. And it is amazingly gratifying when they do. I shared my full review in a blog post a few months ago.
I guess this is a message for those of you who contemplate permanent solutions to temporary problems. You never know what could be coming in the future. There is so much music you’ve yet to hear.
I also read a couple of really excellent graphic novels in 2016 and didn’t write reviews for them, but I highly recommend checking out Nimona and Lumberjanes by Noelle Stevenson for some really excellent and interesting strong female-led adventures. I also finished of several different series’ in 2016 that I had started previously: the great Library of Souls by Ransom Riggs (third book in Miss Peregrine’s series), The Voyage of the Basilisk by Marie Brennan (third book in the Memoirs of Lady Trent) and of course the long-awaited The Raven King by Maggie Stieffvater (fourth book in The Raven Cycle). All of these were fantastic and definitely among the best books I read in 2016.
If you’re interested in a comprehensive list of all of my book recommendations ever, categorized by genre and subject and emoji-coded for your convenience, I made one.
My goal for 2017 is again 40 new books because there are still so many books I want to reread as well. I’ve only read 5 so far, which is terrible compared to last year when I had already read 12 by this time (and that was with school going on too!), but I’m going to the library tomorrow to rectify that. I just finished The Reptile Room by Lemony Snicket and started my 30th (or so) reread of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone.