Best reads of 2016

>> Saturday, December 31, 2016

Hi from Uruguay! Just popping in to post my list of favourite books of 2016. I've been reading and reading, so I thought I'd best wait till the last minute and, indeed, there are a couple here I've just finished.

I really neglected my poor blog this year, particularly in the second half. Part of it was that work was particularly busy, but really, mostly it was all the stuff going on in the world. I guess objectively I could say I've had a good year personally, however crap this year has been for the world, but the world stuff has felt much too personal for that. The Brexit campaign and vote, particularly, felt like a kick in the teeth for me (I've possibly taken it a bit too personally, but I can't seem to help it), and things only got worse as the year went on. The angrier and more bitter I've felt, the more I've moved towards feeling disconnected and disengaged. I know myself, and when I'm upset, I withdraw and become alienated. I used to be a bit of a news junkie, but I have now not watched the news since November 9th (I'd already switched to France 24 from BBC News in June), and my social media use has plummeted. Fortunately, I've got a really good group of wonderful offline friends with whom I feel safe and happy, and I've been spending a lot of time with them, but the world outside of my immediate social sphere feels scary and horrible these days.

Anyway, on the plus side, my withdrawal from news and social media has meant I've been doing a hell of  lot of reading. I just haven't felt motivated to connect to others about it, and that's what I want to do more of from now on.

And that starts here. I read some absolutely fantastic books last year, and they deserve to be celebrated. My favourites were mainly on the non-romance side, and particularly in the non-fiction area. I did read a few good romances, but I'd characterise them as solid and enjoyable, rather than books that wowed me.

So, starting with the non-romances, non-fiction first:

HHhH, by Laurent Binet: A

HHhH is the story of the plot to assassinate a high-ranking Nazi in Prague. It's also just as much the story of the writing of that story. It could have felt gimmicky, but it never did. Instead, the experimental structure enhanced the tension and brought the extremely high stakes even more to life. I loved it.

SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome, by Mary Beard: A-

SPQR is exactly the kind of history writing I like the most. Beard tells her reader fascinating things and does so with excellent, lively writing. But most of all, she pays as much attention to how we know things as to what we know.

East West Street: On the Origins of "Genocide" and "Crimes Against Humanity", by Philippe Sands: A-

This one is hot off the press, as I've literally just finished it (a bit of an incongruous book to read by the pool, but that's exactly what I did). The author traces the origin of the concepts in the title by exploring the stories of the men that originated them and got them into the Nuremberg trials. He gets into it through a personal connection, and this makes what could be a dry subject fascinating and emotional. It's beautifully written, and well worth it.

And next quite a few non-romance fiction titles:

The Neapolitan Quartet (My Brilliant Friend, The Story of a New Name, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, The Story of the Lost Child), by Elena Ferrante A-

This quartet tracks the life of two women, childhood friends from Naples. They're the rare books that are actually about women themselves, and not about their relationship with men. While there are plenty of men in Lila and Elena's lives, the focus of the story remains squarely on them and their relationship . The books are extremely absorbing and the story that emerges is feminist and powerful. I listened to these on audio, about a half hour each day, so I had several months of living with Lila and Lenù and all the other characters. It was hard to let them go.

And Then There Were None, by Agatha Christie: A-

This might be cheating, since I had read it before. Not for many, many years, though, so it counts. This one is not what most people think when they think of Agatha Christie, but it classic Christie in its surprising, twisty plot, which is impossible to guess, while being completely fair. It also has really good characterisation and manages to be fun to read, while treating its objectively pretty dark and scary subject seriously.

Little Black Lies, by Sharon Bolton: A-

A very dark mystery set in the Falklands. I loved the setting and the way it was so present in the plot and the characters. And I enjoyed the characters just as much. They were flawed and interesting and real. And the book had a cracker of an ending. Just don't read this if you can't tolerate bad things happening to children in your fiction.

This Rough Magic, by Mary Stewart: A-

I rediscovered Mary Stewart this year. I'd read a few of her books about 10 years back and liked them well enough, but was not wowed. I think I'm now at a point in my life where they really hit the spot, because this time round, I absolutely loved them. This Rough Magic was my favourite of the ones I read this year, but I read several more. I love the settings, the adventurous heroines, the thrilling plots, not to mention the way Stewart treats the local characters like actual people, with their own interests and motivations.

His Bloody Project, by Graeme Macrae Burnet: A-

One of the two books nominated for the Man Booker prize that I actually liked. It's historical fiction, exploring a triple murder which took place in a remote Scottish crofting community in 1869. At the start we think we pretty much know everything about it, but through a collection of documents, we start realising there's much more to it than we thought. The plot is fascinating, but it's also a great portrayal of a place and a psychological exploration.

The Sellout, by Paul Beatty: originally a B+, but I've moved towards an A-, since I haven't been able to stop thinking about it.

This is the other book I liked that was nominated for the Man Booker prize, and what do you know. it actually won! I was really pleased about that, because it was challenging to read, but definitely worth it, a wince-inducing exploration of race in the US. I listened to it on audio, and that's an approach I'd recommend with this one, as it feels a bit like an extended stand-up routine.

A Study in Scarlet Women, by Sherry Thomas: B+

This one is Thomas's first historical mystery. It's a wonderfully fresh take on the Sherlock Holmes story, with a Holmes who feels just perfect, and plenty of significant female characters. I look forward to reading upcoming books in the series.

The Bees, by Laline Paull: B+

If you told me I'd enjoy a book set in a beehive and narrated by one of the bees, I would have laughed (the last 'animal' book I read was not a great success). But this was genuinely gripping and a fabulous read. Great characterisation ad an inventive,fun plot.

Kitchens of the Great Midwest, by J Ryan Stradal: B+

This was really interesting in the way the story was told, by telling the stories of people around (in some cases a bit peripherally, even!) our central character. But it was also a fun, satisfying story in its own right. I really enjoyed it.

And now for the romance!

Lay It Down, by Cara McKenna: B+

It took me ages to pick up the first in this series, as I was under the impression it was a motorcycle club book. It's absolutely not, just plain romantic suspense, with a romance that is classic McKenna: intense and powerful, with a dynamic I would probably find a bit skeevy with any other author, but which I'm absolutely fine with when it's McKenna writing it.

Give It All, by Cara McKenna: B+

Uncharacteristically for me, I started Give It All as soon as I had finished Lay It Down. What I'd seen of the GIA main characters in the first book made me really want to read their book (prissy, hyperserious hero, badass heroine, that's my catnip). I enjoyed these two very much.

The Obsession, by Nora Roberts: B+

Most readers seemed to be a bit meh about this one and it's a book where I can see exactly why, while loving the book to bits anyway. A fantastic setup, and a solid, satisfying development made me a happy reader.

Hold Your Breath, by Katie Ruggle: B+

I feel like I've gone on and on and on about this one, but I did love it. The setting is great (an ice rescue dive team) and I loved the hilarious and really sweet heroine and the super-controlled hero. The second book in the series wasn't great, unfortunately, but Ruggle did get it back on track for the 3rd, so I'm looking forward to reading more by her in future years.

Apprentice in Death, by JD Robb: B+

A solid entry in the series.. I enjoyed the mystery, and I liked how Robb dealt with the mentor-mentee relationship, contrasting the culprits with Eve and Feeney. Fun.

I'd love to hear any comments you may have on this, as well as hear about your own favourites. Thank you for reading, and my best wishes for a much better 2017 than the year we've just had!


Bona Caballero 31 December 2016 at 06:21  

I've just finished Mary Beard's SPQR and I enjoyed it a lot. A funny thing happened while I was reading it. I've seen several of her documentaries and I kept on hearing her voice in my head. She's got such a powerful personality.

I haven't read any of the other books you mention.

On the literary front, this year I re-read (for the third time) Don Quijote. Wonderful. There's always something new in that book.

My best romance readings this year were Song of the Navigator, by Astrid Amara (a MM sci-fi), Solo esta noche written by Simona Ahrnstedt (sorry I don't remember the title either in English or Swedish) and, yes, I'm one of those who loved The Hating Game by Sally Thorne, even if its ambiguous setting made me a little bit uncomfortable.

Non fiction books? Well, I read Marie Kondo and now I have a different idea about how my house must look. Not a warehouse, but a home where you have fewer things, but all of them meaningful. I keep on decluttering.

I had to change my diet this year so I read several books about nutrition. The most entertaining one was Aitor Sánchez's Mi dieta cojea, about myths in nutrition (no, you don't have to eat five times a day, low fat products ere not a good is¡dea in the end...). It's a dietist who is also a blogger and there are funny clips of him on You Tube. His message is clear but at the same time he knows how to convey it in a very attractive way.

On a very different tone, Norman Ohler's Blitzed: Drugs in Nazi Germany shows that there are still things to be discovered about the everyday life in the Third Reich.

So those were my favourite this year.

Bona Caballero 31 December 2016 at 06:21  

Que pases una estupenda Nochevieja y Feliz Año Nuevo 2017.

Fernande,  31 December 2016 at 19:23  

Hi Rosario, how lovely to see you back on the blog! I've been worried about you. I agree that in the past year events in the wider world have been sad and terrible and alienating, and like you am thankful for friends, family and wonderful books.

I've enjoyed Cara McKenna's Desert Dogs series this year, as well as new releases by some of my favourite authors such as Anne Calhoun, Ilona Andrews and Rachel Gibson. I've discovered new favourites such as Grace Draven, Naomi Novik (Uprooted) and N.K. Jemisen (the Obelisk series). I listened to The Nest which I grew to like and tried to listen to Anne Patchett's Commonwealth but that was a DNF for me. Also DNF's were Norah Roberts Obsession and the series by Katie Ruggle, despite your recommendations. I'm eager to try A Study in Scarlet Women and Kitchens of the Great Midwest.

All the best, Rosario, for a happy and fulfilling New Year. I do hope you continue to post your interesting and insightful reviews and look forward to reading them.

meljean brook 1 January 2017 at 00:20  

Good to hear from you! I've had basically the same response to this year, withdrawing and keeping my head down. I haven't read as much as I would like, despite putting a huge number of books on my TBR.

Of what I did read, I think the standouts for me in 2016 were N.K. Jemisen's Obelisk books, as well. I'm hoping that the final book of the trilogy coming this year is a spectacular finish, but even if it just kind of fizzles, I loved the first books so much I don't even think I would care.

My reading has been a bit off, though. I still haven't finished the final book in Stephen King's Mr. Mercedes trilogy -- I got about halfway through and haven't picked it up since. I was really looking forward to M.R. Carey's Fellside after his Girl With All the Gifts and I felt as if I had to slog through it. I did enjoy Apprentice in Death (yay). I was enjoying V.E. Schwab's A Darker Shade of Magic a lot, but then stopped reading (I don't even know why, because I was a having a good time with it) at 40%. I did love the latest Robert Galbraith, too (was that 2016? I can't even remember.)

On the romance front, it feels as if I've just read a ton of Harlequin comics, because they're basically comfort reads. Hopefully in 2017 I'll get some of that reading mojo back. It's just been a weird year (or a couple of years) altogether.

Rosario 1 January 2017 at 11:28  

Bona: You're so right, you can totally hear Mary Beard in your head when you read SPQR. Which is no bad thing! :)

I love the idea of reading Don Quijote properly. I'd say "rereading", but we only read extended sections of it in school, never the whole thing, and it's past time I did. Sounds like a fun project for the year.

I've got the Simona Ahrnstedt and the Sally Thorne and they're near the top of my TBR read, so I might get to them soon. And the Norman Ohler sounds interesting -I think I've actually heard an interview with him talking about his book!

Que hayas empezado muy bien el año!

Fernande: Thanks very much for the good wishes, and same to you! I read both Grace Draven and Naomi Novik this year as well (actually, Novik might have been end of last year?) and enjoyed them both. NK Jemisen is an author I should try again, since both you and Meljean enjoyed her books. I tried one of hers many years ago (I think it had these really scary gods?) and just couldn't get into it, but I might have a different reaction now. Too bad about Commonwealth. That one's on my book club's list for books to choose once they come out in paperback, so I will probably end up reading it. If you do read the Sherry Thomas and Kitchens of the Great Midwest, I'd love to hear what you think. I think the Thomas might divide readers!

Meljean: Good to hear from you too! I had a stretch during the year when my reading was a bit like that. I kept starting books and not finishing them -I think at one point I had 10 books on the go. I did go back and finish most of them, though.

The Stephen King was one of them, and I'm afraid I wouldn't particularly urge you to go back. I don't think it was anywhere near as good as the first one. I have the VE Schwab in my TBR and hope it works for me. The Robert Galbraith was great. I read it the last time I was in Uruguay, but I think it was right at the end of 2015, so it would have been on my 'best of' list last year. I do hope there's another coming out this year, because i really want to know what happens next!

My romance reading has been off for a while, and I hope that part of my reading mojo will come back, because I've considered myself a "romance reader" for so many years, but these days I'm more someone who reads a little bit of romance, and that doesn't make me happy. A new Meljean Brook title in 2017 might help, you know! :)

Anonymous,  1 January 2017 at 15:06  

Just a word about the N.K. Jemisen....I had read her very first one with the "scary gods" and liked it, but then couldn't get into the rest of the series. My daughter recommended the Obelisk series and I've listened to them through Audible. The narrator is amazingly good and that, I think, is partly why I'm finding them so compelling.

Darlynne 1 January 2017 at 17:42  

Happy new year, Rosario! A lot of us have pulled back and inside after 2016, and 2017 is looking like a real wild card. I stopped by today to say I was thinking of you and am delighted to see your new post. So many of your recommendations have made it to my TBR pile and I wish I could say I've read them, but that seems to be part of my general disconnect. Which I am going to rectify immediately.

Thank you for everything. Wishing you all good things.

Li 2 January 2017 at 13:56  

Happy new year, Rosario! I remember discovering Mary Stewart a few years back (late starter, obviously) and glomming her whole backlist. I think THE IVY TREE was my favourite, though THIS ROUGH MAGIC was good too.

Jorrie Spencer,  2 January 2017 at 14:51  

Well, you and I agree on A Study in Scarlet Women! I’m too scared to read His Bloody Project, alas, although maybe I’ll muster up the needed strength for it during the summer. I intend to try the Ruggle, especially given your reference to an ice rescue dive team.

I did read the first Ferrante book, and found it immersive and absorbing, yet have little desire to continue. Maybe that will change at some point? But I suspect it’s one thing (for me) to read a coming-of-age book, which My Brillian Friend is (among other things), and another to read about the friendship when they are adults.

Marianne McA,  2 January 2017 at 18:42  

Happy New Year!

I don't think I've read any of these, except the Mary Stewart. (It's a favourite, although I think my absolute favourite is 'Madam, Will You Talk?' because of the way she makes you like the hero, while pretending he's a villain.)

I'm tempted by the Sherry Thomas, but I read Cavallaro's 'A Study in Charlotte', which I didn't rate at all, and it's prejudiced me against the idea of Charlotte Holmes in some subtle way.

(I have read Don Quijote once, because it was on the bookshelf - it felt like watching a satirical panel show from a country I knew nothing about - I could tell I was missing all the jokes.)

This year I read really little (daughter got married, reception in the garden, we painted anything that stood still long enough, and planted round the rest) but I did glom Sabrina Bowen after you recommended Blonde Date, and I belatedly read most of The Parasol Protectorate. I've enjoyed Bujold's Penric novellas, and liked Zen Cho's Sorcerer to the Crown much more than I liked Jonathan Strange.

I read the Galbraith in the end, and enjoyed it very much.

My hands-down favourite book of the year was 'Gilead' and someone in my book group pointed out that it's a trilogy now (who knew?) so we're reading Home and Lila for our next meeting, which will hopefully get 2017 off to a good start, reading-wise.

Rosario 3 January 2017 at 09:32  

Anon: Thanks! I know how I'll be spending my next audible credit! :)

Darlynne: Thanks, and happy new year to you, too! I'm glad to hear several of my recommendations have resonated with you, and I hope you'll enjoy them when you come to read them. Wishing you all the best for 2017 :)

Li: Happy new year! I'm trying not to rush through Stewart's backlist too quickly, but it's tempting.

Jorrie: Oh, good! I suspect how people will react to A Study in Scarlet Women will depend on what exposure they've had to Sherlock Holmes fic. Maybe if they've read a lot this won't feel quite as fresh.

What's making you wary of starting His Bloody Project? I thought before I started it that it would be really tough and full of ugliness, but it read much more easily, more like a thriller.

On the Ferrante, I'd say the coming of age element is not quite done with the first book and continues well into the rest of the series, possibly well up to the third book. In fact, the second and third were probably my favourites!

Marianne: Happy new year to you, and congrats on your daughter's getting married!

I'm looking forward to rereading Madam, Will You Talk? I read it way back when I first tried Mary Stewart and liked it quite a bit even then, so I expect I'll love it now!

I'm smiling about your Don Quijote experience. I'm not convinced I'd get many more of the jokes and references without my literature teacher giving me all the context.

I'm currently listening to (and loving) Sorcerer to the Crown, and can't wait to start the Penric novels. I've got only one more book to go in the Vorkosigan series (I've been hoarding it), and then the plan is to reread the Chalion series and only then the Penric novellas.

Jorrie Spencer,  3 January 2017 at 12:36  

I’ve had little exposure to Sherlock fic, so I suspect that is part of it. I have seen the BBC Sherlock, recent-movies Sherlock and Elementary, but those are all a bit different, especially with two of them being transplanted to modern day.

My father read His Bloody Project and (my paraphrasing) found it brought him down. Then Liz found it hard to read. But I’m sure it’s a different read for everyone. I do better with mysteries and/or thrillers in the summer.

Interesting on the Ferrante! I may give the second book a go; maybe I just need some space between books, although it’s coming up to a year now.

Sun,  4 January 2017 at 03:11  

Happy New Year, Rosario! I hope 2017 is treating you (and the world) a whole lot better.

Reading-wise, I had an abysmal year, especially on the Romance genre. A few blips of sparks were Blonde Date by Sarina Bowen (picked up per your review, thanks so much!) and The Orange Girl by Jostein Gaarder. But I'm getting on the train of the Kate Daniels series by Ilona Andrews so this year looks more promising already.

La Karibane 4 January 2017 at 12:35  

Bonne Année, Ro! All the best things in 2017! I can relate to everything you posted about feeling alienated. Here, we are still in electoral limbo and the stress and anxiety was sooo high, I thought I would go crazy. Not sure 2017 is starting off on a good note but there's always hope. And reading and sewing, in my case! And I loved the Sherry Thomas Sherlock sooo much! Loved how the worked in all the little details. Sort of like The Royals, my tv guilty pleasure. It's like an egg hunt to find the familiar details. Anyway, hope you get to post more this year. I'm hoping to come back to blogging myself. Gros baisers!

Rosario 6 January 2017 at 09:41  

Jorrie: on the Ferrante, I waited several months between the first one and the rest, but after that, I basically kept going till the end. I did have to refamiliarise myself with the huge cast of characters, though!

Sun: Happy new year to you, too! There's a lot of romance blahs going round, it feels like. I'm glad you liked Blonde Date (still my favourite Sarina Bowen by far), and I'm intrigued by your mention of the Jostein Gaarder book as a romance. All I've read is Sophie's World, and that's something completely different! I'll check it out :)

La Karibane: Bonne Année, and my best wishes for all of you this year! What you mention was one of my favourite things about the Thomas book. All those little familiar elements came in in such unexpected ways. I hope the next one is just as good.

Susan/DC,  6 January 2017 at 19:56  

Wishing everyone a happy and healthy 2017! Last year ended on a depressing note in terms of politics, so I've tried to immerse myself in books and film, just to escape hearing the constant references to He-Who-Shall-Not-Be-Named. No particular recommendations for books, but I highly recommend "Arrival" and "Loving" if they play wherever you are.

I too read "And Then There Were None" this year. Christie is known for cozy mysteries, but there are times she is actually quite dark. The Royal Mail issued commemorative stamps which are clever and themselves contain little mysteries. The Guardian has an article about them (don't know if the link will come through, but you can copy the address to your browser):

meljean brook 6 January 2017 at 22:26  

" A new Meljean Brook title in 2017 might help, you know! :)"

Haha, working on it!

Wendy 8 January 2017 at 22:43  

I was one of those who was "meh" on the Roberts - although I felt a little guilty about it because I recognized WHY so many others loved it. I loved the concept (although the whodunit was telegraphed WAY too soon IMHO), it was all the other "stuff" floating around the plot that felt like total filler to me. I'm sorry - I don't care about remodeling p0rn. I just don't.

I loved, loved, loved King's Mr. Mercedes, but slogged my way through Finders Keepers despite liking the concept of the plot. Part of the appeal for the trilogy (for me at least) was that King wrote a straight-up thriller and then he had to go and ruin it falling back on his supernatural woo-woo crutch. As much as I like the characters I just can't bring myself to pick up the last book. Oh well.

The Ruggle is buried in my Kindle of Doom - because of course it is.

Sun,  11 January 2017 at 12:39  

To clarify, The Orange Girl isn't a Romance by traditional sense. It's more of the philosophy book but has romance in it. I just enjoyed it a lot.

Rosario 14 January 2017 at 10:17  

Sorry it's taken so long to respond, everyone! My internet has been really crap since I got home. I've got an engineer coming Monday to sort it out, but in the meantime,

Susan/DC: Happy 2017 to you, too! Those are two films that are on my list. They weren't out in Uruguay when I was there, so I'm hoping I'll be able to catch up with them in Liverpool.

And I had managed to miss the Agatha Christie stamps -so cool!

Meljean: Glad to hear that! :)

Wendy: Similarly, I loved it but could see exactly why others wouldn't! And yes, even I thought the identity of the murderer was incredibly obvious!

Sun: Ah, that makes more sense!

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