I always like to look back on what I read in the previous year, because it reminds me of things I enjoyed, things I learned, things that surprised me. In today’s Stack Overflow, a few of us take a look at our favorite books of 2016.
Jonathan Liu’s Picks
Here are some of my favorite books I wrote about in Stack Overflow during the past year. (Click the titles to jump to the columns that include the books.)
Picture books were by far my largest category because I read so many of them to my toddler every day, so it’s hard to narrow down to just a few. Toys Meet Snow was a fun way to revisit Lumphy, Stingray, and Plastic from the Toys Go Out kids’ books. Even though the original books were chapter books, the characters fit nicely in picture book format, too. Welcome to the Symphony was one of my daughter’s favorites, and despite it being a bit long to read out loud fully, I enjoyed the way that it introduced many musical concepts and instruments with actual sounds of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. In the same “True Story!” column, I also loved The Secret Subway both for its surprising tale of New York’s first subway and for its amazing artwork. Finally, They All Saw a Cat is a really cool lesson in perspectives, accompanied by fantastic illustrations showing the same cat as seen by various creatures.
For some reason it feels like I didn’t read nearly as many middle-grade fiction this year as I usually do, but there were still a few notable titles. Sophie Quire and the Last Storyguard feels like the story I’ve been waiting for Jonathan Auxier to write ever since I read Peter Nimble and His Fantastic Eyes. It’s not exactly a sequel, but it’s set in the same world and written with the same narrator’s voice that I loved so much the first time around. My big piles of time-travel stories included Once Was a Time, which blew me away. Yes, it’s a kids’ book, but it was heart-wrenching and beautiful and totally unexpected. Click Here to Start grabbed me with its escape-room-playing kid and then taught me a bit about Japanese-American soldiers in World War II. The Left-Handed Fate sucked me in with its descriptions of life on a ship and a fantastic quest.
My Young Adult list from 2016 is embarrassingly short—maybe this year I’ll make up for that a bit. The three titles that grabbed me the most were actually not even published in 2016, but two of them had film adaptations this past year, which brought them back into the spotlight. I was glad I finally read Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children (along with the rest of the trilogy and the Tales of the Peculiar), because I really enjoyed them. I still didn’t manage to see the movie, but I hope to eventually. A Monster Calls is the other one that became a film, and it’s a deeply moving book that uses fantasy to explore real emotions and tragedies. Finally, there’s MARTians, a curious dystopian story about a world ruled by consumerism and corporations, a cautionary fable that seems pretty relevant.
I did read a lot of comics this year, and there were a lot of good ones, including a whole lot of non-fiction comics. Something New is is Lucy Knisley’s book about getting married, particularly what it’s like being a bride and planning the wedding, and it was a joy to read. (I also interviewed Knisley about the book for my podcast.) Box Brown relates the fascinating history behind Tetris in his book of the same name—if you like the game, you should read this book. Phoebe and Her Unicorn continue to delight us—my kids have read all of the books countless times. If there’s still a hole in your comics-reading life where Calvin & Hobbes used to go, you may find that Phoebe and Her Unicorn helps fill that hole, at least a little.
The majority of my adult fiction reading this year was related to time travel (and I expect I’ll have at least a couple more time travel Stack Overflows this year, too). One of my favorites, though, was Quantum Break: Zero State. Despite being based on a videogame, I found the story engaging and thought the time travel aspect was handled really well. I also finally read The Three-Body Problem (as well as the sequel), and am looking forward to finishing the trilogy this year. It made me want to read more sci-fi written by authors from other countries.
I’ve already mentioned Kidding Ourselves in my year-end reflection since it was on my resolutions list, but it’s worth mentioning again because it’s one of the (admittedly few) non-fiction books that I read this year that really stuck with me. The other, of course, is Time Travel, about which I cannot say enough good things. Seriously, if you have any interest at all in time travel stories (particularly writing them), Gleick’s exploration of the topic is required reading.
Robin Brooks’ Picks
2016 has been a lean year for books, or at least it has for me. I don’t keep hard and fast records, but I’m fairly sure it’s my lowest book completion rate in many years. Nevertheless, I have read several really great books. Golden reads that would have stood out in even in years of plenty. My choices are all fiction.
My reading year was bookended by two of my favorite books of 2016. I read Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Buried Giant back in January, and I saw the year out reading Five Rivers Met on a Wooded Plain by Barney Norris.
The Buried Giant is a classic fantasy folktale, one that reads like The Death of King Arthur. It’s a tale of Dark Ages Britain, where those native to the isle fear foreigners arriving from overseas. This may be a tale with a traditional feel, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t relevant to today.
Laden with allegory, The Buried Giant ruimnates on humanity’s inability to learn. Back in January, I wrote,
“The Buried Giant examines human nature, most particularly our inability to learn from the past. Closed-minded attitudes, superstition, and fealty to outmoded, incorrect assumptions seem reasonable when placed in the Dark Ages. Yet, transpose these attitudes to the 21st Century, which I believe Ishiguro intends us to do, and they begin to look like willful ignorance. “
One can’t help but feel that Ishiguro is sitting somewhere with his head in his hands.
The Buried Giant is a wonderful book, that proves genre novels can be serious too. For my full review, click here.
Five Rivers Met on a Wooded Plain is not my usual GeekDad reviewing fare; it has neither swords nor spaceships in it. I wrote about it in my piece last week, about trying to make resolutions for the new year when the previous one has been pretty disastrous. Five Rivers… is not a geeky novel, but it is a novel for parents everywhere, albeit a gloomy one.
Set in a small British city, the book is a meditation on loss. It examines the passing of time and the ever-shifting nature of relationships, right up until one party checks out, either by leaving, dying, or growing up. As a parent, the passages that examined how children grow away from their parents was both heartbreaking and uplifting. Norris has a clear vision of how humans interact and the manner in which he describes it is impressive.
For the sheer fantastic readable riotousness of it all, my third pick is Jay Kristoff’s Nevernight. This is a sort of fantasy Hunger Games, in which bloodthirsty wannabe assassins try to beat one another to a coveted position in the guild. Filled with intrigue, strong characters, and some great set pieces, Kristoff set the bar for my thrills and spills of the year. I can’t wait for the sequel to this one.
Kristoff also gets an honorable mention for co-writing the Illuminae Files with Amie Kaufman, the first of which is 2001 meets 28 Days Later. With some interesting mixed media storytelling, Illuminae felt as fresh and original as anything I read in 2016. For my complete thoughts on these two books, click here.
The absolute highlight of my reading year, however, were two books I stumbled over in my local library (though I had heard good things about them before that.) The first two books of the Fractured Europe sequence were touted as science fiction but, arguably, turned out to be prophecy.
The books have the feel of Cold War spy novels but are set in a near-future Europe. The continent is dividing over and over, with smaller and smaller nation states being formed all the time. It’s difficult to say too much about the books without spoiling the premise, but they are a delightful pair of novels, filled with ideas that work so well together. They make for effortless reading, and a third book, Europe in Winter, is already out and sitting on top of my to be read pile! For my full review, click here.
So they’re the books I enjoyed in 2016.
I will just give a special mention to a series of books that were much loved in my house. I’ve been meaning to review them, but the year ran out of days before I got around to it. Peter Jay Black’s Urban Outlaws books are kids’ own adventure stories for the modern era. A group of underground hackers attempt to thwart injustice and save the world from a terrifying super-virus, and that’s just book one. Fast-paced and inventive, my ten-year-old devoured all five of these in 2016. Twice. They are certainly his books of the year.
Sophie Brown’s Picks
In contrast to Robin, my 2016 was probably one of my most book-filled in recent years. I found myself reading a lot of sci-fi, which I must admit isn’t all that extraordinary for me in general, but seemed particularly notable in a year when my subconscious apparently also wanted to be in any galaxy or reality that wasn’t this one.
Despite reading as an escape, I found myself particularly enamored with several books that focused on politics, or at least the repercussions of it. Claudia Grey’s Bloodline, a look at the rise of the First Order against the backdrop of squabbling, divisive, post-Empire politics was by far one of the best Star Wars novels I have ever read, while Cecelia Ahern’s Flawed was a disturbing and chilling vision of a future that was frighteningly easy to imagine. In lighter fare, I really enjoyed Crucible by Grey Keyes, the prequel novel to the Independence Day: Resurgence, the second movie in the series. While the movie itself was, admittedly, a let-down even for die-hard fans of the franchise (does two movies count as a franchise?), Crucible was easily its far more enjoyable sibling.
In terms of non-fiction, my favorites covered a fairly wide spectrum. Kyle Schwartz’s I Wish My Teacher Knew offered a sobering look inside America’s classrooms and shone a light on the issues faced therein by children and staff alike. The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu by Joshua Hammer, while perhaps needing an editor with a firmer hand, told an incredible story of ordinary people (if librarians could ever be classified as ordinary) leading a small, yet culturally vital fight against terrorism and Hadley Freeman’s Life Moves Pretty Fast explored the lessons you can learn from popular eighties movies, inspiring me to consider the messages I took away from my own cinematic favourites a decade later.
The final book I wanted to add here was one that genuinely surprised me. I read David Duchovny’s second novel – Bucky F*cking Dent – solely because of its author. Being British, I have never even seen a baseball game, let alone have any emotional connection with the game or its history. I didn’t even know who Bucky Dent was. Yet this book painted an incredibly sensitive, evocative portrait of the relationship between an elderly, ill father and his estranged son, a relationship they share with baseball itself. This is an author writing about his passion, and it shows. It’s a book about far more than just baseball, and it’s one I plan to read again many times in the future.
How about you? What books did you read in 2016 that have stayed with you?