I read a ton of fiction every year. I had the hardest time narrowing it down so brace yourself for a long list. I've divided it by general fiction, YA, and romance. These books were not necessarily published this past year but this is when I read them. I hope you'll love them as much as I do!
To see the other novels meriting a 4 or 5 star review from me, head over to my Pinterest board.
All The Ugly And Wonderful Things- Bryn Greenwood
The fact that I gave this 5 stars is all due to the author. It is exceedingly well-written, deft and nuanced, but the empathetic portrayal of a situation that is at first glance unconscionable is what took it to the next level. Wavy is 8 and Kellen a decade or more older when they first meet. They are drawn to one another from the start and while Kellen is aware of how the situation could look from the outside, he is more aware of how Wavy and her brother Donal have no one looking after them. When her mom is in a drug-induced haze, Kellen goes to the parent-teacher conferences and brings groceries. It is a needed and valued role for him to play. Greenwood illustrates the long-ranging effects of child abuse and neglect. When your parents both scar and fail you, you don't know how to relate to other people in a healthy way. Kellen and Wavy were both traumatized by their parents and in some ways, it makes perfect sense that they would recognize a kindred spirit in each other. And yet there's no denying a romantic relationship between them is wrong, especially when Wavy is young. Kellen recognizes this but he also doesn't ultimately rebuff Wavy's advances. This propels the plot along and I had no idea what would happen next or how I should feel about any of it. Part of me was rooting for Kellen and Wavy to find a way to be together once Wavy was older, if indeed she still felt the same way by that point. The other part of me recognized this relationship would never have happened if any of the adults in Wavy's life had intervened at some point, whether it was her parents actually taking an active, healthy role or a teacher speaking up or her aunt and uncle stepping in. Wavy was failed time and again and it is no wonder she developed feelings for the one person who was always there for her. This would be perfect book club fodder.
The Winter Sea- Susanna Kearsley
As an Outlander fan, this was a fascinating precursor to the Jacobite Uprising Gabaldon depicts. I learned so much about the exiled King James, who, from my limited understanding, seemed like he would have been a great king, much better than his great-great-grandson Bonnie Prince Charlie. This is my favorite kind of novel- interweaving a present-day storyline with a historical one- and I loved how Kearsley twisted it by playing with genetic memory, a concept I wasn't familiar with but which took the story in entirely interesting directions. Throw in the love stories between Sophia and John and Carrie and Graham and I was quite the happy camper. I also loved that Carrie was a novelist and that we got to see how her manuscripts come together.
The Wonder- Emma Donoghue
This novel (full review here) raises excellent questions of faith, doubt, and miracles. The story is densely layered, with facts and clues doled out to us in a perfectly paced manner, not only about Anna and her family but Lib herself. I raced through the last 80 pages wanting to know whether Anna would die, if Lib would ignore the rules of the watch, and just whether a miracle had occurred after all. The way Donoghue (author of Room) brought it all together at the end blew me away. Masterfully done. (Disclosure: I was provided an ARC from NetGalley in exchange for an honest opinion.)
The City of Mirrors- Justin Cronin
The Passage was one of my favorite novels in 2015. I held off on reading The Twelve because it would be a long wait until The City of Mirrors finally came out. The Twelve fascinated me because of Cronin's bold choices in how to move the story forward toward it's ultimate conclusion. The bold choices only continued with The City of Mirrors. While there are a few minor quibbles I have with two things that happened toward the end, they did not distract me from the amazing way Cronin drew this trilogy to a close. We see how character development pays off (or doesn't), we learn a key character's origin story and what that has to do with everyone else, we are treated to more of the complex, nuanced social commentary Cronin served up in the first book. The literary and religious references add depth and richness throughout. And the ending was satisfying and not at all what I expected. Some day I will read all 3 books back to back and I'm sure I will walk away with even more insights. For now, I'm in awe of Cronin's genius. If only I could pick his brain and learn how this giant story came to be!
Inspector Gamache series- Louise Penny
Friends have recommended the Inspector Gamache series for a few years now and I decided to finally see why. I bought Still Life (Penny) from Parnassus Books while I was back in Nashville, as a plane debacle on the way there led to me reading three books in one day and I was in need of reading material for the flight back. It's a delightful character-driven murder mystery. Still Life sets up some interesting premises and I liked learning more about the town and its inhabitants. The mystery itself could have gone in several directions, which led to some surprises. The series has only grown stronger since. There's a bigger overarching mystery introduced a couple of books in and the way Gamache and his squad respond is fascinating. Plus, I adore the inhabitants of Three Pines and wish desperately I could cozy up at Olivier and Gabri's cafe, while away hours at Myrna's bookstore, and talk art with Clara. Penny writes about life, death, faith, and hope in such nuanced ways. There are 12 books so far in the series and I've just finished #8, each better than the last.
The City Baker's Guide To Country Living- Louise Miller
I have long loved food memoir but sadly, food fiction has been more miss than hit for me the last few years. I am relieved this fine novel exceeded all expectations. First, the food descriptions are incredible but I also really appreciated Olivia's approach in the kitchen and seeing the trajectory of her career. Even though she's earned major accolades, she wasn't showy about it and she concentrated more on the quality of whatever her ingredients were than anything else. Second, this allowed us to experience how much the kitchen has overtaken her personal life and therefore see what changes occur when she starts working at the Sugar Maple. Third, I loved getting to know the people in the town and how these relationships softened Olivia and allowed her to take some chances. Of course, she's not perfect and sometimes I marveled at how her best friend put up with her, as well as how men seemingly fell at her feet in spite of poor behavior. But this all allowed for some major character development and the way the novel twisted and turned through all of it had me enthralled. Plus: allow me to dreamily sigh over Martin. The way Miller built the relationship between Livvy and Martin is worth a good look, especially because of one particular choice she made with the characters. But what a payoff in the end! Absolutely lovely through and through. (Disclosure: I was provided an ARC from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.)
Before The Fall - Noah Hawley
Everyone is right: do NOT read this on a plane. But once you're between travels, by all means pick this one up. I loved how Hawley built the story, starting with a plane crash and then introducing us to the survivors and the deceased, while interspersing the present day investigation. The role of media in tragedy and what an unruly beast it can be was quite fascinating. My heart rate was elevated whenever I read a scene involving a Fox News-like newscaster, similar to how I react when someone is spreading outright fear and misinformation.
Jane Steele- Lindsay Faye
If you love Jane Eyre or Gothic novels or well-written creative fiction...If you've ever wondered what Jane Eyre would have been like had she believed the people who told her she was wicked, this is the novel for you. It's not a retelling of Jane Eyre but the novel features prominently, as it is dear to our main character for the ways her life is similar to Jane Eyre and for the ways it is entirely different. To wit: it includes the line, "Reader, I murdered him." It is a DELIGHT! It kept me enthralled and guessing the whole way through.
Happiness For Beginners- Katherine Center
At first, I wasn't too sure about the main character's possible love interest. She's a few years younger than me and interested in a guy who's fresh out of college. It just did not seem plausible. (Not because it's an older woman and a younger man.) But as the plot unfolded and as we learn more about Helen's story, as well as that of Jake, it made more and more sense. It was refreshing, as was the hardcore wilderness trek setting and the well-integrated information on the psychology of happiness. The character growth was complex but believable, even inspiring and I loved the unexpected twists along the way.
Fates and Furies- Lauren Groff
I read this in January and I still ruminate over it. Two sides of a marriage which veer in vastly different directions. The second half is particularly unexpected and ripe for misunderstanding. Or perhaps ripe with nuance. Or perhaps ripe with rot. This would be great for book clubs.
The Serpent King- Jeff Zentner
Three high school misfits band together in their small rural town in this debut. It's their senior year and while they long to graduate, their futures do not all hold the same possibilities, making this a rich coming of age story. Questions of identity are raised: how well do we know ourselves and others, especially when people try to limit or make us smaller than we are. The impeccable character development and bold plot choices made this book hard to put down, as well as hard to forget. I could not love it more.
The Raven King- Maggie Stiefvater
This was a very satisfying end to the series with some lovely unexpected developments. I was especially heartened by Ronan and Adam's storyline, as well as the addition of Henry. I'm going to miss these characters. Start with The Raven Boys.
Tell Me Three Things- Julie Buxbaum
Buxbaum perfectly captures the angst of being a teenage, albeit self-aware, girl, while also offering a nuanced depiction of Jessie's grief over the death of her mom, which is complicated when her dad ups and marries a woman he met online. Jessie's grieving and then starting a brand-new life in California right as she starts junior year. Then she receives an anonymous email from someone offering to help her navigate her new school and a wonderful depiction of friendship and potential romance evolves. While I was pretty sure I knew who SN was, Buxbaum made me second guess myself up until the very end but oh how happy I was with the ending. Moving in places but also filled with wit.
I am full on obsessed with Penny Reid. She writes nerdy, quirky romance and I have laughed out loud with every book. Every single thing she's written has been 5 stars. The plots are unpredictable and completely satisfying. Whether she's writing about a family of siblings or a circle of friends, I love how deep and varied the relationships are. So true to life.
I absolutely adored the first three books in her Winston Brothers series: Truth Or Beard, Grin and Beard It, andBeard Science (full review here.) I am full on swooning over the brothers Winston. Can we take a minute to marvel over those cross-stitch covers? The best!
I've also read the first four books in her Knitting In The City series. They are pure fun, while also being educational (random trivia! boy bands! bitcoins!) and I have not been able to stop myself from guessing the main characters' Enneagram types. (One of my quirks.) Start with Neanderthal Seeks Human (free on Kindle and Nook!) I don't know if I've ever encountered a character like Janie before. She was incredibly endearing, even if she was a walking Jeopardy contestant. She is quirky as all get out and incredibly brilliant. She struck me as a classic Five (the need to perceive, all logic all the time), though Nine was an initial guess. She was incredibly stuck in her head and unaware of her emotions and completely oblivious to glaringly obvious things...and I loved it! The way her relationship with Quinn unfolded was so fun to watch, especially seeing what they had to teach one another. Quinn was incredibly dreamy and mysterious and so much more of a good guy than he believed he was. I loved the build up to their relationship and then seeing how they navigated dating. And then you have to read the follow up Neanderthal Marries Human!
It Ends With Us- Colleen Hoover
This freaking book! I haven't read Hoover before but she's been on my radar for a while (thanks, Elora!) She blew me away with her depictions of Lily, Ryle, and Atlas. The character growth was incredible but I was especially impressed with how she handled a very serious issue (some think this is best kept under wraps but if you are careful about what you read, I put a trigger warning here) and somehow managed to avoid all the cliches. Whatever you thought about this matter before reading, I guarantee she'll leave you thinking about it in a much more nuanced, informed light. I do not often copy down passages from novels but the writing was absolutely gorgeous and worth referring back to. I admired Lily so much and by the end of the novel, I wanted to be her best friend, give her a hug, and then arrange eternal applause. I also loved her friendship with Allysa and what that relationship comes to mean to both of them. Plus, there were clever quirks like old journal entries addressed to Ellen DeGeneres and unusual flower arrangements. In short: I LOVED IT!
How Not To Let Go- Emily Foster
This is the follow up to How Not To Fall (my review here.) My full review will be up tomorrow but for now I'll say this was one of the best depictions of a character working through past trauma and their own inner demons I've ever seen. The way it built toward the HEA was phenomenal. Charles and Annie's love story should be read and enjoyed by all!
Beneath This Mask- Meghan March
I listened to this on audiobook and was completely spellbound. The narrators did a great job and the story itself was fantastic. The theme of masks was compelling for both Charlie and Simon. They are hiding different things and I was curious to see whether they'd be able to really trust each other with their true selves. March was able to present the issue of PTSD and its treatment in a nuanced and respectful way. I also appreciated the way she depicted Charlie's legal troubles related to her family. More than that, Charlie and Simon were such intriguing characters and they were an explosive force together. Charlie is such a badass and I loved hearing about her tattoos and what they meant to her. I also loved the supporting characters and how Charlie created her own family in NOLA. Great character growth and snappy writing left me feeling sad when the book ended because I wanted it to keep going forever. Meghan March is definitely a new favorite author!
Girls Night Out series- Victoria Dahl
If you're looking for a great contemporary romance, I highly recommend the Girls Night Out books by Victoria Dahl. Start with Looking For Trouble. Taking The Heat was my favorite. I loved how the friendship between these three woman was such a central part of the series and how their conversations didn't always center around their love lives. Fun fact: a few of the main characters are librarians, which definitely contributed to me dusting off my old dream of becoming a librarian myself.
An Indecent Proposal (The O'Malley's #3)- Katee Roberts
Before The O'Malleys series, I had no idea how much I loved mafia romance. It reminds me of how my friend Jamie describes herself as a feminist who likes to get pushed around. These books make me wish I could fall in love with some Boston Irish mobsters, although with less violence and killing, of course. Each book in this series gets better and better and An Indecent Proposal blew me away. First, I loved the "will they, won't they" nature of Cillian and Olivia. Olivia has valid reasons for not getting involved. (Sidenote: I normally don't like children in my romance novels but I really liked Olivia as a single mom trying to do right by her daughter and make sure she had a different childhood.) Second, consent plays a major role throughout the novel and it was handled so well. I loved how Cillian deferred to Olivia on everything, including what information he could give his family and whether he could approach her daughter. Third, the character growth and depiction of grief was just stellar and also laid some groundwork for the next couple of books. I cannot wait to see what Robert does next! (Disclosure: I received an ARC from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.)
Stage Dive series - Kylie Scott
New Adult is a hit or miss genre for me but whether it's my love for bad boy rock stars or my appreciation for feisty heroines, Scott makes it work in this series. They made me laugh out loud and a couple made me tear up. Lead(book 3) was my favorite. It had fantastic character growth (be still my heart, Jimmy!) and it made me laugh and cry. The banter was perfect and I loved watching Lena and Jimmy fall for each other.
Beautiful Bastard (Beautiful #1)- Christina Lauren
I've read some great novels with the "enemies to lovers" trope but this puts them all to shame. This was crazy hot. I could not get enough of the banter. I completely get why so many people rave about this series!
What were your favorite fiction reads in 2016?
Disclosure: Affiliate links included in this post.