2016 wasn’t as kind to my bookshelf as 2015. Most of what I read was good, but not great. I read a lot more duds than I usually do. But there are always gems to find, and, whoa, did the ones I uncovered this year shine.
Instead of ranking them in order, I’m going to give each of my top 5 its own title. Because it’s my blog, and I can do what I want.
*Have I done a December wrap-up yet? No. Will it likely be at least two weeks into January before I do. Yeah. The end of the year is hard, friends, so we’re all just going to live with what we get.
Best Can’t-Put-It-Down: The Woman in Cabin 10, by Ruth Ware
In this tightly wound story, Lo Blacklock, a journalist who writes for a travel magazine, has just been given the assignment of a lifetime: a week on a luxury cruise with only a handful of cabins. At first, Lo’s stay is nothing but pleasant: the cabins are plush, the dinner parties are sparkling, and the guests are elegant. But as the week wears on, frigid winds whip the deck, gray skies fall, and Lo witnesses what she can only describe as a nightmare: a woman being thrown overboard. The problem? All passengers remain accounted for—and so, the ship sails on as if nothing has happened, despite Lo’s desperate attempts to convey that something (or someone) has gone terribly, terribly wrong…
Holyyyyyyyyy schnikes, y’all. This book had me from page one and would not let me go. It hits everything I love in a whodunnit: unreliable narrator, lush setting, timeline jumps…it’s got it all. If you’re looking for something to keep you on the treadmill longer, this book is it.
Best Exploitation of Jackie’s Obsession: Hamilton: The Revolution, by Lin-Manuel Miranda and Jeremy McCarter
Lin-Manuel Miranda’s groundbreaking musical Hamilton is as revolutionary as its subject, the poor kid from the Caribbean who fought the British, defended the Constitution, and helped to found the United States. Fusing hip-hop, pop, R&B, and the best traditions of theater, this once-in-a-generation show broadens the sound of Broadway, reveals the storytelling power of rap, and claims our country’s origins for a diverse new generation.
HAMILTON: THE REVOLUTION gives readers an unprecedented view of both revolutions, from the only two writers able to provide it. Miranda, along with Jeremy McCarter, a cultural critic and theater artist who was involved in the project from its earliest stages–“since before this was even a show,” according to Miranda–traces its development from an improbable performance at the White House to its landmark opening night on Broadway six years later. In addition, Miranda has written more than 200 funny, revealing footnotes for his award-winning libretto, the full text of which is published here.
Y’all. Y’all. Y’ALL. This is way more than just a printed copy of the Hamilton libretto. This is a gorgeous piece of storytelling and record-keeping for a show that will fundamentally shape the world of theatre for the next generations. I legitimately cried multiple times reading it, sometimes from laughter, sometimes from heartbreak. It is funny and touching and wickedly sharp. If you love Hamilton or if you’re just trying to figure out what all the hype is about, this is for you.
Best Memoir: Lab Girl, by Hope Jahren
Lab Girl is a book about work, love, and the mountains that can be moved when those two things come together. It is told through Jahren’s stories: about her childhood in rural Minnesota with an uncompromising mother and a father who encouraged hours of play in his classroom’s labs; about how she found a sanctuary in science, and learned to perform lab work done “with both the heart and the hands”; and about the inevitable disappointments, but also the triumphs and exhilarating discoveries, of scientific work.
Yet at the core of this book is the story of a relationship Jahren forged with a brilliant, wounded man named Bill, who becomes her lab partner and best friend. Their sometimes rogue adventures in science take them from the Midwest across the United States and back again, over the Atlantic to the ever-light skies of the North Pole and to tropical Hawaii, where she and her lab currently make their home.
One of my most favorite parts of life is watching the eyes of my friends light up when they talk about those things they’re most passionate about. Even if I have no idea exactly what they’re talking about, their love and energy makes me want to be passionate about whatever it is right along with them. Reading this book gave me that same feeling. Even if paleobotany isn’t your jam (and let’s be honest, it’s not many people’s jam), you will finish this book feeling encouraged and energized and full of life. Plus you’ll know some cool new stuff about trees.
Best The-Hype-Is-Worth-It: Dark Matter, by Blake Crouch
“Are you happy with your life?”
Those are the last words Jason Dessen hears before the masked abductor knocks him unconscious.
Before he awakens to find himself strapped to a gurney, surrounded by strangers in hazmat suits.
Before a man Jason’s never met smiles down at him and says, “Welcome back, my friend.”
In this world he’s woken up to, Jason’s life is not the one he knows. His wife is not his wife. His son was never born. And Jason is not an ordinary college physics professor, but a celebrated genius who has achieved something remarkable. Something impossible.
Is it this world or the other that’s the dream? And even if the home he remembers is real, how can Jason possibly make it back to the family he loves? The answers lie in a journey more wondrous and horrifying than anything he could’ve imagined—one that will force him to confront the darkest parts of himself even as he battles a terrifying, seemingly unbeatable foe.
I just can’t even with this book. I yelled. I texted “what the heck” to my roommate on multiple occasions. I almost ripped the pages from turning them too fast to try and figure out what in the world was going on. It takes the alternate timeline standards of science fiction past and adds new dimension. Even if you’re not usually a SciFi person, I would still highly recommend this one.
Best Overall: Homegoing, by Yaa Gyasi
The unforgettable New York Times best seller begins with the story of two half-sisters, separated by forces beyond their control: one sold into slavery, the other married to a British slaver. Written with tremendous sweep and power, Homegoing traces the generations of family who follow, as their destinies lead them through two continents and three hundred years of history, each life indelibly drawn, as the legacy of slavery is fully revealed in light of the present day.
I will recommend this book to every person I meet for the rest of my life. It is vivid and engaging and thought-provoking and so intensely good. I read this six months ago and still find myself thinking about it. I own two copies, so pleasepleaseplease let me lend this to you. I promise you’ll love it, too.
May 2017 bring more gems like these onto my bookshelves.
And may 2017 also bring more bookshelves because I’m out of space (again).