As I mentioned in my post on my top 10 nonfiction reads for the year, I did an almost even 50/50 split of nonfiction and fiction this year, and narrowing it down to just ten of each was TOUGH. I tend to be much more critical of my fiction than my nonfiction, so it’s super rare that I give out five stars to a book, though I did give out five stars to two fiction reads this year (which are the first two on the list).
A few others would have received five stars, but I couldn’t award the extra half-star or star in good conscience to books that contain an alarmingly high amount of swearing and adult content, which is why I didn’t award five to Beartown, though it was easily one of the most memorable and powerful books I’ve read in a long time.
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Here are my top ten fictional reads of the year (in no particular order):
Peace Like a River by Leif Enger
I knew very little about this book before diving in besides the fact that it was considered “literary” fiction, but I’ll admit that had I known more, I might have passed on it—but I’m SO glad I didn’t. Although this book has a lot of traditional “Old Western” themes, it definitely doesn’t FEEL like a typical Western. Basically, this is a book about two siblings who are caught in a difficult situation when their brother, who is wanted for murder, ends up disappearing on a horse and totally eluding local authorities. While the story is pretty good in and of itself, the real winner in this is the feeling of childhood perfectly encapsulated into prose, as well as the bonds of familial love and the unquestioning presence of miracles all around us.
The One-in-a-Million Boy by Monica Wood
I heard this one compared to A Man Called Ove more than once (in tone and charm, not so much in storyline itself), and since I listed that as one of my top reads for 2016, I figured I’d best give this one a chance, too. This story about a young outcast of a boy assigned by his scouting troop to work with a 104-year-old widow seems like it’s going to be pretty straightforward, and I thought I’d called the whole plot from the first chapter. Turns out, I was soooo wrong, but that ended up being a very, very good thing. Admittedly, I was planning on giving this one four stars pretty much all throughout the book, but the ending was so powerful and so perfect that I felt that the book absolutely deserved that elusive fifth star. This is one that I would recommend to just about anybody.
The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane by Lisa See
It’s no secret that I’m a big Lisa See fan, so when I saw that she had a new book coming out this year, I was thrilled—especially since it seems to stray a bit from the content of many of her other books, though it still has her trademark blend of Chinese culture and raw ( and at times brutal) storytelling. The book starts out by following a young girl from a very remote village in rural China, where everyone pretty much makes their living from growing tea leaves. When the protagonist finds herself in a terrible situation and is forced to make a terrible choice, her entire life trajectory is drastically changed, and she has no idea just how far from her village it will take her. Word of warning: in See’s books, triggers abound, so if you’re a sensitive reader or don’t want a book that trends towards the depressing at many points, steer clear.
Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Paterson
I kind of couldn’t believe I’d never read this classic before this year, but what was even more impressive was that I didn’t already know how it would end (having never seen the movie). Although I knew that the book was sad, the ending still left me a bit winded, though this book about childhood friendship and imagination was so beautiful and so powerful, I could forgive that. A bonus on this one? It’s so short, you could easily finish it in an afternoon.
Dreamland Burning by Jennifer Latham
Young adult books have to work especially hard to make it onto any of my “Best of” lists because I often find they’re too juvenile for my tastes now that I’m an adult, but this book’s been getting a lot of buzz for a good reason. This novel starts out with a girl in modern-day times discovering a corpse during her family’s home renovation, and follows her burning desire to solve the mystery of who it was, why it was there, and how it involved the little-spoken-of race riots in Tulsa. This book reads like a well-paced mystery, but it also gently explores modern-day issues of race relations and identity, as well as defining moments that invite us to step up to the plate and do the right thing (though the “message” of the book never gets in the way of the story, which I always appreciate). Warning: some graphic scenes of torture and violence in this one, as well as some strong language.
Beartown by Fredrik Backman
Oh Beartown, I soooooo wanted to be able to give you five stars. I started this book 48 hours before it was due back at the library and was sure that I would be owing some late fines for sure, but I sat down and read the last 350+ pages in one sitting because I just could NOT stop. This one has an obscene amount of language and quite a bit of adult content (mostly in the form of crude jokes)–which is why I couldn’t in good faith recommend it to anyone and everyone–but the story will get in your head and leave you thinking about it for MONTHS after. This book is about a struggling town whose only hope lies in its youth hockey team, but at an after-game party, a terrible act tears the town apart and begs the question–shouldn’t justice be served when a crime is committed, no matter who the perpetrator?
My Lady Jane by Cynthia Hand
There always seems to be at least one book a year that shocks me with how much I like it (against my first impressions of it), and this was that book for me this year. On the surface, this book should have been a hard pass for me (I mean, a young adult romance set back in the Middle Ages that weaves in fantasy elements and grossly changes what actually happened in history?), but I heard enough great feedback about it that I decided to swallow my pride and give it a try. What I found was a book strongly reminiscent of The Princess Bride in its over-the-top humor, sense of adventure, and triumph of love over all. Also, this book was really quite clean (which is more than I can say for most YA books nowadays), so I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend it to most people (though I would recommend giving it to a slightly older teen, like 14 or 15+). Also, bonus—last I checked, this book was less than $8 on Amazon!
Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman
This is the most recent book I finished, and once again, it was one that was so compelling and easy to read that I finished it in a very short time period. Random tidbit: I read Fredrik Backman’s Britt-Marie was Here right before I read this one (which was a flop for me—a gross disappointment after Beartown and Ove), and this story ended up being what I WANTED Britt-Marie to be, but that it failed to deliver. This story takes a socially awkward protagonist with a mysterious past and sends her a string of unexpected events that completely upend her very structured, very self-contained life (and in the best possible way). A fun twist on this one is that throughout the book, you know that her mysterious past plays a key part in why she is the way she is, but you don’t find out the whole truth until the very end. I’ll admit that the ending took a turn I was kinda hoping it wouldn’t, but the story was so well done and such an overall heartwarming read that I was glad to award it a top 10 spot.
The Secret History by Donna Tartt
I’ll start off by saying that this book definitely isn’t for everyone, but it’s the perfect kind of book for me—fabulous prose, memorable characters, and a deliciously tangible sense of time and place that you won’t forget anytime soon. This story tells why a group of close-knit but socially deviant college friends kills one of their own, and the whole story is decidedly creepy. A few caveats: If you need likeable characters, don’t even attempt this one, as none of them are likeable in the slightest. Also, though the content is sometimes thrilling and mysterious, this doesn’t READ like your typical thriller—it’s definitely a more slowed-down, “literary” thriller. That said, if you’re looking for a nice, thick suspense novel to read on a dark winter’s night, this just might be the pick for you.
Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi
The last slot is always the hardest to fill because there are usually several books that all got ratings deserving of this spot, but I ended up choosing this one for its memorability—I mean, I read it near the very, very beginning of the year, and I STILL remember quite a bit about it, which is always a good sign. This book traces what happened to two half-sisters in Ghana who were born around 300 years ago under very different circumstances from each other, and it follows their descendants for several generations forward until the present day. This is not an easy book to read as it deals with many of the grossest acts of human injustice that have happened over the past couple centuries, but it is beautifully written and one that will make you think long after you’ve read the last page.