I read a lot in 2016. Not counting graphic novels, comics, magazines, online articles (including some longreads that approached novella length), and other miscellany, there were still probably a good 150 or so books that I devoured (making me the distant second most-read person in our house). Most were some flavor of "good" or "interesting" (there were a few exceptions, because sometimes whether a book is good or not hinges on a last-third writing choice, but if I hate a book after an hour of reading, I don't throw more time at it*).
Anyway, here's six fiction and six non-fiction I enjoyed. Not necessarily the "best," but ones I still think others should read. I limited my list to 2016 books, although I certainly read from other periods (probably my favorite read last year was Nabokov's Pale Fire
, which is brilliant enough that I don't understand why it's not talked about and taught more, as it may by my favorite piece of postmodern lit). I hate saying these are the "best," since I liked so much, and it's not even fair to say they're my favorites, since things like my mood are big factors in how I feel about things. Just twelve books I really liked, and wish more folks would read so I could have more conversations about them.
Fiction:I am Providence
, by Nick Mamatas. I really wanted to write a full review of this, but never found the time. While the obvious comparison point for this book are the Jay Omega books of Sharyn McCrumb, this actually felt like less of a send-up of fandom than of "pro"dom within the Lovecraftian community (and the blurred lines that have led to almost everyone involved in Lovecraft fandom to be able to claim some form of "pro" in their title). The concept is that Panossian, an author with an uncanny resemblance to Mamatas (but often in a "road not taken" sense -- this version did have a novel that mashed up Lovecraft and another classic work of literature, but never really found any success after that) is murdered at a Lovecraft con, and his roommate (and first-time attendee) attempts to figure out what happened. Mamatas takes the neat twist of alternating Colleen chapters with ones told by Panossian as his corpse lies on the table and his brain is slowly starting to fade. It's a fun take on the "have the victim tell his tale" thing, and appropriate in this setting. While the satire is first-rate, it's only part of the story, and the book exists (and has to exist) as a solid murder story as well, one that should work for folks not familiar with either Lovecraft or (if they're really lucky) his fandom. While it doesn't feel like it's meant to be a complex puzzle-box mystery in the vein of John Dickson Carr or Yukito Ayatsuji, it does have a couple of solid twists, and works really well as a character-driven piece of mystery fiction, with a huge bonus for anyone who's spent time in fannish communities and needed to get the stink (metaphorical and often literal) off afterwards.The Passenger
, by Lisa Lutz, and What Remains of Me
, by Alison Gaylin. I read a LOT of good crime fiction/thrillers this year**, but these two stand out as examples of authors who leveled up. Lutz tells the story of a woman who has been on the run for years, and suddenly has to leave her safe haven again. The mystery of her backstory unfolds slowly as she winds her way across the Midwest, leaving even more bodies behind. Gaylin's story, like Elizabeth Little's witty Dear Daughter
from a couple of years ago, is about a woman released from jail after being convicted of murder, but goes down a very different path, keeping things darker and generally more serious, but with a cast of brutally broken characters. I don't want to dive too deeply into either plot, but both are well worth grabbing.The Last Days of Jack Sparks
, by Jason Arnopp. Years ago, I read a bunch of the licensed horror movie books from the no-defunct Black Library label from Games Workshop. They ranged from great to terrible, often, not surprisingly, depending on the author. One author I'd never heard of before was a guy named Jason Arnopp, who wrote a witty novel about Jason, a pair of serial killer cultists, and yet another serial killer masquerading as an FBI agent, all of whom converge on a resort hotel. It was ludicrously fun Grand Guignol stuff, and randomly this year, I decided to google to see if he'd writen anything else. Turns out he had, and the book had just come out, complete with blurbs from people like Alan Moore. So I grabbed it, and it was good (and thankfully, felt nothing like recent Moore). It's "found footage," in the sense that it's the journals of the titular journalist, a British gonzo reporter who wants to be the next Hunter S. Thompson, but is, in the end, really just a textbook example of toxic masculinity who gets himself caught up in his own reporting about possessions and seances. But it's a lot more fun than that paragraph makes it sound, even as the characters suffer more and more horrible fates. You Will Know Me
, by Megan Abbott. I almost feel like I'm cheating with this one, because Abbott leveled up years ago, and gets the national attention for her books that she deserves (incidentally, she and Lutz are both writing for HBO's upcoming TV show The Deuce
). She's actually no longer what I'd think of as a thriller or mystery author at this point, instead writing literary mainstream books in which the death is almost secondary or even tertiary to the rest of the story. This tale, about the parents of a teen gymnast, is just incredible (and clearly incredibly well-researched), and came out at just the right time (right before the Olympics) to make it both painful and wonderful to watch the events. Blackass
, by A. Igoni Barrett. This is another of those books that's incredibly hard to describe. It starts with a Kafka-esque moment, in which Furo Wariboko, a Nigerian, wakes up to discover that he's now a white man. But even in a majority-black country, white privilege means that he's cast up in society, not down, as the result of the change. But of course, he's still adrift, and eventually runs into a character named Igoni, who just happens to be a writer. The book is technically genre, of course, but it's really a look at race and gender and cultural imperialism, with some fun postmodern touches and multiple well-developed narrative voices. It's also blazingly funny and cutting, and a hell of a fast read.
Nonfiction: Eight Flavors
, by Sarah Lohman. I knew I was going to love this book as soon as I saw Lohman present at the Museum of Science earlier this year at a Gastropod
program. The book did not disappoint. It's a look at eight flavors in American history, including pepper, vanilla, garlic, and siracha, and how they all changed American cooking. It's basically culinary anthropology and history along with some science, and Lohman's a great storyteller as well as researcher. Basically, if you enjoy food, you should read this.Apostle: Travels Among the Tombs of the Twelve
, by Tom Bissell. I'm not religious, but I do love me both mythology and literary history along with good travel writing, and that's what Bissell (who I know mainly for his video game journalism) delivers here. Bissell (a lapsed Catholic) decided to visit the tombs (or alleged tombs) of the twelve apostles, and along the way, he takes some deep dives (based off a huge amount of research) into the oft-conflicting stories about them, as well as the huge amount of early mythology and apocrypha that arose around these people (many of whom have almost no canonical personalities). He mixes some great personalities into the stories, from the martyr-obsessed nun at one church to the Palestinian taxi driver who takes Tom and his friend through hidden backroads so they can witness a locked-down protest first-hand. The Caped Crusade: Batman and the Rise of Nerd Culture
, by Glenn Weldon. I'm a huge fan of Weldon on Pop Culture Happy Hour, as his style of nerdery mimics mine pretty strongly. This witty book isn't about Batman per se (although it certainly does have its share of actual history), since that's been done before. Rather, this is about how Batman influenced and was influenced by the culture of the world. Weldon is snarky and laugh-out-loud funny, and really knows his stuff, and fans of Batman in any form (or even of just good writing) should grab this.A Burglar's Guide to the City
, by Geoff Manaugh. This is my second Gastropod-related book (Manaugh is the partner of one of the podcast's hosts), although I discovered the book when Sarah Weinman wrote a rave review. It's actually almost more an architecture book than anything else, a look at how buildings are viewed through the eyes of criminals and those who try to stop them, so things like access to balconies and basements and all the cool heist things you see in movies, and how people try to prevent them. It's a true crime book with some hysterical stories (the number of criminals who are smart enough to find their way into buildings, but dumb enough to leave trails when they leave, is astounding), and one had me examine every building I saw for a while to see if there were things designed to prevent access (or poorly designed and thus offering easy access). Fans of capers should read this one.Sex with Shakespeare
, by Jillian Keenan. Keenan rather famously came out as a spanking fetishist
a few years ago in the New York Times. She's now written a book that's a mix of a memoir and literary analysis. Like many people, she's been reading Shakespeare for a good chunk of her life, and like many folks, she's found parallels in some of the characters and situations. As she discovers her own sexuality (and follows professional and personal pursuits) over the years, she has imaginary conversations with characters from the plays, and adds her reading of many of the plays through a kink-based lens, with varying degrees of success (although her reading of Helena in Midsummer
as a masochist, or Lear as a sexual predator, are compelling). But it's her own story (which also includes some childhood abuse, a diagnosis of multiple sclerosis, and some international travel) that keeps this moving along so well. Real Food/Fake Food: Why You Don’t Know What You’re Eating and What You Can Do about It
, by Larry Olmstead. This sounds like a book that's going to be all about how you should avoid artificial sweeteners and the like, but it's not. It's actually a book about the history and development of a lot of foods that have now been devalued by counterfeiting, ranging from Parmesan cheese to Kobe beef to Champagne to seafood. It covers the legal and the ethical issues involved, and while I'd known about some of this (I read and posted links to the Tampa Bay Tribune expose of restaurant fraud
last year), there was a lot of new info here (spoilers: pretty much any sushi you eat at any local restaurant has some degree of fraud involved other than maybe the tamago). Bonus: Mario Batali takes it on the chin for committing food fraud in the first chapter.*The exception being Andrew Vachss's increasingly terrible series of Cross novels, which are so gloriously awful (and yet self-assured) that they're almost a master class in what not to do as a writer, but which at least read quickly.
**Like, looking at my list and only including "thrillers" (as opposed to the Abbott book, or detective fiction by folks like Ace Atkins or mysteries like the one by Mamatas), I could probably have put together a list of twelve thrillers I loved.