Best Books of 2016

I had a HARD time making a list this year. Usually when I am reading my #1 book of the year I know it while I am in the middle of it and then things just fall into place with the rest of the list. But not this year. This year no #1 ever showed itself. It wasn’t a bad year. I read so many books I really loved. But ultimately this is my list and it comes down to the sticky factor. Did this book stick in my head? Did it stay with me? Did I continue to talk about it for days and weeks and months afterwards?

Yes, this is MY list. It is not a list of the objectively best books. They are the books that did something to me when I read them. They are also the ones I got to this year. (A few that I read this year that were written last year would have made the list, like The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen, Dragonfish by Vu Tranand Delicious Foods by James Hannaham.) 

I was not able to select a number one or rank my top 10, but I did manage to  break it into two tiers. Each set is listed alphabetically. (Links are to Amazon, if you purchase through them it helps support the blog. Thanks!)

top 5 books of 2016

Top 5

Here Comes the Sun by Nicole Dennis-Benn. A tragedy of Shakespearean power set in the shacks and the gleaming resorts of Jamaica. A gut punch of a debut novel.

The Hike by Drew Magary. This book came out of nowhere and messed with my head in a way I can’t get over. Terrifying, absurd, utterly unique, and constantly unexpected, with the best ending I’ve read in years.

The Trespasser by Tana French. The Sixth Dublin Murder Squad book is the best yet, a straight-up procedural that is so sharp it could cut glass. I want 5 more Conway books.

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead. You don’t need me to tell you how good this book is. But you really can believe the hype. 

Version Control by Dexter Palmer. A near-future science fiction novel about loving other people vs. loving what you do, complete with creative and creepy technology and worldbuilding.

Top 6-10 Books of 2016

6-10

Arcade by Drew Nellins Smith. A very honest book about sex from a narrator who can’t manage to be honest about anything else. A spare, gutsy novel about having only one foot out of the closet.

Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi. Sprawling and epic in scope, and yet each chapter is such a small and perfect treasure. Generations of one family are divided by slavery and united again.

Lab Girl by Hope Jahren. People are miracles. It turns out, so are trees. Jahren will open up rooms in your heart you did not know were there. A memoir worth the tears I cried reading it.

Sarong Party Girls by Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan. What starts as a light, romantic romp becomes a serious examination of whether people can change. If Clueless moved to Singapore and Cher wasn’t such a nice girl.

Shelter by Jung Yun. A man’s life unravels as the parents who victimized him are victimized themselves. Old wounds still feel awfully fresh no matter how hard you run. Dark, suspenseful, and full of heartache.

 

And since 10 is not enough, here’s 11-20.

All the Single Ladies by Rebecca Traister

The Ballad of Black Tom by Victor LaValle

Girls on Fire by Robin Wasserman

The Queen of the Night by Alexander Chee

The Story of a Brief Marriage by Anuk Arudpragasam

Sunset City by Melissa Ginsburg

Three Dark Crowns by Kendare Blake

We Love You, Charlie Freeman by Kaitlyn Greenidge

What Belongs to You by Garth Greenwell

You Will Know Me by Megan Abbott

 

Honestly, there were a lot of great books this year (as always!) and it was very, very hard to make my list. There are plenty of books not on that list that make my heart hurt. (I’m so sorry, books! I love you!) It was also hard because some of my very favorite books this year were 2015 releases that I read too late. In very strong contention for last year’s top 10 were:

Delicious Foods by James Hannaham

Dragonfish by Vu Tran

Negroland by Margo Jefferson

The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen

 

And on top of all of those, I read a few backlist titles that just killed it. This was the first year I ever read any Octavia Butler and I feel like I need to seek forgiveness from some literary deity. If you are like me and want to atone, Kindred is a great place to start. Excellent sci-fi, social commentary that makes you shocked it’s 40 years old, and just a rip of a read.

I finally read Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Saénz, which I’d heard about for a while but definitely did not prioritize enough. Hands down one of my favorite YA  novels of all time. I cried buckets in the best way.

4 of my top 20 are LGBTQ novels, and it’s possible I read more queer fiction this year than any other. (From backlist I read Redefining Realness, Edinburghand The Price of Salt (Carol) along with new releases like Juliet Takes a Breath and If I Was Your Girl.) 

I also re-read the entire Dublin Murder Squad Series from Tana French, which was, I 100% admit, a highlight of the year. I got lost in those books for a few weeks when life was particularly nuts and I needed the escape.

Even though I didn’t get that #1 book that really rocked my world, I got so many stellar reads this year that I can’t complain. 2016 was a good year in reading for me. 

What were your top books of 2016?

Fun Book Club Picks

I love book clubs. But have you noticed how this thing tends to happen in your book club where every book is about death, war, adultery, loss, grief, etc., etc.? Sometimes you just want to get together with your friends to talk about a book that didn’t leave you heartbroken and sad, am I right? 

affiliate links picToday I’ve got a roundup of picks for your book club or your personal reading. I know that when I’m in a slump or if I’m feeling down, I want a book that’s a little more of a pick me up. And it’s hard for me since my tastes tend towards the dark and twisty. So even my fun and light picks need some meat on their bones, which is essential for a good book club pick that’ll give you an interesting discussion. (Links below are affiliate links that help support the blog.)

The Wangs vs. the World by Jade Chang. This is a newly released debut novel, one of the big ones of the Fall and it’s a great club pick for so many reasons. If you enjoy watching complex family dynamics play out, this will be right up your alley. Charles Wang is a Chinese immigrant who made his fortune in cosmetics, and has just seen it come crashing down. Now the family he raised in luxury doesn’t know they’ve been ruined and Charles decides that what they all need is a road trip. This kind of story could be a downer, but instead it’s full of humor and laughs. And extra special bonus! Scroll down to enter to WIN a copy of The Wangs vs. The World provided by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt!

You Can’t Touch My Hair: And Other Things I Still Have to Explain by Phoebe Robinson. The book of essays by funny women is becoming its own genre, but this is one of my favorites of the bunch. Robinson, who you may know if you listen to the 2 Dope Queens podcast, is a stand up comic and she does not hold back in making sure she squeezes in as many jokes per page as possible while also talking seriously about what it’s like to be black, and a woman, and a comedian in the modern world. Some books of essays are inconsistent, but this one regularly delivers. (Note: Robinson is definitely a millennial and I definitely foresee a potential generation gap if your book club readers are 40+. In that case, go with my other favorite funny woman book that’s also great though more heartfelt: Yes, Please by Amy Poehler.)

The Actor and the Housewife by Shannon Hale. If you want a book that manages to be both very real-life and very escapist, somehow this one manages to be both. Becky is a housewife, a mother of three with baby #4 on the way, when she meets movie star Felix. In a brief chance meeting something clicks, and these two most unlikely allies become best friends. My favorite thing about this book is the way it plays with your expectations about what’s supposed to happen in this kind of story, the way you never really know what will happen between these two. If you want to have some real discussions about whether men and women be friends without romance coming into play, the twists and turns of Becky and Felix’s relationship will give your book club a lot to talk about.

Lafayette in the Somewhat United States by Sarah Vowell. If you don’t read a lot of nonfiction or history, Vowell is a really enjoyable way to learn a lot of fascinating history. I’ve read a whole bunch of her books and this may be the best book club pick, since everyone thinks they know all about the Revolutionary War but it turns out what you learned in school isn’t a very accurate picture. Also if there are any Hamilton lovers in the group, they’ll get plenty of Washington and Lafayette (and a little bit of our man A. Ham as well). I promise that Vowell’s books are so funny and enjoyable while also making you feel smart and informed.

Kitchens of the Great Midwest by J. Ryan Stradahl. This one should be an easy sell to your average suburban lady book club. Food! Family! Midwestern accents! But this book takes you by surprise. It is incredibly charming and it’s one of those gimmicky books where every chapter is from a different character and seemingly random lives end up being intertwined, with a big fat bow on top at the very end. Looking through so many different sets of eyes guarantees interesting discussion, and underneath this book’s sweet demeanor is a lot of interesting commentary on modern life. Plus the extra bonus of several recipes you can make and bring to your book club feast.

Year of Yes: How to Dance It Out, Stand In the Sun and Be Your Own Person by Shonda Rhimes. If anyone in your club watches Scandal or Grey’s Anatomy or HTGAWM, odds are they will be very very happy about this pick. But you don’t need to be a Shonda fan to enjoy this book. Honestly, you don’t need to be a self-help fan to enjoy this book. I hate self-help books. Hate them. And I adored this book so very much. Want to talk about goals? Want to talk about work-life balance? Want some pinterest-worthy inspirational quotes? This book will give you all those things, and even if you have a cold, bitter heart like me, you will be won over by Shonda. You can’t not like her. She is so funny and personable and honest. 

 

And now for our giveaway! One lucky reader will win a copy of The Wangs vs. the World, the new novel by Jade Chang. To enter, just leave a comment below with your light or funny book club pick. Entries are open until Wednesday, October 26th.

Rules: No purchase necessary. By leaving a comment you agree to the rules of this giveaway. One entry per household. Limited to entrants over 18 in the United States. Contest begins as of the time of this post and ends on 10/26/16 at 6 pm Eastern Time. The winner will receive a copy of the novel The Wangs vs. the World. The number of eligible entries received will determine the odds of winning. The winner will be chosen randomly using the plugin And the Winner Is…  Winner will be notified by email and must respond within 48 hours to receive their prize. If the winner does not respond within that time, a new winner will be chosen. The prize will be provided by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Don’t Mind the Mess is not responsible for any problems with receipt of the prize. This contest is governed by the rules of Massachusetts, void where prohibited.

Disclosure: Thanks to HMH for providing the giveaway prize for this post! 

Summer Reading Update

Well Oprah ruined my summer reading post by moving one of the Big Fall books to a summer release. So I figured at least I could take advantage of it by throwing in some of the books that didn’t make my last list and the books I’ve read since then. This time let’s mix it up and move from Heavy to Light. (All links are affiliate links through Amazon, I may earn a commission on any purchases you make through them with no extra cost to you.)

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead This is the book that threw my whole plan out of whack, but I forgive it. Colson Whitehead is on the very short list of authors where I will read literally anything they write. I would absolutely put him in my Top 5 Authors Currently Working. He’s always talented, always ambitious, but The Underground Railroad is probably going to be the book that turns him into a household name. And that is not an easy thing to do when you write a book about slavery. As I said when I recommended Homegoing, I get that it’s not always easy to just pick up a book about slavery and say, “Sure, this sounds like a great way to entertain myself.” But I believe in reading important books. (I also believe in reading fluff. But come on. Of course.) Because Whitehead is ridiculously talented, this is not a hard book to read. You just get pulled right in. And while it is obviously a runaway slave narrative, one thing you can count on with Whitehead is that he is not going to follow the normal rules of plot and structure. The praise for this book continues to roll in so you don’t really need it from me. But if you don’t pick it up now, in 6 months when it’s been on every Best List and awards shortlist, if you still haven’t gotten to it you’ll still be saying, “Oh I really need to read that,” so just do yourself a favor and read it now while we’re all having a conversation about it and you’ll be the cool person who got in early. (I’m currently listening to the audio, which is excellent, but keep in mind that sometimes it’s much harder to hear racial slurs spoken aloud than it is to read them.)

Arcade by Drew Nellins Smith. I write about Arcade knowing that most people will find out what it’s about and immediately turn around and walk away. But we’ve already done slavery and war so I think gay sex seems pretty minor in comparison. Which isn’t to say this isn’t a heavy book! Sam is in that phase of self-destructive shame spiral where you make very few good decisions. He is gay but hasn’t made peace with it and certainly hasn’t found joy and hope in it. His life is built around obsession and denial. And that is where the Arcade comes in, one of those seedy places you see on the outskirts of town (especially in Texas, where it’s set). This is not a plot book, and you probably know by now that I strongly prefer plot-heavy books. If you don’t have plot, you need to give me something really special and Arcade does that. It has an emotional core that I recognize from my own period in a self-destructive shame spiral, and Smith writes about sex with a frankness that I wish I saw more often.

The Hike by Drew Magary. I will probably end up spending a good few months recommending The Hike to a very large number of people. It’s an early August release that went almost entirely under the radar. Luckily I heard some buzz and got on board and I am so very glad I did. I love plot books and this is constant plot. And I love being surprised. I struggle with some genres because of their rules, I prefer books that break rules and The Hike definitely qualifies. I cannot even really tell you what it’s about without spoiling pretty much everything. Let’s just say it’s not in any real genre (though if I had to pick one I’d say Fantasy/Horror) and you never know what will happen next. This is a very hard thing to do and it’s an even harder thing to wrap up effectively, and yet this book has a truly solid and satisfying ending. 

Roses and Rot by Kat Howard. Are you one of those people who’s been looking for a readalike for The Night Circus for about a million years? I feel like this is the closest I’ve found so far. That book was circus and magic and illusions. Roses and Rot is an artists colony and fairy tales. There’s forbidden love, family strife, spectacle, jealousy and competition, and a world where nothing is necessarily what it seems. 

Security by Gina Wohlsdorf. I love horror but I recommend very little of it. It’s hard to do well, in my opinion. Security is not going to end up on my Top Horror list, but it’s different and I always enjoy when someone takes a kind of twist on the genre. This falls into the “slasher” subgenre, which is much more common in movies than books, and in many ways Security feels more like a movie. It’s strongly visual, to the extent that the book’s narrative structure is pretty much flipping from view to view to the security cameras in the fancy hotel where it’s set. Manderley Resort is about to open with a lavish party, but someone is picking off the staff one by one and in this huge building there are hundreds of rooms to hide a body (or five). Horror and thrillers struggle with good endings and this is no different, but I’m looking forward to see what Wohlsdorf does next. And a movie version would definitely be appreciated.

The Woman in Cabin 10 by Ruth Ware. This is the second novel from Ware, whose debut In a Dark, Dark Wood did pretty well last year. I like this one better, it has more of a mystery feel combined with a Girl on the Train-style unreliable narrator (chronic anxiety rather than alcoholism this time). Lo has a low-level job with a Travel magazine but lands a sweet gig writing about a super-luxury cruise. In the midst of a personal crisis, she’s glad to leave her life behind for a while to join a small number of wealthy patrons. But one night Lo is sure she sees a woman in the next cabin thrown overboard… but when she calls for help she finds out that no one is missing and the cabin was unoccupied. It’s a classic subgenre of mystery, where all the suspects are together in one place and anyone could be the killer. It’s a nice Girl on the Train readalike, more for the ramped-up thriller-style mystery lover than the procedural fan.

Summer Reading From Light to Heavy

Summer reading doesn’t have to be the super fluffy thrillers and chick lit that always gets labeled “summer reading.” I like to mix it up during the summer, but I am a lot more aware of the light vs. heavy element of my reading. I have to mix it up every so often with something fun or twisty and then eventually I turn to something heavier for balance. 

If you’re like me, knowing where a book falls on the scale of light to heavy helps you decide if it’s what you’re in the mood for, so I’ve pulled my favorite summer picks and ranked them from lightest to heaviest to help guide your summer reading choices. As usual I like to be light on plot details because I hate spoiling, if you want more info you can click through and check out the blurbs.

The Regional Office is Under Attack by Manuel Gonzales. So it should be said that these recommendations are still coming from ME so even my fluffiest pick is not entirely light. You probably know by now that if you’re looking for something cozy and sweet you won’t find it on one of my lists. But The Regional Office is so much fun. Just plain old fun. If you call trained lady assassins and secret supernatural organizations and killer robots fun. This is the kind of book that doesn’t follow any kind of rules and is completely impossible to predict. Don’t read anything about it if you can avoid it. I listened to about half of the audiobook (which was excellent) on one long stretch in the car, so I can vouch for excellent vacation readability.

Dark Matter by Blake Crouch. I enjoy time travel stories but I have one requirement: they have to do something interesting. Dark Matter fulfills that. It uses enough familiar time travel and alternate reality tropes to help you get oriented, and enough snazzy new stuff to punch it up. This one is on the light end of the spectrum because it’s more thrill ride than thought-provoking science-fiction. 

All the Missing Girls by Megan Miranda. I was skeptical about this book. I have read approximately eleventy-jillion books about a woman who returns to her small town haunted by the abduction/death/whatever of one of her friends. Lately I will not even start these books because they don’t do much to keep me excited. I have also read eleventy-jillion books that play with time and flashbacks/flashforwards. Most of them do it for show and it actually distracts from the story rather than adds to it. But All the Missing Girls is a girl-returns-to-small-town-haunted-by-friend’s-loss story and a story that plays with time in its structure (it’s told mostly backwards) and yet it succeeds so well that I honestly could not believe it. For once, the structure actually raises the suspense. I know that sounds impossible. How can telling a story backwards raise the suspense? That’s exactly why you have to read it and find out. Could have been just your run of the mill thriller but Miranda really goes for it.

Siracusa by Delia Ephron. Yes, that Delia Ephron. I haven’t actually read any of her books before though she’s written several. This one is a fun summer read in large part because it is about two couples on vacation together in Italy. But don’t worry about getting vacation envy. There’s a lot of baggage here. Michael is married to Lizzie who used to date Finn and isn’t exactly over him but he’s married to Taylor. One couple are snooty New York writers, the others live in a small town in Maine. They don’t exactly want to be on this vacation together but none of them is rude enough to back out. It starts as a comedy of manners, told from alternating viewpoints. But gradually it gets darker and crazier until this vacation goes off the rails and not in a fun way. Snappy and quick, a sharply written book.

Sarong Party Girls by Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan. Some blurbs of this book call it a take on a Jane Austen novel. I guess you could say that, but I think that is only part of the picture. Sarong Party Girls is set in Singapore and follows Jazzy, who’s rapidly approaching the end of her 20’s. As you could guess from the title, she’s a party girl. But she’s aging out of the party scene and doesn’t know how to cope with it or what she’s supposed to do next. This is kind of like Clueless meets Crazy Rich Asians but you notice that it’s not all the way at the top of this list, so it’s not just a pile of fluff. Things are going to get real for Jazzy. Plus there are going to be readers who put this book down very early because it uses a dialect–Singlish, a Singaporean English slang–which is a shame because Jazzy is one of those narrators whose voice is so strong and unforgettable. (You can use Singlish reference sites if you really want to translate individual words, but believe me, you usually won’t need to.)

The Insides by Jeremy Bushnell. Bushnell’s debut, The Weirdness, was one of my top novels of 2014. It was all over the place, one of those crazy books that goes everywhere. (In that respect, I think it fits well with The Regional Office Is Under Attack and one of my favorite 2015 novels, The Library at Mount Char.) The Insides feels kind of like a Gaiman novel, except grittier and messier. The two female protagonists are Ollie, a butcher in a hip New York restaurant who has a history with magic, and Maja, a powerful psychic who can find any object in the world. Ollie and Maja’s stories are on a collision course, along with a magical knife and one of the evil-est villains I can remember. 

You Will Know Me by Megan Abbott I don’t have to work very hard to sell this novel. It is narrated by Katie, whose teenage daughter Devon is a gymnast. Like the kind that’s on track to go to the Olympics someday. The kind that the entire family builds their life around. Their family is one of the bedrocks of their gym, where everyone knows everyone and they spend hours together every day. But when a member of the gym community dies under suspicious circumstances, it looks like everything might unravel. And, of course, Katie will have to ask herself how far she will go to protect her daughter. That probably did the trick. The extra awesome bonus is that this book is by Megan Abbott who is making a cottage industry of whip smart literary novels about the destructive world of the teenage girl. She is truly one of my favorite authors.

The Fireman by Joe Hill I’ve been kind of waiting for Joe Hill to really blow up and I think this is finally the book that did it. I feel like I recommend him so often to people that maybe I’ve done the work all on my own. Hill writes horror and speculative fiction that feels playful and modern while playing with old school tropes. The Fireman is not quite as playful as Horns or NOS4A2, but it does hit that big epic apocalyptic thing that people seem so hungry for these days. (If your appetite was not sated by The Hunger Games and Station Eleven then this should be your next book.) It has that big scope, that feel like it would make an amazing movie, and enough new things you haven’t seen before to really get you through its many, many pages. If you like to take one book that you will obsessively read your whole vacation, this really should be it. The apocalypse in question is a disease that covers your body in what looks like tattoos and sometimes causing your skin to smoke until you spontaneously combust. There is also a big bad and a cult and the eponymous character who is kind of a Dr. Who-type. The constant threat of death and humanity’s entire extinction keep this one on the heavy side of the list, but it isn’t a difficult read.

Here Comes the Sun by Nicole Dennis-Benn I’m so glad this book is finally out because I’ve just been wanting to talk to absolutely everyone about it for months. Do you like novels about family secrets and betrayals on a Shakespearean level? Then have I got the book for you. A family of three women in a slum in Jamaica are doing whatever they can to survive. Mother Delores has done horrible things, things older daughter Margot is determined not to repeat. Margot knows she has to save her younger sister Thandie, get Thandie educated and get them all out of the slums, but Thandie doesn’t know what her sister is sacrificing and wants to be an artist. All of this happens in the shadows of a giant resort that both keeps the Jamaican economy running and destroys the lives of those around it. This isn’t a light, happy read by any means, but it’s incredibly engrossing and shows you the kind of stories we don’t get to see often enough. One of my favorite books of the year for sure.

Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi Of course a book about the legacy of slavery is going to be all the way at the bottom of the list, because yes it’s heavy. I don’t really pick up books about slavery with excitement. I imagine many of us avoid them because it’s such a difficult topic. But Gyasi’s novel (a debut!) is really different and so tightly structured and beautifully told that it really is worth your time. You will not sigh before you pick it up to read a few more chapters, I promise. The novel follows two sisters and the two lines of their family through over 200 years of history, with one side of the family sold into slavery and taken to America, and the other side getting in with the slavers and staying in Africa. For each generation, Gyasi gives us a chapter from each side, taking us through slavery, past it, and into modern America and Africa. What’s amazing is just how much she’s able to do in each small chapter. You get a glimpse of an entire life, a time, a place, and you follow the thread from the previous generations. If you like books of connected stories, this will hit right in your sweet spot.

Any other great picks for summer reading both light and heavy?

Spring Books

This is long overdue, so I’m not going to spend a lot of time on the intro. Spring is almost over, and I should really get to work on my Summer books post since that starts in a matter of days. But if you’re wondering what came out over the last few months that’s worth your while, here are my picks. In alphabetical order, and all links are Amazon affiliate links, so purchasing through them helps support the blog.

Death at Breakfast by Beth Gutcheon is that rare mystery that hits the Agatha Christie sweet spot. If you don’t like mysteries that are full of horrific violence, but you don’t like the cute of a cozy mystery, you probably know just what I mean. The best of these have strong characters and just enough of a puzzle to be real brain candy and a satisfying read. This is the start of a new series featuring a pair of unlikely detectives, Maggie and Hope. Maggie has just retired from her position as the headmistress of a private school and she has brought her friend Hope along for a week in New England to enjoy a cooking class and see if they are a good fit to travel together for more adventures. They stay at a cozy B&B, but there is–of course–a murder that disrupts their trip. I’m really looking forward to the rest of this series.

The Fireman by Joe Hill is another big, fat, epic story of a kickass heroine facing unspeakable horrors, kind of like his last book NOS4A2. If you like books where society falls apart, this is definitely up your alley. Harper is a school nurse whose idol is Mary Poppins and who’s pretty happy with her life. But everything turns to chaos in a matter of weeks when the Dragonscale virus hits. It tags its victims with black marks, almost like tattoos, all over their body, and the outcome is always the same: the victim spontaneously combusts and burns to death. Harper’s struggle to survive charts the course of the novel. But the threat here isn’t just the disease, but the Cremation Squads who have taken it upon themselves to kill anyone they suspect may be infected. 

Girls on Fire by Robin Wasserman is squarely in my wheelhouse and it’s one of my favorites of the year. It’s similar in darkness and subject matter to Heathers, and the relationship between three girls is at its center. Hannah is the quiet one who usually stays in the background. Lacey is the hard, rebellious one with a tough home life who pulls Hannah out of her shell and takes her on as a partner in crime. Nikki is the heartless queen bee of the popular crowd with the football player boyfriend and a secret connection to Lacey. But if you come into this expecting a book that plays by the rules, you’ll be disappointed in the best way. The stakes are high, the friendships can be intense one moment and destructive the next, and no one is quite what they seem. 

If I Was Your Girl by Meredith Russo is one of the big Young Adult books of the year, but there’s no reason this shouldn’t be on an adult reading list. With all the controversy these days, most people have never met a trans person, not to mention read a book about one. This book is about Amanda, a trans girl who is worried that her secret will get out at her new school after she’s finally started her new life. It’s written by a trans woman and even the cover model is a trans girl, so this is clearly a book that’s doing it right. There are flashbacks to Amanda’s earlier life and her transition, and while this can be a weakness of stories about trans characters focusing too much on transition, it’s somewhat inevitable when you’re telling the story of a teenager and it’s treated with care. In most of this book, Amanda is a real person, a normal person, and is able to live a pretty normal life. There’s a lovely romance in here, too.

Join by Steve Toutonghi is a fantastically innovative science-fiction novel set in a future where people can join consciousness to form a single being with multiple bodies. This is pretty high concept, but Toutonghi really makes you understand why someone would want it. Not just companionship and the ability to be in many places at once, but a way to avoid death as you bring in new bodies. The book follows Chance, a “join” of five “drives” that’s just brought on its fifth member only to find that this newest body is dying of cancer. Chance’s friend Leap seems to be suffering from some kind of problem and there’s also Rope who seems to break all the rules of what joins are able to do. The book shifts gears into a noir-style story as Chance tries to find out what’s happening to joins and what Rope and Leap are hiding. While this sounds like pretty hard sci-fi, the writing isn’t like that at all. It reads much more like a lyrical piece of literary fiction than your typical genre novel. This is a book that breaks a lot of rules and it’s pretty interesting to watch it happen.

The Mother by Yvvette Edwards is about Marcia, a woman whose only child, a teenage son, has been murdered by another teenage boy. The novel follows Marcia through the killer’s trial, challenging her assumptions about her own son and about the other boy and his family. The newspaper prints pictures of her son, Ryan, and the killer, Tyson, side by side, without saying which is which, and since both are black boys Marcia feels shaken after years of work to raise her child in the right way with the right kind of family. While this isn’t a mystery or a legal thriller, there are plenty of twists and a lot of courtroom scenes (lawyer approved!). But it’s rare you get a book that tackles a character’s prejudices so effectively and has a great plot.

My Best Friend’s Exorcism by Grady Hendrix is his sophomore effort after the success of his debut Horrorstör, a horror novel set in a store an awful lot like an Ikea. This book is not the first to tap into a new appreciation of 80’s nostaglia, it’s set in 1988 and big hair is everywhere, but this was the first time I’ve read one of those books and really enjoyed the way it established a sense of time and place. It is, as you probably guessed, another horror novel, but honestly the horror takes a backseat to the story of the friendship of Abby and Gretchen. They’ve been best friends since 4th grade, even though Gretchen’s family is rich and Abby’s definitely isn’t. When Gretchen starts acting strangely, at first it seems like just your average teenage mood swings and the growing pains of friendship. But Abby is sure something else is going on and she’s determined to save Gretchen from her fate. There are some gross scenes, but it’s not going to require you to sleep with the light on. Ultimately this is enough of a story about the power of female friendship that understands its teenage characters so well that I wouldn’t hesitate to give it to a teenager.

We Love You, Charlie Freeman by Kaitlyn Greenidge is a book you should not judge by its title. It is not cute. It’s a very ambitious book about race and history even if it uses a premise that seems sweet at first glance. The Freeman family, two parents and two daughters, leave their Boston home to take up residence at the Toneybee Institute in the Berkshires to be the new family for a chimp, to teach him sign language, and to see how he interacts with them. They are also pretty much the only black people around. I hesitate to tell you much more because this is a book that was truly a joy to read. It is messy and original and I never ever knew what was going to happen next. It doesn’t feel like any other book, which is a huge compliment.

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