Our favorite book is always the book that speaks most directly to us at a particular stage in our lives. And our lives change. We have other favorites that give us what we most need at that particular time. But we never lose the old favorites. They’re always with us
The booksellers at Lake Forest Book Store are not, on the surface, a diverse group. For one thing, we are all female. We are also all middle-aged, which is a horrible term, but one for which I can’t think of an appropriate euphemism. This doesn’t mean that we all like the same books. All of us are committed to reading widely, always mindful that our job is to recommend books to all kinds of readers. We have individual reading tastes, but we are all the same in that no one wants to squander time on a poorly written or boring book.
Often, holiday shoppers ask for very specific recommendations — a sports novel for an eight-year-old boy, a picture book for a toddler, a Civil War history book for a grandfather, a cookbook for a newlywed couple. But often, customers just want to give a friend, relative, or business associate a really good book.
I emailed our booksellers, asking them to name their favorite book(s) of 2016. “This is so tough. DON’T MAKE ME PICK,” said one. She’s right; it’s hard to choose just a few titles from all the memorable books published this year. So here’s a list of books that our booksellers mentioned again and again as their favorites. These are books, fiction and nonfiction, that almost any reader who appreciates a well-written story will enjoy.
Molly says that “our fiction wall is, and has been this fall, packed with goodness . . . I Will Send Rain by Rae Meadows is one of my top choices. It’s a sparse telling of an Oklahoma Dust Bowl family and their struggles. It reminded me of Steinbeck and Cather. And new to our paperback table is a mystery that a customer turned me onto, I Let You Go by Clare Mackintosh. I could not put it down, and think it beats the pants off The Girl on the Train.”
Our buyer, Laura, said: “My favorite literary reads are The Nix (Nathan Hill), News of the World (Paulette Jiles), Mothering Sunday (Graham Swift) and Mischling (Affinity Konar). They are each so different (a sprawling contemporary story; a beautiful piece of historical fiction; a compact, compelling personal narrative and and a haunting World War II novel). My favorite heartwarming, simply lovely book is A Gentleman in Moscow (Amor Towles).” (Mine too!)
Almost every staff member listed News of the World as a favorite. Beth mentioned the “heartwarming relationship between an older man and the young girl he is commissioned to return to her home”, and Kathy remarked that she was “drawn into the adventure immediately.” I thought the writing was dazzling, and it was a joy to encounter a protagonist who is a kind and honorable person with unwavering morals. We’re all jealous that Max, our store manager and early champion of the book, got to sit next to the author at an industry dinner. (For my complete review, click here.)
Laura went on to say that “2016 was an amazing year for children’s fiction: Salt to the Sea (Ruta Septys), Wolf Hollow (Lauren Wolk), and The Inquisitor’s Tale (Adam Gidwitz) are sure to become classics!” I agree — and I think that the definition of a classic book for children is one that has timeless and universal appeal. As C.S. Lewis said, “A children’s story that can only be enjoyed by children is not a good children’s story in the slightest.”
Diane commented that “This was such a strong year for fiction! I read so many fantastic books– these are not in a particular order but two of them may be in my top-ten lifetime list. For all of them, the characters were so strong and the writing drove these books even more than plot/pace: Homegoing (Yaa Gyasi) Behold the Dreamers (Imbolo Mbue), The Mothers (Brit Bennett), News of the World, Wolf Hollow. Diane and I lead a YA book group for adults, and Wolf Hollow was one of our group’s favorites.
Susan R. loved Homegoing, saying that “reading it felt like unwinding a beautiful braid.” NPR’s Maureen Corrigan listed Homegoing as her favorite debut novel of the year, and I’m with her. Along with A Gentleman in Moscow, it’s the book I’ve given most often as a gift. Susan also picked The Nix as a favorite, “probably because I could relate to every time period in the story, and it kept me reading way past my bedtime”.
Kathy paired Mischling (fiction) and Irena’s Children: The Extraordinary Story of the Woman Who Saved 25,000 Children from the Warsaw Ghetto (Tilar J. Mazzeo; nonfiction): “They were fantastic reads and I couldn’t put either book down. Important books to read to remember the suffering of children at the hands of the Nazis but both offering hope and heroism.” Kathy also mentioned Trevor Noah’s terrific memoir about growing up in South Africa, Born a Crime.
Eleanor chose Lilac Girls, Martha Hall Kelly’s debut novel, which I adored as well. Anyone who loved The Nightingale, Salt to the Sea, The Invisible Bridge, or All the Light We Cannot See will find this book both unforgettable and hard to put down. Historical fiction at its best, the novel tells the powerful story of female prisoners subjected to medical experimentation at the hands of the Nazis.
Eleanor also enjoyed The Perfect Horse: The Daring U.S. Mission to Rescue the Priceless Stallions Kidnapped by the Nazis, by Elizabeth Letts. If you’re a fan of narrative nonfiction by Erik Larson and Laura Hillenbrand, you’ll love The Perfect Horse. The suspense is not whether the Lipizzaner stallions will be rescued, but how — and at what cost. The Christian Science Monitor calls the book a “perfect World War II rescue story”, and I agree.
Nancy’s favorite was The Summer Guest, by Alison Anderson. The “summer guest” in this elegantly constructed novel is Anton Chekhov, who develops a close friendship with Zinaida, a member of his host family. When Zinaida’s chronicle of their relationship surfaces more than 100 years later, it’s possible that literary history may be radically changed. (Read my complete review here.)
Susan P.’s pick was Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis, by J.D. Vance: “It is the poignant, inspiring, and eminently readable story of a young man overcoming the many drawbacks and disadvantages of his youth. Incisive and articulate, a very thoughtful examination of the issues of systemic poverty.”
Ann P. chose The Summer Before the War, by Helen Simonson (author of the beloved Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand.) It’s a kinder, gentler World War I book than most, focusing on a young woman who comes to an English village to teach Latin just as the war is breaking out. Charming and poignant, it’s perfect for anyone suffering from Downton Abbey withdrawal.
Beth picked Last Days of Night, by Graham Moore: “Intriguing, fast-reading historical fiction with ingenious yet familiar characters – Edison, Westinghouse, Tesla and J.P. Morgan. This book details the competition among the men to be the true inventor of the light bulb and amass the fortunes that follow.”
What are your favorite books from the past year?
31 thoughts on “Top Books of 2016 — Booksellers Share Their Favorites”
I always love your annual bookseller round-ups! I loved Hillbilly Elegy too, but I think I was one of the few not to be on the A Gentleman in Moscow bandwagon. I appreciated all its goodness and could logically see why so many people loved it, but it was slow going for me, I got bogged down, and never really felt emotionally connected to it 😦 Thanks for this list!
Now I’m trying to put together my own list of favorites — so hard this year!
Some of my favorites are listed here! Finally, people who ‘read’ like me! News of the World is on my TBR still.
My favorite books of the year are A Gentleman in Moscow, The Nix, Moonglow, Behold the Dreamers, and Everyone Brave is Forgiven. I also have been promoting I Will Send Rain, Liliac Girls, My Last Continent and The Mortifications as great first books. I enjoyed The Unseen World, the short story collection The Expense of a View, The Eastern Shore, Hag Seed, War and Turpentine, To The Bright Edge of the World. In Genre fiction I liked Barren Cove, Before the Fall, the Last Days of Night, and Dark Matter.
In Non-fiction I enjoyed and have promoted Terror in the City of Champions, The Civil Wars of Julia Ward Howes, Constance Fenimore Wooldson:Portarit of a Lady Novelist, Victoria: The Queen, 67 Shots:Kent State and the End of American Innocence, Love Canal: A Toxic History, Mad Enchantment, Of Arms and Artists, Eleanor and Hick, Born a Crime.
You’re Sayng it Wrong: A Pronunciation Guild was the most helpful book of the year for me and Song of Myself:With a Complete Commentary most helpful literary book.
More books to add to my ever-growing TBR! I’m especially looking forward to To the Bright Edge of the World. I think I need to get You’re Saying it Wrong — I feel like my reading vocabulary far exceeds my speaking vocabulary. Hope you have a happy holiday season with plenty of reading time!
I’ll publish all my stats (favorites by categories) at the very beginning of 2017, but I know The House Between Tides will be among them
I’ll look forward to reading about your favorites in a few weeks . . . happy holidays!
Thank you for the great recommendations. Will really help with my Christmas shopping!
You’re very welcome, and Merry Christmas!
Great post! Solid inspiration to get me back into the reading game in 2017!
You’ve already upped your game — and I have plenty of personalized recommendations for you! XO
At a dinner in New York last night I sat next to Nina Joukowsky whose mother Martha Sharp was left behind so her own mother Martha Sharp could go to Europe “to defy the Nazis.” Talk about an interesting dinner!
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Wow, I wish I could have been there. The Sharps were amazing people.
Great recommendations – there are lots to add to my TBR list! My favourite books this year include Autumn by Ali Smith, The Tidal Zone by Sarah Moss and The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry.
I loved I Let You Go…and Hillbilly Elegy. I have The Mothers..but haven’t read it yet. Enjoy your choices.
Here are MY WEEKLY UPDATES
I’ll be reading Hillbilly Elegy next year. Looking forward to it!
It’s very thought-provoking — hope you enjoy it.
Oh great post! I want to read many of these mentioned. A few I also liked from this year: The North Water, Underground Airlines, The Longest Night, and Born to Run (autobiography).
I loved The North Water too — but I don’t think it’s for everybody. Pretty gritty!
So many great options here! I had forgotten about The Summer Guest, but I loved it.
I’m pretty sure my favorite book of the year is going to stand as A Gentleman in Moscow although I also loved Forty Rooms. Ack…decisions!
There’s definitely a Russian theme here! Forty Rooms sounds amazing — just ordered myself a copy.
So far I’ve read 46 books this year…hoping to get two more in before the new year! My favorite books I read this year were 11/22/63 by Stephen King, The Black Widow by Daniel Silva, and Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi.
Sorry for the delay in responding to you — somehow I missed your comment. Sounds like you did a lot of great reading this year; almost a book a week, which is fantastic. Hope you have a great reading year in 2017!
My husband loves mysteries (and has read so many) anyone have any suggestions..ie the best of 2016? Thank you.
I am not much help in that I rarely read mysteries . . . but there are lots of great lists available if you Google “best mysteries of 2016”. The New York Times, Washington Post, and Wall Street Journal all have lists of the 10 best mysteries of the year, and they should be among the first results when you Google. Good luck!
Thank you for the list! I added several to my Goodreads to buy list 🙂
Glad it was helpful to you — enjoy!
I really enjoyed the Mothers & Hillbilly Elegy this year. I’ve got Gentleman in Moscow & The Perfect Horse on my nightstand. Love these recommendations.
I just read The Mothers and really liked it. Have a great reading year!
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