Top 15 Books (& Graphic Novels) of 2016

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Many things about 2016 have been tough, but deciding what to put on this list was surprisingly easy. Last year was full of great books and comics, but in the end, these 15 jumped out at me as my favorites of the year.

Sleeping Giants – Sylvain Neuvel (Del Rey)

2016 was my year of diving headfirst into science fiction and fantasy, and I enjoyed every second of it. Sleeping Giants was an exceptional pleasure because it’s so accessible and easy to read. It’s the story of a young girl who falls through a hole in the Earth and lands on a giant metal hand of alien origin. Twenty years later. that girl is a scientist in charge of a team devoted to studying these alien artifacts. Where did they come from? Why are the pieces scattered around the Earth? It’s just an incredible novel.

 

into the blackInto the Black: The Extraordinary Untold Story of the First Flight of the Space Shuttle Columbia and the Astronauts Who Flew Her – Rowland White – Rowland White (Touchstone)

There were so many great space-related books in 2016, but Into the Black really captured my heart. It’s the story of the development of, and ultimately the first flight of, the space shuttle. The program was beset by cost overruns and delays, and was never able to deliver on its promises. White makes this narrative very engaging; this will go into the history books as one of the definitive accounts of the development of the space shuttle.

 

incarnationsIncarnations: The History of India in Fifty Lives – Sunil Khilnani (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

Indian history is so rich, layered, and complex that it’s hard to capture in just one book. It’s incredible, then, that Khilnani was able to do so much justice to the subcontinent’s diversity and long history in just one book. His framing is unique, yet ingenious: He tells the story of the country, as it is today, through 50 people, going back through history. Some—the Buddha, Indira Gandhi—you’ve heard of. But there are many, many more people you haven’t. Each is fascinating and not only helps fill in the history of India, but helps further define what it means to be Indian.

My Last Continentmy last continent – Midge Raymond (Scribner)

My Last Continent isn’t just one of my favorite books of 2016. It’s earned a special place on my shelf in my heart forever. This unassuming novel, about the catastrophic accident of a cruise liner in Antarctica, may seem simple, but it’s anything but. It jumps forward and back through time. The main character, Deb, has been coming to study penguins in Antarctica for years, and she feels a sense of belonging with the continent. It’s that sense, that unexplainable longing for a place that really spoke to me with this book. I’ve visited Antarctica once, and though I’ll likely never step foot on the continent again, it still calls to me. The science and incredible atmosphere round out this tense novel, making it a stellar read from beginning to end.

hidden-figuresHidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race – Margot Lee Shetterly (William Morrow)

When it comes to history, it’s all about how you tell the story. That is what will make or break your book. It can be the most interesting subject on Earth, but if it’s written in a dry manner, your book will be boring. Hidden Figures doesn’t suffer from that problem in the least: Shetterly brings her main characters to life through a narrative style. They leap off the page, these forgotten figures who did so much for Blacks and for women. Read the book, then go see the movie—or see the movie, and then pick up the book. Either way, make sure you don’t miss this excellent read.

something-newSomething New: Tales from a Makeshift Bride – Lucy Knisley (First Second)

I’ve enjoyed all of Lucy Knisley’s graphic memoirs, so I was pretty much first in line with my hand outstretched when I heard this was coming out. It didn’t disappoint in the least; Knisley takes readers through her wedding preparations, with splashy colors on every single page. It’s a delight to read, as readers sympathize with Knisley’s struggles. The book delves into some deeper issues as well, such as the author’s ambivalence about participating in wedding culture, and her fear that marrying a man might erase her bisexuality. All in all, a beautiful, heartwarming read that is sure to bring you joy.

victoria-the-queenVictoria, The Queen: An Intimate Biography of the Woman Who Ruled an Empire – Julia Baird (Random House)

If you loved the series The Crown and haven’t picked up Julia Baird’s excellent biography of Queen Victoria, what are you waiting for? It might seem intimidating—at almost 800 pages—but trust me, this book is worth every second you spend with it. Believe it or not, I read this biography in one sitting. That’s how great it is. I knew very little about Queen Victoria when I started this book, despite being something of an Anglophile. Baird brings the queen to life; both strengths and flaws are on display, making Victoria feel real and human. Whether you read it piece by piece or all at once, it’s worth every second you spend with it.

marriage materialMarriage Material – Sathnam Sanghera (Europa Editions)

This was perhaps the most surprising book of 2016 for me. I didn’t know what to expect from Sanghera’s novel about a South Asian family living in the UK. After the unexpected death of his father, Arjun receives a gift he never wanted—his family’s convenience store is his to run. This novel is somber at times, yet hilariously poignant in its descriptions of what it is to be Indian in a sea of white faces. I absolutely loved every second I spent reading this novel, more often than not laughing out loud at the absurdity and beauty of it all.

 

The Association of Small Bombs – Karan Mahajan (Viking Books)

This quiet novel about the long-term effects of violence is haunting and gorgeous. We hear about the large terrorist attacks around the world, but what about the less newsworthy ones? The ones that happen every day, every week, the “small” bombs? Mahajan focuses on one such “small” bomb, based on a true story—a bomb that went off in a Delhi market in 1996. The author not only focuses on the families of the lost, but on those left behind—what does it do to the psyche of a person to survive something like that. It’s a small novel—not even 300 pages—but so incredibly powerful.

 

mooncopMooncop by Tom Gauld (Drawn & Quarterly)

Our lunar colony is slowly being abandoned; one person after another is leaving, heading back home. Each day, the place is quieter than it was the day before. Tom Gauld’s graphic novel focuses on the lone policeman of this lunar colony. Each day, he goes about his tasks, and each day it seems more and more absurd, given how few people are left. It’s touching, thoughtful, and truly funny—a rare combination.

 

sun-moon-earhtSun, Moon, Earth: The History of Solar Eclipses from Omens of Doom to Einstein and Exoplanets – Tyler Nordgren (Basic Books)

There is something poetic about space, about looking at the stars, which makes it such a shame that so many historical science books are just so dry. Nordgren’s history of solar eclipses, however, is anything but. He’s a beautiful writer, and he brings a certain poetry to his intriguing tome, from detailing the significance of solar eclipses in ancient times to interviewing eclipse chasers about their neverending quest for total darkness. It’s a fun read, especially in light of the fact that 2017 will see the first total solar eclipse in the United States in almost 40 years.

lucky-pennyLucky Penny – Ananth Hirsh and Yuko Ota (Oni Press)

I’ve been evangelizing about Lucky Penny since I first read it because I want everyone to know the joy that is this incredible graphic novel. It focuses on the main character of Penny, who’s down on her luck, losing her job and her apartment in the same day. It’s an awesome, hilarious romantic comedy with a heroine who unapologetically nerds out and loves romance novels. I love the cartoon-y art—think Scott Pilgrim—and warm fuzzies I get every time I pick it up. If you’ve never read a graphic novel, trust me: you’ll love this book.

 

daily-showThe Daily Show (The Book): An Oral History as Told by Jon Stewart, the Correspondents, Staff and Guests – Chris Smith and Jon Stewart (Grand Central Publishing)

I am, frankly, shocked that this excellent oral history didn’t receive more press than it did. As a longtime fan of Jon Stewart’s version of The Daily Show, and someone who misses it fiercely in these troubled political times, this book felt almost healing to me. But more than that, if you’re wondering where Trump came from, and how things have gotten this bad, this show provides a somewhat disturbing roadmap that shows pretty much exactly how we ended up here. Well written and expertly assembled, it portrays a Jon Stewart who cared deeply about the show and the people working for him. He wasn’t always perfect, but he came from a genuine place, rather than one of cynicism. The honesty in this book, as well as people’s willingness to reflect on their mistakes in the public sphere, is refreshing and well worth the time it takes to read it.

rolling-blackoutsRolling Blackouts: Dispatches from Turkey, Syria, and Iraq – Sarah Glidden (Drawn & Quarterly)

Graphic journalism (journalism told in comic form) is becoming more and more prevalent, which I love. Comics are an incredible medium to tell complex and layered narratives, and nowhere is that more evident than through Rolling Blackouts. Sarah Glidden accompanied some friends on a reporting trip through three countries and reported on what she learned along the way. But more than that, it’s a meditation on what it means to be a journalist and what the goal of journalism is. It’s incredibly drawn (and the production value on the physical book is great—thick pages that soak up the bright colors), and a wonderfully informative journey through different cultures.

charlie-chan-hock-chyeThe Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye – Sonny Liew (Pantheon)

In this masterful work, Sonny Liew created a fictional cartoonist named Charlie Chan Hock Chye, and through him, tells the reader a story of the development of Singapore from 1954 on. It’s an incredible feat, to create a fictional persona and make them so incredibly convincing, yet as you’re reading this, you’ll have to remind yourself over and over again that the person you’re reading about is not, in fact, real. A unique story, in a singular form, and it’s well worth reading.

Best Books of 2014: Sheer Randomness

I’ve done both my best of for fiction and nonfiction for 2014, so why another list? Well, I feel like there are still some “best of” books that I’d like to mention, but didn’t quite make the cut for the overall lists. These are books that I read in 2014 that I absolutely adored, and I made up the random categories they go in . . . hence the name Best Books of 2014: Sheer Randomness.

Swapna's Best of 2014: Sheer Randomness

Best celebrity memoir on audio:

No Land’s Man – Aasif Mandvi 

Aasif Mandvi’s memoir is hilarious, of course, but it’s also an insightful cultural memoir about growing up in the UK and America with brown skin. My review of this memoir is coming soon, and I’ll link it up when it goes live.

Best book of 2015 (so far):

A Bad Character – Deepti Kapoor (releases in February, keep an eye out for the review!)

Best mystery about a religious group:

Tie: The Bishop’s Wife by Mette Ivie Harrison and Invisible City by Julia Dahl

The Bishop’s Wife doesn’t release until the end of December, so my review will go up in January. It’s about a Mormon housewife, the wife of a local bishop, and it’s both gripping for its plot and for its fascinating insight into modern-day Mormon culture.

Best book that I wish I’d given a higher rating to because of how it’s stuck with me:

I Am China – Xiaolu Guo

Best book that actually lived up to all the hype:

The Southern Reach Trilogy – Jeff VanderMeer

Best fiction book of 2013 that I read in 2014:

The Grammarian – Annapurna Potluri

Best nonfiction book of 2013 that I read in 2014:

The Ministry of Guidance Invites You to Not Stay – Hooman Majd

Best YA novel:

Belzhar – Meg Wolitzer

Best book about books:

The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry – Gabrielle Zevin

Best novel about ballet:

Tie: Astonish Me – Maggie Shipstead

Best historical novel:

Tie: While Beauty Slept – Elizabeth Blackwell and The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters

Best romance novel:

A Bollywood Affair – Sonali Dev

Best crazy ride of weirdness that still has me reeling:

Broken Monsters – Lauren Beukes

Best Books of 2014: Nonfiction

Yesterday I posted my Best of 2014 list for fiction, and so today is my Best Books of 2014: Nonfiction. Each of these books has stayed with me for one reason or another, whether it be because of current events, cultural issues, my town of DC and its difficult past, the passion I’ve had for Greek mythology since childhood, my absolute and unapologetic love of all things NASA, or something else entirely. I loved and adored every book on this list; I found that they read for me as quickly as any tightly written work of nonfiction. They are not perfect; some have issues here and there, but they are unmatched for the way they have resonated with me.

Swapna's Best of 2014: Nonfiction

Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End – Atul Gawande

The Underground Girls of Kabul: In Search of a Hidden Resistance in Afghanistan – Jenny Nordberg

The Birth of the Pill: How Four Crusaders Reinvented Sex and Launched a Revolution – Jonathan Eig

I didn’t do a long form review for Jonathan Eig’s novel because I covered it at a third-party publication that has yet to publish my piece. Eig’s history of the birth control pill is completely fascinating; this book is an intersection of history, science, social issues, and more. Eig balances the history with insightful commentary, and does an excellent job showing how the birth control revolution changed women’s lives at that time, giving women a taste of true freedom, while also highlighting how women are being forced to fight the same battles now that we supposedly won decades ago.

How Star Wars Conquered the Universe: The Past, Present, and Future of a Multibillion Dollar Franchise – Chris Taylor

Bad Feminist: Essays – Roxane Gay

S Street Rising: Crack, Murder, and Redemption in DC – Ruben Castaneda

Sally Ride: America’s First Woman in Space – Lynn Scherr

Without You There Is No Us: My Time with the Sons of North Korea’s Elite – Suki Kim

An Iranian Metamorphosis – Mana Neyestani

Neyestani’s is the one book that I haven’t yet reviewed, simply because the publication date kept getting pushed back (it finally released on December 2). This graphic memoir about cartoonist Neyestani’s time in an Iranian prison is full of dark humor and it highlights the scarily whimsical nature of Iranian “justice.” My review will be coming soon, and I’ll link it up once it’s posted.

[Edit: link has been posted]

Why Homer Matters – Adam Nicolson

Best Books of 2014: Fiction

It’s that time of year again. The best of lists are coming out (or really, for the most part, have already been released) and I, of course, feel I have to get in on the action. It took me a long time to put this list together, longer than I feel like it should have! There were many things I wanted to balance; namely that I wanted to include my absolute favorites of the year but also not emphasize too heavily the books that have made every other best of list.

These are the books I honestly feel were the best that were published in 2014. There are a lot I feel like I’m leaving off this list; picking these books is never easy and I always feel like I’m being unfair to the books left off this list. They’re a pretty good mix of genres and authors. I considered writing a paragraph for each pick, but really, I feel like each of these reviews covers anything I’d want to to say.

Tomorrow, I’ll post my nonfiction list, but here are my picks for the Best Books of 2014 for fiction.

Swapna's Best of 2014 - Fiction

The Book of Strange New Things – Michel Faber

Ms. Marvel, Vol. 1: No Normal – G. Willow Wilson & Adrian Alphona

Tell Me Again How a Crush Should Feel – Sara Farizan

The Magician’s Land – Lev Grossman

Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage – Haruki Murakami

The Secret Place – Tana French

Everything I Never Told You – Celeste Ng

Be Safe I Love You – Cara Hoffman

Pioneer Girl – Bich Minh Nguyen

The Martian – Andy Weir

Best Books Read in 2013: Part 2

Zealot cover

Without further ado, here is the second part of my best of list for 2013 books! A few things to note: This list consists of books I read in 2013, not just books published in 2013. It’s a two-parter, with 12 books on each list. Part 1 has already been published. These aren’t necessarily all […]

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Best Books Read in 2013: Part 1

Without further ado, here is my best of list for 2013 books! A few things to note: This list consists of books I read in 2013, not just books published in 2013. It’s a two-parter, with 12 books on each list. Part 2 is coming soon. These aren’t necessarily all the 5-star reviews I’ve given; […]

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Most Popular Posts of 2013

End of the year wrap-up posts are always fun, and don’t worry: I’ll definitely be posting my top reads of 2013. But one thing I looked at last year, which was both surprising and fun, was my top posts of the year. What were the posts and reviews that, for whatever reason, resonated most with […]

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Gift Guide: Swapna’s Recommendations for 2013

Elizabeth of York cover

I haven’t done a gift guide before, but I figure this year is a great time to start! My categories are somewhat random, but I hope helpful regardless. For the puzzle lover: Night Film by Marisha Pessl. Quite possibly my favorite book of 2013. For the book lover: Keep an eye out for my review, […]

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