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.
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.
Incarnations: 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 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 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 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 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 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.
Mooncop 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, 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 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.
The 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 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.
The 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.