The Best Books of 2016
As 2016 comes to a close, we’re taking a close look at all the books we've read to bring you the top fifteen standout reads. After all, ‘tis the season to curl up with a book and tackle those books that have been sitting on your shelf all year long. Though we keep you updated throughout the year with the best books to read every month, herein lie our choice novels, non-fiction reads, and memoirs. In this gallery, you will find outstanding debuts such as Yaa Gyasi’s unforgettable Homegoing, a sweeping history of two sisters—one sold into slavery and one married off to a rich Englishman, Britt Bennett’s gorgeous tale about loss and the lasting bonds between women, and Emma Cline’s haunting take on a Manson Family-like cult in The Girls. You will also find stunning novels from seasoned vets like Zadie Smith, who returned with Swing Time, an epic tale of friendship, and Ann Patchett, who delivered a riveting family drama in Commonwealth. Indeed, 2016 has been a tremendous year for reading. Whether they made us smile, cry, cringe, or just ponder, these books left a lasting mark. Some (okay, many) made the list because of their beautiful writing, others because they made us laugh out loud or because they made us think about the meaning of life (just look to Kerry Egan’s essay collection On Living and Paul Kalanithi’s memoir When Breath Becomes for powerful reflections on life and death.) So whether you’re looking for a light read to help you escape the roller coaster that was 2016 or you’re hoping to get a fresh point of view, we’ve got you covered. Kick up your feet up and enjoy.
1 When Breath Becomes Air, by Paul Kalanithi
As a neurosurgeon, Paul Kalanithi had spent his career making life-and-death death decisions, helping families make impossible choices as their loved ones faced high-risk, but necessary surgery. When, at the young age of 36, he is diagnosed with Stage IV lung cancer, Kalanithi must confront sickness and the end of life from a new perspective. In this heartbreaking, gorgeous memoir, the late doctor shares his reflections on life, death, attaining personal and professional satisfaction, and love. Before pursuing medicine, Kalanithi considered getting a Ph.D. in literature, and his deft writing and love of books shines through as he contemplates what it means to be a mortal human being. While Kalanithi died before the book was published, his powerful story and spirit lives on.
To buy: $15, amazon.com.
Released January 12.
2 American Housewife, by Helen Ellis
Ellis’ satirical collection of twisted short stories was a favorite this year for its unexpected take on the traditional domestic goddess. Ellis formulated the idea for the book on Twitter of all places—in fact, the first short story (“What I Do All Day”) is made up almost entirely of tweets. Each vignette features a housewife with a bit of a tilt—a surrogacy club that masquerades as a book club, a woman who can’t stop seeing the dead doormen in her building, a writer who has been asked to craft a sponsored novel around tampons. Ellis proves that there are darker, more complicated sides to the women we see at the head of our houses—and she does so in a way that will have you laughing, cringing, sympathizing, and fervently turning pages.
To buy: $16, amazon.com.
Released January 12.
3 The Nest, by Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney
- The Plumb siblings have been anxiously counting down the clock until they’re finally granted access to “the nest,” the $2 million account their father set aside for the four siblings to share when the youngest turned 40. While their deceased father meant for the account to supplement each child’s earnings, the siblings are relying on the money to resolve a number of their personal financial problems. With just months to go, the eldest, Leo, gets in a drunk driving accident, threatening to squander the trust fund away. Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney’s characters, while not always likeable, come to life on the page. Fans of dark humor will get a kick out of this family drama.
- To buy: $18, amazon.com.
- Released March 22.
4 Shrill, by Lindy West
West has spent years battling Internet trolls who called her fat, threatened violence, and demeaned her—yet, she didn't stay silent. She channeled her talent into a bestselling memoir that explores coming-of-age in today's overly judgmental world. Growing up, West felt immense pressure to shrink, hide her body, lower her voice, and accept sexism as part of life. West handles delicate subjects—like body image and sexual assault—with frankness, humor, and confidence. Through personal stories, research, and laugh-out-loud footnotes, West will help you discover your own, loud inner voice.
To buy: $16, amazon.com.
Released May 17.
5 Sweetbitter, by Stephanie Danler
Grab a glass of wine and sink your teeth into this delectable debut from an MFA-grad waitress, who pitched this much buzzed about book to an editor she was serving. When 22-year-old Tess moves from Ohio to New York City, she lands a job as a back waiter at a high-end restaurant. Over the next year, Tess gets an education in food, wine, and love as she becomes enamored with the older and more sophisticated Simone and Jake, the quiet, handsome bartender. While the plot is simple, Danler’s prose excites.
To buy: $16.50, amazon.com
Released May 24.
6 Homegoing, by Yaa Gyasi
This stunning, ambitious debut novel centers around two half-sisters in 18th century Ghana. Effia is married off to a wealthy Englishman and moves into the palatial rooms of Cape Coast Castle. Unbeknownst to Effia, her sister Esi is captured and sold into slavery, imprisoned beneath the castle’s dungeons. From there, the novel sweeps across more than 250 years of history, following the descendants of both sisters—one family in Ghana, the other in America—through the 21st century. Exploring the lasting effects of family, history, slavery, and racism, Gyasi delivers a powerful, important story.
To buy: $17, amazon.com.
Released June 7
7 The Girls, by Emma Cline
Set mainly in the summer of 1969, this spectacular debut follows a 14-year-old girl who falls in with a Manson Family-esque cult. Evie Boyd, an only child whose parents have recently divorced, is bored and yearning to be older. When she spots a group of girls across a northern California park one day, she is immediately taken with a pretty brunette named Suzanne. As fate would have it, Evie’s bike chain breaks a few days later as the girls happen to be driving by on their way to the commune, where they live with a charismatic leader named Russell. Before long, Evie finds herself entrenched in their lifestyle and desperate for Suzanne’s approval. Told from the perspective of Evie as a middle-aged woman, The Girls vividly captures the angst, insecurity, and longing of being a teenage girl. You’ll have a hard time putting this one down as Evie falls deeper and deeper into the murderous cult. Oscar-winning producer Scott Rudin (No Country for Old Men) has already snatched up the movie rights.
To buy: $16, amazon.com.
Released June 14.
8 You’ll Grow Out of It, by Jessi Klein
What happens to a tomboy when she grows up? She becomes a “tom man,” according to comedian Jessi Klein. In this laugh-out-loud collection of essays, Klein, the head writer and executive producer of Inside Amy Schumer, shares battle stories from her awkward adolescence to adulthood. From dating cads to suffering through barre classes to confronting her guilt-ridden relationship with porn, Klein holds little back in this witty, confessional memoir. You won’t want to keep this one to yourself.
To buy: $18, amazon.com.
Released July 12.
9 Another Brooklyn, by Jacqueline Woodson
Jacqueline Woodson’s YA memoir Brown Girl Dreaming won the National Book Prize in 2014. She returns with her first adult novel in 20 years, a gorgeous coming-of-age story. August has returned to Brooklyn for her father’s funeral. When she runs into an old friend, memories from her 1970s childhood come flooding back. In a series of remarkable vignettes, Woodson depicts August’s youth, growing up alongside her three best friends, Angela, Gigi, and Sylvia. To the beat of disco music and jump rope chants, the girls must navigate the perils of predatory men as they pursue their dreams, which gradually pull them in different directions. With each lyrical, poetic sentence, Woodson delivers an ode to friendship, girlhood, love, loss, and so much more.
To buy: $14, amazon.com.
Released August 9.
10 Commonwealth, by Ann Patchett
When Bert sees Beverly, it is love at first sight. It just so happens that they meet at the christening for Beverly’s second child, Franny... and they are both married. A stolen kiss sets in motion a series of events that changes the course of their two families forever. Spanning five decades, the Bel Canto author’s family drama explores how this chance encounter affects the lives of the four parents and six children involved. Patchett spends the most time with Franny, who, when in her 20s, begins a romance with the legendary author Leon Posen. Before long, her family’s saga becomes the inspiration for his wildly successful book, which impacts her siblings in different ways. Told with humor and a great deal of heart, Commonwealth explores the idea of who owns our stories and the inextricable ties that bind. Don’t miss this must-read book.
To buy: $17, amazon.com.
Released September 13.
11 Today Will Be Different, by Maria Semple
Usually, Eleanor Flood just tries to get through the day. Her low expectations and low effort help a bit. The former big-time animator is now a late-in-life stay-at-home mother, and an unwilling participant in Seattle’s competitive parenting sphere. But, true to its title, Eleanor decides that today will be different. She’ll try a little harder at what life throws her way. Maybe she’ll even wear something other than yoga pants. But she wasn’t expecting the day to be this much of a challenge: First her son Timby (named after an autocorrect error) fakes sick to stay home from school. A spontaneous trip to Costco shows that her poetry teacher is someone very different than who she thought he was. Her husband isn’t where he’s supposed to be—and she doesn’t know where he actually is. And, if this isn’t enough, a family secret she’s been trying to keep under wraps spontaneously brings itself to light. In her third novel, Maria Semple creates a relatable tale about the daily struggle women face to keep things together. And true to form, this enjoyable novel is filled with all the zany twists and signature humor that made Where’d You Go Bernadette? a runaway hit.
To buy: $16.50, amazon.com.
Released October 4.
Related: 14 Inspirational Books for Women
12 The Mothers, by Brit Bennett
As this stunning debut novel opens, Nadia Turner is a high school senior, reeling from her mother’s recent suicide. She finds comfort in Luke, the son of her church’s pastor, who has also suffered a loss: an injury that sidelined his promising football career. But their fling turns serious when Nadia gets pregnant. Their decision about how to handle the pregnancy will shape the course of their lives, and the life of Nadia’s spiritual best friend Aubrey. Partly narrated by the omniscient group of “mothers” in their black Southern California community, this heartbreaking coming of age tale takes a brutally honest look at how the decisions of our past can haunt us well into adulthood, no matter how far we try to distance ourselves.
To buy: $16, amazon.com.
Released October 11.
13 On Living, by Kerry Egan
As hospice chaplain, Kerry Egan spent years with the dying. While she was there to offer blessings or prayers, she found those facing death rarely wanted to talk about God, or at least not directly. Instead, she found people hard at the work she calls “the spiritual work of dying,” the process of finding or making meaning in one’s life—resolving old wounds, letting go of unfinished business, saying goodbye to loved ones, and revealing long-held secrets. In a series of essays that are part memoir, part philosophical musings, Egan shares what she learned not only about death, but also about life and about making life meaningful while we still can.
To buy: $15, amazon.com.
Released October 25.
14 The Sun Is Also a Star, by Nicola Yoon
Natasha is a rational teenager. She believes in science and facts. As she says early on in Nicola Yoon’s stunning YA romance, “To be clear: I don’t believe in fate. But I’m desperate.” She’s desperate because her family is about to be deported back to Jamaica and she only has 12 hours to try to find a way to stay in New York. Daniel, however, has a poet’s sensibility, which doesn’t exactly jive with his parents, Korean immigrants who expect him to attend an Ivy League school and become a doctor. When the pair meet on that fateful day, Daniel is convinced it is love at first sight and is determined to get Natasha to realize the same. The National Book Award-nominated novel traces everything that happens over those 12 hours as Natasha can’t help but begin to fall for the sweet, romantic Daniel. What makes this novel more than just a mushy story of teenagers falling in love is the many glimpses Yoon gives readers into the people Daniel and Natasha interact with—no matter how briefly. (One poignant example: the security guard at the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services longs for someone to just look up and see her, and not just pass through with their head down.) The result is a multi-layered look at the many factors that determine why, when, and how we fall in love.
To buy: $12.50, amazon.com.
Released November 1.
15 Swing Time, by Zadie Smith
The White Teeth and On Beauty author returns with an ambitious novel about friendship, race, class, and fame. Named after the narrator’s favorite Fred Astaire film, the book follows two girls who become best friends at dance class in 1982. Tracey and the unnamed narrator have much in common: they are both mixed-race, they live across the street from each other in Northwest London public housing, and they both dream of being dancers. But only one of them, Tracey, has the talent to pursue it. As their paths diverge, Tracey struggles as a performer while the narrator goes on to become a personal assistant to a Madonna-esque pop star, a job that takes her to West Africa to open a school for girls. Despite their distance, both physical and emotional, the two girls’ lives remain forever entwined, demonstrating just how deeply our pasts affect our present.
To buy: $19, amazon.com.
Released November 15.