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The Best of 2016: Kristen’s List

2016 was a weird reading year for me. I read an absolute deluge of books (479 at this morning’s count), as I spent a lot of it on work projects which required a lot of reading. In addition, I found myself on quite a few planes and reading is my favorite way to fly the friendly skies. I tried to read widely, venturing into genres I hadn’t explored before (hello, food memoir, nice to meet you!) and significantly upped my audiobook intake. I also binged on a few author back catalogues (Sherry Thomas and Sarah Mayberry in particular) and participated in Book Riot’s “Read Harder” challenge.

You can imagine, therefore, how hard a “Top Ten” list is for me this year. I could do Top Ten social science reads, or memoirs, or books written by non-authors (chefs, actresses, etc.). When asked to throw together my list for AAR, I had a choice to make. I decided to list the new releases that surprised me the most this year; the characters who have stayed with me, or the author voices which were the most refreshing.

I Let You Go by Clare Mackintosh

I first heard about this one in late 2015 when it was released in the U.K. One of my best pals is a fellow reader and her life in England allows me access to some reads I otherwise would not have discovered. She texted me around Christmas and told me in no uncertain terms that I had to read this book. A British suspense thriller about the death of a little boy, I Let You Go is tense and brilliant. The characters have stayed with me since reading the book in February and I am EAGERLY anticipating her next work, due in the U.S. in April. A/BN/iB/K

The Hating Game by Sally Thorne

I am not the only AAR staffer to put this on my list this year – it’s universally beloved around this place. I read this while waiting for my father to recover from a major cardiac event in hospital and lawd above, did I need an immersive distraction. I adore this book and have read it twice more this year, just to make sure the situation surrounding my reading didn’t cloud my judgement. It didn’t and I totally love it. A/BN/iB/K

Lying in Wait by Liz Nugent

Full disclosure, Ms. Nugent and I have shared a few drinks while both at an art festival in the western Irish village of Roundstone several years ago. I was amazed by her warmth, wit, and kindness and could not wait to read her debut, Unravelling Oliver, the chilling story of a charming sociopath, which took the Irish book world by storm in 2014. Her much-anticipated follow-up did not disappoint, telling the story of a codependent mother and son and the consequences of their symbiosis. Not currently available in the U.S., but the good news for all of us is that Ms. Nugent signed a deal with Random House for stateside distribution later this year. Suspense fans should cement this one on their TBRs.  A/BN/iB/K

You Will Know Me by Megan Abbott

I, like most of America, was caught up in Olympic fever for much of the late summer. You Will Know Me fit into that as it is the story of a murder at an elite gymnast training facility. Fans of the old ABC Family show Make It Or Break It will love the process bits of this work, suspense fans will love the work done on the psychological unravelling, and fans of good storytelling will love it all.  A/BN/iB/K

Born a Crime by Trevor Noah

The only dude on my list! I picked up this book with slight skepticism as I’m not a huge fan of Mr. Noah’s comedy. The hook of hearing childhood stories from the last days of apartheid was too compelling to ignore, so I took the gamble. I am so glad I did. This book is deep and true, painful at times, raw and emotional, as well as completely real. Mr. Noah’s storytelling is top-notch, but my favorite parts are the vignettes he tells at the start of each chapter about some idiosyncrasy of apartheid, an unpacking of one particular strand of injustice. The brief, but sharp, meditations on inequality and race are worth the price of admission alone. A/BN/iB/K

Rhapsody by Cecilia London

Installment five of six of Ms. London’s breathtaking Bellator Saga, Rhapsody tells the story of a marriage being reborn after unspeakable tragedy and what “fighting for justice” looks like when you have no fight left. It’s a meditation on how we let people we love into our emotional trauma and how to create new boundaries of belief, self-sustainability, and healing. The final installment is set to release in February and I am chomping at the bit to finish. (The series, for those unfamiliar, is about two politicians – Republican Jack and Democrat Caroline – who fall in love and are on a meteoric rise to national power when America takes a turn for the dystopian. Now they’re exiled and fighting for both their lives and the very nation they vowed to serve. Sexy and suspenseful, it’s one of my favorite series of the last decade.)  A/BN/iB/K

Wedding Belles by Lauren Layne

Yes, this is a cheat, but all three books in this series came out this year and I loved them all equally. Additionally, these ladies and their gents felt so real to me that I wish I could book them for any upcoming celebrations. This series is pure contemporary catnip to me – wedding planners, sassy heroines, strong but kind heroes. Add in Ms. Layne’s ability to create dialogue that feels like my friends could say it and this series is cemented strongly in my “comfort reads” list from here on out.  A/BN/iB/K

Without Borders by Amanda Heger

I can’t remember exactly how Without Borders came across my desk, but I am so glad it did. The story of a girl who decides to go on a medical mission in the jungles of Nicaragua, thinking she’s going to save the world, but discovers the world is both more broken and more beautiful than she could have ever imagined has stayed with me since closing the book back in the spring. I adored both the love story and the heroine’s journey and am excited to read more from Ms. Heger’s brain.  A/BN/iB/K

Then He Kissed Me by Laura Trentham

Y’all, I love me a beta hero. And Nash in Then He Kissed Me is one of the best I’ve read in a long time. I enjoyed this whole series and particularly liked that it was a non-idealized small, Southern setting. But Nash? He was one of the biggest joys of my literary year.  A/BN/iB/K

You Can’t Touch My Hair by Phoebe Robinson

This book made cringe at myself, snort with laughter, and want to be a better person. I embarrassed myself on a plane reading this book, laughing so hard I was crying. I also sat with several passages in silence for a while, taking a hard look at myself and my implicit biases that sometimes lined up with the stories Ms. Robinson was telling. I’m grateful for this book and her voice, simple as that.  A/BN/iB/K

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