This is a year-end reading survey I’ve been using for a couple years now that I originally stole from Danika at The Lesbrary in 2014. (If you’re not following The Lesbrary, you’re missing out on a lot of rad queer women’s bookish content!) So this is kind of a review of what I read last year, and mostly just a chance to get to talk about the stand-out books I read. There are so many.
2016 was a total banner reading year for me: I read 144 books! That’s much more than I’ve ever done in the past. I did good on my goals on making sure my reading was more diverse in terms of race and ethnicity—I was going for about half and half authors of colour and white authors, which I achieved. I still read way more women and genderqueer authors than men, which makes me happy.
I also branched out this year genre-wise, trying out quite a few mysteries and actually liking them! I also made an effort to read some more memoirs, which I don’t often pick up. Apparently I love comics and graphic novels now, since I read 28 of them. And I read a ton of kids’ books, which makes sense given that I took two classes on children’s literature in my librarian program. Aaaand, I totally fell in love with audiobooks in 2016: I read 17! It was a great discovery to realize they could fulfill my desire to never not be reading if it can at all be helped. I made this chart of the genres I read, cause I’m a nerd:
Now, on with the survey!
- Best book you read in 2016
Ugh, this is impossible to choose! I read so many amazing, five star books this year that I thought were brilliant, intellectually and emotionally. Okay, I will limit myself to six: Nimona by Noelle Stevenson, O Human Star, Vol 1 by Blue Delliquanti, The Mystics of Mile End by Sigal Samuel, Nobody Cries at Bingo by Dawn Dumont, Blanche Cleans Up by Barbara Neely, and Fans of the Impossible Life by Kate Scelsa. All very different books, all ones that completely blew me away. Oh man, but also Kindred by Octavia Butler? It’s really hard to decide. Both Nimona and O Human Star are science fiction / fantasy comics with queer and/or trans and feminist themes that both gave me that feeling of that thing happen where you really wanna find out what happens and are enjoying the book so much that you can’t stop reading but you also want to slow down because you don’t want the book to end. In other words, they reminded me how much I love to read! I talk about all the other books below in other categories.
- Book you were excited about & thought you were going to love but didn’t?
Everything about Juliet Takes a Breath sounded amazing: a former Autostraddle columnist’s first novel, QTPOC politics, affectionate parodies of west coast white feminism, coming of age / coming out. THERE’S EVEN A SEXY LIBRARIAN WHO RIDES A MOTORCYCLE. It sounds like so many things I love. And then I read it, and it turned out to be a painful and boring read. Damnit, the entire fucking novel is telling instead of showing. And the characterization was so shallow; most of the characters never felt real to me. The entire novel needs a gigantic editorial makeover to transform it into fiction. So much of it read like a Queer 101 textbook and/or journal entries. What a bummer. Many other people, including some whose opinions I respect, enjoyed this though, so who knows.
- Favorite new author you discovered in 2016?
Easy answer here: Dawn Dumont. I read her debut semi-autobiographical novel Nobody Cries at Bingo in the fall, and immediately fell hard and fast in love with her. For me, there’s no higher praise I can give than telling you that that book made me laugh out loud more times than I could count. It’s no wonder Dumont is also a comedian. The ‘novel’ is actually really more like a collection of short stories about the main character Dawn as she grows up in and around the Okanese First Nation in Saskatchewan, where this kind of stuff happens: peeing her pants in public, trying to impress crushes despite her extreme dorkiness, and her mom telling her every boy she’s remotely interested in is actually her cousin until she starts to get a little suspicious. Check out this excerpt where Dawn goes to bingo with her mom:
At first it was awkward sitting next to the same white people who glared at Native people when they walked into their stores, but after sharing a few nail-biting jackpots, racism faded to the background as they concentrated on the true enemy:
‘Goddamn fuckin’ bingo caller.’
‘I only needed one number for a fuckin’ hour.’
‘Last fuckin’ time I play at this hall.’
I got her latest novel, Rose’s Run, for Christmas and I am pumped to read it.
- Best book from a genre you don’t typically read / was out of your comfort zone?
I read a fair amount of mysteries last year, despite the fact that I’d never really read any before! I don’t know why, but it had just never been a genre I’d been drawn to. So I tried out a new-to-me genre (and wrote a Book Riot post about the experience) and actually ended up really enjoying some mysteries! And while exploring this new genre, I discovered a new author, Barbara Neely, and her detective Blanche White (irony intended for this dark-skinned Black woman). I hopped right into the middle of the series, but it didn’t matter. I totally fell in love with Blanche, the smart, feisty, flawed, observant amateur sleuth and domestic worker. Actually the characterization for everyone in the book was incredible, down to the side characters. The novel is full of everyday wisdoms and observations about humanity and life on this earth, not to mention realistic, astute commentary about being Black in the US, class, sex work, homophobia, abortion, environmentalism, domestic work, and other issues weaved seamlessly and effortlessly into the detective plot which was also greatly entertaining and had just the right amount of twists. There was not one moment that I did not love reading this book. Did I mention it’s also really funny?
- Book you can’t believe you waited until 2016 to finally read?
Well I listened to the audiobook of North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell, which was originally published in 1854. Obviously that is, uh, 130 years before I was born, so I couldn’t have read it that much earlier, but I’m surprised I didn’t read this Victorian classic during the height of my Brontës, Austen, and Victorian fiction phase while I was an undergrad English lit student. I finally “read” the utterly delightful audiobook performed by English actress Juliet Stevenson, and it was great. Socialist Pride and Prejudice indeed. Actually, the romance is just one of the many plotlines in the novel, although admittedly I’m a sucker for romance so it was my favourite part. And then I watched the BBC adaptation and damn, were Daniela Denby-Ashe and Richard Armitage sexy in it.
- Most action-packed/thrilling/unputdownable book of the year?
Kindred by Octavia Butler was another of my forays into audiobooks this year, and holy crap was it a disturbing, provocative, complex, smart, page-turner. Er, or whatever the audiobook equivalent of a page-turner is. Normally I get too antsy if I’m listening to an audiobook and not doing something else, but I found myself so on edge while listening to Kindred that I couldn’t do anything else. This at first simple tale is about an African-American woman in 1970s America being inexplicably wrenched through time and transported back to antebellum Maryland, destined to save her (white) ancestor over and over. If you’re not already aware Butler was a genius, this book will convince you.
- Favorite cover of a book you read in 2016?
It’s a bit hard to see the nuances of the cover of Labyrinth Lost in a picture on the Internet, but look at the patterns even in the black spaces of the design. It’s beautiful, creepy, magical, and mysterious, just like the Latinx fantasy world the book is set in. The gorgeous photograph of the girl, the fancy gold lettering of the title, the floral witchy pattern at the top, it’s just all so good.
- Most memorable character of 2016?
This is a toss-up between Blanche White from Barbara Neely’s mystery series and Changez from Mohsin Hamid’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist, but I’ll talk about the latter since I already gushed about Blanche. The Reluctant Fundamentalist is essentially a novel-length, brilliantly sustained monologue in the voice of Changez, a Pakistani living the American immigrant dream (at first) and then shattered by 9/11 and his girlfriend’s mental illness / the ghosts of her past. You’re emotionally pulled into Changez’s story, cheering him on, addressed directly as ‘you’—the implied American/Western reader. Then Hamid pulls the rug out from under you and you wonder how much you can believe of what Changez has said at all, in disbelief that this man whose journey you were so invested in turns out to be a the fundamentalist of the title.
- Most beautifully written book read in 2016?
The Mystics of Mile End by Sigal Samuel is an amazing novel, such a sure-footed, beautifully written book that it’s hard to believe it’s her first. I loved how she described the streets of the Mile End neighbourhood in Montreal, how she brought the complex characters to life, how she communicated the transcendental and spiritual possibilities of Judaism and the Kabbalah. Here’s an excerpt:
I touched her face and, one by one, her features sprang away from the cracked wall behind her. I held her by the hip and the grey drained away. I pushed her against the wall and she laughed a vermillion laugh, feral and throaty, her mouth stained red. I kissed her there and the colour spread–she was amaranth, cadmium, cerulean, herliotrope, atomic tangerine–and I pulled her into bed and inside the walls were raining, paint was pouring down, and outside the sky was darkening to a deep pitch black. In the morning, when I held the mirror up to her face, she wept the impossible tears of one who has never known what it is to see her own body.
- Favorite passage/quote from a book you read in 2016?
And there it was, the weird something in her voice. It was not too fast or too quiet but slow and steady, as if she had all the time in the world, as if it was just for her, just for this moment, that the whole world had been created. I closed my eyes. Inside her voice I could hear each letter, and each silence between each letter, and I felt happy and sad and lonely, because in each perfect silence was a smaller, hidden silence, like dolls inside dolls that go on and on forever, and inside the smallest doll I could suddenly see the list curled up, the list of all the reasons, the reasons for my sister’s sadness.
And a short one from Bushra Rehman’s Corona:
Ravi was sitting in a corner, apart from the crowd. He was going back to India in less than a year, so everything he observed was for the warehouse of his mind. He’d seal the box, label it ‘My Time in America,’ and draw stories from it now and then to entertain the literary crowd in Delhi. That was the night I fell into the box.
- Newest fictional crush from a book you read in 2016?
Honestly I feel like I have more crushes on authors whose books I loved reading this year. But of course there’s Margaret Hale and John Thornton from North and South, especially their depictions as done by actors Daniela Denby-Ashe and Richard Armitage in the BBC adaptation. I really wanted to get in on the action between them when they had the sexiest hand shake ever in one key scene. Also, I think my crush on bearded female red-headed dwarf Violet from Kurtis Wiebe’s Rat Queens comic series has grown.
- Best worldbuilding / most vivid setting you read this year?
The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms by N.K. Jemisin, well and all of her books, is the fantasy every fantasy lover should be reading. It’s so fresh and unique and exciting, and so not pseudo-medieval Europe like literally every other fantasy you read. Jemisin has a knack for original and deep, intricate world-building, complete with mythology and theology. I loved this complicated world complete with its human-like gods and its countries with real histories and cultural intricacies. It really feels like Jemisin has created an entirely new world, not just borrowed snippets from other fantasy worlds. This is a setting of the most vivid kind, the one that is still crystal clear in my mind months after reading the book.
- Book that made you cry or nearly cry in 2016?
Oh boy, so many books made me cry in 2016. The one I remember crying over the most is See You at Harry’s by Jo Knowles, a middle-grade novel about family and grief. I pretty much cried consistently through the entire second half of this book actually. Knowles lovingly and authentically draws this big, crazy, flawed family for you, centred around 12-year-old Fern, and you get to know them all and their family dynamic (including an excellently portrayed closeted 14-year-old boy). And then this horrific tragedy hits them and it’s just so sad, so sad and well done. There’s some hope at the end, and at that point I was crying happy tears. So many tears.
- Hidden gem of the year?
It seems like not a lot of people have heard of Corona by Bushra Rehman, which is a damn shame. It was one of my favourite reads in 2016. It’s gorgeously written (see above quote); it’s funny; it’s poignant; it has a great sense of place, character, and emotion. Plus, it’s about a Muslim bisexual woman! Although it’s called a novel, it’s more like a collection of short stories about the same character, a young Pakistani-American bi woman like the author, at different periods in her life. The style is really cool, kind of like a hybrid work of creative non-fiction, memories, short stories, and memoir. It’s funny, I was reading a post on another book blog talking about reading books by and about Muslims, and I thought, “I don’t know if I’ve ever read any!” Then I remembered I’d actually read two books by Pakistani authors this year.
- Best 2016 debut you read?
I always seem to be kind of behind on my reading; I tend to only read a few books that were actually published the year that I read them. Last year I probably read more new books than usual, in fact, but I think the only 2016 debut I read was The Mothers by Brit Bennett. I really liked, but didn’t love, The Mothers. It’s a beautifully written novel about secrets piled upon secrets, with plenty of quotable lines about grief, character, emotion, and relationships. For me it was also a fascinating window in a Black church community in southern California. The debut I loved that I read in 2016 actually came out in 2015: it’s a YA novel called Fans of the Impossible Life by Kate Scelsa. It’s a gorgeous, sad book so achingly real about friendships and love and everything in between and overlapping. I’ve never read a YA book that reminded me so powerfully of being a teenager myself. I kept thinking: oh my god, Kate Scelsa remembers. There are lots of queer characters of multiple stripes in the book (including gay dads!) and also lots to say about mental illness and the foster care system. It made me cry.