Book Recommendations for 2016

Janet Grant

Blogger: Janet Kobobel Grant

What was your favorite book reading experience in 2015? Over the past few years, I’ve started the new year by considering which couple of titles were stand-out reads for me. And then I’ve invited you to share with us in the Comments section the books that top your list. It’s a great way for each of us to create new reading lists. (Note: These books could be classics or from several years ago as well as new releases. The only parameter is that you read it in 2015.)

Here are mine:

Nonfiction favorite book:

The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics by Daniel James Brown.

This narrative nonfiction goes onto my list of all-time favorites. Even though you know Boys in the Boatfrom the get-go that these nine young, impoverished college students will win the Olympic Gold, how they achieved it is a gripping, emotional roller-coaster. Not to mention that the book is beautifully written, with eloquent quotes opening each chapter from the man who built the boat that glided the rowers to fame. In every way, The Boys in the Boat is a feel-good read that heartens you and makes you glad you picked up this treasure. And, by the way, I know nothing about boats or rowing–well, until I read this book. I’m now happily informed about both. (I also found a film clip of the final race on YouTube that shows how utterly spent every man in every boat was, several actually collapsing after crossing the finish line.)

Honorable Mention: Dead Wake: The Final Crossing of the Lusitania by Erik Larson.

I guess this was my year to read boat books. In Dead Wake, Larson takes us on the Lusitania’s voyage from America to Britain as World War I heats up, and the Germans declare any ships in British waters are fair game. As with The Boys in the Boat, the outcome of the story is known as you enter into it: The Lusitania Dead Wakewill be sunk by a German submarine, with great loss of life. But reading the details of the passengers on-board (rich, famous, poor and “unnoteworthy”) as well as the specifics of the voyage made me realize I knew next to nothing about this famous sinking, which is viewed as an important factor in the US entering the war–but which the author isn’t convinced was the case. The story is told from the hunted and the hunter’s POV as well as the political machinations at play with the US President, the British government, and even the German leaders. A fascinating narrative nonfiction, with plenty of emotional impact, this deeply researched book kept me aghast and simultaneously enthralled.

Fiction favorite book:

All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr.

Like The Boys in the Boat, this WWII novel goes on my all-time favorite books. (It was a very good year that I added two books to the list.) Winner of the Pulitzer Prize, this novel braids two compelling and complex stories together–that of a German orphan boy and how he came aid the war effort through All the Light We Cannot Seehis radio operating skills and that of a blind French girl, whose father unsuccessfully tries to save her from the ravages of war.

The summary of the book’s beauty from the Amazon write-up speaks to its power more effectively than I can: “Doerr’s ‘stunning sense of physical detail and gorgeous metaphors’ (San Francisco Chronicle) are dazzling. Deftly interweaving the lives of Marie-Laure and Werner, he illuminates the ways, against all odds, people try to be good to one another. Ten years in the writing, a National Book Award finalist, All the Light We Cannot See is a magnificent, deeply moving novel from a writer ‘whose sentences never fail to thrill’ (Los Angeles Times).”

Don’t miss the joy of discovering this novel.

Being a creature of habit, I like to compare my list of book recommendations to the Best of lists that crop up every December. It’s an apples to oranges comparison since these lists are limited to books produced in 2015.

If you’d like to make the same comparison, each year, the online subscription newsletter Publishers Marketplace keeps tabs of which books published in 2015 were voted most frequently to be the best of the year from 61 publications, reviewers, librarians, etc. Here’s a peek at the list with the numeral in parentheses being the number of lists the title appeared on.

The Overall Top 10 Books of 2015
1. Between the World and Me, Ta-Nehisi Coates (31). Receiving more votes than any previous book!
2. A Little Life, Hanya Yanagihara (25)
3. H Is for Hawk, Helen Macdonald (24)
4. Fates and Furies, Lauren Groff (20)*
5. The Story of the Lost Child, Elena Ferrante (19)
6. A Manual for Cleaning Women, Lucia Berlin (11)
The Sellout, Paul Beatty
Purity, Jonathan Franzen
8. The Girl on the Train, Paula Hawkins (10)
Ghettoside, Jill Leovy (9)

And here are the top 10 for nonfiction and fiction:

The Best of the Best Books of 2015: Nonfiction
1. Between the World and Me, Ta-Nehisi Coates (31)

2. H Is for Hawk, Helen Macdonald (25)

3. Ghettoside, Jill Leovy (10)

4. M Train, Patti Smith (9)

5. Hold Still, Sally Mann (8)

6. Negroland, Margo Jefferson (7)

Dead Wake, Erik Larson

8. The Light of the World, Elizabeth Alexander* (6)

Barbarian Days, William Finnegan

The Witches, Stacy Schiff

11. Furiously Happy, Jenny Lawson (5)

The Best of the Best Books of 2015: Fiction
1. A Little Life, Hanya Yanagihara (25)

2. Fates and Furies, Lauren Groff (20)*

3. The Story of the Lost Child, Elena Ferrante (19)

4. A Manual for Cleaning Women, Lucia Berlin (11)

The Sellout, Paul Beatty

Purity, Jonathan Franzen

6. The Girl on the Train, Paula Hawkins (10)

8. A God In Ruins, Kate Atkinson (8)

City on Fire, Garth Risk Hallberg

The Sympathizer, Viet Thanh Nguyen

*Also picked by the Obamas as their favorites.

What books brightened 2015 for you?

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63 Responses

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  1. It’s been a Becky Wade year for me–My Stubborn Heart and Meant to be Mine were my faves. I loved Catherine West’s Yesterday’s Tomorrow. Anne Mateer’s Wings of a Dream. And one last one that I really loved–Sondra Kraak’s One Plus One Equals Trouble. These were all so darling, tore my heart, made me cry, made me laugh, made me clap. I know I’m missing some … but I can’t remember if some were this years or last years reads.

  2. Michelle Ule says:

    Loved The Boys in the Boat (read it all day flying and while I physically crossed five states, I felt like I never left Washington!), All the Light We Cannot See and Kristin Hannah’s The Nightingale.

    Dead Wake was too slow for me, as we’ve already discussed, though it sure had a lot of historical details which were interesting! 🙂

    H is for Hawk was gorgeously written–who would have guessed I’d find training a bird so fascinating! 🙂

  3. I recommended Lizzy and Jane to my niece a couple days ago, and realized then how often I have suggested that others would enjoy it. It is one thing to say, “I loved it,” and another to say, “You’ll love it.”
    * I read it because it was recommended on this blog. Now, thank you all for my 2016 reading list!

    • Janet Grant says:

      You’re so right, Shirley. There’s an ocean of difference between “I loved it” and “You’ll love it.” I read some quirky books this year that I would describe the former rather than the latter. I didn’t mention those here.

  4. The non-fiction book that impacted me the most was a book my son recommended. The Heart and the Fist by Eric Greitens has been out a few years, and it’s an amazing book.

    I started reading The Girl on the Train, and I found it depressing. I still have the book and may go back and finish it this year. I read a lot of good books this year, but two of my favorite were Told You So by Kristen Heitzmann and Married til Monday by Denise Hunter. I know as soon as I hit submit I’ll think of others I should mention because I really did read a lot of good books.

    I’ll look for All the Light We Cannot See and Boys in the Boat. Thanks for sharing your favorites.

  5. Read about 200 books in 2015 and am too sick right now to remember one title, and too tired to get up and look. Sorry. But there were some good ones.

    • Christine Dorman says:

      I’m sorry you are feeling so particularly sick this morning, Andrew. You are in my prayers.

      • Thank so so much, Christine, for the thoughts and prayers. I treasure this.
        * It’s the usual stuff, plus – oh, fun! – the return of a tropical illness.
        * But the interesting thing is that the worse things get, the more strident the Voice of the Almighty becomes – “Get off your bum and WRITE. I didn’t give you calling so you could sit back and say, Oh, dearie me, I don’t FEEL well, but LOOK, I have a calling…the calling has to be exercised in My name. Get to it.” And so, having decided to make a blog-post excuse for not being there, I had to write the darn thing. And not the short one I wanted to get away with. A substantial one. God can be SO unreasonable.
        * I guess Jennifer Major might agree…confined to bed, and still putting out 38,000 words. God may be good, but quite the Taskmaster…eh, Jennifer?

    • Janet Grant says:

      If you’re up to it later, you can come back and tell us about a handful. We won’t ask for all 200. 🙂

  6. Oh, I remember the best I read in 2015 but I can’t tell you title or author as it is as yet unpublished. I think I CAN say that it was written by a regular contributor to this forum (which doesn’t narrow it down too much as I have omitted category and genre). The talent that lives here is simply amazing.

  7. Janet, I always love seeing the books you and your fellow agents read. I don’t do nearly the reading that I wish I could, but I’m compiling a “Hope to Read in 2016” beginning with books mentioned here. 🙂
    *My favorite non-fiction, though hard to read, book for 2015 was Unbroken, by Laura Hillenbrand. To see how Louie Zampirini endured all he did and remained victorious in spirit inspires me.
    *For fiction, I really enjoyed Rachel Hauck’s, The Wedding Chapel. I read a lot of other fiction last year, too, but if I had to pick one . . . this would be it. 🙂

  8. Angela Mills says:

    It’s very hard for me to pick favorites, maybe it’s a middle child thing 🙂

    Last year, I remember loving Big Little Lies, The Light Between Oceans, The Butterfly and the Violin, and Sarah’s Key.

    • Janet Grant says:

      The Light Between Oceans was amazing! And The Butterfly and the Violin had me at the cover–so gorgeous. I didn’t care for Sarah’s Key. I realized as soon as the story was set up what was going to happen in the contemporary part so only the historical portion interested me.

      • Angela Mills says:

        Sarah’s Key surprised me, I had a very different resolution in mind where the contemporary storyline meshed with the historical one. I read it in one sitting and the story stayed with me, both signs that it’s a book I loved. But I do agree that the historical part was SO much more interesting.

  9. I reread a few classics with my oldest child and re-discovered Little Women. Not only is it a great story with solid characterization, but there are timeless truths hidden inside. On the non-fiction side…well, a person’s choice of books can tell a lot about him or her. 🙂 I was greatly helped by Evernote Essentials by Brett Kelly (a terrific blend of wisdom and humor), The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, and Lessons from Madame Chic – 20 Stylish Secrets I Learned While Living in Paris.

  10. Got one for you…Nicholas Irving’s “The Reaper”, his memoir of life as the first African-American sniper in the Ranger Regiment. It’s an engaging, accessible look at the mindset of a long rifleman in the modern era, and a testament as to how one CAN live the dream in spite of what seem to be overwhelming obstacles (he is colour-blind).

    • Janet Grant says:

      How would you compare The Reader to American Sniper, Andrew?
      (I’m glad you were well enough to come back and visit with us.)

      • Good question, Janet. “The Reaper” is very direct, very much ‘in the now’ in Nick Irving’s life. The overlying philosophical framework that Chris Kyle wrote about in “American Sniper” is, for the most part, missing.
        * That’s not a failing; Nick Irving worked in a very different milieu, since Ranger snipers are pretty much tradesmen; they interdict to prep and clear the battlefield, and to provide active overwatch and protection for assault elements. As such, they’re much more ’employees’ under a broader umbrella.
        * Chris Kyle was a Seal, and the long rifle was only a part of his job. Seal snipers are also expected to serve as assaulters, and really in any mission demands. Their brief tends to be far more independent (though by no means are they ‘lone hands’), and since the size of deployed force is much smaller, every member is expected to turn to for the needs of the job. Therefore, in “American SNiper”, you get a lot context and background.
        * You also get a good look into Chris’ mind, because he talked about both the faith and the patriotism that rove hi. He saw himself not as a killer, but as a savior – his job was to save the lives of the men with whom he fought, and the men for whom he provided overwatch.
        * He was a ferociously intelligent individual disguised as a cowboy-cum-trigger-puller, and it’s surprising to realize that he considered himself something of a failure, as he was not able to save everyone.
        * You get the same sense of mission from Nick Irving, but it’s not as strong in “The Reaper”; he’s a younger man, and concentrates more on the nuts and bolts of the job, with much less introspection. There’s a sense of guardedness in his narrative heart.
        * And, of course, you can’t read about Chris Kyle without being aware of the full arc of his life, that on returning to civilian life he was at loose ends for awhile, until he found a calling in helping veterans to recover from the trauma of combat by helping them develop their shooting skills (which is a great idea, and has helped me). And in this he gave his life, when he and a friend were shot to death by a disturbed veteran whom they were trying to help.
        * The books are very much complimentary, and I strongly recommend both. Being on the long rifle is one of the hardest jobs there is, and takes a strongly grounded faith, because one is, ultimately, killing an individual whom one has gotten to ‘know’ through the optics. You see the expressions of humour and anger, the facial tics and habits that give a shared humanity. Without faith and a sense of mission – saving lives – it’ a short road to madness.

      • Janet Grant says:

        Thanks for this great summary of the differences/commonalities between the two books, Andrew. That’s very helpful.

      • I appreciate your descriptions of each book. I haven’t read either, but I’ve wanted to read American Sniper for awhile. It would be interesting to read both to gain a better understanding of what people who work as snipers must do, be aware of and how the job affects them.

      • Jeanne, I would strongly recommend both “American Sniper” and “The Reaper”, along with Chuck Coughlin’s “Shooter” and Dan Mills’ “Sniper One”, the latter from a British perspective.
        * One thing you have to keep in mind is that the profession has largely come out from the shadows in the post-9/11 (and perhaps post-Mogandishu) era. This is both a product of ‘recognition of mission’ by command authority, and, VERY significantly, an acceptance on the home front.
        * It was quite different for the first of the ‘modern long riflemen’, exemplified by Carlos Hathcock and Chuck Mawhinney in Viet Nam. They received the ‘genesis point’ specialized training which has been developed to this day, but were still seen as outcasts in the military; partly because there was the perception that they were the ‘pros from Dover’ who were called in do do special jobs and did not share they day-to-day dangers of the guys in the field, and partly because they were seen as somehow extra-human, cold stalkers and killers. The former was unjust, and the latter arose from the missions with which they were tasked, which were detached from day-to-day operations and involved killing specific individuals (among whom, in Hathcock’s case, included a North Vietnamese general and ‘Apache’, a female VC interrogator who was fond of rather brutal torture), or reducing the presence of command personnel.
        * The Viet Nam guys seem to have been much more ‘haunted’ (Hathcock was said to have had a tough time); Kyle, Irving, and Mills had the security of a supportive ‘base’, which would have helped a lot in dealing with the potentially devastating spiritual and emotional cost of the job. They’re not necessarily ‘ok with it all’, but being accepted by both the military and civilian community means a LOT. Coughlin is somewhere in-between; while being content with the duties he performed, he nonetheless recognizes that there are a lot of unopened ‘boxes’ in his psyche (“…It’s getting crowded in there…”) and admits that he has ‘midnight visitors’, the owners of the faces in his memory.
        * The stories that would be the most interesting, from that perspective, are those of the OGA/contractor long riflemen from the 80s to the present day, who worked under looser (and sometimes extrajudicial) rules of engagement, and whose functional briefs took them to places in which a governmental presence could not be supported. Those stories can never be told.

      • If you ever meet a sniper (there are NO retired snipers; ‘between deployments’ is operative), please, PLEASE never ask about a personal ‘score’. That’s an absolute taboo outside the profession, and even among peers is not discussed. The numbers become something of legend and myth, and that’s where professionals are content to leave it.
        * Instead, ask about dealing with the Magnus or Coriolis effect. The Magnus effect is what makes a curve-ball, in baseball, ‘curve’; it describes the flight path of a spinning object (bullets spin, obviously).
        * The Coriolis effect is caused by the spin of the earth itself; on a long shot (around 1000 meters) it will start to come into practical play, since the Earth HAS moved between the pull of the trigger and impact. It sounds arcane, but it can be estimated on the fly (and is different at different latitudes, just to make things more interesting).
        * Also, what most folks don’t realize is the margin of error inherent in the equipment itself; minute-of-angle accuracy (which is very good in both rifle and bullet) mean that at 500 meters, the ‘perfect’ target area is a circle 5 inches in diameter. At 1000 meters, it’s ten, and when you consider that the torso, which is center-of-mass, is at best about 19 inches wide at the shoulders, you’re dealing with a requirement for very precise human-factors action, which includes control of respiration, excellent muscular discipline, and the need to fit the pull of the trigger into the space between heartbeats. Most long riflemen can, to a degree, control their heartbeats. Heck of a way to learn biofeedback.

      • Janet Grant says:

        This is fascinating info, Andrew. The curve, the margin of error (so much for media’s portrayals of precise shooting) and even controlling one’s heartbeat Wow!

  11. One would think I could think of a few books I’ve read in 2015.
    Does a GPS screen count? I could call it “Lost somewhere between Belen and Albuquerque…Oh look, is that an Olive Garden?!”

    I read quite a few research books this year. one that stood out, and that I haven’t quite finished because it’s awful, is The Captured, by Scott Zesch. It’s about people who were captured by various tribes in the Southwest and Texas prior to and after the Civil War. Good grief, I cannot fathom how those people rationalized taking their families right into a full blown Indian War, and using the provision of “God will keep us safe”.
    YES. God will. But when someone uses a spiritual argument against arrows and bullets, and the opposing side cares nothing for God or sharing their country? Hmmm.
    On the flip side? ANYTHING by Tamara Leigh, Becky Wade, Laura Frantz, Catherine West…and my brain has gone blank.

    • Yes, yes! If one hasn’t read Laura Frantz’s Love’s Reckoning, they are missing out. Oh. My. Word. If you dare to have your heart slayed … and I mean slayed in the best of ways! 🙂

    • Janet Grant says:

      Oh, the places writing research can take a person…Thumbs up for Becky Wade and Laura Frantz. I haven’t read Catherine West or Tamera Leigh so I better add them to my 2016 list.

  12. Christine Dorman says:

    Happy New Year, Janet and everyone!
    As I said in my comment to Meghan, I read Little Women for the first time last Spring and really enjoyed it. My favorite book that I read in 2015, though, is a tie between two quite old classics, i.e., they are both from the Middle Ages. They are Chaucer’s Troilus and Creisyda and Gottfried’s Tristan. Tristan possibly edges out Chaucer’s poem for two reasons: The character of Troilus really gets on my nerves. He is a big baby and a jerk. Creisyda, on the other hand, is one of the few female characters of medieval literature who is an intelligent and complex woman. The Tristan story wins out by a hair because of the love story at the beginning of the book. Ironically, that romance is not between Tristan and Isolde; it is the love story of his parents, Blanchefleur and Rivalin. While Blanchefleur is nowhere near as real a person as Creisyda, the example of love and devotion to the death in their story is beautiful. Guess I’m just a romantic.

    My immediate want-to-read list for this year starts with All the Light We Cannot See, Night (Elie Wiesel’s account of his experience as a prisoner at Auschwitz), and (just to balance things out) I Love Her, That’s Why by George Burns.

    • Janet Grant says:

      Christine, wow, what a reading range! I haven’t felt the urge to read anything Medieval since…ever. Chaucer never worked for me for some reason. I TRIED to like his writing, but to no avail. I love that your list ended with a book by George Burns. How fun a read that would be!

      • Christine Dorman says:

        I’m sorry for the late response. Some days I just can’t get back to the blog until everyone’s packed it in for the night.

        Thank you, Janet. I just like to read. The Medieval period is one of my interests, though. “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight” is one of my favorite stories from the era (I’m a big Arthurian legend fan). And I’m a huge Burns and Allen fan even though Gracie died just a couple of years after I was born. Years ago I read George’s Gracie: A Love Story and that was wonderful! It’s both fun and sweet. He wrote I Love Her, That’s Why while she was still alive. I’ve never read that book, but I found out recently that a library near me has it, so it’s definitely on my must-read list. Thanks for another great post. 🙂

  13. Tricia Goyer says:

    I loved All the Light We Cannot See. Enjoying The Boys in the Boy right now. Dead Wake is next. You always have the best recommendations!

    In 2015 my favorite book was The Warmth of Other Suns. It’s the true stories of three people who left the South during the Great Migration–an amazing time in history that few people know about! http://amzn.to/1UqKSpB

  14. David Todd says:

    Life didn’t allow me much reading time this year, so the pickings are slim for me to make my choice. I suppose it would have to be an obscure book from our denominational publisher, Once Upon An Island by Bessie Black. It’s a missionary memoir of the career of a late-in-life lay couple who served in Papua New Guinea and Fiji. Full disclosure: I served as Bessie’s book coach and initial editor for it. Even so, I think I liked it best of the books I read in 2015.

  15. Tara Johnson says:

    I’m currently reading “All The Light We Cannot See”…I agree. The writing is exquisite! It’s one of those stories that linger and it’s challenged me to be a better writer. The sense of detail is absolutely stunning!

    • Janet Grant says:

      Doerr seemed to love both “worlds” he wrote about equally. Each could have been a novel in and of itself and been a satisfying read, but to interweave them…phenomenal.

  16. Gayle Roper says:

    I listened to Boys in the Boat on audio. Thoroughly enjoyed it. Three novels I really enjoyed because each was unique: The Miracle Man about what a sudden spurt of miracles does to a ’50’s small town; The Nothing Girl about an insecure woman who has an imaginary golden horse who enables her to live successfully (sounds weird but is funny and wise); and The Memoir of Johnny Devine set in the McCarthy era and about a young woman of Russian heritage and a movie star who has been changed by Christ.

    • Janet Grant says:

      Camille Eide, who wrote The Memoir of Johnny Devine, is one of our Books & Such clients (not mine), and her novel is on my to-be-read list. Both Romantic Times and Publishers Weekly raved about it.

  17. For Non-Fiction, I’d have to say Between the Word and Me. As cliche as it is, I stayed up through the entire night to read it. I’ve purchased copies for friends, written about it, and purchased his other book also, The Beautiful Struggle. It is a tough read, because it is a painful look at race. But it is beautiful, because it is a father pouring out his heart to his only son.

    For Fiction, Cane River by Lalita Tademy. It explores four generations of women, their struggle to survive and protect their families during and after slavery, and colorism in the South. I read this 400-and-something page book in two days, because I just loved learning about the nuances of that time period from a strong-female perspective…and it felt like I was retracing a little of my own history.

    • Janet Grant says:

      Thanks for two excellent suggestions. I hadn’t heard of Cane River, but it sounds like a good read. I decided I have to read Between the World and Me when I saw it had a record-setting number of nominations for Best Book of 2015. And it seems like the type of book that would be enlightening as well as touching.

  18. Non-fiction: Victim of Grace by Robin Jones Gunn
    Fiction: The Woods Edge by Lori Benton and The Day the Falls Stood Still by Cathy Marie Buchanan

  19. NLB Horton says:

    The Truth According to Us, by Annie Barrows, was a delight. My book club is doing All the Light We Cannot See in April, so it’s in the queue.

    • Janet Grant says:

      I like the title, The Truth According to Us. So what’s it about?

      • NLB Horton says:

        Janet, it’s about a bizarre Southern family (aren’t we all?) with multi-generational secrets. Barrows nails the voice of the young protagonist in a way that is both insightful and tender. When I started the book, I thought I probably wouldn’t finish it. But after a half dozen chapters, I was hooked enough to recommend it to our church book club.

  20. Gayla Grace says:

    I LOVE this idea of seeing what others have read and forming my 2016 reading list! My most memorable reading last year was Still Alice by Lisa Genova. With my mom in the throes of dementia, I shed a few tears along the way, but I found it to be a gripping story that I couldn’t put down once I started. I also enjoyed Taya Kyle’s memoir, American Wife, after hearing her speak at our church.

  21. Becky Wade says:

    I’d heard that Dead Wake was terrific but I hadn’t yet heard about The Boys in the Boat. Thanks for the recommendations! I really enjoy listening to non fiction via Audible.

    The fictional read that I most enjoyed in 2015 was a general market novel entitled What Alice Forgot by Liane Moriarty. I was invested in the characters right to the very end. Also, it was such a wise, wry look at what can happen to our marriages over time (and the addition of kids).

  22. Nancy says:

    I am really struggling with A Little Life; it is so wordy, does it ever pick up and is it worth staying with it? My oldest and dearest friend recommended it so I picked it up….I don’t know