I state, just for clarification, that placement on this list doesn’t mean these books were published in 2016 (most probably weren’t); instead, these were books I read for the very first time in 2016. Likewise, this list doesn’t represent every book I read in the past year. (According to my GoodReads 2016 reading challenge, that would be 230 books, so there is no way I could list that many!)
So with all of that out of the way, let’s get started!
13. Soundless by Richelle Mead
Premise [from GoodReads]: For as long as Fei can remember, no one in her village has been able to hear. Rocky terrain and frequent avalanches make it impossible to leave the village, so Fei and her people are at the mercy of a zipline that carries food up the treacherous cliffs from Beiguo, a mysterious faraway kingdom. When villagers begin to lose their sight, deliveries from the zipline shrink. Many go hungry. Fei and all the people she loves are plunged into crisis, with nothing to look forward to but darkness and starvation. Until one night, Fei is awoken by a searing noise. Sound becomes her weapon. She sets out to uncover what’s happened to her and to fight the dangers threatening her village. A handsome miner with a revolutionary spirit accompanies Fei on her quest, bringing with him new risks and the possibility of romance. They embark on a majestic journey from the peak of their jagged mountain village to the valley of Beiguo, where a startling truth will change their lives forever.
My Thoughts: I hesitated to read this novel initially as it had a rather slow beginning for such a short book (as it’s well under 300 pages). But this unhurried start is well-rewarded as it effectively sets up Fei as a character, her motivations, and her world. Set in a pseudo-East Asian land, Soundless‘ plot hinges on a central mystery of why the villagers have long since lost their sense of hearing. Only Fei, it seems, can hear and she eventually sets out to try to save her people when their supplies run dangerously low. Overall, this was a very satisfying read with a fun adventure and interesting characters.
12. Knife by R. J. Anderson
Premise [from GoodReads]: Once upon a time, a fairy is born. She lives in an old oak tree at the bottom of a garden with the rest of the fairy folk. Never has she known a time when life hasn’t been hard, with many dangers and much adversity. But when she becomes the Hunter of the group and learns to do battle in the outside world, her adventures really take off.
My Thoughts: Knife, as its series title suggests, isn’t your typical fairy story. Even though it opens a bit cute with its world populated by fairies named Wink and Mallow, it quickly becomes a darker story where fairies command respect and even learn to kill (though it avoids becoming grim). One aspect I loved was that the story’s focus is from the fairies’ point of view and how they deem the Human world as dangerous, regardless of the truth. But when Knife ventures past the confines of her oak tree, she begins to change her ways of thinking. Dramatic tension arises when Knife encounters a Human boy named Paul who defies everything she’s been led to believe about his kind, yet her service in the fairy world puts her in direct contact with her Queen, who insists upon complete loyalty to the rules. The dynamic between Knife and Paul is wonderful, and the Christian undertones are well-executed and never become heavy-handed or preachy. Definitely a must-read for fairy lit fans!
11. The Girl who Could Not Dream by Sarah Beth Durst
Premise [from GoodReads]: Sophie loves the hidden shop below her parents’ bookstore, where dreams are secretly bought and sold. When the dream shop is robbed and her parents go missing, Sophie must unravel the truth to save them. Together with her best friend—a wisecracking and fanatically loyal monster named Monster—she must decide whom to trust with her family’s carefully guarded secrets. Who will help them, and who will betray them?
My Thoughts: This middle grade read is a cute book with a fun premise. Granted, the chief villain and some of the plot twists are a bit easy to spot, but I forgive it for that seeing as the target age for this novel isn’t adults. But I still found it to be very enjoyable, and I was compelled to keep reading until I finished it. Sophie and her non-human companion, Monster, are tasked with protecting her parents’ secrets when it comes to dream collecting and selling. The world-building connected to this type of magic was well-done and opened the door to many possibilities as far as the plot and even some side characters are concerned. Overall, this made for a pleasantly light-hearted summer read.
10. Grace for the Afflicted by Matthew S. Stanford
Premise [from GoodReads]: Each day men and women diagnosed with mental disorders are told they need to pray more and turn from their sin. Mental illness is equated with demonic possession, weak faith and generational sin. Why is it that the church has struggled in ministering to those with mental illnesses? As both a church leader and professor of psychology and neuroscience, Dr. Stanford has seen far too many mentally ill brothers and sisters damaged by well meaning believers who respond to them out of fear or misinformation rather than grace. Grace for the Afflicted is written to educate Christians about mental illness from both biblical and scientific perspectives. Dr. Stanford presents insights into our physical and spiritual nature and discusses the appropriate role of psychology and psychiatry in the life of the believer. Describing common mental disorders, Dr. Stanford asks of each: “What does science say and what does the Bible say about this illness?” Mental illnesses addressed in the book include: Mood Disorders, Anxiety Disorders, Schizophrenia, Dissociative Disorders, Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder, Eating Disorders, Substance Use Disorders, and Borderline Personality Disorder.
My Thoughts: I’ve always been interested in reading about mental illnesses, but Stanford’s take here adds another layer of critical information: for Christians, how should we (and the Church as a whole) respond to and treat persons who suffer from mental illness? This book does a great job breaking down the eight most common forms of mental illnesses, explaining their natures from a clinical (but non-technical) perspective, presenting case studies, and outlining various treatment options in order to generate a well-rounded picture. Even more importantly, Stanford spends time examining the myths and misconceptions Christian circles can hold about various mental illnesses. Likewise, he offers hope and encouragement for persons who are actively suffering by focusing on Biblical truths which are delivered in a sincere manner devoid of unhelpful platitudes. Overall, this is a highly informative read that is neither too simplistic nor too technical.
9. Truthwitch by Susan Dennard
Premise [from GoodReads]: In a continent on the edge of war, two witches hold its fate in their hands. Young witches Safiya and Iseult have a habit of finding trouble. After clashing with a powerful Guildmaster and his ruthless Bloodwitch bodyguard, the friends are forced to flee their home. Safi must avoid capture at all costs as she’s a rare Truthwitch, able to discern truth from lies. Many would kill for her magic, so Safi must keep it hidden – lest she be used in the struggle between empires. And Iseult’s true powers are hidden even from herself. In a chance encounter at Court, Safi meets Prince Merik and makes him a reluctant ally. However, his help may not slow down the Bloodwitch now hot on the girls’ heels. All Safi and Iseult want is their freedom, but danger lies ahead. With war coming, treaties breaking and a magical contagion sweeping the land, the friends will have to fight emperors and mercenaries alike. For some will stop at nothing to get their hands on a Truthwitch.
My Thoughts: I already reviewed Truthwitch, so you can read my more detailed thoughts here. As stated in my review, this was yet another title I hesitated to read primarily as it was receiving so much hype upon its release, and normally such books disappoint me. However, this novel was anything but a let down. Its character pairings work brilliantly to present two sets of witches who are uniquely empowered yet ultimately interconnected. This injected the plot with dramatic tension, especially when wills and political aims collide. Yet thankfully this avoids becoming the typical insipid court intrigue novel as it’s unafraid to insert exciting action scenes (and on the high seas, no less!). Overall, this was well worth taking the time to read and I’ll certainly be on the lookout for its sequel.
8. The Forbidden Wish by Jessica Khoury
Premise [from GoodReads]: When Aladdin discovers Zahra’s jinni lamp, Zahra is thrust back into a world she hasn’t seen in hundreds of years—a world where magic is forbidden and Zahra’s very existence is illegal. She must disguise herself to stay alive, using ancient shape-shifting magic, until her new master has selected his three wishes. But when the King of the Jinn offers Zahra a chance to be free of her lamp forever, she seizes the opportunity—only to discover she is falling in love with Aladdin. When saving herself means betraying him, Zahra must decide once and for all: is winning her freedom worth losing her heart?
My Thoughts: Here was yet another read that I was initially on the proverbial fence about. At first, I thought this was going to be a paint-by-number Aladdin retelling from a female jinni’s perspective, but, as it turns out, this novel is only half that equation. Yes, it’s told from a female jinni’s perspective but, no, this is not a feminist revision of Aladdin. Zahra is an emotionally torn being who cannot forgive herself for a past betrayal and loathes her current station, yet freedom from her captivity comes at a steep price, one that even she isn’t sure she wants to pay. Zahra’s war within herself, as well as her turbulent relationship with Aladdin, is well worth the price of reading admission. Not to mention the book’s ending is genuinely nail-biting. Overall, I was glad I picked up this book and it became a surprise favorite during the summer.
7. Vixen by Jillian Larkin
Premise [from GoodReads]: Jazz . . . Booze . . . Boys . . . It’s a dangerous combination. Every girl wants what she can’t have. Seventeen-year-old Gloria Carmody wants the flapper lifestyle—and the bobbed hair, cigarettes, and music-filled nights that go with it. Now that she’s engaged to Sebastian Grey, scion of one of Chicago’s most powerful families, Gloria’s party days are over before they’ve even begun . . . or are they? Clara Knowles, Gloria’s goody-two-shoes cousin, has arrived to make sure the high-society wedding comes off without a hitch—but Clara isn’t as lily-white as she appears. Seems she has some dirty little secrets of her own that she’ll do anything to keep hidden. . . .Lorraine Dyer, Gloria’s social-climbing best friend, is tired of living in Gloria’s shadow. When Lorraine’s envy spills over into desperate spite, no one is safe. And someone’s going to be very sorry.
My Thoughts: I already reviewed Vixen, so you can read my more detailed thoughts here. I highly enjoyed this book as I loved both its setting and its characters. Normally, I’m not a fan of multiple POV novels, but in this novel’s case the technique worked brilliantly. Essentially, we see some of the same situations through the eyes, hearts, and minds of three young women who possess inherent differences but, deep down, I believe all strive for the same things, namely love and redemption. The way Gloria’s, Clara’s, and Lorraine’s narratives are threaded together is gripping, not to mention the 1920s setting seems elegantly authentic. Overall, this novel was a treat to read and I certainly plan to check out the rest of the trilogy.
6. Understanding Evangelical Media by Quentin J. Schultze
Premise [from GoodReads]: As long as there has been a church, there has been Christian communication–“people of the book” bearing “the good news” from one place to another, persuading, teaching and even delighting an ever-broadening audience with the message of the gospel. Amid ongoing advances in technology and an ever-more-multicultural context, however, the time has come for a broad appraisal of the state of evangelical communications. Quentin Schultze and Robert H. Woods Jr. have assembled scholars from across the country to analyze and assess a wide range of media including radio, popular music, worship music and media, television, film, periodicals, books, Internet church, drama, comics, gaming, theme parks, advertising, public relations, and merchandising. These shifting media, and the communications enterprise as a whole, are put in cultural and ethical perspective.
My Thoughts: This is another non-fiction pick but it, too, deserves a mention. As a Christian, I’m interested in learning about the sundry ways the Church has used to spread the Gospel of Christ. However, I think it’s fair to say that some attempts, while probably well-intended, haven’t been executed as neatly or effectively as they could have been. Personally, I’m especially critical (in a discerning way, not a condemning way) of the Christian sub-culture that seeks to merely mirror its “secular” counterpart, from manufactured pop stars to formulaic romance novels, rather than create anything original, unique, or even artistic. That’s not to say media and materials purporting a Christian message are automatically “Jesus junk” (though much of it can be), but it needs to be analyzed and discerned based on its message, intent, and artistic merit rather than consumed simply because it bears the label of “Christian.” I gleaned quite a bit of good information from Schultze’s insights, and I found this to be a highly informative read that identifies and discusses some of the issues, both good and bad, when it comes to Christian media and sub-culture.
5. Furthermore by Tahereh Mafi
Premise [from GoodReads]: There are only three things that matter to twelve-year-old Alice Alexis Queensmeadow: Mother, who wouldn’t miss her; magic and color, which seem to elude her; and Father, who always loved her. The day Father disappears from Ferenwood he takes nothing but a ruler with him. But it’s been almost three years since then, and Alice is determined to find him. She loves her father even more than she loves adventure, and she’s about to embark on one to find the other. But bringing Father home is no small matter. In order to find him she’ll have to travel through the mythical, dangerous land of Furthermore, where down can be up, paper is alive, and left can be both right and very, very wrong. It will take all of Alice’s wits (and every limb she’s got) to find Father and return home to Ferenwood in one piece. On her quest to find Father, Alice must first find herself—and hold fast to the magic of love in the face of loss.
My Thoughts: First off, how delightfully awesome is this cover? And a mere 2D image does it no justice as this deserves to be seen in person. It’s so bright, colorful, and busy yet it fits the story’s tone and never feels too much. The wonderful cover aside, I thoroughly enjoyed this novel from beginning to end. Alice, the chief protagonist, is now one of my favorite middle grade good gals: she’s smart but not a know-it-all, she’s gentle but knows when to conjure up a fighting spirit, she is meek but refuses to be bullied or belittled, and she acts young without becoming disgustingly juvenile or absurdly immature. Essentially, she’s everything I could hope for in a young protagonist. Regarding the story itself, it’s a wonderful array of colorful twists and turns enveloped in whimsy, wonder, and magic but it never becomes too much. Normally, I shy away from books that seem to try too hard to create a whimsical tone, but Furthermore stays on point, meaning it doesn’t feel like it’s being injected with whimsy just because. At first, I feared this would be like the regretfully DNF’d The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making, which, for me, tried way too hard to be fanciful while also paying a little too obvious homage to similar works (namely Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and The Neverending Story). But Furthermore never felt overdone nor too obvious with its influences. Overall, this novel was a year’s-end read for me and a last-minute addition to my list, but it definitely deserves a spot.
4. The Paper Magician by Charlie N. Holmburg
Premise [from GoodReads]: Ceony Twill arrives at the cottage of Magician Emery Thane with a broken heart. Having graduated at the top of her class from the Tagis Praff School for the Magically Inclined, Ceony is assigned an apprenticeship in paper magic despite her dreams of bespelling metal. And once she’s bonded to paper, that will be her only magic… forever. Yet the spells Ceony learns under the strange yet kind Thane turn out to be more marvelous than she could have ever imagined — animating paper creatures, bringing stories to life via ghostly images, even reading fortunes. But as she discovers these wonders, Ceony also learns of the extraordinary dangers of forbidden magic. An Excisioner — a practitioner of dark, flesh magic — invades the cottage and rips Thane’s heart from his chest. To save her teacher’s life, Ceony must face the evil magician and embark on an unbelievable adventure that will take her into the chambers of Thane’s still-beating heart—and reveal the very soul of the man.
My Thoughts: All I could think to myself while reading this book was wow. At first, you don’t think a novel about a woman who can enchant paper would be that exciting. Yet it is. The world-building is stunning, especially regarding the various branches of magic, but even more so are the twists and turns the story takes. Ceony, who is a perfectly likable heroine, is suddenly thrust into a mind-bending, dreamworld-esque adventure where the life of her mentor is at stake and she is, for all intents and purposes, completely unready to face down a devious threat. I loved everything about this novel, from its characters to its ever-surprising plot, so there was no way 2016 could go by and I not add it to my list of favorites.
3. The Mermaid’s Sister by Carrie Ann Noble
Premise [from GoodReads]: In a cottage high atop Llanfair Mountain, sixteen-year-old Clara lives with her sister, Maren, and guardian, Auntie. By day, they gather herbs for Auntie’s healing potions; by night, Auntie spins tales of faraway lands and wicked fairies. Clara’s favorite story tells of three orphan infants—Clara, who was brought to Auntie by a stork; Maren, who arrived in a seashell; and their best friend, O’Neill, who was found beneath an apple tree. One day, Clara discovers shimmering scales just beneath her sister’s skin: Maren is becoming a mermaid and must be taken to the sea or she will die. So Clara, O’Neill, and the mermaid-girl set out for the shore. But the trio encounters trouble around every bend. Ensnared by an evil troupe of traveling performers, Clara and O’Neill must find a way to save themselves and the ever-weakening Maren. And always in the back of her mind, Clara wonders, if my sister is a mermaid, then what am I?
My Thoughts: I already reviewed The Mermaid’s Sister, so you can read my more detailed thoughts here. This novel was brilliant in every way. As I remarked in my review, I loved everything about it, from its characters, to its plot, to its writing. The mermaid mythology employed here feels very organic and it helps that the novel is an entirely original product (meaning this isn’t a by-the-numbers retelling of The Little Mermaid, neither the original tale nor the Disney film). I had said, rather prophetically it seems, that this book deserved a spot on my favorites list this year, and I’m happy to finally make good on that promise though, honestly, it belongs in a three-way tie for first place.
2. Winter by Marissa Meyer
Premise [from GoodReads]: Princess Winter is admired by the Lunar people for her grace and kindness, and despite the scars that mar her face, her beauty is said to be even more breathtaking than that of her stepmother, Queen Levana. Winter despises her stepmother, and knows Levana won’t approve of her feelings for her childhood friend–the handsome palace guard, Jacin. But Winter isn’t as weak as Levana believes her to be and she’s been undermining her stepmother’s wishes for years. Together with the cyborg mechanic, Cinder, and her allies, Winter might even have the power to launch a revolution and win a war that’s been raging for far too long. Can Cinder, Scarlet, Cress, and Winter defeat Levana and find their happily ever afters?
My Thoughts: I had bittersweet feelings about Winter because I love the Lunar Chronicles series and, as much as I wanted to see all of my favorite characters’ storylines wrap up, I also didn’t want the series to end. Normally, I’m leery of final novels because it’s rare if they wrap up everything to my liking (but I’m picky like that). Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows remains the only final novel in a series that, for me, did everything right. That is until I read Winter and I think I now have a second place contender. This novel is everything I loved about its series, only it’s operating at a 12 on a scale of 1 to 10 in the action, tension, danger, drama (the good kind!), and star-crossed romance departments. Cinder and all of her allies and enemies are back and everything is poised for an anticipated showdown between Cinder and the sinister Queen Levana. Much like The Mermaid’s Sister, if I wanted to make it a three-way tie this year for my list’s top spot, Winter most certainly would be among that number, too.
1. Summer and Bird by Katherine Catmull
Premise [from GoodReads]: When their parents disappear in the middle of the night, young sisters Summer and Bird set off on a quest to find them. A cryptic picture message from their mother leads them to a familiar gate in the woods, but comfortable sights quickly give way to a new world entirely—Down—one inhabited by talking birds and the evil Puppeteer queen. Summer and Bird are quickly separated, and their divided hearts lead them each in a very different direction in the quest to find their parents, vanquish the Puppeteer, lead the birds back to their Green Home, and discover the identity of the true bird queen.
My Thoughts: I already reviewed Summer and Bird, so you can read my more detailed thoughts here. These last three novels on my list were hard to allot placement for because I loved each of them equally but for different reasons. If I wanted to generate a three-way tie, then The Mermaid’s Sister, Winter, and Summer and Bird all would have all earned first place. But seeing as I didn’t want to generate a confusing mess by having a three-way tie, I did my best to divvy up my top three spots. That being said, Summer and Bird really was my stand-out read of 2016 and it was one that stuck with me the whole year. It’s a gentle story that focuses on the titular sisters who go on a journey to save their parents. But rather than travel down the path of quest-tale plot familiarity, this novel creates a unique, Wonderland-esque world where the sisters are tempted in their own distinctive ways. Much like with The Paper Magician, Summer and Bird employs mind-bended landscapes and world-building elements yet nothing feels tacked on simply for the sake of peculiarity. This is a rich novel, filled with familial love, despair, temptation, and the desire to confront and destroy evil so good can prevail. Overall, Summer and Bird accomplishes everything I expect a great novel to do and it does it all with elegant aplomb. So for that, I’m honored to award it my top spot. 🙂