Reading makes us feel fancy.
2016. Oh, 2016. We have a lot of memories, a lot of feelings, and, most importantly, we have a lot of books we’ve read. As we say farewell to a wild and crazy twelve months on planet Earth, TBF staff and members of our selection committee have taken a moment to reflect upon our most memorable reads of 2016. Some of the books were brand new this year; some have been waiting on our shelves for just the right moment to dive in. Here they all are, in one handy list you can take straight to your local bookstore. Enjoy! Cheers to 2017!
Operations Manager, Texas Book Festival
The Association of Small Bombs by Karan Mahajan
This beautiful and tragic book weaves between the intimate and quiet spaces of home and family, and the deafening outside world of markets and terrorism. I keep thinking about this book, even six months later.
MetaMaus: A Look Inside a Modern Classic by Art Spiegelman and Hillary Chute
As the title indicates, this is an in-depth look at the groundbreaking Maus through interviews, archival material, and (of course) comics. In case you thought there wasn’t more to say about Maus, Art Spiegelman is never at a loss for words.
We Should All Be Feminists by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
I picked up this tiny little book at an airport and was immediately engaged by this personal, provocative, and accessible argument. This adapted TEDx talk from the Adichie, author of Americanah, is so inspiring and opens up the conversation about gender and feminism.
Outreach Coordinator, Texas Book Festival
The Distance Between Us: A Memoir (Young Readers Ed.) by Reyna Grande
Reyna’s memoir is a heart wrenching, beautiful story. Her language is so vivid and full of life. During more stressful parts of the book I actually found myself holding my breath to get through a scene. She brings a humanistic side to the political issue of immigration. This book is so important and is sure to be a conversation starter.
The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini
Okay, yes, I’m a little embarrassed that I just read The Kite Runner this year, but better late than never right? The reader gains insight on how the Taliban came into power using fear and violence. The themes in this book transcend time and are still very relevant today.
Adult Author Selection Committee
A Gentleman from Moscow by Amor Towles
A magical blending of history, manners, plotting, and a surprise ending.
Leave it to Psmith by PG Wodehouse
I read a couple of his novels each year. This is one of his best….and a good place to start if you have never treated yourself to Wodehouse. Note: the spelling is correct.
Dinner with Edward by Isabel Vincent
A touching story about an elderly widower in NYC who befriends (and cooks fabulous meals for) a younger woman. They become close friends and their regular dinners help them each through some tough patches.
Adult Author Selection Committee; Author of Barefoot Dogs
The Reputations by Juan Gabriel Vásquez
Vásquez is perhaps the best Latin American author of our generation (those born in the seventies). He’s obsessed with memory and the act of knowing, and his previous and equally wonderful novel, The Sounds of Things Falling, at times reminded me of Javier Marías – but Vásquez has refined his own style. I couldn’t put this book down. It’s powerful and gorgeous, a true delight to read.
Voices of Chernobyl by Svetlana Alexievich
A series of monologues from victims of the worst industrial accident in history, masterfully put together. This book is so devastating I don’t have words to describe it. And yet, it’s beautiful. It’s a critical reminder of the importance of journalism in our post-truth world. I wish Trump and his cabinet read it to learn about the irreparable consequences of nuclear disaster.
Literary Director, Texas Book Festival
We Found a Hat by Jon Klassen
The first time I read this sweet picture book about friendship, I cried. Two turtles find one hat in the desert. They both want the hat, but there is only one hat! The quiet tension in this story is underscored by stunning illustrations of the desert and straightforward statements of friendship that absolutely made me melt (“We are watching the sunset. We are watching it together.”). Watch the trailer (one of the best I’ve seen) and buy this book for readers of all ages.
Here Comes the Sun by Nicole Dennis-Benn
This is the number one book I’ve recommended this year. I’m not alone in my love; this novel has appeared on several end-of-year best-of lists. Dennis-Benn tells the story of a family of three women, a mother and her two daughters, in a Jamaican village that’s undergoing rapid development. Their story unfolds chapter by chapter, as we shift perspective between the three of them. The theme of what’s handed down by women generation to generation (which I also appreciated this year in The Mothers and the film Lemonade) underpins the story. I also enjoyed the perspective on what it means to be a gay woman in Jamaica. This book is full of dark and light, of beautiful writing and characters I rooted for, even when they were at their worst. And it’s a debut! I can’t wait to read what Dennis-Benn writes next.
You Can’t Touch My Hair by Phoebe Robinson
I saw Robinson perform at Moontower Comedy Festival earlier this year and vowed then and there to get her to come to the Texas Book Festival. She took the stage and told outrageously funny jokes about sex, race and gender that I didn’t hear from anyone else that night. The podcaster and comedian’s collection of essays, her very first book, had me laughing out loud in public. From rating the desirability of each member of U2 to enumerating her demands for a future female President, Robinson uses a wide array of pop culture touchstones and personal stories to talk about what it means to be a woman and black in America in 2016. Definitely check out her podcast, 2 Dope Queens, as well.
I’ll Tell You in Person by Chloe Caldwell
This collection of essays spurred me to actually get up from my desk and take lunch breaks just so I could read it. (We are an office of desk-lunchers around here.) Caldwell portrays her young life of writing, friends, love, sex, acne, T.J. Maxx and everything in between in compulsively readable essays perfect for your best friend, your grown daughter, your niece, your sister, any modern young woman looking for someone who can relate.
Other books I have to mention even though it’s kind of cheating because I told everyone else they had to limit it to three picks and I already gave you four: The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead, of course, can’t be recommended enough; Grace by Natashia Deón, which you should read right along with Underground and Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi; Eleven Hours by Pamela Erens, a gripping, phenomenal literary look at birth, life and womanhood; The Narrow Door by Paul Lisicky, moving and exquisite and #JoniMitchellForever; Pond by Claire Louise Bennett, a collection of some of the most unexpected, intelligent, thoughtful, delightful new fiction I’ve read. Girls On Fire by Robin Wasserman, a compulsively readable thriller about two adolescent girls that reminded me of Foxfire and Witchcraft in the best possible ways; The Association of Small Bombs by Karan Mahajan, which Claire already mentioned but which also cannot be recommended enough; A Love Letter to Texas Women by Sarah Bird, the most enjoyable giftable essay with the loveliest of covers; Buffering: Unshared Tales of a Life Fully Loaded by Hannah Hart, who is a shining light of love, acceptance and humor on the internet and now on the page; Alice and Oliver by Charles Bock, which just broke my heart, especially when I left it at the airport and had to wait for a new copy to arrive; In the Company of Women by Grace Bonney, which inspired the heck out of me and made me fall in love all over again with artists like Neko Case and Roxane Gay. There are so many more, y’all. Oh, and I finally read Bluets by Maggie Nelson start to finish at exactly the perfect moment and it was sublime.
Executive Director, Texas Book Festival
Outline by Rachel Cusk
It’s hard to describe why this deceptively simple novel – a writer and creative writing teacher retells the conversations she has with various people she meets or knows while abroad in Greece teaching a seminar – was one of the most complex and interesting books I read this year – or maybe ever. But it’s something about the skillful way Cusk creates space in what’s not said that gets you to think about the very nature of perception, deception, desire, and loss.
The Last Painting of Sara de Vos by Dominic Smith
This historically-grounded imagining of a 17th-century female painter and her modern day forger was a book I read early this year and think is a perfect sensual pleasure to read curled up by a winter fire over the holidays. It will also make you want to go back to college so you can take art history again. Or forge into the fields with a canvas and brush to paint a landscape.
The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead
Whitehead has written a great American novel. On every must-read list of the year and winner of the National Book Award, trust the critics on this one. The novel is often harrowing, as it recounts in vivid, exacting detail the extravagent cruelty of slave owners and catchers and depicts with incisive satire, the various ways that racism manifested in different parts of the South. It also gives us hope and humanity, not only in the novel’s main characters, Cora and Caesar, but in the abolitionists who run the underground railroad (a real car and tracks ride in Whitehead’s imagining). What I most loved is how Whitehead really understands the cold mercenary heart beating at the core of the American identity, dissecting it through incredible characters and masterful satire.
YA Author Selection Committee
Places No One Knows by Brenna Yovanoff
With burning chemistry, gripping emotion and engrossing characters, Places No One Knows is the kind of novel I could spend the rest of my life revisiting, but that’s not the only reason it made my Required Reading List. Its exploration of adolescent social dynamics and expectations is searing in its accuracy, yet at the same time, Waverly’s story offers hope. (And kissing. The kissing is not to be overlooked.)
The Memory Book by Lara Avery
The premise–a girl recently diagnosed with early onset dementia begins writing a journal to help her remember– sounds straight out of the Nicholas Sparks catalog, but Lara Avery’s poignant portrait is never saccharine, in large part thanks to the winning voice of Sammie McCoy. Hilarious, determined and insanely nerdalicious, Sammie is an unforgettable heroine who made me laugh my ass off… and cry all the tears.
The Female of the Species by Mindy McGinnis
While McGinnis’ exploration of sexual violence and misogyny is piercing, she’s equally skilled at crafting those classic John Hughes-type moments, resulting in a strange but thrilling dichotomy of vengeful vigilantism and average adolescence. The Female of the Species is truly a novel like no other, and weeks after turning that last page, the severity of its impact continues to haunt me.
Children’s Author Selection Committee; Author of Bears Make the Best Reading Buddies
School’s First Day of School by Adam Rex and Christian Robinson
A great story in helping children overcome and understand the anxious feelings on starting school. I loved hearing from the school’s perspective and how his friend Janitor reassures him he’ll like the new changes once the school is open especially making new friends.
Booked by Kwame Alexander
It’s another great cast of characters from Kwame Alexander especially soccer loving twelve-year-old Nick who struggles with reading and bullies and family problems. I think all kids will be able to see themselves in the mirrors of these pages in some fashion. And for those who might not like to read, they’ll crossover and love to read after this one.
Children’s Author Selection Committee
The Inquistor’s Tale by Adam Gidwitz
I really enjoyed this book this year! It’s meaty and fun and looping and fresh!
Full of Beans by Jennifer Holm
This book takes on just-about-the-best character from Turtle in Paradise and sets him rolling again.
Presenting Buffalo Bill: The Man Who Invented the Wild West by Candace Fleming
This is a nonfiction gem, and so is Fleming’s picture book with Eric Rohmann: Giant Squid. I hope we invite them to the Festival next year! Breathtaking!
Children’s Author Selection Committee; Author of Whoosh! (and many other books)
Radiant Child: The Story of Young Artist Jean-Michel Basquiat, by Javaka Steptoe
The vibrant, textured artwork is simply stunning, however text is equally rich. The story tackles challenging and complicated subject matter in a manner that is child-friendly, on Jean-Michel Basquiat’s quest of becoming a famous artist. And what child can’t relate to not coloring inside the lines, art that is “sloppy, ugly, and sometimes weird; but somehow still BEAUTIFUL.”
More-igami by Dori Kleber and illustrated by G. Brian Karas
I fell in love with this book after hearing about the premise: a child who likes folding things learns about patience through many failed attempts to fold an origami crane. As a child, that was me, too! And then when I saw the cover of the book and its multicultural cast of characters, it became a keeper for me.
Step Right Up: How Doc and Jim Key Taught the World About Kindness
written by Donna Janell Bowman and illustrated by Daniel Minter
Okay, kinda’ve cheated here. I was an early reader of this book, so I know the long path it took to publication. “Doc” Key, a formerly enslaved man, teaches a horse to read, write, and spell? Well, yes he did. And he did so with kindness and patience. Gorgeous linoleum-block, colored prints illustrations by Daniel Minter.