The Best Books I Read in 2016

In many ways, 2016 has been a crap year. So many of our beloved pop culture icons and celebrities passed away. America somehow managed to wind up with an inexperienced reality TV star Nazi as its next president. A personal favorite of TV declined in quality before ultimately being canceled.

But there were some good things about 2016. I published two books, Blood Ties and Behind the Badge. I got the ball rolling on Behind the MaskBetrayed, and the fantasy epic Notna. And I read some damn good books.

Whittling down to the five best books was no easy feat; you’ll see why once we reach the Honorable Mention portion of this post. Note that this list encompasses the five best books I read in 2016, not necessarily the five best books that came out in 2016.

Now, without further ado…

5. Grave Measures by R.R. Virdi

Grave MeasuresWhat do you get when you combine ColumboConstantine, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer? You probably get something a lot like Virdi’s Grave Report novels. Virdi’s urban fantasy detective series is fast-paced, whimsical, and dangerous, and Grave Measures is every bit as good as its predecessor, Grave Beginnings.

Vincent Graves finds himself in a mental hospital this time around, and he only has but so much time to figure out whose body he is inhabiting and what was responsible for that body’s demise. All of the snark and mystery of Grave Beginnings is back in Grave Measures, and along the way, we’re treated to a much larger, richer world than what we saw in the first novel.

I feel like this is the sort of story Joss Whedon would be proud of, and as Virdi continues to establish himself as one of urban fantasy’s best writers, I’m in love with the fact that he’s filling the void left by the Buffyverse. Nothing will ever top the Slayer, but Vincent Graves has certainly carved his own niche in a genre that sometimes feels a bit overcrowded.

Grave Measures is available in hardcover, paperback, and Kindle.

4. Ready Player One by Ernest Cline

Ready Player OneErnest Cline’s geek opus is a fantastic romp through the bastions of popular culture and geekdom over the past 50 or so years, and if that was all Ready Player One had going for it, it would still be a damn fine book. Fortunately, Ready Player One manages to pack enough excitement, adventure, and heart into the story surrounding the plethora of pop culture references that Ready Player One becomes a modern-day classic.

The MMO world Cline created for this book would put World of Warcraft to shame, and Wade is a fantastic protagonist. But more than anything, this book is fun. It’s adrenaline-soaked, nostalgia-fueled entertainment — and ultimately, isn’t entertainment one of the biggest reasons we read? The sort of escapism we often seek is at the core of Ready Player One, and Cline never loses sight of that essential fact.

You cannot divorce the narrative from geek culture; without one or the other, the entire thing wouldn’t work. But it does work, and it is easily one of the best books I’ve read — not just in 2016, but overall.

Ready Player One is available in hardcover, paperback, Kindle, and Audible.

3. No Safe Place by Mary Head

no-safe-placeThe romance The Only One might have been Head’s first novel, but No Safe Place was clearly her true labor of love. A fast-paced thriller that follows FBI agent David Cole as he works to rescue his kidnapped daughter Hannah, No Safe Place was published through the Kindle Scout program — and whereas most books of this nature focus far more on what is done to the victim and leave the other details lying in atrophy, Head succeeds in diving into the heart of the story.

Hannah’s kidnapping is not the focus of this tale; instead, we are treated to the way her kidnapping affected not just her father, but characters who are close to both David and Hannah. We’re concerned less with what is being done to Hannah and more with what she does and how she handles herself during the ordeal. No Safe Place is such a subtle twist on the damsel-in-distress trope that you might not notice it until after the fact, but once you do, the story will be all the richer for it.

A sequel is in the offing, a book that will be light years different, but much like No Safe Place, I’m confident it will keep the heart of the characters intact — because after all, that heart was what made No Safe Place work to begin with.

No Safe Place is available in paperback and Kindle.

2. A Torch Against the Night by Sabaa Tahir

a-torch-against-the-nightThe follow-up to the excellent An Ember in the AshesA Torch Against the Night builds upon Tahir’s dystopian world of Martials and Scholars. Whereas the first book introduced us to Elias, the newly-minted Mask with a heart, and Laia, the slave girl determined to save her brother, Torch builds on them both while also introducing us to the POV of Helene, the newly-named Blood Shrike who is now tasked with tracking down and executing her best friend.

Three different POVs could have been a mess, but Tahir does a great job of balancing them all and making sure Elias, Laia, and Helene each maintain their unique voices and perspectives. The Helene chapters alone make Torch a better, more complete tale than Ember, and this is how sequels are supposed to work: take what was great about the first book and build upon it.

Tahir’s battle scenes are exquisite, and the drama is so palpable that the pages fly by. There is plenty left on the table for future books in the series, and I will likely be at my local bookstore the day the third book comes out to get my copy.

A Torch Against the Night is available in hardcover, paperback, Kindle, Audible, and audio CD.

1. Dangerous Ways by R.R. Virdi

dangerous-waysI know, I know… the same author with two slots on this list? Well, when the books are that good, they’re that good. Dangerous Ways takes us to the same universe as the Grave Report novels, but it ups both the scales and the scope. Jonathan Hawthorne and Cassidy Winters treat readers to a fantastic romp through the dimensions — and Virdi treats us to a tale that is at once intense, emotional, whimsical, and engaging.

Even though this opus comes in at a George R.R. Martin-esque 600 pages, it’s among the easiest reads I encountered in 2016. Pages flew by without my noticing it — which is probably the greatest indicator of how good a book can be. Some books that large can be a chore, but Dangerous Ways was anything but.

The amount of time and care Virdi put into Dangerous Ways is evident from the first page, and it is without hesitation that I consider this the best book I read in 2016.

Dangerous Ways is available in hardcover, paperback, and Kindle.

Honorable Mention: Floor 21: Descent by Jason Luthor, Dirty Deeds by Christy King, Untamed by Madeline Dyer, The Martian by Andy Weir, Bounty by Michael Byrnes, Sleeping Sands by C.A. King, Tomoiya’s Story: Escape to Darkness by C.A. King, The 5th Wave by Rick Yancey

AUTHOR SPOTLIGHT: R.R. Virdi

It’s time for another Author Spotlight! Today, I bring to you Dragon Award-nominated urban fantasy indie author extraordinaire R.R. Virdi — who as of today has released his latest, the fantasy opus The Books of Winter: Dangerous Ways. It takes place in the same universe as his Grave Report novels, but it’s an entirely new tale that’s sure to be as intense and entertaining and delightful as everything else he has written.

About the Book:

dangerous-ways

Jonathan Hawthorne has lived over a century beholden to one rule: do not meddle in mortal affairs. He’s broken it twice. So when he crosses paths with Cassidy Winters, he’s forced to interfere again.

Strike three. And the third time’s not the charm.

Hawthorne is swept along as Cassidy slips through the cracks in reality.

And being hunted by bands of monsters doesn’t help.

To find the answers they need, they’ll have to play in a dangerous world. One where the odds and rules are stacked against them. They will have to navigate magical courts, queens and lords all while trying to keep Cassidy out of their scheming hands.

If they fail, she will end up a pawn in a plot that will consume them all.

Hawthorne will have to face the consequences of his past, and risk his future to ensure Cassidy can have one of her own.

For a man with all the time in the world–it seems to be running out–fast!

Dangerous Ways is available in ebook, paperback, and hardcover formats.

Let’s talk to R.R.!

What was your inspiration behind writing the Grave Report series and Dangerous Ways?

The Grave Report was initially a CIA thriller series in the vein of Burn Notice/the Bourne books meets Memento. Originally, the urban fantasy series was going another route with another name all too close for comfort to another one. Eventually, something happened and the previous (urban fantasy) thriller was scraped and the two merged, with me needing to move over the character’s name and restart my plot. Eventually, the idea of Vincent Graves starting in a grave from the CIA plotline… needed a more paranormal reason. 😉 From there, well, you know it goes and has gone on to do.

The Books of Winter: Dangerous Ways came as… a dream and desire to expand on my urban fantasy universe in a way that Vincent Graves and his time constraints don’t allow for.

You’re one of my favorite urban fantasy authors. What draws you to that particular genre, and – specifically in terms of the Grave Report series – what made you combine that genre with elements of other genres, such as mysteries?

I’m a mythology buff. Have been since… ever. I love the idea of creating and toying with mythos in an urban setting. The genre allows me to make and play with the everyday — the mundane and make it fantastical. It’s a fun ride. The idea you can look out the window and wonder what happens if there are monsters and magic lurking out there — today?!

When reading your work, I find myself having a lot of the same experiences I have when watching episodes of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Not just because of the monsters and demons, but also because you have this uncanny ability to juggle the melodramatic and the whimsical. You strike that balance better than most. Where does that ability come from?

I think it comes from just that. I grew up watching Buffy, Firefly, reading Spider-Man comics and things of the sort. Spider-Man is a character with unending life pressure, horrors, and more. Yet he still cracks jokes and lightens the mood when he can. It’s about being a person. Sometimes, a lot of the times, life is and can be hard. It doesn’t hurt to crack a smile and make others do the same, even in the darkest of moments.

Character vs. plot: the seemingly endless debate over which is more important for a good story. Which side of that debate do you fall on, and how do you approach character when your protagonist’s identity changes from one book to the next?

I normally do have a very loose plot in mind; I’m a pantser, no outlines. But, but, I allow for my characters to lead the story within reason. So far, none have run so far away that I couldn’t save it. Mostly it’s gentle nudging if Vincent and the cast decide to break off the path. But I believe in the letting the characters (people) grow and dictate the story. It’s worked for me so far.

Are you a heavy plotter, or do you just let the story take you where it will?

The most I ever have for a novel is: Book one, Vincent Graves has 13 hours to so and so. Will he do the thing before something bad happens?! (Add in random thoughts as I have them. This is the monster of the week. This is the meta plot advancing stuff. Few scenes I have and I like.)

So far, the formula has worked and led to one award win, one of the largest possible award nominations for an author (the Dragon Award at DragonCon), and I’m selling fine. If it ain’t broke… you know the rest.

You’ve said that Dangerous Ways takes place in the same universe as the Grave Report books, yet it’s still its own entity. What are your plans for this fictional universe going forward? How many other Grave Report books are you planning to write?

Yup. Dangerous Ways is the first in The Books of Winter. They’re larger, more on the scale of epic, urban fantasies set in the same universe. The plan for that series is four to five larger books. The Grave Report books are a tad smaller and faster paced, as they’re paranormal investigator thrillers. I’m aiming for, and have slated in my head, around 20 – not counting standalones and novellas/short stories.

These two, by the way, are at this moment the first of eight or more series in this expanded urban fantasy universe. 😉

You’re almost as famous for your inspiration and positivity toward other authors as you are for your own writing. How important is it for you to lift up other aspiring authors, and do you see it as paying it forward in a sense, given how much support you have among the indie writing community?

I think that’s the most important thing I can do, even more so than writing advice/technique itself. That comes with time and practice to all. But, if you lose motivation, if you give up… it’s over. I want to keep people writing because it’s the only reason I’ve gone on to do the things I’ve done. Without the uplifting and motivational things to come my way, I’d have quit long ago and never have gotten the chance to experience the crazy triumphs I’m enjoying now. And I’m still growing, so there’s more to come I believe.

What are some of your favorite books?

Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman. The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho. The Dresden Files by Jim Butcher. Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time books. The Chronicles of Siala by Russian author Alexey Pehov.

Thank you for having me and your work too (if you haven’t checked it out, readers, do so) is wonderful and rather unique!

(J.D.’s note: Thank you for that!)

Now, to recap… my reviews of both Grave Beginnings and Grave Measures, the first two novels in the Grave Report series (which are also now available in hardcover!).

 Grave Beginnings

Grave BeginningsI hardly ever breeze through books anymore. That’s not an indictment of the quality of the books I read, but between a full-time job, writing/editing three manuscripts at once, and several other interests, it takes a bit to hold my interest and focus enough to actually tackle something on my TBR list.

But Grave Beginnings sucked me in immediately, and I found myself reading one of the best, most interesting murder mysteries I’ve read in a long, long time. R.R. Virdi has created a fantastic world and — perhaps more impressively — a protagonist that has no solid identity, yet is easy to root for. I’ve read my share of novels written in first-person that don’t quite measure up, but the first-person narrative is perfect for this book; the nature of the protagonist allows for narrative freedom in first-person that likely would not be present if this were a third-person book.

The marriage of murder mystery and supernatural works far better than it might seem in theory, and the result is a fast-paced, irreverent read. The cast of characters is relatively small, as the book focuses more on moving things along and less on making sure we keep track of all the particulars. In the mystery genre, it is far too easy for a case to either be wrapped up too quickly or to drag on too long, but the case in Grave Beginnings doesn’t suffer from that, and the conclusion of the case itself was satisfying like an old-school episode of Buffy.

(Aside: it occurs to me that, technically, every episode of Buffy can be considered old school nowadays. Yeah, I feel old…)

The best part to me, though, was the teeth the end of the novel provided the character. It was a clear direction moving forward for the series, and it has me looking forward to the next installment. I read the Kindle version of this novel, but now that a paperback edition is available, I’ll be adding that to my collection in the near future.

Long and short of it, Grave Beginnings is one of the best books I’ve read in a long time, and I wholeheartedly recommend it for fans of mysteries, supernatural stories, both, or neither. This is simply a fantastic book.

Rating: *****

Grave Measures

Grave MeasuresOne of the reasons I loved Buffy the Vampire Slayer (the TV show, not the movie) so much was the seamless way in which the tone constantly shifted. From tense to humorous to heartbreaking and back again, Buffy managed to weave all of life’s great and terrible emotions into a fantastic tale that still felt personal.

R.R. Virdi clearly has that same ability. Grave Measures, the follow-up to the fantastic Grave Beginnings, does the same thing. The stakes feel higher this time, even if Vincent Graves finds himself confined to an insane asylum, tracking down something that’s killing patients. Much like the first book, Grave Measures is whimsical, hard-hitting, intense, and emotional… and every bit the page-turning romp Beginnings was.

One need not to have read the first book to follow along with Measures, but those who have will be rewarded. The return of Camilla Ortiz was a pleasant surprise, and she has quickly made herself a personal favorite — even as great as Vincent Graves himself is.

There are no overly shocking revelations in this book, but a novel doesn’t need to be shocking to be a quality read. There are plenty of breadcrumbs sprinkled along the way, fodder for future novels in the series, and I’m looking forward to seeing how everything unravels going forward.

Virdi is a master at ensuring Graves has a voice all his own — easy enough to do in the first-person narrative with a protagonist with no true identity. Still, Graves has a depth all his own, even with the snark and the one-liners, and his personal code — which has evolved over the course of the first two books — makes him more of a hero than I think he’d admit to.

If you loved Grave Beginnings, you’ll love Grave Measures just as much. Even if you didn’t, Virdi has created a fantastic universe full of rich, interesting characters who are easy to root for. This is sort of Columbo meets Constantine, with a little bit of Buffy sprinkled in for effect… and the result is one of the best books I’ve read this year.

Seriously, read this book.

Rating: *****

In addition to the Grave Report books and Dangerous Ways, Virdi has his work featured in three anthologies: The Longest Night Watch: A Charity Anthology for Alzheimer’s DiseaseThe Longest Night Watch, Volume 2: A Charity Anthology for the Alzheimer’s Association, and Stardust, Always: A Charity Anthology for Cancer Research (in memory of David Bowie and Alan Rickman). In supporting these anthologies, you’re not only reading some fantastic work, you’re helping out some worthwhile causes.

Follow Virdi on his (shiny redesigned) website, Amazon, Facebook, and Twitter.