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

BOOK REVIEWS: Part IX

No Safe Place by Mary Head

no-safe-placeI received a copy of this book pre-release after nominating it for publication through Kindle Scout.

No Safe Place is night and day from The Only One, Mary Head’s debut novel.

Whereas one was a romance that bucked many of that genre’s conventions, No Safe Place is a fast-paced thriller in which graduate student Hannah Cole is taken from her own home — leaving her FBI agent father David and his team to put the pieces together in a race against the clock.

One of this book’s chief strengths is its ability to get us to care about Hannah and David without spending too much time on their relationship. Far too many books spend so much time establishing relationships and timelines that by the time the action gets going, readers have already checked out. No Safe Place does not suffer from this; Head does a masterful job of establishing the particulars, getting us to to care about the principal players, while still managing to get the story moving along.

But Hannah is no damsel in distress; she’s fiercely intelligent and — being the daughter of an FBI agent — she’s capable of taking care of herself and has no qualms about doing so. That in and of itself turns the damsel-in-distress trope on its head and is enough reason to give this book a read.

Along the way, Head treats us to heroes whose flaws are readily apparent and villains who are perhaps a bit more sympathetic than we’re comfortable with. These characters are fleshed out and deep without spending time and space on fluff, allowing readers to take part in a journey that perhaps goes by a little quicker than expected.

A sequel is in the offing, but this book doesn’t end on a cliffhanger. The preeminent plot if wrapped up in a sufficiently satisfying manner, with each bread crumbs left over going forward. And, in Head’s continuing tradition of upsetting established tropes, this universes focuses less on Hannah’s abduction itself and more on the emotional ramifications of it — both during and after.

No Safe Place is a thriller with heart — and a tremendous read.

Rating: *****

Preorder No Safe Place on Amazon 

 

The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins

the-girl-on-the-trainI’m trying to remember the last time I was so disappointed with a book that was so hyped. Probably the time I tried reading Lord of the Rings, but even that doesn’t feel quite right.

The frustrating thing is, there are passages in which The Girl on the Train is so gripping, so intense, that it grabs hold of you and you can fly through dozens of pages without realizing it. The climactic unravel, satisfying as it is, is the only reason I stuck with this book to the end, because this book suffered from two major flaws.

1) For a book so intense, so psychologically messed-up, The Girl on the Train takes its sweet old time getting going. I understand the need to introduce the particulars, but it shouldn’t take north of the first 50 pages to do so. I almost bailed on this book before things actually started happening.

2) There are no genuinely good characters. I suppose that could be considered a strength — and when I say I need to care about the characters, I say that knowing that doesn’t mean I necessarily have to like them. But none of the protagonists — not Rachel, not Anna, not Megan — are easy to root for; the supporting characters aren’t much better.

There are reasons to sympathize with each of the three women through whom we’re told this tale. Rachel is divorced, unemployed, the victim of of infidelity, and she’s an alcoholic. Megan harbors a secret so heinous, she can’t even let her husband in on it. Anna… well, she and Rachel are far more entangled with each other than she would care to admit.

But all three are also insufferable in their own ways, and if it weren’t for the mystery of what happened to Rachel on the night she can’t remember, if it weren’t for the mystery of what ultimately happened to Megan, I would’ve abandoned this book not quite midway through.

Maybe the upcoming film will address some of these issues — cutting the fat from the beginning would be a huge bonus — but this book really frustrated me because of what it could have been. This had the potential to be an impossible book to put down; this could have easily turned into the best book I’ve read throughout 2016. The ingredients were all there.

But Paula Hawkins meandered her way through the beginning, and she left us with characters who reminded us too much of that friend we all have… the person who has been through entirely too much, which engenders sympathy, but they’re also such exhausting people to be around, for one reason or another, that the sympathy only goes so far.

I did root for Rachel, and Anna, toward the end, but for much of The Girl on the Train, I spent much of my time rolling my eyes at them. There were times where I envied Megan, because she didn’t have to wade through this mess.

But in the end, The Girl on the Train frustrated the hell out of me. What could’ve been a classic begging to be read time and time again instead turned into a maddening cluster of messed up people that you’ll wish would just get over themselves.

Rating: **

Buy The Girl on the Train on Amazon

Nominate NO SAFE PLACE on Kindle Scout

No Safe PlaceLast year, indie author Mary Head released her debut novel, The Only One, a romance that undid many of the genre’s less savory stereotypes and told a touching and entertaining story. Now, she’s ready to publish her second novel, a thriller titled No Safe Place, and you can help.

Click here to nominate No Safe Place on Kindle Scout. If the book is selected, everyone who nominated it will receive a Kindle copy for free.

You like free books, don’t you?

No Safe Place is a fantastic read: frenetic, fast-paced, packed with tension, and full of relateable characters. What Head did for romance novels, she’s bound to do for thrillers.

So please, click the above link, nominate No Safe Place, and help out a fellow indie author.

About No Safe Place
Hannah Cole, a young graduate student, and her father David Cole, a senior FBI agent, enjoy a happy life together, until Hannah is kidnapped from their home one night, turning their world upside down. With the force of the FBI behind him, including his best friend Juliet Grayson, trusted partner Chris Tyler, and rookie agent Eli Shaw, David rushes to find his daughter, while Hannah struggles to stay alive, both of them racing against a deadline that could mean the end of Hannah’s life.