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 X

I trust everyone had a great holiday season, rife with plenty of new reads (including my work, perhaps?). I now bring you all my latest crop of book reviews, including a pair of magnificent fantasy books and a new entry into a long-running series that’s not as strong as the others.

Dangerous Ways: The Books of Winter by R.R. Virdi

Why do wedangerous-ways read?

Do we do it for simple entertainment? Do we do it to escape the stress of our lives? Do we do it to learn something about ourselves, about the world in which we live? Or perhaps we do it for all of the above reasons.

Whatever the reason, when we are transfixed by a phenomenal tale, one so well crafted that it grabs us and transports us to an entirely different world, it’s a magical thing. Dangerous Ways, the first book in R.R. Virdi’s The Books of Winter series, is one such experience — as vibrant and evocative and intense as the myriad of gateways leading to other worlds.

This book takes place in the same universe as Virdi’s Grave Report series, and there are satisfying callbacks, but this tome is a being all its own. Its a massive one — not quite troll massive, but close — and yet Virdi’s quick-witted first-person style is so free-flowing that you’ll push your way through hundreds of pages without truly realizing it.

Where the Grave novels are gritty, street-level thrillers with a healthy dose of the freakish, Dangerous Ways is grand, bordering on high fantasy. The numerous worlds are fantastical and well-developed; for all of Virdi’s skill at weaving through the English language, he is equally adept at creating entire worlds — and something tells me he’s only scratched the surface.

Of course, none of that matters if the characters fall flat. But they don’t; Jonathan Hawthorne and Cassidy Winters are a joy to be around; despite the fact that they’re constantly threatened with certain death, you can’t help but be with them step for step. They’re individual characteristics — bravery, determination, sarcasm, wit, and smarts, just to name a few — make them easy to root for, and the supporting cast is equally delightful in its own right.

As much as I’m eager for the next Grave Report book, I’m just as excited at the prospect of the next Book of Winter. There is no cliffhanger here, but there are enough threads to fill several more volumes… and with writing this clean, this crisp, I can definitely see myself devouring more of this genre.

Fantasy fans — urban, high, and everything in between — should definitely add Dangerous Ways to their collection. This is a fun, engrossing, entertaining read — and I would argue, the best book I’ve read in all of 2016.

Rating: *****

Buy Dangerous Ways on Amazon (available in Kindle, paperback, and hardcover)

A Torch Against the Night by Sabaa Tahir

a-torch-against-the-nightIf An Ember in the Ashes was a solid introduction to the horrific and oppressive world of Elias and Laia, then Sabaa Tahir’s follow-up, A Torch Against the Night, is a fantastic follow-up that builds on what we already know and constantly raises the stakes.

Everything that made Tahir’s first book such a hit is back for the second installment, and the biggest change is the fact that Torch features three protagonists: the aforementioned Elias and Laia, as well as Helene. To me, the addition of Helene’s POV was reason enough to give Torch the full five stars; whereas Helene felt a bit one-note and love-triangle-y in Ember, her perspective and character arc add a tremendous layer of depth to both the character and the novel as a whole.

Along the way, all three characters face seemingly impossible odds with varying degrees of success. Nothing is ever truly as it seems, even in the gripping final pages that take place in the dark prison Kauf. I enjoy Tahir’s way with words, the way she can simultaneously paint vast, sprawling pictures with the intimate personality of the characters themselves.

Large though this tome may be, Tahir deftly transports you from character to character, unfolding plot twist after plot twist in such a way that hundreds of pages will fly by before you come up for air — and as an added bonus, I was not nearly as uncomfortable reading Torch as I was reading certain passages in Ember.

That’s not to say there aren’t moments in this book. There are, and they are gutting and fantastic all at once. I’m probably not the target audience for this series, but I’m a sucker for stories in which the heroes refuse to stop in spite of the odds. As a favorite TV show of mine once said: “If nothing we do matters, then all that matters is what we do.”

That is the guiding philosophy behind Tahir’s books, and it works regardless of the scale of the moment. Moments big and small resonate equally in A Torch Against the Night, and the result is a sequel that surpasses its already impressive predecessor in just about every way.

Rating: *****

Buy A Torch Against the Night on Amazon (available in Kindle, paperback, hardcover, and Audible)

High Heat by Richard Castle

high-heatCastle may be history, but Nikki Heat is still going.

For the uninitiated, a primer: Richard Castle is a fictional mystery writer, formerly portrayed by actor Nathan Fillion on the ABC procedural Castle (which was just canceled this past spring after eight mostly-quality seasons). As part of promoting the show, the Nikki Heat series was published in real-life, along with select stories featuring Derrick Storm. High Heat is the eighth installment in the series, and it will likely prove just as divisive as the TV show’s eighth season.

First, the good: these books have, for the most part, been better than expected. They are essentially little more than promotional material, even if the thing they’re promoting now only exists in syndication and on DVD. High Heat moves along at a brisk pace, unraveling two distinct storylines: the ISIS-style beheading of a journalist, and its resultant threat on Jameson Rook, and Nikki Heat’s continued dependence on and obsession over the death of her mother.

For the most part, High Heat weaves between the two almost effortlessly. There is enough intrigue and action to keep things moving, and this book being less than 300 pages makes it one of the easier reads. There are callbacks to the show — part of the fun of this series has always been playing “Spot the Castle reference — and there are real-life callbacks as well.

Including a presidential candidate who seems to be some freakish combination of Donald Trump and Ross Perot.

Now the bad: This book needs another editor.

For all the crap independently-published books get for poor editing — fairly or otherwise — this is a traditionally-published book that definitely could have used at least one more lookover. It almost feels as if, now that the show itself is over, the people behind bringing these books to life aren’t putting in as much effort as before. Disappointing, but ultimately not that surprising.

Also… for those of you who didn’t like the direction season 8 of the TV show took (specifically, what occurred at the end of the season-opening two-parter)… well, you’re not going to like the end of High Heat either. Without specifics or spoilers, it is almost a word-for-word rehashing. I know these books normally play close to the TV vest, but it’s not normally this blatant.

Still, High Heat is an entertaining read that doesn’t require too much from the reader — which is about par for the course when picking up a Richard Castle book. It’s certainly not the best in the series, and some will despise the direction it takes at the end, but the series has gotten away with much worse.

Rating: ***

Buy High Heat on Amazon (available in Kindle, hardcover, Audible, and audio CD)