HPB Staff Picks: Best Books of 2016

With so many amazing books published each year, it’s easy to overlook some of the notable must-reads. We’ve put together a list of our favorite fiction and nonfiction of 2016 — including intriguing mysteries, imaginative tales, biographies and culture studies. There’s just enough time to check another book off your 2016 reading list, so choose a title and start reading!


A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles
Reviewed by HPB Staff Member: Kristen B.

Truly a Gentleman
The year is 1922. Count Alexander Rostov is sentenced to live out the rest of his life under house arrest in a hotel in Moscow. Throughout the novel, we see different snippets of the Count’s life as he lives out his sentence. It is the story of a true gentleman. So often we read stories about heroes or really messed up people that do really messed up things. A Gentleman in Moscow is just about a regular guy doing regular things, holding to his principles and always treating others with respect. It was so refreshing.

But to be honest, for about 95% of the book, I was thinking, “this book is really good, but I don’t see why everyone absolutely loves it.” Things got a tiny bit confusing towards the end, but then everything is revealed and the end takes a complete and fabulous turn, making this book a solid 5 stars! Read this book if you’re looking for a pleasantly surprising historical fiction novel.


Small Great Things by Jodi Picoult
Reviewed by HPB Staff Member: Kristen B.

A Powerfully Moving Novel About Race
After Ruth, the African American labor and delivery nurse, is taken off the care of the newborn child of Turk, a new father and white supremacist, the child unexpectedly passes away while Ruth is present. Turk decides that Ruth is at fault and presses charges against Ruth for murder. Kennedy McQuarrie, a white lawyer, takes on defending Ruth of murder and finds herself way in over her head. She quickly sees that there is a race issue here, but is hesitant to pursue that in court as it muddies the waters. Ruth, who has been dealing with racism her entire life, must decide whether it is worth it, to tell the truth about racism and possibly go to jail or just win the case. I’ve been reading a lot of books lately that deal with racism and I think that this is by far one of the best. This novel stands out in particular because it shows the same events from all three different points of view – a woman who is black, a man who is a white supremacist and a woman who is white, but does not see herself as racist. Something that I’ve heard a lot lately from author Lysa TerKeurst is that “hurt people hurt people.” And this sentiment rings very true in Small Great Things, as it gets to the core of why these three people act the way they do and believe the things they do. It is a powerfully moving novel that will be a staple in personal libraries for years to come.


The Girls by Emma Cline
Reviewed by HPB Staff Member: Anna Belle R.

A Story About Crime, Love and Being a Girl
The Girls is a stunning retelling of the Charles Manson murders by first-time novelist Emma Cline. It’s a work of fiction, but one that relies heavily on the history of Charles Manson and his horrifying power over young women. Told from the point of view of Evie, a young girl who falls in with a group of reckless nomads led by a “genius” named Russell in 1969 Bay Area. Evie falls in love with one of Russell’s protegee, Suzanne, and she’s lured into life at “the ranch” – where Russell teaches free love and fruitlessly tries to get a record deal from fictional music star Mitch Lewis (based loosely on Dennis Wilson, Beach Boys frontman). The book centers around the events of one night where Russell’s girls do his horrifying bidding, which is hinted at bit by bit throughout the book, leaving you just unsure enough until the end about what actually occurred. But at its heart, the book is about being a girl – learning how to deal with attention, wanted and otherwise, and realizing what you might be capable of in a world that doesn’t often expect much from you. It’s a terrifying read at times, but one that is so well-written you have to complete it.


The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead
Reviewed by HPB Staff Member: Becky G.

Powerful Prose, Rich Historical References & an Unforgettable Re-Imagined Tale of a Slave Girl’s Journey
The only way to know how long you were lost in the darkness is to be saved from it. Cora, a slave in the early 1800s with a legacy passed along by her mother who escaped the Randall Plantation and left her behind, is our storied heroine in this, Colson Whitehead’s August 2016 release. So much awaited was this new novel by Whitehead that the release date was bumped up a full month and it was chosen as a coveted Oprah’s Book Club selection. To say that the story of Cora’s life in slavery and subsequent escape was riveting would be an understatement. Whitehead imagines an Underground Railroad as an actual railway with a real locomotive that flees through the night on haphazard scheduling, bringing escaped slaves to the beginnings of freedom. What we realize through Cora’s story is that freedom is a long time coming and sometimes, even those who seem sympathetic, are not. Whitehead attempts to address so many issues in the early 19th century black slave experience, from breeding to evaluating the monetary value of slaves, to rape and lynching, even a horrifying tale of involuntary birth control to limit the population of freed blacks. As she runs further to escape such strife, the railroad leads Cora and those she meets along a journey from the horrific to the tragic. Told in the third person, we examine Cora’s experience along her route and make some assumptions about the extent of her emotional journey and thought processes, those of a young, black woman with her first glimpses of an unjust world. She must hide her identity to protect herself from the bounty hunters on her trail and sometimes I found it scary to turn the page for fear of who or what she might encounter next as I was gripped with the realization that so many real people, attempting a freedom of their own, did not get near as far. Whitehead allows us to listen to the backstories and historical ugliness used to justify what made slavery possible in our history and that is the truth that can linger from this telling. Cora’s story will stick with me, there will be moments when I consider my own freedoms that I think of her journey forever. Whitehead’s novel requires careful study, as I found myself having to re-read a few paragraphs to allow the story and beautiful prose to really soak in, but in the midst he pieces together the harrowing account of so many artfully crafted around the fictional Cora.


Before the Fall by Noah Hawley
Reviewed by HPB Staff Member: Sandra H.

An Interesting Read!
Before the Fall explores why a plane crashed and how two of the passengers survived. It is a great mystery, but it also explores how the world treats common people who become heroes. With great character development, the author helps the reader get to know the passengers, the survivors and the FBI agents investigating the crash. I highly recommend Before the Fall.


In the Country We Love: My Family Divided by Diane Guerrero
Reviewed by HPB Staff Member: Clara M.

Making Immigration Reform & Deportation a Personal Story to Relate to
A 14-year-old young woman, long brought up to fear bringing any unwanted attention to her undocumented family’s presence here in the US, arrived home after school one day to find them gone. It wasn’t for lack of trying; Diane Guerrero (best known for her roles as Maritza on Orange is the New Black and Lina on Jane the Virgin) tears the reader away from that scene of abandonment in order to explain how her family arrived there. After years of attempting to secure their citizenship, her parents had only managed to unwittingly trust the wrong people: unscrupulous lawyers who emptied the family’s savings with promises of citizenship but then disappeared. Though at times written in a more juvenile slang than I believe the content called for, this account of a family torn apart is nonetheless powerful and personal. The reader is challenged to confront their own views not only on immigration but also the very system that is supposed to assist families like Guerrero’s to attain legal status. Guerrero makes her story an all-encompassing American story. It immediately personalizes a fear that undocumented immigrants have for those whose families will never face such terror.


Crooked Kingdom by Leigh Bardugo
Reviewed by HPB Staff Member:Katherine F.

A Most Excellent Sequel
Crooked Kingdom is a rare find in that it is a sequel that is every bit as rich and compelling as its predecessor, Six of Crows. Though Leigh Bardugo has made it clear that she only intends for this series to be a duology, the author has managed to do something extraordinary; in the span of just two books, she has created a world that is so life-like and complex that I never wanted to leave it. The plot is filled with twists and turns that I didn’t see coming, and the characters are impossible not to root for every step of the way. They all have their fair share of flaws, but it is this very fact that makes them so real and so utterly unforgettable. Six of Crows fans, prepare to laugh and cry. More than anything, though, prepare to be hooked again! And for those out there who have not read Six of Crows, I cannot recommend this series highly enough. It isn’t just for young adults. It’s a story about life, love, hardships, vengeance, family and friendship. There’s a little something in it for everyone. Don’t miss out!


The Caped Crusade by Glen Weldon
Reviewed by HPB Staff Member: Mika R.

A Fascinating Read for Nerd and Novice Alike
The Caped Crusade by Glen Weldon is a fascinating history of Batman. It explores and expounds upon the social impact that Batman has had on the culture today. What was most illuminating was the extent to which the Batman we know and love today was shaped by the mores of the culture. Specifically, Batman’s relationship with Robin has transformed over time. Glen Weldon is an excellent story-teller and even if you are a novice to comic books you will be interested, and you will learn loads.


Kill ‘Em and Leave by James McBride
Reviewed by HPB Staff Member: Steve L.

In a World Filled with JB Bios, There’s Still Room for This One
Having enjoyed James McBride’s memoir The Color of Water and his National Book Award-winning novel The Good Lord Bird, I looked forward to reading this bio of a favorite performer of mine, James Brown. The “Hardest-Working Man in Show Business” is a gift to biographers, and I’ve read several valiant attempts to do his life story justice. By focusing on a few specific quests, McBride creates something new and noteworthy. Brown’s art and influence are tremendous, but his personal life was full of failures. This generous, impulsive man was a victim of his success, and McBride does his best to understand why, in the years following Brown’s death, the money and legal issues continue to grow and to betray the entertainer’s intentions. McBride, a musician, also provides a thoughtful, illuminating appreciation of James Brown’s music. I enjoyed it thoroughly and put on a 45 of “Licking Stick” as soon as I finished the book.


When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi
Reviewed by HPB Staff Member: Kristen B.

Grappling with Mortality
How exactly does one go from being a doctor to a patient? After years of training to be a neurosurgeon, Paul Kalanithi was diagnosed with stage four lung cancer at a very young 36 years old. Since he was a child, he was fascinated with life and death. After being diagnosed, Kalanithi really started to grapple with his own mortality. In When Breath Becomes Air, he chronicles his journey– from his first love, witnessing his first birth and first death, his advancement in his career and his own battle with cancer. A central theme throughout the book is the question “what makes life worth living?” When Breath Becomes Air is a very thought provoking and emotional book. It’s one that will stay with you for a long time after reading.

What’s the best book you read in 2016?  Check out our selection of staff book picks or peruse our collection of hot new book releases. Happy reading!