Southern Living’s Best Books of 2016: My FavoritesJanuary 6, 2017
Writing a year-end best-of list is kind of a love-hate assignment for me. I love it because, well, it’s a list of books, and that’s fun to write. But it’s also daunting, because I’m scared I’ll miss something great (which I’m sure I have), and I might even include something not-so-great (let’s assume I haven’t).
My Best Southern Books of 2016 list just went live at Southern Living, and that one has additional challenges because, for probably obvious reasons, Southern Living likes to highlight books by Southerners, so that cuts out some books that I’ve personally loved over the past year; sometimes I like books by Midwesterners or New Yorkers or even (gasp) people who aren’t American. But it’s also a fun challenge to seek out new books that might not have gotten deserved attention.
When I see the list in print (or “print,” in the case of a digital edition) and find that my favorites have made it in, I get pretty excited. Because even though I collect and submit and fight for my favorite titles, I don’t have the final word, so I never totally know what’s going to be published until it’s actually live.
Here are ten titles that I’m thrilled made the final list — they’re ten of my absolute favorites from 2016. These are the books that had a perfect alchemy for me of great writing, characters that resonated with me personally, and subjects that had me copying down quotes like crazy. Most of these books are also associated with great memories for me; I remember not only the books, but also the cappuccinos and the croissants I ate while I read them, the friends I mailed my copies to, and the way I felt when I put them down. If a book is on Southern Living’s list but not on mine, it doesn’t mean I didn’t love it. It might mean I haven’t read it yet, or that I always knew it would make the final cut (Pat Conroy and Ann Patchett are never getting chopped from a Southern list, and for good reason). Or it might just mean my cappuccino was over-steamed that day. Let this be a lesson to never over-steam a cappuccino, as it might just ruin someone’s book!
But enough talk about cappuccinos. Here are the 10 books from Southern Living’s Best of 2016 list that made me do a fist pump when I saw them on the list. (Not really! I don’t do fist pumps anymore! I’m not lame!) As far as I’m concerned, you can’t go wrong with a single one of them.
A Wife of Noble Character
by Yvonne Georgina Puig
I fell in love with this cover first. Then I took the book on the train to New Orleans and fell in love with the style and the spot-on descriptions of life in the affluent, church-going South. I ended up reading most of this in my best friend’s guest room, under a quilt, with her dog Skillet on my lap.
The After Party
by Anton DiScalafani
This one came recommended by one of my all-time favorite booksellers, Annie from The Bookshelf. I loved DiScalafani’s novel The Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls, and I also liked this book’s cover. (I have a thing with covers, obviously.) I read this one in my favorite chair at home, but all I remember is glitzy Houston and secrets and beautiful dresses and friendship drama, because that’s what The After Party is about. In the best way.
by Helen Ellis
I couldn’t stop laughing. Also, I called a lot of people and read them lots of quotes. Maybe even, one time, an entire chapter.
by Kerry Egan
I loved this beautiful book that’s kind of about death and kind of not. Kerry Egan is a hospice chaplain, but she could not be less preachy. She’s humble and open to mystery and kind and insightful and … well, I’m explaining it badly, but it’s really quite wonderful. She’s also funny. She says that, in the end, most people just want to tell the story of their life over and over to find some meaning it in; since that’s kind of what I’ve been trying to do with my whole life, I related to it.
An Undisturbed Peace
by Mary Glickman
Oh, please read this one! I have no idea why this book isn’t getting more attention. It’s a serious and atmospheric type read; basically the anti-Twitter. (Oh, maybe that’s why.) But it’s paced incredibly well, and there’s so much history in it. It’s the story of a man who emigrates to America and falls in love with a Cherokee woman who’s trying to defend her land and herself in the years before (and during) the forced Native American migration and the Trail of Tears. The history here is really solid, but the story is so strong that you won’t feel like you’re learning stuff. But you are! I read most of this one sitting inside a closet … that’s a long story.
The Star-Touched Queen
by Roshani Chokshi
I’ve been waiting for a fantasy novel that actually felt fun and original instead of formulaic, and this did the trick. It has romance and mystery and wonderful world building. It’s not another rip off of Harry Potter or The Hunger Games, but it has the magnetic qualities of those books. Oh, and this is part of a planned series (Crown of Wishes comes out in March), but it definitely works as a stand alone and doesn’t just set you up for the next book. (WHY DO PUBLISHERS KEEP DOING THAT? Even if a book IS part of a series, it should still work as a stand alone. Sheesh.)
The Serpent King
by Jeff Zentner
I kept hearing about this book because pretty much everybody’s talking about it. I bought it because the subject matter (kind of a John-Green-meets-Salvation-on-Sand-Mountain kind of thing) seemed interesting, and then I started it on the train to meet some friends for the weekend. I ended up staying up too late reading and crying my eyes out in the AirBNB, but these were really good friends, so that was okay. It’s wonderful. It’s very Southern without being kitchy, and it deals honestly with religion without being sappy or taking sucker punches. Please read it.
by Taylor Brown
I got in a fight with an old lady over this book at the library. I won, but then I gave it to her anyway because stealing library books from the elderly doesn’t come off well in most circles. Two weeks later, I got to check it out honestly, although that old lady left a bookmark in it, probably for spite.
by Brad Watson
The book is a quiet little story about a girl who knows she’ll never fit in with other people, but who accepts them, loves them and is loved by them anyway. Also, just look at this cover! This book hasn’t gotten the play I would’ve expected, but independent booksellers are really loving it, and that’s often a good indicator of a great story that’ll have some sticking power.
My Father, the Pornographer
by Chris Offutt
I’m pretty much just fascinated by this story, and it’s not even fiction. As an adult, Chris Offutt found out that his kind of stuffy dad made a living writing weird porn books — like “aliens from outer space having sex with humanoids” kind of weird. Apparently, his mom was the typist. My dad also spent a lot of time writing in his study, and my mom types a lot of his stuff … but I asked, and apparently my dad was just writing sermons. Oh well.
Carrie Rollwagen is a book reviewer for Southern Living and BookPage. She hopes you’ll read as many books as you can, and that you’ll get them all from your local bookshop or library. You can find Carrie on Instagram, Facebook, Snapchat and Twitter @crollwagen.