At BYOBook Club last month, we were discussing possible topics for the final meeting of the year. Someone suggested “The best book you’ve read all year,” which seemed to be well-received in the moment as an option. Since I’m participating in the Reading Challenge this year, I set myself the goal in January to read 50 books over the course of the year. (Right now I’m on book 45, so I’m right on track.) So I started thinking about it, talking with friends about how to choose a ‘best’ book, and I’ve realized that’s a trickier question than I expected.
For one thing, how do you define the ‘best’ book? The one you enjoyed the most? The one you’re most likely to re-read? The one with the most well-crafted story? The one with the most interesting setting? The one you’re most likely to recommend to a friend, regardless of genre or other interests? The best nonfiction vs. best fiction? What about the one you’re most glad you read?
This is a tricky question, to say the least, and with 44 contenders for the title of ‘best’ book read this year there’s no way I can narrow it down to just one. So here, in my own sort of mini-Academy Awards for books, are my picks for best books I’ve read this year – for varying definitions of ‘best’:
Most Enjoyed – TIE: The Lotus War Series by Jay Kristoff, and The Gentlemen Bastard Series by Scott Lynch
I really have to apply this one to these two series as wholes – by far the most fun I had reading this year was while reading the first two entries in each of these series. I love Scott Lynch’s writing style and his characters, and I love Jay Kristoff’s setting and the smart way he handles the teenage protagonist’s insufferable crush on a boy she just met. Both of these series are just really enjoyable reads, the kind where you can’t put the book down because it’s just so GOOD!
Most Likely to Re-Read – “The Lies of Locke Lamora,” by Scott Lynch
While we’re on the subject of the Gentlemen Bastards, the first entry in the series needs to take this category as well. I feel like this is a book I could just dive into over and over and enjoy over and over. Fortunately, the series has around 8 installments, so I can read new ones for a while, but once it’s over, I will definitely be back for multiple re-reads. I love the premise, I love the setting, and I love the characters. The story is absolutely perfect given those three, and always keeps you guessing. It reminds me of one of my favorite TV shows, Leverage, but with young priests of the god of thieves. In fact, one of my favorite quirks of the story is the spirituality of the main character, since whatever else he may be, he is still a priest with a code of ethics that shapes his life.
Most Well-Crafted Story – “Before I Fall,” by Lauren Oliver
While I’m not generally a fan of mostly-realist YA set in high school, I really loved ‘Before I Fall’. The basic premise is similar to the movie ‘Groundhog Day,’ but with a popular girl in high school. She dies in a car crash at the beginning of the novel, and then has to repeat her final day over and over until she figures out how it was supposed to go down and orchestrates it to happen that way. She still ends up dead at the end, of course, but she is able to change the day’s occurrences to fix a lot of other problems in an incredibly selfless act that finishes her character arc out beautifully.
Most Interesting Setting – TIE: “Kinslayer,” by Jay Kristoff, and “A Darker Shade of Magic,” by V.E. Schwab
This one has to be a tie again – two different fantasy books blew me away in terms of setting. Jay Kristoff’s steampunk-dystopian-feudal Japan with insectoid clockwork atmosphere-suits and chainsaw-katanas is cool enough, but in the second book he shows us more of the world than we’ve seen yet and introduces such crazily inventive things as lightning-collecting towers and cultist zombies that flay off your skin and tattoo their histories on it. Meanwhile, Schwab’s worlds are intricate and distinct, from the coat that can be turned inside out multiple times to the thick, tangible nature of the magic and the way the characters can sense the presence of other magic-users nearby.
Most Likely to Recommend to a Friend, Regardless of Genre – “The Book Thief,” by Markus Zusak
This is just a beautiful book, one that everyone should read. It doesn’t matter if you don’t think you like YA, or if you aren’t a fan of historical fiction – read this book now. Yes, it’s a bit of a downer, but it’s a beautiful downer. I honestly don’t want to give away too much more about this one – just read it for yourself.
Best Nonfiction – “Undeniable: Evolution and the Science of Creation,” by Bill Nye
How can you go wrong with Bill Nye? Seriously, though, I really appreciated the effort Nye puts into getting across the expansive nature of evolution as a theory. It’s about much more than just the origin of life, and this book really brings that point home. It’s careful not to disparage anyone’s viewpoints, it just brings up all the non-creation-related reasons why evolution has proven itself to work as an organizational theory. Nye’s writing style is informal and approachable, and full of quirky humor that fans of his show from the 90’s will have no trouble recognizing.
Most Glad To Have Read – “The Long Earth,” by Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter
I was devastated to hear about Terry Pratchett’s death this year; he’s always been one of my favorite authors. I was overjoyed to find a book of his I hadn’t read yet, and I loved getting to see what he did with a setting that wasn’t Discworld. It’s a bit quieter and more serious than the zany pogo-stick that is Discworld, and I really enjoyed getting to see that side of him.