Debut authors alongside literary heavyweights. Sci-fi mindbenders paired with historical narratives. When it came time to rank the best novels of 2016, the Paste Books team nominated a diverse array of titles.
We know that every bibliophile has unique tastes, and no two readers will craft identical lists. While making this one, we cut dozens of fantastic novels—and realized there were dozens more we wished we’d read. That’s the beautiful thing about fiction: There will always be more books to discover and treasure.
This list includes 25 books that we loved in 2016, and we believe you will, too. So whether you adore translated fiction or prefer to curl up with contemporary thrillers, we promise that every book on this list will deliver an enthralling read.
As the curtain rises on Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney’s debut novel (soon to be adapted by Amazon Films and Transparent creator Jill Soloway), the eldest of four adult siblings catalyzes a series of events that will cost all of them an inheritance. Tracing the fractured lives of Leo, Beatrice, Jack, and Melody Plumb, The Nest showcases the tension between dreams and reality, with the promise of money warping both decisions and relationships. The book delivers heart as well as humor, weaving together a saga that centers on the complex nature of a family’s love at its harshest and most tender. —Eric Swedlund
24. The Yid by Paul Goldberg
In Paul Goldberg’s action/comedy, February of 1953 is fading into March and uniformed ruffians are arresting Jewish citizens around Moscow. A retired thespian and an aging surgeon—both former Red Army specialists—along with an expatriated African American engineer and a vengeful young woman fall into an unpredictable alliance. Each of them commit, for obvious reasons as well as their own, to unite and stop a second Holocaust. The Yid’s magic is in how it combines the screwball gallows humor of its grizzled protagonists with the prestige of the theater, segueing the narrative into the format of a play at points of elevated action. Goldberg’s breezy, descriptive voice amidst the spitfire dialogue is a comfort, despite the chills of our drama’s stage and the dangers in every other scene. —Jeff Milo
Emma Newman’s 2015 novel Planetfall followed the crew of the Atlas, a spaceship that left Earth “to seek truth among the stars.” Newman’s latest, After Atlas, picks up 40 years after the crew’s departure in a standalone tale that explores life back on a dystopian Earth. Detective Carlos Moreno, whose mother left with the infamous crew, is tasked with investigating a cult leader’s murder. But what begins as a crime story evolves into a fascinating narrative exploring modern slavery, religion, and mental health. Come for the mystery and inventive tech; stay for Newman’s insights into human nature. —Frannie Jackson
With Hag-Seed, Margaret Atwood reimagines Shakespeare’s The Tempest in a contemporary novel that blurs the lines between genius and madness. The book follows Felix Phillips, an artistic director who is ousted from his job at a theater festival and resorts to staging plays at a correctional facility. Felix casts a vibrant, disarming group of inmates in his own unique version of The Tempest, seeking vengeance while becoming mired in the drama of producing a Shakespearean play in prison. Atwood weaves barbs of profound social commentary throughout the novel, leaving the reader to contemplate what constitutes imprisonment and what value can be placed of the enterprise of revenge. —Jeff Milo and Bridey Heing
With his latest novel, Heroes of the Frontier, Dave Eggers joins the ranks of writers who set their characters loose in Alaska, hunting for something as close to freedom as the modern world may allow. Josie, a former dentist, shepherds her sensitive eight-year-old son and ferocious five-year-old daughter across the vast state to escape the kids’ father. Traveling in an RV that becomes a character unto itself, the trio weaves through a lithe narrative that, although set in Alaska, truly takes place in Josie’s mind. A novel that’s driven as much by real action as by Josie’s neuroses, Heroes of the Frontier promises a bracing breath of fresh air for those who love a good soul-searching story. —Bridey Heing and Jeff Milo
Two years after publishing an enthralling short story collection (The Miniature Wife), Manuel Gonzales returns with an entertaining debut novel that defies genre labels. The Regional Office Is Under Attack! introduces a shadowy organization of female assassins who may—or may not—be the “bad guys.” As the title suggests, the organization’s headquarters is indeed under attack, and what follows is a thrilling narrative that jumps between the action-packed siege, the events preceding the attack, and the Regional Office’s chilling origin. Gonzales spins a web of intrigue and misdirection from page one, ensuring you’ll be captivated from start to finish. —Frannie Jackson
Fargo showrunner Noah Hawley delivers a thriller that begins with a plane crash and only grows more entrancing with each page. Of the 11 people on the private flight from Martha’s Vineyard to New York City, the only survivors are artist Scott Burroughs and the young son of cable news heavyweight. While investigators become increasingly desperate for answers as to what brought down the plane (Engine failure? Foul play? Terrorism?), Burroughs finds himself in the crosshairs of conspiracy theorists. Brimming with three-dimensional characters, Before the Fall leads the reader down rabbit hole after rabbit hole in an electrifying mystery. —Bridey Heing
Blending genre and subject matter with ease, Jonathan Lethem’s latest novel is the unpredictable story of high-stakes backgammon hustler Alexander Bruno. The plot begins in the shape of an underworld thriller, chasing Bruno from Singapore to Berlin to Berkeley as Lethem deals his protagonist a beguiling problem: he has a tumor, but the successful surgery returns Bruno’s dormant telepathic powers. A millionaire slob and an anarchistic burger cook join the cast as Lethem turns his attention to questions of self-perception and the nature of consciousness. Hard to define yet easy to enjoy, A Gambler’s Anatomy is pure Lethem. —Eric Swedlund
Part gothic spine-chiller, part backwoods road novel, Mr. Splitfoot tells the tale of two foster siblings cast into a sadistic world of evangelical weirdness. As children they conduct séances for other resident orphans, summoning “Mr. Splitfoot” to contact the kids’ deceased parents. Samantha Hunt ultimately intertwines one of the sibling’s childhood and adult adventures into a ghost story that’s as confounding as it is compelling, spanning the modern-day Burned-over District along New York’s Erie Canal. In Hunt’s 21st-century tale, you can hardly swing a dead cat without hitting a religious cult leader or member, wielding influence that spreads like contagion. —Steve Nathans-Kelly
This two-part novel first follows Rodrigo, a shiftless office worker, as he blithely falls into marriage with his boss’ assistant. Then it turns its focus on Marcelo, a pretentious Spanish academic who moves to a town in the Sonora desert to conduct research—and starts a fling with Rodrigo’s mother. Next, it becomes a novel about Rodrigo, Marcelo, and the women between them. Straddling the line between a narco novel (though Daniel Saldaña París avoids cliché) and even a time-warp story by the end, Among Strange Victims will keep you laughing too hard to categorize it. —Lucas Iberico Lozada
Red Rising, the first book in Pierce Brown’s sci-fi trilogy of the same name, introduces readers to an interstellar caste system made of nightmares. From the all-powerful Golds who rule the universe to the lowly Reds who toil beneath the Martian surface, everyone is born into a specific role in society. When Darrow discovers the horrifying truths behind his existence as a Red, he joins a plot to obliterate the Golds’ rule. Golden Son continues the saga, following Darrow as he infiltrates the Golds’ society in a story that’s as violent as it is captivating. With Morning Star, Brown delivers a brilliant conclusion to the epic series, proving that his trilogy deserves a place among the best narratives in science fiction. —Frannie Jackson and Eric Smith
A far cry from, say, Solzhenitsyn’s A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch, Amor Towles’ beguiling novel captures a vastly different sort of Soviet gulag. The new Bolshevik government finds Count Alexander Rostov guilty of sympathizing with the old aristocratic order, and it sentences him to a lifetime of imprisonment in Moscow’s Metropol Hotel. What unfolds within the Metropol’s confines is a dazzling vision of two diametrically opposed social orders—Bolshevik and tsarist—uncomfortably coexisting within a political order that has summarily banished the latter. The Count embodies these contradictions as a man whose very aristocratic manners and noble upbringing make him oddly indispensable to a regime intent on eradicating them. Beyond these pleasing ironies and the family drama that imbue A Gentleman in Moscow with such quiet delights, the Count’s last act engulfs the reader in a spellbinding escape-and-revenge frenzy. —Steve Nathans-Kelly
In the follow-up to her acclaimed novel A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing, Eimear McBride delivers a rich love story written in similarly Joycean prose. Eily has just arrived in London to study drama when she meets Stephen, a celebrity of sorts with whom she begins a tumultuous relationship. Haunted by their own trauma, both Eily and Stephen are afraid of their growing intimacy, engaging in dangerous self-sabotage as they struggle to determine what they want out of a relationship. Set in Camden in the early 1990s, The Lesser Bohemians is a bewitching blend of danger and sensuality from McBride’s singular voice. —Bridey Heing
In Chris Cleave’s World War II drama, young Brits are brought together as the Blitz on London begins. Tom and Mary join the war effort on the home front, falling in love as they educate the children left behind in the evacuation. But when Tom’s roommate is home on leave, they’re drawn to one another in a way they both find unsettling. Set against the horror of the War’s early years, when victory over Hitler’s Germany was far from a foregone conclusion, Everyone Brave is Forgiven weaves humor, stoicism, and violence into a gripping narrative. Cleave succeeds in making a well-worn story—that of English strength during World War II—feel fresh and urgent. —Bridey Heing
Elizabeth Strout, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Olive Kitteridge, has established herself as a writer of exquisite—and often tumultuous—relationships. Her latest novel explores the bond between a mother and daughter, revealing the intricacies of their shared history. My Name is Lucy Barton begins as the titular Lucy, bedridden in the hospital after surgery, is visited by her estranged mother. Their conversations over the next few days gradually illuminate the past, highlighting decades-long tension and stunning memories. In a mere 191 pages, Strout delivers a haunting, emotional narrative without straying into sentimentality. —Frannie Jackson
A portrait of genius as a debilitating condition, A Doubter’s Almanac chronicles the cradle-to-grave misadventures of Fields Medal mathematician Milo Andret. The book begins in a closely observed third-person narrative, then completes Milo’s story from the alternately jaundiced and forgiving viewpoint of Milo’s gifted (and tormented) son. Ethan Canin portrays Milo’s genius as a sort of congenital wrecking ball, precisely calculated to destroy its owner and everyone else in its path. The result is a story of majestic sweep, rendered in language that’s both mathematically precise and delightfully distinctive. —Steve Nathans-Kelly
An extraordinary story categorized as an “autobiographical novel,” Seeing Red chronicles the fallout as a young Chilean writer named Lina goes blind while studying in New York. Redefining the word “visceral,” Lina Meruane’s harrowing prose plumbs both the sensory world and memory in an intoxicating mixture. One can only hope that her publisher, Deep Vellum, and her translator, Megan McDowell, are at work on the rest of Meruane’s oeuvre. —Lucas Iberico Lozada
Can a book about manipulation and ritualistic murder be one of 2016’s most electrifyingly coming-of-age stories? Yes, it can. Emma Cline’s debut novel radiates with an ominous vibe as 14-year-old Evie struggles to find her way in northern California during the summer of ’69. The teen is lured to a ranch populated by a rogue’s gallery of eccentrics, many of them girls powerless to resist the charms of a bearded sham of a shaman. Cline gradually traps you in Evie’s head, revealing how easy it is to lose your grasp on reality when under the influence of extraordinarily intense relationships. —Jeff Milo
Álvaro Enrigue’s first novel to be translated into English took the literary world by storm this year, delivering a centuries-spanning romp through the Mexican conquest, the Italian renaissance, and the Spanish inquisition. Don’t be fooled, though—this is not your grandmother’s historical novel. Be prepared to learn more about the history of tennis and Caravaggio’s revolutionary painting technique than you thought possible. Sudden Death also boasts a couple of love stories along with some amusing back-and-forth correspondence between a writer, who sounds an awful lot like Enrigue, and his editor. (In a unique twist on the English language version of the book, his translator makes an appearance as well.) This novel reminds the reader that books can be funny, daring, and intelligent all at once. —Lucas Iberico Lozada
6. Moonglow by Michael Chabon
Structured like a memoir, Michael Chabon’s Moonglow finds its essence at the intersection between tiny moments of family history and the biggest global events of the 20th century. As a dying World War II intelligence officer turned salesman tells his life story to his grandson, decades of revelations tumble forth. Chabon weaves threads of his characters’ lives with threads of world history—the Holocaust, World War II, the Space Race—delivering an enlightening book about humanity’s search for meaning. Deeply meditative and brilliantly relatable, Moonglow is Chabon at his best. —Eric Swedlund
Set in moribund New York mill towns, Richard Russo’s early novels introduced readers to the remarkable cast of characters who inhabit these locales. Perhaps most beloved among them is Donald “Sully” Sullivan, the enduring anti-hero of Nobody’s Fool. If fans thought they’d seen the last of him, this spring brought an unexpected delight when Sully and the denizens of Russo’s fictional North Bath, New York returned in Everybody’s Fool. This six-years-in-the-making, 25-years-in-the-waiting sequel delivers a captivating look into Sully’s second act from a very different writer than the man who penned Nobody’s Fool a quarter-century ago. This story teems with belly laughs and heartbreak, wild action and empathy, gifting new insight into old friends. —Steve Nathans-Kelly
A quiet tale revolving around an afternoon in the spring of 1924, Mothering Sunday highlights a maid’s secret relationship with the heir to an English noble house. Yet Graham Swift’s slim book transcends the trappings of the “affair story,” developing the maid as a three-dimensional protagonist and illuminating moments throughout her entire life. The result is an emotionally stunning novel that promises to haunt you long after you’ve read the final page. —Frannie Jackson
In Yaa Gyasi’s debut novel, every character granted his or her own chapter is a descendent of two 18th-century, Ghanaian half-sisters. Effia is from Fanteland and marries a British slave dealer, while Esi, a member of the Asante nation, is sold into slavery. The book—as addictive as a binge-worthy TV show—follows their two bloodlines all the way to the present day. And while each descendant experiences life (and blackness, love, family) in distinct ways, these characters have at least one thing in common: the inability to ignore a certain call they hear, sometimes in their minds, sometimes in their very bones, from those who came before them. Carrying on in the tradition of her foremothers—like Toni Morrison, Edwidge Danticat, Assia Djebar and Bessie Head—Gyasi has created a marvelous work of fiction that both embraces and re-writes history. Perhaps best of all, Homegoing demands that more stories follow it; it’s an enticing invitation to other artists to look into their own pasts, and do the same. —Shannon M. Houston
It’s difficult to summarize a sweeping text like Swing Time, but it stands out for being that rare work to successfully take on the romantic (yet troubling) notion of having a friend who knows you better than you know yourself. The novel’s protagonist is the black, London-born daughter of an activist mother and a loving father. Her best friend, although hailing from the same neighborhood and sharing a similar passion for dance, might as well be from a separate universe. Yet the narrative counters the glaring differences between their lives by presenting a moving portrait of girlhood—that distinctive time in a woman’s life when race, class, sexuality, and gender are fascinating but not yet (for some of us, anyway) burdensome.
Zadie Smith lets us in on many of Swing Time’s jokes with her conversational prose, but there are times when you get the distinctive feeling that you’re an outsider looking in—and that every story might not be for your understanding, empathy, or entertainment. You’re not always a welcome voyeur; you may witness a woman dancing, but that doesn’t mean she’s yours. That Swing Time dares to say as much, while offering up an intimacy so rarely found in storytelling of any sort, is reason enough to celebrate this bold and singular story. —Shannon M. Houston
There’s an expectation in American history that sacred subjects require certain orthodoxy in how they’re portrayed. But Colson Whitehead ignores that precedent in his National Book Award-winning novel, The Underground Railroad. He starts in the Deep South. He makes no mention of black-white cooperation that ends well for black people. And he presents an Underground Railroad that’s really underground and really a railroad.
In recounting the surreal (and sometimes hideously humorous) odyssey of a runaway slave into the gaping maw of white supremacy, Whitehead searches not for the Underground Railroad of Harriet Tubman, but for the “true face of America” only visible through a subway train’s grimy windows. And who better than the author of the uncompromising John Henry Days and The Intuitionist to hold up a fractured funhouse mirror and show us that true face, which has begun to look as ugly outside the novel as in? It’s a fascinating phenomenon when a book with little reverence for historical orthodoxy shines an unflattering light on the present—and that’s precisely what makes The Underground Railroad the best novel of 2016. —Steve Nathans-Kelly
For more “Best of 2016” reading recommendations, check out our best nonfiction books and best Young Adult books lists.