Labyrinth by Jim Henson and A. C. H. Smith. My favorite read this year, hands down. Labyrinth is one of my favorite movies (the question of "do I prefer Labyrinth or Nightmare Before Christmas?" can be answered with "Which have I seen more recently?"), and I'd always heard that the novelization gives you a ton of backstory that didn't make it into the movie, but it was out of print for years and ran hundreds of dollars. The unkindest cut of all was that in third grade, I actually held the novelization in my hands at the school book fair, but I decided to buy some Ann M. Martin book instead. Choose from a book fair in haste, repent at leisure.
BUT! It's back in print, and it was available on Kindle just in time for my fabulous husband to pick it up for Mother's Day. I'd heard that the conflict between Sarah and Jareth takes on a weird Freudian subtext as you learn exactly how similar Jareth is to Sarah's mother's boyfriend (if you look closely at the vanity in Sarah's room, you can see a picture of an older woman with David Bowie taped to her mirror). I hadn't heard thatthe entire story has overtones of Sarah trying not to become her flighty, deadbeat mother by abandoning a child in her care to chase after an extended adolescence at the urging of a hot guy in tight pants. If you're a fan of the movie, I cannot recommend this highly enough.
Slade House by David Mitchell. My mother-in-law always gets me a literary spec fic novel for Christmas, and this was her pick for 2015. I would have devoured it in a single evening if all those pesky "responsibility" things hadn't gotten in the way; as it is, I read it over the course of about 48 hours, and if you have small children you know what high praise that is. I can't say too much about the premise without giving it away, but it's an incredibly creepy, twisty story that gave me just enough information about Mitchell's weird magical world to make me want to read The Bone Clocks right this very minute. Mitchell also does a masterful job of writing five chapters that are very structurally similar without being repetitive; just like you can watch a dozen episodes of Phineas and Ferb and laugh with delight at the new ways Perry foils Dr. Doofenshmirtz while simultaneously frustrating Candace's plans to bust her brothers, you can read this and shudder at the new ways . . . but that would be telling.
Revival by Stephen King. When I saw the title of this book and heard that the "revival" in question was a tent revival, I wrote it off instantly. I love Stephen King, but his Christian characters tend to be a thousand and one variations on Carrie's mom (Father Callahan and Mother Abigail notwithstanding). I wasn't in the mood to read about some stupid evil preacher and his stupid evil congregation being stupid and evil. Then I read Eve Tushnet's review of the novel and decided to give it a try. I'm glad that I trusted Tushnet's taste, because this is King's best novel since Lisey's Story. There's an atmosphere of dread even when nothing terribly frightening is happening, it does a terrific job of riffing on Lovecraft without coming across as a pastiche, and it treats questions of faith and doubt with real maturity and delicacy. I've seen some reviewers argue that the section covering the protagonist's adolescence is self-indulgent, and they're right--but would it be Stephen King without a little self-indulgence?
Hide Me Among the Graves by Tim Powers. I. Loved. This. Book. A few summers ago, I read The Stress of Her Regard, which combines three of my favorite things (vampires, Tim Powers, and second-generation Romantic poets); while I loved that one, too, I found it opaque in parts. Tim Powers is much smarter than we mere mortals, and some of the mythological references can get confusing. Hide Me Among the Graves is the sequel, with the Rossettis fighting vampires in place of Byron, Shelley, and Keats, and it the mythopoeic stew is enough to make you feel like you're in a wonderfully weird, magical world without making you feel like you need degrees in classics, literature, anthropology, and history to understand what's going on. Great stuff.
Feed by M. T. Anderson. Oof, this was a depressing one. It's a YA Internet-based dystopia from before the big dystopia boom; because the Hunger Games formula hadn't set yet, it has less of a thriller-like plot and is entirely uninterested in having our plucky heroes overthrow the evil dictator and save the day, making it more Orwell than Collins. The thing that most got under my skin was the environmental stuff. The main focus of the book was on consumerism, not environmentalism (although Pope Francis will happily point out how intertwined the two ideas are), but because the environmental horrors were in the background, no one was commenting on them and they were described in dry, matter-of-fact tones, which made them so much more upsetting. The scene involving one of the last whales could have been maudlin and over-the-top; it wasn't, and it's going to stick with me for a long, long time. Less really is more for your highly emotional moments.
A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms by George R. R. Martin. I mentioned this in a previous post and I'm mentioning it again here. This is a lovely read for anyone who enjoys Game of Thrones but wishes it weren't so Game of Thrones all the time. There are shades of gray, but there's also black and white, with some truly noble heroes and truly hateful villains; the endings are bittersweet, but not bleak; and George R. R. Martin seems to be having fun while he writes them. As a bonus, there's not a single allusion to sexual violence in the entire thing.
How to Speak Cat by Gary Wiseman and Aline Alexander Newman. A sizable number of the books I read are geared toward the elementary and preschool crowd (hi ho, the happy parenting life!), and this is the best children's book I read this year. We adopted a cat in September, and I checked out a bunch of pet care books for the adults and the littluns. This was the best. I don't mean it was the best cat book for kids; I mean it was the best cat book I checked out, period. I was expecting basic "how to speak cat" information (high tail good! bushy tail bad!), but it also included information on how to feed, groom, and care for your cat, how to tell if your cat is sick, how to clicker-train your cat, and pretty much everything else you need. There were even some bits of "cat language" that I hadn't picked up after twenty-four years of living in a cat-owning house. I knew that narrowed eyes were kitty for "I love you," but I had no idea that when the cat narrows her eyes and turns away, the turned head is also a sign of love, because she trusts you enough to turn her back on you.
Honorable mentions go to Joyland by Stephen King (a perfectly fun thriller), The Martian by Andy Weir (I really, really needed something lighthearted and funny after I finished Feed, and Weir delivered), Hamilton: The Revolution by Jeremy Carter and Lin-Manuel Miranda (so many references in that musical!), and Firefight by Brandon Sanderson (the only Sanderson I'd read was Way of Kings, which I didn't particularly enjoy, but Steelheart showed me why he's such a popular writer and Firefight was even better). I also loved The Imlen Brat by Sarah Avery, but if I start including novellas on this list it's going to balloon fast.
That's my list. What are the best books you read in 2016?