2016: A Year in Books

And so we come to the end of 2016 and like everyone else and their damn brother, it’s time for me to look back and review. Specifically, I’m reviewing what I’ve been reading. Because I’m an engineer, I love statistics. Running the numbers, we have:

I read 108 books this year, or 27,289 pages. All of those fall in the gay romance (fiction) category. Looking over my Goodreads reviews, the breakdown is:
5 Star Reviews: 32%
4 Star Reviews: 43%
3 Star Reviews: 17%
2 Star Reviews:  4%
Did Not Finish:  5% (not included in the page count, of course)

Generally if something was going to fall under 2 stars I just stopped reading it, though mercifully that was rare – 6 books for the year, in total. I admit that my general approach is to lean on Goodreads reviews (yeah, I know – Internet crowdsourced reviews, grain of salt, and so on). My criteria eventually become that the book must have more than 300 reviews, and the average rating must be over 3.65 (out of 5). That rule of thumb has served me pretty well, as the review summary shows.

Of my 5-star books, 33% were contemporary settings and 66% were shifters of some kind (canine, feline, etc.). I, um, may have a particular kind of subgenre I enjoy?

So, what were my favorite reads of 2016? I’ll start by saying that this is not limited to books published in 2016. I only started reading the gay romance genre in 2015, and I still feel that I’m just brushing the surface of the wonderful books to be found there. My favorite thing to do has been to find a great author and dig into their back catalog, which may explain why my to-read list is at 70 books and growing!

First up, my favorite series:
Bear, Otter, and the Kid, by TJ Klune (Contemporary, Slice-of-Life)
(Bear, Otter and the Kid, Who We Are, The Art of Breathing)
These books are all about the characters. From the neurotic Bear to the steadfast Otter and the Kid, who is too wise for his years.  They are all simply fantastic. The dialogue is snappy and funny, and yet the situations are so real and heartbreaking at the same time. Every single one of these books made me cry, in a good way. TJ has a talent for characterizations that drags you in and grabs hold of you as the story unfolds.

Hidden Wolves, by Kaje Harper (Shifters, Suspense)
(Unacceptable Risk, Unsettled Interlude, Unexpected Demands, Unwanted Appeal, Unjustified Claims, Unsafe Exposure)
Harper has created an amazing setting here: Modern-day America but with a hidden subculture of werewolves, separate from humans. As the series progresses, we see what happens when the public suddenly finds out these people exist worldwide, and how the werewolves will survive in this sudden and new world. I love the characters here was well, but the overarching story kept me captivated beginning to end.

How to Howl at the Moon, by Eli Easton (Shifters, Humorous)
(How to Howl at the Moon, How to Walk Like a Man, How to Wish Upon a Star)
This is much more lighthearted than the series above, and it’s nice to have an occasional break. This series posits there is a small town hidden in the California Sierras when the population consists of the “Quickened” – humans who can shift into dogs of various breeds. Easton has fun playing off the traits of each breed but even as she does, she creates memorable characters, and book includes some really fun banter back and forth. Of special note is the audio version of this, narrated by Matthew Shaw. He does a remarkable job voicing the characters, keep the cast separated and imbuing each voice with a recognizable personality.

Infected, by Andrea Speed ( @notmanos) (Shifters, Mystery)
(Paris, Prey, Bloodlines, Life After Death, Freefall) More books still to be read, but that’s where I am right now!
This is another fascinating setting with fantastic characters. An HIV-like virus has spread worldwide which causes those infected to transform into a feral feline five days out of the month – cougar, lion, leopard, panther, or tiger. The transformation takes a terrible toll, and the larger cats are in for a short, painful life. In the midst of all of this is Roan McKichan, an ex-cop turned private investigator who was born with the virus and is an oddity: he survived to adulthood. He is reaching an accommodation with his lion and becoming something the world has never seen before. This series is so engrossing! The mysteries are fun, but are window dressing for Speed’s wonderful characters. Bloodlines in particular was incredible, and contains some of the most touching, heartwrenching writing I have ever read. This series only gets better and better!

Wolf, by AF Henley ( @afhenley) (Shifters, Suspense)
(Wolf, WY, Wolf, En Garde, Wolf, In League)
This is a great case of a series progressing in scope with each book. Henley has created a great world here of werewolves and vampires and who knows what else, all of whom exist without the knowledge of everyday society. Sinister forces, compelling characters, and plot twists galore make this a fun and engaging read.

And then there’s the one-offs and beginnings of series that I have not yet had a chance to pursue:
Hell and High Water (THIRDS #1), by Charlie Cochet
Great police procedural/suspense with feline shifters. Fantastic characters and dialogue. The audio performance by Mark Westfield is amazing, some of the best I have ever heard on any audiobook. (And it is definitely performance, not narration!)

How to Be A Normal Person, by TJ Klune
This is TJ in full-on humorous mode, but even then he tell this story between a socially isolated misfit and an asexual hipster with warmth and sensitivity. Definitely the sweetest book I read this year, and the funniest too.

Into This River I Drown, by TJ Klune (sensing a theme here?)
A polar opposite of Normal Person, this book is remarkable. The setting itself is almost a character in the book, and it will drag you through the emotional wringer. Still, the writing is so damn good it is absolutely worth it.

Sidecar, by Amy Lane
A sweeping 25-year story of the romance between Joshiah and Casey. This is an example of Amy Lane at her best, with great characters, believable dialogue, and a strong and real relationship that I can only hope to emulate. It’s not flashy or fancy, it’s just a damn good story told damn well.

Hands down, though, my favorite book of 2016 is Wolfsong, by TJ Klune. The shifter story that TJ swore he’d never write, this book is epic without a doubt. It is also so much more than gay romance. This is modern fantasy more than anything. The story grabbed me from the start. The world of Ox and the Bennett family is so engaging and just incredibly well-written.  The fact that the book has an average rating of 4.5 out of 5 on Goodreads with 2,500 ratings says a lot for it. Read it. Just read it.

As for 2017? There’s so much more to read! It’s astonishing because for the last 25 years or so I could count the numbers of books I read each year on one hand. I’ve found something that really resonates with me in these books, and it is so refreshing. People talk about the importance of representation in modern culture. All of this reading has driven that point home for me. These are gay characters, doing things that people do, and occasionally getting it on with another guy without the camera freaking out and cutting away. These are people I know. This is my life.

Something else worth mentioning, too: The gay (or m/m) romance genre is a small one, relatively speaking. The publishers aren’t huge (there’s many self-published books too!) and a widely-read book may still only have tens of thousands of readers, not millions. I’ve had the good fortune to interact with several of these authors over social media and it has made discovering this genre all the more enjoyable. As someone who grew up imagining authors as these unknowable figures on high pedestals, the ability to reach out directly to an author and say, “Hey, I really like this thing that you wrote” is fantastic. I know that if I were writer I would love to hear feedback, and if I can make someone feel good about their work I am more than happy to do so!

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