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.
25. The Nest by Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney
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
23. After Atlas by Emma Newman
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
22. Hag-Seed by Margaret Atwood
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
21. Heroes of the Frontier by Dave Eggers
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
20. The Regional Office Is Under Attack! by Manuel Gonzales
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
19. Before the Fall by Noah Hawley
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
18. A Gambler’s Anatomy by Jonathan Lethem
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