Book Reviews · Musings

Ba-ZAM! Books of 2016

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There are 3 books I super loved in 2016, and I’d like to share them with you.

Ka-POW!

The first book is the one I just read. It is a contemporary YA novel, with no magical flashings – not my usual read. But I found it on a list of BEST YA of 2016, and became curious because of the book’s description.

I don’t want to give too much away, but at the same time, I want you to know that the book is interesting. How to do this!? Well…

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Book title: The Serpent King

Author: Jeff Zentner

Genre: YA, Drama

This book has 3 main characters who are best friends. Lydia, Dill and Travis live in Forrestville, Tennessee, named after the Ku Klux Klan leader. Their fellow high-schoolers are racist homophobes who don’t have a lot of creativity or substance. All 3 of our MCs are in their senior year of high school. Some look to the future, and some don’t.

Dill and Travis suffer at home. Lurking in a cloud over Dill’s head, daily, is the fact that his pastor father is now in jail for child pornography, and also had his church congregation hold snakes and drink poison because he misinterpreted a Bible verse. Dill lives in a state of constant embarassment. Lydia hates her town and is trying her best to leave it behind by mind, by running a creativity, anti-establishment fashion blog that has thousands of followers. She tries to hide her origins from her fans as much as possible.

Travis’ father can’t handle his grief over Travis’ older brother Matt, killed in Afghanistan, so his father drinks and becomes a bully when he’s drunk. Travis buries his nose in fantasy books, especially those by his favorite author, who is releasing the last book of his famous Bloodfall series in March. Even though his father calls him names and his mousy mother looks at him with sorrow, Travis can’t help but fall into the world of Bloodfall, eager to escape home, and he even carries a staff he made himself everywhere, as a guard against the normalcies and demands of the real world.

I don’t really know how to put into words how this book affected me. It really got across how close these three friends are, and it really made me love them, and it really made me sad to think of them parting after graduation. Their difficulties were very raw and rough, and very believable.

The dialogue was so realistic, and moving. The poetry of Zentner’s words did not seem out-of-place in the heads of these struggling teenagers. It all flowed so smoothly, and tension built up so well. I read it almost in a day, because it was so good I just couldn’t stop. It made me think about friendships, communicating your love to your friends, and what it means to be brave, and to live a life for you, and for God, and not for anyone else.

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Go read it. Go read it now!

And please follow the author’s twitter: @jeffzentner   . The Serpent King was his first book. I want him to write more, so let’s give him encouragement!

A Different Brand of Zombie

The second book that I really enjoyed reading this year was The Girl With All the Gifts, by Michael Carey. I just found out that this book is going to be made into a movie! Exciting!

This book is not your typical zombie book. If fact, even my divulging that zombies are in it is almost a spoiler; the book is secretive about it, in a way, at first. Sorry to give it away; but you can tell, probably, from trailers – if they’re out yet?

Anyway…I love how Carey makes the zombies the protagonists, in a way, because you’re in the head of one of them, a girl named Melanie. I don’t want to give much away here, but let’s just say it’s an adventure, and that crisis that the earth has encountered is a horrifying, realistic ones that could happen some day, in some world, maybe even ours.

The way Carey turns the tables by making us sympathize with the usual antagonists really is what made this novel so gripping for me. Also the tension. It rattles along so well! It just builds and builds!

This book was moving and mesmerizing. If you want something different, if you want to see an author making a “cliche” thing (think: vampires and how everyone is sick of vampire books now) good again, go read this book!

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The end of the world as we know it

Emily St. John Mandel’s book, Station Eleven, I mention last. I mention it last not because it was best or worst, but because it made me think the most about writing. Sometimes when I read, I think as a reader, and other times, as a writer. Station Eleven just awed me as a writer.

I love how this story of a post-apocalyptic world has so many viewpoints. I love how we see an innocent person transform into an antagonist, and how it makes sense why they would, and we pity and hate that character simultaneously. I love how the book floats from an action scene in one chapter to a series of docile letters in another. I love how it gives us many angles on one important character who, even after death, shapes the lives of people living in the post-apocalyptic time that he died before seeing.

Okay. Pull back. Let’s give some context. Here’s what the book is about:

This book is set in Year 15, 15 years after the world has collapsed. The Georgia Flu from Georgia first infected Russia, and then entered Canada when ill people on a plane arrived in Canada and were rushed to Canadian hospitals. Then it infects Canadians. Then it infects other places, other continents – until it’s infected the whole world, and so many people are dead.

Cars don’t run anymore. There’s no one to get the oil, to get the gas to the gas stations. Laptops, the internet, are myths that the youths of today long for and don’t understand. Now, humans hunt for game and avoid dangerous towns where other humans kill them, out of fear. Prophets rule towns. Presidents don’t exist. The U.S. and, probably other counties, can’t communicate with other countries. Planes and flight are absolutely gone.

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The Symphony is a group of musicians from all over the U.S. and Canada that survived the flu. They travel all around Canada and the U.S., never stopping in any town for long, performing music wherever they go. There’s Kirsten, who has tattoos for people she’s had to kill, performs as Titania in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and vaguely remembers computers from when she was 8 the year the world collapsed. She carries 2 comic books from a memory she can’t quite recollect, and collects news about the movie star that she saw die, right before the flu entered Toronto.

This book was exciting, mysterious, and moving as a reader. It spans many years, and slowly unfolds before you, like a flower. The story begins at the flower’s outermost petals and hones in, until by the end you’re sitting there thrilled, gasping, to see how all the pieces have connected.

As a writer…

As a writer, this book threw me for a loop and then some. I love how Mandel begins with the death of the famous movie-star, from the point of view of a practicing medical student, and also has points of view from Kirsten, 15 years later, who saw that movie-star die. There’s the point of view of the writer of Kirsten’s comic books. There’s the prophet, who he was, and who he becomes. There’s the point of view of people who are lost on the way, and remember the world how it was, and shake their heads at how easy it was.

Okay but I’m getting distracted here. Yes, the book makes you think about how easy life is now, all of our luxuries – cold boxes that store our food, AKA fridges, glowing, portable screens that hold information and games and so much, AKA laptops, and so much more.

But what I love is that Mandel didn’t go for a constantly heart-pumping narrative. She wrote a book about the world’s collapse, but isn’t super fast, nor is it full of melancholy. There are moments of wonder. She dares to skip around in her timeline, going from year 1 to year 5, back to before the world collapsed, forward to year 15 – and the time leaps work! They do not take away from the story, they make it better.

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Emily St. John Mandel

Mandel was brave, in my opinion, to write such a disjointed narrative. I get the feeling that she wrote what she wanted to write. The book, as a result, reads almost like a long poem, and not a novel. It doesn’t have stanzas and all that; that’s not what I mean. What I mean is, it isn’t apologetic for what it is, it doesn’t try to fit a mold, or a genre, like novels do. It just IS.

And it is this unapologetic, open, FREE way of being that I want for my books, for my writing. To write whatever I want, and not worry about, “Will the readers like this? Does this fit the genre? Is this too cliche? Is this monologue too long?”

Obviously we have to do some of that, and I’m sure Mandel and every author does, especially in revision. But…just try to remember, even in that stage, that it should be free. It should be loving. It should be you. Don’t get lost trying to write whatever everyone else likes and wants. Write what is you, what you want to. Write what is yours. Write you, and let you just be you. I know that’s so cheesy, but hey, maybe that’s just me?

I hope you get to read at least 1 of these fantastic books I enjoyed in 2016. And may the books be just as good, or even better in 2017! I hope you all have a great New Year!

Until next time,

Chaitanya

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