There are so many great books, and every year we’re reading until the 11th hour to get in as many as possible. This year, between last minute reads and beloved books that didn’t seem like true contenders but deserve a shout-out, we find ourselves down to the final days before the YMAs with quite a pile left.
So here you have our last licks — not counting our three remaining biggies (Still Life with Tornado, The Reader, and Scythe), this post concludes our 2016 pile of books we still have something to say about. Whew! Nearly there.
For a long time Julia Vanishes was in the books I loved but won’t be writing up pile. Only now that we’ve reached the end of the year and I’m looking back at all the 2016 titles I read, I find myself thinking this one definitely deserves to be mentioned; despite a relatively low star count and relatively little buzz — it hasn’t been mentioned at all in the comments when people have shared favorites, and it didn’t make any year-end lists — it’s on the list of books I genuinely enjoyed from this year. I’m even planning to read the sequel, something I make time for less and less often.
This is a secondary world fantasy, with a fairly Victorian feel, and it starts like a heist fantasy, a small but steady subgenre that definitely snags readers, myself included. But then it takes some turns, and in the end this is a fantasy thriller, with a palpable tension. The titular Julia is a strong character, painted in all shades of gray. There’s action, some romance, some moral questions, and a fascinating background mythology that gradually reveals itself. All of it balances together into a great read, one deserving of far more attention than it seems to be getting; I’m hoping it’s only the adults who have been ignoring this, and that teens have been reading it.
Of course, it’s fantasy. And first in a trilogy. And it ends with a cliffhanger. So it’s not getting any RealCommittee attention, I’m sure. But it’s a better read than some of the books we’ve covered already, and I wanted to give it a bit of a signal boost. —Karyn Silverman
I wanted to love this. In many ways, I did love this.
Ok, let’s start with the good: this is a fantasy mystery set in a truly diverse community, but one with deep-seated racial tensions. It’s a sort of fantasy analogue for South Africa, per the reviews, with communities black, white, and brown. The protagonist is a tough girl (brown) who takes no crap and is succeeding in a male-dominated field.
But at one point I made a note that Ang sounded like she was written by a white guy, which indeed turns out to be the case. I can’t tell you exactly what it was that made me think that — and really, I think it was the accumulated weight of the small details. Particularly the way Ang treats that baby; I don’t understand how a newborn, weak neck and all, could survive being jostled about in a sling while Ang was fleeing through the city; she also leaves the baby in her hideout for hours on end, which I’m thinking wouldn’t work since newborns eat every 1-3 hours. And she feeds it milk it wouldn’t be able to process. You see where I’m going with this? Plus I never entirely understood Ang’s motivation vis a vis the baby.
Now, the baby is just one thread in a fairly complex and vibrant tapestry; it’s a mystery, after all, so there’s a lot going on. But it was, for me, the thread that was snagging all over the place and messing up the tapestry. As for why I twigged to the author being white, I’m having a harder time pinpointing that. I did take notes, but they expired with the e-galley, and it’s months since I read this — but I think it had to do with a sense that for all the complex racial tensions Hartley drew, much of it seemed to exist more for plot and setting, without deeply affecting the internal selves of the characters, which felt untrue when I consider my own understanding of race and identity.
That said, this has three stars, so at least some reviewers found a lot to like. As did I, despite my qualms: the pacing is good, the mystery works, and the setting fascinates. And yet.
Mostly, I tossed this in here because after months of turning this over in my head I really want to talk to other people about this. Won’t you tell me what you thought? —Karyn Silverman
This is a book I’ve gone back and forth on in my head. Jaxon is a really fantastic narrator, and I love the true love for games and gamers in evidence in the text. Heidecker’s overall love for and respect for games and gamers shines through, providing a fairly nuanced and thoughtful (not too reductive, not too reactive) take on tech and teens plugging in.
The minor characters and their experiences provide some contrast in perspective that Jaxon has to work through, allowing for some reflection on and unpacking of privilege — at least from Jaxon’s point of view.
We’ve had some calls for funny at the Printz table, too, and Cures delivers there as well; it’s genuinely funny. Ultimately, some of the things that I personally enjoyed felt a little heavy-handed in the text. Some of the lessons Jaxon learns came off as too preachy and too obvious, and the big moment for him at the end came up suddenly and was a little too pat. —Sarah Couri
Let me be very clear: this book is weird. It’s bloody and surreal and hard to describe even though the plot can be summarized in a sentence—high school teens spontaneously combust over the course of a school year. Yes, it’s gory but it’s also funny and sad, even poignant in certain moments. As he demonstrated in The Riverman trilogy, Aaron Starmer is a storyteller who’s very interested in the connection between how we tell stories and memory. He’s an author whose big questions come wrapped in the strangest possible plot. Almost two years ago, I argued that The Riverman could be in Printz conversation due to the lived experiences of the protagonists; this year Spontaneous has honest-to-goodness teens at the heart of the story, so the real dilemma is: can Starmer’s YA work stand up to Printz scrutiny?
Yes. And no. (Isn’t this always the answer?)
This is one of the most original books I read in 2016 and not only because of the spontaneous combustion. It’s everything that happens after the teens start exploding. The way that the senior class is treated like a contagious dangerous entity is upsetting but truthful. Humans don’t like things we can’t understand. The seniors’ attempts to rebuild and continue their lives despite the constant threat of violent, random death is surprising but makes sense for these characters who begin to believe that maybe it won’t happen to them. Spontaneous takes a common teen fear—the inability to control one’s future—and makes it literal so we can explore that fear from different angles. What if we gave in? What if we decided we didn’t want to be complacent? What would we do if our heroes let us down? But the answers lack ambiguity which doesn’t match the difficulty of the questions.
Ultimately this is a snappy, sardonic, and dark novel that I admired but it left me cold. The characters were vehicles for plot development and never felt like fully formed beings. The narrator, Mara, uses her wit and sarcasm as armor in describing the events around her, which prevents her from displaying any believable depth of feeling. This, in addition to the thematic issues, takes the novel out of Printz contention; although as always, I admire Starmer’s ambition and audacity. —Joy Piedmont
In some ways, this is a new take on Beauty and the Beast, though the novel as a whole really does move away from that source material. Beast takes on some sophisticated topics, and overall works through them with thought, nuance, and care — I think the two stars come from this approach, as well as Jamie’s characterization. She’s pretty fantastic — flawed and interesting and learning and growing. Dylan’s growth in understanding Jamie, and in dealing with his own transphobia, is a hugely important element in the story, and is generally well done (though it’s a centering of the cis experience, which doesn’t always feel super progressive).
Some of the novel’s approaches to Dylan’s other issues don’t work quite as well, unfortunately, and will probably take it out of consideration at the Printz table. His character’s needs for realistic (and holistic) growth are brushed aside to serve the plot, and to keep the romance narrative going. What results is somewhat unbalanced in terms of characterization. —Sarah Couri
I just read this last week, and there’s an old adage that the last book you read is your favorite book, so maybe that’s coloring my opinion? Or maybe this really is just that good. It was on the Kirkus list, which was what initially brought it to our attention, and it has four stars now that the reviews are all in for 2016. It’s a lovely, haunting coming of age, utterly relatable despite the remote, almost timeless (but apparently early middle ages) setting. The magic/not magic question that runs through keeps the pages turning but it’s really the emotional weight of that question that makes this a keeper. It’s also on the YA cusp in a really perfect way — this could skew down for a strong 6th grade reader, but I’m also putting it in my collection for high school students and I felt fulfilled as an adult reader by the language and the emotional and thematic heft.
There’s always something. One of the criteria is accuracy, and in historical fiction, accuracy matters. And in this case anachronistic bit pop up repeatedly, usually in passing– whiskey and fabric and so on; it’s especially prevalent in the things that wash up from wrecks. It’s like the outside world is 500 years more advanced than Carrick, except Ulf, who comes from outside, makes it clear that that is not so. It’s such a minor thing, these few anachronistic objects, but it created this sense of confusion about when the book was set, muddying the strong sense of place. Eventually there was a clear reference to the turn of the millenium, but then I found myself popped out of the otherwise absorbing reading experience by a recurring “wait, did X exist in the year 900-something?” (Quick answer: Wikipedia and GoogleFu indicate no.) So despite the strong voice and absorbing themes, I suspect the accuracy flaws will doom this from an awards perspective — it’s an elimination game, after all, and this kind of flaw, while small, is as close to an objective flaw as a book can have, which can make it easier for a committee to rule it out. However, this flaw doesn’t mean you shouldn’t read it, because this 100% deserves your attention. —Karyn Silverman