Top 10 books I read in 2016: mini-reviews

CLICK HERE TO READ MINI-REVIEWS FROM 2014 AND 2015.

I’ll be honest. I read a lot less this year than I usually do. It’s been a rough year all the way around, and I’ll probably talk about that later. Meanwhile, I’m writing this annual mini-review post because it brings me joy and also, there’s little I love more than telling people what to read and how to live their lives.

Lezzgo.

10. The Raven Boys by Maggie Stiefvater

ravenboysAlso known as the book I was supposed to read four years ago when it debuted and didn’t and now I regret my choices.

In The Raven Boys, Blue (our heroine) is the only non-seer in her psychic family. But when she has a vision on St. Mark’s Eve of a boy who will soon die, her clairvoyant mother tells her that the only reason Blue would see him is either that she is his true love, or she killed him herself. The boy – Gansley – goes to Aglionby Academy (infamous for its privileged “Raven Boys”) and when he and Blue accidentally cross paths, she gets swept up in a mystery that she knows will lead to a tragic end for both of them.

Really, the best part of any Maggie Stiefvater book is the totally gorgeous language. But even if you’re not a nerd like me, this book will hook you anyway. The characters are all super weird and perfectly developed and I fell in love with each one of them in different ways. It also helps that Blue herself is the kind of badass punk that I dreamed of being in high school (her name is Blue. BLUE. Do you see what I’m saying?).

Also, I read this smack-dab in the middle of hail the pumpkin king edits, which is a weird book about supernatural happenings. This book is also weird and about supernatural happenings, so I felt very at home. I think what I’m trying to say here is that if you like sarcastic ghosts and quirky psychics and brooding boarding school boys and angst-ridden teenage girls, you will love The Raven Boys.

9. Milk and Honey by Rupi Kaur

milkandhoneyAlso known as the one that I carried around in my purse for two weeks, reading one poem at a time while standing in line at Starbucks and at the car wash until I finished it, because one at a time was all I could emotionally handle.

I first discovered Rupi Kaur’s poetry on Tumblr, back when I Tumblr’d. I then stumbled across her feminist Instagram photo series where she challenged the taboo around women’s periods and subsequently went viral due to the photos being censored from Instagram. She is a TED speaker and released this book of poetry in 2014 that journeys through healing from trauma and sexual violence, and which quickly became a NY Times bestseller. Basically, this 24-year-old is the kind of badass my 24-year-old self aspires to be.

And this book. It destroyed me. And it healed me. And I have nothing else to say. If you haven’t read it, you must.

8. A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness

monsterAlso known as the one that tricked me into thinking it wouldn’t hurt me. It hurt me.

While we’re talking about it, I might as well mention that this list could also be titled, “Top 10 books that made me cry like an infant in 2016.”

A Monster Calls has been on my TBR list for the past few years, and I picked it up this year solely because I heard it was going to made into a movie and I am not about that haven’t-read-it-but-saw-the-adaptation life.

And… like…

I was not prepared, you guys.

A Monster Calls is about a boy whose mother is dying of cancer. And yes, I didn’t think it would hurt me. I thought I could do it, okay? God.

And before you roll your eyes and say, “Another cancer book?” you should check yourself, because if you’re ever going to read another “cancer book” (can we stop saying that phrase though?), it should be this one. The boy – Connor – is visited by a monster at seven minutes past midnight, but it’s not the one from his nightmares. This monster is different, and he tells Connor stories that force him to face his demons, his worst fears, and worst of all, the things he cherishes most in his life.

It’s a fairytale, in its purest form. Haunting, dark, twisted, beautiful – a children’s book that doesn’t talk down to children, and an adult book that wrestles with grief and loss and love. It’s what literature should be. Plus, the illustrations, like the prose, are both terrifying and achingly perfect, and I ended up shattered by an ending that had me weeping over the pages at the kitchen table. While my parents were standing across the room, watching in bewilderment. I am that kid. I don’t know why anybody’s surprised anymore.

7. All the Bright Places by Jennifer Niven

brightplacesAlso known as the audio book that forced me to pull my car over so I could bawl my freaking eyes out. See? List of crying books.

I don’t typically listen to audio books (I’m too visual). However, I would actually recommend listening to this as an audio book, if only because the actor and actress who narrated the alternating POV chapters did so with such sensitive characterization, that it actually enhanced the plot in a way that might not have come through if I had read it traditionally. I don’t know if that makes sense. It’s hard to explain. Just listen to the book.

All the Bright Places is about two high schoolers, Theodore Finch and Violet Markey, who meet on the ledge of a bell tower – and one of them is about to jump. But they don’t. And it’s not exactly clear who’s talking who off the ledge (literally). They eventually are paired together for a school project where they’re supposed to discover the “natural wonders” of their state. And as their strange acquaintance-ship grows into a friendship and then a romance, Violet’s world grows a little bigger for the first time since a family tragedy, even as Finch’s shrinks smaller day by day.

Okay. *deep breath* This book was so personal for me. I know a lot of people have problems with it, but for me, it felt honest. It felt real. It reminded me of a time when I was a teenager, trying to love a boy who was living with severe depression and not knowing how to help him. Since then, I’ve read a lot of books about what it feels like to live with a mental illness, but not as many about what it feels like to be the one who lives with the one who lives with a mental illness. It’s hard to write those stories without minimizing the struggle of either side and/or making one character into the savior figure. I know because I’ve tried.

BUT I think this one does it with the light that YA lit brings, always, to heavy subjects. That’s all I can say. Read it and let me know what you think.

6. Every Brilliant Thing by Duncan MacMillan

brilliantAlso known as the one I read on the beach on President’s Day while muttering, “Wow. Wow. Wow,” to myself until I annoyed my boyfriend so much that he went for a swim without me.

My best friend lent this play to me (thanks, Cindy) and I kept it for too long (in my defense, she was living in England at the time), but when I finally read it, I finished it in an hour flat.

It reminds me a bit of the All the Bright Places, in that the main character makes a list of every brilliant thing worth living for (while in All the Bright Places, Violet and Finch are looking for all the bright places in their world – you get it). This is a one-man/woman play about a child whose mom “finds it hard to be happy” – the child, in turn, gives Mom a list of good things to make her happy again. And then the child grows up. And what’s left is the question of how far we’ll go when we care about someone.

I. Would. Give. Anything. To. See. This. Staged.

I need it. I don’t know how or where but I need it now. Also, one of my least favorite things about plays/literature about depression is that they often tend to be a little kitschy and woe-is-me, which is not what depression feels like to the person experiencing it or those around them. But it’s a monster that’s hard to explain. This play does it while also showing the depth of humanity’s capacity to feel everything. Not just pain. Not just grief. But love. Compassion. Empathy.

Read it. And if you’re a director/producer/designer/actor, please stage this immediately and I promise to come see it. Thanks.

5. Help Thanks Wow by Anne Lamott

helpthankswowAlso known as the one that came to me when I needed it.

Real talk: All through November, I had a really hard time reading anything that was not political analyses and apocalyptic thought pieces, and while those were helpful to help me process what I was feeling, I got sucked into the vortex. The doom vortex. I couldn’t fight my way out. In some ways, I feel there, still.

Then I read this Facebook post from Anne Lamott after Thanksgiving, and immediately ordered Help Thanks Wow, because… I so, so needed to hear that there would be an end to despair. Even if I didn’t feel it.

And this book… okay, before I go here, I have to confess that I usually am not a fan of “Christian” books. This has nothing to do with the books themselves; it has to do with me hating to be told what to do and what I’m doing wrong by someone who probably has this whole God-thing more figured out than I do.

But Anne Lamott has never been that person. I suspect it’s because she is a self-proclaimed hot mess, a chronic pessimist who swears like a sailor and says grudging things like, “Everything is hopeless so I guess I’ll f*cking try this Jesus thing,” and… I don’t know. To me, it’s poetry. Because at certain points in my life, it feels more honest than a hallelujah.

This book re-taught me to pray, because even though, yes, technically Jesus taught us to pray… that was a little too much for me (sorry, Jesus). It remains a little too much for me. I can barely handle more prayer than, “Help,” right now. So I re-learned how to say it. Still working on “Thanks,” and “Wow.” But we’re getting there.

4. Tell Me Three Things by Julie Buxbaum

threethingsAlso known as the one that came to me accidentally.

As you may know *cough* I went to the LA Times Festival of Books this summer and completely flailed over everything I saw, but especially an author panel involving Julie Buxbaum and Nicola Yoon (who is also on this list). At that point, Tell Me Three Things had been released that same week, and I’d never heard of it. But listening to Buxbaum talk convinced me to buy it.

Tell Me Three Things is about a high schooler named Jessie who moves to Los Angeles when her father remarries a woman he met online. Jessie leaves her best friend and old school behind, and is feeling pretty lonely when she gets an anonymous email from a person called Somebody/Nobody offering to help her navigate her new school.

This book is about relationships. But it’s about relationships online and in person, dealing with virtual distance and physical distance, and it hit close to home for me, as someone who moved to Los Angeles by herself when she was 17. The emotions of that move were captured perfectly in this book, as well as what it’s like to have a long-distance best friend (remember when I was saying back at Every Brilliant Thing that my bestie was living in England? Yeah).

It’s been a long time since I’ve fallen completely in love with a contemporary YA novel. I wrote a full review of it here, if you’re interested.

3. This Savage Song by Victoria Schwab

savagesongAlso known as the one that I devoured in its entirety in the airport and on a plane to Hawaii because holy effing eff. I had an ARC of this book from some contest I won at some point (details, unimportant) but put off reading it until I knew I’d have a long, uninterrupted stretch of time. Enter six-hour-flight, stage right.

This Savage Song is about a divided society in which literal monsters are born whenever someone commits a violent act. Kate is a human who wants to be a monster, as wicked and soulless as her powerful father who runs half of the city. August is a monster who wants to be human, good-hearted and well-intentioned as his father, who runs the other half of the city – unfortunately, it is also in August’s nature to steal human souls. When the pair collide at boarding school and Kate discovers his secret, an assassination attempt causes all hell to break loose.

…can I just rant for a second?

Oh, of course I can. It’s my blog. Hahaha.

I find it exceedingly unfair that literally everything I’ve ever read by Victoria/V.E. Schwab (depending on the genre, she goes by different pen names) has been perfect. Objectively. Like, what the actual hell is going on here? Are you fallible? I mean, see her tweeting about how she’s struggling to write today, blahblahblah, but I’m pretty sure if she were one of us mere mortals she wouldn’t be putting out quirky, dark masterpieces like This Savage Song every few months.

Also, from what I’ve gathered on Twitter, the woman is constantly on a deadline. And she’ll have published 13 books before she’s even turned 30. Is this what it feels like to have superpowers? I WILL NEVER KNOW. /rant

Sorry that mini-review was not exactly helpful. But this book was everything. Read it. And then get in line for the sequel, because I will fight you for it.

2. Everything, Everything by Nicola Yoon

everythingAlso known as the one that made me want to write contemporary YA again.

That’s right. I said it. Of the five and a half books I’ve written, only one of those has been contemp YA. And it was so terrible that I abandoned it. Hence the “and a half.”

But after this book, I was like, okay maybe. Again, Nicola Yoon was one of the other debut authors on the LA Times Festival of Books panel with Julie Buxbaum. And she was so eloquent and thoughtful that I also bought her hardcover.

Everything, Everything is about a girl named Madeline who has a rare disease that basically makes her allergic to everything. She’s not allowed out of her house and not allowed contact with anyone except her mother and her nurse Carla. Here, she’s safe. It’s all she’s ever known. And then a boy moves in next door, and she can see him from her window, and he notices her and… well, you can guess. It’s complicated.

If you ask me (and you’re here so for some reason, you did), this book so authentically captured the spirit of first love despite the extraordinary circumstances. I love the way Yoon herself put it: Through every relationship Madeline has, this story asks, “How close is too close to hold someone?” And yes, the romance was lovely, but what I didn’t expect was to see the mother-daughter relationship explored as much as it was. There are so few parents in YA that are actually present in the characters’ lives, and I loved seeing Madeline’s. Also, knowing that Yoon had just had her daughter when she was writing Everything, Everything… it rang that much more true.

Plus… THE TWIST. *dies*

1. I’ll Give You the Sun by Jandy Nelson

giveyouthesunAlso known as the one that made me decide to write contemporary YA again.

You heard me. More on that later though. Right now I have to focus so I can appropriately fangirl over this freaking book because freaking asldkfja;slkfjal;.

I NEED YOU TO UNDERSTAND SOMETHING.

There are a few books that have hollowed me out and filled me up again in the way that this book did. One of them is Revolution by Jennifer Donnelly. The other is Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein. Both of those books just f*cking wrecked me. One of them talks about the power of art to heal, and the second talks about the bond of sisterhood, and both of those books are pure, unadulterated magic. They reminded me what I want to be, as a writer.

This book sort of combines the two – art and sister/brotherhood – and again. Wrecked.

So okay, synopsis. I can’t really coherent sentence right now. But here we go. Jude and Noah are twins who were always close, but skip forward three years and something has broken between them. Once upon a time, Noah was a quiet, bullied artist who was falling in love with the boy next door, while his sister was a care-free, cliff-diving daredevil, a force to be reckoned with. Now? Everything is different. And slowly, we learn why.

I wrote a full review here. I may have used keyboard smashes again, I don’t remember. I’m not even sorry.


And that’s it. That’s all. That’s everything. That’s all I have. 3000 words later.

Please leave me some of your favorite reads in the comments? I’ll add them to next year’s list and/or fangirl over them with you. ❤

Samantha Chaffin

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5 thoughts on “Top 10 books I read in 2016: mini-reviews

  1. kingsrider says:

    Holyyyyy batman your blog just makes me feel everything. I completely want to read all of these books now. Thanks. But really. I get so excited when I have an email for a blog update

  2. deshipley says:

    Am temporarily refusing to read your sum-up of “A Monster Calls” because the book’s straight-up sitting in the pile from my latest library run and I wanna go into it without any emotional spoilers. But the fact that it made this list bodes well.
    *goes on to flail about The Raven Cycle, because aaaaaaaaahhh*

    • samchaffin says:

      *flails also about The Raven Cycle* IT’S SO WEIRD AND GOOD. I can’t believe I waited so long to read it. This seems to be the trend with me and Maggie Stiefvater books though.

      Let me know how you feel about A Monster Calls when you get to it. 😉

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