I do love the recap articles that come out in January, detailing what were the best movies, songs, books, or games that came out the previous year. They give me a look into new stories I might not have seen yet, but I feel they do a diservice too - just because they were the best 2016 had to offer, doesn't mean they even grace your top twenty-five-of-all-time list. Not to say new books and authors don't deserve your attention, but maybe there are books from years past you've never heard about that deserve your love too. With that in mind, and in no particular order, presenting: The Books You Should Read This Year, INCLUDING Extra Options, starting with...
No doubt many of you have seen the beautiful cult classic The Princess Bride, a story of fencing, fighting, torture, revenge, giants, monsters, chases, escapes, true love, miracles, and you'll definitely stay awake - as amazing as the humor is in the movie, it is even more so in the book, with heaping amounts of dry wit as the supposed editor juts in evey now and again to annotate paragraphs of lovers reuniting because of all that kissing stuff he skipped when his father read it to him as a boy, and removed entire chapters where the queen packs up, travels on a diplomatic mission, unpacks, meets the foreign royals, then packs up, travels back, and unpacks again. Its wit is its greatest joy, and the conceit of the author annotating his own work as you read is just another layer of charm on top of the scenes and characters you know and love. Plus, you finally understand what Westley and Inigo are talking about during their sword fight atop the Cliffs of Insanity. A classic addition to your collection.
Another book turned movie, but far darker than Princess Bride. Be forewarned - be in a good place before you read this book. You'll still sink into tears and existential despair, but you'll be able to pull yourself out again afterwards. Having not seen the movie yet, I can only comment on the book, but it is a triumph of literature, as if all the gold awards on the cover weren't enough to convey that. It is the story of a boy becoming increasingly more alone in the world, with a domineering grandmother, a father a thousand miles away, and a mother slowly dying. The titular monster is equal parts intimidating and comforting, in only the way that coming to terms with the unfairness of the world can be, and this book pulls no punches with its stark and unflinching realism. The book's story came from author Siobhan Dowd, who succumbed to breast cancer before she could write A Monster Calls, and writer Patrick Ness and illustrator Jim Kay brought the book to life. This backstory only fuels this book more - while some books, for young adults especially, can wrap incurable diseases into moral lessons and seem insincere about the ravages of disease, this book is a spotlight on tragedy, told honestly and emotionally. Get ready to weep.
Robin McKinley is a treasure, and for those who love fairy tales told from fresh perspectives, look no further. McKinley embraces the logic of the worlds she creates wholeheartedly, but rather than excluding the reader with too much world-building and technicalities, she instead creates unique and relatable characters that we can follow and learn about the world naturally as the story progresses. Chalice is about Marisol, a beekeeper who is unexpectedly placed in a position of tenuous power and challenged to keep peace in a world that is threatening to break itself apart, literally. Marisol is an extremely likeable protagonist - rather no nonsense, but in a pleasantly practical way, she uses her own skills to help the land she loves, knowing no other way to do so and not content to simply do nothing because it might appear undignified to others. The book is full of elemental magic in its rawest form, bees as loveable as dogs, delicious variants of honey that make me want to try my hand at beekeeping, and it gives us a strong female character by her own nature as caretaker and healer, blatantly avoiding current YASF (young adult strong female) tropes of love-struck girl or kick-ass rebel. Sweet as honey, a must read for a summer day.
Robin McKinley is one of my favorite authors ever, and the first book of hers I ever read was Beauty, a retelling of Beauty and the Beast. Twenty years later, she returned to the fairy tale to write Rose Daughter. Both are amazing retellings - Beauty definitely younger in its tone and audience, but just as enchanting, and it holds a special place in my heart. Rose Daughter expands on that with expansion on the magic and enchantment at play, and giving Beauty a knack for gardening, which got me to plant my own rose bushes. Both worth a read.
I held off as long as I could in placing a graphic novel on this list, not because I don't like them - on the contrary, graphic novels are a unique medium for storytelling that I devoted an entire shelf of my library to, and where I first head when walking into McKay's - but because a lot of readers look at them as less than literature, as though the addition of pictures makes the story less meaningful or mature. I have a lot of favorite graphic novels, but this one has a beautiful message about art, the artist, and the audience that, as an artist myself, really struck a cord with me, as well as making the accompanying illustrations all the more necessary. The main protagonist, in a desire to fuel his art, makes a deal with Death that gives him the power to sculpt anything with his bare hands, but only has 200 days left to live. The Sculptor manages to touch upon both the pride of artists and young people, struggling to make their message heard in a growing sea of indifference. However, where other stories like this craft the characters as brave rebels who are righteous in their quest to live in the moment and answer to no one, here they are all too flawed, rejecting help, refusing to compromise, and yet even as they self-destruct, you sympathize with their plight to be themselves and share that with others instead of compromising their vision. It has mature themes, so younger readers - tread lightly, but its adult nature is what makes it so compelling to those dealing with their own life's journey and the choices they've made and must deal with now.
If you are not familiar with Markus Zusak, you should be. One of the finest writers of our time, his books, while classified as young adult, are some of the most moving pieces of literature available, dealing with life, death, and purpose. After reading some of his other work, I picked up I Am The Messenger, and while it maintains its great narrative voice, it is unlike his other works. Our protagonist is living a very average life of until the day he accidentally stops a bank robbery, and recieves a mysterious ace card in the mail. From there, he is sent on mission after mission across his town, changing the lives of those around him. I do not want to give away too much after that, because this book is one of experience, not plot points. You completely slip into the skin of the main character, see what he sees, feel the looming unknown presence sending him the messages and the wonder if it is using him for good, or evil. The emotions are what you'll remember long after you've finished this book.
It will take you years to read this book, and I mean that in the best way possible. This is a collection of 100 stories by Ray Bradbury, one of the most preeminent storytellers of all time. The man wrote unceasingly - novels, short stories, screenplays, scripts - and before his passing, he chose 100 of his most famous and influential stories to fill this collection. Nearly 1,000 pages long, this is meant to be sipped and savored over time. I haven't finished it yet, and I look forward to those dark, dark nights when the wind won't let me sleep, and I pull down this book to keep me company. A few of my favorites that perfectly sum up Bradbury's works - Death and the Maiden, The Whole Town's Sleeping, and The Illustrated Man.
The description of this graphic novel sells it more than I ever could. I would have recommended it based on summary alone without ever cracking the cover, but I'm so glad I did: RASL is a gritty, hard-boiled tale of an inter-dimensional art thief and ex-military engineer who discovers the lost journals of Nikola Tesla, and must flee through time and space, on the run from dark government forces, to keep humankind's greatest and most dangerous secret safe. You can't help it - you have to read it now.
Definitely for a mature audience, The Bloody Chamber takes the darker natures of our fairy tales and folklore, and multiplies it. Blood, sex, and magic culminate in this collection of stories by Angela Carter, with retellings of Beauty and Beast, the werewolf myth, Bluebeard, and more from a more feminist standpoint. The titular story is very deliciously dark, but my favorite has to be "The Tiger's Bride" which, if you're familiar with my favorite fairy tale, should be no surprise.
I would be very remiss if I didn't recommend you read ColorBlind this year. A retelling of the classic tale of Beauty and the Beast, but with a bit of twist - the story is told from both the perspective of Beauty's older sister, and the Beast himself. The castle in the woods, the rose, enchanted objects and more are kept from the original, while looking at previously unexplored territory, like the relationship of the sisters and their father, the agony of the Beast's duality, and an exploration of the difference between duty and love. I recommend it highly for fans of magical worlds, fairy tales, and true love, and if you still aren't sold, you can read the first chapter HERE.
What books do you recommend for the new year? Feel free to comment below with your favorite book, or what you thought of the list above, and be on the lookout for more to come as 2017 continues!
I know the idea of New Years Eve and the resolutions thusly made is silly in theory - nothing changes between 11:59 PM on December 31st and 12:00 AM on January 1st besides our own interpretation of time on this spinning blue-green sphere in space. What was in 2016, will be in 2017, and you can commit to change any day of the year. To heap all that importance on one moment in time is asking for lost commitments and failed decisions.
And yet, every time the new year comes, I'm excited and happy, not just because of nebulous future goals, but because I can look back and examine a definite period in my life. Yes, I love weirdly organizational activites - I eat my Skittles one rainbow at a time so no one color runs out first, and measure a good vacation by how many piles of miscellaneous brik-a-brak around my house finally disappeared. But it's a good way to start the new year - to see what you accomplished, and what you can still achieve.
To that end, here are a few things to consider this January, amidst pumping yourself up to go the gym three times a week and substitute a whole meal for granola and kale:
1 - Decision fatigue is real.
This is a fairly recent discovery for me, but I'm sure you've all felt this before - all your carefully constructed to-do lists you form in the morning fall flat and un-checked by nightfall. Your important, big decisions should be made in the morning, when your brain is strongest at it, because the more decisions you make thru the day, the less thought-out and impactful they'll be. Check out Cracked's video on it for some helpful tips on fighting decision fatigue, but what most impacted me was not fretting small decisions. It's inspired me to redesign my days, whether working or not, and that taking a break with an episode of Steven Universe or Gilmore Girls is not a terrible waste of time, but neccessary recharging of your brain's batteries. Decide, do, and don't regret.
2 - Keep your resolutions secret.
Some of you may have heard a wrote a book that got published this past year - no big deal, except, it is a huge deal. Writing a novel, writing a good novel, was a seven year task for me. Editing and publishing took the better part of one year alone. And I shared this journey with no one except my very closest friends. There are a few reasons for this - I could trust these people to give me good critiques and advice when I showed them the novel in-progress, of course, but the biggest reason I kept it hush-hush was that telling everyone around you you're going to write a novel, learn how to play guitar, start a podcast, lose twenty pounds, or whatever time-intensive task you wish to complete, gives you the mental high that you would get by actually doing what you said you would do. The more you tell others and get positive feedback on your decision, the less your mind feels it actually needs to work on this task, because you've already gotten the appreciation without having to actually do it. So, if you do make a year-long resolution, only share it with the close few that can help you make it happen. When you actually achieve it, that's the time to share with the world. By the way, read ColorBlind - complex relationships, immersive fantasy world, just the best writing.
3 - Learn what made last year great, then replicate.
As an artist, every new year I have to go back thru piles of invoices, receipts, and calendars to get everything ready for tax season. This puts me in the unique position of travelling back in time and remembering all the things that happened over the last year. Even if you don't have to do this, I recommend it. I travelled again through the trips I took, photos of people I met, my art on display, the kids I taught. Social media, to me, is served best as a recounting of years past, a digital scrapbook and I encourage you to try it too, even if 2016 was terrible for you like it was for so many. You'll find and remember the good moments, no matter how sparse, and then you can find it again. Your hiking trip where you found a beautiful leaf on the path, game night with friends you don't see so much, that movie that touched your mind and heart - all these things can be recovered and retried in the new year, along with new fun things you'll remember in 2018.
I look forward to more art and more fun in 2017, and I hope you all take this sentiment to heart moving forward:
I'm Elizabeth Kidder, freelance illustrator currently located in Knoxville, TN. Please enjoy the site and Contact Me with any job inquiries or questions.