best books of 2014

The five best Young Adult novels from 2014: a fellow-writer’s favourites

Indian fiction for young adults is, well, coming of age, as this selection by a YA writer demonstrates.

Talking of Muskaan: Himanjali Sankar
Himanjali Sankar’s Talking of Muskaan has really got everyone talking. And that’s because it explores the one thing we are definitely uncomfortable for our kids to be exploring. That, of course, is, sexuality ‒ and no prizes for guessing that ‒ especially if it is anything other than heterosexuality. The story opens with the startling news that the eponymous Muskaan has tried to commit suicide. As her friends struggle to come to terms with it, we are whisked back five months in order to witness how things went this far.

Muskaan herself doesn’t get a voice in the novel as the story is told in turn by two friends and another classmate - Aaliya, her once-best-friend, who doesn’t talk to her any more; Shubhojoy, who, like Muskaan, doesn’t fit in; and spoilt rich boy Prateek, who thinks he’s god’s gift to girls.

The strength of Talking of Muskaan lies in the way it explores some of the labyrinthine complexities of the teenage world ‒ friendships, families, exclusion and more. It is also one of the very few young adult novels that explores the class divide in our society in an empathetic manner. Having read a pre-publication draft of this novel, though, I miss Muskaan’s perspective. My only other quibble is that it would have been great if the novel was longer than its 150-odd pages.

Queen of Ice: Devika Rangachari
There are few authors who write historical fiction for young people as well as Devika Rangachari. Her latest book Queen of Ice tells the story of the ambitious, ruthless Queen Didda, who ruled the kingdom of Kashmir, both as regent and as queen, for about five decades in the tenth century.

Through this fictionalized account, we accompany Didda through her childhood, dismissed and reviled by her father on account of her lameness; her teenage years when she was married off to the ruler of Kashmir; and her later years when she determinedly pursued her destiny of greatness. There are two narrators ‒ Didda herself and a companion called Valga, her “porter-woman”. Rangachari’s storytelling is masterful, and you are effortlessly sucked into the tense, ruthless atmosphere of a royal court.

Vanamala and the Cephalopods: Shalini Srinivasan
Shalini Srinivasan’s Vanamala and the Cephalopods is not strictly a YA novel, but then, who doesn’t want to read a book about selling your younger sister, right? It tells the story of what happens when Vanamala accidentally succeeds in doing so.

Needless to say, she is consumed with guilt and sets out on an incredible adventure to get her sibling back. She travels to other worlds, including one in the deep sea, and meets and makes friends with various sea creatures. When she finds her sister, she is in a avatar that Vanamala doesn’t recognize and, of course, she is livid.

What must she do to placate and rescue her sibling? The answer to that lies in hoodwinking the mysterious all-powerful cephalopod - just who is this creature anyway and why is everyone so terrified of it?

Shalini Srinivasan has a an easy narrative style and the funny, brave and clever Vanamala is a narrator you immediately identify with. The book has some interesting design elements and the author’s decision to intersperse various legends about the origins of the cephalopod is intriguing. This is a fantastic debut novel.

Mostly Madly Mayil: Sowmya Rajendran and Niveditha Subramaniam
Mostly Madly Mayil picks up from where Sowmya Rajendran and Niveditha Subramaniam’s Mayil Will Not Be Quiet  left off. Outspoken, irrepressible Mayil is now a teenager and she has an opinion on everything.

The book doesn’t exactly have a plot ‒ it’s a diary-style novel that traverses an entire (eventful) year in young Mayil’s life. Like in any teenager’s world, there’s a lot of fun and messing about, and there is a lot of serious stuff as well. The diary is interspersed with illustrations, albeit they aren’t as entertaining as the previous book. It’s a fun read, though in parts feels much the same as the previous one. One hopes this series continues, but it definitely needs an injection of freshness.

Ela: Sampurna Chattarji
Seasoned writer and poet Sampurna Chattarji also scores with her debut young adult novel Ela. On her thirteenth birthday, Ela’s almost-perfect life falls apart when she finds out that she is adopted. As she spirals into a place deep and dark inside of herself, the monster bird that digs its talons into her shoulder suddenly seems very real. The story weaves back and forth from reality to a fantasy world as Ela attempts to find her way back. Though a tad wordy, Ela is an intriguing novel about self-discovery.

Payal Dhar is the author of Slightly Burnt. Her next book is Eat the Sky, Drink the Ocean, which she has co-edited with Australian writer Kirsty Murry and her former publisher Anita Roy.

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