June 8: Books I Loved that Made Me Want More Books Like Them (The wording is weird here, so if you have a better way to say this please let me know! What I’m thinking is… you read a book and immediately wanted more just like it, perhaps in the same genre, about the same topic or theme, by the same author, etc. For example, I once read a medical romance and then went to find more because it was so good. The same thing happened to me with pirate historical romances and romantic suspense.)
For this one, I decided to make things a bit interesting. If a book has TV/film adaptations it’s not allowed on this list, because it’s too popular (and popular books always have imitators!). So this is also turning into a bit of a list of books that I’m surprised don’t have adaptations! I’m also sharing some of the read alikes I’ve found for the books on this list.
3, The Eight by Katherine Neville– Actually someone in Hollywood really need to check out this list because I have wonderful source material for them! This book does have a sequel but I haven’t read it yet. I want to reread the first one before I read it. Actually some of the other books on this list, including The Gargoyle and The Shadow of the Wind make decent read alikes. Also, Amy Benson’s Plague Tales trilogy.
4. The Gargoyle by Andrew Davidson- The Eight (see above) is actually not a bad read alike for this one. Another one is The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova (which had the film rights sold in 2005 apparently but no word on whether it’s ever actually happening!). The similarities are more in terms of tone than plot.
June 1: Freebie (choose any past topic, or come up with you own)
Lately I’ve been really into what I’d call “dark academia” as a literary subgenre. I love academic settings. I love gloomy gothic trappings. I love weirdness. So it’s really no surprise that I’d love literary mashups of all of that!
1.The Secret History by Donna Tartt-This is sort of a definitive cornerstone of the genre. It follows Richard, a student at a New England college. He wants to study Greek, and Julian, the enigmatic professor eventually allows Richard into his selective tutorial of only six students. Richard is slowly drawn into the world of the other students. But it’s a world that goes beyond the boundaries of morality and even legality. As Richard finds himself privy to the group’s secrets, he also learns that some members of the group will stop at nothing, including murder. I read this in my senior year of high school, and it just so happened that we were reading Crime and Punishment at the same time in one of my classes. I’m glad that was the case, because I think that it allowed me to get more out of The Secret History, since Dostoyevsky’s work is clearly a strong influence. I’m actually sort of surprised that Hollywood hasn’t tackled this book yet. But I think it would be a hard book to translate to film in a way that worked.
2. Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro– This has all the elements of dark academic setting with a bit of a sci-fi twist. Kathy, Ruth and Tommy are all students at Hailsham, an isolated boarding school in the English countryside. The atmosphere of the school is very cliquey and the teachers always remind the students how “special” they are. Years later, with the knowledge and understanding of how and why they were “special,” Ruth reflects on her time and Hailsham, and the friendships she formed there. There’s a film version of the book, and while it’s a pretty good adaptation, it tells the viewer what makes the students at Haimsham special in the first ten minutes or so. In the book it’s sort of a gradual, growing realization for the reader. As I started to understand, I was sort of hoping I was wrong. I think that experience is a part of what makes this book special, and it’s definitely why I’d recommend reading the book before seeing the film.
3. The Lake of Dead Languages by Carol Goodman– Actually a lot of Goodman’s work, including the Fairwick trilogy (a romantic fantasy series that she initially wrote under the name “Juliet Black,”) and her YA fantasy Blythewood series, qualifies for this list. I chose this book to feature mostly because it doesn’t incorporate as many other genres. A week before her high school graduation, Jane Hudson fled the Heart Lake School For Girls after three of her classmates committed suicide. Jane was the only one who knew the truth about their fates, and she carried that knowledge with her for the next twenty years, When she returns to the school as a Latin teacher, troubled students once again begin to die, and the memories that Jane repressed for so long, begin to surface.
4. Villette by Charlotte Bronte– Jane Eyre comes to mind first of course, and there is a notably dark school setting early in that book, but the setting also changes very early in the book. This book, on the other hand, has all of the gothic-ness that we expect from Bronte, and it’s set almost entirely in a boarding school in Belgium. The heroine, Lucy Snow, travels there to teach after a family disaster, and becomes involved in romance, intrigue and adventure. I do think Jane Eyre is a “easier read,” and it also features a dark aesthetic with academic plot points, so I’d recommend readers unfamiliar with Bronte start there. But Villette is an enjoyable next step in the Bronte journey through dark academia.
5. The Broken Girls by Simone St. James– Idlewild Hall is a Vermont boarding school for girls that’s reputed to be haunted. In the 1950’s four students at the school became good friends, until one of them disappears. More than 60 years later, journalist, Fiona Sheridan’s sister’s body is found near the ruins of Idlewild Hall. Her boyfriend was convicted of the murder, but Fiona has her doubts. When she learns that the school is being restored by a mysterious benefactor, she decides to write a story about it. But what she learns involves a horrifying secret that connects her sisters murder to the disappearance so long ago.
6. A Great and Terrible Beauty by Libba Bray – The whole Gemma Doyle trilogy is a lovely mix of Victorian Gothic and fantasy with a boarding school setting. Gemma Doyle is sent from the life she knew in India, in 1895, to Spence, an English boarding school, following the death of her mother. Gemma is initially lonely. She’s haunted by her mother’s death and visions that have a tendency to come true. But things get really crazy when Gemma is drawn into a clique of girls who are dipping their toes into the world of spirits. What they learn will change them forever.
7. Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss– I was a bit iffy about whether to include this one, because it’s not set in a “traditional” academic setting. Silvie and her family live in modern England, but they live as if they’re ancient Britons, with the tools and knowledge of the Iron Age. One summer, Silvie’s father takes the family to join an anthropology course that is reenacting life in the Iron Age. But mixing with these students gives Sylvie a chance to see the prospect of a life away from her father’s obsession with the ancient Britons. As the group gets closer to the lifestyle of their subjects, things take a darker turn. The push and pull between the modern life that intrigues Sylvie, and the ancient life that obsesses her father, becomes a tug of war. Even though it’s not set in a school, the fact that it’s set amongst students in a practical exercise gives it that “academic” feeling.
8. Red Leaves by Paullina Simons– Kristina, Jim, Conni and Albert are all students at Dartmouth College. They have a close friendship, and one Thanksgiving weekend they all decide to stay on campus. When Kristina’s body is found in a snowbank shortly after, detective, Spencer O’Malley is on the case. As he learns about the groups dynamics, questions arise. Why did Kristina’s friends fail to report her missing? Their answers to his questions reveal a web of jealousy, secrets, deceptions, and possibly murder.
9. Down A Dark Hall by Lois Duncan- A ghost story set in a mysterious gothic boarding school. Pretty much made for this list! Actually Duncan’s Daughters of Eve also fits it pretty well, but I’ll go with this, since it’s the first one I thought of. Kit Gordy is sent to Blackwood Academy when her mother remarries. She’s not happy about it. She’s even more disturbed when she learns that she’s one of only four students accepted this term. When Blackwood’s students begin to show amazing talents in the arts and sciences, Kit can’t help but notice that it’s taking a toll on their health. She often wakes up with sore arms and fingers. The headmistress is quick to explain everything away, until Kit learns something that puts her and her classmates in terrible danger. I devoured this book when I was eleven or twelve. I don’t know how well it holds up, but I did recently see the film adaptation which wasn’t bad.
10. The Magus by John Fowles– Nicholas Urfe is a young Englishman who takes a teaching job on a remote Greek island. There he meets Conchis,the reclusive millionaire who owns the island. Conchis offers Nicholas what seems to be friendship. But he is drawn into a twisted game of betrayal, violence, and psychological traps. Soon Nicholas is unable to tell past from present and fantasy from reality. He finds himself fighting to maintain his sanity and stay alive. Even though this is set at a school on an island, most of the action takes place outside the school. But I’m counting this because I’d call the relationship that Conchis has with Nicolas to be very academic (at least to start off). There’s also a film adaptation, but I haven’t seen it yet.
September 15: Cover Freebie (choose your own topic, centered on book covers or cover art)
We all know we’re not supposed to judge them that way, but every once in a while you see a book cover that’s so pretty that it’s just love at first sight. Sometimes it’s not pretty but something about it grabs your attention and you need to know more. You know you need to read this book. So here are some book covers that put their books straight on my TBR. Some of the books lived up to the cover hype, some didn’t. But something about these covers drew me in.
Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss – This one has the advantage of looking like a wild celebration of nature, while at the same time looking like a skull. It’s beautiful and sinister at the same time. As it turns out, that serves the content of the book well.
2. Educated by Tara Westover– This is another book cover that’s sort of two things at once. First I saw a pencil, and I just thought it was a book about education, with a pencil on the cover. Kind of boring. But when I looked closer, I saw it was also a silhouette of a person against the backdrop of a mountain, and I became more intrigued. Is it a pencil or a mountain? And which is more of an important instrument in the author’s education? It’s up to the reader to decide. The fact that the ground (or paint on the pencil, depending how you see it) is also red. I think that you can read into that too. Red of course suggests blood. Which could mean family, or spilled blood. Again both might be appropriate.
3. Thorn Jack by Katherine Harbour- The current cover of this book looks a bit different, but I love the colors of this one. The green and black evoke the natural world at night and the gold lettering and edges suggest something artificial as well. The nettles look like they’re warning you off and yet the leaves feel like it’s drawing you in. And what about the girl? Is she sleeping? dead? comatose? I also like that the shape of this book is different from most (it’s a perfect square) which makes it stand out a bit.
4. Miss Peregrine’s Home For Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs– When I first saw this cover I couldn’t figure out why the little girl was so eerie. Was it because she was brighter than the black and white background? Then I realized that she was floating! But even that doesn’t really explain why I find this cover unsettling. But it did intrigue me!
5. A Great and Terrible Beauty by Libba Bray– I could see how someone might look at this book cover and think they were getting a bodice ripper. But for some reason that wasn’t what I thought of when I saw it. Instead I thought “that girl looks like she’s realizing her corset is too tight” which as it turns out, is a metaphor for a theme in the book. I wasn’t into reading fantasy when I read this book, so I’m glad they didn’t go that direction with the cover. It might have put me off, but this book pulled me back into the genre after some time away.
6. Flowers in the Attic by VC Andrews– The audiobook edition is the only one I could find that still has this cover. The current cover is a bit different. I think I was about 11 or 12 when I saw this cover, and knew that I had to read the book to find out who the girl was and why she was trapped in what looked like a dollhouse. To make matters even more intriguing, it was a peephole cover. When you opened it, you saw this image. So I had to read the book to find out what that was about! It probably wasn’t a remotely appropriate book for a kid that age, but the cover sure made it look intriguing!
7. Twilight by Stephanie Meyer- Whatever your opinion of sparkly vampires, I think credit goes to the designer who created a really alluring cover. The pale hands against the black background make a great contrast. The apple offered has suggestions of forbidden fruit and loss of innocence. The red against the white and the black also draws you in suggesting blood. It’s natural to see it and think “I want to know what that’s about!”
8. The Luxe series by Anna Godbersen– Sometimes I’m just a sucker for a pretty dress. This quartet features some very pretty dresses on the covers. Check them out (is it cheating to include all 4 in one space on my list?) Actually they’ve changed the covers since these came out, which is kind of a shame IMO. These books were total guilty pleasures, and the dresses on the covers sort of played into that. I’d like to think I’m above such shallow lures, but really, I’m not.
9. Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand by Helen Simonson– I love that this cover sort of fools you. You don’t quite trust your eyes. You think you’re seeing a man and a women locked in a passionate embrace. But then you realize that you’re seeing hats and coats on a coat rack! Oddly I didn’t find that disappointing though, I appreciated the trick. It showed a sort of humor on the designer’s part, and I wanted to see if that humor was continued through the book.
10. The Blue Rose by Kate Forsyth– This may be a cheat because I may have read the book even if it had a different cover, because I like the author. But this cover also really drew me in. I think one reason is that blue is my favorite color, and the cover has a lot of it! But also because blue roses are something you don’t see every day. The title refers to a Chinese fairy tale about a man searching for a blue rose for his beloved.
Honorable mention- Persephone Classics– Persephone Books is a London based bookshop and publisher that reprints neglected works by mid twentieth century writers (mostly female). Most of their books have a plain grey cover. However, they have reissued twelve best sellers with colorful art. The drawback to these is that they don’t have the full color end papers that other Persephone titles have, but the cover art is pretty enough to draw my in on it’s own!
August 18: Books that Should be Adapted into Netflix Shows/Movies (submitted by Nushu @ Not A Prima Donna Girl)
Just a note that I don’t limit this to Netflix. Anyone who wants can make these movies/shows.
The Secret History by Donna Tartt– I think that if it’s done right, a film adaptation of this novel would be an exercise in creating dramatic tension. The viewer would stay with the limited point of view of Richard, the protagonist, so that we can only know what he knows and see what we sees. It would be frustrating, yes, but deliciously so, just like in the book.
Villette by Charlotte Bronte– While I love Jane Eyre, it’s been adapted enough. Let’s give some of Charlotte Bronte’s other work a shot! This also has mystery and romance, and I think some of the Gothic/supernatural(?) scenes have the potential to look great on screen.
A Great and Terrible Beauty by Libba Bray– The Victorian Gothic setting combined with secret societies, magic, coming of age drama and romance makes me wonder why this hasn’t been adapted before! Ideally I think I’d want a series with one book per season.
The Luxe by Anna Godbersen– Set in New York City at the turn of the 20th century, this would look just lovely onscreen. The plot involves friendship, backstabbing, forbidden romance and betrayal. It would be a wonderful guilty pleasure to watch with a talented cast. Again I think this lends itself to series format with one book per season.
Night Film by Marisha Pessl– Yes, this would turn into a bit of challenge because elements in the book are ambiguous. Film is a more concrete medium and there would certainly be the temptation to give the viewer answers. But other films have handled ambiguity well, so it can be done. I also think the films within the book could be turned into some great films within a film. How a director chooses to interpret those (via casting, visuals, etc) could really say a lot about the events in the story.
The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon– I think setting (post war Spain) can lend itself to some great visuals. The plot, complete with mystery and forbidden love, would easily hold viewers attention. Other books in the Cemetery of the Forgotten series could be done as follow ups (I’m thinking 2-3 episodes per books, so the whole show could be 4 seasons of mini-series, if that makes sense)
The Gods of Gotham by Lyndsay Faye– I think that this would appeal the the same audiences that are fans of The Alienist and Gangs of New York. We get the corrupt, constantly changing melting pot of 19th century, a compelling hero in Timothy Wilde, and two sequels that serve to make later seasons on a TV series. Given the (rightful) scrutiny that many police forces are coming under, a look at the roots of the NYPD (good, bad and ugly) could be timely. The story deals with a murder mystery, social issues, family drama, and historical elements.
Kindred by Octavia Butler– This has a lot to recommend it. It’s an exciting time travel story about a woman trying to ensure that her family is able to exist. That time travel story brings her (and her white husband) to a southern plantation, where they must pretend to be a master and his slave in order to survive. There are a lot of moral dilemmas here too, that can provoke thought and conversation in audiences.
Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee– This is probably going to be an unpopular opinion but I think that this could be a great and perhaps necessary look at how racism shows up in people who we don’t usually think of as “racist.” To most people (including his daughter) Atticus Fitch is the epitome of a good man. So when she finds out about her father’s racist sympathies Scout is crushed, and tries to reconcile this knowledge with the man she loves. She also looks at her own behavior and the assumptions that she’s always made. I think a lot of people are starting to realize how deeply entrenched racism is in society. This book looks at how it hides even in “good” people, and what happens when heroes are toppled. That’s something that people need to see, even if, (especially if) it’s uncomfortable.
October 24: Top Ten Unique Book Titles: For this one I decided to go with titles that stood out and were very appropriate for the story they told. Oh, and actually there are only 9 this time!
1. We Need to Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver– I liked that this almost seemed like a phone message or a note. It’s a conversation that happens many times in the book. But it’s not enough, and it’s not the conversation that needs to happen. We’re ultimately left wondering if things would have been different if that needed conversation had happened.
2. And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie– The title here comes from a framed nursery rhyme in the bedrooms of the eight guests of Mr. Owen, on a remote island off the coast of England. As the guests start to die off, we’re left wondering whodunit, and making guesses by process of elimination. It’s only when there are no suspects left that the true killer is revealed.
3. Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie– This book about the experience of Ifemelu, a Nigerian, who moves to the US to study. The title refers to a word that is used in Nigeria, meaning someone who pretends to have been Americanized or has been Americanized. It’s a word that deals with American identity from the outside; what a foreign culture perceives “Americanization” to be. And the novel itself deals with Ifemelu’s discovery of what it means to be a person of color in the United States, and how race goes from something that wasn’t on her radar in Nigeria, to being a construct that she has to navigate on a constant basis.
4. A Visit From the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan– Goon squads were originally groups of thugs would beat up workers who tried to unionize. Later the word “goon” came to refer to any violent thug. This novel is really interconnected short stories that shift back and forth in time from the 1960s to the near future, as the characters are sent in different directions by life. So what is the “goon” here? Time? Life? Yes, to both I think. The characters in the book that find happiness, do so in ways that were unintended, and the happiness is usually limited; an illustration of the goonish nature of things.
5. We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson– Merricat Blackwood and her sister Constance live in their family’s house with their uncle Julian, following the murder of their entire family, for which Constance was acquitted six years earlier. They’re the beginning of a local legend; the mysterious, slightly witchy sisters living forever in their “castle”. The secret they keep is about the true nature of the Blackwood family’s murder.
6. Saving Fish from Drowning by Amy Tan– This book deals with a group of American tourists travelling from China to Myanmar. The story is told by the tour guide, Bibi Chen, who dies before the trip takes place and watches over the group as they travel. They’re kidnapped by the Karen people who believe that a teenage member of the tour group is their savior. The book is as absurd as the actions of the title suggests. It deals with the notion that well intentioned deeds can be so misguided that they might cause harm and vice versa.
7. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey– This title also comes from a nursery rhyme. We’re told that the narrator’s grandmother recited it to him. “One flew East, One flew West, One flew over the cuckoo’s nest.” The novel is set in a mental hospital in the early 1960’s; a time when the Civil Rights movement was gaining traction, and changes were being made to the practice of psychiatry and psychology. There was a movement toward less institutional facilities, but the characters in the book are in a very traditional hospital. The “one” in the title who “flew over the cuckoo’s nest” is the one that doesn’t do pick a clear direction like the other two. The suggestion that the patients at the hospital are those who flew over the cuckoo’s nest, and were called crazy for not conforming.
8. Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer- This published in 2005. In some ways the US was still recovering from the horrors of 9/11. The nine year old protagonist, who lost his father in the World Trade Center, uses the words “extremely” and “incredibly” quite a bit in his narration. The words can certainly be seen as a witness’ description of the attacks, but the absence of a loved one to whom you felt close is also “loud”.
9. A Great and Terrible Beauty by Libba Bray– This title references a line in the book, but as a phrases it pretty much sums up the themes of the the book (which begins a trilogy). The main character, Gemma Doyle is a Victorian girl sent to boarding school, where she happens upon a secret society. Her daily life is structured and dictated but the secret society offers her power that Victorian England doesn’t. That power has the potential to be both great and terrible depending on who is using it and for what purpose.