April 13: Book Titles That Sound Like They Could Be Crayola Crayon Colors (Take a moment and Google some of the crazy Crayola crayon colors that exist. Can you think of any book titles that sound like they could also be a crayon color? It might be fun to include a description of the kind of color you’re picturing.)
OK, so follow my logic on this one! I didn’t want to do the topic for this week, so I chose to do settings that I consider “colorful” (yes it’s a bit of a leap, but who cares?) For some reason some settings just resonate with you as a reader. If a book is set in a carnival, circus or amusement park it automatically gets my attention. They have a bright, technicolor surface, but that can hide darkness underneath. From the death defying acrobats to the wild animals to the games of chance, it seems like circuses, carnivals, amusement parks, side shows and fairs have hundreds of stories beneath the tent. Here are some:
The Night Circus by Erin Morganstern– At Le Cirque des Rêves, a competition is underway between two magicians. Celia and Marco have both trained since childhood for this purpose, though they don’t know it. So when they fall in love, it doesn’t bode well that only one can be left alive at the end of this competition.
2. The Circus of the Earth and the Air by Brooke Stevens– At the circus, Iris, a volunteer from the audience is steps into a magician’s box, and the box is set on fire. After the show her husband, Alex, goes backstage to find her (assuming it was a stunt!) But she never reappears. The circus itself vanishes overnight. Alex sets out to find out the truth about what happened to his wife.
3. The Book of Speculation by Erica Swyler– Simon is a librarian, living alone in his family home on Long Island. When a book dealer sends him a mysterious volume that may have some connection to his family, Simon gets caught up in the tale it tells, of a misfit living and working with a traveling circus. But he soon comes to realize that the book may reveal a curse on his family. If Simon is right, it may be the only thing that can save his sister.
4. Joyland by Stephen King– This book is more in the crime genre (with some supernatural crossover) than the horror with which King is usually associated. Devon Jones starts working at an amusement park in a small town in North Carolina in the summer of 1973. The first half of the book has a nostalgic feel as Devon comes to know the workers at the park. He befriends a dying boy (who has a secret), and falls for the boy’s beautiful mother. The second half gets more into a murder mystery.
5. The Museum of Extraordinary Things by Alice Hoffman- The Museum of Extraordinary Things is not a museum at all. It’s a Coney Island freak show in 1911. Coralie Sardie is the owner’s daughter. She’s an excellent swimmer who appears as a mermaid in the show. When she encounters photographer Eddie Cohen, a runaway from his community and his job, they fall in love. But when Eddie photographs the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, he gets pulled into the mystery behind a girl’s disappearance.
6. Twilight Eyes by Dean Koontz– Slim McKenzie has premonitions. He can also see what he calls “goblins” who hate and inflict suffering on humanity. When he kills one of these goblins, he runs away to join a travelling carnival. Where he discovers that goblins abound. Initially, I thought that the “goblins” were a metaphor for bad people. I thought Slim’s ability to see them was an ability to see through the civil façade that these people present. Then I realized they were actually demonic creatures, but then the explanation of their existence veers more into realm of sci-fi.
7. Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen– Jacob is a veterinary student who is orphaned and penniless. When he crosses paths with the Benzini Brothers Most Spectacular Show on Earth, he is hired care for the animals. He meets the beautiful Mariana, a beautiful horseback rider married to August, an abusive animal trainer. He also meets Rosie, the “untrainable” elephant. I had my issues with this book, but the circus setting and lure is the best part.
8. Nights at the Circus by Angela Carter– Sophie Fevvers is an aerialist, and the start of Colonel Kearney’s circus. She also claims to be part swan. Journalist Jack Walser is intrigued by her story and joins the circus on its European tour to find out the truth about her, And he falls in love with Sophie (of course!)
9. Something Wicked This Way Comes by Ray Bradbury- I think of this as coming of age meets horror/dark fantasy. When Cooger & Dark’s Pandemonium Shadow Show comes to Greentown, Illinois in time for Halloween, and Jim Nightshade and Will Halloway are a bit enthralled by the mirror maze and carousel that can make someone grow older or younger depending on if they ride it forwards or backwards. But an something sinister and evil is using the carnival as a way to harvest souls. Jim and Will, along with Will’s father, Charles, have to learn some important lessons to fight the evil force which has invaded their home.
10. Jurassic Park by Michael Crichton– When you think about it, Jurassic Park is really an amusement park gone horribly wrong. Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the past 30 years or so, you’re probably at least semi-aware that it’s about a rich man who harnesses technology for recovering and cloning dinosaur DNA. He sets up a theme park where people can see the dinosaurs up close. But after a series of incidents prior to the opening, a team of experts come to evaluate the safety of the park. But it soon becomes clear that the people who made the park overestimated their control over mother nature.
What is your fantasy origin story? (The first fantasy you read)
I honesty don’t know which one I first read. I read fairy tales obsessively as a child. When I loved a story I’d seek out as many versions of it as I could find, and compare and contrast them. (Yes, I was like 5 at the time!)
If you could be the hero/heroine in a fantasy novel, who would be the author and what’s one trope you’d insist be in the story?
Hmm… That’s an interesting question. I’d want it to be someone who wouldn’t do anything too terrible to a hero or heroine, so that leaves out a lot of authors! Maybe I’d go with Eva Ibbotson. Her fantasy books are intended mostly for younger readers, and while enough happens to make them interesting to an older audience, it’s usually nothing terrible to characters we like! As for tropes, I’d like to be the “Lucky Novice” whose never done something before, or done something with minimal training, and can do it really well. I usually have to practice a lot to be even halfway decent at something!
What is a fantasy series you’ve read this year, that you want more people to read?
This year is still fairly young and I haven’t read that many fantasy series yet. I suppose I’ll highlight Fairy Godmothers Inc., which is the first in the Fairy Godmothers, Inc. series. But it’s got a major caveat: while I think the series has potential I didn’t like the first book. I found the two main characters to be awful, separately and together. I say the series has potential though because it seems like the kind of thing that follows different characters in each book. It’s about three fairy godmothers living in the magical town of Ever After, Missouri. Love is the source of the magic in their world, but it’s running low. They decided to help attract more love to the town of Ever After by making it a popular wedding destination. But they need some help promoting it. They ask their goddaughter Lucky (who tends to have terrible luck!) a popular artist, to fake-marry their godson (and her ex) Ransom Payne (a billionaire who runs a chocolate company) in a high profile ceremony. Lucky and Ransom both agree because they want to help their beloved godmothers, but they are both the most annoying characters I’ve read in a long time. But the book is clearly setting up for a series set in Ever After, revolving around Fairy Godmothers, Inc. The residents of Ever After include Red and her werewolf Grammy, a frog prince named “Charming”, a reformed evil queen, and more. I don’t recommend it yet, because as I said I didn’t like the first book. But I think it has the potential to be a feel good, fun series, so I’ll give it another chance.
What is your favourite fantasy subgenre?
Ummm, I can’t choose! I’ll say that fantasy inspired by fairy tales; even though that can fall into several different subgenres. After all, Marissa Meyer’s Lunar Chronicles series which is sci-fi oriented, but is fairy tale inspired. Meanwhile Juliet Marillier’s work is also fairy tale/legend inspired but it tends have a strong historical setting. The Fairy Godmothers, Inc series I mention above seems like it also draws heavily from fairy tales, but it has a light, magical realist tone. So I guess “fairy tale inspired fantasy” allows me to cheat and pick lots of different subgenres!
What subgenre have you not read much from?
I don’t read much in the way of Sword and Sorcery. I’m not really into reading about straight out battles and violent conflicts most of the time. I prefer more subtle rivalries. But there are exceptions to every rule.
Who is one of your auto-buy fantasy authors?
Just one?! I’ll say Juliet Marillier. I’ve read some books of hers that I’ve liked more than others, but I don’t think I’ve ever read one that I disliked.
How do you typically find fantasy recommendations? (Goodreads, Youtube, Podcasts, Instagram..)
All of the above. There are some bloggers whose opinions I trust, and I look at what my friends are reading on Goodreads mostly though.
What is an upcoming fantasy release you’re excited for?
Skyward Inn by Aliya Whiteley is described as “Jamaica Inn by way of Jeff Vandermeer, Ursula Le Guin, Angela Carter and Michel Faber” so that’s a big “yes, please!” from me.
What is one misconception about fantasy you would like to lay to rest?
I suppose I’d have to differentiate between reading fantasy and writing fantasy for this one. For reading, I’d say the notion that it’s only for kids has to go. Yes, you can absolutely have fantasy intended for children. But the genre can often get dark, violent, subversive, and disturbing. In other words, not for children at all! In terms of writing, I’ll say that the idea that fantasy writing requires no research needs to die. There’s a lot of research involved. I rant about it a bit in this post.
If someone had never read a fantasy before and asked you to recommend the first 3 books that come to mind as places to start, what would those recommendations be?
This is a tough one!
I wouldn’t do series because that’s a commitment and some don’t get really good until quite a ways in. I also think some classics of the genre tend to be too dense for beginners. Plus those always come with high expectations. So I’ll go with
–The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern– I recommend this one because it’s a stand alone of reasonable length that introduces readers to a more magic realist variation on fantasy. Plus I think Morgenstern beautifully engages the reader’s senses.
-The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker- This gets into the mythical creates of two different traditions and draws them together in a historical setting. It’s a great example of how fantasy can draw on different sources, and set itself in the “real” world. I actually see now that there’s a sequel that’s coming out in June, but I think it works as a stand alone, if someone chooses to read it that way.
The one that jumps to my mind is War and Peace. I read it in college in a freshman seminar that explored the themes of war and peace in general. It wasn’t the worst book I read in that class (Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War, I’m looking at you!) but after some really dense stuff, I was sort of looking forward to getting into a novel. Besides which, I actually enjoy big, sweeping, epic stories,. But nothing about the narrative or the characters grabbed me. My professor said that Tolstoy was “a great writer, who needed a great editor.” While I think that’s true, I think some of his writing is more compelling in other work. Here he gets to bogged down in extraneous stuff.
Favorite time period to read about
I’m a fan of the Victorian era, which is a pretty long era, spanning Queen Victoria’s reign from 1837-1901. A lot of my favorite writers of days past (the Bronte sisters, Elizabeth Gaskell, George Elliot, Charles Dickens, Wilkie Collins) were of this time period.
To be honest I think Beauty and the Beast has always been a favorite. I love almost every version I’ve read/seen (yes, including Disney!) It’s strange that one of the elements that always appealed to me was the forgotten, enchanted, castle where the Beast lives, but that’s an element that I didn’t include in my retelling at all!
I go on to talk about some pitfalls I wanted to avoid in my own work, so read the interview if that interests you. But I do think that the “gothicness” of the story always appealed to me. The brooding hero, who seems like a villain at first, the abandoned, enchanted castle…
What is the classic you are most embarrassed you haven’t read yet
I try not to be too embarrassed about not having read certain books yet. I mean, having new books to read (even when they’re not technically “new”) is one of life’s great joys, isn’t it? I consider myself pretty well read, but I’ve only been on earth so long, and there are other things I’ve had to do!
There are a few books I feel like I should have gotten to by now though. One of them is Jude the Obscure by Thomas Hardy. I think what’s stopped me so far from reading it, is the fact that it’s considered depressing, even by Hardy’s standards! I think he’s a beautiful writer, but he can be kind of a downer, and lately I haven’t felt up to tackling anything like that.
I was in a recent book club discussion where someone mentioned Moby Dick and I realized I’ve never read that before either. I’m not sure if I want to. Part of me wants to read it, if only to say I did, but another part figures “why bother? There so much out there I actually want to read!” Any advice from anyone who’s read it?
Top 5 classics you would like to read soon
Well there are many, many classics that I’d like to reread. But in addition to those I’d like to get to these for the first time:
Picnic At Hanging Rock by Joan Lindsay- I really like the film adaptation and I’ve always found the story to be very intriguing.
The Lark by E. Nesbit- I’ve enjoyed E. Nesbit’s books for children and I’d like to read some of her work for adults as well.
Armadale by Wilkie Collins- I’ve really enjoyed Wilkie Collins’ other work that I’ve read. The is the only one of his “major” novels that I haven’t read yet.
Maggie-Now by Betty Smith- Again this is a case of me having liked the author’s other work, and wanting to read more of it.
The Common Reader by Virginia Woolf- I’ve always liked Virginia Woolf best as an essayist so I definitely want to get to this at some point.
Favorite modern book/series based on a classic
So many wonderful choices… Can’t decide on just one…
I’ll go with two books by one author: Circe and Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller. It’s strange that I loved these books even though I’m not a big fan of the Greek classics on which they were based! I discuss them in this post for anyone interested.
Favorite movie version/tv-series based on a classic
Again, I feel almost like my head is about to explode from so many choices! I’m going to cheat and pick one movie and one tv series.
For film, I’m going with an adaptation of Little Women. I know the Greta Gerwig adaptation was really popular recently, but I actually prefer the 1994 adaptation. Not only is it a beautifully made film with an excellent cast, but it focuses on the story and characters, and not some of the more pedantic aspects that Louisa May Alcott got bogged down with at times. It emphasizes some of the politics and philosophy in which Louisa May Alcott (and her father, Amos Bronson Alcott) strongly believed, but it never espouses these ideas at the expense of the narrative. Rather, it highlights the moments that the narrative espouses these ideas.
For a TV series, I’m going to go with the 2005 BBC adaptation of Charles Dickens’ Bleak House. It’s an eight episode miniseries, that manages to convey the epic scope of the novel, without getting bogged down in the minutia. Some of Dickens’ work easily lends itself to adaptation. This book isn’t one of them. I’m very fond of it. In fact, I might call it a favorite, but the plot, surrounding a chancery court case doesn’t lend itself to big, dramatic scenes or spectacle. Some of the twists and turns may even seem contrived to 21st century readers/viewers. However this series manages to make it compelling drama with a strong cast. It also manages to recreate the dark, well, bleak, atmosphere of Dickens’ novel in a way that works cinematically.
Worst classic to movie adaptation
The one that comes to mind first is the 1995 adaptation of The Scarlet Letter. The book was about the cruelty of public shaming and punishment, guilt, and pain. The movie features a Hollywoodized romance that changes the ending and in the process ends up contradicting the message of the book. It also features a very miscast (IMO) Demi Moore.
Favorite edition(s) you’d like to collect more classics from
I think that Virago Modern Classics are very pretty, and they include a lot of lesser known, underrated classic works. Ditto for Persephone Books. I don’t want to replace all my classics with fancy elaborate editions tough. I like the mishmash of classics that line my walls, with my notes in them, and places I’ve dog-eared still creased a bit. It always annoys me a bit when people have classic editions that look like they haven’t been opened!
An under-hyped classic you would recommend to someone
I’m going to push for The Tenant of Wildfell Hall and Agnes Grey by Anne Bronte. She’s often overlooked in favor of her sisters (which is easy to happen when your sisters are Emily and Charlotte Bronte!) and even Lucasta Miller’s book, The Bronte Myth, dismissed her in a few sentences. But her work was just as strong in it’s own way, as that of either of her sisters. I love how angry she looks in the family portrait that’s on the book cover next to this text. I always imagine her saying “How dare you overlook me! I’m brilliant!”
December 15: Books On My Winter 2020-2021 TBR (or summer if you live in the southern hemisphere)
But I thought that since I’ve done so many TBRs, I’d go through them and comment on what I’ve actually read.
Kushiel’s Dart by Jacqueline Carey– This is one I readalong and I’m glad I did read it that way, because I don’t know if I’d have made it through if I didn’t have that holding me accountable! I was very unsure of how to rate this (I eventually gave it 3/5 stars on goodreads) because, while I can see what others enjoy it and it had qualities I enjoyed, I don’t think it’s for me. (Mentioned in: TBR Procrastination)
August 25: Questions I Would Ask My Favorite Authors (Living or dead. You can post 10 questions for one author, one question each for 10 different authors, or anything else!)
I honestly had trouble thinking of ten (interesting/intelligent) questions that I would ask out authors, so I decided to make up my own topic this week.
1. Matilda by Roald Dahl– For me, Matilda is sort of the OG fictional bookworm. I loved her as a child and I love her now.
2. The Bookish Life of Nina Hill by Abbi Waxman- In a lot of ways I’m very different from Nina, but we have one thing in common: we love reading so much that it threatens to eclipse reality at times. We have to be careful to remember that there are other things worth doing too!
3. The Starless Sea by Erin Morganstern- I feel like this book is a love letter to bookworms everywhere. We meet many bookworms in this book; bookworms that burrow into a world far below the surface of their earth, filled with books. But perhaps we identify the most with Zachary, a grad student who comes across a book in the university library and finds a series of clues that leave him to a secret, ancient library.
4. The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon– Set in the aftermath of the Spanish Civil War, Daniel finds a book in the “Cemetery of Forgotten Books” (I love the idea!) but when he tried to find other works by the author, he discovers that they’re being destroyed for reasons he can’t understand. He begins a race against time to rescue them.
5. The Book Thief by Markus Zusak– Nazi Germany is a bad place to be for a book lover like Liesel, who has to steal her beloved books to save them from being burned.
6. The Book of Speculation by Erika Swyler– This book is about a librarian in Long Island who is sent an antique volume, that may have some connection to his family. As he reads the tale of circus and carnival performers, he comes to believe that the book might be the key to saving his sister’s life.
7. Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell– This is a book about a girl who loves books so much that they inspire her own creativity. Cathy is a fan fiction writer who loves life on the page, whether it’s one she wrote or someone else did. But she has some difficulty figuring out life in the real world.
8. The Uncommon Reader by Alan Bennett– In this novella, Bennett imagines what might happen if the Queen of England discovered a love of literature late in life. Would she neglect her royal duties in order to pursue her new passion? And how might the people in her life react?
9. 84 Charring Cross Road by Helen Hanff- This book is a collection of letters between Helen Hanff, a New York writer, and a Frank Doel, an London bookseller. Over the course of 20 years they carry on a correspondence, and a friendship, centered on their shared love of books. It’s a beautiful example of how literature can unite different people across oceans and cultural divides.
10. Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi– This memoir in books is about how the author, once a professor, gathered seven of her most committed female students in her Tehran apartment to read and discuss forbidden Western literature. As forces in the outside world seized hold of universities and censored artistic expression, these women read and discussed freely. Reading this book about book lovers committed to reading and discussing novels, made me realize just how subversive the act of reading a novel can actually be.
July 21: Book Events/Festivals I’d Love to Go to Someday (Real or Fictional.Submitted by Nandini @ Unputdownable Books)
I decided to do fictional festivals/events for this one. I’m not much of a party girl to be honest, but some there are some literary soirees I might be tempted to attend. I decided that nothing thrown by Jay Gatsby was allowed on this list. Big parties really aren’t my scene.
“He sits at the bar, feeling like a failure and yet overwhelmed by all that has happened as he attempts to catalog the entire evening. Drank rosemary for remembrance. Looked for a cat. Danced with the king of the wild things. Excellent-smelling man told me a story in the dark. Cat found me.”
2. The Fellowship of the Ring by JRR Tolkien– I might be persuaded to attend Bilbo Baggin’s eleventy first birthday party. If nothing else, I doubt I’ll have the opportunity to attend many eleventy first birthdays in my lifetime.
“I hope you are all enjoying yourselves as much as I am.” Deafening cheers…. Cries of “Yes” (and “No”). Noises of trumpets and horns…. Indeed, in one corner some of the young Tooks and Brandybucks, supposing Uncle Bilbo to have finished (since he had plainly said all that was necessary), now… began a merry dance-tune. Master Everard Took and Miss Melilot Brandybuck got on a table and with bells in their hands began to dance the Springle-ring: a pretty dance, but rather vigorous.
But Bilbo had not finished. Seizing a horn from a youngster near by, he blew three loud hoots…. “I shall not keep you long,” he cried. Cheers from all the assembly. “I have called you all together for a Purpose…..” There was almost silence….
3. Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf – Mrs. Dalloway’s party. This one has a lot of build up and a gentle success marred only by news of a suicide. Because no party is perfect. But in this case, bad news might make the fun even sweeter.
She felt somehow very like him—the young man who had killed himself. She felt glad that he had done it; thrown it away. The clock was striking. The leaden circles dissolved in the air. He made her feel the beauty; made her feel the fun. But she must go back. She must assemble.
The noble buoyancy of her attitude, its suggestion of soaring grace, revealed the touch of poetry in her beauty that Selden always felt in her presence, yet lost the sense of when he was not with her. Its expression was now so vivid that for the first time he seemed to see before him the real Lily Bart, divested of all the trivialities of her little world, and catching for a moment a note of that eternal harmony of which her beauty was a part.
5. Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen- This book (and Austen in general) has a few good parties; but I went with the one where Jane and Mr. Binghly fall in love and Mr. Darcy declares that Lizzie is ” tolerable.”
When the dancing recommenced, however, and Darcy approached to claim her hand, Charlotte could not help cautioning her, in a whisper, not to be a simpleton, and allow her fancy for Wickham to make her appear unpleasant in the eyes of a man of ten times his consequence. Elizabeth made no answer, and took her place in the set, amazed at the dignity to which she was arrived in being allowed to stand opposite to Mr. Darcy, and reading in her neighbours’ looks their equal amazement in beholding it. They stood for some time without speaking a word; and she began to imagine that their silence was to last through the two dances, and at first was resolved not to break it; till suddenly fancying that it would be the greater punishment to her partner to oblige him to talk, she made some slight observation on the dance. He replied, and was again silent. After a pause of some minutes, she addressed him a second time with:
“It is your turn to say something now, Mr. Darcy. — I talked about the dance, and you ought to make some kind of remark on the size of the room, or the number of couples.”
He smiled, and assured her that whatever she wished him to say should be said.
6.Rebecca by Daphne DuMaurier– Note to self: if you ever marry a widower do not attend a costume party dressed as his late wife, however unintentional it may be. And don’t listen to your evil maid’s costume suggestions either. Yes, it’s an awkward party, but it wouldn’t be a boring one.
That was why I had come down last night in my blue dress and had not stayed hidden in my room. There was nothing brave or fine about it, it was a wretched tribute to convention. I had not come down for Maxim’s sake, or Beatrice’s, for the sake of Manderley. I had come down because I did not want the people at the ball to think I had quarreled with Maxim. I didn’t want them to go home and say, “Of course you know they don’t get on. I hear he’s not at all happy.” I had come for my own sake, my own poor personal pride.
7.Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte– I might go to Mr. Rochester’s house party. If nothing else, the host disguising himself as a fortune teller would be fun!
When I heard this I was beginning to feel a strange chill and failing at the heart. I was actually permitting myself to experience a sickening sense of disappointment; but rallying my wits, and recollecting my principles, I at once called my sensations to order; and it was wonderful how I got over the temporary blunder—how I cleared up the mistake of supposing Mr. Rochester’s movements a matter in which I had any cause to take a vital interest.
“Take some more tea,” the March Hare said to Alice, very earnestly. “I’ve had nothing yet,” Alice replied in an offended tone: “so I ca’n’t take more.” “You mean you ca’n’t take less,” said the Hatter: “It’s very easy to take more than nothing.”
9.Invitation to Waltz by Rosamund Lehmann- Like Mrs. Dalloway’s soiree, Olivia Curtis’ first ball has a whole novel dedicated to it. While her more socially adept sister threatens to overshadow her, this party is both more and less than Oliva expects.
“And they waltzed together to the music made for joy. She danced with him in love and sorrow. He held her close to him, and he was far away from her, far from the music, buried and indifferent. She danced with his youth and his death.”
10. Bridget Jones’ Diary by Helen Fielding– I’m not much of a drinker, so unlike Bridget, I wouldn’t be hungover at Geoffrey and Una’s New Year’s turkey curry buffet. I would also (always!) be able to tell Mark Darcy a few titles when he asks what I’ve read lately.
“It struck me as pretty ridiculous to be called Mr. Darcy and to stand on your own looking snooty at a party. It’s like being called Heathcliff and insisting on spending the entire evening in the garden, shouting “Cathy” and banging your head against a tree.”
5. The Night Circus by Erin Morganstern- “The circus arrives without warning. No announcements precede it, no paper notices on downtown posts and billboards, no mentions or advertisements in local newspapers. It is simply there, when yesterday it was not.”
8. Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones– “In the land of Ingary where such things as seven-league boots and cloaks of invisibility really exist, it is quite a misfortune to be born the eldest of the three. Everyone knows you are the one who will fail first, and worst, if the three of you set out to seek your fortunes.”
1.The Starless Sea by Erin Morganstern– About eight years ago I read Erin Morgenstern’s debut novel The Night Circus, and loved it. It was one of those rare books that you can get lost in as you read. Since then I’ve had my eye out for her follow up and it was finally released. The Starless Sea isn’t an easy read, but its one to savor . Once again Morgenstern has created a novel that lets the reader live in it. Yes there is a (confusing at times) plot and characters, but much likeThe Night Circus, it’s the setting that will stand out in my memory. This book is a vivid, dreamlike, haunting experience. I reviewed it a little in this post.
2. Educated by Tara Westover– Tara Westover was 17 the first time she sat in a classroom. Raised by fundamentalist parents on a mountain in Idaho, Westover was taught to distrust established schools, hospitals and government. She was ostensibly homeschooled, but in reality that stopped once she’d learned to read, write, and do basic math. She was encouraged to try to educate herself enough to get into college by her older brother, and brave enough to take the leap when another older brother became abusive enough to be a serious threat to her safety. But Bringham Young University, and later Harvard and Cambridge, were a world away from the life she’d lived under the thumb of a mentally ill father. Trying to adjust to the change, finding a way to relate to her family, and construct her reality as an adult was where Westover’s education was truly tested. This book is shocking, haunting and thought provoking.
3. Circe and The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller– I discussed my response to these books a bit in this post. I’m not usually a fan of Greek mythology and Classics, but Madeline Miller’s writing is vivid and compelling, and the the characters are so human (even when technically they aren’t!) that its hard not to become invested. I loved both of these books and couldn’t decide which to put on my “best” list.
4. The Death of Mrs. Westaway by Ruth Ware– Harriet ‘Hal’ Westaway has been living hand to mouth since her mother’s death three years ago. She’s barely getting by when she gets a letter from a lawyer saying that her grandmother has recently died and left her money. Hal knows it’s a mistake: her grandmother died years ago. But she’s also desperate. She heads to Mrs. Westway’s Cornwall mansion to try to claim the inheritance. But when she arrives she discovers a family that may be more closely connected to her than she realizes. The estate comes with a lot of secrets, that might give Hal the family she’s always wanted, or might get her killed. This books was reminiscent of Agatha Christie and Daphne DuMaurier. It’s perfect for a cold winter night.
5. The Mermaid and Mrs. Hancock by Imogen Hermes Gowar– This book is historical fiction with fantasy gorgeously brushing the edges. When shipping merchant, Jonah Hancock learns that one of his ship’s was sold in exchange for a mermaid, he finds himself thrust into a new life. He travels from London’s seedy underbelly to the finest drawing rooms of high society. His new life brings him to Angelica Neal, a courtesan, who finds that her destiny is entwined with Jonah’s and his mermaid.
6. The Library Book by Susan Orlean– In the book, Orlean explores a 1986 fire that almost destroyed the Los Angeles Public Library, and may have been the result of arson. In the process, she also explores the city’s history, the library’s history and the importance of libraries in general. Reading this book gives an appreciation for libraries as community centers, educational institutions and one of the most uniquely democratic endeavors in the world. People often wonder if libraries still serve a purpose, or if they will one day be obsolete. Orlean’s book makes the case that they serve a vital and irreplaceable function every day.
7.Once Upon A River by Diane Setterfield- About ten years ago I read Diane Setterfield’s debut The Thirteenth Taleand was entranced. Once Upon A Riveris just as compelling but in it’s own way. Set in a pub by the Thames in the late 19th century, this book opens on a winter’s night when a badly injured, soaking wet man staggers into the pub, holding a little girl who appears to be dead. A local nurse saves his life and quickly realizes that the little girl is not dead (anymore?) but the girl is silent and the man can’t remember how they came to be in this situation and has no idea who the girl is. One local family thinks that she’s the daughter who was kidnapped years earlier. Another thinks she’s the long lost daughter of their prodigal son. A middle aged woman is inexplicably convinced that the 4 year old child is her sister… .
9.I Am, I Am, I Am by Maggie O’ Farrell– In seventeen essays O’Farrell recounts her life via near death experiences. These experiences range from the dramatic (a plane that almost crashed) to the more mundane (a stressful medical test) but each one prompted O’Farrell to reflect and evaluate her life. Naturally an eight year old O’Farrell in the hospital with Encephalitis perceives things very differently from a thirty-something O’Farrell experiencing a risky childbirth. While the subject matter is rather heavy, this book never feels it. O’Farrell’s writing is occasionally witty, often perceptive, and always beautiful.
10. Purple Hibiscus by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie– Set in Nigeria, this book tells the story of 15 year old Kambili and her older brother Jaja. Kambili and Jaja are wealthy and privileged. Their father is an important person in their local community, known for his generosity. But with his family, he is a religious fanatic and a tyrant. As the country begins to fall apart under a military coup, Kambili and Jaja are sent outside the city to stay with their aunt. Aunty Ifeoma is a progressive university professor whose home is a relaxed place of laughter and lightness. In her home, Kambili and Jaja experience life without their father’s oppressive presence for the first time. When they return to his house nothing can be the same again.
I’ve been seeing a lot of “best of the decade” lists lately, so I figured that this week I’d share my top books of the last ten years.
Room by Emma Donoghue (2010) I think that the first thing that really struck me about this book was the perspective: five year old Jack, a boy who has never left the small room where he and his mother are held captive, makes a unique voice. He doesn’t know anything different so he doesn’t fully understand how messed up his reality is. His mother keeps it that way for his own protection: why tell him about a world he may never see? But when he and his mother escape, his perspective changes. Donoghue’s mastery of Jack’s voice comes across as we begin to understand how Jack’s minuscule reality and limited experience has shaped the way he thinks, and how that grows as Jack’s world expands.
Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozie Adichie (2013) In some ways it feels like this book, about being an African immigrant in America was written 100 years ago. It feels like racial tensions in America in the past decade have erupted in a way that make the Obama era seem like a distant dream. But that’s how it feels to me, as a while, native born citizen. In other words, I’m in a very privileged position in my country in many ways, and therefore I don’t experience it in the same way that someone who has a different position experiences it. I think that this book made me aware of some of the ways that make privilege impacts my perception of events that might answer the “how did we get here?” question.
All The Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr (2014) This novel set during WWII features two endearing protagonists; a blind French girl who must flee Nazi occupied Paris and a German boy who uses his skills building and fixing radios to help the Nazis find the Resistance. Even though these characters are from different countries and on different sides of the war, their stories are intrinsically interwoven. When their paths cross it feels almost inevitable.
A Little Life by Hanya Yanaghiara (2015)- This is a story of friendship over many years and the families that we create. It’s also a story of trauma and whether recovery is possible. When we meet Jude, he his is a young college grad with several close friends, a good job, and a traumatic past. As we come to know him and his friends, we see him grow into a successful attorney who maintains his friendships and develops new relationships. But he’s still haunted by his past. His struggle to overcome it, and doubts about whether that’s possible, are the bulk of this novel. It’s a struggle that isn’t always pretty. At time’s its downright brutal, but the struggle is still beautiful. The novel itself is long and at times difficult but I think one of the reasons it appeals to me is that it recalls a 19th century Bildungsroman.
M Train by Patti Smith (2015)- I’ve seen Smith’s other memoir, Just Kids, on many similar lists. But I actually prefer this one. It’s less linear and more internal. We spend time not just in Smith’s life, but also in her dreams.Just Kids is a memoir of Smith’s youth in the 60’s and 70’s. M Train is a memoir of her life over the past decade or so. While Just Kids gives background that’s important to understanding the woman in M Train, I feel that this is the more mature work.
Circe by Madeline Miller (2018)- I was actually torn between this and Miller’s other book Song of Achilles for this list, because they’re both beautiful works. But I went with this one because it feels somehow larger. Not larger as a physical book (they’re about the same size) but as a story and as a depiction of Miller’s world. But I highly recommend both books.
Educated by Tara Westover (2018)- Tara Westover was the daughter of mentally ill survivalists who was homeschooled (a process which ended once she learned to read and write) and later pushed herself to get into Brigham Young University, Harvard, and Cambridge. But her educational success doesn’t give her what she needs to understand her upbringing. Even after she earns her PHD, her understanding of her abusive childhood depended on learning to trust herself and her memory. I appreciated the fact that this book complicated the notion of “hard work = success”. Westover depicts success, and education, as a process rather than a fait accompli.
Once Upon A River by Diane Setterfield (2018) I was really excited to read this because I loved Setterfield’s previous novel The Thirteenth Tale. This was one of the rare highly anticipated novels that lives up to expectations. I think one of the reasons that it works for me is that it doesn’t try to give easy answers. It opens with a mystery and offers several possible conclusions but doesn’t tie itself down to any of them.
Participating in Classical Carousel‘s House of Mirth read-along. We’re reading and discussing the novel over the course of six weeks. I’ve been trying to stay on schedule and read it slowly. I read House of Mirth in college, and that initial read took me a few days, because we had one or two class periods for discussion before the class moved on to other material. I feel like the leisurely pace is allowing my a different perspective and I’m picking up a lot more. I’d encourage anyone interested to join in.
Toying with the idea of releasing a collection of short fiction. I have a lot of short stories that I’ve written over the years that I’ve never really been sure what to do with. Most of them are inspired by other stories, mythology, fairy tales, folklore etc. Some follow the source material closely others give it a mere nod before going off in their own direction. I would probably have to go through them and decide on a direction for the collection and what to include, but I’d like to get a very general sense of how much interest there is. So if you think it’s a good idea, like this post!
Writing a whole looong blog post about the Sarah Dessen/Common Read/grad student twitter hoopla. Then I decided not to post it. It seems like emotions on all sides are very high and people are very quick to take offense. Chiming in at such moments doesn’t strike me as the best idea because words are easily taken out of context leading to more offense and hurt feelings. But I do want to say, independent of all this, that twitter by it’s nature often takes things out of context (it’s hard to include context within a small, character limited, tweet!) so when something is discussed in a tweet, it’s important to seek out that context before we react, especially when emotions are running high. Also remember how easy it is to react to things in the space of a tweet. We can delete the tweet but if someone screenshots it, it can live forever. Think before you tweet.
All the Common Read books for the last decade. American News photo by Katherine Grandstrand
Reading Erin Morgenstern’s The Starless Sea. Like The Night Circus, it’s a book whose setting stands out over other elements such as plot and character. But there’s an intricacy that The Night Circus lacks in that the setting and the plot are inextricably linked and fitted together like a puzzle. As I read it, I’m wowwed at the complexity of what Morgenstern managed to do with the multiple stories that make up this novel. Each one becomes a nest for the next one. I can see why this took her years to write! It’s rare that a highly anticipated novel manages to live up to expectations. I can see where some readers my be frustrated by the Chinese box of narratives that make up this book and want more traditional storytelling, but to me, it all unfolds like a beautiful, mysterious magic trick. I haven’t finished it yet though. The complexity means that it’s not as “quick” a read as most, and I’m also a bit anxious. I’m afraid that Morgenstern won’t be able to maintain this spell all the way through to the end.
November 5: Books That Give Off Autumn Vibes (Autumn scenes/colors on the cover, autumn atmosphere, etc.)
These are just books that give me a strong sense of the season:
1. Autumn by Ali Smith– This is the first in Smith’s quartet of interconnected, stand alone cyclical novels each focused on a different season. The plot, such as it is, deals with a platonic friendship between a thirty two year old woman and a man seventy years her senior. But really it reads more like a post-Brexit prose poem.
“November again. It’s more winter than autumn. That’s not mist. It’s fog. The sycamore seeds hit the glass in the wind like – no, not like anything else, like sycamore seeds hitting window glass. There’ve been a couple of windy nights. The leaves are stuck to the ground with the wet. The ones on the paving are yellow and rotting, wanwood, leafmeal. One is so stuck that when it eventually peels away, its leafshape left behind, shadow of a leaf, will last on the pavement till next spring. The furniture in the garden is rusting. They’ve forgotten to put it away for the winter. The trees are revealing their structures. There’s the catch of fire in the air. All the souls are out marauding. But there are roses, there are still roses. In the damp and the cold, on a bush that looks done, there’s a wide-open rose, still. Look at the colour of it.”
2. First Frost by Sarah Addison Allen– This book deals with the same characters that we first met in Addison’s debut novel, Garden Spells, but First Frost can definitely be read as a stand alone. The Waverly sisters are a slightly magical pair, living in Bascomb, North Carolina. For the Waverley family, Autumn is a season of transformation, change and magic. Sometimes in a very literal sense!
“On the day the tree bloomed in the fall, when its white apple blossoms fell and covered the ground like snow, it was tradition for the Waverleys to gather in the garden like survivors of some great catastrophe, hugging one another, laughing as they touched faces and arms, making sure they were all okay, grateful to have gotten through it.”
3. Night Film by Marisha Pessl– Ashley Cordova, daughter of a famous director of scary movies, commits suicide one rainy, October night. Investigative journalist, Scott McGrath has suspicions about the death and his investigation takes him into the nightmare world of Stanislas Cordova. Not only is this book set during a rainy, foggy, autumn, it consists of textbook excerpts, newspaper articles and more that give the text a similarity to a pile of multicolored leaves.
My Cordova tale began for the second time on a rainy October night, when I was just another man running in circles, going nowhere as fast as I could…I was too strung out to sleep, hounded by an inertia I couldn’t explain, except for the vague understanding that the best part of my life was behind me, and the sense of possibility that I’d once had so innately as a young man was now gone. It was cold and I was soaked. The gravel track was rutted with puddles, the black waters of the Reservoir cloaked in mist. It clogged the reeds along the bank and erased the outskirts of the park as if it were nothing but paper, the edges torn away.
4. The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern– In terms of plot, this novel deals with a competition between two magicians that will result in a high stakes fight to the death for their children. However, the setting, Le Cirque des Reves, a circus open only at night, that arrives without warning, and defies the conventional laws of physics, is the real star here. It puts the reader in minds of crisp autumn nights, hot apple cider, and hints of magic everywhere.
“The circus looks abandoned and empty. But you think perhaps you can smell caramel wafting through the evening breeze, beneath the crisp scent of the autumn leaves. A subtle sweetness at the edges of the cold.”
5. The Cider House Rules by John Irving- This novel is set in Maine in the first part of the twentieth century. It tells the story of Dr. Wilbur Larch, obstetrician, ether addict, abortionist, orphanage director; and his favorite orphan, Homer Wells, who is never adopted. The rural new England setting brings to mind picturesque autumns full of colorful trees and crisp blue skies fading into golden sunsets.
When he would almost despair, when the ether was too overpowering, when his own age seemed like the last obstacle and the vulnerability of his illegal enterprise was as apparent to him as the silhouettes of the fir trees against the sharp night skies of autumn, Wilbur Larch would save himself with this one thought: I love Homer Wells, and I have saved him from the war.”
6. The Sparrow Sisters by Ellen Herrick– This is another book set in New England. Patience Sparrow is the town healer (and some say witch) whose herbs and tinctures are given to many. But her remedies are implicated in a tragedy, the town is consumed by fear, and it’s witch hunting history may resurrect itself. The fear that infects the town causes a sort of premature autumn: leaves and plants, wither and die, fishermen return empty handed.
“The Sparrow Sisters’ roses still bloomed on New Year’s Day, their scent rich and warm even when snow weighted their petals closed. When customers came down the rutted road to the small eighteenth-century barn where the sisters worked, they marveled at the jasmine that twined through the split-rail fence, the perfume so intense they could feel it in their mouths. As they paid for their purchases, they wondered (vaguely, it must be said, for the people of Granite Point knew not to think too hard about the Sisters) how it was that clematis and honeysuckle climbed the barn in November and the morning glories bloomed all day. The fruit trees were so fecund that the peaches hung on the low branches, surrounded by more blossoms, apples and pears ripened in June and stayed sweet and fresh into December. Their Italian fig trees were heavy with purple teardrop fruit only weeks after they were planted. If you wanted a tomato so ripe the juice seemed to move beneath the skin, you needed only to pick up a punnet at the Nursery.”
7. Still Life by Louise Penny– This is the first in Penny’s series about Chief Inspector Armand Gamache of the Surêté du Québec. It’s a popular series, but even though I enjoyed this book, I haven’t read any of the others yet. It’s set in Three Pines, a small hamlet near the US Border, where there’s been a suspicious death on Canadian Thanksgiving (in early October). Three Pines seems like a perfect, picturesque Autumn town, where anyone would love to life (if not for the gruesome death…)
Three Pines wasn’t on any tourist map, being too far off any main or even secondary road. Like Narnia, it was generally found unexpectedly and with a degree of surprise that such an elderly village should have been hiding in this valley all along. Anyone fortunate enough to find it once usually found their way back. And Thanksgiving, in early October, was the perfect time. The weather was usually crisp and clear, the summer scents of old garden roses and phlox were replaced by musky autumn leaves, woodsmoke and roast turkey.
8. Thorn Jack by Katherine Harbour– In some ways this book is a victim of the YA fantasy craze of the early 2000s. But the time this came out in 2014, a lot of elements had become cliche. But the story, set in upstate NY and inspired by the Scottish ballad, Tam Lin, has a vivid Fall setting. It’s set on a college campus (to me campus novels always have a whiff of Autumn) and most of the action takes place in October, culminating on Halloween.
He held out a hand.
Beware, the rustling leaves seemed to whisper.
Finn clasped Jack’s hand as her own self whispered, Be brave.
9. The Simplicity of Cider by Amy E. Reichert– To be fair I just started this one, but it seems like it’s very much a seasonal read. It’s set on a family run orchard, where the daughter, who has some major issues, is trying to start a cider business. Meanwhile, a single father comes to work on the orchard for the season, with his son, from whom he’s keeping some big secrets.