August 24: Books I Wish I Could Read Again for the First Time
1. The Secret History by Donna Tartt– I wish I could read this again and not know what was coming. At the same time I’m really glad I read this for the first time when I did, because my high school English class was reading Crime and Punishment at the time. There are a lot of parallels and I appreciated the enriched experience in that way. I think it would hold up well to a reread though. I just wish I could recreate that experience of finding those parallels and getting excited.
2. Rebecca by Daphne DuMaurier– Last year I reread this with a book club and I found myself really jealous of the members who were reading it for the first time and didn’t know what twists and turns lay ahead.
3. And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie- The first time I read this I tried to read it as a detective and figure out whodunnit as I read. I wasn’t right, but I tried! I think I’d like the experience of reading it as more of a reader and going along with the story without trying to be two steps ahead.
4. The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield– I remember staying up late into the night with this one, and feeling the thrill of surprise as the story unfolded. Those reading experiences are wonderful and rare.
5. Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro– This one had a slowly building sense of dread as I realized what was happening. At the same time I kept hoping that I’d be proven wrong. That sense of building tension without a “reveal” (rather a gradual unfolding) is not something I encounter often.
6. Fingersmith by Sarah Waters -I read this book for the first time while I was on a train. At one point I got to a plot twist and I literally shouted, “Holy crap!” Out loud. It’s a rare book that makes me embarrass myself on public transportation.
7. The Other by Thomas Tryon- There was one twist in this book that I felt was really obvious. Once it was revealed, I felt like I was very smart, I’d figured the book out, and it was going to be disappointing. Little did I know there were other turns ahead! I think the initial twist as a sort of misdirection, so the reader wasn’t on the lookout anymore.
8. A Little Life by Hana Yanagihara- This one didn’t have any huge surprises in it, but I became so invested in these characters, for better or for worse (and often it was for worse.) I was legitimately worried about them it was a wonderful and stressful experience. I think it would hold up to rereads, though, because I know what’s coming for the characters and I can focus on other things without worrying about them so much. Just a note: I’m always hesitant to recommend this one without including a content warning, because some of the content is very difficult.
9. East of Eden by John Steinbeck -I honestly think I was too young for this the first time I read it. It’s on my to be reread list, and I think I’ll get a lot more out of it a second time, but I wish I was coming to it fresh.
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.
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.
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.”
February 18: The Last Ten Books That Gave Me a Book Hangover (submitted by Deanna @ A Novel Glimpse)
For me book hangovers are rare. Even with a great book I’m aware that the next great book is on the horizon! The ones that give me hangovers aren’t always my favorites or even the best ones. But something about them sticks with me and makes it harder than usual to move on. So I decided to just do ten books that left me with lingering effects instead of the last ten. So yes, I might miss one or two, but you’ll get an idea. I also wan’t 100% literal with the term “book hangover”: anything that linger afterward in a strong was qualified for the list.
2. Written in My Own Heart’s Blood by Diana Gabaldon– It’s rare when one of my favorite entries in a series comes eight books in, but this one pulled it off, leaving me in a place where I felt emotionally exhausted but satisfied and then ending things with a beautiful reunion.
3. The Bronze Horseman by Paullina Simons- I think my response to this book was based largely on who I was and where I was (in terms of my life) at the time that I read it. I sobbed for like two hours when I finished this! But then I found out that there were two sequels, and while I enjoyed them to differing degrees I didn’t have the same emotional response. That makes me think that it was less about the book itself and more about something it touched off at the time.
4.A Little Life by Hana Yanagihara– This left me with kind of a numbness. I felt like I’d be through so much with these characters, so how was I supposed to just pick up and move on with my own life?
5. House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski– In a way a book about an endless house that you many never leave seems tailor made to give you a book hangover. But in this case it wasn’t an immediate hangover but rather elements of the book randomly coming back to me at different points.
7. Fingersmith by Sarah Waters– Forget Gone Girl, this book had some twists that really threw me in terms of upending everything I thought I knew about the plot and characters. After I read it, I had several “what do you mean, that character is exactly who he claimed to be?!” experiences with books. I kept looking for the trick that wasn’t there!
8. Daughter of the Forest by Juliet Marillier – I loved Marillier’s world building in this series. I’d even go so far as to say that it (very indirectly!) inspired my own, in Beautiful. But after I finished it was hard to get back to other books and worlds without holding them up to the same standard.
9. Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafasi– This book made me aware of how reading a novel can be a politically subversive act. That of course made me wonder about every book I read after it; “what deeply held ideas and institutions am I undermining by reading this book?”
10. The Secret History by Donna Tartt– After I read this I kept looking for read alikes. But after being burned by many books claiming to be a similar experience, I gave up on that quest.
October 23: Villains (favorite, best, worst, lovable, creepiest, most evil, etc.)
I went with the creepiest/ most evil for this one
TRIGGER WARNING: Some of these villains do some very bad things, so in discussing them, I mention some of those. It you have triggers, be warned.
1. Mrs. Danvers in Rebecca by Daphne DuMaurier– You don’t expect a middle aged housekeeper to be a creepy villain, but Mrs. Danvers totally is. From forbidding demeanor to her pathological obsession with her employer’s late wife (the title character) she makes life a living hell for his second wife, interfering in their marriage, playing psychological games and trying to goad the second wife to suicide.
2. Annie Wilkes in Misery by Stephen King- I think that the development of the internet makes such a villain even more plausible. I’ve seen fandoms in which a few people are only lacking the opportunity to save their favorite writer (or actor/singer/whatever) after being injured in a carwreck in an isolated, snowbound area and keep him/her prisoner for months, demanding new material according to the specifications of the individual fan. When the object of Annie’s fanning resists, things get ugly.
3. Black Jack Randall Outlander by Diana Gabaldon– There’s a common misconception that Black Jack Randall is gay. He’s not. According to the author, he’s a “bisexual sexual sadist” but I might leave off the “bisexual” because if the opportunity presented itself in an appealing way, I don’t think he’d limit himself to only men and/or women. Early on in the book he assaults the heroine, and only circumstances keep him from raping her. Later we learn about his assault on our heroine’s sister in law which was unsuccessful because his intended victim began to laugh (a hysterical reaction, but he took it to mean that she wasn’t suffering, so he couldn’t perform). His fixation with a male character stems from an encounter in which Randall flogged him until he was near dead, but he stills refused to give Randall the satisfaction of screaming and begging. That makes him see this character as his ultimate challenge. It’s got nothing to do with gender.
4. Corinne Dollinganger Foxworth in Flowers in the Attic by VC Andrews– Corrine was disowned by her parents about fifteen years prior to the action of the book. When she’s widowed and in dire financial straits, with four children, she returns to her wealthy parents home. Her mother explains the situation: her father won’t accept her back if he knows that her marriage produced children, but he’s on his deathbed. She can tell him there were no kids and he’ll write her back into his will. So the children need to stay hidden from him. Fortunately the mansion has an attic where the kids can stay. Once he’s dead, they can come out. It’ll probably only be a week or so. Corrine reluctantly agrees to this plan. But as time goes by and her father lingers on, Corinne develops a fondness for the finer things in life. The kids are really perfectly fine in the attic. And when it becomes clear that her inheritance may depend on no one ever learning of their existence, Corrine is really OK with that…
5. Kevin in We Need to Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver- Eva Khatchadourian is ambivalent about motherhood, even after the birth of her son, Kevin. She does most things “right.” She pays attention to him, takes care of him, is involved in his life at school. But something about him strikes her as “off.” He’s manipulative, and often hostile to her, but her husband, Franklin is pretty convinced that they have the perfect son. When Kevin commits a series of horrific crimes as a teenager, Eva is left wondering where the responsibility lies. Was it nature? Did she sense that something was deeply wrong with her son from the beginning? Is that why she was unable to form an attachment with him? Or was it nurture? Did his own mother’s distaste for him turn Kevin into a monster? Eventually she asks Kevin why he did what he did, and his answer is chilling.
6. Miss Havisham in Great Expectations by Charles Dickens– This may surprise some people since Miss Havisham is generally seen as pathetic rather than villainous. And she is a pitiable figure, refusing to change out of her wedding dress, or take the wedding decorations down after her intended leaves her at the alter. But I think that she becomes villainous some years later when she takes in beautiful young orphan named Estella, and trains the girl from childhood to torment, manipulate and spurn men, as a revenge against the man who broke Miss Havisham’s heart years earlier. Not only is this unfair to men (who are not all responsible for her fiance’s behavior!) but it’s unfair to Estella, who misses out on friendships and healthy relationships due to her early training.
7. The Other Mother in Coraline by Neil Gaiman- As children, we are supposed to see our mothers as safe, nurturing, and loving (though some of the ladies on this list prove that isn’t always the case!). Coraline’s mother isn’t perfect. She’s often busy and inattentive. But she loves her daughter, and tries to help her. When Coraline stumbles upon the Other World, she discovers the Other Mother. She looks like Coraline’s real mother, but with black button eyes. During the course of the story she comes to look less and less like Coraline’s real mother as she grows taller and thinner. She’s unable to create and can only copy the real world and make her own twisted version of it. She wants someone to mother, so she collects children who she loves possessively to the point of destruction. She’s a twisted version of what we usually associate with motherhood.
8. Frederick Clegg in The Collector by John Fowles– When Freddie Clegg wins the lottery it’s a chance to do something he’s wanted to do for a long time. He quits his job and buys an isolated house with a big cellar. He’s admired Miranda Grey for a long time, and he wants to be with her, but his social awkwardness keeps him from approaching her. So he kidnaps her instead, so that he can add her to his “collection” of pretty, preserved objects. Hopefully, after being with him for a while, she’ll grow to love him. After all, he’s fixed up the cellar for her nicely, and he treats her with “every respect.” His difficulty relating to others might make Freddie sympathetic in some circumstances. But when he chloroforms Miranda, shoves her into the back of a van, kidnaps her and holds her prisoner in his basement for an extended period of time, our sympathy starts to waver a bit. But the book is insidious in making us feel for Freddie at times anyway.
9. Henry Winter in The Secret History by Donna Tartt- Henry is a Classics student at Hampden College in Vermont. He’s a linguistic genius and probably a sociopath. When he’s blackmailed by another member of his social group (for accidentally killing a man, but it was an accident, so that’s OK) Henry’s solution is to kill his blackmailer and get his friends to help him. As the murder, and the response, tear the group apart, Henry’s sanity begins to unravel (though whether he was ever very “ravelled” is up for debate!) but his charm is probably his most disconcerting characteristic.
10. Zenia in The Robber Bride by Margaret Atwood– This novel is a gender reversed contemporary re-imagining of the fairy tale The Robber Bridegroom, in which the title character lures women promised to him in marriage back to his house, where he eats them. Zenia isn’t a literal “man eater” in this book but she’s already destroyed the lives of three women by stealing their partners, meddling in their careers, and interfering with their lives. But perhaps the most “evil” thing she does is create a dynamic amongst these women, where they’re almost dependent on hating her. Once she is no longer a threat they seem lost.
August 21: Books to Pull You Out of a Reading Slump
We’ve all had reading slumps. Those times when you’ve read several disappointments and you’re having trouble losing yourself in something new. Here are my suggestions to help get your reading rhythm back.
1. Ex Libris by Anne Fadiman– Instead of trying to dive into another novel right away try this excellent book about books. Fadiman’s essays are short and easy to digest. It’s perfect for dipping into in small doses, and as a bonus, she might discuss a book you’ll want to tackle next.
2. Up The Down Staircase by Bel Kauffman– This book about a first-year NYC high school teacher tells its story entirely via letters characters write to one another, memos, and papers found in desk drawers or in the trash. That format makes it a very quick read. You plan to just read one note that one student passed to another, but the next thing you know you’re halfway through the book.
3. And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie– The plot here has been done many times: ten strangers are invited to an island where they’re killed one by one. But Agatha Christie does it better than anyone. It doesn’t take long before the reader is along for the ride, trying to figure out whodunnit as the cast of possible suspects dwindles. Once that happens it’s hard to let go!
4. No Angel by Penny Vincenzi– A 700 pager might not seem like the thing to get you out of a reading slump, but this saga of a wealthy British family is the kind of thing that just sweeps you up with it. While you read it, you’re immersed in this soap opera-ish world. There’s not a lot of intellectual depth, but who cares? It’s a fun way to break a slump!
5. Miss Pettigrew Lives For A Day by Winifred Watson– This is 1930’s era chick lit that’s lighter than air. While in some ways I prefer the film because it has more emotional heft, the book is perfect for times when you want something so frothy that you can almost float along as you read.
6. Nuclear Family by Susanna Fogel– This novel consists of humorous letters sent to the main character by members of her eccentric family and friends over the course of several decades. Each letter is short and funny. It’s hard to put down when you start reading and see that the next letter is called “The Gerbil You Drowned in 1990 Would Like a Word With You”, “Your Intrauterine Device Has Some Thoughts on Your Love Life,” or “Your Uncle Figured a Mass E-mail Was the Best Way to Discuss His Sexuality.” Each one is only a page or two (the whole book is less than 200 pages) so it’s quite possible to read this in one sitting.
7. The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon– This is one that just draws you in from page one and you get caught up in the atmosphere and romance and mystery. It opens with a young boy whose father is taking him to a place called The Cemetary of Forgotten Books, from that point the boy grows up and tries to discover who is destroying all the works of a favorite author. The setting of the story is so vivid that when you put it down the real world sort of comes as a surprise!
8. The Secret History by Donna Tartt– The main character of this book becomes sort of enthralled by a group of students at his college. Even though the reader has a sense that there’s something “off” about this clique we become engrossed in their concerns in the same way that the narrator does so that by the time things go off the rails, the reader is along for the ride.
9. Crush by Richard Siken– I’m not usually a poetry reader. I mean there are poems and poets that I like but I’m not one to just dive into a book of poetry for hours. But that’s why it’s perfect for a reading slump! You can dip into it for a short time, read a full poem, and put it down (or continue if you choose!) and repeat as desired. It doesn’t require the commitment of a novel. I chose this one because Siken is one of my favorite contemporary poets, but if you have another favorite go for that!
10. Anne of Green Gables by LM Montgomery- Another way to break a slump is to revisit an old childhood favorite, whether it’s Anne or Harry Potter, or something else. There’s something that’s comforting and familiar about revisiting an old love, and as you read you can remind yourself what made you fall in love with books in the first place.
So let’s assume that adults are buying YA for themselves and reading it. Is that good? Should they be embarrassed? Opinions differ. In 2014, Ruth Graham wrote for Slatethat “Adults should feel embarrassed about reading literature written for children.” Her reasoning for this opinion is ” It’s not simply that YA readers are asked to immerse themselves in a character’s emotional life—that’s the trick of so much great fiction—but that they are asked to abandon the mature insights into that perspective that they (supposedly) have acquired as adults.” That’s a big assumption to make. Unless the author of the books writes a forward demanding readers do just that, it’s not possible to be sure that that was the intention. Do some adults read these books from the perspective of a teenager? Perhaps. Do some read it from the perspective of someone who was in that frame of mind once but isn’t any longer? That’s equally likely. I imagine that for most people it’s a combination of the two. I usually fall somewhere along that spectrum, but in different places depending on the book.
Graham also asserts that “mature readers also find satisfaction of a more intricate kind in stories that confound and discomfit, and in reading about people with whom they can’t empathize at all” OK. Is that to say that teens can’t find satisfaction in ambiguity? Or that YA only features “likable” characters? I’d say no. Chris Lynch’s Inexcusable, for example, is told from the perspective of an accused rapist. The main character is not a textbook villain though. He doesn’t understand that what he did actually qualifies as rape. I imagine most readers of the book condemn his actions and believe that he should face consequences for them. Yet some might feel sympathy for a teenage boy, caught up in a situation he doesn’t completely understand. That doesn’t condone what he did at all. It simply complicates the reader’s feelings about what happens in the book. Different readers might close the book and have different opinions about what consequences the character should face. Or look at a more classic example. In The Outsiders, one character has a tragic ending that is framed as the lesser of two evils. The other survives and offers a vision of his life that involves making the right decision. Is this an optimistic ending? Pessimistic? It depends on which the reader feels a stronger emotional connection to.
After Graham’s article came out, a lot of YA readers and writers refuted it. In doing so many tackled that question of what “literature” is. But I am more curious right now about what categories such as “children”, “middle grade”, “YA”, and New Adult” actually mean.
Author Kate Axelrod wrote an essay about her novel, intended for adults, being marketed as YA. The Law of Loving Others is a novel about the toll that mental illness takes on a family. Because it featured a teen protagonist, most editors wanted to market it as YA. Axelrod resisted but eventually decided to sell the book to Penguin’s Razorbill imprint. The novel was eventually published in 2015 and didn’t attract much critical attention. That translated to lackluster sales. According to most readers and reviewers, the book wasn’t really a YA novel. It was an adult novel featuring teen characters. Adults who didn’t gravitate toward YA weren’t interested. Why?
And what makes something “not YA”? After all, there are many books that are successfully marketed to a YA audience that deal with dark, complicated themes including mental illness, suicide, violence, racism, drugs, and abuse. Look at the success of novels like 13 Reasons Why or The Hate U Give. These have achieved a crossover success with both adult and teen readers. Why were they able to do so, while Axelrod’s novel wasn’t? I could see JD Salinger or Harper Lee being told that The Catcher in the Rye and To Kill A Mockingbird needed to be marketed as YA, using the same logic.
Also, why wasn’t Axelrod’s novel able to be marketed as adult fiction? A lot of contemporary adult fiction features teenage protagonists. Curtis Sittenfeld’s Prep was successfully marketed to an adult audience in spite of the fact that it was a coming of age story that took place at a New England prep school. Donna Tartt is consistently referred to as a writer of adult, literary fiction. However, her debut, The Secret History was set in college, and featured characters that were students. Her follow up, The Little Friend, features a twelve-year-old protagonist, and her Pulitzer Prize winner, The Goldfinch follows the main character from the age of thirteen through his early adulthood.
What’s the takeaway? Should we ignore all of these categories completely? Would that help people find books that resonate with them, or would it simply overwhelm them? People like to classify and categorize. It serves several purposes. Without these categories, choices can be too much. Imagine walking into a bookstore that was just organized by authors name. Fiction, nonfiction, children’s books etc were all jumbled up. A lot of people might just get frustrated and walk out. These categories also help draw in readers. Someone who reads a middle-grade book that s/he just loves may be more likely to seek out other books marketed to that audience, regardless of their age.
Is Children Reading YA A Problem?
It’s also tricky when considering younger readers because not all content is appropriate for children of all ages. Childhood is a period of significant growth and development. The changes that one undergoes between the ages of 8 and 18 are enormous, whereas someone who is 50 may still be much the same ten years later. As a result it’s hard to tell what’s appropriate for whom.
Even within YA, there is a lot of variation. Traditionally, YA is aimed at a 13-18-year-old readership. While an 18-year-old might be ready for something like Judy Blume’s Forever, it might not be appropriate for every 13 year old. Having a single category that covers an age range in which a lot of maturing happens is tricky.
Or look at Middle Grade which is aimed at an 8-12-year-old readership. An 8-year-old might be a bit young for some darker/scarier MG books like Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows or The Girl Who Could Fly, but a 12-year-old might find that same content exciting, suspenseful and compelling.
There’s no easy way for parents and educators to know if a certain book is appropriate for a certain child. Especially since no two children are alike. One 12 year old might be ready for YA while another one might be comfortably reading MG. For that reason, I think it’s essential that parents and teachers know their children and have at least some familiarity with the books in question.
Do you agree? Disagree? Do you like reading books that are “for” a demographic into which you don’t fit?