I found this kind of tough, because most of these I like as standalones, even if I want to know what happened next. Some I left off, because even if they had open endings, I don’t think they’d work with a sequel. I did something like this a while back, but on that one I included books that ended a series that I wished weren’t the end. I also counted sequels by other authors. So I decided to make a new list with actual standalones. Sequels by other authors don’t count on this list. I tried to be fairly general in my comments and not include specific spoilers, but just be warned…:
1. Gone With the Wind by Margaret Mitchell- OK this actually does have a sequel that was authorized by the author’s estate, but for the most part, it’s not great. Also based on the rules I made up for this list, sequels by other authors don’t count. I would have liked Scarlett’s next chapter as imagined by Mitchell herself. But it’s also not like I felt that the original book left me in the middle of nowhere. It just left me wanting to know more.
2. The Starless Sea by Erin Morgenstern– I was once again torn between this and The Night Circus for this list. Both have such vivid settings that could be explored further, and neither ties things up in a bow, so there could conceivably be more to the story. I finally decided to go with this one for this list because the setting (literally) lends itself to millions of stories. Also, I put The Night Circus on my first list.
3. A Knight in Shining Armor by Jude Deveraux- I was torn between this book and Deveraux’s other romance with elements of time travel, Remembrance. I just went with this one because it was the first that popped into my mind. In both cases, Deveraux twists the expected “happily ever after” a bit. Not that they don’t have happy endings (it is the romance genre after all!) but not in the ways the reader would expect, so more questions begin to emerge.
4. Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel- This one ends on a hopeful note. It’s a post-apocalyptical novel, so there isn’t much hope through most of it. When it emerges at the end, my biggest question was, “how do people deal with this?” It’s a big change from the status quo for the characters, learning to exist in a world where things may improve. I wanted to know how they handled it!
5. The Glass Town Game by Catherynne M. Valente- This is a strange book. It’s supposedly intended for a middle grade audience, but plot deals with the Bronte siblings falling into the fantasy world that they wrote about in their juvenilia. I’m not sure how many middle graders are familiar with the Brontes, let alone their lesser know juvenile works! But I enjoyed it nonetheless. Knowing biographical information about the real life version of characters made me wonder how their book versions would handle some of what I knew was facing them. I was also interested in their evolution from the children depicted in the book to brilliant writers. But a sequel with that stuff would probably take it even farther out of middle grade territory.
6. The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett- I’m fine with where it ended, but I’ve always been curious about what the future holds for Mary, Dickon and Colin. Another author did write a sequel but I’m not counting sequels by other authors for this list.
7. The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman– I’m kind of curious what happens to Bod when ventures out into the (non-graveyard based) world. How do his daily interactions with the living go? What becomes of him as an adult? Does he find a job? Get married? Live “normal” life? Or does he do something different?
9. Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen– Let me just preface this by saying that I’m totally fine with this not having a (official) sequel (there are many, many sequels and spin offs and fanfic by other authors!) But I’ve always wondered what became of Kitty and Mary after their sisters got married. I mean, the fact that Lizzie and Jane married money means that they won’t be homeless when their father dies (presumably they could stay with one of them!) but what did they do with their lives? Did they ever marry? Did they do something else? If so, what?
“Oh what a guy, Gaston!” A villain you can’t help but love- I’m not usually the type to love a villain. I find them compelling characters sometimes, but at best it’s usually a character I “love to hate.” I’ve had a sense of sympathy with Nurse Rached in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest ever since I started teaching though. I think it’s sort of unfair that people think of her as a villain. She’s working in a mental hospital with a vulnerable population that needs consistency and routine. So when Randall McMurphy comes in and starts upsetting things, she pushes back. I know that she’s supposed to represent the medical institutions that dehumanize the mentally ill, but I do think that some of her actions did have valid reasons behind them. Though I wouldn’t say I “love” her!
“Here’s where she meets Prince Charming” Your OTP- OK, so I find it very had to just pick one (and yes, I know the “O” in OTP stands for “one!”) but I suppose if I had to I’d probably pick Jamie and Claire from the Outlander series. A lot has happened to them over the course of 8 books, but I’ve never consistently stopped rooting for them as a couple (I have once or twice momentarily when I was mad at one or the other).
“I want so much more than this provincial life” A character destined for greater things. – I suppose any book that uses the “chosen one” trope could fit this one. I’m going with the Obernewtyn Chronicles though. When we first meet Elspeth Geordie, she’s an orphan in a post-apocalyptic world. She struggles to hide her special mental abilities from the totalitarian “Council.” But when she’s caught, she’s sent to Obernewtyn, a mountain retreat where “Misfits” are sent. But there are secrets at Obernewtyn that no one knows about. Over the course of the series Elspeth learns what happened to the world to bring about the apocalypse, and that it may happen again. Her presence there isn’t an accident at all. In fact, she may be the only one who can stop it.
“Be our guest!” A book that made you hungry.- I think some of the descriptions of food in The Night Circus are very tempting!
Dish after dish is brought to the table, some easily identifiable as quail or rabbit or lamb, served on banana leaves or baked in apples or garnished with brandy-soaked cherries. Other courses are more enigmatic, concealed in sweet sauces or spiced soups, unidentifiable meats hidden in pastries and glazes.
“Should a diner inquire as to the nature of a particular dish, question the origin of a bite or a seasoning, a flavor she cannot put her finger on (for even those with the most refined of palates can never identify each and every flavor), she will not be met with a satisfying answer. …
The desserts are always astonishing. Confections deliriously executed in chocolate and butterscotch, berries bursting with creams and liqueurs. Cakes layered to impossible heights, pastries lighter than air. Figs that drip with honey, sugar blown into curls and flowers.
“Beauty and the Beast” Opposites attract. I’m sort of tempted to use my own book for this one, but I won’t! I’ll got with The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion. It’s about Don Tillman, a socially inept geneticist (it’s suggested that the character has Aspbergers but he’s not diagnosed). When he decides he wants to find a wife, he designs The Wife Project; a sixteen page, scientifically valid, survey to help weed out smokers, drinkers, and women who are tardy. Rosie Jarman is all of the above. She and Don end up on a date due to a mix up and she confides that she’s trying to find her biological father. Even though he has no romantic interest in her (according to the survey she’s all wrong for him!) Don designs The Father Project. You can probably see where this is going. I thought this book was really sweet, but I wasn’t a fan of the sequel. I haven’t read the third book yet, but I think this one works perfectly well as a stand alone.
“But there’s something in him that I simply didn’t see” A character who is more than they appear- For some reason the first book I thought of for this one was The Husband’s Secret by Liane Moriarty. Cecilia has been married to John-Paul for years. They have several children and a pretty happy family life. But when Cecilia finds a letter from her husband in the attic, with instructions that it’s supposed to be opened in the event of his death, Cecilia reads it, even though he’s very much alive. What she learns turns their lives upside down. It throws Cecilia into a moral dilemma that she never imagined, and makes he wonder who is the man she married.
“I was innocent and certain, now I’m wiser but unsure” A book that changed you in some way- I’ve always been aware that I’ve lead a privileged life, but sometimes I don’t think of certain things as a privilege because they’re things I’ve taken as a given. Growing up in the US in the late 20th and 21st century, I took for granted that I could read whatever I want. Yes, I was aware that this was not a freedom everyone in the world enjoyed, but I never really thought about what that meant, or what it looked like to fight against it, before I read Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafazi. I think being a reader has made me who I am. It’s taught me empathy. It’s taught me how little I understand the scheme of things. So if I didn’t have the freedom to read as I chose, I don’t think I’d be the person I am today. This book made me consider all these ideas for the first time. Why would oppressive regimes go to so much trouble to ban books, and keep certain books out of certain reader’s hands? Because I’m not alone in this! Reading anything (regardless of whether or not it’s an “important” book) opens minds and hearts. Therefore it’s extremely threatening to an oppressor. Reading about the discussions that this Iranian book club had, and their responses to what they read made me realize on a conscious level that one of the most important things that literature (and art more generally) does is to show us that we’re not alone. That other people have emotional reactions to things, just like we do. Art can be a bridge between people of very different backgrounds and viewpoints. These connections can threaten the very foundations of a society. In that way, reading a novel, and sharing it with others, can be one of the most subversive things a person can do.
“Kill the Beast!” A book you picked up because of hype. – Are we talking about books that lived up to the hype, or books that didn’t? I suppose the most recent one was Where The Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens, which I heard was amazing, but I found it just OK. It actually inspired me to write a post of when you don’t love a hyped book. So stay tuned for that!
“I’ll never shake away the pain” A book or moment that always makes you cry- I didn’t want to repeat too much on this but when Jamie and Claire separate just before the battle of Culloden in Dragonfly in Amber, they think it will be forever. Jamie tells Claire that he’ll see her again someday. That always makes me weepy.
“I will find you,” he whispered in my ear. “I promise. If I must endure two hundred years of purgatory, two hundred years without you – then that is my punishment, which I have earned for my crimes. For I have lied, and killed, and stolen; betrayed and broken trust. But there is the one thing that shall lie in the balance. When I shall stand before God, I shall have one thing to say, to weigh against the rest.”
His voice dropped, nearly to a whisper, and his arms tightened around me.
Lord, ye gave me a rare woman, and God! I loved her well.”
“How does a moment last forever” A book that you’ve loved since you were little.- So. Many. Books. Can’t…choose! I’m tempted to use my “standard” answer for this one and say “fairy tales” (I go into the reasons why a bit here, here, here and here) but I decided to mix things up a bit. I think I was about nine years old when I picked up this book sort of randomly knowing nothing about it. That edition had the author’s name as “Julie Edwards.” As I read I fell in love with the sweet story of an orphan trying to create a home for herself. I flipped to the “about the author” page in the back of the book and saw that “Edwards” was the married name of Julie Andrews, star of Mary Poppins, The Sound of Music etc. Apparently in addition to being an Oscar winning actress with a gorgeous singing voice, she is also a writer. When I saw that, I felt like an old friend that I thought I knew surprised me in a magical way. Mandy is still worth reading for adults. It’s a little reminiscent of The Secret Garden in some ways.
Name a book that is an odd pairing but they still fit perfectly– Inigo Montoya and Fezzik from The Princess Bride always struck me as sort of an odd friendship. I don’t know if they were intended to be a sort of comic echo of Lennie and George in Of Mice and Men, but they always remind me of that. To look at the giant Fezzik, he’d seem to have nothing in common with Inigo, a thin, vengeance obsessed, swordsman. But they have a solid friendship, and seem to offer each other comfort and support on a regular basis.
A book/series that you have a love/hate relationship with– As much as it breaks my heart to say this, Harry Potter. I’ll always love Harry Potter, but JK Rowling’s recent behavior has cast a shadow on it for me. I don’t “hate” her, but I don’t approve of or agree with some of her recent statements and actions. I’m still trying to make peace between my love for the books and my disappointment in their author. I have no doubt that I will do it, as I said, the books will always have a special place in my heart, but it’s still a work in progress for me.
A character that is totally clueless but you love them anyway– Is it totally cheating to pick Emma for this one?! (For those who don’t know, Clueless is based on Jane Austen’s Emma, which is why I say that it might be cheating)
Name a book that made you cry– A Little Life by Hana Yangihara totally did me in. I think it was a beautiful book but it was hard to read at times. I’m always hesitant to recommend it, because of that. I’m sort of glad that I read it at a moment in my life when I was able to appreciate it, rather than at a time when I might not have for various reasons.
A book that makes you laugh– I’m assuming this means intentional laughter. There are a few (see here and here). There are also books that have made me laugh unintentionally, but that’s another story… One that I haven’t mentioned on the lists but would like to highlight is Beauty Queens by Libba Bray. It’s sort of what might happen if Lord of the Flies met America’s Next Top Model, and then they invited Pirates of the Caribbean over to hang out. It touches on some heavy subjects in a humorous way, without ever actually making light of those subjects. It’s a delicate balance and I majorly admire Libba Bray for pulling it off.
A book with a crazy party– Well, I once made a whole list about this, but if I had to pick just one, I’d say the literary masquerade party in The Starless Sea sounds like one of the few parties I’d really enjoy. Though I do think I’d have trouble deciding on a costume! I don’t know if I’d call it a “crazy” party (though it does lead to some craziness), but crazy parties don’t appeal to me that much anyway.
Name a character that you can never fully trust– For this one, Tinkerbell from Peter Pan comes to mind. Yes, I know that “All you need is Faith, Trust and a little bit of Pixie Dust.” I know she seems like a sweet tiny fairy, full of just those things. That’s why it’s easy to forget that she’s jealous to the core and pretty destructive!
A book with a memorable villain– Mrs. Danvers from Rebecca is one of my favorite villains of all time. I suppose you wouldn’t expect a middle aged housekeeper to be threatening, which is what makes her great. She’s so manipulative too, She gets under the skin of the second Mrs. De Winter and then tries to push her to suicide. And then she gets really destructive! I talk about a few other favorite villains on this list.
Name a book with witches– Just one? I’m actually working on a list of my favorite books about witches at the moment! But I suppose if I have to choose just one, I’ll say Garden Spells by Sarah Addison Allen. because I don’t think it gets enough love (actually I can’t just say one, because it has a sequel called First Frost) It’s overshadowed a lot of the time by Practical Magic, and there are some similarities (both are about sisters who are witches, both use a magical realist style) but they’re not the same (especially now that you can take the Practical Magic books as a series that goes in a very different direction). I would say that Garden Spells is worth reading on its own merits.
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.”
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 white, 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 help 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 it asks whether recovery is even 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.
6. I Like To Watch by Emily Nussbaum– I think that Emily Nussbaum’s essays arguing for new ways of criticizing TV have the potential to be both entertaining and insightful.
Publication Date: June 25, 2019
7. The Witches Are Coming by Lindy West– I think that this look at the sociopolitical moment that we’re in has the potential to be incisive and funny. In this book, West looks at films, TV shows, internet phenomena and lifestyle guru’s who have created our culture.
Publication Date: November 5, 2019
8. The Sun Down Motel by Simone St. James– (is this cheating since technically it’s released in early 2020?) I discovered Simone St. James last year and I really like her gothic romantic suspense. She seems to be moving into more contemporary stuff with her last few books but as of now, I’m still along for the ride.
10. The End of Forever Saga by Paullina Simons– I’ve had really varied reactions to Paullina Simons as a writer. But this trilogy, that incorporates romance and time travel sounds like it might be up my alley. The first book has already been released and reactions seem pretty polarizing. Some loved it some didn’t. Then other two books are being released over the next couple of months so I’m sure I’ll get around to them at some point soon.