Category Archives: Spotlight Series

Spotlight on Horror

‘Tis the season, right? Happy holidays, everyone!

Welcome to my Spotlight series! Every month in 2020 (excepting a few adjustments, with catch-up in December) I am focusing on a different genre that I enjoy reading- not because I’m an expert, but because I want to celebrate a worthwhile category of books. I’m hoping this will be a space where everyone feels free to share their experiences with a genre of the month, whether you’ve read one book from the category or a hundred (or more!). I’ll share here what horror means means to me, filling the post with titles and recommendations from my own experience, and then I’ll look forward to chatting with you in the comments about icons and recommendations I’ve missed (because that’s inevitable- I haven’t read everything)!

What is Horror?

Horror can be a tricky genre to categorize, because it’s meant to disturb and unsettle (there is a definite dark cover trend), but in a welcome way. It is a delightful source of creepy-crawlies for those of us who like to imagine things going bump in the night and see shapes in the shadows. It can also be a warning, highlighting something about society that could benefit from a change.

Horror likes to borrow elements from other genres: sci-fi, fabulism, thrills, satire, gothic mysteries. There’s a whole lot of overlap, and I would say whether or not a book is classified as horror depends largely on how subjectively disturbing different readers find the material. Not all disturbing content fits under the horror umbrella, though; a mention of murder or unexplained crime is not enough to turn the average mystery into horror, etc. Ultimately, what I consider horror comes down to my interpretation of tone and intent moreso than how effectively frightened I am.

My History with Horror

Coraline

I got an early start with this genre. I even remember reading and rereading a few picture books with ghosts and skeletons and such, though of course children’s horror is a tamer version of terror. In elementary I was reading The Spiderwick Chronicles by Toni DiTerlizzi and Holly Black for a good (magical) scare, along with books like Neil Gaiman’s Coraline, Joseph Bruchac’s Skeleton Man, and Cynthia C. DeFelice’sThe Ghost of Fossil Glen.

By middle school, I had started picking up works by Stephen King; he’s a good adult author for young readers (in that his writing is easy to follow- his content is often problematic, so enter with caution) and a major horror genre staple, as I’m sure even non-horror readers are probably aware. Early King volumes for me included Pet Sematary, Bag of Bones, Misery, and Lisey’s Story, among others, and I am still reading King to this day (though I’m more aware of the issues in his writing now than I was as a kid. I want to do a full ranking and round-up of his fiction eventually, with all the pros and cons).

Her Body and Other Parties

Since then I’ve expanded my adult horror reading and also dabbled a bit in YA horror, though that was a category I had a hard time finding as a teen. Some of my top reads with horror elements this year have been Carmen Maria Machado’s Her Body and Other Parties (short stories with horror, fabulist, and feminist focus), Dot Hutchison’s The Butterfly Garden (mystery/horror with commentary on psychological trauma), The Snow Collectors by Tina May Hall (gothic historical mystery revolving around cannibalism), Sisters by Daisy Johnson (literary thriller exploring a fraught sibling relationship), and Follow Me to Ground by Sue Rainsford (magical healers serve a small village until a rift upsets the balance of their work).

Horror Classics and Staples

I’ll start with some popular classics:

Flowers in the Attic by V. C. Andrews – A disturbing tale of child captivity that begins with a death and ends with incest. It’s pulpy and commercial, requiring significant suspension of disbelief, but the horror of a mother hiding her children in an attic for years is real enough.

Rebecca

Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier – A patient story of psychological suspense, this book explores secrets in a marriage where the man’s first wife (now dead) looms over his second, whose aim to please steers her down the dangerous path of emulating the first Mrs. de Winter. This is a gothic mystery so the horror is lighter, but if that’s your brand let me also recommend du Maurier’s My Cousin Rachel, in which a man must determine whether his uncle’s new wife has poisoned her husband.

The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman – Only a short story, but this psychological tale of postpartum depression and a controlling husband packs a memorable punch.

Lord of the Flies by William Golding – This one’s a dystopian in which a group of young boys stranded on an island resort to lawless violence when left to their own devices.

The Silence of the Lambs

The Silence of the Lambs by Thomas Harris – The second volume in Harris’s Hannibal Lecter series, this story of an aspiring FBI agent hunting a psychopathic serial killer with the aid and advice of an imprisoned psychopathic serial killer is sure to stand the test of time in horror, and can be read as a standalone. If you are interested in reading all of the books in the series though, you can start with Red Dragon.

The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson – Here we have another psychological tale, this one set up as an investigation of a possibly haunted house, though one of the young women involved is either particularly affected by strange occurrences in the house or caught up in a past trauma that’s slowly driving her mad; while the cause may be ambiguous, the result is not!

We Have Always Lived in the Castle

Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle has a more fairytale feel, but this story of two girls living in their dead family’s once grand estate in a town that despises them all is well worth picking up also.

The Shining by Stephen King is probably the King title I recommend most often and easily- it’s the story of a family of three caretaking a large, secluded hotel through the winter months. It’s on the psychological end of King’s horror spectrum, with a hint of the supernatural.

The Turn of the Screw by Henry James – A new governess moves into an old estate to watch over two strange children who seem to be coveted by the lingering dead.

Frankenstein

Frankenstein by Mary Shelley – That familiar sci-fi tale of a mad scientist piecing the dead together and bringing the creature to life, only to realize that his invention is not quite human after all. And I must give a mention here as well of Mary’s Monster by Lita Judge, an excellent graphic novel depicting Shelley’s difficult life and the creation of her famous monster.

Before I close out this section of the post, I also want to mention a few more modern horror classics, fairly recent releases that have gotten a lot of traction in the genre through general popularity and film adaptations:

Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn – A memorable thriller with an unreliable narrator, which features a husband and wife with a complicated relationship that both binds them together and endangers them both.

You by Caroline Kepnes – This psychological horror involves a stalker who creeps around New York and uses modern technology to keep tabs on the girl he has fallen instantly in love with; but there’s a locked cage in the basement of the bookstore where he works, and he’s not afraid to use it on anyone who might not play by his rules.

Bird Box

Bird Box by Josh Malerman – Another thrilling tale of suspense, this novel includes mysterious creatures that spell death for any humans who see them, requiring sensory deprivation for the protagonists who are trying to escape to a safer place.

Further Horror Recommendations

Though the classics do, I think, show some variety of style and subject matter, there’s more of a range of authors and topics in the tailored lists below, divided into categories you may be particularly interested in:

If you want YA: Wilder Girls by Rory Power, Sawkill Girls by Clare Legrand, Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs

The Memory Police

If you want magical elements: Ninth House by Leigh Bardugo, The Memory Police by Yoko Ogawa and translated by Stephen Snyder, The Silent Companions by Laura Purcell

If you want literary fiction: Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss, Fever Dream by Samanta Scweblin and translated by Megan McDowell, The Vegetarian by Han Kang and translated by Deborah Smith

If you want satire: Tender is the Flesh by Augustina Bazterrica and translated by Sarah Moses, Severance by Ling Ma, Bunny by Mona Awad

If you want thrillers and suspense: Lock Every Door by Riley Sager, No Exit by Taylor Adams, Recursion by Blake Crouch

If you want sci-fi: Mexican Gothic by Silvia Moreno-Garcia, Providence by Caroline Kepnes, The Need by Helen Phillips

Horror on my TBR

This is a genre that I reach for pretty easily, and as horror can be pulpy it is fun to read books like these in the peak of their popularity; thus horror tends to cycle through my TBR more quickly than other genres (with fewer titles that hang around unread for several years) and as a result I think my TBR list is straightforward and I expect to get around to most or quite possibly all of these titles within the next year:

The Only Good Indians

The Only Good Indians by Stephen Graham Jones, I Hold a Wolf by the Ears by Laura van den Berg, You Let Me In by Camilla Bruce, Little Eyes by Samanta Scweblin and translated by Megan McDowell, House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski, The Possession by Michael Rutger, The Doll Factory by Elizabeth Macneal, Through the Woods by Emily Carroll

Why Read Horror?

This is a genre that can make some of the tough things in our real lives look a little less bleak, but it can also be a way to learn about the dark corners of the world that we didn’t know were there. Additionally, horror is one of the most cathartic genres, in my opinion; it can be great fun to get a low-stakes scare in a safe way.

Your Turn

We’ve reached the part where I encourage you to drop a comment below sharing anything you love (or don’t) about this category. Tell me about your own experiences, good and bad! If you have recommendations, if you’re looking for recommendations, if you have questions or hangups that stop you from reaching for horror, mention them below! I’m not trying to pressure anyone into reading what they don’t want to, but I’d love to discuss anything and everything about these books. That’s the point of this post! A genre or category can mean something different to everyone, so to take a wider view, I’d love to see what it means to you. 🙂

The Literary Elephant

Spotlight on YA

Welcome to my Spotlight series! Every month in 2020 (excepting a few adjustments, with catch-up in December) I am focusing on a different genre that I enjoy reading- not because I’m an expert, but because I want to celebrate a worthwhile category of books. I’m hoping this will be a space where everyone feels free to share their experiences with a genre of the month, whether you’ve read one book from the category or a hundred (or more!). I’ll share here what nonfiction means means to me, filling the post with titles and recommendations from my own experience, and then I’ll look forward to chatting with you in the comments about icons and recommendations I’ve missed (because that’s inevitable- I haven’t read everything)!

What is YA?

YA is Young Adult literature. It’s an age range for books, rather than a genre. Within this category, many of the same genres found in adult fiction are also present here: sci-fi, fantasy, romance, contemporary, mystery, thriller, horror, historical fiction, etc. I’m talking about YA broadly here because these days I read from this age range about as often as I read from any adult genre. These are books intended primarily for readers between the ages of about 13-18, though specific audience can vary by book and in the last ten years or so it has become increasingly common for adult readers to follow YA lit as well.

It can be hard to determine in some cases which books are YA as opposed to Middle Grade, New Adult, or even Adult literature in some cases- like many labels that can be given to books, YA is largely a marketing tool meant to help guide readers to books they’ll buy; labeling art is always subjective and sometimes it misses the mark, and sometimes a book just doesn’t fit neatly in a single category, so there can be some overlap and disagreement about where a title belongs.

An often easy way to pinpoint YA novels is to look at the age of the protagonist- often the teen main characters are about the same age as the intended audience. But this too can be deceptive at times; ultimately what is most appropriate for a YA audience has more to do with themes and presentation than age alone- an adult novel can utilize a child or teen protagonist but focus on content and themes that wouldn’t appeal or necessarily be relevant to most readers of that age. For example, I read Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line earlier this year which uses a child narrator, but its commentary on poverty and child violence is aimed at adults. Books like this often aim to highlight issues that go unnoticed or uncomprehended at a young age but reveal their importance later on. Whereas YA showcases coming-of-age stories, self-discovery and independence, the beginnings of world/political awareness, first love and first sexual encounters, conflict with friends, family and/or school.

My History with YA

I came to YA in what I think of as ‘the usual way;’ namely, when I grew into the right age for these books they also happened to be the most easily available to me, at my school library and in the teen sections I was guided to at my public library and local bookstore. I gravitated toward them easily. I started venturing into adult lit in high school, but YA was my primary reading fodder from about 12 to 18. And, I hate to brag, but it was a great time to be reading YA. This category exploded exponentially in the late 2000’s – early 2010’s, so YA giants were emerging right when I most wanted to read them.

The Hunger Games (The Hunger Games, #1)

For example, I was the perfect age for the Twilight craze (author: Stephenie Meyer), I read the Hunger Games (Suzanne Collins) and Divergent (Veronica Roth) series as they came out, and saw the movies in theaters with my teenage friends, who were also up to date because these were The Only Things To Read. I also dabbled in Pretty Little Liars (Sara Shepard), Gossip Girl (Cecily von Ziegesar), The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants (Ann Brashares), The Vampire Diaries (L. J. Smith), Thirteen Reasons Why (Jay Asher), The Fault in Our Stars (and all of the other John Green books available at the time). These aren’t flawless books, and I do think that the increase in diversity between then and now makes today a great time to be a teen reading YA as well, in perhaps more important ways. But it was great fun to witness some of these pop culture phenomenons just as YA was having its shining moment.

College made me more aware of life beyond my small town sphere and of exactly what I was reading, and it opened up a lot of adult literature doors that I hadn’t really explored before, so I cut back a lot of my YA reading at that point.

Midnight Sun (Twilight, #5)

I still enjoy reading from this age range and probably always will, but these days my reading taste in YA is a bit pickier and I reach mainly for hard-hitting YA and/or the creative inclusion of cultural details; but YA is still catering to fans of that big 2010’s wave as well, churning out sequels to earlier heavy-hitters. Lately we’re seeing follow-up books like Stephenie Meyer’s Midnight Sun and Suzanne Collins’s The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes, and new material from Scott Westerfeld (Imposters) and Veronica Roth (Chosen Ones), some of which I’ve been interested in as well.

YA Classics and Staples

The Outsiders

There aren’t a lot of YA books that I think of as classics, because the genre moves fast, but there are a few that come close. There’s S.E. Hinton’s The Outsiders, a common school reading assignment set (and written) in the 60’s, in which a boy from a group of social ‘outsiders’ kills a member of a rival gang and grapples with the nature of pain and humanity. Then there’s Laurie Halse Anderson’s Speak, a formative novel about the trauma of teen sexual violence and the difficulty of speaking out. (There’s also a gorgeous graphic novel version now!) Lois Lowry’s The Giver is a dystopian novel in which a young boy learns the secrets behind his colorless community and rebels.

But YA has changed so much in recent years that I think we’re in the making of a new list of classics. Here are a few well-known titles and authors (mostly from the upper end of YA, to be clear; the classics above are good for 12-14 year-olds but I’m catering more toward the middle of the YA range, closer to 15+) that I think will be remembered and reprinted for a long time to come:

The Poet X

The Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo – Written in verse, this is the modern story of a young slam poet, a Dominican American twin trying to find her voice and true love without alienating her strict Dominican parents.

Cassandra Clare- I include this author with caution because Clare has received a lot of criticism over the years including accusations of plagiarism, but she’s got a huge readership and many readers (including myself) enjoy her books so I think I’d be remiss not to mention her. All of Clare’s titles take place in the same fantasy Shadowhunter universe, so you could start at the very beginning with The City of Bones or jump in to other series within the universe by picking up Clockwork Angel, Lady Midnight, or Chain of Gold.

Along for the Ride

Sarah Dessen- If I had to pick a specific title from this contemporary author, I’d recommend The Truth About Forever (dealing with grief over the death of a parent as well as a whimsical catering crew) or Along for the Ride (dealing with the effects of messy divorce and chasing missed opportunities with a fellow teen insomniac), but Dessen has over a dozen titles to choose from and her new releases always get some buzz. Her most recent title is The Rest of the Story (dealing with classism, family history, and a long-lost childhood friend).

Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs – This is a paranormal/magical series following children with unique powers and the monsters that chase them. The books are filled with intriguing odd photographs and involve a type of time travel into various historical moments.

Salt to the Sea

Salt to the Sea by Ruta Sepetys – Here we have WWII historical fiction following four teen perspectives leading up to the disastrous sinking of a German cruise liner carrying refugees fleeing the Soviet Red Army.

Maggie Stiefvater- This author has a rich backlist, but her most popular work so far has been The Raven Cycle, starting with The Raven Boys; this is a paranormal/fantasy series involving a quest for an ancient king, forbidden love, fierce friendships, and magical dreams (literally). There’s now a spin-off trilogy following the original series as well, which begins with Call Down the Hawk.

Sadie

Sadie by Courtney Summers – This mystery uses a fun podcast format (I hear it’s great to read on audio!) to explore the dark topic of missing girls and the horrifying crimes that find them; a radio personality chases a missing teen who vanished while trying to track down her missing sister.

The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas – A contemporary tale highlighting injustice and racism facing Black Americans, including teens, in modern times. The protagonist witnesses the death of a friend at the hands of police and must choose what to say about the incident to friends, family, and community.

Further YA Recommendations

If none of the above-mentioned books are speaking to you (or you’ve read them all!) here are a few more I’ve enjoyed and would recommend, divided into categories you might be looking for specifically.

If you want Middle Grade / Young Adult cross-over books: Pet by Akwaeke Emezi, Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief by Rick Riordan, Hawksong by Amelia Atwater-Rhodes

If you want historical fiction: My Lady Jane by Cynthia Hand, Brodi Ashton, and Jodi Meadows, Between Shades of Gray by Ruta Sepetys, Midnight at the Electric by Jodi Lynn Anderson, The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

If you want sci-fi/dystopian: Illuminae by Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff, Ready Player One by Ernest Cline, Wilder Girls by Rory Power, Cinder by Marissa Meyer

Children of Blood and Bone (Legacy of Orïsha, #1)

If you want fantasy: Children of Blood and Bone by Tomi Adeyemi, Shadow and Bone and/or Six of Crows by Leigh Bardugo, Graceling by Kristin Cashore

If you want magical realism: Black Girl Unlimited by Echo Brown, Sawkill Girls by Claire Legrand, Wink Poppy Midnight by April Genevieve Tucholke, A Million Junes by Emily Henry

If you want romance: Dumplin’ by Jenny Murphy, To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before by Jenny Han, Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Saenz, Everything Leads to You by Nina LaCour

If you want mystery/thriller: The Female of the Species by Mindy McGinnis, We Were Liars by E. Lockhart

Girl Made of Stars

If you like contemporary (with a focus on social issues): Girl Made of Stars by Ashley Herring Blake, A List of Cages by Robin Roe, Wintergirls by Laurie Halse Anderson, The Sun is Also a Star by Nicola Yoon

YA on my TBR

This is probably best divided into three categories-

  • Recent releases that align with my current readings taste, like: Legendborn by Tracy Deonn, Full Disclosure by Camryn Garrett, I Have No Secrets by Penny Joelson, Dig. by A. S. King, Felix Ever After by Kacen Callender, The Astonishing Color of After by Emily X. R. Pan
The Astonishing Color of After
  • Authors I’ve enjoyed in the past that I want to read more from, like: Elizabeth Acevedo, Maggie Stiefvater, Rory Power, Louise O’Neill, Courtney Summers
  • Popular books that I feel like I’ve missed out on in the 2010’s and still want to try, like: The Knife of Never Letting Go by Patrick Ness, Strange the Dreamer by Laini Taylor, The Darkest Minds be Alexandra Bracken, Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda by Becky Albertalli, Far From the Tree by Robin Benway

Why Read YA?

If you’re 13-18, these books were literally written for you, to reflect your experiences and those of your peers, to entertain you, and to introduce you to what else is out there in the world that you might not have seen yet.

If you’re an adult, current YA might be a way to find a representation of your younger years that wasn’t available then. You’re more likely to find characters like your teenage self through the variety available in YA today than ever before. But even if you’re not looking to relate, YA has grown so much in the themes and cultures it covers in recent years that it’s also a great way to learn about experiences other than your own. There are some stories only a teen can tell, milestone stories that are just as impactful to read as an adult. It’s become a very creative and inclusive range of literature (though of course there’s still work to be done in making YA an equal space, as with all areas of publishing).

And on top of all that teaching and reflecting YA can do for readers of all ages, it’s just downright fun!

Your Turn

We’ve reached the part where I encourage you to drop a comment below sharing anything you love (or don’t) about this category. Tell me about your own experiences, good and bad! If you have recommendations, if you’re looking for recommendations, if you have questions or hangups that stop you from reaching for YA, mention them below! I’m not trying to pressure anyone into reading what they don’t want to, but I’d love to discuss anything and everything about these books. That’s the point of this post! A genre or category can mean something different to everyone, so to take a wider view, I’d love to see what it means to you. 🙂

The Literary Elephant

Spotlight On: Nonfiction

Welcome to my Spotlight series! Every month in 2020 I am focusing on a different genre that I enjoy reading- not because I’m an expert, but because I want to celebrate a worthwhile category of books. I’m hoping this will be a space where everyone feels free to share their experiences with a genre of the month, whether you’ve read one book from the category or a hundred (or more!). I’ll share here what nonfiction means means to me, filling the post with titles and recommendations from my own experience, and then I’ll look forward to chatting with you in the comments about icons and recommendations I’ve missed (because that’s inevitable- I haven’t read everything)!

What is Nonfiction?

I remember one of my first visits to the school library back in elementary school, when my class was given lessons on how to use the library; one of the first distinctions made was for the fiction vs nonfiction sections, and what could be found in each. This particular lesson stands out in my mind because at the time I thought it odd that ‘fiction’ had its own word, while ‘nonfiction’ was just a modification of that word, skipping over the obvious opposite descriptor: ‘fact.’ In children’s books, nonfiction often means ‘fact,’ condensed snippets of truth about the world or the people in it. It took me years to understand that ‘nonfiction’ actually means fact, opinion, guide, essay, history, and so many other interesting categories that are fully worthy of one’s attention. To me, as to many readers who prefer fiction, I suspect, nonfiction initially came across as stuffy, boring and unapproachable, but much of it is written to persuade, to narrate, and to fascinate- and truth can be so much stranger than fiction, indeed.

There are many genres under the nonfiction umbrella, some of which I’ll talk about more below, but if you don’t find anything in this post that grabs your attention maybe dig a little deeper into your local library or bookstore (perhaps virtually, where possible), because there is so very much variety within nonfiction and, I think, something to fit everyone’s specific tastes.

My History with Nonfiction

Because I had an early impression of nonfiction as a boringly educational and plot-less bunch of books, I did not read any nonfiction beyond the textbook chapters assigned in my classes until nearly the end of high school. Even my English classes assigned individual essays and letters from textbooks, so I avoided reading an actual nonfiction book cover to cover until about the tenth grade. At that point, I was supposed to read a non-fiction book and write a corresponding essay. The librarian who approached to help me find a book on a topic I was interested in walked away when I told her my interest was fiction- instead of pointing me toward a book about books or writing she assumed I was just trying to be difficult and left me to fend for myself, which further turned me off of nonfiction. The book I’d chosen at random when I ran out of time to look was indeed stuffy, boring, and completely unmemorable for me; I couldn’t finish it and have no idea how I passed writing an essay about it.

A Night to Remember

By the end of high school, the only nonfiction books I’d read were Mitch Albom’s Tuesdays with Morrie and Walter Lord’s A Night to Remember; the former I picked up because I had run out of fiction to read from Albom and wasn’t ready to quit, the latter because I was briefly obsessed with all things Titanic. I’d also dabbled in some of the Chicken Soup for the Soul books (edited by Jack Canfield and and Mark Victor Hansen), but again I’m not sure I ever read one ll the way through.

In college I was required to pick up more full-length nonfiction books, and since I had more freedom with class choices than in high school I did actually manage to find a few assignments that genuinely interested me, like Reyna Grande’s The Distance Between Us, Annie Dillard’s The Writing Life, Lauren Slater’s Lying, Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home, Jesmyn Ward’s The Men We Reaped (all of which I would highly recommend). I needed a jumping off point, and these all helped.

The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair That Changed America

The other key factor for me was accidentally picking up during a college break Erik Larson’s The Devil in the White City, which I thought was fiction from the moment I bought it until I started reading it months later and could no longer deny the truth about twenty pages in. It was the only book I’d brought along for a two-hour drive, so I stuck with it; enjoying this unintentional brush with nonfiction is what convinced me in the end that nonfiction, too, can have narrative and setting and characters, can tell a compelling story that’s impossible to look away from.

I gave nonfiction a real chance after that; it’s been slow going because it’s not what I’m used to and fiction will always have my heart, but I have discovered plenty to my taste now within the nonfiction range and expect it’ll be a lifelong pursuit.

Nonfiction Classics and Staples

This selection will be unfairly limited by the fact that I haven’t delved broadly or deeply yet into the full range of the category, but I do want to talk about a few major nonfiction must-reads that have been formative for me:

The Diary of a Young Girl

The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank, which is (as I’m sure you’re aware of, this one’s fairly ubiquitous) a young girl’s personal account of hiding with her Jewish family in Nazi-occupied Holland during WWII.

Also in WWII nonfiction, Elie Wiesel’s Night, recollections and reflections from a man who survived the Nazi concentration camps, including Auschwitz.

A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf, a feminist essay on the need for (and historical denial of) women to be granted the space and means with which to pursue creativity.

Audre Lorde’s The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House is a fantastic piece on intersectional feminism. I’ve not yet read it but suspect Mikki Kendall’s Hood Feminism also belongs on this list; it’s important to pair any white feminism books with a text that considers the importance of race when discussing feminism, as the difference is significant and yet often overlooked by white authors.

Not That Bad: Dispatches from Rape Culture

Not That Bad, edited by Roxane Gay, an anthology of essays from thirty writers about rape culture and its negative effects. I’d also like to mention Hunger here, Gay’s memoir on weight and trauma, which revolves around some of the same concepts at its core.

Know My Name by Chanel Miller, in which a woman subjected to sexual assault narrates the process of bringing her attacker to justice- a long, painful, and only minimally rewarding journey which highlights societal and judicial failures faced by such persons (often women).

The Vagina Bible by Dr. Jen Gunter: an educational and troubleshooting text meant to combat the prevalent misinformation and lack of information available regarding vaginal care.

In the Dream House

In the Dream House by Carmen Maria Machado is an impressive memoir that discusses abuse in same-sex (in this case f/f) relationships.

Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates is my most recent non-fiction read (and I don’t yet have a review to link for it- coming soon), but this is a stellar piece of literature on racism from the perspective of a father to his teenage son.

Further Nonfiction Recommendations

If you want true crime: Bad Blood by John Carryrou, In Cold Blood by Truman Capote (the very first ‘true crime novel’), Unbelievable by T. Christian Miller and Ken Armstrong

If you want a speech: Letter From Birmingham Jail by Martin Luther King Jr., No One is Too Small to Make a Difference by Greta Thunberg, Women and Power by Mary Beard

Tell Me How It Ends: An Essay in Forty Questions

If you want an essay: Tell Me How it Ends by Valeria Luiselli, We Should All Be Feminists by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (though be warned that this author may be transphobic)

If you want to read about the making of books: The Glass Castle by Jeanette , On Writing by Stephen King (though be warned that this author is problematic), Create Dangerously by Albert Camus, What We See When We Read by Peter Mendelsund

If you want a medical memoir: Ask Me About My Uterus by Abby Norman, The Beauty in Breaking by Michele Harper

If you want history: The Only Plane in the Sky by Garrett M. Graff, The Emigrants by Vilhelm Moberg (translated by Gustaf Lannestock), The Dirt: Confessions of the World’s Most Notorious Rock Band by Neil Strauss and Motley Crue

I don’t have sufficient experience and pieces to recommend, but nonfiction also includes self-help books and how-to guides, scientific texts, biographies and autobiographies, travelogues, long-form journalism and plenty more. My recommendations are clearly most focused on writing, feminism, and various other social issues that have caught my attention, but if these aren’t your area of intrigue rest assured there’s a whole wide world of impressive nonfiction I haven’t gotten to yet. Which brings us to:

Nonfiction on my TBR

Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents

Because this is 2020, a significant portion of my nonfiction TBR this year is comprised of books on race and racism, like Kiese Laymon’s Heavy, Isabel Wilkerson’s Caste, Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow. I like reading about social issues and feeling more informed, so I have been reading on this topic already, and my interest extends to all sorts of other societal areas as well; near the top of my nonfiction TBR are books like Dopesick: Dealers, Doctors, and the Drug Company that Addicted America by Beth Macy, Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City by Matthew Desmond, Minor Feelings: An Asian American Reckoning by Kathy Park Hong, No Visible Bruises: What We Don’t Know About Domestic Violence Can Kill Us by Rachel Louise Snyder, Carry: A Memoir of Survival on Stolen Land by Toni Jensen, and The Lost Family: How DNA Testing is Uncovering Secrets, Reuniting Relatives, and Upending Who We Are by Libby Copeland.

Another area of interest for me is true crime, which means I want to read books like Becky Cooper’s We Keep the Dead Close: A Murder at Harvard and a Half-Century of Silence, Sarah Weinman’s Unspeakable Acts: True Tales of Crime, Murder, Deceit, and Obsession, Lucy Crawford’s Notes on a Silencing, and Catherine Pelonero’s Kitty Genovese: A True Account of a Public Murder and its Private Consequences.

Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland

I won’t go through every single title on my TBR, but I’ll mention one more category I’d like to read up on: history. As a fiction lover, you’d think I would’ve been more interested in history earlier on, as seems to be the case for many, but this is a very recent reading interest for me. Patrick Radden Keefe’s Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland is on my list, as is A River in Darkness: One Man’s Escape from North Korea by Masaji Ishikawa (translated by Risa Kobayashi and Martin Brown), and SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome by Mary Beard, to name a few.

Why Read Nonfiction?

The obvious answer is, as one might expect, to learn new things about the world we live in and the people we share it with. If you have a question, nonfiction is where you’re most likely to find an answer. Nonfiction is the fun way to keep educating ourselves, on our own terms. But it can also help a reader to turn the lens inward and learn about themselves. In reading and sharing real stories and discoveries (which isn’t to say fiction isn’t real in its own way) we also find pieces of shared humanity, of ways in which we are the same. There are so many billions of unique experiences in the world (one for each person who has ever lived, I would posit), and it’s important to explore the ways in which we differ, but it’s also helpful to be reminded that at the core of our very disparate stories is our ability to sympathize and understand.

Your Turn

We’ve reached the part where I encourage you to drop a comment below sharing anything you love (or don’t) about this category. Tell me about your own experiences, good and bad! If you have recommendations, if you’re looking for recommendations, if you have questions or hangups that stop you from reaching for nonfiction, mention them below! I’m not trying to pressure anyone into reading what they don’t want to, but I’d love to discuss anything and everything about these books. That’s the point of this post! A genre or category can mean something different to everyone, so to take a wider view, I’d love to see what it means to you.

Thank you, in advance, for participating! 🙂

The Literary Elephant

Spotlight On: Translated Literature

Welcome to my Spotlight series! Every month in 2020 I am focusing on a different genre that I enjoy reading- not because I’m an expert, but because I want to celebrate a worthwhile category of books. I’m hoping this will be a space where everyone feels free to share their experiences with a genre of the month, whether you’ve read one book from the category or a hundred (or more!). I’ll share here what translated literature means means to me, filling the post with titles and recommendations from my own experience, and then I’ll look forward to chatting with you in the comments about icons and recommendations I’ve missed (because that’s inevitable- I haven’t read everything)!

What is Translated Lit?

This is a category rather than a genre. Translated literature is any fiction or nonfiction originally published in one language and then translated to another. Since English is my primary language, the translations I read (and thus the titles that will feature here) are editions now printed in English that originally came from… any other language. This is a personal limitation, not a boundary of translated literature, though I think English translations are among the most common.

Because this is a broader category, translated lit can fall into any genre, and indeed I’ve already mentioned some of the books highlighted below in other spotlight posts that focus more specifically on genre. I’m not sure whether literary fiction is actually the most often translated, or whether it’s simply the genre I’m most aware of in recent years and thus I’m a bit biased in that direction. Generally I think the books that are translated and the translated books most commonly read tend to be prestigious or popular in some way that makes them stand out; they’re linked to book prizes or selling particularly well in their original language, etc. But I don’t know enough about publishing politics to really comment on the process of what gets chosen or why.

My History with Translation

Inkheart (Inkworld, #1)

It was actually not until earlier this year that I realized one of my favorite series from childhood is actually a translation: the Inkheart trilogy by Cornelia Funke, translated from the German by Anthea Bell, a fantasy in which fiction is brought to life as it is read. My recent realization here is a good example of why it’s important for translator names to be granted space on book covers- Bell must have put a lot of time and consideration into translating each of the three (long) books in this series, and I never would have known about her involvement if I hadn’t seen an offhand comment from someone with a sharper eye. Because translators are not always granted cover space and because I didn’t spare the time as a kid to investigate details like this, I honestly am not sure what other translated works I may have read unknowingly before adulthood. I think fairy tales especially are often translated.

I can’t specifically think of any other MG or YA books I’ve read that are translations. Even in adulthood, translations are a fairly recent interest and underrepresented in my reading life, unfortunately. The reason I’m now trying to actively increase my translation consumption is twofold- I want to learn more about the world, and I’ve learned more about publishing and privilege. I know books printed in English tend to have the upper hand in the kind of sales that allow an author to make a living solely from writing. I know that the amount of books that are translated into English is limited. I know that women authors, in particular, have been historically less likely to see their work translated, hence the establishment of WIT month – to celebrate women in translation throughout August and show publishers that there is a demand for women in translated literature.

Tender Is the Flesh

I try to make WIT a priority in August, though some years I manage more than others, and August isn’t the only time I read translations. My most recent translated read, in fact, is one I picked up in the spirit of WIT month- Augustina Bazterrica’s Tender is the Flesh, translated from the Spanish by Sarah Moses. This is a brutal satire of factory farming and capitalism that shines a dark, cannibalistic light on modern society.

Translated Classics and Staples

Classics are a big facet of translated literature, and another of my main entrance points into reading translations. I was big on the Greeks and Romans for a while (aren’t we all at some point?) and got a good, proper start with translations in college by reading things like:

The Aeneid by Virgil, translated by C. Day Lewis, the mythologized account of the foundation of Rome following the destruction of Troy.

The Erotic Poems by Ovid, translated by Peter Green, a self-explanatory collection of poetry focused on love.

The Poems of Catullus, translated by Peter Green, another collection of Roman poetry preoccupied with illicit love.

Inferno by Dante Alighieri, translated (creatively) by Mary Jo Bang; this is an updated version of the classic story of Dante and Virgil’s descent into hell, in which Bang trades old allusions out for modern ones meant to give the contemporary reader the effect that the original would have had back in its own era.

The Iliad and the Odyssey

However, it was my more recent experience with The Iliad and The Odyssey by Homer, translated by Samuel Butler, that convinced me that translation style is really as crucial as the original content. It seems obvious, but it is important to keep in mind that languages can differ greatly- in grammar, in style, even in vocabulary. It is not always possible to do a direct word for word translation, and especially in poems and fiction prose, the way something is said can be as important as what is said. Translation is not a task that can be accomplished by anyone with a language-to-language dictionary, but requires particular artistic skill. Sometimes the best way to honor an original piece is to take a new approach in the format, or change words to achieve technical effects lost between one language and the next, etc. It took reading Butler’s very literal translation of The Iliad and The Odyssey, which takes Homer’s epic poems and delivers a dry word-for-word prose in its place, to teach me how important the artistic element is to translation. This is also the reason that it can be worthwhile to read multiple translations of the same work- translators can produce very different results from the same source material, and generally speaking none of them are “wrong.”

Further Translation Recommendations

If you’re just getting started with translated lit and aren’t sure what to pick up, here are a few titles I’ve enjoyed, labelled with descriptors you might already be interested in:

If you like sad literary tales: Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami, translated from the Japanese by Jay Rubin. This is a tragic coming of age story about a college student and the erratic girl he loves.

If you like learning about culture and history: The Vegetarian and Human Acts, both by Han Kang, translated from the Korean by Deborah Smith, are not to be missed. The former focuses on societal expectations and nonconformity as we see one woman adopt vegetarianism through the eyes of those around her; the latter tells a brutal tale of humanity’s violence as it recounts a deadly student uprising in 1980 Korea.

If you like magical elements: The Memory Police by Yoko Ogawa, translated from the Japanese by Stephen Snyder. In this otherworldly tale, a secluded society stumbles onward as ordinary things disappear en masse around them.

Fever Dream

If you like short books that pack a punch, with a hint of puzzle to the plot: Fever Dream by Samanta Schweblin, translated from the Spanish by Megan McDowell. Here we have a family in crisis, the mother weaving in and out of reality as she tries to piece back together what has happened.

If you like modern classics about family, love, and identity: The Lover by Marguerite Duras, translated from the French by Barbara Bray, follows a young girl’s sexual awakening as she enters an affair with an older man in an attempt to escape her struggling family.

If you like murder mysteries, there are plenty of choices, as these are oft-translated from many different cultures: you can go for a fast-paced whodunnit in which a writer is the top suspect, as in Katrine Engberg’s The Tenant, translated from the Danish by Tara Chace; or you can dig into a police procedural with historic and societal commentary as in Sara Blaedel’s The Forgotten Girls translated from the Danish by Signe Rod Golly; or if you’re looking for something compelling but light with a fantastic character study try Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead by Olga Tokarczuk, translated from the Polish by Antonia Lloyd-Jones.

Fiction is clearly what I gravitate towards, but even the fiction reader can enjoy nonfiction pieces like Albert Camus’s Create Dangerously, translated from the French by Justin O’Brien. This is a small collection of essays about the responsibility of the artist, freedom, and perseverance.

Because this list is short and my own experience is limited, I’m going to link some other bloggers’ 2020 WIT posts and other related content to put some additional titles on your radar. These posts feature books I’m excited to read and/or learn more about, and all of these bloggers are worth a follow for more excellent translated lit (and other) content! This is a quick list mostly of posts I’ve read and enjoyed in August that I think contain a good variety of content and some further links, and it is not by any means exhaustive; if you have any WIT posts or other translation posts you’d like to add to the conversation, please link them in the comments below!

The Liar

Callum has rounded up a fresh list of WIT recommendations; he’s also been reviewing additional WIT titles all through August.

Rachel discusses WIT month, including the official readathon (now concluded, but keep this in mind for next year!) and some personal TBR picks.

Fatma has compiled a list of translations, focused specifically on Japan.

Naty sets a WIT month TBR.

Ren suggests translated nonfiction.

Diana creates and answers the prompts of the Translated Literature Book Tag. This post is from last year, but I’d love to see more answers to this tag and encourage you to join the fun if you haven’t yet!

Translations on my TBR:

So many! I’ve really liked most of the translated books I’ve read so far, and so a fair portion of my translated lit TBR is further work from authors I’ve already read, including titles like Han Kang’s The White Book, translated by Deborah Smith; Olga Tokarczuk’s Flights, translated by Jennifer Croft; Yoko Ogawa’s Revenge, translated by Stephen Snyder; Samanta Schweblin’s Mouthful of Birds, translated by Megan McDowell.

Vita Nostra

I also want to read Sayaka Murata’s Convenience Store Woman, translated by Ginny Tapley Takemori, a staple that focuses on societal expectations, identity, and conformity. Marina and Sergey Dyachenko’s Vita Nostra, translated by Julia Meitov Hersey, a Ukranian sci-fi/fantasy featuring a magic school; Maja Lunde’s The History of Bees, translated by Diane Oatley, a generational tale of beekeepers that investigates the relationship between humans and nature over time.

There are some translated books on my TBR for particular reasons as well, like Jokha Alharthi’s Celestial Bodies, translated by Marilyn Booth, and Mareike Lukas Rijneveld’s The Discomfort of Evening, translated by Michele Hutchison- the last two Booker International winners. Thanks to 2020, I’ve also got Albert Camus’s The Plague, translated by Stuart Gilbert, on my list. I have a few translations on my list that I’d like to read both the original and translated versions of in order to test my skill at languages I’ve studied in the past- Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude translated from the Spanish by Gregory Rabassa, and Beowulf, translated by Seamus Heaney from the Old English. And of course, I pick up so many recommendations on the strength of reviews alone!

Why Read Translated Literature?

To expand one’s knowledge of the world. Reading directly from writers in countries foreign to you is a fantastic way to immerse yourself in new cultures and experience styles that may differ from what is common where you live. Narrative traditions and popular content can vary greatly, and experiencing those through translations is a great way to learn about people and their stories and storytelling methods from around the world.

The Emigrants (The Emigrants, #1)

But it isn’t always about branching out- thanks to translated literature, I was able last year to read a Swedish series about emigration that helped me better understand a piece of my own family history that might otherwise have remained nebulous for me. I read Wilhelm Moberg’s The Emigrants, translated from the Swedish by Gustaf Lannestock, to get a closer look at a story of immigration similar to my family’s past; if your family have ties to another place that is not very present in your life now, translated lit may be the answer that’ll bring you closer to another part of yourself, too.

It’s a way of bridging the gap. Of bringing people together. Of using the ways in which we are different to see also the ways in which we are the same.

Your Turn

We’ve reached the part where I encourage you to drop a comment below sharing anything you love (or don’t) about this category. Tell me about your own experiences, good and bad! If you have recommendations, if you’re looking for recommendations, if you have questions or hangups that stop you from reaching for translated lit, mention them below! I’m not trying to pressure anyone into reading what they don’t want to, but I’d love to discuss anything and everything about these books. That’s the point of this post! A genre or category can mean something different to everyone, so to take a wider view, I’d love to see what it means to you.

Thank you, in advance, for participating! 🙂

The Literary Elephant

Spotlight on: Thrillers

Welcome to my Spotlight series! Every month in 2020 I am focusing on a different genre that I enjoy reading- not because I’m an expert, but because I want to celebrate a worthwhile category of books. I’m hoping this will be a space where everyone feels free to share their experiences with a genre of the month, whether you’ve read one book from the category or a hundred (or more!). I’ll share here what the Thriller genre means to me, filling the post with titles and recommendations from my own experience, and then I’ll look forward to chatting with you in the comments about icons and recommendations I’ve missed (because that’s inevitable- I haven’t read everything)!

 

What is a Thriller?

This is a genre meant to- you guessed it- give the reader a thrill! These are fast paced books generally notable for their dramatic plot twists, high stakes, and a healthy dose of action and/or horror. Thrillers can have mysteries at their core, or focus more on atmosphere and suspense without an investigation of some sort driving the plot. The level of suspense I feel is intended in the story is usually how I determine whether to classify a book as a thriller- which often comes down to whether the protagonist/MC is in significant danger- this person is often but not always a woman. The thriller genre is the one place in publishing (that I know of) where male authors will adopt female-sounding pen names and write women MCs to improve their sales, rather than the other way around (women writers have historically presented themselves as masculine authors to gain an audience). I think society tends to perceive women as more vulnerable (and perhaps more susceptible to suggestion, ugh) which drives the market this way for thrillers- personally I’d love to see more male protagonists running for the lives! Although preferably not in a way that paints women as generally evil.

I’m not sure whether I would call the various types of thrillers “subgenres,” but this is a genre that often uses tropes and formulas so it’s relatively easy to divide the thriller genre into branches like Slasher Thriller, Psychological Thriller, Investigative Thriller, etc. Some thrillers also contain a sci-fi, fantasy, or speculative element. The genre has plenty of crossover with horror as well, which I’ll be talking about more in October.

 

My History with Thrillers

CoralineI’m not sure whether to count children’s books with sci-fi/speculative/fantasy elements like: Neil Gaiman’s Coraline and Joseph Brusac’s Skeleton Man and even Roald Dahl’s James and the Giant Peach; if so, then these were my earliest brushes with the thriller genre. If not, I’m not sure what thrillers should look like for a child audience or whether terrifying kid readers with quasi-plausible horrors is even any sort of writing goal worth striving for. Most of my thrills as a child and teen came from more straightforward fantasy and sci-fi novels, which helps put the horror at a “not real” remove; can you imagine intentionally frightening child readers with real-life villains taken to fictionalized extremes?? Thriller villains are often “real” people with an evil (or at least incredibly selfish) agenda and childhood is too early to be convincing anyone that no one can be trusted.

Gone GirlIf YA thrillers were around in my day, I don’t recall coming across them. I did enjoy a few ghost stories and some high-stakes fantasy and sci-fi novels as a teen, but nothing I would call an edge-of-your-seat thriller. It wasn’t until 2012 when I picked up a new copy of Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn, my first proper adult thriller, that I really immersed myself in this genre. There’s a lot of vitriol aimed at Gone Girl these days, and for my second thriller read, Paula Hawkins’s The Girl on the Train, but I will always remember them fondly as great introductory works to the genre.

In the last two years or so my thriller consumption has decreased; I still love a good thrill, but have gotten to a point where they don’t always manage to surprise and convince me, which I find frustrating. Lately I stick with my go-to thriller authors, although I think I’ll need to switch it up again soon and find a new roster to give myself a better chance at being genuinely surprised. I have a good eye for patterns when reading the same author repeatedly, which can spoil the thrill!

 

Thriller Classics and Staples (or, a discussion)

Red Dragon (Hannibal Lecter, #1)I’m not sure whether thrillers have evolved from slower paced horror and mysteries only in the last couple of decades, or whether my relatively recent introduction to this genre is blinding me to a history that exists outside of my reach, but I’m not coming up with any thriller classics- let me know your thoughts on this! The only one I can think of is perhaps Thomas Harris, he of the Hannibal Lecter series: Red Dragon, The Silence of the Lambs, and Hannibal, all of which straddle the lines between mystery, thriller, and horror, and are barely old enough to be considered classics at all. Patricia Cornwell also did well in the 90s with her mystery/crime/thriller novels (particularly the Kay Scarpetta series starting with Postmortem) but again that’s relatively recent and seems much less popular today.

Let’s unravel this a little further- the thriller genre is well-known for being sort of throw-away; just like its plots, the genre moves fast. A thriller published only a few years ago can already feel tired, and the audience will certainly have moved on, which makes it hard to recommend any particular titles that aren’t brand new. Thriller authors will often produce a new book each year and popularity tends to lie with the writer rather than individual titles. Readers will certainly have their own favorites, but I think you’d be hard-pressed to find any thriller more than 5 years old still recommended heavily- with the exception of Gillian Flynn. Her books seem to age slower than the rest, and if you haven’t read her yet… you’re missing out but you’re not too late!

In that same vein, I’d be remiss not to mention these thriller giants:

Home Before DarkRiley Sager – I’m currently reading his most recent release, Home Before Dark, and at this point I can’t say for sure how it ranks for me compared to his other work, but Sager’s 2019 title Lock Every Door is still very much worth the read! This author is great with atmosphere and cheap but effective jump scares.

Ruth Ware – Either of Ware’s last two releases, The Turn of the Key or The Death of Mrs. Westaway would be a great place to start with her work. These lean a bit toward mystery and are better to read for atmosphere than breakneck pace. Ware also has a 2020 book coming soon, One By One, which I will be watching for!

Paula Hawkins – This author also leans toward mystery, and her most recent release, Into the Water, is a few years old now. But Hawkins possibly has an upcoming release coming out in October! It’s already been pushed back from October 2019 and the only information listed on GR is a 480 page count, so apparently the book’s very existence is part of the plot here (does it exist at all? Who can say?).

RecursionBlake Crouch – Here you’ll get a thrill- this author is for fans of sci-fi thrillers. (Don’t knock it till you’ve tried it!) Both of his last releases (Dark Matter and Recursion) have been popular hits, and I’d suggest picking up the latter if you’re looking for new thrills in this genre and haven’t tried the sci-fi angle yet!

James Patterson – One of the most prolific mystery/thriller writers of our era, Patterson is a name you’ve likely heard or seen already. If you’re looking for something a bit more sequential and want to spend more time with main characters, the Women’s Murder Club series (starting with 1st to Die)follows strong career women who work together to hunt down extreme criminals around San Francisco.

J P Delaney – My last Delaney read was The Girl Before in 2017, which I would still recommend. Delaney is a great standard thriller author; I rarely see his books held up as favorites, but he’s a popular and reliable author whose books always seem to surprise and entertain. He’s got a 2020 book just released: Playing Nice

Lisa Jewell – I haven’t read this author yet but she tends to have a trendy thriller out almost every year, with an avid fanbase! Her last release was the 2019 title The Family Upstairs.

I Let You GoClare Mackintosh – I read I Let You Go in 2017 (a 2014 release) and have been meaning to read more of the author’s work ever since; she’s great at subverting expectations and planting clues so deeply that the reader doesn’t realize they’re clues until a revelatory twist drops everything into place. I’d still recommend I Let You Go, but Mackintosh has published several more thrillers in the meantime, including a well-received 2019 release, After the End.

Megan Miranda – Both All the Missing Girls and The Perfect Stranger were satisfactory thrills for me; the former is told backwards, which is a fun twist, and while her more recent releases have been more standard thriller fare, they do have a loyal following.

Sarah Pekkanen and Greer Hendricks – a duo consistently turning out popular thrills; their most recent collaboration is the 2020 release You Are Not Alone; their previous releases, The Wife Between Us and An Anonymous Girl are both fairly recent as well and have received a lot of love.

Sandie Jones – this author has been popular since her 2018 release, The Other Woman, and has two more recent titles seeing attention as well, including her 2020 title The Half Sister.

 

Further Thriller Recommendations

If you’re brand new to the genre or have already come across the major players and are looking for something else to thrill you, here are some additional suggestions based on categories you may already enjoy! These have been some of my favorite and most memorable thriller reads that I’d highly recommend checking out if you feel so inclined!

If you like sci-fi: The Anomaly by Michael Rutger, The Clockwork Dynasty by Daniel H Wilson, The Oracle Year by Charles Soule

Bird BoxIf you like fantasy or speculative elements: Early Riser by Jasper Fforde, Bird Box by Josh Malerman, Behind Her Eyes by Sarah Pinborough

If you like literary fiction: The Need by Helen Phillips, Social Creature by Tara Isabella Burton, My Sister, the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite

If you like mysteries: The Blinds by Adam Sternbergh, The Last by Hanna Jameson, Dark Places by Gillian Flnn, The Lies We Told by Camilla Way

If you want to skip the mystery and go straight to suspense: No Exit by Taylor Adams, Fierce Kingdom by Gin Phillips

 

Thrillers on my TBR:

The Body LiesA fair few! I love a good scare, especially in the fall, so I’m lining up contenders. I’m a sucker for thriller synopses, they always draw me in. In recent years my reading taste has changed and I’ve hit a bit of a thriller slump, but I’d love to make a comeback, especially by diving into some new-to-me-authors. Some titles currently on my radar from authors I haven’t read before include: My Lovely Wife by Samantha Downing, The Hunting Party by Lucy Foley, The Last Flight by Julie Clark, You Let Me In by Camilla Bruce, The Body Lies by Jo Baker, and Necessary People by Anna Pitoniak. I might try C.J. Tudor’s work at some point as well, though I haven’t settled on a certain title! I’d also like to try again with J P Delaney, read Rutger’s The Possession (a sequel to The Anomaly; it’s all very X-Files, which I enjoy), and keep an eye on future releases from Sager, Ware, and Hawkins. I’d do just about anything to get my hands on more work from Gillian Flynn. In general, I’d also really like to try more literary thrillers, which scare me less but are still usually tons of fun and leave more lasting impressions.

 

Why Read Thrillers?

It’s cathartic! Nothing puts everyday stresses and worries to rest like the relief that no one’s trying to kill you the way they’re going after X protagonist in Y thriller. Plus, the plots and characterization tend to be remarkably creative! I also tend to think of this genre as the palate cleanser of reading- when you’re in a slump, when your favorite heavy reads are getting you down, when you just want to finish something quick, thrillers are there for you. When you find a good fit, you’re glued to the page. You’re engaged emotionally (hoping your fave character won’t die) and mentally (trying to figure out who’s the threat!). And when you’re finished you can easily set the book aside without giving it another thought and move on to anything else that’s caught your interest.

 

Your turn

We’ve reached the part where I encourage you to drop a comment below sharing anything you love (or don’t) about this genre. Tell me about your own experiences, good and bad! If you have recommendations, if you’re looking for recommendations, if you have questions or hangups that stop you from reaching for thrillers, mention them below! I’m not trying to pressure anyone into reading what they don’t want to, but I’d love to discuss anything and everything about the genre. That’s the point of this post! A genre can mean something different to everyone, so to take a wider view, I’d love to see what it means to you.

Thank you, in advance, for participating! 🙂

 

The Literary Elephant

Spotlight on: Mystery

Black lives matter! If you haven’t yet, check out this post where I’ve rounded up and explained a number of ways to help the movement, or just go straight here to do your part.

 

Welcome to my Spotlight series! Every month in 2020 I am focusing on a different genre that I enjoy reading- not because I’m an expert, but because I want to celebrate a worthwhile category of books! I’m hoping this will be a space where everyone feels free to share their experiences with a genre of the month, whether you’ve read one book from the category or a hundred (or more!). I’ll share here what Mystery means to me, filling the post with titles and recommendations from my own experience, and then I’ll look forward to chatting with you in the comments about icons and recommendations I’ve missed (because that’s inevitable- I haven’t read everything)!

 

What is Mystery?

The mystery genre is full of books in which a question is presented at the beginning of the story that will be answered by the end, usually with clues (and red herrings) strewn along the way that allow the reader to guess at the answer. One “type” that appears often is the murder mystery. These often follow a detective (official or not) looking into a suspicious death. But murder is not a requirement of the genre; detectives can investigate any question to which an answer is initially unknown. Another “type” is the closed room mystery, in which a crime or other grievance has been committed in an enclosed space that defies entrance or exit- the culprit is stuck inside, hiding among innocents, and everyone is suspect.

Mystery has plenty of crossover with thriller genre- I’ll be focusing on that one more next month, but I want to draw a distinction in the meantime. Though a book can be both mystery and thriller, I also think a line can be drawn between the two genres, and that comes down to a difference in tone and level of suspense. A subjective matter, to be sure. For me the difference is usually determined by the degree of danger which the detective faces- if their life isn’t directly on the line, or is only in danger only because they happen to be present in a sticky situation, those are often mysteries. If the stakes are reasonably low and/or or distanced from the protagonist(s), that’s a mystery. If it’s a puzzle without edge-of-your-seat life-or-death-urgency, that’s a mystery to me.

Mystery can overlap with pretty much any genre, and it will mean a difference only in the setting or the way that the puzzle is being presented, though no other genre *requires* a puzzle the way Mystery does. Other frequent crossovers include gothic and horror stories.

 

My History with Mystery

I was one of many US children introduced to Gertrude Chandler Warner’s Boxcar Children mysteries during early forays into “chapter books.” The Boxcar Children (The Boxcar Children, #1)I don’t own very many but I did read every volume available at both my school and public libraries, some more than once, throughout elementary school. I am also far from unique in moving on from those to Carolyn Keene’s Nancy Drew series. Mystery is a great genre for young readers generally, because it provides a hook to keep kids engaged from start to finish, can teach a moral, and uses simple tropes that can be repeated and recognized over and over in endless slightly altered configurations. Quite a lot of stories for young readers are mysteries. I read a lot of them and I remember few.

After binging on mysteries in my young reading years, I took a bit of a break from the genre. I became interested in more varied and wild stories, especially fantasy and the supernatural. Because mystery can fit into any genre, I did encounter it again in the process of seeking more fantastical reading; In my tweens / early teens I briefly loved Elizabeth Chandler’s Dark Secrets series and Meg Cabot’s 1-800-Where-R-You series. The Face on the Milk Carton (Janie Johnson, #1)I also remember reading Caroline B. Cooney’s The Face on the Milk Carton around this time (though faces had never appeared on any of my milk cartons and I remember being young enough that I had to ask someone what that was all about).

In high school I fell into a murder mystery phase, and also a cringey reading-whoever-took-up-the-most-shelf-space-at-the-library phase, which meant (among others) Joanne Fluke, Janet Evanovich (I read a Stephanie Plum per day for a little while there, firmly team Ranger), and James Patterson. By college I was better at finding standalones to fit my taste and preferred a real challenge in guessing the whodunnits, and more suspense.

 

Mystery Classics and Staples

And Then There Were NoneDoes more need to be said than the name Agatha Christie? She’s dubbed “the queen of mystery” for a reason! I’ve actually only read a handful of her books so far, but one doesn’t need to read many to see her skill with the genre. My favorites to date have been (to no one’s surprise) And Then There Were None and Murder on the Orient Express. The former is a closed room mystery which takes place on an island, where ten people are gathered and die one by one while they wait to leave and try desperately to determine which among them is the killer. The latter, another closed room mystery, takes place on a train, where one passenger winds up dead and the evidence seems contradictory.

Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier is a gothic mystery classic in which a young wife feels judged against her husband’s former (now dead) wife, though no one will tell her what happend to the last Mrs. de Winter.

The Good Daughter (Good Daughter, #1)For more modern representation, Karin Slaughter is not to be overlooked. I started with The Good Daughter, in which a woman who survived a terrible attack as a child is later privy to the aftermath of another horrible crime, one that demands she take another look at the past tragedy that changed her family irrevocably. This title in itself isn’t necessarily the staple, but Karin Slaughter is enough of a mystery icon that all of her titles are on the map.

I must also mention Liane Moriarty, whose popular mystery Big Little Lies is a big little adaptation these days; this one follows a group of women whose children attend an Australian school where the parent drama turns deadly.

Robert Galbraith is another big name in mystery, probably due to the fact that J. K. Rowling hides behind the name, but for whichever reason, you’ll probably hear about the Cormoran Strike series if you’re digging into this genre! These are UK-based puzzles led by a one-legged private investigator and his intrepid secretary/partner.

The Silence of the LambsThere’s also Thomas Harris’s infamous Hannibal Lecter series for the horror fans- these are a bit grislier, but if you’re not interested in the whole series skip straight to The Silence of the Lambsit can be read on its own, and is not to be missed! In this story, the FBI’s new behavioral science unit is hunting an evasive serial killer- with the help of an eclectic madman they’ve already caught.

And of course mystery is a popular genre outside of the English language as well. I’ve not yet read The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson (translated from the Swedish by Reg Keeland), a major contender, but I have enjoyed Sarah Blaedel’s The Forgotten Girls (translated from the Danish by Signe Rød Golly), Katrine Engberg’s The Tenant (translated from the Danish by Tara Chace) and Olga Tokarczuk’s Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead (translated from the Polish by Antonia Lloyd-Jones), a recent nominee for several literary prizes. It’s good fun to see how mysteries are done in other countries, I highly recommend looking around the world for additional titles!

 

Further Mystery Recommendations

If you’re new to the genre and not sure where to start, let me offer a few suggestions based on other categories you may already be interested in. These recommendations are based off of my own reading, rather than an exhaustive list of everything that’s out there; if anyone has further suggestions please drop them in the comments below!

The OutsiderIf you like YA: Courtney Summers’s Sadie, Akwaeke Emezi’s Pet

If you like magical or supernatural elements: Stephen King’s The Outsider, Yangsze Choo’s The Night Tiger, Caroline Kepnes’s Providence

If you like history: Caleb Carr’s The Alienist, Tina May Hall’s The Snow Collectors, Jess Kidd’s Things in Jars, Tom Rob Smith’s Child 44

If you like social issues: Liz Moore’s Long Bright River, Deepa Anappara’s Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line, Angie Kim’s Miracle Creek

If you like lit fic: Julia Phillips’ Disappearing Earth, Maria Hummel’s Still Lives

If you like thrillers: Hanna Jameson’s The Last, Riley Sager’s The Last Time I Lied, Ruth Ware’s The Turn of the Key

If you like police procedurals: Susie Steiner’s Missing, Presumed, Adam Sternbergh’s The Blinds (to be clear, the sheriff of The Blinds is a fellow inmate in an experimental town full of criminals so this is a police procedural with a twist)Behind Her Eyes

Special shoutout to my favorite mystery twist to date, found in Sarah Pinborough’s Behind Her Eyes, which I can’t talk about without giving it away. This one’s polarizing but… I loved it! If anyone is looking for a wild card recommendation, this is it.

 

Mysteries on my TBR:

Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Complete Sherlock Holmes is a mystery must that I’ve been sleeping on for far too long! I’m embarrassed not to have read any of these stories yet. I also have Anthony Horowitz high on my mystery to-read list, starting with The Word is Murder. Stuart Turton’s The 7 1/2 Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle is waiting patiently on my shelf, along with Jo Baker’s The Body Lies, and Silvia Moreno Garcia’s Mexican Gothic is on its way to my mailbox. (I’m hazy on whether this is actually a mystery or just gothic, so please excuse me if I’m wrong but I’m getting mystery vibes.) I’ve also got Kate Weinberg’s The Truants on my list, as well as Danielle Trussoni’s The Ancestor, and Claire Fuller’s Bitter Orange, for a few examples. Bitter OrangeAnd I want to do a deep dive into Agatha Christie’s work at some point! Which mysteries are on your TBR?

 

Why Read Mystery?

To exercise your brain! To brush with the morbid and macabre! To learn about real problems with crime from around the world! Mystery can also help readers build a sense of empathy and understand motivations because they often focus closely on character. These are perfect books to escape into, and you can choose to work on the puzzle for yourself while reading or simply follow along as the characters figure things out. Either way, it’s a great blend of fun format with thoughtful (and often very serious) content.

 

Your turn

We’ve reached the part where I encourage you to drop a comment below sharing anything you love (or don’t) about this genre. Tell me about your own experiences, good and bad! If you have recommendations, if you’re looking for recommendations, if you have questions or hangups that stop you from reaching for mystery books, mention them below! I’m not trying to pressure anyone into reading what they don’t want to, but I’d love to discuss anything and everything about the genre. That’s the point of this post! A genre can mean something different to everyone, so to take a wider view, I’d love to see what it means to you.

Thank you, in advance, for participating! 🙂

 

The Literary Elephant

Spotlight on: Fantasy

Welcome to my Spotlight series! Every month in 2020 I am focusing on a different genre that I enjoy reading- not because I’m an expert, but because I want to celebrate a worthwhile category of books! I’m hoping this will be a space where everyone feels free to share their experiences with a genre of the month, whether you’ve read one book from the category or a hundred (or more!). I’ll share here what Fantasy means to me, filling the post with titles and recommendations from my own experience, and then I’ll look forward to chatting with you in the comments about icons and recommendations I’ve missed (because that’s inevitable- I haven’t read everything)!

 

What is Fantasy?

For me, fantasy is any fiction that includes magic. Sometimes it’s explicitly stated, sometimes it’s implied, but it is essentially that which can’t be explained by the rules of reality.

There are, I think, quite a lot of fantasy subgenres, and I can’t pretend to be well-versed enough to talk in depth about the nuances between them all. Typically when I talk about fantasy I’m referring to high fantasy, which takes place in an invented world with its own contained magical system and rules of operation. But I also read some urban/low fantasy, in which a sort of magical pocket universe is hidden and largely unknown by society within the bounds of our real world. Magical realism / fabulism falls under the fantasy umbrella for me, though often these contain just one magical element in an otherwise realistic world. Fairy tales and folklore containing magic are also fantasy in my book.

Additionally, fantasy is closely related to science fiction for me (and many others, I believe); while I think there is a definite difference between the two (mainly that science fiction at least attempts to explain how and why its details are possible using known and speculated facts based on our real world and knowledge base whereas magic deals directly with inexplicable otherworldly elements at face value) I also think that both exist on the same spectrum and that some books fall in the middle or contain significant elements from both genres. Typically superhero, paranormal, and dystopian stories fall under science fiction in my mind because they often offer some explanation as to how their otherworldly elements could be compatible with the real world, but depending on how these things are handled in text these will sometimes also fall into the fantasy genre for me. Just as I mentioned some fantasy-leaning sci-fi in my spotlight post for that genre, there will be some sci-fi content included in this post as well, with the understanding that these titles fit under both categories for me, rather than exclusively into one.

 

My History with Fantasy

Where I felt my last couple of spotlight posts might have suffered for the fact that I’ve come to enjoy those genres only more recently, this one I’m afraid will suffer a bit for the fact that I haven’t been reading as much of it in the last few years, even though fantasy was one of my first favorite genres. I won’t be able to recommend a lot of new releases on the strength of personal experience, though I still have plenty of titles to talk about!

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone (Harry Potter, #1)It’s hard to pinpoint my earliest experiences with this genre, because I was reading about magic long before I kept a reading log or had a grasp on genre differentiations. There was a particular picture book with faerie queens with wands in a forest that I remember loving, though it’s so far back that I can’t seem to track it down even on the internet and am not entirely sure I’d recognize the cover if I did. But I do remember some other fantasy books I started reading in elementary school once I was reading proper chapters- C. S. Lewis’s The Chronicles of Narnia, J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series (of course), The Spiderwick Chronicles by Toni DiTerlizzi and Holly Black. Neil Gaiman’s Coraline was an early standalone fantasy favorite.

It was the magic itself I was interested in at the beginning- I really fell into those imaginative worlds with their own peculiar rules and creatures. I sped through Cornelia Funke’s Inkheart (translated from the German by Anthea Bell), Kristin Cashore’s Graceling, Shannon Hale’s The Goose Girl, L. J. Smith’s The Vampire Diaries. There was a definite trend toward fantasy romance when I hit middle school, and that was the point at which I came to two of the most formative books of my life: Amelia Atwater-Rhodes’s Hawksong and Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight. Hawksong (The Kiesha'ra, #1)To be clear, when I say “formative” I don’t necessarily mean I’m holding these up as lasting favorites, though Hawksong is one of those as well. It’s a bit basic compared to today’s YA fantasies, but it makes some great social points in convincing ways. But when I say Twilight was formative I mean that it was something that I loved at the time, the first series with which I was part of a fandom, and the first book/series that I reread later with an entirely changed perspective. It taught me a lot about what makes a book “work” or not, and what kind of reader I have been at different points in my life, which hasn’t happened as clearly for me with any other genre.

After high school, I became interested in fantasy not so much for the details of those other worlds as for the parallels that could be drawn between the worldly and otherworldly. I’ve come to value complex characterization and politics and social commentary above the magic itself. This is actually part of the reason I’ve read less fantasy in recent years- I’m in the middle of a slow trek through George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series, and while it’s not a flawless set it is a good fit for my current magical taste. The problem is that I don’t reach for long books as easily as I used to, so I’m hesitant to continue while also hesitant to start other fantasies lest I forget the details of this one. The City of Brass (The Daevabad Trilogy, #1)I’m also mentally juggling Pierce Brown’s extended Red Rising trilogy and S. A. Chakraborty’s Daevabad trilogy, both of which are ongoing. It’s a lot of pages to reread if I can’t keep fantasies straight.

 

Fantasy Classics and Staples

Usually I focus specifically on classics for this section of the post, but I think the only book I’ve read that properly fits the category is J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit, which I’d be surprised if you haven’t already heard of; but I do feel that I’ve read a fair number of popular fantasy staples over the years, particularly series. I can’t say these are the most original selections from the genre, although if you’re fairly new to fantasy I think any of them would be an okay place to start to get a feel for what sort of magic you’re interested in- popular must be popular for a reason. I’ll organize these by age range, MG -> YA -> NA -> Adult.

The Giver by Lois Lowry features a utopian/dystopian society in which the twelve year-old protagonist learns the shocking truth behind how his community keeps the peace.

The Lightning Thief by Rick Riordan is the first book in his Percy Jackson series, in which a young boy (Percy) attends a summer camp for demi-gods, where he learns how the Greek gods and all of their power fit into the modern era.

Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children (Miss Peregrine's Peculiar Children, #1)Eragon by Christopher Paolini is a dragon-focused fantasy; a farm boy stumbles upon a strange stone that hatches into a dragon, forever altering destiny for both the boy and the empire.

Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs features a group of unusual children hiding from their monstrous enemies in a loop of time at the end of WWII.

The Raven Boys by Maggie Stiefvater is a paranormal story in which a group of private school boys and a girl named Blue search for a legendary, ancient Welsh king.

Shadow and Bone by Leigh Bardugo follows a girl with long-hidden magic who becomes caught in a battle for power led by the Darkling; set in the same world, the Six of Crows duology features a band of skilled outcasts, for whom an elaborate heist turns into a quest for survival and revenge.

City of Bones (The Mortal Instruments, #1)City of Bones by Cassandra Clare is an urban fantasy in which a New York teen learns that there’s more to her home city- and her family legacy- than she ever knew. Spin-off books set in the same shadowhunter world include Clockwork Priness, Lady Midnightand Chain of Gold.

A Court of Thorns and Roses by Sarah J. Maas is a romance-focused fae fantasy (modelled on Beauty and the Beast) in which a mortal girl must break a fifty-year curse and stop a war for the High Lord(s) she loves.

Red Rising by Pierce Brown is an interplanetary dystopian set far into the future in which a lowly boy from the mines of Mars rebels against the color Caste system by infiltrating an elite and brutal Institute.

The Magicians by Lev Grossman includes a magical college where the protagonist learns that the magical setting of his favorite childhood books is a real place, and darker than he ever could have imagined.

Saga, Vol. 1A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness is a low fantasy romance in which shared enemies bring together unusual alliances as one witch with suppressed powers learns she may hold the key to uniting the four races (humans, vampires, witches, and daemons) before centuries of separation drive them extinct.

Saga by Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples is a comic series following an interracial family whose warring planets try to exterminate them in order to perpetuate their own power struggle and the myth that their peoples are incompatible with peace.

 

Further Fantasy Recommendations

I’ve enjoyed all of the series above in their own ways, in their own times, but there’s plenty more to the genre than commercially successful series. Here are some others that are maybe a bit lesser known or a bit controversial to fit into the fantasy bracket and/or just fantasy books that I’d love to see more people read:

Follow Me to GroundIf you want magical realism / fabulism: Follow Me to Ground by Sue Rainsford, Lanny by Max Porter, The Night Tiger by Yangsze Choo

If you want magical horror: Bird Box by Josh Malerman, The Silent Companions by Laura Purcell, The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman

If you want literary fantasy: The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood, The Memory Police by Yoko Ogawa (translated by Stephen Snyder)

If you want low/urban fantasy:  The Bone Season by Samantha Shannon, Things in Jars by Jess Kidd, Outlander by Diana Gabaldon

The Philosopher's Flight (The Philosophers Series, #1)

If you want gods: Norse Mythology by Neil Gaiman, Circe by Madeline Miller, The Stand by Stephen King

If you want high fantasy: Stardust by Neil Gaiman, The Queen of the Tearling by Erika Johansen, Children of Blood and Bone by Tomi Adeyemi

If you want a sci-fi/fantasy blend: The Philosopher’s Flight by Tom Miller, All the Birds in the Sky by Charlie Jane Anders, Early Riser by Jasper Fforde

 

Fantasy on my TBR:

There’s actually quite a long list, despite (or perhaps because) I haven’t been reading as much fantasy lately- I’m hoping to finish what’s published in the A Song of Ice and Fire series this summer (I have two books left) and move on from GRRM… I might do some sort of “try a chapter” posts in upcoming months to help me prioritize what to start next when the time comes. Some of the fantasy titles on my list that you may be familiar with are: An Ember in the Ashes by Sabaa Tahir, Strange the Dreamer by Laini Taylor, Midnight Sun by Stephenie Meyer (I know, but I can’t not), The Priory of the Orange Tree by Samantha Shannon, Mistborn by Brandon Sanderson,The Poppy War (The Poppy War, #1) The Poppy War by R. F. Kuang, The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden, The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss, and A Darker Shade of Magic by V. E. Schwab. I’m actually currently reading Leigh Bardugo’s Ninth House as well and in a serious mood to reread her Six of Crows; I need to get fantasy back into my regular reading, so please, drop all the recommendations in the comments!

 

Why Read Fantasy?

First, because it’s fun! This is perhaps the most creative and inventive of all genres, in that literally anything goes. Second, because as far-fetched as some of the content may be, this is a genre that tends toward celebration of and commentary on the real world. Many fantasies are based in real cultural practices and lore, and/or use plot and characterization to comment on the possibilities and limitations of government, the power of the individual, the flaws of society, etc. The most outlandish setups are often thinly-veiled disguises for real issues- it may be a wild genre, but it’s certainly not frivolous. The magic is often a way of emphasizing a point or emotion that the reader will be able to identify or sympathize with.

 

Your turn

We’ve reached the part where I encourage you to drop a comment below sharing anything you love (or don’t) about this genre. Tell me about your own experiences, good and bad! If you have recommendations, if you’re looking for recommendations, if you have questions or hangups that stop you from reaching for fantasy, mention them below! I’m not trying to pressure anyone into reading what they don’t want to, but I’d love to discuss anything and everything about the genre. That’s the point of this post! A genre can mean something different to everyone, so to take a wider view, I’d love to see what it means to you.

Thank you, in advance, for participating! 🙂

 

The Literary Elephant

 

 

Spotlight on: Literary Fiction

Welcome to my Spotlight series! Every month in 2020 I am focusing on a different genre that I enjoy reading- not because I’m an expert, but because I want to celebrate a worthwhile category of books! I’m hoping this will be a space where everyone feels free to share their experiences with a genre of the month, whether you’ve read one book from the category or a hundred. I’ll share here what Literary Fiction means to me, filling the post with titles and recommendations from my own experience, and then I’ll look forward to chatting with you in the comments about icons and recommendations I’ve missed (because that’s inevitable- I haven’t read everything)!

 

What is Literary Fiction?

Literary fiction is unique, in that you could hear a different definition for this genre from virtually every reader you ask. I’ve already tried voicing my thoughts on it at least once  (in the Literary Fiction Tag), but I’ll try again here for further clarity. To me, literary fiction (lit fic) is more about style than content- though many lit fic novels interrogate the human condition and/or state of the world, subject varies widely and in the end what I think classifies fiction as “literary” is form or structure that engages with the content. While genre fiction often aims to tell a story, literary fiction aims to tell a story in a particular way, in which the form is integral to what is being told and advances the purpose of the novel. It is fiction that pushes the bounds of how stories work on a technical level. Thus we can have literary [genre] fiction, as a novel can feature both the content that fits within a given genre and a style that marks it as literary. This is my interpretation.

None of this is to say that genre fiction is in any way inferior- one of my main peeves with lit fic categorization. “Literary” is often (mis)used as an elevating term, given to works that are considered “serious” or even just “good.” Preference should not be mistaken for quality. In my opinion, “good” fiction is work that achieves what it sets out to do, which can certainly be found in genre fiction and can also be found lacking in literary fiction. It’ll depend on the book, and who you ask; reading is always subjective. The main issue that I think leads to genre snobbery surrounding lit fic is that lit fic is seen as a more intellectual approach to writing and reading, where genre fiction is often more focused on emotional response (which is not to say that lit fic can’t be emotional or genre fic intellectual- I see it as a sliding scale with lit fic on one end and genre fic on the other, and where a book falls on this scale will again depend on the reader). Ultimately, it seems unfair to weigh the two against each other merit-wise when they have such entirely different methods and goals.

My other peeve with lit fic categorization is the use of “lit fic” as a catch-all genre for hard-to-classify fiction. If a book’s content does not fit obviously into one of the usual genres, this does not automatically make it literary fiction. A novel can be, in my experience, simply “fiction,” or “contemporary fiction,” or a mix of genre fictions if more than one apply. Yes, lit fic is hard to describe and define, but this does not mean that anything should go.

That said, I tend to label books with every genre that applies, rather than limiting each title to one genre. Because the point here is to share a wide variety within each genre and maybe convince readers to check out bookish elements they otherwise wouldn’t, my goal in this Spotlight series is to offer an expansive view, which in this case will include literary [genre] fiction; there are no other subgenres that I normally associate with lit fic.

 

My History with Literary Fiction

Though I would say lit fic is now one of (perhaps even at the very top of the list of) my current favorite genres, its appearance in my reading life is recent. While I was growing up, the school and public library in my hometown did not have much of what I would consider literary fiction, and I don’t think I had a real sense of the genre until I started studying English at college, over the internet, and in my own reading.

AtonementAnd so my earliest brushes with lit fic were few and far between; it’s possible that more of what I read as a teen might fit here but its literary merit went unnoticed by me at the time, and of course I no longer remember all of the books I read in those years well enough to reevaluate with more recent knowledge. The first books I can remember reading in high school that might be considered lit fic were The Falls by Joyce Carol Oates, The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien, and Atonement by Ian McEwan.

From there, a lot of my studies and personal reading experience with lit fic took me to classics and modern classics, which I’ll talk more about in a minute.

Lit fic really exploded into my reading life with my foray into blogging in 2016. As my tastes changed and I discovered a lot of titles beyond what was available at my library, I picked up books like Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven and Donna Tartt’s The Secret Historyas well as Han Kang’s The Vegetarian, Fiona McFarlane’s The Night Guest, Mohsin Hamid’s Exit West, and Margaret Atwood’s The Blind Assassin. The VegetarianThanks to the blogging community, my interest in literature prizes grew; though these prizes don’t cater exclusively to lit fic, there is generally plenty of it to be found among the nominees. I’ve become so invested in reading these books that I read the entire Booker Prize 2018 longlist and 2019 longlist, as well as the Women’s Prize for Fiction 2019 longlist and 2020 longlist.

 

Literary Fiction Classics

The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath is a semi-autobiographical tale of a young woman’s extreme struggle with mental health as she attempts to pursue a writing career.

Frankenstein by Mary Shelley depicts a scientist’s experiment of restoring life to dead flesh; in a brilliant turn through the relationship between creator and created, the novel reveals that the monster is, perhaps, not the monster after all. (If you’ve already read and loved this one, don’t miss Jeanette Winterson’s brilliant modern homage, Frankissstein!)

Emma by Jane Austen uses irony to great effect as the titular character meddles in her friend’s life, trying to secure a marriage for her that just doesn’t suit. Deft characterization allows the reader to see these characters far better than they see themselves.

Sister CarrieSister Carrie by Theodore Dreiser follows a young woman at the turn of the 20th century, intent on chasing a bigger life. As her success increases, the wealthy man who latched onto her while she was most vulnerable finds himself falling from society instead.

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee uses a child’s voice to portray the harsh effects of racism in historical southern US. Its sequel, Go Set a Watchman, switches to an adult perspective (aging the same narrator), revealing further complexities in the situation that the child failed to grasp.

Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier follows the relationship of a newly-married couple; the husband was a dowager, and his new wife worries she won’t live up to the standard her predecessor set- eventually to realize she doesn’t know the full truth of that first wife’s character.The Haunting of Hill House

The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson is perhaps the horror story of a haunted house, or perhaps the tragic story of a psychologically unstable woman staying in said house. Better yet, perhaps it’s both.

The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald utilizes a secondary narrator to tell the star-crossed love story of a wealthy but deluded man and the woman who escaped him.

Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov is told through the villain’s perspective, allowing the reader to see how a full-grown man can rationalize a heinous act- in this case, sexually abusing a young girl- without sympathizing with him.

 

Modern Literary Fiction Staples and Recommendations

Experimental works have been my god tier lately. If this is you as well, you won’t want to miss Susan Choi’s Trust Exercise (a look at manipulation and abuse in teacher-student relationships, set in an art school), Eimear McBride’s A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing (a young woman’s tale of abuses large and small, mostly from within her family, and their devastating mental effect), Lucy Ellmann’s Ducks, Newburyport (a reminder that stay-at-home moms who bake cinnamon rolls all day and worry about things they can’t change are important too), Akwaeke Emezi’s Freshwater (an exploration of identity where the self doesn’t conform to rules and terms set out by society), MilkmanAnna Burns’s Milkman (an examination of the power of rumor and community, set in the Troubles), and Deborah Levy’s The Man Who Saw Everything (an examination of the significance and reliability of memory).

But there are plenty of more straightforward gems as well! Some that I’ve enjoyed are John Boyne’s A Ladder to the Sky (a writer wins his fame by stealing the work of others), Rachel Kushner’s The Mars Room (a female prisoner reveals the flaws of the US justice/prison system), Olga Tokarczuk’s Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead (a reclusive woman tries to convince her neighbors that vengeful wildlife are responsible for a string of local murders), Sophie Mackintosh’s The Water Cure (a trio of girls on an isolated island learn that the dangers of society they’ve been taught to avoid have invaded their space anyway).

 

If you’re completely new to the genre and not sure where to start, I have some recommendations for entrance points to literary fiction based on other categories you might already enjoy (these are based on my own reading, so it’s not an exhaustive list! If anyone has more ideas, please share them below):

If you like history: How We Disappeared by Jing-Jing Lee, The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead, A Spell of Winter by Helen Dunmore, Human Acts by Han Kang

SeveranceIf you like sci-fi/dystopian: Severance by Ling Ma, The Need by Helen Phillips, The Memory Police by Yoko Ogawa, The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

If you like magical realism: Lanny by Max Porter, Follow Me to Ground by Sue Rainsford, The Tiger’s Wife by Tea Obreht, Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward

If you like short stories or vignettes: Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo, Disappearing Earth by Julia Phillips, From a Low and Quiet Sea by Donal Ryan

If you like social commentary: The Farm by Joanne Ramos, 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World by Elif Shafak, Fleishman is in Trouble by Taffy Brodesser-Akner, Lost Children Archive by Valeria Luiselli

The PiscesIf you like Greek mythology elements: The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker, Everything Under by Daisy Johnson, The Pisces by Melissa Broder

If you’re afraid lit fic is just too hard for you, never fear! There are YA options, like Louise O’Neill’s Asking For It; graphic novels like Margaret Atwood and Mary Renault’s The Handmaid’s Tale and Nick Drnaso’s Sabrina; novellas like Sarah Moss’s Ghost Wall and Samanta Schweblin’s Fever Dream; and novels that are so borderline lit fic that not everyone’s convinced they count (they do!) like Sally Rooney’s Normal People and Conversations With Friends. Other very accessible options include Jacqueline Woodson’s Red at the Bone, John Lanchester’s The Wall, or Miriam Toews’s Women Talking.

 

Literary Fiction on my TBR:

Never Let Me GoI’ve mentioned a lot of titles already because I have so many favorites I can’t bear to exclude, but actually I think I could pull a much longer list of lit fic from my TBR. Since I’ve only been deep-diving into lit fic for the last few years, I feel like I have a lot of ground yet to cover here. Some of the books on my “can’t believe I haven’t read it yet” list are: My Year of Rest and Relaxation by Ottessa Moshfegh, Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro, The Idiot by Elif Batuman, A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara, Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng, Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides, and White Teeth by Zadie Smith. I could go on, but I’ll spare you.

 

Why Read Literary Fiction?

It’s good for the brain! These are books that make you think, and that leave you pondering after the turning of the final page. It is literature as an art form, questing for the bounds of what a story can do, and how. If you’re a curious person at heart, if you’re interested in learning and being challenged, if you’re tired of formulaic stories and want to be surprised, if you love seeing an artist stretch their skill, these are the books for you. They’re full of big ideas. They expand the mind. They open doors. They tell us about who we are and what sort of world we live in. And they’re infinitely unique.

 

Your turn

We’ve reached the part where I encourage you to drop a comment below sharing anything you love (or don’t) about this genre. Tell me about your own experiences, good and bad! If you have recommendations, if you’re looking for recommendations, if you have questions or hangups that stop you from reaching for lit fic, mention them below! I’m not trying to pressure anyone into reading what they don’t want to, but I’d love to discuss anything and everything about the genre. That’s the point of this post! A genre can mean something different to everyone, so to take a wider view, I’d love to see what it means to you.

Thank you, in advance, for participating! 🙂

 

The Literary Elephant

Spotlight on: Historical Fiction

Welcome to my Spotlight series! Every month in 2020 I will be focusing on a different genre that I enjoy reading- not because I’m an expert, but because I want to celebrate a worthwhile category of books! I’m hoping this will be a space where everyone feels free to share their experiences with a genre of the month, whether you’ve read one book from the category or a hundred. I’ll share here what Historical Fiction means to me, filling the post with titles and recommendations from my own experience, and then I’ll look forward to chatting with you in the comments about icons and recommendations I’ve missed (because that’s inevitable- I haven’t read everything)!

 

What is Historical Fiction?

I would consider any book that uses artistic license to explore real past setting(s) or event(s) as historical fiction. The clincher is whether the setting/event was in the past at the time the book was published, not at the time it is being read. These are books that are already looking back from the time they’re written, generally with the intent of remembrance or raising awareness.

Mythology is a bit nebulous and I tend to consider original myth stories simply as classics, but I’ll mention a couple of them below in the interest of rounding out my list. I do consider mythological retellings as a firm subgenre of historical fiction.

A note on categorization: I tend to label books with every genre that applies, rather than limiting each title to one genre. Because the point here is to share a wide variety within each genre and maybe convince readers to check out bookish elements they otherwise wouldn’t, my goal in this Spotlight series is to offer an expansive view.

 

My History with Historical Fiction

Little House in the Big Woods (Little House, #1)My interest in historical fiction is surprisingly recent. Most of my earliest brushes with the genre were assigned or recommended to me rather than sought on my own, with the exception of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House series, which is, admittedly, semi-autobiographical rather than pure fiction. Possibly the fact that I grew up on a Midwestern farm not so far from where Laura had her early adventures made this feel pleasantly resonant, although almost everything else I read around this time appealed to me for its variance from my own life. Other titles I read for school or friends included: My Brother Sam is Dead by James Lincoln Collier and Christopher Collier, Both Sides of Time by Caroline B. Cooney, Across Five Aprils by Irene Hunt, and Song of the Sparrow by Lisa Ann Sandell.

By high school and college I still hadn’t found my stride with this genre and was more interested in time travel than actual history, though I had begun branching out a bit more. I enjoyed Sarah Gruen’s Water for Elephants, Khaled Houseini’s A Thousand Splendid Suns, Sue Monk Kidd’s The Secret Life of Bees, and Tatiana de Rosnay’s Sarah’s Key. Church of Marvels

It actually wasn’t until right after college that I had better luck and started pinpointing my tastes within the genre. Some of my favorites from the tail end of college years and soon after included: Church of Marvels by Leslie Perry, The Girls by Emma Cline, 11/22/63 by Stephen King, and The Revenant by Michael Punke.

 

Historical Fiction Classics

Gone With the Wind by Margaret Mitchell was the first proper classic that I ever read and it opened a lot of reading doors for me. It’s a Civil War story about a plantation owner’s daughter trying to survive the war and its aftermath of upheaval in the southern US. Gone with the Wind

The Color Purple by Alice Walker is more recent, but certainly worth note. It follows the difficult lives of two African American sisters in early 1900s southern US as they find their own ways to overcome abuse and injustice.

To Kill a Mockingbird and Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee are also set in the southern US, beginning in the Great Depression era. The first book is a child’s account of local racism and a controversial trial; the sequel, though considerably less popular, turns assumptions from the first book upside down in a fascinating demonstration of the difference age and perspective can make.

The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne depicts religious drama in the mid 1600s in a northeastern colony of early US settlers. A woman is condemned for bearing a child out of wedlock, though a key detail is missing amid in the accusations- the identity of the child’s father.

Atonement by Ian McEwan is technically a modern classic but should not be overlooked! A young storyteller makes an accusation that she doesn’t entirely understand, which will have severe consequences a few years later when WWII sweeps through Europe.

The Aeneid of VirgilThe Iliad and The Odyssey by Homer are Greek mythology stories, the first depicting the Trojan War, and the second its aftermath as one of the Greeks experiences ten years of mishaps on his way home.

The Aeneid by Virgil is Roman mythology, following one man’s escape from the fall of Troy as he goes on to found Rome.

(It’s difficult not to include books set in their own publication era that have now become old enough to feel historical; there are certainly a fair few classics that are very evocative of bygone times [Austen! Dickens!], but I’ll save more thoughts on those for Spotlight on Classics.)

 

Modern Historical Fiction Staples and Recommendations

In recent years I’ve been more interested in reading from different time periods and places around the world as a way of supplementing my education. To this end, I’ve been reading popular historical fiction books like: Han Kang’s Human Acts, featuring an uprising in 1980 South Korea; Women Talking by Miriam Toews, which re-imagines a string of rapes in Mennonite colonies as recently as 2009; Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi, Homegoinghighlighting particular struggles faced by Africans and African Americans over the course of 300 years in Ghana and the US; The Tiger’s Wife by Téa Obreht, a Balkan account of the second world war and the political and social unrest that followed; The Mercies by Kiran Millwood Hargrave, which fictionalizes a terrible Norwegian storm and the appalling set of witch trials that followed.

Historical fiction is also recognized among literary prizes fairly often; while following various prizes in the last few years I’ve picked up such acclaimed choices as: Esi Edugyan’s Washington Black (a young Barbados field slave befriends an idealistic inventor), Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad (a US field slave escapes to the north via an underground train), Kelleigh Greenberg-Jephcott’s Swan Song (his female friends speak about their experiences with Truman Capote), and Suzanne Berne’s A Crime in the Neighborhood (a woman recalls a murder that happened in her suburban neighborhood in the 1970’s).

I haven’t loved all of these, but they’ve helped me hone my preferences- I have learned that I don’t appreciate sensationalized or sentimentalized styles, nor heavy foreshadowing, nor a film of modern values that obscures hard truths about past realities. I do like unsung heroes, unflinching tragedies, and the highlighting of moments history lessons tend to miss.

 

Between Shades of GrayIf you’re new to the genre and, like I was, not sure where to start, I have some recommendations for entrance points to historical fiction based on other categories you might already enjoy (these are based on my own reading, so it’s not an exhaustive list! If anyone has more ideas, please share them below):

If you like YA: Between Shades of Gray by Ruta Sepetys, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer, Midnight at the Electric by Jodi Lynn Anderson, My Lady Jane by Cynthia Hand, Brodi Ashton, and Jodi Meadows

If you like sci-fi/fantasy: The Night Tiger by Yangsze Choo, Outlander by Diana Gabaldon, The Clockwork Dynasty by Daniel H. Wilson

If you like mythology: The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker, The Song of Achilles and Circe by Madeline MillerThe Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo

If you like contemporary: The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo by Taylor Jenkins Reid, As Bright As Heaven by Susan Meisner, Recipe for a Perfect Wife by Karma Brown, The Great Alone by Kristin Hannah

If you like literary: Trust Exercise by Susan Choi, The Man Who Saw Everything by Deborah Levy, Lost Children Archive by Valeria Luiselli

If you like gothic: A Spell of Winter by Helen Dunmore, The Silent Companions by Laura Purcell, The Snow Collectors by Tina May Hall

If you like family/generational sagas: Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo, Pachinko by Min Jin Lee, Red at the Bone by Jacqueline WoodsonPachinko

You may disagree with my placement of some of the books I’ve mentioned above, and you may call something historical fiction that I wouldn’t. All’s fair! Genres are slippery, and their main purpose (other than helping publishers market books) is simply to guide readers toward similar books they might also enjoy. Hopefully showcasing some of the many facets of the genre will help anyone who’s not sure where to go next find something that appeals!

 

Historical Fiction on my TBR:

The Mirror & The Light (Thomas Cromwell, #3)Within the year I expect to read Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall (and the rest of this trilogy), John Boyne’s The Heart’s Invisible Furies, Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life, Maggie O’Farrell’s Hamnet, Alma Katsu’s The Deep, and more. I also have books like Amor Towles’s A Gentleman in Moscow, Ruth Ozeki’s A Tale for the Time Being, and Ken Follett’s The Pillars of the Earth more generally on my TBR.

Other popular choices you may have heard of or might be interested in that are not currently on my TBR (feel free to convince me!) are: Elizabeth Gilbert’s City of Girls, Heather Morris’s The Tattooist of Auschwitz, Elizabeth Wein’s Code Name Verity, and Philippa Gregory’s The Other Boleyn Girl.

 

Why Read Historical Fiction?

This is a genre that entertains and teaches. Historical fiction is full of high emotions and drama, and yet it also lets readers explore actual moments in time and happenings that we have never experienced firsthand- and most likely won’t. It’s a great way to learn about real experiences beyond our own, and to get a better understanding of why the world today is the way that it is. It can also encourage us to use our imaginations to fill in the blanks that the history books have left open.

 

Your turn

We’ve reached the part where I encourage you to drop a comment below sharing anything you love (or don’t) about this genre. Tell me about your own experiences, good and bad! If you have recommendations, if you’re looking for recommendations, if you have questions or hangups that stop you from reaching for historical fiction, mention them below! I’m not trying to pressure anyone into reading what they don’t want to, but I’d love to discuss anything and everything about the genre. That’s the point of this post! A genre can mean something different to everyone, so to take a wider view, I’d love to see what it means to you.

Thank you, in advance, for participating! 🙂

 

The Literary Elephant

Spotlight on: Romance

Welcome to my Spotlight series! Every month in 2020 I will be focusing on a different genre that I enjoy reading- not because I’m an expert, but because I want to celebrate a worthwhile category of books! I’m hoping this will be a space where everyone feels free to share their experiences with a genre of the month, whether you’ve read one book from the category or a hundred. I’ll share here what Romance means to me, filling the post with titles and recommendations from my own experience, and then I’ll look forward to chatting with you in the comments about icons and recommendations I’ve missed (because that’s inevitable- I haven’t read everything)!

February seems like an obvious time to talk about romance novels, but before we get into it, a quick warning: I’m going to be talking about a wider range of love stories here than the feel-good fluffies; if you’re here for recommendations be aware that not every title mentioned is going to be a heart-warmer! Without further ado…

 

What is Romance?

This genre is of course populated with “meet cutes” (strangers meeting for the first time in adorable ways), friends- or enemies-to-lovers tropes, and newfound love. But in my opinion, romance also encompasses the angst, the unrequited loves, and the doomed/unhealthy/problematic relationships. For me, this genre encompasses all books in which a romantic relationship plays a significant role in plot and/or characterization.

I consider erotica a subgenre of romance.

I also fit books from other genres (for example, fantasy) in the romance genre if there is a strong romantic element; I tend to honor different elements of books by labeling them with every genre that applies, rather than limiting each title to one genre. Because the point of these posts is to share a wide variety within each genre and maybe convince readers to check out bookish elements they otherwise wouldn’t, my goal in this Spotlight series is to offer an expansive view, which will include titles that while relevant aren’t necessarily 100% saturated with the genre in question.

 

My History with Romance

Once Upon a Marigold (Upon a Marigold, #1)As a child I liked the occasional princess fairy tale as much as the next kid, but the only book I can remember reading with any romantic element prior to my teen years is Jean Ferris’s Once Upon a Marigold. This is a fantasy / fairy tale, geared toward an MG/YA audience, but it’s the first book I can remember reading and wanting the characters to be together.

In jr. high I caught the romance bug. There were a couple of years in my early teens when I was reading probably 90% YA romance; by which I mean, I also read a lot of fantasy and a few other genres but almost all of it had a strong romance element, and that was an intentional choice.The Truth About Forever In this era I read all of Sarah Dessen’s books that had been published at the time, her The Truth About Forever still standing as one of my favorite books today. I read everything of Meg Cabot’s that I could get my hands on (The Princess Diaries, anyone?), as well as works by Lurlene McDaniel, Susane Colasanti, Ann Brashares, Jodi Lynn Anderson, and more.

This was the point at which Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight entered my life, and thus began my vampire romance obsession (long ago ended, I’d like to clarify) as well as my preference for romance-based fantasy and sci-fi novels. In this time I read books like L. J. Smith’s The Vampire Diaries, Kristin Cashore’s Graceling, Amelia Atwater-Rhodes’s Hawksong, and Cassandra Clare’s City of Bones. I also sped through Elizabeth Chandler‘s YA paranormal romance novels. 43641. sy475

By high school my tastes were *slightly* more adult, and I graduated to Nicholas Sparks, Janet Evanovich, and Sara Gruen. In college my romance preferences took darker turn, and I picked up books like E. L. James’s Fifty Shades of Gray (this has explicit scenes) and V. C. Andrews’s Flowers in the Attic. To round things out I also reached for…

 

Romance Classics

My high school did not require much novel reading, so I started searching for classics on my own. I still felt woefully behind my fellow English majors in college despite those early efforts, so over the years I’ve picked up more classics, including these famous love stories:

The Great GatsbyJane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte, and Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte. The former, featuring a fastidious orphan who falls in love with an enigmatic man who can’t marry her; the latter, a star-crossed love between a man and woman of unequal social standing. Both are arguably toxic relationships by today’s standards.

The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald, in which a rich man throws elaborate parties and uses his new neighbor in an attempt to reignite an old love.

Gone With the Wind by Margaret Mitchell, and its sequel Scarlett by Alexandra Ripley. This historical romance takes place in the southern US during the Civil War, its heroine a stubborn and selfish woman who wants what she can’t have. CW for slavery and racism.

Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy, in which a dissatisfied wife leaves her marriage for a more passionate affair, and a rural bachelor falls in love with a woman who wants someone else. CW for suicide.

25853025. sy475 Romeo and Juliet by Shakespeare, the famous play of ill-fated lovers from rival families who would rather die than live without each other. CW for suicide.

Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov. CW for rape and pedophilia, of course. This is a romance only from the man’s perspective (he becomes obsessed with a very young teenage girl), though I believe this is more a character study than an attempt to convince readers that the man’s behavior is in any way acceptable. It’s meant to be humanizing and horrifying at once.

The Iliad and The Odyssey by Homer. This is perhaps a stretch, but Paris’s love for Helen is the inciting incident of the former (not to mention Achilles’s love for Patroclus as the emotional heart of the story), while the latter’s premise is built on a man trying desperately to return to his wife, who is busy fighting off other suitors because she’s not ready to give up on him. It is romantic.

EmmaRebecca and My Cousin Rachel by Daphne du Maurier, gothic romances full of death, secrets, fire, poison…

And of course, it wouldn’t be romance without Jane Austen. I managed to read Northanger Abbey (a romantic spoof on gothic literature) for a college class, and enjoyed it enough to seek out the rest of Austen’s work. I’ve since read Persuasion (a woman allows her family to talk her out of an engagement, which she comes to regret), Pride and Prejudice (a well-off but rude man insults the woman he loves, who holds him accountable for it), Emma (a well-off woman tries to help a friend with less by encouraging a marriage she doesn’t realize is a bad match), and Sense and Sensibility (a pair of sisters have their hearts broken when their loves seem to be attached to other women).

 

Modern Romance Staples and Recommendations

Recently I’ve been reading such love stories as: Sally Rooney’s Normal People (a pair of teenage sweethearts from very different families can’t stay together or let each other go), Taylor Jenkins Reid’s Daisy Jones and the Six (stars from a 70s rock band unite over their love of music), and Helen Hoang’s The Kiss Quotient, followed by The Bride Test– both starring autistic characters who find love (these have explicit scenes).

I’ve also checked out such pop culture icons as Caroline Kepnes’s You (a man meets a woman he likes at a bookshop and proceeds to stalk her), Jojo Moyes’s Me Before You (a woman works as an aid for a paraplegic man who no longer finds his life worthwhile), Audrey Niffenegger’s The Time Traveler’s Wife (a man who slips uncontrollably through time tries to hold on to the woman he loves) and Josie Silver’s One Day in December (a man and woman fall in love after glimpsing each other through a bus window and meet again when he dates her best friend). Red, White & Royal Blue

And, at long last, I’m making an attempt to branch into lgbtq+ romances, including such wonders as Casey McQuiston’s Red, White and Royal Blue (the US President’s son falls in love with the Prince of Wales), Sarah Waters’s The Paying Guests (in historical London a woman is forced to rent part of her family’s home to a couple of lodgers, and finds herself entranced by the new woman), and Jeanette Winterson’s Frankissstein (in an era when the mind is valued exponentially more than the body and robots may be the world’s inevitable future, a trans man strikes up a relationship with a male scientist). I have plenty of work left to do in this category!

 

But if you’re new to the genre and not sure where to start, I do have some recommendations for entrance points to romance based on other categories you might already enjoy (these are based on my own reading, so it’s not an exhaustive list! If anyone has more ideas, please share them below!):

If you like YA: To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before by Jenny Han, Dumplin’ by Julie Murphey, Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Saenz

If you like NA: Again, But Better by Christine Riccio, A Million Junes by Emily Henry, Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell, the Off-Campus Series by Elle Kennedy (these have explicit scenes!)

If you like history: As Bright As Heaven by Susan Meissner, The Great Alone by Kristin Hannah, Atonement by Ian McEwan, Outlander by Diana Gabaldon. (Fair warning, these are all rather sad, with light romance, other than Outlander which is borderline explicit)

Outlander (Outlander, #1)If you like sci-fi/fantasy: A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness, The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood (a tragic romance, to be clear), Providence by Caroline Kepnes, 11/22/63 by Stephen King

If you like literary: The Pisces by Melissa Broder (this has explicit scenes), Animals Eat Each Other by Elle Nash (this has explicit scenes), Conversations With Friends by Sally Rooney, Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton

If you’re ready to dive straight into something steamy: Christina Lauren, Sally Thorne, Colleen Hoover

Like any other genre, categorization of romance is not determined upon hard rules. You may disagree with my placement of some of the books I’ve mentioned above, and you may call something romance that I wouldn’t. All’s fair! Genres are slippery, and their main purpose (other than helping publishers market books) is simply to guide readers toward similar books they might also enjoy. Hopefully showcasing some of the many facets of the genre will help anyone who’s not sure where to go next find something that appeals!

 

Romance on my TBR:

Beach ReadI’m planning to pick up some of Tessa Bailey‘s work, and more from Sarah Waters. I’m looking forward to Emily Henry’s 2020 release, Beach Read, and Helen Hoang’s 2021 title, The Heart Principle. I have one Jane Austen novel left: Mansfield Park. I also want to make a point of reading more lgbtq+ romance specifically. (Recommendations welcome!)

Other titles and authors not currently on my TBR that you might be familiar with and/or interested in: The Selection by Kiera Cass,  Anna and the French Kiss by Stephanie Perkins, Bared to You by Sylvia Day (this has explicit scenes), The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion, The Princess Bride by William Goldman, My Not So Perfect Life by Sophie Kinsella.

 

Why Read Romance?

I read romance because it reminds me that people are good. I don’t often read purely for escapism, but romance is a genre I like to reach for when I want to see the world in a better light. These books teach me that people can change, that people care about each other, and that money doesn’t always make the world go round. I also pick up romance because I enjoy character studies, and love tends to be a huge facet of human motivation. This genre encourages sympathizing with other perspectives and considering one’s morals.

 

Your turn

We’ve reached the part where I encourage you to drop a comment below sharing anything you love (or don’t) about this genre. Tell me about your own experiences, good and bad! If you have recommendations, if you’re looking for recommendations, if you have questions or hangups that stop you from reaching for romance, mention them below! I’m not trying to pressure anyone into reading what they don’t want to, but I’d love to discuss anything and everything about the genre. That’s the point of this post! A genre can mean something different to everyone, so to take a wider view, I’d love to see what it means to you.

Thank you, in advance, for participating! 🙂

 

The Literary Elephant