Category Archives: Thoughts on Literature

Skewed Goodreads Ratings

“One learns most clearly what not to do [when writing] by reading bad prose.” -Stephen King (On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft)

The thing about Goodreads ratings is that they’re not accurate. They are not the opinions of random, objective readers. Almost every single person who contributes a review or star rating for any given book has picked up that book for a reason and went into it with expectations that will affect their concluding opinions of it. Have you noticed that ratings for books in a series tend to be rated higher as the series goes on, even though the overall ratings are fewer? That’s probably at least partially due to the fact that the readers who make it that far in the series are readers who’ve already found something they liked in the first book and know they’ll find what they’re looking for in subsequent novels. There are exceptions, and of course it is possible that the books in any given series do actually improve, but I think it’s also worth noting that the people who read (and rate) book 2 are usually people who liked book 1. And by book 3, even more readers who were on the fence have been weeded out, thus driving ratings up even more.

That’s just an easy example. We also have people who rate books they’ve DNF’d (unfair, in my opinion), people who rate books before they’ve read them, people who know the author, or have been given a free early copy, or had to read a book for a class and wound up letting their feelings about the class show in their review of the book. No matter how it happens, anyone who checks for reviews on Goodreads before picking up a book should be aware that almost every single person who’s left their opinion in the reviews section has been biased in some way. They believed the Booktube hype, or have read something else by the same author, or found the title on a list of reputed “good books”, or are in love with a particular genre. Most of those readers aren’t people who saw the title in a bookshop, picked up the book without knowing anything at all about it, and reviewed it completely impartially. I’m not saying that doesn’t happen, but it’s not the norm.

Don’t be fooled: I love Goodreads. I check the ratings there before I pick up a book, often. But it’s important to note that sometimes books are rated highly not because they’re good, but because they contain whatever their readers were looking for when they picked them up. Case in point: Elle Kennedy’s Off-Campus series.

I’ve been highly stressed lately, and in times of stress I reach for guilty pleasures. I often go for something I’ve already read and know will be a guilty pleasure, but this time I picked up something new. In the Off-Campus series, Elle Kennedy has written four NA romance books. They’re pretty short and easily readable–I read all four in four days. I’m talking about these here because they’re rated highly on Goodreads; every single book in this series is rated above 4 stars, and they’re not good.

That’s not to say they’re all bad. I’ve read worse. I gave each of the books in this series (The Deal, The Mistake, The Score, and The Goal) 3 stars for my enjoyment level, which is certainly not my lowest rating. They’re cheesy, predictable, somewhat sexist books with transparent plot mechanics. But even though the plot is obvious and feels fictionalized, it is a functioning plot. It makes sense, at the very least. The mechanics are in working condition, even if they are more visible than they should be. Even though it’s clear from the first two chapters who’s going to end up with whom and which major obstacle they’ll have to overcome, there’s emotion in there. There are abundant sex scenes, if that’s your thing. And that’s why I think these books have been rated so highly. The people reading these ab-covered books are the people looking for predictable bodice-rippers starring college hockey players who believe they’re God’s gift to women. The abs on the covers attract a certain audience. There are some topics these books handle well– every main character has something difficult in their present or past: a rape, an abusive parent, a sick parent, a dead friend, an unexpected pregnancy, etc. These details are dealt with carefully and respectfully. It’s the “puck bunnies” I have a problem with. The use ’em and lose ’em mentality of the men in this book. And that’s why I’m not posting full reviews for each of the books in this series. They’re all very much the same and I had the same complaints about them all. Admittedly, I liked them enough to read all four, but I think it’s like Stephen King says: we learn what not to do in our writing by reading bad books, and that’s as important a lesson as reading examples of what we should do.

Sometimes you just have to read a bad book or two. Or four. There’s nothing wrong with reading whatever the heck you want, literary merit be damned. I just wanted to use this opportunity to talk about the Goodreads rating system, because I was shocked that the third book in this series is rated higher than some books well-known for their goodness. The Score, an NA romance novel about a horny hockey player who falls in love with a girl who’s ashamed she had a one-night stand with him, is rated higher on Goodreads than Pride and Prejudice, Jane Eyre, and To Kill a Mockingbird. It’s important to keep in mind when using Goodreads that it’s not a tool for rating literary goodness. It rates enjoyment. Sadly, those are two very different categories. And further, enjoyment levels are affected by the fact that readers always, always have expectations of the books they’re reading.

The reading world would be a different place without Goodreads. A lonelier place. But, like any other tool, we must use it wisely.

How do you feel about the Goodreads rating system? Also, does anyone have any better NA reading recommendation for me?

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

Advertisements

Why Reread?

There is always a difference between reading a great book for the first time, and reading a great book for the second, third, fourth, or even hundredth time.

But what is the difference? And why reread at all?

I recently reread Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight. But when I logged on to Goodreads to tally another novel into my 2017 reading challenge, I was faced with a dilemma: what would I rate Twilight today? I certainly wouldn’t give it the same 5-star rating that I felt it deserved when I was twelve, discovering not only Twilight for the first time, but vampires, fictional romance, and the YA genre more generally. Twilight was not the first YA book I ever read, but it was a beginning. It marked a turn in literature for young adults, and a surge of popularity for the YA fantasy genre, which hooked readers of all ages and prompted authors to fill the demand with more new titles. Twilight wasn’t just a book I read one time as a kid– it was a whole experience. It was passing notes with my friends in middle school about which of the Cullens we would rather be, what we thought the movie would be like in a couple years, which of their cars we’d like to drive. It was adding fangs to all of our smiley-face doodles. It was Team Edward vs. Team Jacob.

twilightAnd that’s why I reread it this year. To remember being twelve and thirteen with my friends, pre-ordering a book for the first time (Breaking Dawn), reading in the grocery store parking lot and at bible camp and with a flashlight in the middle of the night. But how do you rate nostalgia on Goodreads?

Back in the Twilight era, rereads were a big thing for me. I didn’t have as extensive a collection of books, my school library was small, and I wasn’t old enough to drive to the public library yet. I didn’t have a job to afford buying my own new books, and access to the internet was less reliable. So I found what I liked, and I stuck with it. I couldn’t even guess now at how many times I read the Twilight books in my early teen years. But now, I reread for other reasons.

Here’s a look at some reasons I reread:

  • Review, or more precisely, to pick up details that were missed. Even if I understood the book *perfectly* the first time through, there is almost always something new in a second read.
  • Recollection. I don’t know how common this is, but I have a horrible memory for plot. I like that I do, because it means I get to rediscover my favorite books if I put them aside long enough between reads. There are times I’ve completely forgotten almost everything about a book, but I remember I loved it, so a second read gives me an almost first-time-experience all over again. Usually after two reads I don’t forget quite so extensively.
  • Culture/connection. This is a factor with extremely popular books. It’s when I reread a major hit because of the fandom and the phenomenon of it (even if it’s passing or passed, somewhere in the interwebs the fever is still out there)– surely you remember the Twilight craze. The Hunger Games. Divergent. The Maze Runner. City of Bones. Harry Potter, even, though that’s an obvious one.
  • Nostalgia, as I’ve mentioned. I’m not the same person as I was at twelve years old, and I wouldn’t want to relive that year, but there are parts of it that I remember fondly. I associate certain books with certain periods of my life, so reading those stories again feels a bit like going back in time.
  • Personal Growth. I’m very loyal to my past opinions, but people change, and their tastes change with them. Sometimes it takes a reread to realize that I’m looking for different things in books (and life) than I was, and I think it’s an important step in knowing yourself better to articulate (at least to yourself) those changes.

So I reread Twilight. It gave me a trip down that fabled memory lane, but it also gave me a chance to regroup, to rearrange my goals and opinions to better fit where I’m at now, as a reader and as a person.

I think I’ll continue the series, one chapter per day, even though my enjoyment of the plot is nothing like it once was. Twilight was just the first glimpse back toward how far I’ve come. I had such different opinions, such different loves and dislikes about each book in the series, that I think each one will give me a new avenue for reflection. I’m not in a hurry, but I think the reflection I’m finding in past favorites is worth my time.

Why do you reread? Do your thoughts on a book change the more times you peruse it?

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

Reading as a Writer

The biggest difference between reading for entertainment and reading in an active attempt to learn about how the words work is asking why. All readers have opinions on what they read, no matter how big or small or tangential. Words are powerful things. They leave impressions. Sometimes they make us like a character, dislike a plot, fall in love with a fictional world, or loathe particular paragraphs. These are the little pieces that add up to a reader’s overall judgment of a book–how will you rate it? Will you read it again? Will you recommend it? The answers to those questions come from how we feel about a book as we’re reading. When you want to take even more from your reading experiences, to pick out techniques to use and avoid in your own writing, the first thing to do is start asking why.

Not only asking, but forcing yourself to give a full answer. Don’t allow any “I don’t know”s, or “I can’t explain it”s. You like a character? You cringe at a section of dialogue? You love a particular sentence so much you want to read it over and over? Ask why. And answer.

The more you do this, the more you explore the mechanics of writing. When you find characters you like and explain to yourself why you like them (do not say “they’re just awesome,” or other vague non-answers. Challenge yourself. You’re the one who benefits from the effort yo put into this exercise), you’ll start to notice trends. I like characters that are fallible, that are morally gray, that lie or are unreliable for other reasons. I like them because they’re unpredictable and sometimes unstable. I like them because they could do the right thing, or the very wrong thing. I like trying to decipher their motives. What sorts of characters do you like? Why?

Character is only one example. You can do this for virtually every aspect of a book. Length of chapter. Amount of description. Progression of plot. Dialogue tags. Sometimes (almost always) it’s very subjective. It’ll make you look for answers in individual sentences, or pick out specific words. Sometimes appreciation for a whole scene comes from one great choice of words in a fragment of a sentence. Look closely. See what’s in the lines, and what’s between them. Why does it work for you?

The next step is to incorporate your findings into your own work. Maybe this means exploring your reasoning behind choosing a certain genre or form, or maybe it helps you form plot or character traits that appeal to you. Maybe it’s the emotion that gets under your skin, that you can learn to wield just as well as your favorite writers seem to. Conversely, you’re probably also learning what not to do. You’ll discover the specific things that annoy you to read, and you’ll avoid them.

As I mentioned earlier, this is all subjective. Writing is subjective. Different folks like different jokes, and some don’t want to read humor at all. Find what works for you, and make it work under your own pen. To write objectively, learn to look at writing critically. Ask why. And answer.

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

Goodreads Challenge 2017

I have been waiting all year to check my actual reading against my 2016 reading challenge via Goodreads, and to set a new goal. The time has finally arrived.

In 2016 I set myself a goal of 52 books to read. I’ve never kept track of the number of books I’ve read in a year before, so I had no idea where my goal should be. 52 books seemed like a reasonable starting point. Now I am pleased to announce that I surpassed that initial goal, having read 73 books this past year! Here are some of my stats:

Books: 73

Pages: 32,659

Avg. Pages Per Day: 89.5

Shortest Book: The Tales of Beedle the Bard by J. K. Rowling (111 pages)

Longest Book: Voyager by Diana Gabaldon (1,059 pages)

Avg. Length: 447

Avg. Rating: 4.3 stars

Completion: 140 %

I think it’s really cool that Goodreads includes this page of stats from the reading year!

Before I move on to setting a goal for next year, however, I wanted to voice some of the thoughts I’ve had in my first year of participating in the Goodreads reading challenge.

To begin, this is not only my first year with the Goodreads challenge (although not with Goodreads more generally), but it is also my first year blogging about books. I have never kept such close track of how many books I was reading, when I read them, and just how much I enjoyed or disliked them. It was easy to see how one might be more caught up in the tracking than the reading, but I tried very hard not to let that happen. Although I have never felt so much pressure to read more, to read better books, and to come up with some impressive numbers, it’s important to me that reading should never feel like a chore. Thus, I still read things that didn’t count towards my Goodreads challenge. I reread books that I didn’t want to count towards my challenge. I read bits and pieces of children’s and middle grade books to my younger brother, just for the fun of it, even though I wouldn’t count partial or children’s books towards my challenge. I read newspaper and magazine articles, poems, comics, recipes, and snippets of lots of other things throughout the year that I wouldn’t count toward my challenge. The challenge is a fun motivator, but I think it’s important not to let the tracking take over one’s life. So far, I think I’ve succeeded.

Second, while I think the yearly Goodreads challenge can be a great way to help me read more, the number of books read is not the only way to do that. I read some very long books this year–including the entire Outlander series–and although I wouldn’t say they were my favorite books of all time, I did immensely enjoy reading them, and I’m glad I read all eight of those behemoth novels rather than twice or three times as many shorter ones that would’ve boosted my total number of completed books. The Goodreads community can be problematic in increasing the pressure to track books for others to see–but who would I be trying to impress with a giant list of short books? Not that there’s anything wrong with short books. I read some of those this year, too. I think it’s important to read for yourself, no matter what your books of choice are, to make your experience with books the best it can be for you personally. Read to impress yourself.

Third, I loved that using Goodreads more this year, and blogging my reviews of books I finished, motivated me to really stop and consider my impressions of what I was reading right away. The fact that Goodreads allows me to note what day I’m starting and finishing each book I track encourages me to log those details immediately, and further, to rate the book, and from there, to head over to my blog and start writing about why I rated it the way I did. I have a very bad memory for plot. I can remember whether I liked a book or not for years, but I won’t necessarily recall why, and I certainly won’t remember many specific elements of the story for more than a few months. Already a few days after finishing a book I can feel the level of detail I recall about the story fading away. On one hand, this is great because it allows me to reread books after some time has passed and be just as surprised and delighted as the first time through; on the other hand, it’s very difficult to explain to anyone else what I specifically thought of a book and why  I thought so after any time has passed from my reading of it. The Goodreads challenge helped prompt me to note those details early on, while the book was fresh in my mind, and I think that was important and helpful for me to keep up with. Now I have a documented record.

As my first year with the Goodreads challenge comes to a close, it’s time to start thinking about my reading goal for the new year. I have decided to increase my goal from 52 books: that was only a base number to start from, and I had no trouble exceeding it this year. Also, goals are meant to encourage people to try harder and do better than they might otherwise. Of course I want to raise my goal. But I still don’t want my whole life to turn into a battle to read a huge number of books, and I want to leave room to grow a little next year, as well. So I’ve decided to set my goal at 73 books, the same number I read this year. I’m hoping in 2017 I’ll read even more than in 2016, but at the very least, I don’t want to read fewer books. With my schedule and my reading speed, and the fact that I like to feel free to read big books or more challenging ones that go slower, this feels like a realistic goal for me.

What are your plans for the Goodreads 2017 reading challenge? Why do you like or dislike participating with this method of tracking what you read through the year? Do you have other yearly or monthly challenges you like to participate in to motivate reading? I think I’m interested in checking out more challenges this year, so let me know if you’ve heard of some good ones!

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

How I Read

I think it’s interesting to hear about other people’s reading habits, so here’s a post about mine!

What I like to read: A little of almost everything. I was an English major in college, which helped broaden my perspectives, but I’ve always loved a wide range of books. I find that reading slumps happen for me if I read too many of the same type of book in a row, so I switch genres between almost every book, and I find myself most excited about stories that are nothing like anything I’ve read before. If I really had to pick, I think the genres I come back to most often are thriller, historical fiction, and dystopia.

Buying vs. borrowing: This is a bit of a toss-up for me. I love bookstores and libraries equally. I would appreciate being able to own every book I read, but I just don’t have that sort of income at the moment, and sometimes there are books I read that I know I’ll never want to even skim through again so I don’t mind dropping them back off in the library drop box. I tend to buy books that I can see myself reading more than once, or that I know will be harder to find available to borrow, or are simply too cheap to pass up, and also long books–especially classics–that I don’t want to feel rushed through by adding a due date and a stack of other borrowed books. I have a list of potential books to buy, and if I come across one at a good time for a good price, I pick it up. If I’m ready to read it and haven’t bought it yet, I borrow; then I can buy it later if I decide I want to reread.

How I choose what to read next: There are several lists in several places filled with books I want to read. I keep separate lists for books on my shelf that I haven’t read yet, and for books I know I can borrow from my limited (but accommodating) library or my friends. Lately I’ve been checking through my lists at the beginning of the month and creating a TBR that feels like a plausible goal–a practical mix of borrowed and owned books that fits my mood. I like to read new releases, but I also feel like I’ve fallen behind and there are a lot of older books I still want to read, so usually I prioritize books I’ve borrowed, then decide further by genre. Even before I began planning my month’s TBR, I would keep track of at least two books ahead of whatever I was actually reading, and unless it’s a series I just can’t stop reading between books, I usually try to pick something that’s pretty different from my current read. Variety helps keep slumps at bay. But, ultimately, no matter how well I plan and how specifically I schedule my reading time, how I choose what to read next most often comes down to my excitement level for a book at any given time. It’s important to me that I let myself read what I really want to, and that I don’t force myself into something that’ll turn me off of reading for a while. Reading shouldn’t be a chore.

Where I read: I can read literally anywhere, anytime. If I have a book with me, at least 30 seconds of down time, and enough light to see the words, I’ll probably be reading. It bothers me a little to be able to hear conversation well enough to make out the words, because it’s hard for me to tune that out, but I can if I must and any other sounds become white noise that fades easily into the background. Preferably, I love to have hours alone in a quiet environment with blankets and pillows to read comfortably, but I bring a book with me everywhere I go and I will read 10 pages here and there if that’s my best opportunity to read for the day.

How I read: one book at a time. I will sometimes start a second book if it’s easier to bring a different book along with me than the one I’m already in the middle of, or if I have to read a certain book for school or something but also want to read something of my own choice on the side. Never more than two, though, and I always finish everything I start. Actually there are two books I’ve started in the last couple of years that I’ve put on the back burner, but they still have my bookmarks inside them and I will still get around to them. I don’t quit books indefinitely. I try to read every day, almost always at the end of the day. Some days I’m too tired by then, and other days I read also or only in the middle of the day, whenever it fits in my schedule. I prefer physical books, all the time. I do read snippets online, if there are free previews available and I can’t wait to have the physical copy, but I don’t like reading whole books electronically on any sort of device. I’ve never given audio books a real try, but I’m not in a hurry for that, either, because I already know I don’t like listening to other people read. I don’t like the words I’m encountering for the first time to be influenced by someone else’s impression of them–I want to read them at my own pace with my own inflections in my own voice (or mind-voice), because it’s my own experience. I think ebooks and audio books are great literary advancements, and I’m glad they’re out there in the world, but I prefer holding actual paper and seeing the words for myself while I read. I drink a lot of water while I’m reading, but mostly because I drink a lot of water all the time. If I’m eating a meal alone, I like to read while I eat, but otherwise I don’t have much of a connection between reading and eating. I also mark quotes I want to save for myself as I read. I like annotating sometimes, but I don’t like reading previous thoughts on a second read-through and I don’t like loaning out books I’ve written in, so I don’t do that often. I use post-its to keep track of sections I want to save quotes from, and jot down on the post-it whether I want to use it in a review, share it with someone specific, or just keep it for myself, and then I deal with those tasks at the end of the book and remove the post-its.

How fast I read: (and how long it takes me to finish a book) depends on a lot of things. Primarily, my schedule dictates how much reading time I have, and then my reading pace determines how long it will take me within that time. Some books, like typical YA books, thrillers, or plot-heavy books I read about a page a minute. Character-driven books, historical fiction, fantasy, classics, etc. take me twice as long or even longer. I wouldn’t say I’m a particularly fast reader, but I’m persistent. I don’t shy away from long books, but I usually prefer not to read several of them in a row. I won’t pick short books just to help myself finish a certain number of books in a week or a month or a year. Quality over quantity. I will soldier through the good ones instead of worrying about the numbers.

Finishing a book: is always rewarding. Sometimes I can immediately pick up another book and be reading something new within seconds of finishing, but other times I need to get up and move around and let it settle. And on rare occasions, I have to lie back and look up at the ceiling and give it some thought before I can move on to anything else at all. I often–more often if I loved the book–skim through the “extra” stuff once I’ve finished reading a book: the author bio, bonus content, previews of sequels, even the acknowledgements or author’s notes. There are some really interesting and pertinent things in there sometimes. Once I’ve read all the words I’m going to read and jotted down any quotes I wanted to save, I immediately mark the book as finished. I add it to my GoodReads challenge if it applies, and to the list I keep personally of all the books I’ve ever read. I rate the book, and open up a new post to jot down immediate impressions and ideas for a review if I’m going to write one. I make note of whether I want to read more books by the same author, or whether I want to look into reading more on that book’s subject. Then I slide the book back into its slot on my shelf, or stack it on the bottom of my borrowed books pile so that the unread volumes are ready to be picked up from the top. As soon as I’ve put a finished book aside, I pick up my next book and a bookmark for it, so it’s ready whenever I am.

Why I read: Because I love it. It’s fun. It relieves stress. It makes for interesting conversation. But mostly because I believe that reading gives us information about the world. We learn new ideas, and new perspectives. Character actions and motivations can help us understand real life motivations and personalities. They let us feel emotions we might not experience every day. I see books as a sort of coded how-to manual for life. You may have to sort through lies and manipulations and metaphors, but there are answers in there, and I want to find them all. Also, words are beautiful. Books are my favorite art form. I want to create art like that, and what better research can be done to prepare me than reading what others have already created, seeing what sorts of techniques people are drawn to, and applying my own impressions of others’ works to mine? I read because it makes me feel happy, connected, and inspired. I read because I want to be able to write in a way that will inspire others. I read because that’s what my brain feels like it was built to do.

What’s your reading process?

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

Top 25 Favorite Books of All Time

I couldn’t possibly name one single book as my favorite. There are too many great books I’d hate to betray that way. So each year I reflect on my reading by choosing a Top 25 based on new books I’ve read and previous lists. There are, of course, many more books that I’ve loved over the years, and only a couple have remained on the list since the very beginning. Putting them in order of favoritism is just as impossible as listing only one, so I organize them roughly in order of when I read the books, rather than which ones I love most.

This is the list I made in February. Since I was just starting my blog and I was on the fence about what I wanted to include, I put it off; now I’ve decided to try posting some other things between book reviews, and this list was one of the first things I wanted to share. By this time, I could already make a few changes because it’s been a rich reading year so far, but I’m a traditionalist and I learned early on that great books can get pushed out by temporary loves if I update too often. In the interest of keeping the most accurate lists possible, I update only in February. So without further ado, here’s my unaltered list of Top 25 Favorite Books of All Time, 2016 edition.

1. The Magician’s Nephew, by C. S. Lewis

What it’s about: A young boy and girl find a way to travel to different worlds, discovering all sorts of chaos and adventure before finding their way back home. Without quite intending to, they free a powerful sorceress from a ruined world and bring her to one that’s just beginning–Narnia. Even if they escape with their lives, their actions set all sorts of consequences in motion.

Why I love it: This is the first book of middle grade fantasy series The Chronicles of Narnia, which I began reading at age eight or so. The Magician’s Nephew is the prequel to the series, and has always been my personal favorite because it’s the least political and shows multiple worlds, adding depth and background for the most-known book of the series, The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe. C. S. Lewis is a great writer, and even though this series was written for children it’s one of those timeless works that I still enjoy picking up as an adult.

2. The Truth About Forever, by Sarah Dessen

What it’s about: A high school girl watches her father die, loses her boyfriend, and puts up with her mother trying to run her life. When Macy helps a catering company at one of her mother’s parties, she begins to accept that life doesn’t always go the way you planned, and applies for a job with them. As she grows closer with the caterers–especially Wes–she goes against her mother’s wishes, giving up perfectionism and finding her own way to grieve and move forward.

Why I love it: This was the first YA novel that I enjoyed enough to read over and over. It shows that perfection is impossible, that horrible events can lead to the best times, and that it’s not how well you plan but how well you deal with the unexpected. I was attracted to the concept that forever could be a finite length of time, and that for better or worse a person needs to make his/her own choices. Sarah Dessen has several popular books–I liked her writing enough to read them all–but this one stood out to me.

3. Hawksong, by Amelia Atwater-Rhodes

What it’s about: The shape-shifting leader of the Avians has known nothing but war with the neighboring clan of the Serpiente, and she’s sick of it. Everyone wants peace, but no one trusts each other enough to lay their weapons down. When Danica is advised to take the first trusting step by pledging allegiance to cobra king Zane, and naming him as her mate, the idea sounds absurd and impossibly dangerous. She has to overcome assassins, disapproval on all sides, and a lingering romance with her childhood sweetheart and protector.

Why I loved it: I’m really not sure. This was the first YA book that sparked an obsession in me, even though it wasn’t my usual type. There’s a mild romance, the avian/serpiente war is brutal and political, and the characters of this world are so vivid and tragic that I still can’t forget about them years later.

4. Burned by Ellen Hopkins

What it’s about: Pattyn is the oldest girl in a Mormon household, and she’s accustomed to a lot of rules and responsibilities from her abusive, alcoholic father and submissive mother. When Pattyn realizes just how firmly under their thumbs she’s been pinned and determines to follow her own beliefs rather than be squashed down by the men in her life,. She is sent away to live with her Aunt J. Far from home, she finally glimpses goodness in the world just in time for her parents to step in again and try to put out the hope she can see for her future.

Why I loved it: Ellen Hopkins writes powerful books about scary, real teen problems in beautiful prose poetry. The stories she narrates are completely captivating and eye-opening, and her visually aesthetic pages keep readers engrossed not only in her tales but in the way she tells them. Burned is the best of the best, shocking, addicting, beautiful and heart-breaking.

5. Looking for Alaska by John Green

What it’s about: In John Green’s first YA novel, Miles, who has a fascination with last words, goes off to boarding school for his junior year of high school. There he meets the enigmatic Alaska, among other new friends. Despite how close the two become, it seems that Miles is destined never to have her, and spends his year learning to appreciate her through the complications of their friendship. In the love, the grief, and the pranks, Miles seeks a Great Perhaps.

set1

Why I loved it: John Green is a renowned YA writer for good reason. He creates characters that seem so realistic and relatable, all a little quirky but equally unique. Although he’s well-known for his most recent novel, The Fault in Our Stars, his first book holds a special place in the hearts of many who follow possibilities down unexpected paths. Tragedy is not always a disappointment–Looking for Alaska reminds readers to view death as something to grow from, rather than get stuck on.

 

6. Atonement by Ian McEwan

What it’s about: Young story-loving Briony is always looking for a tale to tell and a dramatic way to present it. When she catches her sister and their neighbor partaking in indecent acts in the library, she cries rape in front of their families and changes the lives of the budding romantics. When she realizes years later that she’s caused irreparable damage, she writes a happier ending to their story to atone for rash actions in her childhood.

Why I loved it: This was the first example of metafiction that I read and understood what it was, and I was fascinated by that concept. Also, I’m a sucker for a good romance/tragedy combination, and this novel is spot on in that regard.

7. Gone With the Wind by Margaret Mitchel

What it’s about: Scarlett O’Hara is the oldest of three daughters on the southern plantation Tara, and struggles to find a way to ensure the survival of herself, her family, and her home at Tara through the Civil War. Though she’s not exactly beautiful, she is charming, and uses that asset to full advantage in securing husbands, money, and favors that she needs to stay afloat. When the war comes straight to her door time and again and collapses her entire way of life, Scarlett must adapt and prove herself stronger than all of those failing acquaintances around her, perhaps at the cost of accepting true love.

Why I love it: This was not only the first (adult) classic that I read, but also my first historical fiction novel. Additionally, it was the first book I was enamored with despite a dislike for many of the main characters–though not always likable, the characters are certainly strong and captivating. The role of women in this time is especially fascinating to me. In any case, the easy readability of this novel opened all sorts of literary doors for me, on top of being a phenomenal story.

8. 1st to Die by James Patterson

What it’s about: SFPD inspector Lindsay Boxer faces a potentially deadly disease just as her career is heating up. She’s on the hunt to catch the culprit of the Honeymoon Murders with her new partner, Chris, but it’s a lot for Boxer to handle at once. The deaths tally up, treatments for her disease wear her down, possible feelings for Chris confuse her, but she’s determined to succeed and put the killer behind bars.

Why I love it: When it comes to crime novels, James Patterson books are the way to go. There’s a great mix of personal and professional challenges for Lindsay Boxer throughout the years, and the first book of this series is definitely one of the best. Every chapter is short and to the point, each story is suspenseful and wonderfully executed, and interest in the characters’ lives keeps the reader coming back for more. Patterson has many great novels and series, but The Women’s Murder Club books have been favorites since I picked the first one up on a whim and couldn’t put it down until I’d finished it.

9. The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

What it’s about: Nick has moved to Long Island, where he’s studying up for a job on Wall Street. Across the bay he can see his (married) cousin Daisy’s house, and soon discovers that his neighbor, the rich and enigmatic Gatsby has been watching her house, too. Nick quickly becomes a go-between in one of the strangest love stories, and is so affected by everything that transpires that summer that he does indeed write it all down in the book that will be called The Great Gatsby.

Why I love it: A love story with a tragic twist, who could resist? The book takes place in New York in the 1920’s, where life seems like one big party–except Gatsby’s parties are a ruse. Also, it’s a great example of metafiction, and the narrator is unreliable. Everything about this book drew me in: classic historical fiction romance with a surprise ending.

10. A Game of Thrones by George R. R. Martin

set2

What it’s about: Several distinguished families in a high fantasy world are caught up in a political battle for power in the Seven Kingdoms. There are deadly feuds, applications of  magic, and secrets around every corner. As the struggle continues, the fate of the entire world seems to be on the edge between prospering and collapsing, but no matter who will win the throne, nothing will ever be the same again.

Why I love it: This series is told from many perspectives in a well-constructed magical world full of complex characters. Everything about this story and the way it is told is intriguing, but I’m especially drawn to the characterization. Martin makes his readers fall in love with characters just in time for them to die, or turn to the dark side, or make the gravest possible error. There are infinite twists and turns, and nothing is black and white though everyone has an opinion. The suspense is never-ending.

11. 11/22/63 by Stephen King

What it’s about: A young man who teaches high school and is somewhat dissatisfied with his lot is told a life-changing secret by someone he would barely have considered a friend. The secret involves a time portal and a plot to change the course of history by preventing the death of John F Kennedy. Many things happen along the way, however, to make Jake doubt whether killing Oswald is the right course to take, and whether changing history is worth giving up the better life he’s forged for himself in the past.

Why I love it: Although Stephen King is great with horror stories, this sci-fi infused work of historical fiction is actually my favorite of his novels because of the wonderful characters in this book. Jake is an honorable, fascinating man, Sadie is perfectly awkward and realistic, and even Oswald is more interesting than I’ve ever found him in real history stories. I often have difficulty finding characters I feel any connection to in King’s books, though the plots are superb, but 11/22/63 was easy to becomw invested in. Also, I’m fascinated by books that manipulate time.

Check out my review of 11/22/63 here for more information!

12. Sister Carrie by Theodore Dreiser

What it’s about: Carrie has grown up in a fairly secluded household where her future looks small and unexciting. Her dreams are bigger than that, though, and she moves to Chicago to stay with relatives and move up in the world. The world, however, seems destined to keep her in her place. Carrie is set on making money and becoming fabulous any way she can, no matter the cost, and makes more changes in her life to reach her goals in New York, no matter who she may hurt along the way.

Why I love it: This story has great commentary on ambition and greed that makes for a cautionary tale. The characters aren’t always likeable, but they are strong, and it’s impossible to look away from the destruction that lies in their wake as money changes the very essence of their beings. It’s one of the few books I read for college that I thoroughly enjoyed having been assigned.

13. Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy

What it’s about: Two families that are slightly intertwined have very different experiences with marriage. Anna is determined to have the man she wants even if it means ruining her marriage and reputation. Levin has been forced to accept that he can’t have the woman he wants, but continues to hold her in his heart, a tactic that pays off quite well for him when he encounters the girl and tries again. The two love stories run opposite to each other, both with their challenges, but vastly different in outcome.

Why I love it: The parallels of the two stories are intriguing. Levin was actually my favorite character throughout the book, but Anna, as the title character, is also captivating and I did keep hoping her life would turn around. She seems perpetually at a turning point, but can never quite get going in the right direction. It’s a mix of love and tragedy based not on fate or unalterable circumstances, but on human nature itself.

14. The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath

What it’s about: A woman’s life begins as she slowly descends into madness while interning for a magazine in New York. Her experiences in the city are not what she expected and her confused reactions seem very different than those of the other girls she lives near and spends her time with. She spends some time in a hospital and returns home a very changed person, unable to find an occupation for her time and worrying about many things, including motherhood and her career.

Why I love it: The changes that mental illness bring to an otherwise ordinary life make this novel darkly beautiful and enigmatic. Even at her lowest points, Esther’s thoughts are profoundly moving and, at times, strangely relatable. This book is almost entirely focused on psychological aspects, and is both frightening and encouraging. It was a delightfully chilling summer read.

15. Frankenstein by Mary Shelley

set3What it’s about: Aspiring scientist Frankenstein sets out to answer the mystery of restoring life to something dead. Although he is initially proud of his creation, he soon sees it for what it is–a monster. Between the scientist and his creation, irreparable damage is done to Frankenstein’s family, and the two become enemies who must attempt to best each other to preserve or destroy the renewed life.

Why I love it: On top of the fascinating implications of restoring life to persons dead, the commentary on human nature and responsibility is still relevant today. The literal story is interesting in itself, and the reader is made to sympathize with Frankenstein’s monster in a way that draws attention to real life prejudices. The gothic nature of the narration makes the story both creepy and compelling. It’s a classic that’ll change the way readers look at the world around them.

16. Lying by Lauren Slater

What it’s about: This book is a memoir in which the narrator readily admits to fabricating many of her own statements presented as truths. An aspiring writer with an epileptic condition–or a metaphorical one–that changes the way people perceive her before they even know her endeavors not just to find her place in the world, but to force herself into the space whether she’ll fit or not.

Why I love it: I am irresistibly drawn to works that blur the line between fiction and nonfiction, and this is the best example I’ve found of that. A memoir is, by necessity, a work of nonfiction, but the narrator of this one repeatedly claims that she exaggerates and can’t be trusted. This is a book that left me constantly wondering what to believe, a puzzle with a hundred different solutions. It’s unpredictable and unique, simultaneously infuriating and endearing.

17. Sula by Toni Morrison

What it’s about: Two childhood friends from opposing backgrounds are deeply affected by an accidental death they witness and partially cause. As the girls grow up, both follow their family’s footsteps: Nel marries and settles down in a stable family, and Sula leaves to have affairs and cause a stir. When she returns, the community is in shambles, but turning against Sula allows them to unite and live in peace with each other, though Sula looses her only friend in the process.

Why I love it: Everything about this story is odd and surprising. Parts of the narration are provided out of chronological order, some elements of the story seem too bizarre to be possible, and the characters are like no one you’ve ever met. This is another book I read for college that I ended up loving, in this case for the quirky story and the phenomenal way it’s told.

18. Sharp Objects by Gillian Flynn

What it’s about: A small-time newspaper reporter returns to her hometown against her instincts to cover a recent murder story there. She becomes closer to her mother and half-sister while she investigates the case with an attractive detective looking for an in. Soon she realizes the murderer may be closer to home than she’d like, and the new deaths may have something to do with the death of her other younger sister.

Why I love it: This is a mystery/thriller from the author of Gone Girl with great twists and turns. Crime novels often become predictable and routine, but this one had the sort danger personally attached to the narrator that gives it an extra spark, and unique unpredictability. It’s dark and haunting.

19. Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen

What it’s about: A young man who’s just lost his parents and the veterinary practice he was planning to acquire after his college graduation runs away with the circus. There he learns the dangers of circus hierarchy for humans and animals, falls in love, and forges a home for himself with a troupe on the brink of collapse.

Why I love it: It’s historical fiction story told retrospectively as our narrator sits in a nursing home, waiting for one of his children to take him to the circus while it’s in town. It’s hard to decide which narrator to like better–the young man who makes an adventure of his grief, or the crotchety old man in the nursing home who still has tricks up his sleeve. All of the characters are bright and wily, and this novel shows a view of the circus far more entertaining than a front row seat to the show.

20. The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson

What it’s about: This nonfiction tale combines the architectural challenges behind the assembly of the World’s Fair in Chicago in the late 1800s and the uprise of a prosperous serial killer moving to the area around the same time, taking advantage of the influx of people to the city.set4

Why I love it: A doctor/murderer and an architect may seem like an unlikely pairing, but they fit together marvelously here. Also, the invention of the Ferris Wheel is a remarkable account. This book reads like a novel but conveys real history, including fires, floods, mysterious deaths, and for many, the Fair of a lifetime. The cover of this book so drew me in that I didn’t even realize it was a nonfiction book until I’d begun, but quickly discovered it was worth the read even though it wasn’t what I’d been expecting.

21. Church of Marvels by Leslie Parry

What it’s about: Four lives in New York in the late 19th century are set on course for collision by a fatal fire at a Coney Island side show and an abandoned baby. Follow two performers, a street worker, and a potential new mother into underground tunnels, an asylum, and the dirtiest corners of the city as they each seek something lost that leads them to each other.

Why I love it: Told from four perspectives, this novel is a wild ride through historical New York City, where no one is quite as they seem and justice may be impossible to grasp. It’s a powerful story of love, grief, and identity full of oddities and surprises.

Check out my review of Church of Marvels here for more information!

22. The Heart Goes Last by Margaret Atwood

What it’s about: In a not-too-distant dystopian world, economic collapse has left many middle class workers suddenly in dire circumstances, including our main characters, a young married couple. They try living out of their car, holding undesirable jobs that pay too little, and they’re sinking into poverty. So when they hear about a new program where volunteers are provided nice homes, stable jobs, and safety from the now-dangerous homeless population, they jump at the chance for a better life, even though it means living in a prison for six months each year. When they break the rules and make contact with the couple who share their house during those other six months, there are surprisingly drastic consequences.

Why I love it: People volunteer to be prisoners half of the year. That, in itself, was intriguing enough for me to pick up this book, and it did not disappoint. Additionally, Margaret Atwood is an incredible writer who creates completely unpredictable characters and crazy situations that are too bizarre to believe but too plausible to dismiss.

23. The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins

What it’s about: Our fallible narrator is a woman down on her luck, having lost her job, her husband, and her sobriety. She takes the train into London every day to keep up the ruse of employment for her kindly roommate’s sake, and becomes fascinated with the lives taking place on her old street. When she witnesses something suspicious and a woman turns up dead, Rachel becomes ensnared in a deadly investigation that turns suspicion toward her and even reveals something shocking about her marriage.

Why I love it: This is a narrator who has faults and makes mistakes, which makes the story seem so much more realistic. It’s an exciting mystery that leaves readers suspicious of every character and then reveals a truth that hits much closer to home for our narrator than she ever could have expected.

Check out my review of The Girl on the Train here for more information!

24. The Cuckoo’s Calling by Robert Galbraith (J. K. Rowling)

What it’s about: A popular celeb falls to her death from the balcony of her apartment, and several months after the case has been officially closed as a suicide, private detective Cormoran Strike is approached by the girl’s brother to prove that she was murdered. Robin, Strike’s new secretary, is happily engaged, but can’t resist the chance to learn more about investigative work and proves to be an invaluable aid to Strike in keeping the floundering business afloat and piecing together the mystery of the girl’s sudden demise.

Why I love it: It’s an out-of-the-norm crime novel with characters that feel real and lovable. Strike and Robin have a great relationship that’s just on the edge between platonic and romantic, and their efforts to track down the killer are both suspenseful and introspective. There’s a personal aspect in the mystery for Strike, which makes the novel even more exciting. Of course, as usual for J. K. Rowling, the story is irresistibly entertaining.

Check out my review of The Cuckoo’s Calling (and the rest of the series) here for more information!

25. Outlander by Diana Gabaldon

What it’s about: An ex-combat nurse takes a trip to Scotland with her husband after the end of WWII and falls through time. About 200 years earlier, she stands up from where she’s fallen and is instantly dragged off into 1740’s excitement. After Claire is “rescued” by a clan of Scotsmen, she can’t get back to her time portal easily and is molded into a functioning member of this new/old society before she has a chance to return to her own time. When her opportunity arises, however, she may be less willing to leave, despite the cruel threats of her husband’s ancestor who takes special interest in Claire and her new family.

Why I love it: This one’s a guilty pleasure. I actually had a lot of complaints while I was reading, but the story is very addicting and I consumed the entire series pretty quickly because I was so interested in the characters. I will definitely be picking up the next book in this series when it finally comes out, but I don’t anticipate this book staying on my list very long. I really enjoy stories that manipulate time, and the characterization is superb, but now that I’ve read all that there is I suspect the excitement will begin to wear down. It’s a temporary love, but a love nonetheless.

Check out my review set5of Outlander (and the rest of the series) here for more information!

Postscript: I realize the Harry Potter series is not on my list this year. It usually is, but I had too many other good books to name this time around and I feel like by this point it’s a given–if you’ve read it it’s probably a favorite, and if you haven’t, you probably should. Also, I don’t like to include multiple books by the same author in my list, and I wanted to reflect how much I’d enjoyed Galbraith/Rowling’s other series this past year.

What are your favorite books? Are any of mine on your lists? Do you have titles you think I should read? Let me know in the comments below!

Happy reading,

The Literary Elephant