|Heaven. Courtesy wikipedia|
Like many writers, I love blank notebooks. Those lined pages are filled with possibilities, unborn stories and poems.
A new year offers the same magic, a blank slate on which to write the story of your life. One thing I love to do each year is read lists of recommended books. This year I’ve gone a step further to create my own lists.
Making lists is an art. You start with your blank notebook you just bought and draw up ideas. What genre will you read?
Perhaps you’re a confirmed a sci-fi fiend. Maybe you prefer literary fiction and are looking for additions to your book club’s offerings. Or perhaps you prefer to browse the non-fiction section.
I’ve listed my own three must-read sections below, one in each genre: literary, sci-fi / fantasy fiction, and non-fiction. Stay tuned after the pretty shiny books, and I’ll complete your reading time with a snack.
Literary fiction has exploded over the past few years, although I’d say it’s always been a huge genre and people just didn’t realize. It goes at the top of my list of lists, since I love good writing and clever turns of phrase.
1. All The Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr – I can’t tell a lie. I’m already a few chapters in and entranced with this novel about a blind French girl and a German boy, whose paths collide in Saint-Malo on the Brittany coast during World War II.
There’s a mysterious jewel involved, one with a strange curse, as well as a miniature city Marie Laure uses to learn her way around Saint-Malo. (My link leads to the paperback version since it's cheaper than the Kindle.)
2. Keeping with the World War II theme, The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah is next on my list. The sample on Amazon promises a riveting tale with a clunkier writing as Doerr’s. However, according to Goodreads reviews it’s not a ‘desperate romance played across the war-torn fields of France’, and for that I’m grateful.
The book is about two sisters, one married and one single. Again, there’s a German soldier, which I find very intriguing – I love to get a feel for the humanity of what was then the enemy. Nightingale promises personal growth, a theme I dearly love. It’s probably the main book for a lot of book clubs, so I’m going to join my fellow readers and put this one on my nightstand.
3. Language Arts by Stephanie Kallos looks really promising. It’s the story of Cody, a low-functioning autistic boy given ‘stimming’ exercises as therapy for some of his behaviors. His father, a high school Language Arts teacher, does his own form of stimming, endlessly drawing Palmer loops (those circles kids used to have to draw to learn cursive.)
Language and the loss of words, as in the case of a nun in Language Arts who is entering dementia, is perhaps an inner World War. Narrated by Cody’s sister, Emmy, the language seems plain and layered with tender emotion as well as the everyday trauma many people suffer.
4. Voices in the Night by Steven Millhauser – I had to start reading this short story collection the night the library emailed to say it was in. Slipstream is my not-so-secret addiction, and the Pulitzer-winning Millhauser serves up lovely little slices of magical tragedy. The first story, Miracle Polish, could be seen as a riff on Dorian Grey: magic liquid changes your reflection to a more vivid version of yourself. Mermaid Fever is about how the discovery of a dead mermaid changes a town forever: women start wearing sequined tails, legs are seen as unattractive.
Most haunting, however, was the story Sons and Mothers, in which a man visits his aging parent and can’t stop falling asleep. Each time he wakes from his naps his mother recedes, and the house slips into a darker, more abandoned form.
His writing is spectacular – free of embellishment, the simple words drag you in with bare poetry.
5. Look, I know it’s popular to mock all things Elizabeth Gilbert, but the truth is I loved Eat Pray Love and Gilbert’s TED talk on inspiration. Yes, the final section was a bit of a disappointment, like the movie. (Sorry, Julia Roberts and Javier Bardem.)
So The Signature of All Things goes on my list, even though the book was published a few years back. This is another historical novel, the story of a family of botanical explorers in the 18th and 19th centuries. There’s the same spiritual discovery, according to the jacket copy, reflecting the search for ‘the hidden mechanisms behind all life itself.’
Sounds damn interesting.
My fantasy/sci-fi blends with the literary list, since I always look for expert writing along with my magic.
1. Station Eleven, yet another post-apocalyptic novel, came recommended from several sources. It follows Kristen, a member of Shakespearian actors and musicians. They do their best to follow the Star Trekkian quote tattooed on Kristen’s arm: ‘Because survival is insufficient.’
Of course, not all survivors agree, and the little troupe runs into violence and insanity as well as the eternal concept of love.
2. The Buried Giant is by Kazuo Ishiguro, the author of The Remains of the Day. In the novel, the Romans have departed from Britain and, as a result, the island is in decline. An elderly Briton couple go in search of their son. They are joined by three travelers, a Saxon warrior, his orphan charge, and a knight. Together they face mysterious dangers and strange adventures, framed by the changing nature of their own memories.
Did I mention this has a gorgeous cover and an untitled map? I love maps, and the mystery of this one draws me in.
3. A Darker Shade of Magic (‘epic and gripping’) highlights the travels of Kell, a magician who can move between parallel universes. They are delineated by colors: there’s Grey London, dirty and boring, Red London, White London caught in a fight with itself for magic, and Black London, a place no one even speaks about any longer.
Kell is officially an ambassador from the established and settled Red London, but unofficially he works as a smuggler. When he encounters Delilah, a thief, the pair is drawn into a perilous and deadly adventure.
Oh hell yeah.
And here are my nonfiction choices:
Orange is The New Black – Okay, it’s not really nonfiction but more of a memoir. Piper Kerman writes about her year in a women’s prison, and to preserve people’s privacy she changed many of the names and characteristics. Still, I’m fascinated by life behind bars, so I can’t wait to dive into this book. And I love the Netflix show, so there’s that.
To go full circle and return to my World War II theme, I’m going to read Nagasaki: Life After Nuclear War by Susan Southard. I adore books on Japan (I devoured Murakami’s Underground about the Tokyo subway gas attack) and, as I mentioned earlier, I’m really interested in World War II. Plus, I’m always up for learning about one of the deadliest events in history in order to keep those victims in mind.
As a bonus, a sort of free prize inside my box of Cracker Jacks, I’m going to reread Fingersmith by Sarah Waters. It’s a Victorian romance but a very unconventional one, the story of a kidnapped girl who turns out to be much more than she seems. Forced into the life of fingersmithing or being a pickpocket, she becomes maid to Maud Lilly and ends up falling in love with her.
Waters may have invented this genre, the lesbian version of historical romance. Fingersmith was my favorite novel by her. Violent and tender, it’s really good.
Now, look. I know it’s difficult to budget for books AND silly things like food. I got most of these from the library, although I’ll probably end up buying two or three of the ones I really love. Fingersmith was a gift, so I get to read it over and over again.
When you have your list of books ready, don’t forget to treat yourself with a snack and beverage. My choice is tea, properly made in the pot with boiling water and Irish teabags. I’ll pair my brew with some shortbread, since that stuff goes with everything and it’s so easy to make. Here’s my own Granny Clancy’s recipe, transcribed from her exquisite script:
Preheat the oven to 325.
½ lb. butter
¾ lb. flour
¼ lb. castor sugar
3 ozs. ground almonds
Mix butter with ½ lb. flour and other ingredients. When mixed well add remainder ¼ lb. flour. Knead together with hands for about 5 mins.
Press into round tart pan about 9” with removable bottom. Score into triangles and prick the edges with a fork for a classic petticoat tails pattern. (You can also put the mixture into a rectangular tin and score into bars.)
To quote Granny Clancy, “Some chopped almonds in the mixture are an improvement.”
Do tell me what you plan to read in the comments, won’t you? I’m always looking for new ideas for my reading shelf.
- Featured Book: All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr (girl-who-reads.com)
- Review: The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert (girl-who-reads.com)