Birthdays are a funny thing. As I turn fifty this month, I realize that half a century is a big deal, and not just for people! As the years go by, books come and books go—but the really great ones stick around. So, to celebrate my birthday, I look to some novels and books that have truly stood the test of the time.
Our Bodies, Ourselves—Boston Women’s Health Book Collective, Judy Norsigian. In 1969, some women met at an Emmanuel College conference to discuss women and their bodies. From this gathering grew a group that eventually formed a collective that left nothing off the table when it came to women, their bodies, their sexuality, and even reproductive rights. “Women and Their Bodies,” a 193 page pamphlet, was published in 1970 and in 1971 was renamed Our Bodies Ourselves to reaffirm the ownership that women need to take in regards to their physical selves.
Several other niche editions have appeared as well, tackling menopause and pregnancy and birth. It has been updated every three to four years, but unfortunately due to some financial pressure the group’s last edition was in 2011. However, the information and spirit of Our Bodies Ourselves still holds on strong!
Go Ask Alice—Anonymous. Promoted as a real-life account of a teenage girl’s disturbing foray into the world of drugs, the authorship of Go Ask Alice has been called into question for quite some time. It has been suggested that the book is actually the combined efforts of several authors and not a true account at all.
Be that as it may, that does not negate the powerful story of “Alice,” who is never named in the novel, as she descends into a life of drugs and sexual abuse. Go Ask Alice is a cautionary tale that—despite its age—still holds up today, as proven by the 50th anniversary edition that was published in late December.
That Was Then, This Is Now—S. E. Hinton. While novelist Hinton is best known for The Outsiders, you cannot discuss groundbreaking young adult fiction without including That Was Then, This Is Now.
Set in what would be referred to now as the same “universe” as The Outsiders, the novel features some of the same characters, but focuses mainly on two close friends, Mark and Bryon. As a coming of age story, it explores the inevitable growth and tensions that come with being not only being a teenager, but the specific challenges of the 1960s.
The Exorcist—William Peter Blatty. Terrifying then, terrifying now, Blatty’s novel continues to define the horror genre with its disturbing imagery and details.
The novel explores themes of religion, faith, and death through the story of Regan, an 11-year-old who suffers possession at the hand of a demon. Her shocking journey is laid out graphically, and ultimately becomes a battle of good versus evil and a test of faith. The Exorcist has not only held up as a novel but it spawned a critically acclaimed film, and a recent television series.
Good books are like a fine wine, they only get better with age, so give one of these oldie-but-goodies a try!
The start of this new year brought with it a collection of books entering the public domain. So many fascinating tales are now available for the public to adapt, share, and create with—from compelling dramas, to absurdists allegories, to tragic tales of love and loss, this year’s batch is truly extraordinary. To celebrate the arrival of these classic stories, I’ve complied a list of my favorite books that have entered the public domain this year! May they continue to inspire for generations.
The Great Gatsby—F. Scott Fitzgerald. You may remember this story of greed and love from your high school English class. Set in the early 1920s, young businessman Nick Carroway rents a home in New York for the summer and finds himself entangled with an eccentric ‘new money’ millionaire named Jay Gatsby who assists him in his quest to win the heart of Daisy Buchanan. There’s only one problem; Daisy is married to a rich (and unfaithful) husband. The death of the American Dream in the face of unfettered ambition is an idea that still rings true today, and I, for one, cannot wait to see what stories come from this book’s entry into the public domain.
In Our Time—Ernest Hemingway. If you love stories of the trials of war, this collection of short stories is right up your alley! Set around the First World War, In Our Time is a collection of tales surrounding all aspects of wartime—from scenes of evacuations, to the experiences of soldiers, to life after the war, this book showcases the ever present humanity behind one of the world’s bloodiest wars.
The Trial—Franz Kafka. (German Version) Much like Alice In Wonderland or The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, The Trial by Franz Kafka follows the story of the ‘every man’ thrust into a world of madness and confusion, where the rules don’t matter, except when they do, and chaos runs rampant. It follows a man named Josef K. who is awoken late one night by two officers informing him that he has been accused of a crime and that he must prepare his case. The problem? Josef has no clue what he’s been accused of, nor does he know where these men came from or for whom they work. From then on it only gets more complicated for poor Josef as he desperately tries to navigate a world of increasingly intricate bureaucracy to prove that he is innocent of a crime that he knows nothing about. With a world as bizarre as our own criminal justice system, this story will have you entranced till the end as you too try to understand the peculiar world of Franz Kafka’s The Trial.
An American Tragedy—Theodore Dreiser. The 1900s era of storytelling is best known for being about the “lost generation,” which refers to the feeling of displacement that many young men felt after returning from war and finding it difficult to believe in the American Dream again. Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy perfectly encapsulates the sorrow that was often synonymous with this theme. This book tells the story of Clyde Griffiths, a factory worker who becomes entangled in a love triangle between a wealthy socialite and a fellow factory worker whom he got pregnant. Based on the murder of Grace Brown in 1906, this story is perfect for those who enjoy a look into the darker side of love and ambition.
Mrs. Dalloway—Virginia Woolf. In yet another perfect example of the ‘lost generation’ theme of the 1900s, Mrs. Dalloway follows the life of Clarissa as she prepares for a party that she plans to throw that night. Throughout the day, she interacts with various people and ponders her life and whether she will be happy with her choices as she continues to grow old. Running parallel to her story is the life of Septimus Warren Smith, a World War I veteran who struggles with his past and relives the horrors of war. Mrs. Dalloway, at it’s core, is a story of choice and the effects they can have—even years down the line. I related greatly to Clarissa Dalloway’s insecurities regarding her choices, as I know what it’s like to worry that you one day you will harbor regrets. Overall, Mrs. Dalloway shows the joy that can come from embracing one’s choices and living in the present, and the despair that can come from clinging to the past.
With every new year comes new books, and here at The Spellbinding Shelf we are always looking forward to new publications! No matter how old I get, I always find myself gravitating towards YA novels—there is something about coming-of-age stories that just comfort me. So, I’ve compiled a list of YA novels I am particularly stoked about for 2021.
The Girls I’ve Been—Tess Sharpe. This novel follows the daughter of a con-artist who escapes from her mother, only to end up as a hostage in a bank heist. This novel is so highly anticipated, that they already have a film planned for it starring Millie Bobbie Brown. However, I am a firm believer in reading the book before seeing the movie and I am looking forward to picking up this one on January 26th!
The Box in the Woods—Maureen Johnson. If you loved the Truly Devious stories, then you will be stoked for this release. Stevie Bell is back in another installment. Before kicking off what she thinks will be a normal summer, Stevie gets a call about the Box in the Woods Murders. Naturally, she can’t refuse and thus her investigating begins. This one won’t be available until June 15th, but you can always read the other three novels from the series in the meantime!
One Last Stop—Casey McQuiston.Red, White & Royal Blue was everywhere this summer, and Casey McQuiston is back with another novel that is sure to steal your heart. Twenty-three-year-old August finds out that her subway crush is from 1970’s Brooklyn, and now she must figure out how to help her. I am super excited about the representation in this book and can’t wait for it to be released on June 1st!
Fat Chance, Charlie Vega—Crystal Maldonado. This book follows Charlie Vega, a young girl navigating the scary world that is high school. Additionally, her own mother is pushing the skinny, white narrative onto her—despite the fact that she is neither of those things! When the boy who asked her best friend out asks Charlie out, she can’t help but wonder if people truly see her. I am especially excited for this book because I think the world of YA books needs more diversity in it’s main characters. You can check the shelves for this one on February 2nd!
Somewhere Between Bitter and Sweet—Laekan Zea Kemp. This novel was pitched as I’m Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter meets Emergency Contact, which sounds fantastic to me. It follows the story of a young girl named Penelope who dreams of opening her own pastry shop next door to her father’s taco shop. When her father hires a new boy to work in the shop, Penelope can’t help but get close to him. So, when his immigration status and the shop are threatened, Penelope has to come up with a plan to save them both. This novel sounds like an absolute tearjerker and I cannot wait to pick it up on April 6th.
The new year offers New Year’s resolutions and fresh beginnings for lots of people—more so this year than probably ever before, as we anticipate a vast improvement from the turmoil of 2020. While most of what the new year might bring remains a mystery, we can look forward to new releases by some of our favorite authors. Below are some of the YA fantasy releases I’m most excited about (some have even prompted a pre-order).
Rule of Wolves—Leigh Bardugo. The Grisha novels by Leigh Bardugo have been some of my favorite YA books that I’ve read this year. Luckily for me, I was able to tackle the Shadow and Bone trilogy in its entirety and the subsequent Six of Crows duology to get fully immersed in Bardugo’s mysterious and magic-filled Eastern European world. King of Scars sees the return of a fan favorite from the original trilogy (I know Nikolai was my personal favorite) and Rule of Wolves continues his story.
Release Date: March 30, 2021
A Court of Silver Flames—Sarah J. Maas. Sarah J. Maas has taken the fantasy world by storm with her A Court of Thorns and Roses (or ACOTAR) and Throne of Glass (TOG) novels. Delving into the ever-popular dynamic of mortals, magic, and the realm of the Fae, A Court of Silver Flames is a continuation of her ACOTAR series: this novel follows Nesta Acheron as she contends with political and romantic intrigue in the court of the Fae.
Release Date: February 16, 2021
Chain of Iron—Cassandra Clare. The sequel to Chain of Gold, Cassandra Clare returns to the Shadowhunters universe that has enchanted readers since City of Bones was published in 2007. Over the years, Clare has seen her stories translated to the silver screen as well as the small screen via a hit television series, so the Shadowhunters have become a household name throughout the various crossovers that Clare has created. Her newest series is called “The Last Hours” and is set in Edwardian London.
Release Date: March 2, 2021
Tales from the Hinterland—Melissa Albert. Most of us know The Hazel Wood from its wild popularity on bookstagram and other social media thanks to its gilded and intricately designed cover art that made for perfect book photography. However, it wasn’t just the cover art that managed to enchant audiences, as Melissa Albert introduced everyone to a new world based on dark fairy tales. Tales From the Hinterland is listed as “Book 3” of The Hazel Wood series; however, the description suggests it is to be a collection of stories set in the Hinterland world, which I’m sure is no less exciting to fans of Albert’s novels.
Release Date: January 23, 2021
Legacy of Orisha Book 3—Tomi Adeyemi. Pictured is the cover art for book two of Tomi Adeyemi’s series, as cover art and exact release dates have not been announced for book three. However, Adeyemi has confirmed via her website that the next installment will be hitting shelves sometime in 2021, and so I just had to give it an honorable mention for those that have been following this groundbreaking series. The Children of Blood and Bone and its sequel have revolutionized the YA scene and provided a different type of fantasy novel that is sorely needed within the genre. Influenced by Adeyemi’s West African heritage, these books blend African deities with magic, peril, deep character development, and representation, making The Legacy of Orisha books worth the read and worth the anticipation of the newest book.
This has been a crazy year, to say the least, and during our time in quarantine, many of us have turned to books. Books have been both a source of enjoyment, a place of solace, and an escape from hectic times. Our staff writers have taken the time to reflect on books that were meaningful to them this year for all of these reasons and more. From fiction to nonfiction, old to new, there is something on this list for everyone. Everyone here at the Spellbinding Shelf wishes you a Happy New Year and (hopefully) a longer to-be-read list!
Staff Writer Rikki Tremblay
The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma—Bessel van der Kolk. Dr. van der Kolk is a leading expert on trauma studies, and this book is a must-read for academics, professionals, and laypeople alike. You get a thorough and grounded definition and discussion of what trauma is—not just mentally, but physically, emotionally, and spiritually as well. Van der Kolk then covers various paths to recovery beyond just the orthodox approaches to trauma. You’ll learn how to use new techniques like eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR), acting, and yoga in the treatment of trauma.
As someone with cPTSD and recovering from past trauma myself, this book was such a gift. My copy of the book is heavily dog-eared, underlined, highlighted, and scribbled with notes, break-throughs, and revelations throughout. It’s not always an easy read because it will unearth ancient hurts and spark painful—but cathartic—connections at times. I’m happy to have read this book at the beginning of 2020 because I felt better prepared and equipped to survive the collective trauma we’ve all experienced the rest of the year!
Staff Writer Abhilasha Mandal
The Turn of the Screw—Henry James. This book is a horror novella published in 1898. It’s unique due to the psychoanalytical angle it takes on the main characters of the story—Miles, Flora and their governess. It is also largely open to interpretation.
Bly Manor, where they live, is haunted by two insidious spirits who seek to consume Miles and Flora. The governess learns of this and puts all her energy into protecting the children. But is what she’s seeing really there? There are several moments in the story that make you question the governess’s mental disposition. Also, even though she is very descriptive of her protective feelings for the children, some parts of her interactions with them suggest she is not disclosing her innermost feelings for them, especially the boy, Miles.
There is, in fact, much debate among scholars on the hidden meaning of this book. It has also received a lot of critique because it is suggestive of some things that are now inexcusable. But it is a gripping read, and it is best to read it and interpret it for yourself. The thrill doesn’t diminish upon rereading. I would recommend this book to anyone who likes psychological thrillers or gothic drama.
Staff Writer Melanie Wilson
The Alchemist—Paulo Coelho. My favorite book of 2020 has been The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho. I read it for the first time this year and I can understand why it’s a classic. My favorite quote from the book was “This is what we call love. When you are loved, you can do anything in creation. When you are loved, there’s no need at all to understand what’s happening, because everything happens within you.”
Staff Writer Lauren Kuhman
The Hobbit—J.R.R. Tolkien. There are a plethora of good books—all of which were strong contenders for the title of my favorite book of 2020. However, I think that J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit stands out the most. I have never really read any fantasy novels, and whenever I approached any of Tolkien’s most famous works I was offered a slew of positive, yet cautionary advice on how some of them are lengthy, uneventful reads. Nevertheless, I was (and am) determined to begin the adventure that is The Lord of the Rings series. Since I had never before read these books—or even really watched the movies—I thought it would be appropriate to start at the beginning. While I have yet to begin any of The Lord of the Rings books, I still loved The Hobbit. It was an engaging read that, while being classified as a children’s book, was as exciting and mysterious as any adult novel I’ve read. Additionally, as a novice fantasy reader, I thought it to be a good introduction to the genre and incited me to seek out similar novels. 2020 has been an absolute whirlwind of the year with travesty, drama, some thrills, and complete horrors, so having the ability to tumble down waterfalls in wine barrels was a welcome relief from the very unique and complicated year that has been 2020.
Staff Writer Jaycee Graffius
The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy—Douglas Adams. This book had me laughing for days! I would sometimes have to put the book down and just giggle nonsensically at the matter-of-fact way in which the book would make absolutely absurd assertions. Each character was delightfully relatable, which is an impressive feat seeing as one of those characters was a hippie/former galactic president with five heads, and they each brought their own comedic flair to the story without feeling redundant. This book reminded me a lot of my favorite podcast, “Welcome to Night Vale,” which also uses absurdist humor to create a peculiar world. I’ve already purchased the entire series and cannot wait to explore the galaxy with my trusty towel!
Staff Writer Amanda Thomas
Shadow and Bone Trilogy—Leigh Bardugo. Young Adult Fantasy had always been my favorite genre, but when you’re deep into your English major, you learn to sample other genres like contemporary and speculative fiction, which leans towards more mature and controversial themes than fantasy and romance. Not to mention how monotonous the YA genre can get when there is a certain trope that authors tend to trend towards. It had been so long since I’d read a YA novel that when I came across this trilogy by Leigh Bardugo with the brilliant cover design, interesting titles, and intriguing summaries, I decided to give it a try. Let’s just say, this trilogy sparked my love of YA fantasy again. While it has its shortcomings, the introduction into the “Grishaverse” detailed a rich fantasy environment with political intrigue that truly felt engaging and unique. I was drawn into this world and fell in love with its characters and the structures of magic that were utilized. It has also inspired me to continue to read into this universe created by Bardugo as the stories and her writing has continued to improve. While I’m still thankful for being able to expand my horizons and read more “adult” types of fiction, reading YA feels like coming home to the type of reading and fantasy worlds that made me into the book lover I am today.
Staff Writer Sharon Enck
Weird Women: Classic Supernatural Fiction by Groundbreaking Female Writers: 1852-1923—Edited by Leslie S. Klinger and Lisa Morton. If Jane Austen and Edgar Allan Poe had a book-baby, it would be Weird Women: Classic Supernatural Fiction by Groundbreaking Female Writers: 1852-1923.It is my favorite read of 2020 because it mixes three of my literary loves: the horror genre, the short story, and narratives from a female perspective. Combining the beautiful turns of phrase a la Austen, with the spine tingling, teeth gnashing grittiness of Poe, Weird Women gives the reader lushly written tales of horror and the supernatural.
There is definitely something jolting about having topics like cruelty, murder, and loss being described as though they belong between the covers of Pride and Prejudice. And if you thought that Louisa May Alcott was only sugar and spice and everything Little Women, you would be deliciously wrong. I was pleasantly surprised to see that that particular author has a dark side as well as a heartwarming one. Among the distinguished list of female writers is Charlotte Perkins Gilman (yes, “The Yellow Wallpaper”) along with some new voices that I am thrilled to have discovered.
Communications Coordinator Roxanne Bingham
A Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes—Suzanne Collins. This is the prequel to The Hunger Games and I loved getting a look at the mind of President Snow. It was really interesting to see how much The Hunger Games had changed between his mentoring and the games we know. I love villain origin stories, and seeing exactly how he became a villain was so satisfying. I hope she writes more prequels of some kind because I want to know more!
Managing Editor Jade Stanton
What We Owe To Each Other—T.M. Scanlon. This book provides a possible answer to some of the complex questions at the heart of morality and ethics: how should we judge whether an action is morally right and wrong? Why should we concern ourselves with morality in decision making? Scanlon posits that our conception of morality should be based upon what actions could not be reasonably rejected by others. In this way, what we owe to each other—and, by extension, our views of morality—are ever-evolving and depend on the specific circumstances of individual situations.
Full disclosure: I heard of this book by watching The Good Place, which aired its fourth and final season this year. While I will caution readers that this is a very (very) dense read, I found the ideas it presents to be very relevant to 2020. Between the pandemic and the civil unrest we have seen this year, it’s hard to deny the importance of morality and decency in today’s world. My favorite thing about this book, however, is that it’s underlying assumption is that, by the very nature of our shared humanity, we owe each other something. To quote The Good Place’s Chidi Anagonye, “we choose to be good because of our bonds with other people and our innate desire to treat them with dignity. Simply put, we are not in this alone.” This sentiment, while always important, feels especially poignant given the turbulence of this year. While we may not know what next year holds, let this be the message we carry into 2021.
Editor-in-Chief Mackenzie King
Tess of the Road—Rachel Hartman. This is probably one of my favorite books of all time, not just 2020. It is set in the same fantastical universe as Hartman’s other books, Seraphina and Shadow Scale (which I also recommend!) but it follows the protagonist’s younger half-sister. It has the main features of any vaguely medieval fantasy novel, with dragons and kings and mistresses, but Hartman’s take on the genre is refreshing and unique. Fantasy has always been my favorite genre, so it was a breath of fresh air to read a fantasy novel that did not fall into the usual tropes.
Tess is suffocating under the weight of her past “failures” and believes, in the words of her father, that she is “born bad.” Tess’s rebellious streak is highly relatable and her emotional responses draw you even further into the story. Even though I have not personally experienced all that she has, Hartman’s beautiful prose makes you completely understand the complexity of her character as she struggles to accept her past, her mind, and her body. All of the characters are remarkably human and real—even the non-human characters! The mystery of Tess’s past unfolds throughout the book, working through her traumas and disappointments until she eventually accepts them. I would have never thought a book about the main character simply travelling would be so compelling, but it is utterly fantastic! Also, the sequel, Tess of the Sea, will be released soon!
Is there anything better than snuggling with a cup of hot cocoa, a good book, and a nice crochet project? I don’t think so. That’s why this winter I’ve found six incredible crochet projects for us crafty book nerds to enjoy. From cute plushies, to sweaters, to bookmarks, there’s a project here for any book lover this holiday season!
Mrs. Weasley’s Christmas Sweaters from Harry Potter. These adorable hand knitted sweaters were a yearly gift from Mrs. Weasley to her many children while they were away at Hogwarts. Just thinking about these sweaters and how loving Mrs. Weasley was throughout the series never fails to warm my heart, especially since they were the first gift Harry was ever given after years of neglect from the Dursleys. Now we can recreate the magic of these enchanting jumpers with this pattern from CrochetWithMeg on Etsy! This pattern also provides diagrams so that you can use any letter you want for the center design, so you too can make a sweater for each member of your family!
Flowery Bookmarks. While I often use anything from wrappers to receipts to mark my page in my books, sometimes it is nice to have a proper bookmark to hold my place. These pretty little bookmarks make it look as though a daisy is growing from between the covers! This free pattern by Aseem Creations guides the reader through making the flower, attaching the stem, and making the cute little tassel at the bottom. This pattern is perfect for a reader who is looking for a quick, practical project this winter.
A Cthulhu Plushie from Call of Cthulhu. Cthulhu—one of the terrifying old gods from H. P. Lovecraft’s disturbing pantheon of unknowable monsters—isn’t often described as cute. In fact, his giant tentacles, leathery wings, and appetite for human flesh make him a perfect storm of nightmare fuel and existential terror for those who read his story. However, thanks to the incredible pattern creator Alysha, now Cthulhu is a must-have for those long winter nights. Follow this free pattern and within a few hour you too could cuddle with your own manifestation madness!
An Elvish Coat. Elves are a staple of the fantasy genre. With their spiky ears, elegant styles, and aloof attitudes, they are often the aristocrats of their respective stories and are usually sophisticated in style and mannerism. This Christmas, stay warm and cozy by making the pinnacle of elvish fashion, a long flowing coat with this free pattern by Morale Fiber. The pattern includes instructions on how to make a long button up coat with wide sleeves, a pointed hood, and a corset back. This elaborate design would be perfect for a cozy night in, so if you’re looking for a longer project this winter break, this is the craft for you.
Katniss Everdeen’s Winter Cowl from Catching Fire. This cozy neck warmer was worn by Katniss in Catching Fire during the snowy winter months in District Twelve looked toasty and soft. Can’t you just imagine wrapping yourself in it and then overthrowing the government? Well, imagine no more! Thanks to this pattern by Jazodee on Etsy, you can topple any empire you desire in fashion. It also includes alterations for sizing, so it can fit a revolutionary at any size!
Coraline’s Gloves from Coraline. Coraline Jones’ adventurous spirit made her a compelling protagonist, and her desire to stand out from crowd was especially relatable to the book’s young readers. Coraline Jones desperately wanted these gloves while back to school shopping to make sure that she stood out at her new school, much to her mother’s chagrin. You too can make a statement this winter with these iconic gloves! With this free pattern by Mad Hooker Crochet, you’ll be adventure ready in no time!
Speculative fiction is my favorite genre, so I’m beyond excited to share some recommendations! Speculative fiction includes books that are written about events or societies that are theoretically possible, but don’t actually exist. This definition can be a bit tricky to understand, so I like to think of it as the genre where realistic fiction and dystopian/science fiction overlap. It’s a great genre for readers like myself who enjoy a little bit of everything. In hopes that you’ll eventually fall in love with the genre as much as I have, I want to share five speculative fiction books that are a great place to get started!
Life After Life—Kate Atkinson.Life After Life is the story of a woman named Ursula Todd who relives her life numerous times in twentieth-century England. Each life is an alternate possible reality in which she vaguely remembers the events of her past lives and is able to avoid events which would otherwise have lead to her death. This book is a great place to start for anyone who enjoys character-driven novels. Not to mention the best part: it has a sequel!
Parable of the Sower—Octavia Butler. I’m sure many of you are already familiar with Butler’s work, or at least recognize her name. And there’s a reason for that! Parable of the Sower was selected as a New York Times Notable Book of the Year in 1994 after its release and recently became a New York Times Bestseller again in September of 2020. The novel follows the life of a young woman named Lauren Olamina as she navigates Butler’s vision of America in 2024. I was completely engrossed in this novel when I read it. It is definitely a must read for anyone who is looking to ease out of teen dystopian novels and into adult dystopias.
The Road—Cormac McCarthy. This was my first speculative fiction novel and let me tell you, I was floored when I read this book. The novel follows a man and his young son as they travel across the remains of a post-apocalyptical North America in search of a better life. The pair are accosted with difficult weather and unwelcoming travelers during their journey. I will warn you that this novel is intense, but it’s a must-read for anyone who enjoys realistically unhappy endings as much as I do.
The Dreamers—Karen Thompson Walker. Romance and domestic fiction fans, you’ve found your next read! Walker’s novel tells the story of a small town in California that is plagued with a deadly sleeping disease. The novel focuses on a young college student named Mei who is suddenly pulled out of her typical college lifestyle because of the strange disease. Mei finds a companion in one of her classmates, and together they attempt to save the town from the sickness. This novel is a great option for fans of bittersweet realistic fiction who are looking to expand their reading horizons.
1984—George Orwell. I doubt there’s much need for me to introduce this book to you. I’m sure you’ve heard of it one way or another, and possibly even read it in high school, or just for fun. Orwell’s novel had to make this list, though. 1984 is a classic in the genre of speculative fiction. His vision of life in the year 1984 has been the inspiration for many other speculative fiction writers who came after him. He certainly inspired some of the writers on this list. So, if you’ve read my list and now you’re wondering which of the five novels to start with, this is the one!
As NaNoWriMo comes to a close for another year, many writers are celebrating their 50,000 word successes. What does it take to keep going for a full 30 days of writing 1,667 words per day? A little inspiration, motivation, and a lot of perspiration. Many, yours truly included, have turned to craft books this year to get a little nudge, and learn more about what it takes to create a great story.
For those seeking some inspiration and deeper knowledge about their craft, here are four books specifically written to do just that. These authors will lend support, motivate, teach technique, and at times be that friend over your shoulder whispering “you can do this!” It is never too early to get the jump on next year’s NaNoWriMo challenge!
On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft—Stephen King. You will see King’s book On Writing in just about every list that has anything to do with advice for creative writers. The dedication page sums up the tone of the book as King quotes Miguel de Cervantes, “honesty’s the best policy.” King sets the reader up for a no-holds barred look at the craft of writing. Part memoir, part instruction manual on how to write well, King is unflinching with details on his own personal journey and the demons that have accompanied him. His writing advice is similarly honest, and he uses examples from well-known authors to make his points. My favorite piece of advice is one that you have probably heard (but honestly, I don’t think a writer can hear enough) is, “read a lot and write a lot.” Despite what writers desperately want to believe, King claims there is no shortcut. On Writing is a humorous and honest look at what goes on behind the scenes.
Naming the World: And Other Exercises for the Creative Writer—Edited by Bret Anthony Johnston. With acclaimed authors such as Joyce Carol Oates and Tom Robbins, Naming the World has some serious writer power. Broken up into sections to tackle such topics as getting started, dialogue, character, point of view and tone, this book unleashes the advice of many different writers coming from a variety of genres. At the end of each short piece is a writing exercise to practice what you may have just learned—and let’s just say that my copy is highlighted and annotated to death.
Thrill Me: Essays on Fiction—Benjamin Percy. With a biting sense of humor, Benjamin Percy implores writers to do what he was advised to as an emerging wordsmith: “Thrill me.” Through a series of well-curated examples including literature, film and television, Percy breaks down the finer aspects of writing. Through the examination of such topics as activating setting, using lyricism to create beautiful literary music, and creating the perfect balance of peaks and valleys to pace a story, Percy can help you fine tune that work that just isn’t, well, working.
Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life—Anne Lamott. If you only read one section out of Anne Lamott’s book, Bird by Bird, let it be “shitty first drafts.” Particularly helpful for the perfectionist in all of us, Lamott begs writers to shed their inhibitions and just get it down on paper. She gives permission to play without fear of consequence (or later editing)—because playing is where the really great work happens! Through personal experiences, she guides the writer through various stages of writing a story including the shitty first draft, but goes deeper into the psyche. By offering thoughts on writing groups, finding your own voice, and even the ugly green-headed monster, jealousy, she tackles what goes on in the mind of a creator. Lamott also addresses creative nonfiction writers, and Bird by Bird doles out some serious inspiration and craft advice, with a dash of humor.
So…what are you waiting for? Grab a book or two, and start hammering away at your next great story or essay. As Jodi Picoult says, “You can’t edit a blank page!” Happy reading and writing!
If you’re anything like me, you may be feeling stressed about the current state of the world. To start, there’s a global pandemic. To complement that, there is a lot of global unrest and political tension. Sometimes reading news headlines makes me want to curl up into a little ball and hide under my bedsheets. Sometimes it seems like we’re in dire need of some humanity and compassion—and there is seemingly little to be found.
Because of my current mental state, I’ve recently found myself looking for little sparks of positivity. By doing this, I hoped to balance out the negativity of both world events and the minor inconveniences of everyday life. Naturally, I turned to books. I often find that fictional stories not only prove to be a pleasant escape from reality but also offer a glimpse into the truths of human emotion and love. By living vicariously through story book characters, I’m able to examine how deeply I feel and what resonates with me in regards to the emotions of the characters. This way, I’m able to re-evaluate my life using a brighter perspective. I often finish stories feeling more empathetic and with more peace of mind than I had when I started reading.
That being said, I’ve selected a few heartwarming novels that have made a positive impact on my life, often in more ways than one. If nothing else, they’ve helped me view life through a more optimistic lens. The following is a compilation of a few stories that are sure to improve your mood:
The Matchmaker—Catriona Innes. Caitlin lives in her own world. It’s seemingly perfect, but, in reality, it is riddled with fallacies. This story follows Caitlin as she explores who she is, with focus on the time of social media and dating apps, when it appears as though we have never been more connected yet more isolated. The Matchmaker is a story about love, loss, and loneliness, and learning to accept your reality. It is an uplifting novel, and Caitlin’s character and her progression are sure to win your heart.
Fangirl—Rainbow Rowell.Fangirl is the story of two twin sisters named Wren and Cath who have suffered the misfortune of growing up without a mother. Their father is also absent for most of their lives, and they cope with this in different ways. Cath is an introvert—she is content to live in the world of the internet and her books. Her sister, Wren, is also her best friend. The story follows the two girls as they embark on their first year of college, as they are faced with the need to adapt. This story is a great pick for anyone who enjoys a genuine, funny, and charming novel.
A Man Called Ove—Fredrik Backman. This book was recommended to me by my Grandma. I was hesitant to read it at first because it didn’t immediately pique my interest. However, once I started reading, I couldn’t stop. It’s almost impossible not to be enveloped in the story of Ove, an ornery old man who has all but completely given up on life. He is retired, has a short temper, and arguably has way too much time on his hands. He uses most of his spare time to enforce block association rules that no one else cares about. He also occasionally visits his wife’s grave. Although the story starts out looking rather bleak, the novel gains traction when an energetic young family moves in next door and accidentally flattens Ove’s mailbox. In the aftermath, the family and Ove develop a sincere and caring—albeit sometimes dysfunctional—relationship. This story is amazing for anyone who needs a smile, or even some hope.
A Mango-Shaped Space—Wendy Mass. Mia Winchell is a girl who has just entered adolescence. However, she struggles with things far beyond the typical trials of becoming a teenager, such as puberty and romance. Instead, Mia lives with synesthesia, which can be described as a confusion of the senses. For example, to Mia, words and sounds appear to have color. The novel circulates around Mia’s experiences with synesthesia and the problems she faces in school and with her friends. In learning to overcome something most people her age (and most people in general) don’t know about or understand, she navigates finding her voice and place in the world. I would recommend this book to anyone who feels stuck or needs a pick-me-up.
Maybe you have a story to tell. Maybe you want others to know they’re not alone. Maybe you want to write a memoir.
Writing about ourselves can be powerful, as can reading what other people write about themselves. We find universal, collective connection through sharing our personal stories together. We make sense of the past together. We own our histories together.
Memoir is a unique genre—it’s not autobiography or a chronological retelling of one’s entire life events. Rather, it’s telling a narrow and specific story around a life theme or event, and importantly, the interpretation of those events and what they mean for all of us looking forward. People write memoirs about all sorts of life events, major and small: divorcing their partner, learning to surf, hiking the Pacific Crest Trail. There is always something learned, which is then shared.
If you’ve been wanting to write your own memoir, you should. Maybe you’ve been unsure where to start, how to find the right memories, how to write dialogue you don’t remember, and other questions about the genre. Below is a curated collection of books to help you learn how to write a memoir, four of which are books about memoir writing and three are examples of memoirs that you can learn from as well.
The Art of the Memoir—Mary Karr. “Everybody I know who wades deep enough into memory’s waters drowns a little.” Considered by many to be the book about memoir writing, Karr’s treatise on the subject is a perfect place to start your biblio-education of memoir. The Art of the Memoir gives the why of memoir writing. While the other books on this list will offer you the methods, tools, and the how of doing memoir, this book will provide you with the important foundation of the why of doing memoir—the methodology or theory behind the tools. It’s a theoretical overview of memoir and memoir writing, including subtopics like the catharsis of writing memoir, the ethics of writing about real people (sometimes doing so negatively), and finding the truth in memoir when people sometimes have different recollections of the same events. Start here.
Fearless Confessions: A Writer’s Guide to Memoir—Sue William Silverman. “We interpret facts about the past in order to reclaim them, make sense of them.” If the first book on this list gave you the why of memoir, these next two give you the how of memoir writing. I’ve read many books about writing memoir, and Fearless Confessions is both one of the most practical how-to guides and teaches unique concepts and techniques.
You’ve probably heard the writing advice “show, don’t tell,” and Silverman offers clear tools for doing that in a memoir, including using what she calls savory words, slant details, and revealing your theme. Silverman includes thoughtful exercises and illustrative examples throughout the book.
A particular favorite chapter is “How to Trick Yourself Into Writing,” which gives clever techniques and tools to try in order to developing a regular writing practice for crafting a memoir. She encourages the reader to write a lot—not only to develop usable material, but to cultivate a relationship to memoir writing and a writer’s identity.
Old Friend from Far Away: The Practice of Writing Memoir—Natalie Goldberg. “Too often we take notes on writing, we think about writing but never do it.” If you are struggling to write your memoir—feeling stuck, having no ideas or memories, feeling like you don’t have a story to tell (which you do!)—then use this book. Goldberg has written several other books on writing and this one is the most oriented toward method and to actually getting some words on the page. Old Friend from Far Away can help you get the what of your memoir.
This one may take you months to read because each page and each chapter is a writing exercise, some only a line or two long. “What was missing? Go. Ten minutes.” Others ask you to inventory every time you remember saying goodbye or to write about any memories associated with a bicycle. You will dig up memories you thought were long gone or didn’t know you still remembered at all. Goldberg says writing is an athletic activity, so get your writing muscles in shape by picking up this book and a pen and getting to it!
Memoirs are worth reading in their own right. The memoirist can teach you a new lesson about the world that you could find instructive, interesting, or comforting. Memoirs are like getting a secret peek into someone’s life—but they want you to peek. And more than that, memoirists want you to get inside, to swim around, to drink. In addition, you can learn about writing memoirs from reading them. Below are three memoirs to enjoy in their own right and to read to better understand the craft of memoir.
The Suicide Index: Putting My Father’s Death In Order—Joan Wickersham. [content warning: suicide] “It had never occurred to me that the other shoe might turn out to be, after all, the original shoe, dropping again, years later, when I was awake and available to feel it.” One day, Wickersham’s father, leaving no note, no clues, and seemingly no reason, takes his own life. His daughter writes in the form of a highly organized and categorized index to try and understand why her father took his own life. It’s a story about how a suicide can affect the family left behind, and about the sometimes impossible and unanswerable questions it leaves forever. What you can learn from reading this memoir is how to write in a unique form and how to write a story that’s not told linearly or chronologically.
The Long Way Through the Woods: On Mushrooms and Mourning—Long Litt Woon. “If you want to hear a mushroom sing, you simply have to use your ears.” Long tells two seemingly unrelated stories about her life that end up being more connected than you’d think: grieving the death of her partner and discovering and falling in love with mushroom foraging. This memoir is incredibly informative and offers fascinating knowledge and detail about mushrooms and how to find them. It speaks to reconnecting with nature and with others, especially after a major loss. What you can learn from reading this memoir is how to intertwine your story with informational writing and how to tell two stories at once.
Strangers Assume My Girlfriend is My Nurse—Shane Burcaw. “You can’t truly know that you want to spend forever with someone until you’ve pooped in their arms.” Burcaw is a disability activist, speaker, writer, and non-profit director living with spinal muscular atrophy. His memoir will make you laugh out loud. This collection of short memoir essays will teach you about living with a disability in everyday ways that prove that the commonplace details of his life—and ours—can be endlessly interesting.
Burcaw is in an interabled relationship, and in the titular essay, he writes about how strangers continually assume that his girlfriend is his nurse. He advocates that disabled people can and do have fulfilling romantic and sexual relationships. What you can learn from reading this memoir is how to use humor in your own memoir and how to write your memoir as a collection of snapshots. If you enjoy this collection of personal essays, he wrote another one called Laughing at My Nightmare and he maintains a YouTube channel with his now wife Hannah.
Reading memoir is an exciting and engaging opportunity to create and experience connectivity in the mundane, the everyday, the quotidian and the real, the gritty, the universal. What develops between memoirist and reader is a type of friendship that lets us know that no one is ever really alone in their story.
And if you’re interested in learning how to write your own memoir, there are three ways you can teach yourself how to do it: by reading books about memoir, by reading memoirs, and by getting out there and writing your own. So, grab your pen!