With all things love floating in the air around Valentine’s day, it is easy to become inundated with the sappy baby-Cupid and chalky-candy-heart energy of the whole affair. Nothing is so quick to activate my cynicism than heart shaped boxes filled with mediocre chocolates and plastic roses garishly displayed in every store. For anyone who has truly experienced the gamut of emotions which accompany love, its vicissitudes more closely resemble a fiery inferno than the saccharine-sweet sentiments the Valentine’s cards would have us believe. There is as much pain in love as there is pleasure.
Still, we are all rushing towards this elusive state of being in earnest. There is no way to deny the magnetism of love. So, rather than turn a blind eye to love at this time of year, it might behoove us to look at things from a different angle. Perhaps a fresh perspective will remind us of just why we are all so obsessed, constantly searching for this thing called love.
By way of this notion, I offer some literary couples who break the mold, their bonds more closely resembling love in its true state. As Lysander tells Hermia in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, “The course of true love never did run smooth,” and these couples prove that. Though their undying devotion to one another remains intact, each of the couples follow an interesting and often twisted path towards love.
In Chuck Palahniuk’s first novel, the unnamed narrator (an insomniac with existential tendencies) meets and becomes obsessed with a woman named Marla Singer. It is at a meeting of a testicular cancer support group that the narrator first meets Marla. He is enraged that she would have the audacity to attend the support group, although he does not have testicular cancer himself. The narrator frequents different types of support groups in order to counteract his growing sense of ennui. Once he realizes that Marla has similar tendencies as himself, he cannot escape his growing interest, although he does not recognize it as affection.
When Marla starts sleeping with his roommate Tyler Durden, the narrator’s obsession and irritation collide. Only through a surprising plot twist does the true shape of their love story become clear. As Marla states, “You love me. You hate me. You show me a sensitive side, then you turn into a total asshole.” He is both repelled by and drawn to Marla with equal fervor. Yet, it is with thoughts of Marla that he ends his narrative, promising a continuation of their anything-but-typical love story.
Lisbeth Salander & Mikael Blomkvist, Millennium(series)
A love story that spans across several novels, the complicated relationship between Lisbeth and Mikael unfolds with as much passion and pain as any true romance often does. In the first book, the two are drawn together through the power of shared experience as well as a mutual tendency towards acting as social pariahs. When Lisbeth finally decides to accept and express her love for Mikael at the end of the book, it is only to see him with another woman. This causes Lisbeth to push away her feelings, and for the larger part of the second novel, the two communicate only in a distant and business-like manner.
Through the impetus of another harrowing experience, Mikael must rescue Lisbeth from near-death, again forcing the two together through tragedy. This situational closeness continues in the third installment of the series, as Mikael and Lisbeth must face danger, the possible imprisonment of Salander, and major life changes together. Although they have continuously experienced separation, the third book closes with Mikael at Lisbeth’s door. Though they are both unsure, Lisbeth again welcomes him in, both to her home and to her heart.
Set in a fantastic and fairytale-like atmosphere, the love affair between Celia and Marco is equal in its intensity only by their inability to act upon it. The two are the pawns of powerful rival magicians, each tied to the magical Le Cirque des Reves and forced to use all of their abilities in an attempt to overcome one another. Although they cannot be together in any typical sense, the two are drawn to one another with a consuming passion. Each expresses their love through magical acts conjured to speak to the soul of the other, thus growing their bond from a forced distance.
Perhaps it is this very distance and the continual effort which it demands, that makes their love so perennial. Through the course of the novel it becomes clear that there can only be one winner in this dangerous competition, with the death of the loser as the inevitable outcome. Faced with Marco’s death, Celia risks herself to save him. The two are taken out of the physical world to become spirits, still tied to the circus, yet finally free from their bonds. As the book closes, the ghosts of Celia and Marco restore the devastated circus to its former splendor, ensuring that they will forever have a place where their love can endure.
Peter S. Beagle’s fantasy novel focuses on a lonesome unicorn who sets out on a quest to find her sisters, despite the danger of a formidable enemy, the Red Bull. According to the tale, the Red Bull has driven all of her sisters into the sea, and keeps them prisoner there, at the whim of the cruel King Haggard.
Along the way, the unicorn meets the failed magician Schmendrick and a nomad cook named Molly Grue who vow to help her with her quest. As the three get near Haggard’s castle, they come face to face with the Red Bull, and Schmendrick is forced to act quickly in order to save the unicorn’s life by turning her into a young woman, Lady Amalthea.
At the castle, Lady Amalthea encounters Haggard’s adopted son, Prince Lir, who becomes hypnotized by the beauty and mystery of the Lady Amalthea, and pursues her although she shows him only indifference at first. Later in the quest, Lir sacrifices himself in an act of love to save the unicorn from the Red Bull. She, in turn, revives him from death with the touch of her horn. As the book closes, the two lovers are forced to separate, each returning to their own destiny. While they cannot ultimately be together, their souls have grown with the experience, and both are forever changed.
It’s hard to believe how quickly this year has flown by! Before we head out to celebrate the new year and make those New Year’s resolutions, we thought we’d take a moment to reflect on 2019 and the gorgeous reads we’ve discovered. Each of our bloggers and editors have reflected on all the books—both old and new—they’ve read in the last 12 months and have chosen one book to highlight that impacted them most this 2019 calendar year. We hope this list inspires you to pick up a new book for your 2020 TBR list. Until then, The Spellbinding Shelf wishes you all another fantastic year filled with happy memories, adventures, time with family and friends, and—of course—lots of good books!
Staff Writer Roxanne Bingham
Harlan Coben’s Run Away follows Simon Greene as he tries to find his eldest daughter, Paige, who has become addicted to drugs and her terrible boyfriend. When her boyfriend winds up dead, Simon and his wife team up to find Paige and encounter danger along the way. With two other stories interwoven, the mystery complicates and leads the reader to wonder why Paige spiraled and how the characters are all connected. As the mystery unravels, so does Simon’s life as he knows it, with secrets about his wife coming to the surface.
I love everything Coben writes, but I really enjoyed this one because it highlights familial love and what one is willing to do to save their child. We receive clues as the characters do, making it a real page turner to get to the heart of the mystery. For any crime novel or mystery lovers, I definitely recommend Run Away!
Staff Writer Abhilasha Mandal
Haruki Murakami’s 1Q84 is about two people in Japan, Tengo and Aomame, who are pulled into a dystopian world parallel to the year 1984, where a series of inexplicable events envelops them and they are left wondering if time itself isn’t a loop in the world they nickname 1Q84.
It is so rare to find a book written for an adult audience that employs elements of fantasy that I recoiled in surprise when I first reached the page that revealed the supernatural theme of the novel.
The story is so captivating and unpredictable that for two whole chapters I found myself questioning which of the two worlds was “real.” This is a must-read for fans of fantastical thrillers.
Staff Writer Brandi Martinez
Ocean Vuong’s On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous presents a letter to a mother who might never read the message’s contents because she cannot read English. This makes the outpouring of Vuong’s heart even more poignant. In this exposed and emotional account of the author’s life growing up with a single mother, he examines their relationship and how these experiences have shaped his view of the world. The author knows that he may never receive answers to the many open-ended questions which he asks his mother throughout the work, but his need to voice these questions is laced through the memories which he recounts.
Vuong utilizes the beauty of the poetic language to weave together the pieces of his youth. On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous is at once urgent in its need to find meaning in the memories, and languid in its wandering quality which relishes the moments for their own unique beauty. I was entranced by both the beauty of Vuong’s words as well as the sincerity and openness of his self-perspective. I would highly recommend this book to anyone who wishes to swim in a sea of haunting beauty and fearlessness.
Staff Writer Jade Stanton
Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time provides an summative explanation of the history and theories behind our current understanding of the universe. Hawking’s aim was to create a book to explain complex theories that could be understood by anyone with an eighth grade understanding of math and physics.
Hawking’s book, although published in 1988, is my staff pick for the year mainly because of the advancements made in our understanding of the universe in recent times, specifically the first photographed picture of a black hole taken on April 10th of this year. It is these advancements that show just how important it is for all people to have a basic understanding of the theories and concepts at work, so that they can better understand the importance of the discoveries being made today. Although Hawking has since passed, his work in the field (and in our lives) has remained extremely relevant, and we owe him so much for our current understanding of the world around us.
Staff Writer Edward Dolehanty
Carmen Maria Machado’s memoir, In the Dream House, explores Machado’s experience in a same-sex relationship that featured domestic abuse as well as the cannon of domestic abuse in lesbian relationships. Full of emotional depth and imaginatively told, this story attempts to show an aspect of the underbelly of modern queer culture through Machado’s personal story, literary and film criticism, and through the dissection of pop-culture.
I love this book because like Machado’s previous work, Her Body and Other Parties, it is unlike anything that I have read before. As soon as I was finished reading it I wanted to start reading it again. The world which Machado creates and so elaborately and seamlessly weaves together is equally impressive and immersive. While the story comes from her distinctly queer perspective, that is not to say that there is not something in this book for everyone as it shines light upon the emotional traumas that unfold in our everyday lives.
Communications Coordinator Makenna Knighton
Brandon Sanderson’s Skyward follows a girl named Spensa who wants nothing more than to be a pilot and clear her father’s name. However, she almost misses the test to get into flight school because she finds M-Bot, an abandoned starship, while exploring—and Spensa’s challenges only get more difficult from there. While juggling escapes with M-Bot, tensions with her classmates, and her own impulsiveness, Spensa discovers important truths about herself and her surroundings, making it through to the surprising future after an engaging journey.
I love how this novel blends the science fiction and young adult genres, like Ender’s Game and How to Train Your Dragon combined at Star Trek’s Starfleet Academy. With perfect pacing through the pleasantly long and thought-provoking narrative, you won’t want to miss Spensa’s riveting adventure—and the sequel, Starsight, released last month!
Managing Editor Payton Kline
Wendy Webb’s Daughters of the Lake begins when a perfectly-preserved body washes up on the beach near Kate Granger’s childhood home along the North Shore of Lakes Superior—but, the body has been dead for nearly 100 years, and Kate’s family had something to do with it. Through a series of dreams and stories told through Kate and the murdered woman, Addie’s, eyes readers see this chilling story unfold in the most unexpected and deliciously uncanny ways.
For those of you who have read the blog before, you know that I adore the Minnesotan author Wendy Webb—so it will come as no surprise that my absolute favorite read of 2019 was her newest book, Daughters of the Lake. With characters that still cross my mind to this day, a setting so gorgeous yet so ominous, and a plot so compelling that I often read into the early morning hours, I cannot sing high enough praises for this newest novel from the queen of Northern Gothic herself. For those of you looking for an entertaining, yet thought-provoking book to kick off the new year, look no further than Daughters of the Lake.
Editor-in-Chief Rachel Hagerman
Tara Westover’s Educated traces Westover’s journey from living with a survivalist family in the states without any formal education to earning a PhD from Cambridge University. This memoir reflects on Tara’s childhood working alongside six siblings in a dangerous scrapyard managed by her domineering father and learning from her talented healer and midwife mother. From here, it follows her departure from home into the seemingly secular world for education at BYU followed by Cambridge.
I heard numerous wonderful things about this popular memoir while I waited until it was finally available for pickup at my local library. I have to admit that I was suspicious that the book wouldn’t live up to the hype, but I was pleasantly proven wrong. I absolutely loved Westover’s writing style and reflection. I appreciated her brutal honesty about her mental states and her reactions to defining moments in her coming-of-age story. I found her educational journey inspiring and her relationship to faith, and the people who abuse faith, heart-wrenching.
The artwork featured on our blog post above was provided by local artist Bruce Black. You can view more artwork from Black at bruceblackart.com or on Instagram @bruceblackart.
Whether the recent book-to-film movie release got you to pick up Where’d You Go, Bernadette for the first time or reminded you how much you love this book, we’ve got you covered with a list of book recommendations sure to please fans of the book…and movie!
Mr. Penumbra’s 24–Hour Bookstore – Robin Sloan. The Great Recession drives web-designer Clay Jannon to leave his San Francisco work and take up a new job amidst the book stacks at Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore. The only problem: the book customers are rare and seem to only check out unusually obscure volumes from the dark corners of the store. Curious about this strange behavior, Clay sets out to investigate the clientele to uncover secrets about Mr. Penumbra’s book collection.
Three Wishes – Liane Moriarty. In this witty and hilarious novel, readers will follow the three Kettle sisters: Lyn, Cat, and Gemma. Each sister is a unique character, and—together—they bring laughter, drama and mayhem. Lyn has a (seemingly) organized life marked by checklists, work life, marriage, and expertise in motherhood. Meanwhile, Cat confronts shocking secrets in her marriage. And Gemma flees whenever her relationships hit that victorious six-month anniversary. They must work together to deal with the ups and downs of life; including their technologically savvy grandma, champagne hangovers, and parent drama.
The Rosie Project – Greame Simsion. Brilliant but socially awkward Don Tillman has decided it’s time to search for a wife. So, as a profound believer in evidence-based decision making, this professor of genetics creates an orderly, sixteen-page, scientifically-supported love survey to filter out bad marriage candidates. When he meets Rosie, Don decides she cannot possibly be a good match, but he agrees to help her track down her biological father instead. In the quest to find her father, Don realizes that, despite his rational analysis, love is surprising, making him wonder if he should change his mind about Rosie and his love survey.
On Turpentine Lane – Elinor Lipman. Meet Faith Frankel: at 32 years, she purchases a charming bungalow in her old suburban hometown and believes her life is finally on track. But, at the same time, she notices her fiancé is too busy to answer her texts as he posts photos of himself with other women on a crowdfunded cross-country walk. There’s also the issue with her dimwitted boss. And, oh yeah, returning to her hometown means she lives minutes away from her hovering mother and philandering father who is convinced he’s Chagall. As she settles into her new home, she questions her life choices as she grows closer and closer to officemate Nick Franconi.
Today Will Be Different – Maria Semple. Don’t worry; we couldn’t forget Maria Semple’s newest book, Today Will Be Different. A hilarious book about reinvention, sisterhood, and identity, this book follows Eleanor, a woman on a mission to become less of a mess. Today will be different. She will tackle problems, get a shower, do yoga, drop her son Timby off at school, and work on her marriage. But life throws her a few curveballs along the way, as life tends to do. Now, she must also deal with a son playing hooky, a husband who might be keeping one too many secrets, and a mystery lunch date with a former colleague.
And, of course, if you liked the book, Where’d you go, Bernadette, consider heading to your nearest theater and giving the movie a shot!
Alright y’all, it’s that time of year again. Our last days of summer are fast approaching, and for many of us that means we are busy with back-to-school preparation. But amidst all the hustle and bustle of getting ready to hit the books (and the coffee) again, I’m a firm believer you can still find time to read. So, here are some great back-to-school reads that will help your summer go out with a bang. Or, you know, with a book.
A Time to Kill—John Grisham. An oldie, but, a goodie. If you’re a person who needs a little drama, a little thrill, added to your last days of summer, look no further than this classic courtroom thriller. Grisham tells an exceedingly powerful, yet exciting, story that takes place in Clanton, a small Mississippi town in the 90s. Lawyer Jake Brigance (said to be based off of ex-lawyer John Grisham himself) comes face to face with racism and hatred as he fights to save his client’s life. Coming in at a little over 500 pages, don’t let the page count intimidate you. Grisham’s brilliant story telling made each page read more quickly than the next.
Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine—Gail Honeyman. For those of you who may be dreading long nights of studying coming around again, don’t hesitate to pick up this book which will, without a doubt, restore your faith in humanity, goodness, friendship, and healing. Eleanor Oliphant is a quirky, blunt, and extremely socially awkward woman. Her life is ordered, exact, and (she thinks) completely fine. But as she spends more time with her coworker, the IT guy Raymond, she comes to discover maybe life isn’t supposed to just be fine—it’s meant to be a whole lot more. Let Honeyman take your hand as you dive into this book, and don’t be surprised if you find yourself rediscovering what it means to live again right along with Eleanor.
The Accidental Empress—Allison Pataki. Maybe it’s just me, but I don’t think there’s any better way to ease yourself back into academics than with some phenomenal historical fiction. The story of the Austrian empress—known by her nickname Sisi—is not a widely taught one. Before picking up this book, I had no idea what the Austrian empire was like, how Sisi could be an “accidental” empress, and what exactly that entailed for her life. Pataki paints a both fascinating and informative world, one that will leave readers wanting to read on and on about the beloved empress Sisi.
Can You Keep a Secret?—Sophie Kinsella. For our returning readers, it probably doesn’t come as a surprise that I’ve included a Sophie Kinsella book on this list. What can I say? She’s hilarious, relatable, and I adore her books—this one being no exception. Emma Corrigan has got to be one of my favorite Kinsella heroins yet. On a particularly scary plane ride home, Emma ends up spilling her darkest (and most embarrassing) secrets with the handsome stranger sitting next to her. Who, come Monday, she discovers is the founder of the entire company she works at. The odds? Next to none. The result? Absolutely priceless. This book is perfect for getting some good laughs in before you start crying into your morning latte on your way to calc. #college
On the Rocks—Erin Duffy. Want a way to relive your best days of summer? Without further ado, I introduce you to Duffy’s adorable, light-hearted, and undoubtedly funny summer novel. After Abby Wilkes’ life takes a rather unexpected turn (dumped by her fiancé via Facebook relationship status), her girlfriends get her out to the beautiful beaches of Newport, Rhode Island for some rest, relaxation, and—they’re hoping—romance. But as the summer goes on, after many dates and many drinks, Abby begins to discover that maybe romance isn’t the key to her happiness—perhaps it could really be as simple as discovering herself. Bound to make you laugh and cringe right alongside Abby, there’s no better book to wrap up the season of crazy summer nights with.
We’ve all been there, right? Heading off to vacation, looking for a good book to read, but we keep running into the same ones over and over again. And yes, while I love John Green enormously (How can you not?), sometimes we just need a tad more variety in our beach bag. That’s why we chose to mix it up a little. Summer is all about rediscovery after all. So, we decided to rediscover 8 amazing (and wildly overlooked) beach reads that you haven’t heard of:
Twenties Girl – Sophie Kinsella. Her great aunt died…and her 20 year-old ghost came back to haunt her. As a struggling 20-something herself in London, the last problem Lara Lington expected to deal with was helping her great aunt find eternal peace, and a date or two along the way. In this hilarious and fast-paced novel, Sophie Kinsella will make you question everything you thought about age, and will bring out your inner 20s girl with each page.
China Rich Girlfriend – Kevin Kwan. It would be hard to not recognize Kwan’s crowning achievement (now box office hit Crazy Rich Asians), but many haven’t heard of the next book in this juicy and delightful series: China Rich Girlfriend. If you couldn’t get enough of Rachel and Nick, or you want to find out just what happens to Bernard Tai, China Rich Girlfriend will satisfy every question you have about Kwan’s brilliant and hilarious characters. But fair warning, after you’ve read it, you won’t be able to stop yourself from buying the last book in the trilogy, Rich People Problems.
Dune Road – Jane Green. What’s vacation without a little mystery? Set in Connecticut, Jane Green’s Dune Road explores the life of newly divorced Kit Hargrove as she rebuilds herself—complete with yoga sessions, really good wine, and landing her dream job. Everything in Kit’s life is going well; however, she can’t help but start to pick at the cracks in her new job. Why exactly did her celebrity boss go into hiding years ago, and what will happen as she begins to shake out the dirty laundry of his past? If you find yourself needing a little kick in the bum while the ocean sprays your toes, Dune Road is your read for this summer.
Girl, Wash Your Face – Rachel Hollis. For those of you looking for a non-fiction read while you sip on your coconut water, Rachel Hollis’s Girl, Wash Your Face is sheer perfection. Over the course of 21 chapters, Hollis addresses 21 lies we tell ourselves, gives her own (often amusingly relatable) encounters with said lies, and finally, gives some tried-and-true advice for how to conquer them. If you find yourself needing a pick me up, some inspiration, or just want to be reminded that the chaos in your life is perfectly normal, Girl, Wash Your Face is the book for you.
The Storied Life of AJ Fikry – Gabrielle Zevin. Are you a literary fiction junkie? Don’t know what literary fiction is? Either way, Gabrielle Zevin’s The Storied Life of AJ Fikry will exceed any and all expectations you have for summer reading. Follow widower book store owner AJ Fikry through an unforgettable transformation—one that will leave you looking for glimmers of hope around every single corner. With dozens upon dozens of literary Easter eggs, Zevin’s work is perfect for those who love books (almost) as much as they love people.
Camino Island – John Grisham. While John Grisham is undoubtedly a household name thanks to his stellar debut, A Time To Kill, his more recent work may come as an unbeknownst treat to those who are looking for some action in their beach read. Set on Camino Island in Florida, Grisham takes his readers into a mystery laced with extremely rare (and extremely stolen) books, a writer looking for inspiration, and an odd community that seems to tie everything together. Lighter than his usual work, Camino Island is the perfect book for anyone who wants John Grisham meets Jimmy Buffet.
The Lacemakers of Glenmara – Heather Barbieri. As failed fashion designer Kate Robinson looks to start her life anew, she ditches the red white and blue and ends up settling in a small village, Glenmara, right on the coast of Ireland. After befriending an unlikely group of women, Kate begins to find healing in the quaint life Glenmara offers—however, as her new friends’ lives begin to entangle with her own, she begins to wonder whether it is really possible to start over, and whether happiness can be found. With deeply personable (and hilariously human) characters and a stunning landscape, The Lacemakers of Glenmara will leave you wanting to pack up and head to Ireland—or at least, grab a Guinness at your local pub.
Little Beach Street Bakery – Jenny Colgan. The word ‘beach’ is in the title, so naturally we had to include it. However, even if Jenny Colgan had chosen a name sans ‘beach’, this book would still make the list every single time. Set in a tiny coastal town just off the shore of England, Little Beach Street Bakery follows Polly Waterford as she brings life back to herself—and her new town—all in the making of bread. So for those of you who say never underestimate the power of good food, good friends, and a good shoreline, Colgan’s charming story is just what you need to stash in your beach bag. Oh, and did I mention? There’s a handsome beekeeper too. Enjoy!