Top Five Friday: Best Books of 2014

I only get to sneak my “Top Five Friday” posts in occasionally these days, since the Pink for All Seasons recaps generally happen on Fridays. But I finished my GoodReads 2014 Challenge on Wednesday (with only hours to spare), so I’ve been thinking about all the books I read in 2014.

Do you use GoodReads? If you do, it’s fun to look at your stats about what you read. I know that I read 85 books in 2014, but GoodReads tells me that I read a total of 26,865 pages. Of all the books I read, I rated seven books as 5 stars and also seven as 2 stars. No books in 2014 got a 1 star rating – how excellent. The vast majority of the books I read were mysteries, and then several of my other categories (like books about India, fairy-tale inspired books, and nonfiction) were tied for second place. The majority of the books I read were published after 2000, and the oldest book I read was Around the World in Eighty Days (published in 1873). Maybe it’s nerdy of me to think that’s interesting, but I definitely do!

Looking back over everything I’ve read this year, I’ve come up with my Top Five list for 2014 reads. I’m excluding everything written by Lauren Willig, since I cover that pretty extensively in Pink for All Seasons. Here they are!

thousand stars 1. Night of a Thousand Stars by Deanna Raybourn. Don’t get me wrong or come after me with your torch and pitchforks. I love Lady Julia, but Deanna’s standalone novels from 2013 and 2014 are what put her on my list of favorite authors. A Spear of Summer Grass made my 2013 list, and she’s absolutely at the top of this year with Night of a Thousand Stars. Deanna has a gift for hooking you with her first lines. This story is no exception. Have a look: “I say, if you’re running away from your wedding, you’re going about it quite wrong.” When we meet Poppy, our heroine, for the first time, she is literally paused with one leg over a window sill in the process of bolting from her wedding. I loved this book. Poppy was funny and spunky, the setting was exotic, the mystery had a great pace, and Deanna’s storytelling is absolutely on point. I gulped this book down in two sittings and loved every page of it. Yes, it has connections to the Lady Julia series and also to A Spear of Summer Grass and City of Jasmine, but you can read this one and still thoroughly enjoy it without having read the others.
 every secret 2. Every Secret Thing by Susanna Kearsley (writing as Emma Cole). This book is different from Susanna’s projects of the last few years. Kate Murray is a journalist who is covering a high-profile court case when she witnesses a terrible accident. A stranger is hit by a car and killed only moments after he tells her that he has a story she could research – a story that stretches back to World War II and a killer who has managed to hide his crimes for decades. As Kate begins to trace the stranger’s past, she finds an unexpected connection to her own family, and she realizes that she is placing both the people who are close to her and the people who can help her in serious danger. The story flickers between Kate’s research in the present day and flashbacks to the 1940s in Canada, the US, UK and Lisbon. I really enjoy stories about World War II, but somehow this one hit me on an extremely personal level. The mystery was excellent (I did NOT see the end coming), the period detail is flawless, and if you are a fan of Mary Stewart novels, you will really appreciate this one.
 cress 3. Cress by Marissa Meyer. This is the third book in Marissa’s Lunar Chronicles series that began in 2012 with Cinder. In the Lunar Chronicles, Marissa creates a futuristic world where the citizens of Earth have been brought to the brink of war by a devastating plague, the threat of invasion from the Lunars (who live on the moon), and a tangle of international and intergalactic politics. Cress is a Rapunzel story, but instead of a beautiful princess locked in a tower by a witch, we have a young girl trapped in a satellite orbiting earth by an evil queen. Cress has been watching the situation between Earth and Luna deteriorate for years, and with nothing but computers and television for company, she has grown sympathetic to Earth’s cause. When an opportunity comes to be rescued from her satellite, she jumps at it, although she learns quickly that Earth is not the welcoming sanctuary it has always appeared from several thousand miles away. In this book, Marissa does a great job of bringing together several different plot lines she created earlier in the series, and I cannot wait to see how she will move the story forward. Cress stood out to me as the best in the series so far, and I feel like Marissa is preparing us for an unbelievable ride in Winter (due to be released in November 2015).
 Princess 4. A Princess Remembers by Gayatri Devi. In this book, Gayatri tells the story of her life in India, and it is fascinating. She lived in a time of unbelievable change – the India from the days of her childhood is so incredibly different from the India she knew as an adult. She grew up as the daughter of a Maharaja and became the third wife of the Maharaja of Jaipur after a secret six-year courtship. She was considered one of the most beautiful women in the world, and she was the last Maharani that Jaipur would ever see. After Partition, Gayatri Devi ran for Parliament in 1962. She won her seat by the largest landslide in the history of democratic elections, confirmed by the Guinness Book of Records. Her story is fascinating, and her descriptions of both day-to-day life and political events are wonderful. I don’t read many memoirs or biographies, but this one was wonderful.
 fortune2 5. The Fortune Hunter by Daisy Goodwin. This story is based on true events from the lives of Charlotte Baird, Bay Middleton, and Empress Elizabeth of Austria. It’s a great period piece, and it will satisfy that part of your soul that wants to watch Downton Abbey and drink tea in your pajamas all day. I wrote a full review for NetGalley back in May, if you want more details.

 

So there you have it – my favorite books from 2014. What were the best books you read last year?

Top Five Friday: Fairy Tale Retellings

I haven’t done a Top Five Friday post in a while – I’ve been too busy posting Pink recaps! But we just started Pink II on Wednesday, so Erin will be posting the first Pink II recap next Friday to give you time to read. In the meantime, I’ve been thinking about fairy tales.

My first exposure to fairy tales was Disney movies. I remember feeling very surprised when I learned that Cinderella wasn’t a creation of Walt Disney, and there were many versions of her story that came before the cartoon I loved (and who didn’t – those mice were adorable). My first fairy tale retelling was Ella Enchanted, and I’ve had a soft spot for them ever since.

So here is today’s Top Five Friday – my favorite novels based on fairy tales.

 goose girl The Goose Girl by Shannon Hale. I actually had never heard the story of the goose girl before this book. Ani is a princess who is sent by her mother to marry a prince from a kingdom far away. On the journey to her new home, her lady-in-waiting Selia stages a mutiny so that she can be presented as the princess when the group reaches their destination. Ani escapes and considers starting a new life somewhere else, but she feels responsible for the few servants and her beloved horse that she knows will be mistreated at Selia’s hands. Ani gets herself a job as a goose girl for the king and starts planning a rescue for her friends. This was a great story! Now I just need to get around to reading some of Shannon’s other books – there are three sequels to Goose Girl, and she has a Rapunzel series as well.
 bitter greens Bitter Greens by Kate Forsyth. This is a retelling of the Rapunzel story, and it’s narrated through the eyes of three women. There is Charlotte-Rose de la Force, the first women to ever tell the story of Rapunzel. Then there is Margherita, who is kidnapped by a witch as repayment because her father stole a handful of parsley from the witch’s garden. And finally, there is the witch herself – Selena Leonelli, the infamous muse of the artist Tiziano who fears nothing in the world except the passage of time. I’ll admit, the first few chapters were slow going, but in the end, Kate weaves these stories together beautifully. If you like books where the villain gets to tell her version of events, I found this one particularly interesting.  Evidently, Kate is currently studying at a university in Sydney for a doctoral degree in fairy tale retelling, and this novel is part of her doctorate work. She’s currently writing a theoretical examination of Rapunzel. I need to go back to school, clearly. My major was not this cool.
cinder Cinder by Marissa Meyer. This is by far the weirdest fairy tale retelling I’ve come across, but it was incredibly compelling in a bizarre way. The story is Cinderella, but nothing like the way you’ve seen it before – our heroine, Cinder, is a cyborg. You read that correctly. In a futuristic world, Earth is in trouble. There is a new strain of plague that has no cure, there are conflicts between humans and cyborgs, and the Lunars (who live on the moon, led by their evil queen Levana) are just waiting for their moment to stage a hostile takeover of Earth. Cinder has her own problems to deal with, but she’s swept onto the big stage of events when she catches the eye of both Prince Kai and Queen Levana. And no one, not Cinder’s horrid stepmother or even Cinder herself, knows who Cinder really is. Again, weird and fascinating. I’ve read the sequel Scarlet (based on Red Riding Hood), but I haven’t had a chance to pick up the third in the series. I will get there eventually.
ella enchanted Ella Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine. Please, please don’t judge this book by its movie adaptation. This is another Cinderella retelling, although it’s for a much younger audience. When she is born, Ella is given the “gift” of obedience by a meddlesome fairy, but her gift turns out to be be a curse – she cannot ever refuse a direct command. As she grows up, Ella learns creative ways to prevent her stepmother from using her curse against her, but she eventually decides to track down the fairy to have the curse removed. There’s a glass slipper and a Prince Charmont, and I thought it was a fun retelling.
 beauty Beauty by Robin McKinley. Okay, I’m actually cheating on this one. I haven’t read it yet, but I have a copy and have been meaning to for at least two years. It’s a retelling of Beauty and the Beast (clearly), and Robin’s writing comes highly recommended by several of my favorite authors (including Lauren).

 

What are your favorite fairy tale stories?

Top Five Friday: American Classics

Today, I finished reading a really interesting adaptation of a classic novel. I don’t want to say any more about it now (I’ll save it for my review!), but it got me thinking about my favorite classics. This is such a wide category that I thought for today, we’d narrow it down to classics in American literature. I don’t think it’s the English major in me that makes me love these stories. Some of the books I had to read in high school, I absolutely loathed and swore never to teach when my time came (I’m looking at you, Huckleberry Finn). I think I loved these particular books because they stuck with me, demanded that I think and feel something, and made me go back to them over and over. Sometimes, I read books that make hardly any impression on me at all, but each of these books left its mark in some way. So for today’s Top Five Friday, here is my list of favorite American classics.

 

 mockingbird 1. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee. It’s strange to me that I love this one the way that I do. Even I have to admit that not a whole lot “happens” for the first third of the book. But by the time Lee introduces Tom Robinson, I’m always hooked. Sometimes, I pull it off the shelf and just read the trial scene. Do I hate Mayella Ewell? Do I feel sorry for her? It’s a different story every time I read it. And I can’t, absolutely CANNOT, ever stop reading until the end once I get to chapter 27. I cry every time. I love Atticus and Dill and Boo Radley and the whole crew, and there is something really magical about Lee’s writing style.
 OM&M 2. Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck. I think that somehow, of all the book characters I’ve met in my entire life, Lennie might be the one who touches my heart the most. That’s saying something, isn’t it? There must be hundreds of thousands of book characters rattling around in my head, but Lennie inspires the most compassion of any of them. I’ve given up trying to convince Brad to read this – he knew the minute that Lennie got a puppy that things were headed somewhere he didn’t want to go. I know I’ll never get Brad to see it my way, but I think this has to be one of the most beautiful stories I know.
 little women 2 3. Little Women by Louisa May Alcott. This is a comfort read for me. I used to imagine that this book must be exactly what it’s like to have sisters. I love the episode of Friends where Joey reads this and has to put it in the freezer, and I especially love the Broadway musical original cast with Sutton Foster as Jo.
 streetcar 4. A Streetcar Named Desire by Tennessee Williams. Can I include this one, even though it’s a play? There is just so much going on in this play that, every time you read it, something different jumps out at you to focus on. Blanche is really fascinating to me. I always hope it will end differently, and I can’t help being sad when it doesn’t.
daisy miller 5. Daisy Miller by Henry James. I always think it’s interesting to watch the way Americans behave abroad. Beth and I were talking not too long ago about how so many people seem to want to experience other cultures and countries, but when they get there, they spend their entire trip wishing for things to be just like home. It’s especially interesting to get perspective on this from an American author who spent most of his life living in Great Britain.

 

What are your favorite American classics?

Have a wonderful weekend.

Top Five Friday: Historical Mystery Series

In the spirit of gearing up for Pink for All Seasons, I have been thinking a lot lately about my favorite historical mystery series. A few years ago, I wouldn’t have been able to tell you that historical mysteries were a thing – but now, they make up a surprising percentage of my reading! So for today’s Top Five Friday, here are my favorite historical mystery series. You’ll never guess which series is number one…

 

 pink carnation 1. Lauren Willig’s Pink Carnation series. I’ve talked endlessly about this series, so for now I won’t reiterate all the reasons why the books are great. If you haven’t tried this series yet, make sure to drop by in September, when we’ll start reading The Secret History of the Pink Carnation.
 vienna 2. Tracy Grant’s Suzanne and Malcolm Rannoch series. The series begins with Vienna Waltz, and I have to tell you, I was hooked absolutely from the first line. I tore through that book and have snapped up each installment in the series as it was published. The first book is set in Vienna in 1814, just after Napoleon’s defeat, when major players from the dominant European countries are getting together to determine the fate of the Continent. It’s a fascinating time historically, so Tracy’s first murder mystery has an excellent backdrop. Suzanne and Malcolm are really wonderful, complex characters, and Tracy just keeps making them more interesting with each book.
 silent 3. Deanna Raybourn’s Lady Julia series. How can you not love a story that begins like this: “To say that I met Nicholas Brisbane over my husband’s dead body is not entirely accurate. Edward, it should be noted, was still twitching upon the floor.” The first book, Silent in the Grave, introduces us to Lady Julia Gray, a Victorian aristocrat whose eccentric family and unconventional interests make for really interesting reading.
 anatomist 4. Anna Lee Huber’s Lady Darby series. This series caught my eye because I thought the premise for the first book was really unique. Kiera Darby is a widow whose ghastly late husband forced her to use her considerable artistic talent to illustrate his cadaver dissections for an anatomy textbook. After his death, she is considered a freak (or something even more sinister) by most of society, and she gets caught up in a murder investigation when her knowledge of human anatomy comes in handy. The first book is The Anatomist’s Wife, and there are now three books in the series.
 blue death 5. Charles Finch’s Lenox series. Finch’s books are set in Victorian London (no pattern to see here, folks), and they revolve around a private detective named Charles Lenox. In the first book, A Beautiful Blue Death, Lenox investigates a maid’s death in the household of his lifelong friend Lady Jane. The maid appears to have committed suicide, but Lenox discovers that the poison that killed her was rare and expensive – not something the maid would have easy access to. As Lenox tries to uncover a motive for murder, another dead body turns up in a ballroom at the height of the Season. This series is possibly “cozier” than the others (Finch describes Lenox as “an armchair explorer who likes nothing more than to relax in his private study with a cup of tea, a roaring fire and a good book”), but it is still a great one.

 

I have to also give an honorable mention to C.S. Harris’ Sebastian St. Cyr mysteries and Tasha Alexander’s Lady Emily series – I’ve read several of these as well, and they are excellent. C.S. Harris is particularly good if you’re looking for fewer ballrooms and more fistfights with Bow Street runners.

I know that this list is skewed towards female protagonists and stories set in Britain. Am I missing out on a great historical mystery series? If you’ve got a favorite that you don’t see listed, let me know!

Top Five Friday: Authors as Characters

Anyone who knows my reading habits or has ever looked at my bookshelves knows that I have a definite preference for historical fiction. I’ve gotten accustomed bumping into historical figures like Anne Boleyn, Napoleon, and King George in my books, but it still surprises me when well-known authors pop up as characters. Sometimes they just have little cameos, but in some books, they can be major players in the story. For today’s Top Five Friday, here are my favorite books where authors appear as characters.

mistletoe 1. The Mischief of the Mistletoe, by Lauren Willig. Without a doubt, this book is my favorite in Lauren’s Pink series, and who should put in an appearance but one Jane Austen, friend and confidante of Lauren’s heroine, Arabella. Although Jane only appears in a few chapters, I loved that she was present to be Arabella’s sounding board for everything from her new career in teaching to a developing romance.
 alice 2. Alice, I Have Been, by Melanie Benjamin. This is the story of Alice Liddell Hargreaves, who the world remembers as “Alice in Wonderland.” Benjamin tells the story as an 81-year-old Alice looks remembers the events that would turn out to be the most formative of her life, in both positive and unforeseeably damaging ways – her early friendship with Lewis Carroll.
 good hard look 3. A Good Hard Look by Ann Napolitano. Although she is not the main character, all of the action in this book hinges on Flannery O’Connor. At twenty-five, Flannery is struggling with lupus, and her mother has insisted that she leave her life as a famous author in New York City and come home to Georgia where her family can look after her. When her mother drags her to the wedding of a family friend, Flannery sets into motion a chain of events that will impact the entire town. Flannery once wrote that “the truth does not change according to our ability to stomach it,” and the cast of characters in this book is forced to acknowledge her truth.
 wide and starry 4. Under the Wide and Starry Sky, by Nancy Horan. In 1875, the only socially acceptable way for a woman to leave a cheating husband was to travel to Europe. So when Fanny Osbourne realizes her husband Sam is having yet another affair, she takes her three children and boards a ship to Belgium with the hope of attending a painting school. Fanny’s trip to Europe leads her from Belgium to Paris and, when tragedy strikes, eventually to a house in Grez where a group of poets and playwrights are taking a few weeks of vacation. It is here that Fanny meets Robert Louis Stevenson, and though are initially skeptical of one another, they forge a passionate relationship that will survive terrible illness, betrayal, relentless traveling, and the disapproval of Stevenson’s friends and family.
 paris wife 5. The Paris Wife, by Paula McLain. This is the story of Hadley Richardson, who was quietly resigning herself to spinsterhood when she met Ernest Hemingway. From the minute they meet, they have an undeniable connection. Their whirlwind courtship and wedding take them to Paris, where they fall headlong into the social circle that will become the “Lost Generation” – Gertrude Stein, Ezra Pound, and the Fitzgeralds. Hadley loves Ernest more than anything else in her world, and she constantly rearranges her life to accommodate him, but she finds that life with Ernest, even though he confesses that he “would rather have died than fallen in love with anyone but Hadley,” is not the romantic adventure she anticipated.

Does anyone have good recommendations for books where authors are characters?

Happy Friday!

Top Five Friday: Books That Should Be Movies

I’ve been thinking this week about movies based on books. I think it has something to do with all the adaptations that are either out now or coming soon – The Fault in Our Stars, Mockingjay, The Giver, etc.

I’m sure most people have at least one book that they feel deserves to be a movie. Plus, it’s always fun to think about which actors you would cast for the characters if you got to make the important decisions. So for today’s Top Five Friday, here is my list of books that deserve movie adaptations.

 

pavilions The Far Pavilions, by M.M. Kaye. Okay, I know this book already has a TV mini-series adaptation, but it’s from 1984, and I really think it deserves its own movie. The story is set in India in the late 1800s. A young boy named Ash who doesn’t know that he is British (makes sense when you read the book) and the Indian princess Anjuli are playmates when they are young. The book spans two decades, so you see Ash and Anjuli’s relationship develop as the people of India endure the Sepoy rebellion, British retaliation, and the Second Afghan War. Kaye’s historical and cultural details are so rich, and the story is really immersive.
 pink carnation The Secret History of the Pink Carnation, by Lauren Willig. Since this is one of my favorite book series, naturally I’d love to see it picked up for movie adaptations. It’s a dual timeline story; in modern London, an American grad student named Eloise is trying desperately to find source material for her dissertation on British spies in France during the Napoleonic Wars. She’s hoping her research on the Scarlet Pimpernel and the Purple Gentian will lead her to the identity of the highly effective and still unmasked spy, the Pink Carnation. In 1803, Amy Balcourt and her cousin Jane Wooliston sail to France to visit Amy’s brother, but Amy has an ulterior motive for the trip – to find the elusive British spy, the Purple Gentian, and establish herself as his second in command. Lots of swashbuckling, secret assignations, and snatching French aristocrats out from under the nose of the Chief of Police. I think the frame story format would make for a great movie.
 king The King Must Die, by Mary Renault. Movies based on myth tend to do pretty well – I’m thinking of Troy and Clash of the Titans, and there’s the new Hercules movie coming out in a few weeks. This is the story of the Greek hero Theseus coming into his own as a king, and it’s the story of the labyrinth and the Minotaur. Renault’s version is great! Political intrigue, revolution, romance, and mythology all packed together so that a story that feels familiar is also original and exciting. Also, I think Luke Evans would make a great Theseus. Just saying.
 chased the moon The Girl Who Chased the Moon, by Sarah Addison Allen. I think this story would go over well with people who like magical movies like Big Fish or southern movies like Steel Magnolias. Emily Benedict is in high school when her mother dies, and she moves to Mullaby, NC to live with her grandfather. It’s a small town, and Emily learns quickly that whatever scandalous past her mother had here (which somehow involved the prominent Coffey family) has caused the people of Mullaby to treat Emily with caution. Although she feels she has been singled out, Emily is hardly the only oddity in Mullaby – her grandfather is over eight feet tall, the wallpaper in her bedroom changes color to suit her mood, and mysterious lights dance in her backyard at night. Also, her neighbor Julia bakes cakes as an outlet for expressing her feelings and hopes that they can somehow bridge the gap between her and someone she used to love. It’s a story about second chances and about embracing the quirky things about yourself that make you who you are.
 cinder Cinder, by Marissa Meyer. So if I write a list like this again in a month, this book might not make the cut. But I just finished reading it last week, so it’s on my mind. This is a really interesting futuristic sci-fi take on the Cinderella fairytale. I can’t think of an adequate description at the moment, so here is what the book jacket says: “Humans and androids crowd the raucous streets of New Beijing. A deadly plague ravages the population. From space, a ruthless Lunar people watch, waiting to make their move. No one knows that Earth’s fate hinges on one girl…  Cinder, a gifted mechanic, is a cyborg. She’s a second-class citizen with a mysterious past, reviled by her stepmother and blamed for her stepsister’s illness. But when her life becomes intertwined with the handsome Prince Kai’s, she suddenly finds herself at the center of an intergalactic struggle, and a forbidden attraction. Caught between duty and freedom, loyalty and betrayal, she must uncover secrets about her past in order to protect her world’s future.” I feel like all the world building that Meyer does in this novel would make for a pretty awesome summer blockbuster.

There are so many other books I want to see made into movies. What about you?

Happy Friday, and Happy Fourth of July!

Top Five Friday: Young Adult Books

This summer’s release of the movie version of The Fault in our Stars seems to have revived the debate about adults reading young adult books. There are people who stand firmly in the “adults should be embarrassed to be seen reading kids’ books” camp, and then there are those who feel like YA is more easily accessible or relatable than “literary fiction.” There are also booksellers, teachers and librarians who argue (rightly) that they can’t hope to be effective at their jobs if they don’t read YA.

My feelings on this are similar to my feelings about reading romance novels – I think everyone should feel free to read whatever they want without feeling remotely embarrassed by it. Even though YA doesn’t make up the majority of what I read, there are plenty of books that fall into that category that I’ve read recently and enjoyed. When I was teaching, I liked reading the books that my students recommended to me so that we could talk about them. That’s how I read Twilight, Prophecy of the Sisters, and Wicked Lovely.

For today’s Top Five Friday, here are my favorite young adult books (or series!) that I know I will be rereading for years.

 harry potter 1. The Harry Potter books by J.K. Rowling. These books will be special to me for my whole life. Beth and I were just talking about how wonderful it is to reread these books and find references hidden in the early books to something that happens at the end of the series. I find something different to love each time I read them or listen to the awesome audiobooks narrated by Jim Dale.
 sweetness 2. The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie by Alan Bradley. Really, I enjoyed all the books in this series, but something about the first one was so wonderful and unrepeatable. I loved the setting. I loved the mystery. I loved snarky little Flavia and laughed out loud on a regular basis when she would talk to her bicycle, Gladys, or exclaim, “Oh, scissors!” when something didn’t go her way.
 trickster 3. Trickster’s Choice and Trickster’s Queen by Tamora Pierce. I know Pierce is prolific, but these were the first books I ever read by her. She does a really great job of world building, and somehow in less than 500 pages, I’ve gotten a new mythology, class and political systems, and geography down without feeling like I’ve been hit over the head with it. I thought the story was unique and really interesting.
 smack 4. Smack by Melvin Burgess. Unlike the other books on the list, this book isn’t fantasy, or funny, or lighthearted. It’s a book about heroine addiction, and it is pretty terrifying – not because anything particularly gory or horrific happens, although there is plenty of drama. It’s terrifying because it is such an accurate portrayal of a slippery slope, or the way that we talk ourselves into things. The message that jumps out of this book on every page is that, when we say we’ll do things “just this once,” we never really mean it. Somehow, Smack manages to drive home a powerful lesson about addiction, or really about poor choices, without being preachy.
westing game 5. The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin. I’ve talked about this one before, but I read this book for the first time in 6th grade and kept on reading it on a regular basis afterward. Somehow it doesn’t get old for me.

Happy Friday!

Top Five Friday: Summer Reads

Wrapping up my week of excitement for Lauren Willig’s new release, That Summer, I thought I would devote today’s list to summer books! Some of these books are set in the summertime, and some of them just seem like great choices to take to the beach.

lost lake 1. Lost Lake, by Sarah Addison Allen. This is a great read about a young widow named Kate who takes her daughter Devin for a spontaneous and much-needed vacation to Lost Lake, GA. They meet a charming and eccentric cast of characters, most of whom have been spending their summers at Lost Lake for years. The cottages on the lake are owned by Kate’s aunt Eby, and when Kate realizes that Eby is planning to sell the place at the end of the season, she and the other vacationers know they’ve got a limited amount of time to change Eby’s mind.
 grown-up 2. A Grown-Up Kind of Pretty, by Joshilyn Jackson. It may be best to let Joshilyn describe this book for you herself: “Every fifteen years, trouble comes after the Slocumb women. Now, as their youngest turns fifteen, a whole new kind of commotion is chasing all three generations. Mosey’s desperate to know who used their yard as a make-shift cemetery, and why. The oldest, forty-five year old Ginny, fights to protect Mosey from the truth, a fight that could cost Ginny the love of her life. Between them is Liza, silenced by a stroke, with the answers trapped inside her. To survive Liza’s secrets and Mosey’s insistent adventures, Ginny must learn to trust the love that braids the strands of their past—and stop at nothing to defend their future.” It’s a mystery and a coming-of-age story all wrapped into one. Also, the chapters written from Liza’s perspective were fascinating. This book feels summery because, thanks to the southern setting, there are lots of descriptions of hot days and sunshine.
 south of broad  3. South of Broad, by Pat Conroy. This was my first Pat Conroy novel, and I read it with my book club a few years ago. I keep meaning to go back to it. This is the story of Leopold Bloom King, the eclectic group of friends that he gathers in high school, and the ways that they continue to impact each other’s lives (for better or worse) twenty years after they graduate. Conroy’s publisher calls this book “a love letter to Charleston.” With all the references to the beach and Charleston life, this is a great summer book (although, perhaps not for you, Laney).
 forgotten garden  4. The Forgotten Garden, by Kate Morton. This is (another) one of my favorite time-slip books. In modern England, Cassandra’s beloved grandmother Nell has passed away. Cassandra feels like she’s lost everything that matters to her, but then she finds that Nell has left her a book of strange and dark fairytales by Eliza Makepeace, a Victorian authoress who wrote this one book and then vanished. Cassandra decides that her best hope of getting her life back on track is to take her book of fairytales and revisit Nell’s past to answer the questions she’s always had about her family. A great read for any time of the year, but any book that has a garden as such a central feature feels distinctly summery.
 hundred summers 5. A Hundred Summers, by Beatriz Williams. Lily Dane decides to spend the summer of 1938 with her family in the oceanfront community of Seaview, Rhode Island. What Lily wants is rest and relaxation, but what she gets is a blast from the past: Nick and Budgie Greenwald. Budgie and Lily were best friends when they were girls, and Nick and Lily were a serious couple for a long time – until Budgie decided that she wanted him, too. Lily, Nick and Budgie stumble through a summer of awkward interactions, with Budgie trying to act like the past doesn’t exist and Nick doing his best to avoid both of them. Lily tries to understand Budgie’s betrayal and the many secrets that she’s hiding, unaware that a powerful hurricane is about to make a sudden and devastating landfall right in the heart of their town. No explanation necessary for why this one makes the list!

 

Happy Friday!

Top Five Friday: Books from the Teaching Years

People frequently ask me if I miss teaching high school. I find this question surprising, because when I was teaching, people inevitably had one of two reactions when I told them about my job. Most people said, “What’s that like?” in a tone that suggested they would rather have all their teeth pulled at once without any anesthesia. Alternatively, they would just shake their heads at me and say, “Oh, I could never do that,” with varying degrees of implied “Bless her heart,” or “What is wrong with that girl?”

The answer, by the way, is no. I don’t miss teaching. What I do miss, in addition to some great teacher friends and a handful of wonderful students, is the books. Teaching gave me a great opportunity to interact with some of my favorite books alongside my students. We made edible models of Frankenstein’s monster, learned to dance the moresca from Romeo and Juliet, and played quidditch after a test on Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone on a regrettably muddy afternoon. You don’t get to do those kinds of things with books when you read them by yourself. I do miss that particular aspect of teaching.

So this Friday, here are my top five favorite books from the teaching years.

OM&M 1. Of Mice and Men. Oh, how I love this book. I read it aloud for my CP kids twice a semester for four years. I NEVER got tired of it. It generated so many great conversations, and several times, students had some deep thoughts on the ending that I found really moving. The only thing I didn’t like was that, for some reason, students love to spoil the end of this book for the next class. I had to threaten them with my eternal fury to convince them not to ruin it for the students who would read it the next semester, and I’m sure several of them ignored me.
 romeo and juliet 2. Romeo and Juliet. Listening to the kids read Shakespeare aloud in their hilarious NC accents (not judging – I have one too) was priceless. One particularly enthusiastic pair of students insisted on being allowed to act out the balcony scene, and they brought in their own homemade “balcony” for the day. Also, each group of students did a project with R&J where they basically made me an illustrated version of each scene of the play using bingo dotters. I loved these. Some of the kids spent so much time on them and came up with some really beautiful work.
 mockingbird 3. To Kill a Mockingbird. The students never really got excited about the first half of the book, but by the time Tom Robinson enters the story, they were into it. The last six or seven chapters especially would just fly by. One year, when we were talking about Tom Robinson’s trial, I asked the kids offhand if they felt sorry for Mayella Ewell. I didn’t have to say another word for the rest of the class period – several of the kids had very firm and very opposite opinions on that subject, and they just ran with it. It was fun to watch.
 hound 4. The Hound of the Baskervilles. I only taught British lit for my last two semesters, so I only had two groups of students to read this one. I was surprised by how many said it was their favorite thing that we read. Now I just wish that the Benedict Cumberbatch “Sherlock” had been out at the time so I could have shown them an episode.
 streetcar 5. A Streetcar Named Desire. It’s hard to pinpoint why I enjoyed teaching this one as much as I did. I didn’t start using it until my third year of teaching, but each class that I used it with did a great job with it. There is just so much to work with in the play, and a lot of the students picked Blanche as the subject of their projects for the end of the semester – she was always a fun character to talk about.

Have a wonderful weekend!

 

A Twist in the Usual Top Five Friday

On Monday of this week, author and editor William Giraldi wrote an article for the New Republic, and he decided to spend his time and energy slamming women who read romance novels. He judges all romance novel readers by the standard of Fifty Shades of Grey, and he proceeds to spend his entire article explaining exactly why that makes us all stupid, pathetic, middle class white women with disappointing sex lives and overweight husbands. I’m not kidding. He really does say that. Twice.

I have never read Fifty Shades of Grey. I probably won’t, because it doesn’t really appeal to me. But I have at least twenty friends who have read it, and I think Giraldi would be shocked (and probably a bit disappointed) to know that they are all intelligent, productive members of their community. They also read other books. Lots of them. Painting all romance readers with the same brush and implying that we’re all brainless morons who have decided to use Fifty Shades as a self-help book is a truly shocking display of ignorance.

Here are some other gems from Giraldi’s article that really stood out to me:

  1. “[R]omance novels, like racists, tend to be the same wherever you turn.”  Not all romance novels are alike.  Romance Writers of America lists seven romance subgenres on its website, and GoodReads has a staggering 186 pages of lists devoted to different types of romance novels.  This is a genre that contains everything from Jane Austen to Diana Gabaldon.  Also, that’s a pretty offensive metaphor, Mr. Giraldi.
  1. “Romance novels… teach a scurvy lesson: enslavement of the passions is a ticket to happiness.”  I think Elizabeth Bennett and Scarlet O’Hara would both be very surprised to hear that the point of their novels is to teach women that the only way to be happy is to have sex. Actually, now that I think about it, Elizabeth would probably have a terrible fit of the giggles, and Scarlet would just scratch Giraldi’s eyes out.
  1. At least people are reading. You’ve no doubt heard that before. But we don’t say of the diabetic obese, At least people are eating.” Just wow. Giraldi really has a fixation about fat people. Also, is he seriously comparing the effects of reading romance novels to a disease? That’s how I read it. I don’t think I’m wrong.

So what advice does Giraldi have for us, the sad, sappy, unintelligent readers of romance novels? Read Clarissa. Again, I am not kidding. If you haven’t read it, Clarissa is a story about a naive girl who thinks she has found the man of her dreams, but he tricks her into running away with him to live in a brothel. She dies. This, my friends, is what Giraldi thinks will be good for our souls, which are so clearly crying out to be educated about what happens to women who have the audacity to follow their heart.

Mr. Giraldi, I don’t know what your goal was for this article or what your motiviation is.  I don’t know if a romance novel reader ran over your dog with her car, or if a hardback copy of Gone with the Wind fell on your toe one day, or if you believe that your brand of shaming will turn people into avid readers of your novels rather than romances. All I do know is that you are entitled to have any opinion you like about the romance genre – it won’t change my mind, and it probably won’t change the minds of thousands of women who, as you point out in your article, buy 46% of all mass-market paperbacks sold in the USA.

In honor of the romance novels that I have unapologetically loved for years and that have enriched my reading life, here are my top five favorite romance novels. They fall into all sorts of other categories as well – they are historical fiction, mystery, and magical realism. But they are romance novels, and I am not embarrassed to say that I love them or to recommend them to you whole-heartedly, because they are entirely worthwhile.

pavilions 1. The Far Pavilions, by M.M. Kaye.
From the book jacket: When The Far Pavilions was first published nineteen years ago, it moved the critic Edmund Fuller to write this: “Were Miss Kaye to produce no other book, The Far Pavilions might stand as a lasting accomplishment in a single work comparable to Margaret Mitchell’s achievement in Gone With the Wind.”From its beginning in the foothills of the towering Himalayas, M.M. Kaye’s masterwork is a vast, rich and vibrant tapestry of love and war that ranks with the greatest panoramic sagas of modern fiction.The Far Pavilions is itself a Himalayan achievement, a book we hate to see come to an end. it is a passionate, triumphant story that excites us, fills us with joy, move us to tears, satisfies us deeply, and helps us remember just what it is we want most from a novel.
 winter sea  2. The Winter Sea, by Susanna Kearsley.
From the book jacket: History has all but forgotten…In the spring of 1708, an invading Jacobite fleet of French and Scottish soldiers nearly succeeded in landing the exiled James Stewart in Scotland to reclaim his crown.Now, Carrie McClelland hopes to turn that story into her next bestselling novel. Settling herself in the shadow of Slains Castle, she creates a heroine named for one of her own ancestors and starts to write.But when she discovers her novel is more fact than fiction, Carrie wonders if she might be dealing with ancestral memory, making her the only living person who knows the truth-the ultimate betrayal-that happened all those years ago, and that knowledge comes very close to destroying her…
 masque  3. The Masque of the Black Tulip, by Lauren Willig.
From the book jacket: “The Masque of the Black Tulip opens with the murder of a courier from the London War Office, his confidential dispatch for the Pink Carnation stolen. Meanwhile, the Black Tulip, France’s deadliest spy, is in England with instructions to track down and kill the Pink Carnation. Only Henrietta Selwick and Miles Dorrington know where the Pink Carnation is stationed. Using a secret code book, Henrietta has deciphered a message detailing the threat of the Black Tulip. Meanwhile, the War Office has enlisted Miles to track down the notorious French spy before he (or she) can finish the deadly mission. But what Henrietta and Miles don’t know is that while they are trying to find the Black Tulip (and possibly falling in love), the Black Tulip is watching them.”
 spear  4. A Spear of Summer Grass, by Deanna Raybourn.
From the book jacket: Paris, 1923
The daughter of a scandalous mother, Delilah Drummond is already notorious, even among Paris society. But her latest scandal is big enough to make even her oft-married mother blanch. Delilah is exiled to Kenya and her favorite stepfather’s savanna manor house until gossip subsides.
Fairlight is the crumbling, sun-bleached skeleton of a faded African dream, a world where dissolute expats are bolstered by gin and jazz records, cigarettes and safaris. As mistress of this wasted estate, Delilah falls into the decadent pleasures of society.
Against the frivolity of her peers, Ryder White stands in sharp contrast. As foreign to Delilah as Africa, Ryder becomes her guide to the complex beauty of this unknown world. Giraffes, buffalo, lions and elephants roam the shores of Lake Wanyama amid swirls of red dust. Here, life is lush and teeming—yet fleeting and often cheap.
Amidst the wonders—and dangers—of Africa, Delilah awakes to a land out of all proportion: extremes of heat, darkness, beauty and joy that cut to her very heart. Only when this sacred place is profaned by bloodshed does Delilah discover what is truly worth fighting for—and what she can no longer live without.
 girl  5. The Girl Who Chased the Moon, by Sarah Addison Allen.
From the book jacket: Emily Benedict has come to Mullaby, North Carolina, hoping to solve at least some of the riddles surrounding her mother’s life. But the moment Emily enters the house where her mother grew up and meets the grandfather she never knew, she realizes that mysteries aren’t solved in Mullaby, they’re a way of life: Here are rooms where the wallpaper changes to suit your mood. Unexplained lights skip across the yard at midnight. And a neighbor, Julia Winterson, bakes hope in the form of cakes, not only wishing to satisfy the town’s sweet tooth but also dreaming of rekindling the love she fears might be lost forever. Can a hummingbird cake really bring back a lost love? Is there really a ghost dancing in Emily’s backyard? The answers are never what you expect. But in this town of lovable misfits, the unexpected fits right in.

 

Never let anyone make you feel ashamed to read what you love. Happy Friday.