As you look through the following reading list, you may notice a few patterns.
I have a tendency, when I read books, to become fully immersed in and obsessed with the world of the story. That is why many of the books in this list reveal a sort of progression – of periods, of themes, and of genres – as I try to recover the world that I lost when one story ended by reconstructing pieces of it in another. This tendency toward total immersion is also why I often burn through all (or at least many) books by the same author in a single run, and why I so frequently re-read books.
So, I apologize if you have no especial interest in British fiction, history, magic, mystery, and Romaticism. This list will not hold much interest for you. But, if you – like me – simply cannot get enough of any of these, prepare to find some treasures (and please leave me some recommendations in return, as I am nearly always looking for something new to read!).
Charles Dickens: Bleak House
Much has already been said about Bleak House, so I’ll keep my comments brief. You know this one.
It’s Dickens, so the characterizations (caricaturizations?) are hilarious yet oddly familiar, and the story is absurd yet painfully realistic and somehow all come together in the end. It’s about a byzantine court case, and has more in common with Kafka’s The Trial than you might think.
There’s also a BBC miniseries. I haven’t watched it all the way through (yet), but it was certainly off to a promising start.
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle: Everything
Beginning last summer, I read every single Sherlock Holmes story every written – the second time through. I love tension in these stories between the fantastic and the mundane, and when you throw in the indomitable logic of Sherlock, Watson’s endearing adoration, and the gritty backdrop of nineteenth-century Britain, there’s no way I can resist.
These stories have been favorites of mine for a long time. If you haven’t already, you should read them. And then you should watch Sherlock, the incredible BBC adaptation that brings the famous consulting detective into the 21st century. Even though I knew whodunit in every episode, I still watched the first two series in three nights (which is not something I usually do). Alas, series 3 will not be appearing until 2014.
Tana French: In the Woods and The Likeness
In the Woods came highly recommended to my by my friend Kate, both by letter and by blog (in fact, you can even read her take on it here – check out #10). The novel is written from the perspective of a Deeply Troubled Irish murder detective With a Past. He is called upon to solve a child murder case from the town where he grew up – the town from where his two childhood best friends disappeared, and from where he almost did. The narrative moves briskly, there are lots of clues, and lots of layers and psychology beyond the simple facts of the case.
The Likeness is the sequel to In the Woods, this time from the perspective of the first detective’s partner. Previously an undercover agent, she is shocked when a murder victim is discovered to have been inhabiting the identity she abandoned when she left undercover work years before. The only way to solve the crime and discover the girl’s true identity? To resume her former role, of course, and impersonate the impersonator who was impersonating who she once impersonated…
Both In the Woods and The Likeness are beautifully written and hauntingly imagined, with brilliant characterizations and unsettling conclusions. There are also a third and fourth novel in the series, Faithful Place and Broken Harbor, but the library doesn’t have it and I have yet to track it down.
J.K. Rowling: The Casual Vacancy
While J.K. Rowling’s distinctive style was pleasantly familiar from the first, it soon became clear that, far from being a Harry Potter for grown-ups, The Casual Vacancy was deeply depressing, and even more so because of its utter mundanity. The story takes place in a small, insular town in England. The plot is centered around the vicious politics of the older generation on the local town council, as well as the search of the younger generation for something or someone to care about.
There wasn’t a single whiff of magic or adventure the whole way through. However, it was a thoroughly engrossing read, and one that I would highly recommend.
Margaret Atwood: The Year of the Flood and The Penelopiad
Margaret Atwood’s novels are dystopian, feminist, agnostic, and thoroughly irresistible. I had read (and very much enjoyed) both The Handmaid’s Tale and Oryx & Crake, so when I spotted the small Atwood section at the library, I pulled out the two I hadn’t yet encountered.
The Year of the Flood takes place in the same dystopic future rife with genetic experiments and extremist cults as Oryx & Crake, where corporations rule the world and the patriarchy still persists. The novel is gripping and the world it creates profoundly chilling.
The Penelopiad re-imagines The Odyssey from Penelope’s point of view. Sidelined as the quintessential faithful wife in the original, Atwood gives Penelope a personality and voice of her own. The novel focuses on a throwaway line from The Odyssey, when it is stated that Odysseus hangs twelve of Penelope’s maids in addition to killing her many suitors when he returns from the war and his subsequent extended voyage. The original never makes it clear exactly why those maids were murdered, and this question becomes a central piece of The Penelopiad. In between Penelope’s chapters, the maids themselves form a sort of Greek chorus, finding at least a collective voice. Little novel, lots of heavy themes. Rich and rewarding reading.
Georgette Heyer: Everything
I’ll admit up front that Georgette Heyer novels are one of my guilty pleasures (that I’m not actually that guilty about). While her novels may be classified as Regency romance, it’s totally historical fiction, right? Definitely not romance…right?
Let’s not dwell on classification. Let’s instead consider how finely researched her novels are, and how finely detailed their portraits of society and fashion in Regency England. When I want a light read that will cheer me up (and impart a strong desire to don a muslin gown for a ton party, take a turn about the park in a fashionable barouche, and generally adopt outmoded slang), Georgette Heyer’s HISTORICAL FICTIONS always do the trick.
Ok fine. Romances. Whatever.
Susanna Clarke: Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell and The Ladies of Grace Adieu
When I finished this novel – which is written as if it were a scholarly history, complete with extensive footnotes citing nonexistent sources – I felt entirely convinced that there is, in fact, a tradition of English magic beginning with the Raven King. I was actually rather surprised that his name had never come up in my AP European History class in high school. After a few minutes of reflection, it occurred to me that magic probably still didn’t exist, and the Raven King’s legacy of English Magic had as much connection to reality as Harry Potter’s.
While the footnotes and citations go a long way towards establishing the faux-credibility of the novel, the dovetailing of the story with actual historical events and figures (the Duke of Wellington is a relatively major character) and the length (around 800 pages) certainly help as well. I was probably also especially susceptible, given that I have been steeping myself in British magic of various varieties since I was a small child (e.g. the works of E. Nesbit, Phillip Pullman, J.K. Rowling, and Patricia C. Wrede & Caroline Stevermeyer). In fact, Wrede & Stevermeyer’s novel, Sorcery and Cecilia or The Enchanted Chocolate Pot: Being the Correspondence of Two Young Ladies of Quality Regarding Various Magical Scandals in London and the Country (which, by the way, is one of my favorite books ever) and its two sequels even presented a re-imagined British history in which magic exists alongside identifiable historical figures. But I’m becoming sidetracked and verbose, which is never a good idea.
So, I will summarize: Read Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell because it is fascinating (for so many reasons!). Read The Ladies of Grace Adieu, a subsequent collection of short stories, as a means to cope with the void left by the end of Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell. Feel it’s inadequacy to fill that void, and reach for another book at least set in the same time period. Which brings me to…
Daisy Hay: Young Romantics: the Shelley’s, Byron, and Other Tangled Lives
Feeling let down by the end of Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, I felt that this book had the potential to fill the gap. While there wouldn’t be any magic, it would at least be set (predominantly) in Britain during and after the Napoleonic Wars. When I read the back of the book, I knew I had to give it a try. Always one to be won over by a feminist slant, I was pleased to read, “The women in this circle have often been portrayed merely as spouses or unknowns; Daisy Hay finally gives them due prominence and a narrative vein of their own.” I was also very much intrigued by the idea of a group biography.
The book did not disappoint. The lack of magic was more than compensated for by the surfeit of drama. Although the work is a non-fiction account of a group of Romantic poets and intellectuals, most of it reads like a novel. In fact, I had a hard time putting the book down at the end of my lunch breaks, as I was so eager to learn what would become of idealistic Shelleys, the perpetually spurned Claire Clairmont, the (frankly obnoxious) Lord Byron, and their ever-extending circle of friends and acquaintances. Full of intrigue, suicide, and pregnancy (I have never been so thankful for birth control), it’s easy to forget that all of this actually happened.
I would highly recommend Young Romantics – even to those who eschew non-fiction and wouldn’t look twice at a volume of Romantic poetry.
Neil Gaiman: Smoke and Mirrors: Short Fictions and Illusions
I will preface my comments by saying that I am not usually enamoured of short stories. True, the stories of Edgar Allan Poe are among my favorite works of literature, and I will (and have) happily read through them all in one sitting. But, as a general rule, I tend to prefer more long-form writing.
I picked this volume up because I was beginning to feel that I couldn’t call myself a true fan of books about magic (and, I will admit, young adult fantasy in particular) without having read anything by Neil Gaiman. Since the library presented only one option, short stories it was.
However, while a book of short stories would not have been my first pick had I been given a choice, I was pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed these. While a few tended to the obscure, most of the stories in the volume were phenomenal. The final two – “Murder Mysteries” and “Snow, Glass, Apples” – were the two that really stuck with me. “Murder Mysteries” was a truly original take on the genre (I will say no more, lest I spoil it), and “Snow, Glass, Apples” is one of the most compelling re-imaginings of a fairy tale (in this case, Snow White) I have seen. Gregory Maguire’s got nothing on this.
So know you know how I have been amusing myself lately.
Please leave any other book recommendations you might have in the comments!