Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Yet More Books

Once upon a time, I really wanted to be a novelist. Somehow, I don't really see that happening. I don't really know what changed, but when I was younger, I had all sorts of ideas. Very nearly all of those ideas were terrible and ignorant and completely unpublishable, but I had them. That doesn't really seem to be the case for me anymore. I'm not even getting terrible ideas anymore.

I've always had some trouble getting into contemporary fiction. It's easier for me if it's fantasy, but I feel like there's not a lot that's been written recently that I can really sink my teeth into. I love a good story, and I feel like a lot of books aren't as much about the story as I wish they were.

A year or two ago, I purchased a book entitled The Book of Lost Things. I bought it because the cover art was neat. I have no problem admitting that if I'm just browsing at a bookstore without anything specific in mind, how the cover looks is a big draw for me. But I digress. For the most part, it was a good book. It dealt heavily with fairy tale mythos, which I love. I really enjoy it when someone can take a really classic story and give it a good twist. I had two problems with it. The first was that a good fifty percent of the book was author's notes and discussion questions and things like that, as opposed to the actual story. The second was that the story didn't really have an ending. I mean, it ended, but it was the kind of Roald Dahl BFG ending that I find hugely dissatisfying. It's fine if it's Roald Dahl, because that was kind of his thing. But when it's a novel, I think it's kind of lazy.

There have, however, been a few contemporary novels I've read in the past few years that I think were wonderful. Per my mother's request, I'll explore them now.

The first is Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke. It's huge, which I can appreciate in a novel. I read quickly, so if a book doesn't have some meat to it, I get through it too quickly for it to really be satisfying. It's also one of the more well-written and engaging fantasy stories I've read. It's set in England before and during the Napoleanic wars, and it deals with the idea that England used to be rife with magic, and for some reason, it's not anymore. It's a really intriguing blend of historical fiction and fantasy, which isn't a combination I see too terribly often. It could have been terrible. It wasn't.

Secondly is The Book Thief by Markus Zusak. There was a great big fuss about it a couple of years ago, and I have to say that in this case, the fuss was fully justified. It takes place in Nazi Germany, so it has a definite historical fiction element to it. There's another element that I'm loathe to call fantasy, but that may be what it is. You see, the entire story is told from the point of view of Death. Not a point of view we as readers generally get a glimpse into (unless you're a Pratchett fan). Apparently it was on the New York Times Children's Best Seller's list, which I find somewhat surprising given the subject matter. It does center around a little girl, but it's such a deep, emotional journey that I doubt I would have understood it when I was younger.

This next one is kind of a guilty pleasure, but I enjoyed Phillipa Gregory's The Other Boleyn Girl immensely. Historical fiction, yet again. I'm sensing a theme. No fantasy elements this time, though. This one's pretty hefty, too, and it could have been crap. There's lots of terrible Tudor-era romance fiction out there, but this one managed to avoid the cheapness that a lot of those stories embrace. What made it such a solid story, I think, was the character development. The story is told from the point of view of Mary Boleyn, and it begins when she's thirteen years old and continues through her twenties. It is no easy feat to portray the changes that occur in anyone during this time, but Gregory managed it not just with Mary, but with the entire cast of characters.

I'm going to wrap this list up with the Discworld series by Terry Pratchett. Let's start with the fact that he's written over thirty books in this series over the past twenty years, and despite the fact that Pratchett has Alzheimer's, he's still pumping them out. More than that, they're still funny and interesting. Anyone with a computer and a lot of free time can churn out a huge number of books, but that doesn't mean they're any good. I don't love every single book in the series, but I feel like the fact that I've read them all says a lot for how I feel about the series as a whole. Part of it stems from the fact that I love some good satire, and the Discworld books are some of the most enjoyable satire I've read. They're written in such a fun and whimsical way, but the characters and their struggles are relatable, and you feel for them. Or, at least, I do.

There are probably more books, but these are the ones that are stuck in my psyche.


  1. I can't say I've read any of these. When I get some time,I might give one a try. This is Mom at Grandma's computer.

  2. I absolutely adore Terry Pratchett. Death is definitely my favorite character in the series, probably followed by the Patrician of Ankh Morpork. Do you know if there are any books in the series that deal more directly with either of these characters? I just finished Mort, and I would love to read more about Death.