When I read a book, it takes several years and multiple re-readings to become a favorite of mine. I think the hallmark of a great book is that it keeps you thinking about it long after you turn the last page, and the three books I’ve listed below all share that quality. Additionally, they are all books that have impacted my life in a big way. I wouldn’t be who I am now if I hadn’t read them. Unlike Kelly, mine are listed in order.
On the surface, Pullman’s trilogy is about a girl named Lyra who discovers a way to reach parallel universes. Underneath, the books explore notions of heaven and hell, love, maturity, and the nature of the human soul. I wrote my college admission essay on these books. (I hope I was admitted because of the essay, not in spite of it.) It’s impossible to describe just why the trilogy matters so much to me without getting too personal, but it’s enough to say that it changed my life.
I keep coming back to these books because they truly have the literature trifecta: elegant and powerfully written prose, a fascinating plot, and an important ideology that merits serious thought.
If this list is to be honest at all, I have to confess that Harry Potter belongs on it. I grew up on Harry Potter, and it is impossible to separate my childhood from him. Every year or so, I had a new book to look forward to. I waited in lines at midnight for them. I taught myself basic HTML in high school by creating a fan page for the series (now mercifully located in Internet no man’s land). I learned how to make cockroach clusters and turned a green t-shirt into a Slytherin quidditch jersey. When the seventh book came out, I helped organize a release party and stayed up until the wee hours to read it. After I finished it, I joined a facebook group called “Finishing Harry Potter 7 is like destroying the 7th horcrux of my childhood.” If I ever feel blue, I pop in one of the books on CD and Jim Dale’s voice immediately makes me smile. Harry Potter is more than a guaranteed pick me up; it’s part of what defines me.
I’ve had conversations with family and friends about the life expectancy of the series’ popularity. One person thinks the books will become classics like Alice in Wonderland. Another believes they would have already been forgotten if the movie machinery weren’t still carrying them long past their expiration date. I’m sure you can tell with which person I agree. The books are such a part of me that it is impossible to take the necessary step back and evaluate them objectively. I don’t see that as a bad thing at all. It’s what great books are meant to do – grab you and never let you go.
Probably the least well-known book of the three on my list, Biting the Sun is a dystopia set in a future world where consequences do not exist. You can jump off a building if you want to see what it feels like, and your consciousness/soul/life force will be salvaged from your wrecked body and placed into a new body of your own design. With no limits on what humans can do, things get pretty bizarre. Genders are interchanged, people routinely walk around with antennae or leopard spots, and thinking up creative ways to kill yourself is considered a fun hobby. For awhile, it’s all well and good for the unnamed protagonist, a member of the Jang (similar to our own teenagers, except being Jang lasts several decades instead of a few years). Then she begins to realize that she feels empty, and she notices the same symptoms in her fellow Jang. So she does something radical, and suddenly, the word “consequences” has meaning again.
It’s one of the more unique dystopias I’ve read. Lee has created her own set of slang that is quite fun to pick up on. What has really made this book stick with me for so long, however, is the ending. It’s daring and new for its sub-genre, but also completely honest and satisfying.
On My Bookshelf
Considering my top three books are all fantasies, I hope these next three selections will give you a greater idea of my range. I do love to read all kinds.
The Snake, the Crocodile, and the Dog, by Elizabeth Peters
This is the seventh book in a mystery series featuring 19th century Egyptologist Amelia Peabody and her irascible husband Emerson. I’m listening to this one as an audio mp3 download. I’ve never actually read one of Peters’ in print, because the narrator, Barbara Rosenblat, is such a joy to listen to. What I like about these books is the strong female protagonist, the interesting historical and archaeological tidbits, and the humor. Told in first-person by Amelia herself, these books are funny. I laugh out loud while listening to them on the bus and startle the people around me. The entire series is of a consistently high quality.
I bought this book from Bearden at a bluebonnet festival about a year ago and am just getting around to reading it now. It’s a World War II memoir about Bearden’s experiences as a paratrooper and as a German prisoner of war after being captured on D-Day Plus 2. This is usually how I like to read my historical nonfiction, from the pen of a person who lived it. More than just being enjoyable, I also think books like these are important.
The Explosionist, by Jenny Davidson
Davidson’s debut novel explores what the world may have looked like in the 1930s if Napoleon had defeated Wellington at Waterloo. I’m always fascinated by the concept of alternate history books but have been generally disappointed by the ones I have picked up. I’m about fifty pages into this one and am still interested. Sophie, the teenage protagonist, lives in a world where seances are considered legitimate, young women join a mysterious group called IRLYNS after they graduate high school, and Scotland – part of the New Hanseatic League – is on the brink of war with Europe. Interesting stuff.