When the days grow colder and darker, my mother seems to accumulate stockpiles of books.
There are old ones from our collection that are battered and torn, others that came from the library and are dusty and laminated, and there are even brand new ones, which are pleasantly crisp and eager to have their spines cracked.
Each year they are always the same genre. They are always murder mysteries.
“Nothing like a cup of tea and a good murder around Christmas,” my mother would say. To an eight-year-old it was devastating. Now, 14 years later, I can’t think of any other type of book I’d rather read around the holidays.
And here’s a list of some fabulous ones.
1. Still Life by Louise Penny
Written by Canadian author Louise Penny, Still Life may not be the most intricate of mysteries, but Penny has the uncanny ability to write believable and relatable characters. The story takes place in the mythical Three Pines, a fictional small village south of Montreal. When one of the beloved locals is found shot with an arrow in the woods, Chief Inspector Gamache of the Sûreté du Québec and his team disrupt quiet life in the village in search of the murderer.
What really set this novel apart from others are the descriptions of characters and locations. There is a little café filled with mismatched furniture, beautiful art and delicious delicacies that will have you running over to My Dog Joe to compare atmospheres.
2. And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie
Penned by the legend herself, Dame Agatha Christie, And Then There Were None is an instant classic in any collection. Ten seemingly unrelated strangers are invited to a remote island and are slowly killed, one by one, in accordance to an old nursery rhyme. The novel is short and sweet, but also chilling and calculated and could be considered equal parts horror and mystery. Almost 80 years later, Agatha Christie is still the best in the business.
3. The Cuckoo’s Calling by Roger Galbraith (J.K. Rowling)
The Cuckoo’s Calling is a modern mystery novel written by Robert Galbraith. Haha. Just kidding. This murder mystery novel is actually written by J. K. Rowling of Harry Potter fame in probably what is the worst kept secret in modern literature. Seriously, her name is printed on the inside cover.
The Cuckoo’s Calling follows a bitter private investigator named Cormoran Strike, who, in the last year, has returned to London from a tour in Afghanistan minus one leg, been dumped by his girlfriend and accumulated a massive amount of debt. The adoptive brother of a recently deceased supermodel acquires Strike’s services, and wants Strike to investigate the nature of her death.
If you are a fan of intriguing mysteries, Harry Potter, and a dash of House M.D., this is the novel for you.
4. An Unsuitable Job for a Woman by P. D. James
When I asked my mom what who her favorite mystery writer was (sans Agatha Christie, of course), she instantly pointed me in the direction of P.D. James and her Cordelia Grey series.
An Unsuitable Job for a Woman is the first novel in the series and follows Private Investigator Cordelia Grey, a 22-year-old sleuth in 1972 London. Using only her intellect Ms. Grey attempts to solve the death of her former partner by outsmarting not just the murderer, but also the entirety of Scotland Yard.
The following books serve as a guide to defining my version of the “coming-of-age” genre. What they have in common is that, in one way or another, they have all resonated with me at some point in the past six months. They are listed in as chronological an order as I could possibly create.
Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix
by J.K. Rowling
As a lifelong fan of Harry Potter, I reread the series every few years. That being said, the fifth instalment has never been high on my list—yet this summer, I found myself getting emotional over its pages. OOTP is the turning point in the series, when the story officially gets darker and Harry, having been through horrible experiences, is singled out and ostracized for sticking to the truth. When I first read this book, I was fourteen or fifteen – the perfect age to develop a crush on the new, hardened Harry, who raged at the world for all his misfortune. This time, I read the book with an adult’s perspective, shaken by Harry’s situation and the oppression he faced. Maybe it was my own life experiences that shaped my newfound understanding and sympathy, or maybe it was my knowledge about the “hero’s journey” and the Jungian archetypes that many of the characters filled. All I know is that this time, I somehow got it. And when Harry had that fateful meeting with Dumbledore in his office, I too understood the difference between being forced into facing our adversaries versus doing so head on and gracefully.
Favourite Quote: “Don’t worry. You’re just as sane I am.”
by Rainbow Rowell
I read this novel at the precipice of my fourth year, believing it to be the last year of my life where I can happily remain in that hazy area between my comfort zone and (that oh-so foreign concept) adulthood. Needless to say I was feeling nostalgic, preferring to look upon my years here at McMaster with rose-tinted glasses than to face the colder and infinitely harder future. Fangirl took my hippie glasses off, and reminded me of first year, the last time that future was as frightening and mysterious as it appears now. While reading, I found myself in Cather, the protagonist, remembered how debilitating shyness can be, how difficult it is to be estranged from the ones you love, how hard it is to move on from someone so familiar to you. But she also reminded me of how it felt to find my niche, how the most wonderful relationships can be woven out of our greatest mistakes, and finally, how comforting our favourite habits can be.
Favourite Quote: “Real life was something happening in her peripheral vision.”
Anne of the Island
by L.M. Montgomery
This is Anne of Green Gables, all grown up. There was a time when my expectations for the future were clearly outlined in my copy of this worn out, blue book. I would read and reread it in an effort to get even one page closer to my own happy ending. I did not just see myself in Anne – there was a part of me that was (and probably still is) her. I remember learning from Anne’s teacher Miss Stacy that by the time I was twenty, I would have my life figured out. And I remember sitting in my room with this book, the day after my birthday almost a year ago, flipping to the scene where I could share my confusion with Anne, relieved that neither of us had any clue what was going on, even after having reached the age of twenty. This time when I read the story, I finally realized that Anne’s life isn’t nearly as idyllic as I had once assumed—except that this just meant that I had even more in common with her than I had originally thought.
Favourite Quote: “I do know my own mind...The trouble is, my mind changes and then I have to get acquainted with it all over again.”
Perfect Fifths: A Jessica Darling Novel
by Megan McCafferty
I began reading the Jessica Darling series
when I was in grade 12, and unceremoniously stopped reading halfway through the series after graduating high school. I recently picked them up again, and finally finished the series, going from the first to the fifth (listed here) in the span of a month. Perfect Fifths is, in a word, perfect. This novel features a mature Jessica Darling; she’s graduated university, has a job, and she’s started to figure things out. I cannot yet envision a time when I will be at a more secure place in my life, and Jessica’s adventures prior to this final novel always served to assure me that no one really does. This book was quieter; there are only three settings; the rest of the story is taken up by either conversation or memory. As I was reading, I was reminded of the importance of things left unsaid, of those people with whom we form everlasting and unmistakeable connections and of the security we can find in knowing that the future is so uncertain.
Favourite Quote: “Excuse our appearances. We are taking apart yesterday, to make way for tomorrow.”
“The tales we tell ourselves about ourselves make us who we are.”
“Tongue your mind.”
I don’t consider myself well read by any means. When I look into a library, I am embarrassed by the fact that even if I were to spend the rest of my life drowning in the sea of books, I wouldn’t even make it out of the kiddie pool before my hair grayed and my arms sagged and I breathed my last weak, little breath over a page of Tolstoy or Chemometrics for Pattern Recognition. I would die without making a dent in the avalanche of books.
But despite the overwhelming inability to observe all that has been written, I try to read daily. I stretch my fingers, dog-ear my pages, and I sit with invisible authors prodding me to smile when they did and be sad when they were.
Sometimes, I find rubbish among the words, though I can hardly be such a judge having glossed over so little in my lifetime. Other times I stumble upon a great book that will make you close your eyes and imagine that you were having breakfast with the author of the piece and they just told you a funny joke and oh how you both shared in the laughter. In these books and in the little time that I spend drawn into the microcosm of their work, I am often convinced the two of us are long lost pals, and the words are just deeply personal letters jumbled and scrambled.
One such author who I feel such an unspoken camaraderie with is Kurt Vonnegut. Unlike any other novelist before, I feel as though he writes to me personally. His verbal freshness hurtles through the worst of humanity’s troubles and contextualizes my own problems with a dose of hilarity. With each sentence, he scolds his readers yet praises them, entertains yet moralizes them, and most of all, makes them laugh above all else.
Vonnegut is great because he writes not as a man who wishes to be remembered but as a man who wishes to remember man. And like humankind who is a cluster of paradoxes, hypocrisies, and illogical policies, Vonnegut writes with a curious blend of wisdom and bitterness, wit and resignation, and an endless nose thumbing at the Universe. All in all, Vonnegut is a funny man who blurs the subtlety of sadness and happiness in life because as he said in A Man Without a Country, “Life is no way to treat an animal.”
Below is a Kurt Vonnegut bookbag of sorts because if you read nothing else or if you decide that the flurry of books is too daunting, then Kurt Vonnegut is a good place to start and end your literary escapade. It’s enough, but just barely and so it goes, Vonnegut would tell you.
Slaughterhouse-Five or The Children’s Crusade: A Duty-Dance with Death
Arguably Vonnegut’s most recognized and quoted book, Slaughterhouse Five is not so much an antiwar book (there’s better luck in “writing an anti-glacier book”) as it is a discussion of the inevitability of hardship, dying, and those brief illusions of a controlled, stable reality. Employing the harrowing yet uplifting phrase that appears detached from the prose it self – so it goes – the narrative suggests an acquiescence to a life, and ultimately death, that we can barely call our own due to circumstances that we are as much in control of as a bird in a birdcage. The story ends that way too – birds chirp and chirp and chirp again.
Favourite Quote: “Well, here we are, Mr. Pilgrim, trapped in the amber of this moment. There is no why.”
The Sirens of Titan
As Vonnegut’s second foray into fiction, the 1959 tale follows Malachi Constant as he travels from Earth to Mars to Mercury to Titan and then back to Earth again. Like Slaughterhouse, Sirens of Titan mirrors Vonnegut’s principle of resignation to fate and the realization that all things, us included, are a series of accident no more permanent than a whoopee cushion in a rock concert. Everything is predicted in the first chapter: Malachi Constant’s father racks up a fortune by sheer luck and a handy Bible, Martians invade Earth and are massacred senselessly, and Tralfamadorian’s – an alien species that know all truth in the Universe – sift through space and time with ease of a light switch. It’s funny. It’s sad. It’s Vonnegut becoming Vonnegut for the first time in his fiction and staying that way throughout all his other novels.
Favourite Quote: “If there are such things as angels, I hope they are organized along the lines of the Mafia.”
Kurt Vonnegut: Letters
Kurt’s letters capture the dark, wry humour that he shared with his friends and seeped into his writing. The laughter bled into the pages is cold and hard and sometimes it feels like a cough, but you see bits and pieces of the Kurt with each word. As his life flashes by in sentences, you want to tell him that everything will be all right in time; all he has to do is keep writing, just keep writing, and luckily for us, he does. Here are some snippets.
In a class assignment: “Do not bubble. Do not spin your wheels. Use words I know.”
To the editors of The New York Times: ”Dear Editors: It may gives us some comfort in these worrisome times to know that in all of history only one country has actually been crazy enough to detonate atomic weapons in midst of civilian populations, turning unarmed men, women and children into radioactive soot and bonemeal. And that was a long, long time ago now.”
To Norman Mailer: “I am cuter than you are.”
This book is about a fairy godmother. It isn’t exactly fairytale – it deals with Herman Campbell, a fictitious Nazi propagandist. He is awaiting trial for his war crimes perpetuated during World War Two. Eventually he, like all of us, dies, and like Kurt Vonnegut reminds us: “When you’re dead, you’re dead.” Poof. Gone. Kaput. Show’s over, folks.
Favourite Quote: “We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.”
September 30 to October 6 – what’s important about these seven days? In the literary world this week is known as Banned Book Week. Contrary to its title, the purpose of this week isn’t to stop reading certain books. Instead, it is a week devoted to reading books that have been banned throughout history. The following is a list of a few of the books that have been banned throughout history and the reasons for why they were banned.
The Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling
Yes, the beloved Harry Potter has been banned and continues to create conflict after fifteen years of publication. The reasons behind banning Harry Potter are obvious: witchcraft and promoting homosexuality. I got a good laugh after reading a discussion board on a Baptist website entitled, “12 Reasons Why Harry Potter Should Be Banned” which stated that: “True Christians only touch a Harry Potter book when they are throwing it onto a fire.” Sounds sacrilegious to me.
Favourite Quote: “It takes a great deal of courage to stand up to your enemies, but a great deal more to stand up to your friends.”
Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carrol
Another childhood classic, Alice was banned for sexuality and drug use. Not to mention that there have been rumours about whether or not Carrol wrote the stories because he was in love with the real Alice (a ten-year-old girl). Despite these rumours, the story itself does not contain anything remotely sexual and no drug use is mentioned (unless you count one hookah-smoking caterpillar). In China, Alice was banned for fear that children would think that humans and animals were equal. How dare they?
Favourite Quote: “I can't explain myself, I'm afraid, because I'm not myself, you see.”
Where The Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak
Surprisingly enough, this popular first read for many kids was challenged for showing children in a negative light. The main character, Max, is a mischievous child who throws a tantrum and his mother sends him to bed without dinner. Parents were outraged. A child…having a tantrum? And being punished for bad behaviour? Blasphemy! It was also banned for apparently promoting witchcraft.
Favourite Quote: “And Max, the king of all wild things, was lonely and wanted to be where someone loved him best of all.”
The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
Believe it or not, The Great Gatsby was banned by a Baptist College in South Carolina for references to sexuality and strong language. And to think, I had to read this in high school! Can I just emphasize that it was a college banning The Great Gatsby – not a high school, not a grade school, but a college.
Favourite Quote: “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”
So if you’re feeling risky this week, indulge in a banned childhood classic or two. Let the brainwashing begin!
- Sarah O'Connor
during the summer months, most students have homes to return to or jobs to keep them busy until school begins again in september. as an eighteen-year-old jobless first-year student, i had more free time than the average university student. when i wasn’t desperately handing out resumes in the hopes of getting a job, i had time to tackle the forever rising pile of books by my bed. for the most part, they wound up being novels by john green, the american author of young adult fiction. here are some of my favourites of his work:
Paper Towns by John Green
I made it my goal to read every John Green novel this past summer, but my time ran out. Paper Towns is beautifully written and makes one question how much we really know about a person. The story challenges readers to look deeper beyond the surface, because there really is more to a person than his or her appearance or what is said about them.
Favourite quote: “Maybe all the strings inside him broke.”
An Abundance of Katherines by John Green
Yes, another John Green book. This one had a little too much math in it for my taste (there was a lot that I didn’t understand). But it’s a great book that’s funny and thought-provoking, with fun little footnotes all over the place.
Favourite quote: “Books are the ultimate Dumpees: put them down and they’ll wait for you forever; pay attention to them and they always love you back.”
Will Grayson, Will Grayson by John Green and David Levithan
This story questions coincidence and fate when two boys with the same name meet each other in a lonely part of Chicago. Both live very different lives and end up learning about themselves and each other throughout the novel.
Favourite quote: “It’s hard to believe in coincidence, but it’s even harder to believe in anything else.”
The Fault in Our Stars by John Green
The final John Green book I read this summer – this one’s about a sixteen year old girl with cancer. I know you must be thinking that this must be another typical cancer book with love, death, and tears. And in many ways you’re right. But there’s also enough humour and honesty to make it uniquely touching.
Favourite quote: “I fell in love the way you fall asleep: slowly, then all at once.”