When I look back at my teenage self, with my ill-advised bangs and strange affinity for glittery blue eyeliner, I remember both the highs and lows of growing up. There were hilarious adventures with friends and moments of intense loneliness in which I felt unsure of who I was. I’ve done my fair share of growing up since then, and I still have a little way to go, but reading Caitlin Moran’s coming-of-age story HOW TO BUILD A GIRL instantly brought back all the memories that I had somehow managed to forget.
I’d be lying if I said I didn’t fall under the highly infectious spell of the onerous and brutally sarcastic Will Traynor. From his peculiar choice of greeting when meeting Louisa Clark to his scowls at anything remotely enjoyable she suggested—I couldn’t help it, I fell madly in love with the guy. And honestly, I think that’s the feeling that Jojo Moyes’s ME BEFORE YOU was meant to evoke. But after a love like Will, what next?
I finished Kent Haruf’s absorbing, finely crafted novel OUR SOULS AT NIGHT in tears. It had pierced my heart, where there are no words. To my husband’s bewilderment, all I could manage was wow, wow, wow. I wish I could write like that, I said. I wish my stories could make readers cry.
Twenty-nine years ago, my agent, who was also V.C. Andrews’s agent, changed my life. “We would like you to think about finishing Virginia Andrews’s latest novel,” she said. “She’s too sick to do so.”
The idea was at first overwhelming. V.C. Andrews was a major worldwide publishing success. I was, at the time, a high school English and creative writing teacher who graded papers and wrote thrillers, but I had never before been asked to write in another author’s voice. I attacked the challenge with all my research skills and spent hours reading and rereading Virginia Andrews’s works until I understood what made her writing distinct. Her vocabulary and syntax, images, and dialogues were truly special.
You may say there is no such thing as a perfect book. You’re probably right. But the one book that comes closest to it, in my mind, is SO LONG, SEE YOU TOMORROW by William Maxwell. If you’ve not read it, you should. Immediately.
When I was a senior in college, I wanted to try something different. Experiment, if you will. I was 20 years old, at a liberal arts college. No parents! No consequences! I was going to rebel, I was going to rage against the machine, and break away from all the traditions I had been raised in. I was going to finally do the one thing I had always wanted to do.
I was going to read Neil Gaiman.
For the well-versed bibliophile, nothing feels quite the same as stumbling upon a book that you feel personally connected to, whether it’s because you’ve been to the city where the story takes place or because you see yourself reflected in the protagonist. I often choose novels simply because they were set in my hometown or have a character who shares my name. So, as a second-generation, biracial Chinese American, I felt all the more drawn to Celeste Ng’s breathtaking debut novel EVERYTHING I NEVER TOLD YOU, which details a mixed-race family in the 1970s after the mysterious death of their seemingly perfect middle child, 16-year-old Lydia Lee.
In England, Stella Gibbons is a national treasure. In the United States, she’s known mainly by people who were only required to read one of her books, COLD COMFORT FARM, in British Lit 101 class. Typically, if you’ve heard of Stella Gibbons, you are one of three things: English, a bookseller, or a devout hunter of sublime, hilarious, midbrow, midwars lady British writers.
In 1933, the North Carolina Eugenics Board was formed, which led to more than 40 years of forced sterilization in the name of combating poverty and welfare costs in the state. This period in history affected thousands of poor women by taking away their right to bodily autonomy. And yet, it has been almost erased from history.
In Diane Chamberlain’s compelling novel NECESSARY LIES, the work of the Eugenics Board is brought to light through the poignant, heart-wrenching tale of a teenage girl living on a tobacco farm in 1960 and the social worker put in charge of her fate.
When I first discovered Molly Keane a few years ago, it felt like meeting a hilarious, deliciously spiteful, and observant new friend for the first time. Her humor is so sly, her characterizations merciless. In her naughtiness, she reminded me of a kind of adult Roald Dahl, but she is also a poet at heart. Elegant and allusive, few writers I know can evoke the agonies of snobbery, or of a broken heart, or the atmosphere, smell, and character of a room as she can, or the beauty of the Irish countryside at dawn.