Time to update those high school reading lists

My third daughter has just started her senior year in high school, with one of her classes being Advanced Placement English literature. She told me that she and her classmates get to choose some of the books they will read over the course of this school year and showed me a list of about 80 books that are mostly what I would call “classics” that are typical for high school or college reading, plus a few newer books that weren’t around when I was in high school. I’d say most of the newer books seem to have been chosen to represent writing from other countries and cultures. (The books are listed with the author’s name and then the author’s country/ethnicity in parentheses.)

Being an avid reader myself, I have plenty of insight to give my daughter about the list and what I think is good and that she would enjoy and learn from. Honestly, right away I just scratched right through Faulkner and Hemingway and Melville. I read several of those authors’ books and was bored silly. I won’t dispute that they were “great writers,” but there now have been PLENTY of other great writers since them. Can’t we include those and cut back a bit on these “Great American Writers”?

One note: I think that some of the newer book choices on this list, limited as these inclusions are, were decent choices. But I was full-on scratching my head over someone’s decision to include The Memory Keeper’s Daughter among maybe 10 or 15 “newer” books. I did read that; it was popular when it first came out as what I would call a “book club choice.” Have I heard of anyone reading it since? Nope. I can only imagine that it was included because a character has Down syndrome. But can we not find other recent books that include someone with a disability, and in this case, not as a plot point that’s intended to pull at heartstrings in what I call a cheap shot?

I know Shannon Hale, a bright and amazing writer and wise observer of many current goings-on, has written about this topic before (in addition to repeatedly talking, rightly so, about how we need to do better to encourage boys to read books that have female protagonists and stop referring to “girls” and “boys” books), but I haven’t been able to find any of her recommendations in my Google and Twitter searches so far today. So until I do, I will just reinvent the wheel a bit and make a list of some excellent books that would be great not just for showing the authors’ excellent skills with the pen (… or keyboard) but that open up windows into parts of the human condition that haven’t been explored in the older books.

(Note: I have reviewed these on my website, Rated Reads, with detailed information about the books themselves, plus content information. Links are included for those on Rated Reads. Most of these are “mild” or “moderate” rated for their content, though a few are “high”.)

  1. The Shadow of the Wind, by Carlos Ruiz Zafón. Not only is this book a page-turner as a mystery and gothic story, but it provides readers with some insights into post-civil war Spain, which many kids will never learn about in history. The writing is glorious; the notion of a “Cemetery of Forgotten Books” where books people have forgotten about are lovingly kept will thrill anyone who loves books.
  2. UnwindThe Unwind series, by Neal Shusterman. These YA novels are sophisticated and thought-provoking and sure to spark conversation. The premise? Society has decided not to allow abortions but to allow parents to choose to “unwind” their young teens if they are unsatisfactory. These kids are killed humanely and their parts donated to those who need them. What’s particularly appealing to me is that the books don’t seem to have a particular agenda; they simply explore a strange “solution” that a society has come up with regarding the contentious issue of abortion.
  3. Into Thin Air, by Jon Krakauer. This nonfiction account of a year that was particularly deadly among climbers of Mt. Everest is gripping and educational. If you have kids who think nonfiction is boring, wait until they read this. I was skeptical myself, but it hooked me so much I’ve read five or more other books on related topics. An excellent example of narrative nonfiction.
  4. The Thirteenth Tale, by Diane Setterfield. Because this is simply the best gothic book of the past 50 years. Sure, read Rebecca and Wuthering Heights, but Setterfield’s novel has yet to be matched since its publication in   .
  5. The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down, by Anne Fadiman. This is another nonfiction book that is written in a format that is easy to follow. It teaches readers a bit among the Hmong culture, the language and beliefs. It’s particularly useful because it shows the clashes of American and Hmong culture (not to mention how even English-speaking Americans often do not have adequate communication with those in the medical profession) and how the grave misunderstandings left a young girl dead. These are the kinds of books we need to read more of in the U.S.
  6. The-Immortal-Life-of-Henrietta-LacksThe Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, by Rebecca Skloot. Oooh, more nonfiction. All of the nonfiction books I’m referencing are easy to follow and compelling reading. Here, readers get to learn about medical research and how little autonomy blacks were given in their own medical care in past decades. There’s culture issues, medical issues, genetics … all fine reasons to recommend this book.
  7. The Warmth of Other Suns, by Isabel Wilkerson. My last nonfiction. This book may seem long and daunting, but it’s compelling. The author explores the history of migration of blacks from the South to the North and West from 1915 to 1970, making a huge change in the “face of America.” She uses the device of focusing on a few individuals and telling their stories in detail to represent the larger migration of 6 million people. Excellent research and writing.
  8. The Alchemist, by Paulo Coelho. This slim novel has been published in many languages and sold millions of copies in the past 25 or so years since it was first published. It’s a sweet fable that allows the reader to think about the meaning of life and to follow one’s dream. It’s a nice choice for students because it is short and accessible, rather than daunting in length or topic.
  9. Anything by Amy Tan or Lisa See. I’ve read quite a few books by these two authors, whose novels explore the experiences of Chinese women, either wholly in China or as migrants to America, and often through several generations, showing the changes that come about through new and different opportunities.
  10. not-dying-with-you-e1565824929795Any of Dear Martin, The Hate U Give, I’m Not Dying with You Tonight. These are young adult novels written about topical issues that blacks are facing, from a teen perspective, in our current culture/environment. I admit I am woefully under-reading in this genre.

My favorite books from 2016

Every year I like to do a round-up of the best books of the year. Since I don’t always read freshly published books, this isn’t technically a “best books OF 2016”; it’s a “my favorites that I READ in 2016.” However, that being said, many of them are pretty new. So let’s get started.

I read a lot of fiction and YA and this year it really showed. Only one of my favorite books that I got around to reading was nonfiction. So let’s start with that category, since it’s so small.


the-geneThe Gene: An Intimate History, by Siddhartha Mukherjee. The author’s book about cancer a few years back, The Emperor of All Maladies, was excellent, and this book about the history of genetics, the code that informs all life, was just as informative and interesting. It takes readers on the odyssey of piecing together information about the human gene and genome since the early days, ending with the research and work that is happening now, in the decade after the completion of the sequencing of the human genome. The most recent research was news to me, and I found it fascinating and at times alarming. As Mukherjee posits about what we now know, “What will we do with this information?”


Britt-Marie Was Here, by Fredrik Backman. An older woman who really, REALLY likes to have everything just so finds out her husband has cheated on her and goes out in search of work. She can only find a temporary position in a tiny town that’s on the verge of essentially closing up shop. She slowly gets pulled into the lives of the people who live there and finds herself truly “getting a life.” The book is gently humorous, tender and at times sad. It’s entertaining and sweet. There are too many wonderful metaphors for me to have kept track of, and I loved each one of them. I ended up taking my time reading the book because my life was busy, but I was able to savor it more that way, which was a bonus. A lovely book.

every-heart-a-doorwayEvery Heart a Doorway, by Seanan McGuire. Children have been known to slip through hidden doorways into other fantastical worlds. And some return to their everyday lives, for various reasons. Some do not long to get back to those worlds; others do. The latter consider those fantastical worlds their true homes and miss them terribly, always looking for that secret door to open again. Of course no one, including their parents, understands or believes their stories. But someone actually does believe their stories — and understands their longing to be “home.” Eleanor West runs a boarding school that caters to these children and teens, that tries to help them figure out how to move forward in a life that may never have them seeing that door again.

I cannot express just how truly unique this book felt. I’ve never read anything like it. The premise is clever but then the feel, the world, the execution of it all… just amazing. I felt transported.

Thrice the Brinded Cat Hath Mew’d, by Alan Bradley. This is the 8th Flavia de Luce mystery novel, and if you haven’t read any of the previous ones, go and start from the beginning. Now. And any year that has a new novel, most likely, it’s going to be on my best-of. These stories are technically murder mysteries but are more about their tween/teen heroine than anything else. She is curious, precocious, a lover of chemistry, an annoyed youngest sister and proud sleuth. This go-round wasn’t the most “mysterious” of all the mysteries; I saw much of it coming from a mile away. But, again, since it’s more about time spent with Flavia and her charms, and chuckling a good deal, that’s almost neither here nor there. I’ll keep reading as long as Alan Bradley keeps writing.

Uprooted, by Naomi Novik. In the valley near the Wood where Agnieszka lives, the Dragon, a powerful wizard who lives in a tower, takes one girl from the villages to serve him, then lets her go, every 10 years. The girls who will be 17 in that year fear the possibility of being chosen, and their families dread it. Agnieszka (and everyone else) is sure her beautiful best friend Kasia will be chosen, so they are all taken aback when at the last moment, Agnieszka is selected instead. She herself is completely unprepared and is devastated when the cool, detached wizard takes her, and then, inexplicably, starts trying to teach her how to do simple spells. It turns out she, as opposed to the other girls, who were just taken to be servants, has potential as a witch, and she and the Dragon must find a way to keep the evil power of the nearby (and encroaching) Wood at bay. The story is complex and rich in detail and atmosphere. It’s essentially a Polish fairy tale set in the 1500s, where magic is real. I was caught up in it but the reading was slow going. I didn’t just breeze through it. But that turned out to be a blessing by the end, which was hugely satisfying and led me to want to just sit quietly within the story and appreciate it for all it contained. Just lovely.

Young adult

Lady Midnight (The Dark Artifices, book 1), by Cassandra Clare. The Shadowhunters, humans with angel blood who fight demons, return in another series by Cassandra Clare. Those who have loved her other series (set in New York and Victorian London) featuring the defenders of humankind (or “mundanes,” as Shadowhunters call humans) will no doubt want to read this new one, set this time in current-day Los Angeles. I did love being back in the Shadowhunter world but I had a few quibbles. One, there wasn’t quite as much humor in this book as there was in City of Bones and other initial entries in the Mortal Instruments series. Two, these are teenagers. They admittedly have a great deal of responsibility, much more than the average human teen. But in these series, and in this new book particularly, they pretty much go about their business without much adult guidance and restraint. That’s kind of a plot point, but it leads to a lot of stuff happening that parents should know about if their teen is reading this new book/series. Not the best of Clare’s work, but I do love the world.

lady-janeMy Lady Jane, by Cynthia Hand, Brodi Ashton and Jodi Meadows. I LOVED, LOVED, LOVED this book. It’s laugh-out-loud funny, romantic and just a rollicking fun time. Plus, it turns a tragic romantic tale from history into a happy ending, that of Lady Jane Grey, the nine-day queen of England, and her husband, Lord Guildford Dudley, who were beheaded after Queen Mary took over as monarch and after the Protestant rebellion of Thomas Wyatt the Younger. What’s not to love?

The Love That Split the World, by Emily Henry. This is one of those rarer books about which I don’t want to share very much. Discovering the story and what’s happening is one of the joys of reading this book. It unspools just a bit at a time, revealing at last the bittersweet and devastating truth. It’s beautiful and heart-rending and just cool in its exploration of the reason behind the strange things the main character is experiencing. The end grabbed me and shook me and left me a bit emotionally exhausted.

The Skylighter (The Keepers’ Chronicles, book 2), by Becky Wallace. This is a sequel to a fine book, and it’s just a duo, rather than a trilogy. There’s a world of magic and royalty and intrigue, with a few dashes of romance. The story follows several threads from various perspectives and pulls them all together at the end. I enjoyed this second as much as the first (The Storyspinner) and am still impressed with the skill of the writer.

These Broken Stars, by Amie Kaufman and Meagan Spooner. An intergalactic war hero and a young heiress controlled closely by her father are stranded together on an alien planet. They hope for rescue, but as time goes on it seems less and less likely. The two have to figure out how to get along and how to work together. How to stay alive. Strange things start happening, particularly to Lilac, and the mystery of why the Icarus crashed becomes compounded by the mysteries of an empty but terraformed planet and strange visions and “whispers.” It’s part romance and part sci-fi mystery. About two-thirds of the way in, the action and mystery ratcheted up and I was compelled to just keep reading because it was so interesting. I really enjoyed the story.

I’m no book critic

It’s no secret I adore reading. I’ve been a book reviewer for a solid 15 years, for newspapers and, more recently, a book-review publication that has done print and e-versions. For a long time, I kept up a membership in the National Book Critics Circle. A few years ago, I just stopped sending in yearly membership checks; I intended to get around to it but never did. Oh well. But in all honesty, I don’t see myself as a critic. I’m just a reviewer.

Here’s the thing: I don’t read a ton of literary fiction. For those of you who aren’t really aware of the distinction among different genres, there’s “literary fiction” and there’s “popular fiction,” among other things. To put it simply, the literary version of fiction is highbrow. It’s what you’d read and dissect in an English 353 college class. It has Meaning. Popular fiction is fun and far more accessible.

Now, literary fiction can be fun, and pop fiction can have plenty of discuss-able elements. But I’m just keeping it simple here. And honestly, I often do not get the literary stuff. I’ll say it straight-up. I consider myself an intelligent person, one who enjoys dissecting and discussing. But when a book I’m reading requires heavy concentration and a professor to help me figure out what it’s supposed to be About, then I’m inclined to chuck it.

So while I do skim through the New York Times Book Review, I don’t read a lot of the books featured in its lofty pages. I don’t typically read many Nobel winners, either. Pulitzers, sometimes. What I do end up reading are the Newbery and Caldecott winners, though. I find those wonderful library awards to be right up my alley. The books honored are targeted at young readers, and they can be absolutely charming, insightful, and even Meaningful. But they’re still absolutely accessible. So I sit up and pay attention when those are announced, as they were today.

Nah, I’m not a snobby reader. I guess I’m just a middle-of-the-road reviewer. Yes, I have standards: if you’ve read my other book posts, you’ll know I do not like certain churn-’em-out writers, and I am still mostly wary of self-pubs. I like to feast my eyes and mind on books that give me something to consider, to ponder, to chew on. I like to be transported. I love to sink my mental teeth into some delicious metaphors and beautifully arranged words that describe a feeling or an experience to a T. I can be pretty picky. But I am not a Literature reader or critic.

I think, though, that’s a good thing, because most other readers aren’t, either. (Literature fans will likely bemoan the sorry state of the reading populace, but bah humbug on them.) What I can do as a mostly middle-of-the-road reader and reviewer who has standards is present some wonderful reading options (and with content ratings on my Rated Reads site, as an added bonus) that will satisfy most other middle-of-the-road readers with similar standards. As with anything, it’s always handy to find like-minded people when you’re looking for a recommendation, whether it’s for books, movies, TV or restaurants. I’m happy to offer up my mind to those who like it. Here’s to us non-critics.

‘Authenticity’ and vulgarity in books

Those of you who have paid some attention to my biographical information (if not, take a look at “about”) will know that I run a book review website, Rated Reads. There are quite literally thousands of blogs out there that review books. What there are not nearly so many of are websites that try to provide information about the content of those books reviewed. I have been a book reviewer for probably 15 years now, and I’d say I have done it as “professionally” as is possible; I’ve written for newspaper book pages for all that time, I was the book page editor for one newspaper for a couple of years, and I’ve been a member of the National Book Critics Circle for probably 10 years. So I’d like to feel that I know a little something about book reviewing.

Since it has been well known among my acquaintances what I do in the reading sphere, many people have asked my advice on books, from all kinds of angles. What I concluded some years back was that there was a hole in available information out there about book content. I am a Christian and have been raised in particular being taught that it is wise to avoid using vulgar language or watching movies or TV shows with vulgar content, so it follows that I would want to avoid books with vulgar content as well. And those friends of mine who came from a similar background would often ask me what kinds of books I’d enjoyed that were also mostly “clean” when it came to content.

But there are no ratings systems available for books. There are many reasons for this, but the hole in available information remains nonetheless. I just thought I could do my part to fill in that gap, just a little bit. So I started Rated Reads four years ago. I’ve noticed now more blogs devoted to a similar objective: to just provide some information about book content to readers who care about sexual scenes, violence and offensive language. Some out there in the world today may criticize the movie or TV ratings systems or think they’re silly, but I think most people understand and agree that they have value in providing information that allows viewers and parents of under-18 viewers to make better decisions regarding what they watch. So I would think that logically most people would agree that having information available in a similar fashion for books would be desirable and welcome.

The naysayers have generally left Rated Reads alone. There have been a few occasions, however, when an individual who doesn’t share my values or the values of those who use the site or simply doesn’t appreciate that anyone in the world might have different values than he or she has makes disparaging comments about what I and my reviewers are trying to do. In those few cases, I have gently reminded those commenters that the site exists to provide information for those who would like to limit offensive content in what they read. They can disagree, but some people value what Rated Reads is trying to do.

As a reader, I find it laughable that some writers and readers continue to insist that, in order for their work to be “authentic,” it must contain graphic material. I think that there are a few occasions that this is actually true, but it isn’t true for nearly the number of occasions it becomes a sticking point. Writing about and for teenagers tends to get the most attention here, for some reason.

Let me just say this: I was a teen once. Yes, it was 25 years ago, and yes, it was perhaps a slightly nicer time in which not quite every scary or bad or dangerous or vulgar behavior was out in the open, and media reflected that. (An example: I distinctly remember the big fuss over George Michael’s song “I Want Your Sex.” Some radio stations simply would not play that, so there was a version called “I Want Your Love.”) Today, I am of the opinion that pretty much everything is now out in the open, rather than hidden behind doors, spoken of only in whispers. But I heard bad language when I was growing up; I heard sexual references. So I remember what it was like to be a teen and to hear and see things.

I can also say this: I have two teens. My oldest is almost 16, and she talks to me about everything. She is bombarded by vulgar language and talk about all kinds of dangerous and sad behavior. And even though, technically, students aren’t supposed to be allowed to use vulgar language at school or in the classroom, teachers have mostly given up on trying to reprimand or give any consequences. So my very tender, gentle and sweet child constantly hears peers using “f-” this and “f-” that and sexual language and all kinds of things that she simply doesn’t want to hear. (She doesn’t have a lot of choice in what she hears in class or in passing, but I will make clear that she does have a choice what she hears from friends. She has chosen friends who are like-minded in that they don’t use bad language, and if she does have friends or classmates with whom she interacts regularly who are inclined to use bad language, she has politely asked them to refrain from using it, and they have always graciously tried to honor her wishes because they like and respect her.)

So when it comes to media, including movies and books, yes, I can wholeheartedly agree that “reality” is not pretty in many respects. But just because some teens, or even many teens, are involved in dangerous behaviors or use vulgar language doesn’t mean that ALL do. My daughter has plenty of friends who don’t have sex and who don’t use rough language. This isn’t she or I being unrealistic or seeing through rose-colored glasses; it is a fact. There are plenty of great teens out there who aren’t having sex or using rough language.

Just as we can choose friends who are like-minded, we can choose media that reflects our values as well. My daughter doesn’t want to hear offensive things at school, so she certainly doesn’t want to come home and deliberately choose to read a book that has offensive material, if there are other options. I want her to have a place that she can feel comfortable, where she ISN’T surrounded by vulgarity. That is our home. And our home’s media options reflect that place of comfort and security. I don’t bring offensive media into our home. It is a sanctuary, as much as is possible, from the world of so-called “reality.” And our home life is just as “real” as what’s going on outside it — actually, more so.

So I appreciate the authors who can craft great works of literature without bringing in some of that “reality.” I’ve read many wonderful books with fully-formed characters who interact in a true-t0-life fashion with each other, with stories that are clever, that are witty, that are wise, that transport me, that make me think, that help me experience places and things I wouldn’t get to otherwise. And those books have felt absolutely real. They’ve been authentic; they have struck a chord in my heart and soul. I love those books and I give thanks to the authors who don’t feel the need to insert offensive material to make them more “authentic.” Generally speaking, I have found that the books that have used lots of strong language and detailed sexual scenes could have gotten their messages across equally well without that stuff. And all too often, those “markers of reality” have been poor substitutes for good writing. I don’t want to read a mediocre work, period, let alone by an author who thinks that inserting lots of nasty “reality” will instantly make it real. Why waste my time with that stuff when there’s just SO much good literature out there, so much I can’t possibly ever read it all?

I know well enough what’s out there, what kind of depravity and vulgarity and sadness exists. I am not so isolated or insulated that I’m completely ignorant. But I don’t have to wallow in filth just because I know it exists. Life is difficult enough for everyone that there’s no reason to choose to bring things into our lives that are filthy or degrading. We all have struggles, we all have challenges to work through. And good literature does reflect that fact. But it also can reflect that we as human beings can triumph over the bad, that we have the strength and the light in us to choose good and to be good despite the difficulties we encounter. And I’m going to choose to read books that don’t bring unnecessary vulgarity into my mind. I’m also choosing to run a website that provides necessary information so others who want to make informed choices can do so.

Readers who don’t agree with me can go ahead making their own choices. That’s fine. But respect that not everyone wants to consciously bring filth into their lives. And authors, if you write books with lots of bad language and sexually explicit material, you must appreciate that not everyone will want to read it (and parents have the right to monitor what their younger children or teens read). Most likely, you’ll have a broader audience if you could limit the offensive material you write into your book. The concept holds true just as it does for R-rated movies versus G- or PG-rated movies. More people do go to see those movies with more “family-friendly” content. They don’t have to be “cheesy” or trite or “unrealistic” just because their ratings aren’t “strong.” There have been some excellent “clean” movies, just as there are some excellent, authentic “clean” books. Consider making your writing the best it can be without using offensive material as a crutch to make it “true to life.” I, and many other readers, will thank you for it. Profusely.