We all have TBR shelves. Books we've seen online or heard about from a friend and promised we'd read. The book might make us better, it might make us understand something, it's a world that we think we would benefit from exploring. Or it just sounds hella raunchy and fun.
I've had a bit of a lazy start to 2023. My urge to write, read and create has been stifled a little by the busy-ness of Christmas and the fast-paced whirlwind that always marks a new year. So for this post, I thought I'd chill out a little bit and share the books that I'm looking forward to.
I have a BIG list that I refuse to back down from. Here are just a few of the books that sit on it.
A Little Life, by Hanya Yanagihara
This book has been built up in my head to the extent that it's become an exalted literary example of masterpiece character creation and emotion porn – but I don't actually know this for a fact, because I haven't had the balls to read it.
The story centres on four young men in New York City that are bonded by friendship and marred by trauma. The novel emphasises found family.
One of my favourite videos on YouTube is of Paperback Dreams balancing the reading of this book with her exam period, and (no surprises here) sharing how the book works to wreck her. She is a self-proclaimed unemotional reader but manages to capture herself sobbing over the pages of A Little Life.
This terrifies me. But I'm ready to be ruined.
The thing that's stopping me, however, is the book's length. Despite the fact that most of the readers I've met who've braved this story rave about its brilliance and rate it 5 easy stars, I'm immediately turned off by pretentious or over-eloquent writing. It's the classic tale of 'the curtains are fucking blue' – sometimes, a story doesn't benefit from complicated prose. But in this case, I think the crowd's against me: I might have to put my smarty-pants glasses on and give each paragraph of the 800 pages my whole attention.
So to summarise: I'm scared. But I promise you, Yanagihara, I will get to it.
(Please also look into the trigger warnings for this one before you pick it up. Word has it, it's got everything.)
Wolf Hall, by Hilary Mantel
This is another female writer who has worked her ground-breaking literary magic on the publishing world. Her writing has won so many awards, and so my brain should surely just connect with her words ... Shouldn't it?
But my brain is an interesting beast – it sees a book that has a length of over 600 pages, and it asks: why?
A great story, brilliant characters and incredible writing is 'why', I'm sure. But I haven't managed to override that little nagging voice in my very strange brain.
Little Women, by Louisa May Alcott
Greta Gerwig's recent cinematic adaption of this book (starring Florence Pugh, Emma Watson and Saoirse Ronan) emotionally ruined me when I saw it with my sister. She was about to leave for six weeks to go on an adventure to Nepal – safe to say that watching this together was not a wise move. We certainly didn't pack enough tissues to get us through the movie.
The cover of Little Women shows a beautiful illustration of each sister entangled in a floral pattern. Image: Penguin, 2014.
I loved it. It was everything brilliant about women, tangled into one joyful mush of overlapping dialogue, the bond between sisters, the terror of the world and the strength of family kindness.
I'd always wanted to read the book, purely because it was on the mental shelf of 'classics I must read one day to be scholarly'. Then I read the first chapter and realised that it far surpassed that – it's playful, beautiful and charming in its own right. It deserves to be on that shelf.
I put it down, though. I was convinced I was too busy, or too wrapped up in a different pile of books to keep reading it at that time. I should have kept going, but I didn't. So now it's forever on my mental shelf, forever staring at me from my real shelf next to my desk where I'm writing this.
I'm so sorry Little Women! I'll hang out with you eventually.
The Tattooist of Auschwitz, by Heather Morris
It seems that a lot of my reading choices are made by fear. With this one, it's the fear of heavy content that strikes again.
Mention Auschwitz and my panic button hits. I'm not going to dive too thoroughly into the premise of this one, because I don't at all wish to make light of such heavy content matter in a silly little literary list – this horrible period of history is littered with incredible truth, strength and bravery.
I've also heard that this particular book has a script-like feel – my family and friends who have read it have explained that much of the intense emotional currents throughout the story feel unexplored. Apparently, the reader doesn't get the meaty messiness of human emotion in the interactions between characters; the book generally reads as a movie script. This makes sense, however: Heather Morris originally wrote the book as a screenplay.
In saying this, the amazing work this book has done is in opening up this horrendous historical event and very real generational trauma to a younger readership, making these true stories navigable and accessible for anyone.
On the other hand, I have seen some troubling suggestions that Morris' books aren't as carefully researched or as historically accurate as they should be. I can't speak to this, but there are lots of resources out there from the Auschwitz Memorial Research Centre.
The Throne of Glass Series
I'm ashamed of not finishing this, truly I am.
If I call myself a hard-core lover of YA fantasy stories, I should have read this one by now. I've tried – believe me, I've tried.
A youthful, beguiling assassin seems selfish and deadly at first – but Sarah J Maas completely succeeds in giving the reader gradual, believable character growth and world building to make you feel fully invested. A troubling dictatorship had made magic illegal, wiping it from the history books and embarking on a reign of terror. A rebellion stirs and magic begins to return ... But at what cost?
Yeah, I know. A riveting plot. So why can't I finish it and discover what happens in the end?
Sitting at a whopping eight books – some of which are well over 500 pages long – this is a commitment and a half. I read up to the first three books the first time I tried. The second time, four books: I became caught up in the rebellion and in watching the characters grow. But ultimately, it keeps losing me.
Maybe it's the addition of new, strange characters who are difficult to relate to. Maybe it's the pacing of the story, the level of action. Maybe it's that the assassin grates on me after a while, due to her self-importance and impatience. Maybe it's me just not being patient enough to stop glancing at my other books each time I try to make it through the series.
This is where it gets personal. I've tried to read this series from beginning to end more times than I can count. I must have read the first book at least four times. It's so good, and the historical romance element is perfectly executed. So why can't I commit?
Claire was a World War II combat nurse, stationed on the field in France. It's now 1946 and she reunites with her husband, Frank, for a holiday in Inverness, Scotland. When Claire takes herself on a field trip to explore a circle of standing stones, she is jolted back in time – and immediately falls into the hands of a horrible Red Coat and a band of angry Scots. She eventually becomes friends with Jamie Fraser, an outlaw, who takes her under his protection (for better or worse).
This plot line captivates me every time and I usually stick around until the three-book mark. I think this is primarily because, at that point, the action moves away from the familiar (spoilers ahead). The rolling hills of Scotland are left behind in favour of the new world in America. And I don't know about you, but I love the rolling hills of Scotland.
The swashbuckling action gets increasingly violent and the characters get themselves into so many predicaments that, after a while, it became grating to read. Then again, as an author, what else are you supposed to do? Your job is to captivate an audience with conflict and resolution.
But something that I can't forgive is the fact that I actually began to get bored with Jamie. I don't know how I managed that, but it happened. Though I have the utmost respect for Diana Gabaldon and her imagination, beautiful prose, hilarious dialogue and memorable characters, there was only so much chivalry my cynical brain could take.
I think the answer to this one is to chip away at it slowly. Instead of starting the series again every time I have a yearning for historical romps, I need to pick it up where I left off. Maybe then I'll commit to seeing it through, and actually finding out what happens to Claire and Jamie Fraser.
Which books do you promise to read? Which do you swear you'll never get around to?
Thanks so much for joining me for this (mostly) fun listicle.