Do you want to read more classics but aren’t sure where to start? Have you attempted to read classics before but felt they weren’t for you? If so, the Conquering Classics series is for you! This is the second post in an ongoing series with tips and advice on how to read classics for beginners. You can read the first post ‘Tips for Reading Classics’ here. In today’s post, I’ll be sharing five recommendations for where to begin with reading classics.
The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde
Subgenre: Gothic Publication year: 1890 Synopsis: When a portrait is painted of the devillshly handsome Dorian Gray, he is forced to take a closer look at himself and realises that external beauty is rarely a precursor for the beauty within.
Despite being written over a century ago, The Picture of Dorian Gray is a very accessible read. The plot is straightforward and the exploration of morality, vanity and arrogance continues to strike a chord with modern audiences. It’s an atmospheric and haunting tale which provides an in-depth character study on Dorian Gray and has a very memorable ending.
1984 by George Orwell
Subgenre: SciFi Publication year: 1949 Synopsis: Set in a post-apocolyptic Britain, Winston Smith grows disillusioned with the totalitarian, repressive political system under Big Brother and dreams of a new, better world.
1984 is the pillar of dystopian scifi fiction. Because it was published in the 20th century, the language is more familiar than that which is featured in many pre-20th century novels. Its depiction of dicatorship and government control is interesting and terrifying, and still plays on the fears many of us have today about the future of our world.
Carmilla by J. Sheridan Le Fanu
Subgenre: Gothic horror Publication year: 1872 Synopsis: Laura and her father live a solitary and quiet lifestyle in the wilderness of Styria, until they offer refuge to Carmilla as their house guest. Mysterious and secretive, Carmilla is not all she appears to be.
Carmilla is a gothic horror novella which is known for being the main influence for Dracula. It’s short enough that it can be read in an hour or two and is the ideal read if you’re interested in Dracula but don’t want to commit to a 400+ page novel. Like all gothic novels, it’s atmospheric and slow-building with an open ending, but provides a flavour for the slower, more intentional writing style that’s common in classics.
The Outsiders by S. E. Hinton
Subgenre: YA Publication year: 1967 Synopsis: Ponyboy and his band of misfit friends navigate the trials and tribulations of being teenagers in a this dramatic coming of age tale.
If you’ve read any of my other posts, you’ll know how much I adore The Outsiders. It’s a heart-wrenching tale which is accessible for all readers because it’s targeted at a younger audience and was published in the late sixties. Although it won’t necessarily familiarise you with the style of earlier classics, it’s the ideal place to start if you want something that’s more reflective of modern day.
Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen
Subgenre: Romance Publication year: 1818 Synopsis: Catherine is a romantic at heart who is obsessed with gothic novels. When she’s introduced to eligible bachelor, Henry Tilney, she gets swept away in her romantic fantasies with unexpected and hilarious results.
When you hear people speaking about Jane Austen you’ll hear a lot about Pride and Prejudice, Emma and Persuasion, but rarely Northanger Abbey. Yet I think this is the ideal place to start with Austen and a great place to start with classics in general. Not only is it the first novel Austen ever wrote, but it’s a short, charming and funny read. It perfectly captures the tone of polite Victorian society and satirical humour which is commonly featured in 19th century classics.
These five books introduced me to the classics genre and helped me to overcome my high-school aversion to classic literature. They’re all short, accessible reads which will enable you to familarise yourself with some of the language, themes and settings that can commonly be found in classic novels.
Do you want to read more classics but aren’t sure where to start? Have you attempted to read classics before but felt they weren’t for you? If so, the Conquering Classics series is for you! This is the first post in an ongoing series with tips and advice on how to read classics for beginners. For years I had an aversion to classics because of how much I disliked studying classics at school. I avoided classics because I thought that they simply weren’t the books for me, but classics aren’t something to be avoided. Classics can be accessible and enjoyable for all readers with the right approach. With that in mind, in this post, I’ll be sharing my top 10 tips on how to get started with reading classics.
Tip #1 – Find your niche
Here’s the thing: “Classics” is not technically a book genre, it’s more of a category of books that contains every genre and sub-genre within it. A classic is widely regarded to be a noteworthy book that has made a significant contribution to literature, but there’s no singular or coherent definition of what a classic is. The only thing that truly ties classics together as a category is that the books were all written 50 or more years ago. Beyond that, classics come from a broad range of time periods, places and authors, with varying writing styles, themes, literary devices and plots. The Lord of the Rings and Pride and Prejudice are both classics, yet wildly different. So take some time to identify what you’re looking for in a classic and avoid relying on “The 100 Must-Read Books of All Time” type of lists. Classics cover every sub-genre that exists, whether it’s romance, sci-fi, crime thriller, fantasy etc., so you will always be able to find a classic that caters to your tastes.
Tip #2 – Start with modern classics (20th century)
20th century classics more closely reflect today’s world than books written pre-20th century, meaning you’re less likely to have difficulties in getting to grips with the setting, language, social norms, and themes. Well-known 20th century classics such as The Great Gatsby, To Kill a Mockingbird and 1984 practically read like a modern text in terms of the language and writing style. They are also more likely to be shorter in length than the tomes of the 19th century, which brings me nicely to Tip #3.
Tip #3 – Opt for shorter classics
The key with classics is to slowly build yourself up in terms of length, because those hefty classics take a lot of commitment and brain energy. When I first decided to try classics I picked out The Count of Monte Cristo which averages out at a whopping 1200 pages! Don’t make the same mistake as me; take it easy to begin with. I’d advise going for books no more than 300 pages, and if possible, stick with novellas. For novella recommendations check out ‘My Favourite Novellas’ post, it includes a bunch of classics. I’ll also be recommending five classics for beginners in the next post in the Conquering Classics series, all of which are on the lighter side in terms of page count.
Tip #4 – Read children’s classics
This tip fits well with Tip #3, because children’s classics are generally short in length. In addition to being short, children’s classics are familiar to most of us and make for light-hearted and enjoyable reads. It’s a useful way to introduce yourself to some of the language and writing style’s used in other classics. There are so many amazing children’s classics out there that I would recommend which are great for adults including Anne of Green Gables, Peter Pan, The Hobbit and The Chronicles of Narnia. For more recommendations for children’s classics check out my post where I share my favourite children’s books.
Tip #5 – Read slow
Many of the larger 19th century classics were serialised at the time they were written, meaning they were designed to be read in chunks over a prolonged period of time. A Tale of Two Cities wasn’t meant to be binge-read, it was written to be slowly devoured, like many other classics. However, even with shorter classics, it’s worth taking your time to read them. Classics often tackle dark, serious and complex topics or themes and indulge in flowery prose and long descriptions, so allow yourself time to sit with them. If you try to rush your way through, you won’t be able to gain the full appreciation for what you’re reading or connect to the deeper meaning of the story.
Tip #6 – Use the tools available to you
Classics can be challenging to read sometimes, so if you don’t understand a word, look it up in the dictionary. If you read a chapter and you’re confused about what happened, check out a chapter summary. If a reference is made that you don’t understand, do a little reading about the period/place it’s set in and familiarise yourself with it. There’s no shame in utilising the wealth of information that’s out there about classics to support your own reading of it. I often research classics I’m reading so that I’m aware of the key themes. Many classics also have introductions, notes and indexes to help readers to gain a firmer understanding of the book. If you’re reading fiction, you could also watch TV/film adaptations to get a general understanding of the plot beforehand, which I’ve found particularly useful for Shakespeare’s works.
Tip #7 – Buddy reador join a book club
Classics are the best books to read with others because there’s so much information, research and discourse surrounding them. These are the types of books that are designed to be at the centre of a discussion. Reading with others can help make the experience of reading classics fun and provide an opportunity to to critically engage with the book. Talking with others can also help clarify details you’re fuzzy on and gain a better understanding of the text through discussion and exchanging ideas/opinions with others.
Tip #8 – Let go of negative preconceptions
“They’re boring”; “They’re not for me”; “They’re too slow”; “They’re complicated”; “They’re overrated”; “I won’t understand them”. These are some of the reasons why I didn’t pick up a classic for pleasure until I was 25 years old, and are probably the same reasons others avoid reading classics. The problem is that like any other category of books, classics are so broad and varied that they can’t and shouldn’t be judged as a whole. Would you avoid reading every book written in the 21st century if you read one that you didn’t enjoy? No? Then why would you swear off every book written before the 21st century based on reading one book you didn’t enjoy? There’s no escaping the fact that classics won’t be for everyone and that some people simply won’t want to read them, but if you’re here reading ths then it means you want to at the very least try and to do that, so it’s important to let go of these preconceptions, or at the very least be open to challenging them.
Tip #9 – Appreciate classics for what they are
Building on from Tip #8, it’s important to take classics at face value. The way that authors write and the way readers engage with books now has completely changed since most classics were written. Entertainment has evolved, readers have different preferences and this means that it’s futile to compare classic literature to contemporary literature. Even if you read a classic from your favourite genre, it will be completely different stylistically to a contemporary from the same genre. With that in mind, if you’re picking up a classic for the first time ever or the first time in a while, go into it knowing that it most likely won’t be comparable to contemporary books. It’s likely that a classic will be slow in places and that there’ll be words you don’t understand or you have to go back and re-read a sentence because it was so long you lost track (I’m looking at you, Dickens 😂), but it’s worth it to go on the journey of reading a book you love.
Tip #10 – If at first you don’t succeed, try again
Very few things in life that are worth having come easily, the same goes for reading. Reading takes commitment, time and patience, and classics require this arguably more so than any other genre of books. You might not love the very first classic you pick up, but that doesn’t mean you won’t find others that you love. Classics can be an acquired taste and sometimes it takes time to fully appreciate them and see their value. It took me months of reading classics before I got to a place where I felt like I was really enjoying them, and they’ve become some of the most rewarding and enjoyable books to read.
That concludes the firt post in Conquering Classics series. I hope these tips are helpful to those of you that have been considering trying to read more classics. The next post in the series will be ‘5 Classic Book Recommendations for Beginners’.
Re-reading is one of the greatest joys of being a reader. I’m the type of person that will watch the same movies and shows over and over, listen to the same songs over and over and yes, you guessed it, read the same books over and over. When I love something I go in hard, what can I say? 😂
The fun of re-reading a book is in experiencing a story, world and characters I love all over again with a greater appreciation for them. I tend to notice finer details on re-reads that I missed the first time around, learn more about the world, connect more to the characters and fall even more deeply in love with the things that I loved about the book the first time. I particularly love re-reading books when I’m in a slump because turning to books I love reminds me of what I love most about reading and reignites my desire to read. So here are the four books I re-read this year and my thoughts following the re-read.
Anybody that has read any of my other posts will already know Wuthering Heights is my favourite book of all time, so it’s no surprise that it’s on this list. I re-read it right at the start of the year in February and the dreary, gothic tone of the book fit perfectly with the winter season. I did an annotated read and took my time to read it, really immersing myself into the story. I filled the pages with endless annotations and picked up on the many layers of this novel. I loved my re-read even more than my first time reading it because I was able to really sit with the book and feel the emotions of it. It’s a book that I have a constant craving to re-read simply because there’s something about the atmosphere and the characters that is so compelling and completely immerses me into the words on the page. The re-read only cemented it as my favourite and reminded me of its brilliance and uniqueness.
The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo
I turned to The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo during a reading slump near the beginning of the year and it achieved exactly what I wanted and reminded me why I love to read. This book feels more like a film than a book. I can picture everything so clearly in my mind and I feel like I’m watching it on the big-screen as I’m reading. Evelyn is such a complex character and her life so crazy that I loved being able to further analyse her. This re-read actually inspired my post ‘Queerness and bisexuality‘ where I wrote about the depiction of sexuality in the book. It’s one of the few books I’ve read that not only has a main character that’s bisexual but actually claims the identity and uses the word bisexual to describe herself. There were certain plot twists that didn’t hit the same the second time around but I loved re-visiting Evelyn and the relationships in this book.
Daisy Jones and The Six
After finishing The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo, I couldn’t resist picking up Daisy Jones and the Six. I was pleasantly surprised by this book the first time I read it and wasn’t sure it would hold up on a re-read, but I was wrong. I actually loved this book even more the second time round. During my first read I was completely invested in Daisy and Billy, but this time I was able to appreciate the other characters more. I still loved Daisy and Billy, of course, but was also more connected to the stories of the minor characters. It reminded me that Taylor Jenkins Reid was able to create characters that feel so real that at times it felt like I was reading a memoir about a real band.
Now this is a re-read I never expected to happen but after binge watching the films on Netflix one weekend, I felt the urge to dip my toes back into the books for the first time since I was a teenager. It was a strange re-read because on one hand I found myself really enjoying it, and on the other I was very bored. I’d forgotten just how much of this book was Bella gushing about what a stunningly handsome and perfect adonis Edward is. As someone that doesn’t particularly enjoy reading romanc, it was a snooze-fest at times, but I did enjoy the nostalgia of returning to the series. I’ve seen the films so many times that they’ve replaced my memories of the books so it was fun getting back to the roots of the Twlight universe and being reminded of little details that I’d forgotten. I’m hoping to continue with my re-read and may even do some posts dedicated to it in the future 👀
Do you enjoy re-reading books? Did you re-read any books in 2021? If so, share in the comments, I’d love to hear about the books you re-read and whether your opinions or feelings towards the book changed.
October is nearing its end and I couldn’t let it end without acknowledging Black History Month ❤️🖤💚 Black History Month is a time to share, educate and celebrate black history, culture and identity. Books written by black authors are a crucial part of this as they give voices to the lived experiences of black people across the globe. I’ve been so pleased to see black authors becoming visible and spoken about in mainstream publishing and the book community, but there is still more to be done.
I’m always conscious of being diverse and inclusive with my reading because so much of the value of reading for me is gaining insight into the lives and experiences of others and developing greater empathy. I’d encourage all readers to also be mindful of the authors they’re reading and to read and support books by black authors, not just during October, but all year round.
Now let’s get into the recommendations. I have seven books (sorry to those of you that are a stickler for even numbers!) and it’s a varied selection from non-fiction to YA to historical fiction, so hopefully there will be something for everyone to enjoy.
12 Years a Slave
I’m starting with 12 Years a Slave because if there is any book you should read off this list, it’s this one. This is a harrowing and authentic insight into slavery in South America through the eyes of Solomon Northup, who was born a free man and kidnapped and sold into slavery as an adult. Northup’s writing immersed me completely into the hell that he was living and his compassion, astuteness and determination connected me deeply to him. His account shines a light on the realities of slavery exclusively from the black perspective and provides an interesting perspective since the narrator experienced living as both a free man and a slave. As expected, it’s an emotionally challenging read, but books like this should make us uncomfortable. This is our history and the pain and trauma that resulted from generations of slavery continues to impact black people and families today.
James Baldwin is one of the best known black authors of all time, so it seems fitting that he made it onto this list. Set in Paris, this book is an exploration of queerness in the 20th century. The protagonist, David, is faced with a choice between two people he loves. However, it’s not just a struggle of choose between two people he loves, it’s a struggle between a man and a woman, who symbolise two vastly different possibilities and futures for David. Baldwin’s writing is raw, honest and complex. He doesn’t attempt to gloss over the messiness of figuring out your identity and sexuality, he dallies in the grey areas and explores the spectrum of sexuality. This book is a truly fascinating insight into the intersection between same gender desire amongst men and masculinity. It fleshes out the conflict between manhood and the perceived imasculating desire for another man in the context of race. It also explores male bisexuality in a way that few classics do.
Noughts and Crosses
If you read My Favourite Children’s Book post, you’ll already know that this is one of my all time favourite books. It has be recommended a lot in recent years, particularly with the rise of Black Lives Matter, but that won’t stop me from recommending it again. Noughts and Crosses is a tale of racism, interracial love, oppression, family and division written for a young, modern audience. By switching the roles in the book’s universe so that the white characters are the oppressed and the black characters the oppressors, it enables white readers to empathise with the black experience more deeply. The genuine connection and love between the two main characters Callum and Sephy is the foundation that the story is built on. They exist in a world that not only divides them based on the colour of their skin, but actively tells them they should hate each other, yet they continue to love each other no matter how much the world tells them they shouldn’t. It’s a hard-hitting and emotional read, and the fact that it is categorised as YA and aimed at younger audiences, doesn’t in anyway detract from the valuable insight, commentary and messages the book contains about race.
The Vanishing Half
This multi-generational historical fiction follows identical twin sisters Desiree and Stella, one of whom lives life as a white woman and the other whom lives life as a black woman. Through contrasting the twins’ lives against each other, this book sheds light on the tenets of racsim that exist in every area of daily life. Similarly, it explores that blackness is more than the colour of someone’s skin, it is a fundamental part of identity. Stella’s privilege as a white-passing woman is contradicted by the constant fear and discomfort she feels at living a lie and having to conform to the white surburban community she is part of, which actively perpetuates the racism that convinced her to live her life as a white woman. Admittedly, I did have some minor issues with some of the plot conveniences in the book, but it’s nonetheless a fantastic read and provides insight into the complexities of race and the way racism evolves over time through the voices of generations of a family.
All Boys Aren’t Blue
If you’ve spent any time on my blog, you’ll have most likely seen this book at least a few times. I love this book so much and will recommend it whenever I get the chance. This memoir is honest in a way that no other memoir I’ve ever read has been. Johnson bares his soul, revealing the most vulnerable parts of himself and most intimate details of his life. Thematically it shares a lot of similarites with Giovanni’s Room, discussing constructions of gender, masculinity, sexuality and the intersection of being black and queer. It’s a short read but so educational, valuable and touching. I’d highly recommend the audiobook which is narrated by Johnson.
Stay With Me
Set in Nigeria, Stay with Me is an explosive, dramatic and surprising story that provides a detailed examination of marriage and family. It pushes the boundaries repeatedly and challenges expectations, taking the story into directions I didn’t expect. It’s steeped in Nigerian culture, and is educational in this regard for readers like myself that are unfamiliar with Nigerian culture.. As a modern couple, Yejide and her husband struggle against the Nigerian traditions and expectations surrounding, particularly regarding polygamy. The main character, Yejide, is an immensely nuanced, layered character that felt so real. Her emotions and motivations were easy to understand and empathise with, even when I didn’t agree with her actions. First and foremost, this is a family drama (one might even call it a domestic thriller of sorts) and is driven by deeply flawed characters. However, there is also so much valuable context and commentary about Nigerian history, culture and society. Unlike many other books in this list, race isn’t used as a lens of critical analysis, this is simply a story about the lived experience of black people living in one of the most populated black nations in the world.
Eloquent Rage is an intersectional feminist memoir about social injustice, political discourse and the many facets of womanhood and race which impact the lives of black women. It strikes the perfect balance between discussion, academic research, reflection and personal experience. Unlike other memoirs, it doesn’t get too bogged down in personal anecdote nor does it become too clinical with endless statistics. It’s educational but also captures Cooper’s personal identity, experience and views. Her view on race is black-centric and focused on the ways in which black men hurt black women and the black community hurt each other in general. This perspective is rarely depicted in racial discourse since it’s generally reliant on the polarisation of the races, with the central theme being “black versus white”. It’s an insightful, thought-provoking and powerful read, which covers a lot of ground and does it very well. Cooper expresses her views and opinions candidly and clearly, and supports them with academic research. It’s by far the most informative and interesting feminist text I’ve read from both a gendered and racial perspective.
Happy Black History Month, my lovelies and keep reading ❤️🖤💚
Snapshot reviews are short book reviews of around 200-250 words.
The Woman in Black
✨ Spoiler Free ✨
Author: Susan Hill Genre: Horror Publication year: 1983 Audience: 16+ Content warnings: Death, death of a child, mental distress and trauma.
The Woman in Black is a gothic horror which has been popularised over the last decade by the 2012 film adaptation starring Daniel Radcliffe. It follows lawyer, Arthur Kipps, who goes to the small town of Crythin Gifford on a case. During his stay at his deceased client’s property, Eel Marsh House, Arthur has multiple eerie encounters with a woman in black. This is a slow-burn, atmospheric supernatural horror that is creepy and psychologically disturbing.
Whilst this novella is only about 200 pages, the story felt well-rounded and fairly paced. I was invested in the mystery of the woman in black and Arthur’s story. Arthur fulfilled many of the archetypes you’d expect for a protagonist in a Victorian classic horror novel, but despite his lack of originality, I felt a deep sympathy for him due to the impact the supernatural encounters he had had on his mental state.
Susan Hill’s writing style was immersive and perfectly captured the foreboding gothic horror atmosphere that I adore. The horror elements were simple but effective, relying on the setting and psychological elements to evoke feelings of dread and isolation. There was a strong emotionality throughout with emphasis on Arthur’s emotions and themes of grief and loss flowing throughout the narrative.
Overall, The Woman in Black was the perfect read for October. It had all the components I look for in horror novels and executed them well. Although it’s a very standard haunted house story, it was an enjoyable and gripping reading experience.
I’d recommend The Woman in Black if:
You’re looking for a Victorian horror classic that is a slow-burn, haunted house tale.
The Haunting of Hill House is another classic horror novel which has recently soared in popularity due to Netflix’s TV adaptation of the same title. But don’t be deceived; the book is its own story and very separate from the TV show. It tells the story of Doctor Montague, who sets out to investigate the presence of paranormal activity at Hill House. He is joined by three young guests, one of whom falls under the dark influence of the house. Unfortunately, this book did not live up to my expectations despite its promise.
I loved the setting of Hill House and the way that the house was crafted as a living, breathing entity entirely its own. However, the pace was meandering and the “big” moments were underwhelming. There was too much dialogue and trivial moments, making the action feel almost unearned. The supernatural scenes were too long and repetitive, and consequently ineffective at unsettling me. Although I related deeply to the protagonist Eleanor, and was interested in her descent throughout the novel, the other characters were flat and odd. In fact, that’s the word I would use to describe this book overall – odd.
I found the writing style to be disjointed and somewhat sloppy. The dialogue and the interactions between the characters felt out of place. Their immediate familiarity with each other and their sudden shifts in tone, mood and personality confused me. Whilst this was likely Jackon’s attempt to demonstrate the adverse affect the house was having on the characters, it wasn’t necessarily clear and I was lost multiple times throughout.
Overall, I liked the premise of The Haunting of Hill House, the setting and Eleanor’s character development. It was an entertaining read, but I’ve seen this type of haunted house tale done better elsewhere and found it to be very standard for the classic horror genre.
I’d recommend The Haunting of HillHouse if:
You liked The Turn of the Screw OR are looking for a pschological haunted house horror story that will play with your mind.
Have you read The Woman in Black or The Haunting of Hill House or do you plan to? Let me know in the comments!
Content warning: Mentions of classism, child neglect, child abuse, suicide.
The Outsiders is a complex insight into the class system that overlooks, devalues and scapegoats the working classes. It gives voices to the forgotten people that live on the fringes of society and are deemed unimportant. Ponyboy, Soda, Darry, Johnny and Dally are ostricised, stigmatised and labelled “white trash” or “scum” because of the communities they live in and their family backgrounds, both of which they have no control of. They’re villanised by their communities who see them only as caricatures based on their prejudices and societal stereotypes.
You greasers have a different set of values. You’re more emotional. We’re sophisticated-cool to the point of not feeling anything. Nothing is real with us.
In this story, Hinton humanises the people we have a tendency to dehumanise in our society. We can look at the actions of the characters in The Outsiders and say, “They’re terrible people that deserve to be locked up; they’ve lied, fought, killed, committed arson etc.”, but that’s an injustice to those characters because it fails to consider the context and context is always important. Ponyboy, Dally, Johnny, Soda, Darry and Two-Bit are young boys – children – who are impoverished, living in unsafe homes with volatile family units, absent or neglectful parents and communites that are plagued by substance abuse, crime and poverty. This does not justify the characters actions but it does humanise them and that’s important for so many reasons.
I could picture hundreds and hundreds of boys living on the wrong sides of cities, boys with black eyes who jumped at their own shadows. Hundreds of boys who maybe watched sunsets and looked at stars and ached for something better. I could see boys going under street lights because they were mean and tough and hated the world, and it was too late to tell them that there was still good in it, and they wouldn’t believe you if you did. It was too much of a problem to be just a personal thing.
In our society, we rely so much on boxes and categories and labels. We want everything and everyone to slot neatly into the binaries that we’ve created – male or female, black or white, gay or straight, good or bad, rich or poor – but none of these labels or binaries can ever fully capture the nuances of our lives or what makes us who we are. And that complexity of what it is to be human in a world that repeatedly forces us into various boxes and demands that we conform to those boxes or risk social isolation or loss of identity, is what Hinton achieved with this novel. She took a stigmatised group (young, white, poor males) and a stereotypical situation (crime, murder), and approached it from an angle that deconstructed these things to humanise the characters, without glossing over their awful actions.
Dally is a perfect example of this. He’s multi-layered. On the surface a stereotypical violent, criminal and self-serving jerk. But also a young kid that has lived an unstable life without parental guidance or care, who was forced to physically toughen up to survive in prison and was incredibly vulnerable. He valued self-preservation but was fiercely loyal and capable of selflessness and sacrifice for his friends. His relationship with Johnny encapsulated his vulnerability and reminded us how alone and unloved Dally is. Once Johnny was gone, he could no longer bear to live in the world. This fact alone demonstrates how devoid Dally’s life was of love and meaning, and his fate was heart breaking because of how young he actually was. His backstory and relationships with his friends doesn’t work as an excuse for the dark parts of Dally’s character but it did take him beyond the archetype of his character and deconstructed the stereotypes surrounding him, challenging even Ponyboy’s perception of Dally.
Dally didn’t die a hero. He died violent and young and desperate, just like we all knew he’d die someday.
Words hold so much weight and when we hear a word we immediately attach meaning to it. Labels and categories, in particular, can be very loaded words because they often come hand in hand with biases and prejudices. We categorise and label ourselves and others often based on surface-level information and those labels or categories come with a long history and very little context on an individual level. For example, we might assume that a person that has been to prison is morally corrupt, dangerous and perhaps “less than” someone that hasn’t been to prison. And in the moment when we are making that snap judgement, we fail to account for that person’s individual circumstance and identity beyond the “criminal” label. Once that label has been attached, we struggle to divorce our prejudices from the reality of context of what makes that person who they are, leading us to dehumanise them and perceive them as a living embodiment of that stereotype.
That’s why people don’t ever think to blame the Socs and are always ready to jump on us. We look hoody and they look decent. It could be just the other way around – half of the hoods I know are pretty decent guys underneath all that grease, and from what I’ve heard, a lot of Socs are just cold-blooded mean – but people usually go by looks.
For me, The Outsiders is about challenging these stereotypes. The novel goes beyond what it appears to be on the surface to provide social commentary on the norms and stereotypes that exist in our society and challenges them in a humanist way. It reminds us that despite our differences and the words, labels and categories we use to “other” each other and separate ourselves into subgroups, there’s an essential human connection between all of us, that we should always prioritise. This involves taking the time to focus less on our differences and more on our similarities, to challenge our prejudices and our judgements, to view people with openness, compassion and empathy and to account for the whole person beyond labels. The characters of The Outsiders represent the voices and lives of so many poor children that are abused or neglected, shunned and ostracised from society, that are derogatorily labelled before they’ve even reached adulthood and become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Ponyboy is the exception to that rule. He is the hope in the book, the one whose eyes are opened to this reality. He sees beyond the limits of his class to connect with Cherry and sees his brothers and friends as people, not just Socs or criminals. Ponyboy is the catalyst for the message about the importance of seeing beyond stereotypes to see the person and enables the reader to connect to that same message.
It seemed funny to me that the sunset she saw from her patio and the one I saw from the back steps was the same one. Maybe the two different worlds we lived in weren’t so different. We saw the same sunset.
Author: S. E. Hinton Genre: Classic Publication year: 1967 Audience: 12+ Content warnings: Abuse, neglect, gang violence, bullying, criminal activity, major character death, arson, violence, murder, grief, suicide.
Set in the span of two weeks, The Outsiders, follows 14-year-old Ponyboy Curtis and his friends the “Greasers”. When a gang war breaks out between the “Greasers” and “Socs”, a series of tragic events follow.
What I liked
The social commentary
Fast paced plot
The friendships between the characters
The emotional stakes of the story
What I disliked
Plot and Structure
As stated in the synopsis, this book is set in a two week period and is structured chronologically. The plot can be best described as a gang war and friendship drama. The main character, Ponyboy and his friends, are part of the Greasers who are enemies with another gang, the Socs. After an altercation takes place between the Greasers and the Socs, a series of dramatic events unfolds with devastating consequences. The gangs are defined by social status and class with the Greasers coming from the working class and the Socs from the middle/upper classes. It’s a fast-paced, relentless plot which keeps building and building, creating high emotional stakes and multiple climaxes. Although I enjoyed the plot and it kept me invested in the overall story, it was the characters, friendships and social commentary which I loved the most.
Since S. E. Hinton was only a young teenager when she wrote this, the writing style is very simple and accessible. It’s a YA book and the writing style is accessible for all age groups and reading levels. I wasn’t in love with the writing style, but it was solid and in-keeping with the overall tone and plot of the story. It wasn’t very descriptive in nature but closely examined the characters’ thoughts and emotions, particularly of Ponyboy as the POV character. But despite the concise writing style, I felt that S. E. Hinton sprinkled in some wonderful quotes and metaphors which tugged on my heart strings. She was also able to convey the complexity of the class issues she was exploring in a beautiful and clear way. Considering just how multi-layered the themes were in this book, they were presented in a relatable and authentic way with little exposition.
It seemed funny to me that the sunset she saw from her patio and the one I saw from the back steps was the same one. Maybe the two different worlds we lived in weren’t so different. We saw the same sunset.
Characters and Relationships
The characters in this book stole my heart. Reading this for the first time as an adult enabled me to connect with the characters way more than I think I would’ve if I had read it as a teenager. I was able to put into context just how young these boys were and how awful the neglect, abuse and instability they were enduring was. I immediately felt a sense of love, protectiveness and empathy with these boys who were all lost in their own way and looking for a place to belong. I just wanted to give them a big hug!
Most of them are orphans or have absentee/neglectful parents, no positive adult role models and are school drop-outs (except Ponyboy). They’re living in an impoverished neighbourhood where there’s a lack of opportunity, high crime rates and on-going gang feuds. Although the characters are far from perfect, in many ways they’re victims of circumstance making them incredibly sympathetic. Perhaps the saddest part is that they’re aware that the lives they’re living were unfulfilling, miserable and toxic, but they don’t have the tools to break the cycle and choose a different path.
Each character is well-developed, authentic and has a different way of dealing with their situation. Darry sacrifices his own hopes and dreams to elevate those of his younger brothers (Ponyboy in particular); Soda masks his pain with his “free-spirit” attitude and optimism; Dally is apathetic and hardened to a world that he acknowledges is cruel and unfair; Johnny wants things to change but doesn’t know how to change things so goes along with it because the gang is all he has; and Ponyboy actively challenges their lifestyle and plans to escape by succeeding at school and moving out of the neighbourhood.
Ponyboy as a POV character was so insightful and relatable. Despite only being 14 years old, he has wisdom beyond his years and is able to reflect on situations from a fresh perspective. Where his brothers and friends are blinded by their prejudices, he tries to remain open-minded and optimistic even in the most hopeless of times. Seeing the world through his eyes was equal parts hopeful and heartbreaking. Ponyboy is the future and the potential for him to break the cycle feels close yet so far.
Dally, the typical “bad boy” archetype, had me rolling my eyes at the start. I’m not a fan of this archetype at all but S. E. Hinton exectued it so perfectly by creating a flawed, complex and sympathetic character. Dally being a “bad boy” is not just a mask to hide his vulnerability but part of who he is and a reflection of the philosophy he has developed as a result of the hardships he has faced. At no point is his behaviour or attitude justified, but we do get to see other sides to him and to understand his actions and motivations.
Obviously, it goes without saying that I loved the relationships every bit as much as the characters. They’re kids that have had it tough and deserve a chance, but to the rest of the world they’re delinquents and wasters. Nobody sees or hears these kids and nobody cares. It’s heartbreaking to see how little they matter in the wider world and how aware they are of that. For most of them, all they have to live for is each other. Since many concepts of masculinity are synonymous with detachment from emotion and a lack of intimacy with other males, I loved that the characters were sensitive, emotional and deeply connected to each other. These guys love each other and they might not always openly express it, but their devotion to each other is obvious from their actions. The loyalty, compassion and sacrifice that these guys make for each other made me cry…more than once! It’s a prime example of found family trope done right.
The Outsiders both touched my heart and broke my heart. S. E. Hinton’s achievement in writng this at 17 years old cannot be understated. She captured the complexities of life in the wider context of class, inequality, violence and crime so vividly. It gets to the heart of what it is to be forgotten, side-lined and unloved, and through the stories of Ponyboy and the gang, reflects the lives of many young working class boys who are being left behind by society today. The complexity of the characters and their relationships with each other was palapable, and the heart and soul of the story. As the reader, you form a deep attachment to them because you see how little the world cares about them. Despite how short the book is, it’s so tragic, raw and honest that it makes for an unforgettable read and is one of my favourites. The characters will stay with me for the rest of my life and the injustice and the class inequalities that are explored resonated with me so deeply based on my personal experience and the work I do with disadvantaged young people.
I’d recommend The Outsiders if:
You’re looking for a short, face-paced modern YA classic which is full of drama, friendship and emotion, and explores complex themes surrounding social class and masculinity.
Have you read The Outsiders or are you planning to read it? Let me know in the comments!
Snapshot reviews are short book reviews of around 200-250 words.
✨ Spoiler Free ✨
Author: Jane Austen Genre: Classic Publication year: 1817 Audience: All ages Content warnings: Sexism.
Persuasion is widely regarded as one of Jane Austen’s best novels and one her strongest works. It follows Anne Elliot, a 27-year-old unmarried woman whose life is thrown into a tailspin when her former lover, Captain Wentworth returns to her hometown. Characteristic of an Austen novel, it’s light on plot and very slow paced with a focus on characters and character dynamics.
Of the four Austen novels I’ve read (the others being Emma, Pride and Prejudice and Northanger Abbey) this was my least favourite. Whilst I usually enjoy the slow pace, this was too slow. It was meandering and uneventful. I also found myself getting lost in the large cast of characters all of whom were indistinguishable from one another. As a protagonist Anne was bland and difficult to connect with in comparison to Emma and Lizzie.
The second-chance romance was a refreshing change from the other Austen romances. However, the romance wasn’t much of a focus until the end. My lack of connection to the characters also made it difficult for me to connect to the romance. The ending felt rushed and unearned.
Unfortunately, Persuasion was not an enjoyable reading experience for me. Although I’ve enjoyed all of the other novels I’ve read from Austen, I found it difficult to find redeemable qualities with this one. It lacks the fun, wit and lightheartedness that I have come to expect from Austen and the lack of plot paired with my inability to connect to the characters ultimately meant that it didn’t work for me.
I’d recommend Persuasion if:
You are an Austen fan that enjoys slow paced classics with large casts and a second chance romance.
Villette is Charlotte Brontë’s third and final novel. It tells the story of orphan, Lucy Snowe as she moves to the fictional French town of Villette to pursue her independence and a new life. It’s a slow paced story which is primarily a character study of Lucy Snowe; a polarising and complex protagonist. My reading experience was very mixed, with some parts boring me to tears and others compelling me to read more.
The slow pacing was difficult to get through at times and the relentless passages of French repeatedly pulled me out of the story. Nonetheless, I was strangely enamoured by Lucy’s character, despite her being a generally unlikeable person. I particularly enjoyed the unreliable narration from Lucy and how her memories, biases and conscious decision to withold certain information provided insight into her character. It also prevented me from ever fully grasping the truth, leaving lots of room for interpretation and analysis.
Villette is destined to live in the shadow of Jane Eyre, and whilst generally readers are more likely to favour the latter, the former has a lot of merit. Charlotte’s writing style is encapsulating; her descriptions are wonderfully visual and her ability to capture emotion is fantastic. There was a fascinating exploration of mental health and despite the toxic love interest, I appreciated that there was a portrayal of unrequited love and an ending which didn’t fulfil the cliche “happily ever after” trope. Overall, this is a feminist tale of a young woman, alone in the world seeking purpose and belonging.
I’d recommend Villette if:
You’re looking for a slow paced classic set in France with a complex female protagonist and themes of feminism, love, loss, mental health and finding purpose.
Have you read Persuasion or Villette or do you plan to? Let me know in the comments!
In my recent post about slumps as part of my Breaking into Books series, I mentioned how life-saving novellas have been for me and wanted to share my love for novellas with today’s post. Novellas are great. They’re my go-to reads when I have a busy schedule or I’m not mentally in a space where I can commit to a full length novel or long series. I appreciate the challenge and skill that it takes for an author to create a full story with a beginning, middle and end, incorporating complex themes, characters, relationship and world building with such a low word count. I love how novella’s often explore abstract ideas in an imaginative way, leaving lots open to interpretation. Basically: I love novellas! Without further ado here are my favourite novellas in no particular order (if you’ve read any of my previous posts some of these will come as no surprise to you!).
The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde
It’s a classic for a reason. I studied this novella at college and did a presentation about the theme of scientific advancements and their potential repercussions for society and loved every second of it. The concept is simple but the depth of what is explored about human nature, morality, good and evil and scientific technologies are fascinating and always relevant no matter how much time passes.
And Every Morning the Way Home Gets Longer and Longer
If you read my Best and Worst Reads and Every Book I Rated 5 Stars posts right at the very beginning of this blog, you’ll already know that I adore this book. This is the prime example of the power and beauty that novellas can contain and the ways in which they can explain emotive and complex themes in beautiful, touching and impactful ways.
This is How You Lose the Time War
Time-travelling-enemy-to-lovers with stunning prose and unique world-building. What more could you want? You can read my full review here.
Again, I’ve mentioned this book multiple times in other posts. It’s one of my favourite books of all time and is another example of how a simple premise and short story can be so meaninful and cut to the core of so many complex issues. Although I don’t have a review posted for it, I’m planning to do a full analysis soon which I’ve very excited about 🙊
I Am Legend
I didn’t have particularly high hopes for this one but it gave me The Walking Dead vibes in the best possible way. It’s a eerie, dark, gritty depiction of what it would be like to live in a post-apocolyptic world and what it takes to survive. This really gets to the heart of what it means to be human and the difference between survival and living.
The Picture of Dorian Gray
What’s not to love about this book? It’s short but an effective and nuanced examination of beauty, corruption, arrogance and vanity. This classic stands the testament of time and is the epitome of “looks aren’t everything”. Oscar Wilde is also a creative genius.
A lesser known novella but it packs one hell of a punch. This is a twisty, unpredictable sci-fi thriller that touches on themes around immigration and British citizenship. In the context of post-Brexit Britain, this hit me harder than I think it would’ve if I’d read it at a different time.
I will probably beat people over the head with this book for the rest of my life. It’s the female counterpart to and inspiration for Dracula. But ultimately it’s a sapphic vampire tale so the question is… why wouldn’t you want to read it?
Do you like novellas? If so, which are your favourites and why?
Author: Jane Austen Genre: Classic Romance Publication year: 1815 Audience: Suitable for all Content warnings: None.
Emma, a young 20-year-old woman rejects the idea of marriage for herself and instead devotes herself to finding love for others through matchmatching, which has some unexpected and hilarious consequences.
What I liked
The writing style
What I disliked
Pacing was slow in parts
Trying to describe the plot and structure of an Austen novel is practically impossible because her books are some of the least plot-centric books I’ve ever read. Suffice to say, the premise is very much what the book is. It follows Emma as she meddles in the life of her friends and neighbours and tries to set them up, but ultimately, her good intentions backfire. Along the way, she plays with the idea of finding love for herself but comes up against various barriers. It’s a slow paced story and intentional in the way it’s written. I was slightly disappointed that the matchmaking was abaondoned early on in the books because it was so much fun, but ultimately, this is a character study of Emma and a social commentary on Victorian society and gender.
I adore Austen’s writing style. Her writing it lyrical, poetic and simply beautiful. I’ve read three of her books to date and I’ve enjoyed them all but none of them blew me away, yet I find myself coming back to her books because I love her writing so much. She has a manner of writing which perfectly captures the setting and time period in which she lived and weaves social commentary within the narrative and character development. In my opinion, few classical authors can measure up to Jane Austen’s talent.
Were I to fall in love, indeed, it would be a different thing; but I have never been in love ; it is not my way, or my nature; and I do not think I ever shall.
Characters and Relationships
Emma is my favourite Austen heroine that I’ve read so far because she’s so flawed and authentic. Not only is she spoiled and arrogant, but she’s poor at observing others and understanding social cues, which ironically she thinks she’s great at. She’s determined and stubborn and believes she knows best. Her naivety caues trouble but ultimately, she does everything with the best intentions and has a big heart. Her rejection of marriage and romance and her openness in expressing that is so refreshing to see from a female protagonist in a 19th century novel. Admittedly, Austen is known for writing forward-thinking, strong female characters but Emma stands above the rest for me because of her refusal to be defined by love or to accept anything less than she deserves. She’s unwilling to compromise or settle, she knows her worth and never wavers from that. Her development throughout the book was one of my favourite aspects of the book. Emma truly grows a lot, recognising the error of her ways, feeling genuine remorse for the impact of her actions on others and owning up to her mistakes.
The relationships in this book were wonderful. Emma’s friendship with Harriet was particularly enjoyable to read about and might just be one of my favourite female relationships in any book I’ve ever read. It’s Emma’s friendship with Harriet that is Emma’s primary motivation and the catalyst for Emma’s awareness of the damage she has caused and consequent development. Emma deeply cares for Harriet and places her on a pedestal. Because of this, she’s unable to let go of her notions about Harriet and the type of romantic partner she should be with, projecting her desires onto Harriet and unintentionally influencing an impressionable Harriet. Despite the blunders in the friendship due to Emma’s inability to fully empathise with Harriet and her determination that she knows best, there’s genuine affection between the pair and their friendship is very endearing.
Surprisingly I even enjoyed the romance in Emma. Generally, I’m not a big romance reader and have a lot of qualms with classic romance in particular because of the problematic depictions as a result of the gender norms and inequalities in the periods in which a lot of classic novels are written. However, the main romance is believable, authentically developed and mutually respectful. Emma doesn’t have to sacrifice herself in any way to make her relationship work. I also enjoyed the other minor romances throughout, including the drama and fall-out of Emma’s matchmaking disasters. For me, this was an enjoyable romance because it wasn’t overbearing and didn’t detract from Emma’s development or her friendship with Harriet or the other female characters and dynamics in the book.
Emma is the third Austen novel and my favourite so far. Although it’s slow paced in places, my love for Emma’s character carried me through and meant that even the slow parts were enjoyable. I grow to love Austen’s writing style more with every novel of hers I read; it’s comforting yet also witty; like a big warm hug that never fails to put a smile on my face. The social commentary is on point, as is the humour, character development and relationships. There’s drama and satire, which Austen is renowned for, but also a serious tone with the exploration of themes around gender expectations as a 19th century woman, romance and identity. Together, this novel comes together in a beautiful package and this is a book I would read again without hesitation.
I’d recommend Emma if:
You’ve read an Austen novel before and enjoyed it OR you’re looking for a classic romance led by a strong female protagonist, which has strong female relationships, enjoyable romances, plenty of drama, excellent wit and fascinating social commentary.
Have you read Emma or are you planning to read it? Let me know in the comments!