How to appreciate novels

How to appreciate novels

This question originally appeared on Quora: How do I understand and appreciate books better?
How to appreciate novelsAnswer by Ankit Sethi:

According to me, what you’re really interested in finding out is:

How do I progress from having an opinion to having an informed opinion?

I’ll assume that you’re broadly talking about literary and genre fiction and not, say, cookbooks and car manuals. With that, here’re my thoughts about the method and the motivation:

1) Antiquity Blues : Go back. Way way back. Read the epics of your culture and of every other significant ancient culture. Brush up on the Greek, Norse, Egyptian, Sumerian, Arthurian, Meso-American, Vedic, and Oriental mythologies and legendariums. These are the earliest stories and collected thoughts of the human race. Everything that follows is indebted to them and identifying their influence on what you read is a pretty good start to appreciating the quality of a book. Read them on Wikipedia if you must, must be aware of them.

2) A Little Knowledge. : can be a pretty cool thing to have. After all, you’re practically asking how to be dilettante. Religion and philosophy have long histories, and while it may be impractical to delve deep into the nuances of Kant or Kaballah, it is important to have a brief understanding of the Eight-fold Path or what Nietzsche’s Ubermensch is all about. Pick up an encyclopedia or read Sophie’s World (if you want your Big Ideas wrapped inside a fictional framework).

3) Eat Your Broccoli : Read all of Shakespeare. Try out at least one book by every “classic” author — the Dickens, the Austens, the Mark Twains, the whathaveyous. If you’re superficial (like me) and don’t want to endure the outdated aesthetic, watch a cinematic adaptation. The broader point I’m trying to make with this and the previous two paragraphs is that it is essential to build perspective — to know enough about what was already present in our world culture and how the text in front of you stacks before it. It adds a second layer of understanding when you spot the archetypes behind characters. Furthermore, it keeps you from getting over-awed by amateurish simulacra that get pumped out in our mass media. There’s a reason I’m comparing all this to broccoli. The true turd of literary criticism cannot be passed unless one ingests copious amount of dense, fibrous musings about the human condition.

Interlude : All of this, by the way, is equally useful, if not in substance, then in method, for the purpose of appreciating specific genre fiction like fantasy, science-fiction, or crime thrillers. Are spy novels your thang? Bone up on Graham Greene, Ian Fleming, W. Somerset Maugham and John Le Carre. Does science fiction tickle your warp drive? Asimov, Dick, Pohl et al, are your homies. The point is again — spit out the roofie-laden punch served by mass-market shills like Coelho and have a margarita with the masters instead.

4) Cool Story, Bro : An overly reductive way to think about your objective is that your purpose is to be unimpressed by as much as possible. Once you start understanding how good the writing (in any genre) can get, most of what is out there will seem mundane. To assuage any digging-myself-into-a-hole type fears, rest assured that there are hundreds of master prose stylists (contemporary and classic) waiting to be discovered and you’ll never run short. Simultaneously, you will be able to finally have the vocabulary for expressing why a book is mediocre or bad (or possibly, how it transcends all previous attempts with similar themes). I refer to vocabulary in not the traditional sense, but as a sum total of the texts you’ve read, where the same themes have been tackled with greater or lesser skill and nuance. If you read long enough, you’ll finally get to that hipster wet dream — giving a one star rating to a universally loved classic with 600 words to back it up!

5) Only The Sith Deal In Absolutes : I end with a word of warning. Let your passion drive you to the extent that it must. However, to achieve your objective is to commit your time and effort to a new way of life. Your free time will be implicitly prioritized for a solitary activity, and much like the TV in Joey and Chandler’s living room, everything else will be focused around it. Fun though it may be, you simply can’t make a task out of it. Not every bibliophile can or should want to regress into their houses for hours on end, ticking off mental lists of works they need to get through. Make sure to re-read old favorites. Buy mediocre fluff occasionally to keep your reading well calibrated, as well as to have some silly fun. Stop being a cultural leech and actually start writing after a point. Even if it’s bad, the fact that you know it’s bad is a great sign. A dissonant, interior angst at having read dozens of great books but having nothing to say about them excepting a warm feeling inside is perfectly par for the course. It is far nobler to have too meager and too humble an opinion to offer about the books you read, than being the kind of deluded blowhard who shouts from rooftops and Twitter accounts that Khaled Hosseini is the best living writer in the world.

Homework Assignment : Pick up the complete Asterix collection. Read them with Google and a fine tooth comb. Beyond the silly puns and slapstick, there is a whole other layer of tributes and references to literature, art and music. Figure that stuff out!

Is that too simple? I don’t think so. Do I even need to clarify this fact? Probably not! Bookworms LOVE BOOKS. We ALL LOVE BOOKS. We are all screaming for books! GIVE THEM ALL TO US OKAY?! We love st stroke and smell and hug our precious children but I want you to just stop for a moment and ask yourself the following questions

  • Do you know the author?
  • do you know how much effort that put into the book?
  • Do you want to appreciate this author or book?
  • Do you want to express your love?

If your answer was YES to any one of these, please give me a muffin and read on! I think authors are MOSTLY fantastic people and that we should definitely try to appreciate our books BECAUSE WHY THE HECK NOT? We love them and it’s very easy to help that book on its own journey.

How to appreciate novels

1. Libraries Libraries Libraries

first off, I think we should LOVE AND APPRECIATE OUR LIBRARIES. Free books! Some people don’t even have A LIBRARY so make sure you use yours and appreciate it!

But anyways if you want to read a book, reserve the book from your library (or try to find it) or even request it from your library SO THE BOOK IS IN YOUR LIBRARY! This is not that much of a help, but it’s great!

Also, I hate how you spell the word library

How to appreciate novels

2. Buy it!

Now I’m not saying we are all rich hobbits who can, in fact, I think a lot of us are broke bookworms. But if you can, then do! It helps authors a lot and who does NOT want to buy books. SO go to your bookstore and purchase a book with a pretty cover. Or even better BUY THE WHOLE BOOKSTORE. I mean ahem…what was I saying.

How to appreciate novels

3. Giveaway

I mean not everyone can just do random flash giveaways, But if you receive an ARC of a book or even just have a book wouldn’t mind the book having another home, then do it! I’m quite selfish and will never do a giveaway.

How to appreciate novels

I know Goodreads had a ‘hide a book day’ recently where you had to hide a book for someone to find. I thought that was an amazing idea! Anyways, giveaways are great chances to force other people to read a book you love.

4. Recommend it to friends

YOUR LIFE IS SAD IF YOU DON’T HAVE BOOK BUDDIES! I have a few bookish friends and I’m always showing them books I loved and letting them borrow my books because I love them so much. OKAY NOT ALWAYS but recently! And it’s really great. And if they have a birthday coming up, SHOVE SHOVE SHOVE into that gift bag!

And if you have no bookish buddies in real life, you can always text a friend or shout about it on Goodreads!

How to appreciate novels

5. Boost the book online

To create hype about a book online

  • Take pictures of it for your very aesthetic Bookstagram
  • Tweet it about it (and include a picture)
  • Talk about on your blog
  • Or Tumblr, Or Pinterest
  • Or Facebook!

The point is SHARE IT ON SOCIAL MEDIA! Help spread the word of your favourite book. this way people can get excited about the book and they are aware of it!

How to appreciate novels

6. Let the author know!

Now, most authors are super busy dragons BUT you’d be surprised at how many authors reply to tweets. So just @ them in a tweet, Dm them if you can or email them. Don’t go crazy but maybe leave a little message about a quote you loved or something about their book you can’t stop thinking about like your favourite character. They could see it (some authors will) and it can definitely brighten their day.

I know it can be super scary but you can give it a try? It’s super cool if they do see it and you are making someone’s day.

How to appreciate novels

7. Write a review

*glares at all bloggers with a billion RTCs* AHEM. So you liked a book? WRITE A REVIEW. These are super hard (I find them much easier now) but Elise @ The Bookish Actress wrote a great post on tips for a good review.

Reviews can be hard to write but they do loads so know that your effort is WORTH IT. ANyways, you can upload this to Goodreads or your blog or even…

How to appreciate novels

8. Publish reviews on retail sites

I’m including this as a separate point because 1) It IS SO SUPER IMPORTANT and 2) I need to reach 10 points okay. But okay. It honestly helps the author, the book, the publishers and your left eyebrow when you publish your review on AMAZON (or any other retail site) so it just cross-post it if you’ve written your review (AHEM, see point 7) it doesn’t take long at all! So do it.

Side note: I don’t sadly do this because I don’t have an anonymous Amazon account so like. I’m still trying to figure out a solution because I really want to support authors.

How to appreciate novels

9. FANGIRL OKAY

Ways to fangirl over a book

  • ASDFGHJKL
  • LKJHGFDSA
  • ldsjfkd,jfmhsdjkfhkds
  • SAY ‘AGHHH I LOVED THIS’ 5 TIMES
  • Draw Fanart!
  • Write Fanfiction!
  • BE A GOOD FAN
  • here’s a muffin

How to appreciate novels

10. Marry The Book

People have already married their bookshelves (?) but I haven’t yet because I’m not old enough. Will be happening soon and there’ll be an official wedding and all.

AS I WAS SAYING, you can just marry the book? It’s literally the PERFECT SOLUTION. The only problem is what if you marry one book and then read another book and like the latter book better so then you have to get divorced? BUT YOU STILL LOVE BOTH BOOKS. I AM RAMBLING HERE #bookwormproblems #ilsaproblems

How to appreciate novels

William James, the father of psychology, stated that the most fundamental psychological need is to be appreciated. We all want to feel fully appreciated for our work. The payoff for inspiring leaders is that people do more for those who appreciate them. Although leaders widely recognize the need for appreciation, it tends to be a blind spot. That is, we generally believe we are much more appreciative of our team than our team thinks we are.

For example, I think I am more appreciative of my wife than she feels appreciated by me. The same can be said of most leaders and team members. The reason is that we often do not convert our invisible thoughts of appreciation into visible acts of appreciation. With all of today’s technology options, it’s easy to find ourselves too busy for face-to-face interaction, but that’s one of the best ways to charge up our teams. Showing appreciation is not a matter of time and intention; rather, it’s a matter of priority and action.

Research by former Gallup chairman, the late Donald Clifton, revealed that workgroups with at least a 3-to-1 ratio of positive to negative interactions were significantly more productive than those having less than a 3-to-1 ratio. In other words, more productive teams had at least three positive interactions for every one negative interaction. By the way, the same study showed the bar was set even higher for more successful marriages – the key ratio was 5-to-1. Showing your appreciation is certainly a positive interaction and is a simple way to boost your ratio.

Consider tracking your ratio for a week to gauge how well you are appreciating your team. Look for opportunities to acknowledge your team’s results and positive progress. This is basic psychology – reinforce those behaviors that you want to see more frequently. Catch them doing something right . and do it often. If you look for your team doing something right, opportunities to reinforce them will be plentiful. The key is to be sincere and specific. In other words, don’t fall into the trap of blurting out the robotic “Good job”. Take the time to thoughtfully explain why you appreciated the specific action taken by a team member.

For example, you might say, “Kayla, I really appreciate the way you quickly resolved that customer issue without adding more time or cost to our delivery schedule. That makes a big difference for the company.” Demonstrating appreciation for your team and their efforts can put them on the fast track to inspired performance. There should be plenty of opportunities since a Harris poll found that 65 percent of the workers reported receiving no recognition for good work in the past year! That’s a pretty low bar. So, we should not worry about recognizing our teams too much.

Here are some simple ways to make recognition a defining moment for your team:

  1. Say “Thank You!” – An all-too-obvious, yet highly underused, form of appreciation.
  2. Go old school and write a card or note to a team member expressing why you appreciate him or her.
  3. Allow your team to present their work to your boss. This is a great way to engage your team, and it also shows your boss what kind of leader you are.
  4. Offer team members a choice of projects on which to work. When team members buy into a project, they will put their hearts into it.
  5. Put a sincere acknowledgement in your company or department newsletter. This takes only a few minutes of your time but creates long-term “trophy value” for the employee.
  6. Tell an employee’s story of accomplishment at a staff meeting. Detailed stories are perceived as more interesting, meaningful, thoughtful and memorable.
  7. Take a team member to lunch to show your appreciation. Remember to do more listening than talking.

Find ways that are natural and comfortable for you to demonstrate your appreciation since your authenticity is the key.

The good news is that we have complete control over our appreciation. No budget limitations or excuses here – there are literally thousands of ways to demonstrate our appreciation at little or no cost.

1. What is the positive to negative ration on my team?

2. What one thought of appreciation can I convert into a tangible act of appreciation today?

A complimentary letter shows support for the issue at hand and encourages more of the same. Your letter should be direct and sincere, without being self-serving.

Example Letter #1

I recently had the good fortune of reading your article regarding investment strategies. It was well-written and contained sound, practical advice. In fact, I have already benefited from your discussion on risk versus return. You pointed out several things that I will remember for years to come. I look forward to reading your next informative work. Thank you.

Example Letter #2

Please accept our thanks and congratulations on the success of your recent series on young scholars in our community. We see so much of the negative side of life in the media that it is refreshing to have a positive, upbeat report on the good things that are happening. I think the report was a great motivator for many students who need a little extra push. Our schools are doing a good job with limited resources, and they appreciate all the help we can give them. Thanks again for such uplifting coverage.

Example Letter #3

I always enjoy your column in our local newsletter. You have a gift for discussing family interactions in truthful yet amusing ways. It seems I can always identify experiences in my own family with those you describe. Your articles help us realize that our problems are typical, and we can solve them in constructive ways.

Thank you and keep these good articles coming.

Example Letter #4

I have just finished reading the article you wrote on recycling published in the June issue of Springfield Journal. I want to tell you how much I appreciated your clearly written and thought-provoking article.

While much has been written on this topic, your article expresses both the positive and negative aspects of this important topic, without taking an emotional stance on either side of the issue.

How to appreciate novels

It is widely believed that Khaled Hosseini is one of the best authors of our time. His work has set a benchmark for modern literature and his voice has been revolutionary as a “spokesperson” for the Afghan nation.

His stories are best known for their empathetic tone, as they evoke emotions that cut to the core of the human heart. His stories dig deep into the human soul to find the fine line that separates right and wrong, love and betrayal, redemption and loss, forgiveness and revenge, power and weakness, and conviction and indifference.

There is no doubt that these novels will pull at your heart strings, challenge your moral beliefs and change your perceptions on Middle Eastern stereotypes.

As you share in these remarkable characters’ journeys, you will inevitably form a bond with them, and once the pages have stopped turning you will miss them dearly. But they will live with you for a long time and speak back to you when you need them to.

The themes in Hosseini’s novels are powerful and exceptionally relevant in this day and age. You will notice that some of the same themes resonate through all three of his novels, The Kite Runner, A Thousand Splendid Suns and And the Mountains Echoed.

How to appreciate novels

How to appreciate novels

How to appreciate novels

I have waited a long time to share my thoughts on Hosseini’s groundbreaking novels. Though there is much that I could say, I would like to focus this article on a few of the important themes. Through exploring these particular themes, I hope to gain a fuller and more meaningful understanding of the literary masterpieces that Hosseini has so skillfully created.

Love and Relationships

Hosseini uses relationships to show the depth of love that we humans are capable of and the sacrifice, compassion and care that stems from powerful love. The vulnerability that accompanies love is also exposed along with the risks we take to protect our loved ones.

Love is a multifaceted emotion and Hosseini explores the different types of love (maternal/paternal, friendship, romantic, etc.) with a profound understanding of the human psyche.

In his novels, love is the force that drives his characters to pursue freedom, offer forgiveness and fight for a better life. Through strong bonds of love and friendship, the characters are motivated to keep pressing on, despite opposing forces and challenges. The need to love and be loved gives purpose and meaning to his characters’ lives.

War and The Value of Life

Set in Afghanistan, Hosseini’s novels give us a glimpse of what life must be like to live in a war-torn country, where times are perilous, lives are threatened and people live in fear. Against this backdrop, we realise how precious life is.

When we look at life from the perspective of being at risk, we begin to question the things, which we take for granted. When life is under threat, we prioritise and put health, safety, family and friends above wealth and material gain. As the stories unfold, we learn these incredible lessons about the value of life and importance of having the right priorities.

How to appreciate novels

Loss

The characters face a loss of many kinds throughout the novels: loss of property, loss of loved ones, loss of dignity, loss of innocence and so forth. Whilst some characters are overwhelmed with their struggles and choose suicide as an escape from their dire circumstances, other characters refuse to surrender to hopelessness.

Against grief, pain, unfairness and injustice, they persevere to change their circumstances and advance in life. Whilst the characters are forever wounded and never completely healed, the resilience of the human spirit pushes them forward to recover what they can from the broken pieces of their lives.

Gender Oppression and Patriarchy

In Hosseini’s second novel, A Thousand Splendid Suns, he holds nothing back from exposing the harsh laws and injustices against women in Afghanistan. Hosseini gives a voice to these women whose voices have been silenced for decades. He brings awareness to their suffering and gives them the utmost respect, whilst doing so. These novels honour them as mothers, sisters, daughters, wives and human beings, in a way that they rightly deserve.

Patriarchal marriage laws, abusive husbands and corrupt policeman and politicians are brought into the light. Hosseini addresses the mindset in patriarchal societies whereby women are considered to be possessions and property of their husbands. Through these novels, we gain insight into the lives of women who have been dominated and treated as the inferior sex.

How to appreciate novels

The effects of the marginalisation of women’s human rights are not covered up or hidden in Hosseini’s novels. We see the full impact of a misguided patriarchal rule in A Thousand Splendid Suns and And the Mountains Echoed – women who break down emotionally and mentally, women who are used and abused, and women who are deceived and controlled.

Unfairness and Injustice

The themes of unfairness and injustice run through all of Hosseini’s novels. The cause may differ, but the effect remains the same. We see characters mistreated through war, abusive marriages, controlling parents, bullying and so forth. Through the stories, we learn how to cope with the emotions caused by unfairness and injustice.

Rejection, lowered self-esteem, confusion, pain and anger are results of these situations. The characters teach us in their own ways, how to overcome these negative emotions, which threaten to consume their lives. The instinctive flight or fight mechanism, which is inbuilt in all people, kicks in for these characters and we witness how they deal with the prejudices and misfortunes that life hands to them.

Hosseini has captured the essence of the human heart and the ties that bind souls together through times of peace, times of warfare and every other moment of life in-between.

Though these themes are in no way an exhaustive study of Hosseini’s works, they capture the overall significance behind the stories of these downtrodden yet beautiful characters, who are made immortal to us through word by Khaled Hosseini’s amazing gift for telling untold stories.

I love all the Hardcore Literature podcasts I’ve done thus far. But this 30-minute podcast on how to read and appreciate short stories was, hands down, my favourite. Geeking out and deep diving into the art and craft of short stories, talking about how to become a connoisseur of this wonderful literary form.

You’ve got the chance to get your hands on one of my favourite short story anthologies too, That Glimpse of Truth. There’s more information at the end of the show, but, in short, here’s how you can be in the running for receiving a copy:

How to Win a Great Book of Short Stories:

  1. Go to iTunes whilst you’re listening.
  2. Leave a review (only takes a few seconds). A star rating and a comment review. You can say what you’re reading at the moment, what show you’ve enjoyed, or what book/story you’d like us to discuss in the future.
  3. Contact me at [email protected] with your details.
  4. If you’re a lucky one chosen at random (three copies up for grabs), I’ll send you the book with a personal note of thanks along with recommendations for which stories you might like to start with.

How to Read and Appreciate Short Stories

Quote of the show (#1):

Why do we read fiction? Why do we want a vicarious experience? It’s because we can learn. We can inhabit the mindset of somebody else. We can be put into situations that we’ll never be put into in real life. And we can reason. We can sharpen our logic. We can sharpen our rhetoric. We can enhance our empathy. We can learn how to interact with people, understand people, understand people’s motivations, understand how to be more persuasive, more loving, how to be a boon upon the world instead of a burden. All this we can learn through imaginative literature because, when you’re reading stories, you have the possibility to live a thousand lifetimes in one.

Quote of the show (#2):

Become at home in this imaginary world. Know it as if you were an observer on the scene. Become a member of its population, willing to befriend its characters, and willing to participate in its happenings by sympathetic insight as you would do in the actions and sufferings of a friend.

Several years ago, in an Ohio snowstorm, I read Cormac McCarthy’s The Road in a single day. I only had one child then—James was a baby—and all he wanted to do was cuddle, so I held him on the couch with the book in one hand and then the power went out. Then—and it must have been ten degrees outside—we covered up, and he took a nap while I finished the book in the last of the day’s light while the wind whistled in the eaves. When I finished the book, the power had not yet come back on, and I only returned to myself slowly, finding the world of the book altogether more real than anything going on in the Ohio dusk.

The Road was of course not the first post-apocalyptic novel that I’d read, but for some reason, this one stayed with me. Several years later, I read Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven, which focuses on a pandemic and picks up the narrative several years after the fact, and this book asks important questions about what art means to survival. There are other books in there, too—the breathless beginning of Stephen King’s The Stand, the giddy glitter of the parties in Katherine Anne Porter’s Pale Horse Pale Rider.

I read so many post-apocalyptic books, and when I asked myself why, I realized that it was because these were the narratives that felt the most alive to me. After the apocalypse comes a moment that feels real, a stripping away of the trappings of modern life, and then all of those trappings are replaced by a feral anarchy, the very bedrock of survivalism, a sense that the only thing left is the only thing authentic.

But the appeal of these books to me is more than this sense that an apocalypse would strip away everything false, more than just the appeal of this realness. There is also the sense that we read these books because we need a manual, a how-to, fictional examples playing out scenarios of what happens when the world truly does come to an end.

What’s more, when we live with these stories for so long, we begin to internalize this narrative, all of the myriad ways that civilization will play itself out. We never imagine for a second that we will die along with civilization—dying in apocalypses is for minor characters. For us, and for our immediate family, a post-apocalyptic novel is instructional, not tragic.

I’ve had so many conversations about apocalypse in the last few years, and these conversations have taken place with people from all different faiths and political persuasions. If you are like me, you view the funeral of an Icelandic glacier or the loss of a billion animals in the Australian bushfires as evidence of a forthcoming environmental cataclysm, and I know that many (most?) people share my concern that we will be the last people on earth who will enjoy the world as we currently know it.

But even in conversations with people who do not believe in climate change, I have discovered that there is a sense that the apocalypse is coming, and for some of my family, this apocalypse looks like divine judgment. Many of us—most of us, I would venture—see harbingers of the apocalypse everywhere. Every one of us acknowledges that it feels like end days, that we have reached the other side of the apogee, that we have crested the wave and are now coming to the acceleration down.

When I wanted to write a book, I gravitated to the post-apocalyptic, but I didn’t know how to do something different, to add anything to the already robust conversation happening in the novels I admired. Instead, I found myself drawn to this present moment, this moment where we all acknowledge that disaster is bearing down upon us and we are powerless to do anything about it. I now consider everything I write to be pre-apocalyptic; indeed, I consider my life—my time on this planet—to occupy that apogee and its aftermath.

There is a quote falsely attributed to Einstein, and it goes something like this: “There are two ways to live your life: to believe that nothing is a miracle, or to believe that everything is,” and this is, for me, one of the things that a pre-apocalyptic novel tries to capture. Pre-apocalyptic literature contains a warning, yes, but we have all heard the warnings before. Instead, it is a reminder that if we believe that something is ending that we pay attention to that thing while we still have it.

Think of the way we prioritize love and peace and moments of joy as we visit a loved one in hospice; think of the way that as you watch a movie, if the camera lingers lovingly on a character’s tiny moments, we know the character is doomed. As I write this, self-isolated in a condo in San Jose, Costa Rica, because of a worldwide pandemic, my husband has only just made it to the country the day before the borders closed, on a flying machine that carried him a thousand miles in a few hours.

The green parrots outside my window have no idea that there may be people within these buildings right now in whose bodies a virus grows, but they wouldn’t change their behavior even if they did know. The sky in the evening is coral streaked with gray, and the orange blossoms of the roble de sabana trees have only just faded. From my condo balcony, I can see the front gate of the house of the German ambassador, and this gate is overrun with bougainvillea blooming in the most riotous colors I have ever seen.

I sit on my bed in the afternoons with the windows open and I let the air and sunshine pass over me, and it is all—all—miraculous, miracles all around us. This is the agenda of the pre-apocalypse: pay attention, name everything, let nothing go unmarked or forgotten. This is the way we remember what we have when we longer have it.

Heroes are supposed to be likeable, right? With personalities and qualities for the rest of us to aspire to or admire. Not so much in novels, in particular in thrillers. While the flawed or unlikeable protagonist is nothing new in fiction, it seems that our modern times make us more willing to empathize with their struggles. Here are five thrilling novels with deeply flawed fictional characters we know you’ll learn to appreciate as you turn the pages.

How to appreciate novels

Foe by Iain Reid

Foe is a masterclass in quiet intensity, and its married main characters are frustrating in their interactions and refusal to say what needs to be said. The narrator, Junior, seems too simplistic in his take on everything, and his wife Henrietta—Hen—comes off in the early pages as aloof, unkind, cold. But soon we learn more about their relationship, and the eerie events that force their stunted interactions. Fundamentally this is a thriller about relationships, and the more we see of Hen’s perspective, the more we understand her and the coldness that put us off at first. As the Los Angeles Times wrote, “Reid writes about the relationship so well that it becomes a universe full of questions and possibilities.” Famed director Charlie Kaufman’s adaptation of Reid’s first novel, I’m Thinking of Ending Things, releases on Netflix next month, so now’s the perfect time to get started on his backlist.

How to appreciate novels

The “Detective Elouise Norton” series by Rachel Howzell Hall

Elouise “Lou” Norton is the star of Rachel Howzell Hall’s eponymous series of detective novels. A Black homicide detective in Los Angeles, Lou comes off as a confident powerhouse at work, but her struggles are laid bare on the home front. Her insecurities around her marriage and home life are frustrating to the reader at first, but ultimately lead us to ask a universal question: Why can’t our confidence in some areas of life translate well to others? By book three in the series readers will have such a profound affection and understanding of Lou, thanks in large part to Hall‘s strong character-building chops. As Kirkus writes in a starred review of the series’ second novel Trail of Echoes, Hall “gives voice to a rare figure in crime fiction: a highly complex, fully imagined black female detective.”

How to appreciate novels

Hurry Home by Roz Nay

Some of the best thrillers begin with the notion of a ‘perfect’ life—a character who seems to have it all. Alexandra Van Ness falls squarely into this category, until her sister Ruth shows up and things unravel fast. Sisterhood is an excellent vehicle for Nay to bring out the worst in her characters, and the reader is torn between disbelief and a sense of empathy for them both. No one’s life is perfect, and no one’s past is clean—Nay makes these truths very clear to readers in this immensely satisfying sophomore novel.

How to appreciate novels

Recipe for a Perfect Wife by Karma Brown

When main character Alice Hale quits her job to focus on writing and reluctantly moves with her husband to the suburbs, we get begin with the sense that Alice is simply ungrateful for all that she has. Alice soon finds a cookbook left behind by the house’s resident from 50 years earlier, and the reader discovers that the characters are not who they seem. Soon we find ourselves rooting for Alice, in large part because Brown does such great work in peeling back the layers of the different relationships in this novel, some more deeply fraught than others. Only in such a deft writer’s hands could a story about a couple, and a suburban house and its history, reads like a page-turning thriller.

How to appreciate novels

Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng

In this literary thriller, Celeste Ng pulls off a perfect coup in forcing the reader to shift allegiances between an entire cast of unlikeable, and yet uncomfortably relatable, characters. Mia Warren and Elena Richardson couldn’t be more different, so when their lives collide in the cozy Ohio suburbia of Shaker Heights, the reader quickly recognizes that both women are deeply flawed. At the core of our human nature is the understanding that we’re all capable of terrible or underhanded things in the name of protecting or avenging those we love, and this novel capitalizes on that truth in big ways. As the story moves forward, Ng delves far enough into both Mia and Elena’s pasts to tell us why they are the way they are, and even build some empathy for them. Recently adapted into a TV series by Reese Witherspoon, Little Fires Everywhere is no doubt a read-the-book first proposition.