Mystery Nostalgia: Catch Those Meddling Kids

I’m not quick to trust new authors, so when I do find myself wandering past the shelves of a bookstore, it’s a big deal. I look at covers. I look at titles. I read synopses. I’m typically a “completionist” type of reader, so once I start a book, I’m saddled with finishing it.

A few months ago (pre-pandemic), I was walking along the aisles of a Barnes & Noble looking for potential purchases. I’d already picked up a few favorites, so I was ready to find something new. What should catch my eye but Edgar Cantero’s Meddling Kids.

Right off the bat, the title, cover, and synopsis grabbed my attention.

I didn’t watch that much television in my childhood, but you can bet one of the few shows I did make a point of watching was Scooby-Doo, Where Are You? My sister and I would sit together and watch old reruns of the Hanna-Barbera original for hours when we were being baby-sat by our aunts.

And as anyone who has watched an ounce of Scooby-Doo knows, “meddling kids” is a very familiar phrase.

Already inclined to try out the novel, I picked up Meddling Kids, bought it, and gave it a read.

It was even better than expected.

Former teen sleuths have to revisit an old case of theirs after years of being apart, with all the stereotypical tropes a mystery like that might entail. However, the plot twists are especially delicious, with certain Cthulhu-esque horror elements being liberally borrowed from. And while the characters might fit into set roles, they also diverge from what you would expect, with all the self-aware humor you could want.

I seriously don’t want to spoil the plot for anybody because it’s that good. It’s satisfying and fun without being too heavy-handed.

However, more than the plot, Cantero’s writing style really captivated me. He has this bead on pop culture that leaks into his writing and makes it feel like readers have a window into characters’ inner thoughts. It’s almost akin to the manner in which Stephen King details how his characters think. For example, one of the characters has an intense crush on a girl with curly orange hair. Every time Cantero describes that hair, even though the metaphors start to blend together after a while, you can feel the depth of emotion behind those feelings.

And the references he makes are insanely cool.

Maybe I’m the only dork who think so, but holy hell, he drew more than a few chuckles from me thanks to them.

Occasionally, his writing will devolve into a script-like structure, where he writes a character’s name and then just types what they say.

For example…

Amanda: (Slowly) I’m not sure how I would feel writing like this, but it worked for Cantero.

At first, this sudden change in style and structure startled me and pulled me out of the story. But he does it often enough and in moments where it just fits seamlessly with what’s going on, that it starts to feel natural. I grew to appreciate the risk he took in doing that, especially as it lines up with (I assume) his love of pulpy cinema.

Meddling Kids is an incredible read, and I can’t believe how lucky I was to have just stumbled across it. It was like finding a diamond in the rough.

Actually, scratch that, it was like finding a diamond in a pile of diamonds.

Because if finding Meddling Kids has taught me anything, it’s that there are so many talented writers out there who don’t get enough love from readers. There are so many stories out there waiting to be read, it’s giving me chills.

Ian McEwan Is a Writing Genius

Most know that intricacy and simplicity are two different things. Upon examining the definitions of those two words, they almost seem to be polar opposites.

However, in my experience reading the written works of one Ian McEwan, I now know otherwise. In all the novels I’ve read of his, he combines the two notions seamlessly.

Granted, I’ve only read three of his books.

But goddamn if I didn’t love each one.

McEwan is a skilled writer, with a firm grasp on how to use the English language to convey so much emotion without inundating a reader with too much diction. If you’re looking for a hard-hitting, emotional read without wishy-washy plots, McEwan is your man.

As with many of my favorite books and authors, I first got introduced to McEwan through my middle school library. While browsing the shelves, I saw a book titled Atonement. The cover had a lonely girl sitting on some steps looking off to the side. It wasn’t the cover alone that caught my eye. It was the hefty word “atonement” in conjunction with that young girl about my age that made me pick the book up.

Next thing you know, I’m crying during second period as I flip through the final pages of McEwan’s novel.

I absorbed Atonement like you wouldn’t believe. Book lovers aren’t necessarily born; they’re grown. And that story was the best fertilizer I ever could have used. Even though it was not a book I had been assigned to in class, I dissected it. I pored over every page looking for themes that spanned from beginning to end.

It’s honestly because of Atonement that I got a 5 on my AP English Literature exam. The final essay question had us write an analysis of a novel, and it could be any novel from a number of assorted literature the prompt listed. Atonement was one of the books on that list. Have you ever written an essay for school and actually cared about what you wrote? Yeah, that was probably the first and last time that happened for me.

Just so I’m being upfront with you guys, I’d like to reiterate that I’ve only read three of McEwan’s books.

The first, as I stated just now, was Atonement. The story is all about a girl who tells a single lie in her youth that drastically affects the lives of the people around her. There is a fantastic film adaptation for it, starring James McAvoy and Keira Knightley. Just be prepared for tears.

The second is Nutshell. This one has a strange premise. It’s told from the perspective of an unborn fetus as it overhears that its mother is conspiring to murder her husband with her lover. I just read the little snippet about Nutshell within its book cover, and I was hooked. I mean, aren’t you with that premise alone?!

The third one is The Children Act. I just finished it a few days ago. It is about a judge who hears a case regarding a young boy who refuses life-saving treatment because of his religion, and her decision affects both of their lives in ways neither imagined possible. After reading this book, it was confirmed to me that Ian McEwan should properly be called one of my favorite authors.

Once is happenstance. Twice is coincidence. Three times is fucking destiny.

The simplicity that McEwan captures comes from moments. From what I’ve seen, his stories capture brief snippets in time. While the entire narrative might span years or weeks, the story is pieced together over what occurs in small moments. The situations he writes about are never overly extravagant. There is no drama for the sake of drama. A lot of the complications he talks about feel so relatable they don’t have to be explained.

That’s where the intricacy comes in. The details of a person’s feelings are utterly delved into, leaving little to be left unsaid. The ups and downs of what you might think is an average moment are examined through similes and metaphors. He captures the nuances of everyday occurrences.

I don’t want to shove Ian McEwan donw your throats, but…

…well, actually, I do. He’s that good. He’s a superb writer. I feel like I’m running out of words to describe how awesome he is.

Bottom line, his premises are gripping, his writing style is engrossing, and I’m flipping out over how excited I am to pick up something else he’s written.

Top 5 Books To Reread

I’m a rereader in a major way. About half the books I read in a year are books I’m not reading for the first time.

I know that’s not necessarily a good thing, that I should probably expand my horizons and pick up books by new authors, but I can’t help myself.

For one thing, I’m a creature of comfort. I like revisiting characters, stories, and writing styles that I know I enjoy.

For another, I feel I have to justify the amount of books I have in my possession. I mean, what’s the point of buying them for myself if I’m not going to read them again and again and again.

Now, I can reread any book. You name it, I’ll reread it. But I have to admit, some books are easier to reread than others. What follows is a list of my all-time favorite books to read over and over again.

I will vouch for these books’ rereadability with my life.

Side note: Figuratively speaking.

So let’s browse these page-turners and get on with it!

Abandon in Place – Jerry Oltion

This is by far the best book I ever picked up in my middle school library. When I was in school, there was a program for students called Accelerated Reading. It forced kids to pick up books and take comprehension tests on them afterwards in order to collect points. I don’t mean to brag, but I always got number one for AR points at school. But the real benefit from AR wasn’t the points. It was the fact that I got my hands on this fantastic book.

The premise alone is fantastic. Rick Spencer, an astronaut, is feeling low after Neil Amstrong’s death. However, after the funeral, a ghostly Saturn V rocket launches from a NASA pad and no one knows where it came from. The government and the space agency, along with Rick, have to figure out where these things are coming from and what to do with them.

Abandon in Place is able to pass off as a cerebral read, but it’s actually like popcorn. It delves into space-race nostalgia and paranormal questions alike with a sense of humor and honesty. It’s not often that you see a sci-fi book paired with obvious romanticism, but that’s what Abandon in Place does. At the end of the day, the book is about hope and optimism, and I love it for that.

Pride & Prejudice – Jane Austen

Is it cliche to like Pride & Prejudice? I feel like it is. Regardless, there’s a reason this book is so popular.

The story is all about Elizabeth Bennet dealing with her family’s quirks and how they make her relate to societal classes. Oh, and also it’s about her romance with Mr. Darcy. That’s why most people read it, and I can’t say I blame them. Darcy’s demeanor is the absolute draw of the novel. I mean, who doesn’t like stoic gentlemen?

It’s a fairly short read, and no chapter is wasted. If Austen includes a paragraph in her work, it is for the express purpose of furthering along her story. That sense of direction and purpose will carry you through every page and make Pride & Prejudice a total speed-run of a book.

The Elegance of the Hedgehog – Muriel Barbery

There is absolutely no reason why I should have bought The Elegance of the Hedgehog that day at the bookstore. I normally don’t extensively peruse bookshelves the way I did. Plus, I don’t like it when book covers feature photos of people. Call me crazy, but I prefer artwork or abstract symbolism on my book covers. But I bought the book, and it’s one of my favorites.

The story has two deuteragonists. One is an aging concierge at this swanky French hotel, where she has to deal with snobbish residents. She pretends to be dumber than she is so that she doesn’t have to share the fact that she is a thoughtful and intelligent person. The other is a young girl, the daughter of one of the families at the hotel. She is incredibly smart, and has decided to kill herself before she grows up to be exactly like her parents.

This book is wonderfully deep, and it makes you feel emotions regardless of whether you’ve heard of the literature or philosophers the characters constantly reference. It’s the most moving quick read I’ve ever read. I remember the first time I finished it, I was in a Dillards, in the shoe department. I cried next to the Gianni Bini heels.

The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy – Douglas Adams

Absolute best book ever. If I had to pick a book to take with me on a desert island, it would be this one. Funny story, I once hit a guy in the nutsack with a collection of Douglas Adams’ work. I’m not proud of that moment (for reasons I may or may not mention another time), but I feel like it adds to the legacy of my copy of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.

Anyways, the book’s plot is exceedingly straightforward. Earthman Arthur Dent has to confront the wider reaches of the galaxy after the Earth is destroyed in order to make room for a hyperspace bypass. He goes on adventures, and hilarity ensues.

It is that hilarity that makes The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy such a great reread. The humor never gets old. It’s comparable to Monty Python and the Holy Grail. The trappings might get aged, but the essence of the thing can draw more than a few chuckles from you.

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire

This book makes it onto this list based purely on the fact that I have reread it more than twelve times. I honestly think it’s my most reread book. Any of the Harry Potter books are great rereads since they move so quickly (yet enjoyably) through their plot points.

This was the Harry Potter book I had to content myself with before The Order of the Phoenix came out. So what else was there for me to do if I wanted to immerse myself in the Wizarding World some more than reread The Goblet of Fire for the umpteenth time.

Hope you liked the list, and I also hope I was able to pique your interest in the direction of any of these books!

Readers of the Lost Art: Why More People Should Pick Up a Book

I can’t remember learning to read. It’s something I feel like I’ve always known how to do.

Of course, I was not born with the ability to read. That would be crazy.

I think I first got an interest in reading because of my parents. They both made the decision to instill a “sense” of reading in my sister and I at a very early age. They did this by constantly reading in front of us. My mom would read the newspaper every day in front of us. She bought us these tactile toddler books, made of cardboard and layered with different fabrics, so that we could “read” as best we could. On his side, my dad would read us bedtime stories. Sometimes The Hobbit. Sometimes The Velveteen Rabbit.

Eventually, I just sort of…picked up books. I started looking for ones I would like, even if they weren’t made of cardboard. My family made trips to the nearest Barnes & Noble on weekends, and by “nearest,” I mean 2 hours away. Regardless, we would spend hours there, and I would come home with a stack of new books that I could only hold by placing my hands underneath the pile and using my chin to secure it.

It’s only now that I’m grown that I realize that reading as a hobby is not as prevalent as movies and TV shows would have you believe. Pop culture has us thinking that gorgeous nerds who enjoy Tolstoy and Vonnegut are around every corner.

Not so.

I used to think adults were being patronizing every time they ooh-ed and ahh-ed when they saw me sitting by myself, reading a book. Now I know they were gasping over a rather rare specimen.

People read, people have to read, on a daily basis. You read menus, instructions, labels, and signs. But a woefully small amount of people actually read books for pleasure. Like books books.

And that’s terrible.

There’s a quiet joy that can come from reading a book for pleasure. You find one you like, because of course you cater to your preferences, and then in your spare time, you immerse yourself in another person’s world, another person’s story, another person’s thoughts.

Reading a book is like dipping yourself into another person’s perspective, and when you learn to think about another person’s point of view, you gain empathy. You gain the ability to put yourself in another person’s shoes.

Granted, reading is not the only way to learn empathy, and it’s also no guarantee that you will be empathetic.

But it’s a great place to start.

I think that reading as a kid is incredibly important not because it’s a future life skill but because as a child, you’re at your most selfish. When you’re in your single-digits, you have this mindset that you’re at the center of the universe. (And to make matters worse, you never knew you thought that until after you’ve grown up.) Books help to alleviate that habit.

Well, the title of this post, upon a second reading, sounds a tad accusatory. Like I’m about to start getting on people’s cases for not reading enough.

And hell…

…I think I am.

A person’s hobbies should be their own thing. I’m not going to prescribe reading as a hobby for people.

I am going to prescribe reading as a part of everyday life though. I think reading a book should be as commonplace as eating lunch or driving a car. A person should do it everyday. If you are a human being alive on this planet and you have the capacity to read a book, you should goddamn do it.

“Wow,” you might be thinking. “This particular Below Average post is a bit vitriolic. Who spit in her coffee this morning?”

You don’t even have to read an entire book a day. Just a chapter. Heck, just three paragraphs. But by incorporating reading a book into your everyday life, your speaking skills will improve, your writing skills will improve, and your people skills will improve.

Well, forgive me for being irate, but I’ve had it up to here with people who have no regard for reading. And that includes people who insist reading is just a hobby. People who think reading is just a pastime are idiots. They’re the Mr. Wormwoods of our generation. (Props to any and all Matilda fans out there.)

If you believe that language is a basis for civilization and society as we know it, then reading that goddamn language should be part of that foundation.

It’s not a hobby if it built empires, established societal connections, and formed the baseline for communication, you know what I mean?

Reading is essential for humans.

So…you want to know the reason for this whole post?

Well, where I live, there is not a single bookstore anymore. Not a one. The last one we had closed two years ago this January, and half of it was a teaching supply store because they had to make ends meet since not enough people were buying books.

So how about before we build our town’s seventh Starbucks (and you Below Average Blog readers know how much I love my coffee), WE OPEN ANOTHER BOOKSTORE BEFORE I LOSE MY MIND?

Literary Sins: On the Road Can Suck My Below Average Blog

On my neverending quest to become an enlightened reader, I bought a copy of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road a few months ago. I finished it yesterday, and all I can think is what a letdown reading it was.

I don’t know about you, but I had heard fantastic things about On the Road. Kerouac’s writing style was extolled as revolutionary, and his encapsulation of the wild and untrammeled Beat movement was considered a highlight of the times.

And as far as Kerouac’s writing style goes, On the Road was enjoyable. He writes in a semi-stream of consciousness style, almost as if he’s next to you, mumbling his tale. Often, his description of commonplace things are damn near poetic, and his vivid imaginings of what it feels like to feel are enticing and magnetic.

But fuck almost everything else about it.

The story is narrated by an indecisive and wandering young man named Sal Paradise, but it actually follows Sal’s friend, Dean Moriarty. It’s clear that Sal greatly admires and pities Dean at the same time. The two of them decide to travel “on the road” together. They’re looking for some kind of Beat Eden, a place that holds no restrictions against what they want and what they are, but they never really find it. Their own contrary natures and the regulated way American society functions stops them from ever finding that place where they belong.

This all sounds tremendously romantic, but I just couldn’t get into it for two very big reasons.

For one thing, the book is incredibly sexist. Women don’t seem to have the same voice as men do. Sal is his own person, Dean is his own person, every dude is his own person. They all have a presence in Kerouac’s writing that assures you they are sentient beings with hopes and dreams.

The women, on the other hand, are so objectified, they have zero personality. They’re in the story to be nuisances, background items, or sexual objects.

Normally, I don’t get hung up on novels not being MEGA inclusive. A good story will grab me every time no matter who it’s about. But On the Road grated on my nerves with every woman Sal and Dean ogled at, slept with, abandoned, harassed, or ignored. Plus, there is some really shady shit that goes down when Sal and Dean are staying at this house with a woman named Frankie. They both start developing a crush on her thirteen-year-old daughter.

No, you read that right. A THIRTEEN-YEAR-OLD girl.

And she’s not the only young girl the two men lust after.

It was disgusting reading about these older men crushing on these little girls.

Plus, Sal and Dean can’t seem to stop thinking about ladies period. Every time they’re out on the town, Sal fantasizes about meeting a “gone” girl for a good time. And they don’t care about these girls as people, with thoughts and dreams of their own. They only care about how good the girls can make them feel.

That actually leads to the other big reason why I hate On the Road.

The main characters are incredibly selfish. Now, I don’t care if a book tells me a story about a selfish person and their exploits. Human beings are fairly selfish creatures, so nearly every story with a human being in it has some degree of self-centeredness to it. What I do hate is if a book tells me a story about a selfish person and glorifies and romanticizes it.

Dean and Sal only care about themselves and their goals. They talk this big talk about aspirations and meaning-of-life shit, but they don’t ever take other people into consideration. They expound upon the immensity of life and love, but they act as if they’re the only people on the planet with these thoughts. It’s frustrating as hell, enraging even.

It’s like they willingly trapped themselves into this egocentric state of mind, and then they spend the rest of their time talking about how self-obsessed everyone else is.

They sound so holier-than-thou, but I bet if you walked up to them and told them so, they would just shake their heads and say that you “don’t get it.”

This attitude of theirs is epitomized in the second-to-last chapter, when Sal suffers a fever during their trip to Mexico. Dean decides to head back to the States to be with one of his exes, leaving Sal, in the throes of his sickness and half-hallucinating, behind. Dean simply says he’s “got to get back to his life.”

Maybe what infuriates me so much is the fact that I actually know guys that act like Sal and Dean. I’m not going to name names (though there is a part of me that really wants to out these guys), but they are modern-day Dean Moriartys. They think the world of themselves and their viewpoints, but they never stop to consider what another person is feeling like.

For me, there is nothing romantic about On the Road.

I rate On the Road a read-it-if-you-feel-you-must-but-if-you-like-it-then-we-seriously-need-to-have-a-deep-literary-discussion-about-why-you-do-so-that-I-can-understand-where-you’re-coming-from-because-I-honestly-loathe-the-thing.

Literary Sins: Little Girl, You’re in the Middlemarch

When I tell people I have a love for British literature, everyone assumes I’m talking about Pride & Prejudice.

Um, no.

There are a lot of books that count as British literature. It’s not just Jane Austen and Charles Dickens.

Recently, I finished reading Middlemarch, a rather large novel by George Eliot. The book looks like a daunting read, with a thick spine, thin pages, and a tiny-ass font. But I knew Eliot. I had read Daniel Deronda a few years ago, so I was super excited to spend time with her writing style once again.

You have to like a certain kind of writing style to like Middlemarch. Eliot spends a lot of time diving into the minds of her characters. Entire chapters are devoted to the conflict in a person’s head when they have to make a decision. Perhaps the best example is when Mr. Bulstrode has to decide on how to treat an ill man resting in his house. (For those of you who have read the book, you know exactly which moment I’m talking about.)

These deep dives into a person’s mentality are simultaneously Middlemarch’s greatest strength and weakness. I’ll admit, reading paragraphs describing a person’s hesitancy before giving a speech can be a bit…much. But, in my opinion, it’s worth it in the long run.

Those chapters you spend learning about a person’s every inclination, motivation, and inspiration set you up for bombshell chapters when these characters come into conflict with each other. You understand where everyone is coming from. So even if there is a misunderstanding between the characters, who do not have the windows into the minds of others the way we do, we as readers know all.

You feel like a god looking down into the lives of these people. Knowing their fears, their flaws, their hopes.

Something I’ve noticed with British literature (though I hate to make generalizations) is a massive attention to detail. It often feels like there is an inordinate amount of focus given to descriptions, descriptions of thoughts, emotions, and material objects.

When I was younger, reading giant paragraphs describing a person’s obsession with their furniture would have irritated me.

Now, I’m hella riveted.

Side note: Pardon the teenage parlance.

The plot of Middlemarch can be boiled down to the story of two people: Dorothea Brooke and Tertius Lydgate. Both Dorothea and Tertius have high-minded goals for themselves. Dorothea, bound by restrictions determined by her sex, decides she wants to marry someone of like mind who wants to do good in the world, for humanity and all that. As his wife, she plans to assist her future husband in all his endeavors. Tertius, a doctor, wants to initiate medical reforms and advances that will create a lasting impact in his field.

Unfortunately, both Dorothea and Tertius are thwarted in their goals (temporarily in one of their cases) by imprudent marriages. Middlemarch is about their respective struggles in maintaining their ideals while adjusting to reality.

This is a very poor attempt at laying out the premise of Middlemarch. Reading it over, I feel like I’m doing the novel a disservice. I’m making it sound boring.

But that’s seriously part of Middlemarch’s charm. It doesn’t have an exotic story with drastic twists and turns. Rather, it showcases the extraordinary in the ordinary. Dorothea and Tertius are like you and me. They make poor choices, good choices, and in-between choices. They as characters resonate with you because of that.

And who hasn’t had their ideals dampened because of the onward rush of life?

The book is best described by its final sentence, which I will include here:

“…for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.”

George Eliot (Middlemarch)

I rate Middlemarch a best-book-I’ve-read-in-a-while-and-even-though-I-know-its-style-is-not-for-everyone-I’m-going-to-recommend-it-nevertheless-because-I-had-a-great-time-reading-it-and-I’m-selfish-that-way.

My Favorite Harry Potter Books Ranked

It’s time once again for another list-oriented post!

God, I love these things.

My boyfriend and I have just started playing the LEGO Harry Potter Collection together. About a day after The Gaming Diaries (a blog I really enjoy following) recommended the game to me, I found myself in a GameStop. What a kawinkadink!

I bought the game for me and Danny, and we dove into the strange LEGO world of Harry Potter. (We are rapidly becoming LEGO video game veterans. Which is maybe something I should not brag about.) We have worked our way through most of Harry’s early school years at Hogwarts, and it has gotten me reminiscing about the Harry Potter books. It’s been a while since I’ve read them, but the series was a huge part of my life. (Still is.)

And aside from my Hogwarts house analysis, I haven’t written much about them.

So welcome to my list of favorite Harry Potter books!

Please bear in mind that I’m a Below Average person and that these rankings are entirely subjective.

Let’s do this:

7. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban

Funnily enough, this is my sister’s favorite book from the series. And let’s get something straight. I don’t dislike any Harry Potter book. I just like some of them more than others. Prisoner of Azkaban never appealed to me for multiple reasons.

For one thing, I couldn’t get behind how emotional magic got. I know the Patronus Charm is now one of the staple spells of the Harry Potter universe, but when I was a kid, I thought it was kind of corny how only “happiness” could make the Patronus Charm work. And is it just me, or did no one ever explain why chocolate helps after a Dementor attack?

Another thing that bothered me was how easy it was for an innocent man to get framed for a crime he didn’t commit. This is a world of freaking wizards who can do magic. Why couldn’t one of them suss out the fact that Sirius Black did not kill Peter Pettigrew? Did no one think to use Veritaserum on Sirius?

Did like the idea of school trips to Hogsmeade though. That seemed nifty.

6. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows

Call me old fashioned, but I missed the simplicity of Harry, Ron, and Hermione at school. I get that as the seventh and final book, things had to get gritty and real as they sought to destroy Horcruxes out in the world. But I found myself missing Hogwarts more than I thought I would.

There’s something about the school that centers a Harry Potter story. Without the school as the primary setting, it didn’t feel like a Harry Potter story. It felt like…well, it felt like a story.

Of course, it is extremely difficult to finish off an epic tale and leave everyone satisfied. I like The Deathly Hallows for that sense of finality you get when you close the pages. Once it ended, I was perfectly content knowing that I might never visit Hogwarts in a book again.

Annnnnnnnd then The Cursed Child came out.

5. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix

People call this the darkest book in the Harry Potter series, and they would not be wrong. Sirius Black, the beloved godfather of Harry Potter, just bites the dust in this book. And I remember when I read the part when Harry is yelling at Dumbledore afterwards, I was crying.

That’s not to say the book doesn’t have its positive features. Having Harry teach proper Defense Against The Dark Arts classes and start Dumbledore’s Army was legitimately bad-ass. And Professor Umbridge is one of the most terrifying villains I have ever come across in a book.

And I like Stephen King.

However, this book also includes Harry’s whiny teenager phase. And snogging.

4. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone

More than any of the other books in the series, The Sorcerer’s Stone is a kids book. I read it in elementary school, and that’s what hooked me on the series.

The reason it ranks so high on this list is because it’s the original. It’s the first. It’s the one that started them all.

The Sorcerer’s Stone was not only Harry’s introduction to the Wizarding world; it was ours.

3. Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince

The best villains in stories are usually those that you don’t know too much about. If you’re going for a big bad that maintains that same level of terror in you, it’s best to keep a lid on the details of his or her sordid past.

Voldemort was the constant terror of Harry’s life, and in The Half-Blood Prince, we got to take a closer look at his past in all those lessons that Dumbledore started giving Harry. He became more nuanced, and Wizarding history got a bit deeper, or at least our understanding of it did. Our examination of his early childhood did not diminish our wariness of his current form.

Plus, you’ve got to love all that romance stuff that was happening while Voldemort’s past was being showcased to us.

Ron and Hermione. I’ll never understand it.

2. Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets

I don’t know why I love The Chamber of Secrets so much.

Maybe it’s because we got introduced to the lives of an ordinary Wizarding family like the Weasleys.

Maybe it’s because Gilderoy Lockhart is one of the most hilarious teacher caricatures in the history of Hogwarts.

Maybe because the mystery of the Chamber was just that compelling.

Who knows.

1. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire

Hands down my favorite.

I loved everything about this book. The tournament, the other Wizarding Schools, the headlines, the champions.

Plus, while it was heart-wrenching to read through, I liked how Ron and Harry got into that big fight after Harry’s name came out of the Goblet. It must have been difficult for Ron to have to be the famous Harry Potter’s best friend. And while it was a dick move to be jealous of your friend who has been thrust into a life-threatening situation against their will, it was, dare I say it, relatable. I think Harry, and readers, took Ron for granted prior to this book.

This big tome of a book was the first Harry Potter book (for me at least) that took a turn for the serious, the more mature. With the death of Cedric Diggory, the stakes were definitely raised.

Also, one of the great things about reading the series as a kid was how you grew up alongside the characters. I never felt that this was more apparent than while reading The Goblet of Fire.

So which Harry Potter books are your favorite? I understand if you can’t pick. It took me days of ponderous thought to come up with this list.

Top 5 Favorite Stephen King Books

I’m not the only person who loves Stephen King’s writing. His popularity can attest to that. But I’d be remiss if I didn’t write a post about it.

You see, Stephen King holds a special place in my heart. He was the first author that showed me how raw story-telling could be. Prior to reading one of his books, I had mostly stuck to classics. I read things like 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and Tom Sawyer. They could be romping good adventures, but they were dry reads.

But when I was 11-years old, I picked up my first Stephen King book. It was The Dark Half. I was blown away. (And that’s not even his best book!)

King has a style of writing that worms its way into the heads of his characters. It’s choppy and messy sometimes, but it’s engrossing as heck. You not only feel what they feel, but you find yourself realizing you’ve had the same thoughts on your own (which can be disturbing, depending on which character you’re empathizing with).

Plus, I find the concepts Stephen King comes up with are phenomenal. They are simultaneously the stuff of legends and trashy pulp fiction.

He’s not for everyone. I get that. But if you don’t try him out at least once, you’ll be missing out on one of the best contemporary writers of our age.

Here’s a list of my top 5 favorite Stephen King books!

5. Under the Dome

Perhaps better than he writes fantastical monsters, King knows how to write real monsters, the kind that actually inhabit our world. Bullies with more than a simple sadistic streak, corrupt politicians with lies instead of blood running through their veins, and alcoholic fathers trapped in a body of rage and drink. Under the Dome is not a great read because of the giant invisible sphere the mysteriously encloses a small town. It’s a great read because of what happens after. You get to see what the town devolves into, and the best part is that it happens so slowly. Things just don’t erupt into chaos. Panic sets in after days and weeks go by. It’s a slow build-up, and the true horror lies in how you can actually picture some of your own town’s denizens going crazy in the same way.

4. The Mist

This was more of a novella than a novel, but I included it on this list for one simple reason. It’s the first book that ever really scared me. And by “scared,” I mean it scared me. I don’t know what it was about it exactly. Maybe it’s because I read it in one go, never stopping for a break. Maybe because monsters coming out of an impenetrable mist is particularly horrifying to me. Whatever the reason, with every word I read of The Mist, my heart started to pound harder and harder. I would recommend The Mist easily to first-time King readers because it has a sprinkling of everything that makes King King. It has grotesque creatures, creepy old ladies, random sex between strangers, and an ambiguous ending.

3. Christine

For me, Christine was what The Shining was to other King fans. The best/worst part of The Shining was the father’s fall from Nice Dad to Psychotic Dad. In Christine, the best/worst part was seeing Archie’s fall from Lovable Nerd to Douche-In-The-Making. And I love the perspective changes that occur. I don’t always like it when the narrator abruptly switches to another person, but it really worked for me in Christine. Plus, there was a tiny part of me that rooted for Christine, the evil car that takes over Archie’s life. After all, if you think about it, all she really wanted was to be the one thing in Archie’s life. She even “took care” of some nasty bullies that would not get off Archie’s back.

2. It

Of course It made the list. It’s a classic Stephen King story, complete with childhood nostalgia. I read It in 8th grade. It was a hefty read, but totally worth it. It creeped me out right from the very first chapters. The story of how little Georgie Denbrough lost his arm chilled me to the bone. I almost stopped reading it right there. But thankfully I continued, and the best part of reading It was being able to recommend it to my sister. For the longest time, Alya was a Dean Koontz fan, to which I always scoffed, “Koontz is Stephen King-lite. You want the real thing, go King.” I would only recommend It to people who a) enjoy a long read, b) are already a Stephen King fan, and c) won’t be turned off by a strange-as-fudge adolescent sex scene.

1. The Stand

The Stand is Stephen King’s masterpiece. Not only is its immensity impressive, the scope of the story is daunting. It’s akin to Game of Thrones. It follows the stories of several characters as they each experience the end of the world at the hands of the Captain Trips virus. The book then moves beyond that event and tells you the epic saga of what happens to these characters after the virus has wiped out most of the population. The Stand is huge, and I love it because it was the book that made me want to write. I would recommend this book if you have a love for apocalypse stories, really obvious themes of good and evil, or seeing main characters bite the dust.

The Literature of Halo

For this particular post, I thought I’d give a shout-out to the expanded Halo lore that has sprung up in the bountiful form of books.

Halo is my all-time favorite video game, and part of the reason it has branded itself onto the chamber walls of my heart is because of those books.

I won’t go into the exact details of Halo’s story here, but if you want to, you can check out these Below Average synopsis posts I made for Halo: Combat Evolved and Halo 2 by clicking on them links.

Side note: The synopsis for Halo 3 is coming eventually. I haven’t forgotten about it.

I will, however, talk about the benefits the Halo books lend to the games, my favorites, and how the games should incorporate the lore in the future.

The best kind of Halo books have little to do with the events of the games. They tell compact stories within the Halo universe revolving around characters we barely see in the games. For example, Contact Harvest by Joseph Staten tells the backstory of a side character from the first game, and damn if he didn’t make the character of Avery Johnson more popular by doing so.

That’s a great example of my favorite kind of Halo book.

A book like The Flood is the complete opposite of that.

The Flood by William C. Dietz is a retelling of the plot of the first game. I mean, I’m a total lore-nerd when it comes to Halo, so I did enjoy reading the book. Plus, it gave me some hints about secrets in the game. However, in terms of an objective reading experience, you could kind of tell that the novel was a bit derivative.

So the best Halo books add to a universe that we’ve glimpsed in the games. Playing a Halo game is like visiting an exotic new location. Reading a Halo book is like hiring a tour guide to tell you about the places you are walking through.

Now, if the average layman were to pick up a random Halo book from their local Barnes & Noble, I’m not going to lie, they’d probably get a bit lost. Many of the plots rely on the fact that readers will know certain aspects of the Halo universe. Since I have played all the games and been immersed in the lore since high school, it’s actually pretty difficult for me to discern what will be obtuse to a newcomer or what will make sense.

But if I were to recommend Halo books to anybody, here are the five I would choose:

1. Halo: The Fall of Reach by Eric Nyland: This is a classic Halo book, perhaps the classic, and it would be the best start for a newcomer. It describes the events before the first game, setting up the story of the main character and the war he finds himself thrust in. You’ll learn what the SPARTAN program is and how the war with the Covenant escalated. I know certain Halo fans dislike how the story conflicts with the plot of the game Halo: Reach, but I like both, and I take them on as separate entities in the same universe.

2. Halo: Cryptum by Greg Bear: This is the first book of The Forerunner Saga, and even though it’s a strange read, I adore it. The plot takes place millennia before the plot of the first game. It talks of the Forerunners, the ancient alien race that built the Halo rings and battled the Flood before Master Chief did. The book is written with a weird syntax which takes some getting used to, but after a while, I appreciated it. The Forerunners should speak and act differently from how a human would, and the book reflects that. A word of caution though: be prepared to interpret things freely as you read. And the best delight this book brought to me came from revelations that tied to the games. I would not recommend this book to a newcomer unless they are committed to reading more lore.

3. Halo: Glasslands by Karen Traviss: This is just a well-written book. Straight-up awesome writing. The Halo games have trouble translating the human nature of characters into the games (with a few exceptions), and this book excels at making these characters feel real. Traviss tells the story of a special ops group comprised of different members from different branches of the United Nations Space Command. They each have had different experiences in the Covenant War, and it shaped who they are and how they approach the situation they find themselves in.

4. Halo: Broken Circle by John Shirley: This book wowed me by making Prophets seem sympathetic. (Well, certain Prophets.) Any Halo fan can tell you that the Prophets are a race of aliens in the Covenant that only come across as religious fanatics or manipulative schemers in the games. The Prophets, or San’Shyuum as they call themselves, are not to be contained by such representations thanks to this book. It shows us what they were like before they became a political nightmare. It also gives a narrative for how the Covenant came together. (The Covenant being a group of different alien races that banded together to find the Halo rings and destroy humanity.)

5. Halo: Last Light by Troy Denning: I discovered Troy Denning waaaay too late. I have since been rectifying that, and several of his Halo books are on my to-read list. Last Light is my favorite so far. He gives us a closer look at the Spartan-IIIs, and he tells a close-knit story that is separate from the events of the games. It also helps that his main character, Veta Lopis, is an outsider to the UNSC. You get to experience her reactions to the Spartans as she sees what they can do for the first time.

Now, I love lore as much as the next person, but I do have problems when the games include too much of it. My favorite Halo games are the first one and Halo:Reach, and they both have a story that relies more on its setting than on plot points. It allows the player to draw conclusions on their own without shoving too much narrative down their throats.

Side note: I do like narrative-heavy video games. But Halo has never been about a heavy narrative, not in the in the original games at least. And I liked them that way.

Halo 5: Guardians handled its narrative all wrong. It made the mistake of trying to jam too much lore into every seam of the game. With so much lore dripping out of it, the actual story of the game lost its tightness. Plus, it made it so that only a person who had read every bit of lore could enjoy the game with a thorough understanding of the characters.

I believe future games should return to the story-telling habits of the first ones. Less can be more, show don’t tell, and, for the ever-loving love of god, GIVE US BACK COUCH CO-OP.

To come to a conclusion, I just want to say that the Halo universe is a rich one, oozing with science-fiction possibilities. If you want to get into it, don’t let the growing library of books supporting it daunt you. Pick one up and get ready for some excitement. (But seriously, at least start with The Fall of Reach.)

Literary Sins: The World Lied to Me about Moby-Dick

As seen in my first Literary Sins post, I’m on this journey to read classic books that are great works of literature. I started this endeavor because a) I like to read, and b) I did not want to miss out on these classic stories.

Mistakes were made.

Why did no one tell me that Moby-Dick was a complete and utter bore?!

I chose to rectify the supposed literary sin of never having read Moby-Dick months ago. I had read some of Herman Melville’s short stories as part of an English course I took in college, but I had never tackled his “greatest” tale about a man’s vendetta against a white whale.

I had heard of Moby-Dick before, though. I mean, who hasn’t? Its first line is famous, and parodies of the demented Captain Ahab are a dime a dozen.

With those parodies ingrained in my mind, I thought Moby-Dick was going to be an adventure. You know, something along the lines of Treasure Island.

I thought it was going to be fun.

It’s not.

AGJHSKJDHSFDGHUAWESGFBSDBLKIUHYSUGHDFVBSGHDFIERHGKDBFVLJHDBFJKASVGDKVSHDGFJSHDGBFAJHGSD!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

What the hell, guys?! I was under the assumption that I was in for a seafaring treat, and instead I got this hefty compendium of whale facts.

Seriously, story is just lightly sprinkled over these massive portions of whale tidbits. 10% of the book’s lengthy page count is devoted to progressing and resolving the plot. The other 90% provides details about whale fins, whale bones, whale eyes, whale teeth, whale baleen, whale flukes, whale blubber, whale migration patterns, whales throughout history, whale myths, the whaling industry, the different kinds of whales, whale behavior, whale hunts, whale boats,WHALE EVERYTHING.

I love whales as much as the next person, but come on.

I’m usually not one to mind descriptive detail in my books. Ask anyone who knows about my reading and writing style. I don’t mind getting into paragraphs devoted to describing a single thing.

But there is a limit to how much I can take.

And Herman Melville reached it.

Apparently, Melville’s love of whale trivia is known throughout literary circles. My boyfriend even showed me a meme he found about it after I complained to him about all the whale facts. It’s that one where a boyfriend and girlfriend are walking past a hot girl, so the boyfriend is doing a speculative double-take while the girlfriend glares at him. In place of the hot girl’s face, the words “Whale Facts” covers her features. “Herman Melville” is the boyfriend. “The Actual Plot of Moby-Dick” is the girlfriend.

It’s just a shame that I only found out about this running joke after I had already gotten halfway through Moby-Dick.

Do not, under any circumstances, fall for the trap that is Moby-Dick.

I give Moby-Dick an only-read-this-if-you-are-prepared-to-read-a-lot-of-whale-facts-and-you-want-to-spend-hours-soaking-that-information-up-by-reading-a-novel-instead-of-just-Googling-that-shit-oh-and-it’s-all-written-in-old-timey-language-so-good-luck.