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Books That Defy Genres! (by Ms. Pelman)

One of the easiest ways to talk about books is by genre. We say, do you like mysteries? What about fantasy, or sci-fi? It’s a great way to find common ground and to seek out, or give, recommendations.

Did you know that genres follow a formula? It’s true! If you read enough mysteries or romance books, you’ll begin to see patterns. Some people really dig this for their reading, as familiarity can be comforting. Often people return to the same author over and over again because they know just what to expect.

Of course, there are times when you crave something out of the ordinary. And when that happens, books that break the mold are the most satisfying. When you want to expect the unexpected, here are a few books that blur the lines of categorization in interesting ways:


Midnight at the Electric by Jodi Lynn Anderson

The year is 2065, Adri has been preparing her whole life to be an astronaut who will help colonize Mars, and she is elated when she is chosen for the mission. When she moves from Miami to Kansas for training, she discovers a journal written by someone who lived in her house over one hundred years ago. Adri becomes increasingly absorbed in the fates of the people contained within the journal.

Since the book is told in multiple timelines, and across vast geographies, it is a satisfying blend of science fiction and historical fiction, complete with secrets, betrayals, and heartbreak.


Lovely War by Julie Berry

Romance, history, and wartime, but with a mythological kick.

When Hephaestus finds his wife Aphrodite cheating on him with his brother Ares, he convenes a trial in which Aphrodite must defend herself and her actions. To do so, she relays a harrowing story about interracial love, music, and friendship during World War I.

Beautifully written and captivating, while not shying away from historically accurate portrayals of racism and sexism, this soaring book makes a compelling case for the enduring human spirit as told by the goddess of love herself.


In Other Lands by Sarah Rees Brennan

If you think you know all about books where teenagers go to magical schools, think again.

When the obnoxious and unloved Eliot winds up in a magical realm called the Borderlands (protected by an invisible wall), he meets elves, mermaids, and other magical people. It seems like his dreams will be realized, but this is a place where expectations, stereotypes, and other prejudices are thrown out in place of the unpredictable. Eliot will fall in love and make an unexpected friend, but can he save the world while doing it?

This funny novel plays with fantasy tropes, but more than that, it turns preconceived notions of gender, colonialism, and sexism upside down and inside out.


Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut

A classic work of literature by an author whose work has produced a rabid and devoted fanbase.

In this book the protagonist, Billy Pilgrim, has become “unstuck in time” so the story does not follow a linear timeline. It jumps around all over the place featuring different moments of Billy’s life.

Vonnegut’s unique writing style is at times humorous, sometimes derisive, but always memorable and moving.


Noggin by John Corey Whaley

When the story begins, Travis is a 16-year-old suffering from cancer. Once he realizes that he will not survive the illness he agrees to participate in an experimental procedure in which, after he dies, his head will be removed from his body and cryogenically frozen, to then be attached to a new body if and when the technology allows…

…It doesn’t take long and Travis is born again 5 years later, albeit with a new body. He would like, and expects, to pick up his life where he left it, but that won’t be so simple. Some of the most important people in his life, namely his girlfriend and his best friend, have been living, loving, and changing in the time that he was gone and Travis must figure out where he fits in.

This strange tale raises both philosophical and existential questions about life, wrapped up in a funny and heartfelt story about love and the nature of being.

Have you read any other books that defy genres? Share them in the comments!

Skyward by Brandon Sanderson (Review by Varun F. ’24)

Skyward (Skyward, #1)Skyward by Brandon Sanderson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Skyward by Brandon Sanderson tells the story of Spensa, a young woman who dreams of becoming a pilot in order to follow in the footsteps of her father and protect the world from the Krell, an alien species. The plot follows her journey through pilot training and the trials that she must overcome in order to prove her place as a true pilot.

I really enjoyed this book in part due to Brandon Sanderson’s incredibly written action scenes, which mainly take place between the Krell and the pilots. Creating an interesting and engaging action scene is hard enough as it is, but Brandon Sanderson goes above and beyond by staying true to the voice of Spensa in his narration throughout these scenes. I would even go as far to say that one could solely read this book for the action scenes.

Still, there are some flaws in this book. For one, although Spensa is a deliberately arrogant and overconfident character, many of her decisions and actions throughout the book simply do not make sense. Additionally, I wish there was more commentary on Spensa’s past, which could have been in the form of flashback scenes. That being said, I really enjoyed reading this novel. It was packed with incredible action scenes and great moments of humor. I strongly recommend this book to any action or science fiction fans. —Review by Varun F. ‘24

For those who enjoyed Skyward, Varun also suggests the next books in the series, Starsight and Cytonic.

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Top 5 Scary Reads (Chosen by Our Teachers!)

Although Halloween is over, the days are getting colder and darker (sometimes it even rains!)… it’s as wintry as California will get. Perfect weather for curling up with a warm drink and a good, spooky book to chill you to the bone. So we asked our teachers what their favorite scary work of literature was, or what creeped them out the most, and these are their responses… happy reading!

Mr. Manjoine: The Road by Cormac McCarthy

“You forget what you want to remember, and you remember what you want to forget.”

“Nobody wants to be here and nobody wants to leave.”

A father and his son walk alone through burned America. Nothing moves in the ravaged landscape save the ash on the wind. It is cold enough to crack stones, and when the snow falls it is gray. The sky is dark. Their destination is the coast, although they don’t know what, if anything, awaits them there. They have nothing; just a pistol to defend themselves against the lawless bands that stalk the road, the clothes they are wearing, a cart of scavenged food—and each other.

Note: The Road was also adapted as a post-apocalyptic survival film by the same name!

Ms. Manning: Grimm’s Fairy Tales by Jacob Grimm and Wilhelm Grimm

“When any pretty maiden came within that space she was changed into a bird, and the fairy put her into a cage, and hung her up in a chamber in the castle. There were seven hundred of these cages hanging in the castle, and all with beautiful birds in them.”

We know fairy tales as the stories of a beautiful princess, a charming prince, and their happily-ever-after… but let’s just say that Disney did quite a lot of clean up…

Mr. Slivka: The Body Artist by Don DeLillo

In The Body Artist, DeLillo tells the hallucinatory tale of performance artist Lauren Hartke in the days following the suicide of her husband, filmmaker Rey Robles.

Finishing out their lease of a rented house on the coast, living in a self-imposed exile, Lauren discovers a mysterious man in the bedroom upstairs who is able to repeat — verbatim — entire conversations she had with her husband before his death but does not seem to know his own name or where he happens to come from.

“A metaphysical ghost story about a woman alone…intimate, spare, exquisite.” – Adam BegleyThe New York Times Book Review

Ms. Green: The Other Black Girl by Zakiya Dalila Harris

Get Out meets The Stepford Wives in this electric debut about the tension that unfurls when two young Black women meet against the starkly white backdrop of New York City book publishing.

A whip-smart and dynamic thriller and sly social commentary that is perfect for anyone who has ever felt manipulated, threatened, or overlooked in the workplace, The Other Black Girl will keep you on the edge of your seat until the very last twist.

Ms. Miller: “The Wind” by Lauren Groff

“Much later, she would tell me the story of this day at those times when it seemed as if her limbs were too heavy to move and she stood staring into the refrigerator for long spells… then I would sit quietly beside her, and she would tell the story the same way every time, as if ripping out something that had worked its roots deep inside her.”

You can find it here in The New Yorker (TW: domestic violence)

The Butterfly Mosque by G. Willow Wilson (Review by Ritu B. ’24)

The Butterfly Mosque: A Young American Woman's Journey to Love and IslamThe Butterfly Mosque: A Young American Woman’s Journey to Love and Islam by G. Willow Wilson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

In a world where most Americans’ views on the Middle East are biased by polarizing media stories on nuclear weapons and dictators, The Butterfly Mosque depicts the real pulse of Egypt encountered by the author during the ‘90s. Willow narrates how after graduating from college with a history degree and a draw towards Islam, she takes a job as a teacher in Cairo, where she finds her future husband and also becomes a Muslim.

I loved seeing Egyptian society through Wilson’s American perspective because she skillfully pulls the reader into understanding the intimate exchanges of extended family (as we see her become integrated into an Egyptian family herself), the politics of negotiating the best prices at a souk (market), and the expected social dynamics between men and women. Some of the book’s broader ideas address cultural differences between the East and West. An example of Wilson’s many musings is a rhetorical question: why is it acceptable in America for men and women to kiss each other on the cheek as a greeting, but not for men and men, while the opposite is true in Egypt—even though both sides claim that the kiss is completely platonic?

Wilson also fights back against the common Western portrayal of Islam as oppressive and anti-feminist, and I wish more could hear her message that even though something may seem different than what you believe in, one shouldn’t take it at face value, and definitely shouldn’t rush to label it as backwards.

If you’re worried this book is a little too deep for you, don’t worry—there’s plenty of entertaining anecdotes about Willow’s difficulties with Arabic and her adventures with her close roommate, an example being when they have to help a cat give birth. Despite a disappointing cliffhanger ending, I cherished this book and read it again within a week. For those who would like to have their eyes opened to another culture or who are interested in learning more about Islam, I strongly recommend picking up The Butterfly Mosque. —Review by Ritu B. ’24

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2021 Book Blog Fanfiction Contest Results

Thank you to all who participated in our first ever Book Blog Fanfiction Contest! Our team greatly enjoyed reading all the entries, and we were so impressed by all the talent. If you’d like to check out any of the works, please scroll to the end of the post!

Awards

Without further ado, here are our winners and Honorable Mentions:

First Place: kaimós by John Doe (“The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel”)

Second Place: Knight or Sovereign by Emma A. and Sophia G. (18th-20th Century Philosophers)

Honorable Mention for Best Aesthetic: Boys Do Fall in Love by GM (Dream SMP)

Honorable Mention for Best Monologue Retelling: Horatio by Lily (Hamlet)

Honorable Mention for Most Likely to be Misconstrued as Canon: A Detailed History Of One Herman Melville by Kit M. (“Bungou Stray Dogs”)

Honorable Mention for Best Portrayal of a Platonic Relationship: Kindred Spirit by GM (Dream SMP)

Honorable Mention for Best Use of Second Person POV and Fantasy World Description: Marcy’s Rumination by vithe (“Amphibia”)

Honorable Mention for Most Likely to Induce Waterfalls in the Middle of the Night: deus-excellion by John Doe (“The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel”)

Honorable Mention for Best Cliffhanger: Original Work by Jacob F. (“All That You Love Will Be Carried Away” by Stephen King)

Submissions

Here are all the fanfiction submissions that you can check out, with comments from our judging team. Happy reading!

kaimós by John Doe (“The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel”)

“I have no words. I literally have no words. I consider myself well-versed in fanfiction, as I have seen all kinds, but this. This was gorgeously written.”

Knight or Sovereign by Emma A. and Sophia G. (18th-20th Century Philosophers)

“With the dedication to Akshay, I knew that this was going to be a wild ride. And it truly was. The structure was perfect. I loved the choose-your-own-adventure style story. The narration was great (funny + intellectual + pretentious).”

“I just have to say there was one metaphor about marshmallows melting in hot chocolate and fleeting innocence in this world that was exquisite.”

The Pixels of Dorian Gray by Sophia G. (The Picture of Dorian Gray)

“I liked the new take on the story, and how they changed the ending. I also thought the time skips were done well.”

Marcy’s Rumination by vithe (“Amphibia”)

“Super fun writing style, made the setting and description seem much more mature/thrilling/higher stakes. I normally don’t like second person POV, but this one did it really well and made me feel like I was part of the mystical Amphibia world (a more adult version of it compared to the cartoon original). Overall, SUPER well written and beautiful descriptions.”

deus-excellion by John Doe (“The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel”):

“I thought the fanfic did justice to the characters, the language was very descriptive and original (no clichés and I could imagine myself being right there in the scene) and the story read dramatically.”

“The characterization especially was amazing.”

Original Work by Christina R. (The Mummy)

“Funny characterization, a very sad look on Evelyn’s life after adventure. Makes her seem not so much the hero anymore and in a downward trajectory from glory.”

A Detailed History Of One Herman Melville by Kit M. (“Bungou Stray Dogs”)

“Descriptive, poetic writing. It flows nicely and fits well with canon (it’s a backstory for a character and his power that makes sense)”

Original Work by Jacob F. (“All That You Love Will Be Carried Away”)

“I really liked the ending of this and just the story overall.”

Horatio by Lily (Hamlet)

“This is a really interesting take on Hamlet which considers Horatio as a lover of the titular character.”

Regret is Stronger Than Gratitude by GM (Dream SMP)

“Nice writing, and I think the characterization was well-done.”

“Deep/philosophical based fanfiction. Enjoyed the writing style and imagery.”

Tower Green by GM (Dream SMP)

“The opening sentence hooked me in.”

Boys Do Fall in Love by GM (Dream SMP)

“This was really, really cute. It was nice to see some other background relationships, too; overall, this story is full of sweetness and fluff.”

“Most likely to give me a cavity. Enough said.”

Healing Pains by GM (Dream SMP)

“Really interesting deviation from canon.”

Kindred Spirit by GM (Dream SMP)

“Damn, this was really good. I really enjoyed the AU. I honestly loved the bonding and George’s growing attachment to Dream was so angsty and it was wonderful.”

Dandelions and Blue Poppies by GM (Dream SMP)

“I loved the setting and overall concept, and the portrayal of Sapnap was so accurate.”

Normal People by Sally Rooney (Review by Varsha R. ’21)

Normal PeopleNormal People by Sally Rooney
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

TW for Normal People: Sexual assault and suicide

The first thing I noticed when I started Sally Rooney’s Normal People was that she does not use quotation marks in dialogue. What was initially jarring became understandable to me over the course of the novel. At the heart of Rooney’s writing is an innate desire to fully immerse the reader into the narrative; in real life, we don’t talk or perceive language with quotation marks, and her aversion towards such conventional punctuation made me feel as though I myself was a side character in the book, watching the story unfold with an outside, yet involved, perspective.

Rooney’s sentences are short, blunt, and zany. At first glance, her words leave almost no room for interpretation, but she also manages to craft an intense, emotionally draining and, at times, frustrating love story that leaves an impact. It’s perhaps for this reason that people either seem to adore Rooney’s writing or despise it. It takes a while to get used to, especially after reading the more standard works of basically any other established author.

Normal People takes a classic, time-and-time-again-told story of misunderstanding amid romance while weaving key threads of social class, mental turmoil, and simultaneous self-discovery and self-depression. It’s impossible not to sympathize with the lead characters, Marianne and Connell, as they make their individual footprints in their legacies while constantly surrounded by the other’s memory and presence.

They start a clandestine relationship with one another in their senior year of high school with the cliche trope of a popular soccer player and a quiet, misunderstood ugly duckling. What separates Normal People from any other coming-of-age romantic comedy is an unmistakable backdrop of social inequality, emotional uncertainty, and poignant thoughts of philosophy and self-questioning, which are furthered by a strong use of the third person.

Rooney has an irksome talent to keep the magnetically attached Marianne and Connell in her books apart at the most inopportune moments, a trope that gets exasperating after the first couple times. But as she puts it, “All these year they’ve been like two little plants sharing the same plot of soil, growing around one another, contorting to make room, taking certain unlikely positions.”

And of course, a key hallmark of Rooney’s books is a disappointing ending that almost came off as a final “screw you” to the reader after having been swept up in Marianne and Connell’s intertwining tale for so long. But it was impossible for me to stay annoyed for long after having reflected on the profound impact that this book had on me, my perception of myself, and my understanding of how I’m perceived in the world around me. —Review by Varsha R. ’21

For those who enjoyed Normal People, Varsha also suggests Conversations with Friends by Sally Rooney and The Outline Trilogy: Outline, Transit and Kudos by Rachel Cusk.

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The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes by Suzanne Collins (5 Star Review by Ritu B. ’24)

The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes (The Hunger Games, #0)The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes by Suzanne Collins
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes is a jaw-dropping, lip-eroding (from biting in constant anticipation), breath-snatching tsunami of a novel. After completing it, I guarantee that you will be unable to formulate a coherent sentence for the next few hours.

This stellar prequel addresses questions Hunger Games fans didn’t even know they had, like who really thought up the idea for the Hunger Games, how the eerie “Hanging Tree” came about, and what it’s really like to be a Peacekeeper. But for every question the novel answers, it creates ten more that go unanswered. I think that the reason the book lingered so long in my head is because it left so many roads open with the way it told Snow’s story.

With The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes, Suzanne Collins proved that she doesn’t need Katniss Everdeen to weave a thrilling narrative—the entire book filters the world through the eyes of none other than eighteen year old Coriolanus Snow. (If you don’t recognize his name, does “creepy dictator with no morals but a heck ton of white roses” ring a bell?) Right from the first chapter, his narcissism and his willingness to do anything to get ahead stood out to me. Collins voices his thoughts incredibly so that we can see his callous calculation of every minute incident and the cogs in his brain revolving to warp it into a tool to augment his reputation.

Not only do we get a better understanding of Snow in the prequel, but we also see an older Panem up close. The initial war between the districts and the Capitol enormously impacted Snow’s childhood and the Capitol in ways we never could have inferred from just seeing the districts’ perspective on Panem’s history. Plus, it’s amazing to think about how the Hunger Games have evolved over time—the crude, primitive ones that occur in this novel (the tributes stay together in one cell of a zoo like animals!) are a far cry from Katniss’s flashy, spectacular games 64 years later. More interesting yet is the surnames of Capitol characters present in this book, including a Plutarch. I don’t want to spoil anything, but a Flickerman plays a role as a weatherman and games commentator!

I’m not going to say that after seeing Snow’s life up close, I think his actions in the Hunger Games trilogy are justified. However, I would argue that the prequel brings a touch of humanity to his character, or at the very least, elicits sympathy for him. The main reason that propels the reader to continue flipping the pages of The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes is the question “How does Snow get from here to where he is in the trilogy?” Perhaps we receive a complete answer as to his mental and emotional frame, but Suzanne Collins does not provide a line-by-line list of the logistics of it. As a result, once I finished reading this book, I had no choice but to watch two hours of book nerds on YouTube discussing their reaction to the novel and popular fan theories out there. I don’t doubt that this prequel will draw in an abundance of fan fiction. (If you do write a Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes fanfiction, please send it to me—I would love to read it!) Lastly, Lionsgate announced last summer that a movie version for this prequel is in the making. I, for one, can’t wait. –Ritu B. ’24

Have you read The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes? Let us know what you thought in the comments!

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Celebrating AAPI Literature (By Ms. Pelman)

Out of countless prodigious options, here are four books that I’ve read recently written by Asian American authors. They each represent just one facet (of infinite) perspectives. While these books take on wildly different subject matter, each one is fascinating, eye-opening, and riveting in its own right.


We Are Not Free by Traci Chee

This work of historical fiction follows a group of Japanese American teens who live in San Francisco during World War II. Their lives are thrown into tumult and their bonds are tested as some of them face the decision to fight in the war, and others are sent to an internment camp. If you like books told from multiple perspectives, you won’t be let down by this vivid and moving book.


Interior Chinatown by Charles Yu

This offbeat National Book Award winner is written in a screenplay format. Willis Wu is a Chinese American actor who hopes to graduate from the bit parts of “generic Asian man” to the ultimate role for Asian men: Kung Fu Guy. Clever, funny, and fast-paced, this book skewers Hollywood in the most satisfying way.


Last Night at the Telegraph Club by Malinda Lo

Another historical fiction set in San Francisco, though this one follows Lily, a shy and obedient girl living in Chinatown in the 1950s. As Lily navigates a growing discomfort with her family, culture, and best friend, she discovers truths about herself and her sexuality that will change her life forever. A lovely tribute to self-discovery amidst painful realities.

Minor Feelings by Cathy Park Hong

This nonfiction book of essays contains brilliant commentary and criticism on race in the United States as the author explores and explains her Korean American identity. It is also beautifully written and complemented by memoir-like personal experiences. A memorable experience that makes you think and feel.

Have you read any great books by AAPI authors? Share them in the comments!

Introducing: Fanfiction contest

The Harker Book Blog is hosting our first ever FanFiction Contest!! You can write about any work (book, movie, television, show, K-Pop group…). Spin the original work into anything that you want (for example: rewrite Twilight from the perspective of Jacob, or make Percy Jackson have a brain made of seaweed that zombies want to eat). There is no length requirement, but we recommend your writing be 1-5 pages long. Your story can comprise all your marvelous imaginings, but the content must be Harker appropriate. The deadline to enter is May 1st at 8pm!

Feeling shy about this secret talent of yours? Not to worry, you are allowed to submit under a pen name and can therefore remain entirely anonymous! 

We will announce winning entries on the blog. To avoid any copyright issues, submissions will only be accessible to the Harker community via protected PDFs. Feel free to email harkerusbookblog@gmail.com if you have any questions, or if you would like prompt ideas for your story. 

For more info and to learn how to enter, go to tiny.cc/harkerfanfic. We look forward to reading your entries!

The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde (5 Star Review by Ananya B. ’23)

The Picture of Dorian GrayThe Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The Picture of Dorian Gray is a philosophical novel featuring main characters Basil Hallward, Lord Henry Wotton, and of course, Dorian Gray. Basil Hallward is an artist who paints a portrait of Dorian Gray, and Lord Henry is a friend of his who has extremely questionable morals and ideals, unlike those that Dorian has been exposed to before. I loved this book, mostly because of the characters themselves.

First, we have Dorian Gray, who starts off the novel as a young, naive, child-like character, but he undergoes many changes and a great deal of character development throughout the novel, mainly under the influence of Lord Henry. I honestly cannot tell if I loved or hated Lord Henry, who brings up numerous witty and intelligent insights and ways of thinking. He corrupts Dorian with his deplorable deeds and persuasive words.

Next, there is Basil, who is the foil to Lord Henry, serving as the angel to his devil. The relationships between the characters, their interactions, and how they influence each other was engrossing, although I would have liked to have seen more of Basil and Dorian.

My one main criticism of the book is that Wilde sometimes goes on long tangents describing furniture, tapestries, and other such things. However, Wilde explores the themes of depravity, corruption, and hedonism in an enthralling and captivating way, forcing the mind to think about different philosophies and their effect on a person such as Dorian. —Review by Ananya B. ‘23

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