Obviously we all want to read new and interesting and novel things, completely unique stuff we’ve never encountered before that ends up being like absolutely nothing else we’ve ever seen before and is also somehow incredible (because we must assume that part of the reason we have never seen certain things before is that they suck and never make it into our field of attention). Sure, yes, of course, excellent, I would like to read new and interesting and novel things.
But also I want to read the same things over and over until I die, and I’m not sorry about it.
While I will absolutely read the same books over and over again until I die, I think I am only about halfway finished with life, probably, so will also allow for the idea that I would like to read different versions of the same things over and over again until I die.
That said, here are fourteen unnecessarily specific features/tropes/plot points I like in books. If I hear one of these things is in a book, I am going to read that book. If one of these things is in a book and I read that book and I don’t like the book, I will be bewildered and howl to the skies, which are actually just my bedroom ceiling because I don’t go anywhere, “BUT IT HAS THE THING I LIKE, WHAT THE FUCK.” To be fair — or spectacularly unfair — though, I’m not only overly specific about these things, but also incredibly picky in a way I will not be able to fully explain, as well.
Knowing I am a fussy asshole about them will not stop me from feeling a mighty and righteous betrayal should one of these things fail me. I was born like this. I can’t do anything about it at this point.
I will do my best to explain things in a way that doesn’t boil down to “this is this way because this is the way it is,” and provide examples, as well. Some of these are infuriatingly nebulous, some go all the way back to books I read thirty years ago that imprinted on me or something. Some I am wildly dedicated to, yet can’t provide an example of it being done in a way that satisfies me properly. Including them may feel like I am breaking some sort of rules, but we’re less than 400 words into this post, so you can still scroll back up to check and see that I haven’t set any rules and I do what I want.
We’re over 400 words now and I haven’t even gotten started with the list, if that gives you any indication of what sort of supplies you should lay in for the rest of this journey.
Here are the 14 excessively specific yet somehow also vague features, tropes, and plot points I like in books and will read variations of over and over until I die. All book titles link out, something I will have to verbally inform you of until I fix this beshitted blog.
Ok, this one I can definitely trace back to being a kid the first time I encountered it – The Westing Game, obviously. I have been looking for The Westing Game in different books for thirty solid years. Another that I remember from childhood is one called Serendipity Summer, one I can’t actually find on Goodreads or Amazon, so perhaps halucinated it? I believe it was by Paula Danziger or someone in that general area, you know what I mean. Two sets of siblings have to spend their summer together, and their parents set them up a sort of scavenger hunt/list of activities to do in NYC. If they complete everything, they win some international trip at the end of the summer. I think. I am not certain. I have not read either The Westing Game or Serendipty Summer in 30 years, so I have no idea if they hold up, or if I even have an accurate idea of what they are. The point is, I like a book with some kind of game element, and not just children’s literature, those are just the two I remember inspiring this. Another example is Ready Player One.
A scavenger hunt or a mystery set up by an eccentric billionaire or even some sort of Amazing Race-like competition would work here, and I can imagine there might be some mysteries/thrillers out there with a similar feel, but more of a higher stakes sort of thing — like instead of completing a game to win a prize, it’s following clues from a killer to catch them before they kill the protagonist/someone else. Did I just describe mysteries? You know what I mean. Murder, but make it a game.
Let’s knock out another childhood-originating concept. When I was a toddler, I went to an in-home daycare. My sister, less than 2 years younger than me, also went there, and my brother, who no one ever remembers exists because he’s 8 years younger than me and to be entirely fair, I routinely forget to mention he exists, also went there, so my family had a pretty long relationship with the woman who ran it. When my brother was still attending, I was in the third/fourth grade and reading like a child raised before the internet existed, because that’s what I was. Knowing I was plowing through books at an absolutely unreasonable rate, the woman who ran the daycare gave my mother a box of her daughter’s old books for me, which is why so many of my formative books are a bit… dated. Anyway! The Caitlin Series by Francine Pascal, you know that one? It’s about a girl who attends a super upscale boarding school, with horses and stuff, and maybe she isn’t a really great girl, even though she kind of seems like an excellent person on the surface. There’s an accident that she is responsible for but lets someone else take the blame for, and she spends the trilogy just developing into a non-shit human as a result. That doesn’t matter. The point is, from there on, boarding school books are my thing.
Other examples: Prep by Curtis Sittenfeld. Looking for Alaska by John Green. Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro.
I am hoping to get a lot of recommendations for this one, even though recommendations might be spoilers. By “secret identity,” I don’t mean superheros or the like — though I suppose I could. No, the particular version of this I like is when two people are talking online, and either one or both of them doesn’t know they know the other one in real life. Maybe they’re just friends in real life, or maybe they hate each other, doesn’t matter. It’s fun when neither of them know they’re talking to each other, and it’s fun when one knows and they other doesn’t and they’re trying not to get caught. Or something like Eliza and Her Monsters, where Eliza is writing a very well known and popular web comic, and the people around her are all very aware of it, but none of them know she is the writer. Same as Fangirl, really — which I did not really like, but please search this post for the word “asshole” for a reminder.
Other examples: Tell Me Three Things by Julie Buxbaum. Simon vs The Homo Sapiens Agenda by Becky Albertali. My Favorite Half-Night Stand by Christina Lauren.
I think this could also pretty easily be referred to as a “found family” trope, which I also enjoy, but more specifically, I like when a friend group is all male or all female (non-binary inclusive, sexuality not a factor). More than that, I like when the friend group is solid. Maybe there are conflicts, arguments, etc, like you’d find in any friend group, but conflict within the friend group is not the plot of the book. Perhaps they are on a mission, or are solving a mystery together, or it’s just a slice of life book following this group of friends. Not “what happens when two of the guys in the group go after the same girl,” or any conflict that centers the plot around disruption of the group. Also, no token opposite sex members of the group — I like straight up explorations of female friendship or male friendship, without any sort of plot points revolving around gender. Just bros being bros, you know? Can we get some men platonically loving the shit out of other men up in here? Two that I can think of are two of my favorite books: A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving and A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara.
For this one, I specifically mean just existence on a spaceship. I’m not super interested in the plot being a space mission, or the cast of characters being a spaceship crew with the plot focusing around the trials and tribulations of piloting a spaceship. Rather, I mean just people existing on a spaceship. Maybe they’re on a long travel somewhere, or maybe people just live on spaceships now, I don’t know, I can’t see the future. I can think of a few different things that fall into this area for me. Across the Universe by Beth Revis, the Illuminae Files, the podcast Wolf 359 (y’all. Y’ALL. YOU MUST.), Battlestar Galactica, which I watched while I was on 12 weeks of bed rest and flat refused to eject my child until I finished it. One of the very first fan fics I ever read, which was about the vampire Armand and Tempus on a long haul space journey where of course they were awake while everyone else is in cryo-sleep because they’re VAMPIRES and it was called Kiss of a Kinder Sun and if you can find it I’ll owe you something enormous that I probably won’t follow through on.
It makes sense to bring this one up now because IN KISS OF A KINDER SUN? THE SPACESHIP WAS CALLED LINNET AND IT TALKED TO ARMAND AND TEMPUS AND WAS COOL. I don’t know what it is about this one, but I like the idea of some kind of always-accessible universal AI that knows everything and can do everything and automate everything and maybe I’m just pathologically lazy and want a robot to do things for me and also be my friend? The Thunderhead in the Scythe series by Neal Schusterman is a good example here, too.
Another one that follows closely from the one before, because I was thinking about how The Oasis in Ready Player One basically has everything you need, you can do everything there, everything is accessible, wish-fulfillment kind of stuff. Warcross by Marie Lu is another book that has an immersive virtual world, and I’m not sure yet how deep it goes, but I have Slay by Brittany Morris on my TBR. It’s about Kiera, an honors student who is one of the few Black kids at her high school who spends her free time playing in an online game called SLAY, which ends up having real world consequences. This also fits the secret identity category, since no one knows that Kiera is actually the game developer, as well. VERY EXCITED FOR THIS ONE.
Let’s keep running one right into the next one, because for this one, I’m talking about stuff like Ender’s Game – kids at a school specifically designed to train them to be specialized at something. I particularly like the sci fi genre for this one, but fantasy as well — Poison Study by Maria V. Snyder is one that comes to mind. I suppose Never Let Me Go fits here as well. Anything about a specialized academy of some sort — I’m reading A Deadly Education by Naomi Novik right now, which I think is a good fit, and I have Catherine House by Elizabeth Thomas on audio that I have high hopes for, as well. I think Lev Grossman’s The Magicians fits here, and I especially like the aspect of “I didn’t even know such a school existed, much less that I’d be a candidate for such a place, and yet here I find myself.” Harry Potter-esque, I suppose.
I think this one comes from reading The Boxcar Children, The Secret of NIMH, and From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler. They’re not strictly survival, but the aspect I like is characters in situations that require them to develop plans and methods and devices for doing things that protect their position, like how the rats built a whole civilization with enormously advanced technology, considering their rathood, or how Claudia and Jamie sourced money from a fountain and slept in museum display beds. The Martian fits this as well, with the protagonist left alone on Mars having to develop his own methods for survival through trial and a lot of error and repurposing what he has. Another good example for my needs is the show The Wilds on Amazon, depicting a group of girls stranded on a desert island after a plane crash. This is actually a pretty wide genre for me, because I also include any kind of civilization building — whether a post-apocalyptic thing, or a group of people striking out on their own kind of thing. Even The Dreamers by Karen Thompson Walker fits in here for me, thinking about the kids left on their own when their father is infected with the virus, and the two college kids who don’t know what else to do but pitch in and help, utilizing “borrowed” cars and homes.
I assume this is more accurately called dystopian, and that’s fine. Specifically what I like is “wow, look how advanced we are, look how great everything is, pay no attention to the fact that something/many things are deeply fucked up here.” Obviously The Hunger Games comes to mind, with everything in District 1 being so great at the expense of literally everything else. Scythe is another good candidate here, with the concept of having conquered death. I’d even put The Circle here — the adoption of a massively handy yet massively invasive piece of technology and the consequences.
I don’t know how to explain this except to say that I want to read more books like the Silo series by Hugh Howey but don’t know how to ask for them. Please help me.
By obsessive romance, I mean like the stuff that gets reviews about how irresponsible the author is to even have written it, don’t they know that children could read these things and think it’s okay to become that deeply entwined with another person, or to think it’s an appropriate model for healthy relationships, and how dare the author publish such a thing, ZERO STARS.
No. No. FIVE STARS. FIVE STARS FROM ME. I am on board with the completely irresponsible depiction of romantic relationships, as I am not a child and there is no law. I prefer when the obsession comes from both sides and is wildly dysfunctional, but can also get into one-sided obsession as well, especially if it develops into two-sided obsession. Is this the world I want to see? No. Is this what I hope my own child finds in a romantic partner some day? HELL NO. Am I going to read about Travis Maddox in Beautiful Disaster by Jamie McGuire every other year until I die? Absolutely.
I think Twilight can also fall in here, if more examples are needed. Two people absolutely wrapped up in each other to the point that you think “maybe get some fresh air, guys?,” except no, don’t get fresh air, stay right up each other’s butts, please.
This one’s got a lot of room for activities. For this, I think of things like Liane Moriarty books that have a large cast of characters, all connected in some way — family, social group, etc — and we get some of each of their perspective as they go through the same series of events. Or it could be books with rotating POV, where the characters are unconnected but experiencing the same events from different sides — John Marrs does a lot like this, like The One and The Passengers. Anxious People by Fredrik Backman is a good one here, too. Another option — multiple POVs from seemingly unconnected people that end up with all the various plots converging somehow at the end. I don’t want to tell you any examples for this one in case you don’t want to know but, like, totally unrelatedly? Apropos of nothing? Read Await Your Reply by Dan Chaon. You know. If you feel like it.
I like fan fiction, okay? I JUST LIKE FAN FICTION.
Anyway, these have been the 14 extremely specific but possibly also non-specific elements/tropes/plots I like in books. I am interested to hear if you have any of your own, and I am especially interested to hear any recommendations you might have to fit one or more of these categories, which of course I will then take as some kind of binding contract and commit myself to reading every single one with an eye toward looking out for the specific thing I like and how your suggestion fits it, embarking upon yet another project no one ever asked for yet I feel absolutely morally bound to complete.
Thank you for your attention to this matter.
Remember Me to Harold Square. Now I will read the rest of your post.
I’M NOT CRAZY. JUST AN IDIOT.
Diane and I had a talk where I described a book I read to her that I couldn’t remember the title of or find anywhere. Guess where I found it, Kelly? On my own personal bookshelf.
I literally just picked this Paula Danziger up at a Little Free Library and was looking at it as I read your post – and while I have lots of PD books (Pistachio Prescription, anyone?) I had never read this one. Spooky!!
Okay, now I need to find a way to read this book.
The Truly Devious series by Maureen Johnson is thoroughly enjoyable mystery + group of friends + boarding school situation.
I have definitely had this suggested from a bunch of different people in different ways over the last few months – I even had it out of the library and didn’t get to it. I’ll put the first book back on my list for another round.
Have you read any Kate Racculia? Tuesday Mooney Talks to Ghosts is basically Grown-Up Westing Game. Her novel Bellweather Rhapsody is also a jam, maybe it fits with intertwining stories? It’s about a bunch of people at a hotel during a high school music festival. Mystery! Hijinks! Etc!
I have Tuesday Mooney Talks to Ghosts on my hold list at the library – one of my suspended ones, because if I don’t manage that nonsense with the intense focus of an air traffic controller, I will get book buried. I will pull it up to the top for my next round of borrows!
Good middle grade (esp if you know/like San Francisco): “The Book Scavenger”
On topic #12, I very strongly recommend the After series by Anna Todd. It started out as Harry Styles fanfic, but morphed into this incredible, all-consuming series that you cannot put down for a solid week and then spend the next week wondering how you can move on with your life. It isn’t the greatest writing at times, but oh is it good reading!
I will check it out. I think I’ve seen it around quite a bit, too, so it might fit into my fandom project from my post a couple of days ago.
I am currently reading Stiletto which is the sequel to The Rook. It sort of fits between a few of these categories but not into any of them. Still, I think you’d like them. (Please don’t kill me for veering off the recommendation path.)
I got VERY distracted by your mention of Paula Danziger and I went down a long Danziger rabbit hole that led to Barthe DeClements and Betty Ren Wright and now I need to go reread all the formative books of my youth.
Somehow most of my favorite “survival” books are YA from the 80s/90s, so perhaps you have read them: Hatchet by Gary Paulsen, The Sign of the Beaver by Elizabeth George Speare, and Island of the Blue Dolphins by Scott O’Dell. (Disclaimer: I haven’t read them since the aforementioned 80s/90s, so my memory is that they were great, but I imagine that they also may be dated in ways that could be uncomfortable.)
BETTY REN WRIGHT. Some of my MOST re-read books, from the same book box. I am thinking about doing some re-reads of my favorites and of course some Mary Downing Hahn, too.
My best recommendations here are NK Jemisin’s Broken Earth series (starting with “The Fifth Season), which covers a bunch of these, most obviously post-apocalyptic and messed up utopia.
Also, Lexicon by Max Barry fits into at least 8 and 13, and it’s one of those books that has stuck with me for years.
I THINK I have The Fifth Season on my Kindle. Or I took it out of the library once. Either way, it has existed near me at some point, and I did not read it, but I will find it and/or reborrow it with INTENT this time.
The Long Way to a Small and Angry Planet might fit a few of these categories.
My first thought for #1 is The Inheritance Games by Jennifer Lynn Barnes. Second thought was Tuesday Mooney which was mentioned above.
I have Tuesday Mooney on my library holds list and I just started The Inheritance Games the other day! I didn’t get too far into it yet because A Deadly Education has to go back sooner, but I am going to get back to it.
Have you read The Host by Stephenie Meyer? I think it might sort of fit #11 for you, and also maybe fits #9. I come back around and read it again every couple of years.
#5 & #6 have a glorious convergence in Aurora by Kim Stanley Robinson, it’s basically a deep space opera narrated by the onboard AI
#7 (with #8 & #9 crossover) my favorite BY FAR is The Diamond Age by Neal Stephenson, this is the one I would chase you around the earth or haunt you from the afterlife to read. So so good.
#11 I have been wondering about Wool for years. I think you’re officially my tipping point.
5 – 9 in two swoops? I will check both of these out, thanks!
And I loved Wool. It’s definitely worth a go in my opinion. The whole series was probably in my top few favorites the year I read them.
LOVE The Diamond Age!
You should read “Invitation to the Game” – it was one of my favorite books in high school. So much so that years later I tracked it down and bough an actual paper copy.
I’ve never heard of this! I just looked up the synopsis and it seems right up my alley, right down to even physically LOOKING like a book I would have read 80 times over as a child.
It’s a crime that there wasn’t a sequel. It’s got the same vibe as “The Ear, The Eye, and The Arm” which I also re-read repeatedly as a teen.
The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet by Becky Chambers absolutely fits for both Living in Space and a Universal AI, plus it’s fun and easy to read which is all *I* want when I’m visiting my tropes and not going for, y’know, Great Literature. A ton of people recommended it to me over the years and I kept being like ‘yeah yeah, one day’ and then I actually read it and it was exactly what I needed and now I’ve reread it twice over the past few months.
Now that I look more closely, I AM noticing that all of my favorite things do tend to fall way more squarely in “fun and easy” rather than anything approaching literary fiction. Have I exposed myself? I’M FINE WITH IT.
13 Little Blue Envelopes by Maureen Johnson is good for #1, and The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau Banks by E. Lockhart for #2
#7- Virtual World- I highly recommend the Last Reality series by Jason Segel (yeah, the actor) and Kirsten Miller. It starts with Otherworld, is a three book series, and the books are already all released.
Oh this looks REALLY interesting, thank you!
For #13, have you read The Guest List by Lucy Foley? I think that fits those qualifications, and it was a fairly quick read.
I haven’t read it YET, but I have it out of the library right now!
#3 – Alex, Approximately. It wasn’t my favourite because the secret identity is very glaring but it was fun and fast!
Fun and fast are ALSO two of my favorite things.
OKAY. I feel awkward in advance for all of these suggestions that you have not only already read but in fact were the one to recommend to me.
For Spaceship Existence / Universal AI, I recommend the Ann Leckie trilogy that begins with Ancillary Justice. It took me awhile to get into it, but once I did, I loved it.
For utopia/dystopia, I recommend the Broken Earth trilogy by N. K. Jemisin (first book: The Fifth Season).
For obsessive romance, I recommend the three books by Alice Hoffman: Practical Magic, The Rules of Magic, Magic Lessons, and I like to read them in the order they were written, which is the order I just said.
For Intertwining Stories, I recommend many books by Maeve Binchy. Some of the more blatantly intertwining: Copper Beech, The Lilac Bus, Evening Class.
I have actually not read a SINGLE ONE OF THOSE. Since it seems we have little to no book overlap, I will require your attendance on all recommendation request posts going forward. Sorry, I don’t make the rules. Yes I do. One of them is that I can claim not to make them.
Have you read the Brilliance Trilogy by Marcus Sakey (Brillance, A Better World, and Written in Fire)? I feel like if you like Wool, you will also like those, although I can’t actually say why with any coherence. Maybe it’s just that I loved Wool AND I loved these books too, so they go together in my head? I think I read them around the same time, so maybe that’s it.
4: The Extraordinary Life of Sam Hell by Robert Dugoni
6: An Absolutely Remarkable Thing by Hank Green (There are 2, I haven’t read the second)
And I don’t know where it fits, maybe intertwining stories The Lager Queen of Minnesota by J Ryan Stradal
I haven’t even made it past #1 because I had to jump into the comments to say that Serendipity Summer is actually “Remember Me to Herald Square” and yes, it’s by Paula Danziger and I keep meaning to get it from the library and re-read it!
I saw other people mention Tuesday Mooney Talks to Ghosts so another vote for that, it’s smack dab in #1.
I wonder if you’ve read The Midnight Library by Matt Haig? It’s got a lot of elements of 1, 13, 7. It reminds me a lot of Anxious People even though the plots are completely different.
I would also recommend Gods of Jade and Shadow by Silvia Moreno-Garcia. Basically a quest/game book, intertwining lives, and a fantasy element that’s a good intro to fantasy, not all consuming fantasy kind of thing.
I think you would like the Red Rising series by Pierce Brown, it has #1, 2, 3, 8, 9, 10, 11 of your list 😀
[…] sent it back, though, because it seems like it should fall right into #1 on the list in my post of 14 unnecessarily specific features, tropes, and plot points I like in books, which is “any sort of game element.” It’s got “game” right in the […]
[…] Deadly Education and The Guest List. I had high hopes for it fitting some of my favorite stuff from this other post, but in the end, the fact that it read on the really young side of young adult just did me in. I […]
Miss Marple for cozy mysteries; there may be cozier out there, but I thoroughly enjoy how she politely eviscerates those who underestimate her and her quiet locality. An easy intro is The Thirteen Problems, which is functionally a series of short stories, which thus may be the wrong book, but: Agatha Christie, Miss Marple, try one, maybe, if you haven’t already?
(and I left this on the wrong post. Augh. Sorry.)