Six books you’ve read before, but not like this

Nov. 27, 2017, 8:30 p.m.
Six books you've read before, but not like this
Ritidian Beach – Guam National Wildlife Refuge. (Laura Beuregard/U.S. FISH & WILDLIFE SERVICE)

Half-historical fiction, half-fanfiction, the books below are alterations of already-existing narratives reborn through new narrators or skewed storylines. Founded on the familiar but compellingly contemporary, these novels not only toy with the tempting premises of our childhoods but also challenge readers’ original biases by urging us to reimagine them. Source material includes the Bible, Malory’s “Le Morte d’Arthur,” Henry VIII’s many marriages, Romantic writers of the 19th century, World War I and Golding’s “Lord of the Flies.”


CS Lewis, “The Screwtape Letters”

CS Lewis, canonized by his children’s epic fantasy, “The Chronicles of Narnia,” also wrote these correspondences between two demons – one in training and one a veteran Hellish bureaucrat – that read as a series of scathing indictments of human folly in the guise of infernal advice. Playing with both Biblical mythology and folkloric morality, “The Screwtape Letters” is a riff on Christian theology that somehow manages to be at once sincere and parodic, simultaneously mocking the arbitrary nature of eternal damnation and rejuvenating the best of Christian rectitude. It’s the reader, though, who determines how seriously they swallow Lewis’s didacticism.


Lisa Ann Sandell, “Song of the Sparrow”

Another adaptation of Arthurian myth, “Song of the Sparrow” animates the Lady of Astolat – also known as Alfred Lord Tennyson’s “Lady of Shalott” – in the protagonist Elaine, a hearty, redheaded 16-year-old imprisoned by her own anxiety instead of by the dark magic of Tennyson’s “four gray walls, and four gray towers.” Elaine’s internal turbulence is a product of never-realized love – both for the legendary Sir Lancelot and for the wider world – that is exacerbated by the arrival of the enviable Guinevere. Sandell tangles tragedy with heroism, allowing Elaine to be both a romantic casualty and a forger of her own fate – especially after both she and Guinevere subdue their internalized misogyny. There’s a surprising lightness to Sandell’s story, as well, not least of which is due to the lyrical form that gives poetic shape to Elaine’s gentle hope and understated dignity.


Katherine Longshore, “Gilt”

While I’m admittedly a longtime disciple of historical fiction, the understated glamour, dramatic irony and sympathetic protagonist of Katherine Longshore’s “Gilt” are guaranteed to also appeal to non-history nerds. Narrated by the girlhood best friend of Catherine Howard, Henry VIII’s fifth wife of six (she’s the second one who was beheaded, after Anne Boleyn), “Gilt” is a cautionary tale that skates the cliff of Anne Boleyn’s precedent, suffused with the instinct that its terminus is set in stone. Longshore’s book is a grandiose tragedy that is, well, gilded with intrigue, characteristic charisma and a healthy dose of foreboding that lodges in the reader’s ribs like a misplaced pendant.


Felix J. Palma, “The Map of Time”

Spanish writer Felix J. Palma’s historical fiction/fantasy piece is a literary confection of intoxicating proportions, laden with cherry-picked allusions to the Western canon and garnished with an almost steampunk aesthetic. “The Map of Time” is metafictional by nature, with one of three protagonists – HG Wells – desperately investigating the fourth dimension from headquarters in Victorian London, in which our other two protagonists, Andrew and Claire, cross his path. “The Map of Time” disrupts the historical narratives of Jack the Ripper, Nikola Tesla, Henry James and Edgar Allen Poe, to name a few, while also plying any non-English major readers with devastating stories of paralyzing grief (Andrew) and existential dissatisfaction (Claire).


Scott Westerfeld, “Leviathan”

The first in a trilogy (the two sequels of which are “Behemoth” and “Goliath”), Scott Westerfeld’s “Leviathan” is arguably alternative history or speculative science fiction; the novel is a retelling of the First World War in which the conflict between Allied Powers and the Central Powers is political, yes, but also ideological – in that the Allied Powers, or the Darwinists, are a society of biological experimentation, while the Central Powers, or the Clankers, operate under mechanical innovations. The plot swivels between the runaway son of the assassinated Archduke Ferdinand and a brilliant British pilot who must disguise her gender in order to serve, though the world-building would be alluring enough alone to assure my attention. Like a lot of war fiction, “Leviathan” is gritty, do-or-die desperate and morally bold, compounded by the characters’ young ages and high stakes.


Libby Bray, “Beauty Queens”

A semi-satirical take on William Golding’s classic “Lord of the Flies,” “Beauty Queens” explores the somewhat similar setting of beauty contestants (rather than British schoolboys) becoming stranded on a (seemingly) deserted island. Bray’s writing expects her audience to keep up with her; after briskly establishing stereotypical character archetypes, she furiously dismantles the social paradigms of sexism, beauty, capitalism and commercialism on which they stand in a highly politicized plot. Wrapped in a polished pink package, “Beauty Queens” delivers a hyperbolic, biting book about self-respect, community, womanhood, perseverance and accountability for the powerful.


Sometimes we need both the safety of the familiar and the shock of the strange, particularly in literature; Chuck Palahniuk has stated that, “There’s an opposite to déjà vu. They call it jamais vu. It’s when you meet the same people or visit places, again and again, but each time is the first.” So, enjoy the jamais vu.


Contact Claire Francis at [email protected].

Login or create an account

Apply to The Daily’s High School Summer Program

deadline EXTENDED TO april 28!