A lot of my friends are the same age as me. Some of them are a year, or a few years younger, and so they will be finishing high school soon, and embarking on an adventure: university. So this post is largely for them. Here are the books to read the summer before going away to university, in no particular order.
- The Secret History, Donna Tartt
I feel like this book being on this list is the most obvious thing in the world. It’s beautiful captivating and absolutely heartbreaking. The writing style is so, so masterful, and it’s quite obvious why it took the author ten years – it’s absolutely breath-taking in construction. It’s about a young man who goes away to university, and becomes dangerously obsessed with embodying a certain lifestyle and aesthetic, and eventually falling victim to his own lies, and the lies of everyone else around him. My review od it is [here]. Alternatively, for the same beautiful writing, but much less heartbreaking, you can try her more recent novel The Goldfinch, which won a Pulitzer in 2013.
- Brutal Youth, Anthony Breznican
A thoroughly harrowing detailing of one year in the life of a school, where violent bullying is considered normal, and is even encouraged by administration as a way for students to release tensions. It’s a very grim, dark story overall. In some ways good does triumph, but in many ways, it’s dissatisfying and rather harsh, like the title suggests. My review of it is [here].
- The Raven Cycle, Maggie Stiefvater
I just posted a review of this series [here]. If that doesn’t convince you to read it, I don’t know what will. It has MAGIC, you guys!
- Boy Erased, Garrard Conley
A touching, beautifully written memoir, written by my own high school English teacher, it’s emotional, heartfelt, and all about reconciliation, forgiveness and family.My review of it is [here].
Wilde is known mostly for The Picture of Dorian Gray, which is a literary masterpiece, but moving away from that, his fairytales are no less dark, beautifully sensual and gripping. Everything you have loved about the gritty “original” versions of the Brothers Grimm, you will love about these sad stories that aren’t for children at all.
- Deathless, Catherynne M. Valente
This is not Valente’s best known book, for whatever mind-boggling reason. It’s written like a fairytale, it’s beautiful, and emotional and touching, and it will leave you heartbroken, but ultimately with a deep sense of having understood something. I will be doing a more in-depth review for it in the future.
- Blackwood Farm, Anne Rice
An intersection of her insanely famous Vampire Chronicles series, and her less famous Witches of Mayfair series, featuring beloved characters (Lestat) and characters we barely tolerate (Louis) from both, this is a story written in Rice’s traditionally lush and sensual prose. It stands wonderfully on its own, and it’s a beautifully weaved magical mystery that will take anyone who reads it on a journey through an aestheticised version of the South, where bad things only happen to Evil Doers.
- Young Elites, Marie Lu
This is a series that starts like any other YA about a young girl who discovers she has magical powers and must then hide from her cruel oppressive government, while joining up the rebellion alliance. And then it completely flips all the tropes and genre-clichés on you, because it turns out, all along you’ve not been reading a harrowing story about personal growth and defeating the bad guys – you’ve been reading the origin story OF a bad guy. The first person narrative slips you into the mindset of a character you sympathise with, right up to the point where you realise that she isn’t the hero at all, and even then, you still feel sorry for her. Also, it has magic.
- Les Miserables, Victor Hugo
If you only ever read one boring stuffy, classic book in your whole life, let it be this. You might have seen the musical, or the film, or any of the other adaptations, and trust me, this is even better.
- The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August, Claire North
Revisiting this book is too painful in a good way. Absolutely heartbreaking, with a happy ending, emotional and introspective, a story about immortality, without a single vampire in it. My review of it is [here].
- Sushi for Beginners, Marian Keyes
This is a good old-fashioned chick-lit, with clever humor, well-fleshed out characters and a realistic storyline. It’s perfect to read at the beach while you wait for that final student finance confirmation letter.
- Looking for Alaska, John Green
I maintain that John Green is a man who got famous by writing the same book four times. Well, this is my favorite version. Absolutely wonderful, tragically beautiful, with everything that made you cry in The Fault in Our Stars, and none of the things that annoyed you about An Abundance of Katherines, and all the winning elements of Papertowns (which is also something I’d recommend, because it has a happy ending). I can’t wait until it gets made into a film, I will see it so many times.
- Evening in Byzantium, Irwin Shaw
Initially I was suspicious of this novel, as I am suspicious of all books that my father recommends me (The Old Man and the Sea did not have a happy ending, and I will maintain that to the end of my days), but I was pleasantly surprised by the light tone, playful humour and beautiful crafted characters. It’s a funny, interesting read, with a lyrical writing style, that seems like a less melancholy Fitzgerald at times, and a plot that at times reads like a comedy of manners. Definitely give it a read.
- The Casual Vacancy, J. K. Rowling
Written by the mom of us all, this is JKR’s first ever grown up book, and it’s just incredible. Slammed and condemned by critics world wide for not being Harry Potter, this book is – not Harry Potter. It’s vibrant, and delightfully British. Perhaps “delightful” isn’t the right word to use here – it’s also very dark, and dare I even say it – gritty. It’s definitely not for you if you’re just looking for a light summer read, because it will make you think. All the same, it’s quite wonderful and I wholeheartedly recommend it.
- The Diva Rules, Michelle Visage
Oh what’s that? A fun book on this list? You betcha! It’s Michelle Visage’s memoir about her life as a young girl in the big city, and her journey to becoming who she is today –a fierce and inspiring woman. It’s about finding a healthy way to deal with insecurities, and relying on your friends, and best of all – it’s absolutely a true story. My review of it is [here] and! Michelle liked it!
- Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress, Dai Sijie
If you haven’t studied this at school, you have been grossly robbed. I am incredibly grateful to my English teachers who recommended it to me and lend me a copy and encouraged me to read it. It’s a somewhat dark topic, that you might consider a bit removed – China during the Cultural Revolution – but it’s all about reading, the power of books, and growth through literature and expanding your mind. Give it a read, it’s absolutely charming.
- The Book Thief, Marcus Zusak
I feel silly putting it on this list, because most people have read it, seen the movie, raved about it and moved on, but to me, this is the quintessential read for anyone who is in school, or leaving school to move on to university. It’s also narrated by Death, which is, as the kids say these days “meta af”. Spoiler: it is, as most books on this list, absolutely heartbreaking.
- 18 steps from the sea, by yours truly
Yes, hello, what kind of a book list would that be, if it doesn’t feature my own story? It’s a story about love and a lot of biblical elements that I’ve bastadized for the sake of the Aesthetic. What is it doing on a summer before uni reading list? Well, I wrote it during high school, but perfected it while I was at uni, borrowing from the best advice of my Creative Writing tutors. It’s a heist story, but mostly it’s me saying “fuck you” to Hemingway’s prose style. And the best part – its absolutely free for download in any format.
19. YOUR UNIVERSITY’S RECOMMENDED READINGS LIST FOR YOUR COURSE
If you are, indeed, going away to university this summer, go on your uni website, go on the page for your course, and check the recommended readings. They aren’t “recommended” they’re absolutely compulsory, your lecturers will make references to them in their lectures, and you might even need to know some of them for exams. Alternatively, your university might send you an email/letter with a reading list, and if they go out of their way to do that, it’s ABSOLUTELY mandatory that you read all the books on it.
I hope you enjoy any of these books if you decide to read them, and if you think there are other essential readings before university, let me know in a comment, or if you think any book shouldn’t be on this list, send me an angry inflammatory email, wherein you call me names and insult my intelligence and upbringing.