As the holiday season approaches, it’s only natural for those of us who live away from our families to start feeling a little homesick. For some of us, though, home is a little further to reach than just a train ride from Euston. Around our office, the Agora Books pod is known for being distinctly un-British. Kate hails from Australia, Sam calls Canada home, and I (Peyton) am pretty fresh off the plane from the United States.
So, as we’re starting to book flights home for Christmas or returning from various Thanksgivings, we thought we’d share with you the books that make us yearn for a hometown romp.
I’ll start with the cliche: Puberty Blues. I grew up beach-obsessed and mostly shoeless in a world that was slightly less boy-centric (emphasis on the slightly) than 1970’s Maroubra, and yet this book was and is an essential read. I may have spent the last half-decade swearing that Australia is more than tanned skin, sunshine, surf and chiko rolls (and it is) but Puberty Blues will forever have a special place in my beach-bound heart. It’s also a seminal feminist work and I will fight anyone who disagrees.
It’s weird and dark and very, very funny… I hate a long book, but this one is relentlessly weird enough to justify its considerable length. At times it feels like the plot is just a vehicle for some really specific philosophical musings about life, but it works. It also does a particularly good job of looking at the Australian tendency to love and hate public figures for reasons that would make no sense anywhere else. And there’s this passage about our isolation, which is a depressing but not entirely unfair assessment:
Australia is like a lonely old woman dead in her apartment; if every living soul in the land suddenly had a massive coronary at the exact same time and if the Simpson Desert died of thirst and the rainforests drowned and the barrier reef bled to death, days might pass and only the smell drifting across the ocean to our Pacific neighbours would compel someone to call the police. Otherwise we’d have to wait until the Northern Hemisphere commented on the uncollected mail.
And then there’s Looking for Alibrandi. I’ve gushed about Melina Marchetta here before — her ability to capture the drama and anxiety of young love specifically, and her joyful, truthful writing generally. In Looking for Alibrandi she does all that again, alongside a brilliantly nuanced exploration of class and ambition in the famously, proudly classless Australia. It’s officially YA, but if you missed out on reading it in your teens, (I’m so sorry) just do it now (you’ll cry), then watch the super great film adaptation, develop a confusing crush on Kick Curry and get really into Silverchair.
I’ve lived all across Canada, from coast to coast, but, when picking my books that remind me most of home, I found myself smack dab in the middle of St. John’s, Newfoundland. So that must say something. Each novel below traipses around this old (for Canada) city with mentions of one of the steepest hills you’d ever climb (Signal Hill), the most easterly point of North America (Cape Spear), and fables from my childhood like Dead Man’s Lane and Bottomless Pond.
I love Michael Winter’s The Death of Donna Whalen for so many reasons. First, its composition is so unique – it’s fictionalized true crime – in that Winter has taken the actual court records, news clippings, and wiretaps from the case and coverage of the murder of the real-life Donna Whalen and synthesized this work of documentary fiction. Much of the book is word-for-word from these sources, but Winter has beautifully woven these texts into a haunting narrative. The second reason I love it is because it preserves that down-home, slightly-Irish Newfie accent. None of this Come From Away nonsense, this is straight from the Townies’ mouths. Don’t worry – if some of it confuses you, there’s a Dictionary of Newfoundland English to see you through.
Trying to show that Newfoundland is not the sad and barren land depicted in The Shipping News (and perhaps my two other choices…), I’ve chosen this book because it reminds me the most of home. Though she’s renamed locations (Seagull Hill for Signal Hill), St. John’s shines through in all it’s beautiful absurdity in Grant’s debut novel (*also her PhD dissertation!). Come, Thou Tortoise is a quirky coming of age story that I related to so much at the time. Told from the perspectives of both Oddly Flowers and her tortoise (yes, there is actually a tortoise), Winnifred, it’s a hilarious and heart-warming story about homegoing and belonging.
So, this one’s a little bleak. Fine. A lot bleak. But trust me, it’s stunning to read. On the surface, it’s about the Ocean Ranger disaster that happened on February 14, 1982, where every man aboard the rig was lost at sea. But February by Lisa Moore is not a disaster book. It’s enchanting, magnetic, lyrical prose. It chronicles the life of Helen O’Mara who was left widowed after the Ocean Ranger disaster. 25 years later, Helen is forced to unfurl from the grief that has shrouded her for a quarter of a century. Moore’s description of this grief is so palpable it almost hurts to read. But it’s balanced out by beautiful depictions of life in St. John’s.
Ignoring the murderous sibling and psychotic mother aspect (if at all possible), Sharp Objects always reminds me of my time in journalism school at the University of Missouri. In this novel (and, quite frankly, her other two, too), Gillian Flynn perfectly captures the dichotomy between the stifling, claustrophobic nature of small-town Missouri and the vast, freeing expanse of nation-spanning highways and winding backroads. Like the protagonist of Sharp Objects, I too used to set off in a beat-up car to follow some assignment from my newspaper editor, turning down gravel roads I’d never met before, parking in a dirt lot next to an empty building, and emerging into the muggy heat of the Midwest with nothing but a pen, notepad, and prayer that I could come back with a readable story. When explaining Missouri to people who’ve never been there I rarely suggest it as a notable on stop on any great American road trip, but there is something charming about it. Something inviting. Perhaps something mysterious. And Sharp Objects always takes me right back into its sweet arms.
Let us, once again, set aside the horror aspect — filing away the images of blood-soaked twins and icicle-ridden haunted mazes for just a moment — and instead focus on the real-life setting of The Shining: The Stanley Hotel. I grew up in the mountains of Colorado, traipsing from the foothills of the Springs, to the snowy trails of the Rockies, or the white water rapids of the Arkansas river. Every now and then we’d make the trek to Estes Park, a lovely mountain town that is home to the hotel that influenced Stephen King’s famous horror story. What I love about this book, though, is the feeling it inspires. When you’re reading The Shining, you’re in that hotel. You’re wrapped in blankets as the sky dims and the snowstorm picks up outside. You’re stuck with that comforting but unsettling feeling of being inside a building with no option of escaping. I love how King turns that experience — one I love and crave whenever winter rolls around — into something so nightmarish. I’m glad none of my waiting-out-the-storm cabin stays ended up so sinister, but I do love diving into King’s take on it.
And, yes, I’ve spent the night in The Stanley and can confirm, with almost certainty, that it’s absolutely ridden with ghosts and ghouls. Don’t plan on getting any sleep there.
I promise I’ll start reading more cheerful books soon (see: my incredibly depressing picks for Books We Love About Love), but To Kill A Mockingbird is, after all, frequently considered to be a quintessential American novel. Harper Lee, like Gillian Flynn (though I am in no way suggesting they are on the same level of iconic), is a master of characterising small-town America — and especially one still entrenched in heavy prejudice. Though it’s not entirely a happy story, and there are a lot different ‘-isms’ (racism, sexism, etc.) to unpack in each part of the story, it’s an important part of understanding America’s past, how maybe we’re not as far from it as we think, and hopefully using that to move in a more positive, forward direction. More than anything else, though, this book reminds me of my mother, as it’s her favourite book. Which, of course, makes it a book that reminds me of home.
As always, thank you for reading, and be sure to tweet us @AgoraBooksLDN with your favourite books that make you think of home!