Many Novels With a Theme Can Be As Good As They Seem

Even as story lines unfold and characters do their thing, some novels also address a specific topic. Can that make those books sort of preachy, didactic, and…boring? It can, but usually not in the hands of a great author. Can that make those books — gasp! — educational? Well, yeah, but there’s nothing wrong with a gaining a little knowledge while being entertained. Plus we’re impressed with the authors’ research skills!

One master of the topical novel was Emile Zola. His 19th-century books addressed subjects such as alcoholism (The Drinking Den), mining (Germinal), trains (The Beast in Man), retail (The Ladies’ Delight), and prostitution (Nana). Amid all that, Zola also offered memorable plots and three-dimensional characters, so readers of his work had and have the best of both worlds.

A more recent master of themed yet entertaining “twofers” is (Ms.) Lionel Shriver. I recently read The Mandibles, a near-future dystopian novel that’s very much about economics and monetary currency, yet the book also takes a compelling look at an extended family — including the precocious/world-weary teen who holds that family together. Earlier, Shriver addressed America’s problematic-for-all-but-the-rich medical system in the riveting So Much for That, and the issue of obesity in Big Brother.

There are also “three-fers” or “more-fers.” For instance, I just finished Susan Moore Jordan’s absorbing novel Man With No Yesterdays — which says a lot about the Vietnam War and Native-American culture while also offering a tale of a man left with amnesia from a helicopter crash in Vietnam.

Then of course there’s Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick, which is practically an encyclopedia of whales and whaling (some chapters are only about that) while offering majestic prose, a now-iconic group of characters, and a breathtaking adventure of obsession.

Plus Octavia E. Butler’s Kindred, about slavery but also about a specific 20th-century woman yanked back into the Antebellum South.

And there are novels with topics that are more about the mind, emotions, philosophy, and so on — in addition to their focus on specific compelling characters. For instance, Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera focuses on all kinds of romantic love; Buchi Emecheta’s Second-Class Citizen is about single-minded ambition (in the face of sexism); Evan S. Connell’s Mrs. Bridge zeroes in on conformity; and novels such as Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Marge Piercy’s Woman on the Edge of Time, and Joanne Greenberg’s I Never Promised You a Rose Garden are about mental illness and/or the mental-health system.

What are some of your favorite novels that contain a theme while remaining satisfying to read on a fictional level?

My 2017 literary-trivia book is described and can be purchased here: Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Authors and the Greatest Novels of All Time.

In addition to this weekly blog, I write the award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for Baristanet.com. The latest weekly piece — which contains “fake news” about my town 🙂 — is here.

70 thoughts on “Many Novels With a Theme Can Be As Good As They Seem

  1. Dave, I thought I’d talk about books that are called classics, but aren’t read much these days. I think that unless you’re talking about books read in a course that has to do with classics, such as may not be many, they just won’t be discussed. Not that I’ve made a study of it, but I think I’ve mentioned Bill and I watch Jeopardy most nights, but most of the contestants, especially the younger ones, can’t answer any questions about literature or authors, etc., which I find so easy, yet most of the three contestants can’t answer. I’ve also noticed that even the very smart girls I grew up with have the same problem. My best friend, who is much smarter than I, was used to taking courses in obscure literature rather than those written by Jane Austen (gasp!) and other English authors and others that I’ve read in the past. Do you find the same thing?

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    • Definitely not as much interest in the classics these days as literature lovers would like, Kat Lib. We probably get a skewed-higher view of that level of interest since there are a good number of avid fiction readers commenting in this blog each week.

      I do know a number of young adults very interested in lit (my older daughter and some of her 20-something friends, for instance). Growing up with the “Harry Potter” series didn’t hurt. 🙂 But overall there might indeed be proportionately more older people than younger people who are “into” classic novels.

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          • Off topic, but the year before last summer, before Bill moved in with me, I had an episode where I don’t remember anything other than abandoning my car somewhere in Kennett, and trying to walk home. I finally came across a very nice man who was out gardening. He quickly realized that I had no idea where I was, and he called 911 then waited until the police came, and I was able to give them my address. Bill came down the next morning to help me find my car, somewhere parked in Kennett Square. We first went to the police station, and one of the cops who had driven me home asked me about a gym bag I was carrying around with me, explaining that it only contained a fleece blanket if I was ever caught in a blizzard or something. 🙂 Anyway, we finally found my car, quite neatly parked. I went to my Primary Care doc, who administered a dementia test, which I passed with flying colors, and he diagnosed me with Transient Global Amnesia. This only happens once in someone for unknown reasons, thank goodness! I guess this came to mind hearing about Trump passing his dementia test, which was different from mine, because I didn’t have to name camel vs. lion vs. hippo or whatever!

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            • That temporary memory loss sounds very scary, Kat Lib, but glad you passed the dementia test so well!

              As for Trump, there is something VERY wrong with that guy — whether he has early dementia or not.

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  2. Dave since on your last post you took liberties with the Jack Reacher series and Trump, I’ll introduce an Autobiographical novel in this post.

    Orthodox Zen Buddhism, Aristotelianism, the nostalgic “Easy Rider” culture of the time, mental illness and the importance of properly firing spark plugs and tire pressure. So what’s the novel part? the book in a way is about adventurism as it is about a father and son relationship.

    “The study of the art of motorcycle maintenance is really a miniature study of the art of rationality itself. Working on a motorcycle, working well, caring, is to become part of a process, to achieve an inner peace of mind. The motorcycle is primarily a mental phenomenon.”
    “The real cycle you’re working on is a cycle called ‘yourself’.”

    — Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Robert Pirsig.

    This is one of the best books I have read.

    As always, typos/grammaticals are akin to warm, soft dinner rolls—made with love for all to enjoy.

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    • Jack, a VERY eloquent take on/lead-up to naming “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance”! I really should read that one day. I’ve heard of that book for a long time, but somehow have never gotten to it.

      And I loved your metaphorical last paragraph! Makes me wish blogs could be three-dimensional, with things literally popping out of our screens. 🙂

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      • This is one of the books I’ve always wanted to have read, even for the title if nothing else. I even bought a paperback version of it, but I think it’s one I lost in the great flood of 1985 🙂 that wiped out my entire paperback collection that I’ve still been rebuilding after all this time. Of course, now, after buying so many books to replace those I lost, one must buy a trade paperback or hardcover version. which makes for a nicer looking book, easier to read, or buy books at Goodwill, or at a library sale, or just rent from the library. Regardless, I have way too many books that I’m trying to work my way through! I was on Facebook the other day and of course I saw an ad that was targeted to me, which was a bright orange hoodie sweatshirt that said “Never Underestimate An Old Woman Who Graduated from the University of Texas.” It seemed apropos to me, so of course I had to buy it. There was also one that popped up the next day which said “Never Underestimate An Old Woman who Graduated from Drake University.” Although I only went to Drake for two years, I didn’t graduate from there, but I still feel compelled to buy it. Still working that one out!

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        • Kat Lib, if we both eventually read “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance,” I look forward to discussing it with you and Jack!

          Floods can really do a number on our possessions. 😦 I had to throw out a lot of stuff after Hurricane Irene flooded my basement in 2011.

          Those targeted ads can be a bit scary. A LOT of (too much) personal information is known to the tech giants.

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      • Speaking of Jack Reacher Dave, I have not read much ;lately, always something was going on, to divert my attention with you know who , an unbelievable real life rat which is an insult to rats I suppose.
        A close friend of my in Nashville is 94 still drives tells me she wants to see trump leave before she dies.
        I picked up the latest of Lee Child`s latest ” The Midnight Line”, this afternoon read more than one third of it about that Big Foot, it is really going good.

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        • bebe, glad you’re enjoying “The Midnight Line,” including Lee Child’s droll references to “Bigfoot.” 🙂

          And that’s an excellent review of the novel that you linked to. I agree with the reviewer that it’s an excellent Reacher book, and it definitely has a more “mature” vibe than many of the series’ earlier installments — all of which I liked or loved.

          I totally understand how a busy life can make it hard to read as much as we want, and the ultra-jerk Trump is indeed a major/dangerous distraction. I hope your 94-year-old friend gets her wish to still be around when Trump is no longer in office.

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  3. Dave, I’m slowly making my way through the 50 Australian books to read before you die. I’ve discovered some great reads, and also made my way through some painfully long and boring reads. Next on the list is an aboriginal, non fiction book. So far, the non fiction, and the aboriginal books on the list haven’t been gripping, so I hired this one with some reluctance. I finally opened it up last night planning to force myself through 20 or 30 pages, but at midnight I was half way through, and having trouble putting it down. It tells the stories of an aboriginal man dying in custody, and the white police officer who arrested him and was investigated for the murder. Being non fiction, there is obviously a theme, but it’s also a really riveting tale, despite being quite bleak and tragic

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    • Thank you, Susan!

      “…making my way through the 50 Australian books to read before you die” — what a great idea! Nice that the list mixes fiction and nonfiction. Not nice that some of the books are boring, but the one you’re reading now does sound absolutely searing. Do you happen to have a link to the list of those 50 books?

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        • Thank you, Sue! Just saw your VERY comprehensive email, and it is much appreciated. 🙂 Will reply to it as soon as I can.

          After looking at your list, I plan to first search for Kenneth Cooke’s “Wake in Fright” at my local library.

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  4. More good books to add to my list. I recently enjoyed the Inkspell series by Cornelia Funke about people who can read themselves into and out of stories and the adventures/dangers they face there, even changing the plot line to save lives or eliminate vicious despots.

    I couldn’t reply at Montclairvoyant: just want to say you really generated discussion with that topic and that those issues seem to be in most communities. Also, while I acknowledge the need for STEM education I think we are missing too much of the basics – language, history, civics, etc.

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    • Thank you, energywriter!

      Cornelia Funke sounds intriguing — reminds me a bit of the Jasper Fforde novel “The Eyre Affair” in which a “literary detective” enters the “Jane Eyre” novel. 🙂

      Thanks for trying to reply under my “Montclairvoyant” column! It definitely can get interesting there, especially with many of the commenters being conservatives responding to my liberal thoughts. 🙂 And, yes, certain subjects are not being taught enough in school — for reasons such as those subjects wrongly not being thought important or practical enough and because of all the time unfortunately spent on standardized testing.

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  5. Belaboring the obvious, possibly, but I suspect there are a great many theme-driven bits of fiction strewn across the centuries, but few which are beloved long. And it’s those few that last on the shelves, mostly, I believe, because the characters,plot-lines and climactic scenes which embody the themes are well-wrought or at least vividly conveyed, and make indelible pictures in the reader’s mind.

    For example, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” was very obviously intended to be an anti-slavery work, and hers was not the only such themed novel in the period, but Eliza’s leap over ice and certain drowning when she made her way to freedom and Ohio probably did more to cement the desperation and humanity of the character, and thus her people, than any bit of exposition might have done in readers’ minds, and quickened the sympathy among the American middle class outside the South for the cause of emancipation, and revulsion for the ‘peculiar institution’ of slavery. A full half-century after I read the book, the image of Eliza hopping over slippery and treacherous ice, while the river rushes under and around her, remains evergreen.

    I will not argue that Stowe’s is a great book exactly, but it is a book that inspired millions to do great things.

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    • I see your point, jhNY, and it’s an excellent one. When novels go the theme route, it helps if they “show” rather than “tell” — making their “statements” via the plot and characters rather than with paragraphs of exposition. Yes, that scene with Eliza scrambling over the ice-choked river into the non-slave North is absolutely memorable.

      I actually think “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” is a great novel along with being a great anti-slavery tale. I found it to be well-written, humane, suspenseful, and more — and I felt many of the characters were three-dimensional, not just mouthpieces for Stowe to make her points.

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      • Sue At Work right below, I realized after reading down the threads, was saying something similar– that the best books embodying consciously-worked themes carry their readers along on the strength of their scenes and characters and storylines– whether or not, say, the reader is versed in pertinent schools of philosophical thought, or the works of literary competitors, etc.

        As for Uncle Tom’s Cabin, I can only tell you that, having read it fifty years ago, I found it, as I found Dickens to be, very effective at stirring sentiment. Perhaps one day I shall return to it, and for that matter, perhaps one day I shall return to Dickens, who, in my memory is the more able writer of the two. In my dotage, I read more for the sensations invoked than for themes, plots, etc.

        But then, so many books, so little….

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        • Thanks, jhNY! Dickens (who I also haven’t read in ages) is clearly a better novelist than Stowe, even as they share a certain sentimentality bent. But I do think Stowe is an excellent writer, and underrated in that respect.

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  6. Hi Dave,

    The first person I thought of this week was Dostoevsky. I recently tried out a new book group whose book of the month was “Crime and Punishment”. Sadly the group consisted of about 8 people sitting around listening to another man go on and on about the philosophers that Dostoevsky had been inspired by. Then he went on a bit more about how you can’t really enjoy something like “Crime and Punishment” without being really familiar with the old guy philosophers. One of the other members commented that a good work of fiction should be able to stand on its own without doing any homework, but Mr Talks A Lot complete disagreed, and off he went again.

    I’m sure that most people here agree that a work should be able to stand on its own. I know I definitely do. Dostoevsky clearly has a lot of themes in his writing, but first and foremost, he writes stories. They’re stories that have made me think about the different topics that he covers, but mostly, they’re just really entertaining. I’m nearly finished “The Brothers Karamazov” which is indeed almost as good as “C&P”… but not quite. Maybe if I was smarter, I could go on and on about the themes and the inspirations, but I’m not, so I can only go on and on about how riveting the stories are.

    I think I’ve mentioned before that I’m a fan of John Jake’s historical fiction. Again, they’re great stories, but I must admit I’ve also learned a lot from them. They’re set in America, and the first novel takes place in the late 1700s, so there’s lots of history there that I might not have otherwise known about.

    Thanks for another thought provoking topic, Dave. Maybe I could have included this blog as something that has lots of different themes, but is also a fun and enjoyable read?! I hope you and your family (including the most recent furry addition) are all keeping well and not too cold 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Sue! Dostoevsky is always worth mentioning, and his work can fit into so many blog-post themes (including the one I’m writing for this coming Sunday 🙂 ).

      I think a book group should ideally be a place where everyone speaks roughly equally — not a place where one annoying “know-it-all” blathers on. Was this man a guest speaker or something?

      “One of the other members commented that a good work of fiction should be able to stand on its own without doing any homework” — I agree with that member, and with you!

      And your take on “The Brothers Karamazov” is like mine — fantastic book, but not quite as good as the more “concise” masterpiece “Crime and Punishment.” Great that you’ve almost finished “TBK”!

      And thank you very much for the kind words in your last paragraph. 🙂

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  7. “The Sound and the Fury”, one of William Faulkner’s more experimental novels, derived its inspiration humbly enough, as themes go, but from there, like Topsy it just growed, yet without, if the author is to be believed, having been successfully conveyed, though not for lack of effort. We learn, in the back of the book, that Dilsey endured, which is comforting, in that she was probably in charge of the laundry.

    From a lecture by Faulkner at University of Virginia, 1959:

    “It began with the picture of the little girl’s muddy drawers, climbing that tree to look in the parlor window with her brothers that didn’t have the courage to climb the tree waiting to see what she saw. And I tried first to tell it with one brother, and that wasn’t enough. That was Section One. I tried with another brother, and that wasn’t enough. That was Section Two. I tried the third brother, because Caddy was still to me too beautiful and too moving to reduce her to telling what was going on, that it would be more passionate to see her through somebody else’s eyes, I thought. And that failed and I tried myself–the fourth section–to tell what happened, and I still failed.”

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    • Thank you, jhNY! I wonder if Faulkner was being a bit modest/self-deprecating during that 1959 lecture.

      As I’ve mentioned before on this blog, I tried reading “The Sound and the Fury” twice and couldn’t get past a couple dozen pages or so. I like experimental novels (Faulkner’s “As I Lay Dying” worked for me), but “The Sound and the Fury” was (at least to me) experimentation on steroids. 🙂

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  8. I love reading historical fiction novels for the purpose of the history theme, but a lot of good authors can make for a strong fiction within the truth. I’ve just started reading books by Ruta Sepetys. I just finished “Between Shades of Gray” last week (not to be confused with the erotica novels haha!) that told the story of a young girl coming of age while being forced to serve as a slave laborer in Siberian camps. This lesser talked of part of WWII, seen from the eyes of one girl, made for a very moving story where I also learned a lot.

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    • Thank you, M.B.! I really liked your line “…a lot of good authors can make for a strong fiction within the truth.”

      “Between Shades of Gray” sounds very compelling. And I’m glad it’s not related to “Fifty Shades of Grey,” which I’ve never read but heard enough about to not want to. 🙂

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    • M.B., Perhaps I’ve always thought that real-life fiction was always better than non-fiction, but perhaps I’ve gotten close to changing my mind by now. I’m not sure, but if there is a fiction book, especially about the Civil War, that you think is special, I’d love to hear your recommendation! Thanks!

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      • Sorry to intrude here, Kat Lib and M.B., but one Civil War novel I found interesting (and harrowing) was Geraldine Brooks’ “March,” which stars the father from “Little Women”! It also includes appearances from Marmee and the March daughters.

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        • M.B., Perhaps I answered my own question, and I decided that rereading the books I read during my Civil War Course would be more productive at this time, specifically any book by Bruce Catton, but also, Mary Chesnut’s Civil War Diary, which actually read more like a novel about what it was like to live during those days than many other books, though it was non-fiction. I also made it through “The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich,” which was absolutely fascinating, and one day want to read “The Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire,” all of which are non-fiction.

          Dave, I do have the book “March” and hope one day to get to it, instead of it sitting on my to-be-read shelves. I know you’ve seen a lot of “Start Trek The Next Generation,” and in one, Data was able to read six books at a time — wouldn’t that be great!

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          • Nice choices! Bruce Catton is an excellent choice. I love his trilogy of Mr. Lincoln’s Army, Glory Road, and Stillness at Appomattox. His writing is informative but also so moving. Mary Chestnut’s diary is also a fascinating read. Ive read Rise and Fall of the Third Reich but not the Roman Empire, so if you get to it you will have to let me know how you liked it! If you want anymore Civil War recommends, I could sure help you out I practically own a library on the subject!

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            • Well, M.B., you must be the only person I know who has read Mary Chesnut’s Diary and one of the few to have read Bruce Catton. Both my eldest brother and my father were Civil War buffs, so when I took a course in the Civil War in college, I of course followed a lot of books I knew they had read. We had a comprehensive textbook of that War, but our special assignment was to read six other non-fiction books about the war and basically write a book report about all six. He gave us a mimeographed list (do you remember those or are you a lot younger than I?). That’s where I found out about Mary Chesnut and I bought a copy of her diary after I graduated. My other books were probably by Bruce Catton, and a few others that I can’t remember now; but it was one of my favorite courses. I did well on my book reports, and the only correction my professor had was that I spelled judgment as judgement — or perhaps it was the other way around!

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  9. The Handmaid’s Tale! The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead. All of Toni Morrison’s novels and Atwood’s are theme based. The best teaching novels have strong themes to latch onto (To Kill a Mockingbird, which I know is dated, but it didn’t become a classic for no reason). You could argue The Odyssey is theme based.

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    • You mentioned some great books and authors, Sharol! Thank you!

      To address just one of the novels you named: I think much of speculative fiction (such as “The Handmaid’s Tale”) is theme-based — whether it focuses on what women’s rights will be like in the future, what the environment will be like in the future, etc.

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  10. I’ve been amazed at the success of “Big Little Lies” by Liane Moriarty over the last year or so. It’s been three great actresses playing the main characters: Nicole Kidman, Reese Witherspoon, and Shailene Woodley. I just read the other day though that another great actress is joining the group — Meryl Streep, but I’ve no idea what role she’ll play. So now, I’m stuck as to whether I should watch the first book adaption, which won many awards, or stick around for book two, with such a stellar cast. Oh dear, which doesn’t seem like it should be a great big decision, but it is for me! I still wish they had kept the filming in Australia rather than California.

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    • I think I read that Meryl Streep will play the mother of the women-abusing guy (his name escapes me at the moment) who died near the end of the book.

      I LOVE the “Big Little Lies” novel! Do you know if the continuation of the series will be based on a new Liane Moriarty book, or did she write new material strictly for the screen?

      And I totally agree that the TV series should have kept the Australia setting, but that’s Hollywood… 😦

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      • Dave, I don’t think that the TV series could be based on a second book, because as far as I remember, the first book was self-contained, but who knows anymore. Although I don’t remember the mother of woman-abusing guy was around at all for a second book. However, since I’ve hit my head three times since mid-November, perhaps I’ve suffered more than I thought I did!

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        • Thanks, Kat Lib! I had been wondering if Ms. Moriarty was writing a “Big Little Lies” sequel book that had not come out yet — for use as the TV series sequel. There’s only one already-published “Big Little Lies” novel as far as I know. Meryl Streep’s character might be created just for the purpose of said TV sequel. Sorry again about hitting your head. 😦

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          • Dave, I’ve given up the idea of moving to Austin, which just seems problematic, especially after all of the falls I’ve had recently. It seemed like a good idea at the time, but since I’ve fallen 3 times or so in the last six weeks, as well as other potential falls that I’ve averted, we’ve decided to stay here and put all the money that would be saved by fixing up this home and adding improvements here. I think perhaps it was the 3rd fall that did the trick! 🙂

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            • Sounds like a good decision, Kat Lib. Moving is such a hassle even in the best of circumstances. Good luck with making your nice new home even better! And I hope you’ve reached your quota of bad luck with falls.

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          • Dave, this is what I found out on Moriarty’s website): “HBO asked me to write a story for season 2 of Big Little Lies. I had a lot of fun writing a novella and David E.Kelley is once again writing the screenplay.”

            PatD, sorry I couldn’t reply directly to you but for some unknown reason, My “reply” button under your comment doesn’t seem to want to work. I’m sure that “button” is not the right word to use, but once again I’ll use the hitting my head excuse. 🙂 I guess that knowing Moriarty is so involved makes me feel better about watching Season 1 and then 2 when that comes out, but since I’m still on a reading, watching TV and movies drought, it may be a while until I get to them.

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            • Thanks for the Liane Moriarty/”Big Little Lies” information, Kat Lib! That explains things. 🙂

              And, yes, it’s good to know Moriarty is involved with Season 2. Her wonderful writing almost guarantees that season will be great!

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    • Kat Lib, I have “Big Little Lies” on my Kindle. I’ve read a few chapters but haven’t yet sat down and absorbed myself in the story. I’m asking myself the same question: should I watch the series first or read the book first? I’ve intentionally avoided watching the show so far, but I’m now very tempted after all the awards it has won.

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    • Hey Kat Lib 🙂

      I recently read “Three Wishes” based on your recommendation, and loved it. I’ve seen snippets of “Big Little Lies”, and found it enjoyable, although more than a little confronting. Then one day I was randomly watching it and it seemed like an early episode (it was the second) so I found the +2 channel, and watched the whole series. It turns out that I’d already seen snippets of the last episode, but it hadn’t spoiled anything at all. As you note, the main actresses are all amazing. And although the sex and violence got even more confronting, it was just so compelling. And the ending absolutely blew me away. Then I heard there was going to be a second season which I thought was a little disappointing. Partly because it wasn’t based on a book (I didn’t know there was going to be a second) and also because the first one finished so neatly. A second season feels a bit like cashing in. But I’d probably still feel compelled to watch it 😉

      Then I was at my new book group and committed the ultimate sin by saying I’d seen it, but not read it. One of the girls there had read it, and so while no one was listening I asked if the book ended the same, but she got all confused with another book, and then I had no idea if it was the same. So now I”m really undecided about whether I need to read the book. I often watch adaptations of things I’ve read, but find it hard to go the other way. (Trust me, I understand about turning little things into big decisions!)

      And funnily enough, as an Australian, I have no problem with this being set in California. The Sydney in “three Wishes” seemed a little fake to me. Of course Moriarty knows what she’s talking about, but as an ordinary Aussie woman, I found it hard to believe that so many women were so successful with so much money in such a small area. The only way I can imagine something like that is in a shallow “Real Housewives” kind of way. Of course, I’ve never been a part of ritzy suburbs like that, so who knows what really happens? But moving it to California made sense to me. And setting it in Australia may have meant lots of American actors with terrible accents 🙂

      Dave, I apologise for the length of this comment. I didn’t think I was going to ramble on this much!

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      • No problem about your comment’s length, Susan! I enjoyed every line, as I’m sure Kat Lib will, too. 🙂

        I haven’t seen the “Big Little Lies” series but I’ve read the novel, which I thought was beyond excellent! And, yes, Season 2 does seem a bit like cashing in, but at least Liane Moriarty is involved!

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        • Hi Sue, I loved the book, and I don’t know yet whether I want to see either Season 1 or 2. It just goes against the grain for me when one loves a book so much. The last time I remember doing that was when I read “Gone With the Wind, and I loved both the book and movie, when I was in 7th or 8th grade. However, the last time I saw the movie was about 6 years ago and my friend and I were watching it, but she fell asleep, so I had to watch it two times around, and it was positively excruciating.

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          • Yes! I could read “Gone with the Wind” for months and months, but that movie is just too long! I really enjoyed “Big Little Lies” and would recommend it to anyone, but I understand your reluctance to try both formats. It’s the same reason that I’m so reluctant to read it. Despite knowing that Moriarty is a wonderful writer. A girlfriend is trying desperately to get me to watch “The Handmaid’s Tale” but I just can’t. It’s a book for me, not a show. And yet I saw “The Fault in our Stars” as a movie, and just can’t see it as a book. It can be so hard to do both. Which is why I have so much respect for the people behind the “Harry Potter” and “Lord of the Rings” adaptations which did nothing but add to the literary experience.

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      • I’m glad that you really liked “Three Wishes,” which I thought was really well done for a debut novel, and I certainly wouldn’t know if Sydney was properly portrayed or not. When I read Moriarty’s books, it doesn’t really strike me as to whether she is American or Australian, even though “Big Little Lies” did seem to me to be a bit different from American books, not sure why!

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        • It’s interesting how the Australian suburban life, attitudes, etc., depicted in Liane Moriarty’s novels have a lot of similarities to the suburban life, attitudes, etc., we have in the U.S.!

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        • “Three Wishes” didn’t strike me as being particularly Australian or American, but then it wasn’t supposed to. And I assume that “Big Little Lies” is the same. It’s more about the people and families. And so it doesn’t really matter where it’s set. But if most of the actors are American, then it’s going to make sense to set it there. It’s interesting that you say it seems different though. Ok, I’m going to read it! I was hoping you or Dave would be able to tell me the differences between the two, but if you can’t, I’ll find out for myself. Though I am tempted to google it…

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          • Hi Sue, I don’t really know if “Big Little Lies” or “Three Wishes” were all that different from American novels, but I do think that American / Australian / British novels were different in very subtle ways, whether apparent or not. We all speak English, but we do so in very different ways, sometimes that few people would know.

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  11. Dave, I could add several other novels by Lionel Shriver that I think would fit this topic. There’s “Double Fault,” which is about two tennis players, and what happens to their relationship when one gets better than the other — you can probably guess which one that is. There’s also “The Post-Birthday World” that tackles the question of how just one small event changes the lives of the main character and of course those around her. This is something that has always intrigued me; e.g., if I hadn’t done this or that, then my life would have been totally different. The most topical of all is “We Need to Talk About Kevin,” about a mother unable to bond with her son from birth, and the father who is unable to stop a terrible tragedy from happening when Kevin is in school, and refuses to believe his son could be capable of such a thing — I don’t want to give any spoilers, but it’s something that seems to happen way too often in this country.

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    • Thank you, Kat Lib! I definitely want to read more than the three Lionel Shriver novels I’ve read so far, and you’ve gotten me very interested in the three you described so well. If I’m reading your comment on “Double Fault” correctly, it sounds “A Star Is Born”-ish in terms of the gender relationship? And, yes, small or large events and the many decisions we all make can totally change the arc of our lives.

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  12. The novel Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides was a coming of age story that featured an intersex protagonist with gender identities issues. As I read the book I was struck by how these loaded issues were woven into the story seamlessly and were not even the main points of the book. I learned and gained insight, while enjoying a fantastic story.

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    • Thank you, Shallow Reflections! “Middlesex” IS a great — and very educational — novel. There’s a similar theme in “Golden Boy” by Abigail Tarttelin, who also ably pulls off the combination of educational and compelling. Not an easy thing to do!

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  13. I think I’ve mentioned before my love of Dick Francis. One of the enjoyable things about his novels is that they always included a lot of information about some subject, normally the hero’s occupation. In the less good books this could turn into into dumping but in any case it was always interesting and along with a murder mystery you might find yourself learning about equine bowel resectioning, airplane navigation, photography, accountancy, sharp shooting, computers, semi precious gems, and a whole host of other things.

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    • Thank you, Elena! It sounds like Dick Francis really did that right — and often, and on a lot of subjects, and interestingly. As you allude to, offering a lot of information about something in fiction can get tedious in the wrong authorial hands. Francis is definitely on my list of authors to try!

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      • These sorts of info dumps seem to be a thing in thrillers and part of the attraction for many readers. Sometimes they work out better than others.

        Another genre that does that is historical romance, sometimes more effectively than others, but that is one of the reasons why many readers say they like historical romances–it’s educational as well as entertainment. I’m currently reading one called The Golden Lynx, set in 16th century Moscow during the reign of the Grand Princess Elena (mother of Ivan the Terrible) and written by the translator of historical documents from that time. Historical romance is not my favorite genre but this is well done and full of excellent period detail, as well as featuring a Muslim Tatar princess as the heroine, which is a first in my experience. The love plot is stereotypical but there’s tons of stuff about day to day living in the period, written by the woman who translated the Domostroi, the manual on household government from that period.

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        • Very true about historical romances/historical fiction, Elena. As you note, that genre definitely has the appeal of both entertainment and education. (For many readers, it’s of course a more palatable way than nonfiction books to learn history.) And the authors HAVE to get a lot of information in there as they mix fact and fiction. Of course this can be done almost seamlessly, or clunkily (with hard-to-digest separate passages).

          “The Golden Lynx” sounds fascinating! Thanks for the great description!

          Historical fiction I’ve enjoyed in recent years includes Julia Alvarez’s “In the Time of the Butterflies,” Barbara Kingsolver’s “The Lacuna,” Margaret Atwood’s “Alias Grace,” Mark Twain’s “Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc,” and various Sir Walter Scott novels, among many others.

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