You’re never too old for magic. There’s a reason the Harry Potter series is credited with helping a whole generation fall in love with reading. The feeling of entering a world that is partly created by the author, but also partly by you is unique to reading. In no TV show, no video game, no film, can you escape into a space that so many people share and cherish, and yet feels completely personal. Does my Hogwarts look like your Hogwarts? No. Does my Narnia look like your Narnia? Well, you get the point. This one goes out to everyone who misses the, well, magic of childhood reading. From British Young Adult novels to South American magical realism, from a traveling circus to the islands inhabited by the Greek gods, I hope there’s something here for every taste.
- Northern Lights by Philip Pullman
I just finished this book, and have been recommending it to everyone I meet. I mean seriously, my friends, my family (who have already read it), people on the street, I want everyone to read this book. It’s perfect for those of you I was referring to earlier, who have fallen out of love with reading and miss the fantasy of the kind of books you used to read. Northern Lights is not a children’s book, but the main character is a child. Pullman sort of takes the format of fantasy adventure novels like Harry Potter and recreates it for a more grown-up audience. The themes and language are a little darker, but the magic is there. The story follows Lira, an orphan girl who has grown up as a ward of a fictional college at Oxford. But this is not the Oxford, or the England that you know. It’s a sort of parallel world, where a lot of things are the same, but zeppelins roam the skies and all humans are born with dæmons, animals that are a part of your soul but physically separate from you, constantly keep you company but can shapeshift until puberty, when they assume a permanent form which usually reflects their human’s personality. I don’t want to give too much away, but things really kick off when Lira is given a sort of golden compass (which is, incidentally, the American name of the novel), and we realize she has a destiny far greater than she realizes. Both will lead her to the far north, where armored bears guard over exiled prisoners, witches fly through the skies, and a government lab is carrying out secret and horrifying experiments. Wow, this turned into a long description, but you get the idea that this book is great fun and about as magical as you can get.
- Nights at the Circus by Angela Carter
Angela Carter is a queen of magical realism, and this is one of her absolute masterpieces. The novel is about a star circus act named Fevvers, a large woman who was born with wings and the ability to fly. For much of the novel it’s unclear whether she is actually the magical creature she claims to be, or if her act is a scam. She’s an unusual hero, foulmouthed and far from traditionally beautiful, but she is strong and intelligent and funny. This is the underworld of London, where magic is gritty. The language is rich and visceral, and reading this book is like stepping into an over-the-top, colorful and fantastical circus tent.
- Like Water for Hot Chocolate by Laura Esquivel
This is the book that really made me fall in love with Southern American literature, and specifically with magical realism. One of my best friends had read it in its original Spanish, but assured me that the English version was wonderful too, and so I read it just after I graduated high school and could immediately understand why it was her favorite book. It’s set in Mexico, and the novel is split into 12 parts, one for each month of the year. Each new section starts with a Mexican recipe, which becomes an integral part of the chapter and story. Tita is the protagonist, the youngest daughter in her family, and according to tradition this means she will never marry, but instead remain in the family home to care for her family. Meanwhile, her older sister marries the man she loves and who loves her. Tita learns to express her love, her pain, and her frustration through cooking, which takes on a magical force as the story progresses. By the end of the novel, it becomes impossible to distinguish between reality and magic, but the two are clearly inseparable throughout. Reading this book is a heady and delicious (literally) experience, and I can’t emphasize how much I recommend it.
- The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton
This book is great if you want an easy read with some intrigue and fantasy (heavily) woven in. It’s even greater if you enjoy period novels (which I do), as it’s set in seventeenth century Amsterdam. We meet Nella Oortman as a teenage girl who has been, for all intents and purposes, sold by her poor country parents to be the wife of a wealthy merchant. Her husband Johannes is much older, reserved, and seemingly completely uninterested in his new wife. The only attention he pays her is to gift her a beautiful dollhouse which is a miniature replica of their canal side home. Lonely and intimidated by the brusqueness of the household servants and her husband’s icy sister, the only way Nella has to entertain herself is to write off to a miniaturist she finds advertised in the newspaper to buy miniature furnishings for her dollhouse. Things take a sinister turn when the miniaturist starts to send items that eerily mirror the interior and inhabitants of the house, and then begin to predict events before they even happen and change their nature when they do. It’s pretty mysterious, readble, and very plot driven.. aka, why haven’t you stopped reading this and bought it on Amazon already?
- Circe by Madeline Miller
This is Miller’s second novel following the incredible success of her debut, Song of Achilles (which is also great fun and highly recommended). She graduated from Brown with a master’s degree in Classics and later received an PhD and MFA in 2009 and 2010 respectively. So…not impressive at all. This book follows Circe, the daughter of the sun god Helios, who was exiled to the island of Aiaia for practicing witchcraft. There, she cultivated her magical powers and hosted some of
the most famous characters in Greek mythology, from Medea to Odysseus. It combines modern feminist thought with Greek myths and the result is a punchy and powerful novel, filled with familiar faces, gorgeously rich language, and obviously plenty of magic.