Book Clubbing

I’ve been working in school libraries for about 12 years now, and one of the highlights of my career is the student and staff multicultural book club I co-lead at one of my high schools. I feel lighter and more hopeful whenever I leave one of our meetings, consistently impressed by students’ thoughtfulness and kindness. The world can seem so bleak sometimes, but being around smart, outspoken young people is a nice antidote to discouragement and disillusionment.

Book covers for The Marrow Thieves, Dear Martin, and The Night Watchman

The first session of the book club I ever hosted was in 2019. We read The Marrow Thieves by Cherie Dimaline, a dystopian book no one in my group enjoyed, including me. But despite not liking the book, we had fantastic conversations. Since I work in libraries and not classrooms, I only get a little time to talk with kids; I usually only see them in passing. The book club was the first time I had a chance to get to know students and witness them engage with a text. When I hear people say that kids don’t read anymore, I want to roll my eyes and bring them to a book club meeting.

When the pandemic shut down in-person schooling, we decided to try having the book club via Zoom. I was doubtful we’d have much success, but I’m happy to say how wrong I was. We had the most participation we’d ever had as we read and discussed Nic Stone’s Dear Martin, a powerful novel about police brutality and growing up as a young Black boy in predominantly white spaces. Even though we were faces on a computer screen, we were able to have important conversations about race, policing, violence, and friendship. Those are complicated topics, but students were always patient and understanding, even when there was disagreement. We had two more rounds of online club meetings before we got to meet in person again. As much as I love the in-person meetings, I look back on the online discussions with fondness and gratitude. They provided connection and community when we were desperate for both things. 

When we returned to the school building, we read The Night Watchmen by Louise Erdrich. I don’t read much historical fiction, so this book stretched me and challenged me, which I appreciated. Erdrich is an incredibly gifted writer, deserving of the many accolades she’s received over the years. (I really love Shadow Tag and The Round House.) In our meetings, we talked about missing and endangered Native women and discussed why their cases are too often ignored. We pondered Native resettlement together and marveled at the events that inspired the book. The Night Watchmen is heavy and long, but the students consistently showed up with things to say.

Book covers for When stars are scattered and Go tell it on the mountain

We strive to read a variety of genres and viewpoints, so we decided to switch things up and read graphic novels for the next book club session. One of the books we read was When Stars Are Scattered, a middle grade book that tells the story of Omar Mohammed and his brother growing up in a Kenyan refugee camp. A local refugee came in and spoke to us about her experience in a camp. Her story was moving and powerful, and I remain grateful that students could hear someone speak who was directly affected by the subjects we’d been reading about.

Right now, we have two more meetings before we finish Go Tell It on the Mountain by James Baldwin, one of my favorite novels. Having the opportunity to discuss Baldwin’s brilliant writing with a group of thoughtful readers is a joy. The theme we’ve focused on throughout the novel is identity. How does your family shape who you become? Can a person really change? What happens when someone is hungry for power? We’ve examined these questions and many others over the past few weeks.

Along with our primary texts, we pull in outside readings and media, such as poems, essays, interviews, and videos. I love doing this because it’s nice to connect different cultures and formats with the books we’re discussing. 

Over the years, many people have questioned why I like working at high schools. They think of teenagers as wild, rude, and uninterested in reading. But young people are some of the most thoughtful readers out there. They’re passionate, critical thinkers who speak their minds and ask great questions. It’s been an absolute joy being part of a community of kids and school staff who value literature and the benefits it brings to our lives. 

A group of nine book club members with their faces obscured by smiling heart emojis

My Top 10 Reads of 2022

After taking a year off from writing, I missed this space. But I’m back with new ideas and posts to share, and I want to start with my favorite books of 2022. I set a goal to read 75 books this year, and I reached that goal with a few days to spare.

Keep reading to see which titles I loved the most.

My Top 10 Reads of 2022

The butterfly house book cover

The Butterfly House by Katrine Engberg

The Butterfly House is the second book of a Danish crime series following two detectives, Jeppe Kørner and Annette Werner, as they solve murders in Copenhagen. In this volume, they’re trying to find a serial killer who uses antique medical tools on their victims before leaving them in public fountains. Clues lead the detectives to a hospital and former psychiatric facility where questions arise about how patients were treated. 

The characters here are well-developed, the writing is engaging, and the setting is exactly what you’d want from a dark crime novel. If you’re a fan of the Dublin Murder Squad series by Tana French, don’t miss this book. 

Dinosaurs book cover

Dinosaurs by Lydia Millet

Dinosaurs was a wonderful surprise. I had never read Lydia Millet before, and I wasn’t even sure what Dinosaurs was about, but I picked it up anyway. I’m glad I did since it became my favorite book of 2022. 

The story follows a man named Gil who starts a new life by walking from New York to Arizona after a breakup. Independently wealthy, Gil seeks volunteer opportunities to help bring meaning to his life. He becomes close with the family next door and embraces his new role as a friend and mentor to the couple’s young son. 

If you need a lot of plot in your fiction, this isn’t the book for you. But if you want a beautifully told story full of love and hope, don’t miss this gem. 

Happy go lucky book cover

Happy-Go-Lucky by David Sedaris

David Sedaris is one of my go-to authors, one whose work I know I’ll always enjoy. Happy-Go-Lucky might be my new favorite collection from him. Many essays address his time in New York during the Covid-19 pandemic and his complicated relationship with his dying father. In true Sedaris fashion, he brings humor to bleak situations. We could all use some of that after the last few years. 

If I survive you book cover

If I Survive You by Jonathan Escoffery

A debut of interconnected short stories, If I Survive You follows a Jamaican immigrant family after they settle in Miami. The protagonist is Trelawny, the family’s younger son, who can’t quite live up to the eldest. He believes he’s meant to be a scholar, but life unfolds differently than he expects. Though this book addresses topics such as racism, classism, and immigration, there’s plenty of humor and lightness to be found. I love this book and can’t wait to see what’s next for Jonathan Escoffery.

Klara and the sun book cover

Klara and the Sun by Kazuo Ishiguro

The Klara of this book’s title is an AF, an Artificial Friend for a sickly 14-year-old girl named Josie. Josie saw AFs in a store’s window display and immediately felt a bond with Klara, who comes home with Josie and her mother. As Klara grows to know Josie, she comes up with a plan to end her sickness. Klara and the Sun is wise and tender with important things to say about science, friendship, and what happens when those two things are combined. 

Now is not the time to panic book cover

Now Is Not the Time to Panic by Kevin Wilson

In 1996, teenage Frankie met Zeke and finally found a friend, someone who saw her and encouraged her creativity. The two designed a unique poster and hung it all over town. The cryptic, dark artwork took on a life of its own, scaring the townspeople, who were sure something deadly was coming their way. When a reporter calls thirtysomething Frankie and wants to do a story about the Coalfield Panic, Frankie has to face her past and the choices she made with Zeke. Now Is Not the Time to Panic is a perfectly nostalgic novel about two misfits and the power of art. 

This here flesh book cover

This Here Flesh: Spirituality, Liberation, and the Stories That Make Us
by Cole Arthur Riley

I first became aware of Cole Arthur Riley through her excellent Instagram account, @BlackLiturgies. I knew I’d love her book, and I do, but it surprised me how slowly I wanted to read it. I’m usually a fast reader, but the essays in This Here Flesh deserve to be savored. I took my time, underlining sentence after sentence. In prose that often reads like poetry, Arthur Riley explores faith, family, Christianity, and the stories that shaped her. This Here Flesh is a gorgeous book. 

Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow book cover

Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow by Gabrielle Zevin

Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow follows 30 years in the lives of Sam and Sadie, two childhood friends who decide to create a video game together and ultimately become business partners. I expected this book to be lighter than it is, but its depth was a pleasant surprise. Sam and Sadie are well-developed yet flawed characters I rooted for and got frustrated with in equal measure. They love each other, but this book isn’t a love story. They play and make games together, but this book isn’t about gaming. Instead, Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow is a thoughtful, sprawling story about how friendship can sometimes save us. 

When stars are scattered book cover

When Stars Are Scattered by Victoria Jamieson and Omar Mohamed

When searching for possible book club selections for the student and staff multicultural book club I co-lead, I picked up When Stars Are Scattered. I started flipping through it and was immediately absorbed by the true story of Omar and Hassan, two brothers growing up in a Kenyan refugee camp after fleeing war-torn Somalia. Hassan has special needs, so Omar becomes his caretaker, a situation that becomes more complicated when Omar has the chance to attend school. 

I don’t read graphic novels very often, and I read middle-grade books even less, so I’m thankful to have stumbled upon this wonderful title. Kids and adults will both appreciate this one.

You don't have to be everything book cover

You Don’t Have to Be Everything: Poems for Girls Becoming Themselves
edited by Diana Whitney

Anthologies rarely, if ever, appear on my favorites list, but this poetry collection is special. Editor Diana Whitney chose poems from a diverse array of poets, including Amanda Gorman, Kate Baer, Andrea Gibson, Elizabeth Acevedo, and many more. The poems would be enough, but the book is also full of beautiful, brightly-colored illustrations. I read this book on a day when I felt down and discouraged, and it was just what I needed. Consider reading this next time you need some comfort and inspiration.

Honorable Mentions

Here’s a list of other books I enjoy and recommend in the order I read them:

  • And We Rise: The Civil Rights Movement in Poems by Erica Martin
  • Mouth to Mouth by Antoine Wilson
  • Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin
  • Messy Roots: A Graphic Memoir of a Wuhanese-American by Laura Gao
  • The Angel of Rome and Other Stories by Jess Walter
  • Confidence Man: The Making of Donald Trump and the Breaking of America by Maggie Haberman
  • The Appeal by Janice Hallett
  • The West Wing and Beyond: What I Saw Inside the Presidency by Pete Souza

The Stats

Fiction vs. nonfiction (40.8% and 59.2%)
Format (Audio 1.3%, Print 51.3%, and Digital 47.4%)
Where I got my books (Gift 2.6%, Purchased 32.9% and Library 53.2%)

In Conclusion

2022 was a great year for books, and there are already many 2023 titles I’m excited to read. I’d love to hear what books you loved this year. What books were your 2022 favorites?

My Favorite Book Settings

Photo by Mikołaj on Unsplash

I’m not a fan of traveling. I’m a homebody who’d rather be in my favorite cozy chair than on an airplane or exotic vacation. Despite my lack of interest in globetrotting, I like visiting different places when I read.

Book settings are something I’ve only started thinking about somewhat recently. I never paid much attention to them a few years ago, but my reading life improved when I realized what books I’m drawn to and why. Knowing what settings you like in your books is a quick and easy way to help you find your next read, so I’m sharing my favorites today.

NYC skyline
Photo by Emiliano Bar on Unsplash

New York City

I’ve always been interested in New York City, even though I’ve never been to the East Coast. I have a feeling I’d be overwhelmed in NYC after only 10 minutes of being there, but my fascination persists. I’m intrigued by how people live there: apartments instead of houses, public transportation instead of having your own car, affording rent, and having so many options for what to eat and drink and do. I follow several Instagram and TikTok accounts of New Yorkers who share what it’s like in the city, and they’re a delight. Armchair travel is my favorite.

Here are some of my favorite books set in New York City:

  • A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara
  • When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead
  • My Year of Rest and Relaxation by Ottessa Moshfegh
  • Sweetbitter by Stephanie Danler
  • Go Tell It on the Mountain by James Baldwin
London skyline
Photo by Eva Dang on Unsplash

London

One of the reasons I’m intrigued by London is its history. When I drive around my city, I see coffee stands and Old Navy. There are no old, gothic buildings, palaces, or famous museums, which is quite disappointing.

Here are some of my favorite books set in London:

  • The Downstairs Neighbor by Helen Cooper
  • Queenie by Candice Carty-Williams
  • The Family Upstairs by Lisa Jewell
  • One Day in December by Josie Silver
  • About a Boy by Nick Hornby
College campus with a bike rack and ivy
Photo by Ryan Jacobson on Unsplash

Campuses

I love when books are set in the world of academia. (I just wrote about this.) I don’t care whether it’s a university, boarding school, high school, elementary classroom; I want all of it. I’ve noticed a trend on social media of highlighting dark academia as a genre, and while I do enjoy that, I also appreciate less-dark takes, like satire.

Here are some of my favorite books set on campuses:

  • The Secret History by Donna Tartt
  • Stoner by John Williams
  • My Dark Vanessa by Kate Elizabeth Russell
  • Special Topics in Calamity Physics by Marisha Pessl
  • Adequate Yearly Progress by Roxanna Elden
A beach view through a window
Photo by Johannes W on Unsplash

Vacation Homes

One of my friends and I have a running joke that someday we’ll have a house in the Hamptons. While I definitely will not ever have a home in the Hamptons, I can read about people who do. The home could also be a cabin in the woods, a beach house, a deserted property once in the family; all I want is for a family to go there together and entertain me in the pages of my book.

Some of my favorite vacation home books are:

  • Musical Chairs by Amy Poeppel
  • The Hunting Party by Lucy Foley
  • We Were Liars by E. Lockhart
  • Maine by Courtney J. Sullivan
  • Seating Arrangements by Maggie Shipstead
Inside of a bookstore looking out onto the street
Photo by Jason Leung on Unsplash

Bookstores & Libraries

There are few places I’d rather be than a bookstore or library. I went to both places just the other day, and I was in bookish nirvana. Since I love these spots so much in my real life, it’s fitting that I want to experience them in my reading life, too.

Here are some of my favorite books set in bookstores and libraries:

  • 84, Charing Cross Road by Helene Hanff
  • The Shelf: From LEQ to LES: Adventures in Extreme Reading by Phyllis Rose
  • Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan
  • How to Find Love in a Bookshop by Veronica Henry
  • Midnight at the Bright Ideas Bookstore by Matthew J. Sullivan

What about you? What are you favorite book settings?

What I Read and Loved in September 2021

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I love September. Fall slowly begins its arrival, school resumes, I light my apple-scented candles, and my cardigans find their way back into my closet. This September had all of that plus some great reading. Here’s what I read and loved this past month.

What I Read

People We Meet on Vacation by Emily Henry
Format: Print

Poppy and Alex have been best friends since college. Once a year, they take a vacation together until something happens during one trip that drives the two apart. They reconnect after two years, and Poppy is desperate to rekindle her friendship with Alex. She plans one last trip and asks Alex to come along. He says yes, and the two are forced to confront what went wrong and how to move forward. 

People We Meet on Vacation is such a sweet, feel-good love story without being too sweet. The characters are well developed, something that’s essential to my literary happiness, no matter how good a plot might be. I liked spending time with Poppy and Alex and feel eager to pick up another book by Emily Henry. 

Hacking School Libraries: 10 Ways to Incorporate Library Media Centers into Your Learning Community  by Kristina A. Holzweiss and Stony Evans
Format: Print

This book is a quick read that offers many ideas for school library staff to market their collection, further literacy in their building, and increase their number of library patrons. I appreciated how many of the authors’ ideas were attainable. I’ve read many articles and essays over the years that offer great suggestions that just so happen to cost a whole lot of money. Hacking School Libraries provides more straightforward and cost-effective ideas that still increase student and staff engagement.

Beautiful World, Where Are You by Sally Rooney
Format: Print

Sally Rooney’s latest novel concerns itself with four friends: Alice, Eileen, Felix, and Simon. They’re a group of Dubliners around 30 who are still trying to figure out their lives. Some chapters are letters between best friends Alice and Eileen, while others explore the relationships between the women and men. There’s not much plot in this novel, but Rooney’s prose and characterizations are so lovely that I’m just fine with that. This novel beautifully explores themes of friendship, sex, religion, and adulthood.

I’d been looking forward to this book for months, and it didn’t disappoint. Beautiful World, Where Are You isn’t for everyone, but give this one a chance if you like beautiful writing and don’t mind stories with a slow burn. (Plus, that cover is so pretty!)

Goldenrod by Maggie Smith
Format: Print

I don’t usually rush to the bookstore for poetry releases, but I made my way to my local indie to pick up Goldenrod the week it was released. I’ve liked Maggie Smith’s work since her poem “Good Bones” went viral a few years ago. Goldenrod is filled with more poems that pack as much punch as that one does, exploring themes of marriage and motherhood. 

One of my favorite poetry-reading experiences is when I read a line or two that are like a gut punch. I love it when a poet can string words and images together in a way that makes me pause and shake my head. I had several of those moments reading Smith’s newest book. 

Little Secrets by Jennifer Hillier
Format: eBook

Marin and Derek are attractive, successful, and wealthy. Their lives seem perfect until the day their little boy is kidnapped. Unbeknownst to her husband, Marin hires a private investigator to help find the boy after the FBI turns up zero leads. The investigator calls Marin with news one day, but it’s about Derek, not her son. Derek is having an affair, and Marin must stop it. 

I’ve mentioned before on this site that @things.i.bought.and.liked is one of my favorite Instagram follows because of her exceptional beauty, home, and lifestyle recommendations. It turns out she also has good taste in reading. She recommended this book, and I’m so glad she did. Little Secrets is packed full of twists and turns, making this a thriller I couldn’t put down. 

What I Loved

TELEVISION: Only Murders in the Building

Hulu’s Only Murders in the Building is an absolute delight. This smart, funny, and suspenseful show is about a trio of misfits who live in the Arconia, a beautiful NYC apartment building. They come together over their shared love of a popular podcast and decide to start their own when one of their neighbors is murdered.

I’ve loved Steve Martin and Martin Short for a long time, so I knew I’d like this show, but it surpassed my expectations. Selena Gomez rounds out the cast perfectly with her wit and dry humor.

TELEVISION: The Chair

The Chair is about an English department at a struggling liberal arts college. Sandra Oh has just become the new department chair and wants to change the school’s culture. As with any TV show, things don’t go according to plan. Jay Duplass is fantastic as Oh’s fellow professor, friend, and love interest. Holland Taylor should be handed her Emmy right now for her excellent portrayal of a Chaucer scholar whose office has just been moved underneath the gym. The Chair is immensely entertaining, but it also has important things to say about gender, cancel culture, and academia. 

What I Wrote


That’s all for me! What did you read and love in September?

Ten Books for Back-to-School Season

Photo by Kelli Tungay on Unsplash

Since I work in education, September feels more like a new year than January does. When I go back to work, sometimes I want to pick up a book that mirrors my current season. If a book is set inside a school or is about a professor, I’m interested right away. I’m not sure if my intrigue stems from working in schools or fond memories of college, but no matter the reason why, I love academic settings and characters. Today I’m sharing ten books that are just right for back-to-school season. Sharpen your pencils, and let’s begin.

Adequate yearly progress book cover

Adequate Yearly Progress by Roxanna Elden

This novel presents a satirical look at a public high school in Texas. We meet an earnest English teacher who yearns for a deeper connection with her students. The principal ends up in the news for saying something controversial on camera. Other main characters include a math teacher, biology teacher, football coach, and a second-year history teacher who blogs about the school and starts to go viral.

I found this novel to be equal parts funny and insightful. Many of the characters are people I feel like I’ve met over the years. If you’re looking for a lighthearted book to welcome you into a new school year, this is the one.

The all-night sun book cover

The All-Night Sun by Diane Zinna

I wrote about this book in last week’s recap, so I’ll repeat what I said then:

Lauren is a lonely, 30-year-old woman teaching college writing near Washington, D.C. She lost her parents years ago in a car accident and is still trying to find her way after their deaths. When Siri shows up in Lauren’s classroom, the two women strike up a friendship. Siri has also lost her parents, so the two feel a special kinship. Siri invites Lauren back to her home in Sweden, and Lauren, blurring professional boundaries, accepts.

The All-Night Sun follows the two women through their time in Sweden. This novel explores friendship, loneliness, and professionalism through beautiful prose and memorable characters. The cover of this book caught my eye at my local indie bookstore, and I’m so glad it did. I think most literary fiction fans will enjoy this story.

Good girls lie book cover

Good Girls Lie by J. T. Ellison

Good Girls Lie is set at a prestigious all-girls prep school in Virginia. The Goode School is for the rich and influential, the types of girls who will head off to Yale and Harvard. Beneath the impressive exterior is a secret society whose members push past the strict behavioral lines the administration has drawn for them. When a popular student ends up dead, people say it was suicide, but there are too many questions about the death for the interest to end there.

While I didn’t love this book’s conclusion, I did love the setting and the story’s fast pace. Good Girls Lie is the perfect escapist novel for anyone in the mood for a dark academic tale.

Looking for Alaska book cover

Looking for Alaska by John Green

Looking for Alaska is the first novel by young adult legend John Green. (It’s also my favorite of his books.) The story follows a boy named Miles who attends a coed boarding school. It’s there he meets a girl named Alaska. He’s immediately smitten and is soon drawn into her fascinating, self-destructive world. When tragedy strikes, Miles is forced to reevaluate everything he thought he knew. 

I’ve read all of the novels Green has authored alone, and this is the one that has stuck with me the most. He writes teenagers so well, and their desperation and strivings toward adulthood are profound in this story. 

The most dangerous place on earth book cover

The Most Dangerous Place on Earth by Lindsey Lee Johnson

In some ways, The Most Dangerous Place on Earth is the opposite of Adequate Yearly Progress. While that novel was satirical and followed teachers at a struggling school, this novel is much darker and primarily follows students at a school full of privileged families. The staff member readers get to know the most is a new teacher named Molly. She’s unaware of a tragic event that happened in middle school, an event still reverberating through the high school years later.

I appreciated how Lindsey Lee Johnson juxtaposed privilege and tragedy, earnestness and facade. This novel felt achingly real and has some critical things to say about how our actions can haunt us.

My dark Vanessa book cover

My Dark Vanessa by Kate Elizabeth Russell

As the #MeToo movement continued to pick up steam in 2017, allegations come out against Jacob Strane, the man who groomed and started a relationship with his student Vanessa when she was just 15. The two are still entwined years later, even though Vanessa is in her late 20s and living her own life. Because of the allegations, she’s forced to remember what she had with Strane and reevaluate it. In her mind, she was in love. She’s not a victim. She chose Strane. Or did she?

This novel focuses on an abusive relationship between a high school teacher and his student, so know that My Dark Vanessa is not for everyone. It’s sad and disturbing, but I ended up loving it. It has important things to say about responsibility and consent.

The secret history book cover

The Secret History by Donna Tartt

This novel is set at a small, elite college in New England. A group of eccentric students grows close with an equally eccentric classics professor. Readers find out within the first few pages that one of the students is dead. The tension of this book is how it got to that point. 

The Secret History is probably the most popular, beloved book of the dark academia theme, and for good reason. It’s beautifully written and is full of memorable characters who you’re never quite sure you trust. This book is one of my all-time favorite novels, one I wish I could read again for the first time. It’ll never leave my personal library. 

Stoner by John Williams book cover

Stoner by John Williams

Stoner is a simple book with a simple story. The novel follows a man named William Stoner throughout his life in Missouri. Stoner is expected to take over the family farm, but he is fascinated by literature and becomes a professor. We follow Stoner through his work life and marriage as he struggles with the things we all struggle with: being present, working hard, and showing up for the people who need us.

This book has been called a perfect novel, and I wholeheartedly agree. Stoner is not to be missed for readers who appreciate character development and a deep look into a person’s mind and spirit. It might be a simple story, but John Williams has profound things to say about being human.

Surprised by Oxford book cover

Surprised by Oxford by Carolyn Weber

If you like nonfiction, here’s a recommendation for you. Surprised by Oxford is a memoir of Carolyn Weber’s time as a student. She begins attending Oxford as an agnostic but ends up becoming a committed Christian. This book is the story of how and why she converted. It’s a love story between Weber and Jesus, but also between Weber and her future husband.

Weber talks about faith with such nuance, intelligence, and warmth. The prose in this book is gorgeous, and you can’t ask for a much better setting than Oxford. If you’re a fan of Lauren Winner or Sara Miles, make sure to find a copy of this book and read it immediately.

Trust exercise book cover

Trust Exercise by Susan Choi

This novel begins in the 1980s at a performing arts high school. The two primary characters are students David and Sarah, who fall in love. Their classmates’ rolling eyes can’t dim their passion or commitment. About halfway through this book, something changes, and readers are faced with a new reality that’s hard to explain.

Trust Exercise is a book that has kept on surprising me. The initial twist surprised me when I read it and ultimately left me disappointed. But I couldn’t stop thinking about this book after I finished it. The characters and their stories kept rolling around in my head. While Trust Exercise won’t be for everyone, I do believe it’s worth your time. (And so did the people who gave it the National Book Award.)


That’s my list! What novels would be on your back-to-school syllabus?