Bright Spots in Dark Times: A Book Rec List ~ Outside the Margins with JA Rock

Join Prism Book Alliance® as JA Rock goes Outside the Margins today.


When I was sixteen, I read Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix for the first time. I’d been a big fan of the series up to that point, but OotP took things to another level. It was 2003, and the invasion of Iraq had just happened. I’d attended the single protest my small Ohio town offered, which consisted of my mom and me, three other people, and a candle. Someone read a poem. The whole thing lasted about fifteen minutes. I remember feeling so hopeless after that, like nothing I did would ever matter. (Okay, keep in mind I was sixteen and it had not yet occurred to me that one bedraggled protest on the shores of Lake Erie was far from the limit of things I could try).

I think the reason Order of the Phoenix landed so hard with me was that it was a story about people my age taking action. Fighting against ideology they knew was wrong. It gave me hope that teenagers could make a difference, and that although fiction sometimes offers us more straightforward evil than real life ever gives us to combat, it was still possible to apply what I learned from that book to less straightforward situations.

I don’t need to tell you what power books have. You’re readers; you know. So what I’d like to do today is recommend a few of my all-time favorite books with the theme of characters finding bright spots during dark times. And then, if you feel so inclined, I’d love to hear your recs in the comments, or your stories about books that keep you going.


The Last Days of Summer, Steve Kluger 

I love everything about this book, from the hilarity, to the kindness that pours off the pages. Steve Kluger is funny as hell, optimistic about humanity, and a creative storyteller. In TLDoS, a twelve-year-old Jewish boy comes of age during World War II, and faces a tumultuous political climate, the realities of racism and sexism, and the trials and tribulations of…you know, puberty. Bonus points for being my favorite baseball book ever.


Station Eleven, Emily St. John Mandel

Far and away my favorite read of 2015. This is a “looking for hope during a literal apocalypse” book, and it is stunning. A flu wipes out ninety-eight percent of the human population, and the survivors, including a traveling Shakespeare troupe, struggle to find, not just food and water, but a reason to keep going. They find it in…duh, art.


Another Brooklyn, Jacqueline Woodson 

This. Book.

This book.


I’m obsessed with books that depict groups of close friends, and this is the story of an adult woman who returns home for her father’s funeral, and is drawn back into a labyrinth of memories of Brooklyn in the 1970s, when she and her three best friends were growing up together.

This quote, about the boys in their neighborhood: “The four of us together weren’t something they understood. They understood girls alone, folding their arms across their breasts, praying for invisibility.” That is all.

This story about memory, loss, and the fracturing of innocence finds beauty in everything. Even things that on the surface seem incredibly ugly.


Comfort and Joy, Jim Grimsley

Jim Grimsley is brutal. He offers some of the most unflinching portrayals of abuse I’ve ever read, and he is a beautiful, beautiful writer. While I think Winter Birds and Dream Boy are probably better books, with Comfort and Joy, Grimsley backs off the brutality and tells a quiet, lovely story about moving beyond—but not overcoming—shame and trauma, and finding moments of comfort in a relentlessly imperfect world. Plus we get to see Danny, the protagonist of Winter Birds, as an adult.


The Crimson Petal and the White, Michel Faber

This book is phenomenal for many reasons. Its Dickensian tapestry of characters, its narrator—which is the book itself, which could have been super pretentious, but totally works—and its friggin’ ballsy as hell protagonist. Sugar is a nineteen-year-old prostitute in Victorian London, trying to survive in a man’s world. And she does it—in a realistic way, not an anachronisticly kick-ass way. She has to make compromises. She gets repeatedly shit on by the patriarchy. And through it all she remains sharp, restless, and believably nineteen-but-had-to-grow-up-too-fast. My literary hero.


The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, Michael Chabon 

“As the shadow of Hitler falls across Europe and the world, the Golden Age of comic books has begun.”

That dust jacket quote used to give me chills every time. Still does.

I don’t know what I could say about this novel that hasn’t already been said. It’s funny, unique, sprawling, tragic, and elegant. I will never stop loving this epic feat of storytelling, and its insistence that through art, we find others, move others, change ourselves, and become truer to those aspects of ourselves that will never change.


Room, Emma Donoghue

I’ll never forgive Emma Donoghue for the way this book ripped me apart. She tackles an extremely difficult, nuanced topic through the eyes of a five-year-old, and what we get is a story about the power of the mother-child bond, how lonely forgiveness can feel, and how we often keep fighting, not because we’re amazing heroes bent on doing the right thing, but because we have no other choice. [image 4]


So that’s my list. What books give you hope?

~JA Rock

About JA Rock

Farewell Giveaway
I have a number of paperbacks, most of which are signed, to giveaway. Over the between now (11 Mar 2017) and 31 Mar 2017, every comment on the blog (this post and all other new posts), will be entered to win 1 of these paperbacks. There are also some misc swag items, so there will be a few packs of these to give away as well.

Thank you so much for your support over the last 4 years. Prism will be closing its doors on 1 April 2017. All content will remain available, but no new content will appear after 31 Mar 2017. As such all request forms have been turned off. Again Thank you,

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