List-O-Rama: Eleven Memorable Settings
I read two great blog posts this week about the idea of setting.
The first was from the ladies at The Readventurer who put together a fantastic post about settings from books they’d most like to visit. There are some awesome ideas—though most of them terrify me because I am not adept at hand-to-hand combat (or any other combat, if I’m going to keep it real). The second great post about setting was from Molly Backes who wrote a guest post on Stacked about the importance of setting in contemporary young adult fiction.
Both posts got me thinking about setting in books and what works for me and what doesn’t—and why some books have such memorable settings, sometimes even overshadowing the characters and plot. And my conclusion is that when setting is strong and memorable, the place almost serves as a character itself. Think about Dillon, Texas in the Greatest Television Show Ever aka Friday Night Lights. The characters would not be who they are if they didn’t live in Dillon—and when they leave Dillon, they’re transformed too (i.e., Tyra and Jason).
Earlier this year, I went up to Seattle for an event featuring Stephanie Perkins, Gayle Forman and Nina LaCour. Stephanie said something that’s stuck with me, that (I’m paraphrasing) she thinks about character first, setting second and plot last. As a reader, that’s the order I think about books too. I can’t buy into a plot if the first two don’t work.
Here are a few books or series with memorable settings.
The Mercyverse - Mercy Thompson; Alpha & Omega Series
Author: Patricia Briggs
Setting: Pacific Northwest (Tri-Cities, Washington) & Rural Montana
I love the world Patricia Briggs created over seven Mercy Thompson books, numerous graphic novels and three books in the spinoff Alpha & Omega series. What strikes me most is that Briggs has taken a very ordinary place and made it quite extraordinary with an eery underworld. When the books shift to Montana for the Alpha & Omega series, the deep cold woods of the region looms large.
Author: Kirsty Eagar
Setting: Sydney’s North Beaches, Australia
Raw Blue is a striking character-driven novel, but the surfing communities of this part of Australia are also beautifully captured in this book that inexplicably has not yet been published in the United States. Some of my favorite scenes are actually when Carly is in the water. In those moments, I totally understand why someone would ditch their lives and move to a small seaside community.
The Iron Seas World
Author: Meljean Brook
Setting: Alternate Steampunk World
In her Iron Seas novels, Meljean Brook literally rewrote history and redrew the world map. With less meticulous attention to detail, it could be a mess, but Brook has created an extensive history resulting in setting that doesn’t seem fictional. Airships, icelandic fjords, eclectic ports and zombie hordes make the Iron Seas world exceptionally vibrant.
Author: Sarah Ockler
Setting: Buffalo/Western New York
I’ve never been to Western New York (don’t call it “upstate” or else Laura will kick your butt), but reading Sarah Ockler’s contemporary YA novel made me feel like I was transported to that wintery, bacon-loving region. Laura encapsulated why the setting is so unique in her “I Love…” post about Bittersweet, quoting,
All the little quirks that make even the most barren, frigid places beautiful, that make a tiny gray dot on the map the one place you’ll always call home, no matter where your glamorous, boring, adventurous, average, ridiculous, impossible, epic, romantic, bacon-infused life leads you.
The Map of Love
Author: Ahdaf Soueif
Setting: Eqypt (early 1900s & 1990s)
I read this book so, so long ago and it’s still one of my favorites. Whenever I think about The Map of Love, I think about how adeptly Soueif paints a picture of history and then-contemporary Egypt. They are strikingly different, and yet there’s a commonality that remains in the sounds and foods and feeling of the place.
Anna and the French Kiss
Author: Stephanie Perkins
Setting: Paris, France
Not only do I love the Parisian setting, and seeing Paris through 17-year old Anna’s eyes, I love that Stephanie Perkins perfectly captures the experience of leaving one’s country for the first time and the combined exhilaration and terror of everything feeling and being so very different. I’ve re-read this book a couple of times (a rarity for me) and each time I want to visit Paris again.
The Scorpio Races
Author: Maggie Stiefvater
Setting: Fictional Island of Thisby
The thing I love about Thisby is that there’s an ambiguity about it. It’s nestled in a place disconnected from time or geography. It’s vaguely Irish or Welsh in culture, seems to be a relic of the past (photographers use magnesium flashes) and, of course, there’s some sort of magic, but it’s not finite.
Crime Novels by George Pelecanos
Setting: Washington, DC (1940s-present)
All of George Pelecanos many, many novels are set in and around Washington, D.C., which doesn’t seem remarkable on its own. However, it’s not the official Washington of most novels—it’s the real D.C. It’s gritty and the details are meticulous, capturing the vibrancy of the city many people never see.
Amy & Roger’s Epic Detour
Author: Morgan Matson
Setting: A Road Trip Across the U.S.
Road trip novels are often great examples of setting done right. The road trip Amy and Roger embark on is one of my favorite. The two wind around the country, stopping along with way at National Parks, appreciate starry nights and eat hamburgers from the nation’s most esteemed burger joints. The story of their trip across America is enriched by snippets of documents and maps and receipts that reveal a bit more about the places they’ve been.
Arcadia Bell Series
Author: Jenn Bennett
Setting: California’s Central Coast
This series is up there with the Mercy Thompson series as one of my absolute favorite urban fantasy series. And, like the Mercyverse, Cady Bell’s world is incredibly memorable and distinctive. Because the series takes place on the California coast, it has a more eclectic, quirky feel than in most books in the sub-genre and the scenes in the Tambuktu Tiki Bar and the Hellfire Club are stand-outs.
Author: Cath Crowley
Setting: Nighttime in Melbourne, Australia
When I read Graffiti Moon the first time, I had fantasies about retracing Ed, Lucy and the rest of the gang’s night running around Melbourne. The city is always looming as a character, from the factory smokestacks, to the sky and the street culture—you’ll feel transported Down Under from the first pages.