book recommendations



MY FAVORITE BOOKS (alphabetical by author last name)

This is a super eclectic list of the things I’ve not only read and loved, but also managed to remember past the window of time when I first loved them. Plenty of books I read as an undergraduate English major were loved in their moment but long since forgotten…

Pride and Prejudice (Jane Austen)
            Seems trite to even list this book. But certainly I have loved it. And Sense and Sensibility and Persuasion are right up there…

Jane Eyre (Charlotte Bronte)
            Unequivocally my favorite book. I re-read it every five years or so and I find something new to love every time. Jane shaped my own life and undoubtedly Ella’s as well. It’s a book with some of everything: a near-gothic plot, a roguish love story, an odd but endearing heroine, gorgeous writing. I can’t imagine how Charlotte Bronte accomplished this masterpiece of close, introspective writing so far ahead of her time.

Possession (A.S. Byatt)
            This is perhaps best suited to those with a strong literary bent, as it’s the story of two scholars discovering a treasure trove of undiscovered documents. It’s so perfectly well-done, though! Byatt’s creation of the treasure trove of poems and letters is in itself a remarkable accomplishment. Add to that a decent mystery and love story, and it’s a delicious read for those of us who like poetry and old documents.  

The Hunger Games series (Suzanne Collins)
        Won't say much about such bestsellers, but I think these are brilliant, especially for the pacing and character depth.

The Lymond Chronicles (Dorothy Dunnett)
            Dorothy Dunnett has had the single most profound influence on the writer I’ve become. I went through a phase when I first moved to Vermont and my children were young that I read nearly no other writer. This is possible because her books are so long. I savored the six books of the Lymond Chronicles, then her one singleton retelling of the Macbeth legend called King Hereafter, and then made a valiant attempt to get through the eight books of the Niccolo series. In the aftermath, I can only say that she remains larger than life to me. Her facility with both language and storytelling have, to my mind, no equal. And her erudite wit is unmatched. In fact I can hardly read her these days because I grow too despairing of ever reaching a fraction of her skill. That said, it seems to be a pattern that only about 2% of readers can get through her books. The other 98% say, “this is too dang dense” and slam it down. I’ve had this experience in recommending her to others, and I’ve heard the same from others who love her books but can’t get anyone else to read them—they’re too dense. If you look her up, though, you’ll see she has a small but almost cultish following across the globe of people who worship her books. The Lymond Chronicles is widely-considered her best work. The Niccolo series gets bogged down in too much historical detail and an oddly-constructed plot and few people finish them. King Hereafter is quite good, though. If you happen to be in the 2% who can read her books and you haven’t read them yet, I envy you!

Middlesex (Geoffrey Eugenides)
            Again, a book that seems effortless but is clearly the result of remarkable vision and powerful tenacity. Each piece fits neatly into the next slot, which has been built under your nose while you weren’t looking. This one does it all right.

Cold Mountain (Charles Frazier)
            Again, a book so many people have read that I needn’t say much about it, but it has everything I love in a book and more. It was another that helped launch me into a career in writing historical fiction. 

A Soldier of the Great War (Mark Helprin)
            Mark Helprin is a real writer’s writer, whatever that means. I think it means he tries really hard things in his writing and more often than not, he pulls them off. When he pulls them off especially well, it’s astounding. That’s what I think of A Soldier of the Great War, a book I completely adored and plan to read again. Not only is it a great read with a stellar main character, it’s a great primer on Word War I, a period I continue to wish to study more than I actually study it. Also, it’s worth mentioning that if you like short stories, Mark Helprin writes brilliant ones. He has several collection, of which The Pacific and Other Stories is an especially good one. 
Cider House Rules (John Irving)
            This is a favorite book of my teen years and I still think of it fondly. John Irving’s perfectly-balanced plot is a model of how to construct one of these, and his premise and characters are completely unique. To my mind, the things he does well he does best in this book. (Also, the setting for the orphanage in the movie was the abandoned state hospital for the insane that I lived near in Northampton, MA for a number of years. Unfortunately torn down now, it was one of the coolest settings ever.)
Country of the Pointed Furs (Sarah Orne Jewett)
            I’ve counted this among my favorite books for many years but I confess that I haven’t re-read it in ten or more years, and I wonder if I will love it quite as well as I used to. Books are like that sometimes. Certainly I love the setting of this one—the story of an herbalist on the coast of Maine. It’s not a page-turner, though. More of a reflective meditation within a series of connected tales. And of course, lovely writing.

The Poisonwood Bible (Barbara Kingsolver)
            I’m not as much a dedicated fan of Barbara Kingsolver as many people I know, but I did completely love this book. It reads like a classic magnum opus, every word sure-footed and solid, flowing along as if unfolding. I plan to read it again.
Gilead (Marilynne Robinson)
            I don’t read a lot of literary fiction because I typically find it too slow. I’m all for character-driven plots, but the plot needs to have some motion to keep me going. Beautiful writing alone isn’t enough. That said, a literary novel about an Iowa minister holds no obvious appeal for me, however I had loved her earlier book Housekeeping so I was disposed to read this one. To my shock I read it once and then started over to read it again. I NEVER do that. Gilead completely blew me away as a near-perfect book. It has just as much story as it needs, the driving voice of a man you cannot help but love, and Marilyn Robinson’s signature exquisite writing that, when she nails it, brings tears to your eyes. Or at least it does for me. What especially made this one transcendent for me was the love between the characters. Where Housekeeping is just as gorgeously written, in the end the characters are unconnected, alone and cold. In Gilead, the voice of the humble minister is ennobled by his love and worry for his wife and child, making of him an unlikely but warmly engaging hero. I can’t do any justice to this book in talking of it. It simply must be read.

The Harry Potter series (J.K. Rowling)
            I think these are brilliant, especially for the humor and complex plotting.
The Sparrow (Mary Doria Russell)
            I didn’t read a lot of fiction while in graduate school for plant biology, but among what I did read, this was my favorite book. It’s written by another scientist-cum-writer like me, and has a few of the same features, including a highly intricate plot. Perhaps it’s the scientists in us that seek to unravel complexity. I believe you’d categorize this as science fiction, which is not a genre I typically read, but this one is so very good in so many ways that it matters not at all. The characters are fascinating and memorable, the plot is intriguing on many levels, and the resolution to the central mystery is breathtaking. Quite an achievement. Also, it’s fitting but ironic to list this just before the Lymond Chronicles, as I learned of Dorothy Dunnett from Mary Doria Russell, another fan, and the recommendation launched me into a deep and abiding passion for historical fiction (hence the irony). 

A Light Between Oceans (M.L. Stedman)
            My husband and I both completely enjoyed this book and I think it’s probably the best book I’ve read in 2013. It surprised us in many ways, and was vivid and compelling throughout. It has a completely unusual setting and an engaging premise—especially for those of us with kids. I have one complaint about the ending but it’s relatively minor and I won’t say anything more for fear of spoilage.
Shadow of the Wind (Carlos Ruiz Zafon)
            I have a soft spot for stories about books. In this one, everything about the search for the mysterious sole surviving copy of a book by an enigmatic author who lurks at the edge of the story is pure candy to me. The entire setting is like the best haunted house you might ever be able to imagine. One with a dusty library full of books that harbor all kinds of wonderful secrets. Usually these kinds of novels about books are strong on set-up but then fail to follow through. And in truth that’s kind of what happens in other of Zafon’s books I’ve tried to read. But in this one book, he utterly and completely nails it. It’s a purely delightful read. Most everyone who likes the smell of books will like this one.

The Book Thief (Markus Zusak)
            Most people have read this so I won’t say much about it, other than I loved it and thought it did so many delicate things really well. As soon as I finished it I told everyone I saw to read it. I only do that once every five years or so.


(alphabetical by author last name)


Remarkable Creatures (Tracy Chevalier)
            Recommended to me by one of my editors, this is a really enjoyable read. Take the setting and time period on a beach packed with fossils, add a pair of interesting lead characters and an interesting time in science, and you’ve got all you need.

The Subtlest Soul (Victoria Cox)

I am pleased to report that I have an indie book to recommend! I found Victoria Cox’s The Subtlest Soul as an award winner at the Historical Novel Society site and was quite pleased that I fully agreed with the assessment of historical novelist Elizabeth Chadwick, judge of the award, when she said, “The history felt real and right. It was an immersive experience.  It was one of those books where I needed to know what happened next and kept having to go back and pick at it - you know like when you have that opened bar of chocolate in the fridge!” (Her full blog post on it is here)
(My own full blog post is here)

The Signature of All Things (Elizabeth Gilbert)
            I know of several people who adored every word of this book. I myself found it slow throughout the first two-thirds but then, when it got moving in the last third, I found it worth the wait. It’s a wildly ambitious book and beautifully written. Ms. Gilbert strives to put a character at a pivotal crossroads within scientific discovery and do it from the world of plants, not animals. It would be really easy to screw this up in a multitude of ways—I can only wince at the thought of trying it—but she not only achieves her lofty ambition but achieves it engagingly enough to sweep us along with her. The depth of her research is remarkable. I had mixed feelings about Alma Whittaker as a character for much of the book, but in the end I did feel I knew and admired her, and I expect I will remember her.

The Curiosity (Stephen P. Kiernan)
            This is a super fun read. It’s got an awesome premise in the reawakening of a man who froze nearly a hundred years earlier and is reintroduced to American life a century later. Written from four very different perspectives, the opportunity to see the players from all sides is entertaining and cool. My one complaint is that I had the sense of the novel having been rushed out the door before it was fully baked. Besides the errors in the text, there are numerous potentials that weren’t fully realized and some rather glaring holes in the plot. Mostly I quibble about the main woman character, who’s characterized as a “true scientific genius” but fails to ask even the most basic scientific questions—and mostly does whatever the plot needs her to do. I won’t say any more than that, but will unreservedly recommend this for a fun read that’s nearly impossible to put down.

Folly (Laurie R. King)
            I wasn’t sure about this one at first but I then came to really savor it. Rae Newborn is a super vivid protagonist and the setting on an island in the San Juan’s is almost equally vivid.
The Bookman’s Tale (Charlie Lovett)
            As with Shadow of the Wind, this is a story about a book and I love little better than a good one of these.      

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet  (David Mitchell)
The scope of detail in this novel is staggering. Truly impressive and staggering. The depth of the detail sweeps you away to the world of late eighteenth century Japan for a dose of a feudal society still closed tight like an oyster but on the brink of being pried open by Dutch and English traders.  It’s a smart book in many ways, sophisticated and richly flavored. The characters and plot are good if not great, but certainly it’s the setting and the history that are absolutely worth reading this for. It’s like a fine old cabernet for lovers of historical fiction.

The Forgotten Garden (Kate Morton)
            A secret garden on a large estate and a book of mysterious dark fairy tales form the core of this story, which was a fun read all the way through.

The Secret Keeper (Kate Morton)
          Kate Morton really outdid herself with this one! I had enjoyed a couple of her earlier books moderately well and I always like her settings and sense of mood. She's a master of creating remote locations that look and feel like Northanger Abbey. However the resolution to the plot of The Forgotten Garden left me pretty underwhelmed. 
         Thus I was more recently reading the Secret Keeper mostly for the setting and "world" and was immensely pleased when I reached the end and found the plot took an excellent surprise twist that nailed the story into place. I love that!
         Also she does a magnificent job of creating multiple points in history and weaving back and forth between them, with some characters appearing as later and earlier versions of themselves. Very complex and hard to do well. 
          If you're choosing among her books, so far this is the one I like best!

Northern Borders (Howard Frank Mosher)
If you haven't read anything by Howard Frank Mosher, don't wait too much longer. He's written a mix of novels and memoirs and they're all whimsical and wonderful in their own way. My favorites are the novels set in and around his own town up here in the northern woods of Vermont. In his books our own Northeast Kingdom becomes "Kingdom County" and names are changed in various ways, however the smoky do-it-my-own-way-or-be-damned flavor of the place and people is perfectly preserved. Maybe it takes a transplanted flatlander (someone not from Vermont) like Howard or like me to savor how different this place is from so much of the rest of our country, but year after year I continue to marvel at the way people do things up here. Reading about these people in Howard Mosher's books holds the pure delight of diving into the world of people who, viewed from a distance, inhabit a world of mystery and intrigue I will never fully understand. 

I chose Northern Borders to highlight here because I think it's my favorite of his books and it hasn't received the attention that some of his others have received. Several of them - including Where the Rivers Flow North and Disappearances - have been made into movies. Northern Borders, though, to me captures the essence of the place more deftly than any others. It's set largely on a dairy farm in the 50's, where a young boy goes to live with his grandparents and joins their life of ridiculously hard work blended with numerous small joys and deep pleasures. The story follows Austin Kittredge through his young adulthood as it simultaneously follows a tiny Vermont town that belatedly joins the mechanized world of modern America. (Though always at least a decade behind, as Vermonters have to be pried away from anything they're used to.)

And like any good story, it holds a central mystery that comes at you sideways and makes the whole story resonate with hidden meaning.  This is a fine sweet read that is worth savoring.

A Tale for the Time Being (Ruth Ozeki)

The novel has many qualities of a dream. The story moves across time and oceans and there are moments when you’re not sure what’s real, and many where you’re not sure which voice is the author and which is the character who has many qualities of the author—as they’re both writers named Ruth who live in the Pacific Northwest. Which makes it sound like a bad literary novel when in actuality it’s a fabulous story with voices—especially that of the girl Nao—which are vivid and strong and utterly intriguing.

The world of the book explores much of Zen Buddhism, physics, and other areas of philosophical thought that you can delve into or ignore as little or much as you like. They don’t interrupt the flow of the story (except perhaps a little at the end, but that’s a quibble) and they give it a timeless quality that makes an interesting juxtaposition to the urgent day-to-day actions and anxieties of Ruth and Nao.
I won’t say any more except that Michael and I both loved this book as something refreshing and unique. And we both fell in love with Nao’s grandmother, the 104-year-old Zen Buddhist nun named Jiko.
Go meet her.
Eleanor and Park (Rainbow Rowell)
            Voices voices voices. Ms. Rowell does her voices with remarkable skill and I found this one hard to put down. Eleanor and Park are remarkably vivid characters. I thought the plot was maybe a little manipulative but I think I’m splitting hairs…

Empire Falls (Richard Russo)
            I greatly enjoy Richard Russo’s writing. He has a powerful gift for characters, especially male characters.

Bridge of Sighs (Richard Russo)
            This is another of my favorite Russo books. It contains one of his few interesting female characters in the form of Theresa Lynch. 

Mating (Norman Rush)
            Extremely erudite, but clever throughout. Excellent means to double your vocabulary.

Angle of Repose (Wallace Stegner)

 [see post 8.28.14 for the full-length review]

I had begun Wallace Stegner's Angle of Repose about ten years ago and I think I wasn't ready to read something so subtle. I hadn't matured enough yet. A friend told me several months ago that she'd had a similar experience of reading it many years apart and finding it a completely different book. She encouraged me to give it another try. 

I think you do have to be a certain age or mind-frame to savor a book that moves at a modulated pace and spends ample time on descriptions of both the outer world of the setting and the inner world of the characters as they grow and change. In the end I was left with two overriding emotions. First was a powerful sadness for both Lyman and Susan, both of whom struggled to find the courage to endure their many disappointments. There was a great beauty in their endurance. The second was a warm glow of appreciation for the fine writing that brought their world to life and allowed me to spend time there. I felt like I'd visited much of the early west and could nearly shake the parched dirt from my shoes. (If I'd been able to reach my shoes at the time. . .)

In the end, then, I recommend this book to anyone who feels they are ready for it. It's a magnificent treat when you can savor it like you would anything slow and deep and finely-wrought.
Fingersmith (Sarah Waters)
            I found this a little slow in the middle, but mostly it’s a wonderful example of a recently-penned Victorian novel. Everything about the plot—except the gender of the lovers—is fully Victorian gingerbread, including the intricate deceptions, thieves with thick Cockney accents, mistaken identities, improbable coincidences. What’s not to love?