(It’s a really long shelf…)
Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban; Catching Fire; Wuthering Heights; Jane Eyre; The Killing Floor; The Monkey’s Raincoat; The Children of Men; The Stars My Destination; Caesar: Life of a Colossus; Persian Fire: The First World Empire and the Battle for the West; Roman Blood: A Novel of Ancient Rome; The Persian Boy; Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ’s Childhood Pal; The Big Over Easy; The Count of Monte Cristo.
Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, JK Rowling
Catching Fire, Suzanne Collins
I was never a kid who wanted to grow up, be older, be an adult – I truly appreciated childhood. But I did read far beyond my age and that is my excuse for making up for it now. I’m in a sort of a literary middle-age crisis. I love many YA series: Harry Potter; Rick Riordan’s Greek/Roman/Egyptian books; The Hunger Games. I have even read, and not totally despised though highly criticized, Twilight. I read largely to escape, as you’ll no doubt notice. I love a good imaginary world and a compelling conflict, as well as positive ethical and moral examples, so let’s say the shelf of my must-reads begins with Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban and Catching Fire. Why these? They’re just my favorites of those series.
My Romantic Poet phase:
Wuthering Heights, Emily Bronte
Jane Eyre, Charlotte Bronte
My friend and I have a theory that all teen-agers sooner or later go through a Romantic Poet phase, named for Bertrand Russell’s own fixation with those British poets, but it is not necessarily literary. My friend apparently fixated on The Doors for a while. My angsty favorites were the Bronte’s, never Austen. Sorry Jane fans, but Charlotte and Emily are darker and just plain cooler. Crazy woman in the attic trumps Mr. Darcy any day. Onto my shelf goes Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre – that was the nuts kind of love I wanted someone to feel for me.
Caveat: I am choosing among current, American stories. There are a number of wonderful British mysteries and there is no substitute for Sam Spade.
The Killing Floor, Lee Child
The Monkey’s Raincoat, Robert Crais
I consume these by the series full, often so fast that I don’t even remember them clearly. Is that ok? Who cares? I love to careen through these like a good car chase, bouncing off one onto another. While I love PD James in all her varied forms, I am saving her for sci-fi. So Elizabeth George and her Tommy Lynley come to the fore of British mysteries, despite her American pedigree. Conversely, Brit Lee Child’s American hero Jack Reacher is among my top American detective types. The best detectives have their own code, from Spade to Leroy Jethro Gibbs – and so does Reacher. I have no argument with Harry Bosch from Michael Connelly, but my LA detective win goes to Robert Crais’ Elvis Cole and Joe Pike. Heart and strength and whatever it takes describes Reacher, Cole, and Pike, so onto the shelf go the first of the Reacher series and the first of the Cole/Pike series.
The Children of Men, PD James
The Stars My Destination, Alfred Bester
There is no way, whatsoever, for me to pick a favorite so I’m going for something a little different. Dune, is clearly the top of my list by sheer repetitious readings, and I mean the whole series – and everyone who knows me can’t believe I’m not picking it. Asimov’s robots and Foundation. Heinlein’s 60’s love fest, Stranger in a Strange Land and Starship Troopers. Philip K. Dick, Ursula K. Le Guin, Ray Bradbury … the list goes ever on. But the two I choose for my shelf are The Children of Men and The Stars My Destination. Both are stand-alone and thus kind of unique in my world. They are also relatively short, proving their authors’ abilities to say a great deal in a very few words. Children and Stars both have anti-heroes that make their stories morally difficult to swallow, another challenge for an author that James and Bester conquer. They are both compelling and the kind of science-fiction I love: a future world used as a mirror to show us something about human nature. There are many different kinds of sci-fi, of course, and many different things to love about it, but it is the human stories that always move me, regardless of genre, and science fiction is an ideal vehicle for revelation.
History and Historical Fiction:
(Yes, I like classical history so all of these are of that ilk. For historical fiction, Middle Ages style, go straight to Sharan Newman and Ellis Peters. Catherine Le Vendeur and Brother Cadfael are loveable, brilliant detectives.)
Caesar: Life of a Colossus, Adrian Goldsworthy
Persian Fire: The First World Empire and the Battle for the West, Tom Holland
Both of these are popular histories that are fascinating, well-researched, and eminently readable. The first, clearly, is a biography of Caesar. Goldsworthy is not enamored of him, which makes for an interesting picture; his approach is always to place Caesar in the sociopolitical context into which he was born and in which he participated – until he didn’t. The second is a history of the rise of the Persian Empire and its battles with Greece… “Battle for the West” sounds like something from Tolkien, but is, of course, set in the Middle East rather than Middle Earth. For you 300 fans who want to know what really happened, this is for you, but don’t expect writhing naked girls or grotesqueries being celebrated in the Persian camp.
Roman Blood: A Novel of Ancient Rome, Steven Saylor
The Persian Boy, Mary Renault
I recommend anything by Steven Saylor. He has two more modern books, one about O. Henry living in Austin which is pretty darn good, but his Roman books are simply excellent. The book on my shelf is the first in his Roma Sub Rosa series of mysteries featuring the Ancient Roman equivalent of a private eye, Gordianus (yeah, like the knot). These books are told from the vantage of this average citizen but he runs into all the greats of the era: Sulla, Crassus, Cicero, Cataline, Pompey, and, of course, Caesar. Great fun and well-researched as well. I recommend his Roma and Empire as well which follow a single family through all the eras of Rome’s rise from a village on the Salt Road.
The second is a book about a Persian slave boy picked up from Darius by Alexander the Great. It is told from the boy’s point of view and his insights into the events of the day are unique. It is also acknowledges that sexuality was differently understood in that era and that Alexander did have gay relationships. Some modern historical fiction writers (and historians) and their readerships, are determined to eradicate homosexuality from our understanding of Ancient Greece, in particular, and I appreciate both Renault’s storytelling and her recognition of Alexander’s sexual reality.
Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ’s Childhood Pal, Christopher
The Big Over Easy, Jasper Fforde
If you haven’t yet discovered Moore, do so! Everything from Shakespeare’s King Lear from the point of view of the Fool, to The Stupidest Angel, a Christmas story a la O. Henry with a even different twist. His characters are strange and loveable and usually embroiled in supernatural events, or are supernatural themselves. He even has two vampire books, which are a guilty pleasure of mine. Lamb is irreverent, certainly, but “Josh” remains a Jesus you recognize, while going on amazing adventures. He is sweet, kind, and good; he is eminently loveable and even Biff can find a place in your heart. I can practically guarantee these will make you happy if you’re willing to go on the ride.
Like Moore, anything by Fforde is worth the time. I haven’t read his entire oeuvre, by any means, but of those I have read, my favorites are the two in the Nursery Crime Division where detectives investigate nursery rhyme crimes, like The Big Over Easy’s mystery of who caused Humpty Dumpty’s great fall. Clever, referential, and laugh out loud funny. His books are populated by fictional characters from Miss Havisham to aliens. And like Moore, Fforde will brighten your day as long as you’re willing to suspend your disbelief and enjoy.
The Count of Monte Cristo, Alexandre Dumas, translated by Robin Buss
The summer I turned twelve I got to take a trip, anywhere I wanted, with just my Dad. We went to Washington D.C. I may never have walked so much in my life, but we saw a lot, including two shows at the Kennedy Center: a symphony under the direction of Henry Mancini and a play of The Count of Monte Cristo, one of my father’s favorite books. I had never heard of Edmond Dantes before and the day after the play we stopped at a bookstore and I got my first copy. I have read it almost once a year since then. The translation by Robin Buss is my favorite; the book was written as a serial and this translation includes it all, including the contradictions that arose over time. It has my favorite subplots in full, leaving nothing out, which almost every other version does to varying degrees. It’s hard to say why Monte Cristo is so compelling to me. Exotic locales; the exposure of human frailty; total, devastating revenge; characters you love and characters you love to hate; damn good story telling… no doubt my affection for it, at this point, is largely nostalgia. Not just for the time gone by that the Count lived in, but the time gone by when I was 12, and nothing could ever be as cool as being out, just me and Dad. Our trip, our book, rounding out my imaginary, happy shelf.
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