Pardon me while I divulge from our regularly scheduled program. I’ve been toying with the idea of compiling a list of favorite books for a while now, but there always seems to be something more exciting and immediate to share with you. Since this week has been somewhat lacking in adventure, I decided it was the perfect opportunity to indulge myself in a little book talk.
In the process of compiling this list I looked back at what I download to my Kindle in the last year and found 121 books! Wow, I really had no idea the number was so high. Out of that 121, I have chosen ten to share with you. These are not the newest or most popular books of the past year, but rather a collection of my favorites from one year of reading.
*A note, or maybe a warning, about my book habits. I like long books. As a result all of the books on this list, with the exception of the last, range in length from long to really long. You’ve been warned.
In One Person by John Irving
I first became entranced by John Irving’s novels when I read A Prayer for Owen Meany back in high school. Not long after I lived within walking distance of a library and one-by-one I checked out all his books and quickly devoured them. To this day The Cider House Rules still ranks at the top of my all time favorite books. For the last 15 years, every time he publishes a new book I greedily consume it hoping to find that same magic that captured me in his early novels. A few have fallen short of my high expectations (Fourth Hand, Until I Find You), but most have lived up to the John Irving legacy. His most recent book, In One Person, falls firmly into the last category.
The story is told from the prospective of Billy Abbot, a young bi-sexual boy growing up in small town Vermont. We join the the narrative sometime in the 1950s where 13-year old Billy attends an all-boys prep school where he struggles with his hidden desires and crushes on ‘the wrong people’. The novel follows Billy through his life and ongoing journey to discover his true place in the world.
This is not a prefect novel by any means. There’s no doubt that it’s too long, and while I loved the narrative about Billy’s early life, I felt continuing the story into his 70s was a taking it a bit too far. However, in the bigger picture, Irving pulls through with a rich mix of characters and a story told through a gauntlet of tolerance and intolerance, keeping me reading and thinking. This is vintage John Irving. It’s well written. It’s insightful. It’s witty.
The Thorn Birds by Colleen McCullough
An older book that was first published in the late 70s and made into a TV miniseries sometime in the 80s. Somehow this book escaped my notice until a few months ago. I can’t recall how I finally came across this revered novel, but I am very glad I did. The Thorn Birds is a sweeping family saga set in the Australian Outback that spans the lives of several generations of the Cleary Family. This novel has it all- joy, sorrow, romance, tragedy, adventure, and even a dose of sobering reality regarding ranch life in the harsh land that is the Australian Outback. Truly a book worthy of its classic status
Fall of Giants: Book One of the Century Trilogy by Ken Follett
I didn’t love this book as much as I expected to. I went into it with high hopes because of my previous experiences with the author. Both The Pillars of the Earth and World Without End were so captivating and well-written that I expected nothing less from Fall of Giants. This novel fell a little short of the others, but I liked it well enough to include it in my top ten list.
This long (nearly 1000 pages) story is an epic journey through WWI. This saga takes place during the years of WWI and the Russian Revolution and follows five families. Their stories all connect at some point, but in general I was left wanting more interaction between the characters. The middle section of the book was almost completely taken over by battlefield scenes. They are well written, but I am more interested in people than military tactics. I do love historical fiction though, and this book was almost like reading a history lesson about WWI. For that reason I’ve added it to the list. I also won’t discount Ken Follett’s supreme writing style and ability to spin a tale. The second book in this series, Winter of the World, has been out for awhile now, and when the price finally comes down to what I am willing to pay (below $15), I’ll be sure to give it a try.
The Distant Hours by Kate Morton
This book has it all. An old castle full of secrets, literary and family mysteries, tragic love affairs, lost letters, and a twisting plot line- not to mention an engaging protagonist. All the elements fans of Kate Morton have come to expect. This novel starts out with the arrival of a 50-year old letter and continues on to an old castle where legends and people are not always what they seem. The plot kept me guessing until the end, and much like the main character, Edie, every time I thought I had the mysteries solved, I was wrong. I thought this book was very cleverly written and it was one of those that I could barely put down until the end.
11/22/63 by Stephen King
Like so many others, I am a Stephen King fan. As a rule I don’t read horror books, suspense novels are not really my cup of tea, I don’t like science fiction, and books about the paranormal or time travel I generally find unbearable. Yet, ever since my first Stephen King novel (probably Carrie at the age of ~14) I’ve been hooked. Why is it that Stephen King makes me break all these rules? I have no idea. All I know is that I love his books.
I picked up my latest Stephen King read after an enthusiastic recommendation from some fellow RVers this past winter. Most people of a certain age will recognize the title of this book as the day President Kennedy was assassinated. I won’t be giving anything away then when I tell you that the plot is centered around this event. In short, the main character, Jake, travels back in time to try and prevent the assassination. This is one of those ‘what if’ books. What if you could go back in time and change thing for the better? Would you do it? What if JFK had survived the assassination? Would we still have the Vietnam War, race riots, and Martin Luther King’s death? Could the lives of many innocent people have been spared? Jake certainly thinks so and he spends half a decade in the past trying to change what has already happened.
While the plot may center around Jake trying to prevent the assassination, this book offers so much more. There are countless intriguing side plots, fascinating (and sometimes brutally honest) glimpses into American life in the late 50s and 60s, and even a bittersweet romance. Gasp! I know, the last one is a bit of surprise coming from Mr. King. He pulls it off quite well in my opinion. This is a really long book, and at 880 pages it probably could have been edited down somewhat. In particular, there’s one section near the middle that seemed to drag on with not much happening. Other than that I thought this book was amazing. This is Stephen King without the horror, without the monsters, but with plenty of the suspense, suburb dialogue, and memorable characterization that keep so many of us coming back for more.
*Last week we caught an episode of Fresh Air on NPR where the fabulous Terry Gross interviews Stephen King. In case you missed it, here’s the link for your listening pleasure.
The Sandcastle Girls by Chris Bohjalian
Chris Bohjalian does it again. A novel that recounts the horrors of a genocide most of us know nothing about, The Sandcastle Girls is captivating, heart-breaking and unbelievable at times. The story switches back and forth between two time periods. In the present there is the story of Laura, a novelist who is researching her Armenian family heritage and learns of secrets that have been buried for years. In the past, we are taken to the years of 1915 and 1916 where we follow the story of Elizabeth, who along with her father, arrive in Syria to deliver food and medical aid to the refugees of the Armenian Genocide.
This is not a novel for the faint of heart. The horrors of the genocide, when 1.5 million Armenian people were systematically wiped out by the Turks over territory and religion disputes, is not sugar coated in the least. And while there is a beautiful love story threaded throughout the story, it is the horrible fate of so many Armenians that left me with a lasting impression. More than anything, I was disappointed and embarrassed that I had never heard of this very real tragedy. The book was written as a tribute to the author’s own Armenian relatives, and if nothing else he has achieved the goal of raising public awareness. This was a truly powerful, insightful and touching book.
The Storyteller by Jodi Picoult
I swore off this author awhile ago because I felt her books had become too formulaic. I couldn’t bear to read another story about a controversial subject involving some sort of court case or lawyer with a plot twist thrown in for interest. Many years went by and I held firm. Then someone told me her latest book was different. I was skeptical at first, but finally in a desperate search for something decent to read, I took the plunge and downloaded it. I was not disappointed. Thank you Mrs. Picoult for exceeding my expectations.
At first glance this is a novel about the Holocaust. But don’t make the mistake of thinking this is ‘just’ another Holocaust book. At its heart this story is really about forgiveness-not forgiveness as in judgement and punishment-but more along the lines of whether you have the right to forgive, or decide who deserves forgiveness. It’s also about loss, and the battle of good versus evil. I am not going to revel much of the plot, but I will say that my favorite element of this book was how Picoult very successfully wove together several narratives. There were the stories of the three main characters along with a compelling Gothic fairly tale written years ago. This many stories could have been disastrous, but she weaves them together so flawlessly that it’s hard to imagine the book written any other way. I’m still a bit wary of this author, but this one was a winner in my opinion.
1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus by Charles C. Mann
This revealing assessment of native culture and civilization before contact with Europeans is at once eye opening and disturbing. Unlike many science and archaeological based books, this one was extremely accessible to a non specialist reader like myself. I imagine this is due in part to the fact that Mann is journalist, not a historian or anthropologist. He very succinctly presents a mix of factual evidence and narrative combined with some yet to be resolved issues.
Mann begins the book with the basic assertion that the primary mistake in our conception of the Americas before the arrival of Europeans is that we generally believe the Continent was a sparsely populated, pristine wilderness. He makes the argument against this notion by presenting research supporting three broad ideas. One: that the pre-Columbian population estimates are now assumed to be much higher than previously thought. Two: that humans were present in North America for tens of thousand of years, and the complexity of their societies were comparable with Eurasian counterparts. And three: that the Indians could, and did, exert influence over the natural world.
This is a fantastic read for anyone the least bit interested in the real history of the Americas.
Over The Edge of The World: Magellan’s Terrifying Circumnavigation of the Globe
by Laurence Bergreen
We all know the story of Magellan, the brave explorer who first circled the world. But do we really know the story of Magellan? Do we know about the cannibals, mutiny, starvation, orgies, murder, torture, scurvy, battles and more? Do we know about the violent storms, lack of navigational aids and constant threats of mutiny among the crew? What about the fact that Magellan met his fate while trying to convert the Philippine Islanders to Christianity? Or that he willingly involved his armada in the political intrigue between the chieftains of neighboring islands, the nuances of whose culture he clearly did not understand? Read this book and you will learn all this and more.
We all learned a bit about Magellan somewhere along the way in school, but the details of this extroidinary journey were new to me, and well worth knowing.
Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine and the Murder of a President
by Candice Millard
At first glance a book about a president who only served 200 days in office, and spent of good portion of that fighting for his life, seems rather dull. Let me tell you, this book and life of James Garfield was far from dull. Destiny of the Republic weaves a story that includes a president, political corruption, a crazy man, medicine, and Alexander Graham Bell. Intrigued? You should be.
Millard paints a full picture of President James A. Garfield, describing his early life, his marriage, and his first months in office. She breathes life into his personality and who he was in terms of his beliefs and feelings to the point where I almost feel like I know him. She details his shooting (assassination? not quite), his insane shooter, and the series of missteps that most certainly led to his death, little of which had to do with the location of the bullet, but everything to do with the non-sterile, misguided, and ego-driven medical care he received in the aftermath.
I highly recommend this book if you’d like a glimpse into the heart of America and how this widely unknown slice of history began to shape our modern world.
Have you read any good books lately? Please recommend away dear readers-