Wednesday, April 18, 2012

The Top Shelf: 20 Great Reads

I've been getting a lot of requests lately from friends looking for book recommendations.  Granted, there are a lot of good books out there.  But some of the 5-star material is meant to be studied or pored over meticulously, as opposed to just read and enjoyed.  And, of course, there are a ton of amazing books that everyone knows are amazing, and that everyone has read already (or decided not to read for whatever reason).  And there are those zeitgeisty books that everyone is talking about around the watercooler--the ones with a 100+ person waitlist at the local library.  But you already know about those.  That's not what this list is for.  I'm not going to include, like, Pride & Prejudice, or To Kill a Mockingbird, or The Help, or Hunger Games, or Harry Potter, even though I've read them and enjoyed them and I wholeheartedly suggest you read them if you haven't already.

Instead, I want to recommend some great books that don't get as much hype--books a lot of folks haven't ever heard of, at least in my (limited) experience.  If you have heard of them--or have even read them--well, then I guess you get to give yourself a big old pat on the back. (And if you've got recommendations of your own, feel free to sound off in the comments--I'm always looking for good books!)

To wit, I present, in no particular order, this list of 20 Great Books I Recommend to People Who Are Just Looking for a Good Read.

Ender's Game, by Orson Scott Card

This little gem won both the Nebula and the Hugo Award, which, if you're not into the world of sci fi lit, is a big deal, and pretty much means it's awesome.  Card wrote it because he wanted to write the sequel, Speaker for the Dead, but needed to develop the backstory. This one is better.

Little Britches: Father and I Were Ranchers, by Ralph Moody

Really, this whole series is worth reading (well, almost).  Essentially, it's Little House on the Prairie for boys. Young Ralph Moody and his enterprising family make modern Americans looks like stupid, lazy, whiners (which is, I suppose, not all that far off the mark).

World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War, by Max Brooks

Wait!  I know what you're thinking!  You don't do zombie books, and I respect that.  But this is not just any zombie book--it's surprisingly deep and complex, and is really more a commentary on crisis management and adaptive warfare (cough*WarOnTerror*cough) and information control.  Plus, you know, zombies.

Watership Down, by Richard Adams

A classic that almost never made it to publication--it was considered too advanced for children, and publishers were concerned that adults wouldn't read a book about rabbits.  Fortunately, they were wrong on both counts.  And if Sawyer liked it, you know it must be good.

On Writing, by Stephen King

According to Roger Ebert, this is the best writing book since Strunk & White.  King's casual blend of autobiography, memoir, and how-to manual is entertaining and educational.  And who knows, maybe it'll convince you to give some of his other stuff a shot.

Rebecca, by Daphne du Maurier

This one is, in my opinion, an absolute classic, and should thus be universally known and thus disqualified from the list.  But I keep running across people who've never heard of it, so I guess it stays.  It's brilliant gothic romance/mystery, full of deliciously creepy details and the perils of faulty communication and unwarranted assumptions.  The movie adaptation was directed by Alfred Hitchcock, if that tells you anything.

The Graveyard Book, by Neil Gaiman

One of Gaiman's tales-for-all-ages (read: appropriate for kids).  This story is a delightful blend of light and darkness, and Gaiman deftly balances the humorous and the creepy.  Won the Hugo Award and the Newbery Medal.

All Creatures Great and Small, by James Herriot

The first volume in a four-volume collection of anecdotes from Herriot's career as a large animal vet in Yorkshire.  Many of the stories are laugh out loud funny and some are positively infuriating--between dealing with the stubborn Yorkshire farmers and his eccentric and absentminded partner, Herriot may be the most patient man alive.  Warning: This book may make you want to become a large animal vet.

Redwall, by Brian Jacques

Woodland creatures living out their lives in an Abbey.  No, for real--they have little monk habits and keep fruit wine and nut ales in the cellar and everything.  Life is great until a villainous rat attacks the abbey with his hordes of weasels and stoats and other nefarious critters.  Excellent for children who are ready for a more challenging read, vocabulary-wise, but aren't necessarily up for a bunch of sex, gore, and swearing.  This is the first in a series that boasts well over 20 books now.

The Princess Bride: S. Morgenstern's Classic Tale of True Love and High Adventure, by William Goldman

You've seen the movie (I hope), but have you read the book?  While most novelizations are a giant waste of time (in my experience), this book is a real treat.  Goldman--essentially Peter Falk from the movie--'edits' S. Morgenstern's classic, leaving out the boring bits and immersing the reader in a well-written (if familiar) story.

The Prince of Frogtown, by Rick Bragg

One of Bragg's three family biographies.  This one tells the story of his alcoholic father with surprising grace and empathy, though he certainly doesn't sugarcoat the negative consequences of his father's choices.  Also excellent are All Over But the Shoutin' (the story of his hard-working and functionally single mother) and Ava's Man (about his tough but family-minded maternal grandfather).

A Princess of Mars, by Edgar Rice Burroughs

The recent film John Carter of Mars was a bit of a flop.  Fortunately, the source material--this little novel, the first in a series of like 11 books--is much better.  Sure, it's pulpy and ridiculous, and over-the-top, and generally sort of silly, it's also a ton of fun and has a certain charming innocence and nostalgia.  Plus plenty of action and fisticuffs and damsels in distress.  In short, it's a great book for guys, though many girls will enjoy it as well.

Tender at the Bone: Growing Up at the Table, by Ruth Reichl

Food critic and chef Ruth Reichl traces her lifelong love affair with food, beginning with her mother's atrocious culinary creations during her childhood, through to her days cooking for a commune of sorts out in California.  Reichl is a capable writer, and the entertaining anecdotes are interspersed with recipes that have been particularly important to her over the years.  The sequels, Comfort Me With Apples and Garlic and Sapphires, aren't quite as good, but are still worth reading.

Neverwhere, by Neil Gaiman

This was actually a British miniseries before it was a book.  The miniseries is . . . weird.  The book is amazing.  It's average-bloke-gets-sucked-into-alternate-reality the way it should be. 

Book of the Dun Cow, by Walter Wangerin, Jr.

Lord of the Rings meets The Canterbury Tales meets Animal Farm.  This is a classic animal fantasy, but instead of Middle Earth, the action takes place on a farm.  Chanticleer the rooster (assisted--and occasionally hindered--by a dog) is determined to protect the farmyard residents from the evil cockatrice--a seriously creepy villain if ever I've seen one.  Beautifully written and surprisingly touching considering, you know, he's a rooster.

Dealing with Dragons, by Patricia C. Wrede

A humorous take on the fairy tale. This story takes place in a land where all the fairy tales are true (if a bit...misunderstood).  Princess Cimorene is tired of boring princess lessons and longs for adventure. But when she volunteers to work for a dragon, she may have bitten off more than she can chew. Full of friendly witches, evil wizards, mysterious cats, and lots and lots of dragons, this young adult book lovingly skewers our favorite fairy tales.

Death of a Doxy, by Rex Stout

If you like mysteries, then reading Rex Stout is an absolute must.  His corpulent, orchid-loving genius Nero Wolfe is one of the greatest detectives of all time, and his relationship with wisecracking assistant/bodyguard/gopher/man Friday Archie Goodwin is endlessly entertaining. The mysteries are decent enough, but it's really the characters that drive this series. The books are fairly chaste (Stout wrote like 50 of them from the '30s to the '60s) and chock full of fun new vocabulary words. This one features the murder of a 'kept woman'--and one of Nero Wolfe's colleagues (a womanizing private detective) is the prime suspect!  (Some Buried Caesar is also excellent).

The Edge, by Dick Francis

Francis, once the Queen's jockey (yes, that Queen) suffered a career-ending injury and decided to make lemonade out of lemons.  Over the next forty years, he churned out 40 international bestsellers, all mysteries relating in some way to the field of horse racing. (Your mom probably reads them.) This particular book centers around a Jockey Club investigator tracking a known criminal on a transcontinental "mystery" train ride across Canada. Hijinks ensue.

The Unknown Ajax, by Georgette Heyer

Sort of a Jane-Austen-Lite (but with much more outlandish plots), Heyer was a prolific writer of historical fiction (particularly the Georgian and Regency periods) from the '30s to the '70s. Her books are full of plucky, clever, and often witty women and the men who woo them. Don't be fooled by the covers on the new editions, though--no bodices are ripped. Like Austen, Heyer's idea of romance is 150 pages of banter and adventure with a chaste kiss on the final pages. In The Unknown Ajax is essentially a more lighthearted Downton Abbey set up--the prim and proper landed gentry horrified to learn that the title will be inherited by a (presumably) boorish commoner cousin. Except Hugo is way more interesting than Matthew Crawley.

The Book Thief, by Markus Zusak

This one might be a little zeitgeisty--it's been on the NYT Children's Bestseller list for like 5 years. Set in Nazi Germany and narrated by Death, this is the story of Liesel Meminger, her foster parents, and the Jew who stays with them during World War II. Liesel becomes obsessed with books and even steals them from the Nazi book-burning bonfires, in what ultimately becomes a powerful commentary on the power of words.  A simply beautiful book, though I'll warn you: you may cry.


The Moon in Autumn said...

Excellent choices!

Alexis Neal said...

Thanks! Glad you like them!