The Books I Recommend More Than Any Others – Part 2

Last post, I listed ten books, or ten authors I recommend more than any others. Here, I continue with ten more authors and their books.

One of the reasons I keep a home library is that I like to visit with my books, especially my favorites, but even those I’ve forgotten about, or forgot I owned one or several copies of. One of the pleasures of writing this post was the opportunity to spend time with my favorites. To pull them out, line them up, and see their spines in a new arrangement. Side by side with books they may not have met before.

So, we’re not going to question my ability to alphabetize, alright. We’ll just say I arranged this photograph aesthetically. It’s mostly in order, anyway.

Group Two, from Cornwell to Le Guin. What a selection!
Agincourt, Bernard Cornwell

Agincourt is one of the most remembered battles in English history. Henry the fifth invaded France and attempted to solidify his eventual triumph at Harfleur by marching north to Calais. The siege at Harfleur nearly devastated Henry V’s forces. But the king felt he had God on his side and wanted to prove to the French that he was indefatigable. He set to cross the countryside to show that he could. To display the strength and will of the English army.

The story is told mainly from the point of view of an English archer named Nicholas Hook. Declared an outlaw, he finds a place in Henry V’s army and sails to France as part of Sir John Cornwaille’s company of ninety archers. Nick’s clear and direct attitude, his common sense and his belief in God and those close to him endeared this character to me. Sir John was an amazing man. If I were to serve as a soldier, he would be what I’d hope for in a commander. Nick was also an extraordinary man. For all his simple and humble origins, he became somewhat of a hero. His story is also realistically told in that he didn’t always rise to the challenge. He gave into his fear and made mistakes. He learned from both.

While all the novel is worth reading, the most gripping parts are the battles. The final quarter of the book is devoted to the battle at Agincourt. It’s a culmination of all the small details that make the events leap from the page. The mud, the smells, the fear, the prayers, the sounds of the arrows and the swords, the gruesome deaths and daring escapes. The strategy, the victories and failures. I could not put the book aside before the battle was finished.

This was the first time I had read Cornwell. I have since worked my way through his catalogue with obsessive glee. I’d recommend any title without hesitation, but this one most especially.

Maybe You Should Talk to Someone, Lori Gottlieb

After reading, I scanned reviews for this book and came across one stating the reader didn’t get the point. Because I’d spent the last hundred pages alternately sobbing and laughing and almost having to take a nap to recover, I had to wonder if that reader had gotten past the first page. Or the cover copy. I mean, the book IS the point.

I read Maybe You Should Talk to Someone on the advice of a book buddy. I’m interested in what goes on in therapy and thought a book from the perspective of a therapist also seeking therapy was unique. There’s a thought, or a collection of them, really, later in the book where the author muses over how being in therapy herself has helped her be a better therapist and I could totally see that. Reading makes me a better writer – or, at the very least, makes me more curious about how other writers do it.

I enjoyed the stories of the author’s clients. They broke my heart and put it back together again with new insight and a deeper appreciation for story. For being human. Unlike most novels, I couldn’t guess going in how each of these separate narratives would turn out. I had hopes, but real life doesn’t always pay attention to what we wish for.

I also loved the way Ms. Gottlieb’s story, and why she sought therapy, changed how she related to her clients. She grew with them. There is nothing more satisfying than growth—to have a journey have meant something. I enjoyed the exploration of uncertainty and paused to examine the concept in relation to my own life and the choices I was making, or not making.

What I loved most, though, was the inevitability I grew to suspect somewhere in the middle, about how the journey described would become the process of the actual writing of the book. Which left me wondering how anyone might not see the point of it all. This was the book I recommended most to everyone in 2020.

Looking for Group, Alexis Hall

Alexis Hall is an avid gamer, so when I heard he had a nerdy gaming book coming out, I pre-ordered the paperback. The cover was adorable and I was pretty sure I’d want a copy of this for my keeper shelf. Turned out I was right. Looking for Group is and will always be my favourite of his books.

I wrote a pretty extensive review back when I first read this one for the magazine I occasionally contribute to. I’ll try to sum up my thoughts here. What I loved most was probably the stuff that made this story relatively impenetrable for non-gamers: the scenes set in game, and the conversations between Drew and Kit about gaming. Why they were there, what they cared about, how they made friends, and how those friends became a real community.

Now days, most everyone understands that the friends you make online can be as ‘real’ and important as the friends you make offline. Social distancing has blurred the line ever more. It doesn’t matter whether the people on the other side of the Zoom call are five miles away or five thousand miles away. For the time you’re connected, they’re right there in the same room as you.

Additionally, this is a book about not only embracing who you are, but being open to learning new things about yourself. Mental flexibility is important, especially when it comes to friendship and love.

Make Room! Make Room! Harry Harrison

I very clearly remember my Harry Harrison kick and it all started with this short novel. It’s a fast-paced exploration of an overpopulation crisis with all the views you’d expect—the dividing line between rich and poor and who gets to live where and why. The scarcity of food, resources, and the big one, room to move. And all of the unrest that might arise as a result.

Weaving through all of this is the plot: a murder mystery and one overworked cop. And then there’s the simple absurdity of situation. The fact that Andy (the cop) lives in half a room, and what people are willing to do and trade for just a little bit more of anything.

Make Room! Make Room! began my lifelong fascination with dystopias and any sort of story that unfolds within a compressed environment, and encompasses themes I reference often in my own writing.

Stranger in a Strange Land, Robert Heinlein
Pictured: my multiple copies of this book, including my much beloved and much shared first paperback edition.

I rarely go back to re-read a book. There are too many new books to experience for the first time. But as I get older, I do find there are books I want to revisit. They tend to be science fiction classics.

I read Stranger in a Strange Land for the first time when I was twenty-five and it was one of those books that changed my life—in subtle ways. With this book and others, Heinlein helped me focus a lot of my thoughts about society, religion, and the seeming futility of it all, which is why he is regarded as such an important and influential writer.

Recently, I read the expanded, uncut version, which is 40,000 words longer than the original published version. I think I prefer the original version, simply because a lot of the extra words felt unnecessary. There were a number of scenes and conversations that could have been (and were) condensed to address some redundancy and boredom. Overall, however, I really, really enjoyed this re-read and doing so might have restored Stranger in a Strange Land to the top of my All-Time Favourites list. I’ll have to re-read Dune first, just to be sure. And maybe Hyperion.

(I could just accept that all three books are justifiably great and let them share honors, but to be honest, I’m looking forward to experiencing them again, even though this will be my third time reading Dune!)

Dune, Frank Herbert
Another favourite, of which I own many copies.

What can I say about this book that hasn’t already been said better by thousands of other fans? All I can give you is my personal history with the book. I first tired to read it when I was about fifteen. My father was a fan and we’d read a lot of science fiction together, mostly Clarke and Asimov. That time, I didn’t get far. I found the book too complex and put it aside.

I didn’t pick it back up again until I was nearly forty, at which time I borrowed the audio version from my local library. I’ve been a lifelong fan of audiobooks, but it was only about fifteen years ago that I discovered that listening to books I wanted to read, but had a hard time reading, made everything much easier. I don’t know why? But I’ve since been able to conquer many books, including those about history and science that I was unable to stay focused on in print. Listening to the audio has also become my favorite way to conquer epic (read: long) fantasy and science fiction.

For the few weeks I listened to Dune, I became consumed by the world. I lived on Arrakis. And I emerged from the experience convinced I’d read the greatest book ever written. I went on to read Dune Messiah, but stopped there. Dune Messiah works beautifully as a companion novel to Dune and the two books stand as a solid entry and exit to the series for me.

Needless to say, I am very much looking forward to Denis Villeneuve’s upcoming film adaptation. Though, I plan to listen to Dune again first.

On Second Thought, Kristan Higgins

The first time I read Kristan Higgins (If You Only Knew), I fell in love. With her voice and her characters. I then decided not to risk another of her books because it’s couldn’t possibly be as good. Finally, I broke down and read On Second Thought, which is something of a follow up to If You Only Knew in that it’s set in the same town and features a few of the same characters.

I loved the story, but then that thing happened where you flip a page and there’s a paragraph featuring the same phrase as the title and it’s one of those moments where the whole book comes together. Where every emotion waiting in the wings (I’d already laughed and cried, but there was more, apparently) rushed forward to overwhelm you. It was also the moment for one of the characters where everything was suddenly all right. And I was an absolute mess.

I have since read everything Kristan Higgins has ever written and I consistently recommend her books to my friends.

(The) Mad Ship, Robin Hobb

To get the most out of Mad Ship, you should probably read the first book of Robin Hobb’s Liveship Traders trilogy, Ship of Magic. To get the absolute most out of Ship of Magic, you should probably start with the first book in Hobb’s Realm of the Elderlings saga, Assassin’s Apprentice. And then you should keep reading, because the story continues to build through each trilogy, combining the lore of the world with elements of prophesy, past, present, and things to come.

Mad Ship, though. What I loved most about this trilogy, and this book in particular, was Hobb’s ability to give personality to a ship, and then to have that same ship struggle with its sanity. That story, balanced with that of the Liveship traders, pirates, the Rain Wilds, and dragons? Um, why aren’t you reading this already?

Seriously, Hobb’s imagination is boundless and her characters are deeply worthy.

Wool, Hugh Howey

Okay, so, like, are we friends? Do you actually know me? Then you were probably biding your time until the letter H, knowing this series would be on the list. Of course I loved Wool. This is post-apocalyptic, dystopian, closed space, forced proximity, social disorder fiction at its best! And there’s a crime to solve. Seriously, throw a detective or some sort of investigator into ANY scenario, and I’m there. Tease me with a possible romance and I’m there even faster.

If Ridley Scott does actually make this film, I will be the first in line to see it.

Of the trilogy, I think Shift is actually my favorite book. It has such a unique structure, with the story told over shifts as various teams prepare for, well, um, certain events. (If you haven’t read the books, I don’t want to give it all away!)

Shift is a prequel, but reading it second is definitely the way to go because Wool is absolutely the sort of book you should approach from the perspective of as little foreknowledge as possible.

Dust is also excellent.

Howey should write more for this series. He really should.

The Dispossessed, Ursula K. Le Guin

So, the way I’ve been writing this post is to flip over to another window where I have the photo from my bookshelf for this group of ten. As I see what book is coming up next, I grin and nod and wiggle in my chair, eager to share my thoughts.

When I flipped and saw The Dispossessed was up next, I let out one of those, ah, of course sighs. Because, yeah, of course Le Guin is on this list and though I could have chosen any of her books—I’ve read so many—it had to be this one.

Until I read The Dispossessed—which was only last year, for some reason—The Left Hand of Darkness was my go-to Le Guin. I’ve read TLHoD three times, which is unusual for me. But it’s that good a book. I’ve only read The Dispossessed once and I’m still processing. I won’t need to read it again for a few years, but when I do, I’m sure I’ll gain even more insight into what Le Guin was trying to accomplish and even more appreciation for how she went about it.

My reading journal review for The Dispossessed says: Just… everything.

Helpful, not. One of my reading wrap-up blog posts makes a better attempt: Honestly, I doubt I have the intellectual capacity to break down just how important this book is. What I will say is that while every important character appears to be masculine, the book is totally feminist. And, as always, what Le Guin has to say about gender, roles, sexuality, and in The Dispossessed in particular, anarchy vs. society, is deeply thoughtful and on point.

(links to be activated as I post the rest of this series)

Part One
Part Two
Part Three

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