I started this blog post in the form of a journal nearly 30 years ago. Then it was a web page, and now here it is in a new form. I come back to edit this list from time to time, but it remains my list of recommended fiction, sorted by author’s last name.
Before we dive into this, I want to be clear about a few things. Yes, there are some truly incredible non-fiction books out there too — but this is a list of my recommended fiction. Also, there are a great many more fiction books that I really enjoy, but this is a list of the books that go beyond mere enjoyment: these are the books that delighted me, that I am drawn to read multiple times, or books that I found to be profound in one way or another. I loved Dune, Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, and hundreds of other books too — but this is my list of the books that I recommend.
Watership Down, by Richard Adams
This book appealed to me as a youngster. I loved the thought of Rabbit society and intelligence, and was drawn to the way this book’s main characters are rabbits yet it was written as a very serious and epic novel. Adams has written a lot of other books where he gives voice to animals — even to General Lee’s horse. But nothing matches the greatness of Watership.
Bastard out of Carolina, by Dorothy Allison
I liked this book a lot, but didn’t love it. The best thing about this book is that it is written in such a strong voice that it is a gripping read. Read it for the sheer joy of experiencing excellent writing. And along the way, it will teach you that no matter how bad your personal story can be, it is after all only your story and doesn’t have to in any way affect let alone shape your future.
The Foundation, by Isaac Asimov
This is an incredible book and an incredible trilogy (which is part of a much longer incredible series). I recently re-read the main trilogy after about 15 years, and after just the first page I was grinning from the wonderful writing and the sheer craft of this book. It’s an epic tale that spans over 1,000 years in galactic history, but it is told through a multitude of short, related stories. A classic.
The Handmaid’s Tale, by Margaret Atwood
This is an incredibly unnerving story about a Christian theocracy in the American future. When Pat Buchanan spoke at the GOP convention many years ago and chilled the air all over the country with his homophobia and religious fervor, I begged everyone I knew to read this book before they cast their vote. Frankly, every time someone tries to legislate their religious beliefs, I think of this book.
Expanse series, by James A. Corey
This series, starting with the book Leviathan Wakes, is science fiction with a bit of horror thrown in for good measure. (It was made into a TV series by the regrettably named SyFy channel — I wasn’t wild about it, but others tell me it’s good.) There is much to like in this series, but I think what I am drawn to the most is the cobbled-together family that made up the crew, which reminds me a little of Firefly (the best television show ever.)
A very fun book that partly takes place on the Microsoft campus and in which Legos and geek-eccentricity figure prominently. This this short book was my introduction to Coupland, who has other works very much worth reading, including another Lego-infused nerd-fest called JPod.
The Nun, by Denis Diderot
Published at the very end of the 1700s, this is the story of a young woman who was forced into a convent and then badly abused. This is the book that first convinced me as a young writer that I wanted to someday adapt a novel to a screenplay. Count this as one of those “somedays” that I will never get around to.
Nor Crystal Tears, by Alan Dean Foster
This hard-to-find book is a great first-contact SF story. The first part of the book is told from the human’s point of view, and the second part is from the alien’s. Foster does a great job of first making you horrified at these bug-like aliens, and then flipping it around and making you feel like one.
My Side of the Mountain, by Jean Craighead George
I loved this book when I was a kid, and I think it has a lot to do with the strength and independence I enjoy now. I want all 10-yr olds to read this book (and everyone else too). I have not re-read this as an adult. I almost am afraid to, because I’d hate to find it lacking and then break the spell — do you know what I mean? It’s like the Disney film “Mary Poppins”: I loved it as a child, but when I saw it again as an adult, I realized that Mary’s really just a bitch!
Replay, by Ken Grimwood
This is a mildly-written time-travel-ish tale. In my regretful 20s it played to my old habit to while away my hours of insomnia with thoughts of “what if I could go back to my teens with the knowledge I have now?” Read this for the story, not the craft of the writing. (This is also one of my father’s favorite books.)
All Those Formulaic Lawyer Books by John Grisham
Or most of ’em. I really enjoy ’em. Scoff if you must, but many of these involve very good story-telling and solid writing. No, they’re not my favorite books in the world, but they provide engaging entertainment and very fun escapism if you have the time for that. By the way, Grisham has written just a few books that deviate from the young-lawyer formula, and those are worth checking out as well.
Stranger in a Strange Land, by Robert Heinlein
It’s almost trite to include this book in the list, but I did so love it. Re-reading any Heinlein now, though, reveals what a misogynist he is, but if you can overlook that, then this is a good book. And the word “grok” has been firmly part of my vocabulary for more than 30 years because of it. (Also check out Heinlein’s The Moon is a Harsh Mistress.)
Siddhartha, by Hermann Hesse
I loved this amazing book. It is an example of a book that can be deeply religious for those so inclined, or just beautifully introspective for those who are not religious: read into it whatever works for you. I’ve probably bought at least five copies of this book through the years just so I could give them away and share its wonder with my friends.
Last Temptation of Christ, by Nikos Kazantzakis
THis is a powerful book, and the film was remarkable too (and astoundingly controversial). This book taught me a way to see Christianity without feeling negative about it — which was an important lesson I needed to learn: It is Christ-affirming without being Christianity-affirming. There is a book published in 2005 about the Last Temptation book and film called Scandalizing Jesus which I own but have not yet read.)
Poisonwood Bible, by Barbara Kingsolver
I always liked Kingsolver, but Poisonwood is her masterpiece and will be a tough act for her to follow. It is the story, told from a young girl’s viewpoint, of a family’s ruinous adventures following their misguided patriarch into the jungle as Christian missionaries. I loved this book and highly recommend it. Kingsolver is another of those authors who is simply remarkable: you cannot go wrong picking up one of her books. My first Kingsolver book was The Bean Trees, which is also fantastic.
The Chronicles of Narnia, by C.S. Lewis
Just in case you’ve been living under a rock and don’t know, the Chronicles is a set of seven stories centered on the land of Narnia. When I was a kid I would hike out into the hills behind my house and pretend I was in Narnia. I’ve read the full set probably nine or ten times in the past 40+ years. These books gave me my first glimpse as a youngster into the possibility of interpreting religion differently than the way my parents’ church dictated. If I had to point to one of the most “life shaping” books of my life, this set would be among the top on the list.
Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister, by Gregory Maguire
This was a very, very fun read. It’s the story of Cinderella told from a different point of view, but it’s told as the ‘real’ story whence the fairy tale came. I strongly recommend this book to women, but I know a few men who would tolerate it. This author also wrote Wicked — the story of the Wizard of Oz told from the point of view of the Wicked Witch of the West (which was later adapted for the stage) — but it’s not nearly as good as Confessions.
The Integral Trees, by Larry Niven
Niven is another one of those great SF writers. What captured me in this book (and the sequel, The Smoke Ring) was the utterly unique world and existence he created and made believable. Almost anything by Niven is excellent, so some may raise an eyebrow that I call out Integral Trees for my list of favorites rather than, perhaps, Ringworld. I like the way I am enveloped in a different world and pulled along on an adventure in this book, whereas Ringworld is a bit more of an intellectual journey. Of course one should also check out the amazing books that Niven wrote along with Jerry Pournelle, especially the Mote in God’s Eye series.
Shantaram, by Gregory David Roberts
Purported not uncontroversially to be largely autobiographical, this rambling story is about an escaped convict from Australia who is an adventurer, doctor, gangster, drug dealer, prisoner, and drug addict in India as well as a mercenary in Afghanistan. Large swaths of this big book are lushly written, to the point that you might find yourself re-reading passages just to enjoy again a perfect turn of phrase. But then other parts seem almost too narcissistic, and one must wonder where the lines between truth and fiction (and self-aggrandizement) lie. Nevertheless, this is a powerful book and well worth reading (and recommending).
Harry Potter Series by JK Rowlings
My kids were already grown when these books came out, so I can’t claim to have bought them to read to them. These books were a delightful read (and the movies were good — although not as good as the books). they revolve around a world of magic, magicians, and a school of wizardry, but you’re wrong if you think these are about those things. At their core, these books are about morality, integrity, honesty, and ethics. I am dismayed when I hear about some religious parents forbidding their children to read them, as the lessons and inspiration they contain are things I’d want all kids to learn regardless of what gods they pray to (or don’t).
Atlas Shrugged and Fountainhead, by Ayn Rand
Scoff if you like, but as an American girl trying hard to be an intellectual in the 70s, I did what so many of us did: I read Ayn Rand. I was delighted to discover after reading Atlas that these were the same stories that my brother Tim used to tell me when I was a very little girl. So in a way, I’ve been in love with these stories for most of my life. I find Ms Rand’s pure philosophy books almost impossible to read and partly balderdash, and her writing skill is as exciting as the ecru paint on my walls, but I do love these books. (There was an attempt to make a series of films of Atlas Shrugged. I saw the first few and they were pretty thoroughly disappointing.)
Another Roadside Attraction, by Tom Robbins
Robbins’ writing style is manic and wild, just poetic enough to be beautiful, and laced with radicalism (and lots of blackberry’s and rain). I also adore Still Life With Woodpecker and Jitterbug Perfume… and of course Even Cowgirls Get the Blues (infinitely superior to the film). I absolutely agree with Mr. Robbins on his view of redheads and religion! Ah the art of irreverence. Yikes.
This is what will be a three book series, of which only the first two are out. The first book in this series is The Name of the Wind. This is fantasy, but it defies the fantasy genre in that it doesn’t depend on magic and supernatural. Well, it kind of does, but in a “it’s all physics after all” kind of way. This is often called the next best book since the Song of Ice and Fire series (better known as Game of Thrones), but I think it is so vastly superior to anything George R. R. Martin has ever even dreamed of writing that calling it this is an insult to Rothfuss. The writing in this series is among the best contemporary writing out there, and my “awesome quotes” file is packed with great turns of phrase from these books.
Old Man’s War series, by John Scalzi
This is a six-book series that is wonderful: on my list of favorites, although not at the very top. It starts with a “what if” fantasy situation and spins into solid SciFi from there.This is a science fiction series with a military bent. There are very few eye-rolling moments and those are much later in the series. It has many alien encounters and this author somehow makes every one seem authentic.
The Greenlanders, by Jane Smiley
This author has a remarkable gift of voice. This tells a compelling story of Scandinavian history. I also recommend The All-True Travels and Adventures of Lidie Newton.
Exegesis, by Astro Teller
I learned of this book from a brief book review on NPR. I enjoy almost anything on the topic of AI and “The Singularity,” and this story about the program “Edgar” and his awakening is a wonderful addition to the genre. The style in which it was written, very unique at the time it was published, is in the form of emails — something which I suspect would be off-putting to some readers, but it fits in nicely with how I interact with the world! For this reason, I only recommend to other nerds.
Kristin Lavransdatter, by Sigrid Undset
This is a trilogy of novels published in the 1920s tells the life story of the titular character, a young woman in 14th-centuryNorway. (I wish I’d already read it when I stayed in the Undset room at the Sylvia Beach Hotel.) The story is a wonderful anthropological time-travel into a medieval Scandinavia. Here’s a blurb from the Wikipedia article about this book: “Undset’s characterizations of the ethnology, geography, and history of 14th-century Norway have held up as archaeological and literary evidence has emerged since its writing.”