I read what seems like a trillion books a year. I am a writer, so reading has a huge significance for me. I read all sorts of books, but I have to admit that if a book is poorly written, I almost never finish it. Some authors have the gift of plot, and others are brilliant with characters. But when you come across a book that is written by a master who combines both, you have happened upon a treasure.
I have chosen my top ten books as of this minute. These are the ones I have read or reread in the past year. They are not all new releases. These are books that I will go back to again and again. I guess I would call these books of influence.
The Whistling Season by Ivan Doig
This coming-of-age story told in flashbacks is the evocative tale of one family whose housekeeper is the catalyst for love, change, and courage. Who could resist reading on, when the first line of the book is “Can’t Cook But Doesn’t Bite?” I fell in love with these characters, and the vanished way of life that they represent.
Blessings by Anna Quindlen
I can recommend every single book that Anna Quindlen has written. I chose this one because it was the most recent one I read. A baby is left in a cardboard box at the estate of old Lydia Blessing. Her caretaker finds the baby and decides to keep it. This is a beautifully crafted work that raises the questions of what exactly is a “legitimate” birth? What makes a person valuable? What is family? We all need to remember the nobility that is in all of us, especially in this world of chaos. This book is renewing, reassuring, and redemptive.
Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff
As a novelist myself, I like to read the works of true literary genius, as an example of what is possible to achieve in literary fiction. A goal to strive for. In this wonderfully poetic and surprising novel, we view a marriage of two misfits from the point of view first of the husband, and then of the wife. Both are imperfect people. We view them the way they see each other, and the way they see themselves. Groff is a writer’s writer.
Did You Ever Have a Family by Bill Clegg
Clegg is one of the top literary agents in the country; he represents Lauren Groff, as a matter of fact. This is his debut novel. I was initially curious about this because I wondered if an agent could pull off a novel. Clegg wrote a beautiful bestseller with this book. It starts with a tragic death, and follows the main character, June, as she runs from her grief but can’t escape it. Told from multiple points of view, all of which come together at the end, the plot is compelling. Again, a textbook novel for writers.
The Moonlight Palace by Liz Rosenberg
I must love coming-of-age novels—this is another one I could hardly put down. Agnes Hussein lives in the crumbling ruin of her family’s ancestral castle in Singapore. Threatened with the takeover of her home, Agnes takes action. This story weaves political intrigue, bravery, love, and the echoes of the gilded past. Rosenberg is another lyrical writer. Genteel poverty has never been so compelling.
Bittersweet by Miranda Beverly Whittemore
Wouldn’t you want to spend time living the life of the rich and famous? In this novel, Mabel Dagmar—a wallflower all her life–gets to spend the summer with her wealthy college roommate Genevra Winslow, in her family’s huge summer “camp,” consisting of a main mansion surrounded by cottages allotted to the family of each branch’s eldest son. The family lives as if all is well, but Mabel recognizes the seediness and former opulence, while still yearning to become a member of the Winslow family oligarchy. The book picks apart the outer shell of the family to reveal the rot that grows at its core. Compelling, and a voyeur’s delight. The ending was such a surprise!
Electric God by Catherine Ryan Hyde
Hyde is one of my favorite authors. I have read all of her books, so I just picked this one at random. Hyde’s characters reach out and grab the reader by the heart from the first sentence. Her most famous book is Pay it Forward, which was made into a popular movie. I bet you have seen it. This book is about Hayden Reese, a huge man with huge anger. We see him hit rock bottom and wonder why—then the story of his abusive past is revealed. A true hero’s journey.
600 Hours of Edward by Craig Lancaster
I read this book once a couple of years ago, loved it, and reread it this year. It is the story of a man with Asperger’s Syndrome and the friendship that he forms with a neighbor boy. Written as a National Novel Writing Month book in 2008, Lancaster wrote this brilliant book in 24 days. I was in complete shock that anyone could achieve something so brilliant in such a short time. I am proud to call Craig Lancaster a friend, and you will see his blurb on the cover of my own novel, Keep the Ends Loose!
Us by David Nicholls
This is the story of a marriage. One in which the wife is about done with the relationship, but the husband wants desperately to make it work. This book was so real. It made the Longlist for the Man Booker prize, and I loved it. It made me sigh, smile, but also despair. You might have seen the movie ONE DAY, which was based upon Nicholls’ novel.
A Death in the Family by James Agee
This is the classic coming-of-age story told by a six year old boy about the death of his father and how it affects his family. I read this one in high school and never forgot it. It has remained on my list of top books for over fifty years.