What’s on your Must-Read list?

open book image

Recently, I was having a conversation with Lou Aronica, publisher at The Story Plant. Lou had asked for my feedback on a review copy of one of his author’s novels. My remarks were mildly critical, so I offered Lou some insight on my reading background, in defense of my opinions.

We all have biases.

No matter how objective we might try to be, our backgrounds affect our reading choices and skew our book reviews. Each of these variables factor into our personal biases:

  • Age and gender
  • Education and income level
  • Career and hobbies
  • Location

But there’s one key thing that influences what books we buy, borrow or download–

  • What were your first favorite books?

Think back, to when you made that first giant leap beyond Dick, Jane, and their little dog Spot. What were the first books you loved? Your early steps into the almost-infinite world of books set the course for the rest of your life. For me it was biographies and mysteries. I loved learning about people like Edison and Franklin, and I was also attracted to the little skull and crossbones on the spines of the young-adult mysteries.

Today, forty-plus years later, I’m still drawn to mysteries and thrillers filled with well-drawn characters. Go figure.

That said, I’m sure the list I sent to Lou will make perfect sense to you.  I’m also sure that your list will look almost nothing like mine. I’ll show you mine, if you show me yours. Here goes:

My Must-Read list of authors and books:

  • Favorite all-around author, ever: John D. MacDonald. Hands down. A Flash of Green is wonderful.
  • Favorite current series character: Jack Reacher (Lee Child), with Virgil Flowers (John Sandford) a very close second.
  • Best writer for dialogue: Robert B. Parker. Love and Glory was a jewel.  Stardust (the Spenser series) stands out.
  • Best writer for plot and the craft in general: Stephen King. The Stand and 11/22/63: A Novel are masterworks, worth rereading more than once.
  • Best “aw shucks” writer: C.J. Box. That Joe Picket guy gets into the darnedest fixes!
  • Best female author in the game: JA Jance. The whole Joanna Brady series is a breath of fresh air.
  • Best “willing suspension of disbelief” writer whose last name isn’t King: Patrick Lee, a brand new discovery for me. The Breach launched his trilogy with a bang.
  • Favorite post-apocalyptic novel that isn’t The Stand: Pat Frank’s immortal Alas, Babylon

Now, certainly I’ve left something or someone out. Jeffrey Archer, Ken Follet (Pillars of the Earth!), Marcia Muller, Jean Auel, Harlan Coben, Ludlum, Cussler–probably a dozen more. You probably disagree with at least half of my choices.

photo courtesy of ~Brenda-Starr~

  So, who or what makes your Must-Read list? What categories did I miss?


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  1. I won’t use your categories, so forgive me. You know me, Jim. I’m a romantic so, of course, I’m going for romance. Add to that going back in time and it undoubtedly leads to Jane Austen and the Bronte sisters. Alexander Dumas and Henry Fielding appeal to me because their stories are from a long ago era. The Secret Garden also has a special place in my heart for more than my obvious love of gardens. But I also appreciate humor, whimsy, fantasy and having emotions tugged at which no one can do better than JK Rowling. She can have me laughing out loud on one page, blazing mad two pages down and sobbing my heart out in the next few chapters. I LOVE THAT!

    • Jim Bessey says

      Thanks for not using my categories, Glory.
      I love your choices, and they are clearly reflected in your wonderful writing. Part of what I was looking for is just what you proved — we all see the world from different angles. What fun would it be if we all agreed on everything? 🙂

  2. Recently stuck in a hospital waiting room for a few hours with only my iPad, a few coins and no Internet access, I settled in with an A&W root beer and a digital version of Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte. I’m glad I downloaded all those free classics on iBooks! Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice is another favorite classic I enjoy rereading. Although the Hawthorne’s language is tedious, The Scarlet Letter is a great read due to its timeless theme and one of the strongest heroines in literature. Contemporary love stories seem to lose the personal turmoil revealed through interior monologue of the main characters. The clarity of the conflict between society’s expectations and a woman’s dreams pulls me into a different time and place.
    I also enjoy historical fiction with Mary Stewart’s Merlin Trilogy topping the list. The Crystal Cave, The Hollow Hills and The Last Enchantment somehow give credibility to the legends of King Arthur.
    One of my favorite contemporary writers is Frank McCourt. Angela’s Ashes was a gift from my son. Although I wasn’t too keen on reading it, I felt obligated. It made my list of favorite non-fiction novels; so I learned (literally) you can’t judge a book by its cover (: . McCourt’s version of the colorful life of his Irish family’s story instantly grabbed me with a poignant scene of toddler Frank caring for his baby brother. The first person story left me in tears only to turn the page to end up giggling about his description of his brother’s appearance and smell. I love that hot and cold aspect of McCourt’s style. He’s also a master in sharing the Irish brogue. If you want to listen to a book when you’re driving–McCourt reads the audio version of the story making it that much easier to imagine. BTW another great book for audio is Ismael by Daniel Quinn-a fascinating story of evolution, myth and the man vs nature theme. Contrasting the instinctive nature of animals to the actions of humans, it questions the cultural superiority of man.
    My recommended reading list would also include Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye, The Grapes of Wrath (any Steinbeck book), Pearl Buck’s The Good Earth, The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini, The Five People You Meet in Heaven by Mitch Albom, The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold, Beowulf by John Gardner and a few others.

    • Jim Bessey says

      Fantastic and well-supported recommendations, PJ!
      I’ll be stopping back to check off at least 5 of the books you mentioned, some of which had been hovering in the back of mind on the “read this someday” list.
      So great to see you here, cuz I love your insights and your life-perspective. Hope you and your loved ones are well.

  3. Oh boy, where to begin.

    I totally agree on Jack Reacher. I discovered this series this summer and have read all of them in one go. Most of them have been translated into Dutch so my wife can enjoy them too.

    Now for post apocalyptic novel there can be only one. This is a classic. It is Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller. It tells the story of a group of monks preserving human knowledge over a period of thousands of years.

    I love strong female chracters and I love Science Fiction, so Elizabeth Moon’s Deed of Paksenarrion is a must read. Also the Honor Harrington series by David Weber, which is basically Horatio Hornblower in space. See the coincidence in the names of the main characters. Some of his books can be downloaded for free from the Baen ebooks website

    For YA audience check out Eoin Colfer ( no typo) Artemis Fowl series or Steven Gould’s Jumper and Reflex.

    Nicola Griffith has written some strong SF books but recently wrote three books with Aud Torvingen as private detective. Start with The Blue Place.

    And lsst but not least, my all time favorite detective writer Dick Francis. Former star jockey turned writer, recently deceased, has written a lot of books where 8t somehow always has to do with horses.

    • Jim Bessey says

      Oh, man, Nicolas, I forgot Dick Francis!
      Thanks so much for all of your recommendations, many of which are new to me, esp’y Canticle. This is what I love about writers — amazing diversity! I’m taking notes, my friend.
      BTW, you and my youngest (mentioned in the forum post) share the same name, diff spelling. It’s a good name, that name! 🙂

      • Jim, my name, and your son’s, is derived from the greek goddess Nikè, the goddess of Victory. So it is a very good name 😉

        I could maybe mention a lot of other writers that are or have been my favorite. But how can you forget Dick Francis! 😉 I hope his son Felix will take over. He co wrote the last Dick Francis novel and it was a pretty good one.

        Talking to other people, preferably people that like to read, has brought me so much fun and leads to other writers. As the saying goes: so many books, so little time.

  4. Ooooh, Jim, this is a tough assignment! But I’m going to make it easier on myself and just go with one book, the memory of which was triggered by you talking about The Stand.

    Other than The Stand, which has no peer, my favorite post-apocalyptic novel is Swan Song by Robert McCammon. I read it twenty-two years ago and would gladly read it again. Highly recommended for post-apocalyptic nuts like me!

    • Jim Bessey says

      Yay, thank you, Bobbi!
      I, too, am a “post-apocalyptic nut” (often disappointed by the entries in that genre). Very happy to have a new one to read. That author sounds familiar, but I know I haven’t read that novel.

  5. I think that beyond my pet named Peeve, my dog, Charlie and my cat, Boz give you an idea of favorite author. Beyond that, I am also a thriller fan (King, Koontz) but Hemingway is another. The Sun Also Rises; Old Man and The Sea)
    Pattern Recognition, Wilson
    The Venetian’s Wife, Bantock
    The Cider House Rules, Irving
    Yes, anything Stenbeck.
    The Habit of Being (O’Connor’s letters)
    Consilience, E. O. Wilson
    The World is Flat, Friedman
    Portrait of a Woman, James
    Wuthering Heights, Bronte
    Rainer Maria Rilke, his poems/prose grab me.
    One book? Ok, the dictionary, as it contains all of the books ever written and my laptop; as it contains my current MS. (Yes, two, but couldn’t help myself. Writers are addicted to books.)
    Thanks for this. Much fun!

    • Jim Bessey says

      Wow, Lee, you’ve added quite a few new names & titles to the list, thank you!
      I’d forgotten “The World is Flat,” which I have lurking here somewhere on audiobook. Thanks for the reminder. Hemingway remains amazing, still, of course.
      Can you tell me anything more about “Consilience”? That’s not the least bit familiar.

  6. I could not stop. Reading the previous entries I must tell you of two books that have been my constant companions for most of the 80’s and 90’s.

    Zen and the art of motorcycle maintenance by Robert Pirsig. This book has had a major influence on my outlook on life.

    A book with a great collection of works by Henry David Thoreau published by Penguin in the UK. This was a book I always took along on holiday or weekends away. No greater pleasure than sitting in front of your tent, after a day hiking. and read the words of Thoreau.

    • Jim Bessey says

      My son Nicholas is reading Zen and the art… right now, Nicolas! I’ll have to borrow it when he’s finished.
      It’s been years since I’ve indulged in some Thoreau. When you mention ‘tent’ and ‘hiking’ that clinches it; time to go back and read again.
      Outstanding additions, thanks!

  7. OK Jim what about some of these:
    Dirk Pitt Adventures by Cussler
    I sometimes feel like I’m the only person in the world who read these Stephen R. Donaldson books which are amazingly well written (the first set of Chronicles are anyway) with such vivid descriptions of characters you can practically see them.

    they are:
    “The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever”
    “The Second Chronicles of Thomas Covenant”
    “The Last Chronicles of Thomas Covenant”

    Then of course Stephen Coonts (not to be confused with another great Dean Koontz) http://www.coonts.com/

    I’ll be quiet now 😉

    • Jim Bessey says

      I’m a Cussler fan from way back when, Doreen!
      Donaldson I’ve heard of vaguely, and Coonts is indeed familiar. I still have a couple of his novels around here somewhere. Excellent choices!

      • If you have the opportunity to read the first Donaldson trilogy I promise you will not be disappointed. When I first heard the genre was “fantasy” I was less than enthralled but I’ve now read the series at least 3 times, it simply never gets old!

        Jean Auel is another great writer 😉

  8. Where to start? Where to end???

    I’ve always been a fan of speculative fiction, and not just that wrought out of our culture, but the mind-bending magic realism of Italo Calvino, and little Alice and her dress dirtying adventures. But I tend to lean more towards the future, or the whole world creation of authors: Frank Herbert, (a tip of the hat to Doreen) Stephen R. Donaldson, Robert Jordan (Wheel of Time series-author dies before final book is written). Growing up in the 70’s on a commune, I also devoured anything utopic, or dystopic, Aldous Huxley, Ecotopia Emerging, and later discovered Orson Scott Card. But I don’t stick just to speculative fiction. One summer I hop scotched my way through the Nobel winners and found a book that will never leave me at rest, Laxness’s, Independent People. Another summer, I read my way through Agatha Christie and her contemporaries. I enjoyed reading through the previous posts and have added quite a few to my list for this winter’s repose in front of the woodstove. Thank you.

    • Jim Bessey says

      Glad you took the time to bring your list over here, Sharon!
      I knew you had a bunch of authors that weren’t in my wheelhouse, so I’d need to note your recommendations. With the long dark winter approaching, it’ll be fun to try some new titles and series. Thanks for adding your favorites to this list!

  9. Very interesting topic. I love your points, Jim. I’m a little, mushy girl who loves the underdog. I loved reading even before I could read. I had gotten away from it as I entered middle school, but when I reached high school, I had to read a book and do a report. The book was Oliver Twist and I adore it to this day. I also developed a strong interest in the Civil War era and happened upon a group of John Jakes books that my father had in his basement. He allowed me to take them home and I could not put the Kent Family Chronicles down. He has such a steep knowledge concerning the era. He is my favorite author and I wish he would write more books as I have read every last one.

    After I got through all of his books, I decided it was time to expand my interests. I started reading classic novels such as Madame Bovary (a personal favorite), Wuthering Heights (perfectly in tune with my underdog taste, yet, hopelessly tragic enough to break my heart), The Scarlet Letter (oddly not one of my favorites) , War and Peace (just to say I read it, it was okay, but it, to me, left much to be desired) and Crime and Punishment (which I adored, nothing like inner torture to bring out the worst and best in us).

    I have to say, my favorite author of all time is Mark Twain and his carefree books, Huck Finn, well I think I still have a little crush on him. Twain just seemed to give every character an equal chance to be both underdog and hero.

    • Thanks so much for reviving the conversation here, Dawn.

      You’ve added some great author thoughts. In fact, with yours and all the others we have a wonderful reading list resource here. Now I just have to find a good way to organize all these recommendations in a useful display. That idea has been on my list for a few weeks now, but I keep getting sidetracked.

      Any thoughts on how we might organize and present these wide-ranging viewpoints? Help! 🙂

  10. I like the idea of book covers linked to where you can buy them–amazon or what-have-you– with author, title and two sentence description on each right beside or under neath each book. Alphabetical by title or author?


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