RECOMMENDED READING - MG, YA, ADULT
(Not in any particular order, not annotated)
1. THE BIRD KING by G.W. Wilson - historical fantasy set in reign of last sultan during the Spanish Inquisition
2. THE WIDOWS OF MALABAR HILL by Sujata Massey - historical murder mystery set in 1920's India
3. LOUISIANA'S WAY HOME by Kate DiCamillo - heartwarming realistic middle-grade
4. QUICKSAND POND by Janet Taylor Lisle - heartbreaking realistic middle-grade
5. GREENGLASS HOUSE by Kate Milford - smart middle-grade mystery with a touch of paranormal
6. THE NEAR WITCH by Victoria Schwab (better than A Darker Shade of Magic) - atmospheric young adult fantasy
7. THE DARK DESCENT OF ELIZABETH FRANKENSTIEN by Kiersten White - young adult gothic/horror
8. THE BEAR & THE NIGHTINGALE by Katherine Arden - young adult fantasy set in medieval Russia
9. ONCE UPON A RIVER by Diane Setterfield - adult literary fairy tale
10. THE GUINIVERE DECEPTION by Kiersten White - young adult fantasy based on Arthurian legend
TOP CLASSIC MIDDLE-GRADE & YA FICTION
1. Watership Down by Richard Adams
The epic adventure of a band of rabbits who lose their warren to the encroachment of human construction in the idyllic English countryside. In their dangerous quest for a new home, the rabbits struggle for food, safety from predators, freedom from a militaristic, [Communist] warren, and the preservation and perpetuation of their society. Adams’ depiction of the anthropomorphized characters isn’t precious. The rabbits' own language (Lapine), deity (Frith), and mythical lore honoring the spirit of the rabbit prince, El-ahrairah, a wise rabbit, who handily outsmarts his adversaries - distill the rabbits' dignity. This novel is a nail-biter from start to finish, yet much of the lyrical, elegant prose begs to be read twice along the way.
2. The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien
Why would I want to be here in some busy, polluted, modern conflagration when I could be in middle-earth, where there are hobbits, elves, and dwarves, and where I know good will overcome evil in the end? (Knowing this never spoils the thrill of reading.) It’s satisfying to root for Bilbo Baggins, the ridiculously nervous underdog, and find that he rises to become a hero and returns safely to the rolling green hills of the Shire at last. Tolkien’s narrative voice is compassionate, witty, and has the warmth of an old friend, and the unpredictable, enchanting rhythms of his writing artfully carry this classic fantasy.
3. A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula Le Guin
If you discovered one of the rarest jewels on earth, one that’s been right under your nose all along, you’d be thunderstruck, right? That’s how I felt after I read Ursula Le Guin’s A Wizard of Earthsea. The story opens with a narrative voice fit for an Old Testament epic – a voice that resonates with sobriety, internal conflict, philosophical undertones, and the wonder of miracles and magic. (Incidentally, it’s my observation that many young adult literature heroes are modeled after biblical figures, e.g., Moses, who was poor, humble, and reluctant to be the “chosen one.”) Ged, the protagonist, remains aloof from the reader’s sympathy until his inexorable, remote persona finally cracks in the crucible of relentless struggle. The unusual, slow pace of building the reader’s sympathy is a taut cord of tension throughout the novel. From a mysterious fog, the conclusion rises., and with a deft, subtle hand that isn’t preachy or didactic, Le Guin – high priestess of fantasy - delivers the message we hoped was there all along.
4. Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery
An independent, spirited, bright orphan girl wins the hearts of her guardians who were expecting a boy’s help on their Prince Edward Island farm. Anne is a strong role-model for young girls, and her childhood melodramas are delightful.
5. The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis
Lucy, Edmund, Susan, and Peter are ordinary children until they step through a wardrobe into a fantasy world and become extraordinary heroes. They thwart the White Witch’s attempt to corrupt Edmund and annihilate Narnia. The prophecy is fulfilled, Aslan returns, winter is banished, and the children are crowned. Surely the springboard of many stories involving magic portals of one kind or another.
6. Seraphina by Rachel Hartman
Dragon stories occupy a large niche in children’s book offerings, but Serafina is fresh twist on a tired tale. Its thematic scope is broad. Secrets, a murder mystery, a prince torn between his royal obligations and his heart, prejudice, intolerance, belonging, body aversion, and political intrigue intersect and render a complex plot rich with emotional depth. Hartman’s expertise in medieval life is seamlessly woven into the story and authenticates a human society’s fragile peace with unpredictable dragons in the wake of crime and sabotage that stirs belligerence on both sides of the dragon dilemma. Seraphina, a human of half dragon parentage, hopes to help end the violence one day without having to live a hidden life. Reading the ending, I felt like I was standing on a parapet myself, my heart soaring . . . eating a peppermint patty. (I don’t actually like peppermint patties, but you get the idea.) I wept joyous tears!
7. The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman
A children’s story that begins with a knife wielding maniac is worrisome at first, but this book, which the author describes as a twist on Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book, absolutely shimmers with tenderness and the foibles of growing up. After his entire family is murdered one night, a baby miraculously escapes and crawls onto the grounds of a cemetery across the street, where he is raised by kindly ghosts with fascinating histories and a lot of spunk. Having survived an unusual childhood with a murdering thug on his heels, and a dead poet and a witch for friends, Nobody Owens leaves his ability to “fade” like a ghost behind, and finally graduates to life in the real world.
8. Moon Over Manifest by Clare Vanderpool
Abilene’s father is a wanderer, and sends her on a train to a dusty Depression-era mining town of immigrants. Entrusted to the care of a preacher named Shady, who runs an illegal saloon, Abilene finds objects hidden under the floor-board of her upstairs room. Through these objects, and her budding friendship with Miss Sadie, a Hungarian psychic, she slowly unearths colorful stories of the townspeople – one of which turns out to be her father (formerly known as Jinx). Old newspaper clippings (Gracie Mae’s News Auxiliary) and letters Abilene uses to piece together the puzzle of her father's past are sidesplitting and poignant. I laughed. I cried. I loved this book!
9. Little House on the Prairie Books by Laura Ingalls Wilder
Wholesome, simple, and embued with the values of hard work, family, and that great American risk-taking, pioneering spirit. Ma’s cornbread with bacon fat and Pa’s fiddle by the fire always warm my soul.
10. The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster
Milo is a bored boy with a magic tollbooth. When he drives through the booth with his toy car, he arrives at a kingdom where he finds fairy tale princesses Rhyme and Reason need rescuing, and puns run rampant. As a child, this book transformed me into a reader, and it’s a pleasure to
revisit as an adult.
11. The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame
The beckoning leisure of the river and true friendship amongst the memorable characters of Mole, Ratty, Badger, and my favorite – Toad - makes this book pure pleasure.
12. Jacob Have I Loved by Katherine Paterson
Sara Louise Bradshaw has to find a special place for herself outside of her pretty, talented, favored twin sister’s shadow. This is a wonderful story of the struggle for identify at that uncomfortable age we all remember, and strikes a much deeper chord than Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret.
13. The Witch of Blackbird Pond by Elizabeth George Speare
This Newbery Award winning historical novel tackles religious persecution, cruelty and injustice. Kit, an orphaned teenager, arrives unexpectedly in a New England colony seeking the protection of her aunt and uncle, but finds she is an outsider viewed with suspicion by the Puritan community to which her family belongs. She seeks solace in her friendship with Hannah Tupper, an elderly, lonely outcast, but this too is scrutinized, and becomes the basis of charges of witchcraft. The book really becomes a page-turner when Kit is imprisoned and placed on trial. The onslaught of questions hurled at a young girl by adults seeking to confuse and incriminate her is reminiscent of the trial of a teenaged patron saint of France - Joan of Arc. Because the plight of the most vulnerable members of society - children and the elderly - is so unsettling the best part of Kit’s victory is that it is shared by others. Hannah, who Kit would not forsake, and Prudence, a child who is neglected and mistreated throughout the novel, also find new lives, and there is kindness and hope for all.
TOP ADULT LITERARY FICTION
1. Middlemarch by George Eliot (Mary Ann Evans)
Dorothea Brooke has a shattered dream, but goes on to quietly and positively impact the lives of those around her. Eliot gives psychological depth to a large cast of characters in this unconventional Victorian novel. It’s a pleasure to delve into the minds of Dorothea, a young woman whose ambition is to reach beyond well-to-do provincial living and share in her stoic husband’s intellectual endeavors and affect social change, the idealistic Doctor Lydgate, the vain Rosamund, Bulstrode, the hypocritical banker, and others whose lives intersect.
2. Rebecca by Daphne DeMaurier
A mystery that begins in with the jet set in Monte Carlo, and unfolds in a lavish estate is always a good book to curl up with on a rainy day. The heroine, an awkward, innocent young woman whose name is never mentioned in the novel, is haunted by insecurities and the ghost of the beautiful, sophisticated Rebecca – a woman she thinks she can never eclipse. Mrs. Danvers, the estate’s sinister housekeeper who has an irrational devotion to Rebecca, attempts to sabotage the unnamed heroine’s marriage, but she overcomes and evolves as her husband, the brooding Maxim de Winter confronts the worst crisis of his life and his dark past.
3. Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte
Intellect over beauty, and love that endures, forgives, and conquers all. The misfortunes and injustices of Jane’s childhood make one anxious for her triumph, which happens by twists and turns because her actions are always virtuous. Too bad virtue doesn’t always work this way in real life.
4. Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West by Gregory Maguire
The Wizard of Oz we all grew up watching and Frank Baum’s book are turned upside down in this off-beat, complex adult interpretation of the life of Elphaba, the misunderstood wicked witch who becomes a revolutionary against corruption and injustice. Maguire's brilliant re-telling examines the prism through which society judges good and evil. He delivers political and socio-economic issues with a visceral urgency that never breaks the magical, iridescent bubble of a fantasy-based plot.
5. March by Geraldine Brooks
A richly imaginative story of the absent father in Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women. March participates in the Civil War as a Union chaplain. His journey is riveting, emotional, and searing in its depiction of the atrocities of war and slavery. This novel was so powerful it stayed inside me like thunder weeks after I read it. To be honest, Marmee became quite an unlikable character for me, and I ached for March when he came home to the abrasive, unlady-like Marmee, still longing for Grace, the lovely, literate black nurse and former slave, who he first met as a young man. Geraldine Brooks has made me a fan of modern historical fiction.
6. Country of the Pointed Firs by Sarah Orne Jewett
Jewett’s character sketches of aging seamen and their widows in a coastal fishing village are distinct, memorable, and garnished with regional dialect. It’s the minutiae of our daily lives that are lost, and each chapter in Country of the Pointed Firs captures a vignette. The Maine setting of this novella is serene. I also love stories in which nothing much happens, but you just get to know people.
7. Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
On everyone’s list, and mine too. A witty and well-plotted love story with the requisite charms of Regency England.
8. Tess of the D’Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy
If ever a book captured the sense of regret for something your soul desires, but which is doomed from the start, it’s Tess. A classic villain with a curled black mustache, Alec lurks in cigar smoke and preys on Tess. But Angel, the fair-haired object of Tess’s affection, is so spiritual and unearthly, he’s incapable of forgiving her – until it’s far too late, and Tess meets her tragic end.
9. Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri
There are many purgatories in life, and Lahiri captures the conflict between assimilating to a new society and preserving cultural heritage in these short stories about Indian and American-Indian immigrant life.
10. Collected Short Stories by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
Marquez – the exemplar of magical realism – crafts dream-like short stories expressing the mystery of life. He was influenced by Kafka (a writer I was enamored with in my late teens), but the magic of Marquez takes me to another stratosphere.