Need A Good Book?: Six Outstanding Novel Recommendations
If you are like me, finding and reading an engaging novel is like witnessing a multicolored, lingering sunset over a large body of water; in other words, it is a priceless gift. What one person looks for in a novel, however, may differ significantly from what you look for. I’ve never been interested in murder mysteries, for instance, though I know others who love these. Moreover, since I typically read nonfiction volumes ranging from memoirs to sociological commentaries, I try to be extra picky when finding a novel to dive into.
Akin to how I find everything else I read—whether online or in an actual printed book or magazine—wonderful books are often recommended to me. My friend Sara told me about The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, whereas my Grandma Glenna pulled her paperback copy of The Shadow of the Wind off her bookshelf and urged me to read it. Finally, I probably wouldn’t have ever picked up Special Topics In Calamity Physics had it not been a recent selection for my book club.
This list is obviously not comprehensive; also, it is offered with the knowledge that what I appreciate in a novel—well-developed characters, lyrical language, and beyond—may not be what you seek. Nonetheless, here are my six recommendations.
The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows
The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon and translated into English by Lucia Graves
Amanda Coplin’s The Orchardist
Ann Patchett’s The Patron Saint of Liars
Chuck Klosterman’s Downtown Owl
Special Topics In Calamity Physics by Marisha Pessl
In The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, authors Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows accomplish a feat I’d never before witnessed: Crafting an entire novel out of letters exchanged between the characters. As an avid and prolific letter writer, I was immediately smitten with this format. Since this story is set in the mid-1940s in England, Guernsey Island, which is off the coast of England, and Australia, it is believable that so many personal letters were exchanged. The letters are appropriately unique, and this enables the reader to become well-acquainted with the characters. The letters vary greatly in length, and, due to necessity, are used to convey information which would be included in the narrative of a typical novel. For instance, Juliet, one of the main characters, describes in great detail to her best friend in England the distressing post-war condition of Guernsey Island, as well as the quirks of her love interest. Witty, captivating, and engrossing, this novel cannot be recommended enthusiastically enough.
The Shadow of the Wind, as noted above, was translated into English without, as far as I can tell, losing much (if any) of its luminosity. This novel opens with a scene in Barcelona, Spain in the 1950s. Within a page you are lost in the haunting, post-war setting in which criminals and heroes are not easily determined. This is a book about many things: A young man coming of age; a city moving forward after the war; the complicated, intense bond between father and son; the lies we tell ourselves under distressing circumstances; and the importance of redemption presuming the possibility for it exists. Everyone I’ve talked to who has read this book greatly enjoyed it. For anyone who wants to completely escape into an exquisitely described fictional world, this may be the book for you.
Amanda Coplin’s debut novel The Orchardist is predominantly set in eastern Washington State on an apple orchard. She deftly describes the landscape of the orchard; indeed, it’s almost as if the orchard is another main character. The well-crafted and complicated characters in this novel helped make this novel so difficult to set down. An early tragedy for William Talmadge, one of the main characters, at least partially inspires (though perhaps unconsciously) his actions. His behavior, regardless if it is ultimately reasonable and wise, suggests the question of whether the pain of our past can ever be fully redeemed, and, if so, how. This novel also addresses the question of what is family if it isn’t defined by blood ties alone. Poetic and compassionate, this novel has much to offer.
The Patron Saint of Liars is Ann Patchett’s debut novel. Her later novel Bel Canto is another worthy read, yet I wish to focus on this work. This novel offers, at first glance, two things to the reader: A strong sense of the main character, a woman named Rose Clinton, and adeptly described settings in California and Kentucky. For any reader who wants to know the intensely personal—and often unflattering—thoughts of a character, as well as read about a place described thoroughly enough you can almost feel the humidity on a Kentucky afternoon on your skin as you read, this novel may be what you seek. It also offers the reader the sense that often the hardest decisions in our lives are neither easy nor straightforward, and what we do with those decisions, even if we seem to be entrenched in folly, determines the course of our lives.
Chuck Klosterman veered away from his well-established post of writing nonfiction pop culture commentary to write Downtown Owl. As a native of North Dakota, he writes about rural North Dakota with a hard-won awareness and sense of humor I suspect more non-North Dakotans would struggle to duplicate. He encapsulates small town life by describing things such as the superbly intelligent high school classmate who never spoke up and who, without tooting her own horn, later became a nurse, as well as by giving another high school student the appropriate (and telling) nickname Grendel. This isn’t a novel which necessarily poses a long list of philosophical questions; however, there is a sense of the question “How much do our actions matter in the larger scheme of things?” threaded throughout the plot. Quirky without being eccentric, this novel is worth looking for if you want a taste of small-town America without leaving your favorite chair.
Special Topics In Calamity Physics, Marisha Pessl’s debut novel, is a complex, bewildering, and often entertaining work narrated by Blue van Meer, a teenage prodigy whose genius doesn’t automatically translate into smart decisions in her social life. Her prose, while overly-detailed for some readers, nonetheless offers delicious lines such as, “The resolve in my voice surprised Dad, but especially me; it was as if my voice was stronger than I was. It threw itself onto the ground, leading the way like slabs of stone.” The plot is almost annoying convoluted at times, yet the urge to keep reading remains because, no matter what you think of Blue and the other characters, you want to know why they misbehave the way they do. This novel isn’t for everyone, however, especially those who want a quick and fun “beach read” you can finish in a single afternoon. It is, however, a book about the ways in which we deceive others and ourselves and the often terrible, though occasionally humorous, results.