The other day, my office mate Ali was unpacking a box of books onto our bookshelves. Naturally, that got us talking about what we like to read, and we started recommending favorites to each other. I knew we’d forget everything we talked about — and I did — so I decided to write my recommendations down for Ali…and for you too!
Here’s a picture of some bookshelves where I house my most prized novels, favorites I treasure and read over and over, some of them even signed by the authors (swoon!). This is where we’ll start:
Moving from left to right, the first five books comprise the Queen’s Thief YA fantasy series by Megan Whalen Turner. It takes all my strength not to re-read these books constantly, especially The Queen of Attolia, one of the finest fantasy novels I’ve ever read. A final book in the series is supposedly coming out in the next year, so I will definitely be re-reading them before buying and reading that one. This series is nominally YA but completely appropriate for adults, and it contains some of the most complex, sophisticated plotting, characters, and writing you’ll find. People like to call it Game of Thrones for teens, which I find slightly patronizing and kind of inaccurate, but also not entirely wrong.
Next to those five books is Rachel Caine’s Prince of Shadows, a beautiful, dark retelling of Romeo and Juliet. I bought this book when I got tired of repeatedly requesting it from the library. Now I can read it whenever I want. This marvelous book examines the society that created the doomed lovers and invites you to question how and why their story might have been different. Like all good Shakespearean productions, it also forces you to look at the world as it is today and realize that human beings don’t change all that much, despite the passage of centuries and the much-vaunted progress we like to brag about.
Jump now to the top of the pile lying horizontally and you’ll see another Shakespeare adaptation, Enter Three Witches by Caroline Cooney. Suffice it to say that although we all know how Macbeth ends, this novel had my heart racing and my fingers flipping pages rapidly, genuinely wondering how this was going to turn out.
Go back now to the red, Booker award-winning novel Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel. Told from the point of view of Thomas Cromwell, it is one of the finest novels I have read in the last ten years. Possibly ever. Few novels make me cry, and this one had me weeping twice, once for grief over the events of the plot, and once because I will never in my life be able to write anything approaching this level of genius.
Katherine Longshore’s books about Henry VIII’s court — Gilt, Tarnish, and Brazen — are wonderful (and look at those gorgeous covers, er, sides). Tarnish, about Anne Boleyn’s rise and fall, is my favorite, because Katy (who has become a friend since I first discovered her books) spurns the conventional portrait of Anne as a scheming whore or a religious zealot. Instead, Anne is a determined woman, the equal of the men around her, and she plays the game of thrones knowing full well the stakes. If you’re interested (and I hope you are), I wrote a lengthy review.
Now, on to one of my favorite authors of all time: Guy Gavriel Kay.
Note the much-damaged spines on these books. That’s because they are old and I have read them literally dozens of times. Kay started out working with Christopher Tolkien on assembling all of J.R.R. Tolkien’s unfinished work and notes on Middle Earth, so his fantasy cred is solid. Did I say that Wolf Hall made me weep? Kay is the other author who regularly makes me cry. You’ll notice that The Lions of Al-Rassan isn’t as worn as the other books. That’s because it’s heartbreaking and I can’t bear to read it too often.
Two I don’t have pictures of because Kindle: First, Spinning Silver by Naomi Novik. Recently nominated for a 2019 Hugo award for best fantasy novel, this fascinating tale places Rumpelstiltskin at its heart, but it is so much more than a retelling or adaptation. Novik offers us three young heroines who will not allow their paths to be dictated by anyone… not by their fathers, not by the rules of society, and not even by magical forces. It was one of those books I did not want to end, and I will definitely read this one again and again.
Second, the His Fair Assassin series. Three words: Medieval assassin nuns. Are you hooked? You should be. Robin LaFevers took the real history of Brittany, a part of France that was once proudly independent, and infused it with magic and fierce women. Start with the truth: a teen-aged duchess fights to secure Brittany against the encroaching French, while her courtiers scheme to overthrow her from within. Then add the fiction: at a convent devoted to St. Mortain, the ancient god of death, now absorbed into the dominant Catholic faith as a saint, women train as assassins in his service. Part adventure story, part love story, part rumination on faith, fate, and duty, these novels are addictive. A new one recently came out and I planned on reading it immediately. Nope. I’m going to re-read the whole series first.
If you like historical fiction, you should read history. Real history. Alison Weir writes incredibly detailed books on the history I’m passionate about (medieval through Tudor England). Many people are reluctant to read nonfiction, but Weir brings history to life. I actually own more of her books, but they’re on my “currently reading” shelves upstairs in the family room, not down here in the basement.
Finally, Ali mentioned that she was interested in “Big Data” although she was a little fuzzy on what that meant. I highly recommend Everybody Lies, a great examination of the power of Big Data to get at who we are when we think nobody is looking. The book also challenges many of the assumptions we believe are true about social media, crime, education, and sex.
What are your favorite books to recommend?
Leave your suggestions in the comments!