• The cover of the book Wanderers

    Wanderers

    Wendig’s previous work has explored the limits of science in the sci-fi future. But in Wanderers, he imagines a possible near future. In a society where angry, young white men brandish guns to quell debate, a new disease takes root. Its sufferers become sleepwalkers, unable to be woken. When Shana’s little sister is afflicted, Shana is terrified and perplexed but determined to protect her. She follows her sister, who—despite being asleep—appears to be following a route to a specific destination. As Shana follows, she discovers that her sister is just one of many afflicted. But the militia comprising those angry young men blame the new disease on immigrants, and the race is on to see whether Shana can solve the mystery of her sister before the country destroys itself. (800 pages)

     
  • The cover of the book The Witch Elm

    The Witch Elm

    Toby is a young Irishman working in an art gallery, whose sense of entitlement has real consequences in his work and in his private life. One night he gets drunk and refuses the help of his girlfriend, Melissa. Disaster strikes when home invaders find Toby home alone and beat him so badly that he is stripped of all of his old personality and suffers from memory loss. French takes readers on a journey as Toby is asked to help care for his Uncle Hugo, who is dying of cancer and badly in need of the comfort of family. Will Toby be able to overcome his shame at the frailty he now feels? Will Melissa stand by him even in his broken state? And will the home invaders be brought to justice? These are the early questions with which this book begins. By its end, readers will come to understand just what aspects of our brains and our memories are the ones crucial for continuing lives of beauty and redemption. (528 pages)

     
  • The cover of the book Missing Joseph

    Missing Joseph

    I had never heard of Elizabeth George several years ago when I walked into my local bookstore and asked the owner for a great mystery. She handed me A Suitable Vengeance. She didn’t tell me much about it other than to say “Read it.” After I finished it in a weekend, I went back to the bookstore and bought the seven Elizabeth George novels that were then out. The mysteries revolve around cases encountered by Detective Inspector Thomas Lynley, an aristocrat who scandalizes other members of his class by getting his hands dirty with Scotland Yard. His sergeant, Barbara Havers, is a working-class woman who interprets the regular world for the erudite Lynley. I chose this novel, the third in the series, because it focuses on Deborah and Simon St. James. They are Lynley’s closest friends in the world, a scientific pair whose knowledge of poisons and forensics are crucial for Lynley’s investigations. When the pair set off on a holiday to try to repair their fraying marriage, they walk into a murder plot they will have to use their own skills to solve. Top-notch. (592 pages)

     
  • The cover of the book The Blind Assassin

    The Blind Assassin

    While Atwood’s speculative fiction, especially The Handmaid’s Tale, receives tons of attention and praise, I have always loved Atwood’s novels that explore the relationships women have with men and with other women. They are novels full of quiet desperation and savage rage. Atwood has written a novel inside a novel, and a memoir that, if published, will destroy lives. Atwood plays with elements of noir fiction in this tale mostly set during the 1930s. Iris Chase Griffen is the woman who wants the world to read her memoir about her scandalous life, but in doing so, she will expose her sister, Laura, who wrote the aforementioned novel. A complex tale of sibling rivalry and the decadent behavior of the rich and powerful. (544 pages)

     
  • The cover of the book Middlemarch

    Middlemarch

    A confession: I did not read this novel, often praised as the greatest novel ever written in English, until last year. It was a truly SMH moment when I realized that I had missed such an entertaining novel for so long. Middlemarch features an intelligent, well-read woman, Dorothea, who makes a terrible mistake in marriage and becomes the wife of a man who fails to live up to any of the things she imagined of him. She meets a young man who sets her heart on fire—except he won’t approach her because she’s married, and thus ends up married to an unsuitable woman. Add to these tales of mad love and mix them with wry social commentary on the momentous changes taking place in this English village, and you have a masterpiece. (800 pages)

     
  • The cover of the book Passage

    Passage

    One of my favorite novels of all time. I “discovered” Willis when I was asked to interview her. I picked up Passage and don’t remember putting it down except for moments of physical necessity. Dr. Joanna Lander, a psychologist who has made her life’s work understanding what happens to human consciousness after death is drawn into a series of experiments in which participants who have been declared clinically dead—but then brought back to life—recount their experiences. She meets a brilliant neurologist who has developed a drug that replicates the near-death experience, and when he approaches her to experience death for herself, she is forced to make a choice. Willis bundles up all of our taboos and fears about death and turns them into the fodder for this novel. Fans of films like Flatliners should read this one stat. (800 pages)

     
  • The cover of the book Kolyma Stories

    Kolyma Stories

    Varlam Shalamov spent six years as a slave in the gold mines of Kolyma, part of the system of Siberian prison camps maintained by the Soviets. He was sentenced to 15 years in prison for “counterrevolutionary activities”—that is, the words he wrote as a journalist and writer—and during that time, he wrote these two volumes. Kolyma Stories is out now. Sketches of the Criminal World will be out soon. In both volumes, he takes readers through a criminal underground previously imagined by Dostoyevsky (who himself suffered terrible punishments). Readers who want to understand what happens when thoughts are criminalized and thinkers thrown into prison will find much here to enlighten them. (1,344 pages)

     
  • The cover of the book New York: The Novel

    New York: The Novel

    Edward Rutherfurd specializes in writing enormous novels that provide the history of one particular city. He began with Sarum, which chronicled the city of Salisbury from the Stone Age through Stonehenge, and into modern times. In New York, he takes readers back into the past when one of the world’s great cities was a Native American village. Part of the magic of his novels is that he establishes characters early in his narratives, and then as time marches on, readers see what those original characters’ great-great-great-x-100 grandchildren are doing in the cities where their ancient ancestors once lived. If New York is the Big Apple, than Rutherford’s book is the caramel coating that gives it extra flavor. (880 pages)

     
  • The cover of the book The Name of the Rose

    The Name of the Rose

    The late, great Umberto Eco was a true Renaissance man. He wrote intellectual essays examining topics as heady as semiotics and as pop culture as Barbie dolls. When he turned his attention to writing his first novel, he combined his love of Sherlock Holmes—his main character’s name is William of Baskerville—with a riveting story of a serial murderer who is bumping off the monks of an abbey. The only thing that links them seems to be their work: most of them work each day in the abbey’s library scriptorium, where they copy out and illustrate books. When the terrifying inquisitor, Bernardo Gui (a real historical character who literally wrote the book on rooting out heresy), shows up to question the monks, the tension explodes. If you like books that combine historical fiction with puzzles, this is the novel for you. (600 pages)

     
  • The cover of the book A Fine Balance

    A Fine Balance

    My eldest daughter recommended this book to me after she returned from living in India. In Mistry’s epic novel, India experiences a crisis in the mid-1970s when the government of Indira Gandhi declared a State of Emergency. This disrupts lives, and among them are Mistry’s four characters, who seek ways to avoid the draconian crackdowns imposed from above. Forced sterilizations, imprisonment, and torture awaited those caught up in sweeps, and how these characters carry on their daily lives while looking out for loved ones and trying to stay safe gives readers a view of India far from the romanticized versions written by westerners. Mistry’s novel is a wonder. (624 pages)

     
  • The cover of the book The Pillars of the Earth

    The Pillars of the Earth

    It’s hard for me to contain my enthusiasm about these three novels, The Pillars of the EarthWorld Without End, and A Column of Fire. When Hurricane Irma struck and I was forced to evacuate, I brought along A Column of Fire. Those 900+ pages distracted and comforted me with its riveting tale of Tudor-era England, as the hurricane battered the house where we had taken shelter. The earlier books begin in the early 12th century, when an ambitious church official imagines a glorious cathedral in his town. Covering over 300 years of English history and populated with a rogues’ gallery of characters, this saga is high entertainment. (2,960 pages, as a series)

     
  • The cover of the book The Stand

    The Stand

    I’ve read this post-apocalyptic extravaganza three times. The first time, I read the original release—the abridged version that was published because 1,200 pages seemed too intimidating to send out into the world. The second and third times, I immersed myself in the fully fleshed-out version of the tale in which Captain Tripps, the super-flu that wipes out most of the population, leaves two groups of survivors. One group has arranged themselves around Mother Abagail, the centenarian who gathers her peace-loving followers in Boulder. And then there’s Randall Flagg, the “Dark Man,” whose followers revel in death and destruction. King has made art out of the oldest story: good versus evil in a fight for world supremacy. (1,200 pages)

     
  • The cover of the book The Secret History

    The Secret History

    Donna Tartt’s first novel is still my favorite, despite my love for the others. A small group of college students become devoted to their Svengali-like classics professor, who convinces them it’s possible to live another way. They immerse themselves in classical philosophy and literature and eventually become convinced of their own god-like abilities. When something goes terribly wrong at a Dionysian party, members of the group turn on one another. Marrying a murder mystery with a college novel, Tartt was heralded as a voice of her generation when the book was first published in 1992. It hasn’t lost any of its zing. (576 pages)

     
  • The cover of the book The Hunchback of Notre Dame

    The Hunchback of Notre Dame

    Okay, this was a tossup: should I choose this or Hugo’s other doorstopper novel, Les Miserables, which clocks in at over 1,400 pages? I chose Hunchback because memories of the fire at Notre Dame are still fresh in my mind. In his novel about the men in love with the beautiful and exotic Esmerelda, and set in medieval Paris, Hugo provides loads of details that will transport readers to a time when the wrong religion or attracting the attention of the wrong men could seal your fate. Add to Hugo’s timeless story the character of Quasimodo, whose name indicates that he is gentle as a “newborn babe” but whose physical deformities make him hide away within Notre Dame’s bell tower. His job is to ring “Emmanuel” and the cathedral’s other bells. When he rescues Esmerelda, readers will be forgiven for hoping for a fairytale ending. (528 pages)

     
  • The cover of the book A Tale of Two Cities

    A Tale of Two Cities

    Another book that transports readers to Paris, this time during the Reign of Terror, the days of Madame la Guillotine that followed the French Revolution of 1789. But the story also contains a love story. Both Charles Darnay, the dashing French aristocrat, and Sydney Carton, the brilliant English lawyer, fall in love with Lucie Manette. Lucie has only recently been reunited with her father, Dr. Manette, who has been released from the notorious Paris prison, the Bastille, after eighteen years. Switching back and forth between London and Paris, Dickens heightens the tension as love for Lucie demands the ultimate sacrifice. Start it for the famous “It was the best of times,” and finish it with the devastating declaration that “It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done.” (544 pages)

     
  • The cover of the book Americanah

    Americanah

    Ifemelu moves to America from Nigeria, and she starts a blog in which she shares her stories. Her observations about American culture attract a lot of followers, and she enjoys some small measure of success in her adopted home. Her ex, Obinze, chooses a different route after the couple have been forced to leave Nigeria during a military crackdown. He ends up as an undocumented immigrant in London, and his story interweaves with Ifemelu’s as they both seek ways to get back to each other. Told over the course of 15 years, this marvelous novel is a love story, an immigrant story, and a political story. In other words, an all-American novel that reflects back to us the experiences of those who have come to the United States seeking sanctuary. (608 pages)