Ten more essential books

We’re collecting a list of a few hundred “essential” books on Booklikes. I gave my first twenty-five books in an earlier post. I’ve added another ten books covering my more recent reads.

“My Name Is Lucy Barton” by Elizabeth Strout (2016)

My Name Is Lucy Barton” is about “A poor girl from Amgash who loved her momma.” It’s not a plot driven book or even a character driven book. It’s a book in which Lucy, talking to us directly and frankly shares her thoughts, emotions and memories about how she and her mother were together.

In a few hours of listening I felt that I knew who Lucy Barton was, at least as well as anyone can know such a thing.

This is a book about love. It is not romantic or sentimental. It is an honest account of how complicated and painful and necessary love is. Lucy Barton knows that

“We all love imperfectly.”

but she does not see that not as a weakness but an unaviodable truth.

I put it on my list because it is one of the most truthful books I’ve read and because I think the style and structure of the novel are innovative.


“The Fireman” by Joe Hill (2016)

“The Fireman” made my list not just because it is a wel-written. long, unhurried but never boring book with a novel post-apocalyptic premise but because Joe Hill uses the book to show us, in all its ugly detail, how people behave under stress.

He explores how they treat those who are weak and pose a threat, what they allow themselves to do when the rule of law falls, what they make themselves do in the name of the greater good, how groups abdicate personal responsibility and how symbols of hope can be co-opted to become mechanisms of repression.

These are things we need to understand right now.


The Water Knife” by Paolo Bacigalupi (2015)

“The Water Knife” made my list because it’s the best example I’ve read of the emerging Cli Fi (Climate Fiction) genre.

It’s set in a future US that has been ripped apart by the long-term water shortage. It’s a world where the powerful are the ones who first understood that:

“Some people had to bleed so other people could drink.”

and acted ruthless to ensure they wouldn’t be the ones bleeding.

It’s a grim, difficult, disturbing book because that is the nature of the world being described. There are no heroes, just people trying to do what they can with what they have in a world that doesn’t care about them or what they want.


“The Readers Of Broken Wheel Recommend” by Katarina Bivald (2013)

“The Readers Of Broken Wheel Recommend” made my list because i have a soft spot for books about booklovers and this is the best one of those that I know.

It’s a wonderful romantic comedy about books, small-town America, books, friendship, books, love, books and how to live a life worth reading about.

It tells a story of the world as I would like it to be, where good people help each other to be better people and books expand people’s imaginations and unlock their hearts.

It made me laugh and cry. It made me think about the balance between reading and doing and about how both of them count as living. Most of all, it left me wanting to move to Broken Wheel and take all my books with me.


“My Grandmother Asked Me To Tell You She’s Sorry” by Fredrick Backman (2013)

“My Grandmother Asked Me To Tell You She’s Sorry” beautifully written modern fairy tale that delivers old truths so that they taste as fresh as newly baked biscuits.

It tells the story of an almost eight-year old girl who, at the death of her eccentric but much-love grandmother, confronts grief and loss, knowing that they can’t be defeated but must not be surrendered to.

It made my list because itt made me want to be better than I am. It gave me hope that I can be better than I am. It gave me permission to forgive myself when I fail to be better. It reminded me that imagination is the birth-place of hope and love and bravery. Most of all, it made me want to defend the castle and take care of those I love (you’ll know what this means when you read the book).

This is one of those wonderful, perfectly formed, books that goes beyond being a beautifully crafted piece of writing to become something that has a soul of its own.


“Ancillary Justice” by Ann Leckie (2013)

“Ancillary Justice” is on my list because Anne Leckie brought a distinctive, reflective voice to the space opera genre, imagined an AI in a fascinating way and added tea rituals to military SF.

It’s her debut novel yet it won: Hugo Award for Best Novel (2014)Nebula Award for Best Novel (2013)Locus Award for Best First Novel (2014)Arthur C. Clarke Award for Best Novel (2014)British Science Fiction Association Award for Best Novel (2013) 

Ann Leckie doesn’t just do world-building, she creates an entire universe, spanning many worlds and huge tracts of time. By telling the tale through the (sometimes many) eyes of an AI with a self-imposed mission of revenge, she keeps the scale of the experience human, driven by character and emotion rather than by the sweep of history.


“Norwegian By Night” by Derek B. Miller (2012)

“Norwegian By Night” is on my list because it’s a brilliant example of the thriller genre being used to deliver mainstream themes.

For his debut novel, Derek Miller produced something very rare, an accessible, enjoyable, realistic novel that navigates its way through the difficult waters of grief, memory, guilt, dementia, loss and personal bravery, while still providing a page-turning plot that made me laugh, cry and hope very much that everyone would be alright, although I knew they probably wouldn’t.

“Norwegian By Night” gives a powerful insight into the mind, memories and dreams of an eighty-three-year-old man, Sheldon Horowitz, using what’s left of his life to come to grips with his past while trying to do the right thing in the present.

I enjoyed the beauty of the slow unfolding of his identity through snatches of memory, vivid dreams, and conversations with ghosts from his past who he knows aren’t really there. This associative rather than linear process, with memory hooked to topics, not strung like pegs on the clothesline of time, is closer to my personal experience of remembering and mourning. I also enjoyed Sheldon’s tenacious, well-argued refusal to be diagnosed as having dementia and his view that spending the end of your life focusing on making sense of your past is the only sane use of old-age.


“My Life As A White Trash Zombie” by Diana Rowland (2011)

I don’t read zombie books.

Well, not unless they’re original, funny, well written, and make you fall in love with the main character, not because she’s a zombie but because she’s doing her best to be a good person who just happens to need to eat brains, in which case, I’m reading “My Life As A White Trash Zombie.”

This book is on my list because its pretty close to perfect except for the cover art, which is cool but not remotely related to the character of Angel Crawford in the book.

The story is fast-paced enough to keep you turning the pages (or listening, in my case), the language is vivid, fun and unconventional and the “voice” of Angel Crawford is authentic and compelling. 


“Lonely Werewolf Girl” by Martin Millar (2007)

“Lonely Werewolf Girl” is a quirky modern Scottish werewolf story written in a Punk style. It’s on my list because it manages to do something new with the werewolf idea, it’s irreverent and a lot of fun.

Millar’s writing style is hard to tag and initially I found it distracting but as I let myself listen to the rhythm, I realised that the occasional jerkiness of the text was deliberate.It gives this book a sort of Punk energy that kept me slightly off-centre but always engaged.

It’s a big book with a large character list and rich back-story. It is filled with humour even though the themes are dark and it rattles along, urging you to keep turning the pages even though you know you should have been asleep an hour ago.

Initially I thought that the lonely werewolf girl of the title was Kalix MacRinnalch, a vulnerable, violent, self-abusive and anti-social young girl who is also brave, passionate and wonderfully unable to understand the world around her.

By the end of book I understood that all of the MacRinnalch women qualify as lonely werewolf girls.


“Foreigner” by C. J. Cherryh (1994)

During the eighties and nineties, I consumed everything by C. J. Cherryh that I could get my hands on, even though, in those days, I sometimes had to import them from to the UK from the US.

“Foreigner” is the book of hers that stands out in my memory of that reading, even twenty-five years later.

It’s on my list because it’s the best example I know of Science Fiction as anthropology. It also delivers strong characters and a twisty thriller of a plot.

The core of the story is what it really means to be foreign/alien. Bren, the human in the story, is trying to act as a bridge between humans and the newly encountered Atevi. What I took from the story was that, to understand an alien culture you must immerse yourself in it and in doing so, you lose some of your old identity and become less able to communicate with the people you thought of as your own.

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