Wednesday, April 27, 2016

What we're reading: Old favorites, part two

When I want a break from keeping up with all the new fiction or teen fiction that I usually read, I revisit authors I read in earlier years, authors whom I find re-readable time and again when I am in the mood for the familiar.

I shared a group of them from the first half of the alphabet a couple of weeks ago; here are four more authors whose books you could check out when that new book you wanted isn't available for another week or two.

Susan Howatch is best known for her long-running series pairing the sacred and the profane, revealing the crises of faith and the ruthless power struggles of priests in the Church of England. This began with Glittering Images in 1987 and continued (so far) through 2004 with The Heartbreaker, but although I enjoyed the first few of these quite a lot, I prefer some of Howatch's earlier works.


My favorites are a pair of books that link the same ruthless and charismatic cast of characters over a period of years spanning the two World Wars in England and America, called The Rich Are Different and Sins of the Fathers. Howatch is a master of the dysfunctional family saga, and she leaves no psychological trauma unturned. But these are also a wonderfully complete and engaging look at the historical period spanning the post-WWI economic boom on Wall Street and the roaring '20s right through to the invasion of Normandy, contrasting English and American lifestyles of the era. They are character-driven, intriguingly narrated in several voices and, despite having been written in 1977, are both modern and relevant in their tone, and have been re-released multiple times.

M. M. Kaye has a series of murder mystery/romances called Death in [fill in the blank], from Berlin to Zanzibar, as well as some straight-up romances set in exotic locales and involving pirates and slave traders and such. But one of her books stands out for me far above the rest: The Far Pavilions. Even though she wrote some of them before and some of them after, I feel like all her other books were rehearsals so she could get everything right in this one.

It's a long and complicated epic with lots of history, and it paints such a vivid picture of India under the British Raj and Britain's incursions into Afghanistan that you can almost smell the dust and hear the bullets whistling past your ears. The hero and heroine are each the products of two cultures, and their status as misfits in both societies draws them together as children and reunites them as adults in a poignant love story that plays out against a volatile background of war and empire-building. The book is 958 pages long, and I have read it three times; I'm sure I'll read it again someday!

Barbara Kingsolver achieved her greatest fame with the book I honestly like the least of her entire list: The Poisonwood Bible, nominated for a Pulitzer and multiple other awards. But before she wrote this serious tome, Kingsolver penned several shorter books that caught at my imagination.


Taylor Greer grew up poor in Kentucky, with the dual goals of avoiding pregnancy and getting out. On her drive west to seek her fortune, she is unexpectedly "gifted" with a three-year-old American Indian girl, who is dumped in her car in obvious need of mothering and more. So Taylor's plans change abruptly, and she puts down roots and begins to build a community to help her care for her new foster daughter, Turtle. This is the story of The Bean Trees; in the sequel, Pigs in Heaven, her daughter witnesses an event that has repercussions for her life with Taylor, exposing her to her heritage and her past. These two books are a wonderful combination of quirky and heartfelt, with lots of humor but also with a serious message about the family you inherit and the family you choose. The third book Kingsolver wrote right around the same time period is Animal Dreams, a love story, an environmental inquiry, and an exploration of Native American culture. I enjoyed all three of these books and have revisited them several times.

Louise Marley has written historical fiction, speculative fiction, and science fiction. I have two favorites: The Glass Harmonica, which has two protagonists in two different time periods, both of whom play the instrument (based on glass cups) invented by Benjamin Franklin (one in 1761 right after Franklin invented it, and one who is a classical musician in 2018), is a lovely combination of historical fiction and ghost story. And The Terrorists of Irustan, which, despite being set in the future on another planet, almost perfectly mirrors the claustrophobic restrictions imposed on women in conservative religious middle eastern countries today. The main character, Zahra, is a medicant and a subversive, hiding feminist heroism behind her silk veil. The story is gripping, real, and relevant, a Handmaid's Tale sort of dystopia.

I have a few more favorite authors with older works to enjoy that I will share in a future post. I hope some of these spark your interest.

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