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Big Books Book Recommendations Fiction Last Week's Links

Literary Links

French serial-killer expert admits serial lies, including murder of imaginary wife

Another author debunked: “Stéphane Bourgoin, whose books about murderers have sold millions, says he invented much of his experience, including training with FBI.”

85 years ago, FDR saved American writers. Could it ever happen again?

David Kipen writes in the Los Angeles Times that Franklin Roosevelt’s creation of the Works Progress Administration and the Federal Writers Project introduced “Americans to their multifarious, astonishing, broken country.” Could a similar program help pull the U.S. out of the coronavirus crisis?

To put it gently, 2020 is not 1935. The notion that a consortium of individuals can coordinate on anything like the level that a strong, organized federal government seems difficult to imagine. The sense of shared national endeavor that midwifed the Writers Project feels like a relic from another millennium.

The Sociopath in Black and White: A Reading List

Psychologist Dr. Martha Stout, author of The Sociopath Next Door, reflects upon society’s sociopaths, the people with “absolutely no conscience.” About “1 in 25 people, 4 percent of us, are sociopaths,” she writes. 

Here she examines how sociopaths “appear in literature, where unimaginable things are vividly imagined and portrayed.”

15 epic books you may finally have time to read now

This isn’t the first list like this I’ve seen, but, just in case you need a good Big Book, here’s CNN’s “list of suggested epic reads. They’re all widely acclaimed as classics (or future classics) by readers or critics. And they’re all big, honking doorstops — most of them more than 1,000 pages — that ought to keep you busy for a while.”

The 50 Best Contemporary Novels Under 200 Pages

While some people need a long book to occupy themselves during self-isolation, others have trouble concentrating and focusing for extended periods. For them, there are shorter books like those listed here.

Why it’s so hard to read a book right now, explained by a neuroscientist

If you’re one of the people having trouble concentrating long enough to read effectively, take heart: You’re not alone. Here Constance Grady interviews Oliver J. Robinson, a neuroscientist and psychologist based at the Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience at University College London.

I Wrote A Gothic Novel — Now Life Feels Like It Is One

Elisabeth Thomas, author of the recently published gothic thriller Catherine House, writes:

As a little girl, I dreamed of being trapped in a gothic castle; well, here I am, trapped. I’ve been ordered to shelter in place, so I’m sheltering in place. I live in a small apartment with warm yellow walls and African violets on the sill — hardly a romantic gothic manor. But somehow this apartment has become a haunted house, and I am the ghost.


© 2020 by Mary Daniels Brown

Categories
Big Books Book Recommendations Fiction Last Week's Links Reading

Literary Links

I hope that you are all staying healthy and finding solace in activities that comfort you.

Book sales surge as self-isolating readers stock up on ‘bucket list’ novels

cover: The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

From the U.K. comes news that “Book sales have leapt across the country as readers find they have extra time on their hands, with bookshops reporting a significant increase in sales of longer novels and classic fiction.” Sales are also up for longer books such as Hilary Mantel’s recently released The Mirror and the Light as well as older long books, including The Goldfinch and The Secret History by Donna Tartt, Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace, and A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara.

When we were initially introduced to the idea of staying home, I thought this sounded like a good opportunity to tackle some of the longer works on my TBR shelf, like Middlemarch by George Eliot (794 pages, exclusive of endnotes), Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy (817 pages, exclusive of notes), Ulysses by James Joyce (732 pages), and The Golden Notebook by Doris Lessing (568 pages). But that plan didn’t turn out very well.

After about a week and a half of being unable to read anything other than news stories, I was finally able to read books once again. But I’ve been sticking with my backlog of mysteries and thrillers, as I still don’t have the ability to focus on something more demanding for a long time. So all of those Big Books will still be on my shelves waiting for me long after the current health emergency has passed.

However, I can also see the appeal of something long by less demanding than Ulysses. I’ve heard several people mention rereading the Harry Potter series or The Lord of the Rings, both of which sound like excellent choices for these unsettled times. But I won’t be going there until I’ve made a lot more progress on my backlog of Book of the Month goodies.

The Girl in the Title of the Crime Novel: The Great Crime Fiction Disambiguation Project

cover: Final Girls by Riley Sager

Over the past several years there’s been a lot of discussion about the number of books with the word girl in the title:

Girl is the perfect word for inspiring curiosity and fear in psychological thrillers: since the Bible, or the Greek myths, the protection of girls has been paramount to holding a society together. Girls, after all, become women, and women birth and raise the next generation, keeping civilization going. So the question here is not why did girl instantly become so popular, but how it reflects on our cultural preoccupation with keeping women—made even more impotent and infantilized by being labeled girls—under patriarchal control.

Here Lisa Levy discusses eight such books, with particular emphasis on how these books and their characters reflect the effects of patriarchy and misogyny.

Our Obsession with Beautiful Dead Girls Is Keeping Us from Addressing Domestic Violence

Here Jessica Moor addresses the same general topic but with a more focused emphasis: how the normalization of the violent man coexists with another standard trope, the beautiful dead girl.

Her conclusion:

no matter how fascinating the machinations of a random killer seem, they cannot be more chilling than the reality that, for women, the most dangerous place in the world is not a bar or a dark alleyway or a deserted forest. It’s their own home.

The Best Books for Distancing Yourself From Reality Right Now

Esquire has some suggestions of “literature for an escape from the ails of restlessness and anxiety.” The list comprises mostly fiction, but there’s a wide enough range that everyone can probably find at least one or two appealing books.

How a Chinese-American Novelist Wrote Herself Into the Wild West

“C Pam Zhang’s debut, “How Much of These Hills Is Gold,” is one of several new or forthcoming books by Asian-American writers set in a period that historically hasn’t recognized them.”

Never mind the Brits, here are five American novels perfect for ‘Masterpiece’ treatment

Why does PBS outsource almost all of its costume dramas to the Brits, in some cases simply importing and screening BBC productions as Masterpiece series? Why not look to the American canon for worthy novels in which men sport top hats, women get laced into corsets and carriages make their gravel-crunching way to glittering receptions or illicit assignations?

Dennis Drabelle has some suggestions for how PBS can provide U.S. audiences some dramas from their own literary heritage.


© 2020 by Mary Daniels Brown

Categories
Big Books Book Recommendations Fiction Last Week's Links Publishing Reading

Literary Links

Penguin Classics and Others Work to Diversify Offerings From the Canon

“Across the industry, publishers are releasing titles by authors who were previously marginalized or entirely lost to history.”

The critical and commercial success of these titles is a result of a combination of factors: initiative on the part of writers’ families or estates; changing leadership within the publishing industry; and a willingness among modern readers to engage with unknown texts.

After a Husband’s Betrayal, Turning to Mystery Novels

The whole point of a mystery is to create a plot so suspenseful that the reader can’t put it down—which is exactly what I needed, to get back into reading. A terrible crime has been committed (usually a murder) and a detective or amateur sleuth then applies logic to figure out who did it, what happened and why until the perpetrator is brought to justice.

Laura Hilgers turned to mysteries for comfort after her divorce.

I, fortunately, do not have the same reason for liking mysteries. See 5 Examples of Why I Like Mysteries.

Will the coronavirus outbreak lead to new L.A. crime fiction? The jury is out

Los Angeles has been the locus of crime fiction for nearly 100 years. Here’s a discussion of some of the novels, characters, and authors LA has produced as well as speculation about what kinds of novels the current health crisis will give rise to.

Genre Primer: Short Story Examples in (Almost) Every Genre

If you want to use your time at home to broaden your literary horizons, let Annika Barranti Klein be your guide. She offers links to free online stories, plus the names of a novel or two, in the following categories:

  • science fiction
  • steampunk
  • low fantasy
  • second world/high fantasy
  • portal fantasy
  • fairytale
  • myth
  • eldritch
  • magical realism
  • paranormal
  • mystery
  • thriller/suspense
  • noir
  • historical
  • western
  • romance
  • horror
  • gothic
  • literary

And yes, she includes definitions in case you don’t know, as I didn’t, what some of these terms mean (e.g., eldritch, low fantasy, second world/high fantasy, portal fantasy).

Ann Patchett on Why We Need Life-Changing Books Right Now

Ann Patchett on what she learned by reading the books of middle-grade novelist Kate DiCamillo. Patchett began with The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane, which, she says, changed her life.

9 Great Books With Lonely Protagonists

According to Hillary Kelly:

there’s a certain kind of isolation that makes for a vivid reading experience — when the protagonist is quite literally all alone, whether by circumstance or choice, either struggling to be seen or hoping to disappear even further. The novel, after all, is the perfect medium for that message, the only art form in which an interior monologue doesn’t regularly come off as hokey. If you’re into that kind of thing, and want to grapple a little harder with the bizarre swaddling effect that COVID-19 has had on our ability to simply stand close to another human, here are nine books that offer insights into the wild terrain of the isolated mind.

14 Enormous Crime Books for the Long Days Ahead

“. . . we are stuck at home, and perhaps now is the time to rediscover the lengthy novel,” writes Molly Odintz.

mug that says "I like big books and I cannot lie"

If you follow this blog, you know I love Big Books. Here’s Odintz’s list of 14 crime novels, all of which meet the Big Book definition of 500 or more pages. 


© 2020 by Mary Daniels Brown

Categories
Big Books Book Recommendations Personal Reading

Big Books to Read Right Now

If there’s some extra reading time in your life right now, this article has you covered:

Long live Big Books!

fancy scroll

Seriously, please take care of yourselves and each other during this trying time. 

I live in Washington State, one of the hottest spots in the U.S. for this pandemic, and everything here is shut down. As much as this introvert loves the excuse to stay home and read, I wish the circumstances were not so dire. 

© 2020 by Mary Daniels Brown

Categories
Author News Big Books Fiction Last Week's Links Reading

Literary Links

Why I’ll Never Read a Book a Week Ever Again

Calling herself a slow reader, writer Hurley Winkler describes her 2019 experience of “the 52 books in 52 weeks reading challenge” she found on the literary blogosphere. During the year she finished several books she “wasn’t wild about” simply because she’d already invested time in reading the first part and didn’t want to fall behind her reading schedule. “The pressure to finish books sucked some of the day-to-day joy out of my reading life,” she writes. She also chose several books because they were short, despite her love for “big, sprawling novels.”

So for this year she has decided to jettison any obsession with productivity: “I resolve to abandon books I don’t like.” She intends to read “intentionally and joyously,” taking the time necessary to savor good books.

This is not a bad reading plan at all. 

The Most Anticipated Books of 2020

Here are some suggestions to start off the new reading year.

Gillian Flynn Peers Into the Dark Side of Femininity

If you grapple with the works of Gillian Flynn, here’s really all you need to know:

“I really do think the world can be divided into the people who like to look under the rock and the people who don’t want to look under the rock,” Flynn told me. “I’ve always said, since birth, ‘Let’s look under the rock.’ ”

Without women the novel would die: discuss

Women are fiction’s life support system – buying 80% of all novels. But as a major new book argues, their love of an emotional truth has been used to trivialise the genre.

In The Guardian Johanna Thomas-Corr discusses Why Women Read Fiction: The Stories of Our Lives by Helen Taylor, published by Oxford University Press. “Fiction takes you on indirect routes to truth,” says Taylor.

D.C. Writers Celebrate The 200th Birthday Of A Famous — And Forgotten — Local Novelist

In graduate school I wrote a paper on Mrs. E.D.E.N. Southworth, a now little-known but at the time immensely popular 19th-century novelist. I was therefore delighted to cone across this article from American University Radio of Washington, DC. On December 26, 2019, novelist Mary Kay Zuravleff and a few fellow writers laid a wreath at the grave of E.D.E.N. Southworth in Georgetown’s Oak Hill Cemetery to commemorate the 200th anniversary of Mrs. Southworth’s birth.

Emma Dorothy Eliza Nevitte Southworth was one of the most successful American writers — male or female — of the mid-19th century, outselling contemporaries like Herman Melville and Nathaniel Hawthorne. She was a mainstay of Washington’s early literary scene: She hosted Friday night salons at her Georgetown cottage, attended Lincoln’s second inaugural ball and is even credited with encouraging Harriet Beecher Stowe to write the anti-slavery novel “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.”

“Many of her stories featured women having adventures that Southworth’s readers were often unable to experience firsthand.”

© 2020 by Mary Daniels Brown

Categories
Big Books

My Longest Books (cont.)

Related Post:

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When I started collecting data for this project, I pulled down from my shelves every book that looked bigger than most of the others. In this age of Big Data, I just couldn’t quite discard all the remaining titles after I determined the 20 longest. Therefore, here’s the second installment of the biggest books I own, numbers 21-40, plus one more because of one that got overlooked (see below).

21. Henry James: A Life by Leon Edel

  • 740 pages
  • hardcover
  • read

22. Ulysses by James Joyce

  • 732 pages
  • paperback
  • unread

23. The First Tycoon by T.J. Stiles

  • 719 pages
  • paperback
  • unread

24. The House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski

  • 709 pages
  • paperback
  • unread

25. The Last Love Song: A Biography of Joan Didion by Tracy Daugherty

  • 703 pages
  • hardcover
  • unread

26. The Jameses: A Family Narrative by R.W.B. Lewis

  • 696 pages
  • paperback
  • read

27. An Instance of the Fingerpost by Iain Pears

  • 692 pages
  • hardcover
  • read

28. The Iliad by Homer, translated by Robert Fagles

  • 683 pages
  • hardcover
  • read

29. Roughing It by Mark Twain

  • 673 pages
  • hardcover
  • read

30. Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince by J.K. Rowling

  • 652 pages
  • hardcover
  • read

31. Personal History by Katharine Graham

  • 642 pages
  • hardcover
  • unread

32. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire by J.K. Rowling

  • 36 pages
  • hardcover
  • read

33. The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell

  • 624 pages
  • hardcover
  • unread

34. Babel Tower by A.S. Byatt

  • 619 pages
  • hardcover
  • unread

35. The Little Drummer Girl by John le Carré

  • 590 pages
  • (Kindle)
  • unread

36. Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life by Ruth Franklin

  • 580 pages
  • hardcover
  • unread

37. The Golden Notebook by Doris Lessing

  • 568 pages
  • hardcover
  • unread

38. Freedom by Jonathan Franzen

  • 562 pages
  • hardcover
  • unread

39. Dune by Frank Herbert

  • 562 pages
  • hardcover
  • read

40. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban by J.K. Rowling

  • 435 pages
  • hardcover
  • read

Correction

Somehow, this book got overlooked:

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix by J.K. Rowling

  • 870 pages
  • hardcover
  • read

At 870 pages, it should clock in at #12 overall.

© 2019 by Mary Daniels Brown

Categories
Big Books Quotation

On Margaret Atwood’s “The Blind Assassin”

Commentary on one of my all-time favorite Big Books:

Cover: The Blind Assassin

The Blind Assassin (2000) is a multilayered and deftly plotted work of autobiographical and historical fiction set in 20th-century Canada. In just the first few pages, layers of family history and mystery unfurl by way of a trifecta of memoir flashback, newspaper clippings and novel-within-a-novel narratives. It’s around Iris — our now-octogenarian protagonist and witty narrative anchor — that these myriad elements swirl and eddy, coming together to form a sprawling family saga peppered with death, deceit and disappointment.

. . .

whether you’re an Atwood novice or a superfan looking to revisit the prolific writer’s expansive back catalog, start with The Blind Assassin, which, nearly two decades out from publication, still speaks with a fresh voice about powerful men, politics and female victimization.

Lauren Cocking, WHY MARGARET ATWOOD’S ‘THE BLIND ASSASSIN’ IS WORTH REVISITING
Categories
Big Books

The 20 Longest Books I Own

This is not my original idea. A while back Madame Writer posted her list. She got me thinking that, given my interest in big books, I should compile my own list.

Once I got started compiling a list, grabbing all the fattest books off my shelves became a compulsion. Consequently, so as not to waste all that energy, I’ve expanded my list to 20.

I’ve excluded the following types of books:

  • reference books (e.g., Cambridge Biographical Dictionary)  
  • textbook anthologies (e.g., The Norton Anthology of English Literature)
  • collected volumes of individual works by a single author  
  • cookbooks   

A few of mine are on my Kindle rather than on a bookshelf. For these, I’ve used the number of pages of the print edition on which the Kindle edition is based.

1. Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand 

  • 1168 pages 
  • hardcover  
  • unread

2. 1Q84 by Haruki Murakami 

  • 1157 pages 
  • paperback  
  • unread

3. The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien 

  • 1112 pages 
  • hardcover 
  • read

4. Reamde by Neal Stephenson 

  • 1042 pages 
  • hardcover 
  • unread

5. Gone With the Wind by Margaret Mitchel 

  • 1037 pages 
  • hardcover 
  • unread

6. Quicksilver by Neal Stephenson 

  • 960 pages 
  • Kindle ed. 
  • unread

7. I Know This Much is True by Wally Lamb 

  • 897 pages 
  • paperback 
  • read

8. The Grass Crown by Colleen McCullough 

  • 894 pages 
  • hardcover 
  • read

9. The Winds of War by Herman Wouk 

  • 885 pages 
  • paperback 
  • unread

10. Fall; or, Dodge in Hell by Neal Stephenson 

  • 883 pages 
  • hardcover 
  • unread

11. Jung: A Biography by Deirdre Bair 

  • 881 pages 
  • hardcover 
  • unread

12. Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy 

  • 838 pages 
  • paperback 
  • unread

13. The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton 

  • 830 pages 
  • paperback  
  • unread

14. London: The Novel by Edward Rutherfurd 

  • 829 pages 
  • hardcover  
  • unread

15. Underworld by Don DeLillo 

  • 827 pages 
  • hardcover  
  • read

16. A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara 

  • 814 pages 
  • paperback  
  • read

17. Middlemarch by George Eliot 

  • 802 pages 
  • paperback  
  • read

18. Vladimir Nabokov: The American Years by Brian Boyd 

  • 783 pages 
  • paperback 
  • unread

19. Gone to Soldiers by Marge Piercy 

  • 769 pages 
  • Kindle ed.
  • read

20. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows by J.K. Rowling 

  • 759 pages 
  • hardcover 
  • read

And I just did the math and discovered that I’ve only read eight—less than half—of these. It’s time to put my Big Books hat back on and get busy.

© 2019 by Mary Daniels Brown

Categories
Big Books

6 More Big Books I Have Read & Loved

Related Posts:

  • Links to all previous posts about Big Books are available here.
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11/22/63 by Stephen King 
Hardcover, 842 pages

cover: 11/22/63 by Stephen King

Jake Epping is a 35-year-old high school English teacher in the small town of Lisbon Falls, Maine. To earn some extra money, he also teaches English to adult GED students. The only other activity in his life is moping around and lamenting the recent divorce from his short-term alcoholic wife. At least he doesn’t have to track her down and go drag her home from some bar any more.

So when Al Templeton, owner of the local diner, asks Jake if he’s willing to take on a secret mission, Jake’s interest is piqued. Al confides to Jake that, at the rear of the diner, there’s a portal that leads to a day in 1958. Al himself has gone through the portal and back several times, so he knows that the passage through always leads to the same day. Also, no matter how long he has stayed in the past, when he returns he has always been gone from the present (2011) for exactly two minutes. 

Al believes that the greatest disaster of modern history was the assassination of U.S. President John F. Kennedy. When he discovered the time portal, he decided to go back in time and prevent Lee Harvey Oswald from shooting JFK. Al has spent years researching Oswald’s life and movements, but now he’s dying of lung cancer and can’t finish the job. Would Jake be willing to see the mission through?

After a few trial runs into the past and back, Jake agrees. Armed with Al’s notebook of information on Oswald, he goes back to 1958 with the plan of ending up in Dallas on 11/22/63. He drives through the land of Long Ago and settles down in a small town in Texas to make his preparations. He becomes George Amberson, who begins substitute teaching at the local high school, falls in love with the new school librarian, and finds a life much more satisfying than the one Jake Epping left behind in Lisbon Falls.

Will George/Jake be able to stop Lee Harvey Oswald from killing JFK? And, if he succeeds, how will subsequent history unfold?

Stephen King excels at using details to create interesting characters and to build narrative worlds. 11/22/63 presents him at his storytelling best.


The Prince of Tides by Pat Conroy 
paperback, 679 pages

cover: The Prince of Tides by Pat Conroy

Goodreads describes this as “a huge, brash thunderstorm of a novel, stinging with honesty and resounding with drama.” 

The story opens in New York City, where Tom Wingo has arrived after his twin sister Savannah’s latest suicide attempt. To help Savannah’s psychiatrist better understand her troubled patient, Tom narrates the story of their childhood in a dysfunctional family raised in the low country of South Carolina. Steeped in Southern tradition, the narrative includes family conflict, strict religious belief, infidelity, sibling relationships, and the effects of physical and emotional abuse. Pat Conroy’s outstanding writing turns the Wingo family story into a tale of tragic, mythic proportion that brings both suffering and catharsis to readers.

The movie starring Nick Nolte and Barbra Streisand is a good rendering, but read the book first.


The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood 
paperback, 521 pages

Cover: The Blind Assassin

I liked this big book so much that I’ve read it twice. Goodreads describes the book as “a richly layered and uniquely rewarding experience,” and it is indeed that. Combining elements of mystery, gothic suspense, and science fiction, the novel explores family relationships, economic and political history, and social conscience through its story-within-a-story narrative structure. If you like to peel back the layers of your fiction to get at the central truth, you’ll love this masterpiece.

For more information, see this post. 


Little Women by Louisa May Alcott  
hardcover, 546 pages 
Grosset and Dunlap, Illustrated Junior Library ed.

Cover: Little Women by Louisa May Alcott




There’s not much left to say about this well known and beloved classic. For many of us born in the mid-twentieth century, this was the introduction to a world of women’s culture and experiences, led by the fiesta Jo, who has ideas of a life bigger than the constraints of woman’s proper place.


A Bonfire of the Vanities by Tom Wolfe 
hardcover, 623 pages 
Blackstone Audio, 2008

cover: A Bonfire of the Vanities by Tom  Wolfe


I listened to the audiobook—all 27 hours and 29 minutes of it—of this giant tome by Tom Wolfe. The novel tells the story of wealthy and aristocratic Wall Street bond trader Sherman McCoy.


From the publisher’s summary:

A car accident in the Bronx involving Sherman, his girlfriend, and two young lower-class black men sets a match to the incendiary racial and social tensions of 1980s New York City. Suddenly, Sherman finds himself embroiled in the most brutal, high-profile case of the year, as prosecutors, politicians, the press, the police, the clergy, and assorted hustlers rush in to further their own political and social agendas. With so many egos at stake, the last priority on anyone’s mind is truth or justice in this bitingly hilarious American satire.


The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach  
hardcover, 512 pages

Cover: The Art of Fielding

Set at a small liberal arts college on the shore of Lake Michigan, this novel features the intersecting lives of five people. The central character is Henry Skrimshander, a player on the college baseball team who dreams of a big league career. Henry most prized possession is a beat-up old book called “The Art of Fielding,” which offers philosophical advice on how to succeed on the baseball diamond—and, by extension, in life.

At times, reading this book felt like a process that was taking longer than necessary. But, hey, it’s about baseball, a game that I love but that also can seem like it’s going on forever. The book could have been a bit shorter, but then it wouldn’t have qualified as a Big Book.


For more Big Book recommendations, see Rioters’ First Doorstopper Books.

© 2019 by Mary Daniels Brown

Categories
Big Books Fiction List Personal

5 Big Books I’ve Read or Reread Recently

It’s been a while since I wrote about my love for Big Books (tomes of 500 or more pages). Here are the five most recent ones I’ve read.


A Column of Fire by Ken Follett, 928 pages

This is the final entry in Ken Follett’s Kingsbridge trilogy. (The first two are Pillars of the Earth, set in the 12th century, and World Without End, set in the 14th century.) This novel begins in the latter part of the 16th century, as young Princess Elizabeth is poised to become queen. One of Follett’s strengths is the creation of strong, well defined fictional characters, and he creates a cast of them here. In their interactions with a few historical personages of the era, these characters live through the religious battles and shifting loyalties of the conflicts between Catholics and Protestants.

I found particularly fascinating Follett’s picture of how the young Queen Elizabeth, facing enmity from most of Europe, created a network of spies and secret agents. This novel covers about a half century but, as in the other two novels in this series, the story never seems to go on too long. Follett is a genius at keeping a large cast of characters interesting while moving through an extended narrative arc.


Gone to Soldiers by Marge Piercy, 703 pages

What a gem of a novel! I discovered it through one of the newsletters of Kindle deals I receive daily.

Piercy uses 10 narrators—four men and six women—to cover the full breadth of World War II and its effects. The characters include soldiers, intelligence officers, code breakers, factory workers, French resistance fighters, and women entering jobs left vacant by the departure of the male work force. As she does in much of her work, Piercy here emphasizes the women characters, but her male characters are equally as individualized and important.

Like Ken Follett, Marge Piercy keeps a large cast of characters moving coherently over the wide sections of time and place necessary to encompass the vastness of an entire world at war. This is a novel that at some time in the future will appear on a list of Big Books that I’ve reread.


Penmarric by Susan Howatch, 704 pages

Penmarric is the only reread on this list. I think I originally read it about 35 years ago (it was first published in 1971), so I’d had enough time to forget the details and therefore relished the chance to reread it.

This is one of those big, sprawling family sagas that I enjoy so much when they’re well done. And this one is very well done. Like Marge Piercy and Ken Follett, Susan Howatch keeps a large cast of characters moving across an extended time span.

The novel covers the years 1890–1945 and three generations of the Castallack family. The story focuses on Penmarric, the huge ancestral home on the family estate of Penmar located in Cornwall (the same area where the current PBS drama Poldark is set). The house represents the family fortune and tradition, but it’s actually the Cornwall region that focuses the characters’ desires and keeps them grounded. It’s a big family, with big dreams and aspirations, and Howatch introduces us to these several characters as individuals forced to live out the consequences of a father’s decision and of the social conventions of an era.


The Fifth Heart by Dan Simmons, 624 pages

The introverted, learned, meticulous novelist Henry James meets the dashing fictional detective Sherlock Holmes. What’s not to like?

At the heart of the novel lies a philosophical conundrum. Holmes is in the midst of his hiatus after the incident at Reichenbach Falls, when he was supposedly killed by his archenemy, Moriarty. Holmes has faked his own death and disappeared because his powers of ratiocination have suggested to him that he is a fictional character. While Holmes ponders his own existence, James is left to think about how own question: If Holmes is fictional, what does that make the novelist himself?

Despite their existential crises, James and Holmes have work to do: They’ve come to America to solve the mystery of the 1885 death of Clover Adams, wife of Henry Adams, scion of the family that produced two U.S. Presidents. Was Clover Adams’s death the suicide it appeared to be, or does it involve sinister forces and matters of national importance?


Dune by Frank Herbert, 535 pages

My husband, daughter, and sister-in-law all love this novel, but I had put off reading it for 50 years because I don’t like much science fiction. What convinced me to read it, finally, is not the realization that this novel has become a major icon of science fiction literature, but rather our retirement relocation to Tacoma, WA, home town of Frank Herbert. Herbert was influenced to write his masterpiece by the presence for nearly 100 years in Tacoma’s North End, very near to where we now live, of a copper smelting and refining plant. The final incarnation of the company that owned the plant was known as American Smelter and Refining Company (ASARCO). ASARCO closed the plant in 1985 because of a decline in the market for copper and the need for pollution control.

The company that was originally one of Tacoma’s biggest employers was also one of its biggest polluters. Its giant smokestack, built in 1917, dominated the area at 571 feet tall. The smokestack finally became a symbol of environmental pollution, and it was demolished in 1993. The area became a Superfund toxic cleanup site. The soil around where we leave is still being tested for contamination as older property is sold and new building projects started.

This local experience prompted Frank Herbert to write Dune, which many people consider the seminal work of ecological science fiction. I don’t love the book anywhere near as much as my family does, but I am glad I finally read it (if for no other reason than I can now include it in my list of Big Books read).


© 2018 by Mary Daniels Brown