Recently, while casting about for something to read, I came upon a bestselling novel by a current author. About two chapters into the book, I suspected that all was not right with the heroine, a woman in her 30s. I skipped ahead and learned she was going to spend the rest of the novel dying slowly of a progressive disease.
I threw the book aside and picked up the latest Harry Potter.
Now, this indicates a flaw in me, not the author. Books about serious subjects, books that deal with hard truths, are necessary and important, and this one was skilfully written.
But, alas, sometimes the world is too much with me, and I just can’t take any more hard truths. When I pick up something to read at bedtime, I want to be transported away from reality, not to have it ground into my face.
So I look for Great Stories — the sort that keep you turning pages long after you should have gone to sleep, that cause you to neglect your chores and snap at your spouse for disturbing you.
Sadly, you can read a good book a lot faster than an author can write one, and Great Stories can be difficult to find. So I offer my personal favorites in the hopes my list may help someone else who’s got a desperate craving for a good read.
My criteria for Great Stories are:
- They’re well-written and relatively easy to read. This is why many children’s books are on the list: Children’s authors know not to let the writing get in the way of the plot.
- They are fresh and original, not predictable or formulaic, with a plot that moves along and harbors genuine surprises. This eliminates most romances and murder mysteries.
- They have characters who, by the end of the book, seem as real and familiar as your friends.
- They possess a magical quality that carries you to another time or place.
- They’re worth reading more than once. You’re left satisfied yet bereft when you turn the final page.
Understand, this isn’t a list of Great Literature. Some of these works have deep meanings and serious themes; some don’t. All are fun to read.
I thought about breaking these into children’s and adult books, but really good stories don’t carry an age limit. So here, in no particular order, are some of my favorite Great Stories:
- “Old Yeller” by Fred Gipson. It’s not just about a dog, it’s about life in Texas in the late 1800s — dealing with rabies outbreaks, vicious wild boars, the struggle just to stay alive. This novel is grittier and more exciting than the slick Disney movie it inspired. And it’s vastly better than the odious “Where the Red Fern Grows,” another boy-and-his-dog book, with its many descriptions of sadistic, pointless raccoon hunts and its bizarre message that cruelty to animals is fine so long as they aren’t dogs. (For an excellent take on “Red Fern,” go to www.Troynovant.com.)
- “Clan of the Cave Bear,” by Jean Auel. This tale of a young Cro-Magnon girl adopted by Neanderthals — implausible though it sounds — is riveting. Auel did such thorough research into Cave Men and the Ice Age that you believe all of this could have happened, and you long to have experienced the earth when it was young and wild. The sequel, “The Valley of the Horses,” is also enjoyable, but the rest of her books went steadily downhill.
- “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer,” by Mark Twain. Pure fun. The climax in the cave is so scary it gave me nightmares when I was young — but that didn’t stop me from reading the book over and over. My only caveat is that the villain, “Injun Joe,” is a little troubling in our more enlightened age.
- “Huckleberry Finn,” by Mark Twain. Controversial today because it uses the N word repeatedly, it is in fact an outraged blast against slavery, and a flawless satire of human pretensions and prejudices. But it’s also a great story about two friends floating down the Missisippi River and having one adventure after another.
- “To Kill a Mockingbird,” by Harper Lee. So what if she wrote only one book? That’s one masterpiece more than most authors will ever produce. Although this is a powerful statement about racism, it’s also a touching and suspenseful tale of childhood in the South. The children and their dialogue are entirely believable. And their father, Atticus Finch, shows such quiet strength that he was named the No. 1 Movie Hero of All Time by the American Film Institute for the 1962 film version of the book.
- “Gone With the Wind,” by Margaret Mitchell. This could have been pure soap opera, but the character of Scarlett O’Hara — conniving and selfish yet oddly sympathetic — makes it something special. The unconquerable Scarlett copes with three marriages, civil war, poverty and near-starvation, sickness, attacks by lecherous, thieving soldiers, and unrequited love.
Sci Fi and Fantasy
- All six of the Harry Potter books. J.K. Rowling’s works are the best thing to come out of England since the Beatles. Featuring more plot twists and surprises than any Agatha Christie mystery, they make you realize that even a novel over 700 pages can be way too short
- “Dune,” by Frank Herbert. The rest of the “Dune” series was a disappointment, but this intricately plotted tale of political intrigue upon a mythical desert world is pure magic.
- The “Lord of the Rings” trilogy, by J.R.R. Tolkien. The movies were outstanding. The books are even better.
- “The Chronicles of Narnia,” by C.S. Lewis. Interestingly, Tolkien criticized these allegorical tales as borrowing too heavily from different mythologies. But they’re fun to read. The underlying Christian message is lovingly and gently stated — tolerable, I think, even for non-Christian readers — except for the final novel in the series, “The Last Battle,” which I found gloomy and weird.
- “The Chronicles of Amber,” by Roger Zelazny. Compulsively readable, the quintessential sword-and-sorcery fantasy, they have no deep meaning or redeeming social value — they’re just entertaining.
- “A Wrinkle in Time,” by Madeleine L’Engle. A mind-stretching science-fiction novel for children.
- “The Time Machine,” by H.G. Wells. His vision of the future of humanity is spooky, visionary and ultimately humbling.
- The Laura Ingalls Wilder books. The first, “Little House in the Big Woods,” is a tad slow for today’s children, but the rest are heart-warming and fascinating. Laura and her family are always poor, always teetering on the edge of survival, always struggling against locust plagues, crop failures, and brutal winters — but Laura recounts her childhood with such fondness that we wish we, too, had grown up on the vast and beautiful Western frontier. (She later admitted she deliberately omitted some of the grimmest episodes of her early life.)
- “All Creatures Great and Small” and its many sequels, by James Herriot. The memoirs of a veterinarian whose practice began in the 1930s, these books are a collection of individual tales about Herriot’s many and varied clients. Good humor, love for animals, and fondness for the rural Yorkshire country infuse these stories.
- “Into Thin Air,” by Jon Krakauer. You know some of these people won’t make it off Mt. Everest, but you can’t put down this slim volume with its vivid, flawless descriptions of the mountain and the ill-fated thrill-seekers driven to get to its top.
These are my all-time favorites — email me (firstname.lastname@example.org) if you’d like to share yours. And happy reading.