From the Desk of the Chief Librarian of The Finishing School

In our last post, we talked about how reading fiction was good for our brains, our souls and for the world.

Maybe you read fiction all the time. Maybe you never read fiction. Maybe you’re like me and you used to read a lot of fiction, but now read mostly nonfiction. This is a list to help no matter where on the fiction spectrum you are. These are books from my personal collection to help ease people into fiction, but are also fantastic reads for anyone.

We will probably talk about many controversial topics in this blog, but I’m betting none will get as many people riled up as a booklist. People lose their minds when their top reads do not appear on a “must read” list. Carol from the Collections Department here at The Finishing School Library gave an impassioned speech for her top reads. When I casually mentioned that I hadn’t read some of the books on her list, she gave me a look like I had said “I kick kittens on weekends.”

Readers really take their books seriously.

This is a list for those of you who don’t know where to start. I’ve tried to account for different interests, and I think these run the gamut. Here’s the thing: I had too many books for the list, so for now, I’m creating lists based on location of author. This first list showcases authors from North America. Actually, the north part of North America. There will be plenty more book lists to follow on the blog and authors from other regions will be highlighted.

I have to admit, I get a bit envious when I know people are reading one of these books for the first time. I loved them all and I wish I could read them all again for the first time too.

1) Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card:

It’s military science fiction with a Political Science bent, but don’t let that throw you off if that’s not your gig. There’s lots to explore here about relationships, manipulation and love. I read it fairly early in life and I hadn’t read anything like it before. I think this might have been the first science fiction book I ever read. What a tough act to follow. I was buzzed after reading it – feeling like I’d had a glimpse into humanity…mostly at it’s worst, but also at its most complex.

Card’s personal politics are certainly not in line with the views of The Finishing School, but his writing is phenomenal. I loved the whole series and highly recommend it.

“There are times when the world is rearranging itself, and at times like that, the right words can change the world.”

― Orson Scott Card, Ender’s Game

2) A Rage in Harlem by Chester Himes:

Where to begin with this beauty? It’s funny, it’s gritty, it’s well-written, it’s a classic. Himes wrote this book that takes place in Harlem while he was living in France in 1957. It has two alternate titles: The Five-Cornered Square and For the Love of Imabelle. This mystery or, “crime noir”, is a short read – you can get through it in one sitting and it has scenes of graphic violence.

While it is historically situated – the history is not that long ago and certainly resonates with the present.  It will plague your sense of justice and if it doesn’t – you’re dead inside. Hopefully, this will make you want to read more of his Harlem Detective series. The quotes in this list are from the books themselves, but the following is a quote from Himes as it encompasses a lot about his books.

“I would sit in my room and become hysterical about the wild incredible story I was writing. And I thought I was writing realism. It never occurred to me that I was writing absurdity. Realism and absurdity are so similar in the lives of American blacks one cannot tell the difference.”

-Chester Himes

3) Dune by Frank Herbert:

I read this book fairly soon after I read Ender’s Game. It blew my mind. This science fiction read has something for everyone – religion, technology, politics, ecology…if you’re aware of yourself in the world in some way…there’s something here for you.

I actually remember being filled with absolute joy after reading this book. It was like something wholly new had been revealed to me and I couldn’t believe it hadn’t existed in my life before. It made me believe that there were other completely wonderful things out there for me to experience.

“I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me. And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path. Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain.”

― Frank Herbert, Dune

4) The Beekeeper’s Apprentice by Laurie R. King:

This is the first book in the Mary Russell detective series, but I would really say that the whole series is on this list. I picked this book because it’s the first in the series and you probably want to start at the beginning. Set after the golden age of the Sherlock Holmes detective novels, a fifteen year old girl meets the aging detective and becomes his partner.

I suggest this series because it does an excellent job of presenting various facets of the times in which it is set. Feminism is making itself known and war is either on its way or over (depending on which book you read). The series takes you to different countries, so you also get a glimpse of other cultures during that time period as well (though through the eyes of a white privileged woman of the empire).

“However, the mind has an amazing ability to continue worrying away at a problem all on its own, so that when the “Eureka!” comes it is as mysterious as if it were God speaking.”

― Laurie R. King, The Beekeeper’s Apprentice

5) Obasan by Joy Kigawa:

This story focuses around the true events of Japanese internment camps in Canada during World War II. It is a painful reminder of what happens when suspicion of our neighbours – of anyone who is different from us, turns into political dogma. This is a fairly complicated book to read – the time period shifts back and forth and sometimes you can’t tell where you are. However, the language is absolutely beautiful, the story is compelling and if you like nonfiction…well, sadly, Japanese internment actually happened. This book makes you want to believe that the West will never act like this again.

“Facts about evacuees in Alberta? The fact is I never got used to it and I cannot, I cannot bear the memory. There are some nightmares from which there is no waking, only deeper and deeper sleep.”

Joy Kigawa, Obasan

6) The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova:

This re-telling of the Dracula tale is incredibly original. A total page turner, it encompasses travel, history, young love, adventure and mystery. I actually can’t imagine someone not liking this book…but I might be partial.

I remember thinking that with all the ways this story has been spun over and over again, I couldn’t believe something so new came from it. I loved this from start to finish and was ridiculously sad that I had finished it. I wished I could read it again for the first time.

“As you know, human history is full of evil deeds, and maybe we ought to think of them with tears, not fascination.”

― Elizabeth Kostova, The Historian

7) Someone Knows my Name / Book of Negroes by Lawrence Hill:

I have to admit, I found this a tough read. Don’t get me wrong, this slave story is accessible, is told beautifully, has a fantastic protagonist, encompasses an important period in our history and shows the global complicity of that history as the protagonist moves from continent to continent. It is a tough read because it’s heartbreak after heartbreak. Of course, the real heartbreak is that while this is fiction, the horrors in it are entirely real. It really is a must read both for the sake of understanding history, but also the impact history has on today.

This book has two titles. Someone Knows My Name is the title in most of the world, but in the author’s home country of Canada, it was published under the title The Book of Negroes, based on the real Book of Negroes; an historical document that listed the names of slaves who were allowed to escape into British held territory.

“To gaze into another person’s face is to do two things: to recognise their humanity and to assert your own.”

― Lawrence Hill, Someone Knows My Name

If you aren’t a reader of fiction, I hope you find something here that satisfies. If you are, I’d love to hear what you suggest for non-readers.