My oldest daughter and I are working to get better at recommending books to each other. We quickly realized my old and new favorites might not be right for her and vice versa. Recommending someone read a book is different from telling someone about a book you liked. To do better at finding books we’d both like and could share, I began a summary of my favorite authors and books for her. That effort soon exploded into what you see below. But read on; perhaps you’ll see authors and books you remember fondly or something you’ll want to read. Even better, something you read may cause you to recall a favorite book and recommend it to me.
Christopher Moore books: These books are light-hearted, deftly written, and fun. They occasionally dip into the supernatural but in a unique and fun way. One three-book series is centered in a fictitious coastal town: Practical Demonkeeping, The Lust Lizard of Melancholy Cove, and The Stupidest Angel: A Heartwarming Tale of Christmas Terror. Another three books are about vampires in San Francisco and I love them, too. Moore’s standalone novels include Coyote Blue, Island of the Sequined Love Nun and Fluke, or, I Know Why the Winged Whale Sings, this last one being my favorite of the standalone books. The first of his I read was Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ’s Childhood Pal, and I got hooked. It was impossible not to begin forming ideas about the author – his age, where he lived, his values, and interests. Meeting Moore at a book signing at Palo Alto’s Kepler’s Books & Magazines one afternoon in 2007, nearly all my ideas proved to be true. He was a soft-spoken young-ish man, in no way full of himself, although well-traveled and clearly in love with Northern California. Reading his books made me smile, and I’ve re-read several. The characters are interesting, the situations fun and bizarre. Moore is one of only a couple of authors I’ve recommended to my younger daughter, Ginger. She read and fell in love with his books, too, although I’m not sure she’s read them all. Moore’s chronicles of Pocket the Fool were not to my liking, but all of the ones listed above are brilliant. I suspect Christie may like these and may even consider introducing some of them to her girls.
John Sandford books: Sandford is best known for his series of detective/crime thrillers, all with “Prey” in the title and revolve around the cases of Minneapolis homicide detective, Lucas Davenport. One of his fellow detectives, Virgil Flowers, spun out another series of books, in the same way The Mary Tyler Moore Show spun out the Lou Grant Show, Rhoda, and Phyllis. All of Virgil’s cases are located in/around the Mankato, MN area. Sandford also wrote a less popular series about a computer hacker, Joe Kidd. Sandford books are a great ride. I read them in order and enjoyed the character maturing, getting married, having kids, and changing jobs. Sandford is still cranking them out. At first, I pegged my fondness for his books on recognizing so many Minnesota landmarks. After all, reading “He sped south on I-35 out of Minneapolis towards Burnsville” creates a clearer mental image to me than, “Thomas drove north from Philadelphia on the 295 towards New Jersey.” After a few books, I realized it wasn’t only the landmarks – he’s just a superb storyteller. Sandford’s popularity is not only for those familiar with Minnesota as each new book promptly shoots to the top of the New York Times Bestsellers List. Flowers and Davenport are fun because they’re smart and exercise superior judgment in the face of common practice. They never fail to get the perpetrator. Sandford also dipped into Science Fiction (Saturn Run) and Juvenile Fiction. I’ve read all his Si-Fi books and like them, too. I read one of his JF books and, while decent, it is hard to beat any of the Davenport or Virgil Flowers books.
Lee Child books: Child has created a compelling character in Jack Reacher and features him in at least 25 books. Reacher always gets the hideously wicked bad guys. Given his physical strength, military training, and being smarter than others, he always wins, and I enjoy reading how he manages it. Each book has “set pieces,” situations regular fans love and read the books to find – such as Reacher taking on a group of bad guys in hand-to-hand combat who make the mistake of thinking numbers will somehow overcome Reacher’s physical strength and training. Or, when he uses his skills with a rifle to make impossible sniper shots or when he manages to compel someone into revealing what he needs to know when they think they’ll be able to keep it hidden. They’re predictable, exciting, and fun.
Thomas Perry: This LA-based writer is one I’ve read since the early 1980s and keep coming back to over and over. His books are the equivalent of comfort food. The first I read was Metzger’s Dog. We were living in LA at the time and Perry captured the city and the highways I was so familiar with, making the book come alive. Next was The Butcher’s Boy. This 1982 book was even better than Metzger’s Dog and I was thrilled when this character returned and starred in 3 more books arriving in 1992, 2011, and 2020). He also writes female characters very well and I like his Jane Whitefield series, about a skilled Native American woman who helps people to disappear. His Jack Till series books are good along with many of his stand-alone novels like Nightlife, Fidelity, Strip, The Bomb Maker, The Burglar, Death Benefits, and others.
Taylor Stevens: Ms. Stevens has created a wonderful female protagonist, Vanessa Michael Munroe, the daughter of American missionaries in Africa. The Vanessa Michael Munroe books are international, boots-on-the-ground thrillers featuring a mercenary information hunter who is a mix of Robert Ludlum’s Jason Bourne and Lee Child’s Jack Reacher. She is smart, cunning, insightful, and perhaps best of all, a genuine bad-ass. You do not want to fight with her, ever, especially if she has a knife. I loved the first few books, The Informationist, The Innocent, The Doll and The Vessel. I still have The Catch and The Mask to go. Stevens, while an award-winning, New York Times bestselling author with over twenty books, came to writing fiction late. Born into an apocalyptic cult and raised in communes across the globe, her education ended at the 6th grade. She spent her adolescence as a child laborer. She now lives in Dallas. Her backstory is as interesting as her books.
Carl Hiaasen: This writer, based in Florida, sets most of his books there. He is like a cross between Christopher Moore and Thomas Perry or Lee Child. My favorites include Skinny Dip, Sick Puppy, Bad Monkey, Razor Girl, Squeeze Me and, Strip Tease. He’s a columnist too and has several book collections of his columns which I have not read. Not everyone likes these books, but I do. In my mind he’s like Elmore Leonard, but funnier. He’s written an entire series for young readers and I read a couple of them, not knowing they were for kids. But once I’d begun Hoot and Flush, I just had to keep reading. Superb for kids, both boys and girls.
Martin Cruz Smith: This author’s fictional detective, Arkady Renko, first appeared in Gorky Park. I went on to read Polar Star, Red Square, Stalin’s Ghost and finally ran aground in Havana Bay, as it was slow to start and other book commitments were pending. Some of the books are set in the Soviet Union during the Cold War and others take place after the fall of the Soviet Union. I read the paper book versions first but liked them better as audiobooks, where I did not have to struggle with Russian name pronunciation in my head and relied on the voice actor to figure it out.
Scandinavian Crime Thrillers: These books, sometimes referred to as Nordic Noir, are highly gripping, brilliantly plotted, and, sometimes, dark and chilling. My favorites writers are Stieg Larsson and Jussi Adler Olsen with Jo Nesbo a bit behind. My interest began with Larsson’s Swedish trilogy “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo,” (etc,) and not just because author Stieg Larsson’s name translates in English to “Steve Larson.” I devoured the trilogy and wanted to read more like them, but the author up and died. Jussi Adler Olsen’s Dept. Q novels were the perfect next step. While bleak landscapes, chilling crimes with brooding characters struggling to find justice can be off-putting at first, the quality of the writing, superb craftsmanship in the stories and the plot twists and turns are worth the investment. I’ve given up on a couple of Jo Nesbo books when they got a bit dark. I’ll put Tom Rob Smith in here as well, even though he’s British. His highly acclaimed book, Child 44, is one of the best-crafted pieces of fiction I’ve read. It features MGB agent Leo Demidov and is set in Stalin’s Soviet Union. My cousin, Ron Herem, who’s responsible for tipping me off to Nordic Noir suggested this author, too.
John D. McDonald: This is where it all started. I expect these books from the 1960s, ’70s, and early ’80s won’t hold up to reading today, but they are superbly fun and highly instructive. I loved them and so did hundreds of thousands of other readers back in the day. McDonald wrote this series of crime thrillers about a Florida-based detective named Travis McGee who lived on a houseboat and drank Boodles Gin martinis. Lee Child and John Sandford followed McDonald’s blueprint to a tee and have created their book franchises. I read every one of the 21 Travis McGee novels. Two other favorite writers of mine, Elmore Leonard and Carl Hiaasen, openly credit John D. McDonald with inspiring their work. The Travis McGee books all have a color in the title from the first one, “The Deep Blue Good-by” in 1964 to the last one, “The Lonely Silver Rain” in 1984. McGee’s fictional 52-foot houseboat was named the Busted Flush, docked in the Bahia Mar Marina in Ft. Lauderdale. He’s not a cop or a detective but instead bills himself as a “salvage consultant,” expert at recovering lost or stolen items, for which he takes a 50% commission when he recovers them. He’s sort of a beach bum, somewhat retired, and only takes cases if he needs money or they interest him. His ride is a 1936 Rolls Royce converted into a pickup which he named Miss Agnes. McGee always wins, he gets the best lines, outsmarts everyone, and solves the mystery.
Fantasy and Science Fiction: Early on I read the classics, starting with J. R. R. Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings” trilogy during my college years. Later I moved to Orson Scott Card (Ender’s Game and the entire series as well as the Seventh Son books). Robert Heinlein (Stranger in a Strange Land and a host of others) and, Vernor Vinge were all excellent. My friend Jerry Michalski tipped me to William Gibson’s Neuromancer and I read the first of his Bridge trilogy, Virtual Light, but lost interest at Pattern Recognition – he just lost me. I fell in love with Neal Stephenson after reading Snowcrash in the early 1990s. To this day I think his The Diamond Age is one of the most remarkable feats of imagination ever.
Douglas Adams was amazing, too. A Hitchhiker’s Guide To the Galaxy and all of its iterations, including a BBC radio show and follow-on books (The Restaurant at the End of the Universe; Life, the Universe and Everything and finally; So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish. His Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency was also mind-bendingly fun.
Maggie introduced me to the fantasy world of Roger Zelazny when we were courting. This category would be remiss without mentioning all the wonderful books by Isaac Asimov, Arthur Clark, Ray Bradbury, Frank Herbert (re-reading it several years later it dawned on me Dune wasn’t only Sci-Fi but maybe one of the best political novels ever written), and Michael Crichton’s books are skillful blends of science fiction, technology and bio-tech.
Recently my nephew, Robert, and my friend Chuk Batko have made some good recommendations. Richard Morgan’s Takeshi Kovacs trilogy, Ernest Cline with Ready Player One and Two, Arkady Martine (A Memory Called Empire – Teixcalaan #1). Bob Meador recommended Mark Helprin books but the first one I found, Winter’s Tale, which is later in the series, had me stopping halfway through. I wrote Bob and said, “On the plus side, it is beautifully written. Sometimes I had to go back and reread passages because I got so caught up in the richness of his ornate sentences and paragraphs. I attempted The Call of Cthulhu and Other Stories by Howard Phillips Lovecraft, as I was told this was the key to understanding Pratchett and Gaiman, but found it too weird for my taste.
Rich fantasies are not so much my preferred sort of book these days. I reread, well truthfully, “began” to reread the J.R.R. Tolkein series and only got halfway through the first one. Attempting to read it a second time, 30 years later, it seemed there was so much “unnecessary” stuff. Long explanations of the Elvish language, poems, and songs, topographical descriptions go on for pages. It made me think of iconic author Elmore Leonard’s advice to budding writers – “Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.” I enjoyed Aurora by Kim Stanley Robinson and am way into the James S. A. Corey Expanse series, on book seven I think. I’ve completed Babylon’s Ashes and have started Tiamat’s Wrath. The ninth book, which isn’t out yet, I’ve been told is the final one. Yesterday I finished Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book. It’s categorized as Juvenile Fiction and I thought it might be a good introduction into the fantasy world for my granddaughters. It’s actually perfect for that and quite brilliant, really and not surprisingly, won the Newbery Medal from the American Library Association.
Other Popular Writers. The following books are ones I’ve read more than once. While superb books, they don’t merit their own sections. They include John Irving (I began with The World According to Garp but my favorite was A Widow for One Year), Robert Ludlum (nearly all of his – who didn’t love Jason Bourne?), Tom Clancy (the first few with Hunt for Red October the best), John Grisham (his legal thrillers first, like A Time to Kill, but more recently I’ve read his Camino Island books and they’re no-stress delights), Mario Puzo (the first three – the essential Mafia books), Scott Turow (the first two Presumed Innocent books were brilliant), Tony Hillerman’s Leaphorn & Chee books are excellent and provide a view of tribal life in the southwest showcasing its vast space. Anne Tyler (I loved The Accidental Tourist and Breathing Lessons), James Michener (started with The Source, then read several more but grew tired of the formula), Dean Koontz, Jeffrey Archer, James Patterson, Dan Brown, Larry McMurtry (his Lonesome Dove books are classic and no one’s written a better western), Anne Rice (vampires), Ken Follett, David Baldacci (pretty up to date on him, and that says a lot – of books, that is), John Berendt (Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil – which I’ve begun rereading in anticipation of a visit to Savannah early in 2022), Nora Ephron, David Sedaris (nearly all of his), John Burdett (Sonchai Jitpleecheep Series based in Thailand) with thanks to Chuk Batko, again. I would be remiss if I did not mention Cormac McCarthy – his All The Pretty Horses in 1992 had a huge impact on me from a storytelling and writer’s craft standpoint.
Modern History / Contemporary issues: There are almost too many books here to list and not everyone will find this category as interesting as I do. But here are a few of my favorites:
- J. Baime’s “Go Like Hell: Ford, Ferrari, and Their Battle for Speed and Glory at LeMans (Unbelievable story, incredibly written, all true, and why I’ll never own a Ferrari.)
- Simon Winchester. This British-American author and journalist writes amazingly thoughtful and well-researched books. Like Baime, these books are almost impossible to put down once started. My first was his 2018 book, The Perfectionists: How Precision Engineers Created the Modern World, thanks to a recommendation from my friend David Barnett. Soon after I discovered his newest book (2021), Land: How the Hunger for Ownership Shaped the World, and then 2019’s The Professor and the Madman and after that, The Map that Changed the World. It turns out he’s written 66 books. One of the coolest things about the ones I recently enjoyed was they were in audiobook format and the author reads them himself, and he sounds mysteriously like the most famous of all British actor voices, David Attenborough. Could they be brothers? Or perhaps Americans are suckers for the sound of 70+-year-old British men?
- Ron Chernow’s book about Alexander Hamilton was a must-read in preparation for seeing Lin-Manuel Miranda’s amazing stage production. It was superb, not as compelling to me as Baime or Winchester, but good enough for me to put some of his other books, many about famous American icons like Thomas Jefferson, Washington, John D. Rockefeller are on my “to read” list. As I get older, I find books like this holding more interest.
- Malcolm Gladwell: Less about history, more about lessons from modern society and observations of our world. I played a small role in Gladwell’s first book, The Tipping Point. We got to be friends when he did an article on my company for The New Yorker. He spoke at several of my Personalization Summit conferences. I’ve been reading and recommending his books ever since.
- Sapiens and all books by Yuval Noah Harari: In mid-2021, just coming out of the Covid lock-down, I was blown away by Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind. I was moved to write about it and you can read what I wrote here.
- The Death of Expertise by Tom Nichols. I wrote about his book here. Beware, you’ll need to skip down a bit to reach the review of Nichols book, or wade through my introduction to reading as a youngster and how my reading evolved.
- Michael Lewis: How in the world did I get this far without mentioning one of my favorite writers in this space? Michael Lewis is brilliant. The first of his I read was Moneyball: The Art of Winning An Unfair Game. Then I read The New New Thing, then The Big Short, Liar’s Poker, and most recently, The Undoing Project. Lewis takes highly complex subjects, unpacks them, and makes them not only easy to understand but compelling and impossible to put down.
- Tracy Kidder: Kidder came out of the gate with his book The Soul of a New Machine in 1981. I was working at Control Data at the time and his insight into how hardware development teams worked struck such an amazing cord with me, I’ve recommended this book to techy friends hundreds of times. It earned him a Pulitzer Prize. His keen observational skills are at work in House (1985) and Among Schoolchildren in 1990. After reading this last one, I finally understood what it took to be a school teacher and how incredibly difficult it is to do it well. And why.
- Paco Underhill: After reading his first book, Why We Buy: The Science of Shopping, I thought Underhill was a cultural anthropologist. It turns out he’s not. He’s an environmental psychologist. If you ever hear a teenager complain, “I don’t know what I want to do when I grow up,” give them this book. I learned and polished my business fundamentals on the retail sales floor and in managing retail stores. Reading Underhill pulls apart everything I thought I knew and was truly amazing. Just a wonderful book.
Religion and Philosophy: Beyond what I studied in college as a Philosophy and Religion major, C. S. Lewis (nearly all his books), Hermann Hesse, John Paul Sartre, Bertrand Russell, Great Philosophers Vol 1 and 2, Pascal Pensées (one of my favorites). I’ve read The Bible cover to cover at least twice and I once even managed to get course credit for doing so. More recently I’ve read two books by Christopher Hitchens, God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything and The Portable Atheist. In this genre, I can’t help mentioning Penn Gillette’s book, God No!: Signs You May Already Be an Atheist. At first, you might think, given Gillette’s love of provocation to dismiss this as just more of his shtick, but he puts a deep and sharp intellect on display in a way that is super easy and fun.
Business Books: I already wrote a newsletter about these, so no need to do that again. That newsletter is here. In addition, I’m leaving out motorcycle and car books as well as the photo montage books I’ve written.
Authors I don’t read and other “Not for me books:”
This section may be the most useful of this entire project and the most informative of my tastes. I frequently buy and read books with terrific reviews or recommended by friends and family. The titles below are books I didn’t like. In some cases, I abandoned them before getting all the way through although mostly I finish books, even the ones I don’t like.
- Stephen King/Thomas Tryon books: My friend, Dan Knappe gave me his copy of Harvest Home many years ago and I didn’t get through it. Not from boredom – it scared the bejesus out of me. I’ve avoided King and Tryon books ever since, along with most horror writers.
- The Last Mrs. Parrish by Liv Constantine. Recommended in The Week Magazine, billed as “Shocking turns and dark secrets that will keep you guessing until the very end.” Reviews like this can suck me in. I got halfway through this book and quit. It did not hold my interest at all. I did not care what happened to Mrs. Parrish or the other people in the book.
- The Great Alone by Kristen Hannah. Recommended by my daughter and she loved it. Overly long and I didn’t care for the characters.
- The Botany of Desire, by Michael Pollan. Good book, but after the first few chapters, I felt I’d heard everything he had to say.
- The first three Robert Galbraith books featuring Cormoran Strike. I was so excited to read this series when I learned Galbraith was the pen name of J. K. Rowling of Harry Potter fame. However, after reading the first three, I was so done with the Strike/Robin “relationship” and the frequent bone-head actions of the protagonists. The constant descriptions of smoking, tea and coffee drinking, and Strike’s failing to care for his prosthesis drove me mad.
- Fast Girl by Suzy Favor Hamilton. A modern biography, too wrapped up in her head. Not of interest.
- Luster by Raven Leilani. This is a highly reviewed book of a woman in her twenties trying to get a handle on herself and life. While I understand its great reviews, this is not the sort of book I enjoy reading.
- The Untethered Soul by Michael A. Singer. Well reviewed, but frankly, I answered these questions for myself years ago and someone else’s journey held very little interest or insight.
- Terry Pratchett – Several books in the Discworld Series: Mort, Wyrd Sisters, Guards! Guards!, Eric, Small Gods. I wanted to love Pratchett – a favorite author of a favorite friend. Pratchett has an incredible imagination and I love his creativity. He just appeals to a part of me that does not exist anymore.
- Fire Upon the Deep by Vernor Vinge. I recently re-read this one because as a 30-year-old, I was blown away. However, it does not hold up well but remains a classic on lists of all-time best Science Fiction books.
Health Books: No surprise, over the past ten years I’ve read many books about health, no doubt in response to my open heart surgeries in 2016 and 2018. I won’t bother to list them all here, but a general observation: Contemporary scientific research has a considerable amount of data on how the foods we eat impact our health, weight, moods, energy, stamina, sense of well-being, and ability to fight disease. Sadly, by the time it becomes common knowledge and understood, millions of people will die early and needlessly and others will lead painful, unhealthy, and unhappy lives. (I wrote about it recently). Scientists knew twenty-five years before anti-smoking laws went into effect that tobacco and smoking were killing people – by the hundreds of thousands. But then it took another twenty years for most people to stop, although some still haven’t. Science knows now that sugar is doing the same thing to an even greater number of Americans. Twenty-five years from now, the food landscape will look much different.
As I conclude this compilation, I keep thinking of other books I’ve read that I forgot or deliberately omitted. The spreadsheet where I attempt to keep track of books I’ve read numbers over a thousand. This averages to 20 books a year for 50 years, which I know is a vast under-count. I have some good reading years ahead. Send me your suggestions, please. By now, you’ve got a pretty good idea of what I like and perhaps more importantly, what I don’t.