- Time and Again, by Jack Finney (1970). Finney's most famous book was Invasion of the Body Snatchers, an allegory of either Communism, or anti-Communism, in 1950s America, but many other of his books and stories explore time travel. The best of these, Time and Again, is a charming and romantic novel classed as sci-fi only because time travel is its jumping-off point. Especially interesting are the photos and drawings of New York City as it was in the 1880s (compare to today). It's sci-fi for non-fans, the first SF I persuaded my mother to read. Years ago, Time and Again was rated the best beach book of all time; I agree.
- The Corps (series), by W.E.B. Griffin [real name William E. Butterworth III] (#1 1986). Butterworth, a man of many pen-names, is ex-army, is best at detailing not battles but military bureaucracy--what ex soldiers deride as "the order of the crossed typewriters." Many have read his fine Brotherhood of War series, but his ten book tale of the Marine Corps from WWII to Korea provides terrific "fly on the wall" dialog of Presidents and Five-Stars. Avoid recent titles co-authored with his son.
- The Path Between the Seas: The Creation of the Panama Canal, 1870-1914, by David McCullough (1977). Everyone's read his biographies of Truman and Adams, but McCullough's magisterial history of "the big dig" is a masterpiece. He combines compelling insights into rugged individuals (particularly Teddy Roosevelt) with precise accounts of the engineering and invention necessitated by the multi-decade project. Among the most informative popular histories ever written.
- Missionary Stew (1983), Chinaman's Chance (1978), Briarpatch (1984), by Ross Thomas. Thomas wrote two dozen of what critic Roger Simon called "wise and witty thrillers," some under the name Oliver Bleeck. Since his 1995 death, most are out of print--but well worth digging for. His best novels are political thrillers, which follow not politicians but behind-the-scene strategists or retired spies. I've listed my favorites (among which Briarpatch is the sole conventional mystery), but try others as well, including If You Can't Be Good (1979), which mostly takes place in the Watergate Hotel.
- The Thief Who Couldn't Sleep, by Lawrence Block (1966). Block is best known for his Matthew Scudder series, about an alcoholic NY City private detective, but his comic novels tracking a reluctant spy who lost the ability to sleep in the Korean war are better. Block revived the series in 1998; Tanner's Twelve Swingers (1967) also is excellent; but stay clear of The Canceled Czech (1966).
- Let the Sea Make a Noise: Four Hundred Years of Cataclysm, Conquest, War and Folly in the North Pacific, by Walter A. McDougall (1993). Possibly the oddest non-fiction book ever written, McDougall--a University of Pennsylvania Professor and political conservative--penned a political history of the North Pacific ocean. This serious work interposes imaginary dialogues (denoted "'aha iki," supposedly a Hawaiian term) between the author and the central historic figures. Unlike Edmund Morris's similar strategy in the latter's unreadable biography of Ronald Reagan, McDougall pulls it off via thorough research and stirring writing, e.g. (at 472-73):
The San Andres fault, comprising the boundary between the North American and eastern Pacific tectonic plates, is not the sort of vertical fault that pushes up mountain ranges. It is a strike-slip fault along which plates scrape against each other on a horizontal axis until the earth's tortured skin gives in to the mounting pressure. Where it traverses dry land, for some 650 miles from the vicinity of Los Angeles to a point just south of San Francisco, the San Andreas is not always evident. It might hide beneath a friendly reservoir of cool water, or foliage rooted in soil strewn by wind and erosion. But it is always there--and at 5:13 A.M., Wednesday, April 18, 1906, all of California lying west of the fault abruptly shifted sixteen feet to the north.McDougall also wrote a political history of the space age, titled The Heavens and the Earth, which I keep at the office for historical citations.
The 1906 temblor is judged to have measured about 8.25 on the scale invented by Charles F. Richter in the 1930s. It lasted an interminable forty-five seconds, building from a dull to an overpowering roar, and left behind cracks in the earth twenty feet wide. . . Smack in the middle was San Francisco, where a third of all Californians lived in closely packed structures perched on step hills or the crumbly landfill engineered so proudly by the first generation of Yankees. Almost every chimney or tower crumbled and fell. Second or third stories descended on the first. Grand hotels buckled and heaved; flop-houses disintegrated. . . Dozens took mortal wounds at once, as did Dennis Sullivan when the California Hotel's gimcrack cupola toppled and fell through the roof of the firehouse on Bush Street, leaving him comatose until his death four days later. Sullivan was the Fire Chief, and by the time the aftershocks died at 5:25 A.M., the fires already blazed out of control.
- Lords of the North (2007) by Bernard Cornwell. Cornwell is best known for his "Sharpe" series (about a British rifleman fighting the Peninsular War), which I think overrated. My recommendation is book three in his "Saxon Chronicles" about 9th Century England. These historical novels center on King Alfred the Great, narrated by an observer skeptical of both Christianity (Alfred was famously pious) and the founding of the English nation.
- Touch and Go, by C. Northcote Parkinson (1977). Parkinson was a serious scholar of public administration--and first to articulate the adage known as Parkinson's law: "work expands to fill the time available." But he also was a fan of C. S. Forester's famous Hornblower naval series, and so wrote his own fictional account of Britain's senior service in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Touch and Go is the fourth book; if you revere Hornblower (and you should), forget Patrick O'Brien's uninspiring imitations and read all six of Parkinson's Richard Delancy series.
- The Pyrates, by George MacDonald Fraser (1983). Everyone knows Fraser's Flashman series, the wonderfully imagined account of the career of Harry Flashman after his expulsion from Rugby in Tom Brown's Schooldays. Pyrates--a one-off, not part of any series--is similarly comic. A parody of pirate novels (e.g., Rafael Sabatini's Captain Blood), it's full of sly anachronisms and ironic absurdities. Written almost as a script (Fraser, who died early this year, was an accomplished screenwriter), it's impossible to read without seeing the movie in your head--and imagining Tina Turner from the Mad Max era as the lead pirate.
- Against the Gods: The Remarkable Story of Risk, by Peter L. Bernstein (1996). It started with dice, but Bernstein's astounding book details the rise of probability theory, insurance and financial markets. The author, a long-time researcher for the New York Federal Reserve, writes frequently on money and markets, including The Power of Gold: The History of an Obsession (2000). Risk is his most complete popular work, a sprawling history that is both suitable for layman and yet supplies the basic math for those wanting rigor.
Steven Till is a fan of Cornwell, and provides background and bio.