Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Best Books You've Never Heard Of

Maybe my title exaggerates, but this post follows lists of plays and oft-read books to focus on books that are a bit obscure. I've listed both fiction and non-fiction, and include some worthies that others might class outright "junk" novels. And I provide a brief reason for each choice.
  1. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

  4. 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.

  5. 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).

  6. 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.

    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.
    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.

  7. 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.

  8. 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.

  9. 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.

  10. 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.
Obviously, there's a naval theme here--read these books even if you root the other way in the Army-Navy game.


Steven Till is a fan of Cornwell, and provides background and bio.


OBloodyHell said...

> Time and Again, by Jack Finney (1970).

Funny, I actually have that sitting in my queue (along with its sequel). I guess I'll have to bump it upwards. Not sure why I got it, I think someone recommended it.

Carl said...


Then I won’t reveal the twist at the ending.

Anonymous said...

Thanks, Carl. Your recommendations are much appreciated.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

I only recognised one, The Pyrates, which I also recommend.

stevent said...

I'm a huge fan of Cornwell's writing. I've read the first two in the Saxon Chronicle Series (Last Kingdom, and The Pale Horseman) and have plans to read Lords of the North soon. Cornwell is probably my favorite author. His writing is excellent, and his attention to historical detail is among the best I've seen with historical fiction authors. Have you read any of his other stuff? I recommend the Grail Quest Series if you haven't read that one. That's what got me hooked on Cornwell. First novel in that series is An Archer's Tale.

OBloodyHell said...

If you feel like some Good SF, I recommend David Gerrold's War Against the Chtorr series. It is an essentially Heinleinesque tale (very much modeled on Starship Troopers -- a lot of didactic elements).

The basic premise is that the Earth is being invaded -- not in the classic sense but actually being "Ctorraformed" -- the as-yet unseen enemy begins introducing species from their own planet onto Earth. The planet they are from is estimated to be half a billion years older than ours, so they are evolutionarily more competitive and tricky across the board. Where Earth species come into contact with the Chtorran, they generally lose out. Earth tech is generally not designed for defense against the alien lifeforms, so much of it fails, too. The aliens also introduced a number of viruses and diseases that have wiped out a huge chunk of the Earth's population, which is "now" at 10-20% of what it was at its peak.

The surviviors (the central one of who is an obvious Heinlein individual -- and I believe that the series can be looked at as following an HI through his entire lifespan) are now faced with failing technology, disrupted social systems, and a lot of dead people -- many friends, lovers, and family.

The series has been sitting on its fourth book for about 15 years, but Gerrold has announced that he is due to deliver the fifth book (of seven) in October.

1. A Matter for Men (1983)
2. A Day for Damnation (1985)
3. A Rage for Revenge (1989)
4. A Season for Slaughter (1993)

Gerrold has announced the titles of the remaining three books:

5. A Method For Madness (due early 2009)
6. A Time for Treason
7. A Case for Courage

They are very Starship Trooper-ish. If you don't like ST, you probably won't like these -- if you did like it, you will probably like them.

If you don't know ST, then go and read that one first. From that you'll know if you're interested in the Chtorr series.

He discussed the first book or two at length with RAH (before RAH died), and so the resemblance to ST is, though not incidental, an homage rather than a rip-off.

Melissa said...

Picking a favorite book is definately not easy to do. After much thought, I would have to say that my favorite is a great NF Historical called "Return to Middle Kingdom", by Yuan-tsung Chen. I love it and highly recommend it.

Carl said...


I've read all of Cornwell's novels except the last dozen-or-so in the Sharpe series and the sequels in his Civil war series. I agree he's usually excellent. However, though I recommend the first and second of his Grail Quest series, the third and final book is a major disappointment--it abandons plot threads and characters as it shifts focus from a historical novel about English archers to a fantasy about finding the grail.


Maybe I'm spoiled, but I rate Gerrold as vastly inferior to Heinlein. Though, I admit, I've only read the first of his Chtorr books.


I don't know Yuan-tsung Chen at all--but I gather you recommend this above all other recent China histories?

OBloodyHell said...

> Maybe I'm spoiled, but I rate Gerrold as vastly inferior to Heinlein. Though, I admit, I've only read the first of his Chtorr books.

Well, if you didn't like the first, you won't like the subsequent. I don't think he's generally as original as Heinlein (after all, RAH did invent all the classic SF story types that existed pre-1980 excepting those Wells invented... and wrote the quinessential story of that type as well [I say pre-1980 because biotech and cyberpunk themes are post that]), but Gerrold does very well beyond that single element of writing. And for my lights, the basic concept of an invasion by XXX-forming Earth seems to me to be a far more likely technique than actually bringing in troops and sitting them on our heads.

My US$.02 -- and worth every pfennig.


stevent said...


I would have to agree that I didn't like the third book in the Grail Quest series as much as the first three. I still enjoyed it but it did have a different feel than the other two.