Recommended reading

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The Night Guest by Fiona McFarlane

This haunting, gorgeous novel revolves around two plot lines. Elderly Ruth hears a tiger sneaking into her home at night. Then a mysterious woman shows up to help Ruth around the house, supposedly sent by the government. The novel’s realism is subtly undermined by Ruth’s fantasies, memories, and personality quirks. As Ruth tries to uncover the truth about the tiger and the government helper, the novel becomes surprisingly suspenseful, while still lavishing attention to language and setting. This is such a stunning book, it’s hard to believe it’s McFarlane’s first.

Nine Inches by Tom Perrotta

As a person of small town origin, I loved seeing the suburban milieu treated as a serious subject in this story collection. Perrotta’s examination of suburban life is simultaneously entertaining and arresting. Especially of note were the title story (a masterclass in the perfect last sentence) and “Senior Season.” “Senior Season” dealt with the life of a high school football player who suffers from a concussion. The subject might seem ripe for satire or cliché, but Perrotta treated it with gravity and generosity.

Jurassic Park by Michael Crichton

The more I read this book (this was my fourth or fifth read), the more I’m impressed by its perfect plot construction. A rich dinosaur enthusiast hires some scientists to figure out how to clone dinosaurs. He plans to create an island zoo/amusement park that will feature several extinct species.  Experts are brought in to assess the park’s safety for the public, and things go horribly awry. Readers of “literary” fiction might be tempted dismiss this novel as a simple thriller, but it’s so much more than that. Although the plot involves a cool sci-fi concept, it is mainly driven by individual characters’ personality traits and ambitions (in other words, what you’re taught to write in every fiction class: character-driven plot). Also impressive is Crichton’s world-building. A lesser writer might have just had some generic dinosaurs and left it at that. Crichton imagines several different dinosaur species in great detail, describing not only their appearance, but also their behaviors and movements. These traits, in turn, affect parts of the plot, in such a strong way that the dinosaurs almost function as characters.

How to be Both by Ali Smith

This novel has two sections, each with an unusual narrator. The first is a grammar-obsessed sixteen-year-old whose mother has passed away. The second is a fourteenth-century artist. The writing style is original and surprising, almost experimental in sections. Yet Smith’s playful style doesn’t detract from the emotional content of the novel, as sometimes happens in books that focus a lot of attention on language. The jacket copy compared Smith to Woolf, which is sort of a lofty comparison. But after I finished the novel, I felt that Smith had lived up to it.

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