For most of my reading life, most books that interested me could be traced to an interest in fantasy, from “The Lord of the Rings” to “Harry Potter.” Then came many beautiful surprises in serious literature, as I strove to become more well-read.
In between, I discovered books in other genres that surprised me the pleasure I took from them. Perhaps you will find them as unexpectedly delicious as I did.
Magical realism blends real-world stories with magical elements. Often associated with Latin American authors, this school of writing has also produced many beautiful beautiful books in English.
Australian author Markus Zusak wrote “I Am the Messenger,” featuring an average guy in Sydney who starts receiving strange messages leading to a series of adventures, and “The Book Thief,” a heartbreaking tale narrated by Death himself, about a girl in Nazi Germany whose family hides a Jew in their basement.
British author David Almond won the Carnegie Medal for “Skellig,” in which a boy finds a winged man hiding in his garage. In his book “Kit’s Wilderness,” a disturbing game called Death brings a present-day boy into contact with the ghosts of children 100 years dead.
There’s also a baseball-related offshoot of magical realism, including “The Boy Who Saved Baseball” by John H. Ritter and “Two Hot Dogs With Everything” by Paul Haven.
Being a midwestern landlubber, I knew nothing about sailing when I first read “Treasure Island” by Robert Louis Stevenson and “Swallows and Amazons” by Arthur Ransome. But I was willing to learn; and I learned a lot more from the 11-book Horatio Hornblower series by British-American author C.S. Forester.
Opinions are mixed about whether to read this series in publication order or in the order of the hero’s Napoleonic-era naval exploits. I recommend starting, as Forester did, with “Beat to Quarters.” His work is tremendous, combining historical realism with passionate character drama.
Still, I am even more in love with the Aubreyiad, a 20-book series by Irish author Patrick O’Brian starting with “Master and Commander.” It features musical, math and tactical genius Capt. Jack Aubrey and his best friend, ship’s surgeon and intelligence agent Stephen Maturin. Their globe-circling adventures are told in gorgeous style and at great emotional depth.
Learn to know two names: Dashiell Hammett (“The Maltese Falcon”) and Raymond Chandler (“The Big Sleep”). Read them. Love them. Repeat.
Hardboiled fiction is a dark, gritty depiction of the criminal underside of urban society. Dead bodies drop at regular intervals. Lonely heroes like Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe keep their feelings contained. Still, sensitive readers will pick up a current of emotion that will pierce them to the heart.
As the most breathtaking examples of this genre, I recommend Hammett’s “The Glass Key” and Chandler’s “The High Window.” Present-day writers revitalizing the hardboiled mystique include Jo Nesbø.
I’ve never been a big follower of soccer. Nevertheless, a nonfiction book that made me reconsider my position was “The Miracle of Castel di Sangro” by journalist-author Joe McGinnis.
An adult convert to soccer fandom, McGinnis spent a year in Italy during the ’90s, following a small-town, semi-pro team as they competed with bigger, richer clubs to save their major-league status.
He lovingly depicts the team’s struggle in a system where top-ranked clubs move up a tier each year, and the losingest ones move down. McGinnis’ love is contagious, especially as tragedy strikes the close-knit team.
Would they stay in the top league after fighting their way up, or would it prove to be an embarrassing fluke? I couldn’t stop turning pages until I knew.
Robin Fish is an avid reader who blogs about books and other topics at afortmadeofbooks.blogspot.com. Contact him with questions or suggestions at firstname.lastname@example.org.