Alternate History Fiction Books to Read Now

The question of “what if…” is a jumping off point for many authors. It’s the deceptively simple engine driving a wealth of great fiction. It’s the query at the center of one of literature’s most fascinating – and occasionally terrifying – genres: alternate history. The notion that history could be altered by a single, sometimes seemingly innocuous event has proven a fascinating playground for some of literature’s most imaginative and adventurous minds.

1
The Underground Railroad
Colson Whitehead’s Pulitzer and National Book Award winner imagines the Underground Railroad as a literal underground rail system devised to carry runaway slaves to freedom.The story centers around Cora, a young slave on a Georgia cotton plantation who makes a desperate bid for freedom.However, she is doggedly pursued by a ruthless slavecatcher in a story that is both brilliantly imagined and painfully timely.

The Underground Railroad Book Cover Picture

 

2
Black Chamber
Set in a world where Teddy Roosevelt is elected President for a second time and World War I is just on the horizon, Roosevelt relies on a top secret clandestine network known as the Black Chamber. The novel centers around Luz O’Malley Arostegui, a deadly spy set on a mission to infiltrate the German Reich and discover how the desperate country intends to deal with the United States.

Black Chamber Book Cover Picture

 

3
The Plot Against America
Originally published in 2004, this novel by the late Philip Roth feels unfortunately timely. Here, the inimitable Roth imagines an alternate history that sees Franklin Roosevelt lose the 1940 election to the zealous isolationism of Charles Lindbergh, who was a spokesman for the America First Committee and often spoke against the media and blamed American Jews for pushing the U.S. toward involvement in WWII. The novel follows the Lindbergh administration as they begin an insidious campaign of institutionalized anti-semitism and make peace with Hitler’s Germany. While disturbingly plausible at the time, The Plot Against America now has a whole new level of unfortunate relevance and, in some ways, feels all too prescient.

The Plot Against America Book Cover Picture

 

4
The Years of Rice and Salt
This sprawling novel reimagines much of world history and spans centuries.What if rather than killing off a third of Europe’s population, the Black Plague had killed ninety-nine percent?According to the imagination of Kim Stanley Robinson, the result would be a world where China is the first country to reach the New World, colonizing from west to east, where the Industrial Revolution began in India, and Buddhism and Islam are the world’s most influential religions.It’s a fascinating and sweeping alternate history.

The Years of Rice and Salt Book Cover Picture

 

5
Making History
Making History follows a Cambridge graduate student named Michael Young who is completing his dissertation on the early life of Adolf Hitler when he becomes entangled with an aging German physicistand Holocaust survivor.Together they discover a way to change the course of modern history. Their success brings about a new world — but is it better or worse than the one they knew?

Making History Book Cover Picture

 

6
It Can’t Happen Here
This classic cautionary tale is an unnervingly plausible look at the fragility of American democracy and how easily and insidiously fascism could take hold in the U.S. Written during the Great Depression, It Can’t Happen Here saw a surge in sales after the 2016 election.The novel charts the rise of populist huckster, Buzz Windrip, touting a return to patriotism and the “traditional” America. His ascent to the Presidency slowly devolves into an authoritarian dictatorship on the back of his attacks on the “liberal” press and his political enemies.It’s as unsettling now as it was in 1935.

It Can't Happen Here Book Cover Picture

 

7
The Difference Engine
This steampunk classic, widely considered the novel that established the genre, is a fascinating exercise in imagination. Part noir and part historical thriller, The Difference Engine positswhat would have occurred had Charles Babbage perfected his Analytical Engine and brought about the age of the computer a century early. The result of deeply influential sci-fi classic.

The Difference Engine Book Cover Picture

 

8
Fatherland
Fatherland is a classic of the alternate history genre.It’s a meticulously thought out detective yarn set in a world where the Nazis won World War II.Set in Berlin in 1964, The Greater German Reich enjoys an uneasy peace with the U.S. and is preparing for Adolph Hitler’s seventy-fifth birthday as well as a visit from American president, Joseph Kennedy.However, the discovery of a dead body will lead a German detective named Xavier March deep into a shocking conspiracy that reaches the very top of the Reich and could alter the course of history.

Fatherland Book Cover Picture

By Keith Rice, August 27, 2018, first appearing on Signature Reads
Advertisements

Books We Wish We Could Read Again for the First Time

As book lovers and bibliophiles, we’ve all experienced that momentary pang of jealousy when introducing someone to a great novel or book and realizing they’re going to have that singular joy of experiencing it for the first time. While revisiting a beloved tome has its own appeal, discovering a truly amazing story for the first time is exhilarating, surprising, and magical in a way that just can’t be replicated. Whether it’s because of shocking twists, powerful writing, or stunning originality, there’s nothing quite like reading a great book for the first time.

1

Gone Girl

When a thriller is as deliciously twisted and as intricately woven as Gone Girl, there’s nothing quite like the experience of reading it for the first time. While Dark Places and Sharp Objects (Flynn’s earlier efforts) certainly had their share of surprising twists, there’s just something about the gut punch realization of what is actually going on in Gone Girl. It’s a thriller experience that only comes around once.

Gone Girl Book Cover Picture

 

2

Hell’s Angels

If you’ve ever read Hunter S. Thompson, you know there’s nothing quite like the first time you stumble into his raucous, brutally honest, damn-the-torpedoes world. Thompson had an electrifying grasp of the written word — he was a bare-knuckle brawler who careened through language and grammar with gleeful abandon. More importantly, he was a no-holds-barred journalist who dove into subjects with both feet, dissecting the world around with vicious precision. Reading Thompson is a shock to the system that can really only be experienced fully the first time around.

Hell's Angels Book Cover Picture

 

3

Everything I Never Told You

Celeste Ng’s 2014 debut, Everything I Never Told You, is at once devastating and breathtaking. The family at its heart is as faulted and fallible as humanness can be. As Ng brings us along through the unfolding of their greatest tragedy, slowly revealing the events that led up to it, you’ll have to remind yourself to exhale.

Everything I Never Told You Book Cover Picture

 

4

Perdido Street Station

The first time you pick up a China Mieville book, it becomes immediately clear that you’ve found your way into something entirely new. Mieville’s brand of fiction is difficult to pin down; part horror, a little literary, with speculative sci-fi thrown in, it is wholly and breathtakingly original. Perdido Street Station takes readers through a macabre metropolis beneath the bones of a long-dead beast. I’s populated with humans and monsters of every imaginable stripe. It’s a hallucinatory, steam-punk fever dream — Charles Dickens by way of Frank Herbert and Philip K. Dick. And the sheer weight of the originality hits hardest on that first read through.

Perdido Street Station Book Cover Picture

 

5

Atonement

The powerful emotion and sensuality of Ian McEwan’s writing is an extraordinary thing the first time you experience it. For me, Atonement may be the zenith of his considerable skill and while it’s well worth multiple reads, nothing compares to the devastation that comes with working through the novel’s final pages for the first time.

Atonement Book Cover Picture

 

6

Cat’s Cradle

There are few writers who can claim to have redefined the art of storytelling. Kurt Vonnegut is one of those select few. Cat’s Cradle is both audaciously irreverent and extraordinarily intelligent.

Cat's Cradle Book Cover Picture

 

7

Americanah

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s 2013 novel, Americanah, introduces two characters who will stay with you long after you’ve turned the last page. Ifemelu and Obinze part ways in their youth. After falling in love in Nigeria, Ifemelu heads to America while Obinze leaves for London. Their lives could not be more different, but their bond remains. Americanah is a modern love story — and an unputdownable novel.

Americanah Book Cover Picture

 

8

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

While great comedy will always give you a laugh, it’s funniest the first time around. The Hitchhiker’s Guide is wholly original and raucously off-kilter. The first time you read it, the humor comes fast, but rarely from the direction you’d expect, and while there will be plenty of enjoyment during the second, third, and fourth reads, those surprise belly laughs that sprang out of nowhere only come around on that first read.

The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy 25th Anniversary Edition Book Cover Picture

 

9

The Secret History

Donna Tartt’s debut novel, 1992’s The Secret History, combines some of our favorite things: psychological suspense, a college campus, and a cast of too-smart-for-their-own-good young adults. It’s the kind of novel you’ll stay up late to finish — wishing all the while that you had the willpower to make it last longer.

The Secret History Book Cover Picture

 

10

The Sparrow

Mary Doria Russell’s first novel, 1997’s The Sparrow, addressed an oft-written-about subject: First interactions with extraterrestrial life. A linguist priest and his team secretly travel to the planet Rakhat to set up their studies of this alternate civilization, also inadvertently setting the stage for an unearthly sequence of events.

The Sparrow Book Cover Picture

 

11

Push

 

Sapphire’s 1996 novel, Push, introduced readers to sixteen-year-old Precious Jones. Told from Precious’s point of view, in her voice, all odds are stacked against her — save for one way out. The experience of reading Push is unlike any other reading experience you’re likely to have, and though it will devastate you, it will also inspire you. It is, truly, a literary work of art.

Push Book Cover Picture

By Keith Rice, August 20, 2018, first appearing on Signature Reads

Works of Nonfiction to Rival Any Great Thriller Novel

Who doesn’t love a good thriller? Whether a tale of murder and mayhem, a page-turning whodunit, dangerous family secrets, or a bit of good old fashioned espionage – there’s nothing quite like a great page-turner. Occasionally, however, life can prove stranger – and more thrilling – than fiction. Some of the best thrillers just happen to lurk in the pages of the nonfiction world. What better way to change up your usual suspenseful binge than to dive into the pages of a larger-than-life, stranger-than-fiction tale? Here are a few of our favorites.

In Cold Blood Book Cover PictureIn Cold Blood
Truman Capote’s true crime masterpiece is a classic for good reason. It is largely credited with igniting the trend of narrative nonfiction, particularly in true crime, and is lifted by Capote’s skillful storytelling. What truly makes In Cold Blood such a compulsive thriller, however, is Capote’s clear fascination with murderer Perry Smith.

Five Days at Memorial Book Cover PictureFive Days at Memorial
Pulitzer Prize winner Sheri Fink spent six years investigating precisely what went on in a New Orleans hospital ravaged by Hurricane Katrina and the desperate bid for survival amid the chaos within. Following the devastation of the hurricane, hospital power failed, temperatures soared, and floodwaters rose. Caregivers were forced to determine the order of patients for evacuation. Months later, several faced charges of injecting patients with drugs to speed their deaths. With Five Days at Memorial, Sheri Fink reconstructs the events with haunting precision.

The Looming Tower (Movie Tie-in) Book Cover PictureThe Looming Tower 
With a narrative spanning five decades, The Looming Tower breaks down the rise of Al-Qaeda and the disturbing failures in U.S. Intelligence in the lead-up to the 9/11 attacks. Lawrence Wright earned a Pulitzer Prize for his work and it remains the most in-depth account of the myriad events that led to the most deadly terrorist attack ever perpetrated on U.S. soil. It is the definitive history.

Thunderstruck Book Cover PictureThunderstruck
Set against the backdrops of Edwardian London and the coasts of Cornwall, Cape Cod, and Nova Scotia, Erik Larson interweaves the tales of two men — one is creator of a revolutionary means of wireless communication, the other nearly commits the perfect murder. How their stories intersect is a tragic tale of love and betrayal and a suspenseful chase across the North Atlantic. Thunderstruck is Erik Larson at his best.

The Skies Belong to Us Book Cover PictureThe Skies Belong to Us
In an America torn apart by the Vietnam War and the demise of ’60s idealism, airplane hijackings were astonishingly routine. Over a five-year period starting in 1968, the desperate and disillusioned seized commercial jets nearly once a week, using guns, bombs, and jars of acid. Their criminal exploits mesmerized the country, never more so than when shattered Army veteran Roger Holder and mischievous party girl Cathy Kerkow managred to comandeer Western Airlines Flight 701 and flee across an ocean with a half-million dollars in ransom—a heist that remains the longest-distance hijacking in American history.

The Girls of Murder City Book Cover PictureThe Girls of Murder City
With a thrilling, fast-paced narrative, award-winning journalist Douglas Perry vividly captures the sensationalized circus atmosphere that gave rise to the concept of the celebrity criminal- and gave Chicago its most famous story. The Girls of Murder Cityrecounts two scandalous, sex-fueled murder cases and how an intrepid “girl reporter” named Maurine Watkins turned the beautiful, media-savvy suspects-“Stylish Belva” and “Beautiful Beulah”-into the talk of the town.

My Dark Places Book Cover PictureMy Dark Places
In 1958 Jean Ellroy was murdered, her body dumped on a roadway in a seedy L.A. suburb.  Her killer was never found, and the police dismissed her as a casualty of a cheap Saturday night. James Ellroy was ten when his mother died, and he spent the next thirty-six years running from her ghost and attempting to exorcize it through crime fiction. In My Dark Places, our most uncompromising crime writer tells what happened when he teamed up with a brilliant homicide cop to investigate a murder that everyone else had forgotten–and reclaim the mother he had despised, desired, but never dared to love. What ensues is a epic of loss, fixation, and redemption, a memoir that is also a history of the American way of violence.

Killers of the Flower Moon Book Cover PictureKillers of the Flower Moon
In the 1920s, the richest people per capita in the world were members of the Osage Nation in Oklahoma. After oil was discovered beneath their land, the Osage rode in chauffeured automobiles, built mansions, and sent their children to study in Europe. Then, one by one, the Osage began to be killed off. The family of an Osage woman, Mollie Burkhart, became a prime target. One of her relatives was shot. Another was poisoned. And it was just the beginning, as more and more Osage were dying under mysterious circumstances, and many of those who dared to investigate the killings were themselves murdered.

The Brothers Book Cover PictureThe Brothers
On April 15, 2013, two homemade bombs exploded near the finish line of the Boston marathon, killing three people and wounding more than 264 others. In the ensuing manhunt, Tamerlan Tsarnaev died, and his younger brother, Dzhokhar, was captured and brought to trial. Yet even after the guilty verdict and the death sentence, what we didn’t know was why. Why did the American Dream go so wrong for two immigrants? How did such a nightmare come to pass?

The Wicked Boy Book Cover PictureThe Wicked Boy
In the summer of 1895, Robert Coombes (age 13) and his brother Nattie (age 12) were seen spending lavishly around the docklands of East London — for ten days in July, they ate out at coffee houses and took trips to the seaside and the theater. The boys told neighbors they had been left home alone while their mother visited family in Liverpool, but their aunt was suspicious. When she eventually forced the brothers to open the house to her, she found the badly decomposed body of their mother in a bedroom upstairs. Robert and Nattie were arrested for matricide and sent for trial at the Old Bailey. With riveting detail and rich atmosphere, Kate Summerscale recreates this terrible crime and its aftermath, uncovering an extraordinary story of man’s capacity to overcome the past.

By Keith Rice, August 17, 2018, first appearing on Signature Reads

9 Best Characters in Literature Inspired by Real People

Robert Downey Jr. in Sherlock Holmes (2009) © Warner Bros.

These fictional characters are some of the best, and they’re all based on real people.

Sometimes it can be difficult to pin down where inspiration comes from. While it’s no secret that authors glean inspiration for their literary endeavors from a number of sources, such as research, personal experience, and pure imagination, it is not at all uncommon to discover that some of our favorite characters take their cues from real-life figures. It can be something as simple as a few character traits or the whole-sale xeroxing of a actual person to the page. Regardless, it’s fascinating to find out that beloved characters are based on people who actually existed. On a few rare occasions, it turns out that the real world inspiration is more unbelievable than their literary counterpart. Here are some of the best fictional characters in literature inspired by very real people.

The cover of the book Becoming BelleBecoming Belle
by Nuala O’Connor
Isabel Bilton

Nuala O’Connor’s latest novel draws on a sensational 19thcentury court case, a tangled romance, and more than a little bohemian night-life. O’Connor makes the most of her larger-than-life setting to tell the story of the actual Bilton Sisters, Belle and Flo, and Belle’s increasingly torrid and complex love life.

 

The cover of the book Sherlock HolmesSherlock Holmes
by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
Sherlock Holmes

Sherlock Holmes is, without a doubt, the most famous literary detective ever conceived (apologies to Mrs. Poirot and Spade, as well as the inimitable Miss Marple). The inspiration for Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s brilliant, mercurial, misanthropic detective is less so: Dr. Joseph Bell. Conan Doyle met Bell in 1877 at the Edinburgh Royal Infirmary and was immediately amazed by Bell’s hyper observant nature and deductive abilities. The rest, my dear Watson, was elementary.

 

The cover of the book The Ghost WriterThe Ghost Writer
by Philip Roth
Nathan Zuckerman

Philip Roth was somewhat notorious for using various thinly veiled versions of himself as protagonists for his fiction, which, admittedly, is not an uncommon tact for great fiction writers. In Roth’s case, none came closer to the mark of the actual man than Nathan Zuckerman. Over the course of the four acclaimed novels, Roth used Zuckerman to grapple with his literary success, creative process, and the tensions between literature and life.

 

The cover of the book To Kill a MockingbirdTo Kill a Mockingbird
by Harper Lee
Dill Harris

Harper Lee was famously a childhood friend and lifelong confidant of Truman Capote, even accompanying Capote and assisting in interviews and research for In Cold Blood. Lee actually based the character of Dill Harris on Capote. Given Dill’s eccentricities, extraordinary eloquence, and penchant for storytelling, spotting the inspiration isn’t particularly difficult.

 

The cover of the book The Scarlet LetterThe Scarlet Letter
by Nathaniel Hawthorne
Hester Prynne

While this one is not quite as clear cut as some of the others, there are plenty of indications that Nathaniel Hawthorne drew inspiration for Hester Prynne and The Scarlet Letter from real-life events. Prynne, in fact, was likely inspired in part by a real person named Elizabeth Pain. Pain had a child out of wedlock – a child she was later accused of murdering. Despite being found not guilty of the murder, the accusation followed her. Her tombstone in Boston is virtually identical to the one described as Hester Prynne’s at the end of the novel.

 

The cover of the book On the RoadOn the Road
by Jack Kerouac
Dean Moriarty

It’s no secret that Jack Kerouac based the character of Dean Moriarty on Neal Cassady, an real-life counter-culture icon who actually appears in a few other books including Ken Kesey’s Electric Kool Aid Acid Test. In an early draft of On the Road, the character was actually named Neal Cassady. Cassady was a larger-than-life character who met a tragic end – he died from exposure after passing out outdoors.

 

The cover of the book BelovedBeloved
by Toni Morrison
Sethe

Beloved is a shattering and horrifying novel lifted by Toni Morrison’s incredible storytelling ability. The entire novel centers on the revelation of Sethe’s devastating backstory(SPOILER ALERT: major spoilers for Beloved follow). Sethe was an escaped slave who murdered her two-year old daughter because she believed it was better than her being taken back to the plantation. Morrison based this brutal moment on an actual event – A runaway slave named Margaret Garner, while surrounded by slave-catchers, was caught in the act of killing her own children to spare them a life of slavery.

 

The cover of the book Alice's Adventures in WonderlandAlice’s Adventures in Wonderland
by Lewis Carroll
Alice

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is a surreal children’s classic and Lewis Carroll based the character of Alice on an actual girl: Alice Liddell. Carroll, whose real name was Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, was close with Liddell’s family and wrote the original version of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland for the girl.

 

The cover of the book Primary ColorsPrimary Colors
by Anonymous
Jack Stanton

Jack Stanton is one of the more thinly disguised literary stand-ins in recent memory. As a charismatic Southern governor running a presidential campaign that is nearly derailed when word of his extra-marital affairs comes to light, it didn’t take any particular insider knowledge to realize Stanton was a caricatured version of Bill Clinton. While certainly a satirical farce, Primary Colors nonetheless proved a fascinating, over-the-top view behind the curtain of a presidential campaign.

Universal, but Personal: Hometown Settings in Thrillers

Photo by Anita Jankovic on Unsplash

One of the most important elements of great literature is that it can be simultaneously personal and universal. It’s why each of us can pick up a book, no matter how different we may be, and understand precisely how a certain character feels. And when speaking specifically about great thrillers, they must also thrill us. The stakes must be high, the potential for loss higher. We must see our protagonist racing against a ticking clock, and each page must present her with new challenges, show her suffering failures and maybe rejoicing in a victory or two. New characters will arrive as the pages mount, others will be killed off. Plot points will roll past. But every page will include the setting. It’s the backdrop for everything that will happen, and as such, the decisions we make surrounding our setting can act to strengthen our plots by creating additional obstacles and challenges or be a wasted opportunity.

One example of a universal and yet personal storyline is the character who returns home after a long absence. We each have a hometown. We have memories of it—some good, some bad—and so we can understand the fear and apprehension built into such a homecoming. It’s why readers never tire of these stories. But our novel doesn’t only tell a story that is universal and personal, it’s also a thriller. The choices we make must ignite our settings with opportunities and challenges, because such obstacles set our protagonist in motion, make clear what she is working toward and firmly establish that she faces certain death if she isn’t shrewd enough, cunning enough and fast enough to overcome them.

Geography is perhaps the broadest choice we will make with our setting, and in making it, we get the benefit of some built-in obstacles. Is our hometown in the mountains or the desert? Each presents obvious obstacles. Is our protagonist’s hometown small? Will gossip plague her? Does everyone in town know every mistake she has ever made? Or does she return home to the big city? Will she remember being a lonely child upon her return? Will she remember suffering among the endless crowds and yet having no one to talk to? These are primarily examples of internal obstacles we’ve created with our choice of setting. Other decisions can add to the more external and tangible suspense we want to generate.  Will the river that runs alongside our protagonist’s hometown be raging and lead readers to fear she will be swept away at some point? Or will it be a lazy river, shrinking from lack of rain, which leads our readers to fear what or who might emerge as the water level continues to fall?

Not only is the part of the country or world in which we set our thriller important, but the time of the year in which we set it presents another opportunity to create suspense. There is no right choice, but once made, we must work to exploit the resulting details. If we choose spring, the rains should make our river rise and become a threat to our protagonist. If instead we choose winter, the snow that falls should make the main road into town hazardous and we should place our protagonist on it in the dark of night. The era, too, in which we set our novel is significant. Here again, our choices, if managed properly, will present us with opportunities to challenge our characters and thereby create internal and external strife. As writers, do we want to exploit the access to information that the present allows? Will our protagonist use a cell phone to find her missing daughter, or bank records to track down a cheating husband? Or do we want the physical challenges of life in the distant past for our characters? Our choice of era also gives rise to cultural conflicts and conflicts between the sexes. How, if at all, will those conflicts and obstacles differ if the novel is set in the present as opposed to the past?

Lastly, the history we weave into our setting does more than perhaps any other choice to define our protagonist, establish her wants and needs and generate conflict and suspense. In the case of our hometown setting, what our character chooses to remember of her home and its history tells us much about who she is and what she values. It will give us insight into the unique knowledge she might have that could aide her as she struggles toward whatever ultimate goal we have given her. The history we choose to include will establish what frightens our protagonist, what drives her and ultimately, what kept her away from home for so many years.

The setting, perhaps more than any other element, permeates every page of a novel. It’s the world our characters live in and the one thing they can never escape. It will always be present to challenge them and they will forever be struggling to overcome it or accept it. There is no right choice when it comes to settings, but it is a matter of understanding the opportunities that come with each choice as well as the pitfalls.

EDITOR’S NOTE:

Lori Roy is the author of Bent Road, winner of the Edgar Award for Best First Novel; Until She Comes Home, finalist for the Edgar Award for Best Novel; and Let Me Die in His Footsteps, winner of the Edgar Award for Best Novel. She lives in St. Petersburg, Florida, with her family.

7 Authors Who Only Ever Published One (Fantastic) Novel

As book lovers, we’ve all likely experienced that excruciating moment of discovery after reading a novel you absolutely loved: The writer penned only that singular work. To be fair, it is a rare situation, but a bittersweet one nonetheless, made more so when it’s a particularly brilliant piece of fiction. Harper Lee, at one time, was perhaps the most notorious one-off author of the twentieth century with To Kill a Mockingbird (J.D. Salinger slid in at a close second, although we’ll concede that he did pepper us with a few fantastic short stories). Of course, and in spite of some controversy, Go Set a Watchman pushed Lee from this roundup. There are still several classic novels that have proved themselves beloved one-offs. Here are a few of our favorites.

The cover of the book Wuthering HeightsWuthering Heights
Emily Brontë
Emily Bronte died just a year after her first and only novel was published. The novel she left us with is an unquestionable classic — a tortured and deeply emotional tale of torment, obsession, and the dangers of unfettered passion.

 

The cover of the book The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie SocietyThe Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society
Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows
The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society was published after Mary Ann Shaffer’s death in 2008. An epistolary novel set in 1946, it follows the travails of an extraordinary and eccentric cast of characters on a small British island occupied by the Germans during WWII.

 

The cover of the book Doctor ZhivagoDoctor Zhivago
Boris Pasternak
First published in 1957, Boris Pasternak’s only novel earned him an Nobel Prize in Literature. It is an extraordinary example of 20th century Russian literature and chronicles the turmoil of the Russian Revolution through the lens of a poet/physician struggling to survive against the chaotic tumult of the period.

 

The cover of the book The Catcher in the RyeThe Catcher in the Rye
J. D. Salinger
This now-classic tale, one synonymous with teenage angst and alienation, was J.D. Salinger’s only novel. The story centers on Holden Caulfield, a student at a prestigious prep school in the early 1950’s. Holden’s disdain for his peers and the apparent “phoniness” of those around him proved to be a touchstone for generations of seemingly disaffected teenagers.

 

The cover of the book Gone with the WindGone with the Wind
Margaret Mitchell
This Pulitzer Prize winner was Margaret Mitchell’s only novel. It quickly became a cultural touchstone and the basis for the revered 1939 adaptation. It’s said that Mitchell was unsettled and uncomfortable by the attention garnered by the sprawling Civil War-era epic and decided not to pen a second novel or a follow-up.

 

The cover of the book The Bell JarThe Bell Jar
Sylvia Plath
Sylvia Plath committed suicide less than a month after the publication of of her semi-autobiographical classic. Given Plath’s tragic end, her powerful and devastating chronicle of the mental breakdown of a brilliant young woman gained an entirely new and crushing dimension.

 

The cover of the book Remembrance RockRemembrance Rock
Carl Sandburg
While Carl Sandburg is best known for his poetry, he wrote a single novel. This massive, sprawling tale is Sandburg’s prose chronicle of the American experience. Spanning 300 years of history and myriad characters, it is the definition of epic.

 

The cover of the book HeartburnHeartburn
Nora Ephron
While best known as a screenwriter and essayist, Nora Ephron did turn her extraordinary wit and insight to the world of fiction with this semi-autobiographical novel. It is an emotional and oft-hilarious examination of a crumbling marriage – based in part on Ephron’s second marriage – as only Nora Ephron could write.

 

5 Reasons Why the World of High Finance Is Ripe Territory for Thrillers

Photo by Anthony Tyrrell on Unsplash

Hear me out: “financial thriller” is not an oxymoron. If anything, financial thrillers can be timely, explosive and sophisticated, and original. While some may initially glaze over at the thought of reading about stocks and bonds, the world of high finance is ripe — and under-explored — territory for thrillers. Here are five reasons why:

1. Money fuels the highest-stakes crimes.

Behind every great criminal — drug lords, corrupt politicians, film producers who prey on young actresses — is a large sum of money, and behind every large sum of money is a bank. The most direct way to track a high-flying villain is by following his/her money — and the easiest way to stop him/her is to cut off his/her financial supply.

Sure, reading through bank statements can sound dry — unless those bank statements prove that a war is being secretly funded, a politician has been bought off, or illegal arms are trading hands. Bankers have access to enormous amounts of information. Bank statements can prove that all kinds of illicit relationships and transactions exist. By setting a thriller inside a bank, you allow yourself access to all that data — and you can use it as a jumping off point to explore anything from drug trafficking to war crimes to rigged elections. Money raises the stakes of all crimes. Any thriller could contain a financial element that would only serve to further the plot — and heighten the tension.

2. Finance is a world people don’t often get to see.

Part of the fun of reading is getting to peer into a world that you wouldn’t otherwise get access to. Finance can be exclusive and intimidating — and that’s why it’s perfect fodder for a thriller. Think of all the private meetings, the numbered accounts, the confidential conversations involved in finance. What could be more thrilling than being part of a clandestine world, if only for a few hundred pages?

3. The world of high finance is glamorous.

New York! Hong Kong! Geneva! The Cayman Islands! Thrillers set in the world of high finance get to explore all kinds of glamorous settings. And who doesn’t love a touch of luxury in their novels? After all, thrillers are meant to be entertaining — and a break from the mundane. In my latest novel, The Banker’s Wife, I got to globetrot from Geneva to Paris to London to New York — and fly private for much of the way. I also got to attend fabulous parties, ski in the Swiss Alps, drink the finest French wine, drive exotic cars, and discuss priceless art. The world financiers live in can be as beautiful and seductive as it is dangerous — and that’s what makes it so much fun to write (and read about).

4. It raises profound ethical questions.

All my novels explore the corrupting influence of money. When you set a thriller in the financial world, you inevitably raise questions about how money changes people. Digging deeper into these ethical questions elevates a novel from a run-of-the-mill page-turner into a more profound and thought-provoking read that stays with the reader longer.

5. It’s not often explored.

There are so many terrific legal and political thrillers out there, but finance remains largely unexplored territory. Since 2008, financial news has become much more mainstream — and shows like “Billions” (on SHOWTIME) and movies like “Arbitrage” are following suit. While there are plenty of terrific nonfiction books about finance (many of which read like thrillers) there still aren’t all that many novels set inside banks — or featuring a financier as either a villain or protagonist. Being part of the “financial thriller” niche sets a novel apart from the others on the shelves — and can catch the eye of readers who are increasingly interested in the topic.