Shogun (James Clavell)
Yeah, that’s right, my copy of Shogun is so elite it doesn’t even need a cover. I actually bought it that way from a library sale on the ‘$2 per bag’ day. It took me six weeks to read this monster (in my defense, I was moving house and had a 1-year-old at the time) but it was worth every minute.
This sprawling novel of pre-Tokugawa Shogunate Japan is packed with tons of fascinating detail about a world that probably as alien to modern Western readers as it is to Blackthorne, the book’s main character. He’s an English pilot whose ship wrecks on the coast of Japan, and it takes him a very long time to get used to taking a bath every day, rather than twice a year.
Note: There’s a 1980’s miniseries starring Richard Chamberlain that follows the book very closely, so if you like the book and have ten spare hours, check it out. I know see why every woman I know who is my mom’s age is hot on Richard Chamberlain.
The Devil of Nanking (Mo Hayder)
Mo Hayder is one fucked-up bitch, and I mean that in the most affectionate and admiring way possible. The Devil of Nanking is one of those books that makes you wonder what the hell is going on in the author’s head, but in the end you don’t really care because it’s awesome.
Grey is an English girl who heads to Tokyo in search of a notorious, vanished war criminal whose actions during the Rape of Nanking were recorded. Why exactly she’s looking for this guy isn’t revealed until the end… and trust me, it’s not what you expected. The various bizarreness that occurs during her quest is equal parts sick and funny.
Note: I’ve read almost all of Hayder’s other books since then, and none of them are as good as this one. And yes, that is an advance reader’s copy. I work at a bookstore.
A Tale of Two Cities (Charles Dickens)
Here’s the thing about Dickens: he’s so blatantly manipulating your emotions that it’s almost ridiculous, but you still cry when Jo dies in Bleak House or when Sydney Carton loses his head to La Guillotine.
I like A Tale of Two Cities because it’s dark and violent. I like Madame DeFarge and her ladies sitting in the front row, knitting and counting heads. I like people languishing in piles of straw in their cells in the Bastille, rapists and murderers getting what they deserve, and people getting their heads chopped off in what was supposed to be a humane execution.
I originally read a stage version of this novel back in about 6th grade or something, and then we saw the play at the local children’s theater. I like the book better.
Note: There have been four musical versions of A Tale of Two Cities. No, I am not kidding and no, I haven’t seen any of them.
In the Heart of the Sea (Nathaniel Philbrick)
I primarily read fiction, but here’s some nonfic for you. I love books about explorers who die horribly at the hands of might Nature, people who get shipwrecked and have to eat each other to stay alive, and stories about whalers. Which is weird, because I like whales.
In the Heart of the Sea is the story of the whaling ship Essex, which sank when a pissed-off whale rammed the ship and broke open the hull. The sailors had to cram into lifeboats and defy death all the way home (spoiler: some of them don’t defy it too well- especially once they run out of food and start eating each other).
There’s some incredible writing in this book; Philbrick’s description of dying of thirst (taken from the record of a man who nearly did) makes you run to the kitchen for some Gatorade. And he brings the historical figures so close that you really feel their conflicting emotions as they try to stay alive in the face of overwhelming odds.
Note: My copy is signed. And Nathaniel Philbrick is a very nice man, so there.