Jennifer's Bookshelf

Some of my favourite books and authors... not literally a list of what's on my bookshelf because I also hang out a lot at my local library.

I should point out that the length of my descriptive bit is entirely independent of my appreciation of the book.

A few approximate categories...

"Children's" and "teenage" fiction
Detective stories & their ilk
Science fiction / speculative fantasy
Other novels
Autobiography & biography
Explorations of life
Sexual politics
Evolution / genetics / human bodies
Miscellaneous non-fiction - music, computers etc.

This page will continue to evolve as I read more and/or remember books I've read in the past that deserve a mention.
(Last books added: 1 June 2004.)

"Children's" and "teenage" fiction

Cynthia Voigt
One of my favourite current writers.
begins a series about the Tillerman family, all well worth reading.
Izzy, willy-nilly
is a one-off, about a girl in a car crash who has to have part of her leg amputated, and the way her relationships change with friends and family as a result.
ISBN 0 00 673377 8
When she hollers
Turning-point day in the life of a teenage girl claiming her power.
ISBN 0 00 675059-1
Annie Dalton
Night maze
Misfit children and magic...
ISBN 0 7497 0322 9
Frances Hodgson Burnett
The lost prince
I always liked this book. Haven't read it in years mind you.
Antonia Forest
Autumn Term, etc (Marlow family series)
In my opinion the best "school story" series ever. But only four of the series are actually set at school. The rest of the books follow various members of the family through other situations. Autumn Term is the first, and was reprinted recently, so that's a good place to start if you want to try them. I was lucky enough to discover them in my local library as a child. Unfortunately most of the series is currently out of print.
Keith Claire
The otherwise girl
Can't say much about this one without giving away the plot, but it's a rather beautiful story.
Margaret Mahy
The changeover
One of the key relationships in this book is between the heroine and her little brother whom she loves dearly. It's to take care of him that she takes the biggest risk of her life. Magic mixed with very real family relationships. My favourite one of hers.
Celia Rees
The Bailey Game
One of the best what-it's-really-like-to-be-at-school stories I've read in a long time.
ISBN 0 330 33326 7
Anne Fine
The Tulip touch
Story of two best friend girls from the perspective of one of them. This story goes deep - love, betrayal, redemption or the lack of it. I've read several of her children's books (including the famous Mrs Doubtfire one that got made into a film) and I think this one is the best.
She also writes for adults - see below.
Same difference
is an anthology of short stories with lesbian or gay characters, by eight writers including Anne Fine and Margaret Mahy. Most of the main characters are teenagers.
Editor: Simon Puttock.
ISBN 0 7497 3031 5
Paula Boock
Dare truth or promise
Excellent lesbian teen love story.
Jean Ure
Get a life!
Excellent school story with a gay theme, from the point of view of a fourteen-year-old (straight) boy, who starts off pretty homophobic but is provoked by the dramatic unfolding events to question how he's thinking. Manages to be highly educational while still telling a realistic, exciting story.
Walter Dean Myers
Won't know till I get there
About some kids hooking up with some people in an old people's home. Really good on friendship & ageism & racism.
Cynthia D Grant
The white horse
Set partly in a school for young people who've been excluded from their ordinary schools. Partly follows teenager Raina through a phase of her life and partly follows her teacher, who's battling to get resources for the school. Not sentimental - and seems quite realistic to me (not that I know much about that environment) - but not cynical either.
Cathy Hopkins
Mates, dates and cosmic kisses
Made me laugh out loud in several places. Characters occasionally uncritically size-ist, but other than that, good anti-sexist subtext/messages for teenage girls.
Virginia Euwer Wolff
True Believer
Beautiful reflection of the complexities of being a teenager. Love, religion, school ambitions, friendships.
ISBN 0 571 20702 2
Breena Clarke
River, cross my heart
Gentle though eventful story of a girl who loves swimming, set in the Black community in Georgetown, Washington, in the 1930s (I think it was).
ISBN 0 75283 819 9
Ruth Elwin Harris
The silent shore
& three others following four sisters through the First World War. Each book follows one sister's perspective. What I like about them is the sense of realness, of real people living in that time. It's also fascinating to see the same scenes from different perspectives in the different books.
Susan Cooper
Dawn of fear
From the Puffin intro: "Derek wasn't old enough yet to be frightened of the war. All the war meant to him was the excitement of plane-spotting, the hope of finding a piece of shrapnel after a raid, strange uncomfortable nights cramped in an air-raid shelter and hero-worshipping the boys who were old enough to fight. His main interest was still the camp he was building with his friends on some waste land, and their feud with a neighbouring gang of boys."
Bette Paul
Breaking the ties
Young woman (I seem to remember the book begins with her eighteenth birthday) gradually beginning to make her own choices and saying no to the people who want to run her life for her.
Caroline B Cooney
I don't read horror stories (which is one of the genres she writes) but I've read quite a lot of her other stuff. Some are romances (a cut above most teenage romances) but these three, which are my faves of the ones I've read, are more like "teenage life in general".
Twenty pageants later
What's it like to be the younger sister of a beauty pageant star? Lots of interesting commentary on looking-good values versus other values, and a great story with a happy ending.
ISBN 0 7497 1870 6
The party's over
End of high school and start of college. Except that the heroine of this book isn't going away to college. Was it a mistake? Beautiful story of how she meets the challenges of her new life, alone in her home town with all her best friends gone.
Burning up
A school project and a new friend begin to awaken the (white) heroine of this book to the way that racism affects her community. Excellent coming-of-age novel.
Andrew Matthews
A winter night's dream
True-to-life teenage love story. Made me laugh in a few places as well due to its true-life wit.
ISBN 0 7497 2704 7
Kate Cann
Diving in
The key relationships in this book are between the heroine & this boy she meets, and the heroine and her mother. Plotwise nothing too unexpected, just very well done.
ISBN 0 7043 4937 X
This book has a couple of sequels now. I've read the first of them and that was good too.
Peter Dickinson
Eva was in a bad accident - how can they keep her alive? Science fiction premise, beautiful exposition of the possible consequences.
Nina Bawden
Off the road
Set in 2040. Thought-provoking world with an excellent twist at the end of the story.
ISBN 0 141 30221 6
Lois Keith
A different life
Ordinary realistic teenage heroine, starting off with the usual boys/clothes preoccupations, whose life is changed forever by an unpredictable illness.
ISBN 0 7043 4946 9
Rachel Anderson
Amy loves to be told stories by her Grandma. This provides the frame for the story of Amy's Uncle Ho, adopted as a child after going through the war in Vietnam.
ISBN 0 19 271817 7
Dodie Smith
I capture the castle
Young woman discovering herself and writing in her secret diary. I'm trying to remember what era it's set in - not present-day - I think probably around 1920-1930 or so, I'll have to update this next time I read it. But the story and the feelings are entirely relevant to now.
Adèle Geras
Watching the roses
begins: "Once upon a time, I was a good girl and no trouble to anyone. Now, everyone is worried about me, although I don't think there's really anything that dreadful or strange about my behaviour. I do not want to speak, not at all, not to a single soul in the whole world, and therefore, I'm not speaking. I decided not to speak a week ago, and since then not one word has passed my lips. I stay in this room. I do not want to leave it. They bring me food on the tray and when they've gone, long after they've gone, I eat it. Then at least they don't have to worry about me starving to death. I truly don't want to worry anyone by what I'm doing, although already I can see signs that I have."
ISBN 0 00 674383-8
Will Gatti
Sea dance
The sea is central to this book but it's also about families, land, friends, community and coming of age. The 14-year-old Irish narrator and his best mate experience a season full of events and adventures in a plot that links and unfolds in an unusually lifelike way (even though there are a few friendly ghosts too).
Anne Holm
I am David
Another unique self-reliant adventuring character. Apparently this is a famous book, but I'd never heard of it till recently.
Norton Juster
The Phantom Tollbooth
Milo is bored, because everything is boring. But then he drives off into a magic land of words and numbers. I think I must have been about 10 when I first read this, and I thought it was fantastic.
ISBN 0 394 82037 1
M R Harrington
Dickon among the Indians
I've lost count of how many times I read this book as a child. The story begins in 1612 and is about a white English boy shipwrecked on the coast where the Lenape tribe were living (in what's now Pennsylvania). But the story of what happens to Dickon is mostly there as a vehicle for descriptions of how the tribe used to live, which was based on research from around 1910 including interviews with the survivors and descendants of the Lenape, and pictures partly from surviving objects which by then were in a museum. It told you how to make bows and arrows! It had pictures of the different kinds of arrow heads! And it told you how they made their pots and their clothes! It was ace! :-)
From when I was 6 to when I was 9, my family lived in the Netherlands, and while we were living in Leiden, I went to the Montessori school there and learned to speak Dutch. So these are a few of my faves from then.
Tonke Dragt
Verhalen van de tweelingbroers
(Stories of the twin brothers)
If you'd asked me my favourite book when I was 8 years old it might well have been this one. It's a collection of linked stories, each one a separate adventure that the brothers have. The twin theme is often crucial to the plot but there's always some other dimension to it as well - themes like trust, honesty or ingenuity. Precis of one story from this book
De brief voor de koning
(The letter for the king)
Four teenagers in the chapel on an all-night vigil, they're going to be knighted in a ceremony in the morning. A mysterious stranger bangs on the door and asks if one of them will accept an important mission. One of them accepts and sets out on a journey to take a letter in a strange language to the king of the next-door country. The rest of the book is all about his adventures along the way and the people who help him and the baddies who want to stop him.
Tonke Dragt has written some adult science fiction as well, but I think these are better.
Leonie Kooiker
Het malle ding van bobbistiek
(A bit harder to translate this one: something like, The odd thing made of bobbistiek)
Bobbie is this kid who likes mixing stuff up, and this time it turns out as a sort of plasticine stuff that gets hard when you put water on it. This is what he names bobbistiek. Then he builds this vehicle out of it, and he and his brother put a motorbike engine in it and make it some rotors and do a bit of flying around. One of the sub-plots is that some businessmen (friends of the dad or the uncle I think, I can't remember) want to know exactly what went into the mixture, so they can patent it. I think one of the things I like(d) about this book is the mixture of realness and fantasy. How brilliant, to have your own little flying machine! But of course the grownups are going to make rules about when you're allowed out in it, and they're not going to be impressed when a bit of bobbistiek goes through the wash in your pocket and ruins your trousers.
I seem to remember this was quite a well-known book in Holland at the time, I think it might have won some children's book prize or something.
Josephine Siebe
Harlekijntje op kasteel hemelhoog
(Harlequin at Castle Heaven-High)
There was a series of Harlekijntje books, I think I read five of them while I was at school. This was my favourite. Harlekijntje is from the land of the harlekijntjes (i.e. non-human). The premise isn't particularly subtle - Harlekijntje is extremely mischievous, always playing jokes, rude to anyone pompous, eats enormous quantities of cake and sweets, and gets away with it all. But he loves his friends and they love him. The castle has some good secret passages and secret doors in it too.

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Detective stories and their ilk

Kate Allen
Tell me what you like
Lesbian policewoman comes to terms with her bdsm orientation while solving murder mystery. Occasionally verges on "here's the bit where we explain bdsm for the non-bdsm-ers reading the book", amply compensated for by convincing characters, plausible mystery and hot sex.
Takes one to know one
One of several sequels to the above. A bit thin on the hot sex this one compared to the first, but outstanding for its characterisation of the ups and downs of a separatist women's community.
I've now got 5 in this series (the others are Give my secrets back, I knew you would call and Just a little lie) and they're all re-readable loads of times without wearing out their entertainment value.
Dorothy L Sayers
Gaudy night
I.m.o. the culmination of the whole Peter Wimsey / Harriet Vane series. This one is mostly from Harriet's perspective and manages to combine being a love story, a detective story and an enquiry into the changing roles of women and the nature of intellectual integrity. Given when it was written it's quite impressively relatively-not-as-sexist-as-most-things.
If you want to read them in order, you should read Strong poison and Have his carcase for the earlier episodes of the love story, although the detective strands are all separate.
There are also about another 5 or 6 Wimsey stories that don't involve Harriet, and they also have an order - but again, the detective stories are separate, it's just the background that gradually alters (for instance Wimsey's sister Mary gets married at one point, his nephew Saint-George is a little boy in one story and a teenager in another, and so on). In general, her writing is beautiful, and her plots as ingenious as anyone's.
Diana McRae
All the muscle you need
Classic lesbian detective one featuring Eliza Pirex. One thing I liked about it is the way her love life weaves in and out of the background totally taken for granted.

Some I've only read the once so far, but which seemed worth recommending, are...

Ruth Dudley Edwards
Matricide at St. Martha's
One of a series featuring "Jack" Troutbeck. I can't remember now exactly but I think she's a baroness, or something like that. (Actually I seem to remember she gets her place in the House of Lords during one of the other books.) And she's bi! About time somebody wrote some bi-woman detectives, what with all these cool lesbian ones here there and everywhere. Jack wouldn't be everyone's role model but there's something quite appealing and inspiring about her unstoppable nature and her being-herself undaunted by anyone else's opinion. There's a whole gang of recurring other characters including gorgeous babe bi-woman MaryLou and a policeman friend of theirs whose name I forget, and the stories are from the point of view of Jack's friend Robert Amiss whom she's always sending on missions for her and getting into trouble.
Irene Lin-Chandler
Grievous angel
Main character is Holly-Jean Ho, ace Chinese/English heroine. Her indomitable Chinese mother also takes on a starring role.
ISBN 0 7472 5081 2.
This is the second in a series - the first, which I haven't read, is The healing of Holly-Jean.
Katherine V Forrest
Murder by tradition
Lesbian cop (who's not 'out' at work) investigates the homophobia-motivated murder of a gay man, and the guy who did it invokes the "homosexual panic" defence. Not so much a who-done-it but a why-done-it-and-can-we-prove-it. I usually prefer the ones where you don't know the murderer till the end, but this one was unputdownable for other reasons.
Sandra Scoppetone
My sweet untraceable you
Lesbian sleuth Lauren Laurano is the heroine of this entertaining plot.
I gather there are some more books featuring Lauren Laurano, but I haven't read them yet.
Val McDermid
A place of execution
I've read a lot of her stuff and had unusually varied reactions to it. The Lindsay Gordon series I find fairly dull; the Kate Brannigan ones I quite like; The mermaids singing I thought was gripping and very well written, but so gruesome I don't think I'll ever want to read it again. This one, however, really hits the spot. It's as skilfully done as Mermaids, but subtler (impact of the crime more implied by the characters' reactions than spelt out in graphic detail), and has some excellent and believable plot twists. I was still thinking about it the next morning after I'd read it - a good sign.
The other good sign is the correlation between how much I like her books and how recently they were written (this one was 1999) - meaning she seems to be getting better and better, or at least closer and closer to my taste. I'll be looking out for what's next...
ISBN 0 00 651263 1
Nevada Barr
Mountain of bones
One of a series featuring park ranger Anna Pigeon.
Ann Cleeves
A day in the death of Dorothea Cassidy
Can't actually remember why exactly I liked this one - I think it was just a good unravelly plot.
Susan Moody
Sacrifice bid
This is one of a series of mysteries featuring bridge-player Cassie Swann. Lots of plausible and interesting characters and a classic "Mysterious Past Comes Back To Haunt You" plot.
Caroline Graham
Death of a hollow man
Highly entertaining cast of characters, "amateur theatre" background, satisfying unexpected happy endings for several of the nicest characters.
Blanche on the lam
Blanche is a self-reliant Black woman, raising her sister's kids with her mum's help, who goes off and solves some kind of mystery... I can't remember the details of the mystery, but I thought she was ace. This won several awards.
Blanche among the talented tenth
Another episode of Blanche's adventures. This time she's hanging out with the rich Black people. The politics in this one are ladled in with a big ladle as the children start questioning their roots. One thing I like is Blanche's relationship with her best friend, whom she rings up to confer with when things get sticky.
Hannah Wakefield
Cruel April
(& others featuring Dee Street)
Feminist law practice, loads of believable strong women characters.
Louisa Young
Baby love
Sort of a mystery, in the sense that some crucial things are gradually revealed to the narrator as the book goes on, although she isn't a detective or anything. Part of what I liked about this book is the authenticity of the narrator's relationship with her child, and also the way she lives in her body (belly dancing is a feature).
Christopher Brookmyre
A big boy did it and ran away
Thriller rather than detective story really. Ordinary bloke gets caught up in terrorist situation. An entertaining aspect of the style is that he can't help thinking about it in terms of his computer-gaming past. Rather reminiscent to me of the more light-hearted Iain Banks stuff - if you like that then you'd like this.
ISBN 0 349 11684 9
Elizabeth George
Sleeping with the enemy
She's written a whole series featuring the main characters that star in this one. I sometimes find the tensions among them are laid on a bit thick for my taste (they seem to upset or offend each other rather a lot one way and another), but thought this story had a particularly good cliff-hanger plot, with a couple of twists I didn't foresee.
Gillian Linscott
Widow's peak
Nell Bray, suffragette, mountain climber and investigator, solving a mystery in the mountains near Mont Blanc. Apparently there's a series involving Nell Bray but this is the only one I've read so far.
ISBN 0 7515 1356 3
Statistically I tend to prefer women writers because so many men write such unrealistic female characters it puts me off, but one exception (to the preference - not necessarily to the unrealism) is...

Dick Francis. His earlier thrillers are about horses and racing, which he knows "like the back of his hand". But I enjoy the results of his later research as well - you find out lots about whichever business the plot hinges on, be it foiling kidnappers, blowing glass, wholesaling semi-precious stones or running an off-licence (although his description of the musical family in one book doesn't really ring true to me, so perhaps all the rest of his non-horse-related scenarios are only approximate as well).
Apart from that, all the books are pretty similar and all the heroes are pretty similar. A tricky situation will land on this guy, he will deal with it resourcefully, someone will beat him up, and he'll have some sex with a friendly woman. He will face his fears and weaknesses, discover inner strengths he never knew he had, and finally defeat the villains by an ingenious counter-plan. Occasionally he gets blown up instead of beaten up, or the woman is sexually unavailable, but basically that's the deal.
DF is rather sexist in a slightly chivalrous way - he doesn't characterise women as stupid, but his ideas of how "Women are this way and men are that way"... shall we say... don't exactly chime with mine. But anyone who reads these books is probably going to be identifying with the hero, 'cause that's the way they're written.

Agatha Christie... where would the world of detective stories be without her? If you just want a nice reassuring tension/resolution of an ingenious murder mystery being resolved, probably with a traditional heterosexual romance in it somewhere, and if you can stand the degree of sexism and racism which was characteristic of her time and culture, then she's your woman.
I've got to say I think Miss Marple is pretty cool ("rather more shabbily dressed than was her custom (so lucky that she hadn't given away the old speckledy)..."), even if not all the characters are quite of her calibre.

Ngaio Marsh is another reliable mystery writer. She's in the same classic tradition as Agatha Christie but her characters tend to be a bit spookier and more doom-laden. In some respects her characters seem realer than the Agatha Christie ones, but she has her own stereotypes - empowered old women are usually lacking, and mad (usually sex-mad) spinsters are irritatingly common. She does a good job on Troy though (a main character, female painter).

Elizabeth Ferrars is another mystery writer in the classic tradition. She has one recurring heroine, Victoria I think she's called, with a tedious ex called Felix. For some reason (possibly the tedious ex) I don't like that series, but I like the one-offs I've read, and there are loads of those too. She has inventive plots and her people seem much more realistic to me than either AC or NM.

Ellis Peters has at least two detective series, the Brother Cadfael ones and the Inspector Felse ones. They're quite glorious if you're in the right mood for them, and a bit too richly dramatic of prose if you're not.

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Science fiction / speculative fantasy

Emily Devenport
Young self-possessed heroine on the streets in an unusual and thoroughly-invented alternative society. I can't think of any other book to categorise with this one. Well worth a look.
I've read another one of hers now, but Shade was better.
Joanna Russ
We who are about to...
Some people crash land on a planet and can't get back to earth. It's hard to reveal what's so good about this book without giving away the plot, because part of what's good about it is the plot - particularly in its difference from, and ironic commentary on, other stories about people who crash land on planets and can't get back to earth.
Melissa Scott
The jazz
SF thriller notable for its exploration of the future of the internet (among other things). Highly entertaining.
Orson Scott Card
for an epic with a determined, resourceful heroine.
Ender's Game
is probably his most famous, deservedly so. Children, computers and war.
OSC is known to believe that homosexuality is a mistake, but you could read the books without realising that. But you can't expect two gay characters to end up living happily ever after together.
Nevil Shute
On the beach
A famous one this, published in 1957. Aftermath of a nuclear war, but people in Australia still have a season to live before the deadly wind currents reach them. What's so ace about this book is the realness of the way the people deal with knowing they're going to die. There's such compassion for the human race in it... I usually cry when I read it.
ISBN 0 330 10570 1
He mostly wrote non-s.f. novels, jump to other bit about Nevil Shute if you want
Octavia Butler
The parable of the sower
Set on earth in the future when society as we know it is breaking down. Resourceful, complex heroine who holds true to her vision despite the challenging circumstances.
Iain M Banks
writes both sf under this name and other fiction as simply Iain Banks, so when you see the M, you know it's gonna be a science fiction one.
The Player of Games
is my fave so far of the sf ones of his I've read.
Stephen Fry
Making history
This was a "couldn't put it down". I was gripped by it as I rarely am by a novel. It's much more about the people than it is about the one science-fiction premise in the book.
ISBN 0 09 179141 3
See also another one by him, not sf.
Diana Wynne Jones
The true state of affairs
is a short story in a collection called "Minor Arcana". Winter in the life of a woman locked up in a tower room. I won't say more than that or it'd spoil the story. She's written other books too but this is my fave story so far.
ISBN 0 575 60191 4
Gerd Brantenberg
The daughters of Egalia
Gender-role reversal of a whole society. Not a utopia - just what we've got now, but turned round the other way. Hence, kind of depressing in a way, but enlightening (sometimes amusingly) on some of the less sane practices of western culture.

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Other novels

Lynne Reid Banks
I've read quite a few things by her... this was the one that gripped me the most. It's set in Holland, it's about these two couples, and most of the story is looking back to what the two people in one couple went through in the second world war, and how that's affected them now. It's almost like a mystery story in the way that you meet the people and then later you find out how their past influenced them to turn out that way. It also includes some strands of history that I didn't know much about before.
Nevil Shute
Not his most famous, but the first one I read of his. It's set on an air base in England during World War II, and the theme that runs through it is a love affair between one of the pilots and one of the W.A.A.F. officers. One of the things I really like about it is the accuracy of the depiction of what it's like to be interested in someone, when everyone's looking out for the gossip and you don't really want them all watching you. I've also always liked ones about aeroplanes and flying... he really knows his subject there.
Round the bend
Another one about flying. Except it's not really about flying, it's about someone who might be God, if God happened to come to earth as an aircraft engineer (of mixed race). This is a beautiful book, you don't have to believe any particular religion to think so.
Nevil Shute wrote a load of other books, the most famous probably being On the beach and A town like Alice. He does these beautiful gentle depictions of English life around the second world war, although several (at least) of his later books are set in Australia. Sometimes they have happy endings and sometimes sad. He died in 1960.
Erskine Childers
The Riddle of the Sands
This is a famous classic, first published in 1903. For some reason, I'd missed ever reading it till just recently, but was highly tickled when I did by recognising (what I think are) echoes of it in lots of the books I enjoyed as a teenager - Arthur Ransome, Nevil Shute and W.E.Johns' Biggles books, for instance. Basically, it's an adventure story, set mainly on a boat. I thought the writing was exceptionally good in its plainly spoken yet vivid descriptions of practicalities and feelings.
ISBN 0 19 283347 2
Anne Fine
Telling Liddy
Four sisters and the gradual uncovering of the secrets they've been keeping from each other.
Taking the Devil's Advice
This book takes turns giving the husband's and the wife's point of view of a disintegrating marriage - their different stories of the same events are exceptionally authentically done. Funny in an "ouch!" kind of way.
ISBN 0 670 83191 3
In Cold Domain
Unhappy-hence-horrible mother and her four dysfunctional grown-up children. Could be a really depressing book, but actually, everyone gets a happy ending in one way or another.
Anne Fine also writes for children - see above.
Tobias Hill
The love of stones
Generally a class act. Ingenious story, following several strands that all link up, woven back and forth through time a bit like Rumer Godden does. The writing is extraordinarily vivid in places - it says on the back that the author is a poet and I wasn't surprised.
Sylvia Brownrigg
The metaphysical touch
Internet friendships, love, loss, the power of ideas, depression, travel... and the story even (gently and convincingly) includes a theme of bisexuality. Well worth a read.
ISBN 0 575 06653 9
Sarah Van Arsdale
Toward amnesia
Beautiful depiction of being rather obsessed with an ex you still love, and slowly and incrementally moving on and making a new life. Especially recommended to anyone who's busy doing that at the moment.
ISBN 1 57322 577 0
Barbara Kingsolver
Prodigal Summer
Three stories in one, which all link up obliquely by the end. A subtle but fascinating ecological theme weaves through all three. Scores high on the "realness-of-people"-ometer.
ISBN 0 571 20648 4
Iain Banks
Espedair Street
This was recommended to me and lent to me by my friend Richard (hi Richard) who thought, correctly, that I'd really like it. It's a first-person account by an ex rock star, all washed up at the age of 31, of his rock star era and bits of his current life.... which wouldn't necessarily make it any good, but the writing does.
Isis is no ordinary teenager. She's the Elect of God in a small religious community. She's also resourceful and intelligent, which is lucky given the adventures that are about to befall her. Highly entertaining.
See also Iain M Banks.
Zora Neale Hurston
Their eyes were watching God
She has a brilliant ear for dialogue - very entertaining. Heart-warming story.
Andrea Levy
Fruit of the lemon
The heroine of this book, born in England to Jamaican parents, visits Jamaica and unravels lots of her family's past. Lively depiction of the contrasts between England & Jamaica, and lots of entertaining stories.
ISBN 0 7472 6114 8
Kathryn Harrison
Spooky and stick-in-your-mind-y. The heroine is the grown-up daughter of a photographer father who used her as his model for years. The book gradually uncovers their relationship and the effect it still has on her after his death. Bit like a detective story.
ISBN 1 85702 305 6
Douglas Coupland
Don't quite know how to describe this. It's partly the story of a computer company, the people in it and the software they're developing, but also partly a love story and partly a story of friendships. Anyway, it's good.
ISBN 0 00 654859 8
Stephen Fry
The hippopotamus
Intriguing beginning, intriguing developments, satisfying unpredictable ending.
ISBN 0 09 918961 5
See also another one by him, which I've put in the science fiction section.
Sara Maitland
Home truths
Another with a mysterious theme, without actually being a detective story, about Clare and her siblings after her boyfriend has disappeared on the mountain... really there are little mysteries running all through it of the kind that human beings always have, like why is this person like this, and why is this other person like this, and what happened in their childhood, and how can they grow through all of it? The most striking thing to me about this book is the complex realness of all the characters - which as you may be discerning from this page is one of my criteria for excellent books.
Jane Gardam
The summer after the funeral
Despite the name, not a depressing book at all, but rather beautiful. Follows a teenage girl and her two very different siblings through the summer after their father's death.
I'm pretty sure this was in the adults' section at the library, but I think teenagers would like it too.
Kathleen Tyau
A little too much is enough
Collection of short stories, set in Hawaii. Unusual and vivid.
ISBN 0 7043 4459 9
Olivia Goldsmith
Highly entertaining story of five authors and the fates of the five books they write - five stories in one, but they all intermingle.
ISBN 0 00 225341 0
She's written some others as well, including probably most famously The first wives club. This one's my favourite of the ones I've read, but they're all pretty good page-turners.
Rumer Godden
She writes some very beautiful books; I think I've read most of them. Some of the themes that weave in and out of them are children's resourcefulness and independence (sometimes thwarted by adults), the power (for both good and bad) of erotic love (she does a good line in teenage girls' awakening to sex), religion and corruption... that doesn't really give the whole flavour but it's a few pointers. Several of her books are set in India and several in London.
I really enjoy the way she puts the stories together - she has a way of weaving past, present and future tense in & out of each other which is unmistakable.
A candle for St Jude
If I remember rightly, this is the one with the girl in it who choreographs a ballet. In which case it's probably my fave by her.
Thursday's child
If I remember rightly, this is the one with a brother and sister who both go to ballet school. Another good one.
Five for sorrow, ten for joy
Set in France, beginning at the end of World War II, the story of a young English woman. I won't tell you what happens to her 'cause that'd give the plot away too much.
The dark horse
another one I enjoyed - set mostly in Calcutta, the story of a horse and the people around it.
I'll mention one other of her books, Pippa passes, just to say that I wouldn't particularly recommend it - it's a late one and struck me as somewhat formulaic, but what particularly put me off was a rather immoral and unconvincing-to-me lesbian character (the only lesbian I recall in any of her books).
J D Salinger
He's most famous for Catcher in the rye, but my favourite is
Franny and Zooey
one of a series about the Glass family.
Iris Murdoch
is an absolutely brilliant writer. Her people are so complex and real. I don't read as much of hers as I used to because I find it quite depressing to have so much human stuckness anatomised. But I still think it's awesome stuff.
Just lately (late 2000) I've been getting back to reading in Dutch a bit, and this is a good one I found in the library...
Renate Dorrestein
Een sterke man
(A strong man)
Set in a sort of artists' colony in Ireland. Starts off from the point of view of Barbara, a Dutch visiting artist, but also shows the perspectives of some of the other characters, as events unfold. Some very interesting characters and a thought-provoking plot.
ISBN 90 254 9943 0

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Jill Ker Conway
The Road from Coorain
Growing up in the Australian outback... moving to the city... going to university...
ISBN 0 434 14244 1
True North
I liked this second part even better - it starts when she moves to America to study at Harvard, and continues through her experiences as a lecturer and then administrator in the US and Canadian university systems. Very interesting on the subject of women in education.
Ann Dally
A doctor's story
Ann Dally made herself very unpopular with some parts of the British medical establishment in the early 'eighties, by opining that if heroin addicts were functioning fine on a maintenance dose, it made sense to keep prescribing that for them or reducing it slowly, until they had the rest of their life in order and could handle coming off entirely. Her opponents had moral objections to this despite the fact that on a practical level it seems to work rather well (including keeping people out of drug-related crime). This book is mostly the story of her clash with the people who disagreed with her. They won (in the sense that they managed to stop her practising as a doctor), but what she says still seems to me to make a lot of sense. Definitely worth reading if you have any interest in "the war on drugs".
Mia Farrow
What falls away
starts in her childhood and includes the ups and downs of her relationships with Frank Sinatra, Andre Previn and Woody Allen. (I bet he absolutely hated this book.)
ISBN 0385 404883
Eleanor Coppola
Notes on the making of Apocalypse Now
Fascinating autobiographical writing from the phase of her life when Francis Ford Coppola (her husband) was making the aforementioned film. The book mixes the story of what was going on with the story of what she was thinking about at the time. So there's quite a lot about the making of the film, but also her thinking about her own art, and balancing that with motherhood, and their marriage. Includes some great insights into the struggle that FFC had with the film (it went way over schedule and over budget).
Phyllis Burke
Family values
Late-eighties early-nineties San Francisco. One of many strands weaving through this moving book is the author's application to be a legal (adoptive) parent of the son born to her partner by donor insemination - hence its subtitle "A Lesbian mother's fight for her son". But there are lots of other fascinating stories woven in, for instance the making of the film Basic Instinct, which was going on in SF at the time, and the activism directed at it by Queer Nation. I've read this two or three times.
Paul Monette
Borrowed time: an AIDS memoir
Story of him and his partner Roger, in the 18 months between Roger's diagnosis with AIDS in March 1985 and his death in October 1986. Beautiful moving book, illuminative as much of their love for each other as of the day-to-day details of living with AIDS at that stage of the crisis.
ISBN 0 15 113598 3
Greg Louganis with Eric Marcus
Breaking the surface
He's a 4 x Olympic gold medallist diver. I don't really care much about sport (and had never heard of him before I found this book in the library) but it was still interesting to me to hear the inside story of that kind of success. He's also gay and was already HIV+ when he was winning at least some of the gold medals. He's not afraid to tell the story of his mistakes as well as his successes - the words "engaging candour" spring to mind.
ISBN 0 75280 435 9
Richard P Feynman
What do you care what other people think? Further adventures of a curious character
Feynman first became known for his contributions to physics, but was also a shining example of explorational original thinking in general. He wrote at least a couple of books like this - collections of autobiographical essays and musings on life. This one includes his account of investigating the space shuttle disaster.
ISBN 0 586 21855 6
Tim Berners-Lee
Weaving the Web
Autobiography in the sense of being a true story told in the first person, but focusing in particular on one bit of his life: his central role in the conception and evolution of the World Wide Web. Fascinating not so much (for me) for the technical side, but in terms of what it takes to champion a new idea and bring it to the world.
ISBN 0 75282 090 7
James Boswell
Boswell's London journal 1762-1763
"As first published in 1950 from the original MSS." Boswell got quite famous for being mates with Johnson who did a famous dictionary at the time. This is Boswell's private diary - what he did and what he thought and felt about it. I found it very entertaining, often rather funny. What I most like about it is the sense you can get from it of "Circumstances very different, human beings much the same".

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Deborah Geller & Anthony Wall
The Brian Epstein story
Consisting almost entirely of interviews with people who knew him, this book is about the man who believed in the Beatles before they were famous, and arguably made them famous.
ISBN 0 571 20130 x
Andrew Collins
Still suitable for miners: Billy Bragg
"The official biography", including lots of quotes from the man himself. A classic story of pop music. Starts off a bit abstract but delivers the goods. Interviewees include Neil Kinnock!
ISBN 0 7537 0232 1
Randy Shilts (sp?)
And the band played on
Indispensable chronicle of the beginnings of AIDS and the beginnings of the gay communities' responses to it.
(Not exactly biography, at least not of any one person, but seems to kind of fit in this category better than it would in any of my other current ones.)

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Explorations of life

Nancy Kline
Time to think
One of her big themes is the way people can solve their own problems and come up with brilliant ideas if they're in the right environment. Then the book goes on to set out several simple aspects of what that environment is. Possibly the most useful book I've ever read. Very highly recommended to anyone.
ISBN 0 7063 7745 1
Carol Lloyd
Creating a life worth living
This book is an exploration of what kind of environment facilitates different people's creativity. I found it really validating to hear other people speaking about what works and doesn't work for them... just the diversity of it and the acknowledgement that not everyone is the same. Even just asking the question of what is the "best" environment or process for someone seems to be pretty rare. Lots of good clues about how to tap your untapped creativity.
Truth or dare: Encounters with power, authority and mystery
This is a great big fat book of richness. One of its early themes is how as wars got bigger and warfare got more organised, the need for trained soldiers influenced society's attitude to feelings. If you're in the middle of a row of spear-men in a battle, "losing it" even for a moment could mean the whole row collapses - so you can't afford to give room to your emotions, even if your best friend just got killed. And your own opinion about strategy isn't wanted either, just your obedience. But Starhawk then goes on to explore how we can reclaim what our culture tends not to include. Lots of great stuff on challenging self-censorship, allowing creativity, resolving conflict, and honouring every human being's immanent (i.e. inherent) value. Inspiring.
ISBN 0 06 250816 4
She's written some other books too, which I haven't read, but I'll be looking out for them now.
Robert M Pirsig
Zen and the art of motorcycle maintenance
Story and philosophy interwoven. What an ace book. - If you like that kind of thing, which I do.
Philosophically, this one picks up where the first one left off. Different flavour to the story though. One of my favourite bits was his interpretation of what it is to "sell out". I have this memory of walking round the kitchen, with the book in my hand, going "Yes! Yes!"
Richard Rorty
Contingency, Irony and Solidarity
The uses of literature and how paradigm shifting works. Etc.
ISBN 0-521-35381-5 hardback, 0-521-36781-6 paperback.
He must have written some other stuff too, but I don't know.
Dorothy L Sayers
The mind of the maker
Excellent discourse on the nature of art and creativity. She references it to Christianity, but that aspect was secondary for me to the extremely perceptive thinking on the practicalities of being an artist of any kind.
Yes, that is the same Dorothy Sayers who wrote the detective stories (see above).
Brad Blanton
Radical Honesty
This is quite a dangerous book, as he basically doesn't believe in keeping any secrets at all from anybody! Thought-provoking and also very entertaining. I was laughing out loud at the cheek of the man.
He has a web site where you can get a pretty good flavour.
If you get into the ideas of that one and start wanting to own up, then I also recommend (as a counterbalance)
Charles Foster
There's something I have to tell you
His theme is "Tell the truth but meet the need". So his emphasis is on how to deliver "difficult" communications while still taking care of the person whose day you would otherwise possibly be about to ruin. Brad Blanton doesn't completely ignore that aspect, but this book is usefully practical and specific about "how to do it so that you don't ruin their day". Most of what he says seems quite sensible to me. My main caveat is that there are things which he seems to think you'd be stupid to tell (like "I was dancing with a woman I met and I got turned on") which, depending on the kind of relationship you're in, may be entirely sayable. I certainly wouldn't much like to be in a sexual relationship where I couldn't say (and/or hear) that. So I think he's a little bit pessimistic about what human beings are capable of. But if you read Brad Blanton as well then you can cover all angles :-)
Gayle Delaney
Living Your Dreams
Dreams may contain useful messages or warnings about waking life. I've read several books about this subject and this is one of the best I've found. It has a whole section on "interviewing dreams" - a series of questions you can ask yourself to explore the metaphors your unconscious mind is using.
Lucy Goodison
The dreams of women
This is another best book I've found about dreams. This one has lots of dreams told by real women along with the messages they found in them. It has some good stuff on the limitations of various genres of dream-interpretation as well.
Pamela E Butler
Self-assertion for women
I've read quite a few assertiveness books and I think this is the best one I've come across.
Malcolm Gladwell
The tipping point
Subtitled "How little things can make a big difference". Lots of interesting examples and clear thinking.
ISBN 0 316 64852 3

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Gender politics

Nancy Kline
Women and Power: how far can we go?
Some good thinking went into this book. Notable for the way that it includes men in its solutions (without waiting for them).
This was written some years before Time to think (see above), and in my opinion is basically superseded by it. The ideas she's exploring here about "Thinking Partenerships" and "Incisive Questions" have been honed to a diamond edge in the later book. But this one is still worth a read, and includes some great stories that aren't in the later one.
ISBN 0 563 36449 1
Joanna Russ
How to suppress women's writing
An indispensable book, and not only for writers.
ISBN 0 7043 3932 3
Power and Helplessness in the Women's Movement
(This is an essay, not a book - I think it's been included in several different anthologies.)
Excellent analysis of women's cultural conditioning with regard to power. You get to choose: you can either be powerful and use your power to take care of everyone else ("magic momma"), or you can just not bother having any power at all ("trembling sister"). What you can't do, if you want to stay out of trouble, is have power and use it for yourself. 'Cause that would be SELFISH! Oh No!
Bi-political anthologies:
Bisexual Politics: Theories, Queries, & Visions
ed: Naomi Tucker
Probably my favourite of this genre. My copy's covered in post-it notes for all the good bits.
ISBN 1 56023 869 0
Closer to Home: Bisexuality and Feminism
ed. Elizabeth Reba Weise
This one is cool too though.
ISBN 1 878067 17 6
Plural Desires: Writing bisexual women's realities
The Bisexual Anthology Collective
Very varied flavours in this one - a mix of autobiography, poetry, interviews/discussions and theoretical musings. Most anthologies of this kind are mostly white people's views but this lot limited white women to 50% of the content. Good for them I say.
ISBN 0 920813 19 4
Other queer anthologies
One teacher in 10: Gay and Lesbian educators tell their stories
ed. Kevin Jennings
Just one true life story after another. Very moving in parts, especially the way the young people are so supportive of their teachers sometimes.
ISBN 1 55583 263 6
Sue George
Women and Bisexuality
Based on lots of interviews with bi-women.
ISBN 1 85727 071 1
Charlotte Cooper
Fat & Proud
Strictly speaking this doesn't belong in a section on gender politics. Body politics is more like it. Anyway, very interesting book. I was noticing a lot of parallels between fat politics and gender/sexuality politics as I was reading it. For instance, people are commonly interested in investigating "how come" people are fat and "how come" people are bi or gay or lesbian. But being an average body size or being straight isn't supposed to need investigating - it's supposed to be normal.
See here for an interview with the author.

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Evolution / genetics / human bodies

Richard Dawkins
The extended phenotype
He wrote this after The selfish gene to make it a bit clearer to people what he meant, having seen what they'd mistakenly thought he'd meant when he said "selfish gene". He's really good at explaining stuff and he talks a lot of sense about evolution.
Elaine Morgan (I think)
The aquatic ape
Evidence from our bodies of our past living in & by the sea. For instance, why do we cry salt tears? To get rid of the excess salt we'd ingested. Most mammals don't have salt tears, but seagulls do (I think it was - it's a long time since I read this one).
Jared Diamond
Guns, Germs and Steel
How comes Europeans managed to colonise most of the world? They got lucky with the resources available to them - animals, plants, minerals, transport routes and climate. This book takes a look at how that initial imbalance in resources led to a later imbalance in military power and resistance to disease. One of the most educational and fascinating bits of history I've ever read.
The rise and fall of the third chimpanzee
... meaning human beings again of course. Some very interesting stuff in this about risk-taking behaviour. The idea that there's an evolutionary value for males in doing risky things that you might think were pointless and stupid, in order to prove they can survive them, as a way of advertising to potential mates what good genes they have. But guess what - this behaviour is rather outdated in a culture that has nuclear weapons.
Robin Baker
Sperm wars
If you want to retain your romantic illusions about sexual attraction then don't read this book! haha.
On the other hand, if you want some quite plausible explanations of some of the facets of human sexual behaviour, then do...
More about this book
Arnold Mindell
Various books
His theme is (to condense it greatly) what your subconscious knows that you don't know you know, and how that affects your body, and how you can find out by listening to your body. Absolutely fascinating stuff.
Lenore Terr
Unchained memories
Lenore Terr specialises in memories of childhood trauma. She's been an expert witness in trials, done research into how children deal with traumatic memories (e.g. a study into their memories of the Space Shuttle crash), and so on. This is a very readable book with a variety of true life stories about that kind of thing - children as witnesses, interview with writer James Ellroy about the influence on his crime books of his mother's murder when he was 10, etc. The subtitle is "True stories of traumatic memories, lost and found". Woven in with the anecdotes it's got a lot of interesting stuff about how memory works in general.
ISBN 0 465 08823 6
Penelope Shuttle & Peter Redgrove
The Wise Wound: Menstruation and Everywoman
Densely packed with lesser-known biological facts, cultural myths on menstruation, and theories about what it all might mean for women nowadays.
ISBN 0 586 08535 1
Adelle Davis
Let's get well
(and others)
Jam packed with references to scientific studies about different vitamins and nutrients, and their relevance to different illnesses.
Debra Waterhouse
Why women need chocolate
What I liked about this book is it says LISTEN TO YOUR BODY about what it wants you to eat. Although you might think the title is a joke, the book seems to me pretty well reasoned and it talks a lot of sense. Of course it isn't all about chocolate - it's talking about food cravings generally, and relating those to known nutritional needs. One drawback is it does reflect (without questioning it very much) the common paranoia about gaining weight ... but the emphasis in general is on health and energy rather than size. And it has no truck with calorie counting diets, which is a step in the right direction at least.
Deborah Jackson
Three in a bed
Fascinating explanation of the advantages of small babies sleeping with their parents - especially with their mothers. Also covers related subjects such as getting the children to sleep in separate beds a bit later ;-)

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Gavin de Becker
The gift of fear: Survival signs that protect us from violence
Very interesting and useful book, partly about the role of intuition in protecting us from other people, and partly about the nature of the people you might want to protect yourself from. E.g. realistic assessments of when stalkers are likely to turn violent; how best to extricate yourself from a violent relationship; how to identify problem employees and either support them or fire them before their behaviour becomes a problem. This is one of those books that "everyone ought to read", because even if you never need any of the information in it yourself, someone you know might.
He also has a web site here.
ISBN 0 7475 3691 0
Chris Heath
Pet Shop Boys - Literally
If you read this book, then you may well begin to understand (if it weren't obvious) why I like the Pet Shop Boys so much, which is not entirely only to do with their music. Highly entertaining (to me at any rate).
Alan Barker
How to hold better meetings
I wanted to mention this, not because I think it's a particularly riveting book, but just because it's the only one I've ever seen that describes stuff I've heard in Landmark courses, in the form I heard it (obviously lots of books talk about language and paradigm shifting etc. in general). It doesn't actually talk about Landmark - it cites a course run by Michael Wallaczek - but as MW used to be a Forum leader, there's obviously some connection. The bit it talks about is "Conversation for Relatedness, Conversation for Possibility, Conversation for Opportunity, Conversation for Action" and the parts of C for A as being request, accept, decline, counter-offer.
Mac Bride
Teach yourself publishing on the world wide web
I did!
ISBN 0 340 67035 5.
The 1996 book is a bit out of date now, because of the way that HTML keeps evolving, but if there's an updated version, it'd be worth checking out. (Actually, most of what's on these pages has been written using what's in that book... so there you go...)

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