10 Books I’d Take To A Desert Island

As an avid reader, writer and English teacher, people ask me quite frequently for book recommendations. I listen carefully to their interests and wishes, then toss out three or four to get them started. But privately, I hold a list I call “Ten Book Series I’d Take To a Desert Island.”

These are the books I can’t imagine living without; the reads, rereads, own-in-three-formats sort of books. These, dear reader, are the ones I truly and passionately love.

Since it was too icy to hike Bird Park this weekend, and Facebook discussions of what to read are rampant, it seems like a good time to offer my hoarded favorites to all of you to warm your winter blues.

  1. C. S. Harris is the queen of historical fiction. Her series starring Sebastian St. Cyr (pronounced almost like “Sincere”) is top of my list because of historical detail, rich and growing characters, and intrigue so sharp it cuts. She puts her history Ph.D. to good use winding Sebastian’s life and those of his family through the political and social changes of their times until you’re pretty sure you experienced it all yourself. First book: What Angels Fear
  2. Brendan O’Carroll wrote a trilogy set in Dublin, Ireland, in the 1960s. Hilarious and lovely, it chronicles a large and wild family headed by a single mother figuring out life in the same dingy, but tight-knit, neighborhood where she was raised. The third book contains three of the most beautiful pages I’ve ever read. The series, based on O’Carroll’s own mother, has been universally loved by everyone I’ve ever offered it to. Don’t be fooled by O’Carroll’s reputation as the Tyler Perry of Ireland. The man is an artist. First book: The Mammy
  3. If you’ve ever been or have ever loved a young man finding his way in a world of adulthood, work responsibilities, and romance, you know Ben Aaronovitch’s Peter Grant. Now, give him a protective mother from Sierra Leone, a washed up musician for a dad, and a mentor who thought he would be the last wizard in Britain. Then Peter accidentally finds out that he’s a cop who talks to ghosts. Poor Peter tries to adjust, but the world is just full of things he’s not prepared for: faeries, talking foxes, carnivorous unicorns. I personally want to someday take a tour of all the places in London that he’s blown up and other locations where he made me laugh out loud. First book: Midnight Riot
  4. It is a misperception that J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series is only for children. It takes greater life experience to understand the nuances of friendship, the depth of a mother’s love, or the treasure that is forgiveness. Nostalgia gives a particularly gilded edge to the family we choose for ourselves and an appreciation for how rare a sight is the comeuppance of a bully. The illustrated editions are gorgeous, if a bit unwieldy. If you have a handy child to share the experience with, great, but short people are not required for falling in love with Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. First book: The Sorcerer’s Stone
  5. As a young woman, I was waiting: waiting for a woman who not only fell in love, but stayed there when life was ugly; waiting for a woman who was neither tidy nor beautiful, but smart and strong. I was waiting for Eve Dallas. It was a profound bonus that she came with a flying car and a badge. Eve gather’s quirky friends, deals relentlessly with her PTSD, and generally makes a New York of the future safer for everyone while guzzling Pepsi and swearing at whoever keeps stealing the candy from her desk. Written by J. D. Robb (a pen name for wildly successful romance writer Nora Roberts) the series is currently 52 novels strong. First Book: Naked in Death 
  6. Sometimes I need what I describe as “cotton-candy literature.” It is light, fluffy, sweet and uncomplicated. Stephanie Laurens’ Bastion Club is perfect for escape with damsels in varying degrees of distress and heroes compelled to sweep them off their feet. Laurens writing can be uneven in other series (her recent work is so predictable that I’ve stopped buying her books) but somehow in this series she pulled together her best self for individual stories that tell one long tale. The men are veterans and spies returning to England after Waterloo. The women are everyone from childhood sweethearts to strangers who move in next door. While the official count on this series is 8, the story really isn’t complete without one of her stand-alone novels The Lady Risks All. Why the ninth? Well, even the nemesis should win sometimes. First book: The Lady Chosen
  7. Sharyn McCrumb is perhaps the best writer in America who isn’t a household name, and her Ballad series (based on folklore and traditional songs) is an elegant testimony to her craft. Fading smoothly between the present and the past, she introduces readers to small-town life in the Appalachian Mountains. The crown jewel of the series is actually the fourth book: The Rosewood Casket. So if you are only going to read one, start there. However, the whole group is a spooky pleasure. First book: If Ever I Return, Pretty Peggy-O
  8. Flavia de Luce is my favorite girl detective. It is hard work solving the mysteries the adults are ignoring while plotting to poison your annoying older sisters, but Flavia can handle it (mostly). Charming and funny, Flavia runs amok under the negligent gazes of a grieving father and an exasperated butler. Her very twee village has an ample supply of chaos she continues to stir until readers belly laugh and forgive her every flaw. First book: The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie
  9. Every good list deserves one guilty pleasure that dips a toe into the raunchy side of romance novels: Elizabeth Hoyt’s Maiden Lane series is my choice for this slot. Set in 1700s London, and still fairly mild by some standards, the adventures are sexy enough that I only play the audiobooks with headphones on, lest I scandalize my family. Read by Ashford McNab, the audiobooks are exceptional and worth the trouble of waiting for them on the library’s digital hold list (you can get the free app on the library’s website, but you will need your library card). First book: Wicked Intentions
  10. The last series is the most traditional mystery series. There are no other planets to inhabit or goddesses to outsmart. London is reassuringly normal, as are the partners slogging their way through shift work in the police department and the challenges of single parenting. The writer Deborah Crombie tells stories that are as much about family life in our modern age as they are who-do-its. Reach for these if you are a fan of Dick Francis or Agatha Christie but need a writer who is still bringing you fresh books. First book: A Share in Death

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