Rick's Recommended Books

I love to read non-technical books to relax when I am on the road. This page has links to the non-science fiction books.

Science fiction books

Name

Notes
The Time Traveler's Wife
by Audrey Niffenberger
ISBN 0-099-46446-2

A*

Fantasy
In a class of its own, and an amazing first novel by Niffenberger. This has received high praise, and for very good reason - OMFG!! 

It is a very adult novel - lots of sex and nudity. But it is very tastefully done. I could have listed this under science fiction, since it is a time travel story. I am totally impressed by how Niffenberger put a new spin on the idea of time travel.

This Is Your Brain on Parasites: How Tiny Creatures Manipulate Our Behavior and Shape Society
Kathleen McAuliffe
ISBN 978-0544192225

A+

Non-fiction
I have always been fascinated with insects, and they are the main characters in this book. As a cat owner, I was familiar with one of the parasites in this book (Toxoplasma gondii). This book has an entire chapter devoted to the Czech scientist who studies people who are infected with T. gondii!

I simply loved reading this book. Each chapter has a new parasite / host relationship, most of which I was unaware. The author does a great job of explaining the inventive experiments the researchers devised to study the cause and effect of each parasite.

I Contain Multitudes: The Microbes Within Us and a Grander View of Life
Ed Yong
ISBN 978-0062368591

A+

Non-fiction
I have been hearing about the microbiome for years. This book was highly recommended by several sources, and I'm glad I read it. It seems that our gut bacteria are far more important than most people realize.

We may find solutions to problems such as obesity, irritable bowel syndrome, asthma, Crohn's disease, and many others. But it is very difficult to fully understand the microbiome and how it interacts with the rest of our body. This book lays out a lot of the experimental work that has been done by researchers to gain this understanding.

Station Eleven: A novel
Emily St. John Mandel
ISBN 0-80-417244-7

A+

Fiction
This is a story about the aftermath of a disease outbreak that decimates the world population. There are just a few main characters, and the story is told in first person plural. It turns out that these characters are related, in some surprising ways. The timeline jumps forward and back, so it can be challenging to remember the chronology of events.

I really loved the prose and the author's writing style. There is a nice conclusion to the story, and I felt quite satisfied in the ending.

Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norell
Susanna Clarke
ISBN 1-58-234603-8

A+

Fiction
This is actually three short novels which tell the history of magic in England. I don't usually read books about magic (other than Harry Potter), but this one is simply outstanding. The two main characters are very well drawn, and the scope of the book huge. I enjoyed this just as much as the best of Harry Potter.
The Information
James Gleick
ISBN 000-7-22574-1

A+

Non-fiction
I have enjoyed James Gleick's writing for many years - specifically Chaos: Making a New Science. This book provides a significant amount of detail on how humans communicate information. It starts with the early days (music, storytelling, drums), and ends with the current day (codes and cryptography). His technical explanations are quite clear, and he also explains the historical background. Highly educational, and highly recommended!
The Edge of Physics
Anil Ananthaswamy
ISBN 978-0-618-88468-1

A+

Non-fiction
This book bridges the gap between astronomy, cosmology and physics. The author travels around the world, visiting various physicists / scientists / engineers working on various projects designed to answer the current BIG questions in physics - dark energy / dark matter / string theory.

Anil is a very entertaining writer - he really knows how to tell a good story. His technical explanations are quite clear, and he also explains the historical background. As usual, I learned a lot!

King of Morning, Queen of Day
Ian McDonald
ISBN 0553-40371-0

A+

Fantasy
I have read most of Ian McDonald's work, and it is almost exclusively science fiction. This early work from 1991 is an impressive fantasy novel.

It is a story of three generations of women from the same family, and the first part comes off as a bit of historical whimsy. But the second and third parts are really interesting. I really enjoyed this, and was impressed with how well the "feel" of each of the three sections matched the historical time.

Persepolis (The Complete)
Marjane Satrapi
ISBN 978-0-375-71483-2

A+

Memoir
This is a graphic novel about the author's experiences while growing up in Iran. I was a bit skeptical at first, but this is VERY well done. I really like her drawing style.

This was a very educational book for me - I learned quite a lot of history. This also shows the huge divide between the more progressive members of Iranian society versus the others.

Stardust
Neil Gaiman
ISBN 978-0-06-114202-4

A+

Fantasy
This 1999 book is really well done. This is an adult fairy tale that has lots of clever twists.

There are several interesting plot threads. This is very nicely written, and everything comes to a satisfying conclusion at the end.

The Prince of the Marshes
Rory Stewart
ISBN 978-0-7394-8145-5

A+

Non-fiction
The subtitle of this book is "and other occupational hazards of a year in Iraq", which is quite accurate. This is a personal memoir by an Irishman who worked in two southern provinces of Iraq named Maysan and Dhi Qar (don't hear much about these in the news).

The events in the book cover the period from September 2003 to June 2004. After reading this it is clear to me why it is so hard to make any measurable progress towards a peaceful solution in Iraq.

Rory Stewart has quite a talent for writing - this was fascinating reading. As usual, I learned a lot!

Neverwhere
Neil Gaiman
ISBN 0-380-78901-9

A+

Fantasy
Neil Gaiman has quickly become one of my favorite fantasy authors. This is a typical story of Good versus Evil. Most of it happens underground, in areas that normal people never experience.

There are lots of colorful characters, including a few really evil baddies. This is very nicely written, and everything comes to a satisfying conclusion at the end.

The Kite Runner
Khaled Hosseini
ISBN 1-594-48000-1

A+

Fiction
This is a story of two families growing up in Afghanistan. It follows the main character from childhood in Afghanistan to adulthood in California.

I read this book in a single day. It is VERY compelling, and also very sad. It brought tears to my eyes MANY times.

This book describes the basis of some of the conflicts between the Sunni Muslims and the Shiite Muslims. It is quite an eye opening read - I learned a lot.

The Company Man
Robert Jackson Bennett
ISBN ????

A

Fantasy
This author writes fantasy novels, with some sci-fi elements thrown in. This is mostly a detective story / murder mystery. I really loved reading this - very long and interesting book.
Gone Girl
Gillian Flynn
ISBN ???

A

Murder Mystery
This is one of the most convoluted tales I have read in many years. It is told from the point of view of the two main protagonists - the husband (accused of murder) and the wife (the gone girl).

It is a great read - up until the very end. It is so amazing, you just wonder exactly how will it end - and it is a bit of a letdown compared to everything that happened before. In spite of that, I can't complain - this is a fascinating profile of a psycho-bitch character.

Mistress of the Art of Death
by Ariana Franklin
ISBN 978-0-399-15414-0

A

Fiction
This is a historical murder mystery (set in 1171 AD), which received quite a bit of praise when it was released. As usual, I did not read it until several years later, but it still impressed me.

The main character is a woman who is has been educated about medicine. She is tasked by the Church of England to discover the identity of a killer. As a result, she becomes one of the first Crime Scene Investigators. This has all the elements of a typical murder mystery (suspense! horror! romance!), but I found it well written.

The Graveyard Book
Neil Gaiman
ISBN 978-0-06-053092-1

A

Fantasy
This is a story of a boy who is raised by the inhabitants of a graveyard. Some are living, but most are not. At first, this seems like a children's book, but it develops enough depth to make it rather interesting. A bit of a departure from some of Gaiman's other work, but I definitely enjoyed it.
Anansi Boys
Neil Gaiman
ISBN 978-0-06-051519-5

A

Fantasy
This is another fairy tale about gods and mortals. The Anansi Boys are Spider and Fat Charlie - brothers with various magical powers. This is very nicely written, and everything comes to a satisfying conclusion at the end.
Me Talk Pretty One Day
by David Sedaris
ISBN 0-316-77696-3

A

Fiction
This is a collection of humorous short essays, based on the author's life. This is a light and fluffy read, and very funny.
The Lions of Al-Rassan
by Guy Gavriel Kay
ISBN 0-06-073349-7
A Fantasy
This author specializes in writing medieval history novels, and they have received high acclaim. The prose is very well done, and the breadth and scope of this book is impressive.

This book held my interest, and I really liked it. I only have one quibble - the body count is very high. For a 500 page book, it seems like at least 50 characters are killed off. With this much violence, I found many of the deaths a bit too gruesome for my taste.

The Last Lecture
Randy Pausch
ISBN 0-978-1-4013-2325-7

A

Non-fiction
This is a book by a now famous professor who decided to put all his "rules for life" into his final lecture. He had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer several months earlier.

This is nicely written, and an inspiration to read. I keep this near at hand, and refer back to it often.

The Rift
Walter J. Williams
ISBN 0-06-105794-0

A

Fiction
This is a story about the aftermath of an 8.6 magnitude earthquake, comparable to the great earthquake of 1812. This earthquake creates havoc along the Mississippi river and surrounding areas.

There are two aspects to the story. First is the story of survival of four family groups. The second is the story of those people assigned to put things back in working order, which includes engineers and the military. The major theme is that "Human evil is bottomless". This is a thrilling and exciting read (and educational). At times it is hair raising, but ultimately satisfying in the end.

Echelon - Somebody's Listening
Jack O'Neill
ISBN 10 1-59571-071-X
ISBN 13 978-1-59571-071-0

A

Fiction
This is a story that is partly rooted in fact. It shows how the CIA and FBI use the following eavesdropping tools to track down criminals:

Echelon: intercepts virtually all voice, data and video transmissions worldwide
Carnivore: intercepts internet traffic
Magic Lantern: decodes encryption

The author has actually worked in the White House, and has worked on the design of these types of eavesdropping systems. I found this a challenging read, but ultimately satisfying in the end. I really enjoyed reading it.

The Blind Assassin
Margaret Atwood
ISBN 0-385-72095-5

A

Fiction
This is a story told by woman about her life, and the life and death of her father, her sister and her husband. The story is told in a very complex fashion, as a series of flashbacks that are interwoven with a novel that her sister wrote.

I found this a challenging read, but ultimately satisfying in the end. I really enjoyed reading it.

Water for Elephants
Sara Gruen
ISBN 978-1-56512-560-5

A

Fiction
This is a story told by a ninety year old man in an assisted living facility. He recalls the time he spent working in a circus.

This is a essentially a murder mystery. I really enjoyed reading it.

The Road
Cormac McCarthy
ISBN 978-0-307-38789-9

A

Fiction
This is a fairly understated post-apocalyptic novel. The title refers to the road that a father and son walk along. The story only hints at the apocalypse, which has resulted in a shortage of light, food and hope. The true horror of the story is the description of the life of the survivors.

This is the first book by McCarthy that I read. It was hard to take in large doses, because it is so very dark.

Serving Crazy with Curry
Amulya Malladi
ISBN 0-345-46612-8

A

Fiction
This is a story about how a "non-cook" uses culinary experimentation as a way of resolving some serious conflicts in her life. It delves very deeply into the politics of a large family in India.

This is NOT a "light and fluffy" book, but I really enjoyed reading it. The recipes look quite good to me.

Julie & Julia
Julie Powell
ISBN 0-7394-6701-8

A

Non-fiction
This is a book based on Julie Powell's cooking blog: "365 days. 536 recipes. One girl and a crappy outer borough kitchen."

This is chock full of outrageous kitchen mishaps, as well as lots of outrageous (bad) language. I guess the key to getting your blog read is to curse like a sailor?!?

There are also some quiet interludes based on Paul and Julia Child. These are nicely done, and are a timely counterpoint to Julie's kitchen escapades.

Einstein's Dreams
Alan Lightman
ISBN 1-4000-7780-X

A

Fiction
This book consists of a series of sketches, each of which is 2-4 pages long. Each one starts something like this "In this world, time ..." The author then describes the way people in this world interact, based on its particular aspect of time.

There are also a few sketches of Albert Einstein to help tie everything together. I found this a fascinating read. It is only 140 pages long, but I enjoyed it thoroughly.

Life of Pi
Yann Martel
ISBN 0-965-042950

A

Non-fiction
The first third of this story concerns the life of the main character, who is the son of a zookeeper. The remainder of the story is a tale of survival after a shipwreck. At times it is hard to separate reality from fantasy.

This is a fascinating story, and the prose is wonderful. You will learn a lot about animals and zoos!

Reading Lolita in Tehran
Azar Nafisi
ISBN 0-8129-7106-X

A

Non-fiction
The author taught classes in Western literature (Gustave Flaubert, Vladimir Nabokov, Henry James, Jane Austen, etc.) in Tehran. This is a memoir of her experiences, as well as life in Iran during the war with Iraq. I found this a fascinating contrast between two groups of her students: the intelligent, well-reasoned and articulate versus the rest. I gained a much deeper insight into life in Iran.
A Long Way Down
Nick Hornby
ISBN 0-7394-6241-5

A

Fiction
The title refers to the fact that the four main characters all meet at the top of a building. The story is basically about how they all help each other cope with their lives.

I was very impressed with the character development - I felt that I REALLY knew two of the four characters. Hornby does a great job with the language that each one uses.

I read the complete book in one day, and enjoyed it very much. I couldn't wait to see how the four people fared in their frustrations with their lives.

Motherless Brooklyn
Jonathan Lethem
ISBN 0-375-72483-4

A

Fiction
Jonathan Lethem has been one of my favorite science fiction authors. He has plenty of imagination to spare, as shown by this book.

This is a fascinating story about a wannabe detective trying to solve a murder. He has Tourette's syndrome, and the book is a very interesting character study.

After about 3/4 of the book, I simply could not put it down. I was happy that all the mysteries were explained by the end of the book.

The Lovely Bones
Alice Seybold
ISBN 0-330-48538-5

A

Fiction
This starts off immediately with a statement by Susie Salmon of the date she was murdered. The entire story is told by Susie in first person (after the murder).

I really liked the fact that this was NOT a murder mystery. The book was more about discovering who Susie was, and what her life was like. I found it captivating, and read this rather quickly.

The Ninth Life of Louis Drax
Liz Jensen
ISBN 0-7394-5636-9

A

Fiction
This book is quite hard to describe. It is told by Louis Drax, a very strange little boy growing up in France. The story starts off with an accident, and the boy ends up in a coma.

Louis remains in a coma for the rest of the story, which revolves around a doctor who tries to get him to wake up. The police are also involved, trying to find Louis' father, who is missing and presumed dead.

Much of Louis' story is told in flashbacks. It is strangely compelling, and I did enjoy reading it.

The Poisonwood Bible
Barbara Kingsolver
ISBN 0-06-093053-5

A

Fiction
A fascinating story of life in Africa. It is written in first person plural, with each chapter from a different character's point of view.
Longitude
Dava Sobel
ISBN 0-14-025879-5

A

Non-fiction
The story of how difficult it was for ancient sailors to determine where they were. John Harrison, a self-educated man, created the first accurate clock in 1737. This was crucial to the dominance of the English navy over the rest of the world.
Little, Big
John Crowley
ISBN 0-06-093793-9

A

Fantasy
This is one of the great classics of fantasy. It is about a large family descended from Violet Bramble, who was a woman imbued with magic. The interlocking stories of several branches of the family are beautifully told. You will probably have to refer to the family tree at the start of the book quite often.
Kitchen Confidential
Anthony Bourdain
ISBN 0-965-09367-0

A

Non-fiction
A story of what it is really like to be an executive chef. I found this fascinating, and honestly, pretty scary too. There is some really good advice in the chapter 
"How to Cook like the Pros", which alone makes this book worth reading.
The God of Small Things
Arundhati Roy
ISBN 0-06-097749-3
Booker Prize winner

A

Fiction
The writing in this story has been described as "luminous prose", and I have to agree. It is simply amazing to read, and then to re-read it.

The story itself is a heartbreaking one about life in India. The family's children are the "Small Things".

The Hours
Michael Cunningham
ISBN 0-312-24302-2
Pulitzer Prize winner

A

Fiction
This is a story of the lives of three women (including Virginia Woolf), all of whose lives are linked. The chapters move back and forth between the characters, and by the end all the links are revealed. 
You Will Know Me
Megan Abbott
ISBN 150-9-817-271

A-

Fantasy
This is about a family supporting their daughter, who is a potential Olympic gymnast. It is a typical story of how parents will literally do ANYTHING for their children. This turns into a murder mystery, and it is definitely a good suspense novel, with several interesting "reveals".
Annihilation / Authority / Acceptance
Jeff VanderMeer
ISBN ???

A-

Fiction
This is the Southern Reach trilogy, which won several awards. It is a dystopian suspense / mystery, with a very eerie feel to it. I found the prose to be beautifully written, and it kept drawing me back to read more. I can't give this a higher rating, because I really wanted more answers - but there aren't any.
Parable of the Talents
Octava Butler
ISBN 0-446-61038-0

A-

Fiction
This novel starts in 2033, when the USA has become a full-blown dystopia. The main character is a woman who dreams REALLY BIG. The story is told by three main characters, all members of the same family.

I found it really interesting, but there was not much science fiction here. It is mostly a story of survival, and men's inhumanity towards women. Some of the scenes are quite harrowing.

At the end, I had to go back and re-read the first 50 pages to make sure I understood everything. This is very well written. A really interesting read - I enjoyed it a lot.

MicroSerfs
Douglas Coupland
ISBN 978-0-00717-981-7

A-

Fiction
This is a somewhat silly story about the salad days of Windows, Apple, and computer programming. It is a story about computer programmers, and their nerdy lives. It is well written, and I found it a really interesting read - enjoyed it a lot.
A Thousand Splendid Suns
Khaled Hosseini
ISBN 978-1-59448-950-1

A-

Fiction
This is another story of families growing up in Afghanistan. This time, the families are interrelated. The story focuses on women's rights - which are mostly non-existent in Afghanistan.

I read this in a single day. It was hard to put down, and quite an education!

A Breath of Fresh Air
Amulya Malladi
ISBN 0-345-45029-9

A-

Fiction
This is a story about the conflict between a divorced woman and her ex-husband. The title refers to the big event that drove the couple apart, the 1984 Union Carbide gas tragedy in Bhopal, India.

The story focuses on the status of a divorced woman in India - essentially persona non grata. It discusses her relationships with the rest of her family. The story is told from the first person plural point of view. It was an interesting read, but not one of my favorites.

The Mango Season
Amulya Malladi
ISBN 0-345-45031-0

A-

Fiction
This is a story about the conflict between the Indian culture of arranged marriages and the American way. It delves very deeply into the politics of a large family in India.

I read this in a single day. It is a "light and fluffy" book, told with a good sense of humor.

Among Others
Jo Walton
ISBN 978-0-765-32153-4

B

Fantasy
Started it because it won both the Hugo and Nebula awards. It is a bit of light fantasy, and the first 25% held my interest. But it got less interesting as I kept reading - definitely meh.
The Inheritance of Loss
Kiran Desai
ISBN 978-0-8021-4281-8

B

Fiction
This is a story of two families in the Himalayas. One is a judge and his daughter, the other is the judge's cook and his son. The son is basically an illegal immigrant in the USA, who moves from one low level restaurant job to another. I bought this book because it won the Man-Booker prize. But I found this a bit disappointing, and depressing too.
The Remains of the Day
Kazuo Ishiguro
ISBN 0-679-73172-5

B

Fiction
This is a story told by a proper English butler. It goes into great detail about the English way of doing things, but that did not keep my attention. I found this a bit disappointing.
The Reader
Bernhard Schlink
ISBN 0-375-70797-2

B

Fiction
This is an example of how our perception of people changes over time. It was interesting, but I was expecting something "more".
Dream Catcher
Margaret A. Salinger
ISBN 0-965-07034-4

B

Non-fiction
This is a memoir of J. D. Salinger. It was interesting, and a fairly sad story of his daughter's life. You may learn more about Mr. Salinger than you would like.

Last modified: June 27, 2017

 

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