These are a Few of My Favorite Tomes

carlakelly Note: Do you ever wonder what authors enjoy reading when they’re not busy writing? So do we! So we decided to pose the “What are your Top Ten favorite books?” question to some authors. Today we welcome beloved author Carla Kelly to the blog to talk about some of her favorite books.

Put it to music, because books are music to me. The idea of narrowing down my ten favorites is trickier than I thought it might be. I’ve discovered – ahem – that the older I get, the longer the list. What I’m offering here are lists of fiction and non-fiction. I’m a historian by training and trade, and an author of historical fiction, so please allow this old girl that leeway. I’ll tell you what and why they mean so much to me.

Favorite Fiction
warandpeace1. War and Peace – My top three favorites do swing back and forth, sort of like, “Do I prefer Don Giovanni to Marriage of Figaro?” One day it’s one, another day, the other. Tolstoi informed my writer’s heart during a snowy – what else? – winter in southeast Wyoming. I had written some short stories and mercifully sold them, but I was new at the business. What Count Leo did was give me a manual for creating a historical world. There’s hardly a better book anywhere. War and Peace sucked me in, until I began to feel remorse that I could not read it in Russian. Imagine War and Peace in Russian! It must be sublime. Ditto Sholokhov’s And Quiet Flows the Don.

2. A Town Like Alice – I’m a simple storyteller, not one to embellish. Nevil Shute, a master at flashback, created several worlds: London, Malaya and Australia. He’s taught me a lot about writing with authority, so I owe Nevil Shute a big one. He never overwrote, and I try not to. He kept the main thing the main thing, and I try to do that, too. But when I’m not using “Alice” as a writer’s manual, mostly I enjoy it because it’s a cracking good read.

3. The Lawrenceville Stories – Owen Johnson, class of 1895 at Lawrenceville, a New Jersey prep school, wrote this collection of stories in 1910. As a writer of eighteenth- through early twentieth century fiction, I tune in to the phrases and words typical of earlier eras, their cadence and heft. While too much of that would bog down a 19th century novel for 21st century readers, a little bit sprinkled around judiciously sets the mood and tone. Where better to find this than to read in the period, rather than about it? The Prodigious Hickey, Dink Stover, the Tennessee Shad, DocMacNooder, Lovely Mead and the Gutter Pup: I love these ne’er-do-well students.

persuasion 4. Persuasion – Hard to pick a favorite among Jane Austen’s gems, but I love the darkness, the regret, the missed opportunities and the hypocrisy that make up this excellent book.

5. Richard Woodman – I can’t narrow it down to one. Read all twelve of these absolutely stunning novels about the Napoleonic Wars at sea. Mariner Nathaniel Drinkwater rises to the top through years of toil. It’s a hard service and these are hard men. It helps that Woodman himself had a distinguished career in the British maritime service. He knows what he’s talking about.






6. Little Women – I discovered Louisa May Alcott when I was in elementary school, and read Little Women every Christmas for years. There’s something so beguiling about these distinctly different sisters. I have sisters; I understand.



7. The Two-Minute Rule, Robert Crais – Trying to pick a favorite among Crais’s crime fiction is almost impossible. Crime fiction is my fiction of choice; I love it. Crais’s Elvis Cole and Joe Pike, or his more-recent LA cop and police dog Maggie are all worthy, but I give the edge to The Two-Minute Rule, a stand-alone tale about a recently released convict. Max Holman who wants to square things with his estranged cop-son, but can’t because his son and three other cops were killed. Max Holman sets out to find the killer. The Two-Minute Rule? Bad guys know that’s the amount of time before the cops generally arrive on the scene of a crime. Crais is consistent and never writes a bad book.




8. Arfive – A.B. Guthrie is my favorite Western writer. While The Big Sky may be more famous, Arfive appeals to me. It’s the tale of a rancher at the turn of the 20th century. The range has changed and old guys like Mort Ewing are looked upon as quaint. You’ll never read a more elegant passage than the part where Ewing goes to Missoula, Montana, to attend his ward’s graduation. His wry observations about time and place and change are etched in my writer’s mind. I think, I want to write smooth like that.


9. North and South – Mrs. Gaskell has a knack for elegant prose that never got out of hand. She created characters that linger in the mind long after the book is over.




10. Thy Friend, Obadiah – Brinton Turkle’s children’s books about a little Quaker boy on Nantucket in the days of the new American republic are beguiling and beautifully drawn. This was my son Sam’s favorite book, and one of mine, too.




1. Frontier Regulars – Robert M. Utley is the dean of Indian Wars historians. He had a lengthy career in the National Park Service, where I first met him. Bob kindly let me use him as my subject for my historiography master’s degree. He’s a gentleman and a scholar and at 84, still writing the most readable prose of all historians.

siouxnation 2. The Last Days of the Sioux Nation – Bob’s take on the Wounded Knee Massacre has stood as the gold standard for that touchy subject for 50 years. Jerry Greene’s forthcoming history on the same subject will be out soon. With access to new research it’ll be good, but as much as I like and respect Jerry’s scholarhsip, I like Bob’s fluid style better. Great book. Bob told me this spring, “What a dumb title. Of course the Sioux Nation is still here!” That’s Bob.

3. Empire of the Summer Moon – S.C. Gwynne’s history of the amazing Comanches and biography of Quanah Parker is the newest book on my list, and one of the greats. Not an easy subject, but Gwynne handles it well, and with a writer’s flair.

marriedasoldier 4. I Married a Soldier – Lydia Lane’s officer’s wife’s memoir is a gem of understatement and style. She doesn’t have that over-the-top 19th century style that can be off-putting. She tells little stories about her hard life “following the drum” in the pre and post Civil War Southwest. She never blatantly tells us – no Victorian lady would – but what shines through this narrative is her love for her husband and the difficult life they shared on the frontier.

5. One Vast Winter Count – Dartmouth professor Colin Calloway’s massive book covers one thousand years, up to the arrival of Lewis and Clark in the American West. Well researched, documented and written, it became an instant classic.

holidaysinhell 6. Holidays in Hell – Want a laugh-out-loud read about the world’s most dangerous places? P.J. O’Rourke never disappoints. It’s funny, cheeky, profane, and the best kind of travel writing.

7. The Old Patagonian Express – When Paul Theroux starts his journey by train in New England, he’ll take you right along to the tip of South American. So, so good.

8. Anything by David McCullough – I can’t decide between 1776 or John Adams. Any writer who can have you biting your nails over certain outcomes, even though you know the subject and know precisely what happens, is a master of his craft.

9-10. Great history I haven’t read yet or which hasn’t been written yet. Actually, Herodotus and Thucydides could ably hold down these spots, and they were the first.

Personal Favorites of My Own Books

I will always give the edge to Here’s to the Ladies: Stories of the Frontier Army. These stories got me writing and selling. I dedicated it to my Park Service friends and comrades. One has passed on to Fiddler’s Green (where all go cavalrymen go), and another I’ll be seeing next week. I’m in touch with them all. They’re my friends and we share a love of the Indian Wars.

Although it did not get a good review on this website, My Loving Vigil Keeping is another personal favorite. I’ve spoken to so many bookclubs, libraries and historical societies about the subject – Scofield/Winter Quarters Mine Disaster – and how I did the research. Won a Whitney Award for Best Historical Fiction for it, too. I’ve even given many cemetery walks and talks in Scofield Cemetery. Crazy I know, but that’s writing.

And this is probably far more than you ever wanted. It’s been a pleasure for me to revisit favorite works and remind myself how they shaped me as a writer. I learn something new with every book I write.

– Carla Kelly

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20 Responses to These are a Few of My Favorite Tomes

  1. AARJenna says:

    I love “A Town Like Alice.” It’s so subtly romantic, and I love the grand sweep of the time it covers, not to mention the geography. For years I’ve been stalking the internet waiting for the DVD release of the 1981 miniseries with Bryan Brown and Helen Morse because that movie was such a great adaptation of the book.

    Thanks for sharing your list! It’s so interesting to hear about what books inspire authors.

  2. maggie b. says:

    I love Persuasion. Little Women is etched into my memory I have read it so often. The scene under the umbrella. The proposal in the row boat. So many lovely moments in that novel.

    My favorites among your books are The Lady’s Companion, Libby’s London Merchant and One Good Turn. Each tells a really great story.

    Thanks for sharing your list. It’s so great to hear about what authors are reading.

  3. PatW says:

    I was interested to learn a bit about Robert Utley – I have read and enjoyed several of his books though not the two you mention – I’ll have to search them out.

    • CarlaKelly says:

      Bob just keeps producing. His latest is a bio of Geronimo. When we visited him in Scottsdale this spring, he mentioned he was editing an army surgeon’s journal. I’m not sure where that is in the pipeline. On Halloween, Bob will be 84.

  4. Mary Beth says:

    Thank you so much for sharing your favorites. I always love lists of reader and author favorites and your list was interesting – I love the inclusion of historical fiction titles which are new to me along with some old favorites. In conclusion, I would like to say that you are one of the few authors I read that, in my opinion, just simply cannot write a bad book… there’s my fan girl gush, but seriously – thank you!

    • CarlaKelly says:

      Yikes, no pressure! To me, the “deal” with fiction is asking myself what I would do, if I were in any given situation that I write about. Solutions are generally practical ones, because that’s probably typical of most of folks; I’m not alone in that.

  5. jftee says:

    Carla Kelly, an American original. I want to thank you for some of the most enjoyable hours I have spent reading books. I speak for my husband too, because he has read them after me. I love the goodness and humanity that your characters have in their soul. People are simple really, we just make things harder than they should be, and you have that knack of making us see our faults and foibles in the twist of a sentence, and then laughing that the solution was so simple and there all of the time. I always learn something about myself when I read your books. I am actually reading The Lady’s Companion right now and parts of it so explain clearly what I had not put into words before. I feel richer after every book.

    The many books that adorn my shelves are only the ones that I want to reread or consider to be valuable friends that I don’t want lose track of. Your books have a prominent place on my shelf and in my heart.

    If I could take only one author’s books to my desert island, they would be yours. Thank you.

    • CarlaKelly says:

      I owe a serious debt to Miss Jean Dugat, my journalism teacher at A.C. Jones H.S., Beeville, Texas. She was mean and relentless and taught us the power of simplicity. I pretty much hated her until my junior year, when it occurred to me that if I actually paid attention, I could learn a lot about writing from her. I remember her with great love now.

  6. Syd says:

    I love crime fiction too, and just discovered Robert Crais and his long backlist a few months ago. Right now I have 4 of his books in my library pile waiting to be read. (Would that be considered library book hoarding?) I’ll have to look for The Two-Minute Rule.

    • CarlaKelly says:

      Crais’s latest, Suspect, is quite good. My other total guilty pleasure is Ruth Downie and her hapless (and clever) army surgeon in Roman Britain who reluctantly solves crimes.

      • Syd says:

        Suspect was the very first of his books I read. Now I’m just working my way through the Elvis Cole and Joe Pike books. Once I winnow down my library book pile, I’ll check out Ruth Downie. I’ll bet my mom knows of her. I’m fairly certain there aren’t many books out there set during that time period she hasn’t read.

  7. Carrie says:

    I’m going to try Crais’s books. I love good crime solving stories! Thank you so much for the list. I must admit I’ve only read a few of the books you’ve listed. I love North and South, A Town Like Alice, any anything by Austen. Persuasion and P&P tie for favorite for me for different reasons.

    I also love your books. I was like a cat waiting to pounce when the backlist was being released digitally! I’ve never been disappointed. I don’t read historical romance as a rule, but yours (and Austen’s and Georgette Heyer’s) are notable exceptions. Thank you again!

  8. Joane says:

    Thank you for sharing your Top 10 -well, really more than 10. Some of them are really books that I love, Little Women, Austen, Tolstoy of course. I think it would be very difficult to me chose just 10 or 20 books that I love, so I think the title is perfect ‘a few of my favourite’.
    And thank you for mentioning Herodotus and Thucydides. I really love Greek & Latin classics -I even studied those languages in high school, although I’m more fond of Julius Caesar or Cicero’s letters than Thucydides.
    It’s a pity that no German, Italian, French or Spanish classic book has got to your list, but anyway I think Tolstoy is one of the best examples of classic European literature. And it is always very difficult to select just a few of our favourite books.
    Again, thank U for sharing your selection with us.

  9. Masha says:

    War and Peace in Russian is sublime. By far the best novel ever written (for me at least)

    • CarlaKelly says:

      Masha, I thought W&P would be lovely in the original language. You’ve confirmed it! I also like Chekov stories and Turgenev.

  10. Kayne says:

    My Loving Vigil is about the only book I have not read by Ms. Kelly. I am hesitant because of my memories of working in Scofield and the eeriness I felt in the old mine area. Even though it is beautiful, with the reservoir and good fishing, it felt a little spooky to me. I read for escape and try to steer away from stories that might be too sad. I appreciate her stories and am glad they are now available in ebooks.

  11. Kari S. says:

    Well, unlike the reviewer on this site, I adored My Loving Vigil Keeping, but it is a bit of a tearjerker. I have read Here’s to the Ladies several times. Thanks so much for the list of favorites! We don’t have many favorite books in common, but I enjoyed the first Medicus book and have the others in my tbr mountain range. Obadiah is adorable but my favorite book by Brinton Turkle is actually Do Not Open, and his Deep in the Forest is a sweet, wordless version of The Three bears. By David McCullough I’ve read the Johnstown Flood, but most of my history reading is in England (I too have a degree in history, but I specialized in Medieval Europe). The Indian wars are almost unremittingly tragic, and I have a hard time getting through too many books like that when reading for pleasure. I apologize if that makes me sound shallow, but it is one of the reasons I enjoy romance – for the happy endings! Of yours, Mrs. Drew and The Lady’s Companion are two of my favorites. Hope to see many, many more from you soon!

  12. Cindy says:

    I am a very eclectic reader (as I believe most voracious readers are) and it’s lovely to have some new titles to add to my list.
    I buy every book Carla publishes and have an ever-diminishing hoard of her older regencies that I’ve been saving. Just read “The Lady’s Companion” last week and loved it. My favorites are probably “With This Ring” and “Borrowed Light”.

  13. ML says:

    Carla Kelly, in her own homespun way, is a goddess.

  14. Mary says:

    Thanks for sharing your favorites with us, Carla! It’s an interesting list, and some of my favs are on it as well. I am thrilled that your backlist is becoming available again. I’d still rather purchase new ones in print so I can loan them out, but my Nook now holds several titles. When people say they don’t read romance but like history, I loan them one of your books, and they always change their mind. One Good Turn is my absolute favorite.

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