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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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