The story of Henri “Papillon” Charrière’s imprisonment and multiple escape attempts would have made for an implausible novel—as a memoir, it is riveting. In the 1930s, Charrière was convicted of murder and sentenced to hard labor in the penal colony on Devil’s Island in French Guiana. The book recounts his life in detail—the voyage to the colony, his friends and enemies, his escape attempts, adventures during his brief stints of freedom, solitary confinement, and the inhumane grind of daily life in a French prison. It’s no spoiler to say that he survived, but the lengths he went to in order to create a normal life are astounding, and made me hold my breath in anticipation.
Read if you enjoyed: The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas, A High Wind in Jamaica by Richard Hughes
There were several reasons I might have disliked this novel: 1) it’s a romance; 2) it’s about time travel; and 3) the two main characters (Henry and Clare) take turns narrating the story in the first person. Despite all this, the book works. It’s a masterpiece of character development and plotting, and the simple (if far-fetched) premise leads naturally to complex consequences. The central problem is that Henry has a genetic disorder that causes him to travel through time and space unexpectedly. He can bring nothing with him—no clothes, no money, no friends—and he has no control over it. Rather than treating it like an exciting twist in a comedic or science fiction story, Niffenegger examines the serious, realistic consequences of unintentional time travel, as well as the special challenges it poses to a long-term relationship. The characters are fully developed, flawed human beings, and my heart alternately swelled and broke each time they were reunited and ripped apart. If you’re looking for a substantive romance, a deeply moving story, or a new take on a cliché of science fiction, try The Time Traveler’s Wife.
Read if you enjoyed: The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides, The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje
The Return of Martin Guerre is the true story of a fascinating historical legal case. The judge who presided over the trial in 16th-century France kept good notes, which later served as the basis for Davis’ book. The story, which has also been adapted as a movie, centers on the uncertain identity of Martin Guerre, a young man who abandons his wife and village. Ten years later, a man shows up claiming to be him. But in a time before photographs, before fingerprints, before ID cards, how can they be sure? This is a bizarre, moving story, and at only 162 pages, an easy foray into European history.
Read if you enjoyed: Cyrano de Bergerac by Edmond Rostand, Pudd’nhead Wilson by Mark Twain
Bookhunter is the graphic novel version of a 1970s cop movie. But like all good adaptations, it has a twist: the cop in question is a library detective, and he applies the full force of the law to track down the person stealing rare books from the Oakland Public Library. Criminal profiling, SWAT teams, car chases—this is librarianship like you’ve never seen it. Shiga is also the author of the mind-bending Meanwhile (a choose-your-own-adventure-style graphic novel), but I prefer the straightforward storytelling of Bookhunter. This is an entertaining read with lots of in-jokes for book lovers, and a great graphic novel.
Read if you enjoyed: Rex Libris by James Turner, Super Spy by Matt Kindt
West with the Night is the memoir of a truly unique life. Beryl Markham was born in England but raised from infancy in Kenya, where she became a pioneering racehorse trainer and pilot. The book, a record of her youth and early adulthood, was first published in 1942, and Ernest Hemingway said of it in a letter to another friend, “But this girl, who is to my knowledge very unpleasant and we might even say a high-grade b—-, can write rings around all of us who consider ourselves as writers.” There are some questions about the veracity of her memoir, but frankly, who cares? It’s one of the most beautiful books you will ever read.
Read if you enjoyed: Out of Africa by Isak Dinesen; Wind, Sand, and Stars by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry
Many fans of Alexandre Dumas, the author of the classics The Three Musketeers and The Count of Monte Cristo, know that Dumas was black. But few have heard of Georges, his novel about a black gentleman adventurer raised on Mauritius, an island in the Indian Ocean. Georges comes from a wealthy, educated family, but he sees how their race puts his father at a disadvantage in society, and he is determined to change that. Among other things, the story features an interracial romance, an attempted slave rebellion, and pirates! Although it doesn’t quite rise to the heights of narrative brilliance of Dumas’s better known works, Georges deserves a place in the history of French literature.
Read if you enjoyed: Annie John by Jamaica Kincaid, The Three Musketeers by Alexandre Dumas
Simon Winchester called his project “the biography of an ocean,” and that is the perfect phrase for this mesmerizing book. Who knew oceanography could be so entertaining? Using Shakespeare’s “Seven Ages of Man” as a framework, he explores the history of the Atlantic Ocean, from its geological formation to the development of civilization along its shores; from the slave trade to the Titanic; and so much more. Winchester draws on his own experiences crossing the ocean in ships and planes, traveling for work and pleasure. His respect and affection for the great body of water are clear throughout this rich, exciting work of nonfiction.
Read if you enjoyed: Guns, Germs, and Steel by Jared Diamond, A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson
Any group of friends, examined closely enough, is fascinating. The group at the heart of this novel, six people who meet as teenagers at an arts camp in the 1970s, decide through a mixture of hubris and ironic self-deprecation to dub themselves “the interestings.” And so they turn out to be, though not in the way they imagined. We see the group through the eyes of Jules Jacobson, an average girl with a comic spark that she might be able to parlay into the acting career of her dreams. The novel spans their lives from youth to middle age, follows the far-reaching consequences of a sudden, violent incident, and peers into the chasm between mediocrity, talent, and wasted potential.
Read if you enjoyed: The Group by Mary McCarthy, Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro
Someone recommended this to me as one of the funniest books of 2012, and it did not disappoint. This smart epistolary novel (mostly told through letters, emails, and doctor’s bills) starts out hilarious and only gets better. Bernadette Fox is the central, mysterious character—a wife and mother navigating the social politics of Seattle’s elite schools, retired architect, and neighborhood eccentric. When she disappears without a trace, it’s up to her teenage daughter Bee to track her down. As she meticulously pieces together her mother’s history and last known movements, Bee learns more than she ever expected.
Read if you enjoyed: The Devil Wears Prada by Lauren Weisberger, One for the Money by Janet Evanovich
This early nonfiction work by novelist and travel writer Paul Theroux recounts his journey by rail from Boston to the far reaches of South America in 1977. Each stage is documented in detail, from the ride on the Lake Shore Limited between Boston and Chicago to the titular train in Patagonia. Theroux’s constant complaints about delays, bad food, poor lodgings, and his fellow passengers are irritating and may discourage some readers from sticking with the book. Luckily, it improves considerably when he arrives in Argentina. He stops for several days in Buenos Aires and forms an acquaintanceship with Jorge Luis Borges, the giant of Argentine literature. And his grouchiness mellows in the final stages of the journey, leaving room for some moments of startling inspiration.
Read if you enjoyed: The Motorcycle Diaries by Ernesto “Che” Guevara, The Great Railway Bazaar by Paul Theroux