Must-Read Recommendations by Writers of The 863

Must-Read Recommendations by Writers of The 863

Donna Kelly

The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis – By the time my third grade teacher finished reading the first chapter of Lewis’ classic to the class, I knew it was magic. By the last page, I longed for an enchanted wardrobe and more books at home. Lewis pulled from Christian beliefs, Norse and Greek Mythology, and English folklore when he wove the tale of four siblings who enter a fantastical, snowy world through a wardrobe. The children — Peter, Susan, Edmund, and Lucy — learn lessons about friendship, loyalty, good versus evil, forgiveness, faith, courage, and self sacrifice. I reread this classic every few years. Sometimes adults need to brush up on these, too.

The Prince of Tides by Pat Conroy – I discovered Pat Conroy and his exquisite writing in this dark but gorgeous book when I was a substitute English teacher trying to work up enough guts to write for publication. The beauty of his writing contrasted with the characters’ turmoil in this story about a former football player grappling with memories of his traumatic childhood while attempting to help his suicidal sister. I laughed. I cried. And I studied Conroy’s writing. I still do.

The House of Hawthorne by Erika Robuck – In high school English classes, I devoured the works of Nathaniel Hawthorne. I was captivated by his themes of sin and guilt inherited from his Puritan ancestor who sentenced women to death during the Salem witch trials. I wanted to explore what Hawthorne thought about during his long walks through the woods in Concord, Massachusetts, topics he discussed with contemporaries, the relationship he had with his wife and children. I told my then neighbor, award-winning author Vera Cleaver, I intended to write a novel based on Hawthorne’s relationship with his wife, children, and friends to present an engaging glimpse into his daily life, into his soul. She smiled. Nearly four decades later, I discovered Robuck managed to do it first – and with great understanding and artistry. While I wish I’d written my homage to Hawthorne, “The House of Hawthorne” is an engaging peek into the romantic and challenging relationship between Nathaniel and Sophia Hawthorne, two intelligent and creative people as dedicated to their respective art as to each other and their children.

Murder as a Fine Art by David Morrell – Morrell takes a real-life (historical?) personality with a serious opium addiction and a penchant for understanding the minds of murderers, and pits him against a copy cat murderer fascinated with the Ratcliffe Highway Murders of 1811. Morrell’s in-depth research of writer Thomas De Quincey, aka The Opium Eater, Victorian London, and the bloody murders enabled him to transport readers to a different time and place where they hear horse hooves on cobblestone, feel the heaviness of the damp fog, and tremble with fear in anticipation of the next murder. This book blends three of my favorite genres: historical fiction, mystery, and thriller.

A Man Called Ove by Fredric Backman – Ove, the neighborhood curmudgeon, loves rules, statistics, and routine – and his effervescent wife, who recently died. Filled with grief and loneliness, and floundering in a changing world, he decides to end his life. Fate sees it differently, though, and his plan is repeatedly foiled. The would-be loner is pulled into the lives of his neighbors, including a nuisance cat, who can’t seem to take care of themselves. Backman draws readers into the story like Ove’s neighbors pull him into their lives. We root for Ove despite his grumpiness, feel his intense grief, and smile each time he reaches out to others. But the beauty of “A Man Called Ove” is Backman’s skill in enabling readers to hear Ove’s voice as we read and this makes the character so vivid that we experience his emotions, too. It’s this voice that earned “A Man Called Ove” a spot on my bookshelf as a reminder to develop a stronger voice in my writing.     

Jamie Beckett

The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August by Claire North – Immortality comes with a heavy cost. As any fan of the Twilight Zone knows, an unlimited lifespan can be as much of a curse as it is a gift. Clair North makes good use of this conundrum by giving her character, Harry, the chance to start over on a whim. Albeit, at a price. That unexpected twist along with an intricately woven plot, makes The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August a favorite of mine.

Welcome to the Monkey House by Kurt Vonnegut – Best known for deceptively heavy-hitting novels like “Slaughterhouse Five,” “Player Piano,” and “Mother Night,” Vonnegut was a prolific and talented short story writer. “Welcome to the Monkey House” is a collection of short works that weaves from the improbable, to the unbelievable, to the perfectly familiar. Entertaining, engaging, and occasionally challenging in his ideas and presentation, Vonnegut was one of the great treasures of American fiction. This collection presents and easy path to falling in love with his work.

State of Fear by Michael Crichton – For those who worry about global warming, climate change, and the end times — Michael Crichton’s “State of Fear” is custom built to weave its way into your psyche and play with your fears for years to come. A novel that is unique in that it contains footnotes that link to actual scientific papers dealing with the subject at the core of this amazingly well-crafted story. Crichton was an author, a director, and a true artist. But he was also a medical doctor who graduated from Harvard Medical School after taking his first degree in anthropology from the parent school.

Jonathan Livingston Seagull by Richard Bach – Written by one of Winter Haven’s most famous former residents, this short, seemingly simple story of a seagull’s pursuit of excellence is anything but simple and has nothing to do with seagulls. Bach’s most successful work is by far his most ambitious in that he manages to impart a universally pertinent lesson without referencing a single human being in the process. A quick read that will stick with the reader for a lifetime. A true classic in every sense of the term.

In His Own Right by John Lennon – With Bob Dylan receiving a Nobel Prize for literature based on his songwriting, perhaps this is a good year to reflect on an actual book written by one of the great songwriters of the 20th century. A sensation in the year that coincided with the birth of Beatlemania, John Lennon’s first published literary work is a quirky, weird, mishmash of short stories accompanied by line drawings. What distinguishes this brief work from most pop star meanderings is Lennon’s freewheeling use of language. The lexicon seems to present no barriers to him and so he dives in headfirst, with reckless abandon. My personal favorite bit, which has kept me in stitches these past many years, “No Flies on Frank.”

Steve Steiner

The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald – My favorite book of all time is “The Great Gatsby” by F. Scott Fitzgerald. It is the book that turned me on to literature. To me it is the “Great American Novel.” I read it at least once every other year. Some years I read it each year. I was introduced to it in high school (I graduated in 1969). It is fiction, but to say what genre of book it is — such as science fiction, etc., I cannot. The reason I enjoy this book and consider it the “Great American Novel” is that it captures the essence of what this country is about and the drive for success, fame and fortune. It also exposes the underbelly and the lengths people will go through in order to achieve the aforementioned.  

The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck – Another favorite of mine is John Steinbeck’s “The Grapes of Wrath.” Although I enjoy almost all of his novels, this is the one I most enjoy. Just as “Gatsby” captured a certain mindset of the American psyche, so too does “Grapes of Wrath.” Even today it resonates, perhaps even more so now given our current administration. It highlights the bigotry displayed by one group of people toward another, the resentment to those who simply want to survive, who yearn and strive to make a better life for themselves and their children. For me it is a book teeming with passion, as compared and contrasted to “Gatsby,” which is the direct opposite.

Most Any Cookbook… Being that I love to cook and experiment in the kitchen, naturally any good cookbook is going to grab my eye, so I don’t have any one book by any one chef in particular. This love stems from my early adulthood, when I first entered the workforce. Like so many, I started out as a dishwasher and worked my way into restaurant management. Along the way I became a server, bartender and cook. Just before I moved to Florida in 2007, I was about to start training as a chef. However, the pull to remain a journalist proved stronger, so nowadays my culinary delights find the way to friends and close associates.

Animal Farm / 1984 by George Orwell – Prophetic, predictive, visionary… however one describes and defines George Orwell, there is no doubt he had a knowledge of events that had yet to take place. He sensed a trend toward authoritarianism and totalitarianism. It seems today that the trend to a more powerful, more centralized government, along with the merger of companies in major industries all lean to a day when the concept of government and commerce being one and the same is not far-fetched.

Lord of the Flies by William Golding – William Golding’s “Lord of the Flies” is yet another telling of the Bible, and the struggle between the desire to live in a society with rules, to be ethical, and place the greater good of all versus individual desires of self; in other words, the spiritual versus the carnal. It is a dystopian view of the world in which primal instinct is the base nature of humankind, and that rules and laws, etc., are imposed. Again, as with “Gatsby, Grapes, 1984/Animal Farm,” there is a common thread among them that I find, that we are on a slippery slope as a society and that slowly, perhaps inextricably, we are bound to a hell.