Looking for a good book

I went into a Barnes & Nobles recently and found no book that I wanted to read! Maybe you could help me. I’m not looking for serious, interesting, or edifying books. I have plenty of those. What I need is something light, something suited for reading on airplanes. It needs to be a novel. Not fantasy or science fiction. I like well-researched, immersive historical fiction. Contemporary settings are fine, but no depressing family sagas. Mysteries are OK, preferably mixed with the above. Due to my literary studies, I have trouble putting up with a poor prose style, so the book has to be well-written. I like to feel like I’m learning something. I like complicated plots.

The gold standard of what I’m looking for would be Patrick O’Brian’s sea-faring novels, a genre I have drunk to the lees and so am rather tired of.

So do you know of anything that meets these criteria? I’d be much obliged for your suggestions.

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  • mmg

    Try something by Dewey Lambdin. They are of the sea-faring genre.

  • Joe

    I just finished Washington and Caesar by Christian Cameron. It follows the revolutionary war through the eyes of Washington and Caesar, one of Washington’s slaves who runs away who to join the British army. I found those competing points of view interesting. I don’t think this book will win any literary awards but it was time well spent.


  • cynthia

    I have made a list of all the books I have read since 2002 and have indicated the excellent ones. I am sure you have read most of those. One you may not have read is
    In This House of Brede by Rumer Godden. I would check it out of the library rather than buy it.

  • Kirk

    If you haven’t already read it, I, Claudius by Robert Graves is great. I think that it’s even better researched and more engaging (albiet in a very different way) than the Aubry-Maturin novels.

  • Ken

    Funny coincidence–even before I read the above comments I had thought of “I, Claudius.” The only caveat with Graves is that he takes historical liberties. But those books (with “Claudius the God”) do meet Dr. Veith’s literary requirement. Mary Renault’s ancient Greece novels have a following as well. I’ve never managed to get through one, though.

    Sir, you said you’ve tired of the O’Brien genre. I expect that would include the Hornblower novels?

    If you like Plantagenets and the War of the Roses, try “The Sonne In Splendor.”

  • EconJeff

    How about “The Dante Club”?

  • Chances are you’ve read some or all of these, but for good historical fiction I can recommend:

    The Sharpe series by Bernard Cornwell, like O’Brien’s books, is set largely during the Napoleonic wars — but on land.

    The Brother Cadfael mysteries, by Ellis Peters, are set in an English monastery around the 11th or 12th century.

    Colleen McCullough’s Masters of Rome series is masterful.

    And it’s only one book, but I was really impressed by it: Ken Follett’s Pillars of the Earth.

  • I would second the Brother Cadfael series by Ellis Peters.

    Also very interesting is Taylor Caldwell’s Pillar of Iron, about Cicero.

    Finally, there’s the trilogy by Marjorie Bowen about William and Mary (the original king and queen, not the college): I Will Maintain, Defender of the Faith, and For God and King. Unfortunately, the copy I read had a lot of typos, but it was a good read anyway.

  • I know you said no science fiction (but it really isn’t when you get down to its essence), but Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card is one of my favorite all-time books. I read it at least once a year and always glean something different from it.

    I also second Jeff Samelson’s recommendation of Pillars of the Earth. It was a really excellent, easy, fun read.

    Edward Rutherfurd is also pretty good, but errs more on bogging down with historical detail. I really enjoyed his Dublin Saga.

  • Anything by Dorothy Sayers. I just finished The Nine Tailors, which was excellent, like all things Sayers. How about Elizabeth Goudge? The Child from the Sea is historical fiction about the wife/mistress of Charles II. The Thirty-Nine Steps by Buchan? George Macdonald?

  • TK

    The House at Sugar Beach by Helene Cooper, accomplished journalist and NYT diplomatic correspondent. I haven’t read her book, but I saw her interviewed on television and its on my must-read list. The memoir is largely about the Liberian coup of 1980 and its effect her wealthy family (her father and uncle were executed by troops). Part of the story is her near-death experience as an imbedded journalist in Iraq and her subsequent search for the adopted sister she was separated from when the family left Liberia.

  • Freddy Finkelstein

    Try Allan W. Eckert’s “Winning of America” series. A very thoroughly researched and footnoted Historical Narrative, it covers early westward expansion into the Old Northwest Territory (Western PA, OH, Northern Kentucky, IN, IL, MI, WI). Titles include “The Frontiersmen” (Simon Kenton, Tecumseh) “Wilderness Empire” (French and Indian War), “The Conquerors” (Pontiac’s uprising), “The Wilderness War” (The Revolutionary War), “Gateway to Empire” (War of 1812), and “Twilight of Empire” (Blackhawk’s revolt). While probably not in the category of “I, Claudius” in terms of literary quality, it certainly doesn’t descend into the “insulting” category, either — interesting yet light enough to absorb while traveling…

  • Nemo

    A quite random selection:

    The Mystery of the Yellow Room by Gaston Leroux. Same guy who wrote Phantom of the Opera. Reportedly, it helped inspire Agatha Christie. Sometimes considered the best locked room mystery ever written.

    The Strictest School in the World: Being the Tale of a Clever Girl, a Rubber Boy and a Collection of Flying Machines, Mostly Broken by Howard Whitehouse. The title alone should intrigue you. Definitely “something light, something suited for reading on airplanes.”

    The Crystal Stopper or The Hollow Needle , both by Maurice Leblanc. Two stories recounting the adventures of Arsène Lupin, the French gentleman thief and contemporary of a certain “Holmlock Shears,” who makes a guest appearance in the latter book.

    The Phantom Tollbooth, by Norton Juster. If you haven’t read it, you should.

    The Court Martial of Daniel Boone by Allan Eckert. Freddy @ 12 reminded me of this one. A legal tale based on a little-known historical event (mostly fictional, as we do not know what happened at the trial).

  • Ken

    Another thought–the works of Kenneth Roberts (“Oliver Wiswell,” “Arundel,” etc.) are good choices if you like the American Revolution period.

  • Sophia House or Father Elijah by Michael O’Brien.

  • Joe

    “The House at Sugar Beach” by Helene Cooper

    I have not yet read this yet, but a friend of mine is from Liberia and he highly recommended. He thought it was terrific.

  • Susan aka organshoes

    Anything–everything–by Robertson Davies.

  • Steven

    I am going to further endorse Taylor Caldwell, especially Pillar of Iron.

  • Manxman

    I’d like to second Freddy Finkelstein’s recommendation of Allan W. Eckart’s books. They are fascinating. “The Frontiersmen” is one of my all time favorite books – but that might be because a lot of it takes place here in Ohio.

  • EGK

    I’ve been enjoying the works of Alexander McCall Smith.The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series is a real joy. You don’t get complicated plots, but you just immerse yourselves in the personal lives and problems of the people of Botswana. Also the Sunday Philosophers Club series, set in Edinburgh (I’ve read two of the books, and the club has yet to meet!) In the latter the protagonist edits a journal of applied ethics, and certain ethical issues are dealt with in the context of her life. Not strictly orthodox Christian in approach, but in this case I think it’s a good thing, since it puts us in the shoes of others.

  • Peter Leavitt

    For airplane reading I like Charles McCarry’s spy novels featuing Paul Christopher, the Harvard educated CIA spook. Christopher is a thinking man’s James Bond. McCarry, a former CIA undercover agent for years, is America’s best spy novelist in my view. His best is Tears of Autumn, out of print, though available at Amazon and librries.

  • Also, I dunno if you’re willing to try young adult fiction, but the Mysterious Benedict Society series is good.

  • I also recommend Ken Follet’s Pillars of the Earth. I re-read it this summer and then immediately read the newly released sequel World Without End. The sequel was a good read – but nothing like Pillars.

    I read Pillars long before Oprah said it was good :-). It is a very long book – just inder a 1000 pages – but it is so enjoyable the size of the book does not matter and you wish it did not end.

  • Manxman

    Anne Rice’s books in her “Christ the Lord” series – Out of Egypt & The Road to Cana, which are written from Jesus’ perspective, are very readable and thought-provoking.

  • Anon

    Unfortunately the best light novels I know of would probably be classified as fantasy and SF. One exception might be Connie Willis _To Say Nothing of the Dog_. If you haven’t read it, you should, sometime. It is up there.

    Under the Forbidden Categories I would recommend _Flying Dutch_ by Tom Holt, which is contemporary, but involves the Flying Dutchman. There is a danger you might crack a rib laughing.

    Patrick Frezza’s _MacLendon’s Syndrome_ while SF, is very punny and witty.

    John Wright’s _Orphans of Chaos_ is pretty good – various minor characters from ancient mythology are being held hostage to good behavior of the factions they are from, but they don’t know who they are, and it is in an English school setting. It is different in nature from the others I’m listing.

    Back to Allowed Lite:
    Patrick MacManus’ books are good, at least the first couple you read, anyway.
    James Herriot’s novels are ever-green.

  • I kind of doubt it’s ultimately your thing (but what do I know?), but I really enjoyed reading Pulitzer Prize winner The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon.

    Here’s how it measures up to your criteria:
    Something light, something suited for reading on airplanes: well, I do most of my reading on the bus, so I guess so, although I wouldn’t characterize it as “light” as in “fluffy”.
    Needs to be a novel: yup.
    Not fantasy or science fiction: yup.
    Well-researched, immersive historical fiction: Yes. It takes place just before, during, and after WWII, but I really enjoyed the historical touches he added.
    No depressing family sagas: Hmm. It gets depressing in bits. All the more so from a Christian perspective.
    Well-written: definitely. And yet very enjoyable.
    Complicated plots: I’d dare say it has this in spades.

  • The Roger the Chapman mystery series by Kate Sedley are books that are short, well done and fun. “Death and the Chapman” is the first in a series of 12-15 books. Sedley deftly includes a lot of historical nuggets in the everday life of a peddlar in 15th century England who wrestles with his God-given skill of finding and solving mysteries. Very vocational! In some books, he ends up on the fringes of royal doings.

    Thanks for asking for recommendations, Dr. V. Now we’ve all got a wealth of good books to read. I’ve been following your blog for a couple weeks as it touches on my main interest of churches helping people serve. Thanks for keeping vocation in front of people.

  • The alternative histories of the Civil War by Newt Gingrich and William Forstchen. All three books are wonderful.

  • Rev. Alexander Ring

    The Devil in the White City, by Erik Larson, a juxtaposition of the World’s Fair in Chicago, the creation of an attraction for the fair, and what was probably the first serial killings in the United States. A non-fiction book that reads like fiction.

    The Masters of Rome series by Colleen McCullough is very good, though the last one isn’t as good as those previous.

  • Jenna

    As Susan does above, I’d recommend Elizabeth Goudge, specifically “The Dean’s Watch”. One of the thematic strands is call/vocation (not from a didactic standpoint, just as part of the story).

    Or how about Judith Merkle Reilly? She writes beautifully researched, slyly humorous, historical fiction. “The Oracle Glass”, her account of the l’affaire des poisons, the murder scandal that took place during the reign of Louis XIV, is first rate. It’s told from a feminine first-person POV–not sure if you’d care for that.

  • Jenna

    Oops – TK mentions Elizabeth Goudge; Susan is aRobertson Davies fan. I concur. Try the Cornish Trilogy! A mystery set in academia, a family saga and history rolled into one.

  • FW

    The Book of Salt by monique truong.

    amazingly written


  • Jon

    Like Kathy in VA, I’ve been enjoying Dorothy Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey series. So far The Nine Tailors is the best of those I’ve read. Since it’s set primarily at a country parish in the English fens, it gives a fascinating glimpse of parish life at that place and time. (Fascinating to me, anyway!)

    Sayers seems to be an example of a Christian engaging the culture via good art.

  • Marci

    The Hawk and the Dove trilogy is a summer read for my daughter and me. Not motivated by a complex plot, nevertheless, the reader compelled to read on to learn more from St. Alcuin’s Abbot, Father Columba (dove), whose Christian name was Peregrine (hawk). Gravely wounded in body and spirit, he re-learns to walk in body and soul, no longer ministering only through the authority of his office but the authority and humility of his brokenness. His wounds become to him like Christ’s wounds, beautiful and powerful in their tenderness to bring healing to those around him. The last book is the most riveting as he and his helper struggle with ultimate issues of life and death. I always have two or three copies on hand – one for me and more to give away.

  • KG

    Dr. Veith,

    I would like to recommend the world of Walter B. Gibson (aka Maxwell Grant). The books are light and entertaining. They are perfect for for airplanes because they are not long, but are still novels. The books are not fantasy or SF, but some of his writings can contain these elements. The character he wrote about is quite historic. The only thing I am unsure about is whether or not you will like his prose style.


  • SJB

    This may sound like an off-beat suggestion, but it may be worth looking into. Have you ever browsed the used book stores instead of Barnes & Noble?

    There are some large second-hand book stores in my area that are great fun to visit. It is like a treasure hunt where one never knows what one will find. The choices here range from new best sellers for 1/2 price to out-of-print gems from yesteryear. If you decide to accept this mission, may you be especially blessed! 🙂

  • Kirk

    Killer Angels is another extremely enjoyable historical novel.

  • Cornwell has another series going right now, about King Alfred, and the Danish invasion of England, following Uhtred, a Saxon raised by Danes. It is a fascinating story and there is a lot of tension revolving around Christianity, and the Norse Religion. You keep wondering if Uhtred will convert. Has a nice plucky priest in it also.

  • Raymond Coffey

    I know you said you did not want “depressing family sagas” but here goes: Rick Bragg’s trilogy of his family history – All Over But the Shoutin,’ Ava’s Man, and Prince of Frogtown. Some of the best prose you will ever read, mixed with side-splitting laughter. Outstanding southern writing. This is Flannery O’Connor in real life.

  • Bruce

    NIGHT SOLDIERS by Allen Furst. Or anything he’s written since. Excellent historical fiction centered in Europe during WW II.

  • Bruce

    BTW, Marci’s (#34) suggestion is excellent. A great series.

  • What about a well-researched combination of historical fiction & Sci-Fi? I recently got given “Eifelheim” by Michael Flynn, and thoroughly enjyed it. See this review: http://www.tgenloe.com/?p=813

  • Mr. Veith-

    When you find what you are looking for, please share it with the rest of us!

  • brenda

    Have you read any of Gillian Bradshaw? Set in Greek/Roman/ Medeival times. Beacon at Alexandria, Island of Ghosts, Imperial Purple, The Wolf Hunt…plus an Arthurian Trilogy for young adult readers…and more that I can’t find locally

  • Sjb

    How about Bodie Thoene’s series, The Zion Chronicles, also her series, The Zion Covenant? Also, Francine Rivers’ Mark of the Lion series – a series of three, A Voice in the Wind, An Echo in the Darkness, and As Sure As the Dawn. Both Thoene and Rivers can make the characters and their historical milieu come alive.

  • mamaof2

    Absolutely unforgetable and enlightening historical fiction:

    _The Master of Hestviken_ (in four volumes) and

    _Kristin Lavransdatter_ (a trilogy) both by Sigrid Undset

    Set in thirteenth century Norway–stunning!

    beth speers

  • Van

    Have you read Anne Rice’s Christ The Lord. Out of Egypt and The Road to Cana?

  • Manamanous

    I did enjoy Robert Harris’ ‘Imperium.’ It’s an overview of the political career of Cicero written from the perspective of Tiro, his confidential secretary. It gives an interesting exploration of Roman politics in the final days of the Republic, with plenty of mystery and intrigue. Well researched, well written… I would heartily recommend!

  • Dr. Veith, if you haven’t already you must read Flann O’Brien, the great Irish comic writer. Try his amazing novel The Third Policeman, featuring a narrator who says he weighs half a million tons, bicycles that are 57 percent human and humans that are 57 percent bicycle, a sophistic scholar who believes the world is sausage-shaped, rampant footnotes run amuck, gangs of one-legged men, and three world-bending policemen.

  • Jeff

    I second “The Killer Angels” by the late Michael Shaara. Very historically engaging, written in a captivating manner…You just can’t put it down. A must read for anyone before they visit Gettysburg National Park. The paperback is the perfect length and size for airport travel. PLUS, it’s been around awhile…you can surely find it at a great price at a used bookstore.

  • I second the ‘Ender’s Game’ by Orson Scott Card suggestion. Excellent. Certainly transcends genre. Also, ‘The Worthing Saga’ is good, by the same author.

    Also, would be happy to send you a pdf of my novel! After all, you were a big encouragement for me to write it when we met and talked at a conference in Bristol, VA a little while back. 🙂

  • Anon

    Scylding, who published Eifelheim? It sounds like a winner.

  • LAJ

    Bodie & Brock Thoene’s series about WWII, beginning with Vienna Prelude, is very good. I second the James Herriot books, most enjoyable!

  • James Hageman

    Speaking of seafaring, Patrick O’Brien is my choice. Other pure fun choices for me are Rex Stout and Josephine Tey (both mystery).

  • Kristin Lavransdatter by Sigrid Undset is my very favorite. It is meticulously researched, set in the 14th century. WOW.

  • Or 13th, can’t remember.

  • Stephen Lawhead’s Byzantium and the two Robin Hood books by the same author that are out: Hood and Scarlett. I think these are historical fiction at its best.

  • Also consider Andrew Peterson’s “On the Edge of the Dark Sea of Darkness.” Funny, very good.

  • Anon

    _Sherwood_ by Parke Godwin is the best Robin Hood historical I know of -by far-.

  • You told me to read Marilyn Robinson’s Gilead a year or two ago. Now you can read her third novel, Home.

  • I recently read Child 44 by Tom Rob Smith. It’s a murder-mystery set in communist Russia in the 1950s. I was riveted from the start. Would be great for the plane. I learned a lot about communism, and it made me really appreciate capitalism!

  • Anon @ 52: Tor Books. Sorry for answering only now, I was away from the internet for a couple of days.

  • Pinon Coffee

    I _loved_ “The Strictest School in the World” (with its very long and admirable subtitle). 🙂

    Have you tried Charlotte MacLeod’s mysteries? Her Peter Shandy series stars a professor at a remote northern agricultural college as Our Unlikely Sleuth. He’s married to the librarian, and both characters and books are most witty. MacLeod also has three other serieses (?) with different sets of characters. I like the Sarah Kelling ones especially, but my husband prefers Peter Shandy.