His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman (Scholastic, $25). This trilogy is ostensibly for children, but its alternative worlds and moral probing are so sophisticated it will stimulate readers of all ages. A tale of innocence and experience, it features, in Lyra Belacqua, one of literature’s most spirited heroines.
Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood (Anchor, $16). Atwood is the living writer I admire the most, for the breadth and depth of her work. I’ve picked Alias Grace because it’s her masterful take on the historical novel. An excellent story of a dubious teenage servant in 19th-century Canada, it has intriguing characters and wry writing. I was gripped.
The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher by Kate Summerscale (Walker & Co., $16). I am not a big reader of nonfiction, but this book reads like a thriller. Summerscale tells the story of an actual Victorian murder that turned out to have a significant influence on later crime writing. She does a wonderful job making nonfiction as page-turning as a whodunit.
Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison (Vintage, $15). I read this novel when I was a college student, and it has stayed with me. It’s about the black experience in America, and coming to terms with a past steeped in slavery. It sounds heavy, but Morrison throws magic realism into the mix, as well as striking prose. Twenty-six years later, I still remember some of the descriptions from Song of Solomon—they’re that powerful.
Fingersmith by Sarah Waters (Riverhead, $16). I love a good plot, and this novel has it in spades. A clever Dickensian story of swapped babies, mistaken identities, and rogue schemers, it features such a clever twist that I shouted aloud and had to go back to read the first third of the book again.
Songs of Innocence and Experience by William Blake (Filiquarian, $5). I adore these poems, for they seem so simple, yet they’re not. Full of both wonder and anger at the world, they are delicate, timeless hymns to life. I often find myself reciting them as I walk through London.