Ron's Favorite Authors

a casual essay on my personal reading history

(with suspense authors at the very end)

If you're only interested in suspense, click here to skip directly to that section.

Literary Fiction

Like all readers I go through stages where different authors appeal to me. Let me trace a few of my favorites over the years. I should probably mention that when I was growing up all the kids in my family learned to read before starting the first grade. Every morning before breakfast, as a family, we read one chapter of the Bible out loud, so I figure by the time I hit first grade we'd been through the whole thing more than once. Man, I hated those "begat" chapters, but the Song of Solomon wasn't bad!

As a kid, the first books I owned, all gifts, some of which are still in my library, were Mark Twain's Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn (the latter too difficult for me to read for several years), Robert Louis Stevenson's Treasure Island (also difficult), Anna Sewell's Black Beauty, and Quentin Reynold's Custer's Last Stand, which I received when I was five years old. I still remember Reynold's description of Custer as one-third English, one-third Dutch, and one-third German, "a real, one hundred per cent American." I'm not sure if he could get away with saying that today. But the phrase stuck with me, since my ancestry was, more or less, the same. (Today, my immediate family extends from Iran to India and on to China.)

Far off in the mist of time I remember being enthralled by Rin Tin Tin, Spike of Swift River, Ribsy, My Friend Flicka, the Hardy Boys and the Tom Swift stories. I even came across one or two Horatio Alger tales—maybe Ragged Dick.

From the sixth grade through at least my Freshman year in high school, I lived one house away from the Gresham Public Library and spent my weekends there, devouring books. (There's a photo of this beautiful site, now having attained historic status, in my bio. Gresham is located just outside Portland, Oregon. In those days it was a small town of about 5,000 people.)

My wife hates it when I brag, but permit me one immodest example of my early love of reading. My seventh-grade teacher hung a chart in her classroom and gave us a star for each book we read and wrote a report on. For me, before long, she had to switch to a different colored star, each representing ten books. (She explained this to me privately, saying the reason was so as not to intimidate the other kids with a long row of stars after my name.) I read seventy-some books that quarter while everyone else did five or six. (Hey, we had no TV!) But I did love to read (and I was probably competitive, too!). End of bragging!

I don't remember too many titles from those years (maybe that's what comes from tearing through too many). A few come to mind—Run Silent, Run Deep, for example, and I recall going through sports books, one on the Kansas City A's, if I remember correctly, long before that team became the Oakland Athletics. And westerns were a favorite for a while. Daniel Boone, Davy Crockett, Kit Carson, the Alamo, Sergeant Preston of the Yukon.

I tried every week to get into the side of the room reserved for adults, but the librarian never let me. I doubt there was anything racy there; I just wanted access to everything. In fact, the two raciest things I stumbled across in my youth were first a Readers Digest Condensed Book in my grandparents basement in Spokane, which had a story that opened with a description of a day so hot that the protagonist was lying nude on a bed (seemed risqué at the time!), and second (this, however, years later), a tattered copy of Peyton Place that I found at the side of the road while I was walking home from high school after basketball practice one night. I read anything I could get my hands on! I suppose the most adult thing, in the sense of horrifying for a kid, was religious—Fox's Book of Martyrs, which was in my dad's library. Pretty gruesome.

In high school, I went through the usual phases. J. D. Salinger, of course. The Catcher in the Rye is still a book I read once a decade. W. Somerset Maugham was another favorite. Not only Of Human Bondage but nine or ten of his minor works as well. And then came the turn of Fitzgerald and Hemingway. I loved them both and read most of their works, continuing on through my undergraduate years. I rediscovered Mark Twain, from Roughing It to A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court and numerous other minor works. Then Melville and Conrad. Faulkner I just couldn't read.

Updike had his season. Rabbit, Run, of course. The Centaur struck me with its originality, and then it was Bellow's turn. Herzog blew me away, as did Henderson the Rain King, and I went on to read several of his other early works, though with less enjoyment. Doctorow, Vonnegut, Walker Percy, and John Fowles came along there somewhere. And I can't forget Kerouac. A little Graham Greene and Robert Stone. I thought A Flag for Sunrise was a great novel. John Irving I discovered with The Water-Method Man, then went on to read everything before Garp and most everything that has followed. I also can't resist a Pat Conroy novel. Man, that guy has written some great books. Larry McMurtry . . . what a fine series of books.

So all in all a pretty traditional reading course in my early years. I wasn't into horror, or science fiction (although I came across a few of Heinlein's novels and Robert Silverberg's), or even mysteries, though I've read the major authors in the genre.

I've skipped a few writers that I connect to regions of the country where I've lived. At the University of Oregon it was impossible not to come into contact with Ken Kesey. The first time I heard him talk he entered the room wearing shiny crimson-colored boots and spoke about how to be an Indian. One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest was impressive, and Sometimes A Great Notion also rewarding. I and my friends dreamed of being part of an Oregon school (or should I say "pool") of writers.

One mini-disaster occurred at Oregon, by the way. I'd run out of space in my dorm room to store my paper-back library, so I loaned the books to the dorm as a whole. They were kept in a locked case in the lobby for everyone to use. I had a grand total of just over two hundred books or so. One night they were all stolen and never recovered. My dorm mates graciously raised a hundred bucks to give me in their place, and I used that money to help fund my Sophomore year in Pavia, Italy. But I miss those books!

In California, at Berkeley (these were my graduate school years), one of the notable authors I discovered for the first time was Wallace Stegner. I had the pleasure of literally stumbling upon the man himself by accident in a bookstore in San José, where I had gone to read a paper at an academic conference. He was signing a book he'd written, with his son Page having contributed the photos. In addition to a signed copy of Angle of Repose, I managed to get him to mail me a signed copy of The Big Rock Candy Mountain from his personal stash at home. (The bookstore happened to be out of that classic.) For me, that novel is one of the great books of the twentieth century.

Since I'm mentioning authors connected with places that I've lived, I can't forget Tucson and Edward Abbey. Unfortunately, I never had the pleasure of meeting him personally, though we corresponded once, but I have all of his books and highly recommend both The Monkey Wrench Gang and The Fool's Progress. But all his books on the desert are interesting.

back to top

Suspense

Now, before that last paragraph, I skipped the city of Chicago, where my wife and I lived for four years while I taught at Loyola University. It was there that I really began reading heavily in the category of suspense, and those are the authors that I'm going to conclude with.

Let me start with a few minor authors that most people may not have read, but who nevertheless are entertaining. Pulp fiction first. I'm thinking of people like Edward S. Aarons. His novels are short, but they're worth studying (if you're a writer) for how quickly and well he manages to capture character. And, of course, they're action-packed, each set in a different, interesting locale. His hero is Sam Durrell and the novels all begin with the title Assignment . . ., followed by a location or sometimes another term (like Suicide).

I think I'd better discard that term "minor" used above, because the next author I want to mention is Desmond Bagley. You can't do much better than the opening chapter of The Tightrope Men. All his novels are worth reading. But if you haven't read him you might start with the one just mentioned and move on to Running Blind.

Adam Hall's Quiller novels are also quick, fun reads. You might start with The Tango Briefing and then move on to Quiller or maybe The Quiller Memorandum, or any of the others. You can't lose.

Let me mention in passing someone who hasn't written nearly as many thrillers, but whose debut was a well-deserved hit—Anthony Hyde. And I'm referring to The Red Fox. Look for it if you missed it!

All of Charles McCarry's thrillers are top-notch. I think he deserves more recognition. And for romantic suspense I like Robert Goddard. Past Caring is a beautiful novel, a must read.

Now for the biggies. I started out on people like Robert Ludlum and Clive Cussler, so both were influential. My suspense novel, CLOUD COVER (August 2013) is an international thriller in Ludlum's manner (well, I tried), and I'm not sure if I would have written Storm Track without having read Cussler's The Mediterranean Caper. But one of the most influential authors on me and one of my favorites is Jack Higgins (Harry Patterson). I've read over forty of his books, and I like the smaller ones as much as the bigger. His early novels are often little gems; some of the beginning sentences are perfect, and they're great stories in general.

Alongside Higgins, I have to mention David Morrell. I came across his later, bigger books before First Blood, but they're all gripping. It's rare, incidentally, that I go through a semester of teaching Italian literature without mentioning the novel behind Rambo; it's a prime example of relentless pacing. And every writer should also read Morrell's Lessons From a Lifetime of Writing: A Novelist Looks at His Craft.

Very early on, I also came across Thomas Perry, a master craftsman. He's done quite a few good novels over the years, but make sure you read The Butcher's Boy and Metzger's Dog, if you haven't already. They're classics.

Now there are a lot of other writers I could mention whose works fall into this category in one way or another. I've read everything Stuart Woods has ever written. He's such an elegant writer; he makes the difficult seem effortless. And, of course, Elmore Leonard (what fun!), and Nelson DeMille. DeMille's novels are all excellent. Lawrence Block is guaranteed entertainment, whatever the series. Ken Follett is great. And his two historical novels--what an achievement! I especially liked The Pillars of the Earth.

But it feels strange to mention the heavy hitters, since one assumes most readers flock to them anyway. Still, I like and honor all those I've mentioned. I admire the achievement. I could have added John Grisham to that list as well. And I've enjoyed many a novel from writers like William Diehl, Thomas Gifford, Wilbur Smith, John Katzenbach, Carl Hiaasen, and the oldies like Alistair MacLean and Eric Ambler. Whoa, I almost forgot Robert Littell, can't do that. His works are being released again and deservedly so.

I also like Charles Willeford and Charles Williams, both of whose books don't seem quite as easy to find but are worth tracking down. And, in the late 80s, I ran through the books written under the pseudonym of A. J. Quinnell. Man on Fire has finally come out as the movie, and Siege of Silence is very nicely done as well.

There are several newer authors (at least new to me) that I've been enjoying over the last year or two, like Daniel Silva (author of a string of elegant spy thrillers that are a model of how to craft complex yet entertaining suspense) and Dennis Lehane (wow, what a twist in Shutter Island) and many of those whom I've reviewed for Library Journal (for which see the link in the sidebar to the left). Olen Steinhauer's first two novels, The Bridge of Sighs and The Confession, are outstanding. Steve Berry has also hit the field with a big splash—you'll enjoy both The Amber Room and The Romanov Prophecy. Brad Thor, known for his public television series Traveling Lite, has crafted blockbuster thrillers in the action vein of Ludlum and Morrell. You'll enjoy reading him. Start with The Lions of Lucerne. I haven't reviewed John Altman, but I found both A Gathering of Spies and A Game of Spies to be quite good. Joe Finder's Paranoia is a lot of fun also. And Ted Bell, with his swasbuckling hero in Hawke, has learned well the lessons of the masters of adventure.

One writer I don't want to forget is Harlan Coben. You can't skip the seven (and now eight) Myron Bolitar novels! You might as well start with the first, Deal Breaker, if you haven't read these, and then do the next in order. You're in for a treat! If you've read them, you know what I mean.

Well, if I keep going, no one's going to tag along . . . so let me stop. This has been a spur-of-the-moment reminiscence, touching on a few highlights, so I'm sure I've forgotten several authors I'll wish I'd mentioned. And everybody has their own favorites. All I can say in conclusion is KEEP ON READING! And see you in the library or the nearest bookstore!

back to top


Contact Information at ronterpening.com