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Jennifer Weiner's Top Ten List
1. Geek Love by Katherine Dunn (1989). In this wild, oddball novel, Lily and Art Binewski purposely create a family of freaks and geeks by procreating under the influence of experimental drugs. This genetically altered “family” travels as a circus. Dunn’s carnival of misfits is a memorable, darkly funny, and emotionally trenchant portrait of love and family on the fringe.
2. The Stand by Stephen King (1978). This vivid apocalyptic tale with dozens of finely drawn characters begins with the military’s mistaken release of a deadly superflu that wipes out almost everyone on earth. The few survivors, spread out across the barren United States, are visited in their dreams by a kindly old woman in Nebraska and a sinister man in the West. They begin making their way toward these separate camps for what will prove to be a last stand between the forces of good and evil.
3. Almost Paradise (1984) and Shining Through (1988) by Susan Isaacs. The best-selling author’s gift for creating strong heroines and crisp dialogue are on display in these engrossing tales of romance. Almost Paradise examines the price a married couple —he’s a blue-eyed blue-blooded movie star, she’s a brilliant, half-Jewish woman with a less than illustrious pedigree —pay for fame. Set before and during World War II, Shining Through mixes romance with espionage as a poor girl from Queens marries the most handsome lawyer on Wall Street and eventually is sent on a secret mission to wartime Berlin.
4. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith (1943). Despite its hopeful title, this coming-of-age story set in 1912 offers an unflinching look at poverty, cruelty, sex, and death. As we watch eleven-year-old Francie Nolan vie with her favored brother for their mother’s love and deal resourcefully with privations and prejudice, Smith offers frank depictions of tenement squalor through the eyes of her resilient heroine.
5. Sheila Levine Is Dead and Living in New York by Gail Parent (1972). Perhaps the funniest suicide note ever written, this novel is the last goodbye of a single New York woman. When Shelia Levine hits thirty she decides it’s time to tie the knot. But finding a proper mate proves impossible in swinging Manhattan and her quest turns to hopeless despair in this clever, insightful, and often heartbreaking book.
6. Pearl by Tabitha King (1988). A small inheritance brings Pearl Dickenson —a smart, resourceful, and independent African American woman —to rural Maine. She stays for the peace and security it seems to offer. She takes over a local diner and takes on two lovers, both of whom have troubled pasts. These liaisons turn to trouble, threatening Pearl and her community.
7. Everybody Pays by Andrew Vachss (1999). A master of the amped-up, neonoir style, whose work reflects a deep concern with child abuse and a taste for raw vengeance, Vachss offers here forty-four stomach-churning stories featuring prostitutes and pederasts, neo-Nazis and savage punks, hit men and kidnappers, who inhabit a world where merciless street justice provides the only brake on evil.
8. A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving (1989). Set in a vividly drawn New Hampshire town in the 1950s and 1960s, this novel’s title character is a tiny boy with a “wrecked voice” and no talent for baseball. In fact, the only ball he hits kills the mother of his best friend, narrator Johnny Wheelwright. Owen’s disabilities make him the butt of jokes, yet he believes he is an “instrument of God.” Familiar Irving hijinks and humor abound in this story, which delivers a stirring meditation on history, hypocrisy, social justice, and faith.
9. Rule of the Bone by Russell Banks (1995). Holden Caulfield meets Dean Moriarty in this sprawling coming-of-age story narrated with crisp assurance by a fourteen-year-old runaway. A victim of parental neglect, this lost, angry boy who names himself Bone commits crimes and acts of violence. After saving a seven-year-old boy from a pedophile, he lives in an abandoned bus with a pot-dealing Rastafarian. Together they travel to Jamaica where strange and murderous events take place as this wounded boy finds and defines himself.
10. The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood (1986). Atwood offers another piercing fiction about humankind’s place in nature and women’s place in society in this chilling futuristic novel in which widespread sterility has led to totalitarian control of procreation. Offred has been forced into service as a Handmaid and will become a surrogate mother if the Commander manages to impregnate her before his embittered wife harms her. Garbed in a red habit and living like a slave, Offred covertly records her harrowing story, finding freedom in preserving her observations and in expressing her mordant wit and unnerving wisdom.