My Top Ten List

Photo of Krista Bowers Sharpe

Krista Bowers Sharpe

Assistant Professor & Reference Librarian, WIU Libraries

Hometown: Atlantic, IA
Colleges: Northwestern College (IA), University of Iowa, WIU
Favorite Book: Possession by A.S. Byatt
Favorite TV Show: Spiral (French: Engrenages)
Favorite Movie: Tampopo

This isn't really a top-ten list, because I can't pick 10 favorites when it comes to books. So here is my super-long descriptive list title:

The ten books by women authors I've read in my book club* during the past 20 years that have stuck with me the most

The descriptions are lifted from publisher blurbs with a little editing (thank you, Amazon), but I've added comments.

    Photo of Congolese in Bongandanga district

    Black and white lantern slide showing a large group of Congolese men, women and children with a native evangelist at Eala, in the Bongandanga district, Congo. From Wikimedia Commons.

  • Poisonwood Bible / Barbara Kingsolver [Malpass PBK K55.1 po] "The Poisonwood Bible is a story told by the wife and four daughters of Nathan Price, a fierce, evangelical Baptist who takes his family and mission to the Belgian Congo in 1959. They carry with them everything they believe they will need from home, but soon find that all of it — from garden seeds to Scripture — is calamitously transformed on African soil. What follows is a suspenseful epic of one family's tragic undoing and remarkable reconstruction over the course of three decades in postcolonial Africa." I love books written in different voices, and Kingsolver does a masterful job of telling an incredibly compelling story from several unique yet entirely believable points-of-view. The book has so much to say about hubris and plans gone awry.

  • The Moonflower Vine / Jetta Carleton [Malpass PS3553.A68893 M66 2009] "On a farm in western Missouri during the first half of the twentieth century, Matthew and Callie Soames create a life for themselves and raise four headstrong daughters. Over the decades they will love, deceive, comfort, forgive—and, ultimately, they will come to cherish all the more fiercely the bonds of love that hold the family together." Again, this book offers a compelling plot that is told and re-told from several different characters' standpoints. It is atmospheric and emotionally real and beautiful.

  • Station Eleven / Emily St. John Mandel [Malpass PR9199.4.S727 S73 2014] "Kirsten Raymonde will never forget the night Arthur Leander, the famous Hollywood actor, had a heart attack on stage. That was the night when a devastating flu pandemic arrived in the city, and within weeks, civilization as we know it came to an end. Twenty years later, Kirsten moves between the settlements of the altered world, meeting actors and prophets. And as the story takes off, moving back and forth in time, vividly depicting life before and after the pandemic, the strange twist of fate that connects them all will be revealed." Not only do I love stories involving multiple viewpoints, I also love stories that jump between several time frames. This short debut novel could be classified as a dystopia but somehow rises above the tragic circumstances described and is hopeful and beautiful.

  • The Time Traveler's Wife / Audrey Niffenegger [Malpass PBK N683 ti] "This is the celebrated tale of Henry DeTamble, an adventuresome librarian who inadvertently travels through time, and Clare Abshire, an artist whose life takes a natural sequential course. Henry and Clare's love story endures across a sea of time and captures them in an impossibly romantic trap that tests the strength of fate and basks in the bonds of love." Ignore the schlocky plot summary and the film adaptation and don't obsess about the mechanics of time travel: I read this book as a meditation on identity and self and how they change through time. Are we the same at 10 as we are at 20? If you had met me 20 years ago, exactly whom would you have met?

  • Depiction of Grace Marks and James McDermott

    Depiction of Grace Marks and James McDermott during the trial. Courtesy of Toronto Public Library.

  • Alias Grace / Margaret Atwood [Available via Interlibrary Loan] "It's 1843, and Grace Marks has been convicted for her involvement in the vicious murders of her employer and his housekeeper and mistress. Some believe Grace is innocent; others think her evil or insane. Now serving a life sentence, Grace claims to have no memory of the murders. An up-and-coming expert in the burgeoning field of mental illness is engaged by a group of reformers and spiritualists who seek a pardon for Grace. He listens to her story while bringing her closer and closer to the day she cannot remember. What will he find in attempting to unlock her memories?" This book is based on a historical crime in Canada. In addition to a gripping tale, what I love about it is the intricate picture that Atwood paints of everyday life through her detailed description of a servant's daily routine and duties.

  • The Sparrow / Mary Doria Russell [Available via Interlibrary Loan] "A visionary work that combines speculative fiction with deep philosophical inquiry, The Sparrow tells the story of a charismatic Jesuit priest and linguist, Emilio Sandoz, who leads a scientific mission entrusted with a profound task: to make first contact with intelligent extraterrestrial life. The mission begins in faith, hope, and beauty, but a series of small misunderstandings brings it to a catastrophic end." Similar to Carl Sagan's Contact, but with a religious twist. As a long-time fan of the Star Trek franchise, I have always found the ethical and moral dilemmas inherent in humans' first contact with an alien race to be extremely compelling, and Russell tells the story chillingly well.

  • Photo of Wikipedia Definition for Casual Vacancy


  • The Casual Vacancy / J. K. Rowling [Malpass PBK R884 cv 2014] "When Barry Fairbrother dies in his early forties, the town of Pagford is left in shock. Pagford is, seemingly, an English idyll, but what lies behind the pretty façade is a town at war. And the empty seat left by Barry on the parish council soon becomes the catalyst for the biggest war the town has yet seen. Who will triumph in an election fraught with passion, duplicity, and unexpected revelations?" I had heard so many bad things about this book that I didn't get around to reading it until my book club chose it. All you haters, I'm not going to apologize: I thought it was a good read that was full of convincing relationships, dark humor, and wry observations on man's inhumanity to man. But it is NOT a Harry Potter book nor is it kind or gentle. It's powerful.

  • Photo of Signage depicting support of white tenancy

    Sign opposite the Sojourner Truth homes, a new U.S. federal housing project in Detroit, Michigan, February 1942. From Wikimedia Commons.

  • The Warmth of Other Suns / Isabel Wilkerson [Malpass E185.6 .W685 2010] "In this epic, beautifully written masterwork, Isabel Wilkerson chronicles one of the great untold stories of American history: the decades-long migration of black citizens who fled the South for northern and western cities, in search of a better life. Wilkerson interviewed more than a thousand people, and gained access to new data and official records, but also focuses on the lives of three unique individuals." This book is very thick and I don't read much nonfiction, so I probably never would have read it on my own. But it was worth it. I expected to learn about the treatment of African Americans in the Jim Crow south and was not disappointed. What I didn't expect to learn about was the subtly different yet equally demeaning experiences that they had once they reached their northern and western destinations. An eye-opening and heart-breaking read.

  • Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight / Alexandra Fuller [Malpass DT2990 .F85 2003] "In Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight, Alexandra Fuller remembers her African childhood with visceral authenticity. Though it is a diary of an unruly life in an often inhospitable place, it is suffused with Fuller's endearing ability to find laughter, even when there is little to celebrate. Fuller's debut is unsentimental and unflinching but always captivating. In wry and sometimes hilarious prose, she stares down disaster and looks back with rage and love at the life of an extraordinary family in an extraordinary time." Visceral is a great word to describe this book. It is terrifying and heartbreaking in many places but so full of vitality and an amazing generosity towards Fuller's parents, who were very far from perfect. A little window on a certain place and time, observed by a skilled writer.

  • White Teeth / Zadie Smith [QUAD. 823.914 S664wt 2001] "In Smith's debut novel, unlikely friends and hapless veterans of World War II, Archie Jones and Samad Iqbal and their families become agents of England's irrevocable transformation. Set against London's racial and cultural tapestry, venturing across the former empire and into the past as it barrels toward the future, White Teeth revels in the ecstatic hodgepodge of modern life, flirting with disaster, confounding expectations, and embracing the comedy of daily existence." This is a crazy ride through the second half of twentieth-century Britain. Not always believable, but full of life and wonderful characters and interesting observations on the strange conglomeration of life-stories, ethnicities, religions, and classes that make up modern British society.

*(University Women's Literature & Discussion Group). But wait, there's more! I want to put in a plug for the also-rans: A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki, Year of Wonders by Geraldine Brooks, The Cutting Room by Louise Welch, Where'd You Go, Bernadette? by Maria Semple, The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern, The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy, A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan, Room by Emma Donoghue, The Signature of All Things by Elisabeth Gilbert, State of Wonder by Ann Patchett, A Short History of Women by Kate Walbert, A History of Love by Alison Krauss, and The Boys of My Youth by JoAnne Beard, and others I'm sure I'm forgetting.