Page-turners of yesteryear
June 13, 2010 9:31 AM   Subscribe

Recommend me page-turners from before 1990!

I'm always looking for new books to read that I can't put down. I feel like I'm pretty familiar with most of what's come out in the last 20 years or so, so what am I missing that's older?

I probably don't want anything before 1900, but I'm willing to stretch a point if you have something pretty unusual and totally engrossing to suggest.

Some that I have enjoyed:

The Far Pavilions by M.M. Kaye
The Queen's Gambit by Walter Tevis
The Brothers K by David James Duncan
Replay by Ken Grimwood
Time and Again by Jack Finney
Shogun and others by James Clavell
Memoirs of an Invisible Man by HF Saint
Gone With the Wind
Susan Howatch's Church of England books
Anything by Peter O'Donnell or his pseudonym Madeleine Brent

I guess from this list I tend toward the epic, romantic, or SF. I'm not really looking for literary classics (though of course some of them are great reads too).
I've read most of the classic detective fiction--Christie, Stout, Sayers, Francis, Tey, Marsh, Gardner, etc. and SF like Heinlein, Card, LeGuin, Willis, Bujold, Bradley, McCaffrey, Pohl and so on.
I'm looking more for stand-alones rather than series, anyway.
posted by exceptinsects to Writing & Language (51 answers total) 49 users marked this as a favorite
I always recommend Katherine Neville's The Eight, which is history/epic/fantastic (not fantasy, but there is alchemy and a mystical chess set) and pretty cool. It does have a couple romantic subplots, but it's the kind of book where there's a little bit of something for everyone.

There's a sequel, too, The Fire, but it's not nearly as fun or interesting and can easily be skipped unless you're just dying to know what happens many years down the road to some of the characters from the first novel.
posted by miratime at 9:35 AM on June 13, 2010 [1 favorite]

The Eight- Katherine Neville
posted by kimdog at 9:36 AM on June 13, 2010 [1 favorite]

The Stand by Stephen King. Get the extended version.
posted by telegraph at 9:40 AM on June 13, 2010 [3 favorites]

Everything Stephen King wrote between 1974 and 1985 is probably going to fill the bill for you here. A record of sustained page-turny excellence that may never have been matched. Given that you list "epic" and "SF" among your interests I'd put The Stand first on your list. Carrie and The Shining are probably the other consensus highlights.
posted by escabeche at 9:40 AM on June 13, 2010 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Beauty by Sheri S. Tepper is a SF retelling of the Sleeping Beauty tale - amazing.
posted by krikany at 9:50 AM on June 13, 2010

Possession. Epic history and romance.
posted by freshwater at 10:06 AM on June 13, 2010 [1 favorite]

Also, Lord Valentine's Castle. Fantasy-ish SF. Technically the first in a trilogy, but serves very well as a standalone.
posted by freshwater at 10:08 AM on June 13, 2010 [1 favorite]

The Magus by John Fowles (1966)

It's engrossing, romantic, philosophical and somewhat sci-fi.

From Wikipedia: "It tells the story of Nicholas Urfe, a teacher on a small Greek island. Urfe finds himself embroiled in psychological illusions of a master trickster that become increasingly dark and serious."
posted by stungeye at 10:08 AM on June 13, 2010

Best answer: - "A Kiss Before Dying" by Ira Levin (avoid spoilers!)
- "This Perfect Day" by Ira Levin
- The Musketeers books by Alexander Dumas
- "The Moonstone" by Wilke Collins
- "Lonesome Dove" by Larry Mcmurtry
- The Martin Beck mysteries by Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo (read them in order)
posted by grumblebee at 10:11 AM on June 13, 2010 [1 favorite]

You mention "The Queen's Gambit" by Walter Tevis. Have you read Tevis' other books? They are always good reads. Also, check out Jim Thompson.
posted by grumblebee at 10:13 AM on June 13, 2010

Best answer: It's a trilogy, but I found John Varley's Titan, Wizard and Demon very compelling SF.

Forget the movie and the whole Clancy franchise, The Hunt for Red October, his first novel (originally published by The Naval Institute Press - they clearly thought he was cool before he got popular and started to suck) was literally un-put-downable. Like, I had it propped open on the lab bench next to me while I pipetted samples.

In a more romantic vein, Jorge Amado's Gabriela, Clove and Cinnamon was one of those books I was sorry to finish - his portrayal of a sleepy backwater Brazilian town in the 1920s was so delightful I wanted it to just keep going. Not a nail-biting page-turner, but I couldn't wait to dive back in and see what my Brazilian friends were doing next.
posted by Quietgal at 10:14 AM on June 13, 2010

Oh, and of COURSE: Patricia Highsmith! Start with her Ripley Books.
posted by grumblebee at 10:15 AM on June 13, 2010 [2 favorites]

Thirding Stephen King.

Slightly outside your stated interests (it's a medical thriller), but I found Coma by Robin Cook (1977) to be very engrossing.
posted by sigmagalator at 10:19 AM on June 13, 2010

Since someone else brought up Stephen King this time:

The Stand

These are two you need to read before you read pretty much anything else he wrote because they will give you some good feeling for the universe in which he creates his stories. If you can manage to read only part of a series and not feel there is an ending, I would recommend the first three books of the Dark Tower series. I would absolutely not recommend the last two books in that series, and books four and five are just okay. If you feel the need to read the whole series, I would honestly just skip it altogether.

Another novel that I think is fantastic and worth multiple reads is Hearts in Atlantis.

The rest of his works will depend on your preferences.

I also find Dean Koontz's crap pretty engrossing, but I don't kid myself that it's great writing or unique.

I'm pretty obsessed with One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. I also enjoyed The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo as a detective/history/romanticish non romance novel.
posted by Night_owl at 10:21 AM on June 13, 2010

Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson spoiled me for all other contemporary fiction. It was nominated for the Pulitzer and has something of a cult following.
posted by Pamelayne at 10:21 AM on June 13, 2010 [1 favorite]

Snow Crash will blow your mind.
posted by Slinga at 10:50 AM on June 13, 2010 [2 favorites]

The Charm School by Nelson DeMille (1988) is a classic Cold War thriller. I never thought I liked spy/thriller novels until I read this one. As a bonus, they're supposedly making a movie of it Real Soon Now.

The Clan of the Cave Bear by Jean Auel (1980) is a great novel about prehistoric times. You may be inspired to read the rest of the series (and the last book is, praise Bob, finally coming out next March), but they never held up to the excellence of the first one, IMO, so you might want to treat it as a stand-alone.

Books by Thomas Tryon, including The Other (1971) and Harvest Home (1973) are out of print now, but I sought them out on eBay on the advice of a friend and was extremely glad I did. Very gripping and scary.
posted by Addlepated at 11:16 AM on June 13, 2010

Oh, and how could I forget Michael Crichton? The Andromeda Strain (1969) was a real page-turner. But Sphere (1987) had my college roommate and me playing tug-of-war over the paperback and staying up late to talk about the plot. Both had movies made from them (as did Jurassic Park of course), but Crichton is a very engrossing writer.
posted by Addlepated at 11:21 AM on June 13, 2010 [1 favorite]

The first trilogy by Tad Williams, called "Memory, Sorrow and Thorn" was absolutely brilliant. Fantastic series of fantasy.
posted by camworld at 11:21 AM on June 13, 2010 [2 favorites]

You could try Dorothy Dunnett's A Game of Kings. The writing style takes getting used to, but if you do, it's a very gripping read. And if you get hooked, there's a whole series which follows, though the first one stands alone quite well.
posted by tavegyl at 11:23 AM on June 13, 2010 [1 favorite]

Earlier Robert Ludlum and John Le Carre
posted by adamvasco at 11:25 AM on June 13, 2010

Pretty much anything historical by Larry McMurtry (and some of his modern fiction like Terms of Endearment)
James Michener's epics like Texas, Mexico, Alaska, and so on.

A classic pageturner from the 30s is An American Tragedy.
posted by tamitang at 11:35 AM on June 13, 2010

Best answer: Ghost Story by Peter Straub
Ragtime by E. L. Doctorow
Macroscope by Piers Anthony
Babel 17 by Samuel Delany
Don't forget James Michener, most particularly his WWII book, Tales of the South Pacific.
posted by gudrun at 12:31 PM on June 13, 2010

Best answer: I would definitely second The Eight.

As I'm thinking of these books, I keep coming back to those that were made into miniseries that aired on TV in the '80s. So please excuse the bias, but that shouldn't stop you!

Colleen McCullough's books are all over the map, including a set that take place in ancient Rome, but The Thorn Birds is pretty good.

Ken Follett's Pillars of the Earth is quite engrossing (it's about the political and personal battles around construction of a cathedral), and there's a star-studded miniseries version coming up this summer on Starz, so now is the perfect time to read it. It also has a sequel called World Without End, although I haven't read it.

I love John Irving, and if you hit his sweet spot of the late '70s-early '80s, several of his books might appeal to you. They tend to cover quite a few years and deal with some fairly odd situations in such a way that it might hit that "epic" button you're looking for. I'm specifically thinking of The World According to Garp and A Prayer for Owen Meany, which is pretty much my favorite book ever.

How about the original Godfather?

If you don't mind gleeful trash, try any of Sidney Sheldon's books or Lace by Shirley Conran. Again, it was made into a big-time miniseries in the '80s. It spans WWII through the '80s, glamorous European locations, torrid love affairs... but really, all you have to know is whether or not you might enjoy the kind of book in which an international film star named Lili brings three successful, sophisticated women into a luxurious New York hotel room and says, "Which one of you bitches is my mother?"
posted by Madamina at 12:32 PM on June 13, 2010

Also I, Claudius and Claudius the God. Seconding Michener. how about Leon Uris Exodus and Mila 18; and to finish here is TimeĀ“s list of 100 best novels since 1923 many of which were written prior to 1990
posted by adamvasco at 1:18 PM on June 13, 2010 [1 favorite]

Nthing the Stand. It's exactly up your alley.

Seconding John Irving. Not SF or fantasy, but his earlier stuff is just weird and just epic enough that you might like it. Give Hotel New Hampshire a shot - if you like it, you'll probably want to read his other stuff, too.

Midnight's Children is a great, epic page-turner. It takes a bit to get into Rushdie's prose, but once you do, you probably won't be able to put it down.
posted by lunasol at 1:46 PM on June 13, 2010 [1 favorite]

Obligatory mention of The Quincunx by Charles Palliser, published in 1989.
posted by low_horrible_immoral at 1:50 PM on June 13, 2010 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Such good suggestions, though I have read and (mostly) loved many of them-- I, Claudius, Ragtime, Possession, Housekeeping, the Magus, the Eight, Snow Crash, the Moonstone, pretty much all of Stephenson, Irving, Follett, Auel, Crichton, Dumas, Highsmith, older Robin Cook, and the early Ludlums. (Sorry, I read a lot!)
I'm just discovering Samuel Delany and love him.

I did try to read The Stand and somehow I just couldn't get into it. Not sure why not, because it does sound like exactly the kind of thing I like. I enjoyed the Shining and The Green Mile, but I'm a bit leery of the more full-on horror.

Ira Levin is just the kind of thing I'm looking for (I read Stepford Wives and the Boys from Brazil but not the ones you mentioned), and I've read a few McMurtry but I should read more.

Any more suggestions? :-)
posted by exceptinsects at 2:07 PM on June 13, 2010

Best answer: Two writers of detective fiction that are absent from your list: Nicolas Freeling and Janwillem van de Wetering. Freeling's novels are a bit dark and psychological; v.d.Wetering's are bright and fantastic. The history of each man is interesting in its own right. The books don't suffer from serialitis so each is entirely readable on its own.

In SF you might want to check out Lois McMaster Bujold's Barrayar series.
posted by jet_silver at 2:28 PM on June 13, 2010

Best answer: Polar Star, by Martin Cruz Smith (1989). The second book in what has become a series featuring the Moscow investigator Renko Arkady, from Gorky Park. Very uputdownable.
posted by Bron at 2:32 PM on June 13, 2010

Best answer: Well, if you're digging Delany, you should read The Stars My Destination, by Alfred Bester, if you haven't already. Also James Tiptree, Jr.'s stuff (just short stories & novellas; 'Her Smoke Rose Up Forever' is the name of the collection.)

I'll nth Lonesome Dove, what a gorgeous read that is... I really enjoyed the Travis McGee books, by John MacDonald. Ross MacDonald (no relation) and Elmore Leonard also write some fine crime novels.

Didn't think I'd like it, but I loved The Prince of Tides, by Pat Conroy (1986). The movie was ok, but boy, did they leave a lot out. Very Southern Gothic, melodramatic, with lush, overgrown prose.
posted by Bron at 3:06 PM on June 13, 2010

Winters Tale by Mark Helprin. Fantastical story (mostly) set in an alternate New York. Incredible poetic writing in prose.

I'll add his A Soldier of the Great War too, although that was published in 1991.
posted by elendil71 at 3:06 PM on June 13, 2010 [1 favorite]

Have you read any Frederick Forsyth?
posted by gudrun at 3:34 PM on June 13, 2010

Little, Big by John Crowley
Hawksmoor or First Light by Peter Ackroyd

And seconding the Quincunx, Winter's Tale and Possesion. You don't mention LeGuin, but I'll assume that was an oversight since with your tastes and her acclaim you couldn't possibly have missed her. Right?
posted by cali at 3:42 PM on June 13, 2010 [1 favorite]

I'm going to go out on a limb, and suggest a book from 1889, and a comedy at that: Jerome K. Jerome's Three Men in a Boat. I read it last year and found it totally engrossing, and the humor surprisingly modern.
posted by fings at 3:45 PM on June 13, 2010 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: I did mention LeGuin! :-)

Also, I LOVE Winter's Tale. Quincunx was good too.
posted by exceptinsects at 3:55 PM on June 13, 2010

Best answer: Have you read any of C. J. Cherryh's SF? - Downbelow Station and Merchanter's Luck particularly are what I am thinking of.
posted by gudrun at 4:14 PM on June 13, 2010

Best answer: I have to disagree with Night_Owl, who says that "The Stand" and "IT" give a feel for the universe in which S King creates his stories. There are (at least) two really different strains of Stephen King books; one of them, the "epic SF" strand, starts with The Stand, also includes The Talisman, all of Dark Tower, and to a certain extent It and Insomnia. The other, the more "straight horror" group, starts with Carrie and includes just about everything else in the classic period apart from The Stand and "Apt Pupil" and "The Body" and "R Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption," which, now that I think of it, start a third strand of stories, which we can call "I'm interested in mainstream literary cred and will write books w/o explicit supernatural content if that's what it takes."

What I'm trying to say is, OPP liked The Shining and not The Stand, which suggests to me not that King is wrong for him, but that he should read Carrie and Firestarter, but not The Talisman (doesn't like The Stand) and not Salem's Lot (doesn't want "full-on horror") and then if he likes those two, he can read the ones about which opinions are more mixed -- The Dead Zone and Pet Sematary and Cujo.

And of course, I was neglectful in my original answer in not singing out a terrific early-period King piece which is masterfully suspenseful, a little SF, not supernatural at all, and that is "The Running Man."
posted by escabeche at 6:08 PM on June 13, 2010

Best answer: Nice question.

I did come in to recommend Pillars of the Earth, want to make sure you're familiar with the Mars Trilogy by Kim Stanley Robinson, The Count of Monte Christo, The War of Don Emmanuels Nether Parts, The Sword of Shannara (I know, I know, it's a knockoff but I enjoyed it enormously before I read the lord of the rings, The Power of One,

If you like your swashbuckling I recommend Hornblower over Aubrey Maturin every time.
posted by mearls at 6:48 PM on June 13, 2010

Best answer: Wow, all cool suggestions here.

Also suggesting the detective fiction Martin Beck series by the writing team of Maj Sjowall & Per Wahloo. I think the series begins with Roseanna. Fascinating, gruesome and hilarious.
posted by ovvl at 7:20 PM on June 13, 2010

Damnit mearls, I just stopped in to recommend CS Forrester's Horatio Hornblower novels. I would also recommend john le Carre 's novels especially the Quest for Karla series and A Most Perfect Spy.
posted by nestor_makhno at 7:23 PM on June 13, 2010

Best answer: escabeche, I basically agree with your divisions of Stephen King's books. But it took me several tries to make it through The Stand, even when I was blowing my way through every Stephen King novel my local library had on its shelves. The Stand is just really HUGE - you have to commit to reading it. If you can get into it, it does start to flow pretty well - but if you're not in the right mood for it, and it doesn't happen to grab you right away, it's really easy to abandon it instead. That said, there are other titles of his in the Dark Tower-related group that were easier for me to get into. Besides the ones you mentioned, The Eyes of the Dragon (which is unique - about as straight-up fantasy as King ever gets) and Rose Madder come to mind. It's really a matter of personal preference, but I do think it's possible that the OP wasn't turned off by the content of that "epic SF strand," just by the particular nature of The Stand.

Your suggestion of The Running Man is excellent, though. I also liked The Long Walk, another novel that Stephen King wrote under the psuedonym of Richard Bachman.
posted by sigmagalator at 10:21 PM on June 13, 2010

I would heartily second Bujold's Vorkosigan Saga, which I'm actually re-reading just a few months after reading the whole for the first time -- because it's just that good.

And when you run out of those, you can read Bujold's equally excellent fantasy novels.
posted by jb at 10:27 PM on June 13, 2010 [1 favorite]

The Gormenghast books
posted by Glow Bucket at 6:07 AM on June 14, 2010 [1 favorite]

... by Mervy Peake
posted by Glow Bucket at 6:07 AM on June 14, 2010

Mervyn, sorry.
posted by Glow Bucket at 6:08 AM on June 14, 2010

If you liked the Moonstone, I suppose you've read The Woman in White, but if not, well, DO!
It's the very definition of gripping.
posted by dpcoffin at 9:54 AM on June 14, 2010 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thanks everyone for the amazing suggestions. I have my beach reading all set!

I marked Best Answers for all the ones I'm ordering from the library, and favorited the ones I've read and liked in case other people are using this for recommendations and think you might have similar taste in reading.

escabeche and sigmagalator, I think I'll have to try Carrie and also maybe give The Stand another chance since I've enjoyed your discussion so much! (and ps I'm actually female)

Feel free to keep adding!
posted by exceptinsects at 11:40 AM on June 14, 2010

Not just the Musketeers books... most works by Dumas qualify. The Count of Monte Cristo ranked very low on my subjective putdownability scale.
posted by painquale at 4:12 PM on June 14, 2010 [1 favorite]

Ah, you've read Bujold, and like her -- you clearly have excellent taste! (and you've read my childhood favourite, the Far Pavilions)

I'll assume you've heard of Asimov ...

Joan D. Vinge, Psion and its sequels?

Jacqueline Lichtenberg & Jean Lorrah's Sime-Gen series?

Robin Hobb? (anything is great -- the Farseer Trilogy is a good place to start.

Kate Elliott has a good epic 6 (or 7, depending on the printing) volume series called Crown of Stars -- good series, and unlike some multivolume works, it's all finished. (I don't read multivolume stories until all the volumes are out -- too frustrating, otherwise).

The Girl from the Emeraline Island is an old favourite of mine -- much harder to find in the olden days, before Amazon.

I'm not that old myself, so these suggestions aren't so old -- Robin Hobb used to write under the name of Megan Lindholm, and it's worth checking out her back catelogue -- I read Cloven Hooves ages ago (early 90s), and really liked it.

There's also the back catelogues of stalwart SF&F authors like Andre Norton -- she was so prolific. I'm a fan of Jane Yolen -- some of her work is for kids, but much is more complicated as well -- I just found my copies of The Cards of Grief and The Books of Great Alta again after several years, and I'm looking forward to rereading them.
posted by jb at 7:05 PM on June 14, 2010

Apparently, Tigana is 20 years old now -- I never knew what kind of success Kay has had outside of Canada, but this was always my favourite, even if my beloved Toronto makes its cameo appearance in his earlier *Finovar* trilogy.
posted by jb at 7:10 PM on June 14, 2010

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