Likeable characters with lives I might want to live vicariously
February 8, 2013 5:38 PM   Subscribe

I've been reading a lot of bleak books lately, often with antiheroes. Now I would like the opposite of that. I don't mind if some bad things happen, of course, or if there's conflict - usually that's kind of necessary for a good story. But I would like it if at least one of the main characters were someone I would want to be friends with. And if some of the stuff that they do or that happens in their lives makes me smile.

I like mystery novels (esp "cosies" like Agatha Christie, Ngaio Marsh, Dorothy Sayers, but also e.g. Laurie R King, Ruth Rendell, Elizabeth George, Patricia Cornwell) some sci-fi (e.g. Iain Banks, Charles Stross, Neil Stephenson, Vernor Vinge, Dan Simmons) and otherwise mainly non-genre stuff. Not usually a fan of historical fiction, but I've read a few that I enjoyed. I rarely like fantasy (exceptions are Terry Pratchett, Charles Stross's Laundry series, Lois Bujold, Neil Gaiman), am not a fan of thrillers and I've never really met a romance novel I liked. "Chick-lit" is okay if a romance isn't the only plot point. Young adult fiction is fine too.

Bonus difficulty: I would like to borrow these books from my local library. It does get new books on a good schedule, so being recently published isn't a problem, but it is still quite small and doesn't tend to have little-known books. So things that have been popular in book clubs or at least where you know one or two other people who have read it are more likely to be available.
posted by lollusc to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (53 answers total) 80 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: Anything by Connie Willis
posted by Ideefixe at 5:43 PM on February 8, 2013 [8 favorites]

Who wouldn't want to be friends with Jane Austen's "Emma"? I highly recommend this if you haven't yet read it. I'm not a huge fan of this era (I've really enjoyed reading Neal Stephenson, for example), but "Emma" is wonderful.
posted by amtho at 5:44 PM on February 8, 2013 [1 favorite]

Don't judge me...but I loved Janet Evanovich.
posted by taff at 5:44 PM on February 8, 2013 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Jerome K Jerome's Three Men in a Boat

Anything by PG Wodehouse, maybe Summer Lightening
posted by pseudonick at 5:50 PM on February 8, 2013 [4 favorites]

Also!!! Bloody brilliant..."PM Newton The Old School". Ex Sydney detective turned crime writer. A bloody good read. And our local library was happy to buy it when I asked, as Newton is Australian.

Hanging for the second one in the series to be published! According to twitter, final draft with the editor now.

And it's NOTHING like Janet Evanovich. But has a great protagonist (Nhu "Ned" Kelly) and some really recognisable characters.

Full disclosure, I met Newton mid-prostration, in the foothills of the Himalyas 15 years ago. (Newton's prostration, not mine.)
posted by taff at 5:52 PM on February 8, 2013

Literary friends I'd like to meet:

Daisy Fay from Daisy Fay and the Miracle Man by Fannie Flagg
Francie from A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith
Dorothy Parker. Okay, she's not a fictional character, but the Dot of the incredible book and dramatic reviews of the 1930s? Damn.
posted by mynameisluka at 5:53 PM on February 8, 2013 [3 favorites]

First thing to come to mind was Motherless Brooklyn, a rather unique take on a classic mystery/detective novel with an oddly likeable main character.
posted by mannequito at 5:55 PM on February 8, 2013 [2 favorites]

Possibly from a recommendation in an Ask question I can't find again, I recently started reading Sarah Caudwell, who reminds me strongly of Dorothy Sayers and Connie Willis.
posted by nonane at 5:57 PM on February 8, 2013 [5 favorites]

Response by poster: (I've realised I can't really mark 'best answers' until I try the recommendations, so for now I am going through and favouriting anything that I haven't already read that looks like it fits the bill when I google for more info. If I haven't favourited your answer, it's probably because I've already read it, e.g. Austen, Evanovich, Wodehouse, etc).
posted by lollusc at 6:11 PM on February 8, 2013

Best answer: Mr Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore was published late last year, so there may be a wait but your library is likely to have a copy. Several likeable characters and good mystery in that one.

This is old, but very upbeat: The Twenty-One Balloons by William Pene du Bois
posted by soelo at 6:12 PM on February 8, 2013 [2 favorites]

Van Reid's Moosepath League books, especially Cordelia Underwood.
posted by Emera Gratia at 6:29 PM on February 8, 2013 [1 favorite]

Also, I second the recommendation for Jerome K. Jerome's "Three Men in a Boat," with Connie Willis's "To Say Nothing of the Dog" directly after--so much fun!
posted by Emera Gratia at 6:32 PM on February 8, 2013 [1 favorite]

the Anne of Green Gables series by L. M. Montgomery.
posted by fingersandtoes at 6:36 PM on February 8, 2013 [5 favorites]

Iain M Banks "The Algebraist" has a pretty neat protagonist, or Neil Stephenson's Snowcrash.
Have you read Schismatrix by Bruce Stirling? Or possibly the protagonists of Alastair Reynold's Revelation Space books are pretty neat adventures.
posted by nickggully at 6:37 PM on February 8, 2013 [1 favorite]

I really like the Sue Grafton 'Alphabet' series. Kinsey Millhone is a very likeable character.
posted by essexjan at 6:42 PM on February 8, 2013 [2 favorites]

Oh, I'd also recommend Marian Keyes, who writes a very superior kind of Chick Lit, far more serious than the marketing would lead you to believe. She covers topics such as addiction, bereavement, depression, domestic violence, but with sensitivity and wit usually missing in most Chick List.

I also like Nicci French, a husband and wife team who write gripping mysteries.

Have you read Barbara Vine? That's Ruth Rendell under another name.
posted by essexjan at 6:45 PM on February 8, 2013

The Automatic Detective by A. Lee Martinez is a genre bender - part Futurama-esque future and part detective noir. Mack Megaton is an advanced KillBot who developed the "free will glitch" and gave up being a slave soldier to work as a cabby. When his neighbours get into trouble, he goes off to try to save them. Mack's a great character and an interesting examination of artificial intelligence. This is funny and easy to read - I love how it deliberately doesn't take itself too seriously.

In fact, the other A. Lee Martinez characters in his first three (unrelated) books are also grade-A people (who might in other company not really be considered "people").

In Gil's All Fright Diner, the protagonists are a middle-aged vampire (with a comb-over) and a grumpy but good hearted werewolf. The antagonist is a highschool Japanese girl (adopted) in rural America who's raising heck primarily because she's just bored out her mind.

The protagonist in In the Company of Ogres is an accountant named Never-Dead Ned who dies a whole lot, embarassingly and inconveniently usually but keeps being resurrected, who's just been assigned to reform a battalion of the-worst-of-the-worst soldiers... and because he's such a standup guy...

In The Nameless Witch, the eponymous title character is a young undead witch who's marvelously attractive, a neigh insurmountable disability for being a witch, who constantly craves to consume human flesh yet wants to live with and help other people while on a quest to avenge her mentor's death with a potential but gravely inappropriate romantic interest. Two of her companions are an absolute hoot - a demonic duck familiar and a very interesting take on the idea of "Trolls."
posted by porpoise at 6:57 PM on February 8, 2013 [3 favorites]

<smacks forehead> Can't believe it wasn't the first thing in my mind, or that it hasn't been mentioned yet.

Spider Robinson's Callahan's series. A whole bunch of the villains are loveable, too. That said, there are also hidden "anti-heroes" that you may be shocked when/how they are revealed to be so, but even some "anti-heroes" can still be loved.

The early darker more human stuff is the best (and the 'spinoff' Lady Sally books are great too, if a little bit "racey") but I've been terribly disappointed with the last three or so (I suspect that Spider became not unhappy in his personal life. Parenthood changes people. And financial security.).
posted by porpoise at 7:09 PM on February 8, 2013

Best answer: Ok, sorry, last one.

The Stainless Steel Rat, aka James "Slippery Jim" DiGriz. He's a cad and a mountebank but a fine gentleman person (and later, loving father). He's a classical anti-hero who's loveable and someone whom someone might possibly wish to live vicariously through. He's one of those "ethical" confidence artistes. Personality wise, a funny and pranky (early movies) James Bond.

The setting is kinda like art-deco sci-fi but could just as easily be 1960's California.
posted by porpoise at 7:20 PM on February 8, 2013 [2 favorites]

Alan Bradley's Flavia de Luce mysteries. So so so good!
posted by aviatrix at 7:29 PM on February 8, 2013 [2 favorites]

I've never read a Maeve Binchy book that didn't have at least one character (and usually several) that I would want to be friends with.

Since you enjoy cosies you might like the Aunt Dimity books by Nancy Atherton and Corinna Chapman's Earthly Delights books by Kerry Greenwood if you haven't already read them.

Cheaper by the Dozen by Frank Bunker Gilbreth Jr and Ernestine Gilbreth Carey.

Little Altars Everywhere, etc by Rebecca Wells.

Julia's child by Sarah Pinneo
posted by Lay Off The Books at 7:33 PM on February 8, 2013 [2 favorites]

I recently asked this somewhat similar question and got a lot of great suggestions.
posted by lunasol at 7:40 PM on February 8, 2013

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay is pretty fantastic with some very likeable characters. The Yiddish Policeman's Union, also by Michael Chabon, is similarly good.

Alexander McCall Smith is my go-to writer (well, him and Wodehouse) when I just want to read something pleasant and well-written and full of nice people. I like the No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency mystery series and all the stuff he writes set in Edinburgh.
posted by sonmi at 7:41 PM on February 8, 2013 [1 favorite]

I love Jane Haddam's series, about Armenian-American detective Gregor Demarkian - start at the beginning if you can. Not a Creature Was Stirring was the first.

Also I'd like to recommend Rules of Civility. I read it last year and I loved it. It isn't the kind of thing I normally read - like you, I don't like historical fiction of any kind, and I thought this would be a period piece, but I was so pleasantly surprised. And I would have totally been Katey's friend and drinking buddy.
posted by lyssabee at 7:43 PM on February 8, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: The Clan Korval novels in the Liaden Universe. That collection has the titles you want, but your library may have them under very different titles--they've gone through numerous re-issues in multiple omnibus editions with other names.

It's possible your library has The Uncommon Reader.

The Anthony Villiers novels are much less likely to be there, but who knows.
posted by Monsieur Caution at 7:52 PM on February 8, 2013 [2 favorites]

Have you tried the M-less Banks? They're never totally free of dark, but the two nonSF fluffy-bunnies books are The Crow Road and Espedair Street. Both have likeable-enough main characters, some bad things happen but, well, nobody ends up being furniture.

Or Christopher Brookmyre? The ones with Jack Parlabane less so as he can be a bit strident, but there are a whole bunch of other books that have at least one character who doesn't know (s)he is a badass but finds out, and they're good fun. One Fine Day in the Middle of the Night is as good a place to start as any.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 8:17 PM on February 8, 2013

In lunasol's previous question thread, I recommended anything by Elinor Lipman or Laurie Colwin. I will also add

The Pursuit of Love & Love in a Cold Climate: Two Novels by Nancy Mitford.

The Restoration of Emily, by Kim Moritsugu.

The Republic of Love, by Carol Shields.

The Diviners, by Margaret Laurence.
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 8:18 PM on February 8, 2013 [3 favorites]

I know you said you weren't wild about historical fiction, but I'd like to recommend Wolf Hall to you. We follow the career of Thomas Cromwell, and his various family members and associates in and around the court of Henry VIII. Cromwell is portrayed as being wonderfully capable, wearily humorous, wily, affectionate and clever (I may have left some effusive descriptions out), and his associates are also generally pretty clever and funny people, too. It is one of the few books I have been truly saddened to finish, I had quite a crush on Cromwell by the end. (I think Wolf Hall is better than its sequel, Bring Up The Bodies.)

I also found I liked the characters in the Dragon Tattoo series like that, too. I was wildly fond of both Salander and Blomkvist (and craved sandwiches CONSTANTLY while reading these books - it seems like these fictional Swedes stop for coffee and delicious sounding sandwiches every five minutes or so). These books are quite sad in some ways, but not depressing (and of course they are full of thrills and adventures).
posted by thylacinthine at 8:19 PM on February 8, 2013

Janet Evanovich's books are a crack-up and everyone I know who's read them would like to be friends with her protagonist, Stephanie Plum. I'm old, though, and it's her grandmother I'd like to meet - what a character she is. I personally liked the first ten books in the series the best, but they're all good.
posted by aryma at 9:06 PM on February 8, 2013

Have you tried the M-less Banks? They're never totally free of dark, but the two nonSF fluffy-bunnies books are The Crow Road and Espedair Street. Both have likeable-enough main characters, some bad things happen but, well, nobody ends up being furniture.

I'll grant you one must read Banks to be a well-rounded person, but choose carefully. I'm not sure if the protagonist of the The Wasp Factory, for example, is immediately likeable.

Read Feersum Endjinn* for now, and then fill in the rest of the canon afterwards. Have it shipped over from Canberra Civic Library to your branch.


No one has mentioned Rex Stout's Nero Wolf series yet, so I'll do that.


I would also suggest Steven Erikson's Malazan series; many of the characters are likeable.


Almost all of Zelazny's characters are likeable.


Ben Aaronovich's protagonist is good. Harry Potter, except he's black, and a london cop.


I've been reading a lot of bleak books lately, often with antiheroes

The next time you're in the mood for bleak, read Phillip Kerr's Bernie Gunther series.
posted by sebastienbailard at 9:46 PM on February 8, 2013 [1 favorite]

Again with the historical fiction, but the Aubrey-Maturin series is an utter joy. Aubrey is genial and brash, Maturin brilliant and fatalistic. The books are beautifully written, wry and surprisingly funny. And though the setting is the Napoleonic Wars, the series is really about this remarkable and unlikely friendship, and timeless in that regard. I read these books whenever I want to feel good.

Some people suggest starting with the second book, Post-Captain, which is a long, sweeping story in its own right, is less "nautical" than most of the rest of the series and introduces the love interests.
posted by stargell at 10:07 PM on February 8, 2013 [3 favorites]

Also read Donna Leon's Guido Brunetti mystery series,Christopher Fowler's Bryant and May mystery series.

And everyone's favorite manga:Yokohama Kaidashi Kikou. (Synopsis: "Gun-toting lesbian robots on motorbikes roam a post-apocalyptic world populated with genetic mutations while observers in a giant aircraft watch from high in the stratosphere. A boy, perhaps the last of his kind, patrols the skies in his mecha as a fanged demon terrorises frightened children." If that encourages or discourages you, read this review. It is difficult to overstate the attachment some readers feel for this wistful series.)
posted by sebastienbailard at 10:24 PM on February 8, 2013

Damn, Monsieur Caution beat me to the Liaden Universe, but I'd like to second it.
posted by Canageek at 10:56 PM on February 8, 2013

I'd love to hang out with everyone in I Capture the Castle.
posted by Erasmouse at 11:23 PM on February 8, 2013 [3 favorites]

This many in and nobody mentioned the Dresden Files? shame, nerds, shame on you.
posted by Jacen at 11:27 PM on February 8, 2013

Best answer: Lotta, like lotta fantasy recommendations above, and some of them - even if you are up for a fantasy - I would look pretty askance at. Malazan series is a fantasy, not a mystery, and has so many corpses they literally burst houses apart. Not recommended.

I do recommend an Australian novel I recently read, The Cartographer. I enjoyed it a lot, as fellow antipodean, I think a lot of the lingo will ring true for you, the story is funny, exciting and reasonably mysterious. I'm usually very blah on books narrated by precocious children, but he really nails a child's voice and worldview. Very fun stuff. It's set in the 60s, so don't know if that qualifies as "historical" for you or not...

You might also enjoy anything from the Holmes on The Range serious. Light, funny, fun characters.

I know you nixed Romance, but if you are gonna do it, you really can't go past Georgette Heyer. Start with The Grand Sophy, or Cotillion. Every public library (including Canberra, I know) has a billion of them, and if you don't laugh out loud at least once a chapter, I will buy you a coke. They really are very funny, and the characters are great to spend time with.

I personally adore Anne Tyler (not mystery, just, um "contemporary families/life), and she's another that every library has heaps of. Some of her books can be a bit melancholy, but I recommend for you Digging to America (about family adopting Korean baby), Patchwork Planet, Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant, Saint Maybe, and Ladder of Years. God I love her books.

Let me keep thinking about it.
posted by smoke at 12:21 AM on February 9, 2013 [1 favorite]

Chiming back in, on your "non-genre" comment, but Mary Roach's books - though resolutely nonfiction - are very funny, and filled with great "characters". I especially enjoyed Packing For Mars
posted by smoke at 12:25 AM on February 9, 2013

I would look pretty askance at. Malazan series is a fantasy, not a mystery, and has so many corpses they literally burst houses apart. Not recommended.

Oh sure. But it is not alway bleak: "I shall call it Tufty."

Fiddler and Quick Ben are likable characters. And you surely you remember Tehol and Bugg? Clotheshorse and cook/manservant respectively. Or Iskaral Pust's acolytes?
posted by sebastienbailard at 1:13 AM on February 9, 2013

If you're looking for something quick, Space Pulp is a raunchy, actiony, and brilliant webcomic, with clever writing and some likable characters. The archive is a quick read with an autopaging browser plugin.
posted by sebastienbailard at 1:24 AM on February 9, 2013

Donald E. Westlake's Dortmunder series. They're more fun if read in sequence, but it's certainly not necessary. It's just that they grow to be your friends, and it's nice to stay in touch. The first one, "The Hot Rock," is not the best, but still....being hired to heist a national jewel, and then having to do it four times... Things like that happen to Dortmunder and his friends. Repeatedly.

All the books are available in my library. I'm jealous that you get to read these books for the first time.
posted by kestralwing at 3:47 AM on February 9, 2013 [2 favorites]

Seconding A. Lee Martinez.
posted by thegreatfleecircus at 6:47 AM on February 9, 2013

"All Creatures Great and Small" has very likable characters and the details of veterinary practice kept it from being to saccharine for my taste.
posted by SandiBeech at 7:26 AM on February 9, 2013 [2 favorites]

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows, is a joy and a quick read (too quick for my liking) - it's full of lovely people who read books and write letters to one another.
posted by d11 at 8:16 AM on February 9, 2013 [1 favorite]

Cold Comfort Farm is about a young lady who likes things to be tidy. It's hilarious.
posted by freshwater at 8:31 AM on February 9, 2013 [2 favorites]

Larry McMurtry is great for this. Lonesome Dove is his famous one, and it's technically a Western, but the way it got famous was by appealing to people who Would Never Read Westerns Normally. The Last Picture Show and Texasville, his other big hits, are set in small-town Texas in the 50s. Great characters, lots of personality, some misfortune and suffering for the sake of the plot but no nihilism or despair.

I'm also tempted to recommend Peter Carey. He's maybe a bit outside what you're looking for, because he likes to put his characters through some serious life-altering tragic events. But the characters themselves are vivid and lovable and he manages to somehow make the whole thing feel like it was worth it, so you walk away saying "Boy that was inspiring, I sure am glad they went out and did That One Big Thing even though it failed" instead of, like, "Oh for fuck's sake that was depressing, everything is doomed and everyone should just give up and stay home."
posted by Now there are two. There are two _______. at 8:36 AM on February 9, 2013

There are several characters in Banana Yoshimoto's Kitchen that I would like to be friends with.
posted by corey flood at 9:06 AM on February 9, 2013 [1 favorite]

If you don't like fantasy, Tamora Pierce might not be your thing, but she's written many YA fantasy series with characters I love to spend time with.

Again, it's kinda fantasy, but "Hold Me Closer, Necromancer" and "Necromancing the Stone" by Lish McBride were so funny in places I almost fell on the floor. If you like Pratchett, I think these might appeal.

I just realized that all my happy comfort reads are fantasy or romance, so I'm going to shut up now.
posted by epj at 10:47 AM on February 9, 2013

Not sure if you like scifi, but Steven Gould's 7th Sigma was just tremendous and made me want to move out to the desert and become a cowboy aikido master.
posted by nerdfish at 11:27 AM on February 9, 2013

How about the Peter Decker and Rina Lazarus novels by Faye Kellerman? The protagonists are fully fleshed-out humans, and I found Peter Decker in particular pretty likeable. (Note: I think the earliest ones in the series are the best, and I started to lose interest after Jupiter's Bones.)
posted by rjs at 12:17 AM on February 10, 2013

Seconding Alexander McCall Smith and his "No1 Ladies' Detective Agency" series. I adore Precious Ramotswe, Botswana's first lady detective and truly do wish I could meet her in real life. I'd start with this series rather than the Edinburgh novels, which I do like but somewhat less.

James Herriott's stories. At least three very likeable characters.

If you like Agatha Christie, have you read her Autobiography? It's my favorite among her books, and it's truly great. It's a very thick book (yay!) and it's full of amazing and very likeable characters. Agatha herself is (well, was) also a remarkable person.

Do you know PG Wodehouse's "Psmith, Journalist"? It's a bit less popular among Wodehouse's books but my personal favorite.

Tolkien's "Farmer Giles of Ham". Makes me giggle, and I love the hero.


Katherine Paterson's "The Great Gilly Hopkins". I did not like any of the author's other books but liked this one enough to re-read it at least half a dozen times.

I'm bookmarking this thread :)
posted by M. at 12:19 PM on February 10, 2013

Not a fan of very generic fantasy (at all!), but The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss is pretty fantastic, with a main character who's truly enjoyable. I was so sad when I finished both of the books (there's a sequel coming in the indeterminate future). And multiple people who aren't specifically fantasy-fans have recommended it to me. Both books are very big, but totally worth it (though the second book does have ups an downs in terms of quality)
posted by taltalim at 4:49 PM on February 10, 2013

In reading your criteria, my first thought was of Atticus Finch, but then, you've probably read To Kill a Mockingbird at least once. For something a little more recent - I really liked Jacob Jankowski in Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen (don't judge it on the movie).
posted by kbar1 at 10:27 PM on February 10, 2013

Best answer: Seconding Mr. Penumbra's 24 Hour Bookstore. It will make you happy for the entire time you are reading the book because you are enjoying the characters so much.
posted by cicadadays at 7:25 PM on February 14, 2013

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