The Hindu’s Bookshelf: ‘Where do we begin?’ A reader’s guide to picking your first books by some great authors

A list of the best first books to pick up by some beloved – and prolific – authors of fiction

October 26, 2023 07:12 pm | Updated 07:12 pm IST

Representational file image.

Representational file image. | Photo Credit: AFP

One of the most rewarding things, as a reader, is to experience the full range and scope of an author’s work — to watch it change and grow, to enjoy the experiments (A.A. Milne’s only mystery novel, The Red House Mystery comes to mind, or Louisa May Alcott’s A Long Fatal Love Chase, the sensational gothic novel so unlike her most beloved work), and to take pleasure in the familiarity.

But so many of our most beloved authors are also prolific, with an extensive and often daunting body of work. And it can be tough to know where to begin your journey. Do you start with their first, and work your way down the list? Sometimes, but not necessarily always. Occasionally, a much later work – or even the recent most recent one – can become your way into an author’s oeuvre.

Also read | The Hindu’s Bookshelf: Very short books that go the distance

So we bring to you a list of potential beginnings — the best gateway books to some beloved authors. Start here, and chances are, you’ll find yourself wanting more.

Agatha Christie – The A.B.C. Murders

The volume of Christie’s body of work is daunting, but also for new readers, a relief. There’s so much to get through, and it’ll be a while before you run out of books. A great place to start? The A.B.C. Murders, starring her most famous creation, the Belgian detective Hercule Poirot. There are of course other, more well-known books by Christie, like And Then There Were None and The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, but both are atypical, in that the first is a standalone, without the presence of any of her regular detectives, and the second features an unusual narrator. The A.B.C. Murders, on the other hand, makes for a wonderful introduction to her books, with Poirot on the hunt, eager to unmask a murderer who is mocking him at every step, and the wonderful Hastings, Poirot’s friend and confidant (the Watson to his Sherlock). And the big reveal in this one is truly satisfying. It’ll tell you all you need to know about the prowess of Christie’s plotting, and definitely leave you wanting more.

Stephen King – Salem’s Lot

Entering the world King’s making is really quite a treat, but considering he’s one of the most prolific authors of his genre(s), where do you start? Well, may we suggestSalem’s Lot? It’s a pretty great entry point, and has a lot of different ingredients that make it the perfect introduction to King’s style — a contained setting (a small town, like in so many of his books), a host of characters, a narrative taut with looming menace, and at its core, frightening, inexplicable darkness.

Anita Desai – Fasting, Feasting

Desai’s Fasting, Feasting is the perfect first book to read as a way into her body of work — it illustrates beautifully both her style and the considerations in her books. It’s a claustrophobic, difficult and tragic portrait of Uma, whose life feels weighed down by the weight of her parents’ lives, enmeshed and smothered by it so that there’s little room to breathe. And then there is her brother Arun, a student in America, who feels both unmoored and bewildered by his life amidst people he does not understand. A portrait of lives half-lived, this is a fine example of Desai’s body of work.

Amitav Ghosh – The Calcutta Chromosome: A Novel of Fevers, Delirium & Discovery

The Calcutta Chromosomes is Ghosh’s third novel, and a wonderful way into his stunning body of work. As in his later books, you’ll find in it a blending together of the past and the present, and a narrative that weaves in and out of both. There is fact – the life and research of Sir Ronald Ross, a 19th century British physician – and fiction – Antar, a a computer programmer based in New York, who becomes obsessed with Sir Ross. Start here and the book will lead you nicely into the Ibis Trilogy as well as some of Ghosh’s later works.

Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni – The Palace of Illusions

Banerjee’s 2008 book, a retelling of the Mahabharata from Draupadi’s viewpoint, is a compelling and empathetic portrait of a woman in a patriarchal world, telling you a story you’ve usually heard from the mouths of the men who populate it. In Banerjee’s hands, Draupadi comes alive — we see what she sees, and feel what she feels. This is a book about war and violence, but also one seeped in love and desire. Almost impossible that you won’t find yourself reaching for another book by her, and may we suggest The Forest of Enchantments, a retelling of the Ramayana from Sita’s perspective.

Haruki Murakami – After Dark

New to Murakami’s work? Begin with the slim and stunning After Dark, which has such staying power that you’ll find yourself thinking about it years later — some small scene, or a throwaway comment summoning it up once again. After Dark shows you exactly what Murakami can do with words — the scenes he can paint, the characters he can conjure. The book follows the events of a single night, and intersecting lives. It’s about isolation, but also about time, space and the ways in which a setting can change so much about an experience. Murakami uses the night in ways that transcend the simple matter of time.

Kazuo Ishiguro – Klara and the Sun

Ishiguro’s 2021 novel, Klara and the Sun, might actually be a great place to start reading him. While both Never Let Me Go and The Remains of the Day probably rank higher on the list, Klara and the Sun makes for an easier introduction to Ishiguro’s style, and the depth and nuance in his books. Unlike the other two, it also carries you along at a faster pace, and while the story itself is set in the near-future, its considerations are timeless. In it, Ishiguro once again returns to themes he’s visited before — love, friendship, morality and humanity.

Shirley Jackson – We Have Always Lived in the Castle

From a dysfunctional family to a gothic setting and looming darkness, Jackson’s final novel is not just one of her most enduring ones, but also a great place to begin your journey with the author. The story of two sisters and their uncle, living an isolated life on a crumbling estate, this is a great example of the kind of atmospheric pressure Jackson can build. You’ll find in this book most of the themes in Jackson’s work — the idea of unreliable narrators, the blurring of lines between fact and fiction, the question of what trauma can do to relationships, and of course, an ever-present sense of unease.

Neil Gaiman – Stardust

This might be a unsual choice, but Stardust is so incredibly enjoyable, readable and delightful that it will make for the perfect way into wanting more of his books. In it, you’ll enjoy Gaiman’s maverick style, but also all the ingredients that make for the perfect fairy tale adventure. But just as you begin to think of it as a traditional story of a hero’s quest, Gaiman brings in something that sticks out — that announces the book as anything but simple and straightforward.

Octavia Butler – Dawn

Dawn is the first book in the Xenogenesis series by this beloved science fiction author, whose work stands out for its powerful, provocative explorations of race, gender, sexuality and humanity. The series, also known as ‘Lilith’s Brood’, is set in a post-apocalyptic world, but you don’t immediately find out the details. Instead, you meet Lilith Iyapo, who opens her eyes in what seems like a prison cell in an alien world — disoriented and afraid. You see this world through her eyes, and find out more about it as she does, through snatches of memories that come to her between periods of oblivion, and her interaction with the humanoid creatures who visit her. Gripping and immensely readable, this is a great place to begin your journey with Butler.

Hilary Mantel – A Place of Greater Safety

Before you take on the Wolf Hall trilogy — a daunting task given both the depth and the length of the books, you can pick up another immersive historical novel by Mantel, A Place of Greater Safety. In it, she explores the turbulent and violent period of the French Revolution, through the lives and political careers of its three prominent figures — Maximilien Robespierre, Georges Danton, and Camille Desmoulins. You’ll witness here the full breadth of Mantel’s research, the way she pieces together the finer details to conjure the past, and the ways in which she adds flesh and fire to it, so that it is much more than a simple recounting of history.

Margaret Atwood – The Handmaid’s Tale

Unsurprisingly, Atwood’s best known work is also the best place to start your journey with her. A dark, chilling account of a dystopian future, this is a book full of anger and empathy, and it demands a lot from you. It is also an important book, one that forces up questions, challenges existing ideas and explores new ones. This is quintessential Atwood, and there’s almost no way that it won’t make you want to read more from her.

Terry Pratchett – Guards! Guards!

If you are new to Pratchett’s work, it can feel daunting — the Discworld books have breathed into existence a universe rich with its own rules, characters, history, folklore and absurdities. And of course, all of it comes with Pratchett’s trademark style, seeped in wit — all of it biting, and all of it funny. So if you want to begin your journey, a good way in is Guards! Guards!, the first book in the City Watch subseries of the Discworld books. It tells the story of the law enforcing body of Ankh-Morpork, the City Watch, which is in a state of disarray and now faces, along with corruption and ineptitude, the return of dragons to their city.

Ann Patchett – Bel Canto

To understand the lyricism and beauty of Patchett’s writing, pick up Bel Canto. There’s everything here to show you how much nuance exists in the way she handles human relationships and vulnerabilities, and how much of a centre stage it takes, even in a book charged with action. In Bel Canto, a lavish party, attended by VIPs, is taken hostage by a group of terrorists. Here there’s music and celebration, terror and fear, negotiations and coexistence. This is a complex, evocative exploration of humanity.

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