Joy Kim

Librarian. Book Reviewer. Coffee Addict.

Mother knows best

Like many precocious readers, I began reading adult fiction long before I was actually in its target audience. This is partly because I grew up surrounded by my mother’s book collection, and it was only natural for me to pick up and attempt to read the ones that she liked best. I didn’t get my fondness for speculative fiction and sequential art from her, but she is probably directly responsible for my taste in cozy mysteries and spy stories.

So in honor of some of my recent book purchases, here’s a special Friday Five: five favorite authors who I first discovered through my mother’s book collection.

1. P. D. James: The first novel featuring poet-detective Adam Dalgliesh that I ever read was Devices and Desires, way back when; that squat mass-market paperback sits on my bookshelf to this day. I’ve just finished reading the latest book in that detective series, The Private Patient. James is so careful to tie up the recurring characters’ loose ends that I’m pretty sure it’s the last book we can expect with them; if so, it really is the end of an era.

I’m especially fond of James’ careful prose and evocation of place. At times her books seem a bit removed from modern life; the body counts sometimes rise, but the pace always remains stately or just plain slow. So the Dalgliesh novels aren’t going to be everyone, but they’re worth trying at least once. There’s no particular need to read them in order, by the way; the middle period books are probably the strongest.

2. Agatha Christie: The Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple novels don’t stand up much to rereading, especially now, but this list wouldn’t be complete with Christie. After all, reading the entire Agatha Christie oeuvre was one of the defining literary experiences of my middle school years. (Did I mention that I was a bit precocious?)

My favorites of Christie’s work have always tended to be the earlier ones; her later attempts to reference things like 60s culture are painfully awkward at best, and her detectives’ characteristic quirks became a bit tired over the years.

3. John LeCarre: I suspect my avid reading of all the George Smiley novels set the groundwork for my current fondness for the British spy tv series Spooks (known as MI-5 in the states).

There’s actually still plenty of LeCarre novels that I haven’t read yet; I’ve sort of been saving them for a rainy day. And honestly, I can remember very few details of the ones that I have read. That said, I am sure that Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy was definitely my favorite of LeCarre’s work, and it’s on my list of things to re-read sometime in the not-so-distant future.

4. Len Deighton: More spy novels, this time featuring everyman Bernard Sampson and his sometimes brilliant, some duplicitous, and sometimes plain sociopathic colleagues in the British spy service and its rivals.

On a side note, I recently discovered that three more Bernard Sampson novels (Faith; Hope; and Charity) have been written since I first read the series back in the early 90s. I have enough fond memories of Bernard and Fiona that I am tempted to read the ones I missed, but I have to wonder how well I’ll understand them. It’s probably been at least fifteen years since I read Winter.

5. John Mortimer: Oh, the Rumpole of the Bailey series. It’s proved to be incredibly consistent over the years; however much Rumpole’s world changes around him, he remains as curmudgeonly (and amusing) as ever.

(Dis)honorable Mention: Thomas Hardy. My mother inexplicably loves his novels, while Tess of the d’Urbervilles (which was required reading for me in both high school and college, such was my bad luck) is perhaps my least favorite novel of all time.

What literary tastes do you share (or not share) with your parents?


  1. I’m slightly jealous. My mother reads mainstream fiction and mysteries but owns hardly any books; my father doesn’t read. (He can, but he doesn’t.) When my parents grounded me as a kid, they forbade my reading anything, usually for a day or two. I became very good at sneaking books into the occasional longer dry spells.

    This is yet another reason (albeit idiosyncratic) why public libraries are awesome, since my tiny allowance was nearly enough for one mass-market paperback per month. heh.

    The only Hardy I’ve enjoyed (or finished) is Desperate Remedies. Re: Le Carré, you might like Tim Powers’s Declare.

  2. @skg046 – Thanks for the book rec. I definitely had it easy growing up in a reader-friendly household. I also had the benefit of my older siblings’ books: there’s was always something to read at the next reading level above mine. (I regularly read the books that my older brother was assigned in class, which meant I was very familiar with them when I was given the same assignments two years later.)