The best novels about people taking risky action outside of their realm

Why am I passionate about this?

I’m a former journalist with an interest in psychology. In a world where many wrongs need righting, I’m curious what motivates someone to take action. What’s the trigger that propels a person to become a volunteer, an activist, a whistleblower, or a rebel? And how will they perform outside their normal sphere? Will they get in over their head and flounder, or surprise everyone with their unexpected success? How does character influence that outcome? In fiction we play with these questions like mythic gods, assigning consequences according to our whims, but in the real world, history will judge who was the visionary hero, and who was the tragic fool.

I wrote...

Delusions of Clarity: A Novel of Intrigue and Perception

By Vern Bryk, Vern Bryk,

Book cover of Delusions of Clarity: A Novel of Intrigue and Perception

What is my book about?

A psychologist attempts to cure a patient of a wild conspiracy theory only to find that parts of it might be true. The therapist must then try to disentangle the threads of fact from fiction, but he finds this difficult to accomplish within the confines of his practice.

The therapist reluctantly realizes that he must step outside his domain to find the truth. He must go out and play investigator. Doing so, however, will put both his practice and his life at risk. He’d prefer the proper authorities investigate the issue, but they don’t. So, it’s the ultimate quandary: if he doesn’t do it, who will?

Shepherd is reader supported. When you buy books, we may earn an affiliate commission.

The books I picked & why

Book cover of The Constant Gardener

Vern Bryk Why did I love this book?

I fully support the theme of this novel, the moral imperative of fighting injustice even when the odds are overwhelmingly against you, even when it is not officially your job.

In this thriller novel, an ordinary man discovers that the murder of his activist wife is somehow connected to a sinister conspiracy involving the global pharmaceutical industry. He is a simple man whose main passion in life is gardening, yet his moral outrage compels him to undertake an investigation for which he has no training or expertise.

I admire this character’s courage in the face of adversity, his perseverance in the face of futility. In today’s world, where behemoth bureaucracies, both governmental and corporate, have become way too powerful and unanswerable, the book’s message is more important than ever. No matter how small and powerless you feel, you don’t have a right to surrender. You are obliged to fight the good fight, even when you know you can’t win.

By John Le Carré, John le Carré,

Why should I read it?

5 authors picked The Constant Gardener as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

'The book breathes life, anger and excitement' Observer

Tessa Quayle, a brilliant and beautiful young social activist, has been found brutally murdered by Lake Turkana in Nairobi. The rumours are that she was faithless, careless, but her husband Justin, a reserved, garden-loving British diplomat, refuses to believe them. As he sets out to discover what really happened to Tessa, he unearths a conspiracy more disturbing, and more deadly, than he could ever have imagined.

A blistering expose of global corruption, The Constant Gardener is also the moving portrayal of a man searching for justice for the woman he has barely…

Book cover of Winter's Bone

Vern Bryk Why did I love this book?

I am impressed how this story reminds us of the everyday heroes all around us, ordinary people struggling to survive and take care of their families. Their personal battles don’t make the news or end up in history books, but the pluck and determination they exhibit are every bit as inspiring as the mythic heroes of yore.

In this crime novel, a 16-year-old girl must demonstrate courage, wisdom, and maturity beyond her years in order to protect her impoverished family. The girl has assumed responsibility for taking care of her two younger brothers and her mentally disabled mother. Her father, recently released from prison, has just disappeared. If he does not show up for his court date, the court will seize their house, which has been used to secure bail.

The teenager bravely sets off to find her father and save the house. The quest will take her into the dark, brutal, criminal underworld that her father inhabits. She confronts great challenges and suffers great violence, but persists in her mission, demonstrating her devotion to her family.

Woodrell’s grim portrait of backwoods poverty is also a moving and stark reminder of how hardship and trouble can force a young person to grow up quickly and take on adult responsibilities before they’re ready. It makes me concerned about whether we as a society are doing enough to help those who need it.

By Daniel Woodrell,

Why should I read it?

9 authors picked Winter's Bone as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

This is a fiercely original tale of love, heartbreak and resilience in the lonely wastes of the American Midwest. The last time Ree saw her father, he didn't bring food or money but promised he'd be back soon with a paper sack of cash and a truckload of delights. Since he left, she's had to look after her mother - sedated and losing her looks - and her two younger brothers. Ree hopes the boys won't turn out like the others in the Ozark mountains - hard and mean before they've learnt to shave. One cold winter's day, Ree discovers…

Book cover of Six Days of the Condor

Vern Bryk Why did I love this book?

For me, this story is a lively reminder of the necessity of adaptability. Our mastery of life is essentially on-the-job training, an education that never ends.

In this espionage thriller, a man comes back from lunch to find everyone in his office murdered. Realizing that he is also a target, he goes on the run. But it’s not enough to escape. If he wants to survive, he needs to understand what’s happening. He must pursue his pursuers.

But he is completely out of his element here. His job was to read books all day. He has no experience being an agent in the field. He must learn everything on the fly to meet the challenges confronting him.

Like this character, our own survival depends upon us being able to acquire new skills quickly. Few of us will be chased by assassins, but all of us will periodically need to adapt to new situations and environments. This is not a deep book, but we can learn things even from simple adventures such as the trials of Odysseus or Robinson Crusoe. Change is always difficult, but we can handle it. We can adjust.

By James Grady,

Why should I read it?

3 authors picked Six Days of the Condor as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

'From the bottom of the stairwell Malcolm could only see that the room appeared to be empty. Mrs Russell wasn't at her desk. Out of the corner of his eye he noticed that Dr. Lappe's door was partially open. There was a peculiar odour in the room . Malcolm tossed the sandwich bags on top of Walter's desk and slowly mounted the stairs.

'He found the sources of the odour. As usual, Mrs Russell had been standing behind her desk when they entered. The blast from the machine gun in the mailman's pouch had knocked her almost as far back…

Book cover of The Quiet American

Vern Bryk Why did I love this book?

I’m always fascinated by moral quandary, particularly in a morally ambivalent age where there are no clear-cut good guys or bad guys, only the lesser of evils. No black and white. Just shades of gray. And yet, to live a fully engaged life, we must make choices, because turning our back on it all is the worst choice of all.

In this controversial novel, the lead character’s dilemma is two-fold. Whose side is he on, and whether he should get involved. He’s a journalist covering a war, and journalists are supposed to be neutral observers. But he has strong feelings about the kind of idealism that leads to death and destruction. When a planted bomb kills innocent civilians, an operative enlists the journalist’s assistance in assassinating the secret agent behind the bombing. The operative tells the journalist that, when people are dying, humanity requires you to choose a side. And the journalist does, thereby crossing the line from observer to participant.

The story is set in Vietnam, and I am old enough to remember the fierce debates over U.S. involvement, as well as the personal dilemmas that some young men faced. What was worse? Participating in a war they thought unjust? Or committing civil disobedience and refusing induction?

The specific foundations underlying such situations change from year to year, decade to decade, but the general question persists. How do we make complex moral judgments?

By Graham Greene,

Why should I read it?

10 authors picked The Quiet American as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Graham Greene's classic exploration of love, innocence, and morality in Vietnam

"I never knew a man who had better motives for all the trouble he caused," Graham Greene's narrator Fowler remarks of Alden Pyle, the eponymous "Quiet American" of what is perhaps the most controversial novel of his career. Pyle is the brash young idealist sent out by Washington on a mysterious mission to Saigon, where the French Army struggles against the Vietminh guerrillas.

As young Pyle's well-intentioned policies blunder into bloodshed, Fowler, a seasoned and cynical British reporter, finds it impossible to stand safely aside as an observer. But…

Book cover of Deliverance

Vern Bryk Why did I love this book?

I’ve had many occasions where life has tested me. Sometimes I passed with flying colors. Other times, well, the less said the better. And this story deftly illustrates that the toughest tests in life are ones you can’t prepare for, because they typically arrive unexpectedly.

In this literary novel, four middle-aged men who lead soft, suburban lives, go on a canoe adventure on a roaring river out in the wilderness. Out in the wilds, they will be tested both by nature and by evil.

They barely survive a rough set of rapids that destroys one of the two canoes. But the worst part of the adventure is a violent attack by two sinister mountain men. They manage to kill one of the attackers, but the second escapes to lie in wait for the adventurers.

To make it back home safely, the main character, who works in an ad agency, must climb a steep cliff at night with a bow and arrow, then find the nerve to kill the surviving attacker. I think of that scene and wonder if I would have had the fortitude for either part of that mission. Fortunately, I won’t ever need to find out. However, I do know that other tests lie in wait, and I know that when we dig deep enough, we can surprise ourselves.

By James Dickey,

Why should I read it?

4 authors picked Deliverance as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

“You're hooked, you feel every cut, grope up every cliff, swallow water with every spill of the canoe, sweat with every draw of the bowstring. Wholly absorbing [and] dramatic.”—Harper's Magazine

The setting is the Georgia wilderness, where the states most remote white-water river awaits. In the thundering froth of that river, in its echoing stone canyons, four men on a canoe trip discover a freedom and exhilaration beyond compare. And then, in a moment of horror, the adventure turns into a struggle for survival as one man becomes a human hunter who is offered his own harrowing deliverance.

Praise for…

You might also like...

Api's Berlin Diaries: My Quest to Understand My Grandfather's Nazi Past

By Gabrielle Robinson,

Book cover of Api's Berlin Diaries: My Quest to Understand My Grandfather's Nazi Past

Gabrielle Robinson Author Of Api's Berlin Diaries: My Quest to Understand My Grandfather's Nazi Past

New book alert!

Why am I passionate about this?

Author Retired english professor

Gabrielle's 3 favorite reads in 2023

What is my book about?

Gabrielle found her grandfather’s diaries after her mother’s death, only to discover that he had been a Nazi. Born in Berlin in 1942, she and her mother fled the city in 1945, but Api, the one surviving male member of her family, stayed behind to work as a doctor in a city 90% destroyed.

Gabrielle retraces Api’s steps in the Berlin of the 21st century, torn between her love for the man who gave her the happiest years of her childhood and trying to come to terms with his Nazi membership, German guilt, and political responsibility.

Api's Berlin Diaries: My Quest to Understand My Grandfather's Nazi Past

By Gabrielle Robinson,

What is this book about?

"This is not a book I will forget any time soon."
Story Circle Book Reviews

Moving and provocative, Api's Berlin Diaries offers a personal perspective on the fall of Berlin 1945 and the far-reaching aftershocks of the Third Reich.

After her mother's death, Robinson was thrilled to find her beloved grandfather's war diaries-only to discover that he had been a Nazi.

The award-winning memoir shows Api, a doctor in Berlin, desperately trying to help the wounded in cellars without water or light. He himself was reduced to anxiety and despair, the daily diary his main refuge. As Robinson retraces Api's…

5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in survival, love triangle, and the Ozarks?

10,000+ authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about survival, love triangle, and the Ozarks.

Survival Explore 191 books about survival
Love Triangle Explore 74 books about love triangle
The Ozarks Explore 18 books about the Ozarks