Maybe Matilda: 21 Books I Keep Recommending

Monday, October 19, 2015

21 Books I Keep Recommending

I read quite a bit, and I'm asked on occasion for book recommendations. And of course, which titles I recommend change drastically depending on who is asking . . . but I find myself returning to many of the same favorite books over and over, and recommending the same ones again and again.

You can find my monthly reading recaps with everything I read each month and a short review of each by clicking on the 'books' tab at the top of the page . . . but I wanted to put together one big list of a bunch of fantastic favorites that I find myself recommending again and again and again.

Believe it or not, I tried to narrow this list down to 10, and failed utterly. Also, I realized upon completion of this post that although the graphic says 20 books, somehow, an extra book sneaked in. Now I can't decide which book to delete from the post, as I love them all like children. The total tally here is, in fact, 21, but I am too lazy to go back and change the graphic, so consider one of these a bonus prize.

(Affiliate links ahead!)

A big list of 20 GREAT books that I'm always recommending to friends!

Daughter of Smoke and Bone by Laini Taylor

I think I've mentioned this trilogy about a dozen times on this blog. I'm usually not the biggest fan of YA or fantasy, so you can imagine my surprise when I fell hard for this YA fantasy series about a world of angels and demons, connected to the world we know via a secret portal and the girl who travels between them. No description I can dream up does it justice, but it's one of the most creative and imaginative and addictive things I've read in a long time. Trust me. The audiobook is also fantastic, and I love and recommend the entire trilogy.
Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers by Mary Roach

Possibly one of the strangest books I've ever read . . . but also one I can't seem to forget, that has changed the way I look at almost everything. This nonfiction explores, well, the curious lives of human cadavers and the many, many ways a cadaver might be used, studied, utilized, or disposed of. Roach's writing is impossible to step away from and amazingly enough, she actually brings a fantastic sense of humor to a decidedly dark and morbid arena. Be prepared to find yourself sprinkling odd cadaver factoids into everyday conversation.

The Rose Garden by Susanna Kearsley

I've read nearly everything Kearsley has written, and while I definitely liked some of her books more than others, I always enjoy her elegant writing style and the unique time travel aspect she usually incorporates in her novels. This is my favorite of her books--the story of a young woman reeling after the loss of her sister who finds herself unexpectedly transported centuries back in time, and falling in love with a man born hundreds of years before her. (An honorable mention goes to my second favorite Kearsley novel, Mariana.)

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows

I'm usually a little hesitant about books that are marketed as being 'for book lovers.' I often feel like they're riding on the fact that the reader loves books and will adore the author's many references to other books, whether the book itself is actually any good or not. (Does that make any sense?) But this is truly a lovable book for book lovers. Written as a series of letters between the inhabitants of an occupied island during WWII and an English journalist, it is tender and hilarious and a surprisingly deep look at the importance of art during hard times.

Garden Spells by Sarah Addison Allen

I loved the homey, comfortable, mysterious, and slightly magical feel of Garden Spells, a story of two oddly and mysteriously talented sisters reunited after years apart. It has a totally lovable Southern charm, with a dash of magical realism that makes it feel almost like reading a modern fairy tale for grown-ups. It definitely has a few cheesy moments, but I love it. (For the record, I wasn't as crazy about its sequel, First Frost, although I enjoyed it enough and feel like it's worth reading if you love this one.)

The Light Between Oceans by M.L. Stedman

Go ahead and get out the tissues when you read this. After years of isolation as lighthouse keepers on a secluded island and multiple miscarriages/stillbirths that devastated the lighthouse keeper's wife, the grieving couple is shocked when a rowboat washes ashore containing a dead man and a crying baby. Assuming she is orphaned, they raise the child as their own, but discover years later that the circumstances may not have been as they thought, and are faced with a heartbreaking, impossible choice. I read this a few years ago and find myself still thinking about it frequently.

Ready Player One by Ernest Cline

After having your heart torn out and ripped to shreds by The Light Between Oceans (and I mean that in the very best way!), how about something that is 100% fun? I was positive I wouldn't give a fig about Ready Player One, a novel about the bleak world that is the year 2044 and the virtual reality everyone chooses to live in instead. But I surprised myself by loving it and the intense easter egg hunt the players undertake to win an unbelievable prize. It's funny and lovable and so surprisingly good--even if you don't care the littlest bit about video games, pop culture, or dizzying mind puzzles.

Bread and Wine: A Love Letter to Life Around the Table by Shauna Niequist

It's a rare day that I buy a book without reading it first, but I bought this as an ebook on the recommendation of a few bloggers whose taste I trust. It was money well spent. I love (with a capital L) this memoir about family, friends, food, and the meals that connect us. It's thought-provoking and lovely, and makes me want to put more time and attention into my loved ones and the food that brings us together. Alternately hilarious and ugly-cry-inducing, this book is a treasure.

The Road by Cormac McCarthy

This is a novel I recommend with some caution. It is dark and gritty and terrifying in a way that I have never been terrified before . . . but only because it is so horrifyingly honest, that it shook me to my core to consider the possibilities of what I would do if placed in this situation. Background details are sparse in this post-apocalyptic novel--some sort of ecological disaster has ravaged the planet and left survivors starving, roaming, and utterly desperate. An unnamed man travels with his son through the ransacked landscape and fights for their survival. Be careful with this one. I don't think I'll ever forget it.

Peace Like a River by Leif Enger

Like any good little bookworm, I have a very hard time pinning down a single book to call My Favorite. But if pressed, I generally go with this one. Narrated by an 11-year old boy, he remembers a particular year of his youth with his unusual family, spent traveling through the Dakota badlands in search of his brother, a fugitive charged with the murder of two boys who were terrorizing their family. But that summary makes it sound like an entirely different novel than what it actually is. It is beautiful and uplifting and spiritual and absolutely worth the dozen-ish times I've re-read it. I am jealous of those of you who might read it for the first time after this post!

Complications: A Surgeon's Notes on an Imperfect Science by Atul Gawande

I'm not sure I could even put together a more dull-sounding summary than the one on the back of this book jacket--a doctor's thoughts on medicine, surgery, and the uncertainty of health and science. But it is absolutely riveting. It follows true cases from Gawande's practice and discusses the fallibility of medical care, the uncomfortable truths of very human doctors, and mysteries of the human body. It is an incredibly interesting look at a field we put an awful lot of trust in. (I also own, but have not yet read, Better: A Surgeon's Notes on Performance.)

Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

Here's another book I know I've mentioned quite a few times on the blog. and one that is a bit difficult to summarize. This novel travels back and forth between the world 20 years after a flu has decimated the population, and the years leading up to the pandemic. It rotates between a wide cast of characters, all with links to an actor who died on stage the night the flu broke out and changed everything. It is haunting, beautiful, and thought-provoking. I love the characters, the realistic look at humanity, and the role art took in a survivalist world. It is bleak at times, but ultimately hopeful. Definitely one of my all time favorites, right here.

The Red Tent by Anita Diamant

I'm due for a re-read of this novel (it's been at least 5 years!), but I remember it as a favorite. It tells the story of Dinah, a woman barely mentioned in the Bible, and focuses on 'the traditions and turmoils of ancient womanhood' (a rather dramatic-sounding line I pulled straight from its summary on amazon). It is an engaging look at the lives of women in Biblical times, and the strong and beautiful bonds of motherhood and female friendship.

The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion)

This novel is hilarious and happy, and I dare you not to feel good about the world after finishing it. Don Tillman (a professor who almost certainly falls somewhere on the autism spectrum) is meticulous, studious, and detail-oriented in all aspects of his life . . . but has never been on a second date. He applies his evidence-based manner to a personal project: finding a wife, about whom he has set stringent, perhaps unattainable standards. It's charming and lovable, but I'll go ahead and say that I didn't care at all for the sequel, unfortunately.

Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking by Susan Cain

This nonfiction offers an in-depth, research-based look at introverts, their qualities, strengths, value, and attributes. I knew I was an introvert before reading it, but even so, was shocked at how accurately it portrayed my personality. I learned so much about myself, how to better relate to others, how to capitalize on my own strengths, and to accept and appreciate who I am in a culture that so obviously prefers loud, gregarious types (and shames the rest of us). Highly recommended for my fellow introverts, as well as extroverts who love (and want to better understand) an introvert.

Attachments by Rainbow Rowell

I have mixed feelings on ol' Rainbow--I've felt 'meh' about some of her books, really disliked others, but wholeheartedly loved this one. Sure, it's a little over the top, but it's funny and charming and quirky. Lincoln is hired as a company's 'internet security officer,' tasked with peeking through employee emails and reporting time-wasters and inappropriate content. And after months of reading correspondence between two particular female employees, he finds himself falling in love with one of them. But how exactly do you introduce yourself to a woman you only know through a computer screen . . . who doesn't know you've been eavesdropping?

Corelli's Mandolin by Louis de Bernieres

I owe this one another re-read as it's been a few years, but I always think of it (and recommend it) as my favorite romance ever. It's a love story and a war story together, set in the early days of WWII. Italian officer Captain Corelli lives for his music, at least until he falls in love with Pelagia during the Italian invasion of Cephalonia. de Bernieres's writing is always enchanting, and I especially love it in this novel.

Major Pettigrew's Last Stand by Helen Simonson

This book came recommended by a cousin whose taste I know I can trust, but I remember hearing her summary of it and thinking . . . really? I'm glad I trusted her and read it anyway, because it's plain wonderful, so I hope you'll do the same. Elderly Major Pettigrew (of a quiet English village, of course) is wry, opinionated, and a tad crotchety (but completely endearing . . . of course). He leads a quiet life until an unexpected friendship arises, followed by an even more unexpected (and locally unaccepted) romance. Charming and funny and so, so good.

Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life by Anne Lamott

I first read this for a creative writing class during my BYU days, and reread it recently (I was delighted to find that it was every bit as good as I remembered!). If you enjoy writing even the littlest bit, or if you love to read and are curious about the writing process, I highly recommend it. It is a hilarious and thoughtful look at the work of writing, and of being a person. I laughed out loud more than once, and my copy is full of little highlights and brackets around the best bits. Which there are a lot of. Jeff sometimes asks me what is the point of highlighting if I am just going to highlight everything?

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonatahn Safran Foer

9-year old Oskar's father is killed during the 9/11 terrorist attacks. When he finds a mysterious key in his father's closet after his death, he sets out to discover what it might unlock. His journey introduces him to a wide cast of characters all over New York City, and is completely wonderful. I'm looking forward to reading this one again, and I'm hoping it's been long enough that it'll feel like the first read all over again.

The Forgotten Garden by Kate Morton

I've saved my most recommended book for last--nearly everyone who asks me for a recommendation hears about The Forgotten Garden, because it seems like everyone loves Kate Morton, and this is my favorite of her novels (I've read them all). A mysterious child, a hidden garden, an old book of fairy tales, and dark, hidden family secrets--this one is completely unputdownable. And besides having impossible-to-step-away-from mystery and drama, it is wonderfully written. I loved it to pieces and eagerly pass it on to everyone who will listen. I can't wait to read her latest, The Lake House.

SO MANY BOOKS. Hopefully you found something that looks interesting to you. I would LOVE to hear your most-recommended favorites!

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