In today’s post: Have a little more free time than usual? Check out this list of 50 fantastic books you may have missed!
My favorite way to relax is with a really, really good book. One that I can fall right into and let an hour (or five) pass before I come up for air. A really good book is about a hundred times better than a show at helping me escape the present, at least for a little while.
While I’m on my own hunt for my next favorite book, I thought I’d share 50 amazing, compelling books that I love in hopes that you’ll find a new favorite. These are books that sucked me in and provided hours of enjoyment. Fascinating, engaging, entertaining, and enlightening, these are the kind of book you hope will never end. I hope you find your next favorite book among them! And please, please, leave me a comment telling me what to read next. I need something good!
50 Incredible Books to read when you’re bored
So this isn’t a traditional list of “best books ever.” There aren’t many classics on here, even though I love classics, because I find that most older books don’t pull me in the way contemporary ones do. And they aren’t necessarily prize winners or books that would be assigned in a lit class – or books that make your brain hurt. But they aren’t necessarily beach reads either. Instead, each of the books on this list is first and foremost a really good story that’s written really well. But they’re more than that: in my opinion, the best books give m a window into another person’s experience (good fiction feels like truth in this way). And in uncertain times, reading about others’ experiences is comforting. Triumph of the human spirit and all that – turns out it’s a real thing.
Note: All of these links go to the Kindle version so you can check out reviews. Links are affiliate links. Enjoy!
We’re going to start with 10 of my absolute favorite books – these are ones I come back to over and over again. Each one holds up to multiple readings, and I love them all in different ways!
The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver
If I had to choose one book that I think might be the best I’ve ever read, it would probably be this one. Nathan Price, an evangelical Baptist, takes his wife and four daughters with him on a mission to the Belgian Congo in 1959. He’s convinced he will save the world, or at least some of the savages. He’s certain he’s bringing the truth, even when events don’t unfold as he expected. This book has it all: amazing writing, memorable characters, a plot that won’t let you stop reading, and a window to a historical moment you’ve probably never heard about before. But even better, it will make you examine yourself, what you believe, and what you are certain is true.
Crossing to Safety by Wallace Stegner
This is another of my personal favorites. I truly love this book and I enjoy it every time I read it. It’s a quiet book, in that it’s about normal people doing normal things and living normal lives. It’s about a 30 year friendship, it’s about love and marriage and the way spouses can save or destroy one another. Basically, it’s about life. I love that Stegner can make a story that could be about me or you or anyone just as compelling as a spy novel or an action film (and frankly, quite a bit better).
Everyone Brave is Forgiven by Chris Cleave
I love great historical novels, so I was looking forward to this book set at the cusp of World War II, but I wasn’t expecting it to be so good, or so impactful. More than any other book I’ve read, I think this novel gave me a glimpse of what it must have actually been like to live through a war that touched everyone around you in a deeply personal way. The overwhelming sadness. The overwhelming tiredness. And the love, and the compassion, and the bravery. And it’s a great love story, too, inspired by the author’s own grandparents. Note: a few very difficult scenes of wartime violence are very tough to read; however I consider this one of the best books I’ve read in the past five years.
Gentlemen and Players by Joanne Harris
This book is another all time favorite, and it’s just plain fun (in a find the murderer sort of way). Even though I already know the twist at the end it’s so good I reread it every few years! We know from the outset of the book that a murder is being planned – half of the book is written from the perspective of the person planning the murder – we just don’t know who the prospective murderer is. Set in a boys’ prep school, the novel has a bit of a Dead Poets Society feel to it, mixed with a race to see if anyone will be able to figure out the murder before it actually happens.
Turtles All the Way Down by John Green
Aza is a 16 year old girl who loves her car (Harold) and her best friend Daisy. When the millionaire father of an old friend disappears, Daisy convinces Aza they should find him and claim the $100,000 reward. This book could feel like your standard young adult lit, except that Aza’s life is complicated by what she describes as the “ever tightening spiral of her thoughts”. The plot of this book is interesting, but it’s the honest and matter of fact description of what it feels like to live with OCD that makes this book amazing. Honestly it’s the most compelling description of mental illness I have ever read and I almost feel like it should be required reading. It’s both funny and heartbreaking and it will fill you with admiration for anyone you know who struggles with mental illness. Content note: this book has more profanity in it than books I normally recommend, but I found it worth it due to how illuminating the book is.
I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith
Seventeen-year-old Cassandra lives in a castle: a ramshackle, tumbledown castle with hardly any furniture and not enough food. Cassandra’s father, a once-famous writer, now spends most of his time reading mystery novels and doing crossword puzzles, and generally not earning any money at all. Things are looking dire indeed when two handsome (and very wealthy!) brothers move in next door. Cassandra’s older sister is determined to marry one of them to save her family from poverty, while Cassandra’s little brother dreams up a scheme to convince their father to start writing again. All the while Cassandra chronicles it all in her journal for us to enjoy. This book has just about everything I love: set in England, period piece (1930’s), quirky, likeable characters, great writing, and an interesting storyline.
These is My Words by Nancy Turner
I’ve recommended this book before, and I will recommend it again because it’s one of my favorite books ever! This book tells the story of Sarah, a 17 year old girl who travels with her family through the Arizona territories in the late 1800’s during a time when hostilities between the American Indians and the white settlers are at their peak. This book is chock full of history, hardship and human triumph, and once you get started it’s nearly impossible to put down. At the same time, it’s one of the most romantic love stories I have ever read.
Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese
This is a hefty book, clocking in at 560 pages, but once you get into it you’ll be glad there are so many. Set in Ethiopia (among other places), it tells an engrossing story involving a doctor who abandons his young twins boys, the couple who step in to raise them, and the boys themselves, who both enter the medical field. I know that doesn’t sound like the most fascinating synopsis but just take a quick look at the reviews on Amazon. You’ll see words like “powerful,” “sweeping,” “amazing,” and “the best book I’ve ever read.” None of those descriptors is an exaggeration.
Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden
This is another book I fell in love with the first time I read. At the age of 9, Sayuri is taken from her home in a poor fishing village and sold to a geisha house, where she is trained in the rigorous art of entertaining: dance, music, elaborate dress and makeup, pouring tea, making conversation, etc. The book follows Sayuri from 1929 through the second World War, as she navigates the difficulties of her constricted lifestyle and yearns for real love. This is my favorite kind of book; one that immerses you in a different life and allows you to learn so much about culture and history all while keeping you hooked with an incredible story. And just so you know, it’s SO MUCH BETTER than the movie. Content note: There are some sexual elements to the story which may make some readers uncomfortable. I consider them to be handled well and in no way gratuitous.
Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein
When their spy plane crashes in Nazi-occupied France, pilot Maddie is able to escape but her friend Verity, a British spy, is arrested by the Gestapo. Verity is given a choice: write a “confession” detailing her mission or suffer torture and death. And so Verity begins writing, detailing her training as a spy and how she met her friend Maddie. While Verity writes, buying herself time, Maddie is also hard at work… This book is absolutely gripping from page one. There are twists and turns I guarantee you won’t see coming, and it’s an absolutely fascinating look at the role women played in British intelligence during the war. The more difficult elements of this book (including torture) are handled well and are not graphic. NOTE: this book is classified as “young adult” but it reads like adult lit to me.
Do you know what I mean when I call a book cozy? These are books that feel warm and comfortable. These are books that give you the feeling things will probably work out ok in the end, and the author won’t make you work too hard on your way there. But don’t worry: cozy doesn’t mean sentimental, cheesy, or poorly written – these are all smart, well written novels that you’ll enjoy reading.
Love Walked In by Marisa de los Santos
This love story starts the way many do: our unsuspecting heroine is going about her unsuspecting day when Mr. Tall, Dark, and Handsome walks into her life and sweeps her off her feet. Well, he walks into the cafe where Cornelia works, even though she’s thirty and smart and educated and should be doing more with her life than working in a cafe. But that’s ok, because she thinks love has walked right into her life. Except that things get complicated, and Cornelia quickly finds out that the “movie version” of love may not be all it’s cracked up to be. This book is smart and well written and turns some of our expectations of a romance right on their heads – but rest assured, there’s a satisfying love story in here!
Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand by Helen Simonson
This charming book is a treat! Our main character is Major Pettigrew, an aging English widower (think “stiff upper lip”) who struggles to relate to his yuppie son. Pettigrew is tender hearted but a bit grumpy, keenly feeling the loss of his wife and brother and not sure of his place in a world that doesn’t value tradition and honor the way he does. He strikes up an unexpected friendship with Mrs. Jasmina Ali, a tea seller in his village, but obstacles appear as their relationship deepens. I have a soft spot for books set in quaint British villages, especially ones full of witty writing and quirky characters, so this sweet love story was an absolute delight!
Where’d You Go, Bernadette? by Maria Semple
I love quirky books about quirky people. I just do. And Bernadette is definitely quirky. She lives in Seattle with her husband and daughter. She’s a famous architect but has recently developed an “allergy” to Seattle, and people in general, and has started outsourcing even basic tasks to a virtual assistant in India. And then one day, she disappears. The story is told through the emails, official documents, and secret correspondence that her 15-year-old daughter Bee compiles in her attempts to find Bernadette, and it is imminently entertaining. It’s part satire and part family drama, sometimes a little dark but often absolutely hilarious, with a fantastic twist at the end. Content note: more strong profanity in this book than what I generally recommend (or read myself) but it’s so darn enjoyable that I couldn’t put it down.
The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry: A Novel by Gabrielle Zevin
I just can’t not be interested in a book about a bookseller. Especially a slightly cantankerous bookseller who is still mourning the loss of his beloved wife. This book boasts a wonderful cast of quirky supporting characters, a small town island setting, a mysterious theft, an engaging romance, and even an abandoned toddler who brings meaning back into A.J.’s life. There is some strong profanity, but for the most part this book is fun, cozy, and absolutely charming – right up my alley.
Winter Solstice by Rosamunde Pilcher
Better developed than many of Pilcher’s short romance novels, this is a great book for reading over Christmas break, snuggled up in a blanket and drinking hot chocolate. It’s also a good book to read when you wish it was Christmas break and you were snuggled up with hot chocolate. It’s comfortable and cozy, with just enough depth to set it apart from a fluff-novel.
Dear Mrs. Bird by AJ Pierce
Once Upon a River by Diane Setterfield
It’s Midwinter’s night at the Swan Inn on the banks of the river Thames, and the locals have gathered to tell stories as they drink their pints. The door bursts open and in falls a bruised and bloodied man carrying a small girl. When the local nurse is summoned she patches up the unconscious man and comfirms what the locals feared – that the girl is dead. Until a few hours later when, somehow, she’s alive once more. As the girl and the man both sleep, the story circulates among the nearby villages. By morning three different families have heard the tale and are sure they know who the girls is and who she belongs to. But which of them are right? This is a nice long, lyrical story that you can cozy up and get lost in. The writing is very well done and it’s full of observations about human nature that will stay with you long after you’ve read the last page.
Nights of Rain and Stars by Maeve Binchy
Good old Maeve Binchy is one of my favorite authors to turn to when I’m looking for a cozy read, one that will keep my interest with welcoming characters and a good storyline without making me work too hard. Most of her books are set in Ireland, which I love, but this book is set in Greece, complete with descriptions of the beautiful scenery you’d expect in that part of the world. Four strangers have all traveled to Greece for different reasons and meet in a hilltop tavern. When they witness an unexpected tragedy, they are drawn into a friendship that will help them find what they’ve been looking for.
O Come Ye Back to Ireland by Niall Williams
This is an amazing book. A couple leaves their jobs in NYC and moves to Ireland in the 80’s. We’re talking rural Ireland. Farms, burning peat to heat the house, some people with no electricity or phones… It’s a memoir, not a novel. I love books about Ireland. I love that people tell stories as a national pastime. There’s a lyricism and beauty that just makes me want to move there. Anyway, it’s great to read a first hand account of outsiders who find a place where things move more slowly, where people seem to care more, and where it’s always misty out. The rest of the series is also worth reading.
Blackbird House by Alice Hoffman
I’ve read a number of Alice Hoffman books, but this one remains my favorite. It’s not a traditional novel about one main character; instead it’s more like a collection of short stories. Each story chronicles different inhabitants of Blackbird House, a farm on Cape Cod. As we move through the centuries we meet fascinating characters whose stories all touch on the huge themes of life: love, loss, betrayal, redemption. Each story is touched with Hoffman’s beauty and magic. This is definitely a book you can sink into.
Fiction that Feels True/Triumph of the Human Spirit Books
I know some people avoid books that have sad sections or deal with tough topics, but I LOVE books that take me on a journey with a character navigating the real difficulties of life. I feel my life and problems being put into perspective as I read, and I am continually amazed at the resilience of the human spirit. And yes, these book are all fiction (with a few being based on a true story), but they are so entrenched in a real time, place or culture that they feel true. They encapsulate the truth of human experience. As such, some of them will make you cry, but I don’t consider any of them to be depressing books – I actually find most of them pretty triumphant. A few of these books have content that is quite difficult to read, but it’s not gratuitous.
Longbourn by Jo Baker
It’s easy to read Jane Austen and think “I wish I had lived back then.” This book, which tells the story of the Bennet’s housemaid, Sarah, makes us realize just how much we’ve romanticized the time period. P&P characters are a side note here – Sarah decides Lizzy would be more careful with her petticoats if she was the one who had to wash them – and instead we get a window in the reality behind the romantic version we often see. This feels like a much truer portrayal of what life was like for the bulk of people in England during this time period, but still with the happy ending we crave. Note: content-wise this is a change from Austen – there are some brief references to sex and a section that describes one character’s experience in the recent wars, with some brief but disturbing “spoils of war” incidents. This feels like a much truer portrayal of what life was like for the bulk of people in England during this time period, but still with the happy ending we crave.
Beneath a Scarlet Sky by Mark Sullivan
This novel tells the true story of Pino Lella, an Italian teenager at the the start of World War II. His parents send him to the mountains to keep him safe from the perils of war, but he soon finds himself guiding refugees over the treacherous passes and out of the Nazi’s hands. And that’s just the beginning of Pino’s adventures. His parents to continue to fear for his safety and force him to enlist in the German army, hoping it will keep him from being sent to the front lines. Pino hates the idea of helping the Germans, thinking he is betraying his country, but fate offers him a way to continue fighting. He ends up as the driver to General Hans Leyers, one of Hitler’s most trusted commanders in Italy, which makes Pino Lella one of the Allies’ most important spies. While the writing felt a little clunky to me in places, this true story is absolutely fascinating.
The Island of Sea Women by Lisa See
So this is a novel about friendship, but it’s also a novel about history. And loss. And resilience. It begins in the 1940’s, when friends Young-Sook and Mi-La are learning to be haenyeo divers on the Korean island of Jeju. Haenyeo were women who dive 30 meters down to the ocean floor without oxygen or other diving gear to harvest edible seas creatures as a way to support their families. They were strong and capable and considered the leaders of their community, and the first half of the book details the deep and abiding friendship the girls share as they become adults. But the years after WWII were not kind to the people of Jeju. The new government, which was backed by the United States, used incredibly cruel and barbaric tactics on the innocent people of the island in an attempt to quash rebellion – nearly three quarters of Jeju’s villages were burned to the ground. Tragedy, grief, and blame tear the two friends apart. We see the changes Young-Sook experiences as the decades pass as well as the consequences of her inability to forgive. This book is truly a window into another world, and as always with these sorts of books I am amazed at the resilience of those who experience such tragedy. Content note: About 60% through the book there are a few scenes of very disturbing violence. These scenes are based on meticulous historical research and are heartbreaking enough that I nearly gave up on the book there and then. I took a break and read the author’s note and realized that survivors of this violence were not able to speak about what happened for over 50 years due to threats of death. So while this book is, at it’s heart, about friendship, it is also a way to tell the world about the people who endured so much and had to be silent for so long. I finished the book, and I’ve been thinking about it ever since.
Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer
I’ve been looking for a really good book for the past few months, and this one fit the bill. It’s the story of an extremely precocious nine year old whose father died on 9/11. It chronicles his search to find out more about his dad and the people he meets along the way. There’s just so much human-ness here, so many stories of life. Then we get an alternate story line about his grandparents mixed in, and this was what I felt was the most beautiful and poignant part. Really great writing. The parts about the grandparents, especially, would be worth a second read. There is some strong profanity and some sexual references, which were a little jarring to me because they come from the nine year old narrator. But this isn’t your average nine year old…
My Name is Asher Lev by Chaim Potok
Asher Lev is a young orthodox Jew who grows up in a close Hasidic community, praying three times a day and embracing his religion’s teachings. But he is also an artist who feels increasingly compelled to translate what he see into art. His mother encourages his artistic side while his father sees it as a threat to the family’s beliefs. It’s an interesting look at how you can be to be true to yourself when it feels like a betrayal to those around you. I appreciate that the book isn’t heavy handed with a message; instead it feels like a real exploration of the consequences of our choices. Wonderful writing, and a wonderful story. The sequel – The Gift of Asher Lev – is also fantastic.
The Help by Kathryn Stockett
Years ago a friend of mine who was working full time and raising a large family said: I never have time to read, but I have a vacation coming up. If I’m going to read one book this year what should it be? I replied with no hesitation: The Help. I didn’t live through the Civil Rights Movement, so I have no first hand experience with what life was like – for black people or white people – during that time. This book gave me a taste of history while being absolutely entertaining. Skeeter, a white woman who has just returned home after graduating from college, finds herself wanting to hear and record the stories of “the help”, the black women who clean the homes and raise the children of Skeeter’s friends. However, it’s extremely risky for the black women to share their stories, and Skeeter soon realizes it’s risky for her to be collecting them. Another really great book that’s even better than the movie.
Room by Emma Donoghue
The premise of this book was a little off-putting to me at first: we learn quickly that we are hearing the story of a young boy and his mother, both of whom live in a single room where they are being held captive by a man who kidnapped the mother years ago. I generally stay away from books that I think will heavily feature abuse so I almost didn’t read this one. However, the book is told from the perspective of the 5-year-old boy Jack, and it focuses heavily on his relationship with his Ma, who, along with Room, is his entire world. Jack alludes to visits from Ma’s captor, but the visits are only describes through Jack’s innocent understanding so even though the situation in the book is truly horrible, the overall feel of the book isn’t horrible at all. In some ways it’s actually lovely as we see the lengths Jack’s Ma goes to in her attempts to raise and love him despite their circumstances. That’s not to say it isn’t at times sad and hard to read, but I also found it profoundly worthwhile.
The Kitchen God’s Wife by Amy Tan
Born in America, Pearl has always been more interested in forging her American identity than uncovering her Chinese roots. Prompted by her Auntie Helen, Pearl finally asks her mother Winnie to tell the story of her childhood in China, and as a result we are treated to an incredible tale of courage and resilience. This book manages to convey loads of information about Chinese culture and the role of Chinese women in the early 20th century while being an absolute page turner. NOTE: There are a few scenes of abuse and some difficult subject matter in this book.
The Light Between Oceans by M. L. Stedman
I’ll warn you right now that this is a sad book. But the setting – a lighthouse on an isolated Australian island – is so vivid and the plot so riveting that this book will definitely transport you away from your everyday life. Isabel loves Tom so much that leaving everything she knows to join him as a lighthouse keeper seems like no sacrifice at all. Each is enough to make the other happy. But as the years pass and the graves of lost babies multiply, Isabel begins to lose herself. Until one day a boat washes up on shore carrying a dead man and a baby who is very much alive. And Isabel makes a choice that will change everything. (So yes, spoiler alert I already told you it’s a sad book, but it’s so good it’s worth it!)
Call The Midwife by Jennifer Worth
This is the first of three books that inspired the PBS show Call the Midwife and once you start reading you will understand why these stories have captivated millions. The women in these stories are simply amazing, from the midwives that are such a part of the community to the women of the East End who work so hard to care for their families, often with so little. It’s hard to believe that these stories were real life just sixty years ago. Jennifer Worth does an incredible job mixing memorable stories of real women in with just enough history to give you an idea of just how important the midwives were to the community they served. The midwives worked in the poorest areas, helping those who had little access to medical care, and saved thousands of mothers and babies (before the midwives were organized, almost 40% of mothers and 60% of babies in the poorest areas of Britain died!). NOTE: some difficult to read subject matter.
The Secrets of Mary Bowser by Lois Leveen
I read this entire book before realizing it’s based on a true story! Mary Bowser was a real person, a freed slave who returns to Virginia at the outset of the Civil War to spy for the North at great personal risk. We meet Mary Bowser as a young slave who has to hide her ability to read from her Master. When he dies and his progressive daughter inherits the estate, she frees Mary and sends her up North to be educated, where Mary begins to build a life she never expected. But when war breaks out, Mary is willing to risk her freedom and everything else to return to Richmond to see what she can do to help the Union’s cause. She poses as a slave and ends up working in Robert E. Lee’s household, where her ability to read and near photographic memory mean she’s doing much more than just cleaning the general’s office. This is an incredible story about a woman who helped the Union win the Civil War.
When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi
This incredible book is a memoir written by a man who discovers he has lung cancer shortly before he completes his residency in neurosurgery. He’s spent years becoming someone who can help patients navigate the difficult road between life and death, and suddenly he’s facing death himself. Knowing that this book has become a #1 New York Times bestseller, I expected to find pronouncements on the meaning of life, philosophy, and advice not to squander the time we have. And there was a bit of that, but really this book is a story, simply and elegantly told, about a man, his life’s work, and his life’s love. In the first half of the book Kalanithi describes the events that led him to become a doctor as well as some of the cases he treated, cases that demonstrate how exquisitely satisfying and terrifying it must be to hold people’s lives in your hands every day. In the second half of the book he details his decline from a healthy neurosurgical resident working 100 hours a week to a patient coming to terms with what life he has left.
Little Bee by Chris Cleave
Little Bee is one of the hardest books I have read in a long time (and my sister told me she absolutely hated it). I almost stopped reading early on when I realized the book deals with some truly horrific things that happen to two Nigerian sisters. At the same time, the story felt so true I thought I had a responsibility to continue. I mean, I know this book is fiction, but it’s a realistic reflection of things that happen in our world – the same world that I live in so comfortably – and it doesn’t feel right for me to turn away from it just because it is uncomfortable. This beautifully written book doesn’t just tell us the terrible things that are happening: it shows us love and laughter and sadness and sacrifice and everything that makes us human amidst the terrors.
Small Great Things by Jodi Picoult
Ruth, an African American nurse, is removed from caring for one of her patients because the patient’s father, a White supremacist, doesn’t want a black woman touching his child. When things go wrong, Ruth finds herself on trial as a result of his request. This book is a page-turner, a great story with a good plot that makes you want to find out what will happen next. At the same time, reading this book helped me understand how race influences my life in ways I’d never thought about before. Written from the perspectives of Ruth, the father, and a white lawyer who considers herself as un-racist as you can be, this book should be required reading for anyone who thinks racism doesn’t exist anymore.
My Name Is Resolute by Nancy Turner
Resolute Talbot lives a privileged life as the daughter of a wealthy plantation owner in early 1700’s Jamaica, at least until pirates raid her home, kill her parents, and sell Resolute and her sister into slavery. And that’s just the beginning of Resolute’s adventures, which include one twist after another until she finds herself in the midst of the dawning American revolution in Concord, MA. It’s a huge, amazing saga (606 pages!) with a beautiful love story woven through the latter half of the book. A fantastic read to lose yourself in.
World War Books
I’ve already mentioned a couple of books set during the two world wars, but here are five more that are definitely worth your time.
The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows
Funny name, completely captivating book! Just after World War 2 ends, Dawsey Adams, a farmer from the British isle of Guernsey, convinces his neighbors to write the stories of their war experience and send them to author Juliet Ashton. Guernsey was the only British land to be occupied by the Germans during the war, so their letters to Juliet are unique and full of rich historical detail. It’s both funny and devastating and it feels absolutely true. Combine all that with lovable quirky characters and an unfolding love story, and you have a book you won’t want to put down.
The Chilbury’s Ladies Choir by Jennifer Ryan
In the early days of World War II, the vicar of Chilbury decides to disband the choir because there’s no use having it when all the men are gone anyway. The women of Chilbury have other plans, however, and decide to continue singing even though an all-female choir is unheard of. Against this backdrop, we come to know five women in the choir and see their stories unfold on the homefront: a timid widow who begins to find her own strength, a midwife desperate to keep her crimes from coming to light, a pair of sisters who both love rather “inappropriate” men, and a Jewish refugee with her own secrets. Very nicely written.
The Summer Before the War by Helen Simonson
This book takes place in 1914, just as World War I is about to begin, right at the same time period of season 1 of Downton Abbey. This book focuses on how “ordinary” people in a small British town cope with the approach of war (and the fact that the new Latin teacher happens to be a woman of all things). I loved this book! It’s extremely well written with vivid characters and just enough detail to make me feel like I was actually visiting the little coastal town.
The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah
The Nightingale was published to immediate success in 2015, and if you haven’t read it yet, it’s high time to do so! The book centers around two sisters living in Nazi occupied France during WWII. Once I got past the first 50 pages or so I could not put this book down. I’ve read plenty of books set in this time period, but never one that gives a picture of what life was like for the French citizens during the Nazi Occupation that lasted for much of the war. Both sisters end up fighting the Nazis in their own way, unbeknownst to each other (they’re each trying to protect the other). This is the sort of book that will stay with you for days after you finish. Content note: there is mention of rape, beatings, and concentration camp violence as well as a few strong profanities.
Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet by Jamie Ford
Chinese American Henry Lee doesn’t fit in at school with his white classmates in 1940. But then he meets Keiko, a Japanese girl, everything changes as the two become fast friends and fall in love (albiet the innocent 12-year-old kind). When the war begins, Keiko and her family are swept into internment camps and the friends are torn apart for years. This book is captivating, beautiful, and poignant, and it really does feel both bitter and sweet. It’s another one you’ll want to read more than once!
Books with a Hidden Mystery
I’m not a huge fan of traditional mysteries – the cozy ones feel predictable and the gritty ones are often just too gritty for me – but I do like a book that keeps you guessing. Each of these novels incorporates a hidden mystery that will keep you turning pages!
Possession by A. S. Byatt
This book could be described as a literary mystery–perfect for those of us who love reading books about books. It tells the stories of two Victorian poets and their gradual romance as well as the story of the present day academics who are trying to discover the hitherto unknown truth about the poets’ connection. It’s a nice long book (I love long books that keep my attention the whole way through!) with plenty of discoveries, a couple budding romances, and a satisfying twist at the end. It’s not a traditional mystery – not one of the characters get murdered – but there’s plenty of sleuthing involved and the writing is fantastic!
The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield
Famous author Vida Winter fiercely guards her privacy and has never told anyone her life story. Well, she’s actually told 19 different journalists 19 different versions of her life story, but she’s never told the truth. Until now. When she does begin to talk, we hear of a childhood full of governesses, ghosts, crazy relatives, and family secrets, including at least one abandoned baby. This book is an homage to gothic classics like Jane Eyre, and it will definitely keep you reading past your bedtime. Content note: implied (not described) incest
Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood
In 1843, 16-year-old Grace Marks was convicted of the double murders of her employer and his housekeeper. During the 30+ years she spent imprisoned as a result, she continued to insist she had no memory of the crimes. Based on these true events, this novel begins with Grace already in prison. An expert in the brand new field of psychology, Dr. Simon Jordan, begins to interview Grace in hopes of determining whether she is, in fact, innocent as she claims. This complex story highlights the experience of immigrants and the way mental illness was viewed and “treated” in this time period. It’s a fascinating book you won’t be able to put down. Content note: a few disturbing scenes.
The Lake House by Kate Morton
The Edavane family is shattered when their toddler son vanishes on the night of the annual midsummer’s eve party they hold at their estate. Seventy years later a young London detective stumbles on the abandoned house as she is on leave to sort out her own life problems. She can’t help but wonder what happened to make a family leave such a majestic home. As she begins gathering information, she triggers a series of events that will lead to shocking revelations for both her and the Edavane family.
Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier
This is one of THE classic novels of psychological suspense for a reason, and if you haven’t read it yet you are in for a real treat. Our heroine is a young orphan who’s working as a ladies’ companion when she meets handsome, wealthy, and recently widowed Max de Winter. We’re just as surprised as she is when he falls in love with her and makes her his second wife. When the new Mrs. De Winter joins her new husband at his fantastic mansion home, Manderly, she begins to realize that Rebecca, his first wife, casts a shadow over every part of her marriage. I can’t say much more without ruining the surprise, but believe me when I say you’ll love it. By the way, I’ve always found the first chapter or two a little slow, but hold out, it picks up!
I love me a good love story, but it turns out I don’t love books that are ONLY about the love story. I like romantic novels that are about more than just whether the two people are gonna get together or not, and each of these books delivers.
Lovely War by Julie Berry
Hazel is a young pianist in London who meets James just before he heads off to fight in WWI. Collette is a Belgian refugee who has lost everything (and everyone) already in this war. And Aubrey is a ragtime musician from Harlem who signs up to fight as a way to prove that a black man can represent the United States as well as anyone else. It’s a love story for the ages, told by Aphrodite, the goddess of love. This book is categorizes as YA, but it’s so far away from the whiny teenage love stories that I wish it had a different designation. A really lovely read.
Me Before You by Jojo Moyes
Ok, you’ve heard of this book before. And maybe you’ve seen the movie (which isn’t bad, by the way). But, as is often the case, the book is so much better! Louisa Clark needs a job. Badly. So badly that she agrees to work as a caretake to Will Traynor, a man who is wheelchair bound after an accident and who treats Louisa with nothing but contempt, seemingly hellbent on convincing her to quit. When Louisa neither quits nor tip-toes around Will like everyone else does, they become friends, and maybe even something more. But things get difficult as Will is continually unable to reconcile himself to the life he has now. Fair warning: you’re gonna cry.
Persuasion by Jane Austen
I know I said I wasn’t including classics on this list, but I couldn’t write about 50 of my favorite books without including at least one Austen. While Pride & Prejudice gets the most love of all the Austen books, the lesser known Persuasion is actually the better love story. And that’s saying something. In Persuasion, Anne Elliot is approaching spinsterhood–or maybe already firmly entrenched in it, depending on whom you ask – when she learns that her father’s years of overspending mean they must rent out their family home and go live somewhere cheaper. Always shy, she’s soon humiliated when she finds out that their new tenants are related to Captain Frederick Wentworth, the man whose proposal of marriage she was forced to refuse years ago because her parents didn’t think him worthy of her. Captain Wentworth’s proximity in the neighborhood stirs up the love she’s kept secret all these years, even as she watches him falling for the young and beautiful Louisa Musgrove. This beautiful story shows Anne deciding to finally fight for what she wants, and the final scene or two are absolutely swoon-worthy!
The Fault in our Stars by John Green
Another book that’s much much better than the movie! Hazel and Augustus are teenagers, which means they’re going to do the usual teenage thing in this book, which is fall in love. However, they aren’t your usual teenagers: they meet in a support group for teens who are living with cancer. (And they happen to be much brighter, smarter, and wittier than most teenagers, which makes this book much more fun to read than if they weren’t.) Augustus is in remission and doing well, but Hazel lives with the knowledge that her terminal diagnosis means any day could be the beginning of the end. Hazel is determined to meet her favorite author and find out what happened after the last page of her favorite book, and Augustus is determined to help her. I’m not gonna lie, this book is sad, but it’s also completely delightful and uplifting and just plain laugh-out-loud fun.
Unequal Affections by Laura Ormiston
This is probably the least “literature like” of any book on this list, but hey, it’s a whole lot of fun. Unequal Affections is a Pride and Prejudice retelling: what if Lizzy didn’t turn Darcy down when he first proposed to her? What if she realizes what good a marriage to him could do for her entire family, such as reuniting Jane and Bingley and saving the rest of the family from financial ruin? What if she instead asks for time to consider his proposal, giving Darcy time to woo her? What I like most about this book is that we get to see hundreds of pages of interactions between Lizzie and Darcy, which ends up being (dare I say) much more satisfying than the quick resolution in the original novel. We get to see Darcy, still prideful, having a hard time dealing with those Bennet connections he’s so worried about. We get to see him nervous when he realizes he loves Lizzy more than she loves him. We get to see him decide to change in order to win her, and her developing feeling for him. It’s a great read, and very romantic without being racy.
Ok guys, hit me with your favorites! Leave me a comment and let me know what I should read next – thanks!