Recently, I took a survey here on the blog. I asked you where you wanted to travel, what you liked about the blog, how I can help you, and if you could ask me anything, what would you ask?
One of you asked about books.
Which made me realize I hadn’t written about reading in a long time. And since it’s almost the holidays—a time to curl up near a fire with a good book—it seemed like the perfect time to remedy that.
So, today I’m going to share some of my all-time favorite books across a variety of categories—from fantasy and sci-fi to non-fiction to poetry.
Without further ado, then:
Fantasy & Science Fiction
Wildwood Dancing by Juliette Marillier
This beautiful retelling of the fairy tale of the 12 dancing princesses is a book I’ve read over and over again. I love the way it weaves other unexpected fairytales and myths throughout. I love the characters. I love the slow reveal of what’s really going on. And by the end I’m always bawling my eyes out.
Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke
Recently made into a TV series, this novel is another that I’ve read more than once. It’s the story of two stuffy English magicians who, according to prophesy, are destined to bring magic back to England. It’s my favorite kind of fantasy because it’s full of magic, but also believable. Easily one of my top four favorite fantasy novels of all-time.
Harry Potter (all) by J.K. Rowling
You probably already know Harry Potter, but in case you don’t, I suggest you go and read the whole series straightaway. Keep in mind that the books were written to grow up with Rowling’s kids, so the first book is written for younger audiences and the last is complex and manages to bring every single mystery to a perfect close.
The Hunger Games (trilogy) by Suzanne Collins
This is one of those books I was hesitant to read. It just got too much press and most bestsellers leave me disappointed. Not this one, though. The first book in particular is just as good as advertised. The idea is clever and also horrifying. The characters are lovable. And the world, while not our own, makes perfect sense.
Graceling & Fire by Kristin Cashore
In a world where some people are born with almost-magical skills—called Graces—one girl “has been able to kill a man with her bare hands since she was eight.” Soon, as she struggles to rescue a prince and get out from under the thumb of her evil uncle, she discovers a terrible secret and must save an entire kingdom. The second book—Fire—is just as good. Definitely read them in order, though, as the second book has spoilers about the first.
The Tale of Despereaux by Kate Dicamillo
My all-time favorite children’s book, this is a tale of a very small mouse, a heartbroken rat, and the power of love. If you’re looking for a children’s gift this Christmas, this is it.
Poison Study, Magic Study, & Fire Study by Maria Snyder
Imprisoned in the dungeon and awaiting her execution, suddenly Yelena is offered a second chance at life. She’ll have a room in the castle and continue breathing…if she consents to be the king’s food taster—a job that, if the king is poisoned, could cost her the very life she’s trying to save.
Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland & Through the Looking Glass by Lewis Carroll
So, well all the know story here, but have you read the book? Because it’s brilliance far outshines the cartoon versions we know and love.
The Last Unicorn by Peter Beagle
Follow the last unicorn as she searches for the truth—what has happened to the rest of her kind?—and discovers not only the answers, but also what it means to be human, along the way.
Watership Down by Richard Adams
This tale of heroics has an unlikely band of protagonists…a warren of rabbits. As Amazon says, “Set in England’s Downs, a once idyllic rural landscape, this stirring tale of adventure, courage, and survival follows a band of very special creatures on their flight from the intrusion of man and the certain destruction of their home. Led by a stouthearted pair of brothers, they journey forth from their native Sandleford Warren through the harrowing trials posed by predators and adversaries, to a mysterious promised land and a more perfect society.”
Peter Pan by J.M. Barrie
Like Alice and the Last Unicorn above, this story is so much more than the one we’ve seen in countless TV and movie adaptations. Plus, it’s free for Kindle.
A Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde
In the words of Amazon: A lush, cautionary tale of a life of vileness and deception or a loving portrait of the aesthetic impulse run rampant? Why not both? After Basil Hallward paints a beautiful, young man’s portrait, his subject’s frivolous wish that the picture change and he remain the same comes true. Dorian Gray’s picture grows aged and corrupt while he continues to appear fresh and innocent. After he kills a young woman, “as surely as if I had cut her little throat with a knife,” Dorian Gray is surprised to find no difference in his vision or surroundings. “The roses are not less lovely for all that. The birds sing just as happily in my garden.”
Theo and the Forbidden Language by Melanie Ansley
This is the story of an ordinary (read: not as ordinary as you think) rabbit who is unwittingly swept away into an adventure where his rare ability to read might just save the world. The catch? That same ability (to read) is considered dangerous and might just get him put to death.
The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver
If you’re looking for my number one, all-time favorite book, this is it. Utterly and completely brilliant.
The story is told from four perspectives, a mother and her four daughters, all of whom have been whisked across the world to Africa by their zealous preacher father. Little do they know that they’re arriving in the Belgian Congo only a short time before it’ll be thrown into turmoil as its people fight for their independence. As Amazon sums it up: “What follows is a suspenseful epic of one family’s tragic undoing and remarkable reconstruction over the course of three decades in postcolonial Africa.”
The Curious Incident of Dog in the Night Time by Mark Haddon
As the book description says, “Christopher John Francis Boone knows all the countries of the world and their capitals and every prime number up to 7,057. He relates well to animals but has no understanding of human emotions. He cannot stand to be touched. And he detests the color yellow.” This story is Christopher’s telling of his quest to solve the death of his neighbor’s dog.
The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood
This is the tale of two sisters, one suspicious death, and a long-concealed secret. My absolute favorite Margaret Atwood book, I’ve read it twice.
The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold
When a little girl is killed in a corn field, she ends up in heaven, watching her family, friends, and classmates grieve and move on and live their lives, and also watching her murderer as he attempts to evade justice. A thousand times better than the movie.
The Help by Kathryn Stockett
Beautiful, terrible, tearful, and wonderful—this book tells a complex story from the perspective of three characters: two maids and a privileged white girl whose ambition is to be a writer. As the author says, “Together, these seemingly different women join together to write a tell-all book about work as a black maid in the South, that could forever alter their destinies and the life of a small town…” I particularly recommend this one in audiobook. The readers did a phenomenal job.
I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith
As the author says, “I Capture the Castle tells the story of seventeen-year-old Cassandra and her family, who live in not-so-genteel poverty in a ramshackle old English castle. Here she strives, over six turbulent months, to hone her writing skills. She fills three notebooks with sharply funny yet poignant entries. Her journals candidly chronicle the great changes that take place within the castle’s walls, and her own first descent into love.” This one was so not what I expected…and I adored every page.
Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen
After a tragic accident, a young man with an almost-completed veterinary degree, joins the circus as an animal caretaker. This story follows him and those around him as they make their way through the world of the Great Depression, falling in love, evading danger, and trying to save a special elephant who doesn’t want to be a performer. This book was one of those welcome surprises…I was so engaged with the characters, it was hard to put it down.
Long Way Down by Nick Hornby
When four very different people accidentally meet on a rooftop, each on a mission to end their life, instead they end up leaving that rooftop together. Told from all four perspectives, this book explores the best and worst of our humanity. I’ve read it several times.
To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
Per the description: “A lawyer’s advice to his children as he defends the real mockingbird of Harper Lee’s classic novel—a black man charged with the rape of a white girl. Through the young eyes of Scout and Jem Finch, Harper Lee explores with rich humor and unswerving honesty the irrationality of adult attitudes toward race and class in the Deep South of the 1930s. The conscience of a town steeped in prejudice, violence, and hypocrisy is pricked by the stamina and quiet heroism of one man’s struggle for justice—but the weight of history will only tolerate so much.”
The Book Thief by Markus Zusak
Told from the perspective of Death himself, this story follows a young girl whisked away and adopted by a pair of quirky, sometimes-abrasive, kind-hearted Germans during WWII. Their lives are already dangerous enough, when a young Jewish man shows up at their door needing shelter. Though the story is about the girl herself, it truly follows the fates of an entire town as it relates to an entire nation. Absolutely brilliant and another book that I’ve read several times.
On Beauty by Zadie Smith
This funny, engaging book “is the story of an interracial family living in the university town of Wellington, Massachusetts, whose misadventures in the culture wars-on both sides of the Atlantic-serve to skewer everything from family life to political correctness to the combustive collision between the personal and the political.” (Quote from the book description.)
Exodus by Leon Uris
This one makes me cry every single time I read it. Per the publisher: “The Exodus was just one ship among many that carried survivors of the Holocaust to Palestine to establish a new nation. But the path that Jewish immigrants took to enter British-controlled Palestine was a difficult one, fraught with danger and political intrigue. The boat was intercepted by British forces and the refugees were placed in concentration camps.
Uris’s blockbuster novel traces the lives of the men and women who brave British naval blockades to help Israel come into being, from Ari Ben Canaan, who works tirelessly to smuggle in settlers, to Kitty Fremont, an American nurse drawn into a vast, tragic history. Weaving together fact and fiction, history and dramatic storylines, Exodus stands today as one of the most influential narratives of the founding of the State of Israel.”
The Aftermath by Rhidian Brook
In post-war Germany, when grand houses were being taken from Germans and given to officials there to deal with the aftermath of the war, two families—one German, one British—choose to live together in the house instead. What follows is a beautiful, terrible story about war, love, and loss.
The Enchanted by Rene Denfeld
This book blew me away. Told frpm the perspective of a prisoner on death row, this is a story about life in prison, about why people do the things they do, and about how we cope. It’s not what you think and the twists will shock you. Absolutely one of the top three books I read this year.
The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd
The story of a young woman who would become one of the first female abolitionists and the slave her parents gifted her (whom she refused to own), this book was heartbreaking and triumphant. And it’s inspired by a real person.
Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert
A beautiful memoir about one woman’s personal journey exploring herself against a backdrop of Italy, India, and Indonesia, this is one of my favorite memoirs of all time.
Love with a Chance of Drowning by Torre DeRoche
Another long-time favorite, this memoir is a coming-of-age story about an Australian girl who moves to the US, falls in love with an Argentinian sailor, and then conquers her fear of the water in order to sail across the ocean with him.
Undress Me in the Temple of Heaven by Susan Jane Gilman
This shocking and sometimes terrifying memoir chronicles the travels of two young girls in a China newly opened to tourists. Full of shocking twists and fearful moments, this one shocked me completely (in the best way possible).
Princess: A True Story of Life Behind the Veil in Saudi Arabia by Jean Sasson
Horrifying and unputdownable, this is the true story of a Saudi Arabian princess and her friends and family. It sheds a unblinking light on the plight of Saudi women. Be prepared to be enraged.
Orange is the New Black by Piper Kerman
Here’s another rage-inducing memoir. Orange is the New Black is the story of a woman’s year in prison, as well as the process of her trial and her enragingly long wait to do her time. It sheds an interesting light on our broken legal system.
Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver
This story of one family’s quest to eat locally for one year is a wonderful, funny, enlightening book. I read this while living in a farmhouse and eating veggies from the organic market, which is how this book should be read.
Without You, There Is No Us by Suki Kim
A sad and thoughtful memoir, this chronicles one woman’s year teaching in a school for the highest class kids in North Korea.
It’s Not You: 27 (Wrong) Reasons You’re Single by Sara Eckel
The only book on singleness worth reading. Period.
Sexually, I’m More of a Switzerland by David Rose
These personal ads from the London Review of Books will make you laugh until you cry.
David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants by Malcolm Gladwell
As usual, Malcolm Gladwell knocks it out of the park with smart, researched essays on topics like David and Goliath and education.
What Every BODY is Saying: An Ex-FBI Agent’s Guide to Speed-Reading People by Joe Navarro
I read a lot of books on body language one year. This was the most engaging and interesting of them all.
Poetry & Plays
The Wasteland and Other Poems by T.S. Eliot
Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats by T.S. Eliot
The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde
What are your all-time favorite books?