As an author and avid reader, I get asked for recommendations about once a day. You might think I’d get tired of it, but putting my favorite stories into the hands of new readers is one of the most satisfying things about being in the book world. There’s nothing quite like getting giddy about this thing that you love so much and seeing the light of interest spark in someone’s eyes. And then, even better, being able to gush about it in a few weeks (or months, depending on their business level). Of course, it doesn’t always happen that way. People have different tastes, after all. But every so often I get that magical telepathic connection of mutual fandom and it’s so much sweeter when I played a part, however small, in its creation.
So I hope you find something on this list that you love as much as I do. And if so, then please be sure to pass the magic on.
Recommendations in Science Fiction & Fantasy
- As stated in my F.A.Q., every time I’m asked to name just one book people should read, I start with World War Z. This book has got to be the most intellectual treatment zombies have ever had. It’s an interview-style history of a theoretical zombie war and it might sound crazy, but give it a try and I promise you won’t be disappointed.
- The Red Rising Trilogy. This series made huge waves a while back, but if any fellow fan of sci-fi/fantasy missed it, I can’t recommend it enough. Each installment of the series gets progressively better, and Pierce Brown does twists like no one else.
- Vicious. Or anything by V.E. Schwab really. This book is a self-contained exploration of scientifically plausible supervillains with the most magnificently fleshed-out characters. It’s surprisingly dark and twisted, for Schwab being such a lovely internet presence on her Twitter page.
- Spinning Silver. This is a complete masterpiece by renowned author Naomi Novik. I’ve read her other works (I love His Majesty’s Dragon) but this retelling of the Rumpelstiltskin fairy tale is deep, layered, surprising, and utterly mind-blowing.
- The Ten Thousand Doors of January. This 2019 debut blew me away. I’ve been a longtime fan of Harrow’s gorgeously written and elegantly constructed short stories, but her novel was a whole new level. Told as a story-within-a-story, it’s all about doors and magic and the barriers between worlds. To me, it’s a beautiful homage to all the people who spent their teens waiting for their Hogwarts letter.
- The Library at Mount Char. I read this on a recommendation from V.E. Schwab, actually, and it is without a doubt the weirdest book I’ve ever read in my life. I’m not sure if it was necessarily an enjoyable reading experience (brace yourself for a high ick-factor) but it was surreal, original, and surprisingly theological in the end.
- Illuminae. I’ve read epistolary novels, but never like this before. The Illuminae Files are a rompy, gleefully trope-filled, straight-up fun space opera written as a dossier of emails, texts, fake website pages, etc.. The audiobook for this one is also incredible, featuring a full cast and sound effects. I felt like I was listening to a movie.
- The Martian. It might be a classic at this point, but this hard sci-fi look at life on Mars is a must. Funny, quick-moving, and full of surprisingly digestible (and accurate!) science, this self-publishing phenomenon rose to the big leagues for a reason. In a rare twist I found the movie just as good as the book, only shorter and more streamlined. So why not both?
- Noumenon. Not a lot of people have heard of this one, which is a shame. This concept-driven story about a generation ship making its way through the universe is deeply thought out and intricate. It’s not character-driven, but if you like exploring strange ideas and potential futures, this one might be for you.
- Six of Crows. If you like Oceans 11 as much as you like magic lands with maps, then check out Leigh Bardugo’s Six of Crows. Set in the expansive Grishaverse of her debut trilogy (Shadow and Bone, for anyone curious), this multi-POV novel was the heist adventure I didn’t know I’d been waiting for until I read it. Filled with deeply realized characters, a well-built magic system, and snarky one-liners, this book kept me up past my bedtime.
Side Note: this list assumes that you’ve read the big staples like Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, His Dark Materials, etc.. If you haven’t, then by all means ignore the above and start there!
- Circe. I loved this one so much that the moment I finished the audiobook, I immediately started it over AND bought the book for my shelf. Following the goddess Circe as she comes into her womanhood and learns to navigate the complicated politics of the Greek pantheon, this novel has some of the most mesmerizing language I’ve ever read in my life. Seven years in the making, Circe is moving and enchanting and compulsively readable, a real triumph of literature on a surprising and fascinating subject. Besides all that, I’ve met Madeline Miller and she’s a delight!
- The Rosie Project. Fingers crossed this will be a movie soon, but if you love The Big Bang Theory, this book is for you. It’s a cheerful and laugh-out-loud romance between a socially awkward professor and a completely unsuitable barmaid and it has become my go-to book for rainy days and sad times. It never fails to bring a smile to my face.
- Miracle Creek. I read this one recently on a recommendation from a NYC editor and was blown away. I’ll be honest, the description didn’t really catch my attention, but the story itself was a layered, complex whodunit mystery with lots to say about identity, diaspora, family, motherhood, and mistakes.
- One of Us Is Lying. For all you lovers of The Breakfast Club, pepper in a bit of murder and you’ll have Karen M. McManus’s debut YA thriller. I was so hooked on this audiobook that I found myself inventing chores around the house to keep listening. It kept me guessing the whole time.
- Sadie. On the polar opposite end of The Rosie Project, Sadie is the book that takes you into the dark and leaves you there. It’s gritty and tense and brutal, but the podcast/narrative structure was addictive (especially in audio) and the story kept me thinking long after I’d finished. Not for the faint of heart, but if you enjoy (is that the right word?) true crime podcasts, check this one out.
- Gone Girl. Another dark delight! I’m sure you’ve heard of this one (or maybe seen the movie), but if you haven’t I highly recommend picking this one up. It’s thrilling and thoughtful and full of ideas without being weighed down by them. If you don’t know them already, try your best to avoid spoilers! Flynn’s midpoint twist is excellent.
- Big Little Lies. I haven’t seen the show yet (I hear it’s good), but I inhaled this book. The way it’s written, with the little snippets of police interviews at the beginning of every chapter, yanked me along so quick that I was almost sad to reach the end. I laughed, I cried, and I fell in love with the women of Northern Beaches.
- The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. This little epistolary novel about a young woman investigating a tiny island not long after WWII is a complete joy of a read. Written from the point of view of the cheerful, curious, infectiously lovable Juliet, this strangely-titled book left me wanting to pull on my rain jacket and travel to Guernsey myself. It was also made into a very sweet Netflix original film.
- Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine. I was late to the party here, but I’m glad I finally picked this one up. It was surprisingly dark and a little haunting, but I really fell in love with Eleanor. It was both amusing and heartbreaking to see the world through her eyes, knowing how others perceive her behavior even as she offers the reader perfectly good justifications. And it left me thinking a lot about raw fortune and how little you can truly know about a person’s history.
- The Book Thief. I left the best for last on this list, because if you haven’t read The Book Thief I don’t know where you’ve been. This novel, told from the point of view of Death himself (herself? theirself?) is beautiful and poignant and absolutely devastating. Nothing has ever hit home the devastation of WWII quite like this story did for me. A hard but ultimately uplifting read.
- Bad Blood. If you’ve followed the news out of Silicon Valley lately, I’m sure you’ve heard plenty about the Theranos scandal. But John Carreyrou puts the jaw-dropping tale of Elizabeth Holms’s deception together like a well-plotted thriller. This was another audiobook that had me inventing menial tasks so I wouldn’t have to press pause.
- When Breath Becomes Air. There’s no denying the tragedy that lies at the heart of this book. The world is a worse place without Paul Kalanithi. But the silver lining to the death of this brilliant 37-year-old neurosurgeon is that he left a little of his amazing mind with us in When Breath Becomes Air. His book made me think about my death, obviously, but it also made me think about life and meaning and direction and God and love. A heartbreaking story, but a deeply meaningful one.
- A Life In Parts. I’ve listened to a lot of celebrity memoirs, but this has been my favorite (so far). Besides being a fantastic actor, it turns out that Bryan Cranston also has lots to say on the artistic lifestyle and the meaning of stories. I found his memoir helpful as a writer, but also as a young person struggling to find my direction.
- The War on Normal People. Putting politics completely aside and making no statements about primaries or races, I think everyone should read Andrew Yang’s book. It’s meticulously researched and filled with statistics that just gobsmacked me. If you’re looking for a fairly bipartisan and factual representation of why our country is in the state it’s in, give this one a go.
- The Denial of Death. I have to add a caveat here that this book is VERY dated. It’s a post-Freudian study of psychology, so some of its ideas about sexual orientation and preferences are straight-up backwards and offensive to modern sensibilities. HOWEVER, that said, there are parts of this that completely changed my life. It’s dense, philosophical, and difficult to process, but absolutely worth the effort. Just ignore that one chapter.
- On Writing. Anyone who’s a writer has likely heard of Stephen King’s memoir on the craft, but I think even non-writers might enjoy his thoughts on process, life, and the value of stories. I enjoy his personable and humble description of how he became such an icon, and his no-nonsense writing advice buoys me whenever I feel my creative motivation flagging.
- Lab Girl. I wouldn’t have thought that the autobiography of a geochemist/geobiologist could be one of the most beautiful and moving books I’d ever read, but Hope Jahren proved my assumptions incorrect. The story is that of Dr. Jahren growing from a precocious young girl in Minnesota to a woman running her own research lab, but really it’s an inspiring and thought-provoking view of life through the lens of trees and science and lab work. A real hidden gem.
- Tuesdays with Morrie. My dad told me when he saw me reading this that it was a huge book when I was a kid. Well, for all my fellow millennials who might have missed out on Morrie’s sometimes-humorous, sometimes tragic, always transformative wisdom, don’t let this one slip you by. It’s a short book, but chock-full of important reminders that none of us ever hear often enough.
- Midnight in Chernobyl. I’m absolutely dying to see the HBO series Chernobyl (not enough time for TV in our household right now), but I think this book was the next best thing in the meantime. I think those of us born after the disaster in April 1986 never really understood the full scope of nuclear panic. But this book shows it to us in vivid detail. Taut, human, and terrifyingly descriptive, Midnight in Chernobyl is a harsh reminder of a time not so long ago when the term nuclear apocalypse was more than just a post-apocalyptic catch-phrase.
- The Subtle Art of Not Giving A F*uck. I’ve been a fan of Mark Manson for years. Admittedly, he’s a bit of a polarizing figure with his anti-self-help brand (his words) and tough-love, sailor-mouthed persona. Personally, I’ve always loved the fact that his long articles and philosophical insights are generously peppered with F-bombs. His writing is simple, straightforward, and sharp enough to bite. Thankfully, his books are no exception. This book made me re-evaluate a lot about my life, particularly the question of how many f*cks I was giving and what I was giving them to. Turns out that’s a very important question. Manson’s second book is also fabulous.
Have you read any of these? Did you love them as much as I did? Hate them with a burning passion? Did you add any to your reading list? I’d love to know what you think in the comments!
As always, happy reading friends 🙂