A few years ago, my habits slowly changed from relaxing with fiction every day to reading much more non-fiction – memoirs, biographies, and books on topics that interest me, from wild places to creativity and growing businesses.
Now, there’s nothing wrong with non-fiction. Haemin Sunim has taught me to slow down, Cheryl Strayed has honed my love for the wild, and Oliver Sacks reminds me to notice the beautiful intricacies of the world and our inner landscapes.
But the books that really stay with me? Those I get lost in for a weekend and want to get back to as soon as possible? They’re fiction.
The books in this list aren’t Russian classics (although I certainly have time for those). Instead, they’re the novels that broke my reading droughts and reminded me precisely why I love books.
If you’ve fallen out of the joyful habit of retreating into the millions of imaginary worlds in books, here are some novels to kick start it.
1. Prodigal Summer by Barbara Kingsolver
How have I only just discovered how much I love Barbara Kingsolver’s writing? I finished reading Prodigal Summer this week and feel like I need a few more days to soak in its beauty. If I could have written any book, it would likely be one like this.
For one summer of new life, change, and the sensuality of nature in bloom, we’re swept into three different lives close by in the Appalachian mountains.
“Thanks for this day, for all birds safe in their nests, for whatever this is, for life.”
2. Where the Forest Meets the Stars by Glendy Vanderah
I read this a few weekends ago and loved it. Although I had some trouble with the writing early on, I told myself I’d read a bit longer. Before long I was nearing the halfway mark.
After the loss of her mother and her own battle with breast cancer, Joanna returns to her graduate research on nesting birds in rural Illinois, determined to prove that her recent hardships have not broken her.
She throws herself into her work from dusk to dawn, until her solitary routine is disrupted by the appearance of a mysterious child who shows up at her cabin barefoot and covered in bruises.
The girl calls herself Ursa, and she claims to have been sent from the stars to witness five miracles.
It’s one of the more easy-read picks on this list, but it’s a magical and lovely book.
“Gabe started to live as Ursa did, in an infinite present disconnected from the past or future.”
3. Circe by Madeline Miller
A book that everyone seems to have talked about the last few years – and for wonderful reason.
In this stunningly-woven page-turner, Circe sets forth her tale: a vivid, mesmerizing epic of family rivalry, love, and loss. It’s a woman’s story told in a man’s world, and her defiance is captivating.
“But in a solitary life, there are rare moments when another soul dips near yours, as stars once a year brush the earth. Such a constellation was he to me.”
4. Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese
Cutting for Stone is a big book, and one I’d been meaning to read for nearly a decade before I finally did this year. I’m so glad I picked it up at last.
From Ethiopia to New York City and back again, meet a fascinating family of doctors who weave an incredible story of heartbreak, loss, and the relationships that shape their lives.
“The key to your happiness is to own your slippers, own who you are, own how you look, own your family, own the talents you have, and own the ones you don’t. If you keep saying your slippers aren’t yours, then you’ll die searching, you’ll die bitter, always feeling you were promised more.”
5. I Am Pilgrim by Terry Hayes
This is my go-to recommendation for people who don’t read much but love gripping movies, especially crime, action, and detective plots. My eighteen-year-old brother couldn’t stop reading it, which is high praise indeed.
“nobody’s ever been arrested for a murder; they have only ever been arrested for not planning it properly.”
If you loved I Am Pilgrim, try Power of the Dog by Don Winslow next. I read this on The Trans-Siberian Railway from Moscow to Beijing when I wanted a big book that wouldn’t send me to sleep.
6. The Priory of the Orange Tree by Samantha Shannon
A world divided. A queendom without an heir. An ancient enemy awakens…
The Priory of the Orange Tree is an enthralling, epic fantasy about a world on the brink of war with dragons – and the women who must lead the fight to save it.
This is another book I read on The Trans-Siberian Railway – it’s a big book with an even bigger universe inside to explore.
“We may be small, and we may be young, but we will shake the world for our beliefs.”
7. All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr
All the Light We Cannot See is one of those books that creates the perfect formula for a story and delivers it flawlessly. If you’re yet to read it, I have a slight bit of envy about that.
New York Times bestseller and winner of the Pulitzer Prize, it’s the story of a blind French girl and a German boy whose paths collide in occupied France as both try to survive the devastation of World War II.
“Open your eyes and see what you can with them before they close forever.”
8. City of Girls by Elizabeth Gilbert
I adored both of Elizabeth Gilbert’s most recent novels, The Signature of All Things and in 2019, City of Girls.
Told from the perspective of Vivian Morris as she looks back on her youth in 1940s New York, City of Girls shares Vivian’s story of female sexuality and promiscuity, pleasure and regret, and a journey of true love and becoming.
“Never has it felt more important for me to tell stories of joy and abandon, passion and recklessness. Life is short and difficult, people. We must take our pleasures where we can find them. Let us not become so cautious that we forget to live.”
9. Moloka’i by Alan Brennert
Head off to Honolulu in the 1890s and enter the life of young Rachel Kalama, who is growing up in big, loving Hawaiian family and dreams of seeing the far-off lands that her father, a merchant seaman, often visits.
But at the age of seven, Rachel and her dreams are shattered by the discovery that she has leprosy. Forcibly removed from her family, she is sent to Kalaupapa, the isolated leper colony on the island of Moloka’i.
Rachel’s life, though shadowed by disease, isolation, and tragedy, is also one of joy, courage, and dignity. Moloka’i is a story about life, not death; hope, not despair. It is not about the failings of flesh, but the strength of the human spirit.
“Fear is good. In the right degree it prevents us from making fools of ourselves. But in the wrong measure it prevents us from fully living. Fear is our boon companion but never our master.”
10. Olive, Again by Elizabeth Strout
Pulitzer Prize winner Elizabeth Strout continues the life of her beloved Olive Kitteridge, a character who has captured the imaginations of millions.
“When you get old,” Olive told Andrea after the girl had walked away, “you become invisible. It’s just the truth. And yet it’s freeing in a way.”
11. The Overdue Life of Amy Byler by Kelly Harms
Overworked and underappreciated, single mother Amy Byler needs a break. So when the guilt-ridden husband who abandoned her shows up and offers to take care of their kids for the summer, she accepts his offer and escapes rural Pennsylvania for New York City.
Usually grounded and mild mannered, Amy finally lets her hair down in the city that never sleeps.
“Sometimes a book about other people’s problems is way better than your own.”
12. The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah
New York Times bestseller, Wall Street Journal Best Book of the Year, and soon to be a major motion picture, Kristin Hannah captures the epic panorama of World War II and illuminates an intimate part of history seldom seen: the women’s war.
“If I have learned anything in this long life of mine, it is this: in love we find out who we want to be; in war we find out who we are.”
More handpicked books:
- 13 books to retreat into this weekend
- 12 of the best audiobooks to enjoy now
- 8 books to appreciate how beautiful life really is
- 7 self-care books for relaxing and unwinding with
- 12 calming books to help you take a deep breath and relax