6 favorite novels to add to your TBR
Updated: Sep 9, 2021
Reading is my favorite hobby. I love the way a book can transport you into a new world, setting, or time, introducing you to characters you’ve never met in real life, but that feel familiar. My yearly reading list is generally lengthy (for a monthly recap of what I’m reading, go ahead and subscribe to my newsletter), covering a wide range of genres and topics.
Over the years, however, there are a few books that have stood out and remain favorites. And now, I’d like to recommend a few newish ones to you in the hope that they will impact the way you think, enthrall you with a good story, and show you a window into others’ experiences.
The first time I heard about this Pulitzer Prize-winning book was from the owner of one of my all-time favorite used bookstores, Manchester-by-the-Book. I was in the store for no particular reason, just to browse. The owner asked about my tastes, which books I loved, which I hated, and I couldn’t tell you what I said at this point, but he was exactly right about recommending Gilead, even though I didn’t actually read it until it was assigned for a course I took my junior year of college.
A brief summary: The novel is narrated by an aging Congregationalist pastor, John Ames, who is writing a letter to his young son because he knows he will likely die far before the boy reaches adulthood. It’s a simple concept, and yet it serves as a beautiful starting point from which to discuss community, faith, family, past, present, and future. When you open this book, you’ll feel like Reverend Ames is sitting across from you, sharing his life, deepest held beliefs, his doubts and questions, and his hopes.
This is a “quiet” book in that it doesn’t have big flashy twists and turns, but it is in no way boring. If you enjoy books that invite you into a community (Wendell Berry, Kent Haruf, and Jeannette Haien all come to mind here), this will likely be a good fit for you. I read it annually and I think I’ll continue that tradition for many years to come.
When I was in college, I took a course cryptically titled “Sacramental Literature.” On the first day, our professor told us that in reality, he had just wanted to teach a whole class on Wendell Berry’s works, but had to broaden it a bit. I didn’t know what I was in for, but that class introduced me to one of my all-time favorite writers and I am forever grateful for the initiation into the Port William membership.
A brief summary: The novel tells the life story of Jayber Crow, the barber in the fictional town of Port William, Kentucky. Now, I know a story about a small-town barber may not sound like exciting reading, but trust me on this one. You will feel welcomed into the Port William membership. It’s not a perfect community, but shows the true beauty of humanity and living together.
Like Gilead, this is a “quiet” book, but even those who tend to prefer plot-heavy novels have found themselves enamored by this book. If you like character-driven stories that have an excellent sense of place and hold a mirror to the wonder of community, give this book a try.
I’ve been a fan of Patchett’s work for a few years now, particularly her nonfiction essay collection This Is The Story of a Happy Marriage, so when I saw she had a book tour stop near me in fall 2019, I immediately bought tickets. As with most book tour events, the price of a ticket came with a copy of the book. Because of my TBR at the time, however, I ended up reading this one for the first time via audio (narrated by Tom Hanks, by the way), which was a fantastic experience.
A brief summary: Narrated by Danny, the book tells a multi-decade story of how he and his sister, Maeve, unsuccessfully deal with their past family trauma, particularly associated with the titular family home, and carry it with them far into adulthood. It’s probably clear by now that I love a story about family, but this book also includes a nearly mystical intrigue that makes it stand out. When I finished listening to this book, I told my husband that this is the kind of book I wish I could write.
If you’ve enjoyed books like Ask Again, Yes by Mary Beth Keane, or are a fan of F. Scott Fitzgerald and/or J.D. Salinger (specifically Franny and Zooey), I think this would be a great fit for you. Plus, the ending is so satisfying.
I honestly don’t know why I hadn’t heard about how great this book is until last year. In 2020, I saw the buzz about Gyasi’s new novel, Transcendent Kingdom, and joined the excessively long library hold list. While I waited, I picked up this one to get an idea of what to expect. I am so happy I did.
A brief summary: Covering three hundred years, this novel traces the story of one family starting in Ghana, through war, colonialism, the slave trade, emancipation, Jim Crow America, and into the 1990s. It weaves the storylines together beautifully, showing how the past isn’t really past at all but actively influencing the events of the present. The book’s scope is ambitious and compelling and the quality of the writing and the complexity of the characters rise to meet it.
If you enjoyed books like Pachinko by Min Jin Lee or Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, this would be a great fit for your TBR. And if it piques your interest in the history of colonialism and the slave trade in Ghana, pick up Stamped from the Beginning by Ibram X. Kendi.
I initially picked this one up in January 2021 because I had heard it recommended to those who love Wendell Berry and it instantly became a favorite for the year. Burns does such a beautiful job of creating fundamentally flawed characters and yet making you care deeply about them. The relationships between characters offer a vivid picture of what it looks like to love your people well and what it looks like when that love is betrayed.
A brief summary: Set in the mountains of West Virginia, the story focuses on 15-year-old Wren, who lives a confined life due to her father’s unconventional “calling” as a snake handler, minister, and healer. Over the course of the novel, we see how her mother and her best friend have been trapped in this life and are unable to escape the reverend’s disastrous miracles, and how Wren may break the cycle.
While this book is perhaps more plot-heavy than many of Berry’s books, I think it would work well for those who’ve enjoyed Jayber Crow. If you enjoy Kent Haruf’s books (particularly the Plainsong Trilogy), I think this would also work well for you. It has become one of my all-time favorites and I can’t wait to revisit it again and again.
My first introduction to Ishiguro’s work was The Remains of the Day, as I'm sure it was for many people. I loved that novel when I picked it up a couple of years ago after seeing it recommended as a staff pick at Powell’s Books in Portland, Oregon, but this one has displaced it in my affections.
A brief summary: The novel follows three students from Hailsham, by all accounts a normal English boarding school, except that they have no knowledge of the outside world, their own lineage, and what their ultimate purpose will be in life. As they grow up and come to learn the troubling reality of their lives and futures (which I won’t spoil here), the novel explores what it means to be truly human and what it means to have a purpose.
This novel is something between a mystery and a dystopian and it will have you turning pages far past your bedtime (speaking from experience). The writing is also spectacular, as is to be expected with Ishiguro. If you enjoyed the slow unfurling of the mystery in The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell, this book would be right up your alley.
There were so many wonderful books I could have included here, but it would have made the post unbearably long, so I had to trim it somewhere. Here are a few more honorable mentions:
The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead: If you haven’t read this book yet, please let this be your sign from the universe. The subject matter is so very difficult (TW: Abuse of minors, extreme racism, murder) but it is well worth your time. It earned Whitehead his second Pulitzer Prize.
A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles: I love a book with obvious constraints and this one has a big one since the protagonist has been condemned to house arrest in a hotel in Moscow. It’s full of heart, has a wonderful sense of place, and it will immerse you.
Writers & Lovers by Lily King: Set in Boston in the 1990s, the setting feels familiar since I grew up 30 minutes outside the city. It follows the story of Casey as she struggles to find herself as a writer and in relationships with others. It’s one of the few books that I think nails what writing a novel feels like, particularly before it has any hope of publication.
Franny and Zooey by J.D. Salinger: Listen—and I will die on this hill—this book is better than Catcher in the Rye. Written originally as two shorter works, this novel follows the stories of the two youngest members of the Glass family as they navigate early adulthood, family tension, and past trauma. The tone is consistent with Salinger’s other work, but the characters and stylistic choices keep me coming back time and time again.
What's on your top fiction list? Tell me in the comments!