Today, I’m supposed to be on a flight to Amsterdam where SVV and I were set to celebrate our 10-year wedding anniversary. Instead, I’m at home in my office, bundled up in a robe, a beer in hand, and like everyone else, am using the coronavirus self-isolation period to do a few things: catch up on work, catch up on house projects, catch up on my TV, catch up on reading. And while I have dozens of book posts from the past decade where you can read reviews more in depth, I wanted to consolidate them all and give you my top 75 reads for your self-isolation, broken down by category.
Note: If you like audiobooks or use an e-reader, this is a great time to consider a free 30-day trial of Audible or Kindle Unlimited. You can also check out ebooks and audiobooks from your local library’s website if you already have a library number. And if you live in Nashville, independent bookseller Parnassus, owned by the prolific and kind Ann Patchett, will deliver books to your door; if you don’t, the shop also ships.
I read more fiction than anything—you won’t find recommendations for self-help books here—and while I get the bulk of ideas from my bookworm mom, who really needs her own book blog, I also compile lists of recs from Entertainment Weekly and both Reese Witherspoon and Jenna Bush’s book clubs.
- Rules of Civility by Amor Townes — the unfolding of a volatile year in the life of a working class immigrant’s daughter, Katey Kontent, as she finds herself running with the upper crust of Manhattan society in 1930s New York.
- The Diver’s Clothes Lie Empty by Vendela Vida — a story of identity, this book is written in second person and starts with a 30-something woman flying to Morocco for a vacation to get over a recent divorce. Her passport and belongings are stolen the first morning she gets there, and what unfolds in the wake of her trauma is interesting, funny and, at times, a bit heartbreaking.
- City of Girls by Elizabeth Gilbert — this coming-of-age tale of a privileged, suburban girl who goes to live with her aunt who runs a small playhouse in NYC in the midst of World War II is my favorite Liz Gilbert read yet.
- The Cranes Dance by Meg Howrey — a pair of talented sisters make the leap from dancing in a company in their hometown in Michigan to going pro in New York while still in high school; one slowly starts to break down, while the other attempts to cope with the stress of making it in such a competitive industry.
- The Dutch House by Ann Patchett — set in post-World War II Pennsylvania, a pair of siblings are forced out of the house they grew up in and love and rely on each other for survival.
- White Oleander by Janet Finch — I read this novel of a broken family where the mother goes to jail for murdering a lover and the daughter Astrid grows up in the foster care system back in college, and I’m still thinking about it today. Might be time to read it all over again!
- The Royal Spyness books by Rhys Bowen — if you want a lighthearted, funny, quick read about a fictitious member of the royal family post-World War I, this 14-book series about Lady Georgina is just the ticket for you.
- The Chet and Bernie Mystery Series by Spencer Quinn — a P.I. Bernie and his loyal companion Chet solve crimes left and right; what makes this 10-book series so entertaining is that it’s told from the point of view of the German shepherd, a flunked-out police dog.
- Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter — a 1950s movie star goes to an island to heal from a deadly disease only to become enchanted with the place and the owner of the dilapidated inn in which she stays.
- State of Wonder by Ann Patchett — a medical researcher in Minnesota travels to Brazil to find out what happened to her co-worker who died while on assignment down in the Amazon and, in turn, winds up on the path to a cure for malaria.
- The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion —the socially inept genetics professor Don Tillman sets out on a mission to find a wife; instead, he meets a psych student who needs help tracking down her biological father. There are two other books in this series, both of which I also recommend.
- Where’d You Go Bernadette? by Marie Semple — Bernadette, eccentric mother to child prodigy Bee, goes missing, and her daughter is determined to find her. The movie adaptation starring Cate Blanchett wasn’t great, but the book was engrossing.
- Everything Changes by Jonathan Tropper — I’m a huge Tropper fan, and if you’ve never read anything of his, start with this one which follows Zachary King through navigating the reappearance of his father after a 20-year absence and the drama that ensues.
- The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo by Taylor Jenkins Reid — a Liz Taylor-esque characters tells her life story from birth to death via the seven husbands she meets and marries along the way.
- Emily & Einstein by Linda Francis Lee — Emily loses someone very close to her, who later comes back to life in dog form, a dog that—you may have guessed—Emily winds up serendipitously adopting. It sounds hokey, but I assure you, it’s not.
- Eight Hundred Grapes by Laura Dave — Georgia Ford, a lawyer who flees LA in her wedding dress, returns home to Sebastapol to find her parents’ marriage disintegrating and her father selling the beloved family winery.
- Next Year in Havana by Chantel Cleeton — I’m midway through this novel about a journalist who goes back to Cuba to scatter her grandmother’s ashes and learns all about what her family went through there during the revolution. Lucky for me, there are two other books in this series!
- The Art of Racing in the Rain by Garth Stein — this bittersweet story is told from the POV of the family dog, Enzo, who watches the matriarch of the family slowly perish of cancer and all the repercussions that result from her death, like a custody battle over the kid between the sweet dad and the monster-in-laws.
- The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin — grumpy A.J. Fikry runs an independent bookstore on Alice Island that’s seen better times thanks to the boom of the Internet; his prized collection is stolen; and a newborn baby is abandoned in his shop one night.
- Eligible by Curtis Sittenfeld — this clever modern-day spin on Pride & Prejudice puts the Bennet family in present-day Cincinnati and tackles today’s prejudices, including those toward the LGBTQ+ community.
- Ape House by Sara Gruen — Gruen spent two years in an ape language lab studying her subjects before writing this piece of fiction about a researcher and a group of bonobos who learn American Sign Language and go missing after an explosion rocks the lab.
- The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern — Harry Potter-ish in nature and filled with magic, The Night Circus is about two children trained by different rival mentors from early on to duel to the death (eventually), though each doesn’t know who their opponent is, when/where this duel will take place or what it will entail.
- The Book of Joe by Jonathan Tropper — Joe is a successful author who leaves everything behind for an existence of glitz and glamor in New York City, but is forced to return to his small hometown—where everybody knows his business—for the first time in ages when his father dies suddenly.
- Crazy, Rich Asians by Kevin Kwan — the first in a trilogy of novels set in high-society Singapore, CRA finds Chinese-American Rachel Chu marrying a man she thought she knew, but knows so very little about.
- This Is How It Always Is by Laurie Frankel — this book is about a set of five brothers, the youngest of whom always felt different, and when this feeling becomes evolves into exploration—wearing dresses, putting on makeup, playing with dolls—his parents realize it’s more than just a phase.
- Hum If You Don’t Know the Words by Bianca Marais — taking place in an 18-month span during the height of apartheid, Hum tells the story of two very different heroines—a nine-year-old white girl whose parents are slain and a 50-year-old black woman who came to the big city to track down her rebel daughter caught up in the Soweto Uprising—and impresses upon the reader how no matter the color of our skin, our sexual orientation, our religion or where we were born, no one is any greater or worse than the next human.
- The Princess Bride by William Goldman — a fantastical romance between Westley and Buttercup, The Princess Bride has all the elements of a classic: death. Castles. Sword fights. Giants. Elaborate chess matches. Poison. And rodents of unusual size.
I’m a huge fan of WWI and WWII historical fiction, so many (all?) of the reads in this category fall in those time periods.
- The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah — two dramatically different French sisters lost their mother and father at a young age, took divergent paths and both wound up doing her part to help out during World War II—one as a renegade smuggling downed pilots over the border of the Pyrenees into Spain; the other a teacher who saves the lives of Jewish children. One of my favorite books of all time!
- Sarah’s Key by Tatiana de Rosnay — while many WWII reads focus on other invasions, Sarah’s Key introduced me to the Vel’ d’Hiv’, during which 7,000 Jews in France were rounded up, separated and sent to refugee camps (or so they’re told…). Ten-year-old Sarah, thinking she’ll be back soon, locks her baby brother in the cupboard when she and her parents are arrested. Fast-forward to today, and journalist Julia Jarmond begins to unwind the past and what happened 60 years prior.
- The Huntress by Kate Quinn — the story of a former military correspondent in search of his brother’s murderer—a ruthless Nazi woman responsible for the death of dozens of kids and adults alike—and the unlikely alliance he forms with a former Russian bomber pilot.
- The Boston Girl by Anita Diamant — the story of an elderly woman who grew up in a very poor family and gives the oral history of her life—primarily, from pre-World War I through Prohibition—as a Jew in Boston.
- The Paris Wife by Paula McLain — this piece of historical fiction is written from the viewpoint of Hemingway’s first of four wives, Hadley.
- Transcription by Kate Atkinson — this gripping tale of a young, teenaged WWII-era transcriptionist in London plucked from the typing pool by the government to spy on Nazis had me on the edge of my seat.
- The All-Girl Filling Station’s Last Reunion by Fannie Flagg — a departure from Flagg’s traditional Southern writing, this book covers the early-1900s to the present and tells the story of the WASPs, Women Airforce Service Pilots, the first female military pilots. This program was disbanded, brushed under the rug and only declassified within the last decade.
- Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden — a first-person narrative told by a geisha in Kyoto during World War II who winds up being relocated to New York.
- The Alice Network by Kate Quinn — set in World War I this time, this book chronicles the life of English spy Eve Gardiner, who was recruited to be in the Alice Network and sent to German-occupied France, showing the hardships women went through in the wars—rape, brutal beatings, torture—for the sake of patriotism and bringing crucial information back to their countrymen.
- City of Thieves by David Benioff — written by that David Behioff (Game of Thrones co-creator), this book takes place in former Leningrad while it’s besieged by the Nazis and follows a Jewish kid, Lev, as he does what he has to in order to survive, even if it means traipsing across the country in the height of winter on a deadly mission for a colonel.
- Before We Were Yours by Lisa Wingate — this book bounces back and forth from the 30’s/40’s to present day where South Carolina prosecutor Avery Stafford encounters a strange lady in one of her family’s assisted living facilities, which leads her to dig up dirt on her Senator father’s family and how they may be connected to the Tennessee Children’s Home Society, an orphanage disguised to hide a massive human trafficking ring, which sadly did exist for decades.
Memoirs / Non-Fiction
I’ll be honest: Because I write thousands of words of non-fiction a week as a journalist, it’s probably my least favorite genre for my leisure reading, though I have found a handful of memoirs and the like over the years that have made it onto my “top reads” list.
- Educated by Tara Westover — one of the best memoirs I’ve ever read, Tara recounts what it’s like to grow up in a Mormon survivalist household in the 90’s and 00’s in extremely rural Idaho.
- The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls — Jeannette is one of four kids, born to a pair of dysfunctional nomad parents who rarely can hold down a job and, in the end, wind up homeless. The book was excellent, but I did not care for the movie.
- The Wolf and the Watchman: A Father, a Son and the CIA by Scott Johnson — an award-winning foreign correspondent recaps how the uncertain life as a CIA agent’s son in war zones shaped his future as a journalist.
- Shortest Way Home by Pete Buttigieg — I could not adore Mayor Pete more, and this memoir tells his journey from intelligence officer to South Bend mayor to future president (hey, a girl can still hope!).
- Boom Town by Sam Anderson — the modifier says it all: “The Fantastical Saga of Oklahoma City, its Chaotic Founding… its Purloined Basketball Team, and the Dream of Becoming a World-class Metropolis.” Lovers of urban development will dig this read.
- This is the Story of a Happy Marriage by Ann Patchett — I’m a big fan of Nashville’s hometown bookseller, Ann Patchett, and while I adore her fiction, as a journalist, this collection of short stories on how she built her career, life and marriage really spoke to me.
- Love with a Chance of Drowning by Torre deRoche — ever wanted to leave it all behind and do something completely unexpected like buy a sailboat and sail around the world? Torre did just that.
- Wild by Cheryl Strayed — after her mother dies and her marriage falls apart, Cheryl Strayed does something totally out of character: She straps on a backpack and some hiking boots and tackles the Pacific Crest Trail. Alone.
- Cruising Altitude: Tales of Crashpads, Crew Drama, and Crazy Passengers at 35,000 Feet by Heather Poole — ever want to know what it’s like to be a flight attendant? This tell-all is a fascinating glimpse at life up in the clouds.
- Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand — the true tale of Louis Zamperini’s survival of a gruesome POW camp during World War II and the lingering PTSD it left him with.
- Somewhere Inside by Lisa and Laura Ling — journalists Lisa Ling and Euna Lee venture to the North Korea border to film a docuseries about refugees; they get detained by North Korea for entering without a visa. This memoir is told from each vantage point: Laura, in North Korea prison, and Lisa back home in the United States trying to free her sister.
- Bad Blood by John Carreyrou — the scandalous story of Elizabeth Holmes’ elaborate deception of the tech world through her startup Theranos, a story which was initially broken by Wall Street Journal reporter Carreyrou who authored this book.
While I’m terrified of horror movies, I do love a good suspense read. Among my favorite suspense authors—other than John Grisham, whom I adored as a teen—are Gillian Flynn and Mary Kubica.
- Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn — this whodunnit when a writer’s wife in a seemingly happy marriage disappears on the couple’s wedding anniversary and he’s cast as the prime suspect set the bar high for modern-day suspense novels. Even if you saw the film version starring Ben Affleck, you’ll find the book entertaining, I assure you.
- Luckiest Girl Alive by Jessica Knoll — something awful happens to TifAni FaNelli that haunts her life (you don’t find out what till the end); in the meantime, she fakes it till she makes it: landing a cush job at a fictitious Cosmo-like publication and a huge rock on her finger thanks to her Wall Street banker fiance, to boot.
- The Good Girl by Mary Kubica — I love everything I’ve read to date by Kubica, but this is my favorite: The story of a kidnapping gone wrong told from the perspective of a handful of different narrators, including the mother of the victim, the kidnapper, the victim herself and the detective, chronicles a family wrapped up in blackmail as they search for Mia and try to get to the bottom of the case.
- The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins — this is a chilling tale of an alcoholic British woman who is borderline manic depressive and obsessed over other people’s love stories, many of which she watches unfold from the seat of her commuter train.
- Dismas Hardy series by John Lescroart — if you love Grisham-style mysteries featuring a lawyer at the center of murder cases, I suggest looking into the John Lescroart books that feature attorney Dismas Hardy as the protagonist. You can read them in any order really.
- True Blood series by Charlaine Harris — love the vampire TV show starring Anna Paquin as Sookie? Well, let me tell you: The 13 Sookie Stackhouse books are way better.
- What She Left by T.R. Richmond — told through a series of diary entries, school essays, blog posts, news stories, Tweets, texts, phone conversations and more, this book chronicles the life of English journalist Alice Salmon from teenage years to death at 25.
- You by Caroline Kepnes — whether you’ve watched the show or not, you’ll want to read about bookseller-turned-serial killer Joe Goldberg as he woos then offs women is a must-read; when you’re done, follow Joe to LA in Hidden Bodies.
- Sharp Objects by Gillian Flynn — this book follows Camille, a crime reporter from Chicago, back to her hometown in southern Missouri to investigate a handful of child murders. While there, she’s comes face to face with past ghosts. Warning: contains self-mutilation and is not for sensitive readers.
- All The Missing Girls by Megan Miranda — Nicolette, a 28-year-old teacher who had fled her small Appalachian town after high school to move to the big city, returns home to care for her ailing father—and confronting the ghosts of her past, specifically the disappearance of her best friend. Soon after she arrives, more people start to go missing.
- The Last Mrs. Parrish by Liv Constantine — Amber Patterson is a con-artist who weasels her way into heiress Daphne Parrish’s world of excess by becoming her friend in Single White Female fashion—later going as far as trying to become her, attempting to take over her husband and her home. It’s a who-is-conning-who mystery that twists and turns over 400 pages.
I get it: You want to escape the stress of the current state of affairs; if that’s the case, dystopian may not be the best route for you. On the flip side, it might also show you that things could be far worse. The great thing about many dystopian reads is that they’re so often trilogies, meaning you love the first one? You’ve got two more (if not more) to go!
- 1984 by George Orwell — the O.G. dystopian novel, this Orwell classic published in 1949 is set in totalitarian England where Big Brother is always watching. Despite being written 70 years ago, it’s startling how much Orwell predicted about the future has come true.
- Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel — a flu wreaks havoc on the world (sound familiar?), which spawns the collapse of civilization as we know it, and the survivors are left in nomadic camps of sorts, doing what they must to survive.
- The Martian by Andy Weir — I don’t know about you, but being stranded in a bubble on Mars sounds pretty good right about now.
- The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins — is there any person of reading age on the planet who hasn’t devoured this trilogy starring Katniss Everdeen yet? Even if you have, it’s the perfect time to read it again with the prequel coming out in May.
- Delirium by Lauren Oliver — in this trilogy, the government performs surgery on every citizen to remove the gene in their brain that allows them to love, thus preventing the ultimate “disease” that plagues us all.
- Divergent by Veronica Roth — all of society is tested to sort its people into one of five factions in which they live and work, though to the government, the Divergents are the most dangerous of all.
- Legend by Marie Lu — one rebel seeks to challenge the government who is turning the poorer citizens into lab rats (unbeknownst to them) by spreading a deadly plague for which only they have a cure in this four-book series.
- The Maze Runner by James Dashner — the “Scorch” consumes the Earth, threatening the human race; protagonist Tommy finds himself trapped in the Glade, where he and all the boys (no girls) are trying to escape through the Maze and get back to the “real world”—only, to do so, they must get past the deadly Grievers guarding the exit. This is the first in an entertaining Lord of the Flies-like, five-part series appropriate for high school-aged kids.
I’m not ashamed to say that I devour me some middle-grade and YA books. These are just a few of my favorites among hundreds that I’ve read.
- Looking for Alaska by John Green — smart in a Gilmore Girls way, this novel follows introvert Miles “Pudge” Halter as he goes off to boarding school in rural Alabama and, subsequently, falls in love with the dynamic Alaska Young. This book is now a show on Hulu, as well.
- Wonder by R.J. Palacio — poor August Pullman, 10 years old, is born with facial abnormalities that steer his every move and keep him out of the public eye and in his house; as a result, he’s babied by his family and never taught to interact among peers his age—that is, until his parents enroll him in the fifth grade. The movie was also very sweet!
- The Fault in Our Stars by John Green — an unlikely kinship develops between a pair of teens as one suffers through a terminal cancer diagnosis.
- Tuck Everlasting by Natalie Babbitt — this fountain of youth concept that explores the concept “would you want to live forever?” is a must-read for middle-schoolers and their parents who missed out on this 1970 classic the first time around.
- Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell — a new kid, the pleasantly plump Eleanor with a crown of wild red curls, and the semi-geeky Park develop a beautiful, awkward and powerfully evocative friendship in Omaha.
- Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Paterson — this was my favorite book in the fifth grade, and it still resonates today. Fifth-graders Jess Aarons and new girl Leslie Burke strike up a fast friendship and build an enchanted world, Terabithia, in the woods behind their houses.
- Paper Towns by John Green — another Green favorite, this quirky novel centers around high schooler Q, who secretly obsesses over Margo Roth Spiegelman, with whom he witnessed a suicide when they were just kids. One night, she appears at his window and involves him in an unforgettable evening of mischief and debauchery; then, the next day, Margo goes missing.
- The Summer Fletcher Greel Loved Me by Suzanne Kinbury — this often-sweet story of a pair of summer romances in deep Mississippi will make you wish you were living high school all over again (the good years, that is), though there are also teaching moments about racism and hatred woven throughout.
- Number the Stars by Lois Lowry — told through the eyes of a 10 year old, this WWII read chronicles how the Danish resistance smuggles Jews to safety in Sweden.
What books are you reading and loving during this time of hunkering down?
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