In a position such as mine, recommending new reads to people is as familiar as breathing air. Whether it’s in a library or a bookshop, I know the three main expressions on the faces of someone looking for that next great read. There is the eager “I’ve just finished something great and I want more” look, followed by the “Hey, I heard an interview with — and can you tell me more about it?” look. The most challenging (and, frankly, the most fun) is that sometimes sheepish, sometimes almost confrontational look of a reader who shows up and says, “I want something good to read. What do you have?”
Since I missed this one a few weeks back, here, then are ten of the top reads I recommend to people when they come in looking for something new, different, wonderful, interesting or a host of other descriptive words to read:
The Book of Salt by Monique Truong
Binh is a young Vietnamese man who flees his family and all that he knows in Saigon, ending up as the live-in cook to Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas in 1920’s Paris. There, he observes “Mes Mesdames” and their literary salon, slowly coming to terms with who he is as an individual. The time comes, however, when the ladies decide to return to the US, and he must decide his own path. This is a beautifully written book, with some lovely imagery. The plot can be a little slow at times, but you become absorbed with who these people are and Binh’s observations. Recommended for: people who like well-written books, historical fiction, alternative lifestyles.
Requiem by Frances Itani
This is the story of Bin Okuma, a recently widowed artist who is looking for meaning in his life again. Part of the Japanese internment on Canada’s West Coast during the Second World War, he decides to drive across country to revisit the places that mean most to him in his life while attempting to find peace within himself. This is a story of loss and love, of families divided and of coming to terms with your own history. Itani uses a horrible time in North American history with sensitivity and grace, providing insight into something many of us would prefer to forget. Recommended for: fans of Hare With the Amber Eyes, Snow Falling on Cedars, Canadian history.
The Glass Room by Simon Mawer
Viktor and Liesel Landauer, a rich Jewish businessman and a modern gentile woman, begin their life together by building a beautiful home outside of Prague – a home that includes a glass room that becomes the pinnacle of sophistication. As war looms, their marriage begins to suffer, and they flee their home, leaving it to the Czechs, then the Nazis, then the Soviets before finally returning to the Landauers. What makes this story most interesting to me is that it is based upon a real house outside of Prague – Villa Tugendhat was designed by Mies van der Rohe, and still exists today. This is a story of great passion, of darkness and of loss and struggle. Recommended for: historical architecture fans, people who love sagas.
The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce
Harold and Maureen live quiet and separate lives, despite being married forever. When Harold receives a surprising letter from an old friend, his unexpected decision to walk across England sends ripples across not only his own life but also the lives of those he meets. Deceptively simple but deeply poignant at times, this was originally a radio play and the quality of narrative shows. It’s Harold physical journey that leads to a more metaphysical one, both for himself and for Maureen, who is left at home while he walks on. Both come to accept who they are and what has happened to them in their lives, allowing them to move on. Recommended for: fans of Alan Bennett, quest books, strong narrative
The Swerve: How the World Became Modern by Stephen Greenblatt
Greenblatt proposes that a centuries-old document, plucked from obscurity, changed the course of human intellectual development – the “Swerve’ of the title. Finding a long-lost copy of On the Nature of Things, by Lucretius—a beautiful poem of the most dangerous ideas – promoted the idea of atoms and scientific knowledge long before our test tubes and microscopes were looking for proof. In addition to being a fascinating look at the course of human history, it’s also a great examination of the development of literature over time. Recommended for: classical literature fans, History of the World in 100 Objects, From Dawn to Decadence.
Hot Art: Chasing Thieves and Detectives Through the Secret World of Stolen Art by Joshua Knelman
Taking you behind the scenes of international art thievery and the shadowy world of forgers and pawn brokers, Knelman presents a fascinating account of the modern-day art world. Stolen art is one of the most lucrative black market activities in the world, and he manages to interview both sides of the chase, with insights from thieves and detectives. This is well-researched journalism undertaken over five years of connections and travels, and exposes the flaws and loopholes in international art ring investigations and shoddy auction houses. Definitely a compelling read! Recommended for: the art lover, the heist movie fan, the mystery enthusiast.
Life As We Know It by Susan Beth Pfeffer
Book 1 in the Last Survivors series, this details the story of Miranda as she outlines in her journal what happens after a meteor knocks the moon off-kilter, affecting the earth. The world breaks down, and things start to go terribly wrong for Miranda and she must figure out how to survive. What makes this story work for me is the very real emotion expressed by Miranda – she is angry, she is sarcastic, she is horrified and she is scared, and it all comes through. She’s a great teen character in a very strong teen dystopian book, Recommended for: those who have read Divergent, Hunger Games, those who liked Age of Miracles.
Code Name: Verity by Elizabeth Wein
Part historical fiction, part “The Usual Suspects” for teens, this is an incredible read. A story of friends and finding strength in war, but also a story of spies and double-crossing and divided loyalties – Wein has you on the edge of your seat throughout. This is a WWII book, but told from the perspective of two young woman, one of whom is a pilot. Strong female characters in a story that is not about falling for “Mr. Right”, but rather about finding your own path. If you are not a fan of journal-style presentation, you may find it a tough go at first, but persevere! It will be absolutely worth your while. Recommended for: Hunger Games fans, Kit Pearson fans, historical fiction/spy story fans.
Heist Society by Ally Carter
I actually hadn’t read beyond book one of the series until I had the opportunity to meet the author and then I powered through them like Smarties at Halloween. Honestly, such a fun contemporary series!! A twist on the classic heist mystery, this follows Kat Bishop and her family of thieves and misfits as they pull off fantastic heists, all while supporting each other. This series is funny, well-paced, intelligent and – although it flirts with a romance – not about the InstaLoveTM you come to expect from many contemporary series. Recommended for : fans of Anna and the French Kiss, Sarah Dessen, Meg Cabot.
The One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate
An award-winner for so many reasons, this book needs to be placed in the hands of your favourite middle-school readers (and everyone else in the family) post-haste. Ivan is a silverback gorilla, kept in a mall zoo for over three decades. While he still has memories of his short life in the jungle and his family, he is content with his friends and his home – until baby elephant Ruby arrives to shake up his beliefs. Now Ivan must decide how he will continue to live his life, and whether he can ever be happy again. Emotional, sweet, funny and heart-breaking by turns, this is a beautiful tale that is sure to be an instant classic. Recommended for: fans of animal stories, Love That Dog, Charlotte’s Web.
How about you? What books would YOU recommend to someone looking for a new read?