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Top Books of Every Genre

As I continue down this weird and winding path of becoming a book guru, I hope I will have many more recommendations from each of these categories. The strange thing this is, the more books I read, the more picky I become. If I'm going to remember a book and call it a favorite, it has to be the best of the best, it has to crawl inside my soul and remain there, which is a hard feat because I am flooded with so many stories. While I have absolutely loved upping my reading game the last few years, many of my favorites have been with me since I can remember. There are a few new ones, but it's hard to beat the stories I read when I was young and impressionable. But that's the exciting thing about reading — you never know when you're going to pick up and experience your new favorite book. And there is nothing like the first time.

*Side note, I took these categories from some of Goodreads yearly 'Best of' picks — I'll link the 2019 list here. They have the winners of all the 'Best of' categories from years past on the side of the page, chosen by the users of the website. It's a great place to get some ideas for your own TBR (aka To Be Read) list.



Alright, obviously this is a ridiculously broad category, and I'll list my favorites from the other fiction categories below, but this is what the Goodreads page has winners for. I could probably pick at least ten books for this category because fiction was all I read growing up and my childhood is filled of the most magical, astonishing, life-changing reads. But when it comes to more contemporary fiction, there is one book in particular that jolted me to my core. Lolita is a harrowing, beautifully-written, fictional account of a pedophile and the girl he loves. It was actually a book I read for my English class junior year (does anyone remember Mr. Spencer), and I wrote my end-of-semester paper on this classic. I definitely still have that paper somewhere, and I believe the title was 'The Sympathetic Psycho,' and that still rings true. Above all, Vladimir Nabokov is a wizard with words — his prose reads like poetry, it is absolutely beautiful, and I don't think anyone could ever deny that. Now, the content area is where people get really twisted up about, and for good reason as it is disturbing as hell. But this novel exemplifies exactly why reading is so extraordinary and remarkable: you step into the mind of someone else, you experience life through another's eyes, you empathize with characters who are monsters. The main character, Humbert Humbert, is indeed a monster. But you feel sympathy for him because he hates himself and the life he has led, and he gives you a taste of his twisted mind through his tale of love and loss. This book moved me, it horrified me, and it has stayed with me for the last 10 years. If that's not indication of a masterpiece, I don't know what is.


Mystery and Thriller:

This might be my least favorite genre (I know, I'm sorry! If anyone has must-reads from this category, please shove them in my face). I'm not exactly sure why I'm averse to mysteries and thrillers, but I guess there had to be one category in my sea of books that gets neglected. I also had to dig through my real bookshelves and Goodreads shelves to find one book that I could really call my favorite. And some might consider this novel simply fiction, but to me, it embodied the characteristics of mystery and thriller in a way I had never seen before. The Secret History follows a young man as he enrolls in a college in New England and befriends a group of strange misfit students, all who worship their Greek professor. You learn from the first chapter that they commit a heinous crime, although the novel then goes back and tells the entire story, both leading up to the event and the years after. In theory, the mystery of 'who done it' gets taken away, but the thrill of this book continues long after the last page. If you read this book at any point in the year, try to do it in autumn. Few books have been able to surpass the amazing, tangible, autumnal atmosphere of this novel. I swear I could hear the leaves crunching and smell the bonfires Donna Tartt describes. The characters are also very unlikable (at least for me). They are pretentious, careless, and consider themselves elite. It's strange to read an entire 559 page book and never grow to like the characters. But this is surprisingly what makes this book so impactful. There were so many points in the plot that I was screaming, that I was rolling my eyes, that I was pissed off at every single person, which made this book hit hard. The narrator's thoughts haunted me, as they haunted him, and the anticipation of them all getting caught was lurking behind every page. The ending shocked me, and the last few pages left an eerie feeling inside of me that I couldn't shake for days, and isn't that exactly what a mystery and thriller read is supposed to do?


Historical Fiction:

*Featuring my very loved, very worn copy

If you ask me what is one of my favorite books of all time, I will always answer Gone with the Wind until the day I die. I will never stop recommending this novel. It will always be relevant, it will always be impactful, it will always be a masterpiece. I can't scream about it enough. Gone with the Wind is the infamous story of Scarlett O'Hara and her epic story of love, loss, and resilience before, during, and after the American Civil War. Margaret Mitchell was able to write an entire saga around one of fiction's most disliked characters, and still somehow make her sympathetic. Scarlett O'Hara is charming, disdainful, prideful, and at times, cruel. As a spoiled woman brought up in the privilege of a slave-owning South, there are so many reasons to hate Scarlett. But she feels real, she feels tangible, she is human. When her comfortable Southern life gets burned by the Civil War, she is left with nothing but her family and her precious land named Tara. She has to find a way to take care of her family and those who depend on her, while also grappling with the incredible pain and loss the war has inflicted upon the entire country. As a woman in the 19th century, her resilience and stubbornness is inspiring. I heard almost nothing about the women of the Civil War in school or growing up, and reading her story helped me understand the full scope the war had on Americans. There is almost no character I admire more in fiction than Scarlett O'Hara. I don't have to like her, but damnit do I respect her. She does everything she can to save herself, her family, and her land. She demands the attention of readers, as well as the men who surround her, and she is unforgettable. This book made me weep, like snot dripping down my face weep, and although some may hate the controversial ending, I absolutely loved it. The last line is "after all, tomorrow is another day," and those closing words have never left me.



Okay, I'm going to preface this favorite by saying that I am purposefully choosing a standalone novel, and one that is not the best of the best fantasy series (Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, Game of Thrones). If you're a fan of the fantasy genre, I am going to assume you have read those classics and love them as much as I do. However, if you are not typically a fantasy reader, I still think you might love this book. American Gods is about a man named Shadow who, after being recently released from prison, finds his wife and best friend have died in a car accident, also revealing their illicit affair. In an attempt to distance himself from his pain and former life, Shadow takes a job as a bodyguard for a strange man, and soon realizes that the world is much more mysterious and extraordinary than he could have ever imagined. He experiences the hidden reality of mythological gods living among humans whose powers have been slowly declining over the last millennium as less people believe in their existence. Gaiman has created an engrossing world that intertwines modernity and mythology, but in a way I have never seen before. Gaiman is actually one of my favorite authors and I have read many of his books, but none have been as captivating or convincing as American Gods. This novel examines our complicated relationship to technology, with Gaiman arguing that we have begun to worship modernity in a way that people previously worshipped the gods of folklore. It is fast-paced, funny, and engaging, which I'll admit, isn't always typical of the fantasy genre. And there's no ridiculous terminology or history of the created world that you need to keep up with in order to understand the story, something that I think puts a lot of people off to fantasy. If you're hesitant about fantasy, I think American Gods could convince you just how bewitching the genre can be when done well.


Science Fiction:

Ah, Cormac McCarthy. He is truly one of the greatest of all time. His words cut through your soul, his stories are devastating, yet there is somehow inexplicable beauty in all of his novels. I read The Road when I was 17, and I will never forget the heart-wrenching ending that stayed heavy on my soul for weeks after I finished it. Okay, maybe I shouldn't be putting all of this in the beginning of the review and I don't want to scare you off, but I have to warn you, this novel is not for the faint of heart (none of McCarthy's works are). But the journey is so eloquent, so moving, so provoking, it's worth it. The Road is a post-apocalyptic novel about a man and his son as they journey across the barren land towards the coast in hopes of finding any remnants of human civilization. I've read a lot of post-apocalyptic fiction over the years, but no story has ever hit me the way this one did. It's simple in its premise and delivery, yet this somehow heightens the emotion and intensity. I remember turning the pages anxiously, sneaking reads in during my shift at the Durham restaurant Parizade, and finally finishing the entire novel in my car before I left work. I sat in my car for probably twenty minutes after I finished, attempting to process as tears streamed down my face. And that memory has never left me, that feeling has remained, and I have no doubt it would do the same to any reader who picks it up.



So, this is an odd category that I'm surprised is even on the Goodreads yearly 'Best of' list, but I think it's important to recognize the books that are able to make a reader laugh out loud because it is definitely rare. And while I haven't necessarily delved too deep in this category, there is one author, and one book in particular, that felt so refreshing in its honesty and humor. Calypso is an autobiographical memoir from the infamous writer David Sedaris. I'm not exactly sure how to describe Sedaris and his writing. He writes about his strange life in bits and pieces, pulling humor out of the most mundane occurrences. He is definitely not for everyone — he is crass, absurd, and relentless in his self-deprecation. But oh my god does it work. Calypso goes more into his later years, including the ways his family has dealt with the death of the matriarch and also of Sedaris' sister. He and his family end up buying a house on a North Carolina beach, and he reflects on some memories he has of his wild and obnoxious family, specifically when they vacationed at the beach over the years. I definitely connected to the stories about his absurd family (hi, Dad, love you), and the ways every member deals with trauma and tragedy differently. Sedaris' writing feels like sitting down to have a coffee with a close friend you haven't seen in a while, one that makes you laugh and roll your eyes, but inevitably leaves you feeling less lonely than before.



Over the years, many nonfiction books have wiggled their way into my favorites, including Evicted by Matthew Desmond, which you can read more about in my top books of 2019 post here. That book is certainly one of the best nonfiction books I've ever read and I believe everyone should read it. But Under the Banner of Heaven is one of my favorite books of all time, period. Nonfiction or fiction. I don't think I could ever fully articulate what this book did to me as a person. It changed me in the most unexpected ways. It is one of the most engrossing and well-written books I have ever read. Jon Krakauer is probably one of the most famous (and arguably best) biographers of all time, and his work has won countless awards and been on numerous 'Best of' lists, most notably Into the Wild. But there is something about Under the Banner of Heaven that connected with my soul in a way few books have, let alone a nonfiction book. The Goodreads page calls this book "A multilayered, bone-chilling narrative of messianic delusion, savage violence, polygamy, and unyielding faith," and I really could not have described it better. It is absolutely bone-chilling. It centers around a haunting narrative of two Mormon fundamentalist brothers murdering their sister-in-law and one-year-old niece, which in and of itself is a winding and complicated story. But it is also about faith, human behavior, and religion's battle with modernity. While this story and its history is fascinating on its own, it is so much more gripping because of the way Krakauer pieces the narratives together. He is no doubt a master storyteller, somehow creating anxiety and anticipation in a story that has a well-known ending. I read this book one summer when I was 19 and working as a lifeguard, stealing away into the break room to read just one more chapter. I distinctly remember finishing the book on a lounge chair on my back deck during a cloudy afternoon. I remember this feeling of horror, and of fascination, and of disbelief. I remember processing the story piece by piece, trying to understand the battle that seemed to be waging in my soul over the humanity of the story. Even as I sit here writing, I am still struck by the weight of this book that I read so long ago. I am still heavy with the reality of what happened, and what it means for the human psyche, of what it means for me personally. There will never be a nonfiction account that hits me like this one, making it one of my favorite books of all time.


Young Adult Fiction:

I really tried hard not to have a tie in any of these categories but I'm sorry, I cannot choose between these two favorites. Let me start by saying that all of my choices for these categories are not necessarily the best books I have ever read (aside from a few I mentioned that specifically are), but they are my favorite. They are not necessarily of the highest quality, the most elegant, the best written books, but they don't need to be. They are part of my soul. And both The Truth About Forever and Looking for Alaska are perhaps more part of my soul than any other books I have discussed here (besides Harry Potter, I mean, nothing will ever be more an embodiment of my soul than my beloved series). These two books have become ingrained in my emotional DNA. And there is a big chance that had I not read them when I was in my angsty adolescence, I wouldn't feel the same way about them. But by chance, I read them at a time I needed them most and when they would make the most impact, and they will forever remain in my heart.

The Truth About Forever is a book from one of my favorite authors, Sarah Dessen. It follows Macy, a 17-year-old girl who recently lost her father and is struggling to process her grief and move on with her life. She meets a rambunctious catering crew, filled with the most wonderful and memorable characters, who help her realize that it is okay to be sad and it is okay to let go of control sometimes. This might be the book I've reread most in my life. Every time I read it, I feel like I'm slipping into a warm bath of nostalgia. When I'm sad and need a quick pick-me-up, I always reach for this book. Not only does it flow beautifully, with characters who jump off the page with their tangibility, but it also grapples with loss and pain in a way that feels extremely relatable. Not to mention it has my favorite male character of any book ever (sigh, Wes, ugh). I have read every single one of Dessen's books and while they are predictable and comfortable and always enjoyable, there will never be a book that feels more familiar and warm as this one, and I will reread it until the day that I die.

Looking for Alaska is John Green's first novel. He has since blown up considerably, with more famous books such as The Fault in Our Stars, and I have read them all, but none of them came even close to the impact as this one. I remember getting this recommendation from my best friend (hi, Noelle), but feeling hesitant because at the time, I was attempting to be as pretentious as possible and only read novels deemed a classic, like Anna Karenina and Pride and Prejudice. I told myself I could use a break from the hefty and dense novels I was tackling, and agreed to give John Green a try. Looking for Alaska is the story of Miles aka Pudge, as he searches for his Great Perhaps as a new student at a boarding school in Alabama. He befriends a small group of misfits, including the beautiful and mysterious Alaska Young, and is thrown into a world of pranks, cigarettes, and life contemplation. The exciting and poetic plot barrels towards an event that, once occurs, changes everything, and nothing was the same after. I could probably give a list of the top 5 books that made me bawl my eyes out, and this would absolutely be one of them. The raw adolescent emotion of this book is so incredibly powerful that it stays with you long after you finish the book. It also has my favorite last few pages of any book ever. Pudge reflects over the events that have taken place as he grapples with his grief, and writes that “When adults say, "Teenagers think they are invincible" with that sly, stupid smile on their faces, they don't know how right they are. We need never be hopeless, because we can never be irreparably broken. We think that we are invincible because we are." My 16-year-old self absolutely relished those words. At the time, I felt intoxicated by that feeling of invincibility that Green writes about. I did many dumb, teenage things during those years, but reveled in them because I knew I would never be this young and stupid ever again. And even when I reread the book today, I get that same incredible feeling of power, of promise, of adventure despite the harrowing end. I remember how I felt to be young and reckless, but I also remember that I do not have to lose that feeling as I get older — I just find new ways to experience that thrill of life.

For both of these books, there is a chance that they will simply not hit an older reader as hard as they hit me in my youth. But if you enjoy YAF (Young Adult Fiction) and you haven't read them yet, I think there is still a chance you can feel the enduring and unforgettable emotion that I did. And if there is that chance, why not try?



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