People often ask me what books are my favorite. It’s sort of asking like what internal organ is my favorite. I may not think about them on a daily basis, but they’re all essential to my existence.
Because I review books as part of my career in publishing, I read a lot. About a book a week on average, although sometimes I wonder if that’s on the slow side. Since the start of my book reviewing in 2011, I’ve read some real clunkers. I’ve read some pretty terrific books.
I’ve read books that made me gape in awe.
Above and beyond those books are the ones imprinted on my heart. I’ve listed them below, along with short explanations of why they’re important to me. Every single one below is a reliable read, and I say this from experience because I’ve read all of them multiple times.
Here then are seven books that changed my life in the order I encountered them:
1. The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis
When I was in the second grade, our teacher read this book to our class. I was entranced from the first few pages when Lucy walks through the wardrobe into Narnia until the end when she and her siblings come back home. I own the entire series and love all of the books (although it took a little longer for my love to grow for Voyage of the Dawn Treader, and The Silver Chair creeped me out as a child because of the underground journey that Jill and Eustace take.) It’s easy to pick out my favorite of the seven books, though, and that is this one. It made me aware of the magic of books in a way no other book did then.
2. The Eye of the World by Robert Jordan
In the mid-1990s, a friend of mine gave me this book (the first in the mammoth Wheel of Time, or WoT, series.) I’d never encountered fantasy books before. Truthfully, I didn’t even understand that such a genre existed. When I read it, I liked it but didn’t feel like I needed to read the rest of the series…until I spotted one of the books in a bookstore, read the dust jacket, and realized that one of the three main characters wasn’t mentioned. I actually started to panic a little and knew I had to delve back into the WoT world. Upon subsequent readings, I’ve fallen head over heels for the late Robert Jordan’s magnum opus. This book started that journey for me.
3. The Far Pavilions by M.M. Kaye
I discovered this book during my senior year of high school, again, in the bookstore. I knew nothing about M.M. Kaye, but the premise of her book intrigued me. Because I’m the child of immigrants, I’ve heard many stories about India. I’ve also visited relatives there frequently and regularly, so I always felt an affinity for the country. In The Far Pavilions I found someone who shared that affinity and so much more. Kaye’s book provides a sweeping, truly epic story that spans decades and nearly a thousand pages. She writes about India from her deep knowledge of the country, having lived there while it still remained under British rule and when it finally gained independence. If you love books with romance, war, mystery, family relationships, humor, grand weddings — yes, The Far Pavilions has it all and so much more.
4. Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri
After I graduated from high school, I received this book as a gift and it floored me. Anyone who has read Jhumpa Lahiri’s work knows just how talented she is. Her turns of phrase are exquisite. But the book also spoke to me on a deeper level. All of a sudden, I was reading about a literary population I didn’t know even existed: that of the Indian immigrant and his/her children. As with The Far Pavilions, I felt right at home with Lahiri’s world and have since enjoyed all of her work. This book changed my life because it reaffirmed for me that writing about the immigrant experience was a good thing.
5. Doomsday Book by Connie Willis
In college a professor mentioned this book as a good read. I respected that professor and his opinions, so I bought this based on his recommendation. I didn’t know anything about the esteemed Connie Willis at the time, nor had I read much science fiction. I did know, thanks to the information provided on the back of the book, that Willis spent 10 years doing research for this story, and, boy, does it show in the best way possible. Even though this is technically sci-fi, she delves into the time of the Black Plague in an incredible way. And she’s got a wicked sense of humor. All these years later, I still recommend this book as one that anyone who enjoys reading would like.
6. Life of Pi by Yann Martel
Technically this book is listed as “fantasy adventure,” but if I could be so bold as to assign a new genre to Life of Pi it would be magical realism. When I started reading this book, I remember searching frantically through the author’s notes and other pages at the front and back looking for confirmation of the fact that this was a true story. Because Yann Martel wrote with such aching, haunting, realistic prose that I swore that this fantastical tale of a boy adrift in a life raft with only a tiger for company just had to be real. The movie was visually gorgeous, but the book was on another level altogether.
7. The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern
I heard about The Night Circus on NPR when it first released, and I remember thinking, “Wow, that sounds like a cool premise.” As the mother at that time of two young children, though, I kind of forgot about it until a few years ago when one of my dearest friends from high school sent me a copy for my birthday. I fell headlong into Celia and Marco’s love story, which inspired me to write my own novel (a fairy tale, forthcoming from Atmosphere Press in early 2023.) I’ve always loved magic and in recent years have found myself more and more at home in the magical realism space. This book marked the start of that journey for me.