At this point, thanks in part to both preferences and academics, I don’t tend to read anything but children’s and young adult literature. I rarely read books that are considered to be “adult” books, but that doesn’t mean I don’t like them just as much. In fact, some of my favorite books of all time — and, often, the ones that have affected me the most over time — have been books “for” adults. When I absolutely must leave the children’s section at work, these are my go-to recommendations, in no particular order.
1. Elizabeth Kostova’s The Historian
There’s a lot to love about Kostova’s record-breaking debut novel. Not only does its evocation of history, legend, and place impress and overwhelm, but its resurrection of and response to Bram Stoker’s original Dracula is executed with awe-inspiring precision, even gesturing to Stoker with its epistolary technique. Kostova’s writing covers everything: historical context, literary context, geographic and political landscape, emotion, and thrilling mystery.
If I ever write something, I hope it turns out this engrossing and intense. Its romantic subplots are my epitome of ideal romance and give me goosebumps always. Kostova’s book, along with Philip Pullman’s The Golden Compass also greatly influenced my decision to go into academia. And lastly: Love of books runs rampant, and it makes me starry-eyed.
2. Neil Gaiman’s Ocean at the End of the Lane
It’s hard to pick a single Neil Gaiman book as a favorite (except when it comes to Stardust and its wildly anticlimactic ending). But Ocean at the End of the Lane is an incredibly immersive masterpiece on nostalgia, growing up, and magic. Gaiman’s own distinct brand of fabulism comes to a fore in this book, inventing a world where there are no boundaries, no borders, and no limitations. The lyricism of the writing itself engulfs readers like an ocean itself, sucking us under and holding us down with soft but insistent sensory hands. One of Gaiman’s first departure from genre-esque fiction is powerful and resilient throughout.
3. David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas
Sometimes it’s a little awkward mentioning how much I love Cloud Atlas since I originally read it because my friend had so thoroughly disliked it that I just wanted to try it out. However, once the text transitioned through time, individual, and space, I fell head over heels with Mitchell’s writing, storytelling techniques, and linguistic experiments. Reading Cloud Atlas is like being carried away by a pristine, complex, involved piece of music: Each section is a rise and fall, a climax and crescendo, that carries us through emotion, loss, and change. Until recently (thanks to Sherman Alexie and Amanda Lovelace), the final line of Cloud Atlas was one of the only pieces of literature to ever make me cry — and that’s a mark of an incredible work, in my reading experience.
4. Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go
In this futuristic genre-bending is-it-isn’t-it dystopian novel — just before I graduated high school, everything and nothing is just what it seems. Ishiguro’s writing is always mind-boggling, offering tidbits and respites just before sending you — and his characters — nearer and nearer to the edge. Never Let Me Go questions our concepts of humanity; of humane treatment; of friendship, love, and death; of how far will we go? in the seemingly promising future. His narrative use of point of view and time create an immersive, undeniable atmosphere from which you must claw out.
The 2010 movie is good, but not this heartbreakingly raw and good.
5. Michael Crichton’s Jurassic Park
Jurassic Park has always stood out as the first “adult” book I ever read. I cannot confirm or deny if this is actually true, but, to this day, I cherish and am overly proud of my beat-up mass market edition that I picked out, all by myself, from a neighbor’s garage sale pile. I read it in sixth grade and immediately fell head-over-heels in love with Crichton’s matter-of-fact writing style, distinct and starkly-written characters, and (inspired) decision to bring dinosaurs back to life. I read several more of his books during my yearlong Crichton phase and believe to this day he is the only man who can get me to properly understand somewhat complicated science.
P.S.: Did y’all know they’re publishing a previously undiscovered Crichton entitled Dragon’s Teeth in May 2017???? (I just screamed.)
6. Matthew Stover’s The Revenge of the Sith
Okay, so maybe this doesn’t count as an “adult” book because no one in their right mind would consider this Literature (with a capital L). But when it comes to Star Wars — and this book — I’m never in my right mind.
Stover’s novelization of the third installment of the Star Wars prequels made me into an emotional wreck: His writing pays attention to the most minuscule of details, and carries powerful and heartbreaking motifs throughout the story. This book turns Star Wars into a Shakespearian-esque tragedy complete with careful treatment of its characters’ psychological and emotional experiences and disturbances.
So if you’re ever wondering, “Why does Mikala have a weird obsession with mythically-proportioned stories and italics?” Only answer: This book.
7. Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice
Like most girls who are even rudimentarily versed in literature, Pride serves as my ultimate romantic ideal. More importantly, Jane Austen is the ultimate queen (I struggled with whether to include Pride or Northanger Abbey, in which my imaginative and romantic doppelgänger Catherine Morland features, in this post) — and funny as hell to boot — and Lizzy Bennett is everything I hope and dream to be someday. As I’ve mentioned previously, when I read Pride for the first time, I clung to Lizzy as my unofficial big sister. She taught me how to stick to my guns and how to say no; how to love and protect my family; how to fall in love with the least socially and emotionally accessible man possible. Lizzy and Austen and their hard-headed, ironic ways stick with me each and every day.
8. Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South
Okay, so now you’ve read Pride and Prejudice. What was glaringly missing? Sure, it’s sardonic laced with romantic aspirations, but does it even begin to consider the socioeconomic struggles of the Industrial Age?
Of course not, which is why you should always follow it up with Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South. Written approximately 50 years after Austen’s beloved piece, this story of Margaret Hale and Mr Thornton is not only romantic but yields stinging social commentary and a singular viewpoint on the historical state of England at the time of its writing. Gaskell’s writing is fluid and touching, heavily ironic at times, but equally informative and revealing of the differing states of life of the English lower and upper classes.
(Watch the 2004 BBC TV series immediately after!)
9. Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights
Wuthering Heights is wonderful, ethereal, spine-tingling, and immersive. It is passionate and dark and rough at its edges. It is the ideal aesthetic and a prime example of the gothic genre (that almost parallels its sister novel, Jane Eyre). It is also the story of the worst, most twisted, most emotionally raw and violent people you will ever have the pleasure to read about. I have no defense of Catherine and Heathcliff’s treatment of each other and others, and I wouldn’t go so far to say Wuthering Heights portrays the ideal romance. But its atmospheric narrative and bone-baring portrayal of love and humanity will strike you and never let go.
(I would also recommend Andrea Arnold’s 2011 movie adaptation, which is just absolute heart-eyes and relatively more realistic in its casting choices than most.)
10. William Shakespeare’s Hamlet
Anyone who knows me knew there had to be a Shakespeare play on here somewhere. And while I debated between several — Hamlet and The Tempest were the highest on the list — I had to go with this play, which has followed me throughout every aspect of my life from eighth grade to my junior year of college. I’ve even — dare I admit it — invented horribly involved head canons and shared them with my professors. I’d argue this may be the closest of Shakespeare’s works to portraying the starkness, the desolation, and the pure fluctuating agony and brilliance of the human condition. (That’s a big statement, I know, but I’m not going to defend it at the moment.) With everything from unadulterated wit and banter to the most quintessential and well-played tragic ending, Hamlet never ceases to amaze me, even on its fifth re-read.
11. Ann Patchett’s Bel Canto
A friend just brought up that she needs to read Bel Canto for a literature class, and I freaked out. (There were all-caps involved in the text.) So, because she reminded me, I had to add an eleventh book to this list. When I offered my friend my mom’s and my shared copy, complete with tattered corners and smoothed-down edges, I warned her it might have sand between the pages. I read it on summer vacation up north and could not put it down.
Bel Canto is a masterpiece of atmosphere, emotion, psychology, and multiple points of view. Patchett’s writing will blow you away, and the ending will floor you. To this day, this ending is one of the most contentious in my history as a reader. (Read it and let me know what you think!)
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What are some of your ultimate favorites? What books have followed you or greatly affected you? What are your ultimate recommendations to other people? Share with us below!