Book Recommendations from an English Major (that aren’t boring)

Let’s just get this out in the open. I’m a writer, an English major, and a devourer of books. And my favorite authors are completely and totally from this century.

Sophisticated and intimidatingly intelligent people often ask me the ever-daunting question, “Who do you read?” (which is a snooty way of asking what books I enjoy). I quickly rack my brain for those senior year seminar courses where we read what felt like a classic per week, and I just throw one of those literary masterminds out to impress them. It’s horrible when they ask follow-up questions because then, I not only have to think back to those classes, but I also have to remember what I read on SparkNotes.

I want to take a moment to thank SparkNotes for all its assistance in my educational career. Wouldn’t be who I am without ya.

In reality, my favorite novels–and the novels I love to recommend to people–are those that I can’t, for the life of me, put down. The ones that keep me up past my 10 p.m. bedtime. The ones with characters that feel like lifelong friends and settings that feel like home. The ones that make me want to read thought-provoking passages aloud to Morgan (he loves this…). The ones that serve as an escape, a haven, a different reality–if only for 300ish pages.

I don’t think you can ever read enough of those kinds of books. Even if the author isn’t from the 1800s and canonized in my 4000-level college courses.

Judge me, academia. Judge me.

As you might remember, I’ve got an affinity for sassy Christian women authors. I read those constantly (currently laughing my way through A Little Salty to Cut the Sweet), but, after a full day in my journalism job, nothing feels sweeter to my brain than a novel.

In no particular order–here are my favorites I’ve read recently!

  • The Invention of Wings, by Sue Monk Kidd. When I was commuting to Blacksburg every day, I’d get audio books to make the drive easier. I listened to The Invention of Wings, and there were many afternoons that I’d pull into our driveway and sit in my car for an extra 20 minutes to find out what happened next. Over a fictional 35 years, Kidd tells the (very embellished) story of Sarah Grimke, an abolitionist and member of the early women’s suffrage movement, and her relationship with Handful, a slave “gifted” to Sarah when she turned 11. It’s empowering to read about two women who didn’t let cultural norms slow them down. Handful is also hilariously sassy.
  • Little Bee, by Chris Cleave. The Washington Post says, “Little Bee will blow you away.” I couldn’t say it better myself. I actually read this for the first time a few years ago, but it’s one of those books that sticks with you. I can’t really tell you a plot without giving it all away, but it’s about the woven together lives of a Nigerian orphan and a wealthy British couple. Though the themes are deep, dark, and pretty harrowing, Cleave sprinkles in just the right amount of humor.
  • The Pact, by Jodi Picoult. I just want to get inside this woman’s brain. After reading almost all of her unpredictable books, I’ve come to predict the twists–but that takes nothing away from her brilliance. The Pact is my favorite of her books–it’s a suspenseful legal-drama about a teen’s apparent suicide and relational dynamics in the midst of mourning. I know what happens in the end, and I’d still read it again.
  • The Kitchen House, by Kathleen Grissom. If I had all the money in the world, I’d buy all of the people in it this book. The bond formed between an orphaned indentured servant and an illegitimate slave girl stretched my understanding of history and broke my heart. It’s told through the eyes of both girls, as the color of their skin threatens to tear apart their friendship. I promise you’ll cry, but the tears are worth it.
  • The Kite Runner, by Khaled Hosseini. The Kite Runner kind of mirrors The Kitchen House, with an unsuspecting friendship that is challenged by society. There’s betrayal and loyalty, fathers and sons, and a lot of political turmoil. This book is well-known for a reason–and, as an added fun fact, this is Hosseini’s first novel. He’s pretty remarkable.
  • What Alice Forgot, by Liane Moriarty. Thanks to a friend’s recommendation, I read this one last week and couldn’t put it down–a woman madly in love with her husband and pregnant with their first child wakes up after falling at the gym and realizes it’s 10 years later than anything she remembers. A deep theme of remembering and appreciating those you love runs through this book, and it’s also just a super interesting concept. Moriarty has tons of bestsellers right now!
  • The Book Thief, Markus Zusak. So good. “Death” narrates the story of Liesel, a foster child living in the slums of Nazi-Germany during World War II. She finds solace in books (stolen books, to be more specific). She learns to read, makes friends with a neighbor, and helps her family hide a Jewish man in the basement. Just wait til the ending. Woof. (Also, my dream library is described in the book. I know you’re dying to know all about it, but you gotta read to find out… 😉 )
  • The Guardian, Nicholas Sparks. This wouldn’t be a 20-something’s favorite book list without a Sparks piece. I’ll read his books on the beach, but I’m usually not a huge fan–until I read The Guardian. Yes…it’s part mindless romance novel, but it’s a thriller with creepy characters. And the love part is sweet, too.
  • The Bluest Eye, by Toni Morrison. I guess this is the closest I’ll get to a “classic” on my list. The Bluest Eye rocked my world when I read it the first time–it’s arguably the best piece of fiction I’ve ever laid eyes on. Morrison contrasts the “American Dream” with the life of a child named Pecola Breedlove. Caution: not an easy read for the tenderhearted–though unquestionably eye-opening. Amazon puts it well: “A powerful examination of our obsession with beauty and conformity, Toni Morrison’s virtuosic first novel asks powerful questions about race, class, and gender with the subtlety and grace that have always characterized her writing.”
  • The Glass Castle, by Jeannette Walls. Okay, this is a memoir, so it doesn’t exactly fit the novel requirement, but, in a melancholic way, the story seems so outlandish that it’s easy to forget Walls lived this life. Her parents lived a wandering life, bringing their children along with them for the adventures that turned into failure upon failure. Throughout it all, though, there’s this sense of unconditional love that Walls feels for her family.
  • Little Princes, by Conor Grennan. I’m finding that it’s really, really hard to wrap up this list, so I’ll end with one more memoir. A UVA (the only bad part of this book) graduate heads overseas for a year-long trip around the world, but finds himself entranced by the orphans (that aren’t really orphans) of Nepal. He decides to devote his life to finding homes for the “little princes.” And there’s a really cute love story throughout.

I’m always game for recommendations. Let me know if you’ve read any of these and if you’ve got others on your list!


7 thoughts on “Book Recommendations from an English Major (that aren’t boring)

  1. tessherceg says:

    So I’m a little obsessive about checking this blog every single day for a new post 😊 seriously Holly I LOVE it. I absolutely loved your last post and meant to comment but this one is just as fitting! Reading is so good for the soul. I miss it. My lack of reading now is one of the many reasons I’m trying to convince George that I can quit my job 😉😉😉. Love you and miss you!

    • hollypaulette says:

      TESS! you are too much. some of my favorite memories were classes spent with you…the times we totally didn’t read the books and then the times we actually read them and actually liked them (weird)…but mostly the times we just sat in the back and talked the whole time 🙂 i think reading is a perfect excuse to quit your job. just tell him you’re trying to get a better worldview. MISS YOU LIKE CRAZY.

  2. Nicole says:

    Holly, are you on Goodreads? I could play on it reading book reviews for hours 🙂 It’s like crack for book lovers!

    I loved both the Glass Castle and Half Broke Horses, but I’m a sucker for memoirs. Some of my other more recent faves are: Summerland by Elin Hilderbrand, Olive Kitteridge or Abide with Me by Elizabeth Strout, One Mississippi by Mark Childress, The Lonely Polygamist by Brady Udall, anhything by Adriana Trigani, and, on a more serious level, One Hundred Years of Solitude or The Hole in Our Gospel.

    • hollypaulette says:

      Nicole! I should be on Goodreads. But I feel like it would be dangerous for our bank account to see all those good books out there 😉 Thank God for the library…

      Just wrote down all of these recommendations! I’ve heard such great things about Elizabeth Strout, and Adriana Trigani looks awesome–and I love reading local books. Thank you! Hope you and David are doing well!

  3. Sydney says:

    Holly!!! I am ALWAYS looking for those books that I stay up all night reading! The ones where I say no to going to dinner with my roommates because it would probably be rude to bring a book and read the whole time at the table, right? Haha. I think my favorite question to ask people is what their favorite book is. So thank you for this list! I’ll admit that I’m always pretty skeptical, but when I saw some of my all time favorites (The Book Thief, Little Bee, What Alice Forgot), I knew I trusted your taste!!! Can’t wait to get my hands on these! I’m off to Barnes & Noble 🙂

    • hollypaulette says:

      Sydney–hilarious. YES. I used to have my Kindle in my purse at all times….just in case I got that free minute to read. (Then my Kindle screen broke in my purse haha :)). Enjoy these!!! The Kitchen House would be my first recommendation. Or The Glass Castle….or any of them AH!

  4. The Guardian was amazing – Richard was such a creepy character, though, that I almost put it down halfway through. Still, a nice blend of romance and thriller. You have a nice point of view on all of these books.

    Given your point of view, can I ask your help with something? I’m in between novels right now, and am having an impossible time deciding which of three partially finished novels I should finish and release first.

    So, I’m setting up a poll for the next two weeks, giving the power totally to the audience. If you have a little bit of time today, would you read the beginnings of each of my potential novels, then vote for which novel you’d most like to see released? (You can also just look at the concepts, if you don’t have time to read the samples). Two are mysteries, one is magical realism.

    If you’re up to it, you can read and vote here:

    Thanks so much!


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