1. CRIME AND PUNISHMENT by Fyodor Dostoyevsky
Now that I’ve finally read this, I can’t help but recommend it to every single person who crosses my path. It is at once a gut-wrenching morality play, a brilliant psychological study, and a gripping crime thriller (not to mention a stunning refutation of Frederic Nietzche’s “Superman”). It’s dark and heavy, yes, but also shot through with hope; a story that affirms both the lostness of the human condition and the power of Christ to save.
2. TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD by Harper Lee
This acclaimed novel is ostensibly a courtroom drama, but such a description does not really do this profound and multifaceted book justice. Through the eyes of a child, Lee explores the evils of racial prejudice with subtlety and power, gracing her story with an elegance so unspectacular it’s spectacular. More than once, I had to pause and read passages aloud, just for the pleasure of rolling them off my tongue. Full review
3. ENDER’S GAME by Orson Scott Card
As far as science fiction goes, Ender’s Game isn’t good, nor is it great – it’s brilliant. Winner of the Hugo and the Nebula awards, this bestselling novel by Orson Scott Card is a stellar fusion of action and ideas; a story as intellectually challenging as it is relentlessly entertaining. (The sequel, Speaker for the Dead, is also terrific). Full review
4. THE THINGS THEY CARRIED by Tim O’Brien
This is not a novel, nor a memoir, nor a short story collection: it is, instead, an exquisite combination of all three. Through this unique but effective merging of fact and fiction, the author paints a picture of his life (and the lives of his fellow soldiers) before, during, and after the Vietnam war. And what a picture it is. Full review
5. THE GREAT GATSBY by F. Scott Fitzgerald
It’s either one of the best novels I’ve ever read… or it’s one of the best novels I’ve ever read. They call ‘em classics for a reason, and this one is no exception. Beautiful writing, thought-provoking story.
6. 1984 by George Orwell
As political fiction and dystopian sci-fi, this book is almost without peer – a brilliantly written and thoroughly nightmarish vision of “negative utopia” even more relevant today than when it was written. Full review
7. GILEAD by Marilynne Robinson
This Pulitzer Prize winner is narrated by 76-year-old John Ames, “a preacher who has lived almost all of his life in Gilead, Iowa. He is writing a letter to his almost seven-year-old son, the blessing of his second marriage. It is a summing-up, an apologia, a consideration of his life. Robinson takes the story away from being simply the reminiscences of one man and moves it into the realm of a meditation on fathers and children, particularly sons, on faith, and on the imperfectability of man.” An incredible read.
8. FLOWERS FOR ALGERNON by Daniel Keyes
The most haunting piece of fiction I’ve read this year. It’s about joy, pain, betrayal, friendship, beauty, wonder, and loss. It’s about the conflict between intellect and emotion; about what is true and what we desire to be true. It’s about one man’s craving for love and human companionship. Full review
9. MATTERHORN by Karl Marlantes
A must-read novel of the Vietnam war. Christina Robb’s summary is the best: “A beautifully crafted novel of unrivaled authenticity and power, filled with jungle heroism, crackerjack inventiveness, mud, blood, brotherhood, hatred, healing, terror, bureaucracy, politics, unfathomable waste, and unfathomable love.”
10. WINNIE-THE-POOH & THE HOUSE AT POOH CORNER by A.A. Milne
What can I say about these beloved classic that hasn’t been said a million times before? They’re fantastic. Simple enough for young children to enjoy, yet filled with a sophistication and humor that adults can’t help but appreciate. They don’t write stories like these anymore, which is all the more reason to treasure Milne’s work for everything it’s worth.
11. BOB: SON OF BATTLE by Alfred Ollivant
The greatest “dog story” ever written – I dare you to find a better one. On the one hand, it’s a stunning depiction of the lives of the shepherds of England’s Yorkshire dales. On the other hand, it’s so much more than that – a tale of good and evil, a tale of fathers and sons. Wise, heart-wrenching, and fiercely told.
12. CLOUD ATLAS by David Mitchell
A word of advice from Stephen King: “Read sometimes for the story: don’t be like the book-snobs who won’t do that. Read sometimes for the words – the language. Don’t be like the play-it-safers who won’t do that. But when you find a book that has both a good story and good words, treasure that book.” Cloud Atlas is a book to be treasured. Full review
13. THE TWELVE by Justin Cronin
“All eyes.” A strong and exhilarating follow-up to The Passage. It’s not perfect, but even with its shortcomings, it towers high above the majority of modern fiction, and makes for a worthy addition to Cronin’s saga. I’m looking forward to The City of Mirrors, due in 2014. Full review
14. THE SUNSET LIMITED by Cormac McCarthy
Another stunner from Mr. Cormac. It’s one of his lesser known works, but no less fascinating than Blood Meridian or The Road. And let me assure you: for a book that’s pretty much 140 pages of pure dialogue, The Sunset Limited packs more tension per sentence than most thrillers. No joke. Full review
15. WORLD WAR Z by Max Brooks
Zombies + journalism = lots and lots of awesome. Think Studs Terkel meets George Romero and you’ve got a pretty good idea of how this book works. It’s not for everyone, but I know I loved it, and if you’re a fan of AMC’s The Walking Dead, I’ve no doubt you’ll love it, too. Here’s hoping the movie (releasing June 2013) is just as good. Full review