Most Recommended Books in 200 Episodes of WSIRN Podcast

This big, fat, Pulitzer-winning novel has been on my radar for years, so I chose it as one of my 2016 Reading Challenge picks to inspire myself to finally cross it off the list. It's not the kind of book I expected to love: the story revolves around a 3000 mile cattle drive from a dusty Texas border town to the unsettled lands of Montana in the 1880s. Yet I enjoyed it so much. I listened to the audio version of this one (all 36 hours of it—although thankfully at 1.5x speed it didn't take *quite* that long).
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I NEVER would have read this if a trusted bookseller hadn't pressed it into my hands and said READ IT: the plot summary would have made me put it right down. But it's one of my favorites of the year. I went into this novel knowing nothing and I liked it that way, so I'll just say Wood explores themes of love, loss, and identity through a quirky 11-year-old boy who loves making lists, a wily 104-year-old woman, an absentee father, a Boy Scout project, and the Guiness Book of World Records. Perfect for fans of The Pilgrimage of Harold Fry and A Man Called Ove.
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I feel like I've been holding out on you on this one because I read and loved this book months ago. (I DID recommend it on this episode of What Should I Read Next with Leigh Kramer.) A girl-next-door type suddenly finds herself in an elite California prep school, and has to figure out how to navigate this new privileged world while still grieving her mother's death. When she gets an email from an unidentified boy who calls himself "Somebody Nobody" offering to be her spirit guide to her new school, she doesn't want to say yes—but she really needs his help. A sweet and fun teen romance, but also a pitch-perfect portrayal of the grieving process. I couldn't stop myself from cheering for Jessie as she put her life together again. Published April 5 2016.
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One of the most recommended books on the What Should I Read Next podcast, this novel-in-stories tracks three generations of Indian women and their fraught relationships. The title comes from a chance encounter one of these women has with a stranger, which is fitting because my favorite parts of the story deal with the small moments that change the course of a person's life, and the unlikely friendships that do the same. Chatting with the author for the MMD Book Club only heightened my appreciation for the story.
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Adebayo's debut is a powerful, emotional story about love, family, and fidelity set against the backdrop of the turbulent political climate of 1985-2008 Nigeria. The story begins with Yejide's mother-in-law arrives at her door with a guest in tow: her husband's second wife, that she didn't know he'd married. What follows is an unforgettable novel about sacrifice that sticks with me to this day.
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I’ll bet you weren’t assigned this breezy Cinderella-ish story set in 1930s Britain back in English class. When a placement agency sends unemployed Miss Pettigrew to the wrong address, she spends the day of her life with a glamorous nightclub singer, extricating her hour by hour from one scrape after another. Miss Pettigrew is light, charming and utterly delightful.
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The New York Times says Home Fire "builds to one of the most memorable final scenes I've read in a novel this century." From the publisher: "The suspenseful and heartbreaking story of an immigrant family driven to pit love against loyalty, with devastating consequences. Isma is free. After years of watching out for her younger siblings in the wake of their mother's death, she's accepted an invitation from a mentor in America that allows her to resume a dream long deferred. But she can’t stop worrying about Aneeka, her beautiful, headstrong sister back in London, or their brother, Parvaiz, who's disappeared in pursuit of his own dream, to prove himself to the dark legacy of the jihadist father he never knew. When he resurfaces half a globe away, Isma's worst fears are confirmed. Suddenly, two families’ fates are inextricably, devastatingly entwined."
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Now that the Summer Reading Guide is out, I'm thoroughly enjoying reading some backlist titles that have been on my TBR for ages, like this 2012 book from the author of Station Eleven. This is the kind of book I love: a compulsively readable literary mystery, featuring stylish prose plus a plot that keeps you turning the page to find out what happens next. I was so impressed by the way Mandel unfolded the story piece by piece, introducing us to a seventeen-year-old girl in hiding (with piles of cash duct-taped to the underside of her baby's stroller), and slowly revealing how she ended up there—and how the members of the old high school musical group the Lola Quartet are connected to her disappearance. Set in muggy South Florida, the story is dripping with atmosphere and has a noir feel. This week, I tried something new on What Should I Read Next? and shared a short podcast episode focused on One Great Book. That book is The Lola Quartet, and you can listen to me tell you all about it—and how to know if it's the right book for you—right here.
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Cornelia is a hopeless romantic, obsessed with the epic love stories portrayed in classic films, but floundering in her own life. Everything changes the day a Cary Grant look-alike walks through the door of the coffee shop she manages. Of course she falls for him, and strikes up an unlikely friendship with his 11-year-old daughter. You can’t help but cheer for these characters as they navigate the tricky waters of friendship, heartbreak, and love. De los Santos is a poet by training, and it shows in her prose. If you love this, good news: there’s a sequel.
A grown-up sort of fairy tale about grief, redemption, forgiveness, and joy, set amidst the beautiful Pennsylvania forest. Have you ever read a book that makes the world around you feeI just a little bit magical, even after you’ve turned the last page? Author Jon Cohen insists there’s no real magic in this story, because there’s nothing in these pages that couldn’t actually happen. And yet a whimsical air of magic permeates this vivid portrayal of characters brought together by grief but ultimately united by joy. Likely-to-delight features include an unlikely friendship, a book within the book, a battle to save the local library, and a mysterious good Samaritan known as the Susquehanna Santa. A strong sense of humor prevents this tale from verging too far into sentimental territory. Content warnings apply. For fans of Monica Wood’s The One-in-a-Million Boy and Steven Rowley’s Lily and the Octopus.
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Sweet, sparkly, and thoroughly Southern. Like all the women in her family, Claire Waverley possesses a unique magic: she uses edible flowers to prepare foods that affect the eater in “curious ways.” Years ago, Claire’s sister fled town—and her Waverley gift—but she discovers her own sort of magic when she returns. What to say about this book? The romance verges on twee, the magic is impossible, but put them together and it sings. If you’re not down with supernatural food or a magical apple tree, skip this one—but you should know how many readers call this “a wonderful surprise.” Allen’s long-anticipated next novel, Other Birds, is due out August 30. Open-ish door. For fans of Emily Henry’s Book Lovers and Maria de los Santos’s Love Walked In.
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An emotionally resonant debut about class, culture, regret, and the road not taken. After twenty years abroad, the Zhens return to their native China to take up residence among Shanghai’s nouveau riche. But deep unease lies behind the façade of their pampered lifestyle, and the reappearance of a long-lost brother stirs up a host of long-buried emotions, and forces the family to revisit complicated (and secret) past choices. The backdrop of contemporary Shanghai and a national festival highlights how the family embodies China's current conflicts and complexities: rich vs poor, urban vs rural, old vs new values. This book deserves more attention than it’s received. For fans of Fatima Farheen Mirza’s A Place for Us and Lisa See’s The Island of Sea Women.
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The subtitle on this one is a little weird: ignore it. This magical memoir is about the year Doerr, his wife, and his twin baby boys spent in Rome after he won a writer's residency grant. He found out about the award the same day they brought the twins home from the hospital. Doerr writes beautifully about his year abroad, from the everyday and the extraordinary: grocery shopping, sourcing baby gear (for twins!), his wife's illness, sightseeing, Pope John Paul II's funeral. I googled every street, church, and town he referenced. I loved his references to the novel he was writing while in Rome: many years later, it became All the Light We Cannot See.
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