My Favorite Books of the Last 10 Years

I’ve heard from so many of you recently that you enjoy my book recommendations. I’m very glad!

You can find hundreds of my book reviews at Strong Sense of Place, the new reading- and travel-related project I started with my husband David. That site is the culmination of a lot of daydreams and hard work over the last two years, and I’m so excited about all we have planned for it in the coming year. (If you haven’t gotten your copy of our free 2020 Reading Atlas yet, get on it, friend!)

In this space, I thought it would be fun to share my favorite books from the last decade. A lot happened in my personal life while I read these books!

We moved from Austin, Texas to White River Junction, Vermont, and then we moved to Prague! David earned his Master’s degree in Cartooning. I had my thyroid removed (blarg) and dealt with years of yucky health problems (to have finally emerged to feel fit and healthy again… YAY!). We wrote, photographed, and published three cookbooks, as well as four specialty magazines and hundreds of recipes on this site. We also traveled to Croatia, Slovenia, Germany, Austria, Italy, Romania, Bulgaria, Hungary, Iceland, France, Sweden, Scotland, and England.

Through the highs of being happy and the sad troughs with too much crying, too-long plane rides and leisurely train rides, sleepless nights and relaxing afternoons, the characters and stories in these books sustained me, entertained me, showed me the world and my place in it.

I’m terrible at making short lists, so I indulged myself and included all the books that made me think, ‘Oh! I loved that book!’ when I saw the title. A few things you should know about this list:

1

The lists for each year get longer as they move forward through time because my reading increased so much recently. Before 2017 — specifically, before I was a guest on the What Should I Read Next podcast — I was reading somewhere between 20 and 40 books per year. In 2017, it jumped to 75. In 2018, I read 111 and this year? I finished 131 books.

2

The books on this list are titles that I would happily pick up right now and start reading again. In fact, I had to stop myself from doing that as I was making this post.

3

Not shown because that would be repetitive: the fact that I read Jane Eyre at least once each year (except 2019), and read it twice (!) in 2016. I guess it was a tough year, emotionally? (See also: The Night Circus, The Historian, The Shadow Land, all the Elizabeth George novels, and many Daniel Silva books. They are perennials that I revisit frequently and are on my all-time favorites list.)

4

I have no idea what happened to my reading journal from 2014. I wasn’t using Goodreads at the time, so whatever books I read that year — when we moved from Austin, Texas, to White River Junction, Vermont — are lost to time. But I think that was when I first read The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, so I’ve included it below because I love it, and it’s a reasonable guess. Do you know what I read in 2014?!

5

The date listed below is the year I read the book, not the year it was published.

My Fave Books of the Last 10 Years

2009

The Thirteenth Tale – Diane Setterfield
Atmospheric and thrilling; lots of secrets; fantastic heroines.
(Strong Sense of Place review)

The Historian – Elizabeth Kostova
Gothic tropes, vampires, and libraries are always 100% yes for me. This epic story has everything I look for in novels for Strong Sense of Place: romantic settings in foreign lands, characters I’d be so happy to know, diabolical villains, high-stakes decisions, sweeping adventure, and big, big feelings. I am wholly spellbound every time I read it.
(Strong Sense of Place review)

Dracula – Bram Stoker
Brilliant from beginning to end. A real tale of friendship.
(Strong Sense of Place review)

2010

The Eyre Affair – Jaspar Fforde
A fun-filled fantasy-adventure with plenty of Jane Eyre references.

The Manual of Detection – Jedediah Berry
If Wes Anderson made a fantasy detective novel, this would be it.

2011

The Book Thief – Markus Zuzak
A heartbreaking and beautiful story of love, friendship, and books during WWII. Narrated by Death.

The Shadow of the Wind – Carlos Ruiz Zafon
Super atmospheric, set in 1930s Barcelona, and includes the Cemetery of Forgotten Books. What else do you need to know?!

The Night Circus – Erin Morgenstern
I bought this in Prague and read it nonstop on the plane to the United States. I was transported to another magical world the entire time.

The Yiddish Policemen’s Union – Michael Chabon
A fantasy detective story set in an alternate version of Alaska. Michael Chabon is a force of nature.

Maphead – Ken Jennings
I’m an unabashed Ken Jennings fan, on Jeopardy! and in print. This book is delightful and will help you appreciate maps in a whole new way.

2012

My Life in France – Julia Child
I received this as a gift when I was in a major life transition. Julia Child was enchanting, and this book inspired me to be brave.

The Girl in the Green Sweater – Krystyna Chiger
The true story of a Jewish family that hid in a Polish sewer fo 14 months. I read it once, and it’s stayed with me.

2013

The Lost: A Search for Six of Six Million – Daniel Mendelsohn
Family saga, Holocaust story, detective tale. Exquisitely written and utterly moving. It was recommended by Lee Child, the author of the Jack Reacher series, and now I take all of his book recs to heart.

Joyland – Stephen King
A sweet coming-of-age story that’s eerie, not scary, and very moving. Fantastic setting at a beachside amusement park.
(Strong Sense of Place review)

2014

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay – Michael Chabon
A sweeping story of found family that begins in Prague and winds through California and New York City. Comics, friendship, art, loyalty, bravery… all the good stuff is woven into this page-turner with Chabon’s gorgeous writing.
(Strong Sense of Place review)

2015

When Books Went to War: The Stories That Helped Us Win World War II – Molly Manning
Nonfiction about a fascinating program that supplied books to WWII servicemen overseas. I think about it so often!

Wolf Hall, Bring up the Bodies – Hilary Mantel
Hilary Mantel made a sympathetic hero of Thomas Cromwell and brought Henry VIII’s court to vivid life. Irresistible page-turner.
(Strong Sense of Place review)

The Royal We – Heather Cocks, Jessica Morgan
A romantic comedy with genuine feelings, laugh-out-loud moments, and a few tears. Fun and affecting in equal measure.
(Strong Sense of Place review)

The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry – Gabrielle Zevin
A love letter to books and family, this made me cry — which hardly ever happens when I read. Loved it.

2016

The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane – Katherine Howe
Crumbling mansion, mysterious happenings, ancient book, secret key in Salem, Massachusetts… yes, please.
(Strong Sense of Place review)

Moonglow – Michael Chabon
Rich family drama — so many secrets and slow revelations! — with gorgeous writing.

The Madwoman Upstairs – Catherine Lowell
A love letter to the work of the Brontë’s, it very cleverly weaves gothic and romantic elements into its story in a way that echoes Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights, Agnes Grey, and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. It’s loaded with family secrets, coming-of-age angst, romance with plenty of sparks, and a compelling literary mystery.

2017

The Book of Speculation – Erika Swyler
A literary mystery that bounces back and forth in time, with a traveling circus, mermaids, family secrets, TWO librarians, and buckets of atmosphere.

Dietland – Sarai Walker
I read this while I was in NYC for the Women’s March on January 21, 2017, with my niece, my husband, and a very dear friend. It was the perfect marriage of context, story, and life experience. The book is angry, funny, moving, suspenseful, thought-provoking—and it’s loaded with memorable characters.

Cryptonomicon – Neal Stephenson
This is the book that opened my heart to sci-fi and 1000-page novels. A mashup of techno-thriller and historical fiction, it plants Big Ideas inside an action-adventure plot. And it’s populated with characters you’d want at your back: idealistic, flawed, funny, and 100% human. With a sweet romance and a cameo by Alan Turing, it introduced me to the art of cryptography and elegance of hard science, while I rode along on the story.
(Strong Sense of Place review)

Station Eleven – Emily St. John Mandel
Skip the flap copy and just jump right into this gripping, lyrical, heart-rending, and ultimately hopeful novel.

Dumplin’ – Julie Murphy
This just made me so very happy. I was a fat teenager, and I wish I’d had Dumplin’ when I was in junior high and high school; she’s gorgeous inside and out.

Veronica Speedwell series – Deanna Raybourn
Our intrepid heroine Veronica Speedwell (secret and semi-legitimate daughter of the Prince of Wales) is a handful and a half. And we wouldn’t want her any other way. Her investigative adventures are filled with suspense and romance.
(Strong Sense of Place review)

Girl at War – Sara Nović
Lyrical writing and a gripping story of the fallout of the wars in the 1990s Croatia. There’s plenty of quiet drama (and sweet moments) as it explores big themes — war, loyalty, love — through a very intimate, personal lens.
(Strong Sense of Place review)

The Shadow Land – Elizabeth Kostova
A sweeping adventure story set in Bulgaria with flashbacks to the Communist regime. Our heroine is a keeper, and the descriptions of Sophia and the Bulgarian countryside will have you booking a ticket asap.
(Strong Sense of Place review)

The Monsters of Templeton – Lauren Groff
An exploration of all the types of monsters that can haunt us — with a winning heroine and an enthralling mystery. Thoroughly engrossing and more than a little magical.
(Strong Sense of Place review)

REAMDE – Neal Stephenson
My second-favorite Neal Stephenson. It’s a thriller, a family saga, a romantic comedy—the pages are packed with smart action, legit suspense, and characters that I miss, now that my time with them is finished. There were three times that I gasped out loud while reading, and I shed a few tears.

Spinning – Tillie Walden
A warm and vulnerable memoir about coming to grips with who we really are, illustrated with gorgeous, ethereal art by the supremely talented Tillie Walden.

Wuthering Heights – Emily Brontë
I did it! On my fifth attempt, I made it through this novel, and I’m so glad I did. I can’t say I liked it, but I sure do respect it. Such a well-rendered claustrophobic atmosphere and carefully rendered anguish. It’s brilliant — but I will now love it from afar.
(Strong Sense of Place review)

The Power – Naomi Alderman
This novel about women gaining — and exploiting — special powers isn’t easy to read, but it’s wildly inventive, moving, and compelling. An Important Book that’s also a thrill ride to read.

The Comet Seekers – Helen Sedgwick
Oh, this book is a bit melancholy and very beautiful. It tells the story of two damaged souls who find each other in Antarctica. It also travels to France and Ireland, and the story unfolds in tandem with the appearance of comets in the sky.
(Strong Sense of Place review)

The Trick – Emanuel Bergmann
This is a life-affirming tale of an unlikely friendship between a broken-down magician and a little boy who desperately wants to believe in magic. Starts in WWII Prague and lands in contemporary Los Angeles. Both gut-wrenching and joyous.
(Strong Sense of Place review)

2018

The Arrival – Shaun Tan
This gorgeous picture book about family and belonging demolished me in the very best way. You know how much I love words, but this thing knocked me out with no words at all.

The Weight of Ink – Rachel Kadish
The heroine of this brilliant book reminds me a bit of Jane Eyre: strong-willed with a deep desire to learn and to accomplish more than her societal station would allow. Weaves a 17th-century and modern narrative that’s spellbinding. I found the novel because of this essay.

The Great Passage – Shion Miura
A sweet, insightful novel that’s about nothing (a team of people making a dictionary) and everything (love, life, death).
(Strong Sense of Place review)

Less – Andrew Sean Greer
I love that Arthur Less, the hero of this Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, decided to travel the world to find his way home. It’s a sweet story with plenty going on below the surface, and I’m not too proud to say that both times I read it, I ugly cried my way through the last 10 pages.
(Strong Sense of Place review)

The Remains of the Day – Kazuo Ishiguro
Painfully beautiful and surprisingly suspenseful. Evocative setting, powerful characters. What would you do if you realized the loyalties that had guided your entire life were misplaced?
(Strong Sense of Place review)

A Gentleman in Moscow – Amor Towles
I love it so much, it’s hard to talk about it. The Count is real to me, and if I could be magically inserted into a book, I might consider the Metropol Hotel, despite the dangers, just to speak to these characters.
(Strong Sense of Place review)

Villette – Charlotte Brontë
This is dramatically different than Jane Eyre, despite the shared elements of orphans and teachers. It tackles Feeling vs. Reason, Catholicism vs. Protestantism, the infantilization of women to keep them in line, the limited roles of unmarried (and, therefore, unworthy) women. This is a challenging and weird book. The whole time, I kept thinking, “You go, Charlotte! Fly your freak flag.”

The Tiger’s Wife – Téa Obreht
This novel is set in the Balkans, and it cast a spell on me. The main plot is revealed through a lifetime of stories passed from grandfather to granddaughter. There’s a magical tiger, the tiger’s wife, a bear-man, a deaf Muslim almost-princess, and a deathless man who became a recurring, unsettling presence in the life of our heroine’s grandfather. Hard to describe, thoroughly engaging.
(Strong Sense of Place review)

The Extraordinary Adventures of the Athena Club series – Theodora Goss
In this series, set in an alternate version of Victorian London, the offspring of classic literary characters are flesh-and-blood girls. Really, really fun, but with plenty of heart, these books are an escape from the mundane — delightful.
(Strong Sense of Place review)

The Lewis Trilogy – Peter May
A mashup of police procedural and character-driven family saga. I read these books when we visited Scotland, and they are perfectly moody, dark as pitch, and gripping. They’re set on the Isle of Lewis, a rocky island off the northwest coast of Scotland, and the weather is a character unto itself.
(Strong Sense of Place review)

Once Upon a River – Diane Setterfield
I read this magical book for 5 hours straight to finish it because I needed to know what was going to happen. The story is beautifully constructed, the language is gorgeous without getting in the way of the story, and the characters are people I wished I could spend more time with. The plot was surprising and yet made perfect emotional sense; its fairytale-like, but everything has the ring of truth about it. Just lovely.

2019

Convenience Store Woman – Sayaka Murata
This is an astute examination of the pressure to conform versus the desire to live our own way. But that big theme is wrapped in a simple and enthralling story of a woman who’s happy place is the convenience store where she stocks shelves and greets customers with a perfect cadence in her voice. I fell in love with Keiko, and you will, too.
(Strong Sense of Place review)

HHhH – Laurent Binet
This novel about the assassination of the Nazi Reinhard Heydrich is one of the best books I’ve read EVER. It’s not easy — stories about WWII and the Holocaust can’t be — but it’s brilliantly written and shines a spotlight on heroes who were not included in my American education.

Something Wicked This Way Comes – Ray Bradbury
This was my first Bradbury, and I was blown away by the beauty and emotion in his writing. The story is also right up my alley: a sinister carnival pulls into town and two young boys — best friends — are caught up in the adventure of a lifetime. A poignant examination of friendship and aging.
(Strong Sense of Place review)

The Governesses – Anne Serre
In a manor house behind a golden gate, three mysterious governesses are preparing for a party — and then things get weird and naughty and all-together fairytale-like. It’s filled with Gothic tropes, but it’s awash in sparkly golden light. This is a weird little book (just 112 pages), and I devoured it. 
(Strong Sense of Place review)

The Devotion of Suspect X – Keigo Higashino
For a week after finishing this book, I was recommending it to everyone I talked to. It’s a murder mystery, but you know within the first few chapters who committed the crime. The suspense is in the way the perpetrators try to outwit the police. This thing is a doozie! The plot twists are luscious and truly shocking.

Crooked House – Agatha Christie
I’m not generally a Christie fan, but this one hooked me so hard. The ending! It’s a gut-puncher! And along the way, the suspects in a wealthy gentleman’s murder are just as complex and duplicitous as you want them to be. I read it and listened to the audiobook; if you like audiobooks, do it that way.
(Strong Sense of Place review)

Spoonbenders – Daryl Gregory
I got tricked by this novel in the best way.  The flap copy sets up a sort of magical realism/sci-fi situation, but when you read it, you realize it’s a genuinely moving family drama disguised as a playful sci-fi novel. Brilliant. The ending took my breath away.

The Last Cruise – Kate Christensen
We picked this up on our road trip in the US last summer, and my husband David read it to me while we drove. It’s a sort-of thriller set on the last cruise of a luxury cruise ship. On the way from Los Angeles to Hawaii, we get to know three characters very well — and they are so well-drawn. Messy. Likable. Difficult. Then Something happens. It’s unputdownable.

The Bedlam Stacks – Natasha Pulley
When I’m asked what I read this year, this is the book I think of first. It starts out as a big adventure, but then reveals itself to be an emotional exploration of friendship, loyalty, and the magic of things we can’t rationally explain. There are so many awesome things, not least of which are the settings in a crumbling British mansion (!) and the Andes mountains of Peru.
(Strong Sense of Place review)

Carmilla – Joseph Sheridan LeFanu
Four words: teenage lesbian vampire tale. This was written 25 years before Bram Stoker’s Dracula, and it’s thick with atmosphere and Gothic yumminess. The sexuality is pretty tame for modern eyes, but at the time? It was fire. Definitely recommend that you enjoy the Audible audiobook; it’s a full dramatic performance, and it’s fantastic.
(Strong Sense of Place review)

Death is Hard Work – Khaled Khalifa
Whew. This was great — tough to read, but so very great. It’s a mashup of family saga, road trip story, and war novel, set during the Syrian wars of the last decade. An estranged family’s mission to fulfill their father’s dying wish takes them on a fateful drive across their home country.
(Strong Sense of Place review)

Crescent – Diana Abu-Jaber
This is a bittersweet love story populated with characters you’ll be glad to know. So much Middle Eastern food! Served up with situations that test loyalty and examinations of identity. 
(Strong Sense of Place review)

Number One Chinese Restaurant – Lillian Li
Family saga, immigrant story, and backstage peek at restaurant life — so much small drama that plays out big ways. I was deeply wrapped up in these characters’ experiences, and, if I’m totally honest, hungry for Chinese food the entire time I was reading.
(Strong Sense of Place review)

The Starless Sea – Erin Morgenstern
David and I read this together in one indulgent, magical weekend — I’m looking forward to reading it again. It’s a rich layer cake of stories that weaves an irresistible spell.

Haunted Voices: An Anthology of Gothic Storytelling from Scotland – Rebecca Wojturska
This collection of stories celebrates Scotland’s rich tradition of oral storytelling. Features both archival recordings and new performances that gave me delicious little tingles on the back of my neck. The performers are also the writers of the stories, and the power of their performances is enthralling. I listened on audio and sometimes read along with the ebook.

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Comments

  • I love how you organized this list! Our reading tastes are very different but overlap in a couple places (Gentleman in Moscow and Jane Eyre).

  • Nina Vachková says:

    I read the Book of Speculations after you told me I might like it and I did, soooo so much! :))) And Less (also recommended by you) quickly became one of my faves as well! 131 books in a year is pretty amazing, I was nowhere close to that number 😀 I think I read over 60 in 2019, but I forgot to log them all in my Goodreads, so I am hoping in 2020 to get at least 60 again!

    • Ah, I love that book. I re-read it this year, and it was just as good — maybe better? — the second time.

      When I realized I was going to pass last year’s number, I felt kind of weird. That seems like so many! But, to be fair, some of them were really short… although some were quite long, too 😉

  • Jennifer says:

    I love reading lists like these and adding to my (already endless) TBR list! As I was looking at your lists, a book I read and loved in 2018 that I think might go along with your tastes is Code Name: Verity by Elizabth Wein. It’s technically YA, and a great and emotional wringer. I loved it and think you might, too?

    • I know this is a perhaps unpopular opinion, but I think it’s kind of great that our TBR lists are never done. It’s so exciting to think of all the books to be read!

      I’ve had Code Name:Verity on my list for ages. Now that I’ve gotten another endorsement, I’m going to bump it up a little! Thank you!

  • Sarah G says:

    You and I have very similar taste in books and I look forward to seeing what you’re reading on Goodreads. This is a great list and I found a few new ones to add to my TBR list. You’ve also inspired me to do a similar list. Thank you!! Happy reading!

  • Lori H says:

    I love your reading recommendations! If you enjoyed Station Eleven, I think you would also like Good Morning, Midnight by Lily Brooks-Dalton. Have you read it? Thanks for putting this list together – pinning it for future reference!

    • Ooooh, book trade! I was not familiar with Good Morning, Midnight, but I just read the description… and I’m thinking maybe you’d enjoy The Comet Seekers. Thank you for the recommendation; added the Kindle sample to my Kindle.