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What I Want to Read


I am VERY TIRED of books about awful people being awful to other awful people. I have read a rash of them. They were fun, but NOW I am hungry for something else. SOMETHING VERY SPECIFIC.

I want to read a book that fulfills ALL the requirements below. Not because the kind described below is the only kind of book I like, but because I am so hungry for this kind right now. It is like — when you are CRAVING PIZZA, the best quiche in the world can leave you cold. SO. Here is what I seek:

1) A NOVEL. No non fic, memoir, bio even if it “reads like a novel.” No short fiction. No plays; I want a novel.

2) It should be character driven, and the drivers should be complicated characters with both serious flaws and strengths who are chasing goodness in some vigorous way. I want to read about people who are trying to connect, who love and hope in this broken world, or who seek the divine. Even though it is about goodness or the search for connection, I can NOT manage anything remotely sentimental or smug. NO SYRUP! No kittens in the snow on Christmas with a thorny paw. No good good people and bad bad people with clear, clean lines. I want the real dark world, and to be shown what is light in it. Bad things can (should) happen, but I need the grace notes to be SO beautiful.

3) I want it to have a PLOT. I want there to be movement and interest. Beauty and hope is not enough. SOMETHING SHOULD HAPPEN.

4) The writing should be good, of course, but a specific kind of good. I don’t want invisible, commercial prose (even if it is impeccable) or DENSE fudge-y writing with sentences like almost-poems (even if it is impeccable). I don’t want a great story that is poorly or plainly told, or great writing so layered and nuanced that it overshadows story. I want interesting, unexpected images or a rich, specific voice-i-ness. Let the writing lean into literary territory. Heck, it can lean HARD into the literary, but it should stop WELL SHORT of being Henry James.

5) By the end, I want to have laughed out loud, cried, and remembered why I like humans.

If nothing comes to mind, here are some well known novels that I think do all these things “brightly, brightly and with beauty.”

Howard’s End
The Dog Stars
The Sparrow
Water for Elephants
The Gods of Gotham
Shine Shine Shine
The Solace of Leaving Early

Read anything like these? PLEASE TELL ME. I am book-hungry.

89 comments to What I Want to Read

  • Shannon

    Some of the best books I’ve read lately are: Station Eleven, Spin, A Tale for the Time Being….

  • Are they THIS kind of good though? specifically? Which one is the MOST liek what I just described?

  • Casey

    I think A Different Blue by Amy Harmon hits all these notes… Alas, I too seem to be reading a lot of the same ol’ thing. I am tired of depressing and harsh reality without a silver lining but dislike cheese. So, I completely embrace your list and am anxious to add any suggestions to my “to be read” pile.

  • Sharon

    The Red Notebook by Antoine Laurain will fulfill all of your requirements. Beautifully written, character-driven novel that will restore your faith in mankind.

  • Jill W.

    The Good Dream by Donna VanLiere. The audio book for that one is particularly delicious. The story is rich and well-told. The characters are well-drawn and complicated, and I definite laughed and cried.

    The best book I have read recently is Life After Life by Kate Atkinson. I think it hits all of the notes you listed. I laughed and cried (probably the hardest I have ever cried while reading a book at this one scene). The characters are complex and so is the story. Things most definitely happen. And you can always count on Ms. Atkinson to go dark and find the light.

    If you can find anything like Haven Kimmel anywhere, II’d sure like to hear about it. She it’s such a unique voice.

  • Jennifer Taylor

    I love The Red Tent. Beautifully written, and yes it is based on a bible character, but really more about history and human nature. I also Love LOVE, Love The Rosie Project. It is a must read.

  • Jill W.

    What about Jojo Moyes? Everything of hers I’ve read hits those notes. Especially The Girl You Left Behind and One Plus One.

  • Keene

    I just read ‘Where’d You Go Bernadette’ twice. And that says a lot.

  • Chris of the Woodwork


    I feel like I’ve been given an assignment by my English teacher that I will never be able to finish.

    Nightmares about this one, for sure.

    I just finished Goodnight June. It’s by Sarah Jio. I really like her writing – for the most part. I’ve also read two of her other books, but this one is the best so far. It’s about the author of Goodnight Moon, and her relationship with the owner of a bookstore. Kind of schmaltzy in places, I will admit.

    So very glad to see you here. You have been missed!

  • Also, ‘Me Before You’, by Jojo Moyes.

  • Sarah

    I just read 11-22-63 by Stephen King. I think it is the kind of good you seek. 🙂 I second the Jojo Moyes rec; I think she would fit the bill very well.

  • Romdjoll of the forgotten password

    Seconding Station Eleven and The Rosie Project and throwing in the wild curveball that is Nunslinger. Yes, you read that right. Bought for the title, stayed for the surprisingly fun and well-written ride. It was written as a serial and is basically a ripping yarn set in the old West. It’s told in short chapters with cliffhangers aplenty – but it’s smart and the characters are well-drawn and the Nun with the guns is all kinds of awesome – while still being very much (so far!) a woman of faith.

  • Andrea

    Looking at my books on GoodReads, it seems I mostly read books with people doing bad things to each other, but here’s a few: The Shoemaker’s Wife by Adriana Trigiani; The Geography of You & Me by Jennifer E. Smith (YA book); Attachments by Rainbow Rowell. Anything by John Hart, although they may be a little darker than what you are looking for. The Shoemaker’s Wife is the one I would say is most like what you have described.

  • Jocelyn Tichenor

    Black River by Hulse
    Can’t believe this is her first book. Amazingly engrossing. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is certainly character-driven, as well.

  • Susan

    I second Time After Time and Me Before You and would like to add The Art of Fielding. I loved this book and thought it was an amazing piece of writing.

  • Kate

    Hard to believe you haven’t read it yet, but State of Wonder by Ann Patchett should fit the bill. Characters and plot and pursuit of (different kinds of) goodness … All there.

  • The Storied Life of A.J. Fickry made me laugh, cry, and want to write a better book. And it takes place in a bookstore! Wins all around.

  • Shelby

    I think Where We Belong by Catherine Ryan Hyde fits the bill. I adored this book.

  • ANYTHING by Liane Moriarty! My personal favorite is The Hypnotist’s Love Story. It’s about a love triangle, and how people do crazy (literally) things when scorned, or when faced with loss. The Husband’s Secret, What Alice Forgot, Big Little Lies, Three Wishes–they are all good. Moriarty’s characters represent everything that is beautiful and ugly in people, and always with lots of humor.

  • Carolyn

    Station Eleven!

  • Jen the Goddess in Virginia

    I’ve read about half of the books on your list, so I carefully reviewed my Read list on Goodreads to see what might fit the bill. It’s a difficult kind of book to find. I hope that you have already read The Night Circus (Erin Morgenstern), but if you have not, you might give that a try. Ditto to The Elegance of the Hedgehog (Muriel Barbery). Broken for You by Stephanie Kallos may do it. Or maybe The Front Porch Prophet by Raymond Atkins. I saw above that someone recommended The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry, which I just finished and I definitely liked – it hits a lot of things on the list, but I did find it a tad predictable and sentimental. Wishing you the right kind of reading soon!

  • Kacie

    So there’s this great book called gods in Alabama…


  • Luan

    Blessed are the Cheesemakers by Sarah-Kate Lynch.
    And I second The Night Circus.

  • JenniferG

    I second The Red Tent and The Night Circus. On of my most favorites is Bel Canto (Anne Patchett) – all about people trying to connect. Currently being made into an OPERA. It has stuck with me for so many years.

    Now going to add all your suggestions to my GoodReads to-read list….

  • Jill W.

    Ooh, I second Broken For You by Stephanie Kallos. Definitely fits these requirements.

  • Beth Duke

    I second The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry and The Husband’s Secret! I, too, am ready for fiction that doesn’t involve the Holocaust, slavery or general human darkness. I highly recommend Leila Meacham’s Roses.

  • Lee Cochenour

    Definitely “The Rosie Project” and “Life After Life”. Rosie is more fun and laugh out loud, but both books will move you.

  • Marina Endicott, Good to a Fault, sprang to mind when I read your list of requirements.

  • Marla

    I feel like you would have already read it, but We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler hit many of those notes for me.

  • Jill Hughes

    Broken for You by Stephanie Kalos comes to mind.

  • Jessica

    The Royal We by Heather Cocks and Jessica Morgan. It’s so lovely you asked for books like this, because I sat there in the middle of this book trying to put my finger on how this couple (it’s based on Prince William and Kate Middleton) Have drama because of Who He Is, but they have this sense of respect and unconditional love for each other that I’m not sure I’ve really seen in a love story before. And the relationship with the daughter and her father made me ugly cry, it was so special. I cannot recommend this book enough.

  • Jessica

    (Also, the writing is SUPERB, the plot is great, and I fully contemplated skipping a concert to finish it. SO.)

  • Jan in Norman, OK

    The Beekeeper’s Apprentice by Laurie R. King, Maisie Dobbs by Jacqueline Winspear, The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie by Alan Bradley, Dog On It by Spencer Quinn

  • Strong support for LIFE AFTER LIFE and WE ARE ALL COMPLETELY BESIDE OURSELVES, only I suspect with others that you have read both already!

    Have you read Jo Walton’s MY REAL CHILDREN?

    Have you read all of Chimimanda Ngozi Adichie already? They are all extremely good and lovely in just the ways you ask for.

    Jane Gardam’s Old Filth trilogy.

    Jenny Offill, DEPT. OF SPECULATION!

    Here was my end-of-year roundup with some other misc stuff, much of it not in the genre you’re asking about… http://jennydavidson.blogspot.com/search?updated-min=2014-01-01T00:00:00-05:00&updated-max=2015-01-01T00:00:00-05:00&max-results=50

  • Leslie Madden

    Wow! So many good suggestions here! Some of my all time favorite books that I come back to again and again are: To Dance With the White Dog by Terry Kay, The Sweet Everlasting by Judson Mitcham, and Stones for Ibarra by Harriet Doerr. I think each of these would fit your criteria. My daughter and I have just finished reading I’ll Give You the Sun by Jandy Nelson. It’s YA, but a really, really good YA read. Claudia says that it’s now her new favorite book ever and she’s a pretty sophisticated reader. I’m curious to know what you select!

  • Robin

    Just finished “Leaving Time” by Jodi Picoult.
    A bit different from her normal slice of life drama.
    I loved learning about elephants…who knew that there was so much ♡ in the herd.
    I am now definitrly an advocate for their care & safety.
    I am keeping my fingers crossed for Prince Charles & Prince William as they visit the Far East to promote Anti-Poaching law enforcement.
    And like the elephant, I will never FORGET….this book!
    PS:if you like this one, her book of short stories,”Where There’s Smoke” gives more insight to 2 of the characters in ” Leaving Time”

  • I just wrote this book review for The Book Breeze.

    Martha Woodroof created a virtuoso of damaged characters in Small Blessings. Characters who manage to resurrect their true selves through the compassion and intervention of each other. The stalwart protagonist, Thomas Marvin Putnam is aptly described as “lover of Shakespeare…dysfunctionally married for twenty years…was a joyous, carefree child somersaulting down a hill, joining Alice in falling, falling, falling somewhere he had never contemplated going.”

    Woodroof, using strategically placed quotes from Shakespeare and beautiful language skillfully chosen, takes the reader into a maze of complexities and personalities. Through the eyes of a child, she exposes a plethora of lifelong secrets, exposing the sophomoric behavior of straight-laced, professorial types and the tragedies that formed their lives. Experts at flagellating themselves and others in their insulated environment, the struggling cast of main characters’ longings are painful to observe and extravagant in their simplicity.

  • Jennie

    Falling Together by Marisa de los Santos

  • Meg Spencer

    Small Blessings by Martha Woodruff
    The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin
    Us by David Nichols
    Fin & Lady – Cathleen Schine

  • Debbie

    The Evening Hour by Carter Sickle. Yes, some characters are mean. And loving, profoundly human, ugly-beautiful seekers and sinners. I love this book♡

  • I second Where’s You Go, Bernadette? by Maria Semple and My Real Children by Jo Walton. The first is dark comedy & the most outstanding characters I think I’ve ever read, driven away and toward each other in a symphony of conflicting wants. The second is a dark look at marriage that really made me think & since it’s a sliding doors scenario, it’s the same character, but different sides of her, which is fascinating.

  • Janet

    Oh, My Stars by Lorna Landvik, The View From Mount Joy, also by Lorna Landvik. Just about anything by Michael Lee West.

  • J Myers

    “Eleanor and Park” by Rainbow Rowell. It may be categorized as YA, but it hit SO many of my ‘this is a true thing’ buttons that I was amazed, and it built to a suspenseful point that reminded my very much “Room.”

  • Jennifer

    Despite the fact that it was written for middle grades—WAIT! Hear me out!!!–if you want great writing, characters who are good to each other, no black-and-white writing, a great story, all of these things, I recommend E.L. Konigsburg’s “The View from Saturday.” It is, obviously, short. It is not simplistic. E.L. Konigsburg, who died last year, was an absolutely fantastic writer, and I still get that feeling of, “Oh, no! I am getting near the end…I am at the end…they are going away to live their lives in Bookland, and I don’t get to know them any more, and I will miss them so much!”

  • Ooh, me too (or three) for Small Blessings by Martha Woodroof, I think it hits this and I loved it!

  • Jennifer

    I second The Art of Fielding; I also want to add “Behind the Scenes at the Museum” by Kate Atkinson. I really love Kate Atkinson.

  • Atalie

    Liane Moriarty and Jojo Meyers as others have mentioned. The Bruno, Chief of Police series by Martin Walker.Bruno is a lovely character, a gourmet and municipal policeman in a small town in the Dordogne region of France. The setting itself is a character. 🙂

  • Jill

    The Orchardist by Amanda Coplin- phenomenal!!!!!!!

  • OMG SO MUCH WITH THE AJ FIKRY. That novel was so good, and so exactly what you describe you are looking for. I loved it enough that not only did i read it in two sittings, i went out and bought two copies to give ppl for Christmas, even though i WAS DONE WITH MY SHOPPING ALREADY. That is how much i felt those two ppl needed to read it.

  • And you know, don’t get me wrong, i big GIANT loved Station Eleven, and i second it as a rec too, but it goes some very dark places, especially too i think if you are a Theatre Person, as i know you are/were.

  • Janie

    The Glass Kitchen by Linda Frances Lee or
    The Witch of Little Italy by Suzanne Palmieri. The Glass Kitchen was sumptuous and Witch was magical! I love them both!

  • edj

    I add my voice to the recommendations for “Where’d You Go, Bernadette?” although it will make you laugh, not cry.
    I hated “The Red Tent.” The author has an axe to grind. It starts well but quickly gets annoying.
    I really enjoyed “Elizabeth is Missing.” I’m not quite sure it fits ALL your criteria, but it’s very unusual. Written from the point of view of an elderly woman descending into dementia. I especially loved how you could see how much her daughter and grand-daughter love her but it’s shown very obliquely, because the woman is so confused. It’s really really good. Try it.
    “The Pearl that Broke its Shell” is really good too. Again, poss not all the criteria. About Afghani women, and the practice of dressing girls as boys so they can go out into the world. Super interesting and fascinating and you’ll believe in some humans and despise others.

  • The first one that springs to mind is “Eat Cake” by Jeanne Ray. Seriously, it’s lush and snarky and amazing, all about love, demands, family and CAKE!!!

    Then there’s “The Martian” by Andy Weir. This one has some swearing, science, and being abandoned on Mars and every character is real and human. (It’s also being made into a movie with Matt Damon and a heap of other great actors, so HOORAY!) I’ve never read a book that made me laugh about potatoes.

    Finally, “Old Man’s War”by John Scalzi. The main character turns 75, visits his wife’s grave then joins the army. That’s just the first paragraph.

    Hope these help, and I can’t wait to read your next books!

  • Marjorie

    I’ll Give you the Sun by Jandy Nelson. It’s this year’s YA Printz winner. Her writing is phenomenal and even though people do some bad things to each other, they are not villains. They are real and beautiful and seeking love.

  • Have you read Kent Haruf’s “Plainsong” and “Eventide”? (2 books, in that order) Just lovely!

  • Karen in Maryland

    When I crave a book like that, it’s got to be “To Kill A Mockingbird” even though I’ve read it too many times to count.

  • Yes, Kerry Ann is right on with The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry.

  • What awesome readers! And such a great book list.
    Thanks for reminding me about BROKEN FOR YOU. Dang, I loved that book.
    I am reading Hoffman’s THE DOVE KEEPERS and oh, what prose. Early into it, so not sure it will hit all the high notes ou’re looking for… I am one of the million who LOVED The Goldfinch, not sure your thoughts there.
    LIked Rosie Project and AJ Fikry… but feel like they are too light for what you seek.
    The History Of Love, Nicole Krauss is one of my FAVS
    ( Both that and Broken For You were recommended by Annie Lamott)

  • Jess H.

    You’ve probably already read it, but I recently inhaled Sarah Addison Allen’s First Frost (a sequel to Garden Spells). Meets all your requirements.

  • Jess H.

    You’ve probably already read it, but I recently inhaled Sarah Addison Allen’s First Frost (a sequel to Garden Spells). Meets all your requirements.

  • Jessica (the celt)

    The one book (that isn’t yours) that I’ve adored and still adore to little bits and that fits all of your requirements is The Elegance of the Hedgehog. If you haven’t read it, I can’t recommend it enough. It is one of the most beautiful novels I’ve ever read, and I certainly came away remembering that the good of humanity lies within the individual and not from a faceless mass. The little things, the minute differences that make us each our own human are the things that create and grow love, and they are the things from which all good comes.

  • Jessica (the celt)

    (Oh, and the translation’s writing is gorgeous, without being too flowery. It definitely has both “interesting, unexpected images” AND “a rich, specific voice-i-ness,” even though there are two distinct voices — and they are very distinct, just as yours are in SELS.)

  • jmay

    How about Cold Sassy Tree by Olive Ann Burns? One of my very favorites that I NEED to reread every year at least!

  • Heather

    Prodigal Summer by Barbara Kingsolver

  • April Burk Clark

    Hmmmm, I do love playing matchmaker for books and readers. Taking all of your “cravings” into account, I would recommend “How High the Moon” by Sandra Kring, “The Language of Flowers” by Vanessa Diffenbaugh,” “The Chaperone” by Laura Moriarty, “Trudy’s Promise” by Marcia Preston, and “Labor Day” by Joyce Maynard. Good luck scratching that itch!

  • April Burk Clark

    I would definitely second (or third) many above: Eat Cake, Storied Life…, Prodigal Summer, Cold Sassy Tree, Plain Song, Fin & Lady. I also disagree with some, and I’m screen-shotting others to add to my TBR list.

  • I second Eleanor and Park, the YA book by Rainbow Rowell, as well as a reread of To Kill a Mockingbird, which sounds like the perfect fit to your list. The list also made me think of Louise Penny and her Inspector Gamache series. It may sound a little out in left field, but the writing is superb, the characters are complex, the protagonist is the most “good” person I’ve read since Atticus Finch, and they are wonderful stories with characters and relationships that develop throughout the series. It MUST be read in order. Bonus, it isn’t just one book.

  • Picky-picky

    OH, so many ideas! Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand, by Helen Simonson. Horse Heaven, by Jane Smiley. London Bridges, by Jane Stevenson. Possession, by A.S. Byatt. The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, by Mary Ann Shaffer. Run, by Ann Patchet (really, anything by Ann Patchet). Family Matters, by Rohinton Mistry. Reservation Blues, by Sherman Alexie.
    If you are willing to accept a fantasy setting, the Long Price Quartet by Daniel Abraham (first book is A Shadow in Summer). I hope genre is not a deal-breaker for you, because these books are spot-on for your requirements.

  • I think you would like “Memoirs of an Imaginary Friend.” It is a gorgeous tale that reminds me of your books in writing style. It is a beautiful tale of a boy and his imaginary friend told from the imaginary friend’s POV. Is was written by Matthew Dicks. Out of all my books (over 7000), this is the one I would hand to you if you visited. Normally I hand out “Gods in Alabama,” but I think you have read that one. No? 🙂

  • Idella

    Although there are many great books listed so far, I have to go back to the very first entry (by Shannon) and enthusiastically encourage you to read (if you haven’t yet) “A Tale for the Time Being” by Ruth Ozeki. It is like no other book I have read in plot, it is character driven in all regards and will without doubt leave you with a prickle to your flesh, lovely tear-strained eyes, and a belly that has laughed deep and wholeheartedly. There is love & hope of the broken and the delicious divine will prevail. NO willy-nilly here my dear; this is a four-course meal and meaty to the bone!

    Some of my Goodreads’ review: Beautiful, engaging, heart-wrenching. Parts of this story tore into a depth of my “self” that I have not visited before, I love when I can be so engaged by a writer. Tears the layers down beneath the flesh and leaves a trembling,take-a-deep-breath,warm beating heart in your hands. An absolute must read!!!!

  • Susan

    Handling Sin by Michael Malone!

  • Little Bee by Chris Cleave… your checklist is complete.

  • My favorite recent find in this area is ‘Cinnamon and Gunpowder” by Eli Brown. It had me at lady pirate & kidnapped chef on the high seas in the 1800s. It earned its keep by being an unexpected tale of finding truth and goodness in unexpected places.

  • Neal (the viking)

    A little late to the huge party, but if you haven’t read Graham Greene’s The End of the Affair, you should. The main character (as is often the case for Greene) is a bit world weary, but he’s not entirely happy with his cynicism–though he’d have a tough time even admitting that to himself.

    It’s also among Greene’s best writing. It is not dense, and it is beautiful. I don’t think you’ll laugh out loud, but you will remember what can be great about humans and the faith that can trouble us and lift us up.

  • Shannon

    sorry late to respond, but Station Eleven is most like what you are describing above. It was wonderful and terrible with amazing and awful characters, pain and loss and love…

  • Deborah Rosenblum

    If you haven’t you must read Provinces of Night. Best thing I’ve read in a while.

  • TC

    The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry. Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand. Most of the above, too.

  • Jill

    Cutting for Stone- Abraham Verghese

  • Michelle-who-is-Shelley

    Have ready many listed above but most wouldn’t meet the criteria level of books like “The Sparrow” or “Water For Elephants” for me. I know what you mean — I am hungry for that kind of novel too. I am wanting a novel like “I Know This Much Is True” or “The Story of Edgar Sawtelle” (I assume you have already read these) and “Broken For You” by Stephanie Kallos, the only one mentioned above that is on my BEST BEST BEST list.

  • Sounds a lot like your books to me. 🙂

  • I would definitely recommend The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin and Big Little Lies by Liane Moriarty. I think they meet all of your criteria.

  • Oh! Also, The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving. Great read about a complicated character struggling to redeem himself after a tragic and stupid mistake caused him to lose his family.

  • Amy Elaine

    Eternal on the Water – Joseph Monninger.

  • Rachel

    Longbourn by Jo Baker – told from the pov of one of the servants at the home of the Pride and Prejudice Bennets. Wow. Loved every moment of the story.

  • Dagmar

    Have you read “The Dress Shop of Dreams” by Menna van Praag?
    Beautiful, heart-warming, yet not syrupy.

  • That is a tall order. . .one I cannot even begin to fill. Could I interest you in the lesser known story of a middle-aged, middle school English teacher with family problems a state away that she can only handle by phone who has mountains of papers to grade and fifty pounds to shed but was lucky enough to meet one of her favorite authors ever then hie through a department store with said author looking for juice box wine? Seriously good story. 🙂 I’m glad when you blog.

  • http://www.amazon.com/The-Revised-Fundamentals-Caregiving-Novel/dp/B00F6J0PK0

    So with all of the most excellent suggestions from others who have the where-with-all to read adult novels and NOT The Diary of Anne Frank (theatrical version that her own father detested) for the 600th time with their 8th grade English classes), I found the novel above. If you scroll down to the essay by the author, I think you will find a good book–or at the very least, an excellent essay. He makes mention of cannibalism and shit storms. Your books have plenty of one, but not the other. Maybe you’re missing something here? (I kid. I kid.)