Lately I’ve been throwing my Kindle across the room in frustration (ask Dave) when I get about, mmm, 30% of the way into a book – and sometimes it’s a legitimately intriguing book! – only to get blindsided by a graphic sex scene. I’m not talking heaving bosoms and carefully laced corsets, but straight up graphic, line-by-line descriptions that read like porn scripts. Like, if these scenes were adapted to film, they’d be rated R at least, and possibly X.
I don’t check out obscure, bondage fetish literature either. This is mainstream, NYT bestseller’s list, such-and-such blogger’s book club recommendation stuff. And I look around and I think, I can’t be the only one freaked out by this.
Particularly in light of the damning cultural moment which we presently find ourselves in, I would like to move as far away from sexually compromising content as possible. But you know? Sometimes I don’t feel like reading 400 year old British literature. Or even 100 year old stuff. I don’t want to resign myself to reading subpar Christian fiction, either, which, if I may be frank, I find generally lacking in skill and imagination. Nor do I always feel compelled to read some hefty theological treatise on the Sacraments.
So, what’s a girl to do?
I’m a voracious reader, so with the help of my handy Amazon borrowing history, I thought I’d share a list of the titles I’ve read in 2017 which I would enthusiastically recommend to a friend. And if you have anything you’d like to recommend right back? Please, I’m about to have hours and hours of late night time on my hands and I’m all e-ears.
I’ve tried to break these into rough categories for your convenience, but a fancy book blogger I am not, so consider yourself warned:
Fiction lite (suitable for beach, plane ride, or mindless late-night consumption*)
- Everything written by Rosamunde Pilcher, but especially: “The Shell Seekers,” “Winter Solstice,” and “Coming Home.”
I discovered her during my first trimester of sloth and nausea and I swear she held my hand and walked me through the long, hot summer. After the first two books I was like, “oh my gosh, I’ve discovered modern fiction that is good and not super slutty but isn’t stilted and weird and baptized by having been run through some kind of media filter that sucks all the soul of the story.” And then I discovered she wrote all her books like, 20-40 years ago and I was like, “oh.” I’m an old soul. And she’s 93 and still alive in UK, so I guess she is, too. Just go ahead and read everything she has ever written and love your life.
- The Secret Keeper, The Lakehouse, The House at Riverton, The Distant Hours, and The Forgotten Garden: Kate Morton
I love anything Kate Morton has ever written. These novels are the perfect blend of captivating character development and sharp writing. I’d put them on par with Downton Abbey in terms of keeping you intrigued in the story line and progression of the characters lives. She occasionally delves into the split timeline/flashback technique to advance the narrative, but in my opinion, doesn’t over use it. Highly recommend.
- Within the Walled City: Virginia Evans
Study abroad fictional memoir set in Florence, Italy. Honestly, what else do you need to know? If you love travel/food books but don’t necessarily want to read a straight up memoir, this one’s for you.
- A Portrait of Emily Price
Sweet, quick-reading, and not too racy. Actually, not much dirt at all, if I’m remembering right. Just the kind of thing for airport reading or a late-night nursing session.
- What Alice Forgot – Liane Moriarty
An enjoyable offering from this author (and rare for its relative absence of gratuitous sex n violence). The storyline splits between the past and present in a creative and captivating way.
Aspirational self improvement/business memoirs/human interest:
- Capital Gaines – Chip Gaines
The Fixer Upper backstory, from the male perspective. Either Chip can actually write or his ghostwriter really nailed his voice, but this proved to be an engaging and enjoyable read.
- The Magnolia Story (is my HGTV freak flag flying high enough?) – Joanna Gaines
And her side of the story, more narrowly focused on the interpersonal details and the spiritual aspects of discernment in their journey. If his is the nuts and bolts side of the story, hers is the heart and soul.
- The Gratitude Diaries: How a year of looking on the bright side can transform your life – Janet Kaplan
In the style of Gretchen Reuben, but pleasantly less research-y (Though perhaps not quite as insightful for it).
- Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age – Sherry Turkel
This book is a sobering, somewhat terrifying and absolutely essential read for any human being living in the 21st century.
- The Highly Sensitive Child – Elaine Aron
She does a good job capturing the nuances of parenting a child who is wound a little “differently,” and makes some interesting observations about human nature. The philosophy/psychology gets a little weird in places, but that’s to be expected without a firm sense of a Christian anthropology.
- Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World – Cal Newport
This book was a huge impetus behind my decision to scale back on my social media presence and ditch my smartphone (thought that’s not going as well as it was over the summer. Still 100% social media free on the phone though, so I’m counting that as progress.) This book is a powerfully necessary read for the modern age and very engagingly written.
- When Breath Becomes Air – Paul Kalanithi
Gripping, honest, sad, and beautiful. The author chronicles his own journey with terminal lung cancer. A medical doctor with a surprisingly philosophical and poetic soul.
- Reading People – Anne Bogel
Bogel’s (of Modern Mrs. Darcy fame) first work, this was an engaging study in various personality inventories and delved a bit into the interpretation of personality theory. I particularly liked her section on the Myers Briggs. (Note: I skipped the chapter on the Enneagram because I’m not convinced that it is harmless).
- Present over Perfect – Shauna Niequist
I wanted to love love this book, because that’s how I felt about her earlier work, “Bread and Wine,” but it wasn’t quite as engaging. I still gleaned some good stuff from her (occasionally relentless) introspection, particularly her observations on work/life balance and a really poignant and painful depiction of burnout as a mom.
World War II novels set somewhere in Europe:
- In Farleigh Field – Rhys Bowen
Had a distinctive Downton Abbey vibe, which I found appealing. Dave read it first and convinced me I’d like it too, which I did.
- Beneath a Scarlet Sky – Mark T. Sullivan
A little grittier than I’d typically tend towards, but not in an inappropriate or unwarranted way. Set in Italy, which is a nice change of pace for a genre that seems obsessively set in either Britain or France.
- All the Light We Cannot See: Anthony Doerr
I’m pretty sure I actually read this one 2 years ago, but it is a masterpiece and was utterly worth paying full cover price for the hardback and eminently worthy of the Pulitzer it garnered Doerr. (Also, be sure to check out his earlier work, “Four Seasons in Rome” a travel memoir of his study abroad year in the Eternal City with his wife and twin baby boys.)
- Everyone Brave is Forgiven – Chris Cleave
A little rough around the edges in parts, but a good read. Not remarkable enough to differentiate itself substantially from the other books in this genre, but a worthy addition to the list if you love WWII novels.
- The Nightingale – Kristin Hannah
Oh my gosh, how many books about WWII did I read in 2017?? I guess …a few. This one was probably second best only to “All the Light,” but quite a bit sadder, if I’m remembering correctly.
YA Lit that won’t make you want to scratch your eyes out:
- Echo – Pam Munoz Ryan
Mildly engaging. I wouldn’t call it un-put-down-able by any means, but it was a passable read with an interesting twist. It won a 2016 Newberry Honor.
- Wonder – Rachel J. Palacio
This book lives up to the hype surrounding it, and I’m interested to see the film adaptation. I really appreciated how well the author captured – and maintained – the innocence of early adolescence while still addressing the brutal and nasty pieces without delving into unnecessary sexualization or precociousness of the characters. Not easy to do.
- When Dimple Met Rishi – Sandhyi Menon
Cute, engaging, not too serious and not too slutty. I dated a lot of engineers in college, for some reason, so this book kind of took me back. Plus, I just love Bollywood.
- The Selection trilogy and The Heir – Kiera Cass
I’m embarrassed. But whatever. I read them all and if you like/d the Bachelor/ette and the Hunger Games, well, these are the books for you. Don’t judge me.
- Waking the Dead – John Eldredge
This guy is Catholic lite, whether or not he realizes it. He has a firmer grasp on spiritual warfare and the reality of the presence of God – and of evil – in the world, than most Catholic or Christian writers I’ve read. Take him with a grain of salt because he’s Protestant, but he has some great content on discernment and cultivating a relationship with God.
- Walking with God – John Eldredge
- Fathered by God – John Eldredge
- The Family that Overtook Christ – M. Raymond
Hard to find (I subscribed to Kindle Unlimited for a trial month so I could read it) but it’s a fascinating story of the family of St. Bernard of Clairvoux and the reform of the monastic orders of his time period. 2 enthusiastic thumbs up for this and his subsequent title, “Three Religious Rebels.”
- Lord of the World – Robert Hugh Benson
I can’t emphasize enough how essential this read is to every Catholic – or every human being – who is currently alive. Rumored to be Pope Francis’ favorite novel (and one he has read half a dozen times) I’ll definitely be reading it again in another couple months.
- The Benedict Option – Rod Dreher
Guys, just read this book. I’m still scratching my head over the infighting over this one. If you are judging the work on its own merits (which is how I believe books should be evaluated) and not dragging everything Dreher has ever written in his entire life into your calculus, it’s actually a fantastic, inspiring, and deeply practical read.
- Out of the Ashes – Anthony Esolen
Honestly? This one’s better than Dreher’s. Esolen has a devastatingly sharp mind and a profound grasp of reality. Worth the extra brainpower it requires in terms of vocabulary and attention span (spoken as a dead tired mom).
- Strangers in a Strange Land – Archbishop Charles J. Chaput
Speaking of needing some intellectual chops to digest the content, this is one of those. I’m still making my way through the last 30% of this book, but am confident it’s not going to derail into insanity, so I recommend it with unbridled enthusiasm.
- God or Nothing – Robert Cardinal Sarah
If you disregard all of my recommendations and take a single book from this list, let it be this one. Trust me.
- The Christian Meaning of Human Sexuality – Paul M. Quay, S.J. (edited by Joseph Koterski, S.J)
This book is phenomenal. I’m about 2/3 of the way through it and just so deeply engaged by the material. He reminds me of a way, way more accessible JPII in terms of his grasp on married love and human sexuality. There is an updated chapter on NFP that I haven’t gotten to yet, but that alone was what convinced me that I absolutely had to get my hands on this book.
- The Holy Spirit, Fire of Divine Love – Fr. Wilfrid Stinissen
A beautiful meditation on the role of the Holy Spirit in the Christian life, and with practical guidance on how to cultivate a relationship with Him. It’s a slim little volume that makes a great prayer time read and can be picked up and read at random. It’s one of my go-to spiritual books now, in the vein of “Imitation of Christ” or “Introduction to the Devout Life.”
- Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis – J.D. Vance
A must read for any Steubenville grad (Ohio River Valley represent). This was a sad, fascinating, simultaneously hopeful and hopeless look at generational poverty in rural America/Appalachia.
- $2.00 a Day: Living on Almost Nothing in America – Kathryn J. Edin and H. Luke Shaefer
Self explanatory and deeply sad. I couldn’t put it down.
- A Man Called Ove – Fredrik Backman
I loved this book. I loved its weirdness, its foreign cadence (the author is Swedish), and its dark and unexpected humor. The movie fell far short of the original, but perhaps the remake will deliver. I read it first and then handed it over to a skeptical Dave with a glowing recommendation. He ended up loving it, too.
- The Last Days of Night – Graham Moore
Historical fiction (but don’t yawn! Promise.) depicting the battle to electrify America. It’s a novelized telling of the adversarial and occasionally collaborative geniuses of Thomas Edison and Nikola Tesla. This was another one the husband read first and passed along, and I really enjoyed it.
- The End of the Affair – Graham Greene
Can’t believe this was on my “to read” list for so many years, but glad I finally took the plunge. Dark and gritty at times but not without purpose, if that makes sense? Not a book that could be written in 2017, due to a lack of both imagination and delicacy.
Borderline recs (proceed with caution depending upon sensitivity):
- Small Great Things – Jodi Piccoult
This was a hard read. A fair amount of graphic violence – but not unnecessary, which makes a big difference, in my book (ba dum ching). I thought certain stereotypes/literary techniques were a bit overwrought, but the author was intentionally belaboring the point to get our attention. And it worked.
- The Bookshop on the Corner – Jenny Colgan
I was super enjoying this book and then, I kid you not, it got reaaaaaaaal raunchy for about 3 minutes at the end. Like, so abruptly that I thought my Kindle had freaked out and opened another book by mistake. If you can skim past the questionable stuff that barrels out of left field in the very end, it was a charming little novel that I’d have liked to include in my”Fiction Lite” category.
- Truly, Madly, Guilty – Liane Moriarty
I want to love her stuff, because she’s a talented writer, but she really likes to sprinkle in the raunchy sex scenes. This book almost avoids that entirely, and ends up being what I’d categorize as an engaging lite mystery thriller. Also I’m 90% sure she was raised Catholic, so she just can’t help herself with the self-effacing references to Catholic guilt.
- The Year of Living Danishly – Helen Russell
I loooooved this book. I’m a sucker for self-chronicled cultural immersion documentaries, and she did a fantastic job narrating her year in Denmark. (However, there is an entire chapter you can skip right over. And you’ll know which one it is when you get there.)
- Before We Visit the Goddess – Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni
I can’t remember why I’m putting this one in the “recommends with reservation” category except, oh, actually, now I do remember, it’s the gay neighbor whose relationship is delved into with a bit of unnecessary detail, plus some domestic violence. But if you love India like I do, you’ll enjoy this one.
- Sleeping Giants – Sylvain Neuvel
This was deliciously weird sci-fi with the most intriguing plot twist. There is a smattering of dull, unnecessary raunch (extra-marital sex) but the book is too good to miss.
And there you have it: the titles that made the cut to the “yeah, you should read this” list in my literary wanderings over the past year. I’m going to leave this as a living document of sorts and plan to update it with new reads as I review them, so hopefully it becomes a helpful resource and perhaps even a good Christmas gift guide.
*not responsible for lost sleep resulting from addictive page turning nature.