In chronological order of reading:
Beautiful Ruins (Jess Walter)
I found a copy of this novel in our Little Free Library. I tried reading it several times and kept putting it down... but it had so many positive reviews splashed on the cover (notably, a plug from Fresh Air's Maureen Corrigan, whom I love) that I felt like I couldn't give up. Once I got past the first chapter, I was sucked in. It's witty and entertaining while still being smart. The chapters alternate point of view and even genre — there's a romance that spans decades, a contemporary tale about a screenwriter attempting to Hollywood-ize the grisly Donnor Party story, a chapter from a war novel. After I read the book, I discovered it was actually the Centre County Reads novel of the year, and Jess Walter came to town for a talk! My colleague interviewed him. He was witty and entertaining and smart. <3
Station Eleven (Emily St. James Mandel)
I can't remember how I first heard of this book — maybe from one of the blogs I read. This may be the book I recommend the most widely. It's a dystopian novel that isn't caught up in its own drama. I found the unraveling of the world as we know it believable and thought-provoking.
The Martian (Andy Weir)
My brother-in-law, Luke, recommended this to me. Then one of my best friends from college visited us for a couple of days over the summer and she spent an entire night holed up reading this book instead of hanging out with me. When I read the book myself, I got it. It is so FUN. I love how inside-baseball Mark Watney gets about space botany. This would be the book I would recommend most unreservedly if not for 1) the profanity, which some people would not enjoy and 2) the fact that many people have probably already watched the movie.
State of Wonder (Ann Patchett)
For years, I had this book confused with Year of Wonders by Geraldine Brooks, which I had already read. When I finally figured out my mistake, I downloaded it for a plane ride and ended up reading it from cover to cover. It's a literary thriller that sucks you into its foreign — and feverishly surreal — world. When I finished, I almost felt like I needed to come up for air. As a former intercultural studies major, I got a kick out of the anthropological angle. While I'd recommend it, it certainly won't be everyone's cup of tea.
Fates and Furies (Lauren Groff)
I read this tome on a plane ride back to America and I wasn't tempted by the seat-back entertainment once (not that that's a surprise to anyone who knows me. I hate watching movies on airplanes). This is dark, disturbing, and brilliant. Lauren Groff writes beautifully (if a bit self-consciously. So many new vocab words!). The first half of the book tells the story of a husband; the second half of a wife. Although I liked one half of the book much better than the other, I have a feeling that was the point. I would recommend this carefully and with reservations. (Again, it's dark.)
Wonder (R.J. Palacio) I read this in one sitting after school when several students recommended it to me. It's a lovely book that teaches empathy. Recommend to all, young and old.
Gilead (Marilynne Robinson)
Some friends and I started a book club (something I've dreamed of doing my entire adult life) because we all wanted to read this book. I've actually owned and given away at least five copies of this book over the years (odd when I never read it myself, I know). The four of us in the book club had strikingly different perspectives on it (and liked it in varying degrees), which led to a lively discussion. The themes were quite moving to me and I found the writing, at times, profound. I'd recommend this with the caveat that it is not a page-turner in the traditional sense of the word.