Good books for an adult new to reading novels
December 15, 2010 5:22 AM   Subscribe

Looking for book recommendations for my 20 year old sister who has just realised that reading can be fun.

She's bright and capable, but I don't think she really thinks of herself as a 'reader' (that's my other sister and me). I'd like to get her something one step better written than most chick lit so she gets a sense of what's out there, but not so literary it seems inaccessible to her and scares her off.

I'm thinking perhaps of a well-written modern love story, preferably one where the female lead/s are interesting in their own right rather than a prop for a male character. Open to other suggestions though.

No fantasy, sci-fi, vampires, dialect or 'old-fashioned' language, please - pretty sure they're not her thing at this stage.
posted by une_heure_pleine to Media & Arts (55 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: I've heard good things about I Am Charlotte Simmons by Tom Wolfe, and it seems to fit some of your criteria. I haven't read it myself, but a friend of mine whose opinions on respect on this subject loved it when he read it a couple years ago, so YMMV.
posted by King Bee at 5:27 AM on December 15, 2010

The Time Traveller's Wife. The no-fantasy readers I know all enjoyed it.
posted by jeather at 5:31 AM on December 15, 2010 [5 favorites]

I was surprisingly taken by The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society - while set in the past, it s a sweet, uplifting (and short!) love story.

In the vein of traditional "chick lit" I think Sarah Dunn writes some of the wittiest and best-written ones out there. Check her out.
posted by bookgirl18 at 5:38 AM on December 15, 2010 [1 favorite]

the pillars of the earth switches perspectives from character to character (with some strong female characters in there) but its a book you can absolutely devour.
posted by nanhey at 5:39 AM on December 15, 2010 [1 favorite]

A lot of people's "one step up from chick lit" is something like Jodi Picoult. The endings are usually pretty predictable, but the writing is really compelling.
posted by decathecting at 5:44 AM on December 15, 2010 [1 favorite]

The God of Small Things takes a little while to get into but is a very worthwhile read.
posted by MuffinMan at 5:46 AM on December 15, 2010 [1 favorite]

Oops. Just reread. It does contain some dialect.
posted by MuffinMan at 5:47 AM on December 15, 2010

Seconding Time Traveller's Wife, which definitely fits the "well-written modern love story with interesting female lead" description. But I'll add the caveat that it can be a little confusing (not because of the language but because it, rather unsurprisingly, involves a lot of jumping around in the timeline), so if your sister is the kind of person who will encounter a complex/ambiguous storyline, throw her hands up in the air, and say "I'm too stupid to understand this," it might not go over that well.
posted by pluckemin at 5:47 AM on December 15, 2010 [1 favorite]

Oh, and Elizabeth Berg and Lorrie Moore are two more authors who write good female-oriented literature. I'd say Lorrie Moore is a bit further towards the literature end of the spectrum, but they both write complex female leads whose problems aren't just "slipping on the breakroom floor in front of that cute guy who works in the advertising department."
posted by pluckemin at 5:54 AM on December 15, 2010 [2 favorites]

Wise Children by Angela Carter. She's an amazing writer and the book is a riot, and probably her most accessible. I loved it at 16 and still do at 26. No dialect with the exception of a bit of South London vernacular and a very strong female lead character.
posted by corvine at 6:00 AM on December 15, 2010

Oh, if you're leaning towards Audrey Niffenegger, her latest book, Her Fearful Symmetry, is also very good, and much more linear.
posted by decathecting at 6:01 AM on December 15, 2010

Best answer: I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith might fit her requirements, especially the fantastic female protagonist - actually great characters in general.
posted by SymphonyNumberNine at 6:01 AM on December 15, 2010 [3 favorites]

Maybe some books by Isabel Wolff, especially The Trials of Tiffany Trott. I don't remember any dialect, and it is quite a fun read. Bonus points: if she likes it, there are others in the same vein.
posted by tweemy at 6:27 AM on December 15, 2010

Marian Keyes is considered chick lit but her books are legitimately good. She's a step far above everyone else I've read in that genre.
posted by something something at 6:45 AM on December 15, 2010 [1 favorite]

Bridget Jones' Diary was a well received book before it was a movie...

The Secret History is well written, but basically a fun murder mystery type story (or, I forget, maybe not so much a mystery as a "thriller"... not a whodunit, but a what-are-we-gonna-do...)
posted by mdn at 6:51 AM on December 15, 2010 [1 favorite]

One Day, by David Nicholls. A very fun read with a picture in the works. How about Little Children, by Tom Perotta? I love Lorrie Moore, mentioned above, but did not start reading her until my mid-twenties--maybe because she's my contemporary and was just staring to write!

At 20, most of what I read fell into the category of the classics, which are in no way boring.

To Kill a Mockingbird?
The Great Gatsby?

Some of the people who spend enormous amounts of time on their Amazon reviews also compile lists of very specific types of books. Go look.

And one last book, maybe out of print, but if you read what people say about it, a great read for a young woman. (I was thirteen and never forgot it.) The Little Girl who Lives Down the Lane

By the way, I think it's great that you want to encourage your sister to read. A great gift.
posted by emhutchinson at 7:14 AM on December 15, 2010

Chiming in to second The Time Traveller's Wife very very hard. I hate SciFi and fantasy and it never even occurred to me that it might be characterised as fantasy. It's just a very good, engaging and wonderful contemporary novel.
posted by DarlingBri at 7:16 AM on December 15, 2010

See Jane Run by Joy Fielding is a thriller with a strong, realistic female protagonist.
posted by saucysault at 7:22 AM on December 15, 2010

It's written by a man, but it is solidly in the chick lit category, and fun, easy to read and well written to boot:
Cassandra French's Finishing School for Boys

No, it is not porn. No, it is not S&M.
Despite the cover pictures, it has remarkably little sex in it.
This could be a plus or a minus, depending on your sister.
posted by SLC Mom at 7:39 AM on December 15, 2010

Best answer: I Am Charlotte Simmons is a good read, but it's almost 700 pages. Will that scare her off? If not, this might be a good place for her to start because of potential parallels between herself and the protagonist.

(Ah, there's nothing like a good long book in which to get lost!)
posted by heathergirl at 7:41 AM on December 15, 2010

She might enjoy high-quality YA literature, and it'd be a good stepping stone for more complicated, adult fiction stories. John Green is "can't put down" material for me, and it's smart while remaining very accessible. His protagonists are all male, but that hasn't stopped many young and adult women from enjoying them. Looking for Alaska is a great place to start. Paper Towns is also very good. An Abundance of Katherines is more comedic than the other two, which are more dramatic--but it's also my favorite and very, very good.
posted by litnerd at 7:42 AM on December 15, 2010 [1 favorite]

Best answer: 20 is around the age that a lot of people find books that are "life-changing" of sorts...that sounds weird I guess...but there are some books that really speak to people in their late teens/early 20's. For instance, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius was very important to me in college, but I wouldn't recommend it for someone in their 30's or older.

There are a lot of "chick" books that I really like that have interesting female leads. Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood is one - fun, expressive, spunky characters. Also Summer Sisters by Judy Blume (one of her few adult novels) really captured to me childhood female friendships.

Has she read Eat, Pray, Love? It's definitely trendy but there is something to that trend.

She'd probably really enjoy The Help. The main character is awesome, plus it gives you a lot to think about.
posted by radioamy at 7:51 AM on December 15, 2010 [3 favorites]

nthing The Time Traveler's Wife, The Guernsey Potato Peel Society and Bridget Jones Diary. If you think she might like really funny memoirs, A Girl Named Zippy is hilarious. Another option for strong female lead are the The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo series.

Barbara Kingsolver is another author you might look into - Prodigal Summer or The Bean Trees. Fannie Flagg writes very accessible fiction - Fried Green Tomatoes or Welcome to the World, Baby Girl. Gap Creek by Robert Morgan is great. Plainsong by Kent Haruf - oh I could go on all day!

She has so much to look forward to! Kinda jealous.
posted by lvanshima at 7:55 AM on December 15, 2010 [1 favorite]

Also - although they contain some foreign dialect, the No 1 Ladies' Detective Agency series are an easy and enjoyable read.
posted by MuffinMan at 8:29 AM on December 15, 2010 [1 favorite]

I have to cast a dissenting vote for I Am Charlotte Simmons. Do NOT give her this book. It was pretty terrible -- full of stereotypes, not well written, and with an absolutely awful ending. It's simply not worth reading, and especially not worth gifting to someone who's just discovered their love of books.

I'm in the middle of Prep by Curtis Sittenfeld, which has a similar feel -- instead of focusing on a college freshman, it's about a girl attending boarding school -- without all the things that made Charlotte Simmons bad. It feels much more real and relatable, whereas Charlotte Simmons felt like an unrealistic caricature of what Tom Wolfe thinks college is supposed to be like.

Also, take heed of the many recommendations for the Time-Traveler's Wife. Though it may be ambitious for a 'new' reader, it's excellent. And The Guernsey Potato Peel Pie Society is one of the most charming books I've ever read, so that gets an extra nudge from me too.
posted by phatkitten at 8:33 AM on December 15, 2010 [3 favorites]

I came to say Marian Keyes too, but start with "The Other Side of the Story" or "Sushi for Beginners". Some of the others are about rehab or abuse or other topics that aren't what you want.

Love Time Traveller's Wife too.
posted by artychoke at 8:55 AM on December 15, 2010

Kurt Vonnegut.
posted by sunshinesky at 9:09 AM on December 15, 2010

The Perks of Being a Wallflower.
posted by ClaudiaCenter at 9:13 AM on December 15, 2010

Gravity's Rainbow. hahahaha. j/k

Seriously though, what about the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo? It's crap, per se, but very readable
posted by georg_cantor at 9:41 AM on December 15, 2010

I think she might enjoy Diana Gabaldon's Outlander series, which has a fascinating and strong female lead, and lots of history. (Female lead starts as an army field nurse and progresses to an MD head of surgery, if I remember right.) Really, Gabaldon is a very engrossing writer. I've read plenty of insipid Harlequin romances and even more classic fiction, and I think Gabaldon is what you are looking for.
posted by Knowyournuts at 9:41 AM on December 15, 2010 [1 favorite]

I completely withdraw my comment. Apologies.
posted by georg_cantor at 9:42 AM on December 15, 2010

Little Bee.
posted by bobafet at 10:12 AM on December 15, 2010 [1 favorite]

The Sixteen Pleasures by Robert Hellenga.
posted by MCMikeNamara at 10:19 AM on December 15, 2010

Geek Love will be unlike anything she's ever seen on TV, and I bet she won't be able to put it down. Also, I don't think anybody could fail to enjoy The Last Samurai.
posted by flabdablet at 11:40 AM on December 15, 2010

I'm in the middle of reading Little Bee right now and was going to chime in with that. It's not really my cup of tea - I actually prefer all the things your sister doesn't want. But this is a very readable book with a super-traditional narrative structure, with a slightly twisty way of revealing the details. The switching perspectives between the two protagonists also paves the way for more challenging stuff down the road.

If she likes Little Bee, I'd suggest both The Poisonwood Bible (frankly I think Cleave quite clearly ripped off Poisonwood to write Little Bee, but that's neither here nor there) and Tracks. Actually, she'd probably like Louise Erdrich's work quite a bit, even if she doesn't get into the "multiple narrative perspectives" trope.

I was also surprised at that age to discover that a lot of the boring, dusty old literature I'd tried so hard to avoid in high school was actually really enjoyable. I remember especially digging Emma - though the prose is crunchier than your average Danielle Steel novel. I think as long as you skip the real snoozefests and the more conceptually difficult stuff (Kafka, Dostoevsky, etc), there's a lot of 19th century literature that could be right up her alley. Weirdly enough, Anna Karenina was one of the first non-YA novels I ever read; it's a lot to bite off, but it's not really terribly difficult to read.
posted by Sara C. at 11:53 AM on December 15, 2010

Best answer: I second anything Barbara Kingsolver, Bridget Jones (both the original and the sequel are really fun, even though the second movie is total crap), and also The Perks of Being a Wallflower - the latter is more teen/YA lit but my non-reader sister borrowed my copy when she was around your sister's age and really loved it. I also love Nick Hornby to bits when I'm in the mood for a good but easy read - About a Boy and How To Be Good are great and less music nerd oriented than some of his other ones, and his latest, Juliet Naked, while nerdier, was fun too, if a bit thin. I also endorse Margaret Atwood's non-sci-fi (oh I'm sorry, Ms. Atwood, speculative fiction) books like Cat's Eye and Alias Grace - literary, but not extremely difficult reads.
posted by naoko at 11:53 AM on December 15, 2010 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I also endorse Margaret Atwood's non-sci-fi (oh I'm sorry, Ms. Atwood, speculative fiction) books like Cat's Eye and Alias Grace - literary, but not extremely difficult reads.

I love Margaret Atwood, and I love Cat's Eye and Alias Grace (along with her speculative fiction work...), but I wouldn't recommend them, and especially these two books, to a new reader. They're both very long, sluggish reads. She should read them, no doubt, but work her way up to them--a new reader may not have the patience for Atwood's narrative style.
posted by litnerd at 12:04 PM on December 15, 2010

Margaret Atwood: exceptional female characters, canonical literature which is still engaging, and there's lots out there if she does get into it. Maybe The Handmaid's Tale to start with?
posted by Pomo at 12:05 PM on December 15, 2010 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Memoirs of a Geisha! It's kinda long, but it moves really quickly, and the language is quite accessible.

I'm going to tentatively recommend NOT Pillars of the Earth; I'm a huge book nerd and am having a lot of trouble slogging through it. It has bright spots, but also a lotttt of, well, boring stuff. Also, not Girl with the Dragon Tattoo at this point; once the story picks up it's a great thriller, but it takes a LONG time for the story to pick up.

Nthing Barbara Kingsolver (The Bean Trees is great), Time-Traveller's Wife, Number One Lady's Detective Agency.
posted by sarahsynonymous at 12:10 PM on December 15, 2010

a new reader may not have the patience for Atwood's narrative style

Yeah, you may be right - save these for a bit later!
posted by naoko at 12:11 PM on December 15, 2010

Marge Piercy's Gone To Soldiers is amazing and accessible.
posted by cyndigo at 12:28 PM on December 15, 2010

What did she read that made her get more into reading? I think answering that would help tailor suggestions. Sorry if I missed it in the post --
posted by sweetkid at 12:35 PM on December 15, 2010

Romance novels are awesome, and the very best of the contemporaries include Jennifer Crusie's Bet Me, which I reread annually. It's not "chick lit" but it is delightful (my ex-boyfriend loved it too). Romance novels are very popular for a reason, damnit.
posted by jenlovesponies at 12:50 PM on December 15, 2010

I'm kinda of surprised no one recommended The Hunger Games trilogy yet. Strong female lead, includes a love story along with an interesting plot, it's a page turner, and it's young adult so it's an easy read. It's a trilogy, but the first book stands pretty well on it's own too.
posted by geeky at 12:59 PM on December 15, 2010

I'll second An Abundance of Katherines.

While I have loved Time-Traveller's wife, Barbara Kingsolver, and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, I think they're all a bit much for a beginner.
I'd go with something like one of Eva Ibbotson's YA romances (originally in the adult section, they've been re-marketed), like A Countess Below Stairs (284 pages, easy but well-written). If you're willing to edge away from romance at all, I highly recommend The Spellman Files by Lisa Lutz. I'm giving it to a few parents I know at Christmas because it's enjoyable to read even a page or two at a time. It's like reading Veronica Mars if she was drunk most of the time.
posted by Margalo Epps at 5:51 PM on December 15, 2010

Is your sister a beginning reader (i.e. reading at an elementary level which would indicate some YA or limiting the "grownup" books to the most simple stuff available), or is she a beginning reader of novels for pleasure?

This is a really important distinction that will make all the difference in what we can recommend.
posted by Sara C. at 7:27 PM on December 15, 2010

Response by poster: Thanks folks, some great stuff here (and a few I'm going to follow up for me!). I've marked some best answers, but happy to take more.

Charlotte Simmons, A Heartbreaking Work..., Memoirs of a Geisha, and the Nick Hornby suggestions are all particularly interesting ideas.

To clarify, she's not a beginning reader (most of the way through a uni degree) but just new to reading novels outside the 'I have to read this for English class' paradigm. Complexity's not a problem per se, but I don't want this to either feel like hard work, or to put her off an author that she might otherwise come to like later on (e.g. Kingsolver or Atwood) once her tastes have broadened.
posted by une_heure_pleine at 4:37 AM on December 16, 2010

The Perks of Being a Wallflower.

I read this at sixteen and fucking hated it. But many do not.

Emily Perkins is a contemporary Aussie author who writes good female characters. I particularly liked The New Girl - like a Judy Blume for adults. I'd also recommend Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit - yes, it's literary, but if you ignore that it's a great female-centric novel. I read that at the same time as Wallflower and it was like following beef flavoured crisps with a Wagyu steak.

Many have recommended chick lit flavoured books - I'd add Adriana Trigiani's Big Stone Gap series. I'm a sucker for tales of ordinary folk in the Midwest/rural US (I like Sheri Holman and Tom Perotta in much the same way) and Ave Maria is a very real and very independent lady.

Also, what about biographies or autobiographies? I really enjoyed Julie and Julia - it was fun even for someone who didn't grow up with Julia Child. Rhona Cameron's 1979 is another that reads as smoothly as fiction.
posted by mippy at 8:23 AM on December 16, 2010

For what it's worth, if your sister is in college I'd not worry about the "difficulty" of either Margaret Atwood or Barbara Kingsolver. They're not hard books. Margaret Atwood can be hard to sink into at first - she's not the sort of writer who has you sucked in on page 10, wondering What Will Happen Next. But there's nothing actively challenging to read in any of her books that I've come across so far. And Kingsolver is just brilliant all around, as far as I'm concerned.
posted by Sara C. at 8:32 AM on December 16, 2010

The Girl's Guide to Hunting and Fishing by Melissa Banks. Aimee Bender, Elizabeth McCracken, Gina Berriault, and Amy Hempel.

Also, it's a kid's book but she might dig A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith.

For bordering on the cheese, there's Georgette Heyer.
posted by ifjuly at 8:49 AM on December 16, 2010

The Time Traveler's Wife, while mostly well-written, will infuriate your sister if she is a logical thinker. If she can totally suspend reality and is fine with the rules being written on the fly, it will probably be fine. I know two people who were angered by that book - myself and Mr. Getawaysticks.

Nthing The Help. Great book.
posted by getawaysticks at 6:24 AM on December 17, 2010

2nd-ing The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins and Looking for Alaska by John Green. Really good YA just might be the perfect thing for stoking the reading fire to keep it going for a good long time.
posted by magnoliacoffee at 4:03 AM on December 20, 2010

Second Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop and Judy Blume's Summer Sisters.

I'd recommend some Sarah Waters (very Dickensonian), especially Fingersmith. It's slightly more of an interesting read, and there are some stylistic features to maybe even study for.

If she's into poetry, I think Elizabeth Barrett Browning's Aurora Leigh makes a wonderful read, albeit not so much a love story. However, Barrett Browning had a bunch of semi-autobiographical famous love poems. Christina Rossetti ("Goblin Market") and Emily Dickson have many poems featuring heroines.

I'd also recommend Lucy Maud Mongomery's The Story Girl, Daphne du Maurier's Rebecca and Frances Burney's Evelina, Samuel Richardson's Pamela.

Other than that, many find Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights, Tess of d'Urbervilles and Mary Barton highly enjoyable.

(I don't know why I must state this, some do contain some gender issues and homosexual contents, just so people don't get offended)
posted by easilyconfused at 12:51 AM on March 19, 2011

In the future, if she finds literature enjoyable and gets more used to, Virginia Woolf could be another challenging choice. Personally, I don't think Margaret Atwood would be so hard even for beginners. After all, Ms. Atwood is very post-modern, and doesn't use archaic language or inverted syntax that much compared to, say, Marie de France?

While some recommendations have very good contents, they could be quite baffling at first sight. I know some people might disagree with these seemingly baffling recommendations, but reading for leisure should be a lot easier just to get the plot out of novels/plays/poems. Personal interest, and reading at a self-set flexible/comfortable pace would help a lot then, say, reading for school. Some even consider the more you analyze (or maybe the right term is ponder over) it, the more fun it becomes. :)
posted by easilyconfused at 1:02 AM on March 19, 2011

Oh, btw, memoirs/auto-biographies are a lot easier to read than fiction. I'd add Susanna Kaysen's Girl, Interrupted, and autobio on any public figure that your sister is interested in to the list too.
posted by easilyconfused at 1:06 AM on March 19, 2011

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