Know Your Nerds: Kristen’s Top 5 Books

As Peder talked about in his post last week, we thought it would be fun to do a few highlight lists to help you guys get to know us better, hear what we think about our favorite things, and trade recommendations with y’all. Peder shared a great list of his favorite books last week, and now it’s my turn!

As any book-lover knows, narrowing your favorites down to a small list is HARD. I think I’ve managed it, but just as Peder did, I’ve included a couple of series rather than just single books. I agree with his opinion that some series are just too good to separate out, and that it generally makes more sense to look at them as a single unit rather than individual books.

So without further ado–here are my top 5!

5. Outlander and Dragonfly in Amber 

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Some of you may be familiar with the recent Starz show based on this series by Diana Gabaldon, though not as many may have read the books. I’m here to tell you that they’re worth it — with some caveats.

I first started reading these books at the recommendation of a friend a few years ago, and right from the start, they sucked me in like crazy (it helped that I was unemployed and fresh out of college at the time, but still). There’s a lot going on in these books, and they kind of defy categorization — they’re historical fiction, romance, and time-travel sci-fi all at once. What I like most about them, beyond their arresting quality, is the way the characters just feel so real — it’s like they could just jump off the page and start talking to you at any moment. The way they behave feels, for the most part, like the way real people would behave under the same circumstances, and they make just as many questionable decisions and have just as many foibles and failings as those of us in the real world.

However, there’s a reason I only listed the first two books here, instead of the whole series — the first one is fantastic, the second one is quite good, and the third one is decent, but it starts to go off the rails a bit in that one, and meanders off into “let’s explore the daily minutiae of the protagonists’ lives” from that point on. They’re still arguably worth reading, but the first two are definitely the strongest.

Lastly, an important note on these — the whole series has a lot, and I mean a lot, of strong violence and sexuality (not as much as Game of Thrones and things of that ilk, maybe, but…it’s up there), so if those things tend to turn you off, best to steer clear.

4. Ella Enchanted 

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File this one under “best fairy tale adaptations ever.” I absolutely adore this book–my number of re-reads is probably approaching 20 at this point (no joke), and I bought a new copy at one point because my original one was falling apart. As you might guess from the name, it’s a retelling of Cinderella. In this version, our heroine is struggling under a well-intentioned but actually horrible faerie spell that forces her to obey any and every order she’s given, no matter what it is. Ella spends most of the story fighting against her curse and trying to figure out how to finally break it and be free.

This story is YA at its best — it has a spunky heroine who manages to be her own person in spite of seemingly insurmountable obstacles, and who is both likeable and believable in the bargain. This book hits all the sweet spots for me, and I can’t get enough of it, even now, a good 13 or so years after my first reading of it.

3. Pride and Prejudice 

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I’ve read quite a few great classics by now, but this one consistently rises to the top. I have a hard time picking my favorite Austen novel, to be honest, but in the end, this one is it, even if it’s a bit of an obvious choice.

Strangely enough, I fell in love with this book by seeing the movie first. I watched the 2005 adaptation soon after it came out, and, well — I may have liked period pieces before that time, but after, I was a goner. And I think knowing the story somewhat before reading the book was a good idea — I often find that this helps me understand classics, especially ones with more unfamiliar language, better than I would have otherwise, and I end up getting more out of them because of that.

Such was the case with Pride and Prejudice — however, it still took many years and several re-readings before I truly understood and appreciated this book’s greatness. As any seasoned Austen aficionado will tell you, Austen’s M.O. is to present a seemingly benign tableau of everyday life in the English countryside but slowly reveal that it’s just a veneer that hides the sheer ridiculousness of people who value propriety and strive to keep up appearances above all else — even at the expense of those around them.

P&P is no different. Amid the varied cast of characters, nobody — not even the protagonist, Lizzie Bennet — is safe from the vagaries of polite society and its ability to make fools of everyone. Beyond being a great social commentary that still manages to be relevant 200 years later, it’s full of some of the most wonderful and memorable characters in literature. On top of that, the story is just straight up funny — once you get the hang of Austen’s writing style, you start appreciating the constant jokes she makes at her characters’ expense, both lovingly and otherwise, and you’ll notice more every time you re-read it (believe me, you’ll want to).

2. The Chronicles of Narnia 

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I had to go with another series for this one–when it comes to these books, I’m notorious for always saying, “oh, I like this one best…no wait, that one’s my favorite…no, wait, hang on…”. There’s something I like about every book in this series, and since it’s impossible to pick which one I love most, I’m looking at them as a unit.

Quite simply, this was the first book series that really changed me, the first that made me realize just how transformative and inspiring books can be. It’s the first set of books I can think of that let me understand things I had always sort of thought but had never been able to articulate before. I first started reading them when I was about 9 or 10, and they’ve never moved from the top of my list of favorites since then. Beyond the groundbreaking fantastical elements and great characters, there are just so many great takeaways from the stories. I consistently find myself thinking of the courageous, comforting, inspiring, and convicting moments that the books are full of. To me, the mark of a good story is one I can fall back on when times are tough, and I find myself doing so with these books without even trying.

The series have (rightly, for the most part) gotten a lot of flak for being full of heavy-handed allegory and having some problematic aspects in terms of the way they deal with race and gender. It’s important to be aware of these elements, but I don’t think they ruin the series. Of course, since I come from the same faith background as the author, I resonate with the allegorical aspect, though some might find it grating. The problematic elements are tougher–some of it can be explained by the fact that C.S. Lewis was a product of the time in which he wrote, but it’s still troubling. However, I don’t think books with this kind of content should be avoided — even if I didn’t love the series, I’d think it was important to engage with it in order to be fully aware of what things used to be like, and how far we’ve come since then.

In short, like all series, it’s not perfect — but it’s always called out something me that didn’t have a voice before, and I’ll always hold these books in high esteem because of that.

1. Lord of the Rings (with The Hobbit riding in a sidecar) 

I know I’m overlapping with Peder here (it’s like we’re married or something, jeez), but there’s no way this series can occupy anything else than the top spot in my book-loving heart, so here it stays.

I love this series for so many reasons, but chief among them is the fact that, like any great story does, these books tell me the truth about life, love, and everything in between. Not the truth in the sense that this stuff really happened (I wish…), but in the sense that it helps the reader to better understand reality through the lens of a legendary fantastical world. No series has more lines in it that I just want to carry around in my brain at all times and the overall story is just full of so much depth and wisdom. Some shy away from these books because of Tolkein’s somewhat meandering, overly descriptive way of writing, but these things have never bothered me — as far as I’m concerned, it just means more to love. I get something new out of the plot and the character development every time I read these books, and I look forward to many more re-readings in the future.

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Like Peder, I couldn’t quite narrow my list down to five — so, a few honorable mentions: Harry Potter by J.K. Rowling, The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins, Impossible by Nancy Werlin, Redeeming Love by Francine Rivers, Keeping the Moon by Sarah Dessen

So which of these have you read? Did you love them as much as I did? What are some other books you’ve read and loved?

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2 Replies to “Know Your Nerds: Kristen’s Top 5 Books”

  1. I keep meaning to tell you about this book series I heard of – I haven’t actually read it, but I read another book by the author that was really good, and the description of these other ones sounds pretty awesome, and right up your alley. It’s described as “the sort of tale we’d expect from Jane Austen… if she had lived in a world with magic.” The first book is Shades of Milk and Honey by Mary Robinette Kowal. You might check it out; I’m waiting on a copy from the library, myself.

  2. Ooh, I’ve heard of those! They sound so good, but I haven’t gotten around to them yet–thanks for bringing them back to my radar! Now I want to go find them ASAP…

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