For anyone ready to go beyond YA, here’s a list of books with crossover appeal, and I swear you will not be disappointed if you start with either of my two faves: The Magicians and Special Topics in Calamity Physics. Plenty more on this list to love just as much.
Special Topics in Calamity Physics by Marisha Pessl: The amazing thing about this book is that you think you are reading one type of novel, only to get to the end and realize you’ve missed the clues to an underlying, hidden plot. The relationship of Blue Van Meer and her father, Gareth, is at the heart of this story. Reminiscent of The Secret History by Donna Tartt, Blue spends her senior year at a new school in North Carolina where she becomes part of a small, sophisticated group of students led by their charismatic teacher.
The Magicians by Lev Grossman: Anyone who grew up obsessed with the Narnia books—thinking that just beyond any door lies the possibility of a magical world—will love the Magicians trilogy. Quentin, the main character, is exactly that kind of person. He grew up obsessed with the fictional magical kingdome of Fillory, and one day he makes the kind of discovery that every magic nerd would kill for: he finds out that Fillory, and magic, is real. He enrolls at Brakebills, a college for magicians, and proceeds to have some dark and twisted adventures as he discovers the world of magic isn’t quite what he expected.
All The Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr: This Pulitzer Prize winning novel is about Marie-Laure, a blind French girl, and Werner, a German boy whose paths collide in occupied France as both try to survive the devastation of World War II.
Water For Elephants by Sara Gruen: 93-year-old Jacob Jankowski relives his memories of his time in the Benzini Brothers circus during the Great Depression.
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time by Mark Haddon: Christopher is an autistic boy who loves puzzles. One morning, he discovers his neighbor's poodle dead, stabbed by a pitchfork, and he sets out to solve the mystery of who killed the dog—uncovering family secrets along the way.
The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald: Set on Long Island’s Gold Coast, this novel is a portrait of the Jazz Age in all of its decadence and excess. It’s a story of choices and of love that slipped away. Gatsby will do anything in his power to recreate the love he once shared with Daisy Buchanan.
Mr. Penumbra's 24 Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan: Set in San Francisco, Clay is an employee at Mr. Penumbra’s bookstore where he discovers the existence of a literary cult called the Unbroken Spine. He enlists the help of some friends to find answers to the secrets the Unbroken Spine has been seeking for centuries. This book is a fresh and inventive puzzle.
The Age of Miracles by Karen Thompson Walker: Told through 11-year-old Julia's eyes, this is an account of how "the Slowing," a catastrophic shift in the Earth's rotation, first began to affect the world. There are big changes—time shifts, drastic temperature fluctuations that lead to climate change, solar radiation and gravity sickness—as well as smaller changes to Julia's family relationships.
The Secret History by Donna Tartt: Richard is a new Classics major at Hampden College, and he studies with an unusual professor who has a large amount of influence over a small group of highly intelligent, sophisticated students. In search of authenticity, the group decides to engage in a Bacchanalian ritual that goes horribly wrong. Afterward, Richard and the other members of the group grapple with their consciences—or lack thereof.
The Martian by Andy Weir: A dust storm strands astronaut Mark Watney on Mars, essentially making him a castaway on an uninhabitable planet. This novel is the story of his rescue (it’s a great movie, too).
Wool by Hugh Howey: Many years in the future after our world has been destroyed, this book tells the story of a community inside a giant silo underground, hundreds of stories deep. The community has rules and barriers and procedures designed for the protection of all the silo’s citizens—or at least, that’s what everyone believed. Sheriff Holston, who has upheld the silo’s rules for years, unexpectedly breaks the greatest taboo of all: He asks to go outside. This act unleashes a series of events that cause everyone inside the silo to question everything they have ever known.
Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel: This is one of those novels where different stories intertwine through time, and they do so beautifully. A flu has wiped out civilization as we know it, and the survivors are forced to redefine survival. We see certain characters pre and post apocalypse, and at the center of the plot is the Traveling Symphony, a group of actors who move from town to town, performing Shakespeare plays. This isn’t a gritty account of the details of survival—it’s more about the larger question of what it means to really live.
The Art of Racing in the Rain by Garth Stein: Animal lovers will be drawn to this book, narrated by a dog named Enzo at the end of his life.
Game of Thrones (A Song of Ice and Fire, Book 1) by George R. R. Martin: Before the HBO series, there were these books—already the subject of their own obsessive fans. This fantasy series tells the story of the Seven Kingdoms and the rival families all fighting—murderously—for the Iron Throne of Westeros.
Redshirts by John Scalzi: This science fiction novel follows Ensign Andrew Dahl, newly assigned as a junior scientist onboard the Intrepid. Almost immediately he notices something strange: the support crew are very good at hiding, the away missions have an obscene amount of fatalities, and the officers always seemed to survive the most horrific of injuries and are back up within days ready to face the next away mission. Dahl is determined to find out what is going wrong on this ship and why certain crew are considered disposable, before the next away mission becomes his last.
A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki: It’s hard to do this book justice in a short summary, and we almost don’t want to try, at the risk of mangling our chance to tell you to read this book. There are so many threads in this book, expertly woven and beautifully described. It’s about a teenage girl in Japan, Nao, and the connection between her and Ruth, a writer in Vancouver—a relationship that exists only through Nao’s journal which Ruth has discovered after it washed up ashore. There’s suicide, hazing, quantum physics, love, and connection. There’s a Buddhist nun, a World War II kamikaze pilot, a family struggling under the weight of lies and cultural expectations—so many things that you would never think work together, yet somehow they do, amazingly.
Tell the Wolves I’m Home by Carol Rifka Brunt: June is a 14 year old girl in 1987 during the height of the AIDS epidemic. After her beloved uncle Finn dies, she forms a relationship with his boyfriend despite her family blaming him for Finn’s death. Finn was a famous painter, and his final painting of June and her sister could bring everyone together, or tear them apart.
Life of Pi by Yann Martel: Pi Patel is the son of a zookeeper, who decides to move the family and the animals from India to Canada. When the ship sinks, Pi is stranded on a liferaft with a hyena, a zebra, an orangutan and a Bengal tiger and he needs to use all his wits to survive.
When She Woke by Hillary Jordan: A Dystopian retelling of The Scarlet Letter. Hannah lives in a puritanical future where abortion is considered murder. Convicts are “chromed” instead of incarcerated: DNA is injected into their skin to turn it a different color depending on the crime. Hannah’s skin is red, for murder. Abandoned by her shamed parents, she is left to find her way in society alone as an outcast.
Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card: A science fiction novel with a huge following, but you don’t have to love science fiction to appreciate this book. In the future, the government breeds child geniuses and trains them as soldiers—starting in the form of games. Ender is chosen for Battle School, but his brother is deemed too cruel and his sister too soft. Ender rises in the ranks, groomed by adults, and his story is one of finding himself while he tries to save his family, and the Earth, from an alien attack.
Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail by Cheryl Strayed: Cheryl Strayed's memoir about hiking the Pacific Crest Trail on her own during the summer of 1995, and discovering herself along the way. Lots of great flashbacks and a hard look at responsibility and relationships. You'll root for her as she journeys on the trail and finds her inner strength.
A Visit From the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan: This book almost defies description. It’s not told chronologically or consistently through the same characters, and some of the chapters aren’t even written to look the way you expect chapters to look. It’s not even easy to determine if this is a series of short stories or a novel, yet everything comes together to form an amazing book about several different characters facing the passage of time (“the goon squad”) as their lives intersect.
We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler: There’s a reveal in this book that’s so important it changes everything—which makes reviewing it difficult. At its core, this is a story about family. Rosemary is one of three sisters, but when she was young, one of her sisters disappeared. She begins her story in the middle, with flashbacks to her childhood. It’s engrossing, unusual, and emotionally captivating.
Skippy Dies by Paul Murray: A tragicomedy set at an Irish boarding school. It’s not a spoiler to reveal that 16-year-old Skippy dies in a donut shop on the first few pages of the prologue. The bulk of this clever, darkly humorous tale is about everything that led up to his death. With 672 pages, it’s not a short book, but its definitely worth it.
The Devil's Teeth: A True Story of Obsession and Survival Among America's Great White Sharks by Susan Casey: Only 27 miles past San Francisco, the dangerous, uninhabited Farallon Islands— known as Devil’s Teeth—are the site of the white shark research project. You’ll never look at sharks the same way again after reading this vivid and up-close account.
Crazy For the Storm: A Memoir of Survival by Norman Ollestad: This unbelievable story is true! Norman Ollestad was only eleven years old when the small plane he was traveling on crashed into a snowy mountain. His father and the other two passengers were killed, and Norman had to summon the mental and physical strength to get himself down the mountain to safety. Younger readers of Gary Paulsen’s Hatchet will be amazed at how much this story parallels the plot of that novel.
In The Country We Love: My Family Divided by Diane Guerrero: Actress Diane Guerrero details what it was like for her as a fourteen year old when her family was deported in this non-fiction account.