His Dark Materials

By Philip Pullman. Trilogy includes The Golden Compass published in 1995, The Subtle Knife in 1997 and The Amber Spyglass in 2000.

Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy is supposedly for “young adults,” teenagers, but the three books are so compelling, so powerful and thought-provoking and heartfelt, that they certainly should not be limited to a single age bracket. With beautifully drawn characters and a taut, suspenseful plot, the fantasy series makes for an electric, enjoyable read, and yet ultimately, the books are profoundly serious. As the story unfolds, Pullman’s true audacity becomes apparent: He has written a strange kind of sequel to Paradise Lost — unabashedly heretical but undeniably hopeful. By no means should teenagers have a monopoly on these books.

Prep

By Curtis Sittenfeld. Published in 2005.

Am I ever going to get to the point where I can read about the torments of adolescence without suffering flashbacks? I couldn’t ever make it through more than 10 pages of Curtis Sittenfeld’s story of a hyper-self-conscious teenage girl without having to set the book aside for a while, to remind myself that I’m 26 now and should be past this stuff.

Prep, Sittenfeld’s debut novel, has its faults. The plot meanders lazily, and Sittenfeld sometimes relies too heavily on stereotypes when sketching minor characters. That said, her portrait of the neurotic loner as a young woman is so spot-on, so well-observed, so fully realized, that it makes the book's flaws look utterly inconsequential.

The Penelopiad

By Margaret Atwood. Published in 2005.

Some parents worry about whether reading the original Grimm fairy tales to children is appropriate. My mother was not one of those people. In fact, she went a step further: She read Greek myths to my younger brother and me. Greek myths match Grimm's violence and add sex for good measure. We grew up on stories of young women fleeing lustful gods, children cut down to punish their irreverent parents, and unfortunate mortals turned into bears, stags and trees by vengeful deities — and we loved it.

I always gravitated to the myths and legends about strong women, so Penelope, wife of Odysseus, both impressed and frustrated me. Penelope stood up to the legion of suitors who sought to win her hand — and her throne — in her husband's long absence following the Trojan War. She put them off with clever deceptions and sheer will, but Odysseus simply didn't seem worth the trouble to me. He was unfaithful, selfish and smug, and I felt quite sure that wise, loyal Penelope could do better.

Margaret Atwood seems to have similarly mixed feelings about Penelope, whose story she retells in The Penelopiad.

Kindred

By Octavia Butler. Published in 1979. 

When writer Octavia Butler died a few months ago, her obituaries intrigued me. They described how she used science fiction to discuss individuality and conformity, outsiders and insiders, history, identity, and humanity — all from her nearly unique perspective in the genre as a black woman. This, I thought, was writing I wanted to experience.

Other people must have had the same thought because the library had a waiting list for Kindred, Butler's best-known book. It was worth the wait. Kindred is a perfect example of the best kind of science fiction: The fantastical traits of the genre are not themselves the point but simply a way to get at genuine truths from a perspective realism couldn't achieve.

Saving Fish from Drowning

By Amy Tan. Published in 2006.

I adore the title of Amy Tan’s latest book. Her titles are usually more descriptive — The Joy Luck Club, The Kitchen God’s Wife, The Bonesetter’s Daughter — but Saving Fish from Drowning is a conceptual title, darkly funny and delicately hinting at one of the main themes of the novel.

Saving Fish from Drowning is about a group of American tourists who disappear while on vacation in Myanmar, also known as Burma. Narrating the story is Bibi Chen, the woman who organized the trip but who died under mysterious circumstances shortly before their departure. Bibi follows the group as a unseen spirit and relates not only what happens and what people say but also what people think and feel. Tan’s use of Bibi is brilliant; it allows her to employ an omniscient narrator while still telling the story — and commenting on it — from a single person’s distinct perspective.