It’s a big call, to try to compile a list of my favourite novels. I’ve somehow managed to narrow it down to 17 because I want to give you an idea of the sorts of book reviews you’re likely to find here on my website.
Whether a book is ‘good’ or not really comes down to a matter of individual taste. If you find some of your favourite books in this list too, then chances are you’ll also like some of the other books I recommend.
For me, a book is ‘good’ if it has:
- strong characters – no swooning women, thanks
- a compelling story that I can’t put down
- decent writing – though it doesn’t have to be high literature
- food for thought – I like to finish a book and have something to chew over in my mind.
This list isn’t in any particular order – ranking my favourite novels was just too hard – and I’ve split it into genres (some of which I may have kind of made up…) – speculative fiction, dystopia (which is technically a sub-genre of spec fic), humorous fantasty/sci fi, historical fiction and contemporary fiction.
1. The Time Traveler’s Wife, by Audrey Niffenegger (2003)
This is a love story that centres around the concept of time travel as an uncontrollable genetic disorder. This book is so intense, I absolutely loved it. I’ve read it twice.
Tip: The movie is, by comparison, awful. My advice would be to skip the movie altogether and just read the book.
2. Life of Pi, by Yann Martel (2001)
This is an incredible survival story of a young boy literally cast adrift at sea after a storm sinks the boat carrying his family. His companions are zoo animals – some friendly, some not.
It’s also so much more than that. Life of Pi is one of those books where you read to the end, then turn around and think, ‘Hang on, what?’, then feel like you want to go back and read it all over again.
3. The Handmaid’s Tale, by Margaret Atwood (1985)
I’m not sure this really needs any introduction, does it? I studied this at school in 1997 and it was as powerful for me then as it is now. And if you’re wondering – yes, the television series is awesome. I’m very much looking forward to seeing what path they choose to take in season 2.
4. The Hunger Games, by Suzanne Collins (2008)
This is a bit of a cheat – it’s really 3 books. I love this entire series. Not sure it needs much more introduction unless you’ve been living under a rock.
The movies for this series are actually really good as well.
5. World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War, by Max Brooks (2006)
Yes, okay, I know what you’re thinking – zombies, Bec? Really? But honestly, this book had me looking over my shoulder for days afterwards because it was so realistic. It’s written in journalistic style as though someone has actually been documenting what happened when the world was overtaken by a virus which turns people into zombies. Deeply political and absolutely terrifying, World War Z manages to make you believe it could actually happen.
Humorous fantasy/science fiction
6. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, by Douglas Adams (1995)
If you haven’t read this and you love intelligent Monty Python-style humour, but in space, get yourself a copy ASAP. Or just watch the movie, which is also very good.
7. The Eyre Affair, by Jasper Fforde (2001)
Intelligent humour with a really quite bizarre premise. Set in an alternate reality where literature is valued above almost everything else, it follows a detective – named Thursday Next – who must solve literary mysteries such as missing original manuscripts and manuscript forgeries. Oh, and the laws of physics don’t really apply either. Plus some story book characters are actually real.
It’s sheer madness but lots of fun and extremely well written.
8. All The Light We Cannot See, by Anthony Doerr (2004)
Reading All the Light We Cannot See was an incredible experience. It’s a book about World War II which isn’t really about the war. It’s about science and learning and childhood and growing up. It won the Pulitzer Prize for a very good reason. Read my full review here.
9. Year of Wonders, by Geraldine Brooks (2001)
This was Geraldine Brooks’ first foray into fiction writing after she moved over from journalism. I’m so glad she took the chance. It’s a fabulous novel about one small English village’s experience of the plague. Beautiful writing and a really great way to learn about history – from someone who is both an excellent writer and a solid researcher.
10. Burial Rites, by Hannah Kent (2013)
Based on the story of the last woman to receive the death penalty in nineteenth-century Iceland, Burial Rites is the imagined final weeks in the custody of a local family as the young woman’s recounts her life and the chain of events which lead to her being accused of murder.
It’s a very powerful story, and a harrowing insight into the poverty of nineteenth-century Iceland.
11. The Light Between Oceans, by M.L. Stedman (2012)
Set in a coastal town near post-WWII Perth, this is the heart-wrenching story of a living baby and a dead man washed up on the shore of a small island. The lighthouse keeper and his wife bury the man’s body and claim the baby as their own. But as the years roll by their decision has devastating consequences for everyone involved.
This is a story where every character’s decision are ultimately understandable and you’re never quite sure who you should be cheering for. There are no winners.
12. Slammerkin, by Emma Donoghue (2000)
It took me a ridiculously long to realise that Emma Donoghue is the same author who wrote the massive bestseller, Room. She’s one of those writers who can switch genres very successfully.
Slammerkin is historical fiction and is every bit as good as Room. It’s an epic story of a young girl in London who tries to escape poverty and winds up locked up in jail instead.
The visual impact of her surrendering her virtue for the sake of a beautiful red ribbon against the back drop of grey London has stayed with me for many years.
13. Wide Sargasso Sea, by Jean Rhys (1966)
I read this not long after I read Jane Eyre. Wide Sargasso Sea is the imagined story behind Mr Rochester’s mad wife, Martha. Told from ‘Martha’s’ point of view, it tells a very different version of events – one where Mr Rochester is the bad guy who is seduced by the tropics and tricks a young girl into coming with him to England. Then abandons her and locks her in his attic when she is driven mad by her circumstances.
It’s a powerful deconstruction and made me view Jane Eyre quite differently.
14. Five Quarters of the Orange, by Joanne Harris (2001)
I know, I know. I’m supposed to like Chocolat best. I’m a huge Joanne Harris fan and have read most of her books but this one is my favourite.
Five Quarters of the Orange is a darker story about a girl trying to survive her chronically ill mother in a time when there was very little support and medical treatment for migraines was in its infancy (though some would argue we haven’t come a particularly long way still).
15. The Fault in our Stars, by John Green (2012)
How could you not love this story? At first I assumed it was going to be a standard heart string-tugging teens have cancer story. But it’s not. There are plenty of twists and turns and so much wonderful philosophy. But make sure you have tissues – there are plenty of tugs at the heart strings still…
16. The Girl on the Train, by Paul Hawkins (2015)
I know opinion on this is mixed and to be honest I felt like just giving the main character a good shake for the first few dozen pages. But overall, I really loved this book.
17. The Lovely Bones, by Alice Sebold (2002)
I’m honestly not sure I could read this again now that I have my own children. And I still can’t believe that anyone could make such a beautiful book about a girl who is abducted, raped and murdered.
But that’s not really what this book is about. It’s about survival and coming to terms with a horrific event. And finding the beauty in life.