My favourite books are the ones that take me on journeys deep into foreign destinations, diverse cultures, and alternate realities in the company of colourful characters; that make me question what it means to be human and what I would do in certain situations; that let me slip into someone else’s life and see the world through their eyes. I’m a sucker for a good story.
‘Story, as it turns out, was crucial to our evolution – more so than opposable thumbs. Opposable thumbs let us hang on; story told us what to hang on to.’
Lisa Cron, Wired For Story
I love reading so much that I used to write a book blog; but, it turned out that I didn’t enjoy reviewing books much. I only liked writing about the books I enjoyed – the ones that provoked, entertained, or struck me down.
I won’t write negative reviews anymore, but I do want to continue to share great books with you. So, I’ve put together this list of my all-time favourite novels.
Every one of these books has something special. Some are all about the plot; others have an interesting structure. Many of them have incredible characters, and a few have the setting as the main character. Not all of these books are funny or entertaining; some shine a light on sides of ourselves we’d rather keep hidden. All of them are great stories.
I’ve taken the book blurbs from Book Depository and the book title links in this post are affiliate links. If you click through them to make a purchase, I’ll earn a commission.
How to Stop Time by Matt Haig
This novel is quite simply a fantastic story. How To Stop Time spans centuries, jumping from one time period to the next as we get to know Tom. It’s rich in detail and depth. I read this book at a time when the ‘refugee crisis’ in Europe was all over the news and it highlighted something I’d been thinking about:
“The longer you live, the more you realise that nothing is fixed. Everyone will become a refugee if they live long enough. Everyone would realise their nationality means little in the long run. Everyone would see their worldviews challenged and disproved. Everyone would realise that the thing that defines a human being is being a human.” – Matt Haig, How To Stop Time
Blurb: ‘How many lifetimes does it take to learn how to live? Tom Hazard has a dangerous secret. He may look like an ordinary 41-year-old history teacher, but he’s been alive for centuries. From Elizabethan England to Jazz-Age Paris, from New York to the South Seas, Tom has seen it all. As long as he keeps changing his identity he can keep one step ahead of his past – and stay alive. The only thing he must not do is fall in love…’
Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood
I was blown away by Oryx and Crake. Atwood has a knack for bringing dystopian worlds to life. Most blurbs describe the book as an ‘unforgettable love story’. There is a love story in it; but, the book is about a world of segregation between the haves and have-nots, the ‘clean’ and ‘unclean’, the obedient and the rebels. It’s our world not too far in the future: living in security complexes, obsessed with being young and immortal, and eating genetically modified food that’s beyond recognition. Snowman, the narrator, makes a horrifying world feel normal which ultimately makes it that bit scarier. Atwood is a master storyteller.
Blurb: ‘From the #1 New York Times bestselling author of The Handmaid’s Tale Oryx and Crake is at once an unforgettable love story and a compelling vision of the future. Snowman, known as Jimmy before mankind was overwhelmed by a plague, is struggling to survive in a world where he may be the last human, and mourning the loss of his best friend, Crake, and the beautiful and elusive Oryx whom they both loved. In search of answers, Snowman embarks on a journey with the help of the green-eyed Children of Crake through the lush wilderness that was so recently a great city, until powerful corporations took mankind on an uncontrolled genetic engineering ride. Margaret Atwood projects us into a near future that is both all too familiar and beyond our imagining.’
The Dog Stars by Peter Heller
The Dog Stars is a fantastic story. Hig and Jasper are awesome characters. I loved that Hig’s dog, Jasper, got a bigger role in this novel than most pets do in other books I’ve read. Great story, characters, and detail make for a winning combination. There was also plenty of suspense, and let me tell you, I learned a thing or two about surviving the threat of other humans in the end times.
Blurb: ‘Hig somehow survived the flu pandemic that killed everyone he knows. Now his wife is gone, his friends are dead, and he lives in the hangar of a small abandoned airport with his dog, Jasper, and a mercurial, gun-toting misanthrope named Bangley. But when a random transmission beams through the radio of his 1956 Cessna, the voice ignites a hope deep inside him that a better life exists outside their tightly controlled perimeter. Risking everything, he flies past his point of no return and follows its static-broken trail, only to find something that is both better and worse than anything he could ever hope for.’
Neuromancer by William Gibson
For the time when Neuromancer was published, this is some seriously otherworldly stuff. Don’t be fooled into thinking this story will feel dated because it was published in the ’80s. We’re still not as techy as the Neuromancer, but it’s a world we can certainly imagine right now. It is visionary in its detail. The style, the dialogue, the characters, the whole book is fantastic. It’s dark and rough and cool. It’s cyberpunk and the first of its kind.
Blurb: ‘The sky above the port was the colour of television, tuned to a dead channel. William Gibson revolutionised science fiction in his 1984 debut Neuromancer. The writer who gave us the matrix and coined the term ‘cyberspace’ produced a first novel that won the Hugo, Nebula and Philip K. Dick Awards, and lit the fuse on the Cyberpunk movement. More than three decades later, Gibson’s text is as stylish as ever, his noir narrative still glitters like chrome in the shadows and his depictions of the rise and abuse of corporate power look more prescient every day. Part thriller, part warning, Neuromancer is a timeless classic of modern SF and one of the 20th century’s most potent and compelling visions of the future.’
Life After Life by Kate Atkinson
I haven’t read a book where the main character dies and lives again, over and over again, getting the opportunity to change their fate as Ursula does in Life After Life. The wartime parts were especially memorable. There’s something about the way Atkinson wrote this novel that makes it stay with me.
Blurb: ‘What if you had the chance to live your life again and again, until you finally got it right? During a snowstorm in England in 1910, a baby is born and dies before she can take her first breath. During a snowstorm in England in 1910, the same baby is born and lives to tell the tale. What if there were second chances? And third chances? In fact an infinite number of chances to live your life? Would you eventually be able to save the world from its own inevitable destiny? And would you even want to? Life After Life follows Ursula Todd as she lives through the turbulent events of the last century again and again. With wit and compassion, Kate Atkinson finds warmth even in life’s bleakest moments, and shows an extraordinary ability to evoke the past. Here she is at her most profound and inventive, in a novel that celebrates the best and worst of ourselves.’
The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
At this point, I don’t think there’s a soul left on Earth who doesn’t know about The Handmaid’s Tale, so all I can add is that the book is special because Atwood is such a skilled writer and storyteller. I’m not sure how she creates such vivid stories of possible dystopian futures, but it’s chilling.
Blurb: ‘Offred is a Handmaid in the Republic of Gilead. She has only one function: to breed. If she deviates, she will, like dissenters, be hanged at the wall or sent out to die slowly of radiation sickness. But even a repressive state cannot obliterate desire – neither Offred’s nor that of the two men on which her future hangs. Brilliantly conceived and executed, this powerful evocation of twenty-first century America explores a world in which oppression of women, and repression of the truth, have become justified.’
An Unnecessary Woman by Rabih Alameddine
An Unnecessary Woman is a book lovers dream! Throughout the novel, Alameddine refers to great works of literature and makes enticing comments about them or pulls quotes from them. It was so interesting I made a note of every book he mentioned and created this reading list. This is a beautiful story about the transformation of a very endearing character.
Blurb: ‘Aaliya Saleh lives alone in her Beirut apartment, surrounded by stockpiles of books. Godless, fatherless, childless, and divorced, Aaliya is her family’s ‘unnecessary appendage’. Every year, she translates a new favourite book into Arabic, then stows it away. The thirty-seven books that Aaliya has translated over her lifetime have never been read – by anyone. This breathtaking portrait of a reclusive woman follows Aaliya’s digressive mind as it ricochets across visions of past and present Beirut. Colourful musings on literature, philosophy, and art are invaded by memories of the Lebanese Civil War and Aaliya’s own volatile past. As she tries to overcome her ageing body and spontaneous emotional upwellings, Aaliya is faced with an unthinkable disaster that threatens to shatter the little life she has left. A love letter to literature and its power to define who we are, the prodigiously gifted Rabih Alameddine has given us a magnificent rendering of one woman’s life in the Middle East.’
Hard Boiled Wonderland and The End of the World by Haruki Murakami
Reading Hard Boiled Wonderland was a mind-bending adventure of the best kind. It was entertaining and thought-provoking. The ending left me gobsmacked and astounded by Murakami’s genius. This an incredible multi-layered book that I still think about.
Blurb: ‘Hyperkinetic and relentlessly inventive, Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World is Haruki Murakami’s deep dive into the very nature of consciousness. Across two parallel narratives, Murakami draws readers into a mind-bending universe in which Lauren Bacall, Bob Dylan, a split-brained data processor, a deranged scientist, his shockingly undemure granddaughter, and various thugs, librarians, and subterranean monsters collide to dazzling effect. What emerges is a novel that is at once hilariously funny and a deeply serious meditation on the nature and uses of the mind.’
Euphoria by Lily King
When I think of books that have taken me to distant lands and cultures, I think of this novel. Euphoria is a historical novel that follows anthropologists as they immerse themselves in life with an indigenous tribe. It’s got everything you want in an entertaining read: unique setting, characters pit against each other due to contradicting desires, adventure, action, suspense, the lot. King brought a world to life that most of us will never see.
Blurb: ‘Inspired by the true story of a woman who changed the way we understand our world. In 1933 three young, gifted anthropologists are thrown together in the jungle of New Guinea. They are Nell Stone, fascinating, magnetic and famous for her controversial work studying South Pacific tribes, her intelligent and aggressive husband Fen, and Andrew Bankson, who stumbles into the lives of this strange couple and becomes totally enthralled. Within months the trio are producing their best ever work, but soon a firestorm of fierce love and jealousy begins to burn out of control, threatening their bonds, their careers, and, ultimately, their lives…’
The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro
The Remains of the Day is a classic for a reason. It’s beautifully and artfully written. It portrays a life that no longer exists and imparts a timeless message: there’s no use in grasping for the past; you’ve just got to move on and ‘try to make the best of what remains of [the] day.’
Blurb: ‘After all what can we ever gain in forever looking back and blaming ourselves if our lives have not turned out quite as we might have wished?’ In the summer of 1956, Stevens, the ageing butler of Darlington Hall, embarks on a leisurely holiday that will take him deep into the English countryside and into his past… A contemporary classic, The Remains of the Day is Kazuo Ishiguro’s beautiful and haunting evocation of life between the wars in a Great English House, of lost causes and lost love.’
All The Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doer
All The Light We Cannot See is a beautifully detailed novel that follows a young blind girl as she tries to survive in her home town during WWII. Another example of character, setting, and wonderful storytelling.
Blurb: ‘A beautiful, stunningly ambitious novel about a blind French girl and a German boy whose paths collide in occupied France as both try to survive the devastation of World War II.’ ‘Open your eyes and see what you can with them before they close forever.’ For Marie-Laure, blind since the age of six, the world is full of mazes. The miniature of a Paris neighbourhood, made by her father to teach her the way home. The microscopic layers within the invaluable diamond that her father guards in the Museum of Natural History. The walled city by the sea, where father and daughter take refuge when the Nazis invade Paris. And a future which draws her ever closer to Werner, a German orphan, destined to labour in the mines until a broken radio fills his life with possibility and brings him to the notice of the Hitler Youth. In this magnificent, deeply moving novel, the stories of Marie-Laure and Werner illuminate the ways, against all odds, people try to be good to one another.’
Peace Like A River by Leif Enger
It’s been a long time since I read this book, but I remember being incredibly touched by the story and the relationships between the characters. Peace Like A River is about people, what we think we know about them, about love, and so much more. It’s deep and emotional. The detail and sense of place are other aspects that stay with me about this beautiful book.
Blurb: ‘When Israel Finch and Tommy Basca, the town bullies, break into the home of school caretaker Jeremiah Land, wielding a baseball bat and looking for trouble, they find more of it than even they expected. For seventeen-year-old Davey is sitting up in bed waiting for them with a Winchester rifle. His younger brother Reuben has seen their father perform miracles, but Jeremiah now seems as powerless to prevent Davey from being arrested for manslaughter, as he has always been to ease Reuben’s daily spungy struggle to breathe. Nor does brave and brilliant nine-year-old Swede, obsessed as she is with the legends of the wild west, have the strength to spring Davey from jail. Yet Davey does manage to break out. He steals a horse, and disappears. His family feels his absence so sorely, the three of them just pile into their old Plymouth, towing a brand new 1963 Airstream trailer, and set out on a quest to find him. And they follow the outlaw west, right into the cold, wild and empty Dakota Badlands. Set in the 1960s on the edge of the Great Plains, PEACE LIKE A RIVER is that rare thing, a contemporary novel with an epic dimension. Told in the touching voice of an asthmatic eleven-year-old boy, it revels in the legends of the West, resonates with a soul-expanding sense of place, and vibrates with the possibility of magic in the everyday world. Above all, it shows how family, love, and faith can stand up to the most terrifying of enemies, the most tragic of fates.’
The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker
I loved this book so much. The Golem and the Jinni contained so much detail, history, legend, and emotion. Wecker has written a gorgeous story you won’t forget. I enjoyed it so much that I’ve been waiting years to read the sequel they say is coming just so I can dive back into this world.
Blurb: ‘In The Golem and the Jinni, a chance meeting between mythical beings takes readers on a dazzling journey through cultures in turn-of-the-century New York. Chava is a golem, a creature made of clay, brought to life to by a disgraced rabbi who dabbles in dark Kabbalistic magic and dies at sea on the voyage from Poland. Chava is unmoored and adrift as the ship arrives in New York harbor in 1899. Ahmad is a jinni, a being of fire born in the ancient Syrian desert, trapped in an old copper flask, and released in New York City, though still not entirely free. Ahmad and Chava become unlikely friends and soul mates with a mystical connection. Marvelous and compulsively readable, Helene Wecker’s debut novel The Golem and the Jinni weaves strands of Yiddish and Middle Eastern literature, historical fiction and magical fable, into a wondrously inventive and unforgettable tale.’
The Grass Is Singing by Doris Lessing
The Grass Is Singing was a powerful story. Lessing is a talented writer and she made me feel all kinds of emotions. The book begins and ends with the same scene; what changes is your perspective of that scene. It is a shocking and important book.
Blurb: ‘Set in Southern Rhodesia under white rule, Doris Lessing’s first novel is at once a riveting chronicle of human disintegration, a beautifully understated social critique, and a brilliant depiction of the quiet horror of one woman’s struggle against a ruthless fate. Mary Turner is a self-confident, independent young woman who becomes the depressed, frustrated wife of an ineffectual, unsuccessful farmer. Little by little the ennui of years on the farm works its slow poison. Mary’s despair progresses until the fateful arrival of Moses, an enigmatic, virile black servant. Locked in anguish, Mary and Moses–master and slave–are trapped in a web of mounting attraction and repulsion, until their psychic tension explodes with devastating consequences.’
Life of Pi by Yann Martel
Life of Pi was otherworldly and fantastical with a brilliantly thought-provoking ending.
Blurb: ‘The son of a zookeeper, Pi Patel has an encyclopedic knowledge of animal behavior and a fervent love of stories. When Pi is sixteen, his family emigrates from India to North America aboard a Japanese cargo ship, along with their zoo animals bound for new homes. The ship sinks. Pi finds himself alone in a lifeboat, his only companions a hyena, an orangutan, a wounded zebra, and Richard Parker, a 450-pound Bengal tiger. Soon the tiger has dispatched all but Pi, whose fear, knowledge, and cunning allow him to coexist with Richard Parker for 227 days while lost at sea. When they finally reach the coast of Mexico, Richard Parker flees to the jungle, never to be seen again. The Japanese authorities who interrogate Pi refuse to believe his story and press him to tell them “the truth.” After hours of coercion, Pi tells a second story, a story much less fantastical, much more conventional–but is it more true?’
The Time Traveller’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger
Who didn’t love this story?! The Time Traveller’s Wife was unlike anything I’d read before. The structure of this novel made me a big-time admirer of Niffenegger as a writer.
Blurb: ‘This is the extraordinary love story of Clare and Henry who met when Clare was six and Henry was thirty-six, and were married when Clare was twenty-two and Henry thirty. Impossible but true, because Henry suffers from a rare condition where his genetic clock periodically resets and he finds himself pulled suddenly into his past or future. In the face of this force they can neither prevent nor control, Henry and Clare’s struggle to lead normal lives is both intensely moving and entirely unforgettable.’
The Hungry Tide by Amitav Ghosh
The Hungry Tide was the first book I read where the setting came across as the main character to me. The incredible detail brings the Sundarbans alive in such an intimate way. I felt I was there, and that it was breathing and speaking throughout the story.
Blurb: ‘The Hungry Tide is a very contemporary story of adventure and unlikely love, identity, and history, set in one of the most fascinating regions on the earth. Off the easternmost coast of India, in the Bay of Bengal, lies the immense labyrinth of tiny islands known as the Sundarbans. For settlers here, life is extremely precarious. Attacks by deadly tigers are common. Unrest and eviction are constant threats. Without warning, at any time, tidal floods rise and surge over the land, leaving devastation in their wake. In this place of vengeful beauty, the lives of three people from different worlds collide. Piya Roy is a young marine biologist, of Indian descent but stubbornly American, in search of a rare, endangered river dolphin. Her journey begins with a disaster, when she is thrown from a boat into crocodile-infested waters. Rescue comes in the form of a young, illiterate fisherman, Fokir. Although they have no language between them, Piya and Fokir are powerfully drawn to each other, sharing an uncanny instinct for the ways of the sea. Piya engages Fokir to help with her research and finds a translator in Kanai Dutt, a businessman from Delhi whose idealistic aunt and uncle are longtime settlers in the Sundarbans. As the three of them launch into the elaborate backwaters, they are drawn unawares into the hidden undercurrents of this isolated world, where political turmoil exacts a personal toll that is every bit as powerful as the ravaging tide. Already an international success, The Hungry Tide is a prophetic novel of remarkable insight, beauty, and humanity.’
The Ice Child by Elizabeth McGregor
The Ice Child took me on an adventure I hadn’t been on before which, you may have noticed, I enjoy. I loved reading about the Franklin expedition, and the juxtaposition of the two narratives was great.
Blurb: ‘Jo Harper, a successful young journalist, has only her adored two-year-old son, Sam, to remind her of her late partner. When Sam falls ill, there is only one slim hope – that his stepbrother John may hold the key to his survival. But John has disappeared. Seeking absolution for his part in the accidental death of his marine archeologist father and tortured by their failed relationship, John has set out alone against impossible odds to fulfil his father’s dream – to uncover the last traces of the Franklin expedition, which vanished in the Arctic in 1847 while searching for the North West Passage. As uncanny parallels begin to unfold between the last days of the Franklin crew and the crisis facing Sam, Jo is plunged into a desparate race against time to save both the life of her son and the soul of her stepson. Beautifully written and deeply moving, THE ICE CHILD is storytelling at its very best.’
The Passage Trilogy by Justin Cronin
The Passage trilogy was an incredibly well written and gripping epic of a story. The TV show has just come out, but trust me – you must read the books.
Blurb: ‘”It happened fast. Thirty-two minutes for one world to die, another to be born.” An epic and gripping tale of catastrophe and survival, The Passage is the story of Amy–abandoned by her mother at the age of six, pursued and then imprisoned by the shadowy figures behind a government experiment of apocalyptic proportions. But Special Agent Brad Wolgast, the lawman sent to track her down, is disarmed by the curiously quiet girl and risks everything to save her. As the experiment goes nightmarishly wrong, Wolgast secures her escape–but he can’t stop society’s collapse. And as Amy walks alone, across miles and decades, into a future dark with violence and despair, she is filled with the mysterious and terrifying knowledge that only she has the power to save the ruined world. Look for the entire Passage trilogy: THE PASSAGE – THE TWELVE – THE CITY OF MIRRORS’
The Screwtape Letters by C S Lewis
What a laugh I had reading this book. Clever and funny, The Screwape Letters is a lesson in form and good writing.
Blurb: ‘This profound and striking narrative takes the form of a series of letters from Screwtape, a devil high in the Infernal Civil Service, to his nephew Wormwood, a junior colleague engaged in his first mission on earth trying to secure the damnation of a young man who has just become a Christian. Although the young man initially looks to be a willing victim, he changes his ways and is `lost’ to the young devil. Dedicated to Lewis’s friend and colleague J.R.R. Tolkien, `The Screwtape Letters’ is a timeless classic on spiritual conflict and the invisible realities which are part of our religious experience.’
What’s your take? Love or hate any of these books?