27 of the best must-read novels

Whether you consider yourself a bookworm or not, the beauty of reading is that there’s a book for everyone. You can lose yourself in a fantasy novel, give yourselves goosebumps with a thriller, or expand your knowledge with nonfiction. Traditionally, summer is the time of year when people do most of their reading – but you don’t need to be going on holiday to make time to read. Whether it’s a sunny morning or a rainy afternoon, curling up with a good book is a unique opportunity to step away from normal life and enjoy some ‘me-time’.

If you’re looking for some reading inspiration, check out 27 books that should be on everyone’s ‘reading bucket list’. From old classics to modern masterpieces, there’s something for everyone here.

Step back in time to the summer of 1935 in Ian McEwan’s tragically romantic novel. Atonement tells the story of 13-year-old Briony, whose naive mistake goes on to define her existence – and destroy the lives of the people she cares about most. Set against the backdrop of the Second World War, the novel covers themes of remorse, love, loss, and the fragility of memory.

Arguably the most famous fantasy novel in the world, The Lord of the Rings is the first book in Tolkein’s epic three book masterpiece. The story follows four hobbits Frodo, Sam, Merry, and Pippin as they leave their homes in the Shire and travel across Middle-earth to stop the Dark Lord Sauron possessing the One Ring. If you’ve seen the films but never read the books, you’ll be amazed at all the detail packed into these novels. A book to read if you want to escape to another world.

As the winner of the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, (as well as being made into a Hollywood movie), Cormac McCarthy’s The Road certainly isn’t short of praise , but at its heart this is a devastatingly simple story. Set amongst the ruins of post-apocalyptic America, The Road tells the story of a father and his young son as they walk through the ravaged country in search of the coast. Dark, harrowing and powerful, this book will stay with you for a long time.

Regularly voted one of the best English-language novels of the past 100 years, The Catcher in the Rye was originally intended for adults but also became a favourite among teenagers due to its themes of angst and alienation (The New Yorker famously dubbed the book “The handbook of the adolescent heart”). Salinger’s novel tells the story of 17-year-old Holden Caulfield as he grapples with growing up, loss, sex, depression, his identity, and understanding the events that shaped him.

Considered one of the most influential books of the past century, George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four is a dystopian masterpiece that imagines a world where government surveillance has reached a totalitarian state. Follow Winston Smith as he secretly turns from paid-up Party member to rebel battling Big Brother and the Thought Police, fighting for freedom and truth. A fascinating book that explores themes of propaganda, mass surveillance, politics and manipulation.

Published in 2011, this best-selling book is a must-read for anyone who’s interested in the history and future of our species. In Sapiens, Hurari explains the history of humanity, from 70,000 years ago to the modern day. Covering science, agriculture, industry and information, this is a fascinating, thought-provoking account of how humans evolved to conquer the world, asking questions like who we are?, how did we get here?, and – perhaps most importantly of all – where are we going? A profound book that might change your perspective on the world.

Written by 25-year-old Zadie Smith and published in 2000, White Teeth was one of the most talked about debut novels of modern times. Telling the stories of two wartime friends, the book explores Britain’s relationship with immigrants and culture, the complexities of family life, and how we can never truly escape our past. An uplifting, humourous and moving novel.

Considered a classic of modern American literature, To Kill A Mockingbird is just as powerful today as it was when it was first published in 1960 – and the character of Atticus Finch remains just as iconic. Set in the Deep South in the 1930s, the book deals with prejudice, violence, racism, class, and the corruption of the justice system, yet somehow, this coming-of-age novel is packed with warmth and humour.

As Virginia Woolf’s most famous novel, Mrs Dalloway is known for distorting  traditional narrative techniques and using inner monologues to paint three-dimensional pictures of characters. Set in the 1920s, the novel follows upper-class Mrs Dalloway as she prepares for a dinner party in London, and gradually weaves the thoughts, experiences, and memories of different characters together. The novel is known for its powerful narrative – which uses a stream-of-consciousness style.

First published in 1966, In Cold Blood is the second-best-selling true crime book in history, and a must-read for fans of true crime. In extensive detail, In Cold Blood unpicks the 1959 quadruple murders of the Clutter family in a small farming community in Kansas. Capote spent six years researching the crime and interviewing residents and investigators, and In Cold Blood tells the shockingly violent story with suspense, empathy and eloquence.

Though it was written more than 200 years ago, Pride and Prejudice remains one of most-loved books in literature – and Austen’s wit and social insight is just as impactful today as it was in 1814. This intelligent, ironic and romantic novel tells the story of Elizabeth Bennet and Mr Darcy, who, in spite of their preconceptions and individual flaws – not to mention social constraints – are drawn to one other. But of course, the course of true love never runs smooth… Pride and Prejudice is known for having one of the most famous opening lines in fiction.

Set in the summer of 1956, Kazuo Ishiguro’s contemporary classic tells the story of Stevens, an ageing butler who reminisces about his time working at a stately home, Darlington Hall, in the 1920s and 1930s. Winner of the 1989 Man Booker Prize for Fiction, this novel is the Nobel Prize-winning author’s most famous work, and depicts life in England between the wars in a beautiful, haunting and evocative way. It was made into a film in 1993 and nominated for eight Academy Awards.

Published in 1936, How to Win Friends and Influence People is one of the most famous self-help books ever published, and is regularly voted one of the most influential books in the world. The advice given by Dale Carnegie has stood the test of time, and the book has been credited by millions of people as helping them become more confident, make friends more easily, win new clients and customers, and persuade people to follow their viewpoint. A revised edition, with updated language and anecdotes, was published in 1981.

Set in a dystopian near-future, in a totalitarian country that once was the USA, The Handmaid’s Tale tells the story of a woman struggling to survive in a violently patriarchal society, where a woman’s function is solely to breed. Written by Canadian author Margaret Atwood in 1985, the novel explores themes of resistance, women’s rights, individuality and independence. Made into a TV series in 2017, The Handmaid’s Tale has won multiple awards and is considered one of the most important pieces of feminist fiction ever written.

With over 20 million copies sold, Gone Girl is one of the most successful crime thrillers of modern times – and for good reason. This dark and disturbing novel tells the story of the toxic marriage of Nick and Amy, and what happens when Amy disappears in mysterious, violent circumstances. The story is compulsively readable, takes the idea of the unreliable narrator to new grounds, and has one of the most shocking twists in modern fiction.

Written in 1993 by English author Sebastian Faulks, Birdsong tells the story of a British soldier, Stephen Wraysford, as he fights on the front lines in France in 1910, falls in love, and experiences the unspeakable horrors of war. Switching between Stephen’s story and that of his granddaughter in the 1970s, Birdsong was written in part to highlight the horrors experienced by WWI veterans, and how trauma can forever shape a person. An emotive, unforgettable novel.

Written by British writer Reni Eddo-Lodge in 2017, Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race is the best-selling book that sparked a national conversation, and in today’s charged climate, is more relevant and important than ever. The book explores the link between gender, class and race, and the issue of institutional racism in society. Credited as one of the most important books in recent years, Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race is a riveting and powerful deep-dive into race relations.

For most fans of horror fiction, Stephen King is the undisputed master, and it was The Shining that first established him as a leader in this genre. Drawing from King’s own personal experiences, The Shining tells the chilling story of writer and recovering alcoholic Jack Torrance, who accepts a job as an off-season caretaker at the Overlook Hotel in the Rocky Mountains. After a winter storm cuts him off from the outside world, evil forces in the hotel begin to possess Jack, leaving his wife and young son in mortal danger. If you love the film, the book is a must-read.

Fans of historical fiction will love Wolf Hall, which tells the story of the rise of Thomas Cromwell in Tudor England. Set in the 1520s, when Henry VIII was on the throne, this novel is a captivating reimagining of historical and literary records, peeling back history and exploring infamous characters to give an intimate, in-depth portrait of the person Cromwell was. Wolf Hall won the 2009 Man Booker Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award.

Originally a BBC radio programme, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy was first published in 1979 and fast became a comedy sci-fi classic. The book depicts the intergalactic adventures of Arthur Dent who, along with his friend Ford, journey through space while Earth is destroyed by aliens. A funny and satirical cult-classic, this book’s playful and presumptuous legacy lives on today.

Written in 1967 by Colombian author Gabriel García Márquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude is a story of seven generations of the Buendía family, set against a backdrop of 100 years of turbulent Latin American history. Merging political reality with magic realism, fantasy and plenty of humour, the story follows the family as they grapple with an ever-evolving society and their own moral compasses. Translated into 46 languages and selling over 50 million copies, One Hundred Years of Solitude won the Nobel Prize and is considered one of the most significant works in world literature.

Written by American author Ray Bradbury and published in 1953, Fahrenheit 451 is a hauntingly prophetic dystopian novel. It’s often compared to George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty Four for how accurately it depicts western civilization’s enslavement by the media and conformity. The story tells the tale of Guy Montag, a fireman tasked with burning books, which are banned and considered the root of all unhappiness and evil. More than half a century after its release, Fahrenheit 451 packs just as great a punch as it did in the 1950s.

Written by Canadian author Yann Martel, Life of Pi is a fantastical survival story that combines religious allegory, animal lore, philosophy, and plenty of adventure. The novel follows a young Indian boy, Piscine “Pi” Patel, who, after a shipwreck, survives 227 days at sea in a lifeboat… alongside a Bengal tiger. The novel is engaging and utterly unique, raising questions about truth, reality, perception, fear, and faith.

Though it’s short, The Old Man and the Sea is widely regarded as the best work of American author Ernest Hemingway – and it won him the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1953. Set in Cuba, The Old Man and the Sea follows Santiago, an old fisherman, as he struggles to catch a giant marlin fish off the coast of Havana. Moving, beautifully written and timeless, the book highlights the power of grit, motivation and will-power in a uniquely succinct way.

For people fascinated with food and where it came from, The Omnivore’s Dilemma is a must-read. Written by journalist Michael Pollan, who’s best known for his advice to “Eat food, not too much, mostly plants,” this book delves deep into the secretive world of fast food and farms, removing the smoke and mirrors, and encouraging people to think about the personal and global health implications of their food choices. 

While Wuthering Heights is considered to be a masterpiece of English literature, when it was first published in 1847 it was criticised for its stark depiction of psychological and physical cruelty, as well as challenging Victorian morals relating to women, religion, morality and class. At its core, though, Wuthering Heights is a wildly passionate story about the obsessive love between Cathy and Heathcliff. Tackling themes of grief, revenge and abuse, the novel is especially known for its descriptions of the lonely moors.

If you’re interested in science but find yourself put off by technical jargon and unnecessarily complex language, then A Short History of Nearly Everything is for you. Told with Bryon’s customary humour, A Short History of Nearly Everything covers everything from the Big Bang to the rise of civilisation, explaining theories and facts in a way normal people, not just scientists, can understand.  If you think geology, physics and chemistry are boring, this is the book that will change your mind!

If you’re an avid reader, or are looking to get stuck into some good books again, then why not consider getting involved in the Rest Less book club over on our community forum? Whether you’d love to have a chat to others about something you’ve just read, or leave a raving review of one of your must-read favourite novels – this is the place to do just that.

Have you read any good books this year? We’d love to hear your recommendations! Send us an email at [email protected] or leave us a comment below. You can also add your recommendations to our Rest Less Book Bucket List over on the community forum.

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18 thoughts on “27 of the best must-read novels

  1. Avatar
    Wendy on Reply

    I recommend A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles – about being on lockdown in a hotel. I couldn’t put it down and when I’d finished I read Rules of Civility by the same author – very different but equally as spellbinding.

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      Sue on Reply

      I agree with Wendy, A Gentleman in Moscow is superb. I would also like to suggest When God was a Rabbit by Sarah Winman so beautifully written and poignant if you were growing up in the 60s and 70s. Also Shantaram by David Gregory Roberts a massive book but an extraordinary story set in India.

    2. Avatar
      Hilary on Reply

      Couldn’t agree more. I did struggle at first but oh it was worth it and a heart-warming story of fortitude, ingenuity and friendship was my reward.

  2. Avatar
    Maggie on Reply

    I have read manyOn this list, the stand out book for me is the life of pi and recommend this book above all the rest!

  3. Avatar
    Adam on Reply

    Great list. Read several of these already. Seen the film versions of some of the others – The Remains of the Day, 1984, Life of Pi and The Shining in particular were all outstanding.

  4. Avatar
    Sandra on Reply

    I have to say your list is a mixed bag of books I have loved and books I could not finish! Aren’t we all different?
    Can I recommend “Educated ” by Tara Westover. A really good read.

  5. Avatar
    Jennifer on Reply

    Great List – Like others have already read some – Love a book that I can learn something from however big or small that may be – I am currently reading Artemisia by Alexandra Lapierre – and really enjoying it. Not only did Artemisia get herself acknowledged as an artist in a totally male dominated Italy but also managed with her father to take one of them to trial for rape. It is the first rape trial ever to be fully documented, and although I thought it would be heavy going is actually really easy to read and get drawn in. Will certainly be looking out for her paintings on my travels

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    corinne on Reply

    Years ago I decided to read as many classic books as is possible, I usually have two books on the go at once, now I am reading My Fair Lady, I find it humorous and exactly how some people are still today. The second Out of Order by Jane Lapotaire, she calls it A haphazard journey through one woman’s year. When I started to read this book I found it difficult to get into her way or writing, however as always with me if I start a book I have to finish it, I am please that I persevered it seems honest and charming too.

  7. Avatar
    Viv on Reply

    An interesting list with many still in my ‘to do’ list! The beekeeper of Aleppo was a recent insightful read into the plight of refugees and quite timely.

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      Hilary on Reply

      I agree with your choice The Beekeeper of Aleppo was truly insightful and moving. Beautifully written and I couldn’t put it down.

  8. Avatar
    Jacqui on Reply

    Two of my top 3 novels made the list. My number one didn’t – A prayer for Owen Meaney by John Irving, the only book that made me laugh and cry at the same time. Great list, some new ones for me to try

  9. Avatar
    Sue G on Reply

    Great list.I have read some and seen some as films.I,ve made a note of some of them I would like to read.Another surggestion-“Little fires everywhere by Celeste Ng.Good read,now a tv series with Reese Witherspoon.

  10. Avatar
    Mabel Butlin on Reply

    Read most of those on the original list but found five that I hadn’t, which I’ve put on my reading list. I have also added another five from Readers’ comments. Thanks all! In the spirit of sharing, I’d like to recommend Kate Fox’s ‘Watching the English’ especially if you are an American in England or a Brit in America. Not fiction, but fascinating!

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