Choosing a good book to read can sometimes be overwhelming.
The sheer size of the ‘Classics’ section in your bookshop can make it impossible to know where to start, never mind the ever-changing supply of glossy hardbacks in the bestseller displays. You can let yourself be guided by whatever is adapted for TV at the moment - let’s face it, who has picked up War and Peace in the last two months for any other reason? - or choose your books by their covers, but it’s always useful to have a few recommendations thrown your way.
There are thousands of wonderful books out there, of course, but ahead of World Book Day on March 3, these are my picks from a series of essential genres that I believe everyone should have on their bookshelf, plus suggestions for further reading if you enjoy them as much as I do.
Read this… Victorian novel
Bleak House by Charles Dickens is the ultimate in sizeable Victorian novels. It’s long, yes, but it’s also an utterly compelling and intricate tale of mystery, illegitimacy, suspense, betrayal, love, and spontaneous human combustion (yes, really). Brimming with Dickens’ glorious caricatures and dry London humour, it typifies the evocative settings, memorable characters and sensational plots so typical of this period in English writing. If you’ve been watching the BBC’s Dickensian, you’ll also recognise some of the characters.
If you like this, read… The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins. Or watch the wonderful 20-episode BBC adaptation of Bleak House.
Read this… dystopian fiction
The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood is a modern classic for good reason. A highly intelligent critique of 1980s society and a feminist but accessible vision of the dystopian genre, Atwood’s novel is set in the unsettlingly patriarchal Gilead, where women are named as the property of their men and perceived as walking wombs intended to repopulate the country after apocalyptic crisis. Transgression is brutally punished. Atwood’s masterpiece is visceral and emotional, written in spare but beautiful prose and compelling us to reconsider modern attitudes towards women, the environment and the future of the human race.
If you like this, read… Never Let me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro, or Atwood’s Oryx and Crake.
Read this… medieval literature
Le Morte Darthur by Sir Thomas Malory is the version of the King Arthur legend that many of us know today, and was the inspiration for T. H. White’s much-loved The Sword in the Stone. Although written in the fifteenth century, the original Middle English text is fairly easy to understand, but the story is also available in a modernised Oxford World Classics edition should you not wish to plough through Malory’s occasionally convoluted prose. This is another long book, but it’s a fascinating example of the ways in which people in the fifteenth century related to the idea of King Arthur and his famous Round Table, and it has been beloved ever since for its tales of knightly daring and adventures.
If you like this, read… T. H. White’s Once and Future King series, perhaps the best modern retelling of the Arthurian legend that exists, and a wonderfully poignant interpretation of the famous tale.
Although perhaps not what we would now consider a children’s book, Victorian writer H. Rider Haggard’s King Solomon’s Mines is the kind of gung-ho imperial adventure story that the nineteenth century loved to give to its boy readers. Although deeply colonial and at times somewhat misogynist, this tale of three explorers on a perilous search through the heart of Africa to find King Solomon’s mythical diamond mines is wonderfully dramatic and very, very funny. Haggard had a true gift for drawing otherworldly settings and characters, and this is perhaps the best example of his gloriously fun adventure fiction. It’s also an interesting insight into how our perception of children’s literature has changed over time.
If you like this, read… R. M. Ballantyne’s The Coral Island, or, for something a bit more modern, John Masefield’s The Box of Delights.
Read this… eighteenth-century novel
Pamela by Samuel Richardson is the tale of an innocent young girl who takes a serving position in a rich household. She is thereafter almost constantly pursued by the dastardly master of the house, ‘Mr B’, whose relentless attempts result in a cornucopia of swooning and general melodrama. The virtuous Pamela will not relent, however, and things take a somewhat surprising turn of events. It’s laugh-out-loud funny at times, but also raises serious questions about romance and social mobility in the eighteenth century. Told as a series of letters, it’s also a key text in what is termed ‘the rise of the novel’ during this period.
If you like this, read… Daniel Defoe, Roxana or Moll Flanders.
Read this… poetry
Victorian poet and clergyman Gerald Manley Hopkins manipulates and plays with language in ways to rival even Shakespeare. Known for his coining of new words and compounds, Hopkins’ poems are inspired by the concepts of ‘inscape’ and ‘instress’, his theories about the almost magical ‘selfness’ of living things and their relationship to the Creator. Demanding to be read out loud, his poetry is almost breathtakingly beautiful in its playful experimentation with language and rhythm and its vivid and memorable exploration of the natural world. Highlights are ‘As Kingfishers Catch Fire’, ‘Pied Beauty’ and ‘The Windhover’.
If you like this, read…Christina Rossetti
Read this… magical realist novel
Like Water for Chocolate by Laura Esquivel recounts the story of Tita, the youngest daughter of the De La Garza family, who has been forbidden to marry because Mexican tradition dictates that the eldest daughter must remain single to look after her mother until she dies. She falls in love with a man called Pedro, who marries her sister Rosaura out of a desire to be near Tita. This doesn't quite go to plan, and - as the blurb of the novel states - "for the next 22 years Tita and Pedro are forced to circle each other in unconsummated passion. Only a freakish chain of tragedies, bad luck and fate finally reunite them against all the odds." The novel revolves around the preparation and consumption of food, and is peppered with fantastical, magical occurrences that blend beautifully into the - at times tragic - rhythms of everyday life.
If you like this, read… Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez.
Read this… postcolonial novel
The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy is simply one of the most beautiful novels in the English language. The story of two twins, Estha and Rahel, whose lives are shattered by the laws that dictate ‘who should be loved, and how. And how much’, it is also a glorious experiment in the possibilities of the written word, and an evocative exploration of lush, vibrant Kerala in the twentieth century. The plot is deeply poignant, and the characters and their fates will haunt you for a long time after you’ve put this book down. It deservedly won the Booker Prize in 1997.
If you like this, read… Disgrace by J. M Coetzee, The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver, The Inheritance of Loss by Kiran Desai, and The Valley of Amazement by Amy Tan.
Read this… prize-winner
Yes, it’s huge, but The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton is a meaty, gripping tome that will have you hooked on both its beautifully drawn characters and its moody, evocative setting: New Zealand’s gold fields in the mid-nineteenth century. A modern adventure in Victorian sensation fiction, it relates the mystery of a man’s disappearance and the intrigue, betrayal and dangerous passions of the remote Hokitika community. Organised according to astrological principles, this is a unique experiment in storytelling and, more importantly, a compellingly good read.
If you like this, read… The Secret History or The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt.
Elly McCausland is studying for a PhD on children’s literature and the Arthurian legend at the University of York. She is a food writer and blogger at Nutmegs, Seven, with a passion for all things gastronomic, with a particular emphasis on fruit, breakfast and proper British puddings.