In Focus

25 books for your must-read bucket list

Ignore the outside world and immerse yourself in these classic novels

One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez (1967)

This landmark novel by Colombia’s most beloved author, Gabriel García Márquez, is a postmodern masterpiece. Telling the story of seven generations of the Buendía family and of Macondo, the town they built, it should be “required reading for the entire human race”, The New York Times said. According to Literary Hub “there are hits, and then there are smash hits, and then there are rocket ships to Mars - One Hundred Years of Solitude would qualify as the last”.

In Cold Blood by Truman Capote (1965)

Truman Capote’s non-fiction novel reconstructs the murder in 1959 of a Kansas farmer, his wife and both their children. Subtitled A True Account of a Multiple Murder and Its Consequences, it actually began as a New York Times murder story that became transformed into a tale of “spine-tingling suspense and extraordinary intuition”, says The Guardian

Moby Dick by Herman Melville (1851) 

Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, or The Whale, was first published in October 1851. Though it was “not an immediate hit, and Melville didn’t live to see the fame his book would achieve”, it would eventually become one of “American literature’s most famous and beloved works of genius”, says Time

The Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyan (1678)

Fully titled The Pilgrim’s Progress from This World to That Which is to Come is a Christian allegory - a story in which people, places and events represent abstract concepts, the British Library explains. Regarded as one of the most significant works of religious fiction in English literature, it has been claimed as one of the ten most published books of all time. 

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain (1884)

Mark Twain’s story of a boy’s journey down the Mississippi on a raft conveyed the voice and experience of the American frontier as no other work had done before. A witty, satirical tale of childhood rebellion, it remains a “defining classic of American literature”, says Robert McCrum in The Guardian.

The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro (1989)

Kazuo Ishiguro’s third novel won the Man Booker Prize for Fiction in 1989. A contemporary classic, The Remains of the Day is a beautiful and haunting evocation of life between the wars in a Great English House, of lost causes and lost love. It was ranked as one of the 25 greatest British novels in a BBC Culture poll. 

Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes (1605 and 1615)

Published in two volumes in 1605 and 1615 by Spanish writer Miguel de Cervantes, Don Quixote - the first modern novel - “remains the finest”, says The Guardian’s Harold Bloom. It’s widely regarded to be the best literary work ever written and Bloom argues that “only Shakespeare comes close to Cervantes’ genius”. 

The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald (1925)

Told from the perspective of Nick Carraway, who is befriended by eccentric neighbour Jay Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s classic provides an “insider’s look into the Jazz Age of the 1920s in United States history, while at the same time critiquing the idea of the American Dream”, says Britannica. Fitzgerald’s masterpiece has become a “tantalising metaphor for the eternal mystery of art”, says The Guardian’s Robert McCrum.  

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee (1960)

With more than 18 million copies in print and translated into 40 languages, Harper Lee’s classic novel set in America’s racist south won her the Pulitzer Prize in 1961 and is today regarded as a “masterpiece of American literature”, says GoodReads. Through the young eyes of Scout and Jem Finch, Lee explores with exuberant humour the irrationality of adult attitudes to race and class in the Deep South of the 1930s. The conscience of a town steeped in prejudice, violence and hypocrisy is pricked by the stamina of one man’s struggle for justice.

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl (1964)

Grab your golden tickets and head to Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory for a grand tour. Described as a “startling work of fantasy” by the Independent, Dahl’s classic features Charlie Bucket as the hero and he is joined at the chocolate factory by some nasty little beasts called Augustus Gloop, Veruca Salt, Violet Beauregarde and Mike Teavee. 

The Tale of Genji by Murasaki Shikibu (1012)

Written by the noblewoman and lady-in-waiting Murasaki Shikibu during the early 11th century, The Tale of Genji is often referred to as the first novel, although it wasn’t translated into English until the 19th century. Despite its age, the book remains a remarkable and insightful read, telling the story of Prince Genji, the son of an emperor, whose love affairs and shifting political fortunes offer a glimpse of the golden age of Japan. The Washington Post calls it a “world-class masterpiece of fiction” that “rivals the classic novels of the West in artfulness and psychological depth”.

Emma by Jane Austen (1815)

When it comes to Austen, it is a “near-impossible choice” between Emma and her seminal novel Pride and Prejudice, says The Observer’s Robert McCrum. But he chooses Emma, saying it “never fails to fascinate and annoy”. The protagonist Emma Woodhouse, from the fictional village of Highbury, plays matchmaker and meddles in the lives of her fellow inhabitants to devastating effect.

Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte (1847)

First published under the pseudonym Ellis Bell, Wuthering Heights was the only novel written by Emily Bronte, the second-youngest of the Bronte siblings, and she died a year after its publication at the age of 30. “The scope and drift of its imagination, its passionate exploration of a fatal yet regenerative love affair, and its brilliant manipulation of time and space put it in a league of its own,” writes McCrum in The Observer. “This is great English literature, the fruit of a quite extraordinary childhood.”

Great Expectations by Charles Dickens (1861)

Great Expectations is a sprawling epic that tells the coming-of-age tale of the orphan Pip, with a few biting social critiques along the way. The jilted Miss Havisham, with her faded wedding dress and decaying cake, is also among the writer’s most intriguing characters. “Dickens achieved perfection with this gothic masterpiece,” says The Independent.

Middlemarch by George Eliot (1871)

Middlemarch is quintessentially British, taking the number one spot in BBC Culture’s greatest British novels poll in 2015. A book of sweeping historical importance, it details some of the more significant geopolitical events of the early 19th century, including the 1832 Reform Act, the beginnings of the railways and the death of King George IV. “Anti-romantic, yet intensely passionate, it is one of the greatest novels of all,” says Booker Prize winner A.S. Byatt in The Guardian.

Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy (1878)

Leo Tolstoy’s idea for this tale of a doomed adulteress's affair with a rich count reportedly grew from a daydream of “a bare exquisite aristocratic elbow”, says The Daily Telegraph. The result was what Nobel Prize laureate William Faulkner believed was the finest novel ever written. The book tells the story of the “sensuous and rebellious” titular character in her affair with the dashing officer Count Vronsky, before tragedy unfolds as Anna rejects her passionless marriage and must endure the hypocrisies of society.

My Antonia by Willa Cather (1918)

My Antonia is the final book in Willa Cather's “prairie trilogy” of novels - along with O Pioneers! and The Song of the Lark - lyrical, sweeping epics of the prairie, whose vivid evocation of the untamed Midwest and the pioneers who made it their home can stir up a powerful sense of nostalgia even in a reader who has never set foot in the US. “A writer of great skill, Cather produced a lush, romantic work that is a superb read,” says the Los Angeles Review of Books.

Ulysses by James Joyce (1922)

One of the most important modernist novels of all time, James Joyce’s bizarre, dense magnum opus Ulysses has been described by The Atlantic as “a deeply humanistic novel which is bursting with the enormous variety of life”. The story, characterised by a stream of consciousness narrative that changes focus wildly, concerns the meeting of two Irishmen, Leopold Bloom and Stephen Dedalus, in 1904 Dublin.

The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck (1939)

The storms of the Great Depression - and the subsequent Dust Bowl - had barely settled when Steinbeck penned The Grapes of Wrath, an astonishing work of realist American writing. The book follows a family of impoverished “Okies” as they head out west in hope of a better life but, as Time says, they “find only bitterness, squalor and oppression as migrant agricultural workers living in Hoovervilles”. The magazine says it is “both a record of its time and a permanent monument to human perseverance”.

The Stranger by Albert Camus (1942)

A list of 100 Books of the 20th Century compiled by French publication Le Monde places Albert Camus’s existential, absurdist debut novel L’Étranger (The Stranger) at the top. Through the story of an ordinary man “unwittingly drawn into a senseless murder on an Algerian beach”, Camus used his seminal 1942 novel to explore what he termed “the nakedness of man faced with the absurd”, says GoodReads.

Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov (1955)

Nabokov’s extraordinary - and controversial - novel Lolita is a work of such poetic agility that it makes perhaps the most taboo subject tackled by 20th-century literature seem almost normal. In it, poet Humbert Humbert becomes obsessed with 12-year-old Dolores Haze and seeks to possess her by becoming her stepfather. “Published in 1955, it is many things: a love story; by its own admission a disturbing tale of child abuse; an elaborate game of language, rhythm and subtext, and much more,” The Independent says.

Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe (1958)

“The theme of preserving cultural history in the face of Western domination in this novel gave voice to the oppressed people in Africa and caught the attention of the world,” says the Open Education Database, of Things Fall Apart, written by Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe. This classic novel is still widely read and studied as a searing and poetic critique of the damaging colonialist attitudes that permeates geopolitics.

The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy (1997)

Set in 1969 in the southern Indian state of Kerala, Arundhati Roy’s debut novel The God of Small Things starts with a harrowing scene: memories of a family grieving around a drowned child's coffin. This story of family in the Indian caste system won the Man Booker Prize upon its release, and was described by The New York Times as “so extraordinary - at once so morally strenuous and so imaginatively supple - that the reader remains enthralled all the way through to its agonising finish”.

The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen (2001)

In 2009, literature site The Millions polled a panel of writers, editors and critics to determine the best book of the 21st century. The Corrections, Jonathan Franzen’s satirical family drama based in the Midwestern United States, was the winner “by a landslide”. “At its centre is the Lambert family, dominated by Alfred, the difficult patriarch, and Enid, the yearning and frustrated matriarch,” The Guardian said in a review at the time. “Three grown-up children, Gary, Chip and Denise, labour to live adult lives under the long shadow cast by their unhappy parents.”

Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (2006)

“Are we ready for a novel about an imploding nation riven by religious strife and bloody wrangling over who controls the military, the civil service, the oil; a novel about looting, roadside bombs, killings and reprisal killings, set against a backdrop of meddling foreign powers?” The New York Times asked upon the release of Half of a Yellow Sun in 2006. The book tells the story of the Biafran War (or Nigerian Civil War) and its impact on civilian life through the eyes of Odenigbo, a radical university professor, his young girlfriend Olanna and a shy English writer Richard. The Seattle Times calls the book “a sweeping story that provides both a harrowing history lesson and an engagingly human narrative”.

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