Following on from my list of must-read romances, this list of recommended reads focuses on novels that inspired me to think a little deeper about the world. Every book on this list either made me cry, inspired me to read more about a period in history, made me consider issues affecting people’s lives, or made me think about what’s truly important in life. So hopefully you’ll be inspired to give one or two of them a read, and they in turn might inspire you to think differently about a particular subject.
Birdsong – Sebastian Faulks
Birdsong is a beautifully written and heartbreaking story about love and war, which paints vivid and memorable pictures of the horrors of the First World War. As I read the fictional experiences of Stephen Weir and Jack Firebrace through the real world events of the Battle of the Somme and the explosion at the Battle of Messines, I found myself wanting to learn more about the details of this war, which affected a whole generation. A good historical novel always inspires me to find out more, and I ended up watching so many World War I documentaries afterwards.
The Color Purple – Alice Walker
Knowing that this novel would cover the difficult themes of rape and abuse during a time of racial segregation in the Deep South, I thought reading it would be much more traumatic. In fact, I found it to be a powerful and uplifting read about the courage of black women and the bonds they form with each other through their suffering at the hands of men. It’s a book full of strong female characters, and I found it to be incredibly moving, thought-provoking and memorable.
The Gustav Sonata – Rose Tremain
I adored this book because I just loved the character of Gustav, a poor young Swiss boy who lives alone with his difficult and unloving mother. It’s the story of Gustav’s lifelong friendship with a Jewish boy, and the way a childhood friendship that doesn’t care about wealth differences or anti-Semitic parents might end up being affected by those factors over time. Gustav is such a likeable character who deserves so much more love than he receives from his mother, but an interesting jump back in time made me reevaluate my feelings about her too. Eventually Gustav does get an ending he deserves, but this book still broke my heart.
The Book of Echoes – Rosanna Amaka
If you’re looking to diversify your bookshelf with books about black culture written by black authors, this is a great one. It’s tells the story of a young black man living in Brixton in the 1980s and a young black girl growing up in Nigeria during the same period, from the perspective of a third narrator character. We get glimpses of our narrator’s story too – she is the spirit of a young African woman who was torn from her family and shipped off to be a slave in Jamaica, before escaping on a ship to land in London docks in 1803. All three stories give a lot of insight into the challenges faced by black people over the decades, whilst the two main characters try to discover their own identities and find their place in the world.
The Memory Book – Rowan Coleman
The Memory Book is the emotional story of an ordinary woman and her family as they come to terms with her early onset Alzheimer’s. It’s quite heartbreaking to read from her point of view as she finds it increasingly difficult to perform simple tasks, to be the mother she wants to be, and to hold onto the romantic love she felt for her husband who she met quite late in life. It’s both touching and thought-provoking.
Elizabeth is Missing – Emma Healey
Maude is an 82-year-old lady living with dementia, who attempts to solve the mystery of her missing friend and unintentionally starts solving another mystery from her past when the two become confused in her mind. I remember thinking as I read this book how well it deals with the subject of dementia from the perspective of the sufferer. It’s hard to imagine what it must be like to live with dementia, but the author has perfectly captured feelings of anxiety, fear, anger and confusion and also how it must feel to constantly sense frustration in your family members. It’s such a poignant read.
The Book Thief – Markus Zusak
The Book Thief tells the story of a young girl living in Nazi Germany, during which time her foster parents hide a Jewish man in their home. As she develops a friendship with him, she also discovers her love of reading books. It is poetic, thought-provoking and emotional, with characters and relationships that develop gradually though the book. It’s an absolute must read!
Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine – Gail Honeyman
This is a book about extreme loneliness. Eleanor is a woman who exists in life by avoiding social contract wherever possible, but as she develops both an unreciprocated crush and an unwanted (on her part) friendship with a coworker, she starts to open up and experience aspects of life she’s been missing out on. Eleanor does have a mysterious back story which explains why she has become so isolated, however it’s easy to see how anyone could end up experiencing loneliness on this level, even without a significant event in their past. It’s also a story about the unexpected effects that kindness can have on someone’s life, so I think everyone needs to read it.
How to Stop Time – Matt Haig
Matt Haig is probably best known for his self-help books dealing with issues of depression, anxiety and stress, but this fictional novel is just as thought-provoking and uplifting. It’s the story of a man who ages at a much slower rate than normal humans, which means he has lived for hundreds of years. At the start of the book he is still heartbroken from losing his love in the Great Plague and has spent lifetimes hunting for his missing daughter, who he believes has the same condition as him. He is someone who exists by constantly moving between places and avoiding making real connections with anyone around him. Ultimately it is a story of how love can give a life meaning, no matter how fleeting it may be.
White Tiger – Aravind Adiga
White Tiger is an unusual book because it’s told in the form of letters to someone outside of the plot. It’s the story of a successful entrepreneur in India and how he rose to success from humble beginnings as a poor village boy. It’s an interesting insight into modern India and the completely different worlds that exist for the rich and the poor, as well as highlighting the lack of opportunities a person has to change the life they are born into. Although the protagonist is a strange and not particularly likeable character, I ended up having a lot of respect for him and his determination to have the life he wanted.
The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox – Maggie O’Farrell
I love Maggie O’Farrell novels, which almost always seem to be built around the concept of family secrets. This book takes the concept even further to explore a shocking aspect of British history – women who were incarcerated in asylums for not conforming to societal norms. This is the story of two sisters returning to the UK after a childhood in colonial India. It takes a look at how the two sisters with different temperaments are treated completely differently by society, and results in the heartbreaking betrayal of one of them by her family.
Life After Life – Kate Atkinson
Ursula is a character who lives her life over and over again, and every time she dies (the first time being the moment she is born) she unconsciously learns something which prevents her from dying the same way in her next life. The book shows many of her lifetimes with different perspectives of England or Germany during World War II, and poses the question of what you might do with your life if you could live it again? Some of her stories are sad and others more positive, and I enjoyed seeing the changes she made in her life after experiencing a particularly bad one.