As an English major, I often get asked what my favourite books are, and even more so what are the best novels I’ve had to read for school. I think the assumption is that if a book is being taught in a university English class, it must be good. Though this isn’t always the case, there are quite a few books that I’ve had to read for school that I really enjoyed. I read a lot; while these may not have been books I picked up just for fun, they were books I would definitely recommend and read again!
The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton
I had to read this novel for a Young Adult Literature class. It is thought to be the first YA novel, written for teens about teens, by a teen! The book follows Ponyboy and his friends, and their high school lives as boys from the wrong side of the tracks. Not only is it a book with themes about figuring out who you are in the world, class struggles and friendship, but it also has some heartbreaking scenes! Just try to get through the ending without tearing up. Bonus: it’s also a movie (but obviously, you should read the book).
Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys
I just read this book this semester, and it is definitely one of my favourites! Wide Sargasso Sea is a prequel to Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte, written over a hundred years later by a different author. Confusing, right? Jean Rhys decided to tell the story of Bertha Mason, aka the mad woman in the attic. For those of you who haven’t read Jane Eyre (like me), spoiler alert, Bertha Mason is the wife of Rochester, who is Jane, the protagonist’s, love interest. She is supposedly crazy, so he keeps her locked in the attic and she is seen as the villain in Bronte’s novel. In Wide Sargasso Sea, Rhys tells the story of how Bertha got to be in the attic, and shows the reader that perhaps she shouldn’t be judged so harshly, that instead, we should question how she got there. If you haven’t read Jane Eyre, don’t worry! You can still enjoy this book. If you have read it, I would definitely recommend this as it will give you a whole new (unpleasant) perspective on Rochester and a newfound sympathy for Bertha Mason.
Silas Marner by George Eliot
George Eliot, aka Mary Anne Evans, was a pretty interesting person. If you’re not going to read this book, I would recommend reading a quick biography of her! She chose to use a pen name to write because she knew that as a woman in the Victorian Era, her novels would be stereotyped as lighthearted or frivolous. She became one of the most well known authors of the period. She has many well-known novels, including this one, which follows Silas as he is framed for theft, kicked out of his community, and starts a new life as a recluse in another town. That is, until all of his gold is stolen and a toddler whose mother has died wanders into his home and changes his life for the better. He adopts her, and it is a lovely father daughter story, with some drama from the other characters on the side to keep it interesting. It is a very easy, quick read, but it also says a lot about the relationships people have with one another.
Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf
Virginia Woolf’s novels can be confusing; that’s kind of the point, she wanted to challenge the reader and bring out new methods of writing that are not traditionally found in modernism. When I first read this book, I wasn’t a fan; I was too confused, it was too hard to follow, and seemed to focus too much on insignificant details. Looking back, I actually really enjoyed it. The stream of consciousness style of writing gives the reader such good insight into the characters, as the book follows a day in the life of Mrs. Dalloway and those she encounters, down to the minutest details. If you don’t like books that are somewhat difficult to understand, this book probably isn’t for you, but if you’d like a challenge, give it a try!
The Murder of Roger Ackroyd by Agatha Christie
I am not a huge mystery fan, but I did enjoy this book! As the title suggests, Roger Ackroyd was murdered. It is a detective novel, so the narrator and the detective are trying to figure out who did it. Every character is a suspect, and there are a lot of them to work through; I was suspicious of almost all of them at one point. The novel keeps you guessing, and I did not see the ending coming. This novel breaks the rules of the detective mystery genre, because there is no way to guess correctly who the murderer is, so while I was mad at the ending when I finished, I could also appreciate it. I don’t want to give too much away, but if you like mysteries I would recommend this novel!
Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen
Would I even be an English major if I didn’t talk about Jane Austen? Everyone knows about Pride and Prejudice, but one of her novels that doesn’t often come up is Northanger Abbey. It follows Catherine as she is coming of age (of course) and as she falls in love with Henry Tilney. Catherine is funny; at seventeen, she thinks she understands how the world works and that she is very mature, but in reality she is clueless. One of the best parts of this novel is the narrator; the novel is told in third person, but the narrator seems like it’s own character. The narrator is super sassy; they question Catherine, makes fun of her, and makes sure the reader knows that Catherine’s version of events is ridiculously sweet and naïve. The book is wonderfully lighthearted, with a few awkward and embarrassing moments on Catherine’s part, much like being a real teenager today!
If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things by Jon McGregor
This was one of the first books I read in my first year of university, and it really stuck with me. It is hard to describe; basically, a remarkable thing happened, and the narrator and the characters talk about their ordinary day leading up to the moment it happens, but don’t actually say what the remarkable thing is. The story switches between a summer day in 1997 on a street, following the inhabitants of it, and the point of view of a young woman who has just found out she is pregnant. All of the description leads up to the remarkable event on an unremarkable day. I thought this novel was really unique and interesting; it kept you hooked with the mystery of the event, and gave you hints so you could attempt to uncover the remarkable thing yourself. Warning: the remarkable thing is sad, but it definitely a really good book.