Higher-quality popular fiction

Your Bridge to the Classics

Most teenagers who enjoy reading, read popular fiction. Most popular fiction is, in literary terms, awful. Notice the word most in that sentence: there are exceptions. Some of our most revered writers were wildly popular in their day. Shakespeare’s plays filled the theatres, and he became rich. Charles Dickens’ novels were so popular that when he arrived in New York City his ship was met at the dock by thousands of his admirers. And some contemporary writers produce work that will stand the test of time. As a rule, however, today’s bestselling authors do not so much write novels as they manufacture them according to well-known formulas for creating plots and characters that will keep readers turning pages.

Still, reading badly-written books is much, much better than not reading at all. Even a badly-written book will teach you how English words are spelled and how English sentences are punctuated. You will also pick up at least some vocabulary, and some background knowledge. And you will learn something about conventional plots and characters, about how authors create suspense and tension, etc.

However, making the leap from reading contemporary YA (“Young Adult”) bestsellers to reading authors like Dickens, Jane Austen, Thomas Hardy, or Leo Tolstoy can be difficult. Most teenagers need a kind of “bridge” to help them cross over the chasm that divides Angus, Thongs and Perfect Snogging from Madame Bovary. The books suggested here can provide that bridge.

I have divided the lists that follow into groups based mostly on genre, the type of stories involved. These lists do not claim to be complete, only to offer some starting-points. I do emphasise older works, because reading them will prepare you for the vocabulary and writing styles of the 19th-century classics. In addition, older works can provide invaluable background knowledge. Cold War spy fiction, for example, can help you learn a great deal about the history of that time. Contemporary books will also provide background knowledge, but to a lesser degree—as a rule. The books listed under the heading “Popular Novels of the 19th Century” will provide easy introductions to the style and language of older fiction. All of the books listed there were hugely popular in their day, and many continue to be popular. Another advantage: older books are often available as e-books for free.

Each genre includes a wide range of styles and approaches. Some detective fiction focuses on the puzzle, others on the psychology of the killers, others on the personality of the detective or the social background of the story. Spy fiction may emphasise politics, or adventure, or psychology. Science fiction may be highly technological, or highly psychological. And so on.

The “ideal book” for these lists would have all of these qualities:

  • A great read—a book you don’t want to put down.
  • Literary quality
  • An older writing style that would accustom readers to the language of the 19th-century classics.
  • Rich background knowledge as part of the reading experience.

None of the books on these lists has all of those qualities for all readers—my idea of a “great read” may not match your idea of a great read—but I hope that enough of them have enough of those qualities, and that all of you will find more than one book here that you really enjoy.

If you know of a book that should be added to these lists (or removed from them!) I would like to hear from you.

Many of these books can be found online or as e-books, for free. I have put a short list of sources on this page: Sources of free digital books.

Detective fiction

[The classic British detectives in Conan Doyle, Christie, and Sayers—Sherlock Holmes, Hercule Poirot, Lord Peter Wimsey—are oddball geniuses who think their way through the puzzles, for the most part (Holmes does, on occasion, use his fists, his walking stick, or a revolver). Read the Sherlock Holmes stories first, then notice how the others resemble him, and differ from him. The American detectives in Hammet’s, Chandler’s, and Burke’s books are in the “hard-boiled” mould: working-class guys or middle-class guys down on their luck, cops or ex-cops, alcoholics; unhappy loners with ex-wives who use violence and street-smarts as much as intelligence to track down their killers. Burke is a contemporary writer clearly following in Chandler’s footsteps but in the bayous of southern Louisiana instead of in L.A., and with the increase in foul language and graphic violence that one would expect in contemporary popular fiction.]

Arthur Conan Doyle

Almost any of his Sherlock Holmes stories are good.  The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes (Kindle, free)  The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (iBooks, free)

Agatha Christie

Murder on the Orient ExpressDeath on the NileAnd Then There Were None

Dorothy Sayers, Whose Body? (1923), Clouds of Witness (1926), Gaudy Night (1935)

Whose Body? is the first Lord Peter Wimsey novel, and includes references to Wimsey’s service in WWI and his subsequent trauma. Wimsey is very much like Sherlock Holmes; read the Holmes stories first (Wimsey himself has read the Holmes stories; he and other characters make frequent references to detective novels as they discuss the clues in the case he is investigating). And like all fictional British lords, he has a man-servant, Bunter, who is almost as interesting as he is. Gaudy Night is set in a fictional college of Oxford University. It can be slow going in places but includes a view of Oxford that will remind Harry Potter readers of Hogwarts. Wimsey, when he finally appears late in the book, is much older and more serious than he is in Whose Body? Both novels offer unsettling glimpses of pre-Holocaust Jewish stereotypes: anti-Semitism was far from an exclusively German problem. Longer review here.

Dashiell Hammet

The Maltese FalconThe Thin Man, and Red Harvest

Raymond Chandler

The Big Sleep, The Long Goodbye, and Farewell, My Lovely

James Lee Burke, In the Electric Mist With Confederate Dead

Robert van Gulik

The Chinese Maze Murders, The Chinese Bell Murders, The Chinese Lake Murders

[These novels feature a detective, Judge Dee, who is based on a historical figure from the Tang Dynasty, Di Renjie (狄仁杰). Van Gulik’s first book featuring Judge Dee is a translation of Dee Goong An, an 18th-century Chinese work. The other books are fiction using Judge Dee as the main character and actual crimes from various Chinese historical records. If you are interested in both detective fiction and Chinese culture and history, you will enjoy the Judge Dee books.]

Alexander McCall Smith, The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency

[The first in a series of novels set in Botswana, as much about life in Africa as they are about solving crimes. The main character, Mma Precious Ramotswe, becomes the first female private detective in Botswana, and the stories take off from there.]

If you enjoy detective fiction, you may also enjoy the classic American crime fiction of

James M. Cain

The Postman Always Rings Twice, Double Indemnity, and Mildred Pierce.


Political/spy thrillers

John Buchan, The Thirty-Nine Steps (iBooks, free)  (Kindle, free)

Graham Greene

The Heart of the Matter, Our Man in Havana, The Human Factor

John Le Carré

The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, The Tailor of Panama, and The Constant Gardener

Martin Cruz Smith, Gorky Park


Science fiction

H.G. Wells

The War of the Worlds (iBooks, free) (Kindle, free), The Time Machine (iBooks, free) (Kindle, free)

Jules Verne

Twenty-Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, From the Earth to the Moon

C.S. Lewis

The Cosmic Trilogy: Out of the Silent Planet, Perelandra, and That Hideous Strength

Arthur C. Clarke, Childhood’s End

Ray Bradbury, The Martian Chronicles

Robert Heinlein, Stranger in a Strange Land

Isaac Asimov, the Foundation series (seven volumes)

Ursula K. Le Guin, The Left Hand of Darkness

Philip K. Dick

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, The Man in the High Castle, Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said


Popular Novels of the 19th Century

Charles Dickens, Oliver Twist (online) (iBooks, free)

Louisa May Alcott, Little Women (iBooks, free) (Kindle, free)

(If you enjoy Little Women, try March, by Geraldine Brooks, a contemporary novel whose main character is the absent father of Little Women.)

Mark Twain

The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (iBooks, free) (Kindle, free), A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court

Booth Tarkington, Penrod (Kindle, free)

Written in 1914, Penrod is not a 19th-century book unless you consider that the 20th century really started with World War I. If you enjoy Twain’s Tom Sawyer, you might like Penrod, too. I’m pretty sure that Tom and Penrod would have had a great time together.

Bram Stoker, Dracula

Robert Louis Stevenson

Kidnapped, Treasure Island, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde

Rudyard Kipling

The Man Who Would Be King, Kim

Arnold Bennett, The Old Wives’ TaleAnna of the Five Towns, others

Bennett wrote very conventional novels of provincial life in England. For a good introduction to his work, read this article from the BBC: “In celebration of the ‘unknown’ Arnold Bennett”.

Popular French Novels of the 19th Century

[Balzac, Zola, and Maupassant, are among the most popular novelists whose work came to be labeled “Realism” (and, in Zola’s case, “Naturalism”). Their books were bestsellers. Unlike Dickens in England, whose work often focused on children, these writers concentrated on adults, and on the poverty, corruption, decadence, and folly in French society. Their stories, though they move to the countryside or the provinces from time to time, are centred in Paris. The population of Paris grew enormously during the 19th century as people moved there from villages and towns in search of a better life. The grand boulevards, the Eiffel Tower, the huge department stores, and most of the public buildings that you see in Paris today date from the 19th century. If you want to learn about 19th-century Paris you could do far worse than to read these three authors. Much of the traditional image of Paris as a city of sin and decadence comes from these writers, especially Zola. Maupassant, the youngest of the three, is best known for his short stories, but the two novels listed below are excellent. If you read the works of these three writers during your first two years of high school you will be ready in your IB Diploma Programme years to read novels like Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary or Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina.

Dumas and Hugo are a bit different. Dumas wrote historical novels filled dramatic adventures. Hugo’s two most famous works are massive essays on the history and politics of France, especially Paris, wrapped in page-turning, melodramatic stories of the sort later called “soap operas.” (The stage musical of Les Miserables shows how popular this sort of story remains, even today.]

Honoré de Balzac

Le Père Goriot (Father Goriot) [Eugène de Rastignac, a young social-climber from the provinces, is introduced to the vicious struggle for power and status among the rich in Paris.]

Colonel Chabert [an officer in Napoleon’s army, left for dead on the battlefield, returns ten years later to find that his wife has remarried and taken all his money]

Eugénie Grandet [A young well-to-do woman in a provincial town struggles to find her way in a world filled with greedy, dishonest people, most of them members of her own family.]

Emile Zola

L’Assommoir [Vivid scenes of life in a poor neighbourhood of Paris.]

Germinal [A coal miner’s strike in northern France is finally crushed by the police and army. The main character is the little boy from L’Assommoir, now grown up.]

Nana [The main character, a street prostitute who rises to become famous as a high-class Parisian courtesan, is the daughter of Gervaise, the main character in L’Assommoir.]

Therese Raquin [Two lovers murder the woman’s husband so they can be together.]

Au bonheur des dames (The Ladies’ Delight) [The title is the name of a Parisian department store whose owner invents ways to make his female customers buy things they do not need, and drives the small shops in the neighbourhood out of business. The main character is a young woman who comes to Paris from a provincial town and finds work as a saleswoman at the department store.]

Guy de Maupassant

Bel Ami, or The History of a Scoundrel [A young man rises to wealth and power in the newspaper business with the help of a series of mistresses whom he uses and then discards.]

Pierre et Jean (Peter and John) [The relationship between two brothers in a middle-class family changes when one of them discovers their mother’s secret.]

Alexandre Dumas

The Count of Monte CristoThe Three Musketeers

Victor Hugo

Les MiserablesThe Hunchback of Notre-Dame

Historical Fiction

Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities [French Revolution]

Umberto Eco, The Name of the Rose [Medieval Europe]

Mary Renault, The King Must Die, The Last of the Wine [Ancient Greece]

James Michener, Tales of the South Pacific [World War II]

Sebastian Barry, A Long Long Way [World War I]

Pat Barker, Regeneration [World War I]

Hilary Mantel, Wolf Hall [Medieval England]

Colm Tóibín, Brooklyn [1950s]

Andrew Miller, Pure [18th-century Paris]

Robert Graves, I, Claudius [Ancient Rome]

Valerie Martin, Property [pre-Civil War South]

Erich Maria Remarque, All Quiet on the Western Front [World War I]

Ernest Hemingway, A Farewell to Arms [World War I]

Ian McEwan, Atonement [World War II]

Anita Diamant, The Red Tent: A Novel [Ancient Judea]

Barbara Kingsolver, The Poisonwood Bible [post-Colonial Africa]

Tracy Chevalier

The Girl With a Pearl Earring [17th-century Holland]; The Lady and the Unicorn [Medieval France]


The King Arthur Stories

The tales of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table have been re-told many times. White, Sutcliffe, and Stewart all take different approaches. Some people prefer Sutcliffe; others prefer Mary Stewart. I prefer Stewart, who tells the story from the point of view of Merlin, Arthur’s magician. T.H. White’s version is probably best read after you have read either Sutcliffe or Stewart. Finally, Mark Twain uses the Arthurian legend to satirize what used to be called the Dark Ages; again, familiarity with the basic story will help immensely, so save this one for later.

Rosemary Sutcliffe

The King Arthur Trilogy: Sword and the Circle, Light Beyond the Forest, Road to Camlann

Mary Stewart

The Crystal Cave, The Hollow Hills, The Last Enchantment, and The Wicked Day

T. H. White, The Once and Future King

Mark Twain, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court


Romance, Family, Social Issues, etc.

Daphne DuMaurier, Rebecca

Ernest Hemingway, A Farewell to Arms

Charlotte Brontë, Jane Eyre

Isabel Allende, The House of the Spirits

Amy Tan, The Joy Luck Club

Edith Wharton, Summer

Kate Chopin, The Awakening

Alice Munro, The Lives of Girls and Women

Toni Morrison, The Bluest Eye

Alice Walker, The Color Purple

David Guterson, Snow Falling on Cedars

Richard Wright, Black Boy

Maya Angelou, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings

Somerset Maugham, The Painted Veil

Jeanette Winterson, Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit

Doris Lessing, The Grass Is Singing

Alan Paton, Cry, the Beloved Country

Laura Esquivel, Like Water for Chocolate

Vikram Seth, A Suitable Boy


Philosophical novels

Jack London, The Sea-Wolf

Hermann Hesse

Demian, Siddhartha, Journey to the East, Narcissus and Goldmund, The Glass Bead Game

Aldous Huxley

Island, Brave New World

Jostein Gaarder, Sophie’s World

Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray

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