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My five-star reads: 15 of the best books I’ve ever read

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War and Peace Penguin clothbound hardcover
Photo by Sanne Vliegenthart

I read a lot of books each year. I have a ludicrous number of books on the go at any given time. And fortunately for the people in my life, I have this website to channel my thoughts about books.

But that said, I have a very high bar for 5* reviews. Most books I read fall into the 3-4* range – good enough to finish and recommend, but not quite life-changing.

For me, a five-star read is a rare beast – but when I encounter one, I can’t stop talking about it… for years (if not decades) after reading.

Including mostly fiction for now, many of the books below are engaging and unputdownable reads, but I’ve also included the most life-changing books I’ve read. These are books that have inspired me to change direction, think differently, overcome challenges, and work out who I really am.

So without further ado, read on for the five-star books I can’t say enough good things about.

My favourite books and five-star reads

Kafka on the Shore by Haruki Murakami

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Why I love Kafka on the Shore I think this is Murakami at his best. A story about running away from home to take refuge in a library? Yes, please.

During my late teens and early twenties, I went on a Murakami reading binge and ticked off nearly all of his major novels. I have to be in the right mood for his writing, but when I am, nothing else comes close. I’m currently re-reading Kafka on the Shore and remembering just how fantastic it is.

Haruki Murakami is the master of blending slice-of-life everyday events like cooking pasta and doing laundry with the supernatural – think talking cats, mysteriously deep wells, and otherworldly meetings with people who aren’t quite who they seem.

War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy

War and Peace
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Why I love War and Peace… It’s a fantastically all-encompassing book about what living really feels like. Surprisingly, it also helped me through the anxiety I was experiencing in my late teens.

As you might be able to guess, reading War and Peace is what inspired me to start this website. I first read it during one of the most anxious periods of my life, but Tolstoy’s timeless words unexpectedly helped me find perspective and calm.

Tolstoy’s masterpiece isn’t exactly known for being easy to read, but choosing the right translation can help a lot. (TLDR: I love Anthony Briggs’s translation – on each read, I’ve been reminded of just how immersive the book can be and usually finish it in a couple of weeks.)

The Garden of Evening Mists by Tan Twan Eng

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Why I love The Garden of Evening MistsWith no wasted words, Tan Twan Eng has written some of the most graceful and moving books I’ve ever read. They’re slow, beautiful, and absolutely not to be rushed.

When I think of my all-time favourite books, I often forget about Tan Twan Eng’s writing. As soon as I remember, I feel terrible for forgetting him.

In The Garden of Evening Mists, Supreme Court Judge Teoh Yun Ling chooses early retirement to return to the Cameron Highlands of Malaysia in the late 1980s, where she once served as an apprentice to a Japanese gardener.

Confronting the Japanese occupation of Malaya, this is a striking book that deservedly won the Man Asian Literary Prize and Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction (and was shortlisted for the Booker Prize).

The Gift of Rain is also superb, as was Tan Twang Eng’s new book for 2023, The House of Doors (one of my favourite books of the year).

The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

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Why I love The GoldfinchThis book has everything I love most about Donna Tartt’s writing: a keen eye for beauty and turmoil, sprawling storylines, characters rebuilding their life after trauma, and way too many pages.

At least in my eyes, Donna Tartt is a literary icon and The Goldfinch a modern classic. In this Pulitzer Prize winner from 2013, a young New Yorker grieving the loss of his mother is dragged into a gritty underworld of art and wealth.

With Donna Tartt’s usual cadence of a book a decade, will she announce another book soon? Who knows, but I really hope so.

One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez

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Why I love One Hundred Years of Solitude… It’s exactly what the best magical realism should be: otherworldly but so very human.

Although it’s been years since I last enjoyed his writing, Gabriel García Márquez will always be one of my favourite writers. Alongside Isabel Allende’s The House of the Spirits, I’d also nominate One Hundred Years of Solitude as one of the best magical realism novels ever written.

A masterclass in the art of fiction, pick up García Márquez’s most popular novel for the magnetic story of the rise and fall, birth and death of the mythical town of Macondo, told through the history of the Buendía family.

Circe by Madeline Miller

Circe book cover
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Why I love CirceMadeline Miller’s bestseller reads like a dream. It’s one of the few books I wanted to re-read immediately after finishing (alongside Prodigal Summer, The Covenant of Water, and The Overstory).

Ignoring the terrible whims of Greek Gods, one of my literary happy places is Aiaia, the island to which Circe is banished. Rather than acting as her prison, Aiaia becomes her sanctuary, with days focused on honing the art of pharmaka – the magic of herbs – as she forages, picks, blends, brews, and experiments with what she finds.

Although I loved The Song of Achilles, there’s something so dreamy, luscious, and evocative about Circe that makes it Miller’s masterpiece for me. The themes of love, loss, and motherhood are etched in my brain’s literary vault.

The Waves by Virginia Woolf

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Why I love The Waves This is one of the few books I’ve read that feels like the title. If the sea were a book, it’d be this classic.

Okay, a little honesty. Iain, my husband, is reading The Waves right now on my recommendation (I bought him a copy for Christmas) and struggling. I fell in love with this book during a modernist literature module at university, and while I was prepared for the stream of consciousness and lack of plot, he really wasn’t.

My advice? Try and let the book wash over you, rather than looking for a plot to follow. It’s gorgeously written, but reading it is more like admiring a beautiful piece of modern art than a gripping novel. It’s not for everyone, but you might just love it too.

Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese

Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese cover
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Why I love Cutting for StoneI’m convinced that Abraham Verghese is one of the best living writers, mostly because of this book.

When I worked at my village bookshop for several years as a teenager, the owner always recommended Cutting for Stone. His personal mission seemed to be making sure that every local resident read it. And it really is fantastic.

If you know Abraham Verghese’s name, it’s most likely to be from his 2023 sensation The Covenant of Water. I also thought this was incredible (although traumatic) and I’m still badgering my husband to read it every week.

That said, I still think Cutting for Stone – a moving story of twin brothers, medicine, and a country on the brink of revolution – comes out slightly ahead. I’d love to read both books again this year to make sure.

His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman

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Why I love His Dark Materials The Arctic. Magic. Animal sidekicks. Badass characters.

When I married Iain, we chose a reading from The Amber Spyglass in our ceremony. (If you’ve read the books, you’ll might be able to guess which section we chose.) We both grew up with Philip Pullman’s books and still love them, so it was a fairly easy choice.

Yes, the trilogy is written for children, but – like The Hobbit – it’s a work of genius. I think back to the books fairly often, including when pondering parenthood, growing up, courage, and being a good person.

Prodigal Summer by Barbara Kingsolver

Book_Prodigal Summer
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Why I love Prodigal Summer According to my personal formula for a perfect book, this is most likely the winner. Read it for wild nature, self-discovery, complex emotion, and intertwined stories.

Set during a single summer by the Appalachian Mountains, Barbara Kingsolver whisks us away into three different yet interconnected lives as new life and the sensuality of nature blossom.

Deanna is a local girl turned biologist turned forest ranger, living reclusively in a cabin in the woods. Lusa is a city girl turned entomologist turned farmer’s wife. And Garnett is a grumpy old man, fed up with his eccentric neighbour Nannie Rawley.

Each time I re-read this book, especially when I’m feeling burnt out and in need of an escape, I remember how much I love all of these characters.

King Lear by William Shakespeare

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Why I love King Lear… This is the first Shakespeare play that swept me off my feet – and it’s stuck with me ever since.

While studying literature, I slogged through a lot of painfully arduous books. But occasionally, something I presumed would be difficult was actually… good. In the case of King Lear, it was really good.

Although King Lear is unavoidably bleak, it’s also an unparalleled exploration of family, what we pass to our children, and how we age – all told with passion, poetry, and dark humor.

Once you read it, you realise just how much Shakespeare’s timeless tale of family and inheritance has influenced. From TV award-winners (Succession) to classic novels (Moby-Dick), you can find echoes of King Lear everywhere.

A Whole Life by Robert Seethaler

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Why I love A Whole Life This book opened my heart, brought me to tears, and never let me forget it.

Although many of my five-star books can double as doorstops, A Whole Life is proof that plenty of beauty and emotion can fit in small packages.

Chosen as one of my favourite books that feel like a quiet life by the mountains, this is the story of Andreas Egger, a man who knows every path and peak of his mountain valley in the Austrian Alps.

As Andreas navigates loss, ageing, and a changing way of life, read this for a stunning and heartbreaking book about what life is really made of; both the little things and the biggest moments. 

Pachinko by Min Jin Lee

Pachinko book cover
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Why I love Pachinko… Love, loss, the repercussions of the past across centuries. Multigenerational stories don’t get much better than this.

Pachinko is one of the few books I recommend to everyone. This compulsively readable multigenerational epic follows the story of a poor Korean immigrant family to Japan and their reinvention over the following generations.

Told with so much force but also precision, this is one of my top recommendations if you want to fall back in love with reading and rediscover how immersive great fiction can be.

The Overstory by Richard Powers

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Why I love The Overstory… It’s one of the best books I’ve read to open my eyes to the world’s beauty, fragility, and interconnectedness.

The Overstory has my vote as one of the best modern novels of the century so far. It took me a few attempts to get into the 502-page Pulitzer Prize winner, but when I did, I didn’t want it to end.

This magnificent book is a paean to the vast and marvellously intricate world that we depend on in so many ways: the world of trees.

With stunning writing and creativity, Richard Powers weaves together interlocking fables that range from antebellum New York to the late twentieth-century Timber Wars of the Pacific Northwest and beyond. 

Wind, Sand and Stars by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

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Why I love Wind, Sand and Stars… It’s both a masterpiece and a welcome reminder that life really is fleeting.

Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s crowd favourite, The Little Prince, is packed with lessons about kindness and living well. However, his memoir of his life as an aviator, Wind, Sand and Stars, is always my top pick of his books.

Braiding philosophy and lyricism with the miracle and danger of early aviation, this is so much more than a memoir of flying. It’s a book with a bird’s eye view that manages to take in all of life below.

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