20 Unmissable Adult Fiction Books

These exceptional literary must-reads simply cannot be missed. Featuring classic and contemporary masterpieces, see below for 20 unmissable adult fiction books.

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1. Brave New World

Aldous Huxley | 1932

In the distant future, the World Controllers have moulded a perfect society. Through ingenious use of genetic engineering, brainwashing and recreational sex and drugs, all its members are happy consumers. But Bernard Marx is different. He seems alone in harbouring an ambiguous dissatisfaction and a longing to break free. But a visit to one of the few remaining Savage Reservations, where the old, imperfect life still continues, may provide the cure for his distress. This deeply engrossing novel compels its readers to question the present and our ideals for the future.

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2. The Handmaid's Tale

Margaret Atwood | 1985

In the dystopian Republic of Gilead, Offred is forced to be a Handmaid, a woman with only one function: to breed. If she dares to challenge this position, she - like other dissenters - will be hanged at the wall or sent out to die, slowly and painfully, of radiation sickness. Offred remembers all that has been taken away from her: love, family, access to the news. But even a tyrannical state cannot obliterate desire - neither Offred's nor that of the two men upon which her future depends...

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3. The Color Purple

Alice Walker | 1982

Set in the American South between the wars, this haunting novel stars Celie, a young black girl born into poverty and persecution. Abused by the man she calls 'father', she has two children taken away from her, is separated from her beloved sister Nettie, and is trapped in an ugly marriage. But then, Celie meets the glamorous Shug Avery, a singer and magic-maker, a woman who commands her own destiny. Celie will gradually uncover the power and joy of her own spirit, and will have the chance to free herself from the past and reunite with those she loves.

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4. Golden Hill

Francis Spufford | 2016

It is 1746. A delightful and handsome stranger, Mr Smith, has just arrived in the small town of New York from England. It turns out he has an order for a thousand pounds which he wishes to cash - a perplexing yet compelling proposition. Can this unfamiliar man be trusted when he refuses to say what he will do with his fortune, in a place already rife with financial corruption? And what will happen when the enigmatic Mr Smith falls for Tabitha, his creditor's daughter? Winner of the Costa First Novel Award 2016, this book is sure to enthral its readers.

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5. The Great Gatsby

F. Scott Fitzgerald | 1925

The Great Gatsby is set in the glittering world of 1920s New York. It follows Nick, who moves in next to the mysterious millionaire, Jay Gatsby. Gatsby is the man who seems to have everything and he holds extravagant parties in his magnificent mansion to prove it, full of bright young things drinking and dancing - but Gatsby himself only ever seems to watch and wait. One thing will always be out of his reach, and soon, his secret longing will cause his whole world to unravel... This riveting read is riddled with romance, drama and tragedy, and features themes of materialistic excess, social upheaval, love and jealousy.

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6. Frankenstein

Mary Shelley | 1818

Victor Frankenstein, obsessed with the idea of creating life itself, ransacks graveyards for the material necessary to fashion a new being. He shocks the creature into life with electricity, but his botched being, rejected by Frankenstein and denied human companionship, sets out to destroy its creator and all that he holds dear. This spine-chilling Gothic novel is full of moral quandaries, and remains one of the world's most famous horror stories.

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7. Of Mice and Men

John Steinbeck | 1937

This stunning tear-jerker tells the story of two American drifters: the sharp, small George and his big, childlike friend, Lennie. Both are searching for work in the fields and valleys of California, dreaming that they'll find a place of their own one day and realise the American dream. But gentle giant Lennie doesn't know his own strength and lands himself in a lot of trouble, especially with the boss's daughter-in-law. It is up to George to protect his friend - but even he will struggle to save him. 1920s America is vividly brought to life, as is the unique friendship of two unforgettable characters.

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8. Norwegian Wood

Haruki Murakami | 1987

When he hears her favourite Beatles song, Toru Watanabe remembers his first love, Naoko, the girlfriend of his best friend Kizuki. He is transported almost twenty years into the past, to his student days in Tokyo, adrift in a world of uneasy friendships, casual sex, passion, loss and desire - to a time when an impetuous young woman named Midori marches into his life and he is forced to choose between the future and the past. This striking novel is sure to captivate its readers.

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9. Jane Eyre

Charlotte Bronte | 1847

A novel ahead of its time, Jane is the feisty, argumentative and keenly intelligent protagonist of this enthralling tale. She refuses to accept her designated position in society and resolves to find love on her own terms. She thinks she may have found it when she meets the dark and brooding Mr Rochester, but she will endure terrible tragedies, setbacks and challenges, from a difficult childhood with her cruel aunt, to shocking encounters and deadly fires. This rich work of literature is simply a must-read.

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10. The Kite Runner

Khaled Hosseini | 2003

Afghanistan, 1975. 12-year-old Amir is desperate to win the local kite-fighting tournament alongside his faithful friend, Hassan. But neither of the boys can foresee the terrible things that will happen to Hassan that afternoon, an event that will shatter their lives. After the Russians invade and the family is forced to flee to America, Amir realises one day that he must return to Afghanistan under Taliban rule to seek the one thing his new world cannot offer: redemption.

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11. To the Lighthouse

Virginia Woolf | 1927

This classic novel follows the Ramsay family and their summer guests on the Isle of Skye, before and after the First World War. Relationships shift and transform as the children and adults on the island must live, work and play alongside each other. Based on Virginia Woolf's own childhood experiences, the book explores children's and adults' changing perceptions and desires in the period spanning the Great War.

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12. The Buried Giant

Kazuo Ishiguro | 2015

The Romans have long since departed and Britain is gradually fading into ruin. Axl and Beatrice set off across a troubled land of mist and rain to find the son they haven't seen for years. They expect to face many dangers - some strange and otherworldly - but they could never have foreseen that their journey would reveal to them dark and forgotten corners of their love for each other. Fierce, gripping, and intensely moving, this stunning novel is about lost memories, revenge, war, and love.

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13. Captain Corelli's Mandolin

Louis de Bernieres | 1994

It is 1941 and Captain Antonio Corelli, a young Italian officer, is despatched to the Greek island of Cephalonia as part of the occupying forces. At first, he is ostracised by the locals, but they realise in time that he is civilised, amusing, and an excellent musician. But it isn't long before Corelli and the local doctor's daughter, Pelagia, become involved in a steamy love affair - despite her engagement to Mandras, a fisherman. Can their love survive the war as the lines are drawn between invader and defender?

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14. White Teeth

Zadie Smith | 2000

This highly-acclaimed fictional debut from Zadie Smith is a funny, generous and big-hearted novel, adored by critics and readers alike. Dealing with many themes including friendship, love and war; three cultures (Indian, Jamaican and Bangladeshi) and three families over three generations; one brown mouse and the way the past can come back to bite you, it is a life-affirming and riotous read that cannot be missed.

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15. Far From the Madding Crowd

Thomas Hardy | 1874

This powerful novel of swift sexual passion and slow-burning loyalty centres on Bathsheba Everdene, a proud working woman whose life is complicated by three very different men: respectable farmer Boldwood; seductive Sergeant Troy; and devoted Gabriel. She soon becomes the object of scandal and betrayal amidst the superstitions and traditions of a rural community. This gripping classic has endured for generations and proves just as compelling today as it did when it was published in 1874.

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16. Nineteen Eighty-Four

George Orwell | 1949

In London, Big Brother stares out from every poster, and the intimidating Thought Police uncover every act of betrayal. Winston Smith works for the Ministry of Truth, but when he finds love with Julia, he discovers that life needn't be tedious, but rich and exciting. Winston and Julia start to question the Party and are increasingly drawn towards conspiracy theories. But Big Brother will not tolerate dissent - not even in the mind. This unsettling vision of a future dystopian society, ruled with an iron fist by a totalitarian government, will shock and move its readers.

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17. The Bell Jar

Sylvia Plath | 1963

College girl Esther Greenwood is fighting two battles: one against her own desire for perfection in all things - grades, romance, looks, career... and the other against remorseless mental illness. As her depression deepens, she finds herself encased in it, an invisible barrier firmly between her and the rest of the world. This is the story of her journey back into reality. Witty and disturbing, this is Sylvia Plath's only novel but it has lots to say about what women expect of themselves, and what society expects of women.

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18. The Help

Kathryn Stockett | 2009

Jackson, Mississippi, 1962. Black maids raise white children, but aren't trusted not to steal. In the midst of this toxic world, three women are about to embark on a compelling friendship: Aibileen, who is raising her 17th white child and grieving over the tragic death of her son; Minny, the sassy cook; and the white Miss Skeeter, who wants to know why her beloved maid disappeared. No-one would believe such a friendship could ever come into fruition - and fewer still would tolerate it. However, in this moving and extraordinary novel, these three very different but courageous women manage to cross boundaries, reject expectations and rely on one another.

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19. Half of a Yellow Sun

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie | 2006

This powerful novel tells a shocking tale of war and peace in the author's homeland of Nigeria, swinging back and forth between the early and late 1960s. It is told through the interweaving viewpoints of three characters: Ugwu, a village boy who gets a job as a houseboy for university professor Odenigbo; Olanna, a privileged young woman from Lagos, who leaves her luxurious life behind to live with Odenigbo; and Richard, an English journalist. But life will take a turbulent turn as these three characters are drawn into the heart of the Nigerian Civil War - and the consequences will be life-changing...

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20. The Picture of Dorian Gray

Oscar Wilde | 1890

Mesmerised by his own superb portrait, Dorian Gray trades his soul for eternal youth and beauty. He is lured into a corrupt double life by Lord Henry Wotton, fascinated by Wotton's hedonistic worldview. Dorian indulges his desires in secret whilst upholding a gentlemanly facade in polite society. But as his portrait ages and fades, it records every sin. This gripping novel caused a scandal upon publication, labelled indecent and mawkish, but it is now considered a classic and an extraordinary work of imagination.

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    Afghanistan, 1975: Twelve-year-old Amir is desperate to win the local kite-fighting tournament and his loyal friend Hassan promises to help him. But neither of the boys can foresee what will happen to Hassan that afternoon, an event that is to shatter their lives. After the Russians invade and the family is forced to flee to America, Amir realises that one day he must return to Afghanistan under Taliban rule to find the one thing that his new world cannot grant him: redemption.
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    'I cannot allow any man to - to criticise my private conduct!' she exclaimed. 'Nor will I for a minute'. Hardy's powerful novel of swift sexual passion and slow-burning loyalty centres on Bathsheba Everdene, a proud working woman whose life is complicated by three different men - respectable farmer Boldwood, seductive Sergeant Troy and devoted Gabriel - making her the object of scandal and betrayal. Vividly portraying the superstitions and traditions of a small rural community, "Far from the Madding Crowd" shows the precarious position of a woman in a man's world. The Penguin English Library - 100 editions of the best fiction in English, from the eighteenth century and the very first novels to the beginning of the First World War.
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    'I am making up "To the Lighthouse" - the sea is to be heard all through it' Inspired by the lost bliss of her childhood summers in Cornwall, Virginia Woolf produced one of the masterworks of English literature in To the Lighthouse. It concerns the Ramsay family and their summer guests on the Isle of Skye before and after the First World War. As children play and adults paint, talk, muse and explore, relationships shift and mutate. A captivating fusion of elegy, autobiography, socio-political critique and visionary thrust, it is the most accomplished of all Woolf's novels. On completing it, she thought she had exorcised the ghosts of her imposing parents, but she had also brought form to a book every bit as vivid and intense as the work of Lily Briscoe, the indomitable artist at the centre of the novel. ABOUT THE SERIES: For over 100 years Oxford World's Classics has made available the widest range of literature from around the globe. Each affordable volume reflects Oxford's commitment to scholarship, providing the most accurate text plus a wealth of other valuable features, including expert introductions by leading authorities, helpful notes to clarify the text, up-to-date bibliographies for further study, and much more.
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    Jackson, Mississippi in 1962 was home to a vanished and unjust world. Black maids raised white children, but weren't trusted not to steal. Meawhile, three women are about to embark on a compelling friendship - they are Aibileen, who is raising her 17th white child and nursing the pain caused by the tragic death of her son, the sassy cook Minny and the white Miss Skeeter, who wants to know why her beloved maid has disappeared. No one would believe the three of them would become friends, and fewer still would tolerate it. But in Kathryn Stockett's The Help, the three very different women manage to find the courage to cross boundaries and come to depend and rely upon one another. This extraordinary story is one to truly cherish.

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    One of the most talked about fictional debuts of recent years, "White Teeth" is a funny, generous, big-hearted novel, adored by critics and readers alike. Dealing - among many other things - with friendship, love, war, three cultures and three families over three generations, one brown mouse, and the tricky way the past has of coming back and biting you on the ankle, it is a life-affirming, riotous must-read of a book.
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    Of Mice and Men tells the story of streetwise George and his big, childlike friend Lennie. A pair of drifters searching for work in the fields and valleys of California, they have nothing except the clothes on their back, and a hope that one day they'll find a place of their own and be able to live the American dream. George owning the land, and Lennie tending to the rabbits. But dreams come at a price. Gentle giant Lennie doesn't know his own strength, and when they find work at a ranch he gets into trouble with the boss's daughter-in-law. Trouble so bad that even his protector George may not be able to save him. John Steinbeck brilliantly brings 1920s America to life in this life-affirming tale of a special friendship.

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    The second novel from talented Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Half of a Yellow Sun is a moving tale of war and peace in the author?s homeland. Powerful and moving, this novel saw Adichie win the 2007 Orange Prize for Fiction, and is loaded with fascinating references to the history of Nigeria and the vicious civil war of the 1960s. Three superbly drawn characters find themselves swept up in the violence during these turbulent years, and learn they must question their responses to this chilling political upheaval as their lives intersect.

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    When he hears her favourite Beatles song, Toru Watanabe recalls his first love Naoko, the girlfriend of his best friend Kizuki. Immediately he is transported back almost twenty years to his student days in Tokyo, adrift in a world of uneasy friendships, casual sex, passion, loss and desire - to a time when an impetuous young woman called Midori marches into his life and he has to choose between the future and the past.
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    'Such a strange book! Imagine a novel with a little swarthy governess for heroine, and a middle-aged ruffian for hero.' Sharpe's London Magazine (June 1855) Jane Eyre is an orphan grown up under the harsh regime first of her aunt and then as a pupil at Lowood Institution. She leaves to become a governess to the daughter of the mysterious Mr Rochester; gradually their relationship deepens, but Jane's passionate nature has yet to endure its deepest blows. In this new edition Sally Shuttleworth explores the power of a narrative that questions the rights of women, the nature of servitude and madness, martyrdom and rebellion in a story whose emotional charge is a strong today as it was more than 150 years ago.
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    The television adaptation of Margaret Atwood's modern classic The Handmaid's Tale has turned heads and earned so many awards, not least for Elisabeth Moss' stunning performance in the lead role as Offred. Now is the ideal time to read the novel that inspired the series...

    Offred finds herself a Handmaid in the Republic of Gilead, a religious totalitarian site in what was the United States. She has been placed in the household of Commander Fred Waterford and has one function - to breed.

    If she refuses to do this horrific and degrading act, Offred will be hanged. But even this repressive and hideous state cannot eradicate hope... Offred remembers how life was before as she tries to find a way out.