1984, By George Orwell
What it's about: While Big Brother stares out at citizens terrorized by a totalitarian ideology propagated by The Party, Winston and Julia find each other and fall in love. But they soon begin to question the motives of The Party and draw their own theories about what's really going on — at their own peril.
What readers say: "A cautionary tale, social commentary, and exemplary example of dystopian fiction, 1984 is one of those perfect novels that not only entertains, but forces one to think about the danger associated with giving any one person or entity too much power or control over our lives--issues well worth consideration in post-9/11 America." - Bookreads review
The Catcher In The Rye, By J.D. Salinger
What it's about:We spend the novel tracking a few days in the life of 16-year-old Holden Caulfield, more adult than adolescent, who has been expelled from prep school. As we learn more about Holden through his encounters with all sorts of people in New York City, we come to understand what it's really like to be a teenager who feels alienated from the world.
What readers say: "I found myself completely drawn into the rich, nuanced story of Holden Caulfield. I found myself empathizing with Caulfield almost from the beginning (something I did not expect to do). His "annoying", "pseudo rebellious" and "just don't care" exterior were so obviously manufactured and so patently hiding a seriously sad and lost boy that I was transfixed on finding the real Holden Caulfield." - Bookreads review
Death Of A Salesman, By Arthur Miller
What it's about:Yes, Arthur Miller's classic tale is a play, not a novel, but it's always been taught in schools thanks to the sharp, forward-thinking prose that still feels modern today.
In the play, Willy Loman is a 60-year-old salesman who's been doing the same job for 34 years. But he's suddenly discarded, having outlived his usefulness. With no dreams for the future, Willy has to face life's disappointments, until he decides to take one final action that could change his life.
What readers say: "There's something to be said for waiting until later in life to read certain books. The struggles of Willy Loman would have meant little to my younger, more impatient self.
Now, the huge amount of time Loman spends dreaming of his halcyon days strikes a chord with me." - Goodreads review
The English Patient, By Michael Ondaatje
What it's about: Ondaatje's gorgeous novel takes the reader through the lives of four people, who, at the end of the First World War, are all haunted by one person: the English patient.
What readers say: "Every sentence is beautifully crafted and evocative, keeping you completely enthralled in the story. The story reaches across all boundaries of time and space to connect with people from all walks of life. Each of us who reads the story as the author intended, will find many connections with the story and its characters." - Bookreads review
Fifth Business, By Robertson Davies
What it's about: The first book in Davies' Deptford trilogy, Fifth Business follows the lives of the characters who live in a small Ontario town, when a boy throws a snowball with a rock in it at another boy, but it ends up hitting a pregnant woman instead. This event changes the lives of the characters forever, including the unborn boy in his mom's womb. Dunstan Ramsay, the intended target of the snowball, is racked with guilt and ends up taking an interest in Paul, the sickly baby born of the mother hit by the snowball. Ramsay starts to realize that he has lived his life as a "Fifth Business."
What readers say: "There is something so hauntingly Canadian about this tale, and specifically it's author. Not Robertson Davies, but the man who has written these memoirs. The man who observes, quietly and swollen with guilt, the amass of players who dip in and out of his life." - Goodreads review
Frankenstein, By Mary Shelley
What it's about: Everyone knows this classic tale, but here goes a very short summary: Scientist Victor Frankenstein creates a human from stolen body parts. However, once the creature is brought to life, Frankenstein realizes he created something abhorrent. As a result of his isolation and loneliness, the creature turns into an evil monster goes on a murderous rampage against his creator.
What readers say: "The book offers many interesting avenues of philosophical exploration if one is so inclined to ponder such things; for example, allusions to religion and Genesis, possible criticisms of using science to "play God", the relationship between creator and creation. All of these things interest me, yes, but it is the painfully human part of this book that has always so deeply affected me." - Bookreads review
The Great Gatsby, By F. Scott Fitzgerald
What it's about: The classic Jazz Age-era novel tells the tale of the wealthy Jay Gatsby and his love for socialist Daisy Buchanan amidst the glamorous parties on Long Island.
What readers say: "At its heart, The Great Gatsby throws the very nature of our desires into a harsh, shocking light. There may never be a character who so epitomizes tragically misplaced devotion as Jay Gatsby, and Daisy, his devotee, plays her part with perfect, innocent malevolence. Gatsby's competition, Tom Buchanan, stands aside watching, taunting and provoking with piercing vocal jabs and the constant boast of his enviable physique." - Goodreads review.
Green Grass, Running Water, By Thomas King
What it's about: Alberta, Eli, Lionel and others are searching for that balance between their Native American traditions and the modern world. They go to the Blackfoot reservation for the Sun Sundance and encounter four elders and the trickster Coyote, changing their lives forever.
What readers say: "The format of this novel and the cyclical oral tradition/literary mashup that King presents us with is fantastic, interesting, and satirical of canon, as well as Western & Native cultures." - Goodreads review.
The Handmaid's Tale, By Margaret Atwood
What it's about: Who else spent a month analyzing this book in high school English class? Anyone? Anyway, in a dystopian society where women's' sole purpose is to breed, handmaid Offred takes a risk that could take down their entire society.
What readers say: "There is something about the tone of Atwood's novels that works like a knife to my heart. Quiet, rich, the drama just bubbling under the surface of the prose. Atwood doesn't waste words, she doesn't sugarcoat her stories with meaningless phrases, everything is subtle and everything is powerful." - Goodreads review.
Heart Of Darkness, By Joseph Conrad
What it's about: Considered one of the greatest novels of the 20th century, Heart of Darkness follows narrator Marlow, as he journeys up the Congo River where he meets the mysterious Kurtz. Their meeting forces Kurtz (and us, the readers) to recognize the corruption and despair that is at the heart of being human.
What readers say: "Intense and compelling, it looks into the darkest recesses of human nature. Conrad takes the reader through a horrific tale in a very gripping voice." - Goodreads review.
Jane Eyre, By Charlotte Brontë
What it's about: Our heroine, Jane Eyre, an orphan, takes up a post as a governess at Thornfield, where she falls in love with the tragic Mr. Rochester. But when all seems like it should end happily ever after, Jane discovers, well, a barrier to her happiness. This leads her to create the life she truly wants, in a world where women don't have many options.
What readers say: "And here's what else I enjoyed about this book - its attempts to subvert the tropes, the same tropes that we still heavily rely on in literature. Bronte gets rid of the 'faultless' heroine - instead of being perfect (or having an imaginary flaw, like many literary heroines are prone to nowadays) Jane has a real one (for her time, at least) - her occasional temper." - Goodreads review
Lord Of The Flies, By William Golding
What it's about: A tale about lost innocence in the extreme, a group a boys is abandoned on an island when their plane crashes. Forced to form their own society, the boys struggle to figure out how to survive, and learn about the savage within human nature and how power can corrupt the vulnerable.
What readers say: "Despite its length and easy-to-read narration, this is certainly one of the most haunting, powerful books I've ever read. Now I know why this book is listed in so many lists of greatest books in the 20th century." - Goodreads review.
Obasan, By Joy Kogawa
What it's about: Obasan tells the story of the treatment of Japanese Canadians during the Second World War. Young Naomi's life changes drastically when the Japanese attack Pearl Harbor. She's separated from her parents, persecuted and placed in an internment camp, which was widespread in Canada during WWII.
What readers say: "It is shocking and devastating to read of the pain that existed in my own country during the war and that was continued purposefully for so many years afterwards by a government fuelled by racist fears. For me, this book is a reminder of the need to maintain the rights of all, especially minorities in Canada. But it is also a compelling and poetic examination of silence and stories and the need for words to express even the most painful realities." - Goodreads review.
Romeo & Juliet, By William Shakespeare
What it's about: "Two households, both alike in dignity, in fair Verona, where we lay our scene..." Thus begins one of the most romantic and tragic stories of all time. You know what happens at the end.
What readers say: "In terms of language and style, Romeo and Juliet might possibly be the best of all Shakespeare's work. It's crammed full of some of the most beautiful poetry I've ever had the pleasure of reading." - Goodreads review.
Roughing It In The Bush, By Susanna Moodie
What it's about: A classic, Roughing It In The Bush is Moodie's memoir about her experience emigrating from England to Upper Canada in 1832 when her husband retires after the Napoleonic Wars. Her account of life as a settler in the bush is an important record in Canadian literature.
What readers say: "The prose is straightforward, unsentimental and often humorous. This is a very successful cautionary tale that makes us all grateful for the grueling work work of our pioneer ancestors that paved the way for our lives today." - Goodreads review.
The Stone Angel, By Margaret Laurence
What it's about: In this beloved novel, we meet Hagar Shipley, a 90-year-old near the end of her life who tries to make one last step towards independence. We are taken back a time in her life when Hagar is a young married woman, living in a prairie town with her adolescent son and her husband, an unsuccessful farmer.
What readers say: "Hagar Shipley is a character you will never forget; stubborn, ornery, proud, locked in her own version of her world and unwilling to see it any other way until her dying breath." - Goodreads review.
The Bell Jar, By Sylvia Plath
What it's about: Plath's magnificent novel tells the story of young Esther Greenwood, who wins an internship on a New York fashion magazine in 1953 and is on her way to living out her dream of being writer. However, Esther quickly slides into a depression, and, in between the fancy parties, attempts suicide.
What readers say: " I have a feeling that this book helped women realize that they're not alone, and brought things to light that most people have commonly shoved aside; women and men. But what else is amazing is how relevant these topics still are today. Specifically with suicide, and specifically about the virtue and pureness of women compared to men." - Goodreads review.
The Stranger/L'Etranger, By Albert Camus
What it's about: Those who were in French Immersion had to read L'Etranger in French... several times. Written in 1946, Camus' novel follows a young, amoral man, Meursault, who gets drawn into a senseless murder in Algeria. Noted for its existentialist theme, The Stranger was one of the most widely read novels in the 20th century.
What readers say: "How many times in life have you felt out-of-place entering a room? Have you ever considered yourself a stranger to those around you? Love or hate it, Camus’ short novel speaks to our condition." - Goodreads review.
Things Fall Apart, By Chinua Achebe
What it's about: The novel follows two linked stories centred around Okonkwo, who comes from a village in Nigeria. One story focuses on Okonkwo's fall from grace with the tribal world where he lives while the second story revolves around the destruction of Okonkwo's world through the arrival of European missionaries.
What readers say: "Okonkwo is one of the most intriguing characters in African fiction. He epitomizes so much I dislike; he’s abusive, misogynist, has very little patience or tolerance for the weak, and is perhaps he’s even over-ambitious. Despite all his faults, it’s impossible not to pity him a little because, after all, the life he knows, the life of his ancestors, is being taken from him quite cruelly by the British settlers." - Goodreads review.
To Kill A Mockingbird, By Harper Lee
What it's about: The classic tale about a small Southern town and the tragedy that forces the inhabitants, especially a young girl and her father, to think of the consequences of their actions.
What readers say: "To Kill A Mockingbird is one of those rare books that doesn’t give in to the belief that ”deep down, everybody’s actually good.” Not everybody is. And we must still persevere to see things from their perspective, and though we may not justify their ways, we must strive to understand them – though we might not follow them, we must try to be as kind to them as possible. And yet, there comes a time when some people need to be put down – we must follow the call of our conscience then, and yet be kind to them in the process, as much as we can." - Goodreads review.