The best literary novels if you love to read thrillers—and want to take a breather or dig deeper

Mark Nykanen Author Of Burn Down the Sky
By Mark Nykanen

The Books I Picked & Why

Rape of the Rose

By Glyn Hughes

Book cover of Rape of the Rose

Why this book?

The Rape of the Rose is an unforgettable novel that details the horrors of the Industrial Revolution in nineteenth-century Britain. Hughes, also a poet of note, portrays the enslavement of children in those “dark Satanic mills” with disturbing precision, offering his youngest characters shreds of dignity, which life has deprived them of so roundly. He also shows men and women maimed and worked to death by owners intent on extracting every last ounce of their labor. A major figure in the novel is a father who flees a mill and joins the Luddite Revolution. I read this book thirty-five years ago and remember it vividly. It presents the underbelly of the Industrial Revolution—and the ample reasons for the rebellions it triggered. 

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Beautiful World, Where Are You

By Sally Rooney

Book cover of Beautiful World, Where Are You

Why this book?

This is the most recent novel to make my list. As much as I relished Rooney’s earlier work, her latest is heftier, for it grapples with the genuine planetary and personal crises faced by her generation. Her characters don’t shy away from speaking openly about love, sex, and relationships—or the perverse economic system that is rapidly bringing humanity to its knees with consumer-driven smiles painted on its faces. Neither do her characters hold back from earnest discussions of Marxism. The latter note is getting wide play culturally, particularly with millennials, but mainstream media has rarely picked up on the reverberations underfoot. Rooney’s Beautiful World, Where Are You? is not so reticent—and more rewarding for its brazen honesty about the personal and the political.

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Machine Dreams

By Jayne Anne Phillips

Book cover of Machine Dreams

Why this book?

Machine Dreams is a wrenching novel that chronicles an American family through decades of reflection and turbulence, culminating in the shattering ramifications of the Vietnam War. For those of us who learned to refract the U.S. through the prism of that savagery, which left millions of Vietnamese dead and vast stretches of their country burned and poisoned, Machine Dreams was a novel that radiated the heartsickness of that era on the home front. American families were, indeed, torn apart by that war, but the weaknesses of those bonds had abiding roots. I was weeping by the time I finished this novel but hasten to add that I have no regrets about the experience, only gratitude. 

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The Goldfinch

By Donna Tartt

Book cover of The Goldfinch

Why this book?

I’ve never forgotten Theo Decker, the thoroughly engaging protagonist and narrator of Tartt’s third novel. Although I relished Tartt’s earlier work, I became wondrously lost in The Goldfinch. She won the Pulitzer for this book, deservedly so, which centers around Theo’s theft of a painting, The Goldfinch of the title, and the percolating adventures that follow Theo, his associates, and the painting itself. Tartt is superb at juggling both plotlines and timelines—and entertaining to the end. It’s one of the most engaging novels I’ve ever read. I will read it again.  

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Blood Meridian: Or the Evening Redness in the West

By Cormac McCarthy

Book cover of Blood Meridian: Or the Evening Redness in the West

Why this book?

Blood Meridian is a searing account of the ruthless violence of a gang of indiscriminate killers in the Southwest in the mid-nineteenth century. The violence is graphic, surreal at times, as the principal characters scalp Native Americans for money. But the gang murders many others as well, brutalizing the innocent and non-innocent alike. McCarthy’s Faulknerian skills are on full display, striking poetic if nerve-rattling notes. While his characters share wantonly in the bloodshed, they rise distinctly from the page, perhaps none more memorably than The Judge, aptly named for his considerations of the violence he both engenders and willfully embraces. This is an entirely edgy novel that houses all manner of horrors, none gratuitous. McCarthy limns all this—and much more—with his rarefied skill.  

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