I don’t know about you, but I often hesitate before picking up an enormous book, even if I know it has a fabulous reputation and friends are urging me to read it. Even though I am a quick and voracious reader, it’s quite an investment, isn’t it? So in this blog I’m going to tell you about the top ten enormous books I have read and can recommend, and hopefully give you enough of a taster for you to make up your own mind whether to follow suit.
Some genres lend themselves to being longer (Sci fi and fantasy in particular) and indeed the publishing world now expects a certain size from a certain genre (which could mean there are some amazing tomes out there being lost simply because publishers don’t think they fit into the right categories). So I’ve tried to pick big books from different genres, rather than giving you, say ten fantasy novels, which would be easy. I’ve also defined big books as those which have, in the editions I’ve read, more than 500 pages at a bare minimum.
Crime & thriller – these tend to be short and pacey, but my first two recommendations are long, long LONG.
1. Troubled Blood by Robert Galbraith. This is the fourth in the series about Cormoran Strike and his sidekick Robin, written by JK Rowling under her other pen name, and like the fourth Harry Potter, is far longer than all the previous. However to me this one is absolutely superb. She has really hit her stride with this one.I have to admit after the third in the series I had decided I wouldn’t bother, but having read some good reviews I decided to give her one last chance. So glad I did. This is intricately plotted, with brilliant red herrings, a good cast of suspects, and it left me, for one, guessing until the very last page. Think Agatha Christie for the 21st century. 920+ pages
2. The Secret History by Donna Tartt. This is one of those books that you know about, and for me the longer I put off reading it, the more of a challenge it became. It seemed to be cited in creative writing classes so often, I knew it was probably a great read, so eventually, in 2019, I got around to it. My Goodreads review at the time says, ‘This is Great Gatsby meets Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. With murder. It’s great.’ I don’t remember writing that, but I do remember being blown away by a crime novel which opens with the murder and the murderers all revealed. I know that has been done quite a bit since, but I reckon this was one of the first whodunnits, and to me it is the best. 600+ pages.
I was going to recommend CJ Sansom here, but his first novel – Dissolution – comes in at a mere 440 pages. The subsequent books are far longer. These are set in Tudor times and blend the history of that period with murder mystery, each one focusing on a particular event, starting with the dissolution of the monasteries, through Henry VIII’s life and various marriages, including events like the sinking of the Mary Rose in Heartstone (book 5, 600+ pages). If you like that period of history (and who doesn’t?) and enjoy a good whodunnit, then take a look.
Historical fiction – many books in this genre are longer, especially if they involve dual time lines. Here are some of my favourites.
3. The Crimson Petal and the White by Michel Faber. Another big tome I’d been putting off reading, even though his Under the Skin is one of my all time favourites. Again I got around to this in 2019 (what was happening then, I wonder?) My goodreads review at the time says “Flipping marvellous. Feminist Dickens with rude bits. Seriously though it’s a tour de force.” Yep, I’ll stand by that. Michel Faber gets right inside his female protagonists’ heads, and creates fully rounded, understandable characters. 800+ pages
4. The Forgotten Garden by Kate Morton. This one has multiple time lines, switching between 1913, 1975 and 2005, in Australia and Cornwall. It opens with a small child abandoned on a ship heading for Australia from England, and if that’s not a gripping start then I don’t know what is. I honestly could not put it down, and it was one of those books which you almost didn’t want to end, it was such a satisfying read. I’d recommend her other books as well – all long, all good – in particular The House at Riverton, and The Secret Keeper. 650+ pages.
5. Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks. The best book ever written about the first world war, I reckon; at least it haunted me for a long, long time. In fact just as I finished reading this, I accompanied my son’s school trip to Thiepval, Vimy Ridge, Verdun and Lochnagar, and oh my goodness it certainly added to what is a profound experience. I don’t think any book has affected me as much for quite a long time. 500+ pages
General/ literary/ classic fiction
6. Bleak House by Charles Dickens. I read this for a book group, otherwise I don’t think I would have ever picked it up. We were on a skiing holiday at the time and it was the only book I had brought because I needed to read it before the group met. I remember being about 200 pages in and thinking, ‘nothing much has happened’ and then suddenly, it gripped me, and oh boy I could not stop! It was a wrench to put it down and go skiing – so that’s saying something. Of course after that, the brilliant BBC adaptation came out, which was pretty true to the book, so you could always watch that instead, but you’d be missing out on Dickens’s marvellous way with words. 900+ pages.
7. Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver. Another of my all time favourites, and, I’ve just remembered, another book I read for the aforementioned book group. Thanks guys! Set in the Belgian Congo in 1959, it follows the wife and four daughters of an evangelical missionary. Apart from the gripping plot, and knowing that one of these people dies but not knowing who, I loved the wonderful portrayal of this family, so out of their depth in this new environment but determinedly pressing on thinking the American way is best, even when patently it is not and they are likely to starve if they don’t listen to the locals. Also the central force in this book is the tyrannical father, but he has no narrative voice; instead this is given to the wives and daughters (A masterclass in multiple point of view writing, for the writers amongst you) 600+ pages
8. So Much for That by Lionel Shriver. I do rate Lionel Shriver as a writer. Couldn’t put down We Need to Talk About Kevin, for instance, and The Mandibles is a great bit of dystopian fiction (although Shriver obviously did a lot of research about economics to write this, and boy you’re going to know it). However I think this is one of her best books, and it’s all about what’s wrong with the American Medical System and also what’s wrong with the way we talk about cancer as something to ‘battle’ or ‘fight’. It’s really thought provoking but also a gripping read. 500+ pages
Sci fi/ fantasy – you’d be hard pressed to find a short fantasy book, and that’s not surprising. There’s world building in addition to story, and if you get into Tolkein, there are other languages to get to grips with as well. Many books are also part of a series, and you often need to read them all to actually get to the end of the story arc – Patrick Ness’s – Chaos Walking Trilogy, for instance, or indeed the seven Harry Potter books or Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials – now up to five. All three series are worth reading of course; the world building, the plotting, the characterisation and the ideas are absolutely brilliant. If you’ve never discovered Doris Lessing’s Canopus in Argus series, then it’s a classic worth revisiting – start with Shikasta. And then of course there is Stephen King…. the master of the massive book. Having said that, I actually think his best books are the shorter ones – Carrie or Misery or Mr Mercedes. But he can go big, and the book I’ve chosen here is the longest one he’s written.
9. The Stand by Stephen King. The apocalypse starts with an artificially created flu virus accidentally released from a laboratory in the USA (but in these days of Covid-19 conspiracy theories, don’t let that put you off!) We then have a disjointed road journey with a cast of survivors and some odd maniacs, with supernatural elements (after all, this is Stephen King). I think this is a must read because although it is long and occasionally disjointed, it’s a tour de force. 1300+ pages
Funny – It’s odd isn’t it? Very few funny books are long. I guess it’s quite hard to sustain that. Which is why Marian Keyes is such a treat, because all her books are long and also very funny. What people who have not read her books don’t realise is that they also have a dark and serious side, and have rich three dimensional characters and intricate and pacey plotting.
10. This Charming Man by Marian Keyes. It was hard to choose my favourite Keyes’ book, so I’ve chosen the first one I read. I was expecting something light and fluffy, and it really wasn’t. It’s funny and engaging, but it’s also about some really dark stuff going on in there about domestic violence. If you’ve never read her before, have a go at this one, and if you enjoy it, then you’ve got a whole bookshelf of other books to enjoy! I’m actually envious. 900+ pages
There were so many other books I wanted to include here – Time Traveller’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger (500+ pages) The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood (600+ pages). Gone With The Wind by Margaret Mitchell (800+ pages) was one of the earliest massive books I read, and although we’d probably question its sensibilities now, there’s no doubt it’s a well-written epic.
I’d love to hear if I’ve introduced you to a new favourite. But until next month- happy reading!