What Makes Fiction Books Great?
The best fiction books are all about storytelling. A well-written, engaging story takes hold of your imagination and draws you in, heart and soul. You connect with the characters deeply. You begin to see them as real people who you love or despise.
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I have been an avid fiction reader for most of my life. I began reading independently at age four, and since then I have read literally hundreds of fiction books and series.
Some of the fiction books I read were personally enriching and memorable. Others would make good kindling for a fire! Many more were simply “fluff,” a way to pass the time when there was nothing better to do.
Books Worth Reading
As a mom of six children, I am super picky about what fiction books I read now. My time and my emotional energy are both limited, so I don’t want to feel like I am wasting either by reading something stupid. Or worse, reading something that is going to have a negative impact on my mental or emotional state!
Many people (myself included) read fiction books because they want to escape the hard realities of everyday life for a short time. In my opinion, a great fiction book doesn’t have to always have a happy ending (although I hope it will!). The best fiction books have an ending that brings appropriate resolution to the story.
Great fiction books have always included deep themes, and may include political commentary or references to current events. I can appreciate that.
However, I feel angry when an author brings in political or current events for no apparent reason other than to satisfy an agenda. I can find agendas on any other media source!
Fiction Books To Avoid
I have other high standards for what I won’t read in books. Gratuitous gore, anything beyond minimal violence, or medically descriptive wounds are out.
I also can only tolerate a minimum of sexual content. If more than a kiss is being described, or suggested, I will skip past it. Any kind of sexual abuse or trauma also gets nixed.
With all that said, I wanted to share with you books that I have enjoyed and that I consider to have lasting value. These are books that I have read multiple times, or books that I plan to read again.
Perennial Favorite Fiction Books and Series
1. C. S. Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia and Space Trilogy
I love C.S. Lewis’ ability to weave a story, while also conveying incredible truths about life along the way. I have read the Chronicles of Narnia dozens of times, and have owned at least three different copies of the series. They are just that good!
The Horse and His Boy is my current favorite, because the characters behave so realistically. The story also has many unexpected twists and turns.
The Chronicles of Narnia book series
I also enjoyed the first two books of Lewis’ Space Trilogy. His creativity in imagining the unknown worlds of space is a delight. I hated the third book, though- unnecessary violence, and somewhat “preachy”.
I’ve included a more descriptive review of Out of the Silent Planet and Perelandra in our list of sci-fi books for kids 5th grade and up.
Space Trilogy books
2. G. K. Chesterton’s Father Brown mysteries
A friend recommended Chesterton, and I was so thankful for her suggestion! Father Brown appears to be entirely ordinary and unexciting. However, his astute observations of people and his deep concern for people’s souls is so satisfying to read.
I always try to figure out the mystery beforehand, but I’m not usually good at it!
G. K. Chesterton Father Brown mysteries
3. Christopher Paolini’s Eragon series
The world-building in the Eragon series is wonderful! I love watching the main character and others in the series grow up and mature throughout the books.
This series is an example of what I consider to have a satisfactory ending, without being a “happy” ending. Life doesn’t always have a “happy ending”, but I do want to see good win, and bad be defeated.
Note: if you know someone who loves dragons, check out our list of dragon gifts for her or for him!
The Eragon series
4. J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy
I am going to express an unpopular opinion here: Tolkien’s writing is laborious and tediously detailed! That’s why I never managed to finish “The Hobbit” as a teenager. There were way too many unneeded details for someone who can “see” the story in their mind as they read it!
Having said that, I found the Lord of the Rings to be worthwhile reading. The characters are interesting, and their backstories interweave with the entire world of Middle Earth, and with the other characters’ stories beautifully.
It is truly impressive to read the level of detail Tolkien put into the story. He created Elvish language and others, and envisioned the geography and history of the lands he describes. I did end up skipping over some of the story setting details (I know what a forest looks like, so why describe it for two pages?!).
If you struggle to “get into” the books, watch one or two of the movie versions first. I found the books a lot easier to follow once I had the characters all straight in my head!
J. R. R. Tolkien The Lord of The Rings
5. Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories
The original and best detective mysteries! Doyle created a timeless character duo of Holmes and Watson, and I have always loved how well they work together.
It’s funny, because it almost seems like Holmes doesn’t need Watson. And yet, Watson provides a stability and humanity that brings out the best in Holmes.
I have much more sympathy and patience for Holmes’ foibles because I see the genius in his odd ways. It’s actually quite reminiscent of ADHD characteristics, which I see in my children and husband often.
My favorite Holmes mysteries are the short stories, although Hound of the Baskervilles was amazing the first time I read it!
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes series
6. Agatha Christie’s mysteries
Agatha Christie is my second favorite mystery author. What I enjoy most about Christie is the accurate descriptions she paints of people. She clearly was a shrewd observer of human behavior.
I still struggle to figure out “who did it” in unfamiliar books. But even on the second and third reading I am often surprised again because she hides her clues so well.
My favorites of hers are the Hercule Poirot stories, particularly Curtain and also The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. Miss Marple, another of Christie’s detectives, is a hilarious old lady, and I love reading about her as well.
Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot stories (best of)
Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple mysteries
7. Dorothy Sayers Lord Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane mysteries
I was introduced to Dorothy Sayers after watching the televised BBC versions- she can spin a tale with the best of them!
Some of the stories do have some violence, so you may have to skip sections. Watching the relationships develop between different characters is both agonizing and entertaining.
Dorothy Sayers Lord Peter Wimsey series (Kindle version)
8. P. D. Wodehouse’s Wooster and Jeeves series
Oh my goodness! If you enjoy reading about someone else’s mishaps and socially awkward situations, you will love PD Wodehouse! So many hilarious scrapes and witty turns-of-phrase.
It is sheer entertainment to read about Wooster and Jeeves and how many things can manage to go wrong!
P D Wodehouse The Code of the Woosters
P D Wodehouse The Jeeves Collection
9. Lloyd Alexander’s Prydain Chronicles and Westmark Trilogy
The Prydain Chronicles were gifted to me for my 7th birthday, and I read those copies so many times that they finally fell apart. If you have seen the Disney version of “The Black Cauldron,” please don’t judge these books based on that!
Reading the story of a teen growing into adulthood and finding himself along the way was one of the favorites of my own teen years. I love fantasy, and this is creative fantasy storytelling at its best.
The Chronicles of Prydain book series.
The Westmark Trilogy is another series that I enjoyed by Lloyd Alexander. It is much more like an 1800s political story, but again, the creative storytelling was enjoyable and it wasn’t so politically heavy that it lost sight of the story.
Lloyd Alexander’s Westmark Trilogy
10. Jane Austen’s Novels
Her works are classics for a reason. Yes, they always end with people finding love and getting married, but don’t dismiss them as simply romance novels. Austen presents characters that are real, and hilariously witty.
If you have never read her books, or only seen the movie version, you are missing out on the brilliance of her writing. Even though they are set nearly two hundred years ago, her novels portray people’s character in ways that are easily recognizable in our modern world.
Jane Austen‘s books
11. Cressida Cowell’s How to Train Your Dragon series
I started reading these because I was previewing books for my children, and then got entirely caught up in the storyline. My kids and I love the immature humor (with names like Big-Boobied Bertha and Snotlout) and Toothless’ mischievous nature.
However this series also shows how a hero comes of age and “becomes a hero the hard way.” Every kid needs to see for themself that even though life can really be difficult and heartbreaking, in the end, good always wins. Evil people receive justice, and people of integrity will find that it is rewarded with friendship and loyalty.
The humor is helpful in keeping the books from getting too serious. I could not put these books down!
Cressida Cowell’s How to Train Your Dragon series
12. J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series
This was a series I avoided on principle, because so many Christians I knew were upset by the witchcraft connection. As a minister, I saw no need to stir the pot by weighing in on this.
In my first year of college, I picked up Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone to assess its reading level for a reading tutor program that was my job. The plot drew me in on the first page! JK Rowling is an unparalleled storyteller, and she subtly weaves in all the details along the way .
After I blazed through the first three books in just a few days (between classes), I went back over them again while waiting to get hold of the fourth book. I found that J. K. Rowling had laid the foundation so well that there were things that happened in the third book that were set up from the very first chapter of the first book!
As to the witchcraft element, I came to a realization. As with any story, you can miss the point by getting hung up on the details. I think that’s what happened for many Christians with this series.
The wizarding elements are there to support the storytelling, not to encourage kids to become witches and wizards. If kids get drawn into witchcraft from reading these books, it’s usually because they were looking for something they did not find elsewhere. People blame their actions on secondary causes all the time, and it’s no different with this.
I related to Harry as a boy who stood out from everyone else because of tragedy that happened to him as a baby, before he had any choice in the matter. He chose to rise above and become a hero in his own right. That’s why the story appeals to so many of us.
The humor and world-building are so incredible that I return to these books again and again just to immerse myself for a few minutes into a different reality. Harry’s story, and his world, are beloved by many because they are well-crafted by a master storyteller.
J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter book series
13. Gerald Morris’ The Squire’s Tale series
These are King Arthur stories, written from a satirical and humorous viewpoint. I have always enjoyed Arthurian legends, but these novels take them to the next level.
The stories are not predictable in any way, even though they are based loosely on the legends. The books are full of real, human interactions even though the setting is clearly fantasy.
The author makes fun of religious pomp, while still remaining respectful of people who are morally upright. Not easy to balance, but Morris aces it. Lots of laughs, and good storytelling, is always a win in my book!
Gerald Morris’ The Squire’s Tale Book 1
Gerald Morris’ The Squire, His Knight, and His Lady (Book 2)
14. Alexander McCall Smith The #1 Ladies Detective Agency series
As a teen I spent eight years with my family in a remote area of Jamaica. These books bore many similarities to the culture and people I grew up with.
The stories are not murder mysteries— they are people mysteries (disappearances, unusual occurrences, and so on). Precious Ramotswe, the heroine, walks through these experiences with dignity and wisdom.
Life in Botswana is described so engagingly that you begin to wish you could live there yourself. I have enjoyed most of McCall Smith’s novel series, but this one is my favorite.
Trigger warning: there is one scene in the first book that I skipped past, but it was necessary to understanding the story.
Alexander McCall Smith The #1 Ladies Detective Agency series book 1
Alexander McCall Smith Tears of the Giraffe (Book 2 of the series)
15. Rex Stout “Nero Wolfe” mysteries
I love mysteries that have witty or unexpected characters in them! Nero Wolfe is a detective whose main hobby is growing orchids?! He sends his valet/secretary to track down all the details and then solves the mystery.
I don’t know why, but somehow these stories are just entertaining without being scary.
Rex Stout Fer-De-Lance and The League of Frightened Men (Nero Wolfe) 2-for-1
16. Laura Ingalls Wilder’s “Little House” series
There is a reason that these books are still so popular, in spite of political issues. If you want to truly get a feel for the challenges of pioneer life, read these books!
Laura Ingalls Wilder describes life on the prairies with such attention to detail that it’s easy to picture it in your mind. As a parent, I have appreciated reading her books for the child’s perspective she remembers and chronicles so well.
We listened to several of her books on our summer road trip across the Plains, and my kids loved hearing how another kid experienced the areas we drove through. They could really understand how boring it was to travel by wagon and do nothing but sit all day…
Laura Ingalls Wilder Little House series (books 1-9)
17. Jules Verne’s Journey to the Center of the Earth or Around the World in 80 Days
As one of the earliest science fiction writers, Jules Verne is fascinating to read. He describes things that had not yet been seen, or done, in his time.
We live in an era where the things he describes have been far surpassed or are now much better understood. I appreciate the perspective of seeing the world through the eyes of people who hadn’t discovered it all yet.
I love reading the story of Phileas Fogg and his valet Passepartout, and hearing about the traveling adventures they had in different areas of the world. As a traveler, I relate to the unexpected mishaps, and the different cultural experiences described in the book. And to think that now we can go around the world in a matter of hours!
As for the Journey to the Center of the Earth, it’s entertaining to read about how people thought about the Earth’s core years before they could find out. Not to mention that it’s just a fun tale!
Jules Verne’s Around the World in 80 Days
Jules Verne’s Journey to the Center of the Earth
18. Jenny Nimmo’s “Charlie Bone” series
I love stories of an underdog who grows up over the course of a story. When there’s magic and mystery elements included, that’s an added bonus. Charlie Bone has all of these.
This series also has a lot of unexpected twists and turns along the way, and is in no way predictable. It is a fantasy series, but the magical elements are creative and not the typical ones you would expect.
I love that Charlie Bone is such a likable, everyday kid. He has to put up with a lot of bullying, but he doesn’t give in and go with the flow, even though that would seem likely to improve his situation. He is courageous, without being rebellious.
Jenny Nimmo’s Charlie Bone series, 8 books
19. Rick Riordan’s “Percy Jackson” series and “Kane Chronicles” series
Riordan is an excellent storyteller, and his research into the mythologies he writes about is evident. More than once, my husband Brian has been talking about the ancient Egyptian or Greek beliefs/ practices and I am already familiar with what Brian describes because I read about it in one of the Riordan books.
My ADHD kids have loved reading about Percy Jackson’s adventures, because Percy also has an ADHD diagnosis. I enjoy the cynical humor that pops up throughout the books. Riordan has done an amazing job of reimagining the ancient world to make it relevant to the present day.
I have read several others of Rick Riordan’s series, but it felt like his political agenda started becoming more important than the stories in his later books. For that reason, I only recommend these two series.
Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson series
Rick Riordan’s Kane Chronicles series
20. Louisa May Alcott “Little Women” series
I have often enjoyed historical fiction, but especially when it involves characters and situations that I can relate to. The characters in Little Women are so realistic and believable!
I chuckled at Meg’s marriage mishaps and Jo’s impulsive way of handling life. Amy as the annoying younger sister was also relatable for anyone who has younger siblings— you love them, but boy can they push your buttons!
Louisa May Alcott Little Women series
21. H. Rider Haggard’s “King Solomon’s Mines”
I’m not sure whether to call this historical fiction or fantasy. It’s set in Africa in the 1800s, but it’s about as historical as National Treasure (that is, a totally fictitious plot). Whatever the case, this is a fun story to read, and again, completely unpredictable.
I enjoyed reading this one because it’s just so different from the usual storyline, and because I could relate to the cultural interactions throughout. The character of Alan Quartermain appears in other novels, but I haven’t read them yet.
H. Rider Haggard’s King Solomon’s Mines
Best of the Best
I could go on and on adding to this list, but these books are the ones I return to over and over again. These books have lasting interest for me, and storytelling that keeps me coming back to enjoy them again. I hope you will enjoy them too, and maybe even find some new favorites!
© Copyright 2021 Jennifer D. Warren