Books we weren't the same after reading

Julie Vuong recommends eight transformative reads.

Sometimes, when we're least expecting it, a book does something truly profound. Yes, books are often powerful, but we’re talking about the rare gems; the writing that can be shelved under ‘genuinely life-changing’. You know the ones: the novel that opened up a new perspective; the holiday read that wrung out every last drop of emotion; the poignant passage that left an everlasting mark. If 2023 has prompted you to seek out more thought-provoking, emotionally-impactful reading, then bid adieu to your current self and dive into this list of books that get under your skin and stay there.

A Little Life

by Hanya Yanagihara

Book cover for A Little Life

In the book Olympics for the most emotionally bruising, A Little Life makes the podium every time. Think you’re hardened to the world? Hanya Yanagihara’s Booker-shortlisted novel will make you think again. Despite its challenging themes and graphic content, A Little Life has found its way into people’s hearts – so much so that a play based on the book opens in London this year.

Those who can’t get enough of Yanagihara’s writing should grab a copy of her latest novel, To Paradise.

Shuggie Bain

by Douglas Stuart

Book cover for Shuggie Bain

Prepare yourself: Douglas Stuart’s critically acclaimed debut cuts right to the bone. Destined to be a modern classic, Shuggie Bain brings us into a family living on the edge in Thatcher-era Glasgow. Bleak? Yes. Devastating? Absolutely. But there’s boundless humanity and warmth in the life of young Hugh ‘Shuggie’ Bain that will steal your heart away. 

Room

by Emma Donoghue

Book cover for Room

We might be biased, but surely there’s no better way to put yourself in somebody else’s shoes than with a book – especially, it turns out, when they happen to be those of a five-year-old boy trapped in a room with his Ma. In Emma Donoghue’s brilliantly executed Room, Jack’s entire world is a 10-by-10-ft. garden shed; it’s where he eats and plays, and sometimes hides when Old Nick visits Ma. Expect your heart to double in size at Jack’s innocence and this beautiful portrait of motherly love.

The Lovely Bones

by Alice Sebold

Book cover for The Lovely Bones

Alice Sebold's celebrated novel allows you no breathing room, immediately delivering an emotional karate chop you never quite recover from. Susie Salmon is narrating from heaven in the aftermath of her death, observing the grief of her family and meditating on her own sense of what’s been lost. As unlikely as it sounds, The Lonely Bones is incredibly uplifting and at times thriller-esque, and will haunt you long after you’ve put it down.

This is Going to Hurt

by Adam Kay

Book cover for This is Going to Hurt

Adam Kay recounts his time as a junior doctor in searingly honest fashion, allowing us full access to the operating theatre with none of the brutal, bloody details spared (warning: this is not for the squeamish). You’ll laugh, cry and never view our health service in quite the same way again. 

The Patrick Melrose novels

by Edward St Aubyn

Book cover for The Patrick Melrose novels

If you haven’t yet discovered the Patrick Melrose novels you have not one but five unforgettable experiences in store. The tragi-comic series, following Patrick from an abused five-year-old to an adult in freefall, explores how trauma in childhood can shape us and the extremes we go to escape it. The writing is drenched in sadness and humour, made all the more affecting when you learn that our protagonist is modelled on Edward St Aubyn himself. 

Kindred

by Octavia E. Butler

Book cover for Kindred

Expect to debate Octavia Butler’s time-hopping sci-fi classic for years to come. When Dana is transported from the 1970s to nineteenth-century Maryland, she finds herself at the hands of a brutal white enslaver – a man she learns is her ancestor whose fate is consequently intertwined with hers. Kindred is a great advert for the genre, asking life’s big questions in riveting, gripping style.

Educated

by Tara Westover

Book cover for Educated

Educated is hard to put down and even harder to forget. Tara Westover charts her extraordinary and unlikely path from a survivalist family in rural Idaho to a student in the hallowed halls of Cambridge. A lyrical and illuminating memoir, it’s a beautiful ode to the power of education that teaches us a thing or two about overcoming life’s obstacles.