test

Binge-worthy books. Image: Ryan McEachern/Penguin

It's probably fair to say that most of us have been watching a terrific amount of telly recently. Something about being trapped inside our homes for three months has given us the freedom to make a serious dent in our Netflix queue. Thing is, excessive TV viewing is not great for our health. Indeed, one study published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine found, quite shockingly, that "every single hour of TV viewed after the age of 25 reduces the viewer's life expectancy by 21.8 minutes." 

But Netflix, Amazon, iPlayer and so on aren't the only places that offer binge-worthy storytelling. It goes without saying that many of the most successful TV series, from Game of Thrones to Outlander, are – whisper it! – based on books. And the books are often better. Plus, a good book series lasts a lot longer than a six-episode blockbuster, and has the time and space to go far deeper into plot, character and context. So, from Philip Pullman to Malorie Blackman, here are 10 of our favourite book series to binge on.

Wars of the Roses series by Conn Iggulden (2014-2016)

Number of books: Four

Perfect for fans of Game of Thrones, Conn Iggulden's four-part series raises an army of dukes and barons, longbowmen and spymasters, armour-clad warriors and ladies in waiting in this epic saga that summons all the mud, blood, stink and romance of life in medieval England.

With the death of warrior-king Henry V, 15th-century England descends into chaos. The new king, Henry VI, is young and weak – not a shade on his father, who won the Battle of Agincourt. The French are back, and they want their lands returned. Henry's best bet to keep them at bay? A royal marriage to Margaret of Anjou, a French princess. But soon factions within his own establishment turn sour, and the seeds of rebellion begin to sprout.

What follows is a bubbling stew of betrayal, intrigue and the naked pursuit of power from one of Britain's best writers of historical fiction, in a narrative bursting with vividly drawn characters (some real, some not) and jack-in-the-box moments that'll keep the pages turning long after the train passes your stop.

His Dark Materials series by Philip Pullman (1995-2000)

Number of books: Three

His Dark Materials is the series of books that, a quarter century ago, propelled Philip Pullman’s name into storytelling lore. The trilogy (comprising Northern Lights, The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass) chronicles the lives of two children, Lyra and Will, as they wander through a series of parallel universes while battling a shadowy oligarchy of evil overlords called The Magisterium (a not-so-subtle allegory for the Catholic church).

It’s a weaving and complex tale about destiny and morality and the death of God that involves angels and magical bears and ex-nuns and out-of-body animal souls that, thrown together, make a steaming, rich brew that you won't want to put down.

The Lord of the Rings by J. R. R. Tolkien (1954-1955)

Number of books: Three

One trilogy to rule them all... This, really, is the trilogy of all trilogies, the series of books that effectively dragged the fantasy genre out of the literary ghetto and into the “mainstream”. Before J. R. R. Tolkien published The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers and The Return of the King (between 1954 and 1955) fantasy books were mostly seen as children's toys. Not The Lord of the Rings.

Even if you've not seen Peter Jackson's movie, you know the gist – four hobbits, a human, an elf, a dwarf and a wizard go on a perilous mission through “Middle Earth” (loosely based on Wales) to destroy a golden ring with apocalyptic powers, bumping into a phantasmagoria of evil villainy en route. But if you haven't read the book, you don't really know the story. For a start, Frodo is far more heroic in the books. And Golem is far creepier. But it's Tolkien's language (including the ones he made up) that really burns into the brain and keeps the pages turning.

Noughts & Crosses by Malorie Blackman

Number of books: Five (with a final one on the way)

Inspired by the shocking murder of Stephen Lawrence in 1991, Noughts & Crosses skewers the inequalities between black and white Britons by turning them upside down, depicting a nation colonised long ago by imperial Africa. In this alternate reality, Britain's black population (the Crosses) rules over its white population (the Noughts) in a society riven by racial prejudice.

And at its heart lies a Romeo and Juliet-style love story between Sephy (daughter of one of the leading Crosses) and Callum (a lowly Nought, whose mother was Sephy's nanny) as they fight for their right to fall in love on their own terms. The series starts with Noughts & Crosses, followed by Knife Edge, Checkmate, Double Cross and Crossfire. And Blackman is currently working on the sixth and final episode in this ravishing tale of forbidden love across a racial divide.

D. I. Harry Virdee series by A. A. Dhand (2015-2019)

Number of books: Five

If gritty contemporary British crime drama is your flavour, then Harry Virdee, the “heavy-handed” detective caught between his duty as a copper and his identity as a British Sikh, is your man. And he always catches his.

Beginning with Streets of Darkness (left), A. A. Dhand's series of crime novels has already earned comparisons with Luther and The Wire for its no-filter portrayal of criminal cat-and-mouse on the tough streets of Bradford.

As bodies pile up, D. I. Virdee must catch the killers in a city torn apart by violence, exploitation and racial tension.

There's plenty of murder – one area where Dhand likes to get particularly creative – but Dhand's true masterstroke is to approach head on, and with no apologies, not just the racial and religious tensions that have shaken Bradford's British Asian community of late, but also controversies such as child grooming and terrorism.

Confessions of a Shopaholic by Sophie Kinsella (2000-2019)

Number of books: 10

Becky Bloomwood is a sassy but klutzy financial journalist with a terrifying problem: she's clueless with money. Sophie Kinsella's smart and snappy “Shopaholic” series is a thrilling and hilarious ride across the landscape of mild addiction, but with a lead character so endearingly hapless that you can't help but root for her as she speeds down fashion's fast lane in an orgy of avarice that will surely end in an emotional pile up.

Or will it?

The real villain here isn't an ineffectual boyfriend or a Devil Wears Prada boss. It's her overdraft and its dastardly henchman, the bank manager. As the books progress (there are 10 of them), she gets married, has a baby, discovers a long-lost sister, gets a high-paying TV job, loses it, moves to Hollywood and other hijinks, all while never losing sight of her fight to stay in the black.

An irresistible romp about life, love and unrealistic goals that'll make you laugh and cry in sweet relief that those credit card bills are Becky's, not yours.

The Vampire Chronicles by Anne Rice (1976-2018)

Number of books: 13

It's a tough gig, being a vampire – all creaky châteaux, unsociable hours and the unending pursuit of your next maiden fix. Not to mention having to live through the bamboozling passage of time and technologies. It's been more than 40 years since Anne Rice wrote Interview with a Vampire, the first instalment of her sensationally successful series about blood sucking and sex.

The 13-volume anthology, which follows vampire Lestat de Lioncourt in his ceaseless pursuit of his next kill, has sold well over 80 million copies around the world, and inspired a devil's dominion of film and TV adaptations.

But forget Tom Cruise, the books are where Lestat truly comes to life. Far from the dessicated ancient vampires of Bram Stoker and John Polidori (whose 1819 short story The Vampyre is said to have created the vampire genre of fantasy fiction), he was the Dark Prince that changed how we saw vampires. Which is to say: they can be sexy, and broodingly sensitive, too. Without Anne Rice, there would likely be no Twilight or True Blood.

Once The Vampire Chronicles get their teeth into you, there's no turning back.

The Jack Reacher series by Lee Child (1997-2020)

Number of books: 25

Loner, drifter, hard-bitten do-gooder, Jack Reacher is a hero for our age. The 6ft 5in former military policeman, with hands as "big as a supermarket chicken", has attracted a legion of famous fans since his inception in 1997 with Killing Floor, from Kate Atkinson to Haruki Murakami. When the author Dame Margaret Drabble was asked what book she wished she'd written, she responded: “Anything by Lee Child. What page turners, what prose, what landscapes, what motorways and motels, what mythic dimensions! I read, awestruck, waiting impatiently for the next.”

Child's careful, crisp, stripped-back prose acts like a literary headlock, dragging you deeper into the action as Reacher wanders from nowhere town to nowhere town, righting wrongs and dispatching baddies, usually with the help of a tough female sidekick who needs no favours from him.

Again, forget Tom Cruise. This is the real Jack Reacher – the hero we all wish we were. Or, as the legendary New Yorker writer John Lanchester put it, “He is an existential hero, the apotheosis of the lone stranger, travelling the Lower Forty-eight with nothing but his folding toothbrush and his code.”

Pick and mix any six of Lee Child's Jack Reacher books for £30 in the Penguin Shop.

The MaddAddam Trilogy by Margaret Atwood (2003-2013)

Number of books: Three

As with her Booker-winning dilogy The Handmaid's Tale and The Testaments, Margaret Atwood is back to the future. This future, though, is one where a mad scientist working for an evil corporation developed a virus that caused, ahem, a pandemic and wiped out most of humanity.

The survivors must scrape through the ensuing post-apocalyptic wasteland, battling against starvation, injury and attack by mutant monster pigs or feral gangs. One is Snowman. We learn of his past, before the world went wonky, his friendship with an ambitious but calamitous scientist called Crake, and the beautiful and elusive Oryx whom they both once loved.

From there, the series progresses like a stampede of genetically engineered bison, careening through a world shadowy ruling corporations, bioengineered mutants, do-gooder eco cults and "gentle humanoids" made in labs. In this world – a cracked mirror to our own, perhaps – porn is used to control minds, people customise their children by “ordering up DNA like pizza toppings” and all sorts of other too-close-for-comfort visions of our possible future.

Outlander series by Diana Gabaldon (1991-2014)

Number of books: Eight (with one in the works)

Diana Gabaldon's Outlander series has gained a rabid cult following since the first came out in 1991. The sweeping time-travelling saga tells the story of British nurse Claire Randall who, while on honeymoon in Scotland in 1946, stumbles across an ancient circle of standing stones that spirit her to 18th-century Scotland. There, she meets, and falls for, the dashing Highland warrior-outlaw Jamie Fraser.

Trouble is, the Scotland of 1743 is riven by tribal tensions, and a bloody war has broken out, and the lovebirds must navigate this quagmire of blood-rivalry, betrayal and violence. But as with all time-travel stories, there comes a point when Claire must return to her world.

Only now she's pregnant, which rather complicates matters. As the books progress, Claire time-hops between the 20th and 18th centuries, always in search of her old love, from England to Scotland to the American Revolution and beyond in a rollicking mash-up of past and almost-present, soaked in sex, swordplay and no small amount of Scottish charm.

Related articles


Strictly Necessary


Analytics


Preferences & Features


Targeting / Advertising