Reading guide

Pocket Penguins: our guide to which book you should read first

The Pocket Penguins are a colourful new addition to the world of classics. We wanted to share why we love each book to help you decide which one to read first

The Beast Within by Émile Zola

This is a book that will never stop being relevant. Complex, thrilling and enthralling, Émile Zola paints a host of characters that are believable in their faults, follies and repugnance, while never sacrificing his readers’ sympathy. Though it was originally published in 1890, the world that Zola presents continues to be startlingly familiar to modern readers – addressing issues like greed, the influence of technology on society, jealousy and lust. It’s the kind of story that you race through in one breathless sitting, and force into the hands of friends, co-workers, and unsuspecting strangers for a long time afterwards.

- Savannah McGowan, Group Marketing & Audience Development Assistant

O Pioneers! by Willa Cather

Beautifully written and deceptively simple, O Pioneers! is a stunning novel about the force of nature and, ultimately, our own insignificance by comparison. The first in the Great Plains trilogy, I loved it for its luminous prose and headstrong lead character, Alexandra, who defies everyone that expects her to fail.

- Claire Davis, Digital Marketing Executive

The Cossacks and Hadij Murat by Leo Tolstoy

You know you're reading a great book when strangers are willing to break the silence of the tube to compliment you on your choice of reading. 'Hadji Murat - wonderful. So very real', this particular stranger said to me. Based on Tolstoy's own experiences fighting in the Caucasus region during the Chechen-Russian conflict, here are two short but incredibly powerful stories about the waste of war as well as the intensity and heroism of lives lived on the edge of death.

- Gracie Lofthouse, Content Producer

The Malay Archipelago by Alfred Russel Wallace

The most exotic, scientifically important, adventurous, beautifully written travel book ever written – how an impoverished Englishman wandered from island to island across southeast Asia and came up with ideas that changed the world.

- Simon Winder, Publishing Director

The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge by Rainer Maria Rilke

The Notebooks is one of the few books I’ve defaced, manically underlining sentences out of unbridled enthusiasm, such was their elegance and cleverness. Rilke is the greatest poet of the twentieth century and in this, his only novel, his devotion to 'the lyric' reaches its shimmering apotheosis.

- Sam Voulters, Classics Brand Director

Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf

Stylistically, Mrs Dalloway still feels astonishingly fresh to me almost 100 years after it was written. The way that Woolf does away with the paraphernalia of a conventional novel – eventful plot, concrete setting, fully formed character – to give us instead an impression of life as our minds live it, minute-by-minute, still feels revolutionary. It’s also her most accessible novel.

- Matthew Hutchinson, Publicity Executive

Out of Africa by Karen Blixen

Karen Blixen absorbed a unique storytelling tradition during the years she spent in Kenya, and you can see it so clearly here. Out of Africa feels like a collection of folk tales, warm but reflective, piecing together Blixen’s relationships with the people who worked and lived around her farm, and the other European colonists she spent her time with. It’s so different to other colonial memoirs, with Blixen experiencing genuine friendships outside of her colonial community, and a deep understanding of the different tribes and communities of east Africa.

- Zainab Juma, Email Marketing and CRM Manager

Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka

Kafka’s writing exists in literary legend before anyone encounters it, well-known as he was as an illustrator of the futile, maddening and absurd. Metamorphosis tracks the sudden transformation of a man into a giant beetle. The reactions of his family are surreally cold and chillingly unconcerned, and we see our protagonist become an outcast in what might be an allegory for our antipathy towards disability, mental illness or political dissent.

- Zainab Juma, Email Marketing and CRM Manager

My Childhood by Maxim Gorky

Two deaths, a birth and the most formidable grandmother to roam 19th century Russia: these are just the first five pages of My Childhood. Gorky, through his curious five-year-old self, immerses you into the grey soaked realms of poverty stricken Russia of the late 1800s. Fuelled by survival and filled with observation, it’s the men and women that weave into Gorky’s fabric of early life that ignite his existence and punch from the pages. It’s essentially the Albert Square of 1873; it’s as addictive as a soap opera with a storyline no writer could make up, and a childhood lived like no other.

- Caroline Maddison, Head of Digital Marketing Puffin & Ladybird

The House of Ulloa by Emilia Pardo Bazán

The House of Ulloa has got everything: a crumbling mansion full of secrets, a sinister estate manager, corruption, sex, religion, politics and local feasts featuring twenty-six different dishes. With the action seen through the baffled eyes of the innocent young priest Father Julián, the book is as funny as it is heartbreaking.

- Jess Harrison, Classics Editor

The Betrothed by Alessandro Manzoni

If modern life seems a little grey try The Betrothed - a world where cowardly priests rub shoulders with corrupt noblemen, bequiffed bravoes terrorise the landscape, famine and war devastate the land and the good and the poor struggle to love and live. And then, at the novel’s dramatic conclusion, Manzoni summons up the plague with such viscerally haunting descriptions it knocked me off my seat.

- Claire Wilshaw, Audience Development Director

A Parisian Affair by Guy de Maupassant

Guy de Maupassant is considered one of the fathers of the short story and this dark but humorous collection demonstrates his incredible skill at writing satisfying stories that leave you hungry for more. From rural villages to Parisian streets, we travel through nineteenth-century France discovering a web of secrets, turmoil and destruction connected with those fundamental aspects of the human condition - love and lust. Despite being written over a hundred years ago the stories feel contemporary. It’s the perfect Pocket Penguin to dip in and out of.

- Sarah McKenna, Website Editor

Walden by Henry Thoreau

The foundation stone of the entire environmental movement, Walden revolutionised how we think about nature and humankind’s place in nature – it is both a charming and a harsh book that has inspired many generations of readers.

- Simon Winder, Publishing Director

Fathers and Sons by Ivan Turgenev

This timeless Russian classic of the clash between generations has a surprisingly different effect on the reader depending on their age. Personally, I sympathised with the young characters – it reminds me of the fun times when I was sure adults knew nothing about life.

- Kristina Kanter, Developer

The Rainbow by D H Lawrence

D H Lawrence is mostly known for the controversy surrounding Lady Chatterley’s Lover, but he was also a formally interesting writer, experimenting with early forms of the modernism that would later characterise writers like Joyce and Woolf. The Rainbow spans three generations of a Nottinghamshire farming family, and charts the loves and disappointments of the Brangwens. It’s an emotionally frank story, unafraid of sex, and blunt about the casual cruelty we endure at the hands of lovers.

- Zainab Juma, Email Marketing and CRM Manager

The Call of Cthulhu by H. P. Lovecraft

When I started reading Lovecraft it was like reading the dream journal of a madman, every scene viscerally described, yet full of unspeakable horrors always slightly out of reach. I was first attracted to Lovecraft’s landscapes and mystery, like a good detective novel, then later by the uniqueness of his theme: mankind’s helplessness in a universe too big to understand.

- Mathieu Triay, Creative Developer

The Secret Agent by Joseph Conrad

Why do I love The Secret Agent? Because it is Conrad and so dark and murky. Because it is about politics and people but the political people are monsters. Because the city and the century to come are dark and teeming and Conrad paints it many shades of black.

- Colin Brush, Copywriter

The Good Soldier Svejk by Jaroslav Hasek

Kicked out of the madhouse, certified ‘patent idiot’ Svejk goes to war in very baggy trousers and makes a complete hash of it. This Czech classic was one of my favourite discoveries as a student, with its brilliant comic illustrations and bumbling adventures. It highlights how absurdly pointless the whole business of war is, as Svejk ends up in an array of amusing altercations with various figures of authority, even managing at one point to get captured by his fellow soldiers. But beyond the comedy there’s a blackly satirical comment about conflict and war: is Svejk really just an uncontrollable idiot or the ultimate symbol of passive resistance?’

- Ingrid Matts, Head of Marketing

The Lost Estate by Henri Alain-Fournier

This is one of the few books that has not only stood the test of time since I read it at school, but has added layers of meaning and heartbreak now I’ve re-read it as an adult (Great Expectations is the other, which has a similar haunted feel about it). This story of a restless boy’s desperate yearning for a lost paradise is as magical as childhood, and as sad as growing up.

- Louise Willder, Copywriter

The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov

Very little can prepare you for the wild ride that is The Master and Margarita. You don't get a universe more exquisitely intricate than Bulgakov's, with its humorous dialogue, terrifying brutality, and religious riddles. Following a trickster devil as he turns Stalinist Moscow on its head, it is a bizarre, outrageous and simultaneously addictive reading adventure.

- Claudia Toia, Community Manager

Related features