1.Chinua Achebe – Things Fall Apart: Sometimes regarded as the first mainstream post-colonial novel, Achebe’s work is a fascinating meld of Western and African narrative styles. It tells the story of a proud Nigerian tribesman and his tragic clash with colonial occupation. A fascinating insight into African society.
2.Atkinson, Kate – Behind the Scenes at the Museum: Ruby Lennox, 'sarky, perky, pessimistic', recounts the lives of her Yorkshire family, weaving their back histories with an account of her own childhood. Funny and poignant, no one captures characters as well as Atkinson does. Her stroke of genius is to give her narrator the voice of an adult whilst at the same time showing her behave like the child that she is.
3.Atkinson, Kate – Emotionally Weird: Oh, Kate Atkinson, how I love you. This isn’t her best book, but it might be my favourite. At Dundee University, Effie and the members of her creative writing class get up to…well actually, not very much. That’s not the point. The point is that this is a warm, funny book about the directionlessness of student life and about the not-very-good writing of would-be authors. Incidentally, the hilarious, banal ‘discovery’ of the meaning of life by the narrator’s stoned boyfriend at the close of the novel is probably my favourite ending EVER.
4.Atkinson, Kate – Started Early, Took My Dog: It’s set in Leeds! I’ll repeat that, just in case you missed it. IT’S SET IN LEEDS! (This doesn't happen very often). There’s a scene in the Merrion Centre! And at the railway station! Of course, as Atkinson points out, in the 1970s Leeds was pretty much the serial killer capital of the U.K.… Atkinson’s Jackson Brodie novels could, if you squinted a bit, be considered ‘crime’; but really, they defy pigeonholing. She’s so much subtler than that.
5.Austen, Jane – Persuasion: This is my favourite of Austen’s novels; it’s the book where she seems to grow wise as a writer. Although the trade-mark wit is still present, gone is the clear-sighted brightness of Pride and Prejudice; instead the first third of the novel is written in a sadder, more regretful tone. The heroine is older and wiser than in Austen’s other works.
6.Austen, Jane – Emma: Although Persuasion is my favourite, Emma is probably Austen’s most accomplished work. The titular heroine is a considerably more complicated character than any other in Austen’s oevre; there are times when she is infuriating, frustrating, and manipulative; but such is the underlying charm, the reader never loses sympathy with her.
7.Bassani, Giorgio – The Garden of the Finzi-Continis: This book has a special place in my heart. I saw it one day in the bookshop. It wasn’t on display. Nobody had recommended it to me. I’d never heard of either it or the author. But I was intrigued, I bought it, and I loved it. I thus see it as perhaps the only book that is completely mine. The novel is set in pre-Second World War Italy, amidst the Jewish community,and it manages to capture the awkwardness of first love, and the struggle for personal identity in a world of tightening race laws. Elegiac and beautiful.
8.Bernieres, Louis de – Captain Corelli’s Mandolin: Either you love it or you hate it. The digressions are brilliant but slow the narrative, it takes an infuriatingly long time to settle down into a story, and de Bernieres has a habit of fact-dropping. Yet you won't find a better tale of the unfairness of both love and war, and it is very, very funny. And then suddenly, it’s very, very sad.
9.Borges, Jorge Luis – Labyrinths: The short stories of Borges hit you like a revelation. Often exploring the themes of labyrinths and infinity, the conundrums and philosophical twists to his writing drag the reader’s brain into a unique imaginative and intellectual world. In this volume – a collection of his most popular works – my favourite story is, I think, ‘The Circular Ruins’, where a man lies down in a forest clearing with the intention of dreaming another man into existence…
10.Borges, Jorge Luis – The Book of Sand: Borges’ last collection of short stories are preoccupied mainly with approaching death. However, although edged with melancholy, there’s nothing bleak about them. The collection contains my all time favourite Borges story, ‘The Blue Tigers’, where a man travelling in India hears a rumour of unusually coloured tigers, but instead finds a handful of stones that defy the laws of mathematics…
11.Boyd, William – An Ice-Cream War: Set in German East Africa (now Tanzania) during the First World War, Boyd recounts a little known, farcical campaign, and the not-so-farcical effects it had on those involved. Boyd’s clear, precise prose perfectly capture the equatorial landscape, and the tragic stupidity of human life.
12.Bronte, Emily – Wuthering Heights: Dark and brilliant and like no other Victorian novel. Its fractured narrative is decades ahead of its time. There is no villain in literature quite like Heathcliffe, and Bronte’s repeatedly refusal to punish him for his crimes and his behaviour can have you writhing in your seat.
13.Calvino, Italo – If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller: You know from the title, which reads like an unfinished sentence, that this is going to be a very strange book. It opens with a passage describing you, the reader, sitting down to read a book by Italo Calvino called ‘If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller’, but although ‘you’ manage to get through the first chapter (which is included as the second chapter of this book), a distraction prevents you from getting any further. The book then alternates between passages in the second person describing a reader’s increasingly desperate attempts to read a novel, and the various first chapters he embarks upon, but is unable to get any further with. Quite bizarre, and very brilliant.
14.Chbosky, Stephen – The Perks of Being a Wallflower: I’d seen this book lying about the place for years, but to my extreme embarrassment, I never picked it up until the film came out. The narrative voice is brilliant and unique; and something about the watchful, old-beyond-his-years Charlie really struck a chord with me. It’s about growing up and about fitting in; but it also explores both the light and dark sides of love, ultimately coming to the amazing, heart-stoppingly true conclusion, that we ‘accept the love we believe we deserve’.
15.Collins, Wilkie – The Woman in White: A young drawing master stumbles across a woman in white on a country road. From that simple beginning, Collins spirals out a convoluted, multi-narrated Victorian mystery, that, perhaps unlike his novel The Moonstone, stays convincing until the end.
16.Cercas, Javier – Soldiers of Salamis: It’s impossible to tell where fact ends and fiction begins with this work. Is it an autobiography? It certainly reads like one at times, as the narrator (or author?) tries to track down the truth behind a minor event in the Spanish Civil War. Its central theme is that we remember not what actually happened, but what we told people happened.
17.Cornwell, Bernard – The Warlord Trilogy: Cornwell’s unique take on the King Arthur legend is to set it firmly in a realistic Dark Age context, and then to have great fun turning a lot of the myths on their head. Lancelot is a posing, self-centred idiot; the Round Table is an idealism on the part of Arthur that ends in farce; King Arthur isn’t even a king, just a warlord caught up in 5th century politics. But it’s Cornwell’s large, utterly compelling cast of characters that makes these novels so believable and readable. I loved the irritable, capricious Merlin, and the stormy, manipulative Guinevere. You’ll never look at the legends the same way again.
18.Dickens, Charles – Great Expectations: The greatest of all coming of age novels. Unlike David Copperfield, Pip is an awkward youth, whose ‘expectations’ lead him first to arrogance and then to disappointment and then finally to acceptance and adulthood. Dickens at his most concise and pertinent.
19.Dickens, Charles – Bleak House: One of Dickens’ most labyrinthine novels, it tells the story of three wards caught up in the long-running inheritance dispute of Jarndyce and Jarndyce. Dickens’ satire of the British judicial system is acute, but equally ridiculous are the greedy characters who try to make easy money from it. Full of surprises, it’s a book to lose yourself in over the holidays.
20.Du Maurier, Daphne – Rebecca: No offstage character dominates a novel in quite the same way as Rebecca does. We don’t even learn the name of the narrator who becomes the second Mrs de Winter. From the eerie first line, ‘Last night I dreamt I went to Mandalay again,’ to the shocking revelations and their aftermath, the tension never lets up.
21.Eco, Umberto – The Name of the Rose: An aging monk recounts his youth in medieval Italy, and the series of gruesome murders he witnessed in a mountaintop monastery. There really is no adequate way to describe Umberto Eco’s novel. Part murder mystery, part history of the complicated web of religious heresies that had arisen in Europe at that time, part postmodernist idiocy, he explores knowledge and the control of knowledge through the labyrinth-like library around which the monastery is built.
22.Eco, Umberto – Foucault’s Pendulum: A group of bored publishers, jaded by years of dealing with crackpot conspiracy manuscripts, use them to invent The Plan. But what begins as an ironical satire quickly begins to spiral out of control. At some points this book almost ceases to be a novel, and instead just becomes one long, complicated conspiracy theory covering everything from who wrote Shakespeare’s plays to the Templars to the Protocols of Zion. Quite brilliant. It eviscerated The Da Vinci Code decades before Dan Brown wrote it.
23.Faulkes, Sebastian – Birdsong: One of those novels that makes you completely rethink what you thought you knew about a period in history. Set just before, and then during the First World War, Faulkes contrasts a passionate love affair in France with the horror, trauma, and emptiness of the trenches in Flanders.
24.Faulkes, Sebastian – A Week in December: Forget your McEwans and your Hornbys – as far as I’m concerned, THIS is the twenty-first century ‘state of the nation’ novel. From the sweep of its Dickensian opening, to its skein of criss-crossing plotlines, this novel takes you on a 360 degree tour of contemporary London, packed with memorable characters and provocative questions. Be warned, though: Faulkes doesn’t pull his punches. He has plenty of hard things to say about banking, online socialising, and Islam.
25.Fowler, Karen Joy - We Are All Completely Besides Ourselves: I have been raving about this novel ever since a friend bought me it for my birthday. Ignore the blurb on the back. You can't explain to somebody why it's so original and brilliant without spoiling what is possibly the only truely justifiable plot twist in literature. The narrator, Rosemary, slowly unravels the strange, moving story of her family. Filled with pathos, yet at the same time slyly intelligent, this for the time being probably ranks as my favourite novel.
26.Fowles, John – The Magus: An Englishman on a Greek island gets embroiled in an increasingly bizarre tableau set up on a private estate. Just what is going on? Every time you think you know, the plot hares off in a different direction. A complicated, fascinating novel.
27.Fowles, John – The French Lieutenant’s Woman: Although ostensibly a faux-Victorian love story, this novel is also an experiment in how independent a book can be from the writer. Chapter thirteen opens with the narrator/author admitting that they don’t know how the novel is going to progress, and Fowles through the course of the book offers three alternative endings to the plot. However, the central love-triangle and subplots are all gripping in their own right, making this one of the few genuinely accessible post-modernist novels.
28.Gaskell, Elizabeth – North and South: I’ve never been a fan of Charlotte Bronte, and although I enjoy Austen, I always feel that the Queen of nineteenth century literature is Elizabeth Gaskell. Dealing with issues like industrial unrest, poverty in the new cities of the Midlands, and the rise of nouveau riches, Gaskell subtly explores the effects the changing environment has on her characters, managing to be sympathetic to both sides, whilst at the same time writing about genuinely compelling characters.
29.Gaskell, Elizabeth – Wives and Daughters: At first, this last novel of Gaskell’s (unfinished at her death – the last couple of chapters were never written) may seem to be a bit of a sell out. Set in a pre-Enclosures Act country idyll, it looks like a nostalgic looking-back to pre-industrial times. However, this is Gaskell, and nothing is quite that simple. Her subtle, complicated, human characters help highlight the cracks and prejudices of this world, and ultimately it’s the progressive characters, who are trying to cut their ties with the so-called idyll, who win through.
30. Greene, Graham – Stamboul Train: Has it all: Balkan revolutionaries, murderers, drunken lesbian reporters. But because this is Greene the writing makes it all seem so understated and believable. Never has a train journey been so exciting.
31.Harris, Joanne – Five Quarters of the Orange: ‘Not in the least like her novel Chocolate ' is probably the best way of describing this book. Dark, atmospheric, and fascinating, it’s narrator tells the story of her childhood in occupied France during the Second World War. But this is no standard retreading of the French Resistance. Instead it’s about compromise, collaboration and the corruption of childhood innocence – with an edge of pathos and understanding that make it all ultimately so forgiving.
32.Hazzard, Shirley – The Bay of Noon: A young Englishwoman ends up in Naples just after the Second World War, where she befriends the wonderful, enigmatic Gioconda. The novel is suffused with a poetic, melancholic sense of the inescapable past. Slim but fascinating.
33.Hobb, Robin – The Farseer Trilogy: Hobb tells the story of Fitz, a royal bastard growing up in Buckkeep castle. Her subtle and original characterisation helps create a tangled web of scheming, loves and betrayals, taking the plot further and further into darkness before it can claw its way back into the light. Good intentions go awry, and just as you think things have got as bad as they can, something worse always happens. Utterly addictive.
34.Ishiguro, Kazuo – The Remains of the Day: A sad, elegiac novel about an aging butler who, after years of dedicated service, finds himself looking back on his life and wondering what it all meant. It perfectly captures the confused, pre-Second World War reactions towards fascism and Nazism that tend to be overlooked by modern authors.
35.Kingsolver, Barbara – The Poisonwood Bible: The four daughters of an evangelical Baptist missionary narrate the events surrounding the collapse of their family and the tragic independence of the Belgian Congo in the early 1960s. Kingsolver brilliantly captures their individual voices, and the pettiness of their family squabbles, as they find themselves catapulted into a strange new world, whose dangers none of them quite understand.
36.Kipling, Rudyard – Plain Tails from the Hills: These days, denigrating Kipling for his imperial jingoism seems to be considered fair game; but to me this seems unfair. We don’t condemn Dickens for being patronising towards women; we understand that he was a product of his time. It’s time we did the same with Kipling. There is no better short story writer in English. His grasp of character and atmosphere is as breathtaking; and he can make even the most mundane events feel gripping – all in the space of half a dozen pages.
37.Lee, Harper – To Kill a Mockingbird: Racism and prejudice in the Deep South seen through the eyes of a young girl. What's extraordinary is that nothing particularly dramatic or out of the ordinary happens, yet such is the charisma of the narrator, it strands out as an extraordinary compelling read. I refuse to acknowledge the existance of a sequel.
38.Lively, Penelope – Moon Tiger: A strangely fluid narrative slips between narrators and time periods, as a dying Claudia Hampton recalls her life. My favourite parts of the book are set in and around Cairo during the Second World War, but in truth the novel is much bigger than that. Above all, it’s about the desire to be recognised as an independent, free-thinking woman in the twentieth century.
39.Mantel, Hilary - Wolf Hall: A true epic, this book is so much more than your standard historical novel fare. Mantel captures the Tudor period in all it's loud, brutal, in-your-face glory. Her style takes a little while to get used to, but once it clicks you find that her writing has an immediacy to it that few other authors could immitate. Breathtaking in vision, it charts the rise and rise of Thomas Cromwell, the lowborn charmer who becomes courtier to King Henry VIII.
40.Nicholls, David – One Day: Really, this novel shouldn’t work. The idea of showing one day in the life of two characters, every year, for twenty years, is a bit of a gimmick. But the warmth of the narrative, combined with Nicholls’ ability to immerse the reader in the lives of his characters, creates a real joy of a novel. Perfectly captures the contradictory mix of brashness and isolation fostered by the New Labour boom years.
41.Ondaatje, Michael – The English Patient: In the aftermath of the Second World War, four shell shocked people find themselves in an Italian villa. The unfolding story about desert exploration, burning planes, and espionage is told with heartbreaking beauty. There are sentences that stop you in you tracks, and I’ll never forgive Ondaatje for stumbling across the desert-locked Cave of Swimmers (which really does exist) first. And after you’ve read this, read Herodotus.
42.Pessl, Maria – Special Topics in Calamity Physics: A truly original first novel, exploring how we try to rationalise an irrational world. As you read, you become aware that there are holes in the narrator’s attempts to understand the traumatic events she became embroiled with at school. The stroke of genius is the question paper at the back of the novel, asking whether you agree with some of her conclusions, and giving you various other explanations that may or may not be true. I also love the bit, near the beginning, where the narrator says that she realised she was becoming morbid when she was watching the end of Breakfast at Tiffany’s with some university girlfriends, and found that she was praying that Audrey Hepburn wouldn’t find the cat…
43.Patchett, Ann – Bel Canto: In an unnamed South American country, a group terrorists take a hotel party of important executives and politicians hostage; but the plan goes awry, and both sides are forced into a lengthy siege. This novel is full of sweet, poignant moments, as, over the course of several months, the characters bond and fall in love - with the threat of potential tragedy never too far away. Plus, one of the main characters is an opera singer. It made me fell all warm inside.
44.Rhys, Jean – Wide Sargasso Sea: Everyone thought Jean Rhys was long dead when, after decades of silence, she released one of the most startling post-colonial novels ever written. As a kind of ‘prequel’ to Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, told from the point of view of the first Mrs Rochester, it is nothing short of a complete rejection of the Victorian values found in that novel, and thus, by default, throughout 19th century literature. For all those people who think Jane Eyre is over-rated.
45.Riotta, Giovanni – Prince of the Clouds: A sad, charming novel, set in Italy just after the Second World War, about Colonel Terzo, a shy, academically brilliant soldier, who is renowned for his studies into strategy and warfare, but who has never fought a battle. There are some lovely elements to the novel: Terzo’s careful descriptions of historical battles as he tries to develop his Manual for Strategic Living; the curious, love-story-in-reverse, that sees him married to the beautiful, ailing Princess Emma as part of her post-war cover long before the two have any feelings for each other; and perhaps most movingly of all, the last letter from his old comrade, trying desperately to understand the chaos and confusion of the battle for Stalingrad – the one battle that Terzo’s rational strategies probably cannot explain.
46.Roy, Arundahti – The God of Small Things: Roy's use of language to capture a child's eye view of the world is breathtaking. From the start you know what the tragedy is, but it's not until you reach the end that you understand why it happened .Set in India. Also has my favourite title ever.
47.Smith, Dodie – I Capture the Castle: From the brilliantly quirky first line ‘I write this sitting in the kitchen sink…’ the heroine of Smith’s novel sweeps you away with her ingenuous charm. Set in the 1930s, and telling of first love, what could have been just another piece of chick-lit is saved by the author’s sharp wit and observation. There is nothing, perhaps, hugely profound about the novel; but rarely, if ever, has pure escapism been written so well.
48.Thomas, Scarlett – Our Tragic Universe: I think a number of people were thrown by Thomas’ follow up to The End of Mr Y. It eschews standard narrative structures, and instead pursues the idea of a ‘storyless story’, with its oddly cyclical storylines centring around Meg, a poverty-stricken hack writer living in Cornwall with her useless boyfriend. A reviewer described it as an inherently ‘kind’ novel. I concur.
49.Trapido, Barbara – Frankie and Stankie: This – presumably semi-autobiographical – tale of a girl growing up in South Africa during apartheid, is brilliant for its scatterbrained detail and its sympathetic understanding. Written from a white middle-class point of view, it manages to be illustrative without being political, and works as much as a cleverly observed coming of age story as an indictment of racial segregation. It’s one of those gem novels that can deal with serious issues without losing its humour and pathos.
50.Trollop, Anthony – The Small House at Allington: Another coming of age novel. The two boys growing towards manhood offer a clever contrast: one, rising from awkward beginnings, is tempered by disappointment; the other finds his easy charm drawing him into a downward spiral. Trollope’s eye for behaviour is as acute as ever.
51.Waters, Sarah – The Little Stranger: I enjoyed Water’s Fingersmith, but apart from the twist, I can't remember very much about it. I thus wasn’t expecting to be quite so blown away by this novel. It starts off with a whiff of Brideshead Revisited – a local GP befriends a decaying aristocratic family; but slowly a supernatural element creeps into the story. Atmospheric, and gorgeously detailed, part of the joy of the novel is that it takes a long time for things to play out without ever losing its sense of tension. The narrator never works out what is going on, but I can still remember the chill I felt when, at the very end, it suddenly all clicked into place.
52.Waugh, Evelyn – Brideshead Revisited: And speaking of Brideshead Revisited… I resisted reading this novel for years, and in some senses I’m glad I did, because I think I’d have hated it whilst I was studying in Oxford. It creates a stereotype of life there that bears absolutely no resemblance to the Oxford University of today. But: there is something very compelling about the slow, downward spiral of the British aristocracy represented by the Marchmain family, and also about the narrator’s desperate and ultimately unfulfilling desire to become a part of that world. Funny and sad – and very Catholic in the sense that it’s final message seems to be ‘God always wins; but you won’t enjoy it’.
53.Zafon, Carlos Ruiz – Shadow of the Wind: The idea of a Cemetery For Lost Books is a stroke of genius, and from its very simple beginning, Zafon spins out a convoluted and sinister tale surrounding a little-known author called Julian Carax. Set in 1920s/1930s Barcelona, it is one of those rarities: a book that is both intelligent and gripping.
There’s Jasper Fforde
Fforde has written many very silly novels for very clever people. One series has a heroine called Thursday Next. She has a pet dodo called Pickwick. Miss Havisham is teaching her how to police novels. And the cast of Wuthering Heights are in anger management classes – again. He’s also written a series about D.C.I. Jack Sprat and the Nursery Crimes division of the Reading police force – the first book of which is the unfinished novel visited in the third Thursday Next novel. Don't ask. Just read.
Books I Love
This started out a couple of years ago as my Top Fifty Novels; but I've now passed the stage where I can keep it under 50. In future I'll just tag new discoveries on at the bottom.
Allison, John – Bad Machinery: I cannot express how much I love Bad Machinery (www.scarygoround.com). The basic premise is that six school children (three boys, three girls) solve mysteries with a supernatural twist together in a small, Yorkshire town. So far, so Enid Blyton. What makes these stories so wonderful, however, is Allison’s grasp of comic dialogue. The kids are not particularly precocious; they display the same worries and attitudes of any normal 11/12/13 year old; but their wonderfully skewed worldviews are always charming and hilarious. The perfect pick-me-up.
Der-shing Helmer - The Meek: (www.meekcomic.com). I was so delighted when this comic started updating again after a long hiatus, because it is a work of surprising nuance and compassion. It interweaves three plotlines - a mostly naked young girl with green hair who is trying to find 'the Centre'; an increasingly troubled dictator who is doing his best to hold his country and his sanity together; and an outlaw who is apparently trying not to think about her ex-boyfriend. It is delightfully humorous without shying away from darkness, and the energetic, expressive drawings are always entertaining. Definitely worth a read.
Siddel, Tom – Gunnerkrigg Court: (www.gunnerkrigg.com). Imagine if Hogwarts had robots as well as ghosts and supernatural beings. It begins with Antimony Carver arriving at her new school and being unsurprised by all the weird things it throws at her. The initial, apparently self-contained chapters are quite straightforward; but as you go deeper, you begin to see the web of interconnecting mysteries that holds the narrative together. And then Siddel hits you with some of the most charming poignancy I’ve ever read. Over a thousand pages in, it still isn’t clear exactly what Gunnerkrigg Court is, and there’s no ultimate evil to be defeated; instead the story’s strengths are its subtly, its pathos, and its humour. (By the way, the artwork starts off a little crude, but it soon settles down, and some of the more recent pages are stunningly beautiful).