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RECOMMENDED NOVELS

 

Updated August 2016

(NB. These are in no particular order, within sections, and the rule is that each author may only be represented by one novel- though you may notice a bit of cheating.  And looking back I find that I’d now move a few choices between sections and in some cases the author has produced later work that I’d rate more highly  eg. Kate Atkinson q.v.)

Top Favourites

BLEAK HOUSE by Charles Dickens

The great polemic - well served by the 2005 BBC TV series but of course it does not, can not, adequately reflect Dicken's anger at the great abuses of the Law, at the poverty of the underclass of his day, at the various religious fanatics and others practising false "charity", and false Christianity.  When asked, I say that this is the best novel in the English language, but on another day I might say “Middlemarch.”



THE LORD OF THE RINGS by J.R.R. Tolkien. The book, of course, is best of all, but second comes Brian Sibley's 13 hour adaptation for BBC Radio, and only then the great film trilogy which, in all but blood and battle, is comparatively thin. 



A PASSAGE TO INDIA  by E.M. Forster.

This was the first Forster novel I read - and was immediately gripped by his knowledge of people and the dreams and aspirations that influence their actions. As well as an introduction to his other novels, it began for me an enthusiasm for other novels set in India. And there's some anger there too - at the abuse of power.



AFTER MANY A SUMMER BY  Aldous Huxley. The strangest book -a lot of Huxley's usual intellectual stuff but the central image is unforgettable.



MUSIC AND SILENCE by Rose Tremain. Among many other delights, it contains a description of an evening party, an engagement party, which conveys pure happiness as well as anything I have ever read.  Try "The Colour" too



THE POISONWOOD BIBLE by Barbara Kingsolver

The story of a dysfunctional family but also of a dysfunctional civilisation.



MOTHER LONDON by Michael Moorcock. Dickensian in scope, without the passion about injustice, but with greater love, perhaps, for the great wen. Worth attempting "King of the City " also - London through a pot and coke induced haze.  Made me wish I’d got to know the area where the Barbican complex now is, before.



MIDDLEMARCH by George Eliot

Who can forget Casaubon, the dry scholar, and his deadening effect on the life of Dorothea.  GE is less "witty" perhaps than Jane Austen, but wider ranging. It so repays re-reading, say every ten years. It must be in the top 3.



THE HOUSE OF SPIRITS by Isabel Allende


THE RED BADGE OF COURAGE by Stephen Crane

The grittiest of gritty realism.


SOUR SWEET by Timothy Mo.

The story of Chinese immigrants to London - in the take-away food business.  Cultural clashes.


THE MAP OF LOVE by Ahdaf Souief


THE AUBREY MATURIN NOVELS byPatrick O'Brian

These are what I read when what I want to do is relax and enjoy myself. Opening an O'Brian novel in this series satisfies like settling down in one's seat as the curtain goes up on the York Theatre Royal pantomime - I know I am going to enjoy every minute and lose myself in another world.  You don't have to know what a futtock is, or every last detail of sails and rigging - you come to know these men like no others (well, Hamlet maybe) and rejoice and grieve with them. (Warning - start at the beginning of the series - the last two fall slightly short of the standards of the rest)



WUTHERING HEIGHTS by Emily Bronte

I’ve resisted the Brontes for almost 64 years but am old enough now to find this really good - liked the narrative style via the meddling Nelly Dean particularly.



A DREAM OF SCIPIO by Iain Pears.  This is quite brilliant. Three interlinked stories about the attempt to keep barbarism at bay - and why the Holocaust was just  the most recent of the persecutions of the Jews in Europe.



OUT STEALING HORSES by Per Pettersen 

Set in Norway, close to the Border with Sweden, at a time running from WWII to the present.  An old man unravels the events of 60 years ago - some of them shockingly tragic.


TO THE WEDDING by John Berger

In part, a motorcycle journey to celebration and sadness, in part a story of lives divided re-united by tragedy, in part, a celebration of the power of selfless love.

 

EMMA by Jane Austen



It's the sheer precision of her wit and language that I love.  Every word is weighed - the effect is calculated -yet it appears effortless.



POSSESSION by A.S. Byatt

The Victorian and 20th century stories are woven together with great skill - the novel manages to be academic and lyrical, analytic and romantic all at the same time.



A MONTH IN THE COUNTRY by J.L.Carr

The most perfect short novel.



THE GRAPES OF WRATH  by John Steinbeck



AUSTERLITZ by W.G. Sebald

The best of Sebald's strange, meandering tales, novels masquerading as autobiography, with their evocative, poorly reproduced black and white photographs sustaining the illusion of truth - if illusion it be. And Sebald is interesting in non-fiction mode too - there are some interesting articles in the New Yorker about Germany at the end of WWII.



CAPTAIN CORELLI’S MANDOLIN by Louis de Bernieres

The first time I read this, I finished it late at night, sitting up in bed, with the tears running down my face, sobbing at the folly and waste.  But I wouldn’t go to see the film, in case it spoiled my response to the book.



WHITE TEETH by Zadie Smith

NB Second novel "The Autograph Man", not nearly as good. But don't miss "White Teeth", it's got such vigour. Even better on re-reading !



ILLYRIAN SPRING by Ann Bridge

Not a well-known novelist now - but her novels are so good at evoking a vanished past in various stationings around the world - a lyrical evocation of Croatia in this one, and a delightful and wise portrayal of a relationship (chaste) between a young man and an older woman - and the resolution /denouement is superb !



MIDNIGHT’S CHILDREN by Salman Rushdie

Re-read this recently - and I wonder if it really deserves to stay a "top favourite". It seemed messy and self-indulgent. c.f. the opposite effect when re-reading Middlemarch



THE KITE RUNNER by Khaled Hosseini

Stunningly moving tale set in Afghanistan and the USA - about love and honour, opportunities missed that shape a whole life - and attempts at redemption.



THE SHIPPING NEWS by E. Annie Proulx

I spent the first 55 pages of this novel wondering what could possibly be interesting about the journalist  hero, Quoyle, a failure at everything. But then, closeted with his family and smelly dog, he comes up with the headline "Dog Farts Fell Family of Four" - and it takes off from there. The culture,
scenery, and above all, the seascape and weather of Newfoundland are described in their astonishing variety and detail, as are the variety of strong and bizarre characters in the town where Quoyle returns to his roots. Astonishingly good.



BIRDSONG by Sebastian Faulkes 

A stunning re-creation of WWI in the trenches.  Most fascinating the focus on the "miners" - who dug down beneath the opposing lines to set off huge explosions.



NORTH AND SOUTH by Elizabeth Gaskell 

What a revelation !  It does just what the title offers - contrasts the north and south of England - topography, activity, attitudes - embodied in the hero and heroine.  Mrs Gaskell's knowledge of the issues of the day similar to George Eliot's.  Prose not quite as sharp.



HIS DARK MATERIALS (TRILOGY) by Philip Pullman Sweeping across different but parallel worlds to our own - and the fate of all these worlds set in the context of two children growing up. Better than Harry Potter.



THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO by Stieg Larsson

The first in the Millenium trilogy. Unputdownable- so tightly plotted it almost hurts to follow it through. And Lisbeth Salander, the heroine is a true original.



LILA by Marilynne Robinson.  The last of the Gilead trilogy, and the best.  A redemption novel.



WOLF HALL by Hilary Mantel.  I’m just gobsmacked by the erudition and how totally incorporated it is into the telling of the tale.  Cromwell is utterly convincing, as is the rest of the Tudor Court and the whole world in which he and they move. Tour de force

 


THE SECOND TIER


U.S.A.  by John dos Passos



A FAREWELL TO ARMS by Ernest Hemingway

He’s a bit unfashionable nowadays, but his best novels are well-writtten and celebrate the human spirit.


BONE PEOPLE by   Keri Hulme

One of the most painful books I have ever read - there's child abuse (beating) - but it is abundantly worth persevering



PETER ABELARD by Helen Waddell.

Helen Wadell was an academic, whose translations of the latin poems of the vagantes  in The Wandering Scholars and Medieval Latin lyrics were an early introduction to the bright attractive world of the high Middle Ages. Peter Abelard is her version of the doomed love of a scholar and Heloise.



THE RAGGED TROUSERED PHILANTHROPISTS by Robert Tressall

The original cry against worker exploitation. As relevant now in the 21st century as when it was written.


THE MOSQUITO COAST by Paul Theroux

Magnificent pigheadedness. Told by the initially loyal eldest son it's a portrait of an obsessive who rejects US culture so thoroughly he leads his family to destitution and his own death.



HAVE THE MEN HAD ENOUGH? by Margaret Forster



TIME WILL DARKEN IT by William Maxwell



THE GROWTH OF THE SOIL by Knut Hamsun

This isn't perhaps Hamsun's best known novel, but it deserves attention - a parable of the growth of modern Norway through the life of one settler/farmer.


MISS GARNET’S ANGEL by Sally Vickers Magical realism in Venice



THE STORY OF LUCY GAULT by William Trevor

The saddest book I have ever read.


COLD MOUNTAIN by Charles Frazier

Didn't like this so much when I first read it -probably read it too fast -  second time around enjoyed the picaresque and domestic strands - cf. Pilgrim's Progress for Inman's journey ?



SMALL ISLAND by Andrea Levy

An immigrant story - Britain in the 50s - nostalgic in a painful sort of way



LIGHTHOUSEKEEPING by Jeannette Winterson

More magic - I re-read it immediately.



THE PEOPLE’S ACT OF LOVE by James Meek

Just because it's so bizarre - a village of  castrati - and a homicidal maniac or two, and cannibalism, and some stuff I bet you didn't know about Germans fighting for the Soviets back around WW1.


BHOWANI JUNCTION by John Masters

Can't imagine how I got to be 59 yrs old before I read this.  India coming up to partition - the plight ot the Anglo-Indians - the varying attitudes of British, Anglo Indians and various Indian perspectives. And lots of railway interest!



THE MODEL by Lars Saabye Christensen

Stunning - the limits of artistic integrity overstepped - multiple tragedy.



LAST ORDERS BY Graham Swift.  And his 2016 short novel, MOTHERING SUNDAY is so evocative of a time when the losses of WW1 were only just in the past, or not really in the past at all.



ANCILLARY JUSTICE by Ann Leckie. Science Fiction at its best.  This won every SF award going and is the first of a trilogy.  The concept is mind-blowing and followed through with utter consistency.  It makes robots seem passe.




THE BIRDS by Tarjei Vesaas




The flight of the woodcock is the sign which sets off the train of events leading to tragedy in this Norwegian masterpiece.




ANY HUMAN HEART by William Boyd.

Surprisingly delicate.  His earlier novels are genuinely comic.


BEHIND THE SCENES AT THE MUSEUM by Kate Atkinson

Set in York, this is a mystery story as well as a history of the early-mid 20th century in a provincial city. Many brilliant touches - the wedding on the day of the 1966 World Cup Final is unforgettable. Much later, her LIFE AFTER LIFE is a tour-de force of imaginative story-telling, what-if after what-if - a most delicious, and fertile, confusion.



ANOTHER COUNTRY by James Baldwin

This must have been the first novel I ever read by a non-white writer - and one of the first I read to be set in the US urban jungle. I remember feeling very sophisticated to have read it.


Feb 2011 - Have re-read this and am amazed at how good it is. Baldwin covers such a wide range of relationships - and in the early 60s when it was written it was brave to go into detail about homosexual sex - and black/white sexual relationships, and drug users. As a gay black man he was really pushing against the mores of the time but he gets inside the heads of all his characters, from wherever they have come to join the melting pot




THE SOUND AND THE FURY by William Faulkner.

First Faulkner I ever read - bowled me over with its driving prose - much better than Joyce. And I have just read “Intruder in the Dust” (1948) which is about the ingrained racism of the American South. Faulkner doesn’t believe legislation will alter it - it needs something more organic - and he seems to have felt it was white folks who would have to take the initiative, whereas, as we know, it took the black folks to claim what needed to be theirs.



THE JOY LUCK CLUB by  Amy Tan

Have re-read this - it contains four moving stories of Chinese women and their daughters. All the mothers have fled China in the mid 20th Century after horrendous experiences in traditional Chinese culture - but retain so much of that culture against which US culture, and their daughters' embrace of it, is found wanting.



GORMENGHASTby Mervyn Peake. 

His  most enduring image is of Fuschia - the confused and ultimately betrayed adolescent.



AN EQUAL MUSIC by Vikram Seth


THE LIZARD CAGE by Karen Connelly

Powerful evocation of suffering and martyrdom in a Burmese prison Camp



THE FALL OF THE KING by Johannes V. Jensen

Mad, endliessly vacillating King Christian II of Denmark seen through the story of one of his bodyguard. A brilliant historical reconstruction.



A DEATH IN THE FAMILY by James Agee

Been on my shelves unread for ages. Deserves to be read alongside Faulkner, Fitzgerald and Steinbeck.



NEVERWHERE by Neil Gaiman.  London underworld, literally.  Sewer fantasy.



THE LOST SALT GIFT OF BLOOD by Alistair MacLeod. 


STONER by John Williams.  Stoner is also a sleeper.  Written some decades ago, it became suddenly noticed again.  Yet it’s the tale of an ordinary man, a farm boy become an academic, a seemingly unexciting life but somehow mesmerisingly  told.

 


BEST OF THE REST

ABSOLUTE FRIENDS by John Le Carré

I've only in the last few years got around to Le Carré.  He is amazingly good - and some of his political insights are spot on - he doesn't have a starry-eyed view of governments and particularly not of the CIA and its malign influence on intellegence gathering.



THE PRESIDENT’S CHILD by Fay Weldon



REBECCA by Daphne du Maurier



TENDER IS THE NIGHT by Scott Fitzgerald

And I’ve just re-read The Great Gatsby - how well he evokes that bizarre world of empty riches.


DARKNESS VISIBLE by William Golding



BROWNGIRL, BROWNSTONE by Paule Marshall



VOL DE NUIT by Antoine de St Exupery

Tension.



THE WITCHES OF EASTWICK by John Updike



LES FLEURS BLEUES by Raymond Queneau

Quirky and surreal - it was a major challenge to my A level French - I probably ended up getting about 5% of the puns and word-play.



LITTLE BOY LOST by Marghanita Laski



HALF OF A YELLOW SUN by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

For those of us who were quite young when the Biafran war was going on, this is a real eye-opener.  We all heard about starving children, but this gives so much more.  Written from a variety of viewpoints, including that of an ex-pat Englishman



THE TRUMPET MAJOR by Thomas Hardy

Rustic Hardy - full of humour and irony and affectionate portraiture of people and the Dorset countryside. Set in context of the fear of Napoleonic invasion. One woman, 3 military swains.



RESISTANCE by Owen Sheers

A what-if novel. What if in WWll the Germans had successfully invaded Britain. The men of a Welsh Valley join the resistance leaving the women to deal with the German occupation. Sheers is a poet too.


THE FALL OF THE KING by Johannes V. Jensen. Danish medieval epic.


THE EARTHSEA TRILOGY by Ursula Le Guin. It’s a cross between Harry Potter and Discworld but much more serious than either.  In many ways, the pain of growing up, on a world of many islands and often hidden powers.  Best dragons since Smaug.

CRY THE BELOVED COUNTRY by Alan Paton



SLOW TRAIN TO MILAN by Lisa St Aubin de Teran



BONJ
OUR TRISTESSE by Francoise Sagan

My copy looks just like this one, same edition, perhaps a little more battered by time and use. 






GIRL WITH A PEARL EARRING by Tracy Chevalier

And the film is good too.


NINETEEN EIGHTY-FOUR by George Orwell. Actually quite scary - though Big Brother is worse and more pervasive now than Orwell ever imagined.


ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT by

R. M. Remorque

There’s an old black and white film that I saw before I read the book. The film has an image of the hand of a dying man reaching for a butterfly on the barbed wire in no man's land, that has stayed with me ever since.



THE READER by Bernard Schlink


FRANKIE AND STANKIE by Barbara Trapido

Not really a novel, although it claims to be. But a wonderful, totally absorbing, account of growing up in South Africa mid 20th Century.


THE HITCH HIKER’S GUIDE TO THE GALAXY by Douglas Adams

Humorous sort of science fiction - with the ultimate anti-hero.


REGENERATION by Pat Barker

First of the trilogy - fascinating for its re-creation of Siegfried Sassoon when he was in the mental hospital at Craiglockhart, Edinburgh, in 1917.  (Irrelevantly enough, I could see the building from my room in my first digs in Edinburgh in 1966).  And the other two are as good - maybe even no. 3 "The Ghost Road" is the best.



THE TENDERNESS OF WOLVES by Stef Penney

Just about as good as everyone says it is. Rich cast of characters - utterly convincing Northern darkness and cold. And a good mystery too.


NEVERWHERE by Neil Gaiman

Another world below the streets of London. Irresistably bizarre.



THE BURNT-OUT TOWN OF MIRACLES by Roy Jacobsen

Norwegian writes about Finland in the second world war - one simpleton's struggle with the Russians.


SOUTH RIDING by Winifred Holtby. I ignored this for years because it was a favourite of my mother’s.  Wrong. It’s excellent, in the way that Daphne du Maurier’s writing is excellent.  Strong characters.

 

Knocking on the Door

THE GOOD COMPANIONS by J.B. Priestley Provincial thespians.  Marvellous, darling !



MIDDLESEX by Jeffrey Eugenides

A sweeping view of immigration into the US, from a Greek perspective - fascinating historically and a gripping plot.  I must re-read it to see if it deserves to rise up the ratings, as I suspect it does.


KEPLER by John Banville

An intimate fictional portrait of a crusty, vain, quarellsome, plodding but ultimately successful scientist who helped to unravel some of the mysteries of the skies. A wonderfully imagined Renaissance world.


GOODBYE TO BERLIN by Christopher Isherwood. The atmosphere of between the wars Berlin - sleazy and somehow hopeless.


THE THIRD MAN by Graham Greene. Same true of Vienna, but in a more fatal way.  OUR MAN IN HAVANA is the tongue-in-cheek version.

THE SEA HOUSE by Esther Freud

Nicely parallel dual plots - intricate connections


THE BLACK BOOK by Orhan Pamuk

Wondrously complex - about shifting and interchangeable identities. Cast of fascinating characters weaving around the history of Istanbul.


THE BROKEN ROAD - by Patrick Leigh Fermor.  This isn’t a novel. It’s part three of PLF’s account of his epic walk from London to Constantinople in 1933/34.  To me it seems even more lyrical than the first two volumes.  He packs in a lifetime of experience in less than two years, including celebrating his 20th (20th !) birthday.


LONDON BELONGS TO ME by Norman Collins.  South London family, its ups and downs, its goodies and baddies. 



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