1000 novels that everyone must read (according to the guardian)

Junghyo Ahn: Silver Stallion (1990)

It is September 1950, and General MacArthur — known throughout war-struck Korea as “General Megado” — has just landed his troops at
Inchon. The soldiers establish an encampment named Texas Town, receiving local women who, as a consequence, are publicly shunned as “Yankee wives”. The devastating impact of MacArthur’s assault is seen through the eyes of local teenager Mansik, whose mother joins the prostitutes after being raped. By diverting his attention away from military battle, Junghyo re-establishes the human cost of war: in this context, the real price is demonstrated by Mansik’s accelerated adolescence and the compromised sexuality of the so-called “UN ladies”.
Charlotte Stretch
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Richard Aldington: Death of a Hero (1929)

This deeply affecting tale depicts the short life of artist- turned-army soldier George Winterbourne, who (as we are told in the opening pages) is killed after deliberately exposing himself to machine fi re. We soon learn that it is George’s experiences of war, triggering a deep psychological decline, which draw him towards his fate. Death of a Hero perhaps lacks the relentless ferocity of its peers — details of actual physical combat account for less than half of the narrative. The real intensity of Aldington’s (partly autobiographical) novel instead lies in his savage condemnation of a society responsible for the slaughter of its own men.
Charlotte Stretch
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Beryl Bainbridge: Master Georgie (199 8)

Two photographers are among an unlikely group of Liverpudlians who embark for Constantinople and become involved in the carnage of the
Crimean war. Master Georgie, the confl icted hub around which the others revolve, is seen from diff erent points of view in a series of snapshots. But whereas the photographs distort the truth, Bainbridge’s diamond- bright insights reveal the horror and humour of people’s struggle to remain in control of lives ruled by random events and accident with the vivid economy of a writer at the top of her form.
Joanna Hines
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Nigel Balchin: Darkness Falls from the Air (1942)

A love triangle played out against the London blitz, Darkness Falls From The Air is the tale of Bill Sarratt, an urbane civil servant whose work is hampered by needless bureaucracy. His marriage is equally wearing, with his wife Marcia openly involved in a long- running affair with dreamy writer Stephen. Infused with a deliciously dry wit, Balchin’s novel is a perfect portrayal of the stiff upper lip — with Bill appearing just as unperturbed by his wife’s infidelity as he is by falling bombs. Balchin’s experiences at the ministry of food, meanwhile, feed into his slyly satirical portrait of a complex and ineff ectual civil service.
Charlotte Stretch
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JG Ballard: Empire of the Sun (1984)

Ballard’s 1984 account of his childhood in occupied Shanghai is not reportage — the author juggled incidents, removed events and largely shunted his parents from view — yet remains an evocative and disturbing account of life in wartime. Young Jim survives in empty houses, ingeniously obtaining the materials of survival, and is interned by the Japanese. It’s full of potent moral ironies, in which atrocities sit alongside mundane events and Jim admires the very technology that has wreaked havoc upon his world.
John Sutherland
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Pat Barker: Regeneration (1991)

Inspired by her grandfather’s experiences in the first world war trenches, Barker’s trilogy of novels — which also includes The Eye in the Door (1993) and The Ghost Road (1995) — centres around the Edinburgh psychiatric hospital where soldiers were “cured” of psychological trauma before being sent back to the front. Rivers is the heroic therapist handling first public objector Siegfried Sassoon, then Wilfred Owen and the fictional Billy Prior, before sending them back to the devastation of the final few months of the war. There are horrifying descriptions of trench warfare, but it is Barker’s forensic examination of the psyche of these men that makes her novel both contemporary and timeless.
Nicola Barr
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Sebastian Barry: A Long Long Way (2005)

The familiar horrors of the first world war are seen from the fresh perspective of a young Irish volunteer in this passionate and lyrical novel, one of two by Barry to have been shortlisted for the Man Booker prize. Too small to be a policeman like his evered father, Willie Dunne is proud to enlist in the British army. But on leave in 1916 he helps put down the Easter Rising, only to discover that some of his fellow countrymen regard the “filthy Hun” as “our allies in Europe”. The appalling complexity of war for soldiers who have been rejected by their homeland and can no longer identify the enemy is gripping and inevitably tragic.
Joanna Hines
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HE Bates: Fair Stood the Wind for France (1944)

“Sometimes the Alps lying below in the moonlight had the appearance of crisp folds of crumpled cloth.” What could be more English than crumpled linen? Or HE Bates. And this novel is classically English in many ways. The brave, sensitive RAF bomber pilot John Franklin, for instance, is all restrained emotion even when his plane is shot down in France. Yet he falls so heartbreakingly completely for Francoise, the daughter of the mill owner who hides him in his home. Bates’s war novel concentrates on the continuance of love, and the possibility of renewal, his hero and heroine exhibiting levels of trust and commitment undimmed by their experiences.
Nicola Barr
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Nina Bawden: Carrie’s War (1973)

Twelve-year-old Carrie Willow and her younger brother Nick are sent to Wales to escape the dangers of wartime London. Housed with the grim Mr Evans and his timid sister Lou, they encounter warfare of a different
kind and seek refuge with the enchanting inhabitants of the farm at Druid’s Bottom. Carrie’s eff orts to help the people she has come to love lead her to commit what she believes to be a terrible crime. Though written primarily for children, this is an almost perfect novel, to be enjoyed at any age.
Joanna Hines
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Roberto Bolaño: The Savage Detectives (199 8)

Central characters Arturo Belano and Ulises Lima are likened to “two Dennis Hoppers walking the streets of Mexico City”, but they are neither savage nor good detectives. They are part of a literary movement called “visceral realism” though, a minor movement engaged in gang warfare with another group, the “Stridentist”. At its heart, Bolaño’s novel is a kind of road novel: made up of interviews with Belano and Lima’s acquaintances, it sketches a scorching, epic portrait of the Americas. An novel as brilliant in its execution as it is bonkers in its conception.
Philip Oltermann
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Paul Bowles: The Sheltering Sky (1949)

A signifi cant forerunner of the Beat movement, Paul Bowles’ bestseller is the story of three jaded American travellers — Port Moresby, his wife Kit and their friend Tunner — drifting through postwar north Africa. Having rejected the comforts of civilisation in their search for identity and fulfi lment, the trio are soon under threat from the sense of alienation and hostility that surrounds them. Inspired by Bowles’ own period of exile in Morocco, this account of a difficult emotional journey made a huge impact on publication, having astutely tapped into a growing state of disaffection across America. Charlotte Stretch
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William Boyd: An Ice-Cream War (1982)

In the early stages of the first world war, newlywed Gabriel Cobb finds himself caught up in the fi ght for control over eastern Africa. Meanwhile, in England, Gabriel’s brother Felix and wife Charis are left alone together as a mutual attraction grows between them. Their aff air is cut short when they discover that Gabriel has been captured, prompting Felix to travel across an increasingly war-torn African landscape to fi nd him. Interspersing vivid action scenes with moments of tranquillity in Kent, Boyd’s novel is a stirring portrayal of decaying British imperialism and the ordinary lives that become shaped by conflict.
Charlotte Stretch
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Raymond Briggs: When the Wind Blows (1982)

This depiction of an elderly rural couple attempting to shield themselves from a nuclear blast by putting blind trust in government guidelines (cover windows with sheets and climb into paper bags) caused a sensation when it was published in 1982. Blacker-than-black comedy ensues as James and Hilda unwittingly succumb to radiation sickness, unable even to eat their reserved ginger nuts because their gums are bleeding uncontrollably. Surprisingly, it’s still classified as a children’s picture book in many a local library.
Chris Ross
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Italo Calvino: Invisible Cities (1974)

Gore Vidal called Calvino’s seventh novel — “or work or meditation or poem” — his most beautiful. Marco Polo describes his travels to Kublai Khan, presenting the world-weary emperor with fractal glimpses of 55 fantastic cities — the unfinished, the unforgettable, the dreamlike, the destroyed — that are all ultimately versions of his “first city”, Venice. This glittering jewel of a book has been an inspiration to travellers, architects and authors alike, its pages brimming with meaning and possibility.
Justine Jordan
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Elias Canetti: Auto-da-Fé (1935)

Peter Kien is an eminent sinologist in interwar Germany, comfortably insulated from humanity and any “touch of the unknown” by his library. Until, that is, he falls victim to his illiterate housekeeper and a proto-Nazi concierge, and begins a grotesque descent into madness and the urban underworld, guided by an evil dwarf. This is a blackly comic study of vulnerability, fascism and self-destruction by the polymathic author of Crowds and Power, and a serious novel of ideas in the grand Central European manner.
Chris Ross
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Willa Cather: One Of Ours (1922)

When it was published, Cather’s account of a Nebraskan farmer’s journey to the first world war and his sacrificial death in battle garnered high praise and vitriolic criticism in equal measure. The Pulitzer prize the following year was off set by condemnation from Hemingway, among others, for daring to tackle the “masculine” subject of war. But her novel is as much an epitaph for the passing of the pioneering experience and the infinite opportunities of Western expansion, and far more ambiguous and wide-ranging than her critics allowed.
Joanna Hines
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Louis-Ferdinand Céline: Journey to the End of the Night (1932)

This dark but humorous novel follows a young man, loosely based on the author, through the first world war and into the poorest suburbs of postwar Paris. With its use of natural speech patterns and unfl inching descriptions of misery and wickedness, it was hugely popular in the 1930s, and continued to be infl uential — Kurt Vonnegut, Joseph Heller and the Doors are among the many who have referred to it in their work — even though Céline was subsequently branded a Nazi sympathiser.
David Newnham
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Wu Cheng’en: Monkey (1590s)

In this Chinese classic, the monk Tripitaka travels to India to fetch sacred Buddhist texts, accompanied by three disciples: the greedy Pigsy, the river monster Sandy and Monkey (recruited so that they may atone for past sins), on the way doing battle with demons, monsters and evil magicians. This boisterous comic adventure tale is both an allegory for the individual’s journey towards enlightenment and a social and political satire. The quest may have been given to the blundering monk, but the real star of the story is its antihero, the irrepressible trickster, rule-breaker and troublemaker Monkey. The novel was the inspiration behind a cult Japanese 1970s television show, and its latest incarnation is Jamie Hewlett and Damon Albarn’s “pop opera” Monkey: Journey to the West.
Ginny Hooker
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Joseph Conrad: Heart of Darkness (1902)

The most explosive, and recently controversial, indictment of European
colonialism in British fiction. Conrad’s series hero, Charles Marlow, is discovered spinning a yarn to a group of friends on board his yacht, in the mouth of the Thames. Marlow ruminates about his early assignment, from the “Company” in Brussels, to steam upstream to the heart of the Belgian Congo, where the manager of the inner station, who is in charge of ivory harvesting, has apparently gone mad. Despite obstacles (and witnessing scenes of hideous colonial cruelty), Marlow completes his mission, and finds Kurtz — originally a fervent idealist — has reverted to savagery. He dies, with the words: “The horror! The horror!” Marlow himself has seen into the heart of darkness, and is a changed man thereafter.
John Sutherland
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Joseph Conrad: Lord Jim (1900)

Lord Jim takes the familiar narrative of the seafaring hero and turns it inside out, as only Conrad can. His Jim is a young idealist who is promoted in the merchant navy without ever really having had his mettle tested. When the moment comes, Jim makes the coward’s choice — an act that determines the rest of his life, down to his idolisation by a Malaysian tribe. But is he really in the wrong? Conrad uses every trick he knows to express the doubts and fears of a time when ideas of conventional morality seemed to be crumbling underfoot.
Carrie O’Grady
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Joseph Conrad: Nostromo (1904)

Settlers, natives and interlopers all battle for control of a silver mine in the fictional South American country of Costaguana. Many of Conrad’s familiar obsessions are here: revolutionary politics, the curdling of ambition into avarice, oppressive heat, confusion and corruptibility. But where Heart of Darkness draws us into a deeply subjective interior, the language of Nostromo is radically exteriorised — alienating, even. An essential modernist experiment, as rigorous and unsparing in its imagination as the glare of the midday sun that falls upon its cynical protagonists.
Chris Ross
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Bernard Cornwell: Sharpe’s Eagle (1981)

According to legend, Cornwell only started writing his first book about his
lantern-jawed, Napoleonic-era rifleman because green card regulations
prevented him earning a conventional living when he relocated to America. It’s a story guaranteed to infuriate unpublished writers suffering for their art. What makes the series so pleasurable: is Cornwell’s enthusiasm for his historical subject and delight in his rough-hewn hero’s escapades. His prose may be workmanlike, but his relish for the books is infectious. In short, Sharpe is fun.
Sam Jordison
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Francis Coventry: The History of Pompey the Little (1751)

Coventry’s satirical novel follows the adventures of a small canine across numerous different owners’ laps to the top of English society. He may have no religion, but Pompey, “always willing to fetch and carry”, has “courtly manners” and proves an object of adoration until he suffers “a violent physick” and barks his last. To describe this satire as unique barely does justice to its eccentric charm, but only recently has Coventry been recognised as a talent independent of his hero Henry Fielding. A shame, since this book deserves a wide readership.
Sam Jordison
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Stephen Crane: The Red Badge of Courage (1895)

When Crane started reading Civil war veterans’ reminiscences, he complained: “They spout enough of what they did, but they’re as emotionless as rocks.” So he created someone altogether more feelingful. His own Union army private Henry Fielding may start ardent for glory, but his first experiences of the horror and cruelty of battle forces him to plumb the depths of fear. Crane’s empathetic ability to convey the full gamut of these emotions, combined with the bracing realism of his battle sequences, make this a milestone in American literature.
Sam Jordison
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Daniel Defoe: Robinson Crusoe (1719)

This is the original adventure yarn. Crusoe rebels against his father, runs away to sea and has all sorts of adventures, including a daring escape from slavery in north Africa, before God decides to teach him a lesson and shipwrecks him on his desert island. The only survivor, our entirely resourceful hero, survives for 26 years by learning how to make everything from scratch, from pots to Christian theology (he does have a bible). He also defeats encroaching cannibals and pirates. The older, wiser Crusoe tells the story, seeing God’s will — “the Chequer-work of Providence” — at work in every event.
John Mullan
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Len Deighton: Bomber (1970)

Set over the course of a single day, Bomber charts the progress of an ill-fated RAF raid on Nazi Germany. The dramatic events are seen from multiple vantage points, adopting perspectives from both sides of the conflict.
The level of detail employed in this frequently underrated novel is what makes it truly shocking: its tone of cool, clinical analysis is always the same, whether applied to death and destruction or machinery and weather conditions. An acclaimed BBC radio dramatisation, starring Tom Baker, capitalised on the novel’s potent docu-drama feel by using a highly effective real-time framework, drawing out in full the terrifying intensity of Deighton’s writing.
Charlotte Stretch
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James Dickey: Deliverance (1970)

Four friends set out on a canoe trip down the Cahulawassee, a soon-to-be-dammed river in northern Georgia. While there, the men encounter two savage locals who quickly transform the weekend adventure into a traumatic ordeal — one that not everyone survives. Though frequently overshadowed by the success of John Boorman’s 1972 film adaptation, Dickey’s novel possesses its own strain of intoxicatingly visceral poetry. This compelling story of two cultures, brought together in a state of violent conflict, serves as a gripping examination of lost innocence and moral uncertainty in the quiet backwoods of America.
John Dugdale
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John Dos Passos: Three Soldiers (1921)

Dos Passos worked as an ambulance driver during the first world war, and this shows in a book which cleverly contains very little combat but all the boredom and brutality of the sidelines. The bewildering idiocies of boot camp, the interminable waiting around with no idea why, the affectless encounters with prostitutes — all combine to grind three Americans of diverse backgrounds into just so much “meat for guns”. Characteristically episodic and disorienting, this is a gem of an antiwar novel by an unjustly overlooked writer.
Chris Ross
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Norman Douglas: South Wind (1917)

In 1916 Douglas was arrested when a boy made a complaint to the police for (as Douglas said) “kissing [him] and iving him some cakes and a shilling”. He jumped bail, fleeing to Capri, whose salubrious atmosphere inspired this captivating song of praise to the beauties of the Mediterranean and the pleasures of hedonism. Often criticised for having no plot, South Wind is a mystifying, but still enlightening, conversational novel, full of entrancing discussions of love, pleasures and scandals that together form a touching plea for tolerance and fantastic evocation of bohemian life.
Sam Jordison
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Alexandre Dumas: The Three Musketeers (1844)

The story of the dashing d’Artagnan, the swashbuckling musketeers Athos, Porthos and Aramis and their epic struggles against the feline M’Lady is one of the best-loved in western culture. It may be the subject of more than a dozen films, not to mention endless TV serials, cartoons and spin-off books, but Dumas’s book is still the best place to go to really get to know the characters. Its fast-paced narrative and curious philosophical musings also ensure it remains the most entertaining and intriguing of all the versions out there.
Sam Jordison
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Lawrence Durrell: Justine (1957)

The first of the Alexandria Quartet — with Balthazar (1958), Mountolive (195 8) and Clea (1960) following — which chronicles the lives and loves of a group of expatriates in Egypt before and just after the second world war, was an instant and lasting success, both popular and critical. The eponymous heroine is “a child of the city, which decrees that its women shall be the voluptuaries not of pleasure but of pain, doomed to hunt for what they least dare to find!” Alexandria, “the great winepress of love”, is evoked in prose of intoxicating lyricism, but for many readers these books are a vintage best appreciated in youth.
Joanna Hines

William Eastlake: The Bamboo Bed (1969)

Captain Clancy is leading his men across the Vietnam hills when he is mortally wounded. As he lies dying on his bamboo bed, search-and-rescue pilot Captain Knightsbridge makes love to the beautiful nurse Jane in his helicopter (which, in poignant synchronicity, is itself dubbed the “Bamboo Bed”). Meanwhile two hippies, Peter and Bethany, are attempting to resolve the conflict with flowers and a guitar. Eastlake, a former war correspondent, redraws the Vietnam war as a surrealist fantasy, filled with grotesque comedy and philosophical deliberation. His irreverent approach conveys, with startling eff ectiveness, the true absurdity of war.
Charlotte Stretch
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JG Farrell: The Siege of Krishnapur (1973)

Farrell’s unconventional historical novel is set during the Indian Mutiny of 1857. The town of Krishnapur is under siege and the garrison is hard put to survive and, just as importantly to some of them, to cling to their Victorian values. They believe in science but their two doctors disagree about almost everything; they believe in their civilization but their subjects are rebelling. The local Indian populace picnic on a nearby hill and enjoy the spectacle of the unfolding drama. Violence is coolly recorded, derring-do excitingly narrated, yet this is a darkly funny book, whose unsentimental, omniscient narrator scrutinises the self-delusions of the colonialists.
John Mullan
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Sebastian Faulks: Birdsong (1993)

Novels depicting the horrors of war are seldom more moving than Sebastian Faulks’ 1993 bestseller. After embarking on a doomed love affair with the unhappily married Madame Azaire, Stephen Wraysford becomes an army officer fighting in the first world war. The novel traces Stephen’s harrowing experiences in the blood-soaked trenches of northern France, and his growing determination to survive the conflict. Almost universally considered Faulks’ finest moment to date, Birdsong hauntingly captures the essence of war in all its terrible brutality.
Charlotte Stretch
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Ford Madox Ford: Parade’s End (1924-2 8)

Less well known than The Good Soldier, and considerably longer, Ford’s depiction of the first world war and its impact on English society is a strangely haunting work. Christopher Tietjens, the central character, is passionately attached to a gentlemanly code that brings him nothing but trouble in Whitehall, the army and his marriage to the icy Sylvia. Ford’s kaleidoscopic descriptions of trench warfare are the book’s main claim on posterity, but the whole thing is shot through with an attractively eccentric sense of humour as well as nostalgia. Secondary characters include “Breakfast” Duchemin, an insane and sex-obsessed vicar.
Chris Tayler
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CS Forester: The African Queen (1935)

Set in “German Central Africa” in late 1914. Rose Sayer, the spinster sister of an English missionary, finds herself alone when her brother dies. She befriends by a cockney sailor, Charlie Allnutt, commander of the decrepit African Queen. Rose persuades the cowardly Charlie to sail down the Ulanga river and blow up a German warship. The subsequent hardship brings them together as lovers. The African Queen sinks before they can make their suicidal strike. They are taken prisoner by the Germans, who treat them well. The enemy ship is eventually sunk by the Royal Navy. John Huston’s 1952 Oscar-winning film starred Katharine Hepburn and Humphrey Bogart — playing against their conventional screen personalities.
John Sutherland
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George MacDonald Fraser: Flashman (1969)

The most enduringly popular of neo-Victorian novels. Flashman was the loathsome bully in Thomas Hughes’ Tom Brown’s Schooldays. Unlike that “prig” Brown, Flashy is not one to play up and play the game. On being expelled (for drunkenness and worse) from Dr Arnold’s Rugby, Harry Flashman joins the army to fi ght, as an officer and anything but a gentleman, in the fi rst Afghan war. It is the proverbial military cock-up. The series, allegedly based on the anti-hero’s “papers”, continued, volume by bestselling volume, to cast a cynical but hilariously comic anti-establishment light on “England’s century”. Ironically, Harry emerges as, underneath it all, rather a good fellow. A dispiriting number of American reviewers assumed this first volume to be authentic autobiography.
John Sutherland
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Charles Frazier: Cold Mountain (1997)

In Frazier’s Civil-war era novel, the injured and disillusioned Confederate soldier John Inman begins a long, treacherous journey back to his home to Ada, the woman he loves. On Cold Mountain, after the death of her father, Ada is struggling to run the farm she is ill-equipped to manage, until the arrival of the illiterate but formidably resourceful Ruby helps her to take control of her future. Echoes of Homer’s Odyssey run throughout and there are allusions to Ralph Waldo Emerson in a novel which is both an exploration of man’s relationship to nature and a narrative of the human devastation of war.
Ginny Hooker
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Alex Garland: The Beach (1996)

This, more than any other, was the novel that launched a thousand gap years. For a short time in the late 1990s, a copy of Alex Garland’s huge
bestseller was as much a staple of the travel kit as spare socks and a toothbrush. The story of Richard, roaming Asia in search of a secret Thai island, inspired an entire generation of backpackers. Its star might have waned in recent years — thanks in part to Danny Boyle’s disappointing film adaptation — but as a cautionary tale of paradise gone wrong, it still packs a mighty punch.
Charlotte Stretch
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William Golding: To the Ends of the Earth trilogy (1980-89)

A warship journeys from Old Albion to the Antipodes, some time in the early 1800s. We chart its progress through the journal of Edmund Talbot, whose tone is at first arrogant, as befits a young man with aristocratic connections. His chronicle of shipboard life eventually comes to focus on the decline of the Reverend Colley, a “new-hatched parson” who is gradually destroyed by his own lethal innocence and the cruelty of others. The sailing ship’s closed community provides the perfect setting for Golding’s brilliant and unsparing depiction of man’s capacity for inhumanity to man.
Joanna Hines
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René Goscinny Asterix the Gaul (1959)

Hard to imagine that anyone might not have encountered Asterix before they’ve grown up, let alone died. Spawning TV spin-offs, movies and theme parks, he is arguably not just a global cultural phenomenon, but part of the mental landscape of childhood. Let’s face it: Asterix, not Caesar, has shaped our understanding of the Gallic wars — and he is also the only means by which many of us could enjoy learning French. Asterix the Gaul, the first part of a series currently totalling 33, is still the best way to start.
Chris Ross
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Günter Grass: The Tin Drum (1959)

When The Tin Drum was published “it was as if German literature had been granted a new beginning”, stated the Nobel committee’s citation. This vibrant epic covers German history during the first half of the 20th century through the eyes of a diminutive protagonist. At the age of three, the precocious Oskar Matzerath decided to stop growing and acquired the ability to shatter glass with his scream. He was also given his first toy drum which became an extension of himself. Earthy, anarchic and funny, Oskar’s adventures brim with humour, insights and magical realist invention.
Joanna Hines
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Robert Graves: Count Belisarius (193 8)

The Emperor Justinian and his wife Theodora are now familiar mainly from their mosaic portraits in Ravenna. With their greatest general, Belisarius, and his remarkable wife Antonina, they are brought to life in Graves’s lavishing story of 6th-century Byzantium. Campaigns in Persia, Carthage, Sicily and Italy, and a vibrant cast of dancing girls, concubines, charioteers, bear masters, Nestorian monks and Herulian Huns, and even a whale called Porphyry, combine to make this a vibrant account of a period that should be
better known.
Joanna Hines
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Vasily Grossman: Life and Fate (1960)

As a Soviet journalist in the 1940s, Vasily Grossman reported from the battle of Stalingrad and published the first account in any language of the Nazi death camps. Completed in 1960 but not published until the 1980s, and then only outside the USSR, Life and Fate is a conscious attempt to write the War and Peace of the second world war. Grossman takes his readers into Auschwitz and the Lubyanka, but he also describes the sense of freedom briefl y experienced by the defenders of Stalingrad before the state reasserted its grip on their lives.
Chris Taylor
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CT Rawi Hage: De Niro’s Game (2006)

Hage’s first novel, a blistering portrait of adolescent swagger set against the Lebanese civil war, came from nowhere to win the Impac award. War-torn Beirut has been a childhood playground for Bassam and George; now the former is dabbling in petty crime to fund his escape, while the latter looks for status and purpose with the local militia. In prose that is brutal, tender, bitter and deadpan by turns, Hage sketches a fresh and utterly convincing portrait of war’s brutalising effects.
Justine Jordan
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H Rider Haggard: King Solomon’s Mines (1885)

If Robert Louis Stevenson could do it with Treasure Island, why couldn’t he write a rattling adventure yarn for the millions, wondered Haggard? The result was this primal episode in the eventful life of “Hunter” Allan Quatermain of Natal. The big-game man is approached by Henry Curtis and Captain John Good to fi nd Curtis’s younger brother, who has disappeared in the interior of the dark continent — allegedly in search of the fabulous diamond mines of King Solomon, somewhere beyond the “Breasts of Sheba” mountains. The quest involves battles with natives and the discovery of both the lost white man and the Solomonic treasure. The novel — one of the great page-turners in English literature — launched the author on a bestselling literary career.
John Sutherland
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H Rider Haggard: She (1887)

The sexiest of Haggard’s many African yarns. Leo Vincey is left an iron box by his dead father, to be opened when he is 25. It contains the startling information that he is descended from an ancient Egyptian priest, Kallikrates. Leo is instructed to go to Africa and kill the mysteriously immortal queen whok killed Kallikrates. Braving shipwreck, cannibals, and crocodiles, Leo finally discovers Ayesha, or “She”, high in an impenetrable mountain range. She takes Leo as her lover. At the heart of her lair, she shows him the pillar of life — a flame that ensures immortality. But, perversely, when she enters it, the fire restores Ayesha to her true 2,000 years of age, and she dies resembling a shrivelled monkey. Leo returns to England, a wiser and older man. Few read the novel nowadays without visualising Ursula Andress, who made the titular character her own in the film version.
John Sutherland
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Patrick Hamilton: The Slaves of Solitude (1947)

This short novel’s slightly silly title and unexciting-sounding setting haven’t always worked to its advantage, but Hamilton’s fans consider it one of his best. In his hands, the story of a festering quarrel between the inmates of a dreary suburban boarding house becomes a comic tour de force as well as an unusually sardonic depiction of life on the home front during the second world war. Mr Thwaites, the heroine’s tormentor-in- chief, is one of Hamilton’s most memorably unpleasant characters, and the book’s mixture of pathos and comedy is perfectly judged.
Chris Tayler
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Robert Harris: Enigma (1995)

In March 1943, a group of codebreakers are attempting to break the German U-boat Enigma cipher from their secret Buckinghamshire base. Among them is Tom Jericho, who is in love with the beautiful but mysterious Claire Romilly. Her sudden disappearance, amidst suspicion that the team has been infi ltrated by a spy, propels Tom on to a desperate mission to uncover the truth. This twist-laden thriller, later adapted into a screenplay by Tom Stoppard, popularised the previously little-known story of Bletchley Park. That the site’s imminent closure is currently the subject public campaign is a strong testament to the power of Harris’s story.
Charlotte Stretch
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Jaroslav Hasek: The Good Soldier Svejk (1923)

Hasek was 39 when he died of tuberculosis, after decades of boozing and vagrancy. The Czech anarchist and prankster, once sacked by a wildlife publisher for writing articles about non-existent animals, didn’t get around to finishing his life’s great work, and translator Cecil Parrott claims that “sometimes it is apparent that he must have been drunk when he was writing”. Yet there is an irresistible, feverish energy to this picaresque comedy about a little man dodging the horrors of the great war. Without Svejk, Joseph Heller has said, there would have been no Catch-22.
Phil Daoust
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Ernest Hemingway: For Whom the Bell Tolls

Anyone who comes to this novel expecting simplicity of style and unthinking machismo will be swiftly disabused. Rather, this story of an American joining forces with Andalucian freedom fighters during the Spanish civil war is one of fiction’s most searching considerations of altruism, accountability and sacrifice. Hemingway’s deliberate archaisms and literalised Spanish jolt the reader into thinking a fresh about choices and the motives behind them. And it is a wonderful evocation of what it means to love a land and a people other than one’s own.
Chris Ross
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Anthony Hope: The Prisoner of Zenda (1894)

The novel which bequeathed adventure-fi ction writers “Ruritania” — one of the genre’s most profi table territories. Visiting the country, Rudolf Rassendyll is observed uncannily to resemble the soon-to-be- crowned King Rudolf. Villainous Duke Michael abducts him and Rassendyll is prevailed upon to impersonate the monarch whom, with the assistance of loyal Fritz von Tarlenheim, he later rescues. Things are romantically complicated when Rassendyll falls in love with the King’s intended bride, the Princess Flavia. Having put Ruritania to rights, he returns to England and a somewhat pointlessly unadventurous existence. Hope was inspired to write the novel by seeing two men in a London street who closely resembled each other.
John Sutherland
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Khaled Hosseini: The Kite Runner (2003)

Afghanistan, the land no outside power can conquer, is captured
in all its colour and complexity in Hosseini’s astonishing debut. Two boys grow up in the same household: Amir is privileged while Hassan is virtually a servant, but they remain uneasy allies until a brutal incident during Kabul’s annual kite-flying festival inflicts wounds that will never heal. A moving and ultimately life-affirming story of love and betrayal, redemption and forgiveness, and private worlds destroyed by public horrors.
Joanna Hines
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Richard Hughes: A High Wind in Jamaica (1929)

Before Lord of the Flies there was A High Wind in Jamaica, an unflinching, wryly observed portrait of the madness of children. Hughes filters his pirate adventure through the sensibilities of a band of middle-class siblings, and the effect is intoxicating. These primal creatures come at events from left-field — fastening on certain details while glossing over others, so that terrible events flutter, half-glimpsed, in the shadows. Some of these are even caused by the children themselves.
Xan Brooks
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Samuel Johnson: Rasselas (1759)

Tired of a life of constant pleasure in Happy Valley, Rasselas, Prince of Abyssinia, travels to Egypt to meet scholars, astronomers, shepherds, hermits and poets, and discovers that “while you are making the choice of life, you neglect to live”. He then returns to Abyssinia. Written in eight days to pay for his mother’s funeral, Dr Johnson’s philosophical romance became a bestseller when it was published in 1759. The plot is thin and “nothing is concluded”, but its true appeal is as an essay on the nature of happiness and the vanity of human wishes.
Ian Pindar
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James Jones: From Here to Eternity (1951)

Set in Hawaii in 1941, just before the attack on Pearl Harbor, this novel is loosely based on the author’s experiences in the US army. The story follows several characters, including Captain Dana “Dynamite” Holmes and First Sergeant Milt Warden, but at its heart is a conflict between authority and individuality, as Private Robert E Lee Prewitt stubbornly resists the treatment meted out to him by his superiors to crush his spirit. Published in 1951, it became a bestseller and gave the world a memorable fictional hero who dares to take on the system.
Ian Pindar
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MacKinlay Kantor: Andersonville (1955)

The Confederate prisoner-of-war camp Andersonville held 33,000 Union POWs during the American civil war of 1861 to 1865. Based on prisoners’ memoirs, this Pulitzer prize-winning novel appeared in 1955, and uses real and fictional characters to explore the conditions in the camp from multiple viewpoints. The book includes a sympathetic portrait of Henry Wirz, the camp’s commandant, as well as the camp physician and various guards. Kantor also shows how the ordinary prisoners were preyed upon by a gang of thugs called the Raiders, led by a Union soldier called William Collins.
Ian Pindar
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Thomas Keneally: Confederates (1979)

This realist epic, shortlisted for the Booker prize, follows a ragbag Confederate army as it crosses Virginia to take part in the 1862 Battle of Antietam, the bloodiest confl ict of the American civil war. Drawing on his extensive research of the incident, Keneally spares the reader none of the horrors of war. He also adds a level of personal conflict, intrigue and romance by focusing on Private Usaph Bumpass, his wife Ephaphtha and her lover Decatur Cate, who is one of Usaph’s companions or “confederates” in the battle. Retribution comes when Cate suffers an emasculating injury.
Ian Pindar
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Thomas Keneally: Schindler’s Ark (1982)

Oskar Schindler, a German businessman and Nazi party member, set up a factory in Poland producing supplies for the German army. By the end of the war he had become an unlikely hero, risking his life to save more than a thousand Jews from being sent to the concentration camps. Inspired by meeting a Schindler survivor, and based on the testimonies of survivors and documents of the period, Keneally’s historical novel caused an outcry when it won the Booker in 1982. Was it a work of fiction or faction? Liam Neeson starred in Spielberg’s screen adaptation, Schindler’s List.
Ian Pindar
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AL Kennedy: Day (2007)

A young Lancaster tail-gunner during the second world war, Alfred F Day, bonds with his crew on an RAF bomber. When his plane is shot down, he parachutes to safety in a German prisoner-of-war camp, but after the war he discovers his crew are all dead. In 1949, while employed as an extra in a war film about a prison camp, the painful memories come fl ooding back. Through an extraordinary act of ventriloquism, she describes the waste and eventual resurrection of a young life shattered by war,” said the judges when they awarded Kennedy the Costa Book of the Year in 2007. “This book is a masterpiece.”
Ian Pindar
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Arthur Koestler: Darkness at Noon (1940)

Along with Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four (which it strongly influenced), Koestler’s novel expresses his generation of intellectuals’ traumatic disillusionment with Soviet Communism — the “God that Failed” (as a book edited by Koestler called it). The narrative centres on the scandalously corrupt Moscow “show trials” (in fact a bloody Stalinist purge) of the 1930s. The novel ponders the question, why did so many of the accused meekly confess their guilt in court? The answer is given in the person of Koestler’s hero, Rubashov, who, under interrogation, is eventually “educated” into the admissions of wrongdoing that lead, inevitably, to his execution.
John Sutherland
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Jerzy Kosinski: The Painted Bird (1965)

After losing his parents in the mayhem of the second world war, a Polish child wanders through the countryside at the mercy of the brutal and ignorant central or eastern European villagers he encounters, who assume he is a Jew or a Gypsy. When it fi rst appeared in 1965, this controversial novel full of graphic descriptions of murder, torture, rape and bestiality was widely regarded as semi-autobiographical, but is now accepted as fi ction. Dogged by controversy, Kosinski committed suicide in 1991, leaving behind a note: “I am going to put myself to sleep now for a bit longer than usual. Call it Eternity.”
Ian Pindar
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Primo Levi: If Not Now, When? (1982)

Levi, most renowned for his coruscating documentary report on life in a concentration camp, If This Is A Man, published this, his only novel, in 1982. Set in 1943, it follows a group of Jewish partisans making their way, behind enemy lines, across a Europe unmarked by place names and directions, with Palestine their aim. The horrors they have endured are revealed only through dreams and halting recollections and, as in all Levi’s work, their days are characterised by the biggest threat of all: the disease of despair. “The war would last forever: death, pursuit, escape would never end, the snow would never stop falling, day would never break.”
Nicola Barr
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Jack London: The Call of the Wild (1903)

St Bernard Buck leads a good, even pampered life when he is abducted, sold into a team of dogs pulling sleds across the frozen Alaskan landscapes, transporting a new “yellow metal” that is changing men’s natures. “It was his introduction to the reign of primitive law, and Buck met it halfway.” Only the most extreme of traits — human or otherwise — are on show in London’s classic, relentless adventure story. Good, evil, respect, dignity, primal fear, blood lust, leadership, greatness and cowardice are all in constant battle as Buck struggles for survival against his new owners and the “devil dog” Spitz. Nicola Barr
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Alastair Maclean: The Guns of Navarone (1957)

Maclean evokes a daring British second world war commando raid against the fictional German-held island of Navarone. It is the German guns of the title that must be silenced to permit the evacuation of the British troops from a nearby island, and so change the course of the war. As loved for the depiction of his heroes’ backgrounds as for a plot that is unapologetically light on character development but big on thrills and daring do.
Nicola Barr
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Cormac McCarthy: All the Pretty Horses (1992)

In the fi rst novel in McCarthy’s Border trilogy, 16-year-old John Grady Cole, the last in a line of Texan ranchers, and his friend Lacey Rawlins travel across the border into Mexico in search of adventure in a brutal and unfamiliar country. There they meet the reckless Jimmy Blevins, a younger teenager in possession of a fine horse that may not be his, a pistol and a nose for trouble. Jimmy loses the horse and pistol in a storm; John and Lacey decide to help get them back, setting off a fatal chain of events which also have consequences for Cole’s love aff air with the daughter of a Mexican ranch owner. This is both a coming of age story and an elegy for a lost American era.
Ginny Hooker
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Cormac McCarthy: Blood Meridian (1985)

Blood Meridian is not a revisionist western so much as a gore-soaked demolition of the myth of manifest destiny. Using the true-life Glanton gang as its touchstone, McCarthy drops an unnamed protagonist (”the kid”) in among a band of bounty hunters and proceeds to paint the frontier in stark, Darwinian terms — as a brutal, bloody free-for-all. The New World is born out of violence. It belongs not to the humble settler but to men such as “the judge”, a corpulent, amoral monster who by the fi nal chapter has emerged victorious.
Xan Brooks
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Johnston McCulley: The Mark of Zorro (1919)

California in the 1880s was the origin of the famous masked crusader and camper, sexier and more ironic American-style Robin Hood. McCulley’s novel introduced to the world the effete, foppish, aristocratic Don Diego Vega and his swashbuckling, masked alter ego fighting those who exploit the poor. Just as fabulous are the corrupt governor, the hard-drinking Sergeant Gonzales, the revenge-hungry Captain Raman and the beautiful Señorita Lolita Pulido, who is torn between the man she loves and the man who will restore her reputation.
Nicola Barr
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Norman Mailer: The Naked and the Dead (194 8)

Mailer was just 26 when his debut novel was published, three years after the end of the second world war. His tale of a platoon of young American soldiers making their way through treacherous jungle on the Japanese-held island of Anopopei was without respite. Its focus on the ordinary American in all his bullying pettiness and fear, its detailed depictions of armed combat and insight into the psychology of men in pursuit of power caught the mood of an American public searching for the reality of war; it made this a bestseller and Mailer a superstar.
Nicola Barr
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André Malraux: La Condition Humaine (1933)

Shanghai 1927. A random assortment of foreign communists and home-
grown terrorists join forces to overthrow their rulers in Malraux’s great novel. “Europeans never see the points of similarity between China and their own countries,” one character remarks, but this account of young men seeking meaning in their lives through indiscriminate carnage and terror in the name of an abstract higher good, of foreign nationals drawn to idealistic causes overseas, is as relevant and illuminating now as it was 75 years ago.
Joanna Hines
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Olivia Manning: The Fortunes of War novels (1960-80)

Six novels in two trilogies: The Balkan Trilogy comprising The Great Fortune, The Spoilt City and Friends And Heroes and The Levant Trilogy comprising The Danger Tree, The Battle Lost And Won and The Sum Of Things. Harriet Pringle and her infuriating communist husband Guy flee the German invaders through Romania and Greece to Cairo, in a novel thronging with expatriates, eccentrics and wisdom. This is a brilliant portrait of a particular marriage and of the world at war. Dramatic, comic and entirely absorbing, it was televised, equally brilliantly, by the BBC in 1987.
Carmen Callil
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Gabriel Garcia Márquez: One Hundred Years of Solitude (1967)

The jungle town of Macondo is a place where it is as possible to ascend heavenwards while hanging the laundry as to be machine-gunned by
agents of the local banana company. Márquez’s looping chronology and extended cast of interrelated characters give us history as a continuous
process of repetition and reconfi guration. This novel remains the beacon of magical realism and the standard bearer for Latin American literature; in Spanish, only Don Quixote has been more successful. Fluid, funny, wise, political: a perfectly achieved meditation on memory and the workings of fiction.
Chris Ross
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Frederick Marryat: The Children of the New Forest (1847)

Marryat’s last and most famous novel, set in 1647. The Royalist cavalier, Colonel Beverley, is killed at the Battle of Naseby. His wife dies shortly thereafter, leaving their four children orphans. The Roundheads burn
the Beverleys’ house, Arnwood, and the children, thought dead, are given refuge by a faithful old retainer, Jacob Armitage, in his cottage in the New Forest. The story follows their growing to adulthood and — with the Restoration — the rebuilding of Arnwood and the Beverley family fortunes. The novel was immensely popular with Victorian children and became the pattern for innumerable juvenile tales over the next century.
John Sutherland
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Herman Melville: Moby-Dick or, The Whale (1851)

We all know the story: man seeks unattainable object of deranged desire and causes general devastation in the process. This is the novel of restless human drive: to perfection, to mastery, to madness, to write a novel in the first place, to aim for something other than “a damp, drizzly November in the soul”. A Very Big Theme, necessarily expressed in dense, wildly idiosyncratic prose as ambitious as Ahab himself. But also: the best book ever written about whaling, which means the most richly detailed novel of the sea, work, friendship and ecology.
Chris Ross
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James Michener: Tales of the South Pacific (1847)

Now eclipsed by the fame of the Rogers and Hammerstein musical South Pacific, Michener’s collection of linked stories detailing the activities of American servicemen, nurses, native islanders and expats on the islands of the Coral Sea during the second world war won him the Pulizter prize in 1948. The exotic Tonkinese ladies and wistful Bali Hai romances give it lasting (and musical) appeal, but the morality of Michener’s tales is that heroism is not only seen on the battlefield, and his commander-narrator’s voice has a downbeat languor that captures the spirit of a war- weary nation (”The waiting. The timeless, repetitive waiting.”)
Nicola Barr
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Elsa Morante: History (1974)

Ida, a widowed schoolteacher, is living in 1940s Rome with her two sons: Nino, a reckless and angry teenager, and baby Giuseppe, conceived when Ida is raped by a German soldier. She (like Morante herself) is half-Jewish, and lives in a permanent state of fear that her forbidden faith will be discovered. Morante’s eight-part epic closely examines Jewish identity in a context of Aryan domination. The contrast between Nino’s involvement in the war and Giuseppe’s unsullied innocence further demonstrates the corrupting effect of war on its victims’ sense of self.
Charlotte Stretch
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Irène Némirovsky: Suite Française (2004)

Némirovsky, a bestselling novelist and a Russian Jew living in Paris, was taken to Auschwitz in 1942 and died the same year. Her handwritten manuscript was salvaged by her two young daughters who, orphaned and traumatised, did not release it for publication until 64 years later. The two unfinished novellas here (five were planned) detail with astonishing precision the wholly ignoble retreat from Paris as Nemirovsky witnessed it, and a year in a rural occupied France. Few heroes emerge in this take on French manners exposed in the most extreme circumstances.
Nicola Barr
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Bao Ninh: The Sorrow of War (1994)

The English translation of Bao Ninh’s debut (and, to date, only published) novel demanded the attention of western readers not only as a rare account of the “American war” by a veteran of the Vietnamese People’s army, but also for revealing that the post-traumatic disorder of a generation, so central to the American experience of the Vietnam war, has been a universal experience. The author’s history is never far from view as the book’s narrator, Kien, struggles to reconcile the tender dreams of his youth with the brutal memories of a decade of war and its arid, drug-ridden aftermath.
Emily Mann
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Patrick O’Brian: Master and Commander (1969)

So massively popular are Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey-Maturin novels that bookshops have a separate section just for them. At the time of his death in 2000, O’Brian was finishing his 21st novel in this massively successful seafaring series, over the course of which he seemed to encompass the entire world of the British navy in the Napoleonic wars. Whether you love the extrovert, impulsive, permanently hungover “lion in action, ass ashore” Jack Aubrey or the surgeon and intelligence agent Stephen Maturin, indeed whether you have ever set foot aboard a ship, O’Brian’s tales of naval derring-do are masterful in conception and execution.
Nicola Barr
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Tim O’Brien: The Things they Carried (1990)

“They carried the common secret of cowardice … Men killed, and died, because they were embarrassed not to.” That Tim O’Brien, as a soldier in Vietnam, experienced first- hand many of the things he writes about is not in doubt when the observations are this acute, but Things is fiction, and this 1990 novel is regarded as one of the most powerful of the Vietnam war. By creating the character of Tim O’Brien, O’Brien finds his way to comment on a war that he found nonsensical and repellent, as if normal narrative was simply too traditional to harness the absurdity and the horror.
Nicola Barr
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Baroness Emmuska Orczy: The Scarlet Pimpernel (1905)

Melodrama, cliched prose and unsubtle political messages are all forgiven in Orczy’s first of many journeys into the world of English aristocrat Sir Percy Blakeney and his alter-ego, the Scarlet Pimpernel, as he and his band of Englishmen attempt to rescue French aristocrats from Madame Guillotine in the French revolution. Orczy had huge success with her foppish, inane, kind-hearted, cold, proud, passionate and indefatigable Pimpernel and his wonderful wife Marguerite. Belief may need to be suspended as Orczy allows him to escape yet another tricky situation, but when the thrills are this swashbuckling, it is churlish to care.
Nicola Barr
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George Orwell: Burmese Days (1934)

Drawing on the experiences of his five years as an officer in the Burma police, Orwell’s first novel is a mordant aff air. Flory, a timber merchant disillusioned with the Imperial racket, falls for a pretty girl sent out east to stay with her relatives. He is cut out by a glamorous army officer and wins her back, only to fall victim to the machinations of a native magnate. Steeped in essence of Maugham and crammed with impressionistic descriptions of the Burmese landscape, it also harbours many an early signpost from the road that led to Nineteen Eighty-Four.
DJ Taylor
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Thomas Pynchon: Gravity’s Rainbow (1973)

Routinely hauled into the starting line-up of the race to be the Great American Novel, Pynchon’s vast postmodern masterpiece from 1973 is more than capable of intimidating the other competitors with its sheer physical solidity. Its staggering intellectual weight is what really leaves a dent, however, using the development of the V2 rocket in Nazi Germany as a starting point for a novel that is as densely packed as grey matter and equally mysterious.
Victoria Segal
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Rudolf Erich Raspe: The Surprising Adventures Of Baron Munchausen (1785) ?

Blowing up bears, being swallowed by fish, seeing off a pride of a thousand lions, visiting the moon (twice): every boastful big game hunter, self-aggrandising fisherman or pub raconteur owes a debt to this 1785 collection of satirical tall tales, inspired by the anecdotes of a real German aristocrat. Raspe himself lived a shadily picaresque life but could only have been an amateur compared with the baron, whose stories leap from the sublime to the ridiculous — then keep on jumping.
Victoria Segal
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Erich Maria Remarque: All Quiet on the Western Front (1929)

Best “war is hell” novel ever. Published in Germany as Im Westen nichts Neues, it became an international superseller after its blockbusting 1933 film tie-in. The story tracks the fortunes of six classmates swept up in the first world war, as narrated by Paul Bäumer. The soldiers reserve their hatred not for the enemy but the armchair warriors on the home front. On the day that Armistice is signed, Paul, realising that he can never readjust to civilian life, walks into no-man’s-land and is shot. The Nazis banned the detestably “pacifist” book, couldn’t get their hands on Remarque and so arrested his sister on a trumped-up treason charge and beheaded her. A literal hatchet job.
John Sutherland
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João Guimarães Rosa: The Devil to Pay in the Backlands (1956)

Riobaldo, an old farmer living in the arid hinterlands of Brazil, tells the story of how he became the leader of a gang of bandits, revealing on the way that he may have sold his soul to the devil. Often referred to as the “Brazilian Ulysses”, Guimarães Rosa’s novel comes with a mythic heft, a complex masterpiece of storytelling that attempts to map those psychological territories that are as remote and wild as any backcountry.
Victoria Segal
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Rafael Sabatini: Scaramouche (1921)

Sabatini’s swashbuckler certainly can do the fandango, twirling and ducking through Revolutionary France in the dashing company of its hero André-Louis Moreau. After a duel with a wicked marquis leaves his friend dead, the young man stirs up discontent against the upper classes and is forced to become a fugitive, joining a wandering theatre troupe as disguise. Those staples of historical adventures — honour, vengeance and dark family secrets — provide the kerosene; the political intrigue strikes the match.
Victoria Segal
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Rafael Sabatini: Captain Blood His Odyssey (1922)

According to George MacDonald [Flashman] Fraser this is “one of the great unrecognised novels of the 20th century”. It’s 1685. Dr Peter Syn is an Irish surgeon, peacefully plying his healing trade in the west country. He tends a dying officer, in Monmouth’s rebellion, and is sentenced to death by (hanging) Judge Jeffreys. The sentence is commuted to transportation to the Barbadoes. There Syn turns buccaneer as Captain Blood, aka Capitano Pedro Sangre. Pirates of the Caribbean adventures ensue, before a happy-ever-after in Devon. The novel is indelibly associated with Errol Flynn’s 1935 film depiction. Buckles never swashed more dashingly.
John Sutherland
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Jonathan Safran Foer: Everything Is Illuminated (2002)

Foer’s novel won the Guardian first book award and praise from John Updike and Joyce Carol Oates. Others have been deeply irritated by this story of a young American Jew who visits Ukraine in search of the woman who saved his grandfather from the Nazis. What do they hate so much? Chiefly the American’s local guide (and co-narrator) Alex, whose already shaky English is dangerously loosened by the gift of a thesaurus. “In Russian,” as Alex puts it, “my ideas are asserted abnormally well, but my second tongue is not so premium.” Oh, and there’s a farting dog.
Phil Daoust
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James Salter: The Hunters (1956)

Drawing on his experiences as a fighter pilot in the Korean War, Salter’s first novel exudes the kind of chill you might experience at 40,000 feet. Captain Cleve Connell arrives in Korea determined to become a MiG-destroying ace: instead of glory, he finds disenchantment and pilots who have let their sense of honour curdle and their masculinity turn septic. War, Salter argues, leaves a man’s heart missing in action even before the rest of his body follows.
Victoria Segal
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Walter Scott: Ivanhoe (1819)

After a series of bestselling Scottish novels, the Wizard of the North (still anonymous to his contemporary readers) turned to English history. The
story is set in the 12th century, at the time of the crusades. Saxon England is labouring under the “Norman yoke”. King Richard has been captured on his return from the Holy Land. The main strand of narrative (never Scott’s strongest point) follows the career of Wilfrid of Ivanhoe, a disinherited knight, who must choose in love between the Saxon beauty Rowena, and the beautiful Jewess Rebecca. Scott’s novel popularised the legendary Robin Hood, the medieval joust (the plot hinges on a great tournament) and idealised medievalism. It is probably, in terms of myths it propagated, one of the most infl uential novels in English literature. Now less read than it deserves to be.
John Sutherland
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Anna Sewell: Black Beauty (1877)

The most famous animal story of the 19th century. The novelty of the work is that it is narrated by a horse (apparently sexless), which is miraculously able to talk like a well-brought-up Victorian servant. Black Beauty tells his life story from foal to colt to broken-in mount and fi nally to broken-down hack. The work is strongly marked by Sewell’s passionate hatred of cruelty to animals and her campaign against the use of the “bearing reign”. The most good natured of quadrupeds, Black Beauty off ers a fi nal message: “We horses do not mind hard work if we are treated reasonably.”
John Sutherland
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Irwin Shaw: The Young Lions (1949)

Allegedly incurring Hemingway’s wrath by encroaching on his territory, Irwin Shaw’s rangy account of the second world war marches across vast swathes of territory, both literal — Africa, Europe, America — and intellectual. Focusing on three young soldiers — the Jewish Noah, the accidental hero Michael and the Nazi Christian, characters later played by Montgomery Clift, Dean Martin and Marlon Brando in the 1958 fi lm — Shaw’s first novel opens out into a spiritual and emotional panorama of war.
Victoria Segal
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Nevil Shute: A Town Like Alice (1950)

Jean Paget’s uncle believes women cannot handle money, and places her inheritance in trust: as his solicitor discovers, however, in wartime Malaya this “very fine girl” handled trials beyond her uncle’s imagining. There is romance in Shute’s popular 1949 book, but the underlying taste is as sharp as quinine, its key passages detailing Jean’s forced march round Malaya with 32 other women and children in an account of dirty rice, dysentery and death that loses none of its horror for being rendered in Shute’s reticent, terribly British style.
Victoria Segal
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Art Spiegelman: Maus: A Survivor’s Tale (1973-1991)

“No poetry after Auschwitz,” said Adorno, with serious implications for a book that attempts to represent the Holocaust and its aftermath as an extended cartoon. Maus exploded not merely any preconceptions about appropriate subject matter for a comic strip, but also suggested that the unspeakable might best be rethought through unexpected means. The relentless caricatures (Jews as mice, Germans as cats, Poles as pigs) remain challenging, even as they intensify a highly poignant depiction of ordinary aspirations in prewar Poland and Artie’s troubled relationship with his far-from saintly survivor father.
Chris Ross
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Stendhal: The Charterhouse of Parma (1839)

A romantic thriller that follows the fortunes of a young Italian nobleman, Fabrizio del Dongo, who somewhat accidentally finds himself fighting for the French at Waterloo. He then heads to Naples to study for the priesthood, has plenty of affairs, kills a man in a dispute over an actress and is caught and locked up in Parma’s highest tower, where he manages to fall in love yet again before effecting a daring escape. Alongside all this are the intrigues of court politics involving Fabrizio’s glamorous aunt Gina and her lover, the urbane Count Mosca. Both Balzac and Tolstoy were heavily influenced by Stendhal’s panoramic realism.
Adam Newey
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Neal Stephenson: Cryptonomicon (1999)

If the phrase “post-cyberpunk science fi ction” sounds altogether alarming, then you may disregard this novel. In fact Stephenson’s sprawling, picaresque epic at times reads like a straightforward history of the science of code-making and code-breaking in the second world war. But not for nothing is Stephenson known as “the Hacker Hemingway”, and his narrative also includes much heorising on the history of computing, the nature of money and mathematics. It ranges effortlessly all over the globe, between a past and a present brimming with conspiracy theories and paranoia. A much loved, popular novel that almost transcended the cult label.
Nicola Barr
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Laurence Sterne: A Sentimental Journey (176 8)

Mr Yorick, a mischievous 18th century clergyman, who is his author’s alter-ego, narrates his thoroughly idiosyncratic journey through France. He meets and mocks both his fellow English travellers on their Grand Tours and the French philosophes whom he visits in their Paris salons (Sterne, as the celebrated author of Tristram Shandy, had recently cut a swathe through fashionable Parisian society). The sentimental traveller searches out not tourist attractions but “sentimental” encounters: touching meetings with those who are gifted with fi ne feelings. Oddly enough, these are usually attractive young women who are happy to have their pulses felt by a sympathetic gentleman.
John Mullan
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Robert Louis Stevenson Kidnapped (1886)

Stevenson’s most popular historical romance, set in 1751 in the aftermath of the ‘45 Scottish rebellion. David Balfour, an orphan, comes to live with his villainous uncle, Ebenezer of Shaws. Having failed to murder his ward himself, Ebenezer has his nephew kidnapped, as a white slave, on the brig Covenant. The vessel runs down a rowing boat containing a Jacobite rebel, Alan Breck. He and David conspire to escape their captors and, on land, the brutal English soldiery who are still ravaging Scotland. After many adventures the two heroes — one “canny”, the other wildly romantic (Stevenson loved dualism) — make it to Edinburgh, where David’s rights are restored. Alan takes refuge in France.
John Sutherland
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Robert Louis Stevenson: Treasure Island (1883)

The fi nest boys’ adventure story produced in the Victorian period. Young Jim Hawkins helps run the Admiral Benbow inn, in Devon. A buccaneer, Billy Bones, holes up there — pursued, it transpires, by shipmates who deliver him the dreaded “black spot”. Jim discovers a treasure map in the dead Bones’s sea chest and, with the local squire and doctor, embarks to the West Indies to discover the buried treasure of the pirate Captain Flint. Also on board their vessel, the Hispaniola, is the villainous, one-legged sea-cook, Long John Silver, who takes over the vessel. Jim foils the mutineers and returns rich — but still affl icted by nightmares of Silver and his parrot’s screech “Pieces of Eight!” Stevenson’s novel was much imitated. Without it, we would never have had Pirates of the Caribbean.
John Sutherland
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Robert Stone: A Flag for Sunrise (1981)

Stone is a former war correspondent and erstwhile member of Ken Kesey’s “merry pranksters” who writes tales of desperate jokers in dangerous places. A Flag For Sunrise deals out a dark farce of the Iran-Contra era, as a rag-tag troupe of misfits (nuns and drug smugglers, whisky priests and CIA operatives) jockey for advantage in a thinly-veiled Nicaragua. Dostoyevsky and Graham Greene are the obvious influences here, though Stone’s savage, seductive prose style is all his own.
Xan Brooks
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William Styron: Sophie’s Choice (1979)

Hugely ambitious and extremely controversial, Styron’s rendering of a three- seen. In lands of midgets, giants and a flying island, Gulliver wonderfully fails to see the analogies with the European civili sation of which he is so proud. Then on his last voyage he meets the Houyhnhnms, virtuous and perfectly rational talking horses, and his pride collapses into misanthropy and self-loathing. He and we are just Yahoos, the malevolent, cunning, libidinous beasts with whom the Houyhnhnms are fated to share their land.
John Mullan
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Leo Tolstoy: War and Peace (1869)

Tolstoy’s epic novel – the touchstone of 19th-century realism – sweeps from the glittering salons of Russian high society to the grisly horrors of the Napoleonic battlefields. Its dispassionate eye follows peasants, emperors, soldiers, and priests through decades, taking in life and death in all its forms. This is no heroic tale of good versus evil, of strategies and battle formations, but a vivid depiction of the banality, tedium and senselessness of war. In its time, it was so formally innovative that even Tolstoy himself didn’t consider it to be a novel in the conventional sense. He was so dissatisfied with the first version that he rewrote it and never felt he’d got it right. Its everyman hero, Pierre (played unforgettably on TV by Anthony Hopkins), blunders along, struggling to find meaning in his life, and each of the dozen or so central characters battle their own demons, searching for truth and peace. Their struggles are timeless, as is the unforgettable love story at its heart.
Imogen Tilden
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Mark Twain The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1885)

The novel is narrated by Huck (”Tom Sawyer’s comrade”) in the “Pike County dialect”. Huck is semi-”sivilized”, thanks to the iron discipline of the widow Douglas who has adopted him. Huck’s villainous father returns, eager for the $6,000 his son has inherited. Huck escapes, and drifts by raft down the Mississippi, with a runaway slave, Jim. After various adventures (and reunion with Tom) all comes well. At the end, the two young heroes intend to light out to the Indian territory — a sequel Twain never wrote. The novel has fallen into disfavour because of Huck’s promiscuous use of the N-word, although its treatment of race is commendably liberal.
John Sutherland
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Jules Verne: Around the World in Eighty Days (1873)

Master of the voyage imaginaire , Verne also revealed himself adept at mingling high adventure with Thomas Cook-style tourism. This pioneer
romance of globalisation has always been among Verne’s most popular works in Britain for its ultra-English (as the French see it) hero, Phileas
Fogg, Esq. Fogg, having read of a new railway link in the Indian subcontinent, wagers his fellow Reform Club members that he can circumnavigate the world in 80 days. With his ingenious French “man”, Passepartout, he overcomes every obstacle, displaying across the globe the famous English sang –froid. The itinerary is meticulously chronicled. Fogg arrives back to foggy London, as he thinks, a day late — but he has forgotten that he has crossed the date line. He makes it to the club with seconds to spare.
John Sutherland
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Jules Verne: A Journey to the Centre of the Earth (1864)

With Twenty Thousand Leagues, the most reprinted of Verne’s voyages imaginaires, this one subterranean rather than submarine. The “hollow earth hypothesis” — which fantasised a parallel world to our under the world’s crust — was both popular and subscribed to, even by reputable scientists, in the 19th century. In Verne’s fantasy, Professor Lidenbrock, inspired by an ancient manuscript, leads an expedition through an extinct volcano to an underground world that is still prehistoric — having never been exposed to an ice age — with mastodons, jungles, and humanoids. Verne’s tale was flagrantly ripped off (by Edgar Rice Burroughs, among others, with his “Pellucidar” series) but remains the best of its (scientifically) preposterous
kind.
John Sutherland
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Gore Vidal: Williwaw (1946)

Vidal was 19 when he wrote this, his fi rst novel, published in 1946. And yes, he was living and working as a first mate on board a ship in the Aleutian Islands, the location for this novel, but the achievement is not the similitude, rather the ability to express the tension and claustrophobia as the crew members wrestle with war, personal animosity, boredom (no one is seen working on a novel) and some really really bad weather. A williwaw is a snow-laden hurricane, and 50 years before The Perfect Storm was a bestseller, Vidal showed us how it should be done.
Nicola Barr
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Voltaire: Candide (1759)

Our fresh-faced hero embarks on his picaresque journey across Europe and Latin America, which sees Enlightenment optimism sorely tested by — among other delights — rape, murder, syphilis, cannibalism, the wanton destructiveness of natural forces and the human cost of the western addiction to sugar. Not “the best of all possible worlds”, then, but certainly one of the best possible books about the limits of rationalism, the savagery of colonial exploitation and the vital importance of cultivating one’s own garden and independence of mind.
Chris Ross
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Kurt Vonnegut: Slaughterhouse-Five (1969)

Subtitled “Or The Children’s Crusade: A Duty-Dance With Death”, the most powerful anti-war novel to be generated out of the second world war. Vonnegut, like his ingénue hero, Billy Pilgrim, was captured in the Battle of the Bulge and imprisoned in Dresden, shortly before the firebombing in February 1945 which killed (as Vonnegut recalls) over 100,000 German civilians. The narrative opens with Billy “unstuck” in time. He is, perhaps, mad. Or, as he believes, he has been given the power of clairvoyance and time travel by extraterrestrial Tralfamadorians, whose prisoner he is. The Tralfamadorians have destroyed the universe by their bombing error but can enjoy the good moments of their previous existences. The narrative recoils
from graphic description of wartime atrocity to fanciful space opera. As Konnegut records, it was an immensely painful novel to write and, for all its incidental comedy and literary skill, remains painful to read. But necessary, none the less.
John Sutherland
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Evelyn Waugh: Put Out More Flags (1942)

Basil Seal, posh and feckless, has been a leader writer on the Daily Beast, a champagne salesman, a tour guide, a secret policeman in Bolivia, and an adviser on modernisation to the emperor of Azania – all way relationship between a young southern writer, a Polish Auschwitz survivor and a Jewish New Yorker interweaves a host of complex themes (survivor guilt, ancestral guilt, madness and betrayal). The movie was Oscar-nominated; the book was banned in libraries across the States. But this is not just about provocative comparisons. Styron is a writer’s writer, capable of setting a pastoral idyll in Brooklyn, and the traumas narrated occur alongside a classic American coming-of-age story.
Chris Ross
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Evelyn Waugh: Men at Arms (1952)

The fi rst of the Sword of Honour trilogy, which was followed by Officers and Gentlemen in 1955 and Unconditional Surrenderin 1961. Guy Crouchback is the last of an ancient English Catholic family — miserable, childless, divorced and forbidden by his religion to remarry. At 35, the outbreak of war seems to give meaning to his life: he is commissioned into the Royal Corps of Halberdiers, an outfit somewhere between a prep school and a gentleman’s club. In Waugh’s mordent satire on the wartime army, bungling is standard, idiots are greeted as heroes and fools are unfailingly promoted. “Unquestionably,” wrote Cyril Connolly, “the finest novels to have come out of the war.”
Charlotte Higgins
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HG Wells: The Island of Dr Moreau (1896)

The most morbid of Wells’s remarkable 1890s “scientific romances” and a classic fable of vivisection — a cause célèbre of the late Victorian period. The hero narrator, Prendick, is shipwrecked and finds himself on a Pacific island, where he discovers that Dr Moreau (earlier hounded out of England for torturing animals) has perfected surgical techniques by which he can accelerate evolution. Under his Darwinian scalpel, animals are raised to quasi-humanity. But once raised, these “monsters” need to be kept in check by the sadistic infliction of pain. Moreau is killed by a puma he is tormenting and rebellion breaks out. The animals revert to their natural animalism. Moreau’s last words are: “What a mess.” The novel revolted contemporary reviewers but hasfascinated posterity.
John Sutherland
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Robert Westall: The Machine-Gunners (1975)

Chas McGill’s collection of war souvenirs becomes more than a schoolboy pastime when he finds a crashed German bomber with its machine-gun still attached. After their school takes a hit during an air-raid, McGill and his friends make use of the free time to wage their own war against the enemy. The Machine Gunners, which was adapted into a BBC television serial in 1983, brilliantly evokes Tyneside in the second world war and the disruption to ordinary family life, while capturing the complicated relationships that exist between children and adults. It won the Carnegie medal in 1975, and in 2007 was selected by medal judges as one of the 10 most important children’s novels of the past 70 years.
James Smart
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Patrick White: Voss (1957)

Voss, a German explorer, sets out in 1845 to cross the uncharted Australian desert. Before leaving, he meets Laura Trevelyan, a young Englishwoman newly arrived in the colony, and they fall in love. The novel then intertwines Laura’s life in Sydney with the increasingly desperate travails of Voss’s doomed expedition. Though the couple never meet again, they appear to communicate through a series of heightened, dream-like visions that become more intense as Voss’s mind, beset by the sin of intellectual pride, fractures under the weight of the physical challenge he has undertaken. In 1985 White’s novel was adapted into an opera by Richard Meale, with a libretto by David Malouf.
Adam Newey
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Owen Wister: The Virginian (1902)

Not many writers get to invent a genre, but that’s what Wister did in 1902 with The Virginian, the Western novel that spawned a thousand books and even more films. All the future cliches are here, but new-minted: the tall handsome stranger who learns how to be a man among the wide open spaces of the unspoiled West, magnifi cent landscapes, violent villains — who get their comeuppance — and a lovely schoolmarm endeavouring to instil civilised values in an uncouth bunch of frontiersmen. This book has all the freshness of a literary pioneer.
Joanna Hines
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Herman Wouk: The Caine Mutiny (1951)

Soon after Willie Keith joins the US Navy in 1943, his dying father describes him as “much like our whole country – young, naive, spoiled and softened by abundance and good luck, but with an interior hardness that comes from your sound stock”. On board the Caine, an ageing minesweeper in the Pacific, Willie grows up fast, but it is his involvement in mutiny and its aftermath that finally turns him into the man his father never was. Wouk won a Pulitzer prize for this dramatic account of the realities of warfare in the Pacific.
Joanna Hines
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Émile Zola: The Debacle (1892)

The penultimate book in Zola’s monumental sequence about a French family during the Second Empire, The Debacle chronicles the disastrous war between France and Prussia in 1870 and the Paris Commune of the following year, through the moving friendship between two men. Jean Macquart, earthy and pragmatic, wins the respect of the intellectual and mercurial Maurice Levasseur. Initially comrades, they fight on opposite sides in 1871, with tragic consequences. Written only 20 years after the events it describes, Zola’s novel is a moving indictment of the waste and cruelty of war.
Joanna Hines

Douglas Adams: The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (1979)

 

Originating as a BBC radio series in 1978, Douglas Adams’s inspired melding of hippy-trail guidebook and sci-fi comedy turned its novelisations into a publishing phenomenon. Douglas wrote five parts from 1979 onwards (the first sold 250,000 in three months), introducing the world to Marvin the Paranoid Android, the computer Deep Thought, space guitarist Hotblack Desiato (named after Adams’s local estate agent) and the Guide itself, a remarkably prescient forerunner to the internet.
Andrew Pulver
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Brian W Aldiss: Non-Stop (195 8)

Aldiss’s first novel is a tour-de-force of adventure, wonder and conceptual breakthrough. Set aboard a vast generation starship millennia after blast-off, the novel follows Roy Complain on a voyage of discovery from ignorance of his surroundings to some understanding of his small place in the universe. Complain is spiteful and small-minded but grows in humanity as his trek through the ship brings him into contact with giant humans, mutated rats and, ultimately, a wondrous view of space beyond the ship.
Eric Brown
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Isaac Asimov: Foundation (1951)

One of the first attempts to write a comprehensive “future history”, the trilogy – which also includes Foundation and Empire (1952) and Second Foundation (1953) – is Asimov’s version of Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, set on a galactic scale. Hari Seldon invents the science of psychohistory with which to combat the fall into barbarianism of the Human Empire, and sets up the Foundation to foster art, science and technology. Wish-fulfilment of the highest order, the novels are a landmark in the history of science fiction.
EB
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Margaret Atwood: The Blind Assassin (2000)

On planet Zycron, tyrannical Snilfards subjugate poor Ygnirods, providing intercoital entertainment for a radical socialist and his lover. We assume she is Laura Chase, daughter of an Ontario industrialist, who records their sex and sci-fi stories in a novel, The Blind Assassin. Published posthumously by Laura’s sister, Iris, the book outrages postwar sensibilities. Iris is 83 in the cantankerous present-day narrative, and ready to set the story straight about the suspicious deaths of her sister, husband and daughter. In this Booker prize-winning novel about novels, Atwood bends genre and traps time, toying brilliantly with the roles of writing and reading.
Natalie Cate
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Paul Auster: In the Country of Last Things (1987)

Anna Blume, 19, arrives in a city to look for her brother. She finds a ruin, where buildings collapse on scavenging citizens. All production has stopped. Nobody can leave, except as a corpse collected for fuel. Suicide clubs flourish. Anna buys a trolley and wanders the city, salvaging objects and information. She records horrific scenes, but also a deep capacity for love. This small hope flickers in a world where no apocalyptic event is specified. Instead, Auster creates his dystopia by magnifying familiar flaws and recycling historical detail: the novel’s working title was “Anna Blume Walks Through the 20th Century”.
NC
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Iain Banks: The Wasp Factory (1984)

A modern-gothic tale of mutilation, murder and medical experimentation, Banks’s first novel – described by the Irish Times as “a work of unparalleled depravity”- is set on a Scottish island inhabited by the ultimate dysfunctional family: a mad scientist and his unbalanced sons, older brother Eric, who has been locked up for everyone’s safety, and Frank, the 16-year-old narrator, tormented by a freak accident that cost him his genitals. Frank’s victims are mostly animals – but he has found time to kill a few children …
Phil Daoust
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Iain M Banks: Consider Phlebas (1987)

Space opera is unfashionable, but Banks couldn’t care less. “You get the opportunity to work on a proper canvas,” he says. “Big, big brushes, broad strokes.” The strokes have rarely been broader than in Banks’s Culture novels, about a galaxy-spanning society in which humans and artificial intelligences are united by a love of parties, adventure and a damn good fight. Consider Phlebas introduced the first of many misguided or untrustworthy heroes – Horza, who can change his body just by thinking about it – and a typically Banksian collision involving two giant trains in an subterranean station.
PD
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Clive Barker: Weaveworld (1987)

Life’s rich tapestry is just that in Clive Barker’s fantasy. A magic carpet is the last refuge of a people known as the Seerkind, who for centuries have been hunted by both humans and the Scourge, a mysterious being that seems determined to live up to its name. When it all starts to unravel, the carpet people’s best hope is a pigeon-fancying insurance clerk and his half-Seerkind companion. Yes, it sounds twee, but as Barker himself said, “the Seerkind fornicate, fart – they’re very far from pure”.
PD
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Nicola Barker: Darkmans (2007)

Nicola Barker has been accused of obscurity, but this Booker-shortlisted comic epic has a new lightness of touch and an almost soapy compulsiveness. Set in Ashford, Kent, the kind of everytown that has turned its back on history, the novel dips into the lives of a loosely connected cast of everyday eccentrics who find that history – in the persona of Edward IV’s jester – is fighting back. A jumble of voices and typefaces, mortal fear and sarky laughter, the novel is as true as it is truly odd, and beautifully written to boot.
Justine Jordan
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Stephen Baxter: The Time Ships (1995)

In his visionary sequel to Wells’s The Time Machine, Baxter continues the adventures of the Time-Traveller. He sends him back to the far future in an attempt to save the Eloi woman Weena, only to find himself in a future timeline diverging from the one he left. Baxter’s extraordinary continuation and expansion tackles the usual concerns of the time-travel story – paradox and causality – and goes on to explore many of the themes that taxed Wells: destiny, morality and the perfectibility of the human race.
EB
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Greg Bear: Darwin’s Radio (1999)

Bear combines intelligence, humour and the wonder of scientific discovery in a techno-thriller about a threat to the future of humanity. A retro-viral plague sweeps the world, infecting women via their sexual partners and aborting their embryos. But the plague is more than it seems … What might in other hands have been a mere end-of-the-world runaround is transformed by Bear’s scientific knowledge into something marvellous, as reason overcomes paranoia and fear.
EB
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Alfred Bester: The Stars My Destination (1956)

“Gully Foyle is my name / And Terra is my nation. / Deep space is my dwelling place / And death’s my destination …” Marooned in space after an attack on his ship, then ignored by a passing luxury liner, an illiterate mechanic plots revenge on those who left him to die. Somehow surviving, he swiftly gets down to it. Bester’s novel updates The Count of Monte Cristo with telepathy, nuclear weapons and interplanetary travel. Those who stumble across it are inevitably surprised to find it was written half a century ago.
PD
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Poppy Z Brite: Lost Souls (1992)

Brite’s first novel, a lush, decadent and refreshingly provocative take on vampirism told in rich, stylish prose, put her at the forefront of the 1990s horror scene. It’s the story of Nothing, an angst-filled teenager who runs away from his adoptive parents to seek out his favourite band. Along the way he joins up with a group of vampires, finds his true family and discovers what he really values, amid much blood, sex, drugs and drink.
Keith Brooke
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Algis Budrys: Rogue Moon (1960)

Al Barker is a thrillseeking adventurer recruited to investigate an alien labyrinth on the moon. Everyone who enters the maze dies, so Barker’s doppelganger is transmitted there while he remains in telepathic contact. Barker is the first person to survive the trauma of witnessing their own death, returning again and again to explore. Rogue Moon works as both thriller and character study, a classic novel mapping out a new and sophisticated SF, just as Barker maps the alien maze.
KB
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Mikhail Bulgakov: The Master and Margarita (1966)

When the Devil comes to 1930s Moscow, his victims are pillars of the Soviet establishment: a famous editor has his head cut off; another bureaucrat is made invisible. This is just a curtain-raiser for the main event, however: a magnificent ball for the damned and the diabolical. For his hostess, his satanic majesty chooses Margarita, a courageous young Russian whose lover is in a psychiatric hospital, traumatised by the banning of his novel. No prizes for guessing whom Bulgakov identified with; although Stalin admired his early work, by the 1930s he was personally banning it. This magisterial satire was not published until more than 20 years after the writer’s death.
PD
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Edward Bulwer-Lytton: The Coming Race (1871)

In this pioneering work of British science fiction, the hero is a bumptious American mining engineer who stumbles on a subterranean civilisation. The “Vril-ya” enjoy a utopian social organisation based on “vril”, a source of infinitely renewable electrical power (commerce promptly produced the beef essence drink, Bovril). Also present are ray guns, aerial travel and ESP. Ironically, the hero finds utopia too boring. He is rescued from death by the Princess Zee, who flies him to safety. The novel ends with the ominous prophecy that the superior race will invade the upper earth – “the Darwinian proposition”, as Bulwer-Lytton called it.
John Sutherland
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Anthony Burgess: A Clockwork Orange (1960)

One of a flurry of novels written by Burgess when he was under the mistaken belief that he had only a short time to live. Set in a dystopian socialist welfare state of the future, the novel fantasises a world without religion. Alex is a “droog” – a juvenile delinquent who lives for sex, violence and subcult high fashion. The narrative takes the form of a memoir, in Alex’s distinctive gang-slang. The state “programmes” Alex into virtue; later deprogrammed, he discovers what good and evil really are. The novel, internationally popularised by Stanley Kubrick’s 1970 film into what Burgess called “Clockwork Marmalade”, is Burgess’s tribute to his cradle Catholicism and, as a writer, to James Joyce.
JS
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Anthony Burgess: The End of the World News (1982)

In one of the first split-screen narratives, Burgess juxtaposes three key 20th-century themes: communism, psychoanalysis and the millennial fear of Armageddon. Trotsky’s 1917 visit to New York is presented as a Broadway musical; a mournful Freud looks back on his life as he prepares to flee the Nazis; and in the year 2000, as a rogue asteroid barrels towards the Earth, humanity argues over who will survive and what kind of society they will take to the stars.
JJ
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Edgar Rice Burroughs: A Princess of Mars (1912)

John Carter, a Confederate veteran turned gold prospector, is hiding from Indians in an Arizona cave when he is mysteriously transported to Mars, known to the locals as Barsoom. There, surrounded by four-armed, green-skinned warriors, ferocious white apes, eight-legged horse-substitutes, 10-legged “dogs”, and so on, he falls in love with Princess Dejah Thoris, who might almost be human if she didn’t lay eggs. She is, naturally, both beautiful and extremely scantily clad … Burroughs’s first novel, published in serial form, is the purest pulp, and its lack of pretension is its greatest charm.
PD
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William Burroughs: Naked Lunch (1959)

Disjointed, hallucinatory cut-ups form a collage of, as Burroughs explained of the title, “a frozen moment when everyone sees what is on the end of every fork”. A junkie’s picaresque adventures in both the real world and the fantastical “Interzone”, this is satire using the most savage of distorting mirrors: society as an obscene phantasmagoria of addiction, violence, sex and death. Only Cronenberg could have filmed it (in 1991), and even he recreated Burroughs’s biography rather than his interior world.
JJ
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Octavia Butler: Kindred (1979)

Butler’s fourth novel throws African American Dana Franklin back in time to the early 1800s, where she is pitched into the reality of slavery and the individual struggle to survive its horrors. Butler single-handedly brought to the SF genre the concerns of gender politics, racial conflict and slavery. Several of her novels are groundbreaking, but none is more compelling or shocking than Kindred. A brilliant work on many levels, it ingeniously uses the device of time travel to explore the iniquity of slavery through Dana’s modern sensibilities.
EB
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Samuel Butler: Erewhon (1872)

The wittiest of Victorian dystopias by the period’s arch anti-Victorian. The hero Higgs finds himself in New Zealand (as, for a while, did the chronic misfit Butler). Assisted by a native, Chowbok, he makes a perilous journey across a mountain range to Erewhon (say it backwards), an upside-down world in which crime is “cured” and illness “punished”, where universities are institutions of “Unreason” and technology is banned. The state religion is worship of the goddess Ydgrun (ie “Mrs Grundy” – bourgeois morality). Does it sound familiar? Higgs escapes by balloon, with the sweetheart he has found there.
JS
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Italo Calvino: The Baron in the Trees (1957)

It is 1767: a boy quarrels with his aristocratic parents and climbs a tree, swearing not to touch the earth again. He ends up keeping his promise, witnessing the French revolution and its Napoleonic aftermath from the perspective of the Italian treetops. Drafted soon after Calvino’s break with communism over the invasion of Hungary, the novel can be read as a fable about intellectual commitments. At the same time, it’s a perfectly turned fantasy, densely imagined but lightly written in a style modelled on Voltaire and Robert Louis Stevenson.
Chris Tayler
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Ramsey Campbell: The Influence (198 8)

Campbell has long been one of the masters of psychological horror, proving again and again that what’s in our heads is far scarier than any monster lurking in the shadows. In this novel, the domineering old spinster Queenie dies – a relief to those around her. Her niece Alison inherits the house, but soon starts to suspect that the old woman is taking over her eight-year-old daughter Rowan. A paranoid, disturbing masterpiece.
KB
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Lewis Carroll: Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865)

The intellectuals’ favourite children’s story began as an improvised tale told by an Oxford mathematics don to a colleague’s daughters; later readers have found absurdism, political satire and linguistic philosophy in a work that, 140 years on, remains fertile and fresh, crisp yet mysterious, and endlessly open to intepretation. Alice, while reading in a meadow, sees a white rabbit rush by, feverishly consulting a watch. She follows him down a hole (Freudian analysis, as elsewhere in the story, is all too easy), where she grows and shrinks in size and encounters creatures mythological, extinct and invented. Morbid jokes and gleeful subversion abound.
JS
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Lewis Carroll: Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There (1871)

The trippier sequel to Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and, like its predecessor, illustrated by John Tenniel. More donnish in tone, this fantasy follows Alice into a mirror world in which everything is reversed. Her journey is based on chess moves, during the course of which she meets such figures as Humpty Dumpty and the riddling twins Tweedledum and Tweedledee. More challenging intellectually than the first instalment, it explores loneliness, language and the logic of dreams.
JS
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Angela Carter: Nights at the Circus (1984)

The year is 1899 – and other times. Fevvers, aerialiste, circus performer and a virgin, claims she was not born, but hatched out of an egg. She has two large and wonderful wings. In fact, she is large and wonderful in every way, from her false eyelashes to her ebullient and astonishing adventures. The journalist Jack Walser comes to interview her and stays to love and wonder, as will every reader of this entirely original extravaganza, which deftly and wittily questions every assumption we make about the lives of men and women on this planet.
Carmen Callil
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Michael Chabon: The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay (2000)

The golden age of the American comic book coincided with the outbreak of the second world war and was spearheaded by first- and second-generation Jewish immigrants who installed square-jawed supermen as bulwarks against the forces of evil. Chabon’s Pulitzer prize-winning picaresque charts the rise of two young cartoonists, Klayman and Kavalier. It celebrates the transformative power of pop culture, and reveals the harsh truths behind the hyperreal fantasies.
XB
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Arthur C Clarke: Childhood’s End (1953)

Clarke’s third novel fuses science and mysticism in an optimistic treatise describing the transcendence of humankind from petty, warring beings to the guardians of utopia, and beyond. One of the first major works to present alien arrival as beneficent, it describes the slow process of social transformation when the Overlords come to Earth and guide us to the light. Humanity ultimately transcends the physical and joins a cosmic overmind, so ushering in the childhood’s end of the title
EB
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GK Chesterton: The Man Who Was Thursday (190 8)

Chesterton’s “nightmare”, as he subtitled it, combines Edwardian delicacy with wonderfully melodramatic tub-thumping – beautiful sunsets and Armageddon – to create an Earth as strange as any far-distant planet. Secret policemen infiltrate an anarchist cabal bent on destruction, whose members are known only by the days of the week; but behind each one’s disguise, they discover only another policeman. At the centre of all is the terrifying Sunday, a superhuman force of mischief and pandemonium. Chesterton’s distorting mirror combines spinetingling terror with round farce to give a fascinating perspective on Edwardian fears of (and flirtations with) anarchism, nihilism and a world without god.
JJ
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Susanna Clarke: Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell (2004)

Clarke’s first novel is a vast, hugely satisfying alternative history, a decade in the writing, about the revival of magic – which had fallen into dusty, theoretical scholarship – in the early 19th century. Two rival magicians flex their new powers, pursuing military glory and power at court, striking a dangerous alliance with the Faerie King, and falling into passionate enmity over the use and meaning of the supernatural. The book is studded with footnotes both scholarly and comical, layered with literary pastiche, and invents a whole new strain of folklore: it’s dark, charming and very, very English.
JJ
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Michael G Coney: Hello Summer, Goodbye (1975)

This classic by an unjustly neglected writer tells the story of Drove and Pallahaxi-Browneyes on a far-flung alien world which undergoes long periods of summer and gruelling winters lasting some 40 years. It’s both a love story and a war story, and a deeply felt essay, ahead of its time, about how all living things are mutually dependant. This is just the kind of jargon-free, humane, character-driven novel to convert sceptical readers to science fiction.
EB
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Douglas Coupland: Girlfriend in a Coma (199 8)

Coupland began Girlfriend in a Coma in “probably the darkest period of my life”, and it shows. Listening to the Smiths – whose single gave the book its title – can’t have helped. This is a story about the end of the world, and the general falling-off that precedes it, as 17-year-old Karen loses first her virginity, then consciousness. When she reawakens more than a decade later, the young people she knew and loved have died, become junkies or or simply lost that new-teenager smell. Wondering what the future holds? It’s wrinkles, disillusionment and the big sleep.
PD
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Mark Danielewski: House of Leaves (2000)

It’s not often you get to read a book vertically as well as horizontally, but there is much that is uncommon about House of Leaves. It’s ostensibly a horror story, but the multiple narrations and typographical tricks – including one chapter that cuts down through the middle of the book – make it as much a comment on metatextuality as a novel. That said, the creepiness stays with you, especially the house that keeps stealthily remodelling itself: surely that long, dark, endless corridor wasn’t there yesterday …
Carrie O’Grady
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Marie Darrieussecq: Pig Tales (1996)

It wasn’t a problem at first: to be more voluptuous, to have a firmer, more rounded bottom and breasts, to be pinker and more healthy-looking is far from a disadvantage to a girl working in a massage parlour in a sex-crazed dystopian society. But the changes don’t stop there: her hunger dominates (her preferred foods are now flowers and raw potatoes), her pleasant plumpness becomes rolls of fat, her glow turns ruddy. A curly tail, trotters and a snout are not far off. Darrieussecq’s modern philosophical tale is witty, telling and hearteningly feminist.
Joanna Biggs
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Samuel R Delaney: The Einstein Intersection (1967)

The setting is a post-apocalyptic future, long past the age of humans. Aliens have taken on the forms of human archetypes, in an attempt to come to some understanding of human civilisation and play out the myths of the planet’s far past. The novel follows Lobey, who as Orpheus embarks on a quest to bring his lover back from the dead. With lush, poetic imagery and the innovative use of mythic archetypes, Delaney brilliantly delineates the human condition.
EB
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Philip K Dick: Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (196 8)

Dick’s novel became the basis for the film Blade Runner, which prompted a resurgence of interest in the man and his works, but similarities film and novel are slight. Here California is under-populated and most animals are extinct; citizens keep electric pets instead. In order to afford a real sheep and so affirm his empathy as a human being, Deckard hunts rogue androids, who lack empathy. As ever with Dick, pathos abounds and with it the inquiry into what is human and what is fake.
EB
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Philip K Dick: The Man in the High Castle (1962)

Much imitated “alternative universe” novel by the wayward genius of the genre. The Axis has won the second world war. Imperial Japan occupies the west coast of America; more tyrannically, Nazi Germany (under Martin Bormann, Hitler having died of syphilis) takes over the east coast. The Californian lifestyle adapts well to its oriental master. Germany, although on the brink of space travel and the possessor of vast tracts of Russia, is teetering on collapse. The novel is multi-plotted, its random progression determined, Dick tells us, by consultation with the Chinese I Ching.
JS
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Umberto Eco: Foucault’s Pendulum (198 8)

Foucault’s Pendulum followed the massive success of Eco’s The Name of the Rose, and in complexity, intrigue, labyrinthine plotting and historical scope it is every bit as extravagant. Eco’s tale of three Milanese publishers, who feed occult and mystic knowledge into a computer to see what invented connections are created, tapped into the worldwide love of conspiracy theories, particularly those steeped in historical confusion. As “The Plan” takes over their lives and becomes reality, the novel turns into a brilliant historical thriller of its own that inspired a similar level of obsession among fans.
Nicola Barr
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Michel Faber: Under the Skin (2000)

A woman drives around the Scottish highlands, all cleavage and lipstick, picking up well-built male hitchhikers – but there’s something odd behind her thick pebble glasses … Faber’s first novel refreshes the elements of horror and SF in luminous, unearthly prose, building with masterly control into a page-turning existential thriller that can also be read as an allegory of animal rights. And in the character of Isserley – her curiosity, resignation, wonderment and pain – he paints an immensely affecting portrait of how it feels to be irreparably damaged and immeasurably far from home.
JJ
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John Fowles: The Magus (1966)

Determined to extricate himself from an increasingly serious relationship, graduate Nicholas Urfe takes a job as an English teacher on a small Greek island. Walking alone one day, he runs into a wealthy eccentric, Maurice Conchis, who draws him into a succession of elaborate psychological games that involve two beautiful young sisters in reenactments of Greek myths and the Nazi occupation. Appearing after The Collector, this was actually the first novel that Fowles wrote, and although it quickly became required reading for a generation, he continued to rework it for a decade after publication.
David Newnham
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Neil Gaiman: American Gods (2001)

“Nourishing to the soul” was Michael Chabon’s verdict on Gaiman’s novel, in which ex-con Shadow gets a job driving for a conman who turns out to be a Norse god. Before long, he is embroiled in a battle between ancient and modern deities: Odin, Anansi, Anubis and the Norns on one side, TV, the movies and technology on the other. A road trip through America’s sacred places is spiced up by some troublesome encounters with Shadow’s unfaithful wife, Laura. She’s dead, which always makes for awkward silences.
PD
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Alan Garner: Red Shift (1973)

The author of such outstanding mythical fantasies as Elidor and The Owl Service, Garner has been called “too good for grown-ups”; but the preoccupations of this young adult novel (love and violence, madness and possession, the pain of relationships outgrown and the awkwardness of the outsider) are not only adolescent. The three
narrative strands – young lovers in the 1970s, the chaos of thebetweenalcoholics, English civil war and soldiers going native in a Vietnam-tinged Roman Britain – circle around Mow Cop in Cheshire and an ancient axehead found there. Dipping in and out of time, in blunt, raw dialogue, Garner creates a moving and singular novel.
JJ
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William Gibson: Neuromancer (1984)

“The sky above the port was the colour of television, tuned to a dead channel.” From the first line of Gibson’s first novel, it was clear that a major talent had arrived. This classic of cyberpunk won Nebula, Hugo and Philip K Dick awards, and popularised the term “cyberspace”, which the author described as “a consensual hallucination experienced daily by billions”. A fast-paced thriller starring a washed-up hacker, a cybernetically enhanced mercenary and an almost omnipotent artificial intelligence, it inspired and informed a slew of films and novels, not least the Matrix trilogy.
PD
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Charlotte Perkins Gilman: Herland (1915)

When three explorers learn of a country inhabited only by females, Terry, the lady’s man, looks forward to Glorious Girls, Van, the scientist, expects them to be uncivilised, and Jeff, the Southern gallant, hopes for clinging vines in need of rescue. The process by which their assumptions are overturned and their own beliefs challenged is told with humour and a light touch in Gilman’s brilliantly realised vision of a female Utopia where Mother Love is raised to its highest power. Many of Herland’s insights are as relevant today as when it was first published a hundred years ago.
Joanna Hines
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William Golding: Lord of the Flies (1954)

The shadow of the second world war looms over Golding’s debut, the classic tale of a group of English schoolboys struggling to recreate their society after surviving a plane crash and descending to murderous savagery. Fat, bespectacled Piggy is sacrificed; handsome, morally upstanding Ralph is victimised; and dangerous, bloodthirsty Jack is lionised, as the boys become “the Beast” they fear. When the adults finally arrive, childish tears on the beach hint less at relief than fear for the future.
NB

Joe Haldeman: The Forever War (1974)

When Haldeman returned from Vietnam, with a Purple Heart for the wounds he had suffered, he wrote a story about a pointless conflict that seems as if it will never end. It was set in space, and the enemies were aliens, but 18 publishers decided it was too close to home before St Martin’s Press took a gamble. The book that “nobody wants to read” went on to win many prizes. It’s not perfect – it’s hard to take seriously a future in which hetereosexuality is a perversion – but the anti-war message is as powerful as ever.
Phil Daoust
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M John Harrison: Light (2002)

Known for his intricate short stories and critically acclaimed mountaineering novel Climbers, Harrison cut his teeth on SF. In typical fashion, he writes space opera better than many who write only in the genre. For all its star travel and alien artefacts, scuzzy 25th-century spaceports and drop-out space pilots, Light is actually about twisting three plotlines as near as possible to snapping point. This is as close as SF gets to literary fiction, and literary fiction gets to SF.
Jon Courtenay Grimwood
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Robert A Heinlein: Stranger in a Strange Land (1961)

Amateur stonemason, waterbed designer, reformed socialist, nudist, militarist and McCarthyite, Heinlein is one of the most interesting and irritating figures in American science fiction. This swinging 60s bestseller (working title: The Heretic) is typically provocative, with a central character, Mike Smith, who is raised by Martians after the death of his parents and questions every human assumption – about sex, politics, society and spirituality – on his arrival on Earth. Smith’s religion, with its polyamory, communal living and ritual cannibalism, inspired the neo-pagan Church of All Worlds.
PD
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Frank Herbert: Dune (1965)

Set on the desert world of Arrakis, this complex novel combines politics, religion, ecology and evolution in the rise to power of Paul Atreides, who becomes a revolutionary leader and a prophet with the ability to foresee and shape the future. Epic in scope, Dune is primarily an adventure story, though Herbert was one of the first genre writers convincingly to tackle the subject of planetary ecology in his depiction of a drought-stricken world.
Eric Brown
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Hermann Hesse: The Glass Bead Game (1943)

Set in the fictional country of Castalia, Hesse’s last novel tells of a young man’s rise through the hierarchies of an elite boarding school. Step by step, young Josef Knecht is initiated into the mysteries of the “glass bead game” that forms the focal point of Castalian social and academic life – until he starts to question its rules and falls out with the order. That we never find out exactly how this game is meant to be played is part of Hesse’s plan: with its characteristic mix of the arcane and the esoteric, the novel sketches out a timeless allegory about the ivory-tower mentality of communities devoted to a single intellectual cause.
Philip Oltermann
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Russell Hoban: Riddley Walker (1980)

After the Bomb – long, long after – humanity is still huddled in medieval-style stockades, cold, ignorant, superstitious and speaking in degraded English, the patois in which this book is written. It takes some getting used to, but Riddley’s misspelt narrative is astonishingly rich and rewarding. As he circles burnt-out Kent, trying to make sense of the fragments of modern-day knowledge that have passed into folklore (a “saddelite” bird flies very high, the “Pry Mincer” is an authority figure), the mythical/religious/scientific allusions whirl so fast that we are left as gobsmacked as he is. Yet his story is still poignant. Will this be us in 2,500 years’ time?
Carrie O’Grady
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James Hogg: The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner (1824)

Suppose you discovered that you were one of the elect – predestined to an bookseternity in paradise not because of the goodness of your actions or the strength of your faith, but by God’s grace. This is what happens to Robert Wringhim, who is brought up in the Calvinist belief in predestination. When he encounters a devilish figure known as Gil-Martin, Wringhim is easily tempted into undertaking a campaign to purge the world of the Reprobate – those not selected for salvation. After a series of rapes and murders, and seemingly pursued by demons, Wringhim yields to the ultimate temptation of suicide. Hogg’s novel, an early example of unreliable narration, was a strong influence on Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde.
Adam Newey
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Michel Houellebecq: Atomised (199 8)

Sexist, racist, snob, Islamophobe … Houellebecq has been called many things, with varying degrees of accuracy. The charge of misanthropy is hard to deny, given his repeated portrayal of humankind as something that has lost its way, perhaps even its right to exist. Atomised – set in the world we know but introduced by a member of the superior species that will supplant us – provides two more examples of our inadequacy in half-brothers Michel and Bruno, an introverted biologist and a sex-addict teacher. It is Michel’s work on cloning that will eventually free the world of the burden of humanity.
PD
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Aldous Huxley: Brave New World (1932)

Huxley’s dystopian vision of a “stabilised” world, based on the philosophies of Henry Ford and Sigmund Freud. Conflict has been eradicated with the aid of sexual hedonism and the drug Soma; babies are factory-bred in bottles to produce a strict class hierarchy, from alpha to epsilon. It is the year AF (After Ford) 632. “Alpha plus” Bernard Marx takes a “pneumatic” secretary on holiday to an Indian reservation in New Mexico, and brings back with him a native, John Savage. Savage is disgusted with the “civilisation” he finds, making an ultimately suicidal case for self-determining misery.
John Sutherland
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Kazuo Ishiguro: The Unconsoled (1995)

A man arrives in a central European city, where he is greeted as a VIP, though he’s not sure why. Eventually he recalls that he is an eminent concert pianist, scheduled to perform. Ishiguro’s most extraordinary novel gives us not only an unreliable narrator but an unreliable city and even unreliable laws of time and space. The man is shepherded through an expanding and contracting world, his own memories and moods changing like the weather. Yet the dream-logic is rooted in real, poignant, human dilemmas. One for readers who have grown out of Philip K Dick.
CO
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Shirley Jackson: The Haunting of Hill House (1959)

Hill House is haunted, but by what? The ghosts of the past or the people of the present? Here is a delicious, quietly unnerving essay in horror, an examination of what makes us jump. Jackson sets up an old dark house in the country, garnishes it with some creepy servants, and then adds a quartet of intrepid visitors. But her lead character – fragile, lonely Eleanor – is at once victim and villainess. By the end, the person she is scaring most is herself.
Xan Brooks
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Henry James: The Turn of the Screw (189 8)

In this most suggestive of ghost stories, James set out “to catch those not easily caught” – and critics have argued over the meaning of his novella ever since. Are the ghosts that a new governess in a country house believes to be steadily corrupting her young charges apparitions, hallucinations or projections of her own dark urges? The Times called it on publication “the most hopelessly evil story that we have ever read in any literature, ancient or modern”, and it has lost none of its power to disturb.
Justine Jordan
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PD James: The Children of Men (1992)

A blend of the literary mainstream (Oxford don going through unhappy divorce) and well-worn SF elements (human end times, advancing sterility, civilisation’s collapse and the rise of an authoritarian government), The Children of Men gained a fresh lease of life in 2006 with the bleak, compelling film staring Clive Owen and Julianne Moore. The book divides SF critics and puzzles fans of her crime novels, but remains one of the great British dystopias and a trenchant satire on our times and values.
JCG
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Richard Jefferies: After London; Or, Wild England (1885)

This environmental fable is set in the vague distant future (our “now”?). After a mysterious disaster (”the event”), society has relapsed into barbarism, and the countryside has reverted to idyllic wilderness. In the centre of England, a vast crystalline lake has formed. Felix Aquila sets out in a canoe on a voyage of discovery and finds London “utterly extinct”, surviving only as a pestilential swamp. The novel continues with him moving west – “ever towards the sunset” and his idealised dream-love, Aurora Thyma. A strong candidate for the most beautiful of all Victorian novels.
JS
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Gwyneth Jones: Bold as Love (2001)

A near-future, rock’n’roll retelling of the Arthurian myth featuring Ax, a paradigm of Englishness contained within a postmodern, bisexual, half-Sudanese guitarist, and Sage Prender, a bear-like technowizard. Owing debts to Jimi Hendrix and offering a decidedly 60s summer festival vibe, Bold as Love is the first in a series of novels that mix politics with myth, counterculture and dark age sensibilities. It deservedly won Jones the 2001 Arthur C Clarke award.
JCG
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Franz Kafka: The Trial (1925)

On the morning of his 30th birthday, Josef K is arrested by two sinister men in dapper suits. What for? K doesn’t know and can’t find out as he is sent on an increasingly absurd wild-goose chase through the labyrinthine sub-faculties of the legal system. A year later, he is executed – “Like a dog!” – for a crime he still cannot name. Incomplete and published posthumously, like all Kafka’s three big novels, The Trial captures the essence of moral guilt like no other novel in the 20th century. Watching Orson Welles’s film adaptation (with Anthony Perkins as K) is no substitute for experiencing what one critic memorably described as “not the literary presentation of a nightmare, but its literal transcription”.
PO
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Daniel Keyes: Flowers for Algernon (1966)

Begun as a short story, expanded to a novella, and finally published as a novel, Keyes’s science fiction fable has won numerous prizes and been successfully adapted into drama, film, and popular music. The story has two central characters. Algernon is a mouse, whose intelligence is surgically enhanced to the level of rodent genius. The same technique is applied to Charlie Gordon, a mentally subnormal fast-food kitchen hand. The narrative, told by Charlie as his IQ soars, traces the discontents of genius. Alas, the effects of the surgery are shortlived, and the end of the story finds Charlie back in the kitchen – mentally challenged but, in his way, happy. Being smart is not everything.
JS
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Stephen King: The Shining (1977)

The most powerful, and in places interestingly autobiographical,
of King’s horror stories is based, as are many in the genre, on Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House. Jack Torrance, a recovering alcoholic and failed schoolteacher, racked with remorse for breaking his son Danny’s arm while drunk, takes the position of winter caretaker at the Overlook Hotel in remote Colorado. The hotel is haunted by unexorcised demons from brutal murders committed there years ago. Torrance is possessed and turns, homicidally, on his wife and child. Danny, gifted with telepathic (”shining”) power, saves himself and his mother. Jack is beyond salvation. The film was brilliantly filmed by Stanley Kubrick in 1980.
JS
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Marghanita Laski: The Victorian Chaise-longue (1953)

A young married woman, Melanie, scours antiques shops to furnish her new home and comes back with an old chaise-longue, which is perfect apart from an unsightly reddish-brown stain. She falls asleep on it and wakes up in an unfamiliar house, an unfamiliar time – and an unfamiliar body. At first she assumes she must be dreaming. But gradually she starts to piece together the story of Milly, the young Victorian woman in the last stages of consumption whom she has apparently become, and the nature of the disgrace she has brought on the household run by her fearsomely stern elder sister. Why does the sight of the doctor make her pulse beat faster? And can she find a way back to her own life? Laski’s chilling little novel crackles with a darkly erotic electricity as Mel/Milly confronts the intimate connection between sexual ecstasy and death.
AN
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Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu: Uncle Silas (1864)

This is frequently judged the best ghost story of the Victorian period. On the sudden death of her father, Maud, an heiress, is left to the care of her Uncle Silas, until she comes of age. Sinister in appearance and villainous by nature, Silas first plans to marry Maud to his oafish son, Dudley (who is, it emerges, already married). When this fails, father and son, together with the French governess Madame de la Rougierre, conspire to murder their ward with a spiked hammer. Told by the ingenuous and largely unsuspecting Maud, the narrative builds an impending sense of doom.
JS
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Stanislaw Lem: Solaris (1961)

Popularised by Tarkovsky’s masterly film adaptation (and Soderberg’s rather more stolid second attempt), Solaris is by far Lem’s best-known novel – a humane, intriguing attempt to posit the nature of alien intelligence, and how contact with it might actually play out. Lem’s faraway world of Solaris is a sea of psychoactive imagery, making it an effective tool to plumb the contradictions of human consciousness as it reacts to those who would study it. Lem never liked Tarkovsky’s treatment of his story: not enough of the science made it to the screen.
Andrew Pulver
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Doris Lessing: Memoirs of a Survivor (1974)

Set in a near-future in a disintegrating city, where lawlessness prevails and citizens scratch a living from the debris, this dystopia is the journal of an unnamed middle-class narrator who fosters street-kid Emily and observes the decaying world from her window. Despite the pessimistic premise and the description of civilisation on the brink of collapse, with horror lurking at every turn, the novel is an insightful and humane meditation on the survivability of the species.
EB
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David Lindsay: A Voyage to Arcturus (1920)

A Voyage to Arcturus sold only a few hundred copies at the time of its first publication, but has subsequently been recognised as one of the most striking novels of imaginative fiction, Colin Wilson ranking it the “greatest novel of the 20th century”. On the surface it tells of Maskull’s travels on the planet Tormance, passing through exotic landscapes, finding love, murder and monsters, but through these themes Lindsay explores the meanings and origins of life and the universe.
Keith Brooke
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Ken MacLeod: The Night Sessions (200 8)

The world has entered the Second Enlightenment after the Faith Wars. In the Republic of Scotland, Detective Inspector Adam Ferguson investigates the murders of religious leaders, suspecting atheists but uncovering a plot involving artificial intelligence. MacLeod’s police procedural is a wise indictment of fundamentalism of all kinds and a stark delineation of how belief systems can corrupt, as well as being an incisive character study of a man coming to terms with the brutalities of his past.
EB
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Hilary Mantel: Beyond Black (2005)

Mantel’s ninth novel is a beyond-black comedy about seedy, exhausted millennium-era Britain and an obese, traumatised medium called Alison who is cursed with the gift of second sight. Her familiars are the torturers – or projections – of her abusive childhood; they and the other lost souls of the spirit world clamour for Alison’s attention as she tries to record her life story. It’s a shocking, upsetting, often painful read; but Mantel’s rich capacity for amusement and the sheer power of the writing save it from unremitting bleakness.
JJ
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Michael Marshall Smith: Only Forward (1994)

Before his current incarnation as a thriller writer specialising in conspiracy theories and psychopathic gore, Marshall Smith wrote forward-thinking sci-fi which combined high-octane angst with humour both noir and surreal. His debut features a bizarre compartmentalised city with different postcodes for the insane, the overachievers, the debauched or simply those with unusual taste in interior design; as well as adventures in the realm of dreams, a deep love of cats and a killer twist.
JJ
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Richard Matheson: I Am Legend (1954)

Robert Neville is the last man standing, the lone survivor in a world overrun by night-crawling vampires. But if history is written by the winners, what does that make Neville: the hero or the monster? Matheson’s pacey fantasy charts its protagonist’s solitary war against Earth’s new inhabitants and his yearning, ongoing search for a fellow survivor. The ending upends the genre’s moral assumptions, forcing us to review the tale through different eyes. Clearly this was too much for the recent Will Smith movie adaptation, which ran scared of the very element that makes the book unique.
XB
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Charles Maturin: Melmoth the Wanderer (1820)

In Maturin’s extravaganza of transgression, beloved by authors from Byron and Balzac to Wilde and HP Lovecraft, the supernatural terrors of the Gothic novel begin to bleed into the psychological dread of Dostoevsky or Kafka. Melmoth ranges the earth, looking for some poor soul to take over the pact he’s made with the devil in exchange for extended life, as the narrative zips from London madhouse to Spanish dungeon to deserted Indian island. It’s a fascinating mix of wild ideas threatening to run away from the author, and a new realism that takes in poverty, social depredation and very human cruelties.
JJ
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Patrick McCabe: The Butcher Boy (1992)

Francie Brady is a rambunctious kid in 1950s Ireland. He likes his best mate, Joe, and he hates his neighbour, Mrs Nugent, and he’s always getting into trouble, and this is mainly because of Mrs Nugent. McCabe leads us on a freewheeling tour of a scattered, shattered consciousness, as Francie grows from wayward child to dangerous adult – nursing his grievances and plotting his revenge. Chances are that old Mrs Nugent has a surprise in store.
XB
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Cormac McCarthy: The Road (2006)

McCarthy’s most acclaimed novel is a tale from the near-future and a possible foretaste of things to come. In stark, bare-bones prose, it describes a father and son’s trudge across a nation devastated by an unspecified environmental calamity – an endless valley of ashes dotted with desperate, deadly survivors. These two figures are pushing south towards the sea, but the sea is poisoned and provides no comfort. In the end, all they have (and, by implication, all the rest of us have) is each other.
XB
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Jed Mercurio: Ascent (2007)

Mercurio’s first novel, Bodies, which he adapted for TV as Cardiac Arrest, lifted the lid off the NHS; his second makes a stellar leap to relate the adventures of Soviet flying ace turned cosmonaut Yefgenii Yeremin. During the Korean war and then the space programme, Yeremin closes down his emotions even as his horizons expand, from the Arctic skies to the moon itself. The prose is suitably chilly yet strangely beautiful, with Mercurio’s technical know-how lending the flight scenes a compulsive believability that lifts the reader, along with Yeremin, to the bounds of space and beyond.
JJ
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China Miéville: The Scar (2002)

Miéville was a near-miss for the Granta Best of Young British Novelists list in 2003, but his “weird fiction” transcends genre pigeonholing. The second of his sprawling steampunk fantasies detailing the alternate universe of Bas-Lag follows Armada, a floating pirate city, in its search for a rip in reality. Miéville relishes the magic, the monsters and the limitless possibilities of the genre – from the vast “avanc” towing Armada through uncharted waters to the surgically altered “Remade”, plus horrifying mosquito women and underwater ghouls – but his books are also stylishly written, politically engaged, daring and always surprising.
JJ
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Andrew Miller: Ingenious Pain (1997)

Miller breathes new life into the Gothic antihero with his beautifully written Impac-winning first novel. “Cold-blooded and apparently indestructible”, James Dyer is born into the Enlightenment dawn without the capacity to feel pain; he becomes first freak-show then fearless surgeon, as immune to human compassion as he is to bodily fear. Moving from rural England to Bedlam, Russia’s snowbound tundra to the surreal court of Catherine the Great, the novel is at once a glittering tour of medicine and madness, cruelty and art, science and magic; and a delicate fable about how strange we are to one another.
JJ
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Walter M Miller Jr: A Canticle for Leibowitz (1960)

The most influential SF novel of the cold war era, chronicling the rise and fall of human civilisation, Miller’s tripartite novel opens (”Fiat Homo”) with a post-atomic dark age. Dead Sea scroll-like fragments of Isaac Leibowitz’s shopping list have survived, around which a monastery cult forms amid the universal barbarism. The second section (”Fiat Lux”) chronicles a new Renaissance of learning, growing out of the Leibowitzian monasteries. Technology emerges. The third section (”Fiat Vountas Tuas”) foresees another cataclysmic atomic war terminating civilisation yet again. In an epilogue, a spaceship leaves Earth with a cargo of monks, children and the Leibowitzian relics. The Wandering Jew makes recurrent and enigmatic appearances.
JS
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David Mitchell: Cloud Atlas (2004)

A great palindrome of a novel, Mitchell’s third book begins with the unfinished journal of an 18th-century mariner and hops through time, space and genres right up to the distant post-apocalyptic future. Then it hops all the way back down again, resolving each story in turn. These include a camp Ealing-style misadventure, an American thriller and an interview with a clone, all connected by a mysterious comet-shaped tattoo. Cloud Atlas was shortlisted for the Booker prize, but it’s a lot more fun than the literary plaudits on the back cover might suggest.
CO
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Michael Moorcock: Mother London (198 8)

Moorcock spills out such varied books that he often feels impossible to nail down, which is probably the point. Mother London, his most literary – it was shortlisted for the Whitbread – shows him at the height of his powers. Three mental patients as flawed as the city they inhabit tell their own and London’s recent history through the voices they hear in their heads. It’s a touching and humanistic novel in the best sense of those words.
JCG
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William Morris: News From Nowhere (1890)

Morris’s late-life vision of the future socialist utopia was strongly influenced by the American Edward Bellamy’s hugely popular Looking Backward (1888). Having gone to sleep on the London underground, the narrator awakes to find himself in 20th-century Hammersmith. He bathes in the now crystalline Thames and spends a day in what used to be the British Museum, airily discussing life and politics. He then travels up the river to Runnymede, where Magna Carta was signed, going on from there to some idyllic haymaking in Oxford. “Guest” (as he is called) returns to dingy present-day Hammersmith with the sense that what he has experienced is “a vision, not a dream”.
JS
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Toni Morrison: Beloved (1987)

Sweet Home is a deceptive name for the Kentucky plantation where horrific crimes have been committed, as Beloved is for this shocking and unforgettable account of the human consequences of slavery. Sethe lives in Ohio in the 1870s; she has escaped from slavery, but cannot escape the past, which quite literally haunts her. In the 20 years since publication, Nobel laureate Morrison’s novel has achieved classic status, and in 2006 the New York Times named it best American novel of the previous quarter-century.
Joanna Hines
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Haruki Murakami: The Wind-up Bird Chronicle (1995)

You could hardly call this a cult classic – it’s too popular for that – but you almost wish it was, so you could tell people about it. At the start of Murakami’s story, a young man receives a mysterious phone call. It sparks off a 600-page adventure that sees him trapped at the bottom of a well, marked with a strange blue stain and taken on many otherworldly adventures, all in search of his missing wife. Murakami has the Japanese trick of writing about surreal events in a matter-of-fact way, making them all the more disturbing.
CO
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Vladimir Nabokov: Ada or Ardor (1969)

How to sum up Nabokov’s last great novel? Ada or Ardor is part sci-fi romance, part Proustian memoir. It plays out on a fantasy planet, a marriage of contemporary America and pre-revolutionary Russia, and details the love affair of precocious Van Veen and his sister Ada, chasing them from lustful puberty to decrepit old age. It is a gorgeous display of narrative wizardry, at once opulent, erotic, playful and wise.
XB
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Audrey Niffenegger: The Time Traveler’s Wife (2003)

“I am a trick, an illusion of the highest order, so incredible that I am actually true,” explains Henry, who is afflicted with chrono-impairment and thus liable to vanish and reappear without warning to his wife Clare. As a device for thwarting the course of true love, unintentional time travel might wear thin, but Niffenegger’s humour and conviction keep the reader enthralled; and like all the best fantasy, it is grounded firmly in the details of everyday reality. A moving affirmation of the continuities of love against unusual odds.
JH
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Larry Niven: Ringworld (1970)

Niven’s later career has been dominated by bloated collaborations with lesser writers; you might almost say he has spread himself too fat. But this novel, which won Hugo and Nebula awards, reminds us he was once one of the most exciting names in hard sci-fi. Part of the Known Space series, it follows a group of humans and aliens as they explore a mysterious ring-shaped environment spinning around a star like a giant hula-hoop. Science fiction fans sometimes describe such structures as “big dumb objects”, but Niven has thought every detail through.
PD
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Jeff Noon: Vurt (1993)

Set in Manchester in the near-future and in a phantasmagorical virtual reality, Vurt is the story of Scribble, his gang the Stash Riders and his attempt to find his sister Desdemona, who is lost in a drug-induced VR. It’s a postmodern rollercoaster ride, nodding to film, literature and contemporary culture. Linguistically pyrotechnic and stunningly imaginative, it’s been described as the spawn of Alice in Wonderland and A Clockwork Orange. Noon’s first novel, it won the 1994 Arthur C Clarke award.
EB
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Flann O’Brien: The Third Policeman (1967)

O’Brien’s publisher rejected his 1940 follow up to At Swim-Two-Birds on the grounds that “[we] think that he should become less fantastic and in this new novel he is more so”. It was eventually published posthumously a quarter-century later, and this bizarre union of Dante’s Inferno and Father Ted – inspiration for the TV show Lost – is indeed fantastic in every sense. Set in a rural Ireland that is also a vision of hell, it features policemen turning into bicycles; that SF standby, the universal energy source; and any number of scientific and literary in-jokes. It’s also gleefully dark and properly creepy.
JJ
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Ben Okri: The Famished Road (1991)

According to Yoruba tradition, a spirit child is one who has made a pact with his fellows in their other, more beautiful world, to rejoin them as soon as possible. Azaro breaks the pact, choosing to remain in this place of suffering and poverty, but the African shanty town where he lives with his parents teems with phantoms, spirits and dreams. Okri’s masterpiece is a powerful novel of sustained brilliance and vision, which draws the reader into a vibrant world both claustrophobic and without limits.
JH

Chuck Palahniuk: Fight Club (1996)

An angry, impassioned fantasy of how to take down corporate America, and an ingenious modern version of the myth of the double. Palahniuk’s unnamed narrator, in revolt against the nesting instincts of modern consumerism, goes looking for the intensity of primal male experiences, and finds the maverick prankster Tyler Durden. It’s with Durden’s “Project Mayhem” and his army of “space monkeys” that Palahniuk’s visionary side takes flight; that there are white-collar “fight clubs” to this day is testament to his book’s impact.
Andrew Pulver
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Thomas Love Peacock: Nightmare Abbey (181 8)

A series of amiable conversations are strung together on a flimsy but suitably romantic plot in the most literary of Peacock’s Right: Audrey Niffenegger. Below left: Scene from David Fincher’s film Fight Club “novels of ideas”, as he gently lampoons the fashionable gloom of his friends Shelley, Coleridge and Byron, and all manner of associated “romantic transcendentalists and transcendental romancers”. Thwarted in love, the hero Scythrop reads The Sorrows of Werther and considers suicide, but settles for the comforts of madeira instead.
Joanna Hines
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Mervyn Peake: Titus Groan (1946)

Sinister and sensual, overwrought and overwritten, Titus Groan is a guilty pleasure – a dank, dripping Gothic cathedral of a novel. Titus himself is a minor character – literally: he’s only a year old by the end. He inherits Gormenghast castle and its extraordinary household: emaciated Flay, with his whip-crack joints; the morbidly obese cook, Swelter; feverish, moody young Fuchsia; cackling Dr Prunesquallor, and many others. They are so exaggerated, and Peake’s imagery so super-saturated, that this may seem like a children’s book, or a joke. But at its heart is a chilling glimpse of the nature of evil.
Carrie O’Grady
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John Cowper Powys: A Glastonbury Romance (1932)

With this gargantuan novel, Powys set out to take a location he knew well from his boyhood and make it the real hero of the story. It tells the story of Glastonbury through a year of turmoil, setting mystic mayor John Geard against industrialist Philip Crow. Geard wants to turn the town into a centre for Grail worship, while Crow wants to exploit and develop the local tin mines. Complex and rich, this is a landmark fantasy novel.
Keith Brooke
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Christopher Priest: The Prestige (1995)

This is the story of the bitter feud between Victorian master-magicians Angier and Borden, who attempt mutual sabotage in the quest to learn the secret of each other’s ultimate stage act: both, by different means, can transport themselves through space. The novel is as much a study of their obsession as a brilliant examination of magic and rationalism. The winner of the World Fantasy Award, it’s been described as urban fantasy with a science fictional explanation.
Eric Brown
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François Rabelais: Gargantua and Pantagruel (1532-34)

A Benedictine monk who gave it up to study medicine, Rabelais wrote this satirical tale of the giant Pantagruel and his even more monstrous and grotesque father Gargantua on the cusp between eras. In his portrayal of Gargantua, a belching, farting scholar given to urinating over the masses below his ivory tower, he satirises medieval learning as well as the emerging Renaissance thirst for knowledge. “Give me a drink! A drink! A drink!” he roars. Remind you of anything more contemporary?
Nicola Barr
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Ann Radcliffe: The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794)

Orphaned Emily St Aubert is imprisoned by her evil guardian, Count Montoni, in the castle of Udolpho, deep in the Apennines. So often is this novel cited as inspiration for de Sade and Poe, so well known is Jane Austen’s parody in Northanger Abbey, that it is good to be reminded that the reclusive Radcliffe created a brilliant and much-loved Gothic tale, full of terror, foreboding, emerging sexuality and complex destructive psychology.
NB
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Alastair Reynolds: Revelation Space (2000)

Fermi’s paradox asks: “If they’re out there, why aren’t they here?” Reynolds supplies answers that are plausible, entertaining, clever and occasionally just plain weird. This was the novel that brought the one-time astrophysicist to the attention of the SF mainstream. A huge space opera, with enough hard science and aliens to keep everyone happy, it sets up the framework for most of Reynolds’s later books. Spectacular.
Jon Courtenay Grimwood
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Kim Stanley Robinson: The Years of Rice and Salt (2002)

One of the best “what if” setups in alternate history. Robinson asks: what if the Black Death destroyed 14th-century European culture and the Mongols reached the Atlantic shores? What follows is a history of our world with Islam and Buddhism as the dominant religions and the major scientific discoveries and art movements we take for granted happening elsewhere. Necessarily schematic in places, but a stunning achievement all the same.
JCG
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JK Rowling: Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (1997)

Every now and then, a book comes along that is so influential you have to read it to be part of the modern world. Rowling’s Harry Potter series may have its faults – it’s a magpie’s nest of bits and bobs borrowed from more innovative writers – but it occupies that space. It’s the fantasy sequence that made readers of a generation of children; it’s the cliffhanger that united adults and children, creating a new crossover market with an unprecedented reach. It is also a truly global phenomenon, and a nice little earner for the tribe of British character actors who have had the good fortune to be cast in the films.
Claire Armitstead
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Salman Rushdie: The Satanic Verses (198 8)

If Uncle Tom’s Cabin is, as Lincoln called it, the novel by a little lady which started a great war, Salman Rushdie’s masterpiece of magic realism added substantially to the clash of civilisations. In February 1989 the Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwa (ie hunting licence for all devout Muslims) on the “apostate” author. Had he read the novel (which he didn’t) and its satirical vignette of his holy self, he might have issued two. The offensive core of the novel depicts, under thin disguise, the prophet Muhammad, and wittily if blasphemously questions the revealed truth of the Koran.
John Sutherland
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Antoine de Sainte-Exupéry: The Little Prince (1943)

Stranded in the Sahara, a pilot meets a boy. He claims to have come from an asteroid, which he shared with a talking flower, and to have visited many other worlds – one inhabited only by a king, another by a businessman, a third by a drunkard … On Earth, he has chatted with a snake and tamed a fox. Is The Little Prince a children’s book? The dreamlike tone and Sainte-Exupéry’s watercolours give that impression. But it’s not only kids who need to be told how, what and why to love.
Phil Daoust
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José Saramago: Blindness (1995)

Blindness is black, says an onlooker to the man who has suddenly ceased to see while sitting in his car at the traffic lights; but this blindness is white, a milky sea in the eye. Soon everyone is affected and the city descends into chaos. Like the city, Saramago’s characters are nameless, being known by some attribute – the first blind man, the girl with the dark glasses. His flowing, opaque style can be challenging, but this parable of wilful unseeing, which resists reductive interpretations, is full of insight and poetry.
JH
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Will Self: How the Dead Live (2000)

In Self’s irrepressible, motormouthed third novel, you take your emotional baggage with you into the next life – literally. When Lily Bloom dies, she simply moves house: to a basement flat in Dulston, north London borough for the deceased, which she shares with a calcified foetus and her surly, long-dead son. There’s the usual druggy underworld and dazzling wordplay – the book is worth reading for its linguistic fireworks alone – but it’s Lily who gives the novel its emotional resonance and profundity. She’s a wonderful creation: sarcastic, frightened, smart, infuriating and humane.
Justine Jordan
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Mary Shelley: Frankenstein (181 8)

The classic Gothic tale of terror, Frankenstein is above all a novel of ideas. Shelley drew on her father William Godwin’s radical social philosophy, Milton’s Paradise Lost, Goethe’s Young Werther and the new science of “electricity” for her plot. Victor Frankenstein is a young Swiss student who resolves to assemble a body from dead parts and galvanise it into life. His “creature” is both superhuman and monstrous; shunned by humankind, it turns murderous and misanthropic. As well as an exploration of nature and nurture, the book can be read as a reaction to motherhood and a comment upon creativity. Astonishingly, it was written when Shelley was in her late teens; there has been dispute about her husband Percy’s input into the work.
JS
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Dan Simmons: Hyperion (1989)

High SF at its best. The world is gone, destroyed in an accident that gave humanity farcasters, controlled singularities that enable instant travel across galactic distances. (And houses with rooms in different worlds, if you’re really rich.) The internet is now a hive mind of advanced AIs that control the gates and keep a vast empire in existence. But someone or something is playing with time, and all is not as it seems. Hyperion won the 1990 Hugo award for best novel.
JCG
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Olaf Stapledon: Star Maker (1937)

Not so much a novel as a treatise on the nature and evolution of intelligence in the universe, Star Maker takes an unnamed Englishman on a tour of space and time as he observes human and alien civilisations rise and fall over a period of one hundred billion years. Considered Stapledon’s masterpiece, Star Maker embodies, among many other philosophical ideas, his belief in the need for a co-operative community to bring about a fulfilled individual. A short, dense book, it repays several readings.
EB
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Neal Stephenson: Snow Crash (1992)

Fast, furious and containing more ideas in a single sentence than most writers manage in an entire book, Snow Crash has been credited with helping to inspire online worlds such as Second Life and established Stephenson as a cult figure. Featuring SF’s most ironically named character, Hiro Protagonist, plus skateboards, mafia-employed pizza delivery men, weird drugs, computer hacking and a thousand other cyberpunk tropes, it showcases the raw talent that Stephenson was to refine for Cryptonomicon and his later, less frenetic books.
JCG
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Robert Louis Stevenson: The Strange Case of Doctor Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886)

This classic novel of horrific possession is supposed to have come to the author in a nightmare. It takes the form of a posthumous confession by Dr Henry Jekyll, a successful London physician, who experiments privately with dual personality, devising a drug that releases his depraved other self, Edward Hyde. The murderous Hyde increasingly dominates the appalled Jekyll, who finally kills himself to escape his double. Stevenson’s novel is plausibly taken as a fictional parallel to Freud’s contemporary investigations into the unconscious. Others have seen it as a depiction of ineradicable dualisms in the Scottish character.
JS
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Bram Stoker: Dracula (1897)

Stoker claimed that the inspiration for this novel – which has spawned fiction’s most lucrative entertainment industry – arrived in a dream. A more plausible source is JS Le Fanu’s seminal 1872 tale of vampirism, Carmilla. Stoker’s undead hero is, historically, Vlad the Impaler, who tyrannised Wallachia in the 15th century. The solicitor Jonathan Harker is sent to Transylvania on property business with Count Dracula and is vampirised by his client (an interesting reversal of the normal estate agent-purchaser relationship). The count sails to England and embarks on a reign of bloodsucking terror, before being chased back to his lair by the Dutch vampirologist Dr van Helsing, and decapitated. He would, of course, rise again.
JS
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Rupert Thomson: The Insult (1996)

This unusual writer excels at the creation of skewed, dreamlike parallel worlds. In his fourth novel, the rootless, emotionally frozen Martin Blom is blinded by a stray bullet: his doctor warns of hallucinations of vision, and indeed he soon finds that he can see – but only in the dark. A new nocturnal existence and highly charged affair with a nightclub waitress follow, in a phantasmagorical meditation on repression and transgression, absence and invisibility. It’s one of those rare novels whose afterglow never entirely fades.
JJ
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Mark Twain: A Connecticut Yankee at King Arthur’s Court (1889)

Hank Morgan, an engineer from 19th-century Connecticut, is knocked out in a crowbar fight and mysteriously transported to sixth-century England. “The Boss”, as he becomes known, sets about modernising its technology and culture, but finds himself struggling with the forces of conservatism, like a medieval Tony Blair. Thousands will die in his showdown with the church and feudalism … Twain’s satire was largely aimed at Walter Scott and his romanticising of battle and olde-worlde squalor. But you don’t need to know that to enjoy the thought of knights advertising soap, or riding bicycles instead of horses.
PD
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Kurt Vonnegut: Sirens of Titan (1959)

Vonnegut considered Sirens of Titan to be one of his best books, ranking it just below Slaughterhouse-Five. Featuring a dimension-swapping ultra-rich space explorer who can see the future, a robot messenger whose craft is powered by UVTW (the Universal Will to Become) and the newly established Church of God the Utterly Indifferent, Sirens of Titan manages to be classic 50s pulp, a literary sleight of hand, a cult novel of the 60s counterculture and unmistakably Vonnegut all at the same time.
JCG
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Robert Walser: Institute Benjamenta (1909)

Young Jakob von Gunten enrols in a sinister academy (that touchstone of Germanic fiction) in which students learn how to be good servants. In a series of diary entries, we read about the authoritarian leader of the institute; angelic Lisa Benjamenta; the monkey-like Kraus; and Jakob’s increasingly bizarre dreams. The chilling effect is heightened by the incongruous cheeriness of Jakob’s tone, conspiring to make this a cult classic. Kafka and Hesse were big fans of the Swiss writer; film-making duo the Brothers Quay turned the novel into a mesmerising stock-frame feature in 1995.
Philip Oltermann
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Sylvia Townsend Warner: Lolly Willowes (1926)

“Women have such vivid imaginations, and lead such dull lives.” It is to forge an adventure of her own, rather than the “existence doled out to you by others” as the lot of the spinster aunt, that Laura Willowes leaves her astounded London family for a country village and a pact with the devil. In this sly, charming commentary on women’s emancipation and the soul’s need for solitude, the supernatural is delicately handled – especially Satan, “a kind of black knight, wandering about and succouring decayed gentlewomen”.
JJ
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Sarah Waters: Affinity (1999)

Waters followed the rollicking Tipping the Velvet with this sombre, beautifully achieved meditation on love and loneliness set in the milieu of Victorian spiritualism. Her bored, unfulfilled heroine is introduced to a grim women’s prison as a nervous “lady visitor”, and to the world of seances, spirit guides and repressed passions bursting forth when she falls under the spell of one of the inmates. Waters exploits the conventions of the ghost story to moving, open-ended effect, recreating a world of fascinating detail and beguiling mystery.
JJ
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HG Wells: The Time Machine (1895)

Wells’s first title for this primal text of science fiction was The Chronic Argonauts. The Time Traveller (never named) outlines to friends his plan to explore the “fourth dimension”. On his return he reports that he has travelled to the year 802,701. Mankind has evolved into hyper-decadent Eloi and hyper-proletarian Morlocks, who live underground. The Eloi fritter, elegantly, by day. The Morlocks prey on the Eloi cannibalistically by night. Before returning to his own time, the Time Traveller goes forward to witness the heat death of the Solar System. At the end of the narrative, he embarks on a time journey from which he does not return.
JS
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HG Wells: The War of the Worlds (189 8)

The most read, imitated and admired invasion fantasy of the 19th century. The Martians, a cold-bloodedly cerebral species, driven by the inhospitability of their dying planet and superior technology, invade Earth. Their first cylinders land at Horsell Common and are followed by an army of fighting machines equipped with death rays. Humanity and its civilisation crumple under the assault, which is witnessed by the narrator, a moral philosopher. Finally, in the wasteland of “dead London”, mankind’s salvation is found in the disease germ: “there are no bacteria on Mars”. The novel can be read as an allegory of imperialism. As the narrator muses: “The Tasmanians were entirely swept out of existence in a war of extermination waged by European immigrants, in the space of 50 years.”
JS
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TH White: The Sword in the Stone (193 8)

The Sword in the Stone was initially published as a stand-alone work, but was subsequently rewritten to become the first part of a tetralogy, The Once and Future King. Conceived by White as “a preface to Malory”, it deals with the adventures of a young boy called Wart and his education at the hands of the magician Merlin. Only at the end of the book is it confirmed that the boy will grow up to be King Arthur. JK Rowling has described Wart as a “spiritual ancestor” of Harry Potter, and many have commented on the similarity between Albus Dumbledore and White’s Merlin.
Kathryn Hughes
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Gene Wolfe: The Book of the New Sun (1980-83)

Originally published in four volumes, this far-future story presents a powerfully evocative portrait of Earth as the sun dies. Using the baroque language of fantasy to tell a story that is solidly science fiction, Wolfe follows Severian, a professional torturer exiled to wander the ruined planet and discover his fate as leader and then messiah for his people. Complex and challenging, this is perhaps one of the most significant publications in the last three decades of sci-fi.
KB
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John Wyndham: Day of the Triffids (1951)

Wyndham’s first novel written under his own name posited a mobile plant so deadly that it seems set to wipe humanity out. Triffids are possibly escapees from a Soviet laboratory; their takeover begins when a meteor shower blinds everyone who witnesses it. Bill Masen owes his survival to the fact that he was in hospital with his eyes bandaged at the time. Wyndham crossed the post-apocalyptic tradition of HG Wells’s War of the Worlds with the emerging fiction of cold war paranoia to create a monster with a mythic power that far extends beyond the novel itself.
CA
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John Wyndham: The Midwich Cuckoos (1957)

A prime example of what the father of modern British SF, Brian Aldiss, has called “the cosy catastrophe”. In an inexplicable phenomenon, the village of Midwich is cut off from the rest of the world for a whole day, and its inhabitants rendered temporarily unconscious (an idea lifted from Conan Doyle’s classic novella, The Poison Belt). It emerges, six months later, that every fertile woman in the village is pregnant. Their offspring are extraterrestrial, clone-like, superhuman; “cuckoos” in the English nest. As they grow up with terrifying psychic powers, a perceptive Midwich citizen, Gordon Zellaby, contrives to blow them up and save humanity. The novel has been twice filmed as The Village of the Damned, Wyndham’s original title being deemed too “cosy”.
JS
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Yevgeny Zamyatin: We (1924)

Written in 1920, this dystopian satire shaped Huxley’s Brave New World and Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, but was not published in Zamyatin’s native Russia until 1988 (the first English translation was in 1924). What did the Soviet censors find so offensive? This “enemy of the working classes” imagined the world of the 26th century as a soulless place of straight lines and identical lives, a glass city ruled by an absolute dictator known as the Benefactor, whose subjects have security and comfort, but no liberty, privacy or dreams. Until, that is, the mathematician D-503 falls in love.
PD

Mulk Raj Anand: Untouchable (1935)

 

Bakha, 18, is strong and able-bodied. He is a latrine cleaner, a Dalit, an untouchable, and the novel traces a day in his life. Deep in thought and enjoying a sweet jalebi, Bakha brushes against a Brahmin. The crowd
hurls abuse at this “pollution”, leaving him in tears. Later, Bakha encounters Christianity (from a missionary who cannot explain Jesus), Gandhi (inspiring but confusing), and the fl ush toilet (distant technology proposed by a poet). Untouchable was the first novel to present the Dalits’ suffering; it did so without pretending there was an easy answer.
Natalie Cate

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James Baldwin: Go Tell It On the Mountain (1953)

Set over one Harlem weekend in 1935 — the birthday of 14-year-old preacher’s son John Grimes — Baldwin’s semi-autobiographical debut is an intensely physical account of the clashes occurring at every level of human existence: fathers pitched against sons, husbands against wives, the spiritual against the secular, black against white. Shifting perspectives reveal the treacherous secrets of John’s family, sexual infidelity, betrayal and the legacy of slavery bringing a biblical storm to the Harlem streets.
Victoria Segal


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Honoré de Balzac:La Comédie Humaine (1830-184 8)

Balzac was famously a man of voracious appetites so it makes sense that he should have stuff ed his life’s main work into the compendious 95-volume cycle known, in tribute to Dante, as La Comédie Humaine. The ingredients of his rich literary stew include such famous works as La Cousine Bette, Eugénie Grandet and Le Père Goriot, which are all part of a densely packed attempt to document every aspect of mid-19th-century French life, from money to marriage, social status to sex.
Victoria Segal

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Miklos Banffy: They Were Counted (1934)

A Tolstoyan portrait of the end days of the Austro-Hungarian empire, this compulsively readable novel follows the divergent fortunes of two cousins, the politician Abady and gambler/drunkard Gyeroffy, detailing the intrigues at the decadent Budapest court, the doomed love aff airs, opulent balls, duels and general head-in-the sand idiocies of a privileged elite whose world is on the verge of disappearing for ever. Banffy — a Hungarian count — also writes with extraordinary vividness of the natural beauty of his Transylvanian homeland. Two more novels — They Were Found Wanting and They Were Divided — followed, usually published as The Transylvanian Trilogy.
Adam Newey

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Harriet Beecher Stowe: Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852)

A best selling anti-slavery novel, subtitled Life Among the Lowly,
that helped to intensify the confl ict between slave-owning and abolitionist states which led ultimately to the outbreak of the American civil war in 1861. Although committed to showing the cruelty of the slave-owning system, Stowe perpetuated several stereotypes, most obviously in the figure of the black slave Uncle Tom, who is portrayed as a deeply loyal and long-suffering family servant. The term “Uncle Tom” has long been used to describe a black person who is over-deferential towards white culture.
Kathryn Hughes

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Aphra Behn: Oroonoko or The Royal Slave (168 8)

A novel written, some would say, before the genre was properly invented. Set in Surinam, which the author may or may not have visited, its hero is a highly cultivated African prince who is brought to the West Indies as a slave. Fortuitously, the princess he loves, Imoinda, also finds herself in Surinam. They marry but, unwilling to have his children raised in servitude, Oroonoko raises a slave rebellion. When this fails he kills Imoinda (skinning her face, lest her beauty be admired by others than himself) and then faces mutilation, torture, dismemberment and death while stoically puffing on his pipe. On the basis of Oroonoko, Behn can be seen as the mother of the English novel and fiction’s earliest critic of imperialism.
John Sutherland

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Arnold Bennett: Clayhanger (1910)

Crammed with details of Victorian life, the first book in Bennett’s trilogy about a Potteries family examines how one man, Edwin Clayhanger, is shaped by class, geography and ties of blood. Relinquishing his dreams of becoming an architect, Edwin settles down to the daily grind in his father’s office, slowly growing into the role that has been marked out for him. As he knuckles down, he learns to accept the weight of what the book’s fi nal words call “the exquisite burden of life”.
Victoria Segal


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Elizabeth Bowen: The Last September (1929)

It is 1920 and while the Irish war of independence rages outside the gates of their County Cork home, Sir Richard Naylor and his Anglo-Irish family continue their privileged life of tea and tennis. Bowen’s 1929 novel is a strongly autobiographical portrait of a lost class marking out its final moments — every garden party, every house guest and every flirtation is touched by a sense of impending extinction.
Victoria Segal

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André Brink: A Dry White Season (1979)

Afrikaner teacher Ben du Toit lives a comfortable life in 1970s Johannesburg. When a black cleaner, Gordon Ngubene, is arrested after investigating his son’s death in police custody, Ben is certain there has been some mistake. It takes the sight of Gordon’s mutilated body to break Ben’s faith in the apartheid government. Yet his family do not want to look and his search for the truth makes him dangerously vulnerable. Brink focuses on apartheid’s relentless creation of otherness but places hope in speaking out. In 1989 a film of the book spread the message, but it loses the subtleties of Brink’s exploration of an ordinary man’s moral rebellion.
Natalie Cate

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Charlotte Brontë: Shirley (1849)

Brontë intended her follow-up to Jane Eyre to be as “unromantic as Monday morning”, but she didn’t really succeed, given that it ends with a double wedding and features the moral renewal of a mill-owner previously oblivious to the plight of his workers. Nonetheless, Shirley is an important social novel, set in Yorkshire during the Luddite riots at the end of the Napoleonic wars, which revolves around two questions: the social consequences of industrialisation and the position of women. Shirley Keeldar, the heiress to whom the financially straitened mill-owner Robert Moore becomes engaged, is a woman with rare freedom and power; the other female characters are not so lucky. It was only after the publication of this novel that Shirley became a girl’s name.
Paul Laity

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Anthony Burgess: Earthly Powers (1980)

The nature and origins of evil are wrestled to the ground in Burgess’s masterpiece, which confronts an octogenarian writer with the seductions and horrors of the 20th century. Unable to reconcile his religion with his homosexuality, Kenneth Toomey wanders the world from the Paris of Joyce and Pound, via Nazi Germany and heyday Hollywood, to Malta where — mottled, sallow, emaciated — he awaits his death, sure of only one thing: that evil is innate to humanity.
Claire Armistead

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AS Byatt: The Virgin in the Garden (197 8)

The first volume in Byatt’s celebrated Frederica quartet — see also Still Life (1985), Babel Tower (1996) and A Whistling Woman (2002) — opens in 1953 with the dawn of a new Elizabethan age and centres on a country house masque got up to commemorate the royal coronation. Frederica, a spiky teenager, and her more reflective elder sister, Stephanie, dominate proceedings. Symbolism is rife and not many novelists have produced a better take on what one character calls “the queer, in-between time” of the early 1950s.
DJ Taylor

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Erskine Caldwell: Tobacco Road (1932)

A saga of sharecropper life in the Georgia back country in the wake of the great Depression by the poor man’s William Faulkner. Middle-aged Jeeter Lester is an impoverished cotton farmer. He married his wife, Ada, at the age of 11 and the couple have had 17 children. Incest rages in the Lester household. Two offspring still live at home: harelipped Ellie Mae and car-crazy Dude. Dude attracts the attention of a woman preacher, Bessie Rice, who is twice his age and is disfigured with a boneless nose, but has a Ford car. Tobacco Road created an image of poor white trash that is still with us.
John Sutherland

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Albert Camus: The Plague (1947)

Often described as an allegory of German occupation and French resistance during the second world war, Camus’s novel about the reaction of an Algerian town to an outbreak of plague is broader in scope and ambition. Not so much of an allegory, then, as a Kafkaesque parable (Camus acknowledged the debt): it is about the human condition, in short, but never — unlike, say, his contemporary Jean-Paul Sartre’s work — heavy-handedly so.
Nicholas Lezard

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Alejo Carpentier: The Kingdom of This World (1949)

Carpentier’s suggestion in his preface that Latin American history is a chronicle of “loreal maravilloso” (”marvellous reality”) helped trigger a regional boom in writing. His novel is set on Haiti, an island steeped in myth and voodoo. Ti Noel is a slave when a rebellion begins in 1757. Matter-of-fact whether being beaten, raping his master’s wife or transfiguring into a goose, he witnesses the fall of cook- turned-king Henri Christophe, the birth of the republic and the death of the Haitian dream.
Natalie Cate

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M Coetzee: Disgrace (1999)

Told in an ominous present tense, this story of one man’s progress from powerful complacency to powerless dispossession is set in post- apartheid South Africa. David Lurie is a clever, chilly academic, whose seduction — it is almost rape, but “not quite” — of one of his students leads to his disgrace. Having lost his job he moves in with his daughter on her remote farmstead, but then is a helpless bystander when three black men arrive and rape her. His life is becoming a tuition in humiliation. Yet the bleakness of any paraphrase is belied by the beautiful exactness of the prose, which mimics the intelligence and coldness of the protagonist.
John Mullan

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M Coetzee: Waiting for the Barbarians (1980)

Coetzee’s first heavyweight novel is a haunting political fable set in a remote outpost of a carefully imagined empire. The central figure, the Magistrate, is appalled when a torturer comes to town to investigate rumours of a possible uprising by the nomadic barbarians. But the Magistrate is also a servant of the empire and his intervention in the case of a barbarian girl teaches him lessons about himself as well as the workings of power. Austere yet expressive, Coetzee’s novel has lost none of its resonance since the end of apartheid in his native South Africa.
Chris Taylor

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Douglas Coupland: Microserfs (1995)

“Bill is wise. Bill is kind. Bill is benevolent.” It’s 1993 and Daniel, one of a group of computer programmers working at the Microsoft “campus” in Washington state, is using his Powerbook to record the minutiae of their denumbed lives. These “children who fell down life’s cartoon holes” might hide behind their shell of geekdom — sterile shared housing, just-add-water noodles, corporate lawns, arcane references to pop culture — but Coupland reveals their underlying emotional codes and connections. Technology with a
human face.
Victoria Segal

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Daniel Defoe: Moll Flanders (1722)

The original title page of Defoe’s novel provocatively summarised the exploits of his endlessly resourceful anti-heroine. She is “Twelve Year a Whore, five times a Wife (whereof once to her own Brother), Twelve Year a Thief”. Born in Newgate Prison, she lives by her wits, her capacity to seduce men, and eventually her light fingers. After a trip to America she ends up back at Newgate, with the scaff old looming. Only luck rescues her, and makes her penitent. The tale is the more compelling because she is looking back ruefully on her misadventures in older age, examining her own motives with withering candour.
John Mullan

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Don DeLillo: Underwold (1997)

This novel really does attempt an anatomy of post-war America. It also combines the trickery of post-modern narration — a reverse chronology, sudden shifts of narrative perspective, interpolated passages of documentary reconstruction — with a simple and alluring fable. For the spine of this huge book is the story of what happens to a famous object, the baseball hit into the stands to win the World Series for the New York Giants in 1951, just as the Soviet Union is successfully testing an atomic bomb. The influence of nuclear paranoia and the secret industry of waste management (in which the protagonist, Nick Shay, is involved) shape the fates of its characters, whose stories are brought together by the circulating baseball.
John Mullan

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Don DeLillo: White Noise (1985)

Jack Gladney is nesting comfortably, teaching Hitler studies in a bland Midwestern college town, when a nebulously menacing “airborne toxic
event” nearby takes the stopper off his chronic fear of dying. It turns out that his life has been taking an experimental drug — Dylar — which is meant to muffle the same terrors. Attuned like no other novel to the perplexities that hum away at the margins of everyday experience, White Noise remains the most precise, and killingly funny, portrayal of the way we live now.
Lindesay Irvine

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Charles Dickens: A Tale of Two Cities (1859)

The titular cities are Paris and London. It is the best and worst of times: the age of revolution. Dr Manette has been falsely imprisoned in the Bastille by the Marquis St Evrémonde. The doctor, whose wits are gone, is rescued by a lawyer, Lorry, and brought to England with his daughter, Lucie. The wicked Marquis’s virtuous nephew, Charles Darnay, who loves Lucie, bears a striking
resemblance to the shiftless lawyer Sidney Carton, who later sacrifices himself on the guillotine to save the lovers and makes the immortal eclaration: “It is a far better thing that I do, than I have ever done.” The Victorians loved this novel.
John Sutherland

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Charles Dickens: Bleak House (1852-53)

A classic novel that helped to give lawyers their bad name. Bleak House is a vigorous satire on the old court of Chancery and the self-serving, pocket-lining nonsenses of the profession practiced there. Richard Carstone and Ada Clare are wards of the court in the eternal case of Jarndyce and Jarndyce; thrown together, they secretly marry. Also central are their friend, Esther Summerson, who nearly marries out of respectful devotion but loves another, and Lady Dedlock, who has a deep secret uncovered by the ruthless barrister Tulkinghorn. Guppy, a lawyer’s clerk, is unforgettable, as is the philanthropic and reprehensible Mrs Jellyby; Bucket is a very early detective. The 2005 BBC adaptation, starring Gillian Anderson, was addictive.
Paul Laity

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Charles Dickens: Dombey and Son (184 8)

Written when the author was becoming more interested in narrative design and when the type of design he tended towards was palpably darker. The
novel opens with the frigid Mr Dombey being presented with the son he hopes will one day take over the family business. Mrs Dombey promptly dies and
young Paul (in a death scene of tear-jerking pathos) follows a few years later. Dombey — desperate for an heir — marries a cynical beauty, Edith Granger. She elopes with her husband’s chief clerk (and embezzler),
James Carker. A ruined Dombey finally realises the worth of Florence, the daughter he has always neglected. The narrative — Dickens’s most mature meditation on the ethics of capitalism — is haunted by ambivalent images of railroads, progress and death.
John Sutherland

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Charles Dickens: Hard Times (1854)

Dickens’s major “social problem” novel, written after first-hand investigation of the Preston cotton-workers’ strike that crippled Britain’s textile industry. The novel opens in the most progressive school in Coketown (ie Preston), which is run by a strict utilitarian, Mr Gradgrind, with a savage stress on “facts”, not “fancy”. Gradgrind’s particular friend, Bounderby, is a factory owner and — he would have the world believe — a self-made man (he is not, it transpires). In one of its subplots Hard Times argues for easier divorce — a cause dear to Dickens’s heart — which came about three years later.
John Sutherland

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Charles Dickens: Little Dorrit (1855-57)

Bubbles always burst; if only our financiers had learned from the story of Mr Merdle, in whose bank a deposit seems magically to accrue. Dickens targets greed in this novel, and pride, but he had two more specific targets — government bureaucracy (the obstructive Circumlocution Office) and the law of imprisonment for debt (his own father had been in the Marshalsea). The “little Dorrit” of the title is Amy, daughter of William Dorrit, who languishes in the debtors’ prison before discovering he is heir to a fortune. The hero is Arthur Clennam, with whom Amy is in love and whose hateful mother has long-ago wronged the Dorrit family. Riches arrive and disappear, the pretensions and hypocrisies of society are uncovered, and the inevitable union of Amy and Arthur is long prolonged. Dickens, as always, bashes us over the head, but he does it brilliantly — a battering for our times.
Paul Laity

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Charles Dickens: Oliver Twist (183 8)

The work with which “Boz” demonstrated that fiction could be a powerful instrument for social reform. A woman arrives, exhausted, at the Mudfog
workhouse. She gives birth and dies. The orphan is named Oliver Twist. Under the new (1834) Poor Law the waif is underfed (famously, he asks for “more”) and abused and runs away to London, where he finds refuge in the thieves’ kitchen of the villainous Fagin and is put to work for the brutal housebreaker Bill Sikes. Oliver discovers that he is gently born and the victim of a criminal conspiracy. Fagin is hanged, Sikes — pursued by an angry mob — hangs himself. The novel was brilliantly illustrated by George Cruikshank, who later claimed that he, not Dickens, had had the principal idea for the story.
John Sutherland

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Joan Didion: Play It As It Lays (1970)

A short, desolate, wonderful tale of Californian hedonism that centres on the decline of a failed actor, Maria Wyeth, who recounts her life while in recovery from a breakdown. Her parents are dead, her marriage is over, her young daughter is in hospital. Drugs and sex make her life no less empty. In a scene that’s not for the squeamish, she undergoes a messy abortion. The only place in which she is happy is behind the wheel of her car, driving endlessly on the freeway. It’s all as bleak as it sounds but the sentences are
superb and the novel stands as a strong but undidactic reflection on hollowed-out decadence. Scott Fitzgerald isn’t far away.
Paul Laity

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Benjamin Disraeli: Sybil or The Two Nations (1845)

The “two nations” are the rich and the poor, and Sybil (part of a trilogy, with Coningsby and Tancred) is almost the archetypal state of the nation novel, a statement about the “condition of the people”. Long before he became prime minister, Disraeli was a member of Young England, a group that looked to paternalism to solve the problems of the industrial age. A sense of the oppression that inspired Chartism is channelled into a high romantic storyline. Charles Egremont is driven by his love for the beautiful Sybil Gerard, a radical’s daughter, to understand the motivations of the Chartists by the past and labouring to lay its demons to rest. Doctorow’s masterwork mounts an angry, impassioned study of the American left, contrasting hardscrabble 1950s radicalism with 1960s counter-culture. Daniel’s conclusion: “It’s a lot easier to be a revolutionary now than it used to be.”
Xan Brooks

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Alfred Döblin: Berlin Alexanderplatz (1929)

After his release from prison in 1920s Berlin, transport-worker-turned-hardman Franz Biberkopf tries and fails to stay on the straight and narrow: freedom, he soon realises, is its own kind of punishment. With unmatched streetwise liveliness, expressionistic density and a radical montage aesthetic, Döblin captures the sounds of the metropolis like few before him. Berlin itself, with its endless stream of crime and vice, emerges as Biberkopf’s ultimate nemesis.
Philip Oltermann


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EL Doctorow: The Book of Daniel (1971)

A novel spun from the case of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, the pair of small-time communists who, accused of passing atomic secrets to the Soviets, were executed by the US authorities in 1953. The novel’s hero is the son of scapegoats, scarred by the past and labouring to lay its demons to rest. Doctorow’s masterwork mounts an angry, impassioned study of the American left, contrasting hardscrabble 1950s radicalism with 1960s counter-culture. Daniel’s conclusion: “It’s a lot easier to be a revolutionary now than it used to be.”
Xan Brooks

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John Dos Passos: U.S.A. (1930-36)

Originally three individual volumes — more than 1,200 pages in the Penguin complete edition — U.S.A. represents the high-water mark of inter-war American modernism. Large parts of it abandon straightforward narrative in favour of newspaper headlines and stream-of-consciousness collage. In between wander a dozen or so vagrant and only intermittently connected characters — tycoons, power-brokers, hoboes, aspiring movie actors, drunks — deviously at large in the pullulating anthill of early-20th-century transatlantic life.
DJ Taylor

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Theodore Dreiser: Sister Carrie (1900)

Dreiser’s first novel tells the story of 18-year-old small-town girl Carrie Meeber, bound for Chicago in pursuit of the American dream. Carrie’s relationship with her two lovers gives the book a moral daring but its lasting impact comes from Dreiser’s depiction of the hard-nosed exchanges of city life, financial and emotional. The atmosphere of “hard contract” at the shoe factory where Carrie first works; her sister’s grim domesticity; the beggars and shopgirls on Chicago’s streets: Dreiser deftly records the steely realities of modern urban living.
Victoria Segal

Maria Edgeworth: Castle Rackrent (1800)

Castle Rackrent can claim many English literary firsts, but was most influential as the first regional novel. Set in Ireland before the arrival of
(short-lived) independence in 1782, this is a satirical saga of incompetent Anglo-Irish landlords, narrated in the vernacular by their disingenuous steward, Thady Quirk. The Rackrents are ably assisted in their decline by Quirk’s son Jason, whose designs on their land put class and property relations at the centre of the book. Edgeworth’s allegiance, however, remains ambiguous. The “Editor” insists that Ireland is now worthy of the 1800 Act of Union, while the Glossary” chortles about the Irish in a very present tense.
Natalie Cate

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George Eliot: Middlemarch (1872)

The one Victorian novel whose greatness no one contradicts. Eliot’s massive “study of provincial life” was conceived as two works: one centred on the ardent young idealist Dorothea Brooke; the other on the young scientist Dr Lydgate. Dorothea marries the parson-scholar Edward Casaubon, only to discover his mind is unworthy of her. Lydgate, surrendering to what Eliot calls his “spots of commonness”, marries a woman unworthy of his talent or aspiration. Amidst swirlingly connected plots, Dorothea (now widowed) eventually finds fulilment. Lydgate does not. Set in the time of the first Reform Act (1832) and published just after the second, Middlemarch is Eliot’s most impressive meditation on progress and the individual’s contribution to it.
John Sutherland

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George Eliot: Silas Marner (1861)

Eliot’s finest pastoral tale. Marner is a linen weaver in the village of Raveloe, who once belonged to a religious sect from which he was unjustly expelled: in reaction he has become a miser. His store of gold is stolen by the son of the local squire; at the same time, a golden-haired foundling, later named Eppie, is left in his house. She humanises the miser and when her rich father reveals himself, Eppie refuses to leave her adoptive parent. The novel is notable for the sharpness of its rural detail, its tactful symbolism and its variation between high melodrama and the broad comedy of Raveloe’s Rainbow Inn.
John Sutherland

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Ralph Ellison: Invisible Man (1953)

A pioneering novel about being black in America, by a pioneer black American author. The novel was painfully wrestled out of the author who — possessor of one of the most famous writing blocks in literary history — never, over an 80-year life, completed another major work of fiction for publication. As the title indicates the novel revolves around the refusal of white America to “see” its black citizens. It is framed as a journal by an un-named African-American, following his post-college career. Allegorical in technique, the novel’s most famous episode is the so-called “Battle Royal” episode in which young gladiatorial blacks fight, blindfolded, for the amusement of haughty white spectators.
John Sutherland

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Gustave Flaubert: Sentimental Education (1869)

Can youthful idealism withstand the disillusions of age? In tracing young Frederic’s desire for Madame Arnoux, a married woman, Flaubert
shows dreams struggling with reality, and questions whether ambition ever matches outcome. Set against the Paris revolutions of 1848, Flaubert’s final and hugely influential novel casts a similarly dispassionate eye on political ideals — self-interest vies with apathy, institutions contend with individual expression, and champions of the oppressed become policemen. Flaubert asks what is ultimately of most value to us: hope or disappointment?
Emily Mann

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Theodor Fontane:Effi Briest (1896)

Effi von Briest, 17, gets married to a general twice her age, but her emotional life is stifled by the tight net of social conventions in Bismarck’s
Germany. An affair with another offi cer ends in a pointless but lethal duel. A Prussian Madame Bovary by one of the masters of 19th-century realism, Effi Briest still makes for rich and rewarding reading. Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s 1974 film adaptation is worth watching, even if its full title is less succinct: Those who have a notion of their capabilities and needs and yet accept the ruling system in their heads and through their actions and affirm and even justify it thus.”
Philip Oltermann

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Richard Ford: Independence Day (1996)

In his sequel to The Sportswriter (1986), Ford picks up the story of Frank Bascombe, now a New Jersey estate agent, as he navigates the fraught emotional territory of a holiday weekend. An ex-wife, a disturbed son and a dangerous universe: all challenge the bland acceptance of what he calls his “existence period”. Ford’s attempt to diagram a certain kind of American everyman won the Pulitzer prize and a PEN/Faulkner award for fi ction — it was the first novel to be awarded both in the same year.
Victoria Segal

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EM Forster:A Passage to India (1924)

“The sense of racial tension, of incompatibility, never left me,” Forster wrote of his travels in India. Englishwoman Adela Quested is eager to “see the real India”, but when she experiences a mysterious side of it in the Marabar caves she is overcome by the echoes and accuses the outing’s organiser, Dr Aziz, of sexually assaulting her. His trial fuels the prejudices of the British Raj — the Indians “ought to be spat at … ground into the dust” — and underlines the impossibility of true friendship between an Englishman and Indian until British rule ends. Forster’s final novel, which provoked considerable debate over the “colonial problem”, won the James Tait Black prize. Sixty years later it was turned into an award-winning film by David Lean.
Emily Mann

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Jonathan Franzen: The Corrections (2001)

An ambitious, almost encyclopedic novel about modern America, structured around the seemingly hackneyed idea of a dysfunctional family getting together for Christmas. But Franzen’s is a dark as well as a comic book; the Lamberts are unhappy and have made mistakes, and there’s plenty wrong with the shallow, commercial, pharmaceutically obsessed country they live in. The parents, Enid and Alfred, confront old age, illness and frustrated ambitions. Chip has been caught messing about with one of his students, Gary is a depressive, Denise has begun an affair with her boss’s wife. The meanings of the novel’s title are multiple — financial, familial, moral. It owes much to Don DeLillo’s fi ction but is friendlier, and became a huge bestseller, perhaps the most recommended literary novel of the decade.
Paul Laity

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William Gaddis: The Recognitions (1955)

Gaddis’s huge novel is full of stories, but these often seem to be connected by theme rather than conventional narrative logic. The elusive central character is Wyatt Gwyon, intended by his family for the ministry but instead a forger of those objects of religious devotion: paintings. The novel renders the passion with which he creates truly original fakes, credited to Flemish masters. The other leading characters are also counterfeiters, like Otto, the playwright, who plagiarises authors he has never read, or the conman Frank Sinisterra. Much of the novel consists of dialogues in which ideas about religion, art and truthfulness are fearlessly elaborated.
John Mullan

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Elizabeth Gaskell: Cranford (1853)

One of the 19th century’s finest novels of community. Cranford — an idyllic reconstruction of Knutsford, where Gaskell was brought up — is a village not too far from the mill town of Drumble (Manchester), largely populated by genteel spinsters whom Gaskell playfully calls “amazons”. The stories that make up the narrative (which was first published in irregular instalments) revolve around two maiden sisters: the timid Miss Matty and the domineering Miss Deborah Jenkyns, daughters of a deceased rector. Matty is ruined by the failure of a bank and makes ineffectual but heartwarming attempts to recoup her losses through shopkeeping. All turns out well. Gaskell’s warm nature radiates through the novel.
John Sutherland

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Elizabeth Gaskell: North and South (1855)

The novel in which Gaskell set out to be scrupulously fair to the Lancashire mill-owners whom she had earlier criticised in Mary Barton (1848). Margaret Hale is transplanted from comfortable life in Hampshire to Milton-Northern (Manchester) when her clergyman father’s doubts force him to leave the Anglican church. Initially appalled, Margaret is gradually won over by the rough northern community and its tough (but moral) textile workers. Her southern softness tempers the hardness of the factory owner Thornton and helps bring about an acceptable end to a savage strike — the same industrial conflict that Dickens describes in Hard Times. Gaskell brings a distinctive feminine sympathy to the Victorian “social problem” novel.
John Sutherland

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André Gide: The Counterfeiters (1925)

When Bernard, a student, is told he is illegitimate, he runs away from home and ends up in the bed of his schoolfriend Olivier. Olivier’s uncle, the novelist Edouard, is in love with his nephew, who promptly heads off to the Mediterranean with the dastardly Comte de Passavant. Bernard becomes secretary to Edouard — who is working on a novel called The Counterfeiters. The tangled plot — which includes Olivier’s brother’s involvement with a gang of forgers — and large cast of characters are used to elucidate the novel’s themes of social authenticity and sincerity and to explore the possibility of an idealised homosexual relationship. While writing the novel, Gide kept a journal detailing its composition, which he published separately in 1926.
Adam Newey

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George Gissing: The Odd Women (1893)

A powerful and still underrated novel about the “woman question” in late-Victorian Britain. Gissing tells the story of five “odd women” — women without husbands — exploring their attempts to retain middle- class respectability without the financial means to do so. Alice and Virginia Madden, left adrift by the death of their spendthrift father, are forced to take mechanical “genteel” work. Unwilling to share their fate, their younger sister Monica marries a wealthy man who makes her miserable. The “new women”, Rhoda Nunn and Mary Barfoot, take a more positive approach, training women for proper jobs. But then along comes the callous and rich Everard Barfoot …
Paul Laity

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George Gissing: New Grub Street (1891)

George Orwell said of this bitter, brilliant novel that it retains its capacity to disquiet. Though set in late 19th-century London, its study of the corrosion of the literary world by self-promotion and commercialism is more relevant today than ever. Edwin Reardon and Jasper Milvain are two young writers who both realise that the values of the new literary industry are base. Milvain plays the game and prospers; Reardon chooses not to compromise and fails.
Competition and commerce are everything — in the marriage market, as in the literary one — and not many classics get written when there’s no food on the table.
Paul Laity

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Nadine Gordimer: July’s People (1981)

Having been banned under apartheid because it showed South Africa in a negative light Gordimer’s novel — which describes the plight of the Smales, a white, middle-class family forced from their home in Johannesburg during a fictional civil war against black South Africans — was then deemed racist by a panel of teachers in 2001. This lent value to Gordimer’s claim that segregation is indiscriminate in its systematic humiliation of all who live under it. Led to safety and protected by July, their faithful black servant, the Smales in turn become subservient to him.
Rosalind Porter

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Maxim Gorky: Mother (1906)

Mother was endorsed by Lenin as a “very timely” propaganda tool after the 1905 revolution and served as a model for Bolshevik ideology and socialist-realist writing. In a greasy factory suburb, Pelageya Nilovna is a
downtrodden woman whose only solace is religion. When her son, Pavel
Vlassov, declares himself a socialist, she is afraid and ashamed. In her eyes, socialists murder tsars. Yet through her love for her son, she overcomes her habits of subservience. She learns to read and when Pavel is arrested, Pelageya finds her own role, smuggling pamphlets to peasants.
Natalie Cate

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Alasdair Gray: Lanark (1981)

A strange, huge picture of Glasgow written by an author as renowned for his artwork as for his writing. The novel, embellished with Gray’s elaborately emblematic title pages, has a deliberately forbidding structure. Its four books are presented out of sequence, a naturalistic narrative of a young man’s growth to self-consciousness in 1930s and 1940s Glasgow being enwrapped within a Kafka-esque fantasy about a parallel city called Unthank. In the fantasy, the hero, Lanark, finds himself in a kind of hell of all-powerful institutions and mysteriously knowledgeable persecutors. In the realistic story, Gray’s alter ego, Duncan Thaw, struggles to maintain his artistic integrity. The challenge to the reader is to follow the connections between
the two.
John Mullan

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Walter Greenwood: Love on the Dole (1933)

An apprentice at Marlowe’s, an engineering firm, notices familiar faces disappearing and fears that before being old enough to claim an adult wage, he will join them on the dole as another “living corpse; a unit of the spectral army of three million lost men”. Not even love’s young dream provides a refuge from the deprivation and degradation of unemployment, while protest ends in death. Greenwood’s first novel, a fictionalisation of “the tragic and sordid side of poverty” near his hometown of Salford, moved middle-class readers during the depression years. The early-morning march of hobnail boots on cobbles and the clack-clack-clack of the cotton mills may document a distant time, but rising unemployment, pressure on wages and means testing still shatters lives today.
Emily Mann

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Thomas Hardy: The Mayor of Casterbridge (1886)

Hardy’s reworking of Oedipus Rex, set in the author’s native Wessex in the 1840s. Michael Henchard, a drunken journeyman labourer, sells his wife to a sailor at a local fair. On sobering up, he vows not to drink for 21 years. He rises in the world as a corn-factor and is elected mayor of Casterbridge (Dorchester, bleakly depicted), but his fall once again is precipitous, and he dies, as he began, a labourer. The novel is Hardy’s most powerful study of will and character and the irresistibility of fate.
John Sutherland

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Barry Hines: A Kestrel for a Knave (196 8)

Neglected by his parents, bullied by his brother, beaten and belittled at school, Billy Casper has little hope of a future beyond the pit in his deprived northern town, a destiny signalled by the coal- heaps which loom over the playground. The fi rst line describes Billy’s cold council-house bedroom at night — “There were no curtains up” — and his only comforts are stolen food, the late-night shipping forecast and Desperate Dan. That is, until he finds, rears and trains a kestrel: as he lets the bird take flight, Billy’s own horizons seem to expand. The source of Ken Loach’s faithful 1969 fi lm Kes, Hines’s book is a compelling and haunting portrait of the trials and limitations of British working-class youth.
Emily Mann

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Winifred Holtby: South Riding (1936)

Set in a fictional Yorkshire, Holtby’s last novel, published posthumously, takes up her abiding themes of class and social justice. The central relationship, between the idealistic young headmistress Sarah Burton and the unhappily married squire Robert Carne, has striking echoes of the love affair between Jane Eyre and Mr Rochester. In 1974 Yorkshire Television serialised the book, with Dorothy Tutin and Nigel Davenport in the leading roles.
Kathryn Hughes

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Victor Hugo: Les Misérables (1862)

The most popular novel among both armies in the American civil war. The innumerable pirated copies that circulated in the English-speaking world never quite decided how to translate the title (”The Wretched”, “The Poor Ones”) and, like the phenomenally successful musical, eventually trusted that the French words could translate themselves. Hugo’s massive narrative follows the career of Jean Valjean, a convict, imprisoned for 19 years for stealing a loaf of bread to feed his family. On his release, he steals some silver candlesticks from a bishop, who forgives him. This act of kindness sets Valjean on the path of righteousness. He becomes a successful industrialist, mayor and family man — although always haunted by his criminal past. Hugo introduces spectacular wartime and street-revolution set pieces. An influential (and much adapted) novel, Les Misérables was recycled by Thomas Hardy as The Mayor of Casterbridge.
John Sutherland

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Christopher Isherwood: Goodbye to Berlin (1939)

Even less thinly disguised in its autobiographical origins than Mr Norris Changes Trains (1935), Isherwood’s second Berlin novel is also more wide-eyed and panoramic in the way it records the mingling of Germans and émigrés under the Weimar Republic. There is Fräulein Schröder, an outspoken landlady, Anglophile barkeeper Bobby and decadent Sally Bowles, memorably embodied by Liza Minelli in Cabaret (1972), which was born out of a stage play adapted from the novel. “I am a camera with its shutter open, quite passive, recording, not thinking,” are the famous lines on the first page; reading this novel is much like overhearing anecdotes in a crowded bar while history knocks impatiently at the windows.
justify it thus.”
Philip Oltermann

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Ismail Kadare: Chronicle in Stone (1971)

Based on Kadare’s own childhood in the town of Gjirokastër, Chronicle in Stone looks at Albania during the second world war through the eyes of a young boy. Greeks, Germans and Italians march through the town. Making use of the rawness of folklore and tapping into the strange logic of dreams, Kadare takes the lunacy of war and spins it into his own Balkan myth.
Victoria Segal

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James Kelman: How Late It Was, How Late (1994)

Unemployed middle-aged Glaswegian Sammy finds himself in a police cell after a weekend of booze and fighting. He seems to have lost his sight, though he remembers little of what has happened. Eventually released, he finds his girlfriend has left him and struggles vainly with the social security bureaucracy. Much of the story is devoted to Sammy’s attempts to satisfy his most basic needs. The third-person narrative does not merely inhabit his thoughts, it also uses a version of his demotic Scots, replete with obsenities, but charged with feeling.
JM

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Giuseppe di Lampedusa: The Leopard (195 8)

The feudal authority of Fabrizio, prince of Salina, is threatened by the arrival in Sicily in 1860 of Garibaldi’s redshirts. Unable to decide if he should resist the Risorgimento or come to an accommodation with it, the charismatic astronomer prince agrees to his nephew’s marriage to a daughter of the local nouveau-riche. Their unhappy alliance signals the end of inherited power, leaving the prince without a role in life, even as the family’s wealth increases. Lampedusa’s only novel was attacked from right and left when it was posthumously published, but it was saluted by William Golding and EM Forster. In 1963 it was made into a Palme d’Or-winning film by Luciano Visconti, with Burt Lancaster as the prince.
Claire Armistead

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Philip Larkin: A Girl in Winter (1947)

The most famous poet of his era, Larkin as a young man published two novels, of which this is the second. Like its predecessor, Jill (1944), A Girl in Winter is a sensitive study of female sensibility — conceived at a period when Larkin (for whom sex was always a fraught topic) had embarked on his first serious relationships with women. The “girl” of the title is Katherine Lind — a provincial librarian, as was the author at the time — involved, unsatisfactorily, with a young man. Published in austerity Britain, in a year which saw the worst winter of the century, the narrative is very much of its time. But no one reading it will fail to wonder whether there was not a great novelist struggling to get out of a great poet.
John Sutherland

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Nella Larsen: Passing (1929)

At separate tables in a rooftop cafe, two black women take tea and pass as white. It is a chance encounter between childhood friends. Irene is a respectable black woman committed to her home and family. Clare travels the world with her white husband who, unwittingly, calls her Nig. After meeting Irene and her Harlem Renaissance friends, Clare finds she cannot resist her “own people”. Passing broke literary ground as the story of two racially and sexually ambiguous women written by another. Social boundaries can be permeated, but not without cost.
Natalie Cate

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Doris Lessing: The Grass is Singing (1950)

Nearly 60 years before winning the Nobel prize, Lessing was acclaimed for a stunning debut which tells the story of Dick and Mary Turner, farmers in a remote part of Rhodesia. “White supremacy” implies freedoms and luxury they have never known and the glory of the African landscape is off set by their squalor and frustration. Mary, desperate and isolated, seeks comfort from the couple’s black cook, Moses. The lure and contradictions of colonial life are brilliantly analysed as a tragedy unfolds.
Joanna Hines

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Sinclair Lewis: Elmer Gantry (1927)

One of a grim trilogy attacking materialism and hypocrisy in American life, Elmer Gantry followed Lewis’s attacks on business, in Babbit (1922), and medicine, in Arrowsmith (1925). Here his target is dollar- driven evangelism. Elmer, a jock who lives for football, booze and girls, gets religion at college. By wholesale unscrupulousness he becomes “the Rev Dr Gantry” before falling into a honey trap, set by his secretary. He escapes. The end of the novel sees him triumphantly preaching his message: “Dear Lord, Thy work is but begun! We shall yet make these United States a moral nation.”
John Sutherland

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Sinclair Lewis: Main Street (1920)

Taken to live in Gopher Prairie, Minnesota, by her new husband, free-spirited young Carol Milford is horrified by the town’s conservatism. She dreams of making the place beautiful but struggles against America’s “comfortable tradition and sure faith”. “Would he not betray himself an alien cynic who should otherwise portray Main Street, or distress the citizens by speculating whether there may not be other faiths?” asks Lewis.
Victoria Segal

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Colin MacInnes: Absolute Beginners (1959)

Never mind the disastrous 1980s fi lm adaptation: Colin MacInnes’s novel is a peach. Not only is it a snapshot of London at a particularly febrile time — as postwar austerity gives way to the first stirrings of the “swinging” era — it also examines a new ethnic melting-pot, as immigrants from the West Indies arrive in signifi cant numbers. It’s all seen through the eyes of a never-named teenage mod, a perfect vehicle for MacInnes’ Runyonesque prose and mordant humour.
Andrew Pulver

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Mary McCarthy: The Group (1963)

An aff ectionate portrayal of eight Vassar-educated girls making their way in Depression-era New York — and a hilarious lampooning of the men who hang around them. The novel remained on the New York Times bestseller list for two years and still strikes a chord. Imagine Sex and the City with a social conscience, with characters saying things like: “But before we were married,
we had an understanding that he should read Kafka and Joyce and Toynbee and the cultural anthropologists … so that semantically we can have the same referents.”
Sam Jordison

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John McGahern: Amongst Women (1990)

Michael Moran is a former IRA guerrilla whose fails to adjust to civilian life after the Irish war of independence and is bitterly resentful of the new free state government. He takes it out on his family, for whom he is the ultimate patriarch. Beautifully written with suggestions of autobiography, McGahern’s Booker-shortlisted novel explores the complexities of rural, post-colonial Ireland through the experiences of one ruined man.
Rosalind Porter

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Joaquim Maria: Machado de Assis

The Posthumous Memoirs of Brás Cubas (1871) Narrated from beyond the grave, Brazil’s answer to Tristram Shandy takes the reader on a playful wander through the disenchantments of the life of the late Brás Cubas. Machado’s self-conscious novel cheerfully tosses realism aside, creating a book that combines comedy and melancholy to transform the stuff of a disappointing life into art.
Victoria Segal

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Julian Maclaren-Ross Of Love and Hunger (1947)

Julian Maclaren-Ross’s reputation as a boozehound screw-up obscures — unfairly, perhaps — the qualities of his first full-length novel, which was drawn from his experiences selling vacuum cleaners door to door in Bognor Regis. Employing an appropriately louche prose style, he spins an enjoyable, self-deprecating yarn as his hapless hero tries to interest householders in the Sucko brand and whiles away his spare time romancing the wife of a fellow salesman. It’s all set in 1939; you can sense how the war curtailed Maclaren- Ross’s rootlessless, if nothing else.
Andrew Pulver

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David Malouf: Remembering Babylon (1993)

It begins with the unreality of a fairy tale: three children in a remote Australian settlement in the mid-1850s see a stranger, not quite human, balancing precariously on a fence, somewhere between earth and heaven. Their family takes hi in but contact with Gemmy Fairly, a white man who has lived with the blacks and is a stranger even to himself, has repercussions for the whole community. Malouf’s wonderful tale of alienation, otherness and love is told with compassion and insight.
Joanna Hines

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Thomas Mann: The Magic Mountain (1924)

Hans Castorp, a merchant’s son from Hamburg, visits a tubercular relative at a sanitorium in Davos. Fascinated with this place high up in the Swiss Alps, where illness is championed — not without vanity — as a triumph of the intellect over the body, he stays for seven years and falls ill along the way. Featuring lengthy debates between humanist freemasons and Jews-turned-Catholics, a long love-scene written entirely in French and a brilliant hallucinatory journey down the snowy slopes, it merits multiple readings. A novel for a lifetime not just a rainy afternoon.
Philip Oltermann

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Alessandro Manzoni: The Betrothed (1827)

Ostensibly the story of two lovers kept apart by a corrupt and lustful nobleman and his thuggish supporters, Manzoni’s digressive masterpiece takes in the whole sweep of 17th-century Italian history. With wry commentary on the abuse of power, epic set pieces from the Thirty Years war and graphic depictions of the horrors of the plague, it is the classic of 19th-century Italian literature and is as important in that country as the works of Thackeray, Dickens, Fielding and Hardy rolled into one.
Sam Jordison

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Guy de Maupassant Bel-Ami (1885)

Maupassant turns his cynical imagination to the squalor and decadent gloryof late 19th-century Paris. There his splendidly moustachioed hero, Georges Duroy, immerses himself in the amoral world of political journalism and climbs to the top of society, over the bodies of colleagues and quickly discarded mistresses. At once detestable and delightful, Duroy works his charm on the reader as seductively as on the women he misuses. The result is a masterpiece — a page-turner as well as a vivid chronicle of a sordid world.
Sam Jordison

Rohinton Mistry A Fine Balance (1995)

One of the greatest novels of the late 20th-century. Two tailors, uncle and nephew, a student from northern India and a middle- class but impoverished widow struggle to survive in the political ferment of Indira Gandhi’s harsh emergency rule in the mid – 1970s. India comes alive in an inspiring contemplation of power and the powerless, of compassion and terror, of
comedy and cruelty. Mistry has the heart of Dickens, the sweep of Victor Hugo and the command of words of a great poet.
Carmel Callil

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Alberto Moravia: The Time of Indifference (1929)

Moravia started his study of two days in the life of a middle-class widow and her troublesome children when he was 18, having been challenged by friends. The book was dismissed as a “mist of words” when he submitted it to the prestigious magazine 900, but he self-published to rapturous reviews and the fi rst edition sold out within weeks. The Time of Indifference might lack the sophistication of his later classics but his caustic attack on middle-class decadence is still a precocious achievement.
Sam Jordison

VS Naipaul A Bend in the River (1979)

Another great 20th-century writer visits the sub-Saharan Africa explored in Conrad’s Heartof Darkness, soon after the white colonialists have disappeared. “Black men” have assumed “the lies of white men” and the narrator, Selim, observes with the outsider perspective of a Muslim Asian as a dictator tears apart his country. It’s a bleak vision of a land ruled by terror, but the beauty of the prose and Naipaul’s barbed humour make A Bend In The River a real pleasure.
Sam Jordison

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Frank Norris: McTeague (1899)

A bracing blast of social-realism, played out in San Francisco and detailing the rise and fall of a knuckle-headed dentist. Taking his lead from Zola, Norris rustles up a bold, broad and colourful tale of human weakness as his characters are at first galvanised and then destroyed by a $5,000 lottery win. A forgotten landmark in American fiction, McTeague formed the basis for Erich von Stroheim’s classic silent-screen drama Greed (1924).
Xan Brooks

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Andrew O’Hagan: Personality (2003)

A skilful exploration of celebrity culture, O’Hagan’s second novel tells the story of Maria Tambini. Born into a Scottish-Italian chip-shop owning family, she becomes a child star thanks to Hughie Green’s Opportunity Knocks and then develops anorexia nervosa. This was, of course, the life of Lena Zavaroni, but Personality is a long way from a biographical study. It’s chock full of diff erent voices and styles — O’Hagan is exceptional at dialogue — and wraps Zavaroni’s story in a charged lyricism. We create celebrities for our pleasure, then destroy them: fans of The X Factor should be made to read this book.
Paul Laity

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George Orwell Animal Farm (1945)

A Swiftian satire on totalitarianism — specifically Stalin’s Russia. Animals, led by the pigs, resolve to take their farm from its human owner, Mr Jones. Once the revolution is achieved, the ruthless porker Napoleon (Stalin) imposes an even harsher dictatorship than that run by his capitalist, two-legged predecessor. The less intelligent beasts are slaughtered or worked to death while the pigs morph into the capitalists of old. The fable, composed at a time when the Soviet Union was a wartime ally, could find no British publisher (TS Eliot, then a director at Faber, pointed out that the intelligent pigs deserved to be in charge). The British publishing industry was, Orwell concluded, inherently “gutless”.
John Sutherland

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Pier Paolo Pasolini: The Ragazzi (1955)

A robust challenge to the mainstream mores of post-war Italy, Pasolini’s scabrous novel follows Riccetto, a member of the Roman underclass, as he wanders the meanest of streets. Slum thuggery represents freedom from the conventions of politics and morality. Told in pungent slang and unabashed in its depiction of sex, crime and violence, the book was confiscated by police, and the future director was accused by the government of obscenity.
Victoria Segal

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Alan Paton: Cry, The Beloved Country (194 8)

Published in the year that saw apartheid come into force in South Africa, Paton’s novel follows the Reverend Stephen Kumalo on to the streets of
Johannesburg as he attempts to find his son, Absalom. His mission is transformed when he discovers that Absalom has been charged with the murder of a white liberal activist. Humane, compassionate and touched with a biblical grace, Paton’s book is unflinching yet never hopeless: “But when that dawn will come, of our emancipation, from the fear of bondage and the bondage of fear, why, that is a secret.”
Victoria Segal

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Cesare Pavese: The Moon and the Bonfire (1949)

Returning to his Italian village after years of making good in America, Pavese’s narrator discovers that the countryside of his youth has been irreversibly scarred by the second world war. As memories of his childhood rise from the landscape, so do the bodies of those who were killed during the conflict — grisly evidence of the past polluting the present. Sex, betrayal and the tensions of a divided community underscore the tough lyricism of this, the author’s final novel.
Victoria Segal

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Thomas Love Peacock: Headlong Hall (1816)

Peacock’s gift was for dialogues — not realistic chat, but carefully staged disputes reminiscent of Socratic debates. His novels are usually named
after country houses because these are the locations where he gathers representatives of particular beliefs or fashions (or beliefs that are merely fashions) and forces them into each other’s company. In Headlong Hall, the equally absurd Mr Escot, the pessimist, and Mr Foster, the optimist, rehearse the arguments of, respectively, Malthus and Rousseau. Other guests at Squire Headlong’s Welsh retreat debate literature or art with equal vehemence and ludicrous certainty. Mr Milestone, disdaining mere talk, puts his theories of landscaping into effect by blowing up part of the squire’s grounds.
John Mullan

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Anthony Powell: Afternoon Men (1931)

Critical attention has focused on A Dance to the Music of Time but Powell’s first novel is memorable. It’s slighter but sharper than Dance, more scathing in its depiction of disaffected, acidic young urbanites — the interwar generation — whose only emotion is a sort of dull gloom and whose only concession to higher thoughts is to make snobbish comments about art. Atwater, the narrator, is almost a perfect blank, propelled forward only by a vague desire for cocktails and women. The first chapter is icily funny, especially in the collision of the American Schneider, a “regular boy”, with London’s bright young things.
Carrie O’Grady

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Thomas Pynchon: Vineland (1990)

What has happened to the territory in North America christened by the
Norse explorer Leif Ericson “Vinland”? Pynchon’s Vineland is a wooded slice of northern California, an enclave in 1984 for ageing 60s hippies in a culture devastated by capitalist obsession and Reaganism. Our window into this world is Zoyd Wheeler, single parent to Prairie, whose mother, Frenesi Gates, has turned from hippy to FBI informant. Funny and touching, packed with pop cultural references and an inspiration to film directors (Quentin Tarantino is clearly a fan), this is Pynchon’s only look at present-day America — America as he was experiencing it.
Nicola Barr

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Joseph Roth: The Radetzky March (1932)

Written just half a decade before the author’s death from alcoholism while in exile in Paris, this is a nostalgic study of the decline of the Habsburg Empire and the parallel decline of the Trottas, a loyal military family whose status is elevated by Emperor Franz Joseph I. Roth offers an elegy to relatively benign imperial rule and explores the meaninglessness that sets in when an ideal is destroyed. In his memorable phrase, his peasant-born, conscience stricken Trottas are “homeless for the Kaiser”.
Nicola Barr

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Philip Roth: American Pastoral (1997)

Seymour “Swede” Levov is a Jewish-American golden boy who is brought down by the actions of his cherished daughter, who bombs a post office in protest at the war in Vietnam. Levov might also be seen as the emblem of a complacent middle-class that assumed the world’s troubles would pass them by — Roth shows how the house of cards can come tumbling down. American Pastoral spotlights a nation in spiritual crisis, staggering towards a horrified self-awareness.
Xan Brooks

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Philip Roth: The Human Stain (2000)

“Do they exist or are they spooks?” This is the question, about absent students and addressed to his class, that seals the fate of Jewish classics professor — and reputed racist — Coleman Silk. Except Silk is not what he seems. He is a man of secrets; at once noble and cowardly, confident and compromised. In the guise of his alter-ego, Nathan Zuckerman, Roth rails against a climate of sexual and racial hypocrisy. Along the way he produces a tragedy substantial in its weight, scope and ambition — an Othello for the Clinton era.
Xan Brooks

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Salman Rushdie: Midnight’s Children (1981)

A great English novel that hardly mentions England and has no major English characters. Yet while it spans much of the history of India in the 20th century, and is heady with the smells and colours of the sub-continent, it also borrows from a great tradition of English fiction. Saleem Sinai, the novel’s narrator, is a latterday Tristram Shandy, reviewing the comic family history that has made him. Born on the day of Indian independence, his own “lifelong belief in the equation between the state and myself” is borne out by his own accidental involvement in all the great and terrible events of his country’s history, ending darkly with the infamous “emergency” of Mrs Gandhi (”the Madam”).
John Mullan

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Salman Rushdie: Shame (1983)

Set in Peccavistan, a country that “is and is not Pakistan”, Shame describes the conflict between two families, the Harrapas and the Hyders. They are at once united and divided — the book is a thinly-veiled study of the relationship between Zia ul-Haq, president of Pakistan, and his overthrown predecessor,
Zulkifar Ali Bhutto. Connected is the story of Suiya Zenobia, whose failure to be born a boy instils within her a limitless capacity for shame. Suiya’s sense of degradation illustrates, with candour, the impossibility of female dignity in the society in which she finds herself.
Charlotte Stretch

Leonardo Sciascia: To Each His Own (1966)

In this short and elegantly brutal detective novel set in Sicily, Sciascia, an Italian writer and moral and cultural commentator, takes on a society that had acceded to fascism and the mafia. When two locals are murdered, everyone knows who is responsible. Everyone, however, sticks to a behavioural code that ensures the guilty party remains unpunished — everyone, that is, except Sciascia’s unlikely hero, the timid schoolteacher Laurano, who thinks he can solve the crime and deliver justice. His failure — and grisly end in a sulphur mine — is Sciascia’s statement on the impossibility of justice in his native country.
Nicola Barr

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Paul Scott: Staying On (1977)

A comic, moving novel that looks at the handover of independence to India through the eyes of a retired British colonial couple, Colonel Tusker Smalley and his wife Lily, who decide to stay on in the home they have made. Scott is brilliant on the division between Indian nd colonialist, and moving on the plight of the Smalleys as they try to retain control over their lives. They are at once symbolic of a whole system and vividly distinct, in a way that makes their slow demise heartbreaking.
Nicola Barr

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Hubert Selby Jr: Last Exit to Brooklyn (1964)

Banned when first published in Britain, this novel’s eventual appearance here in 1968 signalled the effective end of literary censorship. Initially conceived as a bundle of connected short stories, it is set in the savage, degenerate post-war Brooklyn projects. Last Exit is both ultra-realistic and abrupt in a stream-of- consciousness, lagrantly ungrammatical style. Two of the longer stories, “Tralala” (which ends with a street woman being gang-raped) and Strike” (in which a union leader discovers his homosexuality, with hideous consequences) caused particular alarm among Britain’s moral guardians.
John Sutherland

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Samuel Selvon: The Lonely Londoners (1956)

In smog-bound London, where signs say “keep the water white”, West Indian immigrants beg shillings to feed the gas heater, wear pyjamas as underwear and labour in factories through the night. When they can’t get work, they catch pigeons and seagulls to eat. “Why the hell you can’t change colour?” a new arrival on the boat-train interrogates his black hand. The city around him is changing colour fast: from saltfish and rice appearing in shops to babies being born “with curly hair”. This bleak yet wry novel reflects the exile experienced by the author, who left Trinidad in 1950 and has since been hailed as “the father of black writing” in Britain. The book’s fragmented, open-ended structure is fitting for a story that continues today.
Emily Mann

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Ousmane Sembène: God’s Bit of Wood (1960)

In this landmark novel, which progresses through the dreadful Senegalese Union Railroad strike of 1947-48, the women gradually usurp the men and take centre stage. When the ruling French try to bring down the workers by cutting off their food and water supply, it is the women who defend themselves with violence and clash with the armed forces of their colonial rulers. Lacking individual heroes, this tale of collective action celebrates and honours a strike, a protest march and a resistance that lasted “as long as a life”.
Nicola Barr


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Victor Serge: The Case of Comrade Tulayev (1950)

“The case ramified in every direction, linked itself to hundreds of others, mingled with them, disappeared in them, re-emerged like a dangerous little blue flame from under fire-blackened ruins.” Written from Mexican exile, the legendary anarchist’s novel about Stalin’s purges, show trials and executions is astonishing for many things: for the beauty of prose that describes horrifying acts; for sustained suspense, as the murder of a Stalinist party head on a cold Moscow night reverberates through the country and the world; and for its tribute to the heroism of the masses.
Nicola Barr


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Lao She: Rickshaw Boy (1936)

Lao She’s unsentimental tale follows peasant boy Hsiang- tzu, who is drawn to Peking by dreams of independence and comfort but whose strength and cunning are not enough to save him from despair as he pulls a rickshaw from dawn till dark. Lao She’s own story is almost as tragic — he was persecuted, beaten and humiliated by the Chinese government. His rickshaw boy, in a scene which sums up the futility of the individual’s struggle against the system, dies in the snow, alone and defeated. The author committed suicide in 1966, his spirit broken.
Nicola Barr

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Upton Sinclair: The Jungle (1906)

Sinclair had aimed, he said, at America’s conscience, but hit its stomach instead. A muckraking novel about the Chicago stockyards and meat-packing industry, the narrative follows the fortunes of a Lithuanian immigrant, Jurgis Rudkus. Newly arrived in the country with his family, and newly married, Jurgis is idealistic about the new world. But the heartless industrial machine which produces canned food — adulterated and frequently poisonous — for the American table uses him until his strength, health and family are utterly broken. Jurgis takes to drink but finally sees a glimmer of hope in socialism. Theodore Roosevelt was so shocked by the sanitary standards Sinclair described that he sent a presidential commission to investigate the stockyards.
John Sutherland

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Stevie Smith: Novel on Yellow Paper (1936)

As in the poetry for which she is also famous, Smith herself, witty, brilliant, wandering of mind yet eternally perspicacious, erupts through every word of this remarkable novel. Her heroine is Pompey Casmilus, a young woman who, bored as a secretary, takes up her office’s yellow writing paper to tell us of her life and times. She misses not a trick, and through her love affairs, her friendships, her love of love and her revealing experiences in Nazi Germany, a comic masterpiece emerges.
Carmen Callil

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Zadie Smith: White Teeth (2000)

Zadie Smith burst on to the literary scene with this rich and fizzy vision of multicultural Britain. Archie Jones and Samad Iqbal fought together in the second world war; 30 years later, their families’ lives intertwine as Archie’s daughter and Samad’s twin sons attempt to navigate late 20th-century London’s lures and expectations. Immigration and pregnancy, friendship and genetics, fundamentalism and class, beauty and luck: Smith’s novel contains multitudes, and deals with all its subjects astutely, wittily and with an admirable lightness of touch.
Sarah Crown


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Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn: One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich (1962)

Cleared for publication by Nikita Khrushchev himself, who had to bully his colleagues on the politburo into reading it, this daring account of life in the Soviet gulag was an instant sensation in Russia, and made Solzhenitsyn world- famous within weeks. Based on Solzhenitsyn’s own experiences at a camp in northern Kazakhstan, this slim volume follows a prisoner from the hammer banging out reveille on the rail at 5am, through the brutality of camp life until lights out at 10pm. Pared-down and finishing on a note of transcendent calm, the book enjoyed global success and laid the seeds both of Solzhenitsyn’s Nobel prize, awarded in 1970, and Khrushchev’s downfall.
Richard Lea

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John Steinbeck: The Grapes of Wrath (1939)

Still one of the most-read texts in American high-schools. The Joad family, tenant farmers, are driven from Oklahoma by the mid-1930s “dustbowl” climatic disaster. Tom, recently out of prison, rejoins them as they prepare for their pilgrimage to California where, as advertisements assure them, life is easy. In a rickety, overloaded Hudson van the Joads laboriously traverse Route 66, the “mother road”. In the west, they discover that “Okies” are despised, abused and employed only as long as the season requires them for the stoop labour of fruit picking. The family disintegrates.
John Sutherland

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Stendhal:The Red and the Black (1830)

“I shall be understood in 1880,” said Stendhal — ie around half a century after he published this, his most renowned novel. Telling the story of the young, impassioned hero, Julien Sorel, as he exerts himself to rise above his
humble station using a mixture of native gifts and hypocrisy, Stendhal wrote in a style inimical to both Classicists and Romantics alike; and so the book reads astonishingly freshly today. The words applied to Sorel at one point could apply to Stendhal himself: “You haven’t a Frenchman’s frivolous mind, and you understand the principle of utility.”
Nichola Lezard


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August Strindberg: The Red Room (1879)

Arvid Falk, a disillusioned civil servant, becomes a journalist in Stockholm only to discover that man, in all his social guises, is a deceitful animal. Inevitably, government and the church are satirised, but the depressive dramatist’s irst novel goes much further, launching a scathing attack on every aspect of modern life. Cultural institutions, business and philanthropy are merely the parasites of capitalism, driven by the pursuit of self-interest. Publishing is caricatured as the lifeless arm of faceless media empires, concerned with nothing but peddling celebrity biographies and manufacturing
literary personalities.
Rosalind Porter

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Rabindranath Tagore: The Home and the World (1916)

On a prosperous Bengali estate in 1908, housewife Bimala enjoys a life of contentment with her wealthy husband, Nikhil. But her happiness is endangered when she meets Sandip, the charismatic leader of the Swadeshi movement, which aims to end colonial rule in India. His persuasive rhetoric encourages Bimala to get involved in a cause that proved to be rooted in violence and corruption. Sandip’s exploitation of Bimala sums up the immorality Tagore saw in Swadeshi activists; his intense distrust of the movement is woven into the fabric of this novel.
Charlotte Stretch

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William Makepeace:Thackeray Vanity Fair (184 8)

Published as a serial over 18 months, Vanity Fair offers a panorama of English society which pivots on the Battle of Waterloo. Subtitled “A Novel
without a Hero” it has two heroines. Rebecca (”Becky”) Sharp is ruthless and self- seeking; Amelia Sedley is a “good woman”. Both marry soldiers: Becky’s Rawdon lives, Amelia’s George dies. Over the next 10 years the women’s careers seesaw. Becky ends ennobled but disgraced; Amelia accepts Dobbin, who has always loved her. Thackeray’s clubman tone and easy irony (”cynicism” his contemporaries thought), establish him as the natural heir to Fielding.
John Sutherland

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Robert Tressell: The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists (1914)

Life seems to get ever harder for Frank Owen and his fellow painters and decorators at Rushton & Co while their bosses get richer and fatter. Using chopped up bits of bread, Owen shows his colleagues the “Great Money Trick” to prove that money is actually the cause of poverty — but they are not easily convinced. Published posthumously, with much of the explicit politics edited out, Tressell’s only novel didn’t appear unabridged until 1955. Since then it has become something of a sacred text among activists, and even the odd cabinet minister has claimed it as a favourite book. It is worth bearing in mind though, that Tressell’s intended lesson was to “indicate what I believe to be the only real remedy, namely — Socialism”, and that may have had little effect.
Emily Mann

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Anthony Trollope: The Last Chronicle of Barset (1867)

Trollope’s magniicent conclusion to his Barsetshire saga is his finest study of agonised conscience. The storyline is summed up by a discarded title: The story of a Cheque for Twenty Pounds And Of The Mischief Which It Did. Josiah Crawley, the cross-grained curate of Hogglestock, is suspected of having stolen a cheque. Confused, he cannot remember how he came by the money. The formidable Bishop’s lady, Mrs Proudie leads the campaign against the luckless Crawley. Virtue triumphs — but love does not, Trollope declined to allow his most beloved maiden heroine, Lily Dale, to marry her faithful lover, Johnny Eames.
John Sutherland

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Anthony Trollope: The Way We Live Now (1875)

In which the aged Trollope lashed an English society that he felt had become pervasively dishonest. The narrative opens with an assault on the corrupted London literary world, moves on to the depraved world of the West End gentleman’s club (patronised by no one that Trollope regarded as a gentleman), and then to the great canker at the centre of English life, the City. Dominating the narrative is the majestically dishonest Augustus Melmotte — a speculative railroad financier who buys an English society only too willing to sell itself. At the height of his rise, an MP courted by all the great in the land, Melmotte is disgraced and commits suicide. The darkest of Trollope’s 47 novels.
John Sutherland

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Mark Twain: The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876)

The novel which introduced Twain’s juvenile hero to the world. Tom epitomises what Americans call “spunk”, and — like his Irish pal Huck Finn — has always been something of an offence to the more strictly disposed guardians of public morality. An orphan, Tom is brought up “respectable” by his Aunt Polly. His adventures are a series of boyish pranks and escapades — unlike Huck, he is a great reader of romance: particularly Dumas. He is also, although only some 12 years old, interested in the other kind of romance: notably his sweetheart Becky Thatcher. Twain went on to use Tom in other fictions and he inspired the most famous of British outlaw boy heroes, Richmal Crompton’s William Brown.
John Sutherland

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John Updike: Couples (196 8)

Updike’s infamous portrayal of sexual promiscuity among the surburban middle classes remains one of his most controversial novels. Set in the fictional Boston town of Tarbox, it focuses on a small circle of friends, sexually permissive in the “post-pill paradise” of 1960s America. A huge commercial success, Couples also caused outrage among commentators who attacked its unashamed fascination with adultery and sexual hedonism. The furore led to Updike’s instant notoriety and his face on the cover of Time magazine. Forty years on, the novel is often credited with revolutionising the depiction of sex in literary fiction.
Charlotte Stretch

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Vassilis Vassilikos: Z (1967)

A study of the military dictatorship which ruled Greece in the 1960s, Z revolves around the assassination of Grigoris Lambrakis, a democratic
politician killed by right-wing extremists in 1963. Vassilikos’s close examination of political corruption had a strong impact, and as a direct result of it the letter “Z” — from the Greek word zei, meaning “he is alive” — became a slogan for political activists. The letter, as well as the book, was banned by the junta. Z’s influence was amplified by Costa Gavras’s Oscar-winning film adaptation, which was released two years after the book was published.
Charlotte Stretch

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Irvine Welsh: Trainspotting (1993)

Try to put the 1996 film out of your mind. This is a darker work; when it came out, its portrayal of Scottish junkies and psychopaths was seen by many as more an indictment of Tory-run Britain than a hip black comedy. But its use of the Scots vernacular, inspired by James Kelman, is superb and Renton, Spud, Begbie and the rest of the gang have been welcomed into the national consciousness.
Nichola Lezard


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Nathanael West: The Day of the Locust (1939)

The whole world is a soundstage for the clowns, tragedians and showgirls of this black-as-pitch Hollywood farce. Rattling around the fringes of the film industry, they play-act their lives then get violent when the reality doesn’t live up to he fantasy. We wouldn’t want to live in the kind of culture that West leads us through. But somehow, we suspect, we do.
Xan Brooks

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Rebecca West: The Return of the Soldier (191 8)

West’s small masterpiece centres on three women who in their different ways love Chris Baldry, a first world war captain sent home because of shellshock. Amnesia makes him forget his beautiful wife Kitty, fixing instead on the dowdy and socially inferior Margaret from whom he had parted 15 years before. The repercussions of his illness, and his brutal cure, are described with insight in prose as elegant and precise as the world of the Edwardian country house in which their tragedy takes place.
Joanna Hines

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Edith Wharton: The House of Mirth (1905)

Wharton is at her magnificent, merciless best here as she punishes her heroine Lily Bart for putting riches and status before love. Bart, a ravishing socialite in turn-of-the-century New York, sets out to find a husband who can keep her in luxurious living — and ends up a disgraced, debt-ridden suicide. The novel witheringly shows the savage side of high society, an impeccably mannered world of bridge and betrayal that simply spits Bart out. Terence Davies’ film, which appeared in 2000 with Gillian Anderson as the lead, was shot in Glasgow.
Andrew Gilchrist

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Tom Wolfe: The Bonfire of the Vanities (1987)

Sherman McCoy is a Wasp Wall Street banker inding it hard to get by on $1m a year. Furtively picking up his mistress from JFK, McCoy loses his way in the South Bronx, where he runs down a young black man. His victim is neglected to death in the nearby public hospital. The remainder of the novel deals with the destruction of McCoy by the various special-interest groups who run New York (Jewish politicians, Irish policemen, lack populists, the Gay Fist Strike Force) and by the gutter ress. He ends up “a career defendant” and — in an ambiguous climax — radically politicised.
John Sutherland

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novels of the family & self (?) that everyone must read (according to the guardian)

January 21, 2009 · 1 Comment

Kobo Abe: The Face of Another (1964)

Unrecognisably disfigured by “leech-like” scars after a laboratory accident, the scientist who narrates Abe’s disturbing novel embarks on a mission to replace his face with a convincingly life-like mask. He finds, however, that his sense of self cannot be so mechanically restored with pigment and silicone. An uncanny intellectual horror, this post-Hiroshima Metamorphosis looks beyond the surface of identity and social interaction, making the skin – and the mind – crawl.
Victoria Segal

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Louisa May Alcott: Little Women (186 8)

A novel about the March sisters (Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy) growing up in Massachusetts at the time of the civil war which has, over the years, come to be seen an archetypal depiction of girls growing up everywhere. The novel tracks a series of domestic crises: Jo (closest in character to the author) is obliged to cut off and sell her crowning glory, her hair. Meg, the oldest, goes off to be a governess – very unhappily. Beth dies from scarlet fever. Amy is the youngest, and the family pet. The narrative follows the March girls into later life and marriage. Sentimental, but irresistible; the novel shows Alcott to be one of the great storytellers of fiction, and not just for girls growing up.
John Sutherland

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Kate Atkinson: Behind the Scenes at the Museum (1995)

“As a family we are genetically predisposed towards having accidents – being run over and blown up are the two most common.” So says Ruby Lennox, born to the reluctant Bunty as her father, George, drinks to a good day at the races. The jaunty tone of Ruby’s recollections belies a catastrophic family history stretching back to 1888, when great-grandmother Alice was photographed, shortly before her death – giving birth to her sixth child. As one reviewer wrote of this Whitbread book of the year, which breathed a rude new life into English regional fiction: “If you tot up the deaths and other tragedies in this feisty first novel, it seems almost rude to find it so amusing and delightful.”
Claire Armitstead

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Margaret Atwood: Cat’s Eye (198 8)

A retrospective exhibition prompts artist Elaine Risley to recollect a 1950s childhood spent at one with her scientist parents in the Canadian wilderness and at odds with her conformist contemporaries. A beautifully observed novel about an awkward child finding a mature means of expression in a country coping with similar challenges. Few writers have explored the vicissitudes of female friendship with as much acuity as Atwood does here: the intimacies, the rewards, the rivalries and the shockingly casual cruelty of little girls.
Chris Ross

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Nicholson Baker: Room Temperature (1990)

Baker’s first novel, Mezzanine, turned a lunch hour into a miniature contemplative epic, and Room Temperature pulls a similar trick, following a father and daughter through 20 minutes of bottle-feeding on an autumn afternoon. Nothing much happens, which is very much the point; instead, digressions on Debussy, peanut butter, nose-picking, punctuation and aeroplanes pepper the narrative as Baker explores the parent-baby relationship in a touching spell of prolonged navel-gazing.
James Smart

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Honoré de Balzac: Eugénie Grandet (1833)

In this classic of 19th-century realism, Eugénie, the daughter of a wealthy but miserly wine merchant, spends her life in joyless, spartan seclusion – until her 23rd birthday, when her dandyish cousin Charles suddenly arrives from Paris. They fall in love, but his father – Grandet’s brother – has killed himself after being ruined financially, and Grandet will not countenance his daughter’s marriage to her penniless cousin. Eugénie’s determination to follow her heart leads her into direct conflict with her father, who orders Charles to go to the West Indies to seek his fortune and not to return. He, however, has different ideas. Eugénie Grandet gave Balzac his first great success – and the idea for the grand series of interlinked novels that became the Comédie Humaine.
Adam Newey

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Honoré de Balzac: Le Père Goriot (1835)

Set in 1819 in a Parisian boarding house, where Old Goriot is the butt of his fellow boarders’ mockery for having bankrupted himself through supporting his well-off married daughters. One of the boarders, the student Rastignac, forms an attachment to Goriot’s daughter Delphine, which the older man encourages. When the other daughter, Anastasie, reveals to Goriot the vast debts racked up by her lover, he collapses with a stroke. Neither daughter visits their father on his deathbed, and, Lear-like, he rages against their lack of filial love. It is left to Rastignac and a servant to attend the old man’s funeral. It was this novel in which Balzac pioneered the use of characters from previous volumes in the Comédie Humaine.
AN

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Iain Banks: The Crow Road (1992)

“It was the day my grandmother exploded” … Iain Banks’s novel boasts one of the most striking opening lines in English literature. More impressively, what follows avoids any whiff of anticlimax, as student Prentice McHoan returns to the bosom of his family to investigate the disappearance of a beloved uncle. The crow road is a reference to death, and Banks has his usual morbid fun imagining the possibilities, from a banal car crash to a frankly flamboyant lightning bolt.
Phil Daoust

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Lynne Reid Banks: The L-Shaped Room (1960)

Banks’s compassionate first novel examines the stigma of unmarried motherhood in pre-pill, pre-Abortion Act Britain. When 27-year-old Jane Graham discovers she is pregnant, she is patronised by her doctor, rejected by her father and forced to hole up in a bed-bug-riddled Fulham boarding house. This new world’s gentle bohemia offers the stirrings of an alternative to musty postwar mores. While the social climate has changed drastically since publication, a transgressive frisson still crackles from the pages.
VS

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Sybille Bedford: A Legacy (1956)

Novelist, crime reporter, biographer, journalist, travel writer, wine connoisseur and linguist, Sibylle Bedford – the daughter of an Italian princess and a German aristocrat – had an exotic childhood that gave her the basis for this, her first and greatest novel. It tells the story of two rich German families and of a Catholic-Jewish marriage and military scandal in pre-1914 Germany. All is observed with a sharp and comic eye and narrated in a style at once satiric, touching and dramatic. You can read it again and again, and still wonder at its perfection.
Carmen Callil

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Saul Bellow: Herzog (1964)

“If I am out of my mind, it’s all right with me.” Herzog starts as it means to go on. Bellow’s novel is a deconstruction, an act of unburdening, an anguished, back-and-forth voyage round the fracturing psyche of an American intellectual. Reeling from his second divorce and marooned in a ramshackle New England hideaway, Moses E Herzog pens a series of score-settling, self-justifying missives to enemies alive and dead, real and imagined. Bellow unpicks his hero, turns the pieces to the light, and then – in a final act of clemency – provides the tools by which he might put himself together again.
Xan Brooks

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Saul Bellow: Humboldt’s Gift (1975)

This masterly novel was arguably the trigger for Bellow’s Nobel prize the following year: a fluid, funny and immensely entertaining account of the fractious relationship between eccentric poet Von Humboldt Fleisher and his (unmistakably Bellow-like) protege, Charlie Citrine. Fleisher, in all his glorious failure, is a character study based on the writer Delmore Schwartz; Citrine, a much cannier figure, successfully grapples with what Bellow calls “the moronic inferno” (yes, that’s where Martin Amis got the title).
Andrew Pulver

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Arnold Bennett: The Old Wives’ Tale (190 8)

Bennett’s masterpiece, which recalls the best of French realism from Flaubert to Zola, has, according to JB Priestley, “two suffering heroines, Constance and Sophia Baines, and three conquering heroes, Time, Mutability and Death”. Sisters Constance and Sophia are middle-class young women of the Potteries. Sophia heads to Paris in search of adventure; Constance remains behind in Bursley. In the end, after many vicissitudes, the sisters are reunited: there are few more moving accounts of the effects of time, the passage of history and the slow encroachment of age than this remarkable, epic novel.
Charlotte Higgins

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John Berger: G. (1972)

Explicit, fractured and desperately highbrow, G. was a bold choice as winner of the 1972 Booker prize. Berger repaid the honour by raging at its sponsors and donating half his fee to the Black Panthers. The author’s passionate Marxism echoes through this dense, intriguing novel, which follows the bastard son of an Italian merchant from the end of the 19th century to the first world war, and from ignorance to political awakening, as forays into critical theory and art history sit alongside visceral descriptions of riots, sex and aeroplane flights.
JSM

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Thomas Bernhard: Extinction (1986)

The end of the line, in more ways than one: Extinction was not only Bernhard’s last novel, it also deals with one man’s ferocious desire to extinguish the poisonous legacy left by his family and his country. The narrator, Franz-Josef Murau, has made a new life for himself in Rome. When his parents and brother are killed in a car crash he is forced to return to Austria to take charge of the family estate. A masterpiece of vitriol that is, despite its death-drive, oddly exhilarating.
VS

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Jane Bowles: Two Serious Ladies (1943)

“I have my own star to follow,” says Miss Goering to Andy, as she abandons him for another. Mrs Copperfield, her fellow heroine, bangs her fist on the table and bellows: “I have gone to pieces, which is a thing I’ve wanted to do for years.” Two women of splendid eccentricity traverse the world in pursuit of independence, their adventures recounted to us in singular and hilarious dialogue, behind them winking the unnerving and paradoxical eye of Jane Bowles. A stroke at the age of 40 silenced this mistress of absurdist comedy. This is her only novel.
CC

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William Boyd: Any Human Heart (2002)

Spanning some seven decades of the 20th century, these are the “intimate journals” of Logan Mountstuart, author, spy, art dealer and dedicated social animal. In the course of his life he meets famous writers – Woolf, Joyce, and Hemingway, among others – and cultivates celebrated artists (some real, some invented). He also manages to observe first-hand many of the tumultuous events of the century, from the Spanish civil war to the conflict in Biafra. The journal form allows the narrator to grow older. The novel is split into nine imaginary volumes, each with its different voice, from the affected drawl of the schoolboy to the wry misanthropy of old age.
JM

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Hermann Broch: The Death of Virgil (1945)

In the port city of Brundisium, the Roman poet Virgil lies on his deathbed. Broch’s stream-of-consciousness novel, divided into four symphonic movements, takes place mostly within the mind of the dying poet in his final 18 hours, from his arrival in Brundisium, to his decision to destroy his greatest creation, the Aeneid, and the emperor Augustus’s struggle to persuade him otherwise, to his final acceptance of death. In feverish, hallucinatory prose and poetry, Broch presents the poet’s reflections on art, statecraft, history and aesthetics. Broch — whom George Steiner has called the greatest European novelist since Joyce — began the novel in 1938 while under arrest following the Nazi anschluss of his native Austria.
AN

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Fanny Burney: Evelina (177 8)

“To read Fanny Burney,” wrote the critic Walter Allen, “is rather like having a mouse’s view of the world of cats: the cats are very terrifying, but the mouse’s sense of the ridiculous could not be keener.” Burney’s first novel, published anonymously, tells in epistolary form the story of a young woman’s entrance into the world. After her mother’s death, Evelina is brought up in rural seclusion by the kindly Rev Arthur Villars. At the suggestion that she should “see something of the world”, we follow her social initiation in London and Bristol, and her consequent moral education through the tests of experience (such as how not to read a love letter). Burney, whose observant wit anticipates the satire of Austen and Thackeray, captures the manners and affectations of the fashionable, the aspirational and the vulgar with comic relish, and leaves the reader judging the worth of those who ruthlessly pursue the status quo.
JM

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Samuel Butler: The Way of All Flesh (1903)

The most savagely intelligent critique of Victorian ideology to be found in Victorian fiction. The story covers four generations of the Pontifexes (so called for the parents’ habit of laying down the law). The central character is young Ernest – as Wilde sarcastically noted, the archetypal Victorian name. Bullied by his priggish father, Ernest becomes an Anglican clergyman, serving a religion he hates. He mistakes a decent young lady for a prostitute and vents 23 years of evangelical repression on her. He is sent to prison for sexual assault. It is ruin, but it is also liberation. On his release he is no longer respectable but can live his life in freedom, outside society. As, of course, did the lifelong iconoclast Samuel Butler.
JS

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Ron Butlin: The Sound of My Voice (1987)

Is there a better novel about alcoholism than this? A perfectly ordinary man, executive at a biscuit firm, takes us through his days in the second-person singular: “You are 34 years old and already two-thirds destroyed.” He gets by on nips of brandy and gin – a sharpener at breakfast, a reward at lunchtime, a necessity at dinner. His wife and children look on, bewildered and pitying, but he can hardly see them through the haze of pain. Irvine Welsh called this “one of the greatest pieces of fiction to come out of Britain in the 80s”; it deserves rediscovery.
Carrie O’Grady

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Angela Carter: Wise Children (1991)

The musicals of Busby Berkeley, Shakespeare’s every play and the tapping feet of Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire echo through this exuberant and comic novel in which 75-year-old dancing twins, Dora and Nora Chance, tell us the story of themselves and two great theatrical dynasties, the Hazards and the Chances. A family saga like no other, magical, bawdy, affectionate, wild, questioning and wise. Angela Carter died of cancer aged 51. This is the last of her extraordinary works of fiction, as challenging, comic and dazzling as she was.
CC

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Willa Cather: The Professor’s House (1925)

What happens when a great idea is cashed in for dollars and cents and the life of the mind is turned into bricks and mortar? Cather’s novel precisely delineates the clash between materialism and idealism, following disillusioned professor Godfrey St Peter as he hides out in his decrepit study to avoid moving into the new house he has built for himself. Sitting among his papers, he recalls his beloved student Tom Outland, a man who, in death, has been reduced to no more than a destructive financial legacy and a dangerously “glittering idea”.
VS

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John Cheever: The Wapshot Chronicle (1957)

The Wapshots are a dysfunctional brood, descended from pioneer stock and clinging to a faded respectability on the coast of New England. Cheever’s debut novel is skittish, mercurial and ringing with life. It corrals the protagonists into a bawdy, boisterous family album, details the humiliations of the hapless, seafaring Leander and then casts his wayward sons, Moses and Coverly, out into the wider world. Inevitably they run aground.
XB

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Kate Chopin: The Awakening (1899)

Described as a “Creole Bovary” by Willa Cather, Chopin’s story of Edna Pontellier, a young mother beating her wings against the cage of domesticity, was dismissed as “vulgar”, “unhealthy” and “morbid” by other contemporary reviewers. Suffused with a sensuous yet sickly fin-de-siècle light, the novel follows the New Orleans housewife as she rejects the bonbons, sewing and soft furnishings of the respectable female world and embarks upon a treacherous course of adultery and art in an attempt to free her soul.
VS

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Jean Cocteau: Les Enfants Terribles (1929)

Knocked down by a snowball flung by a cruel boy he doted on, Parisian adolescent Paul turns his back on reality and cocoons himself in a room with his sister Elisabeth. Together they explore the “vast realm of the improbable”, squabbling and role-playing their way to a charged intimacy. When Paul falls in love, tragedy beckons. Cocteau’s novel of imagination, isolation and dependence is as intense and self-conscious as its protagonists, and left WH Auden with a “lasting feeling of happiness”.
JSM

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Colette: The Vagabond (1910)

This was the first novel Colette published under her own name rather than her first husband’s. A mordantly observed tale about a divorcee who supports herself as a music-hall artiste and mime, and acquires an admirer, it appeared in serial form during her own separation from “Willy” (Henri Gauthier-Villars) and forays into music hall-funded independence. Erica Jong called it one of the first and best feminist novels ever written, and it is thrilling for its tough, poetic illumination of a woman’s struggle to decide between convention and independence.
Aida Edemariam

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Ivy Compton-Burnett: Manservant and Maidservant (1947)

Herself the product of a large and difficult Edwardian family, Ivy Compton-Burnett devoted her considerable intelligence and incisive wit to 20 novels in which she rarely used anything except dialogue to narrate black tales of family life. Manservant and Maidservant, typical of the titles she gave to these studies of domestic villainy, is the story of a Victorian pater familias, Horace, a model of piety who devotes his energies to making his household wretched. A brilliant novel of the family as tug-of-war, recounted in her hallmark style: repartee we associate today with the plays of Harold Pinter. CC

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Jim Crace: Being Dead (1999)

A couple visit the sand dunes where they first made love and are murdered by a stranger. From this flatly brutal opening, Crace’s novel moves backwards, through the details of their marriage, and forwards, as their daughter joins the police in a search for their decaying, gull-pecked corpses. These separate strands allow Crace both to portray two imperfect lives and explore death, in its physical realities and in the myths and mechanisms we build up around it.
JSM

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Jim Crace: Quarantine (1997)

The biblical Christ went into the desert alone to wrestle with Satan, but here Crace imagines “a community of people on the edge”, drawn to the wilderness for their own reasons. A barren wife wishes for a child, a cancer sufferer for respite, a gentile for enlightenment. When bullying merchant Musa is close to death, Jesus saves his life – and Musa’s wickedness comes to shadow the group. Crace is interested in Jesus, of course, but this is an ensemble piece, and the pilgrims’ relationships and struggles define this vivid work.
JSM

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Daniel Defoe: Roxana (1724)

The title by which Defoe’s last novel is now known is but one of its narrator’s pseudonyms. Abandoned by her husband, she has embarked on life as a mistress, using her charms to obtain one affluent protector after another. Children are shed along the way (though one of them returns at the novel’s dark end to claim her mother back). Her one trusted confidante is her maid Amy, her shrewd adviser in the ensnaring of eligible men. Even Charles II falls for her. She tells her story, however, in self-condemning retrospect, chastened by the “Calamities” that have followed her pursuit of mere fortune.
JM

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Charles Dickens: Great Expectations (1861)

Dickens’s finest exploration of the cost paid for rising in the world. Pip, who tells his own story, is an orphan, brought up by his callous elder sister and her amiable blacksmith husband, Jo. Visiting his parents’ graves, Pip is accosted by an escaped convict, whom he aids, before the man is recaptured and transported. Pip is later taken up by Miss Havisham, a woman maddened by having been jilted on her wedding day. She has trained her young ward, Estella, to break men’s hearts. Pip comes into mysterious wealth. It is from Miss Havisham, he assumes. In fact, it is from the convict, Magwitch. Pip becomes ever more snobbish, until his great expectations crash. Dickens was uncertain whether to end the novel happily or unhappily. Happily won out.
JS

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Fyodor Dostoevsky: The Brothers Karamazov (1880)

Dostoevsky’s profound and pessimistic final novel polarises opinions. For Freud it was “the most magnificent book ever written”. Joseph Conrad called this epic of patricide, jealousy and spiritualism “terrifically bad”. Wayward father Fyodor argues over women and money with his feckless eldest son Dmitri, while middle brother Ivan rages against the world and grounded Alyosha looks on. The narrative voice shifts and skips, leaving the focus of the novel less on Fyodor’s eventual murder and more upon its implications for society.
JSM

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Margaret Drabble: The Millstone (1965)

Rosamund Stacey knows a great deal about 16th-century poets but surprisingly little, considering the 60s are just starting to swing, about sex or real life. All this changes when she finds herself pregnant after a single encounter with a man she had assumed to be gay. The narrator describes with ruthless honesty the perils and joys of single parenthood in an era when people still talked of “the slur of illegitimacy”, but when baby Octavia is diagnosed with a heart defect, Stacey discovers that Ben Jonson’s “pretty” words on the death of his son – “my sin was too much hope of thee” – is grounded in terrible reality.
Joanna Hines

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Gerald Durrell: My Family and Other Animals (1956)

Durrell’s account of his childhood idyll on a Greek island brought Mediterranean warmth and colour to a war-weary Britain when first published and it has lost none of its charm since. The fledgling naturalist’s eccentric family – impossible Larry, gun-toting Leslie and Margot the perennially lovelorn, together with their gently bewildered mother – do battle with an ever-increasing procession of pets such as Quasimodo the musical pigeon, Geronimo the gecko and a family of scorpions. Vivid and funny, this shows the people, landscape and fauna of Corfu as they might have been, never will be again, but ought to be for ever.
JH

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Shusaku Endo: Silence (1966)

Endo’s stark, strange theological novel looks back to 17th-century Japan to raise an enduring question: why does God remain “with folded arms, silent”, in the face of human suffering? Telling the story of Fr Rodrigues, a Portuguese Jesuit who follows his missionary vocation to Japan at a time of violent religious persecution, Silence is a compelling historical fiction, a potent distillation of the paradoxes and ambiguities of faith and, from a Christian author, a daring challenge to religious orthodoxy.
VS

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Anne Enright: The Gathering (2007)

Enright won the Man Booker prize for this uneasy novel about a large Irish family coming together for the funeral of a brother who may or may not have as a child, but certainly drank. There isn’t a lot of consolation to be found in their wary, damaged gathering – except in the prose, and the vision it reveals, which is brave, fierce and clear-sighted about blood, lust and loss. AE

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Jeffrey Eugenides: Middlesex (2002)

“I was born twice: first, as a baby girl on a remarkably smogless Detroit day in January of 1960; and then again, as a teenage boy, in an emergency room near Petovsky, Michigan, in August of 1974.” So opens the story of Calliope Stephanides, inheritor of a rare genetic condition that has followed her grandparents to the US from the ruins Ottoman empire. In his Pulitzer prizewinner, Eugenides tells a coming-of-age story that is also the genetically tangled story of America itself.
CA

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William Faulkner: As I Lay Dying (1930)

Even its author was compelled to refer to this novel – written in a mere six weeks – as a “tour de force”. Split into 59 linguistically arresting monologues delivered by 15 characters, this touchstone of southern gothic follows the surviving members of Mississippi’s dysfunctional Bundren family as they carry the coffin of their wife and mother to her final resting place. The narrative fragments slowly gather into a dark whole, creating a rare and oppressive psychological intimacy.
VS

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Richard Ford: The Sportswriter (1986)

Divorced following the death of his 11-year old son, Frank Bascombe believes his life is adequate and that “terrible, searing regret” must be avoided at all costs. This novel’s question might be: but at what cost? Ford’s breakthrough book is a profoundly affecting study of deepening despair. Seldom has a writer communicated the emotions suppressed behind white picket fences on suburban streets with such tact and lyricism. Bascombe has become a kind of American everyman in Ford’s subsequent novels; this is his first and most memorable outing.
CR

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EM Forster: Howards End (1910)

The follies of the Edwardian middle classes are laid bare in Forster’s story of three families at the turn of the 20th century. The Wilcoxes are a snooty colonial dynasty with a house at Howards End. Their careless sense of superiority is both appalling and fascinating to the half-German Schlegel siblings, who belong to an intellectual bourgeoisie not a million miles from the Bloomsbury group. Well-meaning but blinkered, the Schlegels patronise bank clerk Leonard Bast, thus entangling him catastrophically with the snobbery and dishonesty of the Wilcoxes and casting an ironic light on the novel’s famous rallying cry: “Only connect!”
CA

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Michael Frayn: Spies (2002)

A visit to the suburbs where he grew up takes the ageing Stephen Wheatley back to a traumatic episode in his wartime childhood, when he and his best friend, Keith, played a disastrous spying game. Believing Keith’s mother to be a German spy, the two boys uncover dangerous secrets that are closer to home than they could ever have imagined. In this Whitbread award-winner, Frayn recreates a world in which war has demolished the boundaries between childish fantasy and adult reality.
CA

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Esther Freud: Hideous Kinky (1992)

Even without illicit tastes of hashish candy, travelling around 60s Morocco with a free-spirited mother is an intoxicating rush for the five-year-old narrator of Freud’s first novel. Based on the author’s bohemian childhood, it deploys its heroine’s guileless curiosity to expose the childishness of adults struggling to “find themselves” and the natural conservatism of the children in their wake. Amid the benign post-hippy squalor, the narrator asks her sister, Bea, what she would like to be when she grows up. “I don’t know,” she replies. “Normal, I think.”
VS

John Galsworthy: The Man of Property (1906)

“Those privileged enough to be present at a family festival of the Forsytes have seen that charming and instructive sight – an upper middle-class family in full plumage.” Galsworthy’s introduction to the Forsyte clan focuses on the miserable marriage of the enigmatic “heathen goddess” Irene to the ghastly, domineering Soames. Through her subsequent love for the young bohemian Bosinney and Soames’s violent reaction to the threat of losing his prized possession, Galsworthy nails his socialist and feminist principles to the mast.
Nicola Barr

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Elizabeth Gaskell: Mary Barton (184 8)

Gaskell’s first novel sets out many of the themes that would resonate throughout her later fiction, notably the divide between rich and poor in industrialising societies. In this Manchester-set tale of love, murder and family secrets, contentious topics such as Chartism and prostitution are tackled unflinchingly, which made some early readers reject the book as unnecessarily coarse. Gaskell, however, was sufficiently a woman (and writer) of her time to ensure that her heroine remained as pure as the driven snow.
Kathryn Hughes

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André Gide: The Immoralist (1902)

Michel leads the life of an exemplary academic until tuberculosis almost kills him.incestuous Greek been abused With recovery comes a taste for more sensual pleasures, so, accompanied by his wife, the devoutly religious Marceline, he heads for north Africa, driven in part by an awakening of homosexual desires. But his newfound freedom and rejection of the values and society that he once held dear present him with difficult choices, forcing him to question the nature of decency and personal responsibility.
David Newnham

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Oliver Goldsmith: The Vicar of Wakefield (1766)

Funnier (and considerably shorter) than most 18th-century classics, Goldsmith’s only novel centres on Dr Primrose, a good-hearted country parson whose rustic bliss is rudely shattered by his family’s efforts to live beyond their station. Vice is punished and virtue – as Goldsmith’s age understood it – rewarded by the buoyantly improbable plot, with “one detail after another”, as George Orwell put it, “clicking into place like the teeth of a zip”. As with Jane Austen, it’s made all the more enjoyable by its heavily cash-based notion of morality, not to mention its somewhat pre-feminist take on marriage.
Chris Taylor

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Graham Greene: The Power and the Glory (1940)

In this novel of guilt, sin and the power of grace, an unnamed priest goes on the run in southern Mexico in the 1930s, a time when the government is brutally suppressing the Catholic church. Leading the anti-clerical crackdown is the ideologically driven lieutenant of police (also unnamed). On his travels, the priest encounters figures from his past – including the village woman with whom he fathered a girl – as well as assorted expats and indigenes, one of whom – known simply as the Mestizo – he knows will be his Judas. John Updike, among others, has acclaimed this novel as Greene’s masterpiece.
Adam Newey

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Knut Hamsun: Hunger (1890)

Embarking on an unholy fast on the streets of Christiania, Hamsun’s extraordinary hero is the very model of the starving artist. At one point reduced to begging a butcher for a bone to gnaw on, weeping and vomiting, he still refuses to rejoin the society that might feed him, pushing against his own mental and physical limitations until he sheds his identity along with his skin. Hunger can be seen as a runway into 20th-century modernism, proposing, as Paul Auster has written, “some new thought about the nature of art”.
Victoria Segal

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LP Hartley: The Shrimp and the Anemone (1944)

The vividly evocative account of a childhood summer spent on the Norfolk coast at the turn of the 20th century by the timid, impressionable invalid Eustace and his strong-willed elder sister Hilda, who is determined to imbue her brother with a sense of duty and moral responsibility. The powerful opening scene on the beach prefigures their destiny: Hilda tries to rescue a shrimp from a sea anemone, and in the process destroys both. Part one of Hartley’s Eustace and Hilda trilogy.
AN

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Ernest Hemingway: The Old Man and the Sea (1952)

“I went out too far,” says the old Cuban fisherman, looking at the shark-ruined carcass of the giant fish it has taken him three agonising days to catch. As compelling as a hook in the throat, Hemingway’s novella is an elemental fable of humanity at the extremes of endurance, reduced to one frail figure surrounded by an ocean of hidden forces. Despite baiting his tale with irresistible symbolism, however, the author took a different view of it: “The sea is the sea. The old man is an old man.”
VS

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Hermann Hesse: Steppenwolf (1927)

Harry Haller, a middle-aged loner, is handed a pamphlet titled Treatise on the Steppenwolf, which addresses him by name and appears to describe his own struggle to resolve the two poles of his character: the spiritual and the animalistic. A chance meeting with a young woman, Hermine, leads him into an episode of gratifying debauchery, before a hallucinatory and disturbing denouement at the “magic theatre” of the saxophonist Pablo, where Harry kills Hermine and finds himself being judged by Mozart. Hesse drew heavily on Buddhist thought for this novel, which he considered “more often and more violently misunderstood” than any of his other books.
AN

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Hermann Hesse: Narziss and Goldmund (1930)

A novel that dramatises Nietzsche’s conception of the Apollonian and the Dionysian. At the medieval monastery of Mariabronn, the restless Goldmund realises he isn’t cut out for a cloistered life under the tutelage of his friend and mentor, the ascetic Narziss, and so begins a series of travels that see him work his way through most of the seven deadly sins before finding a psychic resolution of sorts in an apprenticeship to a master sculptor. Only by feeding his appetite for worldly experience does Goldmund finally find the courage to face death.
AN

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Thomas Hughes: Tom Brown’s School Days (1857)

The novel that announced to the world the revolution brought about by Dr Thomas Arnold at Rugby. The great headmaster is seldom seen, but looms over the narrative “like the god in a Greek play”. Tom, a nine-year-old squire’s son is dispatched to Rugby, where he is befriended by Harry “Scud” East, morally improved by saintly George Arthur, and tormented by bully Harry Flashman, whom the plucky young heroes eventually best. The main events in the novel are football, cross-country running, fishing, feasting and various innocent scrapes. At the end of the last term, Tom captains his school cricket team against the MCC. The novel ends with Arnold’s death. Contemporary readers have found Flashman (as immortalised by George MacDonald Fraser) less odious than did Hughes.
John Sutherland

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John Irving: A Prayer for Owen Meany (1989)

Abnormally short, afflicted with a curious speech impediment and responsible for the inadvertent baseball-inflicted death of his best friend’s mother, Owen Meany is an unlikely instrument of God. Against a backdrop of the Vietnam war, however, this “little doll” takes on the status of a heroic colossus, ultimately becoming a thoroughly modern martyr. Taking Irving’s New Hampshire whimsy and adding a spiritual twist, this novel explores faith, friendship and predestination with an alluring sweetness and charm.
VS

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Henry James: The Ambassadors (1903)

“Live all you can; it’s a mistake not to.” It’s no wonder that Lewis Lambert Strether, the 50-something protagonist, speaks with such passion: when he is sent to Paris to rescue Chad, the son of the formidable Mrs Newsome, from big city Bohemia, the old-world glamour sets him wondering whether his whole life has been wasted. It’s this doubt that ruins both his mission and his future, leaving him balanced on the precarious cusp between comedy and tragedy.
VS

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Henry James: Washington Square (1880)

Catherine Sloper is James’s Fanny Price, a heroine notable for her anti-heroic qualities: passivity, plainness, average intelligence. And this is, indeed, something of an anti-love story. The hero may be dashing and handsome, but his penury arouses the suspicion of Catherine’s father, a successful New York doctor who, though disappointed in his only daughter, had intended to provide her with thirty thousand a year. No one in this tartly written early novel comes out well, except perhaps Catherine, who discovers modest reserves of dignity and stoicism.
Aida Edemariam

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Elizabeth Jenkins: The Tortoise and the Hare (1954)

This is a novel about a love triangle. Imogen, 37, is married to Evelyn, 52, a barrister and a living testament to the qualities and habits of life that have made the reputation of the English southern counties. Their next-door neighbour is 50-year-old Blanche Silcox, festooned in tweeds, stout of body and firm of mind. As atmospheric as Graham Greene, beautifully written, enigmatic and exquisite, it eternally puts the question: who is the Tortoise, who the Hare?
Carmen Callil

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BS Johnson: The Unfortunates (1969)

A sports journalist, sent to a Midlands town on a weekly assignment, finds his attempts to report a football match interrupted by memories of a close and trusted friend who died young of cancer. Johnson’s famous “book in a box” has 27 chapters, which are printed individually and can be read in any order. At the time of writing it, Johnson was earning his living as a jobbing football reporter for the Observer. Published in 1969, the fourth of his seven novels, The Unfortunates offers a frank self-portrait which is also a meditation on mortality, a celebration of friendship and one of the key works of the experimental fiction of the 60s.
Claire Armitstead

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James Joyce: A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916)

“It’s damn well written,” Ezra Pound wrote to HL Mencken in 1915, describing the serialised version of Portrait of the Artist; later, he would predict the that the book would “remain a permanent part of English literature”. Both assertions now look like understatement: Joyce’s depiction of the early Dublin life of Stephen Dedalus towers over modern literature, providing a stylistic blueprint and creative touchstone for artists young and old.
VS

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Molly Keane: Good Behaviour (1981)

Aroon St Charles doesn’t seem best suited to telling her family’s story in a “big house” novel: she fears Mummie’s iciness, but can’t think how she ended up like that; she notices Papa’s absences but doesn’t realise he’s having affairs with everyone from Cook to the unmarried twins in the village; she joins her beloved brother Hubert and best friend Richard for pre-dinner cocktails but doesn’t see she’s gooseberry. But Aroon perfectly illustrates the Anglo-Irish aristocratic philosophy that gives this Booker-shortlisted novel its name. Gloriously readable, it is darker, funnier and more satisfying than it at first appears.
Joanna Biggs

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Yashar Kemal: Memed, My Hawk (1955)

In the impoverished highlands of Anatolia, Slim Memed is driven by the cruelty of the local landowner to do battle with feudal injustice. He becomes a bandit-hero, championing the landless poor against their corrupt oppressors. Kemal’s first novel was praised by James Baldwin for “trying to find, to create, in his own country, a language for millions and millions of people whom no one’s ever heard of, whom no one has ever spoken for, and who cannot speak”.
CA

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Hanif Kureishi: The Buddha of Suburbia (1990)

Coming of age is enough of a challenge at the best of times, but Karim Amir has it harder than most. It’s the 1970s: he’s half-Indian, he’s gay, and his father is being egged on by Eva, his dynamic mistress, to set himself up as a prophet of eastern mystic values to plug the spiritual gap left by British materialism. The entire family is plunged into turmoil in a perceptive and highly entertaining novel that established Kureishi as one of the first British Asian writers to take his place in the literary mainstream.
Joanna Hines

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DH Lawrence: Sons and Lovers (1913)

With the working title of Paul Morel, this, Lawrence’s third novel, but his first major work, is the story of a young man growing up in a mining village in Lawrence’s native Nottinghamshire. First there is the lovely Miriam from a neighbouring farm with whom he enjoys long walks, conversation and much sexual tension, then the sensuous Clara with whom he finally gets some Lawrentian passion. But, in the end, neither of his lovers matches up to his mother. More Freudian than a psychoanalytic textbook, the novel was begun while Lawrence’s own beloved mother was dying of cancer. It remains an affecting portrait of a mining family torn apart by class divisions and individual desire at the turn of the century.
Lisa Allardice

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Laurie Lee: Cider with Rosie (1959)

Cider with Rosie is a heavily autobiographical account of a working-class childhood lived in the shadow of the first world war. Told in lyrical prose, it captures the sights and sounds of an agricultural Cotswold village as seen through the eyes of a small boy. In a thematic and anecdotal rather than strictly linear form, Lee creates memorable portraits of eccentric villagers, various local authority figures and, above all, his beloved mother and elder sisters. Some critics find the prose too lush, but the book remains hugely popular and has become a fixture on the school syllabus.
KH

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Rosamond Lehmann: Invitation to the Waltz (1932)

Olivia Curtis is 17, still living in the bosom of her family, but about to leave it for the adult world. Her older, more knowing sister Kate has already abandoned the adolescent sensitivities that pulse through Olivia as she is about to attend her first dance in a great English country house. Lehmann’s perfect understanding of the workings of the human heart turn this into a timeless portrait of every young girl leaving childhood behind for the capricious mysteries and merciful release of maturity — and sexual experience. Olivia’s story is continued in The Weather in the Streets.
CC

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Richard Llewellyn: How Green Was My Valley (1939)

The narrative of this English Grapes of Wrath, a tribute to the endurance of the Welsh working class in the 1930s slump, is told autobiographically by Huw Morgan. Huw is born into a tight-knit mining family, fiercely moral and fiercely socialist. Huw, a brilliant and precocious child, is injured rescuing his pregnant mother from drowning. As a result, he is late in attending school, where he is bullied and subjected to anti-Welsh prejudice. He nonetheless succeeds as a scholar. The novel ends with the death of Huw’s father in a graphically described pit collapse. We are to assume that Huw goes on to become a successful man of letters. The novel echoes Edward VIII’s anguished declaration, on visiting South Wales in 1936, that “something must be done”.
JS

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Jack London: Martin Eden (1909)

This fictional counterpart to London’s “alcoholic memoir”, John Barleycorn, is the most autobiographical of the author’s novels. By rigorous self-help and self-education, Martin raises himself from destitute family circumstances in San Francisco. Like London, he first follows the “adventure path” of life at sea. He aspires to be a writer, but finds the way barred to the unprivileged. His idiosyncratic socialism does not help. His attempt to win the higher-class Ruth Morse, whom he meets during a brief spell at Berkeley, is similarly unlucky. Finally Martin achieves literary success, only to find it not worth the achieving. The novel has a raw power and offers more insight into the two-fisted author than any of the biographies written about him.
JS

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Malcolm Lowry: Under the Volcano (1947)

Lowry’s masterpiece, one of only two novels published during a lifetime characterised by obsessions with literature and alcohol, was inspired – unsurprisingly – by a period of particularly dark alcoholic excess in Mexico. The novel is set on the Mexican Day of the Dead in 1936 and traces the last day in the life of Geoffrey Firmin, an ex-British consul drowning in mescal-soaked purgatory, and doing all he can to add to the misery of his ex-wife and brother. Lowry writes in a complex, allusive, symbolic, Joycean style, and leaves few lows untouched: “I think I know a good deal about physical suffering. But this is the worst of all, to feel your soul dying.”
NB

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Carson McCullers: The Member of the Wedding (1946)

Precocious, motherless 12-year-old Frankie Addams sits in the kitchen of her house in the small-town South and discusses with the family’s maid, Berenice, her brother’s forthcoming wedding and her longing to join him and his new wife on their honeymoon in Alaska. In a narrative that skips back and forth over the three days before the wedding, Frankie’s attempts to demonstrate her growing maturity – including agreeing to a date with a soldier, who tries to rape her – prove futile. Filmed most recently in 1997, with Anna Paquin as Frankie.
AN

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Naguib Mahfouz: Palace Walk (1956)

Mahfouz’s Cairo Trilogy tells the story of 20th-century Egypt from the first world war to Nasser’s overthrow of the old regime in 1952, as reflected in the well-to-do al-Jawad family. In this first volume, published in English in 1990, Ahmad, a prosperous shopkeeper, tyrannises his family and forbids his wife to leave the house. As his five very different children begin to challenge his rules and forge their own identities, they discover that their father is not as pious as he would have them believe.
CA

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Bernard Malamud: The Assistant (1957)

In this struggle for the American Dream in 1950s Brooklyn, the Russian-Jewish immigrant Morris Bober has fallen on hard times. A rival grocery store has opened, and to make ends meet his family is now relying on the daughter’s wages from her job as a secretary. After a violent robbery in the store, the Italian-American Frank Alpine is hired as Morris’s assistant and slowly falls for his daughter. The first and second generation come into conflict, and Morris’s desire for a better life comes with a dismissal of Frank based on class rather than true love.
Kohinoor Sahota

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Thomas Mann: Buddenbrooks (1901)

A mercantile family in the sober north of Germany gains commercial success but not inner peace as the weight of tradition and the drive to self-fulfilment forever pull in different directions. Set in the environment of his own upbringing, Nobel prizewinner Mann’s chronicle of 19th-century Germany has a cast of memorable characters, from the revolutionary romantic Morten Schwarzkopf to the bumbling Bavarian son-in-law Alois Permaneder. Completed shortly after the author’s 25th birthday and long before Mann’s characters started to talk like philosophy textbooks, this is as gripping and life-changing a family saga as they get.
PO

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William Maxwell: Chateau (1961)

In this Henry James-like adventure by a former fiction editor of the New Yorker, we follow the American couple Harold and Barbara Rhodes on a four-month trip to Europe. They are full of enthusiasm, eager to immerse themselves in French culture; but it’s 1945 and in this war-battered country they do not get the welcoming reception they had desired. The novel successfully depicts misunderstandings, isolation and disappointment: are they sensitive to local traditions? Are they laughing at the right jokes? Are they tipping too much?
KS

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FM Mayor: The Rector’s Daughter (1924)

Robert Herbert remembers Mary Jocelyn as a woman with an “intensity of feeling which rarely showed itself in her face, or even in her words”. Flora Mayor, her creator, had an uncanny sensitivity to the inner workings of that class of English women – so often the offspring of clergymen – who dwelt enclosed, and seemingly at peace, within the confines of upper-middle-class English life in the last century. Illuminated by a love story of great beauty, this novel exquisitely captures every nuance of a heart longing for love.
CC

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George Meredith: The Ordeal of Richard Feverel (1859)

Meredith’s novel was banned by the circulating libraries for the frankness of its sexual descriptions. The hero is raised according to a rigid system devised by his father, Sir Austin Feverel. It is tested to breaking point when the boy falls in love with Lucy Desborough, and secretly marries her. In London, Richard is seduced by a courtesan and Lucy attracts the dangerous attention of Lord Mountfalcon. The couple separate (a frequent event in Meredith’s fiction, reflecting his own broken marriage). In the climax, Richard is wounded in a duel. Lucy goes mad, while her husband lies paralysed – a triumph of his father’s system. The novel’s melodrama is filtered through a Meredithean style that, for those who have cultivated the taste, is sublime.
JS

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Rohinton Mistry: Family Matters (2002)

“To so many classes I taught Lear, learning nothing myself.” So laments Nariman Vakeel, a former professor in Bombay, now aged 79 and suffering from Parkinson’s disease. Infirmity makes him dependent first on his stepchildren, who feel, perhaps rightly, that he ruined their mother’s life, and then on his daughter Roxana and her family, who live in two rooms and have no money. The hideous intimacies of old age and decrepitude are described in unsparing detail by a writer with an eye for the small tragedies and epiphanies that constitute ordinary life.
JH

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Timothy Mo: Sour Sweet (1982)

In London’s Chinatown in the 1960s, there are clans and conflicts, ambition and the struggle for survival. The Chen family arrives from Hong Kong in the hope of establishing a successful restaurant, but that is threatened by the sinister triads. The novel cleverly contrasts the family’s mundane life with underworld violence. Mo, an Anglo-Chinese author, offers compassionate insight into the immigrant experience, and this, his second novel, was shortlisted for the Booker prize.
KS

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Brian Moore: The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne (1955)

Despite being written with an empathy that lends it some warmth, Moore’s exploration of loneliness comes with the authentic chill of nights spent alone in shabby bedsits. Newly resident in her latest Belfast boarding house, Judith Hearne loses herself in alcohol and fantasy, pinning her fading romantic hopes on the dashing, desperately unreliable figure of James Madden. Failings of religion, love, family, friends and, most damningly, the human mind are revealed with bleak clarity as Judith’s faith flows away like the dregs of a bottle of whiskey. The book was made into a Bafta-winning film starring Maggie Smith and Bob Hoskins.
VS

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Toni Morrison: The Bluest Eye (1970)

Toni Morrison’s first novel is set in her childhood town of Lorain during the Depression. It began as a short story about a school friend of Morrison’s who said she wanted blue eyes, despite how ridiculous this little black girl, who couldn’t see her own beauty, would look if she got her wish. “It was the first time I knew beautiful,’ Morrison has written. Her story of racial self-loathing tells the tale of poor, ugly, unloved Pecola, whose own mother favours the pretty white Shirley Temple daughters of the family she works for, who is raped by her father, bears his child and who eventually descends into madness through her longing for blue eyes. There is enough heartbreak and poetry in this slim novel to earn it’s place as one of the great African-American novel of the last century, but when it was first published in 1970 it was, as the author wrote in an afterword nearly 25 years later, “like Pecola’s life: dismissed, trivialised, misread” and was out of print by 1974. Since then critical and popular appreciation of Morrison has soared. She has won both the Nobel and the Pulitzer and is one of Barack Obama’s favourite authors. In 2000 The Bluest Eye was voted as an Oprah book club choice.
LA

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Toni Morrison: Song of Solomon (1977)

This Nobel prizewinner’s third novel was the first Oprah book club pick, and the fortunes of both are inextricably linked. It means that a significant proportion of the American population has read this strange, beautiful novel about African-American Macon Dead III – or Milkman (still being breastfed when his feet trailed on the floor) – and his moneyed family living in the South, his ethereal and silent sister Pilate, born without a navel, and his separation from his family in search of the rumoured family treasure. Exploring familial bonds and conflict, separated from the breathless Oprah rhetoric, this novel still sings.
NB

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Alice Munro: Who Do You Think You Are? (197 8)

Because the short stories in this volume are linked by the same characters, ambitious Rose and her small-town cynical stepmother Flo, Claire Tomalin won her determined argument for the book to be considered for the 1980 Booker prize (shortlisted, it lost to William Golding’s Rites of Passage.) If this is a list of the 1,000 books you should read, Munro ought to be in the top 20 at least: her deceptively direct and completely unfussy prose opens trapdoors into wide worlds of emotion, rebellion, the infinite complications of love.
AE

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Iris Murdoch: The Black Prince (1973)

Love, death, art and truth: when it comes to the big issues, this towering Murdoch novel has them all covered. Constructed with dazzling verve, it tells the story of Bradley Pearson, an ageing writer with a troublesome block, whose artistic peace of mind is overshadowed by the trials of his friends, Arnold and Rachel Baffin. Subtle and shifting, thanks to the playful inclusion of postscripts and forewords from the dramatis personae, The Black Prince shows the author at her formidable peak.
VS

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VS Naipaul: A House for Mr Biswas (1961)

Six-fingered and born in the wrong way, Mohun Biswas is destined, according to village lore, for a life of misfortune. When his family is exiled from its village after an unfortunate incident with a neighbour’s calf, Mr Biswas sets out on a lifelong search for a home of his own. He becomes a sign-writer and then a news reporter, and does battle with the suffocation of Hindu family life, only to end his days deeply in debt in a jerry-built house sold to him by an entrepreneur of the new Trinidad. The novel that made Naipaul’s name is a comic epic of survival against the odds in the postcolonial world.
CA

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Flann O’Brien: At Swim-Two-Birds (1939)

A man is writing a book about a man who is writing a book, which is about several strange characters. Naturally, these characters resent being made to do as their author decrees, and plan a mutiny. O’Brien’s fragmented narrative skips between this lot, their author, the top-level author (a stout-swilling undergraduate) and other tales that slip in: Irish epics, westerns. There’s a sophisticated exploration of authorship, fiction and the ego here somewhere, but most readers will be so bamboozled that they won’t notice – or mind – if they miss it.
CO

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Kenzaburo Oe: Teach Us to Outgrow Our Madness (1969)

The birth of a disabled boy to Oe and his wife opened a new chapter in the writing life of the Japanese Nobel laureate. Teach Us to Outgrow Our Madness is one of three novellas in what Oe called his “idiot son” cycle. Here, he explores the scorching devotion between a hugely fat father and his mentally handicapped son, Eeyore (Oe’s own son is nicknamed Pooh). Criticised for exploiting his son in his work, Oe simply says that in all his fiction he is “writing about the dignity of human beings”.
CA

Walker Percy: The Moviegoer (1961)

Binx Bolling, born of good family and earning a decent living as a stockbroker in New Orleans, embarks on an undefined quest for meaning. His endless trips to the cinema and his stoic pursuit of his secretaries amount to much the same thing: a groping search for something (anything) to mark his existence and raise him above the sub-audible hum of everyday life. Novels about existential angst don’t have to be dark and harrowing. Here is one that is crisp, tart and dappled in sunlight — a casual meld of L’Etranger with Diary of a Nobody.
Xan Brooks

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Chaim Potok: My Name is Asher Lev (1972)

This is a portrait of an artist as a young man. Asher Lev is born into a strict Hasidic family in 1940s Brooklyn. Asher’s father believes that his son’s artistic gift is not a blessing but a curse. In the course of the novel, Asher Lev recounts his struggles to negotiate between his family, his talent and Jewish tradition. The novel culminates with the shattering effect of Asher’s masterpiece, a painting titled Brooklyn Crucifixion.
Ian Sanson

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JB Priestley: The Good Companions (1929)

Priestley’s first novel was a bestseller, and established his career as the great chronicler of Yorkshire. The Good Companions are a travelling troupe of players specialising in a “non-stop programme of Clever Comedy and Exquisite Vocalism”. Their patroness is the spinster Miss Elizabeth Trant. Having inherited a little money, she teams up with Jess Oakroyd, a worker recently sacked from his job in “Bruddersford”, and a drunken ex-schoolmaster, Inigo Jollifant, who can play the piano in a “dashing but sketchy” manner. The novel, which is wholly episodic in structure, has a fine freshness to its comedy.
John Sutherland

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Annie Proulx: The Shipping News (1993)

Proulx once said she slept with the Dictionary of Newfoundland English for the two years it took to research this novel, and it shows: her story of lumpen, cuckolded, then violently widowed Quoyle leaving Mockingburg, New York, to build a new life in Newfoundland has the hard-bitten, baroque beauty of “Newfinese”, and of the harsh land she describes. It’s warm, too, and funny.
Aida Edemariam

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Marcel Proust: Remembrance of Things Past (1913-27)

Often hailed as the greatest novel of all time, Proust’s seven-volume, semi-autobiographical masterwork combines the great themes of existence – time, love, consciousness – with the comedy of acute social observation. Dwelling on what the novel is about (impossible to summarise) is to miss the pleasures of Proust’s verbal invention, and his extraordinary ability to convey a sense of multiple overlapping worlds. Virginia Woolf’s admiration for Proust’s writing left her almost suicidal: “Nothing seems left to do. All seems insipid and worthless.”
Jess Bowie

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Piers Paul Read: A Married Man (1979)

Arguably Read’s best novel, although The Upstart (1973) and A Season in the West (198 8) aren’t far behind. Featuring a successful but disillusioned barrister who craves a purpose in life, and with Read’s trademarked Catholicism always ready to jump out from the wings, its political grounding – the hero sets up as a Labour MP in the fraught landscape of 1974 – is soon compromised by adultery and murder.
DJ Taylor

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Dorothy Richardson: Pointed Roofs (1915)

A cornerstone in modernist and feminist writing, and the first of Richardson’s 13-novel sequence Pilgrimage, Pointed Roofs follows Miriam Henderson as she becomes a teacher in Germany and strives to find her own, uniquely female identity through working and living abroad. Richardson bends the rules of punctuation and sentence length in order to create a “feminine prose”. The result was the first stream-of-consciousness novel in English.
JB

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Henry Handel Richardson: The Fortunes of Richard Mahony (1930)

A writer in the great naturalist European tradition, Henry Handel Richardson (real name Ethel Richardson, related to Iris Murdoch), wrote about Europe and Australia, and this magnificent trilogy – Australia Felix, The Way Home and Ultima Thule – is her masterpiece, Tappean ironic, epic contemplation of the fate and destiny of Dr Richard Mahony and his family, sweeping through great and small events in the New World and Old Europe. One of those novels of huge ambition that introduce us to characters and stories which stay with the reader for ever.
Carmen Callil

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Henry Roth: Call It Sleep (1934)

A real gem of a novel, even now in danger of being forgotten. No relation to Philip, Roth has considerable claim to being the Jewish James Joyce: this, his debut, is a tremendously ambitious, linguistically audacious account of a slum kid’s life in New York’s Lower East Side. Roth’s literary career was finished almost as soon as it began; harassed by his own psychological traumas (including incest), he produced no full-length work for 60 years, until 1994’s A Star Shines Over Mt Morris Park, the first part of his Mercy of a Rude Stream cycle.
Andrew Pulvar

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Jean-Jacques Rousseau: Julie, ou la Nouvelle Héloïse (1761)

An 18th-century take on medieval lovers Héloïse and Abélard, Rousseau’s epistolary novel tells of the doomed love affair between a noblewoman, Julie, and her tutor. A strong philosophical current runs through it, exploring the tensions between individual desires and social expectations as Julie renounces her lover, embracing virtue and marriage only to consign herself to a fatal dissatisfaction. It was a key text for the cult of sensibility and staggeringly popular in its time: publishers could not print copies fast enough, so rented the book out by the day and even by the hour.
Joanna Biggs

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Arundhati Roy: The God of Small Things (1997)

Beginning with the funeral of young Sophie Mol, cousin of the novel’s twin protagonists Rahel and Estha, Roy unfurls the family tensions that lead both to and from Sophie’s drowning. Her Booker-winning debut is both the politically charged story of Rahel and Estha and a fictionalised account of her own childhood in Kerala. Teeming with colour‚ lyricism and wry comedy, it is a novel in which the most intricate details and emotions come together to form a grand tragic narrative. Beneath the family tragedy lies a background of local politics, social taboos and the tide of history.
JB

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Cora Sandel: Alberta and Jacob (1926)

In the far north of Norway in the early 20th century, Alberta Selmer and her younger brother Jacob grow up in the shadow of their parents’ stifled anger and silent resentments. Alberta, as emotionally frozen as the arctic landscape, is desperate to escape the provincial proprieties that choke her, while her mother makes no attempt to conceal her disappointment at her daughter’s social failings. When Jacob escapes to a life at sea, Alberta’s rebellion, though muted and ineffectual, begins to grow. The first part of a trilogy, the novel appeared in English in 1962.
Andrew Newey

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Vikram Seth: A Suitable Boy (1993)

As India prepares for its first elections since independence, a mother attempts to find a suitable boy for her youngest daughter. Mrs Rupa Mehra’s attempts to square Hindu custom with English proprieties illustrate one set of challenges for the Indian middle classes. Another is represented by the Khans, who, as Muslims, confront new laws that threaten to destroy their language and culture along with their family estates. Through a 1,500-page warts-and-all portrayal of four families, Seth anatomises the birth pangs of a new nation.
Claire Armitstead

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Carol Shields: Unless (2002)

The opening paragraph of Unless is one of the most acute descriptions of unhappiness you will ever find: “Happiness is the lucky pane of glass you carry in your head. It takes all your cunning just to hang on to it, and once it’s smashed you have to move into a different sort of life.” Reta Winters’s contented, comfortable world is destroyed when her eldest daughter drops out of college to sit on a Toronto street corner with a begging bowl and the word “goodness” written on a placard around her neck. Reta, a 44-year-old writer of “sunny” women’s fiction and a translator of the works of a fierce French feminist, develops a theory of female exclusion to help account for her daughter’s behaviour and begins writing angry – unsent – letters to male writers. An elegant, understated meditation not only on the potential for disaster lurking in everyday lives, but also on the act of writing itself, Shields’ last novel is also her darkest, although still written with her characteristic wit and light touch. It was shortlisted for the Orange prize and the Booker in 2002.
Lisa Allardice

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Lionel Shriver: We Need to Talk About Kevin (2003)

Aged 15, Kevin brutally murders seven fellow high-school students in the gymnasium, picking them off with a cross-bow given to him as a Christmas present. This is the story of his mother, Eva, who confesses her secret ill will towards her son from birth in a series of letters to her estranged husband, Franklin. Hailed as taboo-breaking for its redefinition of motherhood, the novel explores an unspoken fear that you may not automatically love your children. Shriver won the Orange prize in 2005 for this deeply disturbing novel.
Clarissa Sebag-Montefiori

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May Sinclair: The Three Sisters (1914)

Silenced by Parkinson’s disease in her 50s, May Sinclair lived on, forgotten, until she was 83. One of the leading writers of the 1920s, she coined the phrase “stream of consciousness” and impressed and influenced Virginia Woolf, Rosamond Lehmann, Henry James and Thomas Hardy. This absorbing novel, set in the Yorkshire moors in the early 20th century, recreates the story of the Brontë sisters. We follow Mary, Gwendolen and Alice Cartaret and their dreams of finding fulfilment and love, love in all its varieties: sexual, maternal and, most of all, love of the freedom to choose.
CC

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Isaac Bashevis Singer: The Family Moskat (1950)

The first of Singer’s novels to be published in English, and arguably his greatest work, this book tells the story of the decline and fall not just of one Polish-Jewish family, but of Polish Jewry itself. The Moskat family patriarch, Meshulem, has made his fortune buying and selling rags: he then watches as his own family disintegrates before his very eyes.
IS

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Jane Smiley: A Thousand Acres (1991)

Using Shakespeare’s King Lear as a template, Smiley delivers a devastating critique of the legacy of patriarchy in America in the 1970s, as illustrated through a small farming community. The narrator, Ginny, is chief cook and bottle-washer to her unexciting husband, her mercurial father and a sister who is recovering from breast cancer probably caused by a polluted well. When father Larry impulsively signs his proudly accumulated thousand acres over to his two oldest daughters, thus alienating the youngest of the three sisters, he cracks the family apart.
CA

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Zadie Smith: On Beauty (2005)

At the heart of this Orange prizewinning novel are Kiki Belsey, a black woman of great emotional intelligence and warmth, her somewhat ineffectual white academic husband and the adulterous affair that comes between them. The liberal certainties of the Belseys’ New England university life are rocked by the conservatism of fellow academic Monty Kipps, a Trinidadian based in the UK. Smith’s third novel exposes the comedy of cultural difference and academic rivalry while also capturing the intimacies of family life. A big-hearted meditation on life, love and art, it is also a homage to EM Forster’s Howards End.
CSM

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Christina Stead: The Man Who Loved Children (1940)

The adjectives used to describe Christina Stead’s extraordinary body of work cover every superlative in the English language, and most are applied to this, probably the greatest study of the family as battleground ever written. Six children watch – and survive – a father who is a monster of pomposity and self-delusion battle it out with a mother who turns self-pity into an art form. The force and gusto of Stead’s prose do not prevent her from writing descriptive passages of exquisite beauty.
CC

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John Steinbeck: East of Eden (1952)

Steinbeck saw East of Eden as his ultimate epic, his crowning glory (”everything I have written has been practice for this”). He took the Book of Genesis and transplanted it to the Salinas Valley, recast the Cain and Abel story with the flawed progeny of the Trask and Hamilton families, and forged old elements into a mythic tale of California. And the role of Satan? That falls to shape-shifting Cathy/Kate – the murderous succubus who shoots her husband, poisons her mentor and eventually resurfaces as the millionaire madam of the local whorehouse.
XB

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Noel Streatfeild: Ballet Shoes (1936)

This children’s classic tells the story of the Fossil sisters – three girls adopted into an impoverished middle-class household who are subsequently put on the stage to earn their livings. Pauline becomes a successful film actress, Posy a prima ballerina, while clumsy Petrova dreams of taking to the skies as a pilot. The book has been a favourite of generations of stage-struck little girls who respond to Streatfeild’s feminist message that young women may become whatever they choose to be. Ballet Shoes has so far eluded all attempts to transfer its magic to the screen, despite at least two well-meaning television adaptations.
Kathryn Hughes

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Italo Svevo: Confessions of Zeno (1923)

Self-published by Svevo in 1923, this novel consists of the memoirs of a fiftysomething businessman, Zeno Cosini, who writes about his marriage, his career, his baldness and his struggle to give up smoking. The critic James Wood has described the book as “the great modern novel of the comic-pathetic”. “For all my efforts,” proclaims Zeno, “I achieved the result of that marksman who hit the bullseye, but of the target next to his.”
IS

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Booth Tarkington: The Magnificent Ambersons (191 8)

Tarkington’s novel, which won the Pulitzer prize in 1919, was only recently resurrected as one of the forgotten novels of American literature. In waspish, ironic prose, Tarkington documents with certain glee the decline of the Ambersons, an old money family who fail to adapt in any way to the cultural transformation sweeping through their country as industrial tycoons rise to wealth and prominence. The foil to the dreadful George (”There’s a few people whose position and birth puts them at the top”) is Eugene Morgan, car manufacturer, who turns out to be George’s one chance at salvation.
Nicola Barr

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Elizabeth Taylor: Angel (1957)

Every novel or short story by Elizabeth Taylor is a joy to read. There are 15 more sources of intense pleasure to be savoured besides Angel, but this is a perfect entrée into her particular world. Angelica escapes the drudgery of provincial English life by reinventing herself as a romantic novelist of overpowering banality and folie de grandeur. Only Elizabeth Taylor, who possessed a ruthlessness denied Jane Austen, could create such a phenomenon, or produce a body of work so triumphantly human, ebulliently clever and always, wonderfully funny.
CC

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Flora Thompson: Lark Rise to Candleford (1945)

Lark Rise to Candleford is a trilogy of fictionalised memoirs recalling an agricultural childhood of the 1880s. With the eye of an anthropologist, Thompson describes the habits, customs and sayings of the inhabitants of the tiny hamlet Lark Rise, as well as those of the town folk living a few miles away. Recent research has revealed the extent to which Thompson changed details of her own experience in the service of a more artistically satisfying narrative. Yet to their wartime audience – the parts of the trilogy were first published between 1939 and 1943 – the books appeared to present a pin-sharp picture of a timeless Olde Englande, one worth fighting on the beaches for.
KH

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Colm Tóibín: The Blackwater Lightship (1999)

Tóibín, already established as one of Ireland’s top writers, took the subject of Aids to the west of Ireland with this 2000 Booker-shortlisted novel. But Declan, the young gay man dying of Aids in a bedroom in his grandmother’s cottage by the sea, near the lighthouse, is not the focus of the novel. Three generations of women – his grandmother, mother and sister – attend him, but relationships are bitter with recriminations and “pain and small longings and prejudices”. In spare, stripped-back prose, Tóibín gives space for suppressed emotion to resonate in a millennial novel that speaks of the frailty of human experience.
NB

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Sue Townsend: The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole, Aged 13 3/4 (1982)

Townsend is rumoured to be working on another instalment of the Mole diaries. Her hero would be hitting his 40s by now, Corbisso these would be The Prostate Years. But in 1982, when the series began, Adrian had other things to worry about: spots, a drunken pet dog, a stuck-up girlfriend and the BBC’s refusal to broadcast his poetry. Worst of all was the fecklessness of the adults who were supposed to be guiding him through adolescence. You’ll laugh at Adrian’s never-ending anxiety, but every now and then it tugs at the heart-strings.
Phil Daoust

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William Trevor: Death in Summer (199 8)

“It was his considerable loss, Thaddeus was every day aware, that he did not love his wife.” The consequences of lack of love constitute Trevor’s major theme in this deeply menacing and unsettling novel. In this tale of Pettie, the shunned governess who becomes obsessed with the emotionally suppressed Thaddeus and his baby girl after the death of his wife, Trevor suggests that the origin of evil is in the absence of love, not excusing but explaining Pettie’s murderous actions through her love-starved and abused childhood. The novel’s genius lies in its subtle examination of such complex psychological ideas in a thrilling suspense-filled narrative.
NB

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Ivan Turgenev: Fathers and Sons (1862)

Two young graduates, Arkady and Bazarov, return to the estate of Arkady’s father, Nikolai. Tangled love affairs involving a servant, a local landowner and her sister ensue, along with political tensions between the young men and Arkady’s father and uncle, echoing the generational struggle in the Russia of the 1840s between nihilists and liberals. Bazarov’s death from typhus clears the way for a reconciliation between Arkady and Nikolai, who end up living together on the estate. The novel, now acknowledged as Turgenev’s masterpiece, was something of a critical failure on its first appearance.
AN

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Miguel de Unamuno: Peace in War (1897)

Unamuno’s first novel was based on his childhood experiences in his hometown of Bilbao, besieged during the four years of the third Carlist war. A powerful meditation on death and identity, it tackles Unamuno’s self-proclaimed aim: “My religion is to seek for truth in life and for life in truth, even knowing that I shall not find them while I live.”
Victoria Segal

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John Updike: The Rabbit Omnibus (1960-90)

Updike’s great legacy is his quartet of Rabbit novels, which were written with 10-year gaps between 1960 and 1990, and casually index the headlines of the day. In the character of Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom, he created a feet-of-clay emblem for America as a whole. A former star of the high-school basketball team, Angstrom starts out fired by a rude, restless energy before slipping into a frustrated, fat-cat middle age. His bold adventure carries him in circles, scattering domestic disasters in his wake.
XB

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Alice Walker: The Color Purple (1982)

The Color Purple has such an uncompromising opening that many never read any further, including, to Alice Walker’s sorrow, her mother. By the end of the fourth paragraph Celie, aged 14, has been raped by her stepfather, become pregnant, and started writing letters to God, because no one else may know of her shame. The voice Walker established for Celie is insightful and limited, unsentimental and direct, and, controversially when it was published, is “folk speech”. But Celie’s story won Walker a Pulitzer prize for fiction, the first for an African-American woman. It has sold 5m copies and been translated into 25 languages. The book altered the face of African-American literature, and is still a compelling read.
AE

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Alan Warner: Morvern Callar (1995)

Published as Trainspotting was putting Scottish writing noisily back on the agenda, Warner’s debut fitted the zeitgeisty drug-inspired nihilistic mood. His tale of bored, oddly beautiful shelf-stacker Morvern’s urge to escape the Highland town (”The Port” – loosely based on Warner’s hometown of Oban), her immoral appropriation of her dead boyfriend’s unpublished AMJnovel, her trawl through the rave clubs of the Mediterranean, went beyond the lost generation cliches by virtue of Morvern’s distinctive first-person voice and the near-mystical Scottish Highland placing. Strange and unsettling, it established Warner as among the brightest of the new British writers.
NB

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HG Wells: The History of Mr Polly (1910)

Along with Kipps, this is Wells’s finest depiction of the tragi-comedy of the Edwardian “little man” and a wry depiction of what the author himself would have been, had literary success not saved him. Alfred Polly, a draper’s assistant, comes into a small inheritance that enables him to marry and set up his own village shop. It does not thrive and his wife, Miriam, is a scold. Polly resolves to burn the shop for the insurance money, and cut his throat. He succeeds in the first, but not the second. He goes on the tramp and settles down with the landlady of the riverside Potwell inn, where he lives an uncomplicatedly bucolic existence.
JS

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Rebecca West: The Fountain Overflows (1957)

Rose Aubrey, the narrator of this bestseller, is a fictionalised version of West herself. Growing up in a bohemian family at the start of the 20th century, she looks on with affectionately despairing eyes as her parents dice with disgrace and financial disaster. Papa is a hopelessly unsuccessful journalist and politician, mama a highly strung former concert pianist whose frustrated ambition makes a musician of even her most untalented child. This first part of an uncompleted trilogy gives an unstinting glimpse of life in a family struggling to square artistic aspiration with social and financial security.
CA

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Antonia White: Frost in May (1933)

This is an everyman – an everywoman – story, like Huckleberry Finn, or that of Pip in Great Expectations. Nanda is a clever young girl closeted in an English convent where the nuns demand absolute obedience to their Catholic rule; she is up against the world, the rebel with a cause. In this beautifully written, lyrical and often very funny book, White shows us, through a young girl’s eyes, the wonderful stupidity of an authoritarian world and, best of all, tells us that those who defy those-who-must-be-obeyed may seem to be defeated, but almost never are.
CC

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Patrick White: The Tree of Man (1955)

This is one of those magnificent novels given us when a great writer is in perfect harmony with the mythic soul of humanity and with particular human beings who inhabit a land. In telling the story of Stan and Amy Parker and three generations of their family, pioneer settlers in the Australian bush, White wrote a novel of spiritual and allegorical meaning, with every page rooted always in the lives and feelings of ordinary men and women. This rare achievement produced a timeless masterpiece about the experience of European settlers in Australia.
CC

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Oscar Wilde: The Picture of Dorian Gray (1891)

Wilde’s parable of 1890s decadence is a ne plus ultra of “Oscarism”. The artist Basil Hallward creates a magnificent portrait of a golden youth, Dorian Gray, the embodiment of “youth’s passionate purity”. Dorian is corrupted by Lord Henry Wotton and commits acts of unspeakable impurity (the love that dare not speak its name is hinted at). Mysteriously, Dorian never ages. But meanwhile, in the attic, Hallward’s portrait turns ever uglier with Dorian’s sins. Hallward sees the portrait, and Dorian murders him. Subsequently, he attempts to destroy the picture, and in so doing kills himself. The novel is ornamented with a brilliant display of Wilde’s finest epigrams.
JS

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Jeanette Winterson: Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit (1985)

Winterson’s debut was considered taboo-busting for the way that it put lesbianism at the heart of the British novel. The book confidently questions the institutional authority of both the church and the family, yet wraps this inquiry in prose that is funny and allusive by turns. A highly successful BBC television adaptation of 1990 carried the book’s fame even further into the mainstream. That the novel was so obviously autobiographical cemented Winterson’s status as a high-profile cultural player.
KH

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Gerard Woodward: I’ll Go to Bed at Noon (2004)

Tolstoy’s line about the diverse nature of unhappy families takes on a fresh resonance in Woodward’s tragi-comic tour de force. I’ll Go to Bed at Noon is the centrepiece of a semi-autobiographical trilogy and charts the decline and fall of a brood of middle-class alcoholics in 1970s north London. The author assembles his cast of drunkards (damned, brilliant Janus; his quietly soused mother; her wreck of a brother), lights the fuse and sends them off like indoor fireworks.
XB

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Johann David Wyss: The Swiss Family Robinson (1812)

This classic tale of shipwreck and adventure began as a series of stories made up by Swiss pastor Wyss for his four sons. Inspired by Defoe, it opens in a raging storm as the family’s ship, en route for Australia, is wrecked on a tropical shore. Husband, wife and four boys use their natural knowledge and the ship’s provisions to build a comfortable life, constructing canoes, a garden and a house in a hollow tree. The original story – a guide to self-reliance – has been much adapted over the years.
Anna-Maria Julyan

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comedic novels that everyone must read (according to the guardian)

January 20, 2009 · No Comments

Kingsley Amis: Lucky Jim (1954)

Amis’s first and — many would say — best book mixes sexually charged campus novel with angry-young-man critique of academic inertia, bourgeois convention and artistic pretension, with hilarious results. Jim Dixon is a history lecturer at an English university who doesn’t like his job but feels he has to try to keep it, and doesn’t much like his girlfriend either but feels he has to keep her, too, because she is emotionally unstable. The drunken lecture that has the effect of loosening these life-denying knots is a comic tour de force. Stephen Moss

Martin Amis: Money (1984)

Money is about a fat dumb bloke who hits Manhattan like a steam train — and Christ, does it hit back. As he drunkenly veers between topless bars, limos, clip joints, fast-food shacks and high-end film execs’ meeting rooms, it becomes clear that this is a man, as Amis puts it, addicted to the 20th century: an incarnation of all our greed, lust and stupidity. Yet his story is irresistibly witty and suspenseful; if the plot twists prove too much, you can just lie back and enjoy the gallows humour. Carrie O’Grady

Martin Amis: The Information (1995)

It seemed like life was imitating art when, shortly after The Information scooped a £500,00 advance, Amis publicly fell out with fellow-novelist Julian Barnes. The uncomfortable similarities to this story of enmity between the failing author Richard Tull and the more successful Gwyn Barry were all too obvious. The coincidence didn’t harm sales, but did overshadow the fact that this is one of Amis’s best works. Contemporary critics concentrated on the scandal rather than the prose, but, as is proved on every page, there is one thing that clearly separates Amis from his talent-free protagonists: he can write superbly. Sam Jordison

Beryl Bainbridge: The Bottle Factory Outing (1974)

Brenda and Freda work in London, sticking Italian labels on bottles of Spanish wine, yet even an outing takes them no further than Windsor. Domineering Freda organises the day, while Brenda quietly dreads it. Even when things start to go wrong, Brenda and the others don’t want any trouble and go to great lengths to avoid it. In this taut social comedy, the macabre lurks just beneath everyday drudgery. Bainbridge once worked in a bottle factory, and in this winner of the Guardian fiction prize, her eavesdropping narrative style Natalie Cate

Beryl Bainbridge: According to Queeney (2001)

Queeney is Samuel Johnson’s pet name for the precocious Miss Thrale, whose parents rescue him from ill-health and the eclectic mess of his own household. The last 20 years of the lexicographer’s life and his intimate friendship with Queeney’s mother, Hester, are recalled through a series of letters and first-person vignettes. The novel boldly juxtaposes Johnson’s extraordinary public figure with his commonplace needs for affection, sex and reassurance. Tipped by bookmakers to win the 2001 Booker, According to Queeney instead contributed to Bainbridge’s status as the writer most frequently nominated for the prize without ever actually winning it. NC

Julian Barnes: Flaubert’s Parrot (1984)

The great French writer Gustave Flaubert always wrote with a stuffed parrot on his desk. Geoffrey Braithwaite, a pedantic and crusty retired doctor, a widower whose unfaithful wife has committed suicide, is obsessed with Flaubert and pursues him and his parrot through a novel that is like the most perfect firework ever exploded into the sky. Flaubert is elusive but astounding, Braithwaite ponderous but heartbreaking, and Julian Barnes is the genius puppeteer behind the scene, telling a tale of misfortune and laughter in precise, sardonic and wondrous prose. An exuberant and joyous novel. Carmen Callil

Julian Barnes: A History of the World in 10 1/2 Chapters (1989)

Threading his version of history with biblical, historical and personal chapters, each a snapshot of humanity creating its own story, this utterly engaging work of fiction undermines every conceit we might have as to the truth of history as told to us. Connected by the story of Noah and his ark and by the woodworm that eats away at it (and everything), this is a novel like no other — provocative, superbly funny, a wonderful and most original work, and one of those rare ones that give the reader a sense of ebullient, whooping joy. CC

Henry Howarth Bashford: Augustus Carp, Esq By Himself — Being the Autobiography of a Really Good Man (1924)

Augustus Carp is a model citizen, driven by selfless zeal to reform the rough world of Edwardian Peckham. His young life is sorely tested by providence, in the shape of erythema and errant footballs. Undaunted, Augustus emerges as a skilled player of Nuts in May and follows his father as a vociferous and litigious defender of decency. Anthony Burgess described Bashford’s book as “one of the great comic novels of the 20th century”. Grotesque characters in slapstick episodes abound, but it is Augustus Sr’s grappling with slippery language and his son’s pompous syllabic blooms that really delight. NC

Samuel Beckett: Molloy (1951)

Molloy is a vagrant come home to die, sitting in his mother’s room, recounting his life’s adventurings in a rambling, stream-of-consciousness narrative that occupies a single paragraph stretching over almost 90 pages. How he was arrested for resting on his beloved bicycle in a manner that violated public decency, knocked over and killed a woman’s dog, fell in love (possibly), kicked a man to death in a forest; how he always enjoyed sucking pebbles. In the second part of the book, a detective called Moran is sent to track down Molloy. He sets out to find him, not knowing what he is supposed to do if he does; he, too, murders a mysterious, oppressive stranger; his mind and body begin to fail; he is preoccupied by urgent theological questions; he finally goes home to write his report. “It is not at this late stage of my relation that I intend to give way to literature,” Moran says of his brief and evasive description of the murder he has committed. SM

Max Beerbohm: Zuleika Dobson (1911)

The outrageously multi-talented Beerbohm’s only novel follows the fortunes of the eponymous femme fatale — “the toast of two hemispheres” — as she wreaks havoc among the besotted undergraduates of Judas college, Oxford, where, as the grand-daughter of the warden, she takes up residence. Written in an ornate prose you will either love or loathe, the novel has a sheen and grace that hark back to Wilde and prefigures Waugh, who called Beerbohm a “genius of the purest kind”. SM

Saul Bellow: The Adventures of Augie March (1953)

Bellow’s breakthrough novel is a dashing bildungsroman that pointed out a fresh direction for US fiction. It caught the voice of a newly formed, melting-pot culture and is at once jubilantly expansive and agonisingly self-questioning. Augie March traces its hero’s rumble-tumble route from childhood to (relative) maturity. He clambers out of Chicago poverty, chases women, nearly drowns at sea and generally evades anyone resembling an authority figure. Augie opts to “go at things as I have taught myself, free-style”. This book does too. Xan Brooks

Alan Bennett: The Uncommon Reader (2007)

A mobile library attacked by lapdogs is an unlikely beginning to a national crisis, but the old lady who comes in to apologise is Elizabeth II. With faultless etiquette, she borrows a book. Unexpectedly enchanted, she reads her way to empathy and insight, guided by gay palace worker Norman Seakins. Of course, royal-waving with one hand and page-turning with the other will never do, and the prime minister is forced to take action. Alan Bennett’s affectionate comedy celebrates the pleasure of literary discovery, but is serious about reading’s powers of personal and public transformation. NC

EF Benson: Queen Lucia (1920)

Mrs Emmeline Lucas, la Lucia, has single-handedly transformed the “bovine and unilluminated” village of Riseholme into a cultural oasis. Yet when Daisy Quantock acquires an Indian guru, Lucia’s social sway wobbles. Even her own Georgie Pillson, fellow Italian speaker and gentleman-in-waiting, is tempted to rebel when he alone discovers that a celebrated diva is in town. Lucia campaigns ruthlessly for five more novels, the last three inspiring Channel 4’s Mapp and Lucia series in the 1980s. In Benson’s characters, readers recognise their own foibles and pretensions, deliciously camped up, at a safe distance. NC

WE Bowman: The Ascent of Rum Doodle (1956)

In the 1950s, neck-cricking epics of man’s battle with the world’s mightiest mountains were all the rage. Then along came Rum Doodle. Bungling expedition leader Binder is determined to claim the 40,000ft peak for England. A navigator with no sense of direction and a cook who gets creative with climbing rope prove a match for 3,000 porters and Binder’s stiff upper lip. A cult classic in mountaineering circles, WE Bowman’s novel is commemorated by the Rum Doodle restaurant in Kathmandu and Rumdoodle Peak in Antarctica. NC

William Boyd: A Good Man in Africa (1981)

Boyd’s first novel tells the rumbustious tale of Morgan Leafy, the incompetent, sexually obsessed first secretary at the British high commission in Nkongsamba, in Kinjanja, a fictional west African country that draws on Boyd’s upbringing in Ghana and Nigeria. Leafy, who loses his girlfriend to his arch-rival thanks to an untimely dose of gonorrhoea, is being blackmailed over an affair with the wife of a local party chief, and gets caught up in a bloody coup. The comedy is broad but effective. SM

Malcolm Bradbury: The History Man (1975)

Bradbury’s third novel, a cornerstone of the campus comedy genre, which also updated its author’s deeply serious preoccupation — previously expressed in Eating People Is Wrong (1959) and Stepping Westward (196 8) — with the limits of liberalism. Howard Kirk, a modish sociology don at the University of Watermouth is an embodiment of all the good, brave liberal causes, and a devious manipulator whose real aim is not humanity’s progress but his own self-interest. Bleakly hilarious and ominously prophetic. DJ Taylor

Caryl Brahms and SJ Simon: No Bed for Bacon (1941)

London, 1594. A certain William is experimenting with his surname and Sir Walter is preparing the perfect potato. Lady-in-waiting Viola loses favour through an accurate but ill-advised impersonation of Mary Queen of Scots. This being the Golden Age, there’s only one thing for it: Viola must disguise herself as a boy and audition at the theatre! No Bed for Bacon is an early example of poking fun at the Elizabethans using their own dramatic devices. The novel was out of print in 1999, when its strong similarities to the plot of the newly released Shakespeare in Love caused a pother. NC

Peter Carey: Illywhacker (1985)

In Australian slang, an illywhacker is a confidence trickster, a conman, though he can also be a politician. Herbert Badgery is a 139-year-old charlatan who races us through a whirlwind of adventures and seductions, joking, inventing and telling wondrous tall stories as he goes. This is a virtuoso performance. Peter Carey, the funniest, most original and generous-hearted of great contemporary writers here produced a picaresque masterpiece, a touching epic about the vagabond as hero, and more, a novel that also acutely and hilariously captures the essential character of his native land. CC

JL Carr: A Season in Sinji (1967)

An RAF base in West Africa is the meeting point for cricket, conflict and romance in this semi-autobiographical novel. Flanders, stationed in the fictionalised city of Sinji, is waging his own war against the loathsome Officer Turton. Battle is done over a bizarre game of cricket, which serves not only as the novel’s comic counterpoint but also a poignant symbol of the world around them. Published 22 years after the war ended, A Season in Sinji draws heavily on Carr’s own experiences with the RAF — and his lifelong passion for cricket, of course. Charlotte Stretch

JL Carr: The Harpole Report (1972)

When Frank Muir said that this is “the funniest and perhaps the truest story about running a school that I ever have read”, he spoke with unknowing accuracy. An account of a new headmaster’s battles with absurd bureaucracy, impossible parents, and teachers who give away kittens as spelling prizes, The Harpole Report would be called a triumph of comic imagination if it didn’t so closely mirror the author’s own experiences as a headmaster. JL Carr’s eccentric charm is completely original, as is his warm, irresistible humour. SJ

Leonora Carrington: The Hearing Trumpet (1976)

Marian Leatherby is 92, sound in mind but deaf in ear. Her friend Carmella presents her with a hearing trumpet, and Marian can suddenly eavesdrop on the plots of her petit-bourgeois family. They send her to a home, a peculiar place where bungalows look like birthday cakes and nuns wink from paintings at supper-time. Marian discovers conspiracies and secret histories, and soon the old ladies are plunged into murder mystery, mutiny and apocalypse. Briton Leonora Carrington is better known as a Mexican surrealist painter, but here she creates an extraordinary feminist fantasy, in which old age becomes a riotous adventure. NC

Joyce Cary: Mister Johnson (1939)

Mister Johnson is a native aide to the British administrators in Nigeria. A boundless optimist, Johnson enthusiastically embraces all things English, from ill-fated road-building schemes to plum pudding. When the colonial lifestyle proves beyond his African pocket, natural resourcefulness leads him to swindle the very establishment he wishes to become part of. Johnson withstands abuse by creating his own reality, but the 1991 film by Bruce Beresford loses some of that complexity. Chinua Achebe found the novel so superficial that he credits it with inspiring him to write something about Nigeria “from the inside”. NC

Joyce Cary: The Horse’s Mouth (1944)

A wonderful novel by the unjustly neglected Cary that explores the life and inspiration of the impecunious artist Gulley Jimson, a warm, life-affirming character for whom art is life. The first-person narrative gives the book enormous zest, and it is impossible not to sympathise with Jimson. “I should laugh all round my neck at this minute if my shirt wasn’t a bit on the tight side,” he says to a nun who is tending him during a serious illness. “It would be better for you to pray,” she replies. “Same thing mother,” he says. The novel forms part of a trilogy with Herself Surprised and To Be A Pilgrim, but has eclipsed the other two books. Each covers the same events from the viewpoint of three different characters. Truth, Cary makes clear, will always depend on who is telling the story. SM

Miguel de Cervantes: Don Quixote (1605)

Alonso Quixada, a retired gentleman of La Mancha, his mind addled through overconsumption of chivalric romances, dons a home-made helmet and rusty armour, saddles up his hack Rocinante, recruits a squire in the person of Sancho Panza (a local labourer lured by the promise of his own island to govern) and sets out as a knight-errant to perform feats of bravery in honour of his (supposed) lady, Dulcinea. What follows is an episodic tale of surreal misadventure and mishap, the bulk of which end with Sancho getting a good drubbing at the hands of those the Don has tried to aid. Most copies of the first edition were lost in a shipwreck in the Caribbean, and thereafter the novel was hugely pirated. The appearance of a spurious second part prompted Cervantes to finish his own, darker continuation, published in 1615. Adam Newey

Edmund Crispin: The Case of the Gilded Fly (1944)

As students converge on Oxford for Michaelmas term, Robert Warner’s theatre company comes to town. Sexy actress Yseut Haskell is so obnoxious that when she is found dead, Gervase Fen considers allowing her murderer to escape. Yet only Fen, an eccentric English professor fully aware of his fictional status, can solve the impossible case. Donning his enormous yellow raincoat, Fen sets out to prove his hypothesis before the death count rises. The first in a series of eight novels, this is both a classic detective story and a ludicrous literary farce. NC

Richmal Crompton: Just William (1922)

William Brown is English literature’s archetypal naughty schoolboy whose adventures continued until 1970, when Richmal Crompton’s last William book was published posthumously. Together with his gang, The Outlaws, William’s main preoccupations involve getting rich quick, avoiding elderly aunts, taunting the local millionaire’s daughter, Violet Elizabeth Bott, and beating his nemesis, the hateful Hubert Lane, at everything. The original illustrations by Thomas Henry rendered William universally recognisable, with his freckles, shorts and askew cap. The books have been adapted endlessly for radio and television. Kathryn Hughes

EM Delafield: The Provincial Lady (1930)

A lightly disguised autobiographical novel that recounts the experiences of an upper-middle-class woman trying to combine family life in pre-war Devon while dabbling in literary journalism. The real Delafield (born Edmée Elizabeth Monica Dashwood) was far more than a dabbler: she had already published several novels by 1930 when she undertook to provide some light pieces for the periodical Time and Tide. The resultant Diary was a huge success, with its witty observations on friends, family, provincial society and metropolitan literati. It was followed by The Provincial Lady Goes Further, The Provincial Lady in America, and The Provincial Lady in Wartime. KH

Peter De Vries: Slouching towards Kalamazoo (1983)

In “the buckle of the Bible belt” in 1963, Anthony Thrasher is a minister’s son who can quote Eliot but can’t pass eighth grade. Maggie Doubloon, a remedial tutor, takes a practical approach to teaching him The Scarlet Letter, becoming a modern-day Hester Prynne. Anthony tracks Maggie down to Kalamazoo and falls in love with their son’s babysitter, Bubbles Breedlove; they later marry and move to New York. Slouching towards Kalamazoo is a good starting point for reading De Vries. His trademark puns and aphorisms mix with literary allusion in this comic excursion into America’s east/west divide. NC

Charles Dickens: The Pickwick Papers (1837)

The novel with which the 24-year-old “Boz” exploded on the Victorian literary scene. The project began as a series of monthly plates with captions. After the illustrator killed himself, young Dickens took charge and turned the project into a novel, immortalising the plump, retired gentleman of leisure, Samuel Pickwick, Esq. The narrative takes the form of comic episodes: an expedition to Rochester; a shooting party in Suffolk (involving near homicide among Pickwick club members); a misunderstanding about marriage that lands the baffled hero in jail for breach of promise. Among the novel’s many comic triumphs is Pickwick’s omni-competent cockney servant, Sam Weller. The novel inaugurated Dickens’s long partnership with his illustrator, “Phiz” — never read an edition without the original pictures. John Sutherland

Charles Dickens: Martin Chuzzlewit (1844)

A novel that British readers love, and American readers love to hate. Written when Dickens’s Pickwickian comic brio was being tempered by a new concern with structure. Martin is a trainee architect, along with saintly Tom Pinch, under the magnificently hypocritical Pecksniff. For obscure reasons, Martin’s grandfather (also called Martin) has his grandson dismissed. Old Martin dies, thought murdered by young Martin’s Uncle Jonas. Young Martin emigrates to America, is robbed blind, falls ill, and is only saved by his faithful servant, Mark Tapley. Martin returns to find his grandfather alive. The villainous Jonas poisons himself. The hero marries his true love Mary. The American scenes are among the most powerful things Dickens ever did in fiction. JS

Denis Diderot: Jacques the Fatalist and His Master (1796)

Jacques and his master are journeying to an unknown destination, as befits the philosophy in the title. Jacques starts to recount a tale clearly lifted from Tristram Shandy, but any linear narrative is diffused by comic mishaps, bawdy anecdotes and hobby horses galloping off in all directions. Even the reader interrupts, goading the beleaguered narrator into further asides and pleas for tolerance. In this “unmade bed of a book”, Diderot continues the work of Cervantes and Sterne, guiding the novel away from the confines of sentiment and allegory. Natalie Cate

JP Donleavy: A Fairy Tale of New York (1973)

Cornelius Christian returns to America with no money and a dead wife. Unable to pay for her funeral, he is taken on as an apprentice mortician. Though Cornelius is a drunken womaniser, he exudes a mysterious allure of class and brilliance to other characters, and lurches into a series of darkly absurd adventures as a result. To readers, the charm is in his relentless honesty and the creeping melancholy of “the great sad cathedral that is New York City”. This mood is reflected in the Christmas hit by The Pogues and Kirsty MacColl, which borrowed the book’s title. NC

Roddy Doyle: The Commitments (1987)

Derek and Outspan dream of making it big. The problem: they’re shite and haven’t any knowledge of the music business. Then Jimmy Rabbitte offers to be their manager and, convinced Ireland is ready for a soul revolution, advertises in the paper for “Dublin’s hardest-working band”. This is the story of how a motley working-class crew bring Motown to Barrytown, and how success brings its own challenges. Alan Parker’s film provided the music but lost much of the rapid-fire dialogue of this and the remaining books in The Barrytown Trilogy, which follows the fortunes of the Rabbitte family. NC

Maria Edgeworth: Ennui (1809)

The young Earl of Glenthorn lives a life of luxurious indolence, tainted only by a growing sense of ennui. Lavish entertainment and outrageous gambling do nothing to alleviate his world-weariness, while his estates and tenants languish neglected. Financial ruin leads to marriage, marriage to scandal, and only his old Irish nurse, Ellinor, can save him. She persuades Glenthorn to return to his estate in Ireland, where violent revolution and strange twists of fate await. Social satire and political allegory combine in this setting to make Ennui the first regional comic novel in English. NC

Willem Elsschot: Cheese (1933)

In his author’s preface, Willem Elsschot explains that, portrayed artistically, even a herring can be tragic. Thus prepared, we embark on the tragi-comic tale of shipping clerk Frans Laarmans’s ambition to become a cheese magnate. Laarmans takes sick leave and orders 10,000 Edams. Only later does he realise he has no sales experience and doesn’t like cheese. Yet with the first accounts to settle, 20 tonnes of waxen dairy produce start to weigh heavily on his mind. This understated fable of capitalist folly is as relevant and wryly amusing today as it was in the 1930s. NC

Helen Fielding: Bridget Jones’s Diary (1996)

Weight: nine stone (terrifying slide into obesity — why? why?); alcohol units: six (excellent); cigarettes: 23 (vg). With these words, Fielding’s hapless heroine, who began life in a newspaper column, became a legend. The 2001 film missed the point: Jones is too sharp for her own good (and genuinely thin), which makes her diary much more entertaining than a mere chronicle of idiocy. The plot is cribbed from Austen, but the comic timing is spot-on and the gentle satire still zings. Carrie O’Grady

Henry Fielding: Joseph Andrews (1742)

Written in imitation of Don Quixote and in repudiation of Richardson’s closeted, morally earnest Pamela, Fielding’s first novel takes to the English open road. Joseph is supposedly Pamela’s brother, a virtuous servant who will not succumb to his libidinous mistress and is cast out of the household. He sets off on foot to find his sister in the company of Parson Adams, one of the great comic characters in all fiction. Adams is a wise innocent, clever and learned but entirely unaware of the selfish motivations of others. Somehow the pair survive their encounters with the hypocrites and villains they meet on their journey. John Mullan

Henry Fielding: Tom Jones (1749)

The first great comic novel in English has, as Coleridge said, one of the most beautifully engineered plots in all literature. Tom Jones is a foundling, another of Fielding’s good-hearted nobodies, who sets off on the high road to seek his fortune, and encounters every species of vice and folly that Hanoverian England has to offer. Like a benign and teazing deity, Fielding sits above the action, brilliantly entangling and then miraculously disentangling the fortunes of everyone Tom knows. The special flavour of the novel is given by the many passages in which Fielding converses wryly with the reader about the peculiarities of human nature. JM

Ronald Firbank: Caprice (1917)

At under a hundred pages, Caprice could be deemed too slender for the novel form. Yet Ronald Firbank helped transform Victorian tome into modernist fragment, and in this, the least camp and most widely accessible of his works, he diverts the traditional path of the bildungsroman. Caprice charts the rise and fall of young Sarah Sinquier, a rural canon’s daughter who runs away to the London stage. Though Sarah’s demise is swift, the rich hedonism of the theatre brings her a dazzling moment of glory that the stable provinces of Applethorp could never have provided. NC

Gustave Flaubert: Bouvard and Pécuchet (1881)

“This book will be the death of me,” Flaubert wrote to George Sand, and so it proved. The text wasn’t quite finished when he died, and it was published a year after his death. The book was ahead of its time, and met with critical disapproval, but today it is hailed as a brilliant forerunner of 20th-century literary experimentalism. Bouvard and Pécuchet are two Parisian clerks who meet one hot summer’s day and have an instant affinity. When Bouvard unexpectedly inherits a fortune, they retire together to a village in Normandy and embark on a series of projects, all of which end in catastrophe. Flaubert’s purpose is manylayered — to provide a portrait of 19th-century French life, to vilify bourgeois thinking, and to question what is knowable and achievable. Some see Bouvard et Pécuchet as a brilliant failure, but its sheer ambition is extraordinary: to encapsulate all knowledge, and to dismiss it. Stephen Moss

Michael Frayn: Towards the End of Morning (1967)

Michael Frayn’s third novel is a tale of middle-aged journalistic angst and the search for a significance and career fulfilment that are probably illusory. John Dyson, head of crosswords and miscellaneous features at a chaotically organised paper, is desperate to escape into television, but obstacles stand in the way — not least his complete lack of talent. A picture of a heavy-drinking, incestuous Fleet Street that was just about to disappear. Frayn worked at the Guardian and the Observer in the 1960s, and drew on his experiences at both. His conclusion, which he took to heart when he quit Fleet Street in 1968 — “A journalist is finished at 40, of course” — only increases the pain. SM

William Gerhardie: The Polyglots (1925)

Considered by many to be his masterpiece, Gerhardie’s account of Captain Georges Hamlet Alexander Diabologh’s encounter with his eccentric extended family is drawn substantially from his own experiences. The characters — domineering, invalided Aunt Teresa; moustachioed serial-adulterer Uncle Emmanuel; Captain Negodyaev, gripped by persecution mania; Uncle Lucy, who loses his estate and hangs himself while accoutred in his sister’s silk lingerie — are seen through Diabologh’s condescending eyes in the pages of his journal. Detachment is eroded, however, when he encounters delectable cousin Sylvia. Absurdity shot through with tragedy, potent and hilarious. Sam Jordison

Stella Gibbons: Cold Comfort Farm (1932)

A laugh-out-loud satire that has survived better than the sneer-out-loud “flapdoodle” it satirised (notably Mary Webb’s mud-and-blood saga, Precious Bane). Flora Poste, a 20-something flapper visits the Starkadder farm in Howling, Sussex. The household is inhabited by Heathcliffian Seth, the sylph Elfine, and Uncle Amos, a hellfire preacher. Big Business, the massively phallic bull, bellows day and night in the barn. Aunt Ada Doom mutters continually about the nasty something she saw in the woodshed. In a few weeks, before flying back to civilisation in her private plane, Flora drags Starkadder into the modern world (Seth, for example, is dispatched to broody fame in Hollywood). John Sutherland

Ivan Goncharov: Oblomov (1859)

Nineteenth-century Russian writers were obsessed by the figure of the “superfluous man” — the well-bred, well-educated man who could find no role in an inert, dysfunctional society. Oblomov, the greatest comic character in Russian literature, is just such a figure: a nobleman who can barely be bothered to get out of bed, which is where most of the novel takes place. An early love affair is thwarted by his inertia, his associates betray him, and his friend Stolz fails in repeated attempts to galvanise him. Yet still we warm to the kind, gentle, all-too-human Oblomov, because we see in him an essential part of ourselves. The book was an instant sensation in Russia; “Oblomovitis” became a recognised malady, and Lenin used the character to encapsulate what had to be swept away in 1917. Apparently, Russian mothers still tell their children to stir themselves or they will turn into little Oblomovs. SM

Kenneth Grahame: The Wind in the Willows (190 8)

The most perennially beloved of animal fables and a celebration of an all-chaps world. The work was composed as bedtime entertainment for the author’s son — on whom the immortal Toad was based. The story opens with Mole bursting out of his hole in spring to move into riverside digs with Rat (in zoological fact, a vole). Ratty messes about in boats. Toad messes about with the newfangled automobile (”poop! poop!”), which lands him in prison. He escapes, hilariously cross-dressed as a washerwoman. Meanwhile, the oikish stoats and weasels have occupied Toad Hall. With the aid of Mole, Rat and the fearsome Badger, the property is reclaimed, and Edwardian England is safe. As 1914 would prove, it wasn’t. JS

Richard Greaves (George Barr McCutcheon): Brewster’s Millions (1902)

Most enduring of literature’s “spend, spend, spend” fantasies. On his 25th birthday, impecunious New Yorker Monty Brewster is informed his grandfather has left him a million dollars. Five days later an uncle dies, leaving him a cool $7m, on condition that he spends every cent of his grandfather’s million within a year. Monty goes on a wild spree. Meanwhile, he must choose between haughty socialite Barbara and poor-but-virtuous Peggy. Monty loses everything through the treachery of a secretary. But a lucky investment brings him yet more millions, and he is free to marry Peggy and live in luxury. Frequently filmed, most notably in 1985, starring Richard Pryor. JS

Michael Green: Squire Haggard’s Journal (1975)

Eighteenth-century diarist Amos Haggard is more Tom Jones than James Boswell. Entries focus on carousing and whoring, though drizzle
and deaths from “spasmodick rumblings” are also noted. Poachers, paupers and papists are all subjected to pot-shots from the vile squire’s quill. Relying on a lucrative marriage for idiot son Roderick, Haggard takes him on a grand tour funded by cheating at cards and winning belching contests. Michael Green first invented the hero of this rollicking parody for the Daily Telegraph’s Peter Simple column, and the BBC adapted the novel for a television series in the early 1990s. NC

Graham Greene: Our Man in Havana (195 8)

One of Graham Greene’s “entertainments”, this brilliantly plotted and very funny book pokes fun at the uselessness of British intelligence. James Wormold, a vacuum cleaner salesman living in ultra-sensitive pre-revolutionary Havana, is recruited as a spy by a secret service smoothie called Hawthorne. Wormold does it because he needs the money, but he’s useless and has no worthwhile contacts, so he fabricates a network of sub-agents and sends bogus information to his superiors, including a diagram of a vacuum cleaner that he claims is a top-secret military installation. His reports become ever more elaborate and eventually he is rumbled, but Hawthorne is too embarrassed to sack him. Instead, Wormold gets a job back in London training other spies, and an OBE. Greene called the book a “lighthearted comedy”, but it’s also a useful reminder of a cold-war world that now seems very distant. SM

Graham Greene: Travels With My Aunt (1969)

Henry Pulling, a recently retired bank manager who had been looking forward to a life occupied by dahlias, is dragged into crime and exotic travel by his wayward Aunt Augusta. A journey from suburban London to Brighton to Istanbul to South America, it also explores recent history — with a compassionate overview of the sorrows of war, a hilarious send-up of 1960s counter culture, and surprising revelations about Henry himself. Graham Greene described his most enjoyably straightforward comedy as “the only book I have written for the fun of it”, and it’s easy to reciprocate his pleasure. SJ

Giovanni Guareschi: The Little World of Don Camillo (194 8)

Don Camillo is the priest of a small village in postwar Italy. Locked in an ongoing but amicable feud with Mayor Peppone and his communist supporters, hot-headed Don Camillo is gently chided by the voice of Christ. The Little World is created through a series of stories and vignettes, with subjects ranging from the mayor’s desire to christen his son Lenin to the priest’s stroll through a minefield. The book has spawned a rather larger world of Don Camillo: three subsequent novels, two additional English short story collections, six films, and two BBC adaptations. NC

Mark Haddon: The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time (2003)

Told entirely from the point of view of Christopher Boone, a teenager who suffers from Asperger’s syndrome, this novel demonstrates the strengths of the unreliable narrator. After discovering his neighbour’s dead dog and learning that his mother is not, as his father had told him, dead, Christopher embarks on a journey to discover the true story. Because his view is blinkered by his condition, the reader becomes a more active participant, seeing the links where the literalminded narrator cannot. Despite our narrator’s fear of human affection, this is a gorgeously warm and hugely touching debut novel. Hadley Freeman

Eric Hodgins: Mr Blandings Builds His Dream House (1946)

Anyone who has suffered at the hands of estate agents, builders, electricians, architects or plumbers will empathise with the plight of Mr Blandings and the hassles he faces after moving from Manhattan to rural Connecticut in Eric Hodgins’s property-porn classic. The resonant theme has been successfully translated into two blockbuster movies (one of the same name starring Cary Grant and the Tom Hanks vehicle The Money Pit). Both are amusing, but neither can match the urbane wit of Hodgins’s prose, nor the elegance of Shrek creator William Steig’s accompanying illustrations. SJ

Nick Hornby: High Fidelity (1995)

The grumpy owner of a north London record store and his two socially inept employees slowly start to recognise that there’s more to life than mix tapes in Nick Hornby’s debut. It’s an amusingly accurate exposure of that male need to collect obscure records, make top fives of everything, and shirk relationship commitment — but the book that launched a thousand lists is more than an excuse to laugh at every man’s inner-nerd. Written with rare ease, this is also a touching and elegant affirmation of the power of love and friendship. SJ

Bohumil Hrabal: I Served the King of England (1983)

Ditie, the hero of Hrabal’s comic masterpiece, learns early in his career to keep his ears open without hearing, keep his eyes open without seeing. From busboy he progresses to become a waiter in a Prague hotel, and then a millionaire with a hotel of his own; but his personal parameters remain those of the small man. Building on the rambling style of Hasek’s Svejk, the novel’s humour and bathos achieve universal significance in the contrast between Ditie’s meagre resources and his eternally grandiose ambition. Joanna Hines

James Hynes: The Lecturer’s Tale — A Novel (2001)

In this pun-rich academic send-up, Professor Nelson Humboldt comes into an unusual gift. When his finger is surgically reattached following a freak accident, he discovers that he can use it to control people. Immediately, he sets about proving that even a little power can corrupt, and takes over the English department in his midwestern university. The meshing of gothic horror and literary theory might seem unlikely, but Hynes puts it to superb comic use in pointing out the absurdities of gender theory, tenure tracks and campus-based culture wars. SJ

Christopher Isherwood: Mr Norris Changes Trains (1935)

A chance encounter kick-starts a close friendship between Berlin-based English teacher William Bradshaw and Arthur Norris, an elderly gentleman with a nervous flicker in his light blue eyes. Norris, as we discover with young William, is quite the man of paradoxes: flamboyant in his tastes but heavily in debt, apolitical but a fervent member of the communist party, polite and mannered but sexually deviant. Frequently squeezed into one volume with Isherwood’s other Berlin-novel, Goodbye to Berlin, Mr Norris Changes Trains is less a documentary about Weimar life and more of a masterpiece in comic portraiture. Philip Oltermann

Howard Jacobson: The Mighty Walzer (1999)

Teenage table tennis champion Oliver Walzer knows a lot about ping-pong, but he’s yet to learn how to use his own balls — and so Howard Jacobson’s coming of age story gets its theme and endless opportunity for comic set pieces. The humour is deadpan and bites hard, while Walzer’s worldview is shot through with misanthropy. But there’s still an irresistible charm to the novel’s affectionate nostalgia for Jewish life in 1950s Manchester, born of the fact that so much of it is taken from the author’s own intriguing autobiography. SJ

Randall Jarrell: Pictures from an Institution (1954)

Professor of English Randall Jarrell blends literary dexterity and professional experience to dazzling effect in his campus novel. The institution in question is Benton, a progressive women’s college, and this is not so much a novel as a series of sketches of Benton’s most important members. Through them, Jarrell explores all the great campus archetypes, from rapier-tongued novelist Gertrude Johnson, whose “bark was her bite”, to Flo Whittaker, whose social campaigning is as tireless as her outfits are outlandish. The combination of affection and goggling outrage with which Jarrell paints his subjects is endearing, as well as painfully funny. Sarah Crown

Jerome K Jerome: Three Men in a Boat (1899)

Three Men in a Boat is an account of a Thames boating holiday undertaken by three male friends. It was originally intended as a serious travel guide, detailing points of interest between Kingston and Oxford. However, the humorous set-pieces — including an account of getting lost in the maze at Hampton Court and falling overboard — soon took over, and the work is generally regarded as a comic masterpiece. Its portrayal of quintessential Englishness, particularly in the form of the lackadaisical narrator “J”, based on Jerome himself, has ensured the book’s popular success around the world. It remains a huge hit in Russia. Kathryn Hughes

James Joyce: Finnegans Wake (1939)

One of the best-known but least-read works of the 20th century, Finnegans Wake is a confounding mix of the ridiculous and the sublime. Because the novel is so hard to understand, there’s little agreement about the plot — other than that it’s a prolonged immersion into the stream of consciousness provoked by the titular Finnegan’s dreams. Indeed, the jury’s still out about whether this is a work of genius or gibberish, but the fact that such a big book with so little punctuation has survived for so long says something about its fascination. SJ

Garrison Keillor: Lake Wobegon Days (1985)

Lake Wobegon is the midwest American town invented by Garrison Keillor for his Prairie Home Companion radio show. It’s a place with one traffic light (”almost always on green”) and two parking meters (which are never used since all the spaces around them are free), which is full of “good people in the worst sense of the word”. Keillor’s first book maps the town’s history and the small dramas surrounding its inhabitants with low-key humour and a quiet brilliance that made it one of the unlikeliest — but most-loved — multimillion sellers of the 1980s. SJ

Andrey Kurkov: Death and the Penguin (1996)

The titular penguin is the bird Viktor Zolotaryov adopts when cash-strapped Kiev zoo starts giving its animals away for free. Death comes in the obituaries Viktor is employed to write for people who are still alive — but tend to expire unnervingly promptly and in suspicious circumstances. Andrey Kurkov’s flair for using such surreal material to highlight grim realities, and his ability to maintain a light comical tone while exposing the dark corners of post-Soviet life, has earned him comparisons with Russian greats such as Bulgakov. This book is good enough to withstand them. SJ

John Lanchester: The Debt to Pleasure (1996)

Tarquin Winot, an epicure nonpareil, is the unreliable narrator of Lanchester’s debut, a delicious emulsion of gourmand musings, recipes, egotism, erudition and delusion. As Tarquin takes us with him on his jaunt through France, the sea air tickling his false moustache, his reminiscences of a life spent cultivating the most refined tastes begin to hint at a more sinister truth. And why is he forever consulting that surveillance manual? To say any more would spoil a truly delightful confection. Carrie O’Grady

Alain-René Lesage: Gil Blas (L’Histoire de Gil Blas de Santillane) (1715- 1735)

The amiability of the luck-riding narrator Gil Blas and the rich variety of his adventures on both sides of the law and among every strata of society, make this one of the great picaresque novels of the 18th century. Even if you haven’t had the pleasure of reading the book itself, you’ll almost certainly have read something influenced by it. Fielding’s Tom Jones, Dickens’s Nicholas Nickleby, Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, to name just three, all owe a debt to Lesage’s romp through 17th-century Spain. Sam Jordison

David Lodge: Changing Places (1975)

Changing Places deals with the experiences of two academics as they embark upon an exchange programme. Englishman Philip Swallow temporarily re-locates to California, while American Morris Zapp arrives in the West Midlands to work at the University of Rummidge. By the end of the book, the two men have gone much further, swapping politics, lifestyles and even wives. Within this broad, comic plotting, Lodge wryly explores the differences between the highly professionalised American academia of the time, especially its love affair with literary theory, and the much more pragmatic, not to say amateurish, British tradition. Kathryn Hughes

David Lodge: Nice Work (198 8)

A government scheme designed to foster understanding between academia and industry is a surprising success in David Lodge’s deft pastiche of the industrial novel genre. When the radical feminist lecturer Robyn Penrose is sent to shadow workaholic factory boss Victor Wilcox, they start out in argument and incomprehension, but eventually their mutual understanding extends to sharing Jacuzzis. Along the way, Lodge presents a bleak view of Thatcher’s Britain, but the book is too entertaining to ever seem dour, and clever enough to confirm him as one of the leading comic writers of his generation. Sam Jordison

Rose Macaulay: The Towers of Trebizond (1956)

“‘Take my camel, dear,’ said my aunt Dot, as she climbed down from this animal on her return from High Mass.” The famous opening sentence sets the tone for the entertaining romp that follows, as Aunt Dot, her niece Laurie, and Father Hugh Chantry-Pigg journey from Istanbul to Trebizond on Turkey’s Black Sea coast. A madcap first half gives way to a more serious second, which examines the meaning of faith. The potentially jarring combination of comedy, romance, history and theology shouldn’t work, but miraculously does. This was Macaulay’s final novel — she died two years after it was published — and is highly autobiographical. Stephen Moss

AG Macdonnell: England, Their England (1933)

“No one need be afraid that this is a war book,” writes Archie Macdonell in chapter one of his famous novel/memoir/satirical portrait of England between the wars. Nonsense, of course. This is absolutely a war book, with the survivors of the first world war making merry among the ruins, political and economic. Mild-mannered Scotsman (a self-portrait one assumes) Donald Cameron goes in search of the spirit of England and falls in with assorted lunatics. Everyone remembers the rumbustious cricket match but the pièce de résistance is the wonderfully unhinged Huggins helping Cameron to pack for a country-house weekend. Warning: not for the politically correct — this is whiter-than-white England in the 1930s, remember. But on the plus side, Macdonnell clearly loathed hunting. SM

Compton Mackenzie: Whisky Galore (1947)

Compton Mackenzie delights in reworking the true story of the wreck of the alcohol-laden SS Politician, which replenished the supplies of a Scottish island community that had been “feeling the ill-effects of no whisky” thanks to second world war shortages, and how the islanders’ covert salvage operations led them into conflict with petty local officialdom. Good humoured and full of intriguing complexities, it demonstrates why Mackenzie was such a popular writer in the middle of the last century — and makes you wonder why he is so neglected today. SJ

David Madsen: Memoirs of a Gnostic Dwarf (1995)

Something of the nature of David Madsen’s debut can be gleaned from the titular tiny narrator’s opening declaration: “This morning his Holiness summoned me to read to him from St Augustine, while the physician applied unguents and salves to his suppurating arse.” But even that is scant preparation for this riot of torture, odd sex, wrestling, ecclesiastical corruption, twisted philosophy and good, old-fashioned corruption in Madsen’s salacious recreation of Renaissance Rome. SJ

W Somerset Maugham: Cakes and Ale — Or, the Skeleton in the Cupboard (1930)

Never has the bitchery of the London literary world been more scathingly depicted. In 1928, Thomas Hardy died. It was the biggest literary funeral since Tennyson. Hardy filtered his authorised biography through his young, second wife, Florence. Details of his passionate, doomed, first marriage were largely suppressed. Maugham’s novel is narrated by William Ashenden, who had known the recently deceased novelist, Edward Driffield (Hardy) and his first wife, Rosie (Emma Hardy). The hack man of letters, Alroy Kear (Hugh Walpole) has been authorised to write the biography. Gradually, details of Driffield’s life are exhumed. But hovering over the narrative is the question: “How much is it proper for posterity to know?” Maugham wrote bigger novels, but nothing sharper. John Sutherland

Armistead Maupin: Tales of the City (197 8)

Armistead Maupin brought these stories — which include More Tales of the City (1980), Further Tales of the City (1982), Babycakes (1984), Significant Others (1987), Sure of You (1989) and Michael Tolliver Lives (2007) — to print in local papers so quickly that he was able to immediately comment on news and develop some playful interactions with his original San Francisco readership. His observance of current events also ensured he was one of the first writers to discuss Aids. The disease added deeply felt tragedy to his originally joyous chronicle of gay and transgender life, but even that couldn’t dampen the irrepressible spirit of the mixed-up characters floating around glorious queen bee landlady Anna Madrigal. A series as effortlessly stylish as the city it celebrates. SJ

Jay McInerney: Bright Lights, Big City (1984)

1980s hyper-decadence, wise-crackingly depicted. The unnamed hero-narrator works on a Manhattan-based magazine (transparently the New Yorker) in “The Department of Factual Verification.” By night he hangs out in clubs and ingests “Bolivian Marching Powder”. His evil angel (and pusher) is Tad Allagash. His good angel is his brother Michael who comes to the city to save him. In vain. After being fired by his ogress supervisor, Ms Clara Tillinghast, he embarks on a night of epic debauchery after which, symbolically, he swaps his raybans for some bread at an early morning bakery. He concludes “I will have to learn everything all over again”. JS

Spike Milligan: Puckoon (1963)

Long after Spike Milligan’s unlikely position as national treasure and favourite of Prince Charles have been forgotten, his subversive genius will remain: the prime example of which is Puckoon. A surreal, freewheeling satire set in a village that is divided in two during the partition of Ireland when officials muck up the drawing of a boundary line in their hurry to get to the pub, it’s necessarily troubled, but hilarious. It also contains the funniest funeral scene in fiction. SJ

Magnus Mills: The Restraint of Beasts (199 8)

Magnus Mills was the bus driver whose first novel won him a million-pound advance. Or rather he wasn’t. Once the press hysteria died down, the true figure turned out to be a fraction of that. By then, however, The Restraint of Beasts had become a publishing sensation, shortlisted for the Booker and the Whitebread first novel prize. Thomas Pynchon hailed it as “a demented, deadpan comic wonder”. If you only read one black comedy about fatal-accident-prone high-tensile-fence erectors, make it this one. Phil Daoust

John Mortimer: Charade (1947)

Based on his own experiences with the Crown Film Unit during the second world war, John Mortimer’s debut features a nameless narrator who gets a job on an army training film, is disappointed to learn that his title of “assistant director” is a euphemism for general dogsbody, but soon finds diversion in investigating a mysterious death. There’s no pretence at profundity here, but this entertaining farce allows Mortimer to display plenty of his dry wit and yarnspilling ability a full 30 years before he struck gold with Rumpole. SJ

John Mortimer: Titmuss Regained (1990)

“Leslie held a simple view of human nature. Mankind, it was his considered opinion, was motivated by greed. The carrot was money, the stick failure.” In this second airing, Mortimer’s eponymous shadow-side creation is now a Thatcherite cabinet minister. Publicly in favour of unimpeded development, he is privately faced with the awkward necessity of preventing a new town being built in the backyard of the home he has bought for his new bride. The resulting mayhem is a far from subtle satire, sparing no one in its depiction of greed and self-interest. Joanna Hines

Iris Murdoch: Under the Net (1954)

Jake Donaghue has no fixed address and no fixed income, but, as he is quick to point out, he has a wealth of friends and a rich inner life — and his odyssey through the Soho pubs, milk bars and Battersea bedsits of 50s London is entertaining and funny. Though less finely crafted than her later books, Under the Net introduced readers to the wonderful Planet Murdoch, where engaging characters can discuss such topics as “the central knot of being” without being boring or pretentious — no mean feat. Joanna Hines

Vladimir Nabokov: Pnin (1957)

The campus novel to end all campus novels. Nabokov’s short but dense and glittering book follows the declining fortunes of Timofey Pnin, a dual-exile from communist Russia and occupied Europe, who has ended up teaching Russian at Waindell College in the US. The novel charts Pnin’s comic misadventures and his difficulties in grappling with America. But, as ever, this is not enough for Nabokov, who plays elaborate games with the narrative voice, and in the final chapter provides an entirely new frame that upends everything we have read previously. A masterpiece that should be read alongside Nabokov’s two contemporaneous American novels, Lolita and Pale Fire, in which Pnin reappears. SM

Vladimir Nabokov: Pale Fire (1962)

An epic, a satire, a jeu d’esprit . . . Nabokov’s perennial favourite is all of these at once. The bulk of the book is taken up by a 999-line poem by a venerable American poet reflecting on his life. It is annotated by a Professor Kinbote, whose slightly unbalanced foreword gives a hint of what’s to come: his gloss on the poem is wildly at odds with what the verse seems to say, and introduces another level of reality that leaves us guessing. While academics squabble over the book’s metafictional qualities, ordinary readers are still glad to be in on the joke. CO

Shiva Naipaul: Fireflies (1970)

In the rush to acclaim Nobel-winning Vidia, people tend to forget his hugely talented younger brother, and the three novels he wrote before his premature death, aged only 40, in 1985. Fireflies is a long, tragicomic family saga (compare the elder Naipaul’s A House for Mr Biswas) in which the grounddown Lutchmans, satellites of a once prominent Hindu family now in terminal decline, try vainly to make good amid the shifting landscape of 1950s Trinidad. DJ Taylor

Victor Pelevin: The Sacred Book of the Werewolf (200 8)

If you want satire, who better to turn to than the Russians? Victor Pelevin’s fizzing, insidious novel takes on consumer culture, the oil industry, PR and oligarchs (a combination of “oil” and “gargle”, we’re told), through the story of a Moscow prostitute who also happens to be a 2,000-year-old Chinese fox. Her affair with a federal security agent entangles her in a world of werewolves and shape-shifters who are able to howl the oil out of the ground. Sexy and lively, this is a terrific eastern take on matters increasingly relevant to westerners. CO

Robert Plunkett: My Search for Warren Harding (1983)

Smog-choked Los Angeles and its vacuous, strutting inhabitants are the target of Robert Plunkett’s acidulous farce. Our narrator, the aptly named Elliot Weiner, heads to LA on the trail of President Harding’s letters to his now-ancient mistress, Rebekah, who is spinning out her senescence in the Hollywood hills. The stakes get higher and the comedy lower as Weiner’s increasingly frantic efforts to get his hands on the letters — culminating in the bedding of Rebakah’s titanic granddaughter — predictably descend into glorious chaos. Sarah Crown

Barbara Pym: Excellent Women (1952)

There are a number of English novelists who can claim an inheritance from Jane Austen, but none so authoritatively as Barbara Pym. This is the second of her dozen witty high comedies of English life and manners. The setting is postwar London, the heroine a spinster, Mildred Lathbury, who says of herself that “women like me really expected very little — nothing, almost” but to whom, through the all-too-human passions of the vicars, widows, anthropologists and lotharios she encounters, everything happens. An enchanting, fiercely intelligent, ferociously funny romantic novel. Carmen Callil

Barbara Pym: Less Than Angels (1955)

A group of students are alternately united and divided by the opening of Professor Felix Byron Mainwaring’s anthropological library and research centre — otherwise known as “Felix’s Folly”. Would-be anthropologists Mark and Digby are determined to secure the only two research grants on offer — despite a woeful lack of experience — while their fellow students seem more preoccupied by affairs of the heart. Frequently bearing comparisons to Austen, Pym enjoyed a huge revival in 1977 after Philip Larkin and Lord David Cecil, both writing in the TLS, named her one of the 20th century’s most underrated novelists. Her elegant wit and keen insight into human behaviour continue to mark her out today. Charlotte Stretch

Raymond Queneau: Zazie in the Metro (1959)

Published in French as Zazie dans le métro, this is by far Raymond Queneau’s best-known book. It has overshadowed his many other achievements, in part because it was immediately made into a well-received film by Louis Malle. Zazie Lalochere, up from the country to stay in Paris for a couple of days with her female impersonator uncle, is France’s answer to Holden Caulfield, a sassy adolescent with a sharp ear for language. All she wants to do is ride the metro, but the metro is strike-bound, so she escapes the ministrations of her uncle and wanders round Paris instead, just about staying out of the clutches of those who might wish to test her somewhat knowing brand of innocence. A classic that captures a glorious moment in French cultural life. SM

Mordecai Richler: Solomon Gursky Was Here (1990)

What happened to the Renaissance man Solomon Gursky? Moses Berger, a scholar and drunk, is researching the enigmatic figure. Mordecai Richler’s fictional Gursky family is inspired by the Jewish Bronfmans. In 400 pages we time-hop between 1850 and 1983; it creatively combines magic realism, a natural wit and Dickensian scope of vision. Of Richler’s 11 novels this has been regarded as his best work. It was shortlisted for the Booker prize, and won the Commonwealth writers prize in 1990. Richler also wrote screenplays, one of which, The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz, was nominated for an Oscar. Kohinoor Sahota

Philip Roth: Portnoy’s Complaint (1969)

Philip Roth was mostly seen as an earnestly high-toned young novelist until he published Portnoy’s Complaint, and you can still feel his exhilaration at throwing off his inner censor in the pages of his comic masterpiece (”Up society’s ass, copper!”). “Probably the last American novel,” as Jonathan Franzen once put it, “that could have appeared on Bob Dole’s radar as a nightmare of depravity.” Alexander Portnoy’s wildly energetic monologue on Jewishness, sex and, of course, masturbation has managed to become a monument without losing its freshness and funniness. Chris Taylor

Saki: The Westminster Alice (1902)

This political parody uses Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland to critique the British government. As enthusiasm for the Boer war declined, questions were being asked about how it was handled. And in the episode “Alice goes to Lamberth”, even the Church of England is criticised. It was first published in the Westminster Gazette in collaboration with cartoonist Francis Carruthers Gould. Saki, the pseudonym of Hector Hugh Munro, was a famous satirist who contributed political sketches to the Gazette and was the political correspondent for the Morning Post. KS

Saki: The Unbearable Bassington (1912)

Cosmus Bassington is an upper-class young man with a cynical outlook. As his mother keeps trying to sort out his life, “his naughtiness, his exasperating selfishness” interferes. Set within Mayfair and Westminster, it delights in depicting parks, clubs, theatres and drawing rooms. Sandie Byrne (the biographer of HH Munro, aka Saki) recently accused it of “unbearable anti-semitism”. KS

Ronald Searle: Hurrah for St Trinian’s (194 8)

In St Trinian’s skirts are short, pupils are well-armed, and mayhem is rife: the jagged, ink-blotted drawings in Searle’s cartoons often show girls who have been murdered with pitchforks or suffered horrific injuries in team sports. In 1958, a series of comedy films were made with Alistair Sim, in drag, as the headmistress. The more recent adaptation, in 2007, had an all-star line up with Rupert Everett, Colin Firth and Russell Brand, but lacked the dark edge The Belles of St Trinian’s — the first film about the school, released in 1954 of Searle now near-forgotten masterpiece. KS

Will Self: Great Apes (1997)

Planet of the Apes meets Nineteen Eighty-Four. Simon Dykes wakes up one morning to a world where chimpanzees are self-aware and humans are the equivalent of chimps in our world. Simon has lived a life of quick drugs, shallow artists and meaningless sex. But this London, much like a PG tips advert, has chimps in human clothing but with their chimpness intact. The carnivalesque world is humorous, gripping and provocative. KS

Tom Sharpe: Porterhouse Blue (1974)

Porterhouse is a Cambridge college renowned for its excellent dining and academic mediocrity, where students are chosen for their wealth rather than wisdom and academics tend to die of strokes brought on by excessive eating. When a progressive new master tries to reform the place, he enters battle with the college’s reactionary conservative establishment — and in this glorious farce that can only have one result: all parties end up looking as absurd as each other. Sharpe’s gift is to make their discomfort and pain a joy to behold. SJ

Tom Sharpe: Blott on the Landscape (1975)

This satirical work looks at rural England at its best. Sir Giles Lynchwood, millionaire property developer and Tory MP, wants a motorway to be driven through the ancestral home of his spouse, Lady Maud. But local opposition grows. This has laugh-out-loud moments, witty dialogue, and an imaginative story. The work is thought to be based on the proposed construction of a motorway through south Shropshire. It produced a six-part BBC television adaptation starring Geraldine James, George Cole and David Suchet. The script was written by Malcolm Bradbury. KS

Wilfred Sheed: Office Politics (1966)

George Wren is “number four editor” at a little-known magazine, the Outsider, which Sheed’s disclaimer hastens to add “resembles no magazine living or dead”. The office is made up of eccentrics, and George feels there is not much in the publication that he believes in. And, of course, there is the office politics: gossiping, conspiring and backstabbing. The work still remains fresh today. Sheed himself worked as a journalist, and his novels were generally satirical about the profession. Two of his novels, including this one, have been nominated for the US National Book Awards. Kohinoor Sahota

Charles Simmons: Belles Lettres Papers: A Novel (1987)

Frank Page has been interested in Belles Lettres, a fictional review journal, as an undergraduate and is rewarded with a job offer. He recounts his time there through the journal’s history, office politics, sexual harassment, and a Shakespearean hoax. The novel takes an amusing look at the world of journalism. Simmons, a former editor of the New York Times Book Review, has responded to similarities by saying “nobody could possibly confuse me with Frank Page, he is loyal, wise and discreet”. KS

Jane Smiley: Moo (1995)

The story takes place in the late 1980s, in the American midwest, at Moo University (fictional, of course), and things are not what they seem. The halls are filled with academic one-upmanship, hypocrisy and prejudices. The thick tome has five parts, more than a dozen overlapping plots, and several key characters vying for attention. Smiley is a Pulitzer prize winner for her 1991 novel A Thousand Acres. KS

Thorne Smith: Topper Takes a Trip (1932)

Cosmo Topper is a respectable banker, but his four spirit friends burden his life. When he is on holiday in the south of France with his wife, the four friends descend upon him. This supernatural fantasy-fiction puts Topper in situations that are compromising, dangerous and altogether amusing. Smith is best known for his Topper series, which sold millions of copies in the 1930s. This story was adapted for TV by Norman Z McLeod, with Constance Bennett, Roland Young and Billie Burke, and received two Oscar nominations. KS

Tobias Smollett: The Adventures of Ferdinand Count Fathom (1753)

The darkest of Smollett’s novels, with a protagonist chosen “from the purlieus of treachery and fraud”. With charm and swagger, the selfstyled Count cuts a swathe through European high society. Gifted at “gaining upon the human heart”, he ruthlessly analyses others’ (particularly women’s) vanities. Indeed, he becomes a kind of satirist, conversing knowingly about art or international politics or Newtonian science in London salons. In Smollett’s representation, the English nobility are too weak-minded to see that he is a mere sharper. After many triumphs and reverses, he renounces evil and goes to live “a sober and penitent life” in a northern county. John Mullan

Tobias Smollett: The Adventures of Roderick Random (174 8)

Smollett’s first novel turns much of his own life — the search for patronage, his terrifying experiences as a naval surgeon — into an innocent’s progress through eighteenth-century Europe. He is generous and intelligent, but he relishes a fight. Roderick tells his own rollicking story, which includes being press-ganged, kidnapped by smugglers, and recruited into the French army. Like many heroes of picaresque fiction, he suffers a spell in prison. Smollett crowds into the novel representatives of every social group he can think of (Cringer the MP, Vulture the bailiff, Strutwell the aristocrat, Bellower the actor, and so on) — a rich cast of satirical types. JM

Tobias Smollett: The Adventures of Peregrine Pickle (1751)

The title should tell you what to expect. Smollett’s mischiefmaking hero wanders the world and gets into scrapes. Young Peregrine has a predilection for practical jokes (the violent pranks of English boarding school fiction have their origins here). This persists into adult life, and he punishes those he disapproves of with falling chamber pots and worse. He starts with plenty of cash and tours Europe, witnessing the ludicrous vices of foreigner but becoming something of a rake himself. Booze, sex and misanthropy lay him low, Smollett’s comedy becoming too gloomy for laughs, but faithful servants and the love of a good woman redeem him in the end. JM

Tobias Smollett: The Expedition of Humphry Clinker (1771)

Written in illness and Italian exile, the last of Smollett’s novels is a brilliant anatomy of British follies. Written in letters, it takes us in a party of genteel tourists around Britain, safeguarded by the resourceful servant Humphry. Their accounts of what they see are often mutually contradictory. Smollett’s representative seems to be the irascible (but secretly kind) squire, Matthew Bramble, whose missives sounding off about the evils of modern civilisation are wonderfully splenetic. London appals him, but Bath, with its nouveaux riches hypochondriacs and noxious waters, drives him to vividly expressive horror. You can almost smell what he smells. JM

Laurence Sterne: The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman (1759)

It was penned by a middleaged eighteenth-century clergyman living in provincial obscurity, yet this is as wild and witty and formally audacious as any novel in the language. Tristram starts trying to tell the story of his own life with the moment of his conception, an episode of coitus interruptus that is the most extraordinary opening of any English novel. Then he finds himself having to go backwards in time, trying to explain who he is by telling us about the Shandy family, a cast of high-quality eccentrics. His narrative includes diagrams and typographic jokes, black pages and blank pages, every comic resource of print. JM

Mike Stocks: White Man Falling (2006)

Former sub-Inspector RM Swaminathan — known to everybody as Swami — is a suicidal paralytic, confined to a wheelchair after suffering a stroke while beating a police suspect. When the novel’s titular white man jumps from the window of a South Indian hotel, before dying at Swami’s feet, the ex-policeman is drawn into a theatre of the absurd in which he cannot physically perform. Stocks’s rollicking debut novel, published in 2006, can be seen to capitalise fully on the contemporary trend for comedy of the blackest kind. Deliberately using provocative themes as key targets of humour, White Man Falling is a skilful blend of farce and satire. Charlotte Stretch

RS Surtees: Handley Cross (1843)

The most hilarious of the novels about the Pickwick of fox-hunting, Jorrocks, immortalised by Surtees’s pen and the illustrations of John Leech. The spa town of Handley Cross resolves to gentrify itself under the leadership of Captain Miserrimus Doleful, who recruits an out-of-towner as the master of their hunt. Their new MFH, Jorrocks, turns out to be a 20-stone retired greengrocer and an incorrigibly vulgar cockney. He takes up his post at Diana Lodge. Hilarious hunting adventures ensue, many centred around the maladroit James Pigg. At one low point, Jorrocks is incarcerated in Hoxton asylum, as a hunting lunatic. All ends serenely, and the gross greengrocer cantered on for a number of sequels. John Sutherland

Jonathan Swift: A Tale of a Tub (1704)

“God, what a genius I had when I wrote that book,” commented the older Swift on this effusion of his youthful satirical fancy. A parody of learned wit, its allegorical narrative of three brothers who represent the different types of Christian belief almost disappears under Swift’s prefaces and digressions and mock-annotations. Its narrator is a modern hack, puffed up with enlightenment overconfidence, who claims to have here “dissected the Carcass of Humane Nature”. Believing in mechanical explanations of everything, he discovers the ignoble origins of our spiritual aspirations, shrouded in “Vapours ascending from the lower Faculties”. JM

Booth Tarkington: Penrod (1914)

Penrod Schofield is an eleven year-old schoolboy, growing up in the American midwest with friends Sam Williams and Maurice Levy. Typically boyish adventures — from copied homework assignments to the infamous Great Tar Fight — may have secured Penrod a reputation as “the Worst Boy in Town”, but they have also endeared him to generations of readers. For many, Tarkington’s sketches completely reinvented a strand of juvenile fiction that had previously peaked with Huckleberry Finn. As Princeton professor Dean West put it, upon handing the Pulitzer-prizewinning author his second honorary degree in 1918, “Tarkington rediscovered the American boy and wrote the idyll of his life.” CS

WM Thackeray: The Luck of Barry Lyndon (1844)

This is the author’s least favourite Thackeray novel, although following the 1975 Kubrick movie readers rate it almost as highly as Vanity Fair. Redmond Barry is an Irish bully. At 15 he fights a duel and, tricked into thinking he has killed his man, takes flight and serves as an infantryman in Frederick the Great’s wars. Later, he turns professional gambler. By chicanery he marries a rich widow and sets himself up as a nobleman. Eventually, his outrages catch up with him. He ends a broken man in debtors’ prison. The story is told, guilelessly, by an unregenerate Barry. Thackeray came to think the work too “savage” and did everything in his lifetime to keep it out of print. JS

Angela Thirkell: Before Lunch (1939)

Town planning might seem an unlikely target for comedy, but there is no shortage of wit and charm in this tale of a small village threatened by the arrival of a teashop. While urban developments are being fought, happily married Catherine Middleton tries to unravel the tangled love affairs and broken engagements that connect her friends. Published in 1939, Thirkell’s irresistible comedy of manners is the most well-known of her Barsetshire series – set in the same fictional cathedral town as Anthony Trollope’s Barsetshire Chronicles, and adopting a similarly affectionate satirical voice. CS

Leslie Thomas: Tropic of Ruislip (1974)

Local news reporter Andrew Maiby’s life of drab frustration and increasing fear of middle age is enlivened when he has an affair with a girl from — heavens! — the nearby council estate. Thomas’s wry 1974 study in suburbia paints a snobbish society dominated by inertia and golf clubs, in which houses are named Khartoum or High Sierra and hamsters make the news. Thomas treats his well-drawn characters with affection as well as humour, making this a book to be enjoyed, not sniggered through. JS

John Kennedy Toole: A Confederacy of Dunces (1980)

Toole never saw his only book published: he killed himself in 1969. But thanks to the persistence of his mother, and champions including Walker Percy, the book was picked up and became a cult classic. Its hero, Ignatius J Reilly, is brilliantly repulsive — from his gaseous emissions to his habit of raging against the universal offensiveness of modern culture. His efforts to get a job result in hilarious encounters with various deep south oddballs. If Comic Book Store Guy from the Simpsons ever moved to New Orleans, this would be his story. Carrie O’Grady

Anthony Trollope: Barchester Towers (1857)

The second, and most cheerful, instalment of the massive Barsetshire series, centred on the cathedral of the title. The novel opens with one of his finest scenes: the traditionalist Archdeacon Grantly is by the deathbed of his father, the bishop. If the old man dies before the current government falls, the archdeacon will succeed. If not, a reformer will come in. The old bishop lingers, and the new-broom Bishop Proudie and the odious chaplain, Obadiah Slope, shake the cathedral close to its foundation. Battle ensues. One of the prizes is Eleanor Bold, previously encountered in The Warden, now coveted by Slope. All turns out well and the way is opened for three more Barsetshire episodes before the terminally gloomy Last Chronicle of Barset. Barchester Towers is many readers’ favourite Trollope of the 47 he offered the reading public. JS

Kilgore Trout: Venus on the Half-Shell (1974)

Kilgore Trout is actually a figment of Kurt Vonnegut’s imagination: an unsuccessful sci-fi writer who stars in several of his novels. The real author of this playful parody is Philip José Farmer, who took Trout’s questions about why we are created “only to suffer and die” and sent an astronaut around the universe to try and find an answer. The result is a funny and inventive piece of fan fiction that mimics Vonnegut’s style without ever cheapening it. Vonnegut himself later grumbled about the book, but it remains an affectionate and worthy tribute. Sam Jordison

Mark Twain: The Mysterious Stranger (1916)

Although he spent years working on this bitter social commentary, Mark Twain died before he could bring it to publication. His literary executor released a version in 1916, which academics declared a hodge-podge — but while there may be controversy surrounding the text, there’s no doubting the brilliance of Twain’s writing. The inventive chaos wreaked by an amoral teenage angel called Satan in a medieval Austrian village is simply hilarious — even if it also demonstrates the unhappy moral: “Sanity and happiness are an impossible combination.” SJ

John Updike: The Witches of Eastwick (1984)

The men are weak and the women malicious in John Updike’s vision of Rhode Island life. His magic-using divorcees use their powers for mischief and seduction, until the mysterious Darryl Van Horne arrives, bringing dark powers of his own and spreading gossip about the town and jealousy among the witches. This bestseller works as social satire and a tale of the unexpected, physicality, skulduggery and the neatly imaged practicalities of sorcery joining to create a splendidly pungent read. JS

Evelyn Waugh: Decline and Fall (192 8)

Waugh’s bleak, amoral first novel is a young man’s book, best read by young men (and perhaps the odd woman). “I couldn’t understand why God had made the world at all,” says Mr Prendergast, a former vicar whose doubts have led him to leave the church and who is now teaching at the appalling Llanabba Castle school in Wales. Paul Pennyfeather, another would-be theologian, is sent down from Oxford for indecent behaviour, gets a job at Llanabba, falls in love with the mother of one of the boys, enters glittering London society, becomes involved in the trafficking of prostitutes and ends up in prison, where he once more encounters his fellow masters from Llanabba. Prison is marginally the less oppressive of the two institutions. The blackest of black comedies. Stephen Moss

Evelyn Waugh: Vile Bodies (1930)

Waugh’s second novel was nearly called Bright Young Things, the title that Stephen Fry’s film version adopted in 2003. We’re in the world of 1920s brittle wit and decadence. (On board ship: “‘It’s just exactly like being inside a cocktail shaker,’ said Miles Malpractice. ‘Darling your face — eau de nil.’”) Amid the frocks, the glitter, the noise and the champagne, Adam Fenwick-Symes courts Nina. Parties abound: “Masked parties, savage parties, Victorian parties, Greek parties, Russian parties, circus parties, parties where one had to dress as somebody else, almost naked parties in St John’s Wood. . .” But as war looms, the novel’s tone becomes darker. Charlotte Higgins

Evelyn Waugh: Black Mischief (1932)

Waugh’s third novel is a sharp satire on the nonsenses of intertwined African and western politics. His hero, Basil Seal, a feckless member of the London smart set, is called upon to assist his fellow Oxford graduate, the new emperor of the African state of Azania, to modernise the nation. Emperor Seth decides to abolish a number of outmoded institutions, including the death penalty, infant mortality, marriage, mortgages and emigration, and requires Seal to carry out his policies. Seal’s finest hour (though he does manage to eat his mistress at a cannibal feast) is the creation of a birth control pageant — “through sterility to culture”! CH

Evelyn Waugh: Scoop (193 8)

Although Michael Frayn’s Towards the End of Morning gives it a good run for its money, this is, for many, the Fleet Street satire. A misunderstanding between newspaper magnate Lord Copper (modelled on Lords Northcliffe and Beaverbrook) and his hapless foreign editor Salter (”Up to a point, Lord Copper”) means that William Boot, the mild nature columnist, is sent to Ishmaelia instead of the swashbuckling novelist John Boot. The reluctant war correspondent arrives with two tonnes of luggage, including canoe and cleft sticks, and is promptly embroiled in the backstabbing, fact-embroidering machinations of the press pack. Waugh covered (and approved of) Mussolini’s invasion of Abyssinia for the Daily Mail. His mockery of journalism, at least, contains just the right sting of truth. Aida Edemariam

Evelyn Waugh: The Loved One (194 8)

The funniest novel ever written about the American way of death. The novelist went to Hollywood with a view to the studios buying one of his works. The deal went sour, but not as sour as Waugh’s reaction to the new-age cemetery, Forest Lawn. The Loved One (funeral trade euphemism for “corpse”) centres on a young English poet, Dennis Barlow. Let go from Megalopolitan, he has found work at an animal funeral parlour, the Happier Hunting Ground. The death of his uncle leads to dealings upmarket with Whispering Glades (ie Forest Lawn). When the young corpse beautician who loves him kills herself, Dennis ruthlessly comes out on top. Southern California, Waugh believed, had solved all the problems of life except death. The Catholic church had rather better answers. JS

Fay Weldon: The Life and Loves of a She-Devil (1983)

Rather than give in to “useless bleating” when her accountant husband leaves her for another woman, Weldon’s suburban she-devil Ruth Patchett decides to get revenge. She “accidentally” burns down his house (after suffocating the family guinea pig), ruins her wayward man by means of an ingenious fraud, and sets about destroying his new lover. There’s real delight to be taken in the details of her various triumphs, but this is more than an emasculating fantasy. Weldon’s study of envy and inequality is as sharp as the surgeon’s knife Ruth uses to achieve her aims. SJ

HG Wells: Tono Bungay (1909)

Satire on the crass commercialism of 20th-century advertising. George Ponderovo is apprenticed to his Uncle Edward, a chemist. Between them, they concoct “Tono Bungay” — a quack medicine, which promises “The Secret of Vigour”. It makes them rich. George goes on to become an internationally renowned scientist. Uncle Edward is ruined when Tono Bungay is exposed as snake-oil. The novel ends with George, cruising down the Thames in his motor boat “X2″, with the sombre thought: “We are all things that make and pass, striving upon a hidden mission, out to the open sea.” JS

Geoffrey Willans and Ronald Searle: Molesworth (2000)

It is an enduring mystery that a book about a grubby boy at prep school (the authentically dreadful St Custard’s) in the 1950s should still be quite so funny. And yet, as any “fule kno”, Nigel Molesworth’s orthographical idiosyncrasies, sturdy anti-authoritarianism and worm’s eye view of the world are ever captivating. This collection of works includes Down with Skool (1953), How to be Topp (1954), Whizz for Atomms (1956) and Back in the Jug Agane (1959). Unmissable sections include “The Private Life of a Gerund”, “Boo to Sir or Are Masters Nesessessary” and “The Revolt of the Prunes”. CH

Nigel Williams: The Wimbledon Poisoner (1990)

The first of a trilogy that also includes They Came from SW19 (1992) and East of Wimbledon (1993), Williams’s strangely lovable suburban protagonists may be determined to “think about nice things” but have a habit of taking the reader to some very dark places. Williams displays impressive — not to mention unique — comic talent in producing a genuinely funny trilogy about a man who tries to murder his wife, a teenager grieving for his dead father, and the cultural tensions surrounding London’s Islamic communities. The humour is more rib-kicking than tickling, but that just adds to the pleasure of these agreeably tasteless creations. SJ

Angus Wilson: Anglo-Saxon Attitudes (1956)

Poor Wilson is now largely forgotten and more or less out of print. There is a (slightly) expensive edition of this in the Faber Finds series, or you can seek out a secondhand copy, of which there are many, because in the 1960s Wilson was a power in the land. Wilsonites consider this teeming satirical novel — so densely peopled it includes a helpful dramatis personae at the front — to be his best. It centres on Gerald Middleton, an ageing, ineffectual professor of medieval history who considers his life a failure, has made a loveless marriage, and, worst of all, comes to realise that early in his life he was involved in an archaeological dig — the “Melpham excavation”, when a phallic figure was found in the tomb of a revered 7th-century missionary — which was the greatest historical hoax of the age. Belatedly, he decides to try to unearth the truth, even though it means wrecking the cosy pretence that has governed the rest of his life. The delightful title comes from Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking-Glass. SM

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novels about crime that everyone must read (according to the guardian)

January 18, 2009 · No Comments

Nelson Algren: The Man with the Golden Arm (1949)

The golden arm — golden because it deals cards automatically and brings its morphine-addicted owner his fix — belongs to Frankie Machine. A second world war vet, Frankie takes us through Chicago’s impoverished little Poland: there’s Zosh, Frankie’s wife, wheelchair-bound though doctors can’t find cause or cure; Sparrow the dog-napper; and Louie, the addict turned dealer. Algren’s novel, the first winner of the National Book Award, is as ground-breaking for its clear-eyed and sympathetic portrayal of postwar America’s no-hopers as it is angry about how little there is to come back to.
Joanna Biggs

Marcel Allain and Pierre Souvestre: Fantômas (1911)

Few characters from lowbrow popular fiction were greeted with the same enthusiasm by the highbrow avant garde as this French villain: Magritte incorporated the character into his paintings, Robert Desnos wrote a poem about him and James Joyce simply declared the novel “enfantomastic”. Fantômas spreads terror for sheer pleasure: he slashes old ladies’ throats, stuffs strangled British socialites into trunks, robs Russian princesses in their hotel rooms, pushes witnesses off speeding trains and even rips the skin off their fingers to fake fingerprints.
Kohinoor Sahota

Eric Ambler: The Mask of Dimitrios (1939)

Ambler has never received the credit he deserves as a pioneer of thrillers for the thinking reader. The Mask of Dimitrios captured the British population’s dark anxieties about the inevitable drift towards the second world war, on the eve of which it was published. Generally considered the best of Ambler’s works, it was filmed by Jean Negulesco in 1944. Both book and film have an intricate flashback structure, as the novelist Cornelius Leyden reconstructs, piece by piece, the elusive character of the dead Dimitrios Makropoulos — murderer, assassin, spy, drug trafficker — in his murky career from Smyrna to Paris. His corpse speaks volumes.
John Sutherland

Paul Auster: The New York Trilogy (1985-86)

A writer of detective potboilers is driven mad by his involvement in a bizarre real-world case; a private eye named Blue is hired by a client called White to spy on someone by the name of Black; a man agrees to publish the writings of his vanished childhood friend — but is brought to the brink of destruction as his obsession with his friend’s whereabouts grows. Auster’s supple, glittering trilogy offers a destabilisingly postmodern take on the traditional detective novel: it’s not crime that is being investigated, but the mechanics of literature, authorship and identity.
Sarah Crown

EC Bentley: Trent’s Last Case (1913)

This is an archetypal golden age whodunnit by an author better known for his invention of the clerihew. Though less famous than Agatha Christie’s The Mysterious Affair at Styles, it has been as influential in a genre where meum and tuum is little observed. Philip Trent is a successful artist possessed of an uncanny skill in cracking murder cases from the examination of apparently inscrutable documentary evidence. This particular case concerns an obnoxious American financier, Sigsbee Manderson, who is found shot through the eye at his swish mansion, White Gables. Suicide or murder? The normally infallible Trent gets it wrong. Chagrinned, he marries Manderson’s widow and retires, wealthily, from sleuthing (to the relief of his fans, he returns in two later novels).
JS

Anthony Berkeley: The Poisoned Chocolates Case (1929)

From a master of the genre, this is a perfect golden age mystery in its focus on the puzzle over the plausible. A man is given a box of chocolates by an acquaintance at his West End club; he shares them with his wife. They both fall ill, and only he survives. Murder — but who was the intended victim? Six amateur sleuths get on the scent and come up with six different solutions, each more surprising than the last. Meanwhile, Berkeley uses the artificial set-up to make sly comments on the art of detection.
Carrie O’Grady

Nicholas Blake: The Beast Must Die (193 8)

Written under a pseudonym by the poet Cecil Day-Lewis, this detective novel features the elegant series hero Nigel Strangeways (supposedly based on WH Auden). The narrative opens with a diary entry: “I am going to kill a man … I don’t know his name.” The diarist is Frank Cairnes, a civil servant who writes mysteries as “Felix Lane”. Cairnes’s only son, Martin, has been killed by a hit and run driver. Cairnes tracks down the killer, a vulgar London garage owner, only for someone to kill him first. Strangeways is called in, and cracks a fiendishly baffling murder. He records it as “my most unhappy case”.
JS

Mary E Braddon: Lady Audley’s Secret (1862)

Braddon was one of those indefatigable Victorian women who, plagued by a useless father and needy husband, took to writing to earn a crust. This, one of the earliest and certainly the most successful of Victorian detective stories, was the sensational bestseller of the age. Could a woman be evil? The truth about the beautiful Lady Audley, the twists and turns of the discovery of murder and the unravelling of family secrets scandalised and obsessed the public. A brilliant thriller, witty and exciting — Dickens, Tennyson, Thackeray and Robert Louis Stevenson could not put it down.
Carmen Callil

John Buchan: The Thirty-Nine Steps (1915)

Buchan tossed off shockers such as this in the intervals of a highly successful public career. This yarn introduces his series hero, Richard Hannay, and is set on the nervous eve of the first world war. Hannay, a mining engineer, returns from Africa to London where he encounters an American, Franklin P Scudder, who has uncovered a German spy ring, the Black Stone. Scudder is murdered. Hannay is suspected and goes on the run to Scotland — pursued by British police and Hun assassins. He resourcefully cracks the “thirty-nine steps” code and thus saves England. The novel was filmed by Hitchcock (who introduced romantic interest) in 1935.
JS

John Buchan: Greenmantle (1916)

This second “Richard Hannay” adventure was called for by the runaway success of The Thirty-Nine Steps and the reading public’s refusal to allow Hannay to retire. It is 1916. Our hero returns from the front for a spot of leave, only to be recruited by the director of British military intelligence (”I know that you are brave and cool and resourceful”). An uprising is being fomented in the east by the enemy. A cryptic clue, “Greenmantle”, has been brought in by a dying spy. A deeply disguised Hannay goes to Constantinople via Germany accompanied by Sandy Arbuthnot and the Yank John Scantlebury Blenkiron. Between them, they foil the German spymaster, Ulric von Stumm, and his Mata Hari, Hilda von Einem (”evil — evil — evil”).
JS

WR Burnett: The Asphalt Jungle (1949)

Burnett’s novel opens with an epigraph from William James: “Man is the most formidable of all beasts of prey, and indeed the only one that preys systematically on his own species.” Set in Chicago, the plot revolves around a jewellery heist masterminded by “the Professor”, Erwin Riedenschneider. The hard guy in the gang is Dix Handley. The robbery goes smoothly, but various double-crosses bring the robbers to grief. Dix, mortally wounded, drives with his moll to the horse country of his youth, where he dies. The film, directed by John Huston and starring Sterling Hayden as Dix, is a noir masterpiece.
JS

James M Cain: The Postman Always Rings Twice (1934)

Amour fou in Depression America, the hardest boiled of crime novels spawned by Black Mask magazine. Frank Chambers, a drifter, finds himself at a roadside greasy spoon on the outskirts of Los Angeles. He bums a meal, intending to leave without paying the naive Greek owner, Nick Papadakis. Then he sees Nick’s wife, Cora. Frank stays around for a violent affair with Cora, and they conspire to kill Nick in a fake car accident. Their crime is detected, but a crooked lawyer gets them off. Driving back from their marriage, there is a genuine accident. Cora is killed. This time round, Frank is convicted. The novel is his death row confession. It ends: “Here they come.”
JS

James M Cain: Double Indemnity (1943)

This is the source of the ultra-noir film that brought together the two grandmasters of crime writing in its golden age. Walter Neff, the narrator hero, is an insurance agent who falls for a client, Phyllis Dietrichson. They conspire to murder her husband and make it look like an accident, yielding them “double indemnity” — twice the pay-off. Phyllis, however, is merely using Walter. In a final scene, they shoot each other. Walter dictates a deathbed dictaphone confession to his colleague. The 1944 film was directed by Billy Wilder and co-written by Raymond Chandler, with a much-imitated use of flashback narrative.
JS

Peter Carey: True History of the Kelly Gang (2000)

Although Alfred Knopf billed this book as a great American novel (apparently because Carey lives in New York), it is more correctly a great Australian novel. Being the purported autobiography of Ned Kelly, Australia’s Robin Hood, this Booker winner is full of derring-do — but read it for its voice, which is based, partly, on a real piece of writing by Kelly, the Jerilderie Letter. Read it for the pungent presence of the Australian landscape; for its sense of innocence betrayed; for its humour, for its tenderness; for its wild, minimally punctuated music.
Aida Edemariam

John Dickson Carr: The Hollow Man (1935)

Carr is the grandaddy of the locked-room mystery, and he took his craft very seriously, creating some of the most ingenious solutions in fiction without lying to the reader. But his books are deliciously suspenseful as well as intellectual, and this is surely the best. Professor Grimaud is found dead in an empty room from which the killer could not possibly have escaped. Later, a man is seen to be shot in the back, at close range, in a deserted street. A snowy London provides the spooky setting and evidence of footprints (or lack thereof).
CO

Raymond Chandler: The Big Sleep (1939)

This is the opener in Chandler’s series starring Philip Marlowe, the most famous private investigator to walk the mean streets of Los Angeles. The 38-year-old PI is assigned by General Sternwood to investigate the disappearance of Rusty Regan, the husband of the general’s older daughter, Vivian. She is obscurely involved with a gambling boss, Eddie Mars. The general’s nymphomaniac younger daughter, Carmen, is being blackmailed by a homosexual pornographer, Arthur Geiger. He and the Sternwood chauff eur (Carmen’s former lover) are murdered. A cold-blooded killer, Canino, stalks Marlowe. When asked by Howard Hawks, who was filming it, what was going on in the novel, Chandler replied: “Dammit, I don’t know.” But never has corruption been more powerfully written into the fabric of noir fiction.
JS

Raymond Chandler: The Long Goodbye (1953)

This late item in the Marlowe sequence is often regarded as the best of the series and a contender for best ever in the genre. Los Angeles, postwar, is no longer the sleepy western town it was in The Big Sleep. Marlowe, normally the lonest of wolves, befriends the drunken Terry Lennox, a man on the run It seems Lennox has murdered his wife. Later he reportedly commits suicide in Mexico. Marlowe (himself, temporarily, a suspect in Eileen Lennox’s killing) investigates. Things are not what they seem, least of all where Lennox is concerned. The novel is remarkable for its world-weary meditations by Chandler’s “shop-soiled Sir Galahad”, a hero who even his creator thought should be put out to grass soon (ie retirement in La Jolla).
JS

James Hadley Chase: No Orchids for Miss Blandish (1939)

This novel represented for George Orwell the “cesspool” of the 1930s, for Graham Greene an interesting “entertainment”, and for millions of British readers a welcome break from the slump and imminent world war. It was hacked out in a few weeks by an opportunistic English author who had never been to the US, but had studied Warner Bros gangster movies. The young Blandish heiress is kidnapped. Dave Fenner is looking for her, in the hope of winning the “five hundred grand” reward. Her original kidnappers, the Riley gang, have been rubbed out by their Ma Grisson rivals. Slim Grisson, a slobbery-lipped psychopathic rapist, is free to sate his lusts on his delectable captive, which he does. Fascinatingly disgusting pulp.
JS

Erskine Childers: The Riddle of the Sands (1903)

Subtitled “A Record of Secret Service”, this pioneer spy novel is written in pseudo-documentary style. Germany is secretly arming itself (”she grows, and strengthens, and waits”). “Carruthers of the FO” and his friend, Davies, go yachting on the sandbar-bedevilled Baltic waters, where they witness Germany’s rehearsal for the invasion of England. The Admiralty is informed. Childers resigned as an MP in 1910 to work for Irish independence. In 1914 he ran guns to Ireland in his yacht. In the savage civil war that followed independence, he was shot by (Irish) firing squad in 1922.
JS

Wilkie Collins: The Woman in White (1860)

Sometimes categorised as detective fiction, but more properly the greatest and most inspirational of the Victorian sensation novels, this is where Collins perfected his make ‘em laugh, make ‘em cry, make ‘em wait formula. Before leaving for his new position at Limmeridge House, the art teacher Walter Hartright encounters a spectral woman in white on Hampstead Heath. At Limmeridge, Walter falls in love with his pupil, Laura Fairlie (who strangely resembles the woman in white), and befriends Laura’s resourceful (but moustached) half-sister, Marian. Laura, however, is promised to the villainous Sir Percival Glyde. Aided by his fat henchman, the “Napoleon of Crime”, Fosco, Glyde has designs on Laura’s fortune. Madhouses, poisoning and Italian secret societies are involved. Good eventually triumphs — barely.
JS

Wilkie Collins: The Moonstone (186 8)

According to TS Eliot, this is “the first, longest, and best of English detective novels”. No longer the longest, but — even after 140 years of competition — still arguably the best and, unarguably, the pioneer in the genre. An English adventurer, John Herncastle, steals a sacred Indian diamond at the 1799 storming of Seringapatam. Forty years on, the gem comes into the possession of his heiress, Rachel Verinder. Three sinister Hindu thugs (disguised as street entertainers) are on the Moonstone’s trail. So are English thieves. The diamond disappears from Rachel’s bedroom while she sleeps. Was it her cousin Franklin Blake (who loves her) or some unknown thief? The denouement, involving opium, somnambulism and fake evangelists, is fiendishly ingenious.
JS

Richard Condon: The Manchurian Candidate (1959)

Sergeant Raymond Shaw kills on command and feels no guilt. A former Korean PoW from an influential American dynasty, he has been brainwashed by Korean communists. Will this proto-Bourne find out who programmed him? It is Condon’s best-known work, partly because of two big-screen adaptations: John Frankenheimer’s 1962 version starred Frank Sinatra, Laurence Harvey and Janet Leigh, while a 2004 remake featured Denzel Washington, Meryl Streep and Liev Schreiber. In the light of such A-list glamour, few remember that this was an idiosyncratic novel, driven on by an original starting point rather than conventional plot structures.
KS

Joseph Conrad: The Secret Agent (1907)

Published 102 years ago, The Secret Agent remains the most relevant of Conrad’s works today. Mr Verloc, a “seller of shady wares” (soft porn in brown envelopes), gets involved in an anarchist plot to blow up the Greenwich Observatory. He makes his wife’s brother, the mentally disabled Stevie, carry the bomb. The plot goes horrifically wrong; the chief inspector calls; Verloc and his wife, Winnie, are plunged into a very modern kind of hell. Behind it all lurks the sinister figure of the Professor, a terrorist so pure as to seem almost inhuman. Anyone who knows Conrad only from doing Heart of Darkness at A-level will find this later work startlingly enlightening.
CO

Joseph Conrad: Under Western Eyes (1911)

Conrad’s exploration of the morality of revolution bears such close resemblance to Soviet Russia that it’s surprising this book was written six years before 1917. The experience of Razumov — who finds himself unwillingly involved in counter-revolutionary espionage after betraying a political assassin — is miserable. His failure to find absolution after confessing his wrongs is a powerful riposte to Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, and the anger that Conrad poured into the work gave him a nervous breakdown. Small surprise, then, that this is one of his most forceful, gripping novels.
Sam Jordison

Patricia Cornwell: Postmortem (1990)

Five women have been brutally murdered by serial killer Mr Nobody , and Dr Kay Scarpetta, newly appointed chief medical examiner for the state of Virginia, is tracking the killer. Scarpetta is a rare find in thrillers: an independent woman in a traditionally male profession. The first-person narrative makes this a gripping story; we are right inside the pathologist’s mind as she searches the body for clues. It continues to enjoy phenomenal commercial success, and in 1991 made Cornwell the first author to receive the Edgar, Creasey, Anthony, Macavity and the French Prix du Roman d’Adventure awards in a single year.
KS

Michael Crichton: The Andromeda Strain (1969)

Published two decades before Jurassic Park, Crichton’s taut, claustrophobic novel offers definitive proof that size isn’t everything: a T-Rex may look the part, but it’s got nothing on an extraterrestrial microbe that kills on contact. When a satellite crash-lands in a small US town, everyone — bar a geriatric alcoholic and a squalling baby — dies. A team of scientists must outpace the microbe’s endless, baffling evolutions as crisis piles relentlessly on crisis. Will the organism mutate its way free? Will life as we know it survive? Will you draw breath before the final page? Don’t bet on it.
SC

Michael Crichton: Jurassic Park (1990)

Even those who haven’t seen the hugely successful 1993 Spielberg adaptation should be familiar with the basic premise. Multimillionaire clones dinosaurs; multimillionaire builds dinosaur theme park on Costa Rican island and invites our heroes for a tour; all dinosaur-shaped hell breaks loose; heroes and multimillionaire jump on a helicopter and escape (though Crichton’s original is less willing to let the moneybags off the hook than Spielberg). A rip-roaring read, Crichton’s bestseller is also a morally alert investigation into chaos theory, cloning technology and the danger of playing God.
KS

Len Deighton: The Ipcress File (1962)

This “Forget 007, this is how it really is” secret agent thriller span off an anti-romantic genre. The name less, wholly unglamorous and chronically crooked hero (”Harry Palmer” in the 1965 film adaptation starring Michael Caine) is an agent of the ultra-secret WOOC(P) agency (the acronym is inscrutable — but “War Office” and “Civilian” are in there). A biochemist involved in research vital to the defence of the realm has gone missing. The narrative’s McGuffin, or Hitchcockian gimmick, is “Induction of Psycho-neuroses by Conditioned Reflex under strESS” — IPCRESS. The hero’s brain is duly washed; nonetheless, he solves all.
JS

Colin Dexter: Last Seen Wearing (1976)

A teenage girl vanishes, leaving in her wake worried parents, concerned schoolteachers, a grief-stricken boyfriend. Or are they guilty parents, lecherous schoolteachers, a lying boyfriend? The trail has gone cold by the time Morse picks it up, but his leaps of whiskey-fuelled intuition carry him to an unforeseen solution. The Jag, the jokes, the disgruntled Lewis, the crosswords, the woman who answers the doorbell wearing nothing but a small, damp towel — it’s all here in this vintage Morse mystery that is all the better for not being quite as bamboozling as some of Dexter’s later efforts.
CO

Colin Dexter: The Remorseful Day (1999)

Remorse? Tragedy! When Dexter, aged 68, decided to kill off his beloved detective, a nation grieved — including John Thaw, who memorably played Morse on TV. This final instalment sees the chief inspector confronted by the body of Yvonne Harrison, naked but for a gag and handcuffs. Morse is sleeping badly, troubled by raging thirsts and wildly erratic blood-sugar levels, but he still keeps one step ahead of Lewis in a story that expertly mixes comedy and pathos. It’s a fitting memorial that prompted Beryl Bainbridge to ask why Dexter never made the Booker shortlist.
CO

Fyodor Dostoevsky: Crime and Punishment (1866)

Orphaned by murder, jailed as a revolutionary, reborn into Christianity, Dostoevsky was inevitably preoccupied with violence and justice, as well as the battle between good and evil. The struggle between Russia’s irreligious radicals and anti-democratic establishment filled him with both fascination and horror. This novel swills those concerns together into the story of Raskolnikov, an impoverished St Petersburg student stricken by remorse after murdering a pawnbroker. All the staples of Victorian melodrama are here, from the tart-with-a-heart to the saintly sister and lecherous suitor; what distinguishes Crime and Punishment is the intensity of the moral conflict.
Phil Daoust

Theodore Dreiser: An American Tragedy (1925)

With the possible exception of Sister Carrie (1904), this is Dreiser’s masterpiece. Clyde Griffiths, a weak-willed but ambitious poor boy from the mid-west, gets a job in his rich uncle’s collar factory in upstate New York, casts aside the affections of the girl he seduces and sets his cap at a society belle. Retribution, a murder trial and the electric chair follow, attended by some swingeing strokes of ironic fate.
DJ Taylor

Daphne du Maurier: My Cousin Rachel (1951)

As mysterious and enthralling as du Maurier’s other great novel, Rebecca, this is instead set in 19th-century Cornwall. The heroine, Rachel Sangaletti, marries the wealthy Ambrose Ashley. Six months later he is dead. His devoted nephew Philip invites the widow to the estate he has inherited and what follows, as he falls obsessively in love with the mesmerising and enigmatic Rachel, is a masterpiece of tension: is she innocent, is she guilty?
CC

Alexandre Dumas: The Count of Monte Cristo (1844-45)

The greatest costume melodrama in all of popular fiction. It is 1815. A French sailor, Edmond Dantès, has fallen foul of four dastardly enemies. On his wedding day to the beautiful Mercédès, he is arrested and confined without trial in the island prison, Chateau d’If. Years pass. A fellow prisoner, Abbé Faria, tunnels into his cell. Faria educates and civilises Edmond, and entrusts him with a secret about a huge pirate treasure on the deserted island of Monte Cristo. Faria dies. Edmond changes places with his friend’s corpse, escapes, finds the treasure and, as the fabulously wealthy, rapier-wielding Count of Monte Cristo, returns to Paris to wreak his revenge and win the hand of the lovely Haydée.
JS

Friedrich Dürrenmatt: The Pledge (195 8)

Subtitled “Requiem for the Detective Novel” and novelised from a screenplay called “Es geschah am hellichten Tag” (”It Happened in Broad Daylight”), this short read is set in smalltown Switzerland. A young girl has been murdered; Detective Matthäi promises the victim’s mother that he will find the killer but decides the wrong man has been arrested. He lays a trap for the real killer. The first person narrator Dr H, a retired police chief, frames the narrative with his own telling of Matthäi’s story to the author. It went onto be adapted by Rudolf van de Berg as The Cold Light of Day in 1996, starring Richard E Grant, and by Sean Penn in 2001.
KS

José Maria de Eça de Queiroz: The Crime of Father Amaro (1875)

Amaro, a young priest in small-town 19th-century Portugal, is having an affair with the teenage daughter of his hostess. Rather than condemning his actions, the clergy covers up his mistakes. Eça de Queiroz admired Dickens, and the two writers shared a gift for comic dialogue and a desire to chart society’s ills. Portugese naturalism, though, can be bleaker stuff than anything Britain produced during the Industrial Revolution: Eça de Queiroz explores a world where the innocent are condemned and the guilty prosper. In 2002, Carlos Carrera’s adaptation saw Catholic groups protesting outside cinemas.
KS

Umberto Eco: The Name of the Rose (1980)

The year is 1327. Brother William of Baskerville travels to a Benedictine monastery to investigate a mysterious death and finds himself caught in a spate of killings apparently modelled on the Book of Revelation. William’s rational, deductive response to these events pits him against the monastery’s more traditional elements, who refuse to entertain the possibility that the deaths are the result of anything other than demonic possession, and view any dissent as heresy. Eco swells a gripping historical whodunnit with discourses on semiotics, faith and truth and a persuasive portrait of 14th-century Italy.
SC

Bret Easton Ellis: American Psycho (1991)

This yuppie slasher-gothic tale enraged feminists even before its publication, when a proof copy was leaked. Particularly revolting was a scene in which the hero’s former girlfriend has her hands nailed to the floor, her tongue cut out, and is then forced to fellate her tormentor before being killed — all narrated in a cool, Holden Caulfield-like sub-ironic style. The hero, Patrick Bateman, a young, drugged-up, obsessively stylish Wall Street broker, also axes a gay man he encounters on the street and casually eviscerates the man’s dog. Or does he? The whole novel may be a Hitchcockian fantasy and a satire on 1980s materialism.
JS

RJ Ellory: A Quiet Belief in Angels (2007)

A young boy grows up in the Georgia backwoods, and from the moment his father dies on a day full of sinister omens, his whole life is lived under the shadow of a serial killer who targets little girls and might have links with his family. He gets older and moves to New York, where 50 years go by until he can finally confront the evil. A breakthrough thriller set in America by a young British writer which became a bestseller thanks to the Richard & Judy show.
Maxim Jakubowski

William Faulkner: Sanctuary (1931)

Stung by the poor sales of The Sound and the Fury and As I Lay Dying, Faulkner sat down to write a potboiler. Sanctuary drops a judge’s daughter in with a den of bootleggers. It features rape and murder and a gallery of grotesques. But this remains a very Faulknerian breed of potboiler — a simmering gumbo of southern gothic and pulp fiction. André Malraux detected “the intrusion of Greek tragedy into the detective story”, the censors were horrified and the public lapped it up. Faulkner was on his way.
Xan Brooks

Ian Fleming: Casino Royale (1953)

No “My, James, you are a cunning linguist” style gags here. Fleming’s first Bond novel is matter-of-fact to the point of chilliness. We meet Bond at the roulette wheel, where he is simultaneously topping up his winnings of several million francs and keeping an eye on Le Chiffre, the grossly fat fifth columnist who is gambling for his trade union’s future. To modern eyes, Bond’s humourlessness and casual sexism towards his number two, Vesper Lynd, may seem unpalatable — not to mention his 70-a-day habit — but his action-packed face-off with Le Chiffre over the baccarat table is still thrilling.
Carrie O’Grady

Ian Fleming: Goldfinger (1959)

James Bond is charged by both the Bank of England and MI5 to discover what Auric Goldfinger, the richest man in the country, is up to, and the nature of his connection to the evil SMERSH organisation. A cheat at cards and a crook on a massive scale, Goldfinger is the archetypal Bond villain, and his plans for the greatest gold robbery in history are as grandiose as he is brutal. The seventh Fleming Bond novel, despite lukewarm initial reviews, beat Dr Zhivago to the top of the best seller lists and became one of the iconic Connery 007 movies.
MJ

Ian Fleming: You Only Live Twice (1964)

One of 007’s most absurd, and correspondingly enjoyable, literary adventures sees the agent in Japan on a mission “improbable of success”. Fleming’s playful imagination is given full reign as Bond takes on the sadistic Blofeld by breaking into a castle on an island protected by lethally poisonous plants and reptiles. There’s a girl called Kissy Suzuki! And a volcano! But there’s also a dark streak that’s missing from the films, and an intriguingly ambiguous conclusion. Proof that Fleming is a fine writer as well as a peerless entertainer.
Sam Jordison

Frederick Forsyth: The Day of the Jackal (1971)

Classic docu-thriller; a novel which, after being turned down by 17 dumb publishers, launched Forsyth into world fame, and established a genre of now it can be told political thrillers. French-Algerian revanchists hire the suavely English Jackal (never named — we know him as Carlos ) to assassinate President de Gaulle. Fee? Half a million dollars (”When you employ the best, you pay”). The subsequent narrative is done in brisk reportage style. The Jackal makes his attempt by impersonating an aged Frenchman, with a walking stick which is in fact a high-powered rifle. He is foiled at the 11th hour by the dogged French detective Claude Lebel. The information Forsyth provides on how to fake passports has caused HM Government infinite grief.
John Sutherland

Graham Greene: Brighton Rock (193 8)

Distinctive “Greeneland” mix of low crime and high Catholicism, a mixture that no one else has been able to brew. 1930s Brighton is the haunt of seedy, razor-wielding gangsters. Pinkie Brown, a juvenile killer and cradle Catholic, is a gang leader. The narrative opens with his killing the journalist, Fred Hale, who betrayed his former boss, Kite. Pinkie loathes sex (original sin), but to protect his alibi, he courts the trusting waitress, Rose. A complicated denouement involving acid and a double suicide pact leads to a final horror for Rose. The novel is permeated with Pinkie’s bleak Marlovian worldview: ‘Why, this is hell, nor am I out of it’.
JS

Graham Greene: A Gun For Sale (1936)

It wasn’t Greene’s first entertainment , but with its combination of generic crime narrative (the pursuer and pursued) and angled moral discussion, it is arguably the most significant step on the road to Brighton Rock. The plot is elemental in its simplicity — a paid killer is tracked by a detective from London to Nottwich (Greene’s simulacrum for Nottingham), where he takes hostage the copper’s fiancée. Greene lays on the 1930s drabness with a vengeance — sadly lost in the Hollywood movie adaptation, This Gun for Hire.
Andrew Pulver

Graham Greene: The Ministry of Fear (1943)

It’s hard to make a case for the seriousness of a book that starts when the wrong man wins a cake at a fete and finishes in a surreal, melodramatic spy-plot and The Ministry of Fear is often regarded as a minor work. But it’s noteworthy for more than its gleeful strangeness. The guilt-wracked Arthur Rowe who takes this “journey with the wrong map” is one of Greene’s most humane creations, while the ongoing war lent passages about the drabness and terror of London in the blitz a rare immediacy and power.
SJ

Graham Greene: The Third Man (1950)

Candidate for the best-ever novelisation , the narrative is based on the author’s preparatory screenplay for the 1949 movie, itself a best ever. The four powers have divided up postwar Vienna. Harry Lime (played by Orson Welles in Carol Reed’s film) makes his fortune smuggling the new medicine, penicillin, across the zones — using the sewer system to do so. His school-friend, the pulp novelist Holly Martins (Greene’s private joke about his own sub-literary entertainments) comes to Vienna to investigate Harry’s (mis)reported death. The novella, and film, are famous for Lime’s eloquent exposition, atop a Viennese ferris wheel, about the absurdity of morality in the new, post war world.
JS

John Grisham: A Time to Kill (1989)

Although his name is now a byword for legal thrillers, John Grisham’s first novel was rejected by many publishers before finally appearing in a modest 5,000-copy run. Inspired by the author witnessing the testimony of a 12-year-old rape victim, it tells the story of a father who steals into a Mississippi courthouse and guns down the drunken rednecks accused of raping his daughter. It became a hit 1996 movie starring Sandra Bullock, Samuel L Jackson and Kevin Spacey, and is Grisham’s only legal novel that doesn’t begin with the word “The”.
Andrew Gilchrist

John Grisham: The King of Torts (2003)

Tequila Watson is accused of a random street killing. His young lawyer, Clay Carter, discovers he was taking a drug that can have murderous side-effects. Carter keeps this hush-hush in return for a generous pay-off from the drug company. Grisham’s twisting novel lifts the lid on the shocking world of “tort law” where lawyers take cases purely for what they can earn and to hell with justice. Soon Carter is the King of Torts, adrift in an orgy of tainted money, luxury jets and trophy women. But, as with Greek tragedy, Grisham’s great trick is to keep you — just — on Carter’s side, as he becomes the architect of his own downfall.
AG

Patrick Hamilton: Hangover Square (1941)

Written, as Patrick Hamilton put it, “almost for ‘fun’”, Hangover Square focuses on George Harvey Bone, a dog-like drinker in the Earls Court pubs, and his hopeless love for Netta Longden, an attractive yet incredibly unpleasant would-be actress. In his “dead moods”, of which he remembers nothing afterwards, Bone knows that he must kill her. A surprisingly funny story of murder and madness, the book memorably evokes the fag-end of the 1930s, post-Munich. It’s also one of the pre-eminent English novels of drunkenness, which Hamilton knew a lot about.
Chris Tayler

Dashiell Hammett: The Glass Key (1931)

Hammett’s fourth full-length novel, first serialised in the pulp magazine, Black Mask, is darker, if that is possible, than even The Maltese Falcon. The action is set in Prohibition-era Baltimore, against the background of a crucial election. City boss Paul Madvig fears his rule is threatened. The story is narrated by Ned Beaumont, Madvig’s sardonic, tubercular, gofer. Ned’s life is one long losing streak. When his bookmaker is murdered, Ned is subjected to days of sadistic beating by “apish” thugs, although we never quite learn why. After much mayhem and treachery, Madvig survives. The tone of the novel is ice-cold, elusive, and a bleak vindication of Ned’s wholly cynical view of American politics.
JS

Dashiell Hammett: The Maltese Falcon (1930)

Detective fiction doesn’t come harder boiled than this novel, which encapsulates the black nihilism at the heart of the genre. Sam Spade, a San Francisco PI who looks “rather pleasantly like a blond satan”, is hired by a mysterious Miss Wonderly to rescue her sister from an unsuitable lover, Floyd Thursby. The assignment is taken over by Spade’s partner, Miles Archer, who is shot. Thursby is also shot. Investigating the murders, Spade stumbles on the Maltese Falcon, a relic of the crusades. Among the many pursuers of the priceless statuette is “flabbily fat” Caspar Gutman. Double crosses complicate the later plot beyond description. In 1941 the novel was made into a classic, if somewhat softer-boiled, film noir.
JS

Dashiell Hammett: Red Harvest (1929)

One of the all-time classics of the hard boiled genre, in which a lone private investigator sets out to uncover a web of corruption in the corridors of power. The Continental Op, as the middle-aged and overweight PI is known, is hired by the only honest man in Pentonville, but after the man’s death, the hero is left to take on both the police and the gangs by himself. Hammett’s lean and uncompromising masterpiece has fascinated film makers for ages, but never made it to the screen despite efforts by Bertolucci and others (the Coen Brothers’ Miller’s Crossing was its nearest approximation).
MJ

Robert Harris: Fatherland (1992)

It is 1964 and Germany won the war. Hitler is about to turn 75 in a Third Reich that stretches from the Rhine to the Urals. Britain is ruled by a puppet government, and America long ago opted for peace. The murder of Europe’s Jews has never been admitted, and the US is normalising relations with its old enemy. Then Xavier March, an investigator with Berlin’s criminal police, begins to uncover the truth about the Final Solution … Robert Harris’s thriller was heaped with praise, and it still “grips as tightly as a Nazi’s glove”, as one overexcited reviewer put it.
Phil Daoust

Thomas Harris: Black Sunday (1975)

Harris’s first novel and a prophetic one which prefigures 9/11 by almost three decades. A group of Palestinian terrorists plan with an embittered American Vietnam veteran to detonate a massive bomb over an American sports stadium on the occasion of the Super Bowl, with the president in attendance. The FBI, assisted by a ruthless Israeli agent, fight against the clock to prevent the massacre. Exemplary and nail-biting suspense which transferred well to the big screen in the John Frankenheimer adaptation.
MJ

Thomas Harris: Red Dragon (1981)

Not only the book that introduced the seductively evil Hannibal Lecter, but a novel that launched a thousand serial killers. Still gripping and eerie and vastly superior to its two film adaptations (in which both Brian Cox and Anthony Hopkins convincingly portray the monster), it is the tale of FBI special agent Will Graham, whose talent for profiling killers is both an asset and a curse. Lecter is actually only a bit player in this case, and doesn’t come into his own until the later The Silence of the Lambs.
MJ

Carl Hiaasen: Tourist Season (1986)

The president of the Miami Chamber of Commerce is found dead inside a suitcase, sans legs and with an toy alligator stuffed down his throat. Letters from a terrorist group, Las Noches de Diciembre, link the death to recent disappearances, but it is up to private eye Brian Keyes — who thinks that someone is trying to kill off Florida’s tourist trade — to find the truth. Hiaasen’s debut mixes black humour into a frequently self-important genre.
Kohinoor Sahota

George V Higgins: The Friends of Eddie Coyle (1972)

An unblinking and convincing depiction (the author was a criminal lawyer) of the gritty criminal underworld of 1960s Boston, memorable for Higgins’s extraordinary ear for Massachusetts street talk. Coyle, a small crook, is being set up, although he doesn’t know it, by his friend, the barman and snitch, Dillon. Coyle tries to live by a code — he will go down rather than rat on his accomplices, even though it means losing his freedom and his family when his latest offence comes to court.
JS

Patricia Highsmith: Strangers on a Train (1950)

Two strangers who meet on a train consider swapping murders: Charles Bruno says he will strangle the wife Guy Haines is desperate to divorce and asks Haines in turn to shoot the father he loathes. Highsmith’s first — and possibly finest — novel has a premise that Alfred Hitchock found irresistible. His 1951 adaptation has rightly topped critical lists ever since, but Highsmith herself thought he had “diluted” her work. Her vision is altogether darker. While Hitchcock allows Guy to step back from the brink, Highsmith pushes him over.
SJ

Patricia Highsmith: The Talented Mr Ripley (1955)

So satisfyingly does Highsmith create the character of Tom Ripley — intelligent, perceptive, thoroughly cultured — that you keep finding yourself forgiving his absolute lack of moral scruple. His first murder, committed out of a spasm of irritation, is made to seem but another small step in his utterly amoral progress. Discerning and resourceful, Ripley becomes the reader’s guide to human nature. He learns to fool people by expressing his talent for psychological analysis, and shows that, if you can act like a thoroughly civilised person, almost everyone will believe you to be so.
John Mullan

Reginald Hill: Bones and Silence (1990)

The BBC detective series Dalziel and Pascoe had its beginnings in Hill’s crime novels. In the 11th of these, the Yorkshire duo find themselves faced with a puzzling case. Dalziel witnesses a murder across the street, and believes he saw the culprit. The more Pascoe doubts him, the more certain he becomes. While Pascoe delves into anonymous letters sent to Dalziel threatening suicide, Dalziel is cast as God alongside the murder suspect playing Lucifer in a medieval mystery play. The book cleverly combines mystery, comedy and philosophy, helping Hill to win the Gold Dagger award in 1990.
KS

Chester Himes: A Rage in Harlem (1957)

One of the great American exiles, Himes only began to write detective novels after moving to France in the mid-1950s following his little appreciated attempts at chronicling the bitterness of the African-American experience. A former jailbird (he was sentenced to 20 years for armed robbery in 1928), Himes put his black cops Coffin Ed Johnson and Gravedigger Jones at the heart of nine novels. With its instantly recognisable concoction of authentic Harlem atmosphere and head-crackingly direct law-enforcement methods, Rage was the first of these. Himes has been rediscovered at least twice: once during the early 1970s blaxploitation era, and again in the early 1990s as gangsta rap took hold.
Andrew Pulver

Peter Høeg: Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow (1992)

Six-year-old Isaiah falls to his death from a city rooftop. The authorities treat it as an accident, but Smilla Qaaviqaaq Jaspersen, Isaiah’s neighbour, thinks otherwise and sets out to find the truth. Danish writer Høeg explores the relationship between the individual and society, as Smilla, who has an Inuit father and a Danish mother, clashes with the establishment. It beautifully blends in-depth knowledge of glaciology, geography and the shipping industry with what could only be described as Norse magical realism.
KS

Geoffrey Household: Rogue Male (1939)

The book for all those who have never been able to understand why not one human being managed to get a pistol, rifle or shotgun, traverse Europe, break into a bunker or Berchtesgarten, evade all guards and Nazi boyos, and put a gun to Hitler’s head. The male hunter of this nail-biting thriller sets off to do just that, and we are left wondering why no one followed his example. Twice filmed — once by Fritz Lang, and then with Peter O’Toole — this is a short, perfect, unputdownable and much imitated classic.
Carmen Callil

Frances Iles: Malice Aforethought (1931)

Vintage golden age crime from one of the many pseudonyms of Anthony Berkeley Cox with a revolutionary opening in which, against all mystery traditions of the time (and now), the murderer is actually revealed. A scheming doctor in a small Devonshire village endeavours to murder his wife, but the best-laid plans of mice and men naturally go astray, as the hen-pecked character sees his mistress announce her engagement to another as soon as the deed is done. A fascinating insight into a troubled mind, and a gripping thriller, the novel has been twice adapted for television with Hywel Bennett and Ben Miller in the main part.
MJ

Arnaldur Indridason: Silence of the Grave (2001)

When a character in one of Arnaldur Indridason’s novels refers to “that other detective … the sad one”, no one has to ask which one she means. The author’s Detective Inspector Erlendur is melancholic in the best Scandinavian tradition; being Icelandic, he also subsists on “cold, boiled sheep head” and “tubs of curds”. He rarely expects to deal with anything more dramatic than “a pathetic Icelandic murder” (”committed without any attempt to hide it, change the clues or conceal the evidence”). Yet Indridason fills the detective’s low-key investigations with understated social commentary, poetic gestures and a pathos that isn’t merely off-the-peg.
Chris Taylor

Michael Innes: Death at the President’s Lodging (1936)

If ever an author considered the detective story a form of intellectual relaxation, it’s Michael Innes — or JIM Stewart, as he was christened, an eminent professor of English. This was his first mystery story and he has great fun with it, placing a corpse carefully in the middle of an Oxbridge college and letting the dons entangle themselves in a fiendish web of plot twists. His style may grate — Innes can be erudite to a fault, ponderous to the point of sounding like a Latin translation — but his impish glee at spilling blood in the president’s lodging is hard to resist.
CO

PD James: Cover Her Face (1962)

James’s debut introduced the public to both Adam Dalgleish, her pensive, poetically inclined detective, and to her blunt, cool style. The victim is Sally Jupp, an unmarried mother who is working as a maid for the Maxie family. She seems meek, but when her body is found the day after the church fete, we begin to realise that the Maxie household is, as one of James’s characters puts it, “a perfect orgy of suppressed emotion”.
CO

PD James: A Taste for Death (1986)

A spinster, an urchin, a baronet, a tramp, a priest — James starts off her long double-murder mystery with a fine cast. Two — tramp and peer — are dead, found with their throats cut in a London church. Adam Dalgleish is on the case, this time with a new assistant, the efficient Kate Miskin. As so often with James, the setting and characters take precedence over the whodunnit, with the ecclesiastical theme prompting melancholy reflections on Dalgleish’s part. But it’s a delight to watch her tease out the knotted threads that bind these lost souls together.
CO

Stephen King: Misery (1987)

Misery was Stephen King’s revenge on his more wild-eyed devotees; a sly satire on the author and his audience, and a convincing salute to the redemptive power of art. It’s about a writer of cheesy romances who finds himself abducted, tended and eventually terrorised by his “number one fan”. Kathy Bates would later win the best actress Oscar for her turn as Annie Wilkes, the corn-fed American psycho who forces her idol to type a Mills-and-Boon-esque masterpiece from his bed of pain.
XB

Stephen King: Dolores Claiborne (1992)

Psychological melodrama with a strong feminist theme (often attributed to the influence of King’s wife, Tabitha), written during a period when the author was moving beyond the horror stories that had made him world famous. The narrative takes the form of a long, interrogation-room confession as taken down by the police stenographer. Dolores, a housekeeper, is suspected of murdering her cranky employer. She did not. She confesses, nonetheless, to having killed her brutal husband, Joe, 30 years earlier. She’s well past “half-give-a-shit” and wants to come clean. He deserved it. It’s a novel that, together with the Kathy Bates starring movie (in which King had a hand), qualifies the author to be taken seriously.
JS

Rudyard Kipling: Kim (1901)

Kipling’s finest study of childhood (in some of its features, the author’s own). Kimball O’Hara is the son of a drunken Irish army sergeant, stationed in India. On his father’s death, Kim runs wild in the bazaar and passes for Indian. Among his associates is the horse-dealer and British secret agent Mahbub Ali. Kim accompanies a Tibetan lama on his mission to discover a sacred river. En route, he is recognised as English and sent to boarding school, where he masters the little games of life. On leaving, he rejoins Mahbub Ali in the “great game” of espionage.
JS

John le Carré: The Constant Gardener (2001)

Possibly the best of Le Carré’s post-Smiley books, in which he vents his anger at the social injustices and corporate practices of pharmaceutical companies in Africa. A meek British civil servant and his rebellious wife are pitted against a deep-seated conspiracy and his own superiors, and gain redemption through self-sacrifice. A compelling thriller, a delicate love story and a narrative full of brutal anti-establishment anger, which translated beautifully to the big screen with Ralph Fiennes and Rachel Weisz in the main roles.
MJ

John le Carré: Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (1974)

“Lamplighters”, “tradecraft”, “Moscow rules”: le Carré’s novel gave us a rich argot of espionage and convinced us that in an ordinary world of drab locations spies were doing their quiet, urgent business. The novel is memorable for its melancholy, embodied in the shabby-genteel but intellectually brilliant figure of George Smiley. He tracks the Soviet mole through files and records and the wavering memories of his fellow spooks. The plot is elaborate and beautifully engineered — one of the best in English fiction of the last 50 years — and its assured sketches of odd English characters and hampered English conversations make it as satisfying on a second or third reading.
JM

Harper Lee: To Kill A Mockingbird (1960)

Lee draws on her own small-town Alabama childhood in this indelible tale of race, family and lost innocence. Scout, her brother Jem and neighbour Dill while away their salad days in a haze of backyard dramas, afternoon lemonade and dreams of provoking the local recluse, Boo Radley, into venturing out. Slowly, indolently, the layers of childhood minutiae are peeled back to reveal the crisis at the novel’s heart: a black man has been accused of raping a white woman. As Scout’s father, Atticus, sets out to defend him, the depth of the town’s prejudices is revealed. A classic depiction of coming-of-age.
Sarah Crown

Elmore Leonard: 52 Pick-Up (1974)

With his wife of 22 years and a steady job, businessman Harry Mitchell looks the model citizen. Until, that is, one day he slips. His secret fling with a younger woman is filmed by two masked men — and they want a hundred grand in return for the tape. As with most of Leonard’s work, the novel stays clear of crime formulae: no detective protagonists. Instead, it succeeds in its portrayal of Detroit’s sticky social milieu. Adapted in 1986 for a film by John Frankenheimer.
KS

Elmore Leonard: Get Shorty (1990)

Leonard has never written anything less than a classic in either of his two favoured genres, crime thriller and western. This is, arguably, his funniest novel, and one that reflects his complex relationship with Hollywood. Chili Palmer, a small-time Miami loan shark travels to Los Angeles in pursuit of a welcher. The trail leads to Harry Zimm, a Z-list film producer. Chili discovers that movies are his destiny. Zimm’s complicated financial aff airs have to be sorted out, as does a consignment of Colombian drug money that is attracting criminal and police interest. Leonard satirises (it is alleged) Dustin Hoffman as “Michael Weir” in the novel. Get Shorty was filmed in 1995, starring John Travolta.
JS

Jonathan Lethem: Motherless Brooklyn (1999)

Lionel Essrog’s nickname is Freakshow. “My mouth won’t quit,” explains the novel’s hero, a private eye with Tourette’s. He gets “the urge to shout in the church, the nursery, the crowded movie house …” and, as a rule, he gives in. Trying to keep a low profile in a Buddhist temple, Essrog finds himself screaming, “Ziggedy zendoodah!” Such behaviour hardly helps him track down his boss’s killer, but it is rich in comic possibilities. To Lethem’s credit, however, Essrog — “Liable Guesscog. Final Escrow. Ironic Pissclam” — is much more than a walking, talking, guntoting joke.
PD

Robert Ludlum: The Bourne Identity (1980)

This spy thriller opens with a man bobbing in the Mediterranean. He has several bullet wounds, including one to his head that has given him amnesia. He learns he is Jason Bourne and, when strangers start to shoot at him, he begins to suspect he may have been an assassin. The book was voted second best spy novel of all time, after John le Carré’s The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, by US magazine Publishers Weekly. Ludlum wrote two sequels, The Bourne Supremacy and The Bourne Ultimatum. All three were turned into fast-paced, explosively violent films.
Andrew Gilchrist

Ed McBain: Cop Hater (1956)

New York City, July 1956: on a hot summer night, detective Mike Reardon is shot dead from behind. Steve Carella and his colleagues hunt for the killer of their friend, but soon realise that this is the start of a series of police murders. William Berke directed the 1958 film, which starred Robert Loggia. McBain was also a successful screenwriter: under the pseudonym Evan Hunter he wrote the screenplay (adapted from a Daphne du Maurier story) for Hitchcock’s The Birds.
KS

Cormac McCarthy: No Country for Old Men (2005)

The bag-of-loot thriller is as old as the hills, but McCarthy makes it lean and fresh and ready to run. No Country For Old Men drives its hero hell-for-leather along the Texas border with an implacable killer on his trail and a good-hearted sheriff dawdling some distance behind. This is possibly the author’s most pared-down and populist piece of work, a pure rush of storytelling brio that read like a film script even before the Coen brothers wheeled their cameras in front of it.
Xan Brooks

Ian McEwan: Enduring Love (1997)

The novel that McEwan’s many admirers thought should have taken the Booker that year. Joe Rose, a scientific journalist, and his partner, Clarissa, a literary scholar, picnic in the Chilterns. A balloon breaks from its moorings. Along with others, Joe attempts to secure it. They fail, and one of the would-be rescuers is hauled up and falls fatally to the ground. Jed Parry, another would-be rescuer, instantly falls in love with Joe and later stalks him in London. It turns nasty. Joe acquires a gun. Jed is ultimately confined in a mental institution, diagnosed with erotomania. Joe and Clarissa, having been separated by the stress, are reconciled and adopt a child. Their love endures but what, the novel queries, is love?
John Sutherland

Henning Mankell: Sidetracked (1995)

Mankell’s best-selling Kurt Wallander mysteries chart the fortunes of a morose, dogged police inspector in the south of Sweden. Sidetracked (which won the Gold Dagger award) is the best of the bunch: a gripping procedural thriller that pits our hero against a shadowy serial killer while uncovering a rat’s nest of abusive families, corrupt politicians and exploited migrant labour. Mankell’s Sweden is worlds away from the sterile, tourist-brochure version of the country. His bright, airy landscapes are as black as any urban jungle.
XB

Walter Mosley: Devil in a Blue Dress (1990)

Mosley is the most obvious inheritor of Chester Himes’s trailblazing African-American genre fiction, but Easy Rawlins — as concerned with his mortgage as with catching villains — is a world away from Himes’s gun-wielding ‘tecs. Devil in a Blue Dress set the Mosley template: a languid, almost nostalgic evocation of postwar Los Angeles, still struggling with segregation but well before the cataclysmic social breakdown of the mid-1960s. As Rawlins is commissioned to find a missing woman, Mosley can get into all the race and gender issues that bedevilled the late 1980s.
Andrew Pulver

E Phillips Oppenhein: The Great Impersonation (1920)

A novel written “against the menace of German militarism”. Despite his name, the author was — as he furiously insisted in print — English “for three generations”. The story opens with an English aristocrat and big-game hunter, Sir Everard Dominey, being rescued in the African bush by some Germans. Among them is Baron Leopold von Ragastein. The two men bear a striking resemblance to each other (think Prisoner of Zenda). It is 1913, and war looms. Von Ragastein resolves to kill Sir Everard and impersonate him in English society, the better to advance the interests of the Kaiser. There follows a plot twist on every page.
JS

E Phillips Oppenheim: The Strange Boarders of Palace Crescent (1934)

Forgotten now, Oppenheim churned out more than 150 novels between 1880 and 1940. The haste shows, but if it’s good old-fashioned period suspense you’re after, he’s a winner. This one lives up to its marvellous title. We enter the boarding house in the company of the impoverished but game Roger Ferrison, who perceives that beneath its respectable veneer the place is a riot of peculiar glances and queer fancies (no, not those sort of queer fancies). Why is the beautiful, disabled Miss Quayne so eager to seduce him? Who shot the quiet-living Col Dennett? Where did the spinster disappear to at 3am? And will the boarders ever get a more appetising meal than rissoles, mutton chops and blancmange?
Carrie O’Grady

Orhan Pamuk: My Name Is Red (199 8)

Pamuk cunningly frames his novel about the clash between eastern and western ideas of an artist’s duties as a historical mystery. Set in Istanbul at the end of the 16th century, it is ostensibly the story of a painter’s murder, the solution of which, by the reader and the novel’s clever amateur detective, requires understanding the aesthetic codes of Islamic painters. The reader reminded of The Name of the Rose should beware, for in his denouement Pamuk also overturns the expectations that we bring from other historical whodunits.
John Mullan

Sara Paretsky: Toxic Shock (198 8)

The third novel to feature VI (Vic) Warshawski appeared as Blood Shot in the US. Vic agrees to investigate the paternity of Caroline Djiak, whose mother, Louisa, is dying. Following some leads, Vic visits Louisa’s old workplace, the Xerxes chemical plant. What she finds is corruption and cruelty on a horrifying scale, where profit has more value than human life. Paretsky was not only one of the pioneers in featuring a realistic if troubled positive heroine in the lead, but also made Vic a credible character with powerful humanitarian and political views, who always lands on the side of society’s underprivileged.
Maxim Jakubowski

Sara Paretsky: Blacklist (2003)

Tough as nails Chicago private eye VI (Vic) Warshawski returned to the fray in this novel after a lengthy absence. When she stumbles upon the dead body of a female journalist and the police are curiously uninterested if not obstructive, Vic is convinced that the woman’s colour and associated family secrets are at the root of the case. As always, the sleuthing takes on a personal note and the sleuth’s emotional involvement and social conscience are ill-advised and inevitable.
MJ

David Peace: Nineteen Seventy-Four (1999)

Right now Peace is hot, cinematically speaking: the film of his account of Brian Clough’s Leeds tenure, The Damned Utd, is set for release, and a TV series of his seminal Red Riding tetralogy is going into production. It all began with Nineteen Seventy-Four, a highly charged, highly wrought account of a gruesome police investigation into sex crimes in West Yorkshire. Dominated, inevitably, by the Yorkshire Ripper killings, Peace attempted to do for the Leeds-Bradford conurbation what James Ellroy had done for Los Angeles. The screen adaptation has been a long time coming.
AP

David Peace: Nineteen Seventy Seven (2000)

In Peace’s sequel to Nineteen Seventy Four, detective sergeant Bob Fraser (”Bobby the bobby”) and alcoholic reporter Jack Whitehead follow a trail of hunches, hoaxes and other dead-ends on the path of the Yorkshire Ripper. Both men compromise their investigations — and personal relationships — by carrying out secret affairs with prostitutes. The locations are spectacularly pungent: the pair’s inquiries unfold in stale holding cells, grease-lined pubs and rotting Chapeltown slums. Peace’s shocking crime scenes and cast of bent coppers evokes James Ellroy but his fever-dream prose is unlike any other writer’s.

Carolyn Watts

George Pelecanos: The Big Blowdown (1996)

The first instalment in the DC Quartet, a history of his native Washington from the Great Depression to the century’s end, The Big Blowdown is the foundation of Pelecanos’s entire oeuvre and establishes his recurring characters’ family tree. Set mostly in the 1940s, the story is blue collar and hardboiled. Pete Karras is a debt collector who goes straight and finds work at a diner. He helps find a friend’s drug-addled sister, but then his former boss comes knocking. Criss crossing the city with a local historian’s affection for long-lost bars and fight nights, Pelecanos delivers an urban western and detects a social malaise that spreads through his other novels.
CW

George Pelecanos: Hard Revolution (2004)

After writing three investigations for middle-aged black private eye Derek Strange, Pelecanos created this portrait of Strange as a young beat cop in Washington DC in the spring of 1968. When his brother is killed for preventing a grocery store robbery, Strange goes in search of the culprit; meanwhile, Martin Luther King is assassinated and rioters and looters flood the streets of the nation’s capital. As ever, plot is secondary to social commentary for Pelecanos, and Hard Revolution — his personal favourite among his novels — has the force of a protest song.
CW

Richard Price: Lush Life (200 8)

When a young writer is murdered at 4am in Manhattan’s Lower East Side after a night’s bar-hopping, his friend says he was shot for standing up to muggers. The investigating cops are workaholic divorcee Matty and Yolonda, a Latina with the emotional intelligence he lacks. Price (whose other work includes scripts for The Wire, and Clockers, which became a Spike Lee film) shows his in-depth knowledge of police methods, but his eighth novel’s most striking features are its portrayal of a tense multicultural neighbourhood and its stunning, jazz-like dialogue.
John Dugdale

Mario Puzo: The Godfather (1969)

Clear contender as the best gangster novel of all time. The don, Vito Corleone, godfather of one of the five New York mafia families is ageing. His anointed successor is his hot-tempered Santino (Sonny). A younger son, Michael, has served with distinction in the second world war. Against his father’s plans for him, he is drawn back. A bloody war between the New York families results in Sonny’s death and Michael taking over as the Corleone godfather. His moral fi bre decays, and his wife, Kate, is alienated from him. The novel ends with Michael moving the family interests to Nevada, where they will rise in the world. The man with the briefcase, Vito says, always earns more than the man with the gun. Neither the novel nor the movie dared mention the M-word.
JS

Thomas Pynchon: V (1963)

This elaborate and bewitching debut interweaves two plots, one set in Europe and Africa in the early 20th century. V is a mysterious woman spy who pops up whenever apocalypse seems imminent. In spoofing different kinds of thriller (eg John Buchan’s), Pynchon also mocked the paranoia shared by the era’s statesmen and writers such as Yeats and Eliot — V is anti- as well as post-modernist. The same pre-apocalyptic madness, he implies, is latent in the characters in his novel’s other half, set in the cold-war America of 1956.
JD

Thomas Pynchon: The Crying of Lot 49 (1966)

Los Angeles, 1964. Mrs Oedipa Maas learns a mega-rich ex-lover has died and made her his executor. As she traces his myriad and often sinister assets, her quest follows Raymond Chandler’s formula: she interviews odd balls, learns of crimes past and present, beds a witness, is menaced and scared, and develops a theory that links all she’s discovered. But this theory, in Pynchon’s dazzlingly funny, multi-layered short novel, is not Philip Marlowe’s sort: the housewife gumshoe believes all America’s outsiders are using a secret postal system. Has she discovered a real, centuries old conspiracy, or just become another LA paranoid?
JD

Ian Rankin: Black & Blue (1997)

This was Rankin’s breakthrough novel, transforming a crime-fiction also-ran into a bestselling award-winner. It would be an outstanding performance even if it confined itself to self-destructive Edinburgh detective John Rebus’s efforts to trace the 60s serial slayer Bible John, his present-day imitator Johnny Bible, and those responsible for a gangland killing. But it’s also a state-of-Scotland novel, written with devolution imminent, probing the oil industry and taking in Aberdeen, Glasgow, the Highlands and Shetland as well as Edinburgh.
JD

Ian Rankin: The Hanging Garden (199 8)

The novel that followed Black & Blue, and which vies with it for the title of Rankin’s most ambitious — both reflect his ability to introduce into British crime-writing social and political themes rarely present before. The main plot pits grumpy, alky DI Rebus against an alliance of local, Russian and Japanese gangsters intent on a gigantic drugs heist. But the more testing and unusual storyline involves a lecturer who may be a former SS officer responsible for a massacre.
JD

Ian Rankin: Exit Music (2007)

Fictional police detectives don’t usually retire. Morse died in harness, while Reg Wexford and Adam Dalgliesh exist in a fuzzy kind of time that allows them to carry on sleuthing. DI John Rebus, in contrast, is now “pushing 60″, and begins Exit Music 10 days from compulsory retirement. This gives him a deadline both for solving his final case — the murder of a Russian poet in Edinburgh — and for putting away his arch-enemy, the gangster Ger Cafferty. Rankin handles his departure very deftly, leaving open the possibility of a Holmes-like return.
JD

Ruth Rendell: Judgment in Stone (1977)

Perhaps unburdened by the tradition of Brit TV crime, foreign film-makers have found Rendell’s non-Wexford novels fertile territory — none more so than Claude Chabrol’s La Cérémonie, taken from this murder story. It’s something of a proto yuppies-in-peril parable. A well-off family called Coverdale are murdered by their apparently harmless housekeeper, the gloriously monikered Eunice Parchment. Owing equal debts to Simenon and Highsmith, Rendell’s vision of seething, class-riven village life couldn’t be more different from Agatha Christie’s cutesy Marple murder yarns.
AP

Ruth Rendell: Live Flesh (1986)

After 10 years in prison for shooting — and permanently crippling — a young policeman, Victor Jenner is released to a strange new world and told to make a new life for himself. It’s hard to fill in the days, but at least there’s one blessing: he was never convicted for all those rapes he committed. Then Victor meets David, the policeman he shot, and David’s beautiful girlfriend, Clare. And suddenly Victor’s new life is starting to look an awful lot like the old one. A fiery film by Pedro Almodovar, starring Javier Bardem and Penelope Cruz, was adapted from the book.
MJ

CJ Sansom: Dissolution (2003)

It’s 1537: Henry VIII has declared himself supreme head of the church and the country is facing the greatest changes since the Norman conquest . Against the backdrop of political upheaval, Robin Singleton, one of Thomas Cromwell’s commissioners, is beheaded at a Scarnsea monastery. Cue entry of our unlikely hero: Dr Matthew Shardlake, an irritable lawyer with a hunchback. Sansom has a greater talent for animating period detail than most of his contemporaries; his rendering of the Tudor winter in the first of the Shardlake series makes you reach for thick fleece blankets. KS

Dorothy L Sayers: Whose Body? (1923)

The novel that introduced amateur sleuth Lord Peter Wimsey — with Holmes and Poirot, one of the most famous of his crime-breaking kind. A naked corpse is found in a bathtub. “An entertainin’ little problem” thinks Wimsey. The corpse is supposed to be that of Sir Reuben Levy, a “Hebrew” magnate in the City (circumcision is hinted at as the identifying mark). Wimsey — by judicious use of his monocle — determines that the corpse is not Sir Reuben. High-finance shenanigans are involved, notably skullduggery by the American financier John P Milligan. Having eliminated various suspects (not at all helped by the Yard’s flatfoots), Wimsey unmasks the killer. He is never the “bally fool” the world thinks him.
JS

Dorothy L Sayers: Murder Must Advertise (1933)

Sayers famously coined the phrase “It pays to advertise”, and this novel, based on her own experience as a copywriter, is her best. Witty and inventive, it is a fascinating snapshot of the dawn of the consumer age. Sayers’s arch detective, Lord Peter Wimsey, goes undercover at a London ad agency to investigate a suspicious death. The murder mystery itself is sidelined, which is just as well, because it’s tosh; but it does let Sayers introduce a side plot of cocaine smuggling, which, though equally implausible, ties in beautifully with the illusory glee of the flickering lights advertising Sopo, Nutrax and Crunchlets.
CO

Georges Simenon: The Madman of Bergerac (1932)

Inspector Maigret has been played on screen by a variety of actors in various countries, and his better known British impersonations remain by Rupert Davies and Michael Gambon. But in the numerous Simenon books there is assuredly an added dimension to the dour and doughty French cop. In this novel, Maigret leaves a train to pursue a villain and gets shot. As he recovers in the small, provincial town of Bergerac, he gets caught up in a local case involving a woman killer, and the game is on. Maigret is the classic, obdurate cop who never strays from the course of justice — and this is one of his best outings.
MJ

Georges Simenon: The Blue Room (1965)

Although Simenon is best remembered for Inspector Maigret, his best books were his romans durs, lean, intense novels full of tortured characters and unhealthy relationships, in which crime always serves as a background for a waltz into darkness for his hapless protagonists. The Blue Room is a fascinating variation on Patricia Highsmith’s Strangers on a Train, a novel about the impossibility of really knowing the ones you love or are with. An adulterous couple meet on a regular basis in a hotel room and gradually tear each other apart in an allegedly autobiographical story inspired by one of Simenon’s many affairs, with an added zest of crime.
MJ

Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö: The Laughing Policeman (196 8)

When eight people are gunned down on a Stockholm bus in 1967, all the victims’ families and colleagues have to be interviewed as Martin Beck’s homicide squad try to identify the killer. Long before Kurt Wallender, Beck was the original stoical Norse Morse , and this is among the finest novels in the series featuring him — Jonathan Franzen is one of its many admirers. Unusual in showing detection as team work, it’s an enthralling whodunnit that uncovers the grimier, weirder side of shiny 60s Sweden. JD

Martin Cruz Smith: Gorky Park (1981)

When it first appeared, Gorky Park was a glimpse into another country, a land of state repression, paranoia and petty corruption. Now it’s more like a slice of history. But while the collapse of communism may make it harder to understand some of the characters’ motives, this is still a superb example of the police procedural, as honest cop Arkady Renko (”We can’t trust anyone”) investigates a triple murder in a snowbound Moscow park.
Phil Daoust

John Steinbeck: Of Mice and Men (1937)

Two drifting field workers — Lennie, bull-strong but slow-witted, and his quick, cynical friend and protector, George — pitch up at a ranch in California, where they plan to work up the cash needed to buy a farm of their own. But when Lennie’s childishly innocent desire to pet soft things leads him accidentally to kill the pretty wife of the boss’s son, George is no longer able to defend him. Steinbeck is at his lyrical best in this Depression-era fable of loneliness, poverty and unrealised dreams.
Sarah Crown

Patrick Süskind: Perfume (1985)

One reviewer likened this bestseller to The Phantom of the Opera, The Hunchback of Notre Dame and Beauty and the Beast. The Lloyd Webber/Disney associations are unfortunate, but the comparison was just: the novel’s hero, Grenouille, would once have been called a monster. Born with no natural odour into the stench of 18th-century France, he makes all who come into contact with him uneasy. Then there’s his habit of turning young women into perfume … What makes this more than a serial-killer extravaganza? Süskind’s ability to describe a country, a time — the world, even — in terms of smell rather than looks.
PD

Donna Tartt: The Secret History (1992)

Tartt was not yet 30 when her debut became a critically acclaimed bestseller — Ruth Rendell said she wished she’d thought of its plot. The Secret History unfolds at a college in Vermont (not unlike Bennington, where Tartt and Bret Easton Ellis were contemporaries); Richard, the narrator, initially discloses that amiable Bunny was murdered by fellow classics students. The rest of the story reveals why, and traces guilt’s subsequent effects on the killers. Yet to be filmed, the novel has been called a mix of Euripides, Dostoevsky, Ellis and Waugh.
JD

Josephine Tey: The Daughter of Time (1951)

Classic armchair detective story, and one of the cleverest. Inspector Alan Grant has been confined to a hospital bed after falling through a trapdoor in pursuit of a thief. The inspector, renowned for his ability to read criminal faces, finds in the cabinet by his bed the famous National Gallery portrait of Richard III. It is not, Grant deduces, a murderer’s face, although “surely 40 million schoolbooks can’t be wrong?” By logical sleuthing, Grant clears the king. Shakespeare (along with the 40 million) is wrong. Richard did not kill the Princes in the Tower. It was Henry VII. Historians, Grant concludes, are lousy detectives.
JS

Jim Thompson: The Getaway (1959)

One of the great boozy geniuses of American pulp fiction, Jim Thompson — aka the dime-store Dostoevsky — brought surrealism, humour and existential despair to the compulsively readable crime novels he churned out in great quantities in the 50s and 60s. A master of trick narrative (see Pop. 1280) and criminal lore (see The Grifters), Thompson plays it fairly straight to begin with in The Getaway, which follows the charming killer Doc McCoy and Carol, his wife, on a frantic chase across a landscape of roadblocks and seedy motels. Their destination, however, is like something out of a more moralistic Kafka.
Chris Tayler

Mark Twain: Pudd’nhead Wilson (1894)

Boasting one of the first uses of fingerprinting as a plot device, Mark Twain’s most adult novel concerns the uncovering of Valet de Chambre. Assumed to be a freeborn independently wealthy white man, he is proved to be a mulatto slave — and a murderer to boot. Burdened by debts, Twain cranked out 60,000 words of Pudd’nhead Wilson in one frantic month. Unsurprisingly, it lacks the polish and joy of his earlier work, but there’s compensation in the electrifying anger at slavery and injustice, while his trademark wit remains as sharp as ever.
Sam Jordison

Barbara Vine: A Dark-Adapted Eye (1986)

This was the first of the sombre psychological thrillers written by Ruth Rendell as Barbara Vine. England in the 1950s proves a suitably bleak background for this tale of two sisters, one prim, the other beautiful and younger, locked in a dark and bitter combat over family secrets, including drastic murder. Brilliantly plotted, it takes the reader through a steady walk down the mean streets of the mind, and long lingers in the memory. Intricately plotted, and exploring murky psychological depths that Rendell had until then stayed clear of in her Inspector Wexford procedurals. Winner of the Edgar Award.
MJ

Barbara Vine: A Fatal Inversion (1987)

It is 1976, and Adam Verne-Smith — 19, bearded, tie-dyed — has inherited a country pile. With a few friends and strays he turns it into a sort of middleclass commune, all dirty dishes and bottles of wine in the sun. Years later, two sets of remains are discovered in the grounds: a woman and a tiny baby. Ruth Rendell’s books as Barbara Vine tend to be relatively low on action and heavy on atmosphere; this one is particularly potent in its depiction of the delirious summer heat.
CO

Barbara Vine: King Solomon’s Carpet (1991)

A recluse lives in a crumbling schoolhouse overlooking a tube line, compiling an obsessive history of the London Underground. Into his orbit are drawn a fascinating bunch of misfits: a young woman who has run away from her husband and child, a busker, a habitual truant, and the mysterious Axel. Their destinies and secrets are intertwined as the outcasts are brought together in violent and unforeseen ways by London’s forbidding and dangerous underground. The best novel ever written about London Transport and a winner of The CWA Gold Dagger.
MJ

Edgar Wallace: The Four Just Men (1905)

A vigilante novel (loosely derived from Dumas’s Three Musketeers), this appointed Wallace king of the thrillers. The plot centres on a locked-room mystery so ingenious (the author thought) that he offered a £500 prize to anyone who could come up with the solution. So many did, it practically bankrupted Wallace. The “Four Just Men” administer vigilante justice across state borders. The British foreign secretary, Sir Philip Ramon, has introduced an aliens extradition act — manifestly unjust, the quartet believe. Unless the bill is withdrawn, Ramon will die. The just men announce the date of his execution in the Megaphone (ie the Daily Mail). The minister takes refuge in closely guarded Downing Street, but justice is done. Ramon dies, alone in his office. But how?
JS

Sarah Waters: Fingersmith (2002)

Raised by thieves in a London slum, orphan Sue readily agrees to aid dashing, dastardly Gentleman in his scheme to defraud a young heiress, Maud, by taking a position as her maid and convincing her to elope with him. But Sue’s doubts deepen as her sympathy for her mistress grows — right up to the moment Gentleman’s plans bear fruit and it’s suddenly unclear who’s been swindling whom. Pickpockets and aristocrats, asylums and prisons, seamy backstreets and shadowed country houses, all crammed into a plot that twists like a corkscrew. Waters’ sumptuous slice of Victoriana sets the bar for historical pastiche.
SC

Richard Wright: Native Son (1940)

Richard Wright’s landmark thriller took the bogeyman of mainstream America and shoved him centre-stage. Bigger Thomas is a black ghetto criminal, a product of South Side Chicago who goes on the run after killing a white woman. Does Wright ask us to pity Bigger Thomas? Not exactly — but he does demand that we understand who he is and where he comes from. Raw, urgent and angry, Native Son lifted the lid on an oppressed underclass with nothing to lose.
XB

Emile Zola: Therese Raquin (1867)

Therese works in her aunt’s shop in Paris, and is married to her sickly cousin Camille. She feels passion for the first time on meeting lazy, sensual Laurent; they begin an affair, and decide Camille must die. As well as the sex, murder and lower-class characters, the young author’s shockingly neutral, scientific tone repelled his primmer readers. The same mixture of cold writing and violent deeds reappears in noir fiction — Zola’s influence is most obvious in The Postman Always Rings Twice, which reworks his fatal triangle. JD

Henri Alain-Fournier: Le Grand Meaulnes (1913)

Le Grand Meaulnes — translated as The Lost Domain or The Wanderer — is a magical fable of adolesence, erotic awakening and idealised desire. Narrated by 15-year-old François Seurel, it is the myth-like story of how his friend and hero Augustin Meaulnes, lost in a snowy country lane, stumbles upon a wonderful chateau and catches a glimpse of a beautiful girl — Yvonne de Galais — with whom he falls instantly in love. The rest of the novel relates Meaulnes’s attempts to find and claim his girl. But, sadly, this isn’t a fairytale and the characters have to grow up. According to legend, the novel is based on a fleeting encounter the author had in Paris with a beautiful girl called Yvonne, who was already engaged. Alain-Fournier died fighting on the frontline; he was only 27.
Lisa Allardice

Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis: Dom Casmurro (1899)

The greatest novel by Brazil’s greatest writer. Machado de Assis, born in 1839, of mixed race, epileptic, a stammerer, who, despite early poverty, mastered French and English, translated Shakespeare and poured out stories, novels and poetry. This is the love story of Bento and Capitu, told in the first person and for good reason known as the Brazilian Othello. Sloe-eyed Capitu … is she faithful to their great love? For more than 100 years readers have come to different conclusions as to whether she was, or not. A masterpiece of tantalising, loving wit.
Carmen Callil

Giorgio Bassani: The Garden of the Finzi-Continis (1962)

The Jewish community of Italy produced two great writers, Primo Levi and the author of this, one of the best books ever written about what it was to be a European Jew in the early part of the 20th century, and awake to find, with the rise of Mussolini (or Hitler), that every part of a special and enchanting Italian childhood — family, friends, and lovers — was destined to disappear. This is an elegy for all of them, a haunting and beautiful novel, perfectly filmed by Vittorio de Sica, and awarded an Oscar in 1971.
CC

HE Bates: Love for Lydia (1952)

“Would you love me even if I am bad to you?” asks Lydia. The shy, upper-class girl soon discovers the delights of growing up, and has a string of affairs that are unusual for a girl in 1920s England. Bates is best known for The Darling Buds of May, which was a TV hit; this sequel was also adapted for television in 1977.
Kohinoor Sahota

Saul Bellow: More Die of Heartbreak (1987)

Why do gifted people find themselves “knee deep in the garbage of a personal life”? Kenneth Trachtenberg and his uncle Benn share this problem, Kenneth has troubles with his girlfriend, and Benn decides, after 15 years on his own, to remarry. But his second wife is “more beautiful, more difficult, more of a torment”. Bellow’s 11th novel is a modern love story, with the action relayed through a mix of conversations and phone calls.
KS

RD Blackmore: Lorna Doone (1869)

Subtitled A Romance of Exmoor, the story is told by John Ridd, whose father was killed by the lawless Doones. A lifelong feud results. It is complicated when John falls in love with Lorna — supposedly daughter of the same Doone who killed his father. She is promised to the savage leader of the clan, Carver Doone, but John abducts her and is later knighted for service in the 1685 Monmouth rebellion. At his wedding to Lorna, a vindictive Carver shoots the bride. There is an epic fight to the death on the moors. Were it not for Thomas Hardy, this would qualify as the greatest regional melodrama in English literature.
John Sutherland

Elizabeth Bowen: The Death of the Heart (193 8)

Portia, orphaned at 16, goes to London to stay with her half-brother and his wife. An outsider, because of her birth (the result of her father’s adulterous relationship) and by nature, she confides in her diary, which is read by her sister-in-law with unfortunate consequences. Shot through with Bowen’s sly wit, this is thought to be her masterpiece: Portia’s adolescent fixation on the feckless Eddie shows her desperate desire to belong and to be loved, and her family’s cool response to her gives a beady-eyed glimpse of English society between the wars.
Prudence Hone

Elizabeth Bowen: The Heat of the Day (194 8)

The sinister Harrison tells Stella that her lover, Robert, is a traitor, but that she can keep him safe if she sleeps with Harrison and does not reveal what she has been told. Set during the second world war, Stella’s story is intercut with the lives of her son (in the army and heir to an estate in Ireland) and Louie, a vapid good-time girl who crosses Harrison’s path. Although the war provides background noise (guns, bombs, the drone of aeroplanes), it is the peculiar love-triangle that forms the core of the novel.
PH

Charlotte Brontë: Jane Eyre (1847)

When Charlotte Brontë published her first novel it caused a storm. Readers and some critics were scandalised by the story of a young, plain governess who falls in love with her Byronic employer, unaware that he already has a mad wife incarcerated in the attic. The fact that Jane Eyre was subtitled “An Autobiography” raised the thrilling possibility that it was actually a real-life account of passionate goings-on amid the chilly country houses of the Yorkshire gentry. In the 1970s the book gained a new lease of life when it was installed as a key text in the emerging feminist literary canon and the phrase “the madwoman in the attic” entered popular discourse.
Kathryn Hughes

Charlotte Brontë: Villette (1853)

In Brontë’s most self-revealing novel, Lucy Snowe, the narrator-heroine, finds work as a teacher in Brussels (the Villette of the title). She has a strained relationship with the proprietress, Madame Beck; the school doctor, John Bretton, is attracted to her, but Lucy loses her heart to the martinet professor, Paul Emanuel. The couple plight their troth, despite obstacles thrown in their way by a sexually jealous Mme Beck. Before they can marry, Paul must work in the West Indies, where the slaves are proving unruly. On his return voyage he may, or may not, be drowned. Lucy declines to inform us, doubting the reader’s strength.
JS

Emily Brontë: Wuthering Heights (1847)

The 21st-century’s favourite 19th-century novel begins with Mr Lockwood renting Thrushcross Grange, in wild Yorkshire. His landlord is Heathcliff, master of Wuthering Heights. Lockwood learns from his housekeeper how Heathcliff — a waif found in the Liverpool gutter — fell in love with the daughter of the house, Catherine; lost her to the genteel Edgar Linton; ran away; came back enriched; and devoted the rest of his life to revenge. The story moves into the present day (1801) with Heathcliff haunted by the ghost of the dead Catherine, who starved to death. The Heights are at last at peace.
JS

Anita Brookner: Look at Me (1983)

“My name is Fanny Hinton and I do not like to be called Fanny.” Thus opens the third of Anita Brookner’s novels. She was the greatest interpreter in the English language of desperation, demonstrating always that this emotion should never be coupled with the word quiet, because underneath every stoic human countenance is a story of turbulence and passion. Fanny Hinton’s adventures in love and sophistication are, as ever, narrated in Brookner’s exquisite prose, laced with the ironic touch with which she transforms disaster into a special kind of delight.
CC

AS Byatt: Possession (1990)

In this Booker-winning, bestselling novel (subtitled “A Romance”), Byatt makes great play with the notions of possession — between lovers, and between biographers and their subjects. When research assistant Roland Michell discovers — and then steals — a cache of letters from the London Library, he not only uncovers a clandestine relationship between two Victorian poets, but finds romantic fulfilment for himself. Part thrilling academic quest, part Victorian pastiche (with impressively rendered 19th century letters, diary entries and poetry), Possession restores sex to the Victorians and romance to the 20th century — and shows that while the language of love might change, love remains the same.
LA

Truman Capote: Breakfast at Tiffany’s (195 8)

Those coming to Capote’s novella after the 1961 movie will find an altogether darker, rougher gem than the sparkling Hollywood version. Told by a struggling writer (nicknamed “Fred” after the heroine’s beloved brother), this is the story of Holly Golightly, a restless stray from the south, who makes her way in New York by asking men for “$50 for the powder room”. An attack of “the mean reds” can only be assuaged by jumping in a cab and going to Tiffany’s: “If I could find a real-life place that made me feel like Tiff any’s then I’d buy some furniture and give the cat a name.” In one of the most famous soggy cinematic endings of all time, Audrey Hepburn, George Peppard and cat enjoy a raindrenched clinch, but in the novella only Fred and the cat are reunited.
LA

Peter Carey: Oscar and Lucinda (198 8)

It is 1864. Oscar Hopkins, a young English clergyman, and Lucinda Leplastrier, an heiress, meet aboard a ship bound for Australia and fi nd they share a passion for gambling. On arrival, she buys a glass factory on a whim, and challenges him to transport a church built entirely of glass by boat from Sydney 250 miles up the coast. A gripping study of sin, guilt and obsession, in which love proves to be the ultimate gamble. Carey modelled Oscar’s character in part on the childhood recollections of Edmund Gosse in his memoir Father and Son. The novel won the 1988 Booker prize and was filmed in 1997 with Cate Blanchett and Ralph Fiennes.
Adam Newey

JL Carr: A Month in the Country (1980)

In the slimmest novel to grace a Booker shortlist, the spiritual recovery of trench veteran Tom Birkin is charted as he restores a medieval wall-painting in a rural church. Much of the novel’s potency is rooted in what isn’t said, by Carr and his characters alike, including the very thing that returns Birkin to the land of the living: his impossible love for the vicar’s young wife, which Carr evokes in poetic, economic prose. Both Kenneth Branagh and Colin Firth made fresh-faced debuts in the 1987 film, which does justice to the novel’s slow pace.
Rosalind Porter

Willa Cather: My Ántonia (191 8)

Jim Burden looks back, slightly mournfully, on his childhood friendship growing up in harsh prairie town of Black Hawk, Nebraska, with the bold, beautiful Bohemian girl, “Tony” Shimerda, whose resilience and strength symbolises the pioneer spirit, who has haunted him ever since. The friends are reunited many years later, when both are married — he unhappily and she the mother of 10 children. Cather’s story of unconsummated love in the American wilderness is among her best.
LA

Willa Cather: A Lost Lady (1923)

Marian Forrester is a beautiful woman who delights her husband, her lover, and young Niel Herbert, the narrator of this enchanting tale. Cather was the great, elegiac chronicler of the prairies and small towns of the old American west, captured by her just as the coming of railroads changed it forever. The radiance and charm of the bewitching Marian sheds light on everyone she loves and betrays, her fate as troubling and inevitable as the passing of time, and the passing of love. Short, exquisite, this is Willa Cather’s most perfect novel.
CC

Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette: Claudine à l’école (1900)

This four-part series (with Claudine à Paris, Claudine en ménage and Claudine s’en va completing the set) shocked readers with its tales of the improper adventures of the teenage Claudine, yet there were Claudine plays, a Claudine uniform, and Claudine soap. Colette’s debut was published under the pseudonym of her husband, Willy, who is believed to have locked her in a room until she produced the books. Colette herself married three times, was rumoured to have had lesbian relationships at the Moulin Rouge and was involved with the Italian writer Gabriele D’Annunzio; she was also thought to have had an affair with her stepson.
KS

Sidone-Gabrille Colette: Chéri (1920)

The six-year affair between the ageing courtesan, Léa de Lonval, and a young man, Chéri, is coming to an end. They thought that their relationship was a casual romance, but when Chéri is to be married they realise that they are in love. The sequel, La Fin de Chéri, was published in 1926. Stephen Frears adapted it for the screen in 2008 in a film starring Michelle Pfeiffer as the courtesan and Rupert Friend as her lover.
KS

Joseph Conrad: Victory: An Island Tale (1915)

One of Conrad’s sea-dog narrators pieces together the story of Axel Heyst, benign hermit and amateur philosopher, who isolates himself from humanity on an island in the East Indies. Heyst chivalrously rescues Lena, a musician, from the female orchestra that entertains the hard-drinking European men of Sumatran trading outposts. “Funny notion of defying the fates — to take a woman in tow,” comments one observer. The lovers attract the attentions of a rapacious gang, who descend on them, searching for non-existent booty. Their amorous seclusion ensures them a tragic end.
John Mullan

Madame de Lafayette: The Princess of Clèves (167 8)

Often called the first French novel, this historical fiction takes us to the world of 16th-century courtly romance. Mademoiselle de Chartres, who is beautiful, young and of a marriageable age, is betrothed to the Prince de Clèves. It is only when she meets Duc de Nemours that she falls in love for the first time. The love triangle raises questions of passion, duty and morality. The novel was published anonymously and has remained popular ever since.
KS

Daphne du Maurier: The Parasites (1949)

You may think you know Du Maurier from the high drama of Jamaica Inn and the noir of Rebecca. But this is unlike anything else she wrote. Based partly on her own childhood, it follows three contemporary children: step-siblings Maria and Niall, and their half-sister Celia. Their parents are artists in the grandest tradition, and bring up their kids accordingly — rich food, late nights, sporadic attention. Maria becomes an actress, Niall a songwriter, Celia a would-be illustrator. All three are spoilt and selfish in their different ways. It adds up to a savage, bittersweet portrait of artistic temperament at its worst.
Carrie O’Grady

Daphne du Maurier: Rebecca (193 8)

“Last night I dreamed I went to Manderley again” has become one of the most famous first lines in fiction. Narrated by an unnamed ingénue, the second Mrs de Winter, with the troubled figure of Maxim de Winter (the epitome of pent-up, pre-war British masculinity) lurking in the background, haunted by glamorous dead Rebecca and, of course, presided over by one of literature’s most sinister wicked stepmothers , the scheming housekeeper Mrs Danvers, all set in the spooky splendour of a Cornish, coastal country pile, has proved irresistible since Rebecca was first published. Alfred Hitchcock’s classily creepy 1940 film version starring Laurence Olivier and Joan Fontaine sealed its place in the public imagination — although Hollywood, predictably, was unable to sanction the morally ambiguous happy ending of the original.
LA

Marguerite Duras: The Lover (1984)

The nameless narrator looks back at her adolescence in French-colonial Vietnam when, as a 15-year-old, she had a passionate affair with a considerably older Chinese man. The story is thought to be semi-autobiographical. Duras, who is also a film-maker, uses cinematic techniques such as flashback and repetition. The book won the 1985 Prix Goncourt and s old 700,000 copies in France. The 1992 film by Jean-Jacques Annaud was also a success.
KS

George Eliot: Adam Bede (1859)

Eliot’s first full-length novel, and the work which made her (pseudonymous) name as Victorian fiction’s leading novelist of ideas. Set at the turn of the 19th century, in “Hayslope” during the Methodist revival, the story concerns Adam, a stern carpenter who is engaged to the pretty but flighty milkmaid, Hetty Sorrel. Hetty is seduced by the local squire, Arthur. He abandons her; she — pursuing him — kills their baby. She is sentenced to hang, but reprieved (by Arthur’s last-minute intervention) . With this novel Eliot raised Victorian fiction to a new level of intellectual and moral seriousness.
JS

George Eliot: Daniel Deronda (1876)

Eliot’s last (massive) novel. Gwendolen Harleth (”a spoiled child”) marries the wealthy but selfish Henleigh Grandcourt. He treats her sadistically. Gwendolen’s path crosses that of Daniel Deronda, a young aristocrat of mysterious origins (even to himself). The intertwining narrative chronicles Daniel’s search for his roots, and Gwendolen’s increasingly wretched plight. Daniel befriends Mordecai Lapidoth (with whose sister, Mirah, he falls in love) and discovers that he is Jewish. In Genoa, Grandcourt drowns, as a paralysed Gwendolen watches from the deck of his yacht. The novel ends with Daniel and Mirah leaving for the Middle East. Recent appreciation of the novel has tended to value Eliot’s unusually sensitive investigation of Judaism.
JS

George Eliot: The Mill on the Floss (1860)

Eliot’s most autobiographical work of fiction, and one of the great bildungsromane of its time, along with David Copperfield and Thackeray’s Pendennis. Maggie and Tom are children of the mill-owner, Edward Tulliver. The passionate Maggie is contrasted with her genteel cousin, Lucy. Tom is less clever than his sister, but moralistic. Old Tulliver is ruined by local lawyer, Wakem. Maggie’s love affair with the disabled Philip Wakem is prohibited by a vengeful Tom, who devotes himself to recovering the family mill. Maggie devotes herself to self-control. All is lost when brother and sister are drowned by a catastrophic flood which sweeps past the mill, but “in death they were not divided”.
JS

Jeffrey Eugenides: The Virgin Suicides (1993)

One by one, in an unnamed American suburb, five teenage sisters kill themselves. It doesn’t sound much like a love story. But The Virgin Suicides is narrated (in the first-person plural, ingeniously) by the boys who looked on at the beautiful Lisbon sisters with awe and yearning — boys like Chase Buell, Woody Clabault, Vince Fusilli, Parkie Denton and Tim Winer, “the brain”. Years later, they piece together memories of their adolescence: the threshold wonder; the sudden, mysterious losses. When the boys follow neighbourhood heart-throb Trip Fontaine to pick up the Lisbon girls for the homecoming dance, the whole world seems waiting for them.
William Fiennes

F Scott Fitzgerald: The Great Gatsby (1925)

There is a love affair at the centre of this novel, between rich, charismatic socialite Jay Gatsby and Daisy Buchanan. You might even call it romantic, for Gatsby appears to have everything he wants except Daisy, who is now married to another man. Yet you never directly know about their relationship. The doomed attachment is seen entirely through the eyes of the novel’s narrator, Nick Carraway. He has the lovers performing a drama that he is desperate to enrich with soulfulness. The romance and the final tragedy are the more haunting for being vicariously experienced.
JM

F Scott Fitzgerald: Tender is the Night (1934)

When actress Rosemary Hoyt arrives on the French riviera, she’s seduced by the dash and verve of a group of American expats gathered around successful psychiatrist Dick Diver and his beautiful patient-turned-wife, Nicole. Outwardly ideal, their marriage (drawn in part from Fitzgerald’s own) is in fact fatally fl awed. As Rosemary is drawn deeper into their lives, she watches glamour give way to dissipation; Dick’s drinking escalates and his behaviour deteriorates, leading ultimately to his personal and professional disintegration. Almost a decade in the making, Fitzgerald’s elegiac romance is a narrative of failure: of ambition unrealised, relationships dishonoured, talent spent.
Sarah Crown

Penelope Fitzgerald: The Blue Flower (1995)

Few modern novels have been so acclaimed by critics and fellow novelists as The Blue Flower. Set in 1790s provincial Saxony, it is a parable of talent and desire (the blue flower a Romantic symbol of love and the unattainable), told through the story of the young German poet and philosopher Novalis, known to his family as Fritz. Poor Fritz falls hopelessly in love with 12-year-old Sophie von Kuhn, unremarkable in looks and certainly no match for him in brains, who dies a couple of years later from tuberculosis. Fitzgerald’s genius was to bring a remote period alive through an accumulation of domestic details with an extraordinary economy of words. Hailed as her final masterpiece, the novel is as brief, luminous and intellectually charged as the life of its young hero.
LA

Gustave Flaubert: Madame Bovary (1856)

Emma Bovary, the wife of a kindly but dull country doctor, yearns for a life of luxury and romance that she has read about in popular novels. When a landowning libertine takes a fancy to her, she begins an affair which ends when he abandons her on the eve of their elopement. No sooner has she recovered than she takes up with a young lawyer with whom she has weekly trysts in a hotel room. As their passion cools, her extravagance increases, and she is lured into a credit trap from which only suicide can release her. Flaubert was prosecuted for obscenity when the book was first serialised, and it has been a bestseller ever since, becoming arguably the most famous realist novel.
Claire Armistead

Ford Madox Ford: The Good Soldier (1915)

Nobody gets what they want and nothing is quite what it seems in this masterwork of shifting perceptions, infidelities and immorality. Ford Madox Ford’s first title for his greatest novel, begun on his 40th birthday, was The Saddest Story. The Good Soldier is Edward Asburnham, the perfect English gentleman in every way — except for his fatal philandering. Recalled in rambling fashion by the emotionally desiccated Dowell (the ultimate unreliable narrator), this is the story of a 10-year friendship between two couples living in moneyed leisure in Europe, as a cure for the heart conditions of two of the spouses. These “bad hearts” are exposed for what they really are when it is revealed that the invalids have been embroiled in an affair for many years. Suicide, madness and misery ensue. Since its publication in 1915, writers have outdone each other in heaping superlatives on this slim, exquisite book: for Graham Greene it was “probably one of the finest novels of our century”.
LA

EM Forster: A Room With a View (190 8)

Forster’s acidic satire on the Edwardian travelling English would have remained among his lesser works (certainly compared to the later, more substantial statements that were Howards End and A Passage to India) were it not for the smart decision by the period-fi lm team Merchant Ivory to use it as the material for their affectionate mid-80s adaptation, thereby setting the template for corset rom-coms ever since. The admittedly slight social concerns are ballasted by a genuinely affecting against-the-odds love match between piano-playing Lucy Honeychurch and wide-eyed socialist George Emerson.
Andrew Pulver

John Fowles: The French Lieutenant’s Woman (1969)

In 1969 John Fowles opened up the Victorian realist novel, with its driving marriage plot, to the instability of the existentialist age. Charles Smithson is a gentleman of independent means engaged to the conventional Ernestina while secretly falling in love with the intriguing Sarah Woodruff, a fallen woman who has been betrayed by the French lieutenant of the title. Set mainly on the Jurassic undercliff at Lyme Regis, the novel plays with the idea that the Victorian bourgeoisie — and the kind of novel that represents it — is on the brink of extinction. The book’s celebrated double ending meant that for a long time it was considered unfilmable, until Harold Pinter’s screenplay of 1981 proved this to be magnificently untrue.
KH

Paul Gallico: The Snow Goose (1941)

Set on the desolate Essex marshes, this haunting novella of the friendship between the “mis-shapen and grotesque” reclusive artist, Philip Rhayader, and the “young, primitive inarticulate” yet beautiful Fritha, after she brings him a wounded snow goose to heal, made Gallico’s name and became a world wide bestseller. Accompanied only by the snow goose, Philip rescues countless men from the shores of Dunkirk in his little boat, but when the bird returns alone, the now grown-up Fritha knows she will never see the hunchback again. Sentimental? Undoubtedly. Heartbreaking? Absolutely.
LA

Elizabeth Gaskell: Ruth (1853)

Ruth Hilton, an orphaned seamstress, is seduced and then abandoned by Henry Bellingham, a young squire. Rescued by a dissenting minister, Mr Benson, and his sister, and taken to live with them in his northern English parish, she passes as a widow and slowly builds a life of quiet respectability for herself and her son. But Bellingham’s return threatens all of them with exposure of the lie in which they have colluded. Gaskell’s sympathetic portrayal of a fallen woman was taboobreaking for the time, though Ruth’s eventual apotheosis, when she sacrifices her own life to save that of her seducer, may strike modern readers as overdone, just as it struck Charlotte Brontë as unjust to Ruth: “Why should she die?” she wrote to Gaskell. “Why are we to shut up the book weeping?”
AN

André Gide: Strait Is the Gate (1909)

At the age of 10 Jerome falls in love with his cousin Alissa and vows to dedicate his life to her happiness. She, however, in response to her mother’s infidelity, dedicates her life to God. As the cousins grow, they come to very different understandings of the biblical text that gave Gide his title. Her severe religious morality will not allow her to accept Jerome’s love — though her journals show the reader that she is just as much in love with him as he with her — and on her deathbed she realises that the sacrifice she thought she was making to God, for the sake of both their souls, has been in vain. Gide almost certainly drew on his youthful attempt to woo his cousin in this, his most lyrically enchanting novel. AN

Lewis Grassic Gibbon: Sunset Song (1932)

The first in Grassic Gibbon’s A Scots Quair trilogy, this is the great Scottish novel, told in a lilting, lyrical tongue as beautiful as the land it describes. The men of Kinraddie, Kincardineshire, go off quiet and brave to fight and die in the first world war — and with them passes a whole way of life, that of the peasant farmers, that of Old Scotland itself. Chris, the heroine, educated but shackled to the land, goes from girl to wife to widow in a soaring narrative that is as uplifting as it is heartbreaking. Andrew Gilchrist

Johann Wolfgang Goethe: The Sorrows of Young Werther (1774)

Legal trainee Werther meets Lotte at a ball. They dance and recite poetry; Werther falls in love. Albert, Lotte’s fiance, returns from a business trip; Werther gets depressed. Lotte and Albert marry; Werther shoots himself. This epistolary novel turned young Goethe into a national superstar, inspired at least half a dozen copycat suicides and even triggered a Werther-style fashion craze (yellow trousers, blue jacket). In plot terms, it’s hard to see what all the fuss was about, but there is something so archetypal about the forlorn self-absorption of Werther’s letters that reading them is not unlike listening to a classic pop record. Philip Oltermann

Henry Green: Living (1929)

A three-in-one — along with Party Going (1939) and Loving (1945) — from one of the high priests of English Modernism. Living draws on Green’s experiences of working in his family’s Birmingham factory. Loving is set in an Irish country house (above stairs and below) during wartime. Party Going features a gang of Bright Young People trapped by fog in a hotel at Victoria station while crowds seethe on the platform below. Each comes garnished with elliptical dialogue, bizarre symbols and the scent of trouble beyond the horizon. DJ Taylor

Graham Greene: The End of the Affair (1951)

“This is a record of hate far more than of love,” begins the novelist narrator Maurice Bendrix. The affair between Maurice and Sarah, married to the dull but decent civil servant Henry Miles, has been over for two years before the novel opens one rainy January night on Clapham Common in 1946. Maurice determines to find out why Sarah ended their relationship so abruptly — only to discover that instead of another lover, as he fears, she made a promise to God to renounce him after she believed he had been killed in an air raid. The last of Greene’s so-called Catholic books (dedicated to C — Catherine Walston, his affair with whom was the basis for the novel), it is one his best. Lisa Allardice

Thomas Hardy: Far from the Madding Crowd (1874)

Hardy’s breakthrough Wessex novel, in which he tells a bundle of stories while creating a whole world (which, as Hardy reminds us, is forever gone). The sheep farmer Gabriel Oak loves the beautiful but capricious Bathsheba Everdene. His hopes are dashed when his flock is lost. Bathsheba, who inherits a farm, is subsequently courted by the dashing Sergeant Troy. They marry, he is unfaithful (his other love, Fanny Robin, dies with their child in a workhouse). Troy decamps and is thought drowned. After seven years, Bathsheba is legally a widow, and accepts an offer of marriage from the stolid farmer, William Boldwood. Oak, meanwhile, is employed by her as farm steward. Troy returns and is shot dead by Boldwood. Oak, on the foundation of this tragedy, finally wins Bathsheba. John Sutherland

Thomas Hardy: Jude the Obscure (1895)

Hardy’s last full-length Wessex novel provoked a storm of protest for anti-marriage doctrines. Jude Fawley, an orphan (with a mysterious scandal in his background), is inspired by the village schoolteacher, Phillotson, to educate himself. His rigorous programme of self-help ends when he is tricked into marriage by the carnal Arabella Donn. They separate and, now a stonemason, Jude goes to Christminster (Oxford), where he falls in love with a cousin, Sue Bridehead, a neurotic new woman. Their sinful union turns to catastrophe when their eldest child kills himself and his siblings. All ends tragically. This, Virginia Woolf asserted, is the only one of Hardy’s novels which could be accused of pessimism. It is fairer to see it as a powerful contradiction to Victorian optimism. JS

Thomas Hardy: Tess of the D’Urbervilles (1891)

The story, subtitled “A Pure Woman Faithfully Presented”, is Hardy’s most poignant chronicle of life’s ironies and the pain of the human condition. Tess Durbeyfield is the daughter of a Wessex carter, who is absurdly proud when told that his blood is that of ancient Norman lineage. Tess goes to work for the family who have (for cash) acquired the D’Urberville name. She is raped by the son of the house, Alec, and bears a child that dies. At her next place of work, the idealistic Angel Clare falls in love with her. On their wedding night, he discovers her impurity. The marriage is over. Alec reappears, as does Angel. Driven to murdering Alec, Tess is hanged. Angel consoles himself with her purer younger sister. Hardy never believed in angels. JS

Thomas Hardy: The Woodlanders (1887)

Hardy’s favourite Wessex novel and the one which most movingly chronicles his notion of “intelligent intercourse with nature”. The forester, Giles Winterborne, is loved by a peasant girl, Marty South, but does not return her love. Marty is obliged to sell her one physical attraction: her magnificent head of hair. It is acquired by the lady of the manor, Felice Charmond. Winterborne’s fortunes fail. He loses the woman he loves, Grace Melbury, to the dashing doctor, Edred Fitzpiers. He is unfaithful, but divorce is impossible. After a series of mishaps, Grace finds herself in the woods. Giles gives her shelter in his hut, sleeps outside, catches a chill, and dies. The novel ends with Grace and Marty grieving over his grave. JS

LP Hartley: The Go-Between (1953)

“The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there” is the famous first line of LP Hartley’s novel about memory, class and sex. Leo Colston, now in his 60s, looks back at the long hot summer of 1900, which he spent at a Norfolk country house, visiting his wealthy school friend Marcus Maudsley. Twelve-year-old Leo unwittingly becomes a “go-between” for Marcus’s sister Marian and her farmer lover Ted — and ultimately an agent of both their disaster and his own. It is impossible to read The Go-Between and not be sucked into the claustrophobic intensity of that summer — the heat, Leo’s discomfort and burgeoning sexuality — and not feel changed, like the narrator, for ever. Its iconic status was sealed with a film adapted by Harold Pinter, starring Julie Christie and Alan Bates; there are clear echoes in Michael Frayn’s Spies and Ian McEwan’s Atonement. LA

Nathaniel Hawthorne: The Scarlet Letter (1850)

In the 17th-century puritan settlement of Boston, Hester Prynne is shunned and publicly shamed by the community for bearing a child out of wedlock. She is also condemned to wear a “fantastically embroidered” scarlet “A” on her dress. Unknown to her, her elderly husband — whom she believes to be dead — has returned, and is determined to discover the identity of the child’s father. His hounding of the town’s preacher leads to an intense and relentless portrayal of guilt and moral anguish. Hawthorne’s long preface, “The Custom-House”, which functions both as framing device and historical note, has become almost as celebrated as the novel itself. Adam Newey

Shirley Hazzard: The Transit of Venus (1980)

The Transit of Venus introduces two Australian sisters, Caro and Grace Bell, and tracks their inner and outer lives through the second half of the 20th century. Here is love in several guises: affairs in rented rooms and city parks; unrequited devotion, nurtured at a distance; marriages both dutiful and sophisticated. Hazzard’s epigrammatic sentences and short, lapidary paragraphs take a little getting used to. But be patient. Scene after scene has indelible richness and beauty: Grace and her son’s doctor escaping the rain; Caro and the physicist Ted Tice on a boat in Stockholm; Caro appearing naked beside her lover at an open window, his fiancee staring up at them from below. William Fiennes

Ernest Hemingway: A Farewell to Arms (1929)

Written when he was only 30 and drawing on Hemingway’s experiences as an ambulance driver in the first world war, this is considered to be one of the greatest war novels of all time. But it is also a story of love triumphing over war. Serving on the Italian front, Lieutenant Henry finds refuge in an affair with English nurse Catherine Barkley, emotionally wounded by the death of her fiance in the Somme. Their romance blossoms from escapism to true love and Henry deserts the army so they can be together. After a briefly blissful period in a hut in the Swiss mountains, Papa Hemingway punishes them both for their happiness, killing off poor Catherine in childbirth. If the final scene of a grief-stricken Henry leaving the hospital in a rainstorm doesn’t reduce grown men to tears nothing will. LA

Alan Hollinghurst: The Swimming-Pool Library(198 8)

Hollinghurst’s debut novel was hailed as a ground-breaking work for its frank depiction of metropolitan gay life. Through the association of the privileged and promiscuous young aristocrat, William Beckwith, and the octogenarian Lord Nantwich, who asks him to write his biography, the novel chronicles more than half a century of gay experience. It is set in the hot, hedonistic summer of 1983 and while the spectre of Aids looms (the book is dedicated to one of its fi rst victims), the subject is more fully explored by the author’s Booker-winning account of Thatcher’s Britain — The Line of Beauty, which picks up where the earlier novel ends. Ginny Hooker

WH Hudson: Green Mansions: A Romance of the Tropical Forest (1904)

In this exotic romance Abel leaves the city of Caracas for the uncharted forests. He settles in an Indian village and meets Rima, the last survivor of an aboriginal race. The book became a cult classic. Hudson was a conservationist and gained a reputation for his natural history writing. In 1959 the novel was turned into a film with Audrey Hepburn and Anthony Perkins, but it was a box office failure. Kohinoor Sahota

Zora Neale Hurston: Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937)

A landmark novel in African-American fiction, Their Eyes Were Watching God was written in only seven weeks, as the author was getting over a failed romance of her own. It was published to controversy in 1937 and rescued by Virago decades later. Through three marriages to three very different men, Janie Crawford, whose grandmother was born into slavery and dreamed of a better life for the heroine, finally finds both love and liberation with a younger man called Tea Cake. Hurston knew true love never runs smooth and the couple overcome rages and jealousies, as well as tough physical challenges. But it doesn’t end well for poor Janie. Hurston herself died in poverty and obscurity. Zadie Smith, Toni Morrison and Alice Walker are all fans. LA

Aldous Huxley: Crome Yellow (1921)

In Huxley’s first novel, callow poet Denis Stone is invited to a house party at Crome (a barely-fictionalised Garsington Manor, home of Bloomsbury socialite Lady Ottoline Morrell and scene of many a real-world literary bash). As he falls ineffectually in love with his host’s niece, and fails to capture the experience in verse, the remainder of the guests disport themselves in a variety of inventively idiosyncratic fashions, ranging from the declaiming of portions of the house’s history to the losing of virginity on the rooftop. A crisp satire of the affectations of post-first world war lettered society. Sarah Crown

Kazuo Ishiguro: The Remains of the Day (1989)

When butler Stevens sets out on a road trip to visit his former housekeeper, Miss Kenton, who is on the verge of leaving her marriage, he tells himself that his motives, as always, are purely professional. Looking back over 30 years of loyal service to Lord Darlington, Stevens reveals a life of sterile duty, routine and denial — in which his chance of personal happiness never stretched beyond an evening cup of cocoa with Miss Kenton. When Miss Kenton confesses to her lost hopes of a life with Stevens, his realisation of his own wasted past is as understated yet shocking as if he had smashed the best china. This masterful study of repression, regret and a dying class system won the Booker in 1989 and was made into a Merchant Ivory film, starring Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson, naturally. LA

Henry James: Portrait of a Lady (1881)

Why does Isabel Archer go back to Gilbert Osmond? There can be few questions more often asked of the ending of a novel. The story of a young American woman “affronting her destiny”, James endows his heroine with every possibility for freedom and happiness — an inheritance, independence of mind and beauty — only for her to become trapped by the Machiavellian Madame Merle and the sinister Osmond. Not even a passionate embrace with the manly Casper Goodwood (is there a sexier kiss in all of literature?) can make her change her mind and renounce her duty. From the moment the dying Ralph entreats her “if you’ve been hated you’ve also been loved. Ah but, Isabel — adored!” the rest of the novel is a blur of tears. LA

Henry James: The Wings of the Dove (1902)

Kate Croyden (portrayed by Helena Bonham-Carter in the decidedly sexualised 1997 film), modern, clever and ruthless, is forbidden from marrying the impoverished Merton Densher. When a terminally ill American heiress — Milly Theale — falls for Densher, the couple persuade Milly that her affections are returned, hoping she will leave Densher her fortune. And this she does. Guilt, however, wrecks Densher and warns the reader to heed James’s message: that love had better not exist for anything other than its own sake. Rosalind Porter

Elfriede Jelinek: The Piano Teacher (1983)

Erika Kohut, a piano teacher at the Vienna Conservatory, has spent her entire life under the close watch of a domineering mother, to whom she owes her artistic success, but also a disturbed inner life. An affair with one of her students triggers a speedy decline into abuse and self-destruction. Not a love story in the conventional sense, but a powerful depiction of the way in which the ties with our parents affect our later relationships. Expressionistic, vivid and much more readable than critics of this 2004 Nobel prizewinner have it. PO

Yasunari Kawabata: Beauty and Sadness (1964)

Oki, a successful middle-aged writer, revisits Otoko, with whom he had a disastrous aff air when she was only 15 years old. Otoko is now an acclaimed artist and recluse living with her young maid and lover, Keiko. A story dealing with Kawabata’s usual themes of desire, betrayal and revenge ensues, written in his characteristically cool, spare prose. This unsettling novel is itself a work of great beauty and sadness. When he was 72, Kawabata, Japan’s first Nobel laureate, stuck his head in the oven and gassed himself. He left no note. LA

MM Kaye: The Far Pavilions (197 8)

This long novel has spawned tours of India, a musical play, and a TV adaptation. It spans a quarter of a century of history in its story of Englishman Ashton Pelham-Martyn, who is brought up a Hindu and falls in love with the Indian princess Anjuli. The novel was inspired by 19th-century romantic epics, Kaye’s grandfather’s writings, and her Indian childhood. Director Peter Duffell’s famous adaptation in 1984 starred Ben Cross, Omar Sharif and Christopher Lee. KS

Nikos Kazantzakis: Zorba the Greek (1946)

A nameless narrator seeks life experience away from the books that have dominated his existence — and gets it in spades when he employs Zorba to be the foreman of his mine in Crete. The eponymous hero’s lustful energy and “great brute soul” are enchanting, while Kazantazkis has seduced generations of readers with his questioning philosophy and heady evocation of stolen love, the bonds of friendship, blue seas, wine drunk under the stars and a lost moment on a distant island. Sam Jordison

Milan Kundera: The Book of Laughter and Forgetting (197 8)

The French philosopher Henri Bergson once described comedy as “a temporary anasthaesia of the heart” — it would make for a spot-on definition of Kundera’s fifth novel as well. A self-consciously clever work with a jumpy narrative focus, it doesn’t succumb to the more ponderous French style of his later novels, nor does it seem to have the same faith in love as a counter-political force that Kundera displayed in The Unbearable Lightness of Being. It’s a sad book: a particularly melancholy orgy scene springs to mind, as does the final sentence — “their bare genitals stared stupidly and sadly at the white sand”. Which is to say — some might argue — that Kundera captured the essence of love quite successfully. PO

Milan Kundera: The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1982)

Kundera ponders the French revolution, Hitler, the Bible and Nietzsche’s concept of eternal return — and that’s just the first four pages. Against the backdrop of the emerging Prague spring, several characters explore their sexual, political and artistic freedoms and loyalties: there’s Tomas, a young surgeon, his wife Tereza, a photographer, and Sabina, one of Tomas’s several mistresses. The image that most people associate with Kundera’s best-known work is Lena Olin’s Sabina wearing only lingerie and a bowler hat in Philip Kaufman’s 1988 film version. That’s not necessarily unintended: Kundera’s masterpiece manages a delicate balancing act between cerebral weight and sensual lightness. PO

Pierre-Ambroise-François Choderlos de Laclos: Les Liaisons Dangereuses (1782)

Laclos, an artillery officer from a provincial regiment, knew exactly what he was doing when he published Les Liaisons Dangereuses: “I resolved to write a book which would create some stir in the world and continue to do so after I had gone from it.” His central characters are aristocratic profligates who consider themselves above morality and amuse themselves by plotting the seduction of a young girl. The epistolary form enables Laclos to withhold judgment on his wickedly attractive protagonists in a way which still seems dangerous today. Glenn Close and John Malkovich gave unforgettable peformances as the malevolent lovers in Stephen Frear’s Academy award-winning 1989 film, based on the Christopher Hampton’s script for the stage. Claire Armistead

DH Lawrence: Lady Chatterley’s Lover (1960)

Constance Chatterley, the frustrated wife of a paralysed war veteran and mine owner, finds herself drawn to the family’s gamekeeper. Through her attraction to Mellors, and their famously explicit affair — rich in forget-me-nots and four-letter-words — Lawrence developed his ideal of the natural man, uninhibited by class and social convention. At first privately printed, its publication in 1960 led to the prosecution of Penguin for obscenity. Was it, asked the prosecutor, the kind of book “you would wish your wife or servants to read”? The collapse of the case, after a defence featuring several top scholars, became a landmark of freedom to publish works of literary merit. CA

DH Lawrence: The Rainbow (1915)

Banned as obscene for 11 years on publication in 1915, The Rainbow follows the turbulent lives and loves of three generations of the Brangwen family of Marsh Farm in Lawrence’s native Nottinghamshire. A moving paean to a vanishing pastoral England, an enlightened manifesto for female emancipation and a bold challenge to the realist novel — The Rainbow, like its equally controversial sequel Women in Love, is remembered by most of its readers for the sex. It remains potentially dangerous reading for romantically inclined teenagers. LA

DH Lawrence: Women in Love (1920)

Like many modernists, DH Lawrence was preoccupied with the possibility of unity and believed love could bridge — or further — the fragmentary nature of post-industrial life. Perhaps nowhere in the literary tradition is love permitted such messianic value than in his saccharinely titled fifth novel. Through the story of two couples struggling to negotiate their individualism within a relationship, the Lawrentian metaphysic is tried and tested. The most memorable scene in Ken Russell’s 1969 film is certainly when Alan Bates and Oliver Reed wrestle naked, but action is largely relegated to the almost cosmic dimension of the characters’ inner lives. RP

Rosamond Lehmann: The Echoing Grove (1953)

Two sisters, Madeleine and Dinah, meet again after a long period of estrangement. This intense, intricately plotted novel tells of the love triangle that existed between the sisters and Madeleine’s husband Rickie Masters, who died suddenly and unglamorously from a stomach ulcer — leaving them both to deal with his loss and betrayal. On publication the novel was dismissed as “very much a woman’s book” by John Betjeman and other critics, but since being republished by Virago has gained admirers of both sexes. Lehmann herself had a complicated personal life, including a 10-year-affair with the poet Cecil Day Lewis, which drove her to distraction when he left her for an actress. LA

Rosamond Lehmann: The Weather in the Streets (1936)

Lehmann’s readers would write to her constantly: “Oh Miss Lehmann, this is my story! — how did you know?” In everything she wrote Lehmann distilled the exact essence of what we actually feel when we love another human being. Olivia Curtis, the endearing heroine of this irresistible novel, has left home to work in London. She meets a gorgeous, older, married man, and their love affair and its outcome has become a bible for generations of women who did — and do — and who felt — and feel — exactly the same as Olivia. Carmen Callil

Anita Loos: Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1925)

An anatomy of flapperdom. A New York “professional lady” is advised by one of her many gentlemen friends to put “all of my thoughts” on paper. Currently she is the other woman in the life of the Gus Eisman who sends her off to Europe for some cultivation. There she dances with the Prince of Wales, finds Paris “Deevine” [sic] and in Vienna flummoxes “Dr Froyd”. She concludes, “American gentlemen are the best after all, because kissing your hand may make you feel very very good but a diamond and safire [sic] bracelet last forever”. The character was immortalised by Marilyn Monroe in the film, Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend (1956). JS

Alison Lurie: Foreign Aff airs (1984)

Two professors are sent from America to London for research assignments: the 54-year-old, unmarried, unattractive Vinnie Miner, and the 29-year-old, recently divorced, handsome Fred Turner. They both gradually spend more time on romance than work: Vinnie has an unlikely affair with a sanitary engineer, and Fred falls for an aristocratic actress. This witty and charming novel won a Pulitzer prize in 1985. KS

Amin Maalouf: Samarkand (1989)

The poet Omar Khayyam is accused of mocking Islam, but the judge recognises Omar’s genius and spares him. He is given a book with blank pages in which to inscribe his thoughts, and through this we are transported to 11th-century Persia, complete with lovers, courts and bazaars. Maalouf’s story recreates the manuscript of Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, blending fact and fiction. KS

Thomas Mann: Death in Venice (1912)

When the ageing writer Gustav von Aschenbach catches sight of a young boy in Venice, his assumption that love is an ailment of the undisciplined character is dismantled. As a critique of stoical rationalism, Death in Venice shows how Aschenbach’s “path of least resistance” attitude to matters of the heart gains him professional stature, but is ultimately what kills him — what death relieves him of. Unlike many novels which examine love’s consequences, it is absolute in its endorsement of emotion, allowing even the most taboo of passions to be celebrated for their redemptive qualities. RP

Dacia Maraini: The Silent Duchess (1990)

Marianna Ucra, the daughter of an aristocratic family in 18th-century Sicily, has been left deaf and mute by an unspecified childhood trauma. Married to her ageing uncle at 13, she endures a life of mental confinement amid the decadent corruption of her family. But on the death of her husband, she finally starts to find the freedom she craves — as well as the truth about the events that caused her deafness. Marianna’s soundless world, in which all her other senses are heightened, is rendered with astonishing clarity. The novel brought Maraini, a winner of Italy’s prestigious Premio Strega, both critical and commercial success. AN

Javier Marías: A Heart So White (1992)

A mysterious suicide, an overheard plan for murder and casual art fraud: this Impac award-winning novel bears the hallmarks of a detective story, but Marías’s mysteries form the backdrop for something more existential. The narrator and his wife Luisa are both translators at high-powered political meetings, and the novel delicately riffs on themes of communication and misunderstanding between individuals. Richly layered but concise in its depiction of comic or tragic set-pieces, this is surely the first and last book to get romantic mileage out of a meeting between Margaret Thatcher and Juan Carlos of Spain. PO

Gabriel García Márquez: Love in the Time of Cholera (1985)

Fifty-one years, nine months and four days after Florentino Ariza was rejected for another man by the beautiful Fermina Daza, he finds her helping out at her husband’s wake. In the intervening years, he has made a fortune and sampled every variety of love, but has “not stopped thinking of her for a single moment”. Set in a steaming, disease-prone and politically unstable Caribbean country, and culminating in the reunion of the aged lovers aboard a riverboat, García Márquez’s novel delicately concludes that true passion is not the preserve of young bodies. CA

Somerset Maugham: Of Human Bondage (1915)

Philip Carey is miserable and lonely in small-town Blackstable. He is orphaned, brought up by his uncle, and is embarrassed by his club foot. He trains as a doctor in London, where he meets the loud and irresistible Mildred, but their affair nearly ruins him. This is the thinly disguised autobiography of Maugham’s life: he grew up in Whitstable, was orphaned and had a bad stutter. It is regarded as his masterpiece. KS

William Maxwell: So Long, See You Tomorrow (1980)

Based on a true scandal in 1920s Illinois of an affair between a tenant farmer’s wife and her husband’s best friend, this tale of adultery and murder was first serialised in the New Yorker, where Maxwell worked as fiction editor for 40 years. The betrayal between the two families is reflected in the smaller betrayal of the uneasy boyhood friendship between the narrator and the murderer’s son. At barely over 100 lean, immaculately crafted pages, this humane novella depicts the devastating impact wreaked by adult passions. “There was nothing to be done about it. He didn’t want to not love her. It was as simple as that.” LA

Carson McCullers: The Heart is a Lonely Hunter (1940)

McCullers was just 23 when she wrote this aching parable of alienation, spotlighting the inhabitants of a Depression-era Georgia mill-town. John Singer is the deaf-mute who plays the role of father-confessor to a quartet of lost souls (glum restaurateur, adolescent girl, black doctor, drunken socialist). McCullers’s deft vignettes touch on issues of race, class and religion. They also give a voice to America’s hidden majority — the people who, in Thoreau’s words, “lead lives of quiet desperation and go to the grave with the song still in them”. Xan Brooks

Ian McEwan: Atonement (2001)

A broken vase, a mistaken letter, a sexual encounter in a library, a crime, a lie — as so often with the opening of a McEwan novel, it is hard to tell the exact moment at which events begin to spiral into catastrophe. Thirteen-year-old Briony Tallis — the go-between for her elder sister Cecilia and Robbie Turner, the son of their housekeeper — commits a sin for which she will spend the rest of her life trying to atone. What begins as an apparently nostalgic English country house novel set just before the outbreak of the second world war turns, again as always with McEwan, into something altogether darker and more complicated. One of the most justly celebrated novels of recent years. LA

Ian McEwan: The Child in Time (1987)

The central narrative of McEwan’s novel passionately opposes two kinds of love: a man’s love for a woman, and his love for their child. The full force of the latter is unleashed when Stephen’s three-year-old daughter Kate is abducted in a supermarket. (No one who reads the novel forgets the slow terror of this episode.) As Stephen searches obsessively for Kate, his love for her mother, Julie, seems to slip away and disappear. A peculiar sub-plot, in which Stephen’s friend, a Thatcherite MP, regresses into childhood, is thematically related, but can hardly match up to the story of love numbed by the loss of a child. John Mullan

George Meredith: The Egoist (1879)

A novel which many Victorians would have proposed as one of the greatest that their literary culture produced. The egoist is Sir Willoughby Patterne, a man brought up surrounded by wealth and female adoration. On coming into his inheritance, he announces his engagement to Constantia Durham — but she sees through him and elopes with another man. Willoughby tours the world for three years and when he returns he ignores the devotion of Laetitia Dale, who has always loved him. Instead he courts Clara Middleton, the daughter of a wine-loving clergyman. They become engaged, but confronted by Clara’s reluctance, he treacherously forms a second engagement with Laetitia. He is exposed. Laetitia remains true to her egoist. The novel embodies Meredith’s complex theory of the comic spirit and deserves to be read more than it is nowadays. JS

Henry Miller: Tropic of Cancer (1934)

First published in Paris, and banned almost everywhere else until the 1960s, Miller’s semi-autobiographical stories of sexual liberation no longer seem outrageous, but they are worth fussing over. His words leap from the page, imbued with passion for life on the seedy side of Paris, and rich in the earthy pleasures of wine, women and cursing. George Orwell called it “the most important book of the mid-1930s”. It remains just as vital today. SJ

Margaret Mitchell: Gone with the Wind (1936)

Journalist Margaret Mitchell wrote Gone with the Wind, her first and only novel published during her lifetime, over 10 years in secret, while convalescing from a riding injury — refusing to show the manuscript to anyone except her husband because she thought it was “lousy”. When it was finally published it was an overnight sensation, winning Mitchell the Pulitzer prize. The 1939 epic starring Vivien Leigh and Clark Gable was the highest grossing film in the history of Hollywood and sealed its fate as one of the most popular love stories of all time (the film was responsible for the famous “frankly”). It has, apparently, sold more copies than any book since, apart from the Bible. LA

Nancy Mitford: The Pursuit of Love (1945)

The Radlett girls, by now, are immortal. Their slang is dated, their snobbery unpalatable, and their upbringing, by a roaring Uncle Matthew in an unheated country house, probably illegal by today’s standards. Yet upper-class Linda Radlett and her sisters still hold their charm. The mercurial Linda flits from the London season to the Spanish civil war to the Paris salons, acquiring and shedding men along the way, to the delight and horror of her sisters and faithful friend Fanny (the “Hons”). Satirical yet affectionate, the novel draws on Mitford’s own upbringing, and provides a sepia portrait of what it meant to grow up longing for romance among the 1930s landed gentry. Carrie O’Grady

Nancy Mitford: Love in a Cold Climate (1949)

Mitford’s follow-up to The Pursuit of Love is, amazingly, even more brittle, sparkling and outrageous. The Radlett family are still in evidence, but they play second fiddle to the Hamptons, particularly young Polly, whose polite manner must surely hide a secret. Her mother, Lady Montrose, is a terrific old battleaxe, one of literature’s great gems; as is Cedric, who calls everyone “angel” and dresses up as Romance for a fancy-dress ball. The comedy becomes all the more entrancing when you realise how dark is the story it adorns. CO

Elsa Morante: Arturo’s Island: A Novel (1957)

Arturo lives on his father’s island, his mother is dead, and he is left in the care of a staff of black-clad women. When his father returns with a new wife, close to Arturo’s age, he is full of contempt for her. In a mix of Sophoclean drama and soap opera, things take a turn for the unexpected. The novel won Italy’s most prestigious literary award, the Premio Strega, and was made into a film in 1962 by Daniano Damiani. KS

Haruki Murakami: Norwegian Wood (1987)

Murakami’s best-known work is also his simplest; a straightforward story of boy-meets-girl-then-a-different-girl, elevated by deceptively mild, deliciously cool prose. Hearing a Beatles song on the radio, 37-year-old businessman Toru is jerked back to his student days, during which, after the suicide of his best friend, Kizuki, he comforted then fell for Kizuki’s lovely but fragile girlfriend, Naoko. When she retreated to a sanatorium in the mountains, however, he became involved with vibrant Midori; torn between the two, he risked losing both. Murakami’s novel is used with sadness for time’s passing; a quietly poignant anthem for doomed youth. SC

Vladimir Nabokov: Lolita, or the Confessions of a White Widowed Male (1955)

Like Joyce’s Ulysses, a scandalous bestseller, but also a major work of modern literature. The work’s vexed route to publication — over the barriers which Anglo-American censorship placed in its way — altered the notion of what was permissible in literature. The hero-narrator is Humbert Humbert (a pseudonym). Cosmopolitan to his core, he comes to barbarous America. Humbert is obsessed by “nymphets”, pubescent girls, “between the age limits of nine and fourteen”. One such is his landlady’s daughter, Dolores (Lolita) Haze. Humbert marries the mother to get at the girl. When the mother dies he and Lolita travel round America, as lovers (she increasingly unwilling) pursued by another sexual predator, Clare Quilty. All ends bloodily, with Humbert incarcerated for murder. JS

RK Narayan: The Painter of Signs (1976)

Raman’s life follows a simple routine: he lives with his aunt, he’s a sign painter and he spends his evenings in the temple. When he meets Daisy, a worker from the Family Planning Health Centre who is dedicated to bringing birth control to the people, he considers giving up his painting. This is a bittersweet love story full of humour, irony and warmth, set in Narayan’s fictional city of Malgudi. He was short-listed for the Nobel prize several times but never won. KS

Anaïs Nin: Delta of Venus (197 8)

The Kama Sutra, Richard von Krafft-Ebing, and Nin’s friends’ sexual encounters were just some of the sources for this story. Her fiction is titillating, sentimental and dream-like as it explores how sex is nothing without emotion. Nin was commissioned to write the book in the 1940s for a private collector and although it was originally classed as pornography, it was later praised as one of the finest examples of female erotica. KS

Cees Nooteboom: All Souls Day (1999)

Arhur Daane, a Dutch documentary film-maker, has lost his wife and child in a plane crash. He wanders round Berlin as he plans his next project, a film showing the world through his eyes. He meets a philosopher, sculptor and physicist. It is when he meets the young student, Elik Orange, that he finds himself on an unexpected journey. Nooteboom has been described by AS Byatt as “one of the great modern novelists”, and often been suggested as a candidate for the Nobel prize. Kohinoor Sahota

Michael Ondaatje: The English Patient (1992)

This is another novel where the multi-award winning film threatens to eclipse the Booker-winning original — and who could forget a luminous Juliette Binoche discovering frescoes by candlelight, an elegant Kristin Scott Thomas reading Herodotus by a campfire in the desert, or Ralph Fiennes staggering through the sand dunes with his dead lover shrouded in billowing white? Still, the novel — Ondaatje’s best — is well worth reading for the lyricism of the prose and the clever storytelling: even if the adulterous lovers aren’t quite such an intense focus as in the film. Lisa Allardice

Boris Pasternak: Doctor Zhivago (1957)

Although completed in 1956, Doctor Zhivago wasn’t published in Pasternak’s native Russia until 1988; and the Kremlin compelled him to decline the Nobel prize which he was awarded in 1958 after the novel’s success abroad. It is set against the backdrop of the Russian revolution, but it is the story of Yuri’s grand passion for Lara that has kept its place in readers’ hearts. Has anyone ever made doing the ironing look so alluring as Julie Christie in David Lean’s 1965 epic starring the smouldering Omar Sharif? LA

Abbé Prévost: Manon Lescaut (1731)

A callow young toff falls for a beauty of shaky morals and follows her to the end of the world, shedding fortune, scruples and self-respect along the way. Sounds familiar? That’s not surprising, as Prévost’s novel — initially banned in France — inspired many less accomplished tales, as well as operas by Massenet and Puccini. Des Grieux, the narrator, gives a fascinatingly unreliable account of his years with a woman for whom luxury will always count for more than love. Phil Daoust

Jean Rhys: Wide Sargasso Sea (1966)

This brief, exotic novel tells the story of Antoinette, a Creole heiress who is married off to an unnamed Englishman, falls in love with him but is gradually driven mad. By the end, she is incarcerated in an attic room, in a cold foreign country, but still dreaming of “the smell of vetivet and frangipani, of cinnamon and dust and lime trees”. Told in turn by Antoinette and her husband, the Mr Rochester of Jane Eyre, it is, as Francis Wyndham commented in his introduction, “an imaginative feat almost uncanny in its vivid intensity”. Prudence Hone

Henry Handel Richardson: Maurice Guest (190 8)

In the 1890s, Maurice Guest, a poor English provincial teacher, goes to Leipzig to study music. He meets Louise Dufrayer, languid, exotic, a siren. The love Maurice comes to feel for Louise is as resounding and consuming as the music which rises and falls on every page. This is a novel in the great European tradition. Maurice Guest joins Madame Bovary and Anna Karenina, as the lyrical sweep of Richardson’s prose reveals every intimate tremor felt by a human heart obsessed with the love of another. Carmen Callil

Samuel Richardson: Pamela (1740)

This story of a maidservant struggling to resist the advances of her sexually predatory master was the first complex novel of love in English fiction. Told in the heroine’s own self-questioning, agitated letters, it traces her feelings moment by moment. She is fi ghting to save her soul as well as her body. Mr B, the would-be rake, intercepts and reads those letters, and as a result falls in love with her. His intended victim conquers him with her writing. John Mullan

Samuel Richardson: Clarissa (174 8)

In the longest novel in English literature, the passions of a brilliant libertine, Lovelace, and Clarissa, the intelligent, virtuous young woman whom he desires (”my frost-piece!”), are played out in exquisite slow motion. We have the correspondence of the heroine with her friend, and of the villain with a fellow rake, so we can see how these combatants are deceived by each other. Clarissa half-falls for the satanic but seductive Lovelace, and to Richardson’s horror many of the novel’s female readers fell for him completely. JM

Marilynne Robinson: Gilead (2004)

Few contemporary writers are as critically acclaimed as Marilynne Robinson. The Pulitzer prizewinning Gilead, rapturously received more than 20 years after Robinson’s first novel Housekeeping, could equally belong in a different category, as it is a novel-long letter from an adoring 72-year-old father, Reverend John Ames, who believes he is terminally ill, to his seven-year-old son. But as well as being a powerfully lucid expression of filial love and faith, it is the story of how two men achieve grace through marriage — one unexpectedly late in life, the other through an illegal union with a black woman from Tennessee. Set in small-town Iowa in 1956, Gilead is a quiet, slow-moving but ultimately majestic avowal of the redemptive power of love. LA

Françoise Sagan: Bonjour Tristesse (1954)

“A strange and melancholy feeling pervades me”, says Cécile , remembering being 17 and on holiday in the south of France, where she was seduced by sun, sea and her first lover. But her hedonistic lifestyle is transformed when her father decides to remarry. Written when Sagan was 18, the novel’s depiction of teenage sexuality caused a scandal, but went on to sell 850,000 copies in France. François Mauriac described Sagan as a “charming little monster”. KS

Kurban Said: Ali and Nino (192 8)

Ali and Nino is the great romance — the Romeo and Juliet — of the Caucasus. Sparsely and movingly told by Said (whose own life was as quite as extraordinary as his book), it is written, engagingly, in the first person: Ali, a handsome young Azeri aristocrat and a Muslim, tells us the story of his courtship of and marriage to beautiful Nino, a Georgian princess and a Christian. The setting is Baku in 1920, in the last tortured months of a brief utopian period in that city when people of all nationalities and religions lived in harmony. What makes this story of doomed love different to many others is that it is not bigoted society nor their families who destroy Ali and Nino, but the brutal invasion of Azerbaijan by the Red Army. Soviet rule, it is easy to forget, only came to an end 16 years ago, but the Baku of Ali and Nino is still, just, recognisable. Bridget Keenan

James Salter: Light Years (1975)

Viri and Nedra Berland live with their two daughters in the Hudson valley. Viri is an architect, Nedra a witty, beautiful almost-artist; their gilded days are garnished with the names of painters, ballets, authors and wines. But time, unforgivingly, moves on. The idyll shows faultlines: infidelity, disease, age, loss, divorce. The daughters leave the shelter of childhood for the sexual fray. You feel a tension between the radiance of moments — a breakfast of chocolate and oranges, sunlit picnics on beaches and lawns, “the endless hours of consort” between man and wife — and their inevitable rush into the past. “Where does it go,” Nedra wonders. “Where has it gone?” William Fiennes

James Salter: A Sport and a Pastime (1967)

An American photographer borrows a house near Dijon. A younger man, Philip Dean, comes to stay with him and begins an affair with a local girl called Anne-Marie. The photographer describes their encounters with dreamy intensity and detail. We’re not sure if these are his own experiences, or his fantasies, or if he’s dissolved into a third-person narrator who knows everything. Salter has said that his ambition was to write something “licentious yet pure, an immaculate book filled with images of an unchaste world more desirable than our own.” Reading it, you feel that you too, like the photographer, are eavesdropping on the conduct of a love aff air: between the writer and his language, or between language and the world it describes. WF

Bernhard Schlink: The Reader (1995)

Fifteen-year-old Michael has a secret relationship with a woman more than twice his age: after school he reads her stories and they make love, until one day she vanishes. Years later, the boy — now a law student — discovers that his former lover used to be a guard in a concentration camp. When she is imprisoned for life, they resume a relationship of sorts: he records himself reading stories and posts the tapes to her. Schlink, who is also a lecturer in law, writes with an alert sense for moral ambiguities, yet he also makes an impassioned stand in defence of the redemptive power of love. Philip Oltermann

Erich Segal: Love Story (1970)

The novel originated as a screenplay for Paramount written by a young classics professor. Every age has its Romeo and Juliet. This was the one for the 1970s. It opens: “What can you say about a twenty-five-year-old girl who died?” The girl, Jennifer Cavilleri, is a Radcliffe music student. The narrator, Oliver Barrett IV, is a Harvard student. A tiff in the library leads to the ice-cream parlour and, inevitably, love over the scoops. His background is old money. She is Italian, the daughter of a baker. Oliver defies his family, she sacrifi ces her dream of studying in Paris. They marry but Jennifer is diagnosed with a fatal illness. The story is told by Oliver, after her death, with the novel’s famous motto: “Love means never having to say you’re sorry.” A generation of teenage boys fell for a freshfaced Ali MacGraw in the 1970s’ weepy with Ryan O’Neal as the preppy Oliver. John Sutherland

Isaac Bashevis Singer: Enemies, a Love Story (1972)

It’s 1949, New York. Herman Broder, who has escaped the concentration camps, is having an affair with three women: Yadwiga who hid him from Nazis; Masha his mistress; and Tamara, the wife he thought was shot dead. Herman is adrift in a world where “children could be dragged away from their mother and shot”. The novel was first serialised in the Jewish Daily Forward in 1966. Paul Mazursky’s film adaptation in 1989, starring Ron Silver and Anjelica Huston, was nominated for two Oscars. KS

Elizabeth Smart: At Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept (1945)

The world might have been at war, but no less cataclysmic is the individual anguish of the broken-hearted, so claims Elizabeth Smart’s prose poem. The barest traces of a story of everyday adultery swells to heroic grandeur with lashings of biblical and literary allusions. While the unnamed lovers’ romance is painfully brief, the book was based on Canadian writer Smart’s affair with the English poet George Barker, which lasted 18 years and produced four children. A howl of tortured love and the agony of betrayal, it should be avoided by emotional cynics and literary ascetics at all costs. A favourite inspiration for Morrissey, apparently. LA

Dodie Smith: I Capture the Castle (194 8)

“I write this sitting in the kitchen sink,” so we are introduced to the eccentric, impoverished Mortmain family — 17-year-old Cassandra, our narrator and would-be novelist; Rose, her beautiful, bored elder sister; Thomas, the little brother; bohemian Topaz, their young stepmother and sometime artist’s model; and their father, an author suffering from writer’s block — all holed up in the crumbling Suffolk pile. Hope comes with the arrival of the wealthy American Cotton family and their two eligible sons as neighbours. Written while Smith was in Hollywood, but homesick for England, and set in the innocent prewar period, this utterly enchanting coming of age story should be given to every 14-year-old girl and revisited thereafter in times of flu and emotional frailty. LA

Ahdaf Soueif: The Map of Love (1999)

In 13 years of reading fiction by women since founding the Orange prize, Kate Mosse cites The Map of Love as her favourite. Soueif’s sweeping family saga describes two cross-cultural romances separated by nearly a century. Epic in its historical and geographical range yet rich in detail, the novel is also a love letter to Soueif’s native Egypt. Shortlisted for the Booker prize in 1999, it combines romance and politics with a rare passion. LA

Jacqueline Susann: Valley of the Dolls (1966)

The novel which, raunchily, redrew the map of women’s romance. For many years it was listed by Guinness as the bestselling work of fiction ever. Three young women come to postwar New York to make their fortune. The “dolls” of the title are prescription pills. The trio are brought together by a Broadway musical, in which they are each differently involved. Anne Welles is level headed, and eventually makes it in modelling. Neely O’Hara is lower class. She becomes an Oscar-winning film actress, and self-destructive addict. Jennifer North is blond, beautiful and doomed. Susann’s novel engages frankly (for the time) with sex, abortion, breast cancer and drugs. It’s manifestly a roman à clef — one of the pleasures in reading it is spotting Marilyn Monroe, Frank Sinatra and Judy Garland under thin disguise. JS

Graham Swift: Waterland (1983)

In this, Graham Swift’s breakthrough novel of 1983, the flat, liquid landscape of the Fens holds the teenage protagonists in a vice-like grip. The narrator Tom Crick is a middle-aged schoolmaster looking back on his war-time schoolboy romance with Mary, a sexually adventurous convent schoolgirl. Their eventual marriage will be childless, a lack which precipitates Tom into recklessly sharing his family history with his pupils. Shortlisted for the Booker, Waterland employed the techniques of fashionable magic realism in the service of the provincial realist novel. Kathryn Hughes

Junichiro Tanizaki: Diary of a Mad Old Man (1961)

“How could anyone with a face like this ever hope to appeal to a woman?” writes Utsugi, a dying old man, in his diaries. He desires his beautiful, westernised daughter-in-law, Satsuko: there is an age-gap, incest, and a bizarre foot fetish. This is funny, intelligent and passionate, and also semi-autobiographical as it was Tanizaki’s final work, written during his own illness. He is regarded as one of the greatest Japanese writers, and his work explores the destructive power of erotic obsessions. KS

Leo Tolstoy: Anna Karenina (1877)

From the famous first line — “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way” — we know there is only one place this story is heading and it isn’t to a happy ending. This is the ultimate adultery novel — with Madame Bovary in close second. Tolstoy does give us the pious Levin and Kitty to prove that love isn’t necessarily tragic, but no one really gives a damn about them. There’s a lot of stuff about the reform of the Russian peasantry too. But all we are really interested in is the fatal passion of poor Anna and her dashing Vronsky. Oprah Winfrey was recently responsible for making Tolstoy’s classic a bestseller again when she chose it for her bookclub. LA

Rose Tremain: Music and Silence (1999)

The winner of the 2008 Orange prize created a crystalline vision of early 17th-century Denmark in this vivid panorama of life at the court of King Christian IV. The young English lute player Peter Claire arrives during the dying days of the king’s marriage to his second wife and falls in love with one of the queen’s women. The glittering descriptions and use of the present continuous tense add to the immediacy. The review in this paper sums it up: “The crowning virtue of this novel is Tremain’s restlessly probing sympathy, so that if no character is of totally unblemished virtue, neither is anyone thoroughly bad.” PH

Ivan Turgenev: First Love (1860)

Sixteen-year-old Vladimir leaves Moscow with his parents to spend the summer at a house in the country. Out shooting crows, he sees a beautiful girl in the neighbouring garden. Zinaida, daughter of a down-at-heel princess, is 21 and a virtuoso flirt, and Vladimir falls for her, big time: “I had ceased to be simply a young boy; I was someone in love.” But Zinaida has a raft of grown-up suitors — including Doctor Looshin, Count Malevsky and a really annoying poet called Maidanov — and Vladimir is convinced she’s in love with one of them. When he discovers the identity of Zinaida’s lover, Turgenev’s wonderful novella enters a new and complicated dimension. WF

Anne Tyler: Breathing Lessons (198 8)

Winner of the 1989 Pulitzer Prize for fiction, Breathing Lessons’s structure is simple — a middle-aged couple, Ira and Maggie, spend a day driving to and from a funeral — but it is stuffed with more insight into human relations than many other novels. The couple have typical marital spats while quietly reflecting on their individual dreams and disappointments, particularly their son Jesse, a wannabe rock star, who has been a lifelong bafflement to his conventional father. With a deceptively light touch, Tyler creates a stunningly realistic, and ultimately optimistic, portrait of marriage. Hadley Freeman

Anne Tyler: The Accidental Tourist (1985)

Macon Leary is a reluctant travel writer, whose usual emotional frigidity degenerates to near-paralysis after his son is murdered and his wife leaves him. He takes refuge behind his similarly odd siblings and only re-emerges after meeting Muriel, whose chaotic ways shatter his neurotic rigidity. Despite the breathtakingly sad opening chapters, Tyler’s delicate perceptiveness gives the novel an understated warmth. William Hurt was so good in the 1989 film adaptation as Macon that he almost made up for Geena Davis, who bafflingly won an Oscar for her performance as Muriel. HF

Sarah Waters: The Night Watch (2006)

In a bold leap from the Victorian lesbiana of Waters’s previous hit novels, The Night Watch, told backwards from 1947 to 1941, traces the lives of its four lost characters as they pick their way back through the rubble and ruined lives of austerity Britain to the danger of the Blitz. With Pinter’s Betrayal as a template, The Night Watch records four love stories from sorry endings to romantic beginnings. And while war-ravaged London — immaculately rendered in both atmosphere 1000 Novels Everyone Must Read | 21 and detail — provides a dramatic backcloth, Waters’ is most interested in the inner conflict of her characters’ hearts. LA

Charles Webb: The Graduate (1963)

Dustin Hoff man in full diving suit in his parent’s swimming pool, a sultry Anne Bancroft as the seductive Mrs Robinson and one of the most atmospheric soundtracks of all time, mean there’s no getting away from the gargantuan movie with this one. A satire on 1960s upper-class suburban America, The Graduate is the story of an alienated college graduate having the mother of all identity crises. Benjamin Braddock is perhaps even more dissociated in the original, but otherwise the novel is written pretty much as a screenplay. LA

Edith Wharton: The Age of Innocence (1920)

This look back at the rigid conventions of New York society in the 1870s, where “they all lived in a kind of hieroglyphic world, where the real thing was never said or done or even thought”, is also an examination of duty and sacrifice. Newland Archer, engaged to the perfect but conventional May, falls in love with May’s exotic cousin, Countess Ellen Olenska, but marriage and May’s pregnancy come between them. Poignant, measured and wistful, it was a bestseller and won the Pulitzer prize — the first to be awarded to a woman. PH

Jeanette Winterson: The Passion (1987)

A French farmboy idolises Napoleon Bonaparte and becomes his personal cooker of chickens; a girl is born who can walk on water: realism and characterisation are not the point of this sinuous, casually brutal, often gorgeous novel, but Winterson’s readers would not really expect that. Rather, it is a meditation on the human waste of war, on necessary risk, and, above all, on passion, which brooks no dissent, clothes the world in colour, and clarifies everything — except when it doesn’t. Aida Edemariam

Mrs Henry Wood: East Lynne (1861)

Full-blooded Victorian melodrama that was extremely popular as a novel and even more so as a play (where the famous “Dead, dead and never called me mother!” originated). Lady Isabel Vane (vain by nature) is left bankrupt when her father, Lord Mount Severn, dies. She marries a high-minded lawyer, Mr Archibald Carlyle, who buys her former home, East Lynne, for her. Disastrously, Isabel is tempted to elope with the caddish Frank Levison. Carlyle divorces her (a legal option since 1857) and remarries. Thought killed, though only disfigured in a train accident, Isabel, disguised by green spectacles, returns as Madame Vine to East Lynne, where she serves, unrecognised, as governess to her own children. Melodrama ensues. The novel embodies Wood’s conviction that for a married woman, adultery is “far worse than death”. JS

Richard Yates: Revolutionary Road (1961)

Outwardly successful young suburbanites Frank and April Wheeler go from mutual tolerance and boredom to violent loathing as their lives of unquiet desperation begin to unravel. It is hard to think of a more unlikeable couple, or a more depressing novel, but this corrosive portrait of 1950s American suburbia and the death of the American dream is brutal and beautiful in its appalling honesty. Hailed as a masterpiece on publication in 1961, and rediscovered by a new generation of critics and writers, Revolutionary Road has achieved a hallowed status (Tennessee Williams, Richard Ford, Kurt Vonnegut and Nick Hornby are just some of its devotees) in modern fiction. LA
 

  1. June 16, 2011 at 10:20 pm

    Very interesting list. Naturally, I’ve got my objections: THREE FROM JOSEPH CONRAD!!!! and I’ve never been fond of Paul Bowles. There are many titles which make you think “Well…yes…that should probably be there….?” Glad to see Len Deighton represented (under-rated, I think); and discovered a book I’d like to read called “Day” by Al Kennedy.

  2. JENNIFER TRUE
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