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50 Books You Must Read

Isn’t it a wonder that even in these hectic times when channel surfing is almost second nature to most children, books still endure! No wonder book exhibitions are such a crowd puller. Books have been with us for thousands of years and will remain with us (in any format) as long as one happily welcomes a cuddle down with a favourite engrosser.

Here is a list of 50 books you ought to read in your lifetime.

1984: George Orwell (Penguin)

The book that gave us Big Brother and Room 101 provides a compelling and chilling view of a totalitarian state. Even more horrifying than the loss of freedom is the constant rewriting of history which effectively removes the past. Although Winston and Julia’s love affair provides a temporary haven, their fate is inescapable. JH

A Clockwork Orange: Anthony Burgess (Penguin)

Burgess invented a whole new language, a kind of Russian cockney called Nadset, for his unnerving dystopian fantasy. Alex and his gang of teenage “droogs” pillage in a fragmented urban landscape, raping and robbing at will, until police try to recondition his mind through nauseating aversion therapy. Think ID cards, Asbos and hoodies. JR

A Kestrel for a Knave: Barry Hines (Penguin)

A favourite school text in the 60s and 70s. Many children at the time will have identified greatly with this gritty portrayal of northern life and schooling. The swearing was an added bonus for any 13-year-old and the contemporary jacket – featuring a film still of hero Billy Casper flicking a V-sign – sums up this rebellious, rough and rude classic of 60s social realism. KN

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland: Lewis Carroll (Penguin)

Lewis Carroll’s weird and wonderful tale of what happened when Alice fell down the rabbit hole. Peopled by fantastic characters like Old Father William and the Cheshire Cat, readers of all ages will cheer Alice on as she organises the prizes for the Dodo race and reproves the jurors at the Knave of Hearts’ trial. JH

American Psycho: Brett Easton Ellis (Macmillan)

Patrick Batemen swims through the status-conscious shark pool of 1980s New York, where the Wall Street dealers enjoy coke-fuelled sneering, preening and sexual conquests. Patrick has even less regard for others than his peers, and unwinds by killing them. The satire is as sharp as the tailoring in this horrific, hilarious novel. MW

Breakfast at Tiffany’s: Truman Capote (Penguin)

The story of beautiful, glamorous, impossibly remote Holly Golightly. Her apartment rings to the sound of her cocktail parties, at which millionaires and gangsters are equally at home, but her past is shrouded in mystery. Capote’s novella charts her quest to find a place where she feels she can belong. SC

Brighton Rock: Graham Greene (Random House)

“Hale knew, before he had been in Brighton three hours, that they meant to murder him.” So Greene opens his rollercoaster ride through the gang underworld of the seaside town. The lead characters, nihilistic thug Pinkie and happy-go-luck hooker Ida, can feel more like archetypes used to explore the nature of sin and morality. But a breathless thriller-style plot carries the day. JR

Catch-22: Joseph Heller (Random House)

It is remarkable that Catch-22, a hilarious but savage indictment of the military system, was published a mere 16 years after the end of the second world war. Yossarian struggles to remain sane amid an onslaught of absurdities and a cast of cranks. Today Heller’s dazzling, surreal achievement is undimmed. JR

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory: Roald Dahl (Penguin)

Dahl knew exactly what excites children: chocolate. Read Charlie’s uplifting tale to any primary school class today, and they’ll be wide-eyed, hungry for the next chapter. Uproarous, surreal, and sprinkled with wry asides, the story features a cavalcade of unforgettable characters, from sickly Augustus Gloop to spoilt Veruca Salt and the Oompaloompas. JR

Close Range: Brokeback Mountain and other stories: Annie Proulx (HarperCollins)

It would be hard to imagine a finer short story writer and pretty nigh impossible to recall a better collection. Any one of the 11 tales of hardship and endurance set within the communities of ranchers, cowpokes and country wives in the unforgiving Wyoming landscape would make a fine film. In the event, one made a great one. AG

Devil in a Blue Dress: Walter Mosley (Serpent’s Tail)

Walter Mosley’s first published novel (he was working as a computer programmer at the time) was an instant hit in 1990. With the central character, Easy Rawlins, Mosley gave an African-American twist to the gumshoe tradition, and Rawlins’ search for a missing girl in the immediate postwar period allowed Mosley to address race issues generally ignored in the annals of classic private-eye literature. AP

Different Seasons (includes The Shawshank Redemption): Stephen King (Hodder)

Perhaps, like many, you thought King only wrote horror and wasn’t for you. Perhaps, like many, you don’t like short stories and look for a bigger, more satisfying novel. I bet you live on your own and like staying in a lot too. Different Seasons is a triumph unequalled in that it contains four totally gripping and unique novellas in one volume that has inspired not one but three great films: The Shawshank Redemption, Stand By Me, and Apt Pupil. Live a little – just read it. AG

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?: Philip K Dick (Orion)

Earth has been devastated by war, and through its ruins stalks bounty hunter Rick Deckard, seeking renegade replicants. With his bounty money he dreams of buying a live animal, the ultimate status symbol in a world almost bereft of animal life. And then he falls for a replicant and his life becomes a nightmare of subterfuge and deceit. JH

Doctor Zhivago: Boris Pasternak (Random House)

An intense and memorable love story set during the Russian revolution. Caught in the tide of events that swept Moscow during the early 20th century, physician and poet Yuri Zhivago wrestles with the politics of the new order and the anguish of loving a woman who is not his wife. SC

Empire of the Sun: JG Ballard (HarperCollins)

Many of Ballard’s earlier great novels borrowed from his childhood experiences in 1940s Shanghai, but when he finally came to record his own early years, albeit disguised as another novel, a true masterpiece was unveiled. Written over 20 years ago, Empire is a literary jewel that towers over many of the lesser novels that somehow managed to beat it to the Booker in the 80s. AG

Fight Club: Chuck Pahluniak (Random House)

The archetypal fable of anti-corporate discontent, Fight Club was apparently inspired after a holiday beating administered to author Chuck Pahluniak. The central character, never named, encounters charismatic anarchist Tyler Durden, and is drawn into a world of violence, subversion and “space monkeys”, wreaking terror on society at large via a campaign called Project Mayhem. AP

Get Shorty: Elmore Leonard (Penguin)

If you claim a passing interest in crime fiction, or boast a film buff’s knowledge of Hollywood and its workings, or possess a thorough understanding of modern meaning for the word “cool”, you’re a fraud unless you’ve read this book. The film was MDF covered with polished veneer; the novel, solid gleaming oak. AG

Goldfinger: Ian Fleming (Penguin)

In this chilled cocktail of espionage and existentialism, the calculating, cold war lady-killer pits his wits against the notorious Auric Goldfinger. A world away from the martini-quaffing , clowning lothario of the movies, Fleming’s Bond is colder, crueller and more brilliant. Whether writing about girls, guns or golf, nobody does it better. MW

Goodfellas: Nicholas Pileggi (Bloomsbury)

An account of a real-life mobster’s criminal career before he turned himself in as a federal witness. Originally published under the title Wiseguy, the book tells the true story of Henry Hill: “At the age of 12 my ambition was to be a gangster … To be a wiseguy was to own the world.” KN

Heart of Darkness: Joseph Conrad (OUP)

Still the debate rages: is Conrad’s novella an incisive critique of colonialism, or does it reinforce the very racist values it claims to unmask? Either way, his shrouded account of Marlow’s journey into the “god-forsaken wilderness” of the Congo demands to be read. At its core lies the enigmatic, awesome Kurtz, and civilisation itself. “And this also,’ said Marlow suddenly, ‘has been one of the dark places of the earth.'” JR

Jaws: Peter Benchley (Macmillan)

This is pulp fiction of the very best kind. Jaws was a monster of a bestseller long before that much-imitated soundtrack achieved ubiquity. A great book to get teenage boys interested in reading: big sharks, stacks of action, a bit of science and, as I remember, it even gets a bit steamy once or twice! KN

LA Confidential: James Ellroy (Random House)

Ellroy is not for lovers of cappuccino, latte, decaf or any of that nonsense. His novels represent the deadly rich aroma and slimy strength of a double espresso. Each sentence of this, his most essential novel set among corrupt policemen in 50s LA, has been lovingly prepared and should be sipped over a long period to fully appreciate its power and brilliance. AG

Les Liaisons Dangereuses: Choderlos de Laclos (OUP)

A breathtakingly amoral celebration of libertinism, presented as a series of letters between the calculating central characters and their victims, first published in 1782. The damned, devastating charmer Valmont determines to seduce the virtuous, retiring wife of Monsieur de Tourvel, and win a wager with his conspirator the Marquise de Merteuil. MW

Lolita: Vladimir Nabokov (Penguin)

With its unreliable narrator and ambiguous tone, Lolita avoids drawing any definite moral conclusions from this notorious story of ageing academic Humbert Humbert and his obsessive confusion of lust and love for a 12-year-old girl. It is Nabokov’s playful prose, however, that is the most bewitching aspect of this novel. MW

Lord of the Flies: William Golding (Faber)

“‘I ought to be chief,’ said Jack with simple arrogance, ‘because I’m chapter chorister and head boy. I can sing C sharp’.” The other boys disagree, and Ralph is elected leader thanks to his skills with a conch. That’s the end of democracy on the island, as the plane-wrecked group descend into savagery. Golding’s fable retains its full moral force. JR

Oliver Twist: Charles Dickens (OUP)

Orphan Oliver flees his cruel apprentice-master for London, where he falls in with a group of thieves, headed by Fagin and the brutal Bill Sykes. Rescued by philanthropic Mr Brownlow, he is recaptured by the gang, who have fallen in with his grasping half-brother. Good eventually triumphs when Oliver is saved again and the gang leaders brought to justice. SC

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest: Ken Kesey (Penguin)

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest was a direct attack on the abusive and inhumane treatment of the mentally ill in the middle of the 20th century. It should also be read as an attack on all forms of authority and a celebration of the free spirit. Fast-living anti-hero Randall P McMurphy has a literary ancestor in Mark Twain’s freewheeling and rebellious Huckleberry Finn. KN

Orlando: Virgina Woolf (Penguin)

Orlando is a young Englishman who lives during Elizabeth I’s reign and for centuries afterwards, refuses to grow old and metamorphoses into a woman. This extraordinary novel is a rich celebration of literature, from Elizabethan heroic verse to Woolf’s modernist contemporaries, and has also been read as a love letter to Vita Sackville-West. MW

Pride and Prejudice: Jane Austen (OUP)

Love conquers all in Georgian England. In her quintessential comedy of manners, Austen charts the five Bennet daughters’ adventures on the marriage market with insight, wit and a keen eye for the ridiculous. The central love story between impetuous Elizabeth and dashing-but-aloof Mr Darcy has captivated successive generations of readers. SC

Rebecca: Daphne du Maurier (Time Warner)

On holiday in Monte Carlo, the nameless heroine of Daphne du Maurier’s darkly gothic romance meets and marries the handsome Maxim de Winter and returns with him to his brooding mansion, Manderley. But the lengthy shadow cast by his late first wife, Rebecca, proves impossible to escape. SC

Schindler’s Ark: Thomas Keneally (Hodder)

The story of Oscar Schindler, self-made entrepreneur and bon viveur who almost by default found himself saving Polish Jews from the Nazi death machine. Based on numerous eyewitness accounts, Keneally’s story is unbearably moving but never melodramatic, a testament to the almost unimaginable horrors of Hitler’s attempts to make Europe judenfrei. JH

Sin City: Frank Miller (Dark Horse Comics)

Dark, cynical tales from the mean streets of Miller’s beautifully drawn but desperate and doom-laden city. A collection of curvy dames, haunted thugs and screwed-up villains struggle to survive in a vipers’ nest of treachery and stylish immorality. The monochrome artwork is unique, dramatic and filled with long shadows that ooze noirish cool. MW

Tess of the D’Urbevilles: Thomas Hardy (OUP)

Readers still weep for Tess. She starts out as a delicate girl, a “mere vessel of emotion untinctured by experience,” but is inexorably corrupted by a cruel world. Hardy poured all his heart into her, interweaving her tragedy with Wessex’s hallucinatory landscape and ballad traditions. JR

The Day of the Triffids: John Wyndham (Penguin)

Forget the dodgy special effects of the filmed version; Wyndham’s writing lies very much at the sophisticated end of the sci-fi spectrum and 55 years after publication, The Day of the Triffids still has interesting things to say about catastrophic environmental change and societal breakdown. A fantastic, frightening, high-concept page-turner. KN

The English Patient: Michael Ondaatjee (Bloomsbury)

Ondaatje’s Booker prize-winning novel is set in the ruins of a palatial Italian villa, amid the dying embers of the second world war. Nurse Hana and sapper Kip care for a badly burned Englishman, who reveals his haunting story in fragments. A spellbinding thriller of lost love, told in luminous, poetic prose. JR

The French Lieutenant’s Woman: John Fowles (Random House)

In his most acclaimed novel, Fowles marries a timeless love-triangle story with a pitch-perfect description of the crisis of Darwinism in late-Victorian England. The book is afforded classic status by Fowles’ subtle postmodern dissection of the art of the novelist (he memorably offers the reader a choice of three endings). SC

The Godfather: Mario Puzo (Random House)

A gripping narrative that takes you into the heart of the murky world of the mafia, where the all-powerful Corleones are under threat from new ways and new men. Brilliantly realised, Puzo reveals a world where the lawmen are morally more corrupt than the mobsters who operate under an inviolable law of loyalty to family and friends. JH

The Hound of the Baskervilles: Arthur Conan Doyle (OUP)

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s most famous story is this sinister, gothic tale of the glowing canine terrorising Baskerville Hall. Although the uneasy atmosphere of the supernatural circles this story like mist on Grimpen Moor, Sherlock Holmes brings his brilliant logical mind to bear on the mystery of the “bogie hound”. MW

The Jungle Book: Rudyard Kipling (OUP)

The books (there was a second) were written over 110 years ago and represent much more than just a children’s classic. They represent Kipling’s entire philosophy of life in a complex literary work of art. For 30 years, he was perhaps the most popular writer and poet in English. Underpinned by his abiding theme of self-discovery, these books are an incredible revelation. AG

The Maltese Falcon: Dashiell Hammett (Orion)

A former Pinkerton’s agent, Dashiell Hammett virtually invented the hardboiled private-eye genre with this 1930 novel. Introducing Sam Spade, “a blond satan”, Hammett set up a convoluted mystery larded with snappy dialogue, brooding tension, grotesque characters, and a louche-but-tough morality. Its success saw Hammett courted by Paramount studios and an extended, erratic stay in Hollywood. AP

The Outsiders: SE Hinton (Puffin)

A first-person account of tribal divisions at a US high school by Ponyboy Curtis, a “greaser” whose life is dominated by strife with the better-off “socs”, or “socials”. Written in her teens by Susie “SE” Hinton as a conscious rebellion against the way teenagers were generally portrayed in American fiction, The Outsiders fitted perfectly with the chaos-riven late-60s world in which it was published. AP

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie: Muriel Spark (Penguin)

Muriel Spark’s sixth novel, published in 1961, remains by far her best-loved, and the one for which she will always be remembered. The eponymous Brodie is a teacher in an Edinburgh girls’ school, intent on instilling her own high, if dubious, ideals into her charges. It has literary audacity – a dizzying cocktail of time shifts, irony, and character manipulation – but no one can miss its rich, sharp humour. AP

The Railway Children: Edith Nesbitt (Penguin)

When their father is arrested, Roberta, Peter, Phyllis and their mother must leave comfortable London for the country. The children become fascinated by the railway at the bottom of the garden, and wave everyday to a kindly passenger on the London train, who ultimately holds the key to their father’s freedom. SC

The Remains of the Day: Kazuo Ishiguro (Faber)

Ishiguro’s Booker prize-winning novel is narrated by Stevens, a butler whose profession has subsumed his emotional life. On a motoring tour on the way to meet his former housekeeper, Stevens relates the events of his career and the reader discovers through the chinks in the narrative the heartbreak that lies behind his painfully reserved facade. SC

The Spy Who Came in From the Cold: John Le Carré (Hodder)

The classic Cold War espionage novel exposes the lengths to which governments will go in the name of national security – and the paranoia that affected everybody after the second world war. Tightly plotted and truly gripping, Le Carre’s byzantine plot is slowly revealed layer after layer until the shocking end. JH

The Talented Mr Ripley: Patricia Highsmith (Random House)

The first of Patricia Highsmith’s five novels about the amoral Tom Ripley, this 1955 masterpiece is the ultimate identity-theft thriller. Ripley stalks and then kills his well-off friend Dickie Greenleaf, assumes his name and lifestyle, and finally steals his inheritance money after forging Greenleaf’s will. AP

The Vanishing: Tim Krabbé (Bloomsbury)

Originally titled The Golden Egg, this Dutch novel by Tim Krabbé (brother of film actor Jeroen) is a simply written but thoroughly chilling account of an abduction and murder from two different points of view: the left-behind partner, and the killer himself. The final sequence, of their encounter and what transpires, is arguably the most quietly horrific in any literature. AP

To Kill a Mockingbird: Harper Lee (Random House)

Set in 1930s Alabama, eight-year-old Scout Finch can’t understand why people are so upset when her father, the town attorney, takes his role of defending a black man accused of raping a white woman seriously. The events surrounding the trial change the town, its inhabitants and the Finch family profoundly: a book that everyone should read. JH

Trainspotting: Irvine Walsh (Random House)

Trainspotting is a foul-mouthed, grotesque and hysterical depiction of the drug-fuelled underbelly of Britain in the 90s. Irvine Welsh’s first novel is not simply a gratuitous tour of the Edinburgh slums, though; it takes on issues of cultural divide, violence and male relationships in an uncomfortable, difficult, but often hilarious, street argot. KN

Watership Down: Richard Adams (Penguin)

The adventures of Fiver, his brother Hazel, and a cast of other talking rabbits will live long in the memory of many a child of the 70s. Worth re-reading as an adult to fully appreciate Richard Adams’ rendering of the rabbit world and what he was actually trying to say about the environment and even human relationships. KN


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Book Highlight

Told in diary form by an irresistible heroine, this playful and perceptive novel from the New York Times bestselling author of the May Bird trilogy sparkles with science, myth, magic, and the strange beauty of the everyday marvels we sometimes forget to notice.

Spirited, restless Gracie Lockwood has lived in Cliffden, Maine, her whole life. She’s a typical girl in an atypical world: one where sasquatches helped to win the Civil War, where dragons glide over Route 1 on their way south for the winter (sometimes burning down a T.J. Maxx or an Applebee’s along the way), where giants hide in caves near LA and mermaids hunt along the beaches, and where Dark Clouds come for people when they die.

To Gracie it’s all pretty ho-hum…until a Cloud comes looking for her little brother Sam, turning her small-town life upside down. Determined to protect Sam against all odds, her parents pack the family into a used Winnebago and set out on an epic search for a safe place that most people say doesn’t exist: The Extraordinary World. It’s rumored to lie at the ends of the earth, and no one has ever made it there and lived to tell the tale. To reach it, the Lockwoods will have to learn to believe in each other—and to trust that the world holds more possibilities than they’ve ever imagined.

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