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MHS Library | Reading

100 great novels by dead authors

The following is a list of 100 books by dead authors that I have read and highly recommend. It’s a companion list for the 100 Great Novels by Living Authors which I created first. This list is a very personal one. I have lots of large gaps in my reading, so if an obvious book is missing from this list it is possible that I just didn’t like it, but probably more likely that I’ve never got around to reading it. The list is chronological, based on the date of the author’s death, so older works come first. Most authors have just one title listed, but a few have two.  

Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra (1616),    Don Quixote 

Available in the library, borrow or reserve it now in the catalogue

Read it online here 

Listen to the audio book here

The story of the Spanish knight whose devotion to tales of chivalry leads him and his faithful squire, Sancho Panza, into a series of bizarre adventures blends fantasy, comedy, and drama in a way that has gripped the world’s imagination for centuries. (Publisher’s description) 

 Daniel Defoe (1731),     Robinson Crusoe 

Available in the library, borrow or reserve it now in the catalogue

Read it online here

Listen to the audiobook here

Widely regarded as the first English novel, Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe is one of the most popular and influential adventure stories of all time. This classic tale of shipwreck and survival on an uninhabited island was an instant success when first published in 1719 and has inspired countless imitations. In his own words, Robinson Crusoe tells of the terrible storm that drowned all his shipmates and left him marooned on a deserted island. Forced to overcome despair, doubt, and self-pity, he struggles to create a life for himself in the wilderness. From practically nothing, Crusoe painstakingly learns how to make pottery, grow crops, domesticate livestock, and build a house. His many adventures are recounted in vivid detail, including a fierce battle with cannibals and his rescue of Friday, the man who becomes his trusted companion. Full of enchanting detail and daring heroics, Robinson Crusoe is a celebration of courage, patience, ingenuity, and hard work. (LJ Swingle introduction) 

 

 Jonathan Swift (1745),     Gulliver’s Travels 

Available in the library, borrow or reserve it now in the catalogue

Read it online here

Listen to the audiobook here

Considered the greatest satire ever written in English, Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels chronicles the fantastic voyages of Lemuel Gulliver, principally to four marvelous realms: Lilliput, where the people are six inches tall; Brobdingnag, a land inhabited by giants; Laputa, a wondrous flying island; and a country where the Houyhnhnms, a race of intelligent horses, are served by savage humanoid creatures called Yahoos. Beneath the surface of this enchanting fantasy lurks a devastating critique of human malevolence, stupidity, greed, vanity, and short-sightedness. A brilliant combination of adventure, humor, and philosophy, Gulliver’s Travels is one of literature’s most durable masterpieces. (Michael Seidel introduction) 

Laurence Sterne (1768),     The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman 

Read it online here

Listen to the audiobook here

Rich in playful double entendres, digressions, formal oddities, and typographical experiments, The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman provoked a literary sensation when it first appeared in England in a series of volumes from 1759 to 1767. An ingeniously structured novel (about writing a novel) that fascinates like a verbal game of chess, Tristram Shandy is the most protean and playful English novel of the eighteenth century and a celebration of the art of fiction; its inventiveness anticipates the work of Joyce, Rushdie, and Fuentes in our own century. (Publisher’s description) 

 

Voltaire (1778),    Candide 

Available in the library, borrow or reserve it now in the catalogue

Read it online here

Listen to the audiobook here

Witty and caustic, Candide has ranked as one of the world’s great satires since its first publication in 1759. In the story of the trials and travails of the youthful Candide, his mentor Dr. Pangloss, and a host of other characters, Voltaire mercilessly satirises and exposes romance, science, philosophy, religion and government—the ideas and institutions men live by. (Publisher’s description) 

 

Samuel Johnson (1784),     The History oRasselas, Prince of Abyssinia 

Read it online here

Listen to the audiobook here

The distinguished English writer’s only novel provides a compelling glimpse of his moral views as he assails 18th-century optimism and man’s unrealistic estimates of what life has to offer. Rasselas ponders such subjects as romantic love, flights of imagination, the great discoveries of science, and speculations about the meaning of happiness.  (Publisher’s description) 

 

Jane Austen (1817),     Persuasion 

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Read it online here

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In her final novel, as in her earlier ones, Jane Austen uses a love story to explore and gently satirize social pretensions and emotional confusion. Persuasion follows the romance of Anne Elliot and naval officer Frederick Wentworth. They were happily engaged until Anne’s friend, Lady Russell, persuaded her that Frederick was “unworthy.” Now, eight years later, Frederick returns, a wealthy captain in the navy, while Anne’s family teeters on the edge of bankruptcy. They still love each other, but their past mistakes threaten to keep them apart. Austen may seem to paint on a small canvas, but her characters contain the full range of human passion and moral complexity, and the author’s generous spirit renders them all with understanding, compassion, and humor. (Susan Ostrov Weisser introduction) 

William Beckford (1844),     Vathek 

Read it online here 

Listen to the audiobook here

The descriptions of Vathek’s palaces and diversions, of his scheming sorceress-mother Carathis and her witch-tower with the fifty one-eyed negresses, of his pilgrimage to the haunted ruins of Istakhar (Persepolis) and of the impish bride Nouronihar whom he treacherously acquired on the way, of Istakhar’s primordial towers and terraces in the burning moonlight of the waste, and of the terrible Cyclopean halls of Eblis, where, lured by glittering promises, each victim is compelled to wander in anguish for ever, his right hand upon his blazingly ignited and eternally burning heart, are triumphs of weird colouring which raise the book to a permanent place in English letters. (HP Lovecraft review) 

 

James Hogg (1835),     The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner 

Read it online here

Listen to the audiobook here

First published in 1824, this novel was “considered in turn a Gothic novel, a psychological case study of an unreliable narrator, and an examination of totalitarian thought.” It is “the ultimately unclassifiable novel, set in a pseudo-Christian world of angels, devils, and demonic possession. … It has received wide acclaim for its probing quest into the nature of religious fanaticism and Calvinist predestination. It is written in a mixture of Scots and English, with Scots mainly appearing in dialogue. On the surface, this novel is a simple tale of a young man who encounters a shape-shifting devil, an early manifestation of a doppelganger, and the various misadventures that follow.” (Amazon.com review) 

 

Emily Brontë (1848),     Wuthering Heights 

Available in the library, borrow or reserve it now in the catalogue

Read it online here

Listen to the audiobook here

Emily Brontë’s only novel, Wuthering Heights remains one of literature’s most disturbing explorations into the dark side of romantic passion. Heathcliff and Cathy believe they’re destined to love each other forever, but when cruelty and snobbery separate them, their untamed emotions literally consume them. Set amid the wild and stormy Yorkshire moors, Wuthering Heights, an unpolished and devastating epic of childhood playmates who grow into soul mates, is widely regarded as the most original tale of thwarted desire and heartbreak in the English language. (Daphne Merkin introduction) 

 

Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley (1851),     Frankenstein 

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Read it online here

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Mary Shelley began writing Frankenstein when she was only eighteen. At once a Gothic thriller, a passionate romance, and a cautionary tale about the dangers of science, Frankenstein tells the story of committed science student Victor Frankenstein. Obsessed with discovering “the cause of generation and life” and “bestowing animation upon lifeless matter,” Frankenstein assembles a human being from stolen body parts but; upon bringing it to life, he recoils in horror at the creature's hideousness. Tormented by isolation and loneliness, the once-innocent creature turns to evil and unleashes a campaign of murderous revenge against his creator, Frankenstein. Frankenstein, an instant bestseller and an important ancestor of both the horror and science fiction genres, not only tells a terrifying story, but also raises profound, disturbing questions about the very nature of life and the place of humankind within the cosmos: What does it mean to be human? What responsibilities do we have to each other? How far can we go in tampering with Nature? In our age, filled with news of organ donation genetic engineering, and bio-terrorism, these questions are more relevant than ever. (Karen Karbiener introduction) 

 

Charlotte Brontë (1855),     Jane Eyre 

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Immediately recognized as a masterpiece when it was first published in 1847, Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre is an extraordinary coming-of-age story featuring one of the most independent and strong-willed female protagonists in all of literature. Poor and plain, Jane Eyre begins life as a lonely orphan in the household of her hateful aunt. Despite the oppression she endures at home, and the later torture of boarding school, Jane manages to emerge with her spirit and integrity unbroken. She becomes a governess at Thornfield Hall, where she finds herself falling in love with her employer—the dark, impassioned Mr. Rochester. But an explosive secret tears apart their relationship, forcing Jane to face poverty and isolation once again. One of the world’s most beloved novels, Jane Eyre is a startlingly modern blend of passion, romance, mystery, and suspense. (Susan Ostrov Weisser introduction) 

 

Nathaniel Hawthorne (1864),     The Scarlet Letter 

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America’s first psychological novel, Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter is a dark tale of love, crime, and revenge set in colonial New England. It revolves around a single, forbidden act of passion that forever alters the lives of three members of a small Puritan community: Hester Prynne, an ardent and fierce woman who bears the punishment of her sin in humble silence; the Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale, a respected public figure who is inwardly tormented by long-hidden guilt; and the malevolent Roger Chillingworth, Hester’s husband—a man who seethes with an Ahab-like lust for vengeance. The landscape of this classic novel is uniquely American, but the themes it explores are universal—the nature of sin, guilt, and penitence, the clash between our private and public selves, and the spiritual and psychological cost of living outside society. Constructed with the elegance of a Greek tragedy, The Scarlet Letter brilliantly illuminates the truth that lies deep within the human heart. (Nancy Stade introduction) 

 

Charles Dickens (1870),     Bleak House 

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Read it online here

Listen to the audiobook Part One Part Two Part Three Part Four

Often considered Charles Dickens’s masterpiece, Bleak House blends together several literary genres—detective fiction, romance, melodrama, and satire—to create an unforgettable portrait of the decay and corruption at the heart of English law and society in the Victorian era. Opening in the swirling mists of London, the novel revolves around a court case that has dragged on for decades—the infamous Jarndyce and Jarndyce lawsuit, in which an inheritance is gradually devoured by legal costs. As Dickens takes us through the case’s history, he presents a cast of characters as idiosyncratic and memorable as any he ever created, including the beautiful Lady Dedlock, who hides a shocking secret about an illegitimate child and a long-lost love; Mr. Bucket, one of the first detectives to appear in English fiction; and the hilarious Mrs. Jellyby, whose endless philanthropy has left her utterly unconcerned about her own family. As a question of inheritance becomes a question of murder, the novel’s heroine, Esther Summerson, struggles to discover the truth about her birth and her unknown mother’s tragic life. Can the resilience of her love transform a bleak house? And—more devastatingly—will justice prevail? (Tatiana M Holway introduction) 

Gustave Flaubert (1880),     Madame Bovary 

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The publication in 1857 of Madame Bovary, with its vivid depictions of sex and adultery, incited a backlash of immorality charges. The novel tells the story of Emma Bovary, a doctor’s wife bored and unfulfilled by marriage and motherhood. She embarks upon a series of affairs in search of passion and excitement, but is unable to achieve the splendid life for which she yearns. Instead, she finds herself trapped in a downward spiral that inexorably leads to ruin and self-destruction. Along with Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, Flaubert’s tragic novel stands as a brilliant portrayal of infidelity, an incisive psychological portrait of a woman torn between duty and desire. Written with acute attention to telling detail, Madame Bovary not only exposes the emptiness of one woman’s bourgeois existence and failure to fill that void with fantasies, sex, and material objects. Emma’s thirst for life mirrors the universal human impulse for idealized fulfillment. (Chris Kraus introduction) 

 

George Eliot (1880),     Silas Marner 

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George Eliot’s third novel, Silas Marner (1861) is a powerful and moving tale about one man’s journey from exile and loneliness to the warmth and joy of the family. The story opens as Silas Marner, falsely accused of theft, loses everything, including his faith in God. Embittered and alienated from his fellow man, he moves to the village of Raveloe, where he becomes a weaver. Taking refuge in his work, Silas slowly begins to accumulate gold—his only joy in life—until one day that too is stolen from him. Then one dark evening, a beautiful, golden-haired child, lost and seeing the light from Silas’s cottage, toddles in through his doorway. As Silas grows to love the girl as if she were his own daughter, his life changes into something precious. But his happiness is threatened when the orphan’s real father comes to claim the girl as his own, and Silas must face losing a treasure greater than all the gold in the world. (George Levine introduction) 

 

Fyodor Dostoevsky (1881),     Crime and Punishment 

Available in the library, borrow or reserve it now in the catalogue  

Read it online here

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Few authors have been as personally familiar with desperation as Fyodor Dostoevsky, and none have been so adept at describing it. Crime and Punishment—the novel that heralded the author’s period of masterworks—tells the story of the poor and talented student Raskolnikov, a character of unparalleled psychological depth and complexity. Raskolnikov reasons that men like himself, by virtue of their intellectual superiority, can and must transcend societal law. To test his theory, he devises the perfect crime—the murder of a spiteful pawnbroker living in St. Petersburg. In one of the most gripping crime stories of all time, Raskolnikov soon realizes the folly of his abstractions. Haunted by vivid hallucinations and the torments of his conscience, he seeks relief from his terror and moral isolation—first from Sonia, the pious streetwalker who urges him to confess, then in a tense game of cat and mouse with Porfiry, the brilliant magistrate assigned to the murder investigation. A tour de force of suspense, Crime and Punishment delineates the theories and motivations that underlie a bankrupt morality. (Priscilla Meyer introduction) 

 

Ivan Turgenev (1883),    Fathers and Sons 

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Youth rebels. It’s true today and it was true in Russia, in 1862, when Ivan Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons first appeared.  At the novel’s centre stands Evgeny Bazarov, medical student, doctor’s son, and self-proclaimed nihilist. Bazarov rejects all authority, all so-called truths that are based on faith rather than science and experience. His ideas bring him into conflict with his best friend, recent graduate Arkady Kirsanov, with Arkady’s family, with his own parents, and eventually with his emotions, when he falls helplessly in love with the beautiful Madame Odintsova. Turgenev’s earlier A Sportsman’s Sketches had helped hasten the liberation of the serfs in 1861. But the complex portrait of Bazarov, whose goals he admired but whose rejection of art and embrace of violence he could not accept, enraged both right and left. The right saw Fathers and Sons as a glorification of radical extremists; the left saw it as a denunciation of progress. Even today, readers argue over Turgenev’s attitude towards Bazarov. But they can’t resist the novel’s power to grip the heart while engaging the mind. (David Goldfarb introduction) 

 

 Robert Louis Stevenson (1894),     The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde 

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Read it online here

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Idealistic young scientist Henry Jekyll struggles to unlock the secrets of the soul. Testing chemicals in his lab, he drinks a mixture he hopes will isolate—and eliminate—human evil. Instead it unleashes the dark forces within him, transforming him into the hideous and murderous Mr. Hyde. The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde dramatically brings to life a science-fiction case study of the nature of good and evil and the duality that can exist within one person. Resonant with psychological perception and ethical insight, the book has literary roots in Dostoevsky’s “The Double” and Crime and Punishment. Today Stevenson’s novella is recognized as an incisive study of Victorian morality and sexual repression, as well as a great thriller. (Jenny Davidson introduction) 

 

Lewis Carroll (1898),     Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland  

Available in the library, borrow or reserve it now in the catalogue 

Read it online here

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First published in 1865, Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland was an immediate success, as was its sequel, Through the Looking-Glass. Carroll’s sense of the absurd and his amazing gift for games of logic and language have secured for the Alice books an enduring spot in the hearts of both adults and children. Alice begins her adventures when she follows the frantically delayed White Rabbit down a hole into the magical world of Wonderland, where she meets a variety of wonderful creatures, including Tweedledee and Tweedledum, the Cheshire Cat, the hookah-smoking Caterpillar, the Mad Hatter, and the Queen of Hearts—who, with the help of her enchanted deck of playing cards, tricks Alice into playing a bizarre game of croquet.  Alice continues her adventures in Through the Looking-Glass, which is loosely based on a game of chess and includes Carroll’s famous poem “Jabberwocky.” Throughout her fantastic journeys, Alice retains her reason, humor, and sense of justice. She has become one of the great characters of imaginative literature, as immortal as Don Quixote, Huckleberry Finn, Captain Ahab, Sherlock Holmes, and Dorothy Gale of Kansas. (Tan Lin introduction) 

 

Samuel Butler (1902),    Erewhon 

Available in the library, borrow or reserve it now in the catalogue 

Read it online here

Listen to the audiobook here

After a series of near-mishaps, a traveller stumbles into a place utterly unknown to him — only to be jailed: for in this odd place being penniless is tantamount to criminality. Slowly learning the language and gaining the confidence of his hosts, he comes to know their strange ways and their stranger ideas and institutions — including the Hospital for Incurable Bores, the College of Unreason — and the Museum of Old Machines! Erewhon, the famous utopian novel by Samuel Butler, took the English-speaking world by storm in 1872, and remains effective and entertaining satire to this day. (Publisher’s description) 

 

Jules Verne (1905),     Journey to the Centre of the Earth 

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This classic of nineteenth century French literature has been consistently praised for its style and its vision of the world. Professor Lidenbrock and his nephew Axel travel across Iceland, and then down through an extinct crater toward a sunless sea where they enter a living past and are confronted with the origins of man. Exploring the prehistory of the globe, this novel can also be read as a psychological quest, for the journey itself is as important as arrival or discovery. Verne’s distinctive combination of realism and Romanticism has marked figures as diverse as Sartre and Tournier, Mark Twain and Conan Doyle. (Publisher’s description) 

 

 Mark Twain (1910),     The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn  

Available in the library, borrow or reserve it now in the catalogue 

Read it online here

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Huckleberry Finn, rebel against school and church, casual inheritor of gold treasure, rafter of the Mississippi, and savior of Jim the runaway slave, is the archetypical American maverick. Fleeing the respectable society that wants to “sivilize” him, Huck Finn shoves off with Jim on a rhapsodic raft journey down the Mississippi River. The two bind themselves to one another, becoming intimate friends and agreeing “there warn’t no home like a raft, after all. Other places do seem so cramped up and smothery, but a raft don’t. You feel mighty free and easy and comfortable on a raft.” As Huck learns about love, responsibility, and morality, the trip becomes a metaphoric voyage through his own soul, culminating in the glorious moment when he decides to “go to hell” rather than return Jim to slavery. .Mark Twain defined classic as “a book which people praise and don’t read”; Huckleberry Finn is a happy exception to his own rule. Twain’s mastery of dialect, coupled with his famous wit, has made The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn one of the most loved and distinctly American classics ever written. (Robert O’Meally introduction) 

 

 Leo Tolstoy (1910),     War and Peace 

Available in the library, borrow or reserve it now in the catalogue 

Read it online here

The beginning of the audiobook begins here [WARNING: this is Book One of Seventeen!]

The most famous—and perhaps greatest—novel of all time, Tolstoy’s War and Peace tells the story of five families struggling for survival during Napoleon’s invasion of Russia. Among its many unforgettable characters is Prince Andrey Bolkonsky, a proud, dashing man who, despising the artifice of high society, joins the army to achieve glory.  Badly wounded at Austerlitz, he begins to discover the emptiness of everything to which he has devoted himself.  His death scene is considered one of the greatest passages in Russian literature. The novel’s other hero, the bumbling Pierre Bezukhov, tries to find meaning in life through a series of philosophical systems that promise to resolve all questions. He at last discovers the Tolstoyan truth that wisdom is to be found not in systems but in the ordinary processes of daily life, especially in his marriage to the novel’s most memorable heroine, Natasha. Both an intimate study of individual passions and an epic history of Russia and its people, War and Peace is nothing more or less than a complete portrait of human existence. (Joseph Frank introduction) 

 

Leo Tolstoy (1910),     The Death of Ivan Ilyich 

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Chief among Tolstoy’s shorter works is The Death of Ivan Ilych, a masterful meditation on the act of dying. The first major fictional work published by Tolstoy after a mid-life psychological crisis, this novella reflects the author’s struggle to find meaning in life, a challenge Tolstoy resolved by developing a religious philosophy based on brotherly love, mutual support, and charity. These guiding principles are the dominant moral themes in The Death of Ivan Ilych, an account of the spiritual conversion of a judge—an ordinary, unthinking, vulgar man—in the face of his terrible fear about death.  (David Goldfarb introduction) 

 

Henry James (1916),     The Wings of the Dove 

Read it online Volume One Volume Two

Listen to the audiobook here

One of three masterpieces from Henry James’s final, “major” phase, The Wings of the Dove dramatizes the conflict between nineteenth-century values and twentieth-century passions. Born to wealth and privilege, Kate Croy’s mother threw it all away to marry a penniless opium addict. After her mother’s death, Kate is offered an opportunity to return to the opulent lifestyle her mother gave up—on one condition. Kate must renounce the man she loves: the witty, good-looking, but poor, Merton Densher. Reluctantly agreeing, Kate finds herself becoming friends with “the world’s richest orphan,” Millie Theale. When Kate learns that Millie is dying, she devises a plan of dizzying possibility for herself and Merton that should solve all their problems, but instead leads them down a path strewn with tragic, unexpected consequences. First published in 1902, this rich and intriguing novel has lost none of its fascination and relevance a century later. (Bruce Smith introduction) 

 

Joseph Conrad (1924),    Heart of Darkness  

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One of the most haunting stories ever written, Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness follows Marlow, a riverboat captain, on a voyage into the African Congo at the height of European colonialism. Astounded by the brutal depravity he witnesses, Marlow becomes obsessed with meeting Kurtz, a famously idealistic and able man stationed farther along the river. What he finally discovers, however, is a horror beyond imagining. Heart of Darkness is widely regarded as a masterpiece for its vivid study of human nature and the greed and ruthlessness of imperialism. (A Michael Matin introduction) 

 

Joseph Conrad (1924),     The Secret Agent 

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Listen to the audiobook here 

Set in early twentieth-century London and inspired by an actual attempt to blow up the Greenwich Observatory, The Secret Agent is a complex exploration of motivation and morality. The title character, Adolf Verloc, is obviously no James Bond. In fact, he and his circle of misfit saboteurs are not spies but terrorists, driven less by political ideals than by their unruly emotions and irrational hatreds. Verloc has settled into an apparent marriage of convenience. Family life gives him a respectable cover, while his wife hopes to get help in handling her halfwit brother, Stevie. Instead Verloc involves Stevie in one of his explosive schemes, an act that leads to violence, murder, and revenge. Darkly comic, the novel is also obliquely autobiographical: Joseph Conrad’s parents were involved in the radical politics of their time, and their early deaths left him profoundly distrustful of any sort of political action. (Steven Marcus introduction) 

 

Franz Kafka (1924),     The Trial 

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Read it online here

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Or cheat and go here [shifty look around]

A terrifying psychological trip into the life of one Joseph K., an ordinary man who wakes up one day to find himself accused of a crime he did not commit, a crime whose nature is never revealed to him. Once arrested, he is released, but must report to court on a regular basis–an event that proves maddening, as nothing is ever resolved. As he grows more uncertain of his fate, his personal life–including work at a bank and his relations with his landlady and a young woman who lives next door–becomes increasingly unpredictable. As K. tries to gain control, he succeeds only in accelerating his own excruciating downward spiral. (Amazon.com review) 

 

Jerome K Jerome (1927),     Three Men in a Boat 

Read it online here

Listen to the audiobook here

Jerome’s comic masterpiece — and one of the best-known classics of English humour — follows the misadventures of 3 bungling, Victorian-era bachelors who take off on a rowing excursion up the Thames. Their disastrous struggles with camping equipment, meal preparation, and rampant hypochondria trumpet simple truths that still resonate today. (Publisher’s description) 

 

Thomas Hardy (1928),     Tess of the D’Urbervilles  

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Young Tess Durbeyfield attempts to restore her family’s fortunes by claiming their connection with the aristocratic d’Urbervilles. But Alec d’Urberville is a rich wastrel who seduces her and makes her life miserable. When Tess meets Angel Clare, she is offered true love and happiness, but her past catches up with her and she faces an agonizing moral choice. Hardy’s indictment of society’s double standards, and his depiction of Tess as “a pure woman,” caused controversy in his day and has held the imagination of readers ever since. Hardy thought it his finest novel, and Tess the most deeply felt character he ever created. (Publisher’s description) 

 

DH Lawrence (1930),     Lady Chatterley’s Lover 

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Listen to the audiobook here

Perhaps the most famous of Lawrence’s novels, the 1928 Lady Chatterley’s Lover is no longer distinguished for the once-shockingly explicit treatment of its subject matter–the adulterous affair between a sexually unfulfilled upper-class married woman and the game keeper who works for the estate owned by her wheelchaired husband. Now that we’re used to reading about sex, and seeing it in the movies, it’s apparent that the novel is memorable for better reasons: namely, that Lawrence was a masterful and lyrical writer, whose story takes us bodily into the world of its characters. (Amazon.com review) 

 

TE Lawrence (1935),     Seven Pillars of Wisdom 

This is the exciting and highly literate story of the real Lawrence of Arabia, as written by Lawrence himself, who helped unify Arab factions against the occupying Turkish army, circa World War I. Lawrence has a novelist’s eye for detail, a poet’s command of the language, an adventurer’s heart, a soldier’s great story, and his memory and intellect are at least as good as all those. Lawrence describes the famous guerrilla raids, and train bombings you know from the movie, but also tells of the Arab people and politics with great penetration. Moreover, he is witty, always aware of the ethical tightrope that the English walked in the Middle East and always willing to include himself in his own withering insight.  (Amazon.com review) 

Edith Wharton (1937),     The Age of Innocence 

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Winner of the 1921 Pulitzer Prize, The Age of Innocence is Edith Wharton’s masterful portrait of desire and betrayal during the sumptuous Golden Age of Old New York, a time when society people “dreaded scandal more than disease.” This is Newland Archer’s world as he prepares to marry the beautiful but conventional May Welland. But when the mysterious Countess Ellen Olenska returns to New York after a disastrous marriage, Archer falls deeply in love with her. Torn between duty and passion, Archer struggles to make a decision that will either courageously define his life—or mercilessly destroy it. (Maureen Howard introduction) 

 

HP Lovecraft (1937),     At the Mountains of Madness  

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Long acknowledged as a master of nightmarish visions, H. P. Lovecraft established the genuineness and dignity of his own pioneering fiction in 1931 with his quintessential work of supernatural horror, At the Mountains of Madness. The deliberately told and increasingly chilling recollection of an Antarctic expedition’s uncanny discoveries–and their encounter with untold menace in the ruins of a lost civilization–is a milestone of macabre literature. (Publisher’s description) 

 

 Ford Madox Ford (1939),     The Good Soldier 

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First published in 1915, Ford Madox Ford’s The Good Soldier begins, famously and ominously, “This is the saddest story I have ever heard.” The book then proceeds to confute this pronouncement at every turn, exposing a world less sad than pathetic, and more shot through with hypocrisy and deceit than its incredulous narrator, John Dowell, cares to imagine. Somewhat forgotten as a classic, The Good Soldier has been called everything from the consummate novelist’s novel to one of the greatest English works of the century. And although its narrative hook–the philandering of an otherwise noble man–no longer shocks, its unerring cadences and doleful inevitabilities proclaim an enduring appeal. Dowell’s resigned narration is flawlessly conversational–haphazard, sprawling, lusting for sympathy. He exudes self-preservation even as he alternately condemns and lionizes Edward: “If I had had the courage and the virility and possibly also the physique of Edward Ashburnham I should, I fancy, have done much what he did.” Stunningly, Edward’s adultery comes to seem not merely excusable, but almost sublime. “Perhaps he could not bear to see a woman and not give her the comfort of his physical attractions,” John surmises. Ford’s novel deserves its reputation if for no other reason than the elegance with which it divulges hidden lives.(Amazon.com review) 

 

Mikhail Bulgakov (1940),     The Master and Margarita  

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Surely no stranger work exists in the annals of protest literature than The Master and Margarita. Written during the Soviet crackdown of the 1930s, when Mikhail Bulgakov’s works were effectively banned, it wraps its anti-Stalinist message in a complex allegory of good and evil. Or would that be the other way around? The book’s chief character is Satan, who appears in the guise of a foreigner and self-proclaimed black magician named Woland. Accompanied by a talking black tomcat and a “translator” wearing a jockey’s cap and cracked pince-nez, Woland wreaks havoc throughout literary Moscow. Meanwhile, a few doors down in the hospital lives the true object of Woland’s visit: the author of an unpublished novel about Pontius Pilate. This Master–as he calls himself–has been driven mad by rejection, broken not only by editors’ harsh criticism of his novel but, Bulgakov suggests, by political persecution as well. Yet Pilate’s story becomes a kind of parallel narrative, appearing in different forms throughout Bulgakov’s novel: as a manuscript read by the Master’s indefatigable love, Margarita, as a scene dreamed by the poet–and fellow lunatic–Ivan Homeless, and even as a story told by Woland himself. Unsurprisingly–in view of its frequent, scarcely disguised references to interrogation and terror–Bulgakov’s masterwork was not published until 1967, almost three decades after his death. Yet one wonders if the world was really ready for this book in the late 1930s, if, indeed, we are ready for it now. Shocking, touching, and scathingly funny, it is a novel like no other. Woland may reattach heads or produce 10-ruble notes from the air, but Bulgakov proves the true magician here. The Master and Margarita is a different book each time it is opened. (Amazon.com review) 

 

 F Scott Fitzgerald (1940),     The Great Gatsby 

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A portrait of the Jazz Age in all of its decadence and excess, Gatsby captured the spirit of the author’s generation and earned itself a permanent place in American mythology. Self-made, self-invented millionaire Jay Gatsby embodies some of Fitzgerald’s–and his country’s–most abiding obsessions: money, ambition, greed, and the promise of new beginnings. It’s also a love story, of sorts, the narrative of Gatsby’s quixotic passion for Daisy Buchanan. The pair meet five years before the novel begins, when Daisy is a legendary young Louisville beauty and Gatsby an impoverished officer. They fall in love, but while Gatsby serves overseas, Daisy marries the brutal, bullying, but extremely rich Tom Buchanan. After the war, Gatsby devotes himself blindly to the pursuit of wealth by whatever means–and to the pursuit of Daisy, which amounts to the same thing. His millions made, Gatsby buys a mansion across Long Island Sound from Daisy’s patrician East Egg address, throws lavish parties, and waits for her to appear. When she does, events unfold with all the tragic inevitability of a Greek drama, with detached, cynical neighbor Nick Carraway acting as chorus throughout. Spare, elegantly plotted, and written in crystalline prose, The Great Gatsby is as perfectly satisfying as the best kind of poem. (Amazon.com review) 

 

  

James Joyce (1941),     A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man 

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Originally published in serial format, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, is the semi-autobiographical portrayal of James Joyce’s early upbringing as an Irish Catholic in late 19th century and early 20th century Dublin. At the center of the novel is the protagonist Stephen Dedalus whose life is depicted from its various stages starting in childhood and moving through early adulthood. The language of the novel changes throughout the book to correspond with the artistic development of Stephen Dedalus as he ages and matures. A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man is a masterful depiction of the process of self-discovery that is indicative of the early stages of everyone’s life. (Amazon.com review) 

 

 James Joyce (1941),     Ulysses 

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Ulysses has been labelled dirty, blasphemous, and unreadable. In a famous 1933 court decision, Judge John M. Woolsey declared it an emetic book–although he found it sufficiently unobscene to allow its importation into the United States–and Virginia Woolf was moved to decry James Joyce’s “cloacal obsession.” None of these adjectives, however, do the slightest justice to the novel. To this day it remains the modernist masterpiece, in which the author takes both Celtic lyricism and vulgarity to splendid extremes. It is funny, sorrowful, and even (in a close-focus sort of way) suspenseful. And despite the exegetical industry that has sprung up in the last 75 years, Ulysses is also a compulsively readable book. Even the verbal vaudeville of the final chapters can be navigated with relative ease, as long as you’re willing to be buffeted, tickled, challenged, and (occasionally) vexed by Joyce’s sheer command of the English language. Among other things, a novel is simply a long story, and the first question about any story is: What happens?. In the case of Ulysses, the answer might be Everything. William Blake, one of literature’s sublime myopics, saw the universe in a grain of sand. Joyce saw it in Dublin, Ireland, on June 16, 1904, a day distinguished by its utter normality. Two characters, Stephen Dedalus and Leopold Bloom, go about their separate business, crossing paths with a gallery of indelible Dubliners. We watch them teach, eat, stroll the streets, argue, and (in Bloom’s case) masturbate. And thanks to the book’s stream-of-consciousness technique–which suggests no mere stream but an impossibly deep, swift-running river–we’re privy to their thoughts, emotions, and memories. The result? Almost every variety of human experience is crammed into the accordian folds of a single day, which makes Ulysses not just an experimental work but the very last word in realism. (Amazon.com review) 

Virginia Woolf (1941),     Mrs Dalloway 

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As Clarissa Dalloway walks through London on a fine June morning, a sky-writing plane captures her attention. Crowds stare upwards to decipher the message while the plane turns and loops, leaving off one letter, picking up another. Like the airplane’s swooping path, Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway follows Clarissa and those whose lives brush hers–from Peter Walsh, whom she spurned years ago, to her daughter Elizabeth, the girl’s angry teacher, Doris Kilman, and war-shocked Septimus Warren Smith, who is sinking into madness. As Mrs. Dalloway prepares for the party she is giving that evening, a series of events intrudes on her composure. Her husband is invited, without her, to lunch with Lady Bruton (who, Clarissa notes anxiously, gives the most amusing luncheons). Meanwhile, Peter Walsh appears, recently from India, to criticize and confide in her. His sudden arrival evokes memories of a distant past, the choices she made then, and her wistful friendship with Sally Seton. Woolf then explores the relationships between women and men, and between women, as Clarissa muses, “It was something central which permeated; something warm which broke up surfaces and rippled the cold contact of man and woman, or of women together…. Her relation in the old days with Sally Seton. Had not that, after all, been love?” While Clarissa is transported to past afternoons with Sally, and as she sits mending her green dress, Warren Smith catapults desperately into his delusions. Although his troubles form a tangent to Clarissa’s web, they undeniably touch it, and the strands connecting all these characters draw tighter as evening deepens. As she immerses us in each inner life, Virginia Woolf offers exquisite, painful images of the past bleeding into the present, of desire overwhelmed by society’s demands. (Amazon.com review) 

 

 Robert Musil (1942),     The Man Without Qualities 

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Dazzlingly written, ferocious in its intelligence, The Man Without Qualities is one of the outstanding novels of the century, which presages our Age of Anxiety. Robert Musil was born in Austria in 1880. With the rise of Hitler in 1938 he emigrated to Switzerland, where he lived until his death in 1942. (Publisher’s description) 

 

George Orwell (1950),     1984 

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Hidden away in the Record Department of the sprawling Ministry of Truth, Winston Smith skilfully rewrites the past to suit the needs of the Party. Yet he inwardly rebels against the totalitarian world he lives in, which demands absolute obedience and controls him through the all-seeing telescreens and the watchful eye of Big Brother, symbolic head of the Party. In his longing for truth and liberty, Smith begins a secret love affair with a fellow-worker Julia, but soon discovers the true price of freedom is betrayal. Newspeak, Doublethink, Big Brother, the Thought Police–George Orwell’s world-famous novel coined new and potent words of warning for us all. Alive with Swiftian wit and passion, it is one of the most brilliant satires on totalitarianism and the power-hungry ever written. (Publisher’s description) 

 

 Miles Franklin (1954),     My Brilliant Career 

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First published in 1901, this Australian classic recounts the live of 16-year-old Sybylla Melvyn. Trapped on her parents’ outback farm, she simultaneously loves bush life and hates the physical burdens it imposes. For Sybylla longs for a more refined, aesthetic lifestyle — to read, to think, to sing — but most of all to do great things. Suddenly her life is transformed. Whisked away to live on her grandmother’s gracious property, she falls under the eye of the rich and handsome Harry Beecham. And soon she finds herself choosing between everything a conventional life offers and her own plans for a ‘brilliant career’. (Publisher’s description) 

 

Michael Arlen (1956),     The Green Hat 

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First published in 1924 and a massive best-seller, this is ostensibly the story of a wild young widow with a shady past and a taste for fast cars and adultery, set mostly in Mayfair just as the Twenties began to roar. As well, Arlen muses on the English upper classes, still dazed by the First World War, and regales the reader with philosophical asides and reflections on the nature of women, drunkenness, doctors who specialize in diseases of the rich, the management of nightclubs, and much more: finally delivering a shattering ending to this quest for the true nature of his heroine. (Publisher’s description) 

 

 Robert Walser (1956),     The Assistant 

Dressed in his cheap, battered suit, Joseph Marti arrives at the impressive villa of Karl Tobler, an enthusiastic but ill-starred inventor, to begin employment as his clerk. Tobler is determined to finance his family’s lavish lifestyle with the proceeds from his latest idea – a clock adorned with advertisements. But Tobler’s grand plans are destined for failure and the household, including Marti, refuse to acknowledge their approaching ruin. Robert Walser claimed to have written The Assistant, a semi-autobiographical work, in just six weeks as an entry for a literary competition. The second of his few surviving novels, it is now regarded as major work of modernist literature. (Publisher’s description) 

 

 Raymond Chandler (1959),     The Big Sleep 

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When a dying millionaire hires Philip Marlowe to handle the blackmailer of one of his two troublesome daughters, Marlowe finds himself involved with more than extortion. Kidnapping, pornography, seduction, and murder are just a few of the complications he gets caught up in. 

“Chandler [writes] like a slumming angel and invest[s] the sun-blinded streets of Los Angeles with a romantic presence.” 

–Ross MacDonald (Publisher’s description) 

 

Albert Camus (1960),    The Outsider 

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Meursault leads an apparently unremarkable bachelor life in Algiers until he commits a random act of violence. His lack of emotion and failure to show remorse only serve to increase his guilt in the eyes of the law, and challenges the fundamental values of society a set of rules so binding that any person breaking them is condemned as an outsider. For Meursault, this is an insult to his reason and a betrayal of his hopes; for Camus it encapsulates the absurdity of life. In The Outsider (1942), his classic existentialist novel, Camus explores the predicament of the individual who refuses to pretend and is prepared to face the indifference of the universe, courageously and alone. (Publisher’s description) 

 Willem Elsschot (1960),    Cheese 

Cheese is a gentle, satirical fable of capitalism and wealth. A clerk in Antwerp suddenly becomes the chief agent in Belgium and Luxembourg for this red-rinded Dutch delight and is saddled with 370 cases containing ten thousand full-cream cheeses. But he has no idea how to run a business, or how to sell his goods, and he doesn’t even like cheese. Steeped in the atmosphere of the 1930s, in a world full of smart operators and and failed businessmen, Cheese gracefully incorporates the rigid class divisions of the time and a man’s obsession with status. It is as relevant in our age of Internet investors and dot.com failures as it was when it was written.  (Publisher’s description) 

 

 Ernest Hemingway (1961),     A Farewell to Arms 

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In 1918 Ernest Hemingway went to war, to the ‘war to end all wars’. He volunteered for ambulance service in Italy, was wounded and twice decorated. Out of his experiences came A Farewell to Arms. Hemingway’s description of war is unforgettable. He recreates the fear, the comradeship, the courage of his young American volunteer and the men and women he meets in Italy with total conviction. But A Farewell to Arms is not only a novel of war. In it Hemingway has also created a love story of immense drama and uncompromising passion. (Publisher’s description) 

Dashiell Hammett (1961),     The Thin Man 

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Nick and Nora Charles, accompanied by their schnauzer, Asta, are lounging in their suite at the Normandie in New York City for the Christmas holiday, enjoying the prerogatives of wealth: meals delivered at any hour, theatre openings, taxi rides at dawn, rubbing elbows with the gangster element in speakeasies. They should be annoyingly affected, but they charm. Mad about each other, sardonic, observant, kind to those in need, and cool in a fight, Nick and Nora are graceful together, and their home life provides a sanctuary from the rough world of gangsters, hoodlums, and police investigations into which Nick is immediately plunged. A lawyer-friend asks Nick to help find a killer and reintroduces him to the family of Richard Wynant, a more-than-eccentric inventor who disappeared from society 10 years before. The dialogue is spare, the locales lively, and Nick, the narrator, shows us the players as they are, while giving away little of his own thoughts. No one is telling the whole truth, but Nick remains mostly patient as he doggedly tries to backtrack the lies. Hammett’s New York is a cross between Damon Runyon and Scott Fitzgerald–more glamorous than real, but compelling when visited in the company of these two charmers. The lives of the rich and famous don’t get any better than this! (Amazon.com review) 

 

  Herman Hesse (1962),     Demian 

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Schoolboy Emil Sinclair boasts of a theft and finds himself blackmailed by a bully. He turns to Max Demian in whom he finds a friend and mentor. Under this strangely self-possessed figure’s guidance Emil discovers a new world of corruption and evil. This novel by one of Europe’s greatest writers is a story of adolescent awakening. (Publisher’s description) 

 

 William Faulkner (1962),     The Sound and the Fury 

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The ostensible subject of The Sound and the Fury is the dissolution of the Compsons, one of those august old Mississippi families that fell on hard times and wild eccentricity after the Civil War. But in fact what William Faulkner is really after in his legendary novel is the kaleidoscope of consciousness–the overwrought mind caught in the act of thought. His rich, dark, scandal-ridden story of squandered fortune, incest (in thought if not in deed), madness, congenital brain damage, theft, illegitimacy, and stoic endurance is told in the interior voices of three Compson brothers: first Benjy, the “idiot” man-child who blurs together three decades of inchoate sensations as he stalks the fringes of the family’s former pasture; next Quentin, torturing himself brilliantly, obsessively over Caddy’s lost virginity and his own failure to recover the family’s honor as he wanders around the seedy fringes of Boston; and finally Jason, heartless, shrewd, sneaking, nursing a perpetual sense of injury and outrage against his outrageous family. (Amazon.com review) 

 

Sylvia Plath (1963),     The Bell Jar 

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Esther Greenwood is at college and is fighting two battles, one against her own desire for perfection in all things – grades, boyfriend, looks, career – and the other against remorseless mental illness. As her depression deepens she finds herself encased in it, bell-jarred away from the rest of the world. This is the story of her journey back into reality. Highly readable, witty and disturbing, The Bell Jar is Sylvia Plath’s only novel and was originally published under a pseudonym in 1963. What it has to say about what women expect of themselves, and what society expects of women, is as sharply relevant today as it has always been. (Publisher’s description) 

 

 Aldous Huxley (1963),     Brave New World 

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Far in the future, the World Controllers have created the ideal society. Through clever use of genetic engineering, brainwashing and recreational sex and drugs all its members are happy consumers. Bernard Marx seems alone harbouring an ill-defined longing to break free. A visit to one of the few remaining Savage Reservations where the old, imperfect life still continues, may be the cure for his distress… (Publisher’s description) 

 

TH White (1964),     The Once and Future King 

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A quartet of novels by T.H. White, published in a single volume in 1958. The quartet comprises The Sword in the Stone (1938), The Queen of Air and Darkness–first published as The Witch in the Wood (1939)–The Ill-Made Knight (1940), and The Candle in the Wind (published in the composite volume, 1958). The series is a retelling of the Arthurian legend, from Arthur’s birth to the end of his reign, and is based largely on Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte Darthur. After White’s death, a conclusion to The Once and Future King was found among his papers; it was published in 1977 as The Book of Merlyn. (Merriam-Webster Encyclopedia of Literature) 

 

 Evelyn Waugh (1966),     A Handful of Dust 

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Few writers have walked the line between farce and tragedy as nimbly as Evelyn Waugh, who employed the conventions of the comic novel to chip away at the already crumbling English class system. His 1934 novel, A Handful of Dust, is a sublime example of his bleak satirical style: a mordantly funny exposé of aristocratic decadence and ennui in England between the wars. Tony Last is an aristocrat whose attachment to an ideal feudal past is so profound that he is blind to his wife Brenda’s boredom with the stately rhythms of country life. While he earnestly plays the lord of the manor in his ghastly Victorian Gothic pile, she sets herself up in a London flat and pursues an affair with the social-climbing idler John Beaver. In the first half of the novel Waugh fearlessly anatomizes the lifestyles of the rich and shameless. Everyone moves through an endless cycle of parties and country-house weekends, being scrupulously polite in public and utterly horrid in private. Tony’s indifference and Brenda’s selfishness give their relationship a sort of equilibrium until tragedy forces them to face facts. The collapse of their relationship accelerates, and in the famous final section of the book Tony seeks solace in a foolhardy search for El Dorado, throwing himself on the mercy of a jungle only slightly more savage than the one he leaves behind in England. For all its biting wit, A Handful of Dust paints a bleak picture of the English upper classes, reaching beyond satire toward a very modern sense of despair. In Waugh’s world, culture, breeding, and the trappings of civilization only provide more subtle means of destruction. (Amazon.com review) 

 

 Flann O’Brien (1966),     At Swim-Two-Birds 

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In a 1938 letter to a literary agent, Flann O’Brien described his first novel as “a very queer affair, unbearably queer perhaps.” The book in question was At Swim-Two-Birds–and if we take queer to mean diabolically eccentric, then truer words were never spoken. The author, whose real name was Brian O’Nolan, had successfully stirred Gaelic legend, pulp fiction, and grimy Dublin realism into a hilarious cocktail. His mastery of modernist collage would have been an ample accomplishment itself. But O’Brien was also blessed with the writer’s equivalent of perfect pitch, and in At Swim-Two-Birds he squeezes the maximum beauty and banality out of the English language. All he lacks is a tragic register, but he makes up for this deficit with a sense of comedy so acute that even James Joyce couldn’t resist blurbing his fellow Dubliner’s creation: “A really funny book.” Graham Greene, an early fan, compared its comic charge to “the kind of glee one experiences when people smash china on the stage.” A half century after its initial appearance, O’Brien’s masterpiece remains a gleeful read–a marvelous, inventive, and (last but not least) really funny book. (Amazon.com review) 

John Steinbeck (1968),    Of Mice and Men 

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Streetwise George and his big, childlike friend Lennie are drifters, searching for work in the fields and valleys of California. They have nothing except the clothes on their back, and a hope that one day they’ll find a place of their own and live the American dream. But dreams come at a price. Gentle giant Lennie doesn’t know his own strength, and when they find work at a ranch he gets into trouble with the boss’s daughter-in-law. Trouble so bad that even his protector George may not be able to save him. (Publisher’s description) 

 

John Wyndham (1969),    The Day of the Triffids 

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When Bill Masen wakes up in his hospital bed, he has reason to be grateful for the bandages that covered his eyes the night before. For he finds a population rendered helpless by the blindness that followed the spectacular display of bright green lights that filled the night sky; a population at the mercy of the Triffids. Once, with their ability to move and their carnivorous habits, the Triffids were just botanical curiosities. But now, with humans so vulnerable, they are a potent threat to humanity’s survival. It is up to people like Bill, the few who can still see, to carve out a future… (Amazon.co.uk review) 

 

EM Forster (1970),     A Passage to India 

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What really happened in the Marabar caves? This is the mystery at the heart of E.M. Forster’s 1924 novel, A Passage to India, the puzzle that sets in motion events highlighting an even larger question: Can an Englishman and an Indian be friends? Written while England was still firmly in control of India, Forster’s novel follows the fortunes of three English newcomers to India–Miss Adela Quested, Mrs. Moore, and Cyril Fielding–and the Indian, Dr. Aziz, with whom they cross destinies. The idea of true friendship between the races was a radical one in Forster’s time, and he makes it abundantly clear that it was not one that either side welcomed. If Aziz’s friend, Hamidullah, believed it impossible, the British representatives of the Raj were equally discouraging. Despite their countrymen’s disapproval, Miss Quested, Mrs. Moore, and Mr. Fielding are all eager to meet Indians, and in Dr. Aziz they find a perfect companion: educated, westernized, and open-minded. Slowly, the friendships ripen, especially between Aziz and Fielding. Having created the possibility of esteem based on trust and mutual affection, Forster then subjects it to the crucible of racial hatred: during a visit to the famed Marabar caves, Miss Quested accuses Dr. Aziz of sexually assaulting her, then later recants during the frenzied trial that follows. Under such circumstances, affection proves to be a very fragile commodity indeed. Arguably Forster’s greatest novel, A Passage to India limns a troubling portrait of colonialism at its worst, and is remarkable for the complexity of its characters. Here the personal becomes the political and in the breach between Aziz and his English “friends,” Forster foreshadows the eventual end of the Raj. (Amazon.com review) 

 

 John Dos Passos (1970),     The USA Trilogy 

With his U.S.A. trilogy, comprising The 42nd Parallel, 1919, and The Big Money, John Dos Passos is said by many to have written the great American novel. While Fitzgerald and Hemingway were cultivating what Edmund Wilson once called their “own little corners,” John Dos Passos was taking on the world. Counted as one of the best novels of the twentieth century by the Modern Library and by some of the finest writers working today, U.S.A. is a grand, kaleidoscopic portrait of a nation, buzzing with history and life on every page. The trilogy opens with The 42nd Parallel, where we find a young country at the dawn of the twentieth century. Slowly, in stories artfully spliced together, the lives and fortunes of five characters unfold. Mac, Janey, Eleanor, Ward, and Charley are caught on the storm track of this parallel and blown New Yorkward. As their lives cross and double back again, the likes of Eugene Debs, Thomas Edison, and Andrew Carnegie make cameo appearances. With 1919, the second volume of his U.S.A. trilogy, John Dos Passos continues his “vigorous and sweeping panorama of twentieth-century America” (Forum), lauded on publication of the first volume not only for its scope, but also for its groundbreaking style. Again, employing a host of experimental devices that would inspire a whole new generation of writers to follow, Dos Passos captures the many textures, flavors, and background noises of modern life with a cinematic touch and unparalleled nerve. 1919 opens to find America and the world at war, and Dos Passos’s characters, many of whom we met in the first volume, are thrown into the snarl. We follow the daughter of a Chicago minister, a wide-eyed Texas girl, a young poet, a radical Jew, and we glimpse Woodrow Wilson, Theodore Roosevelt, and the Unknown Soldier. The Big Money completes John Dos Passos’s three-volume “fable of America’s materialistic success and moral decline” (American Heritage) and marks the end of “one of the most ambitious projects that an American novelist has ever undertaken” (Time). Here we come back to America after the war and find a nation on the upswing. Industrialism booms. The stock market surges. Lindbergh takes his solo flight. Henry Ford makes automobiles. From New York to Hollywood, love affairs to business deals, it is a country taking the turns too fast, speeding toward the crash of 1929. Ultimately, whether the novels are read together or separately, they paint a sweeping portrait of collective America and showcase the brilliance and bravery of one of its most enduring and admired writers. (Amazon.com review) 

 

 JRR Tolkien (1973),    The Lord of the Rings 

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Listen to the audiobook The Fellowship of the Rings The Two Towers The Return of the King

A Christian can almost be forgiven for not reading the Bible, but there’s no salvation for a fantasy fan who hasn’t read the gospel of the genre, J.R.R. Tolkien’s definitive three-book epic, the Lord of the Rings (encompassing The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers, and The Return of the King), and its charming precursor, The Hobbit. That many (if not most) fantasy works are in some way derivative of Tolkien is understood, but the influence of the Lord of the Rings is so universal that everybody from George Lucas to Led Zeppelin has appropriated it for one purpose or another. Not just revolutionary because it was groundbreaking, the Lord of the Rings is timeless because it’s the product of a truly top-shelf mind. Tolkien was a distinguished linguist and Oxford scholar of dead languages, with strong ideas about the importance of myth and story and a deep appreciation of nature. His epic, 10 years in the making, recounts the Great War of the Ring and the closing of Middle-Earth’s Third Age, a time when magic begins to fade from the world and men rise to dominance. Tolkien carefully details this transition with tremendous skill and love, creating in the Lord of the Rings a universal and all-embracing tale, a justly celebrated classic. (Amazon.com review) 

 

 BS Johnson (1973),     Christie Malry’s Own Double-Entry 

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BS Johnson is one of those experimental writers, controversial during their lives that subsequently vanishes from print. Johnson was a journalist, a socialist, and a fine novelist. Best known for The Unfortunates (his book in a box where every chapter is separately bound and the reader is invited to read them in any order he or she wishes), Christie Malry’s Own Double Entry is perhaps his most accessible novel. However, this “accessibility” is in the midst of a studiedly experimental text. This is a coruscating satire in which Johnson targets one of the symbols of capitalism, the double entry system. The very basis of accountancy, and the manipulation of finance, Johnson turns this building block on its head as his central character, Christie Malry, a young man with a future, decides that he will live his life according to the principles of double entry. Johnson’s novel has acute observations on a variety of issues in British life that still merit comment. How working class people come to vote conservative, the manner in which people’s worth is measured financially; and all of this is in the midst of an angry satire where Malry wreaks vengeance on the system. It is a bitter cynical novel, with a dark wit. There is love, sex, and death; and an unusual use for shaving foam. And all of this is presented in a slightly distant way, where Johnson continually turns to the reader and winks, letting you know this is a novel. Characters are aware of their place in fiction, and Johnson deconstructs the novel to let you see how it works. (Amazon.com review) 

 

 Vladimir Nabokov (1977),     Pale Fire 

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Listen to the audiobook here

Like Lolita, Vladimir Nabokov’s Pale Fire is a masterpiece that imprisons us inside the mazelike head of a mad émigré. Yet Pale Fire is more outrageously hilarious, and its narrative convolutions make the earlier book seem as straightforward as a fairy tale. Here’s the plot–listen carefully! John Shade is a homebody poet in New Wye, U.S.A. He writes a 999-line poem about his life, and what may lie beyond death. This novel (and seldom has the word seemed so woefully inadequate) consists of both that poem and an extensive commentary on it by the poet’s crazy neighbor, Charles Kinbote. According to this deranged annotator, he had urged Shade to write about his own homeland–the northern kingdom of Zembla. It soon becomes clear that this fabulous locale may well be a figment of Kinbote’s colorfully cracked, prismatic imagination. Meanwhile, he manages to twist the poem into an account of Zembla’s King Charles–whom he believes himself to be–and the monarch’s eventual assassination by the revolutionary Jakob Gradus. In the course of this dizzying narrative, shots are indeed fired. But it’s Shade who takes the hit, enabling Kinbote to steal the dead poet’s manuscript and set about annotating it. Is that perfectly clear? By now it should be obvious that Pale Fire is not only a whodunit but a who-wrote-it. There isn’t, of course, a single solution. But Nabokov’s best biographer, Brian Boyd, has come up with an ingenious suggestion: he argues that Shade is actually guiding Kinbote’s mad hand from beyond the grave, nudging him into completing what he’d intended to be a 1,000-line poem. Read this magical, melancholic mystery and see if you agree. (Amazon.com review) 

 

 Jean Rhys (1979),     Wide Sargasso Sea 

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Listen to the audiobook Part One Part Two

In 1966 Jean Rhys reemerged after a long silence with a novel called Wide Sargasso Sea. Rhys had enjoyed minor literary success in the 1920s and ’30s with a series of evocative novels featuring women protagonists adrift in Europe, verging on poverty, hoping to be saved by men. By the ’40s, however, her work was out of fashion, too sad for a world at war. And Rhys herself was often too sad for the world–she was suicidal, alcoholic, troubled by a vast loneliness. She was also a great writer, despite her powerful self-destructive impulses. Wide Sargasso Sea is the story of Antoinette Cosway, a Creole heiress who grew up in the West Indies on a decaying plantation. When she comes of age she is married off to an Englishman, and he takes her away from the only place she has known–a house with a garden where “the paths were overgrown and a smell of dead flowers mixed with the fresh living smell. Underneath the tree ferns, tall as forest tree ferns, the light was green. Orchids flourished out of reach or for some reason not to be touched.” The novel is Rhys’s answer to Jane Eyre. Charlotte Brontë’s book had long haunted her, mostly for the story it did not tell–that of the madwoman in the attic, Rochester’s terrible secret. Antoinette is Rhys’s imagining of that locked-up woman, who in the end burns up the house and herself. Wide Sargasso Sea follows her voyage into the dark, both from her point of view and Rochester’s. It is a voyage charged with soul-destroying lust. “I watched her die many times,” observes the new husband. “In my way, not in hers. In sunlight, in shadow, by moonlight, by candlelight. In the long afternoons when the house was empty.” Rhys struggled over the book, enduring rejections and revisions, wrestling to bring this ruined woman out of the ashes. The slim volume was finally published when she was 70 years old. The critical adulation that followed, she said, “has come too late.” Jean Rhys died a few years later, but with Wide Sargasso Sea she left behind a great legacy, a work of strange, scary loveliness. There has not been a book like it before or since. Believe me, I’ve been searching. (Amazon.com review) 

 

 Philip K Dick (1982),     Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?  

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Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? was published in 1968. Grim and foreboding, even today it is a masterpiece ahead of its time. By 2021, the World War had killed millions, driving entire species into extinction and sending mankind off-planet. Those who remained coveted any living creature, and for people who couldn’t afford one, companies built incredibly realistic simulacrae: horses, birds, cats, sheep. . . They even built humans. Emigrees to Mars received androids so sophisticated it was impossible to tell them from true men or women. Fearful of the havoc these artificial humans could wreak, the government banned them from Earth. But when androids didn’t want to be identified, they just blended in. Rick Deckard was an officially sanctioned bounty hunter whose job was to find rogue androids, and to retire them. But cornered, androids tended to fight back, with deadly results. (Publisher’s description) 

 

Georges Perec (1982),     A Void 

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The year is 1968, and as France is torn apart by social and political anarchy, the noted eccentric and insomniac Anton Vowl goes missing. Ransacking his Paris flat, his best friends scour his diary for clues to his whereabouts. At first glance these pages reveal nothing but Vowl’s penchant for word games, especially for “lipograms,” compositions in which the use of a particular letter is suppressed. But as the friends work out Vowl’s verbal puzzles, and as they investigate various leads discovered among the entries, they too disappear, one by one by one, and under the most mysterious circumstances … A Void is a metaphysical whodunit, a story chock-full of plots and subplots, of trails in pursuit of trails, all of which afford Perec occasion to display his virtuosity as a verbal magician, acrobat, and sad-eyed clown. It is also an outrageous verbal stunt: a 300-page novel that never once employs the letter E. Adair’s translation, too, is astounding; Time called it “a daunting triumph of will pushing its way through imposing roadblocks to a magical country, an absurdist nirvana of humor, pathos, and loss.” (Publisher’s description) 

 

Arthur Koestler (1983),     Darkness at Noon 

Available in the library, borrow or reserve it now in the catalogue

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Originally published in 1941, Arthur Koestler’s modern masterpiece, Darkness At Noon, is a powerful and haunting portrait of a Communist revolutionary caught in the vicious fray of the Moscow show trials of the late 1930s. During Stalin’s purges, Nicholas Rubashov, an aging revolutionary, is imprisoned and psychologically tortured by the party he has devoted his life to. Under mounting pressure to confess to crimes he did not commit, Rubashov relives a career that embodies the ironies and betrayals of a revolutionary dictatorship that believes it is an instrument of liberation. A seminal work of twentieth-century literature, Darkness At Noon is a penetrating exploration of the moral danger inherent in a system that is willing to enforce its beliefs by any means necessary. (Publisher’s description) 

 

Christina Stead (1983),    The Man Who Loved Children 

Available in the library, borrow or reserve it now in the catalogue 

Were the critics and the public right in 1940 when they rejected this strange book? Or were later critics right when, in 1968, they “rediscovered” The Man Who Loved Children and dubbed it a modern classic? Given the book’s excesses and strengths, it is difficult to make a reasonable literary judgment either way. But simply as a portrait of an extraordinary family, the book probably has no equal. And what a family! A charismatic, egotistical father (Sam) spouts nonstop high-minded rubbish while using playful camaraderie to dominate his seven children. His bitter wife (Henny), overworked and desperate, communicates mostly through screaming tirades. Louie, the sensitive older daughter, agonizes as she witnesses the events that eventually lead to tragedy. Although the larger-than-life domestic scenes may not always be pleasant to read, they are nevertheless unforgettable. (Library Journal review) 

 

Richard Brautigan (1984),    Trout Fishing in America 

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The publication of a deluxe edition of Richard Brautigan’s Trout Fishing in America enshrines a novel written forty years ago that was immediately recognized as an important invention by discerning readers and became a cult classic. Trout Fishing in America is a landmark in American prose fiction. “Trout Fishing in America” is the title of the book; but it is also persons, places, things, and a state of mind. On the endpapers of this edition we have printed in two colors the various uses of the phrase in the novel. This is a humorous book; it is also very poignant, and it is surreal. Richard’s friend the writer Ron Loewinsohn was named on the dedication page of Trout Fishing in America and was an early reader of the manuscript-in-progress. He has written a new introductory essay for this book. This edition also contains a portrait of the author, a photograph taken in 1967 by Edmund Shea, published here for the first time. Shea, also a long-time friend of Brautigan, is an artist-photographer whose pictures appear on the covers of most of Brautigan’s books. (Publisher’s description) 

 

 Julio Cortázar (1984),     Hopscotch 

Horacio Oliveira is an Argentinian writer who lives in Paris with his mistress, La Maga, surrounded by a loose-knit circle of bohemian friends who call themselves “the Club.” A child’s death and La Maga’s disappearance put an end to his life of empty pleasures and intellectual acrobatics, and prompt Oliveira to return to Buenos Aires, where he works by turns as a salesman, a keeper of a circus cat which can truly count, and an attendant in an insane asylum. Hopscotch is the dazzling, free-wheeling account of Oliveira’s astonishing adventures. (Publisher’s description) 

 

Italo Calvino (1985),     If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller 

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If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller is a marvel of ingenuity, an experimental text that looks longingly back to the great age of narration–”when time no longer seemed stopped and did not yet seem to have exploded.” Italo Calvino’s novel is in one sense a comedy in which the two protagonists, the Reader and the Other Reader, ultimately end up married, having almost finished If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller. In another, it is a tragedy, a reflection on the difficulties of writing and the solitary nature of reading. The Reader buys a fashionable new book, which opens with an exhortation: “Relax. Concentrate. Dispel every other thought. Let the world around you fade.” Alas, after 30 or so pages, he discovers that his copy is corrupted, and consists of nothing but the first section, over and over. Returning to the bookshop, he discovers the volume, which he thought was by Calvino, is actually by the Polish writer Bazakbal. Given the choice between the two, he goes for the Pole, as does the Other Reader, Ludmilla. But this copy turns out to be by yet another writer, as does the next, and the next. The real Calvino intersperses 10 different pastiches–stories of menace, spies, mystery, premonition–with explorations of how and why we read, make meanings, and get our bearings or fail to. Meanwhile the Reader and Ludmilla try to reach, and read, each other. If on a Winter’s Night is dazzling, vertiginous, and deeply romantic. “What makes lovemaking and reading resemble each other most is that within both of them times and spaces open, different from measurable time and space.”  (Amazon.com review) 

 

Juan Rulfo (1986),     Pedro Páramo 

A masterpiece of the surreal, this stunning novel from Mexico depicts a man’s strange quest for his heritage. Beseeched by his dying mother to locate his father, Pedro Páramo, whom they fled from years ago, Juan Preciado sets out for Comala. Comala is a town alive with whispers and shadows–a place seemingly populated only by memory and hallucinations. Built on the tyranny of the Páramo family, its barren and broken-down streets echo the voices of tormented spirits sharing the secrets of the past. First published to both critical and popular acclaim in 1955, Pedro Páramo represented a distinct break with earlier, largely “realist” novels from Latin America. Rulfo’s entrancing mixture of vivid sensory images, violent passions, and inexplicable sorcery–a style that has come to be known as “magical realism”–has exerted a profound influence on subsequent Latin American writers, from Jose Donoso and Carlos Fuentes to Mario Vargas Llosa and Gabriel Garcia Marquez. (Amazon.com review) 

 

 Christopher Isherwood (1986),    Goodbye to Berlin 

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First published in 1939, this novel obliquely evokes the gathering storm of Berlin before and during the rise to power of the Nazis. Events are seen through the eyes of a series of individuals, whose lives are all about to be ruined. (Publisher’s description) 

 

Bruce Chatwin (1989),     Utz 

Bruce Chatwin’s bestselling novel traces the fortunes of the enigmatic and unconventional hero, Kaspar Utz. Despite the restrictions of Cold War Czechoslovakia, Utz asserts his individuality through his devotion to his precious collection of Meissen porcelain. Although Utz is permitted to leave the country each year, and considers defecting each time, he is not allowed to take his porcelain with him and so he always returns to his Czech home, a prisoner both of the Communist state and of his collection. (Publisher’s description) 

 

 Patrick White (1990),     Voss 

Available in the library, borrow or reserve it now in the catalogue  

Voss is a story of a difficult relationship between a man’s dreams and reality, in which they cannot be fulfilled. Detailed descriptions of colonial life in Sydney and lyrical depictions of the outback serve merely as a background to an investigation into human nature. White analyses the feelings and motivations of his characters with wisdom and psychological insight, but beneath the veneer of great style lies a fundamental question of belonging. The characters’ lives revolve around the theme of inadequacy – being an outcast, a foreigner, a troubled spirit. The author indicates the difficulty of a human condition, where not only do we have to face the socially created system of restraints, but also to accept our weakness to the forces of nature. White’s novel is a rewarding piece of literature, depicting the power of nature and human instincts over reason and strict moral rules with great wit and compassion towards our imperfections. A must. (Amazon.com review) 

 

 Graham Greene (1991),    The Heart of the Matter 

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Graham Greene’s masterpiece The Heart of the Matter tells the story of a good man enmeshed in love, intrigue, and evil in a West African coastal town. Scobie is bound by strict integrity to his role as assistant police commissioner and by severe responsibility to his wife, Louise, for whom he cares with a fatal pity. When Scobie falls in love with the young widow Helen, he finds vital passion again yielding to pity, integrity giving way to deceit and dishonor—a vortex leading directly to murder. As Scobie’s world crumbles, his personal crisis makes for a novel that is suspenseful, fascinating, and, finally, tragic. Originally published in 1948, The Heart of the Matter is the unforgettable portrait of one man, flawed yet heroic, destroyed and redeemed by a terrible conflict of passion and faith. (Publisher’s description) 

 

Richard Yates (1992),    Revolutionary Road 

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The rediscovery and rejuvenation of Richard Yates’s 1961 novel Revolutionary Road is due in large part to its continuing emotional and moral resonance for an early 21st-century readership. April and Frank Wheeler are a young, ostensibly thriving couple living with their two children in a prosperous Connecticut suburb in the mid-1950s. However, the self-assured exterior masks a creeping frustration at their inability to feel fulfilled in their relationships or careers. Frank is mired in a well-paying but boring office job and April is a housewife still mourning the demise of her hoped-for acting career. Determined to identify themselves as superior to the mediocre sprawl of suburbanites who surround them, they decide to move to France where they will be better able to develop their true artistic sensibilities, free of the consumerist demands of capitalist America. As their relationship deteriorates into an endless cycle of squabbling, jealousy and recriminations, their trip and their dreams of self-fulfilment are thrown into jeopardy. Yates’s incisive, moving, and often very funny prose weaves a tale that is at once a fascinating period piece and a prescient anticipation of the way we live now. Many of the cultural motifs seem quaintly dated–the early-evening cocktails, Frank’s illicit lunch breaks with his secretary, the way Frank isn’t averse to knocking April around when she speaks out of turn–and yet the quiet desperation at thwarted dreams reverberates as much now as it did years ago. Like F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, this novel conveys, with brilliant erudition, the exacting cost of chasing the American dream. (Amazon.co.uk review) 

 

 Angela Carter (1992),     The Magic Toyshop 

Available in the library, borrow or reserve it now in the catalogue 

‘This crazy world whirled around her, men and women dwarfed by toys and puppets, where even the birds are mechanical and the few human figures went masked…She was in the night once again, and the doll was herself.’ Melanie walks in the midnight garden, wearing her mother’s wedding dress; naked she climbs the apple tree in the black of the moon. Omens of disaster, swiftly following, transport Melanie from rural comfort to London, to the Magic Toyshop. To the red-haired, dancing Finn, the gentle Francie, dumb Aunt Margaret and Uncle Phillip. Francie plays curious night music, Finn kisses fifteen-year-old Melanie in the mysterious ruins of the pleasure gardens. Brooding over all is Uncle Philip: Uncle Philip, with blank eyes the colour of wet newspaper, making puppets the size of men, and clockwork roses. He loves his magic puppets, but hates the love of man for woman, boy for girl, brother for sister…In this, her second novel, (awarded the 1967 John Llewellyn Rhys Prize) Angela Carter’s brilliant imagination and starting intensity of style explore and extend the nature and boundaries of love. (Amazon.com review) 

 

William Golding (1993),    Lord of the Flies 

Available in the library, borrow or reserve it now in the catalogue 

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William Golding’s classic tale about a group of English schoolboys who are plane-wrecked on a deserted island is just as chilling and relevant today as when it was first published in 1954. At first, the stranded boys cooperate, attempting to gather food, make shelters, and maintain signal fires. Overseeing their efforts are Ralph, “the boy with fair hair,” and Piggy, Ralph’s chubby, wisdom-dispensing sidekick whose thick spectacles come in handy for lighting fires. Although Ralph tries to impose order and delegate responsibility, there are many in their number who would rather swim, play, or hunt the island’s wild pig population. Soon Ralph’s rules are being ignored or challenged outright. His fiercest antagonist is Jack, the redheaded leader of the pig hunters, who manages to lure away many of the boys to join his band of painted savages. The situation deteriorates as the trappings of civilization continue to fall away, until Ralph discovers that instead of being hunters, he and Piggy have become the hunted: “He forgot his words, his hunger and thirst, and became fear; hopeless fear on flying feet.” Golding’s gripping novel explores the boundary between human reason and animal instinct, all on the brutal playing field of adolescent competition. (Amazon.com review) 

Anthony Burgess (1993),     A Clockwork Orange 

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A Clockwork Orange is set in a future London and is told in nadsat, a mixture of Russian, English and American slang, gypsy talk and, odd bits of Jacobean prose. Burgess has given at least three explanations for the title of the book. One is that it is a Cockney expression (“as queer as a clockwork orange”), which he overheard in a London pub in 1945. In an essay published in the Listener, Burgess claimed that the title was a pun on the Malay word orang, meaning man. And the third explanation is that the title is a metaphor for “an organic entity, full of juice and sweetness and agreeable odour, being turned into an automaton.” (prefatory note to A Clockwork Orange: A Play with Music, 1987) Gary Dexter has suggested in Why Not Catch-21 (2007) that Burgess had misheard in the pub “Chocolate Orange”, a part of everyday speech in 1940 London, as “a clockwork orange”. Alex, the main character, is a juvenile delinquent, who rapes and kills people with his “droogs” (friends). He is captured, and brainwashed by the Ludovico technique to change his murderous aggressions. As an unexpected side effect of the Pavlovian treatment he starts to hate Beethoven’s music, his unspoiled self. The central question of the story is a philosophical one: is an “evil” human being with free will preferable to a “good” citizen without it? (kirjasto.sci.fi article) 

 

 Patricia Highsmith (1995),     The Talented Mr Ripley 

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One of the great crime novels of the 20th century, Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr. Ripley is a blend of the narrative subtlety of Henry James and the self-reflexive irony of Vladimir Nabokov. Like the best modernist fiction, Ripley works on two levels. First, it is the story of a young man, Tom Ripley, whose nihilistic tendencies lead him on a deadly passage across Europe. On another level, the novel is a commentary on fictionmaking and techniques of narrative persuasion. Like Humbert Humbert, Tom Ripley seduces readers into empathizing with him even as his actions defy all moral standards. The novel begins with a play on James’s The Ambassadors. Tom Ripley is chosen by the wealthy Herbert Greenleaf to retrieve Greenleaf’s son, Dickie, from his overlong sojourn in Italy. Dickie, it seems, is held captive both by the Mediterranean climate and the attractions of his female companion, but Mr. Greenleaf needs him back in New York to help with the family business. With an allowance and a new purpose, Tom leaves behind his dismal city apartment to begin his career as a return escort. But Tom, too, is captivated by Italy. He is also taken with the life and looks of Dickie Greenleaf. He insinuates himself into Dickie’s world and soon finds that his passion for a lifestyle of wealth and sophistication transcends moral compunction. Tom will become Dickie Greenleaf–at all costs. Unlike many modernist experiments, The Talented Mr. Ripley is eminently readable and is driven by a gripping chase narrative that chronicles each of Tom’s calculated maneuvers of self-preservation. Highsmith was in peak form with this novel, and her ability to enter the mind of a sociopath and view the world through his disturbingly amoral eyes is a model that has spawned such latter-day serial killers as Hannibal Lecter. (Amazon.com) 

 

 Kingsley Amis (1995),     Lucky Jim 

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Although Kingsley Amis’s acid satire of postwar British academic life has lost some of its bite in the four decades since it was published, it’s still a rewarding read. And there’s no denying how big an impact it had back then–Lucky Jim could be considered the first shot in the Oxbridge salvo that brought us Beyond the Fringe, That Was the Week That Was, and so much more. In Lucky Jim, Amis introduces us to Jim Dixon, a junior lecturer at a British college who spends his days fending off the legions of malevolent twits that populate the school. His job is in constant danger, often for good reason. Lucky Jim hits the heights whenever Dixon tries to keep a preposterous situation from spinning out of control, which is every three pages or so. The final example of this–a lecture spewed by a hideously pickled Dixon–is a chapter’s worth of comic nirvana. The book is not politically correct (Amis wasn’t either), but take it for what it is, and you won’t be disappointed. (Amazon.com review) 

 

 Roger Zelazny (1995),     The Chronicles of Amber 

Corwin is a prince of Amber, the “immortal city from which every other city has taken its shape.” All other worlds, including Earth, are shadows of that reality. Corwin has spent centuries on Earth as an amnesiac. But when someone in the family tries to kill him there, Corwin begins a search for his past. He quickly learns that his family has some very unusual powers. They can travel between Amber, its shadows, and Chaos by manipulating reality; use magical playing cards to communicate and travel instantaneously; and are able to walk the Pattern that created Amber. Corwin regains his memory, solves the mystery of his father Oberon’s disappearance, and fulfills his destiny–only to disappear into Chaos. Merlin searches for Corwin and his destiny as a son of both Amber and the Courts of Chaos. His story parallels Corwin’s, answering many questions about Amber, Chaos, and the next generation in the family. Many readers have complained that the series goes on too long and the ending is disappointing. None, however, would deny that it’s filled with fascinating ideas, complex characters, and action-adventure. Don’t miss a chance to make up your own mind. (Amazon.com review) 

 

 William Burroughs (1997),    Naked Lunch 

Listen to the audiobook here

“He was,” as Salon’s Gary Kamyia notes, “20th-century drug culture’s Poe, its Artaud, its Baudelaire. He was the prophet of the literature of pure experience, a phenomenologist of dread…. Burroughs had the scary genius to turn the junk wasteland into a parallel universe, one as thoroughly and obsessively rendered as Blake’s.” Why has this homosexual ex-junkie, whose claim to fame rests entirely on one book–the hallucinogenic ravings of a heroin addict–so seized the collective imagination? Burroughs wrote Naked Lunch in a Tangier, Morocco, hotel room between 1954 and 1957. Allen Ginsberg and his beatnik cronies burst onto the scene, rescued the manuscript from the food-encrusted floor, and introduced some order to the pages. It was published in Paris in 1959 by the notorious Olympia Press and in the U.S. in 1962; the landmark obscenity trial that ensued served to end literary censorship in America. Burroughs’s literary experiment–the much-touted “cut-up” technique–mirrored the workings of a junkie’s brain. But it was junk coupled with vision: Burroughs makes teeming amalgam of allegory, sci-fi, and non-linear narration, all wrapped in a blend of humour–slapstick, Swiftian, slang-infested humour. What is Naked Lunch about? People turn into blobs amidst the sort of evil that R. Crumb, in the decades to come, would inimitably flesh out with his dark and creepy cartoon images. Perhaps the most easily grasped part of Naked Lunch is its America-bashing, replete with slang and vitriol. Read it and see for yourself. (Amazon.com review) 

 

Janet Lewis (1998),     The Wife of Martin Guerre 

Available in the library, borrow or reserve it now in the catalogue

This compelling story of Bertrande de Rols is a rich novella with the timeless power of a fable. It was based on a famous story of a court case in mid-16th century France. Janet Lewis depicts a distant time and a traditional, rural culture based on a highly ordered patriarchal structure. When “Martin Guerre” returns from a quest after eight years, the family embraces him, and Bertrande is swept up in the relief at the apparent return to the security of the old order. But Martin has changed, and Bertrande threatens the established order with her defiant quest for the truth. Once the accusation of false identity is laid formally and the trial process begins. Many witnesses are called. Bertrande is pressured to withdraw, and she herself is reluctant to see “Martin” executed. Finally, the real, battle-weary Martin stumbles into the courtroom and is instantly recognized. He shows no mercy to Bertrande for allowing herself to be deceived. The real facts emerge, but the fate of Bertrande and Martin remains open-ended.  (Publisher’s description) 

 

Paul Bowles (1999),     The Sheltering Sky 

American novelist and short-story writer, poet, translator, classical music composer, and filmscorer Paul Bowles has lived as an expatriate for more than 40 years in the North African nation of Morocco, a country that reaches into the vast and inhospitable Sahara Desert. The desert is itself a character in The Sheltering Sky, the most famous of Bowles’ books, which is about three young Americans of the postwar generation who go on a walkabout into Northern Africa’s own arid heart of darkness. In the process, the veneer of their lives is peeled back under the author’s psychological inquiry. (Publisher’s description) 

 

Joseph Heller (1999),     Catch-22 

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Listen to the audiobook here Part One Part Two

There was a time when reading Joseph Heller’s classic satire on the murderous insanity of war was nothing less than a rite of passage. Echoes of Yossarian, the wise-ass bombardier who was too smart to die but not smart enough to find a way out of his predicament, could be heard throughout the counterculture. As a result, it’s impossible not to consider Catch-22 to be something of a period piece. But 40 years on, the novel’s undiminished strength is its looking-glass logic. Again and again, Heller’s characters demonstrate that what is commonly held to be good, is bad; what is sensible, is nonsense. Mirabile dictu, the book holds up post-Reagan, post-Gulf War. It’s a good thing, too. As long as there’s a military, that engine of lethal authority, Catch-22 will shine as a handbook for smart-alecky pacifists. It’s an utterly serious and sad, but damn funny book. (Amazon.com review) 

 

Malcolm Bradbury (2000),     To the Hermitage 

To The Hermitage is Sir Malcolm Bradbury’s first novel in nearly a decade, and its length and ambition provide some clue as to why it has been so long in the making. The novel begins with the arrival of the great Enlightenment philosopher Denis Diderot at the Russian court of Catherine the Great, who is “drawn to grand ideas and learning; she looks to Paris” and to Denis Diderot, busily completing his Encyclopaedia, the great work of the European “Age of Reason”. Bradbury’s world of “Then” suddenly cuts to “Now”, and the arrival in Stockholm in 1993 of the narrator, a thinly veiled self-portrait of a weather-beaten novelist and literary critic who has been invited on a “Baltic junket”, an academic gathering to discuss the Diderot Project, a Swedish-funded enterprise to investigate the life and works of the great philosopher. Bradbury extracts maximum hilarity from the ensuing academic pondering of the assembled scholars, including the wonderful deconstructionist professor “Jack-Paul Verso, in Calvin Klein jeans, Armani jacket, and a designer baseball cap saying I LOVE DECONSTRUCTION”. The group’s academic sparring takes on added poignancy as footage of the hard-line coup to overthrow Gorbachev and silence Yeltsin flashes onto their TV screens. Bradbury’s novel proceeds to deftly seesaw between the Age of Reason championed by Diderot and the present so-called end of history and “triumph” of global capitalism. It ruefully, but also very humorously, reflects on the perils of intellectual idealism then and now, and explores the ways in which “history is the lies the present tells in order to make sense of the past”. Sprawling, messy, hugely ambitious and at times very funny, To The Hermitage is up there with Eating People is Wrong and Rates of Exchange as one of Bradbury’s better pieces of fiction. (Amazon.com review) 

 

 Douglas Adams (2001),     The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy 

Available in the library, borrow or reserve it now in the catalogue 

Listen to Douglas Adams read the book here Part One Part Two Part Three  Part Four

Join Douglas Adams’s hapless hero Arthur Dent as he travels the galaxy with his intrepid pal Ford Prefect, getting into horrible messes and generally wreaking hilarious havoc. Dent is grabbed from Earth moments before a cosmic construction team obliterates the planet to build a freeway. You’ll never read funnier science fiction; Adams is a master of intelligent satire, barbed wit, and comedic dialogue. The Hitchhiker’s Guide is rich in comedic detail and thought-provoking situations and stands up to multiple reads. Required reading for science fiction fans, this book (and its follow-ups) is also sure to please fans of Monty Python, Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series, and British sitcoms. (Amazon.com review) 

 

 RK Narayan (2001),   The Bachelor of Arts 

“There are writers—Tolstoy and Henry James to name two—whom we hold in awe, writers—Turgenev and Chekhov—for whom we feel a personal affection, other writers whom we respect—Conrad for example—but who hold us at a long arm’s length with their ‘courtly foreign grace.’ Narayan (whom I don’t hesitate to name in such a context) more than any of them wakes in me a spring of gratitude, for he has offered me a second home. Without him I could never have known what it is like to be Indian.”—Graham Greene. Offering rare insight into the complexities of Indian middle-class society, R. K. Narayan traces life in the fictional town of Malgudi. Narayan writes of youth and young adulthood in the semiautobiographical Swami and Friends and The Bachelor of Arts. Although the ordinary tensions of maturing are heightened by the particular circumstances of pre-partition India, Narayan provides a universal vision of childhood, early love and grief. (Publisher’s description) 

GV Desani (2001),     All About H Hatterr 

Wildly funny and wonderfully bizarre, All About H. Hatterr is one of the most perfectly eccentric and strangely absorbing works modern English has produced. H. Hatterr is the son of a European merchant officer and a lady from Penang who has been raised and educated in missionary schools in Calcutta. His story is of his search for enlightenment as, in the course of visiting seven Oriental cities, he consults with seven sages, each of whom specializes in a different aspect of “Living.” Each teacher delivers himself of a great “Generality,” each great Generality launches a new great “Adventure,” from each of which Hatter escapes not so much greatly edified as by the skin of his teeth. The book is a comic extravaganza, but as Anthony Burgess writes in his introduction, “it is the language that makes the book. . . . It is not pure English; it is like Shakespeare, Joyce, and Kipling, gloriously impure.” (Publisher’s description) 

 

 Amy Witting (2001),     I for Isobel 

The classic novel about a young girl growing up in Sydney in the fifties. Each chapter paints a picture of Isobel at a new stage of her growth to self-awareness, as she gradually and painfully emerges from the false self-image imposed upon her by her mother. (Publisher’s description) 

 

 Saul Bellow (2005),     Dangling Man 

Expecting to be inducted into the army, Joseph has given up his job and carefully prepared for his departure to the battlefront. When a series of mix-ups delays his induction, he finds himself facing a year of idleness. Dangling Man is his journal, a wonderful account of his restless wanderings through Chicago’s streets, his musings on the past, his psychological reaction to his inactivity while war rages around him, and his uneasy insights into the nature of freedom and choice. (Publisher’s description) 

 

 Saul Bellow (2005),     Ravelstein 

Age does not wither Saul Bellow. The 84-year-old writer’s new novel is echt Bellow–the grab-bag paragraphs stuffed with truculent observations; the comedic mix of admiration and rivalry that subtends the friendships of intellectual men; the impossible and possible wives. Abe Ravelstein, a professor at a well-known Midwestern college, is obviously modeled on the late Allan Bloom. To clinch the identification, Bellow’s narrator, Chick, a writer 20 years older than Ravelstein, uses phrases to describe Ravelstein that are almost identical to phrases Bellow used about Bloom in his published eulogy. Like Bloom, Ravelstein operates his phone like a “command post,” getting information from his former students in high positions in various governments. Like Bloom, Ravelstein writes a bestseller using his special brand of political philosophy to comment on American failings. And like Bloom, Ravelstein throws money around as if “from the rear end of an express train.” In fact, Chick is so obsessed with the price of Ravelstein’s possessions that at times the work reads like a garage sale of his student’s effects. Ravelstein also spends lavishly on his boyfriend, Nikki, a princely young Singaporean. Chick’s wife, at the beginning of the memoir, is Vela, an East European physicist. Ravelstein dislikes her, and suspects that her Balkan friends are anti-Semites. Eventually, Vela kicks Chick out of his house and divorces him (fans will not be surprised that Bellow, as seems to be his habit, makes this a thinly veiled attack on his ex-wife). Chick ends up marrying one of Ravelstein’s students, Rosamund. When Ravelstein succumbs to AIDS, Chick mulls over his obligation to write a memoir of his friend, but he is blocked until he himself suffers a threatening illness. Chick’s subconscious rivalry with Ravelstein is the subtext here. Amply rewarding, this late work from the Nobel laureate flourishes his inimitable linguistic virtuosity, combining intimations of mortality with gossipy tattle in a biting and enlightening narrative. (Publishers Weekly review) 

 

 Gilbert Sorrentino (2006),     Mulligan Stew 

A very funny, still timely look at the mind of a writer who is nowhere nearly as good as he hopes. He’s a terrible writer, and is struggling desperately to avoid having to face it, but he’s no better than the hacks and idiots he spews venom at. (The parody of erotic poetry alone is gaspingly funny and well worth the price of admission all by itself.) The book also touches on the old adage that a writer’s only as good as his last book, and adds a sensible new dimension to it: that a book is only as good as its last writer. Not an easy read, and sometimes redundant, but still a scream. (Amazon.com review) 

 

 Muriel Spark (2006),     The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie 

Available in the library, borrow or reserve it now in the catalogue 

The story of an eccentric Edinburgh teacher who inspires cultlike reverence in her young students, the novel was Spark’s best-known work. The novel explores themes of innocence, betrayal, and cold rationality opposed to unchecked emotionalism. The story of Miss Brodie’s ultimate downfall is told from the unsympathetic perspective of one of her students. (The Merriam-Webster Encyclopedia of Literature) 

 

 Elizabeth Jolley (2007),     An Innocent Gentleman 

Henry and Muriel’s life on the new estate is relatively harmonious, despite the vulgar neighbours, The Tonkettes, the Second World War and the regular Sunday visits from Muriel’s mother, who believes her daughter has married far below her station. The accidental (?) appearance of Mr. Hawthorne, Muriel’s student, at their house one Sunday afternoon brings unexpected upheavals. Here is a man of respectable breeding, of munificent means and someone capable of refined, intelligent conversation. Mr. Hawthorne has something to offer everyone in the family, but his posting to London disturbs the delicate balance of personal affairs…. (Publisher’s description) 

 

Kurt Vonnegut, Jr (2007),     Slaughterhouse-Five 

Available in the library, borrow or reserve it now in the catalogue 

Listen to the audiobook here

Kurt Vonnegut’s absurdist classic Slaughterhouse-Five introduces us to Billy Pilgrim, a man who becomes unstuck in time after he is abducted by aliens from the planet Tralfamadore. In a plot-scrambling display of virtuosity, we follow Pilgrim simultaneously through all phases of his life, concentrating on his (and Vonnegut’s) shattering experience as an American prisoner of war who witnesses the firebombing of Dresden. Don’t let the ease of reading fool you–Vonnegut’s isn’t a conventional, or simple, novel. He writes, “There are almost no characters in this story, and almost no dramatic confrontations, because most of the people in it are so sick, and so much the listless playthings of enormous forces. One of the main effects of war, after all, is that people are discouraged from being characters…” Slaughterhouse-Five (taken from the name of the building where the POWs were held) is not only Vonnegut’s most powerful book, it is as important as any written since 1945. Like Catch- 22, it fashions the author’s experiences in the Second World War into an eloquent and deeply funny plea against butchery in the service of authority. Slaughterhouse-Five boasts the same imagination, humanity, and gleeful appreciation of the absurd found in Vonnegut’s other works, but the book’s basis in rock-hard, tragic fact gives it a unique poignancy–and humor. (Amazon.com review) 

100 great novels by living authors

The following is a list of 100 books by living authors that I have read and highly recommend. I wanted to put together a list of ‘modern classics’, and having the criterion of a living author is a way to impose some currency while at the same time allowing for a certain breadth. Of course, this leaves out plenty of great authors who have unfortunately passed on, whether recently (Saul Bellow) or centuries ago (Laurence Sterne). This list will evolve over the years and is in no way fixed.

Achebe, Chinua,    Things Fall Apart 

Available in the library, borrow or reserve it now in the catalogue  

Listen to the audiobook here

One of Chinua Achebe’s many achievements in his acclaimed first novel, Things Fall Apart, is his relentlessly unsentimental rendering of Nigerian tribal life before and after the coming of colonialism. First published in 1958, just two years before Nigeria declared independence from Great Britain, the book eschews the obvious temptation of depicting pre-colonial life as a kind of Eden. Instead, Achebe sketches a world in which violence, war, and suffering exist, but are balanced by a strong sense of tradition, ritual, and social coherence. (Amazon.com review) 

 

Adair, Gilbert,    A Closed Book 

Gilbert Adair previously won the Scott-Moncrieff prize for his extraordinary translation of the late Georges Perec’s A Void–a novel composed without the letter “e”– and some of that author’s wit, allusiveness and self- conscious artistry find their way into Adair’s new book, transmuted into something altogether more sinister. This is a powerful psychological thriller, well-paced, energetic (and occasionally very funny) but it also incorporates some subtle philosophical and literary questions into its narrative: How far can we believe what we read (or hear) and how does a reader’s trust in a writer’s fictional world equate with the trust required in allowing someone to interpret the world for us? See for yourself. (Amazon.co.uk review) 

 

Adichie, Chimamanda Ngozi,     Purple Hibiscus 

Listen to the audiobook here 

Purple Hibiscus, Nigerian-born writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s debut, begins like many novels set in regions considered exotic by the western reader: the politics, climate, social customs, and, above all, food of Nigeria (balls of fufu rolled between the fingers, okpa bought from roadside vendors) unfold like the purple hibiscus of the title, rare and fascinating. But within a few pages, these details, however vividly rendered, melt into the background of a larger, more compelling story of a joyless family. Fifteen-year-old Kambili is the dutiful and self-effacing daughter of a rich man, a religious fanatic and domestic tyrant whose public image is of a politically courageous newspaper publisher and philanthropist. No one in Papa’s ancestral village, where he is titled “Omelora” (One Who Does For the Community), knows why Kambili¹s brother cannot move one of his fingers, nor why her mother keeps losing her pregnancies. When a widowed aunt takes an interest in Kambili, her family begins to unravel and re-form itself in unpredictable ways. (Amazon.com review) 

 

Amis, Martin,     Time’s Arrow 

Amis attempts here to write a path into and through the inverted morality of the Nazis: how can a writer tell about something that’s fundamentally unspeakable? Amis’ solution is a deft literary conceit of narrative inversion. He puts two separate consciousnesses into the person of one man, ex-Nazi doctor Tod T. Friendly. One identity wakes at the moment of Friendly’s death and runs backwards in time, like a movie played in reverse, (e.g., factory smokestacks scrub the air clean,) unaware of the terrible past he approaches. The “normal” consciousness runs in time’s regular direction, fleeing his ignominious history. (Amazon.com review) 

 

Amsterdam, Steven K.,     Things We Didn’t See Coming 

Available in the library, borrow or reserve it now in the catalogue  

Given that its nine linked stories are set in a postapocalyptic near future, the pleasure of Amsterdam’s debut collection is surprising. Over the course of the book, just about every possible disaster assails the unidentified country in which the stories are set. Floods, drought, mob rule, and a virus that has one deranged character coughing up blood—each play a role in the disintegration of the world as we know it, and Amsterdam’s narrator survives them all, first as a thief, later as a bureaucrat (which turns out to be not much different from a thief), and finally as a 40-year-old, cancer-ridden tour guide. Among the high points are Dry Land, in which the narrator encounters a drunken mother and her daughter clinging to each other in a cataclysmic flood, though each is more likely to survive alone; and Cake Walk, with a narrator who hides in a tree while a man infected with a deadly virus destroys his campsite. Though a couple of the later stories lack polish and punch, Amsterdam’s varied catastrophes are vividly executed, while his resilient narrator’s travails are harrowing. (Publishers Weekly review) 

 

Atkinson, Kate,     Life After Life 

Available in the library, borrow or reserve it now in the catalogue  

What if you had the chance to live your life again and again, until you finally got it right? During a snowstorm in England in 1910, a baby is born and dies before she can take her first breath. During a snowstorm in England in 1910, the same baby is born and lives to tell the tale. What if there were second chances? And third chances? In fact an infinite number of chances to live your life? Would you eventually be able to save the world from its own inevitable destiny? And would you even want to? Life After Life follows Ursula Todd as she lives through the turbulent events of the last century again and again. With wit and compassion, Kate Atkinson finds warmth even in life’s bleakest moments, and shows an extraordinary ability to evoke the past. Here she is at her most profound and inventive, in a novel that celebrates the best and worst of ourselves. (Amazon.com review) 

 

Atwood, Margaret,     The Blind Assassin 

Available in the library, borrow or reserve it now in the catalogue  

The Blind Assassin is a tale of two sisters, one of whom dies under ambiguous circumstances in the opening pages. The survivor, Iris Chase Griffen, initially seems a little cold-blooded about this death in the family. But as Margaret Atwood’s most ambitious work unfolds–a tricky process, in fact, with several nested narratives and even an entire novel-within-a-novel–we’re reminded of just how complicated the familial game of hide-and-seek can be: “What had she been thinking of as the car sailed off the bridge, then hung suspended in the afternoon sunlight, glinting like a dragonfly, for that one instant of held breath before the plummet? Of Alex, of Richard, of bad faith, of our father and his wreckage; of God, perhaps, and her fatal, triangular bargain.” Meanwhile, Atwood immediately launches into an excerpt from Laura Chase’s novel, The Blind Assassin, posthumously published in 1947. In this double-decker concoction, a wealthy woman dabbles in blue-collar passion, even as her lover regales her with a series of science-fictional parables. Complicated? You bet. But the author puts all this variegation to good use, taking expert measure of our capacity for self-delusion and complicity, not to mention desolation. (Amazon.com review) 

 

Auster, Paul,     The New York Trilogy 

The New York Trilogy is an astonishing and original book: three cleverly interconnected novels that exploit the elements of standard detective fiction and achieve a new genre that is all the more gripping for its starkness. In each story the search for clues leads to remarkable coincidences in the universe as the simple act of trailing a man ultimately becomes a startling investigation of what it means to be human. Auster’s book is modern fiction at its finest: bold, arresting and unputdownable. (Publisher’s description) 

 

Banville, John,     The Sea 

Available in the library, borrow or reserve it now in the catalogue  

Max Morden has reached a crossroads in his life, and is trying hard to deal with several disturbing things. A recent loss is still taking its toll on him, and a trauma in his past is similarly proving hard to deal with. He decides that he will return to a town on the coast at which he spent a memorable holiday when a boy. His memory of that time devolves on the charismatic Grace family, particularly the seductive twins Myles and Chloe. In a very short time, Max found himself drawn into a strange relationship with them, and pursuant events left their mark on him for the rest of his life. But will he be able to exorcise those memories of the past? The fashion in which John Banville draws the reader into this hypnotic and disturbing world is non pareil, and the very complex relationships between his brilliantly delineated cast of characters are orchestrated with a master’s skill.  (Amazon.com review) 

 

Barker, Nicola,     Darkmans 

There isn’t much plot to Barker’s Man Booker-shortlisted novel (after Clear and Behindlings), but a cast of eccentric characters, a torrent of inventive prose and an irresistible synthesis of wickedly humorous and unsettlingly supernatural elements more than compensate for the loose itinerary. The novel is set in a contemporaneous British district bisected by the arrival of the Channel Tunnel’s international passenger station, a sore point for one of the central characters, cranky 61-year-old Daniel Beede, distraught at the loss of local landmarks. Beede is estranged from his prescription drug-dealing son Kane, though they share a flat, where Gaffar, a muscular Kurdish refugee with a rabid fear of salad greens, takes up residence. Beede is friends with Elen, a podiatrist, and with Isidore, Elen’s paranoid and narcoleptic husband; their young son Fleet is a spooky prodigy who, in one of this intricate tale’s several instances of mind-bending nuttiness, may actually be Isidore’s ancestor from nine generations ago. This improbable premise is supported by the boy’s propensity for quoting bits of the biography of King Edward IV’s court jester, one John Scogin, the dark man who haunts the book. Despite the story’s plotless sprawl, any reader open to the appeal of an ambitious author’s kaleidoscopic imagination will relish this bravura accomplishment. (Publishers Weekly review) 

Barker, Pat,     The Regeneration Trilogy 

Available in the library, borrow or reserve it now in the catalogue  

Pat Barker’s work never makes comfortable reading, for she chooses to explore, with an unflinching eye, controversial, often taboo subjects such as prostitution, homosexuality, child rape, mental illness, pacifism, war, and murder by minors. Many readers come to Barker’s work through her best-known books, the Regeneration (1991-1995) trilogy, the third book of which won the Booker Prize in 1995. There is no doubt that Regeneration, with its attention to historical detail and skilful blending of factual and fictional characters is her most subtle and satisfying work. These novels have often been criticised as horrific, brutal, even brutish, yet only by getting close to the base, shocking, palpable detail of the First World War and the mental, as well as physical distress caused by close proximity to danger and death, can we better understand it. (contemporarywriters.com critical perspective) 

 

Barnes, Julian,     The History of the World in 10 1/2 Chapters 

Available in the library, borrow or reserve it now in the catalogue  

A revisionist view of Noah’s Ark, told by the stowaway woodworm. A chilling account of terrorists hijacking a cruise ship. A court case in 16th-century France in which the woodworm stand accused. A desperate woman’s attempt to escape radioactive fallout on a raft. An acute analysis of Gericault’s “Scene of Shipwreck.” The search of a 19th-century Englishwoman and of a contemporary American astronaut for Noah’s Ark. An actor’s increasingly desperate letters to his silent lover. A thoughtful meditation on the novelist’s responsibility regarding love. These and other stories make up Barnes’s witty and sometimes acerbic retelling of the history of the world. The stories are connected, if only tangentially, which is precisely Barnes’s point: historians may tell us that “there was a pattern,” but history is “just voices echoing in the dark; . . . strange links, impertinent connections.” Fascinating reading from the author of Flaubert’s Parrot , but not for those wanting conventional plot. (Library Journal review) 

 

Barry, Sebastian,     A Long Long Way 

Willie Dunne is born in a storm during the “dying days” of Ireland. It is not an auspicious beginning. This novel of Ireland and World War I wears a cloak of gloom and doom as thick as the opening storm. Willie’s mother dies young. Willie enlists in the army and fights on the Western Front. Willie’s sweetheart marries another, and so on. The wartime scenes are brutally realistic. Throughout this dark novel, though, are glimpses of sweetness and light, such as a scene where Willie’s father bathes the returning soldier in an attempt to rid him of lice. Those not familiar with British-Irish history may find some of the personal conflicts and politics in the novel confusing, but nevertheless a compellingly sad, if difficult, read. (Booklist review) 

 

Barth, John,     The Last Voyage of Somebody the Sailor 

Just when you may have concluded, like Queen Scheherazade’s husband, that you’ve “heard them all,” Barth ( The Tidewater Tales ) proves again how original and entertaining he is. Like many of the author’s previous works, his latest blends fantasy, mythology, existentialist wit, bawdy humour and metafictional conceits. But though his opening words declare, “The machinery’s rusty,” the new novel is a testament both to Barth’s undiminished generative powers and to his maturity of vision. In the elaborate plot, a “fifty-plus,” “once-sort-of-famous” New Journalist named Simon William Behler is mysteriously transported to the medieval Baghdad of Sindbad the Sailor. Behler–known variously as “Somebody the Sailor,” “Baylor” and “Sayyid Bey el-Loor,” falls in love with Sindbad’s daughter Yasmin and gets enmeshed in Arabian intrigues. The intrigues revolve around such nagging questions as the intactness of Yasmin’s virginity, the veracity of Sindbad’s tall tales and the whereabouts of a wristwatch Behler needs in order to return home. All this is dealt with in the course of six evenings of storytelling at Sindbad’s dinner table. Barth creates whole and engaging characters with his usual wealth of wordplay, allusion and satire. But the novel’s greatest achievement is how it connects the conventionally realistic story of Behler’s 20th-century life with the outsize and metaphorical world of Sindbad, reflecting in the process on the nature of stories, dreams, voyages and death. (Publishers Weekly review) 

 

Byatt, A.S.,     The Children’s Book 

Available in the library, borrow or reserve it now in the catalogue 

Bristling with life and invention, The Children’s Book is a seductive work by an extraordinarily gifted writer. Set primarily in the downs and marshes of the Kent countryside and the southeastern coast at Dungeness, the story also flings characters to London, Paris, Munich, the Italian Alps and the battlefields of Europe, where real historical figures such as J.M. Barrie and Emma Goldman mix with invented characters including layabout students, Fabian socialists, potters, puppeteers, randy novelists and poets in the trenches of France. In its encyclopaedic form, The Children’s Book is a kind of anatomy of the age in which the young men and women of the Edwardian era were confronted by a rapidly changing society and the grim reality of the Great War. But more compelling than the social and political history is the domestic drama among the dozen or more characters that Byatt draws in vivid detail. (Washington Post review) 

 

Carey, Peter,     My Life as a Fake 

Carey, who won the Man Booker Prize for his True History of the Kelly Gang, takes another strange but much less well-known episode in Australian history as the basis for this hypnotic novel of personal and artistic obsession. He tells it through the eyes of Lady Sarah Wode-Douglass, editor of a struggling but prestigious London poetry journal, who one day in the early 1970s finds herself accompanying an old family friend, poet and novelist John Slater, out to Malaysia. There they encounter an eccentric Australian expatriate, Christopher Chubb, who concocted, Slater says, a huge literary hoax in Australia just after the war, creating an imaginary genius poet, Bob McCorkle, whose publication by a little magazine led to the suicide of the magazine’s editor. Now Chubb offers Lady Sarah a page of poetry that shows undoubted genius and claims it is from a book in his possession. The tale is a tour de force, with a positively Graham Greene-ish relish in the seamy side of the tropics, a mix of literary detective story and murderous nightmare that is piquantly hair-raising. And just when it seems that Carey’s story is his greatest fantastic creation to date, he lets on that the hoax at the heart of it actually took place in Melbourne in 1946. As so often before, this extravagantly gifted writer has created something bewilderingly original and powerful. (Publishers Weekly review) (see my review at The Modern Word) 

 

Catton, Eleanor,        The Luminaries 

Available in the library, borrow or reserve it now in the catalogue

Winner of the Man Booker Prize 2013. It is 1866, and Walter Moody has come to make his fortune upon the New Zealand goldfields. On arrival, he stumbles across a tense gathering of twelve local men, who have met in secret to discuss a series of unsolved crimes. A wealthy man has vanished, a whore has tried to end her life, and an enormous fortune has been discovered in the home of a luckless drunk. Moody is soon drawn into the mystery: a network of fates and fortunes that is as complex and exquisitely patterned as the night sky. The Luminaries is an extraordinary piece of fiction. It is full of narrative, linguistic and psychological pleasures, and has a fiendishly clever and original structuring device. Written in pitch-perfect historical register, richly evoking a mid-19th century world of shipping and banking and goldrush boom and bust, it is also a ghost story, and a gripping mystery. It is a thrilling achievement for someone still in her mid-20s, and will confirm for critics and readers that Catton is one of the brightest stars in the international writing firmament. (Amazon.com review) 

 

Chabon, Michael,     The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay 

Virtuoso Chabon takes intense delight in the practice of his art, and never has his joy been more palpable than in this funny and profound tale of exile, love, and magic. In his last novel, The Wonder Boys (1995), Chabon explored the shadow side of literary aspirations. Here he revels in the crass yet inventive and comforting world of comic-book superheroes, those masked men with mysterious powers who were born in the wake of the Great Depression and who carried their fans through the horrors of war with the guarantee that good always triumphs over evil. In a luxuriant narrative that is jubilant and purposeful, graceful and complex, hilarious and enrapturing, Chabon chronicles the fantastic adventures of two Jewish cousins, one American, one Czech. It’s 1939 and Brooklynite Sammy Klayman dreams of making it big in the nascent world of comic books. Joseph Kavalier has never seen a comic book, but he is an accomplished artist versed in the “autoliberation” techniques of his hero, Harry Houdini. He effects a great (and surreal) escape from the Nazis, arrives in New York, and joins forces with Sammy. They rapidly create the Escapist, the first of many superheroes emblematic of their temperaments and predicaments, and attain phenomenal success. But Joe, tormented by guilt and grief for his lost family, abruptly joins the navy, abandoning Sammy, their work, and his lover. As Chabon–equally adept at atmosphere, action, dialogue, and cultural commentary–whips up wildly imaginative escapades punctuated by schtick that rivals the best of Jewish comedians, he plumbs the depths of the human heart and celebrates the healing properties of escapism and the “genuine magic of art” with exuberance and wisdom. (Booklist review) 

 

Chandra, Vikram,     Red Earth and Pouring Rain

Available in the library, borrow or reserve it now in the catalogue 

Setting 18th- and 19th-century Mogul India against the open highways of contemporary America and fusing Indian myth, Hindu gods, magic and mundane reality, this intricate first novel is a magnificent epic that welds the exfoliating storytelling style of A Thousand and One Nights to modernist fictional technique. Abhay, an Indian college student studying in the U.S. but home on vacation in Bombay, shoots a scavenging monkey; the dying creature reveals itself to be the reincarnation of Sanjay Parasher, a fiery, iconoclastic 19th-century poet and freedom-fighter against British rule. To remain alive, the monkey strikes a deal with the gods: he must keep Abhay’s family entertained each day by telling stories of his former lives. Around this fanciful premise, Indian novelist Chandra has built a powerful, moving saga that explores colonialism, death and suffering, ephemeral pleasure and the search for the meaning of life. Through the monkey’s tales, we learn of Sanjay’s lethal estrangement from his best friend, Sikander, an Anglo-Indian warrior who serves the British; of the suicide of Sikander’s mother, Janvi, who throws herself on a funeral pyre after her English husband gives away their daughters to missionaries; of Sanjay’s avenging showdown in London with Dr. Paul Sarthey, renowned orientalist and murderous imperialist. Abhay also narrates his own sprawling tale about his drive across the U.S. with two alienated fellow students, providing a dramatic contrast between America’s throwaway pop culture and India’s ancient, venerated ways, bound up with the concepts of dharma (right conduct), karma and reincarnation. This is an astonishing and brilliant debut. (Publishers Weekly review) 

 

Clarke, Susanna,    Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell 

Available in the library, borrow or reserve it now in the catalogue 

Listen to the audiobook here Part One Part Two Part Three

It’s 1808 and that Corsican upstart Napoleon is battering the English army and navy. Enter Mr. Norrell, a fusty but ambitious scholar from the Yorkshire countryside and the first practical magician in hundreds of years. What better way to demonstrate his revival of British magic than to change the course of the Napoleonic wars? Susanna Clarke’s ingenious first novel, Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, has a cleverness and lightness of touch, but is less a fairy tale of good versus evil than a fantastic comedy of manners, complete with elaborate false footnotes, occasional period spellings, and a dense, lively mythology teeming beneath the narrative. Mr. Norrell moves to London to establish his influence in government circles, devising such powerful illusions as an 11-day blockade of French ports by English ships fabricated from rainwater. But however skillful his magic, his vanity provides an Achilles heel, and the differing ambitions of his more glamorous apprentice, Jonathan Strange, threaten to topple all that Mr. Norrell has achieved. A sparkling debut from Susanna Clarke–and it’s not all fairy dust. (Amazon.com review) 

 

Coetzee, J.M.,     Waiting For the Barbarians 

For decades the Magistrate has run the affairs of a tiny frontier settlement, ignoring the impending war between the barbarians and the Empire, whose servant he is. But when the interrogation experts arrive, he is jolted into sympathy with the victims and into a quixotic act of rebellion which lands him in prison, branded as an enemy of the state. Waiting for the Barbarians is an allegory of oppressor and oppressed. Not just a man living through a crisis of conscience in an obscure place in remote times, the Magistrate is an analogue of all men living in complicity with regimes that ignore justice and decency. (Publisher’s description) 

 

Coupland, Douglas,     Girlfriend in a Coma 

After making love for the first time, high school senior Karen Ann McNeil confides to her boyfriend Richard of the dark visions she’s been recently suffering. It’s only a few hours later on that snowy Friday night in 1979 that she descends into a coma. Nine months later she gives birth to a daughter, Megan, her child by Richard, the protagonist of this disturbingly funny novel. Karen remains comatose for the next seventeen years. Richard and her circle of friends reside in an emotional purgatory throughout the next two decades; passing through careers as models, film special effects technicians, doctors, and demolition experts, before finally being reunited on a conspiracy-driven supernatural television series. Upon Karen’s reawakening, life grows as surreal as their television show. With apocalyptic events occurring, Karen, Richard, and their friends explore the essential mysteries of life, faith, decency, and existence. Amid the world’s rubble they attempt to restore their own humanity. (Publisher’s description) 

 

CraceJim,    Being Dead 

Crace is a brilliant British writer whose novels are always varied in historical setting, voice, theme and writing style, and are surprising in content. This latest, sixth effort (after Quarantine), a stunning look at two people at the moment of their deaths, is the riskiest of his works, the most mesmerizing and the most deeply felt. Joseph and Celice, middle-aged doctors of zoology married to each other for almost 30 years, revisit the seaside where they first met and made love “in the singing salt dunes of Baritone Bay.” They are surprised on the dunes, murdered and robbed, and their bodies lie undiscovered for days. In alternating chapters of chronological counterpoint, Crace traces their last day, working backwards from the moment of their murders to their awakening that morning, innocent of what is to come. At the same time, he recreates the day they were introduced, in the 1970s, when they were researching their doctoral dissertations. In juxtaposing the remorselessness of nature against the hopes, desires and conflicted emotions of individuals, Crace gracefully integrates the facts and myths about the end of human life, and its transcendence (in Syl’s epiphanic vision), into a narrative of dazzling virtuosity. (Publishers Weekly review) 

 

Crowley, John,     Little, Big 

John Crowley’s masterful Little, Big is the epic story of Smoky Barnable, an anonymous young man who travels by foot from the City to a place called Edgewood—not found on any map—to marry Daily Alice Drinkwater, as was prophesied. It is the story of four generations of a singular family, living in a house that is many houses on the magical border of an otherworld. It is a story of fantastic love and heartrending loss; of impossible things and unshakable destinies; and of the great Tale that envelops us all. It is a wonder. (Publisher’s description) 

DanielewskiMark,     House of Leaves 

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When Johnny Truant attempts to organize the many fragments of a strange manuscript by a dead blind man, it gains possession of his very soul. The manuscript is a complex commentary on a documentary film (The Navidson Record) about a house that defies all the laws of physics. Navidson’s exploration of a seemingly endless, totally dark, and constantly changing labyrinth in the house becomes an examination of truth, perception, and darkness itself. The book interweaves the manuscript with over 400 footnotes to works real and imagined, thus illuminating both the text and Truant’s mental disintegration. First novelist Danielewski employs avant-garde page layouts that are occasionally a bit too clever but are generally highly effective. Although it may be consigned to the “horror” genre, this novel is also a psychological thriller, a quest, a literary hoax, a dark comedy, and a work of cultural criticism. It is simultaneously a highly literary work and an absolute hoot. This powerful and extremely original novel is strongly recommended. (Library Journal review) 

 

DeLillo, Don,     White Noise 

Something is amiss in a small college town in Middle America. Something subliminal, something omnipresent, something hard to put your finger on. For example, teachers and students at the grade school are falling mysteriously ill: “Investigators said it could be the ventilating system, the paint or varnish, the foam insulation, the electrical insulation, the cafeteria food, the rays emitted by microcomputers, the asbestos fireproofing, the adhesive on shipping containers, the fumes from the chlorinated pool, or perhaps something deeper, finer-grained, more closely woven into the fabric of things.” J.A.K. Gladney, world-renowned as the living center, the absolute font, of Hitler Studies in North America in the mid-1980s, describes the malaise affecting his town in a superbly ironic and detached manner. But even he fails to mask his disquiet. There is menace in the air, and ultimately it is made manifest: a poisonous cloud–an “airborne toxic event”–unleashed by an industrial accident floats over the town, requiring evacuation. In the aftermath, as the residents adjust to new and blazingly brilliant sunsets, Gladney and his family must confront their own poses, night terrors, self-deceptions, and secrets. DeLillo is at his dark, hilarious best in this 1985 National Book Award winner, a novel that preceded but anticipated the explosion of the Internet, tabloid television, and the dialed-in, wired-up, endlessly accelerated tenor of the culture we live in. (Amazon.com review) 

 

Desai, Kiran,     The Inheritance of Loss 

Available in the library, borrow or reserve it now in the catalogue

This stunning second novel from Desai (Hullabaloo in the Guava Orchard) is set in mid-1980s India, on the cusp of the Nepalese movement for an independent state. Jemubhai Popatlal, a retired Cambridge-educated judge, lives in Kalimpong, at the foot of the Himalayas, with his orphaned granddaughter, Sai, and his cook. The makeshift family’s neighbors include a coterie of Anglophiles who might be savvy readers of V.S. Naipaul but who are, perhaps, less aware of how fragile their own social standing is—at least until a surge of unrest disturbs the region. Jemubhai, with his hunting rifles and English biscuits, becomes an obvious target. Besides threatening their very lives, the revolution also stymies the fledgling romance between 16-year-old Sai and her Nepalese tutor, Gyan. The cook’s son, Biju, meanwhile, lives miserably as an illegal alien in New York. All of these characters struggle with their cultural identity and the forces of modernization while trying to maintain their emotional connection to one another. In this alternately comical and contemplative novel, Desai deftly shuttles between first and third worlds, illuminating the pain of exile, the ambiguities of post-colonialism and the blinding desire for a “better life,” when one person’s wealth means another’s poverty. (Publishers Weekly review) 

 

DeWitt, Helen,     The Last Samurai 

Available in the library, borrow or reserve it now in the catalogue

DeWitt’s ambitious, colossal debut novel tells the story of a young genius, his worldly alienation and his eccentric mother, Sibylla Newman, an American living in London after dropping out of Oxford. Her son, Ludovic (Ludo), the product of a one-night stand, could read English, French and Greek by the age of four. His incredible intellectual ability is matched only by his insatiable curiosity, and Sibylla attempts to guide her son’s education while scraping by on typing jobs. To avoid the cold, they ride the Underground on the Circle Line train daily, traveling around London as Ludo reads the Odyssey, learns Japanese and masters mathematics and science. Sybilla uses her favorite film, Akira Kurosawa’s classic Seven Samurai, as a makeshift guide for her son’s moral development. As Ludo matures and takes over the story’s narration, Sibylla is revealed as less than forthcoming on certain topics, most importantly the identity of Ludo’s father. Knowing only that his male parent is a travel writer, Ludo searches through volumes of adventure stories, but he is unsuccessful until he happens upon a folder containing his father’s name hidden in a sealed envelope. He arranges to meet the man, pretending to be a fan. The funny, bittersweet encounter ends with a gravely disappointed Ludo, unable to confront his father with his identity. Afterward, the sad 11-year-old resumes his search for his ideal parent figure. Using a test modeled after a scene in Seven Samurai, he seeks out five different men, claiming he is the son of each. While energetic and relentlessly unpredictable, the novel often becomes belabored with its own inventiveness, but the bizarre relationship between Sibylla and Ludo maintains its resonant, rich centrality, giving the book true emotional cohesion. (Publishers Weekly review) 

 

Doctorow, E.L.,    Billy Bathgate 

In the poorest part of the Bronx, in the depths of the Depression, a teenage, fatherless street kid who will adopt the name Billy Bathgate comes to the attention of his idol, master gangster Dutch Schultz. Resourceful, brash, daring and brave, the narrator understands that morality will have no influence in lifting him from his poverty; by hitching his wagon to the mobster’s star he can hope to provide his gentle, mad mother and himself with a way to rise out of their desolate existence. The astonishing story of Billy’s apprenticeship to Schultz and his education at the hands of the mobster’s minions is related by Doctorow with masterful skill, grace and lucidity of prose, inspired inventiveness of scene and true-voiced dialogue. Equally a rollicking adventure and a cautionary tale, both parable of the prodigal son and poignant coming-of-age story, it is mesmerizing reading that soars from the shocking first scene of a gangland execution through episodes of horror, hilarity and sudden, deepening insights. In this stunning, lyrical novel, Doctorow has perfected the narrative voice of a lower-class boy encountering the world. He falters only in a sentimental, almost fairytale ending that belies the harsh realities by which the narrative is propelled. But so fine and convincing is this story that the reader accepts in its entirety Doctorow’s mythical vision, a dark version of the Horatio Alger fable related with a brilliant twist. (Publishers Weekly review) 

 

Dorst, Doug and J.J. Abrams.,    S. 

One book. Two readers. A world of mystery, menace and desire. A young woman picks up a book left behind by a stranger. Inside it are his margin notes, which reveal a reader entranced by the story and by its mysterious author. She responds with notes of her own, leaving the book for the stranger, and so begins an unlikely conversation that plunges them both into the unknown. THE BOOK: Ship of Theseus, the final novel by a prolific but enigmatic writer named V. M. Straka, in which a man with no past is shanghaied onto a strange ship with a monstrous crew and launched on a disorienting and perilous journey. THE WRITER: Straka, the incendiary and secretive subject of one of the world’s greatest mysteries, a revolutionary about whom the world knows nothing apart from the words he wrote and the rumours that swirl around him. THE READERS: Jennifer and Eric, a college senior and a disgraced grad student, both facing crucial decisions about who they are, who they might become, and how much they’re willing to trust another person with their passions, hurts and fears. S., conceived by filmmaker J.J. Abrams and written by award-winning novelist Doug Dorst, is the chronicle of two readers finding each other in the margins of a book and enmeshing themselves in a deadly struggle between forces they don’t understand. It is also Abrams and Dorst’s love letter to the written word. (Publisher’s description) 

 

Doyle, Roddy,     Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha 

Available in the library, borrow or reserve it now in the catalogue

In Roddy Doyle’s Booker Prize-winning novel Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha, an Irish lad named Paddy rampages through the streets of Barrytown with a pack of like-minded hooligans, playing cowboys and Indians, etching their names in wet concrete, and setting fires. Roddy Doyle has captured the sensations and speech patterns of preadolescents with consummate skill, and managed to do so without resorting to sentimentality. Paddy Clarke and his friends are not bad boys; they’re just a little bit restless. They’re always taking sides, bullying each other, and secretly wishing they didn’t have to. All they want is for something–anything–to happen. Throughout the novel, Paddy teeters on the nervous verge of adolescence. In one scene, Paddy tries to make his little brother’s hot water bottle explode, but gives up after stomping on it just one time: “I jumped on Sinbad’s bottle. Nothing happened. I didn’t do it again. Sometimes when nothing happened it was really getting ready to happen.” Paddy Clarke senses that his world is about to change forever–and not necessarily for the better. When he realizes that his parents’ marriage is falling apart, Paddy stays up all night listening, half-believing that his vigil will ward off further fighting. It doesn’t work, but it is sweet and sad that he believes it might. Paddy’s logic may be fuzzy, but his heart is in the right place. (Amazon.com review) 

 

Duffy, Bruce,     The World as I Found It 

Available in the library, borrow or reserve it now in the catalogue

Vienna, 1900. The trenches of World War I and the dark slide into Nazi Europe. The intellectual lights of Cambridge University and the nabobs on the outskirts of Bloomsbury. Marriage and domestic life. These are just a few of the worlds the reader enters in this exhilarating novel of ideas, romance, and imagination. Irreverently trespassing on the turf of history, biography, and philosophy, The World as I Found It is the tale of three wildly different men adrift in the twentieth century. At the centre is Ludwig Wittgenstein, one of the most magnetic philosophers of our time: brilliant, tortured, mercurial, forging his own solitary path while leaving a permanent mark-and sometimes a scar-on lives all around him. Playing in counterpoint are Wittgenstein’s two reluctant mentors: Bertrand Russell, past his philosophical prime yet eager to break new ground as a public intellectual, educational theorist, and sexual adventurer; and G. E. Moore, the great Cambridge don who exercised such an influence on E. M. Forster and who was devoted to the pleasures of the table and pure thought until, late in life, he discovered real fulfillment in marriage and fatherhood. By turns history, biography, and philosophy, The World as I Found It is the tale of three wildly different men adrift in the twentieth century: Ludwig Wittgenstein, Bertrand Russell, and G. E. Moore. Rich in humour and tragedy, lust and violence, spirit and striving, this is a novel that will enthrall any reader. (Publisher’s description) 

 

Egan, Jennifer,     A Visit From the Goon Squad 

Available in the library, borrow or reserve it now in the catalogue

Jennifer Egan’s spellbinding novel circles the lives of Bennie Salazar, an aging former punk rocker and record executive, and Sasha, the passionate, troubled young woman he employs. Although Bennie and Sasha never discover each other’s pasts, the reader does, in intimate detail, along with the secret lives of a host of other characters whose paths intersect with theirs, over many years, in locales as varied as New York, San Francisco, Naples, and Africa. We first meet Sasha in her mid-thirties, on her therapist’s couch in New York City, confronting her longstanding compulsion to steal. Later, we learn the genesis of her turmoil when we see her as the child of a violent marriage, then a runaway living in Naples, then as a college student trying to avert the suicidal impulses of her best friend. We meet Bennie Salazar at the melancholy nadir of his adult life—divorced, struggling to connect with his nine-year-old son, listening to a washed up band in the basement of a suburban house—and then revisit him in 1979, at the height of his youth, shy and tender, reveling in San Francisco’s punk scene as he discovers his ardor for rock and roll and his gift for spotting talent. We learn what became of his high school gang—who thrived and who faltered—and we encounter Lou Kline, Bennie’s catastrophically careless mentor, along with the lovers and children left behind in the wake of Lou’s far flung sexual conquests and meteoric rise and fall. A Visit from the Goon Squad is a book about the interplay of time and music, about survival, about the stirrings and transformations set inexorably in motion by even the most passing conjunction of our fates. In a breathtaking array of styles and tones ranging from tragedy to satire to Powerpoint, Egan captures the undertow of self-destruction that we all must either master or succumb to; the basic human hunger for redemption; and the universal tendency to reach for both—and escape the merciless progress of time—in the transporting realms of art and music. Sly, startling, exhilarating work from one of our boldest writers. (Amazon.com review) 

 

Eggers, Dave,     What is the What 

Available in the library, borrow or reserve it now in the catalogue

Valentino Achak Deng, real-life hero of this engrossing epic, was a refugee from the Sudanese civil war-the bloodbath before the current Darfur bloodbath-of the 1980s and 90s. In this fictionalised memoir, Eggers (A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius) makes him an icon of globalisation. Separated from his family when Arab militia destroy his village, Valentino joins thousands of other “Lost Boys,” beset by starvation, thirst and man-eating lions on their march to squalid refugee camps in Ethiopia and Kenya, where Valentino pieces together a new life. He eventually reaches America, but finds his quest for safety, community and fulfilment in many ways even more difficult there than in the camps: he recalls, for instance, being robbed, beaten and held captive in his Atlanta apartment. Eggers’s limpid prose gives Valentino an unaffected, compelling voice and makes his narrative by turns harrowing, funny, bleak and lyrical. The result is a horrific account of the Sudanese tragedy, but also an emblematic saga of modernity-of the search for home and self in a world of unending upheaval. (Publishers Weekly review) 

 

EugenidesJeffrey,     Middlesex 

Available in the library, borrow or reserve it now in the catalogue

Listen to the audiobook here

Eugenides’s second novel (after The Virgin Suicides) opens “I was born twice: first, as a baby girl…in January of 1960; and then again, as a teenage boy…in August of 1974.” Thus starts the epic tale of how Calliope Stephanides is transformed into Cal. Spanning three generations and two continents, the story winds from the small Greek village of Smyrna to the smoggy, crime-riddled streets of Detroit, past historical events, and through family secrets. The author’s eloquent writing captures the essence of Cal, a hermaphrodite, who sets out to discover himself by tracing the story of his family back to his grandparents. From the beginning, the reader is brought into a world rich in culture and history, as Eugenides extends his plot into forbidden territories with unique grace. His confidence in the story, combined with his sure prose, helps readers overcome their initial surprise and focus on the emotional revelation of the characters and beyond. Once again, Eugenides proves that he is not only a unique voice in modern literature but also well versed in the nature of the human heart. Highly recommended. (Library Journal review) 

 

Ferris, Joshua,     Then We Came to the End 

In this wildly funny debut from former ad man Ferris, a group of copywriters and designers at a Chicago ad agency face layoffs at the end of the ’90s boom. Indignation rises over the rightful owner of a particularly coveted chair (“We felt deceived”). Gonzo e-mailer Tom Mota quotes Walt Whitman and Ralph Waldo Emerson in the midst of his tirades, desperately trying to retain a shred of integrity at a job that requires a ruthless attention to what will make people buy things. Jealousy toward the aloof and “inscrutable” middle manager Joe Pope spins out of control. Copywriter Chris Yop secretly returns to the office after he’s laid off to prove his worth. Rumors that supervisor Lynn Mason has breast cancer inspire blood lust, remorse, compassion. Ferris has the downward-spiraling office down cold, and his use of the narrative “we” brilliantly conveys the collective fear, pettiness, idiocy and also humanity of high-level office drones as anxiety rises to a fever pitch. Only once does Ferris shift from the first person plural (for an extended fugue on Lynn’s realization that she may be ill), and the perspective feels natural throughout. At once delightfully freakish and entirely credible, Ferris’s cast makes a real impression. (Publishers Weekly review) 

Flanagan, Richard,     The Narrow Road to the Deep North 

Available in the library, borrow or reserve it now in the catalogue

A novel of the cruelty of war, and tenuousness of life and the impossibility of love. August, 1943. In the despair of a Japanese POW camp on the Thai-Burma death railway, Australian surgeon Dorrigo Evans is haunted by his love affair with his uncle’s young wife two years earlier. Struggling to save the men under his command from starvation, from cholera, from beatings, he receives a letter that will change his life forever. This savagely beautiful novel is a story about the many forms of love and death, of war and truth, as one man comes of age, prospers, only to discover all that he has lost. (Publisher’s description) 

 

Frayn, Michael,     Spies 

Available in the library, borrow or reserve it now in the catalogue

By the author of the bestselling Booker Prize finalist Headlong, this dark, nostalgic and bittersweet parable evokes the childhood escapades of an isolated and hapless young boy caught up in the uncertainties of wartime London in the early 1940s, just after the horrors of the Luftwaffe blitz. Stephen Wheatley, now a grandfather living abroad, is drawn back to London to revisit his boyhood home, to deal with the complexities and eventual tragedy engendered by what seemed a harmless game of spy when he was just a schoolboy during WWII. His best friend at the time was Keith Hayward, the bright son of rather standoffish parents; Keith and Stephen embark on a childish adventure after Keith announces that his British mother is a German spy. The murky plot follows their frustrations as they try to shadow Keith’s mum as she goes through the mundane ritual of stopping by her sister’s house with letters and a shopping basket, only to disappear into the neighboring streets. Discovering at last that she takes a route through the culvert beneath the railroad and leaves letters in a box hidden on the other side, they eventually learn that she sometimes meets a tattered, bearded tramp hiding in a bombed-out cellar. When Keith’s mum finally realizes they have found her out, she secretly seeks Stephen’s loyalty, making him complicit. Thrust into a role far beyond his years, but helpless to refuse, he is overwhelmed. As it plays out to a surprising denouement, this enigmatic melodrama will keep readers’ attention firmly in hand. (Publishers Weekly review) 

 

GaimanNeil,     Anansi Boys 

Available in the library, borrow or reserve it now in the catalogue

If readers found the Sandman series creator’s last novel, American Gods, hard to classify, they will be equally nonplussed—and equally entertained—by this brilliant mingling of the mundane and the fantastic. “Fat Charlie” Nancy leads a life of comfortable workaholism in London, with a stressful agenting job he doesn’t much like, and a pleasant fiancée, Rosie. When Charlie learns of the death of his estranged father in Florida, he attends the funeral and learns two facts that turn his well-ordered existence upside-down: that his father was a human form of Anansi, the African trickster god, and that he has a brother, Spider, who has inherited some of their father’s godlike abilities. Spider comes to visit Charlie and gets him fired from his job, steals his fiancée, and is instrumental in having him arrested for embezzlement and suspected of murder. When Charlie resorts to magic to get rid of Spider, who’s selfish and unthinking rather than evil, things begin to go very badly for just about everyone. Other characters—including Charlie’s malevolent boss, Grahame Coats (“an albino ferret in an expensive suit”), witches, police and some of the folk from American Gods—are expertly woven into Gaiman’s rich myth, which plays off the African folk tales in which Anansi stars. But it’s Gaiman’s focus on Charlie and Charlie’s attempts to return to normalcy that make the story so winning—along with gleeful, hurtling prose. (Publishers Weekly review) 

 

Ghosh, Amitav,     The Calcutta Chromosome: A Novel of Fevers, Delirium & Discovery 

The Calcutta Chromosome is one of those books that’s marketed as a mainstream thriller even though it is an excellent science fiction novel (It won the prestigious Arthur C. Clarke Award). The main character is a man named Antar, whose job is to monitor a somewhat finicky computer that sorts through mountains of information. When the computer finds something it can’t catalog, it brings the item to Antar’s attention. A string of these seemingly random anomalies puts Antar on the trail of a man named Murugan, who disappeared in Calcutta in 1995 while searching for the truth behind the discovery of the cure for malaria. This search for Murugan leads, in turn, to the discovery of the Calcutta Chromosome, which can shift bits of personality from one person to another. That’s when things really get interesting. (Amazon.com review) 

 

Gold, Glen David,     Carter Beats the Devil 

Available in the library, borrow or reserve it now in the catalogue

In Carter Beats the Devil, Glen David Gold subjects the past to the same wondrous transformations as the rabbit in a skilled illusionist’s hat. Gold’s debut novel opens with real-life magician Charles Carter executing a particularly grisly trick, using President Warren G. Harding as a volunteer. Shortly afterwards, Harding dies mysteriously in his San Francisco hotel room, and Carter is forced to flee the country. Or does he? It’s only the first of many misdirections in a magical performance by Gold. In the course of subsequent pages, Carter finds himself pursued by the most hapless of FBI agents; falls in love with a beautiful, outspoken blind woman; and confronts an old nemesis bent on destroying him. Throw in countless stunning (and historically accurate) illusions, some beautifully rendered period detail, and historical figures like young inventor Philo T. Farnsworth and self-made millionaire Francis “Borax” Smith, and you have old-fashioned entertainment executed with a decidedly modern sensibility. Gold has written for movies and TV, so it’s no surprise that he delivers snappy, fast-paced dialogue and action scenes as expertly scripted as anything that’s come out of Hollywood in years. Carter Beats the Devil has a mustachioed villain, chase scenes, a lion, miraculous escapes, even pirates, for God’s sake. Yet none of this is as broadly drawn as it might sound: Gold’s characters are driven by childhood sorrows and disappointments in love, just like the rest of us, and they’re limned in clever, quicksilver prose. By turns suspenseful, moving, and magical, this is the historical novel to give to anyone who complains that contemporary fiction has lost the ability to both move and entertain. (Amazon.com review) 

 

Grass, Gunter,     The Tin Drum 

Available in the library, borrow or reserve it now in the catalogue

The greatest German novel since the end of World War II, The Tin Drum is the autobiography of Oskar Matzerath, thirty years old, detained in a mental hospital, convicted of a murder he did not commit. On the day of his third birthday, Oskar had “declared, resolved, and determined [to] stop right there, remain as I was, stay the same size, cling to the same attire” (striped pullover and patent-leather shoes). That same day Oskar receives his first tin drum, and from then on it is the means of his expression, allowing him to draw forth memories from the past as well as judgments about the horrors, injustices, and eccentricities he observes through the long nightmare of the Nazi era. As that era ebbs bloodily away, as drum succeeds drum, Oskar participates in the German postwar economic miracle — working variously in the black market, as an artist’s model, in a troupe of traveling musicians. With the onset of affluence and fame, Oskar decides to grow a few inches, only to develop a humpback. But despite his newfound status (and stature), Oskar remains haunted by the deaths of his parents, afflicted by his responsibility for past sins — and so assumes guilt for a murder he did not commit as an act of atonement and an opportunity to find consolation. The rhythms of Oskar’s drums are intricate and insistent, and they lead us, often by way of shocking fantasies, through the dark forest of German history. Through Oskar’s piercing, outspoken voice and deformed little figure, through the imaginative distortion and exaggeration of historical experience, a pathetically hilarious yet startlingly true portrayal of the human situation comes into view. (Publisher’s description) 

Grenville, Kate,     The Secret River 

Available in the library, borrow or reserve it now in the catalogue

William Thornhill, a boatman in pre-Victorian London, escapes the harsh circumstances of his lower-class, hard-scrabble life and ends up a prosperous, albeit somehow unsatisfied, settler in Australia. After being caught stealing, he is sentenced to death; the sentence is commuted to transportation to Australia with his pregnant wife. Readers are filled with a sense of foreboding that turns out to be well founded. Life is difficult, but through hard work and initiative the Thornhills slowly get ahead. During his sentence, William has made his living hauling goods on the Hawkesbury River and thirsting after a piece of virgin soil that he regularly passes. Once he gains his freedom, his family moves onto the land, raises another rude hut, and plants corn. The small band of Aborigines camping nearby seems mildly threatening: William cannot communicate with them; they lead leisurely hunter/gatherer lives that contrast with his farming labor; and they appear and disappear eerily. They are also masterful spearmen, and Thornhill cannot even shoot a gun accurately. Other settlers on the river want to eliminate the Aborigines. The culture clash becomes violent, with the protagonist unwillingly drawn in. The characters are sympathetically and colorfully depicted, and the experiencing of circumstances beyond any single person’s control is beautifully shown. (School Library Journal review) (see my blog entry here) 

Haddon, Mark,     The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time 

Available in the library, borrow or reserve it now in the catalogue

Christopher Boone, the autistic 15-year-old narrator of this revelatory novel, relaxes by groaning and doing math problems in his head, eats red-but not yellow or brown-foods and screams when he is touched. Strange as he may seem, other people are far more of a conundrum to him, for he lacks the intuitive “theory of mind” by which most of us sense what’s going on in other people’s heads. When his neighbor’s poodle is killed and Christopher is falsely accused of the crime, he decides that he will take a page from Sherlock Holmes (one of his favorite characters) and track down the killer. As the mystery leads him to the secrets of his parents’ broken marriage and then into an odyssey to find his place in the world, he must fall back on deductive logic to navigate the emotional complexities of a social world that remains a closed book to him. Though Christopher insists, “This will not be a funny book. I cannot tell jokes because I do not understand them,” the novel brims with touching, ironic humor. The result is an eye-opening work in a unique and compelling literary voice. (Publishers Weekly review) 

Harrison, M. John,    Light 

In M. John Harrison’s dangerously illuminating new novel, three quantum outlaws face a universe of their own creation, a universe where you make up the rules as you go along and break them just as fast, where there’s only one thing more mysterious than darkness. In contemporary London, Michael Kearney is a serial killer on the run from the entity that drives him to kill. He is seeking escape in a future that doesn’t yet exist—a quantum world that he and his physicist partner hope to access through a breach of time and space itself. In this future, Seria Mau Genlicher has already sacrificed her body to merge into the systems of her starship, the White Cat. But the “inhuman” K-ship captain has gone rogue, pirating the galaxy while playing cat and mouse with the authorities who made her what she is. In this future, Ed Chianese, a drifter and adventurer, has ridden dynaflow ships, run old alien mazes, surfed stellar envelopes. He “went deep”—and lived to tell about it. Once crazy for life, he’s now just a twink on New Venusport, addicted to the bizarre alternate realities found in the tanks—and in debt to all the wrong people. Haunting them all through this maze of menace and mystery is the shadowy presence of the Shrander—and three enigmatic clues left on the barren surface of an asteroid under an ocean of light known as the Kefahuchi Tract: a deserted spaceship, a pair of bone dice, and a human skeleton.(Publisher’s description) 

 

 Hartnett, Sonya,     Of a Boy 

Available in the library, borrow or reserve it now in the catalogue

Rarely is a sentence turned so well, a setting so remarkably established, and a plot so evenly polished as in this book. Immediately, in the preface, readers are confronted with a spellbinding scenario. Three children head down the footpath from their home in Australia to the ice-cream shop, and they are never seen again. In a neighboring town, nine-year-old Adrian is fearful of much, talented, perceptive, curious, a virtual outcast in his school, and an unhappy resident in his grandmother’s home. He notices the three children who move into a house across the road and wonders if they could possibly be the missing trio. Adrian subsequently meets the oldest girl, Nicole, in the park one afternoon as she cares for a dying bird. His suspicions of her identity are further aroused by her sly answers to his inquiries. A psychic reports that the missing children are located near water, and Nicole and Adrian take it upon themselves to find them. Tightly composed and ripe with symbolism, this complex book will offer opportunities for rich discussion. (School Library Journal review) 

 

HemonAleksander,     The Lazarus Project 

America has a richer literary landscape since Aleksandar Hemon, stranded in the United States in 1992 after war broke out in his native Sarajevo, adopted Chicago as his new home. He completed his first short story within three years of learning to write in English, and since then his work has appeared in The New Yorker, Esquire, and The Paris Review and in two acclaimed books, The Question of Bruno and Nowhere Man. In The Lazarus Project, his most ambitious and imaginative work yet, Hemon brings to life an epic narrative born from a historical event: the 1908 killing of Lazarus Averbuch, a 19-year-old Jewish immigrant who was shot dead by George Shippy, the chief of Chicago police, after being admitted into his home to deliver an important letter. The mystery of what really happened that day remains unsolved (Shippy claimed Averbuch was an anarchist with ill intent) and from this opening set piece Hemon springs a century ahead to tell the story of Vladimir Brik, a Bosnian-American writer living in Chicago who gets funding to travel to Eastern Europe and unearth what really happened. The Lazarus Project deftly weaves the two stories together, cross-cutting the aftermath of Lazarus’s death with Brik’s journey and the tales from his traveling partner, Rora, a Bosnian war photographer. And while the novel will remind readers of many great books before it–Ragtime, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, Everything Is Illuminated–it is a masterful literary adventure that manages to be grand in scope and intimate in detail. It’s an incredibly rewarding reading experience that’s not to be missed. (Amazon.com review) 

 

HensherPhilip,     The Mulberry Empire 

In 1839, about 50,000 British troops entered Afghanistan to replace the amir with someone more palatable to the Empire. In this fictionalized account, we meet Burnes, a British explorer who ventures into the capital city of Kabul and befriends the soon-to-be-ousted Amir Dost Mohammed Khan. Through no planning of his own, Burnes becomes an emissary for the British government and attempts to forge a relationship with Afghanistan. The novel switches between Afghanistan and England, and in addition to Burnes, the reader meets many other characters, among them Bella, the woman who falls for Burnes but won’t follow him on his exotic journeys; Charles Masson, a deserter of the English forces who one day finds himself in Kabul and who later plots the downfall of Burnes; and Vitkevich, Burnes’s Russian counterpart, who is attempting to double-cross the amir. Hensher, winner of the Somerset Maugham Award for Kitchen Venom, combines numerous characters, plot lines, locales, and time shifts to tell an incredibly complex saga of rulers, empires, politics, imperialism, and revolt. The past events of which he writes mirror the present and maybe the future, giving the book a timeless quality. This well-executed work will appeal to serious fans of historical fiction. (Library Journal review) 

 

Hoban, Russell,     Riddley Walker 

‘Walker is my name and I am the same. Riddley Walker. Walking my riddels where ever theyve took me and walking them now on this paper the same. There aint that many sir prizes in life if you take noatis of every thing. Every time will have its happenings out and every place the same. Thats why I finely come to writing all this down. Thinking on what the idear of us myt be. Thinking on that thing whats in us lorn and loan and oansome.’ Composed in an English which has never been spoken and laced with a storytelling tradition that predates the written word, Riddley Walker is the world waiting for us at the bitter end of the nuclear road. It is desolate, dangerous and harrowing, and a modern masterpiece. (Publisher’s description) 

 

Hornby, Nick,    High Fidelity 

Available in the library, borrow or reserve it now in the catalogue

It has been said often enough that baby boomers are a television generation, but High Fidelity reminds that in a way they are the record-album generation as well. This hilarious novel is obsessed with music; Hornby’s narrator is an early thirtysomething bloke who runs a London record store. He sells albums recorded the old-fashioned way–on vinyl–and is having a tough time making other transitions as well, specifically to adulthood. The book is in one sense a love story, both sweet and interesting; most entertaining, though, are the hilarious arguments over arcane matters of pop music. (Amazon.co.uk review) 

 

HulmeKeri,    The Bone People 

Available in the library, borrow or reserve it now in the catalogue

Powerful and visionary, Keri Hulme has written the great New Zealand novel of our times. The Bone People is the story of Kerewin, a despairing part-Maori artist who is convinced that her solitary life is the only way to face the world. Her cocoon is rudely blown away by the sudden arrival during a rainstorm of Simon, a mute six-year-old whose past seems to hold some terrible trauma. In his wake comes his foster-father Joe, a Maori factory worker with a nasty temper. The narrative unravels to reveal the truths that lie behind these three characters, and in so doing displays itself as a huge, ambitious work that tackles the clash between Maori and European characters in beautiful prose of a heartrending poignancy. (Publisher’s description) 

 

Hyland, MJ,     Carry Me Down 

Available in the library, borrow or reserve it now in the catalogue

John Egan is a misfit, ‘a twelve-year old in the body of a grown man with the voice of a giant who insists on the ridiculous truth’. With an obsession for the Guinness Book of Records and faith in his ability to detect when adults are lying, John remains hopeful despite the unfortunate cards life deals him. During one year in John’s life, from his voice breaking, through the breaking-up of his home life, to the near collapse of his sanity, we witness the gradual unsticking of John’s mind, and the trouble that creates for him and his family. Set in early seventies Ireland, Carry Me Down is a deeply sympathetic take on one sad boyhood, told in gripping, and at times unsettling, prose. It plays out its tragic plot against a disarmingly familiar background and refuses to portray any of its lovingly drawn characters as easy heroes or villains. (Publisher’s description) 

IhimaeraWiti,     The Whale Rider 

A poetic blend of reality and myth provides a riveting tale of adventure and passion. An ancient whale ridden by a mystical man rises from the sea, the rider throwing spears that blossom like seeds into gifts of nature. One last spear “-flew across a thousand years. When it hit the earth, it did not change but waited for another hundred and fifty years to pass until it was needed.” It sprouts when Kahu, a girl child, is born to the eldest grandson of the chief of the Maori in Whangara, New Zealand. Koro Apirana is disgusted; he needs a male child to continue the line of descent in the tribe. The years that follow further harden his heart toward his great-granddaughter in spite of the bottomless love and respect she showers upon him. The child’s great-grandmother, the irreverent Nanny Flowers, proves to be the strength of this family; she nurtures the girl whom she knows holds the key to the future. The complex mixture of archetypal characters and cultural troubles make this novel appropriate for mature readers. This story, originally published in New Zealand in 1987, is the basis of the recently released film by the same name. It’s a tale rich in intense drama and sociological and cultural information. (School Library Journal review) 

 

Irving, John,     The World According to Garp 

This is the life and times of T. S. Garp, the bastard son of Jenny Fields — a feminist leader ahead of her times. This is the life and death of a famous mother and her almost-famous son; theirs is a world of sexual extremes — even of sexual assassinations. It is a novel rich with “lunacy and sorrow”; yet the dark, violent events of the story do not undermine a comedy both ribald and robust. In more than thirty languages, in more than forty countries — with more than ten million copies in print — this novel provides almost cheerful, even hilarious evidence of its famous last line: “In the world according to Garp, we are all terminal cases.” (Publisher’s description) 

 

Ishiguro, Kazuo,     Never Let Me Go 

Available in the library, borrow or reserve it now in the catalogue 

Kathy, Ruth and Tommy were pupils at Hailsham – an idyllic establishment situated deep in the English countryside. The children there were tenderly sheltered from the outside world, brought up to believe they were special, and that their personal welfare was crucial. But for what reason were they really there? It is only years later that Kathy, now aged 31, finally allows herself to yield to the pull of memory. What unfolds is the haunting story of how Kathy, Ruth and Tommy, slowly come to face the truth about their seemingly happy childhoods – and about their futures. Never Let Me Go is a uniquely moving novel, charged throughout with a sense of the fragility of our lives. (Publisher’s description) (see my blog entry here) 

 

Jennings, Kate,     Moral Hazard 

This short, self-assured novel by Australian-born Jennings (Snake) brilliantly depicts the complicated life of a working woman on Wall Street during the dot-com boom. Cath, a freelance writer in her 40s, is married to Bailey, who’s 25 years her senior. When he develops Alzheimer’s, she takes a speech-writing job at an investment bank to pay for his expensive medical care. Wry but realistic, and realizing her position in a rigid boys’ club hierarchy, she suppresses her liberal sensibility and defers to the chauvinists who dominate the firm, even cozying up to Horace, the company’s most Machiavellian executive. Cath’s Virgil through this hell is Mike, a cynical but gabby risk manager whose gossip and instruction illuminate the high-stakes office politics and dismal science of Wall Street. As Bailey deteriorates, in scene after heartbreaking scene, Cath finds unexpected succor “in the belly of the beast.” Jennings, herself a former Wall Street speechwriter, makes it clear that the mad math of high finance and the delusions of Alzheimer’s resemble one another: it’s a metaphor she exploits with dramatic consequences in this piercing novel, gleaming with facets of hard-won knowledge, polished by experience and a keen intelligence. An ideal subway read for smart working men and women, it masterfully documents the culture of economic and corporate arrogance, while never losing sight of the human cost of such hubris. (Publishers Weekly review) 

 

Jones, Gwyneth,     Life 

The lives of biologist Anna Senoz; her husband, Spence; and their university friends intertwine as they evolve from idealistic students into adults with concerns that may affect their world. When Anna discovers a curious genetic trend with implications for the human sexual identity and gender relations, she finds herself a pariah among her colleagues. This latest novel from British author Jones (Divine Endurance) portrays a near future of commercial globalisation in which gender discrimination persists in subtle ways, forcing biology to find a way to fight back to equalise the sexes. Beautifully written and elegantly paced, this story conveys bold speculative concepts through intensely human characters. (Library Journal review) 

 

Jones, Lloyd,     Mister Pip 

Available in the library, borrow or reserve it now in the catalogue 

“You cannot pretend to read a book. Your eyes will give you away. So will your breathing. A person entranced by a book simply forgets to breathe. The house can catch alight and a reader deep in a book will not look up until the wallpaper is in flames.” It is Bougainville in 1991 – a small village on a lush tropical island in the South Pacific. Eighty-six days have passed since Matilda’s last day of school as, quietly, war is encroaching from the other end of the island. When the villagers’ safe, predictable lives come to a halt, Bougainville’s children are surprised to find the island’s only white man, a recluse, re-opening the school. Pop Eye, aka Mr Watts, explains he will introduce the children to Mr Dickens. Matilda and the others think a foreigner is coming to the island and prepare a list of much needed items. They are shocked to discover their acquaintance with Mr Dickens will be through Mr Watts’ inspiring reading of Great Expectations. But on an island at war, the power of fiction has dangerous consequences. Imagination and beliefs are challenged by guns. Mister Pip is an unforgettable tale of survival by story; a dazzling piece of writing that lives long in the mind after the last page is finished. (Publisher’s description) 

 

Kundera, Milan,    The Unbearable Lightness of Being 

Available in the library, borrow or reserve it now in the catalogue 

Tereza and Tomas, Tomas and Sabina, Sabina and Franz, Franz and Marie-Claude–four people, four relationships. Milan Kundera’s masterful novel, The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1984), tells the interlocking stories of these four relationships, with a primary focus on Tomas, a man torn between his love for Tereza, his wife, and his incorrigible “erotic adventures,” particularly his long-time affair with the internationally noted painter, Sabina. The world of Kundera’s novel is one in which lives are shaped by irrevocable choices and fortuitous events. It is a world in which, because everything occurs only once and then disappears into the past, existence seems to lose its substance and weight. Coping with both the consequences of their own actions and desires and the intruding demands of society and the state, Kundera’s characters struggle to construct lives of individual value and lasting meaning. A novel of ideas, a provocative look at the ways in which history impinges on individual lives, and a meditation on personal identity, The Unbearable Lightness of Being examines the imperfect possibilities of adult love and the ways in which free choice and necessity shape our lives. “What then shall we choose?” Kundera asks at the beginning of his novel. “Weight or lightness?” This international bestseller is his attempt to answer that question. And the answer is hinted at in the novel’s final scene, in which Tomas and Tereza find themselves in a small country hotel after a rare evening of dancing. When Tomas turns on the light in their room, “a large nocturnal butterfly” rises from the bedside lamp and circles the room in which they are alone with their happiness and their sadness. (readinggroupguides.com synopsis) 

 

KunzruHari,    Transmission 

Transmission is Hari Kunzru’s second novel and, in a similar vein to Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections, the title is instructive; it’s figuratively and literally, the book’s pulsing leitmotif. To transmit is, by definition, to “send across”, and the migration of information and people, the destruction and the erection of borders in our hi-tech, supposedly global village, (a world where Indian graduates gain Australian accents working in local call centres) is what this novel is all about. Leaving aside the broader forces of globalisation, Kunzru’s chief dramatic agent is a computer virus that meshes together the lives of his main characters: Arjun Mehta, a sexually-naïve Indian programmer working in America who unleashes the contagion; Leela Zahir, a Bollywood actress whose image the bug zooms across the globe and Guy Swift, head of Tomorrow, a Shoreditch-based consultancy whose ongoing quest to harness the “emotional magma that wells from the core of planet brand”, becomes somewhat nobbled in the immediate technological fallout. Of his cast, not unsurprisingly Guy comes closest to caricature (though his scheme to rebrand European border police as Ministry of Sound-style nightclub bouncers–”Europe: No Jeans, No Trainers”–sounds alarming believable). But then Guy’s is the incarnate of the worst, Panglossian traits of the West in this callow information age. His certainty and self-absorbed fecklessness (which thankfully he does eventually suffer, horribly for) contrasts jarringly with poor, Mehta, whose American dreams tip, all too swiftly into nightmare. (Amazon.co.uk review) 

 

KureishiHanif,     The Black Album 

Again cleverly mining the chaos and contradictions of multicultural, postmodern England, Kureishi (The Buddha of Suburbia) follows the turbulent social and spiritual education of an impressionable young Pakistani at an inferior London college, where he struggles with conflicting personal, familial and cultural allegiances. The year is 1989, and the publication of Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses has caused an international controversy. Shahid Hasan has left his bourgeois family in Kent to study in the city. As he falls in with a group of crusading young Muslims whose charismatic leader lives next door, Shahid also becomes deeply involved – both intellectually and sexually – with his liberal, humanistic professor Deedee Osgood, who has assigned him a term paper on the rock icon then known as Prince. Irresolute to the point of spinelessness, Shahid allows his beliefs to vacillate until a violent confrontation erupts. Kureishi insightfully probes issues of faith and individualism against a memorable landscape of urban and academic upheaval. While Shahid’s lack of conviction and personal loyalty make him a less than likable protagonist, there is ample fervor in the colorful supporting cast, and the author’s wit and considerable narrative talents easily embroil the reader in the novel’s unfolding drama. (Publishers Weekly review) 

LahiriJhumpa,     The Namesake 

Available in the library, borrow or reserve it now in the catalogue 

Any talk of The Namesake–Jhumpa Lahiri’s follow-up to her Pulitzer Prize-winning debut, Interpreter of Maladies–must begin with a name: Gogol Ganguli. Born to an Indian academic and his wife, Gogol is afflicted from birth with a name that is neither Indian nor American nor even really a first name at all. He is given the name by his father who, before he came to America to study at MIT, was almost killed in a train wreck in India. Rescuers caught sight of the volume of Nikolai Gogol’s short stories that he held, and hauled him from the train. Ashoke gives his American-born son the name as a kind of placeholder, and the awkward thing sticks. Awkwardness is Gogol’s birthright. He grows up a bright American boy, goes to Yale, has pretty girlfriends, becomes a successful architect, but like many second-generation immigrants, he can never quite find his place in the world. There’s a lovely section where he dates a wealthy, cultured young Manhattan woman who lives with her charming parents. They fold Gogol into their easy, elegant life, but even here he can find no peace and he breaks off the relationship. His mother finally sets him up on a blind date with the daughter of a Bengali friend, and Gogol thinks he has found his match. Moushumi, like Gogol, is at odds with the Indian-American world she inhabits. She has found, however, a circuitous escape: “At Brown, her rebellion had been academic … she’d pursued a double major in French. Immersing herself in a third language, a third culture, had been her refuge–she approached French, unlike things American or Indian, without guilt, or misgiving, or expectation of any kind.” Lahiri documents these quiet rebellions and random longings with great sensitivity. There’s no cleverness or showing-off in The Namesake, just beautifully confident storytelling. Gogol’s story is neither comedy nor tragedy; it’s simply that ordinary, hard-to-get-down-on-paper commodity: real life. (Amazon.com review) 

 

LeGuinUrsula,    The Dispossessed 

Most of Le Guin’s science fiction is set in a human galaxy where the distance of time and space imposed by relativity is mitigated by instantaneous transmission of information through a gadget called the ansible. The Dispossessed was the book in which she told us of Shevek, the ansible’s inventor, and the ironies of his career. Shevek is a loyal citizen of a poor anarchist world, Anarres, which finds frills like research hard to afford; he travels to the neighbouring world of Urras, to find that unbridled capitalism is not much fun either. “Nio Esseia, a city of four million souls, lifted its delicate glittering towers across the green marshes of the Estuary as if it were built of mist and sunlight…Was all Nio Esseia this? Huge shining boxes of stone and glass, immense, ornate, enormous packages, empty, empty.” At once one of the greatest of SF novels about political ideas and idealism, and a stunning novel of character, The Dispossessed has at its centre Shevek, scientist and near-saint, a flawed human being whom we come to know as we know few characters in modern science fiction. (Amazon.co.uk review) 

 

Leigh, Julia,     The Hunter 

Available in the library, borrow or reserve it now in the catalogue 

The young Australian writer, Julia Leigh, has been hailed as a talent to watch in the 21st century. The Hunter, her first novel, is a strange and haunting story which opens straight onto the world of its protagonist, M: “The mini-bus takes fifteen minutes to arrive in town: “Welcome to Tiger Town” reads a sign by the highway, “Population: 20,000″”. Assuming the identity of Martin David, Naturalist, M makes his preparations for a hunt: he, and the reader, will be spending some time in the Tasmanian wilderness in search of the legendary tiger, the thylacine. In crafted, measured and often beautiful prose, Leigh offers her readers glimpses of who M is, or might be, and what he is looking for. There is a hint that the thylacine’s genetic material has been “declared capable of winning a thousand wars”, a gift to bio-weaponry, but M remains detached: “M does not know, cannot know and does not want to know, but there is no question the race is on to harvest the beast”. M’s not wanting to know guides the narrative: he is solitary, unconnected, only occasionally giving in to the desires for human and sexual, contact which emerge through M’s vague, yet somehow yearning, association with the woman and two children with whom he stays when not out on the hunt. But the feeling centre of the book is anchored elsewhere in the unique connection between M and the tiger, in Leigh’s meticulous exploration of the beauty–and terror–of the relation between killer and killed. (Amazon.co.uk review) 

 

 Lethem, Jonathan,     The Fortress of Solitude 

Available in the library, borrow or reserve it now in the catalogue 

If there still remains any doubt, this novel confirms Lethem’s status as the poet of Brooklyn and of motherless boys. Projected through the prism of race relations, black music and pop art, Lethem’s stunning, disturbing and authoritatively observed narrative covers three decades of turbulent events on Dean Street, Brooklyn. When Abraham and Rachel Ebdus arrive there in the early 1970s, they are among the first whites to venture into a mainly black neighbourhood that is just beginning to be called Boerum Hill. Abraham is a painter who abandons his craft to construct tiny, virtually indistinguishable movie frames in which nothing happens. Ex-hippie Rachel, a misguided liberal who will soon abandon her family, insists on sending their son, Dylan, to public school, where he stands out like a white flag. Desperately lonely, regularly attacked and abused by the black kids (“yoked,” in the parlance), Dylan is saved by his unlikely friendship with his neighbour Mingus Rude, the son of a once-famous black singer, Barnett Rude Jr., who is now into cocaine and rage at the world. The story of Dylan and Mingus, both motherless boys, is one of loyalty and betrayal, and eventually different paths in life. Dylan will become a music journalist, and Mingus, for all his intelligence, kindness, verbal virtuosity and courage, will wind up behind bars. Meanwhile, the plot manages to encompass pop music from punk rock to rap, avant-garde art, graffiti, drug use, gentrification, the New York prison system-and to sing a vibrant, sometimes heartbreaking ballad of Brooklyn throughout. Lethem seems to have devoured the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s-inhaled them whole-and he reproduces them faithfully on the page, in prose as supple as silk and as bright, explosive and illuminating as fireworks. Scary and funny and seriously surreal, the novel hurtles on a trajectory that feels inevitable. By the time Dylan begins to break out of the fortress of solitude that has been his life, readers have shared his pain and understood his dreams. (Publishers Weekly review) 

 

Malouf, David,     An Imaginary Life 

In the first century A.D., Publius Ovidius Naso, the most urbane and irreverent poet of imperial Rome, was banished to a remote village on the edge of the Black Sea. From these sparse facts, Malouf has fashioned an audacious and supremely moving novel. Marooned on the edge of the known world, exiled from his native tongue, Ovid depends on the kindness of barbarians who impale their dead and converse with the spirit world.Then he becomes the guardian of a still more savage creature, a feral child who has grown up among deer. What ensues is a luminous encounter between civilisation and nature, as enacted by a poet who once cataloged the treacheries of love and a boy who slowly learns how to give it. (Publisher’s description) 

 

Mantel, Hilary,     Wolf Hall 

Available in the library, borrow or reserve it now in the catalogue 

No character in the canon has been writ larger than Henry VIII, but that didn’t stop Hilary Mantel. She strides through centuries, past acres of novels, histories, biographies, and plays–even past Henry himself–confident in the knowledge that to recast history’s most mercurial sovereign, it’s not the King she needs to see, but one of the King’s most mysterious agents. Enter Thomas Cromwell, a self-made man and remarkable polymath who ascends to the King’s right hand. Rigorously pragmatic and forward-thinking, Cromwell has little interest in what motivates his Majesty, and although he makes way for Henry’s marriage to the infamous Anne Boleyn, it’s the future of a free England that he honours above all else and hopes to secure. Mantel plots with a sleight of hand, making full use of her masterful grasp on the facts without weighing down her prose. The opening cast of characters and family trees may give initial pause to some readers, but persevere: the witty, whip-smart lines volleying the action forward may convince you a short stay in the Tower of London might not be so bad… provided you could bring a copy of Wolf Hall along. (Amazon.com review) 

 

Márquez, Gabriel García,     One Hundred Years of Solitude 

One of the 20th century’s enduring works, One Hundred Years of Solitude is a widely beloved and acclaimed novel known throughout the world, and the ultimate achievement in a Nobel Prize–winning career. The novel tells the story of the rise and fall of the mythical town of Macondo through the history of the Buendía family. It is a rich and brilliant chronicle of life and death, and the tragicomedy of humankind. In the noble, ridiculous, beautiful, and tawdry story of the Buendía family, one sees all of humanity, just as in the history, myths, growth, and decay of Macondo, one sees all of Latin America. Love and lust, war and revolution, riches and poverty, youth and senility — the variety of life, the endlessness of death, the search for peace and truth — these universal themes dominate the novel. Whether he is describing an affair of passion or the voracity of capitalism and the corruption of government, Gabriel García Márquez always writes with the simplicity, ease, and purity that are the mark of a master. Alternately reverential and comical, One Hundred Years of Solitude weaves the political, personal, and spiritual to bring a new consciousness to storytelling. Translated into dozens of languages, this stunning work is no less than an accounting of the history of the human race. (Publisher’s description) 

 

McCarthy, Cormac,     The Road 

Available in the library, borrow or reserve it now in the catalogue 

Cormac McCarthy sets his new novel, The Road, in a post-apocalyptic blight of gray skies that drizzle ash, a world in which all matter of wildlife is extinct, starvation is not only prevalent but nearly all-encompassing, and marauding bands of cannibals roam the environment with pieces of human flesh stuck between their teeth. If this sounds oppressive and dispiriting, it is. McCarthy may have just set to paper the definitive vision of the world after nuclear war, and in this recent age of relentless saber-rattling by the global powers, it’s not much of a leap to feel his vision could be not far off the mark nor, sadly, right around the corner. Stealing across this horrific (and that’s the only word for it) landscape are an unnamed man and his emaciated son, a boy probably around the age of ten. It is the love the father feels for his son, a love as deep and acute as his grief, that could surprise readers of McCarthy’s previous work. McCarthy’s Gnostic impressions of mankind have left very little place for love. In fact that greatest love affair in any of his novels, I would argue, occurs between the Billy Parham and the wolf in The Crossing. But here the love of a desperate father for his sickly son transcends all else. McCarthy has always written about the battle between light and darkness; the darkness usually comprises 99.9% of the world, while any illumination is the weak shaft thrown by a penlight running low on batteries. In The Road, those batteries are almost out–the entire world is, quite literally, dying–so the final affirmation of hope in the novel’s closing pages is all the more shocking and maybe all the more enduring as the boy takes all of his father’s (and McCarthy’s) rage at the hopeless folly of man and lays it down, lifting up, in its place, the oddest of all things: faith. (Amazon.com review by Dennis Lehane) 

 

McCarthy, Tom,    Remainder 

McCarthy’s debut novel, set in London, takes a clever conceit and pumps it up with vibrant prose to such great effect that the narrative’s pointlessness is nearly a nonissue. The unnamed narrator, who suffers memory loss as the result of an accident that “involved something falling from the sky,” receives an £8.5 million settlement and uses the money to re-enact, with the help of a “facilitator” he hires, things remembered or imagined. He buys an apartment building to replicate one that has come to him in a vision and then populates it with people hired to re-enact, over and over again, the mundane activities he has seen his imaginary neighbors performing. He stages both ordinary acts (the fixing of a punctured tire) and violent ones (shootings and more), each time repeating the events many times and becoming increasingly detached from reality and fascinated by the scenarios his newfound wealth has allowed him to create—even though he professes he doesn’t “want to understand them.” McCarthy’s evocation of the narrator’s absorption in his fantasy world as it cascades out of control is brilliant all the way through the abrupt climax. (Publishers Weekly review) 

 

McEwan, Ian,    Enduring Love 

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On a windy spring day in the Chilterns, the calm, organized life of science writer Joe Rose is shattered when he witnesses a tragic accident: a hot-air balloon with a boy trapped in its basket is being tossed by the wind, and in the attempt to save the child, a man is killed. A stranger named Jed Parry joins Rose in helping to bring the balloon to safety. But unknown to Rose, something passes between Parry and himself on that day–something that gives birth to an obsession in Parry so powerful that it will test the limits of Rose’s beloved rationalism, threaten the love of his wife, Clarissa, and drive him to the brink of murder and madness. Brilliant and compassionate, this is a novel of love, faith, and suspense, and of how life can change in an instant. (Publisher’s description) 

 

MievilleChina,     Perdido Street Station 

King Rat (1999), Mieville’s much-praised first novel of urban fantasy/horror, was just a palate-teaser for this appetising, if extravagant, stew of genre themes. Its setting, New Crobuzon, is an audaciously imagined milieu: a city with the dimensions of a world, home to a polyglot civilisation of wildly varied species and overlapping and interpenetrating cultures. Seeking to prove his unified energy theory as it relates to organic and mechanical forms, rogue scientist Isaac Dan der Grimnebulin tries to restore the power of flight to Yagharek, a member of the garuda race cruelly shorn of its wings. Isaac’s lover, Lin, unconsciously mimics his scientific pursuits when she takes on the seemingly impossible commission of sculpting a patron whose body is a riot of grotesquely mutated and spliced appendages. Their social life is one huge, postgraduate bull session with friends and associates–until a nightmare-inducing grub escapes from Isaac’s lab and transforms into a flying monster that imperils the city. This accident precipitates a political crisis, initiates an action-packed manhunt for Isaac and introduces hordes of vividly imagined beings who inhabit the twilight zone between science and sorcery. Mieville’s canvas is so breathtakingly broad that the details of individual subplots and characters sometime lose their definition. But it is also generous enough to accommodate large dollops of aesthetics, scientific discussion and quest fantasy in an impressive and ultimately pleasing epic. (Publishers Weekly review) 

 

Mistry, Rohinton,     Such a Long Journey 

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Mistry, Bombay-born author of Swimming Lessons and Other Stories from Firozsha Baag, serves up an exotic feast with this novel. The year is 1971, and India is ready to pursue a war against Pakistan over the region that will become Bangladesh. This chaotic period is seen through the eyes of one Gustad Noble, a family man and Parsi bank clerk in Bombay. Gustad’s fortunes have begun to change for the worse, with disappointments and bad luck sweeping through his previously secure way of life. When an old friend secretly recruits him to assist in a seemingly heroic mission under the aegis of Indira Gandhi’s CIA-like operatives, he becomes enmeshed in a series of dangerous events, with tragic results. Mistry’s prose displays the lightest of witty touches, and the narrative is often quite funny, particularly when it invites us inside the minds of the knowable, likable, somehow familiar men and women whose activities propel the plot. A writer of enormous range and shrewdness, Mistry delivers no manifesto, but an intelligent portrait of the corrupt aspects of Indira Gandhi’s years in power. Throughout his byzantine scenario, he demonstrates empathy for and deep understanding of his characters. His novel evokes Rushdie in its denser, florid moments, and T. Coraghessan Boyle in its more madcap flights. (Publishers Weekly review) 

 

Mitchell, David,     Cloud Atlas 

Mitchell’s virtuosic novel presents six narratives that evoke an array of genres, from Melvillean high-seas drama to California noir and dystopian fantasy. There is a naïve clerk on a nineteenth-century Polynesian voyage; an aspiring composer who insinuates himself into the home of a syphilitic genius; a journalist investigating a nuclear plant; a publisher with a dangerous best-seller on his hands; and a cloned human being created for slave labor. These five stories are bisected and arranged around a sixth, the oral history of a post-apocalyptic island, which forms the heart of the novel. Only after this do the second halves of the stories fall into place, pulling the novel’s themes into focus: the ease with which one group enslaves another, and the constant rewriting of the past by those who control the present. Against such forces, Mitchell’s characters reveal a quiet tenacity. When the clerk is told that his life amounts to “no more than one drop in a limitless ocean,” he asks, “Yet what is any ocean but a multitude of drops?” (The New Yorker review) 

 

Morrison, Toni,    Sula 

Two girls who grow up to become women. Two friends who become something worse than enemies. In this brilliantly imagined novel, Toni Morrison tells the story of Nel Wright and Sula Peace, who meet as children in the small town of Medallion, Ohio. Their devotion is fierce enough to withstand bullies and the burden of a dreadful secret. It endures even after Nel has grown up to be a pillar of the black community and Sula has become a pariah. But their friendship ends in an unforgivable betrayal—or does it end? Terrifying, comic, ribald and tragic, Sula is a work that overflows with life. (Publisher’s description) 

 

Murakami, Haruki,     The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle 

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Bad things come in threes for Toru Okada. He loses his job, his cat disappears, and then his wife fails to return from work. His search for his wife (and his cat) introduces him to a bizarre collection of characters, including two psychic sisters, a possibly unbalanced teenager, an old soldier who witnessed the massacres on the Chinese mainland at the beginning of the Second World War, and a very shady politician. Haruki Murakami is a master of subtly disturbing prose. Mundane events throb with menace, while the bizarre is accepted without comment. Meaning always seems to be just out of reach, for the reader as well as for the characters, yet one is drawn inexorably into a mystery that may have no solution. The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle is an extended meditation on themes that appear throughout Murakami’s earlier work. The tropes of popular culture, movies, music, detective stories, combine to create a work that explores both the surface and the hidden depths of Japanese society at the end of the 20th century. If it were possible to isolate one theme in The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, that theme would be responsibility. The atrocities committed by the Japanese army in China keep rising to the surface like a repressed memory, and Toru Okada himself is compelled by events to take responsibility for his actions and struggle with his essentially passive nature. If Toru is supposed to be a Japanese Everyman, steeped as he is in Western popular culture and ignorant of the secret history of his own nation, this novel paints a bleak picture. Like the winding up of the titular bird, Murakami slowly twists the gossamer threads of his story into something of considerable weight. (Amazon.com review) 

 

MurnaneGerald,     The Plains 

“Twenty years ago, when I first arrived on the plains, I kept my eyes open. I looked for anything in the landscape that seemed to hint at some elaborate meaning behind appearances.” There is no book in Australian literature like The Plains. In the two decades since its first publication, this haunting novel has earned its status as a classic. A nameless young man arrives on the plains and begins to document the strange and rich culture of the plains families. As his story unfolds, the novel becomes, in the words of Murray Bail, ‘a mirage of landscape, memory, love and literature itself’. (Publisher’s description) 

 

O’Brien, Tim,     The Things They Carried 

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A finalist for both the 1990 Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award, The Things They Carried marks a subtle but definitive line of demarcation between Tim O’Brien’s earlier works about Vietnam, the memoir If I Die in a Combat Zone and the fictional Going After Cacciato, and this sly, almost hallucinatory book that is neither memoir nor novel nor collection of short stories but rather an artful combination of all three. Vietnam is still O’Brien’s theme, but in this book he seems less interested in the war itself than in the myriad different perspectives from which he depicts it. Whereas Going After Cacciato played with reality, The Things They Carried plays with truth. The narrator of most of these stories is “Tim”; yet O’Brien freely admits that many of the events he chronicles in this collection never really happened. He never killed a man as “Tim” does in “The Man I Killed,” and unlike Tim in “Ambush,” he has no daughter named Kathleen. But just because a thing never happened doesn’t make it any less true. In “On the Rainy River,” the character Tim O’Brien responds to his draft notice by driving north, to the Canadian border where he spends six days in a deserted lodge in the company of an old man named Elroy while he wrestles with the choice between dodging the draft or going to war. The real Tim O’Brien never drove north, never found himself in a fishing boat 20 yards off the Canadian shore with a decision to make. The real Tim O’Brien quietly boarded the bus to Sioux Falls and was inducted into the United States Army. But the truth of “On the Rainy River” lies not in facts but in the genuineness of the experience it depicts: both Tims went to a war they didn’t believe in; both considered themselves cowards for doing so. Every story in The Things They Carried speaks another truth that Tim O’Brien learned in Vietnam; it is this blurred line between truth and reality, fact and fiction, that makes his book unforgettable. (Amazon.com review) 

OkriBen,     The Famished Road 

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You have never read a novel like this one. Winner of the 1991 Booker Prize for fiction, The Famished Road tells the story of Azaro, a spirit-child. Though spirit-children rarely stay long in the painful world of the living, when Azaro is born he chooses to fight death: “I wanted,” he says, “to make happy the bruised face of the woman who would become my mother.” Survival in his chaotic African village is a struggle, though. Azaro and his family must contend with hunger, disease, and violence, as well as the boy’s spirit-companions, who are constantly trying to trick him back into their world. Okri fills his tale with unforgettable images and characters: the bereaved policeman and his wife, who try to adopt Azaro and dress him in their dead son’s clothes; the photographer who documents life in the village and displays his pictures in a cabinet by the roadside; Madame Koto, “plump as a mighty fruit,” who runs the local bar; the King of the Road, who gets hungrier the more he eats. At the heart of this hypnotic novel are the mysteries of love and human survival. “It is more difficult to love than to die,” says Azaro’s father, and indeed, it is love that brings real sharpness to suffering here. As the story moves toward its climax, Azaro must face the consequences of choosing to live, of choosing to walk the road of hunger rather than return to the benign land of spirits. The Famished Road is worth reading for its last line alone, which must be one of the most devastating endings in contemporary literature (but don’t skip ahead). (Amazon.com review) 

 

Ondaatje, Michael,    The English Patient 

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Haunting and harrowing, as beautiful as it is disturbing, The English Patient tells the story of the entanglement of four damaged lives in an Italian monastery as World War II ends. The exhausted nurse, Hana; the maimed thief, Caravaggio; the wary sapper, Kip: each is haunted by the riddle of the English patient, the nameless, burn victim who lies in an upstairs room and whose memories of passion, betrayal, and rescue illuminate this book like flashes of heat lightning. In lyrical prose informed by a poetic consciousness, Michael Ondaatje weaves these characters together, pulls them tight, then unravels the threads with unsettling acumen. A book that binds readers of great literature, The English Patient garnered the Booker Prize for author Ondaatje. (Amazon.com review) 

 

Perez-ReverteArturo,     The Club Dumas 

Fallen angels, satanic manuals, and a passion for the works of Raphael Sabatini and Alexandre Dumas among others–this is the stuff of Spanish author Arturo Pérez-Reverte’s engrossing novel The Club Dumas. Set in a world of antiquarian booksellers where dealers would gladly betray their own mothers to get their hands on a rare volume, The Club Dumas is a thinking person’s thriller: in addition to a riveting plot, the book is full of intriguing details that range from the working habits of Alexandre Dumas to how one might go about forging a 17th-century text. Woven through these meditations is enough murder, sex, and the occult to keep both the hero, Lucas Corso, and the reader hopping. As in his previous novel, The Flanders Panel, set in the world of art restoration, Mr. Pérez-Reverte has written a literary thriller to tease both the intellect and adrenaline gland. Lucas Corso makes a complex, ultimately sympathetic hero, and there’s plenty to delight in the intricate twists and turns the story takes before the mystery of The Club Dumas is finally solved. (Amazon.com review) 

 

Perlman, Elliott,    Three Dollars 

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One of Australia’s acclaimed young writers, first novelist Perlman explores the conundrums of conscience in one man’s desire to understand his place as a husband, father and complicated human being amid late capitalism’s ever-escalating pressure. Idealistic, intelligent Eddie Harnovey, a 38-year-old chemical engineer, tells his life story from boyhood through college years to the present. Eddie’s narrative revolves largely around the women in his life: his childhood love, the beautiful, privileged Amanda, pops into his world every nine and a half years to bewilder him; his brilliant wife, Tanya, a passionate, quixotic academic, is plagued by bouts of depression; their precocious daughter, Abby, raises the stakes on every decision Eddie makes. After a soulful, progressive youth, Eddie has wound up working for a government agency in Melbourne, where he struggles to maintain his integrity and provide for his family in an increasingly hostile corporate world. When he loses his job, he finds himself with only three dollars to his name, about to lose his house and on the edge of terror. He gets survival lessons from an unexpected source, and then, after brute accident and violence signal the end for him, salvation occurs because of his own previous decency and kindness. Eddie’s blend of self-deprecating wit, caustic social comment, spirited sensitivity and big heart carries the narrative in beautifully controlled passages that brim with insight, humor and feeling. His world is rich with the pleasures and pains of love, family, friendship and marriage, and the supporting characters in this prize-winning narrative are smart and likable; some are unabashedly erudite, facilitating entertaining philosophical debate. Perlman’s sheer storytelling virtuosity gives this essentially domestic tale the narrative drive of a thriller and the unforgettable radiance of a novel that accurately reflects essential human values. Melbourne’s newspaper The Age awarded this novel its best fiction award for 1998, and named it as the Best Book of the Year. It also won the Best Book of the Year award from the Fellowship of Australian Writers. (Publishers Weekly review) 

Phillips, Arthur,     Angelica 

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Phillips’s third novel, set in Victorian London, starts as a ghost story. When Joseph instructs his wife, Constance, to have their four-year-old daughter, Angelica, moved from their bedroom into a room of her own, Constance becomes convinced that a seductive spectral force is preying on the child. The catastrophe that follows is relayed from the perspectives of Constance; of her supposed redeemer, an actress turned exorcist; and of Joseph—each view ultimately being rendered by the adult Angelica. What at first appears a rather glib ghost story predicated on Victorian clichés of sexual repression and patriarchal tyranny turns into a spectacular, ever-proliferating tale of mingled motives, psychological menace, and delicately told crises of appetite and loneliness. Phillips sustains a pastiche of Victorian writing and ideas with enticing playfulness, and without making his characters or their complex fears and desires laughable.  (The New Yorker review) 

 

Portman, Frank,     King Dork 

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‘I’m small for my age, uncomfortable in most situations, skinny and awkward. Most of the time I walk around here feeling like a total idiot.’ But when Tom Henderson finds his father’s copy of The Catcher In The Rye, it change his world. It puts him in the middle of several interlocking conspiracies and at least half a dozen mysteries involving dead people, naked people, fake people, ESP, blood, guitars, monks, witchcraft, a devil’s head and rock & roll. It appears to be just the tip of the iceberg of clues that could help Tom unravel the puzzle of his father’s death, and – bizarrely – reveal the secret of attracting semi-hot girls . . . (Publisher’s description) 

 

Powers, Richard,     Galatea 2.2 

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Powers’ fifth novel is a dazzling work of autobiography overlaid with a reinterpretation of the Pygmalion myth. Powers describes his fictional namesake’s experiences as humanist-in-residence at the Center for the Study of Advanced Sciences, where he uses his literary expertise to help Dr. Philip Lentz, a cognitive neurologist, win a bet that he can create a thinking machine capable of passing a comprehensive master’s exam in English. As the computer, Helen, learns the fundamentals of language and literature, she develops a sense of her own identity and self-worth. Paralleling Powers’ growing attachment to Helen is a reassessment of the years he spent living in Holland writing his novels and the demise of his longtime relationship with a former student. This is a difficult, thought-provoking, and exhilarating read, electric with the power of language and, paradoxically, language’s ultimate inability to alleviate suffering. (Booklist review) 

 

Pratchett, Terry,     The Colour of Magic 

The Colour of Magic is Terry Pratchett’s maiden voyage through the bizarre land of Discworld. His entertaining and witty series has grown to more than 20 books, and this is where it all starts–with the tourist Twoflower and his hapless wizard guide, Rincewind (“All wizards get like that … it’s the quicksilver fumes. Rots their brains. Mushrooms, too.”). Pratchett spoofs fantasy clichés–and everything else he can think of–while marshalling a profusion of characters through a madcap adventure. (Amazon.com review) 

 

Pullman, Philip,    The His Dark Materials Trilogy 

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In an epic trilogy, Philip Pullman unlocks the door to a world parallel to our own, but with a mysterious slant all its own. Dæmons and winged creatures live side by side with humans, and a mysterious entity called Dust just might have the power to unite the universes–if it isn’t destroyed first. Join Lyra, Pantalaimon, Will, and the rest as they embark on the most breathtaking, heartbreaking adventures of their lives. The fate of the universe is in their hands. Northern Lights, The Subtle Knife, and The Amber Spyglass pit good against evil in a way no reader will ever forget. (Amazon.com review) 

 

Pynchon, Thomas,     The Crying of Lot 49 

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Returning home one fine summer afternoon from a particularly disappointing Tupperware party, Mrs. Oedipa Maas—of Kinneret-Among-The-Pines, California—opens a letter from the Los Angeles law firm of Warpe, Wistfull, Kubitschek and McMingus and discovers that she has been named executor of the estate of Pierce Inverarity, late Southern California real-estate mogul, entrepreneur, and Oedipa’s former lover. Things then did not delay in turning curious. Totally in the dark about what an executor does, Oedipa leaves her disk-jockey husband Wendell (“Mucho”) to cope by himself with his “regular crises of conscience about his profession,” and sets off for Los Angeles and a meeting with lawyer Metzgar, her designated co-executor. Thus begins her Oedipa-in-Wonderland journey through the rococo spider’s-web tangle of her late lover’s leavings and her last-frontier, reality-check confrontations with the Paranoids (an anglicized rock band), Yoyodyne Corporation (“one of the giants of the aerospace industry”), an off-the-cybernetic-wall inventor (Nefastis by name) attempting to defeat the Second Law of Thermodynamics, stamp collector Genghis Cohen, and “all manner of revelations” concerning herself and the mysterious, centuries-old Tristero. This subversive, underground mail-delivery system—with its drop boxes labeled W.A.S.T.E. (“We Await Silent Tristero’s Empire”) and its alienated carriers—appears to be a worldwide conspiracy of mind-boggling reach. Oedipa has never before had to deal with a worldwide conspiracy. Especially one whose existence and nefarious goals are hinted at in a collection of forged U.S. postage stamps, a collection that Pierce Inverarity has left to be auctioned. That collection of Tristero stamps gives Oedipa nightmares, and Pynchon’s fascinating novel its title. There is also a resurrected Restoration revenge tragedy, The Courier’s Tragedy, with lines long suppressed by the Vatican. Not to mention a group of anti-love dropouts called the Inamorati Anonymous. Oedipa uncovers clue after clue after clue, only to reach uncertainty. Does The Tristero exist? Do we need another postal service? Are there vast conspiracies ruling our lives? Or are we hallucinating it all? At last, Oedipa sits in the auction room, with only herself and America to rely on. (Publisher’s description) 

 

Roth, Philip,     The Plot Against America 

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During his long career, Roth has shown himself a master at creating fictional doppelgängers. In this stunning novel, he creates a mesmerizing alternate world as well, in which Charles A. Lindbergh defeats FDR in the 1940 presidential election, and Philip, his parents and his brother weather the storm in Newark, N.J. Incorporating Lindbergh’s actual radio address in which he accused the British and the Jews of trying to force America into a foreign war, Roth builds an eerily logical narrative that shows how isolationists in and out of government, emboldened by Lindbergh’s blatant anti-Semitism (he invites von Ribbentrop to the White House, etc.), enact new laws and create an atmosphere of religious hatred that culminates in nationwide pogroms. Historical figures such as Walter Winchell, Fiorello La Guardia and Henry Ford inhabit this chillingly plausible fiction, which is as suspenseful as the best thrillers and illustrates how easily people can be persuaded by self-interest to abandon morality. The novel is, in addition, a moving family drama, in which Philip’s fiercely ethical father, Herman, finds himself unable to protect his loved ones, and a family schism develops between those who understand the eventual outcome of Lindbergh’s policies and those who are co-opted into abetting their own potential destruction. Many episodes are touching and hilarious: young Philip experiences the usual fears and misapprehensions of a pre-adolescent; locks himself into a neighbor’s bathroom; gets into dangerous mischief with a friend; watches his cousin masturbating with no comprehension of the act. In the balance of personal, domestic and national events, the novel is one of Roth’s most deft creations, and if the lollapalooza of an ending is bizarre with its revisionist theory about the motives behind Lindbergh’s anti-Semitism, it’s the subtext about what can happen when government limits religious liberties in the name of the national interest that gives the novel moral authority. Roth’s writing has never been so direct and accessible while retaining its stylistic precision and acute insights into human foibles and follies. (Publishers Weekly review) 

 

Roy, Arundhati,     The God of Small Things 

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With sensuous prose, a dreamlike style infused with breathtakingly beautiful images and keen insight into human nature, Roy’s debut novel charts fresh territory in the genre of magical, prismatic literature. Set in Kerala, India, during the late 1960s when Communism rattled the age-old caste system, the story begins with the funeral of young Sophie Mol, the cousin of the novel’s protagonists, Rahel and her fraternal twin brother, Estha. In a circuitous and suspenseful narrative, Roy reveals the family tensions that led to the twins’ behavior on the fateful night that Sophie drowned. Beneath the drama of a family tragedy lies a background of local politics, social taboos and the tide of history, all of which come together in a slip of fate, after which a family is irreparably shattered. Roy captures the children’s candid observations but clouded understanding of adults’ complex emotional lives. Rahel notices that “at times like these, only the Small Things are ever said. The Big Things lurk unsaid inside.” Plangent with a sad wisdom, the children’s view is never oversimplified, and the adult characters reveal their frailties – and in one case, a repulsively evil power – in subtle and complex ways. While Roy’s powers of description are formidable, she sometimes succumbs to overwriting, forcing every minute detail to symbolize something bigger, and the pace of the story slows. But these lapses are few, and her powers coalesce magnificently in the book’s second half. Roy’s clarity of vision is remarkable, her voice original, her story beautifully constructed and masterfully told. (Publishers Weekly review) 

 

Rushdie, Salman,     Midnight’s Children 

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Saleem Sinai was born at midnight, the midnight of India’s independence, and finds himself mysteriously ‘handcuffed to history’ by the coincidence. He is one of 1,001 children born at the midnight hour, each of them endowed with an extraordinary talent — and whose privilege and curse it is to be both master and victims of their times. Through Saleem’s gifts — inner voices and a wildly sensitive sense of smell — we are drawn into a fascinating family saga set against the vast, colourful background of the India of this century. (Publisher’s description) 

 

Safran Foer, Jonathan,    Everything is Illuminated 

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The simplest thing would be to describe Everything is Illuminated, Jonathan Safran Foer’s accomplished debut, as a novel about the Holocaust. It is, but that really fails to do justice to the sheer ambition of this book. The main story is a grimly familiar one. A young Jewish-American–who just happens to be called Jonathan Safran Foer–travels to the Ukraine in the hope of finding the woman who saved his grandfather from the Nazis. He is aided in his search by Alex Perchov, a naïve Ukrainian translator, Alex’s grandfather (also called Alex) and a flatulent mongrel bitch, named Sammy Davis JR JR. On their journey through Eastern Europe’s obliterated landscape they unearth facts about the Nazi atrocities and the extent of Ukrainian complicity that have implications for Perchov as well as Safran Foer. This narrative is not, however, recounted from (the character) Jonathan Safran Foer’s perspective. It is relayed through a series of letters that Alex sends to Foer. These are written in the kind of broken Russo-English normally reserved for Bond villains and Latka from the US television series Taxi. (Sentences such as “It is mammoth honour for me write for a writer, especially when he is American writer, like Ernest Hemingway”; “It is bad and popular habit for people in Ukraine to take things without asking” are the norm.) Interspersed between these letters are fragments of a novel by “Safran Foer”–a wonderfully imagined, almost magical realist, account of life in the Shetl before the Nazis destroyed it. These are in turn commented on by Alex creating an additional metafictional angle to the tale. If all this sounds a little daunting don’t be put off; Safran Foer is an extremely funny as well as intelligent writer. Admittedly he has an annoying habit of capitalising great chunks of text, but minor typographical nuances are easy to ignore in a book that combines some of the best Jewish folk yarns since Isaac Bashevis Singer with a quite heartbreaking meditation on love, friendship and loss. (Amazon.co.uk review) 

 

Seth, Vikram,     A Suitable Boy 

Available in the library, borrow or reserve it now in the catalogue

Seth previously made a splash with his 1986 novel in verse, The Golden Gate. Here he abandons the compression of poetry to produce an enormous novel that will enthrall most readers; those who are fazed by a marathon read, however, may gasp for mercy. Set in the post-colonial India of the 1950s, this sprawling saga involves four families–the Mehras, the Kapoors, the Chatterjis and the Khans–whose domestic crises illuminate the historical and social events of the era. Like an old-fashioned soap opera (or a Bombay talkie), the multi-charactered plot pits mothers against daughters, fathers against sons, Hindus against Muslims and small farmers against greedy landowners facing government-ordered dispossession. The story revolves around independent-minded Lata Mehra: Will she defy the stern order of her widowed upper-caste Hindu mother by marrying the Muslim youth she loves? The search for Lata’s husband expands into a richly detailed and exotically vivid narrative that crisscrosses the fabric of India. Seth’s panoramic scenes take the reader into law courts, religious processions, bloody riots, academia–even the shoe trade. Portraits of actual figures are incisive; the cameo of Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, for example, captures his high-minded, well-meaning indecision. Seth’s point of view is both wry and affectionate, and his voluble, palpably atmospheric narrative teems with chaotic, irrepressible life. (Publishers Weekly review) 

 

Smith, Ali,     The Accidental 

While the Smarts are a happy, prosperous British family on the surface, underneath they are as friable as a Balkan republic. Eve suffers from a block about writing yet another of her popular Genuine Article books (a series of imaginary reconstructions of obscure, actual figures from the past). Michael, her English professor husband, is a philanderer whose sexual predation on his students has reached critical mass. Teenaged Magnus, Eve’s son by first husband Adam, is consumed by guilt around a particularly heinous school prank. And Astrid, Eve and Adam’s daughter, is a 12-year- old channeling the angst of a girl three years older. Into this family drops one Amber MacDonald, a mysterious stranger who embeds herself in the family’s summer rental in Norfolk and puts them all under her bullying spell. By some collective hallucination—one into which Smith (Hotel World) utterly and completely draws the reader—each Smart sees Amber as a savior, even as she violates their codes and instincts. So sure-handed are Smith’s overlapping descriptions of the same events from different viewpoints that her simple, disquieting story lifts into brilliance. When Eve finally breaks the spell and kicks Amber out, it precipitates a series of long overdue jolts that destroys the family’s fraught equilibrium, but the shock of Smith’s facility remains. (Publishers Weekly review) 

 

Smith, Zadie,     The Autograph Man 

Available in the library, borrow or reserve it now in the catalogue

When Alex-Li Tandem is 12 years old, his father takes him and his friends Adam and Rubinfine to a wrestling match at the Albert Hall in London. By the end of the evening, the pivotal events of Alex-Li’s youth have occurred: he has met Joseph Klein, a boy whose fascination with autographs proves infectious; his friendships with Adam and Rubinfine are cemented; and his father has dropped dead. This is enough action for an entire book, and in fact things slow down dramatically after page 35 of Zadie Smith’s sophomore novel The Autograph Man. When we meet Alex again, he is a grown man, an autograph dealer and devoted slacker, suffering the physical and spiritual after-effects of a three-day romance with a drug called “Superstar.” While under its malign influence, Alex has managed to wreck his sports car, alienate his girlfriend Esther, and–possibly–forge the rare autograph of his idol, the 1950s movie star Kitty Alexander. Will his friends save him from the embarrassment of trying to sell this suspect autograph? Will they pull him together in time to perform Kaddish on the 15th anniversary of his father’s death? Although not as enthralling or politically resonant as White Teeth, Smith’s hallowed debut, The Autograph Man amply demonstrates her ability to juggle several main characters, several themes, and a host of plots and subplots, with the occasional purely comic episode thrown up in the air beside them like a chainsaw or a cheesecake. Readers will want to step away to a safe distance during the chaotic final scenes. (Amazon.com review) 

 

Thiong’oNgugi wa,     A Grain of Wheat 

Originally published in 1967, Ngugi’s third novel is his best known and most ambitious work. A Grain of Wheat portrays several characters in a village whose intertwined lives are transformed by the 1952-1960 Emergency in Kenya. As the action follows the village’s arrangements for Uhuru (independence) Day, this is a novel of stories within stories, a narrative interwoven with myth as well as allusions to real-life leaders of the nationalist struggle, including Jomo Kenyatta. At the centre of it all is the reticent Mugo, the village’s chosen hero and a man haunted by a terrible secret. As events unfold, compromises are forced, friendships are betrayed and loves are tested. (Publisher’s description) 

 

Thomas, Scarlett,     The End of Mr. Y 

Available in the library, borrow or reserve it now in the catalogue

A cursed book. A missing professor. Some nefarious men in gray suits. And a dreamworld called the Troposphere? Ariel Manto has a fascination with nineteenth-century scientists—especially Thomas Lumas and The End of Mr. Y, a book no one alive has read. When she mysteriously uncovers a copy at a used bookstore, Ariel is launched into an adventure of science and faith, consciousness and death, space and time, and everything in between. Seeking answers, Ariel follows in Mr. Y’s footsteps: She swallows a tincture, stares into a black dot, and is transported into the Troposphere—a wonderland where she can travel through time and space using the thoughts of others. There she begins to understand all the mysteries surrounding the book, herself, and the universe. Or is it all just a hallucination? With The End of Mr. Y, Scarlett Thomas brings us another fast-paced mix of popular culture, love, mystery, and irresistible philosophical adventure. (Publisher’s description) 

 

Tuck, Lily,     The News from Paraguay 

A rich historical novel – part love story and part tragedy – about the Irish courtesan Eliza Lynch, and how she became mistress to one of South America’s first, and most extravagant, dictators. 1854. In Paris, Francisco Solano – the future dictator of Paraguay – picks up a blue feather fallen from the hat of a beautiful woman. With this small gesture begins his pursuit of the remarkable Irish courtesan Eliza Lynch. Captivated by a unique courtship involving a poncho and a Paraguayan band, Eliza follows Francisco to Paraguay where she reigns as his mistress. Isolated and estranged in this new world, she embraces her lover’s ill-fated imperial dream – one fuelled by a heedless arrogance that will devestate all of Paraguay, and throw this European woman into a world of unprecedented privilege, ruthless exploitation and even revolution…With the urgency of the narrative, the rich romantic detail, and a wealth of skillfully layered characters, The News from Paraguay recalls the vibrant colour of Isabel Allende and the epic sweep of Mario Vargas Llosa. (Publisher’s description) 

 

Waters, Sarah,     The Night Watch 

Moving back through the 1940s, through air raids, blacked out streets, illicit liaisons, sexual adventure, to end with its beginning in 1941, The Night Watch is the work of a truly brilliant and compelling storyteller. This is the story of four Londoners – three women and a young man with a past, drawn with absolute truth and intimacy. Kay, who drove an ambulance during the war and lived life at full throttle, now dresses in mannish clothes and wanders the streets with a restless hunger, searching …Helen, clever, sweet, much-loved, harbours a painful secret …Viv, glamour girl, is stubbornly, even foolishly loyal, to her soldier lover …Duncan, an apparent innocent, has had his own demons to fight during the war. Their lives, and their secrets connect in sometimes startling ways. War leads to strange alliances …Tender, tragic and beautifully poignant, set against the backdrop of feats of heroism both epic and ordinary, here is a novel of relationships that offers up subtle surprises and twists. The Night Watch is thrilling. A towering achievement. (Publisher’s description) 

 

Wolff, Tobias,     Old School 

Available in the library, borrow or reserve it now in the catalogue

Tobias Wolff’s Old School is at once a celebration of literature and a delicate hymn to a lost innocence of American life and art. Set in a New England prep school in the early 1960s, the novel imagines a final, pastoral moment before the explosion of the Civil Rights movement, the Vietnam War, the assassination of John F Kennedy, and the suicide of Ernest Hemingway. The unnamed narrator is one of several boys whose life revolves around the school’s English teachers, those polymaths who seemed to know “exactly what was most worth knowing”. For the boys, literature is the centre of life, and their obsession culminates in a series of literary competitions during their final year. The prize in each is a private audience with a visiting writer who serves as judge for the entries. At first the narrator is entirely taken with the battle. As he fails in his effort to catch Robert Frost’s attention and then is unable–due to illness–to even compete for his moment with Ayn Rand, he devotes his energies to a masterpiece for his hero, Hemingway. But, confronting the blank page, the narrator discovers his cowardice, his duplicity. He has withheld himself, he realises, even from his roommate. He has used his fiction to create a patrician gentility, a mask for his middle-class home and his Jewish ancestry. Through the competition for Hemingway, fittingly, all of his illusions about literature dissolve. Near the end of the novel, the narrator imagines that he might one day write about his school days. But he is daunted. “Memory”, he says, “is a dream to begin with, and what I had was a dream of memory, not to be put to the test”. Old School enters this interplay between dreams and the adult interrogation of memory. Risking sentimentality, Wolff confronts a golden age that never was. From the confrontation, he distills a powerful novel of failed expectations and, ultimately, redemptive self-awareness. (Amazon.com review)