Site hosted by Build your free website today!

Tom's Top 100 Novel Challenge

Return to homepage

"There's more to life than books you know, but not much more"

Well, I've finally finished and what a lot of fun I've had. I've enjoyed the self-imposed discipline that using the list has imposed, and conversely I can't wait to get stuck into the backlog of stuff I've got waiting on my bookshelf - much of it non-fiction. I feel that I'm much more clued up about novels than I was 2 years years ago but I still don't consider myself well-read; further reading would include Middlemarch, Bleak House, Humphrey Clinker, Roderick Random, The Decameron, The Bible, The Koran, Dante, Milton, bits of Shakespeare...

Check out the original Observer article and a subsequent, largely ill-informed discussion.

Scroll down or click here for the full list and my individual comments on each book. Meanwhile I thought I would answer a few of the questions that have come up throughout in the form of a few lists, as follows:

Vital Statistics

bullet 100 novels
bullet 63 I had never read before starting out
bullet About 2 years - that's about 11 or 12 days per book
bullet Longest book: (6) Clarissa - 1500 pages
bullet Shortest book: I reckon it's (88) the BFG, but I could be wrong

Favourite books, in no particular order

  1. Don Quixote
  2. Tristram Shandy
  3. Dangerous Liaisons
  4. Emma
  5. The Way We Live Now
  6. Huckleberry Finn
  7. The Great Gatsby
  8. Lolita
  9. Money
  10. Wise Children

Least favourite books, in no particular order

  1. Clarissa
  2. Nightmare Abbey
  3. Little Women
  4. Call of the Wild
  5. Housekeeping

"What the?" - Right author, wrong book

  1. Daniel Deronda  - George Eliot (Middlemarch is the one most people rate as one of the great novels - though I've yet to read it)
  2. Nostromo - Joseph Conrad (Heart of Darkness, innit?)
  3. Lolita - Vladimir Nabokov (Pale Fire or Sebastian Knight for me)
  4. Haroun and the Sea of Stories - Salman Rushdie (Midnight's Children makes all the other lists, and I have a soft spot for Shame)
  5. Atonement - Ian McEwan (A close call, but Enduring Love is a remarkable book)

"Where the hell?" - Books that should be there, but aren't

  1. The Monk - M.G.Lewis (Hilariously OTT gothic romp)
  2. The Awakening - Kate Chopin (Everyone on my degree course loved it, no-one else has ever heard of it)
  3. P.G.Wodehouse - The Inimitable Jeeves (My knowledge of PGW is scant, but surely he's one of the greatest of all comic writers?)
  4. On Broadway - Damon Runyon (Short stories but with a novelistic feel, I'm saying. S'Wonderful)
  5. Graham Swift - Waterland (Stunning stuff both technically and emotionally)
  6. Not to mention American Psycho, Downriver, Possession, the Regeneration trilogy, The English Patient, Nice Work etc ad nauseam.....

As to what's next? I was thinking about this...

So here's the list:

1. Don Quixote Miguel De Cervantes 1605

Absolutely brilliant. The first modern novel, and one that proves that Spain was way ahead of England at this time. There are points, especially in part 2, where one could use the term post-modern were it not for the fact that modernism was still 300 years off. Written around the same time as Hamlet, the two heroes have a surprising amount in common.

2. Pilgrim's Progress John Bunyan 1678

Definitely in the worthy but dull category. The first part is quite fun, where the Pilgrim journeys to the Celestial City via lots of allegorical places like the Slough of Despond and Vanity Fair. Then in part two, his wife and family follow him via the exact same obstacles, which is rather a bore.

3. Robinson Crusoe Daniel Defoe 1719

Less exciting than I had hoped, this. Lots of detail about life on the island but an oddly structured narrative detracts from the feel. Perhaps I've been too conditioned about what to expect by the various adaptations.

4. Gulliver's Travels Jonathan Swift 1726

Don't know quite what to make of this one; some very good gags, lots of interesting-in-its-day satire, and a very odd ending wherein Gulliver can no longer stand human company and sits talking to horses all day.

5. Tom Jones Henry Fielding 1749

A good old romp and some lively characters make for an entertaining enough read, especially when the narrator is addressing the reader directly. In part a satire of the strait-laced pomposity of Samuel Richardson (an attitude of which I thoroughly approve) as well as a forerunner of the outrageous digressions of (7) Tristram Shandy.

6. Clarissa Samuel Richardson 1747

Well, what can I say? In turns tedious, interesting, cripplingly slow, sporadically entertaining; but most of all looong. 1500 pages is just unnecessary for such a slight tale; 10 months on one book, albeit with a number of breaks. Thank God that one's over, we must never speak of it again.

7. Tristram Shandy Laurence Sterne 1761

Certainly one of the great novels for me, despite the fact that it has no plot and even the title character disappears half way through. Read the first page and if you find the account of Tristram's conception funny, you'll want to read more.

8. Dangerous Liaisons Pierre Choderlos De Laclos 1782

I haven't actually seen either the movie or the stage play, which probably helps, so I found this worked very well as a page-turner as well as a satire. The characters are compellingly heartless, and you almost feel cheated when they get their comeuppance.

9. Emma Jane Austen 1815

Fantastic, obviously. Austen was amazing in her use of the ironic narrative voice (that'll be yer Free Indirect Discourse folks), which means that any adaptation of her work for film or TV is pretty pointless. Then again, I don't fancy Colin Firth.

10. Frankenstein Mary Shelley 1816

I always like a bit of Gothic, and this is one of the best and most demented. Incidentally, I would have included M.G.Lewis's The Monk on this list too.

11. Nightmare Abbey Thomas Love Peacock 1818

Erm, I was a little bemused by this. It's short and very funny in parts, but I felt it was satirising something that I didn't know anything about in the first place, like an Amazonian tribesman trying to make sense of The Office

12. The Black Sheep Honore De Balzac 1843

Nae bad. Some good stuff about human nature and provincial life, but dragged down by a pretty impenetrable plot and pages-long paragraphs of exposition.

13. The Charterhouse of Parma Stendhal 1838

Hmm. To be fair, I think I was reading a horribly clunky translation, because other people seem to find this great fun. Hard work for me.

14. The Count of Monte Cristo Alexandre Dumas 1844

I had great fun with this, a right old ripping yarn. It's long (1250 pages), but that's just about justified, partly because a central theme is the passing of time and the corrosive effects of obsession.

15. Sybil Benjamin Disraeli 1845

Odd combination of old-fashioned melodrama and lengthy discussions about early Victorian politics, neither especially interesting.

16. David Copperfield Charles Dickens 1849

Hopelessly sentimental, memorable characters, preposterous coincidence, creepy sexual politics, genuine emotion; but, most of all, extremely enjoyable. I saved this one for last and I'm very glad I did.

17. Wuthering Heights Emily Bronte 1847

I read this years ago at uni, but it still makes me feel quite emotional still, stirring stuff. An excellent version is available in semaphore.

18. Jane Eyre Charlotte Bronte 1847

Another from Sheffield days. The main image that resonates is that of the mad woman in the attic.

19. Vanity Fair William Makepeace Thackeray 1848

Looong. Well not that long actually but it feels like it thanks to a complete absence of plot. Interesting in a way, but probably more trouble than it's worth. 

20. The Scarlet Letter Nathaniel Hawthorne 1850

This was a slow read for a book of it's length, but the closing pay-off is very powerful. The strand of puritan fiction that starts with 2 Pilgrims Progress seems to have crossed the Atlantic with the Mayflower and is investigated both here and in...

21. Moby-Dick Herman Melville 1851

Lots of people get very frustrated with this book, but I love it all. The numerous digressions on whaling and other tangential matters take the whole thing onto a vaguely surreal level entirely in keeping with the plot. The central theme of obsessive madness makes it seem very modern. 

22. Madame Bovary Gustave Flaubert 

I was very excited coming on to Bovary, only to find that it was, well, alright I suppose. Much less interesting than the similarly proto-feminist Kate Chopin's The Awakening, which really ought to be on this list.

23. The Woman in White Wilkie Collins 1860

High Victorian melodrama. Difficult to take seriously, but enlivened by the colourful, dastardly villains.

24. Alice's Adventures In Wonderland Lewis Carroll 1865

The greatest kid's book ever written. You can read it on any number of levels, you know.

25. Little Women Louisa M. Alcott 1869

Yeeuugh. Sentimental, hypocritical, sanctimonious rubbish. Strong contender for worst book on the list.

26. The Way We Live Now Anthony Trollope 1875

Magisterial, funny and ragingly angry, this is a great work about the late Victorian age and about human nature. The rich are worshipped with no reference to morality, the establishment are racist and corrupt, and the press push their own agenda masquerading as news. Thank heavens we've moved on, eh?

27. Anna Karenina Leo Tolstoy 1876

Classic 19th century stuff covering the Big Themes (the individual trying to remain honest in a corrupt society, mainly) in a rip-roaring yarn. The autobiographical character of Levin really resonated with me on a personal level, too.

28. Daniel Deronda George Eliot 1876

Odd but impressive. Lord knows why the list's compilers went with this over Middlemarch, often regarded as the epitome of the intellectual Victorian novel, which I intend to read once I free myself from the shackles of Top 100dom.

29. The Brothers Karamazov Fyodor Dostoevsky 1879

Very long, and it takes a while to get going, but damn it's worth it. Thoroughly modern and, like Paradise Lost, succeeds in making the case for Satan far preferable to that of religion. I'm dying to see the movie now, which stars Yul Brynner and William Shatner...

30. The Portrait of a Lady Henry James 1881

D'you know, I really feared this one thanks to James's reputation for being difficult and austere. To my delight this turned out to be both highly readable and very rewarding. I'm looking forward to reading more.

31. Huckleberry Finn Mark Twain 1884

Just great. This was one of those that I was embarrassed not to have read when starting this list, and I was right to be so. You'll laugh, you'll be moved, you'll be irritated by the weak ending.

32. Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde Robert Louis Stevenson 1886

Nominally set in London, this fairly reeks of Edinburgh's old town where it was written.

33. Three Men in a Boat Jerome K. Jerome 1889

Probably the book that has made me laugh more than any other, absolutely hysterical and wonderful. The only rival on the score would be the Yes (Prime) Minister books, which I would think is a less mainstream choice.

34. The Picture of Dorian Gray Oscar Wilde 1891

This is a cracker, and it has the best prologue I've ever read, the one that ends "All art is quite useless". In which case, Oscar, why am I bothering with this list? What? Eh? Oh.

35. The Diary of a Nobody George Grossmith 1892

Very, very funny, and a wonderful portrait of a quintessentially English character. Mrs Pooter comes across as a saint.

36. Jude the Obscure Thomas Hardy 1895

I love a bit of Hardy, and this is probably his best, perhaps because it is so depressing. It also contains Hardy's best joke, at the start when Jude tries to drown himself but fails because the pond is frozen over. Kind of a precursor to those silent movies with Harold Lloyd and Buster Keaton.

37. The Riddle of the Sands Erskine Childers 1903

A boy's own yarn, which the title led me to expect would be set in a desert but actually takes place in some Dutch wetlands. It's about as exciting as the setting would suggest, but there are interesting political overtones presaging the Great War.

38. The Call of the Wild Jack London 1903

Badly written right-wing nonsense with an overtly racist bent. I suspect this is loved by those loony U.S. survivalist groups.

39. Nostromo Joseph Conrad 1904

Densely plotted and a little hard to follow, but ultimately perseverance paid off. There is some brilliant use of non-chronological narration where, for example, a body is found and then we flash back to how the character died, highlighting some clever ironies.

40. The Wind in the Willows Kenneth Grahame 1908

Deeply weird English pastoral, nothing like what I remember from my childhood. Sexist, class-ridden, mystical and very enjoyable.

41. In Search of Lost Time Marcel Proust 1913

Perhaps I cheated a little here, having only read vol.1 (Swann's Way), but if you have a problem with that then you read the whole goddam thing then get back to me. Actually, I enjoyed it once I'd settled into the languorous pace and scattershot chronology. Also some hair-raising naughtiness for its day, light years on from (22) Madame Bovary.

42. The Rainbow D. H. Lawrence 1913

Much better than I expected, it basically felt like Thomas Hardy with added adjectives. Quite a lot of sauce for a book of its time, too.

43. The Good Soldier Ford Madox Ford 1915

Famous for it's first line: "This is the saddest story I have ever heard". Interesting because it feels like a piece of art straining to be free of the conventional restraints of the time, soon to be exploded by the Great War and the subsequent development of Modernism.

44. The Thirty-Nine Steps John Buchan 1915

The rule of thumb is that good books make bad movies and vice versa. I really like the movie.

45. Ulysses James Joyce 1922

I finished it! No, really, I did. This isn't as hard to read as they say, so long as you accept that a lot of it will go flying over your head at a great height. Bits of it are brilliant, especially Molly's monologue. Best book of the 20th century? Maybe. It's certainly right up there.

46. Mrs Dalloway Virginia Woolf 1925

Admirable, I suppose, would be the word. I keep telling myself I should read more Woolf but I have never summoned up the energy.

47. A Passage to India E. M. Forster 1925

Dazzlingly good; I went through a Forster phase in my teens but somehow never got around to this, surely his masterpiece. Interestingly topical too, in it's study of how an occupying power and an occupied people will inevitably create violence even through the simplest of misunderstandings.

48. The Great Gatsby F. Scott Fitzgerald 1925

Insightful, moving and shocking. This is one of my favourite books, and although I've read it twice I mean to re-read it soon.

49. The Trial Franz Kafka 1925

Often spoken of in terms of social milieu (a Kafka-esque bureaucracy), I actually found this to be much more psychological, suffused as it is with religious and sexual imagery. really it's a dream sequence, perhaps even the dream of a guilty man?

50. Men Without Women Ernest Hemingway 1927

I've never quite understood the appeal of Hemingway. Macho writing eschewing such girlie flourishes as adjectives.

51. Journey to the End of the Night Louis-Ferdinand Celine 1932

Great writing, but the most single-mindedly pessimistic book I have ever read.

52. As I Lay Dying William Faulkner 1930

The model for Graham Swift's ace Last Orders. Clever, evocative of the Deep South but somehow uninvolving.

53. Brave New World Aldous Huxley 1938

I read this a few years back and thought...well, it's okay. The prose is not that much better than in, say, Philip K Dick or Ray Bradbury, and their ideas rather transcend the fairly dull dystopia presented here.

54. Scoop Evelyn Waugh 1938

Ace. Very quotable, and contains the most deliriously entertaining piece of deliberately bad writing I've ever read.

55. USA John Dos Passos 1937

Now, this is what I'm doing the top 100 thing for. A book I've never heard of, but it blew me away as a kind of American version of (45) Ulysses. A hugely ambitious panorama of early twentieth century America. I've only read volume one of the trilogy, but I'll read the rest soon.

56. The Big Sleep Raymond Chandler 1939

Brilliant, of course. Some of the snappiest one-liners ever written by an author who basically invented a genre. Not harmed by the brilliance of the movie either, although picturing Bogart, Bacall, Greenstreet and co undoubtedly defines your view of the characters.

57. The Pursuit Of Love Nancy Mitford 1945

Entertaining but basically forgettable, I'm baffled about its inclusion here.

58. The Plague Albert Camus 1946

I must admit that I started this with some trepidation, but it turns out to be extremely readable and strangely enjoyable. I must've missed a fair bit though - I still don't feel I know anything about the author's philosophy, except for that line that he learned most of it from football.

59. Nineteen Eighty-Four George Orwell 1948

Great, I even enjoyed the slab of faux political theory in the middle which many people skip. Orwell was a genius of the first order, check out the recent "Shooting An Elephant and other essays" if you don't believe me.

60. Malone Dies Samuel Beckett 1951

Checked beforehand with my in-house Beckett expert Ben Sherwood what this was like. His response was that "The title gives away the ending". He wasn't wrong, neither.

61. Catcher in the Rye J.D. Salinger 1951

Best enjoyed if you are a 16-year old boy full of hormones and undirected rage, which fortunately I was when I read it. I intend to go back as a bloke in his 30s full of, er, hormones and undirected rage. Plus ca change

62. Wise Blood Flannery O'Connor 1952

Strange comedy in the Southern Gothic tradition, which I enjoyed but was kinda glad that it didn't go on too long. Perhaps has more meaning for readers of a religious bent.

63. Charlotte's Web E. B. White 1952

Yet another children's book, but one of the better ones here. It's, you know, for kids.

64. The Lord Of The Rings J. R. R. Tolkien 1955

Well, if you haven't read it by now I guess you never will. It's about this hobbit, see....oh never mind.

65. Lucky Jim Kingsley Amis 1954

Vivid memories of everyone reading this for Modern Fiction at uni, and the seminar being a group rant at how bad it is. In retrospect we were probably too unkind, and I now smile at the utter pointlessness of Jim's thesis, having done my own equally futile one.

66. Lord of the Flies William Golding 1954

One of the most read books on the list, I imagine, a hardy perennial of school curricula everywhere. Darn good though. Poor old Piggy.

67. The Quiet American Graham Greene 1955

Wonderful stuff. Greene is one of those writers, like Orwell and Evelyn Waugh, who are not overt stylists but who combine great story-telling with an uncompromisingly moral and humane vision.

68 On the Road Jack Kerouac 1957

Written on a typewriter using a load of bits of paper stuck together so as not to interrupt the flow, the jazzy style prompting Truman Capote to comment "That's not writing, that's typing". He had a point, I think, this is fairly monotonous and makes a simple point expansively. If this gets on the list, how come Burroughs isn't here? Gah!

69. Lolita Vladimir Nabokov 1955

Nabokov is one of my all-time literary heroes, and this is the Famous One. Not his best (Pale Fire? Sebastian Knight?) but it has the most shocking subject matter. The roots of my theory that people who use English as a second language often use it in a more precise manner than those of to whom it is too familiar, cf (91) Kazuo Ishiguro.

70. The Tin Drum Gunter Grass 1959

Deeply weird but definitely brilliant...I think. The central device is superb, using an insane narrator to describe life in Danzig from the 1930s through to the postwar period - any sane narrator couldn't reflect the lunacy of the age.

71. Things Fall Apart Chinua Achebe 1958

Probably the best-known piece of African literature in the West, its inclusion here can't help but feel a tad tokenistic. I enjoyed it, though, and the ending is very powerful.

72. The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie Muriel Spark 1961

Impeccably written and structured, this starts of as a grown up version of the girls' school yarn, and then reveals itself to be something entirely more complex. Subtle and brilliant.

73. To Kill A Mockingbird Harper Lee 1960

I only read this staple of school curricula everywhere fairly recently, and you know what? It's over-rated. Ironically, the Boo Radleys went on to become the most under-rated band in the history of pop. 

74. Catch-22 Joseph Heller 1961

I love this book. Screamingly funny, coruscatingly intelligent and extremely moving. In its central themes of war and insanity given a post-modern hysterical treatment, it could be argued as the definitive twentieth century novel.

75. Herzog Saul Bellow 1964

Impressive but I think it is aging badly. The central antihero is a compelling figure, but what may have seemed outrageous in 1964 isn't any more. Perhaps I should try a more recent Bellow.

76. One Hundred Years of Solitude Gabriel Garcia Marquez 1967

Glorious but hard work. Best to read Marquez on a holiday when you can really concentrate and are unlikely to be distracted by the newspapers, or the latest I'm A Celebrity.

77. Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont Elizabeth Taylor 1972

I came to this in happy ignorance and it absolutely knocked my socks off: compassionate funny and extremely moving. Alright, I admit it, I blubbed. Well worth seeking out, I've no idea why it's so obscure.

78. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy John Le Carre 1974

I've read most stuff of Le Carre's, and the trilogy of which this is part one is just amazing. Politically and psychological insights of the first order. By the way, the traitor is (edited due to complaints).

79. Song of Solomon Toni Morrison 1977

Not Morrison's best this, I've read Beloved a couple of times and think it's beautiful. This has some lovely moments though, particularly the beginning and the end.

80. The Bottle Factory Outing Beryl Bainbridge 1974

Entertaining and haunting, with a fabulous black joke of a denouement.

1. The Executioner's Song Norman Mailer 1979

Long but always compelling true story about an intelligent but vicious criminal on Death Row. It's very uncomfortable to be in such close proximity to the man for so long.

82. If on a Winter's Night a Traveller Italo Calvino 1979

Oh my Lord, what a post-modern contraption of a book. Quite witty at first, but then you get the point and there's 200 pages still to go.

83. A Bend in the River V. S. Naipaul 1979

Impressive but not gripping. Like so many books about Africa, this is haunted by the ghost of Conrad's "Heart of Darkness".

84. Waiting for the Barbarians J.M. Coetzee 1980

Excellent if not exactly great, this notable for it's depiction of events that strongly mirror the current Iraq catastrophe: a powerful empire tries to destroy the neighbouring "barbarians" for morally murky reasons, resulting in Abu Ghraib-ish mistreatment of prisoners and so on. Thought-provoking.

85. Housekeeping Marilynne Robinson 1981

For crying out loud, how did this get here? It's the sort of pseudo-profound bobbins that gives feminist literature a bad name. Lifeless, witless and all-round useless.

86. Lanark Alasdair Gray 1982

Brilliant, dazzling stuff. An inspired amalgam of social realism, high fantasy, psychological study, literary playfulness and Blakean illustration. It's also extremely funny, particularly in the misleadingly-named "Epilogue".

87. The New York Trilogy Paul Auster 1986

This is clever-clever writing of a very high calibre indeed. Plenty of people find this stuff too uninvolving which is fair enough, but there's such a flinty intelligence here that I buy it. Reminiscent of the also oddly obsessional Nicholson Baker.

88. The BFG Roald Dahl 1982

This is ok, but I feel I speak the voice of reason when I state that James and the Giant Peach is clearly Dahl's magnum opus. The BFG is Rio Ferdinand's all-time favourite book; I leave you to draw your own conclusions on that score.

89. The Periodic Table Primo Levi 1975

Not a novel, actually, but a memoir based on metaphorical links between Levi's work as a chemist and his extraordinary experiences as a human being, most notably as a Holocaust survivor. Wonderful - I plan to read more.

90. Money Martin Amis 1984

I think people tend to love or hate Amis, especially since his public profile has grown so hugely and controversially. I confess to being something of a fanboy, and this is just a sensational novel. Brutally satirical and containing more exciting prose than just about any other contemporary author.

91. An Artist of the Floating World Kazuo Ishiguro 1986

Very good, but hardly in the league of Ishiguro's extremely ace The Remains of the Day.

92. Oscar And Lucinda Peter Carey 1988

The only Australian author on the list. Some would say that this demonstrates the culturally blinkered Euro-centric worldview of the Observer staff. I would say that it's because Carey is the only world-class writer they've got, and this novel really is world-class.

93. The Book of Laughter and Forgetting Milan Kundera 1978

Beautifully written, thought-provoking and often very funny. Made me re-think some of my set-in-stone antipathy to anything resembling patriotism; would I feel the same if my country could cease to exist tomorrow?

94. Haroun and the Sea of Stories Salman Rushdie 1990

Somehow I've manage to read a fair bit of Rushdie without having read Midnight's Children, which is the good one, or The Satanic Verses, which is the famous one. This is an odd choice for the list then, but I enjoyed it very much, especially the shocking pun involving fishes with plentiful maws.

95. La Confidential James Ellroy 1990

Exception to the rule alert: good book, but the movie is better. The plot is hellishly difficult to keep track of and Ellroy tries to build tension by use of clauses instead of sentences, which grates after a while. The sheer cynicism/corruption of the "good guys" is entertaining and, scarily, realistic.

96. Wise Children Angela Carter 1991

Ruddy marvellous, as is just about everything Carter wrote. Funny and touching whilst retaining its bite, the perfect antidote to crap like #85.

97. Atonement Ian McEwan 2001

Yes, it's brilliant, and McEwan is the only real rival to Amis as a current writer in my reckoning. Once again, though, this seems an odd choice - Enduring Love, surely?

98. Northern Lights Philip Pullman 1998

Thoroughly enjoyed the whole trilogy, whilst still doubting whether it can really classify as a great work - what is it with this list and children's literature? After finishing this lot, perhaps I should gird my loins and have a go at Paradise Lost, which this book reflects.

99. American Pastoral Philip Roth 1997

Fantastic, and a revelation for those such as me who only knew Roth through Portnoy's Complaint. A great discovery for me.

100. Austerlitz W. G. Sebald 2001

What a disappointment.  I'd really looked forward to this after reading rapturous reviews, and even halfway through I was still wondering whether you were supposed to view the narrator as a clever parody of a self-obsessed pretentious idiot. Turns out it wasn't a parody, and I was supposed to take this guy seriously. Oh, well.

Page last updated 21/09/2005