Tom's Top 100 Novel Challenge
"There's more to life than
books you know, but not much more"
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:
Favourite books, in no particular order
Least favourite books, in no particular order
"What the?" - Right author, wrong book
"Where the hell?" - Books that should be there, but aren't
As to what's next? I was thinking about this...
So here's the list:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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.
Some good stuff about human nature and provincial life, but dragged down
by a pretty impenetrable plot and pages-long paragraphs of exposition.
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.
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.
Odd combination of old-fashioned melodrama and lengthy discussions about
early Victorian politics, neither especially interesting.
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.
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.
Another from Sheffield
days. The main image that resonates is that of the mad woman in the attic.
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.
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...
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.
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.
High Victorian melodrama.
Difficult to take seriously, but enlivened by the colourful, dastardly
The greatest kid's book
ever written. You can read it on any number of levels, you know.
hypocritical, sanctimonious rubbish. Strong contender for worst book on
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?
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.
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
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
movie now, which stars Yul Brynner and William Shatner...
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.
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.
Nominally set in London,
this fairly reeks of Edinburgh's old town where it was written.
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.
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.
Very, very funny, and a
wonderful portrait of a quintessentially English character. Mrs Pooter
comes across as a saint.
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.
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.
written right-wing nonsense with an overtly racist bent. I suspect this is
loved by those loony U.S. survivalist groups.
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.
Deeply weird English
pastoral, nothing like what I remember from my childhood. Sexist,
class-ridden, mystical and very enjoyable.
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.
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.
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.
The rule of thumb is that
good books make bad movies and vice versa. I really like the movie.
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.
Admirable, I suppose,
would be the word. I keep telling myself I should read more Woolf but I
have never summoned up the energy.
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.
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.
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?
never quite understood the appeal of Hemingway. Macho writing eschewing
such girlie flourishes as adjectives.
writing, but the most single-mindedly pessimistic book I have ever read.
for Graham Swift's ace Last Orders. Clever, evocative of the Deep
South but somehow uninvolving.
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.
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.
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.
but basically forgettable, I'm baffled about its inclusion here.
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.
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.
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,
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.
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.
Yet another children's
book, but one of the better ones here. It's, you know, for kids.
Well, if you haven't
read it by now I guess you never will. It's about this hobbit, see....oh
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.
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.
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!
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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).
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.
and haunting, with a fabulous black joke of a denouement.
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
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.
but not gripping. Like so many books about Africa, this is haunted by the
ghost of Conrad's "Heart of Darkness".
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.
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.
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".
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
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.
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.
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.
Very good, but hardly in
the league of Ishiguro's extremely ace The Remains of the Day.
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.
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?
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.
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.
Ruddy marvellous, as is
just about everything Carter wrote. Funny and touching whilst retaining
its bite, the perfect antidote to crap like #85.
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?
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.
Fantastic, and a
revelation for those such as me who only knew Roth through Portnoy's
Complaint. A great discovery for me.
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.