A symphony of a novel. When I read it first I was 12. Now I am 82, and ever since then it has reverberated, like the rolling thunder of Beethoven, the changing cadences of Sibelius. I see vast, Turner-like canvases of light and dark. Against this backdrop, the characters play out the eternal moral struggle. No metaphysical confusion here: cruelty, revenge and betrayal against innocence, kindness and love. Good finally triumphs after the long journey to self-knowledge
JOAN CHRESESON, SHREWSBURY
Read this book with your ears. Flick the pages: Klicketyklicketyklicketyklick klick...klick. Klick. Hear the soundings. The pleasure of this book is the sound - suck the words like strange sweets. There's a fathomless well of meaning - hard to understand - but you can catch it in the physical act - like life - out the side of yer eye: fragments - disjointed, dislocated, frankenwords; a misunderstood monster of a book.
KEVIN GILDEA, DUN LAOGHAIRE, CO DUBLIN
Imagine the Nebraskan prairies - not just the sight of the raw sunburnt land and endless skylines, but the scent of the dark earth, the shrill wind gusting round farm buildings and the sharp crack of ice on winter puddles. Antonia Shimerda is the girl whose immigrant family struggle in this harsh environment in the late 19th century. To Jim Burden, she is "My Antonia" and through his eyes, Cather recreates the intimate joys and tragedies of prairie life.
ELEANOR RAWLING, ABINGDON
It's a round-the-world trip for a global age. It's restless. It's invigorating. It's as confident in Ulan Bator as it is in London or New York. It's a lovestruck jazz fan, an illiterate peasant, a shadowy terrorist. It's a delicate cat's cradle of stories which only just connect. It's self-aware. It's a meditation on what writers do. It's about how vast the world is, and how small, what draws us together, and our capacity to destroy one another. It's a whirlwind. A vital, vivacious novel.
SUSAN MANSFIELD, EDINBURGH
HEART OF DARKNESS
Tension, danger, surreal intensity in abundance, but the novel is also a mirror. Ostensibly a voyage up the Congo, it charts our psyches, reflects our selves. The tropical river sweats with fear, power-hunger, lust, cruelty, greed, exploitative racism, but Conrad hints that we too inhabit "one of the dark places of the earth". (Do our leaders, wallowing in " the fascination of the abomination" murmur in nightmares, "The horror! The horror!"?) Only Marlow, a reasonable narrator, offers humane alternatives.
NICK STANLEY, CHELTENHAM
THE THIRD POLICEMAN
Fiction on stilts. O'Brien's surreal comedy of crime and punishment defies the laws of literary physics to create a philosophical fantasia out of a ha'penny murder mystery. Its narrator is a scholar/murderer who fetches up in the police barracks of a rural Irish parish. Composed in wartime, this novel spawned a fondness for the bizarre in Irish humour, but its imitators never matched its intuition that common sense is a kind of madness shared by a whole community.
CAROL TAAFFE, DUBLIN
BRAVE NEW WORLD
This vision of bleak totalitarianism seems even more relevant now than when it was first written. In a future world where children are grown in bottles and the concept of family is shocking, one man, Bernard Marx, miserably views society as it really is - shallow and cold. With headlines about cloning research, excessive drug use and issues of faith, it's not hard to draw parallels between these and the brave new world's babies in bottles, Soma tablets and worship of Ford.
BRYONY BATES, (AGED 13), REDHILL
A LANDING ON THE SUN
A mystery, a love story, and an exploration of the nature of happiness and the limits of government. In 1991, I thought the idea of government taking an interest in happiness a fantasy. In 2002, the Prime Minister's Strategy Unit produced a paper on Life Satisfaction; its opening pages quote from this novel: "I should say that happiness is being where one is and not wanting to be somewhere else." Quite right.
MARILYN MASON, KINGSTON-UPON-THAMES
Jacob's Room is the story of a life told in circles that never completely coincide. The novel starts and ends with an absence: a widow writes a letter; death is a pair of shoes in an empty room. In between, we encounter myriad people: some meet life head on, others lightly brush it. The space around a life can be as revealing as the life itself.
JUDITH CRAWFORD, STAMFORD
THE PICTURE OF DORIAN GRAY
Oscar Wilde writes in the preface to this, his only novel, that 'there is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book', but the story itself encourages one to disagree. It excels as a deeply moral book - an audacious satire on the superficiality of Victorian society, made manifest in the life of Dorian Gray, who sells his soul to sin in order to retain his youth and beauty. Yet, if like Dorian you are indifferent to a lesson in morality, there is reason enough to indulge in this novel solely for Wilde's dazzling prose. In dressing his savage critique most elegantly in top hat and tails, the novel triumphs, above all else, as a testament to Wilde's wit and literary genius.
The Picture Of Dorian Gray is a work of art, and is quite simply as it exhibits.
LYNDAY GILLOT, RUISLIP
LADY CHATTERLEY'S LOVER
Having giggled my way through Lady Chatterley as a 16-year-old (skimming the intellectual stuff to get to the rude bits), I was surprised how engaging and stimulating I found it the second time round ... The rude bits are still great too!
CAROLINE BROWNE, LONDON, SW18
Guiseppe de Lampedusa
It's half satire and half love poem to a decaying Sicily. It's exotic and funny and features a contemptuous, lazy, capricious prince whose power is waning. The internal monologues are superb, ending in a powerful, lingering death scene as oblivion floods in.
CAMPION ROLLINSON, LEEDS
A TOWN LIKE ALICE
Joe and Jean are separated after the Japanese invasion of Singapore and spend much of the 1940s and '50s crossing hemispheres trying to find each other. Descriptions dry as the outback, and action and characters as vivid as Uluru at sunset brought grainy post-war London and the Great Barrier Reef to life.
GERMAINE FAIRCLOUGH, BILLERICAY
George MacDonald Fraser
Flashman magnificently refutes "The good end happily, the bad unhappily", Miss Prism's definition of fiction. Thomas Hughes condemned the bully but Fraser makes his version the anti-heroes' anti-hero, brilliantly evading both the Taliban of his time and any lingering prejudices the reader has against roasters of small boys.
JOHN CROOKS, HAMPSHIRE
THE KITE RUNNER
In his debut novel, Hosseini shows us his very personal perspective on the tragedies and upheavals in modern Afghanistan, written with the love and sorrow of enforced exile.
ANNEMARIE GREEN, WARMINSTER
It avoids the tedium of much epic fantasy by offering sharp observation of a decaying institution's lesser species and predators, a sense of fascination in watching a dynasty of misfits expire.
SAM PIKER, HIGH WYCOMBE
The characters travel worldwide, the hero seeking his ideal woman, the others their ideal conference lecture, "Textuality as Striptease". In a superb comic episode, summer school students voyage perilously on Lake Innisfree, the uneducated in pursuit of the unedifying.
JOANNA CROOKS, LONDON SW15
This is the only novel I have ever wanted to
live in, to swap my humdrum 21st-century existence for the seedy glamour of Steinbeck's perfect, down-at-heel, mongrel, Californian community. And who wouldn't yearn for melancholic Doc, the huge-hearted but distracted marine biologist modelled on Steinbeck himself?
HELEN BETTINSON, BY E-MAIL
COLD COMFORT FARM
The writing of
Cold Comfort Farm is remarkably like its heroine: sharp, intelligent, witty. This neatness of style is also fitting, given Flora Poste's other defining characteristic: a passionate dislike of all that is messy. Such praise makes the book sound a little solemn. But it is hilarious, spearing pretentious prose with its wicked satire and puncturing melodrama with sound common sense.
SARAH DAVIES, LONDON W4
Beckett draws us into a world of splendid bleakness and dogged despair. He is such a rare treasure: an honest intellectual with a courageous sense of humour. This, his first novel, is accessible to all. Thank your meaningless stars, read it and have a laugh.
JOHN FARQUHAR, BY E-MAIL