Turning Pages: 50 Great Reads

So we’ve entered that time of the year known as ‘List Season’.

I don’t think I can honestly drop a ‘Best of 2018’ list this year as I’ve only given a handful of new albums a real deep listen and most of my reads this year were not published in 2018 so it would be a case of shuffling those into an arbitrary order. Plus – who gives a flip.

However… an ALL TIME list… now that’s something that’s always worth sitting up and paying attention to in between wrapping up gifts and eating your own body weight in Christmas dinner, right?

Well, William over at a1000mistakes recently dropped two such lists – 50 Great Reads and a Top 50 Movies. I don’t think I could get a list of 50 films together but books… that I can do.

So, without further preamble, here are my 50 favourite books /reads in no order other than alphabetical – though if it’s in bold it’s in the Top 10. This is also limited to fiction or I’d have been here all day:

Wasted Morning – Gabriela Adameșteanu

How to Be Brave – Louise Beech 

Captain Corelli’s Mandolin-  Louis de Bernières

Birds Without Wings – Louis de Bernières

Heart of a Dog – Mikhail Bulgakov

The Master and Margarita – Mikhail Bulgakov*

Confessions – Jaume Cabré

The Moonstone – Wilkie Collins

White Noise – Don DeLillo

Crime and Punishment – Fyodor Dostoyevsky

LA Confidential – James Ellroy

Perfidia  – James Ellroy

Alone In Berlin – Hans Fallada

Iron Gustav – Hans Fallada

Birdsong – Sebastian Faulks 

Hell at the Breach – Tom Franklin

The Corrections – Jonathan Franzen

The Diary of a Nobody – George & Wheedon Grossmith

Epiphany Jones – Michael Grothaus

The Good Soldier Svejk – Jaroslav Hašek

Catch-22 – Joseph Heller

A Farewell to Arms – Ernest Hemmingway

Flowers for Algernon – Daniel Keyes

The President’s Last Love – Andrey Kurkov

Death and the Penguin – Andrey Kurkov

One Hundred Years of Solitude – Gabriel García Márquez

The Life of Pi – Yann Martell

Lolita – Vladimir Nabokov

Dr Zhivago – Boris Pasternak

Pyramids – Terry Pratchett

Men at Arms – Terry Pratchett

See You Tomorrow – Tore Renberg

The Little Prince – Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

For Two Thousand Years – Mihail Sebastian

Gorky Park – Martin Cruz Smith

Perfume – Patrick Süskind

One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich – Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn 

Where Roses Never Die – Gunnar Staalesen

Cannery Row – John Steinbeck

Pereira Maintains – Antonio Tabucchi

The Little Friend – Donna Tartt

A Fraction of the Whole – Steve Toltz

Jihadi: A Love Story – Yusuf Toropov

A Gentleman in Moscow – Amor Towles

The Man Who Died – Antti Tuomainen 

Journey to the Centre of the Earth – Jules Verne

Mother Night – Kurt Vonnegut

Slaughter House 5 – Kurt Vonnegut

Memoirs of Hadrian – Marguerite Yourcenar

The Shadow of the Wind – Carlos Ruiz Zafón

*Master and Margarita is, in all likelihood, my favourite read full stop. However, as with all translated fiction, finding the translation is crucial and can make or break a book. The Penguin edition published in 2006 with the blue cover is the best I’ve found and the fact that this was the version given to me as a gift by my wife one day in Oxford after she expressed disbelief that I’d not yet read it only helps ensure it’ll not be toppled from the top of this list.

Penguins, Presidents, Missing Digits, Cats and Time Travel

In my review of Juame Cabre’s outstanding Confessions, I mentioned that the novel gave me my first “book hangover.” I tried numerous times to start something fresh but could not get beyond a first paragraph.

So I turned to a book I’d been itching to read for some time from an author whose work I’d grown to love: The Gardener from Ochakov by Andrey Kurkov. B2AvSxRCcAEpAoN

Kurkov is perhaps best known for his 2001 work Death and the Penguin and its follow up Penguin Lost (I read these both as one piece in the collected ‘Penguin Novels’). These books bought him attention and comparisons aplenty. From Murakami to a modern-day Bulgakov. Subsequent novels expanded the canvas and character range yet met with a more muted response. But, let’s be honest, they’re asking too much. Even Bulgakov didn’t always hit the marks he hit in his masterpiece The Master and Margarita. Such tags are akin to branding any musician who appears with an acoustic guitar and a wordy hit as “the new Dylan”.

It’s inevitable, then, that those same critics will find fault in his subsequent work.

There are traits that you’ll find in the works of both authors but then you’ll find them in the works of many others, too: there’s an abundance of dark humour, satire, surrealism and the occasional talking animal and each can have a distinctly Soviet reference point – writing of times and people bound by communism and, later, the Iron Curtain and it’s echoes. Both are very much a joy to read too. Kurkov’s works are lighter (this isn’t meant as a negative in any way) and hugely accessible.

Perhaps the difference is that Bulgakov wrote at a time when the new oppressive rule of Russia was relatively fresh. Memories of a time pre civil-war highlighted the hardships the population was under. Kurkov’s novels are set in a post Iron Curtain world where the inhabitants of his story are coming to terms with the echoes of that time against the inbound surge of capitalism

From my point of view, there’s nothing “patchy” about his work since the Penguin books. I’ll go so far as to say The President’s Last Love is not only his best work to date but will stand up in my own Top Ten – a hugely original story with remarkable pacing and narrative structure and its mix of humour, tragedy and sublime absurdity is akin to that of an Eastern European DeBernieres.

His previous novel, The Milkman In The Night, was another tightly bound fantastical work with a plot involving a sleepwalker, a sniffer-dog, theft, a woman selling her breast milk, psychotic cats and, of course, plenty of misunderstandings.

The Gardener from Ochakov is another equally cracking read. Just read the back jacket:

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What’s contained within these pages is a light-hearted, time travelling adventure with Kurkov’s patent and potent mix of realism and fantasy (though no animals in this one), with thrilling drama mixing deftly with the mundane details of life.

There’s also a satirical nod to those that idealise the past under Communist, Soviet rule – those that will say, with a shrug, things like “ah yes but everybody had a job then”.

Thoroughly enjoyable and highly recommended.