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.

Page Turning – Quick Reviews

So I set myself the target of reading forty books this year. I’m still on track with seventeen cleared already and another three or four en route for completion by the end of this month.

I’m getting through some great books,  and while the population of my bookshelves has continued to grow as my to-read list builds I haven’t yet dropped full whack on a book -some I’ve been lucky enough to be sent in exchange for a review, others were gifts and many the result of second-hand book shop hauls. I’m very keen to expand my collection of works by several authors like James Ellroy and my Discworld collection is growing but I don’t like, and this is purely an aesthetic comment, so seek out their older versions.

Anywho. A few of those read so far include…

Iron Gustav by Hans Fallada

I, like many others, discovered and fell in love with the writing of Hans Fallada when  Alone In Berlin was published in English, so many decades after his death. Since then I’ve been devouring whatever Fallada book I can get my hands on, if only the publisher – aware of the demand for this particular German writer – wouldn’t price them so highly for a standard paperback.

Reading Iron Gustav is like reading a master-class in fiction. Fallada was not only an astoundingly talented writer – creating hugely intricate and tightly woven portraits of everyday people and their struggles – but also witness to some of history’s most fascinating and shocking events. Written in 1938 Iron Gustav portrays the hardships bought upon a Berlin family – as a microcosm of Germany itself – following World War One. Forced by the Nazi regime to extend its timeline to include that party’s rise and rewrite chapter, Fallada was left with little choice but to acquiesce and also rewrote the ending. This version gets as close as possible – 70 years after the author’s death –  to Fallada’s original story and is an absolute joy to read. A hugely powerful and important novel restored from the dark past. I simply cannot get enough of Fallada’s writing.

 Galapagos by Kurt Vonnegut 

Another writer of whom I simply can’t get enough is Kurt Vonnegut. It was a while before I picked up Slaughterhouse 5 but once I’d had my first sip of this master’s work I wanted the whole bloody goblet. Galapgos, another very apt satirical take on mankind’s failings, is the story of a handful of people who, stranded on the island of Santa Rosalita, become mankind’s last hope after a superbly funny series of events lead to the collapse of the World’s economy, a mass conflict and all of the planet’s women becoming infertile.  

While it’s not my favourite of Vonnegut’s work on my shelves – at this point I’d give that to Mother Night – it’s another fine addition and a real blast to read.

The Spy Who Came in from the Cold by John le Carré

Last year I read and thoroughly enjoyed Joseph Kannon’s Leaving Berlin. The combination of spy thrill and the Cold War fascinated me and I wanted more so I thought – after constantly seeing references to his work – it was time to give John le Carré a go. I read the first few paragraphs of The Spy Who Came in from the Cold a read online, was hooked so ordered the whole thing and… well…. meh.

I really, really wanted to enjoy this book. I did. The opening is a real hook and the plot itself is certainly a classic in terms of its intricacy and espionage but… I don’t know. This took me far too long to get through and at times it felt like a slog. Maybe it’s down to the main character simply not being all that much of a draw, maybe it’s the writing style feeling a little too dated or just the fact that (spoiler alert) I so dislike an ending that renders having spent the previous 300 pages becoming invested in the characters so bloody pointless that it actually made me angry. The same could be said for Dominion and that bastard was 700+ pages of drudgery.

Still, I’m not completely turned off the idea of John le Carré so may try another in time to come. Plus the Cold War still proves a fascinating era and a very potent backdrop for fiction….

Stasi Child by David Young

I was seeing this book all over the place last year – social media, book shops etc and finally got around to picking a copy up this year. And, given the statement above, and the premise how could I not; “East Berlin, 1975. When Oberleutnant Karin Müller is called to investigate a teenage girl’s body at the foot of the Wall, she imagines she’s seen it all before. But when she arrives she realises this is a death like no other. It seems the girl was trying to escape – but from the West.

Stasi Child is a very well plotted and gripping thriller. It bounds along and it’s sense of place and time is very carefully and skilfully woven in without being heavy handed with the contrast between life in the East and West very convincingly portrayed without resorting to tired cliché and tropes. Almost perfect and I’m very much looking to more from David Young – I see Stasi Wolf was published this year – and the series.