60 The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje (1982)
Although set in wartime, the war is an almost incidental backdrop to the characters which is the real focus of the book. It reveals by degrees the truth behind the eponymous patient and the emotional turmoil caused by his love affair with a married woman. This in turn leads to reflections by the characters who are around him on their own lives and feelings. It has an intensity arising out of the empathy the reader feels for the characters who face their own limitations in a moving and believable way.
59 Trainspotting by Irvine Welch (1993)
Written largely in the dialect of the Edinburgh underworld the characters inhabit, this is a hard book to read not only due to the language but the subject matter. The lives it describes are chaotic and to a greater or lesser extent fuelled by heroin addiction and violence. It is uncompromising and forces the reader to endure the many degradations the central characters put themselves through. Not for the faint hearted.
58 The Hound of The Baskervilles by Arthur Conan Doyle (1901)
This, the most famous Sherlock Holmes tale, was the first writtten by Conan Doyle after a hiatus following the killing off of his detective character and his nemesis Moriarty at the Reichenbach Falls in The Final Problem. However, this story is set before those events and it was not until the later Adventure of the Empty House, that Holmes returns and explains how he survived the fight at the falls and what he has been doing in the interim. The plot is suitably complicated but Holmes’s deductions do not rely on too much information withheld from the reader. What sets this apart from many Homes stories, which are in essence puzzles to demonstrate his brilliance, is the way the Devon moor becomes almost a character in its own right and brings an atmosphere of menace and foreboding that is not often found in the shorter stories.
57 2001: A Space Odyssey by Arthur C Clarke (1968)
An extended version of an idea first seen in Clarke’s short story The Sentinel published in 1951. Focuses on getting the science right and thereby creating a sense of the ordinariness of space travel, making it a day to day routine, which makes it more credible. It introduces artificial intelligence and talking computers that have since come to be part of our lives. It has epic scope – taking man on the evolutionary journey from pre-human through to the near future.
56 The Collector by John Fowles (1963)
A disturbing novel in which the reader hears both sides of the story – the kidnapper and the kidnapped. It ends with the kidnapper deciding that he will kidnap another victim. The plot has been rehashed many times to the point of being a cliche but it is rarely pulled off with quite such insight into the psychology of both people. Read in the light of subsequent psychological theories around Stockholm Syndrome (the events which highlighted this potential bonding of kidnapper and victim took place in 1973 after the book was published) the victim appears more objective than might be expected about her fate but it is nevertheless a compelling read.
55 I Am Legend by Richard Matheson (1954)
A pulp horror fiction novel that, although ostensibly about vampires, is a clear precursor of the zombie genre with a lone man fending off the hoards of undead following a devastating plague that has wiped out the human population. However, it is for its portrayal of loneliness that I find this novel so remarkable. It addresses not only what would the last man do but what might he feel, what might he be going through.
54 The Day of The Jackal by Frederick Forsyth (1971)
This novel pulls off two separate tricks successfully. It maintains tension in a cat and mouse tale of an attempt to assassinate the French President de Gaulle when the reader knows that de Gaulle was not assassinated. It also manages to create sympathetic characters of both the assassin and the detective attempting to foil him and have the reader rooting for both. Meticulous research gives the book the air of authority which makes it credible.
53 Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll (1865)
A fantasy story with fantastical, imaginative characters. Although written for children, the book contains many logical and humourous quirks which appeal to adults. Not the least of the puzzles the book offers is that of identifying who within the author’s circle of friends, and famous figures of the age, including politicians, might be represented by each of those characters.
52 The Jewel In The Crown by Paul Scott (1966)
The first, and to my mind, the best of Scotts Raj Quartet. This book is sympathetic in its treatment of Indians and unflinching in its portrayal of the racist attitudes and prejudices of the English – both the colonial aristocrats and the working class – the latter personified by the central character Merrick. It is not lost on the reader that the irony in the fate which befalls the Indian Hari Kumar is self-inflicted by his adherence to principles of honour that are grounded in his English upbringing.
51 Brave New World by Aldous Huxley (1932)
Although on the face of it a science fiction work, it was more a satire of contemporary life, industrialisation and the dumbing down of culture. The humour is not easy for readers of a later era to follow and so it is on its more philosophical consideration of themes about fairness in society or the lack of it that are now seen as more important. As such it has an important status that may outweigh the author’s original intentions. He described it as a “little gentle leg-pulling” of HG Wells for his idealised Utopia novels.