JOE’s 100 books to read before you die
It's book month here at JOE and we are celebrating the simple pleasure of making time to read.
In an age of digital distraction it can be tough to read as much as you might want to, but whether you prefer a paperback, audiobook or ebook - we've come up with a comprehensive list of books that are sure to satisfy and expand your understanding of the world.
A Feast of Snakes – Harry Crews
A true piece of gothic deep south Americana to kick off, Crews gives you washed-up sportsmen, dog fighting, a bodybuilding lawyer, sexually frustrated majorettes, a racist, rattlesnakes and a very dark sheriff in a slice of dirty realism. Powerful and utterly compelling.
A Fine Balance – Rohinton Mistry
Set during “The Emergency”, the 21-month period between 1975 and 1977 which saw huge political unrest, detention, torture and forced sterilisation in India, Mistry captures the desperate beauty of the country through the eyes of four strangers who've fled the caste violence to share one cramped apartment and an uncertain future. “A panorama of the human spirit in an inhuman state."
A Heart-breaking Work of Staggering Genius – Dave Eggers
The story of how Eggers’, after the death of his parents, one after the other in the space of 32 days, was left to care for his eight-year-old brother. Profoundly moving, inventive, hilarious and angry, it’s the story of how one Generation X’er with designs on fame manages to hold his family together.
American Psycho – Bret Easton Ellis
Vilified upon release because of its horrific violence towards women, American Psycho is the story of Patrick Bateman, Wall Street businessman and serial killer. Irvine Welsh recently called it “one of the two zeitgeist pieces of fiction that defined America at the end of the last century” and “literature’s most indispensable and savage exegesis of the society we’ve created”. It also contains a scene where Batemen walks around with a severed head on his penis. So, you’ve been warned.
American Tabloid – James Ellroy
This is Ellroy at his most coruscating, delivering a compelling and detailed view of the American underworld from the late 1950s to the assassination of JFK, encountering the mob, Howard Hughes, the FBI, the Bay of Pigs and the CIA along the way. Dark, devastating and brutal, Tabloid - the first part of his Underworld USA trilogy - is a literary work of art and one of the great novels of the 20th Century.
Among the Thugs – Bill Buford
The definitive guide to hooligan culture, Buford spent more than eight years invested in football, mainly immersed with the Manchester United firm the Inter City Jibbers and witnessing riots, beatings and stabbings alongside characters such as Barmy Bernie, Daft Donald and Steamin’ Sammy. In 2008, Richard Danzig, senior advisor to President Obama called the book “one of the best I’ve ever read on terrorism in recent years.” Hand to hand combat in Sardinia, street fighting in London, this is a tale of how we find the sickening attractive.
Bad Blood – Jeremy Whittle
Lance Armstrong, EPO, blood bags, the Tour de France, doping, cheating, cycling. Bad Blood is the blistering story of Jeremy Whittle's journey from unquestioning fan to confirmed sceptic. It's a tale of broken friendships and a sport divided; about having to choose sides in the war against doping. Part personal memoir, part devastating exposé of a sport torn apart by drugs and scandal, it’s a love letter to one man's past, and it is utterly brilliant.
Beloved – Toni Morrison
Staring unflinchingly into the abyss of slavery, this is heavyweight storytelling: a frightening, beautiful and suspenseful ghost story cum horror about America and its past told through the eyes of Sethe: born a slave but haunted by the memories of her childhood home and the ghost of her baby who died nameless, whose tombstone is engraved with a single word: Beloved.
Berg – Ann Quin
Containing one of the great opening lines of fiction, "A man called Berg, who changed his name to Greb, came to a seaside town intending to kill his father," Quin’s novel is by turns dark, gritty, haunting and brutal. Set in Brighton, it’s the story of a travelling hair tonic salesman with murderous intent. It also contains the mutilation of a ventriloquist's dummy. Much like American Psycho, don’t pretend you’ve not been warned.
Birdsong – Sebastian Faulks
One of the greatest war novels ever written, Birdsong tells the story of Stephen Wraysford who travels to France before World War One, falls in love and never returns. Wraysford joins the army and leads a brigade of soldiers to the front line for the first day of the Somme. It is a world of unspeakable carnage and conveys the remarkable claustrophobia of battle both above and below ground.
Blood Meridian – Cormac McCarthy
McCarthy’s finest work, it tells the story of a nameless protagonist known only as “The Kid” who joins John Joel Glanton’s real-life gang of American mercenaries to combat the Apaches and Comanche’s with whom they struggled over territory, before killing and collecting the scalps from the peaceful, Indigenous peoples, and then from the very Mexican citizens they were hired to protect. It is the Great American novel.
Brooklyn – Colm Toibin
This is a story for dreamers: Eilis Lacey, the heroine of Brooklyn, dreams of a better life. She leaves Ireland in the early 1950s for New York in search of it, finding a job and then falling in love with a man who wants nothing more than to have sons who grow up and play baseball for the hometown Dodgers. Everything is perfect until a phone call from home changes everything. It’ll break your heart a little bit.
Butchers Crossing – John Williams
Will Andrews leaves Harvard and his life on the east coast, longing for wildness, freedom, hope and vigour. In the small town of Butchers Crossing, Kansas he meets a hunter with a story of a lost herd of buffalo in a remote Colorado valley, just waiting to be taken by a team of men brave and crazy enough to find them. Will makes up his mind to be one of those men, but the journey, harsh conditions and sheer hard luck will test his mind and body to their limits.
Columbine – Dave Cullen
Cullen tells the story of the Columbine massacre through the eyes of the perpetrators and the survivors. A local journalist who covered the atrocity, he also addresses many of the so-called ‘Columbine myths’ including whether the attack had anything to do with school bullying, jocks, the goth subculture, Marilyn Manson or the Trench Coat Mafia, and reveals Klebold and Harris originally intended to bomb the school. Depressingly brilliant.
Deliverance – James Dickey
A group of middle-aged friends in search of the wilderness experience that has been missing from their big city lives go canoeing one weekend. “You’re hooked, you feel every cut, grope up every cliff, swallow water with every spill of the canoe, sweat with every draw of the bowstring. Wholly absorbing [and] dramatic”, was how Harper’s Magazine described it upon its release. And they were right. Cue duelling banjos and squealing pigs.
Different Seasons - Stephen King
A collection of four novellas, two of which – The Body and Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption – were turned into generational movies: Stand By Me and The Shawshank Redemption. The Body is 142 pages, Shawshank just 91 but both underline King’s genius. An absolute must read.
Dodgers – Bill Beverly
East, a low-level lookout for a LA drug organisation, is sent on a journey - along with three peers including his trigger-happy brother - through white, rural America to assassinate a judge in Wisconsin. Leaving the only home they’ve ever known in a nondescript van, with a roll of cash, a map and a gun they shouldn’t have, the four youngsters drive across the US - part road trip, part coming of age drama – before they face the ultimate life choice. Magnificent.
Fat City – Leonard Gardner
Perhaps one of the sleeping giants of modern literature, Fat City tells the story of an ex-boxer drawn back into the ring, and an 18-year-old up and comer who wants to be a pro. Set around the Lido Gym, the Hotel Coma, Main Street lunchrooms and any number of dingy bars in small town California, it was Gardner’s only novel and should put him in that pantheon of great one-book authors alongside Harper Lee, Ralph Ellison and Emily Bronte.
Fatherland – Robert Harris
A truly majestic piece of speculative fiction, Fatherland is set in a world where Hitler won the Second World War. A German policeman investigates a conspiracy involving the deaths of high-ranking Nazis and must decide how much he’s prepared to sacrifice in order to discover the darkest secrets of the victorious Third Reich. This is storytelling as its absolute peak.
Final Rounds – James Dodson
James Dodson always felt closest to his father while they were on the links – sandy, undulating courses around the edges of the British Isles. So it seemed only appropriate when his father learned he had just two months to live that they’d set off on the golf journey of their dreams, to play the most famous courses in the world. This is a true story of fathers and sons, long-held secrets, and the lessons a middle-aged man can still learn from his dad about life, love, and family. You’ll almost certainly cry.
Four Iron in the Soul – Lawrence Donegan
Another book about golf that’s not actually about golf at all. It’s the wickedly funny story of one man’s search for sporting glory. Cruelly denied the professional career he yearns because of a basic lack of talent, Donegan lives out his dream through someone else: the world number 438, Ross Drummond, who employs the author as his caddy for a season to forget on the European Tour.
Friday Night Lights – HG Bissinger
In the state of Texas, American football is a religion. And nowhere is more fanatical about its football than the small town of Odessa. There, every Friday night from September to November, a bunch of seventeen-year-old kids play their hearts out for the honour of their high school. In front of 20,000 people. In 1988 H.G. Bissinger spent a season in Odessa discovering just what makes a town pin its hopes on eleven boys on a football field. Simply put, it’s one of the greatest sports books of all time.
GB84 – David Peace
Peace’s fifth novel is perhaps the least talked about, falling as it does between the Red Riding Quartet and The Damned United. It’s a tale of the Miners' Strike of 1984, reconstructing the ways in which the strike was provoked, fought and broken. But it’s also a documentation of the violence, sleaze and fraudulence that characterised Thatcher's Britain and set the government against the people.
Gentlemen Prefer Blondes – Anita Loos
The story of Lorelei Lee, made famous by Marilyn Monroe in the film of the same name, she’s the small-town girl from Little Rock who is the archetype of the footloose, good-hearted gold digger with a penchant for champagne and diamonds. Lee is one of the great fictional characters of the 20th century.
Harry Potter – JK Rowling
Tough to pick one book so just read them all. Rowling is a creative genius, and the idea for Potter was formed during a delayed train journey between London and Manchester. No excuses next time there’s leaves on the line.
His Dark Materials – Philip Pullman
A remarkable trilogy of books, Pullman manages to make the three novels about a young girl and her daemon – the external physical manifestation of a person's 'inner-self' that takes the form of an animal – absorbing, thrilling and spectacular in their narrative, but also a terrifying and radical blend of metaphysical speculation and a great political allegory for today’s world. A true modern classic.
Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets – David Simon
There is no joy in this book. It is grim, depressing and upsetting and there are no happy endings. However, Simon does an extraordinary job of getting under the skin and into the minds of the Baltimore Homicide officers. The book also became the basis of The Wire and there are many characters you’ll recognise from the sprawling HBO series. Joyless mastery.
Housekeeping – Marilynne Robinson
The story of Ruth and Lucille, orphans growing up in the small desolate town of Fingerbone in the vast northwest of America. Abandoned by a succession of relatives, the sisters find themselves in the care of Sylvie, the remote and enigmatic sister of their dead mother, a strange drifter who becomes the central character of the story. Loved by President Obama, it’s considered Robinson’s masterpiece.
I Was Told to Come Alone – Souad Mekhennet
A staggering tale of journalistic endeavour as Mekhennet journeys to the heart of jihad, through the German neighbourhoods where the 9/11 plotters were radicalised, the Iraqi streets where Sunnis and Shia turned against one another, to the Syrian border under the grip of the Islamic State. Mekhennet also reveals how she uncovered the identity of Jihadi John via a quite incredible, edge-of-the-seat tale of late night rendezvous, burner phones and secret codes.
In A Lonely Place – Dorothy B Hughes
A true noir classic, Hughes’ prescient 1947 novel exposed misogyny in post-World War II American society, making it far ahead of its time. It’s the story of a former fighter pilot turned strangler who preys on young girls because he misses the excitement of dogfights in the skies.
In Cold Blood – Truman Capote
It’s almost 60 years since Holcomb, Kansas was devastated by the slaughter of a local family. Capote, who’d read of the tragedy in a small newspaper clipping, travelled from New York to chronicle the impact of the murders on the tiny community and in doing so re-constructed the crime, studying the subsequent investigation and the reprehensible yet frighteningly human killers who did it. One of the truly great works of 20th century American writing.
Into Thin Air – Jon Krakauer
On May 10th, 1996, Krakauer was on one of three expeditions near the summit of Mount Everest when a storm hit. Into Thin Air tells the story of hurricane-force winds, exposure and the effects of altitude that left eight people dead, the worst single-season death toll in the peak’s history. It’s a page-turning epic of misadventure and underlines what happens when you push the human body beyond its boundaries.
Jamrach’s Menagerie – Carol Birch
Set dually in 19th century Wapping and on a three-year adventure to find a dragon on the high seas, it tells the story of Jaffy Brown the narrator at the centre of this mythic tale, who rivals Ishmael of Moby Dick with his gift for storytelling. As one reviewer wrote: “Never mind not being able to put it down, there is a 100-page section in which you’ll not be able to breathe. Rarely have I read a book that so deftly marries high literary value with unbearable suspense.”
Jesus’ Son – Dennis Johnson
Another short-story collection, this is, simply put, 11 interlinked tales of violence, tenderness, promiscuity, alienation, salvation and addiction. ‘Talk into here. Talk into my bullet hole. Tell me I’m fine.’ Jesus’ Son is a sad little masterpiece.
Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth – Chris Ware
The first graphic novel to appear on our list, and the first to win a major literary prize – the Guardian First Book Award. It’s the tragic autobiography of an office dogsbody in Chicago who one day meets the father who abandoned him as a child. It is, as The Independent wrote, “An epic monument to communication breakdown and the mundane surrealism of ordinary life.”
If you're new to graphic novels, here's where to begin. https://t.co/RQqdEj8nqL
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A Kestrel for a Knave – Barry Hines
Treated as a failure at school and unhappy at home, Billy Casper discovers a new passion in life when he finds Kes, a kestrel hawk who inspires in him the love that nothing else in his life can. This is powerful storytelling of a tough and ultimately joyless world, about how dreams, no matter how brief, can save us, and open parts of ourselves that we didn't know existed. And note: the famous PE lesson contains no Brian Glover but is no less glorious because of it.
Last Exit to Brooklyn – Hubert Selby
Described by various reviewers as “hellish” and “obscene” on publication, Last Exit to Brooklyn is a testament to urban cruelty. It tells the stories of New Yorkers who at every turn confront the worst excesses in human nature. It was also the subject of a successful private prosecution for obscenity brought by Tory MP Sir Cyril Black in 1967, in the main because of its graphic descriptions of gang violence and sex. Allen Ginsberg once declared that it would "still be eagerly read in 100 years". He’s unlikely to be wrong.
Lolita – Vladamir Nabokov
One of the most controversial novels of the twentieth century, Lolita is a strange, troubling story, the tale of a man’s obsession with a 12-year-old girl. Is he in love or insane? Poet or pervert? A tortured soul or a monster? Or is he all of these? “Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta.”
Looking for Mr Goodbar – Judith Rossner
“On impulse she walked up Third, stopping in front of a place called Luther’s that looked crowded enough to be comfortable. You could walk right in and walk right out, which was important because she’d once again taken only her keys.” It is Theresa’s story: she is a teacher by day, but by night she cruises single bars looking for love. “And if she couldn’t find love, she took chances on men who better than no men at all.”
Matilda – Roald Dahl
Matilda Wormwood is special, but her parents hardly notice her at all; they’re much more interested with fiddling customers at her fathers’ second-hand car business, playing bingo or eating TV dinners. And it’s not much better at school where the headmistress, Miss Trunchbull rules with a rod of iron. Dahl’s classic contains the line, “I'm right and you're wrong, I'm big and you're small, and there's nothing you can do about it,” and for that alone it’s worth reading.
Matterhorn – Karl Marlantes
If ever a book was crying out for film adaptation, this is it. More than thirty years in the writing, it’s a Vietnam War masterpiece, allowing you to experience the visceral terror of combat first hand. Marlantes, a decorated war veteran, transports you to a jungle near Laos in 1969 as 180 Marines who are fighting for their lives in a war none of them understands, build, abandon and re-take an outpost on a remote hilltop. It’s an extraordinary tour de force.
Maus – Art Spiegelman
The second graphic novel on the list, Maus is also the greatest book of its genre. Dealing with the harrowing wartime experiences of his father, Vladek, a Polish Jew and survivor of Auschwitz, it's biography, autobiography and historical memoir presented in cartoon format, with Jews represented as mice (the rodent metaphor taken straight from Hitler's own propaganda) and Nazis as cats. “An epic story told in tiny pictures”, it’s a true masterpiece and the first graphic novel to win a Pulitzer Prize.
Miami Blues – Charles Willeford
Described by Ellmore Leonard as “one of the greatest detective creations of all time”, Willeford’s ‘hero’, Hoke Moseley chases bad guys through flop houses, urban ghettoes, luxury hotels and the seedy suburban sprawl of Miami. It’s the story of dim-witted hookers and the murder of a Hare Krishna pimp. Quentin Tarantino cited Miami Blues as one of the major influences on Pulp Fiction and it’s easy to see why.
Mindhunter – John Douglas and Mark Olshaker
The FBI Special Agent who was the inspiration for Jack Crawford in The Silence of the Lambs explains how he invented and established the practice of criminal profiling by interviewing hundreds of killers to ‘create’ behavioural science. If you loved the Netflix TV drama of the same name, then this is for you. This is a frightening look inside the mind of the depraved.
Moby Dick – Herman Melville
Man, boat, whale. As Robert McCrum wrote in The Guardian, “Moby-Dick is the great American novel whose genius was only recognised long after its author was dead. From its celebrated opening line ("Call me Ishmael") it plunges the reader into the narrator's quest for meaning "in the damp, drizzly November of my soul".
My Father and Other Working-Class Football Heroes – Gary Imlach
Winner of the William Hill Sports Book of the Year, it is an exquisitely observed piece of writing about the relationships between fathers and sons and what happens when the older generation passes on. At its heart is a football story but it’s way more significant than that: simply put, it’s a beautiful personal history.
Mystic River – Dennis Lehane
Lehane is a heavyweight of American fiction and they don’t come much more heavyweight than this. It’s the powerful story of childhood friendship and doomed lives. Three boys play in the street when a car draws up. Dave gets into the car, Sean and Jimmy don't. What happens to Dave changes him and the nature of their friendship irrevocably. Fast forward 25 years. Sean is a cop, Jimmy is an ex-con running a café and Dave is struggling to fight his demons. Then Jimmy's daughter is murdered. It’s a hard-boiled crime classic.
My War Gone By, I Miss it So – Anthony Loyd
Soon to be a movie starring Tom Hardy, this is an extraordinary memoir of military conflict and personal battle as ex-infantry officer Loyd arrives in Bosnia hoping to become a war correspondent and finds himself embedded in the chaos of the Balkan war. It is cruel and chaotic, heart-breaking, remarkably descriptive and truly frightening.
Never Let Me Go – Kazuo Ishiguro
Ishiguro imagines the lives of a group of students growing up in a darkly skewered version of contemporary England. Narrated by Kathy, now 31, the book dramatises her attempts to come to terms with her childhood at the seemingly idyllic Hailsham School, and with the fate that has always awaited her and her closest friends in the wider world. As fragile as it is beautiful.
Night Games: Sex, Power and a Journey into the Dark Heart of Sport – Anne Krein
Another William Hill Sports Book Award winner, this one delves into the dark heart of Aussie Rules Football, specifically the macho sexual culture and one player’s trial for rape. “The Pies beat the Saints and the city of Melbourne was still cloaked in black and white crepe paper when the rumour of a pack rape by celebrating footballers began to surface. By morning, the head of the sexual crimes squad confirmed they were preparing to question two Collingwood players ... And so, as police were confiscating bed sheets from a townhouse in Dorcas Street, South Melbourne, the trial by media began.”
Perfume: The Story of a Murderer – Patrick Suskind
A terrifying examination of what happens when one man's indulgence in his greatest passion - his sense of smell - leads to murder. A brilliant tale of obsession, death and depravity in eighteenth century France.
Red Riding Quartet – David Peace
The second appearance for Peace, this time for his first work. These four novels spanned the titular years - 1974, 1977, 1980, 1983 - and were a semi-fictional chronicle of police corruption, child abuse and the framing of Stefan Kiszko drawn against a backdrop of the Yorkshire Ripper's murderous spree, something the author was obsessed with as a child. This is ferocious writing from a modern literary genius.
Salvage the Bones – Jesmyn Ward
Set in the small town of Bois Sauvage, Mississippi in the days before Hurricane Katrina, Salvage the Bones is a wrenching look at the lonesome, brutal and restrictive realities of rural poverty as seen through the eyes of 15 year old Esch who’s been having sex with her brothers’ friends since she was 12 because "it was easier to let him keep on touching me than ask him to stop".
Seabiscuit – Laura Hillenbrand
Hillenbrand was the first woman to win the William Hill Sports Book of the Year and rightly so for this majestic tale of a racehorse in the 1930’s and 40’s. A bandy, good for nothing nag who somehow became one of the greatest horses of all time, her descriptions of the incredible race between the protagonist and his great rival War Admiral in November 1938 are some of the finest writing in this list.
Skyfaring – Mark Vanhoenacker.
The window seat is the best seat on the plane. That’s not up for debate. But how often have you wondered about the myriad things you see through that window and not known the answers? Vanhoenacker, a pilot for British Airways gives you them, and many, many more in a beautiful, contemplative love letter to flight and to nature’s wonders.
Speedboat – Renata Adler
With respect to Mike Skinner this was cult classic and best seller. The story of a young female newspaper reporter coming of age in New York was originally published serially in the New Yorker; it’s made out of seemingly unrelated vignettes: tart observations distilled through relentless intellect which add up to an analysis of our brittle, urban existence.
Strangers on a Train – Patricia Highsmith
Highsmith’s debut novel is a classic. Guy and Bruno are two passengers in the same carriage. One is a successful architect in the midst of a divorce, the other a sadistic psychopath who manipulates Guy into swapping murders with him. “Some people are better off dead,” Bruno remarks, “like your wife and my father, for instance.” As Bruno carries out his plan, Guy is trapped in Highsmith’s world, where, under the right circumstances, anybody is capable of murder.
Station 11 – Emily St John Mandel
An audacious, suspenseful, elegiac and glittering novel set in the eerie days of civilization's collapse after a flu epidemic, Station Eleven tells the story of a Hollywood star, his would-be saviour, and a nomadic group of actors roaming the scattered outposts of the Great Lakes region, risking everything for art and humanity. Game of Thrones author George RR Martin called it “the best book of 2014”. He’s not wrong.
Swallows and Amazons – Arthur Ransome
If you didn’t read this as a child, then frankly I fear for your formative years. The Walker children - Captain John, Mate Susan, Able-Seaman Titty, and Ship's Boy Roger - set sail on the Swallow and head for Wild Cat Island. But their days are disturbed by the Blackett sisters, the fierce Amazon pirates. The two sides battle it out, and so begins a summer of unforgettable discoveries and incredible adventures. “Swallows and Amazons forever!”
20,000 Streets Under the Sky – Patrick Hamilton
Hamilton’s masterpiece, this trilogy is set inside The Midnight Bell, a pub on the Euston Road. It’s here where the barman, Bob, falls in love with Jenny, a West End prostitute who comes in off the streets for a gin and pep. Around his obsessions, and Ella the barmaid's secret love for him, swirls the sleazy life of London in the 1930s. A world of twenty thousand streets full of cruelty and kindness, comedy and pathos, wasted dreams and lost desires.
The Age of Innocence – Edith Wharton
Beautifully satirical yet dark and sometimes disturbing, Wharton’s comedy of manners, desire and betrayal during the Golden Age of Old New York – a time when society people “dreaded scandal more than disease,” - won the Pulitzer Prize in 1923.
The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay – Michael Chabon
“An astounding book, everything a great story should be,” wrote novelist Shelley Harris. Chabon combines tension, comic books, Hitler, superheroes, escapology and the Empire State Building into an absolute must-read.
The Art of Fielding – Chad Harbach
It took ten years to write and was turned down by numerous agents. But The Art of Fielding wears the Great American Novel glove perfectly. It’s the old-fashioned tale of a young baseball shortstop on the verge of the big leagues, who suddenly gets the yips: Henry Skrimshander can no longer throw. Capturing the dreams and insecurities of provincial America, this is big boy writing at its very best.
The Beach – Alex Garland
The classic story of paradise found - and lost. Richard lands in East Asia in search of utopia. He’s given a map promising an unknown island, a secluded beach and a new way of life. The reality is breath-taking: more extraordinary, more frightening than his wildest dreams. But paradise only lasts so long. Suspenseful, it hints at something bigger, better, but finds only disappointment and bloodshed.
The Boys of Summer – Roger Kahn
Considered by many as the greatest sports book of all time, The Boys of Summer is the story of the young men who learned to play baseball during the ‘30s and ‘40s and went on to play for the Brooklyn Dodgers team that broke the colour barrier with Jackie Robinson. A story about what happened to Jackie, Carl Erskine, Pee Wee Reese, and the others when the glory days were behind them and a book about fathers, sons and the making of modern America.
The Football Shirts Book – Neal Heard
Just so we’re clear, the Juventus top of the 1980’s with the ARISTON logo is the GOAT of football shirts. Heard’s book is the definitive connoisseurs guide to kits: iconic classics, design gems, rare shirts from the Mexican third division alongside strips from Tibet.
The book explores the links between sport, music, fashion and politics and you’ve truly not lived till you’ve seen Medureira Sporting Club’s 2013 classic home shirt.
The Goldfinch – Donna Tartt
It begins with a boy, Theo Decker, a thirteen-year-old New Yorker, who survives an accident that kills his mother. Abandoned by his father, Theo is taken in by the family of a wealthy friend. Bewildered by his strange new home, disturbed by schoolmates who don't know how to talk to him, and tormented by his unbearable longing for his mother, he clings to one thing that reminds him of her: a small, mysteriously captivating painting that ultimately draws Theo into the underworld of art. 11 years in the making, this is a furious page turner.
The Handmaid’s Tale – Margaret Atwood
Perhaps the greatest living novelist, this is Atwood’s masterpiece. The story of life in the dystopia of Gilead, a totalitarian society that was once the USA, it is a blistering, frightening and remarkable work of science-fiction, highlighting the terrible things humans can do to one another.
The Heat of the Day – Elizabeth Bowen
A wartime spy classic, Bowen brilliantly recreates the tense and dangerous atmosphere of London during the bombing raids of World War II. The selling of secrets, the price of silence, trust and betrayal, this novel highlights the intimacy of crisis and the thrill of the chase.
The Holocaust – Laurence Rees
Rees spent twenty-five years meeting both survivors and perpetrators of the Holocaust. This is a combination of those eyewitness testimonies, many published for the first time. The SS soldiers who burned down villages, the guards who stole from Jews on the way to their deaths and the heartbreaking stories of survival and loss. Brutal and difficult to read but incredibly important writing.
The Invisible Man – Ralph Ellison
First published in 1952 and immediately hailed as a masterpiece, The Invisible Man is one of those rare novels that have changed the shape of literature. For not only does Ellison's nightmare journey across the racial divide and his efforts to forge an identity – to become a visible man - tell unparalleled truths about the nature of bigotry and its effects on the minds of both victims and perpetrators, it gives us an entirely new model of what a novel can be.
The Journalist and the Murderer – Janet Malcolm
"Every journalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible." So begins Malcolm’s examination of the ethics of journalism and the professional choices that shape a work of non-fiction, seen through the prism of a lawsuit between Jeffrey MacDonald, a convicted murderer, and Joe McGinniss, the author of a book about the crime (and who’s featured later on his own merits).
The Long Goodbye – Raymond Chandler
Goodbye, arguably Chandler’s greatest Philip Marlowe novel was written under extraordinary circumstances – his wife was dying of fibrosis of the lungs - and underwent a massive re-write when his agents rejected what he believed to be the final draft. Regardless, the story of down and out drunk Terry Lennox is a masterpiece of crime fiction.
The Looming Tower – Lawrence Wright
This is the definitive account of the run-up to 9/11: from the man who lit the spark of radical Islam in 1948, to those who built up a terror network, and to the FBI agent whose warnings of 'something big' coming were ignored until the Twin Towers fell. Big time, thrilling non-fiction storytelling.
The L-Shaped Room – Lynne Reid Banks
Pregnant by accident, kicked out of home by her father, 27-year-old Jane Graham goes to ground in the sort of place she feels she deserves - a bug-ridden boarding-house attic in Fulham. She thinks she wants to hide from the world but finds out that even at the bottom of the heap, friends and love can still be found. This book will remind you of the goodness in people. God knows we need some of that!
The Miracle of Castel di Sangro – Joe McGinnis
McGinnis had an odd literary life: he penned the great Nixon-era classic, The Selling of the President, then featured in Janet Malcolm’s The Journalist and the Murderer before walking out of the OJ Simpson trial, handing back a huge contract in the process to head for Italy to spend a season with a local team who’d made it to the dizzying heights of Serie B. This is unquestionably one of the great footballing books ever written, conveying scandals, a compelling relegation battle and a host of fairy-tale performances.
The Outcast – Sadie Jones
Beautifully crafted and wonderfully suspenseful, this isn’t a thriller but feels like one. The story of a 19-year-old boy, straight out of jail, who returns to the village he grew up in where a decade earlier a tragedy tore his family apart, leaving him to a troubled adolescence with a father he barely knew. This is an astonishing first novel.
The Plot Against America – Philip Roth
Like Robert Harris’s Fatherland this is a masterful ‘what-if’ story in which Charles Lindbergh, the aviation hero and Nazi sympathiser, is elected President in 1940, leading to the widespread persecution of Jews in the United States. As the New Yorker magazine wrote, "Many passages echo feelings voiced today by vulnerable Americans – immigrants and minorities as alarmed by Trump’s election as the Jews of Newark are frightened by Lindbergh."
The Refugees – Viet Thanh Nguyen
Another book that resonates in the current climate, The Refugees is eight short stories giving voice to lives led between two worlds, the adopted homeland and the country of birth. "Required reading for every politician in this era of wall building and xenophobia."
The Remains of the Day – Kazuo Ishiguro
Truly one of the most beautiful books on the list it tells the story of Stevens, a long-serving butler at Darlington Hall, who takes a trip through the West Country in the summer of 1956. The six-day excursion becomes a journey into the past of Stevens and of England, a past that takes in fascism, two World Wars, and an unrealised love between the butler and his housekeeper.
The Road – Cormac McCarthy
Is this the greatest love story ever told? The tale of a man and his son walking through a post-apocalyptic America to the coast and potential ‘safety’. With just a pistol to defend themselves against the lawless bands that stalk the road, the clothes they’re wearing, a cart of scavenged food - and each other, this incredible novel which contains one of the most remarkable scenes ever committed to print, won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 2007.
The Secret History – Donna Tartt
If Atwood or McCarthy aren’t the greatest living novelists, then perhaps it’s Tartt who appears for the second time on our list. Under the influence of their charismatic classics professor, a group of clever, eccentric misfits at an elite New England college discover a way of thinking and living that is a world away from the humdrum existence of their contemporaries. But when they go beyond the boundaries of normal morality they slip gradually from obsession to corruption and betrayal, and at last - inexorably - into evil.
The Siege of Krishnapur – JG Farrell
The Siege of Krishnapur does exactly what it says on the tin. Or the dust jacket: a British outpost on the plains of Northern India, is laid siege to. The community - generally accustomed to every luxury available in a British colony – are subjected to inexorable bodily degradation and so prepare to fight for their lives with what weapons they ca muster.
The Snow Leopard – Peter Matthiessen
This is an account of Matthiessen’s journey, alongside field biologist George Schaller through the Himalayas to the Crystal Mountain on the Tibetan plateau. The pair wanted to study the wild blue sheep, the bharal, but also hoped to see the snow leopard, a creature so rarely spotted as to be nearly mythical. It is an incredible journey documented with great care and wonderful description.
The Talented Mr Ripley – Patricia Highsmith
A product of a broken home, branded a "sissy" by his dismissive Aunt Dottie, Tom Ripley becomes enamoured of the moneyed world of his new friend, Dickie Greenleaf. This fondness turns obsessive when Ripley is sent to Italy to bring back his friend. Latterly a film with Matt Damon and Jude Law, it remains a superior novel.
The Tears of Autumn – Charles McCarry
Mark Lawson recently wrote in The Guardian that McCarry’s classic is “one of the three best literary explorations of the JFK assassination” and “the one that perhaps explains what most plausibly happened” McCarry’s thesis is that the Vietnamese ordered Kennedy killed in revenge for his administration’s killing of Ngo Dinh Diem and his brother. It’s hard to believe there’s ever been a greater espionage novel.
The Things They Carried – Tim O’Brien
“In war, there are no winners,” O’Brien told NPR. "I carry the memories of the ghosts of a place called Vietnam - the people of Vietnam, my fellow soldiers. More importantly I carry the weight of responsibility, and a sense of abiding guilt." This collection of short stories about O’Brien’s platoon fighting on the ground during the conflict is a brutal summation of conflict, of America’s involvement, and her coming to terms with that experience in the years that followed.
The Thirty-Nine Steps – John Buchan
Easily the greatest chase novel of all time, this edge of the seat page turner was actually penned in bed in 1914 as Buchan recovered in a nursing home from a duodenal ulcer. A thrilling tale of spies, doppelgangers and assassins, it centres around the plot to steal Britain’s naval plans. And the title? Named after a flight of wooden steps which led down to the beach from the grounds of the aforementioned home.
The Underground Railroad – Colson Whitehead
This is a magnificent tour de force chronicling a young slave's adventures as she makes a desperate bid for freedom in the antebellum South. Whitehead brilliantly re-creates the unique terrors for black people in the pre-Civil War era, seamlessly weaving between the brutal importation of Africans to the unfulfilled promises of the present day.
The Worst Journey in the World – Apsley Cherry-Garrard
The New York Review of Books pegged this gripping account of an expedition gone disastrously wrong as being "to travel what War and Peace is to the novel. A masterpiece." And it is. Easily the most celebrated and compelling book about Antarctic exploration, it recounts Robert Falcon Scott's ill-fated expedition to the South Pole. Cherry-Garrard was the youngest member of Scott's team and one of only three men to survive the notorious Winter Journey.
There’s an Ouch in my Pouch – Jeanne Willis
The first and only book for small children on our list is a classic. "What is the matter with Willaby Wallaby? Why is he sobbing and throwing a wobbly?" Try reading it in an Australian accent. Then try reading it to small children in the same accent. Then watch their faces. Then when they’ve gone to bed, read it again. Why? Because it’s absolutely magic!
Tilting at Windmills – Andy Miller
Remarkably, the third book about golf on our list. But this is less Amen Corner and more ramps, spinning wheels and yes, windmills. Miller hates sport and doesn’t understand our national obsession with it. Apart from crazy golf. He’s obsessed with crazy golf. So, he joins the circuit – yes, there’s a crazy golf circuit – which takes him from the Skegness seafront to the European Championships in Latvia, where he’s the sole member of the British team. This hilarious tale is what happens when a sporting atheist finds sporting religion.
To Die in California – Newton Thornburg
Perhaps the most beautiful and devastating novel on the list, Thornburg, a forgotten genius who died alone in a Seattle nursing home, penned this back in 1973. Informed by the police that Chris his son has committed suicide, David Hook, an Illinois farmer, knows this cannot be true. He knows that something else must have happened in California to cause the death of his son, who loved life too much to take his own. Heading west, he discovers corruption, immorality and pain that shocks him to the very core. The book I give friends as a gift.
To Kill A Mockingbird – Harper Lee
"Shoot all the bluejays you want, if you can hit 'em, but remember it's a sin to kill a mockingbird." A lawyer's advice to his children as he defends the real mockingbird of Harper Lee's classic novel - a black man charged with the rape of a white girl. Through the young eyes of Scout and Jem Finch, Lee’s only novel explores the irrationality of adult attitudes to race and class in the Deep South of the 1930s. A true literary masterpiece.
True History of the Kelly Gang – Peter Carey
In Carey’s Booker Prize winner, the legendary Ned Kelly speaks for himself, scribbling his narrative on errant scraps of paper in semiliterate but magically descriptive prose as he flees from the police. To his pursuers, Kelly is nothing but a monstrous criminal, a thief and a murderer. To his own people, the lowly class of ordinary Australians, he is Robin Hood, defying the authority of the English to direct their lives. It is a classic outlaw tale, brought to life by Carey’s remarkable "ventriloquist" act.
Watchmen – Alan Moore
Has any comic been as acclaimed as Moore’s Watchmen? Alongside the illustrations of Dave Gibbons, this award winning graphic novel chronicles the fall from grace of a group of super-heroes plagued by all-too-human failings. It also paved the way for the current cultural obsession with the genre.
Watership Down – Richard Adams
Adams originally began telling the story of Watership Down to his two daughters who insisted he publish it as a book. It’s the story of Hazel, Fiver, Silver and Bigwig, of shotguns, farmers with dogs, bad dreams, and a mythical rabbit named El Ahrairah. It’s about family, journey and survival and is firmly rooted as a British institution akin to the Bank of England, the BBC and Clare Balding.
We Have Always Lived in the Castle – Shirley Jackson
Jackson's beloved gothic tale of a peculiar girl named Merricat Blackwood and her family's dark secret takes you deep into a labyrinth of dark neurosis. It’s a deliciously unsettling book about a perverse, isolated, and possibly murderous family and the struggle that ensues when a cousin arrives at their estate.
What We Talk About When We Talk About Love – Raymond Carver
This powerful collection of stories – including the short that inspired the play at the heart of Oscar winner Birdman – is set in the mid-West among the lonely men and women who drink, fish and play cards to ease the passing of time. With its spare, colloquial narration and razor-sharp sense of how people really communicate, it’s a haunting meditation on love, loss, and companionship.
Wolf Hall – Hillary Mantel
The final book on our list finds England a heartbeat from disaster in the 1520s. If the King dies without a male heir, the country could be destroyed by civil war. Henry VIII wants to annul his marriage of twenty years and marry Anne Boleyn. The pope and most of Europe opposes him. Into this impasse steps Thomas Cromwell: a charmer and a bully, both idealist and opportunist, astute in reading people, and implacable in his ambition. This is Mantel’s masterpiece and never have 650 pages gone so quickly.