Based on books read over the years, this entirely subjective list are of books that I have read repeatedly. Some of the books defy categorising into one particular genre, but are books that have inspired, shocked and been thought-provoking. Included are award-winning authors and authors where it has been tough to choose the one title out of many.
- The Hobbit (1937) and Lord of the Rings (1954-1955) by J.R.R. Tolkien – A blend of British adventure stories, European mythology and fantasy, begins with The Hobbit, and then the trilogy of the Lord of the Rings.
- Weaveworld (1987) by Clive Barker – Nominated in 1988 for the World Fantasy Award for Best Novel, his tour de force of a dark fantasy exposes the magical and surreal in ordinary life and explores the terror that arises from this.
- Dune (1966) by Frank Herbert – Set several thousand years in the future, this multi-award winning title has plots sitting within plots within plots. This is the first in an unfinished series due to Herbert’s death. The story touches on on a variety of subjects including politics, ecology, religion, technology and human emotion.
- Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep (1968) by Philip K. Dick – This is the best first book to read if you’re new to Philip K. Dick and is the book that inspired the film Blade Runner. The story is of Rick Deckard, a bounty hunter, who has a licence to find and kill androids. Unfortunately, the androids look human and don’t want to be found. What is real and what is fake?
- The Stand (1978) by Stephen King – Arguably the best Stephen King, this post-apocalyptic story of good versus evil, expands on the scenario in one of his earlier short stories, Night Surf. This book is an American fantasy epic that is compelling and has characterisation so good that you care about the people.
- American Psycho (1991) by Bret Easton Ellis – A terrifying and powerful book that will make your stomach churn. There are graphic scenes as well as the emotionless, calculated events in Bateman’s dual life. With the 1980s as a backdrop with its superficiality of money and aspirations, Bateman’s life as a wealthy investment banker is contrasted with his violent serial killing by night. The horror of the crimes he commits in his apartment whilst he continues to chase money in his other life, is stark.
Crime / Noir / Thrillers
- Red Dragon (1981) by Thomas Harris – From the author of The Silence of the Lambs, Red Dragon is creepy, tense and powerful. It’s the first time we meet Hannibal Lecter, and the William Blake imagery, the Tooth Fairy serial killer, the brutal crimes. Read The Silence of the Lambs next.
- All the Beautiful Sinners (2003) by Stephen Graham Jones – This second book by Jones, has a chilling plot that you won’t forget. Sheriff Jim Doe is searching for the person who is entering homes after tornadoes to steal a brother and a sister who are later murdered. Jones’ use of prose gives the novel its edgy suspense as Doe is repeatedly mistaken for the being man he wants to hunt down.
- Harry Potter (1997-2007) by J.K. Rowling – The recommendation is to read the entire series, to add depth to the excellent movies. The characters are now famous worldwide. The hero, Harry Potter and his sidekick Ron Weasley, Harry’s love interest Hermione, the headmaster at Hogwarts Albus Dumbledore and the deathly Lord Voledmort.
- The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian (2007) by Sherman Alexie – This award-winning title is about Junior, an American Indian teenager, who wants to fight the restrictions he is forced to live under. The novel is funny, gritty and powerful. Even in the darkest moments, the wit and the anger shine through.
Short Story Collections
- Bad Behaviour (1988) by Mary Gaitskill – This debut publication from Gaitskill contains nine stories about the darker side of human relationships including prostitution and addiction. Her humour is subtle and her writing is able to reproduce the language that comes from those who are unhappy and unfulfilled and her attention to detail is acute. The characters are both witty and naive, one character answers a question about her career with: I want to get fat. Or be addicted to heroin. I want to be a disaster.
- Jesus’ Son (1992) by Denis Johnson – This is a collection of powerful short stories around the theme of addiction and recovery. The characters all live in rural America. The dialogue has Johnson’s usual energy, creating a chaotic narrative style, to mirror the mental state of its narrator as he deals with taking drugs, theft and manslaughter. It is sad, witty and grim, but there’s hope here.
- Tenth of December (2013) by George Saunders – Following on from George Sanders Best American Short Stories (2008), this collection of uniquely grim and comic stories includes Victory Lap which surprisingly – due to the number of swearwords – was ran in The New Yorker.
- Blood Meridian (1985) by Cormac McCarthy – A challenging read with language that is impenetrable, complex and unclear. There is an anti-western epic. The story tells of The Kid and his exploits with a group of white scalp hunters who slaughtered scores of American Indians. The descriptions of the hellish landscapes are beautifully written. This is a book that focuses on the shame of the US genocides and the desire for war. It may take several readings to tie up all the imagery.
- Beloved (1987) by Toni Morrison – Another anti-American world famous novel, this that is both difficult and gruesome as Morrison shines a light on slavery. A deserving winner of the Pulitzer Prize, the novel allows the reader to sit with the characters to understand the disturbing personal and historic events of the time. On many schools required reading list, this novel considers the deep and complicated love between individuals and will leave you thinking deeply about what it means to be a strong, heroic or moral person.