Recommended books 


Richard Yates


If you are like me, and are falling further into the complicity of married middle-age, you could find that reading this novel is like having someone operate on a bone in your arm, except that they’re using a local anaesthetic, and you’re holding out your arm for them to work on. Occasionally you will feel the bump of the saw, the click of the scalpel travelling up to parts of you that are not yet numb. But the surgeon continues talking away to you in a friendly manner, and you ignore the bloody excavations he is making, the chips of bone and the snapping of cut tendons, because both of you are having a strong drink and thoroughly enjoying the whole process.


I confess I had put off reading this book for a long time because the author is a hero of mine, so much so that I made him punch the lights out of Norman Mailer in the title story of my short story collection. I don’t think anyone got the joke then and they probably never will. So anyway, I approached his flagship novel a little warily, and thankfully was swept into its brilliance within the first page. The prose itself sparkles mercilessly, the characters are brilliantly drawn and the plot drives forward absolutely perfectly in the first section, and almost perfectly for the book’s remaining two thirds or so. I know that I am not alone in being a writer who loves this writer. The fact that he uses a play to open the novel had me walking around and smacking my forehead for days afterwards, in sheer and grudging admiration. What a guy!


Content wise, it is ostensibly about the decaying relationship of the main protagonists, but whether intentionally or not Yates gives a bigger story: that without struggle (in this case World War II), without access to a limitless pursuit of some sort, humans flounder and are ultimately unhappy. In fact they don’t flounder, they are turned and crushed in the mill of their jobs and houses and children and gardening, and douse the pain with cocktails. Thanks for the warning Dick, point noted – now where’s my dog-eared copy of Siddhartha?



Eiji Yoshikawa


A good book this, if you want a semi-nutritious slice of medieval Japanese samurai slasher.  It is immersive and its scope is suitably long.  The description of the fighting is visual and elegant, while the detailing of the materiel is consistently succinct.  It is also quite refreshingly strange, not having been written by James Clavell, and I confess I did not find it as entertaining as his work Shogun, which was perhaps more able to pander to my western concepts and fantasies.


Central to the indigenous work in question, and the thing I found most affecting, was the main character’s constant search for self-improvement, and his commitment to the Way of the Sword, with the concurrent greater goal of meaningfulness.  How many lead characters of popular novels today can make that claim?  When you see the smug author face on the back of a book, or worse a multitude of them from the shortlist of some literary prize or another, can you have any confidence that their Costa-fuelled faces are in fact filled with anything other than an awful caring smugness?  Would you not prefer a little bit of child killing, a dash of rape, a smattering of bodies being cleaved in two from head to toe, several deadly duels and general hacking and slashing all over the place, but all of it at least in the name of the enlightenment of one man?


But in its strength lies the book’s weakness: I felt it was a golden opportunity to profoundly explore the process of self-development, but Yoshikawa opts instead for a lighter touch in this area in favour of a generally sweeping narrative.  So it is not quite Siddhartha with swords, in fact it’s not even close, but it is interesting and entertaining nonetheless, and I will gladly pass it to my young son to read, safe in the knowledge that he will be in good – albeit slippery and bloodstained – hands.


Stefan Zweig

Just as with his novel Beware of Pity (see below), this work remained on my bookshelf and was passed over many times, until I finally picked it up, to of course never look back, and wonder why I had left it so long. Perhaps this is a microcosm of what I criticise modern fiction for: a lack of challenge and a lack of willingness to be challenged. I am guilty of it myself. The fear of being confronted with a work that comes from a deeply humane and un-manipulative mind, and which does not seek to caress or flatter the reader, but simply presents the world as it is perceived, and attempts to make some sense of it.

This book, supposedly an autobiography, is also a terrifying evocation of Europe’s complacent state of mind in the lead up to two world wars. It is fascinating in its broad insight, and contains details which for a writer are utterly engrossing, because the vessel of the author Zweig himself is charted as it navigates the massive forces at play in his lifetime. There are morsels aplenty for aspiring writers. There was even a page that had me fist-pumping the air with a temporary sense of artistic objectivity.

To think that Zweig, nearly always so slickly readable, was one of the foremost-selling authors of his day, and yet never shied from examination of the human spirit. Dare we make comparisons with the matter disgorged out by publishing houses into the squawking, gaping, unfledged mouths of the book-buying public today?


Jan Carew


Not as masterful as Carew’s later novel The Wild Coast (see below), this is still an excellent work, with a well-paced plot, richly drawn characters and sparkling dialogue – clearly Carew’s hallmarks. The quality of the writing is apparent from the first page, and with Carew you get the sense that as a reader, you are in the hands of a real writer, who will neither insult your intelligence nor let your suspense of disbelief down with crass and predictable machinations. He is a ‘real’ writer, and he qualifies for this not because he has fought wars, or dug for gold with his bare hands, or suffered great tragedy and loss and lived to write about it – but because he has taken time to attempt to understand the human spirit, the human mind, however you wish to qualify this most puzzling of enigmas.


Modern pot-boiling novels that make absolutely no attempt to do this, but merely seek to entertain the reader and reduce them to a child-like state – is that the spell under which, as a reader, you wish to be cast? Is that the dullness by which you wish to have your mind seduced? If you are ready for the next step, you would do well to start here.

Too Loud a Solitude by Hrabal


Bohumil Hrabal


An unpromising start to this short novella, and I feared that unlike my previous experience of Hrabal, Closely Watched Trains, it would be the meandering plot-less nonsense, much beloved by contemporary authors. However, once you sink into the pace of the work, and begin to understand the character a little more, the delights of this book emerge fully. There is much poignancy and humour, and my fellow passengers on the flight to Prague on which I read this would have considered me with grim annoyance, for I laughed aloud and somewhat loudly to tell them that the funny little orange volume I held was the sort of thing they should be reading, instead of several tints of porno, or wizard sticks and excrement shaded infernos. For in this slim tome are the words of a wise man who can tell you about love and loss, sex and fear of the future and loneliness, and all of this as if you were sat opposite him nodding yes to the smack down of two fresh half-litre glasses of high-foamed beer, having just wiped the tears from your eyes, a wetness wrought by both laughter and sorrow, put there by the lingering sympathy and disillusionment of this most humane of authors.


Joseph Heller


I confess that when at University, and I began to have serious thoughts of being a writer, in my darker moments I would happily fantasize that my first novel would be heralded ‘The Catch-22 for the 21st Century.’ Ahem. Reading it then over a decade ago, I couldn’t believe how it was possible for one book to contain so much flare and elan. So it was with trepidation that I re-read it recently, after stumbling across the beautiful Vintage hardback special edition, the discovery of which in the library, prompted a must-have consumer sequence. I have to say that my respect for it has only deepened. Boy oh boy, could this man write. The sentences are both hardworking and effortless, the humour slicing, and the satire perfectly pointed. Okay, so it is not a perfect book, but it doesn’t have to be, because its good parts are so searchingly higher than anything else you’ll read for a long time, if not ever. If you are serious about novels, I don’t think that not reading this work is an option. It is a brilliant example of the art-form.

War Reporter by Dan O'Brien


Dan O'Brien


This did not read like poetry to me, more like a very short novel, divided into succint and occasionally devastating passages. Sometimes the lyricism becomes salient, and it is admirable. But technical appreciation aside, the over-arcing themes of suffering and inhumanity create a nightmare world, and in this way, and in its searingly efficacious succinctness, the book reminded me a tiny bit of McCarthy's The Road. But of course this is not fiction, it is based on our world, and therefore the brilliant presentation of the horrific contents meant that at times I was actually fearful of turning the next page, not sure whether I could take any more exposure to the truth of the world in which I live. And yet at the same time I was compelled, and did turn the page, and perhaps this is near the crux of the book's dilemma: the moral uncertainty of documenting suffering in others.


But what a world it might be if this was the sort of thing that populated the bestseller lists, rather than the heartless, mindless, colourful rubbish that nestles happily cheek to jowl on the shelves of corporate booksellers, supermarkets, airports, etc, and fails utterly to deliver any worthwhile truth or challenge to its reader. Bravo Mr O'Brien, for delivering those two things, along with many others, in this brilliant work.

The Peregrine by J A Baker


J A Baker


Heartbreaking, exhilirating writing, not always easy, sometimes uninteresting, English mystery of love-hate-love of nature. On finishing this book I couldn't stop thinking about it, a beautiful strange book - who were you John Alec? Who were you? The whole time this great and enjoyable elegy of the bird, and yet at the same time there is the man - the merely glimpsed observer - with all his feints and sleights of language, drumming poetry so carefully crafted into the reader.


A beautiful mystery: English passion, mortal and undying, don’t understand why I feel this way, it’s like a dream of something beautiful that doesn’t exist, or worse dreaming of someone you love who is dead, it has that feeling for me…heartbreaking, subtle, real, returning but forever lost…and the language, the writing, turning and bending, surely purposefully like the hawk itself, subject and form in perfect alignment, how I would love my own life to end one day gloriously mid-air and pounded by painless death of speed and instant talon!

The Wild Coast by Jan Carew, Caribbean Modern Classics


Jan Carew


This is that rare type of book that you yearn to return to, and finish with both happiness and regret. I can't remember loving a book so much since I read Tolstoy's 'The Cossacks.'

I picked this book out as an experimental read - and was rewarded tenfold for the risk taken. Any doubts I may have had vanished within the first two pages. Carew's supreme gifts are characterisation and plot dynamism. His descriptive powers and dialogue are also excellent.

Simply put - and I do not say this lightly - the book is a masterpiece. Go forth and enjoy!

Beware of Pity by Stefan Zweig, Pushkin Press


Stefan Zweig


This is heavyweight, sophisticated artwork literature at its best.

What other medium, other than the book, can render with such convincing fidelity the internal workings of a mind? Zweig does this brilliantly: charting the detailed thoughts and emotions of the youthful protagonist, through a stately plot, devoid of earth-shattering events or needless drama. This may sound like a recipe for a dull read - but far from it - it is both highly readable and at times enthralling. Zweig binds the reader so closely to the first-person narrative that all the minor occurences of the plot are felt acutely, in all their delicate subtlety. I found myself deeply involved: compulsively turning pages, looking forward to seeing favourite characters, as well as bridling with an involuntary consternation at the reappearance of others.

One is tempted to say: They don't make them like this anymore. If Zweig saw the bestseller shelves today, and spent a little time perusing their contents, he'd probably reflect on a correct decision made, to stay in bed that day, and 'conclude in good time'.

The Tin Drum by Gunter Grass, Vintage


Günter Grass


This is a mad, brilliant, crazy book. While reading it, I would pick it up, certain that I had overcome its capacity to surprise, only to be taken by the almost unbridled narrative, into totally unexpected areas: there to stomp heavily upon pretty much every icon and convention - literary, religious, political, sexual - to emerge blinkingly and a little stunned from reading it.

A unique, great novel, which feels in part like a coded response to the wartime horrors of a nation. A book rich and complex in allegory and allusion, and not all of it I understood, but no matter this, for Grass's elan and huge ability to fuse everything together makes it ensnaringly interesting, and lastingly humane.

Arise, Sir Tin Drum, I dub thee 'Modern Classic'!