novels about war and travel everyone must read (according to the guardian)

Junghyo Ahn: Silver Stallion (1990)

It is September 1950, and General MacArthur — known throughout war-struck Korea as “General Megado” — has just landed his troops at
Inchon. The soldiers establish an encampment named Texas Town, receiving local women who, as a consequence, are publicly shunned as “Yankee wives”. The devastating impact of MacArthur’s assault is seen through the eyes of local teenager Mansik, whose mother joins the prostitutes after being raped. By diverting his attention away from military battle, Junghyo re-establishes the human cost of war: in this context, the real price is demonstrated by Mansik’s accelerated adolescence and the compromised sexuality of the so-called “UN ladies”.
Charlotte Stretch
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Richard Aldington: Death of a Hero (1929)

This deeply affecting tale depicts the short life of artist- turned-army soldier George Winterbourne, who (as we are told in the opening pages) is killed after deliberately exposing himself to machine fi re. We soon learn that it is George’s experiences of war, triggering a deep psychological decline, which draw him towards his fate. Death of a Hero perhaps lacks the relentless ferocity of its peers — details of actual physical combat account for less than half of the narrative. The real intensity of Aldington’s (partly autobiographical) novel instead lies in his savage condemnation of a society responsible for the slaughter of its own men.
Charlotte Stretch
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Beryl Bainbridge: Master Georgie (1998)

Two photographers are among an unlikely group of Liverpudlians who embark for Constantinople and become involved in the carnage of the
Crimean war. Master Georgie, the confl icted hub around which the others revolve, is seen from diff erent points of view in a series of snapshots. But whereas the photographs distort the truth, Bainbridge’s diamond- bright insights reveal the horror and humour of people’s struggle to remain in control of lives ruled by random events and accident with the vivid economy of a writer at the top of her form.
Joanna Hines
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Nigel Balchin: Darkness Falls from the Air (1942)

A love triangle played out against the London blitz, Darkness Falls From The Air is the tale of Bill Sarratt, an urbane civil servant whose work is hampered by needless bureaucracy. His marriage is equally wearing, with his wife Marcia openly involved in a long- running affair with dreamy writer Stephen. Infused with a deliciously dry wit, Balchin’s novel is a perfect portrayal of the stiff upper lip — with Bill appearing just as unperturbed by his wife’s infidelity as he is by falling bombs. Balchin’s experiences at the ministry of food, meanwhile, feed into his slyly satirical portrait of a complex and ineff ectual civil service.
Charlotte Stretch
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JG Ballard: Empire of the Sun (1984)

Ballard’s 1984 account of his childhood in occupied Shanghai is not reportage — the author juggled incidents, removed events and largely shunted his parents from view — yet remains an evocative and disturbing account of life in wartime. Young Jim survives in empty houses, ingeniously obtaining the materials of survival, and is interned by the Japanese. It’s full of potent moral ironies, in which atrocities sit alongside mundane events and Jim admires the very technology that has wreaked havoc upon his world.
John Sutherland
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Pat Barker: Regeneration (1991)

Inspired by her grandfather’s experiences in the first world war trenches, Barker’s trilogy of novels — which also includes The Eye in the Door (1993) and The Ghost Road (1995) — centres around the Edinburgh psychiatric hospital where soldiers were “cured” of psychological trauma before being sent back to the front. Rivers is the heroic therapist handling first public objector Siegfried Sassoon, then Wilfred Owen and the fictional Billy Prior, before sending them back to the devastation of the final few months of the war. There are horrifying descriptions of trench warfare, but it is Barker’s forensic examination of the psyche of these men that makes her novel both contemporary and timeless.
Nicola Barr
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Sebastian Barry: A Long Long Way (2005)

The familiar horrors of the first world war are seen from the fresh perspective of a young Irish volunteer in this passionate and lyrical novel, one of two by Barry to have been shortlisted for the Man Booker prize. Too small to be a policeman like his evered father, Willie Dunne is proud to enlist in the British army. But on leave in 1916 he helps put down the Easter Rising, only to discover that some of his fellow countrymen regard the “filthy Hun” as “our allies in Europe”. The appalling complexity of war for soldiers who have been rejected by their homeland and can no longer identify the enemy is gripping and inevitably tragic.
Joanna Hines
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HE Bates: Fair Stood the Wind for France (1944)

“Sometimes the Alps lying below in the moonlight had the appearance of crisp folds of crumpled cloth.” What could be more English than crumpled linen? Or HE Bates. And this novel is classically English in many ways. The brave, sensitive RAF bomber pilot John Franklin, for instance, is all restrained emotion even when his plane is shot down in France. Yet he falls so heartbreakingly completely for Francoise, the daughter of the mill owner who hides him in his home. Bates’s war novel concentrates on the continuance of love, and the possibility of renewal, his hero and heroine exhibiting levels of trust and commitment undimmed by their experiences.
Nicola Barr
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Nina Bawden: Carrie’s War (1973)

Twelve-year-old Carrie Willow and her younger brother Nick are sent to Wales to escape the dangers of wartime London. Housed with the grim Mr Evans and his timid sister Lou, they encounter warfare of a different
kind and seek refuge with the enchanting inhabitants of the farm at Druid’s Bottom. Carrie’s eff orts to help the people she has come to love lead her to commit what she believes to be a terrible crime. Though written primarily for children, this is an almost perfect novel, to be enjoyed at any age.
Joanna Hines
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Roberto Bolaño: The Savage Detectives (1998)

Central characters Arturo Belano and Ulises Lima are likened to “two Dennis Hoppers walking the streets of Mexico City”, but they are neither savage nor good detectives. They are part of a literary movement called “visceral realism” though, a minor movement engaged in gang warfare with another group, the “Stridentist”. At its heart, Bolaño’s novel is a kind of road novel: made up of interviews with Belano and Lima’s acquaintances, it sketches a scorching, epic portrait of the Americas. An novel as brilliant in its execution as it is bonkers in its conception.
Philip Oltermann
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Paul Bowles: The Sheltering Sky (1949)

A signifi cant forerunner of the Beat movement, Paul Bowles’ bestseller is the story of three jaded American travellers — Port Moresby, his wife Kit and their friend Tunner — drifting through postwar north Africa. Having rejected the comforts of civilisation in their search for identity and fulfi lment, the trio are soon under threat from the sense of alienation and hostility that surrounds them. Inspired by Bowles’ own period of exile in Morocco, this account of a difficult emotional journey made a huge impact on publication, having astutely tapped into a growing state of disaffection across America. Charlotte Stretch
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William Boyd: An Ice-Cream War (1982)

In the early stages of the first world war, newlywed Gabriel Cobb finds himself caught up in the fi ght for control over eastern Africa. Meanwhile, in England, Gabriel’s brother Felix and wife Charis are left alone together as a mutual attraction grows between them. Their aff air is cut short when they discover that Gabriel has been captured, prompting Felix to travel across an increasingly war-torn African landscape to fi nd him. Interspersing vivid action scenes with moments of tranquillity in Kent, Boyd’s novel is a stirring portrayal of decaying British imperialism and the ordinary lives that become shaped by conflict.
Charlotte Stretch
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Raymond Briggs: When the Wind Blows (1982)

This depiction of an elderly rural couple attempting to shield themselves from a nuclear blast by putting blind trust in government guidelines (cover windows with sheets and climb into paper bags) caused a sensation when it was published in 1982. Blacker-than-black comedy ensues as James and Hilda unwittingly succumb to radiation sickness, unable even to eat their reserved ginger nuts because their gums are bleeding uncontrollably. Surprisingly, it’s still classified as a children’s picture book in many a local library.
Chris Ross
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Italo Calvino: Invisible Cities (1974)

Gore Vidal called Calvino’s seventh novel — “or work or meditation or poem” — his most beautiful. Marco Polo describes his travels to Kublai Khan, presenting the world-weary emperor with fractal glimpses of 55 fantastic cities — the unfinished, the unforgettable, the dreamlike, the destroyed — that are all ultimately versions of his “first city”, Venice. This glittering jewel of a book has been an inspiration to travellers, architects and authors alike, its pages brimming with meaning and possibility.
Justine Jordan
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Elias Canetti: Auto-da-Fé (1935)

Peter Kien is an eminent sinologist in interwar Germany, comfortably insulated from humanity and any “touch of the unknown” by his library. Until, that is, he falls victim to his illiterate housekeeper and a proto-Nazi concierge, and begins a grotesque descent into madness and the urban underworld, guided by an evil dwarf. This is a blackly comic study of vulnerability, fascism and self-destruction by the polymathic author of Crowds and Power, and a serious novel of ideas in the grand Central European manner.
Chris Ross
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Willa Cather: One Of Ours (1922)

When it was published, Cather’s account of a Nebraskan farmer’s journey to the first world war and his sacrificial death in battle garnered high praise and vitriolic criticism in equal measure. The Pulitzer prize the following year was off set by condemnation from Hemingway, among others, for daring to tackle the “masculine” subject of war. But her novel is as much an epitaph for the passing of the pioneering experience and the infinite opportunities of Western expansion, and far more ambiguous and wide-ranging than her critics allowed.
Joanna Hines
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Louis-Ferdinand Céline: Journey to the End of the Night (1932)

This dark but humorous novel follows a young man, loosely based on the author, through the first world war and into the poorest suburbs of postwar Paris. With its use of natural speech patterns and unfl inching descriptions of misery and wickedness, it was hugely popular in the 1930s, and continued to be infl uential — Kurt Vonnegut, Joseph Heller and the Doors are among the many who have referred to it in their work — even though Céline was subsequently branded a Nazi sympathiser.
David Newnham
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Wu Cheng’en: Monkey (1590s)

In this Chinese classic, the monk Tripitaka travels to India to fetch sacred Buddhist texts, accompanied by three disciples: the greedy Pigsy, the river monster Sandy and Monkey (recruited so that they may atone for past sins), on the way doing battle with demons, monsters and evil magicians. This boisterous comic adventure tale is both an allegory for the individual’s journey towards enlightenment and a social and political satire. The quest may have been given to the blundering monk, but the real star of the story is its antihero, the irrepressible trickster, rule-breaker and troublemaker Monkey. The novel was the inspiration behind a cult Japanese 1970s television show, and its latest incarnation is Jamie Hewlett and Damon Albarn’s “pop opera” Monkey: Journey to the West.
Ginny Hooker
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Joseph Conrad: Heart of Darkness (1902)

The most explosive, and recently controversial, indictment of European
colonialism in British fiction. Conrad’s series hero, Charles Marlow, is discovered spinning a yarn to a group of friends on board his yacht, in the mouth of the Thames. Marlow ruminates about his early assignment, from the “Company” in Brussels, to steam upstream to the heart of the Belgian Congo, where the manager of the inner station, who is in charge of ivory harvesting, has apparently gone mad. Despite obstacles (and witnessing scenes of hideous colonial cruelty), Marlow completes his mission, and finds Kurtz — originally a fervent idealist — has reverted to savagery. He dies, with the words: “The horror! The horror!” Marlow himself has seen into the heart of darkness, and is a changed man thereafter.
John Sutherland
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Joseph Conrad: Lord Jim (1900)

Lord Jim takes the familiar narrative of the seafaring hero and turns it inside out, as only Conrad can. His Jim is a young idealist who is promoted in the merchant navy without ever really having had his mettle tested. When the moment comes, Jim makes the coward’s choice — an act that determines the rest of his life, down to his idolisation by a Malaysian tribe. But is he really in the wrong? Conrad uses every trick he knows to express the doubts and fears of a time when ideas of conventional morality seemed to be crumbling underfoot.
Carrie O’Grady
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Joseph Conrad: Nostromo (1904)

Settlers, natives and interlopers all battle for control of a silver mine in the fictional South American country of Costaguana. Many of Conrad’s familiar obsessions are here: revolutionary politics, the curdling of ambition into avarice, oppressive heat, confusion and corruptibility. But where Heart of Darkness draws us into a deeply subjective interior, the language of Nostromo is radically exteriorised — alienating, even. An essential modernist experiment, as rigorous and unsparing in its imagination as the glare of the midday sun that falls upon its cynical protagonists.
Chris Ross
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Bernard Cornwell: Sharpe’s Eagle (1981)

According to legend, Cornwell only started writing his first book about his
lantern-jawed, Napoleonic-era rifleman because green card regulations
prevented him earning a conventional living when he relocated to America. It’s a story guaranteed to infuriate unpublished writers suffering for their art. What makes the series so pleasurable: is Cornwell’s enthusiasm for his historical subject and delight in his rough-hewn hero’s escapades. His prose may be workmanlike, but his relish for the books is infectious. In short, Sharpe is fun.
Sam Jordison
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Francis Coventry: The History of Pompey the Little (1751)

Coventry’s satirical novel follows the adventures of a small canine across numerous different owners’ laps to the top of English society. He may have no religion, but Pompey, “always willing to fetch and carry”, has “courtly manners” and proves an object of adoration until he suffers “a violent physick” and barks his last. To describe this satire as unique barely does justice to its eccentric charm, but only recently has Coventry been recognised as a talent independent of his hero Henry Fielding. A shame, since this book deserves a wide readership.
Sam Jordison
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Stephen Crane: The Red Badge of Courage (1895)

When Crane started reading Civil war veterans’ reminiscences, he complained: “They spout enough of what they did, but they’re as emotionless as rocks.” So he created someone altogether more feelingful. His own Union army private Henry Fielding may start ardent for glory, but his first experiences of the horror and cruelty of battle forces him to plumb the depths of fear. Crane’s empathetic ability to convey the full gamut of these emotions, combined with the bracing realism of his battle sequences, make this a milestone in American literature.
Sam Jordison
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Daniel Defoe: Robinson Crusoe (1719)

This is the original adventure yarn. Crusoe rebels against his father, runs away to sea and has all sorts of adventures, including a daring escape from slavery in north Africa, before God decides to teach him a lesson and shipwrecks him on his desert island. The only survivor, our entirely resourceful hero, survives for 26 years by learning how to make everything from scratch, from pots to Christian theology (he does have a bible). He also defeats encroaching cannibals and pirates. The older, wiser Crusoe tells the story, seeing God’s will — “the Chequer-work of Providence” — at work in every event.
John Mullan
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Len Deighton: Bomber (1970)

Set over the course of a single day, Bomber charts the progress of an ill-fated RAF raid on Nazi Germany. The dramatic events are seen from multiple vantage points, adopting perspectives from both sides of the conflict.
The level of detail employed in this frequently underrated novel is what makes it truly shocking: its tone of cool, clinical analysis is always the same, whether applied to death and destruction or machinery and weather conditions. An acclaimed BBC radio dramatisation, starring Tom Baker, capitalised on the novel’s potent docu-drama feel by using a highly effective real-time framework, drawing out in full the terrifying intensity of Deighton’s writing.
Charlotte Stretch
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James Dickey: Deliverance (1970)

Four friends set out on a canoe trip down the Cahulawassee, a soon-to-be-dammed river in northern Georgia. While there, the men encounter two savage locals who quickly transform the weekend adventure into a traumatic ordeal — one that not everyone survives. Though frequently overshadowed by the success of John Boorman’s 1972 film adaptation, Dickey’s novel possesses its own strain of intoxicatingly visceral poetry. This compelling story of two cultures, brought together in a state of violent conflict, serves as a gripping examination of lost innocence and moral uncertainty in the quiet backwoods of America.
John Dugdale
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John Dos Passos: Three Soldiers (1921)

Dos Passos worked as an ambulance driver during the first world war, and this shows in a book which cleverly contains very little combat but all the boredom and brutality of the sidelines. The bewildering idiocies of boot camp, the interminable waiting around with no idea why, the affectless encounters with prostitutes — all combine to grind three Americans of diverse backgrounds into just so much “meat for guns”. Characteristically episodic and disorienting, this is a gem of an antiwar novel by an unjustly overlooked writer.
Chris Ross
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Norman Douglas: South Wind (1917)

In 1916 Douglas was arrested when a boy made a complaint to the police for (as Douglas said) “kissing [him] and iving him some cakes and a shilling”. He jumped bail, fleeing to Capri, whose salubrious atmosphere inspired this captivating song of praise to the beauties of the Mediterranean and the pleasures of hedonism. Often criticised for having no plot, South Wind is a mystifying, but still enlightening, conversational novel, full of entrancing discussions of love, pleasures and scandals that together form a touching plea for tolerance and fantastic evocation of bohemian life.
Sam Jordison
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Alexandre Dumas: The Three Musketeers (1844)

The story of the dashing d’Artagnan, the swashbuckling musketeers Athos, Porthos and Aramis and their epic struggles against the feline M’Lady is one of the best-loved in western culture. It may be the subject of more than a dozen films, not to mention endless TV serials, cartoons and spin-off books, but Dumas’s book is still the best place to go to really get to know the characters. Its fast-paced narrative and curious philosophical musings also ensure it remains the most entertaining and intriguing of all the versions out there.
Sam Jordison
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Lawrence Durrell: Justine (1957)

The first of the Alexandria Quartet — with Balthazar (1958), Mountolive (1958) and Clea (1960) following — which chronicles the lives and loves of a group of expatriates in Egypt before and just after the second world war, was an instant and lasting success, both popular and critical. The eponymous heroine is “a child of the city, which decrees that its women shall be the voluptuaries not of pleasure but of pain, doomed to hunt for what they least dare to find!” Alexandria, “the great winepress of love”, is evoked in prose of intoxicating lyricism, but for many readers these books are a vintage best appreciated in youth.
Joanna Hines

William Eastlake: The Bamboo Bed (1969)

Captain Clancy is leading his men across the Vietnam hills when he is mortally wounded. As he lies dying on his bamboo bed, search-and-rescue pilot Captain Knightsbridge makes love to the beautiful nurse Jane in his helicopter (which, in poignant synchronicity, is itself dubbed the “Bamboo Bed”). Meanwhile two hippies, Peter and Bethany, are attempting to resolve the conflict with flowers and a guitar. Eastlake, a former war correspondent, redraws the Vietnam war as a surrealist fantasy, filled with grotesque comedy and philosophical deliberation. His irreverent approach conveys, with startling eff ectiveness, the true absurdity of war.
Charlotte Stretch
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JG Farrell: The Siege of Krishnapur (1973)

Farrell’s unconventional historical novel is set during the Indian Mutiny of 1857. The town of Krishnapur is under siege and the garrison is hard put to survive and, just as importantly to some of them, to cling to their Victorian values. They believe in science but their two doctors disagree about almost everything; they believe in their civilization but their subjects are rebelling. The local Indian populace picnic on a nearby hill and enjoy the spectacle of the unfolding drama. Violence is coolly recorded, derring-do excitingly narrated, yet this is a darkly funny book, whose unsentimental, omniscient narrator scrutinises the self-delusions of the colonialists.
John Mullan
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Sebastian Faulks: Birdsong (1993)

Novels depicting the horrors of war are seldom more moving than Sebastian Faulks’ 1993 bestseller. After embarking on a doomed love affair with the unhappily married Madame Azaire, Stephen Wraysford becomes an army officer fighting in the first world war. The novel traces Stephen’s harrowing experiences in the blood-soaked trenches of northern France, and his growing determination to survive the conflict. Almost universally considered Faulks’ finest moment to date, Birdsong hauntingly captures the essence of war in all its terrible brutality.
Charlotte Stretch
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Ford Madox Ford: Parade’s End (1924-28)

Less well known than The Good Soldier, and considerably longer, Ford’s depiction of the first world war and its impact on English society is a strangely haunting work. Christopher Tietjens, the central character, is passionately attached to a gentlemanly code that brings him nothing but trouble in Whitehall, the army and his marriage to the icy Sylvia. Ford’s kaleidoscopic descriptions of trench warfare are the book’s main claim on posterity, but the whole thing is shot through with an attractively eccentric sense of humour as well as nostalgia. Secondary characters include “Breakfast” Duchemin, an insane and sex-obsessed vicar.
Chris Tayler
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CS Forester: The African Queen (1935)

Set in “German Central Africa” in late 1914. Rose Sayer, the spinster sister of an English missionary, finds herself alone when her brother dies. She befriends by a cockney sailor, Charlie Allnutt, commander of the decrepit African Queen. Rose persuades the cowardly Charlie to sail down the Ulanga river and blow up a German warship. The subsequent hardship brings them together as lovers. The African Queen sinks before they can make their suicidal strike. They are taken prisoner by the Germans, who treat them well. The enemy ship is eventually sunk by the Royal Navy. John Huston’s 1952 Oscar-winning film starred Katharine Hepburn and Humphrey Bogart — playing against their conventional screen personalities.
John Sutherland
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George MacDonald Fraser: Flashman (1969)

The most enduringly popular of neo-Victorian novels. Flashman was the loathsome bully in Thomas Hughes’ Tom Brown’s Schooldays. Unlike that “prig” Brown, Flashy is not one to play up and play the game. On being expelled (for drunkenness and worse) from Dr Arnold’s Rugby, Harry Flashman joins the army to fi ght, as an officer and anything but a gentleman, in the fi rst Afghan war. It is the proverbial military cock-up. The series, allegedly based on the anti-hero’s “papers”, continued, volume by bestselling volume, to cast a cynical but hilariously comic anti-establishment light on “England’s century”. Ironically, Harry emerges as, underneath it all, rather a good fellow. A dispiriting number of American reviewers assumed this first volume to be authentic autobiography.
John Sutherland
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Charles Frazier: Cold Mountain (1997)

In Frazier’s Civil-war era novel, the injured and disillusioned Confederate soldier John Inman begins a long, treacherous journey back to his home to Ada, the woman he loves. On Cold Mountain, after the death of her father, Ada is struggling to run the farm she is ill-equipped to manage, until the arrival of the illiterate but formidably resourceful Ruby helps her to take control of her future. Echoes of Homer’s Odyssey run throughout and there are allusions to Ralph Waldo Emerson in a novel which is both an exploration of man’s relationship to nature and a narrative of the human devastation of war.
Ginny Hooker
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Alex Garland: The Beach (1996)

This, more than any other, was the novel that launched a thousand gap years. For a short time in the late 1990s, a copy of Alex Garland’s huge
bestseller was as much a staple of the travel kit as spare socks and a toothbrush. The story of Richard, roaming Asia in search of a secret Thai island, inspired an entire generation of backpackers. Its star might have waned in recent years — thanks in part to Danny Boyle’s disappointing film adaptation — but as a cautionary tale of paradise gone wrong, it still packs a mighty punch.
Charlotte Stretch
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William Golding: To the Ends of the Earth trilogy (1980-89)

A warship journeys from Old Albion to the Antipodes, some time in the early 1800s. We chart its progress through the journal of Edmund Talbot, whose tone is at first arrogant, as befits a young man with aristocratic connections. His chronicle of shipboard life eventually comes to focus on the decline of the Reverend Colley, a “new-hatched parson” who is gradually destroyed by his own lethal innocence and the cruelty of others. The sailing ship’s closed community provides the perfect setting for Golding’s brilliant and unsparing depiction of man’s capacity for inhumanity to man.
Joanna Hines
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René Goscinny Asterix the Gaul (1959)

Hard to imagine that anyone might not have encountered Asterix before they’ve grown up, let alone died. Spawning TV spin-offs, movies and theme parks, he is arguably not just a global cultural phenomenon, but part of the mental landscape of childhood. Let’s face it: Asterix, not Caesar, has shaped our understanding of the Gallic wars — and he is also the only means by which many of us could enjoy learning French. Asterix the Gaul, the first part of a series currently totalling 33, is still the best way to start.
Chris Ross
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Günter Grass: The Tin Drum (1959)

When The Tin Drum was published “it was as if German literature had been granted a new beginning”, stated the Nobel committee’s citation. This vibrant epic covers German history during the first half of the 20th century through the eyes of a diminutive protagonist. At the age of three, the precocious Oskar Matzerath decided to stop growing and acquired the ability to shatter glass with his scream. He was also given his first toy drum which became an extension of himself. Earthy, anarchic and funny, Oskar’s adventures brim with humour, insights and magical realist invention.
Joanna Hines
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Robert Graves: Count Belisarius (1938)

The Emperor Justinian and his wife Theodora are now familiar mainly from their mosaic portraits in Ravenna. With their greatest general, Belisarius, and his remarkable wife Antonina, they are brought to life in Graves’s lavishing story of 6th-century Byzantium. Campaigns in Persia, Carthage, Sicily and Italy, and a vibrant cast of dancing girls, concubines, charioteers, bear masters, Nestorian monks and Herulian Huns, and even a whale called Porphyry, combine to make this a vibrant account of a period that should be
better known.
Joanna Hines
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Vasily Grossman: Life and Fate (1960)

As a Soviet journalist in the 1940s, Vasily Grossman reported from the battle of Stalingrad and published the first account in any language of the Nazi death camps. Completed in 1960 but not published until the 1980s, and then only outside the USSR, Life and Fate is a conscious attempt to write the War and Peace of the second world war. Grossman takes his readers into Auschwitz and the Lubyanka, but he also describes the sense of freedom briefl y experienced by the defenders of Stalingrad before the state reasserted its grip on their lives.
Chris Taylor
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CT Rawi Hage: De Niro’s Game (2006)

Hage’s first novel, a blistering portrait of adolescent swagger set against the Lebanese civil war, came from nowhere to win the Impac award. War-torn Beirut has been a childhood playground for Bassam and George; now the former is dabbling in petty crime to fund his escape, while the latter looks for status and purpose with the local militia. In prose that is brutal, tender, bitter and deadpan by turns, Hage sketches a fresh and utterly convincing portrait of war’s brutalising effects.
Justine Jordan
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H Rider Haggard: King Solomon’s Mines (1885)

If Robert Louis Stevenson could do it with Treasure Island, why couldn’t he write a rattling adventure yarn for the millions, wondered Haggard? The result was this primal episode in the eventful life of “Hunter” Allan Quatermain of Natal. The big-game man is approached by Henry Curtis and Captain John Good to fi nd Curtis’s younger brother, who has disappeared in the interior of the dark continent — allegedly in search of the fabulous diamond mines of King Solomon, somewhere beyond the “Breasts of Sheba” mountains. The quest involves battles with natives and the discovery of both the lost white man and the Solomonic treasure. The novel — one of the great page-turners in English literature — launched the author on a bestselling literary career.
John Sutherland
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H Rider Haggard: She (1887)

The sexiest of Haggard’s many African yarns. Leo Vincey is left an iron box by his dead father, to be opened when he is 25. It contains the startling information that he is descended from an ancient Egyptian priest, Kallikrates. Leo is instructed to go to Africa and kill the mysteriously immortal queen whok killed Kallikrates. Braving shipwreck, cannibals, and crocodiles, Leo finally discovers Ayesha, or “She”, high in an impenetrable mountain range. She takes Leo as her lover. At the heart of her lair, she shows him the pillar of life — a flame that ensures immortality. But, perversely, when she enters it, the fire restores Ayesha to her true 2,000 years of age, and she dies resembling a shrivelled monkey. Leo returns to England, a wiser and older man. Few read the novel nowadays without visualising Ursula Andress, who made the titular character her own in the film version.
John Sutherland
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Patrick Hamilton: The Slaves of Solitude (1947)

This short novel’s slightly silly title and unexciting-sounding setting haven’t always worked to its advantage, but Hamilton’s fans consider it one of his best. In his hands, the story of a festering quarrel between the inmates of a dreary suburban boarding house becomes a comic tour de force as well as an unusually sardonic depiction of life on the home front during the second world war. Mr Thwaites, the heroine’s tormentor-in- chief, is one of Hamilton’s most memorably unpleasant characters, and the book’s mixture of pathos and comedy is perfectly judged.
Chris Tayler
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Robert Harris: Enigma (1995)

In March 1943, a group of codebreakers are attempting to break the German U-boat Enigma cipher from their secret Buckinghamshire base. Among them is Tom Jericho, who is in love with the beautiful but mysterious Claire Romilly. Her sudden disappearance, amidst suspicion that the team has been infi ltrated by a spy, propels Tom on to a desperate mission to uncover the truth. This twist-laden thriller, later adapted into a screenplay by Tom Stoppard, popularised the previously little-known story of Bletchley Park. That the site’s imminent closure is currently the subject public campaign is a strong testament to the power of Harris’s story.
Charlotte Stretch
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Jaroslav Hasek: The Good Soldier Svejk (1923)

Hasek was 39 when he died of tuberculosis, after decades of boozing and vagrancy. The Czech anarchist and prankster, once sacked by a wildlife publisher for writing articles about non-existent animals, didn’t get around to finishing his life’s great work, and translator Cecil Parrott claims that “sometimes it is apparent that he must have been drunk when he was writing”. Yet there is an irresistible, feverish energy to this picaresque comedy about a little man dodging the horrors of the great war. Without Svejk, Joseph Heller has said, there would have been no Catch-22.
Phil Daoust
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Ernest Hemingway: For Whom the Bell Tolls

Anyone who comes to this novel expecting simplicity of style and unthinking machismo will be swiftly disabused. Rather, this story of an American joining forces with Andalucian freedom fighters during the Spanish civil war is one of fiction’s most searching considerations of altruism, accountability and sacrifice. Hemingway’s deliberate archaisms and literalised Spanish jolt the reader into thinking a fresh about choices and the motives behind them. And it is a wonderful evocation of what it means to love a land and a people other than one’s own.
Chris Ross
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Anthony Hope: The Prisoner of Zenda (1894)

The novel which bequeathed adventure-fi ction writers “Ruritania” — one of the genre’s most profi table territories. Visiting the country, Rudolf Rassendyll is observed uncannily to resemble the soon-to-be- crowned King Rudolf. Villainous Duke Michael abducts him and Rassendyll is prevailed upon to impersonate the monarch whom, with the assistance of loyal Fritz von Tarlenheim, he later rescues. Things are romantically complicated when Rassendyll falls in love with the King’s intended bride, the Princess Flavia. Having put Ruritania to rights, he returns to England and a somewhat pointlessly unadventurous existence. Hope was inspired to write the novel by seeing two men in a London street who closely resembled each other.
John Sutherland
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Khaled Hosseini: The Kite Runner (2003)

Afghanistan, the land no outside power can conquer, is captured
in all its colour and complexity in Hosseini’s astonishing debut. Two boys grow up in the same household: Amir is privileged while Hassan is virtually a servant, but they remain uneasy allies until a brutal incident during Kabul’s annual kite-flying festival inflicts wounds that will never heal. A moving and ultimately life-affirming story of love and betrayal, redemption and forgiveness, and private worlds destroyed by public horrors.
Joanna Hines
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Richard Hughes: A High Wind in Jamaica (1929)

Before Lord of the Flies there was A High Wind in Jamaica, an unflinching, wryly observed portrait of the madness of children. Hughes filters his pirate adventure through the sensibilities of a band of middle-class siblings, and the effect is intoxicating. These primal creatures come at events from left-field — fastening on certain details while glossing over others, so that terrible events flutter, half-glimpsed, in the shadows. Some of these are even caused by the children themselves.
Xan Brooks
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Samuel Johnson: Rasselas (1759)

Tired of a life of constant pleasure in Happy Valley, Rasselas, Prince of Abyssinia, travels to Egypt to meet scholars, astronomers, shepherds, hermits and poets, and discovers that “while you are making the choice of life, you neglect to live”. He then returns to Abyssinia. Written in eight days to pay for his mother’s funeral, Dr Johnson’s philosophical romance became a bestseller when it was published in 1759. The plot is thin and “nothing is concluded”, but its true appeal is as an essay on the nature of happiness and the vanity of human wishes.
Ian Pindar
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James Jones: From Here to Eternity (1951)

Set in Hawaii in 1941, just before the attack on Pearl Harbor, this novel is loosely based on the author’s experiences in the US army. The story follows several characters, including Captain Dana “Dynamite” Holmes and First Sergeant Milt Warden, but at its heart is a conflict between authority and individuality, as Private Robert E Lee Prewitt stubbornly resists the treatment meted out to him by his superiors to crush his spirit. Published in 1951, it became a bestseller and gave the world a memorable fictional hero who dares to take on the system.
Ian Pindar
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MacKinlay Kantor: Andersonville (1955)

The Confederate prisoner-of-war camp Andersonville held 33,000 Union POWs during the American civil war of 1861 to 1865. Based on prisoners’ memoirs, this Pulitzer prize-winning novel appeared in 1955, and uses real and fictional characters to explore the conditions in the camp from multiple viewpoints. The book includes a sympathetic portrait of Henry Wirz, the camp’s commandant, as well as the camp physician and various guards. Kantor also shows how the ordinary prisoners were preyed upon by a gang of thugs called the Raiders, led by a Union soldier called William Collins.
Ian Pindar
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Thomas Keneally: Confederates (1979)

This realist epic, shortlisted for the Booker prize, follows a ragbag Confederate army as it crosses Virginia to take part in the 1862 Battle of Antietam, the bloodiest confl ict of the American civil war. Drawing on his extensive research of the incident, Keneally spares the reader none of the horrors of war. He also adds a level of personal conflict, intrigue and romance by focusing on Private Usaph Bumpass, his wife Ephaphtha and her lover Decatur Cate, who is one of Usaph’s companions or “confederates” in the battle. Retribution comes when Cate suffers an emasculating injury.
Ian Pindar
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Thomas Keneally: Schindler’s Ark (1982)

Oskar Schindler, a German businessman and Nazi party member, set up a factory in Poland producing supplies for the German army. By the end of the war he had become an unlikely hero, risking his life to save more than a thousand Jews from being sent to the concentration camps. Inspired by meeting a Schindler survivor, and based on the testimonies of survivors and documents of the period, Keneally’s historical novel caused an outcry when it won the Booker in 1982. Was it a work of fiction or faction? Liam Neeson starred in Spielberg’s screen adaptation, Schindler’s List.
Ian Pindar
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AL Kennedy: Day (2007)

A young Lancaster tail-gunner during the second world war, Alfred F Day, bonds with his crew on an RAF bomber. When his plane is shot down, he parachutes to safety in a German prisoner-of-war camp, but after the war he discovers his crew are all dead. In 1949, while employed as an extra in a war film about a prison camp, the painful memories come fl ooding back. Through an extraordinary act of ventriloquism, she describes the waste and eventual resurrection of a young life shattered by war,” said the judges when they awarded Kennedy the Costa Book of the Year in 2007. “This book is a masterpiece.”
Ian Pindar
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Arthur Koestler: Darkness at Noon (1940)

Along with Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four (which it strongly influenced), Koestler’s novel expresses his generation of intellectuals’ traumatic disillusionment with Soviet Communism — the “God that Failed” (as a book edited by Koestler called it). The narrative centres on the scandalously corrupt Moscow “show trials” (in fact a bloody Stalinist purge) of the 1930s. The novel ponders the question, why did so many of the accused meekly confess their guilt in court? The answer is given in the person of Koestler’s hero, Rubashov, who, under interrogation, is eventually “educated” into the admissions of wrongdoing that lead, inevitably, to his execution.
John Sutherland
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Jerzy Kosinski: The Painted Bird (1965)

After losing his parents in the mayhem of the second world war, a Polish child wanders through the countryside at the mercy of the brutal and ignorant central or eastern European villagers he encounters, who assume he is a Jew or a Gypsy. When it fi rst appeared in 1965, this controversial novel full of graphic descriptions of murder, torture, rape and bestiality was widely regarded as semi-autobiographical, but is now accepted as fi ction. Dogged by controversy, Kosinski committed suicide in 1991, leaving behind a note: “I am going to put myself to sleep now for a bit longer than usual. Call it Eternity.”
Ian Pindar
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Primo Levi: If Not Now, When? (1982)

Levi, most renowned for his coruscating documentary report on life in a concentration camp, If This Is A Man, published this, his only novel, in 1982. Set in 1943, it follows a group of Jewish partisans making their way, behind enemy lines, across a Europe unmarked by place names and directions, with Palestine their aim. The horrors they have endured are revealed only through dreams and halting recollections and, as in all Levi’s work, their days are characterised by the biggest threat of all: the disease of despair. “The war would last forever: death, pursuit, escape would never end, the snow would never stop falling, day would never break.”
Nicola Barr
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Jack London: The Call of the Wild (1903)

St Bernard Buck leads a good, even pampered life when he is abducted, sold into a team of dogs pulling sleds across the frozen Alaskan landscapes, transporting a new “yellow metal” that is changing men’s natures. “It was his introduction to the reign of primitive law, and Buck met it halfway.” Only the most extreme of traits — human or otherwise — are on show in London’s classic, relentless adventure story. Good, evil, respect, dignity, primal fear, blood lust, leadership, greatness and cowardice are all in constant battle as Buck struggles for survival against his new owners and the “devil dog” Spitz. Nicola Barr
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Alastair Maclean: The Guns of Navarone (1957)

Maclean evokes a daring British second world war commando raid against the fictional German-held island of Navarone. It is the German guns of the title that must be silenced to permit the evacuation of the British troops from a nearby island, and so change the course of the war. As loved for the depiction of his heroes’ backgrounds as for a plot that is unapologetically light on character development but big on thrills and daring do.
Nicola Barr
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Cormac McCarthy: All the Pretty Horses (1992)

In the fi rst novel in McCarthy’s Border trilogy, 16-year-old John Grady Cole, the last in a line of Texan ranchers, and his friend Lacey Rawlins travel across the border into Mexico in search of adventure in a brutal and unfamiliar country. There they meet the reckless Jimmy Blevins, a younger teenager in possession of a fine horse that may not be his, a pistol and a nose for trouble. Jimmy loses the horse and pistol in a storm; John and Lacey decide to help get them back, setting off a fatal chain of events which also have consequences for Cole’s love aff air with the daughter of a Mexican ranch owner. This is both a coming of age story and an elegy for a lost American era.
Ginny Hooker
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Cormac McCarthy: Blood Meridian (1985)

Blood Meridian is not a revisionist western so much as a gore-soaked demolition of the myth of manifest destiny. Using the true-life Glanton gang as its touchstone, McCarthy drops an unnamed protagonist (“the kid”) in among a band of bounty hunters and proceeds to paint the frontier in stark, Darwinian terms — as a brutal, bloody free-for-all. The New World is born out of violence. It belongs not to the humble settler but to men such as “the judge”, a corpulent, amoral monster who by the fi nal chapter has emerged victorious.
Xan Brooks
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Johnston McCulley: The Mark of Zorro (1919)

California in the 1880s was the origin of the famous masked crusader and camper, sexier and more ironic American-style Robin Hood. McCulley’s novel introduced to the world the effete, foppish, aristocratic Don Diego Vega and his swashbuckling, masked alter ego fighting those who exploit the poor. Just as fabulous are the corrupt governor, the hard-drinking Sergeant Gonzales, the revenge-hungry Captain Raman and the beautiful Señorita Lolita Pulido, who is torn between the man she loves and the man who will restore her reputation.
Nicola Barr
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Norman Mailer: The Naked and the Dead (1948)

Mailer was just 26 when his debut novel was published, three years after the end of the second world war. His tale of a platoon of young American soldiers making their way through treacherous jungle on the Japanese-held island of Anopopei was without respite. Its focus on the ordinary American in all his bullying pettiness and fear, its detailed depictions of armed combat and insight into the psychology of men in pursuit of power caught the mood of an American public searching for the reality of war; it made this a bestseller and Mailer a superstar.
Nicola Barr
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André Malraux: La Condition Humaine (1933)

Shanghai 1927. A random assortment of foreign communists and home-
grown terrorists join forces to overthrow their rulers in Malraux’s great novel. “Europeans never see the points of similarity between China and their own countries,” one character remarks, but this account of young men seeking meaning in their lives through indiscriminate carnage and terror in the name of an abstract higher good, of foreign nationals drawn to idealistic causes overseas, is as relevant and illuminating now as it was 75 years ago.
Joanna Hines
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Olivia Manning: The Fortunes of War novels (1960-80)

Six novels in two trilogies: The Balkan Trilogy comprising The Great Fortune, The Spoilt City and Friends And Heroes and The Levant Trilogy comprising The Danger Tree, The Battle Lost And Won and The Sum Of Things. Harriet Pringle and her infuriating communist husband Guy flee the German invaders through Romania and Greece to Cairo, in a novel thronging with expatriates, eccentrics and wisdom. This is a brilliant portrait of a particular marriage and of the world at war. Dramatic, comic and entirely absorbing, it was televised, equally brilliantly, by the BBC in 1987.
Carmen Callil
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Gabriel Garcia Márquez: One Hundred Years of Solitude (1967)

The jungle town of Macondo is a place where it is as possible to ascend heavenwards while hanging the laundry as to be machine-gunned by
agents of the local banana company. Márquez’s looping chronology and extended cast of interrelated characters give us history as a continuous
process of repetition and reconfi guration. This novel remains the beacon of magical realism and the standard bearer for Latin American literature; in Spanish, only Don Quixote has been more successful. Fluid, funny, wise, political: a perfectly achieved meditation on memory and the workings of fiction.
Chris Ross
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Frederick Marryat: The Children of the New Forest (1847)

Marryat’s last and most famous novel, set in 1647. The Royalist cavalier, Colonel Beverley, is killed at the Battle of Naseby. His wife dies shortly thereafter, leaving their four children orphans. The Roundheads burn
the Beverleys’ house, Arnwood, and the children, thought dead, are given refuge by a faithful old retainer, Jacob Armitage, in his cottage in the New Forest. The story follows their growing to adulthood and — with the Restoration — the rebuilding of Arnwood and the Beverley family fortunes. The novel was immensely popular with Victorian children and became the pattern for innumerable juvenile tales over the next century.
John Sutherland
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Herman Melville: Moby-Dick or, The Whale (1851)

We all know the story: man seeks unattainable object of deranged desire and causes general devastation in the process. This is the novel of restless human drive: to perfection, to mastery, to madness, to write a novel in the first place, to aim for something other than “a damp, drizzly November in the soul”. A Very Big Theme, necessarily expressed in dense, wildly idiosyncratic prose as ambitious as Ahab himself. But also: the best book ever written about whaling, which means the most richly detailed novel of the sea, work, friendship and ecology.
Chris Ross
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James Michener: Tales of the South Pacific (1847)

Now eclipsed by the fame of the Rogers and Hammerstein musical South Pacific, Michener’s collection of linked stories detailing the activities of American servicemen, nurses, native islanders and expats on the islands of the Coral Sea during the second world war won him the Pulizter prize in 1948. The exotic Tonkinese ladies and wistful Bali Hai romances give it lasting (and musical) appeal, but the morality of Michener’s tales is that heroism is not only seen on the battlefield, and his commander-narrator’s voice has a downbeat languor that captures the spirit of a war- weary nation (“The waiting. The timeless, repetitive waiting.”)
Nicola Barr
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Elsa Morante: History (1974)

Ida, a widowed schoolteacher, is living in 1940s Rome with her two sons: Nino, a reckless and angry teenager, and baby Giuseppe, conceived when Ida is raped by a German soldier. She (like Morante herself) is half-Jewish, and lives in a permanent state of fear that her forbidden faith will be discovered. Morante’s eight-part epic closely examines Jewish identity in a context of Aryan domination. The contrast between Nino’s involvement in the war and Giuseppe’s unsullied innocence further demonstrates the corrupting effect of war on its victims’ sense of self.
Charlotte Stretch
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Irène Némirovsky: Suite Française (2004)

Némirovsky, a bestselling novelist and a Russian Jew living in Paris, was taken to Auschwitz in 1942 and died the same year. Her handwritten manuscript was salvaged by her two young daughters who, orphaned and traumatised, did not release it for publication until 64 years later. The two unfinished novellas here (five were planned) detail with astonishing precision the wholly ignoble retreat from Paris as Nemirovsky witnessed it, and a year in a rural occupied France. Few heroes emerge in this take on French manners exposed in the most extreme circumstances.
Nicola Barr
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Bao Ninh: The Sorrow of War (1994)

The English translation of Bao Ninh’s debut (and, to date, only published) novel demanded the attention of western readers not only as a rare account of the “American war” by a veteran of the Vietnamese People’s army, but also for revealing that the post-traumatic disorder of a generation, so central to the American experience of the Vietnam war, has been a universal experience. The author’s history is never far from view as the book’s narrator, Kien, struggles to reconcile the tender dreams of his youth with the brutal memories of a decade of war and its arid, drug-ridden aftermath.
Emily Mann
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Patrick O’Brian: Master and Commander (1969)

So massively popular are Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey-Maturin novels that bookshops have a separate section just for them. At the time of his death in 2000, O’Brian was finishing his 21st novel in this massively successful seafaring series, over the course of which he seemed to encompass the entire world of the British navy in the Napoleonic wars. Whether you love the extrovert, impulsive, permanently hungover “lion in action, ass ashore” Jack Aubrey or the surgeon and intelligence agent Stephen Maturin, indeed whether you have ever set foot aboard a ship, O’Brian’s tales of naval derring-do are masterful in conception and execution.
Nicola Barr
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Tim O’Brien: The Things they Carried (1990)

“They carried the common secret of cowardice … Men killed, and died, because they were embarrassed not to.” That Tim O’Brien, as a soldier in Vietnam, experienced first- hand many of the things he writes about is not in doubt when the observations are this acute, but Things is fiction, and this 1990 novel is regarded as one of the most powerful of the Vietnam war. By creating the character of Tim O’Brien, O’Brien finds his way to comment on a war that he found nonsensical and repellent, as if normal narrative was simply too traditional to harness the absurdity and the horror.
Nicola Barr
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Baroness Emmuska Orczy: The Scarlet Pimpernel (1905)

Melodrama, cliched prose and unsubtle political messages are all forgiven in Orczy’s first of many journeys into the world of English aristocrat Sir Percy Blakeney and his alter-ego, the Scarlet Pimpernel, as he and his band of Englishmen attempt to rescue French aristocrats from Madame Guillotine in the French revolution. Orczy had huge success with her foppish, inane, kind-hearted, cold, proud, passionate and indefatigable Pimpernel and his wonderful wife Marguerite. Belief may need to be suspended as Orczy allows him to escape yet another tricky situation, but when the thrills are this swashbuckling, it is churlish to care.
Nicola Barr
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George Orwell: Burmese Days (1934)

Drawing on the experiences of his five years as an officer in the Burma police, Orwell’s first novel is a mordant aff air. Flory, a timber merchant disillusioned with the Imperial racket, falls for a pretty girl sent out east to stay with her relatives. He is cut out by a glamorous army officer and wins her back, only to fall victim to the machinations of a native magnate. Steeped in essence of Maugham and crammed with impressionistic descriptions of the Burmese landscape, it also harbours many an early signpost from the road that led to Nineteen Eighty-Four.
DJ Taylor
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Thomas Pynchon: Gravity’s Rainbow (1973)

Routinely hauled into the starting line-up of the race to be the Great American Novel, Pynchon’s vast postmodern masterpiece from 1973 is more than capable of intimidating the other competitors with its sheer physical solidity. Its staggering intellectual weight is what really leaves a dent, however, using the development of the V2 rocket in Nazi Germany as a starting point for a novel that is as densely packed as grey matter and equally mysterious.
Victoria Segal
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Rudolf Erich Raspe: The Surprising Adventures Of Baron Munchausen (1785) ?

Blowing up bears, being swallowed by fish, seeing off a pride of a thousand lions, visiting the moon (twice): every boastful big game hunter, self-aggrandising fisherman or pub raconteur owes a debt to this 1785 collection of satirical tall tales, inspired by the anecdotes of a real German aristocrat. Raspe himself lived a shadily picaresque life but could only have been an amateur compared with the baron, whose stories leap from the sublime to the ridiculous — then keep on jumping.
Victoria Segal
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Erich Maria Remarque: All Quiet on the Western Front (1929)

Best “war is hell” novel ever. Published in Germany as Im Westen nichts Neues, it became an international superseller after its blockbusting 1933 film tie-in. The story tracks the fortunes of six classmates swept up in the first world war, as narrated by Paul Bäumer. The soldiers reserve their hatred not for the enemy but the armchair warriors on the home front. On the day that Armistice is signed, Paul, realising that he can never readjust to civilian life, walks into no-man’s-land and is shot. The Nazis banned the detestably “pacifist” book, couldn’t get their hands on Remarque and so arrested his sister on a trumped-up treason charge and beheaded her. A literal hatchet job.
John Sutherland
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João Guimarães Rosa: The Devil to Pay in the Backlands (1956)

Riobaldo, an old farmer living in the arid hinterlands of Brazil, tells the story of how he became the leader of a gang of bandits, revealing on the way that he may have sold his soul to the devil. Often referred to as the “Brazilian Ulysses”, Guimarães Rosa’s novel comes with a mythic heft, a complex masterpiece of storytelling that attempts to map those psychological territories that are as remote and wild as any backcountry.
Victoria Segal
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Rafael Sabatini: Scaramouche (1921)

Sabatini’s swashbuckler certainly can do the fandango, twirling and ducking through Revolutionary France in the dashing company of its hero André-Louis Moreau. After a duel with a wicked marquis leaves his friend dead, the young man stirs up discontent against the upper classes and is forced to become a fugitive, joining a wandering theatre troupe as disguise. Those staples of historical adventures — honour, vengeance and dark family secrets — provide the kerosene; the political intrigue strikes the match.
Victoria Segal
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Rafael Sabatini: Captain Blood His Odyssey (1922)

According to George MacDonald [Flashman] Fraser this is “one of the great unrecognised novels of the 20th century”. It’s 1685. Dr Peter Syn is an Irish surgeon, peacefully plying his healing trade in the west country. He tends a dying officer, in Monmouth’s rebellion, and is sentenced to death by (hanging) Judge Jeffreys. The sentence is commuted to transportation to the Barbadoes. There Syn turns buccaneer as Captain Blood, aka Capitano Pedro Sangre. Pirates of the Caribbean adventures ensue, before a happy-ever-after in Devon. The novel is indelibly associated with Errol Flynn’s 1935 film depiction. Buckles never swashed more dashingly.
John Sutherland
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Jonathan Safran Foer: Everything Is Illuminated (2002)

Foer’s novel won the Guardian first book award and praise from John Updike and Joyce Carol Oates. Others have been deeply irritated by this story of a young American Jew who visits Ukraine in search of the woman who saved his grandfather from the Nazis. What do they hate so much? Chiefly the American’s local guide (and co-narrator) Alex, whose already shaky English is dangerously loosened by the gift of a thesaurus. “In Russian,” as Alex puts it, “my ideas are asserted abnormally well, but my second tongue is not so premium.” Oh, and there’s a farting dog.
Phil Daoust
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James Salter: The Hunters (1956)

Drawing on his experiences as a fighter pilot in the Korean War, Salter’s first novel exudes the kind of chill you might experience at 40,000 feet. Captain Cleve Connell arrives in Korea determined to become a MiG-destroying ace: instead of glory, he finds disenchantment and pilots who have let their sense of honour curdle and their masculinity turn septic. War, Salter argues, leaves a man’s heart missing in action even before the rest of his body follows.
Victoria Segal
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Walter Scott: Ivanhoe (1819)

After a series of bestselling Scottish novels, the Wizard of the North (still anonymous to his contemporary readers) turned to English history. The
story is set in the 12th century, at the time of the crusades. Saxon England is labouring under the “Norman yoke”. King Richard has been captured on his return from the Holy Land. The main strand of narrative (never Scott’s strongest point) follows the career of Wilfrid of Ivanhoe, a disinherited knight, who must choose in love between the Saxon beauty Rowena, and the beautiful Jewess Rebecca. Scott’s novel popularised the legendary Robin Hood, the medieval joust (the plot hinges on a great tournament) and idealised medievalism. It is probably, in terms of myths it propagated, one of the most infl uential novels in English literature. Now less read than it deserves to be.
John Sutherland
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Anna Sewell: Black Beauty (1877)

The most famous animal story of the 19th century. The novelty of the work is that it is narrated by a horse (apparently sexless), which is miraculously able to talk like a well-brought-up Victorian servant. Black Beauty tells his life story from foal to colt to broken-in mount and fi nally to broken-down hack. The work is strongly marked by Sewell’s passionate hatred of cruelty to animals and her campaign against the use of the “bearing reign”. The most good natured of quadrupeds, Black Beauty off ers a fi nal message: “We horses do not mind hard work if we are treated reasonably.”
John Sutherland
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Irwin Shaw: The Young Lions (1949)

Allegedly incurring Hemingway’s wrath by encroaching on his territory, Irwin Shaw’s rangy account of the second world war marches across vast swathes of territory, both literal — Africa, Europe, America — and intellectual. Focusing on three young soldiers — the Jewish Noah, the accidental hero Michael and the Nazi Christian, characters later played by Montgomery Clift, Dean Martin and Marlon Brando in the 1958 fi lm — Shaw’s first novel opens out into a spiritual and emotional panorama of war.
Victoria Segal
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Nevil Shute: A Town Like Alice (1950)

Jean Paget’s uncle believes women cannot handle money, and places her inheritance in trust: as his solicitor discovers, however, in wartime Malaya this “very fine girl” handled trials beyond her uncle’s imagining. There is romance in Shute’s popular 1949 book, but the underlying taste is as sharp as quinine, its key passages detailing Jean’s forced march round Malaya with 32 other women and children in an account of dirty rice, dysentery and death that loses none of its horror for being rendered in Shute’s reticent, terribly British style.
Victoria Segal
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Art Spiegelman: Maus: A Survivor’s Tale (1973-1991)

“No poetry after Auschwitz,” said Adorno, with serious implications for a book that attempts to represent the Holocaust and its aftermath as an extended cartoon. Maus exploded not merely any preconceptions about appropriate subject matter for a comic strip, but also suggested that the unspeakable might best be rethought through unexpected means. The relentless caricatures (Jews as mice, Germans as cats, Poles as pigs) remain challenging, even as they intensify a highly poignant depiction of ordinary aspirations in prewar Poland and Artie’s troubled relationship with his far-from saintly survivor father.
Chris Ross
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Stendhal: The Charterhouse of Parma (1839)

A romantic thriller that follows the fortunes of a young Italian nobleman, Fabrizio del Dongo, who somewhat accidentally finds himself fighting for the French at Waterloo. He then heads to Naples to study for the priesthood, has plenty of affairs, kills a man in a dispute over an actress and is caught and locked up in Parma’s highest tower, where he manages to fall in love yet again before effecting a daring escape. Alongside all this are the intrigues of court politics involving Fabrizio’s glamorous aunt Gina and her lover, the urbane Count Mosca. Both Balzac and Tolstoy were heavily influenced by Stendhal’s panoramic realism.
Adam Newey
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Neal Stephenson: Cryptonomicon (1999)

If the phrase “post-cyberpunk science fi ction” sounds altogether alarming, then you may disregard this novel. In fact Stephenson’s sprawling, picaresque epic at times reads like a straightforward history of the science of code-making and code-breaking in the second world war. But not for nothing is Stephenson known as “the Hacker Hemingway”, and his narrative also includes much heorising on the history of computing, the nature of money and mathematics. It ranges effortlessly all over the globe, between a past and a present brimming with conspiracy theories and paranoia. A much loved, popular novel that almost transcended the cult label.
Nicola Barr
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Laurence Sterne: A Sentimental Journey (1768)

Mr Yorick, a mischievous 18th century clergyman, who is his author’s alter-ego, narrates his thoroughly idiosyncratic journey through France. He meets and mocks both his fellow English travellers on their Grand Tours and the French philosophes whom he visits in their Paris salons (Sterne, as the celebrated author of Tristram Shandy, had recently cut a swathe through fashionable Parisian society). The sentimental traveller searches out not tourist attractions but “sentimental” encounters: touching meetings with those who are gifted with fi ne feelings. Oddly enough, these are usually attractive young women who are happy to have their pulses felt by a sympathetic gentleman.
John Mullan
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Robert Louis Stevenson Kidnapped (1886)

Stevenson’s most popular historical romance, set in 1751 in the aftermath of the ’45 Scottish rebellion. David Balfour, an orphan, comes to live with his villainous uncle, Ebenezer of Shaws. Having failed to murder his ward himself, Ebenezer has his nephew kidnapped, as a white slave, on the brig Covenant. The vessel runs down a rowing boat containing a Jacobite rebel, Alan Breck. He and David conspire to escape their captors and, on land, the brutal English soldiery who are still ravaging Scotland. After many adventures the two heroes — one “canny”, the other wildly romantic (Stevenson loved dualism) — make it to Edinburgh, where David’s rights are restored. Alan takes refuge in France.
John Sutherland
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Robert Louis Stevenson: Treasure Island (1883)

The fi nest boys’ adventure story produced in the Victorian period. Young Jim Hawkins helps run the Admiral Benbow inn, in Devon. A buccaneer, Billy Bones, holes up there — pursued, it transpires, by shipmates who deliver him the dreaded “black spot”. Jim discovers a treasure map in the dead Bones’s sea chest and, with the local squire and doctor, embarks to the West Indies to discover the buried treasure of the pirate Captain Flint. Also on board their vessel, the Hispaniola, is the villainous, one-legged sea-cook, Long John Silver, who takes over the vessel. Jim foils the mutineers and returns rich — but still affl icted by nightmares of Silver and his parrot’s screech “Pieces of Eight!” Stevenson’s novel was much imitated. Without it, we would never have had Pirates of the Caribbean.
John Sutherland
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Robert Stone: A Flag for Sunrise (1981)

Stone is a former war correspondent and erstwhile member of Ken Kesey’s “merry pranksters” who writes tales of desperate jokers in dangerous places. A Flag For Sunrise deals out a dark farce of the Iran-Contra era, as a rag-tag troupe of misfits (nuns and drug smugglers, whisky priests and CIA operatives) jockey for advantage in a thinly-veiled Nicaragua. Dostoyevsky and Graham Greene are the obvious influences here, though Stone’s savage, seductive prose style is all his own.
Xan Brooks
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William Styron: Sophie’s Choice (1979)

Hugely ambitious and extremely controversial, Styron’s rendering of a three- seen. In lands of midgets, giants and a flying island, Gulliver wonderfully fails to see the analogies with the European civili sation of which he is so proud. Then on his last voyage he meets the Houyhnhnms, virtuous and perfectly rational talking horses, and his pride collapses into misanthropy and self-loathing. He and we are just Yahoos, the malevolent, cunning, libidinous beasts with whom the Houyhnhnms are fated to share their land.
John Mullan
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Leo Tolstoy: War and Peace (1869)

Tolstoy’s epic novel – the touchstone of 19th-century realism – sweeps from the glittering salons of Russian high society to the grisly horrors of the Napoleonic battlefields. Its dispassionate eye follows peasants, emperors, soldiers, and priests through decades, taking in life and death in all its forms. This is no heroic tale of good versus evil, of strategies and battle formations, but a vivid depiction of the banality, tedium and senselessness of war. In its time, it was so formally innovative that even Tolstoy himself didn’t consider it to be a novel in the conventional sense. He was so dissatisfied with the first version that he rewrote it and never felt he’d got it right. Its everyman hero, Pierre (played unforgettably on TV by Anthony Hopkins), blunders along, struggling to find meaning in his life, and each of the dozen or so central characters battle their own demons, searching for truth and peace. Their struggles are timeless, as is the unforgettable love story at its heart.
Imogen Tilden
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Mark Twain The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1885)

The novel is narrated by Huck (“Tom Sawyer’s comrade”) in the “Pike County dialect”. Huck is semi-“sivilized”, thanks to the iron discipline of the widow Douglas who has adopted him. Huck’s villainous father returns, eager for the $6,000 his son has inherited. Huck escapes, and drifts by raft down the Mississippi, with a runaway slave, Jim. After various adventures (and reunion with Tom) all comes well. At the end, the two young heroes intend to light out to the Indian territory — a sequel Twain never wrote. The novel has fallen into disfavour because of Huck’s promiscuous use of the N-word, although its treatment of race is commendably liberal.
John Sutherland
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Jules Verne: Around the World in Eighty Days (1873)

Master of the voyage imaginaire , Verne also revealed himself adept at mingling high adventure with Thomas Cook-style tourism. This pioneer
romance of globalisation has always been among Verne’s most popular works in Britain for its ultra-English (as the French see it) hero, Phileas
Fogg, Esq. Fogg, having read of a new railway link in the Indian subcontinent, wagers his fellow Reform Club members that he can circumnavigate the world in 80 days. With his ingenious French “man”, Passepartout, he overcomes every obstacle, displaying across the globe the famous English sang –froid. The itinerary is meticulously chronicled. Fogg arrives back to foggy London, as he thinks, a day late — but he has forgotten that he has crossed the date line. He makes it to the club with seconds to spare.
John Sutherland
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Jules Verne: A Journey to the Centre of the Earth (1864)

With Twenty Thousand Leagues, the most reprinted of Verne’s voyages imaginaires, this one subterranean rather than submarine. The “hollow earth hypothesis” — which fantasised a parallel world to our under the world’s crust — was both popular and subscribed to, even by reputable scientists, in the 19th century. In Verne’s fantasy, Professor Lidenbrock, inspired by an ancient manuscript, leads an expedition through an extinct volcano to an underground world that is still prehistoric — having never been exposed to an ice age — with mastodons, jungles, and humanoids. Verne’s tale was flagrantly ripped off (by Edgar Rice Burroughs, among others, with his “Pellucidar” series) but remains the best of its (scientifically) preposterous
kind.
John Sutherland
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Gore Vidal: Williwaw (1946)

Vidal was 19 when he wrote this, his fi rst novel, published in 1946. And yes, he was living and working as a first mate on board a ship in the Aleutian Islands, the location for this novel, but the achievement is not the similitude, rather the ability to express the tension and claustrophobia as the crew members wrestle with war, personal animosity, boredom (no one is seen working on a novel) and some really really bad weather. A williwaw is a snow-laden hurricane, and 50 years before The Perfect Storm was a bestseller, Vidal showed us how it should be done.
Nicola Barr
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Voltaire: Candide (1759)

Our fresh-faced hero embarks on his picaresque journey across Europe and Latin America, which sees Enlightenment optimism sorely tested by — among other delights — rape, murder, syphilis, cannibalism, the wanton destructiveness of natural forces and the human cost of the western addiction to sugar. Not “the best of all possible worlds”, then, but certainly one of the best possible books about the limits of rationalism, the savagery of colonial exploitation and the vital importance of cultivating one’s own garden and independence of mind.
Chris Ross
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Kurt Vonnegut: Slaughterhouse-Five (1969)

Subtitled “Or The Children’s Crusade: A Duty-Dance With Death”, the most powerful anti-war novel to be generated out of the second world war. Vonnegut, like his ingénue hero, Billy Pilgrim, was captured in the Battle of the Bulge and imprisoned in Dresden, shortly before the firebombing in February 1945 which killed (as Vonnegut recalls) over 100,000 German civilians. The narrative opens with Billy “unstuck” in time. He is, perhaps, mad. Or, as he believes, he has been given the power of clairvoyance and time travel by extraterrestrial Tralfamadorians, whose prisoner he is. The Tralfamadorians have destroyed the universe by their bombing error but can enjoy the good moments of their previous existences. The narrative recoils
from graphic description of wartime atrocity to fanciful space opera. As Konnegut records, it was an immensely painful novel to write and, for all its incidental comedy and literary skill, remains painful to read. But necessary, none the less.
John Sutherland
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Evelyn Waugh: Put Out More Flags (1942)

Basil Seal, posh and feckless, has been a leader writer on the Daily Beast, a champagne salesman, a tour guide, a secret policeman in Bolivia, and an adviser on modernisation to the emperor of Azania – all way relationship between a young southern writer, a Polish Auschwitz survivor and a Jewish New Yorker interweaves a host of complex themes (survivor guilt, ancestral guilt, madness and betrayal). The movie was Oscar-nominated; the book was banned in libraries across the States. But this is not just about provocative comparisons. Styron is a writer’s writer, capable of setting a pastoral idyll in Brooklyn, and the traumas narrated occur alongside a classic American coming-of-age story.
Chris Ross
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Evelyn Waugh: Men at Arms (1952)

The fi rst of the Sword of Honour trilogy, which was followed by Officers and Gentlemen in 1955 and Unconditional Surrenderin 1961. Guy Crouchback is the last of an ancient English Catholic family — miserable, childless, divorced and forbidden by his religion to remarry. At 35, the outbreak of war seems to give meaning to his life: he is commissioned into the Royal Corps of Halberdiers, an outfit somewhere between a prep school and a gentleman’s club. In Waugh’s mordent satire on the wartime army, bungling is standard, idiots are greeted as heroes and fools are unfailingly promoted. “Unquestionably,” wrote Cyril Connolly, “the finest novels to have come out of the war.”
Charlotte Higgins
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HG Wells: The Island of Dr Moreau (1896)

The most morbid of Wells’s remarkable 1890s “scientific romances” and a classic fable of vivisection — a cause célèbre of the late Victorian period. The hero narrator, Prendick, is shipwrecked and finds himself on a Pacific island, where he discovers that Dr Moreau (earlier hounded out of England for torturing animals) has perfected surgical techniques by which he can accelerate evolution. Under his Darwinian scalpel, animals are raised to quasi-humanity. But once raised, these “monsters” need to be kept in check by the sadistic infliction of pain. Moreau is killed by a puma he is tormenting and rebellion breaks out. The animals revert to their natural animalism. Moreau’s last words are: “What a mess.” The novel revolted contemporary reviewers but hasfascinated posterity.
John Sutherland
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Robert Westall: The Machine-Gunners (1975)

Chas McGill’s collection of war souvenirs becomes more than a schoolboy pastime when he finds a crashed German bomber with its machine-gun still attached. After their school takes a hit during an air-raid, McGill and his friends make use of the free time to wage their own war against the enemy. The Machine Gunners, which was adapted into a BBC television serial in 1983, brilliantly evokes Tyneside in the second world war and the disruption to ordinary family life, while capturing the complicated relationships that exist between children and adults. It won the Carnegie medal in 1975, and in 2007 was selected by medal judges as one of the 10 most important children’s novels of the past 70 years.
James Smart
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Patrick White: Voss (1957)

Voss, a German explorer, sets out in 1845 to cross the uncharted Australian desert. Before leaving, he meets Laura Trevelyan, a young Englishwoman newly arrived in the colony, and they fall in love. The novel then intertwines Laura’s life in Sydney with the increasingly desperate travails of Voss’s doomed expedition. Though the couple never meet again, they appear to communicate through a series of heightened, dream-like visions that become more intense as Voss’s mind, beset by the sin of intellectual pride, fractures under the weight of the physical challenge he has undertaken. In 1985 White’s novel was adapted into an opera by Richard Meale, with a libretto by David Malouf.
Adam Newey
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Owen Wister: The Virginian (1902)

Not many writers get to invent a genre, but that’s what Wister did in 1902 with The Virginian, the Western novel that spawned a thousand books and even more films. All the future cliches are here, but new-minted: the tall handsome stranger who learns how to be a man among the wide open spaces of the unspoiled West, magnifi cent landscapes, violent villains — who get their comeuppance — and a lovely schoolmarm endeavouring to instil civilised values in an uncouth bunch of frontiersmen. This book has all the freshness of a literary pioneer.
Joanna Hines
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Herman Wouk: The Caine Mutiny (1951)

Soon after Willie Keith joins the US Navy in 1943, his dying father describes him as “much like our whole country – young, naive, spoiled and softened by abundance and good luck, but with an interior hardness that comes from your sound stock”. On board the Caine, an ageing minesweeper in the Pacific, Willie grows up fast, but it is his involvement in mutiny and its aftermath that finally turns him into the man his father never was. Wouk won a Pulitzer prize for this dramatic account of the realities of warfare in the Pacific.
Joanna Hines
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Émile Zola: The Debacle (1892)

The penultimate book in Zola’s monumental sequence about a French family during the Second Empire, The Debacle chronicles the disastrous war between France and Prussia in 1870 and the Paris Commune of the following year, through the moving friendship between two men. Jean Macquart, earthy and pragmatic, wins the respect of the intellectual and mercurial Maurice Levasseur. Initially comrades, they fight on opposite sides in 1871, with tragic consequences. Written only 20 years after the events it describes, Zola’s novel is a moving indictment of the waste and cruelty of war.
Joanna Hines

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