Coming From Behind by Howard Jacobson is the funniest book I've ever read, and funny in my favourite kind of way: dark, misanthropic and bitingly clever. It's a campus novel about frustrated ambition, and is brilliant on a line-by-line level. There are particular paragraphs in it that I love more than most entire novels, and that make me laugh every time I think about them.
The story focuses on an English Literature lecturer in a rubbish polytechnic whose Cambridge education has given him great expectations that, so far, have not led to great results. I first read Coming From Behind just after leaving the idyll that was Trinity College, Cambridge (where I had a two-year Creative Arts Fellowship) and after getting myself a part-time job in...a polytechnic. About which I won't comment further, except to say that I felt as if this book had been written specifically for me. I adore it in a visceral way.
The Black Prince by Iris Murdoch is the all-round best novel I have ever read. It offers everything fiction can and should: mystery, metaphysics, lust, love, envy, dysfunctional relationships, fascinating ideas. It is funny, tragic, moving, fascinating, infuriating and provocative.
Bradley Pearson, the novel's narrator, is desperate to escape to somewhere secluded and write the great book that he knows he has in him. He is delayed by the attempted murder of his friend and rival Arnold Baffin by Arnold's wife Rachel, then further delayed by the arrival of his hysterical sister whose marriage is breaking down. When Bradley is at his most frustrated, he suddenly finds himself falling deeply and unexpectedly in love with the Baffins' daughter, Julian. Iris Murdoch understands and conveys the heartbreaking ludicrousness of life better than any other novelist.
Serious Concerns by Wendy Cope. Brilliant poems by my favourite living poet. They have great metrical structure and elegant rhyme schemes; they're interesting, moving, often hilarious and always memorable. It is obviously deeply misguided to divide contemporary poetry into 'Proper Poems' and 'Lines-Could-End-Just-About-Anywhere Poems', and I for one would never dream of doing such a thing...but if you are so erroneously inclined (which I wouldn't in any way condone) then Wendy Cope's poems are Proper Poems. One, entitled Another Unfortunate Choice, goes like this: 'I think I am in love with A E Housman/Which puts me in a worse than usual fix:/No woman ever stood a chance with Housman/And he's been dead since 1936.'
Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte. Pure genius from start to finish, and a book that needs to be read hundreds of times in order to get the full benefit. Heathcliff and Cathy are probably my favourite ever main characters It's such a mysterious, ambiguous, shifting novel, so hard to pin down. I also love the fact that no one in it is what most people would define as 'a sympathetic character'. All the protagonists are deeply flawed and capable of doing great harm to others, but also capable (in some cases) of noble and heroic acts and emotions.
A touch of extra brilliance is that the story is told from the point of view of Lockwood, a non-depraved polite outsider, who learns much of what he knows via Nelly Dean, another prominent but peripheral character. This double-filter effect is a stroke of genius, as it contrasts the normal, to which we, as readers, are closer (well, apart from some of us, but still...) with the dysfunctional and the ghostly. I love the idea that everlasting love for one's soulmate is a death-defying force even near Bradford. (I say that as someone who lived in Bradford for 11 years!)
Murder on the Orient Express by Agatha Christie. Quite simply the best twist in any crime novel ever. Christie's plots are perfect puzzles with ingenious solutions, and this one is no exception.
Hercule Poirot finds himself on the Orient Express when a murder takes place. All the suspects are interviewed, and at first the case seems baffling because it appears impossible that any of the travellers in the relevant train carriage could have done it. Yet one of them must have. Poirot applies his little grey cells and arrives at a conclusion that is the best high-concept resolution in crime fiction since records began, and even before then too.
The Power of Now by Eckhart Tolle. Although its subtitle is 'A Guide to Spiritual Enlightenment', you don't have to be a spiritual new-age type to love this book - honestly, you don't. I'm not - I'm more the bitchy, sarcastic, hold-massive-grudges-forever type, or rather I was until Eckhart Tolle persuaded me, in beautifully rational prose, that it was me making myself angry or miserable every time, with my interpretations of events in my life, rather than the events that were making me angry or miserable.
Tolle's point in this wise and wonderful book is that the human ego, if taken too seriously, makes human beings unhappy. Since reading The Power of Now I have been happier, more tolerant, more forgiving (except of YOU), more humble...more everything good (though still a bit bitchy and sarcastic—but that's my fault and not the book's.)
House Rules by Rachel Sontag. The best memoir I've ever read, about the author's chillingly deranged upbringing in the most terrifying of families. What makes this book really stand out is the particular character of the psychological abuse - always couched in terms of love and family closeness, and all the more deadly for it. Sontag finally managed to escape from her family, and, even years after reading the book, I often think about her, wonder if she has stayed away and pray to whoever might be listening that she NEVER decides to give her 'parents' another chance. (I think I need to read The Power of Now again!).
The Orphan Choir by Sophie Hannah is published by Hammer.
Photo credit: Roderick Field