Favourites for Adults
I’m not going to do a very literary list here—there are other places for that. This is just a small sample of light and not so light stuff I’ve enjoyed and feel quite passionate about. You can’t read solid Shakespeare and Milton all the time, sometimes you need to snuggle up under a comfortable old coat that’s a bit worn, but still loved for all that.
Elizabeth Goudge. She writes just as well for adults as she does for children. And of all her adult books Towers in the Mist is the absolute best. A lovingly depicted Elizabethan Oxford, with a strong storyline, eminently loveable characters, and a sprinkling of real historical people such as Sir Philip Sidney, Walter Raleigh and the Earl of Leicester, not to mention the great Queen herself. Read it and be enchanted.
Ruth Pitter. Her Collected Works contain my favourite poem of all time, ‘The Heart’s Desire is Full of Sleep’. A literary craftswoman, now sadly dead.
Bill Bryson. Notes from A Small Island showed me my own country through different eyes. I laughed till I had a small accident.
Colin Thubron. Lyrical, literary travel writing from the master journey taker. He really gets behind the skin and bone of a country.
William Dalrymple.To find a wonderful book like In Xanadu—A Quest which WD wrote when he was only 22 is a humbling experience. A modern travel classic.
Bruce Chatwin. When I think of all the books he would have written had he not died so young, it makes me sad. All the more reason to treasure what he did write, especially In Patagonia and The Songlines. The latter makes my mind walk on strange and different paths every time I read it.
Jim Crace. The Gift of Stones Without doubt this is one of the most moving and beautifully written books I have ever read. I find it hard to describe the effect it had on me, even now, so many years after I first came across it. An exquisite story about the fundamental changes brought about by the discovery of bronze, and the effects it has on a whole society.
Robertson Davies. The Cornish Trilogy (includes The Rebel Angels, What’s Bred in the Bone and The Lyre of Orpheus). An extraordinary tour-de-force of gothic fantasy, historical titbits, and an erudite maze of art, philosophy, comedy which is well worth negotiating. Very vulgar (in the best and earthiest kind of way), very funny, and altogether worth reading for anyone who likes a feast of literature.
The Lyttleton/Hart-Davis Letters Rupert Hart-Davis and George Lyttleton. I guess I’m just nosy, but I love reading other people’s letters. These are particularly good ones, if you like the 40’s onwards.
Janet Evanovitch. Stephanie Plum (One for the Money etc) is a recent introduction to my life. I normally hate detective novels with a passion, but she’s such a weird, funny gutsy kind of girl that I was totally seduced. And who could choose between Ranger and Morelli? Pure non-highbrow entertainment—good for the beach.
Georgette Heyer. The mistress of Georgian romance, it’s true. But also a very very good historian. Her accounts of Waterloo and the Peninsular War (in An Infamous Army and The Spanish Bride) are accurate, moving and eminently readable. My grandfather maintained that the former was unbeatable. My own non-war based favourite is Frederica.
Diana Gabaldon. My niece insisted I read Cross Stitch, (Outlander in the USA). I fell in love with Jamie Fraser immediately and comprehensively, and am currently looking for a way to get back to 1745, so I can steal him for myself. There are 6 books so far, with one more to come. I can’t wait for the next Claire and Jamie fix.
Bernard Cornwell. The Sharpe novels paint a sweeping picture over every Wellington campaign from India onwards. Cornwell sometimes twitches things a little to fit his story, but it doesn’t matter. Listening to Sean Bean read them on audio is an extra bonus.
Ken Kesey. Sometimes a Great Notion is in my opinion his greatest novel (and one of the great American Novels of all time). Far better, deeper and more rewarding than One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, and almost no one in the UK has ever heard of it. A long, quite hard read which has a fabulous dynamic between east and west coast America, two brothers of different generations—it’s a sort of Cain and Abel de nos jours. Funny, sad, interesting, illuminating, beautifully written. I can’t recommend it too highly.
Patrick O Brien. The Aubrey/Maturin novels are the same period as Sharpe, roughly, but a maritime version. Anyone who wants to learn a great deal about what the post-Nelson navy was like should read these. I can’t tell you how much satisfaction it gives me to know arcane bits of naval lore, how to climb the futtocks, and everything about Knipperdollers, to name an infinitesimally few things I love about these books. Maturin makes me laugh, and Aubrey is a gem. Don’t see the film, it’s awful.
Alexander McCall Smith. Mma Ramotswe goes from strength to strength in his lovely, gentle series about the Number One Ladies’ Detective Agency. Perfectly judged, and with a real love and knowledge of Botswana that shines from every page.
Rosamund Pilcher. Yep. Romantic feelgood saga slush. Why not? I like September best, but then I’m a Scot.
Anthony Trollope. For years I couldn’t understand my mum’s passion for Trollope. Then I started Barchester Towers in her small old green leather edition with the flimsy pages. Somehow I found myself hooked. I still am. And it’s amazing how things haven’t changed in human nature or politics.
Charles Dickens. I did Bleak House for ‘A’ level. I have read it and read it ever since, and was totally delighted with the BBC version. The Dickens treasurehouse is winter reading for long dark nights. And definitely comfort food for the soul. Watch how he has a cliffhanger at the end of every chapter—a function of having to publish every week and keep his readers interested.
Laurens van der Post. A Story like the Wind and A Far-off Place are two of my favourite books. LVDP is not fashionable nowadays, but this is beautiful writing, and worth seeking out. If nothing else, these books have made me a passionate proponent of leaving the indigenous Bushman tribes alone to run their own lives. In these days of worry about carbon footprints, the Bushmen, like the Native Americans are truly in tune with the earth, and step very lightly upon her.
The Iliad and Odyssey by Homer. Just because they are such great stories. I like the Penguin Classics translations by Peter Jones and the Rieus. However many times I read the passage about Hector and Achilles, I still cry. I even cried when I was writing the story myself for Atticus. And having been to Troy, I finally understand how they could run around the walls so many times. It’s tiny (although there is now some doubt that Schliemann’s Troy is actually in the right place).