Any Old Iron by Anthony Burgess

I freely admit that I only bought this book to have something to read on a long bus journey. I was a teenager at the time and, although I read a lot, my diet was mostly thrillers and spy novels. So, boy, was I in for a surprise. It’s fair to say that Any Old Iron was my first brush with literature and one I still haven’t quite recovered from. The quality and dazzle of the writing was like nothing I’d ever read before. Burgess brought his immense erudition, linguistic skill and no small amount of talent to his writing and used it to light up the page.

The Adventures of Augie March by Saul Bellow

For most people the title of Great American Novel goes to either The Great Gatsby or Moby Dick. To my mind, Augie March beats both hands down, even if Bellow was technically Canadian. It’s big and sprawling and the electrifying prose perfectly captures the spirit of a nation that is coming of age. Starting out in depression era Chicago, the cocky hero goes at things as he has taught himself and tells his own tale in his own unique way. First to knock, first admitted – as he says – sometimes an innocent knock, sometimes a not so innocent.

Regeneration by Pat Barker

Pat Barker won the Booker Prize for The Ghost Road, the final part of her Regeneration trilogy, but I think the eponymous first part is the better book. Starting with Siegfried Sassoon’s famous declaration against the continuance of the First World War, Regeneration explores not just the war itself, but also the morality and psychology of the men who fought in it and gives a searing account of its corrosive effects.

In Our Time by Ernest Hemingway

I prefer Hemingway’s short stories to his longer works. He published several collections but I’ve picked this, his first, because it contains my favorite Hemingway story. Big Two-Hearted River is one of the earliest examples of Hemingway’s ‘iceberg’ storytelling method, and perhaps also one of the best. The story is deceptively simple: man camps out in woods; man goes fishing; man catches fish. On the surface not much appears to be going on but, underneath, everything is going on.

Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel

I read this only recently and it blew me away. It’s so fresh and vital and so very human. In writing a historical novel you’re trying to lift history off the page where your reader has most likely already encountered it. You’re trying to animate characters they may already know, breathe life into the long dead, and at the same time be true to the facts and illuminate them. Hilary Mantel does all this, and then some.