The Obvious Choice

Aside from big-bucks internet retailers (boo!) causing independent book shops to close and local council’s decisions to close down libraries (boo hiss!), there is nothing that gets bibliophiles up in arms more than an arbitrary ‘top whatever’ list of ‘must read’ books published in some form of national press. Everyone has an opinion on these lists and the taste and validity of the person who published them, and most of the time it’s widely considered that the majority of the books that are on the list shouldn’t be on the list, and none of the books that are deserving of a place feature at all. A list I found this week is no exception to this rule. It was published in Stylist magazine, which is aimed at professional women and given out free every week to commuters in certain UK cities. I enjoy reading it most of the time, as it does attempt to address important issues, is mildly feminist and has some interesting features. However, at times it’s just a bit obvious – as in trying too hard to be cutting edge and on trend – and the list of 20 ‘must reads’ they published fit this bill precisely. I groaned my way through it and came to the conclusion that the person who wrote it had complied it entirely from a list of review copies, as it’s just so Tesco. No inventiveness at all!

So, I have decided to compile my own list, sticking closely to the themes they have chosen, so it’s not an accurate reflection of my own personal top 20 books but more of an alternative suggestions list along the lines of the themes they have chosen for their books. I hope you enjoy!

The All Time Classics

1. Stylist’s ChoiceThe Great Gatsby by F.Scott.Fitzgerald – they say: ‘one of the finest American novels’ I say: ‘overrrated’

1. My choiceTender is the Night by F.Scott.Fitzgerald – I think this is far and away the best of Fitzgerald’s work and an almost unbearably painful, haunting portrait of the crushing emptiness that lay behind many of the gilded lives of America’s ‘Jazz Age’. The Great Gatsby pales in comparison. I really don’t know why everyone loves The Great Gatsby so much.

2. Stylist’s choiceHoward’s End by E M Forster – they say: ‘what seems to be a gentle Edwardian read turns out to be much, much more’ I say: ‘Dull as dishwater’

2. My choiceThe Go-Between by L P Hartley – this beautiful novel might not have been written in the Edwardian period, but it captures the loss of innocence of a young boy and the changing world of the pre war period with a tender subtlety that is mesmerising. Famous for its first line ‘the past is a foreign country, they do things differently there’, it’s one of the finest novels of the 20th century and a must read. E M Forster, I regret to say, is a novelist I do not get along with in the slightest. I know lots of people think Howard’s End is marvellous but frankly I found it long winded, dull and largely pointless. Same with A Room with a View and A Passage to India. You can’t say I haven’t tried.

3. Stylist’s choiceLove in a Cold Climate by Nancy Mitford – they say: ‘the real interest lies in Mitford’s rapier-sharp wit’ I say: ‘nowhere near as funny as The Pursuit of Love

3. My choiceThe Diary of a Provincial Lady by E M Delafield. I love Nancy Mitford but Love in a Cold Climate is really not her strong point. Plus, her novels might be hilarious, but can us normal folk relate? Of course not. That’s where E M Delafield comes in. Writing in the same period, but about the problems of much more middle class life, her observances of the perils of unwanted visitors and having nothing to wear are hilarious, true and really rather touching. Not to mention consistently funny throughout all four volumes, which is more than can be said for dear Nancy’s Love…trilogy.

4. Stylist’s choiceTo Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee – they say: ‘no one is ever the same after reading this’ I say: ‘Yawn’

4. My choiceJude the Obscure by Thomas Hardy. Don’t get me wrong – To Kill a Mockingbird is an outstanding novel and rightly a classic – but it’s on every school syllabus in the entire world and as such is a far too obvious choice. Jude the Obscure is horrendously bleak but  demonstrates the struggle the poor have always faced to achieve their dreams and access opportunities to better their lives. Both novels address a core issue of injustice and for me Jude the Obscure was far more eye opening in showing the pain and desperation of those who are the least advantaged in our society. Skip the bit with the babies, though. It’s horrible.

5. Stylist’s choiceThe Group by Mary McCarthy – they say: ‘an exciting feminist read’ I say: ‘It’s not really feminist, though’

5. My choiceThe Rector’s Daughter by F M Mayor – if you want a novel about what it was really like for women a few generations ago, this is it. In exploring the life of a spinster in early 20th century rural England, it is heartbreakingly honest about the smallness of life offered to those women who did not marry. It also demonstrates how infuriatingly powerless these women were, and how condescendingly they were treated by others. The Group is entertaining, and interesting, of course, but it won’t move you to tears or get you fired up in the way The Rector’s Daughter will.

6. Stylist’s choice Excellent Women by Barbara Pym – they say: ‘defiant, painfully honest and genuinely hilarious’ I say: ‘I haven’t read it but I wasn’t that fussed by Jane and Prudence

6. My choicePersuasion by Jane Austen – someone (Philip Larkin maybe?) said that Barbara Pym was like Jane Austen and while I can vaguely see the comparison, I have to raise an eyebrow at such high praise. Frankly why read something like Jane Austen when you can just READ Jane Austen? Most people start and stop at Pride and Prejudice but Persuasion is her richest, most sophisticated and most mature novel, and no list of ‘all time classics’ should be without this marvellous paean to the power of love, patience and fidelity.

7. Stylist’s choice Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier – they say: ‘a literary page-turner with class’ – I say: ‘A rip off of Jane Eyre’

7. My choiceJane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte – I love Rebecca so don’t hate me Daphne du Maurier fans! – but Jane Eyre is the source for Du Maurier’s novel and remains one of the greatest classics of all time. It’s my favourite book so it’s on the list – no more explanation needed.

The Modern Must-Read

1. Stylist’s choiceHeartburn by Nora Ephron – they say: ‘darkly, endearingly humorous’ – I say: ‘you’re better off watching You’ve Got Mail’

1. My choiceTo the North by Elizabeth Bowen – this is one of the most brilliant and breathtaking books I’ve ever read. Bowen is a genius with the written word and perfectly captures the obsession and pain of love in a way Nora Ephron could never hope to.

2. Stylist’s choiceGhostwritten by David Mitchell – they say: ‘magical for displaying the extraordinary talent of a first time author’ – I say: ‘if he really was that good, he wouldn’t need posters on the tube to tell us he’s so good’

2. My choiceGilead by Marilynne Robinson –  a superbly beautiful book weaving the stories of different generations of the same family together, and a powerful, magnificent exploration of faith. It has a profundity that has the ability to change the way you view the world, and that is a rare gift indeed. This is a prizewinning book that fully deserves its accolades and fame – unlike most.

3. Stylist’s choice Cover Her Face by P.D.James – they say: ‘heralded a new standard for crime fiction’ I say: ‘Really?’

3. My choiceLady Audley’s Secret by Mary Elizabeth Braddon – not really ‘modern’ but if we take modern to be 1850 onwards, which I do, then it completely fits this theme and is far more entertaining than any P D James. Lady Audley’s Secret is the original and best potboiler and you can’t get much more page turning than this beauty.

4. Stylist’s choice – The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood – they say: ‘Atwood…is at her very best here’ I say: ‘they only picked this one because it’s the only one most people have read’

4. My choiceAlias Grace by Margaret Atwood – Margaret Atwood definitely deserves a place on this list, but The Blind Assassin isn’t her best novel by a longshot. I’ve read most of her books and my favourite so far is Alias Grace – a brilliant and thought provoking exploration of a real life woman who was a master of duplicity…or was she?

5. Stylist’s choice: Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel – they say: ‘genuinely gripping and beautifully written’ I say: ‘It makes no sense!’

5. My choice: Possession by A.S.Byatt – to be fair to Hilary Mantel, I did try a few pages of Wolf Hall, and it just didn’t sit right with me. Tudor people talking like normal people? Stuff happening in the present tense when it happened hundreds of years ago? I can’t handle the idiosyncrasies! Instead I would far rather immerse myself in the only one of A S Byatt’s books I’ve managed to genuinely enjoy every second of reading – the beautiful, mesmerising, rich feast of Victoriana that is Possession. It’s brilliant.

6. Stylist’s choiceValley of the Dolls by Jacqueline Susann – they say: ‘it’s brash and trashy but those are its strengths’ I say: ‘let’s call a spade a spade’

6. My choiceRevolutionary Road by Richard Yates – if you want to read something that really addresses the modern condition in the 1950s and 1960s, then Richard Yates’ bleak, poignant and uncomfortably confrontational first novel is the best place to look. His deconstruction of the American dream and the delusions we all live under are painfully honest and brilliantly realised in his immensely relatable and human characters. I would say that he is the most underread classic author I know of, and if you haven’t read anything by him then you’re missing out massively.

7. Stylist’s choiceGirlfriend in a Coma by Douglas Coupland – they say: ‘an intimate, emotional…voice of a generation novel’ I say: ‘never heard of it’

7. My choiceThe Buddha of Suburbia by Hanif Kureishi – I read this as a teenager and it blew me away. The protagonist Karim lives in a mock tudor semi on a quiet South London suburban street, on the same bus route I used to take to go shopping on a Saturday, and feels desperately frustrated and confined by the narrowness of his teenage life. Suburbia represents his fear of mediocrity and he longs to get out and become someone – but how? This book put into words my own emotions and desires as a teenager growing up in my own mock tudor semi in another unremarkable South London suburb, and it made me feel like I wasn’t alone. For a frank and hilarious depiction of the turbulent teenage soul, you can’t get much better than this.

The New Favourites

1. Stylist’s choiceOne Day by David Nicholls – they say: ‘one of the reads of the decade’ I say: ‘if I see any more posters advertising this distinctly average book, I will scream’

1. My choiceSouth Riding by Winifred Holtby – this is one of my absolute favourite recent discoveries, whose exploration of the pains and joys of life and the beauty of love and friendship is second to none. One Day is a quickly forgotten book that wants to be more profound than it is – South Riding taps into something essential at the core of life and should be read for centuries to come.

2. Stylist’s choiceSuper Sad True Love Story by Gary Shteyngart – they say: ‘both terrifying and hilarious’ I say: ‘I can’t even pronounce the author’s name’

2. My choiceThe Time Traveller’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger – I rarely read books that have been published in the last ten years. When I do, I do it several years after the hype has gone, so as not to be seen to be jumping on any bandwagons. I was highly sceptical about The Time Traveller’s Wife, as it was a One Day-esque phenomenon when it came out, but surprisingly I loved it. It’s inventive, emotional, well written and a real page turner. I’d say that, as mass market books go, this is one of the best.

3. Stylist’s choiceA Vision of Loveliness by Louise Levene – they say: ‘perfectly evoking the grime and glamour of the early sixties’ I say: ‘never heard of it’

3. My choice – The Secret History by Donna Tartt – if you want something dark and involving and brilliantly written, with characters who will haunt you and a plot that will obsess your every waking thought, then this is the book for you. It’s absolutely magnificent.

4. Stylist’s choiceThe Rules of Civility by Amor Towles – they say: ‘it has the kick of a modern read with the setting of a classic one’ I say: ‘classic novels can kick too!’

4. My choiceTo Bed with Grand Music by Marghanita Laski – written during the 1940s, Laski’s brilliant novel presents a fascinating, dark and highly controversial side to the war. It’s prose is magnificent and hasn’t dated in the slightest.

5. Stylist’s choiceThe Best of Everything by Rona Jaffe – they say: ‘the hemlines might be different but the banter’s all too familiar’ I say: ‘It only got republished because it was on Mad Men’

5. My choiceThe Echoing Grove by Rosamund Lehmann – an absolutely brilliant exploration of the inner working of women’s minds…Dinah and Madeleine are sisters who share a man they both love obsessively…you really cannot put this magnificent, perceptive, unforgettable book down.

6. Stylist’s choice A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan – they say: ‘it’s actually a novel about feelings, about music, and about human beings.’ I say: ‘just another two clever for words blatant prize contender’

6. My choiceSo Long, See You Tomorrow by William Maxwell – if you want something with razor sharp prose, a true insight into the heart of humanity, and a page turning, compelling plot, this is perfect for you. It’s one of the most remarkably beautiful novels I’ve ever read.



  1. Wonderful list, and repartee with ‘that’ magazine! I will take note of all you suggest, take the challenge, haul out that Bowen book lost in the bookshelves. I simply couldn’t ‘not’ respond…you put so much into your blog posts, and I dare not be just a lurker any longer!

  2. What a fun list you’ve created to supplant a thoroughly predictable one. Although I must take issue with your comment on Howard’s End–I adore that book. However, you do include Jude the Obscure and Gilead and Jane Eyre, which are also favorites, so I’ll forgive you 😉

    For the Atwoods, I must confess that Alias Grace is the only one of her books I didn’t get along with. (It’s been too long since I read it for me to remember why.) I’d say The Robber Bride instead, or Cat’s Eye. And I’d replace the P.D. James with Kate Atkinson’s Case Histories, to get modern crime in there, and because it’s brilliantly funny.

    1. Thanks Teresa!

      I know, I knew the Howard’s End thing would be controversial – but I just don’t enjoy Forster’s writing. I have tried!!

      That’s interesting about Atwood – I really enjoyed The Robber Bride as well, but Alias Grace is what really fascinated me. Partly because it was based on a true story, I think. I haven’t tried any Kate Atkinson…I’m not a huge crime fan, but I’d be interested in giving her a go as you rate her so highly!

  3. Woohoo – I can’t resist a list (is it because I’m a Virgo, I wonder?) I was almost punching the air at some of your choices, but there are a few I’d take issue with. I’m always ecstatic to come across someone else who loved ‘Possession’ – truly, one of my top 5 books of all time. I thought I knew it inside out and back to front, but I re-read it for a book group read a couple of years ago, for the first time since becoming a mother, and read the end as if for the first time – unbearably moving. I cheered at your comment on ‘Persuasion’ – such a beautiful book. Yes yes yes to ‘The Secret History’ and to not liking ‘One Day’ (fun but disposable). I was a bit ‘meh’ about ‘Time Traveller’…I thought it was a bit pleased with its own cleverness. I adore ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’. I think it was a courageous book and its inclusion on a thousand GCSE specs doesn’t diminish its power – I feel the same about ‘Of Mice and Men’. I am currently teaching that text for the umpteenth time and still find it so moving – and so affirming when students who are coming across it for the first time feel its power. I loved your list! (PS – at least Stylist didn’t include ‘The Lovely Bones’!!) PPS, I absolutely must check out Richard Yates!!

    1. Thanks Caroline! Just to clarify – I do think To Kill a Mockingbird is a brilliant, powerful book – I just think it’s an obvious choice for a list like this. EVERYONE has read it – they have to, at school, and as such, putting it on a list like this is really uninventive in my opinion. I love Of Mice and Men as well – fantastic book. You MUST try out Richard Yates – he’s absolutely spectacular.

      1. Yes I will check him out, I can’t wait – do you recommend any particular title for a beginner?

  4. ‘I say: Never heard of it’ Heh. Very amusing post. I agree with pretty much all you say (although I do have a weakness for The Great Gatsby). I’ve read one Barbara Pym which left me cold. So glad you put Persuasion on the list!

    1. Thanks Nicola! I do like The Great Gatsby…I just think Tender is the Night is better! Glad you felt the same way as me as Pym…I feel like Pym’s fans have come to reprimand me!!

  5. What a great list, there are loads here I’ll be reading or re-reading. I adored tender is the night, very beautifully sad.

  6. I’m so glad you included The Rector’s Daughter, which was one of my favorite reads of the past few months – a novel I will surely read again. Do try Excellent Women, though. I know a lot of people are unimpressed with Jane and Prudence (though I personally like it very much), but EW is justifiably considered to be Pym’s best. And thank you for convincing me to try Bowen again; my first go-round with her, some years ago, left me shrugging my shoulders, but I recently read To the North and loved it.

    1. Thanks Leticia – glad you loved The Rector’s Daughter so much! I’ll definitely give Excellent Women a bash…lots of people seem to love Pym so I will try again. You are welcome – so pleased To the North hit the spot!

  7. Wow, clearly you put a lot of time and thought into this one. I agreed with most of your re-selections, although there were a few (like the Time Traveler’s Wife) that I haven’t read. Your comment about waiting for it did make me wonder if you would have felt the same way about One Day if you had waited longer to read it? (I actually am not proffering an opinion since I haven’t read One Day — just wondered if it would be better any further down the road.) The only Barbara Pym that I’ve read was Excellent Women, and I just didn’t care for it. I’m wondering if she’s one of those authors that you either love or hate. Wonderful post. I’m now in a “list-making” mood…. 🙂

    1. Thanks Susan! I did enjoy One Day – but it wasn’t anything special. I don’t think I’d have found it anything more special had I waited. Pym seems to be a love or hate, yes…lots of lovers on here! I am going to try Excellent Women as its been rated so highly…maybe my mind will be changed!!

  8. What a hoot — but a thoughtful one at that — booksnob. Where I have read the books, I agree with a lot of your choices, particularly re Jane Eyre versus Rebecca, and Persuasion versus the Pym. (I’ve read a Pym or two but really if she’s there because she’s like JA then why not JA, and if JA isn’t there in any other capacity then she MUST be there.) I would be happy with The blind assassin … but I also think Alias Grace is a great book, and The handmaid’s tale – of the 6 or so of hers I’ve read anyhow. I loved Wolf Hall and Possession … but perhaps the latter has the edge in edginess!

    I could go on, but won’t. I did enjoy this post.

  9. Rachel, what a fantastic list. I agree with you wholeheartedly on most of your choices. I can’t comment of course on the ones I haven’t read but now for example, I know I have to finally read South Riding and Jude the Obscure. I just want to comment on your first choice. Tender is the Night is one of my all time favorite novels. I’ve read it 3 times. It is achingly beautiful and so haunting. It was the first Fitzgerald I read and afraid to be disappointed I waited years before reading The Great Gatsby which I finally read last year. While it is good, it is nothing compared to Tender is the Night.

    Oh, I wasn’t fussed by Jane and Prudence either but Excellent women is wonderful. You must read it. I know you’ll love it.

    1. Thanks Mrs B! I’m glad you agree on Tender is the Night…I don’t understand why The Great Gatsby has all the fame when Tender is the Night is such a hauntingly beautiful book. Maybe because Gatsby is shorter?!

      Ok, Mrs B – I am definitely going to give Excellent Women a try!

  10. I have to say, I am a bit puzzled by some of your responses to some of the books on this list. You say you groaned through the original, but by your own admission there were a few titles on there that you had never heard of; as a book lover, I really love hearing about new books, and I’m not sure how readily I’d be able to toss out certain titles in lieu of other ones if I’d not only never read them, but never even heard of them! As far as lists go, I actually think this one did a pretty good job of not simply promoting what is currently trendy or being snapped off the shelves already. Too often I think these lists tend to just compile books that are popular (and therefore don’t really offer much to those of us who read a lot), so I personally would be excited to find some books on there that aren’t major blockbusters. And really, you would put TIme Traveler’s Wife on the list (I guess Niffenegger is easier to pronounce than Shteyngart?) even though I doubt any reading woman the world over hasn’t heard of that one! We will have to agree to disagree on that one (even though I haven’t read Super Sad True Love Story, but I did not care for TTW at all!).

    Still, I realize this is all in good fun, so I don’t want you to think I’m poking at you… one man’s trash is another man’s treasure and all that, so we can’t agree all the time, especially when it comes to books. (Also, I don’t mean for the tone of my comment to be combative, just merely to express that I didn’t think the original list was all that bad!)

    1. Hi Steph, thanks for your comments! I think there’s probably a difference between the UK and the US perception of these lists – most of these books are currently very trendy in the UK and have been very heavily advertised, which is why they’re obvious choices. Where I haven’t heard of books, I tossed them out because I felt there were too many very recent books on there all released about the same time. Why pick loads of books from the 2000s when you could explore books from earlier decades? Was my thought process. I’d just like to see a bit more diversification.

      I LOVED The Time Traveller’s Wife and found it very inventive and well written. It’s one of the only recent books I would consider a favourite. I know not everyone liked it but I wanted to put it on there to give it a bit of legitimacy, because a lot of people write it off when actually it’s not your typical rubbish TV Book Club holiday read.

      No, not at all – it’s good to have people challenge your thoughts! Thanks for taking the time to come by and give me your opinions!

  11. “The Secret History,” probably my all-time favorite book (so far) and I am reading “South Riding” now.

  12. Brilliant, hilarious, spot on! What an original post. It’s like the Emperor’s New Clothes, a truly thinking-for-yourself view of literature. (I’d only take Mitford over Delafield personally.)

    1. Thanks Diana! I like that comparison to the Emperor’s New Clothes!! As for the Mitford – I ADORE The Pursuit of Love, better than I do E M Delafield, but Love in a Cold Climate just isn’t as funny which is such a shame!

  13. I say you are funny. Great post, so good to read honest opinions.

    Agree whole heartedly about E M Forster, Wolf Hall and Tender is the Night. Despite trying a few of her books I can’t get into Barbara Pym nor do I care for AS Byatt. Reread Secret History every so often to see if it still exerts magnetic pull (it does).

  14. I like books on both lists. I loved Excellent Women but that’s the only Pym I’ve read so far. I don’t think they’re trying to replace Austen, just offer more choices for people who love her and want more. Like me.

    I still haven’t read any Elizabeth Bowen and now I have to add To the North and most of her other books to the to-read list. Still need to read more Mitford and South Riding still awaits! But I’m nearly finished with The Mayor of Casterbridge so I haven’t given up on Hardy — I may actually read Jude the Obscure someday.

    1. I like some of the books on their list too, my objection is just with the lack of invention in the choices!

      You must read Elizabeth Bowen – she’s fantastic! And so is South Riding – you are missing out, big time!

  15. I adore Pym’s books but she is a seasonal read/reread for me — I like to read her on a dreary cold day. I have read pretty much all of Fitzgerald and while I have a lot of affection for Tender is the Night, Gatsby — to my mind — is a genuinely remarkable book — quintessentially American in the same way that Moby DIck and Huckleberry Finn are. I am completely with you on the virtues of the Provincial Lady. Have not read Gilead but I thought Robinson’s earlier book, Housekeeping, was brilliant.

    Very fun post to read!

    1. I think I need to try Pym again – I’m surprised to have found so much enthusiasm for her! Gatsby is good, but I don’t think it’s amazing in the way it’s been made out to be – much like Catcher in the Rye, really. Tender is the Night…well, it definitely struck more of a chord with me.

      You must read Gilead – it’s phenomenal!

      Thank you, glad you enjoyed it!

  16. Wonderful post. I have to agree with you about most of the Stylist’s choices, very predictable although I do love some of their choices. I loved more of your choices though. I think Barbara Pym is terrific so I do hope you give Excellent Women or Some Tame Gazelle a try. I agree with you about Possession but I also enjoyed Wolf Hall. I also agree with you about hyped-up modern novels, I hardly ever read them because I’m usually so tired of reading about them that I can’t face it. I’d always rather read a 19th or early 20th century novel. I’m so pleased that authors like Delafield, Gibbons, Mitford, Holtby & all the Persephone/Greyladies authors are being reprinted at last. I haven’t really come to grips with Elizabeth Bowen yet so I must try To The North.

    1. Thanks Lyn! I am going to give Barbara Pym another try, don’t you worry. I am totally with you on that – most modern novels are unbearably hyped up and I really can’t be bothered with them. I’d much rather read a book that was written in the times when books were meant to be read and enjoyed rather than read and awarded prizes!

      You must try To the North – it is fantastic!

  17. Like the fact that you challenged the list but you had me shouting out loud. Wolf Hall is a magnificent, extraordinary book – you can’t dismiss it after 3 pages. I’m a huge AS Byatt fan, would choose the Babel Tower, but she should be as well as, not instead of Mantel. Do not agree with you AT ALL about Howard’s End – although love the Go Between. Oryx and Crake would be my Attwood novel. To Kill a Mocking Bird – get hold of a copy of the new audio version with Sissy Spacek as narrator next time you are on a long journey. Jude the Obscure is the most disturbing and depressing book and deserves a health warning (the babies chapter should be in red so you can avoid it altogether). Love Mitford but do agree that Delafield is an absolute gem. HOW can you write off the brilliant, gifted, imaginitive, versalite, captivating David Mitchell for that tedious tome Gilead?!! Incomprehensible!! 🙂 I’m a big fan of Lady Audley’s secret. Rebecca has more nuances and subtlety and dark understanding of human nature than Jane Eyre. A Secret History is gloriously good.

    1. Oh Sally! You and me are going to fall out! 😉 Wolf Hall is really not my cup of tea…but I can appreciate that other people like it. And Gilead tedious?!!?! No way! It’s magnificent!! I must read To Kill a Mockingbird again actually, haven’t read it since my schooldays, long ago…

  18. Ho, tell us what you really think! 🙂 I enjoyed reading this post and chuckled through it. I’m pleased to find I’m not alone in disliking Howards End but I do like other Forster novels.
    Never heard of Douglas Coupland? I haven’t read Girlfriend in a Coma because the subject matter frightens me but Microserfs is one of my favourite books.

    1. I’m not backward in coming forward with my opinion, Barbara! Nope…I don’t think Coupland is very big here actually…I’ve really never heard of him at all. Microserfs sounds interesting though!!

      1. My daughter is a huge fan of Douglas Coupland, has been to hear him talk a couple of times, found him really nice and got her books signed. When you say ‘here’, we are also here, i.e. UK.

  19. Hilarious post, Rachel, and I might shamelessly steal the idea! And of course, being booklovers, we’ll all start shouting at your list too…

    I’m actually really impressed by their classics list – some not-so-obvious inclusions there, although I’m with you on The Great Gatsby, do NOT see the point – but the modern ones are yawningly predictable.

    I think our major disagreement is over Howards End (sans apostrophe please, young miss!) which I think is absolutely brilliant, although I found A Room With A View and Passage to India a bit more of a snore.

  20. What fun Rachel. I totally agree re Gatsby v Tender. Tender wins every time for me. Lots of new recommendations for me to read in there, but I would encourage you to try the Amor Towles book, I really enjoyed it.

    1. Thanks Annabel! Glad you agree with me on Tender – I think I will use the Tender v Gatsby debate as my new way of judging people’s taste 🙂

      I do actually quite want to read the Amor Towles…I’ve looked at it many times in bookshops and it does look interesting. Maybe in ten years when it’s no longer a new release!

  21. I see I’m late to the party, but please give Barbara Pym another try. JANE AND PRUDENCE or A GLASSFUL OF BLESSINGS might strike your fancy. And I’m so glad you mentioned THE GO-BETWEEN which I think is one of the overlooked masterpieces of the second half of the 20th century. As for GATSBY, I think it might have more resonance for an American audience.

  22. Oh–I forgot to mention E.M. Forster’s WHERE ANGELS FEAR TO TREAD which I think is much better than HOWARD’S END or A ROOM WITH A VIEW.

    1. Interesting…I’ve never tried that so maybe i will give it a go. I do wonder why E M Forster is still so popular…much like Henry James. I don’t get him either.

  23. Okay Ms. Booksnob, you’ve ‘kicked to the curb’ a number of my personal favorites, but I won’t be offended since you have offered some also very excellent choices in their stead! 😉 Howards End is one of my all time favorites, but I also loved The Go Between! I love Barbara Pym, but Persuasion is my favorite Austen, so can’t argue with you there! Very fun take on the list–am reading Donna Tartt now, and am happy to see the most excellent William Maxwell included in your list! 🙂

  24. phew, I’m glad I’m forgiven – I thought I was going to get another telling off there! 😉

    I am perplexed by all you Howards End fans…I wonder why I just don’t click with Forster?!

    1. I would never tell you off! I just had to give you a hard time, though. 🙂 Isn’t it weird how two readers can react so differently to the same book? Forster just clicks with me, but it looks like he doesn’t click with everyone! You have excellent other choices, though. Isn’t it nice, though, that there is such a wide variety–even within narrow groups (similar books) so that we can all find something that appeals to us.

      1. Only joking! 😉 It is weird, isn’t it, how tastes can so closely overlap and then go totally off?! Yes exactly – and we can help each other find new favourites too!

  25. Nothing like a ‘best-of’ list for controversy! But maybe that’s why they’re so fun.

    I was with you for The Great Gatsby (I think I have read it twice, I still can’t remember any of it, it left me cold) but Jude the Obscure was just too horrible for me! I cannot get along with Jane Eyre, and though I love Gilead I am also a big David Mitchell fan… Ditto with Wolf Hall and Possesion. The style was great in Wolf Hall, it rescued it from the dullness that often plagues historical fiction and made the political intrigues actually readable. So many book set in the medieval period are just infuriatingly unreadable, with their archaicisms that don’t end up adding any authenticity… Anyway, rant aside, Possession is one of my favourite books so I can’t argue with the inclusion on the list!

    I do take issue with the choice of Alias Grace above The Blind Assassin, I liked The Blind Assassin much better. Though I think The Handmaid’s Tale would still be the most commonly read Margaret Atwood (it deserves it).

    1. Hi Catie – oh I know, I love a bit of controversy!

      Cannot get along with Jane Eyre?! My goodness me! Interesting comments on Wolf Hall…I wish I could feel the same about it but my historical novels have to sound historical or I can’t cope with them!

      Interesting about Atwood as well – I liked The Blind Assassin but didn’t love it. The Handmaid’s Tale is excellent too but I thought Alias Grace the more ‘uncommon’ choice – to fit in with my theme!

  26. We disagree about a bunch of the ones on the main lists (I’m a big Wolf Hall and EM Forster fan and enjoyed Gatsby very much, although I think it’s a bit maybe lacking in big insights to be on a best of) but how fab to see all the other things I could be putting on my reading list as well 🙂 Those lists are always soooo obvious. Totally support your frustration with the huge ‘One Day’ marketing push – I have it, but every time I see it on another list, or ad I put it further down the list for being too pushy. Interesting to see your thoughts on what Atwood should make the list. I love The Robber Bride, but really like Alias Grace…I’d maybe advance Bodily Harm as one of her best works, as it got me reading her work, but it’s been ages since I read it.

    1. Lovely to see your thoughts, Jodie! It’s good to be disagreed with – but I am not prepared to try E M Forster again!

      Interesting what you say about Bodily Harm – I’ve never read that. I’ll look out for it!

  27. My goodness, Rachel, you got everyone going there!

    I find it difficult to challenge ‘favourite’ reads of good quality (which raises the question about good v bad writing) since the whole thing is so personal. For ex: I have a lot of time for Henry James and Virginia Woolf but get howled down by other reader friends. My writer’s group got near to violence over the merits of Elizabeth Bowen – without them having read much of hers (I’ve read the lot). EB was a good woman, if that makes any difference. Probably not but I love her for her tenderness and understanding, particularly of children.

    Like you, I don’t go for ‘obvious’ or hyped titles. I’m slowly getting round to reading (one day) Girl with a Pearl Earring. But on the whole I’d rather stick to my books from the first half of the last century. So much richness there.

    It makes me wonder who made up the Stylist list. And why is it that these list makers don’t seem to have had much of a reading education?

    1. I know, I have started up a ruckus! It is interesting how different tastes can be isn’t it?!

      Me too – you can’t beat those early 20th century books – so deep and rich and beautifully written.

      I know! I fear they just compile them from a list of review copies…

  28. Relegating Rebecca to a tired old bodice heaver is just not on.

    “Last night I dreamt I went to Manderly again”

    – and you’re they’re! howling at the moon! walking Cornish rocks! tramping echoing dusty mansion corridors!

    How could you, R?

    – OK the Secret History’s there, so I’ll let you off.

  29. What a fun list. Revolutionary Road was mentioned on a dvd Mad Men extra features by the way.
    I am so looking forward to my new reading list. Thanks for the suggestions.

  30. Possession is indeed brilliant, I really enjoyed the read. Also, completely agree with you on Revolutionary Road is such a tragically beautiful book. I want to read it again but part of me doesn’t because it’s such a bleak read.

    I really didn’t take to The Time Travellers Wife however. I found it boring actually. I think I may have to try it again. 🙂

  31. Holy moly, 76 comments!!!!!! I love it that people are so passionate about this! I’m with you on 3 & 4 in all time classics, but other than that, I mostly haven’t read the books. I do adore Gatsby, and each time I read it I find something new. And Howards End has long been one of my favorite books. I love Excellent Women, but I’ve loved other Pym books even more. I can’t believe how many of the others I’ve never read, and likely never will. :<)

    1. I seem to have started quite the debate, don’t I?! Thanks for your thoughts, Nan. I’m definitely going to give Pym another go – so many bloggers I trust have promised she’s worth trying again that I can’t ignore their pleas!

  32. It’s so funny — I hadn’t planned to comment again on this thread but I found myself continuing to think about the Gatsby/Tender split. I guess I find Gatsby more artistically pleasing and Tender more appealing on an emotional level. Tender is so much of what Fitzgerald (and Zelda) experienced and Gatsby is more about what he observed. I have reread Gatsby but have never been tempted to pick up Tender again. Rightly or wrongly, I feel like whatever that book had to give me, I got it the first time.

    Your posting also got me thinking about Hardy again. Hardy is one of the writers I most admire — but Jude is my least favorite of his novels although it is entirely possible that I was too young to appreciate it. I remember liking Sue and wanting to knock Jude upside the head. My favorite of the novels is Return of the Native and I owe a debt of gratitude to Claire Tomalin’s biography for pushing me to read his poetry.

    I am right there with you on Catcher in the Rye — I think Salinger’s story collection Nine Stories is a MUCH better book.

    1. Interesting thoughts on Fitzgerald – thanks for coming back to discuss in more detail, AJ! I think you’re right, and Tender definitely stayed with me because of its emotional impact. Gatsby just left me thinking ‘was that it?’ – when a book has been hyped up so much I think it ca struggle to leave the impression you so expect it to, unfortunately.

      Jude is relentlessly depressing – but still I love it. And Tess too. Though the poetry is heartbreaking…’woman much missed, how you call to me, call to me…’ gets me every time!

      Catcher in the Rye is SO overrated. It is not the voice of every teenager ever, I’m afraid! I’d not heard of the story collection – I shall look into that, thank you!

  33. So right. As ever. So infuriating when they clearly haven’t read the books or even done much research on them. No one in the history of the world ever has chosen Love in a Cold Climate over The Pursuit of Love as Nancy M’s top book. Just silly… *Cue much tutting*. We’re going to have to agree to disagree about David Mitchell and Hilary Mantel (have you read A Place of Greater Safety? SO good. Made me weep buckets on an EasyJet flight. Can’t remember if it mirrors Wolf Hall stylistically though…) because I think they’re awesome but that is what makes the world go around. Definitely going to start cracking through the rest of your list though. x

    1. Why, thank you! 😉 I know – I think it was the Mitford choice that really got my goat!! No, haven’t read any other Hilary Mantel…Wolf Hall has put me off. Maybe one day I will try her again. Hope you enjoy some of my choices!

  34. This is an excellent post and I sort of want to steal it. :p Even though I do have a few quibbles, chief amongst them being:

    4. Stylist’s choice – To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee – they say: ‘no one is ever the same after reading this’ I say: ‘Yawn’

    RACHEL. Not yawn. Unyawn your yawn. No yawning permitted. To Kill a Mockingbird is a gorgeous and necessary book, and if it’s too obvious, it’s only because it’s so wonderful that everyone quite rightly wants everyone else to read it and keeps giving it to each other to read. Thomas Hardy isn’t even in it.

    1. Thanks Jenny…look at me getting my hand smacked! I KNOW To Kill a Mockingbird is amazing, but I just think it’s a bit of a boring choice…if someone hasn’t already read To Kill a Mockingbird by the time they’ve reached adulthood, they’re lost to the reading world anyway!! 😉

  35. I’m thrilled to see that you are including so many books by women. They are sadly neglected on most of the “bests” lists and I think their work has been neglected because they write about women’s lives and concerns. It is so refreshing for me to be able to identify with a protagonist in the books that I read. Thank you for compiling your list. I shall save it.

  36. I won’t comment on where we disagree. I will say, however, that if you want to see the Jane Austen/Barbara Pym connection a little more I would try her first novel Some Tame Gazelle. I think it is wildly under-read even by Pym fans.

    The thing about your list that made me chuckle was the Donna Tartt inclusion. When that novel first came out it was exactly the kind of too obvious pick that would have annoyed you. It was so ubiquitous among those who thought they were clever readers. It was the literary equivalent of everyone choosing LIsa as their favorite Simpson because of her well-read erudition.

    Even though I gasped at some of your comments, I do love trashing a list.

    1. I will definitely seek out more Pym…I seem to be a lone dissenting voice! Thanks for the recommendation, I’ll put Some Tame Gazelle on my list.

      Really? I think I was still a school child when The Secret History was published so all the hype passed me by. I don’t see it talked about much now – but interesting that it used to be so popular! Deservingly so though I think!

      I’m pleased to think that I made you gasp 🙂

  37. Can’t stop myself, coming out of lurkdom to say wipe the slate clean of requirements that history has to read like history and try Wolf Hall again. It does take more than 3 pages to get there, but by about 50 pages you are there it lives inside your head and it is SO worth it. I found myself wondering what was happening when I wasn’t reading it…. like it was a sort of alternate universe. I know that sounds odd, but it is worth a bit of discarding requirements and just reading to see what happens. As for Pym, Tame Gazelle is where to start for my money. Gilead is brilliant, and I didn’t bother with Time Traveller’s Wife because of the hype so maybe I will try it. I’ll try that, but you need to give Wolf Hall a fair trial.

  38. Oooh I love this list, well these lists, I might have to have a go and see what mine would be in each catagory and report back. Mind you if everyone starts doing posts like this my wish list is going to spiral out of control. I must read Elizabeth Bowen and I have had F M Mayor languishing in the TBR for far too long. Thanks for this post Rachel.

      1. I have just started Mayor and am going to have a crack at this and make everyone do it so you will have created a meme. Mind you thats if I can ever stop debating which of my books should be relevant to each catagory, tricky stuff – you think its easy but oh no.

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