I’m not saying the five best fiction books ever. All that ‘the best’ stuff is subjective anyway. I’m not saying these are the greatest pieces of literature either – whatever that’s supposed to mean. These are just my personal favourites and so to me, they’re all of the above and more.
There are no major spoiler alerts in the description. You’ve probably heard of most of these books, but that’s not the same as having read them. Maybe you’ll be inspired to check them out. I hope so.
In no particular order:
1/ The Razor’s Edge (W. Somerset Maugham – 1944)
“The sharp edge of a razor is difficult to pass over; thus the wise say the path to salvation is hard.”
An old fashioned book with a timeless meaning.
Larry Darrell returns to the United States after witnessing the carnage of the First World War in Europe. He has no interest in getting a job and wallowing in American postwar prosperity like everyone expects him to do. Larry is now only interested in pursuing the ultimate questions – about life, meaning and the existence of evil in the world. It’s a journey that brings him into conflict with the materialism of modern society and importantly, with the people around him who know him, but no longer understand his choices.
I love how Larry’s spiritual path contrasts with the people around him. He’s a laughing stock to some, a bum to others, but time proves which – of all the characters in the novel – has made the wisest choices in life. While the majority of the other characters have spent their life pursuing material wealth and social prestige, Larry the loafer has been searching for something much more valuable.
Today there are many self-help/spiritual books, as well as other novels that espouse a similar message to the one in The Razor’s Edge. But this book was published back in 1944 and it was promoting the tenets of Eastern Philosophy about ten years before The Beat Generation came along. And long before the hippies arrived on the scene in the 1960s.
If that isn’t a good enough reason to check out the book then consider this – Bill Murray loves The Razor’s Edge. You may or may not know that he stars in the 1984 film version of the novel and that he only agreed to make Ghostbusters for Columbia in return for them financing this – his passion project. Ultimately the 1984 movie is flawed and I think Murray is a little miscast as Larry, but it’s still an interesting watch and worth checking out. But as always, read the book first.
2/ I Am Legend (Richard Matheson – 1954)
“He stood there for a moment looking around the silent room, shaking his head slowly. All these books, he thought, the residue of a planet’s intellect, the scrapings of futile minds, the leftovers, the potpourri of artifacts that had no power to save men from perishing.”
Robert Neville is the last man. The rest of humankind has been wiped out by an unknown plague and yet Neville is not alone. The post-apocalyptic world that he lives in is now full of vampires who have emerged in large numbers in the aftermath of the plague. It’s a tough break and Neville is doomed to live out his days in a terrible routine of necessary survival chores by day (safeguarding the house/vampire slaying), while at night he listens to classical music as the vampires surround his house, demanding that he come outside.
This is a great horror/post-apocalyptic story that captures the psychological struggle of day-to-day life as the last person in the world. And going by this, it’s not a lot of fun.
I love that I Am Legend is a short book. It clocks in at about 25,000 words, which makes it a pretty slim novella by most standards. That means it can easily be read in a sitting or two and so no excuses about not having the time to read it.
I Am Legend would make a great movie but so far (over three attempts) no filmmaker has really captured the essence of the book. The Last Man On Earth (1964) starring Vincent Price is the most faithful adaptation. The Omega Man (1971) with Charlton Heston has some interesting moments, but it strays a little from the book. Okay it strays a lot! The vampires in that movie are weird albino mutants of some sort. It’s got a pretty good soundtrack though, I will say that.
Less said about the Will Smith movie the better.
This one’s all about the book. It’s a classic. Read it if you haven’t already.
3/ The Body (Stephen King – 1982)
“I’ll see you.”
He grinned. ‘Not if i see you first.”
I have to do a separate Stephen King list sometime. He’s my favourite author and this list might easily have been a list of SK books. But for now I’ll only pick one and so I’m going to go with The Body. Pennywise, Kurt Barlow and Roland Deschain will all have to wait.
What struck me about The Body when I first read it is how faithful the film adaptation – Stand By Me – is to the source material. Yep, like many people in this instance – and of my generation – I saw the film before I read the book. And I can definitely say that the book and film are in sync with one another, unlike say Kubrick’s adaptation of The Shining – great film but it goes in its own direction and King didn’t like it. Therefore it’s not surprising that it’s Stand By Me, Rob Reiner’s faithful adaptation of The Body, that is Stephen King’s favourite film version of all his books.
The Body is the story of four young boys who go looking for the fresh corpse of Ray Brower – a boy their own age who’s apparently been struck and killed by a train. It sounds like a horror story, but it’s not. It’s a coming of age tale and in my opinion, a perfect one at that. The novella is contained within a collection called Different Seasons. Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption, Apt Pupil and The Breathing Method are also featured in this outstanding collection.
You’ll love this beautifully written story. Especially if you were ever twelve.
4/ The Count of Monte Cristo (Alexandre Dumas – 1844)
“All human wisdom is contained in these two words -“Wait and Hope.”
It’s big, old and richly detailed. But don’t let that put you off.
The novel begins in 1815. Edmond Dantès is a young merchant sailor who has everything going for him in life. He’s handsome, intelligent, and on the brink of being made captain of his ship. And as if all that wasn’t enough, he’s engaged to the beautiful Mercédès. So what could go wrong? Well, everything as it happens. Shortly after arriving back in port in Marseilles, Dantès is framed by his jealous rivals as a Bonapartist traitor. He is arrested and subsequently imprisoned in the Château d’If, where he spends the next fourteen years of his life. There he meets and befriends the mysterious Abbé Faria, who educates the young sailor in the sciences, philosophy and languages. Faria informs Dantès about a vast treasure which is located on the barren island of Monte Cristo. When Dantès finally escapes from prison, he goes after the loot and becomes filthy rich. Immediately afterwards, he starts plotting revenge on those who betrayed him.
The Count of Monte Cristo was originally serialised in Journal des Débats in eighteen parts between 1844 to 1846. It’s interesting to note that Dumas based his story on a true revenge tale, which was taken from the Parisian police archives. I think everyone should read this book. It’s fun and it’s BIG! But if you don’t like lugging a doorstop sized book around with you then get the digital version. I have a beautiful big hardcover version of this, but it’s on my Kindle too as the digital copy is super cheap. See here for the e-book. But whatever – whether it’s digital, paperback or hardback, this is still a classic.
5/ The Truth is a Cave in the Black Mountains (Neil Gaiman – 2010)
“The truth is a cave in the black mountains. There is one way there, and one way only, and that way is treacherous and hard. And if you choose the wrong path you will die alone, on the mountainside.”
This is a wonderful little novelette by Neil Gaiman. It’s an atmospheric, dark and often claustrophobic story in which a Scottish dwarf (yes, a Scottish dwarf) hires a guide to take him to a cave on the Misty Isle, a cave which is reputedly filled with gold.
The story is set in Scotland and Gaiman was apparently inspired to write it by his visits to the Isle of Skye and the old Hebridean legends that he most likely heard whilst there. It’s a story that (for me anyway) isn’t so much about the external landscape (which is beautifully written) but the internal landscape of the two men journeying to the Misty Isle. There’s so much going on underneath the surface – credit to the author for such excellent characterisation . It’s riveting stuff and it lingered long in my mind after reading – this for me is the sign of a special story.
The Truth is a Cave in the Black Mountains is also one of the most evocative stories that I have ever read. I could literally see every scene in my head playing out like a movie. Neil Gaiman has done incredible things in this little story. If you only read one novelette about a Scottish dwarf in your lifetime, make it this one.
Reducing it to five books was always going to be tough. So although I regret nothing, I’m doing the honourable mentions things.
These go to:
Tenth of December (George Saunders)
Watchmen (Alan Moore)
Fight Club (Chuck Palahniuk),
Under the Skin (Michel Faber),
Bartleby the Scrivener (Herman Melville)
And just about anything by Roald Dahl.