Book lists

40 books

By the time you read this I will be off celebrating my 40th birthday. In order to mark the occasion I thought I would share with you the 40 most memorable books I have read since my teens. These are the novels that aren’t necessarily the best books I have ever read, but the ones that have stayed with me or lead me off on further literary explorations. Most of all, these are the books that spring to mind whenever anyone asks me if I could recommend something “interesting” to read.

In alphabetical order by author, here is my list (hyperlinks will take you to my reviews):

Watership Down
Watership Down
by Richard Adams

I read this when I was 13 but had to wait for my father to finish it first! I was slightly obsessed by rabbits at the time (I had a pet one called Winnie) so I found this story about a group of highly anthropomorphised rabbits particularly gripping.

New York Trilogy
The New York Trilogy
by Paul Auster
I’m cheating a little here, because this is actually three novels — City of Glass, Ghosts and The Locked Room — presented together in a single volume. But the stories are interlinked and need to be read in the correct order so that you can appreciate Paul Auster’s extraordinary ability to create the kinds of tales that haunt you forever. I still think about this book years after having read it.

Eucalyptus by Murray Bail
Eucalyptus by Murray Bail
A modern fairy tale set in Australia, this one has a magical fable-like quality to the writing. It’s about a man who plants hundreds of eucalyptus trees on his land. When his teenage daughter comes of age, he announces that she can only marry the suitor who can correctly name every single species of gum tree on his property. Yes, it’s lovely, but it had special significance to me because I once had to memorise something like 130 different eucalyptus varieties (Latin and common names) as part of a course I was taking in landscape architecture. Oh, the horror.

Book of evidence
Book of Evidence
by John Banville

When I was in my early 20s, this dark disturbing tale about a man who murders a servant as he attempts to steal a painting is the one that had me declaring Banville as my favourite author (to be latersuperceded by another Irish author, John McGahern). I still remember the thrill of reading something so amoral. It set me off on an exciting exploration of other books with edgy themes.

Oscar and Lucinda
by Peter Carey

I have a love-hate relationship with Carey, but I adored this intriguing novel about two odd-balls — an Anglican priest and a young heiress — united by their love of gambling. The story, which is set in early 19th century Australia, involves Lucinda betting Oscar that he cannot transport a glass church from Sydney, across rugged, untamed wilderness, to a remote settlement 400km away. What a premise!

Play Little Victims by Kenneth Cook
Play Little Victims by Kenneth Cook
This is one of those books that is not widely known outside of Australia and I believe it is now out of print. It’s a beguiling satire about the state of humankind. I read it at school and it stayed with me ever since, and it got so under my skin that a few years ago I went on a mission to source a copy on the internet, because I wanted to read the book again if only to see if it was as good as I remembered. It was.

The Ginger Man by J.P. Donleavy

This is a hilarious bawdy romp through Holy Catholic Ireland. In the review I wrote last year I described it as a “thoroughly wonderful, riotously funny, head-shakingly brilliant read. I loved it from the very first line to the last”.

The Barrytown Trilogy
by Roddy Doyle

OK, this is another cheat, because this is three books — The Commitments, The Snapper and The Van — in one. All are set in Dublin, all feature the Rabbitte family and all are very funny. Oh, and they’ve all been made into movies too, and they’re incredibly faithful to the books. My favourite is The Snapper —  I’ve read the book twice and seen the movie about a dozen times, I love it that much.

Once Were Warriors by Alan Duff
An urban Maori family in the grips of alcoholism and domestic violence doesn’t make for a particularly cheery read, but it’s a devastating glimpse at lives caught between traditional and modern cultures. The film of the same name is often described as New Zealand’s first indigenous blockbuster. I highly recommend both novel and movie.

The Crimson Petal and the White by Michel Faber
A mesmirising slightly raunchy romp through Victorian London, this is the type of book you stay up all night to read and then feel bereft when you get to the end.

by Sebastian Faulks

I’m a sucker for a war story and this one, set during the Great War, is one of the best. A sweeping historical drama, it’s also erotic, poignant and tear-inducing. I read it and wept buckets. I don’t think anything else Faulks has written before or since surpasses the brilliance of this one.

Towards the end of the Morning by Michael Frayn

One of the best — and funniest — books about journalism I’ve read. Blows Evelyn Waugh’s Scoop out of the water!

Lord of the Flies
by William Golding

Another book out of the dark and disturing canon, this allegorical novel leaves a deep and lasting impression. I can’t help but think of the conch shell whenever I sit in a badly managed meeting, and the sight of schoolboys hanging around together sends shivers down my spine. Funny how these kinds of things are embedded in your consciousness 20-odd years after you’ve read the book!

End of the affair by Graham Greene
The End of the Affair by Graham Greene

This bitter but beautiful love story set in London during the Second World War is deeply moving. It’s not a perfect novel, but it’s a memorable one. It made me want to go out and read all of Greene’s other books but as yet I haven’t been able to bring myself to do so for fear of being disappointed.

Jude the Obscure by Thomas Hardy
I’m not a great fan of classic fiction, but I make an exception for Thomas Hardy and this novel, about a working-class man who dreams of becoming a scholar, is my favourite Hardy. I found it deeply moving. It also made me very angry, not the least because Jude is so hard done by, but because the social mores of the time meant he was ostracised for living with a woman without marrying her. Oh, the scandal!

Fatherland by Robert Harris
by Robert Harris

I love thrillers and am completely fascinated by the Third Reich, so this book, which imagines what the world would be like if Hitler won the war, appealed to me on many different levels. There were many imitations to follow (yes, I read some of them), but Harris’ book remains the original and the best.

Due preparations for the plague
Due Preparations for the Plague by Janette Turner Hospital
Possibly the scariest book I have ever read about terrorism, to this day I start to feel on edge whenever any plane I’m in sits on the tarmac longer than it should…The central focus of the story is the hijack of an Air France plane in which the terrorists keep ten hostages as a negotiating card. It’s a truly electrifying read, one that resulted in the hair on the back of my neck standing on end on more than one occasion.

My Brother Jack by George Johnston
My Brother Jack by George Johnston
An Australian classic, this is my favourite book of all time.

The Christmas Tree by Jennifer Johnston
The Christmas Tree by Jennifer Johnston
I’m a late convert to Jennifer Johnston, one of the most under-appreciated novelists working today. I’ve only read a fraction of her rather extensive back catalogue but this book, devoured (appropriately) last Christmas, is by far the favourite of the ones I’ve read so far. But, to be honest, anything with the Johnston name on it is well worth reading.

Tarry Flynn
Tarry Flynn by Patrick Kavanagh
I’m not Catholic and I’m not Irish, but I am completely fascinated by this culture, hence my penchant for Irish fiction. This novel by Patrick Kavanagh, better known as a poet, is a lovely read about another era. It’s crude, depressing and funny by turns.

How late it was how late by James Kelman
How Late it Was, How Late
by James Kelman

This won the Booker in 1994 and I read it the following year. It’s written in a working-class Glasgow dialect, which takes some getting used to unless, like me, you have an “ear” for the language (my paternal grandparents were Glaswegian so I just imagined my grandfather’s voice when I read it). It’s not exactly a pleasant read — the main character, Sammy, is a violent shoplifter who is beaten up by police and becomes blind as a result — but the voice is so searing and heartfelt and unique that it gets under the skin, and years later it will pop into your head completely unexpected!

English passengers
English Passengers by Matthew Kneale

I’m a sucker for books set on ships and this one, about a Manx smuggling vessel that travels all the way to Tasmania, is a cracker.

Juniper Tree Burning
Juniper Tree Burning
by Goldberry Long

This book is definitely in my top 10 of all-time favourite reads. It’s about an angry young woman, raised by hippies, grappling with her past following the death of her beloved brother. She’s headstrong, aggressive and complicated, and the journey she embarks on is a highly emotional one. You kind of want to slap her and hug her at the same time. Definitely one to read again.

Seek the fair land
Seek the Fair Land by Walter Macken
This is the first part of a famous Irish trilogy. It’s an action-packed adventure story set during Cromwellian rule, when Catholics were forced to abandon their faith in exchange for keeping their property and possessions. The language is slightly stilted and old-fashioned but the story is a gripping and unforgettable one.

The Great World by David Malouf
The Great World
by David Malouf

This is about two Australia soldiers, Vic and Digger, who become POWs during the Second World War and how that soul-destroying experience affects the rest of their lives. There’s one particular scene in this book which remains with me more than a decade after having read it: of a POW guiltily gulping down food that does not belong to him while eyeballing his mate who has caught him in the act. That one scene says so much about the human condition, it still makes me cringe with a kind of knowing embarrassment.

Butcher Boy
The Butcher Boy
by Patrick McCabe

For a long time, I regarded The Butcher Boy as my favourite book. I think this was mainly due to the fact that up until that point (I was about 23) I had never read anything like it: there’s very limited punctuation, little separation between dialogue and thought, and the narrator, Francie Brady, is a young boy who is slightly unhinged and commits murder. I still think it should have won the 1992 Booker Prize for which it was shortlisted.

The Barracks by John McGahern
The Barracks by John McGahern
I have a literary crush on the late John McGahern. This book, his first novel published in 1963, is about a young married Irish woman who discovers she has breast cancer but tries to hide it from those she loves. It is an absolutely heart-breaking read — although punctuated by humour — and it left such an impact I still think about it three years later. I was so impressed by this one, slim volume I went out and bought McGahern’s entire back catalogue.

Three to see the king
Three to See the King by Magnus Mills

If you’ve never read anything by Magnus Mills you’re missing out on a treat. This was the first book of his I’d read and it was so strange and beguiling that I have followed his career very closely ever since. It’s a fable, told in anorexic prose, about the grass not being greener on the other side.

Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell

Do I have to explain this one? This classic dystopian novel is about a repressive, totalitarian regime where everyone is under close government surveillence. It’s one of those chilling reads that seems remarkably prescient given it was written in 1949.

We need to talk about kevin
We Need to Talk About Kevin
by Lionel Shriver

Is there anyone out there who hasn’t read this book and not felt absolutely devastated by the end? This one had such a profound effect on me when I read it in 2005 that I wasn’t able to write a review. I just didn’t know how to put into words the deep impact the storyline had had on me. It wasn’t the horrific Columbine-style school massacre that evoked such strong feelings, rather it was the whole nature versus nurture debate and whether career women can, in fact, make good mothers.

The Laughing Policeman
The Laughing Policeman by Maj Sjöwall and Peter Wahlöö

Before the current popularity of Scandinavian crime writers there was husband-and-wife team Maj Sjöwall and Peter Wahlöö. This one is described as a classic police procedural. The version I read was badly translated but it didn’t take away from the addictive narrative and I’ve consequently squirrelled away several of their other volumes, which have yet to be read.

The Kommandant's Mistress
The Kommandant’s Mistress
by Sherri Szeman

This is one of those books I bought from a bargain bin for about $AU1 that turned out to be a sordid, spine-chilling read that took me a long time to get over. Part of me was so creeped out by the story of a Czech woman’s experience in a Nazi concentration camp that I threw the book away. I then spent a dozen years trying to remember what the book was called in order for me to track it down again. It wasn’t until I accidentally stumbled upon it in a bookstore a couple of years ago that I realised this was the novel that had haunted me for so long. I couldn’t bring myself to buy a new copy, but part of me would love to read it again to see whether it was as devastating as I remember it to be.

The Secret History
The Secret History
by Donna Tartt

I spent my university years working in a bookstore to fund my studies and this was one book that every single staff member raved about. We had a battered office copy that did the rounds of all the bookshop assistants, and when I read it I promptly went out and bought my own copy because I loved it so much.

Requiem for an Angel by Andrew Taylor
Requiem for an Angel by Andrew Taylor
Holed up in bed with chicken pox at the ripe old age of 33, I devoured this trilogy in a feverish blur. Each of the three novels — The Last Four Things, The Judgement of Strangers and The Office of the Dead — is a separate story in its own right, but taken as a whole the force of their impact is more shocking and horrifying than one could imagine. Because the stories go back in time, not forwards, the reader comes across clues and discovers secrets which strip away the layers of the past to reveal the roots of an unspeakable evil.

Music and silence
Music and Silence
by Rose Tremain

A birthday present from a friend, I read this on holiday in the Canary Islands in 2000 and didn’t want the story to end. Set in the 17th century during King Christian IV of Denmark’s reign, it’s an enthralling historical drama about royalty, betrayal, ambition and power. It’s one of those stories that transports you back in time so expertly when you lift your head from the page you’re surprised to find it’s no longer 1629!

Dinner at the homesick restaurant
Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant
by Anne Tyler

I’ve read all of Tyler’s work but this one was my first and for that reason alone it holds a special place in my heart. We actually studied this book at school for Year 11 English; I was lucky to have a series of very good English teachers who encouraged my love of reading — apart from the chap who thought it was a good idea to get 15-year-olds to read The Spy Who Came In From the Cold, which so tainted my experience with espionage novels I’ve not read one since.

Sacred Hunger
Sacred Hunger
by Barry Unsworth

Another brilliant seafaring novels, this one scored the Booker Prize in 1992. It’s set on an 18th century slave ship and, as you’d expect, explores themes of morality and corruption. This book is also in my Top 10 faves.

Miss Garnet's Angel
Miss Garnet’s Angel by Salley Vickers

A sweet, sweet story set in magical Venice. The beauty of the story is not so much the pitch-perfect descriptions of Venice’s ruined grandeur and her wonderfully evocative past, but in the “growth” of Miss Garnet who goes through a slow metamorphosis from a shy, retiring spinster who is cut off from her emotions to an assured woman not afraid to experience life, even if that means she might be exposed to pain and heartbreak in the process.

Tree of Man by Patrick White

Tree of Man by Patrick White
It took me two goes to read this book by the late Australian author Patrick White. An extraordinary story about ordinary people living on the edge of the Australian wilderness at the turn of the 19th century, it follows the ups and downs of Stan Parker and his wife Amy  struggling to survive the harsh environment. At almost 500 pages and with no real plot of which to speak, this is not an easy read but it’s a rewarding one. Which is pretty much a fair description of most of White’s work — or at least the novels of his that I have read.

Day of the triffids
Day of the Triffids
by John Wyndham

Another book I read at school, this one had me clamouring to read everything Wydham ever wrote. While I’m not sure Triffids is his best, it’s the one I recall most fondly.

Have you read any of these books? 

46 thoughts on “40 books”

  1. Happy Birthday! Hope you have a great time celebrating.
    Thanks for sharing that list with us…I have a few in my TBR pile (the Rose Tremain one and The Tree of Man) that have now inched their way towards the top of the “pile”. And, I’ve now added a few more books to the “must have” list.


  2. Happy Birthday! I hope you have a really great time celebrating!
    I loved reading your list. There is a good mix of books I loved, books I didn’t like at all and a few I have never heard of. It is really interesting to see your favourites though. I might try to find a copy of My Brother Jack one day soon.


  3. Hey, where was Robert C. O’Brien’s ‘The Silver Crown’? How many times did we read that book when we were young?? I would’ve thought that would have made your Top 40! *heehee*
    I too love The Secret History – have read it a couple of times and each time I tend to forget exactly what happens in the book! I do love Anne Tyler too – Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant I read in Yr 12 and I haven’t read it since.
    Have a happy 40th. Will text you on your special day.


  4. Happy birthday Kim – Life begins at 40 (or so everyone told me when I reached that milestone last year!)
    Some great books on here – I too enjoyed The Secret History, Crimson Petal, Birdsong, and We need to talk about Kevin. Lots on there that I’ve never heard of but will now be looking out for.
    I’m currently trying to decide which of my TBRs to take on holiday next week – always a dilemma!


  5. Great list, Kim. Quite a few of those would be on my list too, if I ever got sufficiently organised to write one. And happy birthday. It is my husband’s birthday today, too (we have just got in from a nice meal in an Italian restaurant, especially nice because our daughters came too- a rare honour!). Also it is “Mrs Cromercrox’s” birthday but i am not sure if you have yet had the pleasure of encountering my friend and colleague Henry Gee (Prof Cromercrox) I hope you have a lovely rest of birthday. My best, Maxine.


  6. what a great idea for a post. I might do the same in a couple of years! YOu’ve given me a lot of books to look out for and I love the way you gave it all an antipodean twist that I’d like to see more of from bloggers.


  7. Happy birthday to Mr Petrona. Mine is actually on Monday but have been whisked to Dublin to see U2 at Croke Park tomorrow night. Then staying on in Ireland for a week.


  8. Happy 40th! (I have a similar milestone coming up in October!) Fabulous idea for a post and I concur on quite a few from your list (I have marked it in my bloglines for future reference!) You have definitely piqued my interest with The Kommandant’s Mistress – though I may have a hard time tracking down a copy by the looks of it.
    Have a great week away and am very jealous of your U2 concert attendance 🙂


  9. Best wishes on your birthday Kim.
    I loved reading through your list and I am with you on ‘My Brother Jack’ this being one of my all time favourites. I recently bought a copy of the Andrew Taylor trilogy after reading your review and I have made a note of several titles you have mentioned to add to my wishlist.
    I once picked up the Lionel Shriver and then put it down again after 50 pages. I am now inspired to give it another go based on your comments.


  10. Happy Birthday Kim. Hope you’ll have a wonderful time and hope again you’ll get lots of books you like so your TBR list will grow more 🙂


  11. Happy birthday, Kim! Nice list, including some I’d have on my own top 40 (maybe I’ll do my own list for my own 40th in a couple months’ time) and some I’ll definitely investigate further. Nice to be reminded of Music & Silence I LOVED that book, tho’ I’m not a fan of Tremain’s other work.


  12. Happy Birthday Kim! What a great list of books! I love seeing lists like this but have never been able to make one myself. I felt the exact same way about We Need To Talk About Kevin and feel I need to go back and write a better review of it. Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant is probably my favorite Anne Tyler too! Thank you for sharing this great list and I hope you enjoy your birthday!


  13. I think The Kommandent’s Mistress is still in print. Its certainly available on Amazon, because that’s where I got the cover image.
    As for U2, the gig was BRILLIANT! Definitely one of the better U2 shows I’ve seen: great mix of old and new songs, and practically no preaching or political posturing. Looking forward to doing it all again on Monday night!


    What a fabulous list (I may shamelessly steal your idea for my biggie birthday next year!).
    I’ve persuaded my book group to read the New York Trilogy next month, so I get to re-read it and hopefully love it all over again. Also – Play Little Victims – I’m going straight upstairs to see if I kept my copy – I have a feeling I gave it away (ghash!)


  15. Happy B-Day! I hope that you spend a nice day reading and enjoying the day with some of your loved ones.
    Watership Down is getting more popular again!
    I’ve read some of the books on your list and I’ve read other works by the same authors. But there are many that I haven’t read that I need to check out.


  16. I would like to wishes you a happy birthday :))!!
    I am for the first time on your page because I am searching about ” Picnic at hanging rock” so I am here.
    Now I am finished book Joan LIndsay a 1 hour ago.
    I like reading very much and I am writing about book on my blog under link:
    I was reading in the past “The secret history ” D. Tartt
    greetings from Silesia for You :))

    Liked by 1 person

  17. Happy Birthday–how great to be able to spend it in Ireland and am envious you got to see U2! Enjoy your week there, and thanks for sharing your list–most impressive indeed. I’ve read a few and will be looking for some others! I’m reading Andrew Taylor’s newest book now and will look for that trilogy when I finish!


  18. Dear all, thanks for your kind words and well wishes. I have limited internet access, but thought I’d leave a comment here to pass on my regards, while I’ve got the chance.

    Liked by 1 person

  19. Happy Birthday Kim! A very interesting selection – Have you ever read The Girl in a Swing by Richard Adams? I read my copy so many times it fell apart!


  20. Happy Birthday Kim… hope you have a fabulous time. I love this blog, though we may have words when I next see you as now I have even more books I have to read hahaha. Hope your having a lovely time!


  21. Happy birthday! What a fabulous idea for a birthday post, I might have to steal it, like a few other commenters above. 😀
    I’ve only read two of your 40 books, but there are a lot on my wish list up there. How Late it Was, How Late would also be on my top 40, so heartwrenchingly good.


  22. Happy birthday! My 40th was in May. Only seems like weeks ago that I turned 30! But oh the books I’ve read since then. Will have to read a few on your list!


  23. I’ve just stumbled across your blog (I think via Savidge Reads) and then this list. I am a sucker for a ‘Best of’ list and this one was terrific. You made each book sound appealing and worthwhile and I’ve added several to my tbr list!


  24. Even if this is an old post I still enjoyed reading it. Some tremendous choices here – Oscar and Lucinda I read this year and that scene of the glass church sailing up the river is magical. I’m trying to get Sacred Hunger but the library system is not playing ball.


    1. Thanks, Karen. Not sure why WordPress is telling people about this post but never mind. (I’d love to be 40 again 😂) Hope you get to read Sacred Hunger…I have very fond memories of it.


  25. Happy Birthday! I took till 40 to grow up, but I don’t think girls take as long as boys. I’ve read maybe a third of your top 40 books, and some of those are among the books I most strongly dislike. We agree about 1984 and Day of the Triffids, so that’s a start I guess. Have a great day!


    1. Thanks for good wishes but it’s not my birthday. I fixed the broken links and images on this post & republished it and now WP is telling everyone is about it. This post is almost 8 years old. Oh the be 40 again! 🤣


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