The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
When Fitzgerald’s book was originally released, it was met with scathing reviews from critics (the Baltimore Evening Sun called it “no more than a glorified anecdote” in 1925). But The Great Gatsby has since become a well-loved classic that encapsulated the glitz, glamour, ambition and cynicism of the time. The story revolves around Jay Gatsby, the man who has everything. Anybody who is anybody is seen at his glittering parties. Day and night, his Long Island mansion buzzes with bright young things, drinking, dancing and debating his mysterious character. Gatsby – young, handsome and fabulously rich – always seems alone in the crowd, watching and waiting, though no one knows what for. Beneath the shimmering surface of his life he is hiding a secret: a silent longing for the one thing that will always be out of his reach. And soon this destructive obsession will force his world to unravel…
Catch-22 by Joseph Heller
A new series based on Joseph Heller’s book (and directed by George Clooney) is poised and ready to be released here in the UK, but it’s best if you read the book first – we have full faith in George, but this book is a classic. Set in the closing months of World War II, bombardier Yossarian is frantic and furious because thousands of people he has never met are trying to kill him. His real problem is not the enemy - it is his own army which keeps increasing the number of missions that men must fly to complete their service. If Yossarian makes any attempts to excuse himself from the perilous missions then he is caught in Catch-22: if he flies, he is crazy, and doesn't have to; but if he doesn't want to, he must be sane and has to. Savage and wildly funny, it exposes the pointless nature of war. Plus, it’s not often that a phrase from a novel becomes a real-life catchphrase used all over the world.
Beloved by Toni Morrison
Toni Morrison dedicated her book to the “60 million and more” Africans who died as a result of slave trade. Set after the American Civil War in the mid-1800s, it looks like slavery might be coming to an end. Sethe, a former slave, is living with her 18-year-old daughter in a house that the neighbours avoid because it’s haunted by a murdered child, who they believe is Sethe’s eldest daughter. The novel is inspired by the real-life story of an enslaved woman who killed her own daughter rather than see her return to slavery.
In Cold Blood by Truman Capote
Truman Capote’s most famous book took six arduous years of research and follows the 1959 murders of four members of the Herbert family in a small farming community in Holcomb, Kansas. He was accompanied to Holcomb by his good friend Harper Lee, and conducted interviews with residents and investigators. The killers, Richard "Dick" Hickock and Perry Smith, were arrested six weeks after the murders and later executed by the state of Kansas – but not before Capote began an interesting a complicated friendship with Smith. The book has been praised for its eloquent prose, extensive detail, and simultaneous triple narrative, and as such, critics considered it the first non-fiction novel.
The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath
The only novel written by poet Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar is a semi-autobiographical account of depression which the novel’s narrator Esther Greenwood compares to being trapped under a bell jar, struggling to breathe. Despite the glamourous and vibrant life happening around her, the mental illness that plagues Esther prevents her from seeing this. Plath herself died by suicide just one month after The Bell Jar went to publication in 1963.
100 Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez
Colombian novelist Gabriel García Márquez's masterpiece is the story of seven generations of the Buendía family and of Macondo, the town they have built. Though little more than a settlement surrounded by mountains, Macondo has had its wars and disasters, even its wonders and its miracles. A microcosm of Columbian life, its secrets lie hidden, encoded in a book, and only Aureliano Buendía can fathom its mysteries and reveal its shrouded destiny. Poetic and enchanting, this story blends political reality with magic realism, fantasy and comic invention, One Hundred Years of Solitude is one of the most daringly original works of the twentieth century.
Perfume by Patrick Süskind
In the slums of eighteenth-century France, the infant Jean-Baptiste Grenouille is born with one sublime gift: an absolute sense of smell. As a boy, he lives to decipher the odours of Paris, and apprentices himself to a prominent perfumer who teaches him the ancient art of mixing precious oils and herbs. But Grenouille’s genius is such that he is not satisfied to stop there, and he becomes obsessed with capturing the smells of objects such as brass doorknobs and fresh-cut wood. Then one day he catches a hint of a scent that will drive him on an ever-more-terrifying quest to create the “ultimate perfume”—the scent of a beautiful young virgin. This story is beautiful narrated, and is a hauntingly powerful tale of murder, love and sensual depravity.
Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackeray
Although this novel was subtitled A Novel without a Hero, it’s Becky Sharpe – one of literature’s greatest characters – who brings life to this book. It follows the fortunes of two contrasting but inter-linked lives: retiring Amelia Sedley and the brilliant Becky, who is the ideal mix of wit and cold-heartedness to make fans of women right through to today. Through the pair, Thackeray examines the position of women in an intensely exploitative male world.
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