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Book 12 – The Reformed Soul by John Stubbs

So this is a biography of John Donne who as well as being one of the greatest poets the English Language has produced, lived, survived, faltered and prospered through the English Reformation. 

It’s there anything this man did not do? He was the young Catholic student, attending both Oxford and Cambridge under the radar of the Elizabethan persecution. He was a law student, putting himself about town (in every possible way).  He was the careerist administrator in Government, the gentleman soldier heading off with the Earl of Essex to the sack of Cadiz, the lovelorn youth with insufficient prospects eloping with his employer’s niece, the exile from influence forced to earn a living by accompanying rich young men on their Grand Tour, and finally the respected clergyman and Dean of St. Paul’s.

This is a fascinating book. I don’t pretend to know much about metaphysical poetry, so can’t really comment on how much insight is given to Donne’s creative life. But as a gallop through the life and times of someone who lived through such a tumultuous period of our history, is definitely a recommend. 

(My one gripe is that I wish they had modernised the spelling where Donne’s writing is directly quoted. I found it distracting and annoying) 

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So, in 2017 I’m going to have a go at filling in the blanks and reading some of the (many) classic novels that have passed me by so far.

With any project there must be rules. These are the rules:

  1. I’m not reading Ulysses.
  2. Or D.H. Lawrence
  3. Er, that’s it.

But how to choose which books to read? There are lots of resources available on the interwebs and my first port of call was the Guardian 2015 list of the Top 100 Novels Written in the English Language. I’ve crossed out and made blue the ones I’ve already read.

  1. The Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyan (1678)
  2. Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe (1719)
  3. Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift (1726)
  4. Clarissa by Samuel Richardson (1748)
  5. Tom Jones by Henry Fielding (1749)
  6. The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman by Laurence Sterne (1759)
  7. Emma by Jane Austen (1816)
  8. Frankenstein by Mary Shelley (1818)
  9. Nightmare Abbey by Thomas Love Peacock (1818)
  10. The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket by Edgar Allan Poe (1838)
  11. Sybil by Benjamin Disraeli (1845)
  12. Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë (1847)
  13. Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë (1847)
  14. Vanity Fair by William Thackeray (1848)
  15. David Copperfield by Charles Dickens (1850)
  16. The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne (1850)
  17. Moby-Dick by Herman Melville (1851)
  18. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll (1865)
  19. The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins (1868)
  20. Little Women by Louisa May Alcott (1868-9)
  21. Middlemarch by George Eliot (1871-2)
  22. The Way We Live Now by Anthony Trollope (1875)
  23. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain (1884/5)
  24. Kidnapped by Robert Louis Stevenson (1886)
  25. Three Men in a Boat by Jerome K Jerome (1889)
  26. The Sign of Four by Arthur Conan Doyle (1890)
  27. The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde (1891)
  28. New Grub Street by George Gissing (1891)
  29. Jude the Obscure by Thomas Hardy (1895)
  30. The Red Badge of Courage by Stephen Crane (1895)
  31. Dracula by Bram Stoker (1897)
  32. Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad (1899)
  33. Sister Carrie by Theodore Dreiser (1900)
  34. Kim by Rudyard Kipling (1901)
  35. The Call of the Wild by Jack London (1903)
  36. The Golden Bowl by Henry James (1904)
  37. Hadrian the Seventh by Frederick Rolfe (1904)
  38. The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame (1908)
  39. The History of Mr Polly by H. G. Wells (1910)
  40. Zuleika Dobson by Max Beerbohm (1911)
  41. The Good Soldier by Ford Madox Ford (1915)
  42. The Thirty-Nine Steps by John Buchan (1915)
  43. The Rainbow by DH Lawrence (1915)
  44. Of Human Bondage by W Somerset Maugham (1915)
  45. The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton (1920)
  46. Ulysses by James Joyce (1922)
  47. Babbitt by Sinclair Lewis (1922)
  48. A Passage to India by EM Forster (1924)
  49. Gentlemen Prefer Blondes by Anita Loos (1925)
  50. Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf (1925)
  51. The Great Gatsby by F Scott Fitzgerald (1925)
  52. Lolly Willowes by Sylvia Townsend Warner (1926)
  53. The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway (1926)
  54. The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett (1929)
  55. As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner (1930)
  56. Brave New World by Aldous Huxley (1932)
  57. Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons (1932)
  58. Nineteen Nineteen by John Dos Passos (1932)
  59. Tropic of Cancer by Henry Miller (1934)
  60. Scoop by Evelyn Waugh (1938)
  61. Murphy by Samuel Beckett (1938)
  62. The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler (1939)
  63. Party Going by Henry Green (1939)
  64. At Swim-Two-Birds by Flann O’Brien (1939)
  65. The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck (1939)
  66. Joy in the Morning by PG Wodehouse (1946)
  67. All the King’s Men by Robert Penn Warren (1946)
  68. Under the Volcano by Malcolm Lowry (1947)
  69. The Heat of the Day by Elizabeth Bowen (1948)
  70. Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell (1949)
  71. The End of the Affair by Graham Greene (1951)
  72. The Catcher in the Rye by JD Salinger (1951)
  73. The Adventures of Augie March by Saul Bellow (1953)
  74. Lord of the Flies by William Golding (1954)
  75. Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov (1955)
  76. On the Road by Jack Kerouac (1957)
  77. Voss by Patrick White (1957)
  78. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee (1960)
  79. The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark (1960)
  80. Catch-22 by Joseph Heller (1961)
  81. The Golden Notebook by Doris Lessing (1962)
  82. A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess (1962)
  83. A Single Man by Christopher Isherwood (1964)
  84. In Cold Blood by Truman Capote (1966)
  85. The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath (1966)
  86. Portnoy’s Complaint by Philip Roth (1969)
  87. Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont by Elizabeth Taylor (1971)
  88. Rabbit Redux by John Updike (1971)
  89. Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison (1977)
  90. A Bend in the River by VS Naipaul (1979)
  91. Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie (1981)
  92. Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson (1981)
  93. Money: A Suicide Note by Martin Amis (1984)
  94. An Artist of the Floating World by Kazuo Ishiguro (1986)
  95. The Beginning of Spring by Penelope Fitzgerald (1988)
  96. Breathing Lessons by Anne Tyler (1988)
  97. Amongst Women by John McGahern (1990)
  98. Underworld by Don DeLillo (1997)
  99. Disgrace by JM Coetzee (1999)
  100. True History of the Kelly Gang by Peter Carey (2000)


I think it’s fair to say that I have a few issues with this list. It’s not actually a list of the 100 best novels, because it seems to be operating a “one novel per author” rule. So only one Austen, one Dickens, one Eliot and no Gaskell. And I can’t really respect any such list which omits Tolkien. However, it has thrown up some interesting suggestions for my reading.

 Next up, and in the interests of journalistic balance, the Telegraph’s list of 100 Novels Everyone Should Read, also from 2015. This one includes translated works.
  1. Middlemarch by George Eliot
  2. Moby Dick by Herman Melville
  3. Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy
  4. The Portrait of a Lady by Henry James
  5. Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad
  6. In Search of Lost Time by Marcel Proust
  7. Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë
  8. Disgrace by J. M. Coetzee
  9. Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf
  10. Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra
  11. Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
  12. Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe
  13. David Copperfield by Charles Dickens
  14. Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë
  15. The Code of the Woosters by P. G. Wodehouse
  16. Brighton Rock by Graham Greene
  17. Tess of the d’Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy
  18. Scoop by Evelyn Waugh
  19. The War of the Worlds by H. G. Wells
  20. The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman by Laurence Sterne
  21. 1984 by George Orwell
  22. A Passage to India by E. M. Forster
  23. Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert
  24. Ulysses by James Joyce
  25. The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins
  26. Cranford by Elizabeth Gaskell
  27. Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
  28. Tom Jones by Henry Fielding
  29. Life: A User’s Manual by Georges Perec
  30. Atonement by Ian McEwan
  31. Suite Française by Irène Némirovsky
  32. A Dance to the Music of Time: Fourth Movement, Winter by Anthony Powell
  33. Clarissa: Or the History of a Young Lady by Samuel Richardson
  34. The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler
  35. Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis
  36. Les Misérables by Victor Hugo
  37. The Warden by Anthony Trollope
  38. The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
  39. Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe
  40. The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton
  41. The Hound of the Baskervilles by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
  42. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain
  43. Rabbit Angstrom: A Tetralogy by John Updike
  44. Nausea by Jean-Paul Sartre
  45. The Voyeur by Alain Robbe-Grillet
  46. The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark
  47. The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera
  48. Go Tell It on the Mountain by James Baldwin
  49. The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck
  50. Beloved by Toni Morrison
  51. Underworld by Don DeLillo
  52. The Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger
  53. The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
  54. Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov
  55. Austerlitz by W. G. Sebald
  56. The Tin Drum by Günter Grass
  57. The Glass Bead Game by Hermann Hesse
  58. The Savage Detectives by Roberto Bolaño
  59. London Fields by Martin Amis
  60. One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
  61. My Name is Red by Orhan Pamuk
  62. Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift
  63. The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson
  64. The Cairo Trilogy: Palace Walk, Palace of Desire, Sugar Street by Naguib Mahfouz
  65. Doctor Zhivago by Boris Pasternak
  66. Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky
  67. A Bend in the River by V. S. Naipaul
  68. Crash by J. G. Ballard
  69. If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler by Italo Calvino
  70. The Leopard by Giuseppe Di Lampedusa
  71. Dream of the Red Chamber by Cao Xueqin
  72. Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant by Anne Tyler
  73. All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque
  74. Waiting for Mahatma by R. K. Narayan
  75. Cider with Rosie by Laurie Lee
  76. The Trial by Franz Kafka
  77. Catch-22 by Joseph Heller
  78. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll
  79. Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys
  80. Oscar and Lucinda by Peter Carey
  81. The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco
  82. The Stranger by Albert Camus
  83. Germinal by Émile Zola
  84. The Three Musketeers by Alexandre Dumas
  85. The Red and the Black by Stendhal
  86. Old Goriot by Honoré de Balzac
  87. On the Road by Jack Kerouac
  88. Eugene Onegin: A Novel in Verse by Alexander Pushkin
  89. The Golden Notebook by Doris Lessing
  90. Under the Net by Iris Murdoch
  91. The Tale of Genji by Murasaki Shikibu
  92. Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons
  93. Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy by John le Carré
  94. Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie
  95. The Sorrows of Young Werther by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
  96. The Arabian Nights by Muhsin Mahdi
  97. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams
  98. The Home and the World by Rabindranath Tagore
  99. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
  100. The Lord of the Rings by J. R. R. Tolkien
This was a bit more like it, though they also operate the one book per author rule, leading to the frankly outrageous exclusion of War and Peace. Sure, we can have a debate about which of Tolstoy’s two great novels is the greatest, but to set up any list like this which can’t include both just isn’t honest.

No matter. I’ve now got lots of reading ideas for next year and will try and select at least 10 from the unread books listed above.

Happy New Year.

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So that was 2016

Not a vintage year in many ways. I’m writing this on the day that Debbie Reynolds died, the day after her daughter Carrie Fisher died, the day after Rick Parfitt died, the day after George Michael died etc. etc. Not to mention Brexit, Trump, Syria and too many other deeply troubling things.

O come, O come, Emmanuel, And ransom captive Israel, That mourns in lonely exile here Until the Son of God appears. Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel.

The above is pretty much the only words I can find that help me make sense of it all.

But what about the books? I’ve been phenomenally busy in my real life this year, so only managed 30 in total.

Top 5?

The Caine Mutiny by Herman Wouk

The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick (TV series on Amazon also worth a look)

The Circle by Dave Eggars

Death Comes for the Archbishop by Willa Cather

The Odd Women by George Gissing

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Book 30 – Mystery in White by J. Jefferson Farjeon

Classic Christmas crime thriller from the 1930s

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Book 29 – The Four Loves by C.S. Lewis 

A re-read inspired by the boys over at Mere Fidelity 


It’s excellent, do read it. 

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Book 28 – On Beauty by Zadie Smith

Not many contemporary writers can write as evocatively as Zadie Smith. Her descriptive language frequently takes my breath away. 

“Summer left Wellington  abruptly and slammed the door on the way out.”

“The moon was massive overhead and mottled like the skin of old, white people.” 

“An Amazon of retail.”

But while most of this book was a pleasure to wander through , it was an ultimately unsatisfying novel-reading experience. The basic plot is of the disintegration of a 30-year marriage, but that’s fairly banal by itself. Smith presents a large number of two-dimensional and not very likeable characters, but doesn’t resolve any of their stories.  At one point it seemed as if the novel would develop into a study of aesthetics in visual art, but that only gets superficial attention.

So I don’t really know what this book was supposed to be about. 

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Book 27 – Child 44 by Tom Rob Smith

Compelling, fast paced and at times, a hard, distressing read, this thriller centred around the hunt for a serial killer. What lifted it a few notches above the average was its setting in the Soviet Union at the time of Stalin’s death and into the beginning of the Krushchev era. I don’t know where Smith’s interest in the Soviet system comes from, or how much research he did for the novel. But he’s presented a very powerful image of what it might be like to live a life, where every movement is monitored, no-one can be trusted and your home, career, position and the safety of your whole family be jeapardised after a bad day at work.



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