My 100 Favourite Novels plus a few
A Bookshelf Quilt

Bookshelf block

Through lockdown I have been replanning my book quilt, and now have a design for eighteen blocks made up of book spines and some face on books. First on the top shelf is the Treasure Island block. Alongside the book are four other titles of some of my favourite books. All the titles for the quilt have been chosen as Desert Island Books, so they are books I would love to read again, and have meaning and memories for me. As I stitch the spines, I think about when I read the book, and the pleasure it gave me. All are very special to me, although I do feel guilty for all the other wonderful books that have not made it onto the quilt plan.

This block includes Douglas Adams' brilliant Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, the Wallander novels by Henning Mankell. I couldn't pick one out as they are all a body of work, developing the characters and reflecting Swedish society. Then there are two books I could not really separate. Tarka the Otter by Henry Williamson, set in North Devon, is a book I have loved since childhood. Williamson writes beautifully about the countryside. It is all the more poignant for me as that area of North Devon is where the paternal side of my mother's family are from, and she returned there for several happy years later in her life. Then there is Gavin Maxwell's inspiring Ring of Bright Water which is set in coastal Scotland and is equally beautifully written and moving.

Bookshelf block

My second block has my favourite three books by Thomas Hardy, although it is difficult to exclude stories like Tess of the Durbevilles. My mother always said that they were sad books, and I suppose there are not many happy endings, but I love the characters and the portrayal of the countryside, together with the twists and turns of life, the decisions we make that have far reaching consequences. I don't know how many times I have read and reread these books, particularly when living in London and missing Shropshire. The story of capricious Bathsheba Everdene and her suitors had to be included. Far from the Madding Crowd is closely followed by The Mayor of Casterbridge and The Return of the Native. Next to them are Flora Thompson's Lark Rise to Candleford a Hardy like memoir of a time now quite lost, and H E Bates' Darling Buds of May, stories of the Larkin family's exploits and their zest for life, both rural idylls that were all the more engrossing on my daily commute into central London.

Bookshelf block

Jane Austen's classic romance of family values is rooted in the social niceties of Regency England yet its essential truths about the human character with all its weaknesses and pretensions, its kindness and honesty, are timeless.

I love the intensity of feelings played out in Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre. The book also has a darkness at its heart, of mystery and menace, in the treatment of Rochester’s wife.
The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Bronte has another strong female lead which appeals to me. It’s considered to be one of the first feminist novels. Helen fights to protect her son and escape her husband’s debauchery, and seeks to make her own living through painting.
In Arnold Bennett’s Anna of the Five Towns’ written in 1902, we can still identify with its strong female character. When I first read the Five Towns series years ago, the Potteries setting was a refreshing change to all the rural idylls and landed gentry of many of the classics. Bennett wanted to make literature accessible to ordinary people, and his success did mean his work fell out of favour, after his death, with the literati he despised.
George Eliot’s Silas Marner again has a darkness to it in its depiction of the weaver’s betrayal and subsequent solitary life and his obsession with his gold. He is redeemed by the child he finds in the snow and brings up, and eventually finds happiness.
Hilary Mantel’s magnificent Wolf Hall trilogy follows the rise and fall of Thomas Cromwell from his very humble roots, which are never quite forgiven by those in Henry VIII’s glittering Court, to become one of the most powerful men in England. The interplay of vested interests and power struggles are fascinating, and provide a compelling alternative to the villain Cromwell was often portrayed as.

Bookshelf block

When I read Grand Meaulnes at school, I fell in love with both the character of Meaulnes and that fleeting glimpse of the Fete Etrange which seemed so other-worldly. His pursuit of his lost love seemed always doomed yet he persists.
In Stendhal’s Scarlet and Black, I fell for another young man, Julien Sorel, hopelessly idealistic, and both determined and devious in pursuing his ambition to rise above his humble origins, despite the strict hierarchy of Paris society and politics.
Flaubert’s Madame Bovary is another doomed romantic, seeking an escape from humble origins and the boredom of provincial life in a series of love affairs. But her affairs lead her increasingly into debt and she pays the ultimate price.
Hotel du Lac by Anita Brookner tells the story of romantic novelist Edith Hope, fleeing a failed affair in a hotel on Lake Geneva. She uses the insights she gains at the hotel to finally decide her own future.
Joanne Harris' Chocolat series is a sensuous delight. All that chocolate and passion. Strong characters, great stories, and all told with a whisper of mischief and magic. Her Five Quarters of the Orange is again set in France, mainly during the German Occupation, and is a dark recounting of those times, focussing on the effect on the children and how their lives are shaped by their experiences.
Rose Tremain’s Trespass is set in rural southern France, which is an important character in itself, and is a dark tale of jealousy and revenge, with some great, if unlikeable, characters.
Finally, some light relief. Peter Mayle’s A year in Provence has the landscape again as a strong element in his memoir of his time refurbishing his property. Another cast of strong, entertaining characters. Great fun.

Bleak House block

I have many favourites among Dickens’ work, but Bleak House is one of the best. A satire on the legal system runs alongside the story of Esther Summerson, and Lady Dedlock’s part in both Esther’s life and the long running court case, Jarndyce and Jarndyce, to settle a Will.
The novels of Doctor A J Cronin, who had practised in the South Wales coal mining area, include Dr Finlays Casebook, and have fallen out of fashion. The Citadel, which I discovered was also my father's favourite book, draws on his experience with the mining community and reflects the inequalities of the time, and the conflicts of medical ethics. The book is said to have paved the way for the NHS a decade after its publication. Hatters Castle, Cronin's first novel, is a powerful portrayal of a cruel tyrant of a father and his eventual downfall.
Kate Atkinson’s Jackson Brodie series is another favourite. Started early, took my dog introduces Brodie, and develops intriguing and compelling characters and tells their disparate stories with a humour that is refreshing among all the gloom and violence.
Rene Denfield’s The Child Finder also has a bleakness and foreboding but is redeemed by a wonderful sense of place and a dream like quality in the writing.
Finally, in The Chatham School Affair by Thomas H Cook, there is a sense of foreboding as the past is retold, amid the petty cruelties and claustrophobia of small town life.

The Go Between block

The Go Between by L P Hartley recounts memories of a long ago summer and Leo’s part in a doomed love affair. It is exquisitely written, and reflects the boy’s anxieties in growing up. As the opening lines suggest, the past is a foreign country. They do things differently there.
I love the idiosyncratic characters in Marina Lewycka’s Short History of tractors in Ukrainian and her strong sense of humour as two daughters vie to protect their elderly father from an unwise marriage.
Prodigal Summer by Barbara Kingsolver, is beautifully told, capturing the amazing sight of Monarch butterflies in their epic migration, alongside the story of put-upon wife Lusa and her neighbours in remote Appalachia.
Stef Penney’s The Tenderness of Wolves beautifully evokes the icy wilderness almost as a character in this intricately plotted murder mystery.
For a complete change, Shropshire gardener Mirabel Osler’s A Gentle Plea for Chaos is about letting go and discovering the joy of plants, and allowing a little magic back into the garden.
In South Riding, Winifred Holtby's strong heroine, idealistic teacher Sarah Burton, tackles local corruption in politics to help the community.

Gormenghast block

Mervyn Peake's Gormenghast is peopled by often grotesque characters within the forbidding walls of the sprawling, crumbling Gothic heap that is Gormenghast Castle. The first book of the three, Titus Groan follows the first year of Titus' life governed by the Castle’s age old rituals and set amongst the plots and petty jealousies of the servants. The second book , Gormenghast, sees Titus growing up and rebelling against the constraints of society until he finally escapes.

The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga is laced with a dark sense of humour. It tells the story of Balram who claws his way up from the darkness of poverty into the light of success and corruption, to become an entrepreneur through his wit and determination, not to mention a murder. In the new modern India, there are only two castes, he explains: men with big bellies, and men with small bellies.

Set during the last days of the British Raj, 1942–47, leading up to Indian independence, Paul Scott's Raj Quartet, examines the politics and prejudices of the time reflected in the stories of its principal characters. E M Forster's A Passage to India is set in the 1920s British Raj with the move for Indian independence. Racial tensions and prejudices are examined through the story of the main characters, and the dire consequences for the Indian Dr Aziz.

Rohinton Mistry's A Fine Balance is set after Indian independence up to the years of the Emergency of 1975–77, and reflects changes in Indian society through the stories of its four main characters from different backgrounds, and their heartbreaking fates.

Back to Home Page

All website images and content
© Karen Lowe 2020