The 100 best books of the 21st century | Books


100

I Feel Bad About My Neck

by Nora Ephron (2006)

Perhaps better known for her screenwriting (Silkwood, When Harry Met Sally, Heartburn), Ephron’s brand of smart theatrical humour is on best display in her essays. Confiding and self-deprecating, she has a way of always managing to sound like your best friend – even when writing about her apartment on New York’s Upper West Side. This wildly enjoyable collection includes her droll observations about ageing, vanity – and a scorching appraisal of Bill Clinton.
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99

Broken Glass

by Alain Mabanckou (2005), translated by Helen Stevenson (2009)

The Congolese writer says he was “trying to break the French language” with Broken Glass – a black comedy told by a disgraced teacher without much in the way of full stops or paragraph breaks. As Mabanckou’s unreliable narrator munches his “bicycle chicken” and drinks his red wine, it becomes clear he has the history of Congo-Brazzaville and the whole of French literature in his sights.
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Daniel Craig and Rooney Mara in the 2011 film adaptation of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.



Daniel Craig and Rooney Mara in the 2011 film adaptation of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. Photograph: Allstar/Sony Pictures Releasing/Sportsphoto Ltd

98

The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo

by Stieg Larsson (2005), translated by Steven T Murray (2008)

Radical journalist Mikael Blomkvist forms an unlikely alliance with troubled young hacker Lisbeth Salander as they follow a trail of murder and malfeasance connected with one of Sweden’s most powerful families in the first novel of the bestselling Millennium trilogy. The high-level intrigue beguiled millions of readers, brought “Scandi noir” to prominence and inspired innumerable copycats.
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97

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire

by JK Rowling (2000)

A generation grew up on Rowling’s all-conquering magical fantasies, but countless adults have also been enthralled by her immersive world. Book four, the first of the doorstoppers, marks the point where the series really takes off. The Triwizard Tournament provides pace and tension, and Rowling makes her boy wizard look death in the eye for the first time.
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96

A Little Life

by Hanya Yanagihara (2015)

This operatically harrowing American gay melodrama became an unlikely bestseller, and one of the most divisive novels of the century so far. One man’s life is blighted by abuse and its aftermath, but also illuminated by love and friendship. Some readers wept all night, some condemned it as titillating and exploitative, but no one could deny its power.
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95

Chronicles: Volume One

by Bob Dylan (2004)

Dylan’s reticence about his personal life is a central part of the singer-songwriter’s brand, so the gaps and omissions in this memoir come as no surprise. The result is both sharp and dreamy, sliding in and out of different phases of Dylan’s career but rooted in his earliest days as a Woody Guthrie wannabe in New York City. Fans are still waiting for volume two.
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Bob Dylan in New York, 1963.



Bob Dylan in New York, 1963. Photograph: Don Hunstein

94

The Tipping Point

by Malcolm Gladwell (2000)

The New Yorker staff writer examines phenomena from shoe sales to crime rates through the lens of epidemiology, reaching his own tipping point, when he became a rock-star intellectual and unleashed a wave of quirky studies of contemporary society. Two decades on, Gladwell is often accused of oversimplification and cherry picking, but his idiosyncratic bestsellers have helped shape 21st-century culture.
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93

Darkmans

by Nicola Barker (2007)

British fiction’s most anarchic author is as prolific as she is playful, but this freewheeling, visionary epic set around the Thames Gateway is her magnum opus. Barker brings her customary linguistic invention and wild humour to a tale about history’s hold on the present, as contemporary Ashford is haunted by the spirit of a medieval jester.
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The Siege by Helen Dunmore

92

The Siege

by Helen Dunmore (2001)

The Levin family battle against starvation in this novel set during the German siege of Leningrad. Anna digs tank traps and dodges patrols as she scavenges for wood, but the hand of history is hard to escape.
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Light by M John Harrison

91

Light

by M John Harrison (2002)

One of the most underrated prose writers demonstrates the literary firepower of science fiction at its best. Three narrative strands – spanning far-future space opera, contemporary unease and virtual-reality pastiche – are braided together for a breathtaking metaphysical voyage in pursuit of the mystery at the heart of reality.
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90

Visitation

by Jenny Erpenbeck (2008), translated by Susan Bernofsky (2010)

A grand house by a lake in the east of Germany is both the setting and main character of Erpenbeck’s third novel. The turbulent waves of 20th-century history crash over it as the house is sold by a Jewish family fleeing the Third Reich, requisitioned by the Russian army, reclaimed by exiles returning from Siberia, and sold again.
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89

Bad Blood

by Lorna Sage (2000)

A Whitbread prizewinning memoir, full of perfectly chosen phrases,
that is one of the best accounts of family dysfunction ever written.
Sage grew up with her grandparents, who hated each other: he was a drunken philandering vicar; his wife, having found his diaries,
blackmailed him and lived in another part of the house. The
author gets unwittingly pregnant at 16, yet the story has a happy
ending.
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88

Noughts & Crosses

by Malorie Blackman (2001)

Set in an alternative Britain, this groundbreaking piece of young adult fiction sees black people, called the Crosses, hold all the power and influence, while the noughts – white people – are marginalised and segregated. The former children’s laureate’s series is a crucial work for explaining racism to young readers.

87

Priestdaddy

by Patricia Lockwood (2017)

This may not be the only account of living in a religious household in the American midwest (in her youth, the author joined a group called God’s Gang, where they spoke in tongues), but it is surely the funniest. The author started out as the “poet laureate of Twitter”; her language is brilliant, and she has a completely original mind.
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A telling description of modern power … Yanis Varoufakis.



A telling description of modern power … Yanis Varoufakis. Photograph: Alkis Konstantinidis/Reuters

86

Adults in the Room

by Yanis Varoufakis (2017)

This memoir by the leather-jacketed economist of the six months he spent as Greece’s finance minister in 2015 at a time of economic and political crisis has been described as “one of the best political memoirs ever written”. He comes up against the IMF, the European institutions, Wall Street, billionaires and media owners and is told how the system works – as a result, his book is a telling description of modern power.
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85

The God Delusion

by Richard Dawkins (2006)

A key text in the days when the “New Atheism” was much talked about, The God Delusion is a hard-hitting attack on religion, full of Dawkins’s confidence that faith produces fanatics and all arguments for God are ridiculous. What the evolutionary biologist lacks in philosophical sophistication, he makes up for in passion, and the book sold in huge numbers.
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84

The Cost of Living

by Deborah Levy (2018)

Dazzling memoir … Deborah Levy.



Dazzling memoir … Deborah Levy. Photograph: Sheila Burnett

“Chaos is supposed to be what we most fear but I have come to believe it might be what we most want … ” The second part of Levy’s “living memoir”, in which she leaves her marriage, is a fascinating companion piece to her deep yet playful novels. Feminism, mythology and the daily grind come together for a book that combines emotion and intellect to dazzling effect.
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83

Tell Me How It Ends

by Valeria Luiselli (2016), translated by Luiselli with Lizzie Davis (2017)

As the hysteria over immigration to the US began to build in 2015, the Mexican novelist volunteered to work as an interpreter in New York’s federal immigration court. In this powerful series of essays she tells the poignant stories of the children she met, situating them in the wider context of the troubled relationship between the Americas.
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82

Coraline

by Neil Gaiman (2002)

From the Sandman comics to his fantasy epic American Gods to Twitter, Gaiman towers over the world of books. But this perfectly achieved children’s novella, in which a plucky young girl enters a parallel world where her “Other Mother” is a spooky copy of her real-life mum, with buttons for eyes, might be his finest hour: a properly scary modern myth which cuts right to the heart of childhood fears and desires.
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81

Harvest

by Jim Crace (2013)

Crace is fascinated by the moment when one era gives way to another. Here, it is the enclosure of the commons, a fulcrum of English history, that drives his story of dispossession and displacement. Set in a village without a name, the narrative dramatises what it’s like to see the world you know come to an end, in a severance of the connection between people and land that has deep relevance for our time of climate crisis and forced migration.
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Amy Adams in Arrival, the 2015 film based on a short story by Ted Chiang.



Amy Adams in Arrival, the 2015 film based on a short story by Ted Chiang. Photograph: Allstar/Paramount Pictures

80

Stories of Your Life and Others

by Ted Chiang (2002)

Melancholic and transcendent, Chiang’s eight, high-concept sci-fi stories exploring the nature of language, maths, religion and physics racked up numerous awards and a wider audience when ‘Story of Your Life’ was adapted into the 2016 film Arrival.
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79

The Spirit Level

by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett (2009)

An eye-opening study, based on overwhelming evidence, which revealed
that among rich countries, the “more equal societies almost always do
better” for all. Growth matters less than inequality, the authors
argued: whether the issue is life expectancy, infant mortality, crime
rates, obesity, literacy or recycling, the Scandinavian countries,
say, will always win out over, say, the UK.
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NK Jemisin explores urgent questions of power in The Fifth Season.



NK Jemisin explores urgent questions of power in The Fifth Season. Photograph: Laura Hanifin

78

The Fifth Season

by NK Jemisin (2015)

Jemisin became the first African American author to win the best novel category at the Hugo awards for her first book in the Broken Earth trilogy. In her intricate and richly imagined far future universe, the world is ending, ripped apart by relentless earthquakes and volcanoes. Against this apocalyptic backdrop she explores urgent questions of power and enslavement through the eyes of three women. “As this genre finally acknowledges that the dreams of the marginalised matter and that all of us have a future,” she said in her acceptance speech, “so will go the world. (Soon, I hope.)”

77

Signs Preceding the End of the World

by Yuri Herrera (2009), translated by Lisa Dillman (2015)

Makina sets off from her village in Mexico with a package from a local gangster and a message for her brother, who has been gone for three years. The story of her crossing to the US examines the blurring of boundaries, the commingling of languages and the blending of identities that complicate the idea of an eventual return.
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76

Thinking, Fast and Slow

by Daniel Kahneman (2011)

The Nobel laureate’s unexpected bestseller, on the minutiae of decision-making, divides the brain into two. System One makes judgments quickly, intuitively and automatically, as when a batsman decides whether to cut or pull. System Two is slow, calculated and deliberate, like long division. But psychologist Kahneman argues that, although System Two thinks it is in control, many of our decisions are really made by System One.
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Spoor, the film adaptation of  Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead.



Spoor, the film adaptation of Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead.

75

Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead

by Olga Tokarczuk (2009), translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones (2018)

In this existential eco-thriller, a William Blake-obsessed eccentric investigates the murders of men and animals in a remote Polish village. More accessible and focused than Flights, the novel that won Tokarczuk the Man International Booker prize, it is no less profound in its examination of how atavistic male impulses, emboldened by the new rightwing politics of Europe, are endangering people, communities and nature itself.
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74

Days Without End

by Sebastian Barry (2016)

In this savagely beautiful novel set during the Indian wars and American civil war, a young Irish boy flees famine-struck Sligo for Missouri. There he finds lifelong companionship with another emigrant, and they join the army on its brutal journey west, laying waste to Indian settlements. Viscerally focused and intense, yet imbued with the grandeur of the landscape, the book explores love, gender and survival with a rare, luminous power.
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Nothing to Envy by Barbara Demick

73

Nothing to Envy

by Barbara Demick (2009)

Los Angeles Times journalist Barbara Demick interviewed around 100 North Korean defectors for this propulsive work of narrative non-fiction, but she focuses on just six, all from the north-eastern city of Chongjin – closed to foreigners and less media-ready than Pyongyang. North Korea is revealed to be rife with poverty, corruption and violence but populated by resilient people with a remarkable ability to see past the propaganda all around them.
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72

The Age of Surveillance Capitalism

by Shoshana Zuboff (2019)

An agenda-setting book that is devastating about the extent to which big tech sets out to manipulate us for profit. Not simply another expression of the “techlash”, Zuboff’s ambitious study identifies a new form of capitalism, one involving the monitoring and shaping of our behaviour, often without our knowledge, with profound implications for democracy. “Once we searched Google, but now Google searches us.”
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Jimmy Corrigan- tThe Smartest Kid on Earth

71

Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth

by Chris Ware (2000)

At the time when Ware won the Guardian first book award, no graphic novel had previously won a generalist literary prize. Emotional and artistic complexity are perfectly poised in this account of a listless 36-year-old office dogsbody who is thrown into an existential crisis by an encounter with his estranged dad.
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Judi Dench, left, and Cate Blanchett in the 2006 film adaptation of Notes on a Scandal.



Judi Dench, left, and Cate Blanchett in the 2006 film adaptation of Notes on a Scandal. Photograph: Allstar/FOX SEARCHLIGHT/Sportsphoto Ltd./Allstar

70

Notes on a Scandal

by Zoë Heller (2003)

Sheba, a middle-aged teacher at a London comprehensive, begins an affair with her 15-year-old student – but we hear about it from a fellow teacher, the needy Barbara, whose obsessive nature drives the narrative. With shades of Patricia Highsmith, this teasing investigation into sex, class and loneliness is a dark marvel.
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69

The Infatuations

by Javier Marías (2011), translated by Margaret Jull Costa (2013)

The Spanish master examines chance, love and death in the story of an apparently random killing that gradually reveals hidden depths. Marías constructs an elegant murder mystery from his trademark labyrinthine sentences, but this investigation is in pursuit of much meatier questions than whodunnit.
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Rachel Weisz and Ralph Fiennes in the 2005 film adaptation of  The Constant Gardener.



Rachel Weisz and Ralph Fiennes in the 2005 film adaptation of The Constant Gardener. Photograph: Jaap Buitendijk/AP

68

The Constant Gardener

by John le Carré (2001)

The master of the cold war thriller turned his attention to the new world order in this chilling investigation into the corruption powering big pharma in Africa. Based on the case of a rogue antibiotics trial that killed and maimed children in Nigeria in the 1990s, it has all the dash and authority of his earlier novels while precisely and presciently anatomising the dangers of a rampant neo-imperialist capitalism.
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67

The Silence of the Girls

by Pat Barker (2018)

If the western literary canon is founded on Homer, then it is founded on women’s silence. Barker’s extraordinary intervention, in which she replays the events of the Iliad from the point of view of the enslaved Trojan women, chimed with both the #MeToo movement and a wider drive to foreground suppressed voices. In a world still at war, it has chilling contemporary resonance.
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66

Seven Brief Lessons on Physics

by Carlo Rovelli (2014)

A theoretical physicist opens a window on to the great questions of the universe with this 96-page overview of modern physics. Rovelli’s keen insight and striking metaphors make this the best introduction to subjects including relativity, quantum mechanics, cosmology, elementary particles and entropy outside of a course in advanced physics.
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Ben Affleck in the 2014 film adaptation of Gone Girl.



Ben Affleck in the 2014 film adaptation of Gone Girl. Photograph: Allstar/New Regency Pictures

65

Gone Girl

by Gillian Flynn (2012)

The deliciously dark US crime thriller that launched a thousand imitators and took the concept of the unreliable narrator to new heights. A woman disappears: we think we know whodunit, but we’re wrong. Flynn’s stylishly written portrait of a toxic marriage set against a backdrop of social and economic insecurity combines psychological depth with sheer unputdownable flair.
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64

On Writing

by Stephen King (2000)

Written after a near-fatal accident, this combination of memoir and masterclass by fiction’s most successful modern storyteller showcases the blunt, casual brilliance of King at his best. As well as being genuinely useful, it’s a fascinating chronicle of literary persistence, and of a lifelong love affair with language and narrative.
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63

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

by Rebecca Skloot (2010)

Henrietta Lacks was a black American who died in agony of cancer in a “coloured” hospital ward in 1951. Her cells, taken without her knowledge during a biopsy, went on to change medical history, being used around the world to develop countless drugs. Skloot skilfully tells the extraordinary scientific story, but in this book the voices of the Lacks children are crucial – they have struggled desperately even as billions have been made from their mother’s “HeLa” cells.
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Benedict Cumberbatch in the TV adaptation of Edward St Aubyn’s Patrick Melrose novels.



Benedict Cumberbatch in the TV adaptation of Edward St Aubyn’s Patrick Melrose novels. Photograph: Ollie Upton/Showtime

62

Mother’s Milk

by Edward St Aubyn (2006)

The fourth of the autobiographical Patrick Melrose novels finds the wealthy protagonist – whose flight from atrocious memories of child abuse into drug abuse was the focus of the first books – beginning to grope after redemption. Elegant wit and subtle psychology lift grim subject matter into seductive brilliance.
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61

This House of Grief

by Helen Garner (2014)

A man drives his three sons into a deep pond and swims out, leaving them to drown. But was it an accident? This 2005 tragedy caught the attention of one of Australia’s greatest living writers. Garner puts herself centre stage in an account of Robert Farquharson’s trial that combines forensic detail and rich humanity.
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A mesmerising tapestry of the River Dart’s mutterings … Alice Oswald.



A mesmerising tapestry of the River Dart’s mutterings … Alice Oswald. Photograph: Jim Wileman/The Guardian

60

Dart

by Alice Oswald (2002)

This book-length poem is a mesmerising tapestry of “the river’s mutterings”, based on three years of recording conversations with people who live and work on the River Dart in Devon. From swimmers to sewage workers, boatbuilders to bailiffs, salmon fishers to ferryman, the voices are varied and vividly brought to life.
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59

The Beauty of the Husband

by Anne Carson (2002)

One of Canada’s most celebrated poets examines love and desire in a collection that describes itself as “a fictional essay in 39 tangos”. Carson charts the course of a doomed marriage in loose-limbed lines that follow the switchbacks of thought and feeling from first meeting through multiple infidelities to arrive at eventual divorce.

58

Postwar

by Tony Judt (2005)

This grand survey of Europe since 1945 begins with the devastation left behind by the second world war and offers a panoramic narrative of the cold war from its beginnings to the collapse of the Soviet bloc – a part of which Judt witnessed firsthand in Czechoslovakia’s velvet revolution. A very complex story is told with page-turning urgency and what may now be read as nostalgic faith in “the European idea”.
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57

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay

by Michael Chabon (2000)

A love story to the golden age of comics in New York, Chabon’s Pulitzer-winner features two Jewish cousins, one smuggled out of occupied Prague, who create an anti-fascist comic book superhero called The Escapist. Their own adventures are as exciting and highly coloured as the ones they write and draw in this generous, open-hearted, deeply lovable rollercoaster of a book.
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Robert Macfarlane’s Underland (Hamish Hamilton).



Photograph: Robert Macfarlane’s Underland (Hamish Hamilton).

56

Underland

by Robert Macfarlane (2019)

A beautifully written and profound book, which takes the form of a
series of (often hair-raising and claustrophobic) voyages underground
– from the fjords of the Arctic to the Parisian catacombs. Trips below
the surface inspire reflections on “deep” geological time and raise
urgent questions about the human impact on planet Earth.
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55

The Omnivore’s Dilemma

by Michael Pollan (2006)

An entertaining and highly influential book from the writer best known for his advice: “Eat food, not too much, mostly plants.” The author follows four meals on their journey from field to plate – including one from McDonald’s and a locally sourced organic feast. Pollan is a skilled, amusing storyteller and The Omnivore’s Dilemma changed both food writing and the way we see food.
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Mary Beard, whose slim manifesto Women & Power became an instant feminist classic.



Mary Beard, whose slim manifesto Women & Power became an instant feminist classic. Photograph: Sarah Lee/The Guardian

54

Women & Power

by Mary Beard (2017)

Based on Beard’s lectures on women’s voices and how they have been silenced, Women and Power was an enormous publishing success in the “#MeToo”’ year 2017. An exploration of misogyny, the origins of “gendered speech” in the classical era and the problems the male world has with strong women, this slim manifesto became an instant feminist classic.
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53

True History of the Kelly Gang

by Peter Carey (2000)

Carey’s second Booker winner is an irresistible tour de force of literary ventriloquism: the supposed autobiography of 19th-century Australian outlaw and “wild colonial boy” Ned Kelly, inspired by a fragment of Kelly’s own prose and written as a glorious rush of semi-punctuated vernacular storytelling. Mythic and tender by turns, these are tall tales from a lost frontier.
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52

Small Island

by Andrea Levy (2004)

Pitted against a backdrop of prejudice, this London-set novel is told by four protagonists – Hortense and Gilbert, Jamaican migrants, and a stereotypically English couple, Queenie and Bernard. These varied perspectives, illuminated by love and loyalty, combine to create a thoughtful mosaic depicting the complex beginnings of Britain’s multicultural society.
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The 2015 film adaptation of Brooklyn.



The 2015 film adaptation of Brooklyn. Photograph: Kerry Brown/AP

51

Brooklyn

by Colm Tóibín (2009)

Tóibín’s sixth novel is set in the 1950s, when more than 400,000 people left Ireland, and considers the emotional and existential impact of emigration on one young woman. Eilis makes a life for herself in New York, but is drawn back by the possibilities of the life she has lost at home. A universal story of love, endurance and missed chances, made radiant through Tóibín’s measured prose and tender understatement.
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50

Oryx and Crake

by Margaret Atwood (2003)

In the first book in her dystopian MaddAddam trilogy, the Booker winner speculates about the havoc science can wreak on the world. The big warning here – don’t trust corporations to run the planet – is blaring louder and louder as the century progresses.
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49

Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?

by Jeanette Winterson (2011)

The title is the question Winterson’s adoptive mother asked as she threw her daughter out, aged 16, for having a girlfriend. The autobiographical story behind Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, and the trials of Winterson’s later life, is urgent, wise and moving.
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48

Night Watch

by Terry Pratchett (2002)

Pratchett’s mighty Discworld series is a high point in modern fiction: a parody of fantasy literature that deepened and darkened over the decades to create incisive satires of our own world. The 29th book, focusing on unlikely heroes, displays all his fierce intelligence, anger and wild humour, in a story that’s moral, humane – and hilarious.
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The 2008 film adaptation of Persepolis.



The 2008 film adaptation of Persepolis. Photograph: Marjane Satrapi et Vincent Paron/Publicity image from film company

47

Persepolis

by Marjane Satrapi (2000-2003), translated by Mattias Ripa (2003-2004)

Satrapi’s autobiographical graphic novel follows her coming-of-age in the lead up to and during the Iranian revolution. In this riotous memoir, Satrapi focuses on one young life to reveal a hidden history.

46

Human Chain

by Seamus Heaney (2010)

The Nobel laureate tends to the fragments of memory and loss with moving precision in his final poetry collection. A book of elegies and echoes, these poems are infused with a haunting sense of pathos, with a line often left hanging to suspend the reader in longing and regret.
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45

Levels of Life

by Julian Barnes (2013)

The British novelist combines fiction and non-fiction to form a searing essay on grief and love for his late wife, the literary agent Pat Kavanagh. Barnes divides the book into three parts with disparate themes – 19th-century ballooning, photography and marriage. Their convergence is wonderfully achieved.
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44

Hope in the Dark

by Rebecca Solnit (2004)

Writing against “the tremendous despair at the height of the Bush administration’s powers and the outset of the war in Iraq”, the US thinker finds optimism in political activism and its ability to change the world. The book ranges widely from the fall of the Berlin wall to the Zapatista uprising in Mexico, to the invention of Viagra.
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Claudia Rankine confronts the history of racism in the US.



Claudia Rankine confronts the history of racism in the US. Photograph: Ricardo DeAratanha/LA Times via Getty Images

43

Citizen: An American Lyric

by Claudia Rankine (2014)

From the slow emergency response in the black suburbs destroyed by hurricane Katrina to a mother trying to move her daughter away from a black passenger on a plane, the poet’s award-winning prose work confronts the history of racism in the US and asks: regardless of their actual status, who truly gets to be a citizen?
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42

Moneyball

by Michael Lewis (2010)

The author of The Big Short has made a career out of rendering the most opaque subject matter entertaining and comprehensible: Moneyball tells the story of how geeks outsmarted jocks to revolutionise baseball using maths. But you do not need to know or care about the sport, because – as with all Lewis’s best writing – it’s all about how the story is told.
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James McAvoy in the film adaptation of Atonement.



James McAvoy in the film adaptation of Atonement.

41

Atonement

by Ian McEwan (2001)

There are echoes of DH Lawrence and EM Forster in McEwan’s finely tuned dissection of memory and guilt. The fates of three young people are altered by a young girl’s lie at the close of a sweltering day on a country estate in 1935. Lifelong remorse, the horror of war and devastating twists are to follow in an elegant, deeply felt meditation on the power of love and art.
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40

The Year of Magical Thinking

by Joan Didion (2005)

With cold, clear, precise prose, Didion gives an account of the year her husband, the writer John Gregory Dunne, collapsed from a fatal heart attack in their home. Her devastating examination of grief and widowhood changed the nature of writing about bereavement.
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39

White Teeth

by Zadie Smith (2000)

Set around the unlikely bond between two wartime friends, Smith’s debut brilliantly captures Britain’s multicultural spirit, and offers a compelling insight into immigrant family life.

38

The Line of Beauty

by Alan Hollinghurst (2004)

Oxford graduate Nick Guest has the questionable good fortune of moving into the grand west London home of a rising Tory MP. Thatcher-era degeneracy is lavishly displayed as Nick falls in love with the son of a supermarket magnate, and the novel records how Aids began to poison gay life in London. In peerless prose, Hollinghurst captures something close to the spirit of an age.
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37

The Green Road

by Anne Enright (2015)

A reunion dominates the Irish novelist’s family drama, but the individual stories of the five members of the Madigan clan – the matriarch, Rosaleen, and her children, Dan, Emmet, Constance and Hanna, who escape and are bound to return – are beautifully held in balance. When the Madigans do finally come together halfway through the book, Enright masterfully reminds us of the weight of history and family.
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Martin Amis recalls his ‘velvet-suited, snakeskin-booted’ youth.



Martin Amis recalls his ‘velvet-suited, snakeskin-booted’ youth. Photograph: Jeremy Sutton-Hibbert/Getty Images

36

Experience

by Martin Amis (2000)

Known for the firecracker phrases and broad satires of his fiction, Amis presented a much warmer face in his memoir. His life is haunted by the disappearance of his cousin Lucy, who is revealed 20 years later to have been murdered by Fred West. But Amis also has much fun recollecting his “velvet-suited, snakeskin-booted” youth, and paints a moving portrait of his father’s comic gusto as old age reduces him to a kind of “anti-Kingsley”.
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35

The Hare with Amber Eyes

by Edmund de Waal (2010)

In this exquisite family memoir, the ceramicist explains how he came to inherit a collection of 264 netsuke – small Japanese ornaments – from his great-uncle. The unlikely survival of the netsuke entails De Waal telling a story that moves from Paris to Austria under the Nazis to Japan, and he beautifully conjures a sense of place. The book doubles as a set of profound reflections on objects and what they mean to us.
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Outline by Rachel Cusk

Outline by Rachel Cusk

34

Outline by Rachel

Cusk (2014)

This startling work of autofiction, which signalled a new direction for Cusk, follows an author teaching a creative writing course over one hot summer in Athens. She leads storytelling exercises. She meets other writers for dinner. She hears from other people about relationships, ambition, solitude, intimacy and “the disgust that exists indelibly between men and women”. The end result is sublime.
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Fun Home by Alison Bechdel

Fun Home by Alison Bechdel

33

Fun Home

by Alison Bechdel (2006)

The American cartoonist’s darkly humorous memoir tells the story of how her closeted gay father killed himself a few months after she came out as a lesbian. This pioneering work, which later became a musical, helped shape the modern genre of “graphic memoir”, combining detailed and beautiful panels with remarkable emotional depth.
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32

The Emperor of All Maladies

by Siddhartha Mukherjee (2010)

“Normal cells are identically normal; malignant cells become unhappily malignant in unique ways.” In adapting the opening lines of Anna Karenina, Mukherjee sets out the breathtaking ambition of his study of cancer: not only to share the knowledge of a practising oncologist but to take his readers on a literary and historical journey.
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31

The Argonauts

by Maggie Nelson (2015)

An electrifying memoir that captured a moment in thinking about gender, and also changed the world of books. The story, told in fragments, is of Nelson’s pregnancy, which unfolds at the same time as her partner, the artist Harry Dodge, is beginning testosterone injections: “the summer of our changing bodies”. Strikingly honest, originally written, with a galaxy of intellectual reference points, it is essentially a love story; one that seems to make a new way of living possible.
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30

The Underground Railroad

by Colson Whitehead (2016)

A thrilling, genre-bending tale of escape from slavery in the American deep south, this Pulitzer prize-winner combines extraordinary prose and uncomfortable truths. Two slaves flee their masters using the underground railroad, the network of abolitionists who helped slaves out of the south, wonderfully reimagined by Whitehead as a steampunk vision of a literal train.
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Uncomfortable truths … Colson Whitehead.



Uncomfortable truths … Colson Whitehead. Photograph: Ramin Talaie

29

A Death in the Family

by Karl Ove Knausgaard (2009), translated by Don Bartlett (2012)

The first instalment of Knausgaard’s relentlessly self-examining six-volume series My Struggle revolves around the life and death of his alcoholic father. Whether or not you regard him as the Proust of memoir, his compulsive honesty created a new benchmark for autofiction.
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28

Rapture

by Carol Ann Duffy (2005)

A moving, book-length poem from the UK’s first female poet laureate, Rapture won the TS Eliot prize in 2005. From falling in love to betrayal and separation, Duffy reimagines romance with refreshing originality.
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27

Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage

by Alice Munro (2001)

Canada’s observant and humane short story writer, who won the Nobel in 2013, is at her best in this collection. A housekeeper’s fate is changed by the pranks of her employer’s teenager daughter; an incorrigible flirt gracefully accepts his wife’s new romance in her care home. No character acts as at first expected in Munro’s stories, which are attuned to the tiniest shifts in perception.
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26

Capital in the Twenty First Century

by Thomas Piketty (2013), translated by Arthur Goldhammer (2014)

The beautifully written product of 15 years of research, Capital made its author an intellectual star – the modern Marx – and opened readers’ eyes to how neoliberalism produces vastly increased inequalities. Full of data, theories and historical analysis, its message is clear, and prophetic: unless governments increase tax, the new and grotesque wealth levels of the rich will encourage political instability.
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Sally Rooney focuses on the uncertainty of millennial life.



Sally Rooney focuses on the uncertainty of millennial life. Photograph: Richard Saker/The Observer

25

Normal People

by Sally Rooney (2018)

Rooney’s second novel, a love story between two clever and damaged young people coming of age in contemporary Ireland, confirmed her status as a literary superstar. Her focus is on the dislocation and uncertainty of millennial life, but her elegant prose has universal appeal.
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24

A Visit from The Goon Squad

by Jennifer Egan (2011)

Inspired by both Proust and The Sopranos, Egan’s Pulitzer-winning comedy follows several characters in and around the US music industry, but is really a book about memory and kinship, time and narrative, continuity and disconnection.
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23

The Noonday Demon

by Andrew Solomon (2001)

Emerging from Solomon’s own painful experience, this “anatomy” of depression examines its many faces – plus its science, sociology and treatment. The book’s combination of honesty, scholarly rigour and poetry made it a benchmark in literary memoir and understanding of mental health.
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22

Tenth of December

by George Saunders (2013)

This warm yet biting collection of short stories by the Booker-winning American author will restore your faith in humanity. No matter how weird the setting – a futuristic prison lab, a middle-class home where human lawn ornaments are employed as a status symbol – in these surreal satires of post-crash life Saunders reminds us of the meaning we find in small moments.
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Chart-topping history of humanity … Yuval Noah Harari.



Chart-topping history of humanity … Yuval Noah Harari. Photograph: Olivier Middendorp

21

Sapiens

by Yuval Noah Harari (2011), translated by Harari with John Purcell and Haim Watzman (2014)

In his Olympian history of humanity, Harari documents the numerous revolutions Homo sapiens has undergone over the last 70,000 years: from new leaps in cognitive reasoning to agriculture, science and industry, the era of information and the possibilities of biotechnology. Harari’s scope may be too wide for some, but this engaging work topped the charts and made millions marvel.
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20

Life After Life

by Kate Atkinson (2013)

Atkinson examines family, history and the power of fiction as she tells the story of a woman born in 1910 – and then tells it again, and again, and again. Ursula Todd’s multiple lives see her strangled at birth, drowned on a Cornish beach, trapped in an awful marriage and visiting Adolf Hitler at Berchtesgaden. But this dizzying fictional construction is grounded by such emotional intelligence that her heroine’s struggles always feel painfully, joyously real.
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A stage adaptation of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time.



Portrait of an unconventional mind … A stage adaptation of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. Photograph: Alastair Muir/REX/Shutterstock

19

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night‑Time

by Mark Haddon (2003)

Fifteen-year-old Christopher John Francis Boone becomes absorbed in the mystery of a dog’s demise, meticulously investigating through diagrams, timetables, maps and maths problems. Haddon’s fascinating portrayal of an unconventional mind was a crossover hit with both adults and children and was adapted into a very successful stage play.
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18

The Shock Doctrine

by Naomi Klein (2007)

In this urgent examination of free-market fundamentalism, Klein argues – with accompanying reportage – that the social breakdowns witnessed during decades of neoliberal economic policies are not accidental, but in fact integral to the functioning of the free market, which relies on disaster and human suffering to function.
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Viggo Mortensen and Kodi Smit-McPhee in The Road, based on Cormac McCarthy’s novel.



Viggo Mortensen and Kodi Smit-McPhee in The Road, based on Cormac McCarthy’s novel. Photograph: Allstar/Dimension Films/2929 Productions

17

The Road

by Cormac McCarthy (2006)

A father and his young son, “each the other’s world entire”, trawl across the ruins of post-apocalyptic America in this terrifying but tender story told with biblical conviction. The slide into savagery as civilisation collapses is harrowing material, but McCarthy’s metaphysical efforts to imagine a cold dark universe where the light of humanity is winking out are what make the novel such a powerful ecological warning.
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16

The Corrections

by Jonathan Franzen (2001)

The members of one ordinarily unhappy American family struggle to adjust to the shifting axes of their worlds over the final decades of the 20th century. Franzen’s move into realism reaped huge literary rewards: exploring both domestic and national conflict, this family saga is clever, funny and outrageously readable.
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15

The Sixth Extinction

by Elizabeth Kolbert (2014)

The science journalist examines with clarity and memorable detail the current crisis of plant and animal loss caused by human civilisation (over the past half billion years, there have been five mass extinctions on Earth; we are causing another). Kolbert considers both ecosystems – the Great Barrier Reef, the Amazon rainforest – and the lives of some extinct and soon-to-be extinct creatures including the Sumatran rhino and “the most beautiful bird in the world”, the black-faced honeycreeper of Maui.
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Sensuous love story … Sarah Waters.



A smart study of innocence and experience … Sarah Waters. Photograph: Jeremy Sutton-Hibbert/Getty Images

14

Fingersmith

by Sarah Waters (2002)

Moving from the underworld dens of Victorian London to the boudoirs of country house gothic, and hingeing on the seduction of an heiress, Waters’s third novel is a drippingly atmospheric thriller, a smart study of innocence and experience, and a sensuous lesbian love story – with a plot twist to make the reader gasp.
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13

Nickel and Dimed

by Barbara Ehrenreich (2001)

In this modern classic of reportage, Ehrenreich chronicled her attempts to live on the minimum wage in three American states. Working first as a waitress, then a cleaner and a nursing home aide, she still struggled to survive, and the stories of her co-workers are shocking. The US economy as she experienced it is full of routine humiliation, with demands as high as the rewards are low. Two decades on, this still reads like urgent news.
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12

The Plot Against America

by Philip Roth (2004)

What if aviator Charles Lindbergh, who once called Hitler “a great man”, had won the US presidency in a landslide victory and signed a treaty with Nazi Germany? Paranoid yet plausible, Roth’s alternative-world novel is only more relevant in the age of Trump.
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11

My Brilliant Friend

by Elena Ferrante (2011), translated by Ann Goldstein (2012)

Powerfully intimate and unashamedly domestic, the first in Ferrante’s Neapolitan series established her as a literary sensation. This and the three novels that followed documented the ways misogyny and violence could determine lives, as well as the history of Italy in the late 20th century.

10

Half of a Yellow Sun

by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (2006)

When Nigerian author Adichie was growing up, the Biafran war “hovered over everything”. Her sweeping, evocative novel, which won the Orange prize, charts the political and personal struggles of those caught up in the conflict and explores the brutal legacy of colonialism in Africa.
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Cloud Atlas



Dizzying narratives … the 2012 film adaptation of Cloud Atlas. Photograph: Allstar/Warner Bros Pictures/Sportsphoto Ltd/Allstar

9

Cloud Atlas

David Mitchell (2004)

The epic that made Mitchell’s name is a Russian doll of a book, nesting stories within stories and spanning centuries and genres with aplomb. From a 19th-century seafarer to a tale from beyond the end of civilisation, via 1970s nuclear intrigue and the testimony of a future clone, these dizzying narratives are delicately interlinked, highlighting the echoes and recurrences of the vast human symphony.
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8

Autumn

by Ali Smith (2016)

Smith began writing her Seasonal Quartet, a still-ongoing experiment in quickfire publishing, against the background of the EU referendum. The resulting “first Brexit novel” isn’t just a snapshot of a newly divided Britain, but a dazzling exploration into love and art, time and dreams, life and death, all done with her customary invention and wit.
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A meditation on what it means to be a black American today … Ta-Nehisi Coates.



A meditation on what it means to be a black American today … Ta-Nehisi Coates. Photograph: Shahar Azran/WireImage

7

Between the World and Me

by Ta-Nehisi Coates (2015)

Coates’s impassioned meditation on what it means to be a black American today made him one of the country’s most important intellectuals and writers. Having grown up the son of a former Black Panther on the violent streets of Baltimore, he has a voice that is challenging but also poetic. Between the World and Me takes the form of a letter to his teenage son, and ranges from the daily reality of racial injustice and police violence to the history of slavery and the civil war: white people, he writes, will never remember “the scale of theft that enriched them”.
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6

The Amber Spyglass

by Philip Pullman (2000)

Children’s fiction came of age when the final part of Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy became the first book for younger readers to win the Whitbread book of the year award. Pullman has brought imaginative fire and storytelling bravado to the weightiest of subjects: religion, free will, totalitarian structures and the human drive to learn, rebel and grow. Here Asriel’s struggle against the Authority reaches its climax, Lyra and Will journey to the Land of the Dead, and Mary investigates the mysterious elementary particles that lend their name to his current trilogy: The Book of Dust. The Hollywood-fuelled commercial success achieved by JK Rowling may have eluded Pullman so far, but his sophisticated reworking of Paradise Lost helped adult readers throw off any embarrassment at enjoying fiction written for children – and publishing has never looked back.
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5

Austerlitz

by WG Sebald (2001), translated by Anthea Bell (2001)

Sebald died in a car crash in 2001, but his genre-defying mix of fact and fiction, keen sense of the moral weight of history and interleaving of inner and outer journeys have had a huge influence on the contemporary literary landscape. His final work, the typically allusive life story of one man, charts the Jewish disapora and lost 20th century with heartbreaking power. Read the review

From left:  Keira Knightley, Carey Mulligan and Andrew Garfield in the 2010 film adaptation of Never Let Me Go.



From left: Keira Knightley, Carey Mulligan and Andrew Garfield in the 2010 film adaptation of Never Let Me Go. Photograph: FoxSearch/Everett/Rex Features

4

Never Let Me Go

by Kazuo Ishiguro (2005)

From his 1989 Booker winner The Remains of the Day to 2015’s The Buried Giant, Nobel laureate Ishiguro writes profound, puzzling allegories about history, nationalism and the individual’s place in a world that is always beyond our understanding. His sixth novel, a love triangle set among human clones in an alternative 1990s England, brings exquisite understatement to its exploration of mortality, loss and what it means to be human.
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3

Secondhand Time

by Svetlana Alexievich (2013), translated by Bela Shayevich (2016)

The Belarusian Nobel laureate recorded thousands of hours of testimony from ordinary people to create this oral history of the Soviet Union and its end. Writers, waiters, doctors, soldiers, former Kremlin apparatchiks, gulag survivors: all are given space to tell their stories, share their anger and betrayal, and voice their worries about the transition to capitalism. An unforgettable book, which is both an act of catharsis and a profound demonstration of empathy.

2

Gilead

by Marilynne Robinson (2004)

Robinson’s meditative, deeply philosophical novel is told through letters written by elderly preacher John Ames in the 1950s to his young son who, when he finally reaches an adulthood his father won’t see, will at least have this posthumous one-sided conversation: “While you read this, I am imperishable, somehow more alive than I have ever been.” This is a book about legacy, a record of a pocket of America that will never return, a reminder of the heartbreaking, ephemeral beauty that can be found in everyday life. As Ames concludes, to his son and himself: “There are a thousand thousand reasons to live this life, every one of them sufficient.”
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Hilary Mantel captures ‘a sense of history listening and talking to itself’.



Hilary Mantel captures ‘a sense of history listening and talking to itself’. Photograph: David Levenson/Getty Images

1

Wolf Hall

by Hilary Mantel (2009)

Mantel had been publishing for a quarter century before the project that made her a phenomenon, set to be concluded with the third part of the trilogy, The Mirror and the Light, next March. To read her story of the rise of Thomas Cromwell at the Tudor court, detailing the making of a new England and the self-creation of a new kind of man, is to step into the stream of her irresistibly authoritative present tense and find oneself looking out from behind her hero’s eyes. The surface details are sensuously, vividly immediate, the language as fresh as new paint; but her exploration of power, fate and fortune is also deeply considered and constantly in dialogue with our own era, as we are shaped and created by the past. In this book we have, as she intended, “a sense of history listening and talking to itself”.
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