Great books… Need fiction

Here are a few of the books that have had a great effect on me, or given me great pleasure, or proved very useful. I need your recommendations at the end please!

1. Breakfast of Champions by Kurt Vonnegut

Total deconstruction of the American myth, very funny, insanely imaginative. If you have any interest in not just being entertained, but also in the ways of writing, and just what extraordinary lengths it is possible to go to within the medium of ficiton, then you will find this quite an inspiration.

2. Homage to Catalonia by George Orwell

My favourite book on Spain. Orwell’s writing is quite a thing to behold, and nowhere more so than here, especially when he describes what it is like to be shot in the neck.

3. The Outsider by Albert Camus

Surely you’ve read this. Much here on the very meaning of life, the universe etc. Incredible book. Actually better to read when it’s really hot outside. Like in Madrid in summer. Probably just as good in winter when you need warming up!

4. Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky

One of those books that everyone feels they should read, but this one is actually worth it. Unlike Ulysses I imagine, which I haven’t bothered with, but did obviously make sure I had prominently displayed on my bookshelf throughout my late 20’s.

5. Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion by Robert Cialdini

This book explains exactly what marketers, waiters, salespeople, soldiers in communist POW camps, business owners etc do to get us to give then our money, opinion, or consent. It should be required reading at school, as it is likely to save you a lot of money, and hassle, throughout later life. I read this book on and off for a year (there is a lot to digest), but it is one of the most interesting books I’ve ever read. If you’ve ever wondered how you’ve occasionally been pursuaded to do people favours who don’t deserve them, buy toys for your kids that they don’t want, tip waiters too much, buy cars you aren’t sure about, even why two-year-olds are terrible (and hundreds of other fascinating examples), the answers lie within. What all non-fiction should aspire too.

6. Peace is Every Step by Thich Nhat Hanh

Ages ago I read a post on a ‘productivity blog’ about mindfulness. Hmmm, I thought, being more mindful sounds good, so I got this book as recommended by a comment on that blog, and have been immensely grateful ever since. I may not be very mindful all the time, but I have developed a far more interesting relationship with many of the things I value in the world – actually that sounds ridiculous, I’ll stop trying to explain further, and just say that this book, by a gentle Vietnamese monk exiled in France, is non-denominational, nothing to do with ‘self-help’, or peace activism, and the wisdom inside, on the right days, surely has improved my life no end. Great audio, The Art of Mindful Living, by TNH on iTunes too.

7. The 4-hour Work Week by Tim Ferris

I’m re-reading, well, skimming this right now, as I have a baby that doesn’t sleep much, and the flu all week. I have less time than ever, and still the same business to run. So I’ve gone back for a look here at ways to get more done, more efficiently, and am presently surprised again by what a fun book it is, and just how useful it is in saving time for the important things in life. Like going to the park with my family. Mindfully. Which I want to do more of. When I get over this damn flu.

8. Your choice! Please recommend good fiction for me in the comments! I’m sick of reading non-fiction, and need really really amazing fiction to help me relax at night! I don’t care if it’s modern or classic, but it must be the best you’ve ever read. Please, recommend something for me in the comments!

39 Replies to “Great books… Need fiction”

  1. I’ve read books 1-4 on your list but the rest sound mighty interesting, especially #5.

    For fiction, I’d suggest Neil Gaiman’s “Anansi Boys”, Pio Baroja’s “La busca”, and Dave Boling’s “Guernica”. Oh and if you’re in the mood for Shakespeare, “Richard III” (I’m re-reading it after watching Al Pacino’s “Looking for Richard”).

  2. just finished to read homage to catalonia, and left the book somewhere on my way back from amsterdam… anyway, I imagine you’ve already read fiesta: and the sun also rises, it seems that nobody except brits and american can write great novels about spain.

    ham on rye, charles bukowski, probably the best book I read in years. also la nausee, jp sartre, if you loved the outsider you have to read this as well.

    the black swan/freakonomics/the long tail, which I consider all extremely related, altough being non-fiction, but pretty damn interesting, especially if you run a business yourself.

  3. My top “inspirational”, non-fiction book would be “Walden”. “The Snow Leopard” by Peter Matthiessen is also superb. As for fiction, give “Watership Down” or “The Wind in the Willows” a try if you have already not done so.

  4. i second the recommendation for “the power of one”–it’s what first came to my mind after reading your post (without seeing the comments!).

    i also loved a novel called “black swan green” by david mitchell. lovely in a simple way.

  5. I really enjoyed Sea Of Poppies for the way it takes you to a different time and location, while simultaneously relating some very dark parts of British imperial history which are conveniently forgotten about these days. (

    The Restraint of Beasts is a fine English black comedy, simultaneously macabre and hilarious. It’s a must read. (

    Finally, probably my favourite comic novel: A Confederacy of Dunces. Set in New Orleans in the 1960s, it’s the story of Ignatius J Reilly, the finest antihero in American literature. I recommend this to everyone.

  6. Oh dear. And I thought I read a lot! I’ve only read “The Outsider” of all suggested so far. They’re all going to my amazon’s wish list right away.

    Some recommendations off the top of my head:

    A Fine Balance, by Rohinton Mistry

    La familia de Pascual Duarte, by Camilo José Cela (you have to read it in Spanish)

    Catch-22, by Joseph Heller

    How To Be Good, by Nick Hornby

    The Flashman papers, by George MacDonald Fraser

    All very different. I could go on forever. Reading fiction is my biggest addiction 😉

  7. Thanks for all the recommendations so far! I’ve added most of them to my Amazon shopping basket – the question is, which do I actually order first! (I never order more than 2 or 3 at once as I get overwhelmed and never read them!

    Thinking I should have added Great Expectations or Nicholas Nickleby to the list above. Dickens scares everyone as his books are so long, but he has the richest characters on earth.

  8. Life of Pi by Yann Martel

    Quick summary below but a really great story that the synopsis doesn’t really capture.

    Life of Pi is a masterful and utterly original novel that is at once the story of a young castaway who faces immeasurable hardships on the high seas, and a meditation on religion, faith, art and life that is as witty as it is profound. Using the threads of all of our best stories, Yann Martel has woven a glorious spiritual adventure that makes us question what it means to be alive, and to believe.

  9. I love isabel Allende’s books. I read them in Spanish. I started on her trilogy for children and they are great. Bosque de los Pigmeos etc. The novel about her daughter Paula is heartbreaking and uplifting at the same time. I haven’t read anything by her that I disliked.

  10. Hey Ben, I suggest you go on Good Reads sometime it’s a great way to visually archive books you’ve read and set goals to read new books. If you go on … friend me … I’d love to see what you’ve read.

    Books I have read that I have thoroughly enjoyed include:

    Whisper of the River by Ferrol Sams — Coming of age story about a boy growing up in the Southern US. Written by a medical doctor in his 70s.

    A River Runs Through It – A masterpiece. Written by a retired English professor; his first novel. *wow*

    The Power of Myth by Joseph Campbell – This book really surprised me. About myths (how we’re losing them) and also about following one’s bliss. Nerdy, but I thought very cool.

    The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao – Although this book is essentially about a young Dominican nerd’s attempts to get nookie … it’s really good! Dominican belief in spirits / voodoo for good measure too which makes it interesting. Fast read.

    Two other really good books: Into the Wild; Kite Runner.

    I’m currently reading Life of Pi … featuring a 450 lb Bengal tiger named Richard Parker

    I can’t wait to read: The Russian Debutante’s Handbook; The Secret History

  11. Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

    Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson

    Brighton Rock by Graham Greene

  12. MY CHOICE, and recommendation for eight amazing pieces fiction, as you want. I’ll extrictly stick to the classics, so probably you all know most of them.


    1) THE GREAT GATSBY (by Francis Scott Fitzgerald) – The tragic summer of an idle bunch of aristrocats during the roaring 20’s as viewed by the exquisite taste of Scott-Fitzgerald.

    2) THE CATCHER IN THE RYE (by J.D. Salinger) – the ultimate antihero Holden Cauldfield portrays the definitive tale of teenage angst.

    3) FAHRENHEIT 451 (by Rad Bradbury) – anti-utopian dark futuristic novel written in the poetic style of the author.

    4) THE ROAD (by Cormac McCarthy) – another anti-utopian futuristic drama, this time post-apocaliptic, only with the telegraphic mark of the author. Moving story of the desire of survival and love of a father.
    A film adaptation is coming up with Viggo Mortensen as main character.


    1) EL TÚNEL (The Tunnel, by Ernesto Sábato) – love and lonelinnes in the modern world, very psychological.

    2) TRILOGÍA DE MADRID (by Francisco Umbral)

    3) CONVERSACION EN LA CATEDRAL (by Mario Vargas Llosa)

    4) EL AMOR EN LOS TIEMPOS DEL COLERA (by Gabriel García Márquez)

  13. The Sixteen Pleasures, by Robert Hellegna

    The story of a young book restorer who goes to Florence in 196 when the Arno overflowed and almost destroyed the city and its treasures. She gets involved in an intrigue involving an centuries old erotic book, has an affair with an art historian and learns a lot about herself and life. Not to be missed for anyone who’s left home for another country and has lived through the accompanying changes.

  14. The Illustrated Man by Ray Bradbury. Its about a tattooed man who the narrator meets by the roadside.The tattoos were done by somebody from the future and are animated and on looking at the tattoos each one has a story to tell they also predict the future of anyone who looks at them including the narrators.

  15. The Savage Detectives by Roberto Bolaño. A brilliant, sad, funny, manic novel about poetry, loss, idealism and Latin America, with lots of sex and drugs thrown in. I read it in translation; someday I will read it in Spanish. (I’m getting ready by reading a short novel by Bolaño, Una Novelita Lumpen, in the original.) I also recommend 2666, Bolaño’s last work, encompassing pretty much the history of the 20th century, but it’s a daunting place to start.

  16. A few more for the list;

    White Teeth, by Zadie Smith
    The God of Small Things, by Arundhati Roy
    The Girl Who Played Go, by Shan Sa
    anything by Miguel Delibes, El Camino, or Cinco horas con Mario for example
    El mundo, by Juan José Millás
    The No.1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series by Alexandre McCall Smith

  17. …and, how could I forget, of course…

    El ingenioso hidalgo Don Quijote de La Mancha, by Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra

  18. Lots of good suggestions so far. It’s hard to recommend because fiction encompasses so many genres. I’ll add some of my faves to the growing list.

    – Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy
    – Gun, With Occasional Music by Jonathan Lethem
    – Mason’s Retreat by Christopher Tilghman
    – Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon
    – Purple America by Rick Moody
    – The Eight by Katherine Neville
    – Go Down, Moses by William Faulkner
    – The Deadly Percheron by John Franklin Bardin

    I remember when The Modern Library came out with their list of the Top 100 Best Novels/Nonfiction.

  19. Having not read any of your recommendations but having loved Joyce’s Ulysses (sorry, I am pretentious, I know) I’ll offer some of my favourites anyway.

    I agree with Yann Martel’s LIFE OF PI, above.

    If you want to try Joyce, but not the ‘heavy’ stuff, then DUBLINERS is excellent. It’s short stories, something which I usually hate, but they’re so excellently written that even having read them as a teenager, I still remember large passages from many of the stories.

    Kazuo Ishiguro’s NEVER LET ME GO is a remarkable story, although probably written before its time. I liked it a lot anyway and remember it vividly, despite having read it a few years ago. It centres on three childhood friends.

    Lionel Shriver’s WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT KEVIN is horrifying, fantastic and very, very topical. It focuses on the fictional family of a teenage boy that shoots his classmates in an American highschool.

    Jeffrey Eugenides MIDDLESEX. The story of a hermaphrodite. The kind of book you wish you could unread once after you’ve read it, so you could have the please of reading it again.

    Jill Dawson’s WATCH ME DISAPPEAR.

    Patrick McGrath’s ASYLUM. Psychology, at it’s best.

    And anything by my favourite author John Irving.

    It’s funny how with book recommendations you never know what you’re going to recommend until you start.

    I’m going to add your recommendations and a few others to my Amazon order. It’s the second time today I’ve seen Julio Cortazar’s HOPSCOTCH recommended, so that’s a definite.

    I saw that ‘Books of the Noughties’ article and largely agree with its selection. I haven’t read 50% though, more like 30%.

  20. Some interesting recommendations. Ashamed to say I hadn’t even heard of Breakfast of Champions… but have just ordered it from the local library (so, no Amazon Associates stats I’m afraid). Recently finished reading Cormac McCarthy’s ‘The Road’, a brilliant distopian effort (which I see someone else here has mentioned); and currently working my way through ‘The Angel’s Game’, which is turning out to be less inspiring than Carlos Ruiz Zafon’s previous effort, ‘Shadow of the Wind’ (but pleasingly written nonetheless).

  21. Shameless of me I know but on my blog I have a reading list of books on/about Spain written by authors writing in English. I have a few more to go but I think I have them all covered. Not all are fiction but would recomend big time…

    South from Granada, Gerald Brenan

    Voices of the Old Sea, Norman Lewis
    A Tombe in Seville, Norman Lewis

    Laurie Lee’s, As I walked Out one Midsummer Morning and A Moment of War

    The Moors Last Sigh, Salman Rushdie

    Anything by Jason Webster is a good bet. He wrote the novel describing my experiences renovating a cortijo in the campo in From Sacred Mountain.

    And I suppose we must have Hemingway though I would rather read Washington Irving.

  22. To Andy: you’ve just made my day! I read this book perhaps 30 years ago and the stories stayed with me, but not, unfortunately, the title or the author. I recognised the book immediately from your description, and am off to Amazon to order it immediately! Finally!

    Oh, and what would I recommend that hasn’t been recommended already? Sort of quirky, “Housekeeping” by Marilynne Robinson (terrible summary which does not do the book justice: child grows up with hobo aunt); excellent read, “The poisonwood bible” by Barbara Kingsolver (ditto: misguided missionaries); anything about Jeeves, by Wodehouse, if you’re feeling braindead, anything by Kapuscinski (although it’s journalism, not fiction) if you’re not.

  23. Going back in time I think the best work of fiction I have read is “Grapes of Wrath” by John Steinbeck, so readable and engrossing and also relevant to today because it speaks of a time of economic despair and confusion and how ordinary people lived through it.

    Of modern authors I like two Douglases: Kennedy and Coupland. The Big Picture by D Kennedy is an unputdownable thriller. Coupland’s Girlfriend in a Coma is a brilliant read as well.

  24. @ Londoner at heart
    Thanks for reminding me of the brilliant Flashman books by George MacDonald Fraser. I must go and buy another one. It’s years since I last read one. They never failed to entertain me and I learned more than a bit of history as well.

  25. Wild Swans – Three Daughters of China
    A real eye opener to life in China through the communist years.

    Khaled Hosseini – Thousan Splendid Suns – which you can read in spanish as Mil Soles Esplendios

    The Wrong Boy – Willie Russell is by far my favourite and funniest book. I can read this over and over and it still makes me laugh. I love the way Willy Russell writes but am not sure if you have to be Northerner to really appreciate it. Let me know any southerners 😉

    Oh by the way Ben – thanks for the mention of The Tipping Point in the Gold podcast. I found it in the market on Sunday and am finding it really interesting.

  26. Thanks so much to Ben for bringing this up and to everybody for their suggestions (Ben’s included). My Amazon’s wish list is growing to rival the yellow pages! I need a pay rise.

    @ Ben, may I suggest a thread in the forum dedicated to literature & reading? Might be a good idea for your Spanish students too, we can recommend books for all levels and then share impressions.

  27. Hi Ben!

    1. Anything by Douglas Coupland (he wrote “Generation X”), but I would start with “The Gum Thief”. Some deep and useful thoughts on finding meaning and building relationships set in a Vancouver Staples (i.e. North American big chain) store.

    2. Stephen Fry, “The Liar”.

    3. Susannah Clarke, “Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell”. One of the most creative and compelling books I have ever read, and at 800+ pages it will keep you going for awhile. Magic, betrayal, revenge and shady and fantastical characters set in 19c England.

    4. Kate Atkinson, pretty much anything but I’ll suggest “Emotionally Weird”. Strange and mysterious happenings in northern Scotland, and unexpected appearances of a yellow dog. Good stuff.

    5. Rachel Cusk, “The Country Life”. A very funny and touching reflection on meaning of family, friendship and duty.

  28. Hi
    Just logged onto this site. If you are talking of books related to Spain, then I recommend Guernica (sorry if it has been mentioned before). Also are we talking books in Spanish? What about Cien Anos de Solidad?

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