40 novels

13 December 2018

As part of ISTA’s 40th birthday celebrations we are putting together lists of resources and things we love – and here you’ll find 40 novels loved by different people from the ISTA community. Enjoy!

The Secret History by Donna Tartt
I remember this book being talked about a lot when it first came out but it kind of passed me by until about a year after publication. Then I noticed friends discussing it and saying that it was a must read. So I did, found it utterly engaging and could not put it down. Great characters and an amazing story which I still think about to this day. I have since read her other books (there are not many) and even though I enjoyed them, they did not have the same impact on me as her utterly engrossing first novel. Ian Pike

First They Killed My Father by Loung Ung
This novel is simple yet beautifully written. It tells the story of a young girl and her family thrown into turmoil during the Khmer Rouge reign in Cambodia in the 1970s. I spend a lot of time in Cambodia and I felt every step of this little girl’s experience as I read it looking out over the rice fields, at the villages, the bustling cities and people who live there. It is difficult to imagine the horrifying experiences that Cambodians endured but Loung Ung’s story needs to be heard by everyone who visits Cambodia in an effort to ensure that history will eventually one day stop repeating itself and we learn from the mistakes of history. Keriann O’Rourke

Moby Dick by Herman Melville
This is such a funny question because different novels mark you at different points in your life. In my 20s Alice Walker’s In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens (often called ‘womanist prose’) basically ruled my world. There was so much about self-realisation that I garnered from it. Things literally ‘dawned’ on me when I read that book. For some reason, my mid-life ‘must read’ is Moby Dick. Are age and time the white whale? Do we all grow into being Captain Ahab? Mainly, I am now allowing myself to be enchanted by form and the elegance of structure in a novel. And this is a novel with an exquisite form. At a dinner party years ago someone said that the chapters in the book about harvesting whales could be lifted out of the novel and the narrative would still stand. Ha! I can’t imagine a novel more interdependent on itself. I couldn’t hold my tongue and the evening spiralled downward from there. Marjorie Duffield

Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin
I was given this book by a friend when I was 17 and since then I’ve read it at least a dozen times. I’ve even attempted a screen adaptation despite knowing that the Baldwin Estate won’t release the rights. It’s a touching, heart-breaking story of impossible love between two men: an Italian and an American who have escaped their respective homelands and are seeking freedom and anonymity in a decadent 1950s Paris. James Baldwin’s novel is a brilliant clash of cultures and a clash of notions about love. Shane Jones

A Suitable Boy by Vikram Seth
This is an epic novel set in India in the early 1950s. It tells the story of four families and their experience of that time. I started reading this book when I moved to Germany for a year, aged 20. It was my first experience of living abroad and I knew no one so this book became my friend and companion during my first weeks in a new place. It’s a very long book but I remember feeling utterly bereft when I had read the final page. The characters had become my world and I missed them. It also gave me an incredible insight into a completely different culture and I’m sure was partly responsible for a growing desire to explore the world, especially Asia, through literature, theatre and travel. Kate Friend

The Alexandria Quartet by Lawrence Durrell
I was truly mesmerised by this novel. This four-novel series is set in in sophisticated, cosmopolitan, multicultural Alexandria, Egypt, during World War II and shows the same events from different perspectives during a challenging time in a rapidly changing world. It’s a fascinating look at history, politics, love and belief from multiple viewpoints. Emily Ross

Ghostwritten by David Mitchell

David Mitchell’s first novel had a significant impact on me: the focus on engaging storytelling mixed with the formal experimentation – each story links to those that precede and follow it – meant that this was a particularly powerful read. The novel moves across the world and draws clear connections between societies, cultures and individuals, encouraging us to consider our relationships with those who are both similar and different from ourselves. Corin James

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou
I read this novel having had the privilege of watching Maya Angelou perform and speak at the university I attended. It inspired my final devised performance piece at university. This autobiographical story of courage, moral purpose, resilience and joyous survival throughout a childhood of oppression and challenge stirred my heart. What an inspiration Maya was. Her insights and wisdoms on human rights are compelling. Rebecca Bell

Consider Phlebas by Iain M. Banks
Having enjoyed Iain Banks’ non-science fiction novels since the age of 14, when I was in my early twenties Consider Phlebas opened the door to me into Banks’ other literary world of The Culture. I love the universes he created where minds exist independent of biological bodies, where race and gender are fluid and where politics and intrigue are rife. His work always challenged me, I read each of his novels as they were published and I was so sad when he died. Jen Tickle

The Owl who was Afraid of the Dark by Jill Tomlinson
This is a wonderful and happy story and it brings back lovely memories of my bedtime as a little boy. My mum used to read it to me every night. If you have a fear of the dark, then this book will truly help, and if not then it’s a lovely and informative book for young and old. It certainly helped me when I was little. Tom Scott

Trafficked by Sophie Hayes
This novel had a great impact on me when I read it four years ago as it was the first book I had read on human trafficking. Before reading Trafficked I had this preconceived idea that it happened to other people, people who were trying to escape from their previous backgrounds and maybe thinking that this was going to make their lives better. Whilst I do still believe that this is sometimes the case, Sophie’s story shows that this could happen to anyone. Having three children, it really did hit home to me. Sophie has completely inspired me. After escaping from her experience, she told her story and has since set up a charity to support other survivors, carry out research and create awareness of these dreadful crimes. Jo Parish

The Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger
This book has had a continuous influence on my life since first reading it when I was sixteen years old. The protagonist, Holden Caulfield, was/is my hero. He observed the ‘fake’ world around him, as I, myself, observed my world. His outgoing personality inspired me to declare my independence as I was a somewhat quiet and reserved teenager, to help find my way in a world I didn’t seem to belong. Holden gave me the OK to think outside the box, that I didn’t have to follow the rules all the time. These principles remain with me today. In re-reading the novel 50 years later I can still identify with Holden. He is a timeless and universal literary character. Romeo Bryant

The Amber Spyglass by Philip Pullman
I can still remember it now. Being tucked up in bed, in cold university halls, this book in hand, not wanting to read on because I knew what was coming, but not being able to stop. I wiped the tears away and kept going. I don’t think any book has had quite a big an impact as the culmination of His Dark Materials did for me. It’s a story about love, loss, faith and, ultimately, about never losing hope. And it’s brilliant. Tommy Tonkins

Titus Groan by Mervyn Peake
I read this novel for the first time just after I graduated from Glasgow University. It made a tremendous impact on me because I had never read anything quite like it before. I was drawn into the weird and wonderful life of Gormenghast, an ancient, vast castle brimming with fantastic characters, deep secrets, glory and despair. Of course, I had to read the other two parts of the trilogy immediately afterwards. Iain Stirling

Dragon Fire by Humphrey Hawksley
This novel had a great impact on me as it was so close to the reality I was living in New Delhi, India in 2000. It was quite unbelievable that the words I’d read on the page one week, would suddenly eventuate into reality soon after. It was the only time in my life the kids and I were evacuated from a country with the threat of a nuclear attack from Pakistan. Humphrey Hawksley was a BBC political and foreign correspondent whose knowledge of the geopolitical issues in the region was so insightful, he wrote a work of fiction about a 2007 war between China, India and Pakistan that nearly became fact but amazingly this all developed a few years after the novel had been published. Liane Campbell

Girl Meets Boy by Ali Smith
I adored this book with every part of me. It is a beautiful and complex exploration of life and love. It examines the depths of gender and sexuality, capitalism and globalisation all through the things that happen to two ordinary sisters that live in Inverness in Scotland. It is about the times when some things feel very complex and when some things feel very clear. Jess Thorpe

A Separate Peace by John Knowles
This novel had a great impact on me when I was in high school and haunts me still. It was the first time I had read a book with such insights into the intimacy, friendship and jealousies that could exist between two male friends. I remember feeling such pain and sadness when I finished it that I was dizzy. When I think about ‘that moment’ in the tree I become fifteen again and all the questions it raised in me then, I still ponder now. Anthony Cunningham

Monsignor Quixote by Graham Greene
I have read a lot of Graham Greene and I find all the novels that I have read of his to be quite extraordinary, beautifully crafted writing and such fantastic study of the human condition. This novel that tells the story of Father Quixote promoted to being a Monsignor by the Vatican, sets out to buy the purple socks and bib that signify his new stature. He takes with him his friend the ex-communist Mayor of El Toboso. They are heading to Milan and their journey in an old busted Fiat called Rocinante, is inspiring, moving and humorous. When my father died he left me his collection of Greene’s novels, my father always questioned his faith and I believe he was an agnostic, though in the complexities of the human condition there is always doubt. This book brought me closer to my father and helped me to understand his intellect, his passion for discussion, his clever reasoning and above all his love for humanity. It is the only novel of Graham Greene’s that at the end drew from me, sweet tears. Thank you, Mr Greene, and thanks, Dad. Chris Craig

100 Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
I first turned to this novel in my early 20s and I was immediately engulfed in this romantic Latin world of love, family and anger. The characters and their struggle often cross my mind as I encounter situations and rough patches in my relationships and I am reminded the list of themes in life are actually quite short and a good story can always help us relate and overcome. Adam Herzig

The Time Traveller’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger
This novel seamlessly blends quirks of science fiction into a gripping and heartbreaking drama about love and relationships that is simply superb. As a massive fan of the TV show Quantum Leap in the 80s, the concept of time-travel has always been alluring to me but this book takes a completely original approach that results in a mesmerising page-turner that is literally timeless. Mike Bindon

The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver
This was the first book I ever read that I read again straight after finishing it. It’s a beautifully written tale of a family who move to Africa to set up a missionary deep in the Congolese jungle. The stories of their lives, woven with the lives of the local people and both beautiful and terrible. The complicated and damaging dominance of the father ruling over his family and acting with scant regard for the needs of the local people, serves as a metaphor for colonial rule but it’s the detailed descriptions of the sounds, smells, colours and vividness of the location, that make it so memorable. It’s an astonishing book of care and carelessness which ultimately asks us to question what we need and how we walk through the world. Debra Kidd

Early Autumn by Robert B. Parker
This novel had a great impact on me as it outlines the experience of a father bonding with a son, an experience I have chosen to forego. This is essentially a detective story, a part of a series but Parker plays with genre like no other writer does. Pete Benson

The Girl’s Guide to Hunting and Fishing by Melissa Bank
This novel had a great impact on me as it was the first time I read a book where the female protagonist was allowed to be both funny and intelligent (unfortunately an all too rare occurrence). It’s a brilliant, touching book full of truthful and very funny observations on love, life, work and losing a parent. Emmy Abrahamson

To the Wedding by John Berger
A heartbreaking as well as uplifting read that celebrates the capacity of the human spirit to face, fight and soar above the challenges and tragedies of life. The story of a separated mother and a father each travelling alone across Europe to their daughter’s wedding, the story of the wedding itself, European politics and the search for life’s meaning. Dramatised into a radio play by Complicité. Read it in 1995 when it came out, recommended it to everyone and it ended up on the Diploma English programme at the school. Contains so much of what we at ISTA value and celebrate. Read it and dance. Dinos Aristidou

The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy
My husband encouraged me to read this as it is one of his favourite books. It is now one of mine. Roy manages to evoke such a wonderful and intense world, full of long humid hot days, vivid colours and smells, and a sense of dread that is absolutely enthralling. Helen Abbott

Where Eagles Dare by Alistair MacLean
I have to read this book every year. I just find it so exciting and nerve wracking right up to the last page. The story of a small team of British soldiers and one American ranger dropped into deepest Bavaria during World War II to rescue an actor impersonating an American general races at full speed towards the climax. The female character is not a helpless dimwit but charms her way through security and then gets stuck in with a machine gun when needed. The film varies slightly from the novel (MacLean also wrote the screenplay) but again, it’s utterly compelling, and when you have seen it 20 times, you find yourself chanting along with the dialogue. The film is helped by the musical soundtrack that is second to none – a tour de force Rondo by Ron Goodwin. I have multiple copies of the book, some so dirty and dog eared they would be rejected by the charity shops but I just can’t bring myself to throw them out. Annie McManners

Mount Analogue by René Daumal
While Mount Analogue offers a very compelling story in and of itself, it is also a novel that made me really consider the story of my own life. It had a strong way of sticking with me even when I wasn’t reading it, begging me not to forget myself as I write my own journey through life. Dylan George

A Girl of the Limberlost by Gene Stratton Porter
This book was gifted to me by my grandmother as it was her favourite childhood book which soon also became mine. The book taught me that a girl who is singularly determined to make her way in the world can do so regardless of being perceived as slightly odd. It beautifully embodies the gentility of growing up in the symbiotic embrace of nature. Chloe Keller

Slipper under Glass by Lee Wyndham
I read this book about dance and ballet when I was about 11 or 12. I loved it because it featured a girl that had a desire to dance but realises that classical dance may not be where she will end up as she discovers her talent for comic dance. Years later when I began to perform clown and physical comedy, I chuckled at how this book was a major foreshadowing. Knowing how much this book meant to me, my husband tracked down the book and presented it to me on my birthday several years ago. Julie Pasqual

Oleander, Jacaranda by Penelope Lively
Penelope Lively is such an evocative writer. In this book you can smell the heat, the dust and sweet jacaranda trees of Cairo. You can almost touch the cities burnt orange sky. Reading this memoir brought back so many memories of my time living and going to international school there (BISC). It was the first book I read where I could really relate to the experiences of the author. Both as a child and adult. A beautiful read. Anna Andresen

Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert
This book gave me permission to start asking questions of myself. To start not taking myself too seriously. Allow me to embrace my faults and to see my value. This book changed my life and offered me and opportunity to understand that so many others don’t know the answer and that it’s OK. Joshua Hatt

Restless by William Boyd
A great espionage thriller that intertwines the mother and daughter story of Eva, a Russian emigre and British spy during World War II and her feminist daughter Ruth, a single mother who teaches English as a foreign language in Oxford. Both women have love affairs that mark them but never defines them. They have that mix of vulnerability, passion, pragmatism and strength – I just loved getting to know them both. I would particularly recommend the audiobook read by Rosamund Pike. Moira Arthurs

The Power by Naomi Alderman
This book explores a society in which women realise their ability to release electrical jolts from their fingers, ultimately women become the predominant gender. In turning the patriarchy on its head, the book positions the reader to think critically about the imbalance of power evident in today’s world. It is both an exciting, stimulating and deeply thought-provoking read. Odette MacKenzie

The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera
This novel of lies and betrayal first made me aware of the complex intersection of sexual abuse and political oppression (the salt and sand pillars of our current world order). It also kindled within me an obsession with Central Europe for which I am grateful: I found my life partner, my daughters and a second home in Budapest (a city only slightly superior to Prague). Kevin Burns

Why We Never Danced the Charleston by Harlan Greene
‘Old stories never end; they just come down the generations to resolve themselves among the living.’ Set in Charleston, South Carolina in the 1920s this novel explores sexual repression in the old South. It’s a sad, yet beautiful story about self-acceptance and loving the culture you are living in but understanding that it can oftentimes hinder who we really are. Alan Hayes

Everything is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer
This book is the story of a young American man’s journey to Ukraine to solve the mystery of his recently deceased grandfather’s past. It’s a story about family secrets, immigration, loss of identity and homeland, and, ultimately, survival. This novel had a profound impact on me as when I was reading it I was also researching my maternal grandmother’s history which mirrored the novel’s narrative. Elizabeth Hunt-Lucarini

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams
I first read this whilst still at school. I remember laughing out loud in public – something I rarely do with a book – at the sheer inventiveness of Adams. It’s a very British book and combines that delightful mix of intelligence and awkwardness that sums up being a Brit in the larger scale of things. It taught me that the universe is a wonderfully weird place that’s generally closed on Tuesdays. Ian Johnston

Schindler’s Ark by Thomas Keneally.
This novel had a huge impact on me because it gave me an important insight into the plight of European Jews during World War II and how everybody can change and make a difference. The protagonist’s transition from a hedonistic businessman only out to make profit to a humble hero is both moving and inspirational. The novel was later made into a hugely successful film Schindler’s List by Steven Spielberg. George Fearnehough

A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole
This book wasn’t published until eleven years after Tool’s suicide. Thanks to his mama, she took his manuscript and did everything she could to get someone in publishing to read it. Toole was awarded the prestigious Pulitzer Prize posthumous. The book’s title refers a quote in a Jonathan Swift essay: ‘When a true genius appears in the world, you may know him by this sign, that the dunces are all in confederacy against him.’ The main character Ignatius J. Reilly is a highly educated, obese Mama’s boy still living at home. His adventures into employment and love drive the story. Set in New Orleans, we are introduced to dynamic characters that make up the famous French Quarter. Sherri Sutton

Between the Assassinations by Aravind Adiga
This is a novel which had great impact on me. It conjures up the sensations, smells and sounds and bitter sweetness of India with playful sensitivity. Each of the 13 interconnected tales is woven with finesse, each character caught in his own personal tragedy yet told with charming humour and lightness. Born in India and educated abroad, Adiga has an ability to write with the observations of someone who has great love for his country yet presents through his stories its difficult social intricacies and injustices. It’s a fascinating read. Emily Jane Grant