fiction i like
On this page I won't say much, just list some of the books that inspire me, and give a quotation from each one. I've tried hard to choose extracts that give a flavour of each book without, I hope, revealing the plots.

Death and the Penguin, Andrey Kurkov (translated by George Bird)

'Seeing his master squatting motionless, lost in thought, Misha came and nuzzled his neck with his beak, a chilly show of tenderness that broke Viktor's train of thought and roused him from his reverie. He stroked the penguin, sighed, straightened up and went over to the window. The block opposite presented a crossword pattern of lighted windows. It was a crossword with many spaces. They were testimonies to the sheer ordinariness of life, those windows. There was a sadness about it, but a sadness softened, allayed, by darkness. and by degrees, a strange, slightly unnatural calm, like the lull before a storm, possessed him. Palms resting on the cold windowsill, legs against the hot radiator, he stood, aware how temporary it was, that calm, and waiting for it to pass.'

The Kite Flyer, Khaled Hosseini

'Then I realised something: That last thought had brought no sting with it. Closing Sohrab's door, I wondered if this was how forgiveness budded, not with the fanfare of epiphany, but with pain gather up its things, packing up, and slipping away unannounced in the middle of the night.'

The Life of Pi, Yann Martel

(Apart from being a beautiful, strange, story, I love the way that the author plays with the borderland between fact and fiction. This only becomes fully apparent towards the end of the book, but even in the author's note prefacing (or supplementing?) the main body of the book, games appear to being played with story and reality. Derrida would love this, I think)

'And this Son appears only once, long ago, far away? Among an obscure tribe in a backwater of West Asia on the confines of a long vanished empire? Is done away with before He has a single grey hair on his head? Leaves not a single descendant, only scattered, partial, testimony, His complete works doodles in the dirt. Wait a minute. This is more than Brahman with a serious case of stage fright. This is Brahman selfish. This is Brahman ungenerous and unfair. This is Brahman practically unmanifest. If Brahman is to have only one son, He must be as abundant as Krishna with the milkmaids, no? What could justify such divine stinginess?
Love, repeated Father Martin'

The Lord of the Rings, JRR Tolkien

(I love this quotation for its perfect rhythm and pace, and for the atmosphere that cadence and words combine to evoke. Even if you didn't know the story (!) how could you not be stirred by it?)

'"Fruitless did I call the victory of the Last Alliance? Not wholly so, yet it did not achieve its end. Sauron was diminished, but not destroyed. His ring was lost but not unmade. The Dark Tower was broken, but its foundations were not removed; for they were made with the power of the ring, and while it remains they will endure."'

Miss Smilla's Feeling for Snow, Peter Hoeg (translated by F David)

'Unfortunately, I'm not that confident myself. I've been given a great deal, and I've wanted a lot. And I've ended up not really knowing anything and not really knowing what I want. I've acquired the basics of an education. I've travelled. Occasionally I've felt that I've done what I wanted to do. And yet I've been directed. Some invisible hand has had me by the scruff of the neck, and every time I thought that now I was taking an important step up towards the light, it has pushed me further along a network of sewer pipes running beneath a landscape that I do not know and cannot tell what it looks like. As if it had been determined that I would have to swallow a specific amount of sewage before I would be allowed a breathing hole.'

A Prayer for Owen Meany, John Irving

'"Your friend is most original," Dan Needham said, with the greatest respect. "Don't you see, Johnny? If he could, he would cut off his hands for you - that's how it makes him feel, to have touched that baseball bat, to have swung that bat with those results. It's how we all feel - you and me and Owen. We've lost a part of ourselves." And Dan picked up the wrecked armadillo and began to experiment with it on my night table, trying - as I had tried - to find a position that allowed the beast to stand, or even to lie down, with any semblance of comfort or dignity; it was quite impossible. The thing had been crippled; it was rendered an invalid. And how had Owen arranged the claws? I wondered. What sort of terrible altarpiece had he constructed? Were the claws gripping the murderous baseball?'

Voyage to Venus (aka Perelandra), CS Lewis

'...till suddenly as the movement grew yet swifter, the interweaving yet more ecstatic, the relevance of all to all yet more intense, as dimension was added to dimension and that part of him which could reason and remember was dropped farther and farther behind that part of him which saw, even then, at the very zenith of complexity, complexity was eaten up and faded, as a thin white cloud fades into the hard burning of the sky, and a simplicity beyond all comprehension, ancient and young as spring, illimitable, pellucid, drew him with cords of infinite desire into its own stillness. He went up into such a quietness, a privacy, and a freshness that at the very moment when he stood farthest from our ordinary mode of being he had the sense of stripping off encumbrances and awakening from trance, and coming to himself. With a gesture of relaxation he looked about him...'

The Charioteer, Mary Renault (first published 1959, New York)

(It always surprises me that Mary Renault is not more widely known, or more highly regarded. She has the ability to transport the reader to worlds very different to one’s own, with such vividness one almost feels one can smell them. These are not just worlds separated from ours by time, place, and culture, but also those strange lands that are the thought-worlds of other human beings (even our closest friends are foreign countries); and suddenly, in the middle of the strange, we find ourselves.

The Charioteer explores same sex love in second world war England: the protagonist is a soldier, wounded at Dunkirk, and convalescing in a rural army hospital. Renault unfolds the story with extraordinary delicacy, and also opens a much needed window on what being gay was like in a pre-Wolfenden UK 70 years ago (and how in some ways it was just the same as it is now).)


‘It must be a cold night, thought Laurie; not because Ralph looked cold, but because he had clearly been going fast to keep warm, and now, coming in again, he had the bright unfocused eyes and the slight strangeness that people have who suddenly emerge from darkness wide awake. He had turned up the collar of his jacket and forgotten to turn it down again; his eyes were extraordinarily blue. He looked sharp edged rather than blurred, and with a frosty sparkle, a flash of the night about him; he stood in the doorway a little out of breath, narrowing his blue eyes against the soft light as if it were dazzling, and looking at the room as a man might who after a long absence expects to find changes here and there. He was at all times compact and neat, but now there was more than this, a kind of diamond concentration, so that his unconscious pause on the threshold was brilliantly arresting, like a skillfully produced entrance in a play.

It was a striking reversal, for Laurie, of the mood it had interrupted. If he had remembered his pity, it would have embarrassed him; but he had at once forgotten. First he was simply glad to see Ralph back; and then, as he looked again, there was a sharp stirring of some old, romantic memory; perhaps of some book illustration he had known as a young boy, of which his very first glimpse of Ralph at school had reminded him before he had even known his name. So strong was this sense of the past that his own feeling, caught up in it, seemed like a memory. He stood looking at Ralph in startled admiration, moved by a dream of mystery and of command, and at the back of his mind was a thought that he wanted the moment not to end and that it was ending. Even as he formed it, Ralph came forward from the doorway into the room.’