My top twenty reads


It’s always interesting where conversations on twitter can lead to.  The other day the Guardian’s top 100 reads, which it turned out was from, was tweeted which then prompted a discussion about how many some of us had read, what a strange selection they were and what we would have included.  Needless to say this led to deciding to post our top twenty reads.  There are no rules, they can be anything: fiction, non-fiction, poetry, whatever – so here  are mine.

Thing Fall Apart – Chinua Achebe – this is my favourite book.  I discovered it while studying post-colonial literature with the Open University.  Essentially it records the culture of the Igbo tribe in Africa and the destructive impact of the arrival of the arrogant colonials.  This book should make us all question the culture of the power of western colonialism we were taught at school.

The Founding Gardeners – Andrea Wulf – a recent discovery which recounts the story of the first four US presidents through their passions for horticulture.  It is an enjoyable read presenting the story through various vignettes.  Completely fascinating.

The Daughter of TimeJosephine Tey – a book I discovered via Radio 4 Book of the Week a while ago.  The person advocating the book argued that it taught you to challenge things that you had been taught.  The story is about whether Richard III was indeed the evil king Shakespeare portrayed him to be and did he arrange for the princes in the tower to be killed.  Published in 1951 it predates all the recent books arguing this theory.

Mrs Dalloway – Virginia Wolf – another book discovered when studying for my degree.  I found it delightful, intellectual, intriguing and discovering Wolf’s ‘stream of consciousness’ style was liberating for me and I feel flavours my writing now.

A Fine Balance – Rohinton Mistry – this book was discovered through another programme where celebrities identifies books that were important to them.  It is set in 1970s India and portrays a period of political turmoil in this country’s history through one ordinary person.  It is a book that makes you think, it challenges the Western preconceptions of India and its people and it is a wonderful read

A Handful of Dust – Evelyn Waugh – I do like this author and this is my favourite of his books.  I am fascinated by this period of history, 1920s, and the book conveys that period of time between the wars when rules were being broken and society could be said to be disintegrating.  It is also incredibly sad.

The Island – Athol Fugard – a play again discovered when I was studying Post-colonial literature and another one to make you think.  The play has two characters who are in prison in a South African prison which is obviously based on Robben Island.  The cellmates spend their days in futile physical labour and their nights practising for a performance of Sophocles’ Antigone

Hatters Castle – A J Cronin – I read this book as a teenager and it was the first book to have a real impact on me and has stayed, almost haunting me, for the rest of my life.  It essentially is about a father, Hatter, and his three children. I wouldn’t want to give the plot away but it is a heartbreaking book which shows what can happening when parents pressurised their children too much.  It has been at the back of my mind while I have been bringing my sons up.

The Awakening – Kate Chopin – Another book from my degree course.  The OU had a thing about feminism when I studied with them and how women were portrayed and how they started to portray themselves.  Published in 1899 The Awakening explores how the main character questions motherhood and the limits of marriage. Edna rejects her domestic role in a search for her “spiritual, sexual and artistic freedom”, it shocked readers at the time and is beautifully written. Like others I encountered on the course this book gave me permission to follow an independent lifestyle.

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time – Mark Haddon  – I enjoyed this book which threw away the rule book and displayed for all of us to see, in a very sympathetic and non-patronising way, the working of the mind of a teenager which Asperger’s Syndrome.  Like Mrs Dalloway the writing style broke rules and challenged which I loved.

Garden Open Today – Beverley Nichols – I have included this as I enjoy Nichols’ writing.  It is of its time and so non-PC now that it makes me laugh out loud.  It is about gardening but it is the portrayal of Nichols friends, acquaintances and neighbours that I really enjoy.

The Life of PiYann Martel – a book that confuses and produces mixed responses from readers.  I have refused to see the film as I don’t want my interpretation of the meaning behind some parts of the book challenged.  This is a book that makes you think and re-think and you end it not 100% sure you got it in the first place.

Jamrach’s Menagerie – Carol Birch – shortlisted for the Orange Prize a few years back this book surprised me.  It is an adventure story set in London in 19th century and on the high seas. There are some grim bits but it is essentially about “faith, love and friendship at their utmost limits”. It is a very atmospheric book.


Sunset Song – Lewis Grassic Gibbon – another degree text set before and during the First World War in Scotland this book follows the story of a young woman and the harshness of farming life.  Grassic Gibbon is a writer that is often included on the Scottish school curriculum and evokes a difficult time and endurance.

The Cherry Orchard – Anton Chekhov – another play, this time a comedy although I think the humour is a little dark.  It is set at a time when the Russian elite were having to accept giving up their land to the serfs.  The Cherry Orchard of the title is part of the land the family is going to lose and symbolises their loss. I found the exploration of people coming to terms with such drastic changes fascinating.

The Warden – Anthony Trollope – Trollope’s novels were the first ‘classics’ I read and The Warden is the first of the Chronicles of Barchester.  Again I love the character portrayal and the interplay between the characters.  These days I have some involvement with the local Cathedral and have to try hard not to superimpose Trollope’s characters on to the people I encounter.

The Dolls House – Henrik Ibsen – a play encountered at the same time as The Awakening and again this play explores the role of the women in the home, it is considered the first feminist play and caused a stir at the time.  I admired the main character Nora when I read the play.

The Man from Snowy River – Elyne Mitchell – this book always takes me back to my late teens when I spent time in Australia on a number of occasions and it reminds me of time I spent on the edge of the bush.  It is romantic and full of adventure and brings alive the ballad of Banjo Patterson whose work I have enjoyed. This is one of only a few books that has gone through life with me since my teens.

Wild Swans – Jung Chang – a fantastic book following the lives of three generations of chinese women throughout the late 19th century and 20th century.  Through the characters you follow the history of China and its self-destruction of its culture.  It evokes a broad range of emotions but leaves you uplifted at the power of human self-preservation.

The Women in White – Wilkie Collins – my favourite genre of books is murder mysteries and detective fiction.  I like many authors but choose The Women in White partly as it was the first of the genre and because it is such a clever thriller.

There is no logic to the order I have listed my twenty  top reads it’s really how they came off the shelf when I decided to write this post.  I haven’t thought about it long and hard just picked the books I would recommend to someone looking for something to read.  Interestingly many are from the seven years I spent studying for my degree with the Open University and I have to admit that my mind was really opened to a range of literature that I don’t think I would otherwise  encounter many of which challenges and changed my views and perceptions of many things but particularly colonialism and some that empowered me to be independent and more self-confident.

I am now going to go and re-read some of those I haven’t opened for a number of years.




Author: Helen Johnstone

I live in Malvern, Worcestershire and am a very keen gardener. I started the Patient Gardener Blog in January 2008 as a way of recording what was happening in my garden and connecting with other like-minded people. I started a second blog PatientGardener 365 January 2013 in order to try and post a photo a day to capture what is growing in my garden or places I have visited

17 thoughts on “My top twenty reads”

  1. Nice list of books Helen – umm, I will have to think about my top 20, how difficult. I really enjoyed The curious incident of the dog in the night time, I may have to go and find that and re-read it right now!

  2. I have linked to your blog from my post.

    I also read A Fine Balance after watching that Anne Robinson programme. I loved it too and it only just missed out on being on my list. 🙂
    I read quite a lot of the ones recommended on that programme, they should bring it back!

  3. What a great idea for a post. Now i’m thinking I should try doing the same. I’m afraid I have only read one of the books on your list – Things Fall Apart. I thought it was a brilliant book, and a really heartbreaking depiction of the collapse of a way of life, a whole world really. I’ve heard of a few of the others, but most of the authors are new to me, which is good because I’m always looking for worthwhile fiction.

  4. An interesting list – I have only read two of them (so far) Eight years ago I read ‘The Book Thief’ and read it in two days! A big book I just couldn’t put down (and I am not a fast reader) and last year I read ‘The Rosie Project’ – I giggled all the way through and laughed out loud. I got really annoyed I couldn’t share the laughs with my husband as we used to giggle and say ‘what’s that’ and share the passage. He died a year ago so that’s one of the things I miss. My dog didn’t quite understand what I was laughing at! I belong to two Book Clubs and we have an eclectic box of books! Great fun and lot’s of laughs with wine etc. My other Book Club is a morning one with a chosen subject or author and much more sober.

  5. Great list, several of them are on my best books list too. After reading this post yesterday evening I was awake half the night thinking of my top twenty. It is hard to leave favourites out and narrow the choice down to 20.

    1. Hi Chloris
      I struggled so I just went to the bookshelves and picked up the books that immediately spoke to me! I expect if I did it in a weeks time some of them would change and I didnt look at gardening ones

  6. Enjoyed reading your list Helen and will return later with pen and paper too hand. Have read a handful of your choices but a couple of them ie ‘The Woman in White’ and ‘ A Handful of Dust’ so long ago that maybe it’s time to revisit as memories are somewhat hazy to say the least. Have gone about ‘The Life of Pi’ the wrong way – seen the film but book still unread on my Kindle!

  7. I love the wicked fun of Beverley Nichols. Have read about half of these and liked, but the ending of the Awakening infuriated me. These days, I read more for relaxation than edification. Guess I have enough retrospection w/out inviting more.

    1. Hi Marian
      I totally agree I prefer to read for relaxation most of the time. Just finished the Rosie Project which Yvonne mentions in her comment and it is a wonderful read with some real laugh out loud moments

  8. I love book reviews, Helen, so really appreciate your posting! I have already ordered two of your books — The Founding Fathers and The Woman in White. I found the latter free for Kindle on Amazon. I’m considering writing a similar post. P. x

  9. I love posts like this Helen, it makes me realise there are a lot,of i tersting books yet to be read. If i did a list it would be fairly light weight reads in comparison, but you are at an advantage reading some of the books for your university course. I did Adult A level English avout 15 years ago but we covered plays mostly and it certainly was not as in depth as a degree course. If i can find 20 books would you mind if i did a similar post?

    1. Hi Ronnie
      Of course you can there are a few people doing it, we aren’t really linking up but if you look at Vegplotting or The Piano Learner you should find them

  10. Hmm – really intriguing to read your list, Helen, and it shows how much we can be influenced by what we are required to read, although I would definitely not be adding Tess of the D’Urbevilles (A level text) to my list. I could willingly have wrung her and Angel’s necks! I have a penchant for 19thC literature and am sometimes reluctant to read anything ‘new’, unless it is particularly recommended. Your list has, however, made me determined to pick up The Warden again – I read all the other Chronicles years ago but not this one and recently brought a copy back from my Mum’s – and there are a few of the unread others I am tempted to tackle. Thanks 🙂

    1. Hi Cathy
      I have a deep aversion to Dickens and Jane Eyre due to my studies! Did Jane Eyre for A level and degree, happily never open again

  11. Love your list and you’ve included some of my favourites. Really loved ‘Woman in White’ and had forgotten about ‘Things Fall Apart’ which is an excellent book. Am too late to contribute my list of
    20 to the link but planning a post about it anyway.

  12. I have no overlap with your choices, but several made my long list Helen – AJ Cronin (several books), White Swans and The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time.

    Our combined list is looking very healthy indeed. I’m looking forward to reading your recommendations.

    I wonder how different our lists would be if we did the same again next year?

Please feel free to leave comments as its always lovely to get feedback. I try to respond to comments as much as possible but sometimes life and work get in the way but I will do my best to respond especially if your comment is a question.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.