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As the annual flood of published novels grows ever greater, it’s a hard a job to keep up, let alone sort the wheat from the chaff. Fortunately, literary sleuth and academic John Sutherland is on hand to do precisely that. In the course of over 500 wittily informative pieces he gives us his own very personal take on the most rewarding, most remarkable and, on occasion, most shamelessly enjoyable works of fiction ever written – the perfect reading list for the would-be literary expert.

His taste is impressively eclectic. An appreciation of Apuleius’s The Golden Ass – arguably the first-ever novel – is followed by a consideration of Ian Fleming’s Goldfinger. The Handmaid’s Tale is followed by Hangover Square, Jane Eyre by Jaws. There are imposing Victorian novels, entertaining contemporary thrillers and everything in between, from dystopian works to romance.

The flavour of each is brilliantly evoked and its relative merits or demerits assessed. At the same time, John Sutherland shows how the work fits into a broader context – whether that of the author’s life or of other books from the same genre or period. And he offers endless snippets of intriguing information: did you know, for example, that the Nazis banned Bambi or that William Faulkner wrote As I Lay Dying on an upturned wheelbarrow; that Voltaire completed Candide in three days, or that Anna Sewell was paid £20 for Black Beauty?

Encyclopedic and entertaining by turns, this is a wonderful dip-in book, whose opinions will inform and on occasion, no doubt, infuriate. It is also effectively a history of the novel in 500 or so bite-sized pieces.

"Do we still know how to read a novel?" John Sutherland, Chairman of the 2005 Booker Prize Committee, asks. His disheartened answer is an unequivocal, "No." But Sutherland has not given up hope. With acerbic wit and intellect, he traces the history of what it used to mean to be well-read and tells readers what it still means today. Using this delightful book as a means to an end, he reminds readers how the delicate charms of fiction can be at once wonderful and inspired and infuriating.
On one level this is a book about novels: how they work, what they're about, what makes them good or bad, and how to talk about them. At a deeper level, this is a book in which one of the most intimate tête-à-têtes is described—one in which a reader meets a novel. Will a great love affair begin? Will the rendezvous end in disappointment? Who can say? In order for the relationship to take its appropriate course all the details must be clearly acknowledged and understood for their complexities: plot, point of view, character, style, pace, first and last sentences, and even beauty.
Still, Sutherland knows a true understanding of fiction is more than a flirtation with text and style—it is a business. Taking his readers on a trip to the bookshop, he helps them judge a book by its cover based on design and color, wondering aloud what genre might be best, even going so far as to analyze one of the latest American bestsellers to further help the buying reader choose the novel that is right for him or her.
In a book that is as wry and humorous as it is learned and opinionated, John Sutherland tells you everything you always wanted to know about how to read fiction better than you do now (but, were afraid to ask).
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