Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackeray

Supposedly a 'novel without a hero' for me it contains the finest heroine in English literature - Becky Sharpe. She's not one of those insipid and timid women found so often in Victorian fiction. Becky pulsates with character and energy and is only ever as devious as she needs to be.

The Whitsun Weddings by Philip Larkin

I was a huge Larkin fan before I became an MP for his adopted city. The title poem is a vivid and cinematic description of the 'travelling coincidence' of a train journey from Hull to Kings Cross on a hot Saturday afternoon in the late fifties. It sets the standard for an outstanding collection of poetry.

Immaculate Mistake by Paul Bailey

I've not read many memoirs but Paul Bailey's beautiful written account of growing up in London in the 1940s and 50s can't be bettered. His mother thought she was beyond childbearing when Paul arrived (hence the title, which is how she referred to him). This short book left a long and lasting impression.

Bleak House by Charles Dickens

All five choices could have been Dickens novels but I've confined myself to this one because it is so extraordinary. Destitute women, spontaneous combustion and Inspector Bucket all packed into a single plot between one set of book covers.

Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout

I read this set of inter-related short stories earlier this year and haven't stopped raving about it since. The brush strokes that Strout uses to paint the central (but often peripheral) character are delicate and deft. Olive is flawed, like Becky Sharpe, like you and me - listen closely, you can hear her heart beating. An amazing book.

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