I’ve been meaning to create this list for a while now, so without further ado, let’s get stuck into it. Since I self-identify so much as a bookworm, then you can definitely decipher what kind of reader I am from this list. Note, these are not listed in any particular order, but Kafka on the Shore remains the most life-altering book I’ve ever read.
Casino Royale (1953) – Ian Fleming
The book that started it all ….
Reading Casino Royale gave me an introduction to the world of Bond, the movies could never give me. It was in this book, I truly fell for the world of Bond and how Ian Fleming perceived it. This was a gritty, dark and oddly philosophical look into the world of espionage as I have ever read and it wasn’t difficult to see why these book turned into the beloved film series they are now.
It was Casino Royale though, that cemented my belief that the film version in 2006 was my favourite Bond movie, because of the way how they adapted the story and the faithfulness the film stuck to the tone of the book. Reading Casino gives you a taste of the high life that Bond enjoys, the cold attraction he has for women, the paranoid cynicism in which he views the world and how he is struggling to navigate the dark world of the Cold War. It is an incredible snapshot into how men like Fleming viewed the world back then, and how people thought.
Yes, it is controversial by today’s standards, but it has remained a valuable insight to me, on how far we have come since the release of the book. I love reading Casino, because it is a wonderfully paced story, short, concise and well-written. Every character is wonderfully alive, and I love the character arc of Bond at the end of the book.
Casino Royale effectively tells its story and ends of a bittersweet note. It doesn’t overstay its welcome, nor does it veer too much into the fantastical like the other Bond stories. But most importantly, it created and established a winning formula …. sex, danger and a touch of philosophy that makes the Bond series so great.
Fleming’s style is wonderfully descriptive and concise. He truly has the ability to truly transport you into the early Cold War era and show you just how espionage, philosophy and elitism all clashed together to create something truly memorable.
Kafka on the Shore (2002) – Haruki Murakami
The most important book in my life.
I was first recommended Kafka on the Shore by my oldest and closest friend. He described it as something surreal and dream-like.
The first time I tried to read this book, I couldn’t. I didn’t know what to make of it. I couldn’t get into the style, because it was so unique and haunting. Every sentence had this echo like effect, where it seemed like you had to read it again, to fully grasp what was going on.
But what truly gripped me, being the lonely, quiet guy, I was when I first read it, was the casual depiction of sex in the book. There was something matter of fact about how sex was treated and in the strangest of contexts. It should have been vaguely taboo, but in Murakami’s world, there is an earnestness to sex that is unlike anything I’ve ever read in any other book. Sex is something beautiful, primal and necessary. It isn’t something extraordinary, sacred or forbidden, it just is.
And that was exactly the key I needed to truly enjoy the book. In Kafka on the Shore, resistance to the novel means that you will never enjoy it. You just have to accept the story as it is. It will give you passages about fish falling from the sky, haunted Japanese WWII soldiers in a forest, a librarian who does not have a gender … all of these things are just woven beautifully into the dream-like experience that is Kafka on the Shore. And just like a dream, it is futile to question why things happen, except that they do, and you simply are along for the ride.
Kafka on the Shore reads, behaves and acts like a dream that you cannot control, nor wish to end. There is a tranquility and nostalgia to Murakami’s style of writing that is addictive and compelling. To read Kafka is to be in the mood to be completely and utterly transported into another realm of his creation. So many passages didn’t link together for me in my mind, but the experience of reading page after page was too good to stop and truly ponder what it mean in relation to the previous chapter. This meant that the book became this experience that was looked at as a whole, instead of favourite chapters that I liked.
Allowing words to come and go in my consciousness was such an incredible experience, that it redefined how I could read books forever. Kafka on the Shore changed my life, because it changed how I could read a book. That is how revolutionary it was for me at the time and still is. Even now, re-reading scenes from the book, I am struck by how much of the book stuck with me, how I can recall how I felt reading certain passages and sentences, and how oddly timeless the story is, because like most dreams you do remember, they retain their vividness in your recall.
To read Murakami is to experience dreams woven onto paper. The book is so important to me, that it would be the only thing I rescue, if my room went up in flames.
Ratcatcher (2006) – James McGee
A crime thriller set during the Napoleonic Era.
Reading Ratcatcher proved to me that an author needs to be a meticulous researcher to create atmosphere and believability. James McGee’s talent lies not only in his ability to create a fun murder mystery/conspiracy but also the way how he weaves his research into the atmosphere of the story.
There is an almost tangible way how McGee recreates Napoleonic era England that makes it such arresting historical fiction. By combining his historical research with a much more modern fast paced narrative, Ratcatcher stands out from similar series like the Richard Sharpe series made famous by Bernard Cornwell. This is a modern style story set in the 19th century and for that reason, I enjoy reading it more.
In many ways, Ratcatcher is responsible for my love of that era. I became obsessed with that period of history, from the technology, the clothes, the slang and even the events that happened. It was such a fascinating period of history, where the rights of men were truly being defined for centuries moving forward and warfare also featured my favourite mixture of weapons, swords and guns, being used in conjunction. The idea of a Rennaissance Man was truly encouraged in the Officer class of the military, on both sides of the conflict.
After all, to become an Officer, meant that men had to be skilled with blades and flintlocks, able to ride horses, command men, hold themselves to a higher degree of courage, honour and ability than the common enlisted man. They lead the way from the front, charging head-first into rifle fire, and were expected to duel another man to the death for honour.
Ratcatcher opened my eyes to an era of history that is only rivalled by my love for all things Roman. Tall ships-of-the-line dominated the horizon as far as the eye could see, cannon fire ruptured the eardrums of all those unfortunate to be close enough to witness the carnage of 19th century warfare, horses still roamed the streets and the forests, their hooves clattering on the ground, the bond between men and animals still strong and high class men and women and poor labourers could pass by each other on the street and be prey to the highwaymen with the deep voice, the dark cloak and the large pistol brandished in the shadows.
This is one of the most interesting eras in human history and Ratcatcher is one of those books that proved to me that it is worthy of recognition. If you want to read a fast-paced murder/mystery that has a dark, sexy and fascinating protagonist, Ratcatcher is an excellent read that will make you reach for the history books to find out more about Napoleon and how he changed the world.
American Gods (2001) – Neil Gaiman
Who doesn’t love fresh, new takes on old stories?
As my first Neil Gaiman book, American Gods blew me away with how Gaiman’s style is simultaneously economical, yet descriptive. Reading his books is like hearing an old-grizzed veteran tell an old story to you. The story doesn’t have any fat, but it is perfectly brief in its description where it needs to be, to prove a point.
Take for example, the very first lines in the book.
Shadow had done three years in prison. He was big enough and looked don’t-fuck-with-me enough that his biggest problem was killing time. So he kept himself in shape, and taught himself coin tricks, and thought a lot about how much he loved his wife.
With just three sentences, you can instantly tell what sort of character Shadow is. He’s tough, cool and sentimental. The archetypal thug with a heart of gold. But the way how Gaiman described him is incredibly evocative. In many ways, the whole reason I fell in love with the book, is because I fell in love with Shadow Moon. He is the character I’ve always wanted to be.
But what truly arrested me was the phenomenal way how Gaiman turned classic Gods and myths into this overarching tapestry set against the landscape of America. As a relatively new country, founded on principals that are still incredibly timeless to this day, America lacks a mythology that can be found in Greece, England or Norway.
So instead, they create a whole new one for themselves, much like Christianity did when it first came onto the scene. They took every single myth and creation story and made it their own. Gaiman’s extensive research on America and its’ fascinating history of creating its own mythology (Memphis, Tennessee for example is taken from the ancient Egyptian capital and was named for its relation to the Mississippi River) formed the basis for his magnum opus.
Thematically following that revisionist route, Gaiman created this fascinating world between Old and New Gods, fighting for relevancy in today’s age. Like most people who are familiar with old mythology, reading American Gods was a huge breath of fresh air, that combined the reverence for the old stories whilst twisting them in today’s context.
It’s an incredibly novel and unique spin on old stories and I loved seeing how Shadow Moon navigated this world, like the fish out of water he was. The whole story was very much like a huge historical acid trip, that gave you memories of how people perceived these old Gods, but played with them, in unique and sometimes horrific ways that taps into the primal fear that we all hold for Gods and the power of religion.
American Gods is one of those stories, that sold me on the magic and style of Neil Gaiman and why he is one of the most influential writers in modern history. He truly is the old wizard who is cranky to tell you stories, but the moment he starts, he will weave magic with his words.
The English Assassin (2002) – Daniel Silva
Classical music in written form
Daniel Silva is one of the most influential writers in my mind, because he has redefined what class means to me. Not class in sense of “social structures” that people always harp on about, but class in the “elegant, posh and chic” sense.
His style is as I described above, classic music in a written form. There is an elegance and almost musical sense in the way how Daniel Silva writes. Unlike so many of the other thrillers I’ve read, Silva weaves his story in an almost operatic sense and scale. There is a clear crescendo to his stories that rival the high notes that a soprano must reach in Mozart’s Magic Flute aria.
I chose this story amongst all the Gabriel Allon stories, because of the duality of the characters within. The titular English Assassin is a classically deadly anti-hero, carving a small, professional niche for himself. He doesn’t allow himself to get attached, emotionally or logically. He merely conducts contract kills with all the lethal efficiency of a machine.
This contrasts with the more tragic, tortured and romantic Gabriel Allon, whose tortured past catches up with him, in the form of his ever demanding mentor. Tasked with looking after a talented violinist during an investigation which involves stolen art during WWII in Switzerland, Gabriel must contend with the English Assassin and a wider conspiracy to keep ill-gotten art in the hands of the Swiss elite.
There is a beauty in which Silva interweaves the two men’s stories and similarities and I remember reading the first chapter and instantly falling in love with Allon, Silva’s style and exhaustive research into the plight of the Jews during WWII.
In many ways, Silva’s work is a testament to the enduring impact of the Holocaust and through his style and stories, I’ve learned far more about the Shoah than I had ever imagined. In addition, I’ve also grown a deep appreciation for classical pieces of art, whether it is my current love for Puccini operas, or Old Masters artwork, reading the Allon thrillers have made me a much more classically learned scholar than I anticipated.
In so many ways, the English Assassin is a throwback to the early glamour days of Europe, where it was still the heart of intrigue, danger and beauty, where even small islands like Corsica held a magic to them that could not be found anywhere else in the world. Reading the Allon thrillers, made me nostalgic for an old Europe, where beauty and espionage came together in harmony that cannot be replicated.
If you love sweeping conspiracies, a melancholy yet romantic anti-hero and all things classical, the English Assassin has to be your introduction to Silva’s Gabriel Allon series.
No Front Line (2017) – Chris Masters
Investigative Journalism done right.
Growing up, I was enamored with one particular unit: The Regiment. The infamous 22nd Special Air Service Regiment (SAS) of His Majesty’s Armed Forces. It was these hard-hitting men that inspired me to enlist early on in my life (I didn’t make it in). The moment I wanted to join the Army, all I dreamed about was joining the hallowed ranks of the SASR.
Reading this book, which has respect but not reverence for the famed unit in the Australian Defence Force, allowed me to see the unit more objectively and better understand their capabilities. They are not superhuman, nor the myth that I idolised as a kid, but real men and women who have undergone the most intense training and are forged under the most intense pressure.
More importantly, No Front Line truly allowed me to appreciate what fighting a contemporary war is like, something that is so different to the romanticised version in my mind.
Chris Masters’ style throughout is blunt, journalistic and factual He is a journalist, following the lives of extraordinary soldiers in some of the most dangerous operations a unit can face in the military. Yet, he never allows himself to get carried away by politics, judgement or awe. He is an objective outsider, looking in, and critically examining every aspect of what makes these men and women the elite spear in the ADF’s arsenal.
For me, reading this book, allowed some of the wool to fall from my eyes, when it came to idolising the SASR and its members. Because I came to realise that to become a member of the Regiment, meant that I had to possess something extraordinary within to be selected. Reading the book and the trials these men went through, made me realise that I do not have that special ingredient to make become a Blade.
It also made me more aware of just how dysfunctional and unwieldly the Army is, as an organisation, and as an institution. From rivalries with the 1st Commando Regiment, to additional rules and conventions that must be abided by in combat, modern warfare is as much about checks and balances as it is shooting straight and calling in airstrikes.
No Front Lines gave me that holistic look at Australia’s most elite military unit and their history in Afghanistan, and how that war marked these modern warfighters in ways that still being discussed to this day. From their war crimes, looser discipline in comparison to the rest of the Army, their courage under fire and their tenacious spirit under fire, No Front Line is one of the best investigative pieces of journalism I’ve read, that truly explores the good, the bad and the ugly about being a modern soldier and all the complexities that come with being the best.
House to House (2008) – David Bellavia
War has never felt so visceral and no book has captured brotherhood quite like this.
When I was in high school, every Friday, my family used to take my brother and I to Borders, a multi-level bookstore in Chadstone that was more like a library than a proper store, because the amount of people that loved to stay there and read was obscene.
My brother and I’s favourite section was the military history genre. It offered a view over the surrounding houses, wasn’t too hot when the sun was setting and rarely anyone stayed there.
One day, my brother picked out House to House and couldn’t put it down. I was curious about what was so good about this book, and upon reading the first page, I was hooked. This was as raw an account of warfare, as spoken from the perspective of a simple grunt in the war machine that is the U.S. Army marching around in Iraq.
It’s difficult to really express how gripping the book is, but all the people within are what truly sells the book. David Bellavia has a talent of bringing to life these “characters” in his squad that make them real and unique.
He remembers and honours their bravery, courage and steadfastness by highlighting what makes them stand-out in his account, from an Army Engineer who preferred to use a guitar instead of an M4A1, and did his best to not kill anyone, despite using the biggest explosives in the Army’s arsenal, to a quick flashback to his platoon commander providing covering fire using a basic M16A4 with nothing more than a pair of iron sights, whilst his own carbine was dripping with attachments and smiling over at Bellavia, saying it was just another day in paradise.
It was these moments that struck Bellavia and in doing so, stick with the reader. House to House is a book I’ve re-read multiple times and still get a thrill out of reading, because the memories that Bellavia recount, are written so well, they almost fool me into thinking I was part of the squad that rolled in Fallujah, clearing house by house for weeks on end.
Unlike so many other military autobiographies, there is a humble element to House to House that lends perspective to the fact that despite Bellavia’s bravery and intense actions that earned him a Medal of Honor on that fateful night against 4 insurgents, he was merely just one firefight amongst the thousands that happened across the town of Fallujah, that featured the most urban combat since Hue City in Vietnam.
House to House is an emotionally charged read, that allows you to really understand the mindset and desperation that a regular soldier feels when engaged in combat. This isn’t a story that cares about the training, the weapons or gear. This is a tale about a man and his brothers being thrust into an endless hell of kicking down doors, not knowing what lies beyond and doing their best to survive, through the power of their fear and brotherhood. It is why the members of Bellavia’s squad leap off the pages, because he knows that this is his only way of paying tribute to them and their immense courage and the impact they had on him.
House to House isn’t just an epic story about how these fighting men fought and died in Fallujah, it’s a tribute to the average infantryman who often gets slept on for their own courage and prowess, when all the current media does is glamourise special forces units and cast regular soldiers aside.
No Hero (2014) – Mark Owen
The U.S. Navy S.E.A.L autobiography that inspired me to apply military discipline to my event work
Perhaps one of my biggest gripes with American Special Forces Units, in particular, the U.S. Navy SEALs, are their perchance to blow their own horn a bit too much. There is no unit more glorified and over-hyped than the SEAL teams and their supposed expertise at everything, despite …. coming from a Navy background.
Not Army, but Navy.
When you go out there, you don’t see many films, books or podcasts featuring Pararescue, Rangers, MARSOC, Green Berets or Delta, but look at any catalogue of popular movies or books out there and they will invariably feature frogmen.
This is not to say that I have no respect for SEALs, but I do wish there was less saturation from them when it comes to dictating the story of Special Forces unit in contemporary warfare.
So, what made me pick up this one then?
It was the fact that it was written by one of the guys on the team that conducted the UBL raid. And it’s difficult to not at least open up to the first page, when you hear about one of the most famous raids in human history.
What I ended up getting though, wasn’t really an account on the raid itself, but more on how a boy from Alaska, became obsessed with the military after reading several books and watched films and struggled his way into a SEAL Team. It also gave me incredible insight into the processes of how a typical military raid is conducted, how it has evolved and the type of work that is done before and after the doors have been kicked in.
I finished the book, more appreciative of just how applicable military processes and techniques can be applied to the civilian world. Things such as reconnaissance, after-action reviews, simple mantras, can all be adjusted to my event work.
For example, reconnaissance in the event field, can be done with regards to traffic management, peak hours, the layout of the ground for temporary infrastructure, sight lines that offer the best views for instagram photos, etc.
After-Action-Reviews (AAR) were conducted by SEAL Teams after the completed a mission, an exhaustive and ego-free debrief that ensure future missions could be conducted even smoother, a key learning tool that I have applied in my own event work.
No Hero isn’t an ordinary autobiography of a remarkable SEAL, it is a tutorial on how military knowledge, procedures and discipline can be applied to the civilian world and a sobering reminder to me, that in many ways, all of our best practices and standard operating procedures come from warfare.
Neuromancer (1984) – William Gibson
If paranoia and cocaine wrote a book together.
Neuromancer has the privilege of being one of those books that I didn’t quite understand fully, but the writing, tone, style and complete immersion factor was so damn addicting that I completed it in one sitting.
Known as the original progenitor of the theme of cyberpunk, Neuromancer is as compelling and strange a read as they come. Gibson’s skill in creating and bringing to life the unique world of Sprawl is incredible. Reading the story, you are absorbed by the depiction of a world that is wholly unique, fascinating and laced with intriguing fictionalised slang, computer terms and edgy characters.
After all, how many stories do you know has their protagonist an drug-addicted anti-hero hacker, whose emaciated body is laced with poison and lives only in the shadows of a metropolis called Chiba City?
I picked up the book on a whim and was not prepared for the sheer nervous, paranoid energy that infected the story from the first sentence to the last. In many ways, Neuromancer reminded me of how good a story can be when an author is gripped by the same feverish, manic energy from start to finish. You don’t care too much about the alien jargon, the slightly confusing style or even the plot in a sense, you are just locked in this ride and you cannot get off, until the crazy stops.
And this book is crazed. The epic scope, the dark conspiracies, and technical nature of the plot, reads like a crazed man’s fever dream, but written in a way that is entirely believable in the world of the Sprawl. I love how it truly adds a strong punk factor into the world. This isn’t your typical sci-fi novel, where there are clean space-ships, glossy robots and cool laser guns. Neuromancer has a strong grunge aesthetic to everything, a looseness that only comes from cowboy attitudes or rock & roll mentalities.
Everything that is described in Neuromancer has this degeneracy to it that makes it compelling and unique amongst most sci-fi worlds and is why it has spawned the entire sub-culture of cyberpunk. The characters dress in leather, and are replete with tattoos, piercings and cybernetic enhancements that make them grotesque but in a bizarrely attractive way. Punk-rock and rap rule the airwaves, and the overall aesthetic of the world is one of perpetual night, shadows that are only lit by neon and a city that never sleeps.
Neuromancer is one of those books that is completely unique in how it unfolds and I loved every single, frenzied, paranoid and frenetic moment of it.
The Ninja (1980) – Eric Van Lustbader
Sex, violence and a bit more sex and violence. With a dash of martial arts wisdom.
The Ninja is your titular 80s action novel. It’s a snap-shot of what was all the rage in America’s most debauched decade. In the case of the Ninja though, you get a fascinating story of a hero torn between East and West and how he tries to marry both cultures in his mind. It is your classic English hero, growing up in Japan, being raised by Anglo-Chinese parents and learning some of the deadliest martial arts in the East before migrating to America and trying to start afresh.
Whilst this sounds like is your typical 80s B-movie shlock protagonist, the Ninja differentiates itself by diving deeper into the mythology and psychology of a man who truly is torn between two cultural identities. Lustbader’s extensive research into martial arts and his graphic depictions of just how deadly they can be in the right hands, creates an incredible action novel that is philosophical and insightful into the mindset of Eastern philosophies.
Then, you cannot ignore the graphic depictions of sex scenes that, for an aspiring writer such as myself, taught me a lot about how to write them. Lustbader’s style takes an almost sensual violence to his sex scenes. They are hot, heavy, graphic and fast paced yet never seem lewd or crass. That is a skill in of itself, as I find that so many other sex scenes are either too light on descriptions or oddly un-erotic because of how grotesque they read.
In many ways, the Ninja was one of the first books I re-read multiple times, because so many of the scenes were so compelling. I loved the flow of the book, the mixture of sex and violence, with cursory philosophical insights that really elevated what would have been a much more standard thriller. I learned so much from reading the Ninja, from how to write more graphic sex scenes, to understand intriguing martial arts techniques that actually serve me today.
The Ninja is an incredible read from start to finish and if you still long for the days of martial arts movies that would invariably combine Japanese mysticism and American landscapes, you have to get a copy.
Strike Back (2007) – Chris Ryan
I read the book cos I loved the cover of a man in a balaclava, combat fatigues and holding an MP5SD.
Chris Ryan’s Strike Back is a lean, mean, violent read that is instantly fun to read, because it skips any frills and fluff and gets right into the action. The combat sequences are terse, fast reads that speaks to the authenticity of the author’s famous pedigree and experience. There is something old-school about the way how Ryan writes his books.
This is a man whose genuine real-life experience as a former SAS soldier during the early 90s and 00s informs the story and gives it a hard edge.
What I found fascinating about this story though, was the cockney element that gave the main character, John Porter a much more believable feel. He swears, uses simple language like “sod it”, “bloody” and “mate” and is constantly at odds with his environment in a fun but understandable way. He knows that he stands out in the Middle East, that he is the last person anyone expects to lead a rescue mission, but he owns that fact and gets on with the mission anyway.
It is that element that made the character so much fun to read, despite the violence, action and general insanity of the plot. After all, this is a story is about an ex-SAS soldier turned homeless bum, whose past mission catches up to him, when the child-soldier he spared, ends up threatening a renowned journalist in the Middle East. And through that one connection, comes a chance for him to redeem himself.
But that zany plot and Porter’s general likeability are also the main reasons why I think Strike Back remains one of Ryan’s best-selling novels and why Cinemax ending up making a very fun action/military series based on the book.
In a lot of ways, Strike Back glorifies the ability of a single SAS Blade and his ability to even the odds, regardless of how stacked they are against him. It’s the sort of fun, informed escapism that is the perfect sustenance for a boy who dreamed of joining the military.
Enough to inform him about all the cool, dangerous missions that he might get involved in, but not realistic enough to bore him about the drudgery that happens in the military or just how hard it is to become a SAS soldier.
Strike Back fuels the appetite for many aspiring soldiers out there, and not many people do it better than Chris Ryan, in fuelling the mythology behind the 22nd Special Air Service Regiment.
Seven Ancient Wonders (2007) – Matthew Reilly
As epic a modern treasure hunt can get with an SASR protagonist to boot.
Seven Ancient Wonders is arguably one of my favourite premises to a story I have ever read. It is also the first Matthew Reilly book I’ve ever read and ever since that fateful day, where I accidentally stumbled across the author himself, at a random book signing, he has made his mark on my life ever since.
Matthew Reilly novels are to books, like Michael Bay’s excessiveness is to film. There is no limit to the insane creativeness of his imagination.
Allow me to introduce you to the plot of this book.
Seven Ancient Wonders is an epic adventure of a small coalition force fighting against the might of the U.S. Military and the European Catholic faction to find all 7 pieces of the Golden Capstone that once existed atop the Great Pyramid of Khufu, and were hidden across the iconic 7 Ancient Wonders. By assembling the Golden Capstone atop the Pyramid, you not only prevent a solar sunspot from heating up the planet of Earth, but you can also performance a ritual of power, spoken in an ancient language, that will grant your homeland infinite power.
HOW GOOD IS THAT PREMISE.
Needless to say, from the moment I started reading, I was hooked. It was everything I ever wanted in a story. A classic underdog hero, facing up against a terrifying villain, in a modern setting, with ancient booby traps and inventive, crazy action set-pieces.
Nothing could be better, until of course, Reilly created a huge series out of the premise and kept the crazy ride going all the way through 7 books.
But it was the original that captured my heart; from the unique premise, to the creative takes on booby traps and ancient history and the cast of characters that were hard not to fall in love with. In particular, I loved the fact that they were such a diverse team and acted like a family. One of the key driving elements of the story, was Lily, a little girl whose ability to read the Word of Thoth, an ancient language, made her critical in the race to assemble the Golden Capstone.
She was the adoptive daughter of the main character, Jack West Jr., a tough, taciturn Australian, whose service in the SASR and the U.S. Military complex, made him the leader of the small coalition. The way how Jack and Lily grow together, as well as the multicultural team around them, is easily one of the best parts of the story and really creates a more compelling drama, amidst such an action-packed treasure hunt, that spans the globe.
There are truly not enough words to describe how much I loved this book as a teenager and how Matthew Reilly shaped the way how I read action novels. His imagination and insane break-neck pace is what got my entire group of friends at school in reading more books, an achievement that I recall being praised for by my English teacher who was struggling to get more students to read.
It was Reilly that catapulted by drive to read as much as I could, learn all kinds of guns and really expand my imagination on what is possible whilst keeping things semi-realistic. So, I have to give major props to Seven Ancient Wonders for starting that journey and being such a huge impact on my active imagination.
I cannot recommend this book enough, if you are even a tiny bit interested in any of these buzz words: action, ancient history, military, guns, fast and furious and Michael Bay on paper. This is just one of those books where I can proudly say an Australian wrote this and he did an incredible job.
Atlantis Found (1999) – Clive Cussler
As swashbuckling a story you can get, with a splash of Neo-Nazis to make it even more fun reading.
This was my first Dirk Pitt novel and let me just tell you, it was a doozy.
As you can tell by now, I have a fervent love for adventure novels, and Clive Cussler is one of those titans in the industry that has never let me down. His books are just so damn fun and classic. They are epic in scope, without losing sight of the fun chemistry between Pitt and Al Giordino and how their friendship can stack up against insurmountable odds.
It’s the classic story of an invincible protagonist who is never rattled by the situation and outwits his opponents with style and aplomb. I can’t help but love the character of Dirk Pitt, his witty one-liners, his resourcefulness and charisma is almost unmatched in fiction. I mean, there is something to be said about Pitt, that he stands tall against so many crazy villains that Cussler has invented throughout the course of the series.
In Atlantis Found, the villains are a novel take on Neo-Nazis in 1999 and it’s incredibly fun to see Pitt go up against them, especially with just how insane Cussler went with how evil they are; from using U-Boats against ice-breakers, cloning perfect versions of themselves and of course escaping to Argentina and creating massive arks that will enable them to survive an incoming cataclysm so that they can mold the world as they see fit.
An insane plot to be sure, and somehow Cussler tucks in a fasincating take on Atlantean lore to boot.
When you read Cussler books, you know you are just in for a good yarn. I use the word “yarn” for a reason, because it is distinctively American in how it plays out, and yet all the better for it. There is no pretense in how much Cussler love his characters and his imagination truly allows them to shine in the craziest situations. It is a unique voice in adventure fiction, because Pitt is an self-insert character for Cussler’s dream.
A tall, rugged, man with a deep love for the ocean and its adventure, and a perchance for collecting classic automobiles and artefacts.
It was Cussler that convinced me that a lovingly restore old car, will always grab my attention far more than the latest trend in automobile design. Something about their curves will always arrest me on the spot and while I didn’t quite develop the same fascination for the open seas, I still believe in the old adage that the ocean’s vastness is comparable to that of space and share the same amount of danger, intrigue and mystique.
Dirk Pitt novels are just your classic swashbuckling yarns and I am still saddened that Cussler is not around anymore to push out more novels.
River God (1993) – Wilbur Smith
THE definitive historical fiction on Ancient Egypt. No other story comes close to matching Smith’s magnum opus.
There are certain books that I believe are modern classics. River God is one of those. Along with James Clavell’s Shogun, these historical fiction epics are in the same vein as heroic poems of old. They cover so much time and detail in such rich authenticity that you are unable to stop reading and take every single facet of the story as truth.
That is the power of historical fiction. The author’s painstaking research, adherence to the rules and customs of the time period, combined with their imagination, create a totally believable slice of alternate history. It is the perfect way to experience history and become immersed in a world that you know once existed.
After all, that question about “if you had a time machine, where would you go?” is answered in a way, with historical epics.
River God follows the slave and eunuch, Taita, on his journey to serve his mistress, Lostris, whose beauty enables her to rise from teenager to Queen, amidst the invasion of Egypt by a foreign army known as the Hyksos. It’s difficult to fully articulate the sheer scope and ambition of Smith’s narrative in this book, because it covers so many events.
The first half of the book is centered around Taita guiding Lostris’ marriage to the Pharaoh and his desperate attempt to hide her relationship with a charismatic general, Tanus. Then the book pivots and throws in the technologically superior Hyksos army who drives Lostris, her newborn son Tanus and the greater Egyptian army into exile.
All of this, and Smith has the talent to tell the story in the first person and cement the epic’s emotional core with the achingly lonely love story Taita has for Lostris, but is unable to do anything about, due to his status as a slave and eunuch.
There isn’t much else I can espouse about this book, beyond just how original and creative it is. It truly feels like Smith tapped into a vein of ancient history that we all have long held a fascination with. The way how he explores all facets of ancient Egyptian history, from the poor neighbourhoods, the politics surrounding the position of Pharoah, the military tactics, the religious overtones everything had and even some casual Egyptian slang, all from the eyes of a very talented and ingenious slave is simply a delight to read.
If you want to read an ancient Egyptian historical epic, there is simply none better than River God. It will transport you into the world that you’ve only imagined when staring at the Great Pyramids.
Killing Floor (1997) – Lee Child
Economical, addicting and charismatic … just like Jack Reacher himself.
It is said that a Jack Reacher book is sold every 9 seconds around the world.
There is no denying the enduring appeal that Jack Reacher has on the greater population of crime readers. I should know, because I have bought all 26 of them, since ripping through Killing Floor.
I was late to the party, but I definitely made up for lost time, by buying the entire series within a year.
So, what is the goddamn appeal behind these books?
I would like to pinpoint that it is the character. But in all honesty, it’s the premise and what it represents. Jack Reacher is the hero that everyone is familiar with. The loner who walks into town and promptly removes the plague that has afflicted the town. The plague could be a widespread corruption, a sinister corporation, a classless crime gang or a deadly, wealthy family.
In the case of Killing Floor, it is a wealthy family whose grip on the small town of Margrave enables them to get away with a massive counterfeiting scheme. Reacher, whose sole reason for stopping by this tiny dot in the middle of Georgia due to a rumour about Blind Blake’s death, soon finds himself embroiled in the Kilner’s family crimes, after he is accused of murder.
Written in the first person, Killing Floor is an incredible insight into a character, that later in the series, is often seen as taciturn and stoic with a dry sense of humour. As the series has progressed, Child has preferred to write the Reacher book in the third person, which leaves his earlier works as the purest insight the mind of his titular protagonist.
Killing Floor is as much a blueprint for the success of the series, as it is a solid crime thriller, which unravels and unpacks the mysteries at a very slow, methodical pace. You’ll see exactly how a younger Reacher tackles the situation in front of him and why he is such a brilliant character and unlike the later books, you’ll see exactly how he processes every single situation in front of him.
I cannot recommend Child’s work enough. He’s the perfect description of economical writing and how you can truly be brief and precise, yet descriptive enough to sell a story. I’ve taken away heaps of lessons on how to write more tersely thanks to the Jack Reacher series. The books are also a wonderful way of viewing America in a different light, to the usual glamour of Hollywood. After all, Lee Child is British and it is his unique perspective, of a foreigner looking into a country, that lends his books so much credibility.
Stormbreaker (2000) – Anthony Horowitz
A teenage James Bond … the perfect gateway drug for a teenage me.
I adore the Alex Rider series. It’s campy, fun, over the top and written by a author whose work has spanned many genres. Horowitz has dabbled in horror, detective novels and even published two official Bond novels after Fleming’s death. It was the Alex Rider series that really started my love for espionage genre and I devoured them hungrily throughout my high school days.
I wanted nothing more than to be recruited by MI6 and be turned into a lethal weapon at the tender age of 14. Despite how campy the books were though, there was a real love for the original source material of James Bond. I could tell that through Horowitz’s style and strict adherence to classic Bond film tropes …. a silly, fun henchman, a campy, ridiculous villain, fun gadgets, a sassy quartermaster and an fun, exotic location.
It was also a darkly humorous and serious book, so much so, that I ended up falling in love with the quote on the cover of the book … you are never too young to die. This dark line has stuck with me ever since, a warning against the idea that we are some invincible character, because we consider ourselves the protagonist in our own story. Instead, it was a sobering reminder that death can come in many different forms, and sometimes we are truly powerless against such fate.
Beyond that dark life lesson though, Stormbreaker served as a strange tool that get all my fellow friends into reading. After all, this was a highly relatable hero, our age and going on exciting missions that we could only dream of. The style was edgy, quick and witty. Alex was the perfect foil for our young minds, cool enough to want to impersonate, yet close enough in attitude to relate to. It didn’t help either, that Horowitz knew exactly what sort of innocuous toys could be used as gadgets, such as Gameboys, cool BMX bikes and even pimple cream.
Alex Rider taught me a lot of things, but chief amongst them, was the fact that if your uncle taught you multiple languages, enrolled you in self-defence classes, took you snowboarding, BMX biking, rifle shooting and different cultures … chances were, he was grooming you to be a teenage spy.
Honestly … fatherhood goals right there.
Shogun (1975) – James Clavell
I learned everything about Japan through this book. No other story comes close to capturing what makes Japan, Japan.
Shogun is one of those magnum opus that the more time you invest in it, the more it rewards you. I had no real concept of Japan and its’ unique culture until I read this incredible novel by James Clavell.
Set during the early years of feudal Japan, Shogun is told through the eyes of an Englishman, the first ever to set foot on Japanese soil and how he becomes an invaluable tool for an upcoming daimyo to seize power and become a Shogun. It is through this unique fish out of water lens, that Clavell unleashes his incredible research and study into Japanese culture.
For those who know nothing about Japan, I would argue that reading Shogun will give you a critical understanding of what Japanese culture is all about and how the tenets of their warrior code, bushido is interwoven into every aspect of a Japanese person’s life. Key concepts like karma, wa, and bushido are all brilliantly explained by Clavell’s use of characters, their arcs and place within the grander story.
This was one of the rare novels that my father recommended me to read, during my late high school days, and it took me weeks to finish, because of how long and dense the novel was. But what a world I was transported to, every time I reopened the book and found myself embroiled in feudal Japanese politics, mind games and memorable characters.
To this day, I can vividly recall how my mind would create castles that these characters would fight in, the way how Blackthorne slowly becomes more Japanese as he assimilates himself into their culture, and how I found myself enraptured by so many adult themes, of politics, sex, sinister motivations and forced politeness due to saving face.
Shogun left an undeniable mark on me as a person, because it opened my eyes to the unique world, aesthetic and common logic of Japan and provided me with fascinating lessons into Asian culture and just how different it is to Western ideology. It was Shogun that allowed me to learn about what it means to be Asian, and all of this was explained richly by a man who has done an incredible amount of research and invested so much of his passion into creating this unique story.
In many ways, Shogun was my first real taste of an epic novel, something that spans years in its scope and is so unfathomably big in how ambitious the story wants to be. It is why, the more you read it, the more you found yourself unable to tear yourself away.
I learned so much about Asian culture through this book and I bear no ill will, that it took an British writer to teach me. Sometimes, just like in the case of the Jack Reacher book, you learn more from an outsider’s perspective than the view from inside the bubble.
Memorial Day (2004) – Vince Flynn
A post 9/11 power fantasy about a CIA assassin, done right. Why? Because it’s House of Cards but with guns.
Mitch Rapp is one of the most ridiculous and fun anti-heroes ever created.
Allow me to sell you his resume.
He is a former All-American lacrosse player and Iron Man Triathlon winner, whose high-school sweetheart is killed in terrorist plane hijacking.
Seeking revenge, he becomes a member of the CIA and over the years, becomes an elite assassin that works alongside Tier One special operations units, whilst being given complete autonomy over his actions, that include kidnapping, enhanced interrogation, assassination, blackmail and even downright cold blooded executions.
This is an aggressively American power fantasy. A creation that, if it wasn’t for the political aspect, would have disappeared amongst thousands of other Tom Clancy clones. However, Vince Flynn injects incredible political commentary and knowledge that gives these big military/espionage stories a whole new layer of depth. For in the Mitch Rapp series, it isn’t the fact that American troops are inept, it is their political system that hinders them.
Rapp is constantly fighting against procedures, red tape and political ego-stroking to prevent terrorist attacks abroad and on home soil. His fight isn’t just against the enemy, it is also with those in Washington who wish to use him to climb the political ladder.
It is this extra layer that really makes the tension in the Rapp series. Rapp can see his target, reach out and end the man before he does any harm. But he cannot do so, without permission from the higher ups, who are concerned about the political fallout of such an action.
Memorial Day was one of the first Mitch Rapp books I’ve ever read and the Special Forces raid on a small village in Pakistan will go down in my memory as one of the most impressive things I’ve ever read, combining all the complex nuances of a huge military raid, involving helicopters, different squads, and even a quick section from the terrorist perspective. This was such a huge influence on me that I have used it as a blueprint for all future military style stories I have written since.
What made the series and this book so compelling though, was the fact that I got to view my military obsession in a different light. It wasn’t all about kicking down doors, throwing flashbangs and slotting terrorists with two shots to the head. Nor was it just about intelligence gathering and using satellites to find wanted people. These books were an insight into just how unwieldy, complicated and slow things can be in the political landscape, and how that can affect soldiers in real time.
Knowing these elements, is why sometimes, when I look at the POTUS in the Situation Room on the news, I know just how serious and critical a decision can be made in that moment. Lives can be lost, people can get away with heinous crimes, people can be forever altered and all of that hinges on a single man’s decision, after weighing up a thousand different consequences, actions and intelligence.
It is like playing God. The Rapp series gave me that appreciation for not only all the sacrifices military members must make, but also just how much the stakes are raised, simply because a man all the way in Washington D.C. is pausing for 7 seconds to make a life-altering decision.
Rogue Element (2003) – David A Rollins
The first proper thriller I’ve ever read, and fun fact … the first sex scene I’ve ever read too.
This was one of those books that I picked off my father’s bookshelf and was pleasantly surprised by for a number of reasons. Firstly, because it is written by an Australian author, for an Australian audience. Secondly, it showcases aspects of the Australian intelligence and military that is often overlooked. Thirdly, the book has an incredible premise regarding Indonesian aggression towards Australia after the East Timor fight for independence. And finally, the book itself is an incredibly tight and smartly written thriller, bouncing between multiple perspectives and views over a disaster, the worst type, a downed passenger 747 in Indonesian forest.
Rogue Element is memorable to me, because it is the first book I ever read that really showcased the capabilities of the SASR, the premier elite fighting force in the Australian Defence Force. I was enamored by the way how I understood the casual Australian slang and the way how these men in the novel carried themselves. But beyond that aspect, I also loved the jungle survival element that the survivors of the crash had to endure in the story. There was an intensity to their scenes, whilst being hunted, that really captured me and forever put the question in my mind, what I would do if placed in such an harrowing experience.
After all, you cannot read a book about a passenger plane being shot down, without wondering what you would do in such a situation.
Where Rogue Element shines though, is how Rollins never loses the important threads that work into an investigation of this magnitude. The book is crystal clear in how it navigates such a huge scope. You never lose sight of the survivor’s desperation, nor the larger government and political ramifications surrounding this disaster. Everything flows from one perspective to another and it is a very immersive and fast-paced read. Everything is paced beautifully and clues and pieces fall into place very neatly one after another.
As my first ever proper thriller that wasn’t written by Matthew Reilly and incidentally one of the first ever sex scenes I’ve ever read, this is an excellent showcase on how being worldly is a crucial tool for any writer.
You cannot write a book about Indonesian aggression towards Australia, without understanding both international governments, and every single key piece that the two global players will use against each other …. intelligence agencies, international treaties, special forces units … having a good solid grasp of all of these and pairing them with a realistic imagination will create a fun thriller like Rogue Element.
Scruples (1978) – Judith Krantz
My first ever venture into the genre known as “sex and shopping” and I’ve not been the same man since.
I have never read a book that featured as many sex scenes as Scruples, nor have I read any like that since. If I am honest, Scruples reads like a book written by a woman who wishes to enjoy the ultimate American success fantasy …
So please read this quick recap. The protagonist Wilhelmina Hunnewell Winthrop (I know, as upper class American a name can be), known as “Billy” grows up poor and ugly, but is lucky enough to recieve 10G from an estranged aunt who tells her to spend it foolishly. Moving to Paris, she undergoes the classic ugly duckling transformation and blossoms into a curvaceous and elegant woman.
Upon her return to America, she moves to New York, where she essentially becomes addicted to sex, thanks to her roommate and gets a job where she meets and sleeps with the CEO of a big Enterprise. The experience is so whirlwind and heavy, that the CEO divorces his wife, marries Billy where they spend the next couple of years living lavishly.
However the CEO suffers a stroke, and whilst he is in a coma, Billy develops a compulsion for shopping in Beverly Hills and after her husband’s death, decides to do something an open a luxury boutique store called … Scruples. The business is a huge success because it offers a whole new retail experience never seen before in the area, as well as cutting edge fashion trends from Paris, and eventually leads Billy into the arms of a film producer, who she falls heads over heels for.
The story ends at the Oscar, where the film her new lover is producing is about the win, Billy’s store is making a killing and essentially it is a happy ending for all.
Throw in a major romantic subplot revolving around a hot fashion photographer called Spider who is described as a “devout heterosexual” (a term I have shameless plagarised on multiple occasions) and a fiery French stylist called Valentine and more insight into the rich and powerful world of American elite and you got yourself Scruples, my first ever “bonkbuster.”
If you found yourself enjoying just how ridiculous the plot unfurls, then I highly suggest a read. I’ve never read since, that was as half entertaining, ridiculous, hilarious and completely alien to my world view since. This was akin to opening the curtain to a brothel and not realising just how intoxicating the world can be when you are greeted with such a view.
Scruples is scandalous, fun, and written at a breakneck pace. It’s a glamorous read that almost makes you think such a lifestyle is possible, if luck was truly on your side all the way through your life and you were hot and smart enough to capitalise on all the right opportunities.
The main lesson this novel taught me, is that if a woman is blessed with curves, a forward sexual confidence, can embody classy elegance and is given enough money, she can and will conquer any obstacle in her way.
And I can’t help but feel faintly jealous of that superpower.
Lorna Doone (1869) – R.D. Blackmore
My favourite romance novel, because it’s a romance but it’s also a sweeping adventure story.
I first read Lorna Doone as a children’s abridged edition. It featured classic style art that really sparked my imagination of what it was like to live and breathe during the 17th Century, amongst the moors of Exmoor. I was also entranced by this epic love story that spanned several years, and against a violent backdrop that was the Doone clan and their endless robbery across the land.
It is difficult to describe the epic scope of this story, but at the end of the day, it is a romance novel. The love John Ridd has Lorna Doone is beautifully pure and expressed in classic English fashion. The way how John talks about Lorna is beautifully sweet and aching, and in many ways, it is an excellent read for both genders, because of the way the romance is told, earnest and honest.
Yet, there is plenty more beyond the incredible romance. There are action scenes, slow sprawling passages that really build up the atmosphere of the era and dozens of obstacles that need to be faced before Lorna can meet John at the altar. Even then, Lorna has a mysterious past that connects her to the Doone clan and there are many real historical events, such as the Battle of Sedgemoor, and the death of King Charles II that help immerse the reader more in the story.
In many ways, Lorna Doone’s style and narration really helps you immerse yourself in what people loved to read in the past. This is a novel that really lets you inhabit the era that it was written in and is all the more beautiful because of it.
It is an underrated classic and easily one of those novels that absolutely defined how I saw and treat romance in my mind. As sappy as it sounds, I truly hope that my partner will be the Lorna that I always wanted to have in my life.
Digital Fortress (1998) – Dan Brown
Cryptography …. this book taught me all about it and more importantly, how to use Caesar’s Cipher
Just like so many others were, I was enthralled by Dan Brown’s thriller, the Da Vinci Code when it came out. If it taught me anything, sometimes a competent writer can get away with creating a bestseller, simply by premise alone. Who wouldn’t want to read a book about the Holy bloodline that has been carried down by Jesus and the way how the legendary Renaissance man, Leonardo Da Vinci created this sprawling treasure hunt to find the descendants of the most holy man in history?
But I never really re-read it again, because it wasn’t that good. The same though, could not be said for Digital Fortress. The premise itself isn’t that great but it was the learning that really got me. I learned about supercomputers, cryptography, ciphers, mathematical equations, languages, the NSA and code-breaking all in a enthralling novel.
Previously, all I knew about the NSA was that they supposedly had a Third Echelon, which employed “Splinter Cells” agents with trident night vision goggles. But it was Digital Fortress that really opened my eyes to the power of computers used in surveillance gathering.
To me, it makes almost ludicrous sense that an organisation like the National Security Agency exist and has the power to literally tap into any communication device around the world. It houses petabytes of data that has been gathered all around the world and in constantly monitoring “foreign agencies” for more intelligence.
So upon reading learning about the NSA’s capabilities in Digital Fortress, I realised that the phone, computer and any other random electronic device I have ever interacted with, was probably already tapped and used as an open source of data on me.
I just had to make peace with that. There was also the bizarre realisation that, this has been my approach to a lot of conspiracy theories like this. I wasn’t really bothered by the fact that the NSA or ASIS could tap into my phone and discover all sort of data about me, because in the end, I knew I wasn’t important enough to warrant such intrusion.
However, the main reason why Digital Fortress remains my favourite out of all the Dan Brown thrillers, is the surprisingly sweet love-story that permeates throughout the book. I’m not sure why it resonated me with so much, but something about the lead characters chemistry got me.
But I know that it is because so much of the plot is quite convoluted with lots of false leads and dead-ends, hence I had to hang onto something whilst navigating Brown’s maze.
Make no mistake though, Brown’s maze is incredibly well researched and tightly written. It even came to a point where this novel almost convinced me that I could pursue a career in intelligence, because I became obsessed with codes after. But I shall be the first to admit though, that I am not that good at them, but am always enthralled when I can finally crack one.
There is always something amazing about seeing a whole bunch of gibberish turn to something understandable once you’ve cracked the cipher’s key.
It is thanks to Digital Fortress that I even learned about the magic of cryptography and that is something extremely niche that I have a passion for ever since.
Berlin Noir (1993) – Philip Kerr
The perfect noire book, set in the most fascinating place and time in history …. Nazi Berlin.
Technically three novels in one, this is one of the best omnibus ever created. Easily one of my favourite series ever made, the Bernie Gunther novels are simply incredible for a multitude of reasons.
They are beautifully written with a self deprecating sense of humour and the perfect amount of cynicism that lends Bernie the air of your classic noire detective. In addition, the setting of Nazi Germany is just so inherently rich in its appeal. The simple fact that you are reading a story of a man who opposes Nazi Germany, yet must navigate and even work with the feared SS and Gestapo is such a rich juxtaposition that it is automatically arresting.
Throw in classic noire tropes, and a style that is evocative, descriptive and exhaustively researched and you get a powerful crime thriller that cannot be topped for its originality, atmosphere and sheer readability.
No other crime book I’ve read, except for Chandler himself, has so perfectly encapsulated the cynicism, dark humour and sad romance of a noire detective than Kerr’s creation in Bernie Gunther.
Reading Berlin Noir, is a lot like stepping into the past, but a heightened one, and one that you have never quite seen because who has the gall to really dive deeper into Nazi subculture?
Philip Kerr not only dives headfirst with his immaculate research but colours every single notable historical character, such as Reinhard Heydrich with enough psychopathy and humanity to make him realistic to the real historical figure. This approach, is beautifully layered and careful, enough to make you see the human beneath the myth of the monster, whilst never losing sight that he is a Nazi.
In many ways, Kerr took a massive risk with the setting, but he was secured by his creation of Gunther, whose cynicism and dark humour serve as effective foils to the Nazi regime. He is scathing in his criticism of the government, yet understand he is nothing but a pawn in the larger picture and one wrong move, will result in permanent removal off the board.
However that doesn’t stop him from making flippant remarks and letting his big mouth run where it shouldn’t.
It is this wit from Bernie that makes him so endearing, as he navigates his way through murders, missing persons, femme fatales and dark conspiracies that often result in the villain getting away and Bernie ruefully wondering what this whole escapade was for.
And mark my words, the conspiracies that Kerr creates for Bernie are dark and twisted, which only adds to the atmosphere and world he has created.
Berlin Noir is one of those volumes that I feel any avid crime reader needs to read. It is gripping, wonderfully intricate in how the plot unravels and an incredible insight in a world that is often overlooked and rarely explored.
If you love the noire genre, find a copy and open up the page to the first novel, March Violets and find yourself immersed in the shady shadows of Berlin in 1930s Nazi Germany.
So there you have it, 23 of the most influential books I’ve read in my years on this planet for 2023. I hope you’ve enjoyed this nostalgic journey with me and gotten something of an insight in my favourite books, genres and tropes.
I might repeat this again sometime in the future, but for now, I am happy with how much I’ve wrote about each other, even though I could talk about them for much, much longer.
Till the next one!