Reading list: five meta-fiction classics

Metafiction - writing that takes fiction itself as one of its subjects - can be playful, thought-provoking and mystifying. Here are five fascinating - and mind-boggling - classics for those who want to explore the genre.

Lost in the Funhouse by John Barth Meta-fiction has been around almost as long as there has been fiction but it achieved a degree of prominence in the 1960s and this was one of the key texts. In a series of short stories, Barth explores narratives and what they mean to us. It's often frustrating and confusing but it's always worth the effort.

If On A Winter's Night A Traveller by Italo Calvino Another seminal work of meta-fiction, If On A Winter's Night A Traveller… is a meditation on the novel that considers what it means to be a reader, a writer, an editor, a translator and a censor, all through a series of fragmented stories. I don't consider it a great novel but it is the best book I've read about the novel.

A Void by Georges Perec Perec's masterpiece is famous for not containing a single letter E - a feat that translator Gilbert Adair has managed to repeat for the English version. The missing letter is played for laughs at times but at others is used to hint at an existential horror. Only at the end does Perec reveal the holocaust to be his real theme.

Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut Both Vonnegut and Perec experienced the horrors of the Second World War at first hand and both decided to tackle it through darkly humorous works of metafiction. Written during the Vietnam war, Slaughterhouse Five is the story of the Dresden bombing and beneath Vonnegut's

Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell Inspired by If On A Winter's Night A Traveller, Mitchell's Cloud Atlas takes a series of short stories, all (except one) of which break off at a crucial point. However, unlike Calvino, Mitchell delivers the conclusion of each story in the second half of the book. In true metafictive fashion, one of the characters in one story creates a book, the Cloud Atlas Sextet - a series of nested stories that resemble Mitchell's work.

Reading list: five detective fiction classics

A good detective story can make for great holiday reading. Here are five classic mysteries that will keep you guessing, including three that take a playfully tongue-in-cheek approach to the genre. The classic detective story is satisfying for many reasons. For a start, there's the reassuringly brilliant detective, who remains calm in the face of the most bizarre situations. Then there are the mysteries themselves; the best ones give you the information you need to figure things out for yourself and yet remain so devious that you can't quite do so.

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The Sign of Four by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle There were detective stories before Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes but it was Holmes came to define the archetypal sleuth. This novel was the second Holmes novel and Conan Doyle was still developing his template. It begins as a detective novel before mutating into an adventure story that seems slightly silly to modern eyes but would probably have been slightly more believable to its Victorian audience.

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The Hollow Man by John Dickson Carr This is one of the great 'locked room' mysteries. A man is murdered in his study but the witnesses right outside the door saw and heard nothing. The study window is too high to jump from and, in any case, the snow on the ground is unbroken. Gideon Fell, the detective gradually pieces the solution together, stopping briefly to explain to his friends the various ways in which a locked room mystery can work. Carr compares the mystery to a magic trick and it's a comparison that seems apt for many detective stories.

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The Continental Op by Dashiell Hammett While the Golden Age of crime fiction was underway in Europe, Hammett and his contemporaries were creating a much grittier version of the genre in America. Hammett's Continental Op stories are classic of hard-boiled detective fiction, filled with guns, dames and double-crosses. However, they're also satisfying mysteries too and Hammett's writing is wonderful.

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Trent's Last Case by E C Bentley More playing with the genre here as Bentley creates a baffling murder mystery and then has his detective fail to solve it. This was a very influential novel and subverted many of the genre's conventions long before the Golden Age.

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The Moving Toyshop by Edmund Crispin Another playful mystery, The Moving Toyshop has as much in common with an Ealing comedy as it does with the typical crime novel. Richard Cadogan, a poet, arrives in Oxford in the early hours of the morning and stumbles across a murder victim in a toyshop. When he brings police to the scene the next day, the entire shop has gone. Crispin has great fun unfolding the mystery.

What would you put on this list? Have you read the ones we’ve selected? Have we selected some that are on your list of books you mean to read?

Reading list: five long and 'difficult' novels worth persevering with

Do you like to getting deep into a really long novel? Have you got a few heavyweights on your reading list for which you haven't yet mustered the courage? Here are our suggestions for five long and 'difficult' novels that are worth the effort.Most people who enjoy reading have a few heavyweights on their list of books they plan to get to one day. Those long, thousand-page epics are both tempting and daunting. At the very least they require a large investment of time but it's much harder when they're also 'difficult' books. Of course, 'difficulty' is a subjective thing. Books can be 'difficult' because they're complicated or non-linear or eschew traditional ideas of plot. Some books are intended to be difficult, as is the case with some on the list below.

Pushing on through a 'difficult' novel is much harder when it's a long book. It feels as though the end is so far away that it's easy to get bogged down, reading more and more slowly until eventually you grind to a halt. Here are five books that are worth keeping patience with.

War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy Easily the least difficult book on this list, the most challenging aspects of War and Peace are Tolstoy's historical essays, which become longer and more frequent as the book goes on, and keeping the many characters straight through the first hundred pages or so. Other than that it's a pure joy. Getting through it is simply a matter of stamina.

Gravity's Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon Here's the most difficult book on the list. Pynchon's most famous novel is deliberately cryptic. I read it with a guide and there are many sections that would have made very little sense to me had I not done so. Nevertheless, this is a novel that is funny, intelligent and moving. If you do attempt it without a guide, be prepared to do a lot of re-reading.

Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace Another book that is intended to be difficult. One of Wallace's themes is the corrosiveness of mindless entertainment and so he wanted the reader to have to work at this novel. The chronology is deliberately scrambled, a crucial year in the plot is recounted only as an aside and even the precise location of the ending is not immediately obvious. Those things serve to make it more rewarding, rather than less. Once you finish you realise just how cleverly constructed it is but the novel is not just a feat of intelligence, it's also compassionate, profoundly sad and often hilarious.

2666 by Roberto Bolano This could be seen as five linked novellas, rather than one novel. In fact it lacks some of the clarity of purpose of a great novel. Its difficulty arises from the fact that its over-arching narrative is unclear for long periods. At times it feels like a series of disjointed stories and for long periods it seems not to move forward. However, it rewards persistence and careful attention with some dazzling writing and an extraordinary number of ideas.

Ulysses by James Joyce And so to the one on the list that I haven't read. It has a reputation as the supreme difficult novel and in his review James confirmed that the reputation is deserved. Despite that, James described it as "in many ways the best book I've read", which should provide some encouragement to get to grips with it.

Reading list: five books about football

The football season is drawing to a close. A fortnight today, the season will end with the Champions League final at Wembley. If you want some reading suggestions to get you in the mood or tide you over until the new season kicks off, take a look at this list. [amtap book:isbn=0224064363] The Beautiful Game by David Conn Essential reading for any fan of the modern game. Conn tracks how money has transformed the game from a cornerstone of the community into a ruthlessly-managed global business. Read Shane's review Read James's review

[amtap book:isbn=0007354088] Why England Lose by Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski Like Freakonomics but about football, Why England Lose offers an economist's look at the game. It's a fascinating explanation of why certain countries consistently produce good football teams while others fail. It also examines inequalities in the domestic game and is particularly strong on racism and sexism. Read Shane's review Read James's review

[amtap book:isbn=1862079889] How To Score by Ken Bray Another scientific look at the game, this time from a physicist. Bray analyses tactics, set pieces and even ball physics. His examination of penalty shoot-outs alone is worth the price of the book. Read Shane's review

[amtap book:isbn=0954013468] Morbo by Philip Ball If you fancy a change from reading about English football try Philip Ball's entertaining look at the evolution of Spanish football. He's primarily interested in the passionate rivalry between supporters but there is plenty more here to enjoy. Read Shane's review

[amtap book:isbn=0224064320] Garrincha by Ruy Costa This hasn't been reviewed on 26 Books but I strongly recommend it. Garrincha was an astonishing footballer and his life story is even more extraordinary. Costa tracks Garrincha's journey from an impoverished Brazilian village to a superstar lifestyle which saw him married to a pop star and gracing World Cups.