The Odyssey by Homer (trans. Robert Fagles) (Shane's book 17, 2009)

There are only so many original stories in the world and all stories are versions of those archetypes, at least that's how the theory goes. Whether you believe there are seven, eight, 20, 36 or some other number of original stories, The Odyssey is in there somewhere. It's the original version of The Quest - a story we've been re-writing ever since.

I hadn't read it before, in fact my knowledge of the classics is so poor that I barely knew the story. If you're like me, here's a summary: It's been 20 years since Odysseus left Ithaca to fight the Trojan War. In the meantime more than 100 suitors have descended on his home in an attempt to woo his wife Penelope and convince her that her husband is dead. Odysseus's son, Telemachus, sets out to find news of his father, who is alive but whose journey home has been thwarted by the gods and a series of adventures.

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As James noted in his review last year, the structure of The Odyssey is remarkably complex. Odysseus, our hero, doesn't appear for some time and when he does his story is told in both the present and in a series of flashbacks. It's even more impressive when you realise that this story would have been told orally. It requires an attentive audience.

Both orator and audience would have been helped by the poem's repetitive nature. Certain phrases and rituals are repeated throughout, adding an internal rhythm to the narrative.

The oddities of the time make the story hard to relate to in places. Despite his desire to return home, the conventions of hospitality require Odysseus to stop as a guest with those who ask, often for years at a time. He's not much of one for mercy either, brutally slaughtering the servant women who had sex with the suitors.

Strangest of all, though, is the role of the gods, who pretty much move the humans around like pawns. It makes it hard to get that involved in the story - the gods will do as they like anyway. That may be Homer's point - it's not worth worrying about things too much since fate is out of your hands. It's best to barbecue another pig's thigh and relax.

Everyone should read The Odyssey because of its importance in the history of literature. It's an important work but one which, I'm afraid, had little emotional impact on me.

The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky (Shane's book 7, 2009)

It has a murder mystery, two love triangles and the story of a fractious family but none of that conveys the depth, power and thoughtfulness of this novel. The Brothers Karamazov is a masterful examination of free will, truth and personal responsibility.

Fyodor Karamazov has three sons, one, Dmitri, by his first wife and two more, Ivan and Alexei, by his second. Rumour has it that he also fathered an illegitimate fourth son, Smerdyakov, who now works as his servant. Dmitri is a reckless, drunken womaniser like his father. Ivan is a rationalist drawn to atheism by the suffering in the world. Alexei is an idealist, a novice monk and a passionate believer in the goodness of people.

Fyodor and Dmitri are in love with the same woman, Grushenka, a temptress who is not well thought of by the villagers. Adding to the tension between father and son is Dmitri's insistence that Fyodor owes him money. Dmitri has deserted his fiance, Katerina, to pursue Grushenka and, to complicate the story further, Ivan has fallen in love with Katerina.

When Fyodor is murdered, halfway through the novel, all the evidence points to Dmitri, though both his brothers believe him to be innocent. The second half of the novel is the build-up to Dmitri's trial.

It's a long book - 800 pages - and Dostoevsky takes his time setting out the story. For a while it seems that each new character will get a chapter detailing their life so far, which slows the pace of the story down considerably. However, it pays off in the end. Even the seeming digressions, for example the long section devoted to the life and reminiscences of Zosima, Alexei's elder, prove ultimately to be thematically relevant to the whole.

It was one such digression that, for me, was the highlight of the book. The Grand Inquisitor, the 'poem' Ivan relates to Alexei to explain his religious doubt, is so strong that it has been published as a stand-alone piece of philosophy. In it, Jesus returns to Spain in the time of the Inquisition and is arrested. The Grand Inquisitor tells him that he has hindered the work of the Church by offering mankind free will when all people want is to be looked after and kept secure. As a threat to the Church's control, he will have to be killed.

It could be removed from the novel without any damage to the narrative and yet it, along with the life of Zosima mentioned above, is in fact the heart of the novel. I suppose that could be seen as a weakness. It's certainly odd for a major part of a novel to be thematically essential but irrelevant to the narrative and yet Dostoevsky gets away with it. It fits with the sedate pace and the sprawling vision of the novel.

The unnamed narrator is happy to spell out his prejudices and frequently offers accounts of events that he did not witness. This drifting between omniscience and subjectivity could also be seen as a flaw in the novel but in fact helps to raise questions about the nature of truth, another of Dostoevsky's themes.

It's difficult to praise this novel highly enough. It's a simple and engaging story examined in the deepest and most profound way. I'd recommend it to all.

War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy (Shane's book 29, 2008)

It’s the length that makes War and Peace daunting. My edition, the 2007 Vintage Classics volume reviewed by James last year, is more than 1,200 pages long; it requires a significant investment of time but it’s worth it. Tolstoy’s vast narrative follows several aristocratic families in the early nineteenth century. The story begins in 1805, with Russia about to go to war with Napoleon, and, apart from a brief jump to 1820 in the epilogue, concludes in 1812 after Napoleon’s retreat from Moscow.

In this relatively brief timeframe Tolstoy covers approximately everything: youth, adulthood and death; love, lust and marriage; war, history and fate... and probably several other things besides.

The result is extraordinary. Tolstoy’s observations on life and what it means to be human are pin-sharp. There are so many incredible moments throughout the book. James mentioned Prince Andrei and the oak tree, which I think is my favourite section, but Pierre and the comet and Petya’s night with the wagons are almost as good and I could list a dozen other sections that would be the pinnacle of another novel.

Tolstoy excels at capturing the turning points in people’s lives, the chance connections or trivial encounters that bring about deep personal changes. Some of his characters undergo quite significant changes in personality and not only do they feel natural, but Tolstoy uses them to open our eyes too.

The book falters only when Tolstoy abandons the narrative for one of his many essays on history. He believes that people are swept along by history, a force shaped by thousands upon thousands of tiny causes and beyond the control of individuals. The ‘great men’ of history, such as Napoleon, are simply those who took advantage of circumstances.

And he really hates Napoleon. That’s understandable; it would be odd if he liked him. However, his anger is so blinding, so all-consuming that it’s often expressed in quite petty ways, making Tolstoy sound like he’s on a nineteenth century Grumpy Old Men.

Having made his point about history, Tolstoy makes it again and again. The essays become more frequent as the book goes on, breaking up the narrative just as it gathers momentum, and culminating in an unnecessary and tedious summary of Tolstoy’s beliefs in the second half of the epilogue.

Some editions of the book remove the essays from the main body and place them at the end as appendices. I agree that the story would be better served by doing this but Tolstoy’s work as a whole would be diminished. He put them there for a reason and that’s where they should stay.

Still, Tolstoy should have had more faith in the ability of his story to make his point for him. Tolstoy demonstrates very effectively his belief that military commanders have very little influence on a battle once it’s underway. The smart leaders are the ones who understand this and either pretend that everything is going according to plan, even when they’re surprised, or simply put their feet up and wait for the outcome. The foolish ones, and Tolstoy puts Napoleon in this category, spend the battle issuing one order after another without the slightest chance of any of them being put into practice.

Likewise, and in keeping with his beliefs, he allows his characters very little free will. As the story unfolds their decisions are increasingly constrained by events: one couple come together at last following the deaths of each of their partners, while another couple are kept apart by financial practicalities.

Such is Tolstoy’s ability to create rounded characters that they survive his ruthless manipulations and come to life within the pages. The sharpness with which Tolstoy illuminates the passions and insecurities within, say, Andrei, Pierre and Natasha, is nothing short of genius.

The length helps here too. The central characters are introduced as teenagers and we follow them for so long and so closely that we feel their joy and their pain all the more profoundly.

This book is a marvel. Everyone should read it.

The Sign of Four by Arthur Conan Doyle (Shane's book 15, 2008)

The second Sherlock Holmes novel is, like its predecessor, A Study in Scarlet, more of an adventure yarn than a detective story. Some 50 years after Poe invented the genre in The Murders in the Rue Morgue, Conan Doyle is still feeling his way. The crowd-pleasing element of the Holmes stories - the detective's astonishing ability to solve a case by piecing together scraps that, to lesser brains, wouldn't even constitute clues - is thrown away in the first of this novel's three sections. With Holmes having solved the murder, the second section deals with the hunt for the killer, while the final section contains the killer's thorough and somewhat implausible confession.

What makes the novel interesting are the oddities of Holmes's character. The book opens and closes with him taking cocaine and Watson warning him of the habit's health risks. It's one of the ways Holmes deals with being bored. All detectives need a quirk, of course, but this is a step up from Rebus's boozing.

My edition of this book is Leslie Klinger's annotated Sherlock Holmes, which adds all kinds of information to the story, not all of it welcome. While many of the footnotes illuminate obscure terminology or historical references, some are based on Klinger's decision to treat the stories as if they really were written by Dr Watson and merely published by Conan Doyle. Though cute at first, this becomes very irritating as Klinger adjudicates between various sources as to the precise date of this adventure.

The story itself is deeply silly. The murderer is, for example, a cannibalistic pygmy armed with a blowpipe. Still, it's a significant step in the development of the modern detective story.

Shane's book 31: Amerika (The Man Who Disappeared) by Franz Kafka

Kafka's first novel, which he left unfinished, opens with a teenager called Karl arriving in America. He has been sent into exile by his family after a fling with the maid which left her pregnant. On leaving the boat he realises he has forgotten his umbrella and, entrusting his suitcase to a stranger on the dock, he returns to his room. There he meets the stoker and, hearing his tale of persecution at the hands of the senior engineer, suggests they go to talk to the captain.

Karl pleads the stoker's case somewhat fruitlessly but it is these elements that lay the foundations for the rest of the story. We follow Karl as he moves from one grotesquely unjust situation to another, always fruitlessly pleading his innocence and always concerned for the safety of his suitcase.

Amerika is frequently described as Kafka's lightest, most humourous work but I didn't see it that way at all. Karl's travails are actually quite depressing. At every turn he is thrown into a situation that he can't control and from which he cannot extricate himself.

Kafka's America, perhaps deliberately, is disconcertingly unreal. California is on the East Coast, for example, and Boston is connected to New York by a bridge. It may just be that Kafka wanted to demonstrate that the location was unimportant but for me it simply heightened the dissonance between Karl and the world of the novel.

At first, each new situation in which Karl finds himself at first feels as if it will be ok. It seems as if Karl has landed on his feet until, through no fault of his own, things take a turn for the worse.

The book ends abruptly - it is, after all, unfinished. The final sections are fragments and it is not clear what Kafka intended to do with them.

We leave Karl feeling optimistic about his latest situation but it is hard not to believe that events will soon conspire against him. It's certainly not how Kafka meant for the book to end but it gives the impression that Karl will be propelled from one unpleasant scenario to another forever.