Of course, it's essentially a futile exercise. Considering the vast range of literature and the enormous difference in tastes, there's no way any list can really be considered definitive. And even if it was, it could change next week. With over two million books published world-wide every year, (according to Wikipedia - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Books_published_per_country_per_year) some at least must be worth reading!
So this is not an exhaustive or exclusive list. Still, these are some of the books, sorted roughly by genre, that I would definitely be happy to recommend.
1) Fantasy: Mordant's Need by Stephen Donaldson.
A women from our world is brought into another world and finds herself in the centre of a deadly power game with a hidden enemy.
OK, so this is actually two books – at least in the edition I've got – 'The Mirror of Her Dreams' and 'A Man Rides Through'. But I'm making the rules here, so it's allowed.
For me, this is one of the best fantasy tales ever. The magical element in the story lies in the power of mirrors. When made by people who have the talent, these mirrors can see into other places, even other worlds – and can also form a gateway to those places.
What I particularly like is the way Donaldson has taken this one element and built his story round it. The entire culture of his world is effected by the power of mirrors, and those who make them. Against this background he has woven a brilliant story of love and intrigue.
2) Science Fiction: A Fire on the Deep by Vernor Vinge.
Explorers on a distant world come in contact with an incredibly advanced entity which has the power to control minds on an interstellar scale. The only way of destroying it is hidden on a primitive world – which has problems of its own.
For sheer epic scope, there's nothing much to match this. It involves a threat to the entire galaxy, and the enormous range of concepts it deals with is mind boggling. It also has some of the best alien races ever conceived!
3) War: Killing Rommel by Steven Pressfield
North Africa, 1942. Men of the Long Range Desert Group seek to change the course of the war by assassinating Rommel. Based on real events.
One of the dangers of war stories is that they can be guilty of glorifying war itself. This one doesn't. It shows the reality of war: courage and endurance, excitement and action, boredom and discomfort and fear … most of all it shows how ordinary people can become extraordinary. Reading this gives a much deeper understanding of what heroism is about.
(Also a good video intro to the book - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pkE1YTKD9HA)
4) History: Persian Fire by Tom Holland
Five centuries before Christ, the mighty Persian Empire sets out to crush the terrorist states of Athens and Sparta. That conflict was one of the pivotal points in history: had the outcome been different, the world we live in today would never have existed.
History, properly told, can be as exciting as any thriller and as strange as any fantasy. And Tom Holland certainly knows how to tell a good story. Though packed with fascinating facts, I found it well paced and deeply absorbing. Plus which the characterisation is brilliant – they were all real people!
5) Historical Fiction: The Circling Song by Russell Cruse
The First World War. Private Henry Lawrence suffers a head injury. As he recovers, he develops remarkable abilities. But with those abilities, comes the choice and responsibility of how to use them.
This could perhaps be included in the Science Fiction section as much as in Historical Fiction. It doesn't fit neatly into genre boundaries – which to me is a plus point in itself! But though the premise is a very SF one, the setting is firmly and realistically First World War, with all the horror and waste of that conflict. Brilliantly told through a series of letters, journal entries and official reports, it remains one of the best things I've ever read in any genre.
6) Horror: Offshore by Lucy Pepperdine.
A maintenance crew is sent out to a decommissioned oil rig to carry out essential work. But something else is already there. Something that is very hungry indeed.
I'm not a great reader of horror stories. But this is definitely one to make an exception for. It takes a lot of the standard themes of the genre – isolated location, mixed bag of characters, a hidden monster who's true nature is only slowly revealed – and gives it a new twist, setting it on an oil rig out in the North Sea. It's dark, vivid and gritty stuff, with adult themes and some very nasty surprises. The writer has crafted it perfectly, steadily escalating the tension and keeping the final outcome open right to the end.
7) Crime: Bedlam by B.A. Morton.
Detective Joe McNeil has lost the love of his life. Everyone else thinks she's dead, but he can't accept that. It's an obsession that's wrecking his life and his career. But things are about to get a whole lot worse.
This goes far beyond the normal crime novel. In the words of my Amazon review, 'It's incredibly well crafted, finely balanced between a gritty police drama and a surrealistic supernatural fantasy - and that takes you right into the mind of the main character, who is himself struggling to understand what is and is not real. Keeping the reader involved whilst still maintaining that intentional confusion is a very difficult trick, but Morton pulls it off so well that I didn't even notice it happening. Instead I was totally absorbed by the pace, the tension and the mystery.'
8) Biography: Wild Swans by Jung Chang.
An epic of Chinese history told through the lives of three generations of women – the author, her mother and her grandmother.
“At the age of fifteen my grandmother became the concubine of a warlord general”. That opening sentence to this incredible book seems to me to encapsulate the huge changes that swept over China in the twentieth century. That vast sweep of events is brought down to a human and personal level as the author recounts what happened to her family through those years. It is an amazing and fascinating story, brilliantly told.
9) Undefinable: In the Garden of Stones by Lucy Pepperdine.
Grace is a damaged person, struggling to recover after her second attempt at suicide. As part of her therapy, she creates an imaginary garden, a place to escape to, a place to heal. But she finds the garden is already occupied – by someone hurting even more than she is.
Lucy Pepperdine gets a second mention in my list for this powerful and beautiful tale – very different from her horror stories, but every bit as well told. It could be called a psychological thriller, or a medical romance, or a story about the effects of war – but none of those labels really does it justice. So I simply call it undefined – and a great story!
10) Mine: The Orb.
A wounded warrior marches up a snowy hillside, carrying a treasure beyond price. He is met by a demon, a spiritual being of enormous power and malevolence. Upon their meeting hangs the fate of a world.
Strictly speaking, 'mine' isn't really a genre! But my list, my rules, and if it was, this would probably be my favourite!