Great Expectations by Charles Dickens (Dover, $3.50). A masterpiece of narrative, characterization, and surprise. At the center of Dickens's great novel is the mystery of Pip's benefactor. When the benefactor is revealed, Pip must re-evaluate everything that has happened in the first half of the novel. As he does this, we are shown a new, tender side of Pip, whom we thought we knew.
A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry (Vintage, $17). Mistry's fictional chronicle of life in 20th-century India digs into the country's complicated social strata, and shows with gentleness and humor the human suffering and despair that are produced as the crushing wheels of modern history turn.
War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy (Vintage, $20). The latest translation, by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, gets remarkably close to the original Russian and leaves in Tolstoy's bits of French, thus restoring the book's true texture. Here is the great tapestry of 19th-century Russia laid out and filigreed in beautiful stretches of narrative thread.
The Charterhouse of Parma by Stendhal (Penguin, $13). A novel of political intrigue that tells the life story of a 19th-century Italian nobleman as he goes to war, falls in love, and becomes enmeshed in internecine conflicts of church and state. The great scenes set at the Battle of Waterloo clearly were an inspiration to Tolstoy, whose novel was published 30 years later.
Continental Drift by Russell Banks (Harper, $15). Banks follows the obscure, hard-bitten lives of a New Englander and a determined Haitian woman. Separately, both head to Florida in search of some sort of enduring prosperity, only to fall victim to economic hardship, racial prejudice, and the realization that they cannot control the inexorable drift of their lives.
The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins (Dover, $4.50). Various first-person narrators recount the theft of a precious stone from India, and how this purloined gem wreaked havoc in the lives of people who came to temporarily possess it. Collins caps it all with one of the most poetic finales in English literature.
— Joseph Olshan is the author of nine novels, including Clara's Heart. His latest, Cloudland, is his first thriller, and features a murder that might have been inspired by Wilkie Collins, one of the authors Olshan recommends.