The best novels about people with guts

The Books I Picked & Why

Across the Empty Quarter

By Wilfrid Thesiger

Book cover of Across the Empty Quarter

Why this book?

Thesiger was a British military officer, explorer, and writer, who, in the second half of the 20th century, traveled on foot, horse, and by camel across Arabia, the Middle East, and Africa. Rub' al Khali, the Empty Quarter, is the largest sand desert in the world, a desolate, dangerous plane of rolling dunes, with a very limited number of waterholes. At the time of Thesiger’s travels in the late 1940s, this desert had been traveled exclusively by the local Bedu. What makes this book intriguing is the description of the harsh landscape and the people that live in it. Thesiger traveled the desert with a purpose (he wanted to find out more about a locust with some ecological relevance), so he and his guides voyaged huge distances. As the reader turns the pages, the overwhelming sense of adventure and Thesiger’s lust for the unknown become contagious. Many books have been written about travels through Arabia, but this one stands out as an adventure book that is both very personal and wide in scope.


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The 39 Steps

By John Buchan

Book cover of The 39 Steps

Why this book?

Buchan’s books are full of DIY heroes, men thrown into impossible situations but who manage to survive through their wits, a healthy dose of humor - and if necessary, with their fists. The book follows the hero Hannay, as he tries to escape German spies, first through England and then the wilderness of Scotland. The odds are stacked high against Hannay, but his bravura and strong will help him solve the mystery and dissolve the spy ring. Some of the views expressed in Buchan’s books are no longer politically correct and his works should always be understood in the context of his times, yet they make for very compelling reading.


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Planet of Adventure: City of the Chasch, Servants of the Wankh, The Dirdir, and The Pnume

By Jack Vance

Book cover of Planet of Adventure: City of the Chasch, Servants of the Wankh, The Dirdir, and The Pnume

Why this book?

Vance is one of the best Sci-Fi authors of the twentieth century, although for a long time he wasn’t a household name in the genre. Over 70 years he has written an abundance of books, all of which focused on distant worlds and human societies that have differentiated into freedom-loving, anarchic and weird cultures. “Planet of Adventure” is a set of four books, and deals with Adam Reith, a single astronaut stranded on a planet ruled by four races of extraterrestrials. Humans are little more than slaves on this planet, and Adam needs all his wits to survive… and to find a way off the planet and back home. The book resembles a wild, expressionist painting; the extraterrestrials and their strange cultures and the humans that serve them provide the color and texture to a truly amazing adventure.


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The Mysterious Island

By Jules Verne

Book cover of The Mysterious Island

Why this book?

Verne has written many books about survival, exploration, and technical innovation. In many aspects, he was far ahead of his time, a nineteen century Sci-Fi wonder boy. He was a masterful storyteller, providing an expert rhythm of action scenes followed by contemplative paragraphs. The Mysterious Island deals with a group of people that has landed in an impossible situation: they are castaways on a deserted island. In most books of this genre, the subjects will succumb or barely manage to survive, but not so for Verne’s engineer and his companions. Through the combination of scientific knowledge, the sheer power of man’s muscles, and unwavering optimism, they quickly turn nature to their benefit and remodel the island to their liking. A thrilling adventure story!


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Rogue Male

By Geoffrey Household

Book cover of Rogue Male

Why this book?

Imagine a lone man, who single-handedly attempts to kill Adolf Hitler, who then gets caught and tortured by the Gestapo, then manages to escape back to England. By itself, the book could stop there, as this would be sufficient for any adventure novel. However, Household continues the story. The hero, once back in England, discovers that the Nazis are on his tail, and have sworn to kill him: he turns into a rogue male, which is an expression to describe a runaway, marauding elephant bull. Ironically, the spy on the hero’s heels is a big game hunter, and the two enter into a cat and mouse play, finally forcing the hero to go (literally!) underground. Without a doubt, a prime adventure story, intertwined with important political messaging.


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