Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell. Originally published in 2004, I half-read it at my friend Colin's suggestion at university but returned to it when the wonderful movie adaptation (below) starring Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Jim Sturgess, Doona Bae, Susan Sarandon, Jim Broadbent, Hugh Grant, Hugo Weaving, James D'Arcy and Ben Whishaw was released. The story of various reincarnated souls passing through the centuries from pre-abolition America, the inter-war years in Britain, a nightmarish twenty-second century Korea and a dystopian future is haunting, clever, nimble, beautifully written and very moving. If the story of Sonmi-451 doesn't devastate you, see a therapist immediately.
A Place of Greater Safety by Hilary Mantel. Once you can get past the trademark horrors that Hilary Mantel seems to make of all her female characters, this 1992 novel inspired by the biographies of three male revolutionaries - Georges Danton, Camille Desmoulins, and Maximilien Robespierre - is actually a beautiful novel that captures perfectly how even the leaders of the Great Revolution of 1789 began to fear its strength and wonder how it would all end. (Hint - not happily for more or less anybody involved whose surname wasn't Bonaparte.) A Place of Greater Safety even manages to make Desmoulins interesting, charismatic and almost sympathetic - no mean achievement. A wonderful example of historical fiction.
A Night to Remember by Walter Lord. Famous for inspiring the 1958 movie of the same title (above), I had never actually read this minute-by-minute dramatisation of the Titanic disaster of 1912. Lord interviewed many of the survivors, had previously travelled on the Titanic's nearly-identical sister ship the Olympic, and approached the story of the sinking with a respect that bordered on the reverential. Unlike the 1997 take on the story, there are no fictitious love stories at the centre of Lord's novel. Instead, it's a gripping and almost forensic account of one of the greatest tragedies in maritime history. It also manages to capture the syntax and attitudes of 1912 perfectly. I loved this book and I wish I had read it earlier.