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Rules: In a text post, list ten books that have stayed with you in some way. Don’t take but a few minutes, and don’t think too hard — they don’t have to be the “right” or “great” works, just the ones that have touched you. Tag five friends, including me, so I’ll see your list. Make sure you let your friends know you’ve tagged them!
Ten is difficult but okay. Some spoilers herein.
1. Goodnight Mister Tom by Michelle Magoran
My favourite teacher at primary school was Mrs Addams. Mrs Addams had a drama background, and every year she would write the school play which was invariably hilarious and brilliant. If you were lucky enough to be in her class that year you also got to experience her book corners each afternoon, into which she’d pour in all her drama experience. We loved her, she did all the voices and gestures and no one fidgeted or talked during Mrs Addams’ book corners. Best of all was when she read to us Goodnight Mister Tom. It was her favourite too, that was obvious, and she treated it with absolute seriousness. When we laughed at the bit where Will and Zach discuss sex she told us all to shut up and act like grown up: we were 9-years-old. Other than that though we were enraptured, and when Tom discovers Will at his mother’s, covered in the evidence of her abuse and clutching the cold corpse of his infant sister – and later when Zach (Zach!) if killed in the Blitz – you could have heard a pin drop. I think for most of us it was the first book we had read (heard?) that dealt with these subjects – death, child abuse, prejudice – and for my at least it stuck. I love WWII children’s fiction to this day, but nothing will ever come close to Goodnight Mister Tom for me.
2. It by Stephen King
It was the first adult book I ever read; Mrs Addams’ class was a great year of reading discovery for me. I’d become obsessed by the TV film and my dad, based on this, thought it would be an excellent idea to borrow the book from the library for me. My mother was less convinced: It is over a thousand pages in length and, well, it’s Stephen King. When she questioned my dad, asking but don’t Stephen King books have a lot of swearing and stuff in them my dad replied “Stephen King doesn’t need to swear.” Lying bastard. It took me three months to read, I didn’t understand all of it, but I was fascinated. It was my first introduction to proper horror and the first time I’d read sex scenes (this was before I discovered fanfiction, after which I’d read nothing but), most memorably Beverley faking orgasms for her abusive husband and the infamous gangbang between 11-year-olds. These days I’ve a lot of problems with King’s writing – he badly needs an editor and his folksiness gets on my tits. But I haven’t a bad word against It. King is best when he writes about children growing up in fifties America and that’s what It is, essentially, a vast, sprawling, nourishing, coming-of-age story. With a child-eating clown.
3. Watership Down by Richard Adams
I was introduced to the film first, and I loved it. I was enthralled by its terrifying aesthetic: the Black Rabbit, the gassing of the burrow, the sun bleeding out onto the field and the skeletal trees. I’d never seen anything like it. But this, youngsters, was before Amazon and I could never find the book anywhere. It took several years before I came across a copy and well, I devoured it. It’s beautiful and the story is engaging but I still don’t understand what it is that keeps me reading it year after year. But I adore it.
4. Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling
Well duh. I’m not picking a specific book here because they all had their influential moments for me. With Harry Potter it’s the experience that is the stand-out. I feel badly for the kids who will never have the thrill of waiting – sometimes for three years at a time – for the next instalment. The fandom that grew up in these intervening years was a fabulous and occasionally terrifying thing and that was all a part of it, the Harry Potter experience. And then when the actual releases happened, swearing off all media (so hard!), reading till your head ached and then endless hours talking. I don’t think I’ll ever have that experience again.
5. A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess
Lolita showed me what you can do with English, A Clockwork Orange what you could do with language. This is a book that has to be read to be believed but seven pages in and you’re thinking in Nadsat, a dialect that doesn’t even exist.
6. Brokeback Mountain by Annie Proulx
My favourite short story, this is a powerhouse of brevity. Proulx says she rewrote this countless times and I believe her: not one word is wasted. It has this bare, sombre beauty that reflects both its setting and its characters; no frills and Spartan. I periodically go back to the version I have of this saved somewhere and can’t believe its perfection. Stunning.
7. House of Leaves by Mark Z Danielewski
This is the only book on this list that I wouldn’t describe as one of my favourites, but it is extraordinary. The most creepy and one of the smartest books I’ve read. Also one of the most frustrating. You read it knowing you are only perceiving part of what is going on and short of finding an internet guide and reading through with that open – doesn’t sound appealing to me – you’re never going to catch it all.
8. The Peregrine by J.A. Baker
I wanted one non-fiction book on this list and this is it. Kinda. You read this knowing that it cannot all be true but it doesn’t matter because it is so, so beautiful. An ode to the power of that peculiarly British brand of citizen science (kind of). Stark and evocative, this is nature writing at its pinnacle.
9. The Chaos Walking trilogy by Patrick Ness
Most of the young adult fiction I read as an adult is disappointing and/or annoying, but every so often I come across a gem. Tell the Wolves I’m Home was one, Chaos Walking another. The blurb looked silly but I’d heard good things and well, that title was too intriguing, so I gave it a go and, well, I’m glad I did. Putting down The Knife of Never Letting Go I had to take a breath, it’s so pacey and I’d read it so quickly. Done right, children’s and young adult fiction is more than equal to adult fiction; this is one example.
10. The Regeneration trilogy by Pat Barker
Some people i.e. my sister were lucky enough to study this at A Level; I had to wait until my mid-twenties. I’ve a thing for WWI fiction and a thing for what I facetiously term “sad historical gays” e.g. At Swim, Two Boys; The Charioteer; Mary Renault’s Alexander series; Maurice; Brideshead Revisited and so on – all excellent , and not necessarily unhappy, books in spite of my flippant label. This series, however, is the best of them all and yes, it is unhappy. As sharp and accurate as a blade, these books will cut out your heart and you’ll love them for it, even with the taste of your own blood and tears filling your mouth. I felt I’d be eviscerated when I finished these. Read them.