I always have an ever-growing ‘to read’ list of books on my bedside table, and choosing my next read sends me into a geeky frenzy – so many books, so little time! Which are the best ones? Why can’t I devour them all at once? So if you’re like me, here’s a shortlist of the best books I’ve read to help you out. They’ll change your life…
Toibin is a magical writer, and he turns his mammoth talent to this mammoth subject in a way only he could. Told from the point of view of the the Virgin Mary, living in exile, the novel pieces together her memories of the events leading up to her son’s brutal death. I don’t think you have to be familiar with the Biblical story of Jesus to be blown away by this hauntingly beautiful novel, but it’s probably more powerful if you are. Having been raised (loosely) as a Catholic (though no longer a practising one), this book turned my world inside out and I will never look at the religion the same way again. What Toibin presents here is a very human, earthly wound, naked and raw beneath a well known mythology. The novella, though short, is gritty, tender, and heart aching, and even without any biblical reference one of the most poignant stories of a mother, a woman, and a human being, I think you will ever read.
I received this book as a gift when I was a teenager, and I must have re-started it about 3 times. The novel failed to hook me me. I kept tuning out during the wordy pre-amble of the first few chapters, and was not convinced I’d be rewarded by my early efforts. Finally one weekend I committed to seeing it through – and it easily became one of my favourite books of all time. Most people know the story: a boy gets stranded on a life boat in the middle of the pacific ocean with a zebra, hyena, orangutan, and a Bengal tiger. The story is one of faith and survival. Do yourself a favour and pretend the movie doesn’t exist – it’s a good watch, but could never compare to the novel, which wraps you in blankets of philosophy, despair, tenderness, suspense, and a level of contemplation that the film cannot even begin to inspire.
This is Plath’s one and only novel, and it is a largely autobiographical one at that. The Bell Jar tells the story of Esther Greenwood, a summer intern at a magazine in New York City who finds herself becoming progressively detached from the world she inhabits, and those in it. While I have long been a fan of Plath’s poetry, I didn’t even know this novel existed until it popped up on my university book list. I did no research prior to reading it, so had no idea what to expect, but what I found was a work of such mesmerising and brutal honesty that I couldn’t put it down. The book so deeply spoke to me that I felt thrilled to be ‘understood’ at last… until I read the descriptions of the story on Amazon that dismiss it as ‘Esther’s descent into insanity’ and her ‘complete mental breakdown’ (hmmm). I think this dismissal denies the novel it’s true power as a deep exploration of the human psyche – I think many (if not all) of the thoughts and ideas of Esther Greenwood are found deep within the most ‘stable’ of human minds, and if you are brave enough to open yourself up to them as you read, you’ll be enlightened.
This is not the most ‘literary’ of novels, but it renewed my love of reading after a long hiatus where I just couldn’t seem to get into anything. This book reminding me why I love reading. Margaret Lea, a young biographer and booklover with her own ghosts is summoned by a bestselling author, Vida Winter who has spent her life weaving fictions about her past. Now old and ill, Vida decides to enlist Margaret to finally help her reveal the true story of her life. This book is pure escapism – you will want to just crawl into its pages and live there and never leave. It really does encompass everything you love about a really good book – delicious characters, mysteriousness, gothic atmosphere, complex relationships, secret histories and an awesome twist to boot. I’m not usually a fan of stories within stories but Setterfield entwines it all so expertly it feels like you’re at the best dessert buffet in the world and somehow managing to eat everything at once.
I spent a week at a writing course with Janet (among other amazing writers) but had never read any of her novels. Over the week, however, her artistry with words and ideas, not to mention her general awesomeness, convinced me to give her first bestseller a go. Fitch makes language delicious. This is the kind of book you want to gobble up because the story is as addictive as nicotine, but then find you have to slow yourself down because you want to savour each wordy morsel. The subject matter, however isn’t light. The story follows teenage Astrid Magnussen, who is forced to navigate her way through the foster care system when her mum is charged with murder and sentenced to life in prison. Full of both existentialism and the harshness of reality, I love how intimate this novel feels, and how the lessons and laws and relationships that shape, develop, and destroy Astrid become the reader’s own.
This is one of those novels that defies classification. Part contemporary, part fantasy, part historical, part gothic – and yet none of these – Davidson definitely marches to the beat of his own drum. The novel opens with the narrator, an arrogant, drug-taking, porn star, suffering horrific burns in a car accident (which is utterly repelling and engrossing in equal measure), and then Marianne Engel, sculptor of gargoyles, comes on the scene while he is recovering in hospital and everything changes. Marianne insists that she and the narrator (who remains nameless) first met 700 years ago, and she has been waiting for him ever since. Over the course of the novel, the narrator makes elaborate plans for his suicide, and meanwhile Marianne recounts to him stories of their past lives together, stories of deathless love in Japan, Iceland, Italy, and England. This existential book is consuming and intoxicating – and while the prose is not as rich or poetic and I’d usually prefer, the unique complexity, and beauty, of the story blew me away.
If your idea of ‘historical fiction’ is synonymous with ‘bodice ripper’ then this book changes the game entirely. I’ve always loved literary historical fiction set in the 15th-16th century, but it is hard to find, so I was overjoyed to read Mantel’s take on the life of Thomas Cromwell, advisor to King Henry VIII. Free of the cringe-worthy cliche’s that plague most novels about this notorious King and his ‘people’, Wolf Hall is a literary masterpiece first, and a ‘historical novel’ second. Every page makes me sigh. Each phrase is as close to perfect as you could get in a novel. It’s like a massage for the brain. The novel sits on Cromwell’s shoulder as he works with Cardinal Wolsey, and then the King himself, to secure the divorce from Katherine of Aragon in order to marry Anne Boleyn. While the story is familiar to anyone with a rudimentary knowledge of British Royal History, Mantel takes an entirely fresh approach, and in my mind, remains unsurpassed.
It may have been first published in 1985, but this dystopian novel is just as poignant and powerful in 2015. In Atwood’s futuristic ‘Republic of Gilead’ (formally the US), pollution and STIs have rendered the majority of the population infertile. Offred, the protagonist, is the ‘handmaid’ of the title, and is one of the few women possibly still able to reproduce, and therefore forcibly sent to serve wealthy and powerful men by bearing them and their wives’ children. The ‘tale’ preys on a myriad of psychological fears, particularly women’s, but it’s more than an exploration of female oppression in an imagined dystopia (please don’t dismiss it as ‘1984 for feminists’). The most chilling part of this haunting examination of the human condition is that while it’s set in the future, it’s is not unfamiliar or unforeseeable, and I think that’s what sets it apart from your regular dystopian ‘sci-fi’ and makes it profoundly and poetically haunting.
This was the controversial winner of the 2013 Man Booker Prize, and my scepticism kept me from jumping on it straightaway. Reviews were mixed, if not predominantly negative, and to be honest, it was a hefty tome in which to invest if most people thought it kind of sucked. However, I’m so glad I did. This book was awesome. It was a confusing and overwhelming and convoluted and ultimately entrancing story built around the 1866 Gold-mining town of Hokitika. The deliciously rich tapestry of subplots and unsolved crimes begins with fortune hunter, Walter Moody, stumbling upon a gathering of 12 local men (all members of Cation’s large and eccentric cast) discussing recent events which include the disappearance of a wealthy man, the attempted suicide of a whore, and the discovery of a huge fortune in the home of a useless drunk. Everything starts to tangle and and unravel from there. This is a ridiculously clever novel that rewards the reader who trusts in the author – just let Catton take you on this wild ride, trust that you’ll know what you need to know, and learn what you need to learn, and you’ll reap a rich reward.
It took a some reflection time for this one to cement itself on this list. At the time of reading it I wasn’t particularly blown away, but after I’d finished, the story of Alma Whittaker, 19th Century botanist, stuck with me. The strength, and life changing, component of this novel lies in the fact that Alma is almost the ‘antihero’. The unnattractive, yet sensual, homebody who experiences more loss than love, and finds more joy in the study of mosses than in becoming your usual female protagonist heroine. Instead of fighting for cliched concepts of ‘love’ or ‘freedom’ or ‘equality’, Gilbert takes a ‘fly on the wall’ approach to her narration of the novel, allowing us to simply observe the evolution of a real woman in a real time. In this way, however, Alma becomes a more genuine and human heroine than I have found in many recent reads. She is made more remarkable by the fact that Gilbert does not portray her as such. Rather, she is so raw and human that it is impossible not to be drawn in to her life as she evolves from a naive and curious teenager, into a yearning adult, and finally into a reflective and ageing woman. The complexity of humanity is portrayed perfectly in this novel.
So put these 10 books to the top of your reading list. I guarantee you’ll be glad you did. Prepare to have your life changed 😉