The other day I was chatting with a friend about books, and she asked me which one was my favourite. This threw me into a mild panic because I’m far too indecisive to choose just one favourite of anything, so in the end she took pity on me and let me do a top ten.
This was easier, but I had to give up on putting them in any kind of order, as it was too painful. If anyone’s seen the episode of The Big Bang Theory where Sheldon tries to get to sleep by ranking his favourite X Men, you’ll have some idea what I was going through.
So here, in no particular order, are my top ten books. That’s not to say I won’t hit publish and suddenly remember another one, but these are the ten that first spring to mind, so they’re the ones I’m going with. I think.
The BFG (Roald Dahl)
I had to put this one in, as it brings back fond memories of primary school. Since I’m now getting on a bit, I don’t remember a lot about my primary school days, but I do remember sitting cross-legged on the hall floor, listening to the headmaster, Mr Davies, reading us Roald Dahl stories, complete with all the different voices. Of all the Roald Dahl books, The BFG was my favourite, and I think part of me probably genuinely believed that dreams really did come from a big friendly giant, and that any problem, no matter how small – or, in this case, big – could be solved by going to see the Queen. And to this day I still occasionally refer to helicopters as ‘belly-poppers’. It’s hard to stop.
The Post-Birthday World (Lionel Shriver)
The first book I read by Lionel Shriver was the much-hyped We Need to Talk About Kevin, which I enjoyed (in a slightly horrified way), but will never read again because of the traumatic eye incident. Shudder. The Post-Birthday World is written in the same style but without all the death and gore. The main character, Irina, has to make a big decision at the end of the first chapter, at which point the story splits in two. In one version, Irina stays with her long-term but slightly boring boyfriend, and in the other she runs off with an exciting but volatile snooker player. It’s similar to Sliding Doors, except that the defining moment is a conscious choice and not the result of fate. I love the idea behind it, and it’s a great way of demonstrating how the decisions we make can impact on the rest of our lives. Only downside: there’s quite a lot of snooker talk…
The Hundred Year Old Man Who Climbed Out of the Window and Disappeared (Jonas Jonasson)
I’ve talked about this book before – not just on the blog but everywhere, to anyone who’ll listen. I bought it by chance and loved it instantly. It’s a story about refusing to stop living and having fun, no matter how old you get. Allan is in an old people’s home on his 100th birthday, where they’re about to throw him a party. Except he doesn’t want a party, so he climbs out the window and goes on an adventure. The action alternates between the mayhem Allan leaves behind as he makes his escape, and flashbacks of his amazing life, which reads like a slightly alternative history of the 20th century. It’s hilarious and brilliant, and if you haven’t read it yet, why not?!
Tess of the d’Urbervilles (Thomas Hardy)
Not a funny book. Actually a horribly tragic and devastating book that makes me sad and angry every time I read it. Tess Durbeyfield is a poor country girl sent by her parents to meet the rich d’Urberville family, who they believe to be their relations. What follows is a series of horrible events and misunderstandings, with Tess caught in the middle and totally at the mercy of the men in her life. I realise I’m not exactly selling it here, but despite being seriously depressing (Thomas Hardy wasn’t known for his happy books) it’s also a gripping read, which twists and turns and takes you on quite the rollercoaster of emotions. I recommend it, but let’s just say it’s not light holiday reading.
A Quiet Belief in Angels (R.J. Ellory)
I first discovered this book a few years ago, and have since read it several times. It’s a thriller, but not your typical thriller; it’s not action-packed, and in fact moves quite slowly, but for all that, the shocks keep coming. The main character, Joseph Vaughan, is a boy at the start of the novel, when a murderer starts killing local girls. The murders have a profound effect on Joseph, and change the course of his life; although the story isn’t always directly focused on the deaths, it’s clear that had they not happened, everything would have been very different. Although the book is at times very difficult to read, it’s also brilliantly written and for me the descriptions really brought the small Georgia town to life (and I’m even more impressed having since discovered that the author’s British and had never been to Georgia before he wrote the novel). However, I’ve been advised by a friend that it’s not the best subject matter when you’re pregnant. Just in case anyone was thinking about it.
Into the Darkest Corner (Elizabeth Haynes)
This one’s in the list because it was such a surprise. As I so often do, I bought it because it was 99p on Kindle, not expecting it to be anything special, and then found myself gripped by this story of domestic abuse (cheerful, I know). I also found myself seriously considering if I might have a touch of OCD, an experience I’ve since found many other people had as well. The novel’s special to me because it led to our first (and so far, only) author-attended book club meeting. Elizabeth Haynes is lovely and not at all the kind of person you’d expect to write such dark stories; she’s since gone on to write one about people dying at home and quietly rotting because nobody knew they were there. Charming.
The Time Traveller’s Wife (Audrey Niffenegger)
Slightly surprised to find myself including this one because as a rule, I don’t understand time travel; it just messes with my head. So a story about a guy with a medical condition that makes him spontaneously travel in time and end up in the future or past was maybe not the best thing for me to read, especially on my morning commute when I’m barely awake as it is. (My friend was sitting opposite me on the train when I started reading it and said I looked very confused.) But there’s something irresistible about this love story with a difference. The two main characters have known each other all her life (but not all his), and she’s been waiting years for him to arrive in ‘real time’. When he does, their romance faces all the usual challenges but with a time travel twist, and contrary to all my expectations, I really enjoyed it.
Pride and Prejudice (Jane Austen)
The original romantic comedy. There can’t be too many girls out there who don’t know and love the story of Mr Darcy and Elizabeth Bennett. (Even if they don’t think they do; there are so many versions now – original, modern, Bollywood. We all like one of them. Come on, admit it.) It’s a classic formula. True, it’s not exactly something that happens in everyday life – at least not to me! – but maybe that’s the appeal of it. If Mr Darcy got introduced to Elizabeth by a friend, they went out for a while and then decided to get married, somehow I don’t think it would have the same appeal.
The Book Thief (Markus Zusak)
This book is one that I tend to forget about until I read it again, when I remember why I love it. It’s narrated by Death, which is weird, but somehow works, and is the story of Liesel, a young girl caught up in the horrors of WW2 Germany. The book covers the persecution of the Jews and everyday life during the war from a child’s perspective, which somehow makes it more horrifying. It also brings home the fact that for normal civilians, it doesn’t matter which side you’re on – war is war. The final lines are haunting and really make you think about the terrible things humans do to each other. Although there are some gimmicky aspects, which I know not everyone gets on with, I’d recommend everyone to give this book a go; I think it’s pretty special.
The Little Stranger (Sarah Waters)
I put this in because it’s probably the best book club discussion we’ve had. It’s a spooky story about an old house and a series of strange events which begin to happen there. The narrator, a local doctor, finds himself drawn into the lives of the family living in the house, and attempting to explain away what appear to be supernatural occurrences. It’s a good book, with a suitable number of shocks and scares, but the real power is in the conclusion, which is very much open to interpretation. Hence the debate, which got quite heated at times as we all argued for what we thought had been behind it all. Having read it again since, I stand by my conclusion, and would be prepared to fight for it all over again if necessary. Bring it on.
Ok. I’m exhausted, and already thinking I should have included Rebecca, Atonement, The Humans, Harry Potter, The Shadow of the Wind, The Kite Runner and Game of Thrones. (You see what I mean? How was I ever meant to pick one?) So expect another blog post soon. And probably then another one after that…