Maybe it’s an age thing, but lots of people I’ve spoken to recently seem to be going through a difficult time. Heartache, illness and hard decisions are a fundamental part of life, making them key themes in almost every book that was ever written. If you’re looking for answers and inspiration, there is honestly no better place to turn. Reading is good for the soul. It’s as simple as that.
It’s a bit of a gamble when you wander into Waterstones or start browsing Amazon, so here are my all-time favourite reads and what they stand for. They are all clever, thought-provoking and insightful in their own way. They do what I hoped my little blog would do – remind people that life will always throw hurdles at us, but without them we wouldn’t learn anything at all.
1. The Blind Assassin, by Margaret Atwood
An old lady reflecting back on her life, Iris Chase shares not only the deepest parts of her own history, but also those of her sister, Laura. The maps, puzzles and subtle complexities within this novel address the extent to which we all manipulate the facts, giving away only what we desire, and seeing only what we wish to see in return.
2. Half of a Yellow Sun, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Set in 1960s Nigeria during the Nigerian civil war, Half of a Yellow Sun dramatises the effects of the war through five different people: twin sisters, a professor, an Englishman and a boy. They are all connected, but the book focuses on the disconnection caused by the horror and paranoia of the war, revealing everything to have two sides, from personalities to whole countries.
3. Burial Rights, by Hannah Kent
Convicted murderess Agnes Magnúsdóttir is sent to live with a peasant family during the build up to her execution. Set in 1829, Northern Iceland, Burial Rites is as much a semi-poetic memoir to true events as it is a historical novel. The story of Agnes is built around true events and serves to give her the voice she never had. Not for the faint hearted, this book took me a little while to get over. And yes, I did cry.
4. Apple Tree Yard, by Louise Doughty
If you’re looking for a fast-paced page turner, Apple Tree Yard isn’t your average thriller. A story of love and deceit, secrets and sexism: respectable geneticist Yvonne Carmichael finds herself tangled in a court case that comes to define her. Gripping, surprising and very clever, Louise Doughty carefully examines the frustrations of the modern career woman before illustrating the consequences of putting desire first.
5. Shantaram, by Gregory David Roberts
Easily one of the best books I’ve ever read, and the ultimate story to keep your brain ticking while you’re travelling. The protagonist is a heroin addict, sent to prison in New Zealand. He escapes over the wall and flees to India where he lives and works as a doctor in a slum, falls in love, trades in the black market, is eventually recaptured before fighting in the war in Afghanistan. The story is based on the real life of the author, who wrote the novel while in prison where it was destroyed time and time again. This book will have you rethinking every opinion you’ve ever had. It’s inspiring, incredibly well written and heart-wrenchingly sad.
6. Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, Jonathan Safran Foer
This book is pretty unnerving but an important read. It takes convention and turns it on its head with some pretty disturbing images and dream-like anecdotes. The story is written largely from the point of view of a boy called Oska, who’s Dad has just died in the 9/11 terrorist attack. This book explores the impact of trauma and the extremities of both human emotion and humanity itself. We are guided through Oska’s journey to normality and meet some pretty insightful characters along the way.
7. Oryx and Crake, by Margaret Atwood
I’ve recommended this book to a few people. Some people have loved it and some people have hated it, but I wrote my dissertation on it so I’m kind of emotionally attached. Snowman wakes up in a tree, he is surrounded by a new breed of humans and the world as we know it has been lost to deadly disease. Atwood’s dystopian vision combines the darkest kind of humour with a direct criticism of modern society and the way the world is going. I love her for her wit and the way she explores the tension between science, art and everything in between. The book is part of a trilogy – The Year of the Flood and Maddaddam complete the story, which just gets stranger and stranger.
8. The Color Purple, by Alice Walker
It’s important that this book is so disturbing, because what was going on in rural Georgia in the 1930s was, quite frankly, disturbing. Celie is an African-American teenage girl who details everything about her difficult life in letters to God – you, the reader. You feel uncomfortably powerful reading this book. Gender roles are subverted over and over. If you read this book at school, read it again. It will seem different to you now.
9. Written on the body, by Jeanette Winterson
First things first, this book is written by a woman about a woman. It beautifully and intricately illustrates that love knows no boundaries or limitations, and also reminds us of our own prejudices. If you didn’t know any better, you’d assume the protagonist was a man. There are no overt homosexual references, just the implications of a love that is true and raw. I love Winterson’s voice in this book; she is strong, determined, arrogant and witty and yet helplessly in love. A really indulgent read that you can’t help but relate to.
10. A Thousand Splendid Suns, by Khaled Hosseini
“Of all the hardships a person had to face, none was more punishing than the simple act of waiting.” Proving that beauty and hope lurk in the darkest corners, this wonderful book retains so much beauty and grace for a text that directly confronts the rise of the Taliban. A Thousand Splendid Suns reminds us that some people are forced to endure more than others – the heroes in this book are rewarded with having an even greater capacity for love.
11. Beloved, by Toni Morrison
There is a beautiful kind of healing quality that comes from reading Beloved. You hurt and bleed with the characters and live not only their world, but the world of every black family that ever suffered racial segregation. When I can’t be bothered with work, I imagine the determination and strength of pregnant Sethe when her back is split open by a whip and she carries on walking. The surreal and supernatural nature of the story aligns slavery with fiction, forcing the reader to face up to its true horror and the ghosts of our past.
12. Tender is the Night, by F. Scott Fitzgerald
If the Great Gatsby thrilled you, then you’ll fall hard for Tender is the Night. Fitzgerald continues to expose 1920’s America, only this time he places his characters in the French Riviera. The story centres around Dick and Nicole and the microcosmic world they’ve created. Madness, deceit, identity and lust collide over and over in a haze of glamorous drunken scenarios – each character as doomed as the next. The book has inspired Liza Klaussman’s new read, Villa America – the next one on my list!
13. Room, by Emma Donoghue
If you haven’t come across this book before and don’t know what the twist is, go and read it immediately. Room is written from the point of view of five-year-old Jack, who has never been outside. This moving, chilling story reminds us what the human race is capable of, both in the best and worst-possible ways. Donoghue captures Jack’s voice brilliantly, too.
14. A Streetcar Named Desire, Tennessee Williams
Please watch the original production of this after you’ve read the play; it has Marlon Brando in it and that’s all you need to know. A Streetcar Named Desire dramatises the extent which to we are obsessed with the appearance of things. The play focuses on lust, insanity, power struggles and class, and every character is beautifully flawed.
15. How to Build a Girl, by Caitlin Moran
This book is completely different to anything you’ve read before. Moran goes one step further than anyone has ever dared. HTBAG is so rude and ridiculous that you can’t help but love it. It’s so real it’s unreal, and so silly it’s clever. Feminism, the class system, identity and society defined, quite rightly, by a painfully honest teenage girl from Wolverhampton.
I would LOVE to hear your thoughts on any of these books, or just any books in general. Comments always welcome below.