(and will change yours too, if you give them the chance)
As a writer who is currently studying English at university, I am often asked what my favourite book is. My answer: what a horrible question! There are so many books of so many genres written by so many people that I often have no idea what to say. My mouth opens and closes like a gasping fish and I make a strangled sort of gargling noise, as if I am one of those fish-people from Doctor Who (picture below, for the uninitiated).
So! I am putting my thoughts to paper (or pixel, bearing in mind that you are reading this on a screen) and coming up with a shortlist of the top ten best books I have read. No, actually, scratch that. These novels may not be the best that I have read, but they are the ones that have changed my life the most. This list contains twelve books (I’ve never been good at maths), but one of them is a series and this is my blog, so I am going to let it stand. Therefore, in descending order:
10. Matilda – Roald Dahl
So Matilda’s strong young mind continued to grow, nurtured by the voices of all those authors who had sent their books out into the world like ships on the sea. These books gave Matilda a hopeful and comforting message: You are not alone.
Who doesn’t like Roald Dahl? Monsters, that’s who (as well as people planning to murder their husbands with legs of frozen lamb). I loved this book as a child because of how it presents the acquisition of knowledge as the acquisition of power, though I doubt I said it so eloquently back then… Matilda is one of the best books out there for introverted, kind of nerdy children because it acts as its own messenger – promoting the idea that books are inherently special and not just for people who can’t afford iPads.
9. Tuck Everlasting – Natalie Babbitt
Don’t be afraid of death; be afraid of an unlived life. You don’t have to live forever, you just have to live.
I love this book! It poses a question that has been asked throughout the ages: would you choose immortality or a precious mortal life? It’s a brilliant way for young teenagers to grapple with complex philosophical problems without being too heart-wrenching. There was also a severely underrated Broadway musical based on it, but it closed a couple of years ago (the soundtrack is still available online).
8. The Bad Beginning – Lemony Snicket
It is a curious thing, the death of a loved one. We all know that our time in this world is limited, and that eventually all of us will end up underneath some sheet, never to wake up. And yet it is always a surprise when it happens to someone we know. It is like walking up the stairs to your bedroom in the dark, and thinking there is one more stair than there is. Your foot falls down, through the air, and there is a sickly moment of dark surprise as you try and readjust the way you thought of things.
I am convinced that Lemony Snicket is to blame for my love of libraries, and for my deep longing for desolate, open spaces. This is only the first book in the Series of Unfortunate Events series but it’s probably my favourite because it introduces us to the characters and the slightly-off world in which the rest of the books are set. The Netflix series is amazing, too. Just let this series into your life, you will not regret it.
7. Black Beauty – Anna Sewell
A short time after this a cart with a dead horse in it passed our cab-stand. The head hung out of the cart-tail, the lifeless tongue was slowly dropping with blood; and the sunken eyes! but I can’t speak of them, the sight was too dreadful… Oh! if men were more merciful, they would shoot us before we came to such misery.
How can you read this and not feel a fresh wave of guilt for how poorly our ancestors and us have treated so-called ‘beasts of burden’? I think this is a classic for a reason, children need to discover this horror for themselves. Luckily, the ending is slightly less grim than the plot suggests. A must-read if you want to feel sad about fictional horses.
6. The Persian Boy – Mary Renault
It is better to believe in men too rashly, and regret, than believe too meanly. Men could be more than they are, if they would try for it. He has shown them that. How many have tried, because of him? Not only those I have seen; there will be men to come. Those who look in mankind only for their own littleness, and make them believe in that, kill more than he ever will in all his wars.
How could I not love this novel? I adore Alexander the Great and everything to do with him, especially when I find a new and interesting take on his life (the guy has been dead for quite a few years so it’s a bit difficult to put a fresh spin on things). Could have done with better characterisation of Hephaestion, but that is me being picky.
5. Plain Kate – Erin Bow
“Taggle was absorbed in the meat pie. ‘It’s covered in BREAD,’ he huffed. ‘What fool has covered MEAT with BREAD?”
As someone who has recently lost their cat, this book hits especially hard because Taggle is not just any cat, he is every cat. His interactions with Kate are, without a doubt, the best animal-human relationship in all of literature (and I can say that as an English student). 10/10 worthwhile reading for any animal lover.
4. Brideshead Revisited – Evelyn Waugh
If it could only be like this always – always summer, always alone, the fruit always ripe and Aloysius in a good temper…
Listen, I love a bit of Waugh, and this is him at his best. Somehow, even at the age of nineteen, this book makes me feel nostalgic for my youth. I fully understand that I have never had the experience of being a gay man in 1920’s Oxford, but this will not stop me from flicking idly through the pages on days that Bristol is looking particularly picturesque. Only someone reading this book through the most heteronormative of lenses could see Sebastian Flyte as anything other than the most iconic gay icon of the 1940s.
3. The Song of Achilles – Madeline Miller
I could recognize him by touch alone, by smell; I would know him blind, by the way his breaths came and his feet struck the earth. I would know him in death, at the end of the world.
Madeline Miller is a go-to if you want to feel nostalgia for a world in which you have never lived. Her writing is so poetic that it feels like reading verse, or like looking through a prose translation of one of the Greek epics. Filled with compelling characters, The Song of Achilles is a must-read for people who love complex LGBT+ relationships and/or Greek mythology (and, if we’re to be honest, the Venn diagram of LGBT+ supporters and lovers of Greek mythology is a circle).
2. The Wind on Fire Trilogy – William Nicholson
“I don’t want to do any of those things you said. I want – I want – to make things right.”
“Then so you shall.”
“Is it so easy?”
“Not easy. Not easy at all. Think how much is wanting to make things wrong. All the fear in the world, and the violence that comes from the fear, and the hatred that comes from the violence, and the loneliness that comes from the hatred. All the unhappiness, all the cruelty, it gathers like clouds in the air, and grows dark and cold and heavy, and falls like grey snow in thick layers over the land. Then the world is all muffled and numb, and no one can hear each other or feel each other. Think how sad and lonely that must be.”
Oh, unhappy people! This is honestly one of the most underrated and amazing YA trilogies. The writing is at once accessible and pleasant to read, and I think it’s suitable for readers aged from eight to… is it trite to say eighty? My most vivid memory of these books is taking them out from our local library, returning each week to collect the next one. Eventually, I had to get my own set, and they are utterly wrecked from my frequent re-reading, as all good books should be. If you catch me calling my first child Kestrel, then feel free to call me out for copyright infringement.
1. The Lord of the Rings – J. R. R. Tolkien
There, peeping among the cloud-wrack above a dark tor high up in the mountains, Sam saw a white star twinkle for a while. The beauty of it smote his heart, as he looked up out of the forsaken land, and hope returned to him. For like a shaft, clear and cold, the thought pierced him that in the end the Shadow was only a small and passing thing: there was a light and high beauty forever beyond its reach.
I am counting this as one book instead of three because that is what Tolkien intended. The level of detail in The Lord of the Rings is honestly unbelievable. Have you ever wondered what Frodo’s paternal grandmother was called? Tolkien knew people would ask these questions and accommodated us (her name was Ruby Bolger). My respect for the legendarium knows no limits: the languages, the world-building, the poetry — it is all exquisite. If you have not read or even watched The Lord of the Rings, what are you doing? Sit down, start with The Hobbit, and get on with it!