Oh, I do like a lovely list!
This is my current top five, but I reserve the right to change it as I discover new books and authors. If there is something you think should be on the list let me know.
1. Possession by A.S. Byatt
Before I read Possession I would have said that I didn’t have a favourite book. A work colleague, astonished to discover I had never read it, lent me her copy but initially I found it quite hard work. It was all a bit depressing and I couldn’t see where it was going; but I persevered and it suddenly clicked. What started off as a slightly plodding story about a dull academic managed to encompass romance, history and a cracking thriller, ending in a dramatic Agatha Christie-style reveal. Possession is unashamedly romantic – which I love – but manages to resist descending in to twee cliche. Byatt trusts that you will be prepared to put in a little bit of work for the story, and I’m a big fan of books which can tell a great story and teach me something new. Ultimately Possession is my favourite book, because it’s all books; it covers so many genres so beautifully. The only downside for me is the excessive amount of poetry, but you can skip a lot of it with no harm done to the story (I’m a poetry heathen). Oh, and the film version: NEVER watch the film version.
2. Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson
Right, a bit left-field, but bear with me. Again this was a recommendation from a work colleague (not the Possession colleague – I have extremely literate co-workers) who gives me tips for sci-fi and fantasy novels. Snow Crash is here because it was the first Neal Stephenson I read and it blew my mind – I’ve since read two more and I love them all. Stephenson creates detailed and comprehensive worlds that are populated by smart, funny and familiar characters. For me Stephenson’s novels work in the same way as Margaret Atwood’s – rather than a radically different fantasy universe they describe a world that could exist. Snow Crash deals with computer gaming technology, which frankly doesn’t look that impossibly futuristic stacked up next to something like Google Glass. Beneath all the clever technology stuff there is still a brilliant story with a great hero. Once you’ve read Snow Crash, find The Diamond Age (sci-fi with an amazing female hero) and then Reamde. Oh, and apparently Quicksilver’s good too…
3. The Harry Potter novels by JK Rowling
Ok, this is my first cheat – there is another one. There’s nothing I can add to a review of any Harry Potter novel, but I can tell you why I love them. I started reading HP and the Philosopher’s Stone about three years after it was published. I confess, I was one of those doubters who wasn’t convinced about a novel for young people, so it took me a while to pick it up. When I did I powered through it and then passed it on to my sister while I started on the next one. Part of my affection for the novels is because every member of my family was able to read and enjoy these books. We played the games together, we tried Bertie Bott’s Every Flavour Beans and we sat on the sofa watching the films (obviously this is romanticised – we don’t have a massive sofa). Adults were mocked for reading them, but there’s real skill in writing stories that can appeal to such a huge audience. The other thing I love is that Harry Potter helped to make reading cool for kids. As a bookworm child I was keenly aware that the library was not a hip hangout. When The Order of the Phoenix was published I was thrilled to see a young boy in Waterstones dressed as a wizard, proudly filling in his Harry Potter quiz. When Deathly Hallows came out I was in the queue at midnight to collect my copy and devoured it in one gloriously indulgent weekend – you may laugh, but my inner 12-year-old was thrilled.
4. A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson
A non-fiction entry and another family read. This is science and the history of science written in a way that appeals to someone mainly interested in the arts (me), someone who left school 40-plus years ago with no qualifications (my dad) and an actual, qualified, professional scientist (my sister). Bryson has worked out that scientific fact is daunting for some people, but that everyone loves a good story. He focuses on the people and personalities of the scientific world; examining them in the sort of glorious detail that a text book would never touch. When I (briefly) did teacher training I had to teach a year 9 PSHE class about natural disasters. The class teacher had given me free reign so I binned the less-than-inspiring curriculum materials and planned the whole lesson around Chapter 15 of Bryson’s book. There’s something deeply gratifying about a hard-as-nails 15-year-old stopping you in the corridor to anxiously enquire; “Miss, did you tell 9B that a volcano is going to blow up America?”
5. The Regency Romance novels by Georgette Heyer
I told you I was going to cheat again. I feel like I genuinely discovered Georgette Heyer. A couple of years ago I noticed her name popping up all over the place and so borrowed a couple of her books from the library. I started reading Frederica early Friday evening and finished it at 2am; turning the pages quietly so as not to wake Mr Boo. Heyer was writing in the 1930s and 40s, but her novels are rich with period detail, evidence of her exhaustive research. Apparently after her death almost 50 boxes of notes were removed from her home. There are elements of these stories that are uncomfortable to a modern audience; the heroines are always in their early 20s and no matter how independent they seem to be they always desire a strong man to manage things. But these are stories of a particular time. They are witty escapism and uncomplicated, unapologetic romance. If you wish Austen had written more novels, then Heyer is for you. I’d particularly recommend; These Old Shades, Devil’s Cub, Faro’s Daughter, False Colours and The Masqueraders.