My top ten books.

My mother tagged me in a post on Facebook the other night, one of those chain-letter, I’ll-do-this-and-then-you-do-the-same type ones that I normally avoid like the plague. But this one was different. It was about books, specifically – to name ten books that have stayed with you somehow and, seeing as I love books I thought I ought to give it a go. But, rather than just listing them in a status I thought I’d use it as a way to “get back on the (blog) horse” after my holiday to France. So, here they are…..

1. Dune by Frank Herbert

“A beginning is the time for taking the most delicate care.”

As soon as I read my mums status this was the first book that came to mind. I first read it when I was about 15. I’d watched the film with my step-dad one evening and, though I was completely confused by the storyline, the concepts and the visuals intrigued me to the point that the next time I went to the library and saw the sky blue cover I borrowed it. It was, and still remains, one of the best books I have ever read. I’d even go so far as to say that it changed me. I know that many people are turned off by sci-fi but I think with books (and with life too, actually) you should never say never. Case in point: Dune is not just sci-fi book. As I read, to my amazement, I discovered a book that taught me about politics, about geology and ecology, about war and peace, about love and loss and sacrifice and pain. And about giant worms that live under the sand on a planet made entirely out of dunes and that feed on a psychotropic substance called the spice melange which can cause people to see into the future. Well, come on, it is a sci fi book after all. I’ve re-read it numerous times since and with every re-reading I find something new under all the layers. I can even quote from it. I know, what a complete nerd, right? Yes, right. Nerd and proud.

2. The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien

One of my favourite memories of primary school was sitting on the carpet in front of my Year 4 teacher Mrs. Kirkden, listening to the adventures of Bilbo Baggins and his dwarf friends as they attempt to steal back their gold that had been stolen from them by the evil dragon, Smaug. (I’m all for story time in schools – the school I teach in insists that the children have a story read aloud to them every day. And thank goodness too, it’s one of the favourite bits of my job.) As soon as I was old enough I read it for myself, along with the epic (in every sense) The Lord of the Rings. Tolkien defines fantasy for our era. His words literally take you to another place and time; they are pure escapism and have a deserved place amongst classic literature. Thanks to Peter Jackson, Tolkien’s imagination has been made even more accessible through his films and a whole new audience have recently discovered the magic of Middle Earth. And thank goodness too – as much as I love Tolkien I have to admit that he does go on a bit. I read The Hobbit to my Year 5 class a couple of years ago and, even though the kids were very polite about occasionally falling asleep during my reading, I couldn’t blame them. I almost fell asleep a few times too. The films are easier.

3. American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis

“This is not an exit.”

Another life changer and another book I discovered in my mid-teens, thanks to my older sister; I wrote about Easton Ellis’ violent nihilistic trilogy (Less Than Zero, The Rules of Attraction and American Psycho) for my GCSE coursework. I was so excited because I got to quote swear words in an academic sense and wouldn’t got told off for doing so. I got an A and have been swearing with impunity ever since. The three books are all very different but are linked through the characters – all of whom are emotionally stunted, habitual drug users who view hard-core sex and violence through empty, unblinking eyes as they chain-smoke in Beverly Hills swimming pools or New York loft conversions. American Psycho is the story of Patrick Bateman –  a young, handsome Wall Street worker who lunches with his friends by day and commits the most violent atrocities during the night – and his descent into hell. It was, and still is, one of the most disturbing and yet one of the most hilarious books I have ever read. Like Dune, I have re-read American Psycho numerous times and, let me tell you, this shiz does not get old.

4. The Witches by Roald Dahl

From the sublime to the ridiculous – I love all of Dahl’s books and have read them all a hundred times. For our recent trip to France we bought all of his most famous books on CD for our 6 year old to listen to in the car. As we listened, I was reminded of Dahl’s brilliance as a writer. I am unable to listen to the bit in Matilda where the Trunchbull throws a young boy called Julius Rottwinkle out of a window for eating liquorice in class without dissolving into hysterics. And if I close my eyes, I can see quite clearly Quentin Wilson’s illustration of the close up of Mr. Twit’s beard, in which morsels of food are kept for later. But it was The Witches that touched my imagination the most as a child. Because of the book I was absolutely convinced that my ballet teacher, Miss Rohan, was not a ballet teacher at all, but was a witch of the foulest order, intent on destroying little girls by making them repeat developes over and over again until their poor little legs fall off. Or by poking their bottoms and tummies so many times with her sharp nails whilst screeching, “Tighter! Tighter! Hold it in tighter, I say!” that eventually the child will deflate slowly like a balloon. I tell the story of Miss Rohan and The Witches every single time I’m trying to inspire my class to write a character description of someone horrible. Works every time.

5.  Time’s Arrow by Martin Amis

I discovered this one by pure accident on another trip to the library. And what a find. I’ve only read it once but it will stay with me forever as one of the most original and interesting books I have ever read. It a story that is told entirely backwards – like Benjamin Button but better – about a man who comes to life as an old man then lives his life backwards. The story unfolds in a most incredible way – from how he was old then grew younger, explaining how food comes out of his mouth and how his body absorbs faeces and urine, to how he worked as an SS officer as a younger man and was responsible for “putting people back together” (Think about what that means. Yeah. Heavy stuff man), before becoming a baby and…. Well, I’ll leave it there. When I read things like this I experience total body frission about how amazing and dark the human imagination can be.

6. The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffeneger

I’m a complete romantic. A total sucker for a love story. But, as you can probably gather from this list I’m not into your typical chick-lit/flicks at all. My kind of love stories are filled with angst and pain. If I’m to like it it’s got to make me cry like a baby. And this book does that in spades. It is exactly what it says on the tin – the story of the wife of a time traveller but the beauty of this book is that, as improbable as the set up sounds, it is completely plausible and is actually not the most important part of the story line. The science part takes a complete back seat to the love story, which is at first confusing and then beautiful and then finally devastating. Right up my street. A cracking read. (Completely refuse to watch the film though).

7. The Road by Cormack McCarthy.

Oh. My. Goodness. Just thinking about this book takes me back to the sun lounger by the pool in a hotel in Morocco in 2010 on which I read it. I’d seen the film with my OH a few months before and, again, because I like a bit of tragedy, had spent a few hours weeping uncontrollably in the wake of it (just like I did recently after watching 12 Years A Slave. Oh my.) So, just for kicks I got the book and then proceeded to cry the whole way through and then for some time afterwards, much to the concern of my mum and cousin and aunt who were all sitting next to me as I read it. They thought something terrible had happened. It had – I’d just read the most depressing yet possibly one of the most beautiful books I’ve ever read. Cue: shit storm of tears.

8. The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

I’ve only just finished reading this book but I am sure it will stay with me forever. I started reading it, not really taking much notice of it and then having to go back and re-read sections just to find out what was going on. I had absolutely no idea what to expect – I hadn’t even read the blurb – so was absolutely taken aback when something so unexpected happened I felt myself completely pulled into the story hook, line and sinker. It isn’t just the story that is incredible and breath-taking and epic, it is Tartt’s prose. It had me sitting back in the bath/bed/chair, wherever I was reading it, and having to take some deep breaths while her words echoed around my head. Wow. Yes, it is that good. I will definitely be putting it on the re-read list, not least because I read the last chapters in a caravan in France whilst being jumped on by both my daughters and being talked at by my OH. I was that desperate to finish it. Next time I’m going to read it alone, behind a locked door.

9. His Dark Materials by Phillip Pullman

Yes, I am aware that I am cheating a bit here because His Dark Materials is comprised of three books – Northern Lights, The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass, but Pullman wrote them to be read together, so I’m allowing myself a cheat. The series was written by Pullman (a former teacher) for young adults but I know many fully grown adults who have them on their top ten list. It is the story of Lyra (almost the name of my first born, in her honour) and Will. Two children on the cusp of adulthood, growing up in two separate worlds, finding each other in a third world and embarking on an adventure that will change everyone’s lives. On their adventure they travel to heaven and hell, and to Oxford too. The encounter God and angels and talking polar bears. They fall in love but are torn apart. All the ingredients necessary for an incredible story. I can’t wait to share it with my girls.

10. To Kill a Mocking Bird by Harper Lee

A classic in every sense of the word. An amazing story, incredible characters, evocative setting. Although set in the deep south of America in the 1930’s, the heart of the story; of the struggle between truth and lies, good and bad, young and old and right and wrong is utterly timeless. Injustice is still rife in our world and integrity at a premium. I read recently that it is at the top of the list of the most influential books written by women. I would have to agree, although I would take out the “written by women” part.

So, that’s my list. I’m exhausted. At first I could only think of one or two books. By the end I had dozens. I’m sure as I go to bed tonight many more that I’ve forgotten will pop into my head. I’d love to know what your top ten books are, and why they have stayed with you? C’mon, this is one “chain letter” that should stay in circulation.

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