I don’t know how you organise your books – some people do it by colour, alphabetically, by category… I organise my books much more according to emotion and the rules of chaos. Most specifically, I have a shelf, which is high up in my bedroom, and reserved for favourites. The books people are not allowed to borrow. Here is a handful of them –
I’m always a bit unwilling to tell people what my favourite books are, because so often people want to have a jovial argument about it – no no, these books are far better! I didn’t say they were the best books. They are only my favourites. But I trust you, dear reader, to not be a dick about this, so here we are.
Looking through them, it strikes me that they break down quite neatly into categories.
Fingersmith by Sarah Waters
GOD this book is SO SEXY and SO CLEVER and SO SURPRISING and TENSE. A brilliant quiet gothic historical thriller. Please read it. I frightened to say more in case I give something away.
Slammerkin by Emma Donoghue
Emma Donoghue wrote the blockbuster Room, which is a proper banger, but I found this little book in a remainder shop when I was about 15. It tells the story of a young girl seeking her fortune through various means, some respectable, nome less so. The characterisation is so gripping and bold, even though I haven’t re-read this book in a few years, I can see them all so clearly in my head. Also features lots of sumptuous descriptions of dresses and gin-fuelled escapades around Victorian London.
Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood
Oryx and Crake isa rich, clever and warm near-future narrative of a world we have let fall all to shit. I love Atwood’s writing so much, and this is my favourite of all of them. Despite the bleakness, there’s a humour in this book that pulls you through.
I nearly went with The Handmaid’s Tale as my Atwood choice, but I think in the current climate it might give me nightmares…
A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess
Because I had the coolest English teacher in the whole world (hey Mr Richardson!) we studied A Clockwork Orange for A Levels. The whole book is written in first person, with awful thuggish protagonist Alex directly addressing the audience in Nadsat, a made-up dialect that you learn to decode throughout the book as you follow him on a pointless, terrible, but somehow joyful spree of Ultraviolence.
The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins
I think these books are just great. A perfect dystopia – horrible massive state subjecting its citizens and a plucky young girl with a bow and arrow who’s going to stop it. I love how tough and unsentimental Katniss is, and how resolute in the face of something to be done.
Quirky Short Stories
The Great Automatic Grammatizor and Other Stories by Roald Dahl
I was bought this by my grandfather when I was about ten. It’s a selection of Roald Dahl’s adult short stories chosen for teenagers and I was entranced by it. The stories are all delightful, impish and macabre. I particularly loved Royal Jelly, about a pair of worried parents who unintentionally turn their daughter into a bee, and Katina, a heartbreaking tale, based on Dahl’s own experiences in the RAF, of a young girl’s utter destruction by a war that tears her and her country apart.
Pastoralia by George Saunders
I studied this collection at Uni and was properly blown away by them. They’re so bleak and so funny. My favourite is about a man who lives in a kind of human zoo, pretending to be a caveman 24 hours a day so people can come in and gawp at him. The real horror captured in these stories is breathtaking, but it’s treated so lightly they’re a pleasure to read. His eagerly awaited (by me) first novel, Lincoln In The Bardot is out this month.
Real Life Magic
The Time Travellers Wife by Audrey Niffenegger
Irresponsible but rakish protagonist hops involuntarily around through time, conducting a complicated relationship with gorgeous artist wife spread across time. Like reading a crossword puzzle. Absorbing and great. I think I read it at Uni.
The End of Mr Y by Scarlett Thomas
This tricksy and weird book is such a joy. Some Phd student finds a magic book and gets chased through a kind of astral plane (accessed by homeopathy, because why not) by psychic baddies. Deeply charming though very eccentric presentation of massive themes. Scarlett Thomas is also the author of my favourite book on writing, Monkeys With Typewriters, which I commend to you all.
Northern Lights by Phillip Pullman
I don’t have a funny story about these books – I just loved them. My husband used to live next door to Phillip Pullman though and his Mum had a chat with him the moment he’d just finished The Amber Spyglass. If I had been in Paul’s position, I would have broken into the writing shed to read the manuscripts, but he is a lot more morally upright than me.
Harry Potter and the Absolutely Anything by JK Rowling
The first time I ever read Harry Potter we were staying with friends and I was up all night with one of those annoying tummy bugs that aren’t really bad enough to wake everyone up and demand some sympathy, but still won’t let you sleep. I read the first book and a half that night. Ever since then, Harry Potter has been the ultimate comfort in hard times – every time life gets a bit stressful, out come the Potters for another re-read.
I remember when I was 21 I was in a bit of a mood. I was back home, having just finished my degree but not started my MA yet, and flopping about the house. Mum sent me to Edinburgh to work for one of the venues as a technician. She bought me a train ticket (first class!) and the final Harry Potter book ever, and sent me zooming off to Scotland (like Hogwarts!). The best train journey of my life.
The Night World books by LJ Smith
A passion of mine when I was a young teen, this series of books tell a familiar tale – vampires and witches etc are real – and they’re teenagers! Just like you! This, the first in the series, has a cracking heroine and is soooooo romantic. I used to obsess over them with my friend Laura when we were just about to start our baby goth phase. We are both furious that the final book is STILL AWAITING PUBLICATION, even though it was meant to be set in late 1999. I assume the vampires saved us from the millennial threat…
What are your favourite books?