I've seen loads of 'pick your favourite album' type things going around Facebook of late so thought I'd (briefly) list my favourite books as a) I haven't updated my blog for ages and b) the publishing industry is very secretive and I can't really say anything about anything that's happening/happened there.
I've gone back to finish my MA this year, where since September I've read- The Changeling by Thomas Middleton, The Castle of Otranto by Horace Walpole, The Monk by Matthew Lewis, Zofloya by Charlotte Dacre, Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte, Frankenstein by Mary Shelley, The Italian by Ann Radcliffe (I'm studying an academic Gothic module alongside my writing one, if you'd hadn't guessed from that ghastly line-up); and on the Creative Writing side: The Talented Mr Ripley by Patricia Highsmith, Pnin by Vladimir Nabokov, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark, The Stone Diaries by Carol Shields, The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera, The Inheritors by William Golding, Miguel Street by V.S Naipaul…sure I've missed something… but none of these have leap-frogged into my affections (well, Wuthering Heights and Frankenstein were already there, and I'd recommend ALL the Gothic books, just because, and Pnin for narrative skills and wonderful writing, and Ripley, for general uneasy creepiness).
So, in no particular order, my top five:
I wasn't initially sold on the premise here- aging butler, Stevens, does butler-type things and then decides to have a holiday to visit the old housekeeper, Miss Kenton - but this book broke my heart. I wept. And I don't mean a little sniffle, I mean I sobbed my eyeballs out, and then thinking about it later I sobbed them out some more. It's very quiet on the surface, and you get carried along feeling that not much is actually happening at all…and then you're wailing for a man who's wasted his life and you're not quite sure where the hit came from. The novel touches upon themes of duty, and dignity, and love, and loss, but so subtly. It's writing wizardy at its finest. I would be jealous of the author if I wasn't so smitten. And here's Salman Rushdie telling you why you should all read it, too (spoilers).
I've blogged about this before but Faber is just fantastic. I love his short stories, too, but this hefty neo-Victorian doorstopper is marvelous. It's mainly the story of Sugar (although there are interesting sub-plots aplenty), a teenage prostitute, who is attempting to elevate her social standing (and publish a penny dreadful), and her 'relationship' with perfume magnate and dandy William Rackham. Critics have commented that this book is "the novel Dickens would have wrote had he been allowed to speak freely" and while we have the evocative descriptions of London-its prostitutes, orphans and slums; its philanthropists and criminals; its aesthetes and decadents and its lunatics- its post-modern/post-feminist knowingness gives the entire novel a voyeuristic edge; it's a sly wink through the keyhole that subverts the traditions that it continues.
The bastard Jean-Baptiste Grenouille is born -to a woman with syphilis, whilst she's gutting fish- into a gutter in 18th Century France, and, having no smell of his own (which turns him into an object of fear and disgust) soon becomes obsessed with…smells, so decides to murder everybody in his pursuit/capture of the perfect scent (the ultimate 'perfume' being the scent of a beautiful young virgin). It's the darkest of dark fairytales, and a study of sensual depravity, but there's humour and some bleak French existentialism thrown in there, too. The ending cranks up the weird factor to another level entirely (which I won't spoil), but overall, a great psychological study and a unique tale, with gorgeous writing, to boot.
A novella, and a strange, sinister, claustrophobic one at that. The opening paragraph, for example:
“My name is Mary Katherine Blackwood. I am eighteen years old, and I live with my sister Constance. I have often thought that with any luck at all, I could have been born a werewolf, because the two middle fingers on both my hands are the same length, but I have had to be content with what I had. I dislike washing myself, and dogs, and noise. I like my sister Constance, and Richard Plantagenet, and Amanita phalloides, the death-cup mushroom. Everyone else in our family is dead.”
The narrator, Merricat, lives her sister Constance and their uncle Julian, in isolation from the village following an 'accident' which saw the other members of their family poisoned. Merricat is a huge ball of hatred, which is to say she's great fun, but there's an undercurrent of a more insidious, subtle misanthropy at work in the text which semi-justifies Merricat's feelings. Shirley Jackson's work in general seems to recoil at the proximity of people; seems to scratch at the surface veneer of our civility to see what's really inside, and here is no exception. It's such a bizarre, beautiful book, and Shirley Jackson's writing (and her frequent scathing attacks upon humanity) ticks all the 'favourite' boxes. I'd also highly recommend Jackson's The Haunting of Hill House, but We Have Always Lived in the Castle nudges slightly ahead, on originality factor.
It makes me sad that Margo Lanagan doesn't get more attention, and while I'm yet to finish Tender Morsels (which may usurp this novel), The Brides of Rollrock Island is perfection. Poetic, gorgeous prose, and while many tales have used selkies for inspiration, the multiple POVs/narrators here, plus the poetic, gorgeous prose (did I mention that already?) makes it feel totally unique. Odd. Ethereal. Intriguing. Awesome. I'd also recommend her short stories.
Some other random favourites:
-Tipping the Velvet, Fingersmith-Sarah Waters
-The Blind Assassin, The Handmaid's Tale-Margaret Atwood.
-Rebecca- Daphne Du Maurier
-The Collector-John Fowles
-The English Patient (well, the Katherine/tortured love affair section, mainly)- Michael Ondaatje
-Gothic usuals- Frankenstein, Dracula, Jekyll and Hyde, Dorian Grey, Wuthering Heights…
-Florence and Giles- John Harding.
-The Goldfinch-Donna Tartt.
-Wide Sargasso Sea- Jean Rhys.