The 2012 Advent Calender: For the 25 days of Christmas, I will be blogging each day about a miscellaneous thing I love. Not necessarily a big thing, not necessarily a small thing and not in any order.
A constant source of discomfort in my formative years was the fact that I was raised without a television. I missed out on an entire pop cultural mine that still occasionally leaves me baffled when the people around me break out into spontaneous renditions of children’s TV themes. Until the age of about seventeen, the most outright hilarious thing other pupils at school at school could come up with was ‘Did you watch (x) last night… oh wait, no. Ha ha ha, etc.’
Looking back, I don’t remotely regret it, because it meant that what I did do with my time was read. Read and read and read. My father was an antiquarian book dealer, and the 10 per cent dealers discount he negotiated in every second hand bookshop we went to meant that I had a room stacked full of books: the Famous Five, the Secret Seven, the Three Investigators, the Hardy Boys. At aged nine, I read the entirety of The Lord of the Rings, and was quizzed by my disbelieving teacher on intricate details of the plot. By the time I had reached secondary school I had devoured half of the epic fantasy oeuvre, and in my first year of university I finally sold the 300-strong collection of Star Wars novels that I had been collecting for the last decade. Even now I occasionally wake up in the morning with the same dream that me and my father often shared: searching the dusty shelves of some fantastical yet familiar bookshop only to wake up to the disappointment that the purchases you had made had vanished into the realm of imagination.
So below are my twenty bookish highlights that I would consider my favourites as things stand now (in no particular order). Not necessarily single novels—some are authors entire work, or series. It will be an interesting record to re-read in five years time and see how many I still stand by, or how many have slipped to make way for new entries.
I’ve never entirely known why exactly my fundamentalist Christian mother possessed a battered copy of The Lord of the Rings between copies of the Bible. It’s entirely out of her usual taste range, but I was assured that it was one of her favourites. The book was so large for nine-year-old me that I ripped it into three bits in order to read it, an act of book sacrilege I am no longer capable of. It took me three months to read, and to someone still hooked on Enid Blyton it was so marvelously rich and dense and long that it kick-started my taste for fantasy fiction. The films are also exceptional works of art that I enjoyed numerous times in the cinema. And to continue the theme of odd providers of magical fiction, Magician was leant to me by my pastor when I was thirteen. I read it in three days flat, and proceeded to buy the entire work of Raymond E. Feist which is the key link between the two writers: one exceptionally exciting and involving novel followed by a whole string of pale imitations trying to recapture the original magic.
2. The Merrily Watkins series by Phil Rickman
I discovered the first novel, The Wine Of Angels, in my local library because I quite liked the cover. Phil Rickman’s novels have mostly all been relegated unfairly to the world of discarable genre novels, but they are actually far more complex than that. Walking a fine line between supernatural thriller and crime procedural, their biggest strengths are three characters: Merrily Watkins, the self-doubting female vicar who becomes the diocesan exorcist; Lol Robinson, her washed-up-80s-singer-songwriter, Nick-Drake obsessed boyfriend and Jane, her passionate and perfectly rendered teenage daughter. Oh, and Jane’s boyfriend, the guitar-playing Welshman Eirion. Hello literary crush. The series are responsible for several things: a four year obsession with living on the Welsh border, spending several days ferreting through the country to find an extremely obscure church featured in the novels, my discovery aged fourteen of the musical genius that is Nick Drake, and the submission of a CD to Phil Rickman of my own personal rendition of one of Lol Robinson’s own songs.
3. Looking For Alaska by John Green
Ladies and gentlemen, I am in love with Alaska Young. And John Green. In my estimation he is second only to David Levithan in catching the vivid transience of youth. Looking For Alaska is compulsively readable with the kind of characters you remember long after the book is done. My review is here.
4. Death In Venice by Thomas Mann
To me, this is one of the most artfully and beautifully written novels I’ve ever read. So adept with his use of language is Mann that his (anti)hero Ausenbach’s entrancement with the beauty and youth of the young Tadzio that he encounters while holidaying in Venice is entirely believable and full of a tragic, fragile beauty that separates itself from the Daily Mail headline it could be translated as. A true masterpiece—underscored by my fascination with Thomas Mann himself after reading his diaries.
5. His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman
I’m not ashamed that many of these entries are quite populist choices but what I’ve always admired about Philip Pullman is his complete refusal to treat a younger audience as if they are idiots. A teen fantasy novel that takes on religion and belief and hypocrisy whilst still having time for airships and polar bears? Yes, thank you. Northern Lights is still relatively the weakest novel, but I can remember the unbearable length of time it took to wait for each sequel to become available at the library, and I can still remember my desolation at the separation of the children from their daemons and all that says about growing up and leaving childhood behind.
6. Brenda and Effie series by Paul Magrs
It has become a yearly ritual to attend the signing of the latest Brenda and Effie novel in Whitby every October. Starting with Never The Bride, the series tells the story of Brenda, the Bride of Frankenstein, now retired to a B&B in Whitby, where she encounters all sorts of spooky mysteries. Like Whitby itself, the series are the perfect mixture of the shivery Gothic and the comfortably homely, full of old ladies who spend as much time gossiping over tea and fish and chips as fighting off the forces of darkness, and moustache-twirling villains. Beyond anything else, these are my go-to books for cheering me up, and I love the series unreservedly.
7. The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold
Let me get this off my chest: the movie is an absolute car-crash. The novel, on the other hand, was the first novel I read in what I would now regard as my most comfortable writing niche: personal and family drama told with a fantastical filter. This novel is not about the mechanics of the afterlife: they are about the beauty and tragedy of a murdered young girl watching her family and friends grieve and move on from her death and bloom into the rest of their lives. Let me repeat though: do not watch the film.
Mary Roach is a writer gifted in a way no other writer on this list is: she can make non-fiction hands down entertaining and side-splittingly funny. You don’t half get some funny looks laughing out loud on the bus to a book that is clearly signposted by the cover to be about dead bodies. Her curiosity and excitement by the things she discovers are infectious, and her footnotes are hilarious. Strongly recommended, not least to find out all sorts of information you really never ever needed to know about cadavers.
I usually like to claim that I read this or saw that or heard that band before everyone else climbed on the bandwagon. I’m a hipster like that. Harry Potter was the opposite. Harry Potter was contraband—banned in my Christian house. I discovered the first book read by Stephen Fry on audiobook and fell in love. There are all sorts of accusations leveled at J.K.Rowling over the quality of her prose or the derivative nature of her ideas, and I think they’re all either unfair or jealous: what I remember loving as an eleven year old growing up in a strict religious household was the exuberant escapism of this whole wonderful world she created. For years I held the ambition of compiling an exhaustive encyclopedia of the world of Harry Potter: every spell, ghost, food, place, person, book, event. For me, reading the first book was like receiving my own letter to Hogwarts, and I’m completely unashamed of my love for the books. The films are woven into the fabric of my teenage life too: I remember queuing to see the first film on the early previews with my friend, and I remember the spontaneous standing ovation at the close of the midnight showing of the final film.
10. When God Was A Rabbit by Sarah Winman
Some books I just know I’m going to love before I read them, and I can’t explain why. I can’t even place my finger on what quality it is that makes me feel so strongly about this book; Savidge Reads tried to quantify it as a happy-sad feeling. It spans a lot of time in the novel and everything that occurs has that semi-mythic feeling of being part of the story of a life, not just events, full of snippets that come back to mean something much more later. That, and the image of the Womble sex scene is indelible.
I read these because they were the favourite novels of someone who I had a huge, irrational crush on in university, but I’ve become some a fan of Hal Duncan that these origins have vanished. Ink and Vellum are a vast duology of books. Superficially, the plot is simple: a vast multi-dimensional world that is slowly being eaten alive and rewritten by the forces of evil, against which stands a small band of disparate misfits. Put like that the story sounds nothing but derivative. In fact the books throw a hundred and one things into the melting pot—Roman mythology, Greek plays, medieval history, Irish war history, American LGBT rights—and ties it up in a writing style that is simultaneously electric and confounding. Each character exists in multiple forms across the novel, and keeping track is difficult and hard work. Both books are confusing. When I say that these are their main selling points, you will already know whether these are the kind of books for you.
12. The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon
The polar opposite of Ink and Vellum is The Shadow of the Wind which is a grand gothic mystery story that takes you back and forth across Barcelona from creeking gables, dank prisons and lost bookshops and people with tragic families and shadowy assassins. This was the absolute favourite novel of a friend at university, and I read it in one sitting on the Eurostar back from Belgium. Simply a delightful book to read.
13. Fun Home by Alison Bechdel
And this book I read because I was desperate to impress a university lecturer I had a mad intellectual crush on. If I ever have to cite a book to prove that “comics” can have literary value, this is it: it’s funny, subtle and an absorbing family drama, made all the more fascinating for being a memoir.
14. The Borrower by Rebecca Makkai
This was another When God Was A Rabbit-like choice: reading about this on the blogs, I knew I would love it. It’s the story of a librarian who is accidentally kidnapped by an eleven year old boy who frequently attends her library. The boy in question has restrictive religious parents and is clearly gay; the librarian is trying to ‘save’ him with risky book choices, so there’s probably a little bit of me that wishes I had run into this librarian when I was a kid. From a writers point of view, the escalation of the thriller aspect, keeping it convincing all the way through that she just isn’t taking him home and keeping up the tension is masterful, and from a dramatic point of view, nothing tops the final chapter, on which I will say nothing more.
15. The Amazing Adventures Of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon
The second novel on this list that came out of that university class with, ahem, that lecturer. This one was a set text though, and I remember reading it over Christmas and making pages of notes in preparation for the essay. It’s the story of two Jewish boys in the fifties who invent a superhero character—The Escapist—who fights Nazis. The novel follows their lives from youthful idealists through to fractured old men, with pages of drama inbetween. What I remember most about the novel was the number of phrases, sentences, paragraphs that I wrote down that have become my favourite quotes; Chabon is a very gifted writer.
16. The entire work of Glen Duncan
Ah, now I really can be hipster! I first read Death of an Ordinary Man when I was fifteen, and tracked down his entire back-catalogue. DoaOM is narrated by a dead man attending his own funeral, and contains in one flashback the most tense moment I’ve ever experienced in a novel. I, Lucifer is the story of the Devil come to the earth in a human body, written with a barreling verve and excitement. Weathercock is a dark bildungsroman of a man constantly tempted towards the darker things of life, and utterly engrossing. Love Remains is a bleak story about the aftermath of a violent attack for a couple. Hope is about porn. The Bloodstone Papers (cash-in title aside) is the dual stories of an Indian boxer and his son in London. He has recently found a new-found fame with his werewolf novel The Last Werewolf and it’s sequel, but I have to admit that compared to his earlier output they feel a bit toothless. His writing feels like a British Chuck Palahniuk without the deliberate quirk. More than anything, what I love about his writing is the constant—and I mean constant, every five pages or so—experience of reading a sentence that so perfectly sums up something that I have struggled to put into words or would have been too afraid to.
17. Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell
Cards on the table: you have to get past the opening fifty pages before this gets good. The start is dull as all hell. But the whole novel is stupendous. Structured like a Russian doll—the journal of an 18th century sailor, being read by a Georgian-era composer in Europe, whose love letters are being read by Luisa Rey, an investigative journal, a novel about whom is being read by a publisher in the near future, whose accidental incarceration is made into a film rescued by rebels in a fractured future, the testimony of one of which accidentally becomes a religious text in a post-apocalyptic future… and then back through the stories until they all reach their conclusion. The links between the stories are cleverly woven, and Mitchell’s ability to switch writing styles is jaw-dropping and it’s one of the most singular novels I’ve read.
18. The Book Thief by Marcus Zusak
When people ask me what kind of thing I write, I would probably have to answer ‘a novel like The Book Thief’. I like real stories about real people told through a lens of fantasy—that seems to be the middle ground between my childhood roots in pulp fantasy and the novels I’ve loved later in life. The Book Thief is the story of a girl living in Nazi Poland, harbouring a Jew in their cupboard. The novel is narrated by Death, which is what gives it its’ edge. Mainly because of foreshadowing; a character’s death is revealed early on, but takes nearly the full novel to occur, and is all the more devastating for it. A beautiful novel.
19. The Time Traveller’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger
This probably falls into that same category—I’m secretly a sucker for romance, and Time Traveller’s Wife ties it all up in a twisty-turny structure whereby one half of the couple experiences life in an entirely different order. The book, and novel, made me cry like a baby, and I’m one of the few people who doesn’t think the film is a letdown, it simply has a softer edge than the novel. But in addition to the well-drawn romance, and the tear-inducing ending, I’ve always loved Niggenegger for not shying away from one particular fact of life that arises when a teenage can time-travel back to be in the same room as himself. I shall say no more.
. The Lover’s Dictionary by David Levithan
This is by no means the least of the books on this list; in fact, David Levithan is one of my absolute favourite writers. How They Met and Other Stories is a close competitor for the list, and his other novels include Boy Meets Boy, Every Day, Love Is The Higher Law and Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist. The Lover’s Dictionary is by far my favourite. It’s the story of a relationship, constructed out of small vignettes underneath a dictionary definition. It’s hard to explain without seeing, so I recommend the ‘look inside’ function on Amazon. The greatest thing about The Lover’s Dictionary is like a romantic inversion of what I love about Glen Duncan: whilst Duncan might be able to put into words the darkest things we might have struggled to do before, in the Lover’s Dictionary there’s a forest of small, intimate moments that resonate as you read them with your own life and love. Beautiful.
So that’s December 3rd. My favourite novels. In a year some may well have changed, but some are definitely there to stay. Honourable mentions go to a few books that I ummed and erred about: Hero by Perry Moore, The Boy With The Cuckoo Clock Heart by Mathias Malzieu, Skippy Dies by Paul Murray, Idlewild by Nick Sagan, Night Watch by Terry Pratchett, The Carnivorous Lamb by Agustin Gomez-Arcos and Sum by David Eagleman. I apologise for how long the post is—tomorrow’s will be much shorter, I promise!