25 books that will stick with you and blow your mind

Apologies for the stupid title. I stole it from this stupid article, so do forgive me.

1. The Tale of Genji, Murasaki Shikabu
The first novel ever written! Universally recognised as a great masterpiece of Japanese prose narrative, The Tale of Genji is an incredible insight into the moral, social, political and sexual values of its time and place.

2. To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee
One of those books that changes lives, especially young lives. It teaches the importance of justice and integrity in the face of cruelty, racism, hatred and fear. A classic, by anyone’s standards.

3. Frankenstein, Mary Shelley
Widely considered to be the first science fiction novel, Frankenstein endures because of its insightful evocation of character and theme. Apparently, male-book-list writers also consider this a worthy book. Thanks a lot!

4. & 5. Jane Eyre, Charlotte Bronte, and Wide Sargasso Sea, Jean Rhys
You can’t read Jane Eyre without reading Wide Sargasso Sea. Bronte’s novel is a fantastically gothic tale of the unloved, the orphaned, the abused and the unwanted, set against the wild Yorkshire moors. Rhys’ novel provides a mind-altering reading/rewriting of Jane Eyre. It’s a powerful story of dislocation, dispossession, sexism, racism, and the ways in which these oppressions can lead to “madness”.

6. The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood
A dystopia that has proved to be frighteningly prescient. Atwood’s powerful novel is a brilliantly written, witty, and terrifying insight into religious fascism.

7. Human Acts, Han Kang
A novel about the Gwangju massacre of 1980. I don’t know if such horrors have ever been written about with such compassion. A novel that lays ghosts to rest. Han Kang is a genius of the highest order.

8. Half of a Yellow Sun, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Gabriel Garcia Marquez said, “the worst enemy of politicians is a writer,” and it’s hard not to recall those words when reading this effortlessly brilliant story about the state of Biafra. Like ‘Human Acts’, it lays out the human truth and makes us care.

9. The Bloody Chamber and other stories, Angela Carter
Only read this if you like magic, fairy tales, blood, sex, horror, dreams, talking animals, Jungian archetypes, and beautifully accomplished writing. Classic writing that will endure.

10. Kindred, Octavia Butler
A rich and complex novel that combines slavery memoir with fantasy, and political allegory with time travelling science fiction. An absolutely astonishing feat of literature.

11. The Left Hand of Darkness, Ursula K Le Guin
A ground breaking work of science fiction, with one of the most compelling settings ever devised. This novel explores sexual politics and colonisation within an adventure story that has you on the edge of your seat.

12. The Blazing World, Siri Hustvedt
Narratively innovative, thematically complex, a brilliant collage of a novel that makes you fall in love and leaves you utterly bereft. The art works in this book deserve whole galleries to themselves.

13. The Neapolitan Quartet, Elena Ferrante
These lucid, original and page-turning novels tell the story of a complicated friendship, and in doing so chart the subtle effects of class, poverty, marriage, and education on individuals and their communities.

14. The Lover, Marguerite Duras
No one writes like Duras, with such vulnerability, sensitivity, and courage. The Lover is a book that is suffused with feeling and contradiction, ardour and terror.

15. White is for Witching, Helen Oyeyemi
One of the best haunted house stories ever written. Oyeyemi is one of those perfect writers who can seemingly do anything at all, create ghosts out of thin air, anything she likes.

16. Netsuke, Rikki Ducornet
This short, terrifying novel takes us inside the mind of a dangerous narcissist as he hurtles towards destruction. Absolutely mastery from Ducornet: careful, precise, and shocking.

17. Magic for Beginners, Kelly Link
The same flavour of surrealist magical realism that Haruki Murakami writes – but Link does it better. These pieces expand the territory of the short story, setting up outposts in contemporary culture and politics, creating and dispelling illusions with masterful sleight of hand.

18. The Knife Drawer, Padrika Tarrant
This is the book I most frequently recommend to other book lovers. Why? Because it is utterly brilliant. Moving, funny, frightening, and very very weird. A Jan Švankmajer film in prose. Like nothing else you’ve read.

19. We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, Karen Joy Fowler
The less you know about this funny, charming book before reading it, the better. One of the most awesome – and technically accomplished – twists of all time.

20. The Woman Upstairs, Claire Messud
“How angry am I? You don’t want to know. Nobody wants to know about that.” So begins this brave and magnificently furious book, so angry it could burst into flames at any moment and you wouldn’t be too surprised.

21. We Have Always Lived in the Castle, Shirley Jackson
An unreliable narrator, possible death-by-mushroom-poisoning, and angry villagers with pitchforks are just a few ingredients in this wonderfully funny and macabre book.

22. The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, Muriel Spark
Spark’s sparse and precise language here serves to emphasise the brittle brilliance of Miss Jean Brodie – magnetic, charismatic, an inspirational leader — and a fascist. One of the greatest fictional characters of all time.

23. The Hour of the Star, Clarice Lispector
Lispector’s final novel, and her masterpiece. A deceptively simple story with a philosophically intense and ambiguous underlying narrative that echoes and ripples long after the end.

24. We Need to Talk About Kevin, Lionel Shriver
A big, American novel that both responded to and shaped the cultural conversation around motherhood and violent masculinity. Shriver writes with great authority in this deeply serious book.

25. My Name is Leon, Kit de Waal
It’s only just been published, but I predict that this book is going to be huge. HUGE. And deservedly so – it’s utterly heartbreaking, ultimately uplifting, and full of heroes. An instant classic.

Notes:

* This list was compiled just off the top of my head in response to that seriously ignorant Independent article, and I’ve left out SO MANY wonderful writers – I could have mentioned Rebecca Solnit, Magda Szabo, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, George Eliot, Jane Austen, Nnedi Okorafor, Zadie Smith, Nicola Barker, Lydia Davis, Alice Thompson and so many many many others.

** This list – and my reading – could be more racially and geographically diverse. I’m working on it and welcome suggestions!

making strange

Reading Alan Garner’s The Stone Book Quartet was an incredible experience. I read it in an afternoon, sitting in the kitchen with the dog asleep at my feet, and rain beating against the window. Not that I was aware of my surroundings for long. The voices in those pages spoke directly to me, called me into their world, and I was drawn completely inside – or rather outside, or elsewhere: this beautiful dark rough nature.

This book is an evocation of feeling, it compels the reader to inhabit the language and be overtaken by it. Nothing happens for the sake of show in Garner’s writing, but each image is organic, profoundly simple, dense with meaning, mysterious, and true. His magic is steeped in physical history, in the landscape, in the intimate connection between humans and the land we live from. The knowledge passed down through generations, which encompasses the true nature of the material, and works with it in precise, sympathetic, patient, intuitive ways. Crafting yourself so you can do the work without fear.

Garner’s craft is fluid, natural, timeless. His craft is to find the seam of magic running deep under everything. His infallible mastery of language is necessary in order to bring these old true stories back from the mists of time.

In 1999, Garner gave a brilliant speech in which he talked about what language is for and how it works:

Unless words are metaphor, they are dead. You will find this wherever you come across a jargon, which is a valid construct stripped of ambiguity in order to communicate matters precisely, simply and beyond misunderstanding. The words are not elegant and have no literary value. They serve, but never dictate.

What we need to follow, then, is the ambiguous, the strange, the nonsensical. There is no urgent need to worry about making sense. What we must do is make strange.

A work of art is a dream. For all its apparent obviousness it does not explain itself and is always ambiguous. A dream never says, “You must”, or, “This is truth”. It presents an image. To grasp its meaning, we must let it shape us as it shaped the writer. Then we also understand the nature of his experience. He has plunged into the healing and redeeming depths of the unconscious, where we are not lost in the isolation of consciousness, but where all are caught in a common rhythm that allows the individual to communicate feelings and strivings to mankind as a whole.

This connection to one another, deep in the heart of this dream, where all is strange and obscure — is where we find the hidden magic of our lives. And that’s what art is for, to serve that connection and to increase its vibrancy and power.

the illustrated dreams of the editor

Got my contributor’s copy of Dark Tales XV in the post this morning, thank you very much.

My story is blurbed on the back – go me! It’s called ‘The Illustrated Dreams of the Ancestors’ and it’s a ghost story set in a small town in Okinawa. I lived in this small town for a year and a bit, and when I read the story I remember what it felt like to be there. Kind of weird.

I subbed this story to Dark Tales way back in 2009, which makes this a long wait for publication by anyone’s standards. At the time, I was particularly proud of the story, thinking it to be emotional and strange. I still think it is those things but OH. MY. GOD. GIVE ME A RED PEN. There are so many quirks and run on sentences, so many unecessary adjectives and repetitions.  And there are a couple of awkward moments in the narrative, where I remember struggling to express my meaning – and which I can now see clearly how I would rewrite.

I’m not exactly embarrassed, because it’s still a strong story and I’m glad it’s finally in print. It’s encouraging to look at earlier stories and realise that my writing is improving. But how I wish I’d had the chance to edit this before it went to print.

Dark Tales is a decent magazine, but honestly, I can’t see how they can sustain any kind of readership unless they publish more often. It’s frustrating to have something published that you wrote three years ago, without getting the chance to revise and edit first.