On this, a rainy and cool November day (bless you, Melbourne, bless you), I have been trying to keep my mind off New York. It was this time last year I was there. In fact, Facebook’s ‘on this day’ tells me I had just arrived after the mammoth cross-Pacific journey. I think about New York daily, so trying to keep my mind off it is tough. But there is no better way to lose yourself, myself, in a good book. A perfectly true cliché. For this post, I present another favourites collection: my favourite novels.
Blogger’s note: No author or genre is off-limits and I haven’t included short stories, novellas or auto/biographies. My list is in no particular order.
- To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee (1960)
I feel like this book would be on everyone’s favourites list. It is a classic. It’s a title we all studied in school. It’s one of few books I’ve read multiple times. I love that the narrative is told through the eyes of Scout, a young white girl. Her perspective brings a sense of innocent curiosity to themes that she barely understands. In using Scout as the narrator, Lee gently assures the reader that they too can look at issues of deep racism, sexual assault, and incest in the same way Scout would. It’s a masterstroke; the adult reader, rightly or wrongly, gets a free pass. Imagine if the story was told by Calpurnia or Tom Robinson or Mayella Ewell?
I have Go Set a Watchmen on my bookshelf. I’ve never felt so anxious to read a book before. I’ve read about The Outrage on The Internet. How could Lee change who Atticus is in such a profound way? What do I tell my child who I’ve named after my favourite literary hero? (Seriously, LOL). But that’s the magic of storytelling; the author can do whatever they damn well please, it’s up to us if we want to go on the journey with them.
- Burial Rites, Hannah Kent (2013)
I saw Hannah Kent speak at the Melbourne Writers Festival last year. I hadn’t read her debut book at that point, I was just keen to hear from a female author (she’s two years older than me). Needless to say, I was impressed. What began as a PhD thesis, turned into a multi-award winning novel (there’s even talk that it’ll become a film starring Jennifer Lawrence). Set in Iceland in the early part of the 1800s, it tells the tale of Agnes, a woman punished to death for killing two men. Sitting perfectly in the historical non-fiction genre, the quest for justice and salvation sets this story apart from the rest. I highly recommend this book, and I’m incredibly excited to see what Kent does next.
- The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe, C.S. Lewis (1950)
I read this book for the first time when I was in Year 2. I still have my original copy on my bookshelf. I distinctly remember coming back to Mr Chapman’s class after each lunchtime to read it, lying on the floor on my stomach, my feet kicked up in the air. It took me a whole term to finish it – even though I was an advanced reader for my age, it was still a big book for a seven year old to get through! I loved all the magic and fantasy this tale offered. I truly felt like I was there with Lucy, Edmund, Susan and Peter as they explored Narnia. I’ve read very few fantasy titles since reading this one. I prefer to read books based in some sort of truth or realism. As an adult, the fantasy genre is one I’ve actively avoided, which on reflection saddens me a little. The whole point of books is to experience some level of fantasy, at the very least stepping out of your own life into someone else’s. Maybe adulthood has made me more discerning than I need to be, but I hope it’s because I know I’ll never have a better fantastical literary experience.
- Lady Chatterley’s Lover, D.H. Lawrence (1928)
Lawrence is one of my favourite author’s ever. Women in Love receives a highly honourable mention on my list. He writes beautifully. Lawrence not only pushed boundaries, he exploded through them. His most famous tale defined literary scandal and notoriety. Lady Constance, a young woman who is married to an emotionally abusive, paralysed man, finds what she needs in groundskeeper Mellors. Due its sexual explicitness, there have been several published versions of the story – it was originally published privately in Italy and published openly in London in 1960. Even now, it still falls into the controversial hands of censorship. As of 2009 Australia Post stores refused to sell it (I’d like to casually remind everyone that Australia Post is a government organisation). Intimacy, lust, emotional entrapment, and battles of class and intellect define Connie and Mellor’s forbidden relationship, and the relationships they have with those around them. A brilliant read, especially for those who get a kick out of reading something (still) shrouded in censorship.
- In Cold Blood, Truman Capote (1966)
While I knew it existed, I was formally introduced to this book in my journalism course. It was a required reading (and the film Capote was required viewing) – and I didn’t need to be told twice. Capote spent six years researching the murders of the Clutter family in Holcomb, Kansas. His commitment shows, with incredible true and creative detail woven into seamless narratives between the murderers, the Holcomb town folk and the Clutter family. It crosses genre boundaries of true crime and creative non-fiction. In fact, it’s widely considered to be the first non-fiction novel. In Cold Blood is a true masterclass of how research and commitment can shape the quality and reputation a story and its author.
It’s incredible to think the same man wrote Breakfast at Tiffany’s, which is also a wonderful book, but average film. (Fun fact! Capote hated that his ending was changed for the film, and he wanted Marilyn Monroe to star instead of Audrey Hepburn – who was insufferable as ever as Holly Golightly. However, Marilyn’s agent didn’t want her playing another sexy character, fearing it would irreparably damage her career. Meanwhile, Audrey’s agent was terrified that her reputation as a wholesome sweetheart would be ruined by playing her first sexy character).
- The Book Thief, Markus Zusak (2005)
Thousands of books have been written about or set in World War II, but I feel like there is something different and special about this one. This is another title I was introduced to during my journalism course. I had no idea The Book Thief was classified as young adult fiction – a genre considered the least credible in the literary world (it’s certainly not my opinion though). The protagonist is Liesel, a young girl orphaned in Nazi Germany who learns the power of reading and language as her world continues to crumble around her. Zusak’s narrative approach of having Death as the narrator rather than Liesel, successfully allows the book to bridge across into the adult fiction genre. Whatever genre it truly fits in doesn’t matter. It’s a delicately told story even though death saturates each page.
- Sense and Sensibility (1811) and Pride and Prejudice (1813), Jane Austen
I’m obsessed with the classics, especially ones written by women. Austen’s works get a double-billing on my list. I’ve read P&P a few more times than I have S&S so the former is a slight favourite. I just love the romance and drama of both novels; Willoughby and Mr Darcy, swoon! Even though both stories are traditional (in a gendered-role way), Austen’s beautiful and rich prose still showcases her female protagonists’ capacity to be more than just damsels in distress. I’m truly transported to a different time each time I read them, and I never want to leave.
- Nikki Gemmel
A fellow Wollongong girl, Gemmel is my favourite current author. I had the pleasure of seeing her in an in conversation and reading at a Melbourne Writers Festival – I even got to ask a question, and meet her for a signing of her then new release I Take You (directly inspired by Lady Chatterley’s Lover). Gemmel first garnered fame when it became public knowledge that she authored her first publication The Bride Stripped Bare, which was originally published under Anonymous. Gemmel described the idea of writing anonymously as liberating. She writes about women for women in a way that is ruthlessly honest and brave. She inspires me to write with those same characteristics (I think I said something like that when I met her, I was star struck!) So ladies, put down your E.L. James books, and pick up one of Gemmel’s – you’re welcome.
- Roald Dahl
Mr Dahl’s works in entirety gets a special mention. I openly judge anyone with horrified disgust who hasn’t read any of his books (and has/had the capacity to). Your childhood was shittier for it. I feel sorry for you that you didn’t experience his magic – my condescension is noted and I don’t care. I encourage everyone, young and old, to read at least one of his stories. I work at a school, where sometimes I sit in on admissions interviews. It fills my heart with joy when a child answers The Witches or Matilda or James and the Giant Peach when asked what they are currently reading. I remember reading The Twits non-stop until my eyes hurt, and George’s Marvellous Medicine under my blankets with a torch. My special work mug is adorned with Quinten Bryce’s distinct illustrations of The BFG. Roald Dahl was a master storyteller, and you only have to read Revolting Rhymes or Dirty Beasts to know that he was macabre bastard as well. But that’s what makes his stories so perfect.
I’m positive I haven’t remembered a lot of my favourites, but what are yours?