Choose your books wisely, as you choose your friends. Never be far away from them. In the train, in the field, wherever you are, you may have them with you; at home or abroad, they will follow you, among the most comforting helpers you can have. You will find one, if you seek it, on any subject in the world; in hope or in perplexity you may seek a friend in books, and at the door of these friends you need never knock in vain.
5. The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, Michael Chabon
Chabon’s novel captures a pivotal moment in history and reveals how cultural icons come into existence. It tells the story of Joe Kavalier, who escapes from Nazi-occupied Prague to seek shelter with his relatives in New York. Working with his cousin Sammy, Joe creates an anti-fascist superhero called The Escapist. The novel lacks a comforting conclusion; in addition to providing a well-researched account of the fledgling comic book industry, it is a powerful and moving narrative of the characters’ journeys into adulthood.
4. The Island of Doctor Moreau, H.G. Wells
This Victorian sci-fi novel engages with contemporary debates about the relationship between evolution and ethics, the possibility of order in a potentially godless universe, and the morality of the scientific process. Significantly, the British Union for the Abolition of Vivisection (BUAV) was founded shortly after the novel’s publication. I would argue that Doctor Moreau remains relevant today: it asks us to question what makes us human. Is it the ability to reason, to stand on two legs, or is it our awareness of our own mortality? The novel questions the very existence of a boundary between humanity and animals.
3. Factory Girls, Leslie Chang
A spectacular study of the migration of rural workers to urban factories in modern China, Chang’s study has a strikingly humane focus. Chang developed close relationships with several workers, enabling her to present an intimate and personable account of life in the factories. It’s certainly an important topic, as China’s 130 million migrant workers represent the largest migration in human history.
2. The Tiger in the Well, Philip Pullman
The third Sally Lockhart novel deals, like Doctor Moreau, with prominent Victorian concerns, such as marriage and child custody laws, as well as enduring issues, like poverty and immigration. The novel’s most challenging aspect emerges close to its conclusion, when the heroine reaches a realisation about herself. *spoiler alert* Sally discovers that her actions, and her wilful blindness to particular aspects of London life, have contributed to the social evils she has encountered.
‘Sally felt something stirring in her heart for these poor, anonymous people. They were only anonymous because of her own ignorance; they each had a life inside them, just as she did.’
1. The Sword in the Stone, T.H. White
This fantasy epic has such a distinctly modern feel that I still can’t quite believe it was published in 1938. Esoteric yet accessible, The Sword in the Stone can be enjoyed on many levels: as a reworking of Arthurian myth, as an encyclopaedic account of feudal life, or as a wonderfully fantastical tale of knights, quests and talking serpents. The novel has a stunningly imaginative system of magic: as the wizard Merlyn experiences time backwards (which doesn’t appear to inconvenience him too much, although he does grumble that ‘all one’s tenses get muddled up, for one thing’), his magical incantations are simply requests to the gods spoken backwards.
10. If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller, Italo Calvino
A wonderfully inventive novel, which manages to experiment with form without sacrificing substance. Alternating between first and second-person narrative, If on a Winter’s Night is a truly immersive read. This sense of reader participation is captured perfectly in the novel’s opening lines: ‘You are about to begin reading Italo Calvino’s new novel, If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller. Relax. Concentrate. Dispel every other thought.’
9. Kick Ass, Mark Millar and John Romita
Having watched the film before reading the graphic novel, the amount of differences between the two came as a surprise. I rate the film highly, and think the changes made to the story for its adaptation all work well, but the graphic novel appears a far more subversive piece of story-telling. The vigilantism of Hit Girl and Big Daddy is politically charged: Hit Girl rants against the idea of showing mercy to criminals, believing a soft-touch to be ineffective. Without the happy ending of the film, the overarching sense of bleakness in the original story is somehow more discomforting than its graphic violence.
8. Princess Bride, William Goldman
Like Calvino, Goldman experiments with the story-telling form in this quasi-fairytale. The novel is framed by the interjections of its editor, who draws the reader’s attention to sections that have been cut out, and interrupts the story with notes similar to Pratchett’s brilliant asides in the Discworld series. This self-referential novel is every inch as enjoyable as its film version.
7. Rebellion, Joseph Roth
Roth’s deceptively simple prose conceals the moving story of a WWI veteran’s struggle to reintegrate himself back into an increasingly brutalised society. I must confess to still being a little bit heartbroken about poor Mooli the donkey…
6. Beijing Coma, Ma Jian
A profoundly unsettling tale of one student’s involvement in the Tiananmen Square protests, Beijing Coma has a cyclical structure. I understood the central concern of the novel to be the potential for growth in China, which is continually blocked by the destruction and violence of its past. This dichotomy is encapsulated in the moment when *spoiler alert* Dai Wei wakes from his coma to find his home crumbling around him, as China attempts to modernise its cities and bury its dark past beneath the rubble.
Isn’t it odd how much fatter a book gets when you’ve read it several times? As if something was left between the pages every time you read it. Feelings, thoughts, sounds, smells. And then, when you look at the book again many years later, you find yourself there too, a slightly younger self, slightly different, as if the book had preserved you like a pressed flower, both strange and familiar.
Inkspell, Cornelia Funke
To live at all is miracle enough.
The doom of nations is another thing.
Here in my hammering blood-pulse is my proof.
Let every painter paint and poet sing
And all the sons of music ply their trade;
Machines are weaker than a beetle’s wing.
Swung out of sunlight into cosmic shade,
Come what come may the imagination’s heart
Is constellation high and can’t be weighed.
Nor greed nor fear can tear our faith apart
When every heart-beat hammers out the proof
That life itself is miracle enough.
To Live at all is Miracle Enough, Mervyn Peake c. 1949
Phillip Pullman’s His Dark Materials is a fantastically immersive series, so I was pleased to stumble across more of Pullman’s work in the form of The Sally Lockhart Mysteries. So far I’ve read the first two instalments in the series, The Ruby in the Smoke and The Shadow in the North, and they are ticking all the good-book boxes for me. Set in Victorian London, the novels engage in subtle and fascinating ways with traditions of Victorian fiction.
The Ruby in the Smoke is clearly the fictional offspring of Wilkie Collins’ The Moonstone. Both are centred around the whereabouts of a mysterious Indian jewel with a dark and bloody history. The novel engages in a knowing way with the tradition of sensation fiction: Jim devours sensational novels, and this enables him to solve the mystery of the ruby. As Rosa explains, ‘He – you know those stories he’s always reading – I suppose he thinks like a sensational novelist’ (1985, p. 185). Pullman uses this foundation, however, to carve new ground: ultimately, the ruby itself is not the driving force of the novel. Underlying the search for the ruby is a far more disturbing tale of opium addiction, unrequited love and family secrets. The antagonist of the first novel, Mrs Holland, whose web of criminal connections grants an oppressively claustrophobic sense to the sprawling urban setting, commits suicide during her confrontation with Sally. Unable to escape from her past, she leaps after the ruby to her death.
The Shadow in the North expands upon this engagement with Victorian literature. The detective agency Sally heads signifies a significant nod in the direction of Sherlock Holmes. (I had always thought that the detective genre was an invention of the Victorian age, but apparently it has much deeper roots: http://bit.ly/U6f1ew) Pullman’s satirical portrayal of the misplaced charity of the upper classes reminded me of Mrs Jellyby in Bleak House: such is her concern for the plight of the poor in Africa, she is blind to the suffering of her own children. Her eyes have a far-away look, as though ‘they could see nothing nearer than Africa’ (Dickens 1993 , p. 33). Dickens critiques the inability of the upper classes to respond to the problem of poverty close at hand, such as the Victorian slums, famously portrayed in Bleak House as Tom All-Alone’s. Pullman performs a similar critique: the charity of Lady Harborough, for example, seems
to consist largely of rescuing unmarried mothers from poverty, and subjecting them to slavery instead, with the additional disadvantage of being preached at daily by evangelical clergymen (1999, p. 61).
The novel also references the Vampire tradition, popularised by Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Joe, an aspiring playwright, receives a rejection letter from Stoker himself: ‘I thought it had an unmistakable vigour and life, though I feel that vampires, as a subject, are played out’ (1999, p. 81).
For all these references to the classics of the Victorian era, however, Pullman presents these connections with a distinctly modern perspective. His Victorian London is in many ways more sensational, more mysterious, and far more realistic than that of Collins or Dickens. There is a greater sense of threat here: the mysteries are not merely cases of inheritance or infidelity, but truly matters of life and death. Sensational fiction was considered immoral because of the physical effect it produced on its readers; it was believed to induce fainting fits in its frail female readership. I experienced something close to this effect at the climax of The Shadow in the North. The novel deals with much darker threats than I would have expected from a young adult series.
Fingers crossed I find the next two instalments, The Tiger in the Well and The Tin Princess, under the tree tomorrow! Pullman is a truly captivating storyteller.
But they were not living, thought Harry: they were gone. The empty words could not disguise the fact that his parents’ mouldering remains lay beneath snow and stone, indifferent, unknowing. And tears came before he could stop them, boiling hot then instantly freezing on his face, and what was the point in wiping them off, or pretending? He let them fall, his lips pressed hard together, looking down at the thick snow hiding from his eyes the place where the last of Lily and James lay, bones now, surely, or dust, not knowing or caring that their living son stood so near, his heart still beating, alive because of their sacrifice and close to wishing, at this moment, that he was sleeping under the snow with them.
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, J.K. Rowling,