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100+ Books That Shaped My World

You may have seen the BBC’s list of “100 Novels That Shaped Our World“, compiled by a panel of writers and commentators. Well, the other week, Nina Allan was inspired to make her own list of books that had shaped her world. I was really taken by the idea, so I’ve been compiling a list myself.

My 100 entries include novels, story collections and series, English-language works and books in translation –they’re all key parts of my reading history. The only restriction I’ve given myself is one entry per author.

Like Nina’s, my list is arranged in rough order of first reading, from my early childhood to this year. It’s the first time I have attempted to put my entire reading life in one place. I can see the evolution of myself as a reader – the continuities as well as the changes.

The resulting list isn’t really meant to be representative or comprehensive. But each of these books and series played its own part, small or large, in making me the reader I am today.

100 NOVELS, COLLECTIONS AND SERIES THAT SHAPED MY WORLD

The Monster at the End of This Book by Jon Stone
The Hodgeheg by Dick King-Smith
Flames in the Forest by Ruskin Bond
The Snow Spider by Jenny Nimmo
The Conker as Hard as a Diamond by Chris Powling
The Turbulent Term of Tyke Tyler by Gene Kemp
The Fighting Fantasy series by Steve Jackson and Ian Livingstone (et al)
The Demon Headmaster by Gillian Cross
The Discworld series by Terry Pratchett
The Legends of Lone Wolf series by Joe Dever and John Grant
The Virtual Reality Adventure series by Dave Morris and Mark Smith
A Kestrel for a Knave Barry Hines
The Homeward Bounders by Diana Wynne Jones
253 by Geoff Ryman
Quicker Than the Eye by Ray Bradbury
Escardy Gap by Peter Crowther and James Lovegrove
The Most Amazing Man Who Ever Lived by Robert Rankin
Ye Gods! by Tom Holt
The Player of Games by Iain M. Banks
The Royal Changeling by John Whitbourn
The Saga of the Exiles series by Julian May
The Great Game trilogy by Dave Duncan
Stardust by Neil Gaiman
The Orokon series by Tom Arden (David Rain)
The Prestige by Christopher Priest
Northern Lights by Philip Pullman
Ash: A Secret History by Mary Gentle
Perdido Street Station by China Miéville
Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler
The Facts of Life by Graham Joyce
The Enchanted Castle by E. Nesbit
City of Saints and Madmen by Jeff Vandermeer
The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole Aged 13¾ by Sue Townsend
Remainder by Tom McCarthy
Gold by Dan Rhodes
Animal’s People by Indra Sinha
The Grin of the Dark by Ramsey Campbell
The Book of Revelation by Rupert Thomson
Solo by Rana Dasgupta
The Rehearsal by Eleanor Catton
The Turing Test by Chris Beckett
Legend of a Suicide by David Vann
Black Mamba Boy by Nadifa Mohamed
The Rapture by Liz Jensen
Skippy Dies by Paul Murray
New Model Army by Adam Roberts
Beside the Sea by Véronique Olmi
The Silver Wind by Nina Allan
Coconut Unlimited by Nikesh Shukla
Pocket Notebook by Mike Thomas
Mr Fox by Helen Oyeyemi
Loving by Henry Green
The Buddha in the Attic by Julie Otsuka
Agnes Grey by Anne Brontë
Diving Belles by Lucy Wood
The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro
Hawthorn & Child by Keith Ridgway
Redemption in Indigo by Karen Lord
The Driver’s Seat by Muriel Spark
The Longshot by Katie Kitamura
Viriconium by M. John Harrison
Lightning Rods by Helen DeWitt
Nod by Adrian Barnes
70% Acrylic 30% Wool by Viola Di Grado
Communion Town by Sam Thompson
How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia by Mohsin Hamid
All the Birds, Singing by Evie Wyld
The Hottest Dishes of the Tartar Cuisine by Alina Bronsky
Mrs. Hemingway by Naomi Wood
Elizabeth Is Missing by Emma Healey
A Girl Is a Half-formed Thing by Eimear McBride
The Notebook by Agota Kristof
The Housekeeper and the Professor by Yoko Ogawa
The Life of Rebecca Jones by Angharad Price
The Wake by Paul Kingsnorth
Zone by Mathias Enard
The Vegetarian by Han Kang
The Wandering Pine by Per Olov Enquist
The End of Days by Jenny Erpenbeck
Signs Preceding the End of the World by Yuri Herrera
Mildew by Paulette Jonguitud
The First Bad Man by Miranda July
The Boy Who Stole Attila’s Horse by Ivan Répila
The Folly by Ivan Vladislavić
Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf
Mend the Living by Maylis de Kerangal
Martin John by Anakana Schofield
Like a Mule Bringing Ice Cream to the Sun by Sarah Ladipo Manyika
Good Morning, Midnight by Jean Rhys
Tainaron: Mail from Another City by Leena Krohn
Fever Dream by Samanta Schweblin
Such Small Hands by Andrés Barba
Reservoir 13 by Jon McGregor
A Kind of Loving by Stan Barstow
The Ice Palace by Tarjei Vesaas
Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata
Three Dreams in the Key of G by Marc Nash
T Singer by Dag Solstad
Berg by Ann Quin
Tamarisk Row by Gerald Murnane

From the Archives: Spanish Lit

Today, for Spanish Lit Month, a look back through my archives. This is a list of all my reviews of books translated from the languages of Spain, in reverse order of posting. It’s not a huge number (in the early years of this blog, I didn’t read many translations), but I wanted to link to everything in one place. So – positive or negative, short or long – it’s all here. Just to clarify a few things: all books are translated from Spanish unless otherwise indicated; some links go to external websites; and anything labelled ‘note’ is a few lineswithin a longer round-up post.

The Booker’s (baker’s) dozen 2013

This year’s Man Booker Prize longlist is out, so let’s take a gander:

  • Tash Aw – Five Star Billionaire (Fourth Estate)
  • NoViolet Bulawayo – We Need New Names (Chatto & Windus)
  • Eleanor Catton – The Luminaries (Granta)
  • Jim Crace – Harvest (Picador)
  • Eve Harris – The Marrying of Chani Kaufman (Sandstone Press)
  • Richard House – The Kills (Picador)
  • Jhumpa Lahiri – The Lowland (Bloomsbury)
  • Alison MacLeod – Unexploded (Hamish Hamilton)
  • Colum McCann – TransAtlantic (Bloomsbury)
  • Charlotte Mendelson – Almost English (Mantle)
  • Ruth Ozeki – A Tale for the Time Being (Canongate)
  • Donal Ryan – The Spinning Heart (Doubleday Ireland)
  • Colm Tóibín – The Testament of Mary (Viking)

I have read precisely none of those – not that that’s about to stop me from opining about the list…

Given that The Rehearsal remains my favourite of all the books I’ve read during the lifetime of this blog, I’m naturally very pleased to see Eleanor Catton on the longlist. The Luminaries has not been published yet, but it promises to be a great big tome set in the New Zealand goldrush of the 1860s, taking in astronomy, murder mysteries, and more besides. I’m really looking forward to it.

The other writer I am particularly pleased to see longlisted is Alison MacLeod. I know her more as a fine writer of short stories, but I’m certainly intrigued to read one of her novels. Unexploded, set in wartime Brighton, isn’t out yet either, so there’s not much more I can say there.

Looking at the list more generally, I think the range of author nationalities is nice to see. The Booker has perhaps been starting to look a mite parochial in recent years, having gone to well-established English authors for four years in a row. With only Jim Crace really fitting that description here, we may well see a different outcome this year.

The longlist is lighter on small-press titles than I’d have liked. There’s only really Sandstone Press (and congratulations to them on a second longlisting, following The Testament of Jessie Lamb a couple of years ago). You could add in Canongate, Granta and Bloomsbury as independent publishers, I suppose – but they’re not small presses in quite the same way. After such a strong showing for small publishers last year (And Other Stories, Myrmidon and Salt – half the shortlist), I can’t help feeling a little disappointed about that.

Which of the books would I most like to read? Taking the Catton and MacLeod books as givens… The Kills has me especially intrigued – a vast political thriller cross-pollinated with a literary mystery, which was first published as a series of enhanced ebooks with added audio and video. Five Star Billionaire and We Need New Names sound interesting. I’ve heard so many good things about A Tale for the Time Being that I really ought to give it a go… That’s a full shortlist right there.

Sunday Salon: Ten Love Stories

I’ve been reading Marry Me, Dan Rhodes’s new collection of flash fiction on the theme of marriage. This being Rhodes, all is not exactly sweetness and light: in many of these stories, a male narrator is treated shabbily by his female partner – or occasionally he’s the one behaving shabbily himself – in absurd and darkly amusing ways.

‘Is there someone else?’ asks one man as his wife leaves him. ‘No,’ she replies, ‘there isn’t. But I would really, really like there to be’. Another woman informs her husband that he’ll have to leave, then produces a catalogue and sells him pots and pans for his new home (‘I would give you a discount because I know you, but it’s early days and I’m sure you’ll understand that I’ve got to keep a firm grip on my finances now I’m a single gal’). And so on, and so on, with these wonderfully barbed and pithy lines.

But, just occasionally. there are touches of real romance, as with the couple who put the lump of charcoal he gave her in lieu of a diamond under their mattress in the hope that pressure may transform it. The result: ‘it never looks any different. I think we would be a bit disappointed if it ever did.’ Moments like this bring light to the book, which ends up being quite sweet, in its own deliciously sour way.

***

As it’s nearly Valentine’s Day, I decided to go back through my blog archives and see how many love stories I’ve reviewed over the years. My instinct was that it wouldn’t be that many, but (allowing for my subjective interpretation), I’ve come up with a list of nine more books to add to the one above, which is more than I expected. Here they are – but I’m not necessarily promising happy endings…

Viola di Grado, 70% Acrylic 30% Wool (reviewed Jan 2013)

A girl struggling to move on from her father’s death may have found a way forward when she meets a local boy who teaches her Chinese – if she can let herself move forward, that is. I really enjoyed this book, but it might as much an anti-love story as a love story.

Evan Mandery, Q: a Love Story (reviewed Sept 2012)

This must be a love story, because it says so in the title, right? Well, maybe not, as its protagonist receives repeated visits from his future self, trying to persuade him to call off his relationships. But the ending is actually rather affecting.

Alice Zeniter, Take This Man (reviewed May 2012)

A fine portrait of complex circumstances, as a young French-Algerian woman prepares to marry her Malian childhood friend in a bit to prevent his deportation. Not so much a tale of ‘will they?won’t they?’ as ‘should they? shouldn’t they?’.

Henry Green, Loving (reviewed Jan 2012)

A tale of love and contested space in a wartime country house. It begins and ends with the words of a fairytale, but that kind of happiness is a long way from being guaranteed.

Robert Shearman, Love Songs for the Shy and Cynical (reviewed Aug 2011)

An excellent set of stories examining love in its various manifestations.

Alison MacLeod, Fifteen Modern Tales of Attraction (reviewed July 2011)

Another fine set of stories about love.

Daniel Glattauer, Love Virtually (reviewed Feb 2011)

A novel told through two people’s emails; their correspondence becomes a form of courtship dance. Will they or won’t they? I don’t know without reading the sequel.

Priya Basil, The Obscure Logic of the Heart (reviewed June 2010)

A non-religious boy from a wealthy Kenyan Sikh family and a girl from a devout Birmingham Muslim family fall in love – and the complexities of their situation are very nicely delineated in the book.

Ronan O’Brien, Confessions of a Fallen Angel (reviewed Aug 2009)

The story of a young man who has apparently prophetic dreams of people’s deaths. I include it here for its wonderful portrait of falling in love twice, in two different ways – the dizzy rush of first love, and a slower flowering of affection later on in life.

The Booker’s dozen 2012

I promised myself that I’d pay more attention to the Man Booker Prize this year than I have previously. Here are my initial thoughts on the twelve books in the 2012 longlist:

Nicola Barker, The Yips

Barker is a previous Booker shortlistee (for Darkmans in 2007), though I’ve never read her myself. The Yips is a comedy set in 2006, revolving around a golfer who’s losing his touch. I’ve heard praise for this book, but the extract I read did not encourage me to investigate further.

Ned Beauman, The Teleportation Accident

When I heard about Beauman’s debut novel, Boxer, Beetle, I was intrigued; when I read it, I was disappointed. The blurb for The Teleportation Accident (‘a historical novel that doesn’t know what year it is; a noir novel that turns all the lights on…’) makes it sound right up my street; but I read the extract, see the familiar prose style, and remember last time…

André Brink, Philida

Brink’s name was new to me, but he was shortlisted twice for the Booker in the 1970s. Philida is the story of a slave’s journey across 1830s South Africa in order to escape the fate which has been laid out for her. That could be interesting – I can’t find an extract of Philida online, but I’d be inclined to try the book out.

Tan Twan Eng, The Garden of Evening Mists

It’s always a pleasure to see books from small presses on award lists; Newcastle’s Myrmidon publishes the first of three here. The novel itself concerns a female Malay judge and an exiled Japanese gardener in post-war Malaya. It seems to have been well received, and could be worth a look.

Michael Frayn, Skios

Frayn was previously shortlisted for the Booker in 1999; his current novel concerns a scientific conference on its titular Greek island. I read an extract and was charmed by the prose style – definitely a book I’d be interested to read.

Rachel Joyce, The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry

A candidate for breakout debut of the year, Joyce’s book is one of two on the longlist that I’ve already read. I’ve also reviewed it here: I thought the novel good, particularly in the way it balances eccentricity and seriousness – but I didn’t have it down as a Booker contender.

Deborah Levy, Swimming Home

And here’s the second longlistee that I’ve read. It’s particularly gratifying to see a title from And Other Stories being recognised by the Booker – they started only last year, and have an exciting community-based publishing model that deserves to succeed. It seems almost churlish to note that Swimming Home left me cold, but other people with good taste have thought very highly of it.

Hilary Mantel, Bring Up the Bodies

It seemed almost a foregone conclusion that this would be shortlisted, given Mantel’s Booker win in 2009. I wouldn’t contemplate reading Bring Up the Bodies without reading Wolf Hall first; but the extract I looked at suggests a very good book. I still find it hard to conceive of this winning, though.

Alison Moore, The Lighthouse

The second of four debuts on the longlist, and the third and final small press title (this time from Salt). I was both surprised and pleased to see The Lighthouse listed, partly because I didn’t know about it, and partly because I so enjoyed Moore’s Nightjar chapbook a couple of years ago. This is going straight on my to-read list.

Will Self, Umbrella

I’ve never read a Will Self book before (only his piece in the Granta Horror issue) and, from what I’ve heard of Umbrella’s layout (400 pages of unbroken paragraphs), I doubt this is a suitable place to start. I can’t really say more than that.

Jeet Thayil, Narcopolis

The third debut novel, this one centring on a Bombay opium den. Based on the extract I’ve read, I’m undecided about Narcopolis.

Sam Thompson, Communion Town

Any novel which comes with comparisons to David Mitchell and Italo Calvino, and a cover quote from China Miéville, is one I want to investigate. CommunionTown looks as though it could have shades of Jeff Vandermeer’s Ambergris as well, which is no bad thing. The fourth longlisted debuts also joins my to-read list.

***

What to make of that list overall, then? It’s a good balance between new and established names; decent enough in terms of gender diversity; less so in its diversity of ethnicity and nationality.

At this point, I certainly want to read The Lighthouse and Communion Town, and am very much inclined to read Skios. I don’t so much want to read The Teleportation Accident as to have read it. The rest, I could take or leave.

How about you, reader – what are your thoughts on the longlist?

Recommended reading: short stories

Today is International Short Story Day, so I thought I’d bring some short stories to the blog. Here is a list of links to some of the short stories available online that I’ve enjoyed in the last few years:

***

I also asked for other people’s recommendations on Twitter last night, and here’s what they said:

@ActuallyAisha recommended the Caine Prize shortlist, especially Rotimi Babatunde’s “Bombay’s Republic” [PDF link].

@bellaserval recommended Joel Golby’s “And the Dead Came Back to Life”.

@T_A_Fletcher recommended Paraxis.

@nikeshshukla recommended www.theshortstory.org.uk.

@beaglelover7 recommended Suffolk Book League‘s New Beginnings anthology [PDF link].

@GigiWoolf recommended Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper”.

@MandyBoat recommended the Bloomsbury Short Stories sampler.

@kevmcveigh recommended Lewis Shiner’s stories.

@JinxedJester recommended George Saunders’ “Adams” [podcast]

***

Thanks to everyone for their suggestions, and I hope you’ll find plenty to enjoy amongst these stories.

April wrap-up

Book of the Month

April was mostly about the Arthur C. Clarke Award on here; the best book I read all month was not on this year’s shortlist, but a previous Clarke nominee: David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas. I’ve been meaning to read Mitchell for ages, and now I can see that I had good reason.

Reviews

Features

February wrap-up

Book of the Month

This is a tricky one, because the best book I read in February — Lucy Wood’s marvellous collection of stories based on Cornish folklore, Diving Belles — is one I haven’t reviewed yet; and the best book I reviewed on the blog — Everyone’s Just So So Special by Robert Shearman — was one I read last year. Oh, just go and read them both; they’re brilliant books.

Reviews

Features

December wrap-up

Book of the Month

December saw the launch of the Huffington Post‘s UK Culture section, to which I’ve been contributing; and the best book I read this month was the first I reviewed for them – Sarah Winman’s debut, When God Was a Rabbit.

Reviews

Features

And that is the end of 2011 on Follow the Thread. Thank you for reading, and my best wishes to you for the new year. See you in 2012!

A selection of 2011 favourites

Wherever you are, I hope you’re enjoying the festive season. Now it’s time for my annual look back on my favourite reads of the year. I’m going to split 2011’s list in two: six books from this year, six published in previous years. The lists are in alphabetical order of author surname, and all links will take you to my reviews.

Without further ado, then, here are six of my favourite books that received their first UK publication in 2011:

Aimee Bender, The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake

I love fantasy with structural elegance, and this book has it: it’s the tale of a girl who can taste the feelings of whoever made her food (and hence detects trouble in her family’s relationships); what I like most is that it works equally as well whether you read the protagonist’s ability literally or metaphorically.

Stuart Evers, Ten Stories About Smoking

Certainly the best-designed book I read in 2011 (it comes in a flip-top box made to resemble a packet of cigarettes, this is also a fine set of stories which use smoking as a metaphor in various ways; I look forward eagerly to Evers’ debut novel next year.

Helen Oyeyemi, Mr Fox

Variations on the tale of Bluebeard, embedded in the broader narrative of a writer and his muse, who is rather less imaginary than she appears. The sheer range of Mr Fox is impressive, but it’s a great read to boot.

Nat Segnit, Pub Walks in Underhill Country

The idea of a novel written as a ramblers’ guide might seem gimmicky, but what makes this book work is the way Segnit uses the structure as a means of characterisation: the protagonist’s wife has left him, and the walking-guide format is set against a more novelistic style as the narrator tries to keep a hold on his world.

Conrad Williams, Loss of Separation

A fascinating psychological portrait of a pilot who’s recovered from an air crash, only to find that his girlfriend has disappeared.  Williams brilliantly plays creeping personal fears of decline and loss against grander horrors, and asks which is truly the most frightening.

Naomi Wood, The Godless Boys

A superb portrait of a divergent England ruled by the Church, where members of the Secular Movement have been exiled to a nearby island. Wood creates a vivid sense of place and character, and a subtle sense of how isolation has changed the Islanders’ ideas about faith.

***

And now half a dozen from previous years:

Chris Beckett, The Holy Machine

A translator in the world’s only atheist city-state falls in love with one of the city’s lifelike robots; when a new law raises the possibility that the android’s personality will be erased, the pair are forced to flee. Becektt’s complex examination of science, religion, and what it means to be human makes an interesting comparison with The Godless Boys, which I read in tandem with this.

Joe Moran, On Roads: a Hidden History

A wide-ranging and perceptive history of the British post-war road system. If that sounds dry, I can only emphasise that it’s quite the opposite, as Moran spins gold from such an everyday topic.

Sarah Salway, Leading the Dance

Another book which turns the ordinary into something more, this time in the form of short stories which reveal the significance of ostensibly mundane events to the people involved in them.

Robert Shearman, Love Songs for the Shy and Cynical

The single best book of short stories I read in 2011. Shearman combines the unremarkable and the fantastic to brilliant effect in a collection whose main subject is love, seen from various angles.

Rebecca Skloot, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

The story of how cancer cells taken from a poor African American woman played a vital part in modern medicine, though for twenty years her family didn’t even know a sample had been taken. Though this is a fascinating tale in its own right, Skloot’s orchestration of her material makes it all the more so.

Mike Thomas, Pocket Notebook

I didn’t know what to expect from this story of a police officer going off the rails, and it utterly blew me away. One of the best written books I’ve read all year, one of the sharpest character-portraits… I can’t wait to see what Thomas writes next.

***

So that’s my dozen picks from the reading year. What books have you most enjoyed?

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