A few months ago a colleague and friend of mine wrote her top ten books list after we had a discussion about it, but I didn’t get around to writing mine until now. I don’t think I can put them in order, and there’s a possibility I’ve forgotten a gem, but here are ten of my favourites anyway. I also haven’t included duplicate books by the same author (there are a few Murakamis and Ishiguros that I could have listed) or loads of books from within the same genre (I’ve read all the Nesbo-ish Scandinavian crime novels you can shake a stick at). Enjoy.
1. Norwegian Wood (Haruki Murakami)
Some days I am a big Murakami fan: he’s quirky, humourous, interesting and intriguingly surrealist. Out of the ordinary things happen without a blink of the eye – the magical and downright bizarre is woven straight into everyday stuff and simple stories about life, love, adventure and the utterly mundane. Other days I rather dislike him, as he descends into wild sheep chases populated by cat-eating psychos and women obsessed with men with nicely shaped heads. There is a fine line between the pleasingly unusual and the jarringly strange in his work, which sometimes works well, sometimes less well. But Norwegian Wood suffers from little of the self-indulgent semi-madness of some of his other books. Where works such as A Wild Sheep Chase meander meaninglessly to the point of driving me nuts, Norwegian Wood is a relatively straightforward and extremely readable love story. Albeit a rather strange one, with an ethereal and mentally unwell love interest, a slightly drippy and overly introspective protagonist and a cast of weird and unexpected characters. But it’s beautifully written and rather moving. Not your everyday romance, but a surprisingly solid read from Murakami.
2. The Snowman (Jo Nesbo)
I could probably write any of Nesbo’s books in this list, as I am addicted to his entire Harry Hole series. Nesbo fits neatly into the Scandi-crime, Nordic Noir niche, but he’s the master, not the apprentice. Slick, dark, full of clever twists, gripping and engaging, Nesbo’s crime novels are some of the best of the bunch. Harry Hole is an eminently likable and approachable hero. He might fit quite a handful of crime-novel stereotypes – the troubled, alcoholic policeman who doesn’t like to play by the rules, but he’s 100% fleshed out as a believable and identifiable protagonist. And I picked The Snowman because it’s one of Nesbo’s best plots – about a murderer who leaves creepy snowmen in the backyards of his victims. Sounds a little silly, but it’s a grim, dark and expertly-crafted murder mystery; leaving tantalising clues for you throughout, and giving quite a big twist at the end.
3. The Remains of the Day (Kazuo Ishiguro)
Ishiguro is another master, and I could list any of his beautiful, simple, gripping, moving and sometimes heartwrenching novels here. But The Remains of the Day is the one that made me laugh, cry and wish for more. This is actually on the English language syllabus for GCSE these days, which I hope doesn’t ruin this beautiful story for the younger generation, as I simply adore it. It’s an extremely simple and slightly odd story, about a peculiar, obsessive butler who is secretly in love with another of the staff of the manor he works in. The story is told from his perspective, as he focusses obsessively on achieving perfection in his work, dwelling endlessly on inane little details about how to lay out cutlery or perfectly polish silver or how best to dust a certain room. He is pernickety, uptight and infuriatingly inflexible. Every page of the book radiates longing, but a longing and desire that are controlled with such an iron will that you’re left hoping for more, which never quite comes. This book is very deceptive, as underneath its dusty facade, it’s often hilarious (unintended by its protagonist) and even heart-rendingly sad. Amazing, as are his other books.
4. American Gods (Neil Gaiman)
This is another strange book – about an unusual character called Shadow who comes out of prison to find his wife Laura has died in a car accident and weird things keep happening. He’s accosted by a strange and annoying character, Wednesday, who ends up sending him on a kind of quest across the US, where he meets a whole host of peculiar characters, each with their own unique story to tell. The idea behind the book is that there is a kind of war between the ‘old’ Gods of Norse, Egyptian and other legends, and the ‘new’ Gods of technology. The Gods hide in plain sight, and you meet many of them throughout the story. It’s also a vivid and fun journey across various cleverly depicted locations in America. The ending is a small letdown, but don’t worry – it’s all about the journey.
5. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (Stieg Larsson)
I’m a little surprised at myself for loving such a hyped-up book so much, but in this case the hype is justified in my opinion. This book is so smart it fully merits its popularity. Another crime/murder thriller, but in a much more indirect and intriguing way. Mikael Blomqvist is a journalist for an investigative magazine in Stockholm, who hears the strange tale of a young girl, Harriet, who disappeared several years ago while at a family gathering. No one is sure if she ran away, had a tragic accident, or was the victim of something more suspicious. Blomqvist, with the help of a damaged young hacker (the titular girl with tattoo), sets out to find the truth, leading him on a fascinating but dangerous trip out to a remote Norwegian resort, where he pieces together the real story bit by gripping bit. The story is really clever and rather thrilling, but there is more to the novel than just a great plot. The characters, too, are human and likeable. Not stereotypical ‘nice’ characters though. Lisbeth, a hacker with a very unpleasant past, gets some rather gruesome revenge on her sexually abusing ‘mentor’ and displays few characteristics of a typically ‘good’ main character. Blomqvist has a deep sense of morality and conviction, but a sharp and insightful mind. Together they make an ill-matched but well-suited investigative team and breathe further life into this fantastic story. Although be warned I didn’t find the 2 sequels anything special.
6. The Shadow of the Wind (Carlos Ruiz Zafon)
Another slightly slow-burning retrospective mystery, albeit with a very different feel. The Shadow of the Wind starts with a boy finding a mysterious book and trying to find out the story behind who wrote it. In doing so, he uncovers a web of strange events and the life of the author Julian Carax. The story is edged with a slight fantasy side, but giving you the feeling of an archaologist, slowly unravelling the past and uncovering pieces of the tragic mystery that lies behind the man who is travelling around burning all the copies of Carax’s books. There are some neat twists in here too, mixed with surprise, emotion and suspense. A beautifully written and very complex novel.
7. Amrita (Banana Yoshimoto)
This is a strange book and one I wasn’t sure about including in my top ten, but in some ways it inspired me a lot, and so I will include it. It tells the story of a girl who has amnesia after an accident, and must rebuilt her life. In a way, there isn’t much story, but it’s beautifully told and full of life. Everything that happens in the book is depicted vividly and in a way that makes you feel transported to another life: any food that touches her lips is real and delicious; she travels to a tropical island and you feel as if you too were walking on the golden sands and swimming in the crystal waters. You feel her emotions and experience her pleasures. Amrita has an element of the surreal to it: the girl has a psychic younger brother and she communes with ghosts. But the otherworldy feel blends nicely with the everyday. This is a book that really made me feel like I was a part of it, and I felt somehow uplifted, as if I had been on this journey to relearn how to life life, how to love and how to enjoy the small and big things in life. Definitely a really special summer read.
8. Night Train to Lisbon (Pascal Mercier)
I have to add a disclaimer that I’m not sure this book is particularly fantastic – it just caught my imagination at a certain point and made me feel inspired. The writing style isn’t 100%, and there are huge sections of ‘quoted’ text from books that the character reads, which are generally not a great addition. But the story is a good one. The protagonist, a dry and dusty old professor at a Swiss university meets a beautiful young woman on a bridge, seemingly in distress. She doesn’t speak German, and says to him instead the word portugues. He is captivated by her beauty and by the beauty of her language. So he packs in his dull, professorial life and takes a trip to Portugal to discover the hidden magic behind its language, culture and people. This is a book written by someone who is as much of a language geek as I am – the real thrill from the book doesn’t come from an unravelling romance with a woman, but with a language, culture and country. Watching the once uptight character learn how to communicate and find his way around was a bit like my own experiences with finding my way in every sense living abroad, and reminded me of my own passion for discovering a new language and place. Definitely a book for fellow language and culture aficionados.
9. His Dark Materials (Philip Pullman)
To take a little step back into my past, I read this trilogy as a young teenager and it’s basically the biggest and best thing I remember from being that age. I waited each year eagerly for the next one for Christmas. This is the best fantasy story, told by a master storyteller. Pullman built up this meticulous and hugely imaginative fantasy world that transported me to another realm of magic and drama that sucked me in 100% and never really let me go. All three of the books are equally epic, and the story and characters grew as I did, finding their way painfully into adolescence. There is so much imagination and so many incredible ideas in these books and they’ve stood the test of time as a firm favourite.
10. Perfume (Patrick Susskind)
Maybe this one sprung to mind because I was talking the other day about the Rammstein song Du Riechst so Gut (you smell so good) that’s based on this book. The film is also really worth seeing. But the book itself is great, simply because of the incredibly creepy but brilliant idea behind it – a man named Jean Baptiste Grenouille, who has an exceptional sense of smell which allows him to see the world around him just by smell, and to pull apart the very atoms of everything around him. So, naturally, he decides to try to use his skill to make the world’s greatest perfume. He goes on a quest to find the very best ingredients to make his perfume, but nothing is quite right. In the end, he finds that the only way to distill the perfect scent of innocence that he so craves is to use a bizarre process of coating girls in fat to absorb their essence and therefore their scent. Unfortunately, this somewhat requires him to murder the girls in question. A seriously creepy but thrilling story, that is unlike anything else I’ve read.
Well, I feel sure I’ve missed all sorts of great books and will be kicking myself for the rest of the day. Any comments are welcome, whether on the books I’ve included, or other awesome ones I’ve missed.
Ciao for now!