Desert Island Library

These are my favourite ever books. If I were stranded on a desert island, these are the ones I’d like washed up onto the shore in a waterproof trunk!  Note I’ve not limited myself to a set number of books, and you can fit an awful lot of paperbacks in a trunk . Here they are in no particular order:

The Shipping News by E. Annie Proulx   English equivalents to novels set in small-town America often seem so claustrophobic they have an unreal quality about them, whereas North America is so vast, novels tend to have a quality of space about them. Sure, everyone still knows everyone else, but they’re not squashed together like sardines, they have to make an effort to interact. This is so in the Pullitzer prize-winning novel by Proulx, where one of life’s failures, Quoyle, betrayed by his wife, opts to start all over again in faraway windswept Newfoundland. The novel is all about how he starts to fit in with the local community which takes time, as they’re mostly failures of a kind too. The quirky characters are superb, both comic and sympathetic, her writing leaps off the page and makes everything seem real.

The New York Trilogy by Paul Auster   The three novellas that make up Auster’s first fiction: City of Glass, Ghosts, and The Locked Room, take the traditional gumshoe detective from the golden age of noir and make that rôle into something new. New York itself also has a starring part – all Edward Hopper-ish, dark shadows yet with bright lights, a place full of strangers and lonely people. There are similarities across the three novellas: questions of identity, the writer’s life – writer’s block and overcoming it and getting published, the dangers of obsession, are all given a psychological twist so that you can never work out quite where it’s going – there’s a strong element of quis custodiet ipsos custodes or who watches the watchmen, and Auster makes himself a character too.

The Bottle Factory Outing by Beryl Bainbridge  Beryl is possibly my favourite author, and this is my favourite novel of hers (so far, see my Reading Beryl tab above). Published in 1974, it won the Guardian fiction prize and achieved a 2nd Booker shortlisting. Brenda and Freda work for an Italian wine importer and are organising a works outing – it’s all going to go wrong. Complex, very black comedy, and superb.

Marianne Dreams by Catherine Storr  My favourite children’s book. Marianne is ill and bored so she starts drawing a house with a pencil she finds. Later she discovers that the house appears in her dreams. So she adds a boy and he lives in her dream too … She adds more and more to the drawings which all come alive in dreamland, but start to take on a sinister side.  This was seriously scary for me as a 8yr old, but luckily, like her fever, things resolve and she gets better too.  I re-read this earlier this year, and it has lost none of its power.

I, Claudius by Robert Graves  Memories of reading this book are inextricably bound up with seeing the still wonderful BBC Series back in 1976. I think I saw the TV serial first and read the book and its sequel afterwards. I can honestly say that I learned nearly everything I knew then about the Roman emperors from I Claudius and its sequel. (I’ve also read some of the source material such as the waspish Suetonius, which was fabulous also.)

Blood Red, Snow White by Marcus Sedgwick  This fictionalised biography of Arthur Ransome’s time in Russia has revolution and politics, spies and intrigue, romance and family drama, all steeped in Russian fairy tales. Ransome ran away to Russia in 1913, where he became a journalist covering the 1917 revolutions,  He was close to Lenin and Trotsky, whose personal secretary Evgenia, who became the real love of his life. Being on good terms with both sides,  he spied for MI6, but MI5 also kept tabs on him for years and Ransome’s occasional journeys to and from home were full of adventure and peril. Sedgwick’s novelisation is no dry biography and he starts by using fairy tales to represent the problems of the people, embodied by a great Russian bear spurred into action against the Tsar by friends arguing in the forest – they are Lenin and Trotsky – it’s superb scene-setting. Combined with the romance and all the derring do of the amateur spy, the author delivers a totally fabulous novel.

Blindness by José Saramago  Once read, never forgotten! An epidemic of sudden blindness leads to those afflicted being taken to an old asylum where they are left to fend for themselves. Quarantine turns into imprisonment, hunger and squalor as they fumble about. When an armed gang takes over the food distribution demanding women in payment, you are truly horrified where before you were revolted by the conditions. I can honestly say it makes you feel dirty.  A doctor’s wife pretends to be blind rather than leave her husband though; secretly and subtly, she tries to help the others around her. We see through her eyes, it is a burden she bears with grace and dignity. Eventually the internees escape to find a newly barbarian world.  Bodies litter the streets, there is little food, no clean water, dogs and rats scavenge. Later there are some marvellous scenes which relieve you temporarily from this grim vision – the cleansing powers of a shower of rain and the friendly dog who licks the tears away. This is an astonishing book and a powerful commentary on the denial and removal of basic human rights, although Saramago’s largely punctuationless style takes a while to get used to.

Here Lies Arthur by Philip Reeve   Although I also adore TH White’s The Sword in the Stone, this Carnegie Award winning novel is such an original take on Arthurian myth and legend that it totally changed my views. It’s an über-realistic interpretation portraying a land of warring tribes in which Arthur could be the one to pull them together. Myrddin (Merlin) is doing his best to make it so, but his chief weapon is not Earth magic – it’s spin! Myrddin comes from the bardic tradition and is a master story-teller, embellishing and embroidering Arthur’s exploits to the masses to put his man forward as the natural leader. Mostly told from Myrddin’s pupil’s pov; Gwynna is persuaded to become the Lady of the Lake and present him with a new sword (here named Caliburn). As all eyes will be on Arthur, no-one will notice that the Lady is just a girl who can swim like a fish. It takes us from this episode through to the deaths of Merlin and Arthur, all seen from the slightly removed perspective which reveals the politics and spin underneath, and the legacy it creates.

Revolution in the Head by Ian MacDonald  I grew up playing the Beatles – having the complete guitar/vocal songbook. Several of us used to bring our guitars into school and we’d have a group sing at lunchtimes. Musically, the Beatles developed far beyond the bluesy Stones, and this landmark book delves deep into every song in chronological order – all about their composition, recording, release, and plenty of other information. It’s scholarly but immensely readable and gives a wonderful picture of the changing dynamics in the group alongside their musical development. The one essential book for any Beatles fan in my humble opinion.

The Girl with Glass Feet by Ali Shaw   This book is that rare thing – a thoroughly grown-up modern fairy tale that works. It is set in a remote cluster of islands around an archipelago called St Hauda’s land which feels definitely northern and slightly Nordic. A land where “strange winged creatures flit around icy bogland; albino animals hide themselves in the snow-glazed woods; jellyfish glow in the ocean’s depths.” Midas is a local, estranged from his mother and still reeling from the death of his father. He’s in not in a hurry to start anything new, instead he diverts his emotions into his photography. Ida, meanwhile, visited St Hauda’s Land six months ago, but since then her feet are starting to turn to glass. She’s returned to see if she can find a cure, for the glass which started at her toes is creeping further, she is already hobbling on her crystallising feet.  They meet out on the hills and strike up a rather awkward friendship. For both, it is love at first sight, but neither realises it yet. Sometimes you just want to knock their heads together – falling in love is hard work for this pair. You have to hope that they work it out – their romance, and what’s happening to Ida. There are no easy answers for them in their journey. I won’t spoil the story, but you’ll need a hanky before the end of this wonderful other-worldly tale. I loved it.

Flowers For Algernonby Daniel Keyes   I first read this just a few years ago, and it really, really affected me and its a SF novel I’d recommend to anyone. Written in the 1960s, it’s about a young man of low IQ, who becomes the first human (after Algernon the mouse) to receive mind-altering treatment to increase his IQ. We go on a journey with Charlie as he experiences the ups and downs of the experiment. This book has so many interesting things to say about the human condition, emotional intelligence and its relation to IQ – but be warned, you might need a hanky or two. I re-read it recently, and it made me cry all over again.

The Loved One by Evelyn Waugh
A short but wickedly funny satire on Hollywood, seen from the perspective of a pet funeral business.

More write-ups coming soon…
The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett
Tender is the Night by F Scott Fitzgerald
The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguru
The Last Coyote by Michael Connelly
Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke
The Sacred Art of Stealing by Christopher Brookmyre
Double Indemnity by James M Cain
Hawksmoor by Peter Ackroyd