To Read (General)
Updated: Jun 14, 2020
This is my general 'To Read' list. The idea is that as I work through these books, I'll share a review for each one as I go, and keeping topping up this list so keep your eyes peeled if you're interested! I plan to create lists for more specific topics and subject areas as well. Hopefully some of you will be ensnared, as I was, by the descriptions of these texts.
I didn't make a list with any specific agenda, other than that they seem to be based on a gripping concept, and have been, or indeed are, well received critically. Some of these are great past works with enduring messages that have proved to be revolutionary to the literary world and to our one beyond it, that I am ashamed to have not tackled previously; some are more recent additions that provide some necessary insight into or reflection of society and life from the 21st century. Others have powerful narratives centred on the essence of humanity, some are an amalgamation of a bit of everything!
I'm hoping that each of them can present me with a new perspective and make me feel something (and anyone who delves into any of these recommendations), as all good writers do.
All texts are blurbs from editions of the books, except where otherwise stated.
The Beekeeper of Aleppo – Christy Lefteri
Nuri is a beekeeper; his wife, Afra, an artist. They live a simple life, rich in family and friends, in the beautiful Syrian city of Aleppo - until the unthinkable happens. When all they care for is destroyed by war, they are forced to escape.
As Nuri and Afra travel through a broken world, they must confront not only the pain of their own unspeakable loss, but dangers that would overwhelm the bravest of souls. Above all - and perhaps this is the hardest thing they face - they must journey to find each other again.
Moving, powerful, compassionate and beautifully written, The Beekeeper of Aleppo is a testament to the triumph of the human spirit. Told with deceptive simplicity, it is the kind of book that reminds us of the power of storytelling.
Gone Girl – Gillian Flynn
Who are you?
What have we done to each other?
These are the questions Nick Dunne finds himself asking on the morning of his fifth wedding anniversary, when his wife Amy suddenly disappears. The police suspect Nick. Amy's friends reveal that she was afraid of him, that she kept secrets from him. He swears it isn't true. A police examination of his computer shows strange searches. He says they weren't made by him. And then there are the persistent calls on his mobile phone. So what really did happen to Nick's beautiful wife?
Little Women – Louisa May Alcott
Meg is the eldest and on the brink of love. Then there’s tomboy Jo who longs to be a writer. Sweet-natured Beth always puts others first, and finally there’s Amy, the youngest and most precocious. Together they are the March sisters.
Even though money is short, times are tough and their father is away at war, their infectious sense of fun sweeps everyone up in their adventures — including Laurie, the boy next door. And through sisterly squabbles, their happy times and sad ones too, the sisters discover that growing up is sometimes very hard to do.
Based on Louisa May Alcott’s childhood, this lively portrait of nineteenth-century family life possesses a lasting vitality that has endeared it to generations of readers.
Call Me By Your Name – Andre Aciman
It’s the mid-1980s; the place is the Italian Riviera. Elio – 17 years old, precocious, the son of an academic – finds himself falling for the older Oliver, a postdoctoral scholar completing his manuscript on Heraclitus at the beautiful home of Elio’s family.
Oliver is worldly, handsome, a seductive contrast to Elio’s own naivety. Both are bright and questioning; the hook of desire is soon caught fast.
André Aciman – who so mesmerised with his autobiographical account of family and childhood in Out of Egypt – delivers a pitch-perfect elegy to a perfect lost summer and its long, slow shadow. Elegant, sensual, brimming with astute observation and recollection, Call Me By Your Name is the contemporary classic of love, identity, fate and memory.
The Remains of the Day – Kazuo Ishiguro
After all what can we ever gain in forever looking back and blaming ourselves if our lives have not turned out quite as we might have wished?
In the summer of 1956, Stevens, the ageing butler of Darlington Hall, embarks on a leisurely holiday that will take him deep into the English countryside and into his past...
A contemporary classic, The Remains of the Day is Nobel Prize-winner Kazuo Ishiguro's beautiful and haunting evocation of life between the wars in a Great English House, of lost causes and lost love.
This is Going to Hurt: Secret Diaries of a Junior Doctor – Adam Kay
97-hour weeks, life and death decisions, a constant tsunami of bodily fluids, and the hospital parking meter earns more than you.
Scribbled in secret after endless days, sleepless nights and missed weekends, Adam Kay's This is Going to Hurt provides a no-holds-barred account of his time on the NHS front line (as a junior doctor).
Hilarious, horrifying and heartbreaking, this diary is everything you wanted to know – and more than a few things you didn't – about life on and off the hospital ward.
Little Fires Everywhere – Celeste Ng
Everyone in Shaker Heights was talking about it that summer: how Isabelle, the last of the Richardson children, had finally gone around the bend and burned the house down.
In Shaker Heights, a placid, progressive suburb of Cleveland, everything is meticulously planned - from the layout of the winding roads, to the colours of the houses, to the successful lives its residents will go on to lead. And no one embodies this spirit more than Elena Richardson, whose guiding principle is playing by the rules.
Enter Mia Warren - an enigmatic artist and single mother- who arrives in this idyllic bubble with her teenage daughter Pearl, and rents a house from the Richardsons. Soon Mia and Pearl become more than just tenants: all four Richardson children are drawn to the mother-daughter pair. But Mia carries with her a mysterious past, and a disregard for the rules that threatens to upend this carefully ordered community.
When old family friends attempt to adopt a Chinese-American baby, a custody battle erupts that dramatically divides the town - and puts Mia and Elena on opposing sides. Suspicious of Mia and her motives, Elena is determined to uncover the secrets in Mia's past. But her obsession will come at an unexpected and devastating cost . . .
They Both Die At the End – Adam Silvera
On September 5th, a little after midnight, Death-Cast calls Mateo Torrez and Rufus Emeterio to give them some bad news: they're going to die today. Mateo and Rufus are total strangers, but, for different reasons, they're both looking to make a new friend on their End Day.
The good news: there's an app for that. It's called the Last Friend, and through it, Rufus and Mateo are about to meet up for one last great adventure - to live a lifetime in a single day.
A Room of One’s Own – Virginia Woolf
Published in 1929, Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One's Own is a key work of feminist literary criticism. Written after she delivered two lectures on the topic of ‘women and fiction’ at Cambridge University in 1928, Woolf’s essay examines the educational, social and financial disadvantages women have faced throughout history. It contains Woolf’s famous argument that, ‘A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction’ – although Woolf describes this as ‘an opinion upon one minor point’, and the essay explores the ‘unsolved problems’ of women and fiction ‘to show you how I arrived at this opinion about the room and the money’.
Through the fictionalised character of ‘Mary’ – who visits the British Museum to find out about everything that has ever been written about women – Woolf builds the argument that literature and history is a male construct that has traditionally marginalised women. Woolf refutes the widely held assumption that women are inferior writers, or inferior subjects, instead locating their silence in their material and social circumstances. Women have been barred from attending school and university, for instance, or excluded by law for inheritance, or expected to marry during which their time is spent housekeeping and childrearing. Woolf imagines what kind of life ‘Judith Shakespeare’ – a brilliant, talented sister of Shakespeare – might have lived, concluding that she, ‘would have been so thwarted and hindered by other people, so tortured and pulled asunder by her own contrary instincts, that she must have lost her health and sanity to a certainty’.
It is also an issue of gendered values, Woolf insists. Writing in the 1920s, Woolf observes that it is, ‘the masculine values that prevail... This is an important book, the critic assumes, because it deals with war. This is an insignificant book because it deals with the feelings of women in a drawing-room’.
Woolf ends with an appeal to the audience ‘to write all kinds of books, hesitating at no subject however trivial or however vast’: Judith ‘would come again if we worked for her, and that so to work, even in poverty and obscurity, is worth while’.
The Bell Jar – Sylvia Plath
I was supposed to be having the time of my life.
When Esther Greenwood wins an internship on a New York fashion magazine in 1953, she is elated, believing she will finally realise her dream to become a writer.
But in between the cocktail parties and piles of manuscripts, Esther's life begins to slide out of control. She finds herself spiralling into depression and eventually a suicide attempt, as she grapples with difficult relationships and a society which refuses to take women's aspirations seriously.
A Thousand Splendid Suns – Khaled Hosseini
Mariam is only fifteen when she is sent to Kabul to marry Rasheed. Nearly two decades later, a friendship grows between Mariam and a local teenager, Laila, as strong as the ties between mother and daughter.
When the Taliban take over, life becomes a desperate struggle against starvation, brutality and fear.
Yet love can move a person to act in unexpected ways, and lead them to overcome the most daunting obstacles with a startling heroism.
Lady Susan – Jane Austen
Jane Austen’s earliest known serious work, Lady Susan is a short, epistolary novel that portrays a woman bent on the exercise of her own powerful mind and personality to the point of social self-destruction.
Lady Susan, a clever and ruthless widow, determines that her daughter is going to marry a man whom both detest. She sets her own sights on her sister-in-law’s brother, all the while keeping an old affair simmering on the back burner.
But people refuse to play the roles assigned to them...
Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind - Yuval Noah Harari
Planet Earth is 4.5 billion years old. In just a fraction of that time, one species among countless others has conquered it. Us.
We are the most advanced and most destructive animals ever to have lived. What makes us brilliant? What makes us deadly? What makes us Sapiens?
In this bold and provocative book, Yuval Noah Harari explores who we are, how we got here and where we're going. Sapiens is a thrilling account of humankind's extraordinary history - from the Stone Age to the Silicon Age - and our journey from insignificant apes to rulers of the world.
A specialist in World History, military history and medieval history, Yuval Noah Harari is best known for his investigations into macro-historical questions concerning the relationship between history and science, the origins of mankind and its future.
Wolf Hall series – Hilary Mantel
England, the 1520s. Henry VIII is on the throne, but has no heir. Cardinal Wolsey is his chief advisor, charged with securing the divorce the pope refuses to grant. Into this atmosphere of distrust and need comes Thomas Cromwell, first as Wolsey's clerk, and later his successor.
Cromwell is a wholly original man: the son of a brutal blacksmith, a political genius, a briber, a charmer, a bully, a man with a delicate and deadly expertise in manipulating people and events.
Ruthless in pursuit of his own interests, he is as ambitious in his wider politics as he is for himself. His reforming agenda is carried out in the grip of a self-interested parliament and a king who fluctuates between romantic passions and murderous rages.
I Capture the Castle – Dodie Smith
'I write this sitting in the kitchen sink' is the first line of this timeless, witty and enchanting novel about growing up.
Cassandra Mortmain lives with her bohemian and impoverished family in a crumbling castle in the middle of nowhere. Her journal records her life with her beautiful, bored sister, Rose, her fading glamorous stepmother, Topaz, her little brother Thomas and her eccentric novelist father who suffers from a financially crippling writer's block.
However, all their lives are turned upside down when the American heirs to the castle arrive and Cassandra finds herself falling in love for the first time.
The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power - Shoshana Zuboff
The challenges to humanity posed by the digital future, the first detailed examination of the unprecedented form of power called "surveillance capitalism," and the quest by powerful corporations to predict and control us.
The heady optimism of the Internet's early days is gone. Technologies that were meant to liberate us have deepened inequality and stoked divisions. Tech companies gather our information online and sell it to the highest bidder, whether government or retailer. Profits now depend not only on predicting our behaviour but modifying it too. How will this fusion of capitalism and the digital shape our values and define our future?
Shoshana Zuboff shows that we are at a crossroads. We still have the power to decide what kind of world we want to live in, and what we decide now will shape the rest of the century. Our choices: allow technology to enrich the few and impoverish the many, or harness it and distribute its benefits.
The Age of Surveillance Capitalism is a deeply-reasoned examination of the threat of unprecedented power free from democratic oversight. As it explores this new capitalism's impact on society, politics, business, and technology, it exposes the struggles that will decide both the next chapter of capitalism and the meaning of information civilisation. Most critically, it shows how we can protect ourselves and our communities and ensure we are the masters of the digital rather than its slaves.
Sister Outsider - Audre Lorde
In this charged collection of fifteen essays and speeches, Lorde takes on sexism, racism, ageism, homophobia, and class, and propounds social difference as a vehicle for action and change. Her prose is incisive, unflinching, and lyrical, reflecting struggle but ultimately offering messages of hope. (The commemorative edition) includes a new foreword by Lorde scholar and poet Cheryl Clarke, who celebrates the ways in which Lorde's philosophies resonate more than twenty years after they were first published.
These landmark writings are, in Lorde's own words, a call to "never close our eyes to the terror, to the chaos which is Black which is creative which is female which is dark which is rejected which is messy which is..."
Normal People - Sally Rooney
Marianne is the young, affluent, intellectual wallflower; Connell is the boy everyone likes, shadowed by his family’s reputation and poverty. Unlikely friends, and later lovers, their small town beginnings in rural Ireland are swiftly eclipsed by the heady worlds of student Dublin. Gradually their intense, mismatched love becomes a battleground of power, class, and the falsehoods they choose to believe.
Normal People is a tale of deceptive simplicity, a very accessible narrative of two seemingly mismatched young people who share a profound, inescapable understanding. Beyond that however is something properly universal, a study of how one person can forever shape and impact another. Marianne and Connell emerge almost shockingly real and deeply vulnerable in their different ways.
Sally Rooney has evolved into perhaps the most nuanced contemporary observer we have. Brimming with longing, regret and intimacy, Normal People is everything, as a culture, we need from our fiction. It is a story that is absolutely universal to us all, and it is brilliant.
Shantaram - Gregory David Roberts
A novel of high adventure, great storytelling and moral purpose, based on an extraordinary true story of eight years in the Bombay underworld.
'In the early 80s, Gregory David Roberts, an armed robber and heroin addict, escaped from an Australian prison to India, where he lived in a Bombay slum. There, he established a free health clinic and also joined the mafia, working as a money launderer, forger and street soldier. He found time to learn Hindi and Marathi, fall in love, and spend time being worked over in an Indian jail. Then, in case anyone thought he was slacking, he acted in Bollywood and fought with the Mujahedeen in Afghanistan . . . Amazingly, Roberts wrote Shantaram three times after prison guards trashed the first two versions. It's a profound tribute to his willpower . . . At once a high-kicking, eye-gouging adventure, a love saga and a savage yet tenderly lyrical fugitive vision.' Time Out