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This is where you will find stunning books from literary masters past and present. Literary fiction doesn’t just mean good or valued, as brilliant writing can be found in any genre. These are serious stories with high artistic qualities that strike at the heart of what it is to be human.
Beautiful, brutal and raw - I cannot praise Michael Crummey’s The Innocents highly enough. Set in an inhospitable isolated area of the Newfoundland coast in the nineteenth-century, it’s a remarkable Garden of Eden, Babes in the Wood masterwork in which we witness age-old nature-nurture conflicts ebb and flow as we observe two siblings living on the edge, in every sense. Through their poignant passages to adulthood we see humanity at its most elemental, and we’re compelled to consider what it means to become a human adult Siblings Evered and Ada have survived the loss of their mother and baby sister Martha, though Ada still hears and speaks to Martha. Now their father has died and there’s no one but them to remove his body from their home. No one but each other to ensure they survive. Equipped with very limited knowledge of the world, and facing perilous poverty, the siblings fish and cure their catch, as their father used to, but the catches come either in unmanageable excess, or not at all. They are never far from the ravages of starvation, or wild storms. As time passes, Ada and Evered derive secret knowledge from their bodies, as well as from infrequent interactions with outsiders. Once a year, men come to collect the sibling’s paltry cured fish, dropping off scant supplies as payment. Then there are chance visits from seamen surprised to find them living alone in this precarious way. The siblings assimilate new knowledge from these unexpected visitors – knowledge of brewing, hunting, history and human relationships - who in turn leave indelible marks on Ada and Evered, leaving them changed to the extent that “each in their own way was beginning to doubt their pairing was requisite to what they might want from life.” Inspired by a story the author found in local archives, this is an incredibly haunting novel – the language powerfully pure, the story uniquely thought-provoking.
From the detailed domestic scenes dappled with loss, love, hardship and hanging on, to sweeping waves of war, the rare power of Maaza Mengiste’s The Shadow King creeps up on you, catches you unaware, becomes compulsive in the manner of complex classics of the ancient world. It’s 1935 in Ethiopia and newly-orphaned Hirut is employed as a maid by an officer in Emperor Hailie Selassie’s army. In her previous life, Hirut’s father taught her to use a gun: “This, he says, you do not touch unless you are prepared. Prepared for what, she asks. He slips the bullet back into his pocket. Prepared to be something you are not.” And this is what Hirut is prepared for when Ethiopia is invaded by Mussolini’s vengeful army. Not content to merely care for the wounded, she devises a plan and rouses women to rise up and fight. As they shift from being housewives, to nurses, to warriors, their stories are haunting, harrowing and stirring, and this novel confirms Mengiste’s status as a writer blessed with lyrical bravery and unique vision. Head to our 'Black Lit Matters' list to find more must-read novels by black writers.
Our August 2020 Book Club Recommendation. Click here to see our Reading Group Questions. Glorious! A novel of such startling sincerity, clarity and eloquence it feels as though the narrator herself is stamped onto every page. A Room Made of Leaves is inspired by letters and documents on entrepreneur and pioneer John Macarthur and his wife Elizabeth. They left England in 1788 for New South Wales in Australia when he was posted as Lieutenant to the penal colony of Sydney Town. This is Kate Grenville’s first novel in a decade, she is the author of the 2006 Man Booker shortlisted novel The Secret River. Elizabeth narrates, headstrong and wilful she nonetheless finds she is folding herself smaller and smaller in order to not be observed. Each chapter may be short but they are full of suppressed emotion, candour, and are as compelling as can be. The chapter headings, if all joined together, would create a story in themselves. As each word, as each sentence and chapter flowers, the inner being of Elizabeth opened to allow me to see, and also feel her emotions. The cover is gorgeous and the understanding of the title when it came, made the beauty resonate all the more. Australia is obviously much loved, and I in turn loved reading between the lines of history. Unique and spirited, A Room Made of Leaves truly is a beautiful novel, it also deservedly joins our LoveReading Star Books.
This is Helen Dunmore’s first novel and although some of her later novels have been more widely read and more obvious commercial bestsellers, this one is an outstanding piece of writing that will truly stand the test of time. During World War I, D.H. Lawrence and his wife moved to Cornwall where they became the subject of intense suspicion from the locals and this forms the inspiration for the novel centering on Clare, a young girl who comes under the influence of the Lawrences. Dunmore is superb at evoking characters from the past and yet making you feel relaxed in their company and the situations these characters are found in are captured perfectly as well.
November 2012 Guest Editor Kate Mosse on Wuthering Heights... Powerful and elegiac, a novel of drama, passion and compelling characterisation. Most exceptional of all, though, the brilliance of Bronte’s descriptions of landscape and light on the Yorkshire Moors has had a major influence on my writing about southwest France. One of Clare Balding's favourite books. Chosen by the public through a survey to coincide with the 10th birthday celebrations of World Book Day 2007, this title is one of ‘the ten books the nation can’t live without’. Have you read them all? Below are links to each title and position on the list. 1. Pride and Prejudice Jane Austen 2. The Lord of the Rings JRR Tolkien 3. Jane Eyre Charlotte Brontë 4. Harry Potter JK Rowling 5. To Kill a Mockingbird Harper Lee 6. The Bible 7. Wuthering Heights Emily Brontë 8. Nineteen Eighty-Four George Orwell 9. His Dark Materials Philip Pullman10. Great Expectations Charles Dickens
Winter? Bleak. Frosty wind, earth as iron, water as stone, so the old song goes. The shortest days, the longest nights. The trees are bare and shivering. The summer's leaves? Dead litter. The world shrinks; the sap sinks. But winter makes things visible. And if there's ice, there'll be fire. In Ali Smith's Winter, lifeforce matches up to the toughest of the seasons.
Crossing genres in style, this just has to be one of my favourite novels of the year. Set in the marshlands of North Carolina, the majority of this story takes place in the 1950’s and 60’s. The prologue begins in 1969 with the body of Chase Andrews being found in the marsh. The first paragraph of the prologue introduces surprising beauty, the marsh simply sings, it settled into my mind and became a part of me. The central character is Kya, we meet her as a child, and the truth of her life is immediately apparent. As the novel moves backwards and forwards in time, Kya emerges as the Marsh Girl, and suspicion begins to hound her after the body is found. Author Delia Owens is a wildlife scientist who has worked in Africa and written non-fiction, this is her debut novel. Descriptions entered my mind in wafting movement, I fell in love with the marsh and the girl who lived there. Where the Crawdads Sing is truly touching, almost hauntingly beautiful, and opens a doorway to a different world. It has been chosen as a LoveReading Star Book and a Liz Robinson Pick of the Month.
Set in modern India, this remarkable novel lays bare potent – and harrowing – universal truths about toxic masculinity and the physical and psychological abuse of women that’s often silenced, ignored or unnoticed. “I am the woman who asked for tenderness and was raped in return. I am the woman who has done her sentence. I am the woman who still believes, broken-heartedly in love”, so states the unnamed protagonist, an educated young woman whose every freedom is curtailed when she marries a university professor. Her silencing begins immediately, when they move to “a strange town that does not speak any of her mother tongues” and he begins to control every aspect of her life. “Come off Facebook”, he orders. When she dares question him, the punch line is dealt: if she loves him, she will do as he asks. Soon after, he takes control of her email account too, and she makes herself blank, plain, for plainness “will prevent arguments”. She tells her parents, but the shame of a broken marriage must be avoided above all else, even though he rapes to disable her, even though her abuse and isolation is all consuming. But, while he ridicules her writing, and accuses her of being mad, she writes in secret as an act of defiance, and she has a hidden weapon in her arsenal. Stylistically, at times this put me in mind of the brilliant Jean Rhys. The writing is precise, intense, brutally honest, and analytical, and the unforgettable narrator reveals truths that need to be told, gives voice to thousands of women who need to be heard. Courageous and clever, this offers incomparably powerful insights into the manifold means by which men abuse women, and the complex dynamics of abusive relationships. ~ Joanne Owen
Head to our 'Black Lit Matters' list to find more must-read novels by black writers.
Wakenhyrst is a glorious darkly gothic feast of a read, and I really had no option other than to choose it as one of my picks of the month. Folklore and superstition are bound up in the Fens, Maud Steame has grown up there, surrounded by gossip, rumours and terrible secrets, will releasing her story set her free? Michelle Paver excels in quietly setting fear loose and disquiet scurrying free. Simply and beautifully descriptive, words leave the page and settle together to gradually create an entire picture. I found myself hooked, then completely snared as Maud’s life unfolds over 60 years revealing the very essence of her being. I feel deeply connected to Maud, and she continues to exist in my thoughts. Wakenhyrst is a fascinating, deeply emotional, and surprisingly beautiful read, I highly recommend stepping inside and setting your feelings free to explore.
If you know Vanity Fair then the name Becky Sharp will immediately conjure images of a ruthless, immoral, and selfish social climber, and one of literatures most fascinating characters. At the time she was one of the first female leads and for her to be so ambitious and manipulative, well! Thackeray wrote a novel with flawed characters, cutting social commentary, along with the reality of being human and existing in a not so perfect world.
March 2012 Guest Editor Alan Bradley on Louise Penny... As a young child and early reader, I used to pilfer my older sister’s copy of Ulysses. I didn’t understand the book but I loved the words. More than sixty years later, there are parts of Joyce (notably Finnegans Wake) that I still don’t understand, but I still love the words. I keep both books on my night table.
Winner of the Lost Man Booker Prize. An involving and interesting tale set in 1919 about a World War One veteran, Brendan Archer, who travels to Ireland to find the girl he rashly got engaged to three years earlier. When love appears to have been lost Brendan finds himself drawn in to the world of the Palm Court hotel just as Ireland faces it’s most dramatic political upheaval. A book of humour, pathos and politics. Totally absorbing and unputdownable.
A 2013 World Book Night selection. One of Dan Snow's favourite books. Marcus Sedgwick, July 2010 Guest Editor, says:"I continually list this book in my top five, because it's my belief that most people haven't actually read it, and know it only from bowdlerised abridgements, which is a shame because the real thing is powerful, dark and above all, scary."June 2010 Guest Editor Michael Morpurgo remembers:A terrifically exciting tale of a dead man’s map, mutinous pirates, skulduggery and buried treasure that will be thoroughly enjoyed by a child if read aloud to them from the age of 5 upwards. It’s such a gripping adventure that children are sure to pick it up again to read alone when they’re a little older. It’s the story of Jim Hawkins who discovers a map in an old sea chest but little does he know of the danger and excitement which lie ahead when sets sail for Treasure Island in search of treasure.What Michael Morpurgo says of his favourite children's book:'This was the first proper book I read for myself. Jim Hawkins was the first character in a book I identified with totally. I was Jim Hawkins. I lived Treasure Island as I read it. And I loved it. Still do. I wish I'd written it.'Treasure Island in a nutshell:Black spot moment. Sea dog dies. Jim finds map. Ship sets sail. Pirates on board. Island is found. Madman in cave. Two rival camps. Battle for map. Dig up chest. Treasure is gone. Gunn has gold. Head back home. Silver runs off. Jim writes book.
'An unapologetic novel of ideas which is also wise, funny and paced like a thriller' Observer The magnificent new novel by bestselling award-winning Kate Atkinson In 1940, eighteen-year old Juliet Armstrong is reluctantly recruited into the world of espionage. Sent to an obscure department of MI5 tasked with monitoring the comings and goings of British Fascist sympathizers, she discovers the work to be by turns both tedious and terrifying. But after the war has ended, she presumes the events of those years have been relegated to the past for ever. Ten years later, now a producer at the BBC, Juliet is unexpectedly confronted by figures from her past. A different war is being fought now, on a different battleground, but Juliet finds herself once more under threat. A bill of reckoning is due, and she finally begins to realize that there is no action without consequence. Transcription is a work of rare depth and texture, a bravura modern novel of extraordinary power, wit and empathy. It is a triumphant work of fiction from one of this country's most exceptional writers. 'How vehemently most novelists will wish to produce a masterpiece as good' Telegraph