With the exception of the number one slot – I’ve had the same all-time favourite book for about a decade now and I don’t see it changing any time soon – this is not an easy list to write. Partly because of the various tricky issues that kept coming up – is this favourite books, favourite authors, or favourite series? If I love a series or an author am I obliged to include at least one of their works, even if there are standalone books I prefer? – and partly because, well, I have a lot of favourite books, though I doubt that comes as much of a surprise.
Eventually I decided to make a separate list for favourite book series, and thus to exclude all books that are part of a series from this list… except for book series which I happen to own in one volume, naturally. And books that are part of a series in name only. And the book that occupies the number one slot. And I’ll just start the list now.
#10: Deathscent by Robin Jarvis.
Deathscent is a strange and kind of obscure book, and it makes this list largely because of how vividly I remember reading it for the first time. This is the only book on the list which I could tell you exactly where I was when I first read it: sitting on an armchair (I even know which armchair) in my grandmother’s living room, listening to the soundtrack for the Buffy the Vampire Slayer musical on repeat on the family discman. That soundtrack and this book are all but melded into one entity in my mind – which is strange, as they aren’t particularly similar in terms of tone, let alone content.
The link above goes to the Goodreads page, which includes a very handy summary. I mention this because I don’t particularly fancy trying to summarise Deathscent myself – the plot is fairly straightforward, but in other to explain the plot one must first explain exactly how the world it’s set in is put together, and therein lies the challenge. I didn’t fully understand the worldbuilding of Deathscent when I first read it. In fact, it only clicked with me in the last year or so – I’m now fairly sure that understanding Deathscent requires you to have a solid enough understanding of genetic engineering to recognise it without the words ‘genetic’ and ‘engineering’ ever being used.
If it wasn’t already obvious, this is a complicated book. It heavily features elaborate clockwork and steam-powered mechanisms and the entire book feels like such a mechanism in literary form. It’s complex, dark, and bloody – as the title suggests, there’s an awful lot of deaths. It’s genre-bending; without a doubt it’s science-fiction, but the Elizabethan setting and characters makes it read more like fantasy. It’s not the greatest work of YA speculative fiction ever written, but something about it really resonated with me then and continues to resonate now. If nothing else, it’s unforgettable.
#9 The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams.
Well, here’s a more obvious choice. Again, I’m not going to summarise the plot, this time because I don’t think I particularly need to – though if you’re honestly not familiar, there’s a link above.
I feel as if The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy was a part of my life for a long time before I read it. My mother’s a fan, and she loved to quote from it, paraphrase it, and generally allude to it – and oftentimes I found I preferred her paraphrased version to the real thing. I’m still disappointed that the Vogon Guard does not actually say, word for word, ‘well, the hours are good, and you get to shout a lot‘.
Do I really need to say much more about this one? It’s a comedy with all the intricacy of sci-fi. It’s British humour at it’s best. It’s surreal, satirical, and (above all else), malleable; if there’s one thing all the many permutations of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (radio show, book, TV series, film) have taught me it’s that there is no ultimate truth.
#8 A Doll’s House by Rumer Godden.
And now we’re back on the obscure choices. I’m not sure I’ll ever stop feeling strange giving this as one of my favourite books. It’s a children’s book, first published in 1947, by Rumer Godden. The cover I grew up with was pastel pink and the title by that point had become Tottie: the Story of a Doll’s House: Lucy Mangan reviewed it for the Guardian by in 2009 and called its whole external appearance ‘unbearably twee’. And yet when the memory of it drifted through my head a year or so ago, my first thought was a horrified ‘oh, my god, that book‘ before I even fully remembered why. Most negative reviews complain that it’s unsuitable for children because the moral universe it presents is too unpleasant. Seriously, that’s a very common complaint.
Rumer Godden without a doubt mastered living toys and bestowed the concept with a sense of pathos a good fifty years before Toy Story:
Dolls cannot choose; they can only be chosen; they cannot ‘do’; they can only be done by; children who do not understand this often do wrong things, and then the dolls are hurt and abused and lost; and when this happens dolls cannot speak, nor do anything except be hurt and abused and lost.
This total lack of agency is a recurring theme in Rumer Godden’s doll books, but it’s in A Doll’s House that it’s really, fully explored. I don’t want to discuss this in too much detail, because this is one of the books I plan to review, so I shall do my best to briefly summarise what’s so good about it.
It’s a dark book, far darker than it appears at first glance – it’s often cited as one of the only, if not the only, children’s story to end with a premeditated murder. It’s prose is simplistic, but melancholy, haunting, and beautiful, and I can’t resist quoting from it a second time:
Tottie was made of wood and it was good wood. She liked to think sometimes of the tree of whose wood she was made, of its strength and of the sap that ran through it and made it bud and put out leaves every spring and summer, that kept it standing through the winter storms and wind. ‘A little, a very little, of that tree is in me,’ said Tottie. ‘I am a little of that tree’.
It’s intricate. It’s deep whilst always remaining light enough for children. It’s poignant. It has one of the tensest climaxes I’ve ever seen in the written word. It’s ultimately unsatisfying, but at the same time the conclusion doesn’t leave you wanting for more. I could talk about it for hours and I cannot in good conscience leave it off this list.
#7 The Bromeliad by Terry Pratchett.
This is where my ‘one volume’ series cheat comes in – I happen to own Terry Pratchett’s trilogy Truckers, Diggers and Wings in one volume, therefore they count collectively as one book, see.
I shall say now that I consider Terry Pratchett’s non-Discworld children’s fiction to be severely under-rated; The Carpet People, the Johnny Maxwell books, and, of course, the Bromeliad. I love that title – it sounds so epic, like the Iliad or the Aeneid, and I’m sure the verbal echo was deliberate. It’s also a slightly oddly-named family of flower and by extension a metaphor for the plot of the series.
There are some species of Bromeliad so large that that they can form a habitat for frogs. Water pools in the centre of the flower, the tiny frogs live out of the water, and there’s no need for them to ever leave the safety of the flower. The Bromeliad asks: what would happen it, one day, one of those frogs were to find the edge of the flower and see the outside world?
It’s within this framework that Pratchett tells the story of the Nomes, a race of tiny humanoids that have been living undetected on earth for tens – if not hundreds – of thousands of years. Nomes perceive time as a much faster rate than us, which made it impossible for them to integrate themselves into human society and they now live on the fringes. One tribe of Nomes, seeking a new habitat, hitches a ride on the back of a lorry and are taken to the basement of a department store, where they find a vast nation of Nomes. These Nomes have been living beneath the department store for so long that the outside world has become a distant myth; the newly-arrived Nome Tribe hasn’t had contact with any other Nomes for so long that the idea is almost completely alien to them.
And so both their tiny worlds expand, and continue to expand, until the series ends with the Nomes rediscovering their extraterrestrial origins and looking down at the whole of planet earth beneath them:
And the sunlight caught it and made it glow around the rim, sending rays up into the darkness, so that it looked exactly like a flower.
#6 Aeschylus‘ Oresteia.
Now we get intellectual. I’ve yet to find a translation I didn’t enjoy this play in, though the first I read was by Robert Fagles and it continues to be my favourite, bar a few minor issues – and I shall refrain from talking about my problems with Robert Fagles’ translations.
I don’t think I need to particularly justify why I like this story. It’s popular for a reason, and it’s been gripping writers almost since its inception; all three of the great Athenian playwrights (read: the playwrights whose work actually survives) tried their hand at it, and even before that Homer sneaks a brief account of it into the Odyssey. The story of the cursed House of Atreus and it’s bloody fall from grace makes for an eternally and universally captivating story of murder, revenge and human nature.
So, then – why this version? Though I freely admit that I don’t particularly like Sophocles’ take on this story (studying that one seems to have killed any enjoyment for me), I’ve loved pretty much every play by Euripides I’ve read, and yet for some reason I prefer Aeschylus here and here only. I’m not sure why. Euripides’ play is far more psychological, far less stylised in terms of its violence, and far more metatextual – it’s openly anti-Aeschylan and at times outright parodies some of the sillier parts of Aeschylus. Perhaps that last part is why I don’t like Euripides – I take the Oresteia too seriously and seeing it mocked, even respectfully, offends my sensibilities.
I think I prefer the epic scale and feel of the Oresteia. The complete nature of the trilogy lets you see two generations of Atreids, plus the characters have plenty to say about their more infamous ancestors (if you’re not familiar, this family was cursed for killing and eating their children – twice), so the action is tied far more into the overall cycle of violence that permeates not just the House of Atreus, but all of Greece – and which is ultimately ended, not just by divine intervention, but by humans themselves forming the first true murder court.
I also love the language – not having read it in the original that’s a little harder to judge, but I’ve loved every variation on it that I’ve read so far. And let’s not forget the (entirely unintentional, I’m sure) proto-feminism; Aeschylus turns Clytemnestra from Aegisthus’ devoted lover who takes out Cassandra in a kind of designated cat fight to a conspirator and cold-blooded murderess in her own right. Aeschylus’ Clytemnestra is powerful, magnificent, and magnificently insane.
#5 Good Omens by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman.
Good Omens is often regarded as a gateway drug. It gets fans of Terry Pratchett interested in Neil Gaiman and vice versa. And rightly so – it makes for a great introduction to both authors while still being a fantastic work of fantasy in its own right.
But of course, I’m not really trying to explain why the books on this list are good. I’m trying to explain why I like them so much. And Good Omens is for some reason a little harder to pin down. Why do I like this one so much? I think there’s two reasons, and they’re quite closely connected reasons.
The first is the characters. This is an epic book. The plot is vast in scale. The fate of the entire human race hangs in the balance; the apocalypse is imminent; Heaven and Hell are preparing their forces; the Four Horsemen are gathering. But the focus of the book is almost always on its very real, very human characters, and their reactions to all the madness that’s going on around them. It’s an epic plot on an intimate scale, with all the little people reacting to the end of the world in a delightfully prosaic and British manner. Even Aziraphale and Crowley, the angel and the demon, almost always feel more human than anything else – and the hilarious dynamic between the two certain helps.
This sense of deep, intimate humanity is quite definitely intentional, and leads into the second reason why I like this book so much: the ending. Much of the book focuses on the exploits of Adam, the unknowing and unwilling antichrist, as he discovers his own nature. Throughout the whole book he is at the centre of the plot, and everything hangs on which choice he’ll make – good or evil? Ultimately the book ends on what has to be one of the most beautifully executed anticlimaxes every written, which I won’t spoil here (hint: he takes a third option).
I gather this ending annoys some people, because it is after all a massive and intentional anticlimax, but I think they’re missing the point, to a degree – the final message is that humanity is neither good nor evil. There’s also a lot of emphasis on free will as right from the start of the book it’s clear that Adam, unlike most antichrists, is able to make his own choices, and he does so. So do Aziraphale and Crowley, who increasingly stray out of the boundaries of their roles as angel and demon, and so does each and every character in the book. It’s pretty deep stuff.
Also, Good Omens is absolutely hilarious. I mean, Terry Pratchett was on board, you can’t beat that.
#4 Peter Pan by J.M. Barrie.
Shaddup. I’ve been teased for this one in the past, but really – if it wasn’t obvious, I love children’s fiction (I seriously considered taking a master’s in it for a while) and this is one of the best-loved children’s books of all time for a reason.
That said, I’m going to say something really strange-sounding now: I think this book is somewhat under-rated. It sounds ludicrous to call Peter Pan of all things under-rated, so I’ll try and explain myself: what with the Disney film and all its various merchandising and its sequel and all the other adaptation and the pantomime versions, the spirit of the original has kind of been lost under all the saccharine, child-friendly layers that have built up over the years.
Peter Pan is a much darker book than people generally give it credit for. Not that it never gets the credit it deserves – the edition I have, pictured above, comes with beautiful, surreal illustrations that are entirely in-keeping with the tone – but it’s not nearly as widely acknowledged as it should be. As is often the case, the Disney film tends to dominate in the popular conciousness.
Peter Pan himself is the embodiment of childhood – that much is widely acknowledged. What’s less widely acknowledged, I think maybe because it makes people uncomfortable, is that the book makes it quite clear that being the embodiment of childhood does not make him nice. It’s not a good thing. He’s not a positive force. He’s chaotic and uncontrollable, he has no real concept of past or future, no long term memory, no understanding of romance, no concept of death. He’s repeatedly described as ‘innocent and heartless‘, which according to J.M. Barrie is what all children are like.
You have to read the book quite closely to pick up on some of this – which is why darker adaptations are surprisingly common, because in order to adapt the book properly you have to actually pay attention. The reason for this is that stylistically it’s very similar to Tottie; it’s very simple and minimalistic and child-friendly, and then suddenly, in that simple, child-friendly style, it’ll come up with something strange or dark or philosophical or all of the above.
I think it also gets very close to the roots of fantasy as a genre and as a concept. Neverland is a fantasy world constructed by children; it’s fluid and disjointed, deeply personal to John, Peter and Wendy whilst at the same time being universal. It’s the ultimate fantasy world and its roots are in childhood, right where they should be.
#3 The Poems of Catullus.
And we’re back on classics. That was inevitable. Of all the classical texts I own – which is a steadily increasing number – Catullus has the highest re-read value. Every now and again I just feel like reading some Catullus, so I get it out, open the book at random, and read whatever poem comes up.
Unlike the Aeschylus above, this one is really easy to justify. Catullus is the kind of classical writer who reads like a real person, talking to you from two thousand years ago. The only other classical writer I feel as strong a connection to is Sappho (because, well, Sappho). Catullus narrowly beats Sappho on account of being funny:
53. I laughed, Calvus, I laughed today
when someone in the courtroom crowd, hearing
your quite brilliant expose of
the Vatinian affair, lifted his hands up
in proper amazement, and cried suddenly:
“A cock that size… and it spouts!’
I laughed, Calvus, I laughed.
What can I say, I’m immature. Though for the record, my actual favourite is number eighty-five:
I hate and I love. And if you ask me how,
I do not know: I only feel it, and I’m torn in two.
Since I mentioned that Sappho and Catullus are my two favourite writers, it’s interesting to note that Catullus also loved Sappho. Of course, most classical writers loved Sappho – she was all but elevated to the status of muse – but Catullus is well known for translating some of her works into Latin, so the two have ended up being closely tied together.
#2 Charmed Life by Diana Wynne Jones.
Here’s the thing: Diana Wynne Jones is my favourite author, without a doubt, but she did not write my all-time favourite book. She did, however, write my second favourite book. Though really, you could substitute almost any of her books here. I love them all. I love the way she writes characters. I love her twisting, confounding plots. I love the worlds she constructs. I love all the different ways she uses magic. I adore just about everything about her books.
So, then: why Charmed Life? It’s actually a bit of a cheat, since it’s technically part of the Chrestomanci series, and as much as I try to justify breaking the ‘standalones only’ rule by saying that the Chrestomanci series is mostly made up of loosely-connected standalones, this is actually the only one to have a direct sequel in The Pinhoe Egg. It was also the first of Diana Wynne Jones’ books that I read, so I always feel strange saying it’s my favourite, because that makes it sound as if it was all down hill from there.
Here’s the thing: I’ve given several different Diana Wynne Jones books as my favourite of hers over the years, but I always come back to Charmed Life. I’ve read and re-read it more than any of her other works. It has all the qualities I mentioned above and it does them all perfectly. There’s so many reasons why I love it that it’s hard to settle on just two.
Firstly, this book taught me so much about writing fantasy. This is fantasy on an intimate scale. A common feature of Diana Wynne Jones’ books is to have some kind of epic struggle going on in the background while the characters muddle along in the foreground, entirely preoccupied with their own concerns, sometimes helping and sometimes hindering the conflict, and this is the perfect example. Cat and later Janet Chant are children and they act like children. Cat in particular does some incredibly daft things and keeps back a lot of information from Chrestomanci for silly, immature reasons, but you never lose sympathy for him, because he’s just a kid. His reasons always make perfect sense, and I imagine most children have been in a position of doing something wrong and trying to cover it up, then having to cover that up, then trying to cover up that…
Secondly, I love books that are about magic. By which I don’t mean books that have magic in them, or even books which prominently feature magic – Harry Potter, for instance, is not a series that is about magic. The Chrestomanci books are. You come away from Charmed Life with a really strong sense of how the magic in this world works, despite there being little in the way of explanation, and also of how it feels, both being around people when they cast different sorts of magic, and casting it yourself.
It also features a protagonist discovering his own very powerful magic, and that always does it for me. Every time. The Chrestomanci series in general had a huge impact on Summer, in terms of both tone and content. Hopefully it doesn’t show too much!
So, then: time for my very favourite book.
#1 Northern Lights by Philip Pullman.
I’m going to say right now that I have no real justification for breaking my own rule to put this one on here except that I honestly don’t like the other books in the trilogy. Northern Lights is my favourite book but His Dark Materials is not my favourite series. Alright, now that’s out of the way.
I cannot fully verbalise why I love this book so much. It’s strange, because I really struggle to get into it on my first couple of tries, but then something just clicked and for reasons I cannot fully explain, I fell in love. I think it’s something about how intricate and detailed the worldbuilding is – this is one of the more realistic fantasy worlds I’ve ever seen.
But it’s not just that. There’s more to it, and like I said, I can’t really verbalise it, so instead I shall talk about the impact this book had on me, which was absolutely phenomenal.
Much of my personal philosophy is still based around this book – though not in the way you might expect, I was already a firm atheist when I read it. It’s so personal, in fact, that I don’t particularly want to explain it here, but certain aspects of the philosophy of Northern Lights speak to me on a very deep level.
Then there was the impact on my writing, which was twofold. Firstly, if Charmed Life taught me how to do fantasy on a small scale, Northern Lights taught me how to do it on an epic scale. This book is big – that’s where all the worldbuilding comes in. The scale of what’s going on is enormous, the settings diverse, the themes huge. It’s also tremendously vivid, bringing its alternate Oxford and snowy North to life in full technicolour. It’s so vivid I almost want to climb inside it and stay there forever.
Secondly, this is the book that introduced me fully to the concept of parallel universes. I’d been familiar with the idea of other worlds prior to this, as in, say, Narnia, but Northern Lights was my introduction to the notion of infinite parallel worlds lined up next to each other waiting to be explored. It’s a concept that’s fundamental to the Ever-Present Trilogy, and which is technically present in all of my works – everything I write is set in the same multiverse, more or less. I probably shouldn’t mention this since it’s not strictly part of Northern Lights, but there’s a beautiful moment in The Subtle Knife when Will comes across a portal to another world for the first time. I think that one scene and its description of what he sees and experiences, of his utter fascination, and the simplicity of it all, had a bigger impact on me than all the other books on this list combined.
So that’s my list. I’m not quite satisfied with it, but if nothing else it paints a pretty good picture of my literary tastes. All of them are fantastic books, and they all come thoroughly recommended. And now at some point I must put together a list of favourite book series…