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1. The only proper science-fiction on the list, Tiger, Tiger, by Alfred Bester also known as The Stars My Destination might be the first critique of multinationals I ever read at the age of 9. Written in the 1950s it showed me how the genre can be the best way to describe now. The book is set in 2024 and Gully Foyle of the Presteign-owned merchant spaceship Nomad—an uneducated, unskilled, unambitious man whose life is at a dead end—is marooned in space when the ship is attacked and he alone survives.
3. Since her death, lots of people on Radio Four have been saying that Beloved is her best work. But in Ladbroke Grove in the early Eighties The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison had a great impact. I didn’t realise how much until I was writing Changing the Subject. Unlovely and unloved, Pecola prays each night for blue eyes like those of her privileged white schoolfellows. At once intimate and expansive, unsparing in its truth-telling, The Bluest Eye shows how the past savagely defines the present. this your own.
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5. I have not forced a copy into a departing guest’s hands for a good five years, but I do still love it. This author was a great philosopher and died too soon. The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman by Angela Carter. Desiderio, an employee of the city under a bizarre reality attack from Doctor Hoffman's mysterious machines, has fallen in love with Albertina, the Doctor's daughter. Desiderio must battle against unreality and the warping of time and space to be with her, as the Doctor reduces Desiderio's city to a chaotic state of emergency - one ridden with madness, crime and sexual excess.
7. When I first heard the hyperbole about this book I knew I was too young for it. I waited until I was over 40 and was glad I did. Only then was I able to realise how Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie changed fiction in English writing; there is pre-Rushdie and post-Rushdie. Read it as an adventure story, a history or a love story I don’t care, just read it. Born at the stroke of midnight at the exact moment of India's independence, Saleem Sinai is a special child. However, this coincidence of birth has consequences he is not prepared for.
9. How do British people manoeuvre around all the elephants in our rooms? The City and the City by China Mielville will help you understand. When the body of a murdered woman is found in the extraordinary, decaying city of Beszel, somewhere at the edge of Europe, it looks like a routine case for Inspector Tyador Borlú of the Extreme Crime Squad. But as he probes, the evidence begins to point to conspiracies far stranger, and more deadly, than anything he could have imagined. Borlú must travel to the only metropolis on Earth as strange as his own, across a border like no other.
2. My mum’s idea of history homework; it might have turned out to be a bit more autobiographical than he originally let on but if you like a strange premise to describe the darkest part of German history then you’ll love The Tin Drum by Gunter Grass. On his third birthday Oskar decides to stop growing. Haunted by the deaths of his parents, [actually being in the Fucking Hitler Youth?] and wielding his tin drum Oskar recounts the events of his extraordinary life; from the long nightmare of the Nazi era to his anarchic adventures is post-war Germany.
4. Not just the reason why I buy my lottery ticket by standing order The Black Sheep by Honore de Balzac also showed me how a better writer than me can describe an entire personality by the state of their cuff. I also got to see the Napoleonic Wars from a French perspective and how another nation handled defeat. If you too are into sculpture you may also well love the statues of Balzac by Auguste Rodin. Foolish and prejudiced, Agathe lives on unaware that she is being cynically manipulated by her own favourite child - but will she ever discover which of her sons is truly the black sheep of the family.
6. I wish I could write this honestly and be so funny. I wish I could be so subtly political and so humane. Looking for the Possible Dance by A L Kennedy is about Mary Margaret Hamilton who was educated in Scotland. She was born there too. These may not have been the best possible options, but they were the only ones on offer at the time. Although her father did his best, her knowledge of life is perhaps a little incomplete. Margaret knows the best way to look at the moon, how to wake on time and how to breathe fire. Now she must learn how to live.
8. Apart from Sherlock Holmes, these are the only detective stories I have ever read. I came late to this author unintentionally, in a care-package from my dad when I was ill. Why isn’t Walter Mosley more well-known? I have listed his first Easy Rawlins story because it taught me that heroes can have child-care issues and fight Racism. You could start with Devil in a Blue Dress by Walter Mosley but, Always Outnumbered Always Outgunned, or, The Man in My Basement are totally brilliant.
10. I found The Unconsoled by Kazuo Ishigiro the hardest read out all of these books. But it was so worth it. Ryder, a renowned pianist, arrives in a Central European city he cannot identify for a concert he cannot remember agreeing to give. But then as he traverses a landscape by turns eerie and comical - and always strangely malleable, as a dream might be - he comes steadily to realise he is facing the most crucial performance of his life.
11. I should have read this one earlier and left it too late; I would have loved to have talked with my mum about this book. The diet works by the way, but I don’t have the will-power. Besides being a great read A Far Cry from Kensington by Muriel Spark also describes a time when there were unchallenged gatekeepers in publishing. Holding that 'no life can be carried on satisfactorily unless people are honest' Mrs Hawkins refuses to retract her judgement on some prose, and as a consequence, loses not one, but two much-sought-after jobs in publishing. Now, years older, successful, and happy, she looks back over the dark days that followed.
13. My dad has lost count of the number of books he has written. I include his demi-autobiographical story, The Whispering Storm, by Michael Moorcock because I am/am not in it. Mixing elements of his real life with his adventures in a parallel 1960s London peopled with highwaywomen, musketeers and magicians, it’s a bloody good page turner and the sword fight scene is to die for.
12. It would be silly to write a list of books that have influenced me and not include my parents. My mum wrote many books but I include Fifty-First State by Hilary Bailey because she was working on a sequel when she died. Britain is in a severe recession and poverty is causing mayhem. There has been a sequence of short-lived hung parliaments and, due to terrorist bombs, repressive measures have been brought in by the power-hungry Government which fall especially hard on British Muslims.
Books I Love; a baker’s dozen
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I’m 56 and have been reading a long time, so I have just chosen some books that are personal to me and somehow to do with Changing the Subject. This does not mean to say that The Iliad, The Odyssey, Mill on the Floss, Vanity Fair, Crime and Punishment, Moby Dick and War and Peace are not some of the best novels I ever read. It’s just that those books have affected me in, different, more tangential, that is the usual ways.
I know its corny but it’s also true; if I were to have a hand in influencing one person to read any one of these authors, I would be very proud. The links are to Amazon because that is the way most books are bought nowadays and I am also doing a thing where I get a commission if you click on the image and buy some of the paperbacks; win win. Bear in mind that, if you have the time, they are none of them particularly recent and so may well be found on second hand book sites or charity or second hand book shops in the real world. Most of the writers have a fantastic back catalogue and a good browse is also well worth it.
The books are listed in the order in which I read them over the years. The time and circumstances of reading a book are very important and are best explored by better writers than me.
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If none of these books grab you, why not look for something interesting at Nance's Writing Thesaurus?