There’s something subversive about certain books, or at least there should be. An undercover feeling that you’re passing on something dark and dangerous, that you’ll get into trouble if you’re caught carrying. Mercifully we don’t actually live during the Inquisition, the Mccarthyite purges or even Stalinist Russia when books could get you killed; times have changed, but the books haven’t. We should still treat them with respect and relish their revolutionary, seditious nature. Books can be potent weapons and we should treat them accordingly. There should be a feeling of passing on something secret, sharing something that has awakened strong feelings in you. When I was in Chile before they got rid of Pinochet, people used to listen to Victor Jara songs in secret and read Pablo Neruda with brown covers as if they were Americans drinking in public. These days they’d just read it on a kindle.
So this is a list of books which raise eyebrows. Ish. They’re hardly The Anarchist’s Handbook, or The story of O, and in fact these are books you could happily buy your own children, particularly if they don’t have an uncle or aunt to do it for them. Hopefully these are books that will intrigue them and make them see that they shouldn’t just do what they’re told all the time and also that books can be truly powerful weapons. The age range goes up as we go along. Much like nephews and nieces do. I’ve suggested ages but they’re all great.
Outside over there – Maurice Sendak – any age.
Fabulous picture book about a girl who doesn’t watch her sister so the goblins steal her and replace her with an ice changeling. By the man who wrote Where the wild things are – It all comes good in the end, but kind of disturbing until it does.
Emil in the Soup Tureen – Astrid lindgren – 6+
This is by the woman who wrote Pippi Longstocking but I much prefer this. It’s about a boy who’s just really naughty; hoists his sister up the flagpole etc. He’s always being punished but it never does any good. I discovered the other day that Horrid Henry wasn’t published in the US for years because he was always getting away with being horrid and that wasn’t acceptable! I dread to think what they’d have made of Emil…
Struwwelpeter –Heinrich Hoffmann – 5+
this is a great book. It’s dark, supremely moralistic and very brutal. There are children who suck their thumbs so they get chopped off, a girl who plays with matches and gets burned, a hare who steals a gun and kills a huntsman and so on. The illustrations are fantastic. I reckon children love dark stories and the more we expose them to a dark world the more they’ll be able to cope with it? That said, these are gruesome stories. No handsome princes in this book…
Max and Moritz (and other bad boy stories and tricks) – Wilhelm Busch 6+
This is another dark, cautionary tale book, but it’s very funny. Originally written in German it is about the really naughty little boy in all of us. It’s about having fun all the time and where you can end up if you do that. The answer, by the way, is somewhere very sticky. So, deeply moralistic, but lots of fun. For the trick with the chickens alone this is almost my favourite.
Nothing – Janne Teller (12+)
This is a Danish version of Lord of the flies, sort of. A boy decides life isn’t worth living and climbs a plum tree. His class mates decide to get him down by proving that life is worth living. They will each give up the thing they value most to prove there are things which mean something. It all goes very very wrong. There are some genuinely shocking moments. A bit like Lord of the Flies, the adults, who are the ultimate authority figures, aren’t involved until the very end. Brilliant. I couldn’t stop reading. It is dark though.
A Monster Calls – Patrick Ness – 12+
A boy has to come to terms with the imminent death of his mother from cancer. To do this he summons a monster who helps him in an utterly unpredictable and seemingly random way. This book has won loads of prizes and rightly so. I’ve had long disagreements with my children about what the monster represents, who he is etc. It made me cry.
A Clockwork Orange – Anthony Burgess (16+)
Fantastic writing – dark, a proper dystopian novel and the most inventive use of language I’ve read in a long time. The film is darker than the book, but a lot less original. It relies on being shocking, whereas the book is extraordinarily thought provoking and totally unique.
A Confederacy of Dunces – John Kennedy Toole (16+)
Really, really funny. Impossible to say what it’s about apart from that it’s utterly original, the lead character is a grotesque, and it’s a complete one of a kind. The writer killed himself aged 31 and the novel was published posthumously when his mother found a photocopy of the manuscript – it won the Pulitzer prize in 1981. Nothing subversive about this one, just a great comic novel.
Perfume – Patrick Suskind
The Serial Killer angle isn’t that shocking when you’ve read Silence of the Lambs or anything by Mo Hayder (Birdman is particularly nasty), but this is set apart by combining a downright nasty premise with some fabulous descriptive writing. It really stayed with me.
Name of the Rose – Umberto Ecco
Not a subversive book as such, but a book about a seditious text and so deserves to be here. And actually it should be on any list, it’s fantastic. Intelligent, exciting, erudite, and really sinister. When the bad guy is the Church you know you’re in for a treat. There is a lot of theological philosophising in the book itself which contains no plot and is interspersed in chunks into the narrative. The edition I read had put all the theological stuff into italics which made it really easy to skip. I tried to read it but it was way too dense and the plot was so good I just ended up skipping to the good bits. I’m making no apologies for that. This is another one where the film (starring a young Christian Slater and a magnificent Sean Connery) is excellent. It’s not a Hollywood film so it isn’t dumbed down, and it is full of actors who are every bit as ugly as they should be. Fantastic.
Drown – Junot Diaz (18+)
Great contemporary collection of short stories set in the Dominican Republic – written in Spanglish, an extraordinary voice writing brilliantly. Nothing funny or unsuitable, just clear, lucid writing, but it is about sex and drugs.
Kitchen Confidential – Anthony Bourdain (18+)
Non fiction but you’d never know it. Great stories of drugs, cooking and restaurant anarchy. Achieves the strange combination of making you really really want to be a chef, and also making you scared to ever eat in a restaurant again. Funny, irreverent and sexy.