Octavia Butler, Kindred 1979
Everyone should read this book. It’s a profoundly disturbing read, but as such reminds you why such disturbing literature is essential. Dana, a young black woman and writer who’s recently married a white man, suddenly finds herself pulled back into the past with responsibility for protecting the life of her distant relative, a white child who grows up to be a slave owner. What follows is a terrifying look at history and the things that have brought us to the place we’re at now.
Ursula Le Guin, The Earthsea Quartet, 1968 – 1990
I became addicted to Le Guin this year and read everything to do with the world of Earthsea. Le Guin is a wonderful world-builder and the original Earthsea Quartet still stands out. I guess it would now be designated “kildult,” but if buying for young people I think it’s important to be aware that the fourth book in the series,Tehanu, is a heavy duty feminist novel with some disturbing content concerning child abuse which probably isn’t suitable for younger teenage readers.
Neil Gaimen, Coraline 2002
I don’t generally like reading books aimed at children. This isn’t because I’m a literary snob; it’s because I didn’t much enjoy being a child and I don’t particularly like being reminded what it felt like, which a lot of children’s books have a habit of doing to me. But while Coraline is a scary book for kids, I suspect it’s even more terrifying for adults, a story that hits of a lot of our pressure points. Masterful; I’ll be reading it to my nephew as soon as he’s old enough to appreciate it.
Alison Bechdel, Fun Home 2006
This book turned me into the kind of annoying person who comes right up nose to nose with you and insists you have to read something because “it’s a masterpiece, a masterpiece I tell you!” But really, it is. No easy answers here and all the better for it.
Virginia Woolf, Between the Acts 1941
On a June afternoon just before the beginning of the Second World War people gather at the big house for a village play. In her last novel, Woolf looks at the problems faced by the artist. So, you want to challenge people and make them think, but what about elitism, and what about the risk of alienating your audience? A modernist novel about modernism, it’s also incredibly beautiful.
Fanny Burney, Evelina 1778
Being as Fanny Burney was a major influence on Jane Austen and I’m a big Austen fan, I really should have read this already, but Evelina stands up as a serious classic in its own right. It’s the story of a beautiful, but penniless, young woman’s entrance into the fashionable world of eighteenth century London. What surprised me most about Evelina was how disturbing it is. Burney’s analysis of the position of women in this period is quite uncompromising. The threat of rape hangs over the narrative as Evelina is repeatedly accosted by men who want to have sex with her, but don’t want to marry her because she has no money. The serious points are tempered with frequently hilarious scenes. I thought Austen was the great writer of embarrasment, but Burney got there first.