Heyo! Happy Friday Readers and welcome to the end of another week. Today we are getting to know another staff member through their book recs and hitting up our fabulous Graphic and Cover Designer, Lucy Rhodes! To reiterate, these are five books that represent our reading tastes, have personal significance, and shaped who we are.
As I’m sure my colleagues will relate, choosing just five books to recommend to you has felt like an almost impossible task. A scrappy young toddler, I was reading to myself by the time I was three, so at the time of writing this there’s a solid thirty years of literature that is inextricably woven into my being. I did it anyway, though.
The Horse and His Boy (The Chronicles of Narnia) by C.S. Lewis
Arguably my list of most influential books is composed of those I read when I was still in school; plots and protagonists that helped me better understand the world and myself, or sometimes to escape both those things. There is a short list of books that I read obsessively, several times a year for several years, often immediately starting over again once I’d reached the end. They helped me survive some very dark times, providing me with sanctuary and respite. The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis is right at the top of that list, alongside The Series That Shall Not Be Named and, weirdly, Memoirs of a Geisha. I have a huge, battered paperback of all seven Narnia novels that stands testament to the hours I spent inside its pages.
My favourite of the Chronicles is actually the one that could stand alone from the rest of the series. In The Horse and His Boy, two children seek to escape their imminent futures as a slave and a child bride, with the help of two talking horses who themselves were kidnapped as foals and held captive, forced to hide their true selves. The fifth book published in the Chronicles, the story predominantly takes place in a land to the south of Narnia, called Calormen, where masters rule slaves and the socio-economic divide causes festering ruin at both ends of the spectrum. There are overarching themes of discovering one’s true self, of belonging, and of facing the unknown with faith, determination, and perseverance—true testaments of strength and bravery. Lewis’s fictional deity Aslan has a strong presence throughout as well, reinforcing a message of divine providence and hope.
Fairy Tales by Hans Christian Andersen, Tiina Nunnally
If you’ve read the original The Little Mermaid, or are familiar with any of Andersen’s stories, then you’ll understand why this is on my list. This edition, specifically, was translated by native Dane Tiina Nunnally in an attempt to give English readers a more authentic experience of Andersen’s writing style, as well as avoiding the commonplace bastardization of fairy tales and folklore into something Disney can sell to kids. By all accounts Andersen led a really lonely, miserable life full of rejection and unrequited love—both male and female—and it shows in his twisted stories.
I received an earlier edition than the above mentioned for my 6th or 7th birthday, which my baby emo-self adored and loaned to a close friend... and then never got back before we both moved away and lost touch. Andersen’s stories stayed with me though, haunting my inner world and toying with my own sense of loneliness and misery throughout my youth. As a young adult, my older sister and I visited a large bookstore and I came across this extraordinarily beautiful hardback edition. It was the dream magic book of my youth; fabric bound hardback with gilding and silky ribbons. And my wonderful sister saw how much I loved it and bought it for me, and I’ve treasured it ever since.
The Endless Steppe by Esther Hautzig
I don’t remember when I first read this memoir (I think maybe assigned reading in eighth grade English?) but a pre-loved copy has been in my home library for at least two decades.
World War 2 and the Holocaust were something we studied a lot in school, and something that fascinated me. Like Anne Frank’s Diary and I Am David by Anne Holm, which I also highly recommend, The Endless Steppe leads you through the almost unimaginable world of genocide, war, and the holocaust as seen through the eyes of a young person.
Esther and her family were wealthy and well-respected within the Jewish community of their Polish hometown of Vilna (now Wilno in modern-day Lithuania) when the Russians captured and split apart her tight-knit extended family. Esther, her parents, and her grandmother were exiled to the Siberian steppe where they were forced to work in a gypsum mine. This is a relatively short read, but immensely powerful, and Esther’s story is best expressed in her own words, which is indeed part of what makes the book so incredible.
The Boy who was Raised as a Dog: And Other Stories from a Child Psychiatrist's Notebook by Bruce D. Perry & Maia Szalavitz
This. Book. Changed. My. Life.
I’m not usually a huge non-fiction, self-help reader (as much as I like to think that the ideal version of myself would be). I was trying to remember the name of another book (A Child Called ‘It’) and typed ‘The Boy With No Name’ into the search engine when this came up. I one-clicked because it sounded interesting and several hours later my entire worldview had shifted irrevocably. I realised that my lifetime of chronic depression and anxiety, and a whole mountain of other disordered and dysfunctional cognitive behavioural symptoms I live with, were actually predominantly symptomatic expressions of coping with my own childhood trauma that resulted from chronic abuse. I finished this book and then cried and then read it again. And then found myself on a path that led to my eventual diagnosis of Complex-PTSD and appropriate treatment that led to the first substantial periods of recovery in my life.
Even if you don’t have a history of childhood abuse or trauma, 2020 has been A Lot, and I don’t doubt there’s something in there for you to chew over. This book is also just really interesting and well-written, and provides a lot of insight into how our brains work, how we’re wired to process and cope with trauma, how we can love ourselves and each in practical, substantial ways, and how we can find pathways to healing.
I’m definitely not saying that you’re also going to walk away with a C-PTSD diagnosis, but I’m pretty confident it will change the way you look at yourself and the world.
And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie
I am a diehard Christie fan, so it was a given that I needed to include one of her titles on this list. Picking just one was the main issue TBH.
In the end, I went with And Then There Were None because I get that Poirot and Marple aren’t everyone’s cup of tisane (I mean, I don’t, but I accept your right to have… questionable taste). And I’ll even admit that I’m not the biggest fan of Tommy & Tuppence, Harley Quin is… unsettling, and Parker Pyne is basically British Poirot (so much so that they stole his secretary Miss Lemon for the earlier episodes of the Poirot TV series, and Ariadne Oliver for the latter). But Christie has several titles with no lead detective to irritate or distract, and this is undoubtedly one of the best of them. It’s literally one of the best selling books ever with over 100 million copies sold.
And Then There Were None is creepy AF, and feels utterly impossible to solve as the body count rises and the field of suspects narrows. I remember reading this for the first time, years ago, curled up in bed until the wee hours of the morning, heart racing and palms sweaty (Mom’s spaghetti). I still remember not knowing who dunnit, suspecting everybody in turn, guessing correctly at one point and then second-guessing myself soon after. I remember watching my husband go through the same journey when I hog-tied him and made him read it too. (The BBC mini-series is also spectacular and I highly recommend!)
I want to pause and mention here that Christie’s backlist contains several problematic issues surrounding race, racial stereotyping, and this book in particular had two previous titles (based on old rhymes and the name of the island on which the story takes place), which I’m not going to type out but you can find with a quick internet search, containing very offensive racial slurs. Without condoning or supporting that, I do want to offer some context in that the book was first published in 1939 based on a children’s rhyme Christie grew up with (one I even remember from my own youth, being born in the late 1980s). The title, rhyme, and location were renamed for various international markets (don’t ask me why they considered one slur better than the other), and ultimately the text itself was completely adjusted to something much less horrifically offensive: soldiers. Race doesn’t play at all into the story, and there is no narrative impact because of the change. And all of that being said, I totally understand if you still decide you want to abstain on principle.
But I’m still going to recommend this book, because it’s so much more than a pre-WW2 wealthy cis-het white woman’s colonialized upbringing, and so much more than old-school publishers and marketing departments making bad calls (like REALLY bad calls). This book is iconic, and you deserve to experience it.