Meg Rosoff is the author of How I Live Now, the tale of a 15-year-old American girl sent to live with her cousins in a future England just as a third world war is breaking out. It won the Guardian award and was shortlisted for the Orange prize and the Whitbread. Her latest novel. Just In Case, about a teenage boy who suddenly realises the fragility of life.
1. All the Pretty Horses by Cormac McCarthy
It’s the last gasp of the American Western, pre-second world war, and a 16-year-old year old orphan sets off on horseback to Mexico to find work. This book wasn’t published until 1992, but if it had been around when I was a teenager, I’d have lost my mind with happiness. Lots of horses, violence, a disappearing way of life, and wonderful, brutal, poetic use of language.
2. Maus by Art Spiegelman
If you’ve never read a graphic novel, this is the place to start. Spiegelman’s attempts to talk with his irrascible elderly father about his experiences in Auschwitz form the basis of this vivid, chilling, personal account of life in a second world war concentration camp. The depiction of Germans as cats and Jews as mice somehow does the opposite of trivializing the subject.
3. Casino Royale and Live and Let Die by Ian Fleming
These two original James Bond books, written in 1953 and 1954, leave the movies and all the pretender follow-up books in the dust. Gritty, sexy, beautifully written and filled with amazing adventures, they date from the heady days of the international cold war, when spies were hard and gadgets were thrilling. The good news is that if you love them as much as I did, there are about a dozen more to follow that are equally good.
4. Kon Tiki by Thor Heyerdahl
I’ve read this book about a hundred times, though I have to admit I usually skip the beginning and the end, moving straight in to the heart of this Norwegian explorer’s journey across more than 4,000 miles of the Pacific ocean on a homemade raft. Using no modern technology, Heyerdahl wanted to replicate a journey he was convinced had been made by South American Indians to Polynesia in pre-Columbian times. The descriptions of four months on board the balsa wood raft is breathtaking. In anxious times of my life, this book has gently steered me towards calmer waters.
5. The Sword in the Stone by TH White
This story of the coming of age of the Wart (the future King Arthur) describes Merlyn’s unorthodox tutelage (he turns the Wart into a variety of animals so he can understand the world through the eyes of other creatures), stressing the importance of ruling wisely and avoiding war. There’s a line in it I’ve never forgotten, spoken by Merlyn. “The best thing for feeling sad is to learn something.” Full of quiet wisdom.
6. For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway
More passions – this time political idealism and love during wartime. Bomb expert Robert Jordan runs away to Spain to fight against Franco in the Spanish Civil War. His high ideals receive a bashing and he falls deeply in love with a beautiful young partisan. Romance, idealism, tragedy – all rendered in Hemingway’s wonderfully concise prose.
7. Perfume by Patrick Suskind
18th century Paris, and one of the first books that put me off writing – I just knew I could never write a book this good. The book’s second paragraph alone makes it worth reading: “In the period of which we speak, there reigned in the cities a stench barely conceivable to us modern men and women. The streets stank of manure, the courtyards of urine, the stairwells stank of moldering wood and rat droppings, the kitchens of spoiled cabbage and mutton fat; the unaired parlors stank of stale dust, the bedrooms of greasy sheets, damp featherbeds, and the pungently sweet aroma of chamber pots…”
8. Catch-22 by Joseph Heller
Surely one of the greatest anti-war books ever written. And definitely the funniest.
9. Longitude by Dava Sobel
I love books that race along with a great story and impart a big chunk of history while you’re not noticing. This book makes the 18th century feel as immediate as last month, and presents science as the creative problem-solving field it really is (not that dull stuff they make you memorise in school).
10. Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky
This book saved my life the summer I was 15, sent to live with a French family whose kids were far more gorgeous and sophisticated than I was. My French wasn’t brilliant and though they were terribly nice, I had the awful feeling that they’d have preferred me not to be there, interfering with their romances and tagging along like the gauche younger sister. So what I really needed was a story of murder and guilt, poverty, prostitution, longing and intrigue to lose myself in. A detective story and a psychological thriller, passionate and absorbing.