Words: Chelsea Haith
“Books may well be the only true magic.” – Alice Hoffman
1. The Book Thief – Markus Zusak
Australian author Markus Zusak must have made an absolute killing with his World War Two tale of Death’s activities in Nazi Germany. This superb novel follows Death’s particular fascination with the Book Thief, a foster child named Liesel Meminger who rescues books from fires, resists Nazi oppression and preserves a little hope for her Jewish friend Max Vandenburg by writing and illustrating a heart-breaking tale of freedom for him. Zusak’s use of books in the plot is ingenious and hints at the intrinsic power of knowledge and critical, independent thinking that comes with embracing the written word.
2. Matilda – Roald Dahl
The story about a little girl with a large appetite for reading, Roald Dahl’s Matilda, taught so many children that it was okay, even cool, to be a bookworm. She triumphed over the evil Miss Trunchbull and was eventually released from her parents’ neglect into the care of the encouraging and kind soul she finds in Miss Honey – a lesson in karma if ever there was one. Matilda made young readers feel that they weren’t alone and the novel became a beacon of light for nerdy bookish kids everywhere trying to rise above creativity-stifling circumstances. Matilda’s telekines wasn’t uncool either!
3. Inkheart – Cornelia Funke
Another kids’ story, Cornelia Funke’s Inkheart series is a beautiful tale about a book binder Mo, his daughter Meggie and the world between the covers of a book into which they fall. Originally published in German as ‘Tintenherz’ Inkheart was succeeded by Inkspell and Inkdeath. The series following Meggie and Mo as they evade their nemesis Capricorn. The English translation is gorgeously crafted and the series is a testament to the magic of reading.
4. The Jane Austen Book Club – Karen Joy Fowler
Using Austen’s six novels, one for each of the six members of the Jane Austen Book Club, Karen Joy Fowler, shortlisted in 2014 for the Man Booker Prize, thrusts her characters into situations that force them to ask ‘What would Jane do?’ and discover themselves along the way. Set, fortunately for the characters, in sunny California rather than the drizzly plains that Austen had her characters wander about on, The Jane Austen Book Club is a light, fun read. Exploring the relationships of contemporary Americans, whose experiences are coloured by the words of Austen as they delve deeper into her novels and find advice, guidance and love.
5. The Name of the Rose – Umberto Eco
The Name of the Rose is every literary theorist’s wet dream. The signs are all there, Watson, if only you use enough abductive reasoning to put all the clues together. The narrator is wholly untrustworthy in both the retelling and identity and Eco’s adoration of obfuscation and confusion lead us right to the source of the story: Sherlock Holmes. A clever palimpsest, in which books and logical inference take centre stage, Umberto Eco’s The Name of Rose is a clever, though occasionally dreary, nod to the detective novel (as well as overly elaborately bedazzled church doors).
“Reading was my escape and my comfort, my consolation, my stimulant of choice: reading for the pure pleasure of it, for the beautiful stillness that surrounds you when you hear an author’s words reverberating in your head.” – Paul Auster
6. The Help – Kathryn Stockett
In this case the book within the book gives hope and is an act of defiance against the oppressive, racist South, where the novel is set. Located in Jackson, Mississippi in the 1960s where racial tensions run high, one gangly, independent Daughter of the South puts her mind to writing down the untold histories of her town through the testimonies of the domestic workers of her friends and community. Narrated by the kind-hearted Aibeleen, big-mouthed Minny and naïve-but-determined Skeeter The Help is both the title of the novel and the title of the book project the three narrators pioneer. In the novel their work gives hope to hundreds of people struggling for legal and social emancipation during Martin Luther King’s dreaming days and shows the true face of the South to those perpetuating the oppressive status quo.
7. The Reader – Bernhard Schlink
With what is probably one of the top ten plot twists of all time, Bernhard Schlink’s genius in his post-WWII novel The Reader hinges on literacy and the desire for the contents held between the covers of a book. The novel was written as a way for Schlink to talk back to the generation that followed those who lived through the rise and fall of Nazi Germany in the 1930s and 1940s. Schlink creates a story of unique and searing honesty in his characterisation and plot development, and as with the rest of the novels in this list, the books hold the answer, though the question does not become immediately obvious.