This month, the 2017 Cheltenham Literature Festival will welcome writers from all over the world to discuss their work, the world, and books they love. We asked a few of them which books they go back to time and time again. Here's what they said.
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1. Swallows and Amazons by Arthur Ransome
Buy a copy of Swallows and Amazons, or get the audiobook.
"I mention this book a lot, but it was the one I remember the most from childhood reading, and I think it’s good to honour the books that got your imagination going as a youngster. And the escapist adventures of the Swallows and Amazons with their boats and picnics and summer in beautiful Cumbria – well, I just wanted to be with them all. I can still picture the images this book conjured up for me."
2. Aerogrammes by Tania James and Drinking Coffee Elsewhere by ZZ Packer
"Every year I reread two short story collections: Aerogrammes by Tania James and Drinking Coffee Elsewhere by ZZ Packer. Both are brilliant in the way they illustrate the lives of people of colour. The construction of each short story in both collections is considered and precise and delicate, and the stories themselves, in both collections, veer wildly between the internal and the external, the contemporary and the long ago, the funny and the sad and mostly complex, nuanced, difficult people of colour navigating things like race, mental health, family and, often, themselves."
3. George’s Marvellous Medicine by Roald Dahl
"I’d read George’s Marvellous Medicine over and over, and frequently do to my children! The bossy granny, the amazing medicine mischievous George concocts to get his own back on granny which he then can’t recreate. I loved this book as a child and still do because it has such a strong message about being brave."
– Nadiya Hussain, author of Nadiya's Bake Me a Festive Story. Buy a copy.
4. Pereira Maintains by Antonio Tabucchi
"Its story follows Pereira, a journalist for the culture column of a small Lisbon newspaper, as he struggles with his conscience and the restrictions of the fascist regime of Antonio Salazar. In this novel about a political awakening, Professor Pereira is a man who loves literature and focuses on living a calm life consisting mostly of reading and the memories of his dearly loved late wife. But, he feels uneasy with living in a dictatorship and suddenly realises that something has to be done. And it has to be done by him. It is a powerful but small novel, yet it is also light and hopeful."
5. A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson
"Neil Gaiman is my favourite author and I have read a number of his books multiple times, but there is only book that I have entire chapters marked for repeated visits. It’s by Bill Bryson and it’s called A Short History of Nearly Everything. It takes everything we know about the world so far and explains how it was discovered and by whom. It turns out that some of the things life-altering knowledge we take for granted today had very unexpected origins. I also found that by telling the story of how certain things came about and a little of the history about the person who discovered it really helped me to understand things. Complicated things like the effect gravity has on time or rocket science. It’s totally fascinating and the first time I read it I couldn’t put down. It has become a trusted source of research for me."
6. Where The Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak
Buy a copy of Where the Wild Things Are.
"Where The Wild Things Are Is my most favourite book. You can read it in five minutes if you want a quick moment of escapism or sit down and indulge, pour over the beautiful enchanting artwork and magical, economical use of language. It has everything a good book needs. It's a first burst of surrealism, philosophy and a celebration of the imagination. It's comforting and familiar yet I spot something new every read. And for such a short book the pages hold inside an incredible adventure. And it features my favourite line ever ‘don't go, I'll eat you up I love you so.'"
– Laura Dockrill, author of Aurabel. Buy a copy.
7. Ariel by Sylvia Plath
Buy a copy of Ariel.
"Rather like the lead singer of Joy Division, Ian Curtis, whose lyrics read like a suicide note after he died, Plath was foretelling her own death without anyone quite seeing. Read 'Lady Lazarus' to see what I mean: 'And I a smiling woman. I am only thirty. And like the cat I have nine times to die.' But there is uplift too. Writing apparently about the growing baby inside her, she writes: 'You're clownlike, happiest on your hands, feet to the stars, moon-skulled, gilled like a fish.' It is as if she wants to feel the happiness she can only describe in others. She died aged 30 in London. Ariel was published afterwards."
8. Little Women by Louisa M. Alcott
"It is nostalgia, comfort and heartache all wrapped up in one. No would-be writer could read about Jo and not sense a thrill at the possibility of their own life and writing career. I still read it thinking that Jo will magically change her mind and choose Laurie; that Beth won't die and Mr Laurence won't have to grieve another loss in his life. Of course it'll happen all over again and I'll feel the same way I did when I read the book for the first time twenty years ago. Excuse me now while I get my copy out."
9. If Only They Could Talk by James Herriot
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"I believe certain books can map out your life. They can take you somewhere - that’s what James Herriot’s books did for me. Last year was the 100th anniversary of the birth of Alf Wight, who wrote under the pseudonym of James Herriot. Macmillan reprinted the first volume of his memoirs and asked me to write the foreword. I was so honoured. My grandfather had given it to me when I was 12. Herriot’s adventures as a young country vet in Yorkshire spoke to me and I thought, That’s the life for me."
10. The Missing by Siân Hughes
Buy a copy of The Missing.
"Loving poetry makes re-reading a joy, so this is difficult for me to choose. Amongst many I return to is the stunning debut collection from Siân Hughes, The Missing. This came out around the time I started to write professionally and I was stunned that terrifying subjects such as a baby’s death could be dealt with so movingly and directly yet with beautiful delicacy too. Almost all the poems are short, so it’s perfect to dip into and an inspiring lesson in the power of brevity."
– Sabrina Mahfouz, editor of Things I Would Tell You: British Muslim Women Write. Buy a copy.
11. Stormbreaker by Anthony Horowitz
"I’m all about fast-paced cars and action so a series I loved reading as a kid was the Alex Rider series. I always imagined myself as Alex – a teenage undercover spy doing all these crazy things. It’s full of go-karting, parachuting and snowmobile chases! I love action-packed books so Stormbreaker was my favourite book when I was younger and I recommend it to anyone who likes an adrenaline rush!"
– Ali-A, author of Ali-A Adventures: Game On! Buy a copy.
12. Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
"This was the first ‘proper’ grown-up book I ever read and loved. Although thematically similar to Orwell’s 1984, I’ve always found it a more thought-provoking and disturbing portrayal of ‘Utopia’. The perfect community of Brave New World – everyone is seemingly contented with their lot – is achieved through a heady combination of eugenics, hypnosis and drugs. Each time I re-read it, Huxley’s words feel even more prescient, throwing up questions about our own freedoms, inequalities and scientific advancement. And clearly any book that is obliquely referenced several times in the Stallone classic ‘Demolition Man’ is deserving of our attention."
– Rick Edwards, co-author of Science(ish): The Peculiar Science Behind the Movies. Buy a copy.
13. The Cazalet Chronicles by Elizabeth Jane Howard
"I race through my first encounter with a book greedily hovering up the story and enjoy revisiting it for a more reflective experience. I’ve read The Cazalet Chronicles by Elizabeth Jane Howard several times and they reveal more meaning as my own preoccupations shift. Initially I focused on the love affairs and it was only when I became a mother that I saw how well Howard writes about children. On my recent reread I was drawn to the dilemmas around ageing and death. I’m sure I will carry on having a relationship with these books until the end of my life."
– Cathy Rentzenbrink, author of A Manual for Heartache. Buy a copy or get the audiobook.
14. Moominland Midwinter and Finn Family Moomintroll by Tove Jansson
"Because we’re two, we’re choosing two books. The first is about waking to winter’s strangeness, where everything is white and still, and you’re quite alone. Gradually the snow melts, the world returns – and you’re in the second book, of summer, mad family adventures, magic and parties, which ends with Moomintroll walking home through the valley with his mother in the first breath of autumn: ‘For how else can summer come again?’ We read them as children, we read them to our children; now we need grandchildren."
15. Moby Dick by Herman Melville
"I would – and do – reread Herman Melville’s Moby Dick every few years. It’s a wonderfully fast, sly, funny and moving read. If you want to consider humanity, civilisation, spirituality and nature – that’s your book and Melville is your author. I was even happy to take part in The Special Relationship’s marathon reading aloud at The Southbank Centre in 2015. And when I looked up from a reading in Hall at the Sprachsalz Festival and saw captain’s hats in the audience – they were touring Austrian Moby Dick fans. Of course. It’s a huge, obsessive spell of a book – it entrances."
16. Worth Dying For: The Power and Politics of Flags by Tim Marshall
Buy a copy of Worth Dying For.
"Tim's last book Prisoners of Geography, explored the politics behind maps and nations. Here he’s chosen another subject ripe for his fusion of history and politics: the flag. Only halfway through but it is the kind of fascinating educational entertainment I love."
17. Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov
"Lolita: The literary love of my life. From the opening lines that to me, are perfection, to the wordplay, the tricks, the double consonants and the allusions to Edgar Alan Poe. It’s the layers of Nabokov’s genius that keep me coming back to Lolita. There’s no forgetting, and neither there should be, that the subject matter is dark and criminal, but there’s also no escaping the flamboyance and brazen personality of the book. Nabokov’s glee at alchemising language shines throughout, and each time I read it, I uncover something new which makes me fall in love with it all over again."
18. Journey to the River Sea by Eva Ibbotson
"I was once told by a mildly Byronic tutor at university that the definition of a classic is book that it can endlessly renew itself. By that definition, Eva Ibbotson's Journey To the River Sea is the most classic of classics; the story of how a child falls in love with the Amazon rainforest, it thrums with life and adventure, and each reading brings out a shining detail I missed before."
19. Middlemarch by George Eliot
"It’s a cliché but Middlemarch, because it changes while the reader’s away. As a teenager I read a slow romance, in my twenties a feminine Bildungsroman about a young woman trying to deny her sexuality, in my thirties a novel about the slow death of ambition and early promise. I haven’t read it since I turned 40 last year but it will be different now. Middlemarch is also a lodestar for novelists because of the way it requires the reader to question points of view and to see the world through the eyes of unappealing characters as well as the young and lovely, and because Eliot is able to look steadily at the near-impossibility of her project. In the end it’s a novel about narrative and egotism, and also a slow romance and a Bildungsroman and a story about the death of ambition."
20. Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis
Buy a copy of Lucky Jim.
"The one book we’d both agree to take to a desert island, if we were stranded there together in a book tour shipwreck scenario, would be Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis. It came out more than sixty years ago – and some of the attitudes sound a bit dated to modern ears – but the merciless skewering of the English middle classes is still fresh and funny. Jim Dixon’s struggles with his uber-boring, recorder-playing boss haven’t dated either. And it contains one of the best insults in modern literature. It’s a classic."
21. Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë
"Passion, desire and heartbreak are themes that I always want to read about, as they are things that drive so much of human behaviour. I first read Wuthering Heights when I was 15, but I’ve re-read it many times with then, and now my adult sensibilities find themes in it I probably missed as a teenager. Masochism, murder, incest and domestic violence haunt this seriously grown up novel. It’s the most compellingly passionate book I’ve ever read, and even more remarkable for the fact that Emily Bronte wrote it in 1845, living alone with her sisters and dysfunctional brother on a remote Yorkshire hillside."
22. The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho
"The one book I have read over and over again is Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist as it’s about following your dreams and that’s what I did to forge my career in cookery and food writing. I qualified as a lawyer but wanted to share my passion and knowledge for the recipes of my homeland Pakistan. If I ever feel down I go back to The Alchemist and instantly feel inspired to keep going!"
– Sumayya Usmani, author of Mountain Berries & Desert Spice: Sweet Inspiration from the Hunza Valley to the Arabian Sea. Buy a copy.
23. Eye of the Tiger by Wilber Smith
"This is about an irrepressible adventurer turned deep-sea fisherman Harry Fletcher, who is living a reformed life on a tropical island in the Indian Ocean when his past catches up with him. Plunged back into a deadly game, he is forced into a hectic race to find treasure from an ancient wreck. In this murderous mystery packed with intrigue, romance and plenty of danger – there’s a whole spiralling bizarre storyline, which hooks you and throws you in all sorts of directions!"
– Charley Boorman, author of Long Way Back. Buy a copy.
24. The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark
"I first read this when I was young enough to be part of 'the Brodie set', at which point it was a very different book to the one I now read (in my prime?) but at any age it's a compact miracle – at once light and weighty. How did Muriel Spark put so much wit, heartache, and human complexity into a novel that short?"
– Kamila Shamsie, author of Home Fire. Buy a copy or get the audiobook.
25. Cloudstreet by Tim Winton
"The book I would reread over again is Tim Winton's Cloudstreet. A family saga set across 20 years from the mid 1940's, it's a story about two rural working class families who end up sharing a house together in the suburbs of Perth. The Lambs are devoutly religious and the Pickles are not. They believe in the shifty shadow of luck. I never tire of the central themes of community, identity, desire to belong, and the irrefutable power of the landscape. I've learnt so much about writing from this book - from characterisation to the language of the vernacular, from voice to point of view. This is a book of beauty, of poetry, of laughter and infinite grace."