1. Conrad: The Factory-Made Boy by Christine Nöstlinger
This was my favourite childhood read and undoubtedly the book that made me want to be a writer. It’s a brilliant story of a free-spirited single woman who accidentally receives a mail order son through the post. Conrad is not like any other child – he’s been made practically perfect. Conrad and his new parent have lessons to teach each other – about love, acceptance and the power of play. Just like all the best children’s stories there is a dose of lively anarchy and the adults are not necessarily in control.
2. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey
A stunning portrayal of power, freedom, human fragility and spirit set in a psychiatric hospital in Oregon. Newcomer Randle Patrick McMurphy arrives with his own brand of liberating mayhem and goes head to head with Nurse Ratched – surely one of the most unnerving figures in fiction. This book still has the power to disturb with its portrayal of brutality and vulnerability.
3. Perfume by Patrick Süskind
Set in eighteenth-century France this is a crime tale and a sensory riot exploring one sense in particular – smell. Perfume charts the life of Jean-Baptiste Grenouille an twisted outcast with ambitions to become the greatest perfumer in history to disguise his own unnatural lack of smell. Süskind weaves historical detail and fantasy to create a dark, sensual and brutally vivid world.
4. After Leaving Mr Mackenzie by Jean Rhys
This stunning, flawlessly executed novel follows the Julia Martin as she attempts to survive in a world of broken relationships, shabbiness and isolation. With her subsistence allowance from an ex-lover ending Julia roams from Paris to London and back again, aware that the looks and vivacity she has traded on in the past are fading. There are fierce flashes of humour along with Julia’s dazed musings about keeping an appearance of respectability with dwindling resources. The unravelling of one woman’s life played out beautifully.
5. CivilWarLand in Bad Decline by George Saunders
This collection contains one of my favourite short stories of all times – the eponymous CivilWarLand in Bad Decline. It is surreal with a wonderful supple voice which ranges from bitingly cynical to wonderfully wistful.
6. The Magic Toyshop by Angela Carter
I love the work of Angela Carter and this novel is my favourite. Carter’s portrayal of an urban Gothic setting is just perfect. Teenage Melanie and her siblings are sent to live with her estranged uncle, his silent wife and her brothers. This is a coming of age story. Melanie must grapple with her stark change in environment, her uncle’s tyrannical rule and her growing sexuality. Carter’s language is opulent, playful and dark. The story drifts towards the fantastic in places but the characters always feel real.
7. The Playboy of the Western World by J. M. Synge
I love plays so I couldn’t resist selecting one for my final choice. This play is at the very heart of my first novel Himself. It was greatly influential to me in terms of characters and plot but also in helping me discover how to write about violence. Synge balances the reality of violence and language about violence throughout this play to explore some very dark themes. He is also an exceptional comic writer.