Top Ten Books That Deal With Tough Issues

“Who overcomes by force hath overcome but half his foe.”

John Milton

  1. Perdido Street Station – China Mieville. This was actually the book my mind leapt to when I read the prompt. It’s not an “issues” book per se, but it is a book willing to go into tough places. And it does explore themes that I’d probably consider issues in the novelistic sense – broadly, the kinds of issues likely to go into a YA book – and it’s honest enough with itself to look at them with open eyes. Its explorations of race and, to some extent, gender (interesting spoilery stuff here about Lin – 2.2, “Sadism versus Symbolism”, although I recommend reading the whole lot if you’ve read the book) don’t necessarily come out the way you’d expect them to. They are unsettling. There aren’t easy answers. I like it a lot.
  2. The Clockwork Rocket – Greg Egan. So somehow Egan manages to pull off a world in which women, all women, die in childbirth and still make it feminist. The struggles of his women for social recognition may feel a little dated (sexism comes in more insidious forms now), but, again, it’s a book willing to go to difficult places to get the most out of its characters. Also, it is at least 50% unintelligible physics and I still could not put it down.
  3. The Second Chronicles of Thomas Covenant – Stephen Donaldson. A strange and potent series about illness and depression and trauma and how survivors of these things can be weak and petty and cruel and yet still triumph. There are few heroes here, and yet the characters are eminently relatable. Donaldson is a brave writer.
  4. Paradise Lost – John Milton. It’s possible that there is no issue tougher than the Fall of Man. Not when Milton was alive, anyway. And yet he handles it with such delicacy and with such hope: hope for Satan, and hope even for fallen man.
  5. Persuasion – Jane Austen. A novel that deals with loss and with female autonomy very, very carefully and very satisfyingly. It would have been so easy for Austen to make Anne a complete weed, and her eventual reunion with Captain Wentworth a compromise of autonomy; but she doesn’t. Austen and Anne go through the long hard path to happiness, and it shows.
  6. Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell – Susanna Clarke. Included not so much for toughness as for inventiveness, Jonathan Strange digs out all the dark secrets of Regency society and turns them into a deeply strange tale of madness, magic and mirrors. It works; it really, really works.
  7. Frankenstein – Mary Shelley. Again, a book that looks honestly and truthfully at difference, and at social reactions to difference. I actually think the world would be a better place if everyone had read this. (No, watching the film does not count, because most film adaptations are chronically confused about who “Frankenstein” actually is.)
  8. Atonement – Ian McEwan. A terrible, haunting tale of childhood jealousy. Atonement is, like many of the books on this list, the kind of novel that asks impossible questions and refuses to bring out easy answers.
  9. The Book Thief – Markus Zusak. Not a perfect novel by any means, but it is one which challenges our notions around good and evil, which broadens perspectives and digs at some really difficult places in European history.
  10. The Madwoman in the Attic – Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar. OK, perhaps this is cheating, but this book is amazing. It goes through a whole chunk of women’s writing from the 1800s and sets out an entire case for why patriarchy was a thing, and, yes, it is a little hectoring in tone, but it was written at a time when hectoring was necessary for anyone to listen. It is possibly my favourite critical work ever.

(The theme for this post was suggested by the Broke and the Bookish’s weekly meme Top Ten Tuesday.)

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