Tell us: what books are the most shocking or disturbing?


On this week’s books podcast, we discuss the works that we struggled to finish – or even had to hide – because they were so shocking.

  • Share your literary terrors in the comments below

“I think we ought to read only the kind of books that wound or stab us,” Franz Kafka once wrote. “If the book we’re reading doesn’t wake us up with a blow to the head, what are we reading for?”

That’s all very well, Kafka, but how about the books literally about wounding and stabbing? On this week’s books podcast, the Guardian’s resident thriller fan Alison Flood struggled to finish The Flower Girls, a new thriller by Alice Clark-Platts, the plot of which contains similarities to the James Bulger murder case. This sparked a discussion on the books desk about the books that have most disturbed us: commissioning editor Richard Lea had nightmares after reading Colson Whitehead’s zombie novel Zone One; I once had someone hide my copy of American Psycho so I’d stop dwelling on it; and associate culture editor Claire Armitstead once destroyed a copy of Naked Lunch by William Burroughs, because she was so disturbed by a particular scene: “I put it in the fire! I have never destroyed another book … but I didn’t want anyone else to read what I’ve read.”

Well… Charlotte Roche’s Wetlands (unabridged, 2008) was for me (a male at the sensitive age of 56!) – a pretty unsettling book! However it was a mind opening, terrific read – and not a book you can forget in a hurry! Memorable too – but not for the usual reasons! pic.twitter.com/0RCPJX6xiZ

The Silent Companions by @spookypurcell because of the ending, super sinister! And The Silent Patient by @AlexMichaelides because I thought my head was going to

There must have been several, but I finished Charlotte Brontë’s Villette late at night, and couldn’t sleep afterwards. That narrator is so enigmatic.

The Puttermesser Papers. Such a horrible death for the central character. Ozick’s a great writer but I wish I’d never read it.

The Narrow Road to the Deep North, descriptions of POW life brilliant – Richard Flanagan builds a sense of dread so perfectly and with poetry. I had to put the book in another room one night as I couldn’t sleep with it beside me, I was so disturbed. The scenes just haunt you.

The Lovely Bones really disturbed me. Had to get the book out the house once I’d finished it!

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Reading group: Giovanni's Room by James Baldwin is our book for February


This month’s choice is a groundbreaking gay love story that impressed even prejudiced critics

Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin has come out of the hat and will be our book about love for this month’s reading group.

Baldwin’s second novel was written in 1956 when the author lived in Paris. As he explained in a 1980 interview, this story of failing to find love and a young man doomed to death was partly inspired by real life:

“We all met in a bar, there was a blond French guy sitting at a table, he bought us drinks. And, two or three days later, I saw his face in the headlines of a Paris paper. He had been arrested and was later guillotined … I saw him in the headlines, which reminded me that I was already working on him without knowing it.”

Related: James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room: an antidote to shame

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Shelf policing: how books (and cacti) make women too 'spiky' for men


‘To create a new relationship,’ a life coach advises single women to empty their boudoir of distractions such as books – particularly if they’re downbeat

“How to avoid turning your home into a MANrepeller”, the Daily Mail proclaimed from atop the mountain on Sunday. “Interiors therapist reveals the items that could be making your abode offputting to men.”

It could be forgiven for wanting to jump on the Marie Kondo bandwagon, but the twist obviously had to be that the gaze you must please is not your own, but a man’s.

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Tips, links and suggestions: what are you reading this week?


Your space to discuss the books you are reading and what you think of them

Welcome to this week’s blogpost. Here’s our roundup of your comments and photos from last week.

Colm Tóibín’s Nora Webster has been keeping vermontlogger up at night:

Another first-class read. A middle-aged mother, recently widowed, must learn to live a new life and shows a brave independence. Emotion is made to appear through writing of perfect clarity and simplicity.

Towards the end I had a horrible certainty as to how it would finish and lay awake worrying.

I hesitate to mention it, but I’m almost finished War and Peace. I say hesitate, because people tend to look at you a bit funny when you say you’re reading W&P – my wife simply said “Oh my god” as if I’d taken leave of my senses. And I also hesitate because actually I’m re-reading it. According to the date inside the cover (Penguin, 2 volumes, Tr. Edwards) I last read this in 1974, when I was clearly much too young to really appreciate it, since I remembered nothing of it except that I thought the philosophical bits rather dull.

I can see now that waiting 44 years to come back to it was a serious mistake. I suppose I was put off by its length and “classic” status, but I have to say it’s a cracking good read, and I’d recommend it to anyone: I’ve hugely enjoyed it.

I’m on Zündel’s Exit which is (as you say of the other) terse and bitter, but also full of great lines and belly laughs (Hoffman did the translation). Like a funnier Bernhard. It’s hitting the spot like you wouldn’t believe.

A bold sequel to A Wizard Of Earthsea – bold in that it’s initially unclear that it bears any relationship to the first novel, other than being set on the same world (if you weren’t aware of the sequel, you might not have recalled that Atuan is even mentioned in AWOE).

It’s a better book than its predecessor, I think, and asks some interesting questions about religion, power structures, and gender. A fine book and beautifully written. And although ostensibly YA, it’s much more grown up than about 75% of the adult literature that I read…

It really is astonishing, mixing post-nuclear apocalyptic disaster (new Ice Age) with feminism, often hallucinogen at times, dreamlike and sometimes stream of consciousness from an unreliable narrator searching for a strange, ephemeral girl and as ice closes in and the world turns to shit. Details are left vague and the three protagonists are nameless. The author spent most of her life addicted to heroin so there are obvious metaphors here. The writing is beautiful and I can only compare her descriptions of the freezing world as similar to Doris Lessing’s The Making of the Representative for Planet 8.

Describing the frustrations of ‘camping’ on the Appalachian Trail with little or no equipment, walking for miles in hopes of encountering the next small town with motel and restaurant, and the revelations of walking with his friend Katz who is in no shape to take on such a trial. All true, very enlightening, not only about human nature but about the dismal ‘care’ the U.S. National Park System and associates ‘lavish’, so to speak on unforgettable, fabulous nature, out there for any of us to partake. Of course there are always the spoiled Ralph Lauren hiking outfit types, simply out for a night of camping and extreme drinking. Altogether an entertaining, wonderfully hilarious and thought-provoking comment on society, history, nature and ourselves.

Racing through Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe novels which I’ve never read before. Plots utterly confusing but what a great writer. I loved Marlowe’s advice on giving up alcohol:

“It’s a different world. You have to get used to a paler set of colours, a quieter lot of sounds, you have to allow for relapses. All the people you used to know well will get to be a little strange. You won’t even like most of them and they won’t like you too well.”

Avoid “wan intensifiers”. Random House copy chief Benjamin Dryer explains why in this “brilliant” interview.

A podcast that breaks down Harry Potter chapter by chapter has been a big hit.

On a “Tolstoyan anarchist community” in Essex – and Penelope Fitzgerald.

Poet and critic Dan Chiasson has been allowed to continue his ongoing review of the US President.

Just in case you missed that astonishing Dan Mallory story in the New Yorker.

“The other main category of puddings – milk puddings – is the kind of thing that one would prefer to pass over in silence, but it must be mentioned, since these dishes are, unfortunately, characteristic of Britain.” George Orwell’s essay on food has finally been published. (Hat tip to Magrat123)

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Project fear: what will Brexit gothic fiction look like?


The genre has always been adept at condensing social anxieties into memorable villains – so what will the horrific embodiment of our age be?

Gothic has always been a particularly reactive genre. It responds to trends and to what sells. But most of all it reacts to fear. The gothic has a flair for metaphors of anxiety, especially in its monsters. Frankenstein’s depiction of scientific hubris, Dracula’s immigrant vampire, the corrupted masculinity of both Wilde’s Dorian Gray and Stevenson’s Mr Hyde: each of these iconic grotesques was birthed as an embodiment of prevailing social anxiety.

The technique endures. In Rosemary’s Baby (1967) and The Stepford Wives (1972), Ira Levin used satanists and robots as metaphors for the attack on a woman’s ownership of her body and reproductive rights. The shock and awfulness of Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho (1992) obscures a wry examination of individualism under assault by Reaganomics, with serial killer Patrick Bateman’s meticulous descriptions of violence sitting uneasily alongside his equally detailed lists of clothes and on-trend nightclubs. The juxtaposition exposes the violence that the latter performs upon the psyche of the modern American urbanite.

When Nigel Farage expresses concern about Romanian men moving in next door, it makes one wonder if he has read Dracula

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Reading group: which book about love should we read this month?


From Homer to Hemingway and beyond, these stories are eternally compelling. Please help choose which should win our hearts this February

This month on the reading group we’re asking for nominations of books about love. Since Valentine’s Day is on the way, and since last month’s choice of a funny book, Good Omens, was such a tonic we want to continue the positivity. A little human warmth can never go amiss, after all.

It’s also undeniable that love is a big topic in literature. In its own way, the epic of Gilgamesh and Enkidu is a love story, as is the Iliad and a healthy percentage of all literature since.

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Tips, links and suggestions: what are you reading this week?


Your space to discuss the books you are reading and what you think of them

Welcome to this week’s blogpost. Here’s our roundup of your comments and photos from last week.

Jesus, that was a dark and disturbing slice of French noir,” says Tom Mooney, who has been reading The Executioner Weeps by Frederic Dard:

Daniel, a French artist, is on a break near Barcelona. Driving down a road one night, a young woman throws herself in front of his car in an apparent act of suicide. When he goes to the body, however, he realises she is still alive. Fearful of the consequences, he takes the girl back to his hotel. She awakes with severe amnesia, remembering nothing of her previous life. Daniel then becomes obsessed with her, instilling himself as her boyfriend and the central character in her new life. But, as he delves deeper into her forgotten past, he discovers the real, shocking reason she threw herself in front of his car.

Grisly, grim and weaving from noir into horror, this is a very effective and highly creepy novel.

I have no connection to the River Thames but her description of the many stages of the river and the folk who live along its banks is captivating. The mystery of how a 4-year-old girl ended up in the river and was rescued and where she came from are central and I can’t wait to find out.

This morning, I finished the third in the series – Flash for Freedom – and am now about to start Flashman at the Charge. I think Royal Flash is by far the weakest of the series (though still brilliant) and Flashman and the Redskins the best. I urge you all to have a go at reading them if you haven’t already. As well as being extremely funny, they work as a highly entertaining history lesson – even down to the way people spoke in the mid-to-late nineteenth century

Crime fiction set in 1950 in Atlanta when African Americans have just joined the police force. The crime part is great but what is really interesting is how society is shifting and changing. The three main characters are well drawn and all making compromises between the law, their ethics and their families.

A vast, strangely ambiguous tale of people who find themselves in a dreamlike frontier town in China. Of all of her books, this one felt most like a collection of folk tales, run through with mysticism, and strange natural phenomena- for all its modernity it felt like discovering an ancient text.

A memoir about his father, Herman Roth, and his death from a brain tumour. Roth has a straightforward way of telling the story of father and son, eschewing prose fireworks, as so far has all of his books I’ve read. It is poignant, and at times wryly funny. A commenter on Goodreads said that Roth showed how to be a good son. That despite Roth junior, or perhaps because of, being so keen to leave home and Roth senior, and establish his independence, he is able to loop back, and be there for his father later in life.

I quite like being the last possible reader of a paperback – I bought the orange-banded Penguins that Margery Allingham wrote during wartime (it was a sudden interest) and, like the blitz-zones of London, Coventry, etc, they cracked at the spines, shedding pages, or clumps of them, as the reading progressed. The desiccated glue, that powders your fingers as you brush it’s scales aside, has a faintly seaweedy smell, I noticed. They’re still on a shelf, albeit lain flat (they wouldn’t hold together stood upright – ah, it comes to us all).

Me, I buy second-hand cloth-bound hardcovers if I can and almost always throw the dust jackets away at once. What I like to read most is an old hardback that’s long lost it’s jacket, and has, at some point in its long life, been left skew-whiff on a pile near a window for a summer or two – so that the sun-bleaching of the cloth on the front cover is a rhomboid ghost-margin to its darker interior. Preferably in Trafalgar Blue, as it was called. It adds a spiritual dimension. Well, I find it does.

The collected ‘maxims’ of WG Sebald.

An asylum-seeker has won Australia’s “richest literary prize”, but has been “barred” from entering the country.

“My private model for intersubjectivity, or communication by speech, or conversation, is amoebas having sex.” Ursula K Le Guin on the magic of human conversation.

And here’s Le Guin’s daily writing routine.

Has alliteration been lost to us?

What is Marlon James reading?

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Is Good Omens one of the best collaborative novels ever written?


Novelists rarely collaborate successfully, but the stars aligned when Terry Pratchett rang Neil Gaiman back to discuss the idea of Just William as the Antichrist

Is it hyperbole to call Good Omens one of the most successful collaborative novels of all time? Certainly, it’s a success: it’s clever, funny and has stayed in print – and stayed relevant – for almost three decades. More than that, it is deeply beloved. When we chose it for the reading group this month, I knew the book mattered to a huge number of people (myself included) – but all this happy month we’ve had huge numbers of people visiting for the first time, to share their love for the book.

It’s hard to think of any other collaborative novels that have been so successful. There’s George and Weedon Grossmith’s The Diary of a Nobody, which gave us the concept of “Pooterism” and has been haunting the aspirational middle classes since 1892. More recently, you could argue for The Difference Engine by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling, which has come to define an entire genre (steampunk) and won great praise and awards, as well as legions of fans. There’s also Rama II, which Arthur C Clarke wrote with Gentry Lee; it is good, but not quite as good as Clarke’s Rendezvous With Rama.

Related: Good Omens isn’t funny? That’s hilarious

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