Thursday, 19 August 2021

My Top Twenty Books of all time - Fiction & Non-fiction - July 2021

I didn't think I'd ever do this sort of entry on Digital Bibliophilia. However, inspired by a recent new entry in to this list, and fuelled by a couple of pints on my first night out drinking with work colleagues in nearly two years, I find myself unable to sleep and worried that anything I read will be forgotten in a haze of alcoholic fuzz the next morning. Therefore here we go - I hope it's mildly interesting or leads to someone picking up ones of the books in this list because I think they are fabulous.

So here we go, and in no particular order...

Collected Stories: Raymond Chandler (Everyman's library, No.257) (2002)

I love Chandler. Reading any of his works of fiction is a pleasure every human being should experience at least once in their life. Although his novels are mostly works of genius, I actually preferred this massive collection of his short-form works. This is one book you can't carry around with you - at over 1,300 pages you'll end up with forearms like Popeye the Sailor. Just sit back in your favourite wing-back chair with a bottle of whisky and savour every moment.

The Quincunx: The Inheritance of John Huffam (1995)

I never would have dreamed a book like this would end up being something I'd ever admit to saying was an all-time favourite of mine. I do like to read Charles Dickens every now and again (there's a Dickens biography staring at me on my bookshelf every day - I'll get around to it at some point). This is very much influenced by Dickensian tales. A labyrinthine colossus of a novel over 1,200 pages in length in paperback form that follows the life of a Victorian young man who has no memory of his father, and whose doting mother holds a precious codicil of a last will and testament in a small trinket that never leaves her side. As his life takes turn after turn, and tragedy after tragedy befalls him - he never loses sight of the fact that something on that document hides the secret to his claim to a family fortune. A mesmerising and compelling masterpiece of a novel that is even meticulously structured (word by word) so that the sentence in the middle of the book reveals the secret to our protagonists background (good luck counting the words!).

Shackleton (1989)

A biography of Ernest Shackleton, the famous polar explorer, by Roland Huntford. There are quite a few books on Shackleton by now, but this was one of the earliest, if not the first, to really cover his life, and his astonishing exploration to the South Pole. If you think the notion of old-fashioned heroes is a myth - you need to read the true story of how this man lead his colleagues out of the jaws of hell and, quite literally, across the frozen landscape of Antarctica whilst dragging a boat behind them so they could sail to a desolate island; and then leave them behind whilst he went off on an almost suicidal mission to go and seek out a rescue party to come back to save them. A stone-cold (no pun intended) winner for best biography I'll ever read in my life. Forget anyone who says Captain Scott was a better hero - this guy makes Scott feel like a wuss. If you only have room for one biography on your bookshelf - get this!

The Initiate Brother (1991)

Marvellous historical-fantasy that blends ancient China and Japan together in a fictional world with sublime court intrigue and a very light sprinkling of magic. The first part of a duology that can be bought as a large trade paperback edition containing both novels. Despite the long sequences of political and imperial discussion, this book is a wonderful creation from an author who went on to write further fantasy tales that are highly regarded, before turning his hand to the nautical history fiction genre. Reviewed on Digital Bibliophilia here.

The Hound of the Baskervilles (1901)

I'm not sure just how much of my love for this book stems from my love of the Basil Rathbone/Nigel Bruce movie adaptation - that could be quite significant. I can only recall that reading it as a youngster brought me face to face (on the page I mean) with Sherlock Holmes and Arthur Conan Doyle. For that I will be forever grateful. Even if I don't read this book over and over anymore, I still watch the movie 3 or 4 times per year. Even my partner has said how its now essential New Year's Eve watching - and that's a miracle. Without this I'd never have read The Adventures... Sign of Four.... or The Case-Book and I can't imagine that. The editions I read still take pride of place on my bookshelf.

Doctor Who and the Daleks (1973 Target Books reissue of 'Doctor Who in an exciting adventure with the Daleks')

In a similar vein to Sherlock Holmes, the book that started it all for me in terms of my childhood/adulthood love of all things Dr Who. A strange start to what became such a long running publication behemoth of adapting stories from the BBC television series, Doctor Who. Strange because the author, David Whitaker, chose to write it in the first person narrative, from the perspective of schoolteacher Ian Chesterton. This was repeated in the second published novel Dr Who and the Zarbi, but never again. 'Zarbi' by the way, was a great read and for people of my generation created a compulsion to actually see the almost never-repeated original episodes - once they were, The Web Planet as it was called on television, split opinions as to it's merits (I love it).

It (1986)

My favourite King novel. Finally given the big-screen treatment in recent years this tale of coming of age in 1950's New England, set within what would become the authors calling-card town/state of Derry, Maine, it tells the story of a group of outsiders who band together to fight malevolent evil that has haunted the town throughout time. King brilliantly splits the action between the 1950's and present day (at the time 1980s) when the band return as young adults. It impresses more in its telling of the heroes as children than it does as adults, and for many readers, the horror element even takes a back seat to the wondrous re-telling of our childhood traumas. A longish book that seems to whizz by before you know it.

When Gravity Fails (1987)

My favourite science fiction novel. Written by George Alec Effinger, often quoted as a classic of the cyberpunk era. I'm not so sure - it could simply be that one element of the plot was taken out of context and used to promote it when cyberpunk was gaining popularity. The tale of Marîd Audran, using a futuristic Middle-Eastern setting called the Budayeen, where the West is in decline and Muslim countries prosper is utterly fascinating. Drug use and alternate personality technology through the use of cartridges directly inserted into brain slots are used to tell a tale that could have been written for a 1950's noir novel. Two more books followed, but Effinger sadly died before a fourth title could be completed. Parts were made available in a limited edition hardback titled Budayeen Nights.

Dune (1965)

Phew - where do I start? It's pretty difficult to describe the impression this masterpiece has on you unless you're telling someone who has also read it, and was as enthralled as you were. About to get the cinema treatment, again, by the same dude that ruined Blade Runner (for me). The complex and detailed world-building on show was impressive in the sixties, and still impresses to this day, despite there being many who have followed in a similar style. The story is of a young man destined to follow the path laid out for him in a prophecy belonging to an indigenous culture from a desert planet. The planet Arrakis, supplies the entire galaxy with a key element that allows interstellar travel across the universe. Full of spectacle and fantastic interplay between  rivals as well as revelations of a secretive culture that nurtures our hero. Spawned many sequels/prequels that can never lived up to the original.

The Fellowship of the Ring (1954)

I know a lot of people have Lord of the Rings on their "my fav' books" lists, and I make no apologies for including it here - but for me it was specifically The Fellowship of the Ring that most impressed me as a young adult and that experience has stayed with me for my entire life. The Peter Jackson movie adaptations were really good too, but the first is and always will be my personal favourite. I particularly enjoy the sense of travel experienced by the band of adventurers as they journey from the beautiful surroundings of the quasi English-village setting of Hobbiton across the lands of Middle Earth into and through the foreboding Mines of Moria. I never really got the same sense from reading the following two books. I love how the Hobbits slowly become aware of the fate that they have laid out before themselves. And having that map in the front of the book that allowed you to trace their path across Middle-Earth was such a bonus! For many years, all fantasy fiction I read would be compared to this (which likely explains why I enjoy the first books of Fantasy series predominantly).

The Jaws Log (1975)

The true story behind the making of Peter Benchley's novel Jaws by Steven Speilberg. Written by Carl Gottileb who as well as starring in the movie also carried out script duties while living with the director and some of the crew on location in Marha's Vineyard. Absolutely fascinating account of the trials and tribulations that accompany the making of one of one of the greatest movies ever. The Digital Bibliophilia review of the updated eBook version is here.

From Hell (1999 collected edition)

If I can include non-fiction, then I can include graphic novels right? It's my list! Seven years in the making, this gargantuan collected edition brought together writer Alan Moore and artist Eddie Campbell's work that tells the tale of the mystery surrounding the serial murderer Jack the Ripper in 1850's East London. An amazing achievement, brilliantly told/shown. They cover so many different aspects and theories of what experts supposedly believe actually happened and who the real identity of the Ripper could be that you are quite mesmerised by the end. Campbell's art is quite stark on first encounter, but as the complex tale unfolds and the grisly details are displayed you realise just how perfect it really is.

Barnaby Rudge (1841)

I'm a real sucker for Dickens. But most of that has come in the form of television and movie adaptations. In all honesty I can't say I have a burning desire to take in all of his works. However, occasionally I will get the itch to stretch my literary muscles and he is always one to tempt me. On one of those occasions, I looked for something that I wasn't very familiar with. Barnaby Rudge has been pretty much ignored by TV and Film companies over the years, so the attraction to try something I had heard/seen practically nothing about drew me to it. It's full of all the trademark Dickens characterisations and labyrinthine plots - but somehow it just resonated with me at the time and the scenes of the riots in London and the storming of the Houses of Parliament will live with me forever.

The Warhound and the World's Pain (1981)

I came to Moorcock late. I remember seeing a lot of his books in my local library or in bookshops I frequented, but I never thought I'd like them. To me, 'Fantasy' meant thick 400+ page novels that were are small parts of bigger stories that made up a trilogy. What a fool I was! When the beautiful "Tales of the Eternal Champion" collected editions came out, I was immeadiatly grabbed by the first (UK) volume called Von Bek (see left). Within this, the intital novel that introduces Bek was The Warhound and the World's Pain. I was instantly smitten. I simply adored the renaissance feel of this tale, and the rapid way that the plot unfolds. And Moorcocks simple, no-nonsense prose style made for an easy reading experience that I am a real sucker for. It was either this, or The Warlord of the Air, but I've opted for this in terms of it being my first Moorcock.

The Crystal Shard (1988)

Most people look down on the Forgotten Realms series of Fantasy novels. However, I really enjoyed a number of them. I still own quite a few paperbacks of the Dungeons and Dragons fiction products, including the popular Dragonlance series as well as a number of the large format collected editions. This book has its faults. Quite a lot of them actually - but this was quite early on in the DnD range when author R. A. Salvatore was finding his feet in his first published book. I excuse a lot of things that can be levelled at it because it really hit a nerve with me. They way it brought to life all those character types and races that I'd been playing in my roleplaying days - and the way it expanded upon the world setting. When I see this cover, or think of this book, it gives me a warm cosy-by-the-fire feeling you know?

The Rats (1974)

James Herbert's The Rats was flippin' brilliant to read as a young adult. It had horror, sex, violence, swearing, and its was pretty thin so wouldn't take long to finish. It also helped that a large proportion of the book is set in London suburban areas that I grew up in. I think I devoured it in just a few days in between school and homework. The plot follows the escapades of a teacher, Harris, who notices one of his students has a wound that was inflicted by rabid rats. As he investigates, the manic rats begin to wreak mayhem on the population of London. This seminal novel was such a huge hit with readers that sequels followed in quick order, and Herbert started a career that reached sales of over 50 million books worldwide.

The Red Scarf (1954)

In The Red Scarf, Brewer skillfully plunges his antagonist, Roy Nichols, down a rabbit warren that you feel he will never be able to escape from. Hitch-hiking home to Florida he becomes embroiled in the misfortunes of a couple running from the Mob with a suitcase full of cash. A totally gripping story masterfully told.

The book was reviewed on Digital Bibliophilia back in May 2019. You can read the review here.


The Last Train to Memphis (1995)

The second biography on this list. As you might guess from the title, the subject of writer, Peter Guralnick's attention is Elvis Presley. This is the first of a two-book publication and covers the period of the rock and roll star's life up to his joining the U.S. Army. This is a thoroughly engaging biography, and I was impressed so much that I now own a number of other books by the same author. His books on Soul Music and Sam Cooke are also very good indeed. I'd always had a soft spot for Elvis, I was 11 when he died, and both my parents had vinyl albums by him that were played regularly. Reading about Presley's humble beginnings and his rise to fame is a real thrill.

Shogun (1975)

I saw the mini-series of James Calvell's Shogun before reading the novel. But at the time it was broadcast in 1980 I was only 14 years old, and most of it went over my head if truth be told. So when years later I came across the novel, there wasn't much I could remember about the plot other than the fact that it was the story of a man from England who is shipwrecked and washes up on the shores of 17th century Japan. The book really hit the sweet spot - I'd become quite obssesed with anything Japanese so I was already predisposed to like it I guess. I think it was most likely the longest book I had ever attempted to read at that point in my life (not including the Lord of the Rings trilogy) and so it's a testament to how absorbing the tale is that I got through all 1,152 pages!

The Summit of the Gods (2000 - 2003)

And lastly we have a Japanese Manga tale. (Told you I was obsessed with Japan). This is a late career piece by artist and writer Jiro Taniguchi. His works are not widely available in English, so if you get the chance to read any of them - grab it. His stories range from typical manga, science-fiction and fantasy infused tales, to the more elegant (and my personal preference) of stories about ordinary people doing extraordinary things. The Summit of the Gods is the tale of Fukamachi, a photographer who finds a camera supposedly belonging to the moutaineer George Mallory, who disappeared on Mount Everest, and goes on a climbing adventure with friend Habu Joji. It is an exquisite series of books (5 in total) with amazingly detailed drawings of mountain-climbing. Highly recommended.

And there you have top twenty favourite books/novels/graphic novels/manga series.

I've noticed that a lot of these books are from the 1970's and 1980's. It can be no coincidence that during the eighties I left school and had a job that required me to travel from East  London to West London the entire length of the Metropolitan Line of the London Underground. This would mean nearly two hours per day sat on a train. Now that's a lot of reading time...

No comments: