Stephanie at Blackbird Books has nominated me to name my all-time ten favourite books. Nothing too difficult there, Stephanie, just a matter of searching my mental database and picking out the best from a library of, I estimate, at least 6,000 books based on reading two a week every year since I was seven, and there have been periods where I have read at least a book a day.
Ten years ago, my choices would be different. In ten years time, they’ll more than likely be different again. But the following titles are those which come instantly to mind, all of them having been read in the last few years and having made a lasting impression, and all of them that I will definitely read again. From my selection, you may notice that I don’t read “fluffy” books. I generally prefer a good, hard toffee to chew on, rather than a soft marshmallow that melts away too quickly. 😀
The Impressionist, by Hari Kunzru. An enthralling tale of a pampered child who becomes an outcast and climbs his way back to the peak of respectability, using his chameleon-like personality to blend into the different cultures he moves in. The ending is an absolute knock-out.
Salmon Fishing in the Yemen by Paul Torday. I fell in love with Dr Jones, world authority on the life cycle of the caddis fly, charged with the preposterous task of finding a way to introduce salmon fishing into the arid Yemen in order to foster relations between the British Government and a wealthy sheikh. I laughed until I wept. Not only hilarious, but biting satirical. Thank goodness I read the book before watching the film, which I thought was one of the worst adaptations ever and a travesty. And by the way, here is a review by somebody who seems somewhat confused: “I FOUND it UTTERLY nonsensical and total rubbish though I Will admit a lot of its ideas did make sense.” Um? 🙂
A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry. This is a tale of tragedy and terrible hardship. It’s harrowing. The treatment of the characters made my blood boil with the injustice and cruelty. But what I found so wonderful is the way that no matter what, the victims never lose their sense of humour and their loyalty to each other, and their spirits remain uncrushed. It’s not for people who want a “happy ever after” ending. But if you’re looking for an extraordinary tale, beautifully written, you won’t be disappointed.
A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini. I’ve enjoyed all his books, of which this is my favourite. Set in Afghanistan under Taliban rule, it’s a sickening tale of the abuse of women, and it’s also story of love and self-sacrifice. Hosseini knows how to tell a gripping story.
The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce. Both funny and sad, I read this at one sitting, as Harold’s trip to the nearest letterbox becomes a pilgrimage from Devon to northern England to visit a dying friend. Ill-equipped, unsuitably dressed, Harold trudges doggedly onwards, reflecting on his unsatisfactory home life with his shrewish wife, hoping to meet his elusive son, and trying to shake off followers as his pilgrimage attracts media attention and he becomes a cult figure. I could really identify with his sore feet!
We Need to Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver. I almost gave up on this because it started so s-l-o-w-l-y and I began to lose patience and think that nothing was ever going to happen. And then, suddenly, bang – I was hooked and couldn’t put it down. Shriver brings the characters to life – the cunning, psychotic son, the despairing mother, the doting, delusional father blind to his son’s faults, as the story builds to its frightful climax. A real page-turner.
Paris – the Novel by Edward Rutherfurd. A BIG book. A gripping saga of four French families from differing social classes, set in the City of Light. Drama, intrigue, and loads of history of the great city spanning several centuries from the Middle Ages to WWII.
The Hunger Games trilogy by Suzanne Collins. Written for young adults, I know many ‘older’ adults like myself who simply love this trilogy. Set in a post-apocalyptic, dystopian world, where the elite class live a life of pampered luxury and hedonism whilst the rest struggle to survive in brutal, impoverished conditions. (Ring any bells?) To punish these ‘lower classes’ for a mutiny many years previously, and entertain the elite, once a year 2 children from each of 12 ‘districts’ are selected to fight to the death in a virtual public arena. The last one standing brings glory and bounty to their district. That’s enough – read the books for yourself if you haven’t already!
Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Set in Nigeria during the Biafran war, the fortunes and misfortunes of twin sisters, their friends and families. Brings home the horror of war in general, and civil war in particular. Totally gripping and beautifully written.
The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Bolsover. I read this with a touch of schadenfreude. I don’t really know why, but I couldn’t help enjoying the miseries and discomforts foisted on the unfortunate wife and children of the fire and brimstone bible-thumping missionary who dragged them all into the Congo, where not only is the land hostile, but so are the natives as they fight for Independence from Belgium. It made me laugh, although I don’t think that was the author’s intention. 🙂 There’s also a deeper thread regarding the evils of colonialism and political upheaval and the chasm between Western and African culture.
Finally, this one made me laugh, and laugh, and laugh. Those people who gave it bad reviews must, I think, have entirely missed the point. It’s a true story of somebody who could be described as a sociopath, who decides to open a delicatessen without any experience and in the wrong place. Following is the review I wrote on Amazon after reading it for the first time. The second time I found it just as funny.
I’d Sooner Starve by Mark Sinclair
“This book is about a council employee who decides he’d rather be a delicatessen/restaurant owner, his sole qualification being his ability to make a quiche without a recipe. Opening during the winter and serving only cold meals showed a certain misunderstanding of his market, and the student two-ring oven wasn’t really adequate for the shift to hot meals. The author readily accepts that many of his problems were of his own making, and I had a strong feeling that he was far from being a “people” person. He hated his customers. Not only did they force him into entirely changing his ideas of the type of food he wished to serve, they complained, blagged, carped and criticised endlessly. I hated them too.
I found his vitriolic rages hysterically funny, couldn’t put this book down and had tears streaming down my face. Whether all the stories are true, I can’t say, but fact very often is stranger than fiction, so it’s quite possible that the customer who preferred her cheese warmed really did stick it up her skirt. The book is full of similar anecdotes about the idiosyncratic behaviour of Mr and Mrs Middle England. It is only at the very end that Sinclair adopts a serious note, comparing the waste of food in the developed world with the terrible poverty in which too many people still live. I’ll definitely read this one again – but not in a public place. It’s just too funny.”
Oops, that makes eleven! I’ve overshot. Bad me.
And then there’s Suite Française, The Taliban Cricket Club, Birdsong, I am Pilgrim, all of Gerald Seymour’s books, Cloud of Sparrows, and I’ve barely started ……………..
Oh Stephanie, what have you done?