Newest Review: ... has a big secret she is hiding, and Steve turns out not to be who we think he is. I loved this book, as it kept me guessing throughou... more
Can I include the Radio Times?
Top 10 Books
Member Name: spacelamb
Top 10 Books
Date: 23/07/01, updated on 23/07/01 (293 review reads)
I’ve braced myself for criticism on this one already. Maybe I’m badly read or something, but all the choices below (bar one or two) seem painfully obvious. You’ll be pleased to hear that I have managed not to include the London A-Z and the Oxford Concise English Dictionary, which to be frank are the two books I would be truly lost without…well, anyway, judge for yourself.
10. NOTES FROM A SMALL ISLAND – BILL BRYSON
Whether or not this is great literature is arguable, but I had to put it down several times because I was literally crying with laughter in public places and people were staring (so he’s clearly doing something right). Bryson is a travel writer who was born in the States and moved to England in early adulthood, and this book documents his journeys around Blighty in his forties. The humour comes largely from poking fun at the eccentricities of the English – the way we will solve everything from a paper cut to a hurricane with a cup of tea, the silly names we bestow upon our villages and the various perils associated with striking up conversations on a train. Contrary to what you might expect, he does not visit the obvious places, choosing instead to report on obscure northern towns which boast the kind of museum that has an annual attendance of four people (Bryson included). This captures the very spirit of what it is to be English. For non-Brits: I concede that you may not find it nearly as funny as I did (which is probably for the best as I almost choked) – but for anyone who has ever visited or resided here, it’s a classic.
9. THE WOMAN WHO WALKED INTO DOORS – RODDY DOYLE
About as far as you can get from the last choice, this novel centres around a theme of domestic violence. For anyone who has never read any Roddy Doyle, his writing style is a plain as, um, ready-salted crisps (well you think of something plainer) and always set in some impoverished part of Ireland.
The main character, Paula, tells the story of her abusive 18-year marriage without bitterness or regret, and the story makes you slightly nauseous and brings tears to your eyes (although it is not true, it could so easily be). The most horrific part of the book is where the husband has just dislocated her shoulder in a fight and puts her in a cab to the hospital. She is sitting in the back wearing a coat with her arm hanging limp in the sleeve, but she describes the incident without a hint of anger, just weariness. This is also a book without a definite beginning, middle or end, although it is roughly chronological – a kind of idle, going-nowhere style which I love.
8. ABOUT A BOY – NICK HORNBY
Nick Hornby has become so popular that his work has almost stopped being regarded as literature, which I think is a great shame. Hornby is another author whose style is chatty and rambling, although not a word is wasted, and his characterisation is spot on. The two central characters in this book are Marcus, a dysfunctional 12 year-old with a suicidal mother, and Will, a streetwise loafer in his thirties. Through a series of bizarre circumstances their lives collide, and each chapter is told from their alternating points of view. (Look out for the movie too, released early in 2002). About A Boy is the kind of book you can get through in a couple of days and you probably will because it is a joy to read, but no matter – just move onto High Fidelity instead…
7. CLUCK (A SORT OF HEN FROM TIMBUCTOO) – ROGER HARGREAVES
Definitely not a Booker prize nominee, but my favourite children’s book ever. Mrs Roger Hargreaves (yes, Mrs) is also the author of the Mr Men books, in case it has escaped anyone’s notice, and she illustrates them herself as well – so in the Timbuctoo series we see the return of Mr Men extra Percy the Worm and a very similar sense of humour throughout. I actually only discovered Cluck a f
ew months ago, quite by mistake, and it was another of those rolling-on-floor-and-making-a-general-spectacle-of -oneself events. Cluck is a sort of hen from Timbuctoo, and not a very clever one at that. She receives a letter one morning (“from Neigh, a sort of horse, who was a sort of friend of Cluck’s”) and the story is of her dim-witted attempts to open it and so forth. I won’t ruin the end (oh come on, you’ve only got about 15 pages to get through) but it’s a cracker.
6. THE BUDDHA OF SUBURBIA – HANIF KUREISHI
This is Kureishi’s astounding first novel. I must admit that he is my favourite author ever (although he escapes my number one spot here) because I’ve never seen anyone use the English language like him – economically but lyrically – and his characters are both believable and eccentric. The Buddha of Suburbia is quite a typical debut novel in that it is roughly autobiographical and focuses on the ‘coming of age’ period of a young man (Karim)’s life, and describes the breakdown of his family, his first job, first love and first experiences with drugs and sex. It is another book that has no real conclusion, but leaves you with a feeling of general fulfilment and happiness at the end (partly due to the plot, and partly from the sheer brilliance of his writing). You’ll also feel guilty for talking during the couple of weeks while you read this, because compared to his prose everything that leaves your mouth seems horribly clumsy.
5. EMMA – JANE AUSTEN
I was made to study Pride and Prejudice at GCSE and decided there and then that I hated Jane Austen. I thought her writing was trivial and pointless, a symptom no doubt of being sixteen when everything is terribly intense and important. But four years later when I was in a production of Mansfield Park (also entertaining, but not a patch on Emma) I decided to give her another go. I wasn’t
sorry. Yes, she is trivial, but that is one of the best things about her books. Also, trivial does not equate to shallow in this context. Austen is a very witty social commentator, satirist even, and when you re-read her novels post-school you see a lot of humour that escaped you the first time around. The heroine of the piece is called Emma, rather predictably, a daddy’s girl and matchmaker who has always been unlucky in love herself (Clueless was based on the plot). I don’t think I’m ruining the ending by telling you that everything works out okay in the end (Austen is well-known for this) – but the twists and turns that lead you there are riveting. The language is not immediately easy to get to grips with, but once you have settled in you will probably find yourself saying things like, “Yes, I liked her tolerably well, but her bonnet cannot possibly have cost more than four and twenty pounds”. Hurrah.
4. HARRY POTTER SERIES – J K ROWLING
Yes I know this is kind of cheating, and I should have picked just one of the existing four, but I really couldn’t. Unlike so many series, each book is as engaging and well-written as the last. These are really children’s books, but adults the world over have taken absolute delight in them, and Rowling is deservedly credited with ‘getting the nation reading again’. Is there anyone who *hasn’t* read them? – for those who’ve been living under rocks or equivalent for the last couple of years, the adventures take place at Hogwarts, a school for young wizards, and centre around young Harry Potter and his friends. They are genuinely quite scary, unpredictable and leave you gagging for more at the end. I was heartbroken when I finished The Goblet of Fire (the fourth and most recent in the series – apparently there will be seven altogether) – although the film is released on 16 November and ought to satisfy fans’ hunger fo
r a short while.
3. LOLITA – VLADIMIR NABOKOV
A controversial novel written from the point of view of an imprisoned paedophile (he is, ironically, not imprisoned for this crime). Humbert marries and then effectively kills a woman to get close to her daughter Lolita, a precocious 12 year-old who is both knowing and innocent. They enter into what she naively sees as a kind of 'relationship', and he sees as something rather different. His professions of love for her ring true but you are left with a churning feeling in your stomach as he describes his feelings, and you can't put it down until you know what becomes of the two of them. It is not a 'happy' ending, but it doesn’t turn out the way you expect either. The horrific thing about this book is that it’s actually funny in places, in a very dark way obviously, and that you do to some degree feel sympathy for the narrator. Emily Prager wrote a modern day adaptation of this book called Roger Fishbite which I can heartily recommend if you have read this, although not as an alternative – Nabokov’s language is too beautiful to miss.
2. THE BLACK ALBUM – HANIF KUREISHI
We’re back to Mr Kureishi again – his second novel this time. (He has written four altogether, the third being Intimacy which has just been made into a critically-acclaimed movie, as well as many plays and short stories). One of the main reasons I love this book is for its topographical detail – it is set in Kilburn, an area of London I know reasonably well, and his descriptions bring the place and the story alive. It is another novel which has a vague boy-to-man theme but this one deals with more serious issues, not least Islamic Fundamentalism (about as serious as you can get, but don’t be put off). Kureishi has been criticised for making his central characters too alike but for me this doesn’t seem justified. He describes all his characters w
ith a kind of detached closeness (this, unlike Buddha of Suburbia, is written in the third person) which shows up the flaws of the human condition but in vastly differing ways.
1. WHITE TEETH – ZADIE SMITH
To say that a lot of fuss was made about this novel would be an understatement. I had almost decided (somewhat stubbornly) not to read it on that basis, but a special offer in Smith’s changed my mind, and how glad I am. One of the quotes on the back cover urges you to ‘believe the hype’ – take the man’s advice! All the praise that has been heaped upon Miss Smith and this book is completely deserved. White Teeth is an epic tale of two London families through four generations and deals with every slightly controversial issue you care to name without ever becoming too heavy. The characters, in spite of their sins, are deeply likeable. The plot, although extraordinary, is totally credible. It also has the best ending I have ever come across in a book – it is not too tidy, not remotely contrived and leaves you with a huge grin slapped across your face at the sheer genius of what you have just read. All this and she’s only twenty-six. It makes you sick. But kind of pleased that she bothered.