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Top ten fiction books from an obsessive and compulsive reader
Top Ten Fiction - General
Member Name: historywitch
Top Ten Fiction - General
Advantages: A fantastic and brilliant selection
Disadvantages: Pffffft, none of course
Top Ten books? Pah, ten minutes worth of effort, I muttered to myself whilst scanning Dooyoo categories… I can run that off right now. That was two weeks ago and I have only just come up with my definitive list. If I had realised just how difficult it would be I wouldn’t have started thinking about it, but I did and here we are. A properly written list is a real reflection of the person that you are and can reveal so much about your character and personality. My first temptation was to grab a couple of handfuls of thick, impressive books off my shelves and eulogise about them, but I soon realised that often the thickest and most impressive books are the dullest, so I sat down and had a proper think.
One of the problems I have is that I read voraciously, everything and anything that comes across my path, and I am eternally tormented by the thought that the next book I read will be the best one ever. I found myself putting this list off until I had finished a few more of the unread books on my shelves, or had bought a couple more from my Amazon wishlist (559 and rising), but I soon realised that this idea was ridiculous. I own a lot of books as well (we had to turn the master bedroom in our flat into a library and with ten full bookshelves in, it is already at capacity), so choosing just ten seemed an impossible task.
So I have decided to make this my top ten fiction that really had an impact on me, to the extent that I can still remember the characters and storylines several years later. So here it is, in no particular order, my top ten books.
1. Empire of the Sun, J. G. Ballard.
I happened to catch the film of this book completely by accident and it moved me so much that I went straight out and bought the book. It tells the story of Jim (based on Ballard himself), a young boy living in Shanghai just before the second world war. His life is one of privilege and wealth until the Japanese occupy Shanghai and he is separated from his parents and placed in an internment camp. The contrast between the first part of the book and the last is extreme, he goes from a sunny suburb to a life of starvation and horror, learning how to survive in the strange environment of a Japanese camp. The story is told with great skill from the child’s perspective; Ballard rejecting any adult constructions that could be placed on events and we see Jim adapting relatively quickly to his bizarre new life and begins to accept it as normal. The horrors and privations are not dwelt on, the story is told matter-of –factly and without excessively emotive or graphic language. This book just doesn’t need all that extra padding to make it moving and compelling, the story is honest and mesmerising and draws you in from the start. It was shortlisted for the Booker Prize and has won both the Guardian Fiction Prize and the James Tait Black Memorial Prize; understandably in my opinion.
2. The Dragonbone Chair, Tad Williams
I’m going to include the whole Memory, Sorrow and Thorn trilogy under this heading as it is impossible to read the one without reading the rest of the series. The story is set in a Tolkienesque fantasy world, beautifully constructed and thought out, far above your average fantasy fiction. A kitchen boy called Simon lives in a huge crumbling castle, enjoying a simple life until he becomes the apprentice to the castle apothecary and his adventure begins. The series tracks his story and those of his companions through an exciting and perilous world, on the trail of the three famous swords (Memory, Sorrow and Thorn), which appear to be the only way to save the world from the growing power of the Storm King. I have read this on average once a year for the last ten years as the story wholly captures your attention and you can completely immerse yourself in this world for as long as it takes you to read the three books (all around a thousand pages long). Tad Williams has thought through this world so well that she has created the beginnings of several languages, with a glossary and translation at the back, that reflect the different peoples she has created. This and Tolkien are the only fantasy novels I have on my bookshelves as they are the only examples of this genre that I really enjoyed and felt absorbed by.
3. Regeneration, Pat Barker
Set partly in the trenches of the First World War and partly in the Craiglockhart hospital, this book was never going to be an easy read. It is based around Siegfried Sassoon’s visit to the facility (run by W.H.R Rivers) officially suffering from shellshock and unofficially because he wrote an article against the government’s management of the war. Other illustrious names in the book are Wilfred Owen and Robert Graves, the latter on a mission to convince Sassoon to retract his statements for the sake of his career. Another character is Richard Prior, a fictional soldier suffering from shellshock who becomes the main focus of the subsequent two books in this series. An excellent film has been made of this book which is how I found out about it; like the film this book pulls no punches about the First World War and the effects on those fighting at the front. It gives a real insight into the psychology of a soldier at the beginning of the twentieth century and an idea of the pressures faced by a soldier in any conflict. I found the other two books didn’t live up to the promise of this one, but I found myself thinking about the characters long after I had put it down and it gave me a whole new perspective on First World War poetry.
4. The Best of H P Lovecraft- H P Lovecraft
I loathe horror movies, I cannot stand anything with the slightest hint of suspense and it took me three or four goes to manage to sit through Alien…yes you can laugh now. So why a book of creepy stories? Because I am ok with horror stories, quite happy to read them anytime, rarely get scared…but this collection of horror stories scared the living daylights out of me, to the extent that I didn’t want the book in the house any more and had to ‘imprison’ it under a couple of ‘happy’ books for me to even sleep. Lovecraft’s skill is to build a story in such a way that you are disarmed from the first page, until he has built such a net of skilfully constructed images that by the end of the story you are seriously disturbed and shaken to the core. I started the first page and thought it would be comparable to some of the tamer Edwardian stories I have already read, but I wont be so quick to judge a book again. Even having it next to me on the sofa as I write this is creeping me out, so it will be returned to its ‘safe’ space inbetween ‘Chocolat’ and ‘Cold Comfort Farm’. This collection includes some of his most well known stories including ‘The Dunwich Horror’ and ‘The Rats in the Walls’. [Shudder].
5. London, Edward Rutherfurd
Covering 2000 years of history in 800 pages seems like a tall order. To do it and include major historical events, a coherent story and a convincing picture of life in London at the time seems an insurmountable task. I was doubtful at first but I have to say that I think Edward Rutherfurd has pretty much succeeded. He follows the lives and descendants of five familys through 21 different periods in the history of the city of London, begin with the Celtish farmers and fishers living on the banks of the Thames at the time of Julius Caesar’s invasion of Britain. If you are looking for an indepth history book, this is not for you, it cuts out a great deal of information (understandably as it covers such a span of time), but it also gives a brilliant, human picture of what life might have been like at different points in time. He focuses in on the lives of the fictional families for a few weeks or months at a time e.g. at a marriage or historical event, before fastforwarding sometimes a few years, sometimes decades to see how the fortunes of the family have played out since the last time we visited. Rutherfurd handily provides us with several simple maps and a simplified family tree to help keep up with who is who. I became completely immersed in the stories of these five families and came away with a better understanding of how certain events may have been perceived and experienced by the ordinary people. On the strength of this book I also bought other similar Rutherfurd books- Sarum and The Forest, but was most impressed with this one.
6. Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen
Hah! You didn’t think that you could get away without this one did you? I have loved this book ever since I first read it at 12 and the story of the five Bennett sisters is one I often return to. An acknowledged classic of literature, Jane Austen has created a scintillating and humourous picture of the country middle-class in the early 19th century, as Mrs Bennett makes her determined efforts to marry off her five daughters with disregard for anything other than raising their positions in life. Without her dubious help, two of her daughters marry successfully, but the third is tainted with scandal and her story reflects the attitudes at the time to women who step outside the boundaries of respectability. Elizabeth Bennett is one of my favourite characters in literature; she is feisty, witty and intelligent, and is able to stand up to the pressure of her mother and society by refusing to marry possibly the most unattractive suitor I have ever come across in literature…the odious and obsequious Mr Collins.
7. Tom Jones, Henry Fielding
Tom Jones is a foundling, abandoned as a baby in the bed of Mr Allworthy. He grows up a strong and handsome boy, envied by Mr Allworthy’s legitimate nephew who is weak and bookish. When he falls in love with the neighbours daughter, Sophia Western, events and people conspire against them and the rest of the novel is a series of comic events as Sophia and Tom attempt to find each other, whilst being chased by Sophia’s father and Mr Allworthy. Fielding includes lots of political and satirical discussion which can be quite offputting, but I love the story, it always has me giggling away…and is a thrilling and saucy read. Tom Jones was the beginning of a serious interest in eighteenth century literature, as will be evidenced by my next choice!!
8. Pamela, Samuel Richardson
I was seriously torn here between Burney’s Evalina, Defoe’s Roxana and Pamela, but I plumped for Pamela as it was on the basis of this book that I read the other two. Pamela is a serving maid who is continually pursued by her mistress’s son, whose motives are less than honourable. This story- told in letters between the two of them, is the battle for Pamela’s virginity; she wants to hold onto it until marriage…and he doesn’t! This was a deeply controversial book when it came out in 1740 as Pamela is the first English heroine to work for her living and challenges social ideas about the place of lower-class girls and their value. At times the moral attitudes of the 18th century voiced by Pamela become intensely irritating, used as we are to a society with much laxer values, and I had to repeatedly put it down when I got cross with Pamela, but the characters are amusing and likeable and there are many frankly comic moments. I also found it a fascinating insight into life in this time period and as a Penguin Classic its nicely handbag sized. I did buy Richardson’s other novel Clarissa (an enormous book) and looked forward to a similar read…but I found it tedious and self-involved, not as fun as Pamela.
9. The Secret History, Donna Tartt
Classics students at an elite American university sink in an obsession with Greek history which leads to a series of terrible events reminiscent of a Greek tragedy. Narrated by Richard Papen, an outsider who slowly becomes absorbed into the group, we follow the story from his position of ignorance and events are revealed slowly to us as they are explained to him. This book is heavy on Greek history, much of the action taking place at study groups and tutorials, but is eminently readable nonetheless. It is a thrilling novel, slow paced in parts but beautifully and insightfully written. I would hesitate to describe it as a murder mystery; on reflection it would be hard to place this book in any category at all, other than maybe absolutely brilliant and classic literature. I first read this when I was 18 (and chose to do a book review on it for my English A-level) and I have read it every year since, the only ‘modern’ book that has ever held my attention for this long.
10. Far from the Madding Crowd, Thomas Hardy
I am a big fan of Hardy and this is my favourite of his books. The love story of Bathsheba and Gabriel and the hurdles he has to cross to win her appeals to my romantic side, tempered as it is with the darkness and reality of Hardy’s depiction of the countryside at this time. The tragedies that haunt this book from the very beginning when Gabriel’s sheep are killed come to a dramatic and unforeseen conclusion near the end. Far From the Madding Crowd is a warm and funny romance with a healthy dose of Hardy realism/betrayal/pain and I regularly return to its pages to immerse myself in the story.
So there you go, my top ten books that I have read and can remember!
Summary: My top ten