Book (series) I have known and loved

Manda challenged me on facebook…

“Book Challenge thingy. List your 10 favourite books, that have stayed with you. Don’t be shy, share truly and don’t try too hard, reading is entertainment not a credibility challenge.”

Before I knew it I had churned out 1500 words, so it seemed wise to put the words on here too for posterity.

I seem to be less able than others I know to remember things that have happened more than five years ago, and with that goes a lot of detail of what I have read. I quite often find myself in the situation of reading a book and being able to predict where it’s going – but only a few pages before it has happened. I put this down to having read it before and forgotten rather than any power of prediction.

The main thing I read is detective fiction and I almost always look out for a series by the same author that I can get my teeth into and gallop through. So lots of what I list below will be series rather than individual books. I read so fast I must miss some of the detail.
That said, lately reading for pleasure has not been much of a part of my life. It’s a holiday activity rather than work day one, and somehow this year I have managed to pass almost all of my six week holiday without finishing a single book.

Anyway, the list.

Enid Blyton – The Famous Five. Gosh, what a ghastly start. But this was my introduction to crime novels and independent reading when I took a book off my mother, who was unable to read it aloud without sniggering, and started to read it by myself. We had loads and loads at home and so I read them.

Arthur Ransome – Swallows and Amazons and the subsequent series. This also took up many many summer holidays of my childhood, and built up a relationship with my local libraries as I put in cards to request the subsequent books in the series. Somehow the awesome books never led to me visiting the Lake District or getting interested in sailing but I was happy to read about others doing same. IF NOT DUFFERS, WON’T DROWN.

Agatha Christie – Poirot books. After a while – by about 11 – I had read pretty much everything in the young adult section of the library (even the Judy Blume, here’s looking at you, ‘Ralph’) and we began to talk to the staff about me borrowing adult books. The staff agreed with my parents to keep an eye out and steer me away from anything desperately inappropriate, but it was Agatha Christie I read the most, starting with garishly illustrated ones on my parents’ shelves, branching out through the library and eventually getting a bit organised in a quest to request and read all of them in my teenage years.

Paul Magrs – Marked for Life. I got a job during my sixth form years as an assistant at Ludlow Library where I did Saturday shelving. As part of that I was once allowed to help choose the new books they bought. There were a stack of cards from publishers, each one with title, author and a short description of the book. Staff got to go through the cards and leave a tick on the ones they thought library should buy. I made them get this one because it’s a story with a gay affair at the heart of it, and as a staff member I could check it out to myself without anyone else having to see. The literary equivalent of sneaking downstairs in the middle of the night to watch “Beautiful Laundrette.” Magrs was a graduate of an MA Creative Writing course so it’s pretty weird book, heavily influenced by magical realism (one of the characters becomes invisible at one point). This was his first novel, and he’s written plenty since, and is also a very influential author in the Dr Who world. Looking back on my late teens, I don’t now understood how I found time to read as much as I did. I borrowed at least 6 books from the library every fortnight and read through them very quickly. At the same time somehow I managed to get 4 amazing A-Level results too. I don’t really remember doing much studying. It was more than five years ago, I suppose.

Reginald Hill – Dalziel and Pascoe. A massive skip forward – in 2005 I allowed myself a long long holiday, taking leave from being a councillor. I spent it driving around France and camping for six weeks. Preparing for that, I bought a crate of Dalziel and Pascoe novels for next to nothing and read most of them under canvass by torchlight. NB I’ve never actually even seen the TV adaptions of these. I eventually swapped them with CH for a crate of French language Maigret novels which I regret to say I have never got very far with. On that holiday I thought the complete Reginald Hill would last me six weeks but in fact I was running out by half way. As it happened I took a holiday from my holiday halfway through to return for a good friend’s stag do, so while I was staying with AC in Geneva I borrowed her computer and bought a whole bunch more books to be posted to me in England to pick up before returning to France. Which leads me to…

Sue Grafton – Alphabet novels. I had always been a bit sniffy about these but AC had some on her shelves, so they can’t have been all bad. I flicked through, they seemed eminently readable, so I bought about 10 of them and read them then and got hooked. I’ve stayed with them as she brings out more and she is so close to completing the alphabet now. The original books were tightly plotted and very slim. Now they are getting longer and sometimes she even moves away from the first-person detective narrator, which I am not a fan of. Her detective Kinsey Millhone is brilliant.

Mary Roach – Stiff – I can’t remember who first put me onto the books of Mary Roach, but she is amazing. She is a pop science writer who takes something unpleasant and writes a book about it in gory detail with hilarious footnotes. The stories she tells are about how she learned what she writes about, and the people who are often unsung heroes. Stiff is the story of dead bodies, with a chapter on “the body farm” which Patricia Cornwell readers will know about as a research facility into decay; a chapter on crash test dummies – they use cadavers in that field too; a chapter on how dead bodies used to be powdered and turned into medicine. It doesn’t sound at all promising, but it is fascinating and very funny and all of her books (Bonk, Stiff, Gulp, Spook and Packing for Mars) are the best thing ever.

Edmund de Waal – Hare with Amber Eyes. While we are on non-fiction this is a memoir of de Waal’s family heirlooms. It’s a book divided into three – first the story of how his Jewish banker family acquired this collection of Japanese carvings, and how Jewish people got very wealthy in a bunch of different European countries in the 1800s onwards. Then there’s the story of what happened during the Anschluss in Austria and how fast and how hard they fell from grace when the Nazis sacked Jewish homes and murdered people. Finally there’s the story of how the heirlooms were recovered and how they spent their time 1945-1990 in Japan, in a story that’s just as interesting. It’s very readable – the wartime section is horrifying – but the stories before and after are just as interesting. The carvings are the thread that holds the book together but the real stories are the people who owned them.

Janet Evanovich – Stephanie Plum novels “One for the money” etc. Grafton started on a finite series A is for… Evanovich went with a rather more open ended plan, started on a novel called “One…” and carried on from there. I heard about these from a book discussion Radio 4 programme, ordered the first one, read it overnight, ordered a ton more, lent them to my friends and parents and now, as with Grafton, I read the new ones as they come out. Light and fluffy crime novels told from POV of an incompetent female bounty hunter with somewhat loose morals. Very funny, untaxing, readable in about 5 hours, excellent for airports, loads of them to get through.

So what to choose for #10? I think Terry Pratchett as another prolific writer of very funny novels. Surreal and weird, sometimes it seems whole universes are spun around a single bad pun or a deliberate misunderstanding of something. You can’t really describe Pratchett, but the beautiful covers the books all have are a fab partner for the chaotic and hilarious plots and characters.

You might also like this thing I wrote the last time I got tagged in a book meme in 2006.

REVIEW: Win a copy of Rip it up!

Macmillan have kindly sent me two copies of self-help manual Rip it up – one to review and one to offer in a competition.

So if you leave a comment under this post, being sure to use your correct email address, I will draw names from a hat on Friday and get in touch with the lucky winner to ask where you want your copy sent.

The book is an interesting take on self-help and I guess they needed to send me two copies because, if you read the book and follow the instructions, bits of the book won’t be there for its next reader. The idea is that the book wants you to change your habits, and it starts out by getting you to change how you see books. Suddenly it’s OK to commit the most heinous book crime, and tear out a page!

The book is by Richard Wiseman, professor of the public understanding of psychology at Hertfordshire University, and once the initial task is out the way the (entirely readable) first chapter delves into the academic history of the theories the book is hoping you can use to change your life for the better. Following the exercises, it’s apparently possible to become a better, more productive thinner person. Imagine!

If you too want to become better, thinner, and more productive, remember to enter the competition by leaving a comment.

Non fic stories

Most of what I read for pleasure is fiction, and almost all of that, for almost all of the time I have been an independent reader, has been detective stories of one sort or another.

But in the last few years, I have started to branch out a bit into reading non-fiction for pleasure. And there’s a sort of new genre I have come across – or at least new to me – of a weird sort of travelogue / nonfic hybrid. Nonfic authors essentially writing stories that happen to be true, but have the readability of fiction. And maybe also footnotes.

The first I really bumped into were Mary Roach. I can’t now remember why I started reading her, but her books are brilliant, about all sorts of unsavoury subjects. There’s Stiff, about cadavers (which I also talked about for Pod Delusion here) Bonk, about sex and Spook about scientific investigations into the afterlife – one I didn’t enjoy quite so much. In all of these, Roach travels about the globe, meets people and then writes about the journey and the discussions.

I suppose the king of all of this genre is probably Bill Bryson. For some reason I have resisted reading almost anything by him, although I did dip into A short history of almost everything on honeymoon and did rather enjoy Notes from a Small Island, in which Bryson travels around Britain, meets people and then writes about the journey and the discussions.

Then the latest discovery is Jon Ronson, of whom I had previously not heard, but someone (probably Kayray) tweeted about his book The Psychopath Test, and I, being for some reason at a low resistance (ie tired, under the influence) popped over to Amazon and bought it. Most weeks there are a scary flood of parcels coming through the letter box of things I only dimly remember buying. And there are now two versions of Mt Toberead – the Kindle version and the print version…

Whilst on holiday, a brief moment of time away from our wonderful hosts while he wired his new sound system and she showed P around the garden and got him to take cuttings, left me alone in my room with my book for a few hours. So far, so good, and so I turned to Jon Ronson. And finished it in two sittings – three hours then and a few more on the return ferry from France.

It’s a book in which Jon Ronson travels around the world, meets people including psychopaths and mental health professionals, and then writes about the journey and the discussions. It’s fascinating and worrying, takes in the corporate world, Scientologists and Broadmoor. And eminently readable. So, at the end of the book, when the Kindle automatically suggested I might like also to read the Men Who Stare At Goats, I added that to the mountain.

RIP Reginald Hill

I read from barely two people on Twitter that ace crime novelist Reginald Hill, auteur of the Dalziel and Pascoe crimefighting duo, has died. M’learned colleague Stephen Tall has a nice post on the subject, bemoaning the quality of the TV adaptations of his work.

For me this was not an issue, for although I was aware of the adaptations I have never seen either incarnation.

I had however read a few of his novels over the last few decades, and so was able to choose his work when I went on my long French road trip in 2005. It is always a pleasure to encounter the first time an author you really like with an extensive series of novels you can get your teeth into when you get time. I have a slight completist streak, mainly when it comes to the unproductive side of life such as crime novels and TV series.

So in 2005, in preparation for six weeks under canvass on my own in France, I bought a crate of Reginald Hill novels, almost all of his books that had been in print some time, and systematically set out to read them in order. I had particularly been looking out for the Ursprungsroman of the gay character Sergeant Wieldy, which is referred to obliquely in many subsequent books. I have definitely read it, enjoyed it at the time, and have no detailed memory of what happened in it.

I ended up tearing through the crate of books, burning up the D-cells in my tent lantern so I could read through the night, and ultimately read the six weeks’ worth of books in only three. The structure of my holiday was such that I took a holiday from my holiday to return to England halfway through for a stag do so was able to ensure that a whole new stack of Amazon 1p special secondhand books was waiting for me when I got there. I moved on to reading all of Sue Grafton’s alphabet books.

My route took in my dear friend, my former French teacher, and conversation there turned to novels, and I found out that despite her northern heritage, she had never read the Yorkshire classics. We ultimately effected an exchange – and my crate of Hill novels was handed over and in return I got a big pile of Georges Simenon novels – the Maigret books – in French. I fear that crate has languished neglected somewhere ever since. I hope it’s in the attic and is OK.

To return to Reginald Hill, it seems such a shame that so few people are talking about it. So few people have mentioned it on twitter, and I haven’t heard officially on the BBC news on either last night’s 6pm bulletin or this morning’s lunchtime headlines. And the Wikipedia pages are somewhat incomplete, with most Dalziel and Pascoe novels not having a page of their own. Which is a shame.

My audiobook published – Chasing the Dragon, by Nicholas Kaufmann

Cover artwork for audiobook Chasing the Dragon

As mentioned a few months ago, I’ve been taping an audiobook for Iambik Audiobooks, a company that grew in the fertile soil of Librivox, where I have a few titles and many more chapters.

A good number of hours ensconced with the text and my trusty Zoom H2, and huge number more hours editing, and sterling effort from a team including a proof-listener (thanks Diana!), artwork, technical and post-prod directors, and hand-holder-in-chief Gesine Kernchen, brings the project to a close.

It’s now available for sale here. You can get it in an iPod friendly format or DRM-free honest-to-goodness plain and simple MP3s. Payment via credit-card or Paypal. Over three hours of me speaking direct into your earhole, swearing, talking blood and guts, doing a brief Morgan Freeman impression, jonesing, going on heroin flashbacks… G’wan, you know you wanna.

Oh, and the story is ace too. Big shout out for its author Nicholas Kaufmann. The text grips you from the start – get more than about a third into it and you will probably find your life on hold until you’ve finished it. The characters are strong and vivid and you are rooting for the protagonist so hard it hurts – despite her many flaws and the sea of destruction around her.

Interestingly, it seems the audiobook edition is the cheapest way to get hold of this story in the UK! (You can get it in print on Amazon here and as a Kindle edition here.

BBC’s “neglected classics”

BBC Radio 4 has been running a “neglected classics” segment on its programme “Open Book” where they get famous authors to choose books that not enough people still read. There are ten; there is a public vote; then the winner gets dramatised for Classic Serial.

The list is here, along with links to the authors talking about the books to help people choose.

Of those ten works promoted, only four are out of copyright (I was hoping for more than that, given that they are “classics”!)

So, four are available from Project Gutenberg, and can be downloaded for free as E-books:

Lermontov, Hero of our time

Trollope, Miss Mackenzie (apparently very short by Trollope standards)

Johnson, Rasselas

Moore, Esther Waters

If you prefer your classics to be narrated, then two of them have been recorded for Librivox by volunteers, and can be downloaded for free as public domain audiobooks in MP3 format.

Esther Waters by George Moore on Librivox

Rasselas by Samuel Johnson on Librivox

Unpleasant Tory campaign vignettes

This week in the Guardian’s diary column Esther Addley is standing in for Hugh Muir, and she’s chosen a book of the week, True Blue: Strange Tales from a Tory Nation, by Chris Horrie and David Matthews.

Very unpleasant trends are emerging in two vignettes that paint Tory activists as racist and anti-Semitic. Who knew?

The first scene takes us to Richmond:

during the election campaign of 2005, when the book’s undercover authors were canvassing for the local Tory candidate against the Lib Dems’ Susan Kramer. Given a telephone cold-calling script, they were puzzled to find instructions to tell voters that Kramer was an “outsider” and, perplexingly, Hungarian (Kramer was born and raised in London). Why? “She’s a Jewess,” said a party activist, “but we aren’t allowed to say that. We get told off if we say that. So all we can say is that she got off the train from Hungary.”

And then in the London mayoral campaign, we have a charming anecdote:

[Ray] Lewis insisted he had a good idea of what the new job would involve, “which is more than you can say about Boris!”, before doing an impression of his new boss: “Crikey, Ray! What are we going to do? Gosh! Crumbs! Have you got any ideas? Golly!” Cue raucous hilarity, topped only when Lewis joked about a conversation about the local Conservative candidate, Shaun Bailey, who was also present and, like Lewis, is black. “I’ve just been speaking to a lady and she asked: ‘Which one is Shaun and which one is Ray – it’s hard to tell you apart.’”

The book is available on Amazon – and if you use this link you’re helping raise funds for the Liberal Democrats: True Blue: Strange Tales from a Tory Nation. Perhaps a kind reader out there would care to buy a copy and review it for us in greater detail?