Friday, 21 October 2011

Top 5 Novels

I left school with a disappointing number of O-Levels which somewhat limited my A-Level choices. I picked the only three subjects I could (English, Maths & Physics) and failed miserably at all three. It's OK, things worked out for the best in the long run. During my very first A-Level English lesson our teacher asked us to put together a list of our favourite books and explain why we liked them. Excellent I thought, I love lists, I have loads of books that I love, this will be easy. My list included novels by Douglas Adams, Hammond Innes and Alastair Maclean with a Dickens and a Shakespeare thrown in for good measure. When we received this work back I was told that these were the wrong sort of books.

At the time I was annoyed by this response. A disgruntled feeling that was not helped by us spending the next three months reading Thomas Hardy's "Tess of the D'Urbervilles". I now see that in many respects my teacher was right. The breadth of my reading was poor, I really needed to expand the style, quality and subject of literature I read. What I really needed was someone to point me in the right direction. What I got was someone telling me I was wrong and then making me read the worst book I ever read in my life. I didn't finish A-Level English. In the last ten years I have expanded my reading considerably. I have no regrets about not having A-Level English but I do wish I'd spent more of the intervening years reading great fiction.

I still hold readability very high in the attributes required to make a great novel. There has been quite a debate recently surrounding the choice of short-listed novels for the Man Booker Prize. Readability versus literary ability is at it's core and the truth is the greatest novels ought to have both.

1. "To Kill A Mockingbird" Harper Lee - A book I first read at secondary school which opened my mind to the power of literature. It's a captivating and moving story about growing up and learning truths about the adult world. It initially focuses on the lives of Scout & Jem finch, the two young leads, and how they fill in the endless days of summer. Then there's the parallel story of their lawyer father, Atticus Finch, and his defence of a black man accused of raping a white woman. Narrated by the six year old Scout, it's a wonderfully observed discourse on racial inequality and human nature.

2. "Hitch-Hikers Guide To The Galaxy" Douglas Adams - Despite what my old English teacher said this book is still on my list. It's a novel I've read more times than any other. Since first discovering it after enjoying the BBC T.V. adaption, I read it at least once a year for a good 10 years. Initially a radio comedy it's a bit on the short side and really should have been combined with the follow up The Restaurant At The End Of The Universe as they are two halves of the same story arc. It's the humour in Hitch-Hikers that really wins through. Obviously I was a 14 year old boy when I first read it but it still has the power to make me laugh out loud some 30 years later.

3. "Nineteen Eighty-Four" George Orwell - Almost certainly my favourite author, I first read this in, appropriately enough, 1984. Spurred into action by the release of the Michael Radford film adaption I found it a bleak but utterly absorbing read.

4. "The Man In The High Castle" Philip K Dick - Not PKD's most famous book but I think this is his best. Set in an alternative reality where the Axis Powers won the Second World War and the world has been divided between Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy and Imperial Japan. The novel follows several initially unconnected characters as they conduct their daily lives against the background of a totalitarian society. I picked it up second hand from my Doctor's surgery having been intrigued by the cover. I generally find that "judging a book by its cover" is actually a pretty effective method of picking a good read.

5. "Pop. 1280" Jim Thompson - Picador's Jim Thompson Omnibus collects four of the best crime novels I have ever read into one handy compendium. Having read them all in one go I now struggle to pick out the highlight but for now let's go with "Pop. 1280" which is told from the point of view of an apparently genial and laconic Sheriff who turns out to be anything but. Thompson writes genuine hard-boiled noir like no other author.


1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I have tried to read Man in the High Castle soooooo many times, but always get fed up with it.

I hardly seem to read any books these days. :-(