Annabel's House of Books

Noli domo egredi, nisi librum habes – Never leave home without a book.

Month: April 2011 (page 1 of 3)

Essential books of the noughties…

Penguin Essentials are “some of the twentieth-century’s most important books. When they were first published they changed the way we thought about literature and about life. And they have remained vital reading ever since.”
I’m sure you’ll agree that they make an interesting collection of modern classics, and pictured below are some of the titles in this series.

The good folk at Penguin recently ran a little competition for book-bloggers to suggest some titles for an imagined selection of essentials for the noughties. Which books that were published between 2000 and 2010 would we recommend for a new 21st century series (not necessarily Penguin titles).

I took up the challenge, but decided to limit myself to books I had actually read.  Here are my picks, and read on for my own competition/giveawat at the bottom of this post …

  1. The Road by Cormac McCarthy (2006) – Prizewinning – and a strangely beautiful read for a book set during a nuclear winter, and one of the saddest stories I’ve ever read.
  2.  The Good Man Jesus & the Scoundrel Christ by Philip Pullman (2010) – Controversial – A master storyteller pares the plot of the ‘greatest story ever told’ down to the bones, and finds something new in it.
  3. Winter’s bone by Daniel Woodrell  (2006) – A new kind of noir – In a mere 193 pages, you get a icy clear picture of the hard life in the brutal winter of the Ozark mountains. Although there’s little cheer, the teenaged heroine Ree has a true pioneer spirit and you root for her from page one on her quest to find her Pa.
  4. Never let me go by Kazuo Ishiguro (2005) – Speculative – This spare and unsettling novel is set in a near future that could so easily happen.
  5. Let the Right One in by John Ajvide Lindqvist (2004) – Simply the best vampire novel I’ve read, and I’ve read a lot of them. (2004)
  6. Remarkable creatures by Tracy Chevalier (2009) – Ground-breaking women – The fictionalised story of Mary Anning and the Victorian fossil hunters. Chevalier really brings her characters and the period to life. My favourite of her novels.
  7. The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery (2008) – Very French – The French have a tradition of philosophical novels, and this one following the inhabitants of a Parisian apartment block is no exception. Utterly charming.
  8. Old filth by Jane Gardam (2004) – At the height of her powers – The story of a retired judge who was an orphan of the Raj.  Funny, moving and understated.
  9. The time traveller’s wife by Audrey Niffenegger (2003) – A phenomenon – This book does required persistence at first to get into, but within about fifty pages I was hooked.  The first book for ages back then that made me cry.
  10. The Uncommon reader by Alan Bennett (2007) – National Treasure – Pure wit and whimsy but as it features Her Maj will have staying power.  A perfect little read, and I giggled out loud all the way through.


So that was my ten.  Do you agree with any of them?

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Now to my competition/giveaway…

What book originally published between 2000 and 2010 would you add to my list, and why?

It’s not really a competition as I will pick winners at random until I get homes for all the prizes.  Thanks to the lovely folk at Penguin, I have eight of the current Penguin Essentials series to giveaway …  the titles on offer are those you saw at the top of the page, repeated below.   Pick which title you prefer, or go for a lucky dip.  I will send worldwide, (surface outside Europe).

      • Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh
      • On the Road by Jack Kerouac
      • Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons
      • A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess
      • Breakfast at Tiffany’s by Truman Capote
      • Out of Africa by Karen Blixen
      • A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole
      • Cats Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut

Prepare to be uplifted, but hankies at the ready …

Ways To Live Forever by Sally Nicholls

List No 1 Five facts about me
1. My name is Sam.
2. I am eleven years old.
3. I collect stories and fantastic facts.
4. I have leukaemia.
5. By the time you read this, I will probably be dead.

The above quote from the very start of this amazing book sets you up for the roller-coaster ride that will be Sam’s last months.  Sam knows he’s going to die, and he has so many questions about it; but they’re all  ones that nobody ever answers.

His home tutor suggests he writes a book about himself, and this is a task that Sam sets to with dedication, sometimes aided by his best friend Felix, who also has cancer.  The resulting book is a story of Sam’s last months, his bucket-list and how he tries to achieve it all, together with discussions of all those difficult questions.

We also meet Sam’s family – his pesky little sister Ella who can’t understand why she has to go to school and Sam doesn’t; his Dad, who finds it hard to talk about things and fervently hopes that Sam isn’t as ill as he really is; and his Mum, who is finding it equally hard, but knows the score.

I constantly welled up reading this book, yet Sam was so brave, inquisitive and happy for such a lot of the time that it was hard to remain sad – there was lots to chuckle about.   The agony of Sam’s parents was hard to take – they suffered more than Sam who, although a thoroughly normal eleven year old and obsessed by all the usual things, was accepting of his fate and determined not to waste time.

This book wasn’t in the least bit sentimental or patronising.  It is, like its young lead, curious about dying. It is also both questionning and matter of fact, yet has an immensely strong emotional core.  You cannot fail to be uplifted by Sam and the memories he will leave behind to live forever.

This is another one of those books, like Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time, that is a true crossover read. Written in the first instance for older children, adults will find it a wonderful read too – albeit in a slightly different way.

It will really help you understand what it can be like to live with such an illness in a family.  I cannot recommend it highly enough. (10/10)

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I bought my copy.  To buy from Amazon.co.uk, click below:
Ways To Live Forever

One of the other bests of Beryl …

The Birthday Boys by Beryl Bainbridge.

Now I’ve read three novels by the late great Dame Beryl Bainbridge, I can truly say that she has become one of my favourite authors, and I can’t wait to read more.  She was a master of succinctly getting to the heart of the matter.  Her novels aren’t long in pages or words, not a word is wasted, but they are absolutely full of detail, in the setting and landscape, particularly in the emotional makeup of her characters.

This is never more true than in her 1991 novel of Scott’s last expedition to the Antarctic, The Birthday Boys.

Coincidentally, I started reading this novel the day before the BBC screened a fascinating programme in which Ben Fogle journeyed to the Antarctic to see Scott’s Hut which is being conserved in situ as an historic site. (Link to iplayer here).  It helped to bring the book even more to life. Beryl cleverly re-tells the story from the perspectives of the five men in the team who went on the final push to the South Pole.

Each man takes a portion of the narrative, starting off in London with Petty Officer ‘Taff’ Evans, a Welshman who although patriotic to the core, is rather a brawler, and prone to causing embarassment. Fundraising in Wales, he helps Scott whom they all refer to as ‘The Owner’ to get vital donations, but then blots his copybook by getting drunk with the Cardiff city flag the Mayor had given them. He’s always repentent after these interludes though, looks forward to setting off, but will miss his rather long-suffering wife.  His account, seen from the ordinary rating’s point of view takes us through the preparations to the point of setting sail.

The story is then taken over by the expedition’s chief scientist and medic, Dr Wilson, known to all as ‘Uncle Bill’.  Wilson is worried about the condition of the leaky ship, but can’t wait to get to their first stop in the Caribbean and some bird watching.  Wilson is Scott’s main sounding-board and support throughout the expedition, and helps Scott through many difficult decisions.

The Owner takes the middle segment.  Scott, although a naval man, is given to much soul-searching and introspection.  He can turn it on when he needs to, but comes across as rather indecisive.  Oates is always questioning his authority – particularly his decision to bring horses rather than dogs for the race to the pole.  Scott’s expedition was as we know, more than just a race, there was a serious scientific side to it also and he is a real detail man.  When they return to their old hut, he is disappointed to find a window has been left open, and the inside has become all iced up…

I’m inclined to think to must have been Shackleton’s party of 1909 who left the window open, not us. After all, we had plenty of time, whereas Shackleton’s lot had to bolt for the Nimrod in the lull of a blizzard. In the circumstances the securing of windows was the last thing on their minds, and then, of course, Shackleton was never a man for detail. All the same, I cannot understand the mentality of people so shallow, so lacking in foresight as to act in such a manner. Surely it’s a mark of civilised human behaviour to leave a place in the condition one would wish to find it. One would think they had walked out of an hotel in some modern town, not a shelter in the most uninhabitable spot on earth, a refuge which could mean the difference between life and death to those who follow after. Such carelessness transgresses all the boundaries of common courtesy, and plunged me into depression.

… So no love lost there then!  Scott also rages inwardly at all the weaknesses he perceives of the crew, especially malingering …

The tents are struck, the rugs come off the horses, the sledges are loaded, the dogs wrestled into submission – and still I wait.  Attempting to get everyone off on time is like trying to spoon treacle back into a tin with a feather.

The fourth section of the story is taken up by Lieutenant Henry Bowers, a giant of a man and seemingly unflappable and  indefatigable. But even he is pushed to the limit by the expedition’s scientific offshoot when he accompanies Dr Wilson to visit an emperor penguin colony which takes far, far longer to reach than they anticipate.

The final push to the pole is narrated by Captain Titus Oates, and we all know the ending.  Oates, a loner, who has served for years in India, has remained an enigma throughout the story until now. He is the opposite of Wilson, being Scott’s fiercest critic, yet in the end, he comes to appreciate that Scott’s concerns for his fellow man made him a hero, and Oates accepts his fate with equanimity.

Each of the five has a distinct tale to tell and their characters come through really strongly, as does the inhospitable Antarctic – essentially the sixth character in this book.  Bainbridge has really brought the expedition to life, finding the inner voices of them all, which are the opposite of all the stiff upper lip on display, and the blind obeying of orders.   In her hands, Scott is both sympathetic and flawed – held back by indecision, totally deflated by Amundsen’s not being a good sport, a meticulous planner, yet always able to rally the men.

As in the other fact meets fiction novel of hers that I’ve read, Every Man for Himself about the Titanic, Bainbridge really inhabits her characters, they feel impeccably well-drawn and researched but she never resorts to purely telling us what happens.

I’ve got another six Bainbridge novels on the shelves, including the one that recently won the ‘Best of Beryl’ Booker poll, Master Georgie set in the Crimean War, and several of her earlier fiction books.  I shall look forward to reading them all in due course.  I desperately want to read lots of other books about polar exploration now too, including Rannulph Fiennes’ biography of Captain Scott.  I also want to re-watch the DVD of the fine miniseries about Shackleton (starring my fave Kenneth Brannagh), and read Mrs Chippy’s Last Expedition – the fictionalised story of the cat on board the Endurance.

The Birthday Boys is a fine picture of a tragedy that really happened; a portrait of a golden age of Polar exploration that’s gone, and I loved it – if you read it I hope you enjoy it too.  (10/10)

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I bookswapped for my book. To buy from Amazon.co.uk, click below:

By Dame Beryl Bainbridge:
The Birthday Boys
Every Man for Himself
Master Georgie

Further reading:
Journals: Captain Scott’s Last Expedition (Oxford World’s Classics)
Captain Scott by Sir Rannulph Fiennes

and about Shackleton:
South: The Endurance Expedition by Ernest Shackleton
Mrs. Chippy’s Last Expedition: The Remarkable Journal of Shackleton’s Polar-Bound Cat by Caroline Alexander.
Shackleton [DVD] starring Kenneth Branagh

Oh, to be young and in NYC…

The Good Fairies of New York by Martin Millar

Dinnie, an overweight enemy of humanity, was the worst violinist in New York, but was practicing gamely when two cute little fairies stumbled through his fourth floor window and vomited on the carpet.

The opening line from this novel is a cracker. Heather and Morag are the two young fairies in question, with dyed hair and punk kilts. They are friends, but from different Scottish clans and each claim to be the best fiddler in all Scotland. Being wild young things, they’ve ended up in New York after getting into a scrape with the MacLeods.   Heather and Morag are just like many young humans, they like to drink, dance, have fun, eat magic mushrooms – it’s just they’re only eighteen inches high, have wings, and can’t be seen by most humans.

They soon fall out, and Morag goes to live with Kerry over the road. Kerry suffers from Crohn’s disease, is compiling a Celtic flower alphabet, and loves Johnny Thunders guitar solos.  Meanwhile Heather decides that Kerry is the girl for Dinnie, and in exchange for teaching him to play the violin properly, she will get Kerry to fall for the fat slob.  Bound up in this central will they, won’t they romance being engineered for Dinnie and Kerry, there is the quest for Kerry’s missing flower, the ghost of Johnny Thunders looking for his old guitar, and unrest amongst the fairies back in Cornwall, not to mention the legendary McPherson violin.  Heather and Morag also manage to upset all the other fairy tribes in the city at some stage with their high-spirited feud.

This novel is great fun, and it’s choc-a-block full of energy.  The young fairies, in their youthful acts of rebellion, bring chaos and anarchy to the Big Apple in a fast moving, raunchy and comic romp. The Neil Gaiman endorsement caught my eye, and while it’s fair to say I didn’t love it as much as he does, it was a jolly good read.  (8/10)  NB: Strong language etc.

* * * * *

To buy from Amazon.co.uk, click below:
The Good Fairies of New York by Martin Millar

Oh, to be young and in NYC…

The Good Fairies of New York by Martin Millar

Dinnie, an overweight enemy of humanity, was the worst violinist in New York, but was practicing gamely when two cute little fairies stumbled through his fourth floor window and vomited on the carpet.

The opening line from this novel is a cracker. Heather and Morag are the two young fairies in question, with dyed hair and punk kilts. They are friends, but from different Scottish clans and each claim to be the best fiddler in all Scotland. Being wild young things, they’ve ended up in New York after getting into a scrape with the MacLeods.   Heather and Morag are just like many young humans, they like to drink, dance, have fun, eat magic mushrooms – it’s just they’re only eighteen inches high, have wings, and can’t be seen by most humans.

They soon fall out, and Morag goes to live with Kerry over the road. Kerry suffers from Crohn’s disease, is compiling a Celtic flower alphabet, and loves Johnny Thunders guitar solos.  Meanwhile Heather decides that Kerry is the girl for Dinnie, and in exchange for teaching him to play the violin properly, she will get Kerry to fall for the fat slob.  Bound up in this central will they, won’t they romance being engineered for Dinnie and Kerry, there is the quest for Kerry’s missing flower, the ghost of Johnny Thunders looking for his old guitar, and unrest amongst the fairies back in Cornwall, not to mention the legendary McPherson violin.  Heather and Morag also manage to upset all the other fairy tribes in the city at some stage with their high-spirited feud.

This novel is great fun, and it’s choc-a-block full of energy.  The young fairies, in their youthful acts of rebellion, bring chaos and anarchy to the Big Apple in a fast moving, raunchy and comic romp. The Neil Gaiman endorsement caught my eye, and while it’s fair to say I didn’t love it as much as he does, it was a jolly good read.  (8/10)  NB: Strong language etc.

* * * * *

To buy from Amazon.co.uk, click below:
The Good Fairies of New York by Martin Millar

A fine backwoods thriller…

The Terror of Living by Urban Waite

It was the quote from Daniel Woodrell (an author of whom I’m a huge fan, see here), on the cover that made me instantly want to read this book, a debut novel set in the backwoods border country near Seattle.  To all outward appearances it’s a crime thriller, set in the murky and violent world of drug smuggling, but it also felt very like a modern western, grounded in Cormac McCarthy territory.  At it’s heart are two men, the hunter and the hunted, and when a third enters the story, their roles will be turned around again and again.

Hunt is an ex-convict.  He lives quietly on a small ranch with his wife Nora. They struggle to make ends meet, so Hunt takes on the occasional drug-smuggling job.  When he’s asked to take a new young lad on the latest trip to help bring the drugs down from the mountain drop on horseback, the moment he sees the boy he feels something will go wrong.

Drake is a deputy Sheriff.  He patrols the backwoods up from Seattle to the border with Canada.  He’s recently married to Sheri, and still trying to shake off the shadow of his father who used to be a Sheriff, but is now in prison for drug smuggling.

Drake spots a city car parked on a logging road in the middle of nowhere, and decides to investigate.  This will spark off a whole chain of events that will lead to a trail of murder, mayhem and an awful lot of spilled blood as a hitman is hired to mete out punishments and allow the nasty men at the top of the tree recover the drugs when it all goes up the creek.   It’s not just Hunt and his associates that are at risk from the hitman, it soon becomes clear that Drake will be targeted too, and he teams up with Agent Driscoll from the DEA to see the case through.

This novel was a compulsive read and so bloody!  Once Grady the psychotic hitman arrives on the scene, things start to happen in true serial killer fashion.  But the story is not his, it’s of Hunt and Drake – two men who are very alike in character.  Both have done their time, Hunt in actual jail, Drake living down the shame of his father.   They’re so similar that sometimes I was confused which one I was reading about – the only criticism I really have about this rather good book.  I did rather like the dry DEA Officer, Driscoll – for some reason I kept picturing him as Dan Ackroyd; Driscoll had a feel of Elwood Blues about him!

If you can cope with all the blood, this is a fine debut thriller with a superb setting and a classic cat and mouse chase at its heart. (9/10)

* * * * *

I got my review copy from Amazon Vine. To buy from Amazon.co.uk, click below:
The Terror of Living by Urban Waite

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