1984, book, boy, broke through britain, chaos, counting sheep, essays in love, flying the big jets, great expectations, Hitchhikers guide to the galaxy, neither here nor there, on chesil beach, one day, rebecca, silent spring, tale of time city, the code book, the da vinci code, the hobbit, vulcan 607, waterlog
I came across a conversation on Twitter at the weekend between some fellow bloggers in which they were discussing the books they had read, in particular their ‘all-time greats’ and also which ones we didn’t like. We all pretty much agreed that Catch-22 is over-rated. Many of them didn’t even finish it. I always try to finish a book. I remember that it took me 100 pages before I got into The Count of Monte Christo, which I eventually enjoyed. A few of us thought it would be good to list our top 20 books. As with all these kind of things, it’s hard to narrow down all the great books out there to 20, especially as I have made a point of reading as many of the classics as I can, as well as making my way through the Booker and Costa prize winners. Below is my current list, although I’m sure there is a book out there that I have forgotten to include. There is a fairly even split between fiction and non-fiction. I’d say I read slightly more fiction than factual books, and I read every night, almost without fail. I’d love to know what you think of my list and what others you would recommend.
The Hobbit – J. R. R. Tolkien – This was the first book I remember from my childhood. Our teacher read it to us in primary school and had us take turns at reading it out aloud to the rest of the class. I much prefer this to The Lord of the Rings, which whilst a great book has almost too much going on. I’m not going to bother seeing the Hobbit movies though; they seem to have dragged it out over three films, which seems excessive.
Vulcan 607 – Rowland White – This is a non-fiction book based on the real life mission by Britain to bomb the runway at Port Stanley during the Falklands War. Regardless of where you sit on the geo-political spectrum, this is a true thriller. It is written like a Clancy or Le Carré. Even if you don’t normally like the military thriller genre, it is so well written I still think you’d love it. I liked the story that a vital part of the Vulcan’s air-to-air refueling system had to be rescued from the pilots’ crew room where it was being used as an ashtray, because they never expected to need it again.
One Day – David Nicholls – I cried at this book. Although I rate this as one of the best fiction books I’ve ever read, I almost wish I’d not read it, or certainly stopped two chapters from the end. If you’ve read it, you’ll know why. It took me a couple of weeks to get over it. After reading it I got in touch with the author and he replied to say that my email made his day.
Broke Through Britain – Peter Mortimer – I bought this book from the airport departures lounge when we were going on our honeymoon. Unfortunately when we arrived at our destination our luggage hadn’t and in the confusion we ended up leaving this and the Rough Guide to Norway at the airline help desk. So we ended up spending the holiday without either. Fortunately my wife had pretty much memorized the Norway guide on the flight so we still knew the best places to eat and visit. Both books were waiting for us at lost luggage, so I was able to retrieve them before flying back home. This book tells the tale of the author’s attempt to walk from Plymouth to Edinburgh with absolutely no money, relying on the generosity of strangers to provide shelter and feed him. He is a great writer and I’ve got most of his other books too.
On Chesil Beach – Ian McEwan – This is only a short book, but one of those that stays with you afterwards. I could have picked quite a few of his books. Another favourite is Saturday, which is played out over one day. I see from all the ‘100 Best Books’ lists that it is usually Atonement that makes the list, but I didn’t get past the first chapter of that one, which is unusual for me. I can count on one hand the number of books I have started but abandoned. As I said at the start of the post I usually plough through.
Boy – Roald Dahl – I loved this book as a child. It’s a bit obvious to say that Roald Dahl was a fantastic writer, but that doesn’t make it any less true. This is the first part of his memoir which takes in his childhood, charting some of his exploits, such as the ‘Great Mouse Plot of 1924’. My other favourite of his books is George’s Marvelous Medicine. I used to make my own similar concoctions, although I never fed them to my granny.
The Tale of Time City – Diana Wynne Jones – This was the first book I chose to read myself, I must have been 11 at the time. I got this book out from our school library and loved the story about a 1940’s evacuee who is kidnapped by time travelers and taken to other dimensions. I haven’t read this book since then, but it made such an impression on me that I had to included here.
Silent Spring – Rachel Carson – I only got this book last year, so I have come to it late, although I have known of it for as long as I can remember. She really knew her stuff, and some of the practices she exposed are truly shocking. I loved how even though she goes into some serious science and loads the book with statistics it never feels like a heavy book. Shame many of the things she highlighted are still happening!
Great Expectations – Charles Dickens – What can I say? I have all his books in an old bound collection. I could have picked any one of them, as I’ve read the lot, including his writing about his trips to America where he went on sightseeing tours of their prisons and wrote eloquently about the horrors of slavery. This book is my equal favourite of his, along with The Old Curiosity Shop. You would have to have a heart of stone to not be sad when poor little Nell doesn’t make it. I picked this one though, because we read it at secondary school and I absolutely loved it. I rewrote a more romantic ending for Pip and Estella in the style of Dickens for a GCSE assignment and got an A for it. So I guess even then I was an incurable romantic.
Counting Sheep – Paul Martin – This is an exploration of everything you ever needed to know about sleep. A fascinating read about the science surrounding sleep, as well as the human and societal impact of lack of sleep.
The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy – Douglas Adams – I think I heard the radio programme before I read the book, but this is a classic. If I am honest I prefer the first two books of the ‘trilogy’ than the later books, but even the later ones are better than most of us could ever hope to write. It is such a shame that he died at a relatively young age. His book Last Chance to See is another great book.
Essays in Love – Alain de Botton – I fancy myself as a bit of a philosopher, unfortunately I fear I lack the original insight that de Botton has. I have all of his books and it is hard to choose my favourite, but as I said earlier I’m a romantic. This books charts our journey through initial stages of falling in love right the way through to relationship breakup. I once listened to him talk at the Cheltenham Literary Festival and he is a great speaker. He is worth following on twitter too. He doesn’t engage, but he does put out some great one-liners.
The Da Vinci Code – Dan Brown – You are not meant to like this book, it’s too popular and too ‘low brow’. Its mixture of fake and real history really seemed to get everyone’s backs up. The reason I had to include it is because it really is a page-turner. I have only read it the once, but I don’t care if it is unfashionable, it would be wrong if I didn’t include it, as I couldn’t put it down.
The Code Book – Simon Singh – Another author of whom I have all his books. This one charts the history of encryption from early history right the way through to modern ‘unbreakable’ codes used to secure top secret data. I have a bit of a history with encryption so know the importance of keeping it secure. I almost selected one of his other books Fermat’s Last Theorem in which he manages to make the search for a mathematical proof, not only interesting but genuinely fascinating.
1984 – George Orwell – I quite like the dystopian genre. I guess I could have picked Huxley’s Brave New World, Wyndham’s The Chrysalids, or Bradbury’s Farenheit 451, which I also love but this one really is the master of them all. Obviously Animal Farm is a great book but 1984 is my favourite of his. I’d like to read Road to Wigan Pier sometime, I’d be interested to know if anyone has read it and thinks it is still worth reading.
Flying the Big jets – Stanley Stewart – When I was younger I used to fly aircraft. I never got above single engine aircraft, but did seriously consider a life as an airline pilot. This book probably won’t appeal to as many people as some of the others above, but I love it. I’ve read it loads of times. It takes you through everything you ever needed to know about how they fly a Boeing 747. He explains all the systems as they fly a BA jumbo jet from London to Heathrow. I actually have a flight simulator, but instead of shooting around the skies doing aerobatics or flying fighter jets, I am much happier flying the big Boeings or Airbus, programming in all the Flight Management computers as the real pilots do and flying the aircraft on autopilot. Hey don’t judge me; it takes all sorts on this planet!
Chaos – James Gleick -This is quite an old book now, but he is another author who has written great book after great book. This one tells you everything you didn’t even know you wanted to know about chaos theory, from the so called ‘butterfly effect’, through fractals all the way to really abstract applications in science. If this doesn’t sound like your thing, try his book Genius, which is a lovely portrayal of the life of Richard Feynman
Rebecca – Daphne du Maurier – I first read this book on holiday in Cornwall and it was another one that I couldn’t put down. I did have a nightmare one night after reading it, but it was totally worth it. For me it is her best book, and to be honest she set the bar pretty high. I love the twist that comes two-thirds of the way through. Another book that stays with you. I sometimes hear that she appeals more to women than to men; I have no idea why this might be. Whilst I do like the Brontes I don’t think they can match du Maurier’s take on the gothic.
Neither Here Nor There – Bill Bryson – My wife got me into his work. She had followed his newspaper columns. This is a hilarious (actually laugh out loud funny) trip around Europe. No nation escapes his acerbic wit. As well as his travelogues I can also recommend his Short History of Nearly Everything.
Waterlog – Roger Deakin -Such lovely writing about one man’s journey around Britain wild-swimming in lakes, rivers and ponds. Another author who died too young. Part history, part travelogue this book really will inspire you to strip off and jump in the river.
So that’s my current 20, I’d love to hear some of your recommendations. Keep an eye out on the blogs of Arabella Sock, Michelle Chapman, Lucy Corrander, Lazytrollop, and Helen for their lists. I’d love to know what yours are…..