An unusual post this time. Over the last few years I've been buying second hand paperback books in book sales for very little money- often six books for a pound. Not great news if you are an author trying to make money from writing but good if you like reading.
Like many folk my age, since childhood, I've been a keen reader and the best books, the most memorable or interesting ones stay friends for life. I still have books I first read in my teens and twenties, often re-reading them at ten year intervals and still enjoying them, finding new depths or greater insights with advancing maturity.
So here's a selection of the best books I've enjoyed- and kept- or old favorites devoured again- over the last five years. Although everyone has different tastes these books stand out as excellent, well written, vivid and enjoyable adventures. I still prefer old style paperbacks rather than e-books. Books you can touch, interact with, and store away without ever forgetting they are there- not hidden away in a computer folder or pad index, in all likelihood never to be visited again. Paper books are alive, on show, and always visible.
when writing my own books I went right off reading for pleasure for a few years, simply because I was putting in long hours writing, editing, correcting, learning self publishing, etc etc and getting eyestrain and headaches. After a gap of some years this first book mentioned was my way back in. Sitting in my back garden in the sunshine, reading, drinking soft fizzy drinks and munching crisps or sandwiches. Pure indulgent luxury rather than powering up mountains every weekend. My not so guilty other favourite pleasure in life.
Wicked- Gregory Maguire.
Everyone thinks of the musical (I've not seen it) but the book is magnificent in its own right. A technicolor kaleidoscope of lyrical invention, playful imagery, slightly adult themes and a reinterpretation of the original stories. Quirky, funny, brilliant... and just a tad wicked. And a great female character in the much misunderstood green witch of the title. One of my all time favourite books and still very underrated. Written in a slightly unusual style so it takes the first three chapters to get into the swing of it- then its excellent until the end.
Before The Poison. Peter Robinson.
Bestselling crime novel and the finest I've read in its genre. A prosperous and successful musician travels back to his native Yorkshire and buys a remote house in the Dales, gradually becoming obsessed by the former owners and finding a mystery he's compelled to solve. Well written, full of lucid descriptions and a haunting, moving climax. All the books in this list linger long in the memory, to me anyway, and this is no exception.
The Memoirs of Cleopatra. Margaret George.
Over 1000 pages long but never a dull paragraph as the ancient Queen of Egypt is brought back into vivid, touchable, believable existence. Reads like a bestseller and so it should. After wading into this epic, sprawling, masterpiece you will be convinced you have lived alongside her, felt the same burning sun, sailed down the River Nile, seen the pageants and events- maybe not in the royal palace but in a hut nearby, looking on at the great and the good travelling past the doorstep. A novel but full of accurate factual information retold in a compelling fashion. Another favourite.( This book tends to play down the Queen's undoubted ruthless streak and survival strategy to make her more relatable/likable to a modern audience being the only flaw, but understandable given that the age she lived in had very different rules and values where problem people were simply deleted with little human emotion or regret involved. Different times being a leader then with a long established family tradition of quietly rubbing out your brothers/sisters/ father/mother/cousins, uncles etc without a teardrop spoiling the makeup...)
Strange Shores. Arnaldur Indridason.
A crime novel set in Iceland with a detective trying to solve a decades old mystery of a young women who vanished without trace. Haunted by an incident in his own childhood the past slowly unfolds it's secrets. Cleverly crafted Icelandic noir and the bleak unusual setting of icebound fjords gives this story its edge.
Station Eleven. Emily St John Mandel.
The collapse of modern life through a virus/ plague/ man made incident etc is a familiar theme but this book takes a fresh new perspective on it. Very different and refreshing. Well written, memorable, and all too realistic a scenario but surprisingly not depressing. As much a journey under hope and sunlight as any shade encountered along the way. A classic book.
Flood and Fire. Emily Diamand. A winner of the Times Children's Fiction Competition and I can see why.
Although in the children's/ young adults category this is just a brilliant read for any age group. Full of adventures, intrigue, changed landscapes and scattered humans, as they navigate through a flooded, half submerged London and England in 2216. A young girl and her cat creep under the radar in a dangerous new world rapidly reverse evolving into savagery and tribalism, carrying the last working computer from that shattered technological past as her furtive guide and salvation. Up there as a true modern classic.
The Snow Child. Eowyn Ivey.
Alaska in the 1920's. A hard grim wilderness of short summers and long bitter winters but when a childless couple find an abandoned little girl wandering in the snow they take her in... but who is she and where did she come from? A clever reinterpretation of L'enfant Sauvage/Pinocchio.
Darktown. Thomas Mullen. Atlanta USA. 1948. A novel. In a divided city split down white/black boundaries the first eight negro policemen are enlisted to solve crimes in their own districts, territory previously patrolled/ controlled by corrupt white officers taking bribes. Based on real historical events the black police officers face openly hostile residents, openly hostile white police determined to stamp them out and a landscape outside the city zone they reside in that will kill or jail them without hesitation, given any opportunity, no questions asked. In the Heat of The Night and To Kill a Mockingbird are rightly regarded as classics but this book really digs deep into the corrosive nature of casual ingrained racism more than anything else I've read or watched. A fast paced murder mystery adventure.... well written, gripping and shocking at every turn. Highly topical in a newly refocused populist politics America and UK.
Still Life with Crows. Preston and Child. A New York Times best seller and rightly so by these two well known authors working as an effective writing team. The golden cornfields of Kansas but a long way from Dorothy and Toto as a serial killer paints elaborate outdoor art in the growing corn using human victims as his brush strokes. A brilliant psychological thriller/ crime novel with great characters and unusual locations. Funny, disturbing, thrilling and brilliant.
The Chalk Man. C.J. Tudor. Set in a small English town this follows a group of young teenagers riding bikes and having adventures in the woods until a chain of strange events alters them forever. A wonderful evocation of life as ordinary schoolchildren in an urban/ rural setting having fun gradually turns darker with twists aplenty before the end. Fascinating and compelling. A great book.
Flightsend. Linda Newbery. As a pleasant change to crime novels, which seem to make up around 70 percent of all books, I picked this one due to its cover art of a young girl lying in a meadow with butterflies dancing around her. I was not disappointed as it was just as nice inside. Sixteen year old Charlie is pulled away from urban familiarity and friends to a new home in the countryside as her mother makes a fresh start. Well written and carefully crafted throughout this is refreshing, magical, sunny and simple all in one dish- like a perfect early morning of golden sunrise or a spectacular ice cream and fruit surprise. Nothing much happens in it... no one dies in a grisly fashion... but it is wonderful nonetheless. A favourite book for cheering me up...just looking at it and knowing what's inside and that it's sitting on my bookcase. Relatable as it also describes my own childhood in part- half urban- half countryside experience, exploring the woods and fields around my house with my dog as a youngster, getting further away with each new journey/adventure. Sometimes isolated and alone from companions- so creating my own internal universe through imagination during solo wanderings. 'What will I find when I eventually reach that far off wood? What's the view going to be like over the next hill?' The basic stuff of life that still keep me interested today.
Weirdo. Cathi Unsworth. The seedy underbelly of an English coastal resort during the punk era. Not for everyone this novel with madness, prostitution, music, murder and biker gangs but very memorable proving that not all crime and deprivation happens in big cities. Fast paced, lurid, and action packed.
Amazonia James Rollins. An adventure thriller set in the hot steamy heart of the Amazon jungle. A one armed government agent goes missing in remote location only to emerge years later with two working arms before dying. A second expedition sets off to solve this mystery and the stage is set. An enjoyable romp into the deep unknown.
Altar of Eden. James Rollins. Same author -equally good tale set around the Mississippi Delta and New Orleans. Abandoned fishing trawler washes up on coastline carrying a cargo of exotic animals. Vet gets called to examine them and finds them strangely altered in certain ways. Combines vivid landscape locations and good story detail with elements of cutting edge science, animal and human genetics research, ethical and moral future dilemmas, 3D fractal imaging etc. into one very interesting novel.
Witch World series. Andre Norton. Taken as the first six books in this series it's on a par with Game of Thrones or The Lord of the Rings for fantasy adventure. A 1960s classic and well worth reading in sequence. Still great reading today and highly influential on later works in this genre.
Chris Beckett. Mother of Eden. Although set in a future world this novel also looks back at our own origins mythology and examines the process and evolution but in an exciting way by creating a vivid story all its own. The second in the Eden series.
A Tap on the Window. Linwood Barclay. A detective thriller murder mystery which takes place around USA's Great Lakes district and the Canadian border towns. Compelling story, well written and interesting throughout. Author of a string of bestselling books so no surprise its a gem of a novel... although the 'bestseller' tag is not always a guarantee of a great book, just a popular one.
A science fiction classic... a cracking read today... and like the best imaginary world tales... reflections in a mirror only one small step away from our current reality.
In the Heart of the Sea. Nathaniel Philbrick. The true story of the whaling ship 'The Essex' lost at sea 1000 miles from the nearest landmass after being rammed by a giant whale, presumably enraged by the slaughter of its family group. The survivors cling to tiny rowing boats used to chase whales but, unlike the others, this one is not running away any time soon. The real life incident that later inspired Moby Dick.
23 outstanding books to enjoy.