The other day I was looking through one of those writer’s pages I subscribe to. One particular page is for writers to talk about stuff, you know, publishing, agents, even actual writing but writers being a self-indulgent selfish lot, they usually just post links to their new books. Being similarly selfish I tend to add links to my new blog posts but on this occasion, I noticed something different, someone had asked a question. What are your 5 favourite books of all time?
Straight away I jotted down four, I struggled for a fifth and then remembered I had already started a post about my top 100 books of all time. It was waiting there quietly in my drafts folder and I’m sorry to say I was well short of a 100. I had got as far as 21 books and so for the purposes of this blog post, I’ve whittled it down to 10. I’ll give you five this week and five the next so here we go, in no particular order . .
The Great Gatsby by F Scott Fitzgerald
What can I say about this modern classic that hasn’t be said before? I’ve tried reading other books by Fitzgerald, but they haven’t really hooked me. This one though is nothing short of wonderful. It’s a sad haunting book and the text is so lovely, so lyrical it could almost be a poem, especially the very last page.
Gatsby is an enigma. A millionaire rumoured to have made his money during prohibition who holds lavish parties in the New York neighbourhood of West Egg. The bright and beautiful of New York are drawn to these parties like moths to a flame and one day, or so Gatsby hopes, Daisy, his lost love, will come too.
Things don’t work out as Gatsby has planned because Daisy has a husband and children. A hot summer in New York adds to the tension and Fitzgerald presents the jazz age to the reader with warmth and nostalgia. Read this book and revel in the author’s lyrical elegance.
Billy Liar by Keith Waterhouse
I’ve always loved this book. It’s a very northern book, written by Keith Waterhouse and it’s about a young lad who fantasises a lot. So much so that he has a whole fantasy world up there in his head. It’s called Ambrosia. In Ambrosia the army traditionally salute with the left hand, a tribute to survivors of the revolution who all lost their right arms in battle. Billy fantasises about writing a great novel, the one like mine that he is always going to start tomorrow. He has two girlfriends on the go, both of whom he has proposed to and has given them both the same ring. He wants to be a TV scriptwriter and has gone as far as sending his scripts to a TV comedian. He dreams of going to London to work. The book was a successful film and someone once told me they saw the stage version which used a revolving stage for Billy to enter into Ambrosia.
James Hilton is one of my personal writing heroes and yet his name may be unfamiliar to many of you reading this blog. He was a journalist and an author and made the trip from his home in Leigh, Lancashire, (now Greater Manchester) in the UK to the Hollywood Hills in the United States to become a screen writer. He is probably more well known for his book ‘Goodbye Mr Chips’ which was made into a film with Robert Donat (actually another northerner from Didsbury in Manchester) but my favourite of his books and quite possibly my all-time favourite book is ‘Lost Horizon’.
Lost Horizon is a book I found in a second-hand shop many years ago. A battered 1940s paperback, I paid twenty-five pence for and yet that small investment has paid me back many times over for sheer reading pleasure as Lost Horizon is a book I re read every year or so and I often pull it down from my bookshelf when a current read fails to entertain me.
Lost Horizon is a completely original idea and is about British consul Robert Conway in the dark days before World War II. Conway is helping his fellow British citizens escape from civil war in China and he and his small party escape in the last plane, only to be kidnapped and taken to a distant Tibetan monastery. Conway meets the High Lama and after a time it is revealed that the Tibetans want to preserve the best of world culture and art and make it safe from the coming war.
Hilton is one of those few people who have invented a word or coined a phrase that has become part of the English language. In this case it was the name of the Tibetan monastery, Shangri-la which has since become a byword for a peaceful paradise, a distant haven. Camp David, the US President’s retreat was originally called Shangri-la until renamed by Eisenhower for his son, David.
Lost Horizon was made into a movie by Hollywood director Frank Capra and starred Ronald Colman as the urbane British diplomat of the novel. It’s a movie that was restored some time ago and is a great DVD if you happen to see it.
A Year in Provence by Peter Mayle
You might possibly be wondering about this book and how it got into my top ten. OK, it isn’t one of the classics and it isn’t exactly by a world-renowned author but what the heck, I’ve always liked it and it’s one of my favourite books. Books come in all shapes and sizes and while some books focus on strong and emotive subjects like love, life, tragedy and the universe, some books lift you up in other ways. I’ve always had a dream of living in France in a big old country house and in this book the author and his wife move to a village in Provence. In a quietly amusing way the author documents his new life which involves things like dining out, sorting out a new boiler and engaging French workmen to remodel his house. They once made it into a rather badly received TV series but the book is a gentle, relaxing summer read.
A Kind of Loving by Stan Barstow
Whenever I plug my own short novel, Floating in Space, I usually try to link it to classic kitchen sink novels of the past like this one. The sixties were a great time for working class novels and many of them were made into films.
The story is a very simple one; Vic Brown is a draughtsman in a Yorkshire factory and he gets involved with a secretary called Ingrid. When Vic learns Ingrid is pregnant, he does the ‘proper’ thing for the 1960’s and offers to marry her. Sounds simple but this is a complex and fascinating book and looks at the subtleties of relationships and how the characters make their way through a series of difficult choices. For a northerner like me, it’s also nice to read about things and places I can directly relate to. The first part of the book where Vic, who narrates the book, talks about a family wedding brings back so many memories of similar weddings when I was a child. Barstow was a Yorkshire writer and A Kind of Loving was the first part of a trilogy. My well thumbed copy has all three parts in one volume.
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