Category Archives: The Best of the Books

“The Moving Toyshop” by Edmund Crispin

Do you like the detective novels of Agatha Christie, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Dorothy L.Sayers? Then you should try Edmund Crispin’s work. Despite being a bit of a detective addict in my teens and keen reader of modern thrillers by authors like Deaver, Rankin, and Connolly I had never heard of the Oxford don called Genvase Fen until I read “The Moving Toyshop” for the 501 list.

First published in 1946 the book’s plot had plenty of red herrings and plot twists plus a satisfyingly logical conclusion. I certainly wasn’t expecting that when the poet Richard Cadogan found a murdered woman in a flat above a toyshop and then couldn’t find the toyshop again the next morning. I won’t spoil the solution by sharing it, but it is a good one.

The story is shot through with genuinely funny asides about Oxford life, publishing and writers. His one-liners are brilliant and the descriptions of characters are so cutting you’ll bleed.  In fact I couldn’t help being reminded of Jasper Fforde’s amazing literary detective books because they share a passion for literary wit. At one point, during a car chase (because of course, like Colin Dexter’s Inspector Morse, Fen travels in a beautiful motor car), a character says they should go left because Gollanz is publishing the book and elsewhere Fen teases the author about his inability to create good titles. It’s a pacy detective book (205 pages), with plenty of brains, that doesn’t take itself too seriously.

Edmund Crispin, real name Robert Bruce Montgomery, wrote nine novels and two collections of short fiction featuring Fen and I will now be looking for the rest of them. My only caveat is to have a good dictionary to hand as Crispin isn’t afraid to expand your vocabulary.

(read January 2013)

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“I am Legend” by Richard Matheson

As someone who doesn’t read a lot of sci-fi or fantasy, I had never heard of Richard Matheson before tackling “I am Legend” for the 501 Books list. So I was impressed to find Stephen King quoted on the back cover as saying that Matheson was a major influence on his writing.

The more sci-fi I read for this list, the more I realise that there were a handful of writers in the 1950s who created the genre as we  know it today, and sure enough this book, first published in 1954, is amongst that list. You could assume that it would feel dated given all the changes in technology since that time, but this is a classic vampire/bio-hazard tale and in fact it feels distinctly modern. I haven’t seen the 2007 film based on the novel starring Will Smith, but I’ve been told it’s only loosely based on the book.

At a mere 178 pages long, the story, told with very few characters and a limited setting, paints a scary portrait of life for the hero Robert Neville. He’s the last man on Earth thanks to a plague which has turned everybody else into a vampire. His isolation and grief (his wife and daughter succumbed to the disease) are brilliantly protrayed and far from being dismal to read he has a strong sense of humour holding him together. I enjoyed when he, near hysterics, called for a policeman when he parked his car illegally in the deserted city where he lives.

He lives in the daytime only, patrolling in search of the undead to kill them. At night he’s the prey, so he barricades himself in his home and tries to ignore them and avoid insanity, drunkeness, and despair. As Matheson writes; “imprisoned on an island of night surrounded by oceans of death”.

When his solitary existance and quest for an explanation or cure for the disease is interrupted by first a dog and then a woman, Neville has to face tougher challenges.

The writing is excellent, the plotline intriquing and compelling. I’d recommend this book for any sci-fi or fantasy fan as well as anyone who likes a thought-provoking read. I really enjoyed it and am putting it in my Best of The Books category.

(read April 2012)

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“Walden; or, Life in the Woods” by Henry David Thoreau

Not having been educated in North America I had heard of Thoreau only because the quotation (below) from this book was used in the movie “Dead Poets’ Society” –

“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die; discover that I had not lived.”

At only 216 pages, his detailed account of his two years living at Walden Pond in a cabin in the woods won’t delay you long, but while you read it you’ll feel like you’re there in the forest with him. You watch him building his simple house, sowing his beans, studying the lake on his doorstep, and musing on topics like economy, solitude, clothing, sounds, and visitors.

He had plenty of visitors. “I had three chairs in my house; one for solitude, two for friendship, three for society.” I love that idea.  If more came, they stood and he had more than twenty in his single-roomed cabin more than once. I had assumed he lived a hermit’s life. But actually he used to walk into town most days, along the railway track, except during deep snows.

The sheer variety of concepts amazed me, and much of his advice is excellent. He tells readers to avoid new enterprises which require us to buy new clothes, but to try it in old clothes first. Everyone who bought new art sets, sushi kits, and exercise gear this January can relate to that idea.

He studied the ice on the pond in winter by lying down on it at all times of the day and stages of freezing to count the bubbles per inch. The wildlife, which became accustomed to him quickly, must have enjoyed that scene.

Having eaten fried rat when necessary, he believed that as civilisation progressed all men would stop eating meat. His largely vegetarian diet during his two years at the pond came from his economical but low-effort farming. He even gives the full accounts of his expenditure and income during the two years in order to convince others to try the experiment, because he believed we need to stop burdening ourselves with worldly goods to realise our full potential. Reading this in the aftermath of a major house-crash here made me realise how applicable much of his thinking is today.

This beautifully written, inspiring book should be read slowly and enjoyed as much for his ideas as for the language he uses. His love for Walden Pond shines through. He left the woods to try out a new life and to avoid being stuck in a rut. Clearly it remained with him forever, urging him, as he does the readers, to explore the vast worlds inside his own mind and soul, and to advance confidently in the direction of his dreams.

(read December 2011)

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“The Demolished Man” by Alfred Bester

I was working my way through the B’s in my local library and came across this sci-fi novel, published in 1953, and with the honourable pedigree of winning the first ever Hugo Award.

The story is simple and set in the 24th century on Earth. Ben Reich, businessman, wants to kill his rival, but how, given that the police have telepathic powers and can read his mind?

I don’t read 1950s literature often, which is one reason why I’m enjoying the 501 book challenge. I loved his opening line “Explosion! Concussion! The vault doors burst open.” If I pulled that opening now, I would be shot down both for using all those exclamation points (two of several on the page), and even worse, it’s a dream sequence. One of many throughout the book which show the main character’s mind unravelling.

I also loved Bester’s use of textual patterns to signify multi-way telepathic communication. It reminded me of poetry where the poem resembles a picture on the page. It showed me the complexity of telepathic society. He calls telepathic people “peepers”. They work in jobs, for mankind’s betterment, like police (to prevent crimes), analysts (to help heal the mind), human resources (to filter out the wrong candidates).

Bester’s character names were a joyful throwback to Dickens’ habit of making them meaningful. So we have Church (a low-life peeper), Reich (the villain), Marie Beaumont (a voluptuous woman, think translation), and three secretaries called Wynken, Blynken, and Nod. Now Reich may seem ok now, but I think that less than a decade after the fall of the third Reich, his naming must have been significant to contempory readers.

World War II and the years preceding it heavily influence this book. I laughed aloud when one famous line from the film “Casablanca” cropped up as “Then it’s every peeper for himself. Here’s thinking at you, Linc.” The murder method eventually selected by Reich is old house party game, sardines, and the entire murder sequence has an Agatha Christie style to it. There’s murder with an impossible weapon, many witnesses but restricted location, and a classy, conflicted telepathic detective, Powell, trying to trap the wrong-doer. As a long-time Christie fan, I was surprised to find her influence in a sci-fi novel, but it works remarkably well there.

The only weak point I found, and it was hardly Bester’s fault he couldn’t tell the future, was the explanation of some future technologies which have been out-stripped by actual modern technology in the real world. For example, Powell lacks a laptop so he has his three secretaries to carry his information in their brains. There’s a global newspaper called “The Hour” with 24 editions daily. Internet news sites or Sky News anyone? They do have an advanced AI computer to assess if criminal cases have merit before they go to trial. But he outputs to a paper tape via a mechanical typewriter.

So, would I recommend this book? Yes, definitely, even for a sci-fi novice. It’s unusual, well-written, and while some passages are dated thanks to modern technology, the underlying theme of the human mind is as fresh as ever.

(read 2010)

 

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“Beloved” by Toni Morrison

This is a classic example of why I am reading the 501 books on this list. It’s to find new authors that I would otherwise have been unlikely to unearth. I had never heard of Morrison’s work, despite her winning the Nobel Prize for Literature, but I’m glad I have.

First published in 1987 and running to 324 pages in my paperback edition, this is the story of slaves and ex-slaves (both freed and runaways) in the mid-1800s in the USA. Such a subject could become worthy beyond belief but she manages to make each character behave in believable ways according to their background and traits. There’s Sethe, the core character, who has run away and when caught is forced to commit a horrible crime for the best of reasons. There’s Beloved, her daughter, who obsesses with her mother. Denver, her other daughter, who matures and grows throughout the tale. Baby Suggs, a charmismatic freed slave and outdoors preacher caught my imagination, and there’s also the men in Sethe’s life – Halle, her husband, and Paul D the man who wants to save her by convincing her that she herself is her own “best thing”. There’s a full cast of secondary characters too, all of whom will stay in my mind for some time.

That’s the thing with a good book, it stays with you and informs how you see something in your world from then onwards.

This book would be ideal for a book club as it’s extremely well-written (verging on an eloquent poetry of language in places, but never losing sight of the storyline) and brings up many potential points for discussion about the nature of freedom and the choices women (and men) have to make during their lives.

If you’ve never read her work – try it, I doubt that you’ll regret it.

(read December 2010)

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“Barchester Towers” by Anthony Trollope

This turned out to be more than one book strictly speaking. Trollope wrote the Barset novels in the following order (and yes they do interconnect so it is best to read them in order).

  1. “The Warden” (excellent, I loved it)
  2. “Barchester Towers” (see below)
  3. “Doctor Thorne”
  4. “Framley Parsonage”
  5. “The Small House at Allington” (I had read it years ago)
  6. “The Last Chronicle of Barset”

I wanted to read all six really but I could only find “The Warden”, “Barchester Towers” and “The Small House at Allington” in my library and local bookshop so those are all I’ve read to date. I would still like to read the rest of them later on though.

“Barchester Towers” is again written in the time of Dickens but is more concerned with personal rather than societal disruption. All the Barset novels are set amongst insular clergymen in a fictional Southern England Cathedral town. He had a keen eye for human foibles and enough of the characters are sympathetic to have me rooting for them through the multiple plot twists. I will definitely read more of his work and am delighted to have found him. If Trollope is the only good author I find during this challenge it will still have been worth it.

(read Summer 2009)

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