MY 50 FAVOURITE BOOKS
Copyright 2016. Gary Kittle.
1. CRUSTRACEANS by Andrew Cowan (2000)
A father revisiting a small coastal resort on his son's sixth birthday doesn't sound terribly enthralling, but as you read on it soon becomes apparent there is something else going on here. For would-be writers this is a masterclass in slowly revealing a secret that you both want to discover and are afraid to in equal measure. Cowan is a true craftsman, and it's no surprise he teaches creative writing at UEA. The narrator's voice is both down to earth and poetic; and although you start to glimpse the truth in the last lap of the story, it is no less devestating when it hits you. In some ways this book is not unlike Nathan Filer's much acclaimed Shock of the Fall. But though I enjoyed Filer's debut I still rate Crustaceans the better book. For men wanting to get in touch with their femanine side, for women seeking hope that not all men are immature oafs, this is a book that touches the heart. If it doesn't, then quite frankly you don't have one. Outstanding.
2. YOUNG ADOLF by Beryl Bainbridge (1978)
Yes, Hitler really did have relatives living in Liverpool, and yes it is plausible that he visited them around 1912. What follows, then, is a wonderfully imagined portrait of what such a visit may have been like. The fact that we know what Hitler would go on to become but his fictional relatives are clueless about is briliantly exploited by Brainbridge. That the narrative can make you frown with constenation and laugh out loud in the same paragraph is testament to Bainbridge's talent as a storyteller. On a more serious note the book does highlight the Achilles' heel of democracy, in allowing literally any Tom, Dick or Adolf to run for and be elected as head of state. Young Adolf is a nervous wreck, a dreamer, a failure with an almost epilectic temper. He seems destined for the gutter or prison. But as we now know the First World War changed all that. It's a very short book with a very big message and one of the best closing lines ever. That this imbecile ruled the whole of Europe and was invited to do so by one of the most cultured races in history remains one of humanity's darkest legacies. All you can do is laugh, really.
3. THE DEATH OF IVAN ILYCH by Leo Tolstoy (1886)
Another story about death, but I'm not depressed, honestly. A successful middle-aged judge living the high life injures himself in an innocuous fall from a ladder. But he doesn't get better, and as his pain deepens he slides into serious illness. No one seems to know what's wrong with him and he begins to entertain the idea that he might die. Thus the novella explores Ilych's existential agonies as he struggles with the inevitability of death and the meaning of life. Not an easy read subject wise (much of Ilych's final days are spent screaming), the writing itself is beautiful and beguiling. I once considered enrolling on a creative writing course, but the reading list didn't have a single Russian writer so I didn't bother. I love reading Tolstoy, though I'm probably not intellectual enough to appreciate every literary level. Is War and Peace the greatest novel ever written? Tolstoy's only rival for that crown is himself (Anna Kerenin), which in a way says it all. Masterful.
4. SPIES by Michael Frayn (2002)
The best of both worlds: an intriguing plot with strong characters and written with quality prose. This may be set during the war but there's no hint of rationing when it comes to the important elements of fiction. Some of the misinterpretations of adult life by the child characters are priceless. Never comic, the novel still causes the occasional smile, just to relieve the tension of the developing plot. But it's not gloomy or pessimistic, either. And the book certainly never lapses into self-indulgence or metaphysical self-absorption. This is a serious book, but one that has a pulse for sure, proving that you can entertain and provoke thought at the same time. Overall, then, a very satisfying novel and one worthy of Whitbread Novel of the Year for 2002.
5. DAY OF THE TRIFFIDS by John Wyndham (1951)
When a book has been permanently in print for sixty-four years you know it must be seriously good. ..
I've read it three or four times. The language can be dated and some of the sexual politics are indicative of an earlier, less-enlighted era; but for all that it's a cracking flight of the imagination. With numerous manifestations on film, tv and radio this is a story that unsettles us by the speed with which disaster overtakes humanity and the unpredictable set of circumstances that the disaster springs from. A cracking yarn, then, but also a stark reminder of how easily nature could 'take us out' overnight.
6. BRIGHTON ROCK by Graham Greene (1938)
How many times have I read this dark thriller filled with dangerous, crazy and courageous characters? So much more than a gangster story, it can still be enjoyed as such, if that's your bag. But there is a lot of subtext lurking behind the weapons and menace. Love, morality, loyalty all get cameo roles - or maybe not; maybe it's the money and the straight razors that are the bit part players. Maybe you should just read it again, just to be on the safe side.
7. THE SECRET IN THEIR EYES by Eduardo Sacheri (2005)
Yes, it's that old chestnut again: which is better, the book or the film? I saw the film first. By that, of course, I mean the original Oscar-winning Argentinian version. But people kept recommending the book (which came out first, incidently), so eventually I decided to give it a go. Obviously, there are many close similarities between book and film, but the endings are different, which was a pleasant surprise. The story's great strength is, I think, that it isn't one story at all, but two. This is both a crime thriller and a love story; both threads woven through the narrative with great skill and subtlety by Sacheri. So, my verdict? Have I seen the film more than once? Yes. Will I read the book again with great affection? Yes. Will I ever be able to decide which is the greater artistic achievement? Almost certainly, never.
Take my advice: fall in love with both - it would be a crime to do otherwise.
8. SATURDAY by Ian McEwan (2005)
There are many examples of novels that confine themselves to the events of a single day. The most recent was longlisted for this year's Booker Prize by fellow Wivenhovian, A.L. Kennedy. Many of them struggle to hold the reader's attention, given their necessary propensity to describe the finer details of 'a life in a day'. Not so this novel, which is on one level literary fiction, but on another reads like a thriller. The best way I can describe it, therefore, is a literary thriller (though I'm sure the author would be horrified to hear it called that). And there's a lot going on in central character Henry Perowne's life on this particular Saturday. The book examines the relationship between the haves and the have nots, the sick and the well, the loved and the unloved, the fortunate and the damned. Despite these profound topics, there is a tension in the narrative that keeps the reader's fingers turning the pages.
Maybe we would all benefit from a 'Saturday', to make us stop and think about who and what we are.
9. THE CASUAL VACANCY by J. K. Rowling (2012)
Pagford is a very different literary invention to Hogwarts, but one inhabited by no less believable characters and a page turning plot. I didn't enjoy her detective novels, I must admit, but this was a wonderful read, full of tension, humour and tragedy. More of the same is on the way, so I hear.