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  • Tuesday Top Ten -- John Farndon

    Tue, 09 Feb 2010 01:43


    A graduate of Jesus College Cambridge, John Farndon is the author of many books on contemporary issues, including China Rises, India Booms, Bird Flu and Iran.

    He also writes widely for children, including the bestselling Do Not Open, and he has been short-listed a unique four times for the Royal Society Junior Science Book. In his spare time, he writes plays, musicals and songs, and songs of his have been selected for the Sondheim singing prize for each of its three years. His play The Naked Guest with translations of Pushkin's poems was listed for the 2009 Academia Rossica Russian translation prize. Do You Think You're Clever? The Oxbridge Questions is his most recent book.

    Here is John's Tuesday Top Ten:

    The Strange Death of Liberal England by George Dangerfield

    This is one of the great history books, a book that is still brilliantly readable, informative and relevant 80 years after it was written. It tells the gripping story of how the Liberal government of Asquith, elected with a huge popular mandate came to grief in the face of three movements for social change -- the women's movement, the Irish independence movement and trade unionism. What is most enlightening is just how utterly ruthless the Tory establishment and their friends in the army were in defending their interests at the expense of Britain's elected government -- setting in train the tragedy of Northern Ireland.

    Natasha's Dance: A Cultural History of Russia by Orlando Figes

    Russia still remains an alien, enigmatic place to many of us in the west, yet its cultural impact has been huge, through the works of authors like Tolstoy and Chekhov, composers like Tchaikovksy and Rachmaninov. From the outside, the achievements seem impressive fascinating and profound enough, but Orlando Figes' book shows that from inside Russia, the story is even more remarkable and engrossing.

    Cloudstreet by Tim Winton

    This to my mind, quite simply, a classic of our times. A seemingly simple tale of an oddball family on the wrong side of the tracks in Perth, Australia, it has all the freewheeling invention and the weight of emotion of a Steinbeck. It's funny, moving and enthralling.

    The Lives of the Great Composers by Harold C. Schonberg

    Harold C. Schonberg was music critic for the New York Times, and this book brims with his clear, witty and insightful writing. It is a wonderful introduction to classical music told through brief life stories of the great composers.

    The Genius of Shakespeare by Jonathan Bate

    Jonathan Bate is one of the leading scholars on Shakespeare and a great communicator. This book has none of the startling revelations about the Bard that other books have provided, but it brilliantly explains why Shakespeare is so revered and how attitudes to his work have evolved. It would work well read with Bill Bryson's recent very brief biography. Mind you, even better to read the sonnets or see a great production of 'Macbeth' or 'Twelfth Night'.

    Big Bang: The Most Important Scientific Discovery of All Time and Why You Need to Know About it by Simon Singh

    The story of our growing understanding of the Universe and how it came to be is one of the great stories of scientific discovery -- and the Big Bang theory remains at the very frontier of scientific research. Singh unfolds the historical background in a beautifully clear, comprehensive and readable way.

    Pushkin by T.J. Binyon

    I love Pushkin's poetry. It is so witty, insightful and emotionally rich, and poems like Winter Sun are exhilirating. Pushkin is to Russians what Shakespeare is to the English. In fact, maybe even more so, since many Russian children growing up knowing and even loving his poems. It is hard to appreciate this in English, but Binyon's entertaining and brilliantly-researched biography at least helps you understand just what is that Russians find so fascinating about both the poems and the man, who died aged just 38 in a duel over his young wife, reputedly the most beautiful woman in Russia.

    The Major Works by Gerard Manley Hopkins

    Hopkins poetry is extraordinary. He had his own unique ideas on how the inner essence of nature was formed and upheld by what he called inscape and instress -- and he tried to recreate this in his poetry with its intricate "sprung rhythms" and alliteration, especially in beautiful short poems like The Windhover. Hopkins was a Jesuit priest, but you don't have to be religious to revel in the sheer richness and rhythm of the language -- oddly reminiscent of Shakespeare.

    The Essential Tales of Chekhov by A.P. Chekhov

    This is, I believe, the greatest collection of short stories every written. Each is a little gem. A simple scenario, briefly told -- yet with the resonance and weight of truth that most great authors fail to achieve in a giant novel. Chekhov is still known mostly for his handful of plays, but the short stories show he was a master of prose, too.

    Bleak House by Charles Dickens

    Of course, there are so many great classic novels that I like -- from those of Jane Austen, Charlotte Bronte and George Eliot to Tolstoy, Lawrence and Joyce -- but to single out one I'd say Bleak House. It's terrific story-telling that's almost impossible to put-down, with wonderful unforgettable characters -- and the description of London at the beginning is simply magnificent.

  • Today's Tuesday Top Ten is a list of the top ten forthcoming books that I'm looking forward to seeing land on my desk in the next few weeks or so...

    Whoops!: Why Everyone Owes Everyone and No One Can Pay by John Lanchester

    Novelist John Lanchester has a go at explaining the credit crunch, the differences between CDOs, CDSs and MBSs, and all the rest of the crazy economic stuff that seems both vital to our lives and, yet, strangely distant from them.

    Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer

    Novelist Foer presents the "gut-wrenching truth about the price paid by the environment, the government, the Third World and the animals themselves in order to put meat on our tables more quickly and conveniently than ever before."

    Point Omega by Don Delillo

    Don Delillo, one of the modern masters of the American novel, is back: "In the middle of a desert 'somewhere south of nowhere', to a forlorn house made of metal and clapboard, a secret war adviser has gone in search of space and time. Richard Elster, seventy-three, was a scholar -- an outsider -- when he was called to a meeting with government war planners. For two years he tried to make intellectual sense of the troop deployments, counterinsurgency, orders for rendition. He was to map the reality these men were trying to create..."

    Gandhi by Jad Adams

    I'm excited about this one, and told: "This new biography not only traces the outline of an extraordinary life with exemplary clarity, but also examines why Mahatma Gandhi and his teachings are still profoundly relevant today."

    This Party's Got to Stop by Rupert Thomson

    Excellent novelist Rupert Thomson turns his hand to what looks like it might be the stand-out memoir of the coming year: "On a warm, sunny day in July 1964, Thomson returned home from school to discover that his mother had died suddenly while playing tennis. Twenty years later, Thomson and his brothers get word that their father has died alone in hospital. This title works Thomson's memories into a mosaic that reveals the fragility of family life in graphic detail."

    Van Gogh: His Life and Work by Tim Hilton

    The first definitive and full biography of Vincent van Gogh -- the man as well as the artist: "Vincent van Gogh is one of the world's greatest artists. He produced almost 2,000 paintings, drawings and watercolours within a ten-year period. Yet until now no definitive biography of him has ever been written, the truth of his life overshadowed by the myth that has surrounded him since his suicide."

    What Darwin Got Wrong by Jerry Fodor

    I have not time whatsoever for Creationist or Intelligent Design arguments, but I'm led to believe that Fodor is doing something more interesting here with a book that promises to reveals "major flaws at the heart of Darwinian evolutionary theory." There should be a lot of debate when this lands...

    Parrot and Olivier in America by Peter Carey

    Carey is back: "Olivier is a French aristocrat, the traumatized child of survivors of the Revolution. Parrot the son of an itinerant printer who always wanted to be an artist but has ended up a servant. Born on different sides of history, their lives will be brought together by their travels in America. When Olivier sets sail for the New World, ostensibly to study its prisons but in reality to save his neck from one more revolution -- Parrot is sent with him, as spy, protector, foe and foil."

    The Wrecking Light by Robin Robertson

    Robin Robertson's fourth collection is, if anything, an "even more intense, moving, bleakly lyrical, and at times shocking book than Swithering, winner of the Forward Prize. These poems are written with the authority of classical myth, yet sound utterly contemporary: the poet's gaze -- whether on the natural world or the details of his own life - is unflinching and clear, its utter seriousness leavened by a wry, dry and disarming humour..."

    Chopin by Adam Zamoyski

    A completely new edition of the definitive biography of Chopin, unavailable for many years, by one of the finest of contemporary European historians. "Two centuries have passed since Chopin's birth, yet his legacy is all around us today. The quiet revolution he wrought influenced the development of Western music profoundly, and he is still probably the most widely studied and revered composer..."

  • Floella Benjamin wrote her first book in 1979 as part of a Playschool set. She has since gone on to write over 20 books from picture books to cookery books. Floella says that the book that has meant the most to her is "Coming to England which I wrote 15 years ago, because I have not only left a historic account of my childhood for my children but it has helped to purge the unhappy episode of my time in Britain. I adapted the book into a film for the BBC and it won an RTS Award."

    Floella appeared on Playschool from 1976 to 1988 and has worked with and for children ever since then, campaigning on their behalf. She received an OBE for my work in broadcasting and an honorary doctorate from the University of Exeter for her work with children. She is now the Chancellor of the University of Exeter.

    Jonathan Livingston Seagull by Richard Bach

    A brilliant short novel, which can easily be read in an afternoon. It is immensely inspiring and motivating, it's simple message is that we must all strive for perfection and push our own boundaries. It should be read by everyone, but especially by stroppy teenagers.

    The Island of Sheep by John Buchan

    Most people are familiar with Buchan's classic The Thirty Nine Steps but I like this thriller more, because it's got children in it and probably the first ever car chase in literature...

    The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett

    I have to admit that Ken Follet is a friend of mine, but even if he wasn't I would still love this epic book which is set in the 12th century around the building of a cathedral. It's the ideal book to take on holiday. The story is a sweeping tale full of passion which leaves you exhausted yet emotionally stimulated

    Where is Everybody? by Stephen Webb

    If the Universe Is Teeming with Aliens... Where Is Everybody? -- Fifty Solutions to the Fermi Paradox and the Problem of Extraterrestrial Life. I love this book because it is an amusing yet thought provoking way of finding out about the universe and everything, it's a sort of easy introduction to cosmology.

    Dreams from my Father by Barack Obama

    My family motto is "Who would have thought?" because whenever we find ourselves doing something we would never have dreamt of we look back at our beginnings and say "Who would have thought?" This book was written long before Barack Obama ever thought of becoming President of the United States of America, and as I read the book I kept saying over and over again, "Who would have thought..."

    England their England by A.G. Macdonell

    I so want to make this book into a film, it is one of the funniest books ever written, although it helps to understand the historical period in which it is set which is the 1920s. I love recognising the almost caricature like characters in the book, some of them still exist in far flung corners of England today.

    The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time by Mark Haddon

    This is one of those books which when you try to describe it you find yourself floundering for words. The really important aspect of it is that the main character suffers from Asperger's, a form of autism. This is what makes this book so unique and as well as being a thoroughly good read it gives us a real insight into this often misunderstood syndrome. Brilliant.

    Roots by Alex Haley

    When this book was published in 1976 it caused a sensation firstly in the USA and then in the UK and the rest of the world. It exposed the horror of slavery to millions of people both black and white, in a way which shocked and horrified those who perhaps had never understood the true nature of the black holocaust. Hayley fictionalised the slave experience and helped us to understand it.

    I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou

    First part of Maya Angelou's six part autobiography. This was a really inspirational book for me and it had a great influence on me as a black woman. Maya Angelou is a survivor and for me a symbol of perseverance. I love the way she writes because I can hear her voice as I read the text.

    The Godfather by Mario Puzo

    I remember reading this when I went on my first holiday to Spain, and I literally couldn't put it down. The epic story of the Corleone dynasty is totally gripping and breathtaking in its description of the intricacies of the mafia is both informative and thrilling. I still watch the film whenever it's on TV but the book is still the best way to soak up this brilliant story.

  • Tuesday Top Ten -- Rita Gerlach

    Tue, 22 Dec 2009 01:27


    Rita Gerlach lives with her husband and two sons in a historical town nestled along the Catoctin Mountains, amid Civil War battlefields and Revolutionary War outposts, in central Maryland. Surrender the Wind is her fourth inspirational historical romance.

    The True and Authentic History of Jenny Dorset by Philip Lee Williams

    Mr. Williams' story is filled with rollicking humor, wit, and wisdom. Vividly written, the reader is drawn into 18th century Charleston, and into the lives of two families, the Dorsets and the Symthes. Each and every character is memorable. You will laugh and cry reading this book. It has a permanent place in my personal library. I loved it so much, I rushed out and bought several copies to give to friends and family.

    The Prayers of Agnes Sparrow by Joyce Magnin

    Agnes is one of a kind. There is no one else like her in the small Pennsylvania town where she lives with her dutiful sister. A prayerful woman with a heart as big as her body, her prayers for others are answered causing the some of the leaders of the town to want to erect first a billboard, then a statue, all of which Agnes wants nothing of it. A stranger arrives and changes everything.

    Daughter of Liberty by J.M. Hochstetler

    Set in 1775 Boston, twenty-year-old Elizabeth Howard lives a life shrouded in secrets as the American Revolution is peeking to a fevered pitch. Elizabeth is torn between her parent's loyalty to the King and her loyalty to America's Glorious Cause, when she meets and falls in love with a British Major. Lots of action and romance.

    The Red Siren by Marylu Tyndall

    Marylu Tyndall's novel is a fun and exciting read. It's not the same-ole-same-ole romance novel. A fiery redheaded heroine, a courageous hero. Pirates. The search for plunder. Sea battles. It has all the elements of a classic pirate tale, except the pirate our hero is pursuing is a woman! The Red Siren!

    In The Shadow of the Sun King by Golden Keyes Parsons

    An engaging debut novel, set in 17th century France. A story of intolerance and violence, hardship and despair, Ms. Parsons' heroine, Madeleine Clavell, portrays a brave and selfish woman who fights to save her family from religious persecution.

    Before the Season Ends by Linore Rose Burkhard

    A novel written for the Jane Austen soul, Before the Season Ends is a charming Regency romance that draws you into a world of English high society. The heroine, Ariana Forsythe, is a typical English young lady, but one with strong religious devotion who will cannot wed her suitor, the man she loves, until he has given his heart and soul to another -- Ariana's Lord and Savior.

    Dream West by David Nevin

    Dream West is one of the best novels I have ever read. It is powerfully and skillfully written. The story is based on truth about the brave men and women who forged westward. Dream West will move you, inspire you, and enrich your knowledge of America's history.

    Year of Wonders by Geraldine Brooks

    Ms. Brooks' masterful story of heartbreak, death, and fear takes place in a time where life was far more fragile than today. Year of Wonder is a haunting, thought provoking tale of a woman's mental and physical survival against the plague after her husband and two children, succumb to it. I enjoyed that the book was written from a woman's perspective, and based on true historical facts. Vivid imagery.

    Smugglers Moon by Bruce Alexander

    I love the characters in Bruce Alexander's series. I could not put this book down. It draws you in from the start, and transports you back in time to a century filled with mystery, intrigue, and suspense. It is authentic in the dialogue and vivid in imagery.

    A Distant Flame by Philip Lee Williams

    A well-written novel about the life of a Tennessee sharpshooter. It is uniquely written in a style that takes the reader from the days of Charlie Merrill hardships to his old age. A good read with lots of history and characters that seem to live and breath off the pages.

  • Not long left to pick out those last minute Christmas presents. Here are ten books that will always be gladly received...

    Austerity Britain, 1945-1951 by David Kynaston

    The best history book of the past decade? Difficult one to argue, but it gets our vote.

    Halo Encyclopedia

    For the gamer in your life... The definitive guide to the halo universe.

    Eats, Shoots and Leaves by Lynne Truss

    The book that made punctuation sexy! Funny and informative. 3 million readers can't be wrong.

    The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins

    Despite sometimes acting as if he'd invented atheism and despite mostly coming off like a precocious sixth-former who has just seen through the delusions of his elders and betters, Dawkins unarguably got a lot of people talking the role of religion in our lives.

    The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time by Mark Haddon

    Understandable, one of the best-loved books of the past decade. The book's 'hero', Christopher Boone, has Asperger's, but Haddon makes it clear that he's no more or less confused about our complex world than the rest of us!

    A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson

    Travel writer Bill Bryson shows us his inner polymath and explains, well, nearly everything!

    The Letters of Samuel Beckett: 1929-1940

    Finally, publication of the hugely important -- and compelling, funny, informative and vital -- letters of one of the most important writers of the Twentieth Century. Essential.

    Meltdown by Paul Mason

    Financially-speaking, 2009 was bonkers! The BBC's Paul Mason explains it all more clearly than anyone in his excellent Meltdown.

    The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson

    The first book in Larsson's ubiquitous Millennium Trilogy. Probably the best crime book you'll read this decade.

    Pride and Prejudice and Zombies by Seth Grahame-Smith

    It started the mash-up books trend and, as so often is the case, the original is the best. The genius title alone was enough to ensure it's cult status.

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