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  • Tuesday Top Ten -- Kate North

    Tue, 17 Mar 2009 03:44

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    Kate North's novel, Eva Shell, is told in a variety of media including poetry, text messages, diary entries and letters. Her poetry can be read in Not A Muse and Pterodactyl's Wing. She writes reviews, articles and interviews for a variety of magazines and journals. She currently lives and teaches in Gloucestershire.

    The First Person and Other Stories by Ali Smith

    I'm a huge Ali Smith fan and this is her latest short story collection. When I encounter a Smith story I feel like I learn something new about the craft of storytelling each time. She is particularly adept at creating intimate spaces so that when reading, it almost feels like a whisper in the ear. My favourite story in this collection is Writ. In it the middle-aged narrator encounters her 14-year-old self and spends the afternoon with her. It is laugh-out-loud funny but Smith also addresses the more sombre themes of personal validation and the release from social expectation.

    Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell

    I've been impressed with all of Mitchell's novels and this is my favourite of the lot so far. It's a big read it many ways. With six discreet narrators from different periods and places, Mitchell crafts a narrative that takes us from the 19th century to the imagined post-apocalyptic future. The stories are delivered in halves and they merge into each other with the energy of waves. Many of his characters are simultaneously annoying and captivating, an achievement I find fascinating. He also swoops with skill across genre from science fiction and futuristic dystopias to crime and comedy.

    The Broken Word by Adam Foulds

    Set in 1950s Kenya, in the midst of the Mau Mau uprising, this novella in verse approaches the period that marked the end of British colonial rule. We follow the main character, Tom, as he arrives from school to spend time at home with his family before leaving for university in Britain. We are led through his time serving as a prison guard in what has been described as Britain's Gulag into which the majority of the Kikuyu population were driven. The journey ends in Oxford where, although thousands of miles away from Kenya, Foulds demonstrates that the legacy of such activity and experience is almost viral and certainly timeless. This collection was both hard and easy to read. In terms of pace and structure it felt a breeze, but in terms of the subject matter it made me feel terribly alone with knowledge. This is the collection's strength and it doesn't surprise me that Foulds was recently named Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year.

    The Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology by Onions, Friedrichsen, Burchfield (editors)

    I find the roots and origins of words endlessly fascinating. Did you know that 'buxom' once meant 'to bend' or 'obedient'? Or that the root of 'umbrella' comes from the Greek ómbros meaning shade before maiking its way through the Latin picking up an 'ella'. Or even that the humble and inoffensive 'nice' once meant 'ignorant', 'wanton' or 'shy'. Words carry stories and histories in and of themselves. This -- or The Shorter Oxford -- would probably be my desert island choice.

    The Passion by Jeanette Winterson

    This is Winterson's third novel and I love the gutsy dynamism of her characters along with the lyric sensibility of her description. Concentrating on the love affair between Napoleon's cook and a gondolier with webbed feet, Winterson explores the nature of desire, where and why it springs forth, how it is pursued and for whom. Venice is the perfect setting with its labyrinthine layout, full of mystery and surprises.

    The Castle of Crossed Destinies by Italo Calvino

    Set in a castle in the heart of a forest lost travellers come together only to find they have lost the power of speech. They communicate and tell their life stories through the means of a set of tarot cards. This was a project that Calvino worked on for years seeking to express the entire wealth of stories that could be found within a deck of tarot cards. Not only is it a meditation on the nature and history of storytelling itself, the tales he conjures draw on many influences from Faust to De Sade, but it is also a meditation on the distinction between word (spoken/unspoken) and image. I would certainly recommend anything by Calvino but this remains my favourite.

    The Lamplighter by Jackie Kay

    I've been a fan of Jackie Kay since her debut poetry collection The Adoption Papers. The Lamplighter is a dramatic poem written to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the abolition of the slave trade.

    The narrative focuses on the lives of four women. Through these characters, Kay tells of forced separation, violence, sexual exploitation, resistance, survival and the way memory keeps such experiences present. In taking this course Kay does not negate the inherent complications and contradictions that arise when approaching such an expansive history. The reader is forced to confront the necessity of remembering, along with the pain of doing so. Thematically, the presence of absence roars through the work and Kay is adept at ensuring we never forget the very physical repercussions of events that are often supposed to have dissolved with time.

    Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf

    This is a book I have turned to throughout my writing life. Several well-used copies of it have disintegrated in my hands. For me it was one of those epiphany books. The first time I read it I remember thinking, "That's how you 'create' a voice."

    We follow Clarissa Dalloway, wife of an MP, as she makes preparations for a party she is throwing that night. Woolf's stream of consciousness narration delivers Clarissa's whims, neuroses, memories of youth, love and loss with impeccable immediacy. Woolf also develops a relationship between Clarissa and Septimus (a war veteran suffering from shell shock) that that builds to display an unexpected synergy in their separate existences.

    Decreation by Anne Carson

    I admire Anne Carson's writing immensely. She traverses generic form with confidence and this collection consists of poetry, essays and an opera. She is capable of exploring the most complex emotional and intellectual concerns with sophisticated exactness. In this collection she uses the term 'decreation' taken from the French philosopher Simone Weil, meaning an 'undoing of the creature inside us'. Here Carson explores the limits of the self, how they define and confine us. She is also known for using, as characters in her work, those authors with whom she identifies a legacy. She treats them as friends and colleagues. In doing so she makes me consider the nature of interpretation and the inherited meaning that slips into my work.

    Larousse Gastronomique by Prosper Montagne

    This is the ultimate food bible. An encyclopaedia of culinary information, anyone who is interested in food should have a copy. It talks you through all the classical French recipes and techniques and also breaks down food and ingredients according to country. It even has a section on donkey. I use this regularly in my kitchen and flip through it when I just want to imagine I'm elsewhere with good friends, food and wine.

  • Tuesday Top Ten -- L.C. Tyler

    Tue, 10 Mar 2009 05:15

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    L.C. Tyler grew up in Essex and studied geography at Jesus College Oxford. His first novel, The Herring Seller's Apprentice, was published by Macmillan New Writing in 2007. During a career with the British Council he lived in Malaysia, Sudan, Thailand and Denmark. More recently he has been based in Islington and West Sussex. He is married and has two children and one dog.

    Len says:

    "Top ten books? Sounds like a simple task. After all, most of us have been asked this question before in one form or another. As ever, however, the problem is how to reduce the list to ten, when so many books are clamouring for inclusion. Ask me again tomorrow and it may be a different list entirely. As somebody famously once said: "Do I contradict myself? Very well then, I contradict myself." (And I can't even find space for him in the list below...)"

    The Card by Arnold Bennett

    The ultimate feel-good novel, in my view. The very likable but "not intellectual, not industrious" Denry Machin becomes, with only minor setbacks, richer and richer and happier and happier, until he eventually becomes mayor of Bursley. "With what great cause is he identified with?" asks somebody at the end of the book. "With the great cause of cheering us all up," is the reply.

    Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas by Hunter S Thompson

    I read this first at university. Returning to it years later, I expected to find it unfunny and in poor taste. After all, a drug- and alcohol-fuelled journey across the American west... But no, the writing still comes across just as fresh and original and outrageous as ever. Great stuff.

    The Spy Who Came in From the Cold by John le Carre

    Le Carre's best spy novel, set at the height of the Cold War. The plot is almost perfect, the denouement brilliant.

    Full Moon by P.G. Wodehouse

    I had to have a P.G. Wodehouse novel in my list, though I'd be the first to admit that it is sometimes difficult in retrospect to separate one from another. This is a classic Blandings novel with the usual cast. Full of lines like: "A lovely girl needs of course no jewels but her youth and charm, but anyone who had wanted to make Veronica understand that would have had to work like a Beaver."

    A House for Mr Biswas by V.S. Naipaul

    Again, this single book needs to stand for many others by Naipaul. A House for Mr Biswas is a mammoth tragi-comedy about a reporter in colonial Trinidad. In a sense, this book is a mirror image of The Card -- Mohun Biswas is man of genuine talent, struggling to find his place; the house is a symbol of his ambitions. A memorable story, movingly and unsentimentally told.

    Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh

    Here's another author that I could not have left out of my list. I might have opted for "Decline and Fall" or "Black Mischief" or "Scoop". But Brideshead is Waugh at his very best. Superficially, this is a very funny book -- and it is the Oxford scenes and teddy bears that tend to get remembered -- but tragedy and loss are never far beneath the surface. There is of course the tragedy of Sebastian, but the two or three lines in which Charles Ryder rejects his own children are, for me, some of the saddest Waugh ever wrote.

    Fever Pitch by Nick Hornby

    A life retold as a series of football matches at Highbury and elsewhere. Staggeringly original. Possibly the best book on football ever, but much more than just a football book. And it's about the best team in North London.

    The Nine Tailors by Dorothy L Sayers

    As a crime writer (mainly) myself, I could hardly avoid including a few crime novels, including at least one from the Golden Age. This is a classic Lord Peter Wimsey mystery. I enjoyed it almost as much for what you learn about change-ringing as for plot, but it's a well-told detective story with a good twist at the end.

    Aberystwyth Mon Amour by Malcolm Pryce

    Great comic crime set in (obviously) Aberystwyth. Very funny. Very dark.

    The Time Traveller's Wife by Audrey Niffenegger

    This is vastly more than "romance meets science fiction". Clare and Henry's story is beautifully plotted and the ending is almost unbearably moving.

  • Tuesday Top Ten -- Doug Johnstone

    Tue, 03 Mar 2009 05:03

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    Doug Johnstone is a writer, journalist and musician based in Edinburgh. He's had two novels published, Tombstoning and The Ossians, which have received acclaim from Ian Rankin, Irvine Welsh and Christopher Brookmyre. Doug's band, Northern Alliance, have released four albums, and he also released music as The Ossians to tie in with the novel.

    Doug says:

    "Here are my favourite ten books. Just reading through this list after I'd written it, I realised it's bleak as hell! Violence, apocalypse, torture, psychos, amoral desolation and madness. That's the stuff, eh?"

    Trainspotting by Irvine Welsh

    I was completely blown away when this came out. I was in my early twenties, living in Edinburgh and taking lots of drugs (not heroin!), and it seemed like it was written directly for me. I knew people like Spud, Renton and even Begbie. The book was scary and funny, full of energy, just irresistible. The fact that non-Scots struggled to read the vernacular only made it more special.

    The Wasp Factory by Iain Banks

    Banks has written more ambitious books, but this had the biggest impact on me. The mother of all dysfunctional families live in recluse on Scotland's east coast (where I grew up) and get up to some unbelievable sh*t. Lots of animals are tortures and killed. Many critics thought this was the death of literature when published, I thought it was genius.

    Preston Falls by David Gates

    Gates is hugely underrated, I think. An American writer, he's had two novels and a book of stories published. This second novel is the finest example of narrative voice I think I've ever read. It's about a middle-aged advertising executive having a breakdown as he tries to do up a house in the backwoods of New York State, but it's absolutely hilarious at the same time as his life is falling apart.

    Senseless by Stona Fitch

    Another massively underrated American novelist, this was published in the States on 9/11, 2001. It's about an American businessman kidnapped on the streets of Belgium and tortured by shady extremists for 40 days, the whole thing broadcast on the internet. It's incredibly violent but jam-packed with ideas as well, about consumerism, globalisation, terrorism, all sorts of stuff.

    The Road by Cormac McCarthy

    The absolute pinnacle of McCarthy's career, this book had me crying at the end. A dismal post-apocalyptic world, a father and son, a struggle for survival, it is utterly compelling and frightening and moving and just beautifully written. Not for the faint hearted.

    Where I'm Calling From by Raymond Carver

    My dad bought me this complete collection of Carver's stories when I was about 21 and it totally changed my life. I couldn't believe the meaning and emotion and tension he could squeeze into the space between words. Often the stories are seemingly about nothing, but they contain profound truths about the human condition and our relationships with each other.

    The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson

    Pretty much the basis for all Scottish literature today, and still remarkably contemporary today. The classic duality of human nature has never been more clearly or succinctly written about. Groundbreaking at the time, still amazing.

    Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk

    If there's one idea for a book I wish I'd had, it's this one. Emasculated men fight each other to regain their sense of identity -- that's the stuff. Also, sh*tloads more ideas about modern society, and a classic update of Jekyll & Hyde thrown in for good measure.

    Less Than Zero by Bret Easton Ellis

    I'd read a few of his novels but only got round to reading his debut recently and it's amazing. A brutal depiction of the vacuousness of L.A. life amongst the affluent Eighties set, it makes you despair at what can happen to society when money is no object and morals have flown out the window.

    Bright Lights, Big City by Jay McInerney

    Another famous debut I only just got round to reading, this fantastic coming of age in New York is a blueprint for hundreds of similar debuts over the next two decades. Wide-eyed wonder meets youthful cynicism in a precisely shambolic but brilliant piece of prose.

  • Tuesday Top Ten -- Andy Secombe

    Tue, 24 Feb 2009 06:08

    Andy Secombe is the elder son of the late Sir Harry Secombe, the legendary entertainer. Before turning his hand to writing, he worked as an actor, and most recently gave voice to Watto in the Star Wars movie prequels. Andy is married to Caroline Bliss, also a former actor, who starred as Miss Moneypenny in the James Bond movies starring Timothy Dalton. Andy and Caroline live with their children in St. Newlyn in Cornwall. Looking for Mr Piggy-Wig is Andy's fifth novel. His previous works are Limbo, Limbo II, Last House in the Galaxy and Endgame.

    Pickwick Papers by Charles Dickens

    Dickens at his most playful. The book has such heart and spirit it's impossible not to love.

    Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien

    The yardstick by which contemporary fantasy fiction is still judged. A colossus.

    The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame

    This book seems to split public opinion more than almost any other: you're either a Wind in the Willows person or you're not. I most definitely am.

    The Glass Key by Dashiell Hammett

    Crime writing doesn't get more spare or hard-boiled than this.

    The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler

    Crime writing of a different hue -- wry, witty and human -- but none the worse for that.

    Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse

    An intelligent, wise and sensitive exploration of the true nature of spirituality. Paulo Coelho never even gets close.

    Slaughterhouse 5 by Kurt Vonnegut

    A towering work. Funny, touching and tragic by turns.

    Shakespeare: The Complete Works

    Sex, death, violence, politics, it's all here, set down by a writer touched by the hand of God.

    Right Ho, Jeeves by P.G. Wodehouse

    Anything by this wonderful writer can be summed up in one word: blissful.

    Excalibur by Bernard Cornwell

    I'm a sucker for a good historical novel, and Cornwell is one of the greatest exponents of the genre, vividly bringing the dark ages to life in this, the climax to his magnificent Arthurian trilogy: The Warlord Chronicles.

  • Tuesday Top Ten -- Julia Gregson

    Tue, 17 Feb 2009 09:42

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    Julia Gregson has worked in women's magazines in the UK, US and the Far East. She has had several serials and short stories published and read on the radio. She lives in Wales with her husband and daughter. Her latest novel is The Water Horse.

    Julia says:

    This is impossibly hard! How you read a book seems to depend on so many things: what you had for lunch; the age and mood in which you read them, whether they were served up cold as set texts for forensic examination, or read like messages in bottles in time of crisis and indecision. I've missed out some of the greats -- Middlemarch, The Rainbow, Madame Bovary -- in a list that could have gone on much longer, but here goes:

    The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

    I was nineteen years old when my boyfriend urged me to read The Great Gatsby, in his opinion, one of the finest books ever written. I longed to love it as he did, but neither liked nor understood it. Aged thirty, I read it again, this time slowly and in a state of near rapture: I'd grown into it and felt how brilliantly Fitzgerald mixes the pleasures and pains of love and obsession within its pages and the subtlety with which he evokes the hollowness of a certain kind of wealth and the agonies of snobbery.

    Herzog by Saul Bellow

    Saul Bellow was my favourite author throughout my twenties and thirties, and Herzog the book that most sticks in my mind. This account of the inner life of a Jewish intellectual who writes unsent letters to the living and the dead is a masterpiece. Intense, funny, furious, and at times, heartbreakingly sad.

    Froggie's Little Brother by Anon

    My sister and I, well fed and nicely brought up, were so utterly gripped by this dark and melodramatic tale of two London orphans struggling to survive, that we slept underneath our beds for several weeks after we read it I played the part of Benji, Froggy's little brother, who is dying of consumption. My sister was Froggy, the part time street sweeper, determined to keep Benji alive. They/we lived in a garret with only a hungry mouse for company. I'm praying it's not out of print.

    Good Behaviour by Molly Keane

    From its first hilarious and terrible chapter in which a daughter tries to con an ailing mother into eating rabbit mousse, I was entranced by this book -- a deliciously astringent look at faded gentry in Ireland. Good fun and Keane has a marvelous eye for small domestic details, and for dark and delicious character flaws.

    Light Years by James Salter

    A book that takes a marriage and describes in lyrical, sensual prose, the beauty of domestic life and then its painful breakdown. Why James Salter is not more widely celebrated is a mystery to me. I was taken so deeply inside this family that, thirty years later, I can still remember parts of it. Also, highly recommend the author's autobiography, Burning the Days.

    The Cairo Trilogy by Naguib Mahfouz

    I've only just discovered this Nobel prizewinning Egyptian author and I'm hooked. Palace Walk, the first book in this trilogy, takes you right into the heart of another family, this one living in a Cairo between the wars and still under British occupation. The pace is slow and measured, but the end result is rich and unforgettable. We come to understand the inner life of all the characters and to understand and forgive even the most unpleasant of them.

    The Runaway by Alice Munro

    She's one of the best short story writers around, and these stories are full of beautifully drawn characters. Witty, wise, unforgettable and pitch perfect.

    Seabiscuit by Laura Hillenbrand

    The true story of three men and their wonder racehorse, Seabiscuit, all of them struggling through the American Depression. Not great literature, but such a thumping good read, that it kept me up most of one night.

    Paris Stories by Mavis Gallant

    Mavis Gallant was a frequent short story writer for the New Yorker for close to fifty years. I've only just discovered her and am in awe. Many of the stories start quietly and then deliver a knockout punch.

    I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith

    The perfect escape from cold weather and crunch talk. This sparkling, funny, romantic book is like a glass of good champagne.

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