My favourite books – a lazy Friday post

Posted: August 16, 2013 in reading
Tags: , , , ,

It’s been a busy week. My level of brain function is currently somewhere between a large, sleepy dog and a pot of yoghurt. But I am determined to get on a regular schedule for this blog, so today I’m going for the first, and laziest, idea that came into my head – my all time favourite books, and why.

The Great Gatsby by F Scott Fitzgerald

This book made me do something no other book has – when I got to the end, I went straight back to the beginning and started again. It was that damn compelling. There’s a combination of intriguing characters, an intense setting that combines the familiar and the unfamiliar, and of course the flowing, elegant prose. Fitzgerald manages to be both poetic and minimalist, putting in beautiful imagery but never slowing the story down. It’s an impeccable example of a deceptively straightforward story beautifully told.

Catch-22 by Joseph Heller

Heller’s story follows men from the air force bomber crews caught up in the madness, the terror, and sometimes the tedium of the American military machine during World War Two. It’s the opposite of Gatsby. It’s crazy and rambling and full of weird details. Events are presented in ways that fracture chronology but heighten the drama and emotion. It’s both funny and bleak, neither focussing on nor ignoring the horrors of war, and it isn’t afraid to show the absurdity that abounds even in such a serious situation. The characters are wildly over the top, perfectly sane people driven to acts of madness by their circumstances, and I love every one of them.

The Saga of the Exiles by Julian May

A four book series that combines epic fantasy with sci-fi in a thrilling story of power, freedom, and the search for purpose. It’s got everything – action, adventure, intrigue, and moments of calm contemplation. There are sworddIt explores issues of religion and human destiny without laying it on too thick. The plot is complex and compelling, and shows how, with well developed characters, a story doesn’t need to chose between being character or plot focused – the one will drive the other. I seldom read a book more than once, especially one that 400+ pages, but I’ve read this series three times.

And you?

What are your favourite books? Give me some recommendations below. Let me know what your favourites are and why. Even if it’s a book that others dismiss, what makes you passionate about it?

  1. Gareth Marklew says:

    Bleak House, Charles Dickens.
    Even today, there are few authors who can match Dickens’ wordcraft. With a few words he could paint a picture of a scene or character that’s instantly recognisable and always memorable, but in Bleak House you get something more. You get Dickens at his angriest, Dickens the radical reformer who had known grinding poverty in his youth, and you can feel the force and fury in his writing as he excoriates the comfortable establishment of mid 19th century society, it’s ignorance of the position of the poor, and the ruinous, self indulgent excesses of the legal system. Whenever I hear the expression that “Words have power”, I always think of. Bleak House, and Dicken’s furious declamation, “Dead…and dying thus about us every day!”, and know exactly what the expression means.
    The book also features one of the great early literary detectives, the stolid, kindly and indefatigable Inspector Bucket, and, of course spontaneous human combustion, just in case anybody was getting bored.

    • The only Dickens I’ve ever read is the Christmas stories – they made us read Hardy instead of Dickens for our dense Victorian novel at high school. But reading Dickens feels particularly appropriate in the current political, social and economic climate, so it’s definitely going on the list. Thanks for the recommendation!

  2. I have problems with favourites, but these are the books that come to mind right now. Ask again in a few days, and I might come up with a different list 🙂

    The Hunt for Red October by Tom Clancy: An excellent, tense thriller. It’s realistic (although I discovered recently that Typhoon submarines have a sauna and swimming pool, neither of which feature in the book 😉 )

    The Losing Role by Steve Anderson: This was the first ebook I read after I bought a Kindle. It’s self-published, and frankly, excellent. It’s the story of Max, a German who is recruited to pose as a US army soldier during the Battle of the Bulge in WWII. I’ve since read all his other books, and am impatiently waiting for the sequel to this one.

    Dune by Frank Herbert: Possibly my favourite book. I’ve read it and the sequels several times. I’ve read the Dune Encyclopedia. The only fan fiction I’ve ever read was set in the Dune universe. The sheer scale of the setting blows my mind. I’ve always had the impression that Frank Herbert knew all the back-story, so if someone had asked him about the Butlerian Jihad, for instance, or how the Guild navigators came about, he’d be able to tell them.

    A Sailor of Austria: In Which, Without Really Intending to, Otto Prohaska Becomes Official War Hero No. 27 of the Habsburg Empire: This is the story of a WWI Austro-Hungarian submarine captain, told with (sometimes dark) humour. The main character finds himself in some truly bizarre situations, but then the Austro-Hungarian navy was a bizarre institution.

    The Exploits of Brigadier Gerard & The Adventures of Brigadier Gerard by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle: Short stories told from the point of view of a egotistical Napoleonic cavalry officer. Apparently they were the inspiration for the Flashman books. Gerard is convinced he’s the finest soldier ever to walk the earth, and he manages to mis-interpret things to support his view. The stories are wonderfully funny.

    • Good call on Dune. I stopped reading after about the third book, but the first one is so vivid, distinctive and exciting, it’s fantastic. And an incredible bit of unusual world building.

      I’ve also enjoyed some Clancy, especially Red Storm Rising. But I dread to think what he’d make of a sauna scene. Some kind of sweaty steam-room encounter described in the kind of detail he uses for the atomic explosion in Sum of All Fears – full of the physics of steam and biology of sweat – that might put me off swimming pools for life.

      • Clancy has written a sauna scene. If I remember correctly, it’s in Cardinal of the Kremlin, and it’s not too detailed.

        I reading the Sum of All Fears, and assuming something would happen to stop the nuke going off. When it did, I couldn’t put it down – if he was prepared to do that, suddenly I could believe that he would go all the way and start WWIII.

        Unfortunately, later Clancy novels just weren’t up to the same standard as the early ones.

  3. Such a hard question, and one I would probably answer differently at different times. I want to make room for “Alice in Wonderland” and “The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe”, which, along with heaps of traditional fairy stories, made me take an interest in fantasy from an early age.
    I ought to pick something by Guy Gavriel kay as I have been totally drawn into every world he has described; maybe “Tigana” is best, but it is hard to say.
    The book living in my head at present is”The Ocean at the End of the Lane”, Neil Gaiman’s new novel, which is clever and haunting and I calls me to re-read it soon.
    I feel “The Lord of the Rings” has become too familiar to nominate it here, but there are all those other Inkling’s books lined up behind me – I must re-read those by Charles Williams before I can try to pick an outstanding one.
    Then on another day I would be thinking of Jane Austen …

    • I’ve also got a soft spot for Lord of the Rings, as the book that got me into fantasy. These days I’m not enough of a fan of Tolkien’s writing style to call it a favourite, but there’s no denying his huge and largely positive influence on fantasy.

      Given that almost everything Gaiman writes is pure gold I’m sure I’ll enjoy The Ocean. There’s a beauty to his writing, and a truthfulness to his characters, that draws me in every time. American Gods is one of those books that I’d give to non-fantasy readers to try to lure them in – fantastic stuff.

      And I also have a soft spot for Pride and Prejudice, though weirdly I’ve never felt the desire to read any other Austen. It’s like that book does what it does so incredibly well that I’ll read it twice, yet that’s not something I want more of, if that makes any sense. Constant exposure to Mrs K’s Austen DVDs may be a factor there…

      And Guy Gavriel Kay’s joins much of the stuff from these comments as a ‘to read’ – I’ve not heard of his work, but that’s one heck of a recommendation.

  4. P.S. I too loved The Great Gatsby and Saga of the Exiles, but have never read Catch-22 as I don’t like reading about real war.

  5. glenatron says:

    I cannot conceive of a better fantasy novel than Mythago Wood by Robert Holdstock, except possibly for Mythago Wood when you have read it’s prequel Gate Of Ivory ( also amazing ) and understand the depth of its tragedy.

    Also I don’t think there is a greater living writer than Guy Gavriel Kay – he really doesn’t miss and if you haven’t read any of his books then Tigana, The Lions Of Al Rassan or The Sarantine Mosaic are all stunning. In fact everything I have read of his is truly outstanding – his weakest moment may be the book that won the World Fantasy Award, weirdly. Also, maximum respect for a writer of wide reaching fantasy who can tell a whole story in a single novel. A depressingly rare thing to find in the genre.

    There are very few people who can draw together literature and sci-fi like Dan Simmons, whose science fiction is awesome. I can’t speak of his horror or fantasy type stuff, but I love the Hyperion and Olympos stories.

    My favourite books of all time are the historical novels of Dorothy Dunnett – beautiful, evocative, researched to an extraordinary degree but full of life and fascinating rounded characters that she slots neatly into history so you cannot see the edges at all. Her big series, Lymond and Niccolo are both full of action and intrigue and make for fantastic reading. I really should read both again.

    • That’s two recommendations for Guy Gavriel Kay, so I’ll definitely give him a go soon. In fact, I’ve not read any of the authors you’ve mentioned, so that’s a mini reading list in itself.

      It’s weird that thing with awards, where the work a writer gets acknowledged for may not be the one that earns them the praise. It’s almost like people go ‘oops, we forgot to praise her previous works, let’s give a prize to the next one’.

  6. I’ve been wanting to reread Gatsby for ages now! 🙂

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