I was asked by the people at new book recommendation site Shepherd to share my favourite books on things I’m passionate and write about. As many of you will know, The Secret of the Tirthas is about Lizzie Jones, a teenager who inherits a magical ‘garden of rooms’ deep in the Herefordshire countryside and then discovers each of the rooms has a portal to a special place on the planet.
I always thought it would be great if you could step outside your back door and travel instantaneously to somewhere on the other side of the planet. And, of course, portals are a neat analogy for the power of the imagination.
So my first selection of books for Shepherd is my five favourite books with portals for children and young adults. They include books by Neil Gaiman and Philip Pullman and you can check them out here.
Do you like portals in books? If so, which are your favourites?
It’s getting to that time again when we like to think back over what we’ve done in the past year. Or, in the case of us bibliophiles, what we’ve read. So, once again here’s my Top Ten Books for Grown-ups that I’ve read in 2018, each a perfect gift for the Yuletide season!
The Top Ten for Children and Young Adults will be along shortly…
Troubles, J.G. Farrell
Troubles is probably my favourite book that I’ve read this year. It’s about a traumatised British soldier (‘The Major’) who goes to Ireland to meet his apparent fiance, and ends up staying in her father’s hotel for… well, for a very long time. Like the fantastic Siege of Krishnapur, the real subject of Troubles is the decline of the British Empire. But J.G. Farrell’s supreme success is rendering this through exquisite detail and through his wonderful, vivid, and occasionally comic, characters.
The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, Michael Chabon
Another historical novel, this is an absorbing tale of two men who create a Comic empire in war-time New York. One of them is a Jewish migrant, striving to be a real-life hero to save members of his family left behind in Nazi Germany.
Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, Yuval Noah Harari
An astonishing book, giving an overview of the major phases of our evolution. It’s often grim in its rendering of our collective fictions, but it’s also balanced with glimmers of hope, such as the relative peacefulness of recent times, improvements in medicine, and reductions in global poverty. Most unnerving is the ending, which touches on the huge pressures we face to undertake more bioengineering, and where that might lead. Nonfiction such as a Moment on the Earth and fiction such as Hyperion, by Dan Simmons, address some of these issues. But this book wakes you up to the prospect that, in the long view, our turbulent history might just be a staging post in the evolution of intelligent design.
Inside the Wave, Helen Dunmore
The final book of poetry by the talented and versatile Helen Dunmore. I read several of her dark and atmospheric novels when I was younger, including Zennor in Darkness and A Spell of Winter. She also wrote some mermaid-inspired Young Adult novels which I’ve yet to read. But she stands out as a poet. She wrote Inside the Wave when she was terminally ill, and the writing has a clear, transcendent beauty.
We Have Always Lived in the Castle, Shirley Jackson
A brilliant, creepy book that really gets inside the mind and disturbing habits of its teenage narrator – who is definitively unreliable.
The Accidental Tourist, Anne Tyler
It’s taken me a long time to read this classic title. I love A.M. Homes, and Anne Tyler writes in a similar vein. Both give us stories of Americans whose lives have been fractured by trauma but who retain – or recover – a sense of perspective and transcendence. And who still have a surprising decision or two in them.
The Stranger’s Child, Alan Hollinghurst
I struggled at first to buy into this segmented novel that revisits a wealthy British family throughout the last century. But as it went on I grew to love the way it built a textured picture of the ebb and flow of legacy – particularly that of one man, a war poet. I occasionally find myself slowing down as novels progress, getting a little less interested in the set up and characters. But in The Stranger’s Child, I found my appetite and interest increasing all the time.
Dark Entries, Rober Aickman
The second horror entry in my top ten. These morbid, unresolved tales by Robert Aickman are as usual masterfully told. A poet of the tomb, he plants a dark seed in your mind and let’s you grow it however you will. Check out my review of The Wine-Dark Seahere.
Solstice, Joyce Carol Oates
I’d been meaning to read some Joyce Carol Oates for a long time. I wasn’t disappointed with this, a dark and gripping tale of a claustrophobic friendship between a charismatic artist and a dowdy lecturer.
Ten Poems about Birds, intro Jenni Murray
A beautifully produced present given to me by my wife on our tenth wedding anniversary. Only when I put together my first poetry book, Up in the Air, did I realise quite how obsessed I am by birds and flight. So this was a truly magical present. The poems are wondrous and fragile, perfect little songs. I especially liked Skylark, which I had never read before, and Owl, which I had, but had forgotten.
Am an owl, am an owl…
Want to know more about what I’ve been reading? Check out my favourite books in 2017 and 2016!
Thankfully, there are books to keep us happy. So here’s a round up of my favourite reads from the year:
Olive Kitteridge, by Elizabeth Strout
To think, I wasn’t even going to buy this. I needed a third book in a 3 for 2 at Waterstones, I was in a hurry, and this was being promoted. A piece of good fortune, and proof that we should always challenge our reading habits.
Here’s what I said about it on Goodreads:
A profound portrait of an individual and a community. The vignette-style chapters of characters who are emotionally damaged, close to illness and death, combines with the rough beauty of the Maine landscape to create an oddly affirming account of what it can mean to be alive. Olive Kitteridge is scathing, no-nonsense, pragmatic; and completely invested in her garden, the blooming of her tulips.
2. The Crossing, by Andrew Miller
This book isn’t exactly long, but it takes you on an amazing journey. In the character of Maud, the author has created someone both mysterious and scientific, rooted in the world. When she’s met by tragedy her journey alone across the Atlantic, one moment calm and the next terrifyingly wild, is gripping. I wasn’t so sure about the ending, but this seems to me a resonant book for our times.
3. Serafina and the Black Cloak, by Robert Beatty
A great adventure mystery story for middle grade / young teens, set in the rambling Biltmore estate and the dark woods surrounding it.
4. The Music of Chance, by Paul Auster
I read Moon Palace by Paul Auster many years ago and didn’t get on well with it. Then last year my wife bought a secondhand copy of The Book of Illusion in a lovely little bookshop in Alfriston. I read it and was an immediate convert (even re-reading Moon Palace, which I enjoyed much more this time).
Here’s an excerpt from my Goodreads review of The Music of Chance:
Don’t expect any answers. This story of two unlikely companions being undone through a game of cards with two equally unlikely partners just gets darker and darker…. Nashe, the hero, is a rationalist, but his burning of two wooden figures of the guys who beat him and Pozzi and inflict the ‘punishment’ of building a wall on them opens up all possible explanations, even supernatural. I loved this gripping book, although in the face of so much deftly handled ambiguity, the ending felt like too easy a way out.
5. And Then There Were None, by Agatha Christie
A lot of my reading is inspired by what I’m going to write next. I’m currently drafting the fourth book of The Secret of the Tirthas, The Lady in the Moon Moth Mask, set in a country house. The novel has a strong mystery element, so I thought it was time to read my first ever Agatha Christie novel.
My only criticism of this fantastic book is that I would have liked more of it. More detail about the characters, more description of the setting. It almost defines ‘pared down’. But it’s brilliant nevertheless.
6. The Magician, by W. Somerset Maugham
Again for inspiration in my current writing, I reread this classic by Somerset Maugham. It’s an absorbing gothic tale of the tragedy that overtakes young lovers when they come across a vain, malicious and darkly ambitious Occultist in 1920s Paris.
7. Rilke’s Book of Hours, tr. Anita Barrows and Joanna Macy
Reread over the Christmas period. It’s the one period in the year most of us get (at least some) time to reflect on life. I haven’t read any of Rilke’s other poetry, and I normally struggle with poems that are totally abstract – but I was struck by how some of the images in these poems relate to the need for an observer to shape the world. I read The New Scientist magazine and, as the universe gets increasingly weird and less likely the more we discover about it, I like how poetry written a hundred and fifty years ago can still resonate with current theories.
8. Wild Swans, by Jung Chang
I finally got around to reading this amazing book. Here’s my Goodreads review:
This is a whirlwind story, focusing around the tragedy of China throughout much of the last century through three generations of women. The greatest havoc is wrought by Mao Zedong and his wife, particularly through his Cultural Revolution in which young people are pitched against teachers, intellectuals and artists in a highly successful attempt to divide and rule. It’s like Lord of the Flies meets real life. Read this book, especially if you don’t know much about China – it’s an education.
9. The Siege of Krishnapur, by J.G. Farrell
I loved this book about a siege that reflects the physical and metaphysical crumbling of the British Empire in India. As the residents of the compound try to maintain their routines under increasingly desperate circumstances it’s darkly humorous, at times reminiscent of Carry On Up The Khyber.
10. Doctor Who: Ghosts of India, by Mark Morris
I haven’t read a Doctor Who book since I was about 10 years old, but was glad to return to them with this one. Having written my first novel about India, I couldn’t resist this title when I saw it in a secondhand bookshop. Here’s an excerpt from my Goodreads review:
India just after the second world war is masterfully depicted, with the hope, mystery and exuberance nicely balanced against the ominous clouds of coming strife with partition. The adventure has a good blend of villains, from the ghastly white ‘half-dead men’ to crazed Army Majors, crocodiles and cobras. The meeting of Gandhi with the Doctor is wonderful, and it’s left to Donna to draw parallels – and the Doctor to highlight the one key difference between them. A fun ride, with a pointed note of sadness at the end.
That’s my top ten from 2016. Let’s hope 2017 proves a good one – or at least a little bit less tumultuous than 2016.