I keep a list of the books I read (start to finish – any book abandoned before the last page doesn’t make it onto the list), and I tend to lose count after a few weeks, so I like to count them up on New Year’s Day and see what the total was. In 2008 I read 101 books. In 2009 I must have had more time, or maybe I read a bit faster in my old age, because I read 134 books. Here are thirteen of the best of them:
The Blood Doctor by Barbara Vine (who is better known as Ruth Rendell). This is an excellent story about a man researching an ancestor of his, a doctor who specialized in treating haemophilia sufferers. It took a little while to see exactly where this story was going but it was so well written, and the background of the main character, who is caught up in later 20th century political reform, made it an irresistible read.
Lord Of The North by Bernard Cornwell. I had to include one by my favourite author! This is the third novel in his series about Uhtred, the dispossessed son of a nobleman in ninth century England – before there was such a country as England, in fact. This was the time of King Alfred, the Vikings, and feuding between the small kingdoms that made up the island. Beautifully told, in great, accurate detail.
The Unbreakable Child by Kim Michelle Richardson. This story sends you to the depths of gloom and despair, then it rescues you and ends on a note of optimism. And it’s not a novel – it’s a true story. The author recounts her experiences of living for nine years in an orphanage in Kentucky in the 1960s and of the violent abuse she and her fellow orphans suffered from the nuns who ran the place. I don’t mean the occasional slap on the wrist or even upside the head -- I mean unending, unprovoked violence. Two scenes that stick in my mind are of the nine-year-old author punched in the stomach by a nun until she vomits, and then forced to eat her own vomit. Another time, the child had to be hidden away from a visiting social worker because she bore so many marks of violence upon her. Later, Ms Richardson and several other former inmates launched a lawsuit against the Catholic Church, whose lawyers did their best to maintain that (a) there was no violence and (b) if there was, what did it matter? The subtitle on the cover of the book is “A story about forgiving the unforgivable” I think it is wonderful that Kimmi can forgive those nuns. I can’t, and I wasn’t even there! Buy this book, and read it!
The Doctor’s Signature by Hamilton Johnston. I found this novel, published in 1955 and as far as I know never reprinted, on a shelf in my father’s library. I had never heard of it, and I can find no reference to it anywhere, but I enjoyed it a lot. It’s a story about a GP in an unnamed town in England, and how he mixes with some of the more influential members of local society. I think this would make an excellent 6-part BBC drama for Sunday evenings.
The Associate by John Grisham. I’ve only read one book by Grisham that I didn’t like. All the rest have been absolute page turners. This one was no exception.
Imperium by Thomas Harris. An excellent novel of Ancient Rome, centred around the character of Marcus Cicero as told by Tiro, his secretary and slave. Period detail abounds. Wonderfully readable.
Moab Is My Washpot by Stephen Fry. There seems to be nothing that Stephen Fry can’t do! Author, playwright, actor, librettist, journalist, tweeter, quiz show host and all-round nice chap (actually, on his own admission, he can’t sing). This is his autobiography that takes him up to early adulthood – his schooling, his coming to terms with being gay, a compulsion to steal that lands him in prison. Fry doesn’t hold anything back, and I have to say that he doesn’t come across as a completely likable young man – but he is certainly an interesting one. The book ends when he gets out of prison and determines to turn his life around – with what result we all know.
World Without End by Ken Follett. This was announced as a sequel to Follett’s wonderful The Pillars of the Earth, though in fact it was set two centuries later and, naturally, with none of its characters. This is no sequel – it is a stand alone novel, about a town in 14th century England, the people who live there and how the Church, in the form of the local monastery, tries to control their lives. A long, absorbing tale, excellently written.
Too Much by Donald E. Westlake. One of Westlake’s comic thrillers. A man pretends to be identical twins so that he can date a woman and her sister – on separate occasions of course. It’s not as easy as it sounds. Actually, it doesn’t sound easy at all! How long does he manage to keep up the deception? You’ll have to read it to find out.
The Big Picture by Douglas Kennedy. The main character is an affluent, professional, middle class American with the usual wife, home, family, car and the other trappings of apparent success. With one hasty act he loses it all, and finds himself forced to hide out west in small town Montana. The narrative races along. An excellent thriller.
The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins. An unapologetic examination of the pestilence of religion, as Dawkins sees it. I tend to agree with him. This book wont make atheists out of believers, but it will probably make atheists out of doubters and fence-sitters.
A Prisoner Of Birth by Jeffrey Archer. Many people have looked down on Jeffrey Archer, and not always without justification. This novel is a million miles from his earlier clumsy, naïve style of writing. This is a gripping story of a crime, an innocent man framed, an escape. A lot of it takes place in prison. Since Archer spent two years as a guest of Her Majesty’s prison system, we can be sure that those parts are completely accurate. The Manhattan Beach Project by Peter Lefcourt. I read this because I had enjoyed Lefcourt’s The Deal. This is also about thee entertainment industry: a satire on the way TV networks operate. It’s about a reality show centred on a warlord in Uzbekistan and his family, his henchmen and other associates. It becomes a cult success in the USA, with complications for all involved. .
A Gentleman's Domain, Barbara Vine, Bernard Cornwell, Donald E. Westlake, Douglas Kennedy, Hamilton Johnston, Jeffrey Archer, John Grisham, Ken Follett, Kim Michelle Richardson, Peter Lefcourt, Richard Dawkins, Stephen Fry, Thomas Harris, Thursday Thirteen