Desert Island Books

Someone asked me, ages ago, for a list of my favourite (fictional) books and I have cobbled together this one in no particular order along with a brief comment on each book. These 25 books are mostly dog-eared and grubby from extended readings and from being dragged around the world with me on my lengthy stays in Europe, Asia and Australia. I have read all of them multiple times and still return to them for a laugh or a shocked recollection of some thing or other. I know, I know, I should be reading more modern fiction – and, in my defence, I do and often – but these are the books I return to time and again like best old friends.

Books marked with an asterisk * are part of a trilogy or other collection of novels by the same author which form a complete unit.

  Title Author / Date Comment
1 At Swim-Two-BirdsBookPics 6 Flann O’Brien 1951 One of the funniest books I have ever read – part an attempt to write a novel, an introduction to University life in Dublin, a blend of Celtic myth, sheer nonsense and a delight in every sense. The novel begins with the premise that one beginning and one ending for a book is an unsatisfactory state of affairs and then goes on to prove the point. Great fun.
2 Highways to a War Christopher Koch 1995 An amazing tale of war in Vietnam and Cambodia influenced by the events of a real life war photographer missing in action, this novel blends history and character in a seamless portrait of a life lived on the edge of beauty and fear.
3 King Solomon’s Mines H Rider Haggard A classical 19th century adventure story set in the wilds of Africa filled with fierce native, savage animals, lost kingships and malevolent witch doctors.   The unassuming main character, Alan Quatermain, remains vivid in my mind since I first read the story decades ago,
4 Hiroshima JoeScanned Image 3 Martin Booth 1985 Set in Hong Kong in the early fifties, Joe is a survivor of a World War II labour camp in Japan, enduring a half-life as a drug addict and petty criminal attempting to find some reason in his tormented existence. His desperate plight is only gradually revealed as he plumbs his unfathomable depths.
5 Tristram ShandyBookPics 2 Laurence Sterne 1760 Properly entitled the Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, this is another novel about writing a novel which never seems to get anywhere – nor does it make much progress with Tristram’s life and opinions either. A difficult, but always comical, read from a master of innuendo, packed with characters like the irrepressible Uncle Toby, Corporal Trim, the widow Wadman and Dr. Slop, the novel pretends to be a biography but wanders off into digressions about the shape of one nose, the importance of names and whether novels should be written at all. Incredible and fascinating.
6 Catch-22 Joseph Heller Another war novel, this classic Anti-War novel of the 20th century follows the attempts of Yossarian to avoid being killed by people he is trying to bomb into oblivion while the war wages on interminably bound by the paradoxical rule of the Catch-22. Fantastic characters abound, from Major – De Coverly, so fearsome looking nobody had dared to ask his first name or the infuriating and incessantly tinkering Orr and the dead man sharing Yossarian’s tent.
7 Sometimes a Great NotionScanned Image Ken Kesey 1964 Set in a Oregon, the Stamper family, wildly independent, set out to break a logger strike out of sheer stubbornness and because they can. Kesey uses different points of view to show his characters embroiled in a showdown both with the outside world and their own selves while the two radically different Stamper brothers, Hank and Leland seek personal retribution for the sins of their past. Better than One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.
8 The Gift of Rain Tan Twan Eng 2007 Set mostly in Penang Malaysia, before, during and long after the war, this beautifully lyrical novel is a tale of a youthful seduction, loyalty, betrayal, compromise, family and love. Absolutely stunning in its delicate and poetic descriptions, this is a beautiful read where one’s heart is torn along with that of Philip Hutton, the Anglo-Chinese protagonist.
9 Cutting for Stone Abraham Verghese 2009 Set in Ethiopia and later the US, this story of twin brothers bound by secrets of their birth and linked by the power of medical healing, this fantastic book of love and politics depends on the fatalistic trust of one of the brothers.
10 Cotillion Georgette Heyer 1953 A frothy, bubbling tale of Regency romance, Cotillion – originally a dance for four couples – revolves around the schemes and engagements of ladies and gentlemen all in pursuit of a harmonious marriage ably abetted by a large income promised to Kitty, the main protagonist by her cantankerous guardian.   Champagne stuff!
11 Great Expectations Charles Dickens 1861 What can I say? For anyone who has never read Dickens, kick off with this first person narrative by Pip the orphan sadly deluded by everyone around him.   The most elaborate and fantastical coincidences and misunderstandings as well as a case of human spontaneous combustion make this my favourite Dickens of all time.
12 For Whom the Bell Tolls Ernest Hemmingway 1940 The brutality of civil war is contrasted solidly here with the tenderness of the relationship between Robert and Maria (little rabbit). I have to admit I had a lump in my throat and a tear in my eye by the climatic end to this gripping and savage novel.
13 Frankenstein Mary Shelley 1818 In the form of letters written by an obsessive captain exploring the North Pole, the story of an equally driven man, Victor Frankenstein is gradually revealed as the deluded scientist who brought life to inanimate matter. The thing that amazed me when I first read the book was the sympathy I felt for Victor’s creation. An incredible read and a well though out narrative far surpassing any Hollywood attempt at the story.
14 AzincourtScanned Image 1 Bernard Cornwell 2008 Immortalised in Shakespeare’s Henry V, this is the gritty, muddy account of the men in two badly mis-matched armies in 1414, told from both the English and the French points of view. English longbows and an army of riff-raff and the crème of French aristocracy face off in the mud and rain. Fascinating and compelling.
15 * Lonesome Dove Larry McMurtry The best western I have ever read, this is almost Dickensian in its range of characters and emotions in this sprawling tale of a cattle drive and much more. Every character is alive and vibrant, even the downright nasty and vicious ones – and there are plenty of those – although it is Captains Call and McCrae, former Texas Rangers who take pride of place for their humanity and innate stubbornness.
16 2001: A Space Odyssey Arthur C Clarke 1968 Prophetic in its anticipation of space exploration as mankind had not yet set foot on the moon at the time of publication, A Space Odyssey, written in conjunction with Stanley Kubrick, traverses a time period of several millions of years and looks at the evolution we might face in the future. Most interestingly, it suggests that our humanity is not the end of evolution but only a step in the process.
17 * Tinker, Tailor, Soldier Spy John LeCarré 1974 The first in the “Karla Trilogy” this understated and unsensational spy thriller – so diametrically opposed to the James Bond style – follows the hunt for a Russian spy at the top of British Intelligence, led by the unassuming and taciturn George Smiley.  Le Carré, the pen name for David Cornwell, worked as a British intelligence officer in the 50’s and 60’s, based his novel on his experience of the McLean, Burgess and Philby spy scandals that rocked Britain at the time.
18 To Kill a Mocking BirdScanned Image 4 Harper Lee 1960 A heart-warming coming of age for Scout and Jem Finch in the deeply prejudiced world of the southern states as their lawyer father attempts to bring order into their confused and at times frightening world. Great characters like Boo Radley, Dill and the white trash Ewell family will always remain in my memory.   Super stuff.
19 * FlashmanBookPics 3 George MacDonald Fraser 1969 The eponymous hero of the Victorian novel, Ton Brown’s Schooldays, Harry Flashman is a swaggering libertine and poltroon masquerading as a hero. Accurately researched, Flashman appears in every major incident during the Victorian expansion of the British Empire. Unashamedly frank about the lying cur he really is, I always admire the rogue until, in each of the dozen or so novels, he invariably commits at least one unforgiveable act. Superb, racy reading.
20 * Jeeves in the OffingBookPics P.G. Wodehouse 1960 Country houses, fierce aunts, broken engagements, punctured hot water bottles, disastrous speeches at garden fetes, stolen silver cow creamers, oddly named characters, purloined policemen’s helmets, obnoxious nephews pushed into ornamental lakes so that dejected suitors can heroically rescue them before the eyes of the spurning girl, all under the Machiavellian eye of the fish reinforced brain of the suave manservant, Jeeves, while the footling attempts of upper class twit, Bertie Wooster to find and reject love make up the delightful world of an age that surely never was.
21 Brighton RockBookPics 4 Graham Greene 1938 The dark, surreal world of violence and terror in the sunny setting of 1950’s Brighton, where Pinky, the main character, has death at his fingertips, finding release only in viciousness and violence. Sinister yet childlike, the savage ending of the books still gives me a shiver of revulsion down the spine. A masterpiece.
22 The Catcher in the RyeScanned Image 2 J.D. Salinger 1951 The classical novel of teenage angst and desperation, Holden Caulfield is both immature and older than his years in many ways. Running away from his school and himself, Holden dismisses everything around him as being phony and fake while missing out and misinterpreting the goodness that he encounters on his wanderings through a chilly New York until he finds some sort of redemption in the simple joy his little sister expresses.
23 The God of Small ThingsBookPics 1 Arundhati Roy 1997 Blending religion and politics, cultural relations and the Indian caste system, forbidden love, discrimination and the disastrous effect small things can have on peoples’ lives, the Ipe family lives are laid bare in this excruciatingly vivid tangle of lies and deception that make me both laugh and (almost) cry.
24` * DissolutionIMG_0231 C.J. Sansom 2003 The first in a series of six, soon to be seven, historical crime series, the unassuming and humanist protagonist, Matthew Shardlake, lawyer initially in the service of Henry VIII’s Lord Cromwell, undertakes, with increasing reluctance, fascinating crime investigations in Tudor England where the smells and sights of a 16th century London are all too real. Really super reading.
25 Guys and DollsBookPics 5 Damon Runyon 1956 A collection of twenty short stories set among the mob, chorus girls, gamblers and race-track hustlers who inhabited a Broadway of yesteryear, these fabulous stories capture the actual tone of the gangsters and racketeers, converting them into magnificent, charming and very funny, though not necessarily politically correct by todays’ standards, accounts.

 

 

Lamentation

I have just finished Lamentation, the sixth novel by C. J. Sansom in the Shardlake* series, a massive 700 page historical mystery and detective story centred on the last year of the reign of the Tudor monarch, Henry VIII from the summer of 1546 until his death in January 1547.

The humanitarian and caring Matthew Shardlake, lawyer at Lincoln’s Inn, is once again, unwilling, involved in the murders and religious mayhem that ran rife during Henry’s reign.

The novel begins with the ghastly account of the burning at the stake of Anne Askew, and three other unfortunates in Smithfield, accused of heresy, a charge which Shardlake himself will face later on in the novel, recalling the last time the hunchback lawyer was dragged to the Tower of London for a tortuous questioning.

IMG_0997Without giving too much away, as Henry VIII vacillates between reform and traditionalist religion during the last months of his life, his court is divided between the Catholic and Protestant councillors vying to control Henry’s successor, the eight-year old Prince Edward. Henry’s last wife, the reformist Catherine Parr, formerly Catherine Latimer and the unrequited love interest of the solitary and melancholic sergeant -at-law, enlists his aid as she desperately fends off attacks from within the court and from mysterious and powerful influences in the world outside Whitehall.

As with the previous five Shardlake novels, the multiple plots concern a legal case unconnected with the hunchback lawyer’s involvement with the Tudor courts, something he had previously sworn to avoid. The inevitable conflicts, brought about by intimidation and violence, confirm the determination and bravery of Shardlake, showcasing his conscience and the inevitable consequences in a world of religious and political turmoil.

As always, London itself plays an atmospheric role as Shardlake trudges the dusty and pungent streets and alleyways of the medieval city in his quest to aid the endangered queen and to solve the litigations case between two quarrelling siblings with which he has become embroiled. The authentic background, the rich characterisation, and the wonderful weaving together of plot and historical reality combined with the final, real-politic twist make Lamentation the apotheosis of this sextet of fantastic novels.

Excitingly, C.J. Sansom hints, in the very last pages of the novel, that Shardlake may continue to see further service, but this time, in the service of the future Queen, Elizabeth I. Like many others, no doubt, I hold my breath in anticipation and look forward to a continuing Shardlake saga.

  • See my earlier blog about the first five Shardlake novels in the series

Shardlake

What makes a book irresistibly good? What type of book garners remarks like “couldn’t put it down”, ” a real page turner” and so on?

Are they character driven, or is it the genre, the plot, the setting, the style, the twist or the originality? All of them, of course and much more as well.

But to find, not only all of the above in a strong, character-driven novel, but also a specific and vivid historical mystery in Tudor times, is a find indeed.

In the Shardlake series of novels by C. J. Sansom both mystery and a historical vividness blend seamlessly in the humanist form of a candid and honest barrister at Lincoln’s Inn during Tudor times. Unwillingly, he finds himself working for Thomas Cromwell, Henry VIII’s first minister, and other members of the court as the massive task of dissolving the monasteries’ grasp on power and land begins. An ardent reformer in his youth, Shardlakes begins to withdraw from the capriciousness and cruelty of the court but finds himself investigating, on Cromwell’s behalf, the murder of a high official at an isolated monastery in the depths of winter.

The six novels in the series (so far) span the reign of Tudor Henry VIII, from the winter of 1537 to the summer of 1546. Tudor England, where Henry has already broken with Rome and assumed the role of Head of Church as well as State, is a dangerous world of fanatical religious reformers, ambitious and jostling informers and unscrupulous and powerful performers and where to speak one’s true thoughts on religion and God could lead to charges of heresy and death by torture and burning.

IMG_0231In Dissolution, the first in the series, Matthew Shardlake, single, a lawyer, a humanitarian and a hunchback, regarded with distrust and fear by most people because of his deformity, reviled but used by the nobility for his intelligence, diligence and ability, is sent to investigate the sacrilegious murder of one of Cromwell’s commissioners in a remote monastery in the midst of a freezing winter. Drawn into a world so completely realized, the actual setting is as palpable as the villians he encounters, Shardlake’s involuntary involvement with the politics of the law and church unravels murders and mayhem. Increasingly disillusioned, he must juggle personal and conflicting ideals, as reforms seep into the kingdom. Emotionally scarred by his brush with politics and greed, Shardlake is determined to withdraw to an ordered and quiet life at Lincoln’s Inn helping those who are most in need of his legal skills.

However, in Dark Fire, the second in the series and, again at Cromwell’s express IMG_0232command, Shardlake, with the help of his new assistant, Jack Barak, must discover the source of a lost secret weapon – Greek Fire – with which Cromwell hopes to regain the king’s favour while at the same time acquiring an apparently hopeless case defending a young girl accused of murdering her own cousin.

Fascinating in both the legal details of the time – “peine et dure” being a case in point – and the seething background of the London scene, Shardlake discovers that in the world of alchemy and greed, nothing is as it seems and avariciousness plays an equal part in the life’s of both the common and noble folk.

IMG_0234Hoping to avoid further contact with the court after Cromwell’s downfall, Shardlake is nevertheless involved on missions for Archbishop Crammer and in Sovereign, he travels with Henry’s court to York on the Great Progress, dealing with legal submissions to the king but also to oversee the welfare of a traitor due to be conveyed to the Tower of London for a torturous interrogation. A seemingly irrelevant murder in York involves the lawyer and his irreverent assistant in a cache of secret documents which undermine the sanctity of the Tudor throne and which brings Shardlake terrifyingly face to face with the torturers in the Tower.

Revelation, the fourth novel, delves into the twisted IMG_0306world of a serial killer – a concept so alien to the ordinary Tudor mind that it arouses fears of witchcraft and sorcery, all the more so when inextricably linked with the prophecies of the biblical Book of Revelations. Taking on the case of an accused heretic, confined within Bedlam insane asylum, Shardlake must navigate the treacherous waters of religious purges while investigating the murder of his best friend linked to the dark prophecies of Revelations.

IMG_0241Heartstone, the penultimate novel in the sextet, sees Shardlake set off for Portsmouth on a private mission for Catherine Parr in the summer of 1545 as Henry prepares the Mary Rose and The Great Harry for a imminent French invasion.

Strong, driven characters, grounded in a specific time or era, essential but often locations are cursorily sketched or taken for granted but not so, in these multi-layered mystery events set in Tudor times. Shardlake, with his modest and unassuming air, a strong moral integrity and a keen interest in using the law to help the downtrodden, is a true renaissance man who grows and develops through constant danger among the shifting thoughts and trends of Tudor politics, a vivid and immediate setting, dealing with bewildering and baffling murders, alien to the beliefs and understandings of the time.

Multiple plot lines weave seamlessly together as characters assume unexpected relationships which reverberate through the stark realities of the Tudor world where being different or out of favour risks cruelty or execution. Shardlake, determined, scrupulous but above all, human must investigate events as feared and misunderstood at the time as terrorist outrages are today.

I’m looking forward to getting my hand on the most recent in the series, Lamentations.