Monday, 22 July 2013

My Ultimate, All-Time, Top Nine Favourite Books Ever

I've been writing this here blog for quite a while now (about eighteen months) and I figure now I feel comfortable - and confident - enough with it to finally put down, in writing, my top nine all time favourite ever books (nine, you say? An odd number? Yes, I say, because I only have nine I can definitively call a favourite). Taking into account the methodical and serious planning a good list requires (The Rob Gordon Way), I've been thinking about this seriously for a while now because, wanting to do it properly, I'm going to do this in NUMERICAL ORDER. Yes, that's right - there is going to be a NUMBER ONE SLOT. Now, for me, this is huge, because I flip-flop between a handful of titles all the time, so to definitively say 'that's the one' is kind of a big deal for me.

So here they come - the books that mean the most to me. If any seem silly, please don't judge harshly; this is basically my soul I'm bearing here.

9. The Railway Children by E. Nesbit
I've never actually been a particular fan of E. Nesbit; despite the many stories she wrote for both children and adults, I just haven't been as enraptured with her as others. The exception is, of course, The Railway Children. The story of three children who are suddenly uprooted from their comfortable, middle-class life to go live in a dark cottage in the middle of nowhere, coincidentally at the same time that their beloved Father goes away, is at times almost annoyingly idyllic. The children seem to settle in all too quickly and comfortably and, whilst they do bicker and fight, they very quickly 'make pax'. The main character, Bobbie, is almost too perfect, too understanding and too helpful to bear. And yet... Yet it's still a fantastic story; their railway-centric escapades are charming, there's more than a few thrilling moments and the climactic scene is guaranteed to have me sobbing. It's hardly a commentary on country life in turn-of-the-century England, but it's an enchanting escape from the modern world.

8. Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
Bit of an obvious one here; I'm sure Pride and Prejudice features highly on many a top-whatever list. But it's the original romantic comedy; embarrassing relatives, handsome men, red herrings, misunderstandings and a whole lot of wit. Elizabeth is a great heroine, dealing with a houseful of idiots and an uncertain future with poise, calm and a rather wicked sense of humour. I've never actually made it through another Austen book, despite many attempts, but I don't think I'm missing out much; what love story can compare to Darcy's and Elizabeth's? It's not one I read very often (say, more than once a year) but when I do, I love it, and I rarely pass up an opportunity to read spin-offs and sequels whenever they come up - Pride & Prejudice & Zombies, Death Comes to Pemberley and Bridget Jones' Diary to name but a tiny few.

7. The Help by Kathryn Stockett
Probably the most recent addition to the list, in terms of publication-date, this tale of black housemaids in the Deep South is a hilarious, yet heart-breaking story of the relationships between women: mothers and daughters, best friends, mistresses and servants all feature in various guises, many of them unexpected or almost unbelievable. Nevertheless, the characters are all incredibly engaging, whether they're hateful or your favourite, and whilst the story does occasionally veer towards the stereotypical, it manages to keep itself from being ridiculous. It's never brought me to full-on tears but I have had to remove some dust from my eye whilst reading it from time to time (ahem), and it's always guaranteed to make me laugh.

6. Company of Liars by Karen Maitland
This is the only horror story to feature on this list - in fact, it's one of the few horror stories I'm capable of reading, as I am a massive scaredy-cat, and prone to jump at my own shadow. This delicious tale of a group of travellers trying to out-run the plague in medieval England - whilst being stalked by an unknown, malevolent force - is a well-written, pacey, tense thriller with an unpredictable cast of characters. Each member of the company has a secret to keep, but how well can they keep it, and what will happen if anyone finds out? It's a hard one to put down, and the dreary, rainy backdrop just adds to the chill that surrounds this story. I'd recommend it as a winter read; nothing like curling up in the warm with a book that gives you chills.

5. High Fidelity by Nick Hornby
Introducing the man who gave me my love of lists - Rob Gordon. The emotionally-stunted record shop owner has been my window into the male psyche - whether for good or bad - for nearly a decade now and I've loved this book from the first read. His journey through the past, defined by his all-time top five break ups, is one of the funniest, yet poignant, things I've ever read. One minute you're laughing at his ungainly attempts to control his nerdy staff; the next, you're pitying the poor man as he apologises to his childhood self for turning out such a mess. It probably wouldn't be classed as a coming-of-age story, as Rob is too old to be considered for the genre, but I'd argue it is; there's a definite sense of a man growing up throughout this story, and that's what gives it such a heart-tugging edge. Not to mention that there's probably at least one situation or scrape in this book that everyone has gotten themselves into at some point.

4. McCarthy's Bar by Pete McCarthy
The only non-fiction title in this list is one that I have read so many times, it is literally sellotaped together. Pete's journey of self-discovery is almost equal parts hilarious and poignant; whilst trying to work out whether he can feel at home in Ireland despite never living there, he encounters some of the most eccentric people that simultaneously welcome him in with open arms, whilst reminding him of his stiff-upper-lip English roots. His claim is as tenuous to the country as mine, which just increases my connection to his story, and it never fails to make me laugh like a drain. At times it is almost unbelievable, and at others it does seem almost too 'Oirish', but mostly it's just a wonderful story of a man trying to work out where he really belongs in the world.

3. His Dark Materials by Phillip Pullman
A recent - and welcome - return of this trilogy to the top ten; I re-read all three books last month, after a lapse of nearly four years. I made the mistake of watching the abysmal film, The Golden Compass, based on the first book in the trilogy, Northern Lights. It riled me so much that I simply refused to read the books after that, until I was finally tempted back in. The protagonist, Lyra, finds herself in the midst of a huge adventure when the mysterious Gobblers kidnap her playmate, Roger, and she sets off to rescue him. There's little indication in the first book of just what Lyra is getting herself into, but I can tell you that it involves talking bears in armour, witches, angels, monsters, Spectres, other worlds and a myriad of fascinating creations. And if that's a bit too action-y for you, there's also the greatest love story I have ever encountered. Pullman created an absolute masterpiece here, one that deservedly features in many a Must-Read list, and I urge every single one of you to read these books: Northern Lights, The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass. You will not be disappointed.

2. Miss Pettigrew Lives For A Day by Winifred Watson
Narrowly missing out on the top spot - and I do mean by a whisker - is this Cinderella tale from the 1930's. Featuring Miss Pettigrew, the mousiest, dowdiest, saddest heroine ever and Delyisa, a glamorous sexpot, the story follows the two women as their two very different worlds - and morals - collide when Miss Pettigrew answers an advertisement for a job. It's full of wonderful clothes, rakish men, strong cocktails and bursting dancehalls, and as Miss Pettigrew gets swept up in this exotic world, so do you. Taking place over the course of a day, there's never a dull moment in Delysia's world and I always find it near impossible to drag myself away once I've got started on it. It's not thought-provoking, or deep, or even clever; but it is pure indulgence and delights in that fact. Even just reading a chapter of this book - if I can manage so little - is guaranteed to put the biggest smile on my face.

1. To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee
Let's face it; we all knew there wasn't really a competition here, don't we? There was never really any other book for the number one slot. Ever since the first read - over ten years ago - I have been captivated by Scout's adventures with her brother, Jem, and friend, Dill as they play in 1930's Alabama (a world away from Miss Pettigrew's decadence). The story follows the three as they grow up over the course of three summers, discovering that the town they have always known is not what it seems. Whether they're trying to get Boo Radley to come out of his house, rolling down the street in tyres or witnessing the injustice of the law, there's an almost painful nostalgia to the story that anyone reflecting on a happy childhood would recognise. There's a reason this book has never been out of print; it's one of the greatest stories of all time, and if you haven't read it, then you really, really should because it has everything; crime, romance, thrills, laughs, bits you'll cry at, bits you'll be outraged at - literally, everything. I just love it.

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