Books you’ve probably missed (And should be reading!)

There are a lot of books out there. And there have probably been a lot added since you read that sentence. But here are some I bet you’ve missed and I think you should be reading sooner rather than later…

 

V

It might seem odd to start the list with a TV tie in book from a show that aired in the 80s, but this book is brilliant, and engrossing enough to be read as a standalone without having seen the show. Crispin could have slavishly copied the script, but she pours characterisation and backstory into a well-rounded experience. Superb.

The Chrysalids

One of my candidates for “Where’s the movie?”, and the first of my John Wyndham choices. The Chrysalids concerns a strict restrictive religious community long after a nuclear war has decimated the world. This orthodoxy despises mutation in any form – extra toes is a cause for exile. Which is a problem for the teenagers born with telepathy. Just brilliant.

 

Day of the Triffids

Imagine waking up blind one morning. Now imagine waking up blind and everyone else is as well. Now imagine a rogue carnivorous plant is somewhere outside your front door, and you don’t know where it is. How do the few sighted survive in this silent and new dangerous world? There are scenes from this that still haunt me on dark nights (“Bill. There’s a light.”).

This book deserves better treatment than the dodgy two BBC adaptations (One too low a budget, the other nothing like the book) and the feeble 60s Hollywood movie.

(Special shout out to my man Wyndham for The Kraken Wakes: He was talking about the effects of the ice caps melting in 1953.)

House of Stairs

My wife put me on to this one. She remembers reading it thirty years ago, and the ending has still stuck with her. From her brief summary, I tracked it down and ordered a copy and then devoured it. If you want to know how easy it is to brainwash someone, read this and be very afraid.

Jumper

Although dated a little now – there are terrorists in the later part that hijack a plane and keep it on the runway – this still manages to be a powerful and rewarding story. Gould admits that the trope of teleportation is an old one, but he manages to give it a fresh and invigorating spin. Just don’t watch the terrible movie or bother with the book sequels.

The Great Train Robbery

Now this one has been made into a movie, even though it wasn’t very good. Crichton takes a train robbery of 1855 and spins a fanciful (and mostly fictitious) host of rogues, ne’er do wells and scoundrels into the mix. He adds historical notes (Did you know Victorian women were deemed mentally incapable of committing crime?), and lets it all whisk and blend and then simmer for a few hours before serving. It’s a hoot and a blast.

… And these are just a few of the books I know about. Do you have any favourites that the rest of us missed? Let me know!

 

 

Review: The Talisman

5/5

Chased east by the ambitious and power-hungry partner of his dead father, Jack Sawyer and his dying mother find themselves in New Hampshire, exiled from California. Jack is sent on a road trip back to the west coast to retrieve something called “The Talisman”.

Its description is vague to the point of non-existence by the man sending him on the trip. It’s the McGuffin that powers the plot along. But Jack is just desperate enough to try it…to try anything to save his mother.

And, it seems, not just his mother needs saving. Jack discovers he can travel to a parallel world called “The Territories”, a place which has “magic instead of physics.” (A world King would later expand into his Dark Tower series). Ruler of this place is a woman who bears more than a passing resemblance to Jack’s mother, a dying queen who also needs saving from the Territories equivalent of his father’s partner.

There wasn’t a moment when I wanted to leave the book alone.

The Talisman is not a short book by any means…but the best part? I didn’t even notice, because the pages flip by so easily. From Jack’s first trips into the Territories to the horrors and good friends he finds in this world and the other, nothing lags or drops. There wasn’t a moment when I wanted to leave the book alone, even though I’ve read it before and knew where it was all going.

At the time of publication (around 1984), this was touted as an adult horror story, I believe. But horror forms such a small part of the story that it seems like a mis-identification: This is odyssey, this is Frodo and Sam growing as characters as they travel the road to Mordor.

This is all about the journey. This is about finding strength you didn’t know you had, discovering who your friends are, finding friends willing to die for you as you would for them.

This is as much about a twelve year old boy discovering what it takes to turn into a man, and what sort of man he wants to turn in to.

In 1984, this was classed as adult fiction, but there’s nothing here that a teenager couldn’t read. I would class it as young-adult, actually, both in terms of protagonist and the themes that run through it. And like the best of YA, there’s something there for all of us, no matter how old we are.

I like to call it “The best book by Stephen King you’ve probably never heard of.” But in two words instead of eleven: It’s bloody brilliant.

Drop everything else and go read it. Right now.

(This slightly modified review first appeared on Goodreads in 2012)

Review: Eleanor and Park

5/5

Park doesn’t think much of Eleanor when he first sees her on the school bus. And Eleanor doesn’t think much of Park when she’s forced to sit next to him either…

Wow. That was something else.

Where to start with E&P? I’d start with the ending, but to do so would feel like a major spoiler, and it’s not something I want to spoil for anyone, even by dropping it under the safety of hidden text. Just read the book for yourself, then we’ll talk about the ending.

I wanted to talk about the ending so much when I finished it, I almost bothered my book-buddy friend on a Sunday night when she probably had better things to do. I would have asked my wife about it, but she’d have to read it first, and I didn’t want to wait that long.

But enough ending-related vagueness. What can I tell you about this book?

The simplicity of the writing pulls you in and along for the ride. The sentence structure is simple, almost an elementary level. But those simple sentences have complex themes poured into them. It’s like minimalism for writing; all the power is underneath the words. It drags you down the page and pulls you through the book.

There are no easy answers to the questions asked around the edges of this story. Eleanor is pushed into hard and uncomfortable shapes by the world she lives in. She cares deeply for her brothers and sisters, but finds she can’t drown with them and she can only save herself when the waters close over her head. Park, by comparison, seems to have life easy, but there are undercurrents to his life that make his footing less secure than it seems.

I liked the additional complexity of having it set in 1986 as well. Eleanor can’t simply reach into a back pocket and call 911, any more than she can call Park. He’s only a few blocks away, but it might as well be miles.

And how lost Park is without Eleanor, the music gone from his life both metaphorically and literally. The songs he’s never going to be able to listen to again. Ah, man.

It mirrors our “first times” so perfectly and makes us ache for everything to be new again.

I loved the way this book made me remember how it all felt. It mirrors our “first times” so perfectly and makes us ache for everything to be new again, for the first touch of a hand in ours.

(Falling asleep listening to your love on the phone, the conversations about nothing that mean everything. The first time you ever made someone a mix tape. Yeah, I’m that old I can remember doing those: The careful selection and editing, the struggle to get everything to fit onto a 90 minute space. Trying to squeeze your personality down to thirty songs. Even though I didn’t get there until I met my wife – my own Eleanor in style and bearing if not by name – until ten years later than Park, I still went through it all.)

I was almost blubbering and had to stop sometimes when I was reading this, because it’s so fragile, what Eleanor and Park have.

I felt like I would break it by looking at it for too long, and that would make my heart ache for its lost beauty.

It’s wonderful to watch these two fall for the first time, as we have all fallen. And in watching, we remember when they were us.