Don’t forget that you can play along with your own choices and selections. Any book title beginning with ‘B’, or any author with a surname starting with that same letter.
I have rarely enjoyed a book as much as ‘Notes From A Small Island’, by Bill Bryson. This American writer lived and worked in Britain for twenty years. Before going home to the USA, he travelled all over the UK using public transport, and detailed his experiences in this very amusing and warm-hearted book. It says so much about the differences between life in America and Britain, two countries that might use the same language, but couldn’t be more different. For anyone who has experienced life in a foreign country, it might make familiar reading. For an Englishman like me, it gave an insight into how our life, language, and customs can be so alien to someone from a place we all regard as so similar. It isn’t just quirky, it also has laugh out loud moments; and it is so well-written, you can almost hear it being spoken in your head.
Not just a Double-B but a Double-Double-B, with the book ‘Borstal Boy’, by Irish writer Brendan Behan.
A Borstal was the name of an institution for the imprisonment and punishment of young offenders. Behan was sentenced to one for three years, and wrote this novel based on his experiences. I read it as a teenager, and I was impressed by the way he told of his time in there, his use of dialect, accents, and colloquialisms. It also very much impressed on me that I did not ever want to be detained in such a place. Conditions were harsh, and when the staff weren’t after you, you had to watch out for the other prisoners. Behan’s Republican ideas were softened after meeting his fellow working-class English detainees, and the book draws many conclusions about the similarity of class, rather than background.
British author Anthony Beevor is a renowned military historian, and has published many of the definitive books on certain battles and wars. His best-sellers include ‘Stalingrad’, ‘Berlin’, ‘Crete’, and ‘Paris’. He has also written two books about a war that interests me a great deal, ‘The Spanish Civil War’, and ‘The Battle For Spain’. I really recommend his books to anyone interested in historical conflict. He has a complete grasp of the times, and the books are well-researched, as well as being fascinating to read.
Another Irish writer, Patrick McCabe, and the novel ‘The Butcher Boy’, from 1992. Small-town Ireland during the 1960s; domestic violence, child abuse, religion, and murder. Not an easy read, made harder by the unusual style of writing. But so powerful, it is hard to put down. It was later made into an impressive film, but the book has much more scope. This one really did impress.
Historical fiction, and one of the most impressive novels I have ever read, ‘Birdsong’, by Sebastian Faulks. This 1993 novel is the first in a trilogy set before and during the First World War, then moving on to events during the Second World War. It is the strongest of the three books, and at the time, I could not put it down, reading it over two long sessions. The book moves through time in distinct sections, following Stephen from his life in France before the war, on to his service as an officer in charge of former miners, tasked with tunnelling under enemy positions to lay explosives. The complex love affair from the first part of the book has echoes throughout, and we see the character of Stephen changed by his ordeal in the trenches, and his fears for the men under his command. A second story runs at the same time, set in England, during the late 1970s. His grand-daughter is trying to discover more about his life, at the same time struggling with her own relationship and unhappiness.
Whether you like this type of structure in a book is a personal choice, but I feel that it worked well. The sections set during the war are especially powerful, and the way it is threaded together to lead into the sequels is a sign of a great writer.
My top pick for today is a crime novel, and one that has stayed in my mind ever since reading it, ‘By Reason of Insanity’ by Shane Stevens. In the late 1970s, I picked up this book at the airport, as I thought it would be an easy read on holiday. It was a thick paperback (500+ pages) and seemed to be ideal for this purpose. It was a lot more than that. It tells the story of an abused young man who escapes from incarceration, and embarks on a series of killings. The format of the book, new to me at the time, appealed greatly. One chapter would feature the killer, Bishop. Devoid of conscience, he planned and carried out his murders. The next chapter would focus on those hunting this killer, looking for clues, and trying to get close to him as he moved around the country. This book had a profound effect on me, and though I have never forgotten it, I have not read it again since, as I have done with many others. As a writer who can imagine himself on both sides of this situation so well, and construct what is in effect, two books in one, Stevens deserves high praise.