It is World Book Day today, but I will admit that this almost passed me by owing to a combination of (i) toddler-associated sleep deprivation and (ii) constant awareness of books and book-related things, which means that every day is a ‘book day’ in the world of LJ Ross! Still, it’s a good opportunity to think about some of my favourite books and a selection of those I’m looking forward to re-reading once I have the luxury of a few minutes’ peace…
Taste in literature is a very subjective thing. I’m growing more and more jaded by people who claim only to enjoy ‘real’ literature; the kind which wins prizes and the respect of The Establishment. What’s wrong with admitting that you like reading a bit of commercial fiction? Nobody’s going to lynch you for it! All reading is good reading, regardless of what some people say. Reading broadly enhances your own tastes and brings you closer to understanding your preferences. How can you say, categorically, that you don’t like reading chick lit – unless you have tried it?
Personally, I enjoy a good bit of genre fiction just as much as I enjoy ‘high end’ literature, which is why I write murder mysteries. They say that you should write what you enjoy and that’s precisely the approach I take to work. I don’t expect to receive a call from the folks over at Booker, but I don’t lose a lot of sleep over that. The capacity to write is like anything creative: it knows no limits; it cannot be pigeon-holed or bound by other people’s expectations. There are a lot of writers I’ve met who become very concerned – obsessed, almost – by the need for recognition from the ‘right’ people. Here’s what I say to that: my readers are the ‘right’ people. They are the ones whose opinion matters to me and they represent the fabric of society: they are from all walks of life, all genders, ages, professions. There is no great Book Dictator to tell any of us what we should or should not enjoy.
That said, if anybody is looking for book inspiration or has run out of ideas about what they should read next, here are some of the books that I have enjoyed – feel free to disagree!
- The Far Pavilions, M. Kaye
Some people might recall the 80’s dramatisation of this epic novel, but I have to say that it wasn’t a patch on the book (they rarely are, with the possible exception of To Kill a Mockingbird). The story is a sweeping adventure laced with a love story, set in the last days of the Raj in India. The author was fluent in various Indian dialects and lived there for years, so the descriptive passages and dialogue is very realistic and full of texture. It is quite a commitment to read if you are short of time and usually only manage a chapter here and there. It is over a thousand pages long and you need to immerse yourself in the story, but it makes for a great holiday read if you’re a bit tired of the usual lighter fare.
- Northern Lights, Nora Roberts
Nora Roberts is the #1 New York Times bestselling author, which gives you some idea of her widespread popularity. Although I’m less of a fan of her ‘straight’ romance, I really enjoy her romantic suspense standalone novels, of which ‘Northern Lights’ is a good example. She has a fantastic ability to give the reader a sense of ‘place’ in her stories, which are set in beautiful American landscapes – in this case, in Alaska. The writing is accessible and therefore you can dip easily in and out, so it’s perfect after a long day at the office, or during lunchtimes. In this book, she introduces the reader to the small, remote town of Lunacy, and paints a very clear picture of the characters who live there. She manages to convey a feeling of being amongst them, living their life in the frozen landscape with its mountains and sea planes. Of course, the two main protagonists are strong-willed and likeable, which is a big part of her skill – it isn’t always easy to create characters that a reader actively likes. In Northern Lights, a killer has escaped justice for over twenty years, for a crime committed in the mountains. When the frozen corpse of his victim is accidentally discovered, it’s a case of solving an old-fashioned whodunnit. Good stuff!
- The Count of Monte Cristo, Alexandre Dumas
As I said above, I like the classics as much as the next person! Dumas is one of my favourites and I’ve loved his books since childhood. The Man in the Iron Mask is another goodun’, but I’d have to say this one has the edge. It’s meaty and complex, covering the psychology of such an incredibly broad spectrum of human emotion that it’s hard not to admire that kind of writing skill. When you read the story, Dantes’ hatred and quest for revenge is an almost tangible thing. The sense of injustice is palpable and the reader can recognise negative characteristics in his tormentors that might just as easily be found in any modern tale, or even in our own lives (to a much less harrowing extent, I hope). What a book!
- Rebecca, Daphne du Maurier
First published in the 1930s, this novel has quite a gothic, old-world quality which really works. Hitchcock made it into a film which was also wildly successful, starring Laurence Olivier and Joan Fontaine. The book tells the tale of a young woman (she remains nameless throughout) who falls in love with brooding widower and aristocrat Maxim de Winter. After a whirlwind romance in Monte Carlo, they return to Manderley, his beautiful West Country estate. She meets the sinister housekeeper, Mrs Danvers, who begins a campaign of psychological warfare against her, deriving from her great loyalty towards de Winter’s first wife, Rebecca. She undermines the young woman at every available opportunity until she begins to believe her husband does not really love her – how could he, when she lacks all the beauty and sophistication of his first society wife? The success of the story really lies in its believability. As the story progresses, we can really imagine the slow demolition of the young woman’s confidence and, as we like her, we fear for her sanity and her safety as the book reaches its climax. Atmospheric storytelling, at its best!
- The Psychopath Test, Jon Ronson
This book is an absolutely brilliant leveller. If you ever feel like you’re starting to take yourself too seriously, then pick up this little gem of a non-fiction book. It’s the story of the author’s quest to understand the meaning of ‘normality’ in modern society, or if it even exists. I laugh out loud reading some of the passages in this book as he delves into the meaning of ‘madness’, meeting psychopaths, those whose lives have been touched by madness and the clinicians who diagnose it (including the man who came up with the renowned ‘Psychopath Test’). It skilfully addresses some of the most damaging and interesting sides to the human psyche with clarity and humour. Great read!
I could go on and on, but there are a few to be getting along with!