Some of my Favourite People are Books (part two)

It’s usual for a list of great novels to include

  • an inscrutable foreign masterpiece from the present-day
  • one Jane Austen title (choice depends on intellectual criteria, such as which film hero was most fanciable)
  • an angst novel (Philip Roth often fits the bill)
  • To Kill a Mockingbird
  • Catch-22
  • and *drum roll* Anna Karenina.


Maybe you’re waiting with bated breath for Rosamund Bartlett’s new translation? Her Anna Karenina, due to be published in August, is already ranked about two millionth on Amazon (how does that happen? Tolstoy pulling rank again?).

Sorry to disappoint, but my choice of Russian blockbuster is by Boris Pasternak. When I first read it, I was neither a medic nor a writer, whereas Yuri Zhivago was both.

It snowed and snowed, the whole world over,

Snow swept the world from end to end.

A candle burned on the table;

A candle burned.

I loved Doctor Zhivago for its action, its setting, its characters, its lyricism (and Omar Sharif). I even studied Russian and tried to write poetry. Then I figured out the real lesson: to avoid becoming as self-absorbed as Pasternak’s hero. Also, not to turn into a bloke, especially not one with a frosted tache and a balalaika.

Dr Zhivago

Catch-22 may not be on this list, but I treasure another novel that gave rise to a very current phrase. Yes, the past is a foreign country in L P Hartley’s The Go-Between. Twelve-year old Leo figures out the facts of life. He also figures he’s being used.

“Well,” he said, “let’s make a bargain. I’ll tell you all about spooning, but on one condition.”

I knew what he was going to say, but for form’s sake I asked: “What is it?”

“That you’ll go on being our postman.”

While the lad was naïve by today’s standards, the book is still fresh for 1953 and nicely captures Leo’s post-traumatic stress. By comparison The Shrimp and the Anemone is rather dull. Which is to say that I don’t recall any spooning.

My choice of modern foreign masterpiece is the perfectly scrutable The Yacoubian Building. If you haven’t read it, it’s a lively ensemble novel peopled by a doorman, his family, a gay newspaper editor, Islamists, and the other motley inhabitants of the building on Suleiman Basha Street. Here’s a passage about the womanizing aristo Zaki Bey.

From Lady Kamla (she of the inexorable appetite) he learned how to start and when to desist and how to ask for the most abandoned sexual positions in extremely refined French. Zaki Bey has also slept with women of all classes – oriental dancers, foreigners, society ladies and the wives of the eminent and distinguished, university and secondary school students, even fallen women, peasant women, and housemaids. Every one had her special flavor, and he would often laughingly compare the bedding of Lady Kamla with its rules of protocol and that of the beggar woman he picked up one night when drunk in his Buick and took back to his apartment in Baehler Passage, and who he discovered, when he went into the bathroom with her to wash her body himself, to be so poor that she made her underwear out of empty cement sacks. *

The story may seem a bit ‘told’ for some, but that’s probably the nature of Arabic literature. The book has special resonance for me as I’ve lived in Cairo, although Al-Aswany doesn’t describe anything as atmospheric as my first terrifying day at school when I screamed so much that I threw up onto the teacher’s shoes.

For a tale that moves at breakneck speed and grips like a novice on a rearing stallion, look no further than Dick Francis. Low-brow? Maybe. Formulaic? Sometimes. But brilliant all the same, right from the off. This is from For Kicks.

The Earl of October drove into my life in a pale blue Holden that had seen better days, and danger and death tagged along for the ride.

I’m not the only fan of his opening style. Here’s what writer and blogger Emma Darwin has to say in Straight proof: what any of us can learn from Dick Francis.

Dick Francis

After brooding Russians, a traumatized adolescence, Egyptian neighbours and skulduggery in the stables, what could I possibly have left out? Chick-lit, that’s what. If you’ve read Me Before You by JoJo Moyes, you’ll know that Will has a life-changing motorbike crash.

“So, Patrick,” Will said, perhaps sensing my discomfort. “Louisa tells me you’re a personal trainer. What does that involve?”

I so wished he hadn’t asked. Patrick launched into his sales spiel, all about personal motivation and how a fit body made for a healthy mind. Then he segued into his training schedule for the Xtreme Viking – the temperature of the North Sea, the body fat ratios needed for marathon running, the best times in each discipline. I normally tuned out at this point, but all I could think of now, with Will beside me, was how inappropriate it was.

 What have all these books got in common?

A cracking story. Lots of conflict. Great dialogue. Wit, of course. I’m pretty sure there’s something else too, but it’s hard to analyse when you’re in awe so I’m damned if I know. Ask me again when I’ve got more of my own books onto other people’s shelves of favourites.


 *I had to correct the grammar in the English translation by Humphrey Davies. Sloppy editing, HarperCollins.





Some of my Favourite People are Books (part one)

How do you choose a favourite book? It’s almost indecent, like whispering the name of your favourite child (kids: if you’re reading this, I love all three of you the same).

All the same, the evidence is on my shelves. It’s no surprise that I like novels. Preferably as real books. While Kindle has a place, usually in my carry-on luggage, only a physical book has pages that smell, that hide things only to fall out years later: the label from a dress, a map of Sorrento, a shopping list, a few pressed petals.

bougainvillea pressed

Unlike real friends, books don’t send you jokey emails, forget to call you, or tell you you’ve gained weight. So here are five of my BFFs.

You’re expecting The Group? Well here it is, my first Best Fiction Forever. Mary McCarthy’s iconic novel shocked a lot of people when it first appeared but it also taught readers about relationships. And recipes. Margaret Drabble claims the book taught her to cook. Here’s a passage about playwright Harald.

His specialities were Italian spaghetti, which any beginner could learn, and those minced sea clams – terribly good – they had the other night, and meat balls cooked in salt in a hot skillet (no fat), and a quick and easy meat loaf his mother had taught him: one part beef, one part pork, one part veal; add sliced onions, pour over it a can of Campbell’s tomato soup and bake in the oven.

But sex and food are not enough. I need laughter too. Enter Tom Sharpe. If only he’d made Porterhouse Blue a tad more outrageous, it would have evoked my own undergraduate days. It’s still fun though sadly it now seems very old-fashioned, especially when it’s in tiny print on yellowed pages.

There was a hangdog look about the Porter that caused the Dean to wonder if it wasn’t time he was put down before recalling that Skullion was after all a human being and that he had been misled by the metaphor.

Also in my BFF list is Coming From Behind. If you think Cambridge is riotous, wait till you get to the Polytechnic, Wrottesley, as described by Howard Jacobson. Here’s what the staff are up to.

Sefton Goldberg, on all fours above her, his knees and elbows glued with the perspiration of effort and anxiety to the polytechnic linoleum, as naked as Noah but for the academic gown and hood which Mrs Shorthall insists he wears, it being degree day, hopes to God he has remembered to lock his door.

I can’t leave out master storyteller Harlan Coben. So he isn’t exactly Tolstoy, but then his protagonist isn’t Vronsky, as any fool can see. The opening of Darkest Fear is a real doozy, as Myron Bolitar might put it.

An hour before his world exploded like a ripe tomato under a stiletto heel, Myron bit into a fresh pastry that tasted suspiciously like urinal cake.

“Well?” Mom prompted.

Myron battled his throat, won a costly victory, swallowed. “Not bad.”

Brave man. But how would the Jersey Boy fare against Jackson Brodie, Kate Atkinson’s erratic empathic detective? Her books are to me an irresistible mix of crime story and emotional drama though people can’t always agree on a definition. The quote on the front of One Good Turn calls it a literary novel, while according to a review on the back, the same book is a ‘detective novel that is better than a whole shelf full of literary fiction.’

Did I mention Brodie is also hapless?

He had never been in a jail cell before. He had put people in them, and taken people out of them, but he had never actually been locked in one himself. Nor had he journeyed from a holding cell to a sheriff court in the back of a Black Maria, which was like travelling in a cross between a public convenience and what he imagined a horsebox would be like.

No, One Good Turn may not be literary fiction, but it’s pacy and witty. I love her use of multiple viewpoints, which I believe allows more plot intricacies and development of lesser characters. No great coincidence that I chose to write One Night at the Jacaranda from more than one point of view.

old books

Are these some of your best friends too? In part two, I’ll reveal a few more of my favourite companions.


The Not-so-Secret Game of Sevens

I’ve been tagged by alternative historical fiction author Alison Morton in a game of Lucky Sevens. 

It’s a bit of online fun for writers that pulls us out of our sheds, studios or beds where we sit scribbling away for hours on end and lets us reveal a little of our current work in progress.

That’s almost word for word what Alison said in her blog.  I’d love to go the whole hog and copy all of her fiction writing so I too can enjoy her amazing success, but back at school the nuns drilled into me that envy was A Bad Thing and that plagiarism was even worse, and the two together were The Devil’s Work and would ensure I never met St Peter.  Ever.  So I’m only copying a little eeny bit of Alison’s homework.

Here’s how the writers’ Game of Sevens goes:

Go to page 7 or 77 in your current manuscript
Go to line 7
Post on your blog approximately the next 7 lines or sentences – as they are!!
Tag 7 other people to do the same

Now, a lot of people have already done this, so I’m not tagging automatically, but I’m inviting any writers who read this to dare to do the same.  Just let me know if you do and I’ll add your name to this post (free advert!).

Alison posted seven lines from AURELIA, based in Roma Nova and the Germanic Federation state of Prussia and set in the 1960/70s. As I said, I’m not a complete plagiarist, so you’ll have to go to her blog to read her excerpt.

My seven or so lines are from my forthcoming novel CAMDEN PASSAGE. It’s set in London and follows on from my novel ONE NIGHT AT THE JACARANDA:

Dan had never been on radio before. And this was live. Which explained why his heart was leaping around in his chest long before he arrived in the studio. satellite dish

The building had a massive atrium that was all shiny marble and glass. So this was where the license fee went. No wonder they weren’t paying guests anything.

He’d made a tray of his new monkfish parcels. They’d be OK cold, especially with a light garnish of red amaranth. Each one was roughly bite-sized, with a toothpick through the middle.

A woman in the lobby barely looked up from her desk to tell him to take a seat. It was the kind of seat designed to make you uncomfortable. So there he sat, balancing out the foil-covered tray on his knees, staring at a bank of silent TV screens for what seemed like ages. Lucky old people on TV.

Well, not that lucky, because one of the programmes was a hilarious reality show in which children were meant to humiliate their parents. Dan supposed Jack would do much the same when he stopped being a cute little baby and grew into an egregious adolescent.

Egregious. It was Dan’s word of the day. He rolled it around in his mouth, still not sure he’d use it on air.

Let me know if you too want to take part of the writers’ Not-So-Secret Game of Sevens.

Alison Morton is the author of Roma Nova thrillers, INCEPTIO and PERFIDITASThird in series SUCCESSIO is out now