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