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Thursday, November 1, 2012

Books That Have Stayed With Me

This is not the first time I have borrowed an idea from Darlene Foster's Blog!  On this occasion I'm compiling a list of the 5 books that have made the greatest impression on me.  Darlene realised when she put together her list of favourite books that there was a common thread throughout of strong female characters.  In my case the central themes and similarities are so glaringly obvious they pretty much whack you over the head - so much so I'll leave you to spot them!

None of these books were published recently - I'm not sure if that is a reflection on literature today or where I was in my own personal journey when I read them.  Perhaps I needed to be younger and more impressionable than I am now.

#1 - Connie Willis - Doomsday Book (1993)

This book is usually described as science fiction but don't let that put you off if you are not a fan of the genre.  I read it when it was first published and no other book since has left such a lasting impression on me.  The characters are the most vivid you are ever likely to find - it is the most compelling study of human nature that I have ever come across.

This is the perfect time of year to read Doomsday Book as the story is set during Christmas albeit in two different centuries.  In the 21st century Christmas is reduced to synthetic music piped through shopping malls and insincere gifts.  In the 14th century the origins and meaning of our Christmas traditions come to the fore.

And if you finish this book you will never think of church bells in quite the same way again.

The Amazon blurb:
For Kivrin, preparing an on-site study of one of the deadliest eras in humanity's history was as simple as receiving inoculations against the diseases of the fourteenth century and inventing an alibi for a woman traveling alone. For her instructors in the twenty-first century, it meant painstaking calculations and careful monitoring of the rendezvous location where Kivrin would be received.

But a crisis strangely linking past and future strands Kivrin in a bygone age as her fellows try desperately to rescue her. In a time of superstition and fear, Kivrin -- barely of age herself -- finds she has become an unlikely angel of hope during one of history's darkest hours.

Five years in the writing by one of science fiction's most honored authors, Doomsday Book is a storytelling triumph. Connie Willis draws upon her understanding of the universality's of human nature to explore the ageless issues of evil, suffering and the indomitable will of the human spirit.

#2 = Mary Stewart - The Crystal Cave (1970) and The Hollow Hills (1973) 

I've always been drawn to Arthurian stories and legends.  These two books are utterly magical in their portrayal of the events leading up to the crowning of Arthur as king, but at the same time keep events completely anchored in the real world..

The Crystal Cave tells of the childhood of Merlin and ends with the birth of Arthur.  The Hollow Hills picks up the story and ends when Arthur is crowned king.  The triumph of Mary Stewart's story telling is how believable the narrative is and how fluidly the story flows.  Her characters are also extremely appealing.

There was a TV series made of The Crystal Cave around 1990.  I never had the opportunity to see it and am glad about that now as I believe it was low budget and at times quite risible.

The Amazon blurb:

The Crystal Cave - Born the bastard son of a Welsh princess, Myridden Emrys -- or as he would later be known, Merlin -- leads a perilous childhood, haunted by portents and visions. But destiny has great plans for this no-man's-son, taking him from prophesying before the High King Vortigern to the crowning of Uther Pendragon . . . and the conception of Arthur -- king for once and always.

The Hollow Hills - A magnificent tale realized by premier novelist, Mary Stewart, here is the spellbinding, suspenseful story of how Merlin, the Enchanter, helped Arthur become king of all Britain, in an extraordinary story that brings the legend Merlin and his protege Arthur to glowing life.

The trilogy is completed with The Last Enchantment (1979) but for me the final book lacked the brilliance of the first two.

#3 - Ellis Peters - Brother Cadfael (1977 - 1994)

Brother Cadfael is my favourite literary character.  I return to these books whenever I have nothing else to read and can enjoy them again and again.  Cadfael is a delight with his knowledge of herbs and medicine, his humanity in dealing with everyone he encounters and his ability to solve the most puzzling of crimes.

I recently watched the TV series made during the 90's online.  Although nowhere near as good as the books it was still enjoyable.  Derek Jacobi made a wonderful Cadfael and in fact all the 'monks' were well portrayed.  The biggest flaw was that the actor playing Hugh Beringar kept changing and all but the first 'Hugh' were woefully miscast.  It was also far too obvious that the series was not filmed in England.

The books are available individually or combined in the Omnibus Series.  This review is from Good Reads:

The character of Cadfael himself is a Welsh Benedictine monk living at Shrewsbury Abbey, in western England, in the first half of the 12th century. The historically accurate stories are set between about 1135 and about 1145, during "The Anarchy", the destructive contest for the crown of England between King Stephen and Empress Maud.

As a character, Cadfael "combines the curious mind of a scientist/pharmacist with a knight-errant", entering the cloister in his forties after being both a soldier and a sailor, this experience gives him an array of talents and skills useful in monastic life. He is a skillful observer of human nature, inquisitive by nature, energetic, a talented herbalist (work he learned in the Holy Lands), and has an innate, although modern, sense of justice and fair-play. Abbots call upon him as a medical examiner, detective, doctor, and diplomat. His worldly knowledge, although useful, gets him in trouble with the more doctrinaire characters of the series, and the seeming contradiction between the secular and the spiritual worlds forms a central and continuing theme of the stories.

#4 - Rosemary Sutcliff - The Eagle of the Ninth (1954)

This book was written for children, but I read and enjoyed it as a young adult.  That was many years ago and I can still remember it as a book that is beautifully written, vividly describing the landscape it is set in with a compelling story and sympathetic characters.

In 2011 The Eagle was made into a passable film - true to the original and my memories of it.


The Amazon blurb:

The Ninth Legion marched into the mists of northern Britain - and they were never seen again. 

Four thousand men disappeared and their eagle standard was lost. It's a mystery that's never been solved, until now . . . 

Marcus has to find out what happened to his father, who led the legion. So he sets out into the unknown, on a quest so dangerous that nobody expects him to return. 

The Eagle of the Ninth is heralded as one of the most outstanding children's books of the twentieth century and has sold over a million copies worldwide. Rosemary Sutcliff writes with such passion and attention to detail that Roman Britain is instantly brought to life and stays with the reader long after the last page has been turned. The book is also now the subject of a major film.

#5 - Umberto Eco - The Name of the Rose (1980 Italian, English translation 1983)

One of the most atmospheric books I have read with a cleverly realised mystery at its core.  This is also probably the only book I have read as a translation that does not come across as stilted or clumsy.  The English version was translated by William Weaver and he did an excellent job.

This is a complex book and I tend to think of it as comprising two main parts - the fascinating 'murder mystery' and the somewhat harrowing depiction of the Inquisition.

Unsurprisingly this book was made into a film in 1986 starring Sean Connery, F. Murray Abraham and a very young Christian Slater.  Even though the film concentrated on the aspects of the book I enjoyed and changed the story to soften some aspects of the Inquisition, I found it a bit lacklustre and don't think it really conveyed the richness of the book.     

The Amazon blurb:

The year is 1327. Franciscans in a wealthy Italian abbey are suspected of heresy, and Brother William of Baskerville arrives to investigate. When his delicate mission is suddenly overshadowed by seven bizarre deaths, Brother William turns to the logic of Aristotle, the theology of Aquinas, and the empirical insights of Roger Bacon to find the killer. He collects evidence, deciphers secret symbols and coded manuscripts, and digs into the eerie labyrinth of the abbey (“where the most interesting things happen at night”) armed with a wry sense of humor and a ferocious curiosity. 

In addition to my top 5, if I want to read for pure entertainment I'm still working my way through and thoroughly enjoying the Marcus Didius Falco series by Lindsey Davis.  Wickipedia introduces the books as follows:
Using the concepts of modern detective stories (with Falco as the private investigator, roughly translated into the classical world as a "private informer"), Davis portrays the world of the Roman Empire under Vespasian. The tone is arch and satirical, but the historical information provided is carefully accurate.


Joleene Naylor said...

I feel weird to say I've never read any of these - but they look good :) Fun blog!

DMS said...

I have never read any of these books either! Wow! I must get started. Some of these sound right up my alley, too!

Themes... hmm... history, fate or purpose, and overcoming evil. Having not read any of them- I tried to go from the blurbs. :)

Barbara said...

The eagle of the ninth, the name of the rose and the doomsday book have been on my must-read list for ages, now I really must read them!
I'm with Jess on the theme - historical novels?

Donna Heber said...

All of these books look wonderful Sharon. Now over the years has your taste changed in what you read?

Darlene Foster said...

What a great list Sharon and thanks for mentioning me and my blog!I love all books about Merlin and King Arthur but the Mary Stewart books are my favourite and I read all 4. It is so funny that you should mention them as my hairdresser and I, just today, had a long conversation about them. She has just discovered them. I must read the Brother Cadfel books as I saw some of the TV series and enjoyed it.

Roger Lawrence said...

I must confess that I've never read any of these books, either. Now I know what to buy myself next. Great post.

Donna Yates said...

I've never read any of these, but everyone of them looks to be a great read. Thanks for sharing these.


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