I have a lot of books. I haven’t even read half of them. Foolishly, I also keep buying more – curse you, Book Depository and your infuriatingly affordable prices. This summer, I want to try and make it through six books I’ve been prioritising this year and haven’t actually read because I was reading other things from lower in the list – curse you, Book Depository, and your infuriatingly large range of Doctor Who novels. So, last night, I decided to set myself a goal. I’m going to list my priority books here, and then over summer as I read them I shall post reviews. THIS PLAN IS FOOLPROOF.
1. Empire, by Niall Ferguson (2003)
“Once vast swathes of the globe were coloured imperial red and Britannia ruled not just the waves, but the prairies of America, the plains of Africa and the deserts of Arabia. Just how did a small, rainy island in the North Atlantic achieve this? And why did the empire on which the sun never set finally decline and fall? Niall Ferguson’s acclaimed Empire brilliantly unfolds the imperial story in all its splendours and its miseries, showing how a gang of buccaneers and gold-diggers planted the seed of the biggest empire in all history – and set the world on the road to modernity.”
Ferguson is a widely published Scottish historian known for his contrarian views, so I’m not only looking forward to learning something by reading this book, but perhaps also to having my opinions and knowledge challenged.
This is number one on the list for two reasons. Firstly, I’m passionate about history and the teaching of it, and secondly, well, I was lent this book by a work colleague not long after I started work as a sofa merchant in January, and have been ‘looking after’ it ever since. But soon, I will finish it, and it will return to its rightful owner.
2. The Kraken Wakes, by John Wyndham (1953)
“For journalists Mike and Phyllis Watson, what at first appears to be a curiosity becomes a global calamity. Helpless, they watch as humanity struggles to survive now that water – one of the compounds on which life depends – is turned against us. Finally, sea levels begin their inexorable rise and the world looks set to drown…”
This was one of several novels I purchased on recommendation of my good friend Andrew, whose blog you can see here. This one is very high on the priority list as it’s by John Wyndham, one of my favourite authors. Wyndham is the king of the predominantly British ‘cosy catastrophe’ genre, wherein an apocalyptic event occurs around the main characters, who often survive in relative comfort despite the destruction of society as we know it. Maybe it’s because I’m an Anglophile, or I’m middle class and white, but I find his characters relatable and like to think that I too would be smooth under apocalyptic pressure. Probably not, but I look forward to finding out what the affable-sounding Mike and Phyllis get up to during the drowning of the human race.
3. John Dies At The End, by David Wong (2009)
“STOP. You should not have touched this book with your bare hands. NO, don’t put it down. It’s too late. They’re watching you. My name is David Wong. My best friend is John. Those names are fake. You might want to change yours. You may not want to know about the things you’ll read on these pages, about the sauce, about Korrok, about the invasion, and the future. But it’s too late. You touched the book. You’re in the game. You’re under the eye. The only defense is knowledge. You need to read this book, to the end. Even the part with the bratwurst. Why? You just have to trust me.
The important thing is this: The drug is called Soy Sauce and it gives users a window into another dimension. John and I never had the chance to say no. You still do. I’m sorry to have involved you in this, I really am. But as you read about these terrible events and the very dark epoch the world is about to enter as a result, it is crucial you keep one thing in mind:None of this was my fault.“
I first became aware of this novel in 2010 on comedy website Cracked.com, where author David Wong (real name Jason Pargin) is a senior editor. I’ve been intrigued ever since and finally bought the book earlier this year. It sounds wacky and fun, and judging from the small amount I read before I started watching some bingeable TV show, I’m going to enjoy it very much!
4. Thrilling Cities, by Ian Fleming (1962)
“In 1959, Ian Fleming, the creator of James Bond, was commissioned by the Sunday Times to explore some of the world’s most exotic cities. From Hong Kong to Honolulu, New York to Naples, he left the bright mainstreets for the back alleys, abandoning tourist sites in favour of underground haunts, and mingling with celebrities, gangsters and geishas. The result is a series of vivid snapshots of a mysterious, vanished world. “
This book is nought but a historical curiosity these days, as of the thrilling cities Fleming visited, few are the same now as they were 50 years ago. Having said that, I got through the chapter on Hong Kong before switching to something else (probably an excessively long message to a girl I was trying to convince that I wasn’t crazy – she became my girlfriend so I guess I covered myself pretty well) and it was actually exactly like reading a James Bond novel. Fleming has a uniquely engaging prose style – pared back and without flair, but he makes every word count and his writing is genuinely interesting. Being an old fashioned hack, I would have loved to visit much of the world during the 1950s and 1960s, mostly because all the fiction I enjoy is set there. So, this book should provide a pleasant stop gap until I have a time machine!
5. The Alteration, by Kingsley Amis (1976)
“In Kingsley Amis’s virtuoso foray into virtual history it is 1976 but the modern world is a medieval relic, frozen in intellectual and spiritual time ever since Martin Luther was promoted to pope back in the sixteenth century. Stephen the Third, the king of England, has just died, and Mass (Mozart’s second requiem) is about to be sung to lay him to rest. In the choir is our hero, Hubert Anvil, an extremely ordinary ten-year-old boy with a faultless voice. In the audience is a select group of experts whose job is to determine whether that faultless voice should be preserved by performing a certain operation. Art, after all, is worth any sacrifice.
“How Hubert realizes what lies in store for him and how he deals with the whirlpool of piety, menace, terror, and passion that he soon finds himself in are the subject of a classic piece of counterfactual fiction equal to Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle.”
In July, I read Philip K Dick’s The Man in the High Castle, a masterpiece of counterfactual fiction. It posits an alternate history where the Axis powers were victorious at the end of the Second World War, and has become a staple of English and History curricula worldwide. Indeed, it actually helped me learn a lot more about the Nazi war machine than I already knew because I had to research a lot of the characters mentioned by Dick as being influential in the new world order.
In the course of reading The Man in the High Castle, I came across The Alteration, by Kingsley Amis. Amis is one of my favourite writers, and so any book by him is a must read for me. The Alteration is set in a 1976 where the Reformation never occurred, and so the Catholic Church is basically in charge of the world. I enjoy a good ‘what if’, and this seems rather more ambitious than the hundreds of Philip K Dick imitators out there. Christmas read, here I come.