Wednesday, 30 May 2012

Unusual Books to Read!

Reviews often say that a novel is "gripping", "can'be put down", or "the must-read book of this year". The last comment is frequently made in March, making it a wee bit previous! On the other hand very few non-fiction books are described as "kept me on the edge of my seat", so I thought I'd draw up a list of those non-fiction books that have done just that, bearing in mind I write fiction for kids and my two favourite authors are Terry Pratchett and Bernard Cornwell.
1. Brewers Book of Phrase and Fable - A book I can read again and again and dip into constantly. Discovering the origin of otherwise well-known phrases such as "freeze the balls off a brass monkey". When war ship used round cannon balls they were mounted in pyramids for easy storage by the cannons. Under normal circumstances they would roll around,so the balls at the base were put into a mounting made of brass called a monkey to keep the pyramid stable. Unfortunately in extremely cold weather the iron cannon balls would expand and often fall off the monkey. Hence in really extreme conditions the weather could freeze the balls off the brass monkey! A book of joy to dip into and relish!
2. The Encyclopaedia of London - tells the A-Z story of London, street by street, event by event, location by location and monument by monument. This is not a history book, but a wonderfully detailed journey around the common-place sites we walk past every day and how they evolved. The story of the sewers of London is strangely fascinating and the incredible work done by Mr Basilgette who literally diverted the crap from London and the Thames and in doing so probably saved thousands of lives by reducing the instance of Cholera and other diseases. Rather perversely his ancestor by the same name has put the crap back into our lives on British TV (my personal feeling!).
3. The Biography of London (by Peter Ackroyd) - This is an amazing book and told in a way that only the great Peter Ackroyd could do it. He writes it with love and feeling and almost as a historical romance, taking us from Roman Britain to the current day and makes the city live. It's smells, the vigour all come through and the little known places that are still visible make the book fascinating. For instance in a niche in the \Bank of China is the original foundation stone that was laid commemorating the establishment of the city of London. It probably dates from Roman times, but it's now visible behind glass in the most incongruous of places.
4. The Times Concise Atlas of the World - Not exactly a page turner, but the amount of information in facts and detailed cartography is incredible, and for an author invaluable. There is only one problem and that's political, rather than geographic. The split of the Soviet Union and the renaming of African countries has made my edition redundant, except as a political history book, but the size of the pages, the colour and the sheer detail makes this book a "must".
5. The Eagle Book of Cutaways - When I was a kid, the Eagle comic was a weekly treat. Dan Dare and his sidekick Digby battled the evil green  Mekon was always on the front page and the rest was packed with  stories designed to keep a kid quiet. One weekly item I always loved was the "cutaway". This would be an incredibly detailed coloured drawing of anything from a family saloon car, to a nuclear power station, or an aircraft carrier. The artists would then take sections of the drawing out to draw in detail what actual happened inside whatever it was they'd drawn. Bearing in mind this was the 1950's and 1960's this was in the days of technology's infancy, and amazingly innovative. Looking back now I'm surprised the Men in Black suits didn't find a reason to stop the cutaways in the interest of "National Security"!
3 to 4 years ago the Eagle published the Eagle Annual of Cutaways. My wifr bought it for my birthday. Treasured!
6. Kenneth Williams Diaries - The man who had a genius for making people laugh by looking down his nose and saying "Oh, Matron!" always wanted to be taken seriously as an actor, though he knew that having played in so many Carry On films no one would take him seriously as Hamlet. The audience would be waiting for his trousers to fall down and the leading lady's bra to fly off! He became more and more morose and that, coupled with violent bowel and stomach pains led to his death. His diaries are very well written  and are far from the "Got up. Went to the loo. Boring day" variety. They actual offer a great insight into a tormented mind. One interesting snippet tells us that for many years Kenneth Williams's best friend was Gordon Jackson of The Professionals and Upstairs Downstairs fame.
7. The Train Now Departing - For anyone who hankers after the days of the steam train, this book is one for the coffee table. It's not just for anoraks and tells in fascinating detail how some of the best loved railway networks were killed in the Beaching purge and how many small railways have been resurrected and now run profitably. The maps and photographs and not just pretty, they're remarkably informative and evoke a by-gone era that many of us would like to return.....without the smoke, dust and dirt, of course!
8. A Short History of Almost Everything (by Bill Bryson) - As a foreigner Bill Bryson has carved himself a well-deserved niche as one of our greatest non-fiction writers and I'd include almost any book by him in this list. Narrowing it down to one book I had to choose his magnum opus "A Short History Of Almost Everything". The book's title is no idle boast and covers all aspects of science from fossils and geology, to nuclear energy and rocket science. It literally is the "couldn't put it down" book, but choose a long weekend when you have nothing else to do, because it is LONG. But then so is History!
9. The Guiness Book of Records - I get one every year in February, because they're usually half price then. I don't know why I do it because there can't be that many records broken in the previous 12 months to make it worthwhile. Interestingly the Guinness Book Of Records is actually in itself as the non-fiction book with the most copies sold world-wide. The perfect book for trivia geeks!
10. Dickens (by Peter Ackroyd) - I chose this for the same reason I chose Peter's Biography of London. It's extremely well researched with any and every possible fact wee presented and yet for a biography it's told as a story and you want to know what happened next to the main character.
I could have equally chosen Claire Tomalin's "Samuel Pepys", or Antonia Fraser's " Cromwell: Our Chief of Men", or even Peter Lacey's "Ford". All are excellent books and well worth reading.

There are loads of books out for people who like lists, the main one being "The Book of Lists", but I prefer what's in the list and why, rather than looking at the list itself.
I hope you have a look at some of the books I've chosen. Some are well-known, others may be more obscure, but all are great fun to read. Let me know what you think and how you get on.

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