Matt’s top 5 inspirational books – Matt signs off from NQ

  • List in no particular order

Try as I might, I couldn’t come up with ten for this list. I’m dyslexic, you see, so while some books grab me, most I read don’t have the same impact as they would most people as I often can’t get into the prose of the novel.

That said, I’ve read some gripping yarns over the years and I’d like to talk about five of them now. These are books that have transformed my notion of what can be done with the written word, in the way in which a story is communicated, or breathed fresh life to an idea gone stale. If I’d wanted to talk about books with an interesting story, of course 10 would have been easy, but I want to really talk about the truly exceptional in these lists!

George R R Martin – A Storm of Swords (2000)

A Storm of Swords
(C) Voyager Books

With the conclusion of Game of Thrones earlier this year, George R R Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire series has enjoyed a significant uptake in readership. I started reading the books after the series conclusion to avoid confusion and I’m now working my way through a Feast for Crows.

So, why the third entry in the series, rather than the first or second? A Game of Thrones is a fantastic introduction to the series, but sometimes the characters feel more expositional than real and as the first season of the TV show adapts the book pretty faithfully, I found I didn’t glean as much extra from reading it than I did the following two.

A Clash of Kings is almost perfectly written, but I found Theon’s chapters (each chapter is from the point of view of one of the major characters) to be slower-paced and focussing on Theon’s ego too much for me to enjoy it.

A Storm of Swords is set at quite an incredible pace. Most of what happens in seasons three and four in the show happens in this one book, including the Red Wedding, Purple Wedding, Tyrion’s trial, the battle on the Wall and Daenerys’s sack of Slaver’s Bay. We also get chapters from Jaime Lannister’s point of view, which is refreshing as up to that point all of the characters have been someway decent or honest and while Jaime isn’t exactly a villain, he’s at least morally very grey.

George R R Martin really makes the world come alive, with chapters happening in plenty of locations around Westeros, beyond the Wall and around Slaver’s Bay. It’s easy to get lost in the book for hours, telling yourself you’ll read just one more chapter…

Arthur C Clarke – 2061: Odyssey Three (1987)

(C) Del Ray Books

 Again, I’m going for a third book in a series, but again with good reason.

I love Arthur C Clarke’s 2001 and 2010 novels, but while both centre around a very specific event, 2061 develops the idea of humans colonising the solar system.

You have to read the books and/or see the films to understand why a lot of what is happening is happening, so basically in 2001 humans discover an alien artefact buried on the Moon and send astronauts out to Jupiter (Saturn in the book) to find out what a signal from the artefact was sent to.

As they get there, the ship’s computer malfunctions and kills all the astronauts save for Dave Bowman, who shuts it down and carries on alone to his destination. He discovers another monolith and is transported to another dimension, never to be heard from by humans again.

In 2010, Heywood Floyd, the lead scientist for the 2001 mission, is disgraced for the disaster that befell the astronauts, but is allowed to join a Russian mission to salvage the ship and try to discover more. Whilst there, Dave Bowman reappears as an evolved being and warns the crew to leave Jupiter’s airspace. After much arguing, they do and an unknown force implodes Jupiter behind them, creating a second sun.

2061 kicks off with Floyd going on a space cruise as an old man against the backdrop of life adapting to a dramatically altered solar system. While this is happening, his grandson who works as an inter-space spy is marooned on Europa after the ship he’s on is hijacked. This is particularly problematic as humanity had been warned to do what they wanted with the Moons around the new sun, except for Europa which they were to leave alone, so Floyd realises he must try and talk to Bowman, or whatever he has become now, to rescue his grandson.

It seems like a fantastical delight, but Clarke’s work is based on a lot of hard science fact, and contemporary thinking about how future technologies would work, so Jupiter being detonated notwithstanding, everything happening in this book feels as though it could be real in the future.

It’s a gripping space romp, exploring new worlds, new Earth politics and lesser known celestial locations such as Halley’s Comet and the Jovian Moon System.

David Mitchell – Cloud Atlas (2004)

Cloud Atlas
(C) Sceptre

 You may or may not have seen the film adaptation, which is great, but Cloud Atlas is a fantastic piece of 21st century literature.

The plot consists of six stories, separated in time but connected by spiritual themes and a birthmark on each of the main characters. The story is presented as each character reads it, with each one suddenly ending halfway through.

The first story is told from the journal of a lawyer aboard a pacific voyage in the 1860s, being read by a young English composer in the 1930s who is writing letters to his lover, which in turn are read by an American journalist in the 70s who is helping that lover uncover a conspiracy, which is written about and turned into a screenplay and sent to a publisher in the present day who is writing his memoirs, whose exploits are turned into a film, later banned being watched illicitly by an escaped clone in the near future who delivers a sermon about true humans and clones coexisting which is taken as a divine gospel by farmers in the far future whose civilisation has crumbled to being primitive once more.

By a series of events, each person discovers the second half of the story (the journal is being used to prop up a bed post, the missing half of the screenplay resent) and you read the concluding halves of the stories in reverse order.

What makes the book so mind-bendingly brilliant is while you would expect events in each story to influence the ones after it in the first half, in the second half events end up influencing events in chronologically previous stories so the conclusion of the tale of the 1860s lawyer feels like a full completion to the story.

Carlos Ruiz Zafon – The Shadow of the Wind (2001)

Shadow of the Wind
(C) Grupo Planeta

This book has a similar time-bending mechanic, although not in the magical spiritual way of Cloud Atlas, but in a more romantically melancholic way.

The book is set at three times, mostly in Barcelona. A boy discovers a book in a library by a mysterious Julian Carax, and later begins to find out more about Julian’s childhood and then his life a young adult, and those people find their way into the boy’s life in the book’s present day.

The book is more or less a romantic story, but with a realistic bitterness about the sentiment. Wistful tales of lost love, of politics dividing and honour suffocating make this book a wonderful read.

Robert Louis Stevenson – The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886)

Jekyll and Hyde
In the public domain

 It seems books telling their stories in slightly unconventional ways seem to stick out to me and Robert Louis Stevenson’s allegory for prostitution in Edinburgh is certainly that.

Hardly any of the accounts of what happened are told first hand, sometimes by characters talking about something they witnessed to someone else, sometimes by letters left behind explaining a secret they took to the grave.

The whole atmosphere of the book is chilling and creepy, and although everybody knows the twist of who Mr Hyde really is, it is depicted as less of a superpower and more of a horrible mutation and mistake in the book. Though its more violent moments wouldn’t bat an eyelid in this day and age, there is a popular legend that Stevenson’s wife threw his first manuscript onto the fire after reading it as she felt it was too horrid for anybody to enjoy reading.

It’s a good thing he made a copy.