A Couple of Books at Bedtime

Another slightly odd thing I do is that I like to read more than one book at a time.
Generally there is a ‘Day Book’ and a ‘Night Book’. The ‘Day Book’ gets toted around and read at random opportune moments – so it can take a while to get through - whereas the ‘Night Book’, which is generally the book that gets read faster, is reserved for bedtime. Sometimes the ‘Night Book’ becomes so insistent that it has to get read during the day time too.

You know how it is… or maybe you don’t.

It’s a rare enough event that both books strike a strong chord at the same time. Finding two books that entertain/touch/amaze is rare enough without finding two together. So when this happened to me quite recently, I resolved that I would at least mention those two books to you. I’m not asking that you all run out and read them or anything dramatic like that. Perhaps if you see one of them on a dusty second-hand bookshelf some slow day, you might half-remember that somebody once told you they liked it.

That will be quite enough for me.

At the time of this configuration of the literary planets, my ‘Night Time Book’ was ‘The Secret Scripture’ by Sebastian Barry.

The book itself hasn’t exactly been a secret, nominated as it was for the 2008 Man Booker Prize and arriving on my shelf laden with kudos and praise. That sort of thing tends to put me off a book, contrary bastard that I am. So much so that I might never have read the damn thing if it hadn’t been for the fact that the story is set largely in my home town of Sligo and many of the locations and institutions portrayed within are quite well known to me.

The premise isn’t exactly ‘high octane’ either: An old lady, well on her way to her 100th Birthday, keeps a secret written account of the circumstances which led her to spend much of her life within a mental institution or 'lunatic asylum', as the maps in these parts still charmingly call them. We flash back to her story as her doctor, himself facing great mental turmoil, tries to fathom something of her secret story.

Enough of that book review shizz – I found it to be a most engaging, human and literate read which also succeeded in drawing me into the story to such a point that the book ended up being something which I hastened to return to.

One major gripe – and I had this with 'The Kite Runner' too – after several hundred pages of care and integrity, the author chooses to go all ‘Hollywood’ right at the end by tossing in a twist which would make ‘The Crying Game’ penis hang its head in shame. I’ll say no more – ‘probably said too much already – but I would like you to be warned about that, just in case you set off on this journey on my word alone.

The ‘Day Book’, oh God, the ‘Day Book’ I will have to recommend more wholeheartedly to any of you between eight and eighty. It is ‘Millions’ by Frank Cottrell Boyce. I bought this for my eldest son and he loved it and then everybody else read it – and loved it - and then I finally read it and I loved it too.

It’s a charming story of two boys who live with their Dad after their Mum has died. One day they come upon a large sack of money which has fallen from a passing train. Interestingly the money is in Pounds Sterling and the story is set at a fictional moment in time when that currency is about to change to Euro, leaving the lads only a few days to spend it all.

The central character, Damian, is an absolute expert on Saints. So much so that they infrequently visit him and give him advice on his predicament. It is this kind of off-the-wall characterisation that pushes the book firmly towards genius.

Frank Cottrell Boyce, for me, reads like Nick Hornby at his early best. He constantly inserts basic and telling truisms in his writing, his characters are quirky and real and he explores the subtler implications of the money-situation with an insight of a man who may well have lived the event himself.

If this all sounds familiar, it was made into a little-seen film by director Danny Boyle (he of most-recent Slumdog Millionaire fame) from a screenplay which was written by the author. Interestingly, the book was written after the screenplay and the writer discusses (in the back of the book) how being on set with the film sparked some of the quirkier moments of the book. The only other substantial book which I can think of which developed in this way was Ian Fleming’s ‘Thunderball’. Anyone else know of one?

But, rest assured, this is no cheesy movie-tie-in attempt. It’s a great book and, if you do get to read it, I’d love to hear what you thought of it.

No rush, I’ll be here… somewhere.


Susan at Stony River said...

These two sound too good to pass up. I've been wanting to pick up a book or two for our trip next week (as if I'll have time with the kids along, but there's always hope...) and I think you've sorted it. Thanks!

Ken Armstrong said...

Susan: Some of the action of Secret Scripture is set in the now Clarion Hotel, now the site of hula watching videos, if I recall correctly.

If I could write a book like Millions, I would be happy...

Jim Murdoch said...

"[P]enis hand its head" - there's got to be something Freudian going on there, ol' son.

As for the topic in hang ... sorry hand ... the one that jumps to mind is The Prisoner, a novel by Thomas M Disch, purportedly a novelisation of the TV series but really other than No.6's abduction in London it's its own thing and a very literate and intelligent book it was as I recall. I immediately rushed out and bought one of Disch's own books - a dystopian novel called 334 which I hated.

Ken Armstrong said...

Jim: Thanks. I *had* to fix that, sorry. If I was any use, I would have let my typo stand so that your comment could be more fully appreciated... but then I said, what the hell. :)

(I had typed 'Hand its head' rather than 'Hang its head' which was, as Jim rightly pointed out, a bit Freudian of me.)

hope said...

Well thanks to admitting the correction because I thought I was going nuts to have read "hang". :) [Oh, leave the unintentional pun alone].

Between you and Rachel, I'm going to have a mile long book list. Last week I ordered a book, but I felt bad about it. Here the author had spent so much time putting words on paper, only so I could buy it a couple of years later for $2 [1.42 EU]...the shipping was $3.99. [2.84 EU].

I promise if you write the book of your dreams, I will buy it well before it hits the DISCOUNT bin. :)

Ken Armstrong said...

Hope: I'm working hard on that. If I manage it, you won't have to pay at all. That's a promise. :)

Finn: Same as that! I used to have a tube/train book as well. God, I got through so many books in those days. It's slower now. I'm enjoying Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and, yes, the family tree is helping. :)

Niamh S. said...

Hey ken,
I recently read The Secret Scripture and thought the same about the 'twist' (which I kinda saw coming but kept telling myself that I must be wrong!). Aside from that I enjoyed it immensely and will look forward to seeking out some more of Sebastian Barry's work :)

Ken Armstrong said...

Niamh: I knew *something* was coming but not that. I very much like his play 'The Steward of Christendom' but it might not be to all tastes. Interesting thematic streams through all his work...

Jena Isle said...

Hi Ken,

Profound post, I have to go find my brain-honing strop...lol...I've slowed down on my reading because my eyes could not put up with the strain and I don't have ample time, But I don't give up on that dream of being able to read again to my heart's content.

BTW, I've tweeted this great post! All the best.

fragileheart said...

Hm... I'm not sure I'm the type that could read two books at once. I mean my own thoughts are so muddled in my head that reading two stories seems like something that would just confuse me completely.

These two do sound quite interesting though. Right now, I'm considering going over to the bookstore tomorrow to pick up 'My sisters' keeper'. A book that (and I'll be honest), I doubt I ever would have known about if they hadn't made a movie about it. But I think I'd like to read it first before going to see it.

:) Hi Ken!

Ken Armstrong said...

Jena Isle: The 'Brain Honing Strop' is a potent image indeed. :) I remember the strop in the barber shop when I was young, was fascinated by it. British people (and me) would then occasionally say 'Throwing a Strop' for having a temper tantrum. Must see how they figured that out. :)

Reggie: I hear that that is the saddest film ever so bring a box of tissues and be brave. :)

Laura Brown said...

My brain can't handle reading two books at the same time. Before college I could do it, did it a lot. I'd read several books at the same time when I was a kid, now I don't know how I did that. I can only keep so many things straightened out in my brain at the same time, nowadays. I'm doing well if I am reading one fiction and one non-fiction.

Dave King said...

The Secret Scriptures was on my to get list anyway. Your review just confirms that - and moves it up a few places. Plus, I really think I must now add Millions. Two excellent reviews. Would that all reviews were as well constructed and targeted! (i have the same system, incidentally, of a Day Book (usually poetry) and a night book (never poetry) Though I have been thinking that it might be more convenient the other way around.

hope said...

In case I get busy today....


May you get all you wish for and then some. :)