I'm so pleased to welcome Piccadilly Press author, Oskar Jensen, onto the blog to take part in Chuck A Book. Oskar is the author of The Stones of Winter, the first in a Viking series, in 2015. KM Lockwood reviewed it here. The second book in the series, The Wild Hunt, was published in April of this year.
1) The best book you have ever read
Oh, too, too easy! Growth of the Soil by Knut Hamsun. Being a pretentious, highbrow, European type, many of my most loved books are continental; my favourite by an English writer has to be Forster’s Howard’s End. Hamsun is best known in England for Hunger, another great book, but for me Growth of the Soil is his masterpiece (and the Nobel Prize committee agreed . . . ) Really it defies description but at its heart is the story of Isak and his family, simple Norwegian farmers, an epic in miniature. At times hilarious, heart-breaking, and mysterious, it surprised me most by having such a life-affirming ending. A staggeringly beautiful book.
2) A book you loved from your childhood
King Tulle: The Founding of Tulaborg by Irmelin Sandman Lilius. A Finnish writer this time, sorry. She wrote an awful lot of books about a small fictional town, Tulaborg, and only a handful were ever translated into English. This one is luminous, elegant, touching, with a wry sense of humour and a skilful, lyrical handling of fantasy and myth. A youngest brother is exiled with only a few goats to his name, and goes on to found a kingdom with help from his old nurse (a bit of a troll) and his eventual wife – who is a very foxy lady in a surprisingly literal sense. I wish more people would seek this one out.
3) A book that made you laugh
William the Conqueror by Richmal Crompton. Wodehouse will always be the master of impeccable comic writing, but Crompton’s Just William books run him close. Like the writers at Dreamworks or Pixar, she knew how to write simultaneously for adults and children: there is great social satire here. But mostly William is about perfect plotting and outrageous situations, presented in prose that never underestimates its youngest readers. I’ve chosen this collection because it has two of my favourite stories in, ‘The Leopard Hunter’ and ‘William and the Lost Tourist’, both of which are on the Martin Jarvis audiobook Just William Two. The voices get me every time . . .
4) A book you could not finish
Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain. I was eight years old when I made this incredible discovery: just because you begin a book doesn’t mean you have to finish it. Seriously, why struggle on with something that’s no fun? It’s not like you’re ever going to run out of books to read. I’m sure this is a great classic and I should probably give it another go, but it irritated the hell out of me then – so I stopped. Such a liberating feeling. The same with John Masefield (which is apparently heresy among some children’s authors) and, most recently, Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus. I had heard so much and was so excited about that book, and I love Angela Carter so it seemed like a sure thing – and, in the spirit of this question, I will stop there, before I offend anybody!
5) A book that made you swoon
Seven Gothic Tales by Karen Blixen(pen name Isak Dinesen) . This book was my introduction to Blixen, who wrote Out of Africa as well as many other wonderful (I mean that literally) novels, novellas and collections of short stories. It was the sentences that made me swoon. Majestic, baroque confections. I couldn’t write like that and I wouldn’t want to, but her command of the English language (though a native Danish-speaker, she usually wrote in English first and then translated herself!) is peerless and her stories – or fables – are the most magical things I have ever read. Haunting, dark, fantastical, and eminently swoon-worthy. And Winter’s Tales, another collection, is if anything even better!
6) A book you can’t wait to read
The Letter for the King by Tonke Dragt. I’m rather late to this party, it was written in the sixties and published in English a couple of years ago. But I am far quicker at buying books than I am at reading them, so I always have a stack awaiting me, and this is at the top. At the moment I’m finally reading Midnight’s Children, and it is magnificent, but, well, not exactly ‘a true page-turner’ or ‘thrilling’, both of which are promised me on the cover of The Letter for the King. It looks like classic YA fantasy that aspires to something broader, and if it can come anywhere near, say, Le Guin’s Earthsea quartet, then I am in for an absolute treat.
7) A series you have read and loved
Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey/Maturin series. Hear me out! Yes, this is absolutely a man’s series, but not for the reason you’re thinking. If you’ve seen the film, you’re thinking Russell Crowe and explosions; if you’ve braved the books, you’re thinking ships, more ships, and all the different fiddly little bits of ships. But this is really literary fiction, not genre fiction – more Wolf Hall than Sharpe – and it’s not actually about ships, it’s about the friendship between two men. Over more than twenty novels, O’Brian gives us perhaps the most sensitive and considered account of masculine friendship ever written – meaning, paradoxically, that it probably has most to offer to curious women! I’ve re-read this series more than anything except Narnia, and the relationship between Jack and Stephen always has something new to offer. Just beautiful. You can skip the fiddly bits.
8) A book that made you cry
Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke. I am enormously sentimental but mostly save my tears for certain songs. I only cry when reading during scenes of extreme loyalty or incredibly simple gestures of love. Certain scenes in Harry Potter; parts of Ford Madox Ford’s Parade’s End; there’s a bit in one of the O’Brian books (above), The Reverse of the Medal, that always gets me, when Jack is in the pillory . . . But sticking to the point, nothing has as many parts (maybe because it’s so long) that make me cry as Jonathan Strange. And, for a change, most are romantic moments between Jonathan and Arabella. When she puts his heart in her pocket – when he returns from the war – the coffin – Venice – and, my god, that ending! Buckets, absolute buckets. You could preserve fish in the tears I’ve cried over this book.
9) Your guilty pleasure book
A Song of Ice and Fire (series) by George R. R. Martin. Yes, I maintain this is guilty, there’s a place for guilt in reading. Not for genre reasons, I’m not such a snob as all that – but, when there are so many brilliant books in the world, to give up quite so much time to books that are both so very long, and so very badly written! Yes, badly written: the early ones are littered with errors and clunking dialogue, even after several editions, and the later ones are turgid and meandering. (As a historian I am also deeply unconvinced by a feudal world without regular seasons: agricultural cycles completely dictated politics, war, and economies, until at least the nineteenth century. End of rant.) The TV series is far superior in terms of craft, production values, and pacing. But but but as we all know, this doesn’t stop them being utterly compelling, addictive, escapist genius. The King in the North!
10) A book that took you out of your comfort zone
Love, Again by Doris Lessing. My girlfriend and I were rather shocked to realise recently that we each had a major gender bias in the books we read. Perhaps two thirds of the authors on my shelves were men, and vice versa. So now she’s reading Knausgård (Greatest. Living. Writer.) and I’ve been on a kick of Murdoch, Winterson, Ali Smith . . . all wonderful, until I got to Lessing. I didn’t think I’d struggle with a female protagonist in her sixties, but there was something in the tone, the preoccupations, the judgements about other characters – I just couldn’t find anything to like in the book. The central conceit, the rediscovery of a fin de siècle prodigy from Martinique, felt wholly unconvincing. Then there are all these self-absorbed actors . . . But I was ordered to persevere, and the payoff was enormous; I found the novel’s understated, almost bitter final third deeply sympathetic. All was forgiven.
Thanks for letting me spout – that was enormous fun! What a great blog this is.
Thank you for taking part, Oskar!
Oskar Jensen is the author of The Stones of Winter and The Wild Hunt, both out now and published by Piccadilly Press
To find out more about Oskar: