Monday, October 15, 2012

Books of a Lifetime by James Becker

Today we welcome James Becker, author of ECHO OF THE REICH to Historical Tapestry to share his Books of a Lifetime.


I write thrillers for a living, with the occasional venture into the somewhat uncharted and certainly unfamiliar waters of non-fiction and ghostwriting, and almost inevitably most of the books I read are also thrillers. If nothing else, I do need to be professionally aware of what other authors in my chosen genre are producing: I need to be able to spot new trends as they emerge to avoid ending up—to continue the aquatic theme with which I started this paragraph—in some unvisited backwater.
            But thrillers are essentially ephemeral. Once you know the ending of a particular book, at least some of the excitement and attraction in reading it has gone, and so most of the books I read today are discarded—or, more accurately, deleted from my Kindle—once I’ve finished them. I retain very, very few to read again. If you look at my library, there are almost no novels in it, and the vast majority of books are reference works which are related in some way to the subjects that I write about, and I don’t read these, just dip into them when I need to in the search for some elusive fact.
            But having said that, I do have one shelf which contains a small number of books that I read once and enjoyed so much that I decided to keep them, and every so often I go back and I read them again, with undiminished enjoyment. But I will freely admit to anyone that they are a somewhat eclectic selection. And they even include two non-fiction works which I’ll get out of the way first.
            Somewhat alarmingly, both of these books discuss monsters, one type undeniably extinct, the fate of the other creature rather less certain. The Dinosaur Heresies by Robert Bakker takes a critical look at these giant animals which roamed the surface of our planet for millions of years and makes a number of suggestions about them which have yet to be accepted by mainstream palaeontologists, hence the title. Principally, he believes that dinosaurs were quite probably warm-blooded and suggest that some of them were a lot more intelligent than most people believe. Robert Bakker is a palaeontologist himself – a somewhat eccentric palaeontologist, as I think even he would agree—but he writes with a fervour and a passion which is enormously engaging, and his arguments seem to me to be both logical and sensible. Like almost every child, I was fascinated by dinosaurs when I was growing up, and in this book they really seem to come alive.
            The second monster is well known around the world, even though its existence is disputed by almost everybody. In The Great Orm of Loch Ness: A Practical Inquiry into the Nature and Habits of Water-monsters, F. W. Holiday describes his own personal search for the Loch Ness Monster. Belief or non-belief in this creature is obviously very individual. Most scientists flatly deny that any large unknown animal could exist in this vast body of water, but almost none of those scientists have bothered to bestir themselves from their cosy academic niches to visit the loch and actually investigate it. F. W. Holiday did investigate it, and claims that he saw the creature himself, a testimony that one obviously either accepts or rejects. What I love about this book is not so much the subject as the way the author writes about it. He clearly has a passion for the subject, but also a very obvious mastery of the English language, and some of the phrases and expressions he uses are almost poetic in their concepts and creativity. It is a delightful book to read, irrespective of the subject matter.
            And turning to creative writing, one of my personal favourites has to be the entire universe-encompassing Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series of books by Douglas Adams—a trilogy in four parts, as he puts it. The author has a deft touch in his use of words and the way he puts them together, and the story itself is simply wonderful. It pokes fun at everything from the human race—‘ape-descended life-forms who still think digital watches are a pretty neat idea’—to the bureaucracy that requires the demolition of the planet Earth to make way for a hyperspace bypass and which places the planning authority in Alpha Centauri where any complaints should have been lodged. The book is laced with humour throughout, as the hapless Arthur Dent travels the galaxy in pyjamas and dressing gown, encountering sexy archaeologists investigating the demise of civilisations caused by the Shoe Event Horizon, and hitching rides on spaceships powered by exotic and unlikely devices, including the Infinite Improbability Drive, the Someone Else’s Problem Field, and even a space-warping engine which relies on the new science of bistromatics, mathematics based upon the financial calculations involved in paying for a meal in an Italian bistro.
            Two other slim volumes on the shelf which still make me laugh are two of the funniest books ever written, in my opinion. The first is Puckoon by Spike Milligan, an unlikely tale describing the division of Ireland into two separate countries, a tale peopled by entirely believable and heavily flawed characters who find themselves in the strangest of situations. Spike Milligan handles the complex story beautifully, and the book is genuinely laugh-out-loud funny.
The second novel is The Great Dinosaur Robbery by David Forrest, one of the very few books written by two authors (David Forrest was the joint pseudonym of two writers) that I have read and enjoyed. I know we’re back to dinosaurs again, but that’s almost incidental. The story is as simple as it is unlikely, and involves a group of nannies in New York contriving to steal an entire brontosaurus, bone by bone, from a museum to mail it to Her Majesty the Queen in London because they believe it contains a hidden message from a British secret agent. The humour and the characterisation are simply delightful.
            One other of my ‘must read again’ books is non-fiction. My Family and Other Animals by Gerald Durrell is one of those books that instantly transports you to another place and time, in this case the island of Corfu where he spent his adolescent years just before the Second World War. All of his books—and he wrote 37 in all—are enjoyable reads, most especially if you’re interested in the animals with which we share this planet, but this book is a delight no matter what your view of nature. His descriptions of the island and the many eccentric characters he met there are a joy to read, and you really feel that you know the place and the people. I have a particularly soft spot for this book because it was one of the set books when I was studying English literature at school, and it enlivened my studies enormously.
            Finally, there’s my ‘desert island book’: if I were to be stranded somewhere, deprived of my Kindle and any other form of entertainment, but could take one book with me, what would it be? That’s actually an easy question to answer. Without the slightest hesitation I would seize The Lord of the Rings by JRR Tolkien. Again, as with the Durrell book, I was lucky enough to read The Hobbit as part of my school studies, and progression to the longer, darker and much more absorbing The Lord of the Rings was an obvious step. I believe this book to be one of the crowning literary achievements of the twentieth century. Not only is it an absorbing and fascinating tale, but it is beautifully and creatively written, exciting and disturbing. Such was JRR Tolkien’s linguistic ability that he not only invented several new languages to be used in the book, such as Elvish, but he even wrote poetry and inscriptions in those languages. Quite remarkable. This is a book I’ve already read two or three times, and which I hope I will be able to read many times again.

I’m a bestselling author on both sides of the Atlantic with my historical mystery thrillers penned under the name ‘James Becker’, which have enjoyed substantial international sales and are now available in some fourteen languages. The latest book published by Penguin in the United States of America and by Transworld in the United Kingdom is Echo of the Reich.


  1. Thank you so much for your guest post! I love historical mysteries so I'll have to check your titles.

  2. Gee here it is Mid 2014 and I have just discovered YOU! Quite by accident or coincidence, if you believe in such, I came across "The Moses Stone" which caught my eye. Well, I read the intro and then went on to see if you wrote other such books. Indeed you have! Then I was curious as to who you are, and well here I am. I think we shall form a long "literal" relationship. It shall be rather one-sided I am afraid, for you shall write the book and I shall read the book, but pleasurable for the both of us, I am sure! .