Category Archives: Bookends

Little known secrets of my library

Bookshelves

 

It’s time I came clean about the state of my library of unread books (otherwise known as the TBR).

I warn you that this could get ugly.

What’s a TBR? 

If you follow any blogs about books and reading you’ll already be familiar with this term.

But for the benefit of any newbies, TBR stands for To Be Read.

It generally means all the books lying around in your home that are unread. Some people chose to include all the books they want to read, but haven’t yet got around to acquiring.

I stick to the “owned by unread” definition for my TBR. I record all of these titles on a spreadsheet which lists when they were bought/acquired, the author’s country of origin and a category (classic, translated, crime etc). At one time my TBR included books I wanted to read but the list quickly became huge and I panicked so I now just put those into a Goodreads wishlist.

Seriously you have how many unread books!!!

I have in the region of 314 unread books at home.

It’s not an exact figure because I keep finding books in unexpected places around the house.

This is higher than the figure at the end of 2018 (for the record I got to Dec 31 with 302 books).

I was doing well until May, resisting buying too many new titles but then it all went  haywire. A combination of a buying splurge, a birthday and some advance copies passed on by other bloggers – yes they are to blame! ).

What would be an ideal number?

I don’t have a target for the number of unread books I think it would be acceptable to have in my library.

I’d like to  think I could make significant progress and get it down to around 270 by end of 2019 but I doubt that’s going to happen.  I’m trying to exercise some restraint (you might not believe it but it’s true) by avoiding NetGalley – I know if I look I will end up clicking. That way madness lies.

The breakdown…

I hadn’t realised I have so many non factual books on my shelves. They’re a mix of history (I have a few by Mary Beard), health related and memoirs. A lot of the books in translation are ones I acquired when I started my quest of reading more broadly around the world. I’m slowly making my way through them.

Booker Prize related               6 (two winners, 1 shortlisted and 3 longlisted)
Children’s fiction                     2
Classics                                    39
Crime/thriller .                       19
Fiction                                    164
Non fiction .                            27
Short story collections .          6
Fiction in translation .          40
Welsh authors                        13

The format…

Paper dominates in my house. Though I found an electronic reader a saviour when I was travelling a lot for work, now I’m retired I don’t have to worry about lugging heavy books around with me. There are 40 books on my e reader. They’re a mixture of classics from Gutenburg , Net Galley editions and some bargains I bought from that big company named after a river.

The oldest book in my collection is …

To the Lighthouse

According to my spreadsheet the book I’ve had the longest is To the Lighthouse. But that’s misleading because I bought it in 1975 and have read it twice. I think I kept it on the list because I meant to read it again at some point.  It shouldn’t really be there.

Next in line is Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro (a Booker prize shortlisted title).

never let me go

My record says I acquired it in 2010. I say “I” but actually it was a book I bought for my husband. He didn’t care for it but I rescued it from the ‘donate to charity shop’ pile. Now I’m thinking: do I still want to read this? It’s dystopian fiction which I haven’t read much of in the past but maybe this could be the book that helps get me more interested in that genre.

After that comes James Kelman’s How Late it Was, How Late (what an apt title for book that’s been waiting eight years for me to get around to reading). It’s on the list because it’s part of my Booker Prize project. I did actually begin reading it and then put aside. I WILL read it this year……

The newest book (s) in my collection are…

Today’s purchases were:

West by Carys Davies: a novella about early pioneers in America. I bought it for two reasons. Reason One, I loved her earlier work The Redemption of Galen Pike.  Reason Two, she hails from Wales though sadly has moved home to Scotland.

Normal People by Sally Rooney. The accolades keep pouring in for this second novel by the Irish author. I’m curious whether it lives up to all those awards for which it’s been nominated.

Any  review copies in that pile?

Currently I have nine review copies still to be read.

Sounds impressive doesn’t it?

Unfortunately most of these are about three years old. They were the result of getting over excited on Net Galley and not paying enough attention to the book description before putting in my request. Lesson learned. Now I only request review copies or accept them if I am very certain I’ll be able to read them in a reasonable time frame.

Book number 200 on the list is 

The 200th book is in fact one of those old Net Galley review copies.  A Rising Man by Abir Mukherjee is the first in his series set in 1919 British ruled Calcutta featuring a former Scotland Yard detective. I learned today he’ll be  doing an author event in a local bookshop this September so I should really try to read this before that date.

The books I most want to read 

I’ve put 15 titles from my TBR onto the list for 20BooksofSummer so that’s going to be my focus for the next few months. I’d also like to get to these three books soonish.

 


Now you’ve been introduced to the darkest secrets of my TBR, how about pulling back the curtains on your stash of unread books?

Do self help books offer false promise?

My (semi) regular Bookends post is based on an idea from Simon at Stuck in a Book . If you’ve not read his Weekend Miscellany posts take a look at the most recent one.

This week I’m featuring  a new novel from an author in Wales and a blog post addressing a dilemma faced by many bloggers who receive advance copies from publishers: what do you do if you don’t care for the book you’ve committed to review? We end the week with an article about self-help books

Book: Saltwater by Jessica Andrews

saltwater

This is a debut novel that I saw highlighted as a book to watch out for in May by Susan at A Life in Books. It’s a coming of age novel written from the perspective of a working class girl who hopes university will be her passage to a different kind of life. It sounded so promising I ordered it via the library (amazed to find they had bought it). I didn’t realise at the time it’s told in a series of numbered fragments. I’m really hoping that device works and isn’t just style over substance.

Blogpost:  I never promised you 5 stars

Dilemma

This was the intriguing heading on a recent blog post by Rachel at RachelRead. What do you do when you’re sent a book, asked to review it  and then the book turns out to be “a stinker.” Do you, asks Rachel:

  • A) Shoot yourself in the foot by being honest with your review?
  • B) Get yourself blacklisted by blog tours/publicists/publishing houses?
  • C) LIE?!

Find out what she thinks are the pros and cons of each approach in her post here 

Article: self help books “offer a false promise, like a lotto ticket or an ad for diet pills” 

There are so many self-help books around I’m surprised there isn’t a whole section devoted to them in bookshops. Some are just plain daft; others peddle the same stuff you can easily find via the Internet. Some exist just because the topic is the latest craze (do we really need instructions on how to hygge our homes??). But still people buy them.

Can they help or are they holding out false promises asks Maddie Crum in this article for LitHub. 

Your thoughts???

How do you deal with the question Rachel has been wrestling with? Do you post a review on your site regardless of whether you rated the book or is your policy only to review books you enjoyed/appreciated?

 

Where do you stand on self help books – love them or loathe them?

 

Just pop your thoughts into the comments section below and let us know
what you’re thinking.

 

 

Reading from the sick bed

Sickness, recovery, recuperation. At such times what sort of reading material do you reach for? The question arose for me after I returned from the other side of the world with an injury which will keep me virtually housebound for some months.

At first, stupified by antibiotics, I felt too dazed to read anything more demanding than the opening credits of an old movie on TV. But as strength and interest returned little by little it was the old and familiar which I sought out – the literary equivalent of comfort food.

waugh bridesheadMy first choice was Evelyn Waugh’s magnum opus Brideshead Revisited, a novel which has long been in my top five and to which I was returning for the fourth or fifth time – unwise perhaps in view of the old maxim ‘never go back’. Turning to the first page, I hoped my experience would not mirror that of the author who was reportedly “appalled” after re-reading the work, finding “distasteful” the book’s “rhetorical and ornamental language”.

On this reading I did find some of Charles Ryder’s internal monologues a bit overcooked and descriptive passages occasionally a tad florid – but those are mere quibbles. Overwhelmingly I was once again dazzled by the beauty and clarity of the narrative. Testimony to its potency is plain when viewing the impeccable 1983 11-episode TV series based on the book in which large passages of Ryder’s narrative, together with countless dialogue exchanges, are lifted verbatim from the pages of the novel.

The story arc, from sunlit carefree days in 1920s Oxford to the spirit-sapping gloom of the 1940s war years, is superbly handled by the author through a central character who is invested with qualities of detachment sufficient to lend an objectiveness to the first person storytelling.

Though how anyone without a good shorthand note or a tape recording can set down all those conversations in such detail is a mystery. But the suspension of disbelief is a necessary requirement when reading first person fiction – all narrators, it appears, being blessed with perfect recall!

The butler didn’t do it

That suspension becomes trickier when an unreliable narrator enters upon the scene, as happens in my follow-up choice of sick bay reading. This was my third encounter with Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day. An art gallery ticket tucked into the pages revealed that I last read it on holiday in August 1999. (The find instantly brings back a memory: witnessing a total solar eclipse from a Bavarian hillside, the sudden gloom silencing the chattering birds.)

Twenty years is a long time between readings but I’d always thought of this novel as a reliable favourite. This time though, I was a little less enchanted. On previous readings I was clearly not irritated by the narrator’s fastidious, very correct, rather Edwardian style of writing. This is of course deliberately and cleverly done by Ishiguro to paint a picture of the anachronous and insular nature of Stevens, the central character, who knows very little of ordinary life outside the confines of the great house in which he serves as butler.

Stevens is not at ease with himself as a human being, preferring to live as a virtual automaton. He has suppressed emotion and personality, shunned close relationships and excused himself from most kinds of normal life in favour of a Quixotic crusade to become the ultimate man servant – the personification of his interpretation of ‘dignity’.

kazou remainsThe preservation of dignity, according to Stevens, is akin to “not removing one’s clothes in public”. It’s an odd remark but it tells us that Stevens isn’t comfortable stepping outside his professional persona for fear of losing respect; he has locked himself inside his ‘dignity’ and can’t find a way out – even if he wanted to. This detachment has built up a cold shield around the butler – one which Miss Kenton, the housekeeper, tries in vain to penetrate. Her timid romantic overtures – bringing flowers to his pantry, teasing him about the sentimental novel she finds him reading – freeze and snap in the permafrost of Stevens’s aura. Miss Kenton gives up, leaves service and marries.

Years later Stevens, still serving at Darlington Hall, Oxfordshire, travels to Cornwall to seek out Miss Kenton (now Mrs Benn) in the hope of luring her back into service and – though he cannot admit this to himself – reignite his relationship with the housekeeper on an altogether more personal level.

When Stevens writes: ‘No doubt, she is pondering with regret decisions made in the far-off past that have now left her, deep in middle age, so alone and desolate’, it is quite early on in the book and the reader has yet to discover his true nature. But we are being misled – as we find later – for here he is unconsciously considering his own position. Further into the novel, when Stevens’s achingly poignant backstory has been revealed, we are quite sure that when he quotes Mrs Benn as writing in her letter: ‘The rest of my life stretches out as an emptiness before me’, it is a misattribution and it is his own bleak future which is being contemplated.

Hardy, Chandler and back to Waugh

So The Remains of the Day stays in my top five and I will one day again revisit Brideshead, though, by that time, I will probably need to have it read to me! Number three, currently on the nightstand, is Thomas Hardy’s The Mayor of Casterbridge to which I return for the umpteenth time. It’s my favourite Hardy novel (with Tess close behind) and it never fails me. At root I suppose I have fairly unsophisticated  tastes when it comes to entertainment. With books, plays or movies, I like a beginning, a middle and an end – and a cracking good yarn in between. The Mayor of Casterbridge delivers on all counts.

There’s some snobbishness about Hardy’s novels (the author regarded himself as a poet first) which I fail to understand. Dickens, Trollope and Thackeray all get the nod of approval. Even Stevenson and Conan Doyle are lauded. But for some reason Hardy gets the raspberry. Well let them sneer. I shall continue getting great enjoyment from rereading the Wessex novels whether in sickness or in health.

I reckon I’ll need two more ‘comfort food’ books to see me back on my feet. So after Hardy it will be a complete change: Raymond Chandler’s Farewell My Lovely, another of my top five and my favourite Philip Marlowe novel. The film of the book (released as Murder, My Sweet in the USA) features the excellent Dick Powell as the down-at-heel Shamus. Forget Bogart – for me, Powell was the best Marlowe to grace the screen. A great book and a fab movie!

Leaving LA, it’s back across the pond to Britain for my final restorative read – The Sword of Honour trilogy by Evelyn Waugh. When I first read these wartime novels I had to buy them separately – and I still have the copies. But now Men at Arms, Officers and Gentlemen and Unconditional Surrender are available in one volume and if you haven’t read them, plan to do so. You won’t be disappointed.

mayor philip sword

Reader preference – Single or multiple narrators?

This week’s Bookends features a new novel from an author in Wales, an article and podcast about narrative voices and an article about the value of creative writing courses.

Book: Crushed by Kate Hamer

I enjoyed Kate Hamer’s debut novel, the disturbing, psychological The Girl in the Red Coat last year. She’s just published her third novel which sounds just as dark and intriguing. Crushed is about an obsessive friendship between three girls. Over the course of one long hot summer, they find their friendship pushed to a breaking point as one of them convinces herself that her thoughts can influence events in the world around them.

Podcast/Article: Narrators Singular, Plural and Vanishing

Narrators have been much in evidence this week. Early in the week, a Tea or Books? podcast episode on the topic helped make a treadmill almost a pleasure.  Simon (Stuck in a Book) and Rachel (Book Snob) discussed their preferences for multi-narrator novels or single narrator novels. Some interesting points about the desire for nineteenth century writers to use devices like diaries and letters designed to give added credibility and authenticity to their fiction. You can listen to episode 71 here In the same week I read an article in The Publisher newsletter about “vanishing narrators” – novels where the narrator is not the main character, such as The Great Gatsby or The Name of the Rose. Just be warned that reading/listening to these will have you scurrying to write down the titles of yet more books to read/buy.

Article: Value of Creative Writing Courses Questioned

You can rely on Will Self to create a stir. This time he’s done it by questioning the value of creative writing graduate programmes. In an interview for the BBC’s Radio 4 prime time news programme Today, Self said today’s students are unlikely to make a living from literary fiction, suggesting their courses might instead give them a career writing video games. “The people coming out of these courses are never going to make a living as novelists, certainly not in literary fiction though that’s a somewhat suspect term. Basically writers are chasing too few readers at the moment,” he said. You’d expect the universities who provide such courses would reject Self’s views but the publishing industry has also weighed in. More details are available via The Bookseller.

 

And so that’s a wrap for this episode of Bookends. Have you found anything new exciting and to read this week that might entice me?

#AtoZofBooks: Some favourites from the past

Simon Thomas from Stuck in a Book threw down the gauntlet a few days ago when he started  the #AtoZofBooks series of Twitter messages, choosing an author for every letter of the alphabet.

Oh HI book twitter!

I’ve decided I’m going to share 26 brilliant books – an author for every letter of the alphabet. It’ll be a gradual thread. It’ll be fun.

Share your own #AToZofBooks!— Simon Thomas (@stuck_inabook) May 22, 2019

Who could resist that invitation to join him in his alphabet quest. Not me.

Over the last two days my Twitter feed has chirping merrily as I worked my way through the alphabet. I tried to select authors and books that have been my favourites though it got a bit tricky with some letters.

This is the result. Let me know if you agree/disagree or have an alternative

-A-

If it’s A it has to be AUSTEN? Definitely a favourite author but it’s rather too obvious. So I chose Margaret Atwood and Hag Seed. I don’t usually care for prequels/sequels/re-tellings of already famous books/plays but this was such a  brilliantly imaginative re-imagining of The Tempest that it deserves to be on my list.

-B-

My choice for B is a classic author that I’d not read until a few years ago.  Old Goriot by Honore de Balzac is  a hard hitting indictment of greed in Parisienne society and a masterclass in realism.  

-C-

Harvest

Moving onto C we have a book that I read back in the day when I was so enthusiastic about the Booker Prize that I would rush to get the longlisted titles as soon as they were announced. Harvest by Jim Crace, is a book about man’s connection to the land that reads like poetry. It didn’t win the Booker Prize but it should have. 

-D-

Another letter with an obvious candidate and many options for the choice of book. This one isn’t my favourite (that place goes to Dombey and Son) but I still enjoyed  The Old Curiosity Shop (and no I didn’t cry over the demise of Little Nell).

-E-

I make no apologies for choosing George Eliot to represent the letter E. Middlemarch is my all time favourite. It’s a book I’ve read at least six times and have found something new to appreciate in it each time.

-F-

seige

My choice for is one of the lesser known Booker prize winners:  J G Farrell  The Siege of Krishnapur has some dark humour but is also a disturbing story about the British in India whose rule is threatened with a native rebellion  

-G-

It would be remiss of me to choose anyone other than Graham Greene and my favourite novel of his: The Heart of the Matter. It’s a fascinating exploration of a crisis of conscience .  

-H-

After a clutch of classics and writers from the past, I thought it was time to highlight a more modern author. I’m selecting Emma Healey whose novel Elizabeth is Missing was a rare thing – a novel about an elderly person suffering from dementia that is written in a thoughtful manner while still being entertaining. 

-I-

Nordic Noir has been one of the big literary stories of recent years. It’s not a genre I read much. Some of the authors I’ve read been to my taste at all.  Arnaldur Indriðason is the exception because of his strong characterisation and atmospheric setting .

-J-

I couldn’t possibly do an A-Z of authors and not include at least one from Wales. I’m  choosing Cyan Jones and his novella Cove. One man alone in a kayak. His arm damaged by a storm. All he wants is to get back to the cove and to his partner. Will he succeed?

-K-

This brings me to one of the strangest books I’ve read in years: The  Vegetarian by the Korean author Han Kang.

-L-

Another Booker favourite: Moon Tiger by Penelope Lively.  It’s one those books where the protagonist is quite objectionable for much of the time but you still love the book

-M-

bringupthebodies

It has to be Hilary Mantel. Bring Up the Bodies took historical biographical fiction into a whole new dimension Roll on March 2020 when the end of her trilogy about Thomas Cromwell is published. We’ve waited so long for this…..

-N-

Amelie Nothomb is an author I would not have discovered but for my former work colleagues in Belgium. Fear and Trembling is actually set in Japan and gives a great insight into the work culture in those big corporate companies. 

-O-

We’ve reached one of my top 3 Booker Prize winners: The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje is a beautifully paced tale of four people who are physically, emotionally and mentally damaged by war. https://bookertalk.com/2016/04/27/the-english-patient-by-michael-ondaatje/

-P-

I have Anne at Cafe Society to thank for introducing me to Louise Penny and her magical community of Three Pines in Quebec. Penny’s books featuring the head of homicide Armand Gamache is the only crime series I read. I’m choosing the first book I read (though it’s not the first in the series): The Beautiful Mystery.

-Q-

Wife

I thought this letter would be a challenge. I’m not spoiled for choice so am going for an author from Ghana: Kwei Quartey . Fortunately his novel The Wife of the Gods was a good read and introduced me to some of the cultural practices of his country.

-R-

There are many Irish authors I’ve enjoyed but one of the more recent finds was Donal Ryan.   The Spinning Heart is a beautifully constructed novel of connected tales about people in one community that is hit by the collapse of the Irish economy.

 

-S-

My choice for S demonstrates the influence of book clubs and podcasts on my reading habits. I tried John Steinbeck as an adolescent but couldn’t get into Grapes of Wrath or East of Eden. It wasn’t until a book club chose Of Mice and Men that I found something of his I enjoyed. My favourite so far however is Cannery Row, that I heard discussed in a Radio 4 book podcast. https://bookertalk.com/2014/08/27/cannery-row-by-john-steinbeck-2/

-T-

We’re moving to Canada for my next choice: Madeleine Thien.  Do Not Say We Have Nothing takes us to China and the effect of the Cultural Revolution on musicians. It’s a good companion to Wild Swans by Jung Chang.   

-U-

Sacred hunger-1

I’ve read only one author whose surname begins with U, Barry Unsworth.  His novel Sacred Hunger tackles the slave trade and the way it brought out the worst in men.  

-V-

There are just two authors I’ve read whose surnames begin with V. Neither was particularly enjoyable but Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse 5 was at least well written which is more than can be said for Sally Vickers’ The Cleaner of Chartres 

-W-

My choice for W is the author I’ve only just finished reading: The Salt Path by Raynor Winn. This is a moving account of a couple who lose their home and their business and then get a bleak health diagnosis. What do they do – they walk 600miles of the British coast and camp in the wild.

-X-

I thought I’d have to miss this one but then remembered I had read the Chinese author and broadcaster Xinran. I wish I could be more positive about her book The Good Women of China which is a non fiction account of the problems faced by women in that country including sexual abuse and forced marriages whttps://bookertalk.com/2017/07/18/chinese-women-book-review/

-Y-

Looking at my review archive I seem to have a few Japanese authors that could fit this letter. I’m choosing Banana Yoshimoto whose novella Goodbye Tsugumi is a moving tale about an enduring friendship between two girls. 

-Z-

There is no contest for which author to select for this letter. It has to be Zola. Only question is really which novel? After much internal debate I’m choosing Germinal. I know it’s one of his best known works but it was the first of his I read.

Bookends #13: April 2019

This week’s Bookends features an article about Faber and Faber as they mark their 90th anniversary, a blog post about reading those books that regularly appear in those “100 books you must read” kind of lists and a book set in the Australian outback

Book: The Lost Man by Jane Harper 

A friend has been raving about this new novel from Jane Harper. I waited impatiently while she finished it and was looking forward to getting my paws on it yesterday. But it was not to be ….her husband has got in first and snaffled her copy. If he turns out to be a slow reader I know I’ll be too impatient to wait and will end up buying my own copy.

This is the third novel by Harper. Her first two – The Dry and Forces of Nature – were best sellers and this new one looks to be heading in the same direction. It begins deep in the Australian outback at the location of a lone grave, a memorial to a stockman who died 100 years previously.  Curled up beside it is a more recent body. How he died is not a mystery. The more difficult questions are why and how.

Although this sounds like a fairly typical crime thriller, everything I’ve read about Harper’s work indicates this is too simplistic a description. it’s a tale about family relationships saga that has crime and thriller elements woven in and tackles head on issues of sexual and domestic abuse. It also apparently brilliantly evokes the harsh beauty of the Queensland landscape.

The Sydney Morning Herald calls her “one of the most interesting Australian crime writers to emerge in the past decade.”  Not surprisingly she’s been longlisted for the 2019 Australian Book Industry Awards. If you’re tempted, this review by Theresa at Theresa Smith Writes could tip the balance for you.

Blog Post: The Stupid Classics Book Club

A few weekends ago The Sunday Times in the UK published a list of their top 100 contemporary classics. Cue groans from around kitchen tables throughout the country when readers tally up how many of these “should read/must read” books they abandoned in frustration or had no inclination to even open.

The solution devised by Elisa Gabbert, her husband and two friends was to create the Stupid Classics Book Club. The idea was “to read all the corny stuff from the canon that we really should have read in school but never did “. In a piece she wrote for Paris Review she freely admits it started as a joke but in the process she, and her fellow club members, found some of their pre-conceived notions were turned upside down. Other books they anticipated they wouldn’t enjoy did indeed prove tiresome. But it was still a useful exercise to read them says Gabbert:

I find these lists incredibly tiresome. Of course, you don’t have to read anything. Some books will be triggering or make you deeply unhappy; there just isn’t enough time. But if you want to speak or write knowledgeably about them, you really do have to read them. You can’t just assume you know what they’re like. I’m glad I read Fahrenheit 451 even though I despised it. Now I know exactly how it’s bad, and I can hate it for the right reasons.

I can go along with that to a certain extent: reading only what you know you enjoy means you never challenge yourself. Staying within your comfort zone can be limiting. But I don’t completely buy the idea:  if I start reading a book I suspect I won’t like and do indeed find I absolutely loathe it, I see little point in persevering to the bitter end just to be able to say I read it and now I know why I hate it.

What do you think -do you agree with Gabbert? Read the full story here 

Article: Faber and Faber

Faber and Faber is marking its 90th anniversary this year, a landmark which triggered an interesting article in the Daily Telegraph this week. I never realised that there is only one Faber – the company was formed by Geoffrey Faber but the “and Faber” was supposedly added following a suggestion by the poet Walter de la Mare (whose work the company went on to publish) to add a second Faber into the company name ‘because you can’t have too much of a good thing’.

Another piece of useful/useless information I gleaned from this article was that the company turned down a number of books that went on to become mega hits: Paddington Bear; Down and Out in Paris and London; 1984. Oops….

To their credit though they have spotted some outstanding talent over the years: thirteen Nobel Laureates and six Booker Prize-winners  (including the most recent Milkman by Anna Burns) isn’t to be sniffed at….

I wish I could add a link to the article but the Daily Telegraph operates a pay for view/subscription model…..

 

And so that’s a wrap for this episode of Bookends. Have you found anything new exciting and to read this week that might entice me?

In review: Ten winners of the Booker Prize

top-ten-tuesday-new

The first book I ever reviewed was so dreadful that I have obliterated its title from my memory.

It was by Maeve Binchey and though I know she is extremely popular among some readers, I vowed never to read anything by her again. Ever. I only got to the end because it formed part of a book review column that was being introduced on the newspaper where I was a rather junior reporter.

Maybe it was that experience that destroyed my interest in reviewing. It wasn’t until I started this blog that I began in earnest. I’m re-interpreting the brief for  this week’s Top 10 topic.

Instead of listing the first 10 reviews to appear on this blog (which would be dull) I’m opting for the first 10 reviews of Booker Prize winners. It is after all my project to read all the prize winners that prompted me to begin the blog in 2012.

Here’s my list. All links take you to my review

  1. The Elected Member by Bernice Rubens. The very first review to appear on this blog, was this 1970 winner. It’s embarrassing to look back at this review – I clearly had a lot to learn…
  2. Something to Answer For by P H Newby. This review appeared in April 2012. My attempt was slightly – but only slightly – better than the first effort.
  3. Saville by David Storey. This appeared in the same month as the Newby review. Not a book I cared for at all as my review indicates all too clearly.
  4. Staying On by Paul Scott. This is a follow up to his superb series called The Raj Quartet. Not only did I thoroughly enjoy this book, I’m also happier with the quality of the review.
  5. White Tiger by Arvind Adiga  I remember enjoying this novel which won the 2008 Booker Prize but I see from my review that I wasn’t that keen on the ending.
  6. Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel. A wonderful book and one of my favourite Booker winners.
  7. Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie. Definitely not one of my favourite Booker winners. Though I admired the technical virtuosity and the brilliance of the imagination, I struggled to finish the book – and also, I seem to remember, struggled to write a review.
  8. Possession by A S Byatt. These reviews do seem to be getting more coherent (at last)
  9. The Sea by John Banville  My review from 2013 may not have done full justice to this book but at least it’s no longer embarrassing to read after all these years.
  10. Hotel du Lac by Anita Brookner. And so we reach July 2013 and a novel that was a re-read.

It’s been interesting to look back at these blog posts and to see the progress I made in just over a year of writing reviews. When I decided to begin blogging I had no concerns about my ability to write: I had after all trained as a journalist and had worked for years in a communications role. But it didn’t take long for me to appreciate that writing reviews of books is an art that requires a completely different skill set.

There is still a long, long way to go before I reach the point where I find it easier to write these reviews and am more satisfied with the result. I wonder if I ever will reach that day or whether I’m too too much of a perfectionist to ever be satisfied….


Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly meme created by The Broke and the Bookish and now hosted by Jana at That Artsy Reader Girl. .

Six Degrees from Ali Smith to Susan Hill

 

This month’s Six Degrees of Separation begins with a book that has divided opinion ever since it was published in 2014.

Howtobe bothHow to Be Both by Ali Smith contains two stories. One story features the Italian renaissance artist, Francesco del Cossa, a real-life figure who produced a series of frescoes in the Palazzo Schifanoia in Ferrara, Italy.  The other story, relates to a teenage girl called George whose mother has just died and who is left struggling to make sense of her death with her younger brother and her emotionally disconnected father.

The book was published in such a way that readers might either begin with Francesco or with George. My copy opened with the Italian artist and I was immediately captivated. (see my review here ). But I know quite a number of bloggers whose opinion I value didn’t rate the book at all.

How to Be Both was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize but the prize went instead to the Australian author Richard Flanagan with The Narrow Road to the Deep North. 

The Narrow Road

This was such a superb book that I’ve struggled to write a review that would do it justice. It’s one of the few Booker prize winners that I want to re-read.

This is a novel set in the context of one of the most infamous episodes in World War 2: the construction of the Thailand-Burma Death Railway. At the heart of Flanagan’s novel is an Australian surgeon, Dorrigo Evans, who to his astonishment becomes something of a legend for his wartime courage at a Japanese POW camp on the Death Railway. The novel ends with an encounter between Evans and one of those captors.

A similar encounter takes place in  The Railway Man  by Eric Lomax.

The Railway Man

This is an autobiography in which  Lomax relates his experiences as a prisoner of war during World War II during which he was forced to work on construction of the help Thai-Burma Railway.  The book won the NCR Book Award (until it closed in 1997 it was the major UK award for non-fiction) and became a film starring Colin Firth.

A later winner of the prize was another of my all-time favourites – Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China by Jung Chang.

Wild Swans

This is a family history spans more than a century of China’s history told through the  lives of three female generations of Chang’s family.   Chang’s mother was a member of Mao’s Red Army while Chang herself willingly joined Red Guards though she recoiled from some of their brutal actions.

As time progresses, life under Mao and his Cultural Revolution became more difficult and dangerous, causing immense suffering.  Parts of the book are heart-wrenching as we learn of citizens rallying to a call for metal so it could be turned into weapons, giving up their cooking pots and pans to avoid being denounced by the regime.

My fourth book also recounts times of hardship for the peasants of China.

thegoodearth

 

The Good Earth by Pearl S Buck (my review is here ) is a tale of the fluctuating fortunes of two families: the peasant farmer Wang Lung and his wife O-lan and the rich, wealthy House of Hwang headed by The Old Lord and the Old Mistress. His land is the essence of Lung’s being. When the harvests fail and his family have no more grain or rice to eat, they move to the city  where they are reduced to living in a makeshift hut . But Lung always dreams of returning to his land.

The novel won Buck the Pulitzer Prize and was a key factor in her award of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1938 “for her rich and truly epic descriptions of peasant life in China and for her biographical masterpieces. 

That accolade of “biographical masterpiece” from the members of the Swedish Academy could equally apply to my next choice: Samuel Pepys – The Unequaled Self by Claire Tomalin. 

Pepys

Pepys’ story is an extraordinary one: his origins were humble (he was a tailor’s son) but he became one of the most wealthy and powerful government figures in England in the seventeenth century. He’s most famed of course for his diaries in which he described his daily domestic routine and gave us an account of landmark events such as the Great Fire of London.

Tomalin does a superb job of bringing the man to life, weaving extracts from his diary into details from contemporary letters and official court documents. I read this seven years ago and still remember some of the episodes she relates. (my review is here)

Pepys loved hearing gossip. He also loved to collect books. In his will, made shortly before his death in 1708, he bequeathed his vast library to Magdalene College, Oxford. It remains there to this day.

Not on the same scale as Pepys but the final book in my chain was written by another avid ‘collector’.

Howards End

The author Susan Hill lives in an old and rambling farmhouse full of cosy fireside nooks and aged beams. It’s also full of bookcases overflowing with books. Howards End is on the Landing ( see my review here)recounts the year she decided to ‘repossess’ these books.  For a year she read only those books already occupying a space in her shelves (or on the floor), foregoing the purchase of anything new.

Would that I were disciplined not to buy new books until I had read the old. But my experiment with restraint lasted only a few months.


Six Degrees of Separation  #6Degrees is a monthly meme hosted by Kate at Books Are My Favourite and Best. The idea is to begin with one book title, and then make a chain of six other books.  I’ve made one rule for myself – all the books in the chains I create are ones I have read though not necessarily reviewed. I never cease to be astonished at the level of variety across all the bloggers who take part in this meme.

Reading Horizons: Episode 17

Reading Horizons, 10 April 2019

What are you currently reading?

I have three books on the go at the moment.

Zola and the Victorians by Eileen Horne

Zola and Victorians

In 1888, the works of Emile Zola were denounced in the House of Commons in London as “vile” and “diabolical”. Zola’s novels were – according to Samuel Smith of the National  Smith – sold to “young girls in low bookshops”, leading directly to prostitution.  Zola’s British publisher, Henry Vizetelly, was subsequently prosecuted and imprisoned, his health suffered and he was ruined financially.

Horne’s book reconstructs the events using  court records, Hansard transcripts, letters, journalism. It’s a fascinating topic but I so wish Horne had done a better job of creating dialogue between the various members of the Vitzelly family.

One Woman Walks Wales by Ursula Martin

One Woman Walks Wales

This is an extraordinary account of Ursula Martin’s decision to walk through Wales to raise awareness of ovarian cancer.

She initially set out to do a route that she could cover the six months between hospital appointments for check ups after her own treatment four years earlier. But she miscalculated and ended up walking around 3,700 miles. It took her 538 days on her own most of the time. Camping in the wild most nights (without a tent). Without equipment to make a hot meal.

I’ve reached only day two of her journey and already I’m thinking she must be crazy. But also far braver and more determined than me.  I know she made it because this year she was trekking through Romania. In the snow.

An American Marriage by Tayari Jones

american marriage

This is my book club selection for April. I wasn’t jumping for joy when I heard this had been selected. Not that I knew anything about the book, it was just the title that was off-putting.

But I’m pleasantly surprised by this tale of a couple whose life together is severed when he is accused and imprisoned for a crime they both know he did not commit.

This was an Oprah Book Club title in 2018 and apparently one of Barack Obama’s best books of 2018.

What did you recently finish reading? 

Dignity by Alys Conran

Dignity

I enjoyed Alys Conran’s debut novel Pigeon (see my review here) which won the Wales Book of the Year award in 2017. Her latest novel Dignity which was published at the beginning of April, is I think just as good.

It’s a tale of three women: Evelyn, an engineer’s wife in British India; Magda, an old lady stuck in an empty house; and Susheela, a young English carer of Bengali descent in a British seaside town on the verge of collapse. Review coming soon……

What do you think you’ll read next?

 I had this idea last week where I would identify the categories of books I like to/want to read, and then make my next reading choice based on a cycle of those categories.  So I’d read a classic, say, then a book in translation, followed by a Welsh author, a prize winner, crime fiction or a ‘new this year’ book.  I didn’t include non fiction since I tend to read those simultaneously with a work of fiction.

This sounded a good idea at the time but then the doubts began to creep in. Does it feel too rigid, not spontaneous enough. What if I’m not in the mood for that particular category?

And then I challenged myself: who says you have to stick 100% to that cycle? It’s your plan so you get to make up the rules.

Rule number 1: if I don’t feel in the mood for a particular category at the time, I can skip to the next category in the sequence. For example if I really don’t fancy a translated book, I can skip to a Welsh author……

Rule number 2: There isn’t one. There is only one rule. No sense in making this a burden.

All of this is a long winded answer to a simple question: what am I thinking of reading next? I don’t know exactly what I’ll read next. All I can say is that since I’ve just read a book in translation (Emile Zola’s The Kill), and then a Welsh author (Alys Conran), it will either be a prize winner or – if none of those take my fancy, a crime novel….


WWWednesday is hosted by Sam at Taking on a World of Words. It involves answering 3 questions:

The three Ws are:

What are you currently reading?

What did you recently finish reading?

What do you think you’ll read next?

In celebration of Emile Zola

zoladdiction2019It’s the start of #ZolaAddiction2019, a month long celebration of the master of literature who put French contemporary society under the spotlight. That might sound rather dull and ‘worthy’ but in fact Emile Zola’s novels contain a high level of sensationalism. It’s impossible to read many of his novels without encountering rather a lot of sex and violence.

To mark the occasion I thought I’d give you a peek at my stack of Zola novels. They are all part of his Rougon-Macquart cycle of twenty novels  which features two branches of a family over five generations. One branch are the respectable (ie legitimate) Rougons; the other are disreputable (illegitimate) Macquarts. Through them Zola traces the “environmental” influences of violence, alcohol, and prostitution which became more prevalent during the second wave of the Industrial Revolution.

My first encounter with Monsieur Zola came via Germinal: a stunningly powerful novel about industrial strife in the mining towns of northern France. I’ve read five more of his novels and haven’t yet been disappointed. But Germinal still remains my favourite.

These are the titles I’ve read so far.

Zola novels read

 

I have another six titles in the cycle waiting to be read.

Zola novels to read

Nana is probably the best known among these titles. It tells the story of Nana Coupeau’s rise from streetwalker to high-class prostitute. Like many of the other titles in this series, it was an instant hit with readers.  In 1879, Le Voltaire, the French newspaper,  launched a gigantic advertising campaign to highlight its forthcoming publication of the story in instalments. It raised the curiosity of the reading public to a fever pitch. When the novel was published in book form the following year,  the first edition of 55,000 copies was sold out in one day.

I try to buy Oxford World Classics editions, published by Oxford University Press, wherever possible. Not only are the covers of the most recent editions, ultra pleasing on the eye but they come with excellent introductions. Sadly not all of the 20 novels are available in these editions. I think in fact there are only four other titles from the OUP so I’m going to have to ration my reading and hope, by the time I get through this half dozen, the powers that be at the OUP will have pulled their fingers out and published some more….


#Zolaaddiction2019 is hosted by FandaClassicLit blog.

 

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