Category Archives: TBR list

Sample Saturday: 3 Doorstep Novels

My Sample Saturday spotlight this week is turned on three of the chunkiest books on my TBR shelves. As a reminder, Sample Saturday is where I look at all the books I own but have yet to read, and decide which I should part company with and which I should keep.

A sticker on my copy of Barracuda by Christos Tsiolkas tells me that I paid £2.50 for this in a charity shop. I have no idea why I wanted it because I’ve never read anything by hi; not even his much acclaimed novel The Slap. Maybe I was trying to expand my reading of Australian authors?

Tsiolkas’ novel is about the hopes and dreams of Danny Kelly, a 14-year-old working-class boy with an immense talent as a swimmer. He and his family sacrifice everything to help him become a golden boy in his sport and put him on a path to represent Australia in the Olympic Games. His selection would also silence the rich boys at the private school to which he won a scholarship. But the plan goes horribly wrong.

I’ve read about 20 pages of the book and it hasn’t wowed me. It feels two-dimensional and too much of a “this happened, then that happened” style. Can I take 510 pages of this especially when I’m not particularly enamoured of sports-based narratives? It feels like it would be a plod.

The Verdict: Set Free

The Truth About The Harry Quebert Affair by Joël Dicker Translated from French by Sam Taylor

This 614 page book by Swiss author was a huge it in Europe when it was published in 2014 though its reception in the United States was more muted. Some critics there thought it was cliched and lacklustre. The Guardian reviewer commented:

So many critics seem to have been knocked on their behinds by Dicker’s novel that I can’t be sure I’m not missing something in filing what you might call a minority report. They see a masterpiece; I see a completely ordinary, amiably cartoonish and well aerated page-turner that does nothing interesting in literary terms at all.

The novel is a thriller set in a coastal  town in New Hampshire where the young successful Marcus Goldman heads in search of inspiration for his next book. While staying with his college professor, Harry Quebert, the body of a 15-year-old girl is found on the property. She’d gone missing 33 years earlier. Quebert is accused of her murder, Marcus sets out to clear his old professor’s name and to uncover the truth. His publisher sniffs a good opportunity and offers a multimillion dollar advance for a book about Goldman’s investigation.

Do I want to read this? The story moves along quickly – by page 40 we’ve already had the discovery of the body. But that’s not surprising for a thriller. I can live with that providing the quality of writing isn’t sacrificed for pace. But from the pages I’ve sampled I fear this book is nothing special.

The Verdict: Set Free

The Alexandria Quartet by Lawrence Durrell

This comes in at a hefty 884 pages but then, as the title indicates, it’s actually four novels published between 1957 and 1960.

Durrell called it “an investigation of modern love”; a novel in which he experimented with a premise that people and events seem different when considered from different angles and periods. So he presents three perspectives on a single set of events and characters in Alexandria, Egypt, before and during the Second World War.

The four volumes concern the same characters, but each of the several narrators tell the novels’ complex tales from their own viewpoint, and they write at different times.

I’m tempted to give this a go, by reading at least the first book. I’m attracted by some reviews I’ve read that say one of the novel’s strengths is the way it evokes the city as a melting pot of cultures.

The Verdict: Reprieve

So that’s two fewer books on the TBR shelves. Did I make the right choices?? What would you save from these three??

Sample Saturday: Gifts And Giveaways

My Sample Saturday spotlight this week is turned on three books that I never purchased myself. I either won them in a giveaway or they were given as a gift. As a reminder, Sample Saturday is where I look at all the books I own but have yet to read, and decide which to part company with and which to keep.

The Restoration of Otto Laird by Nigel Packer. The blurb tells me that Otto Laird is an architect once renowned for his radical and controversial designs. Now he lives a quiet life communing with nature and writing eccentric letters to his friends, that he never posts. His peaceful existence is disrupted when he learns that his most significant and revolutionary building, a 1960s tower block estate in South London is set to be demolished.

I see that the book is described as a “charming debut that will restore your faith in second chances”, “funny and poignant.”. That doesn’t fill me with confidence. Books described as charming rarely hold much appeal for me.

I’ve applied my 30 pages test and the tone isn’t wowing me.

The Verdict: Set Free

The Altogether Unexpected Disappearance of Atticus Craftsman by Mamen Sánchez. Translated from Spanish by Lucy Greaves

And now for the book with the longest title in my collection. I can’t remember how I came to own this one. It’s a hardback edition so I’m unlikely to have bought it for myself.

Goodreads describes it as “A fiendishly fun and charming novel” Oh dear, that word charming again.  I’d be tempted to let this one go but for the blurb inside the front cover. It begins: “Atticus Craftsman never travels without a supply of Earl Grey and a favourite book.”

A man after my own heart in fact.

It might be the most ridiculous idea to base my decision on a fictitious character’s tea drinking habits, but I’m tempted. I can tell from the first few pages that it will be a light read but maybe that’s just what I’ll need in coming months.

The Verdict: Reprieve

Overdrawn by N J Crosskey

This one turned up in a Secret Santa with some bookstagrammers in Wales. It’s a sombre dystopian novel that follows a couple in their 60s who are battling against serious health issues. The setting is Britain, a country where the health service has been privatised and ill and elderly citizens are encouraged to “Move On” – a euphemism for euthanasia. 

The Guardian chose this as a book of the month and described it as ” often a harrowing read, though one which offers redemption and a modicum of hope.”

This could be a challenging read but one that asks some searching questions about our attitudes to care for older people. Not one I can face reading in the current climate but I’m putting it back on the shelves for when I feel more mentally equipped

The Verdict: Reprieve

So that’s one more less on the TBR shelves. I’ll give the other two a reprieve for a year – if I haven’t read them a year from now, they’ll be given away too. Did I make the right choices?? What would you save from these three??

Sample Saturday: Impulse Buys

I’m still on the quest I started in 2019 to bring a degree of control over my TBR stack. Step 5 in my 9 point plan was to take a close look at the books that have been on my shelves, unread, for at least five years.

When I did a count at the start of 2019, the total was 95. I’ve been slowly making inroads into the stack by reading those books or giving them away unread (I confess that more have been given away than have been read).

Those of you who follow Kate at Books are My favourite And Best will have heard of Sample Saturday. It’s where she looks at all the samples on her Kindle and decides which to part company with and which to keep.

I’m taking a leaf out of her book and using this approach to help me make decisions about all the physical and e books books remaining on my “owned but unread” shelves.

Let’s kick off this series with a trio of books that were bought on a whim.

Yiyun Li

Gold Boy Emerald Girl by the Chinese-American author Yiyun Li is a 2011 collection of short stories, or vignettes about modern China. The Guardian review described it as gloriously stark group of nine tales about people who are frustrated, alone in the world, and often railing against it. 

I bought this purely because it was in on sale at a ridiculously low price in The Works right at the time when I was trying to expand the geographic scope of my reading. I didn’t pay enough attention to the author’s biography so didn’t realise at the time she is the Chinese-American author Yiyun Li

Since I’m not a fan of short stories I think this is one I feel comfortable about sending to a new home.

The Verdict: Set Free

Erik Larson

The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson

I bought this 2011 in Chicago airport while returning from a trip to the USA. I was in a hurry to get to my departure gate but needed something as a back up in case the book I already had, proved to be a dud. I rushed into the only bookshop in the airport and got swayed by the assistant’s recommendation. Of course I never even opened the book.

It’s a non fiction account of the 1893 Chicago World Fair, focusing on two key individuals. The architect responsible for the construction and a fake doctor who turned out to be a serial killer. He’d built a hotel near the fair site to which he lured his victims.

I’m curious how these two strands get woven together.

The Verdict: Reprieve

Maps and Legends by Michael Chabon

I honestly don’t know where my brain was on the day I bought this. I must have confused it with an entirely different book. It’s a collection of sixteen essays. In some Chabon explains how he came to write a few of his best known works. In others he defends his work in genres such as science fiction, fantasy, and comics.

Since I have only a vague idea of who Chabon is and I have little interest in any of the genres mentioned, this is not earning a place on my shelves.

The Verdict: Set Free

My TBR Monster Is Wounded But Still Alive

TBR - tackling unread books

Halfway through 2019, faced with a mound of unread books so big I couldn’t get into the attic space, I decided to take action.

I’ve tried various approaches over the last few years: TBR challenges; book buying bans; book culls. They had only a minor effect on the overall stack of unread volumes. I needed something more strategic.

The result was this nine step game plan:

  1. Reframe The Issue
  2. Measure the Beast
  3. Stocktake
  4. Set A Goal
  5. Remove ‘Slow Moving’ books
  6. Get Off The Fence
  7. Deal With New Stock
  8. Read The Books
  9. Repeat, Repeat, Repeat

You can read the details of what each step involves here.

Seven months have now elapsed since I came up with the concept so I thought it was time to give you all an update on how this has worked out (or not).

Beginning at The Beginning

It was easy to adopt a different frame of mind (step 1) was easy. Though I’ve occasionally moaned about how many books I own that I’ve never read, that’s me being somewhat disingenuous. The reality is that I don’t really see it as a big problem.

It’s like having my own bookshop. One that’s always open no matter what time of day or night I want to enter. And it has exactly the books I like to read – I know that because (with a few exceptions, I was the one who chose them). The other benefits? No standing in a queue waiting to pay or finding that the book I want is out of stock.

The remaining steps got progressively more challenging.

Compiling a complete list of every unread book was time consuming and messy. I ended up with an enormous pile of books on the floor. I wish I’d taken a photo of the chaos but I’d effectively barricaded myself in among the books – and of course my phone was out of reach.

It took most of the day to get everything documented into a spreadsheet (I admit I got distracted and started reading too many jacket descriptions).

The exercise was a revelation. I discovered several duplicates. I found books I didn’t know I’d bought. And books I looked at and thought “Why on earth did I buy this?”.

It was a painful process but I’m glad I did it because now, when I want a book to fit in with a themed reading event, I can just look at the spreadsheet instead of dismantling the bookcases to see what’s right at the back.

The Goal

I ended up with a list of 301 books purchased before start of 2019, of which I’d owned 67 for more than 5 years. I don’t know which book is the oldest because I don’t remember when exactly I bought some of these – I just know it was before I started blogging in 2012 and keeping some kind of track on Goodreads of what I was buying.

My goal was to reduce the overall number by 20% (in other words, 60 books).

I didn’t make it.

By the end of 2019 my TBR had definitely come down. Just not as much as I had hoped.

The Result

I got it down to 264 which equates to a 12% reduction.

I could have got it down lower, probably even reaching the target number, if I’d also put a book buying ban in place. I didn’t, for the simple reason that I tried this in the past. I managed it for three months but then, as if to make up for lost time, went on a buying splurge.

This time around I just exercised restraint (or at least more than I had for several years). I was doing reasonably well until November came around. After a meet up of South Wales bookstagrammers I walked away with 13 new books to add to my shelves (I didn’t buy them – they were all donated by publishers). That wasn’t supposed to happen!

Nil Desperandum

Even so, I’m counting this exercise as a success because it pushed me to read books I already owned, rather than buying even more. Some – like A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry and All Passion Spent by Vita Sackville-West – turned out to be the best books I read last year. It made me wonder why I hadn’t read them earlier.

I also discovered a quick way to judge whether to discard a book or keep it on my shelves.

I put all books that were ‘five years or older” into one section of the bookcase. Every few weeks I picked one at random and read the first few chapters (somewhere between 30 and 50 pages). If it didn’t capture my interest by then, it went straight into a bag to take to a National Trust second hand bookshop.

Don’t get me wrong; I still have a lot of unread books. The list of ‘five years or older’ of ‘old books’ has of course grown because I now have to add in everything I bought in 2014. The TBR monster is merely wounded, not slain.

My strategy isn’t without its challenges and its flaws. It does require will power on my part to read the older books not just the shiny new ones and to abandon books I’m not enjoying.

But overall it does seem to work .

So I’ll be repeating it again this year, with a target to reduce by a further 20% to end 2020 with 211 unread books. I’d love to think I could get it below that 200 mark but I’m being realistic.

Wish me luck!

An Abundance of Book Gifts

Greetings all. I hope you all had a lovely Christmas with friends and family.

I suspect there were a fair number of you who found book-shaped presents under the treat this year. Christmas just wouldn’t be Christmas without any book presents as Joe March should have said…

I thought I’d share the books that came into the house as a result of this festive season. There was a very plentiful supply – more books than I can ever recall.

Family Gifts

I’ve learned with my family that it’s best to give hints about what books would give me most pleasure to receive. That way they avoid wasting their money on titles and authors that are just not to my taste. I’ve had a number of those in the past and it’s very awkward – it seems rude to say I don’t care for their gift when they’ve gone to the trouble of buying it for me. So I usually just thank them and then, after time has elapsed, pass it on quietly to someone else who will get more pleasure from it than I will.

This year I was remarkably restrained in my suggestions because I’m still on a campaign to reduce my stack of owned-but-unread books (my TBR) to a more manageable level. I feel guilty that I still have presents from Christmas past as well as birthdays that I asked for yet have not even opened.

I limited my requests to just two titles, both non fiction (another unusual feature of this year) books that caught my eye during this year’s Non Fiction November . My husband duly delivered:

Forty Autumns by Nina Willner

Willner was the first female US Army intelligence officer to lead sensitive operations in East Berlin at the height of the Cold War. When the Berlin Wall came down members of her family who had lived in Communist East Germany. were re-united with those who lived on the Western side. This sounds like an extraordinary story of courage and resilience.

Rebel Writers: The Accidental Feminists by Celia Brayfield

This is a collection of biographical features on six women writers who rebelled against sexism, inequality and prejudice and challenged the existing definitions of what writing and writers should be. Three of the featured women are writers whose work I’ve enjoyed over many years –the authors Edna O’Brien and Margaret Forster and the journalist Virginia Ironside. The remaining three are people I’ve heard of – Lynne Reid-Banks, Charlotte Bingham, Nell Dunn – but know little about so I’m hoping this book will spur me on to reading their work.

Secret Santa

I went off to the Christmas get together for the #southwalesbookstagrammers in November, knowing that I would come home with one book as a Secret Santa pressie.

That wasn’t quite how things turned out…… As this photo shows, I staggered home with rather more than one book.

I knew there were a lot but it only this morning that I discovered the total was 13 books plus a lot of other items like book marks, a t shirt, and a notebook. By the way I hope you admire my self restraint in keeping these packages unwrapped for a month! They were all generously donated by publishers and booksellers.

Here’s what was revealed today.

Judith Barrow and Juliet Greenwood that you can see at the top of the pile are both authors from Wales that I’ve meant to read for some time. The gift from HonnoPress means I have no excuses now.

There were two many books to get into one photograph so here’s the second group.

In case you can’t read the titles, I’ll list the books for you

The White Camellia by Juliet Greenwood: a love affair disrupted in its infancy by a woman’s involvement in a suffrage rally and a call up to World War 1

Stranger Within the Gates by Bertha Thomas : a collection of short stories written in 1912 and re-published by Honno

A Hundred Tiny Threads by Judith Barrow another novel set against the background of the campaign for female emancipation. Two ordinary women who take huge risks in standing up for themselves and fighting for justice.

The Child in Time by Ian McEwan: I read this years ago and it remains one of my favourite McEwan novels.

Dear Edward by Ann Napolitano: Based on a true story of a plane crash in which the sole survivor is a 12 year old boy.

The Wych Elm by Tana French: a pscychological mystery that has been on the Sunday Times Bestseller’s list for many weeks

A Good Girl’s Guide to Murder by Holly Jackson: a student chooses for her final year project, an unsolved crime in her home town

Starwars Be More Leia : sorry about this all you Star Wars fans but this is one that is going to be gifted out of the house. I really don’t need a character from a film to advise me on how to live my life

The Good Luck Girls by Charlotte Nicole Davis: fantasy adventure set in a world where girls are sold to a “welcome house” as children and branded with cursed markings.

Stepsister by Jennifer Donnelly: a retelling of the Cinderella fairy tale

Frostheart by Jamie Littler: the first venture into fiction for a children’s book illustrator . As you’d expect the pages are crammed with wonderful line drawings

Overdrawn by M J Crosskey: a novel based on a chance encounter between a young waitress desperately seeking funds to keep her brother alive and a man whose wife is slipping away from him.

The Truth Will Set You Free by Gloria Steinem: an illustrated collection of inspirational quotes from a feminist activist

This is now going to do serious damage to my TBR …….

What did Santa bring you this year? Do leave a comment telling me about your latest finds. Not that I need any more temptation to buy, but I can still be interested……

December 2017 Snapshot

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Cape Peninsular, South Africa

In the northern hemisphere the consumer frenzy otherwise known as Christmas is in full flood. It’s been blissful to get away from it for a while on our holiday in South Africa. We haven’t escaped it completely since there are some decorations in a few of the hotels but we have been spared wall-to-wall Christmas advertising and the continuous looping of renditions of “Oh I Wish it Could be Christmas Everyday” on the radio and in store so-called entertainment systems. I don’t mean to sound a misery, I just hate all the hype.

Far more enjoyable to travel the roads of the Western Cape among the vineyards, fruit farms and ostrich farms of the interior or stopping off at magnificent bays along the coastal route. We splashed out on a treat this morning with a helicopter ride over Cape Town, Table Bay mountain and the peninsular that stretches to the southern most point in Africa. That photo above doesn’t begin to capture the magnificence of this scenery.

But enough of the travel commentary I hear you say, this is meant to be a blog post about books and reading. How right you are so without further delay I shall do what I am meant to do with these nsnapshot posts: capture what I was reading/watching/ about to read when the page of the calendar turned to December 1, 2017.

Reading now

Usually on holidays I race through books but not this time. Of the three novels I brought with me I’ve only read one so far — The Kitchen God’s Wife by Amy Tan. I chose it from my bookshelves purely at random after my more thoughtful way of deciding which books to pack for the trip just resulted in frustration. I simply couldn’t make up mind and with time running out I just went to my shelves of unread books, closed my eyes and pledged to read whatever my hand touched. It was an ok read – as you can see from my review I thought it improbable at times – but I won’t rush to read anything else by Tang. My copy now has a new home in a bookcase at a hotel in Stellenbosch in the wine region.

I’m almost halfway through my second book which is my 45th Booker Prize winner — The  Conservationist  by the Nobel Laureate Nadine Gordimer. I chose this because she is from South Africa and the book is set in that country so what could be more appropriate than reading it during my holiday? This is a novel I started reading about a year ago but struggled to get into at the time so put it aside. Second time around I’m finding it far more interesting. It’s a character study of a businessman who buys a farm in the Johannesburg area and becomes more engrossed in his land than anything else in his life, including his teenage son.

Thinking of reading next…

Awaiting me at home is another Booker winner, How Late it Was How Late by James Kelman which I began to read a few weeks ago but decided it wasn’t a style to suit my current mood so put it aside. It’s related in a strong Glaswegian voice which takes a bit of getting used to.

Verbatim booksI’m going home with two new acquisitions after a little venture into a delightful bookshop in the university town of Stellenbosch. The owner was more than happy to spend time chatting about African authors and then picking out local authors for me. I could have walked away with more than two books but  unfortunately my suitcase doesn’t have space available.

 

 

The Whale CallerThe Long Journey of Poppie Nongena

The Whale Caller is the fifth novel written by South African writer Zakes Mda. It is about a man named Whale Caller who develops a strong attraction to whales; especially a whale he names Sharisha. As the story progresses, he meets a woman named Saluni, with whom he falls in love but finds he cannot abandon the love he has toward his beloved whale, Sharisa. Apparently this has been adapted into a highly successful film.

The Long Journey of  Poppie  Nongena by Elsa Joubert has  been voted as one of the hundred most important books published in Africa during the last millennium and has won three major South African literary awards. Although it is a work of fiction, the novel is based on a true South African story about a woman’s experience of the apartheid era during which she is forcibly resettled in townships hundreds of miles from her home. Her anger was shared by thousands, exploding first in Sharpeville, then in Soweto and to other parts of the country. It sounds an astonishing book.

The state of my personal library

One of my goals for 2017 is to enjoy the books I already own and to reign back on acquiring yet more. I started 2017 with 318 unread books.   I’m now at 287, somewhat higher than I would like but at least it’s not growing.

Watching

Nothing! Unless you consider watching the wind rustle the trees as watching…..

And that is it for this month. My next post in this series will be coming at the start of another year.  Until then, happy reading everyone.

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