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10 books to read this Spring (maybe)

This week’s Top Ten Tuesday hosted by The Broke and the Bookish requires me to list 10 novels on my to read list this Spring. An impossible task I fear for one who finds planning and reading do not make for happy bedfellows. I’ve tried – really I have (quit  rolling those eyes would you please) over the last five years. I have pledged my allegiance to various challenges short and long and dutifully listed what I would read as my entry ticket to such events. The list making is the fun part. After that it all goes down hill rapidly. The minute a book title goes on a list, I seem to lose all interest in reading it and instead much prefer something lurking in the darker recesses of the bookcase. So I’ve given up essentially and just read what takes my fancy at the time. 

My list of 10 is therefore offered with full disclosure that I might read all of these. I might read some of them. It’s conceivable, being as fickle as I am, that I will read none of them.  I reserve the right to completely change my mind in the next few weeks (scratch that, I mean next few hours). The most likely one I will read is the book I drew in the Classic Club SpinDiary of a Nobody by George and Weedon Grossmith.


My one and only commitment is that whatever I do read, it will be from the collection of books I already own – this is in support of my 2017 goals. 

10-to-read - 2017

Hell’s Gate by the French author Lauren Gaude is due for publication by Gallic Books in April.I have a NetGalley copy for review. Gallic describes it as “A thrilling story of love, loss, revenge and redemption in Naples and beyond.”

GhostBird by Carol Lovekin: Another title by the independent Welsh publisher Honno Press that I picked up as part of my plan to read more fiction from my fellow countrymen and women. This was Waterstones Wales and Welsh Independent Bookshops
Book of the Month in April 2016.

Good Behaviour by Molly Keane: One of the titles I have in mind for Reading Ireland 2017 – I’ve read only one novel by Keane (Devoted Ladies – under her other name of M.J Farrell) so I’m keen to see if this one resonates more with me.

When the Doves Disappeared by Sofi Oksanen, translated from Finnish by  Lola Rogers. It’s described by The Independent newspaper as a tense family drama. I was more interested in their assessment that “When The Doves Disappeared is indeed a thrilling page-turner but it is equally a shattering family drama and an unsparing deconstruction of history.” I bought this as part of my quest to broaden my reading horizons with authors from many parts of the world.

Twilight in Djakarta by Mochtar Lubis, I picked up a second hand copy of this about four years ago. Its one of only two books I own by an author from Indonesia. The cover has a rather dark, retro feel which apparently matches the mood of the book. It was published about 50 years ago, having been smuggled out of Indonesia where the author was held under house arrest, and depicts social and political events in the capital during the run up to a national election.

His Bloody Project  by Graeme Macrae Burnet. A historical thriller that was longlisted for the Booker Prize in 2016. I meant to read it before shortlist was announced and got a bargain electronic copy but it wasnt the right format – I wanted to be able to flick back to previous chapters etc which is never easy on an e reader. But now my sister donated her print copy to me, I have no more excuses.

We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson (note that I erroneously had this attributed to Dodi Smith until an astute reader spotted the error). I know, I know, you are astounded I have never read this classic. So am I. And so I will. At some point

The Finkler Question  by Howard Jacobson. One of the remaining titles on my Booker project list. It has its fans and its detractors. I’ve read the opening chapter and enjoyed it.

Sacred Hunger  by Barry Unsworth. Another Booker prize winner that has been highly recommended by many of you who follow this blog.

How many of these will I actually read? I dare you to make a forecast…..


Revealed – results of Classics Club Spin #4:


Graham Greene

The roulette wheel for the Classics Club spin-along finished with the ball landing on number 10.Which means I will be reading The Power and the Glory by Grahame  Greene. Phew! I said yesterday that I was hoping to avoid Robinson Crusoe so I’m pleased I avoided that – I will read it at some point but I’m not in the mood for it right now.

The Power and the Glory will actually be a re-read but it’s some thirty years now since I read it and I can’t remember much about it beyond the fact it was about a moral crisis suffered by a priest who is trying to avoid capture by the Mexican authorities. Grahame  Greene was one of the authors on the final year syllabus at university, a time when all our energies were going into revision for finals and had little time for scrutinising texts in much detail.

I’ve always felt since that I didn’t do justice to Mr Greene. Fortunately Simon of Savidge Reads gave me the impetus to put that right with the  ’Greene for Gran’ readalong he organised this summer as a tribute to his book-loving gran. I ended up re-reading The Heart of the Matter, one of his ‘Catholic novels’ which proved a superb experience.

The Power and the Glory is on the Time list of the best 100 novels published in English since 1923, in which it is described as a novel of “intricate moral landscapes, where corrupt characters might still be capable of goodness and virtuous ones indulge their virtues murderously.”

Sounds good doesn’t it?? Some leading figures in the Catholic church didn’t think so – the Cardinal of Westminster summoned Greene to a meeting so that he could read him a letter from the Holy Church condemning the novel and insisting he re-write it. Greene refused.

The rules of the spin-along give me until January 1, 2014 to read this which means I have a wonderful end-of -the-year reading treat in store.

Read more: Best Books of ALL TIME | All-TIME 100 Novels |

Classics Club Spinalong Choice

Here we go again – the second Classics Club is imminent. This is where we have to pick a list of 20 books from our Classics Club reading list, and give each a number.

Then with a spin of the virtual roulette wheel, the team at Classics Club will reveal a winning number – all we have to read is to read the matching book from our list by end of July. The rules are open to challenge – so I did think about just putting the same book in twenty times but in the end thought that would be cheating. Tempting though……..

Here’s my list. Many are from the list I did for Spinalong #1 back in March. I’ve tried to include some I’m not that keen on but think its good for my soul as it were

  1. Pamela (ugh)
  2. Canterbury Tales
  3. Wives and Daughters
  4. Dr Thorne
  5. Mansfield Park
  6. Anna Karenina
  7. Daisy Miller/Washington Square (oh no, not James please!)
  8. Things Fall Apart (please, please pick me!)
  9. Love in the Time of Cholera
  10. Half a Yellow Sun
  11. Age of Innocence
  12. L’Assommoir
  13. Grapes of Wrath (if I must)
  14. The Pursuit Of Love
  15. Mrs Dalloway
  16. Silent Spring (need a bit of non fiction)
  17. Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont
  18. The Infinite Plan
  19. A Parisian Affair and other stories
  20. Old Gariot

Farewell to Arms: Review

farewellWhen a book comes from the pen of a Nobel prize-winning author and it’s his first best-seller, my expectation is that I’ll be offered something special. But the only sensation brought on by reading Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms was one of mystification about why this novel is rated so highly.

The story is a romance set in Italy during World War 1 between an American serving with the Italian forces and a British nurse. It’s based on Hemingway’s own experiences while serving as an ambulance driver on the Austrian-Italian front. The driver and the nurse meet, have a passionate affair, flee the country and spend months billing and cooing in a snowy idyll somewhere in Switzerland.  Which doesn’t sound too bad a plot. The problem for me was that the story is related with all the passion of someone reading the back of a cornflakes box.

I understand that Hemingway was striving for an ultra lean writing style; one that avoided complicated syntax and eliminated what he considered unnecessary punctuation. Where many authors used the comma to connect phrases, Hemingway preferred to use ‘and’ as his connector. The result is so pared down it felt drained of all colour and vitality. Conversations between the two love birds were rendered in such a simple way that it was very hard to get inside their heads and to experience the intensity of the emotion they felt for each other. In short I found the whole thing under-whelming.

Classics Club is in a spin

Classics Club is taking its members for a spin. Not the kind of spin which involves dressing in jazzy lycra and sporting super-toned calf muscles. Classics Club’s kind of spin is one you’ll know if you’re a Las Vegas type of person and like a spot at the roulette table. It’s all a question of numbers.

What we’re challenged to do is pick a list of 20 books from our Classics Club reading list, and number them. On Monday, with a spin of their virtual roulette wheel, the team at Classics Club will reveal a winning number and we all have to read the matching book from our list by end of March. Since we’re supposed to include on our lists at least five books that we know we really should read, but have been putting off for a while, this is not a challenge for the faint hearted.

So here goes with my list:

  1. Canterbury Tales
  2. Pamela (ugh)
  3. Wives and Daughters
  4. Dr Thorne
  5. Anna Karenina
  6. Daisy Miller/Washington Square (oh no, not James please!)
  7. Things Fall Apart (please, please pick me!)
  8. Love in the Time of Cholera
  9. Age of Innocence
  10. Robinson Crusoe (Mr BookerTalk had better be right about this one)
  11. Grapes of Wrath (if I must)
  12. The Pursuit Of Love
  13. Mrs Dalloway
  14. Farewell to Arms
  15. Silent Spring (need a bit of non fiction)
  16. Castle of Otranto
  17. Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont
  18. The Infinite Plan
  19. A Parisian Affair and other stories
  20. Old Gariot

So now the die is cast – bring it on!

Sunday Salon: not browsing but searching

sundaysalonI’ve been blogging for almost a year now. I’ve explored new authors thanks to recommendations by other book bloggers and through my self-imposed challenge of reading through the entire list of Booker prize winners or the 50 books on my Classics Club list. I’ve bought more books this year than I can ever remember and I’ve read more than I have in previous years.  Not every book I’ve read in consequence has turned out to be a worthwhile experience but my horizons have definitely been broadened as I’ve deviated from my tried and tested list of authors.

And yet…. For the last few months I’ve had this niggling sensation that something is missing from this experience. It wasn’t until I read a post today at Sophisticated Dorkiness that I realised the nature of that missing element.

For decades I bought books or borrowed them from libraries after browsing through the shelves. Browsing was how in my mid teens I began to be a more serious reader, ditching my normal diet of Dennis Wheatley and Jean Plaidy in favour of rather more testing fare in the shape of Tolstoy, Herman Hesse, and even Jean Paul Sartre. I knew little of them but I discovered them simply by randomly picking books off the shelves. Our local library was a rather small affair but the librarians made the best use possible of their limited shelf space and I will be eternally grateful to those who decided residents in our town needed more than Agatha Christie to sustain them.

As the years advanced and I no longer had to rely on pocket money, I progressed to buying books. My browsing habits adapted.  No longer able to just return free of charge, books I didn’t like, I had to be more discerning. So I skimmed a few pages first – but I was still browsing. It’s how I encountered Wilkie Collins (reading every one of his books in a few years); George Eliot and then, in more recent years, Sharon Penman (and fell in love with her trilogy of the Welsh princes); and even more recently Thomas Keneally and Emile Zola.

But now, when I go to a bookshop or a library, as Kim says in her post, I go with a list. Yesterday was fairly typical – I went looking for Dissolution (C J Sansom) because it’s our book club read for January. Within ten minutes I was back outside, new book in hand.  In other words I’ve swapped browsing for searching.  The only times I actually seem to browse now are when I’m hanging around an airport waiting for a flight – since I don’t tend to have my wishlist with me, I might pick up something I’ve not heard of before but sounds intriguing.

I want my earlier experience back. But I also enjoy the recommendations from others and ideas gathered from monitoring multiple blogs. Can I have both?  Actually yes I think I can if I just decide once every couple of months to go to the library, leaving the wish list at home, and just  randomly walk along the shelves, picking whatever takes my fancy. I might have to be disciplined not to cheat and take something that I know I’ve been wanting to read for months!. It might be hard to resist that temptation but I’m going to give it a go.

Books that scare me

What classic piece of literature most intimidates you, and why?

That was the question posed as this month’s meme over on the Classics Club.  The fact it’s taken me practically all month to think of an answer is a clue to how much this question taxed my brain. My first answer was ‘nothing really’ on the basis that I’ll give anything a go (except maybe science fantasy). But as Lear told Cordelia “Nothing will come of nothing, speak again” so I pushed myself to give the question deeper consideration.

After much cogitation I decided that there were three categories or types of books which I would approach with a degree of trepidation:

English medieval literature. A friend at university took this as her degree subject so I got to see some of her books. Until then I thought Chaucer was hard enough to read. But then she introduced me to Piers the Ploughman and Beowulf. I decided on the spot that I really didn’t want to have to learn another language just to read literature.

Books in local dialect  This is in similar vein to my comment around medieval literature. Books that make very heavy use of dialect are hard to read and enjoy.  I have a copy of James Kelman’s ‘How late it was, How late‘ sitting on my shelf, waiting to be read along with all the other Booker prize winners I have challenged myself to read. It’s a classic in its own way – stream of consciousness novel written in working class Glaswegian accent (note of explanation for my non British readers – this accent comes from the city of Glasgow in Scotland and is a particularly difficult accent to understand). I suspect it will linger on the shelves until I have nothing else left on the list to read….

Scientific plots My final category are novels that contain a heavy emphasis on science. I was never much use at science at school. I have only the vaguest of notions of chemistry or physics. Quiz questions that ask for the names of elements, planets and stars, or the genus of various plants and animals have me baffled. So any novel that involves scientists or scientific theory would not be one I would open with glee. Hence why I have never read any of those science fiction classics by Asimov , H G Wells or Huxley.

I wouldn’t ignore any of these categories, they just wouldn’t be the ones I would open with relish.

Sunday Salon: Around the world, from my chair

By accident, this week has found me reading novels set in far flung corners of the world.

Last weekend I started to read Midnight’s Children, the 1991 Man Booker prize novel by Salman Rushdie. It’s set in India on the cusp of that country’s independence from Britain. The book opens with the birth of the central character Saleem Sinai at the stroke of midnight on August 15, 1947, the exact moment the newly in dependent nation is born. it then goes back in time to look at the lives of Saleem’s ancestors including his grandfather doctor. One thing the two have in common is a large nose and an uncanny sense of smell that enables them to detect when something is not quite right.

This is not an easy read – I find I can only absorb it in small doses and keep forgetting who each of the characters are – so as light relief I began reading a book that has been on my shelves for more than a year.  Balzac and the little Chinese Seamstress is a first novel by Dai Sijie, a writer who lived through the Cultural Revolution in China during the 1970s but now lives in France. It’s a poignant ‘coming of age’ novel set in a remote mountainside village near Tibet where the narrator and his friend Luo are sent as teenagers to be ‘re-educated’ by living among the peasants. The narrator is a ‘fine musician’ who entertains the villagers with renditions of Mozart sonatas though since all Western culture is banned he has to pretend the music is written in praise of Chairman Mao. His friend Luo is a gifted storyteller. They both fall in love with the beautiful daughter of a tailor and  with  books by Balzac and Dumas they discover another boy has kept hidden. It’s a mesmerising story about a painful period in China’s history – a story made even more touching when I discovered that it’s semi autobiographical since Sijie himself was also subjected to the same re-education program.

From two of the world’s current economic powerhouses, my reading took me this week back to the cultural and economic powerhouse of ancient Greece with an adventure into reading some Greek tragedy. I’ve put Medea and some of the other plays written by the Greek dramatist 400 years BC onto my reading list for the Classics Club challenge, thinking that you couldn’t get more classic than this. I was expecting something rather complex in terms of language or meaning but was very pleasantly to find how readable it was and how its themes still resonate today. The central of Medea reminded me a little of Lady Macbeth in the way they view murder as a means to an end but at least Lady M experiences remorse where Medea seems to feel none. You can read the review here.

Medea by Euripedes

She’s killed two people to protect the man she loves. She’s followed him into exile in a foreign land. But now her hero husband has dumped her for a younger model (who happens to be the King’s daughter) so she determines to take her revenge.  First she poisons the new bride and the bride’s father and then slays her own sons.

It sounds like the plot of a TV drama or even a Polanski film. With its theme of  gender relations and female oppression in a patriarchal society, it sounds very twentieth century. But it’s actually a play that’s more than 2,000 years old.

Diana Rigg’s portrayal of Medea in 1993 was described as ‘the performance of her life’

Medea, written in 431BC by the Greek dramatist Euripedes, is based on the legendary story of Jason (the leader of the Argonauts’  quest to gain the Golden Fleece) and his vengeful wife Medea. It was performed in a competition as part of a religious festival to the god Dionysus held in Athens.

Although the play reflects the stylistic elements of traditional Greek tragedy that the original audience would have expected ( such as  the Chorus who reflect on and amplify the events they witness, and the hymn of praise to Athens) , it was not well received. Euripedes actually came last in the competition. One theory is that the theme was considered too radical, blurring the boundaries of conventional gender and social roles and undermining Jason’s role as heroic figure. For instead of a Jason who is the honourable and brave Greek hero, the accusations levelled against him by Medea show us a figure who is disloyal and self interested. He’s conveniently forgotten that she saved his life and in doing so was forced to leave her homeland.

For modern audiences, her desire to see Jason suffer would be understandable though the means she uses wouldn’t be generally acceptable. But less easy to comprehend is her act of infanticide against two children who have little part to play in her marriage breakdown. The only reason she gives for such a shocking act is that she is saving them from a greater fate they would experience if she were to flee the country and leave them behind. Presumably she thinks they would be killed in revenge for her own actions – so it would be bettter for her to be their killer than anyone else. Other characters suggest she is deranged and mad yet she shows little sign of this when she has her big shown down with Jason, arguing very coherently why she sees his marriage as a supreme act of betrayal. The play thus raises an important question – are there some circumstances under which it would be justifiable – or acceptable – for a mother to kill her children? Equally important is the question of whether such individuals should be punished for their action – Medea escapes from any form of justice since the play ends with her riding away in a chariot  to start a new life in Athens.

There isn’t much subtlety in this play; it’s a full on study of a woman who is hell bent on revenge and systematically sets about achieving it. As to be expected, it’s full of references to Gods and prevailing beliefs that are no longer relevant for today’s society – but the themes and questions it raises are still pertinent.

Classics 1 down, 49 to go

A momentous week – I just finished reading the first book on my Classics Club list. It was North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell which I picked because she is an author I have limited experience of – I read Cranford earlier in the year and was underwhelmed. But a few other bloggers said I should give her another go. And I am really glad I listened to their advice. You can read my review here. (astonishingly for me, I managed to get the review done within a month of finishing the book).

Anyway, so one done, but there are still 49 more to be completed to meet the challenge. I keep changing my mind about what should be on the list – I took out most of the children’s books this week to give space for Trollope, Gaskell and George Eliot. I also added in a very old text indeed – the play Medea by Euripedes that was written 400 years BC. It was on the syllabus for a humanities course I did several years ago but I never got around to reading it. Feels like I should have a go. Maybe I will learn that Greek tragedy isn’t my thing.

I have less than 5 years to read the remaining 49 texts so it will be a stretch, particularly as I’m also trying to read all the Booker prize winners. I did a quick count today and was surprised to find I’ve read 12 of them so far this year which feels like very good progress.

I’m just starting the 13th book – Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie. I enjoy books set in India or by Indian authors and have read a few this year (Staying OnSarawasti Park, for example) so the subject interests me .But – and it’s a big but – I also know this is not going to be an easy read.  I chose it really because the film version was released recently so it felt the time was right to give it a go. It’s a pretty long book so I might need to read something else in parallel to give the brain a rest. At the moment it’s a toss up between I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou and The Slap by Christos Tsiolkas which multiple colleagues in work tell me is great.

Any thoughts on The Slap anyone?


Postcript: had to make a quick edit to this post when an astute blogger pointed out I had written Margaret Gaskell, not Elizabeth!. Oops

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