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Spring cleaning the book collection

It’s officially Spring in some parts of the world and yesterday certainly felt like it here in Wales. The sun was out, sky was blue and the daffodils were sitting up and paying attention. Spring was traditionally the time when housewives (never the men!) ‘did’ the house from top to bottom, clearing out the cobwebs accumulated in the darker months. Doesn’t sound like much fun to me.

I thought I’d do my own version of spring cleaning by trying to bring some semblance of order to my books. They certainly need it.

organised shelf

How I wish my shelves looked

I often see pictures of other bloggers’ book shelves and can’t help admire how organised they all are compared to my ramshackle approach. Some have them sorted alphabetically (oh boy) others group them by author or genre. I did adopt a method a few years ago where I allocated the TBR books to separate shelves for classics, Booker prize winners and world literature. That worked until I went through a buying splurge and ran out of space.

The reality

The reality

Now everything is muddled together again which makes it hard to see what I actually have. I was absolutely certain I had Pat Barker’s Booker prize winning book The Ghost Road. But can I put my hands on it? No way. I know what will happen – I’ll go and buy a copy and then the very next day I’ll find the original. Just yesterday, day one of the clean up, I found duplicate copies of Mary Barton by Elizabeth Gaskell (both never opened). Ditto with One Hundred Years of Solitude. Its such a waste of money.

It’s time I’ve realised not just to clean up the clutter, but to start keeping a record of what’s in the piles and on the shelves. I’m now the owner of an excel database recording all the books I have yet to read and for each one, when and how I acquired them, if I finished them or whether I gave them away unread. As a result I know I have 133 books still to read, rather more than I had expected and I have a feeling I’ll find a few strays dotted around the house in coming months.  Now all I have to do is keep the list updated and the shelves in reasonably good order.

How do you keep your books under control? Any tips and techniques to pass on??


Playing Catch Up

sundaysalonIt’s hard to think creatively amid the din of hailstones smashing into the windows and the roof of the conservatory. At least I am at home this morning — there was a point last night where it didn’t look that hopeful.

Not so idyllic when the waves lap at the door

Not so idyllic when the waves lap at the door

We’d gone out for a meal and a drink at a pub that borders on the Severn Estuary. Spray was rising high above the defence wall between the water and the pub car park but that was ok because we could just park in the spaces well away from the waterfront. But within less than an hour it was clear there was a problem. Instead of spray coming up over the wall, we saw the waves themselves. The car park turned into a beach with water that just got deeper and deeper. Without an all-terrain vehicle the chances of getting out without the sea water being sucked into the engine, looked rather dicey.

There are worse places to be in such situations of course — the pub floor might not have been very inviting as a bed but it was at least dry (providing the sandbags at the doors kept the water back) and there was plenty of food and drink. Fortunately after 90 minutes or so the tide turned and the level subsided enough to be able to drive away. Fortunate too that I had changed my mind at the last moment and wore leather boots instead of suede ones which would not have been ideal for wading through water to get to the car.

An adventurous end to the week. We were certainly lucky compared to the hundreds of people who got flooded out last night with more storms expected today.

A good day then to stay tucked up indoors. Maybe I can even catch up on some blog and reading related tasks which I have neglected of late. I had grand plans that over the Christmas holidays, I would get up to date with all my reviews of 2013 books. I managed a few but I still have 5 more to go. If I leave it much longer I’ll have forgotten what I thought about them.

And then of course there are the books I read in January. They were a mixed bunch:

I Killed Scheherazade – Joumana Haddad: admirable just for the fact it was published but not a great read.

Still Life by Louise Penny: the first in her Inspector Gamache series. A wonderful book set in the small Three Pines village in Canada. I can imagine myself living there especially if I can own the bistro.

Whatever Happened to Harold Absalon by Simon Okotie: a quirky novel about a private investigator’s search for a missing government transport advisor. This investigator is no Phillip Marlowe however, he’s about as incompetent as Inspector Jacques Clouseau (Pink Panther series).

The Alone to the Alone by Gwyn Thomas: this is a book club read (my choice). It’s a black humour story of a coal mining village in South Wales. Quality of the writing is excellent but there’s something about it that just doesn’t excite me.

2013 Booker Talk awards

We’ve had the Booker and the Nobel, the Carnegie and the Pulitzer; not to mention the Costa’s and the Bailey’s. Now comes — what some might consider the most prestigious prize of all — the BookerTalk award. Step forward the 2013 winners.

Most disappointing read

This award goes to Kate Atkinson’s Life after Life. I’ve loved every previous book by her but not this time Kate, sorry. Had to give you up after about 100 pages or so. A good idea but it quickly ran out of steam for me and become repetitive. I haven’t abandoned Ms Atkinson entirely but am hoping the next one will be rather less ‘clever’ and rather more interesting.

Most unusual narrative style

One novel soared into first place in this category  —  Alain Mabanckou’s Broken Glass. It was the first book I read for my World Literature Challenge. It’s written in a stream of consciousness  style but don’t let that fool you into thinking this is a serious Virginia Woolf kind of book.  Humour abounds in the portrayals of the characters who frequent the rather shabby Credit Gone West bar.  This is a novel in which words tumble together with barely a full stop or comma to halt the breathless pace. When you tire of the humour, you can enjoy spotting the multiple literary allusions (said to number 100 plus).

Most Challenging Novel

The runaway winner in this category is  Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o’s Petals of Blood. wa Thiong’o went to  prison as a result of this book in which he criticised the regime in power following Kenya’s independence.  It’s a challenging read at times because there are some facets of the country’s history that are not easily understood by those of us from other parts of the world. But put that aside and you have a richly-textured novel about disillusionment and betrayal that lingers long in the memory.

Bottom of the Bottom 

This prize is shared jointly by Will the Real William Shakespeare Please Step Forward and An Accidental Life. They have little in common in terms of subject, genre or style. But they do both illustrate the importance of having editors and publishers who are not afraid to tell a budding author that they really need to work harder on their writing skills. The lesson for me was to be more judicious when requesting review copies from publishers.

The one that got away

Clearly, the Man Booker prize judges need someone to give them a good talking to. How could they have overlooked Jim Crace’s Harvest for the prize when he had written such an exquisite book?  It’s a thoughtful that looks at the consequences of the pursuit of profit and progress on the long standing traditions of the countryside and the people who make their living from the land. A book to treasure.

Does reading change your brain?

If ever you wanted an argument to justify why you spend many hours of your life reading,  some recent research by Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia, might fit the bill.

Apparently the university’s Centre for Neuropolicy ran an experiment with undergraduate students to determine if levels of activity in the brain were affected by reading a page-turning novel. Over the course of nine days, the students were given assignments in which they read sections of Robert Harris’ novel Pompeii . Their brain patterns before and after reading were then compared.

What the experiment showed was that the reading activity affected the brain in two different ways — improving the parts of the brain associated with language receptivity and with sensation. The effects lasted for several hours after the students finished their assigned reading.

Neuroscientist Gregory Berns, the academic who lead the study, isn’t ready to declare that the experiment shows reading will result in long lasting changes in  neural patterns but he does state: “your favorite novels could certainly have a bigger and longer-lasting effect on the biology of your brain. ”

So next time you get accused of ‘wasting time’ on reading, maybe you can simply refer your critics to Mr Berns.

For the full article on Does Reading Change Your Brain, click here

My secret Christmas wish

If there is any justice in this world, in a few days from now many of us will be unwrapping shiny new additions to our book collection. Like every other avid reader I’ve put in my request to Santa of titles I would quite him to bring down the chimney on Christmas Eve. I went for a mixture of  some titles from my classics reading list and some from the world literature challenge.

What I really wanted as a present is what I know I can’t have. See what I want, what I really really want would take rather more ingenuity (and pennies) than I think my beloved family members would consider possible.

Morgan Library

Morgan Library, New York City

My heart’s desire would be a personal library of the kind you see in films located in British stately homes. You know the ones —  shelves that stretch almost to the ceiling filled with hardback books (strictly no paperbacks) whose titles are embossed in gilt. I haven’t yet decided whether the way to reach the upper shelves would be via a gallery walk way or by using a type of ladder that moves along the wall on wheels. It would of course need to be a cosy room (no draughty corners thank you) since I plan to spend many hours in here. I don’t want too much in the way of furniture and certainly not of the chintz variety. I do however require a heavy damask-draped bay window with seat looking out over the lawn or some far away mountain tops; a few wing-backed chairs placed close to the fireplace and of course a few choice ornaments dotted on occasional tables.

Cosy libraryAnd what about the books you say? Ah yes, deciding which titles to include  would require some considerable thought and effort. It would be, if not quite “the work of a lifetime” like Mr Darcy’s library at Pemberley,  certainly an endeavour that would take be several years to complete.  The classics of literature would feature of course but I have a hankering for books that will help fill the many gaps in my knowledge; books containing old maps and stories of travel to places I can never quite place on the globe; guides to fossils and types of architecture; Roman and Greek myths and quite possibly something on science though that would need to be a beginner’s guide since I have little aptitude in that direction. I imagine myself a little like young Jane Eyre, stealing a few moments to peruse illustrated books on British birds or far away lands.

Of course the likelihood this is going to happen is very slim but I’m enjoying the pretence. And if it doesn’t exactly come to fruition, I have a back up plan.

Number 2 on my wish list is  a device that would put all other readers into suspended animation for a while (humanely treated of course) while I catch up on all the books they tell me are wonderful but I just haven’t got around to yet.  Anyone found one of these yet or will I have to invent it?

Books for the strong reader

bodyAre you a Rambo or a Mr Bean when it comes to reading? Looking at a list of 50 novels described as ‘tough’ because they are ultra long or intense or use a style that requires deep concentration, I realise I am very much in the Mr Bean camp.

The list has been developed by Flavourwire (who seem to specialise in creating lists) to suggest some of the ‘heftiest’ books around, books suitable only for readers with strong constitutions. Of the 50 they name, I’ve read precisely 4 so clearly I am a wimp.

Now some of these I have never even heard of (like the Tunnel by William Gass or Out by Natsuo Kirino) and one or two I started but gave up on (William Faulkner’s Sound and the Fury for example). Then there are others whose reputation for being ‘complex’ precedes them so much I have persuaded myself that I really don’t need to read them (Finnegan’s Wake, Moby Dick and The Faerie Queen are prime examples here). And some that I think I should read but need to build up my strength before tackling (like Robinson Crusoe).

Here’s what I’ve read:

  • To the Lighthouse – Virgina Woolf
  • Heart of Darkness – Joseph Conrad
  • War and Peace – Tolstoy
  • Sophie’s Choice – William Styron

The Tolstoy one was far and away the hardest because a) it’s incredibly long and b) I am not good at keeping track of characters at the best of times and this one had a very very long cast list. Not only that – but because in Russia, each individual has three variations of their names, I got hopelessly lost with who was who. And that was even with the aid of a list of people at the front of the book.

Sophie’s Choice was only ‘difficult’ in terms of its subject matter but I could say the same of many other books so I question why this one in particular was included. Heart of Darkness is so multilayered that it does sometimes make for puzzlement but the language is so wonderful. the opening passage where the narrator begins his story to the shipmates as they wait for the tide to take them down the Thames, is like an Impressionist painting. As for To the Lighthouse, hm, I did enjoy it, though I can’t actually say that I understood what it was about.

So are you all wimps like myself or are you more in the Rambo camp? Are there any titles you think missing from the list?

Sunday Salon: Reading in parallel

sundaysalonI’ve built up a fair ability to multi-task certain things over the years. Ironing while watching TV (or more recently the Plagues, Witches and War video lecture on historical fiction) ? No problem.  Gardening while catching up on the latest podcast or listening to an audio book? Easy.  Cleaning up my email archive while listening in to an audio conference for work? Simple ( just remember to put your phone on mute so the sound of key tapping doesn’t give you away).

I’ve mastered all of these activities but one thing I have never managed to get the hang of is reading more than one book at a time.

I know some avid readers find no difficulties in having two or even three books on the go simultaneously. But not me.

I’m so poor at keeping track of characters’ names that I will often get to the end of the book and can’t remember what their name was. When reading I sometimes have to look back to remind myself who the person is that’s just been mentioned ( Russian novels where the individual’s given name, family name and patronymic can be used interchangeably, get me particularly confused.) So if I get perplexed by one set of characters, having a completely different set to keep track of, throws me into a spin.

Then there’s the difficulty of remembering where I am in the narrative. If I leave off reading a book for any length of time there is a danger I’ll forget what has happened already so then I have to back-track to fill in the blanks again.

I’ve tried a couple of strategies such as making sure I am reading vastly different genres. Two crime novels at the same time would be far too confusing. I’ve also tried reading a chapter from each in rotation. But that was frustrating because just as I was getting back into the style and the story, it was time to stop.

So I’ve more or less abandoned this as something that just will not work for me.

Problem is that to take full advantage of the Plagues, Witches and War course it would help to have read each of the five set texts before the date when each author will hold a discussion group on their work. So far I’ve read just one and am about 100 pages into another.  It’s just not feasible to squeeze any more reading time into my day.  My options are therefore to skim read each book so at least I have a rough idea of what it’s about (doesn’t seem very fair on the author) or to skip one book and come back to it at the end of the course (which means missing out on good discussions with other students) or to nail my problem with simultaneous reading once and for all .

I’m hoping that somewhere in the blogosphere are some smart people who have honed this skill and can share their strategies with me.

Book aesthetics

I’ve been trying my best lately to bolster the Cinderella part of bookselling by frequenting second hand bookshops including those that trade via third parties like Abe Books. The service from the latter is excellent— if the trader says they will deliver by date X, they do and usually the contents are packaged so well I’ve yet to take a delivery with any sign of damage.

I’m quite choosy when I buy like this, rejecting anything that has splatters of coffee or food stains over the pages. A few marginal notes are ok but not over-zealous use of the yellow highlighter pen. It’s easy to be choosy when the book is on the shelf in front of you. But when I buy on line I’m relying on the description of the book description and sometimes those are, shall we say, a little optimistic.

Something described as being in excellent condition that arrives with crease marks on the spine or a few corners turned down are perfectly ok. What I don’t like is when a book described as ‘like new’ arrives with the outer edges all brown or yellow where they’ve been sitting on a shelf somewhere for a very long time. True that the book has not been read before but it looks grubby and smells a bit fousty. All aesthetics I know but it doesn’t make me want to pick it up. So I end up buying a pristine copy of the same book which really feels like a waste of money.

Sometimes I think I should let the seller know I’m not happy and ask for a refund but then inertia kicks in and I decide it’s not worth the hassle of queuing in the Post Office to mail it back.  I suppose if the amount I’d spent was higher I would probably make a complaint but when it cost me less than a coffee in one of the chains, I put it all down to me just being too picky.

Top 5 book turn offs

The Broke and the Bookish often asks some fiendishly difficult questions as part of itsTop Ten Tuesday meme. The latest round got my grey cells working overtime but I still couldn’t come up with more than five absolute dislikes – aspects of books that prove to be a strong turn off for me.

Sloppiness. Mistakes, well yes I’ve made a few. I just don’t like it when I find them in a book that supposedly has been scrutinised several times over before it hit the press. Proof reading is a tremendous skill – to do it well you have to read each word individually (when I write for work I often read the text backwards). Spell checking tools  have their uses but unfortunately they often mean we get lazy and don’t read the text carefully.  Is that why I seem to see more and more spelling errors in the books I read? Or is it a sad reflection on literacy standards? Either way it irritates me.

Predictable Book Blurbs . By predictable I mean the kind of text that having told you something of the plot, ends with a phrase along the lines of ‘their lives were changed forever’  or ‘their lives were never the same again’. There are way too many of these and they always sound so weak – as if that’s all the publishers could think of to incentivize us to buy the book, It usually has the opposite effect on me. Fortunately I ignored my usual prejudice recently and did read Alison MacLeod’s Booker long listed novel The Unexploded even though the inside cover said  “the lives of Evelyn, Otto and Geoffrey are changed irrevocably.” It was a cracking book let down by such a poor bit of marketing spin.

Adjective overkill. One sign of a not very accomplished author is that they think the overall effect will be enhanced if they load their narrative with adjectives.. For me it doesn’t – I like to use my imagination and think myself how someone behaves rather than get told. Dialogue which relies on attributions like ‘he said, laughingly’ or ‘she nodded her head vigorously’ are a turn off for me. Another dislike is the idea that every other noun that desribes scenery or weather has to have a qualifying adjective. Susan Hill’s A Woman In Black was completely ruined by that feature for me.

Books written in vernacular. It’s so hard to write in local dialect or in a form of language that accurately represents a long ago era and to make it meaningful. I hate historical fiction which peppers the text with thee and thou in an attempt to make it sound authentic. Sharon Penman’s novel about the Welsh Prince Llewellyn was superb but it did cause much gnashing of the teeth to find odd Welsh words dropped in here and there without much rhyme or reason other than to remind us that he was of Welsh origin.  Of all the Booker prize winners I have yet to read, the one I am dreading is James Kelman’s How Late it Was How Late which is written in a working class Scottish dialect. 

Talking animals. Like many a child I loved Black Beauty and Wind in the Willows but my capacity for anthropomorphic characters has almost completely disappeared. Now I have little tolerance to any furry creature who dares to give voice in print. The worst are where the creatures are given human traits in order to ‘teach us’ something (as in Watership Down or The Golden Compass). Give me real people any day.


5 books to woo new readers

Which books are so special they could win over non readers and get them to  fall in love with reading?

That’s the question posed by the organisers of World Book Night 2013.

They want books that would encourage people who are not regular readers, to pick up a book.

It’s a tough question.

I’m thinking there are some must haves:

  • an absorbing storyline/plot;
  • compelling characters;
  • atmospheric setting and
  • relatable situations or issues.

The chosen books also have to be readable. That doesn’t mean they are ‘easy to read’ or ‘simple’. It does mean they have to be written in a style that is accessible. So no ultra literary or experimentational novels written in stream of consciousness or without punctuation; chapter headings and speech tags.

5 recommendations for World Book Night 

  • Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte. This one would appeal to romantics. It’s gothic elements could interest those who enjoy something a little darker.
  • Station Eleven by Emily St Mantel. A sci fi novel that asks us to imagine how we would survive in a world in chaos.
  • Silas Marner by George Eliot (such a touching story)
  • Girl with a Pearl Earring by Tracy Chevalier

World Book Night

In 2012  more than 70,000 books were delivered free to the hardest-to reach potential readers: people in 110 prisons and young offenders institutes; care homes; hospitals and homeless shelters.

Nominations are now open for titles that will be distributed as part of next year’s World Book Night. The 100 most nominated titles will be reviewed by a selection committee of journalists, authors, publishers and librarians and a final list of  25 titles chosen.

Suggestions can cover any genre of book – fiction or non-fiction, crime, thrillers, romance, sagas, sci-fi, fantasy, classics, literature, poetry, biography, young adult. The only rule is that it can’t be a title or an author that’s already featured in 2012 or 2011.  Register on the website at to take part.

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