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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

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……

An Embarrassment of Riches

This was the week where my reading life went out of control.

newbooksI’ve been doing reasonably well with my attempt to read more from the books I already own this year, and consequently buy less. But the plan started to go south when I wandered into the library on Monday where they had a sale and found a reasonably good copy of Ruth Ozeki’s Booker shortlisted A Tale for the Time Being which was a novel I meant to read when it was shortlisted but never got around to. Only one purchase – not disastrous by any means but a few minutes later as I was passing a Pound store  I remembered Karen at Kaggsy’sBookishRamblings had uncovered a few choice books among the acres of cheap shampoo and bathroom cleaner, there might be a few books).  It had frankly never occurred to me this kind of shop might offer any intellectual stimulation so it was a surprise to find two gems.

The first one, The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller was much talked about when it was published in 2011 but I wasn’t sure I was that interested in a novel set around the time of the Trojan War. But having been following a Coursera module on Greek and Roman myths for the past few weeks, my interest level as increased – so of course how could I resist a pristine copy at £1???  And then another much-discussed novel Mrs Hemingway by Naomi Wood – this was even more of a bargain since it’s a never-opened hardback. Not sure its worth adding Poundstretcher to my regular shopping haunts but a peek every few months might be in order.

So Monday came and went with three new books added to the shelf. I knew I wouldn’t be reading these for a while since I’m still trying to finish the #20booksofsummer reading and get to read a few Viragos for All August/AllVirago month.

By Tuesday that plan was thrown a bit off course when the library called to say two of my reserved items were now available. I’d even forgotten about one of them (Don Delillo’s Zero K) since the waiting list was so long and when I looked at the blurb I was mystified when I’d even requested this. Science-based stories are not usually my thing so why had I reserved a novel about a remote and secret compound where death is exquisitely controlled and bodies are preserved until a future time when biomedical advances and new technologies can return them to a life of transcendent promise. In a spirit of generosity to other readers who do enjoy those kinds of stories, it was returned immediately.

Which left me with the ManBooker 2016 long listed novel All That Man Is by David Szalay. I have no intention of trying to read all 13 long listed novels before the Man Booker judges announce the shortlist on September 13. But I do like to read samples of them and read a few in full just to get a flavour of what’s in contention. This one picqued my interest because its essentially the story of nine separate individuals so can be read as a short story collection or as a novel.

Wednesday’s post brought another Man Booker title – The Many by Wyl Menmuir which is one I really, really wanted to read but couldn’t get my hands on a copy anywhere. The publishers Salt had printed only 1,000 copies initially so were rather overhwhelmed by the interest when the longlist was announced. A new print run was rushed through to satisfy the hungry appetites of readers like me….

If you’re keeping track so far you’ll have seen that it’s just midweek and already I have 5 new titles all demanding my attention. Some rapid re-thinking of the reading plan for the next few weeks ensued.

But like all the best laid plans, that too got thrown in the bin when NetGalley sent a batch of emails telling me I’d been approved for two other Man Booker Prize long listed titles: The Schooldays of Jesus by J. M Coetzee  and Eileen by Ottessa Moshfegh. Now I absolutely do want to read the Coetzee since the two novels I’ve read by him previously have been outstanding but having seen a review of Eileen on the Readers’ Room blog earlier today I’m not as convinced I will get on well with this.

Do Not DisturbSeven new acquisitions in four days is going some for me. But that wasn’t the end of the story because yesterday a box arrived from some kind colleagues in the USA containing – guess what? Books!

Am I complaining? No not a bit of it. I just have to get my head down and start reading through this stack and all the ones piling up on the e-reader including another of the Man Booker long listed titles Graeme Macrae Burnet’s His Bloody Project. Expect me to be a bit quiet for a few weeks………Shhh

Books are not weeds

WeedsWe book bloggers can seem like a miserable lot. Anxious about the huge piles of unread books in our homes. Stressed because we’re behind with challenges and projects. Worried about all the classics we’ve never read. Down in the dumps when we’ve lost our reading mojo. To read our blog posts you’d think we were in desperate need of counselling.

Though many of these ‘complaints’ are not meant to be taken that seriously, I can still sympathise when I read them. I’ve had touches of these feelings myself.  I attribute some of them directly to blogging.

It wasn’t until I started this site that I ever planned my reading, let along planned along particular themes or genres. But there were so many challenges and projects doing the rounds that it was hard not to get tempted. Last year I made a conscious effort to avoid signing up to new long term challenges.  It still means I can dip in whenever there is a themed read I fancy especially if its something short (like the German Literature Month) that doesn’t haven’t any ‘rules of engagement’ . It’s help assuage any ‘guilt’ feelings that I was falling behind. Now I just have four projects (I refuse to call them challenges): the Classics Club project, the TBR project, Booker Prize project and World of Literature project. They’re trundling along at a fairly slow pace but that’s ok. Nothing dire will happen to me if I slip.

It wasn’t until I started blogging that my other ‘problem’ developed. I acquired books like they were going out of fashion. Yes I’ve always loved to buy books and have always come out of a library with more than I can possibly read in the three week loan period.  But never before did I have shelf upon shelf of unread books.   But as I started following other people’s blogs and saw recommendations for authors I’ve never read, new titles about to be published and titles that were shortlisted for prizes, my acquisitorial nature went into overdrive.  Now I have so many books I’ve had to start making a list.

Like so many other bloggers I have from time to time been guilty of moaning a bit about the stack of unread books. Sure, when I walk in the room and see them toppling over, I get that deer in the headlight look of panic occasionally, that feeling of “Oh hell when am I ever going to read all these??” It lasts for all of thirty seconds. Honestly I love having my own little library that I can browse at any time of day or night. No waiting for the shop or the public library to open. No waiting in a queue to pay. Instant access = instant bliss.

What’s brought all this on you might be wondering? My stint on the soap box was prompted by an item that popped into my in box this week from the Book Riot site. “How to Weed Your Bookshelves” was an account by Jessica Pryde of two distinctly different methods of reducing the number of books in your home. No issues with the content or the fact that on occasions (like house moves) we might be forced to make some adjustments. But that subject line began to irritate me. A weed to me is something undesirable, objectionable, unwelcome; something that needs to be eradicated forthwith. I don’t think of my books like that. To me they are all objects of pleasure. It may be the pleasure of looking at a beautifully designed cover. Or the pleasure that I anticipate I will get from opening that first page and diving into a new world. I refuse to think of them as a problem that must be dealt with or else..

A large TBR is a source of delight not a source of lamentation and woe. Lets treat it as such. Anyone care to join in me in rethinking our attitude to the TBR?





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