Top Ten Tuesday: For the Love of Books

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Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly meme hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl.

Not being much of a romance reader I always struggle to come up with a meaningful response to these Valentine’s Day prompts. This year I’m going for a lovey subject close to my heart: books about the love of books or, alternatively, books for booklovers. Here are some of my favourites:

1. The Uncommon Reader by Alan Bennett. A short novelette, if you will, in which the Queen discovers the joys of library membership and has her eyes opened to a whole new world. Short and sweet and so typically Bennett. Review here.

2. The Book Thief by Markus Zuzak. This was one of those books that made the rest of my life – all those moments when I didn’t have time to read – feel like an enormous inconvenience. Narrated by death itself, this is the story of a young girl in Nazi Germany and her love for reading.

3. The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon. A gripping tale involving a young man’s introduction to the Cemetery of Lost Books and his discovery that a devilish figure is intent on burning all the surviving copies of his favourite novel. I got completely hooked on this.

4. Matilda by Roald Dahl. Surely the best known bookworm in literature? And yet more proof that booklovers are the very best sort of people.

5. Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi. A moving memoir of one woman’s experiences teaching classic literature in the years after the Iranian revolution. Review here.

6. Possession by A S Byatt. Two modern-day academics join forces to research a secret love affair between two famous Victorian poets; the title can refer to lots of things but I love the way Byatt describes the curious feeling that certain books and authors belong to you alone.

7. 84 Charing Cross Road by Helen Hanff. Epistolary stories are the best and this is one of my favourites. This is the story of the unusual friendship between Hanf, an American writer, and a London bookseller with a shared love of used books. Review here.

8. The Eyre Affair by Jasper Fforde. Suffice it to say that there’s a parallel world (or two), a detective specialising in literary crimes, a missing copy of Martin Chuzzlewit, a woman trapped in a Wordsworth poem and several alternative endings to Jane Eyre. Indeed Jane Eyre gets rewritten, or rewrites itself, multiple times throughout. It’s mad but brill.

9. The Jane Austen Book Club by Karen Joy Fowler. As much as I love her novels, a book club that reads only Jane Austen sounds pretty hellish to me. Nevertheless I remember quite liking this.

10. The Children’s Book by A S Byatt. A Byatt double whammy here. This is an epic tome (and the prettiest book on my shelves). It covers a lot of ground but focuses mainly on the children of a group of artists and writers in pre-war bohemian London.

Let me know in the comments if you think if anything I’ve missed 🙂

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Mrs Dalloway (1925) by Virginia Woolf

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“Fear no more, says the heart, committing its burden to some sea, which sighs collectively for all sorrows, and renews, begins, collects, lets fall”

I always seem to be harping on about the fact that I can’t finish To The Lighthouse. It’s not that I haven’t enjoyed what I’ve read of it, not at all, but on each of the four occasions I’ve tried I’ve inevitably lost my way and given up, probably way too soon. I’ve come to regard this book, or possibly just Virginia Woolf, as something like my very own, personal literary nemesis (alongside James Joyce and Henry James). Back last year I added it to a Top Ten Tuesday list of books I’ve never been able to finish and one commenter kindly recommended Mrs Dalloway as a more accessible introduction to Virginia Woolf for a beginner like me. I promptly added it to my mental TBR list, forgot about it for a year, and then was delighted to receive it for Christmas. What a nice surprise.

Wishfulpennywell was absolutely right to recommend this as a more suitable introduction to Woolf than TTL; it’s a gentler, more forgiving read and for me at least it didn’t seem to require the same sort of agonised perseverance necessary just to keep up with the plot. In fact – and I don’t want to sound too gushy here– I think I might be in love with Mrs. Dalloway. Like, really. I often say that a particular book has me hooked but this didn’t have me hooked exactly, it was more akin to being spellbound. I knew within the first paragraph that I wouldn’t just read it all the way to the very end but I’d take my time and savour the experience as I went along. To this end I started avoiding all my lunchtime reading haunts in favour of quieter spots (my car, stationery cupboards and so on) where I’d be able to read undisturbed for an hour. I was obsessed.

Mrs Dalloway is a surprisingly simple novel, which I think is probably part of its charm. Set on one June day in 1923, it follows Clarissa Dalloway as she makes preparations for a party she’s throwing that evening. She buys flowers, mends her dress, sees an old friend, frets about her daughter. And all the while the reader is there, party to all her thoughts and feelings as she goes about her day, as she wonders at the passing of the years, the choices she has made and how life might have been different. Her thoughts often dwell on the happiest years of her youth, before her marriage, on her dearest friend Sally Seton with whom she once shared a kiss and a doomed relationship with the intensely enigmatic Peter Walsh.  The narrative frequently shifts away from Clarissa so we have a chance to observe her from the point of view of those around her but it never stays with any of them for very long. The only other character whom we have chance to study in any detail initially appears to be unconnected to Clarissa; Septimus Warren Smith is an ex-soldier suffering from shell shock, depression and paranoia and while Clarissa is preparing for her party his wife is taking him to doctors and wondering at some of her own past decisions.

It’s all beautifully, mesmerizingly written and there were some sentences I read three or four or more times just to savour them. I love the way it flits from one thing to the next, never settling on anything for long, but landing just long enough for you to learn everything you need to learn. One of the things that I worried about was that I might feel overwhelmed by this stream of consciousness, that I’d get left behind, but really it wasn’t as bad as all that; in some ways it almost feels like a lazy read because once you’re into it you can almost lay back and let the words flow over you. There’s something effortless and graceful about the way Woolf can do this. It drives home a strange sense of how fragile everything is and how quickly, how unnoticeably, time can pass. It’s been two weeks since I turned the last page and I’m still marvelling over this, still keenly reading Goodreads reviews to see if other readers wonder at the same things.

I haven’t bumped To The Lighthouse immediately to the top of my To Read list but it has leapfrogged several places up off the back of Mrs Dalloway. I feel much more prepared for it now, and much more eager to read other works by Woolf. I think this might be the start of my latest literary obsession.

The Elegance of the Hedgehog (2006) by Muriel Barbery

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I was so determined to love this book but now that I think about it I really can’t remember why. What first convinced me that this might be something I’d enjoy? Because it’s French? Because it’s got hedgehogs* in the title? Because it has a pretty cover? I’m really not sure. Sadly, I was pretty certain that it wasn’t going to be my cup of tea within a few pages of starting but I persevered and although I soon found that I wasn’t having as bad a time as expected, nevertheless, I was quite glad to finish and move on to something more to my usual tastes.

I should stress that it’s not the fault of the book that I misjudged it, nor is it a bad book (if there is such a thing). In fact, there were plenty of things for me to enjoy here. After a while I grew to quite like the book’s main protagonist, Madame Renee, the downtrodden, middle aged concierge with a secret she keeps hidden from the snooty inhabitants of her apartment building: she is, in fact, a genius and an avid reader of Tolstoy and Kant in her spare time. Of course, it doesn’t stay secret for long when a charming Japanese businessman moves in and joins forces with Paloma, the angsty pre-teen on the third floor (another self-proclaimed genius who hides her talents) to break down Madame’s barriers. Her gradual thawing and blossoming friendships are kind of touching to watch unfold.

In some ways I guess it’s a celebration of the quiet, seemingly unremarkable people – the hedgehogs of this world – who spend their lives ignored and living on the side-lines. And that would be all well and good if there wasn’t a certain snootiness to Madame Renee and the young Paloma too. You see, in order to prove that they are worthy, noble intellectuals Barbary shoehorns into this novel some lengthy musings on philosophy, history, high and low culture. Sometimes these asides are interesting and sometimes they’re not but they’re often sparked by a need to prove how shallow, tedious and stupid some of the other characters are. It’s hard to feel sympathetic to those poor, oppressed hedgehogs when they’re nurturing such indignant superiority in their hearts.

Things get a little better when Ozu arrives and encourages them both to chill a bit but the book remains a little pretentious all the way through to the end. And I’m not entirely comfortable with the stereotypical, fetishized portrayal of the Japanese Mr Ozu. Surely we’re above this kind of nonsense by now?

Plus, why is it even necessary for Renee to hide the fact that she’s clever simply because she works as a concierge? It makes no sense.

Anyhow, I didn’t hate this novel but I did think it was a little trite and a little pompous at times.

 

 

* There are precisely 0 hedgehogs in this book.

Top Ten Tuesday: Books that have been on my TBR longest…

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Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly meme and these days it’s hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl. 

If all Top Ten Tuesdays were about books I haven’t read yet then it’d be easy. Here are some of the ones that have been on my shelves for an embarrassingly long time:

1. To The Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf. I’m not sure how many times I’ve started this and given up but I’m hopeful I might actually get through it soon. I recently read Mrs Dalloway and loved it to bits so fingers crossed.

2. The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde. Ok. That’s it. I have to read this in 2018.

3. The Master & Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov. I started this and gave up quite quickly about ten years ago but I’ve always intended to go back to it.

4. Stormbird (Wars of the Roses #1) by Conn Iggulden. This was a birthday present from P about four years ago. To be honest, I totally forgot I had it and I feel pretty bad about it. Soon, Stormbird, soon.

5. Ivanhoe by Sir Walter Scott. I bought this at an airport with the intention of reading it on my upcoming flight. One trip to Amsterdam and eleven years later it remains unopened. Is it any good? That’s what I’d like to know.

6. The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists by Robert Tressell. This is a relic from my BBC Big Read days. I started it twice and gave up both times. I

7. For Whom The Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway. I just never seem to be in the mood for Ernest Hemingway.

8. Life of Pi by Yann Martel. I had the book sitting on my shelf for a few years before the film came out and now I’ve seen the film I’m not sure I want to read it.

9. Oscar and Lucinda by Peter Carey. I seem to have gone off the idea of reading this book almost immediately after I bought it. Maybe this year.

10. A Place of Greater Safety by Hilary Mantel. If only this wasn’t so huge!

That’s it for this time, folks. Thanks for reading!

Do Not Say We Have Nothing (2016) by Madeleine Thien

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I took the first week of the New Year off work to give myself time to recuperate from all the usual Christmas excesses. It didn’t go exactly to plan because, in between catching up on sleep and reading my new books, I took it in to my head to paint the bedroom and this inevitably took longer, and involved more effort, than I had expected. As these things always do. It meant I ended up reading much of Do Not Say We Have Nothing, a gift from P, while sitting on the cold floor of our empty bedroom waiting for paint to dry, although I also snatched a few minutes of reading time in the café at Ikea and in the waiting area of Argos. Ordinarily I’d probably have put the book aside until I had more time but in this case I was enjoying it so much that it wasn’t really an option I was willing to consider.

I don’t know very much about China’s Cultural Revolution although I did take a course on the subject in my second year of university; the module seminar was first thing on a Friday, the morning after the weekly two-for-one deal on drinks at the Student Union, and, I’m embarrassed to say, I very rarely made it to class. I feel pretty bad about it now. Still, I seem to have gleaned enough to know that the characters in this book might have a rough ride ahead of them. And I was certainly right about that. In Do Not Say We Have Nothing Thien takes three generations of one extended family of musicians through more than sixty years of Chinese history, from the early days of the Maoist revolution through resettlement, famine, denunciation, imprisonment and protest. The story begins with Big Mother Knife and her sister Swirl, tea house singers in the days before the war, but focuses most of all on their children, Sparrow and Zhuli, whose lives are changed forever when the government decides that they and their music are undesirable in the new China.  It’s the third generation – two young women who meet in Canada following the Tiananmen Square protests – who piece together their complicated shared family history and try to make sense of all that has gone before them.

I assumed that when the story finished, life would continue and I would go back to being myself. But it wasn’t true. The stories got longer and longer and I got smaller and smaller. When I told Big Mother this she laughed her head off. “But that’s how the world is, isn’t it?” 

It would be quite easy for me to do a standard review post here where I list all the things I like (Wen the Dreamer, the Book of Records, Zhuli, the music and the way Thien explains the subtle differences between Chinese characters….) and dislike (nothing much – maybe the slow build up to Tiananmen?) about this novel but that doesn’t seem quite right here because I don’t think these are necessarily the things that stayed with me afterwards. Instead, I think what I will remember most is my emotional response to this novel, or at least to certain scenes. Do Not Say We Have Nothing is powerful, relentless stuff and (oh the cliché) I really found it hard to put it down. Moreover, on one occasion about midway through, when the hysterical denunciations of Conservatory students were reaching their peak, I decided it’d be best to just put the book down and walk away for an hour or two. I think I was starting to feel a bit hysterical myself. It says something about the way Thien sweeps you up into this tale; she weaves its various threads together beautifully and keeps them taut almost to the end so you’re fully entangled in everything you read. I found it very difficult to shake this story off after I turned the last page and I was still wondering about Ai-Ming several days later.

Since finishing this I’ve read a couple more books but I’ve once again fallen way behind on my posts. Expect a quick flurry of reviews very soon!

My bookish year in numbers

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It’s become a bit of a tradition now for me to do a final stats post to mark the end of each year. I like it; it’s only when I write these posts that I really think about what I’ve read and what it says about my reading habits.

I had a sneaking suspicion that I hadn’t read as much as usual this year but it’s nice to see that really the damage isn’t as bad as expected. Here is my reading year in numbers:

In 2017 I read 25 novels and 2 short stories.

Before cancelling my Audible subscription I listened to 2 audio books (Charlotte Bronte: A Life by Claire Harman and Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain – both unblogged).

I failed to finish 1 book (Doctor Zhivago).

The oldest novel I read was published in 1848 (The Tenant of Wildfell Hall) but the two short stories I read were published in 1837 and 1838.

The newest book I read was published in 2016 (The Essex Serpent).

Only 8% of the books I read this year were published before 1900.

56% were published in the 20th century.

36% were published this century.

Just over half – 52% to be precise – were by British authors but in total I read books by authors of 12 different nationalities from 5 different continents.

I visited 8 new places on my Around The World in 80 Books tour.

15 books were written by women and 10 by men.

The longest novel I read contained over 800 pages (The Luminaries – I’ve now lent it to a friend so I can’t give you an exact figure on the page numbers).

The shortest had 190 pages (4.50 From Paddington).

I read 2 more books from the BBC’s Big Read (Midnight’s Children and Katherine).

My most popular blog post of this year – based on hits received – was this post on the books I’ve struggled to finish. Since it was published last month it’s been viewed 55 times which, for this quiet little blog, is loads.

One of the things I like about these posts is being able to compare to previous years and I’m reassured to see I’ve only read one book less than last year. I read more books by women this year (a conscious effort) and far fewer classic Victorian novels (completely unintentional, I had no idea). For some reason my choices seem to be shifting back towards modern literature but I think that’s because I’m still trying really hard to read books by a more diverse range of authors. That’s going pretty well all in all; I read slightly fewer non-English authors this year but I did read books by authors from Algeria, America, Finland, India, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Romania, Scotland and the West Indies. I’m pretty happy with that.

I just realised I didn’t read any French or Russian authors this year. How strange.

Anyhoo, before I go I’ll leave you with an entirely smug and gratuitous photograph of all the books I received over the holidays from my lovely family and friends. I’m a lucky girl.

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They are currently piled up in an armchair while I work out where the hell I’m going to put them all. Ho hum….

Happy new year all 🙂

My Favourite Books of 2017

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It’s only as I’ve been looking back over the past 12 months of blog posts that I realised how many great books I’ve read this year. It’s made this an uncomfortable post to write – there’s been quite a bit of head scratching and agonising over the final ten – but I think I’m happy with the list now. These are the ones I think I enjoyed most, in no particular order (you can click on the title to go to my post):

1. Vile Bodies by Evelyn Waugh. Waugh’s roller-coaster ride around 1920s London was both hilarious and disturbing. I need more Waugh in my life soon.

2. The Summer Book by Tove Jansson. This was beautifully gentle and heart-warming. I loved it.

3. The Plague by Albert Camus. Not gentle or heart-warming at all but you’ve got to admire any book that makes you feel physically exhausted afterwards…. right?

4. Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys. All the adjectives I could use to describe this book – intense, unsettling, claustrophobic – feel a bit negative, and yet….. It’s brilliant.

5. War and Turpentine by Stefan Hertmans. You should read this.

6. His Bloody Project by Graeme Macrae Burnet. I don’t often say that I couldn’t put a book down but this was very much the exception to that rule.

7. Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie. It’s the hardest book I read this year and it often made my head spin but I’m so pleased I didn’t give up on this one.

8. The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Bronte. Usually I don’t include rereads on these lists but I’ve made an exception in this case since it was so much better the second time round.

9. Enchanted April by Elizabeth von Arnim. Just lovely.

10. The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton. Oh my days. I feel like I’ve done nothing but rave on and on about this novel for the past few weeks. Everyone must be sick of it.

Can you believe we’re at the end of the year already? Crazy. Here’s to some similarly brilliant novels in the new year 🙂

4.50 From Paddington (1957) by Agatha Christie

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Only a few weeks after swearing off Miss Marple altogether I’ve been lured back. All it took was the discovery of this book, in all its lurid 1950s glory, in a second-hand shop and I forgot entirely about all my previous grumblings. I was actually on the hunt for a hard-to-find large-print book for my grandad for Christmas; no joy there but I did in the process of the search buy four books for myself including this one…. Ooops.

In spite of my reservations about Nemesis, the last Marple book I read (eurgh), I was really excited by this because it’s one of the Christie books that seems to be generally fairly highly regarded. I’ve seen two TV adaptations – the original Margaret Rutherford and the more recent Geraldine McEwan one – but even though I was pretty sure I could remember the identity of the murderer I couldn’t remember the hows and the whys of it all. In this one Mrs McGilliguddy is travelling home from Paddington station one evening when she witnesses a woman being strangled through the window of an overtaking train. Despite some searching no body is immediately discovered by the police and she has a hard time convincing anyone to believe her story except, of course, her dear old friend Miss Jane Marple.

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Marple barely puts down her knitting for this one. Instead she identifies the sinister Crackenthorpe family as the most likely suspects and persuades her latest minion, Miss Eylesbarrow, to take up the post of housekeeper in their home so she can do some nosing around on Marple’s behalf. The elderly sleuth does at least get up off her bum long enough to go and have a nice cup of tea with them all, bless her, but then there’s not really much for her to do until she swoops in at the end to solve the crime and take all the glory. Nice one Marps. It gives you the odd impression that there’s no real investigating going on here, particularly as Christie doesn’t really seem to have peppered this one with so many of the usual clues and red herrings (or at least not that I noticed). I can imagine that even if I hadn’t already known the identity of the killer I probably would have been fairly nonplussed by the solving of this mystery. It seems to come almost out of the blue so all you can really do is take Marple’s word for it that she’s picked out the true murderer.

Leaving aside the flimsiness of the evidence though I think this might be one of the better Agatha Christie novels I’ve read in a while. The atmosphere is taut almost throughout and there are some quite nice creepy touches along the way like the sarcophagus and old Mr Crackenthorpe’s proposition. It feels like the sort of mystery that Christie might have enjoyed putting together, much more so than Nemesis which now feels fairly lacklustre in comparison. I’m also pretty pleased with the fact that I started reading this on 20th December which is the day on which Mrs McGilliguddy witnesses the murder on the train. I like it when book time and real time coincide like that.

The Warden (1855) by Anthony Trollope

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My year has been seriously low in Victorian novels so I made a last ditch attempt to address the balance before the end of 2017. I’ve been meaning to read The Warden for ages, at least two years as I distinctly remember picking this up at the Oxfam shop near where I used to work. It has been languishing on the shelf ever since, despite regular appearances on every single TBR list I’ve made since then. I’m the worst.

The Warden is the first of Trollope’s Barsetshire Chronicles and features Septimus Hawkings, the elderly guardian of a cathedral charity that provides shelter to ten poor old men in their final years.  The charity was established by a bequest in an ancient will and it provides Mr Hawkings with a lovely house in the cathedral grounds and a generous salary to live on in exchange for his guardianship of the ten elderly men. The problems start when a well-meaning young reformer, John Bold, starts investigating the terms of the will and decides that Hawkings, while innocent of any malice, has been receiving too much of the money originally intended to make those impoverished old men comfortable in their old age.

Mr Hawkings is clearly a well-meaning, honourable old soul and you end up feeling quite sorry for him as his name is dragged through the press and his old wards gradually turn against him. He’s caught in a horrible place between his wish to do the right thing morally, even though legally speaking he has done nothing wrong, and the demands of his Archdeacon, who insists that he hold fast and defend the church against its accusers. It doesn’t help of course that his daughter also happens to be in love with John Bold. It’s all very troubling. I expect Trollope may have been having a dig here at some of the well-known social reformers of the time who tried hard to help the poor but actually did more harm than good; there’s even a thinly veiled portrait of Dickens in the character of Mr. Popular Sentiment, the author of a self-righteous and sentimental novel condemning the almshouse system. I’m not sure whether Trollope is suggesting that it’s best to just let things be but I think I’m probably on the side of Mr. Popular Sentiment with this one. It doesn’t seem right to me that so much of the charity money should be syphoned off for the warden, even if he is a good and honest man.

I don’t think I enjoyed this as much as The Eustace Diamonds, which to date is the only other Trollope novel I’ve read. It’s fairly low on drama (although I enjoyed Eleanor’s hysterics) but it was an entertaining enough read and I loved Trollope’s characters. He’s so good at providing detailed insights into how the mind of each one works so you can always understand how they feel and why they behave as they do. None of them are entirely good or evil, they’re all just human and even Dr Grantly, the archdeacon who at first glance might appear to be the villain of the piece, is treated pretty fairly over all. This book was an important one to me as I hoped it would help me decide whether to read the rest in the Barsetshire series. The Warden is a slow and considered start but I have high hopes for the ones that follow.

I expect this will be my last post for now. Merry Christmas every one 🙂

Top Ten Tuesday: Books I’d Like Santa To Bring

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Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly meme hosted by The Broke and The Bookish

How has a it been a year since I last made one of these lists? Where has the time gone?! I’m sure time is speeding up.

Here are some of the books I’ve got my eye on this year. It’s selected highlights only as the real list of books I’d like to receive is actually enormous. Seriously.

1. All The Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr. I feel like the only person who hasn’t read this yet.

2. An Artist Of The Floating World by Kazuo Ishiguro. I’ve read a couple of Ishiguro’s books and they’ve been brilliant but this one has escaped me so far.

3. Do Not Say We Have Nothing by by Madeleine Thien. Nobody seems to have a bad word to say about this book. I’m intrigued.

4. Swallowing Mercury by Wioletta Greg. I added this to my wishlist after it was nominated for the Booker International earlier this year.

5. Villette by Charlotte Bronte. Despite calling myself a Bronte fan Jane Eyre remains the only novel I’ve read by Charlotte. It’s high time I branched out.

6. We Have Always Lived In The Castle by Shirley Jackson. I managed to go almost all of my life so far without having heard of this and then suddenly I started seeing it cropping up all over the place. It’s clearly a sign.

7. Exit West by Mohsin Hamid. This isn’t out until the new year but maybe Santa could put in a pre-order. They have Amazon in the North Pole, right?

8. A Horse Walks Into A Bar by David Grossman. All the reviews I’ve read make this sound weird and intense and completely compelling. I can’t wait.

9. On Beauty by Zadie Smith. Given how much I loved White Teeth you’d think I’d have read more Zadie Smith novels by now, wouldn’t you? Yeah, me too.

10. Alone In Berlin by Hans Fallada. This has been on my Amazon wishlist for ages, years in fact. Maybe this year?

Crikey. Writing this down makes me feel a little bit greedy!