The grave of Arthur Conan Doyle

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Way, way back at the end of last year P and I went to Bournemouth where we visited the grave of Mary Shelley (and family, of course). When I posted my photographs of the trip here I mentioned that we’d visited another nearby(ish) grave the next day…. but I then I completely forgot to actually post those photographs. Until now.

The visit to Sir Arthur’s last resting place necessitated a drive from Bournemouth, through the beautiful New Forest, to the village of Minstead. Apparently he fell in love with this part of the world – it really is stunning – while researching his book The White Company and he later bought a holiday home here for his wife Jean. They were both originally buried in the grounds of their home in Crowborough, East Sussex but were moved in the 1950s when the house was sold. They now lie under a tree in the graveyard of All Saints Church in Minstead.

Arthur and Jean couldn’t really have picked a nicer spot in which to spend eternity if they’d picked it themselves. My enjoyment of the setting was probably helped by the fact that it was one of those beautifully clear but bitterly cold December afternoons and the sun was just starting to set as we arrived at the church. The church itself is unusually homey to look at, almost like someone has stuck a tower onto the side of someone’s red brick cottage.

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The Doyle grave is at the far edge of the churchyard – apparently because his spiritualist beliefs were at odds with church doctrine – with the church on one side and the forest edge on the other. It’s marked with a simple cross and inscription but it was quite nice to note that a pipe had been left on the base stone. I’m not sure how long its been there or who left it but it gives you the strange feeling that Sherlock Holmes has been along to pay his respects to his creator.

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The Cuckoo’s Calling (2013) by Robert Galbraith

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“How easy it was to capitalize on a person’s own bent for self-destruction; how simple to nudge them into non-being, then to stand back and shrug and agree that it had been the inevitable result of a chaotic, catastrophic life.” 

I came back from France with a nasty cold and was pretty much useless for anything requiring an upright position (or breathing) for a few days after our return, which put a very definite stop to my Doctor Zhivago reading plans. Something light, entertaining and plot driven was in order so I reached for The Cuckoo’s Calling, the first in the J.K. Rowling/Robert Galbraith mysteries. I have vague memories of having bought this at a library book sale when I was still at my old job so it’s probably been lurking in the unread pile for about two years at least. It was clearly high time to knock this one on the head.

As I said, The Cuckoo’s Calling is the first in the series and introduces us to Rowling’s private investigator Cormoran Strike who, as the book opens, is newly dumped, broke and living in his office. Strike is asked to investigate the supposed suicide of a world famous supermodel and – no surprises – it quickly becomes clear that her family were right to suspect foul play all along. Over the course of the investigation Strike interviews anyone with a known connection to the victim and meticulously reconstructs her last movements, all this while his disastrous private life disintegrates around him.

This is fairly standard detective fare but, for all its occasional sweariness and talk of rap megastars, Twitter and Boris Johnson, The Cuckoo’s Calling feels somehow endearingly old fashioned. There’s no pathology or forensics here but a lot of time is spent combing over minute details gleaned from interviews with witnesses and there are some traditional red herrings to misdirect you along the way. Strike is an old school private detective with a background in the military, woman trouble, a fondness for drink and the ability to handle himself in a fight. He’s not, however, such an enormous cliché that he feels derivative or that you can’t believe in him; in fact, I warmed to him quite a bit and particularly enjoyed his interactions with Robin, the fresh faced secretary from the temping agency who arrives on page one. Their mutual embarrassment and wariness of each other was kind of heartening and I’d consider reading the next in the series just to see how this relationship develops.

Like the later Harry Potter books this suffers from a lack of editing and I couldn’t help thinking that a little careful cutting here and there might have made this novel feel a little tighter without necessarily sacrificing any of the momentum or atmosphere that Rowling is so good at creating. And she does that exceptionally well here, I think; The Cuckoo’s Calling isn’t an astounding work of art but it is engrossing and the world she creates for her characters is vivid and believable. In spite of its flaws it succeeded in cheering me up at a time when I was feeling pretty rubbish. It got me through my cold, its after effects and the depressing post-holiday return to work which, in all honesty, is the worst. I was grateful to have this book to look forward to on my lunchbreaks during that first week back.

The Man in the High Castle (1962) by Philip K. Dick

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“Truth, she thought. As terrible as death. But harder to find.”

I’m sure I’m not the only person who sometimes finds themselves left cold by an acclaimed, cult novel…. right? It’s not anything new of course (hey there, Catcher in the Rye, I’m looking at you…) but it always leaves me wondering whether I’m the only one who has failed to grasp the bigger meaning in something. I know everyone has different tastes but for some reason my inability to get to grips with The Man in the High Castle bothered me more than it should have. I feel like I need someone to explain to me precisely what I’m missing.

I should say, to start with, that I actually think that on the face of it this is a fairly well-constructed and carefully considered take on the alternative war history. In this novel Dick supposes that if Roosevelt had been assassinated early in his presidency then the US, and the Allies as a whole, may well have gone on to lose the Second World War. In his alternate post-war world the former Allied states have been divided up by the victors with Germany and Japan now controlling large portions of the former United States. Around this setting Dick constructs a complex story involving the trade in pre-war American ‘antiques’, a German defector and a plot that threatens the tentative peace between the Axis powers. Linking all the characters is The Grasshopper Lies Heavy, a contentious new novel putting forward an alternative history of its own.

Let’s start with the good stuff. I liked the idea behind this novel. Historical ‘what ifs’ are always interesting to consider and Dick’s speculations are carefully plotted. In fact, my favourite parts of this novel were those passages in which the characters discussed how the course of history might have changed if this or that had happened differently. It’s the kind of rabbit hole thinking my sad little brain loves. Of course, neither of the histories he theorises is true – either the one the characters live in the novel or the one they read about – but I think that’s part of the book’s cleverness. Dick seems to be suggesting that really the course of history can only ever be down to luck, chance and tiny, random decisions. It can’t be predicted.

Unfortunately, however, my enjoyment of this novel was spoiled by the characters. Having created such a vivid and complex world for them to inhabit it’s a shame Dick doesn’t seem to have made the same effort to make them believable. I partly blame this on the fact that there are quite a few of them and the novel jumps around from one to the other quite quickly. Usually I wouldn’t find that annoying at all but when it’s combined with the rather stilted inner monologues Dick writes for his characters and their inexplicable reliance on the I’Ching to guide their decision making it’s suddenly quite an obstacle. Altogether it makes an already fragmented novel feel disjointed and the already shadowy characters feel completely inhuman.

Finally – and this is my last point because I don’t want this to sound like a completely insane rant – I really, really didn’t like the ending. I spent longer than I really needed to rereading and scratching my head over those last few pages because it looked to me like plain bad storytelling.

It’s my own fault for reading something based entirely on the reviews for the Amazon Prime adaptation. Has anyone watched the show? How does it compare to the book?

Top Ten Tuesday: Characters I Love to Hate

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

This week’s theme is character focussed and gives me the perfect opportunity to think
about some of those characters I get a real kick out of hating. They’re not always the main villains but they’re the ones I can’t wait to see get their comeuppance.

I don’t know if I’m just an angry, resentful person but I didn’t seem to have a lot of trouble putting this list together.

1. Daisy in The Great Gatsby. I will never forgive Daisy. What an awful, awful human being.

2. Toad in The Wind in the Willows. Why won’t he see sense? It’s infuriating.

3. Elizabeth in the Poldark series. Ross is an idiot.

4. Almost everyone except Anne Elliot and Captain Wentworth in Persuasion. Austen’s
books are full of perfectly silly, intentionally annoying characters who make the real heroes shine in comparison.

5. Blanche Ingram in Jane Eyre. Although, in fairness to Blanche, Rochester’s behaviour to both she and Jane at this point of the novel is kind of, well… he’s a bit of an arse here, isn’t’ he? Sorry.

6. Grima Wormtongue in the The Two Towers. Having manipulated, lied and flattered his
way into a position of power his downfall is so satisfying to see.

7. Cathy and Heathcliffe in Wuthering Heights. I love the book but it’s hard to watch them deliberately hurt each other. They’re selfish, hateful people.

8. Mrs Trunchbull in MatildaA properly terrifying children’s villain.

9. Mondego, Danglars and Villefort in The Count of Monte Cristo. By the end of this book I was egging the Count on with real bloodthirsty gusto; I was so desperate for him to get his revenge.

10. Delores Umbridge in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. She deserves everything she gets.

This list is quite classics heavy although that certainly wasn’t my intention when I started writing it. Maybe more recent novels have moved away from this sort of character? Or maybe I don’t read the right kind of modern books. I don’t know.

H is for Hawk (2014) by Helen MacDonald

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I was in ruins. Some deep part of me was trying to rebuild itself, and its model was right there on my fist. The hawk was everything I wanted to be: solitary, self-possessed, free from grief, and numb to the hurts of human life.

It’s been several weeks since I finished this book so you’ll have to forgive the hurried, vague review which doesn’t really do it justice. Despite not being my usual cup of tea (at least on first appearances) this was an early addition to my birthday wishlist; I say this because when H is for Hawk first came out I carelessly dismissed it as a sort of misery memoir until several word of mouth recommendations assured me I’d got that entirely wrong.  I’m pleased I got over my initial reservations; this was very well worth the reading.

It’s a difficult book to describe, H is for Hawk, because there’s a lot going on here but put very simply it’s a memoir of MacDonald’s attempt to train a goshawk named Mabel in the wake of her father’s sudden death. She knits her grief into the story of Mabel, describing both her memories of her father as well as the practicalities of purchasing, training and living with a wild bird.  Alongside this tale MacDonald also provides a study of the reclusive author T.H. White whose own chaotic dabblings in falconry, as described in his 1951 book The Goshawk, were a source of much childhood confusion and inspiration to McDonald. In this way she provides a really moving account of her own grief, carefully scrutinising all the ways in which she consciously or unconsciously looked to the wilderness as an escape from her own life in much the same way White did seventy years before. In her own eyes they both follow an ancient, literary tradition, that of the grief stricken hero who retreats into the wild to forget the traumas of the past. Her attraction to the sullen, troublesome goshawk and to White, a fellow misfit, reflect her own perception of herself as an outsider in grief.

For a memoir about grief this isn’t a dark book although of course it deals with what was clearly a very dark time in the writer’s life. For me it was a surprisingly enjoyable read, told with real passion and warmth. Because it’s so unusual – part nature writing, part personal memoir, part literary biography – it’d be very easy to accuse H is for Hawk of feeling scrappy but I really don’t think it does. There’s a lot going on of course but it’s all meshed together really naturally so you almost don’t notice the switch from one theme to another. The strongest parts, at least for me, were McDonald’s descriptions of the natural world. I think I could read some of her descriptions of afternoons spent flying Mabel over the flat Cambridgeshire countryside again and again and I would still find them lovely.

As I said, it’s just a quickie review today but I’ll be back again soon with a post on The Man in the High Castle. I have more to say about that one… read into that what you will.

Top Ten Tuesday: Autumn TBRs

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

Usually I begin a TBR post with a long whinge about how I never stick to my reading plans and don’t really know why I bother making them. My last such list, made about this time last year, began exactly that way. This time, however, is a little different because I actually read six (six!) of the books I listed back then. Six! Hoo-bloody-ray.

Admittedly, it’s been a year but…… Six!

The books on my current Autumn reading list are a combination of leftovers from the last one (with the exception of To The Hermitage which I’m finally giving up on after thirteen years and four attempts) and those I got for my birthday:

1. A Place of Greater Safety by Hilary Mantel. This came all the way to France and back again and remained unread in my suitcase for the entire holiday. I liked the idea of reading it in France but clearly it wasn’t to be.

2. The Warden by Anthony Trollope. I know, I know. Soon.

3. Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimimanda Ngozi Andichi. I was so excited about this book when I bought it, and still am, but I just don’t seem to have quite gotten round to actually reading it yet.

4. Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov. I loved Azar Nafisi’s book Reading Lolita in Tehran, which I read last year. I’d not really given this book much thought until then.

5. For Two Thousand Years by Mihail Sebastian. This is a bit of an unknown for me. I chose it entirely because I was intrigued by the blurb on the back. It could be awful but I’m hoping not.

6. The Dark Side of Love by Rafik Schami. When I added this to my wishlist I failed to appreciate how big it is. It may well wait until Christmas when I’ll hopefully have a bit more time on my hands and will be able to throw myself into it properly.

7. The Enchanted April by Elizabeth von Arnim. This book gets so much love from bloggers and I have to admit to being a bit curious. It looks like exactly the kind of thing I normally love.

8. The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton. Another mega-ton tome and another gift from my lovely friend L. She always buys me the biggest books on my wishlist because they’re better value for money apparently.

9. The Bookseller of Kabul by Asne Seierstad. I picked this up in a secondhand shop a while ago and am desperate to make a start. I keep putting it off until after I’ve read more of the birthday books though.

10. Silkworm by Robert Galbraith. I recently read The Cuckoo’s Calling and was surprised by how much I enjoyed it. I’d like to read Silkworm before I fall too far behind the TV series.

As Autumn approaches I’m also considering some more from the Victorian and Edwardian Ghost Stories collection I’ve been reading over the past few winters. For Christmas last year P gave me a collection of short ghost stories collected by Roald Dahl and I’ve been delaying reading any of these until after I’ve finished the other collection but I’m not sure how strict I can carry on being about that. The Roald Dahl ones look awesome.

Oh yeah, and I still have to finish Doctor Zhivago. And hopefully some time soon before I completely lose the will to continue.

Good luck with all your own reading plans!

Bronte Waterfall and Top Withens

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My recent discovery that Lucy at Hard Book Habit and I share an appreciation for Emily Bronte’s poem ‘No Coward Soul Is Mine’ reminded me that I’ve still not provided the second part of my post on the visit P and I made to Haworth back in June. This, then, is that post but be warned: there are a lot of shaky, over exposed camera-phone pictures coming up….

A couple of days after our visit to the Bronte Parsonage P and I drove back that way with the intention of walking along the Bronte Trail as far as the waterfall and back again. We’d already walked to the top of Malham Cove earlier that morning (it was awesome, in case you were wondering) so to save our poor legs we ended up ditching the car at the Penistone Country Park, halfway between Stanbury and Oxenhope, and walking from there. It knocked a couple of miles off the trip. At this time it was still quite sunny so we weren’t in any particular hurry and there was plenty of time to admire the lambs, the green hills and the distant view of Haworth behind us.

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It took about forty minutes in all, I reckon. Probably less.

When we got to the falls there were quite a few people milling about taking pictures so we sat on a rock overhanging the stream and watched some children playing with a dog in the water below. In spite of the bustle around us it still felt peaceful. It’s a really beautiful spot.

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We weren’t especially tired and although the weather looked like it would turn – there were some seriously ominous clouds on the horizon – I thought we’d probably have just enough time to walk the extra mile or so to Top Withens, the supposed inspiration behind Wuthering Heights. At this point I have to say that this is one of the reasons why I think P is a particularly lovely person; we could both clearly see that it was about to rain a lot but he could tell that I secretly had my heart set on going to Top Withens so he not only insisted that we go but also made out that it was all his idea so that I wouldn’t feel bad about dragging him around the moors on a pilgrimage to a site he doesn’t really care about in the rain. He’s great.

Unlike the first part of our journey, the walk from the waterfall to Top Withens was almost entirely uphill, much rockier and desperately muddy. The green and rolling hills had very quickly been replaced by desolate, windswept moorland. The tiny tree on the horizon in the photographs below marks our final destination.

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We were probably about a third of the way there when it started to rain. The sky turned quite dark and the temperature dropped but even thought it was all quite depressingly bleak I was secretly thinking how perfect this all was; if you’re going to visit Wuthering Heights for the first time you might as well do it in a storm, right? Like Lockwood at the start of the novel.

I said this to P but he was keeping very quiet.

Thankfully it didn’t rain for long and, British weather being what it is, the skies were clearing by the time we reached the top of the hill. The farmhouse is derelict now of course but it was inhabited right up until the 1920s. There’s a display board detailing the history of the house and a plaque noting the part it is reported to have played in Wuthering Heights. The building doesn’t really match any of the descriptions of the farmhouse in the novel but I can well imagine that Emily Bronte took inspiration from the setting; the spot it occupies is at the top of a crest overlooking the moors and completely exposed to the elements. It’s eerily bleak.

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We had a really lovely weekend in Yorkshire but I have to say that this was absolutely my favourite part.

Bookish News #2

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I’m sure no one is surprised to hear that I’m massively behind with posting at the moment. I’m certainly not. I spent my morning off  bulk scheduling reviews and Top Ten Tuesday posts for the coming weeks (beginning with this review of Wide Sargasso Sea) so hopefully the radio silence shouldn’t continue for too much longer and I will soon be almost up to date.

I began Dr Zhivago three weeks ago and took it to France on holiday with the best intentions of doing a ton of sea/pool side reading while we were away. It just didn’t happen though, mainly because the weather was lovely and there was just too much to see and do (and eat); reading by the pool seemed a bit of a waste. I came home with a cold and in my germ ridden, brain addled state couldn’t face reading any more of it at all so it has been temporarily set aside in favour of The Cuckoo’s Calling which is an unashamedly easy read in comparison. Hopefully I’ll go back and finish Pasternak soon; I’m a little sad that I gave up so easily, especially because I was almost getting to a stage where I knew what the hell was going on at least some of the time.

In other Dr Zhivago news, remember that second hand copy of the book I lost back in January? I finally found it last week down the back of the bookcase in the spare room. The discovery couldn’t have come at a better time as I’m not completely in love with the translation of the text I’ve been reading. It’s a little clunky in places and I’m assuming it’s down to the translation and not Pasternak himself, although I guess I could be wrong about that and wouldn’t know. Once I’m back up to speed I’ll do a quick comparison of the two copies and see if the second hand one might be better.

Until the hiatus I’d been complementing my reading with the audiobook version of Helen Rappaport’s book Four Sisters which I’ve been listening to in the car on my home from work in the evenings. It’s a biography of Tsar Nicholas II’s daughters so it provides quite an interesting contrast to Dr Zhivago’s view of the times from the bottom up, a bit like seeing the revolution from opposing sides of the divide. Anyway, what I’ve heard of Four Sisters so far has been quite good but the narration of this particular audio book drives me mad and I have occasionally wanted to punch the car radio. It’s the voices that do it; it’s acceptable to adopt a funny French accent or an exaggerated pompous tone if you’re narrating a novel but in a non-fictional biography it seems out of place and adds comedy where there shouldn’t really be any. I’m finding it quite distracting.

That’s all my news for the moment but watch out for an influx of reviews over the next few weeks as I drag myself up to date.

Wide Sargasso Sea (1966) by Jean Rhys

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And if the razor grass cut my legs I would think ‘It’s better than people.’ Black ants or red ones, tall nests swarming with white ants, rain that soaked me to the skin – once I saw a snake. All better than people. Better. Better, better than people.

Thanks to my lovely friends and family (and a carefully curated Amazon wishlist) I received a ton of new books for my birthday in June. They’re currently stacked up under the coffee table and will likely remain there for ages and ages while I slowly work my way through them. It’s not often I have nice things to say about Amazon (who need to pay their damn taxes and treat their staff a bit better) but I do kind of love the wishlist feature. It makes birthdays for lazy people like me so much easier.

Wide Sargosso Sea was the first to graduate out of the unread pile. I’d been curious about it for quite a while; it came highly recommended by a friend and I knew enough about it to suspect that we’d probably get along quite well. This novel is Rhys’s attempt to give Antoinette ‘Bertha’ Mason, Jane Eyre’s original madwoman in the attic, a voice and a life before Bronte’s classic story. The first part of the novel is told from the viewpoint of Antoinette and gives an unsettling account of her lonely childhood in Jamaica in the 1830s, shortly after the abolition of slavery. After a traumatic start for Antoinette the novel jumps ahead several years to the days immediately after her marriage to Mr Rochester (who’s never actually named in the novel). His narrative is one of resentment at having been coerced into a marriage with a Creole girl he doesn’t care for and later suspicion when he finds cause to doubt her. For the last few short chapters the novel again leaps forward in time, this time to a point where it overlaps with Jane Eyre; a wild, forgotten Antoinette is now captive in the attic of Thornfield while Rochester lives his life below, trying to forget that she ever existed.

As a Jane Eyre lover I found this last chapter most fascinating of all but in truth I was pretty taken with the whole of Wide Sargasso Sea. It had occurred to me before now that for a character so vital to Jane Eyre, Bertha Mason is given very little page time by Bronte. In effect she isn’t much more than a dramatic plot twist. When I first read the book as a teenager I pushed aside the niggling feeling at the back of my mind that maybe, just maybe, Rochester hadn’t treated his first wife (or Jane) very fairly; I argued that the book was a product of its time and that really Rochester, who never claims to be an honourable or a good man, was probably doing her a kindness by not having her locked up in some appalling asylum somewhere. I expect these are the kinds of things that many readers consider and while I’m not usually a fan of prequels I love the fact that Rhys must have wondered about some of the same things.

Rhys’s Rochester is aloof and occasionally cruel, much as he is in Jane Eyre, but she doesn’t really depict him as a liar or suggest that he behaves any differently to other men of his class and time would have done in his situation. Antoinette, on the other hand, is traumatised, desperate, childlike and distant; although she narrates much of the novel she still feels strangely shadowy towards the end. Rhys plays up her sense of isolation throughout the novel by suggesting that she doesn’t belong anywhere; as the daughter of a former slave owner she’s reviled by the island’s black inhabitants but as a Creole she’s not considered civilised by the white Europeans, including by Rochester.  She’s stuck in some lonely, untouchable place between the two so by the end of the novel you’re not really sure who the real victim is here. Were the seeds of Antoinette’s madness sewn in her childhood or was she driven to insanity by her husband’s cruelty? Were Rochester’s suspicions about his wife well founded or did he willingly accept an explanation that offered him an easy way out? I was still pondering some of these questions a week after I’d finished the novel.

Wide Sargasso Sea provided a welcome chance to tick off another destination on my Around the World in 80 Books tour. For Antoinette Rhys evokes the West Indian islands of her childhood as an almost indecently lush, green garden but for Rochester it’s an overwhelming contrast to Thornfield:

“Too much blue, too much purple, too much green. The flowers too red, the mountains too high, the hills too near.”

It’s claustrophobic and disorientating, much like this novel. And I mean that in a good way.

Top Ten Tuesday: Books I Struggled to Complete

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Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly meme hosted by the Broke and the Bookish. This week’s theme is all about the books we had a hard time getting into. 

Thinking back, I’m sure I’ve made a similar list to this one before – something along the lines of ‘Ten Books I Didn’t Finish’ – but I now can’t find it (admittedly, I didn’t look that hard). This time I’m listing ten of the books I found a real chore to read, at least at first. In some cases they improved on further reading, in others I just gave up.

1. Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie. I am in awe of this book but there’s no escaping the fact that, for me, it required insane powers of concentration, patience and perseverance. [review here]

2. As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner. I had to give a presentation on this book for a university course I was taking on depression-era America. I kind of loved it in the end but spent a lot of time cross referencing the book with the Spark Notes to make sure I was on the right track. It did my head in a bit.

3. Moby Dick by Hermann Melville. Don’t. Even. Get. Me. Started.

4. The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco. I eventually got through this on the third attempt and it was absolutely well worth the effort. I think I just got a bit bogged down in all that stuff about semiotics, the Inquisition and monastic poverty. I tried too hard.

5. The Sot Weed Factor by John Barth. I gave up. I just couldn’t.

6. Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky. I’m not knocking this book, it’s ruddy brilliant but it’s definitely a slow burner. It was one of the first Russian novels I read and I found the names – all those Raskolnikovs and Razumikhins – particularly confusing.

7. The Magus by John Fowles. I have no intention of going back to finish this. It was infuriating.

8. A Suitable Boy by Vikram Seth. I think I was probably just intimidated by the size of this one. Once I got over that minor obstacle I fell in love with this book.

9. Catch 22 by Joseph Heller. I think this book is wonderful but it took me a long time to get used to the way Heller writes. He darts around from one story to the next, never telling anything in the right order. It can catch you out if you’re not careful.

10. To The Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf. I can’t even tell you why I have given up on this book so many times. I just have. And I’m embarrassed by it.