Top Ten Tuesday: Instant reads 

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly meme hosted by The Broke and The Bookish. Each week a new theme is posted and this time it’s all about those little things that make you instantly want to read a book.

I’m a creature of annoyingly predictable habits. I swear I try not to be; I push myself to try new things all the time and I love it when this yields surprisingly pleasant results. But I can’t help the embarrassing fact that sometimes nothing feels quite as good as the comfort zone. Here’s what mine looks like:

  1. India, France or Russia. I suspect this is for no deeper or more meaningful reason than the fact that some of my favourite books are set in these three countries. Books by Indian, French and Russian authors are fairly highly represented on my shelves.

Suggestions: The God of Small Things, Suite Francais, Anna Karenina

  1. Maps and plans. If a book opens with a plan – of a fictional country or an ancient building for example – then my excitement will know no bounds.

Suggestions: The Hobbit, The Name of the Rose, Treasure Island 

  1. Inter-war. I’m naturally drawn to books set between the wars. I expect it’s just because so much changed in so very little time and you can see that reflected in the books of the period, sandwiched as they are between the traditional classics and modern fiction.

Suggestions: Vile Bodies, I Capture The Castle, The Great Gatsby

  1. Traditional murder mystery. I’m not a fan of modern crime fiction but I will happily read a golden oldie any time. They’re entertaining and easy to read and not half as grimas their modern equivalents.

Suggestions: The Moonstone, Murder on the Orient Express, The Nine Taylors

  1. An arty cover.I seem to own a ton of classic novels with covers featuring artworks, specifically art depicting beautiful but sad looking women.

Suggestions: On Tangled Paths, Tess of the D’Urbervilles, The House of Mirth

  1. Letters, diaries and documents. I suspect I like these just because my lazy brain can’t always be arsed with lengthy descriptions, scene setting and inner monologue. Sometimes it just wants the facts explained as concisely as possible thank you very much.

Suggestions: His Bloody Project, The Perks of Being A Wallflower, The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole Aged 13 ¾  

  1. A quest for the truth. It is a truth universally acknowledged that books with protagonists who must uncover a long dead secret are splendid, especially if said protagonist must visit dusty archives, unravel clues hidden in a diary or (preferably) poem and interview elderly witnesses who clearly have something to hide.

Suggestions: Possession, A Very Long Engagement, The Woman in White

  1. Looking back.A regretful narrator (or narrators) telling the story of that thing that happened long, long ago is one of my favouritest things ever.

Suggestions: Atonement, The Poisonwood Bible, The Secret History

  1. Monasteries and cathedrals.I don’t know why this is either.

Suggestions: The Name of the Rose, Dissolution, The Pillars of the Earth

  1. Family trees. I love a family saga, particularly ones so complicated a family tree is necessary to help the reader untangle the narrative. It’s the sense of history that appeals to me I think.

Suggestions: War and Peace, The Forsyte Saga, One Hundred Years of Solitude

 

 

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My reading year in numbers

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At the end of last year I wrote this short post looking statistically at the books I’d read in the previous twelve months. I’m not sure where the idea came from – I might have pinched it, I can’t remember; if I did, I’m sorry – but it was quite revealing and I enjoyed doing it. It was the first time I’d looked back and thought carefully about what I’d been reading, what this said about my reading habits, and what I wanted to do in the coming year. In lieu of a typical end-of-year review I’ve done a similar thing this time. Here is my reading year in numbers…

In 2016 I completed 26 novels and 3 short stories.

I listened to 1 audiobook (Bill Bryson’s One Summer: America 1927 – unblogged).

I failed to finish 1 book.

The oldest novel was Our Mutual Friend, published in 1864 but I also read Edgar Allen Poe’s short story The Tell-Tale Heart which was published in 1843.

The newest book I read was Shylock Is My Name, published in 2016.

Roughly 15% of the books I read were published before 1900, 19% were published in the first half of the twentieth century, 27% in the second half and 38% in the last sixteen years.

17 books were by male authors. 9 were written by women.

They were written by authors from 14 different countries.

Fiction accounted for nearly 93 % of the books I read.

The longest book was War and Peace (1,317 pages). The shortest was The Uncommon Reader (121 pages).

I have read 2 more books from the BBC Big Read this year (War and Peace and Perfume).

My most popular blog post of the year – in terms of the most views – was this one on tips for reading War and Peace. At last count it had been viewed 91 times.

 

So what does this tell me? Firstly, that although I read fewer books than last year, it really wasn’t as bad as I was imagining. There were a few occasions in the second half of 2016 when I felt like I was wasting time; days and weeks were passing by and I wasn’t finding time to do any reading at all. It was annoying. But, you know what? Given the various upheavals the year has thrown my way, 26 isn’t really all that bad. It could be worse.

I’m also really happy to see that my efforts to read books by a more diverse range of authors have been partially successful. British authors still dominated (9 books in total) but the remaining novels were written by authors from the US, Germany, Italy, Russia, France, Uruguay, South Korea, Albania, Pakistan, Nigeria, Iran, Chile and Zimbabwe. Looking back, I’m not sure I’d have discovered many of these works at all if I hadn’t been making an effort to push myself and my last Top Ten Tuesday post should stand as proof of how much I’ve enjoyed doing this. I should also thank the ladies at Hard Book Habit for launching the Around the World challenge and giving me the push I needed.

It’s also worth saying, however, that this shift away from my quaint little English Victorian/Edwardian comfort zone has had the unexpected effect of making my reading material less diverse in other ways. In 2016 I read less non-fiction, fewer female authors and fewer classics than in previous years. Maybe this says something about the kinds of works that get translated into English – is modern fiction more likely to get translated than classic fiction? – or maybe it’s just one of those weird unavoidable things. Maybe I just wanted to read fiction this year because times were tough and I subconsciously thought that non-fiction might be too heavy going. Maybe there are just more male authors than female ones.  Who knows.

All in all, though, I think I can look back on the past twelve months and be reasonably happy; I read some wonderful books, discovered some new authors, and have plenty more to look forward to in 2017.

Happy 2017 all 🙂

Our Mutual Friend and finding time to read…

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I’m rereading Our Mutual Friend. I’ve given up on two other books recently and this seems to be the only one that I’ve been able to settle into. You might have thought, given how much the new job has knackered me out, that I’d fancy something light-hearted and easy on the brain to read in my spare time, right? But no. Dickens it is.

“I shouldn’t care so much if it wasn’t so ridiculous. It was ridiculous enough to have a stranger coming over to marry me, whether he liked it or not. It was ridiculous enough to know what an embarrassing meeting it would be and how we never could pretend to have an inclination of our own, either of us. It was ridiculous enough to know I shouldn’t like him – how could I like him, left to him in a will, like a dozen of spoons…?” 

Our Mutual Friend was one of the first Dickens novels I ever read. I was fifteen at the time and I remember being a little baffled by it, although I enjoyed it nonetheless. It was really not like anything I’d ever read before then and I’m now finding, all these years later, that I was completely right to be baffled: the cast of characters is overwhelming, the writing occasionally incomprehensible and Dickens frequently gets side-tracked making long points that could be made in just a few sentences. He also has an annoying tendency to carry his metaphors on for far too long, so he’s still referring to a very, very minor character as ‘the hammer-headed young man’ several chapters after he was first mentioned in passing. It would be more helpful to the reader if he could just call him ‘the coachman’ (on the rare occasions when he appears) which is what he actually is. Between ‘the hammer-headed young man’, the ‘analytical chemist’ (a footman) and the ‘the satellite’ (a policeman) it’s impossible not to get a little confused sometimes.

Having said all this, I’m also finding that I was quite right to enjoy this book and to remember it so fondly. The plot is carefully woven and wonderfully detailed. The ‘mutual friend’ of the title is the mysterious John Harmon, whose body washes up on the banks of the Thames in the very first chapter. Harmon, we are told, had been returning to England, after many years spent abroad, to marry a woman he’d never met and to claim an inheritance founded on dustheaps. His murder, and the attractions of his wealth, bind together a disparate group of characters from across the city; from the poor young woman who helps drag Harmon’s body from the water to the elderly dustman who inherits his fortune, they’re all pulled into the shadowy depths of the Harmon mystery. It’s a tale of greed, changing fortunes, spite and (this is Dickens after all) love. Throughout it all the river lurks in the background, uniting those who live and die along its shores and giving the whole book a dark, brooding sort of feel.

Of course, there’s all the usual social commentary and Dickens hasn’t yet been able to resist having a pop at workhouses, the education system, child poverty and the like. I particularly love it when he uses characters like the vile Veneerings to make a point about the sponging, snobbery and idleness of the rich. They really are repellent. One of my favourite bits of spitefulness is directed at dear Lady Tippins and her “immense obtuse drab oblong face, like a face in a tablespoon.” As you might expect, there are several voices of reason elsewhere in the cast to counterbalance all this pomposity.

My reading has been painfully slow going so far and, although I’ve been reading for over six weeks now, I’m only just getting into Book Two. But I’m hopeful that it’ll be the first book I actually manage to finish since We Need New Names back in April. Now that my journeys to and from work consist of long stretches on the motorway, I can only look back in fondness at all those lovely hours I used to spend reading on trains and in station waiting rooms each morning and evening. What luxury. And I didn’t appreciate it at all at the time.

Reading War & Peace: Some tips!

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Since a couple of people have asked for tips on reading this book I thought it’d be good to get them up here now, while it’s all still fresh in my memory. I don’t claim to be any sort of expert on this but here’s the advice I wish someone had given me before I started. I hope it comes in useful to someone!

1, Know your characters.

According to the introduction to my copy, there are references to more than 600 characters within the pages of War and Peace. To make matters extra confusing there isn’t one hero or central character; instead it follows several interconnected families over a number of years. It means viewpoints are constantly shifting and minor characters appear and disappear over time.

If you’re not careful, all these names and relationships can become quite overwhelming so to avoid unnecessary confusion I’d recommend having a character list or some family trees to hand. You could plot your own or just download one from the internet (Wikipedia has some good ones here and I also really like the ones on the BBC Radio 4 page). If you’re anything like me you’ll soon find that the more you read the less you’ll need these but they’re an enormous help in the beginning.

2, Get to grips with the names.

If you’ve read other Russian novels you might already know that character names can also be a cause of confusion. You’ll find that one character can be referred to by several similar first names (e.g. Sonya, Sofya, Sonyushka), that there’ll be multiple characters with the same first name (e.g. Anna Pavlovna, Anna Dmitrievna, Anna Mikhailovna) and that some members of the same family will have slightly differing forms of the same surnames (e.g. Rostov and Rostova). If you are finding it confusing it might be helpful to find a good guide to Russian names and patronymics. There are several on the web but this one is nice and comprehensive.

3, Do a bit of background reading.

I really don’t believe that you need to know much about Russian history or the Napoleonic wars before you read War and Peace. Definitely not. However, anything you do know will help give you some context and the rest you can figure out as you go along.

In preparation I watched this very fast video run through of how the wars developed and I read a couple of Wikipedia articles on Borodino, Austerlitz and the burning of Moscow since these all seemed pretty pivotal to the plot. I probably went a bit overboard but with hindsight I’m glad I did it.

If you do nothing else just make sure that if you come across a reference you don’t understand, try to look it up right then. My friend told me the book would have made so much more sense to her if she’d bothered to look up what a serf was the first time she saw it, instead of waiting to the end!

4, Don’t be afraid to take shortcuts if you need to.

It’s a bit of an understatement but you should be aware that Tolstoy occasionally strays off topic. Just as you’re dying to know what’s happened to Andrei Bolkonsky he starts going on at length about the emancipation of the serfs, the nature of absolute power or Napoleon’s lunch or whatever and it can be kind of infuriating. I don’t suggest jumping over these sections entirely and I definitely don’t recommend skipping the war chapters (as a surprising number of people seem to do). However, if you’re struggling to persevere through a long description of the Battle of Borodino, for example, then I don’t think there’s any harm in trying to make life a bit easier for yourself. Have a break, switch to the audio book, skim read even; it doesn’t matter. It might be controversial but you won’t spoil the novel, you probably won’t miss out on anything hugely important and the literature police aren’t going to hunt you down.

5, Share the experience.

One of the loveliest things about reading this book has been that I’ve never felt alone while doing it. Readers and non-readers alike have been keen to share their experiences and I’ve had plenty of opportunities to share my own. I’ve discussed it on this blog, read online reviews, compared notes with friends, watched the TV series, even had a lengthy conversation about Pierre Bezukov with a stranger on a train. Hearing that other people have struggled through the same chapters and still think it was worth the effort was so wonderful to hear when I was having a horrible time in Borodino. I’d absolutely recommend taking any opportunity to share your own thoughts and to reach out to others who have been in the same place.

That’s it! My final W&P post. I’m done 🙂

My big pile of unread books

January always seems like a good time for a bit of a clear out so this weekend I’ve spent a few hours boxing up unwanted books, cds and dvds. Some will go to charity shops, some will get sent off to one of those online we-buy-your-old-stuff companies.

I’m always surprised by the amount of stuff we have so it’s nice to have a de-clutter every now and again. On this occasion I was hoping it might free up some much-needed space on my bookshelves but, to be very honest, it hasn’t freed up enough. It’s still a bit of a squeeze on there and I think I might have to do this all over again in a month or two! But at least I’ve made a start.

While I was inspecting my bookshelves I thought it’d be interesting to see just how many of my books I’ve not even read. Here’s the result:

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That’s about 29 in total, not including non-fiction books or any of the books that are still unpacked from when we moved into this house (5 years ago….).

It’s not as many as I was expecting but I don’t know how ashamed of myself I need to be! How does this compare to other TBR piles? Does anyone else want to share a photo?!

 

Top Ten Tuesday: Bad bookish habits

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Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly meme hosted by the Broke and the Bookish. This week’s topic is on the general theme of quitting so I decided to take a long, hard look at all those bad bookish habits I’d like to quit…

1. Buying more books than I can keep (and allowing them to pile up all around the house). This is particularly applicable this week, given the current state of my sofa. I firmly believe that if you don’t enjoy a book you should pass it onto someone who might like it more. Why, then, is it so hard to get rid of old books?

2. Giving up. I’m always looking ahead to the next book, even when I’m only two chapters into the current one. My impatience has probably been at the root of my failure to complete so many of the books I’ve abandoned but I’m trying really hard to do something about it. This year I finally feel like I’m finishing almost as many books as I begin.

3. Sticking to books by British authors. I’m aware that the vast majority of the books I read were originally published in English and by British authors. I don’t like to think I’m missing out (particularly when it’s my own laziness at fault) so I need to make a concerted effort to correct this.

4. Being a book snob. It’s wrong to judge people by the books they read. I KNOW. Please tell me this is something we all do and I’m not just a horrible person….

5. Ignoring what I really want. I often read books because I think I should read them, rather than because I really want to read them at that time. Sometimes it works out for the best (A Passage To India, Madame Bovary…) and sometimes it doesn’t (The Master & Margarita, Moby Dick…). I wish I was better at recognising when it’s a good time to challenge myself and when I should just indulge that need for a short, easy read.

6. Staying in my comfort zone. I reach for the same sorts of books again and again, mainly classic Victorian and Edwardian literature with a few modern literary classics thrown in for good measure. I read very little YA, I can’t stand vampires and I avoid romance like it’s the plague. I need to expand my horizons.

7. Assuming that the book will be better than the film. Sometimes it isn’t.

8. Reading at the expense of conversation. I’m the first to admit that sometimes I get too caught up in what I’m reading, so much so that I don’t even notice how unsociable I’m being. For two days I pretty much ignored my colleagues while I read the last chapters of The Count of Monte Cristo during my lunch hour. I feel bad about it now.

9. Neglecting my local library. My library caters for quite an elderly local population and I sometimes take this as an excuse not to use it. When I do use the library I almost always find something I want to read so I can only put this down to laziness. 

10. Forgetting the unread books on my shelf. The number of unread books in my home is shameful. There should be no need to buy new books when I have so many sitting at home waiting to be looked at.

I could go on but I think ten is enough, don’t you? Are there any bad bookish habits you’d like to be done with?

The Reading Habits Tag

Charley – of the great Books and Bakes – very kindly tagged me for the Reading Habits tag. I’m not sure where it started but there are some great questions here and I’ve enjoyed reading everyone else’s answers. You get such a nice insight into someone else’s life when you know a little about their reading habits.

Anyhoo, enough of that. Here are my answers….

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1. Do you have a certain place for reading? I tend to carry a book everywhere so I can read whenever and wherever I can. I spend a lot of time reading at railway stations, on trains, at bus stops and in coffee shops. I’m always in too much of a hurry to read before work but I do like to get a few pages in at night before I go to sleep.

2. Book mark or random piece of paper? I like the idea of bookmarks but they’re never around when I need them. Instead I’ll use whatever I can lay my hands on: receipts, phone bills, shopping lists, postcards, train tickets…. I quite like reopening an old book years later and finding that scrap of paper again. When I re-found the Maltese ferry timetable I’d used to save my place in A Tale Of Two Cities it brought back a flood of memories.

3. Can you just stop anywhere in a book or do you have to stop at the end of a chapter? Usually anywhere. If I have to stop suddenly I can pick it up again pretty easily later.

4. Do you eat or drink when reading? All the time, there’s nothing like a cup of tea and a good book.

5. Music or TV on when reading? I prefer silence but I don’t mind music or TV on in the background, as long as it’s nothing too distracting.

6. One book at a time or several at once? One at a time. I’ve tried reading more but I always end up neglecting one in favour of the other.

7. Reading at home or elsewhere? I’d like to read at home more but it’s not always possible. And I don’t really mind reading on the go, as long as I’m not somewhere where I’m going to get distracted. I don’t really like reading in cars because I always feel ill, but anywhere else is fine.

8. Read out loud or silently in your head? 
Silently. Unless I’m reading a funny bit aloud to P but I think he probably finds that annoying so I try not to do it too often!

9. Do you read ahead or skip pages? Almost never but I was really tempted on several occasions during Les Miserables,  most memorably during a long digression on the battle of Waterloo. This particular digression is NINETEEN chapters long and doesn’t really have any direct bearing on the plot so I think I’d have been justified in skipping ahead a few chapters…. but I didn’t. At the time I had a long train journey ahead of me (a full seven hours between Vienna and Warsaw) so I devoted the entire trip to persevering through the Waterloo chapters. In hindsight, I’m not sure I took it all in and I don’t think it added anything at all to my enjoyment of the book!

10. Breaking the spine or keeping it like new? I think books are made to be read and loved, not preserved untouched. I break the spines. It makes them easier to read. I also – brace yourselves! – fold down the corner of a page sometimes.

11. Do you write in your books? Yes, particularly if it’s a book that I’m really enjoying. It’s a habit I got into at school and never really grew out of. Nowadays it’s limited mainly to just underlining the bits I like most.

That’s it. Questions complete. I’ve no idea who to tag for this one so if you see it and like it, go ahead!

Thanks again to Charley for the nomination.