Saturday, 1 March 2014

My fictional world

I love talking about and recommending books, so couldn't resist linking up with Jocelyn's "my fictional world" Q&A (original post here)

Here are my answers:
What were your favourite reads from your childhood?
My favourite childhood reads were Enid Blyton (St Clares, Malory Towers, the Adventure series, Faraway Tree), and Roald Dahl. I also secretly enjoyed the novels-with-a-moral which had been my mum's Sunday School prizes!

There are always those books that defined your teen reads and stay with you – what were yours?
Has to be Judy Blume and the giggling over "Forever", and the Sweet Valley High books. I also read a lot of Catherine Cookson in my early teens, which I was far too young for, and left me slightly emotionally scarred! Anne of Green Gables is a perennial favourite, which I've just finished re-reading.

Who are your favourite authors currently?
So difficult to say - I'm always excited about a new book from Jasper Fforde, for his literary genius; Carlos Ruiz Zafon; and Donna Tartt (this excitement doesn't come round very often). I would have to say Haruki Murakami is pretty consistently top of the list, especially The Wild Sheep Chase. Oh, and I've just discovered John Green (The Fault in Their Stars).

Which 3 genres do you gravitate towards most often?
I don't really think in terms of genres. I love Chinese/Japanese novels, as they give an insight into a totally unfamiliar cultural context. Historical fiction, particularly the Tudor period, is always a winner. And...erm...modern fiction. Does that have a name? I'm thinking of books like the Time Travellers Wife, anything by Khaled Hosseini...often containing a romantic element but far more complex than that.

Can you choose your top titles from each of those genres?
The Wild Sheep Chase (Murakami), the Kitchen God's Wife (Amy Tan) and Wild Swans; I have a shame-faced love for Philippa Gregory, but would probably recommend Wolf Hall above these; and The Mountains Echoed (Hosseini), the Goldfinch (Donna Tartt), and The Shadow of the Wind. I feel like I've cheated by choosing incredibly broad genres!

And your least favourite genres?
I just can't get excited about fantasy and sci-fi. Terry Pratchett leaves me cold.

Of the many, many fictional and fantastical worlds, where would you most like to visit?
I think the Philip Pullman world of Northern Lights.

Everyone loves a villain, right?! Who would make your favourites list?
I'm drawing a bit of a blank on this one. But I'm sure as soon as I publish I will think of someone! I do prefer to like the characters I'm reading about, which is probably a bit simplistic.

Share the books that have had you sobbing?
Time Travellers Wife. Out loud, on a bus. No matter how many times I read it. I Capture the Castle, by Dodie Smith. A Town Like Alice (Neville Shute) is very moving too. 

And let’s end on a high! Which books leave a smile on your face, and maybe elicit a few laughs?!
Anything by Jasper Fforde. The man's a genius at combining literary allusions and references with an entirely imaginative world - The Eyre Affair is the one to start with. Scarlett Thomas and The End of Mr Y. 

Tuesday, 17 September 2013

The Thornbirds and Treasure Island

Reading progress has been a little slow due to my tendency to fall asleep after two pages. However, I've now read The Thornbirds and Treasure Island.

Treasure Island first: I felt like I might have read this, but didn't remember any of the detail so perhaps I hadn't. I whipped through this and really enjoyed the pace of the narrative voice, and the general quality of the story.

The Thornbirds: I'd never heard of this but apparently it was a massive surprise bestseller. It's basically a romantic saga covering 3 generations in New Zealand and Australia. I wouldn't say it's the highest quality of literature but it is very readable, a well crafted story, and full of surprises and twists. I can see why it was so popular!

Monday, 26 August 2013

The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists

This book was one I had never heard of before. It was originally published in 1914, and I presume it made the list as it is a treatise on socialism thinly disguised as a novel.

It was pretty hard work to read, and not massively engaging as a novel, but quite rewarding as an academic exercise.

The novel centres around the struggles of a group of painters & decorators who live in deep poverty even when they're working and tip over into starvation as soon as they are without work. One or two of the men are socialists, and spend the book trying to convert the others, offering plenty of opportunity for long speeches outlining the principles!

It is a deeply depressing book - there is some positivity in the way the men look out for each other and their families, and share the little they have, but other than this it is unremitting doom and gloom. I found it difficult to become attached to the characters because you expect them all to meet an early end; I guess this highlights how cheaply life was viewed by the capitalist rulers of society.

It is unforgiving in the portrayal of the evil capitalists - all are corrupt, and hypocritical, and even those who are charitable are filling their own pockets first before meeting the needs of those they are there to help. I'm not sure how realistic this is; I'd like to believe that there were some good members of the "ruling" class but perhaps that is just my optimism!

I was alarmed by how little has actually changed! The book opens with a discussion about why unemployment is so high: general opinion is that some men are just too lazy to get jobs, and foreigners have taken the jobs that are available...the men are then chastised for believing everything they believe in the newspaper. There is a council meeting where the councillors agree in one breath that the town architect is underpaid at 15 pounds per week, increasing his salary and his paid holiday days, and in the next agree to reduce the salary of the labourers employed by the council to sixpence per hour; poverty is caused by laziness and spending too much money on alcohol, and the men cannot possibly need to earn as much as they do. There is the cycle of poverty - getting credit to get through to payday, paying back the credit, running short, needing more credit...and the ways that poverty breeds poverty: buying the cheapest second hand clothes is more expensive as they wear out almost immediately, and so forth.

There is an election campaign where the Liberals and Tories vigorously campaign, breeding passionate supporters on each side, while one of the Socialists point out that they are simply criticising each other without offering any real policy or change.

I could go on but I don't want to labour the point. It terrifies me that we are still seeing this kind of rhetoric and (albeit slightly less blatant) hypocrisy today...George Osbourne, I'm looking at you.

I am about to reveal the end of the book, so stop reading now if you don't want a spoiler. I wouldn't usually do this, but it isn't a work that relies on the power of dramatic tension to be readable so I thought it would be ok, and it's kind of necessary to comment on the most thought-provoking aspect of the novel.

As the end of the book approaches, Owen (who has been the most active Socialist throughout) has just adopted a baby from one of the other men's families. He is ill; there is very little work in prospect; he has no idea how they will all survive the winter. Then he is given an unimaginable sum of money and the book ends with them saying something along the lines of "we'll be all right now". I don't know if this is intended by the author, but it left me with questions. Does this then suggest that Owen has been corrupted by capitalism? i.e. it is only the personal acquisition of wealth which offers any longer term release from the daily grind of poverty; as it is not enough to help everyone else there is no point distributing it, so is he therefore complicit within the workings of a capitalist society? Could it be any other way? Is the author actually admitting that Socialism is unworkable because it can't be introduced one man at a time, as one man operating as a socialist could not survive?

Not sure. It's worth a read if you want to be shaken up a bit and reminded of how many people now are still living in the modern version of these conditions - I'm not a convert to socialism by any means but it has somewhat woken me up from a complacent doze. Be prepared for a hard read though!

Friday, 23 August 2013

Update: Anya Seton's Katherine

I thought I'd start off by reading something from my guilty pleasures genre...a historical novel.

Katherine is set in the 14th century, and based on a real woman - Lady Katherine Swynford, who was scandalously the mistress of John of Gaunt, the third son of Edward III, and a Lancaster.

It's a pretty good read - I enjoyed the story, and felt it moved along at a good pace. It was also interesting - it's a period I know very little about. It's not classic literature (I fear I may use that phrase frequently whilst working through that list) but worth a look if you like that sort of thing!

Sunday, 28 July 2013

The nation's favourite books

Since finishing this list, my reading has been somewhat aimless. Over the last 3 months, I've read very little except Agatha Christie...Kindle-related convenience! I'm starting to be able to predict the solution by about chapter 2 so I think it's time to force myself to move on.

And so...another list. I'm not sure if I will force myself through the whole list, but here it is for reference, predominantly for me, when I'm low on ideas. These were voted the UK's best-loved books (as opposed to the books everyone should read) in 2003. I think there is probably some cross-over between the two, so let's see how many I've read at this point.

1. The Lord of the Rings, JRR Tolkien - read it
2. Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen - read it
3. His Dark Materials, Philip Pullman - read it
4. The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, Douglas Adams - read it
5. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, JK Rowling - read it
6. To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee - read it, love it!
7. Winnie the Pooh, AA Milne - read it
8. Nineteen Eighty-Four, George Orwell - read it
9. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, CS Lewis - read it
10. Jane Eyre, Charlotte Brontë - read it
11. Catch-22, Joseph Heller - read it
12. Wuthering Heights, Emily Brontë - read it
13. Birdsong, Sebastian Faulks - read it
14. Rebecca, Daphne du Maurier - read it
15. The Catcher in the Rye, JD Salinger - read it
16. The Wind in the Willows, Kenneth Grahame - read it
17. Great Expectations, Charles Dickens - read it
18. Little Women, Louisa May Alcott - read it
19. Captain Corelli's Mandolin, Louis de Bernieres - have tried...will have to try again
20. War and Peace, Leo Tolstoy - read it
21. Gone with the Wind, Margaret Mitchell - read it
22. Harry Potter And The Philosopher's Stone, JK Rowling - read it
23. Harry Potter And The Chamber Of Secrets, JK Rowling - read it
24. Harry Potter And The Prisoner Of Azkaban, JK Rowling - read it
25. The Hobbit, JRR Tolkien - read it
26. Tess Of The D'Urbervilles, Thomas Hardy - read it
27. Middlemarch, George Eliot - read it
28. A Prayer For Owen Meany, John Irving - read it
29. The Grapes Of Wrath, John Steinbeck - read it
30. Alice's Adventures In Wonderland, Lewis Carroll - read it
31. The Story Of Tracy Beaker, Jacqueline Wilson - haven't read it!
32. One Hundred Years Of Solitude, Gabriel García Márquez - read it
33. The Pillars Of The Earth, Ken Follett - haven't read it
34. David Copperfield, Charles Dickens - read it
35. Charlie And The Chocolate Factory, Roald Dahl - read it
36. Treasure Island, Robert Louis Stevenson - think I have read it but don't remember so will re0read - complete 17/09/13
37. A Town Like Alice, Nevil Shute - read it - BRILLIANT
38. Persuasion, Jane Austen - read it
39. Dune, Frank Herbert - read it
40. Emma, Jane Austen - read it
41. Anne Of Green Gables, LM Montgomery - read it
42. Watership Down, Richard Adams - read it
43. The Great Gatsby, F Scott Fitzgerald - read it
44. The Count Of Monte Cristo, Alexandre Dumas - read it
45. Brideshead Revisited, Evelyn Waugh - read it
46. Animal Farm, George Orwell - read it
47. A Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens - read it
48. Far From The Madding Crowd, Thomas Hardy - read it
49. Goodnight Mister Tom, Michelle Magorian - read it
50. The Shell Seekers, Rosamunde Pilcher - read it
51. The Secret Garden, Frances Hodgson Burnett - read it
52. Of Mice And Men, John Steinbeck - read it
53. The Stand, Stephen King - haven't read it
54. Anna Karenina, Leo Tolstoy - read it
55. A Suitable Boy, Vikram Seth - read it
56. The BFG, Roald Dahl - read it
57. Swallows And Amazons, Arthur Ransome - read it
58. Black Beauty, Anna Sewell - read it
59. Artemis Fowl, Eoin Colfer - haven't read it
60. Crime And Punishment, Fyodor Dostoyevsky - read it
61. Noughts And Crosses, Malorie Blackman - haven't read it
62. Memoirs Of A Geisha, Arthur Golden - read it
63. A Tale Of Two Cities, Charles Dickens - read it
64. The Thorn Birds, Colleen McCollough - haven't read it - complete 17/09/13
65. Mort, Terry Pratchett - read it
66. The Magic Faraway Tree, Enid Blyton - read it
67. The Magus, John Fowles - haven't read it
68. Good Omens, Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman - haven't read it
69. Guards! Guards!, Terry Pratchett - haven't read it

70. Lord Of The Flies, William Golding - read it
71. Perfume, Patrick Süskind - haven't read it
72. The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists, Robert Tressell - haven't read it - complete 26/08/13
73. Night Watch, Terry Pratchett - haven't read it
74. Matilda, Roald Dahl - read it
75. Bridget Jones's Diary, Helen Fielding - read it
76. The Secret History, Donna Tartt - read it
77. The Woman In White, Wilkie Collins - read it
78. Ulysses, James Joyce - have read as much as I'm ever going to
79. Bleak House, Charles Dickens - read it
80. Double Act, Jacqueline Wilson - haven't read it
81. The Twits, Roald Dahl - read it
82. I Capture The Castle, Dodie Smith - read it
83. Holes, Louis Sachar - haven't read it
84. Gormenghast, Mervyn Peake - haven't read it

85. The God Of Small Things, Arundhati Roy - read it
86. Vicky Angel, Jacqueline Wilson - haven't read it
87. Brave New World, Aldous Huxley - read it
88. Cold Comfort Farm, Stella Gibbons - read it
89. Magician, Raymond E Feist - haven't read it
90. On The Road, Jack Kerouac - read it
91. The Godfather, Mario Puzo - read it
92. The Clan Of The Cave Bear, Jean M Auel - haven't read it
93. The Colour Of Magic, Terry Pratchett - haven't read it
94. The Alchemist, Paulo Coelho - haven't read it
95. Katherine, Anya Seton - haven't read it - complete 23/08/13
96. Kane And Abel, Jeffrey Archer -  - read it
97. Love In The Time Of Cholera, Gabriel García Márquez - read it
98. Girls In Love, Jacqueline Wilson - haven't read it
99. The Princess Diaries, Meg Cabot - haven't read it

100. Midnight's Children, Salman Rushdie - read it

So, I've read 74 of these. 26 to go. The next few months may highly feature teen girl fiction (Jacqueline Wilson) and Pratchett!

Target list, then, is highlighted in red above. I suspect this may be less intellectually stimulating than the last list, but there are a few I've never heard of so it could be interesting.

Sunday, 10 February 2013

The Hunger Games

I'm a bit late to the party but I have finally read the Hunger Games books, and thought it was worth a brief appearance on the blog!

I didn't know much about them before starting, other than that there is a film which I haven't seen, but they were recommended so I thought I'd give it a go.

There are three books in the series, which I have devoured within about a week, so they are certainly compelling. I think they're aimed at the young adult audience, although I think the casual brutality within them would have upset me when I was 16...or maybe not. The books are set in a post-apocalyptic society type scenario - life as we knew it has ended, and the country (world??) is organised into a series of districts, each responsible for producing certain products for the central ruling Capitol. Life is hard in the districts, under military rule, as they are still being punished for an earlier rebellion; in contrast, life in the Capitol is hedonistic, brash, and excessive. Communications, movements and purchasing are strictly controlled. As further punishment for their rebellion, each year a random ballot selects two teenagers (one boy, one girl) from each district to participate in the Hunger Games...a televised battle to the death in a closely controlled and manipulated environment. Only the winner survives.

The books then follow Katniss Everdeen, from district 12, as she volunteers to take her younger sister's place in the games. It's actually hard to say much more about books two and three without giving book one away!! In story terms, the trilogy is gripping and absorbing. The first book is the strongest; I felt that the author had had one really good idea, and decided to extend it further without the complexity of planning and nuances of story continuing beyond the first. However, the others were very readable too. It's not high literature - it's well written, as these things go, and carefully plotted, but you wouldn't read them again and again for the pleasure of the prose.

The strength, for me, was that I started to care about the characters very early on, and there is enough peril to keep you hooked're never quite sure whether they're all going to survive until the end. On that note, there is a lot of violence and death, which is not normally something I'm particularly comfortable with in books, but there is a strong moral (not moralising) tone to the series which indicates that it is not acceptable...but it is accepted.

I enjoyed it, but am not sure I'll be rushing to see the film or read it again!

Wednesday, 11 July 2012

It's over...

In February 2010 I set myself the challenge of reading the BBC's list of the 100 books everyone should read. It is July 2012, and I have now finished. Kind of. I failed to finish Ulysses, because it is completely incomprehensible - I'm currently listening to the recent Radio 4 dramatisation, and it makes more sense but I still don't really understand what's going on. I also had to bow to realism and accept that I am not going to have the time or the motivation to sit and read Shakespeare plays on my own. Finally, I decided against reading the Wasp Factory based on hearing others describe their experience of it, and wanting to protect my mind against my tendency to have nightmares! (yes, I'm a wuss.)

So, technically, I have read 97 of them, but I consider it a job well done. I didn't think it would take this long, but there have been minor events in the meantime which have reduced my reading time.

I wanted to write a concluding post to reflect on whether I've actually achieved anything by this process. I think there are a few things I've learned.

Firstly, I discovered over and over again that I read for the story. Not for the beauty of the writing, not for descriptions, not for gritty realism, but to gain some sort of affection for the characters and to find out what happens to them. Thus, I found many books a struggle when they seemed to be going nowhere, but were luxuriating in description. 100 Years of Solitude, and Midnight's Children, I'm looking at you. This may make me a less intelligent reader, but I think enjoyment is important!

Secondly, after years of mainly reading lighter (some could say trashy) fiction, it was a relief to discover that I was still capable of reading more intelligently. Many of the books on the list were really hard to read, but I did it (I still maintain that I could have read Ulysses, but all that would have happened is that my eyes would have seen all the words, and it still wouldn't have meant anything to me!). I was particularly pleased by being able to get through various Dickens novels, having never finished anything other than Oliver Twist before. Moby Dick was another challenge, and I do feel a great sense of achievement at having read War and Peace, Anna Karenina and Crime and Punishment; all worthy reads but you had to work for them.

Thirdly, I have discovered some books that I absolutely loved. Vanity Fair, Possession, Gone with the Wind, Cold Comfort Farm, Brave New World, Germinal, A Town Like Alice, and Brideshead Revisited were probably the highlights - if you don't read anything else from the list, read those. All were very different, and were books that I may not have picked up in any other context, but they were so rewarding and enjoyable, and I absolutely love that experience of finding a new book to add to the list of favourites. Especially Town Like Alice. Amazing.

Finally, I think one of the reasons that many of these books make it onto the list is the contribution they've made to popular culture. I enjoyed recognising phrases that have passed into popular usage, and speculating as to whether Starbuck in Moby Dick inspired the coffee chain's name (the answer is yes, by the way, according to Wikipedia). There's definitely a pleasure in recognising references and getting to feel a bit clever about it, and it also gives an added appreciation of the value that literature adds to society. Sometimes a book itself may not be much fun to read, but if it inspires a whole genre I do have to grudgingly admire it.

What's next? I haven't decided. I have really enjoyed having a list to work through as it inspires me to read differently, and not just fill my brain with fluff. I'm considering next this list of books about books ( as I love books about books. We'll see. I may take a little break and...erm...fill my brain with fluff.

Thanks for staying with me while I did and comments was much appreciated! I may be back.