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On big books

imageAs part of my self-imposed, extended sci-fi & fantasy month of June, I read Justin Cronin’s The Passage; a 960-something sprawling tome full of viruses, vampires, nuns, survivors and a young girl called Amy.
It’s a great read – the first part of a projected trilogy – and I’d heartily recommend it, particularly if (like me) you don’t usually enjoy sci-fi. It’s well-written, compelling, moving and engaging. And there’s a bearable version of a vampire legend.
But you have to commit to a book as long as this.
It’s a huge book to lug about (I have a ‘real’ copy, resisting the temptation to buy it again for my Kindle) and the action takes place over a century or so time span. There is a large cast of characters. And vampires, twelve of them.
It took me about five weeks to get through this, having read about 300 pages when I first bought it a couple of years ago. Not bad going, but I was reading other books in between and alongside so hadn’t been entirely faithful to Amy and her defenders.
This is where I come unstuck.
I cannot always commit.
I am a book magpie. I like gathering books around me, attracted by glittery things, piles of paper to line our nest. And thus, restricting myself to reading one book at a time is difficult: I am not sure what mood I will be in, where I’ll be reading, how much time I have available, whether I’m looking after the children, or whatever else I am doing.
This is why I am unlikely to finish The Game of Thrones; I am completely lost only a third of the way through the first instalment, without an end in sight. It’s just the War of the Roses with lots of snow and a big wall, right?
But I committed to The Passage (mostly) and am pleased that I persevered. Having finished it last night, I now feel footloose and fancy free! I don’t have to move the book’s heft up and down stairs; I can look at other books, with the chance of spending some time with them instead.
So, what’s next? A few more days of sci-fi & fantasy? I’m sure I can squeeze in a Terry Pratchett Discworld novel…

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Posted by on 12/07/2013 in Uncategorized

 

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June Journeying: in Anticipation

New month, new reading theme.
This month I’m venturing into new worlds and ideas with Sci-Fi and Fantasy. I know I shouldn’t really combine the two, but I don’t think I could manage a whole month of Fantasy alone.
I’ve collected a mixture of styles and subjects; eagle-eyed viewers might recognise a couple of titles from last year’s theme; I really will finish Under The Dome and The Passage this time.
Most of these titles are from our over-stuffed shelves, but a satisfying, more experimental selection are from our local library.
Oh, and there’s some Doctor Who sneaked in too…

So, what should I read first? What’ve I missed out? What can I expect?

June's sci-fi/fantasy pile of anticipation

June’s sci-fi/fantasy pile of anticipation

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Posted by on 02/06/2013 in Reading Themes, Uncategorized

 

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2013: New Year, New Reading Challenge

Amongst the usual new year resolutions to lose that last bit of weight, exercise a little bit more and go to bed earlier, I’m setting myself another year-long reading challenge. Again, I’ll aim to theme my reading throughout the year, allowing books to ‘hangover’ from previous months, make allowances for reading group choices and allow the occasional ‘just because’ choice to slip in.

I found last year’s experiment quite challenging, but I enjoyed the (flexible and self-imposed) restraints of themes; I didn’t just browse the bookshelves, seeing what I fancied. I had a schedule to follow! By the end of the year preparing for three family birthdays and Christmas within a few months left me little time for large chunks of reading so my Dickens theme flopped as I only read a few short stories by the great man.

So, may I present my provisional reading plan for 2013:

January: The French Revolution (!)

This is a period of history I know very little about so I hope to be better informed by the end of the month; I’m focussing on A Place of Greater Safety (Hilary Mantel) and Les Miserables (Victor Hugo). Both are enormous tomes (over 800 pages each) but if I have time, I might squeeze in The Scarlet Pimpernel and A Tale of Two Cities. Bonne Chance, moi!

February: Regency Romance

A really light month! Lots of Georgette Heyer, with a sprinkling of Mary Balough and M C Beaton, more Jane Austen: just right as Valentine’s Day approaches, following on from the Revolution.

March: Nordic Noir

Having just enjoyed The Killing (season 1), my appetite’s whetted for darkly gritty murder mysteries (with great jumpers optional): expect lots of Henning Mankell, Anne Holt, Steig Larsson, et al.

April: it’s the ‘cruellest month’, so I’ll try non-fiction

I focus too much on fiction, so I could try anything. At the moment, I’m considering: Watching the English (Kate Fox), The Victorian House (Judith Flanders), Family (Susan Hill), Home (Julie Myerson), A History of Modern Britain (Andrew Marr), This Sceptered  Isle (Christopher Lee).

May: Thomas Hardy

In honour of the fertility of the soil, I’ll journey to Wessex to enjoy some of the stories I’ve not yet been told: Desperate Remedies, A Pair of Blue Eyes, Return of the Native, amongst others. I’ll probably also read Claire Tomalin’s biography, The Time-Torn Man and some of Hardy’s poetry.

June: Fantasy and Sci-Fi

I dabbled a little last year, enjoying HG Wells, the first two parts of Stephen King’s The Dark Tower sequence and Ursula Le Guin’s Left Hand of Darkness. I think this might be time to try George R R Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire sequence; have the first part on Kindle already.

July: Trollopes (both)

I’ll mix more Victorianna from Anthony Trollope with contemporary stories from his distant descendant Joanna Trollope (and possibly her alter ego Caroline Harvey). Might even dip into more biographies; I have a copy of Joanna Trollope’s Britannia’s Daughters too.

August: a little bit of what I fancy…

It’ll be Summer Holiday time so I’ll catch up with myself, then read whatever I fancy. It’s probably going to be a nice mix of contemporary ‘literary’ fiction. Just wish we were going somewhere exotic  to enjoy it; with two young children, I’m unlikely to be able to spend the full fortnight luxuriating in a pile of novels, but I can dream…

September: Iris Murdoch

As the new term beckons, something more intellectual. I’ve collected all her novels of the years, enjoyed a few and read John Bayley’s affecting memoirs of life with Iris when she descended into Alzheimer’s.

October: Edwardian Fiction and Ghost Stories

I’m looking forward to starting Ford Maddox Ford’s Parade’s End quartet, Vita Sackville-West’s The Edwardians, John Galsworthy’s Forsyth Saga, Arnold Bennett, GK Chesterton, EM Forster, etc. I might stray into more Modernism with Joyce’s Ulysses. And of course, as the nights become dark, a few classic scares will be fun!

December: Dickens

A second chance for me to get stuck into (at least) one of Dickens’ greats. Bleak House perhaps?

So, what about you? What would you suggest for themes? Are there any I’ve missed out? And what books should I really, really read in these themes?

Happy reading!

 

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2012: My Year In Books

No comment or reflection, just a list of the 70 books I’ve found time to read this year. Marks are given out of 5. RG = Reading Group book; K = read on Kindle. As you’ll see, I wasn’t very strict with my themed reading; will try harder next year.

January

  1. Requiem for a Mezzo    – Carola Dunn (4)
  2. Secrets – Jaqueline Wilson (5)
  3. The Boy In the Dress – David Walliams (5)
  4. Confessions of a Jane Austen Addict  – Laurie Rigler (3)
  5. Don’t You Want Me? – India Knight (3)
  6. More Than Love Letters  – Rosie Thornton (3)
  7. Snowdrops – A D MIller  (3) (K, RG)
  8. Mistress of Mellyn – Victoria Holt (4)
  9. There But For The – Ali Smith (5)
  10. Emily Goes to Exeter – M C Beaton (4) (K)
  11. This Charming Man – Marian Keyes (3)

February

  1. The Winter King – Bernard Cornwall (3)
  2. Why Be Happy When You Can Be Normal? – Jeanette Winterson (5)
  3. The Wives of Henry Oades – Johanna Moran (4) (RG)
  4. Before I Go To  Sleep – S J Watson (5) (K)
  5. The Pillars of the Earth – Ken Follett (4)
  6. The Library Book – Various (5)

March

  1. Dark Matter: A Ghost Story – Michelle Paver (3) (RG)
  2. Stop What You’re Doing And Read This! – Various (5)

April

  1. The Rules of Civility – Amor Towles (3)
  2. The Paris Wife – Paula McLaine (4) (RG)
  3. Minerva – M C Beaton (4)
  4. Fifty Shades of Grey – E L James (2)
  5. And Now The Shipping Forecast – Peter Jefferson (3)
  6. Half of the Human Race – Anthony Quinn (4)
  7. The Taming of Annabelle – M C Beaton (4)

May

  1. The White Queen – Philippa Gregory (4)
  2. The Daughter of Time – Josephine Tey (4)
  3. Sweet Danger  – Margery Allingham (3)

June

  1. The Mystery of a Butcher’s Shop – Gladys Mitchell (4)
  2. The Chinese Shawl – Patricia Wentworth (4)
  3. Why Didn’t They Ask Evans? – Agatha Christie (4)
  4. The Case of the Guilded Fly – Edmund Crispin (4)
  5. She – H. Rider Haggard (4) (K)
  6. The Sense of an Ending – Julian Barnes (2) (RG)
  7. A Gathering Storm – Rachel Hoare (3)
  8. The Dark Tower: The Gunslinger – Stephen King (3)
  9. The Dark Tower: The Drawing of the Three – Stephen King (3)

July

  1. The Song of Achillies – Madeline Miller (5) (K)
  2. Into the Darkest Corner  – Elizabeth Haynes (5)
  3. Cameron on Cameron – Dylan Jones (3)
  4. The Revelations – Alex Preston (2) (K)
  5. Death At Pemberley – P D James (5) (K)

August

  1. A Perfectly Good Man – Patrick Gale (5)
  2. One of Our Thursdays Is Missing – Jasper Fforde (5)
  3. Daughters in Law – Joanna Trollope (4)
  4. Sleepyhead – Mark Billingham (4)
  5. Jubilee – Shelly Harris (3) (RG)
  6. The No 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency  – Alexander McCall Smith (4)
  7. Pure – Andrew Miller  (4) (RG)
  8. Winter In Madrid – C J Sansom (5) (K)

September

  1. The Weirdstone of Brisingamon – Alan Garder (5)
  2. The Night Circus – Erin Mortgenstern (4) (RG)
  3. Burnt Shadows – Kamila Shamsie (5)
  4. Poetry: Fierie – Jackie Kay (5) / Family Album – Sheree Mack (5)/ Out of the Blue – Simon Armitage (5)

October

  1. The War of the Worlds – H G Wells (5) (K)
  2. Then – Julie Myerson (5)
  3. Zoo Time – Howard Jacobson (4)
  4. The Moon of Gomrath – Alan Garner (4)
  5. The Greatcoat – Helen Dunmore (5)

November

  1. The Last Weekend – Blake Morrison (5)
  2. Shirley – Charlotte Bronte (4)
  3. Lady Audley’s Secret – Mary Elizabeth Braddon (5) (K)
  4. Emma Brown – Clare Boylan (3)
  5. The Betrayal of Trust – Susan Hill (5)

December

  1. One Night Of Love – Mary Balough (4)
  2. A Weekend With Mr Darcy – Victoria Connolley (4) (K)
  3. The Thoughts and Happenings of Wilfred Price, Purveyor of Superior Funerals – Wendy Jones (4)  (RG)
  4. The Woman Who Went to Bed for a Year – Sue Townsend (4)
  5. Crocodile on the Sandbanks – Elizabeth Peters (4) (K)

So, that was my year. Not a particuarly large number, but respectable for a mum of 2. More comment to follow, along with plans for more themed reading in 2013…

 
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Posted by on 31/12/2012 in End of month review

 

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Out of This World: Of the imagination and other planets.

September was my self-imposed science fiction and fantasy reading month. As ever, I aimed for more than I achieved and still had ‘hangovers’ from the previous month to finish.

I am not usually a keen reader of sci-fi, so asked around for suggestions to supplement the meagre selection in my home library. From cyberpunk to high concept near future thrillers, I was rather at sea.

I began my quest on familiar ground: Alan Garner’s The Weirdstone of Brisingamen. I’d read some of his Welsh legends series in my early teens but didn’t remember enjoying them overly much. They improved with age! The Weirdstone adventure was thrilling; the mention of cagouls, bicycles, bottles of lemonade made Colin and Susan’s escapes from the hounds of Morrigan all the more chilling and dangerous. The underground scenes were particularly haunting. The setting of Alderley Edge, where now the ‘Cheshire set’ and WAGs live, provided a nice contrast to the world of dark magic and elves alongside ordinary life.                     The Owl Service continued the chilling theme, drawing further on the Mabinogion stories. Another terrifying story of children battling against forces of darkness; the familiar -this time a hidden tea service decorated with owls- transformed into a magic-infused dark world.

I enjoyed the equally thrilling HG Wells’ The War of the Worlds. As an Edwardian science-inspired thrilling adventure story, this ticked all my boxes of bemused narrator, period detail, speculative science and a focus on the human impact of an invasion. The study of the destruction of our comfortable way of life, prompting questions of how would one cope, is intriguing; an idea I am often drawn to (knowing I would be useless in a crisis). The Martians and their machines remain terrifying and the plucky British spirit shines through. My favourite quote is, ‘ I was walking through the roads to clear my brain. And suddenly – fire, earthquake, death!’

Moving on from Martian invasion, I looked at Iain M. Banks’ Consider Phlebas to see how the space exploration, human vs alien conflict had been continued. I confess, I didn’t progress very far. I was stuck with the Changer on the spaceship, not caring much about him, his fate, the Culture, and Earth thousands of years in the future. I may return to Banks’ Culture series, but had many other worlds to explore…

Also unsucessful was my dip into the mind of Philip K. Dick, The Man in the High Castle which I was recommended in particular. I reserved it from the library and made a start. But I stalled and didn’t return, distracted by Martian adventures instead. Perhaps his was a voice which didn’t fit with my mood this month; a lone American amongst the voices of British sci-fi? I’ve enjoyed his short stories in the past; perhaps I needed the short, sharp fix instead.

Through happenstance, this month’s choice for our library reading group was Erin Mortgenstern’s The Night Circus. I loved this romantic magical fantasy, clearly imagining myself wantering through the black and white striped tents in the darkness, inbibing the smells, sounds and sights of this most amazing spectacle. Dark figures lingered in the shadows; lovers were torn apart then bound together; mechanical books were part of magical clocks; trains were luxurious but menacing. A beautiful fantasy read.

I ran out of time to begin George R. R. Martin’s Game of Thrones series; I did not continue Stephen King’s Under the Dome. Douglas Copeland remained unread and William Gibson’s classic Neuromancer has not yet been found by my local library. Although I dipped into a book of steampunk romances, I haven’t given the genre enough time to sing me its Victorian mechanical siren’s song to make me fall in love.

My ‘hangover’ books this month -those I’ll continue reading into October – are: Snow by Adam Roberts and The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula le Guin. Both are ‘high-concept sci-fi’; one set on a familiar earth, the other on an alien planet with familiar but different inhabitants. I’m enjoying them so much, I’ll continue to adventure on the planet Winter with the androgynous inhabitants and explore what our world is like, how we might cope, and why it will not stop snowing.

As I reflect on this month’s reading, I realise that I prefer concept sci-fi: how far can the author go with a ‘what if…?’ idea. What would happen to our world if it didn’t stop snowing, or if Martians invaded? How would we as individuals cope? Who would turn on whom first? And how long can one survive on tinned food?

In the past I’ve enjoyed the work of John Wyndham and John Christopher, masters of the speculative sci-fi. I particularly recommend The Death of Grass: John Christopher’s short novel exploring to a dramatic conclusion what might happen if, well, grass died. The thought of dropping atomic bombs onto Leeds and London to free up precious resources is a chilling one.

As I’ve found throughout this year’s reading experiment, I’m merely scratching the surface of the monthly genres; I’m reading only a fraction of what I intend to and end each theme with a continually expanding list of books to follow up.

What else did I miss out this month?

 
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Posted by on 02/10/2012 in End of month review

 

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Long Live (Stephen) King!

 

Despite being a self-confessed ‘book tart’, willing to give almost anything a try, I have read very little of the perennially popular Stephen King. Some of his books are older than I am, and he’s still churning them out with unnerving regularity.

So, where to start on my month’s (or so) adventure? I read Carrie about a year ago; The Green Mile a few years before that, having enjoyed the film. I don’t like horror, although am happy  to be thrilled or chilled at least a little.

I thought I’d start with his magnum opus: The Dark Tower. I’m not a natural reader of fantasy but I can see the power of a good storyteller and an absorbing world; both of which were clear from the first few pages.

Like a skilled chef, King assembles an array of ingredients to whisk and blend together to create a uniquely flavoured and filling feast. Pulling together elements from Spaghetti Westerns, to Lord of the Rings, to classic Fantasy iconography and Arthurian legend. And then of course, the ‘meat’ is the questing knight of Browning’s epic poem from 1855. Starting a large series of novels mid story was a brave move but it’s intriguing; who is Roland the Gunslinger? Where and when is this alternatiVe world? What is the Dark Tower? Why does Roland have to reach it? Will he? And why do I find myself caring?

Having read the first two parts this month, I will now pause in the quest, leaving 6 further episodes for another time. I am now invested into Roland’s quest; I like Eddie and Odetta/Susannah and share their disorientation; i am concerned for Jake who’s made a cameo reappearance. And, of course, I am keeping an eye out for the Man in Black, although the lobstrosities make me feel quite sick! Whatever the Dark Tower might be, it’s drawing me to itself.

To my surprise, King has shown himself to be a master storyteller, unafraid to draw upon many sources and themes, and write an unashamedly good adventure story.

If you already knew that, where should I go next? Under The Dome is coming on holiday with us; I hope it will not disappoint.

 
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Posted by on 28/07/2012 in End of month review

 

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