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Two Weeks: No Books

A progress report:
Books bought: 0
Books added to my wish list: 6

Books ordered from local library: 1

Books read from local library: 1
Books rounded up to be handed on: 16
Books read: 2 and a half
Poems written about books: 1

 

Two weeks down, fifty to go!

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Posted by on 13/01/2014 in Uncategorized

 

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A Victorian End of Year Review (of sorts)

ImageVaultHandler_aspxAnd so, the end of 2013 has passed… and so has my two-year themed reading challenge. It’s been such fun choosing a monthly theme then piling up the appropriate books with fevered anticipation. And then posting gratuitous pictures of my personal library. The total of books read thematically has been less than impressive, as seen on my Good Reads list.

Organising my reading thematically has given me focus, made me take books off my shelves (even if they’re just been piled up and reshelved after a couple of months), and challenged me to discover new authors and genres.

However, it has sometimes been restrictive and the blogging element of the experiment has fallen by the wayside a little. I haven’t reflected on the themes deeply enough, perhaps because the reading in the end hasn’t been so focused. I’m still distracted by all the books I haven’t read, and all the books which keep piling up in our house.

So October’s theme, which melded into November and (oops!) into December, was Victoriana. I loved the anticipation of this and found some delicious looking books on my shelves (see previous post). The few novels I managed to read were successfully atmospheric and (perhaps) overly dramatic. Some were set in brothels with suitable emphasis on sexual proclivities (The Crimson Petal and the White in particular; not too gratuitous but with an engaging narrative style. And stonking good plot). There was swirling fog, gorgeous dresses, and grisly murders (at times). They all seemed to be hefty tomes with complicated plots and lots of sex. Perhaps it’s an attempt to redress the balance of our mis-conception that the Victorians repressed everything. (see Matthew Sweet’s Inventing the Victorians to redress the balance)

Reading contemporary novels set in the Victorian era has been an interesting contrast to the style and content of the ‘real’ Victorian novels I’ve already read.  Some of the Victoriana was almost a self-conscious parody, seeking to recapture the thrills of a Victorian ‘sensationalist novel’ but failing. I’d rather read Wilkie Collins or Mary Braddon, thanks.

I would recommend anyone to try a year, or a few months, reading within a certain theme; whether a particular author, setting, genre, subject matter. I have discovered some gems and authors I wouldn’t have otherwise have tried. Get out of your comfort zone and look in a different part of your local bookshop or library.

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And so as I look ahead into 2014, I’m resolving to ‘watch less, read more.’ I have many books piled up waiting to be read and am looking forward to a year’s ‘free reading’, returning to my old habits of reading different books, whatever takes my fancy…
…. but with the twist that I cannot buy any more books for myself for the whole year.

Now, that’s an idea for a year’s worth of blog posts…

 

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On June’s Journeying

Bob: The Man on the Moon by Simon Bartram. Highly recommended by me - and my kids

Bob: The Man on the Moon by Simon Bartram. Highly recommended by me – and my kids

Perhaps I was enjoying my sci-Fi and fantasy month too much, I extended it half way into July. Admittedly, I enjoyed entering into new worlds, an author’s imagination, imagining ‘what if?’, what’s out there, what are the limits…

it was good to get away from the ordinary and humdrum; to travel to another planet, to imagine the future.

I can begin to understand the genre’s appeal. A little like habitual readers of romance novels, reading a sci-fi or fantasy novel is a time to escape,to turn away from the domestic everyday concerns and let Ian author take you on an incredible journey.

But at heart, what really matters, what I think draws people back is the humanity (even if not humanoid); it’s seeing what people do, think, feel, interact in extreme circumstances. Even if they’re a vampire. Or green.

imagei enjoyed my ‘June Journeying’ but I think my visa’s expired. I shall return to earth and the next (mini) theme..

P.S. here’s what I managed to read:

The Passage – Justin Cronin

Enter Wildtyme – Paul Magrs (an almost random choice from my library; a time-travelling fantasy with its roots in Darlington bookshop. And there’s a sequel: Wild Thyme Beyond)

The Light Fantastic -Terry Pratchett (a rollicking ride!)

The Player of Games – Iain M. Banks (hard work but it paid off; I had to be totally focused)

(Non sci- Fi: This Is How It Ends – Kathleen McMahon (passed the time entertainingly for a day in hospital); The Betrayal – Helen Dunmore (a reading group choice; I alway love her novels))

Here’s what I have left in my overly ambitious pile to read – one day:

The Gone Away World – Nick Harkaway

Darkmans – Nicola Barker

Under the Dome – Stephen King

The Magician – Raymond E. Fiest

The Left Hand Of Darkness – Ursula Le Guin

The Earthsea Quartet – Ursula Le Guin

Jack Glass – Adam Roberts (I can’t wait to start that; a combination of the Golden Age of sci- Fi and the Golden Age of crime fiction.)

Oh, perhaps I can squeeze another book in….

 
 

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Nordic Noir

Branagh's Kurt Wallander

Branagh’s Kurt Wallander

Although it’s springtime, the wintry weather seemed to be blasting us from the North throughout March, and so my reading theme chimed with the Nordic-based weather front.

A librarian friend jokingly suggested that I should spend each month dressed according to my reading theme; she was particularly looking forward to last month’s Regency theme with empire-line dresses, fans and smelling salts. I disappointed her, but suggested this month I might appear in the library wearing the same, cable-knit jumper, unbrushed hair and a permanently surly expression. I resisted.

And so I started with Henning Mankell. I have had every intention of watching the TV series (both the original Swedish and BBC versions) but only seem to have found the time to have watched one episode of one BBC series. Similarly, I had accumulated a few of Mankell’s crime novels and looked forward to ‘meeting’ Wallander in his original form.
I started with Sidetracked, only because it’s the earliest (fifth) in the series I have on my shelf. Faceless Killers is somewhere on my Kindle and The Dogs of Riga is issued to me from my local library.

Wallander is as darkly dour as I had been led to expect, with a typically troubled personal life. but in this novel, he seems able to embark on a new relationship, cares for his dementia-troubled father and has genuinely good working relationships with his team, I underestimated the facets of the character at first. The writing is good, introducing a few strands of the story in the first few chapters, describing a visually dramatic suicide early on, killing a character we’d been ‘observing’ in minute detail only pages before, and, in particular, beginning the narrative inside the head of the murderer. Of course, none of this is new, but these techniques quickly and effectively create psycholocial suspense and intrigue which might take longer or not be possible in a more ‘plodding’ crime narrative. The action takes place in particular geographic locations; the Swedish geography is described in detail; the MidSummer setting of Sidetracked provides an interesting counterpoint to the self-immolating suicide and the psychological darkness of the perpetrator.image

I confess, I like Harry Hole. Jo Nesbo’s The Redbreast has introduced us and I’d like to spend more time in his company. This thriller is longer, denser and more complex than Sidetracked, the narrative jumping between Winter 1999-2000 (including a visit from the US President to Sweden) and events on the battlefield and camp hospitals in the late 1940s. issues of loyalty, justice, identity, love and retribution resonate through the years. Gripping and chilling.

Harry Hole is, as expected, a character in conflict; an unsatisfied personal life, unresolved issues, hidden depths waiting to be explored in further investigations. He has a network of relationships, both personal and profiessional; he antagonises and infuriates colleagues and superiors. And has a very particular dress sense. (He reminds me a little of a Swedish Rebus in Ian Rankin’s Edinburgh-set novels)

Do you ever hang onto books ‘in case you might get round to reading it one day’? I do. I was reminded of this when I picked up my copy of Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow when a charity shop receipt fluttered out. It was dated 2001. At least the book’s now off the shelf, being read. It’s a downbeat, dour, snow-laden mystery, although I’m only four chapters in; I doubt it’ll become an all-singing, all-dancing up-beat affair though. If, indeed, I finish it; it’s not gripped me yet, sadly.

 

imageThe wonderfully titled The 100-Year-Old Man Who Jumped Out of a Window and Disappeared by Jonas Jonasson was, by happenstance, March’s reading group choice. I was looking forward to this best selling, quirky story of a centenarian’s journey (both literal and metaphorical) through his life. However, I didn’t warm to Allan Karlsson’s on his Forrest-Gump-ian adventures but I did make it to the end (too late for the group’s meeting) and was amused by some of the more bizarre situations he found himself in.

(A further confession: the final few days of March found me gripped by Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn: apparently, ‘the addictive no.1 US best seller that everyone is talking about’. It was gripping; a rollercoaster ride of a thriller, with many twists and turns, dips and peaks which kept my light on well past my bedtime.)image

I ran out of time for the further adventures of Lisbeth Salander, any of Anne Holt’s crime thrillers, John Ajvide Lindqvist or the novelisation of The Killing. A slightly disappointing reading tally this month, certainly compared to last month’s Regency romp, but my reading appetite is whetted to venture north again to hook up with Harry Hole, Lisbeth Salander, Kurt Wallander and Oskar & Eli. Hej da…

 

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Beyond Pemberley: Powder, Patches and Proposals – A Month-long Regency Romance

I don’t think I’ve fallen in love this month, but I hope I’ve made a good friend to while away a few hours over a pot of tea. (My husband of 13 years can breathe a sigh of relief)
I used to be a little (OK, very) snobbish about light, frothy, genre novels, wondering ‘why would any intelligent reader choose to waste their time reading a novel where you already knew the ending?’ But having spent February reading (mostly) romances set in Regency England, I can now understand why.

They are not especially demanding (some days you’re too tired to concentrate on complicated plots or characterisation), they can be light-hearted (because sometimes life is serious enough), they’re set in a historical era with different manners, customs and a strict social structure (a bit of escapism can be fun; it’s not too difficult to generally visualise the costumes and context if you’ve watched even just one Regency costume drama), the romances have a happy ending (because life is usually more complicated and unresolved, doesn’t always end happily and you don’t always end up with the right partner).

One of my friends who almost solely reads Mills & Boon Regency romances described them to me as ‘easy-to-read Jane Austen’. Once I would have dismissed her condescendingly; surely I would read the ‘real’ Austen and not be distracted by such frippery? But this month’s discipline has opened my eyes. Reading a number of Regency novels in quick succession has shown me a range of writing styles, and various levels of steaminess on the conjugal front. The hero (or anti-hero; the reformation of ‘a rake’ is more fun!) and heroine marry, they behave themselves (mostly) within strict moral and societal codes and there’s lots of description of costumes, material, balls, and everyone spends at least some time in Bath.
Other random things I’ve learnt, in no particular order:

  • What it means to be bon ton;
  • The importance of the look of a man’s legs in tight breeches, once memorably described as ‘shaped like a balustrade'(!);
  • What a beaver hat looks like;
  • That pregnancy or legs are inappropriate subjects for polite conversation (but of course!);
  • Lead: not just for building but used as make up;
  • That not to ride sidesaddle was considered most inappropirate for a gentlewoman;
  • That the true love of a faithful woman can transform even the worst ‘rakehell’;
  • The difference between ‘traditional regency romance’, ‘recency historical’ and ‘sensual regency historical romance’ (thanks Wikipedia).

So, what did I read? Here’s the list:

  • M.C.Beaton/Marion Chesney’s The School For Manners series (6 titles but as each one is only about 170 pages long, they were a fun evening’s read each; I loved the willful-daughter-taming chaperones for hire, the Tribble Twins; although not a pastiche, the author has a defiinite twinkle in her eye, if not her tongue in her cheek; all her novels are good, clean fun);
  • Mary Balough – A Summer to Remember (the second Bedwin prequel; very entertaining but with a few more saucy scenes than I originally expected; up a tree?!);
  • Georgette Heyer – The Black Moth (her first novel, created as an entertaining story for her younger, convalescent brother, published when she was just 19, it centres around a gentleman highwayman settling the affairs of his gambling brother – ‘terribly” exciting, I kept finding myself imagining Adam Ant in his Prince Charming mode…);
  • Baroness Orczy – The Scarlet Pimpernel (a ‘hangover’ from last month’s French Revolution theme, but also a romance in the same era mostly set on the other side of the Channel);
  • Victoria Connelly – The Perfect Hero (contemporary reworking of various Austen plots set in Lyme Regis as a production of Persuasion is filmed).

But there are so many more books I could have read: still to finish Persuasion (to my shame), I didn’t try out Galen Foley, Julia Quinn or Eloisa James (but now own at least one copy of each of their novels to enjoy another time). And I have 46 more Georgette Heyers to read…

Did I miss anyone else out?

It’s been a fun, February fling, but now onto more serious fare: ‘Nordic Noir’ for the month of March. Dark tales of murder and detection in northern wastelands. Any suggestions to add to my pile?

P.S. I couldn’t resist reading a few novels outside the monthly theme: The Dinner by Herman Koch for our reading group (odd, oppressive view of Danish middle-class life), Mutton by India Knight (an amusing story of a forty-something mother reflecting on ageing, and English middle-class life), My Sister Lives on the Mantlepiece by Annabel Pitcher (for a Read Regional event, enjoyed in one evening, met author the next day; see post ‘The Joy of a Quick Read’.)

 Oh, to be a Recency woman...
Oh, to be a Recency woman…
 

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Viva la Revolution!

To ring in the new year, I though I’d go back more than 200 years for January’s theme: the French Revolution. Partly inspired by the film everyone’s talking about, Les Miserables, I thought I’d tackle a few novels set in an era I know little about. It shows how little I knew about both the story and history that I thought it was set in the Revolution, when it’s actually about a century later… To be honest, what I know about the French Revolution could fit onto a small, lacy handkerchief: Marie Antoinette, ‘la Guillotine’, Bastille, cake or bread, lots of flag waving. So, when I opened Hilary Mantel’s first novel, A Place of Greater Safety, I was all at sea, without any meaningful reference points. Her mighty tome explores the lives of three major players in the Revolution: Maximillien Robespierre, Camille Desmoulions, Georges Danton. (no, I’d not heard of them before now either)

I had to restrain myself from reading much else; I needed to focus my time and energies on getting through all 878 pages. Interestingly, I ended up reading both a paper copy from the library and a paid-for version on my Kindle. By the end, I’d probably read it twice as I skipped through both copies to find where I left off and thus realised how little I remembered from day by day or hour by hour. Mantel writes in an interesting, unusual style; at times conversational and gripping, other times confusing and overwhelming. There is a very long list of characters (helpfully listed at the front; difficult to flick to it on the Kindle) and Mantel doesn’t always refer to her characters by name when conversing.

It has certainly whetted my appetite for the magisterial Wolf Hall, at least I am familiar with the Tudor court and main events of the period; I am less likely to read this one alongside Wikipedia as I did with A Place of Greater Safety.

Once half way through, I couldn’t give up; all those hours spent reading would have been to naught. So I continued, persevered, often feeling as though I had an assignment deadline looming. So why did I continue? Simply, I don’t like giving up on a challenge; I felt as though I should continue to the bitter end. And I now have a soft spot for Robespierre, Camille and Desmoulins. And am looking forward to reading Wolf Hall. My appetite is now whetted. I know I won’t be reading this one alongside Wikipedia as I hope that A level history has stood me in good stead and I’ll at least be familiar with the main characters and events.

As A Place of Greater Safety was just so long (over 870 pages), it’s meant I haven’t read much else. Can I ask that this novel counts as about 4 novels towards this year’s novel count?

On the subject of other novels, I shall continue to read Les Mis (on the go on my Kindle) but at 1000 pages, it’s likely to be on the go for a while. I might also find the chance to see the film everyone’s raving about.

I struggled to find other novels about the Revolution; anyone know any more?

I’ve ordered a copy of The Scarlet Pimpernel by Baroness Orczy from our library. It is full of ‘derring do’ by those rascally ‘Eeeenglish’ aristocrats smuggling French aristos from the embrace of ‘Madame Guillotine’. I am now quickly rattling through this, enjoying another perspective on the Revolution.

And I still haven’t got round to reading Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities; another month perhaps…

As a segueway between the Revolution to February’s Regency Romance theme, I have started Cynthia Harrold-Eagle’s The Tangled Thread(the 10th installment in The Moorland Dynasty, not that I’ve read any of the earlier stories); It’s almost as though I’ve planned this…

Here’s hoping that February’s Regency Romance theme will allow me to rattle through novels at a much faster rate. Georgette Heyer, Mary Balough, and timely enough, Jane Austen; heaving busoms, strict conventions and even tighter trousers, arch observations, here I come…

 

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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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