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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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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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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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End of April, end of history (month).

As previously mentioned, this year I’m attempting my first ever monthly themed read. I’m not used to disciplining myself, or keeping to a reading deadline, so although I’ve relished the process of selecting a large pile of books from my shelves and local library, I’ve been reaching the month’s end with a frustratingly small number actually read. I give in to distractions, reading group books, and am always greedy for more books than I can make time to read.

This month I’ve time-travelled between 1920s Paris to York in the 1560s; New York in 1938 to London’s East End in the 1880s; London during the Suffragist’s struggle to the ton in Regency London,  learning much about characters, feuds, passions and romance both real and entirely imaginary.

So, what I actually read this month was:

The Rules of Civility – Amor Towles Although centered around a trio of Katy (narrator), Eve and the alluring and enigmatic Tinker Grey, the relationships spiral outwards as character’s fates take them up or down. Evocative of time and place, his is an interesting debut novel. As slick, glamorous and ephemeral as the jazz age in New York this story is set, I was left wondering what was the novel’s central message.

The Paris Wife – Paula McLaine (April’s choice for my reading group)  I know very little about Hemingway, having only read ‘The Old Man and the Sea’, thinking he’s a man’s writer. I was wrong. This fictionalisation of his first marriage to Hadley Richardson opens in Chicago 1920. The slightly naive and gauche Hadley meets the charismatic, handsome, young ‘Wem’ through mutual friends. Both young, Wem is only 20 although Hadley a little older, he’s the centre of his social circle; Hadley is on the edge. It is eventually Wem’s gregarious nature which undoes their marriage. Moving between Paris, Spain, Austria and Chicago, notorious characters from the literary Jazz Age make cameos such as Fitzgerald and Stein.  The couple’s joy together, particularly once their son ‘Bumby’ joins them, is poignant knowing their marriage will fall apart through Hemingway’s inability to remain faithful. Based on the couple’s intimate letters, this novel so effectively captures Hadley’s voice and their loving relationship.I quick online search added an extra dimension as I found photographs of the young Hemingway and Hadley: handsome devil! The Sun Also Rises is now added to my ever-increasing ‘to read’ list.

Minerva, and The Taming of Annabelle – MC Beaton – The first two stories about the 6 Armitage sisters. Recently repackaged to build upon Beaton’s success with Hamish McBeth, Agatha Rasin and The Travelling Matchmaker series. These are light, very enjoyable Regency romances; perfect escapism and easy to flick through a few pages surreptitiously. I’m going to enjoy reading the rest of the series (bought at a bargain price).

Fifty Shades of Grey – EL James  I’m going public: I confess! I read this year’s most talked about book based on an interview on Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour. I wouldn’t usually be attracted to a BDSM romance (in fact I’m still not entirely sure what it stands for; lots of rule-driven, complicated, sex of the bondage variety it seems), but enjoyed this as another escapist, easy to read, disposable novel. The sex became over the top; after a while I started to tune out, reading more for the relationship development than the ‘action’. That’s my main hesitation about the romance/erotic genre; I prefer sex in novels to be understated rather than overplayed. But now I have to read the rest of the trilogy to follow the story to its conclusion. I fear it will begin to be repetitive and tiresome  but I’m learning some things along the way(!)

Half of the Human Race – Anthony Quin Another novel with romance at its heart, this centred on the lives of Constance, a suffragist and frustrated surgeon, and William, a county cricketer trying to prove his mettle. An expansive novel, I grew very fond of Connie but frustrated with William. I stayed up until 1am finishing this story; sign of a good read! One of Specsaver’s Channel 4 Book Club choices.

As I’m not used to a reading deadline, as we start May, I’m still reading:

The White Queen – Phillipa Gregory This, the first part of The Cousins’ War trilogy, explores the lives of the women at the heart of the struggle for kingship between the houses of York and Lancaster. I thought I knew something about the Wars of the Roses through history studies at A level, but there’s so much I knew nothing about. At heart, it’s another love story (an inadvertent theme this month) with more slaughter and peril than usual. Very enjoyable. I have the other two lined up, alongside some supplementary reading for more historical context.

The Somnambulist – Essie Fox Only just started this story of gothic Victorian mystery. Seems promising, taking a picture by John Millais as inspiration, and it has a gorgeous cover! I love a bit of Victorian gothic.

The Time Traveller’s Guide to Medieval England – Ian Mortimer A remnant from March’s non-fiction attempt which reads so well, it’s a great accompaniment to anything set in the medieval period.

And I didn’t have enough time to give justice to the magisterial Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel   I’ve managed the first few chapters, settling me into the feel of it, having listened to the first couple of cds of the audiobook. It’s on my Kindle (perfect for reading such a large novel) but I’ve been dipping into it rather than giving it a concentrated effort. One for my (virtual) ‘keep reading’ pile.

And now onto May: classic British detective fiction. Hoping to find some -as yet- unknown gems. Christie, Sayers, Allingham are the obvious starting points.  Any suggestions?

 

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