My Favourite Books: Part Two

Posted in Books, Favourites, Personal
on February 4, 2017
writing notes

I’ll admit it. I’ve been putting off writing the second part of this post. I am completely and utterly indecisive. I’d chosen my four obvious choices, and here comes the difficult bit. I *think* I’ve decided now; but at the point of island drop off, I do reserve the right to change my mind and demand a last minute Katie Fforde.

Without further ado…

William Shakespeare, The Complete Works (Or if I have to choose one, Hamlet)

Well, I mean, how could I not? It’s Shakespeare. I don’t think I even need to explain why I’d want to take this with me. If nothing else, than the sheer variety in the texts will keep me entertained until help is sent.

And why Hamlet in particular, I hear you ask? Okay, I don’t, but that’s not going to stop me. Hamlet is the play I have studied most extensively, so I should be able to muster a few words about it. It’s a dramatic play, but it’s also a play about language and words. Important plot details are frequently communicated to us through a character’s narration, and even things that we’ve seen on stage are then relayed to us by characters. You can’t trust anyone’s words, which gives the play layer after layer. And I really, really love words, so I think this one is particularly clever

I’ve been lucky enough to see it performed several times (my favourite, so far, being Rory Kinnear as Hamlet), and it truly is a play where a director’s interpretation can completely redesign it. Perhaps because so much action happens off stage, or perhaps because it addresses themes that remain quite topical (corrupt politicians in this day and age? I hear you ask, aghast. NEVER), but I’ve seen it re-imagined in so many different ways, and never thought ‘Hmmm, I’m not so sure about this’.

Plus, it doesn’t hurt that it’s the inspiration behind one of my favourite comedy sketches of all times. (Ahhh, Victoria Wood).

Favourite Quote: hmmmm…

“There are more things in Heaven and Earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”

Eva Rice, The Lost Art of Keeping Secrets

I will forever be indebted to the friend (Hi Becky!) who introduced me to this cosy, comforting, beauty of a book. It has many things in its favour: it’s set in the 1950s (a decade I’m fascinated with), around Bath and London (two of my favourite places), with an abundance of interesting characters (always a plus for a book).

To say the plot is sweet is to do it a bit of a disservice. It is sweet, there is no malice and it does seem like quite a safe world – but that’s not to say the characters don’t experience worry, heartbreak, sadness and everything else which characters are want to experience. It is the characters really, who elevate this from a book I enjoyed, to a book I’d happily be stuck on a desert island with.  Eva Rice has created a world that you want to disappear into, and characters who you want to be friends with. It’s heart-warming. Romantic. Lovely.  Harry, Charlotte, Penelope – they’re so real, so well developed, so delightful.

The only thing that irritated me the first time I read it, was that Penelope, as a student, seems to do absolutely no essays whatsoever. That just didn’t seem fair. Still, I have a feeling the whole reason I was reading it in the first place was to put off some university work that I didn’t fancy doing at the time, so I can hardly hold that against it. You do see these characters develop, and form friendships – Charlotte, for example, bursts onto the scene, seemingly the most confident girl in the world – but you soon learn that there’s so much more to her than that initial impression. So many books concentrate on plot and leave you with some rather two dimensional characters, but not this one. It’s truly refreshing.

I’m not doing a terribly good job at describing why I love this one so much, but trust me. It’s wonderful.

Favourite Quote: “There’s never any warning that something extraordinary is about to happen, is there?”

For my last two choices, I have decided to stray away slightly from the books I’ve thumbed through, and chosen ones that I have read, but not necessarily re-read. Books that I’ve enjoyed, of course, but ones which I am not quite so familiar with.

Philip Pullman, His Dark Materials

Please let me take the whole trilogy! If an edition of them all together doesn’t exist, I’ll superglue my copies together.

I read these a long time ago, and they did take me a little while to get into. They certainly weren’t like the Harry Potter series – where I was hooked almost as soon as I picked the first one up. But with a little perseverance, I found myself in love with Lyra’s world, her Oxford, the North…and so much more.

This was, in part, due to the excellent play put on at the National Theatre, which I saw just as I was really starting to appreciate these novels. It was an extraordinary production, using some of the cleverest puppetry that I’ve ever seen. Those who are familiar with the books will know that characters in Lyra’s world have daemons – representations of their souls which take on animal form – and that as children these daemons change form regularly. I don’t even know where those who staged the play started with a challenge of this magnitude, but they certainly rose to it.

Pullman, it is fair to say, wrote a children’s novel in an adult way. It is a more difficult read than many of a similar nature, and it is for that reason that these are the books that I’d want to be stuck with. I’m currently listening to the audio book (of course I am), and already I’m noticing so many nuances that went over my head as a somewhat precocious teenager. Characters face truly difficult challenges, they put themselves on the line, and you see the hard consequences of their mistakes. Alongside this of course, many wonderful things do happen to them too, but it is a very dangerous and – at times – frightening world they find themselves in. There is so much depth to these books, so many themes and issues which are addressed – and I want to have the time to really explore them properly again.

Favourite Quote: “Tell them stories. They need the truth. You must tell them true stories, and everything will be well, just tell them stories.”

Arthur Conan Doyle, The Complete Sherlock Homes

Well, if anyone is going to give me a clue about how to get off the island, it’s probably be Sherlock Holmes.

I have dived in and out of the Sherlock Holmes adventures time and time again. I studied them at university. I’m an avid Sherlock fan. After an interview in London once, I took myself off to the Sherlock Holmes museum. We even own a game called 221b Baker Street. It’s safe to say, I’m a bit of a fan.

Perhaps I’m just a bit stupid, but no matter how many of these I read, I still can’t get the answer before Holmes spells it out to me. And I suppose that’s why I want to take these books with me. I think I’d learn an awful lot – not just about detective work, but also about how to construct a story, how to plot, and plan and leave enough clues to get people giving, but not enough as to make it so obvious.

Holmes and Watson have inspired so many spin offs, and have this enduring quality that remains just as popular today as it was back in Conan Doyle’s day. They’re characters that everyone feels they know well even if they’ve not read much or any of the stories.

Plus they’re all quite short, so it might be a bit of light relief in between all the other books I’m taking with me..!

Favourite Quote: “Excellent!” I cried. “Elementary,” said he.”

(Because, as we all know, the world famous ‘Elementary my dear Watson’ quote isn’t actually in the text anywhere).

So there we go, a little later than planned. That’s my 8 books. There were some very other close contenders to this list. Terry Pratchett could easily have made up all eight choices – but I thought I needed something that wasn’t a comedic novel. Equally the Harry Potter books (I’m hoping that if stranded on a Desert Island I will still be able to recall most of the story).  Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close is not on here because, although a wonderful piece of literature, on balance, on a desert island, I don’t think I’d want to dwell on something so tragic.  Similarly, books like Anne Frank’s Diary, which have had a profound impact on me, just didn’t seem appropriate to bring to an island.

What would your choices be?

My Favourite Books: Part One

Posted in Books, Favourites, Personal
on January 14, 2017

Often one of the first questions that people ask you, when you confess to being a bookworm, is ‘What is your favourite book?’

It’s a simple question, harmless enough you’d think. But oh does it open a can of worms. Why? I hear you ask. Well, because how on earth am I meant to choose just one? There are so many.  In my Master’s year, my library record showed that I’d read at least a hundred books – and that was just one year of my life. How am I meant to summarise twenty-something years of unashamed book nerdery into a pithy sentence or two? (I heard it’s impolite to corner someone for hours on end and talk books to them at a party).

Luckily for me, however, I now have this book blog where I can talk books for hours on end without any worry of interruption. Yippee.  In the interests of time (and of not scaring off any readers I have), I’m going to limit myself to 8 books, a la Desert Island Discs.

These books are my cosy favourites, the ones I could read a hundred times without getting bored. They’re the ones I won’t get bored of if I do get stuck on a desert island. Perhaps they’re not always the most literary – but they’re ones I return to time and time again. I plan to bore you all in future with the lists of books which have challenged me or I think are of particular literary merit. For now, these are the books I could never, ever throw out.

So, in no particular order, my first four choices are:

Kingsley Amis, Lucky Jim

There aren’t many books which make me actually laugh out loud. I’ve made the mistake of reading this in public before, and had to stop because I was getting funny looks. If you haven’t read it, you must. Immediately. Take my copy.

Lucky Jim follows the hapless university lecturer, Jim Dixon, as he just tries to get by, despite the ridiculous situations he finds himself in. He’s not a particularly likeable character – he’s full of disdain for his fellow man, somewhat callous and certainly not cut out for rigorous academic life – but that’s what makes the book so readable.  It is a farcical world, where a nominally ‘reasonable’ man, repeatedly finds himself in unreasonable situations, which he unfortunately makes an awful lot worse for himself. Aside from the comedy (and there is one section, to do with a bus journey, which is honestly the funniest bit of literature I have ever read), it’s also a knowing commentary on the post-war world. It’s acerbic. It’s biting. It’s grotesque. It’s satirical. It’s a hell of a good read.

Favourite Quote: (This is tricky, there are so many of them…but because this is the best description of a hangover I’ve ever read)

Dixon was alive again. Consciousness was upon him before he could get out of the way; not for him the slow, gracious wandering from the halls of sleep, but a summary, forcible ejection. He lay sprawled, too wicked to move, spewed up like a broken spider-crab on the tarry shingle of morning. The light did him harm, but not as much as looking at things did; he resolved, having done it once, never to move his eyeballs again. A dusty thudding in his head made the scene before him beat like a pulse. His mouth had been used as a latrine by some small creature of the night, and then as its mausoleum. During the night, too, he’d somehow been on a cross-country run and then been expertly beaten up by secret police. He felt bad.

Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice

I know, it’s the obvious choice from Austen’s repertoire, but I told you this was a list of the books I revisited time and time again. I mean, what’s not to love? There’s romance, scandal, comedy (a common theme amongst my favourite books it seems), balls, manners, snobs… All of Austen’s best authorial qualities wrapped up in a novel.

It’s a truth universally acknowledged that it has one of the most famous opening lines of any novel, and it is probably responsible for inspiring 90% of the chic lit you can find in any bookstore. (No bad thing, if you ask me, chic lit is my ultimate guilty pleasure). Most girls (especially me) dream of their Mr Darcy, and in many ways he’s not your typical hero. He’s socially awkward, and gruff – with none of the easy charm of Mr Bingley, for example. Yes, he’s rich, but my goodness those relatives of his are something else… And as for his first proposal (sorry, spoiler alert), well! So, why do we find him so irresistible? He’s a good man, and we trust that he’ll treat Elizabeth as an equal.

And aside from the romantic story, Austen’s characters are what brings the novel to life. From the flighty Kitty, to sensible Charlotte Lucas; witty and stable Mr Bennet, to the hyperbolic Mrs Bennet and Lady Catherine; kind, gentle Jane, to the bitchy Bingley sisters, Austen captures them all.

Favourite Quote: Again tricky but…

“Mary wished to say something very sensible, but knew not how.”

P.G Wodehouse, The Code of the Woosters

You might be sensing a predisposition to enjoying comic novels. You would be right. It was hard to narrow down with of the Jeeves and Wooster collection to select for my choice here. But then I remembered – Roderick Spode and the Black Shorts are introduced to us in this book.

For the uninitiated – the Jeeves and Wooster series follow a charming, but imbecilic young fop called Bertie, and his man servant – the real brains behind the organisation – Jeeves. Bertie spends his time trying to be a man about town, eschewing all worries and generally living the carefree life of an upper class chap of the era. Unfortunately for him, he is plagued by a catalogue of intimidating aunts, their upper class friends, his even more idiotic chums and a fleet of girls who seem to find his foppishness completely irresistible. Luckily for him, Jeeves is around to extradite him from the soup that he has inevitably got himself into.

Roderick Spode, who I mentioned earlier, is Wodehouse’s satire of Oswald Mosley and the British Union of Fascists. I wrote about this in great depth in my dissertation, and I still find it interesting – so there has to be something in it. Wodehouse is unrepentant in his portrayal of him as an ego-maniacal, fiery tempered, thug, who came so late to politics that all of the shirt colours had been taken – leaving only the black shorts (or ‘footer bags’ as Bertie refers to him.

Wodehouse tells his stories with great gusto. The Jeeves series are full of energy, comic timing, and a relish for the written word. There’s a very Wodehousian type of language, which can never be done justice to in isolation, but within the context of the novel makes it a joy to behold. The BBC Radio adaptations are equally fantastic, with Richard Briers the perfect Bertie. If you’ve never listened to them, I’d heartily recommend it.

Favourite quote:

“I could see that, if not actually disgruntled, he was far from being gruntled.”

Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby

“In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since.
“Whenever you feel like criticizing any one,” he told me, “just remember that all the people in this world haven’t had the advantages that you’ve had.”

There are so many things I love about Fitzgerald’s writing, that I almost don’t know where to start with this. It is perhaps, pertinent, that I first came across The Great Gatsby at the same time that I came across Pride and Prejudice – during my Alevels. I was lucky to have a particularly inspirational teacher at the time (Mr Peters – who I can never thank enough), and these two books are where my journey with literature, and enjoyment of language really began.

For it is the language within The Great Gatsby, which really marks this out amongst Fitzgerald’s other works for me. It’s decadent, opulent, beautiful. I remember revising this book, and highlighting almost every other line because the whole book was quotable and worth committing to memory. The themes too, a literature student’s ideal: the American dream, conspicuous consumption, illicit love affairs, lust, gluttony, carelessness, the reliability of the narrator, class, societal expectations, the role of women – the list goes on and on. But it’s the story, not the analysis, that keeps bringing me back to The Great Gatsby. The tragedy of lost love, the realisation that your dreams have come to nothing, the heady pursuit of that which you most desire – I don’t think I need to go into plot specifics here, I imagine everyone knows the story. But it’s truly wonderful to rediscover it time and time again.

Favourite Quote: I know I’ve cheated and already used one, but here’s another.

“I’ve been drunk for about a week now, and I thought it might sober me up to sit in a library.”

So, there you go – part one of my desert island discs style bookathon…. Now before I start on part two, I’m going to have to go and re-read all of them!

2017 Reading List

Posted in 2017 Reading Challenge, Books, Personal
on January 2, 2017
Reading challenge 2017

I am going to document all the books I read this year, here. Except those I forget or those that I am too ashamed of…

I had planned to start the year off reading something worthwhile from my pile of books (see above) that I got for Christmas. But then it was new year’s day and I fancied something easier.

So, in order, and to be updated everything I finish a book… here is my 2017 reading list.

  1. Five Give Up The Booze, Bruno Vincent.
  2. Five Go Gluten Free, Bruno Vincent.
  3. Decline and Fall, Evelyn Waugh
  4. The Devil You Know, Louise Bagshawe
  5. An Autumn Crush, Milly Johnson
  6. Lean In – Sheryl Sandburg
  7. First Term At Malory Towers – Enid Blyton
  8. Second Form at Malory Towers – Enid Blyton
  9. Third Year At Malory Towers – Enid Blyton
  10. Decline and Fall – Evelyn Waugh
  11. Jeeves And The Wedding Bells – Sebastian Faulks
  12. The Cows – Dawn O’Porter
  13. Breakfast At Tiffany’s – Truman Capote
  14. Playing James – Sarah Mason
  15. The Holiday – Erica James
  16. The Handmaiden’s Tale – Margret Atwood
  17. I Capture The Castle – Dodie Smith
  18. Moriarty – Anthony Horowitz

(Italics Denotes ‘In Progress’).

On the reading shelf are:

  • Brighton Rock – Graham Green
  • Hagseed – Margret Atwood
  • Closed Casket – Sophie Hannah
  • Nutshell – Ian McEwan
  • Most of the contents of Weybridge’s many, many charity bookshops.

Magpie Murders: Anthony Horowitz

Posted in Books, Five Star, Reviews
on December 11, 2016
Review of Magpie Murders

I was a little stuck as to what to include a picture of here. For starters, as I listened to the audiobook, rather than reading it, I didn’t have the actual book to snap. My next issue was the lack of magpies loitering around my flat. My final problem was that any other prop I could think of (or would be likely to have to hand) would probably give too much away.

And that is the problem I’m facing writing this too. Finally I understand why my mum (endless resource of knowledge and book recommendations that she is) stayed pursed lipped and would only say to expect ‘twist after twist after twist’.*

Horowitz is a prolific and hugely talented writer – as his Wikipedia page will attest – and he is most at home when unravelling a mystery. Magpie Murders allows him to showcase his talent, and his versatility as an author.

Let us start with the official description from Horowitz’s website.

When editor Susan Ryeland is given the tattered manuscript of Alan Conway’s latest novel, she has little idea it will change her life. She’s worked with the revered crime writer for years and his detective, Atticus Pund, is renowned for solving crimes in the sleepy English villages of the 1950s. As Susan knows only too well, vintage crime sells handsomely. It’s just a shame that it means dealing with an author like Alan Conway…

But Conway’s latest tale of murder at Pye Hall is not quite what it seems. Yes, there are dead bodies and a host of intriguing suspects, but hidden in the pages of the manuscript there lies another story: a tale written between the very words on the page, telling of real-life jealousy, greed, ruthless ambition and murder.

This is a book within a book: a mystery within a mystery. On the one hand we have the story of Susan Ryeland and Alan Conway in the modern day, and on the other hand we have a fantastic pastiche of the Golden Age crime novel. Horowitz, writing as Conway, borrows heavily from Christie (Pund is clearly modelled on Poirot) and produces a wonderfully cosy, old school detective novel. Nothing in the world of Saxby-upon-Avon is hurried, the detective has time to piece his thoughts together and you are reassured that Pund will solve the mystery, break it to the villagers and everything will work out in the end. In contrast, in the modern day, the story revolving around Susan Ryeland, is a much more uncertain world. You wonder how she will work out the mystery, if she will do it in time, and how there can possibly be a resolution where everything works out for the best. Pund’s world is much smaller than Ryeland’s – he is focussed in Saxby and, as a reader, you feel confident that everyone he needs to speak to is there. Ryeland, meanwhile, has to travel across England to get her answers, and you’re never quite sure if that final answer will elude her grasp. Needless to say, Horowitz negotiates both worlds extremely well.

Horowitz is never a lazy writer, and takes delight in the fine detail that other authors may skim through. Not only are we treated to a whole novella in the form of Conway’s Magpie Murders, but we also get treated to chapters and segments of Conway’s other books. There are 9 crime novels in the Atticus Pund series and Horowitz has considered them all. They all have titles, character names, plots – which we learn of through Susan. It is impressive, and delightful – and very Horowitzian. It has been years now since I read any of his children’s novels (Stormbreaker, Groosham Grange, Horowitz Horror and the like..), but a characteristic that still stands out to me about them is his love of – for want of a better word – Easter eggs planted throughout the text. Little nuggets of exquisite details which give the reader an added thrill – and make you want to re-read it all to see what else you missed.

What you can really see in this novel is how much Horowitz loves writing. You can tell that he enjoyed putting this novel together and you can equally see how much he enjoys the study of literature – the deconstruction of narrative, story, character, and words. Wordplay is frequent throughout Magpie Murder, and you quickly learn to look at any character/place/chapter/title name carefully to try and figure out what it is a reference to, anagram of, sound-a-like of…  He uses his main character, Susan Ryeland, and her skills, to examine Conway’s manuscript closely, looking for clues and trying to decipher the double meaning. Her observations, and knowledge of Conway, give us, as the reader, the clues we need to try and piece together the real mystery in this book. She also helps us realise just how cleverly written the whole thing is.

The only slight negatives I can think to mention with Magpie Murders is that the second half of the book is a little slow to get going, and there were quite a few moments of repetition. Susan explained a couple of things to us one too many times, drawing our attention back to them so that they’re always at the forefront of your mind. I think this is something that is much more noticeable when you’re listing something rather than reading it – I did find myself saying ‘Yes, Yes Susan you’ve said that!’ on a few occasions. It’s just a small niggle – it’s certainly not a big enough annoyance to make me even half think about knocking a star off.

This is a gushing review. I’m not being paid for it, I just really loved the book. I could quite easily write another 1000 words on it – but I will stop now for fear I give away any details of the plot. My only regret is that I listened to it rather than reading it. Not to worry, as soon as I can get my clammy little paws on a hard copy, I’ll be thumbing my way through it, searching for all those clues I missed the first time.

Rating:

An unequivocal five stars.

*Alas, I don’t own a copy of Twister either, as that might have perked the picture up too.