“He’s the very soul of bounty”

Timon of Athens, Act 1, Scene 2

William Shakespeare

What bookish blog would be complete without a post-Christmas haul update?

I was lucky enough to receive lots of lovely new, mostly hardback books this festive season – in fact, Christmas was one of the primary ways I was indoctrinated from a young age with a love of reading, as my parents have always given me a ‘book pile’ every year.

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This year’s stash included:

  • Much Ado About Nothing William Shakespeare (RSC edition) – I’ve been trying to collect all of Shakespeare’s plays in these beautiful editions for a few years now. They have great analysis at the beginning, interviews with directors and actors at the back, and photos of previous productions, as well as gorgeously smooth pages. Not only is this play one of my favourites anyway, but, as regular readers will remember, I recently went to a brilliant production of it in Stratford.
  • Look Who’s Back Timur Vermes – I’ve been wanting to read this (reasonably) recent release for ages now. It was incredibly controversial in Germany; telling, as it does, the story of Hitler reawakening in modern-day Germany to find his beloved Fatherland run by a woman and full of immigrants. He quickly becomes a YouTube sensation as an ‘impersonator’ and even gets his own TV show. Once again, his influence is growing… Just sounded like a great concept to me! Cant wait to read it (when I’ve finished the most confusing book of all time, ‘Ulysses’, that is…)
  • Very British Problems Rob Temple – This jokey, keep-by-the-toilet-to-amuse-yourself book stems from the hilarious twitter account @SoVeryBritish which I have been reading out to my family for well over a year, much to their delight (?!) Especially comforting if you are a Brit abroad, these will reassure you that you are not alone in the world:

    “List of problems tea can’t temporarily solve:
    1. Broken kettle
    -end-”
    @SoVeryBritish – 15 Dec 2014

  • The Best of Sherlock Holmes Arthur Conan-Doyle (Collectors Library ed.) – Once again, this is all about the edition. These tiny little hardbacks have a beautifully smooth cover, a satisfying hold, a bookmark and gold on the outside of the pages. And of course, how can you go wrong with a bit of Holmes and Watson?!
  • 1001 Books To Read Before You Die Peter Boxall – Whilst I am extremely grateful to my brother for this kind and thoughtful present, the pressure is now very much on. Not only do I have a mega reading list for uni, but now I also find out there are about 906 other books I haven’t read that I simply must. Somebody send help.
  • Shakespeare & Me  ed. Susannah Carson – This is one I’ve been angling for for a while now. Carson invites 38 actors, directors, scholars and writers to write down what my number one man Shakespeare means to them. People including James Franco, Ralph Fiennes, Ben Kingsley, James Earl Jones, Germaine Greer and Antony Sher all contributed; I’m hoping it has short enough chapters for me to dip in and out over the next term when I need a Bard top-up.
  • Girl Online Zoe Sugg (aka Zoella), Siobhan Curham –  The debut novel by the YouTube sensation that has rocked both BookWorld and FanGirlWorld to their cores after an infamous ghost-writing scandal. I’m interested to see if the book itself is any good, considering I know next to nothing about Zoella herself, so have as little invested in it as possible. At the same time, the premise doesn’t really excite me that much: girl creates blog, becomes very successful, has boy trouble. Big whoop. Still, apparently the ending is surprisingly good, so I’ll give it a try at some point.
  • Literary Listography Lisa Nola – What else does every good bibliophile need but another book to list all of the other they’ve already read? I mean, I like lists and I like books – what more is there to say?!

And, finally, I was lucky enough to receive a brand new Kindle Paperwhite (having carelessly lost my old one in America in August) from my parents. No, this doesn’t mean I’ll betray all my lovely worn paperbacks and crisp new hardbacks – where else will I get my fill of decaying-pages smell?! But, all the same, it is actually equally beautiful in its own way.

What did you guys get for Christmas?

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“’From this day to the ending of the world”

Henry V, Act 4, Scene 3

William Shakespeare

So, the final questions post… Sorry for the slight delay, only I’m currently in Costa Rica, of all places! Attempting to teach children English, although seems like it might be a bit of an uphill struggle… Still, hopefully I can make some progress by the end of these four months.

Back to the post, read on for Cormier, McEwan, Sparks, Joyce, Stephen Fry and more!

 

17. Book that had a scene in it that had you reeling and dying to talk to somebody about it?

Ooh, the endings of both The Chocolate War’ (Robert Cormier) and ‘The Life of Pi’ (Yann Martel) were utterly gobsmacking and shocking and cruel and brilliant, all at the same time. They were the type of books where all you can write afterwards is agsdsfhgdsafhdg and you just can’t explain your mixed-up, pathetically confused emotions without the help of gifs:

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18. Favorite relationship from a book you read in 2013 (be it romantic, friendship, etc):

In terms of friendship, I really liked Billy Prior and Dr Rivers and how their rapport developed over the three ‘Regeneration’ books (Pat Barker). On the romantic side, William and Nancy Hawkins of Muriel Sparks’ A Far Cry From Kensington’ were a great couple, getting on with their relationship without fuss but with much happiness; John Rokesmith and Bella Wilfer (‘Our Mutual Friend’, Charles Dickens)our mutual were the couple that you massively ship for the whole book and then it’s such a relief when they finally get together; and then we have Harold and Maureen Fry (The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry’ by Rachel Joyce) who grow together whilst apart and who come to forgive and understand each other slowly, slowly, inch by inch.

 

19. Favorite book you read in 2013 from an author you’ve read previously:

lifeI didn’t particularly enjoy Ian McEwan’s On Chesil Beach’ that we had to read last year for school, but both ‘Enduring Love’ and Atonement were great; beautifully written and very engrossing.

 

20. Best book you read in 2013 that you read based SOLELY on a recommendation from somebody else:

My ex-history teacher recommended me two excellent novels: Making History’100_2149 by Stephen Fry and The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out Of The Window And Disappeared’ by Jonas Jonasson imagesboth of which do have historical elements but put them across in a reader-friendly, enjoyable way. The former is more of a slow-burner, with a rather stupid hero, but a great concept behind there; the latter is pacier, covering a huge period of history with an incredibly wise man at the centre of it all.

 

21. Genre you read the most from in 2013?
I read quite a bit of dystopia (the original one ‘We’- Zamyatin, ‘Brave New World’-Huxley, ‘Fahrenheit 451’-Bradbury), loads and loads of classics (if that even counts as a genre) and also quite a bit of satire (Waugh, Mitford, Maugham…)

 

22. Best 2013 debut you read?
I didn’t read that many brand new 2013 books, I have to admit, but I enjoyed ‘How To Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia’ (Mohsin Hamid)filthy rich, which was written in an interesting way and, apart from the few odd chapters, was a pretty gripping story.

 

23. Most vivid world/imagery in a book you read in 2013?
Most vivid world was that of Brave New World(Aldous Huxley) or of Fahrenheit 451’ (Ray Bradbury) and the most vivid imagery was the beautiful descriptions in Grapes of Wrath’100_2149(John Steinbeck).

 

24. Book that was the most fun to read in 2013?
Neither Here Nor There’ The-Marlowe-Papers-pb-jacket1(Bill Bryson) made me actually laugh out loud on the tube – which was slightly embarrassing – and, of course, the Thursday Next series (Jasper Fforde) are a constant delight.

And there we have it! Roll on 2014’s books – although I won’t be doing another 100, I’m planning to read all the super long novels I didn’t have time for last year; so expect reviews of ‘Anna Karenina’, ‘War and Peace’, more Dickens, ‘Crime and Punishment’ and all that lot 🙂

 

 

 

 

“Pleasure and action make the hours seem short”

Othello, Act 2, Scene 3

William Shakespeare

You can find part one of my 100 book challenge questions here. Hope this gives you a couple of good recommendations for 2014, especially if you’re taking up your own challenge!

9. Most thrilling, unputdownable book in 2013?

‘Before I Go To Sleep’ (S.J. Watson)book-lovers-3-300x200 easily wins this prize aka the I-Went-To-Sleep-So-Late-It’s-Actually-Ridiculous-And-Was-Grumpy-All-The-Next-Morning-Because-I-HAD-To-Find-Out-The-Ending-Of-This-Book Prize. Needs some editing I admit.

The thriller tells the story of a woman who wakes up every day with her memory reset to a point in her life around twenty years ago, with no recollection of her age, her life now, how she got here, who and what she knows and what she has done. Her husband has to fill her in on all the details. But how do you know the man you rely on entirely is the man he says he is? It’s a completely gripping read, recommended for virtually anyone. Just don’t start if you’re planning to get anything at all done.

 

10. Book you read in 2013 that you are most likely to re-read next year?

Vile Bodies(Waugh) or one of the trashier books which I find much easier to re-read. I mean, I hope to re-read most of these at some point, but I’ll let them work upon my mind for a couple of years first. (For my thoughts on re-reading see here).

 

11. Top three covers of books you read in 2013?

I completely love the Vintage Classics editions of books, exemplified in the cover of Brighton Rock’(Graham Greene):

100_2149 Virago Modern Classics are also gorgeous:

 imagesAnd I really like the 60th anniversary edition of Fahrenheit 451’:

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12. Three most memorable characters in 2013?

I don’t think I can limit myself to three here actually!

·       Thursday Next, the eponymous heroine of Jasper Fforde’s books, is fun and completely believable, even if she does have a dodo for a pet and a time-traveler for a father.

·       I think I’ll always be a bit in love with Robert Frobishercloud-atlas06 from Cloud Atlas’ (David Mitchell), especially since he’s played by one of my favouritest actors ever, Ben Whishaw, in the movie (which I still haven’t seen!) Why won’t he write me a symphony or something?

·       Flora Poste from ‘Cold Comfort Farm’215px-Cold_Comfort_Farm_film (Stella Gibbons) and Muriel Sparks’ Nancy Hawkins (A Far Cry From Kensington’) fall under the same bracket here, because I like them both for their incredible practicality and the incredible small amount of fuss they make over their own lives. They both simply sort other people’s lives out, and don’t make a huge song and dance over their love affairs (ahem, Jane Eyre, Catherine Earnshaw, I’m looking at you here). True heroine role models.

·       Lady Sophia Garfield (Pigeon Pie’ Nancy Mitford) is just divine, darling. In a strange way, she actually reminds me of Flora and Nancy above; even though she has little interest in other people and is pretty self-centered, she too doesn’t moan about her own life all the time. She just gets on and sorts it out, or at least has fun doing other things until they sort themselves out. No sweat, no stupid fuss, and everything’s fine in the end.

13. Most beautifully written book read in 2013?

I’ve already mentioned the incredible writing in ‘The Grapes of Wrath(John Steinbeck) and The Marlowe Papers(Ros Barber) in Part One of my questions. However, in ‘Out of the DustThe-Marlowe-Papers-pb-jacket1, Karen Hesse combines two great elements of these novels together and weaves her own shimmering web of language. The heat and tragedy of the dust bowl in ‘The Grapes of Wrath’ and the poetry of ‘The Marlowe Papers’ – ‘Out of the Dust’ is written entirely in free verse – make for a brilliant pairing in an extremely evocative and beautifully written book.

14. Book that had the greatest impact on you in 2013?

Brave New World’ (Aldous Huxley) still has me pondering the answer to the question: Happiness or Knowledge? To be honest, I tend to just choose whichever the person I’m arguing against rejects. How can one decide between eternal ignorant contentedness and tortured awareness and understanding of Shakespeare, Beethoven, Van Gogh, Fontain, Plath and all the greats? It’s a terrifying decision either way.

 

 15. Favorite passage/quote from a book you read in 2013?

Arnold Bennet provided some very witty observations in The Old Wives’ Tale’:

“On a recent visit Mr Baines had remarked that the parson’s coat was ageing into green, and had commanded that a new suit should be built and presented to Mr Murley. Mr Murley, who had a genuine medieval passion for souls, and who spent his money and health freely in gratifying the passion, had accepted the offer strictly on behalf of Christ, and had carefully explained to Mr Povey Christ’s use for multifarious pockets.”

Linking nicely to this is a great quote from ‘Decline and Fall’ by Evelyn Waugh:

“‘I couldn’t understand why God had made the world at all…’ I asked my bishop; he didn’t know. He said that he didn’t think the point arose as far as my practical duties as a parish priest were concerned.”

And then, from one of my favourite books of the year Neither Here Nor There’ (Bill Bryson):

“I can’t think of anything that excites a greater sense of childlike wonder than to be in a country where you are ignorant of almost everything. Suddenly you are five years old again. You can’t read anything, you have only the most rudimentary sense of how things work, you can’t even reliably cross a street without endangering your life. Your whole existence becomes a series of interesting guesses.”

16. Shortest & longest book you read in 2013?

919lvIQfX9L._SL1500_The Testament of Mary’ (Colm Toibin) came in as shortest at around 101 pages. Hopefully it’ll stretch out longer in the play I’m going to see of it at the Barbican later this year, starring Fiona Shaw.

‘Our Mutual Friend’ (Charles Dickens) clocked in at 822 pages – the longest by far!

 

Part three coming up very soon! Plus a review of the Michael Grandage Company’s excellent ‘Henry V’, starring Jude Law… If that doesn’t tempt you back, you have very weird tastes.

 

“Ask me what question thou canst possible, And I will answer unpremeditated”

Henry VI, Act 1, Scene 2
William Shakespeare
100 books (or some of!)I did it! Yes, I completed my self-set challenge of reading 100 books in a year; it was a struggle at times – especially during my A Levels – but overall it was worth it. I read some great classics and some not-so-great trash, some major disappointments and some brilliant surprises, most short, some long, all an achievement.
When I tell people about this challenge they usually have the same questions to ask: “Which was the best/the worst/the funniest/the saddest/the most beautifully written?” So in a series of three posts I’m going to both answer most of these and test myself to see if can actually remember all of them… Crossed fingers!

1. Best three books?
It’s incredibly easy to choose my number one tippity toppity book of the year; The Grapes of Wrath(John Steinbeck) 100_2149was the only novel I gave ten out of ten stars to for its completely amazing descriptions, entirely believable characters and general brilliantness. One of the most beautifully written books ever, in my opinion.
Another classic I loved was ‘Our Mutual Friend’ (Charles Dickens) – yes, it took up several weeks of my precious time and set me back quite a bit with my target, but it was well worth it. Whilst at the beginning, the constant different new characters which keep on appearing are simply confusing, you grow to love them over time and get caught up by the plot twists, romances and drama. But, as always, the best things are the witty character sketches. Dickens is a comic genius.
Lastly, ‘The Marlowe Papers’(Ros Barber). The-Marlowe-Papers-pb-jacket1Like ‘The Grapes of Wrath’, the language is sublime, though this is less down to the descriptions and more to Barber’s brilliant manipulation of blank verse. Although, as previously stated, I don’t agree with the premise, and Marlowe’s character for me tails off at the end, it is both gripping and thoughtful and one of the best new books out there.

2. Worst three books?
Again, a relatively easy decision: ‘On the Road’ by Jack Keroac was easily the worst book I read this year. This was partly because of the disappointment of finding I didn’t like such a popular classic and partly just the mind-numbing tediousness of the whole thing! giphyThere is practically no plot at all, and the worst thing is, it pretends to be so dramatic and fast paced and exciting, and really it’s just goddam boring. The characters mean next to nothing to me, there seems to be no true development and even the descriptions aren’t that good. It took me ages to read and the only reason I’m glad for all that effort is that it gives me the ability to say I’ve read it, which should never be the only thing you can say about a book.
‘Beloved’(Toni Morrison) belovedwas a little better, because of the intensely passionate descriptive writing, but was likewise a disappointment, since I’ve seen and heard it raved about, and I just did not get it. The characters were vaguely interesting but not at all likeable, the plot was incredibly confusing, and I didn’t understand the whole thing. Not for me.
‘Heart of Darkness’(Joseph Conrad) once again had flat characters I felt; it didn’t grip me and the beginning was seemingly unnecessary. I did try reading more Conrad (‘The Secret Agent’ – supposedly one of the classics) but really, I don’t think we’re ever going to exactly hit it off.
All three of these books I chose because I thought they’d be quick but interesting and important reads; however, whilst they may be important, none were exactly quick; I just wasn’t absorbed enough to want to read them. Sons and Lovers’ (D. H. Lawrence) also gets a special mention here!

3. Biggest disappointment?
Not to carry on the down-beat mood, but there definitely were one or two major disappointments this year; ‘Moranthology’ I’d looked forward to since reading the imagesCA5XVTTYbrilliant ‘How To Be A Woman’ by the same author, Caitlin Moran. Seeing it had columns on ‘Sherlock’, my most favourite TV show ever, in it, my excitement only intensified. However, whilst Moran’s typically witty and heartfelt writing did shine through on several occasions; overall this anthology of her columns was not nearly as brilliant as I’d hoped. Too much was written over and over about her difficult childhood for my liking to be honest.
‘The Scarlet Letter’(Nathaniel Hawthorne)life could never live up to its reputation as the inspiration behind one of my favourite films ‘Easy A’, but I really didn’t expect it to be quite as monotonous as it was. Another one, like ‘Heart of Darkness’, which had a pointless opening prologue. Just get straight into the story guys!

4. Most surprising (in a good way!) book of 2013?
Ah, ‘The War of the Worlds(H.G.Wells) was such a lovely surprise after his less exciting ‘Ann Veronica’. What a brilliantly gripping imaginative book; its only flaw being the rather abrupt and hasty ending. war_of_the_worlds_coverDespite this, Wells still creates an expert sci-fi novel – completely engrossing.

5. Three books you read in 2013 that you recommended to people most in 2013?The Enchanted April’ (Elizabeth Van Arnim) is a lovely little easy read to transport you to an Italian paradise. Not to spoil it, but everything turns out well in the end. The characters are each different, fun and mostly likeable – my big recommendation for a light-hearted satisfying summer read. images
One of my big discoveries of 2013 was a huge love for Evelyn Waugh’s work, but especially Vile Bodies which has everything one could wish for; satirical, ironic, witty characters, ridiculous situations and a deeper, more melancholy feeling haunting the text towards the end. I don’t understand people who don’t enjoy this.
‘Brave New World’(Aldous Huxley) is a book I recommend to everyone, because everyone likes Orwell’s ‘1984’ and this is reasonably similar. brave_new_world_book_cover___growing_humans_by_sunflowerman-d5qru81The best sections are the beginning, as we discover this incredibly detailed, fascinating dystopian world, and the Controller’s speech bluntly stating the true question the book asks: Would you rather have knowledge or happiness? Read the novel before you answer the problem!
You can tell these are highly recommended because I wrote blog posts on each and every one of them – I tend not to bore you with rants against the bad ones if I can help it.

6. Best series you discovered in 2013?
The Thursday Next series by Jasper Fforde is my favourite thing I found this year. So far I’ve read the first two (‘The Eyre Affair’ and ‘Lost in a Good Book’The-Marlowe-Papers-pb-jacket1) and the third is waiting for me on my brand new Kindle Paperwhite (ooh controversial…). They’re completely hilarious and clever and dramatic and I love them. Highly recommended, especially for people who like Douglas Adam’s The Hitch-hiker’s Guide to the Galaxyseries, or for avid readers in general.

7. Favorite new authors you discovered in 2013?
Apart from Jasper Fforde? There are so many…
Pat Barker’s
Regeneration’ series was brilliant; Ian McEwan’s books are completely enthralling; as I’ve mentioned, Evelyn Waugh is my guy at the moment;giphy2and his friend and similar author Nancy Mitford  has also given me two slyly witty enjoyable reads.

8. Best book that was out of your comfort zone or was a new genre for you?
‘The Midwich Cuckoos’themidwichcuckoos500 by John Wyndham (which is about Midwich, an English village mysteriously completely sealed off and put to sleep for one day. Nine months later, identical children are born to every woman of a child-bearing age in the hamlet. Why are they here? What do they want? And how will they take it? It’s completely engrossing, trust me).
This wasn’t exactly out of my comfort zone, but with it, and ‘The War of the Worlds’, I’ve discovered a new love for sci-fi! Anyone got any more similar suggestions for me?
That’s all for now, though Part 2 is coming up very soon!
What books did you read in 2013? Any you’d recommend? Or any you’d definitely steer clear of? Comment below!

“After summer evermore succeeds/Barren winter, with his wrathful nipping cold”

Henry VI, Act 2, Scene 4

William Shakespeare

Aka my November book haul

Hooray, it’s finally December and therefore ok for me to get ridiculously over-excited about Christmas! But before we can have a run-down of the top festive books and films to watch over the holiday season, there’s November to look back over first. So here it is… my November book haul!

Vile Bodies (Evelyn Waugh) – This was brilliant; admittedly, I do love Waugh’s books anyway, so clearly his style of writing just appeals to me, but I think most readers would enjoy this. The ironic, satirical tone is right up my alley, and since I like the roaring twenties and thirties anyway, a novel set in this lost era of “bright young things”, flappers, money lost and won, parties and drink, engagements broken and made up again and gossip columnists hurriedly vastly exaggerating it all for the newspapers. Although focusing around the love story of Adam Fenwick-Symes, a destitute young would-be writer, and Nina Blount, daughter of an extremely eccentric aristocrat, the novel is really about “the social whirl of a class doomed to extinction as certainly as the dodo”. As it progresses, darker and more depressing events occur which give the entertaining witty writing a sinister undertone, emphasising not only the pathetic fragility of most of the characters, and their lives, but also a sense of a generation dealing with the aftermath of the Great War, with the tragic losses of World War Two just over the horizon. Basically, the best of both worlds: a book with some sort of meaning underneath it all yet also fun, easy and enjoyable to read.

The Pilgrim’s Progress (John Bunyan) – A somewhat abrupt change here, going back around three hundred years, and on a much more allegoric and religious theme. I knew the story of this beforehand, having read Enid Blyton’s version ‘The Land of Far-Beyond’ and listened to Stephen Tompkinson read Geraldine McCaughren’s excellent retelling on audiobook. However, I’m not sure that this wasn’t a mistake, in that I simply felt the retelling was so much more exciting than the real thing. At first I thought this was mainly because I already knew the story, but actually the second part, telling the tale of Christian’s wife, Christiana (wow, original naming there Bunyan!), was equally as dry. Although I see why it is so important to the history of English literature in its use of allegory and language, not the most entertaining book I’ve ever read, although not without merit; some sections are a little gripping, and the idea behind it is very clever.

Fahrenheit 451 (Ray Bradbury) – Infinitely more riveting, Bradbury’s dystopian novel is ever-popular with teenagers and adults alike, with its premise of firemen there to burn books, which are now contraband, rather than put out fires. Following on from Heinrich Heine’s famous quote: “Where they have burned books, they will end in burning human beings”, Bradbury doesn’t wait to reveal the benefits of this society, instead delving almost instantly into the dark, sinister undertones of a culture, not so dissimilar to our own, unlike ‘1984’ or ‘Brave New World’, whose worlds, whilst identifiable with, seem to occur years in the distant future. With incredible foresight, considering the novel was written in the early 1950s, Bradbury predicts the idea of portable sound devices (iPods to you and me, Seashells to the protagonist Guy Montag and his wife Mildred), huge wall-sized TVs, and reality shows where the audience are gripped by live police chases (um, this anyone?!). A gripping and easy to read novel with some big ideas, I especially loved Clarisse McClellan, and, of course, all the sections praising the power of literature and words in general. I also thought Captain Beatty, leader of Montag’s fire station, was particularly interesting, and can be compared to Mustapha Mond of Huxley’s ‘Brave New World’ (which you can find a review of here), in that they both seem incredibly logical in their argument; so persuasive are they, that, like the characters they speak to, they almost convince the reader of the sanity of this new world order, until one suddenly remembers the sinister side of what they stand for. A book which I think almost anyone would enjoy; a thriller which celebrates literature and reading and warns of the consequences of its demise.

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (Douglas Adams) – This is another classic late twentieth century novel that, according to tumblr anyway, you actually have to read. It’s also another book I regret having seen an adaptation of first. Having said that, the film, starring Martin Freeman, Zooey Deschanel, Mos Def, Sam Rockwell, Alan Rickman, Bill Nighy, Stephen Fry, and John Malkovich among others, is completely amazing. Seriously. If you’ve read the book already, definitely give the film a go. However, I think much of the witty and downright crazy writing didn’t have its full impact on me, as I’d seen lots of the most hilarious bits portrayed in the movie beforehand. If you haven’t read the book or seen the film, you should. Adams has a genius mind for just crazy and brilliantly funny ideas. His books remind me a little of those of Jasper Fforde, which I have raved about before on here. If you have a silly sense of humour, you’ll enjoy the Hitchhiker books. If not… my commiserations.

Neither Here Nor There (Bill Bryson) – Talking of funny, this book is absolutely laugh-out-loud, chuckling-to-yourself on the tube hilarious. Bryson’s wit and sarcasm is shown beautifully here, as he writes of touring through Europe, both as a spotty teenager and as a fully-fledged adult. It is brilliantly written, with lovely and detailed descriptions of both small and big towns throughout Europe, painting vivid pictures of the people, the places, the customs and traditions that make a city or town what it is. Bryson combines paragraphs describing with heartfelt sincerity the splendour, magnificence, beauty of a place with inspired and side-splittingly satirical remarks on the less attractive sides. The only reason I didn’t give this book top marks was its lack of moral or meaning; for me, a really great book should make me think a little about myself too. Other than that small niggle, I honestly can’t recommend this book more highly. Absolute quality.

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry (Rachel Joyce) – A relatively recent publication, which garnered a lot of positive press coverage, I felt I should read this after having read ‘The Pilgrim’s Progress’, a book which it is mildly based on. This was a hell of a lot more fun though. Whilst it starts slowly, the story of Harold Fry, a recently retired sixty-five year old who, after hearing an old friend and colleague, Queenie Hennessy, has cancer, somehow finds himself on a pilgrimage walking 627 miles from his home in Devon all the way up to Berwick-upon-Tweed (near/in Scotland I think!) where Queenie is being cared for in a hospice. Whilst the premise is somewhat fantastic (Harold takes no walking shoes, no mobile phone and no supplies at all), the novel is really interesting when we get to read Harold’s reflections on his life as he walks. With the book also following how Maureen, his wife with whom he has an extremely strained, virtually non-existent relationship, deals with the extraordinary situation, their bond is really the crux of the story, and what ties the book together. The people Harold meets are also fascinating, with none being a clear-cut good or evil as in Bunyan’s allegory; they are more similar to the pilgrims of Chaucer’s ‘Canterbury Tales’, another resource Joyce uses. Each has their own back-story, and whilst we aren’t given all the details of most of these, we are provided with brief glimpses into a whole variety of different lives. These, and the gorgeous descriptions of the nature that Harold passes through, were the highlights of the book for me. Well worth a read, this novel steadily grows more gripping as it progresses and, by using the well-worn method of placing an ordinary person in an extraordinary situation, is relatable to all readers.

Love in the Time of Cholera (Gabriel Garcia Marquez) – Some great language, but overall I wasn’t thrilled by this book. I simply could not understand the protagonist, Florentino Ariza, who spends his entire life basically waiting for Fermina Daza, his childhood sweetheart. Just get over her already Florentino! Although this undying love doesn’t stop him having affairs left, right and centre, including one, when he’s about seventy, with a blood relative of fourteen years old. It’s revolting and leaves me with absolutely no sympathy for him whatsoever; although to be honest, he had basically dried all my resources up with his passionate love letter writing, seeming complete incompetence and plain self-centeredness. Nope, can’t be dealing with him. Fermina Daza herself is better, getting on with her life as she does. Still, why does Marquez start the novel with a long, and seemingly pointless prologue which goes into great detail on an event which has very little to do with the rest of the novel? In my opinion, if he’d just stuck to explaining this original story, he would have had a much more interesting book. As you can tell, I’m not this book’s biggest fan, though if you like descriptions of South America, those sections are very well-written. Still, not at all my kind of novel.

Pigeon Pie (Nancy Mitford) – And back again, to another Evelyn Waugh-type “bright young things” novel. And again, I loved it. Telling the story of the somewhat slow but absolutely divinely funny Lady Sophia Garfield during the beginning of WWII, Mitford paints brilliantly witty and satirical over-the-top characters, and sets them into a spy novel, with Lady Sophia desperate to become a BFS (that’s Beautiful Female Spy to you and me). One of my favourite characters is Olga Gogothsky (nee Baby Bagg), Sophia’s greatest enemy, who has suddenly developed a broken Russian accent after marrying Prince Serge – although he speaks in perfect Eton tones. Hmm…maybe you won’t find that funny though; I don’t think I can completely capture the sly humour of Mitford’s writing. Guess you’ll have to read the book yourself then! Everything about this book is a perfect light-hearted, enjoyable read, and I can’t wait to delve into some of Mitford’s more well-known novels like “Love in a Cold Climate” in the near future.

“The childing autumn, angry winter, change their wonted liveries…”

A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Act 2, Scene 1

William Shakespeare

I thought it was about time for a run-down of my October book haul. Despite living the high life in the Big Apple, I’ve still (just about) kept up with my book challenge. I’m on book number 85 at the moment, so what with the flight home still to come, I should reach the a hundred target just in time! And which books kept me up to speed during this last month? Well, we have:

  • The Girls of Slender Means (Muriel Spark)girlsI really enjoy Spark’s style of writing and this tale did not let me down. Ironically comedic, yet with a tragic ending, this tale of the girls of the May Teck Club shows the young women’s determination to ignore the bombing and war going on around them and instead focus on men and clothes. “Three times window shattered since 1940 but never directly hit”; the May of Teck club, like the girls inside it, outwardly shows no sign of the war’s harm, but are clearly deeply and painfully affected underneath. Very enjoyable though pathetic.

 

  • Agnes Grey (Anne Bronte) – agnes greyAs a passionate hater of both ‘Wuthering Heights’ and ‘Jane Eyre’ (sorry Heathcliff/Mr Rochester fans!) my hopes were not high for this novel about Agnes Grey, a governess, and her life. But *drumroll please* I actually really enjoyed it! The key difference between this book and the dreaded Jane Eyre is that whereas the latter is all about Jane and her awful childhood and her terrible life and her pained existence blahblahblah poor little Jane, the former is a really interesting portrayal of life as a governess in Victorian England. Plus it has a cute little love story running through it, and if Anne herself is a bit too goodly and pious for my liking, her charges are incredibly well characterised and very entertaining in their obnoxiousness.

 

  • Cakes and Ale (W. Somerset Maugham) – cakes and aleA fun but kind of forgettable read, mainly worth perusing for the sarcastic and satirical remarks on writing and journalism. The story is written from the point of view of an author, about another author, Driffield, who he used to know and, more importantly, this old author’s bewitching and sexually liberated first wife Rosie. I mean, it’s not going anywhere near the best books I’ve read this year, but it’s still reasonably engaging, it has a strong female anti-heroine (who’s a bit like Becky Sharp in Thackery’s ‘Vanity Fair’ actually), and, as I say, the satirical comments on writing and authors in general are very witty.

 

  • The Time Traveler’s Wife (Audrey Niffenegger) – The-Time-Travelers-Wife-CoA modern classic which I’m sure most of you have heard of and seen – the movie, starring Rachel McAdams (who’s weirdly just married another time traveller in Richard Curtis’ new movie ‘About Time’) Eric Bana, came out in 2009, though I haven’t watched it yet. The concept is brilliant, and the execution, though different from my expectations, was completely gripping. A) I didn’t realise Henry DeTamble (the eponymous time traveler) wouldn’t be able to either control his ability or change history at all when he went back – I mean, really what is the point of being able to time travel then?! – and B) that time travel would be so hideously awful to experience. I mean, there are honestly no upsides to the whole thing. None. At. All. I remain convinced that even without Henry being in Clare’s childhood they still would have found each other and fallen in love. But I guess the book isn’t really about the what ifs, it’s about the power of love over logic and reason. Is all that worrying and stress worth it for the time they have together? I’m not sure… The ending, in my opinion, was horribly depressing.  Clare’s life seems to dwindle to non-existence at some points; it’s all about waiting for Henry, being with Henry, waiting for Henry again. Get your own life! Stop waiting around and live a little!

 

  • How To Get Filthy Rich In Rising Asia (Mohsin Hamid) – filthy richI read this for a book club here which I was kindly allowed to participate in, and was once again pleasantly surprised. Employing the format of a self-help book, Hamid never names any of his characters, referring only to the protagonist as ‘you’, his love interest as ‘the pretty girl’ and his wife as ‘your wife.’ Although this could have seemed gimmicky, I thought it worked very well. I especially liked that each chapter only focused on the important bits of the nameless man’s life – we got to skip all the boring bits. For me, this novel couldn’t have taken place anywhere but Asia, though some of the book club disagreed and felt it was a global tale, with a global message; I disagreed because of the evocative descriptions of the heat and humidity, plus the references to religion and its effects on women. Another point of debate was whether this is, at heart, a love story. I say yes to this; not so much in the sense of romantic love, but in the sense of love in general being vital to happiness in life. A nice, easy, yet very interesting, read, well worth trying.

 

  • The Old Wives’ Tale (Arnold Bennet) – old_wivesA story of three women, Mrs Baines and Constance and Sophia, her two daughters; their lives, their loves and their places in society beginning in 1864 and ending in the early twentieth century, kind of comparative with Gissing’s ‘The Odd Women’ and HG Wells’ ‘Ann Veronica’, in that it focuses on the lives and independence of women in Victorian society. In actual fact, the story is not particularly gripping. For the most part, Bennet focuses on the extreme normality, the almost blandness of their day to day lives. Even Sophia, the one with seemingly the most spirit and nerve, realises the narrowness of her life. However, what makes this book worth reading is Bennet’s great sense of irony and excellent characterisation; there are some brilliantly satirical lines, especially at the more light-hearted beginning:

 

“Their ages were sixteen and fifteen; it is an epoch when, if one is frank, one must admit that one has nothing to learn: one has simply learnt everything in the previous six months.”

 

Classic.

 

  • We (Yevgeny Zamyatin) – we-usSo I picked up this one because I love dystopian fiction and, according to the blurb, this is the daddy of them all, particularly George Orwell’s ‘1984’, which, not over-exaggerate or anything, is one of the best books ever. ‘We’ isn’t nearly as enthralling as that novel, but it is easy to see the parallels; the man writing a diary, in a supposedly all-seeing regime, lured astray by an enchanting, Eve-like woman and (spoiler alert!) discovered by the government and punished for it (although that comes much later in this than in Orwell’s). Although this perhaps isn’t as finely tuned as others in the genre, it’s definitely worth reading, partly for the historical interest and partly because it’s always fun to discover these new worlds and the logic behind them. The most irritating thing is that the protagonist, D-503, always tails off into an ellipsis whenever he gets near a really interesting philosophical…

 

  • What Maisie Knew (Henry James) – what-maisie-knewI read this, despite my antipathy of James because of the ridiculously boring ‘The Portrait of a Lady’, after my bestie Sophie recommended it, and after the recent film came out, starring Julianne Moore and Steve Coogan, and the trailer peaked my interest. It’s the story of Maisie, a young girl wise beyond her years, who is used as a pawn in her uncaring parents’ bitter divorce. There’s bits and bobs that go alongside this as the plot; Maisie’s governess, her father’s new wife, her mother’s new husband, her mother’s new lovers, her father’s new lovers, etc. Again, the plot isn’t the best one out there, but Maisie herself is fascinating and very believable. I’d love to see the film and how they transpose it to a modern setting. However, although Maisie herself is very interesting I have to qualify my praise somewhat as all the other characters bring back the all the elements of James I hate: paranoia, ridiculous passions, fits of seeming despair and rage, just over-the-top melodramatics all round. So incredibly irritating!

“The teeming autumn big with rich increase”

Sonnet 97, Line 6
William Shakespeare

My September book haul! Despite getting hugely dragged down by Kerouac‘s ‘On The Road’ and Conrad‘s ‘The Secret Agent’, I just about kept up with my target, and especially enjoyed both ‘Brave New World’ (as I’ve already written about) and ‘The War of the Worlds’ by HG Wells.

I also read the disturbing, but fascinating ‘The Testament of Mary’ by Colm Tóibín, the second in the Regeneration Trilogy, ‘The Eye in the Door’ by Pat Barker – better than the third, not as good as the first in the series – and the better-than-I-expected ‘Where Angels Fear to Tread’ by E.M.Forster. Rather appropriately, I started ‘Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer on 9/11, and I wasn’t disappointed, despite the crazy, over the top praise it has since garnered. Yes, I wasn’t too keen on the ending but it was actually perfectly charming. However, another much-lauded book, ‘The Kite Runner’, was kind of frustrating – just not as good as I’d been led to believe.

More detailed reviews of these books coming up soon!