Other People’s Bookshelves #23 – Helen Fennell

Hello and welcome to the latest in the series of Other People’s Bookshelves where we get to have a good old nosey through other peoples book collections. Grab some yourself a cup of tea and settle down, as we are off to the Hampshire to join Helen Fennell, who blogs at Fennell Books, in her lovely home, which frankly I want to move into. By the end of the day her Victorian looking turning bookshelf might sadly have vanished and transported itself to the Wirral – I have always wanted one of those. Anyway, before I get myself arrested, I will hand over to her to tell us more about herself before we go routing through her shelves…

I am an engineer living in Hampshire in the UK, and my earliest memory is of my Mum teaching me to read. I can remember her holding up a flash card and explaining that the letters “tion” make a “shun” sound, and that is how I learned the word “station”. Oddly, although my Mum taught me to read when I was very young, none of the rest of my family were readers. Such was my appetite for reading that nearly all the books in the house were in my bedroom and I loved my birthdays and Christmas, as I would get stacks and stacks of books. In fact I still love my birthday and Christmas for that reason! I’ll read pretty much anything, from classics through to modern literary fiction, Sci-Fi, fantasy and translated fiction. I draw the line at Bridget Jones. I always want to give her a good shake and tell her to pull herself together.

Do you keep all the books you read on your shelves or only your favourites, does a book have to be REALLY good to end up on your shelves or is there a system like one in one out, etc

I used to find it really hard to get rid of books, and since my husband is also a big reader, mostly of non-fiction, we can easily become overrun. I have books which will never leave the house, either because they are of sentimental value or I re-read them at regular intervals. I like to think of those as my personal library. All other books are read, and then if I think they may be read again, they join the keepers on the shelves, and if not, they get passed on to friends, or the charity shop. It is only recently that I have realized that just because a book doesn’t sit on my shelves doesn’t mean that the fact that I have read it is erased from history! I do review most of the books I read on my blog, but I also keep a book journal of my own, which I started back in 2005 and lists all the books I have read. It is nice to look back and see how my tastes and reading change over time.

Do you organise your shelves in a certain way? For example do you have them in alphabetical order of author, or colour coded? Do you have different bookshelves for different books (for example, I have all my read books on one shelf, crime on another and my TBR on even more shelves) or systems of separating them/spreading them out? Do you cull your bookshelves ever?

I used to organize them alphabetically for the fiction, and then via Dewey for the non-fiction (yes, I know, that is a little extreme). Then we moved house and it was pouring with rain, water was soaking up the outside of the cardboard boxes the books were in and we had to quickly unpack them to prevent damage, so they became muddled up. I recently went through them and put all the books by the same author together, and the non-fiction grouped by topic, so it easier to find what you are looking for. I probably won’t revert back to the ultra strict way I did it before, I can find things, so that will do for now. We have several book areas in our house. We live in an eco house, and so it is very open plan and has lots of wall space for books. Downstairs we have a big open area with litographs on the walls, which are posters that have an entire book on them, in readable print. They are real talking points when people come to visit. In that area we also have the Fitness and Martial Arts section (hubby’s) and then my Folio collection and my Vintage classics books.

Photo 1

In the study we have a glazed bookcase which my parents gave us on our wedding day which houses my complete collection of Agatha Christie books. About half are first editions, and the other half are facsimiles, I can’t justify a four figure sum for the earlier firsts!

Photo 2

Upstairs we have the library where most of the rest of the books are housed in four large bookcases. We have some comfy chairs in here, and we retire here of an evening to read and wind down before bed. In the bedroom we each have a rotating bookcase next to the bed, and this is where the To Be Read books are kept. Mine is full…

What was the first book you ever bought with your own money and does it reside on your shelves now?

I am not absolutely sure, but I suspect it was either a box set of Narnia books, which I still have, or an encyclopedia of British Birds, which I still have too. Both were bought from a bookshop in Bristol called Georges, which I don’t think is there now. Each year my granddad would give me some money to choose a book and it was always a real treat to be taken there to pick any book I wanted.

Are there any guilty pleasures on your bookshelves you would be embarrassed people might see, or like me do you have a hidden shelf for those somewhere else in the house?

I am not embarrassed by any of my books. A few years ago I was slightly ashamed of some of the children’s books I had and enjoyed as an adult, but not now. Children’s literature is like any other literature, some is wonderful, some is rubbish, but the literature that is good is excellent, and I don’t see why I shouldn’t enjoy it now as much as I would have done when I was ten years old. 

Which book on the shelves is your most prized, mine would be a collection of Conan Doyle stories my Great Uncle Derrick memorised and retold me on long walks and then gave me when I was older? Which books would you try and save if (heaven forbid) there was a fire?

Wow, your Great Uncle was cool! My “must risk my life to save” book is a very battered paperback copy of Over Sea Under Stone by Susan Cooper. I can’t remember when I was given this book, but I remember reading it for the first time and being mesmerized by it. My Grandad (he of the birthday money) gave me a torch so I could read under covers at night. The whole of the Dark Is Rising Sequence were the first books I truly fell into and felt I was there, and I re-read them every year or so. Last year my Husband gave me the Folio Society editions as my poor paperback isn’t going to stand up to many more reads. It now lives in our library where it is safely hidden from direct sunlight.

Photo 3

What is the first ‘grown up’, and I don’t mean in a ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ way, that you remember on your parent’s shelves or at the library, you really wanted to read? Did you ever get around to it and are they on your shelves now?

I can really remember wanting to read Jane Eyre. I overheard some older girls at school talking about it, and seeming to be so taken with it I wanted to know what it was all about. I did get a copy, but struggled with it, I was only about eleven at the time. I subsequently read it several years later for an English assignment, and didn’t like it at all, but that might have been because I was forced to read it!

If you love a book but have borrowed the copy do you find you have to then buy the book and have it on your bookshelves or do you just buy every book you want to read?

I rarely borrow books from other people, and generally once I have read them I don’t buy copies for myself. I do borrow from the library a lot, especially for books I am not sure that I will like. If I like them enough to think that I will re-read them, or they are part of a series I might collect then I will buy a copy.

What was the last book that you added to your bookshelves?

I just got hold of a copy of The Hollow Man by John Dickson Carr, which is a book I have wanted to read for a long time. I love classic English crime, and this one is a must read as one of the best locked room mysteries ever written. In fact I feel slight embarrassed that I haven’t read it to date. The other book that I received at the same time is Gargoyles Gone AWOL by Clementine Beauvais. It is a children’s book about a young girl in Cambridge who solves crimes. It is one of the best child detective stories I have read, and is a part of a series. It is funny and touching in equal measure. All grown ups should read it to remember how to have good, proper fun.

Are there any books that you wish you had on your bookshelves that you don’t currently?

Like most readers I have a very long list. I have all the Edmund Crispin books which are currently published, and would like to fill in the gaps. I have a little hunt around every time I pass a second hand bookshop.  I would also like to complete my Wodehouse Everyman Edition collection, but I have a long way to go there. Along side my Great Agatha Christie Challenge on my blog, where I am reading all the Christie’s in order, I have my What Ho! Challenge, to do the same with Wodehouse. You can’t go wrong with a bit of Wodehouse to bring some cheer into your day.

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What do you think someone perusing your shelves would think of your reading taste, or what would you like them to think?

Hmmm… I think mostly people are a bit bemused by my reading taste. It is very varied and swings wildly depending on my mood. My love of classic crime, particularly a good poisoning can be a bit alarming to some, and my ability to quote large chunks of Terry Pratchett at my husband which makes us both fall about laughing can seem a bit strange to outsiders. Recently I have really fallen for Scandinavian literature, which can be almost complete devoid of plot, but utterly beautiful and ethereal. That does make people wonder if I heading in to a phase of deep introspection. Generally those close to me understand that books are a huge part of the way I decipher life, cope with life and escape from life, and without them I would be a little lost.

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A huge thanks to Helen for taking part in Other People’s Bookshelves and almost making me sick with jealous at her shelves. Don’t forgot if you would like to participate (and I would love you to – hint, hint, hint) in the Other People’s Book Shelves series then drop me an email to savidgereads@gmail.com with the subject Other People’s Bookshelves, thanks in advance. In the meantime… what do you think of Helen’s responses and/or any of the books and authors that she mentions?


Filed under Other People's Bookshelves

11 responses to “Other People’s Bookshelves #23 – Helen Fennell

  1. wow love all those Christies I have a few which I treasure – no very early one though. You are making me want to read Wodehouse too – I have only read a few many years ago now. Lovely shelves – thank you for sharing them Helen. I hadn’t heard of the Hollow man – I am adding it to my wishlist – I like traditional crime stpries, rather than modern stuff.

  2. LauraC

    I love the fact that she loves and appreciates children’s literature. I have a number of children’s lit books and even some antique ones. Agatha Christie played a huge role in my reading around the early teens and I once owned a large number of them in paperback. I donated them to my library long ago. I also am interested in The Hollow Man and will check it out. I bought my daughter the poster with Alice In Wonderland on it-what a great idea for library walls!

  3. Many thanks for featuring me Simon. The Hollow Man was great, and does deserve a place as a classic crime story. As for Children’s literature there are some really wonderful writers out there producing some fantastic work. I don’t see why adults shouldn’t share the fun too!

  4. Another set of bookshelves with an entire Agatha Christie collection! Between that and her love of the Dewey Decimal system, I believe Helen and I may have been separated at birth.

    I may have to try and catch up to her on her reading quest as I’ve always meant to read them in order and am still looking for a reading project/challenge to begin next year. It would certain make it easier to fulfill the conditions of C.B.’s Triple Dog Dare (http://readywhenyouarecb.blogspot.com/p/tbr-triple-dog-dare.html).

    • Reading them in order is quite enlightening, you can see social norms change as time moves on. I’d love to hear how you get on if you do decide to read them.

  5. How nice to see another contributor from across the “cultural divide” ! I completely agree with her comments about children’s literature. As you may imagine I commend her use of the library!

    • If you like Children’s literature, seek out a copy of Slueth on Skates by Clementine Beauvais. The Sesame books are not well known, but are absolute treasures.

  6. I *love* Helen’s bookshelves – I could lose myself in them for, well, forever probably. And I am very jealous of the Christies and the Wodehouses. It’s a long time since I read any John Dickson Carr but I think I should revisit him. And I do love the idea of a separate bookcase for TBRs. Mine would be a bit big……

  7. I love the shelves! And I’d love to do mine by Dewey, too – or Library of Congress, as I used to work in a University library …

    • The LoC has some real off days (I mean of course the book publishers I guess) with amazing mis-cataloguing of books under the completely wrong section. I’ve always been surprised when I see it and wonder why it happens.

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