Tag Archives: Charles Dickens

Other People’s Bookshelves #37; Catherine Hall

Hello and welcome to the latest in Other People’s Bookshelves, a regular series of posts where you get to have a nosey at other book lovers bookshelves. This week we have a doubly apt host, Catherine Hall. Firstly because they are one of the authors who has been selected for Fiction Uncovered in the past, which I am guest editing at the moment, and also I happen to be staying in her house (so she is literally hosting me) while London Book Fair is on, in fact I took the pictures and almost took some of the books. Oh, did I mention that she is one of my most lovely friends who I have become chums with since I read The Proof of Love a few years ago. Anyway, I could waffle on more but I shall not, let us find out more about Catherine and have a nosey through her books…

I was born and brought up on a sheep farm in the Lake District where we lived with another family in a vaguely communal way. I always loved books and ended up doing English at Cambridge. Part of me loved it, but I found it a bit odd that we didn’t read anything written after 1960 and not that much by women. After that I went to London and got a job in a television production company making films about the environment and development issues, and then worked for an international peacebuilding agency doing communications. I left when I inherited some money from my grandmother and have written three novels: Days of Grace, The Proof of Love and The Repercussions, which will be published in September. I live in London with my two little boys, their dad and his boyfriend.

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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 keep all of them because it was like a diary of my life, sort of marking where my thinking was at different times. Now I have to have liked them enough to want to live with them, otherwise I pass them on to Oxfam. Having said that, I’m quite a generous reader – I usually find something I like in most books. But my shelves – and there are a lot of them in our house – are pretty overflowing.

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?

There’s a sort of system, or at least there was when we moved in which is that they’re divided by genre – fiction, history, biography, travel, poetry, plays – and then within that vaguely alphabetically as in by author surname but not strictly, because that would mean rearranging everything every time I bought a new book. I have a massive pile of books to be read next to my bed. Since I had kids it’s all gone a bit messy, and of course they have loads of books that end up all over the place.

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

It was Five on a Treasure Island by Enid Blyton. I loved her books as a child and would save up my pocket money to buy them. It’s on my boys’ bookshelf now waiting for them to be old enough to read it.

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’ve got lots of guilty pleasures but I’m pretty out and proud about them. There’s a lot of Jackie Collins and Jilly Cooper on my shelves sitting next to Dickens and Doris Lessing. At college my friend Cath and I used to buy Jilly Cooper’s books as soon as they came out and retire to bed to read them in one go instead of reading Chaucer or whoever it was that week. Her politics are questionable but I learned a lot about character and plot.

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?

That’s a really hard question. I love the proof copies of my novels – they’re the things that I’m most proud of producing in my life. I also love my ancient copy of The Golden Notebook because that really changed the way I thought about things, and Oranges are Not the Only Fruit because I remember coming down to London on a school trip and sneaking to the Silver Moon women’s bookshop and buying – shocker – a lesbian novel. So I’d definitely save them, and then I think I’d want to save some of my children’s books because they remind me of reading to them as they’ve grown up.

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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?

Fear of Flying by Erica Jong. That’s another book that I’d definitely save. I have two copies of it, one annotated, the other clean for reading. It introduced me to psychoanalysis and of course the concept of the ‘zipless fuck.’ It was probably the most thrilling book I’d ever read. For my A levels I wrote a long dissertation type thing about Freud’s question on what women want, and the way it was answered in literature, ranging from Chaucer’s Wife of Bath, Lady Chatterley’s Lover and Fear of Flying. It was my favourite essay ever. I go back to Fear of Flying every couple of years to read it again and it’s still relevant to me now.

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 have to have the book if I love it, so I’d go and get a copy. I borrow books sometimes if people have them to hand but generally I just buy what I want to read. I find it very satisfying to have a pile of books just waiting for me to dive into.

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

My dad, Ian Hall, just wrote a memoir called Fisherground: Living the Dream about the farm that we grew up on. I was very proud to add it to my bookshelves. The last books I bought were Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah and Taiye Selassi’s Ghana Must Go.

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

I’m dying to read Charlotte Mendelson’s Almost English, Evie Wyld’s All the Birds, Singing, and The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton. Oh, and of course Armistead Maupin’s Days of Anna Madrigal. I’m so excited to read that.

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

I think they’d probably think it’s quite eclectic and pretty wide-ranging. Perusing shelves is the first thing I do when I go to someone’s house – it really does tell you a lot about the person, and I’ve bonded with people or fancied them because of their taste. So I hope my taste makes me look good!

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A huge thanks to Catherine for taking part in Other People’s Bookshelves, as if she had any choice, and for letting me stay so often when I pop down to London town. She is rather a legend. If you haven’t read The Proof of Love, which is one of my favourite books and if you have read this blog for a while you will know that, then you must get a copy NOW! Anyway… Don’t forgot if you would like to participate (and I would love you to – hint, hint, hint) in the 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 Catherine’s responses and/or any of the books and authors that she mentions?

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Other People’s Bookshelves #32; Clare Axton

Hello and welcome to the latest in Other People’s Bookshelves, a weekly series of posts where you get to have a nosey at other book lovers bookshelves. This week we are back ‘oop’ north in England in Nottingham (which will instantly have you thinking of Robin Hood) where we join Clare and get to have a nosey at her shelves not a million miles from my old hometown of Matlock Bath. So grab a cuppa and a few biscuits which Clare has kindly laid on and have a rummage through her shelves…

My name is Clare and I live in Nottingham. I have a great and very deep love for books and even more so for bookshops my long held dream to be the owner of one. I think I can trace my love for books back to my Great Grandad who had a wonderful library in his home that I loved to spend my time perusing. I am also a collector of original Penguin books and copies of Punch magazine, the oldest I have is 1908. The best way I can think to spend a day is finding somewhere nice for tea and cake then bookshopping of course. I am currently discovering London and it’s bookshops too also love Lincoln and it’s wonderful bookshops.

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Do you keep all the books you read on your shelves or only your favourites?

I have recently had a sort of my shelves so now I do have sections for my favourites especially for example my Penguin originals together and classics together. I normally carry a book or two with me for those moments when I can find a quiet spot,the table next to my bed holds one or two or maybe more of my favourites which usually have bookmarks trying to remind me to finish them before I start another.

Do you organise your shelves in a certain way?

Only very recently before it was very haphazard but now I hope there is some sort of structure to my shelves. I do like the spines of one author to be together especially when they are a classic author for example I have my Dickens all together and including the very lovely spine of a Sketches By Boz edition of 1904.

What was the first book you ever brought with your own money?

I think that would be Charlie and The Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl. We had a wonderful bookshop in my village when I was little and a lot of my pocket went on Dahl and Beatrix Potter Books which are all still happily on my shelves.

Are there are guilty pleasures on your bookshelves?

Maybe Lady Chatterley’s Lover obviously considered such a scandalous books at the time of its trial it does feel like a very guilty pleasure although Lawrence is one of my favourite writers.

What is the first grown up book you brought?

Well the book was actually on my Aunt’s shelves and it was “Forever” by Judy Blume. I felt very grown up when I read it in my teens and now it does have a special place on my shelves.

If you love a book but have borrowed it do you find you have to then buy the book?

I have found many wonderful books through the library first, for example my love for Thomas Hardy started when I borrowed Far From The Madding Crowd read it at least three times before it went back then quickly visited the nearest bookshop to buy it and many more of his novels and poetry.

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What was the last book you added to your shelves?

I think it would have to be two books… Where’d you go Bernadette by Maria Semple and On The Road by Jack Kerouac both wonderful novels. My next purchase needs to be The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt which I have seen people raving about and I’m very much looking forward to reading.

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

I have always wanted a complete set of novels by Nancy Mitford a writer whose life and family I find fascinating. Also original penguin copies of Lucky Jim and the James Bond books these I hope to find on my next London Trip.

What do you think someone perusing your shelves would think of your reading taste?

I think they would see my book tastes as quite eclectic and I hope they would find something on each shelf that they would enjoy too.

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A huge thanks to Clare for taking part in Other People’s Bookshelves, who is off with me to go and have a hunt through the caves under Nottingham Castle before heading to Sherwood Forest?  Don’t forgot if you would like to participate (and I would love you to – hint, hint, hint) in the 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 Clare’s responses and/or any of the books and authors that she mentions?

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Other People’s Bookshelves #26 – Lucy Rock of Relish Reads

Hello and welcome to the latest in the series of Other People’s Bookshelves, and the first of 2014 so I thought we would have someone rather special to start the year with in the form of Lucy Rock who blogs at Relish Reads. Lucy became one of my best bookish chums when I was living in Manchester for a year, after I had left London. We went to the Women’s Institute to talk books and help set them up a bookish group and set up our own one in Manchester which is still going only now with Just Lucy at the helm *coughs – nothing to do with Lucy making me read Elizabeth Gaskell*  swiftly moving on before I dredge all that up I will hand you over to lovely Lucy and her shelves…

My day job takes up huge swathes of my day, come playtime I reach for my books and bury my head in characters and fantastical lands far, far away. I grew up in a close family full of avid readers where a full bookshelf in every room of the house was ordinary and a trip to the library a huge excitement for my little brother and me. Although I can’t say I really started reading ‘properly’ (i.e. at least one book a month) until I had grown up a bit, I still remember taking the maximum amount of books out just for me to pop on the shelves and dream about picking up! Nothing’s changed really… I have been book blogging for the past three years and the vibrant and friendly community online has truly transformed by reading experiences.

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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?

Unless something was absolutely dire, I used (much to my boyfriend’s dismay) to keep every single book I read, regardless of whether it would just sit on the shelves for the rest of all time collecting dust. However, our local train station now has a wonderful little library where you can take and leave books as you please, no strings attached. I now have a mini rule with myself; if neither of us will ever pick it up again/lend it to someone, it goes in the box for someone else to enjoy. Even if I hated the book, I like to think that everything I leave in there is pretty decent and I therefore get REALLY mad if it’s still sitting there after a day!

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?

Because I like to just pick books to read on whim – apart from those I have to read for reviews/book club, etc – I try to keep our books almost entirely randomly organised, which I know would drive most avid readers potty!  That said, we recently had our local joiner do us some lovely shelves and there is now some slight organisation going on. Classics downstairs (because the room is pretty and it makes us look clever) and everything else in ‘Lucy’s Room’ upstairs; where we aim to have an entire wall of modern fiction, climbing, outdoorsy books, maps, coffee table books and rafts of foreign fiction, which I always buy on a whim telling myself I’ll bother to read it in the original language and never do. As you can see from the photo, our ‘wall of books’ is looking a little bare at the moment, which is pretty depressing. There are many books still holed up in our loft from moving house, I must liberate them immediately!

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

I think the answer to this question is either Junk by Melvin Burgess or Great Expectations by you-know-who. Junk was, as far as I can remember, a marvellous, incredibly enlightening tale of teenage angst which I read and re-read as a teen and, for nostalgia’s sake, still resides on my shelves to this day. I had only ever read the first few chapters of t’other one until a couple of months ago, but my lovely Vintage copy, not the original version I panic-bought and I think is now with my brother.

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?

The only people in my life who read as avidly as I do is my family so really, any kind of book seems to make a cosy impression upon our friends. I’m not easily embarrassed and believe that, as long as you’re reading, that’s the most important thing of all. I’ve read everything from Charles Dickens to Barbara Erskine this year and I’m dead proud.

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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?

I have a number of old books my parents have bought me over the years that I treasure. Some of them deal with medieval French history, courting and troubadours, which I studied at University and one particular fave is an old collection of Prosper Mérimée’s short stories. It has a lovely old inscription to the recipient and was obviously a Christmas gift. Mine was too and there’s now a message for me in there. All in all though, I’m not too precious about my books and most of them are very paperbacky/drop-in-the-bathable.

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?

The big Russian door-stop novels by Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy have always been hugely fascinating for me. Even now I’m a grown-up and have them on my shelves I still haven’t read them! My Dad can be rather philosophical and his collection of Jean-Paul Sartre novels also always intrigued me. I thought I might have some kind of awakening one day and discover myself….I still haven’t read them.

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?

Back in the days where I would keep every book I read without discrimination, I would also go on uncontrollable book-buying frenzies, the speed of which my reading can simply never keep up with. Nowadays, if I’m lucky enough to be in the vicinity of a good indie/charity bookshop (which I happily do have locally) I’ll have a peruse and go a bit mad and, to keep my faith in the chain bookstores going (we sadly don’t have any decent independent bookshops in Manchester) I’ll purchase my monthly book group book full price if it doesn’t look completely rubbish. Even if I don’t manage to read them all, I make a point of taking books out of the library and renewing them until I’m forced to take them back! The decent loans I do read I won’t buy myself but WILL then buy as gifts for other people.

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

Something I bought would be Misfortune by Wesley Stace, our latest book group read. Thoroughly entertaining and quirky and we had an excellent discussion on gender-identity, etc, to boot. The latest thing I’ve been sent is Boy, Snow, Bird by Helen Oyeyemi, which I am very excited about. Sounds like the perfect wintery, fantastical read.

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

I really don’t think you have the room on your blog for a frank answer to this question BUT, what I will say is, there isn’t enough life to read everything I want to read. That scares me and means I simply couldn’t have everything sat there staring at me. The pressure would be too great.

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

I think my boyfriend and I’s little library reflects the reading of open-minded, thoughtful people who are as at home with Solzhenitsyn as with Joanne Harris. Considerate, left-of-centre, intellectual, outdoorsy, unpretentious and INTERESTING. All the things I would love to be.

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A huge thanks to Lucy for taking part in Other People’s Bookshelves, if we don’t meet up much more often this year I will be simply furious! Anyway… 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 Lucy’s responses and/or any of the books and authors that she mentions?

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A Very British Murder

There simply are not enough shows on the telly about books, fact! So when one does come along invariably I will watch it just because it is about books, occasionally though one comes along that is so up your street and so brilliant you want to tell everyone about it. This is exactly how I feel about ‘A Very British Murder with Lucy Worsley’ the second episode of which is on tonight on BBC Four at 9pm and which I insist you watch. But here is a teaser, without spoilers, of why (if you missed it) the first episode was so brilliant…

Lucy Worsley, who hosts the show, is Chief Curator at Historic Royal Palaces where she puts on exhibitions like ‘Secrets of the Royal Bedchamber’ which is currently on at Hampton Court Palace. She is also a writer of several historical non-fiction books the latest of which just so happens to be ‘A Very British Murder’ and is now on my bedside table to be read between bouts of ‘The Luminaries’ (which I am still making very slow progress on bit by bit) though for the purposes of this post I moved it by the telly as you can see below…

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You can tell you are in good hands with Lucy, and that she loves a good book, as before the opening credits of the first show have rolled she states “Grisly crimes would appal us if we encountered them in real life, but something happens when they are turned into stories and safely places between the covers of a book.” It is of course the history of the British crime novel which this series celebrates, from Dickens to Christie and onwards, and to start it all Lucy looks at the first real cases of murder (The Ratcliffe Highway Murders, The Murder in the Red Barn and The Bermondsey Horror) which really got the public talking about murder and gave them an appetite for the salacious and sensational, which authors of course switched onto and as ‘the Detective’ was born, so of course was ‘the Detective novel’.

Well I was spellbound for an hour. I have since been recounting several people will facts like ‘did you know that in 1810 only 15 people were convicted of murder?’ or ‘did you know of The Bermondsey Horror and that Maria Manning was Charles Dickens inspiration for Hortense in ‘Bleak House’?’ It has made me desperate to go off and find some old ‘Broadsides’, newspapers/pamphlets solely aimed at chronicling the most horrid of murders for the public, also Thomas DeQuincy’s essay ‘On Murder’ from 1810 and dig out some modern books, which didn’t get mentioned on the show, like ‘The Maul and the Pear Tree’ by P.D James and Thomas A. Critchley (a non-fiction about the Ratcliffe Highway Murders) and Nicola Upson’s new novel ‘The Death of Lucy Kyte’ (a fiction with shadows of The Murder in the Red Barn). Plus with autumn in the air here in the UK I have been pondering dusting off some Wilkie Collins etc and bringing back a sensation season myself! I love it when TV makes you want to switch it off and read a book instead, don’t you?

Suffice to say Lucy is marvellous, and brilliantly camp or ghoulish when required which makes it all the more enjoyable, as she hosts often sat beside a fire making you feel like she is almost telling you a bedtime story brimming with murder in itself, which I suppose it is really. Anyway if me going on and on about its brilliance wasn’t enough I will just mention the facts that Simon Callow is on it tonight as we discover what the Dickens, erm, Dickens thought and was inspired further by and Kate Summerscale will be on discussing the case which inspired ‘The Suspicions of Mr Whicher’. What more could you ask for on a Monday night?

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Other People’s Bookshelves #11 – Laura Caldwell

So after a small break ‘Other People’s Bookshelves’ is back, I have decided to make it a less frequent and scheduled event so from now on it will be every few Saturdays rather than every Thursday. Anyway let’s get on with this week’s guest, Laura Caldwell. As a child she grew up in a very “literate” household.  Both of her parents were English majors and my father is now a retired English professor.  Both her and her sister spent most of their free time reading and nothing made them happier then to come home from the library with a new stack of books.  Her reading interests as a child were mostly historical fiction and mysteries, although she also had a great love as a child for school readers that her public library had quite a few of.  Funnily enough she now has a collection of antique ones. As a teen, while still loving historical fiction, she developed an interest in SciFi that didn’t last too long, she is now rekindling that interest.  In young adulthood, she read mostly fantasy which she still enjoys from time to time. Nowadays, she reads about half classics and half other genres, also a large number of non-fiction: mostly history and theology.  She have been an autodidact her whole life having only a high school education. Children’s books have always been a great love of her (as you will be able to tell from her pictures) and she read to her three children (now grown) profusely.  As well as owning a number of books, she borrows MANY from the library. Welcome to her shelves…

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?

The books that I keep are either non-fiction (especially theology), books that I love and anticipate rereading, or ones that I have yet to read (many).  I also have a number of shelves of children’s books that I enjoyed reading to my children and hope to read to grandchildren someday. (My youngest child is 18 now, middle 21, oldest 34.) As well, I have a collection of school books from the 1800s and a small collection of antique or vintage children’s books. A Nook and old ipad hold many more possible reads.

D. Vintage children's books

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 am a very detail-orientated person but you wouldn’t know it by looking at my shelves. The children’s books are together, as well as my antique school books, and vintage children’s books.  My non-fiction tends to be by subject, but otherwise not in any order, and my TBR and favorites-to-keep are all jumbled together.  Most of my comfort reads are together on one shelf.

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

Wow, that would be a long time ago!  It probably was a Nancy Drew mystery which I loved and collected.  I went on to purchase and read Agatha Christies.  I do not have either collection anymore, but mixed into my children’s books are a few books from my childhood.

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?

My guilty pleasures are probably my Miss Read books which I have a few of, although I have probably read the whole collection from the library over the past 25 years.  They are with my other books on my “comfort read shelf.”  Most of my books are in what I call my library (with my desk and computer) that doubles as a guest room also, so they are not really out in public.

B. Comfort reads

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?

I don’t really have a “most prized” book.  I have some books that I hold more dearly than others like my Della Lutes books published in the 1930s and 40s.  They are a kind of “Little House on the Prairie” set for adults. It took me a while to collect all five. They tell the story of Ms. Lutes’ life in small town southern Michigan in the late 1800s.  They reside on my “comfort read shelf.”  I would try to save that shelf’s contents if there was a fire.  (Under that circumstance, I would need comfort reads!) I would also grab my hardcover copy of The Secret History, my favourite book. This past Christmas season I have found need for my comfort reads because I live in the community of West Webster, NY that lost fire-fighters to an insane gunman Christmas Eve.   Circumstances like this are exactly why I have my “comfort reads,” sometimes it is very hard to focus on much else.

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?

My parents were English teachers so there were a lot of books and bookshelves in my home growing up.  I can’t remember wanting to read any of them.  They looked boring.  They had lots of English classics that I have only gotten interested in reading in the past few years, and poetry that I never have gotten into, except for Wordsworth. (Simon, I completely understand your issues with Greek classics.)

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?

Yes, if I borrowed a book from the library and loved it, I would want to own it, but would probably wait to find it for sale used somewhere-most likely at the library sales.  Most of the books that I buy new are theology books.  They are not easy to find used, although I do have a number of those too. (no, I am not a pastor or theology student, just an interested Christian, self-educated.)

C. Antique school books and family bibles

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

My purchase (used): Of Human Bondage, W. Somerset Maugham $.50; Dombey and Son, Dickens $.50; Mrs. Dalloway, V. Woolf $.50 (I have read before); Ruth, Elizabeth Gaskell $.50; Mary Anne, Daphne du Maurier, hardcover $1. Christmas gift from youngest son (18): An Edible History of Humanity, Tom Standage (I loved A History of the World in Six Glasses).

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

Millions!  A small portion of those millions will eventually be there.  I cull all the time, especially donating the TBRs as I finish them and know that I won’t be reading them again.

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

Well they would certainly notice my three and one half over-stuffed shelves of theology, then a good number of history books. The rest would be a real mixture of classics and newer fiction.  Anyone could find a book that they would like on my shelves-except my husband who only reads techno-thriller/spy stories. Yuck!

A. Main bookshelves

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A big thank you to Laura for letting me grill her and sharing her shelves with us all. Don’t forgot if you would like to participate (and I would love you to) in 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 Laura’s responses and/or any of the books she mentioned?

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Other People’s Bookshelves #10 – Claire King

Wow. We are already in double figures now with ‘Other People’s Bookshelves’, that ten weeks has flown by. Are you still enjoying the series? I do hope so as I have plenty more coming, so it is tough if not. Anyway this week we get to meet the author Claire King and have a nosey through her shelves all the way in France. Claire has been living in southern France for the last ten years – currently inhabiting what she calls ‘quite a shabby stone house in the middle of nowhere’ with her husband and two young daughters. She grew up in Mexborough, South Yorkshire and studied economics at Newnham College, Cambridge and then spent twenty years working in business before finally deciding what she wanted to be when she grew up. Her debut novel, which I have in my TBR, ‘The Night Rainbow’ is out TODAY! She also writes short fiction, which has been published online and in print and has been recognised by fancy places such as BBC Radio 4 Opening Lines, New Scientist, The Bristol Short Story Prize, the Sean O’Faolain Short Story Competition and Metazen. Her website is here. So let’s have a riffle through her shelves and get to know her better…

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 don’t have room for all my books. We moved here eleven years ago and I still have boxes and boxes of books in the cellar. Even though building bookshelves ought to take some kind of priority, we went for an indoor bathroom first, and then windows, that kind of thing. So instead I have piles of books distributed about the house in odd corners, a bit like Tetris. But you need to leave room to walk around, and places to put down a cup of tea. One of the great things about doing this piece was that I went down into the cellar to have a look in the boxes. I thought I might find my old copy of The Life of Pi (I didn’t). Mostly down there I keep books that visitors might like to read, but which I never will again, as well as travel books, old economics and business books, the 1996 Writers & Artists Handbook, that kind of thing. I’m obliged to keep a lot of good novels down there too though. Occasionally I make a foray into the cobwebs, and fish out some different ones for the shelves, putting others away for a while, but it happens very rarely.

Boxed

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?

Not really no, apart from my TBR pile, which grows all sinister and precarious, on my bedstead. I tend to keep books I think might most interest other people in our sitting room, where they can be grabbed easily. Every now and then I move things around. I think you stop seeing things when they stay the same way too long, which is why sometimes you go mooching round other people’s shelves and go “Oooh! Louis de Bernière, I haven’t read that him ages,” despite having several on your own shelves. They look different and more appealing out of context. So I’m a shelf fidgeter.

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

It was probably one of Walter Farley’s Black Stallion books, if pocket money counts. Otherwise a Jilly Cooper book in my teens with money I earned myself. Probably Riders. Jilly Coopers are boxed. The children’s ones have resurfaced, including a huge stack of faded well-leafed famous five books.

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?

Not really. My books are like me, what you see is what you get. Although now my children are reading, and often help themselves to books off my shelves – they are particularly interested in Nelson Mandela’s autobiography for some reason – I do need to move a few age-inappropriate books off the accessible shelves. I have things that people might want an explanation for, like Mein Kampf. But some books you don’t read for pleasure, but to try and comprehend something incomprehensible.

Sitting_shelf Kitchen_shelf

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?

Do you know, I love having books, and I have so many treasured books. We have a first edition 1927 A.A. Milne NOW WE ARE SIX , which was given to my husband’s granny when she was little, as well as some Rudyard Kipling books from the same era. They’re magical. And books that my husband and I annotated as kids. Books with messages written in from friends many years ago. Collections of poetry I read and re-read and memorised as a student. It’s the personal element that makes them special. But if there was a fire they could burn, to be honest. I’m not desperately attached to things, it’s the stories that go on.

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?

My parents only had on small book shelf, belonging to my father. My mother had no books (since her divorce she has since become a voracious reader). The shelf had Readers Digest hardbacks on it – the entire collection of Charles Dickens and a family health book – and an atlas. That was it. I devoured the health book and the atlas as soon as I was old enough to read, which made me a bit precocious…but I never did read the Dickens. I inherited them though, and they’re now in a box in the cellar.

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?

Normally if I borrow a copy, I’ll only buy it if it’s one I want to read or refer to again. It’s more likely I would buy a copy as a gift for someone else and buy other books by the same author for myself.

Loo_shelf

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

We’ve just had Christmas and my birthday, so I’ve a big pile of new books off my wish-list. They include Canada, Rook, To the Lighthouse and The Great Gatsby, which I’ve never read. I know I have also been given a copy of Maggie O’Farrell’s new novel Instructions for a Heatwave via pre-order, and even though it’s not in my hands yet, it’s there in spirit.

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

My hardback of Vanessa Gebbie’s Coward’s Tale, which I loaned to someone and don’t think I’ll ever get back now. Otherwise no, although I do have a big wish-list for the 2013 crop coming up. I’ll buy things when I know I’ll have a chance to read them.

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

It would depend where they look. I’ve kept books for over 30 years, so there’s quite an evolution there. They all mean something to me, they say something about a certain era in my life, I can remember where I was when I read most of them for the first time. I think my oldest friends can see that too. But for others? It probably looks like a confusing and erratic collection. Being in the South of France we do get a lot of visitors, and I hope when people stay and ask to borrow a certain kind of book, I can find them something to their taste. I hope there’s something for everybody.

Sitting_bookends

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A big thank you to Claire for letting me grill her and sharing her shelves with us all. Don’t forgot if you would like to participate (and I would love you to) in 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 Claire’s responses and/or any of the books she mentioned?

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Tom-All-Alone’s – Lynn Shepherd

I have always been a little dubious about books that are sequels, prequels or tales that combine a great classic in them. I have tried a few spin offs in my time and firstly there is the question of if they can live up to the classic itself and secondly can they provide anything original to the world we most likely already know, this has also made me wonder how limiting it can be or is it just an author regurgitating another authors ideas? So when Gavin chose ‘Tom-All-Alone’s’, or ‘The Solitary House’ as it is known in North America, for the latest Readers Book Club, I have to admit I went into it with some trepidation, especially as I had not read Dickens’ ‘Bleak House’ which this book runs alongside.

*** Corsair Books, paperback, 2012, fiction, 320 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

As ‘Tom-All-Alone’s’ opens in 1850’s London we meet Charles Maddox, a former policeman and now private investigator in the days when ‘the Detective’ is a role that is just forming. Maddox has just been given a second case to track down the writer of some threatening letters by the eminent and feared lawyer Edward Tulkinghorn, a new case being just what Maddox needs as the only other case he has got, finding a long lost girl in London (rather like finding a needle in a haystack) is dragging, even if the new case seems a small one. However as Maddox investigates people start to die and he realises that there is much more than meets the eye of these letters and indeed the man who hired him to solve the riddle.

The premise of the book is an intriguing one. I have to admit though that I was thrown from the start by the narration of the novel initially. The voice we get is a modern one and one that tells us the tale in an all-seeing and all knowing way. If a character misses something, the narrator points it out and the fact the character misses it, there a quips and factual asides and whilst there was no denying it was readable it initially jarred with me a bit. Who was this narrator, why were they so all knowing, was I being patronised, was I being played with? I couldn’t work it out, which initially annoyed me but then intrigued me. Then suddenly everything changed again and we were being told a completely different story from a completely different perspective in the form of a young woman named Hester. Stranger and stranger as I read on and found Dickens himself appearing in the book I found myself thinking ‘blimey, Ms Shepherd likes to take a risk with her readers’.

“As we wait for the slow dark hours to pass, we might do no worse than stand, as Dickens himself once stood, in the irregular square at the crossing point of the seven narrow passages that give this place its name. Dickens talked of arriving ‘Belzoni-like, at the entrance’, and if you’re thinking that you’ve heard that name before and recently, then you’re right. It was this same Giovanni Belzoni who brought back the sarcophagus that holds pride of place in Mr Tulkinghorn’s labyrinthine collection. It was the same Belzoni, moreover, who was the first to find entrance to the inner chamber of the second pyramid of Giza, and the first to penetrate inside. Hence, I suppose, Dickens’ choice of analogy. It is certainly true that Egypt can hold no darker ways, no more obscure secrets, and no more foreboding, claustrophobic tunnels than those that confront us here. In the brightest daylight it’s hard to see far, the air is so dense with grit and coal smoke, and even a ‘regular Londoner’ would hesitate to come here by night, as we have. So let us explore a little, while we wait for Charles.”

I think that excerpt shows both sides pro and con of the prose style whilst you are getting used to it. There is the all knowing, the factual references and yet there is a sense of mystery and also the atmosphere of the city at the time. This is a Marmite technique though as people will either love it or hate it. I have to admit that if ‘Tom-All-Alone’s’ had not been a book that I was reading for the Readers Book Club then I think I probably would have stopped reading at this point as I was feeling so thrown by it all even though I was loving the world Lynn Shepherd was creating. However, as with any book group read I encounter no matter how tricky it is I do read on (yes Elizabeth Gaskell and that ‘Mary Barton’ I am thinking of you) and in this particular case I am really glad I did because I would have missed out. As the book went on I stopped noticing the style and found myself completely immersed in the era and the twists and turns in the tale.

Lynn Shepherd clearly loves the Victorian era and that comes across in every single page and becomes contagious. It was some of the observations of London at the time, and the aside stories of prostitutes, unwanted babies and what happened to them, grisly murders etc, and little set pieces off the central story that really hooked me in. I also thought the fact that she weaves several mysteries, as there are really four at the heart of this book, so cleverly and so confusingly (in a good way) really added to its charms.

So what about its relation to ‘Bleak House’? Well, whilst I have not read the book I decided – in the name of research and so we could have a more rounded discussion with Lynn for the podcast, I would watch the BBC adaptation (which The Beard oddly adored) so I could compare. I was amazed how little of the whole story she used though Tulkinghorn and an important thing that happens to him in ‘Bleak House’ does very much become part of the mysteries here. Speaking to Lynn, which know not every reader will be lucky enough to do, did make sense of the narration in the book though, that is how Dickens’ does it in ‘Bleak House’ and makes me think that while it stands alone, as Gavin’s review will tell you as he had not read ‘Bleak House’, I think having read the classic might help you get into the book better.

Overall I enjoyed ‘Tom-All-Alone’s’ yet like another Victorian based book I read recently I would have liked it to have been longer as so much is going on, and I am not saying that because ‘Bleak House’ is a monster book. I was happy with what I got out of the book yet I would have liked more of Charles Maddox’s domestic story, how he moves in with his uncle (another crime mastermind who reminded me of an elderly Holmes, also called Charles Maddox) who is in the start of what I hazarded was dementia and the relationship between Maddox and Molly. I would also have liked longer for the threads to build up and a slightly more drawn out ending which all comes so quickly, the book suddenly revs up about two thirds in and that bit is addictive. This is all, though I am worrying it doesn’t sound it, a compliment to Lynn Shepherd’s writing… I wanted more of it over a longer tale. I loved the atmosphere and her characters, so I am hoping a Maddox standalone of any literary nod is on the cards, though I will be interested to see what he does with the Shelley’s next too. Oh and biggest compliment of all – I now want to read, and have indeed bought, ‘Bleak House’ all for myself. I never thought I would find myself saying that.

You can see Gavin’s review here and listen to us talking to Lynn here. Who else had read ‘Tom-All-Alone’s’ and what did you think? If you read it without reading (or watching, cough) ‘Bleak House’ how did you find it? What about if you had read (mumbles again, or watched) ‘Bleak House’ what was your reaction? Did anyone wonder how Dickens might have reacted to Shepherd’s twist on Tulkinghorn’s character at the end? Are you planning on reading this at any point? I would highly recommend this as a book group choice as it would be sure to create some lively discussion. All thoughts welcomed as always.

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Filed under Constable & Robinson Publishing, Corsair Books, Lynn Shepherd, Review, The Readers Podcast

‘New Adult’ Fiction; What is the Point?

One of the many things that I love about recording The Readers every week, with Gavin of Gav Reads, is that it makes me think about (and in this case have a rant about) things that I wouldn’t expect it to. This week Gavin wanted to talk about the genre of ‘New Adult’ fiction, I have to admit I knew very little about it to be honest and so I went off and did some research. Having done so I have to admit that my main thought with it is… What is the point of ‘New Adult’ as a genre?

If we use the trusted source (my tongue is slightly tickling my cheek here) Wikipedia for a definition then it is “New-adult Fiction or post-adolescent literature is a recent category of fiction for young adults first proposed by St. Martin’s Press in 2009.St. Martin’s Press editors wanted to address the coming-of-age that also happens in a young person’s twenties. They wanted to consider stories about young adults who were legally adults, but who were still finding their way in building a life and figuring out what it means to be an adult.” What is all the more interesting/odd is that the age range for this new type of genre is according to several sources the age range of 14 – 35.

Now we will slightly gloss over my main issue that this is a genre simply created by some marketing people in a publishing house to sell more books which is no bad thing, until you see some of the quality of some of the books and the sort of stories they are. Snobbish? Maybe! It seems like a cash cow and one which I find a mixture of patronizing and perturbing.

My first concern is that the first book which has been published as a ‘new adult’ novel is Tammara Webber’s ‘Easy’, which starts with the protagonist of the book getting raped. I am aware this happens in the world and that younger people need to be taught the hardships of life (though in my day it was being taught about death by being bought a hamster or goldfish that would invariably pop it’s clogs in a month or two) but at the age of fourteen, really? This for me becomes all the more disconcerting as apparently the ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ trilogy has now, along with ‘Twilight’ but not Harry Potter, been put into this category. Do we really want anyone, not just girls, under the age of 18 reading books with graphic sex in them, regardless of the tin of S&M worms that come opened with it? Weren’t we all calling these books ‘Mummy Porn’ just months ago, now because we are so stupid forward thinking and ‘out there’ let’s pass it on to some youths. I am inwardly groaning as I type. I am not a prude but this does all just seem wrong.

The question is what next? Will the ‘Mummy Porn’ become a genre alongside ‘Tragic Life Stories’ (groan) and ‘New Adult’ (I have just seen how appropriate that title is for books that seem to technically be Baby Black Lace/Black Lace for Beginners), will there be a ‘Ready Meal for One/Spinster/Lonely Man in a Cardigan/Eternal Bachelor Fic’ to run alongside ‘Romance’? Will I be dashing to buy from the ‘True Tales of Animals Daring Do’s’ shelves? Will ‘Grey Fiction’ suddenly take off? The mind boggles, though if any of those do become ‘the latest thing’ I want royalties.

Also what annoys me about it is that those publishers pushing this genre are actually closing off a world of books to people rather than opening the eyes of many to more wonderful books. Are we all going to have to follow the same reading trajectory? You start with picture books, then children’s books, then YA, then NA, then ‘fiction’ and that is the only option? What happened to just getting to an age where you read what you want? For me, who is from a generation prior even to YA (yes I am that old), it was a case of reading from Robin Jarvis to Patrick Suskind, possibly via some Point Horror, because I just naturally progressed at my own pace in my teens. Are the ‘New Adult’ book police going to stop my 14 year old sister from her current read of ‘An Evil Cradling’ by Brian Keenan (no she really is) or make my 13 year old cousin stop reading Charles Dickens and C.J Sansom because apparently he isn’t ready for them yet, instead handing them ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ to have a think about as that is what they should be reading at their age? Erm, no thank you! It all seems preposterous to me. And what about YA is this defunct, down graded or what?

Is this 'NA' or is it 'YA' or simply just fiction?

Is this ‘NA’ or is it ‘YA’ or simply just fiction?

That said, as this is a rather one way set of thoughts on the genre I have recently got a ‘New Adult’ book, though it was just in ‘Fiction’, from the library in the form of ‘Dare Me’ by Megan Abbott. I thought I really should try one of the books from the genre I am writing off a) to see what I make of it b) see if really it is just fiction or YA under an addition unnecessary pigeon hole c) because Jessica of Prose and Cons Book Club (who I love and wish blogged every day, no pressure) loved this tale of crazy evil cheerleaders and it might be a laugh. I will report back, I might end up eating my hat, or I might find out this ‘New Adult’ tag is just a bonkers new genre that need not be, we will see.

As you might have noticed this subject has brought out the rant filled part of me, which you can actually here in the last section of The Readers this week, and I could go on all day. I would love to hear other people’s thoughts on it. Regular readers of this blog of course, but also some of the NA lovers out there and maybe even some of their authors. So what do you think about NA, am I just being a grumpy old git or what?

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Filed under Random Savidgeness

Novel Insights on Savidge Reads #1

A few weeks ago I was a little bit gutted when the lovely Polly of Novel Insights decided that she wanted to give up blogging, especially seeing as I nagged and nagged and nagged for her to start one in the first place – see I tell lots of people they should start a blog. Anyway I felt the blogosphere would miss Polly’s ‘novel insights’ into the books she has been reading and so I have bribed her (the things I know after twenty seven years being friends) to come and do a monthly post on Savidge Reads of the books she has been reading and rather enjoying. So I will hand you over to her, make her welcome, let us know what you think of what she has been reading and I am sure she will comment back when she can. Hoorah. Oh and watch out for my interjections, ha!

Hello Savidge Readers!

As this is my first guest post, let me start by introducing myself. Until recently I wrote a blog called Novel Insights which ran for four years. You might have read it, or heard of it on here, or just heard Simon mention me, as we have been best friends since we were playing He-man and She-ra as little kids. (Oh my god Polly, I am the one with all the secrets and all the power – of Grayskull!)

Anyway… at the end of last year I decided that I didn’t want a whole blog to myself for reasons I noted down in my final post. It was definitely the right decision for me, but also rather poignant. Imagine my delight when Simon offered me a guest spot on the wonderful Savidge Reads. I couldn’t refuse…

Onto reading (isn’t that why we are all here? I think Polly meant to add… apart from Simon’s stunning wit and delightful manner). I recently read Dickens’ A Christmas Carol for book group in December. I won’t go into too much detail about it as it seems a little unseasonable this side of the New Year, but I will say that everyone should read it. Its short (so no excuses), is told in the most remarkably warm and witty voice (you can almost hear Dickens having little jokes with himself now and then), and is sinister but still charms the reader with beautiful vignettes of Victorian life. I have also just finished The Snow Child, by Eowyn Ivey but I will wait to review that until after it’s been discussed at book group!

Today I’m reviewing Moranthology by Caitlin Moran and A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness.

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Moranthology by Caitlin Moran

I was first introduced to Caitlin Moran when I read her entertaining take on feminism – How to Be A Woman which was so funny that I chuckled out loud to myself more than once in public. Similarly Moranthology caused me to laugh so violently on London Transport that I could barely stop myself from crying and had to turn away to face the door to try to re-arrange my face!

Moranthology is a collection of her best columns which she has curated around favourite topics. She has an opinion on everything from solving the world economic crisis to Lady Gaga and delivers it with her own very personal style.

In any collection inevitably there are articles you love more than others. I have to say that although I find her obsession with BBC TV’s Sherlock funny but I haven’t seen it so couldn’t really relate to those articles. I felt maybe I should watch it, but then she also loves Dr Who and I just can’t get into it. What do you guys think? Anyway I digress….as usual…!

I zoomed through this collection and was thoroughly entertained. Some of the more serious stories gave me pause for thought. With A Christmas Carol still in my mind, I get the feeling that she and Dickens if they had had the chance to chat may have shared some opinions on society and public welfare.

Her tone is so personal, my guess is that you will either love or hate her writing – I obviously fall into the ‘love it’ category. This is because she is funny, observant and unapologetic about her views. She is also up-front about being occasionally quite annoying and self-indulgent (for instance, waking her husband up to ask how he would remember her if she tragically died early – what woman hasn’t done something similar!?). In other words she’s human and entertaining and it makes me wonder why I don’t read more ‘funny’ books.

Oh and I tweeted her about my laughing incident and hurrah – she replied – look, look!

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So she’s nice too. Read her.

A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness

I downloaded A Monster Calls on my Kindle (oh you filty, filthy…) after reading Simon’s Books of 2012. I was attracted to read it partly because of the beautiful illustrations and because it seemed like a dark fairytale of sorts, saying something (as all good fairytales do) important about the human condition.

Conor O’Malley is the focus of the novel. A thirteen year old boy, struggling with the knowledge that his mother is sick with cancer, he is frightened, angry and unable to talk about what is happening which leaves him isolated at school and at home. In his dreams he is visited by a monster, who appears to him in the form of the ancient yew tree at the bottom of his garden. However, the monster is not the real nightmare, he dreams of something much worse that he cannot bear to put into words.

I have slightly mixed feelings about A Monster Calls. I think it’s a very accomplished book and as Simon commented, the book deals with a difficult subject in a wholly original and effective way. The one issue I had with it was that sometimes I didn’t quite click with the writing style. Perhaps it’s because it’s primarily targeted to the Young Adult market so I felt very aware that it was trying to convey something to me – I felt a bit hand-held. I think my expectations were very high because of how well recommended. That was my only minor complaint.

It lived up to my impression of the dark fairytale however. What a fantastic creation the yew tree monster is – frightening and wise at the same time. He is neither wholly good nor wholly bad and challenges Conor’s ideas of life, forcing him to consider that people and their actions are often not what they seem. Even though it has a magical edge, the book has its feet firmly planted in reality. The characters in the book were all so easy to imagine and relate to. Conor could occasionally be a quite unlikeable, but this is part of what makes the book realistic. Let’s face it people who are dealing with terrible things often are not that nice to be around. The illustrations in the book are beautiful and atmospheric – making me a little sad to be experiencing them on a Kindle and not in print!

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So that’s all for now. I hope you enjoyed my temporary takeover of Savidge Reads. Do read excellent Simon’s review of ‘A Monster Calls’ and I suspect that he might be posting about ‘Moranthology’ as well at some point! Indeed I shall be as I am dipping into it, and chortling a lot, at the moment between other books and when I have only a few minutes to read something.

Until next time… farewell x Px

A big thanks to Polly for a lovely post. Do let her and I know what you think of the books she (and I, we are like book twins) have read. Oh and Polly forgot to mention she is off to the Phillipines at the end of the week and maybe you could give her some holiday reading recommendations too?

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Filed under Caitlin Moran, Novel Insights on Savidge Reads, Patrick Ness

The House of Mirth – Edith Wharton

I am beginning to think that my little faux pas that Edith Wharton was one of the UK’s canon authors, when deciding on the six authors for ‘Classically Challenged’ with AJ, was actually a twist of fate and an accidental moment of brilliance. While I liked Jane Austen’s ‘Persuasion’ and enjoyed Charles Dickens’ ‘Great Expectations’ (let us gloss over Trollope’s ‘The Warden’) I have to say that ‘The House of Mirth’ simply surpasses them for me by a long stretch and has been the first to set me alight. I think it is probably going to become one of my favourite novels of all time and has reminded me what joys there are in the classics and forget the side that makes you feel like you are back at school. Now though I have the nightmare task of trying to write my thoughts on this book which I know will never really do it justice. Gulp!

***** Oxford University Press, paperback, 1905 (2008 edition), fiction, 368 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

In New York in the late 1800′s Lily Bart, at the ripe old age of twenty nine, is in the time of her life where she needs to find a husband. She has had many good seasons living with her rich friends of high society, which is quite miraculous as she herself is made of limited means and no fortune yet Lily is wily. We follow her on her quest to find a husband and the gambles she takes not only with her meagre allowance and cards but in the society she keeps and how she plays them and they play her.

Edith Wharton does some wondrous things in this novel. Firstly Wharton marvellously creates an overview of society at the time. As we meet her Lily actually spends most of her time living off her incredibly wealthy friends. Of course nothing comes for free. It is Lily’s beauty, wit and ability to seem fascinated by anyone and everyone whilst having them fascinated by her that gets her in with the right set. Keeping them as friends and on side however is the really tricky part and one that anyone would find hard to pull off. Lily knows that if she marries someone with utmost wealth she could have everyone at her bidding and the life she has always felt she is her due. This was the plight of many women at the time. When not living off friends though, Lily finds herself living off an aunt, Mrs Penistone, who took her because no one else would after her mother’s death. This relationship I think has a real psychological affect on Lily. She doesn’t want to owe anyone, apart from a husband, anything nor does she want to end up like many of the spinsters that her aunt knows, working in factories and living in boarding houses.

The second wonderful thing about ‘The House of Mirth’ is Lily Bart herself. Lily isn’t really likeable and yet we do like her. She has airs and graces above her station and yet she is witty and does care about people, well overall if we give her the benefit of the doubt. She is the creation of a society at the time along with the aspirations left upon her by her mother’s influence from a young age. There is a real sense of sadness and tragedy underlying her beauty and charm however and I think it is this that while we might not always think she is behaving as we would or correctly makes us like her and root for her all the same. For those of you who have read the book it was her behaviour with a certain collection of letters that showed her true character I felt.

With so much going on it is takes a deft writer to throw in another strand to the story and Wharton does this by introducing, from the very start in a brilliant set of paragraphs where he describes Miss Bart so we are left in no doubt as to her looks and personality, the character of Lawrence Selden. This is another master stroke. He is by no means a rich man having been forced to do the thing that everyone in Lily’s set dreads, work. As a lawyer the rich think he might be useful someday and indeed some of the rich married women of high society, like Bertha Dorset, find his handsome charms might just be the thing to provide some light relief in their lives or all sorts. There is a tension and chemistry between Lily and Selden however, though neither of them really wants it as both know that Lily ideally needs to marry for money, being a woman of no stature. Yet this friction and their love hate relationship are part of what we follow throughout.

‘Exactly. And so why not take the plunge and have it over?’
She shrugged her shoulders. ‘You speak as if I ought to marry the first man who came along.’
‘I didn’t mean to imply that you are as hard put to it as that. But there must be some one with the requisite qualifications.’
She shook her head wearily. ‘I threw away one or two good chances when I first came out – I suppose every girl does; and you know I am horribly poor – and very expensive. I must have a great deal of money.’

Their sparing with each other show what Lily is really thinking or planning and why. Also through Selden’s eyes we get this rather brutal and pitying look on Lily and the monster she threatens to become. This was another of the things I loved about this book; the ability of Wharton to flip between Lily’s perception of things and then to the perceptions others have of Lily and her actions, these perceptions of course being based on whether the person has sympathy for Lily or is in some way her rival or superior. This also highlights the calculating nature of a certain group of women, who Wharton was clearly aware of at the time, from the destroyer such as Bertha Dorset and indeed our own Lily in her calculations of how to get a suitably rich husband or live off others, whichever the case may be.

It was not that Miss Bart was afraid of losing her newly-acquired hold over Mr. Gryce. Mrs. Dorset might startle or dazzle him, but she had neither the skill nor the patience to affect his capture. She was too self-engrossed to penetrate the recesses of his shyness, and besides, why should she care to give herself the trouble? At most it might amuse her to make sport of his simplicity for an evening–after that he would be merely a burden to her, and knowing this, she was far too experienced to encourage him. But the mere thought of that other woman, who could take a man up and toss him aside as she willed, without having to regard him as a possible factor in her plans, filled Lily Bart with envy. She had been bored all the afternoon by Percy Gryce–the mere thought seemed to waken an echo of his droning voice–but she could not ignore him on the morrow, she must follow up her success, must submit to more boredom, must be ready with fresh compliances and adaptabilities, and all on the bare chance that he might ultimately decide to do her the honour of boring her for life.’

‘The House of Mirth’ is a real unflinching and honest lifting of the lid on society and how it worked just before the turn of the 20th century in America and you feel Wharton new exactly what was going on no holes barred. She also looks at the interesting divide of old money and new money and how the latter felt they had to win the other over until the Wall Street crash when roles were reversed. Here the initially, to Lily, odious Mr Simon Rosedale suddenly becomes the man everyone wants to know and many women want to wed. There are so many layers, sub plots and characters to the book I could go on all day, so I shall bring myself to a close and surmise.

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Having had some space from the book and time to mull it over there is very little doubt in my mind that ‘The House of Mirth’ is an absolute masterpiece and could easily be one of my favourite books. I loved Wharton’s prose, her humour and the fact she did completely the opposite of what I was expecting with Lily’s story which alas I can’t discuss in detail for I would completely spoil it for you if you have yet to read it – if that is the case you must go and get it now. Lily Bart walked fully off the page for me and I found myself thinking about her a lot when I wasn’t reading the book. Reading it is an experience, and I don’t say that often. One thing is for sure, I will not be forgetting the tale of Lily Bart for quite some time and I believe I will be returning to it again and again in the years to come.

Who else has read ‘The House of Mirth’ and what did you think? Did anyone else (without any spoilers please) see the end coming? What about Bertha Dorset, did anyone loathe her as much as I found myself doing? Did anyone else think that Selden was a bit of an ineffectual wet lettuce? Which other works of Wharton’s have you read, as I now want to get them all, and you would recommend?

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Filed under Books of 2013, Classically Challenged, Edith Wharton, Oxford University Press, Review

Mariana – Monica Dickens

And so to the second of my Persephone Project reads which also happens, of course, to be the second novel to be re-published by Persephone Books, ‘Mariana’ by Monica Dickens. I have to say that before I had even opened a page of ‘Mariana’ I was intrigued by what it might hold (having not read the blurb as I tend not to do) as it seemed to be a book which had really mixed reactions from many a Persephone –lover. In fact even Nicola Beauman, via the Persephone letter, had pondered that I might not like it. So I have to admit that I went in with rather low expectations and even a little bit wary.

***** Persephone Books, paperback, 1940 (1999 edition), fiction, 377 pages, from my own personal TBR

You could quite easily sum up the premise of Monica Dickens first novel, though she had written a memoir prior to it, ‘Mariana’ as the tale of a young woman’s life growing up in the 1930’s. Even though it is a true enough description, it doesn’t really do justice to the book which I think is more the chronicles (which seems rather apt as she was Charles Dickens great-granddaughter) of a young woman’s life, Mary, and the ups and downs that it brings both for her personally from a young girl growing into adulthood and also chronicles the lives of a family and the differing social circles that they frequented during this period in history. It is like an epic story of the everyman at the time, and a damn good story it is too.

Mary, our protagonist, lives an unusual life. Her mother having been widowed she grows up living on modest means during the term times of her lives before visiting her sadly deceased father’s affluent family in the idyllic summers at Charbury House. Her mother Lily, a teacher come dressmaker, may have said no to any of her in laws hand outs yet remains in good relations with them and so at summer time, and Christmas too, that is where they go, being much more preferable to Mary’s maternal grandmothers who is a bit of a vile old bag. Charbury is where Mary is her happiest, it’s the place she can look forward to as she somewhat bumbles through schools and it is also where she can see the love of her life, her cousin Denys. As we follow Mary’s life Denys becomes a more pivotal character in her life though is that a good thing. From here, without giving away any spoilers, we follow Mary through drama school and fashion college, London and Paris, as she turns from child to adult with all the up and downs along the way.

“All the time she was at St. Martins, even when she was in the thick of everything, and herself one of the goddesses who turned new girls to stone, there was never a time when she could say to herself: ‘I am part of this place; I am one of the things that make it.’ She never got rid of the idea that it belonged to other people and that she was only there on sufferance.”

If someone had told me this is what the book was going to be about before I started I might have been inclined to think that this book really wouldn’t be for me. Yet I loved every single page of it and was completely lost in Mary’s life. Part of that was to do with the character of Mary that Monica creates, she isn’t the picture perfect heroine at all, she can be moody, ungainly and awkward, a little self centred on occasion but she is always likeable, her faults making her more endearing even when she can be rather infuriating. Part of it was also all the characters around her, I want to list them all but there are so many it would be madness, some of them delightful, some spiteful but all of them drawn vividly and Monica Dickens has a wonderful way of introducing a new character with the simplest of paragraphs which instantly sums them up. All of these characters are part of the many things that make you go on reading ‘Mariana’, every page or two someone new lies in store.

“She was always ready and waiting too early. Ever since her husband had forgotten her at a wedding and taken the car home without her, she was always expecting to be forgotten, even by people who could not conceivably have had too much champagne. She was Mary’s father’s sister, the eldest of the Shannon family, a tall, pigeon breasted woman, of whom in her late thirties people said. not ‘What a good-looking woman,’ but ‘She must have been very pretty a girl.’ A little rice-powder was all she would put on her face, and she lay awake at nights wondering if she dared have her hair bobbed. She strove earnestly with life, but was constantly perplexed by it. One of her favourite remarks was: ‘Thank goodness I’ve got a sense of humour.’”

There are plenty of laughs in ‘Mariana’, there are also moments of sadness and despair, and often the two are combined to great effect. This was one of the other strengths in Monica Dickens writing, she gets the mix of the wonderful and happy with the devastating and sad just right. Mary is not in for an easy ride as she grows up and in fact from the very first chapter we know something awful seems to have happened, the first chapter is so clever as is the last, and that fact is always there in the background as we read on as is the knowledge that at some point, due to the age she is living, war must be round the corner. It creates a very compelling, and also rather concerning, tension throughout.

“The clatter and crash of a tile falling from the kitchen roof into the yard deepened her despair. It was a wild storm. She had got to wait. To wait – and try not to think. She went back to the other part of the room. Perhaps if she sat down again and picked up her book, everything would be alright again. Time would click back, and she would find that it had never happened.”

As you may have guessed I loved ‘Mariana’ and am really glad I went into it knowing very little about it. It has elements of the real social history of the time, only fictionalised and is a proper story of our heroine growing into adulthood and all the highs and lows that this brings.  It also has a cast of characters that I am desperate to revisit again and again. As I mentioned earlier on, it is an epic of the everyman really. It isn’t often I read a book and think ‘ooh I must re-read you one day’ yet I have the feeling I will be rejoining Mary many more times in the future. I am also left wanting to go on and read every single thing that Monica Dickens has ever written.

More Monica Dickens to look forward to...

More Monica Dickens to look forward to…

Yes this for me was one of those books that make you want to re-read it and then binge on everything the author has ever done. I shall hold off for a while however. I am hoping the third Persephone makes me feel the same about Dorothy Whipple next month. Interestingly Gran has never read Monica’s books, so I am going to pack this with me next week on my visit as she simply has to read one of her books. Anyway over to you, have you read ‘Mariana’ and if so what did you think? I will be interested to hear your thoughts as it does seem to divide readers. Which Monica Dickens should I read next? As you can see from above I have two at the ready, but she has written so many! Thoughts welcomed.

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Filed under Books of 2013, Monica Dickens, Persephone Books, Review, The Persephone Project

Other People’s Bookshelves #5– Shelley Harris

This week on Other People’s Bookshelves we get to have a nosey through an authors book shelves as we are joined by the lovely Shelley Harris. Shelley was born in South Africa and emigrated to Britain at the age of six. She has been a local journalist, a secondary school teacher, an assistant in a wine shop and a bouncer at teenage discos (no, really). She likes slapstick humour and salted caramels. Her first novel, Jubilee (Weidenfeld and Nicolson – which I have on my shelves) was shortlisted for the Commonwealth Book Prize and picked as a 2012 Richard and Judy Summer Read. So let us have a nosey through her shelves…

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 tend to keep all the books I read – except the atrocious ones. Those go straight to Oxfam. My favourites never leave unless by mistake, when I lend them to someone who doesn’t give them back (see also: Behind The Scenes At The Museum, A Christmas Carol).

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?

OK, this is a bit complex, but here goes:

Most of my books are upstairs, in the room I write in; three walls are covered in shelves, and most are mine (I allow my husband a measly three shelves – he’s very good about it). One of the walls is for non-fiction, and within that there’s history (chronological), auto/biography (alphabetical by subject) and general non-fiction (autobiographical by author). My fiction used to be alphabetical by author too, but this summer I decided to arrange it by colour, and it’s bee-ootiful. I should admit here that it’s sometimes just the teensiest bit hard to lay my hand on exactly the book I want, but – did I mention it’s bee-ootiful? I’ve also got very un-arranged shelves connected with whatever I’m writing at the moment or want to write next. My To-Be-read pile is downstairs. It’s four shelves big.

I do cull my books from time to time, and it’s a curiously double-edged thing for me. I feel that liberation you always get when you shuck off some of your possessions, but also the anxiety that you might be throwing out something you’ll want next week. That actually happened once; a novel stayed on my shelves for two years unread, so I got rid of it. The next week, someone told me it was brilliant.

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

I’ve racked my brains, but I can’t remember. What I do know is that at the age of ten I read two books alternately for months on end – maybe I bought them, I don’t know. They were Antonia Barber’s The Amazing Mr. Blunden, and E. Nesbit’s The Railway Children. At some unsentimental moment in my life (stupid early adulthood) I threw them out, but now have replacement copies on my shelves.

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?

Oooh, now I’m really interested in your Hidden Shelf. I don’t have one; I’m not at all ashamed of anything I take pleasure in, and that includes books which are…what would people scoff at? Stuff that’s considered lowbrow? Erotica? It’s all good.

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?

That’s a tough one, but I think I might try to save the books my students gave me as gifts when I finished teaching them (they were so relieved, the poor mites). I’m massively proud of having taught, and to have been called ‘a WICKED English teacher’ is one of the best things anyone’s ever said about me.

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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 remember being transported (as many girls my age were) by Kate Bush’s Wuthering Heights, and read the book soon after the single was released. I was maybe eleven at the time. But my parents were responsible for lots of the books I read – grown-up and not-so. Dad used to quote a lot of Shakespeare and poetry at me, using a voice he thought sounded like Laurence Olivier (it sounded like a Dalek). And my Mom read and loved The Women’s Room and passed it over when I was about seventeen – it was a really important book for me.

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?

If I love it I tend to want to keep it – some of my Oxfam purchases are novels I’ve borrowed and loved but want for myself. I read Jane Harris’s Gillespie and I on Kindle (very rare for me) and now have the hardback on my shelves.

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

A copy of A Christmas Carol which I bought from Oxfam because it’s weirdly disappeared from my shelves. I suspect our resident twelve-year-old reader.

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

Yes – I want to magic the next Sarah Waters onto my shelves right now.

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

I don’t mind what they think, but my best guess is that they’ll notice I mainly read contemporary novels, that I love books passionately (I have lots of them), and that they may suspect I’m borderline OCD.

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A big thank you to Shelley for letting me grill her and allowing us to nosey through her shelves. Don’t forgot if you would like to participate (and I would love you to) in 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 Shelley’s responses and/or any of the books she mentioned?

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Filed under Other People's Bookshelves, Shelley Harris

The Third Miss Symons – F.M. Mayor

And so here is the first review of the year and aptly it is for the first book read in 2013, even if I have got a small backlog of books to tell you about from last year. I have mentioned before that I am very superstitious about the first book of the year as it seems to me it will reflect, or predict, the reading experience that I will have in the year ahead. Odd I know, yet true. Aptly I have whim (my main reading resolution of 2013) to thank for my first read being F.M. Mayor’s ‘The Third Miss Symons’ as I had started a few books and not been quite taken with any of them. However on a trip to Shrewsbury last week I spotted this in the Oxfam bookshop, bought it and then spent a few hours in a cafe not long after, while waiting for The Beard to finish a meeting, reading it from cover to cover – before you think I am some super reader it is only 144 pages of rather large print.

**** Virago Modern Classics, paperback, 1913 (1980 edition), fiction, 144 pages, from my personal TBR

Henrietta, or Etta, Symons is the ‘Third Miss Symons’ of the title and this book is really the tale of her life. As the third daughter, and fifth child, of seven she becomes the ‘middle child’, true at a yojng age she does have her time as everyone’s favourite, yet from then onwards she becomes a rather plain and unremarkable woman and we see how this unintentionally effects the rest of her life and her circumstances.

 It is also F.M. Mayors way of talking about a large amount of women who found themselves in a very similar situation at the end of the Victorian era leading into the suffragette movement. A group of women who seemed to somehow be out of kilter with the world though for no fault of their own, even if it might have made them bitter towards the ends of their lives. We still know some people like this I am sure, as youngsters I am sure we were all aware of a ‘local witch’ or ‘crazy cat lady’ somewhere down the road or in the area that we lived. Did we ever try and understand them? No, yet here in ‘The Third Miss Symons’ Flora MacDonald Mayor tries to do just that and explain it all in the life of Henrietta.

“It was clear she was to be lonely at school and lonely at home. Where was she to find relief? There was a supply of innocuous story-books for the perusal of Mrs. Marston’s pupils on Saturday half-holidays, innocuous, that is to say, but the fact that they gave a completely erroneous view of life, and from them Henrietta discovered that heroines after their sixteenth birthday are likely to be pestered with adorers. The heroines, it is true, were exquisitely beautiful, which Henrietta knew she was not, but form a study of ‘Jane Eyre’ and ‘Villette’ in the holidays, Charlotte Bronte was forbidden at school owing to her excess of passion, Henrietta realized that the plain may e adored too, so she had a modest hope that when the magic season of young ladyhood arrived, a Prince Charming would come and fall in love with her. This hope filled more and more of her thoughts, and all her last term, when other girls were crying at the thought of leaving, she was counting her days to her departure.”

It is not the easiest of reads in part because Henrietta is going to be a victim of circumstance, you pretty much know this from the start, and also because she is never really that likeable mainly as the product of her situation. Often there is a tone to the novel which is rather melancholy, which made me wonder if was the reason for the fact it verges on a novella in terms of length. I should add here that I didn’t find the book depressing in itself, more the society of the time and how it treated women who did end up as spinsters and how this even reflected the way a family might choose to interact with one in their own midst. I make single women sound like lepers here but in some ways that is how families seemed to feel about them, unless of course they could be good for money or should the lady of the house day and a replacement be needed or someone to use for their own gains or motives as they got older, otherwise they were really seen rather as a burden.

“Her aunt’s life was the sweetest and happiest for old age, but could she at twenty settle down to devising treats for other people’s children, or sewing garments for the poor? It made her feel sick and dismal to think of it. Besides, there circumstances were not similar. Her aunt, fortified by the spirit of self-sacrifice, had resigned what she loved, but she had the reward of being the most necessary member of her circle. Henrietta had no scope for self-sacrifice, for she had never had anything to give up.”

I found ‘The Third Miss Symons’ an utterly fascinating and rather different read. Partly this was because of the insight into that period of British history and how women were treated, or ill treated, in that time and partly because of the character of Henrietta which Mayor has created. I am hard pushed to think of another female character I have encountered quite like her. I was thinking of Harriet in ‘Gillespie and I’, Mrs Danvers in ‘Rebecca’ or Miss Havisham in ‘Great Expectations’ yet Harriet is not as unreliable, bitter, warped or feisty as any of them she is ordinary, yet that is what makes her tale all the more extraordinary. It’s an unusual perspective and an unusual read yet brilliantly so. I was also impressed with how Mayor wrote a whole life, and its ups and downs, in such a short book. If my reading year is to be filled with quirky, unusual and such vividly character filled and prose lead as this book then I am in for a very good reading year.

This shows the joys of whim reading, and turning to more golden oldies, instantly doesn’t it? I hope that the rest of my reading year carries on like this. Anyway, who else has read this book and what did you think? I know Susan Hill loves it as she wrote the introduction in my Virago edition, she is also a huge fan of F.M. Mayors ‘The Rectors Daughter’ which is somewhere in my TBR, have any of you read that one at all and if so what did you think of it?

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Filed under F.M. Mayor, Review, Virago Books, Virago Modern Classics

Great Expectations – Charles Dickens

Well, what a book to end 2013 on, as I have to admit that I have been reading Charles Dickens celebrated ‘Great Expectations’ right up to the deadline of today which AJ and myself set for this, the third, instalment of Classically Challenged, and I think having completed it I might have a bit of time off from reading for a while. This I have to admit has been the book I have been looking forward to the most and the least all at once. For years and years, much to the dismay of my mother and grandmother and several followers and a few critics of the blog, I have gone on and on about how I didn’t, and wouldn’t, like Charles Dickens and that he was simply paid per word and so wrote too many of them, without having read a word. Well, now I have and I have to hold my hands up and say that I was wrong. That said, I don’t want any ‘I told you so’s’ because whilst it truly was very much a book I enjoyed, and will most probably read Charlie-Boy again because of, I still have the odd reservation.

Oxford University Press, paperback, 1861 (2008 edition), fiction, 442 pages, kindly sent by the publishers

Oxford University Press, paperback, 1861 (2008 edition), fiction, 442 pages, kindly sent by the publishers

It seems a little silly to sum up the story of Charles Dickens thirteenth, unlucky for some but not for him, novel because I am pretty sure most of the world knows it, however here it is. ‘Great Expectations’ is really the story of Pip, Pirrip Philip, and his young and formative years. As we meet him, well as we learn after he is accosted and scared to death by convict Abel Magwitch in a cemetery, he is living with his sister and her husband, the local blacksmith, on the breadline in the marshes of Kent. Soon after, at the request of his uncle-in-law Uncle Pumblechook, he finds himself at Satis House and hired in a way as the playmate of the adopted daughter, the rather cold Estella, of a wealthy spinster, Miss Havisham. He falls in love with Estella and his meeting with her and Miss Havisham seems to be the start of a change in his life as whilst training to be a blacksmith with his uncle Joe he receives a large income from an anonymous benefactor and can instead become a gentleman, only as we go on with Pip’s journey we discover great fortune might not bring him happiness or the love he so wants.

Of course this is not the whole story, merely a teaser if you have yet to read the book, as following these events Dickens weaves twists and turns into the narrative which I wasn’t expecting (no pun intended) along with random off shooting stories for some of the lesser characters which create one of these wonderful Dickensian worlds I have always heard so much about.

Did I enjoy the story? Yes. Was it what I expected (pun not intended)? No. In many ways ‘Great Expectations’ was much more than I could have wished for. I became completely immersed in the world that Dickens’s created for Pip and followed his life with great interest. I loved the gloomy and dark opening of the misty marshes at the start, and was completely hooked by Miss Havisham from the first scene in which we met her. In fact I did at several points wonder why on earth Charles Dickens had not just written an entire book about her. I mean in hindsight the tale of Miss Havisham and the forever jilted bride has become the most famous part of this tale hasn’t it?

“I saw that the bride within the bridal dress had withered like the dress, and like the flowers, and had no brightness left but the brightness of her sunken eyes. I saw that the dress had been put upon the rounded figure of a young woman, and that the figure upon which it now hung loose, had shrunk to skin and bone. Once, I had been taken to see some ghastly waxwork at the fair, representing I know not what impossible personage lying in state. Once, I had been taken to one of our old marsh churches to see a skeleton in the ashes of a rich dress, that had been dug out of a vault under the church pavement. Now, wax-work and skeleton seemed to have dark eyes that moved and looked at me. I should have cried out, if I could.”

When Miss Havisham appeared, a lot like when Magwitch appears in the cemetery, the book really came alive for me. The gothic elements of it all, and indeed the pre-Victorian London did spring to life when Pip’s journey takes him there. I will say though that if the story was merely just about Pip without these extra characters, or just about him and Estella (why he fell for her I simply couldn’t understand), I don’t think I would have fared so well. He is a bizarre character in many ways, not likeable really but not dislikeable, and one I couldn’t decide if Dickens liked or not as sometimes he seemed to be the butt of Dickens jokes. Here was a shocker for me; Dickens is really quite funny when he wants to be. Pip seemed to like being a bit of a victim, which sounds awful but there are people out there like this, and rather a drama queen and I would find myself laughing out loud at things when they happened to him, was Dickens wanting us all to do this I wondered?

“I was in mortal terror of the young man who wanted my heart and liver; I was in mortal terror of my interlocutor with the ironed leg; I was in mortal terror of myself, from whom an awful promise had been extracted; I had no hope of deliverance through my all-powerful sister, who repulsed me at every turn; I am afraid to think of what I might have done, on requirement, in the secrecy of my terror.”

These wonderful quotes do bring me to a very important topic – Dickens’ prose. Overall I really liked it; I was at its heart proper storytelling. It is this storytelling nature that makes me think it is so interesting that prose that was written for the masses and serialised has become seen as some of the greatest around. He creates atmospheres and characters brilliantly, sometimes merely in a name we learn everything about a characters traits, whilst also introducing lots of strands of stories weaving off to the left and right of the main narrative. He is a little over wordy though on occasion, being paid per word I am sure I would be too, but occasionally this can become repetitive and on occasion I found myself thinking ‘blooming heck Mr Dickens, why use a word when you can use six paragraphs?’ Part of this might have been my impatience of wanting to know what happened and part of it might simply be that I was reading it straight, not in serial, and with a deadline – either way I noticed it, it wasn’t a major problem it just made me wonder if the sense of atmosphere and wonderful characters could sustain me through a monster like ‘Bleak House’ for example? Also, how on earth did Dickens want to make this story even longer, as was the original plan?

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This all makes me sound rather grumpy and as if I didn’t like it and I did. I think what frustrated me though was that I think Wilkie Collins does it better (which I fancy having made on a t-shirt) especially the twists and the suspense in his books and yet doesn’t get half the credit Dickens does, it seems unfair. That small point made, I got a lot more than I expected (pun now intended) from ‘Great Expectations’. It was far, far, far more enjoyable than I expected it to be. I loved the atmosphere of the novel, especially when it was at its darkest, and some of the characters – mainly Miss Havisham – will stay with me for years to come. I was also impressed by how funny it could be in parts. Oh and, as this seems to be a big point of discussion with this book, I much preferred the original ending that Dickens came up with to the revised, but we can discuss that in the comments not to give anything away for those who you who haven’t read it, or Dickens, yet – and I would recommend everyone give this book a whirl.

So who else has read ‘Great Expectations’, though really I know probably most of you who visit here have and I am very late to this Dickensian party, and what did you think? Who is still a bit dubious? Now I have given this a whirl, and you have seen what in his books/prose do and don’t work for me, would you suggest I try next? Oh and don’t forget to check AJ’s thoughts when they go up, he is poorly so they may be late.

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Filed under Charles Dickens, Classically Challenged, Oxford University Press, Review