Tag Archives: Edith Wharton

Other People’s Bookshelves #59 – Erica Jones

Hello and welcome to the latest Other People’s Bookshelves, a series of posts set to feed into the natural filthy book lust we all feel and give you a fix through other people’s books and shelves. This week we are down in the garden of England that is Kent and having a nosey around the shelves of fellow book blogger Erica. Now that we have helped ourselves to some Kentish treats and a whole host of lovely beverages we can get to know Erica and her bookshelves a little bit better…

Originally a northerner, I now live in Kent (via Wales). This means I do a lot of travelling to catch up with scattered friends and family. Combine that with an obsession with books and bookshops, and it was inevitable I’d one day find an excuse to visit as many of them as possible, which is how I started writing my blog The Bookshop Around the Corner in my spare time. I’m basically on a one-woman crusade to remind people why they should be buying their books from real (preferably but not necessarily independent) bookshops on the high street. However rather than going on an angry rant I chose to do it in a positive way, sharing the bookshopping fun with anyone who wants to read. Also, I’ll only write about bookshops I like and have spent money in. You can find me on Twitter @bookshopblogger.

Erica full bookshelves

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?

If I like a book I keep it. All the books I own are on display somewhere in my flat – mostly on the shelves in my living room, but also in other strategic points, such as the kitchen, next to the bath or in piles on my dining table (waiting for me to tidy up the shelves, a regular problem given how many books I buy). The only ones hidden away are my old Open University course books. It felt a bit pretentious to have them on show.

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?

My shelves are split into three groups: standard paperbacks; misc; bookshop blog. Standard paperbacks is fairly obvious, this is an A-Z of the paperback fiction and non-fiction of my life. However last year I downsized from a house and had to cull around five boxes of books. This section took quite a hit, mostly classics from school (in the hope someone else will fall in love with them) unread university course books (the heavier side of studying English literature) and those I’ve inherited, but I agonised over every volume before putting it into the box. In the end the only reason I was able to give them up was because I knew how much the bookshop they went to would benefit. This section takes up the bottom three rows of shelves and includes the random oversized books on the right of the main picture.

Erica A-Z close

Misc is a combination of hardbacks, larger books and my childhood Sweet Valley High collection. It’s generally in alphabetical order according to size and also took a bit of a hit during last year’s enforced cull. Some of the books that mean the most to me are found in this section. This is the bookcase to the left of the main picture. The third grouping is for the bookshop blog. It takes up the top row of the bookcases and also on top of them. Given how obsessed I can be with alphabetical order, these shelves are the ones that make people look twice: the books are arranged in chronological bookshop order. The first book, The Princess Bride was bought at the first bookshop I wrote about, Big Green Books in Wood Green, London. Then they follow in order, spilling out onto the top of the bookcases as I’ve run out of room. Next to these, acting as bookends and topped with random other bookshop items, are small piles of books relating to bookshops I’ve not yet written about. This is my favourite section and I’m never culling from it, the books are too great a reminder of all the fascinating places I’ve visited and people I’ve met since starting the blog. Nothing beats looking along a row of books for inspiring good memories.

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

This was probably one of my Sweet Valley High books, I couldn’t tell you which one, but they are all proudly on display on the bookshelves in my living room.

Erica Sweet Valley High

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?

There should be nothing guilty about a book. Whether you’re reading Ladybirds, 50 Shades of Grey or Shakespeare, the simple act of reading is something to be proud of. Which is why in my A-Z shelves Dune sits next to The Iliad, and Stephenie Meyer’s spines are just as obvious as John Irving’s or Iris Murdoch’s.

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’m guessing I’m not allowed to keep all the books from the bookshop blog? Instead I’ll pick out a couple of special ones: My first edition of The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton, it’s my favourite book and was given to me be someone who’s had a big impact on my life; Perfect Cooking by Parkinson, my great-grandmother’s cookbook, including her notes along the side of the recipes; and Swallows and Amazons by Arthur Ransome, which taught me not to judge a book by its cover.

Erica rescue from fire

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?

There weren’t many books in my parents’ house, so holidays at my Gran’s generally led to me coveting her shelves. The simple fact she had books meant I coveted all of them. When I was finally allowed to start reading them her Jeffrey Archer collection came first, probably First Among Equals. Then I moved on to Jane Austen and Iris Murdoch. The first developed my fascination with politics, the latter two with reading. I’ve kept the latter two books.

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?

My TBR pile is so large I try not to borrow books! When I can I take part in a bookshare but I use this as an opportunity to read books I’d not normally go for. So far, this has inspired me to buy more of the other books by the authors I’ve been introduced to. Having said that, I am still on the lookout for a copy of We by Yevgeny Zamyatin, which I borrowed from my university’s library more than a decade ago. I’d love to re-read it and add it to my shelves.

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

The Guest Cat by Takashi Hiraide, bought at The Kennington Bookshop. I’d actually intended to buy a different book, but another browser beat me to it (it’s all on the blog).

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

I have an ambition to own and read all the Swallows and Amazons books by Arthur Ransome. I once found a complete set of first editions (in Stephen Foster Books, Chiswick ) and seriously considered blowing my salary on the lot until reason kicked in. Instead I’m on the look out to buy them one at a time in order, in whatever format I encounter them. Swallowdale, the second in the series, is proving surprisingly difficult to find. I’m also always on the hunt for more titles by Elizabeth Gaskell and Edith Wharton.

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

I’ve no idea what anyone would think of my shelves. The best compliment anyone looking at my bookshelves could pay me would be to think my bookshelves look accessible, varied and interesting – and ask to borrow something.

Erica bookshop blog close

************************************************************************

A huge thanks to Erica for taking part in Other People’s Bookshelves! If you would like to catch up with the other posts in the series of Other People’s Bookshelves have a gander here. Don’t forget if you would like to participate (and I would love you to – hint, hint, hint as without you volunteering it doesn’t happen) 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 Erica’s responses and/or any of the books and authors that she mentions?

11 Comments

Filed under Other People's Bookshelves

Books That I’ve Bought of Late; The London Edition

I spent most of last week down in London having a lovely time catching up with lots of friends and getting very nervous before getting rather tipsy at the Green Carnation Prize winner event. This all naturally included rather a lot of falling to bookshops and buying quite a lot of books, which I thought I would share with you all as we all like a bit of book porn don’t we?

First up were four books that I have been meaning to get my hands on for ages and ages after lots and lots of people were talking about them around Halloween…

Galley Ghosts

These four gorgeous mini paperbacks are ghostly short stories by E. L Barker, Robert Louis Stevenson, Edith Wharton and P.G. Wodehouse. Don’t they look great as a little collection? As usual I am rather slow to the party and indeed have been meaning to buy them via Galley Beggar Press’ website online, however they were on prominent display at the gorgeous new Foyles store (they haven’t paid me to say that you wait till I share it with you on Thursday) and so they were whipped off the shelves and run to the tills.

Next up was a find when I fell into Hatchard’s which is one of my favourite bookshops because of its oldy-worldy-ness. You feel like you have fallen back in time in some way, which was apt as I was after a classic crime novel by members of The Detection Club…

IMG_6664

Gavin has chosen The Floating Admiral (yes a book on a bloody boat) as his classic choice on the next episode of Hear Read This. I don’t know masses about The Detection Club, just that they were a select group of crime novels, including Agatha Christie, who would wrote a chapter of a book each – one of which was this one. I am really looking forward to this one as it is from the golden age of crime, which links in with the next two random purchases…

British library editions

The British Library have started publishing books, these are not any old books (though they are old books) but recovered crime classics that have gone out of print. My eye was caught by J. Jefferson Farjeon’s (who wrote more than sixty books, who knew?) Mystery in White, in part as it was in prime position in Waterstones Islington, as it had the subtitle A Christmas Crime Story and regular visitors to this blog will know I like a Christmas story over, erm, Christmas. This seemed perfect, a broken down train in the snow and a deserted country house, what more could you want. As I looked around Murder Undergound by Mavis Doriel Hay which couldn’t have been a better present to myself from London could it?

Just as I was leaving the store I then spotted a book that I had to buy because of the title alone…

IMG_6663

How could you not want a book by Murakami with the title The Strange Library. This was a no brainer and at the till the bookseller was super duper effusive about it saying it was a marvellous dark little fairy tale, so it should be just my sort of read.

Finally I should add another three books though admittedly I didn’t buy them, though I think I did quite well on the buying front frankly.

IMG_6660

On the Thursday night I attended the Penguin Annual Bloggers Night at Foyles (yes them again) where I was lucky enough to meet three authors who have books out in 2015; Emma Hooper, Claire Fuller and Julia Rochester, so I grabbed their books. I also spoke to and shook the hand of William Gibson which was nice, though his books went like gold dust. I hear Marieke Hardy is a fan. It was also lovely to see Annabel, Simon, Sakura and Kim (the latter two also very nicely showed up at the Green Carnation Party) and we had a lovely catch up and natter, including the idea of having bloggers meet ups, as we did it once and it was lovely.

All in all a rather wonderful trip and a rather good book haul don’t you think? Which of these have you read and what did you make of them? Which of them do you fancy reading? What have you bought of late?

11 Comments

Filed under Books That I've Bought of Late

Other People’s Bookshelves #42; Victoria Hoyle

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 are back in the UK and heading to the delights of York, which you will be hearing more about next week, as we join blogger extraordinaire Victoria Hoyle to have a nosey through her books. So grab yourself a good strong cuppa Yorkshire Tea (the best kind) and have a nosey through her bookshelves and find out more about her.

I’m Victoria and I’ve been blogging about books at Eve’s Alexandria for just over 8 years.   I live in York with my partner in a little house completely overwhelmed by books.  Books doubled up on shelves, books on the floor, books in boxes, books stacked in piles on tables… I have always been an avid reader.  When I was a child my mum took me to the library every Monday evening and I borrowed armfuls of fiction.  Apart from my family the adult I looked up to most was Pam the librarian, who introduced me to some of my favourite authors as I got older.  When I went off to university I still rang her up for a chat about the latest paperbacks.   At university I was bitten by the book buying bug and met the friends I founded Eve’s Alexandria with.  These days I work for York Libraries and Archives.

photo(2)

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 keep all the books I read – it would be chaos if I did. We would literally drown under the sea of them. When I’ve finished something I give it a week or two for my impressions to settle and if I really loved it and think I’ll want to read it again (or stroke it lovingly sometimes) then I keep it. If it doesn’t pass the test I donate it to the library (if it’s not a review copy) or to charity. Every year or so I do a full sweep of the shelves and give away some books that I initially decided to keep but which don’t seem worth the shelf space in hindsight. I’d rather someone else was reading and enjoying them. I’d say about 1 in 5 books stays permanently, maybe less. The only exception I make is for favourite authors where I want to keep all their books even if one or two didn’t work for me.

Occasionally I make the wrong decision and give away a book I want to go back to – this sometimes happens with series, where I want to check something or re-read it before the next book comes out – but the rate at which the books are coming in means a lot have to be going out. What this means in reality is that the unread books vastly outnumber the read in our house. When people come to visit us and browse the bookshelves I’m always ashamed to admit that, no, I haven’t read that one, or that one, or that one…

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?

Yes and no. The books in the main ‘library’ (aka the dining room) are split into fiction and non-fiction but otherwise are completely random and higgledy-piggledy. Basically I put things where there is a space, which means that books I’ve read and books I haven’t are side by side, and things by the same writer are in seven different places. It’s not a very efficient system; I’m always hunting for something or wondering where a particular book has disappeared to. Most days I think to myself ‘You should really sort this mess out’ and decide to alphabetise them but somehow is never happens. I think because I know it would be hard to maintain with all the books coming and going. And there is something to be said for having to look through your whole collection just to find one thing. I’m always rediscovering books I forgot I had.

Different story in the living room. I suppose because the books in there are more ‘on show’. We have two shelves in there: one for classics and the other for favourite authors. Both are alphabetised, and I try to maintain order (although I’m rapidly running out of space). I like to see the black, red and cream spines of the Penguin and Oxford classics in neat rows, and love to have all our books by Ali Smith or Sarah Waters together – it pleases the completist in me. The top shelf of our ‘favourites’ bookcase is entirely books by or about Virginia Woolf. Both Esther and I studied her at university, and one of the reasons we first started seeing each other was a shared love of Virginia Woolf’s Orlando. Twelve years later we are still together and Woolf has pride of place.

photo(1)

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

My parents didn’t buy many books when I was younger – why would you when you can get as many as you like for free at the library? So apart from the occasional present at Christmas and birthdays all my books were borrowed. When I was about thirteen Pam (the librarian) introduced me to the Outlander series of time-travel romance-adventure books by Diana Gabaldon. I was really into multi-volume epic fantasy at the time and the Outlander books were like heaven. I was in *love* with the two main characters Jamie and Claire and literally read the first three books to pieces. When the fourth book – Drums of Autumn – came out in hardback I joined the incredibly long library request list and waited and waited and waited. It seemed to take forever to be my turn.

Then, during a day trip with my parents (to York, of all places), I spotted it in the window of Waterstones. I had some birthday money left over and my mum suggested that I could buy Drums of Autumn with it. It was a revelation – I didn’t have to wait any more, I could buy it! I was almost hyperventilating carrying it to the counter to pay, and think I gabbled something embarrassing to the shop assistant about it (who was probably wandering what a teenager was doing buying the fourth book in a series mostly read by middle aged women). I can still remember the extraordinary sense of happiness and wellbeing I felt sitting in the car on the drive home with it next to me on the seat. I hardly dared open it. I’ve bought hundreds of books since then, probably searching for that same feeling of contentment, but never quite attained it.

And yes, Drums of Autumn is still on my shelves, along with all the other Outlander books. The series is still going and the eighth book Written in My Own Heart’s Blood is due out in the US this June. Oh, and they are currently making it into a TV series. I am very, very excited and also terrified that it won’t live up to my expectations.

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 don’t have a hidden shelf but I’ve sometimes been guilty of ‘hiding’ books at the back of others, epic fantasy instalments behind the latest contemporary fiction for example. I still love reading fantasy, which is definitely an acquired taste and some of the covers can be difficult to explain in polite company. Dragons, half naked ladies, you get the picture. They are much better than they used to be – Game of Thrones has ushered in a new era of pretty classy covers – but still can be a bit weird. They also come in a lot of non-standard shapes and sizes, from dumpy little paperbacks to enormous trade and fat hardcovers, so they can dominate a shelf and draw the eye. That said if you look at the library shelves at the moment you will see all sorts jumbled together – fantasy and historical fiction and Booker and Nobel prize winners jostling for space. I quite like it that way.

photo

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?

This is a really hard question because I’m sentimental about quite a lot of books. But I think I’m going to have to tell another anecdote about Pam and beloved library finds. Around the same time that Pam was feeding me Diana Gabaldon she also introduced me to Guy Gavriel Kay, a Canadian writer who specialises in alternate historical fantasy. He has written lots of incredible books and I urge everyone to try him, even if you’re not a fantasy fan. I started with his Fionavar Tapestry trilogy: The Summer Tree, The Wandering Fire and The Darkest Road. I *loved* those books and when I was at university I tracked down hardback editions of the second and third books online and bought them. I couldn’t seem to find an affordable copy of the first one in good condition though so my collection was incomplete. Later, via the power of the internet and a friend, I got to know Guy a little through email as well as the illustrator who drew the Fionavar covers, Martin Springett. When Martin came to London 6 or 7 years ago I went down to meet up with him and he gave me a copy of that wonderful first book, which he signed. The powerful memory of reading it for the first time, along with Martin’s kindness, make it one of my most prized possessions.

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 segued pretty early from the children’s section of the library to the adult one, via Terry Pratchett and the fantasy shelves. I just read whatever I wanted; I’m pretty sure Pam let me take books out on my children’s ticket that I shouldn’t have.  I don’t remember there ever being a book that I wanted to read that I didn’t feel allowed to or was discouraged from. That said, there were definitely books I read that I probably shouldn’t have or that I was too young for. I think if my mum had known how much sex there was in the Outlander books for example she wouldn’t have let me read them so young, and the same goes for quite a lot of the fantasy series I gobbled up. And there were definitely books that I tried to read and failed at because I was too young, like Far From the Madding Crowd and To the Lighthouse. I’ve re-read them as an adult and loved them though, and they are still on my shelves 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 buy about 2/3 of my books and borrow the other 1/3, and usually I will buy a copy of a book that I’ve had from the library and loved. I use the same criteria as I would use to keep a book I suppose: will I re-read it, and do I need to have it in my line of sight. In the last couple of years I’ve borrowed and then bought Life After Life by Kate Atkinson, The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller and The Accidental by Ali Smith.

photo(3)

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

I’ve bought quite a lot of books this month – it’s a bit embarrassing how many, so I won’t say – but the absolutely most recent is J.L. Carr’s A Month in Country which I bought after reading Lynne’s recent post about it at Dovegreyreader. She made me want to read it immediately. This is how quite a lot of my books get bought – blogging has made me very impulsive.

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

I am in a constant state of wanting books. Every day it seems like I have a new fascination to feed. At the moment I would like to grow my collection of Doris Lessing. In fact, a book that I would love that hasn’t even been announced or written yet is a biography of her; I live in hope that my favourite literary biographer Hermione Lee is working on it already. She has done such masterly lives of Virginia Woolf, Edith Wharton and Penelope Fitzgerald. Surely someone has asked her to do one of Doris?

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

This is such an interesting question and I’m really not sure. It depends so much on where they are looking. They would probably think I have an eclectic taste in books, which I do. I hope it would make them think I was a curious person with wide interests rather than someone who just flitted from one thing to another. They would probably think I was a feminist or interested in women’s fiction, because books by women probably outnumber books by men 2 to 1 or more.   They would probably think I was disorganised because of the chaotic ordering system! They would probably think I was a bit of an escapist because of all the historical and fantasy fiction. I’d like to think they were interpret my willingness to suspend my disbelief as openness.

Sometimes I wonder if most ‘ordinary’ people wouldn’t think I was a bit weird for having so many. The last time we moved house we had to pack our books using library book crates, 40 of them in total. They were just too heavy for cardboard boxes. The removal men were honestly confused about why we had so many – did we own a second hand bookshop? Had we inherited them? Had we not heard of a Kindle? They were very solicitous in suggesting ways we could unburden ourselves of them, by giving them to charity or taking them to a car boot sale. They just couldn’t believe we really *wanted* them. We are about to move again and the crates are coming back again. It will be interesting to see what the next removal team think!

photo(4)

***************************************************

A huge thanks to Victoria for taking part in Other People’s Bookshelves. If you would like to find out more about her and the books she loves make sure you head to her blog Eve’s Alexandria. If you would like to catch up with the other posts in the series of Other People’s Bookshelves have a gander here. 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 Victoria’s responses and/or any of the books and authors that she mentions?

3 Comments

Filed under Other People's Bookshelves

Books of 2013; Part I

With two days of 2013 to go, I thought it was time to share my books of the year. In the tradition I have set over the last few years, and my inability to whittle books down as favourites, there will be two posts of my books of the year. Today it is the books that were published before 2013 and tomorrow the ones that were published for the first time in the UK this year. Interestingly today’s list has proved so much easier than tomorrows as it seems I didn’t really read many books published before 2013 – and when I did only a few of them blew me away, those ones were…

10. Chocolat – Joanne Harris

I have to say that even though I had seen the film, though it has been a while, ‘Chocolat’ as a book was a whole lot darker and less twee than I thought it would be before picking it up. One of the many things that I admired so much about it was that under the tale of outsiders coming to a place, and quietly causing mayhem, there was the huge theme of people’s individuality and that being different should be celebrated and not ostracised, yet ‘Chocolat’ is also cleverly not a book that smacks you over the head with a moralistic tone.

9. The Detour – Gerbrand Bakker

‘The Detour’ won the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize earlier this year and having read it you can easily see why. Bakker creates a story that is subtle and slow burning yet all at once brimming with a sense of mystery and menace. It is also a book that will linger on with the reader long after you have read it and, if you are like me, long after it devastates you with both its prose and most importantly its story. A much recommended book.

8. The Ministry of Fear – Graham Greene

Greene shows what a master he is not only of atmosphere (war torn and spy strewn London) but of writing a book which takes you on a rollercoaster of emotions as much as it does thrills. Some of the book I found profoundly moving, both the descriptions of the destruction the war inflicted and also in an element I can’t explain here for fear of spoilers. Greene also made me laugh out loud on several occasions which, with all the tension and twists, proved much needed and added a great contrast of light amongst the dark.

7. Riotous Assembly – Tom Sharpe

The more I have thought about Riotous Assembly, the more impressed I have been left by it. The humour gets you through some of the tough bits, some of the bits that people would normally find hard to read and digest palatable by their humour yet equally devastating, if not more so, when the reader realizes the truth in it. So yet there maybe the boobies (and more) and bullets (and more) in it that I was expecting, but the way in which they are used is both titillating and thought provoking.

6. The Long Falling – Keith Ridgway

If I had a little bit of a literary crush on Ridgway’s writing after reading ‘Hawthorn and Child’ last year, I now have something of a full on crush on it from reading ‘The Long Falling’. It shocked me from the first chapter which slowly meanders before a sudden twist, which happens a lot in this book actually, yet unlike some books that first amazing chapter is bettered as the book goes on and for all these reasons I strongly urge you to give it a read. I loved it, if love is the right word? I was also thrilled that this was as brilliant as the previous Ridgway I read yet a completely different book in a completely different style.

5. Good Evening Mrs Craven; The Wartime Stories – Mollie Panter Downes

I think Mollie Panter-Downes writing is astounding. I really remember liking it last time but this time I loved it. There are the wonderful, often rather quirky, characters some of whom, like Mrs Ramsey, Mrs Peters and Mrs Twistle, keep returning in and out of the stories which helps build the consistency of the world Panter-Downes describes as they run from 1939 to 1944, the tone changing slightly as the book goes on. She can bring a character to life in just a mere sentence or two and the brevity of her tales and how much they make your mind create is quite astounding.

4. The Grass is Singing – Doris Lessing

Lessing’s writing is unflinchingly brilliant. As I mentioned about the sense of menace and oppression is wonderfully evoked as the landscape and weather match the atmosphere of impending doom the book has and also Mary’s mental state. Mary is also an incredible creation, one of the most complex characters I have read. She is never completely likeable nor dislikeable, yet you find yourself fascinated by a woman who in turns goes from victim to venomous, from independent to weak, from sane to crazy, from racist to not and back again. It is confronting and equally compelling and highlights the society at the time and the conundrum and conflict a country and its society found itself in and in some ways, shockingly, still does.

3.Mariana – Monica Dickens

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.

2. HHhH – Laurent Binet

I don’t think I have learnt so much about World War II from a book I have read in all my 31, nearly 32, years. Considering that I studied it for about five years in my history lessons at school this is quite something. I had no idea about some of the smaller but utterly fascinating facts behind this time period; that the Hitler wanted authors such as Aldous Huxley, Rebecca West, HG Wells and Virginia Woolf; that the Nazi’s built their own brothel (Kitty’s Salon) to film other Nazi’s to see if they were true to the regime or not. Nor did I know of some of the utterly horrific things, like what an ineffectual plonker Chamberlain was, the plans for Nazi attack cells in all the cities all over the UK and the horrendous atrocities such as Grandmothers Gully in Kiev.

1. The House of Mirth – Edith Wharton

… 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.

So that is the first of my selection of books of 2013. I have only taken a small quote from my thoughts on each book, to find out more click on the link to each book. Which of these have you read and what did you think? I have realised I need to get into more of the books from the past and less of the shiny new ones, but that is for discussion more in the New Year. Any other books by these authors that you would recommend I read in 2014?

12 Comments

Filed under Books of 2013, Random Savidgeness

What Makes a Great Ghost Story?

I do love a good ghost story, though I have to admit I don’t read enough of them. What better time of the year, well here in the UK, is there to read them? No, not just because of the obvious fact it is Halloween today (Happy Halloween). It is autumn, my favourite season of the year as the nights are drawing in and there is a certain chill in the air. Delightful.

Of course today is Halloween and whether you celebrate it or not you simply cannot miss the ghosts, witches, monsters and gargoyles in your local shops (and no I don’t mean the other punters). Naturally for a bookish sort this will lead to thinking about supernatural reads. Or even to Ghost Huntersthe not so bookish as I mentioned the other day that it seemed the supernatural spirit (see what I did there) took over The Beard and two new spooky tales came home from the super(natural)market. I am on fire with puns today, like a witch on a stake. I am currently devouring ‘The Ghost Hunters’ by Neil Spring, all about the infamous Borley Rectory, and its very good. I am most impressed at how in such a long book he keeps the spooky suspense going as I normally like a shorter sharper shock for a ghostly tale. Which of course leads us to today’s (first, there will be another later when it goes darker) post as I was wondering what makes a truly great ghost story?

You see for me ghost stories are a tricky bunch. I am much more of a ‘chills and suspense’ kind of reader than I am a ‘blood and guts and gore’ kind of reader. As I mentioned above I tend to like a sharper ghostly tale, short stories in the main or novella’s maximum, as I find that prolonged tension doesn’t really work as well. For me. I also find ghostly tales set in modern times just don’t work. You can all too easily whip out your mobile phone or some gizmo and the fear vanishes, a good Victorian ghostly tale tends to tick all my boxes. (I actually threw a gauntlet down once that modern settings for a ghost story don’t work and guess what James Dawson was inspired to prove me wrong, this was confirmed from his own mouth!)

So to investigate what I think makes the perfect ghostly tale, whilst also using Neil Spring as a good example of a longer tale, I picked four titles from my newly restructured shelves that I thought I would dip into over this Halloween and autumn too…

Ghostly Tales

Alfred Hitchcock loved a good spooky/horror story and this collection is of some of his favourite ‘Stories Not For The Nervous’. This appeals to me immensely as I love being made to feel nervous in fiction (not in real life, in real life nerves destroy me) and I think these twenty tales and three novelettes which are included will work wonders. Next up is a selection of ‘Ghost Stories’ chosen by Susan Hill (who to me is Queen of the Ghostly Tale) which features my favourite Mr Wilkie Collins and more surprisingly, to me at least, Elizabeth Bowen and Edith Wharton. ‘The Conan Doyle Stories’ are one of my most prized possessions in the world. My Great Uncle Derrick would memorise these and tell them to me when I was very young on walking holidays, ten miles a day roughly, and Gran always said she would desperately try to keep up with us so she didn’t miss the endings. I haven’t read these for ages and should. Finally a renowned author of all things horror (and quite weird), yet new to me, H. P. Lovecraft. I have no idea if I will love these or not but it will be fun finding out.

So before I head off and start reading these dark delights, and hopefully scaring myself silly, I wondered what it was that makes the perfect ghostly tale for you all and what ghost stories you would most recommend?

20 Comments

Filed under Book Thoughts, Random Savidgeness

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.

Classically-Challenged-OUP-Banner

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?

33 Comments

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

Classically Challenged Giveaway #4; The House of Mirth – Edith Wharton

9780199538102_450So today is a day of book giveaways and the first, in conjuncture with Classically Challenged and the lovely Oxford University Press, is ‘The House of Mirth’ by Edith Wharton. The lovely people (Kirsty and Chloe you are lovely) at OUP are kindly giving away three copies of the each Classically Challenged choice! Now normally I set some big crazy question but today, whilst I am busy culling my own TBR and adding to yours, I thought I would leave it very simple…

All you need to do is leave a comment of ‘yes please’ below this post and you will be plucked at random by The Beard, or maybe Oscar or Millie, sometime on early Monday morning, it is that easy!

You have until just before midnight tomorrow night to enter the draw (so basically 23.59 GMT on Sunday the 6th of January 2013). Good luck!

P.S AJ will also be giving three copies of these books away on his blog, so fear not if you don’t win you have twice the chances. Alas he seems to have been really ill over Christmas and gone AWOL but I will let you know when I hear back from him.

36 Comments

Filed under Classically Challenged, Give Away