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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

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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?

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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!

Upstairs 2

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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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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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

Can a Book Group Be Bad For a Book?

Both whilst recording the latest episode of The Readers Summer Book Club and then compiling my post on the book, ‘Bleakly Hall’ by Emlaine Di Rollo, itself afterwards has raised a question in my head… Can a book group be a bad thing for certain books and the reading experience around them?

One of the things I love most about a book group is the discussion, the gossip; chatting and wine afterwards is all a bonus. I have found with book groups in the past that discussing a book I didn’t like and hearing everyone else’s thoughts on it can sometimes make me d a complete 180 with my opinion. It can also be an utter joy, and rather bonding as I found with ‘Mary Barton’, if you all loathe a book and can sit and pick it apart. Yet what if you really enjoyed reading a book and others pick it apart, can it kill it for you?

This has very rarely happened to me before in any book groups that I can think of. Why is this so? Well I think it is because I tend to be more critical about books I am reading with my ‘book group’ brain on, yes even more so than when I am reading a book to review. With reviews I analyse the way a book made me feel and the questions it raises itself of makes me ask myself, yet with a book group book I tend to pick it apart all the more. Or maybe I do this all the time and yet am only aware of it when prepping for a book club – yes indeed, I prep.

It is this very reason why I have never suggested reading a Daphne Du Maurier book as a choice of my own to any group I have been part of, other members have and I have always been quite fearful that my favourite authors work will be picked to death and my love of Daphers altered. Fortunately Daphne tends to be so wonderful that this rarely happens.

Yet for the first time ever recently as I read a book I was thoroughly enjoying, the aforementioned ‘Bleakly Hall’, I found that as I knew I would be discussing it in detail I started to pick it apart as I read not afterwards. Normally I always do this afterwards, not during, and I am not sure why it changed with this book but I ended up almost sabotaging reading it because I was pre-empting the questions/reactions/subjects that the book would raise. It had a house of cards effect/loose thread effect and I started picking.

This then made me wonder if some books are just not book group books. For example, and I am not comparing ‘Bleakly Hall’ to this series it is just an example, I would never take an Agatha Raisin mystery to a book group. It and I would be annihilated and those, for me, are just books I read for pleasure, no more no less and there is nothing wrong with books that you simply read and are entertained by the whole way through. I think ‘Bleakly Hall’ would have been just such a book if I wasn’t reading it in the context I did.

So I wondered if any of you had found that there are some books that simply should be avoided as book group choices. Obviously with book group books the idea is no one has read them and so there is always the risk it won’t work I suppose but maybe some experiences/titles stick out in particular? Do you agree some books should simply be read and enjoyed, not picked apart or should all books be treated with the same analytical internal eye of a reader?

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Filed under Book Group, Book Thoughts

Mary Barton – Elizabeth Gaskell

I haven’t reported back on how the Manchester Book Club’s second meeting yet have I? In part that is because I have been busy yet I will admit that I have also veered away from discussing our first group read, chosen by Lucy, which was ‘Mary Barton’ by Elizabeth Gaskell. This choice was one I was quite looking forward to, I don’t read enough classics, and being a ‘Manchester tale’ seemed completely apt. Well, I am sorry to report that I hated it (but in a rather healthy loved to hate it way) and I don’t like writing slating, if constructive, but I am going to and as she is dead I don’t feel as bad, though I know she has a legion of fans who will probably now think I am a philistine.

Vintage Classics, paperback, 1848 (republished 2008), fiction, 496 pages, borrowed from the library

I am not someone who tends to read blurbs before I read a book, a topic for another time, yet as ‘Mary Barton’ was a book group choice and we vote on one of three titles chosen by a member and so we read the blurbs to decide. I voted for ‘Mary Barton’ because it sounded like it had all the elements of a great classic. There was a love triangle, a murder and a tale of mystery, injustice and a city in the grip of an industrial revolution. It sounded really epic and Mary Barton herself sounded like she could be a fantastic heroine struggling in the face of adversity. I did think it might be a rather stereotypical Victorian classic, but it would be fun to read one set in the city in which I live. I wasn’t expecting such a grim and depressing book which would also bore me rigid.

What makes it really hard to write about Mary Barton is that fact that, if we are all being honest, nothing actually happens in the book until the murder (and that isn’t giving anything away because you know one is coming from the blurb) yet that doesn’t actually take place for about 250 or more pages. So what are the first few hundred pages about? Well mainly how miserable everyone is and how it is ‘grim up north’ really. I know people say Manchester can be a rainy and slightly overcast place but this was too much.

‘The next evening it was a warm, pattering, incessant rain – just rain to waken up the flowers. But in Manchester, where alas! there are no flowers, the rain had only a disheartening and gloomy effect; the streets were wet and dirty, the drippings from the houses were wet and dirty, and the people were wet and dirty.’

I will admit the opening chapters are of a slightly lighter nature, the first describing the countryside around Manchester, and while initially I thought it was interesting to see the names of places I knew this waned and I was hoping for some plot or characters, if this book was going to be endless descriptions I wasn’t going to get on with it. The second chapter from its very title ‘A Manchester Tea Party’ suggests we will be getting characters and a situation, yes we do but for me it was a sudden mass of characters and initially I was cross and confused until I had figured out who everyone was.

As we do get to meet and know a character, which doesn’t happen too often as everyone seems to die a few pages after we get to know them, we are given insight into the social history of Manchester at the time. I can’t say I know much, or have ever been keen to know much, about the Industrial Revolution yet discovering about it became a glimmer of hope in what was fast becoming a book I was falling swiftly out of love with it. I did learn a lot I have to admit and I think in its day this book would have been somewhat of an eye opener. Gaskell was clearly doing something to make a point in the first half, alas after the murder she seems to give up, of what people were going through at the time. Good for her, and back then great reading I am sure, in the present day however someone would write a lengthy essay rather than have the same issues repeated over and over again for a few hundred pages and in such huge chunks you almost can’t take it in, or simply get bored and bogged down by it.

 ‘For three years past trade had been getting worse and worse, and the price of provisions higher and higher. This disparity between the amount of the earnings of the working classes and the price of their food, occasioned, in more cases than could well be imagined, disease and death. Whole families went through a gradual starvation. They only wanted a Dante to record their sufferings. And yet even his words would fall short of the awful truth; they could only present an outline of the tremendous facts of the destitution that surrounded thousands upon thousands in the terrible years 1839, 1840, and 1841. Even philanthropists who had studied the subject, were forced to own themselves perplexed in their endeavour to ascertain the real causes of the misery; the whole matter was of so complicated a nature, that it became next to impossible to understand it thoroughly. It need excite no surprise, then, to learn that a bad feeling between working-men and the upper classes became very strong in this season of privation. The indigence and sufferings of the operatives induced a suspicion in the minds of many of them, that their legislators, their magistrates, their employers, and even the ministers of religion, were, in general, their oppressors and enemies; and were in league for their prostration and enthralment. The most deplorable and enduring evil that arose out of the period of commercial depression to which I refer, was this feeling of alienation between the different classes of society.’

See what I mean, and that’s only half of that paragraph. I spared you the rest.

I could be lenient and say that this was a debut novel, so it is probably a book written from ideas and ideals. I also think I should state that it is a book of its time that hasn’t really aged very well. Yet forgive it all that and actually ‘Mary Barton’ isn’t really a novel, it’s more an overlong view of the Industrial Revolution and I think at heart that is really what Gaskell wanted to write. I am sure there will be academics up in arms at that sweeping statement but it’s true. Mary isn’t really a fully formed character, we learn more about those around her and their situations than we do her, she seems to simply be a tool for Gaskell to observe, fair enough, but give her some gumption.

 In fact that said I think that might be my big issue with ‘Mary Barton’ as a whole, it seems a half baked book. My reasons for such a critique are as I mentioned above Mary as a central character with no real central drive, just an observer, a murder which happens so late and becomes so clear who did it that it’s inconsequential, as is the trial later. These things are padding to a book that is far too padded with observational opinion already. If Gaskell had fully formed everything around the central issue of society at the time and in her area this could have been incredible, as it stands it’s a bit of a ‘moral guide to…’ instead. Sorry Mary.

What was interesting was that I rather enjoyed how much I disliked it in the end. It reminded me why we need bad books and to get cross now and again. I also rather naughtily felt pleased I could write off another writer, is that bad? I was also pleased to see that the feelings were felt unanimously between the twelve of us who met for book group, it was quite bonding. You can see a review from Lucy, who chose the book, here and another from Alex here.

Have you read ‘Mary Barton’ and what did you think? What other Gaskell novels have you read? I am bad to feel relief that I can write off an author after enjoying loathing one book so much?

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Filed under Elizabeth Gaskell, Review, Vintage Books, Vintage Classics

Books By The Bedside #2

I meant to blog all weekend I really did, alas I just got to busy with other fun stuff. As I had intended to post something about what we are all reading at the moment I thought that I would back date a post, that’s allowed isn’t it? So here we have the return of ‘Books By The Bedside’, a peripheral view of what I am reading at the moment and planning on reading very soon, also a series I planned to make more regular, whoops!

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At the moment my main read, and book of contention if I am being honest, is ‘Mary Barton’ by Elizabeth Gaskell. Yes, I am still reading it. It’s a bit like wading through treacle (we’ve all been there). Despite a murder happening, which I thought might spice it up a bit, Mary has almost instantly worked out who it is so now we know. If it wasn’t the first choice for ‘Manchester Book Club’ I would have given up by now. But, like the characters in the book actually, I have the grim determination to see it through to the end against all obstacles… Like boredom. Shall we move on?

I am combating the above book with a favourite thanks to pure timing. Monday is World Book Night and not only will I be giving away copies of ‘Rebecca’ I will also be reading it at an event at Waterstones Deansgate from 6.30pm. I’ve been dipping into Daphers for some favourite sections! I do bloody love this book.

The two books I am planning to read are ‘Home’ the latest Toni Morrison novel, which will also be my first foray into her work, for a review in We Love This Book, I am intrigued to see how great she is. I know lots of people who love her work. It’s fairly short but I am hoping packs a punch. I will then be reading ‘The Last Werewolf’ by Glen Duncan, described by one of my favourite book lovers Marieke Hardy as a ‘very silly book’ and a ‘cock forest’. It’s also the first of The Readers Summer Book Club choices so I best crack on.

It’s rather a small pile of books for me I admit, but at the moment I am splitting my weeks between Manchester and Liverpool (more on the lovely reason for this soon), so only so many books I can lug about.

Anyway… Which books are you reading and keen to read? Have you read any of the above, or other works by the authors? Do let me know as always.

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Filed under Books By The Bedside