This year, one of my new year’s resolutions was to read more books, so my Dad and I have decided to do this reading challenge together to get some new reading inspiration!
The list itself is fun, and we’ve both put together a list of books we plan to read in 2017. I’m going to post here all the books I have read (which I’ll update as I go along) with a short review of each book.
My first stop was a trip to Waterstones to buy some new books, as frankly, any New Year’s Resolution that involves shopping is a great idea!
I have also realised that since I switched to a kindle I am reading significantly less, and while a Kindle is terribly useful if I’m going overseas for months on end, as you don’t have lug kilos of books around with you, it seems that I remember things differently when I have read them on a kindle…. I have discovered that my memory is hard-wired for visual stimulus and pictures, so I have difficulty distinguishing between books I have read on a kindle – for some reasons the titles get all jumbled up and I can’t remember which ones I liked or which one had the detective in it, as when I recall a book from my memory, I see the cover first, the colours and pictures, and THEN I remember the title based on what the cover looked like. An interesting discovery into how my brain (and memory in particular) operates!
So off I went to Waterstones to reinvest in actual books, and I spent far too much money but it was fun! I particularly enjoyed looking for a book with a red spine that took my fancy!
Category: A book with a title that’s a character’s name
Book 1: Rebecca, by Daphne DuMaurier
This was my first book of the year, and old classic I had read once years ago and had been keen to re-read again. It held up well, and is still a really great read. A great choice to kick off with! I also stumbled across a particular quote which I really adore (I love a really good quote!)
“There was something rather blousy about roses in full bloom, something shallow and raucous, like women with untidy hair.”
I love that quote so much I am considering getting it nicely printed to hang in my bathroom or something similar.
(Non-Book challenge entry)
After me comes the flood, by Sarah Perry
This one wasn’t related to my challenge, but it took my fancy while I was at the bookshop. it was ok, but a bit “meh”.
Category: a book with a subtitle
Book 2: There once lived a woman who tried to kill her neighbour’s baby: Scary Fairy Tales, by Ludmilla Petrushevskaya
This one I picked up at the bookshop and thought it looked interesting, as I love a good short story, and I also like fairy tales. However perhaps I should have actually judged this book slightly more on it’s cover, or at least it’s title. It is a fairly hardcore look at Russia deep in soviet hell, where people are starving and looting and generally doing awful things to try to feed themselves. Pretty grim reading. I can’t say I enjoyed it much.
Category: A book I bought on a trip
Book 3: The Magic Toyshop, by Angela Carter
I picked this one up at Heathrow on my way to Senegal, and thought it looked rather intriguing based on the blurb on the back. However this one also turned out to be extremely odd. Written in the 60’s during what one assumes was a period of avant-garde literature on the sexual revolution, the plot involves a teenage girl who goes to live with a strange aunt and uncle in London after her parents die. There was a lot of creepy sexual overtones, including some incest and a scene involving a mock-rape with a life-sized swan puppet. Super-weird, and no doubt very of it’s time. Another one I didn’t massively enjoy and definitely would not read again.
As a hilarious aside – I finished both the magic toyshop and the scary fairytales while on a work trip to Senegal, and decided in the interests of not hoarding that I could safely leave both books at the hotel – no need to lug them back home as I didn’t want to keep them or read them again. However after check-out, we had a work meeting in the hotel restaurant, and the kind staff thought I had forgotten them and brought them back to me. I explained to my colleagues that I was abandoning the books, and one of my senegalese colleagues asked if he could keep them, as he didn’t often read books in English. I said he could, but realised later that he’s going to think I have extremely twisted taste in books after reading those two!
Category: A book with a red spine
Book 4: A history of Britain in 21 women, by Jenni Murray
This book was GREAT. I LOVED it. Utterly superb in every way. I don’t normally read books on history or biographies (only occasionally, and usually if it’s by Stephen Fry). However this book is beautifully written and managed to contain my interest by having small, bite-sized chapters on each woman, easily digestible and fascinating. I am growing increasingly feminist in my views these days, and have often remarked at how few important women are featured in schools when we learn about history, or historical events. I had never heard of at least 70% of these women, and really enjoyed learning about their various contributions to science, art, medicine, literature and civil rights. I highly recommend that everyone read it, and encourage your children to read it.
(Although one mild warning, the chapter on Fanny Burney will stay with you for a long time – she was one of the first women to have a successful mastectomy for breast cancer, and wrote a letter to her sister which is reproduced in the book, in which she describes in detail the surgery, which she was not given an anaesthetic for. It’s truly fascinating, and did a great deal for medical advances, but is definitely not one for the faint-hearted!)
Category: A book that’s been on your “to be read” list for way too long
Book 5: Go set a watchman, by Harper Lee
One of the most highly anticipated literary events of the century – Harper Lee’s sequel to To Kill a Mockingbird. As To Kill a Mockingbird is one of my all-time favourite books EVER (if you haven’t read it, stop reading this and go read it RIGHT NOW!!), I couldn’t wait to get my hands on another book from one of my favourite authors.
Having now read it, and without spoiling it for anyone out there, I have extremely mixed feelings about it. On the one hand, it’s well-written, and is positively bursting with zeitgeist (although it is set in the 60’s in the middle of the american civil rights movement, it strongly resonates with the current feelings around the world post-Brexit and post-Trump and could not be more topical in a lot of ways). In many ways I connected with the messages and themes in the book, and saw bits of myself and others in it, and in the way we have all become polarised in this new world to be more and more extreme right or extreme left, and to feel very black and white about everything. The book deals with that, in the context of the South in the midst of the post civil rights era, extremely well.
However, a few things troubled me. The first thing is relatively small, but as a British person I am not massively well-versed in American modern history, and while I am familiar with the general concept, the book was clearly written at the time, when vague references to “the supreme court ruling” or “the result” would be well understood. For me sadly much of this was lost, and I felt that while I knew vaguely what was happening, it might have made more sense as a plot if I was more familiar with what they were referring to, specifically in terms of the southern states.
Secondly, and most importantly for a lot of people, is the danger of messing with a beloved character. Atticus, Jem and Scout Finch, along with Dill and Calpurnia and a few others, are some of my favourite people. I ADORE To Kill a Mockingbird, and have read it over and over and over, and loved it just as much every time. They are beloved characters frozen in time – Jem is always going to be 12, and Scout will always be 6 (or 8?) – they are supposed to be children forever. and Atticus is a wise and calm and wonderful lawyer and father.
And now, suddenly, having read this book, they aren’t those things anymore. Now I know what happened to them when they grew up, and became adults, or got even older and became elderly, and it’s very hard to cope with on an emotional level. There is a part of me that wishes I hadn’t read it, as keeping those characters perfectly frozen in that moment of time would have been preferable. And yet now that I know, I can’t un-know it, and I can’t help but wonder if it will colour the original – next time I read To Kill a Mockingbird, will I be viewing it with a new lens, knowing what is going to happen next?
I hope not, as I will be very disappointed if the simple act of reading a book turns out to have ruined one of my favourite books of all time. We shall see….
Category: a book by a person of colour
Book 6: We should all be feminists, by Chimamand Ngezi Adiche
This one was nice, but I feel that it doesn’t really count. It’s a VERY short essay that was developed out of a TED talk, and I suspect that it may have worked better as a talk. While I’m all for the feminist movement, and it is interesting hearing a Nigerian perspective, it didn’t fully resonate with me and my own experiences all that well. However I have ordered her collection of short stories, and may well give a couple of her other proper novels a go as well.
Category: A book with one of the 4 seasons in the title
Book 7: Autumn – by Ali Smith
This one was interesting – definitely odd at times, but quite enjoyable. I was rather surprised that this novel is set in a post-Brexit UK (I rather assumed writers laboured for years on their treasured manuscripts, yet somehow Ali Smith has managed to write, edit AND publish in the scant 8 months since the vote).
This book covers the changing seasons both literally and figuratively, intermingling the seasons with the concepts of youth and old age, told via an unlikely friendship between a young girl and her elderly neighbour. It has some strange surrealistic moments, and some very real, mundane ones, which somehow mixes very fluidly the banal with a dream-like world. And throughout the novel there is a sub-plot which weaves in the story of a 60’s pop artist called Pauline Boty and Christine Keeler, a young woman at the centre of a political scandal in 1963.
Weird but interesting, and a relatively quick read (thanks mainly to the large print text!).
Category: an audiobook
Book 8: Talking as fast as I can: From Gilmore Girls to Gilmore Girls (and everything in between), by Lauren Graham
This was my first ever audiobook, but I’m not a big fan in general – I like the act of reading, and find listening instead not as satisfying. Also this book was probably the wrong choice – I chose it because I love Lauren Graham as Lorelai Gilmore in the TV show Gilmore Girls, and I wrongly assumed it would be more like the character than the actress. It is easy to forget that the character you love is only as good as the writers of the show, and therefore as this is an autobiography, it was written by Lauren and not by the TV show’s writers. Also, it’s an autobiography, so she kept referring to photos in the book which I couldn’t see – very annoying!
Category: A book by an author from a country you’ve never visited
Book 9: The Alchemist, by Paulo Coehlo
I’ve heard a lot of hype about this book, so thought I would give it a go. It was a perfectly nice and harmless fable about life, the universe and everything, but it didn’t give me goosebumps or anything. It was nice, but not amazing, at least not to me, although I’ve heard many people raving about it.
(Non-book challenge entry)
Five go on a strategy away day,
This was a fun one I got for Christmas, not on the challenge list, but it was funny anyway.
Category: A book with a cat on the cover
Book 10: The Unadulterated Cat, By Terry Pratchett
This was a fun and silly one too, but very enjoyable. Highly recommended, although if you’ve never heard of the Campaign for Real Ale, many of the jokes might be lost on you…
Category: A book you loved as a child
Book 11: The Good Master, by Kate Seredy
I LOVED this book as a child – a touching story of the adventures of a city girl, who goes to live with her cousin on a farm in rural Hungary. My original copy had a beautiful cover, but sadly was so well-read it collapsed entirely, so I had to purchase a newer replacement. However it still has the wonderful illustrations that I loved as a child, and I found the stories as charming as ever. It’s homely and sweet and touching and from a simpler time, a lovely story and still one of my favourites. I’m happy to say it holds up well on reading it as an adult!
Category: A bestseller from 2016
Book 12: The Buried Giant, by Kazuo Ishiguro
I didn’t love this one – it was definitely in the “weird” category – all Britons and Saxons and Arthur and Gawain and a dragon and elderly people and monsters and strangeness. I didn’t really get it.
Category: A book of letters
Book 13: The Last Cuckoo – a collection of letters to the Times since 1900
Finally finished this one – it took me a while as I had to dip in and out a lot. Lots of great letters in here, and a few boring ones I skipped over…
Category: A book involving travel
Book 14: This must be the place, by Maggie O’Farrell
This was a spontaneous airport purchase, and I struggled a little to pick which category to put it in. However after slogging through several slightly dull books, it was nice to spontaneously stumble on a book I could really get into – this was a real page-turner for me, and I enjoyed it immensely – devoured it in about 4 days! I’m not sure if this is entirely the right category for it – but it is set in a number of countries so I suspect it will do. One could argue it is also a story within a story, and it is also a book with an unreliable narrator so I may re-categorise it if I can’t find anything to go in the other ones!
Overall though this was a great and easy read, very much a page-turner – highly recommended from me!
Category: A book with pictures
Book 15: The Last Hero – Terry Pratchett
Obviously I adore Terry Pratchett so this is a nice easy read, and gave me an excuse to buy the book too!
Category: A book where the main character is a different ethnicity than yours
Book 16: The Adventures of the black girl in search of God – George Bernard Shaw
This one was definitely a weird and strange book, but it has beautiful illustrations, and I learned at least 4 new words (including knobkerrie, Megatherium, isinglass, and assegai). Interesting and different but mightily strange.
Category: A book set in two different time periods
Book 17: Pour Me – A.A. Gill
This book started off rather gripping, but got fairly boring halfway through – I read it quickly but it was a bit of slog to the endzone. He’s an excellent writer, and has led an interesting life, but over-use of too many long words and unnecessarily long sentences just makes him sound a bit pretentious and keen to show off his large vocabulary after a while.
Category: A novel set during war time.
Book 18: The Power – Naomi Alderman
This was a gift for my birthday, and has ended up being a fun and easy read, bit of a page turner in places, and quite a lot darker than I initially thought it would be. Not a total favourite but a good and easy page turner nonetheless.
It is now June and I am almost halfway through the year and have read 18 books!!! (actually 22 but only 18 are part of the reading challenge so far).
I honestly didn’t think I’d come close to achieving my book challenge, but it’s definitely re-invigorated my love of, and interest in, books! Also I’ve had lots of fun buying new books and being given new books for my birthday – look at my latest haul!
Category: A book that’s a story within a story
Book 19: The Girls – Emma Cline
This was dark but interesting – a fictional story loosely based on the Manson family cult and murders. Dark. It involved the story of the woman in her 60’s, living her life and reminiscing about her youth as part of a cult.
Category: A book with an unreliable narrator
Book 20: The Most Beautiful Book in the World – Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt
This only just barely fit into any of the categories, but it was excellent and I loved it, so have squeezed it in here. It’s a book of 8 novellas (more like short stories) each involving a strong central female character. I loved it and found it gripping.
Category: A bestseller from a genre you wouldn’t normally read
Book 21: The Wonder – Emma Donaghue
I liked this one, it was reasonably gripping and interesting. I have classed it as historical fiction, though as it’s a genre I don’t normally read I don’t know if that counts!
Category: A book recommended by a librarian
Book 22: The Miniaturist – Jessie Burton
This was also pretty good, fairly gripping and also what I would class as historical fiction. I found learning about the trade rules and burgermeisters of 17th Century Holland fascinating, although some of the major plot twists fizzled out a bit in places. Overall though I liked it a lot.
Category: A book from a non-human perspective
Book 23: Memoirs of a Polar bear – Yoko Tawada
This one was awful, I hated it and I gave up halfway through. I was really excited about the concept of this book, but it was strange and dreamlike and kept slipping between human and bear perspectives – I got utterly confused and couldn’t follow it. It reminded me of Murakami, who I also don’t get along with, and find far too abstract and weird. Definitely not for me, and the first book so far I have just given up on. Which is why I have a second entry for this category:
Book 24: The Bees – Laline Paul
This one I did finish, but again I found it weird and strange and it wasn’t quite my cup of tea.
(Non-Book challenge entry)
The Bridge of San Luis Rey – Thornton Wilde
This didn’t fit neatly into any of the categories left in my book challenge, but it was one my dad left for me on a recent trip. It was nice, a bit odd, good character development, but an odd ending that didn’t seem to come to a particular conclusion in the end.
Category: A book about food
Book 25: Toast – Nigel Slater
This was a lovely and easy read – rather shocking in places, and also lots of 70’s nostalgia. A very clever and engaging way to write a memoir, through the foods of one’s youth. I was surprised by several incidents that occurred in Nigel Slater’s childhood, some of which were verging on paedophilia, but it is handled in a fairly opaque manner.
Category: A book that’s becoming a movie in 2017
Bool 26: Lion – Saroo Brierley
This was another quick read, very engaging and a fascinating tale – made more interesting to me as I have visited a number of cities and provinces in India, and worked in an orphanage in Nepal, so I could easily picture the events. An amazing story – more so because it’s true!
Category: A book set around a holiday other than Christmas
Book 27: The Swimming Pool – Louise Candlish
I feel slightly as though I am cheating by slotting this particular book into this category – the main events centre around the school summer holiday (the main character is a teacher) and on the August bank holiday weekend in particular, which I have therefore decided to classify as a holiday for the purposes of this challenge!
It’s a reasonably gripping summer thriller type story, and I must say, I was very smug as I believed I had figured out the main twist in the story very early on, only to realise near the end I was wrong – right up to the final chapter there are several twists I didn’t expect to see!
Category: A book by or about a person who has a disability
Book 28: The Diving-Bell and the Butterfly – Jean-Dominique Bauby
This was a wonderful book – very touching, very moving, very sad but also uplifting. It’s an incredible feat – Bauby suffered a massive stroke that left him with “locked-in” syndrome, able to communicate only by blinking one eye.
He used that one eye to write this book, with an assistant reciting the letters of the alphabet, and he blinked when she should stop. It took weeks and weeks to construct words and sentences, but it proves that his brilliant and articulate mind is very much still in there, and was a fascinating peek into a locked-in world.
My favourite quote? The moment that Bauby realised and fully accepted that this would be his new life, and refused to wear the hospital jogging suits anymore.
“But I see in the clothes a symbol of continuing life. And proof that I still want to be myself. If I must drool, I may as well drool on cashmere.”
Category: A book about an interesting woman
Book 29: An unnecessary woman – Rabin Alemaddine
This was fab – an interesting peek into life in Beirut during the civil war, and very beautifully written. Great read.
Category: A book involving a mythical creature
Book 30: Haroun and the Sea of Stories – Salman Rushdie
This one is pretty slow going – my first Salman Rushdie, and it’s ok, but not blowing my mind. Very imaginative as fairy tales go.
Category: An espionage thriller
Book 31: Slow Horses – Mick Herron
This was great – a quick read, gripping plot, and pretty funny. I’m planning to read a few more in the series!