Monthly Archives: December 2012

2012: books I recommend

2012: books I recommend

This year I’ve read a lot of books (more than normal) and reviewed a lot of books (way more than normal) but I didn’t enjoy all of them, so I thought I would finish the year with a round up of the books I’ve read, reviewed on the blog and recommend. I tend to post quick link-and-100-word reviews of books I’ve read on G+ so do feel free to follow me there if you’d like even more book recommendations in your life.

In case you’re shopping for someone else, I’ve divided the Big Read books loosely by age, based largely on reading level, themes and marketing although I read books off all three lists in primary school, and have obviously read all of them as an adult. Title links are to my review, other links as indicated.

Books which aren’t on the Big Read list
All the Money in the World
by Laura Vanderkam (non-fiction) (Amazon UK)
Unraveled by Courtney Milan (currently £2.50 on Amazon UK)
Frozen in Time by Ali Sparkes (suitable for primary school age children) (Amazon UK)
Temeraire by Naomi Novik, and all the sequels (Amazon UK)

From the Big Read list
For adults
Cross Stitch by Diana Gabaldon (Amazon UK)
Jane Eyre
by Charlotte Brontë (free on Project Gutenberg)
Any of the Terry Pratchett novels, in loose order of preference: Small Gods (Amazon UK), Witches Abroad (Amazon UK), Mort (Amazon UK), The Colour of Magic (Amazon UK)
Lord of the Flies
by Willliam Golding (Amazon UK)
The Handmaid’s Tale
by Margaret Atwood (Amazon UK)
All Quiet on the Western Front
by Erich Maria Remarque (Amazon UK)
Good Omens by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman (Amazon UK)
The Diary of a Nobody by George and Wheedon Grossmith (free on Project Gutenberg)
Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons (Amazon UK)

For teens
Angus, Thongs and Full-frontal Snogging by Louise Rennison (Amazon UK)
Noughts & Crosses by Malorie Blackman (Amazon UK)
Dustbin Baby by Jacqueline Wilson (Amazon UK)
Holes by Louis Sachar (currently £2.99 on Amazon UK)
The Harry Potter series by JK Rowling including: Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban and Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (all available at Amazon UK)
The Silver Sword
by Ian Serraillier (Amazon UK)

For children
Matilda by Roald Dahl (Amazon UK)
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl (Amazon UK)
Anne of Green Gables by LM Montgomery (free on Project Gutenberg)
Lola Rose by Jacqueline Wilson (Amazon UK)
The Suitcase Kid by Jacqueline Wilson (Amazon UK)
Vicky Angel by Jacqueline Wilson (Amazon UK)
The Story of Tracey Beaker (Amazon UK) and The Dare Game (Amazon UK) by Jacqueline Wilson
Sleepovers by Jacqueline Wilson (Amazon UK)
Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll (free on Project Gutenberg)
Danny the Champion of the World by Roald Dahl (Amazon UK)
Winnie-the-Pooh by AA Milne (Amazon UK)
Little Women by Louisa May Alcott (free on Project Gutenberg)
Heidi by Joanna Spyri (free on Project Gutenberg)

Hope you find something you enjoy!

The Twits by Roald Dahl

The Twits by Roald Dahl

In at #81 The Twits tells the tale of two decidedly unpleasant people who meet a sticky – but poetically just – end. It’s another one of Dahl’s nasty morality tales, the Victorian tradition updated. In this case, the Twits are smelly, cruel to animals and each other, and deserve what they get. The book is brutish and short – I remember disliking it as a child, personally, but there’s nothing in it worse than a Tom and Jerry cartoon.

Against beards
A page in the back of the edition I read mentioned that The Twits started life as a note from Dahl to himself reading ‘do something against beards’. Apparently, he didn’t like beards and certainly his author photo is clean-shaven. The beginning of The Twits includes a diatribe against beards – bearded people, it seems, are necessarily dirty and therefore unpleasant and smelly.

These might be good traits for a villain – and the Twits are villainous indeed, although hampered by lack of imagination – but aren’t good traits in a parent, and many parents have beards. In fact, despite Dahl’s assertions, it seems entirely possible to have a beard and keep it clean, neat and pleasant, making the rant odd and rendering the whole book a bit suspect, I thought, as the narrator has clearly proved himself unreliable early on.

On beauty
Dahl’s villains are always clearly marked, and it’s interesting to see how he does this. In The Twits, he explains that Mrs Twit started out fairly pleasant looking, but years of thinking ugly thoughts made her ugly. While this is intended, I imagine, to encourage children to think and act appropriately, tempting them with the carrot/stick of beauty/ugliness, I do wonder if it would make kids assume that ugly old people are villains? It’s a logical conclusion, and one reinforced by so many popular tropes, but hardly accurate.

Marking villains physically is problematic if you think about it, but there are so many caricatures and stereotypes that it’s easy to do. Dahl does it in most of his books – the children in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, the farmers in Fantastic Mr Fox… In Matilda the Trunchbull, evil headmistress, is marked as a villain by her height, muscle and unfeminine hairstyle and clothes. She’s so unfeminine, it seems, that the recent musical version cast a man in the role. (Which, incidentally, I think is a crying shame: there are few enough parts for women who don’t fit the delicate-and-pretty-heroine model as it is and the Trunchbull is a great part.)

I didn’t much care for The Twits, but it was a quick read and I can see why it might appeal to some people. As I’ve mentioned before, I’m not a fan of grotesque literature, and this is grotesque. The book is short, and the illustrations are lovely – and I did enjoy the escape of Mugwump the monkey and his family – so your mileage may vary.

I’ve decided to try to read and review all 200 books on the BBC Big Read list. You can read more about the start of the project or see a list of all the books I’ve read and reviewed.

A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens

A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens

As it’s Christmas next week, it seemed like a good moment for the most obviously festive book on the list.
#47 A Christmas Carol is available for free on Project Gutenberg and in the Kindle store.

First published in 1843, the story is now one of the most popular Christmas stories, told alongside classics like ‘Twas The Night Before Christmas (also free) and, of course, the nativity story.

Dickens’ tale is brief but action packed, and covers the conversion to ‘keeping Christmas’ of one Ebeneezer Scrooge, miser and misanthropist, after a series of supernatural visitations.

A Victorian Christmas
As Scrooge is visited by the different spirits, he is shown a range of contemporary Christmases, from his own lonely childhood to the festive fun at his nephew’s house. It’s interesting to see which traditions have changed and which haven’t – although sucking pigs are out of fashion and filberts have been renamed hazel nuts, eating, drinking, and playing silly games are still very much in vogue.

In fact, many of our ‘essential’ traditions (tree, cards…) formed during this period, when Christmas returned to being a big mid-winter festival after a period of Puritan-enforced austerity.

The reason for the season
Dickens can’t resist a bit of moralising, and Carol is packed with lessons, from the over-arching message, which still resonates, down to very timely messages whose power has faded, such as a page arguing against a move to force bakeries to close on Sundays, denying poor people (who have no ovens at home) of their heartiest meal in the week.

This argument is put in Scrooge’s mouth, a rather unlikely home, and makes it clear that the spirits are avatars of Christianity. Although A Christmas Carol has been suggested as a secular alternative to the nativity story (for example in An Atheist’s Guide to Christmas) it’s seems to me like a solidly religious book with Christianity providing a cultural background (several mentions of church and God) and also the driving force, i.e. the spiritual redemption of Scrooge.

That said, one could ignore this side of it, and read the ‘spirit of Christmas’ as something other than religious as it does, also, mean generosity, loving kindness and goodwill, all of which are valuable things to celebrate and keep – whether in ones heart or elsewhere – throughout the year.

I enjoyed A Christmas Carol and it’s given me hope – I’ve got six more Dickens novels to read, and I’m not dreading them so much now. And, if I’m honest, I was touched by the descriptions of celebrations – it did actually put me in a festive mood, and help me look past the sometimes onerous preparations to the joy at the end of the tunnel.

I’ve decided to try to read and review all 200 books on the BBC Big Read list. You can read more about the start of the project or see a list of all the books I’ve read and reviewed.

Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë

Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë

After enjoying Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë  last week, I thought I’d try her sister’s book. On the list at #12 Wuthering Heights is available for free on Project Gutenberg or in the Kindle store.

Published in 1847, Wuthering Heights describes the life of Heathcliff, a foundling brought up by the Earnshaw family. After the girl he loves marries someone else, he decides to destroy both families and the novel covers twenty years of physical and mental abuse.

A romance, but not romantic
Heightsis a romance in the sense of ‘a story not based in fact’, but it’s not a romance novel in the modern sense of ‘a love story with a happy ending’. Heathcliff is popularly regarded as a romantic hero – I can only imagine this is because most people haven’t read the book.

Picked up off the street in Liverpool, Heathcliff is brought to a remote Yorkshire village and raised by one of the two ‘quality’ families in the district. He falls in love with his foster sister, Cathy, and is furious when she marries the only eligible man in the district. Despite their marriages to other people, mutual bad-temper and cruelty, Heathcliff and Cathy remain passionately in love. I would find it more romantic if their love did anyone any good or brought anyone any happiness at all. As it stands, they are both miserable and being strong characters ensure that everyone else is miserable too: no one in either household can be happy until Cathy and Heathcliff are both dead.

A tale of abuse
Even as a child, Heathcliff is angry and violent. He isn’t fully welcomed into his foster family, and has clearly had a rough time both before and after his ‘rescue’. However, he repays this rough treatment a hundred fold, being physically, mentally and possibly sexually abusive to his wife, his servants, and the children in his care.

Brontë doesn’t describe the physical abuse in much detail, and it’s easy to miss the references to violence in the tangles of dialect and archaic vocabulary, but it’s there and it’s grim. I found the book hard to get through, knowing that so many other people enjoyed this book – I can’t imagine enjoying the cruelty, and it’s too pervasive to ignore.

Jane Eyre is better
I enjoyed Jane Eyre, and it’s interesting to compare the two books. As the authors are sisters, lived together and shared their writing, their background and vocabulary is obviously similar, and yet the novels are dramatically different.

The language and style of the novels are at odds – Jane Eyre is a straight forward narrative told by Jane, looking back, to the reader. Heights is more complex with a nested series of narrators (Lockwood, who otherwise doesn’t feature, appears to be writing down a story he’s been told, which in turn includes direct quotes from other accounts, which in turn…). Jane Eyre also uses more simple, straightforward language, while Heights is partly written in an almost incomprehensible dialect and includes plenty of archaic slang, none of which is explained.

While the main characters share similar, difficult childhoods and unloving foster families, they are otherwise very different. Jane is shown to be good and loving, if also cross and stubborn, while Heathcliff is clearly angry and vengeful, and possibly loving, occasionally.

All in all, I found Wuthering Heights hard work: the language was opaque, the characters unpleasant and the plot frustrating. The last couple of chapters are like sun coming out from behind a cloud – almost everyone is dead, and the remaining few can finally be happy – but it’s not enough to redeem the book.

I’ve decided to try to read and review all 200 books on the BBC Big Read list. You can read more about the start of the project or see a list of all the books I’ve read and reviewed.

Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë

Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë

One of the classics I’ve been avoiding, #10 Jane Eyre is available for free on Project Gutenberg and in the Kindle store.

I was a bit wary of starting Jane Eyre. I’ve read it before and enjoyed it, but somehow expected it to be dull or trite simply because it’s old: it’s neither of these things.

Surprisingly modern
I read quite a lot of historical fiction, and occasionally found myself thinking ‘did they really say / think / do that at the time?’ quite as though Charlotte Brontë was a modern author. As the book was first published in 1847, they clearly did.

My point is that the language is (largely) clear and easy to understand – there were only a couple of archaic uses which my dictionary couldn’t help with. (Incidentally, this is a major advantage of having an ereader – I would put down a book to pick up a dictionary about once a year but I’ll happily mouse over any word I’m curious about.)

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Having last read Jane Eyre as a teenager, I had only a hazy memory of the plot and it had been corrupted further by the alternate versions in Jasper Fforde’s excellent novel, The Eyre Affair. I was expecting Jane to drift through the book, bouncing off the other characters, like a pinball guided by Fate. In fact, pretty much everything that happens is down to Jane’s own decision-making. I found I liked her very much (although I’m not sure we’d be close friends, and I’d hate living in her world) and was impressed with her fortitude.

All in all, I enjoyed Jane Eyre and would definitely recommend it. There is the usual caveat for works of its era: there’s nothing good about anything outside white, middle/upper class Englishness (which includes: India and Indians, the French, Jews, poor people, workers) and the treatment of mental illness while typical for the period is typically appalling.

Further reading
Jane Eyre is unusual in that it has two descendents, novels written a century or more later by very different authors, and which I can heartily recommend. One is the well-known Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys and the other is The Eyre Affair by Jasper Fforde, which I mentioned above.

Rhys’ novel is literary fiction, and tackles the same events from a very different perspective. Reading the summary will provide spoilers for Jane Eyre if you known nothing about that novel, so I won’t go into detail, but it is well worth a read.

Fforde’s novel is comic fantasy, in a similar vein to Terry Pratchett. The main character works as a literary detective in an alternative UK where street gangs seem to deal in bootleg books, not dope, Wales is independent and the Crimean War is still going. It’s bonkers and zany, and gives you a very different view of the characters in Jane Eyre while answering the question: what does a romantic hero do on his day off?

Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë is also on the list (at #12; none of Anne’s works made it) and I remember hating it when I read it and am really not looking forward to it, but perhaps I should face my prejudice and try it? After all, I remembered mildly enjoying Jane Eyre and was pleasantly surprise, so perhaps Wuthering Heights will come off well too…?

I’ve decided to try to read and review all 200 books on the BBC Big Read list. You can read more about the start of the project or see a list of all the books I’ve read and reviewed.

Fifty books in 2012

Fifty books in 2012

On Friday, I published a review of The Colour of Magic which is the 50th book I’ve read and reviewed for my BBC Big Read 200 Book Challenge. I’m pleased with how the project is going and aim to continue posting a review every Friday until I finish the challenge.

Fifty books is a lot of books, I’m a quarter of the way through the list already, and it seems like a good moment to review the project.

  • 24 of the books came from my excellent local library (Cambridge Central Library)
  • 7 books came from Project Gutenberg
  • I only paid for 4 books (not counting library fines!)
  • I spent £16.04 on these four books

The rest I either had or borrowed from my parents’ collection. Their book hoarding support has been invaluable – as well as letting me store my dead tree books at their house and hanging on to  many of my childhood favourites, they kept a lot of the books I’ve passed on over the years, adding to an eclectic collection of their own. I’ve found all sorts of things off the list there, from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory to Cold Comfort Farm.

  • 32 different authors
  • 21 books I’d never read before
  • 4 books I’d never heard of

The first 50 included a lot of rereads and books by familar authors. I took advantage of the library request system, and there seemed to be a quick turnaround on YA and kids’ books, so I read a lot of those, as well as some very random things.

  • 10 Jaqueline Wilson books
  • 4 by JK Rowling
  • 4 Terry Pratchett books
  • 3 by Roald Dahl

The list is doing a good job of introducing me to new things, but as I’m trying to avoid spending much money (most of the books are £3-7 for Kindle, if they’re not free on Project Gutenberg) and I currently have access to my parents’ library, I think the next 50 will mostly be rereads.

However, that does mean I’m facing a year of reading dutifully – the books I’ve got available are mostly long or dull or both, and I’m wary of reading the ones I’m looking forward to first as I think I’d give up if all I had left was Dickens, Elliot and Hardy. (Not that I only read books on the list, but still.)

  • 42 free classics left on the list
  • 24 books I’m really not looking forward to
  • 36 books I am looking forward to

I also enjoyed doing some themed reads – like Children’s Book Week, and my Childhood Favourites mini-challenge – so I might do more of that. A Christmas Carol is on the list, which seems appropriate for the coming season, but I haven’t spotted any other festive titles.

I find books much more interesting when someone’s recommended I read them – or even recommended I avoid them. The Big Read list is here – can you help me out? Are there any you love? Any you hate?