Tag Archives: reading

Demons, babies and magic, oh my!

Demons, babies and magic, oh my!

This is the space where a Big Read update should go, but there isn’t one. I haven’t picked up a Big Read book at all this week, despite putting ‘finish Sons and Lovers‘ on my to-do list at least twice. I’ve got to that point where I’ve by-passed all the books I have available so often that even the ones I know will be good seem dull. Have you noticed this effect? The more often I look at a book and then read something else, the less likely I am to ever read it, even if I love it or its a book I’ve been waiting to come out.

I’m back in the UK now, which has switched up my TBR pile, but I’m not making any promises. Instead, here are three books I’ve read this week:

The Dark Lord of Derkholm by Diana Wynne Jones (1998)
I totally love Diana Wynne Jones, so I was thrilled when the price on The Dark Lord of Derkholm dropped to £1.99. It’s well worth two quid. It’s a really fun read on several levels. It’s a fantasy novel for children, with magic and fun. It’s set in a world which is being destroyed by a rapacious tourist industry, so the wizards of the realm decide to take action. Gamers (RPG or computer) will appreciate the world, as the tourists are on trips which look rather like a gaming quest. It’s as if the NPCs finally got a chance to talk… Having been recently reading Tolkien, I particularly appreciate the fact that the novel has, oh, female wizards, and women at all. People of different races act like people, not like walking stereotypes, talking animals are people, and you can have different kinds of people in one family. It’s not that it’s an ‘issues’ book, it’s just good world building.

The Amazing Thing About the Way It Goes 
by Stephanie Pearl-McPhee (2014)
The Yarn Harlot‘s newest book, The Amazing Thing has surprisingly little knitting in it. Really, there’s not much yarn at all, so don’t buy it for that. It’s got the same mix of uncommon common sense, humour and minor disasters as the previous books, but without the yarn. There’s parenting advice, but no advice on what not to knit for your kids. As a result, it’s still a good book, but disappointing. I really like reading about knitting, and I don’t have any teenagers that need wrangling. On the plus side, the book should appeal to a much wider audience, and I’m all in favour of knitters who make me laugh having a bigger yarn budget.

Demon Hunter and Baby by Anna Elliott (2012)
I have to say that I got Demon Hunter and Baby when it was free, and I don’t think it’s well edited enough to be worth the £3+ that it’s currently selling for. However, I really like the concept. I enjoy urban fantasy, and part of the reason I like it is that there are lots of physically, mentally and magically strong female characters in the genre. Unfortunately, few of them ever get to settle down, and I don’t think I’ve ever seen one have a baby. Demon Hunter and Baby is a good example of the genre, with a neat twist (the baby, I mean. The plot is a bit more predictable). The mythology feels a bit disjointed at times, and at times I felt like there was too much going on. It reads a bit like book 2 in a trilogy, but it’s a stand alone novel, and I feel like a good editor would have made the book rather better.

Hurrah for 2014

Hurrah for 2014

So the New Year has been with us for a week, and it’s wearing in well. I’ve decided to keep it, in fact.

I’m cautiously optimistic about this new year. It has the potential to be jaw-droppingly awesome or absolutely dreadful, and only time will tell. 2013 was a really mixed bag. Some things were pretty cool. For example:

Handknit socks with the Swedish flag pattern

Yeah, I made those. I am so chuffed with them – they’re the physical realisation of a knitting theory I’ve had in my head for a while. It took me ages to get round to testing it out, and I was so pleased it worked. Plus, I knit them with yarn I bought in Copenhagen, and K requested them because we spent a month in Sweden. I had never been to either country before, and I love visiting new places.

In total, I went to 9 countries this year: Switzerland, France, the UK, the Netherlands, Denmark, Sweden, Germany, Ireland and Spain. We drove through Belgium (accidentally, at least the first time) but didn’t stop. So that was very cool. I also got to explore the UK a bit more in the autumn. This year, I’d like to venture a bit further afield. Where’s somewhere you recommend I should go? Could be anywhere in the world, on my doorstop or on the other side of the planet.

We’ve been living in the caravan for over 6 months now, with the odd week away here and there. It’s still going well, but our poor van is showing a bit more wear and tear. It could really do with being dry docked, essentially, and having everything stripped out, scrubbed and put back. Not really possible at the moment – anything we take outside is likely to get waterlogged and/or blow away!

Oxford autumn mist


We’re still at the same site in Oxford as when I took this photo in October. K’s job is going well, and we’re pleased to be here. It’s a lovely site. That said, living in such a small space hasn’t always been easy. One of the things we’re discussing is whether we’ll continue doing this full time in 2014. For the moment, the answer is yes. but it may not be an effective long term solution. It’s been rough lately as all the wind and rain has kept us awake a lot.

I don’t have a clear idea of what 2014 will bring. I’ve got some secret hopes, some not-so-secret plans and a few good ideas. For now, all you really need is the few blog changes:

  • I’m aiming to read some long books off the Big Read list, so I won’t be posting Big Read reviews as often. 
  • I might post reviews of some of the other books I read or intermittent updates on the books I’m working through, to compensate.
  • I’m going to try to post more travel pictures. Current ones will be tagged ‘where we are‘. We are always somewhere interesting, even if it is the same as last week!

I’m open to your suggestions though, so if you always come for the travel photos, the book reviews, or really wish I’d write about something entirely different, leave a comment and let me know. 

100 books and now a slump

100 books and now a slump

My last Big Read review, Thief of Time was the 100th book I read and reviewed off the BBC Big Read list. I am pretty chuffed about that, and now I’m sick of all the Big Read books I have available so I haven’t finished one since.

I’ve picked up several, usually on a Thursday when I realise that Friday is going to follow on whether I like it or not, but none stuck. I’m looking for light and fun things when I’m reading at the moment, and what I’ve got on Kindle for The List is either apocalyptic SF (Brave New World1984) or dauntingly long and of unknown quality (The MagicianDune). So I simply haven’t been reading anything off the list, and as a result I haven’t been posting any reviews, and so I haven’t been posting anything at all. I was aiming for a book review each week, but that’s out the window. I think I might gorge myself on fun books while I’m at my childhood home next week and post a whole bunch of reviews around Christmas. Or I might not, because even if I quit now (which I’m not going to) I still have something to celebrate.

100 books!
Half way through!

What can I tell you about the books so far? Let’s update the post I published at 50 books. Out of the most recent 50 books:

  • Only 6 books came from the library (30 overall)
  • 14 books came from Project Gutenberg (21 overall)
  • I paid for 10 books (14 overall)
  • None cost more than £2 (most expensive over all was under £6)

The rest of the books I borrowed from friends or family, or had in my own collection before I started the challenge. I actually had a few of the books I paid for already, but as we don’t have space for a library, I’m happy to rebuy favourites on Kindle. Particularly when a flash sale means I can get The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and four sequels for 99p.

  • 36 different authors (64 overall)
  • 17 books I’d never read before (37 overall)
  • 3 books I’d never heard of (7 overall)

Classics and borrowed books mean I haven’t been reading that many new titles for the challenge. I’ve bought rather more books than I’ve read, and next year (2014) I plan to dive into some of them. There are an awful lot of long books on the list, like Gone with the Wind and The Pickwick Papers so I’m planning to tackle some of them.

  • 5 Dickens novels (the most shocking statistic so far, truth to tell!)
  • 5 Roald Dahl books (to balance up all that Dickens)
  • 3 Pratchett books
  • 3 Austen novels

I’m pleased to have made it this far. I’ve ticked a lot books I’d never quite gotten around to reading off my list, like Great Expectations and now feel justified in making disparaging remarks. I’ve discovered some books I didn’t used to like have grown on me, like Bridget Jones’s Diary, and that some I didn’t like 10 years ago I still don’t care for, like Memoirs of a Geisha. Thank you for sticking with me along the way, and let’s see what the next few books bring!

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.

You choose: what should I read next?

You choose: what should I read next?

The Library in English in Geneva had its semiannual book sale this weekend. It’s not a large library, but it provides an excellent service to the English-speaking community and has been doing so for decades. They expected to have about 20,000 books on sale, and it’s one of their major fundraisers. I’ve been a member on and off since I was tiny, so I’m always happy to give them a bit of cash.

This time, I was particularly on the hunt for Big Read books and came back with 9 new ones for about CHF20 – a bargain.

A pile of secondhand paperback books shown against a mottled white background

From top to bottom they are:

  1. The Illustrated Mum by Jacqueline Wilson
  2. The World According to Garp by John Irving
  3. Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks
  4. Atonement by Ian McEwan
  5. Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov
  6. Captain Corelli’s Mandolin by Louis de Bernieres
  7. Behind the Scenes at the Museum by Kate Atkinson
  8. The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov
  9. The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundra

Which book should I read first?
Leave a comment by midnight on Friday, and I’ll read the one with the most votes first. I may work through the rest in the order of popularity, so you can keep voting after Friday, but no promises. The review of the winning book will probably go up on 10 May. I don’t expect many votes, so your definitely will count – in fact, the first commenter may well get their choice!

A new challenge and an old one – BBC Big Read one year on

A new challenge and an old one – BBC Big Read one year on

About a month ago, I found my reading theme for the year when I signed up for the Tea and Books challenge over at The Book Garden.

This challenge is all about long books. To enter, you commit to reading a number of books each over 650 pages long. There are a few loopholes – and super-long books count double – but it’s pretty straight forward. I signed up immediately and spent a happy hour or three (when I could have been reading) sorting through The List and choosing my long books.

I’ve already read the first one – The Pickwick Papers – and if the challenge does nothing else, then getting me through 700+ pages of Dickens is well worth it. Thank you, Birgit, for the inspiration!

A year of Big Read books
I’m terrible at anniversaries – it’s a blessing and a curse – but I realized recently that I’ve been working on the Big Read challenge for a year now – and I also spent the whole year either reading or avoiding Great Expectations. Oops. Still, I finished it in the end, which I hope bodes well for the challenge as a whole.

I read a lot anyway, so the volume of books for the challenge isn’t the hard part for me. The challenge is to stick with it, to finish each book (including a lot of ones I’ve pegged as long or dull or both). To keep me going, I have formal and informal sub-challenges along the way. So far these have included read for free and read whatever the library hands you.

It’s a technique I use for lots of longer projects, because it’s natural that motivation will flag when the goal seems so far away, and completing a mini-challenge can be a real boost. I’m already looking forward to book 100 – after that, it’s just a long slide to the end of the project, right?

Current challenges
As the Big Read is going to be with me for a while, I can’t expect it to always be interesting – without a little help. The challenges have evolved and at the moment I’m working on:

  • Read long books (for the challenge above)
  • Read the books I expect to be dull
  • Publish at least one review of a Big Read book every week
  • Get to 100 books!

I’m trying to be realistic with my goals. I started this project on a whim but I do want to finish so I’m shifting it as I go and try to keep the goals mutually supportive – or at least mutually compatible. There’s a bit of a clash between publishing every week and reading really long books so one might have to go. I suspect that a book a week won’t be sustainable long term, but it does keep the pace up.

It’s been an interesting year – I’ve discovered a couple of books I really love and now have the right to an opinion on a good number of classic novels I’d never read. Many of these books are cornerstones in English and English-language literature, so being aware of their plots and themes has expanded my literary vocabulary.

The only problem – I don’t know what to read next! Check out the full Big Read listand the list of books I’ve read and recommend me something. It doesn’t have to be your favourite, or even a book you like – just pick a title and maybe add a line to tell me why you think I should read it.

Is an ebook a second-rate book?

Is an ebook a second-rate book?

Some weeks ago I read an article by one Joe Queenan titled ‘My 6,128 Favorite Books‘. I mostly enjoyed the article – it’s lovely to read about someone with reading habits as eccentric as my own (he once tried to spend a year only reading books he thought he’d hate, I once tried to read the school library alphabetically, both goals predictably ill-fated) – but the section I’ve been thinking about since is this:

Electronic books are ideal for people who value the information contained in them, or who have vision problems, or who have clutter issues, or who don’t want other people to see that they are reading books about parallel universes where nine-eyed sea serpents and blind marsupials join forces with deaf Valkyries to rescue high-strung albino virgins from the clutches of hermaphrodite centaurs, but they are useless for people engaged in an intense, lifelong love affair with books. Books that we can touch; books that we can smell; books that we can depend on. Books that make us believe, for however short a time, that we shall all live happily ever after. [emphasis mine]

I disagree.

I think it’s fair to say I’m ‘engaged in an intense, lifelong love affair with books’, and you may not need any more evidence than my 200 books project, but in case you do:

  • I taught myself to read while walking shortly after I learned to read, and always have a book in my pocket – sorry Mum, I know I gave you palpitations worrying I’d get run over
  • Until I was 20 I never willingly gave away or sold or traded a book – even ones belonging to my brother which I didn’t like
  • I still spend more money and far more time on buying and reading books than on any other hobby – yes my book stash is bigger than my yarn stash

So, credentials established, here’s my problem: I love ebooks. I love ebooks more than paper books, and I wish I could magically convert all my paper books into ebooks.

When my parents bought me a Kindle, it seemed to them like an obvious gift for the reasons above. At the time, K and I were sharing a flat and moving regularly, so anything which stemmed the weight of books to be boxed and carried should have been welcome.

I was skeptical. I loved books, books with covers and editions and age. Books with smells, mostly pleasant. Books on my shelf, showing visitors my erudition, books on the bedside table ripe with possibilities.

And yet, the books I have in paper form, the books I’ve loved over the years, which I’ve kept and carried, stored safe from water, fire and small children, I rarely read. Because I can only carry one around at a time. Because they’re fragile from age and wear. Because they’re usually in a different country or town or in a box in an attic or lost or leant. Because I had to give some of them away, or we’d be drowning in books, so that I know I have had copies of Lolita, The Satanic Verses and several other Big Read books but given them away, unread, because there’s only so much space for paper.

Ebooks are a salvation. I can access every single ebook I’ve every bought or been given from anywhere in the world. If my Kindle gets lost or stolen or smashed I can get a new one, use a smartphone or a laptop and the books are still there, unchanged.

I no longer have to cull my collection and cull again when we move. Books I didn’t like are as weightless as perennial favourites.

It’s all about access
Growing up as an English-language reader in Switzerland, finding books was mostly luck. Luckily, my parents had a good collection, and let me roam it at will. Luckily, they were willing to volunteer at the American Library (‘as we’re there every week’), to give me money for book sales at school, to spend precious home-country time trawling through bookshops.

But with all this wealth, there were things I missed: the second book in the What Katy Did series, the final one in the Emily Climbs series, the information that Diana Wynne Jones wrote more than three books, that Connie Willis wrote at all. Any series, however short, was liable to have holes in, even in the library. School stories, like Mallory Towers, were particularly frustrating as they’re so linear. The Trebizon series was, as far as I was concerned, only one book.

A credit card of my own and the rise of the big, online book sellers alleviated the problem but raised their own frustrations: high postage costs, treks to the Royal Mail depot and the usual risks of buying a pig in a poke.

Now, I can be in Switzerland (as I am), remember a book I read once and liked, immediately download a sample (yes, I still like it) and then blow all my mad money reading the whole 10-book series in less than a month.

It’s bliss.

So while I can’t touch or smell an ebook, while part of me misses displaying my collection (hence the blog, the G+ stream), my ebooks are still ‘books that [I] can depend on. Books that make [me] believe, for however short a time, that we shall all live happily ever after.’

And that’s what makes them books.

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?

Children’s Book Week

Children’s Book Week

Running from 1-7 October 2012, the Children’s Book Week is “a celebration of reading for pleasure for children of primary school age”. It’s been running for 80 years and is generally A Good Thing.

This year the theme is ‘Heroes and Heroines’ so I’ve selected seven books from the Big Read List which are aimed at children and will be posting reviews of them over the next seven days. To tie in with the theme, I’ll spend a little more time looking at the heroes in the books and thinking about heroes in general. I should probably mention now that I don’t like pointlessly gendered words so tend to use hero for both male and female characters.

Children’s Book Week is kind of a big deal, but it’s largely run by volunteers organising local events around the country. I’ll be spending the week in Switzerland, out of the way of all the fun, but if you’re in the UK do look out for events happening near you – libraries and schools are the best place to start but some large venues are also hosting events.

In praise of libraries

In praise of libraries

I went to the library today. I had some time and – more importantly – I know I’ll have time to read the books and also be able to return them in a few weeks. I’ve only been a couple times in the six months I’ve been working in London, and it’s a shame. It explains why I haven’t been reading many new things and thought my reading list was starting to get stale: it’s really hard to browse for ebooks but it’s so easy to try new things in the library.

There’s something special about walking through a library, skimming titles, pulling attractive books off the shelves, browsing. Every book you see, you can take home and read for free which means that you can take any book you like – a dozen, even, at my local library – without checking a price ticket or spending the grocery money. The possibilities, the adventures, the stories are nearly endless.

Books on a shelf, spine outward. Each one has a symbol sticker on the spine indicating genre e.g. a rocket ship, castle, etc

Nowadays, libraries offer so much more than books – they have computers, rent out DVDs and CDs, have genealogy and local history sections, language classes, computer lessons, story time for children… – they’re an amazing resource and it’s a real shame that so many are under threat or having their budgets and facilities cut.

I don’t remember ever imagining my wedding day when I was young but I do remember imagining my library. I was convinced that one day I would have a whole room just for books – and I made a concerted effort to turn my bedroom into that room. I don’t think I got rid of a book until I was at least 18. I kept the books I loved and the books I didn’t like and I reread most of them on a regular basis. I read books which were too old for me and books which were far too young.

Looking across a room. All that can be seen is a bookshelf, filled with books, a bed and a pile of books on the bedside table

Nowadays, I have just one bookcase and it’s half-full of DVDs and knitting magazines.

This fairly major attitude shift built up in several waves. I discovered Bookcrossing while I was at university, which made giving books away fun. I didn’t stop buying books though, and a couple years after graduating I had almost a whole bookcase of unread books. I then moved several times in fairly rapid succession and got thoroughlysick of packing, hefting and unpacking books I hadn’t opened from one move to the next.

The final nail in the coffin of my childhood library dreams was the Kindle. And although I love having 600 books in my pocket, it’s not the same as having 600 books in a room. So I’m really glad that part of my taxes go to paying for several rooms around the city with thousands of books in each of them. And I’m really glad that I went to visit the books again.