Blog Archives

Taking back the commute – listening to audio books

There was a brief period last year between moving house and changing jobs when I was commuting to work on the Metro trains.  For those 6 weeks, I read more than I have ever done before.  The Metro journey was only 20 minutes each way, but those 20 minutes belonged to me and my reading.  I just gobbled up books during that period – it was fantastic.

Then I started a new job in a town just over 20 miles away and so I was commuting by car.  The extra reading time was lost, or so I thought.

A couple of months ago, I became absolutely sick and tired of listening to the same songs played on the radio over and over again, and so I decided to try something a bit different – I borrowed an audio book from the library.

It took a little bit of getting used to at first.  I started off with Half Blood Blues by Esi Edugyan, which I found a little hard to follow for the first few tracks on the CD as I got used to being read a story rather than reading it myself.  But once I had settled in, I really enjoyed listening to the story and now I am a total addict.

It is very rare that I will have more than one book on the go at the same time, and I was a bit concerned about getting confused between the audio book and paper book.  I need not have worried though as the audio book is very much in the car, so when I shut the car door I can leave it behind, then pick it right up again when I get back in.

The one drawback of listening to audio books is that I can’t read back over what has just happened when I get back in the car.  I’m not sure if I can rewind CDs or not, so if it has been a couple of days since I have driven, I am dropped back in the middle of where I left off, and can’t always remember exactly what happened immediately before, but it has been quite easy so far to pick up the thread again.  I do think that listening to the story adds an extra dimension to it as well – the reader is important as they do help bring the characters to life and help in creating the impression of the characters.

I always had the impression that audio books were just for old ladies.  I thought that I would find a library full of Catherine Cooksons and Agatha Christies and nothing much else.  I was really pleasantly surprised by the huge array of books on offer, modern and old, in all genres and for all age groups.

So through audio books, I have taken back the commute as my time for reading, and once more I am reading more than I ever have before.

30 day book challenge – day 28 – Favourite quote from a book.

I don’t really collect quotes from books, so this is quite tough for me to answer, but there are a few quotes and passages that I really like and that have stuck in my mind:-

The Song of Achilles – Madeline Miller

“I shift, an infinitesimal movement, towards him.  It is like the leap from a waterfall.  I do not know, until then, what I am going to do.  I lean forward and our lips land clumsily on each other.  They are like the fat bodies of bees, soft and round and giddy with pollen.”

The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox – Maggie O’Farrell

“He takes Iris’s hand.  He lifts it.  He places it slowly, very slowly on his chest.  Just above his heart.  Iris can feel it jumping and jumping, as if it wants to be free…

“That’s my heart,” Alex says, without moving his eyes from the television.  He has kept his hand over Iris’s pressing it down into his chest.  His voice is even, conversational.  “But it’s yours really.” ”

Rebecca – Daphne du Maurier

” “You have a very lovely and unusual name”

“My father was a lovely and unusual person” ”

Bring up the Bodies – Hilary Mantel

“The things you think are the disasters in your life are not the disasters really.  Almost anything can be turned around: out of every ditch, a path, if only you can see it.”

The Historian – Elizabeth Kostova

“It was strange…that even in the weirdest circumstances, the most trembling episodes of one’s life, the greatest divides from home and familiarity, there were these moments of undeniable joy.

On a sunny morning in Boulou, Barley and I boarded the early train for Perpignan.”

Of all of the above quotes, my favourite is the quote from Madeline Miller in Song of Achilles.  This is my favourite ever description of a kiss in a book, and I absolutely love the image of their lips like bees.

In preparing to write this post, I have been looking back over old notebooks to see if I had written any quotes down.  I was surprised to find that I had written down quite a few passages, though some were far too long for this blog.  What I did find is that I write down a lot of real life quotes from magazines and newspapers, and it wasn’t until flicking back through the old notebooks that I realised just how much I do this.

I was recently given a notebook for my birthday and I am going to start using that to pull together in one place all of the little bits of writing that I discover when reading, but also real life quotes too.  It will be my own little book of inspiration.

30 day book challenge – day 27 – Book that has been on your “to read” list the longest

As a child, my family knew what a bookworm I was and so I was given a lot of books as gifts, especially from aunties and uncles.  One year, I was given two sets of children’s classics, containing books such as Treasure Island, Anne of Green Gables, Robinson Crusoe and many more.  I haven’t yet read any of them.  It is so shameful, but nothing pre-20th century was going to tear me away from The Babysitter’s Club at that age.

I have been meaning to get around to collecting these from my parent’s house and finally reading them, and so I suppose that those classics have technically been on my to read list the longest.

As for a book which is currently on my bookshelves, the one that has been sitting there the longest is A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry.  I picked this on up on the first ever World Book Night in 2011.  I got quite a bounty of books that night and I have read them all save for this one.

To be honest, I don’t even know what this book is about.  The blurb gives few clues and describes it as being about four people thrown together in 1970s India after the Government declares a state of internal emergency.  It sounds like it has potential – one of my current reading trends is reading books which are set in other countries and cultures, so I think I probably would quite enjoy this.  I’m not quite sure why I haven’t yet picked it up – I think it is partly because I don’t know anything at all about the story (though obviously I could easily find out), partly because I have so many other books on the to read list that this one just keeps getting inadvertently neglected, and partly because my initial impression of the book is that it will be quite a heavy and serious read.

I think I owe it to this book and to World Book Night to prioritise reading it, I just have to finish the book I’m reading now and then there are the library books ….

30 day book challenge – day 21 – Books you just can’t finish

The original question for the day 21 post was to talk about a book you tell people you’ve read but haven’t, or haven’t actually finished.

I racked my brains to think of a book that would fall within that and I just couldn’t.  I don’t think I’ve ever claimed to have read a book that I haven’t read.  There are some books I’ve read and not finished, but I’m honest about that – I’m very, very stubborn when it comes to finishing books that I have started to it has to be pretty exceptional for me to give up before the end.  If I do give up, I will own up to it.

So I decided to change the question to a blog that I was intending to post at some point in the future – the books I just can’t finish no matter how hard I try.

There are two that spring to mind:-

1. Vanity Fair

Vanity Fair

As far as I am concerned, I am still reading this book.  I haven’t admitted defeat yet, I’m just having a little break because it is so long.  My bookmark is even still inside it, so that means I’ve not given up, doesn’t it?  The fact is, my little break started something like 18 months ago and I’m not any closer to picking it up and finishing it.

I absolutely loved the idea of Vanity Fair – quick witted Becky Sharp making her own way in the world and rising higher and higher before the inevitable fall.  I haven’t got to the fall yet.

My problem with this book is that I can’t stomach the narrator.  I know that styles were different writing in that era, but I just want the narrator to butt out.  His commentary and opinions on the characters and the stories really get in the way for me.  He is standing between me and the story and the further into the book I got, the more irate I became until I had to stop because I was beginning to dread picking the book up because I knew that it was going to annoy me.

2. Lord of the Rings

I have tried a couple of times with Lord of the Rings, and each time I get a little bit further into it.  On my first attempt, I got no further in that the first few chapters.  On my second attempt, I got halfway through.  Maybe if I have another go in the future, I might actually finish.

The trouble I have with Lord of the Rings is that it is too detailed and too slow.  There are some really good moments in the book, but they are separated by endless dull moments.  I don’t need to be told what they eat for breakfast or how far they walk each day or any of the other trifling details.  The chapters where the trees were deciding whether to join the battle were excruciating – I get that they are hundreds of years old and probably don’t make any decision quickly, but it was painful reading the plodding chapters whilst they pondered their decision.

In the end, I have up halfway through because it had taken me ages to get to that point and I felt that there was too much still to happen.  I wasn’t really enjoying it by that point and couldn’t face any more of the same.

I think what these two books have in common is length and pace.  If a very long book moves slowly then I become frustrated at the feeling of making no progress which starts to hamper my ability to get into the story.  But I have proved to myself this year that I can slog out a long and slow book by completing Les Miserables.  Maybe I should give these books another go.   But they have to compete against all of the other unread books on my shelf and on my amazon wish list, all of which I am really looking forward to reading.  Maybe there is not enough time in one lifetime to try to force myself through something that I am not enjoying.

Are there any books that you just can’t finish?

30 day book challenge – day 20 – Favourite childhood book.

My childhood reading was all about series of books.  I read my way through Nancy Drew, The Babysitter’s Club, The Saddle Club, Sweet Valley High and Sweet Valley University.  But my favourite amongst them all:-

The Famous Five

This is where it all started for me.  These are the first books I remember reading myself, and they are also the first books that I remember having read to me.  The first books I ever bought for myself were the first three Famous Five books from my Granny’s coffee morning at Chapel.

The Famous Five is the adventures of Dick, Julian, Ann, George (aka Georgina) and Timmy the dog.  They would spend every summer together in the home of George’s parents, Fanny and Quentin, and they would get into all sorts of scrapes and adventures.  They would go sailing, and camping.  They helped catch smugglers and solved the mystery of the ghost train.  They looked for treasure and ate picnics and went on long walks and just generally had a marvellous and exciting time!

My Dad read these books when he was a boy, and he passed his love of the books onto me when I was a young girl.  He would read a chapter of the Famous Five to me each night before I went to sleep and he absolutely brought the books to life with his exaggerated telling of the stories and impersonations of the posh characters.  Sometimes I would beg him to read on because I would be so absorbed in the story and in his telling of it.  He would always oblige.  If I was lucky, he would carry on reading to me until I fell asleep, so I could dream of their adventures.

I absolutely treasure The Famous Five.  I was very young and so I remember snatches of them rather than whole stories, so I can’t pick out one book from the series for this post that I love above all others.  I imagine that if I read them again now, I would find reference to a lot of sexism and probably some racism that I had not picked up on as a child.  But I think I would literally forgive them anything, because all of the wonderful stories that I have been privileged enough to read in my life started from there.

30 day book challenge – day 19 – A favourite author.

Oh, this is going to be a long one.  How can I choose just one author?  It would be like someone to choose between their children.  I have so many authors that I love, and I’m discovering new ones all the time.

Here are my favourites:-

Daphne Du Maurier

Regular readers of this blog will not be surprised to find Daphne Du Maurier’s name on this list.  You can read why she is one of my favourites here and here.

Audrey Niffenegger

The Time Traveller’s Wife is one of my all time favourite books, and although her follow up, Her Fearful Symmetry, did not capture me in the same way, it is still an excellent read.  Her ideas are really original and well executed, and her prose is wonderfully lyrical.  Her books to me are works of art.

Edith Wharton

She makes the list for her complex and empathetic characters, her brilliant portrayal of New York society and her emotional endings.  The House of Mirth and The Age of Innocence are two of my favourite classics.  I definitely plan to read more Edith Wharton.

Philippa Gregory

I have read all of the Tudor series and most of the Cousin’s War series.  I love her books for bringing these eras so vividly to life and for her focus on the female characters – history can so easily overlook the influence behind the scenes of powerful women and Philippa Gregory brings them back to the forefront.

Mark Haddon

For making me laugh.  I have read The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time and Spot of Bother.  I have The Red House on my bookshelves waiting to be read.  He deals with some serious issues with real humour.  He also created a very memorable character in the Curious Incident, and maintained a very authentic voice throughout.

Lionel Shriver

Every time I open a book by Lionel Shriver it blows me away.  Her writing is so powerful and so full of honesty in every word.  The Post Birthday World is one of my favourite books, and I will be talking about this more in a later post.  So Much For That is a very long book dealing with terminal illness.  It should be a slog and it should be depressing.  But in Lionel Shriver’s hands, the pages fly over and it manages to remain so uplifting and full of humour.  She is a really special writer.  We Need to Talk About Kevin is the most famous one, but her other work that I have read is every bit as good.

Chris Cleeve

Chris Cleeve has a thing going on where there is no blurb and no clues as to what the book is actually about.  This intrigued me with The Other Hand so I decided on a whim just to buy it and give it a go.  I loved every single word, and so now, I have bought into the myth.  I don’t need to know anything about the subject matter of the book or the characters – if it is by Chris Cleeve, I will read it because I know it will be good.

J K Rowling

Harry Potter is a series that I absolutely treasure.  We fell in love with Harry, went through some very dark times with him and she absolutely provided the ending that he deserved.  I’m now really looking forward to reading her adult fiction – a copy of The Casual Vacancy is the latest addition to my bookshelves.  Although crime fiction is not really my thing, I am also going to read Cuckoo Calling when it is in paperback.  There is no pressure and no expectation from me – I don’t think that J K Rowling has anything to prove after bringing us something as wonderful as Harry Potter.

Maggie O’Farrell

She is quite a new discovery for me and I’m really enjoying working my way through her books.  I love the intensity of her characters and the relationships between them.  She is one of those writers that pull you right into the story so you feel as if you are living and breathing with the characters through every moment  of their journey.  This means that her books are very memorable and I have loved everything that I have read by Maggie O’Farrell so far.

Sebastian Faulks

Again, he is quite new for me.  I started off reading A Week in December and I have since read Birdsong and Charlotte Gray.  His writing is absolutely flawless and incredibly frank at times.   It is his attention to detail that really makes him stand out for me – he obviously knows his characters absolutely inside out and this makes them well rounded and utterly believable, as he is able to drop in the little details that make people real.

The Brontes – all of them

It is so tragic that so little has been published by the Bronte sisters, though it just makes what has been published that much more special.  Emily and Charlotte’s work is the most well known, but I have a real soft spot for Anne and I think she is quite underrated.  The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is an excellent read and is right up there with Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre.  For any other Bronte lovers, I would thoroughly recommend a visit to the Bronte Museum in Haworth.  This is the parsonage in which the Brontes grew up and it is an incredible experience to walk in their footsteps and look out the window to see the view of the moors which inspired Wuthering Heights.

What about you?

I am always on the lookout for new authors to try whose work I haven’t read before, so who are your favourite authors?  Is there anyone not on my list that would be on yours?

30 day book challenge – day 17 – Author I wish people would read more.

It’s no secret that I love Daphne Du Maurier.  I went through every book on my shelves looking for an obscure author that I could write about in this post, but the only name that kept coming into my mind was Daphne Du Maurier.

I’m not claiming that I have discovered her or that I am the first or only person to read any of her books.  She is famous.  Some of her books are famous.  Many of her books have been adapted for film or TV or the stage.  People know about Daphne Du Maurier.

But I wish that more people of my generation read her books.  I don’t know anyone in their 20s or younger who has read anything by Daphne Du Maurier.  This may have changed given that Rebecca was recently included as one of the free books in the World Book Night give away.

Isn’t she a romantic novelist? 

No.  No, these are not romantic books.  Yes, some of them may contain romance and some may deal with personal relationships.  However, her writing is dark and there are no sugar coated, clichéd happy endings.  All of the stories have much more depth and complexity than a simple boy meets girl, boy and girl fall in love etc.  Her subject matter involves smuggling, murder, drugs, fighting, incest and betrayals.  She can stray into the fantastical sometimes (e.g. The Birds) but she manages to pull this off so well.

Won’t her books be old fashioned?

A good story well written can never be old fashioned.

Not everything that she has written is a brilliant work of literature, and I don’t expect that everyone who reads her will love her as much as I do.  But I do think that everyone should give her a go.  Writing and atmosphere creation as good as Du Maurier’s will always be relevant, and suitable for all audiences, I would say from late teens onwards.

For anyone reading Daphne Du Maurier for the first time, Rebecca is not necessarily the place to start.  For an easier entrance into Du Maurier, I would recommend Frenchman’s Creek.  This is the most romantic of her books, but it is also a real swashbuckling adventure in one carefree summer, set in her beloved Cornwall.

30 day book challenge – day 15 – A character who you can relate to the most.

Katniss Everdeen from the Hunger Games trilogy.

20130912_192855

It is probably stretching the truth to say I can relate to her – I’m not sure we actually have anything in common.  It I was in the Hunger Games, I’m pretty sure I would be killed straight away – I know very little about survival, I’m pretty unfit and in general, I’m a bit of a wimp.  My tactic would be to run away and hide for as long as possible.

But Katniss is the subject of this post because I just want to be her.

To start with, I have a real respect for anyone who understands nature and can live off the land.  I think it is a shame that we have mainly lost these traditional skills and knowledge.  The fact that Katniss knows how to hunt and survive off the land makes me like her.  The fact that she can use a bow and arrow makes me love her.

She is a survivor through and through.  She doesn’t let herself go to pieces no matter how much she might want to.  She uses her head.  She is smart.  She knows how to take care of herself, not just by surviving by hunting, but by learning how to adapt and play the system.

Katniss didn’t ask for any of what happens to her.  However, as the series progresses and Katniss comes to stand for something, she rises to the challenge and accepts the role that has been placed on her shoulders.  This is a heavy burden and she bears the scars but she doesn’t shy away.

But she is not all tough.  Katniss has real connections with the other characters in the book (even the ridiculous but well meaning Effie) and cares for them.  She fights for those she loves as much as anything else.

I absolutely loved The Hunger Games books.  I read them shortly after Twilight and it was just so lovely to read about such a strong female character following Bella Swan.  Katniss is everything that Bella is not.  She is exactly the kind of female character that I like to read about and a perfect role model for any young females (and me!) reading these books.

30 day book challenge – day 13 – A book that disappointed you

I had to think about this for a while, because I do genuinely enjoy most of what I read, and I do try to start out with an open mind.  Even if I don’t love everything I read, I usually find something that I’ve enjoyed about it.  But then I realised that being disappointed in a book doesn’t have to mean the same thing as not enjoying it – it comes down to expectations and I can think of a couple of books that failed to live up to what I had expected of them.

The first is The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde.

20130910_192901

I had never heard of this book, but a good friend of mine who doesn’t tend to read a lot knew the basics of the story, and suggested we read the book together in the run up to the film.  I will never turn down an opportunity to convert a non-reader to reading, and my expectations were high – I had never read anything by Oscar Wilde but I knew his writing was famous, and I had been promised by my friend that this was a really good story.

For anyone who is not familiar with it, Dorian Gray is a wealthy, naive young man, who descends into a downward spiral of sin and debauchery when he realises that his portrait bears all the stains of his soul.  He basically never grows old and can do whatever he likes without carrying any outward signs of it.

It is a good idea for a story, a really good idea.    But it is a really hard read.  It is a very short book, but I struggled to finish it.  It is difficult to put into words, but the voice was all over the place and sometimes the narrative seemed to lose all coherence and became very rambling.  Somewhere in this confusion, the drama was lost.  After I had finished reading it, I found out that the book had prompted a huge backlash of criticism from conservative Victorian society and there were calls for Wilde to be prosecuted for obscenity.  The outcome of this was that Oscar Wilde extensively reworked the book, expanding it, adding a new sub plot and toning down some of it’s homoerotic scenes.  This is apparent in the confusion and lack of cohesiveness.  A brilliant concept, but a big disappointment for me.

The other one that stood out is The Shack by William P. Young.

20130910_192847

I like to read anything a bit quirky, offbeat and original; if it is a bit controversial as well then even better.  The Shack seemed to tick all of these boxes.  It is the story a father grieving for his murdered child meeting the holy trinity in person at the shack at which his daughter was murdered.  It raised some interesting theological questions, and I take my hat off to the author for being brave enough to portray God as a woman.

However, overall the book didn’t live up to my expectations.  For some reason, prior to reading it I had thought that it was based on a true story, and it certainly reads that way in the beginning.  I think starting out on the wrong foot like that was maybe what caused my problem with the book.

It was quite wordy and revolved around the main character’s conversations with God.  I suppose it is hard to say how someone should react if they all of a sudden meet God in person, but I felt that the reaction of the main character (who at that point I thought was a real man describing what he believed was a real experience) just didn’t feel realistic.  It would be an earth-changingly mind blowing moment, but he took it all in his stride with barely a ruffle or a question.  Maybe that it what it means to have faith.

Even once I realised that I was reading fiction, the ending did not work for me at all.  I’m not going to spoil it for anyone who has not read it, but I really think that the main character would have found himself with quite a lot of explaining to do in the circumstances.

Even though I did find these two books disappointing, I did still find parts of them to enjoy and that it why they are both still on my bookshelves and not in the charity shop.  The beginning of Dorian Gray before it descends into incohesiveness is very good.  I like some of the ideas and questions that The Shack raises, and the fact that it does prompt discussion and debate.  I would not rule out reading either of these books in the future, and I may even enjoy them more coming at them with lower expectations.

30 day book challenge – day 12 – A book you wanted to read for a long time but still haven’t.

There was a time in my life when I barely read at all.  I packed up and moved 350 miles from home to go to University, leaving all of my books behind.  I wanted to travel as lightly as possible so my books didn’t make the journey with me.  During term time, I would work hard and play hard.  Then when I went home, I would read anything I could put my hands on during the holidays before leaving it all behind again.

There was one book that changed that and brought reading back into my life all year round.  It was an impulse buy at the airport when I was waiting for a flight back to Newcastle.  That book was Atonement by Ian McEwan.

I really enjoyed the book although Briony annoyed me intensely (though if she hadn’t, there wouldn’t have been a story).  I then later read On Chesil Beach, also by Ian McEwan, which is an uncomfortably intimate but exquisite portrait of the first night of marriage for a young couple.  Ian McEwan was then firmly on my radar.

I had been aware of Enduring Love before I had seen the film because I knew I wanted to read more Ian McEwan.  Then I saw the film, which I thought was excellent.  It was really dark and psychological.  The thing that got to me was that the main character, Joe, was just so ordinary.  His reaction to the sequence of events and the way everything seemed to spiral out of control I could imagine happening to anyone.  I really thought Daniel Craig and Rhys Ifans did an excellent job,  Watching this film put Enduring Love to the top of my to read list.

That was nearly 5 years ago.  Not only have I not yet read Enduring Love, I haven’t read any other Ian McEwan books, and I don’t have any on my bookshelves waiting to be read.  I’ve reminded myself all over again just why I want to read it though, and so I’m going to make the effort to buy/borrow it after writing this post though and put it back at the top of the reading pile.