Friday, 31 July 2009

The White Shelf

Due to popular demand I decided to post a photograph of my white shelf today. An homage to The Beatles' White Album is appropriate for someone whose blog name plays on their song "Paperback Writer".

I wrote yesterday that all of the white books were Vintage Books but there's Animals by Keith Ridgway at the end of the shelf. One of his novellas, Horses (an amazing book), is peeping in at the end, the only non-white book on the shelf, but I couldn't separate it from Animals and the claret colour compliments the font on the Murakami spines.

I also notice that the two Toni Morrison hardbacks -her latest novels, of which Mercy is a signed copy- are no longer published by Vintage but by another Random House imprint, Chatto & Windus.

The Haruki Murakami and Toni Morrison books are some of my favourites; they have such lovely, distinctive covers and have been extremely well published. As I add to my collection of these authors (I have every novel that Toni Morrison has written to date but still have a few Murakami books to buy) a reshuffle of shelfs will be order but at the present I am very content with this shelf. When I have more of them and more shelf space I'll add the new white, Penguin Modern Classics to these ones.

I love themed tables in bookstores and will instantly be drawn to them to peruse at leisure. I think colour themes are exceptionally striking and have seen a white table, a red table, a black one, and a rainbow one in different bookshops and all were appealing. As for my other shelves, I have a dove-grey shelf beneath the white one (no prizes for guessing what they are); a bottle-green Virago shelf a couple of bookcases along; a rainbow coloured Virago shelf beneath that; and perpindicular to that I have a silver Penguin Modern Classics shelf. Look out for another photograph of one of these colour-themed shelf in a few weeks.

Thursday, 30 July 2009

The Japanese Literature Challenge

With so many challenges on the go just now (this year's Man Booker longlist; the Booker and Pulitzer prize winners; the upcoming Persephone Reading Week; Everything Austen) you would be forgiven for thinking me crazy for embarking on another. However, it just isn't so! Before I was blogging myself I was reading blogs and last year I came across Dolce Bellezza's Japanese Literature Challenge, now in its third year, and knew then that it would be a challenge I would love to participate in if and when I started blogging. There was no way that I wasn't doing this challenge now that I could and, besides which, it is incredibly relaxed and only holds me to read one book of Japanese origin over the next six months, which I probably would have done anyway. Of course, now that I will be reading about lots of fabulous Japanese literature I will of course want to read more and the challenge may distract me some ... oh well.

I love Japanese literature; I love Japanese culture; I love Japanese history; I would love -more than anything- to one day visit Japan; I love sushi and sashimi, miso soup, and green tea; I love cherry blossom -or sakura- so much that one of these days I will have it tattooed on my body; I already love this challenge.

The books that I am considering reading are:

The Fox Woman by Kij Johnson. Nymeth made this book sound amazing in her review. She loved the book so much that she wanted to share it and buy it for one of her readers; I was the lucky recipient and I have been saving it for this challenge.

Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami. I have read four Murakami books (novels and short stories) and have a couple unread on the white shelf (I have one shelf dedicated to white books which happens to be made up coincidentally of only Vintage Books authors: Toni Morrison, Haruki Murakami and Andrey Kurkov). Norwegian Wood was the first Murakami novel that I bought and although side-tracked by his other work along the way I have been very much looking forward to reading it. Influenced by The Beatles, it seems fortuitous that this copy finds itself a home on the white shelf.

I am a Cat by Soseki Natsume. As a cat obsessive (I have a cat, Mandoo, at home with my parents and I miss him so much), I am desperate to share my domestic space and heart with a feline again and this book will allow me to do that figuratively. I think, however, that I will read it a bit at a time as an ongoing reading project, perhaps throughout the duration of the challenge.

Out by Natsuo Kirino is a book that I actually came across through Dolce Bellezza's challenge last year and it is ridiculous that I have yet to read it.

Asleep by Banana Yoshimoto. I really enjoyed Kitchen when I read it and the synopsis for this appeals to me. In addition to that, it's short!

In the Miso Soup by Ryu Murakami (no relation to Haruki). I don't know much about this book but I have seen it around a lot and the title amuses and intigues me!

Will you be participating in this challenge? Do you enjoy Japanese Literature and have anything you would like to recommend? What do you think of my choices?

Wednesday, 29 July 2009

Hotel du Lac

Reading a Man Booker prize winner (1994) on the day the longlist for this year's Man Booker prize was announced was coincidental but very apt. I had intended to read the book later this week instead but Simon convinced me otherwise. Another title contributed towards my personal Man Booker challenge, for which I have already read one other title this month.

I did not love Hotel du Lac by Anita Brookner as I did Disgrace. Love is a strong word and I tend to overly enthuse and effuse over books and give my heart away too freely but I did enjoy it, even if I didn't hug it upon finishing it.

I appreciated Hotel du Lac, there are wonderfully accomplished passages of beautiful writing. I was at once reminded of E. M. Forster's A Room With a View and of Alfred Hitchcock's stunning and supsense-filled thrillers, perhaps connoted by the black and white photographed cover and one scene between a man and a woman set on the sea? The writing especially in the first half of the novel wowed me.

Edith Hope, a romance novelist, has removed herself to the Hotel du Lac at the end of the season for reasons at first unknown and only hinted at. Edith writes letters to her married lover, David, during her stay and engages with the other hotel residents. At first Edith observes from a distance, people watching, and then later engages with them. Interspersed with the main timeline within the hotel are flashbacks to Edith and what occurred to prompt her enforced sojourn to Hotel du Lac.

As with the other Booker winner that I read this month Hotel du Lac concerns personal disgrace and societal embarrassment; it is about the choices we make and the subsequent repercussions we face.

"She felt as if grief and terror had been unleashed by her long night of introspection and that she must be called to account whenever and wherever damage might be done and atonement might be made."

If I gave star ratings on my reviews then this would be a 4* novel.

Tuesday, 28 July 2009

The Man Booker longlist

As mentioned, I have challenged myself to read all Man Booker winners and enjoying them so far. I have also decided to read the Man Booker 2009 Longlist announced today. The longlist nominated novels are as follows:

Byatt, AS The Children's Book

Coetzee, J M Summertime

Foulds, Adam The Quickening Maze

Hall, Sarah How to Paint a Dead Man

Harvey, Samantha The Wilderness

Lever, James Me Cheeta

Mantel, Hilary Wolf Hall

Mawer, Simon The Glass Room

O'Loughlin, Ed Not Untrue & Not Unkind

Scudamore, James Heliopolis

Tóibín, Colm Brooklyn

Trevor, William Love and Summer

Waters, Sarah The Little Stranger

I have read three of the thirteen nominated titles: The Wilderness by Samantha Harvey, Brooklyn by Colm Tóibín, and The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters (titles link to my reviews). I am delighted to see the first on the list, happy to see the second, and I expected to see the third; my redux post devoted to The Little Stranger suggested that I had missed something special on my first reading and although I am still not completely convinced, a place on the longlist supports my suspicions.

Some of the titles I hadn't heard of and another -Wolf Hall- I am not overly thrilled at having to read and not just because of its tome-like length. It is also going to take the longest to arrive in the library for me so it will be read last (I hope that the library request some more copies as otherwise I won't be able to read it in time). Neither Summertime and Love and Summer have been published yet but I have pre-ordered copies; everything else I have managed to reserve from my library and Me Cheeta, the one I am most surprised and intrigued by, I bought cheaply from Amazon. I haven't fully caught up on reading a synopsis for them all but so far the Coetzee is the one I am most looking forward to reading.

What about you? are you reading the longlist this year or wanting to read any you may be interested by? Are you excited by or happy to see some on the list?

The shortlist will be announced on September 8th and then the prize will be awarded to this year's winner on October 6th, which leaves me with ten weeks to read ten books.

At time of going to press I am also reading 1984 winner Hotel du Lac by Anita Brookner so look out for a review of that in coming posts. My sincerest apologies for the Booker-orientated road this blog is taking but this year's prize will only be a brief sojourn -interrupted by Persephone Reading Week- and normal service will resume in October!

Teaser Tuesdays

Quote a couple of spoiler-free sentences from the book you’re reading to tempt others.

"He was the only person - well, almost - who knew where she was going. He was, alas, not the only person who knew why she was going."
Hotel du Lac by Anita Brookner p. 29

Monday, 27 July 2009

The Group

The first time I came across mention of The Group by Mary McCarthy was on The Guardian's 1000 Novels Everyone Must Read list and I instantly wanted to read it. Its listing described it as:

An affectionate portrayal of eight Vassar-educated girls making their way in Depression-era New York — and a hilarious lampooning of the men who hang around them. The novel remained on the New York Times bestseller list for two years and still strikes a chord. Imagine Sex and the City with a social conscience, with characters saying things like: "But before we were married, we had an understanding that he should read Kafka and Joyce and Toynbee and the cultural anthropologists … so that semantically we can have the same referents".

I was disappointed to find that the book had fallen out of print here in the UK but heartened to discover that Virago are re-issuing the novel later this year. When I watched this great interview with Sarah Waters in May and found out that she was re-reading The Group and thought it "a fantastic book" I sought it out from the library. Now that I have read it I intend to still purchase a copy of the Virago reprint and reread it to unearth more of its gem-like quality. The Group is the type of novel that I would love to write.

I had preconceptions when I began reading it (Sex and the City comparisons will do that and I love Sex and the City) and expected the group to be engaging with one another often, to all be given equal place in the narrative, for it to be wise but light and I was wrong on all counts, except for the wisdom. The Group is densely intelligent and to begin with I found it a little dry and not exactly dated but definitely telling of the 1930s setting (it was first published in 1963); however The Group is a satire and a highly witty one at that. The humour took me a little while to get but the discussions on motherhood had me wiping tears from my eyes. The novel is highly progressive in its open treatment of motherhood, sex, contraception, and marriage and also discusses Socialism and Communism, Lesbianism, race, and mental illness amongst the socio-economic backdrop of 1930s New York with a predominantly affluent and educated cast.

There is so much information given in the novel and I understand why Sarah Waters regards it as one of her favourites with its attention to historical detail and evocation of the time period. I wonder how influential The Group was on her own writing; there is one scene at lunch in the dining room of a mental hospital that greatly reminded me of a scene from Fingersmith.

I loved The Group and its feminist politics. I read Valley of the Dolls by Jacqueline Susann (a Virago Modern Classic) last year and loved it despite, and even because of, its "trashiness"; Valley of the Dolls is an iconic and often melodramatic feminist treatise, The Group is also just as seminal and undisputably better written. I adored the ending and the structure- the novel's events (each chapter an individual and important event in one of the girls' lives) framed by the wedding of one of the group Kay to Harald at the opening and the funeral of one of the couple at its close. Not all eight girls are given equal page time and the novel more or less revolves around Kay and Harald and how their marriage impacts on the other girls. The book's events occur between '33 when the group graduate and '40, after World War II has broken out in Europe and before America's involvement. I was disappointed at first that Lakey, who was the most fascinating (to the group) group member and intriguing and compelling character (to the reader), didn't feature and was given her own story but the end of the novel and Lakey's return from Europe (where she spent the majority of the narrative excluding the framing events) more than made up for her literal, but not figurative, absence throughout. It wasn't until the last few chapters that I went from liking and admiring this novel to loving it; it's testimony to how an ending can often make or break a book.

A sample of the satire on motherhood approaches and of the language:

Accidentally she had put her finger on the truth, like accidentally hitting a scab. She was doing 'the most natural thing in the world', suckling her young, and for some peculiar reason it was completely unnatural, strained, and false, like a posed photograph. Everyone in the hospital knew this, her mother knew it, her visitors knew it; that was why they were all talking about her nursing and pretending that it was exciting, when it was not, except as a thing to talk about. In reality, what she had been doing was horrid, and right now, in the nursery, a baby's voice was rising to tell her so- the voice, in fact, that she had been refusing to listen to, though she had heard it for at least a week. It was making a natural request, in this day and age; it was asking for a bottle.

Has anyone else read The Group and loved it as I did? Has anyone seen the 1966 Sidney Lumet adpatation of the book, starring Candice Bergen as Lakey?

Sunday, 26 July 2009

Henrietta's War


Joyce Dennys created me in her image, an artist who married a doctor and moved to a quiet, coastal town in England during World War II and voiced her frustrations through my character. I originally appeared in the form of letters to my "childhood's friend" Robert, complete with witty illustrations, in an article for Sketch and became a successful, regular feature until the War ended. Now Bloomsbury have reissued the collected letters as part of their The Bloomsbury Group series.

Epistolary and autobiographical, my wartime experience is in the vein of 84 Charing Cross Road, charming and witty and with our own benefactress of edible delights in short supply. My friend Robert is serving overseas so I keep my news from the home front light and diverting. My letters feature a cast of highly amusing characters and I regale you with humorous acts of patriotism at home. Of much entertainment is my friend, Lady B:

"Before going to bed she sits down and writes a letter to Hitler, telling him just exactly what she thinks of him. She says it is has never failed to give her a good night's sleep. I think her great-grandchildren will enjoy those letters, don't you?"

I also indulge in descriptions of my dog Perry and his sufferings in an age where meat is rationed and there is a shortage of dog biscuits. His nature is so fickle that you would suppose he was a cat. His displeasure at dwindling meat supply, however, does not inspire dire humour as it does in humans:

"'I must say, I never thought I'd come to tripe,' said Colonel Simpkins sadly. Then his face brightened, 'If you ask me,' he said, 'I think this rationing is simply offal.'
And I had so hoped, Robert, that we were going to get through our first week of meat rationing without anybody making that joke."

Food and its shortage is prolific in my letters' content as I draw attention to the little sugar, margarine instead of butter, tinned rice instead of baked puddings, distress on the part of Cook, a Christmas dinner of reduced circumstance, parties where we bring our own tea, but I decline mention of the lack of bananas.

However, my husband Charles, is still sent "Charles's Cheese", a huge block of Stilton, sent every year by a grateful patient and the signal that Christmas is approaching. It is not the cheese that keeps us awake at night but the air raid sirens and incendiary bomb. There was also the badger that was thought a parachuter.

My accident proneness takes up some letter width:

"I dashed off to put away the mop which I happened to be holding in my hand and fell downstairs. I landed on my head, there was a loud cracking noise in my neck, and I thought what a silly way it was to get killed in the middle of a war."

Throughout prevails a sense of maintaining a stiff upper lip and patriotic outlook in times of adversity. One does what one can for one's country like giving blood, not without its own sacrifice:

"'I think you'd better put some of that blood back,' I said weakly.
'Keep perfectly still,' said the lieutenant, who had, presumably, witnessed so many blood-transfusion deaths that he wasn't going to start getting excited about mine.
But I didn't die."

My letters provide entertaining insight into jolly times of hardship on the home front.

Always your affectionate but not Childhood's Friend,

Saturday, 25 July 2009


I thought I would share with you in this post an image of my copy of The Complete Novels of Jane Austen. Prompted by Claire at Kiss a Cloud's post this week on complete novels in the one volume I wanted to show off my Austen and stress that it isn't too heavy or cumbersome. I do own most, but not all, of Jane Austen's novels in individual copies but I found it hard to resist owning this edition, and not solely for the front cover.

As I previously mentioned, I signed up for the Everything Austen challenge, and intended to read Persuasion this summer, the only Jane Austen novel I hadn't yet read. Reading the blog of Nicola at Vintage Reads over the previous few months had intensified my desire to re-read some beloved Austen anyway and then I started to think that I should read the last unread one. Around this time I also read Simon at Stuck in a Book's poll post about which was the more loved novel, Pride and Prejudice (my favourite) or Persuasion (as yet unread)? The comments were illuminating -one analogy comparing it to the debate between which was the better of The Godfather and The Godfather II- and then hearing Michelle discuss this as her favourite novel at the first meeting of the Savidge Reads book group, I thought it probable that I was missing out by not having read Persuasion. Part of me had held off because I've read everything else by Austen and I tend to ration books by my favourite writers out, especially when they have a closed canon (due to their death) but now my curiosity was piqued - would Persuasion replace Pride & Prejudice as my favourite Austen novel?

The short answer to this is no; Pride and Prejudice will retain its position and always hold a special place in my heart but I did enjoy Persuasion immensely and appreciate its depth of passion and emotion. I read Pride and Prejudice as a hopelessly romantic teenager in the first throes of idealistic infatuation and in my opinion Persuasion is better appreciated by those who have loved and lost, with its powerful evocation of longing that anyone ever separated from the one they love will empathise with. I think that Persuasion is suitable for the more mature Austen fan, for those who have experienced love and not those who have just dreamt of it and gushed at Pride and Prejudice (and drooled over the culturally epic lake scene in the 1996 BBC adaptation).

I am pleased that I read these Austen novels in the order I did as love takes on a different look when you are older and not least when you are in a longterm committed relationship. Persuasion has a more mature outlook because it comes with the maturity brought about from lost love and separation and Anne Elliot is not as juvenile, impetuous nor as feisty as Elizabeth Bennett or Emma Wodehouse; although I still have a devout adoration of those two heroines, I admired Anne's internalised passion.

Anne Elliot has lost her bloom at the mature age of twenty-seven (!) and has been been pining for eight and a half years for Captain Frederick Wentworth whom her family and her friend, Lady Russell, who took the maternal place of Anne's own mother who had died, persuaded her was no good match. During the course of the novel, Anne and Captain Frederick become reacquainted through other friends and family and after the emotionally-charged first meeting and misunderstandings (as a result at times of their own and others' pride and prejudices) they are reunited and live happily ever after. It's a Jane Austen novel, where they always end in marriage, so I don't think I am spoiling the end for anyone.

This long passage and exchange about persuasion is the crux of the novel with the same title, embodying its passion, emotional turmoil, and maturity and wisdom of reflection. I think I will end with Jane Austen's words:

'To see you.' cried he, 'in the midst of those who could not be my well-wishers, to see your cousin close by you, conversing and smiling, and feel all the horrible eligibilities and proprieties of the match! To consider it as the certain wish of every being who could hope to influence you! Even, if your own feelings were reluctant or indifferent, to consider what powerful supports would be his! Was it not enough to make the fool of me which I appeared? How could I look on without agony? Was not the very sight of the friend who sat behind you, was not the recollection of what had been, the knowledge of her influence, the indelible, immovable impression of what persuasion had once done - was it not all against me?'

'You should have distinguished,' replied Anne. 'You should not have suspected me now; the case so different, and my age so different. If I was wrong in yielding to persuasion once, remember that it was to persuasion exerted on the side of safety, not of risk. When I yielded, I thought it was to duty; but no duty could be called in aid here. In marrying a man indifferent to me, all risk would have been incurred, and all duty violated.'

Friday, 24 July 2009

Recent Arrivals

I know how much you like to admire new books so I thought I would share the arrivals this week. Look out for reviews of these books in the coming days, weeks, and possibly months (have you being keeping count of my recent acquisitions and library loot?!)

Captivated: J. M. Barrie, the Du Mauriers and the Dark Side of Neverland by Piers Dudgeon is a book that I have been coveting for some time (since reading Daphne by Justine Picardie) and which Nymeth kindly chose from my wish-list and sent me after I won her Weekly Geeks quiz.

I Served the King of England by Bohumil Hrabal was sent to me by Vintage Books after I requested a copy of their pretty re-issue. Hrabal is a Czech writer I studied during a Slavonic literature course (I read and really enjoyed his most famous work, Closely Observed Trains) and have been desperately wanting to read this title.

The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath was kindly sent by Faber at the bequest of Simon at Savidge Reads as it is the title chosen by him for next month's book group. I read this a decade ago (when I was going through my own period of teenage angst) and looking forward to a re-read. It's a lovely new cover -part of the Faber Firsts series to celebrate their 80th Birthday- and apologies for decapitating the debutante with a stray patch of sunlight!

The Wake by Jeremy Page is an ARC from Waterstone's and I am intrigued by its premise and looking forward to reading it (I intentionally sought this one out because I was excited).

The Optimist's Daughter by Eudora Welty is both a Pulitzer Prize winner, which I need to read for my personal challenge, and a Virago Modern Classic, which I collect. Recently I have been inspired (or should that be tempted?) to buy and read more Viragoes from reading Verity's Virago Venture. I would have sought out a green copy but I found this cover too pretty and reminiscent of the cover for this book, which I also own.

Henrietta's War: News from the Home Front 1939-42 by Joyce Dennys - published earlier this month as part of The Bloomsbury Group series I could resist the temptation no longer to purchase a copy. I have read so many effusively lovely things about this book here, here, and here and with such high praise the pressure is on to read and love this book... no, really, I can't wait to lose myself in it and don't think I will... wait.

The Other Hand by Chris Cleave is a book that I first read about (in the Guardian, I think), subsequently added to my wish-list in December of last year and then promptly forgot about until I read Claire's review in May (the book is published across the pond with a different title), added the paperback to my wish-list, then read Simon's review last week and realised that I couldn't wait to purchase it any longer. Now I see that Jackie has just read it too with a review pending so it will only be a matter of time until I pick it up! It has one of those vague, intriguing, shrouded-in-mystery descriptions that always peaks my literary curiosity. I am, however, approaching it cautiously as we all know what can happen when we anticipate a book with too much hype surrounding it.

I really must go and read now.

Thursday, 23 July 2009

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

I forgot to mention in my Library Loot post this week that finally my requested copy of The Thing Around Your Neck by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is available to collect from the library. I have been desperate to read it since it was published in early April and now it is only six weeks until it is published in paperback. Oh well, I'll read it and purchase it at a later date. As it is I already have a head-start on reading the collection having read two of the short stories collected.

"A Private Experience" is one of the short stories.

Adichie's writing is understated but possesses a richness and a resonance that is powerful and profound. Both of her wonderful novels and now this short story (not the collection) concern the Nigerian Civil War (1967-70), also known as the Nigerian-Biafran War, where ethnic tensions and violence escalated. Adichie evokes the War in almost a minimalist way: a devastating truth and reality in a sentence written like a throw-away comment, not embellished or exaggerated but standing upon the merit of its own stark wording. The horror she can convey in one simple line is awe-inspiring and difficult to describe; its simplicity is implied but it is an artistic technique to pack so much punch in a few words. One of Adichie's literary idols is her fellow Nigerian writer -and the founding father of the modern African novel (an accolade given to him by Nelson Mandela) - Chinua Achebe, and he too possesses the gift of constructing words in such a simple yet brutal way, shocking the reader.

"A Private Experience" occurs over one day and night in a small, abandoned shop between two women: Chika, a Medical student and an Igbo Christian from Lagos, who is visiting her aunt in the town, and the nameless woman who leads her to shelter, who is a market trader with five children and also an Hausa Muslim. The women have sought safety from the violent street riot they were caught up in at the market; "Later, Chika will learn that, as she and the woman are speaking, Hausa Muslims are hacking down Igbo Christians with machetes, clubbing them with stones".

Chika has been separated from her sister Nnedi, and the woman from her eldest daughter; the story provides flash-forward hints to the fate of Nnedi and the future of Chika, who is the main protagonist, but not to the woman, excluding "perhaps the beginning of future grief on her face". The riots are a way of life to the woman but Chika has always been sheltered and somewhat oblivious, "Riots like this were what she read about in newspapers. Riots like this were what happened to other people". Their private experience is shared: two women -one nameless and unidentifiable, one not- who have a shared experience, despite their ethnic, religious and class differences. "The woman's crying is private, as though she is carrying out a necessary ritual that involves no one else" except for Chika who is witness to this personal moment; they also share the incongruous Medical exam of the woman's dry nipples. Later, when the private experience becomes the public, "Chika will read in the Guardian that "the reactionary Hausa-speaking Muslims in the North have a history of violence against non-Muslims", and in the middle of her grief, she will stop to remember that she examined the nipples and experienced the gentleness of a woman who is Hausa and Muslim."

The other short story from the collection I have read is "Cell One".

I believe that "Cell One" is the opening story in The Thing Around Your Neck and it definitely captured my attention from the opening lines:

The first time our house was robbed, it was our neighbor Osita who climbed in through the dining-room window and stole our TV and VCR, and the “Purple Rain” and “Thriller” videotapes that my father had brought back from America. The second time our house was robbed, it was my brother Nnamabia, who faked a break-in and stole my mother’s jewelry.

It starts after the fact, looking back; it is shocking and intriguing; it is dated and contains Western touches. This was not the first criminal act of the narrator's brother, nor would it be the last. The story centres around Nnamabia's arrest in his second year of university for belonging to a cult and his subsequent days in prison and in Cell One, the titular location for punishment. Typically Adichie, the story is told with subtle, understated language that nevertheless conveys horrific situations. It too is political although Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie states in this interview that she is not a political writer but a storyteller (watch the interview if you have time as I think she comes across as a very interesting and meditative writer). Adichie is indeed a storyteller, a wonderful one, and I look forward to reading the remainder of the collection, The Thing Around Your Neck.

Wednesday, 22 July 2009

The Crowded Street

Are you ever exposed to a book that you know you have to buy there and then and will subsequently make a special trip to a bookstore to obtain it so that you don't have to wait for online postage? I'm sure it's not just me...

I listened to the first installment of the BBC Radio 7 dramatisation of The Crowded Street by Winifred Holtby last week and in the opening few minutes I knew that this was a book that I had to purchase and devour and instantly made plans to visit Persephone Books that day for a copy.

The Crowded Street is one of those rare but wonderful books that is both a Virago Modern Classic and a Persephone (#76), meaning that it once was published in bottle-green and fell out of print but was rescued by Persephone and now appears in dove-grey (another title for which this is the case is A Very Great Profession by Persephone founder, Nicola Beauman). I collect both VMCs and Persephones but as there are a number of Holtby titles that were published by Virago I intended to track all of them down but needing to read it now (and coveting Persephones just the same) I made an outing to the Bloomsbury shop and had the book in my hands that afternoon, along with a beautiful Bloomsbury postcard that coincidentally has something in common with the book (ahem, answers on a postcard will take place during Persephone Reading Week).

I began to read the book on the train journey home (temporarily laying aside my current book) and once home settled down to read it. I was lucky enough to do so with tea and M&S naughty strawberry tarts; why they are branded "naughty" I couldn't tell you as they are petite pâtisseries... perhaps having one is indulgent but both is sheer decadence. Indeed the afternoon of tea, pastries, and this book were a naughty delight.

Very much a Persephone book, The Crowded Street is an inter-war novel about women and their relationships with one another. The central protagonist is Muriel Hammond and her relationships with her socially aspiring mother; her impetuous sister, Connie; her socialite childhood friend, Claire Duquesne; and her idealist, social reformer friend, Delia Vaughan, all of whom are "types". The novel is about what is expected from life and what is expected of us -the pressure to please and to conform- and ultimately freedom from these personal and societal constraints. It is a bildungsroman and also a roman à clef, as the conflict Muriel feels between duty to her family and public service is what Holtby experienced herself. It is also a feminist novel about the emphasis on "sex success" in snobbish, gossippy Marshington, the suffocating home that Muriel later rejects. In many ways The Crowded Street appears to be ahead of its time with women choosing not to marry and railing against the stigma of spinsterhood as well as the subplot of sex outwith marriage and pregnancy out of wedlock, although ultimately those events result in forced marriage and tragedy.

The structure of the novel is divided into four sections (after the prologue concerning Muriel's first dance): entitled Clare, Connie, Delia, Muriel and revolve around the former three women's influence on Muriel. More time could have been spent on the latter two narratives, I thought, as they were to me the most interesting (and autobriographical). Connie's section was melodramatic and there is speculation that her time at Thraile Farm with the odd Todds is the inspiration for Stella Gibbon's satire, Cold Comfort Farm. There is however no sign of the something nasty in the woodshed.

Winifred Holtby lived with fellow Virago author, Vera Brittain, in 1920s London and their life-long friendship is the focus of the latter's autobiographical novel , Testament of Friendship. Moreover, I had the impression that Muriel's friend, Delia, was based upon Vera Brittain and this was confirmed in reading the preface after finishing the novel.

Favourite and central quotes:

"Then suddenly we find ourselves left alone in a dull crowded street with no one caring and our lives unneeded, and all the fine things that we meant to do, like toys that a child has laid aside."

"The thing that matters is to take your life into your own hands and live it, accepting responsibility for failure or success. The really fatal thing to do is to let other people make your choices for you, and then to blame them if your scheme should fail and they despise you for the failure.

I now want to read more Winifred Holtby and add to my burgeoning Virago collection but I am attempting (woefully) to curb buying any more until I have read more of the ones that I already have. Verity's Virago Venture is weakening my resolve however and more Winifred Holtby may feature in the near future!

Reading The Crowded Street has also whetted my appetite for Persephone Reading Week and will inspire one challenge, hinted to above.

Tuesday, 21 July 2009

How not to be a Domestic Goddess

This post is somewhat of a departure for me but is more for the reading pleasure of Verity and Darlene, since they are the bakers amongst us bloggers and were the ones who inspired me to bake today. In actual fact this post does have a precedent here, the first time that I attempted to bake banana bread.

Four months on and I still haven't bought a loaf tin and I have a long way to go until I perfect my baking skills. I am not much of a baker but I try... I was going to make some of Nigella's fairy cakes (traditional and chocolate) for my boyfriend as he doesn't like bananas but I didn't have enough butter.

How to be a domestic goddess rule #1: ALWAYS have enough butter for fairy cakes.

The recipe I use for banana bread isn't actually from How to be a Domestic Goddess (although the fairy cakes recipe is) but this is a book blog and the photograph and content should involve something literary.

Teaser Tuesdays

Quote a couple of spoiler-free sentences from the book you’re reading to tempt others.

"Kay came in with fresh plates and a cake on a doily on a pink glass platter. The frosting was decorated with a maraschino cherry tree and a chocolate hatchet. 'Oh, bless her heart!' said Dottie."
The Group by Mary McCarthy p. 110

Monday, 20 July 2009

Library Loot

It's been some time since my last Library Loot post but, for the most part, I was staying true to my resolution not to request or borrow any more books from the library. However, as you can see above, I broke my resolve a little.

Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell is the book I am reading with one of my book groups next month and it's not one that interests me (non-fiction about success) but the point of book groups I think is to read things that you normally wouldn't choose for yourself.

The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins is a book that I could not resist any longer. So many bloggers have raved about this book, a friend posted on my facebook page that I had to read it, and I read somewhere that Collins was inspired by Shirley Jackon's "The Lottery", which I loved.

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction last year and will contibute to my personal challenge of reading all of the winners. The library had it in stock so I thought "why not?"

Hotel du Lac by Anita Brookner won the Man Booker in 1984 and I am also reading those. I was browsing online looking at books one day recently (as I do) and I read the opening pages of this via Amazon and I desperately wanted to read the remainder. However I had a friend visiting me this weekend who described it as "the most boring book" she had ever read.

Ideally I am intending to read one Pulitzer and one Man Booker winner a month and this month I have fulfilled one part of that goal. I am woefully behind in my reading - do you remember my overly ambitious summer reading list? I must make some extra time...

Sunday, 19 July 2009

"Hell-Heaven" by Jhumpa Lahiri

I have been meaning to read Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri for years; in fact, Amazon reliably informs me that I have had a copy of the book since October 2005. Now that I am attempting to read the Pulitzer winners I am relieved to know that I will be finally reading it and considering reading it quite soon. To give myself an idea of whether I would like Lahiri's writing style I decided to first read the first story "Hell-Heaven" from her latest collection, Unaccustomed Earth, in DailyLit installments. Funnily enough, after I began reading, Karen from BookBath asked me if I had read it in the comments of my Pulitzer Prize post and highly recommended it.

After reading the last installment of the story today I read Karen's review of the collection here (written last year) and now I am definitely borrowing the collection from the library but whether that will be before or after I read Interpreter of Maladies I am undecided upon.

Despite regularly reading short story collections in short spurts, sampling one or two stories before moving onto something else and returning to the other stories later, and usually not reading them in the order in which they are collected, I have never read a short story itself in installments. Reading "Hell-Heaven" in that manner was interesting but I don't think it is something I would repeat; perhaps it is testimony to Lahiri's writing and her talent as a story-teller that I wanted to read it all at once (which I could have done but I have been busy this week and bite-size chunks was convenient, if not ideal). A vivid rendering of characters seems to be Lahiri's prowess and I wanted -and want- more.

"Hell-Heaven" (notice the reversal?) is told from the perspective of an American-Bengali woman looking back on her childhood and the relationship between her mother and family friend, Pranab Kaku, who her mother was in love with (they are closer in age than her and her husband through arranged marriage) and who marries a Western woman, Deborah. The conflicting -and at times incongruous- Bengali versus American way of life is a central theme, as are broken hearts, and the mother and daughter relationship. It is a very well written short story and I was reminded of a novel I read last year, The Mango Season by Amulya Malladi, which has a similar subject matter.

I am looking forward to reading the remainder of the short stories and Jhumpa Lahiri's other work. From this story alone I recommend her.

Saturday, 18 July 2009

Even More Recent Acquisitions...

After reading of Kimbofo's success at the Borders closing down sale I thought I would visit and see what I could find. I have no business buying new books just now, I really can't afford it, but who can resist 50% off everything? Borders itself isn't closing (although I think it has just been bought over again) but they are closing five stores including the prime retail spot of Oxford Street, London, which doesn't bode well for the company really but rent of £1.9 million per year was probably a deciding factor. It fills me with sadness to see any bookshop closing but I would be more upset if it had been an independent one. However, I would have been devastated if it had been the Glasgow branch of Borders as it is a heavenly converted bank full of books, a welcome haven, and the receptacle of many fond memories.

Anyway, I made it to Borders this week before everything had disappeared and restrained myself some. If I were more financially solvent at the moment I would have stocked up on several future reads and Christmas gifts for family and friends but as it was I scanned for favourite writers (of which I have most of their books anyway and found few) and only books that were on my wishlist as I couldn't justify any indulgences. I did, however, pounce on the only Persephone book that I spied: The Far Cry by Emma Smith and am delighted to have a brand new Persephone for only £5. I settled for only one of three Esther Freud books that I haven't yet read, opting for Peerless Flats but again couldn't justify any additional ones as I recently acquired Summer at Gaglow too. I also purchased The L-Shaped Room by Lynne Reid Banks, which is a book that has been on my wish-list since last November. Lastly I could not leave one loan copy of Margo Lanagan's Tender Morsels after an enthused Nymeth raved about it and the recent controversy that has ensued.

Friday, 17 July 2009


I shared earlier in the week the recent arrival of Vintage Bookers that should aid me in my personal Man Booker challenge. So far they are contributing to the challenge nicely as I immediately picked up Disgrace by J. M. Coetzee to read and finished it within two days, whilst also reading other things. I think that the main prize winners have the reputation of being dense and difficult, which is certainly not true of the ones I have read. Disgrace deals with difficult themes but it is an easy -as in straightforward, but not in subject- read; it also thought-provoking and powerful. At its essence it is a meditation on what makes a victim and what makes a perpetrator and also what is the meaning of disgrace. This is a highly intelligent novel with an uncompromising dark subject matter but it is incredibly accessible and not even the intermittent discussion of Lord Bryon is too high-brow.

The synopsis, courtesy of the Man Booker website:

Refusing to apologise after an impulsive affair with a student, David Lurie, a 52 year old professor in Cape Town, seeks refuge on his daughter’s farm where a savage and disturbing attack brings into relief the faults in their relationship. Pitching the moral code of political correctness against the values of Romantic poetry, Disgrace examines dichotomies both in personal relationships and in the unaccountability of one culture towards another.

Although David's affair is the impetus for the novel's events, it is more of a device and a foil to what happens later; it is interesting to compare what happens to Lucy, David's daughter, with what David does to Melanie, his student and "inamorata", and to deliberate on what men do and are capable of doing to women. Race is also a central theme and anti-semitism, or the subtle and clever allusions to the Holocaust, is an implicit one. It is brutal and savage at times, as are the human race, and the extended metaphor and symbolism of dogs that pervades the text is effective. It is bleak, the tension is unbearable at times and the themes are uncomfortable but in a necessary way. As I said, the book is thought-provoking and I am still thinking. If you haven't read it then do.

Thursday, 16 July 2009

Ulysses Reading Challenge Update

In June I announced that I was joining Dovegreyreader and many others in the Team Ulysses Challenge, which we hope will see us complete James Joyce's classic by next Bloomsday (June 16th). I was slow of the mark to begin with but caught up a few days later by reading a number of 2-page installments from DailyLit and have made steady progress since then. I have now read over one hundred pages of the novel and if I keep it up at the same pace then I should reach the summit earlier than anticipated.

As if that wasn't a challenge enough I decided to do the same with Proust's In Search of Lost Time v. 1: Swann's Way, which I had been intending to read anyway this year before Ulysses came along.

If you're reading Ulysses too then how are you getting along? I'm finding that the routine helps and that, as yet, I don't have to motivate myself or boost morale but read my installments as if it was second nature (well, to read is natural to me...) I'm not having too much difficulty understanding it although I severely doubt that I am picking up on it all. I'm reading it straight from cover to cover and without any secondary material although it's too early to tell whether that will change; for the moment I am still more or less wading in the water, not sure whether I'll sink or swim.

Wednesday, 15 July 2009

Persephone Reading Week Challenge

As previously mentioned by both myself and Verity of The B Files, we are planning to indulge in a Persephone Books reading week commencing August 24th. After an enthusiastic response we decided to formalise our intent into a Persephone Reading Challenge. We would love for you to join us for a week of reading, blogging, and celebrating the wonderful, grey books. The challenge rules are relaxed and informal: on the week we have chosen enjoy Persephone Books, one Persephone or ten, I don't think it matters as long as you enjoy yourself and the independent publishing house who publish forgotten or neglected books (mainly by women). If you are only able to manage to read one of their books that week then that's great and if you don't have any Persephone books, or perhaps have never heard of them, then come read our blogs that week and discover some truly lovely books or, better yet, indulge in a copy now so you fully experience the challenge. We will be making a number of Persephone-orientated posts, not just reviews, and will host prize draws for books and related items to add to your Persephone collection or to start it off!

We have been in contact with Nicola Beauman, founder of Persephone, who is "touched and flattered" by our show of support and has kindly offered to provide us with some (slightly damaged) Persephone books for prizes. Please participate and help us raise the profile of an exquisite, distinctive, and extraordinary imprint.

Are you looking forward to Persephone Reading Week? Do you have any plans for it or are you going to select from your Persephones at random? Is there anything particular you would like us to feature on our blogs that week or do you have an idea for your own post that will coincide?

Feel free to use the banner I created using one of my own books for any posts in relation to this challenge (no Persephones were harmed in the making).

Tuesday, 14 July 2009

Recent Arrivals

Some very nice people at Vintage Books (Random House) sent me copies of their forthcoming Vintage Bookers, to be published next month. Aren't they pretty? The copies of Possession and How Late it Was, How Late are the older editions due to availability but I'm not complaining as this will make my Man Booker project all the easier. First up is Disgrace by J. M. Coetzee (I can return my library copy - hurray!) and then after that I'm not sure...

Teaser Tuesdays

Quote a couple of spoiler-free sentences from the book you’re reading to tempt others.

"We spent three nights together at Sweet Corner, but he hadn't said a single word about the wife who gazed at us from the painting. Then, on the fourth night, I'd woken up a little before dawn, because the pastry chef was clumping around, firing his bread ovens. I'd rolled over and found Ozren wide awake, staring at the painting."
People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks p.34

Monday, 13 July 2009


Brooklyn by Colm Tóibín is an intensely understated and even simple novel, which is not a disparagement; if anything it is testimony to how great it is to read a novel with no frills at times, stripped back to the writing and evoking of emotions. It is about Eilis Lacey who leaves her mother and sister (her father is dead and her brothers have gone to England for work) and her hometown of Enniscorthy for a job and a new way of life in 1950s Brooklyn.

This is not a new story, but a story as old almost as America. The Irish diaspora in the United States and elsewhere is a well-known tale. My own great-grandparents emigrated to America, to Chicago, in the late 1920s. In the early 1950s when "Eilis Lacey is one among many of her generation who cannot find work at home" my grandparents -separately- both left Ireland in search of work in Glasgow. I didn't fully appreciate the magnitude of this until reading the emotions of Eilis -and her brothers- described and I empathised, as almost sixty years later I have done likewise by moving to London in search of a career. People leaving their loved ones is not a new story at all.

I say "leaving their loved ones" not "for work" but as a general phrase because two years after Eilis has settled in Brooklyn -after the homesickness subsided- and is happy in her work and her studies and has a boyfriend, Tony, an Italian boy from Brooklyn, tragedy
and familial obligation call her back to Ireland. Again Eilis is having to leave her loved ones for further shores and it's good to be home but it comes with confusion and conflict as new opportunties -previously unavailable- present themselves. Inevitability ensues.

This book resonated with me. I understand the pressures of having left home and family behind, of being committed to someone and somewhere else, of the conflict and the pressure of family obligation...
Tóibín took a well-worn story and made it new, made it relevant. Even if you cannot identify with the specifics and the "terrible choice between personal freedom and duty" you will be caught up in the straightforward story of a young girl growing up.

Sunday, 12 July 2009

What's Another List?

After reading Karen at BookBath's post on Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout today, a novel that is on my summer reading list, I thought it was time to share a relevant ongoing personal reading challenge that I am attempting. Along with reading the Man Booker winners (and in the longterm also the nominees) and working my way through the Guardian's 1000 Novels, I am also planning to read all the winning novels of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction (known as the Pulitzer Prize for the Novel prior to 1948). This is the ongoing reading challenge that I have read the least for so far but I'm planning on chalking up a few in the coming months, starting with the most recent winner, Olive Kitteridge, and followed up by the winner from the previous year, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao and then Interpreter of Maladies and The Color Purple, both of which I have been wanting to read for what seems like forever. March by Geraldine Brooks has also caught my eye a few times recently.

Striked through are novels read; in red are the ones I own but are unread.

2009 Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout
2008 The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz
2007 The Road by Cormac McCarthy
2006 March by Geraldine Brooks
2005 Gilead by Marilynne Robinson
2004 The Known World by Edward P. Jones
2003 Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides
2002 Empire Falls by Richard Russo
2001 The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay by Michael Chabon
2000 Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri
1999 The Hours by Michael Cunningham
1998 American Pastoral by Philip Roth
1997 Martin Dressler: The Tale of an American Dreamer by Steven Millhauser
1996 Independence Day by Richard Ford
1995 The Stone Diaries by Carol Shields
1994 The Shipping News by E. Annie Proulx
1993 A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain by Robert Olen Butler
1992 A Thousand Acres by Jane Smiley
1991 Rabbit at Rest by John Updike
1990 The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love by Oscar Hijuelos
1989 Breathing Lessons by Anne Tyler
1988 Beloved by Toni Morrison
1987 A Summons to Memphis by Peter Taylor
1986 Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry
1985 Foreign Affairs by Alison Lurie
1984 Ironweed by William Kennedy
1983 The Color Purple by Alice Walker
1982 Rabbit is Rich by John Updike
1981 A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole
1980 The Executioner's Song by Norman Mailer
1979 The Stories of John Cheever by John Cheever
1978 Elbow Room by James Alan McPherson
1977 -
1976 Humboldt's Gift by Saul Bellow
1975 The Killer Angels by Michael Shaara
1974 -
1973 The Optimist's Daughter by Eudora Welty (read and reviewed here 03/08/09.)
1972 Angle of Repose by Wallace Stegner
1971 -
1970 Collected Stories by Jean Stafford
1969 House Made of Dawn by M. Scott Momaday
1968 The Confessions of Nat Turner by William Styron
1967 The Fixer by Bernard Malamud
1966 Collected Stories by Katherine Anne Porter
1965 The Keepers of the House by Shirley Ann Grau
1964 -
1963 The Reivers by William Faulkner
1962 The Edge of Sadness by Edwin O'connor
1961 To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
1960 Advise and Consent by Allen Drury
1959 The Travels of Jaimie McPheeters by Robert Lewis Taylor
1958 A Death in the Family by James Agee
1957 -
1956 Andersonville by Mackinlay Kantor
1955 A Fable by William Faulkner
1954 -
1953 The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway
1952 The Caine Mutiny by Herman Wouk
1951 The Town by Conrad Richter
1950 The Way West by A.B. Guthrie
1949 Guard of Honor by James Gould Cozzens
1948 Tales of the South Pacific by James A. Michener
1947 All the King's Men by Robert Penn Warren
1946 -
1945 A Bell for Adano by John Hersey
1944 Journey in the Dark by Martin Flavin
1943 Dragon's Teeth by Upton Sinclair
1942 In This Our Life by Ellen Glasgow
1941 -
1940 The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck
1939 The Yearling by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings
1938 The Late George Apley by John Phillips Marquand
1937 Gone With the Wind by Margaret Mitchell
1936 Honey in the Horn by Harold L. Davis
1935 Now in November by Josephine Winslow Johnson
1934 Lamb in His Bosom by Caroline Miller
1933 The Store by T.S. Stribling
1932 The Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck
1931 Years of Grace by Margaret Ayer Barnes
1930 Laughing Boy by Oliver Lafarge
1929 Scarlet Sister Mary by Julia Peterkin
1928 The Bridge of San Luis Rey by Thornton Wilder
1927 Early Autumn by Louis Bromfield
1926 Arrowsmith by Sinclair Lewis
1925 So Big by Edna Ferber
1924 The Able McLaughlins by Margaret Wilson
1923 One of Ours by Willa Cather
1922 Alice Adams by Booth Tarkington
1921 The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton
1920 -
1919 The Magnificent Ambersons by Booth Tarkington
1918 His Family by Ernest Poole

Having read only 7/83 of these novels, I'm thinking that this may take me some time! If I manage to read the five novels mentioned above the list, then I will be delighted. My Guardian 1000 and Man Booker projects take precedence, especially as the Man Booker is more achievable with only thirty or so novels still to read.

Moreover, I haven't even heard of some of these novels and think that prior to the 1940s, at least, they may be quite difficult to obtain. I consider myself to have read quite a lot of American Literature but I feel myself quite lacking in relation to this list. I imagine that some of these are far more well-known on the other side of the pond than they are here. Have you read any winners from this list that I haven't? What books would you recommend?

Saturday, 11 July 2009

Fifteen books

Fifteen is the number of years since I first read Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier and knew that it would always be one of my favourite books. My mum bought me a copy when we were visiting family in Donegal, Ireland, after I had watched -and fallen in love with- the Alfred Hitchcock adaptation.

Fifteen is the age I was when I first read Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen, coinciding with the famous 1996 BBC adaptation.

Fifteen is the number of months since I read my first Persephone novel, Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day, and a love affair was born.

Fifteen is the number of Persephone books that I currently own (in Persephone editions).

Fifteen is the number of different bookshelves that my favourite books can be found upon.

Fifteen is the number of months that elapsed between reading my first Angela Carter novel, Nights at the Circus, at Undergraduate level and beginning to write a thesis on her work, as a postgraduate.

Fifteen is how many books I have collectively still to read belonging to two of my favourite writers, Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Toni Morrison (I am rationing them out).

Fifteen is the number of books required for a recent book meme.

Instead of the first fifteen books I can think of, I am providing you with my fifteen favourite novels. As a relatively new blogger, most of you will be unaware of my all-time favourite books, so I thought it would be an idea to share them with you. Most of them will be known to you, if not personally then at least in title or author alone, and some will be less familiar but all are books worth reading. For my own sanity in whittling the list down to fifteen, I am restricting it to novels only (exlcuding favourite plays and the short story volume, The Bloody Chamber by Angela Carter) and I am also leaving off beloved Children's classics as they warrant a list of their own and will be most likely covered on future Inner Child Saturdays.

1. Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier - despite the fact that I love Virago and I have no qualms buying duplicate copies of books (if it's a beloved book), I will not upgrade this much-loved, battered copy of Rebecca. Besides, despite coveting the other du Maurier Viragoes, I don't actually like their copy of Rebecca (the one linked to). The best haunting, sensational, engaging book with a famous nameless narrator and one of the most famous of anti-heroines who never actually appears in the novel, as she is dead, but is powerfully evoked by those left behind.

2. I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith - this is the book that I brought along with me to the first meeting of the book group that Simon at Savidge Reads created. The ice-breaker theme of this meeting was favourites but I guessed (rightly) that Simon would bring Rebecca so I brought my second favourite, the much adored and enchanting I Capture the Castle. It has one of the best opening lines, "I write this sitting in the kitchen sink" and is about a girl who wants to be a writer, living in a dilapidated castle with her eccentric family, who discovers love whilst growing up.

3. Nights at the Circus by Angela Carter - my first and foremost favourite book by Angela Carter. This novel defies description, although Nymeth did amazingly well doing so recently. There are so many layers to this novel, so much to discover and to marvel at, so much to love. It also contains one of the most memorable of characters, Fevvers, who is by far my favourite character in a novel.

4. Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen - you know the story. This one is dear to my heart.

5. Wise Children by Angela Carter - a wonderfully witty and bawdy romp of twins, Nora and Dora Chance, whose theatrical lives are tied up with another theatrical family, the Hazards (Hazards and Chances, the word play is rife in this novel). Fellow Shakespearean fans will love this. This was Carter's last novel and it is an amazingly clever and comic one.

6. Chronicle of a Death Foretold by Gabriel Garcia Marquez - by far my favourite Marquez novel. I love his mastery of language and in Chronicle of a Death Foretold it is particularly lush.

7. Beloved by Toni Morrison - I mentioned Beloved recently in this post and all I will add is that it is an amazing book and one you should read.

8. Midnight's Children by Salman Rushdie - a masterpiece and a deserved Booker of Bookers and Best of Booker winner. This is an epic novel and similar to Angela Carter (they were friends) in that there is so much left to discover upon re-reading.

9. Everything is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer - it isn't often that you find a novel that is near-perfect and also original but this is one them. Words cannot express how much I love this book.

10. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee - I think that this novel should be required reading.

11. Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov - it's Lolita, enough reasoning given.

12. American Gods by Neil Gaiman - this list would not be accurate if I omitted Neil Gaiman; it's bad enough that Terry Pratchett's Guards arc from The Discworld has slipped down to #16 (I can't narrow it down to just one of the Guards books anyway so it would be an unfair inclusion). American Gods is breathtaking in its scope; it is an odyssey. I urge you to relinquish any preconceptions of Neil Gaiman that you may have and read this as he is a storytelling master.

13. The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides - I have loved this novel for a decade and will happily re-read it over and over on Sunday afternoons. It's usually controversial to say that I far prefer it to Middlesex, which I found disappointing.

14. Time's Arrow or the Nature of the Offence by Martin Amis - this is an incredible book told from the perspective of Todd T. Friendly, former Nazi officer, who tells his the story of his life backwards. This is not a passive read but one where the reader has to actively reverse events to see them in their cruel light, hence becoming complicit in Todd T. Friendly's actions. I've read a fair amount of Holocaust literature and this one stands out.

15. Fingersmith by Sarah Waters - her magnum opus. I love Victorian suspense fiction and this modern take surpasses the classics.

So there you have it, my favourites and me all wrapped up in a bow. It was an incredibly difficult and time-consuming list to make as there are so many books that I love. The ones which very nearly made the cut include Lady Rose & Mrs Memmary by Ruby Ferguson; 84 Charing Cross Road by Helene Hanff; Fall on Your Knees by Ann Marie MacDonald; The Driver's Seat by Muriel Spark; The Awakening by Kate Chopin; Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys; The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman; Emma by Jane Austen; Geek Love by Katherine Dunn; A Fine Balance by Rohintron Mistry... and there will be books that I am sacreligiously forgetting.