Top Ten Tuesday: Books I can’t believe I read

Top Ten Tuesday was originally created by The – sadly no more – Broke and the Bookish and is now hosted over on Jana’s That Artsy Reader Girl. If you like books and lists, it’s a no brainer…

This week’s topic is – Books I can’t believe I read.

And here they are.

  1. Dostoyevsky The Brothers Karamazov  To say I found this book a bit of a slog would be an understatement. I’ve really enjoyed some of the Russian literature I’ve read in the past but my goodness this one was just an endless, endless undertaking. Because it pains me to leave books unfinished, I ploughed on. I even tried to get round my completist issues by ‘accidentally’ leaving it on a train but a kind lady returned it to me. The whole experience taught me a valuable lesson about being able to walk away from a book I’m not enjoying so as to make space in my life for all of those I might. I felt zero sense of achievement on finishing it and swore I’d never read-for-the-sake-of-it again.
  2. Roz Kaveney Reading the Vampire Slayer Yup – scholarly essays on Buffy the Vampire Slayer. It was great! Not something I’d ever have imagined picking up but I borrowed it from a friend (and super fan) and was glad I did.
  3. Thomas Harris Red Dragon  I don’t normally do well with graphic descriptions of truly hideous crimes but somehow I read this. I probably won’t repeat the experience.
  4. Laura Vanderkam 168 hours: You have more time than you think  I was genuinely surprised to find that I read this a few years back; I just can’t remember doing so. Clearly it was a fantastic use of the 168 hours that I had that week, because I appear to have implemented approximately none of the advice it contained. I suspect some of my time issues stem from reading books about how to stop procrastinating instead of, oh I don’t know, actually not procrastinating in the first place.
  5. Margaret Atwood Oryx and Crake – If gruesome murdery stuff leaves me a bit unsettled, books about the apocalypse TERrify me. I suspect I only persevered with this because it was Atwood. But, cleverness aside, I really didn’t enjoy it at all.
  6. Angela Huth The Englishwoman’s Wardrobe: Twenty-five Englishwomen talk about their clothes – This is one of those books that you buy in order to leaf through the pictures really, but I actually read every word. And I’m so glad I did. It’s an unintentionally hilarious insight into the role of clothes in the average woman’s life back in the 80s and I would recommend it to anyone with a passing interest in getting dressed.
  7. Darryn Lyons Mr Paparazzi: my life as the world’s most outrageous celebrity photographer Darryn Lyons is not one of my favourite humans, she says tactfully, and yet somehow I read his book (because it turns out that no matter how much I might try to pretend otherwise, the lure of gossip is sometimes too strong to resist).
  8. Anon Belle du Jour I was curious. And I really didn’t want to watch the TV adaptation.
  9. Diehl and Donnelly Eat Thy Neighbour My husband, who is otherwise a warm, friendly, very unscary type of person, has a weird fascination with serial killers and likes to read about them or watch TV documentaries about them. Apart from this leaving our respective Netflix recommendations looking hilariously different, it also means that the odd ‘book I would never have picked up myself’ is floating around the house. I read this back in 2008 and it’s about serial killers who also eat their victims, which is…cheery. I must have been in a particularly dark place…
  10. Sophie Hannah The Orphan Choir If murdery stuff and the apocalypse don’t entirely finish me off, then the one thing guaranteed to find me leaving lights on at night is child ghosts. Child ghosts are just beyond terrifying so I either read this book because I didn’t know it was about child ghosts or I read it despite this at a time when I was feeling particularly brave. If it was the latter, I likely horribly regretted it as soon as it got dark.

Reading in 2018

I like to take my time with new year resolutions. I quite enjoy the ponderousness of this time of year, thinking about where I’d like to be and what I might be doing in 12 months. Given how incredibly dark the last few mornings have been, it’s rather nice to be focusing on hopeful thoughts about all the things I might achieve (before I roll over and hit snooze and vow to do better tomorrow!)

On the subject of blogging and books, I have definite thoughts. I read in a very loose, impulsive, mood-driven way last year. It was lovely and clearly exactly what I needed, but I feel like recently I’ve been craving some structure. I’ve also stopped challenging myself with books and feel like I might be a little stuck in the comfort-zone. Squishy and reliable it may be, but I can’t shake the nagging voice that keeps reminding me of the rewards there are if you crawl out from under the duvet once in a while.

At the beginning of last year, after the move, I wanted to ‘read my own damn books’. I didn’t  get very far with that and I suspect when the gongs went on 31 Dec 2017, my TBR was longer than ever. On the plus side, I DID fulfil my goal of streamlining. In fact, I went a bit bonkers for streamlining, giving away boxes of books, cutting down my TBR and facing up to what was actually sharing my home. There are still a lot of unread books but they are now sorted, catalogued and on a shelf, leaving me feeling like we’ve all been reacquainted and they’re not going to languish in boxes and dimly-lit corners this year. Plus I made the TBR jar – woop!

So, this year I’m going to choose my books by rotating through the following categories to avoid settling into a rut or letting myself be too ruled by whim:

  • TBR jar
  • On impulse / wild card
  • Recently published (i.e. 2018)
  • Favourite author back catalogues

In addition, I’d love to accomplish the following:

  • Post twice a week – I’ve really enjoyed getting the blog back on track and engaging more meaningfully with all the other lovely blogs I’ve followed for years.
  • Clear the pile of books that seems to permanently loom at my bedside – and not put it back almost immediately afterwards.
  • Take part in some more blogging/reading ‘events’ – perhaps a virtual book tour, or something like the fab #TheDarkIsReading twitter readalong.
  • Write a guest post – I’ve long nurtured the goal of writing a review for Shiny New Books. Maybe this will be the year.

Hoping 2018 is going to bring you all lots of excellent books. Let’s get started.

In which I am sucked in by covers

I’ve long known about my type(s) when it comes to men (hello unwashed-looking, bearded musicians and toned but not beefcakey men with celtic colouring, i.e. dark hair and lighter eyes). But I’m also starting to see a pattern in the books I pick based on ‘looks’ alone.

A recent trip to the library produced these entirely impulsive picks:

Look how pretty they are.

That eye peeking through the keyhole on The Silent Companions belongs to an entire lady lurking menacingly in the end papers. And she is menacing, make no mistake. I’m about 50 pages from finishing it and it’s definitely one of those late night reads where you must go to the toilet before you start reading or you’ll be trapped in bed by the thought of the thing that will grab your ankles if you get out again. I’ll come back to it when it’s done….

But seeing these two lined up next to my bed made me painfully aware how susceptible I am to a certain type of cover. Let’s look in more detail at other books I’ve gathered after I was suckered by a cover.

Four of these books are wonderful, and the other two (The Wonder, The Snow Child) may well also be wonderful and I’ll find out once I’ve read them.

But let’s break it down, shall we?

Clearly, if you want to sell me a book, there are certain key elements you need to include on the cover. Silhouetted figures. That one was a surprise. Bonus points if they’re reading a book. Some kind of leafy vine. Check. A smattering of fauna. Metallic accents. Don’t introduce too many colours. If in doubt, go with blue.

And wow. I’ve just noticed this. Start the title with ‘The…’. Ha.

Thing is, there are just a bazillion beautiful, clever covers out there, and so many great books that are also works of art. This just seems to be my particular hook when I’m browsing with intent.

Anyone else with a type?!

Abibliophobia – it’s real

Abibliophobia – the fear of running out of reading material…

Some overwhelming evidence has been accumulating recently suggesting that I might….might…have a bit of a problem.

First, back in July, my husband took this picture of my bedside table.

I get why this is bad, obviously. First off, it was really difficult to get into the wardrobe. And it’s a terrible way to store books because if you decide you want to read one of the ones near the bottom, it’s such a faff trying to get it out without getting trapped under the resulting landslide.

If my arm was twisted really hard, I sort of knew it was a sign of a larger issue but truth was I really needed all of those books and anyway at least 5 were library books and therefore one day going back to live somewhere else.

Since we moved in just over a year ago, a lot of slow-burn doing up and DIY has been going on. As a result, I never did completely sort out my books as I promised I would in the move. I mean, I got rid of a few while packing but if I’m honest it was half-hearted at best. So when I recently found myself with a lighter working week and a recently decorated and still largely empty room available, I decided to put all my books in one place and tackle them once and for all.

This is what happened.

Those boxes are full by the way. It’s not like the books in front of them are the books that came out of them. I can’t even get everything in one shot. And I think I took the pictures before I was completely finished and ran out of floor space. I didn’t count them but a conservative estimate based on the average number of books in a box/pile put me somewhere in the region of 600-700. Eeesh.

Being realistic, I’ll never stop acquiring books. But I’m glad I’m doing this (yup, still going. It looks better but there’s a way to go). Lessons I have learned include:

  • You don’t need to keep every book you read. Just the ones that you think you might read again, or those that are sentimental or ‘speak’ to you in some way. (I appreciate how that last point sounds but anyone who loves and regularly acquires books will know that there are some books that just belong in your library but you can’t always explain why.)
  • You should really keep unread books together so you can see on a regular basis just how many there are.
  • Knowing how many unread books you have at home is an excellent moderator when you’re out and about and get the urge to ‘acquire’.
  • I have some REALLY GOOD BOOKS that are sort of lost on my shelves and I’m very excited about reading them.
  • I feel much more in control of my books when they’re vaguely organised (now by category, although definitely not alphabetically or by colour – urgh).
  • I love books.
  • A lot.

There’s a box in the hall that’s almost full of books to give away and I reckon I have another box in me. I also know that I won’t keep all the unread books once they’re read, so there will be more shelf-clearing to come. And I feel really positive about how I’ll make decisions on which books to buy and most importantly keep in the years to come. Now I don’t just have books, I have a library.

And I definitely don’t have a problem.


Finding inspiration in words and pictures

I feel like I’ve been adopting a slightly scattergun approach to reading recently but it’s been fun and unexpected. I did go on to re-read Margaret Forster’s biography of Daphne Du Maurier as I sort of thought I might when I was last here, and I’m still reading Oriel Malet’s collection of letters from Menabilly in Portrait of a Friendship. But in the meantime I discovered some unspent money in my Amazon account (a bit like the happy heart skip you get when you find a tenner in a bag you haven’t used for a while) and of course this little lapse of memory meant that it was bonus money and therefore could immediately be spent on books. By and about Daphne Du Maurier in keeping with my current bent.

However, while they were winging their way my-wards, I found I couldn’t quite commit to anything else and, since collections of letters are often best dipped into rather than ploughed through, I picked up a couple of books that have been in my house for donkeys years but which I’ve never considered actually ‘reading’. They are: National Geographic’s The Photographers by Leah Bendavid-Val and Phaidon’s The Photo Book. My husband is the photographer/image man (by passion and by trade) and although an arresting image will make me stop and look, just like everybody else, I’ve never really studied photos or thought very much about them as pieces of art, composition or, indeed, narrative.

Words are still very much my thing – after a sometimes perfunctory glance at the image, my eye was always pulled to the lengthy captions to find out more – but I’ve been so interested by what’s happened to my perspective in the last few days of being immersed in this avalanche of images.

One of my great obsessions, in both reading and writing, is the way in which everyday things can be completely changed in an instant. Sometimes that’s whimsical or fantastical, which explains my love for books about magic, magic realism and stories like Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere, which have the power to transform the mundane into the exotic. Other times it’s the touch of tragedy, where the shock of a life-altering event casts a transfiguring film over things that yesterday were so workaday as to be almost invisible.

Some years ago, I found out over the phone that one of the people I am closest to was potentially very, very ill. I don’t remember much about that phone call and I remember almost nothing else about what I did that day, but not long after I took a shower and I remember every single thing about that shower. It was an action that I performed thousands of times but this time it was as if someone took my shower and pulled it into another dimension. Like showering on Mars. Or inside someone else’s body. It was such a strange and alien experience despite taking place in a familiar room in my own flat. With a bit of distance, I think that’s fascinating. It’s entirely about a subtle shift in perspective and it’s something that I like exploring in the written word (alongside many other people who I think have done it just brilliantly).

And that – thank you for bearing with me – is what the photos have been doing for me over and over again. I think it was necessary to look at a few hundred for that to start happening. Unless it’s a particularly powerful and timely image, it’s a rare event when one picture can just stop you in your tracks. But after a few days of looking and reading, and sometimes looking again and again when an image resonated, I’ve started looking at the world around me a little differently. There’s so much unspoken story in the pictures, whether it’s what’s happening in the photo itself, the extra layers added by the context given in the caption, or the glimpses of what the photographer’s experience and commitment might look like on the other side of the lens.

About 50 photos in, I started making little scribbly notes and squirrelling away ideas. And I feel all fired up to explore some of them.

I am by no means the first person to discover that pictures can be inspirational, and I feel almost silly for writing it down as if it was some kind of revelation. But I think my personal lesson learned is that one of the reasons I love books so much, alongside my love for the shape and sound of language itself, is my passion for stories. And I could do with a reminder now and then that there’s more than one place to look for them.

[If you click on the pictures, which are credited to the National Geographic, the link will take you to their best pictures of 2016.]

There’s a bit more space in my local library

When questioned by my husband about the new book stalagmites on the living room floor, I’m going to claim they’re a kind of public service. After all, there’s no way the library would manage to fit in all the books if I didn’t help them out.

Sometimes it’s fun to see them all together as a snapshot of where my reading mind is currently at. This little formation represents the combined fruits of about three trips and indicates that I’m still fairly evenly split between fiction and non-fiction with a leaning towards books about books and writers, stories by people with quite different lives to mine, and a smattering of history.

I’ve also spotted this year that I tend to choose books (both fiction and non-fiction) with a largely unconscious bias towards women writers. I can’t say I’m that all that bothered, more interested. Most of the men on my ‘read’ list this year crop up in particular genres too (I re-read some Dahl and Morpurgo earlier in the year, and reached book 7 in Alan Bradley’s Flavia de Luce mysteries). I might have a browse through my TBR list too. I’d quite like to see whether the bias comes through there as well… [Update: it sort of does. Oops.]

Anyway, on to the books.

Recent late-night adventures with Daddy Love aside, I’m not afraid to tackle darker topics and I’ve been meaning to read Primo Levi for just ages. Jennifer Teege’s book My Grandfather Would Have Shot Me was a recent find and is a good example of my preference for reading history via the perspective of individuals with a particular connection to the events in question (in this case, Teege is the granddaughter of Amon Goeth who needs, and perhaps deserves, little introduction).

There’s a Christie, because there’s always a Christie. I’d kind of like to have read them all one day.

Gods Behaving Badly sounds like fun and I can see how much I remember about my Greek myths. I’m looking forward to Euphoria because I’ve heard good things in the blogosphere. And Pym’s autobiography via letters and diary entries sounds like a perfect read.


David Lodge’s Lives in Writing [not pictured as accidentally pushed under the coffee table, sorry David] features Graham Greene, Kingsley Amis, Muriel Spark, Alan Bennett and H G Wells, amongst others.

And just to round it off, there’s Georgian England, witches and some fairly committed messing around in boats.

Now, which one first??

p.s. If, like me, you looked again at the pictures and noticed that Gods Behaving Badly is the wrong way round and is the ONLY ONE, and you were bothered by it, let’s be friends? 


On memory and blogging

I’m on a bit of a re-reading kick at the moment. I’m reading new books but we’ve recently acquired a couple of new bookcases and the resultant sort-out unearthed some books I was excited about revisiting. But it got me thinking about unconscious re-reading and some of the reasons I got into blogging.

Have you ever read a book for the second time thinking that it was the first?

Because I have.

As shocking as I found it, I’ve managed to get through at least two books while remaining completely unaware that I’d read them before. On one occasion – accidentally re-reading Sebastian Barry’s The Secret Scripture – I got a creeping sense of familiarity but not enough to remember anything that was actually going to happen. I just assumed I’d read something similar.

My (nerdy but oh so satisfying) excel spreadsheet was the only thing that revealed my blunder; as you type in the title it autofills if the same text has been used above. Cue palm slapping on forehead.

I don’t mind conscious rereading of a favourite book but I’m genuinely chilled when it’s accidental.

When I started noting down the books I read – back in July 2002 – I didn’t intend it to be an aide memoire; it was really just a way of keeping track, of appreciating progress and revealing trends. What happened over time was surprising and quite rewarding. First it became a kind of literary diary – I find I can look back at titles and remember snippets of where I was while reading and the things that were going on in my life at the time. On the other hand, it started to reveal some less pleasant things – namely, that I really don’t remember much of what I read. There are books on there that I cannot recall a single thing about; there are also books that I notice are duplicated on my ‘to be read’ list (like The God of Small Things, which it turns out I read in June 2012, oh the shame).

One could argue that it doesn’t matter too much, that it’s about enjoyment in the moment. That we can’t possibly remember everything we’ve ever read or we’d start losing important thoughts like our address or how to make toast. But it turns out it matters terribly to me. I just can’t stand that the hours (sometimes even days, or weeks) that I spent reading a particular book are effectively lost to me, irreparably.

I started making the odd note next to each title that I entered in the log, with snippets of plot, theme and my reactions. Eventually, as with so many other readers I’d imagine, I found my way to blogging. I wanted to create a more tangible representation of my reading life than a list; a critique perhaps, a dialogue, an analysis. I’m hoping this means that there’ll be no more books slipping through the cracks.

Have you ever accidentally re-read something?