Top Ten Tuesday: Books I could re-read forever

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 could re-read forever.

I found this monstrously hard, I’ll confess. So I’ve cheated a bit and created two lists. One is made up of those classics that the majority of people reading will have heard of and the other – expanded on a little more – is made up of those books that perhaps say a little more about my personal reading highs. I considered adding a third list of the books that didn’t quite make the first two but decided nobody needed that level of cheating on a Tuesday.

The Classics – these are (somewhat obvious) books that I adore, have read at least twice (in some cases quite a few more times) and will read again

  1. Jane Austen – Pride and Prejudice
  2. Daphne du Maurier – Rebecca
  3. Dodie Smith – I Capture the Castle
  4. JRR Tolkien – The Hobbit
  5. Neil Gaiman – Neverwhere
  6. William Goldman – The Princess Bride
  7. JK Rowling – The Harry Potters (I’m looking forward to reading these with my daughter)
  8. C S Lewis – The Narnia Chronicles
  9. Norton Juster – The Phantom Tollbooth
  10. LM Montgomery – Anne of Green Gables (and the rest)

The Others – books that are a little less ‘universal’ but meet the criterion of books that I not only love but could (and have) re-read time and time again 

  1. Penelope Lively – Moon Tiger: One of my favourite ever books. Lively is a genius and her exploration of memory, history and time, coupled with one of the most beautiful fictional romances, is the book that keeps on giving.
  2. Barbara Kingsolver – The Poisonwood Bible: One of the most gripping, murky and atmospheric books I’ve ever read. Domineering evangelical Baptist, Nathan Price, takes his family and mission to the Belgian Congo in 1959. And things gradually fall apart.
  3. EM Delafield – The Diary of a Provincial Lady: For the humour, the wit and the utter Englishness of it all. Completely wonderful.
  4. Susanna Clarke – Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell: I wholeheartedly adore books with the ability to blend the world we know and the world of magic and faery in such a way as to make the end result utterly believable. This book does that, while simultaneously creating some of the most memorable characters in fiction. (See also Neverwhere)
  5. Mary Wesley – The Camomile Lawn: I read this for the first time when I was quite young, perhaps in my very early teens. All of the casual, war-driven bed hopping and f-bombs thrilled me and something about the terribly clipped, stiff-upper-lip Britishness of it all still thrills me a little today. Calypso and Polly were the older sisters I would have liked to have.
  6. Erin Morgenstern – The Night Circus: For anyone who’s ever thought about running away to join the circus.
  7. Lucy Wood – Diving Belles: Perfectly-crafted and perfectly-themed short stories that blend Cornish folklore with a touch of magic realism, and then firmly root themselves in the natural world.
  8. Vikram Seth – An Equal Music: Utterly beautiful and heartbreaking. The world of professional musicians is a fascinating one and Seth writes about a musical life in the most evocative and understanding way. When the summer shifts to autumn, I always get a yearning to re-read this one.
  9. Hilary Mantel – Beyond Black: A brilliant, dark, thought-provoking and absorbing story about a working clairvoyant and her troublesome spirit guide.
  10. Jess Kidd – Himself: When I read this for the first time, it socked me right in the gut. It’s bleak, harrowing, wickedly funny, charming and very different to almost anything I’ve read. I’m still a little in love with Mahoney.

Reading Bingo 2017

Given that I’m still catching up on 2017 reads here on the blog, I thought it might be fun to take part in the 2017 Reading Bingo. I spotted this on Susan’s A Life in Books, where the idea is credited back to Cleopatra Loves Books. I think I might have cheated slightly so I’m probably not deserving of a full house, but it’s a nice way to wave a flag for some good reads that didn’t make my Best of 2017.

A book with more than 500 pages: A few contenders (surprisingly, given the amount of short and YA fiction I read last year), but I’m plumping for Donald Sturrock’s Storyteller: The Life of Roald Dahl because it was genuinely huge and didn’t just have big, generously spaced print! Worth a read if you’ve even a passing interest in Dahl and his work.

A forgotten classic: It’s hard to know for sure if a classic is forgotten, especially when it might just be an example of your own ignorance. But I read Dahl’s Esio Trot this year for the first time and thought it was so sweet. This tale of unrequited love and 140 tortoises seems to be much less well-known than many of Dahl’s other books.

A book that became a movie: I did read Murder on the Orient Express for the first time this year, although not because of Branagh’s adaptation. I ended up watching the film a few months later and thought it was quite fun, although the opening section is just madness and I really only got ‘on board’ (ha! puns!) when it calmed down a bit, stopped trying to do ‘all the things’ and focused on the characters and the train. Would definitely pick book over film. [For an example of film over book, I also read The Sword in the Stone this year and was a bit underwhelmed…]

A book published this year (2017): Quite a few contenders, given I’m usually late to the party, but I’m picking Beth Underdown’s The Witchfinder’s Sister – a tense account of Matthew Hopkins’ witch-hunt of 1645 told from the perspective of his (imagined) sister – because I haven’t yet had a chance to write it up and it’s definitely one I’d recommend.

A book with a number in the title: Angela Thirkell’s sort-of memoir, Three Houses, about three significant houses from her childhood that shaped the adult sensibilities evident in her writing. Two of the houses belonged to her grandfather, the Pre-Raphaelite painter, Edward Burne-Jones.

A book written by someone under 30: Ooh, this was a hard one to figure out. Eventually I sussed that Amy Sackville’s The Still Point was published when she was just 29. You can read my review here.

A book with non-human characters: Lots of options here given that I re-read a lot of Dahl in preparation for Sturrock’s biography. I’m going to flag three of them, because two are only very short… 😉 – Neil Gaiman’s Odd and the Frost Giants, Rob Ryan’s lovely A Sky Full of Kindness about two birds embarking on parenthood, and Marie Phillps’ Gods Behaving Badly, which takes the Greek Gods and sticks them all into a 21st-century London house-share.

A funny book: I particularly enjoyed Alan Bradley’s Flavia de Luce novels this year for their cosy, gentle, rose-tinted humour (ignoring the death, bodies and motherlessness for a second…). Also funny was Lemony Snicket’s series All the Wrong Questions.

A book by a female author: Oh. So many. I’m going to flag three women writing about their own inspiring lives – Kate Adie’s The Kindness of Strangers: The Autobiography, Jesmyn Ward’s Men We Reaped: A Memoir, and Judy Fairbairns’ Island Wife: Living on the Edge of the Wild.

A book with a mystery: In order not to repeat titles already used, I’ll highlight Michele Roberts’ Daughters of the House about two young girls growing up in post-World-War-II Normandy. Guilty silences and secrets abound – what is the mystery of the broken shrine in the woods and how does it relate to their own cellar?

A book with a one-word title: To highlight a book I read back in March and never wrote up, I’m choosing Eleanor Wasserberg’s atmospheric debut Foxlowe, about a cult called The Family. Told from a child’s perspective, the chillingly innocent ‘Green’, it has a sucker punch of an ending.

A book of short stories: Although I’ve been working my way through Daphne du Maurier’s novels, I’d only ever read her short story collection The Birds. This year I added The Breaking Point and they were just as gripping and unsettling.

A book set on a different continent: This category highlighted a reading weakness of mine. Most of my books were based in Europe with a scattering of American locations for flavour. So I’m choosing the book set furthest away, Lily King’s Euphoria, which I wrote up here.

A book of non-fiction: I decided to ignore memoirs, collections of letters and biographies for this one, which narrowed the NF field. I choose Tracy Borman’s Witches: A Tale of Sorcery, Scandal and Seduction for it’s well-researched exploration of the witch-hunts of the 15th-18th centuries, focusing on specific events at Leicestershire’s Belvoir Castle.

The first book by a favourite author: I’m not sure whether this counts as it’s a repeat AND it’s tricky to justify a favourite author based on just one book, but I’m desperate to read Amy Sackville’s Orkney based on how much I enjoyed The Still Point.

A book you heard about online: All of them? Honestly, book blogs pretty much dictate my reading life. But I’m going to highlight Sophie Divry’s short, sweet, humorous novella The Library of Unrequited Love because you’ll motor through it in one sitting and you won’t be sorry. I know more than one blogger highlighted this but I’m ashamed to say I don’t remember who in particular.

A best-selling book: It’s hard to know for sure as I certainly haven’t verified my figures(!) but I’d be surprised if Dahl’s The BFG wasn’t one of the best-selling novels on this year’s list of books read. A re-read but one that never gets old and I’m so looking forward to reading it with my daughter.

A book based on a true story: I remember being shocked at the time that Judy Blume’s book In the Unlikely Event, a story about three plane crashes in three months in a small American community, was based on true events. And not just true events, events that Blume herself lived through.

A book at the bottom of your TBR pile: The book that had been on my TBR list and in my collection unread for the longest was Penelope Lively’s Ammonites and Leaping Fish: A Life in Time. I can’t begin to think why. She’s one of my favourite authors and it was, predictably, wonderful. Maybe I was saving it up for the sheer pleasure of reading it. It made my Best Reads of 2017.

A book your friend loves: They’re sadly not my ‘in real life’ friends, but the twitter community of #TheDarkIsReading are united in their love for Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising, which I read for the first time this year in the readalong.

A book that scares you: I mentioned Laura Purcell’s The Silent Companions here, but I’m choosing Primo Levi’s The Drowned and the Saved because it was easily the most chilling thing I read this year. It would be presumptuous to suggest I reviewed it, but I captured some thoughts here.

A book that is more than 10 years old: Lots of options, but I choose Jon Krakauer’s Into The Wild, a harrowing story and a great example of extended journalism.

The second book in a series: I read all four books from Lemony Snicket’s All The Wrong Questions, including book two – When Did You See Her Last?

A book with a blue cover: Helen Dunmore’s page-turner Your Blue-Eyed Boy. I’ve promised to write this up already and I will definitely do so.

Free square: I’m going to flag Rebecca Mead’s My Life in Middlemarch here because it nearly made the cut in so many other categories. It’s a really interesting examination of George Eliot’s life and best-known novel through the prism of Mead’s own life experiences and the perspectives brought by re-reading the book at different ages.

Now to start looking ahead to some 2018 goals…

2017 – 12 reading highlights

Image credit: UMagazine

Well the minutes are ticking down on 2017. It was an odd sort of reading year in many ways. I read for comfort a lot more than I normally do, which meant that my final tally features less reads that one might consider challenging or those that ask for a more sizeable emotional or intellectual commitment. Perhaps that’s a reflection of the rather tough year that it’s been, both personally and on a global scale.

For me, comfort reading often features books from series (i.e. familiarity), books targeted at young adult readers or books set in a rose-tinted past. I read through almost the entirety of Alan Bradley’s Flavia de Luce mysteries over the course of the year and discovered Lemony Snicket’s series All The Wrong Questions, which is brilliant and I urge you to read it, particularly if you’re already a fan of A Series of Unfortunate Events. A major highlight was discovering Susan Cooper’s The Dark Is Rising quintet, of which more below.

I’ve skimmed through my 2017 reads – 102 in total – and highlighted 12 books that I’m most glad I read over the last few months. They’re books I read this year, not necessarily those published this year (I’m always slower on the uptake with those). They appear in the order in which I read them and (by complete and pleasing coincidence) are an even spread between fiction and non-fiction. Although the poor blokes don’t get a look-in – just one male author, who I promise is not a ‘token’! Oops.

  1. Penelope Lively – Ammonites and Leaping Fish: A Life in Time: Penelope Lively is one of my favourite authors and this had been languishing on my ‘to read’ shelves for far too long. It was as wonderful as I hoped. No one writes about the juncture where history, memory and time meet in quite the same way as Lively. Thanks to the Waterstones sale, her new book Life in the Garden is on its way.
  2. Jessmyn Ward – Men We Reaped: A Memoir: In five years, Ward lost five young men who were close to her to suicide, drugs and accidents. This is not an easy read but it’s a searing indictment of what life is still like if you’re a young black man living in poverty in the USA.
  3. Joyce Carol Oates – My Sister, My Love: The Intimate Story of Skyler Rampike: Loosely based on the death of 6-year-old beauty pageant winner JonBenet Ramsay, who was found murdered in her own home in 1996, Oates’ story about ice-skating champion Bliss Rampike is told from the perspective of her older brother, Skyler. I picked this up on a whim and wasn’t sure how I’d get on with the subject matter, but I was blown away by how immense an achievement it is. It’s enormous, epic, incredibly well plotted and structured, with material presented in many different forms. You can’t help but tip your hat to Oates’ superior skills and her masterful handling of the complex effects of trauma, grief and guilt.
  4. Mary Roach – Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in Space: A great blend of science, fact, story-telling and ‘what??’ moments, all wrapped up in an accessible, engaging read. As the blurb says ‘space exploration is in some ways an exploration of what it means to be human’ and this book makes that crystal clear. Plus it answers the questions EVERYBODY always asks!
  5. Sue Gee – Trio: An impulsive library grab led to an unexpectedly beautiful, elegiac and nuanced story about grief, music and the tremulous connections between gentle, quiet people. Beginning in Northumberland in 1937, the book follows history teacher Steven Coulter as he tries to find his way following the death of his wife.
  6. Donald Sturrock – Storyteller: The Life of Roald Dahl: With unprecedented access to Dahl’s archives, Sturrock’s biography is an absorbing, detailed and balanced read. Despite being a 600+ page chunkster, I motored through this surprisingly quickly and learned a great deal about the complex character and fascinating life of Dahl. Although I’ll never read Boy in quite the same way!
  7. Oriel Malet – Letters from Menabiliy: Portrait of a Friendship: I read this because of the connection to Daphne Du Maurier, who fascinates me. But I came away extremely pleased to have ‘met’ writer Oriel Malet, who I can now only ever imagine in her houseboat home on the banks of the Seine. Malet and Du Maurier’s correspondence offers a fascinating glimpse into the lives of two unique and thoughtful authors, with a pleasing insight into the behind the scenes of a writing life.
  8. Barbara Pym – A Very Private Life: an autobiography in letters and diaries: Pym! Pym! And in her own words! Lovely and moving. You can see my review here.
  9. Amy Sackville – The Still Point: I guessed that I’d still be thinking about this cleverly written book a long time after finishing it, and I was proved right. Find out more here.
  10. Laura Purcell – The Silent Companions: A recent read with a generous dollop of gothic spine tingle. You can read my review here.
  11. Helen Dunmore – Your Blue-Eyed Boy: A gripping read from a truly great writer who so sadly died in June of this year. Based on the outpouring of love and respect in book blogging circles, I’m probably not the only one trying to fill personal reading gaps in her back catalogue. I’ll not say anymore about this particular book here as I’m planning to write a proper review in the new year. If you wanted a reminder of just how wonderful a writer Dunmore was, just click here.
  12. Susan Cooper – The Dark is Rising: This book is significant in two ways. Firstly, it’s an absolutely cracking read. Secondly, it taught me (finally) what twitter is for. Thanks to Robert McFarlane and Julia Bird, I’ve been taking part in my first shared reading experience, enjoying TDIR alongside a few thousand others. It’s been a wonderful way to discover a ‘classic’ that I missed as a child and has given me such a wonderful variety of perspectives on the story and it’s universal themes. Having always been a bit phased by Twitter, and a bit distracted by its negatives, I’ve discovered that it’s all about finding your tribe.

Hope you all have a wonderful time seeing in the new year; I guess some of you might already have started! I’ll be back in the next few days with a look ahead to 2018 and a bit of literary bingo…

Seeing double with Flavia Leng’s ‘A Daughter’s Memoir’

After lining up my library pickings, I went and left them all downstairs the other night and found myself tucked up in bed without a library book in reach, and too lazy to go downstairs. So, instead, I rifled through the TBR pile of charity shop findings by my bed, which I’ll show you sometime. Now that it’s as tall as my bedside table, it’s in danger of becoming a reserve bedside table.

A while ago I was thrilled to stumble on a copy of Flavia Leng’s memoir of her childhood, growing up Daphne Du Maurier’s middle daughter in the eponymous Menabilly. So thrilled in fact, I forgot all about the last time I was thrilled to find a copy of Flavia Leng’s memoir of her childhood, and so on. So I have two, both with distinctive red spines, side by side in the leaning tower of TBR.

I figured it was high time to read one of them.

Daphne DM is one of my reading obsessions. Like the Mitford sisters, the Brontes and a few others, I will happily squirrel away any and every book I come across that even mentions them in passing. I have Forster’s chunky and well-researched DM biography and somewhere, as yet unearthed in the book boxes that remain sealed while house renovations happen, is a copy of Letters from Menabilly, a glorious collection of correspondence between Daphne DM and her friend, the writer Oriel Malet. Growing Pains, Daphne’s own notes on her life, features in my new header image. I found that in Hay-on-Wye and a patient bookseller had to climb into the window display to retrieve it for me.

I’ve tried before to explain to people the attraction of reading about the same thing over and over again. I suppose it’s a little like visiting a much loved garden. If you go in the spring, it’ll look quite different to how it does in the blaze of autumn. Picnicking by the flowerbeds and listening to the thrum of the bees will be quite a different experience to hiking up to a high vantage point and looking out over the whole.

I suppose it’s all a matter of perspective. And I’m really drawn to the idea that, whether you’re talking about a person, an event or a whole historical period, there are really just multiple truths. Reading around the topic will allow you to see a bigger picture or colour it in a little more vividly, but it can (and should) never be definitive.

Forster obviously says a lot more than Leng in her book. If you want an analysis of Du Maurier’s works in relation to her life, then it is to Forster you should turn (although with a weather eye always to the influence of how interpretation is a mirror that reflects both author and subject). Leng, understandably, really only mentions the books in the sense of their having been written at particular times and omits much of the exploration of DM’s more private motivations. Leng’s book is ultimately about how Daphne DM’s life pertains to Flavia Leng herself, which is exactly as it should be. But it’s no less valuable an insight for that. It’s often what each writer chooses to emphasise or leave out entirely in their respective books that speaks about both them and Daphne Du Maurier herself. I love the whole process of reading in this way; it’s almost like trying to do a jigsaw puzzle only to find that pieces from two different pictures have been mixed up in one box. But it’s not at all frustrating; more fascinating. Each book adds a little more detail but the final image is mine to determine. I kind of want to go for the full immersion now, re-read Forster and Letters, then read Growing Pains for the first time.

In fact, hang the potential library fines. I might do just that.