A Great Year of Reading

I’m so pleased with my reading this year. I’ve managed to read 114 books – the most I’ve read in a year since my commuting days (when I could easily polish off 3 or 4 books a week in a hour each way journey). I’ve reviewed them all on Librarything and the full list of what I’ve read, with ratings and links is on the sidebar.

At the risk of boring you I’ve done a little analysis with the aim of helping to make a few “Reading Resolutions” for tomorrow. In 2008, I read:

  • 30,826 pages
  • 100 novels
  • 14 non-novels of which 2 were poetry
  • About a tenth were European – and those were exclusively French or Scandinavian except for Blindness by Saramago.
  • Just 5% were written by Non-UK, European or US authors
  • Nearly 20% were crime novels or thrillers
  • The next biggest genre with 10% were historical novels
  • The most amazing statistic is that nearly three quarters were published in 2000 or later. This goes to show how drawn I am to reading all the newbies rather than visiting the TBR mountains!
  • Most of the rest were published after I was born, just ten were pre 1960.
  • I read more Penguins than books from any other publisher, but also more novels from small or new publishers this year.

See you in the New Year!

The Ice Queen by Alice Hoffman

I have my Secret Santa to thank for reading this book – it was unputdownable, a wonderful choice – thank you!

The Ice Queen by Alice Hoffman is a quirky, modern fairy tale taking its inspiration from the Brothers Grimm. A young girl wishes her mother dead, and then when it happens, she lets it ruin her life. She hardens her heart and is determined to never let anyone get close again. She spends her life in New Jersey as a librarian dealing in cold facts, where only policeman Jack Lyons seems to understand her and satisfy her sexual needs, but that’s as far as that relationship goes – she’s emotionally dead inside.

Then she moves to Florida with her brother and is even more alone in this hot and humid state. One day she gets struck by lightning which she survives but is left with all sorts of physical difficulties, including not being able to see the colour red anymore. She hears about another lightning survivor who was pronounced dead but came back to life, and is drawn to seek him out. Lazarus Jones is her complete opposite, a man alive with heat. They become obsessed with each other – the ice queen and fire king, and begin an affair, but it is clear that he is hiding something, and she is in danger of him thawing her heart …

Not a word is wasted in this wonderful novel, yet your emotions are put through the wringer continuously. First of all, in sadness and frustration for this un-named woman who has let a childhood fantasy ruin her life, then when she finally learns to take a chance with love, you feel real happiness for her, it is so great when she lets go. Her life is a real emotional rollercoaster, but erotic too – her affair with Lazarus Jones is sizzling! But the thing that got to me most was her loss of red, the colour of lifeblood pulsing, the shade of her dress that so affects all who see it, except her – she doesn’t know its hue – I can’t imagine not having that powerful colour in my life.

A truly fantastic novel to end the year’s reading on. 10/10

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Source: Gift. To explore on Amazon UK, please click below:
The Ice Queen by Alice Hoffman, Vintage paperback, 224 pages.

The Island at the End of the World by Sam Taylor

This book is definitely one of those love it or loathe it novels. You’ll either love it – for the clever plotting and gradual reveal of what has happened to its family, or loathe it primarily because many chapters are written in eight year old Finn’s phonetic speaking voice, where things like changing an ‘a’ for a ‘u’ in ‘can’t’ may upset, as will the sexual awakening of young teenager Alice – we hear her voice directly in the second half.

I fall into the first camp – I loved it, even more so once I was used to Finn’s voice which does take a few chapters. Right from the beginning you want to find out what happened to this family, God-fearing Pa, Finn, Alice and little sister Daisy – and what became of their mother?

Pa tells of a great flood, how he built an ark and that they are the only survivors, lucky to end up on a verdant and fertile island paradise with plenty of wildlife. Their desert island books are the Bible, Shakespeare and Grimm’s fairy tales, Alice is starting to get interested in Romeo and Juliet …. a portent of problems to come when this teenager begins to question their situation as her pre-flood memories are awakened. Finn however is having the adventure of a lifetime, until his cat Snowy dies which makes him very sad. Daisy, we never hear directly from but then she’s only three and knows no other life.

Then one day a stranger arrives and the family are no-longer alone. Will is not whom he seems, but this doesn’t stop Alice falling for him and naturally this plunges the family into conflict. Revelations, twists and turns come thick and fast as the novel hurtles towards its climax.

To explain any more would give too much away, so I will leave you to make up your own minds. If you can cope with the challenging language and themes there is much to get out of this novel.

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Source: Librarything Early Reviewiers. To explore on Amazon UK, please click below:
The Island at the End of the World by Sam Taylor, Faber paperback.

Ho! Ho! Ho!

Just in case the jokes in your crackers are awful, here’s some more …

Q: What is an ig?
A: An Eskimo house without a loo

Q: What’s orange and smells of carrots?
A: Rabbit sick

Q: What’s yellow and stupid?
A: Thick custard

Q: What do you call a girl with a shrimp on her head?
A: Barbie!

Q: What do you call a donkey with only 3 legs?
A: A wonky donkey

Q: What do you call a donkey with only 3 legs and 1 eye?
A: A winky wonky donkey.

Enough! … Ed

Hearts and Minds by Rosy Thornton

The British campus novel is generally a cosy thing (unless there’s a murder involved). Often they can be rather claustrophobic too, peopled with backbiting dons, scheming students, and inscrutable college servants, all of which give opportunities for creating high comedy – naturally I’m thinking David Lodge here, or the funniest of all, Porterhouse Blue by Tom Sharpe.

This makes Rosy Thornton’s second novel Hearts and Minds a rarity. Despite the cover, this is not chick-lit, it is much more of a drama in the Joanna Trollope mould. While it has both cosy and comedic elements, it is also a mature and serious novel primarily about juggling relationships – between academic and administrative staff, between the dons themselves and their families, between students, and students and staff, and, importantly to the plot, old friends who might become benefactors … You can find them all here under the umbrella of St Radegund’s – a women only Cambridge college in need of some money, and which has just appointed an ex-BBC reporter as their first ‘Master’.
First we meet Dr Martha Pearce – the Senior Tutor, totally loyal to the college and its students. Martha works long and hard, to the detriment of her relationship with her family – her workshy poet husband and clinically depressed drop-out daughter, but there is no-one who better understands the student mind when a rent strike is threatened. Martha is world-weary and worried about her future – her research has stalled and her tutor’s appointment is due to end. Martha represents all that is good about St Rad’s, unlike her backstabbing colleague Ros, and the blinkered Bursar Kate.
When James Rycarte arrives – he’s an outsider in every sense. He’s from the media world, not the halls of academe, and he’s the first male to manage the college. He gets a frosty reception from many but not from Martha. Soon it appears that he might be the college’s saviour – an old friend from Italy pledges enough money to repair the library and endow several bursaries. Then Luigi drops his bombshell that the money is dependent on his daughter Paola coming to study at St Rad’s, and a political bag of worms big enough to fill in the subsiding library foundations is released, setting up many conflicts that will take the rest of the novel’s 425+ pages to resolve.
You don’t need to have gone to Oxbridge to enjoy this college life. The fictional confines of St Rad’s mean that the city itself doesn’t have a large part to play, but it is easy to sympathise with Martha and James who are fully rounded characters with difficult decisions to make.
I should declare that I was sent this copy by the author, whom I’ve not met, but she sounds thoroughly nice and is a Cambridge don so knows what she’s writing about! This was a very enjoyable novel, and I have no trouble in recommending it.
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Source: Sent by the author – Thank you! To explore on Amazon UK, please click below:
Hearts and Mindsby Rosy Thornton, Headline Review paperback 448 pages.

Book Bloggers Secret Santa

I signed up for the Book Bloggers Secret Santa last month, and chose and sent my gift. This morning the postlady brought me a packet of joy!

My present from my Secret Santa had arrived. I couldn’t wait to get inside the jiffy, nice purple wrapping paper (gets the thumbs up from Juliet who is into purple in a big way), and a cute card from an anonymous sender.

I opened up the present straight away to find a super book, The Ice Queen by Alice Hoffman, and a delightful Christmas decoration of a wooden dancing lady who doesn’t take much persuading to let her limbs fly akimbo!

The Alice Hoffman is a book I remember reading great reviews of when it came out, so I shall really look forward to reading it – it goes straight onto my bedside table pile. The lady in red went straight on the tree and fits in perfectly with my red-based colour scheme! I adore crafty handmade ornaments at Christmas, and you can never go wrong with a good book – so a perfect present.
THANK YOU Secret Santa.

My best books of the year

I can’t resist it! Being a bit of an inveterate list-maker (how sad is that!), and as everyone else is doing it, so why shouldn’t I – I feel compelled to share my best reads of the year with you. To add a little interest, I’ve created some categories to put them in. I’ve had a great year of reading, managing 111 books (so far – see the full list on the sidebar), and it was hard to whittle those down to a dozen or so, but here goes. As always comments are positively encouraged as are suggestions for future reading.

Classic Fiction: Tess of the D’Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy

Debut novel: Electricity by Ray Robinson

Contemporary Fiction:  Clear by Nicola Barker

Historical novel: The Dig by John Preston

Novel by a major prize-winner:  Blindness by Jose Saramago  (Nobel Prize

Funniest Book: The Scheme for Full Employment by Magnus Mills

Frothiest Book: Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day by Winifred Watson

Best Crime Novel:  Saving Caravaggio by Neil Griffiths

Best Biography or Autobiography: Breaking the Code by  Gyles Brandreth

Non-fiction:  Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader by Anne Fadiman

Best new series of novels I’ve started reading: Wallander by Henning Mankell

Best translated novel: The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barberyl

Best American novel: Motherless Brooklyn by Jonathan Lethem

And last but not least:

The book I’m most looking forward to reading in 2009: Wishful Drinking by Carrie Fisher
I hope to continue posting intermittently over the next couple of weeks, but would like to take the opportunity now to wish everyone reading this



Mostly Booklovers

One of the things I’ve been involved with over the past few months is meeting with the owners and a group of other customers of Mostly Books , which is my home from home in Abingdon, to help set up a Literary Society for Abingdon called ‘Mostly Booklovers’.

Mostly Booklovers is now officially launched and a great programme of author events is already in place for the first few months of the year. Membership costs £12, and members will get reduced or free admission to all the events. The full details are on the events diary here . But the programme starts with a biggie! …

Joanna Trollope will talk on Tuesday January 20th, at 1930, venue – the School of St Helen & St Katherine in Abingdon to coincide with the paperback publication of her latest novel Friday Nights. Tickets are £6 (or £4 for MBers), and it’s going to be a great evening.

Also Kate Summerscale, author of brilliant The Suspicions of Mr Whicher will be visiting in April, and there are other great authors lined up for inbetween, including Richard Fortey talking about the Natural History Museum, and locally brought-up author Bethan Roberts.

This is beginning to sound like a commercial for the book shop, but owners Mark and Nikki are doing so much to develop not just a literary vibe in Abingdon, but a fully inclusive bookloving community, and they deserve continued success for that. (The shop won the Bookseller award for best new bookshop of the year in 2008).

So if you’re passing near Oxford, why not detour to Abingdon and visit this great little bookshop!

Love In A Cold Climate by Nancy Mitford

Set between the wars, this novel follows the lives and loves of an impossibly rich and aristocratic family – the Montdores, seen through the eyes of Fanny, a childhood friend of their daughter Polly. Being from a less well-to-do family, but in demand by the Montdores as a sensible friend, Fanny is ideally placed to comment on how the other half live. Fanny’s family itself is no stranger to matrimonial shenanigans – her mother is known as ‘The Bolter’, currently on about husband number three somewhere.

Meanwhile the Montdores are beginning to despair about Polly who should have been married by now, you can’t remain a debutante for several years. Then, after the death of her aunt, Polly shocks everyone by saying she is going to marry her Uncle – instant disinheritance ensues. This means the Montdore fortune will go to cousin Cedric, a Canadian – who turns up in Paris, and proceeds to charm his ageing Aunt and indeed everyone with his gay ways.

This novel is a charming comedy of manners that is mostly frothy, but is often mordantly witty, particularly about Lady Montdore’s total snobbishness, and the vanity that Cedric awakes in her! Given that it was published in 1949 elements in it were probably seen as quite racy. Today, it would probably be considered as top class chicklit, but with added bite.

While I enjoyed reading it, I was slightly disappointed by this first encounter with Mitford the novelist, for the Mitford family’s real life is far more exciting and interesting than those in the book!

Book Group Annual Report

The book group I belong to doesn’t have a name – we’re all just mates. Membership varies with a core of about eight, then half a dozen or so occasional visitors, whom it is lovely to see when they can make it. Here’s what we read this year (the scores are my ratings, not group ones) …

Jan Tokyo cancelled by Rana Dasgupta. Surreal and slightly subversive short story cycle – passengers stranded in an airport tell tall tales – the one about Robert De Niro’s lovechild and the magic Oreo cookie is bizarre! 9/10
Feb Beowulf by Seamus Heaney (trans). Our first poetry – and a big hit for discussion. 7/10
Mar The Crystal Cave by Mary Stewart. Putting an historical context to Merlin’s story – very cosy. 10/10
Apr The Ruby in her Navel by Barry Unsworth. An interesting period – (12th century Sicily) for a novel of romance and courtly intrigue – and yes there is a dancer with a bejewelled midriff. 7/10
May Arthur and George by Julian Barnes. Enjoyed by all, slightly surprisingly. 8/10
Jun Boy A by Johnathan Trigell. Can a young man who was a child killer as a child be succesfully reintegrated into the community? A truly excellent book for discussion. 9/10
Jul Mutant Message Down Under by Marlo Morgan. Entertaining but didn’t ring true with anyone – Castenadas meets Croc Dundee 6/10
Aug Kim by Rudyard Kipling. I didn’t read this one – very naughty! Everyone else really enjoyed it.
Sep The player of games by Iain M Banks. My favourite of Banks’ SF – all that read it agreed. 9/10
Oct Sharp Teeth by Toby Barlow. This prose poem about werewolves in LA divided opinion – genuinely quirky or gimmicky? I liked it. 9/10
Nov 1984 by George Orwell. Amazingly some of our group had never read this before. 8/10
Dec Blindness by Jose Saramago. Another very good novel for discussion – enjoyed by most, particularly me. 10/10

My favourites from that list – Tokyo Cancelled and Blindness. Our January 2009 book is something much lighter – Love In A Cold Climate by Nancy Mitford.