24 February, 2012

Playing Catch-Up

Does anyone else get a slight feeling of panic when they consider all the books they're missing out on? There are so many wonderful books out there and so many great authors, and no possible way to read them all in one lifetime. I find that I very rarely read a newly-released book, unless it is by an author I know and love, because I'm too busy trying to catch up on all the thousands of good books that are already out there. I don't think I've ever read a Booker Prize winner in my life. Goodness, I'm still getting through Jane Austen!

Sometimes lists can help. Since it was released in 2003, I have been slowly plodding my way through the BBC Big Read Top 100 books. It was a victim of its time, and of the fact that a lot of children voted, as JK Rowling, Jacqueline Wilson and Roald Dahl featured more prominently than they might have done otherwise. But in general, it has provided me with some great ideas for reading. Among the amazing books I probably wouldn't have read if it hadn't been for this list are Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden, and Holes by Louis Sachar.

I am currently on my 91st book on the list - Gone With the Wind by Margaret Mitchell. Now, I still have War and Peace and Ulysses to go, so it still might take me some time to finish. But once I have finished, I want to create my own list of must-read books. The best way of doing that, in my opinion, is to ask for recommendations. And it would frankly be rude to ask and not to give. So here is a random selection (i.e. the first ones that came to mind!) of ten books that I think everyone should read.

  1. We Need To Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver. Letters from a woman to her estranged husband after their son commits a high school massacre. One of the newest books I've read and one that haunted me for weeks afterwards. Stunningly written.
  2. The Stand by Stephen King. Considered by many to be his best-ever. An epic story of what happens when a plague released from a US government laboratory wipes out most of the world's population leaving the remnant to fend for themselves.
  3. Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes. A short novel told from the point of view of a young man with severe learning disabilities over the period where he is trialling a new drug to make him "smarter", along with a laboratory mouse who is also the subject of experimentation. I haven't met anyone else who's read this which is frustrating because I love it! One of the few books I haven't read for a decade and can still remember.
  4. 1984 by George Orwell. An unsettling vision of a future where capitalism has gone mad and Big Brother is always watching. Spooky, tragic and ironically timeless.
  5. A Tale of Two Cities  by Charles Dickens. I know, I know. I keep going on about this, but it really is excellent. The character of Sidney Carton is my choice for the best bit of characterisation in fiction.
  6. Shades of Grey  by Jasper Fforde. Having said I never read new books, this was only published in the last couple of years. If I could write like any author, it would be Jasper Fforde. His tale of a world where people are classed according to how good their colour vision is, is one of the most inventive things I've read.
  7. The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas by John Boyne. The story of a friendship between two boys on opposite sides of a fence. A war story with a difference. Chilling and moving.
  8. I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith. We needed something heart-warming in this list and this is my choice for feel-good children's book.
  9. The Midwich Cuckoos by John Wyndham. I'm not a big sci-fi fan, but this story of a village where all the women become pregnant with a strange race of children, captivated me. I was sad that there was no Wyndham in the BBC list. This one is his best, I think.
  10. Perfume by Patrick Suskind. Another unsettling tale - I appear to like unsettling! The story of a  man who smells of nothing but has an incredible sense of smell himself. One of the weirdest characters in fiction, surely.
That was a hard choice! Have you enjoyed any of these books (or not enjoyed them!)? There are so many other books I want everyone to read - these aren't even necessarily my favourites - but I must stop and let you have your turn. What books must I include on my must-read list? Any genre or age range accepted!

08 February, 2012

What the Dickens to read?

If you're alive and in the UK, you can hardly have failed to notice that this year we are having a Charles Dickens Festival in honour of his 200th birthday. So far, I have been mostly ignoring DickensFest but at this current moment I am feeling inspired, so let's seize it!

I have a terrible confession - terrible for a writer that is - to make.  I have an awful memory for plots. I forget the plot of most books I read within a year, even if I loved it. Thus, I know for a fact that I have read Nicholas Nickleby, Great Expectations, David Copperfield, A Christmas Carol, Bleak House and a Tale of Two Cities, but I could only tell you about two of them. Everyone knows the plot to A Christmas Carol and the plot of A Tale of Two Cities has remained with me largely because it is one of the best books ever written. Other than that I am in the dark. Further adding to my confusion has been the BBC Radio 4 comedy series 'Bleak Expectations' which is a spoof Dickens, starring Pip Bin and Mr. Gently Benevolent, and is hilarious. If you haven't heard it, then the first series is being re-broadcast at the moment and can be found on iPlayer. Stop reading this garbage and go and listen!

Anyway, as of 30 seconds ago, I have it made it a 2012 mission of mine to read at least two more of old Charlie's work. That's where you come in. Should I pick up Pickwick Papers, or visit the Old Curiosity Shop? Is Martin Chuzzlewit worth getting to know, or do you prefer Little Dorrit? Help me out here, friends. Which Dickens is your favourite?

Is anyone prepared to join me? All those willing to read one or two Dickens novels they haven't read before during 2012, shout 'Aye' and wave your hands in the air. More usefully, leave a comment telling me which one you fancy. (Which book, I mean. I'm not interested in your Strictly Come Dancing fantasies). If a handful of hardy souls volunteer then I will make a new page on the blog to publish short reviews of each book, written by you lovely people. Do you think we can do them all between us by the end of 2012? If no hardy souls volunteer then I will sulk. Think of my poor husband before opting out.

I will leave you with my favourite piece of Dickens and possibly the best opening to a book ever (oooh, there's a whole new post waiting to happen!). Sometimes I read this, just to make me happy. This is the famous opening sentence of A Tale of Two Cities...

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way--in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.