26 June, 2013

BBC Big Read Top 100 - The List

On Monday I posted the momentous news that I had finally finished reading the BBC Big Read Top 100 books, 10 years after the list was produced by public vote. So here is the full list in all its glory.

As I read the books, I rated them out of 10. The score wasn't based on how well-written I thought the book was, but on how much I enjoyed it (though the quality of the writing must have had some effect on enjoyment). Therefore there are frivolous books that rank a lot higher for me than classic novels I think are much better written. A big part of the ranking will be affected by how old I was when I read the book. I'm sure, for example, Bleak House would score much higher now than it did when I read it at 17 years-old, and Jaqueline Wilson books wouldn't entertain me nearly so much now. I'm also going soft in my old age - giving a book a 6/10 now I would consider quite condemning, whereas I thought it was quite reasonable in my teens. What I'm saying is... this ranking is to be taken with a pinch of salt!

So, I've listed the books below according to my own ratings - with the score to match. The number in brackets at the end is the official Big Read ranking.

How many of these have you read? Any favourites or ones you'd happily never see again?

   1984 - George Orwell (8)
   The Stand - Stephen King (53)
   Emma - Jane Austen (40)
   A Tale of Two Cities - Charles Dickens (63)
   Holes - Louis Sachar (83)
   Cold Comfort Farm - Stella Gibbons (88)
   Lord of the Flies - William Golding (70)
   His Dark Materials - Philip Pullman (3)
   To Kill a Mockingbird - Harper Lee (6)
   A Prayer for Owen Meany - John Irving (28)
   Birdsong - Sebastian Faulks (13)

   The Lord of the Rings - JRR Tolkien (1)
   Animal Farm - George Orwell (46)
   I Capture the Castle - Dodie Smith (82)
   Brave New World - Aldous Huxley (87)
   Noughts and Crosses - Malorie Blackman (61)
   Memoirs of a Geisha - Arthur Golden (62)
   Jane Eyre - Charlotte Bronte (10)
   Gone with the Wind - Margaret Mitchell (21)
   The Pillars of the Earth  - Ken Follet (33)
   The Colour of Magic - Terry Pratchett (93)
   The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy - Douglas Adams (4)
   A Suitable Boy - Vikram Seth (55)
   The Magus - John Fowles (67)
   Love in the Time of Cholera - Gabriel Garcia Marquez (97)
   Night Watch - Terry Pratchett (26)
   Katherine - Anya Seton (95)

   The Grapes of Wrath - John Steinbeck (29)
   The Secret History - Donna Tartt (76)
   One Hundred Years of Solitude - Gabriel Garcia Marquez (32)
   Crime and Punishment - Fyodor Dostoyevsky (60)
   Pride and Prejudice - Jane Austen (2)
   Anne of Green Gables - LM Montgomery (41)
   The Secret Garden - Frances Hodgson Burnett (51)
   Persuasion - Jane Austen (38)
   The Hobbit - JRR Tolkien (25)
   Perfume - Patrick Suskind (71)
   The Catcher in the Rye - JD Salinger (15)
   Rebecca - Daphne du Maurier (14)
   The Magic Faraway Tree - Enid Blyton (66)
   The Wind in the Willows - Kenneth Graham (16)
   The Godfather - Mario Puzo (91)
   Winnie the Pooh - AA Milne (7)
   Goodnight Mr. Tom - Michelle Magorian (49)
   The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe - CS Lewis (9)
   Bridget Jones's Diary - Helen Fielding (75)
   The Clan of the Cave Bear - Jean M Auel (92)
   Swallows and Amazons - Arthur Ransome (57)
   Little Women - Louisa May Alcott (18)
   Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone - JK Rowling (22)
   Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban - JK Rowling (24)
   Charlie and the Chocolate Factory - Roald Dahl (35)
   A Town Like Alice - Nevil Shute (37)
   Alice's Adventures in Wonderland - Lewis Caroll (30)
   A Christmas Carol - Charles Dickens (47)
   Good Omens - Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman (68)
   Watership Down - Richard Adams (42)
   The Princess Diaries - Meg Cabot (99)

   Gormenghast -Mervyn Peake (84)
   Dune  - Frank Herbert (39)
   The Woman in White - Wilkie Collins (77)
   Matilda  - Roald Dahl (74)
   Wuthering Heights - Emily Bronte (12)
   David Copperfield - Charles Dickens (34)
   The Alchemist - Paulo Coelho (94)
   The Thorn Birds - Colleen McCollough (64)
   The BFG - Roald Dahl (56)
   The Count of Monte Cristo - Alexandre Dumas (44)
   Girls in Love - Jaqueline Wilson (98)
   Kane and Abel - Jeffrey Archer (96)
   Anna Karenina  - Leo Tolstoy (54)

   Of Mice and Men - John Steinbeck (52)
   Great Expectations - Charles Dickens (17)
   Magician - Raymond E Feist (89)
   The Shell Seekers - Rosamund Pilcher (50)
   Tess of the D'Urbervilles - Thomas Hardy (26)
   Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets - JK Rowling (23)
   Captain Corelli's Mandolin - Louis de Bernieres (19)
   Mort - Terry Pratchett (65)
   Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire - JK Rowling (5)
   The Twits - Roald Dahl (81)
   Guards! Guards! - Terry Pratchett (69)
   Far From the Madding Crowd - Thomas Hardy (48)
   The Great Gatsby - F. Scott Fitzgerald (43)
   Black Beauty - Anna Sewell (58)

   Middlemarch - George Eliot (27)
   War and Peace - Leo Tolstoy (20)
   Vicky Angel - Jaqueline Wilson (86)
   Double Act - Jaqueline Wilson (80)
   Brideshead Revisited - Evelyn Waugh (45)
   The God of Small Things - Arundhati Roy (85)
   The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists - Robert Tressell (72)
   The Story of Tracey Beaker - Jaqueline Wilson (31)
   Midnight's Children - Salman Rushdie (100)
   Treasure Island - Robert Louis Stevenson (36)

   Bleak House - Charles Dickens (79)
   Artemis Fowl - Eoin Colfer (59)
   Catch-22 - Joseph Heller (11)

   Ulysses - James Joyce (78)

   On the Road - Jack Kerouac (90)

24 June, 2013

BBC Big Read Top 100 - Finished!

This is a momentous post for me. For the last ten years - that's nearly 40% of my entire life - I have been reading my way through the BBC Big Read Top 100 books. And I've finished.

Love books? Get the guide!
I feel I should point out immediately, that I have not ONLY been reading this list - that would be very slow progress indeed! But gradually, since the summer of my GCSEs, I've been working my way through the top 100 books as voted for by the British public in 2003.

When the list came out I'd already read 30-40 of them, and in the flurry of publicity surrounding the vote and the accompanying television series, it was easy to find loads of others in the library (hooray for libraries!). Then I went to university and hardly read any fiction at all for three years, which I find incredible now. A few years ago I picked up the list again and, having waded my way through the monsters of Ulysses, A Suitable Boy and War and Peace, I felt as if the end was in sight and decided to aim for finishing in 2013.

The list itself is definitely a product of its time. Loads of children voted, which means there are 30 children's books on the list, including all four of the Harry Potter books published by 2003 (I personally think they should've been counted as one book - as His Dark Materials was). This isn't a list of the absolute best books ever written, just the most popular in Britain in 2003, but it does include loads of good books I might never have read if it hadn't been for my love of lists. I'm sad to have finished it!

I'll post the entire list as a separate post later. But for now here are some interesting facts* about the list and my award winners - good and bad!

  • Oldest book: Pride and Prejudice - Jane Austen (1813)
  • Five of the authors only wrote one book.
  • Five books were written by authors under the age of 30.
  • Longest book: A Suitable Boy - Vikram Seth (the longest single volume ever published in English)
  • Shortest book: The Twits - Roald Dahl
  • Only two of the books (Midnight's Children by Salman Rushdie and The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy) are Booker Prize winners. They are both by Indian authors and set in India.
  • Only 1% of purchased books in 2003 were written before 1900, but 22% of books in this list are pre-20th century.
  • Two authors (Charles Dickens and Terry Pratchett - unlikley bedfellows) appear in the list five times
  • Eight books weren't originally written in English.
  • More than 25% of the authors are/were teachers.
  • 7000 different books were nominated and over 140 000 votes cast.

  • My top three: 1984 by George Orwell (which was the overall favourite of people in their 20s - how predictable am I?!), The Stand by Stephen King, Emma by Jane Austen
  • My bottom three: Catch 22 by Joseph Heller, Ulysses by James Joyce, On the Road by Jack Kerouac
  • Biggest surprise: Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden. For some reason I was really expecting not to like this but it's in my Top 20.
  • Most un-put-downable: Holes by Louis Sachar. I read this in one sitting and loved it - it's in my Top 10.
  • Least memorable: Middlemarch by George Eliot. I have a terrible memory for plots, but this is the only book I got halfway through reading a second time before remembering I'd read it already!
  • Most haunting: a tie between The Secret History by Donna Tartt and The Magus by John Fowles. I actually remember very little of either of these books (despite enjoying them) but, nearly a decade after reading them, they still float into my mind from time to time, making me feel uneasy.
  • Favourite character: Sydney Carton from A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens.
  • Biggest u-turn: both 1984 (George Orwell) and Cold Comfort Farm (Stella Gibbons) were books I couldn't even finish the first time I tried. They are now both in my Top 10. (I also bumped up The Great Gatsby having read it again recently, but I still didn't think it was that amazing!)

The good news is that the BBC actually collated a Top 200^, so I don't have to stop now. But I think my days of reading Jaqueline Wilson are gone, so I will content myself with reading through the list of books people have been recommending to me on this blog. You can see the current list of books under the 'Books' tab, if you can think of any more books I must read, then leave me a comment! Stand by for the next post, where you can see the full list and work out how many you've read...

*taken from the official Big Read Book of Books
^ the even better news is that The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle sneaks on to the list at 199.

19 June, 2013

The Waiting Game

Being a writer requires a lot of patience. This is not a revelation. If you are a writer or have ever met a writer, then you know this already. It's been a while since I gave an update on my own writing, chiefly because it can be summed up as: Trying to be Patient. So what has Operation TryPat involved?

It's been seven months since I signed with a literary agent for my novel The Art of Letting Go. I'd only been trying to get an agent for a few weeks when I got some interest (this time round, anyway - with a previous book, I'd been through the months of disappointment that are part of writer's training), so it all seemed like a joyous whirlwind of activity. For a couple of months I did a combination of re-write my novel, put together a publishing proposal with my agent and plan my next novel under the working title Derailed.

In early March The Art of Letting Go was taken out of my hands and sent off to publishers. This was the beginning of TryPat.

Of course, any writer will tell you that Patience doesn't equate to Idleness. There are always more stories to be written. In the last few months I've written a couple of pieces of flash fiction - most recently a ridiculous and flippant piece on the end of conspiracy theories - and I've spent some time editing old stories with the hope of entering them into competitions or submitting them to publications.

My main project however, has been working on Derailed. I'm just about to start the second draft. Concentrating on a new set of characters has been a great way to distract myself from TryPat. The distance it has created between my old characters and me has eased the pain of rejections coming from publishers. And, oh, there has been rejection.

I've written about rejection before. Twice in fact. So there's no need for me to go into another lament here. But you understand how it is. Every time I go on Twitter there seems to be another writer winning a publishing deal just a couple of months after signing with an agent. Virtual champagne corks are popping in every direction. I'm happy for those writers of course (and at least one writer I know wrote a blog post about how his book took a long-ish time to find a publisher), and I know how getting an agent alone makes me extrememly fortunate, but it's hard sometimes to continue Being Patient.

Rejections from publishers, I've found, are different from agent rejections. Most publishers seem to give a reason for their rejection, which is helpful and often encouraging. The curious thing to me has been knowing an agent is discussing me with a publisher. There are two people out there discussing my work as part of their professional jobs. I remind myself of that when I'm feeling dispirited. Not that I feel too dispirited - somehow I'm finding it easy enough not to take rejections personally so far, perhaps because some of them have been complimentary. My rejections, tend to fit into three categories:

  1. The ones that make me wince. Not exactly rude or brutal, but fairly unforgiving. I've only had two of these I think (unless I'm psychologically blocking the others out!)
  2. The thanks but no thanks. These are usually charming but don't tell me much. At least with the painful ones, I know what they didn't like and can add it to my 'potential edits' list. These ones liked the book, but didn't like it enough, leaving me with nothing more to add to the list than "make book more likeable".
  3. The enthusiastic no. I have had several complimentary rejections so far. These both make my day (who doesn't like being told their writing is beautiful or confident, that their main character is vivid, or the book is well-plotted?) and frustrate me. Close but no cigar.

So, three to four months into submissions and there's a lot to be encouraged by - editors seem to see something in my book - but still no guarantee of publication. And so, like all writers stuck in the middle of TryPat, all I can do is sit down at my desk each day with a bunch or characters and try to answer the question: What happens next?

How do you deal with Trying to be Patient?

14 June, 2013

Quotable Friday (11)

I love reading quotations. Whether they’re funny, wise or poignant, I love those snapshots into the human mind; I love the beauty of language. There aren’t always easy ways to crowbar great passages from novels or thoughtful quotations into ordinary blog posts, so on Fridays I’m letting them speak for themselves.

When I started doing this series, my dear friend Emma e-mailed a couple of quotations she really loves to me. If you want to do the same, feel free! My contact details are on the About Me page.

One of Emma's favourite quotations I'll leave for another time, but she had one from Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell which I'm considering putting on my "to be read" list. Have you read it? Would you recommend it? The quotation is really quirky and made Emma laugh, which reminded me of a quotation from A Suitable Boy by Vikram Seth, just because that, too, made me laugh, despite its short simplicity - I'm sure I've mentioned it before on this blog already. So here are two simple sentences that have brightened our days...

"Being a bit of a layabout, he lay about a bit." - from A Suitable Boy

"The fluffy bunny of incredulity zoomed around the bend so fast that it left the greyhound of language agog in the starting blocks." - from Cloud Atlas

Do you have any favourite lines that have made you laugh?

11 June, 2013

Icons in Literature

Let's play a game. Everybody likes games - especially when they're about icons in literature, right? RIGHT?

I am reading The Godfather by Mario Puzo at the moment. I didn't think I knew anything about it, until I started reading. Then, I realised two very famous parts were familiar to me already. Firstly, there was the scene where a man wakes to find a horse's head in his bed, and then there was the phrase "sleeping with the fishes" - to mean a body which has been dumped in the sea. I knew about both these things without ever having watched or read or discussed The Godfather before.

It got me thinking about how many other things in books become part of our common knowledge and language. I don't mean things like particularly famous titles, plotlines and characters. I mean iconic lines, images or scenes that have grown bigger than the books themselves. They become either phrases that people use without necessarily even knowing the book at all (think, Catch-22), or - as with The Godfather - ideas that somehow everybody knows about.

So, here are a few of those lines or images that I consider mini-icons from literature. I haven't looked anything up, this is all dredged from the corners of my brain. Do you know which books I'm thinking of? I bet you do, or at least have come across what I'm referring to, even if you don't know the book title! Pop your answers in the comments (and no peeking ahead before having a go yourself!).

  1. A woman dressed in a wedding dress, sits amongst cobwebs and the rotting remains of a wedding breakfast.
  2. "Curiouser and curiouser."
  3. "Please Sir, can I have some more?"
  4. "My dear, I don't give a damn." (The "frankly" often found at the start of the expression was added by the movie-makers and isn't in the book).
  5. Don't panic.
  6. "I don't think we're in Kansas any more." (I use this line every time I'm confused about something!)
  7. A place where it's always winter but never Christmas.
  8. "My precious."
  9. Room 101.
  10. "Bah! Humbug!"

Actually, because these things are so much in common useage, I found it quite hard to think of them! Can you think of any more icons that aren't just famous storylines but have somehow become more than that?

07 June, 2013

Book Tattoos

Recently, I've come across several online galleries of tattoos inspired by books. There's this one on Buzzfeed, or this one on Huffington Post, for example. All the images in this post are from the Buzzfeed gallery.

Slaughterhouse-Five chic.

I'm not a tattoo kind of person. The thought of having ink injected permanently into my skin doesn't fill me with feelings of excitement and possibility. If I was going to get a tattoo it'd have to be something I was certain I'd still like decades down the line. That limits my options to a very small selection of names and dates, or, just maybe, a line from a book.

There are some interesting literary tattoos out there - pictures of the Gruffalo, Winnie the Pooh, The Very Hungry Caterpillar and Ramona Quimby from the Ramona books, for example. I've even seen Agatha Christie's face on a girl's thigh (there's not a sentence I ever thought I'd be writing). The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupery seems to be very popular tattoo inspiration, as does Peter Pan by J.M. Barrie. Harry Potter produced a good few for the galleries too - including a wrist tattoo of "9 3/4".

A rather sweet Harry Potter/Snape tribute.
Some word tattoos are whimisical. I was particularly taken with the gentleman who has "Don't" on one foot and "Panic" on the other (The Hitchhikers' Guide ot the Galaxy), and a beautifully-designed "We're all mad here" (Alice in Wonderland). I think I'd want to go for something a bit more beautiful or profound though. I've seen a few tattoos paying homage to Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut, including the line "everything was beautiful and nothing hurt" (see first image). And there was a rather lovely tattoo of "not all who wander are lost" from The Lord of the Rings.

Heading to Neverland.
In the end though I am both too much of a wuss and too indecisive to actually get a tattoo. I'd never be able to make up my mind. But if I was forced to decide this minute on a tattoo celebrating a work of fiction or a particular writer, I would probably go for something by C.S Lewis  - having no time to trawl through Dickens! Perhaps something like "there is no other stream" or "do not dare not to dare" or "not safe, but good". What would you choose?

04 June, 2013

Lessons from Children's Writing

Did anybody else see this article from the BBC? Radio 2 ran a short story competition for children up to the age of 13 and received over 90 000 entries. And you thought the odds were stacked against you for Bridport or Bristol?!

The Oxford University Press fed all the stories - over 30 million words - into a database and analysed the words children were using in their creative writing. Here are a few of the facts from the article that interested me:

  • the most common word (presumably excluding words like 'the' and 'a') was Mum. Mum and its variants were mention about twice as often as Dad, although dads tended to be more active - fighting aliens and the like.
  • Some kids are pretty amazing at similes. Bearing in mind the kids are under 14 years-old, I was impressed with "As trustworthy as a fox with a chicken feather poking out of its mouth" and "As boring as a cake with no candles".
  • Text language wasn't used very much at all (hooray!), or only used in the correct context - e.g. when actually writing texts or using slang as part of speech.
  • Fantasy was the most common genre, with modern technology not playing a huge part in most stories.
  • Somewhere in Britain there is a kid who wrote this sentence: "I approached an altitudinous manor, that looked like a blackened statue of a ghost, damaged by the years of betrayal."
  • There is also a kid who wrote this: "Its hazy malachite skin gleamed with an amber slime, its emaciated tail propelling it through the tingling sea. It glanced only forward, its atramentous citron eyes fixating on its prey."*

Kids are pretty amazing. It heartens me that 90 000 stories were entered and that many of them show so much promise.

Of the whole article, however, the thing that interested me most was the comparison between adult writers and children. The car most likely to be mentioned by a child (both boys and girls) is a Ferrari. For adults its a Ford. When it comes to two-word nouns, adults talk about car parks and kitchen sinks; kids talk about space ships, time machines and tree houses. I know this is inevitable - children are less likely to worry about whether it's really believable their ordinary hero happens to drive a Ferrari - but it makes me a little bit sad. I feel that adults are letting the side down! Perhaps I'll try to include a tree house in my next short story.

Do you have children, or do you/did you teach primary-aged children? What sorts of things do children write about now and do you think it's different to 10/20/40 years ago?

*I'm sure you totally knew this already, but 'atramentous' refers to a substance, usually liquid, that is very black - such as the ink given off by a squid or octopus.