Wednesday, 31 December 2014

Top Ten Books of 2014

Every year when I put my top ten reads together, I start by thinking that the year hasn't been all that brilliant for reading, and then discover it's been amazing. Seriously, it's pretty great that I'm lucky enough to read such fab books every year. This year I had a 24 book shortlist, but have whittled it down to ten (and, as always, no re-reads and only one per author). And... here they are! In reverse order, for funsies. Also fun is that half of them were read for Shiny New Books (in those cases, the title links straight to SNB; the others link to SIAB reviews).

I think my main surprise is how few of them come from the first half of the 20th century... two are even from 2014; imagine!

Do let me know your end of year lists in the comments, please!

10. The Listener (1971) by Tove Jansson
Her first collection of short stories shows how great she would become - and she was great straight from the off. Some very deft and poignant tales here.

9. Marrying Out (2001) by Harold Carlton
Another wonderful memoir from Slightly Foxed, this one is about a young boy's Jewish family disintegrating when one of his uncles wants to marry a girl who isn't Jewish.

8. Mr Fox (1987) by Barbara Comyns
One of my favourite authors doesn't disappoint with this quirky novel about a naive woman and the spiv whose life she is tangled up in.

7. The Optimist's Daughter (1972) by Eudora Welty
A really stunning novella about how a daughter copes with her stepmother and neighbours after her father's death.

6. Charlotte Mew and Her Friends (1984) by Penelope Fitzgerald
I loved Fitzgerald as a novelist; I vaguely knew of Mew - I couldn't have known how gripping and involving this exceptional biography would be.

5. My Salinger Year (2014) by Joanna Rakoff
A wonderful memoir of working at the literary agency that represented J.D. Salinger - utterly involving.

4. Home (2008) by Marilynne Robinson
I read Home and Lila this year, but it was the former that won out for my end-of-year-list. The middle book of a truly exceptional, beautiful trilogy by (for my money) the world's greatest living writer.

3. Boy, Snow, Bird (2014) by Helen Oyeyemi
Oyeyemi goes from strength to strength (as well as being sickeningly young) and her fifth novel is a sophisticated exploration of the relationship between three related women.

2. Patricia Brent, Spinster (1918) by Herbert Jenkins
Entirely improbable and silly, but an unadulterated delight - Patricia persuades a young man to pretend to be her fiancée. Guess what happens next?

1. The Sundial (1958) by Shirley Jackson
An extremely funny and surreal novel about an extended family who will survive the apocalypse by staying in the family home together. Brilliantly, they are all rather unconcerned about the impending fire-and-brimstone, and Jackson gives us their squabbles and passive aggression instead. A superlatively inventive, amusing, and bizarre book.

Monday, 29 December 2014

My Husband Simon by Mollie Panter-Downes

I was very excited to get an abebooks alert about an affordable copy of My Husband Simon (1931) by Mollie Panter-Downes (which is usually either unavailable or extortionately expensive). Her novel One Fine Day is (bold claim) one of the best I've ever read, and her war diaries are exceptionally good, and naturally I wanted to read more. After I posted about buying it, I was inundated with (ahem) two requests that I read and review it quickly. So, dear readers, I have.

I'll start by managing expectations - it's not as good as One Fine Day, London War Notes, or her volumes of short stories published by Persephone. But I still rather loved reading it. The heroine (with the extraordinary name Nevis - is this a name?) is a young wife and novelist, and the novel does, indeed, largely concern her relationship with 'my husband Simon'. Nevis is literary, intelligent, cultured, and quite the intellectual snob; Simon is none of these things, but is charismatic and jovial (as well as fond of horse-racing). They are not temperamentally suited, but they do have rather a physical attraction - more than I would have expected to find in a 1931 novel, until I remembered The Sheik - and the novel negotiates Nevis' attempts to write her third novel and manage her marriage. Oh, and she's 24.

From what I can gather on her Wikipedia page (which isn't a lot), My Husband Simon is intensely autobiographical. Both Nevis and Mollie had had runaway bestsellers while still teenagers (Mollie was only 17 when The Shoreless Sea became a huge success); both married at 21; Mollie was 24 when writing My Husband Simon - which was her third novel. As far as I can tell, it was all very much drawn from life - and it is nice to know that her real-life marriage lasted for many decades beyond the three-year-anxieties.

As far as plot goes, it is all fairly simplistic. It's not really the love triangle that the 'about this novel' section promises; it's more introspective and undecided than that. While Nevis's problems are fairly self-indulgent, and perhaps look a bit ridiculous to anybody older than 24 (which she obviously considers a couple of steps from the grave), the novel is still engaging and enjoyable.

Mollie P-D's greatest quality - in her finest work - is that of a stylist, I would argue. Particularly in One Fine Day, where the prose is like the most unassuming poetry. There was a 16 year gap between My Husband Simon and One Fine Day (in terms of novels); her attention was transferred to short stories. And so there is only a hint of what her writing could become. It is certainly never bad, but there are only glimpses of beauty. I did like this moment of looking out from a tram, that has the same observational stance as much of One Fine Day:
We climbed on top of the tram and away it snorted. A queer constraint was on us. We hardly said a word, but in some way all my perceptions were tremendously acute so that I took in everything that was going on in the streets. A shopping crowd surged over the pavements. In the windows were gaping carcases of meat, books, piles of vegetable marrows, terrible straw hats marked 6/11d. I though vaguely: "Who buys all the terrible things in the world? Artificial flowers and nasty little brooches of Sealyhams in bad paste, and clothes-brushes, shaped like Micky the Mouse and scarves worked in raffia?" A lovely, anaemic-looking girl stood on the kerb, anxiously tapping an envelope against her front teeth. Should she? Shouldn't she? And suddenly, having made her decision, all the interest went out of her face and she was just one of the cow-like millions who were trying to look like Greta Garbo.
So, be comforted to know that the best of Panter-Downes' work is easily available - but this is a novel that certainly wouldn't disgrace Persephone covers, if they ever decided to publish more by Mollie, and a really interesting example of how she developed into the writer she eventually became.

Thursday, 25 December 2014

Happy Christmas (and some goodies)

I hope you have all had, or will have, a very wonderful Christmas. We've had a lovely day here - mostly playing games, eating, and opening presents (once we'd been to church, of course, some of us several times). And I did rather well for books this year... these photos were mostly taken as the day wended its way to a close, so apologies for the poor light quality. But, wow, lucky me with these books!

The Unexpected Professor by John Carey is a book I've had my eye on for a while - it's about Oxford, after all - and was given to me by my dear friends Lorna and Will.

The next two came from Our Vicar and Our Vicar's Wife, and were (I believe) both recommended by bloggers. Closely Observed Trains by Bohumil Hrabal is a fascinating-looking novella, and The Great Indoors by Ben Highmore is an equally fascinating-looking history of the home.

I am also in a LibraryThing Virago Secret Santa, which has thoroughly spoilt me this year (my Santa being the lovely Christina):

Look at these beauties! Such lovely wrapping, and those are all Christmas decorations on top (now gracing our tree). And, when unwrapped...

From left to right...
Peking Picnic by Ann Bridge (a novelist I like a lot); God on the Rocks by Jane Gardam (an author I've been meaning to try), and a really, really beautiful edition of The True Heart by Sylvia Townsend Warner.

This one deserves its own line: Out of the Red, Into the Blue by Barbara Comyns. My family had to cope with my squeals and excitement. I can't believe Christina managed to find this. I've been on the hunt for years, and thought it would be forever hopeless. 

And, finally, from Colin - this beauty:

I spent an extremely happy day visiting Monk's House once, and this book is a gorgeous history of the garden, from 1919 (when the Woolfs bought it) until the present day. The photography is absolutely stunning.

So, lucky me! What did Santa and/or your friends and family bring you, in the book world?

Sunday, 21 December 2014

Out and about, bits and bobs, and suchlike

I'm enjoying a lazy time down in Somerset, now that work has finished for Christmas, and was supposed to be getting down to lots of reading. But somehow I am a bit bored with everything I'm reading, so have reverted to an old reliable (which just happens to fill in one of the few gaps in my Century of Books from the first half of the year - 1932): The Provincial Lady Goes Further. It is my favourite of the Provincial Lady series (as well as being the first one I read), and I laugh aloud to myself despite having read it about a dozen times... particularly, for some reason, at this paragraph:
Door flies open and Pamela Pringle, of whom I have now given up all hope, rushes in, kisses everybody, falls over little dog - which has mysteriously appeared out of the blue and vanishes again after being fallen over - and says Oh do we all know on another, and isn't she a frightfully bad hostess but she simply could not get away from Amédé, who really is a Pet. (Just as I have decided that Amédé is another little dog, it turns out that he is a Hairdresser.)
Yesterday some of my extended family came over to go to a football match. Well, obviously I didn't go (I mean, come on) and Our Vicar's Wife also didn't fancy it, so we took a trip to see the new Paddington film instead. There were quite a few other mother-and-child(ren) groups there, but I think we were conclusively the oldest. And it was good fun! A little different from the books, but Sally Hawkins and Hugh Bonneville are dependably great, and CGI Paddington was a wonder.

We got to Yeovil very early, so we did a bit of last-min Christmas shopping, and (since we were there) popped into Oxfam to have a look at the books. And - lo and behold - I managed to snare a copy of E. Nesbit's The Lark! I went on an online hunt for it after reading Scott's enthusiastic review, because I am always drawn to any novel with spinsters or boarding houses, and this one has both, but the only available copies were prohibitively expensive. Obviously buying books online is great, and it would be a foolish lie to claim I don't do it, but there's nothing quite like a serendipitous find in person, is there? (I've borrowed the photo from Scott's blog, as it's the same edition I bought and I can't remember where my camera is...)

Also, have you seen that Mystery in White by J. Jefferson Farjeon has become a Christmas bestseller? It's a British Library Crime Classics reprint of a 1930s murder mystery, and it sounds glorious (Harriet reviewed it for Shiny New Books, fyi). I haven't actually read any of the BL reprints yet, but it's exciting that they're doing so well - and I think the cover designer has to be thanked in a large part (as well, of course, as the people selecting the books).

Christmas is always a time when I watch a lot more TV than usual. Partly because my parents tend to have it on in the evening, partly because of Christmas specials and the like, and perhaps mostly because it's the only time I really see a TV guide. I'm excited about The Day We Sang (by Victoria Wood, with Imelda Staunton - what a wonderful combination!) and Esio Trot (Roald Dahl; Judi Dench!) not to mention the Christmas special (and final) of delightfully-silly-but-touching Miranda. And let's not forget the final episode of Radio 4 comedy Cabin Pressure, that my friend Malie successfully got me into this year.

Speaking of Imelda, I'm going to go and see her in Gypsy next April, which is exciting. My other booked tickets for theatre next year include the musical Once and the play Peter Pan Goes Wrong, a Christmas version of the incredibly funny The Play That Goes Wrong, which I saw in Malvern and has now transferred to London.

Friday, 19 December 2014

A review round-up

I've made my peace with not getting to the end of my Century of Books by the end of 2014 - that's fine; the rules are very flexible - but I will bolster out the list with some of the others I have read which don't quite warrant a post to themselves, for one reason or another...

A Painted Veil (1925) by W. Somerset Maugham
I read this in the Lake District, and found it rather enthralling if a little overdramatic and a touch sententious. But it was borrowed from a friend, and I didn't blog about it before sending it back...

The Listerdale Mystery (1934) by Agatha Christie
This was part of my Christie binge earlier in the year, but slipped in just after my other Christie round-up. This is a collection of short stories, some of which were better than others. It also has one with a novelist who complains that adapted books are given terrible names like 'Murder Most Horrid' - which later happened to Christie herself, with Mrs McGinty's Dead.

It's Too Late Now (1939) by A.A. Milne
One day I'll write a proper review of this glorious book, one of my all-time favourites. It's AAM's autobiography and I've read it four or five times, but have left it too late this time to write a review that would do it justice. But I'm bound to re-read it, so we'll just wait til then, eh?

Summer in February (1995) by Jonathan Smith
This novel is an all-time favourite of my friend Carol's, and for that reason I feel like I should give it a proper review, but... well, it's already seeped out of my head, I think. It was a good and interesting account of the Newlyn painters. I didn't love it as much as Carol, but it was certainly well written and enjoyable.

The Blue Room (2000) by Hanne Ørstavik
I was going to review this Peirene translation for Shiny New Books, but I have to confess that I didn't like it at all. But was I ever going to like an X-rated novel about submission? Reader, I brought this upon myself.

Making It Up (2005) by Penelope Lively
I wasn't super impressed by my first Lively, I have to confess. I heard her speak about this book in 2005, so it was about time I read it - but it's a fairly disparate selection of short stories, tied together with the disingenuous notion that all of them have some vague resemblance to sections of Lively's life or people she saw once on the train. Having said that, some of the stories were very good - it just felt like the structure was rather weak. Still, I'm sure there are better Lively novels out there?

The Man Who Unleashed the Birds (2010) by Paul Newman
This biography of Frank Baker (author of Miss Hargreaves) has been on my on-the-go shelf for about four years, and I finally finished it! The awkward shape of the book was the main reason it stayed on the shelf, I should add; it wouldn't fit in my bag! It was a brilliantly researched biography, with all sorts of info I'd never have been able to find elsewhere - most particularly a fascinating section on his relationship (er, not that sort of relationship) with Daphne du Maurier after he'd accused her of plagiarising 'The Birds'.

Wednesday, 17 December 2014

The Siren Years by Charles Ritchie

One of the greatest pleasures I have had in blogging is getting to know Claire's blog. We all know and love her as The Captive Reader, and I am lucky enough to have very similar taste to Claire - we have both followed up each other's suggestions, and have only had the occasional mishap. When I received Charles Ritchie's The Siren Years: A Canadian Diplomat Abroad, 1937-1945 (1974) as a gift in the post, I was very touched - and a little nervous. I trust Claire. But... I thought she might have made a mistake. A book about politics? Me? And the cover did nothing to convince me... Lucky for me, I was wrong and Claire was right. Which makes a total of no recommendations from her that have turned out to be duds.

Ritchie often seems more like a society gossip than a diplomat, and that - you will not be surprised to learn - makes him much more up my street. He describes the people around him with a catty tone, albeit one au fait with national and international politics. Not to mention literature; Elizabeth Bowen was a large part of Ritchie's life, and he is a sensitive interpreter of people.

And who can fail to be moved by any war memoir? The experiences of war, even on the home front, are so foreign to those of most of us today that any description of life then is both fascinating and poignant. Indeed, it is perhaps more so on the home front - because the places, relationships, and roles are recognisable, but thrown into extraordinary relief.

Since it's been far too long since I read this wonderful diary, I shall just give you a series of quotations I noted down from it. After all, I am only going to say 'I love this' after each one, if I elaborate any further.

On public figures from Eton...
What happens to them at Eton? However innocent, stupid or honest they may be they always look as though they had passed the preceding night in bed with a high-class prostitute and had spent the earlier part of the morning smoothing away the ravages with the aid of creams, oils and curling tongs.

On politicians
[...] a few senators and political big-shots whose faces give one a feeling of familiar boredom like picking up an old twice-read newspaper.

On work rituals
Being a Private Secretary is a busy unreal sort of life - unreal because it makes one's day such a programme of events. One does things in a certain order not because one feels like doing them at the time or even because this is the order of their importance, but because they appear in that order on the day's programme. This programme is dictated by the engagements of the Chief, who is in turn a victim of his engagements and spends most of his day in doing unnecessary things which he does not want to do. Yet neither of us is unhappy. We feel that the ritual of our lives is obligatory - we grumble but we submit with satisfaction to the necessity. A day of telephone conversations, luncheon parties, notes acknowledged, visitors received, memoranda drawn up. Exhaustion is merely staleness - we return with zest to the game. What an extraordinary amount of time is spent in saving our own face and coddling other people's vanities! One would really think that the people we deal with were a collection of hypersensitive megalomaniacs.

On war in London
Never has there been such a colourless war - not a drum, not a flag, not a cheer - just sandbags and khaki and air-read shelters and gas-masks and the cultivated, careful voice of the B.B.C. putting the best complexion on the news. London is waiting for the first raid like an anxious hostess who has made all the preparations to receive formidable guests - but the guests do not seem to be going to turn up. Every time the door-bell rings she thinks, "At last there they are," but it turns out to be the grocer's boy delivering a parcel. So the day pass. We look at our watches, turn on the wireless, pick up a novel and wait.

On Oxford, and a building I used to work in
The moment I stepped out of the station I smelt the familiar smell of Oxford. What nonsense the woman was talking the other day when she said that it did not matter if a city were destroyed physically, if its soul lived. Cities are nothing without their bodies. When you have destroyed Paris and Oxford what happens to their souls? Oxford rebuilt in this age! It would be easy to see what it would be like by looking at the new Bodleian Extension - that blankly commonplace hulk which they have dared to plant in the face of the Sheldonian. That is the most distressing thing about Oxford - for the rest the changes are temporary.

On Elizabeth Bowen
"Take it from one of the best living novelists that people's personalities are not interesting," Elizabeth said in a dry voice; "except," she added, "when you are in love with them." Her books show much that you would expect if you knew her only as an acquaintance, he intelligence, her penetrating eye, her love of houses and flowers. These things you would have gathered from talking to her in her drawing-room. But there are certain passages in which her peculiar intensity, her genius, come out, which would be hard to reconcile with this cultivated hostess. That purity of perception and compassion seems to come from another part of her nature of which she is perhaps not completely aware.

On wartime
We have long ceased to find the war thrilling - any excitement in the movement of historic events is gone. There is a vague but persistent worry in people's minds about the coming air raids this winter, but like everything else this is accepted as inevitable. The truth is that the war has become as much a part of our lives as the weather, the endless winter, and when the ice does break there will be no cheering in the streets.

Tuesday, 16 December 2014

Bits and Pieces

It's not the weekend, so I can't call this a Weekend Miscellany, but here are a bunch of things I've been meaning to link to or mention...

1.) My doctoral supervisor Sally Bayley is writing a book called The Private Life of the Diary, from Pepys to Tweets and is publishing through publishing house de jour Unbound. It's one which is pledge-based. Find out more about the fascinating-sounding book...

2.) I can't remember whether or not I've shared this video before, but it's by one of the vloggers I sometimes watch (kickthepj) and an example of how creative young 'content makers' can be...

3.) I wrote the rules for a lolcat geneator on the OxfordWords blog, believe it or not.

4.) The Thomas family made their annual Christmas Show outing... in a Dickensian Great British Bake Off.

5.) Maggie Smith Festival at the BFI. I'm hopefully going to something in the new year... maybe The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne, which means I need to get busy and read the book first.

6.) And I've hit my 2000th post! In fact, I think this is the 2004th. Gracious!

Monday, 15 December 2014

The Midnight Fox by Betsy Byars

A little while ago I got a very nice email from someone called Vicki, saying how much she enjoyed reading Stuck-in-a-Book, and asking if she could send me one of the books she loved as a sort of thank you. Well, I was very touched, and - not one to turn down a book recommendation or, indeed, a book - said yespleasethankyouverymuch. And shortly afterwards Betsy Byars' The Midnight Fox (1968) arrived.

I hadn't heard of it, but I think The Midnight Fox is well known in some circles. Yet again, having only read Enid Blyton for years on end means that I don't know that much about other children's classics. But now I have read, and very much enjoyed, this sweet and touching tale of a holiday on a farm.

The premise has a surprising number of similarities with Philippa Pearce's much-loved children's book Tom's Midnight Garden, published ten years earlier. In both, a boy named Tom must reluctantly go and stay with his aunt and uncle, and greatly misses a boy called Peter. In both, a certain midnight aberration becomes an obsession, and changes the stay into a much happier event; Peter is written to from a distance, and becomes an accomplice in the discovery. I doubt that Byars plagiarised the book, but the similarities amused me.

The story is simple - Tom is beguiled by the beauty of this unusual fox, who is entirely black. He starts to look out for her, and becomes increasingly keen to observe her playing with her small fox cub; he is almost bewitched by this elegant, elemental life lived near to him - and must find a way to stop his hunting uncle from trapping the fox.

What makes it such a special little book? The style, I think. It's not told with the gung-ho naivety of some children's books, but treats Tom's anxieties and concerns seriously - not least because we read it in the first person. Here is the opening...
Sometimes at night when the rain is beating against the windows of my room, I think about that summer on the farm. It has been five years, but when I close my eyes I am once again by the creek watching the black fox come leaping over the green. green grass. She is as light and free as the wind, exactly as she was the first time I saw her.
Or sometimes it is that last terrible night, and I am standing beneath the oak tree with the rain beating against me. The lightning flashes, the world is turned white for a moment, and I see everything as it was - the broken lock, the empty cage, the small tracks disappearing into the rain. Then it seems to me that I can hear, as plainly as I heard it that August night, above the rain, beyond the years, the high, clear bark of the midnight fox.
Thanks again, Vicki, for sending me this book; it was so generous and kind of you. I really enjoyed reading it - and I especially think this would be good to read aloud to a child, if any parents are on the look-out for something!

Friday, 12 December 2014

A ghost story for Christmas...

....but perhaps the least scary ghost story you will ever read! It's R.A. Dick's The Ghost and Mrs Muir (1947) which I read for Shiny New Books. Here's the beginning of my review...

Nobody loves a good reprint better than I do, and so I was quite excited to see a series from Vintage called ‘Vintage Movie Classics’, wherein they republish the books that were adapted into great films. (This series may only be available in the US; I have to confess that my conversations with Vintage did not entirely illuminate the matter.) I expected to see Breakfast at Tiffany’sThe Godfather, and those sorts of texts – it was a surprise to see entirely books and films I’d never heard of (Back StreetThe Bitter Tea of General YenCimarron etc.) which doubtless says more about my filmic knowledge than anything else. It was a lovely surprise, though – what better than reprints that will be unknown gems?
The one title I had come across before was R.A. Dick’s The Ghost and Mrs Muir, as I had had my eye on it during doctoral research – and found it too difficult to track down. So I was certainly grateful that a new copy was forthcoming – and The Ghost and Mrs Muir was every bit as enjoyable, silly, and entertaining as I’d have hoped.

Thursday, 11 December 2014

A Day in Summer by J.L. Carr

Quite a few of us in the blogosphere are fans of J.L. Carr's 1980 novel A Month in the Country - that gentle tale of a man who goes to help restore a rural mural. (Sorry, I couldn't resist that rhyme.) But I don't remember seeing reviews of any of his other novels - and had thought he might be rather a one-trick pony.

So, I was glad when my book group opted to read A Day in Summer (1963), Carr's first novel - and evidence that he was fond of A [Time] in the [Situation] titles early on. But, except for similar titles, these novels have very little in common - except, that is, for quality. Both are very good.

A Day in Summer sounds a very halcyon title, but this is belied by the opening few pages. Peplow is on a train, coming into Great Minden. He has an imaginary conversation with his Manager; one of several in square brackets throughout the novel, from different characters' perspectives, that give a very open access to their imaginations and projections:
["I wonder if you'd mind very much if I take Friday off?""I suppose not. Is someone ill? Is it urgent?"No - well, it is and it isn't. As a matter of fact I have to go off to a place in the country and shoot a man. Yes, that's right, a man. They call it Great Minden. Perhaps you know it?""Really! Great Minden! I had an aunt living near there. If you wouldn't consider it an impertinence, may I ask who - whom?""It's the man who ran down my boy last summer. He's with a fairground outfit, and on Friday he'll be at the Fair there I understand. So it would be very convenient.""Naturally! Shall we see you again on Saturday? Monday?""Well, no. I've more or less decided it would be better for me to finish myself off too. In comfort, on the way back, all being well. It would by-pass the embarrassing formalities that usually follow. I'm sure you understand."]
This isn't precisely the tone that the rest of the novel takes - although it would be rather fascinating to read a whole narrative in this style. He isn't really flippant about his action, and it is the thread that pulls the novel together, but Peplow isn't really the leading character of A Day in Summer. And that is because, more than any other novel I can remember, this is an ensemble piece. Once Peplow arrives in Great Minden, the narrative flits from character to character, weaving their stories together so that the baton naturally passes from person to person.

There is a lascivious young schoolteacher who is having an affair with the vicar's wife; the teacher is rightly terrified of the elderly spinster who runs the school with an iron fist. The vicar is desperate to hold his marriage together, but his wife despises him. There is a poor family with too many children, also with marital troubles; there is a dying man whose young son wonders why his mother left the family years ago. And, taking the cover on my book, is the man in a wheelchair, invalided by war, who happens to have been in action with Peplow.

There are, you see, too many characters to describe all that goes on; the plot is planned perfectly, and yet it feels less like a plot and more like observing villagers living their lives. Their unhappy lives, it should be said; misery is widespread, and marriages seem incapable of being content. Indeed, Peplow's paternal grief seems perhaps less vivid than the teacher Croser's sickness of being in a frustrating job, of the vicar's pain.

Throughout, Carr's tone is quite darkly witty, and I really loved it. Fans of A Month in the Country may find little to recognise, but this is by no means a weak first effort at novel-writing. Carr has a very impressive confidence even at this early stage, and handles a difficult tone and potentially unwieldy plot extremely well. Although A Month in the Country is a better book to curl up with for comfort, this is a stark, moving, and (yet) very amusing novel that is arguably equally good, in a very different way.

Tuesday, 9 December 2014

Land's End - Michael Cunningham

While I was cat-sitting for a friend recently, I read (or finished) five books in quick succession, and it wasn't until I got there that I realised that three of them were books I got when I was in Washington DC last October. I mean, I bought so many books there that I was almost inevitably going to find them about my person somewhere (I jest...). I wonder if it's worth keeping track of how longer I have books on my shelves before I read them, and see if 15 months is the optimum time...

Anyway, I bought Land's End (2002) because I've been wanting to read more Michael Cunningham ever since I loved The Hours back in 2003 or thereabouts. I've only got as far as watching Evening, the adaptation of Susan Minot's novel for which Cunningham wrote (or, rather, rewrote) the screenplay. I have to confess that I was also sold on the Cunningham because of this:

Thomas/My Porch informed me that signed Cunninghams are ten a penny Stateside (they have pennies in the US, right? Whilst we're on that, how confusing is the tax thing there? You just have no idea how much you'll have to pay when you get to the till). But this is something fun and rather special. And I had my fingers crossed that the book would also be fun and special...

It's a non-fiction book about Provincetown, Massachusetts - the very tip of Cape Cod. My horrendously inadequate geographical knowledge was, for once, approaching adequate - as I had heard of Provincetown, and knew of its peninsular qualities and unusual character. For why, you ask? A couple of my favourite vloggers (Grace Helbig and Mamrie Hart) went there during their HeyUSA tour, as you can see here. From which I learned that Provincetown is full of creative people and drag queens (with, presumably, some overlap).

Cunningham's view of Provincetown is not as an insider or an outsider. He definitely defines himself in opposition to the tourists, who make the streets jam-packed during the summer months, so that getting groceries is almost impossible. But he does not live there all the year round, despite owning a house there; he prefers the anonymity of New York. Because Provincetown is apparently the gossip capital of the East, and everybody knows everybody. The year-round population (Wikipedia tells me) is around 3,000; this goes up to twenty times that number in summer.

I have trouble with travel literature. Visual descriptions don't work for me, and writers of travel lit often want to give purple depictions of flora and fauna. But a genre I do love is memoir, and Cunningham treads the line between the two - falling, thankfully, more heavily into memoir. Or, rather, he describes Provincetown through a personal lens, rather than the anthropologist's. If he is neither insider nor outsider to the town, then he is closer to the former than the latter.

The beautiful setting I read it in.
There is plenty for the anthropologist in Provincetown, though. Its character differs strongly from the surrounding area; it is (Cunningham says) the refuge of the outsider and eccentric. Some of those outsiders (and I now realise I've overused that word) are from the LGBT community, and - um - anything apparently goes in Provincetown. Cunningham very casually describes the beaches where you'll find men having sex in the undergrowth, and those where you won't. He mentions (and repeatedly re-mentions) this with such calm that it seems like a normal thing, to find people having sex when you pop down to build a sandcastle. Hmm...

But once we've left all that behind, I felt more at home in Provincetown - with its focus on art, friendliness, community, and (yes, I confess) gossip. Cunningham does a great job of explaining why he finds the town so special, more from the warm tone he uses than the facts he states. He incorporates the history of the town - did you know that the Pilgrim Fathers landed there first, before heading off to Plymouth Rock? - and its primary exports, but it is the affection with which he writes that really sells Provincetown.

I say 'sells'; I still don't think I'd go out of my to visit, still less live there, but anybody writing with wisdom and passion about their favourite place, and the experiences they have lived there, will win me over. From meeting his partner (and not forgetting his dramatic ex-partner) to the 2am gatherings outside a place that sells middle-of-the-night pizza, Land's End is a curiously charming and almost old-fashioned depiction of a not-at-all old-fashioned place. Here is an excerpt to finish with, and to give you a taste of how he combines the personal and the observational:
If you do walk to Long Point, you will find yourself on a spit of sand about three hundred yards wide, with bay beach on one side, ocean beach on the other, and a swatch of dune grass running down the middle. It sports, like an austere ornament, a lighthouse and a long-empty shed once used to store oil for the light. You will be almost alone there, through the water around you will be thoroughly populated by boats. It is a favorite nesting ground for terns and gulls. When I went out there years ago with Christy, the man with whom I lived then, he strode into the dune grass and stirred up the birds. If I tell you that he stood exultantly among hundreds of shrieking white birds that circled and swooped furiously around him, looking just like a figure out of Dante, grinning majestically, while I stood by and worried about what it was doing to the birds, you may know everything you need to know about why we were together and why we had to part.
What a beautiful image, and moving reflection.

Anybody read this? Or been to Provincetown??

Sunday, 7 December 2014

Stuck-in-a-Book's 2014 in first lines

This lovely annual meme is all over the place again, and I can't resist. Essentially, it means copying the first line from the first post of each month, as a nice (if perhaps aleatory) overview of the year... Go ahead; do it yourself! (And click on the links to go to the original posts.)

Happy new year! For those not in the know - my plan in 2014 is to read a book for every year from 1914-2013, review them, and put the links on this page.

This has been my jam this week:

Do you ever just go and look along your bookshelves, reminding yourself of the exciting and interesting books you've been meaning to read?

Thanks for all your lovely messages yesterday - it now feels mean to make you wait a week before unveiling the Shiny New Books magazine properly, but if you follow us on Twitter we're giving a few teasers from reviews and features.

Another month, another cold... and I still haven't written properly about the book that got me through the last cold.

One of the types of books I most love are those incidental, silly-humour books from between the world wars.

Six months in, let's assess where I am with A Century of Books.

We're changing contracts with our internet provider, and so won't have internet for a week or so... which means I'm going on an enforced blogging break!

Another book review to point you to in Shiny New Books! This one is by an author I'd love to know more about - Sybille Bedford.

And now I'm going to do this records, since I obviously couldn't resist!

As I'm sure you all know, November is NaNoWriMo - National Novel Writing Month.

A quick post to announce that we've uploaded the Shiny New Books Christmas update - over 30 new reviews and features!

Thursday, 4 December 2014

Shiny New Books - Christmas update!

A quick post to announce that we've uploaded the Shiny New Books Christmas update - over 30 new reviews and features!

There is a Christmassy theme to a lot of it - ghost stories, Christmassy fiction, ideal Christmas presents, and even a literary Christmas quiz. Go and have an explore!

Saturday, 29 November 2014

My Life in Books: Series Five: Day Six

Scott blogs at Furrowed Middlebrow

Anbolyn blogs at Gudrun's Tights

Qu. 1.) Did you grow up in a book-loving household, and did your parents read to you? Pick a favourite book from your childhood, and tell me about it.

Scott: Certainly no one else in my family was much of a book-lover, though adults did read to me. I learned to read rather early, and since no one around me felt that books mattered much, I was allowed to be wildly indiscriminate in my earliest reading. I loved books for the sake of books—cover images, typeface, the smell of new paper and ink—and not for their content (and sometimes I still do). The only book that stands out for me from early childhood is The Teeny Tiny Woman by Paul Galdone, which my oldest sister would read to me and over which we would become completely silly and giggly. Apparently I was already passionately concerned with the perils facing solitary spinsters!

Anbolyn: I was not raised in a book-loving household so I'm not sure how I came to love reading so much. My mom tells me that I taught myself to read before I went to school and I grew up yearning for knowledge and curious about the world, but I didn't read much in my leisure hours as a child. I much preferred to ride my bike or watch TV. The only reading I really did was at school and that's where I discovered a fascinating book about Egyptian mummies and death rituals. I remember being completely fascinated and checking the book out of the library during every class visit.

Qu. 2.) What was one of the first 'grown-up' books that you really enjoyed? What was going on in your life at this point?

Scott: My wildly indiscriminate reading included all sorts of inappropriate adult books—John Irving, Elmore Leonard, and even Jackie Collins among them (can you imagine a 12-year-old boy carrying Hollywood Wives around with him and no one batting an eyelash? it might explain all sorts of things about me!)—but since I rarely understood those, I doubt if I enjoyed them particularly. The first grown-up book I really enjoyed was surely an Agatha Christie—probably Sleeping Murder, which I still have in the battered, yellowed, late 70s paperback I must have acquired when I was 10 or 11.

Anbolyn: Gone With the Wind was my first grown-up book and I read it compulsively during my 7th grade year at school. I wasn't very happy in junior high school and didn't fit in with the rest of the girls very well and this is when I started to turn to books for escape. I immersed myself in Scarlett O'Hara's world and, though she may be a questionable role model for a teenage girl, I gained strength from her confidence and fighting spirit.

Qu. 3.) Pick a favourite book that you read in your 20s or early 30s - especially if it's one which helped set you off in a certain direction in life.

Scott: I was going to say Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises, my favorite book for most of my 20s, and one I would re-read at least once a year. But although I still think Hemingway is brilliant on gender issues, he didn't set me off in any particular direction. I did not, for better or worse, become a bullfighter. So perhaps Iris Murdoch's The Black Prince is a better choice here. I read it in a British Women Writers course in college, and if it didn't immediately lead me into my current path, it must, along with the other books from that course, have laid the groundwork. Murdoch's novels create a universe all their own, and once you're in it, it has a way of leaking into your everyday life in strange and
wonderful ways.

Anbolyn: A book that made a great impression on me in my twenties was Tess of the D'urbervilles. I've never liked unrealistically happy endings and this satisfied my sense of literary honesty. Also, I hadn't read much British fiction up to this point but reading Hardy turned the tide. I began reading lots of Victorian fiction after Tess and eventually became a committed Anglophile.

Qu. 4.) What's one of your favourite books that you've found in the last year or two? How did you come to blogging and how has blogging changed your reading habits?

Scott: One? Seriously? Well, I've already babbled about it endlessly on my blog, but I have to choose Tom Tiddler's Ground (aka Ask Me No Questions) by the unjustly forgotten Ursula Orange. A wonderful, smart, cozy, wartime village comedy that simply must be reprinted. It was books like that which brought me to blogging. I was obsessively exploring and listing British women writers most people hadn't heard of, and I wanted to share what I'd found. I didn't quite expect it to grow into the intimidating project it has become, but it's been amazing coming across so many kindred spirits. Blogging hasn't changed my habits all that much, apart from always thinking how I can best describe what I'm reading and which passages will make good quotes. Perhaps it's just made me more obsessive than ever.

Anbolyn: I read Angel by Elizabeth Taylor last year and it astonished me. I'd read Taylor before (At Mrs. Lippincote's) but wasn't quite persuaded by her writing. Angel made me a lifelong believer. It's flamboyant yet subtle, funny and sincere with a perfect ending and is now a great favorite of mine. I would probably never have heard of Elizabeth Taylor if it wasn't for blogs. When I started reading blogs back in 2007 or so I happened upon bloggers who were reading Persephone Books and Viragos and it opened up a whole new, exciting world to me. My reading tastes and interests were entirely transformed by the blogging world - thank goodness! I decided to start my own blog so that I'd have people to talk to about these new found passions as no one in my day-to-day life has been remotely interested in Persephone or Virago.

Qu. 5.) Finally - a guilty pleasure, or a favourite that might surprise people!

Scott: I don't really feel guilty about my pleasures (except perhaps the fact that I can polish off a dozen donuts in about a day and a half if I allow myself). Cozy mysteries, romances, girls' school stories—I'll cheerfully and guiltlessly admit to loving all of them. But it might be surprising to some that I spent 15 or 20 years obsessing over the most "highbrow," experimental Modernist literature—
Joyce, Woolf, Apollinaire, Eliot, Djuna Barnes, and so on—before discovering my inherent and irrevocable middlebrow-ness. I even have a post coming up in which I come clean about my undying love for the wacky, playful, unfathomable writings of Gertrude Stein.

Anbolyn: People are always surprised to learn that I love being scared and truly appreciate a good horror novel. Nothing gory, but the suspenseful, supernatural gut twisting kind that prevent you from getting a good night's sleep thrill me to pieces. The Winter People by Jennifer McMahon and I Remember You by Yrsa Sigurdardottir are two recent novels that scared me witless.

And... I've told you the other person's choices, anonymously. What do you think these choices say about their reader?

Anbolyn, on Scott's choices: First off, I'm not going to even try to determine this person's gender, age or nationality - too hard! This reader strikes me as being an inquisitive person, someone who likes a mystery, a bit of darkness to their stories and someone who likes a challenge. I think they must be intelligent and witty and that they enjoy examining the underside of life, peeking under the surface of polite society to see what human nature is really all about. I also see them as someone who finds joy in language, in how sentences, paragraphs and chapters are sewn together and they just might be a writer themselves. They don't follow trends or care about popular opinion - they are quite content with who they are and with what they like. I think they have a quiet confidence and a true love of literature.

Scott, on Anbolyn's choices: It sounds like I have a lot in common with this reader, and he/she surely has a touch of a dark side that I could completely relate to—I remember being fascinated myself by ancient Greek religious cults and rituals when I was pretty young. That dark side also shows itself in the reader’s guilty pleasure (which I’d never heard of, but which sounds irresistible). Gone with the Wind is a quite ambitious first adult novel for sure, and shows a taste for grand scale, drama, and romance, and the choice of Thomas Hardy shows that taste remaining even as he/she explored slightly darker authors (I also had several years of loving Hardy in my 20s). And finally, oh, Elizabeth Taylor, what a great choice—I know how excited I was to discover her. Since we have so much in common, I can only conclude that this reader has, ahem, impeccable taste!

Friday, 28 November 2014

My Life in Books: Series Five: Day Five

Nicola blogs at Vintage Reads
Barb blogs at Leaves and Pages

Qu. 1.) Did you grow up in a book-loving household, and did your parents read to you? Pick a favourite book from your childhood, and tell me about it.

Nicola: Yes, my parents read to me and the local library was at the top of our road so books were always on hand. I loved Enid Blyton’s Malory Towers and St Clare’s boarding school books as a child. Malory Towers was my favourite, who wouldn’t want to go to a girls boarding school in beautiful Cornwall with a tidal swimming pool amidst the rocks? I still have a weakness for a good boarding school book.

Barb: I defintely grew up in a book-loving household. Both of my parents were keen readers, and my mother read to me when I was very young, though this stopped once I was able to read alone, from six years of age or so, so my memories of books read aloud to me are rather foggy.

A favourite I do remember very well, and which I was most pleased to share with my own children, was My Father's Dragon by Ruth Gannett. My young self found it completely hilarious, and I can still recite the contents of young Elmer Elevator's pack, prepared with all eventualities in mind as he heads off to Wild Island in search of a baby dragon: chewing gum, two dozen pink lollipops, rubber bands, rubber boots, a compass, a toothbrush, six magnifying glasses, a VERY sharp jackknife, a comb and a hairbrush, seven hair ribbons of different colors, an empty grain bag with a label saying "Cranberry", some clean clothes, and twenty-five peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. The uses Elmer finds for these items are completely unexpected. The illustrations are absolutely perfect, as well, and I can close my eyes and see the map of Wild Island, and the completely non-threatening, rather rotund baby dragon whom Elmer eventually does locate. Brilliant!

Qu. 2.) What was one of the first 'grown-up' books that you really enjoyed? What was going on in your life at this point?

Nicola: I’m not sure that Louisa M Alcott’s Little Women and Good Wives could be described as ‘grown-up’ books but I think they got me thinking about serious themes. I was profoundly affected by the death of Beth in Good Wives because I hadn’t encountered death in books before. That’s not to say Good Wives is all doom and gloom there is a lot of fun with Meg’s first attempts at home-making and the birth of her twins, Amy’s artistic efforts and Jo’s blossoming writing career. If I’m honest Good Wives has always been my favourite of the two!

Barb: Oh, this one is hard. I read voraciously and "above my level" all through my childhood. One book which stands out as perhaps one of the most enjoyable "adult" books read in youth was The Long Ships by Frans Bengtsson. I was in Grade 4, so must have been about 9 or 10 years old, and I found this on my father's bookshelf in a very tattered, well-read paperback edition. (I still have it, though it is now in many pieces and completely unreadable.)

The Long Ships is a glorious Viking Saga, following young Red Orm on many adventures, from his teenage capture by a group of raiders to his becoming part of the crew and his ups and downs as he pursues various quests, including becoming a guard in a sultan's harem, and being converted to Christianity in order to woo a king's daughter. Very hearty fare, this book, and I loved every word.

At this point in my life I was going through quite a wonderful year, if truth be told. I had a school teacher whom I absolutely loved, Mr. Ford, who was young and enthusiastic and had us doing all sorts of ambitious projects, such as going out into the school hallway and pacing off the actual size of a blue whale. He was a huge Greenpeace supporter, when that wasn't necessarily a mainstream sort of thing to be, and he shared his passion for environmentalism with his class. We'd never had a teacher like him before, and it was, literally, life changing. So many things "clicked" that year.

I also went to California that year (we went almost every year through my childhood, to visit my mother's family, driving for three days from central British Columbia, through Washington and Oregon and halfway down California to Fresno) and it was an unusually memorable visit. Instead of giving me a bunch of assignments to work on while I was gone, as other teachers had done, Mr. Ford handed me a stack of books. "Your only job is to read these," he said. They were all books on
California, about the Gold Rush and the California Grizzly and such I remember sitting on my grandparent's front porch, reading away with the scent of roses wafting around me. My uncle's night-blooming cereus cactus flowered during that visit; we all stayed up late to watch it unfold in the moonlight, and send forth its amazing fragrance. Quails in the garden, oranges and lemons on the trees, walking my grandfather's happy beagle Bugs - my assigned job during the visit, which I utterly LOVED - I took him on some very long walks - no one knew, or even inquired where we were going as we headed out - a bissful state of affairs which I look back on with a sigh for how the world has chaged, rollerskating with my cousins (I was awful at it and fell down continuously and spent my holiday decorated in knees-and-elbows bandaids), a trip to see the immense Sequoia trees at King's Canyon - it was a wonderful trip, and stands out in my mind as one of my best experiences of that year.

Qu. 3.) Pick a favourite book that you read in your 20s or early 30s - especially if it's one which helped set you off in a certain direction in life.

Nicola: I discovered Anne Bronte’s Agnes Grey in my twenties. It’s a little gem of a novel about the plight of a governess in Victorian England and it ends with a romantic reconciliation on a sunny day on Scarborough beach! Anne loved Scarborough so much that she spend her final days there and is buried in the churchyard which overlooks the beach. I visited many years ago and her grave was covered with fresh red roses.

Barb: Another tough one. Looking back, let's see... nothing exactly Life Changing, but I remember discovering Elizabeth Goudge in my mid-twenties, and being very much attracted to her philosophy, all about the "rightness" of creating a home and the importance of treating daily tasks with care and the importance of appreciating the ever-present good things in life, even while going through suffering and emotional turmoil. I was already married, and living in Alberta, and my husband and I were both going to college as struggling adult students; we dreamed of someday having our own house and farm, while living in a tiny basement apartment and counting our pennies, trying to stretch our meager funds and looking with apprehension at the mounting balances of our student loans. I read Elizabeth Goudge's Pilgrim's Inn at that time, and found it comforting and encouraging; the feeling of that book and its "message" that life is worthwhile and the little things do matter has stayed with me all of my life.

Qu. 4.) What's one of your favourite books that you've found in the last year or two? How did you come to blogging and how has blogging changed your reading habits?

Nicola: I started studying for my English degree when my twins were six and didn’t finish it until they were around thirteen! I didn’t want to continue studying when I finished because I prefer to read for pleasure. One can only spend so long scouring Wuthering Heights for Marxist/Feminist/Freudian themes! I started the blog because I just wanted a place to talk about my literary tastes - American contemporary literary fiction, Victorian novels and of course, Jane Austen - and be part of a blogging community. The first blogs that inspired me were Yarnstorm (Jane Brocket mainly writes about baking, crafting, knitting and quilting, but she is is very good on books!), Cornflower, Becca and Bella and Random Jottings. If not for book bloggers I woud never have discovered Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead for which I am profoundly grateful!

Barb: In the last year or two, let's see...this is *really* tough. New to me quite recently are Elizabeth von Arnim, Elizabeth Cambridge, Rose Macaulay and O. Douglas, all of whom I find myself "collecting" and reading with supreme pleasure. If I have to identify one book from the last year or two which was a true favourite, I'd have to say...oh gosh!...The Innocents by Margery Sharp. I've admired Margery Sharp for a long time, and this was one of the last of her books I'd yet to read, and I found it deeply moving, and very funny, too, in its dry and clever way.

I came to blogging through reading, of course. Reading other people's blogs, and appreciating them so much that I felt an ever-stronger urge to join the conversation and share my own books with other questers. Blogging has changed my reading habits only in that I now stop occasionally and mentally note things I'd like to highlight or share in my posts. There is a bit of a crunch trying to decide how much time to dedicate to writing about the books; it inevitably cuts into my precious reading time, but to date I find that it has been worth it - the activities enhance each other. And my family is extremely supportive of the blogging enterprise, which is crucial to my continuation of the project. It has sparked some marvelous conversations among us.

Qu. 5.) Finally - a guilty pleasure, or a favourite that might surprise people!

Nicola: Jilly Cooper’s ‘girl’ books Imogen, Harriet, Octavia, Bella, Emily and Prudence which were published in the seventies and my sister and I read avidly. Imogen was my favourite because she worked in a library!

Barb: D.E. Stevenson is my guilty pleasure. Oh, and Mary Stewart. And I do have a sci-fi habit, carried over from teenagerdom. If I have to pick a representative "guilty pleasure" book, I think that I'll go to the sci-fi shelf. The Door Into Summer, by Robert Heinlein. Still love it, though I cringe a bit more each time I read it, too. Heinlein was terribly sexist, and his views on women haven't aged very well at all. But I forgive him all for his championship of the cat in this story, and the fact that the 'door into summer' describes so well our own endless function as servants to our own beloved cats and their omnipresent need to be on the other side of whatever passage point is currently closed.

And... I've told you the other person's choices, anonymously. What do you think these choices say about their reader?

Barb, on Nicola's choices: Heading out on a limb here. I'm going to say female. From England, or a British-influenced background. I think my reader has a fondness for books which espouse a strong moral code, and which celebrate family life. The list shows a natural progression of reading tastes, and says to me that my reader is thoughtful and perhaps rather serious-minded in regards to her (his?) choices - a reader of deliberately chosen "worthwhile" books, perhaps? (Or perhaps I am assuming too much!) But I predict that as well as a strong moral compass my secret reader has a lovely sense of humour, as evidenced by the Jilly Cooper choice!

Nicola on Barb's choices: [Added in after post publication] Interesting choices. The only author I'm familiar with from Barb's choices is Elizabeth Goudge and I've been meaning to read more of her novels for years. Thank you Barb, for inspiring me to read her again!

Thursday, 27 November 2014

My Life in Books: Series Five: Day Four

Belle blogs at Belle, Book, and Candle

Tony blogs at Tony's Reading List

Qu. 1.) Did you grow up in a book-loving household, and did your parents read to you? Pick a favourite book from your childhood, and tell me about it.

Belle: I have written on Belle, Book, and Candle about my very few experiences with reading during childhood. I know that there were books at my grandparents' house and I had a great-aunt who had an extensive library (I now have several books from both of those households), but my parents weren't readers except for the newspaper (Dad) and magazines (Mom).

My second grade teacher sent a note home to my parents that I needed to read more 'for pleasure'. Basically there are two books I remember reading before I went to high school: Caddie Woodlawn by Carol Ryrie Brink about a young girl growing up on the American frontier in the 1860s and a small paperback biography of the Chinese leader Sun Yat-sen that I read in third grade. How I came to pick that one I will never understand. Pitiful, I know.

Tony: I’d have to say that my home wasn’t really a bookish one, and most of the books I read as a child came from my local library. There wasn’t much selection at that point – it was a case of taking what happened to be on the shelves. I do remember taking a few books out over and over again, though. One was a collection of stories showing childrens’ life abroad (I distinctly remember stories from Brittany and Lappland), and when I was older there was a book set in East Berlin about a girl who was a high-jumper. It really is amazing what sticks in your brain…

As for a favourite book, I probably couldn’t settle on just one title, but it would definitely have to be something by Enid Blyton. At one point, there was a mysterious box of books in our kitchen (whose they were and why they were there was never adequately explained), and I sneaked them out and read them whenever I could. I enjoyed The Famous Five, The Secret Seven and the school books set at St. Clare’s and Malory Towers (in fact, one of my pet theories about the success of Harry Potter is that it has nothing to do with magic – people were simply reminded of reading books about boarding schools as a kid…).

Qu. 2.) What was one of the first 'grown-up' books that you really enjoyed? What was going on in your life at this point?

Belle: Once I got to high school, I must have discovered reading with a vengeance because I remember many nights staying up late to finish Rebecca, Nine Coaches Waiting, The Once and Future King, and the Nancy Drew mysteries. And I recall a marathon reading of Gone with the Wind when I was in ninth grade.

Some time around then, I also read 84 Charing Cross Road by Helene Hanff which I believe must have inspired me more than I could ever have known at the time. Since then, I have read the book numerous times, enjoyed repeated watchings of the movie (I always cry), and seen the stage play performed on my first trip to London. I can't imagine anyone who loves books not having read this one.

In eleventh grade, I read Travels With Charley by John Steinbeck. It was his true-life tale of traveling around America with his poodle Charley. It was the first non-fiction book I read that wasn't a textbook (except for that odd choice on Sun Yat-Sen). When I finished the book, I went downstairs and announced to my mother: “I want to be a writer.” I hadn't realized until then that people actually wrote about their own experiences. That book led me to a career writing for newspapers and magazines.

Tony: This may surprise a lot of people, but I was a very late starter with ‘serious’ literature, and I was pretty bored by English literature at school (on one memorable occasion, I was dragged out of English class by my teacher after he discovered that I’d made up all of my answers on a test about Far from the Madding Crowd – mainly because I hadn’t even opened it…). I distinctly remember buying Wuthering Heights at the start of my second year at university, one of the one-pound Penguin Popular Classics that were released at the time, and it’s a book which set me on the road to reading more classics.

While I’d read serious books for my studies, this was the first time I’d chosen to try it for fun, and it was an interesting experience. I was a little confused by the number of characters (especially the two Catherines…), and it was a bit of a slog. Still, even then, I realised that there was a lot more to it than I was used to finding in the books I’d been reading, and the first step on the road to where I am now was taken that day J

Qu. 3.) Pick a favourite book that you read in your 20s or early 30s - especially if it's one which helped set you off in a certain direction in life.

Belle: One that really sticks in my mind is A Book of One's Own: People and Their Diaries by Thomas Mallon. Like Travels With Charley, here was a book full of examples of people writing about their own lives and times. By then, I had started keeping journals of my own and so was interested to see how others – Dorothy Wordsworth, Samuel Pepys, Virginia Woolf, Henry David Thoreau – recorded their thoughts. Of course, I now have a cabinet stuffed with those black and white composition books full of my own experiences and reflections. A journal is such a wonderful place to practice writing.

Tony: I’m not sure that this book did anything more than make me read more by the same author, but reading Anthony Trollope’s The Warden, closely followed by Barchester Towers, is certainly an event that sticks out in my memory. I was living in Japan at the time, and getting hold of good English-language books was fairly difficult, so I was very happy to find a second-hand bookshop with lots of books in English a short train journey from where I was living.

From the moment I started reading the books, I knew that this was a writer I’d enjoy, one with a self-important, mocking style, an author who made books about churchmen’s squabbles seem fascinating. On the day I write this, I’m actually in the middle of another of Trollope’s novels, Lady Anna, which will be about the eighteenth of his books I’ve read, and I’ve also finished his Autobiography (and I have a biography on the shelves…). Not a life-changing decision, then, but certainly one that’s led to countless hours of reading enjoyment.

Qu. 4.) What's one of your favourite books that you've found in the last year or two? How did you come to blogging and how has blogging changed your reading habits?

Belle: This is a Big Question, Simon! I began Belle, Book, and Candle on January 1, 2012. I had been reading other book blogs for a year or so and just decided I needed to start recording my own experiences with books. The name for the blog came to me in that early morning dream-like state that occurs once the alarm has rung and before I have actually gotten out of bed. Since beginning my blog, I have read hundreds of books, so picking a favorite would be difficult.

I will say that I have enjoyed reading children's and young adult books that I missed in my own childhood: Little Women, Harriet the Spy, Winnie the Pooh. And I recently found a vintage copy of The Pink Motel by Carol Ryrie Brink, she of Caddie Woodlawn fame, that was so delightful I was tempted to reread it immediately.

One that I loved, which totally surprised me, was So Big by Edna Ferber. I don't read as much fiction as some, but I got very involved in this story of a young woman's journey through life.

I have discovered so many wonderful authors in the past couple of years: Bill Bryson, Angela Thirkell, E.M. Delafield and Elizabeth Gaskell. And have taken to rereading, something I rarely did, some of my favorites: Beverley Nichols, James Thurber, E.B. White, and P.G. Wodehouse.

Tony: Surprisingly, perhaps, it was Facebook that pushed me in the direction of blogging! I was a member of a group that discussed classic literature, and taking part in discussions made me realise that I’d really slipped in my reading – people much younger than I was were far better read, and I felt very uncomfortable about it. Towards the end of 2008, I made the resolution that 2009 would be the year I started reading more widely (and simply more), and to achieve that aim, I set up the blog. The rest, as they say…

The biggest effect the blog has had on my reading (apart from making me read a lot more than I ever thought possible) has been my move into fiction in translation, and I’ve been lucky enough to read and review some wonderful works that I’d otherwise never have heard of. One of the more memorable finds of the past couple of years has been Icelandic writer Jón Kalman Stefánsson’s books Heaven and Hell and The Sorrow of Angels, two excellent novels (with a third out next year) set around the brutal Icelandic east coast. Another couple of more well-known names are Elena Ferrante and her Neapolitan Novels and, of course, Andrés Neuman, with a special mention for the excellent Traveller of the Century :)

Qu. 5.) Finally - a guilty pleasure, or a favourite that might surprise people!

Belle: I don't know if this would surprise anyone and I certainly don't feel guilty for reading them: Mysteries, especially British who-done-its and comic capers. I don't want any gore, thank you very much. I enjoy a good puzzle and if the tale is told with a soupçon of humor, all the better. Therefore I binge on Agatha Christie, Peter Lovesey, Martha Grimes, Donald Westlake, Alexander McCall Smith, Peter Mayle, and the mysteries of Georgette Heyer.

Tony: This is a really difficult one for me because I’ve plunged so deeply into serious literature since starting the blog that I honestly can’t think of anything I’ve read in the past few years (that I’ve liked) that would qualify. Instead, I’ll offer up a visual offering, a German telenovela called Alisa – Folge deinem Herzen (Alisa – Follow your Heart), which I watched a couple of years back. It was an awful, kitschy German-language daily soap, one full of clichés and obviously evil and saintly characters, but it was great fun to watch (and good for my German, too!). Recently, I discovered a site called DramaFire, which has Korean and Japanese drama series with English subtitles, so I may try one of those in the near future too ;)

And... I've told you the other person's choices, anonymously. What do you think these choices say about their reader?

Tony, on Belle's choices: From the intriguing choices given (most of which are fairly new to me), I'm fairly certain that this is an American blogger, and while Simon advised against guessing the gender, I'm happy to stick my neck out and say that it's a woman (insert laughter here...). There's also an obvious focus on non-fiction in this selection, and that, along with the children's book choices, might indicate someone a little older than myself... a twelve-year-old boy from Manchester it is, then ;)

Belle, on Ton'ys choices: I am guessing this person is from the UK as we have a dearth of Enid Blyton books here in America. (My library carries exactly three!) She/he likes adventure and is a romantic (although I never could fathom the attraction of the moody, mysterious Heathcliff) and has a mind for the classics. I had to investigate Heaven and Hell (Icelandic journey!) which sounds so very rough-and-tumble, not to mention cold and dark. (Perhaps I am dealing with Heathcliff's modern incarnation here?) I really would need to sit down with this person and get an understanding of what a telenovela is and how to find one. How very modern...