Annabel's House of Books

Noli domo egredi, nisi librum habes – Never leave home without a book.

Month: December 2012 (page 1 of 2)

Book Stats – Review of 2012, and aims for 2013

I posted about my books of the year a couple of weeks ago here. Now it’s time, as I always do, to take a light-hearted look at the stats of what I read…

Life must be getting busier, as each year I seem to be reading fewer books. I say that firmly with my tongue in my cheek, as I know that if I diverted some of the time I spend mucking about on Facebook playing games etc. into reading, and also not watching afternoon telly on days when I get home early, I’d get a lot more reading done!

So – having consulted my master spreadsheet, up to the time of writing:

  • 2012 Books NationalityI’ve finished 90 books this year, vs 93 in 2011, 106 in 2010 and 114 in 2009.
  • The page count is still holding up well at just under 26k, vs 29k in 2011, 26k in 2010 and 32k in 2009.
  • I read the same number of books in translation this year – 10.  Again, I’d like to read more in 2013.
  • Due to my hosting Beryl Bainbridge Reading Week, this was the first year in which I’ve read 6 books by the same author. I also read 4 Adrian Mole books by Sue Townsend, and 3 teen books by Sophie McKenzie to impress my daughter and her friends.
  • 2012 Books DateAnother stat I love to look at is when books I read were published.  I didn’t manage to increase my reading of ones published pre-1960 (my d.o.b.) this year, and am always shocked to find how many shiny new books I manage to squeeze in  – a full 44% percent published in 2012, plus 2 yet to hit the shelves.
  • In genre fiction, this must be the first year that I haven’t read any SF proper. I have read more historical fiction though particularly set around WWI & II – there’s a lot of it about!
  • One area I’ve improved upon is to read more non-fiction having read 6 books of memoir/biography and 5 others.
  • Lastly, I’ve redressed the balance between male and female authors this year. Last year my list was 70% by men. This year it’s almost at parity, with 46:44 male:female writers.

My aims for 20132013

  1. Read more!
      1. Read more from my TBR – I’m taking part in the TBR Double Dog Dare, which’ll take me up to the end of March without reading new acquisitions.
      2. Read more old books – particularly those published pre-1960.
      3. Read more in translation.
      4. Read some SF. Mustn’t forget about my first book love.
      5. I’d love to host another author reading week.  I have an idea, possibly for May – more soon!

So, how did your reading year shape up?

Not a psychodrama, more of a moral discussion…

Professor Andersen’s Night by Dag Solstad, translated by Agnes Scott Langeland

professor-andersens-nightI read this book on Christmas Eve for reasons which will soon become clear.

Norwegian author Dag Solstad’s third work to be translated into English is a short novel that can be read in a single sitting. From the blurb on the back cover, you immediately expect a Scandicrime story reminiscent of Hitchcock’s film Rear Window, a psychodrama if you will.

It was Christmas Eve and Professor Andersen had a Christmas tree in the living room. He stared at it. ‘Well, I must say,’ he thought. ‘Yes indeed, I must say.’ Then he turned and ambled round the living room, while he listened to the Christmas carols on TV. ‘Yes, I must say,’ he repeated.

The first few pages of scene-setting establish Professor Andersen as an educated man in his mid-fifties who lives alone. He’s a non-believer who enjoys Christmas, and as he’s letting himself be infused with Christmas spirit, he looks out of his window and sees a man strangle a woman in an apartment over the road.

This violent act shocks the Professor into stasis – he doesn’t report it immediately, he doesn’t report it later either, and his dilemma deepens. Then one day he finds himself sitting next to the murderer in a Sushi bar …

This, in a nutshell is the story – indeed, we’re told the entire plot in the blurb on the back cover, so I haven’t given anything away.  This short novel turns out not to be the Hitchcockian thriller I’d anticipated; instead it’s an exploration of fears and anxieties, the uncertainties of middle-age and emotional stasis.

The Professor agonises over his non-action. He plans to ask his best friend’s advice, but can’t. Used to living a quiet and controlled life, a good life, (he likes life’s little luxuries like good whisky and Italian suits), this man finds it impossible to let his self-restraint go.  Although appalled by what he had seen, he doesn’t believe it, he tries to rationalise it away, then internalise it, separating himself from the rest of the world. It wouldn’t be wrong to say that it triggers a mid-life crisis of self-doubt.

Solstad is hailed as one of Norway’s leading writers. This is the first work of his that I have read, and it has a distinct style. It is written in very long paragraphs, the shortest is typically one page, but generally they are several pages long, and don’t necessarily seem to begin and end where you’d expect either.  There are no concessions to indents for speech, it all flows into the long paragraphs; unlike Saramago though, he does use speech marks.

This style rather matched the Professor; but, although I could sympathise with his predicament whatever the moral outcome, I never really warmed to him, and I found this philosophical novel just too dry and navel-gazing for me. (6/10)

For another review, see Winston’s Dad.

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I bought my copy. To find out more on Amazon UK, please click below:
Professor Andersen’s Nightby Dag Solstad. Vintage paperback, 2012, 154 pages.

A seasonal quotation …

Christmas Holiday

With a journey before him, Charley Mason’s mother was anxious that he should make a good breakfast, but he was too excited to eat. It was Christmas Eve and he was going to Paris.

This morning, I found this book in one of my bookcases (yes, I was ‘playing’ with my books again), but couldn’t resist sharing the festive quote of the opening lines with you. Somehow, I feel that that Charley will find the dark underbelly of the City of Light in Maugham’s 1939 novel. I hope to read on and find out.

Meanwhile, let me wish you all A VERY MERRY CHRISTMAS!

'Finishing' in 1930s Munich

Winter Games by Rachel Johnson

Winter Games by Rachel Johnson

Upon receiving Rachel Johnson’s latest novel, a  tale of toffs being ‘finished’ in pre-war Germany, I dove in straight away and devoured it. The cover refreshingly has a headed young woman with her face showing on, which makes a nice change to the usual headless or back views we’re subjected to these days. While far from perfect, it was an engrossing story, and gave a fascinating snapshot of a particular time and place in the 20th century.

It is 1935 in Oxford. Eighteen year old Daphne Linden is the daughter of an Oxford Don, and is being sent to a finishing school in Bavaria, ‘where your £ buys more of everything’, rather than the usual options.

‘One war is enough,’ Jacob Linden continued, with confidence. ‘Our chap, wet though he is, will never allow it to happen again. Not even the Hun want to live through two wars.’

Her mother is still grieving over having lost a baby son, and has not time to prepare Daphne with the facts of life.

Jacob had asked her when she was going to tell the girls and, specifically Daphne, the facts of life. Winifred had replied, ‘When they ask, dear.’
‘Have you talked to them about solitary gratification, Winifred?’
‘No I haven’t, Jacob. Do you really think it necessary?’
‘Maybe not,’ signed her husband. ‘Let’s leave it till they ask, as you say, if you think that’s right. You are their mother, after all.’
And so far, they hadn’t, until now. …
… Winifred Linden felt this conversation was going well. Contraception was available only to married women. Therefore, the only sensible thing to do was to tell the girls that intercourse was impossible until they had rings on their fingers.

The scene is set for Daphne to be an archetypal innocent abroad, and for the ‘Schloβ of Doom’, as she calls it, to provide opportunities to meet young men with inevitable consequences – especially once Daphne’s posher friend Betsy Barton-Hill joins the party.

Cut to 2006.  Francie is the travel editor of an upmarket monthly mag, and she’s in Berchtesgaden, home of Hitler’s mountain retreat the Eagles Nest, to write about a spa experience – no need for any mention of Nazis according to Nathan, her boss (whom she’s lusting after, despite being sort of happily married to Gus). She plans to settle down with her book in the Stube before beginning her tour tomorrow.

Francie had gone off piste with Eat, Pray, Love, as her book-group book was too heavy to bring in her hand luggage: as usual, it was a punishing 600-page military history, as all the women in the group worried that they: 1. would have nothing to say to men at dinner parties or 2. that childbirth had wiped everything they’d ever learnt from their brains at school or University, like an iPod being restored to factory settings. So this month it was King Leopold’s Ghost about the Belgians and the Congo, which was amazing actually, but by not the best thing to read over Bratwurst.

It’s on her tour, the next day, that Francie sees a photo in a museum, that shocks her to the core and changes her life as she is compelled to research what happened when her grandmother, Daphne, met Hitler.

That gives you an idea up to around page seventy. Characters established, I’m sure you can imagine much of the rest.  You won’t be surprised to find that I enjoyed the 1930s sections much more than the 2000s ones.

Daphne may have been posh, but she was infinitely more interesting than her needy grand-daughter. I sped through the Francie bits, especially when she was lusting after Nathan, to get back to Daph.  Francie’s world is full of all the cultural references and trappings you’d expect from someone living the superficial life portrayed in glossy magazines.

This book is partly dedicated to, and inspired by the experiences of Johnson’s mother-in-law who was in Bavaria in the 1930s. Johnson acknowledges her other sources from the period, saying that their experiences were ‘a lot more fun, and much hairier’ in real life.  I don’t know about the fun bit, given that we all know what came next, but more of the hairy stuff would have made this a much deeper novel’; cutting out Francie and concentrating on Daphers perhaps.

But that’s not really Johnson’s style. I did really enjoy reading this book but, upon reflection, I would have preferred a meatier, more serious story. (7.5/10)

I’m hoping to get that depth I was missing from Jane Thynne’s novel out in March, called Black Roses which tells the story of an Anglo-German British spy who gets into the circle of Nazi wives who run Hitler’s Reich Fashion Bureau.

For another totally different review of this book visit The Book Boy.

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I received a review copy from Amazon Vine. To explore further at Amazon UK, please click below:
Winter Games by Rachel Johnson, pub Nov 2012 by Penguin Fig Tree, Hardback 336 pages.
Black Roses by Jane Thynne, Simon & Schuster, to be pub march 2013.

Series fatigue … what makes you stop reading?

dark tower 1200px-TheSecretDiaryOfAdrianMoleI was ‘playing with my books’ the other day, and came across two novels waiting to be read which both happen to be number six in a series: Adrian Mole & the Weapons of Mass Destruction by Sue Townsend, and the Song of Susannah from Stephen King’s Dark Tower series. Although it is months and months since I read started reading these books, I do intend to carry on with both of these series, loving reading about King’s gunslinger Clint Roland, and Townsends’ hapless Adrian Mole.  However there are many more series where I’ve given up, and this got me musing about the topic.

Before I go on to talk about examples, first, a brief discussion about what constitutes a series of books? We don’t use the work ‘serial’ much these days – time was, that it denoted a set of books, or TV episodes etc, with a story arc that continued from one episode to another and reaches a conclusion, i.e. actually finishes. A series, however, may have recurring characters, but each episode/book can standalone. Nowadays, we have serials embedded into series (The Killing, 24 etc) which in the TV world are now known as ‘Seasons’, and then we have episodes in series which have a serial story arc running behind them, but can sort of standalone (Dr Who etc). You could argue, of course, that most novels are written as serials, with chapters functioning as episodes, and then you have collections of short stories with recurring characters, i.e. series…

Pedants and semantic experts can look away for a moment. I give up! Distinguishing between them is not worth it, I tend to, rightly or wrongly, call them all series nowadays.

So what is it that causes me to drop interest in a series? 

port mortemtraceTake Patricia Cornwell’s Kay Scarpetta books:  I started reading them when the first couple came out in paperback in the UK in the early 1990s. Post Mortem and Body of Evidence were like nothing else around at the time – crime novels written from a forensic PoV with a lead female professional character.  I devoured them, and each successive one until number thirteen, Trace. My Librarything entry says, “Bored by page 100. Same old…” It’s rare for me to give up on a book, but I did on this one; I remember beginning to have that feeling a couple of books before in the series too. At this stage in the series, I’d already been past a major lull around the 8 or 9th novels, followed by ‘a return to form’ in the 10th and 11th, so this new lull was enough for me, and I haven’t read any since. I don’t care that I may have missed out on major developments between characters in the 15th – life’s too short to get back into Kay Scarpetta’s life.

Ultimately though, I never loved Scarpetta herself. She’s so fussy, she’s materialistic and narcissistic, and set in her ways.  I always envisaged her as petite but taut, brunette, a bossy Italian mama type in pearls – not the blonde, snappy dresser she is.  I never warmed to her genius niece, Lucy, either – even if she is like a gay version of Homeland‘s Carrie. The character I liked was police sergeant Pete Marino, a shambling detective – like Charles Durning in Columbo’s mac.

sookie 1Another series I’m not sure whether I want to continue with, is Charlaine Harris’s Sookie Stackhouse books.  I read and adored the first, thoroughly enjoyed the second, but find I’m ambivalent about continuing. Sookie is a truly wonderful character, and vampire Bill is *ahem* very attractive. I know that I’d continue to enjoy the rest as they’re great fun – adult, racy, paranormal crime novels with a sense of humour. I feel that I’ve got their measure though, and can leave the rest for holidays and comfort reading rather than slavishly working my way through all thirteen as there are now. Additionally, I am a bit vamped out these days!

In summary, I think that I’ve proved to myself that for a series of novels to hold my interest there must be, first and foremost, strong, attractive characters but also a continuing and developing story arc. Obviously, this rule only works for those books I’ve discussed – but it’ll do for now.

Which series of novels have you given up on?
What keeps you reading a series of books?
Do share…

One for the new year …

The Misinterpretation of Tara Jupp by Eva Rice

tara juppTake one big happy family; add some horses, a big country manor in Cornwall, plus doses of first love which doesn’t go easily. Shake it up and relocate to London; mix with rock’n’roll and serve with love again. This is the essential recipe for Eva Rice’s new novel, a thick and satisfying feel-good read.

It’s the story of Lucy and Tara, third and sixth of eight children in the Jupp family. Pa is a country vicar, Ma died some years ago. Lucy is a beauty who loves old buildings (Pevsner is her bible), whereas Tara can sing beautifully but prefers horses. Sneaking a ride on their neighbour’s steeds and becoming friends with poor little rich girl Matilda, the daughter of the Manor, will change Tara and Lucy’s lives forever, ending up with Tara becoming a pop star (the new Alma Cogan) at seventeen in the ready-to-swing London of the early 1960s.

Lucy and Tara are strong young women who want to experience life in full. Lucy’s relationship with her husband may be troubled, but Tara’s coming of age and first real romance with photographer Digby, (obviously based on David Bailey) is fun. Matilda continues to feature too, having married a record producer, who discovers Tara, and she remains a mainstay in their lives.

I’ve hardly delved into the plot so far. There are many episodes full of angst between friends and family, and Lucy and Matilda fall out big time over a young man. The girls’ embracing of ’60s London is particularly fun – they may come from the country, but being daughters of a vicar, they have a confidence that stands them in good stead in the city.

This is a big-hearted novel about achieving your dreams, and while it may not spring any big surprises, the characters are rounded and compelling to read about.  Rice is well-placed to write about the fledgling pop industry in London – her father is Tim Rice after all.   It was an entertaining comfort read that I thoroughly enjoyed; somehow though it made me think of reading Jilly Cooper as if she’d written a more innocent novel – as bizarre as that may be, it’s not a bad thing at all.

My only quibble was that it ended just as the 60s were about to really take off – the world’s greatest rock’n’roll band put in a brief appearance – and then it finished.  I’d have loved to read more. (8/10)

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I received an ARC to review for Lovereading. You can also click through to Amazon UK below:
The Misinterpretation of Tara Jupp by Eva Rice will be published on Jan 17 by Heron Books (Quercus), Hardback 320 pages.

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