Fiction, Reviews

Emma by Jane Austen (1816)

I still have two more Jane Austen novels to read but I have wanted to read Emma for the longest, and wanted to read it the most, if that makes sense. Ever since I learned that one of my favourite films, Clueless, was loosely based on it, Emma has loomed large on my TBR. After reading Lucy Worsley’s wonderful biography of Austen recently I was spurred on to get myself a lovely Penguin English Library edition and crack on. And I am so glad I did.

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Emma is such a well-read and well-reviewed book that I can’t really review it as such – but I can heap on the praise and say that it had everything that I love about Austen’s work. There is humour, drama, irony, sarcasm, free indirect speech (when characters’ voices are incorporated into the narrative voice), layered meanings, romantic intrigue, and wonderfully real characters and emotions. Emma herself felt like a real person, so fully realised and with some elements of character that clearly came from Jane herself.

Austen famously declared that she didn’t expect readers to like Emma, and she does have flaws, but of course these dissipate as she matures and becomes more self-aware throughout the novel, and you can see she is well-intentioned; her major flaw is perhaps naivety, or arrogance, or snobbishness. But as I grew to like her more and more, I forgave her these. In the end she accepts the truth of things and is able to be happy for others, and for herself.

I think Persuasion is still my favourite of Austen’s novels, though I’d like to reread it as I haven’t visited it in years – but I completely adore Emma now as well. I know there are several TV and movie adaptations of it out there, but if anyone could recommend one that would be amazing! It’s always lovely to see Austen’s novels brought to life (except for that movie of Pride and Prejudice, which is best forgotten). Which is your favourite?

I’ve been a bit Austen-mad recently, so I am looking forward to my next few books – though I have yet to choose what to read next. As always I have too much to choose from! The current contenders are Lois the Witch by Elizabeth Gaskell, and Thérèse Desqueyroux by  François Mauriac – how to choose??

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Emma was originally published in 1816; I read the 2012 PEL paperback, pictured above.

 

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Fiction, Non-Fiction, Reviews

Half-year review: best books of 2018 so far!

I’m back! As you may have seen on my Instagram, I was recently on holiday (again) and so everything was a bit quiet… but I’m now back and ready to get back into blogging. I am right at the end of Emma by Jane Austen, so I will be writing about that soon, as well as my visit to the Jane Austen’s House Museum. But for now, as it’s July, it’s time to look back at the year in reading so far. Here are my favourite books that I have read since the start of the year (in no particular order) – have you read any of these?

Little Man, What Now? by Hans Fallada (1932)

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My copy of this had been hanging around on my shelves for a while, and I finally got around to reading it this year – and I loved it. As I expected from Fallada, the writing and story are both incredibly true to life, and make the ordinary into the extraordinary. My review is here.

The Bridesmaid’s Daughter by Nyna Giles (2018)

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This was a random find on GoodReads recommendations, and I couldn’t resist it. The author’s mother was a model in the 50s and 60s, was a bridesmaid for Grace Kelly, and ended up living in a homeless shelter. It’s a fascinating story of mothers and daughters, growing up, and being a woman. My review is here.

The Amazons by Adrienne Mayor (2014)

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I came across this book in my professional life in academic publishing, and was so pleased I decided to read it earlier this year. It’s a bit heavy-going and very detailed, but if you have the interest in women in the ancient world, it’s definitely worth it! My review is here.

I Love You Too Much by Alicia Drake (2018)

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The striking cover of this book caught my eye on social media, and I bought it soon after. It’s short and easy to read, and is one of the most engaging and moving novels I have ever read. Highly recommended! My review is here.

Jane Austen at Home by Lucy Worsley (2017)

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I reviewed this really recently, so I won’t go on too long, but if you love Jane Austen and haven’t read any other biography of her, this is a MUST. My review is here.

I’ll Be Gone in the Dark by Michelle McNamara (2018)

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This book got a lot of attention when it came out earlier this year, partly because it is genuinely brilliant, despite the author passing away before finishing it; and partly because the subject of the book, the Golden State Killer, was identified and arrested a couple of months after publication. Highly recommended to anyone interested in crime and investigative journalism. My review is here.

I’d love to hear if anyone has read any of these, and your opinions on them! Any related recommendations would also be awesome sauce.

Happy reading!

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Non-Fiction, Reviews

Jane Austen at Home by Lucy Worsley (2017)

I bought my copy of Jane Austen at Home while on holiday in Devon, when I ran out of reading material (first time in my life that I only packed one book, silly me). I ended up reading it mostly after the holiday, but starting it in picturesque Devon only added to my joy at reading such a lovely book.

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For lovely it is. Lucy Worsley has a wonderfully easy writing style that is great to read, with her personality coming through nicely at certain points, though not overpoweringly. Her academic background means that she covers her subject comprehensively, as well as proclaiming herself a ‘Janeite’ and including all the small details of Jane Austen’s life that make this book so enjoyable.

I have long been a fan of Austen’s novels, but knew relatively little about her life before reading Jane Austen at Home – so it was wonderful to learn more about her. One thing I particularly liked was the way the Worsley related events and circumstances in Jane’s life to similar examples in her novels. This was peppered throughout, always reminding us of Jane’s work and its roots in social realism. We see that Jane was a keen observer of life and preserved so much of it in her work; but also that she put quite a lot of herself and those closest to her into her characters, and this only serves to make them more real and relatable. As a lover of Persuasion, I adored exploring how Jane’s own experiences and feelings informed her creation of Anne Elliot, and her story.

The premise of the book, and the reason for at Home in the title, is that Worsley sets out to tell Jane’s story through the places she lived, “[showing] us how and why she lived as she did, examining the places and spaces that mattered to her.” This is wonderfully executed as we follow Jane through her various homes (there were many), as well as her visits to relatives and holidays to the coast.

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Jane’s first home, Steventon Rectory (image: janeausten.co.uk)

Worsley also explores the importance of home to women of the Georgian period more generally, using Jane as a starting point but also using the examples of her friends and relatives. Unmarried women like Jane had no real control over where they lived and were at the mercy of their male relatives, and so they made their homes their own through the small spaces they could claim. Jane shared a bedroom with her sister Cassandra, and in some homes they also had their own little drawing room, which Jane seems to have really cherished. Worsley also explores how women would express themselves through their home-based work, like crafts and music. Writing was of course a key way in which Jane expressed and asserted herself, in her novels but also in poems and letters. I loved Worsley’s examination of how important letter-writing was, not just as a means of communication and connection, but also as a way of really expressing the inner lives of the women who wrote them.

As Jane’s readers will know, she was excellent at what Worsley calls ‘double speak’ – saying one thing, that seemed rather plain, but really meaning something else, or something more, that was much more interesting. In this way Jane used her letters to express her real feelings and opinions that she might not feel able to say outright. Worsley highlights the fact that letters were often read aloud to the household, and one didn’t want something private shared openly, and so this double speak was used to imply hidden meanings. This all adds to the distinct impression that Jane and many of the women she knew were full of deep emotions and strong opinions that were hidden beneath their ‘perfect’ exteriors.

In relating Jane’s life to her novels, this book really shows how life was slowly changing and expanding for women in the Georgian and Regency eras. Worsley presents the time and context of Jane’s books, as well as the novels themselves, as a sort of stepping stone on the way to women’s emancipation and freedom. They depicted life as it really was, and showed readers that women were ready to take more power, to express and assert themselves, and to be heard.

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Jane’s portable writing desk (image: bl.co.uk, © British Library)

One particular strength in this book is Worsley’s dedication to dismantling the often negative preconceptions about Jane – that her life was ‘without consequence’, that she was an ‘old maid’, that she was boring and lived a boring life. Many of Jane’s relatives glossed over the more interesting parts of her story in their telling, and Worsley uncovers all of these inaccuracies. She demonstrates Jane’s sense of humour, irony, and sarcasm, and explores her love life over the years. Jane received several marriage proposals, and apparently loved to flirt at dances and parties – far from the image we sometimes get of an old spinster with no romantic prospects. Rather, we see that Jane simply did not want to marry someone she didn’t love; she wanted a home, a family, just like anyone else, but she was particular, and not willing to settle for someone who did not really make her happy. This is another reason I hugely admire Jane.

I really could waffle on about how much I love Jane Austen, and how much I loved this book. It is an exploration of her life, but also of women in her time, and their experiences. We learn about their domestic daily lives, their place in both the home and wider society, and the ways in which they took control. Jane Austen at Home really gives us a sense of Jane’s personality and her experience of life, and how this often directly influenced the novels that we love. For me, it is one of the best biographies I have read, and I shall recommend it to everyone. I only wish I could read it again for the first time; instead, I plan to visit Jane’s home at Chawton Cottage this weekend, where she wrote many of her books, and hope that I can follow in her footsteps.

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Jane’s penultimate home, Chawton Cottage, which is now the Jane Austen House Museum (image: visitwinchester.co.uk)

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First published in 2017 by Hodder & Stoughton. I read the 2018 Hodder paperback, pictured above.

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Fiction, Reviews

A Broken Mirror by Mercè Rodoreda (1962)

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(image: dauntbookspublishing.co.uk)

I came upon this book entirely by chance in Waterstone’s – it was the cover that made me pick it up, and I am so, so glad I did. A Broken Mirror is described on the inside cover as “A haunting classic of modern Catalan literature from one of Spain’s most prestigious writers”, but honestly I had never heard of Mercé Rodoreda before I picked up this book, for whatever reason. But I am so happy I have discovered her work, because, put simply, this book is sublime.

A Broken Mirror is a family saga, stretching over three generations of the Valldaura family in Barcelona. We begin with Teresa, the matriarch, during her first marriage. She is beautiful and in some ways this is what carries her, what keeps her going through so much of her life. Men seem to fall in love with her all the time. After her first husband dies (he is quite a bit older than her) she marries Salvador Valldaura, and the saga of the family begins. They have a daughter, Sofia, who in turn marries Eladi Farriols – they have two boys, Ramon and Jaume; there is also Maria, who happens to be Eladi’s daughter from an affair with a dancer. This complicated family live in a villa, thrown together with several generations of servants, and watched over by Armanda, the one maid who never leaves them. Her life is intertwined with theirs, as well as with that of the house.

The book is divided into three parts, with several chapters in each. The chapters are each told from the third person perspective of one of the characters, whether a family member or one of the many people in their orbit. In the introduction to the book the translator Josep Miquel Sobrer writes that,

“… each chapter is anchored in some character’s point of view, often a character who is incidental to the development of the action. The technique, which Carme Arnau has related to cinematic narratives and to the free indirect style of writers such as Gustave Flaubert and Virginia Woolf, gives the novel its intensity.”

I remember learning about free indirect speech in Jane Austen at school, and I think this assessment is correct. Throughout A Broken Mirror you are given time to understand each of the characters’ mentality, and their own experience of the shared narrative. For a book with so many characters, free indirect is the perfect way to visit all of them without feeling overwhelmed by all the information. Through this technique, Rodoreda also perfectly illustrates the way in which we live both in the past and the present, as the characters constantly relate what is happening to what has happened before, how things used to be, the things they remember. Things change all the time, but they also stay the same.

Josep Miquel Sobrer writes in his introduction that A Broken Mirror is pessimistic, and in some ways it is – time ravages everything, people never love as they should, and in the end everything comes to nothing… but I think it does celebrate the joys of family life, the pleasures of love, and the thoughtlessness of childhood. It celebrates moments in time. At several points there is a stark contrast between the dramatic, troubled family, and the joyous abandon of the maids stripping off in the summer and chasing each other with the garden hose. Armanda watches them all and sees the beauty and fragility of life and happiness.

I think that is the crux of this book, and the reason it is so beguiling. A Broken Mirror reminds us that life is always messy, and complicated, but that it is still worth living. There is a scene, late in the book, where Armanda drops a mirror and sees in all the broken pieces all the pieces of her long life with the Valldaura family – all the people, all the heartache and grief, the joy and happiness as well as the sadness. Life is made up of so many pieces, good and bad, and sometimes it is impossible to fit them all together. Some of the best passages come when characters are looking back on their lives and remembering their lost loves, their stolen moments, and their youth. They realise that it was pointless to think that life would be a certain way, because it always happens just as it will. Even if the pieces do not fit together, they are each worth something.

A Broken Mirror is one of the most beautiful books I think I have ever read. The language is beautiful, even in translation, and each character is fully realised, no matter who they are. There is sheer poetry and romance in this novel, and it is full of the most wonderful imagery. Each scene feels three-dimensional, and you can almost feel the Spanish summer heat and hear the laurel bush rustling in the wind. I was totally immersed in the story of the Valldauras and was sorry to come to the end of the novel, and I will certainly seek out more of Rodoreda’s work. Especially if Daunt do more of these beautiful editions!

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Originally published in 1962. I read the 2017 Daunt Books edition (pictured above).

Purchase from Wordery, Blackwell’s, and Foyles.

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Fiction, Reviews

Tigers in Red Weather by Liza Klaussmann

 

2012 Picador cover - just gorgeous. Image: picador.com

2012 Picador cover – just gorgeous. Image: picador.com

Tigers in Red Weather has created and is still creating rather a lot of, dare I say it, ‘buzz’ and ‘hype’ on GoodReads and the book blogs, with lots of good reviews and 4 or 5 star ratings. It is the debut novel of former journalist Liza Klaussmann, which after having read it I still find amazing. It is that good. Unsurprising that it sold to Picador and Little, Brown for ‘major’ sums.

Helena and Nick are cousins; as the book opens they are living alone together during the Second World War. Helena is about to leave for Hollywood to marry Avery Lewis, and Nick’s husband Hughes is about to return from service in London. Let’s just say neither marriage is ‘perfect’ and as time passes (the novel spans 1944 – 1969) relationships change and personalities… shift. The novel is told from five perspectives – Nick, her daughter Daisy, Helena, Hughes, and Helena’s son Ed. It jumps back and forth through time, revisiting the summer of 1959 in particular. The summer that Daisy and Ed found a dead body behind the tennis courts.

As Nick says near the end of the book, in a family there is no one universal truth. Individual perspective can entirely change how the ‘truth’ of a situation can look. The book begins with Nick’s narrative, and though she is not the central character (there isn’t one) her story is a brilliant example of how a person can change within themselves as their role in life changes over the years. From a young wife to a middle-aged mother, she remains ‘herself’ but as her role changes she acts differently; she must adapt to the expectations of those around her.

In the small holiday community of the island of Martha’s Vineyard (a place well known by author Klaussmann), everyone knows everyone else’s business and gossip is rife. The entire family are forced to adhere to social expectations and how they ‘should’ be; this adds up to a lot of repressed feelings and no one being totally honest with each other. With everyone having their own opinions but not really communicating with each other, none of the family really seem to know each other very well. After Daisy and Ed find the body of a young woman who turns out to be the maid of a local couple, no one quite knows how to deal with the situation or comfort them, and the obvious murder becomes yet another piece of gossip. Nick, Hughes and Helena worry about the children’s reactions to the body, but none of them ask how they feel or try to explain why she might have been there, dead and abandoned. Everything gets swept under the rug.

There are great moments of stillness and subtlety in Tigers in Red Weather. A look, a movement, a word or two, can give away more than intended, or simply hint at some inner turmoil unknown to the outside world. Naivety and the ‘wisdom’ of age are examined as both the parents and children age, and the calm, slow tone threaded through with flashes of emotion and urgency reminded me of Truman Capote or Donna Tartt writing about the Deep South. Klaussmann employs deceptively simple phrases to communicate depths of emotion and family history, much like Tartt and indeed Jane Austen with her literary icebergs.

I highly recommend this book. It is beautifully written, with moments of intense description and poignant characterisation. Klaussmann’s ability to move between characters and decades is truly brilliant. A simply fantastic and extremely admirable debut novel. I cannot wait to see what she comes up with next.

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Published in paperback on 2nd August 2012 by Picador in the UK and Little, Brown in the US. My copy was kindly provided by Picador for review.

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Articles, Interviews

55 Reading Questions

I saw these questions on Follow The Thread, and liked the way they approached reading, and the fact they were just for bloggers – so I thought I’d give them a go!

1. Favourite childhood book?

When I was very young it was The Worst Witch, and then Lord of the Flies when I was slightly older. That was the book that made me really love literature.

2. What are you reading right now? 

The Pleasures of Men by Kate Williams. Just started and already really enjoying it. Lots to discover. I also just received a copy of The Forbidden by F. R. Tallis, so I’m going to start that as well.

3. What books do you have on request at the library? 

None.

4. Bad book habit? 

Buying/requesting too many books in one go and taking ages to read them all.

5. What do you currently have checked out at the library? 

Nothing. My local library is very small and doesn’t have much from this century that isn’t Twilight.

6. Do you have an e-reader? 

No. My boyfriend told me that my dad asked him last Christmas whether I would like a Kindle – thank god he said no! I like the idea of them, but I don’t think I could ever bring myself to use one.

7. Do you prefer to read one book at a time, or several at once? 

I try to read two books at once to save time, I think that’s all I can manage. Sometimes though it’s nice to concentrate on one book at a time so you can devote yourself to it and get the most out of it.

8. Have your reading habits changed since starting a blog?

If anything I’m more cautious about which books I read. I consider how I might be able to write about a book, whether the readers of my blog will find it interesting. That said, I won’t read something I don’t want to just because it’s new or popular.

9. Least favourite book you read this year (so far)? 

Definitely The Cellist of Sarajevo by Steven Galloway. It just had so many things that were wrong with it.

10. Favourite book you’ve read this year? 

Probably Henry and June by Anais Nin, or The Fever Tree by Jennifer McVeigh.

11. How often do you read out of your comfort zone?

I like to try new things, so maybe every few books I’ll try something different.

 12. What is your reading comfort zone?

Somewhere between Jane Austen and Donna Tartt.

13. Can you read on the bus? 

Not at all, I get car sick if I read on the bus or in the car, though I can usually read on the train.

14. Favourite place to read? 

The sofa or an armchair. I find it uncomfortable to read at a table or in bed, sadly.

15. What is your policy on book lending? 

I’m happy to lend books to people I know will read them, take care of them, and return them promptly. I’m a bit fussy.

16. Do you ever dog-ear books? 

I used to fold over pages and I used to refuse to break spines – now I use book marks and like breaking the spines!

17. Do you ever write in the margins of your books? 

No. I used to underline passages, but that got a bit pointless. Now I’ll sometimes pop in a post-it or something to mark out quotes I might use for a review.

18. Not even with text books? 

At uni I would write in textbooks but as I’m no longer a student I don’t use textbooks anymore.

19. What is your favourite language to read in? 

English. I don’t know any other languages.

20. What makes you love a book? 

Engaging, believable characters; genuinely artful writing; a sense of pace and destination; a display of intelligence, emotion and empathy on the part of the author; subtlety; genuine feeling and sincerity.

21. What will inspire you to recommend a book? 

I particularly recommend books that have moved me or that I related to in some way. I find books quite emotional so there has to be some kind of connection. I will also recommend something that is just really beautifully written.

22. Favourite genre? 

Sounds like a cop out to say literary fiction, but it really is my favourite. I like a bit of thriller and history too.

23. Genre you rarely read (but wish you did)? 

Historical biography.

24. Favourite biography? 

I really loved Byron: Life and Legend by Fiona MacCarthy. It read like a novel and was really detailed, but not so much that you got bored.

25. Have you ever read a self-help book? 

No. I think they’re bullshit.

26. Favourite cookbook? 

I’m not much of a cook. The only one I own is The Big Book of One Pot Meals my mum gave to me.

27. Most inspirational book you’ve read this year (fiction or non-fiction)? 

I have very mixed feelings about the word ‘inspirational’ but I guess it would be Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? by Jeanette Winterson. Her life story is very dramatic, but I really related to her feelings about books and reading.

28. Favorite reading snack? 

I don’t really eat when I’m reading. I love food, so it distracts me! I like a nice cup of tea instead.

29. Name a case in which hype ruined your reading experience. 

It was a while ago now, but The Lovely Bones wasn’t as good as the hype suggested. The whole time I was reading it I was waiting for the good bit to begin. And even though I was given a copy for my birthday, I just could not bring myself to read The Tiger’s Wife. The hype did not convince me.

30. How often do you agree with critics about a book? 

It depends – critics in newspapers etc often review things long before I read them, so then I forget what they said; with other bloggers, reviews are so personal that I will often disagree on small points.

31. How do you feel about giving bad/negative reviews? 

I have no problem with it really. I’m not going to be outright rude about something that the author has worked hard on, but I am going to be honest. If a book is sent to me by a publisher it’s a little harder to say you really didn’t like something, but I still try to be honest to my opinion.

32. If you could read in a foreign language, which language would you choose? 

French, German or Russian – the three languages I wish I spoke!

33. Most intimidating book you’ve ever read? 

Probably Doctor Faustus by Thomas Mann. He has a reputation as some sort of genius and there is so much respect and reverence for the Faust/Faustus story. His style was very dense and longwinded, but after 50 or so pages it got a lot easier.

34. Most intimidating book you’re too nervous to begin? 

The Kindly Ones by Jonathon Littell. I did a module on Literatures of the Holocaust at uni and read so many fantastic books. My boyfriend read The Kindly Ones after discovering it through the course, and I bought a copy, but I’m scared of it. It’s HUGE and I know it will take me ages to read and be very emotional. I desperately want to read it though.

35. Favourite poet? 

John Keats every time. Though I also love Sylvia Plath and Emily Dickinson.

36. How many books do you usually have checked out of the library at any given time? 

None – my local library isn’t very good and I never think to go. Bad, I know.

37. How often have you returned books to the library unread?

Never. I’d have to get them out first.

38. Favourite fictional character? 

Anne Elliot from Persuasion; Elinor from Sense and Sensibility; Richard from The Secret History; and Tintin.

39. Favourite fictional villain? 

‘Villain’ makes me think of Disney films. In that case, Ursula from ‘The Little Mermaid’. From literature, Jack in Lord of the Flies. Absolutely brilliant.

40. Books I’m most likely to bring on vacation? 

Something that isn’t depressing or sad. Probably an Austen I haven’t read yet.

41. The longest I’ve gone without reading

Two or three weeks. If I get caught up in work or just can’t decide what to read, it can take me a while to choose my next book.

 42. Name a book that you could/would not finish. 

I abandoned Nicholas and Alexandra halfway through because it was dragging terribly, but I would like to finish it one day.

43. What distracts you easily when you’re reading? 

The dog, the fridge or my phone.

 44. Favorite film adaptation of a novel? 

It’s a TV series, but ‘Game of Thrones‘ has been really excellent.

45. Most disappointing film adaptation? 

The Keira Knightley version of ‘Pride and Prejudice’. Absolute travesty.

46. The most money I’ve ever spent in the bookstore at one time? 

At least £30.

47. How often do you skim a book before reading it? 

I read the blurb, the reviews at the front, the first couple of pages, to try and get a feel for the story.

48. What would cause you to stop reading a book halfway through? 

Boredom mostly. If it’s dragging and there’s been no development, or if the writing is really bad, I’ll give up – especially if it’s really long. If it’s short I might just read it to the end for the sake of it.

49. Do you like to keep your books organized? 

I used to alphabetise them, but this was too much hassle. Now they go in the bookshelf anywhere they’ll fit!

50. Do you prefer to keep books or give them away once you’ve read them? 

I always keep books. I would only give away a book if I hadn’t enjoyed it.

51. Are there any books you’ve been avoiding? 

There are some books that I have absolutely no desire to read, like 50 Shades of Grey, Twilight, The Hunger Games, Harry Potter… I don’t care if everyone thinks they’re great, they don’t appeal to me.

52. Name a book that made you angry

The Cellist of Sarajevo was very disappointing, and it had a ‘Richard & Judy Book Club’ logo on the front – that annoyed me. Mostly it would be anything that was supposed to be great but was a load of rubbish.

53. A book you didn’t expect to like but did? 

A Game of Thrones. I’ve never read much fantasy and was worried I wouldn’t like it as so many people I knew did like it; but I really enjoyed it! Great characters, great writing, an exciting plot – though there are some very cringy sex scenes.

54. A book that you expected to like but didn’t? 

Wish Her Safe At Home by Stephen Benatar. I’d heard a lot of good things and the premise appealed to me, but it didn’t quite work.

55. Favorite guilt-free, pleasure reading? 

Tintin! I grew up reading it and still really love it.

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All book title links lead to GoodReads or my reviews. All titles widely available.

Thanks to David at Follow the Thread for answering these questions first, and to other bloggers: I would love to read your answers too!


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