The Pure Pleasure of Books

Writers must read, and read widely, we’re told. Why would anyone not want to read?

Waterstones PiccadillyI’ve always loved reading and was fortunate to be born into a home full of books. I can never understand when I go to somebody’s house and there are no books around. I wonder why? Why would you deprive yourself?

In my childhood and young adult years, I read widely around my O- and A-level set texts and ploughed through school recommended reading lists. I’m a completer, you see; I love nothing more than to see a line of ticks against every single book on a list.

I lost my way fictionally speaking for a few years. Busy with life, a career and weekends full of DIY, I confess (the shame… the shame…) that my reading narrowed to Cosmo and endless sort-your-life-out self-reflection and cod-psychology books. Venus and Mars, several dozen how to be a better woman and even more how to meet the man of your dreams texts all passed through my hands. They didn’t work.

In my late twenties I found my way back to fiction via the Sunday Times book reviews and best seller lists. I own up to occasional forays into chick lit (Bridget Jones had a lot to answer for) uber-commercial (John Grisham and Jeffrey Archer are sneered at by many, but rewarded me with hours of page-turnability) and even the odd few chapters of erotica (Black Lace, the forerunner brand to 50 Shades and all its imitators).  But my pleasure has enduringly come from what might be called mainstream quality fiction – the sort of books which these days get talked about in book clubs and find themselves adorned with Richard & Judy or Costa stickers, and are so often on those 3 for 2 promotional tables at Waterstones.

Today I love reading and listening to these types of books, and I’ll typically have 3 or 4 on the go at once; paperbacks, e-books and audio. I love stories which engage me with the quality of their writing and the depth of their characters, but deliver a great plot and a satisfying ending. And I particularly enjoy stories with a psychological edge.

But I was sorting out my bookshelves the other day and I realised that I’ve enjoyed many different types of books over the years. Just for fun, I thought I’d let you in on a few of my favourites. I’m not trying to be smart or clever – just me – so there are pot-boilers and airport books as well as contemporary literary, funnies and even the odd classic. Whilst I have few favourite authors, I’ve only included one book from any particular author. It’s not an exhaustive list, by any means – it’s really not – just a few notables.

Sizzling Psychological Suspense

  • Gone Girl – Gillian Flynn
  • Blue-Eyed-Boy – Joanne Harris
  • Before I Go to Sleep – S J Watson
  • Room – Emma Donoghue
  • Monster Love – Carol Topolski

Gripping Grizzlies

  • Acts of Violence – Ryan David Jahn
  • A Quiet Belief in Angels – R J Ellory
  • London Fields – Martin Amis

Favourite funnies

  • My Family and Other Animals – Gerald Durrell
  • Notes from a Small Island – Bill Bryson
  • E: A Novel – Matt Beaumont
  • The Hundred-Year-Old-Man Who Jumped out of a Window – Jonas Jonasson

Books I just loved from beginning to end, sometimes without even knowing why

  • A History of the World in 10½ Chapters – Julian Barnes
  • Far From the Madding Crowd – Thomas Hardy
  • Beach Music – Pat Conroy
  • Wild Swans – Jung Chang
  • Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil – John Berendt
  • Alone in Berlin – Hans Fallada
  • One Day – David Nicholls

Books that made me want to give somebody – anybody – a huge hug

  • The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society – Mary Ann Schaffer and Annie Barrows
  • The Time Traveller’s Wife – Audrey Niffenegger
  • The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry – Rachel Joyce
  • Five People You Meet in Heaven – Mitch Albom
  • The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time – Mark Haddon
  • The Shock of the Fall – Nathan Filer

Amazing audiobook narrations

  • The Casual Vacancy – J K Rowling (narrated by Tom Hollander)
  • Dominion – C J Sansom (narrated by Daniel Weyman)
  • The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo – Stieg Larsson (narrated by Saul Reichlin)
  • The Help – Kathryn Stockett (narrated by Jenna Lamia, Bahni Turpin, Octavia Spencer, Cassandra Campbell)
  • A Kind of Intimacy – Jenn Ashworth (narrated by Jane Collingwood)

I’d love to know if you have a favourite read, and why. I’m always on the lookout for books that leave their mark on a reader and I’m sure I miss many, many great reads.  So, tell me… what would you recommend?

Versatile Blogger Award!

versatile-blogger-award-picA few weeks ago, fellow blogger D.L. Kamstra very kindly nominated me for the Versatile Blogger Award – thank you Dana!  I’ve been meaning to find time ever since then to create my post and pay-it-forward on the goodwill.  At last, I’m getting to it.  By the way, Dana’s blog is lovely; quite new (it’s only been going 3 or 4 months), it’s a gentle and open-hearted meander through her experiences as a novice writer.

The idea with the award and others like it is that you link back to the blogger who nominated you, then forward to any number of nominated blogs, and you also offer up a few snippets of information about yourself.  It’s about getting people to look at blogs they might otherwise not encounter, I guess.

Here are the rules for the Versatile Blogger award:

  • Display the Award Certificate on your blog
  • Write a post and link back to the blogger who nominated you
  • Nominate 15 other bloggers (ahem… 10 – see below)
  • Inform them of their nomination via comment on their blog
  • Post 7 interesting things about yourself.

I know not everybody subscribes to the whole blogging award thing, but I look upon it as an opportunity to share some of the blogs I find interesting with others – and what could possibly be bad about that? I’m going to propose some new ones here, which didn’t feature in my earlier post, when I got nominated for the One Lovely Blog Award. The award specifies 15 nominations but I think that’s a bit OTT, so I’ve restricted myself to 10, because that seemed quite enough…  I haven’t just plucked them out of thin air either – these are all blogs I follow and enjoy.  So here we go – I’ve aimed for variety in my recommendations, so I hope there’s something there to inspire you.

My nominations for the Versatile Blogger Award are:

  • http://authordylanhearn.wordpress.com/Suffolk Scribblings – Dylan has just published his first novel – a cracking dystopian political thriller – and he blogs about his experience as a writer, stay-at-home father and rural resident in a lovely light-touch style.
  • http://armitageagonistes.wordpress.com/Armitage Agonistes – This is my first experience of ‘fandom’ blogging and whilst I wouldn’t class myself as a fan follower, I love how Perry handles her subject, as it were, and manages the whole fan blogging thing.
  • http://ninamishkin.com/The Getting Old Blog – Nina is erudite and full of wisdom and she writes beautifully about the good things in life.
  • http://singlechicksblog.com/Single Chicks Blog – Two girls with a wry take on being single – I love it!
  • http://thebettermanprojects.com/The Better Man Project – Evan beautifully expresses his thoughts, ideas and learnings on how to be a better… person.
  • http://eliglasman.com/Eli Glasman – Eli writes from the heart about his life as a writer coping with Crohn’s Disease.
  • http://reiterreport.wordpress.com/The Reiter Report – Thorsten writes thoughtfully about big issues which impact us all…. life, the universe, and everything.
  • http://colombiadiaries.wordpress.com/Colombia Diaries – The author writes a fascinating blog about her family’s travels around Colombia whilst dealing with debilitating chronic illness.
  • http://linklater2020.wordpress.com/Reflections – A gentle photographic blog reflecting life through images of much-loved possessions at home.
  • http://wordsavant.wordpress.com/Word Savant – Jane blogs about the creative process, freeing the writer within, and the challenges of becoming a writer.

The Versatile Blogger Award wants to know seven interesting things about me.  The above mentioned One Lovely Blog Award also required that I offer up seven interesting things about me, and I duly complied – you can judge for yourself the degree of ‘interest’ if you click back to the post.  That there might be fourteen interesting things about me is something, quite frankly, I doubt. So prepare to be not very interested in the following additional seven:

  1. In 1979 I was ‘married’ in the car park of a motorway service station, by a salesman from the RAC. My boyfriend (who subsequently became my real and actual husband a few years later) and I were travelling off on holiday in an ancient and fragile Ford Escort. In order to purchase rescue/recovery insurance to cover both of us driving the car, in those more moralistic times, we had to be married. As we weren’t, the man from the RAC helpfully obliged us with a brief ceremony – perhaps about 20 seconds long – as I imagine he did several times a day to other unwed couples, in enthusiastic pursuit of his sales quota.  He did well for the RAC, as I’m still with them.
  2. My 5 favourite films are, in no particular order, The Big Chill, The Shawshank Redemption, The Lake House, Source Code and The Lives of Others. I make no apology for The Lake House – I love it, and that’s that.
  3. I’m a fan of the paperback.  I love audiobooking and I think Kindle is brilliant, especially when you want to take a suitcase full of books on holiday. But if I enjoy a book, I need to possess it in its physical form.  I blogged about this here a while back – two years ago today, as it happens.  What this means is I often double-up.  If I’ve enjoyed an audiobook or a Kindle read, I will buy the paperback, simply to have it on my bookshelves, and re-enjoy the words.
  4. I take my coffee strong, black and absent of any sweetener.  I’m a sucker for the UK’s Costa Coffee franchise and I even blogged about the pleasure of going to my local Costa Coffee here.
  5. I’m a theatre junkie.  I don’t venture into the West End (of London) very often as it’s a miserable experience and theatre ticket prices are off-the-scale.  My venue of choice these days is the beautiful Richmond Theatre close to London, but I also frequent one or two other regional theatres.  Productions I’ve enjoyed recently include the spellbinding Ballet Boyz, 1984, RSC’s production of Julius Caesar performed by an all-black cast, September in the Rain, Blue/Orange and The Judas Kiss.
  6. I watch too much TV. If I have a spare Sunday afternoon, I like nothing more than curling up on the sofa with an old Columbo movie or catching up on one of my too-many guilty pleasures – The Voice, Dancing on Ice – yes, I know, I know…
  7. The most practical, valuable, indispensable, stress-reducing and life-enhancing gadget I own is this spider-catcher. I have nothing more to add.

Bookshop Bliss

Waterstones PiccadillyI passed an absorbing couple of hours yesterday mooching round Waterstones in Piccadilly, in the heart of London.

Apparently now Europe’s biggest bookshop, Waterstones Piccadilly is a paradise for the reader.  Its five floors are an abundance of every kind of book from any genre you care to think of, categorised both systematically and creatively, and topped and tailed with comfy areas to kick-back with a drink and a bite to eat.

I headed straight for Fiction on the first floor.  Bypassing the helpful shopping baskets (I didn’t see them) I was soon loaded with armfuls of paperbacks.  I’m an avid audiobooker, but if I’ve enjoyed listening to a book, I need to own the paper too (I blogged about this a while back, here). Consequently, I keep a running list of books I need to buy, simply so I can go back through them and enjoy them… differently, and of course, possess them, in real leaf-through-the-pages format, as nature and the publishing world intended.

So I picked up three from my listened-and-enjoyed list:

  • The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel by Deborah Moggach – an eclectic group of oldies retire to India
  • A Kind of Intimacy by Jenn Ashworth – dark but comic, about a deliciously weird, damaged girl
  • Smut by Alan Bennett – two unseemly short stories in Bennett’s inimitable style (narrated for audio by the author himself)

But it didn’t end there.  With the able and enthusiastic assistance of the… um… assistants, I tracked down another five from my must-read list.

  • Instructions for a Heatwave by Maggie O’Farrell
  • The Red House by Mark Haddon
  • May We Be Forgiven by A M Homes
  • The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver
  • Bel Canto by Ann Patchett

Yes, I know I’m arriving at one or two of these a little late in the day, but there’s just so much reading one woman can do.  Especially when the thing she most wants to do with her spare time is… write.

I read all over the genre geography.  I enjoy the kind of books which fall into what’s variously called  lit-lite (yuk!), accessible literary, crossover or even, I saw the other day, ‘Richard & Judy’.  I particularly enjoy edgier psychological suspense – that’s what I’m writing, after all.  I’m not into romance, historical or sci-fi, but I meander around the fringes of crime/police procedural, thrillers, chick-lit and full-blown literary as the mood takes me.

I get leads from Goodreads and I buy loads from Amazon as it’s convenient – who can argue with that?  But an afternoon in a bookshop is an indulgence and I loved every minute of it, especially being so warmly and professionally served by people who really, properly know their books.

Grammar purists like me bemoan the demise of that apparently outdated possessive apostrophe, flushed away from Waterstones’ (ha!) branding as of last year, for reasons of… practicality.   But given the pleasure quotient of a meander around their floors, it seems churlish to dwell.

I had lunch with a friend, took my time over a coffee and dreamed.  I’ll be back again, to shop.  But just maybe, one day, I’ll be back there to do a reading and a bit of meet-the-author.  How’s that for a star to shoot for?

Classic comedy with a linguistic twist

I’m picky about punctuation and I adore audiobooks.  Today I was reminded of a comedy sketch which brilliantly and heroically blends these two things – Victor Borge on Phonetic Punctuation.  Comedy routines come and go, but some go on forever – especially now, thanks to YouTube.  Blissfully, it took me less than 30 seconds to locate this delightful piece (even though it’s been given an incorrect title).  You can enjoy it here.

To have and to hold

I love audiobooks – as my earlier post proclaims.  I love being read to, especially when a narrator’s voice perfectly complements a story.  I love the way they enable me to cover more literary (and even not-so-literary) ground than I would otherwise have time for.

At Christmas I was given a Kindle and I find I love this too.  Now I can have 4 or 5 books in my handbag wherever I go.  I don’t have to second-guess myself; I can pick and choose what to read according to my mood or the segment of time I want to fill.  Will it be a racy plot-driven thriller or an oh-so-clever prizewinning literary masterpiece?  Perhaps a treatise on the existence of God or an analysis of high-fat, low carb versus calorie-counting?

But I’ve always loved real, actual, physical books most of all.  I love the feel of them when they’re new; that crisp-cut brick of pages, virgin spine, pristine and unsullied.  And I love them too, when they’ve been read to bits, when the spine is bent back and creased a dozen times, the pages have gone a bit curly; there’s evidence of lunch or suntan lotion, corners turned down to mark favourite sections.  That’s when they take up residence in my bookshelves – betraying all evidence of my pleasure in the reading.  My books – the ones I’ve enjoyed and valued – are a little piece of ‘me’.  I cannot throw a book out, nor even give one away, that has enthralled or entertained me. I want to be near it.

But now I find I have a dilemma.  I read a book on Kindle and I love it.  But where’s the evidence of this?  ‘Soft’ just doesn’t do it.  I listen to a novel, exquisitely read on an audiobook, and the only place it resides is in my iTunes library.  That’s not good enough.

So I’ve taken to purchasing that lovely brick of pristine pages each time I enjoy an audiobook or a Kindle title.  And I make room on my bookshelves for the pages that surprised, entertained or delighted me in their more contemporary formats.

I wonder if I’m alone in this?  If I’m not, and there are hundreds or even thousands of audiobookers and Kindlers out there buying second copies in physical paperback, just to possess them, the book trade perhaps has less to worry about than it sometimes fears.

Jackanory for grown-ups

Some people are purists when it comes to books – nothing other than leafing through paper pages will do.  I see it differently.  Audiobooks enable me to ‘read’ far more than I could otherwise make the time for. For me, audiobooks mean I can enjoy more writing and a wider range of books than I can treat myself to in plain book form.  There’s an added pleasure – that of being read to; of enjoying the way a good narrator adds dimension, drama and emotion to the experience.  It’s Jackanory for grown-ups.

The other morning, engaged in the usual start-of-day repair job on my face, I tuned into my latest audiobook (Nobody’s Fool by Richard Russo), to be presented with the last three sentences of the chapter. I nearly poked myself in the eye with my liner.  Drat. It happened again.

It’s the one thing that bugs me about audiobooks; you can’t see when the end of a chapter is coming up.

I listen each morning whilst attempting to renew my menopausally blotchy face with a few coats of war-paint.  I switch off once I’ve achieved all the silky-smooth radiance a bottle of foundation and a tub of powder is ever going to offer me.  Next day, same process, so I return to the audiobook where I left off.  And there they are again, almost every day; those three or four stray sentences – the chapter conclusion just seconds away.

If I were reading a paperback, I’d see the chapter end coming and unless I had no time at all, I’d read right to the end.  But when an audiobook is recorded in sections, where each section comprises several chapters, you get no clues.  And the Grumpy Old Woman in me rails at those stray sentences and pleads one of those “why don’t they” questions….. Why don’t they record audiobooks with tracks that correspond to every chapter?

You’d think it a simple enough task.