Challenge Update (AKA I Am A Big Failure)

This is my first full year of book blogging and I started with lofty ideals of winning at all the challenges. I have just checked my original posts about these challenges and realised that I am a terrible, terrible person.

Goodreads Challenge
This, at least, is one that I have well and truly nailed. I gave myself a target of reading 151 books and have currently reached 190. This one was, perhaps, slightly disingenuous; I read 151 books last year so I set myself the same target in 2016, despite being fully aware that I’d beat it. And, no, I am not increasing my target, because I really enjoy logging into Goodreads and being told that I have exceeded my target. It makes me feel like I’ve achieved something.


2016 Classics Challenge
Sigh. I probably have managed to read a classic each month, but my initial intentions of reading The Mill on the Floss and Middlemarch have somewhat fallen by the wayside. I originally voiced my intention to read Hard Times, which I did, and it was horrible. I diverted from my own plans slightly by re-reading Northanger Abbey and Sense and Sensibility, as well as some modern classics, like Jean Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea and Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle and Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, all of which I class as modern classics. I also read Matilda for the millionth time, as well as Winnie the Pooh with my daughter, and children’s classics count. However, I need to read George Eliot or feel like a failure forever.

Flights of Fantasyflightsoffantasy-2016
This is where I’ve truly excelled (yay for me). I planned to read V.E. Schwab’s 2016 releases (A Gathering of Shadows and This Savage Song) and have done, and I’ve demolished Sarah J. Maas’ Throne of Glass series. I also read Magonia, An Ember in the Ashes and The Sin-Eater’s Daughter, all of which were on my sign-up post. I’ve started to seek out more diverse fantasy novels too, and have recently read Who Fears Death by Nnedi Okorafor and Labyrinth Lost by Zoraida Cordova.

This is my grand failure; because of my disgraceful inability to stop buying books, pretty much everything that’s been knocking around my bookshelf forever is still there, including David Mitchell’s The Bone Clocks and Sandra Newman’s The County of Ice Cream Star. I wanted to read The Raven Cycle and, woohoo, I have, so I think I get a gold star for that. I originally intended to read some of the books I had piled in my Kindle, which I did, like Undermajordomo Minor, All My Puny Sorrows and The Girl in the Red Coat. Unfortunately, I also planned to read last year’s Booker shortlist; Satin Island was horribly boring and I didn’t manage to get past page 50 of A Brief History of Seven Killings, although I did read The Year of the Runaways. Sadly, I can only count this challenge to be a success if I rename it Constantly Add to My TBR, in which case I am a big winner.

This experience has probably taught me that I shouldn’t bother signing up for challenges, but I doubt this will stop me next year.

Did you sign up for challenges this year? How are you doing? Are you failing on a grand scale like me?

Review: Carol by Patricia Highsmith

carol.jpgMy latest classic is a modern one: this month, I read Carol by Patricia Highsmith (entitled The Price of Salt on its initial publication in 1952). I’ve not seen the film, so that was nothing to do with my decision to read it; I was, however, interested in the book based on what I have read about the movie.

The eponymous Carol is a beguiling and mysterious woman who becomes a source of great fascination to Therese, a young woman working as a shop assistant when the two first meet. The novel begins with Therese sort-of-engaged to Richard but clearly not really feeling it; there is more passion in the moment when she writes a receipt for Carol than there is in any of the supposedly intimate exchanges Therese shares with Richard. I was expecting Carol and Therese’s relationship to be a grand passion but it didn’t really start out that way; Therese is clearly besotted with Carol but, it seemed to me, Carol begins their friendship merely as a distraction – something to take her mind off her ongoing divorce and custody battle. Carol is a curiously cold character who, for the first two thirds of the book, is really quite mean to Therese. I was confused by her characterisation, although not in a way which reflects badly on the writing; I think this is just evidence of how Highsmith writes her characters with tremendous nuance and ambiguity.

The relationship between Therese and Carol seems dangerous from the outset; on a drive, Therese inwardly wishes “the tunnel might cave in and kill them both, that  their bodies might be dragged out together” (does this make anyone else start singing There is a Light That Never Goes Out by the Smiths?) and, a little later, when Carol makes her hot milk, Therese “drank it down, as people in fairy tales drink a potion that will transform, or the unsuspecting warrior the cup that will kill.” There seems to be an almost wilful destructiveness in her actions and thoughts; clearly bored of her life, Therese seems to be daring the world to bring her something more fiery and complicated. Once her passion is reciprocated, her thoughts are less worrying. Embarking on a road trip across the USA made me wonder if the whole thing was heading for a Thelma and Louise-esque conclusion, but obviously nothing quite so dramatic ensues.

It’s interesting to read Carol as a historical source and think about the attitudes to sexuality which restrict Carol and Therese; Carol’s estranged husband sends a private detecting after them to ‘prove’ their relationship, as if it’s a crime. At the very least, it’s a means for him to ensure his own custody of their daughter. I rarely felt sympathy for Carol because it always seems like she knows exactly what she’s doing; although placing her affair with Therese ahead of her relationship with her daughter is perhaps romantic, it’s difficult to empathise with a character who makes that kind of decision.

I think the thing I liked the most about Carol, weirdly, was the depiction of New York; it’s a city I love to read about and to see it in different eras fascinates me. I envisaged scenes in the style of Edward Hopper’s painting, Nighthawks, with moody lighting and secluded bars.

Basically, I enjoyed Carol but it wasn’t really what I was expecting. I think I’ll try to read some more Patricia Highsmith, so if you have any recommendations, I’d love to hear them. If you’ve read this book (or seen the film), please share your thoughts in the comments!

Some Glowing Thoughts About Sense and Sensibility

senseI spend a lot of time talking about how much I love Jane Austen’s Persuasion; it’s so beautiful and compact and Frederick Wentworth. I read all of Austen’s novels when I was in the sixth form, studying Northanger Abbey with my favourite teacher of all time, the legendary Dr Woodman. I don’t even want to go into how many times I’ve tried to find her on Google in the last 15 years. Since then, Persuasion has maintained an unassailable position as my number one and I’ve reread it a handful of times. I’ve also reread Pride and Prejudice more than a few times, and I’ve taught both of these at school too.

It occurs to me, however, that I’ve neglected Austen’s other novels since first reading them so long ago (although they still seem so familiar that it’s hard to believe I haven’t read them for nearly half my life). In my quest to have the full collection of the beautiful Penguin English Library editions of classic novels, I recently bought Sense and Sensibility and Northanger Abbey at the lovely Grove Bookshop in Ilkley, here in my beloved adopted motherland of West Yorkshire. I had no particular intentions of reading them immediately; I have, after all, an ever-increasing TBR shelf and really just wanted them to add to my collection. But I idly picked up Sense and Sensibility while hiding from a small child who was trying to make me pretend to be one of the Paw Patrol, and I was hooked. Although I did still have to play Paw Patrol.

I think Sense and Sensibility would be widely regarded as the poor relation of Pride and Prejudice; it’s certainly the less famous of the two, appears far less frequently on exam book lists and is less regularly adapted for the screen. The plotlines of the two novels are undoubtedly similar; both feature sisters forced to seek good marriages to make up for their family’s relative poverty, and there are a number of other similarities, most notably the resemblance between Willoughby in Sense and Sensibility and Wickham in Pride and Prejudice, and consequently the actions of Brandon and Darcy.

One reason for Sense and Sensibility‘s lower profile is, I think, the absence of a Darcy character. Although Austen gives us Edward Ferrars and Colonel Brandon, neither is as attractively compelling as Darcy, or as prevalent throughout the novel; Edward, indeed, disappears for about the middle 200 pages. And he’s a bit dull. Pride and Prejudice came two years after Sense and Sensibility, so I wonder about the extent to which the more famous work is a rewrite of its predecessor. It is known that Elizabeth Bennet was Austen’s favourite among her heroines, but, while rereading Sense and Sensibility, I developed a strong love of Elinor Dashwood; she is smart and sharp, but not as snarky and full-of-herself as Elizabeth, preferring to internally roll her eyes at the antics of those around her than to outwardly mock them.

Maybe Pride and Prejudice is so familiar to me that I take for granted how good it is, whereas I seem to have forgotten how enjoyable Sense and Sensibility is and liked it all the more as a result. It made me laugh out loud more than once, and I took particular pleasure from the awfulness of the Steele sisters, the Palmers and Lady Middleton. Austen seems to take a real delight in exposing the frivolous concerns of the upper classes, foregrounding the good sense of her heroines; even melodramatic Marianne is wonderful in her fundamental inability to behave appropriately in society. What Austen does particularly well in Sense and Sensibility is highlight the downright boredom and monotony of late 18th century life, especially if you lacked the financial wherewithal to have a say in your own activities. As a hardcore antisocial misanthrope, I would never have survived the marriage market of Regency England (I was, frankly, lucky to survive the modern version).

I got so much pleasure from rereading Sense and Sensibility and now fully intend to reread the rest of Austen’s novels, particularly Emma, which has always been my least favourite; maybe finally coming back to it will allow me to think of it more affectionately.

Hard Times = Hard Work: A Miserable Failure on the Classics Challenge

Today, I am feeling extremely disappointed with myself. I have made my now-annual attempt to convert myself to the cult of Charles Dickens, and, once again, failed miserably. With “miserably” being the key word.

I don’t know what my problem is with Dickens. I read Great Expectations at school and have vague memories of enjoying it; I was young and impressionable back then, and probably so excited to be reading ‘a classic’ that I didn’t really know what I was doing. I’ve also obviously read A Christmas Carol at some point, because I know all the bits in the Muppets’ version which deviate from the original (Bob Cratchit is not actually a frog! Did you know?). At university, on the infamous misogynistic Victorians course which I have mentioned about 78 times on my blog, I read Oliver Twist and was appalled by how boring it was; it was really long and nobody sang ‘Oom Pah Pah.’ After that, I gave up on Dickens for a very long time.


Then, last year, I became obsessed with the beautiful Penguin English Library series and started accumulating these lovely books with an almost religious fervour. I had to buy a new bookcase just to house them; it is next to my bed so they are the first thing I see when I wake up. I have a strong urge to collect all these books, which will mean procuring a large number of Dickens novels – of the 100 books in the series, I think about 15 are by Dickens.

So, in 2015, I read The Old Curiosity Shop, which was a massive fail on all counts; I didn’t really enjoy the book and, having foolishly bought it on eBay, I was saddled with a ropey-looking cover. Sad times all round. I was ready to give up. But then I remembered that  used to hate Hardy and, after reading most of his books last year, I now love him and want a life-size mural of his face in my lounge. So I persevered with Dickens, opting for the really cheerful and fun-sounding Hard Times this year.

There can’t be that many books with a title that accurately describes the experience of actually reading them, so, in this sense, Hard Times is a unique and impressive achievement. This book made me so sad. Not because of any Little Nell-type trauma, but just because I was so bored. I am fairly sure that nothing actually happened until about 220 pages in, by which time I had completely and wholeheartedly lost interest. None of the characters caught my attention and the story didn’t engage me. So that’s that.

But what does this say about me? As a complete nerd of English literature and devotee of the Victorian novel, why am I incapable of enjoying Dickens? I know that I put unhelpful amounts of pressure on myself to read and appreciate his work, because I worry what it means when I find myself cleaning my oven to avoid reading one of his books. I’m not put off by really long novels and it’s not like I don’t understand the language, so what is my problem? I don’t want to give up on Dickens, but, at the same time, I don’t want to keep reading long books which give me no pleasure at all. I also want more beautiful Penguin English Library books.

So, people of the internet, please help me. What Dickens should I be attempting next? Which is the one that will win me over, at least so I can say that there is one Charles Dickens novel that I like? I feel like I can only go so far in life by saying, “but I REALLY LOVE Hardy and would get all questions about him right on University Challenge.” I need you, bookish people. Don’t let me down.