My Reading Year incl. TBR Challenge Round Up

It’s been a strange reading year. I only just managed to make my Goodreads Challenge of reading 40 books this year, finishing a biography of Emmeline Pankhurst on New Year’s Eve. I found some books a real slog, even giving up on The Unusual Life of Tristan Smith by Peter Carey. I don’t know if it’s because I’m getting older but I find it harder to continue with something if I’m not absolutely loving it. I absolutely hate not finishing things – there’s always the possibility that it will get better – but when you are ignoring a book and getting out of bed and working instead of lying in and reading then you know that you need to have rethink. I also seem to have less reading opportunities. Partly because I’m writing more, partly because I’m doing more examining work. So I don’t get as many books read as I used to.

To be honest, the year started badly. I was still struggling through Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow which I started the year before for a reading challenge. It was hard work and seems to have set the tone for the year. I’m all for reading books that are considered challenging and there is kudos to be had from having finished it but it was not a fun reading experience.

The best books this year were The Talented Mr Ripley by Patricia Highsmith which was a thrilling read, Choke by Chuck Palahnuik which I enjoyed even more than Fight Club, Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes which was a great piece of science fiction and The Shipping News by Annie Proulx which was an absolute revelation. A great read that I would definitely recommend.

That brings me nicely onto the TBR challenge, hosted by Roof Beam Reader (sadly for the last time).  I managed to read 12 books – although as I abandoned Tristan Smith, I had to read one of my alternates – ending with Emmeline Pankhurst on New Year’s Eve. I read one a month and I probably could have made it less difficult by reading them more quickly. As ever, they were a mixed bunch. Sometimes books have stayed on your shelf for a reason. The highlights were The Shipping News, The Tiger’s Wife by Tea Obreht, Thank Your For the Days by Mark Radcliffe and The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury. Less enjoyable was A Room with a View by E. M. Forster, The Beetle by Richard Marsh and The Virgin’s Lover by Philippa Gregory which was my only one star read this year.

I also read a couple of books that have been popular and I’m always curious to know why. I don’t know why I do this as inevitably I don’t like them must. This year’s were Thirteen Reasons Why by Jay Asher which seemed like just another version of the girl needs to die so the boy can have a revelation about himself and Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman which I just found annoying. It was easy to see why both these books struck a chord with people though and were probably justly popular.

As for next year, I’m not sure what to do. I’ve set the Goodreads challenge to 40 books again but I’m undecided as to whether to do a reading challenge or not. Ideally, it would need to be something like the TBR Challenge which focuses on the books on my shelf. Challenges with categories often require me to buy books and I’m trying not to do that at the minute. Also, there always seems to be some category that I know I’m going to hate before I even start and that seems pointless. The two books I’m currently reading (In the House of Lies by Ian Rankin and Middle England by Jonathan Coe) are both very good so I hope I have got this year off to a better start.

TBR Challenge: Emmeline Pankhurst by Paula Bartley

Genre: Biography, History, Women’s Rights

Narrative Style: Third person, academic

Rating: 3/5

Published: 2002

Format: Paperback

Synopsis: Bartley’s biography takes us from Emmeline’s childhood, through her early years in Manchester, her move into militancy and her work on sexual health after the fight for suffrage was won.

Reading Challenges – TBR Challenge 

Time on shelf: Not entirely sure but my mam bought it for me and she died six years ago so at least that long.

I guess I suspected that this might be hard going as I left it until last to read for this challenge. While I am interested in the fight for the vote and Emmeline herself seemed to be quite a character, this was a bit of a drag to read. I don’t read much in the way of political biographies (or even biographies at all, if truth be told) so I don’t know if the style is typical but I did find it a bit dry.

Obviously, the most interesting part was Pankhurst’s years of militancy in the run up to the first world war and that is undoubtedly her main legacy. The rest of her story paled in comparison to those years. The main thing that kept the interest through the rest of the biography was the sheer force of Pankhurst’s personality and her inability to deal with people who did not completely agree with her. This let to many splits with members of the WSPU, not to mention her father and her daughter, Sylvia. Emmeline expected total and utter loyalty to her and her ideas and if that couldn’t be managed then she had no problem with cutting all ties.

I’m glad to have read the biography and have a little more knowledge of a very important woman but I’d be lying if I said I’d 100% enjoyed it. If you have a more academic interest than no doubt this would be a useful resource but for the more causal reader, not so much.

TBR Challenge – The Shipping News – Annie Proulx

Genre: Literary fiction, Masculinity

Narrative Style: Third person from varying points of view

Rating: 5/5

Format: Paperback

Published: 1993

Synopsis: When Quoyle’s unfaithful wife meets her end in a car crash, he decides to move back to Newfoundland where his family were originally from with his two daughters and an old aunt. Here he starts his life anew, writing the Shipping News for a local paper and discovering that love doesn’t need to involve pain.

Reading Challenges: TBR Challenge hosted by Roof Beam Reader. 

Time on Shelf: Not entirely sure. But some time after Brokeback mountain came out, I read the short story collection that Brokeback Mountain came from and then bought this not long after that. 

This is one of those books where I was so glad to have read it. Why did I wait so long to do so? Actually, I know the answer to that one. The title, The Shipping News, really put me off. I had expectations that it would be about shipping and different types of boat. It was nothing like that.

It is quite slow paced, seemingly matching the life of the Newfoundlanders. Everyday life is captured successfully and if that sounds tedious, it really isn’t. The novel is populated with strange and interesting characters who don’t always behave in expected ways. It is more a series of small happenings, than one over-arching plot line.

Quoyle – the main character – is really quite hopeless. He loves his two-timing wife despite her infidelities because that is what he believes love should be like. He almost misses a second chance at love with Wavey because it looks different to this model. He is moved by the forces of life and death, seemingly doing little of his own volition – at least, at first. But for all that, it is easy to empathise with him, left with two unruly daughters and a large house that is falling to pieces.

There are a lot of supporting characters, all of whom seem to have absurd names such as Tert Card, Petal Bear and Nutbeam. All have some bearing on Quoyle’s life, be it at the paper where he writes the Shipping News, The Gammy Bird, or in the small town where he resides. By the end of the novel, Quoyle has a satisfying job, friends and the possibility of love with Wavey. In some ways, this novel has the hallmarks of a bildungsroman except that Quoyle is a grown man at the beginning.

Proulx has an interesting prose style. There are lots of short, incomplete sentences which I can imagine some would find annoying but which I quite liked. The style is clipped, straight forward and I found it easy to read. There is some depressing imagery. After all, this book describes some bleak locations. But it wasn’t heavy going and it fitted the mood of the novel, particularly in the first half.

So I would say to anyone who has this sitting on their shelf – don’t let it languish there. This is definitely a worthwhile read.

Well, I failed to finish a book – why does that feel so bad?

First of all, I hate not finishing a book. It’s a horrible thing to do because for all you know, you may be missing a wonderful read later on. It may be hard in the beginning but there may be rewards later. So I don’t give up easily. I struggled with parts of War and Peace but I was certain that the pay off would be worth it and it was. That’s the thing if you struggle on – generally, it feels worth it because if nothing else, you got to the end.

Also, it is hard to know when to let go. How far in do you need to be before you know that nothing is going to change for you? It’s a difficult one. Too soon and you’d definitely have regrets and wonders; too far in and you might as well finish it. This time I was about a quarter of the way in. Seemed like far enough that I’d know.

The book in question was The Unusual Life of Tristan Smith by Peter Carey and it was one of my books for the TBR challenge. (So now I have to read one of my alternates. The Shipping News by Annie Prouix, if anyone’s interested.) I’d read Peter Carey – Bliss and The True History of the Kelly Gang – and enjoyed his writing before. But this, I just couldn’t get to grips with it. I was avoiding reading it – always a good sign that you need to abandon a book.

I appreciate that this book is quite the feat of writing. Carey has invented an entire new country, along with that country’s language. The novel revolves around a group of actors after the birth of Tristan – a very unusual boy. He wants to be an actor but no one else wants that for him; in fact they suggest it is impossible for him, given his deformities.

There are lots of quirky characters – none of which seem quite believable. The plot is based on the rivalry between Efica and Voorstand (for Efica read Australia and Voorstand maybe England or America) and the different cultural and political systems. Some of which was very clever but it didn’t move me and I found myself zoning out when I was reading it.

So there we are – an unfinished book. I feel guilty for not finishing  – which I’m aware is slightly ridiculous. But at the end of the day, life’s too short for bad books. Although to be fair, this isn’t bad, just not to my taste.


TBR Challenge 2019: The Plague by Albert Camus

Genre: Disease, Allegory, Classics

Narrative Style: First person but which gives the points of view of lots of other characters

Rating: 3/5

Published: 1947

Format: Kindle

Synopsis: In the town of Oran in North Africa, the rats are starting to die in unprecedented numbers. The locals start to panic. Then people start to die from a unexplained fever. At first the authorities do not believe what the doctor knows, this is a return of the bubonic plague. 

Reading Challenges: TBR Challenge 2019 – Time on Shelf – about five years.

This was an interesting rather than an enjoyable read. Camus is a clever observer of human frailties and the descriptions of the various reactions to first, the plague and then, the quarantining of the town, seem apt and still have resonance today. However, the characters felt a little flat, a little too of a type to have real emotional resonance.

There are many ways of reading this novel. At first glance, it is merely the story of a town fighting for its life, going through various stages of reaction to an emergency. Various battles are fought at an interpersonal level. Then there are the sociological elements such as Doctor Rieux’s fight with the authorities to have the plague taken seriously and his willingness to sacrifice his own life to treat those that are sick. There is the priest who preaches that the plague is God’s punishment. Finally, there are allegorical elements as to what the plague represents. As this was written in 1947, the Nazi threat would likely be high in Camus’ mind. At the end of the novel, when the plague has retreated, many return to their lives confident that it will never return. Rieux knows better and that it will return when the circumstances are once again correct. If that is not a moral for our current times, I don’t know what is.

Camus’ style is readable and the novel is clever but I stayed detached. It felt like what it is, an allegorical tale, with characters serving that purpose rather than developing in their own right.

TBR Challenge – Powder – Kevin Sampson

Genre: Music, Masculinity

Narrative Style: Third person from various perspectives

Rating: 3/5

Published: 1999

Format: paperback

Synopsis: Keva McCluskey, lead singer with the unknown Liverpool band, The Grams, wants nothing more than the fame and success he feels are his due. When he meets Guy de Burnet, of newly formed Rehab records, he realises that his dreams may be about to come true. Will fellow band mates and manager, Wheezer, be a help or a hindrance on the way to the top. 

Reading Challenges: TBR Challenge 2019

Time on Shelf: My husband bought this at the time. He read it and really enjoyed it. I didn’t get round to it. So twenty years after he recommended it, I finally read it. No wonder he doesn’t often recommend a book for me to read.

I really wasn’t sure what to rate this book. There were some things I really enjoyed about it but also some things I really didn’t. However, it is generally quite well written and I did feel compelled to read on so I guess the good points won out.

What I really liked about this was the way it reminded me of the nineties and of the music scene then – a time when I was very enthusiastic about music and a time before The X factor and all those talent shows. There is a genuine love of music behind this novel. It also seems like I would imagine it is like when a band first takes off with all the madness of touring and recording. Sampson has long been involved in the music industry – as a journalist and a manager – so the novel has an air of authenticity.

However, this is also a very laddish book. And in that it is also very much of its time. At times it felt like an extended edition of Nuts. It is full of lewd sexual encounters. In fact, most of the women in this novel are little more than holes to be filled by the band. I’m not a prude and some of these encounters were amusing especially as guitarist, James Love gets more and more twisted in his needs. It just would have been nice for some of these women to be given a personality not just body parts.

There are some similarities between this novel and Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting. It is obviously aiming for a similar grittiness and honesty. And it is written in a similar style with little in the way of over-arching plot – more a series of vignettes about the band and the various hangers on. However, it lacks the emotional depth of Welsh’s novel. The characters are stereotypical and do not develop. I felt little for them and didn’t really care whether the band would survive or not. James Love is similar to Welsh’s Sick Boy but there is no hint of anything underneath his womanising so it all becomes dull and tawdry.

Still, it was amusing and it did make me nostalgic so I’m not sorry to have read it. It is quite a long read at 500 pages. Maybe if it had been shorter, I wouldn’t have got so impatient towards the end.



TBR Challenge – A Room With A View – E.M. Forster

Genre: Classics, Romance

Narrative Style: third person, chronological

Rating: 3/5

Published: 1908

Format: Paperback

Synopsis: Lucy is on holiday in Florence with her chaperone at the start of the novel. She is keen to experience life but is often hampered by the mores of the day and her conventional chaperone, Miss Bartlett. Her life is unbalanced when she meets the unconventional Emersons, particularly the son George. When she returns to England, her life no longer seems so straightforward. 

Reading Challenge – The 2019 TBR Challenge

Time on Shelf – about 5 years. This was inherited from my husband’s aunt. I felt I ought to read it rather than wanting to so I put it on the list to make sure that I did.

I definitely have mixed about A Room with a View. I liked it better than Where Angels fear to Tread which is the only other Forster I have read but I really didn’t like that so it’s not saying much. In a lot of ways, I feel about Forster like I feel about Austen. The writing is clever and sharp but ultimately doesn’t move me.

When I read Where Angels Fear to Tread, I thought I’d never met a writer who seemed so ill at ease with his own masculinity and that of other men. In this novel, it seemed that the unease could be extended to the whole human race. Forster observes his characters well but I felt he was removed from them. And as such, they seemed more like representations of certain ways of being rather than fully drawn characters.

The story itself is very simple. Lucy feels obliged to marry a man she does not love because he is from the right social class. She has to choose between him and the unconventional George, who works on the railways. Part of the problem is that we do not see that much of George so it is hard to understand exactly what it is that is so loveable about him.

I’m not a big fan of romance. And for all the social observation and cleverness that is all this is. It’s not a terrible book. It was pleasant to read, just not for me.