Day 24. – Book you’re most embarrassed to say you like/liked.

I don’t really get embarrassed about what i read. As I mentioned when it was a book that is a guilty pleasure, I like what I like. I think there is very little point to being embarrassed about liking something. Why bow down to what other people think you should or shouldn’t like? It all seems a bit pointless.

I was embarrassed to read 50 shades of Grey. Not because I liked it. I think I’ve made my feelings about it clear. And not because of the sex either which is neither original or all that exciting. Embarrassed because I knew the judgements I’d be making if I saw myself reading it on the train. I did not want people to make those sort of inferences about me. So I actually hid the front of it. It is not easy to read with a book flat on your lap but this is what I did so that no one would know what I was reading. I probably looked a little weird. I wouldn’t pick up the Twilight series for much the same reason. So maybe I am being a little disingenuous when I say you shouldn’t be embarrassed by what you read when I am pre-selecting what I would be embarrassed to say I liked in advance.

DAY 23. – Best book you’ve read in the last 12 months – The Good, The Bad and The Multiplex

It wasn’t an easy decision. Last year, I read the Song of Fire and Ice series and loved each of the books and it was tempting to pick the entire series as my favourite reads. I also had a bit of a Pratchett re-read in October when I wasn’t very well but picking a re-read felt like a bit of a cheat. After all, I already knew what I was going to get.

In the end, I picked The Good, The Bad and The Multiplex by Mark Kermode because it is not often that I feel somebody has read my mind quite so clearly or quite so often as when I was reading this book.

I was already a big fan of Kermode and he is one of the few film critics that I would take any notice of. Compared to Claudia Winkleman and her ilk, Kermode is a serious reviewer, giving film as a medium, the consideration it deserves. His knowledge of film history is second to none. In short, he knows his stuff.

It isn’t just knowledge that comes across in The Good, The Bad and the Multiplex although there is certainly plenty of it. There is also a clear love of the movies and also a disappointment with the whole modern movie-going experience. This is where the mind reading feeling came in. My husband and I stopped going to multiplexes years ago, preferring the intimate surroundings of the Showroom in Sheffield to the huge and unfriendly Odeon. I don’t know if it is to do with being of a certain generation when going to the cinema meant going to a two screen (or if you were really lucky four screen) building that had probably once been a theatre.

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The Odeon in Newcastle had this amazing sweeping staircase that gave you a real sense of occasion when you visited. That is all gone now. There is a similar nostalgia to some of the writing here.

Kermode is at his best when he gets irate  And luckily for the reader (although not for what it suggests about the state of the film industry today) that is quite often. Near the beginning of the book, he recounts a visit to the local mulitplex where every step of his journey from trying to book tickets online to seeing the movie shown in the wrong ratio, is a complete nightmare. It is both hilarious and depressing in just about equal measure.

This is an intelligent book about the decline of certain aspects of the film industry. He is not trying to suggest that there are no good modern films. That would be stupid. It is more that this book mourns the passing of certain elements of the film industry and the viewing experience that we are undoubtedly worse off without.

Day 22 – A plot device that annoyed you – Atonement and The Time Traveller’s Wife

I’ve changed the title of today’s blog a little as I couldn’t think of any plot devices that had annoyed me over and over. I don’t read many series or books that are really similar to each other so instead I have chosen to look at two plot devices that I found so annoying they really spoiled my enjoyment of the books.

I really did enjoy reading Atonement by Ian McEwan. From the opening of the novel in Cambridgeshire, to the scenes of fighting and the horrors of working as a nurse in the second world war, I was convinced by the characters and the way their lives interwove. I think it is the fact that I had been so taken with the novel and its supposed resolution that annoyed me so much when I finally got to the end.

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In the final section, it is revealed that the previous chapters were a novel written by Briony and in fact tragic lovers Robbie and Cecilia were not reunited in ‘real life’ but in a fiction within a fiction. Writing the novel was Briony’s atonement for the fact that she accused Robbie of rape and ruined any chances the pair might have had of actual romance. I admit that I felt a little cheated by this and I still feel it is akin to the sort of ending children write all the time, a more sophisticated version of ‘and then I woke up.’ The story is not the story you thought it was. Briony claimed that she did not want to give readers a hopeless ending but in actual fact the ending was much worse for giving hope and then saying that they could only have it within a fiction. Very disappointing.

My second choice is The Time Traveller’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger. I found this book interesting and annoying in just about equal measure.

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The concept was exciting and Henry was a good romantic lead. The idea of the time travel wasn’t that hard to swallow once the story got going and I liked the muddled chronology of their romance.

However, what did annoy me was the way that despite the fact that Henry supposedly has no control over when he will travel and where to, he manages to get winning lottery numbers so that Clare will be able to carry on with her art without having to worry. I felt that this was a narrative cheat. Either Henry could control his travel or he couldn’t, but not control when it suited him and Niffenegger.

Incidentally, as this doesn’t directly fit with the title of today’s blog, it goes without saying that I found the end of this novel really irritating. The idea of a women waiting all those years because she knows she will have one more glimpse of the man she loved seems a little too like a fairy tale for my taste. It did not seem romantic, just out-moded and a little depressing. Most of the women I worked with at the time loved it so, hey, what do I know.

DAY 21. – Book you tell people you’ve read, but haven’t (or haven’t actually finished).

There are a few of candidates here. Books that I have made it known that I don’t like despite not having finished them. It doesn’t happen often because I am quite careful to choose things I am fairly sure I will like.

The first is On The Road by Jack Kerouac which I would probably never have picked of my own accord but it was for a class on my MA. Obviously for the purpose of the course I claimed to have finished it and I started to believe myself. It was only recently I remembered that I hadn’t actually finished it.

What was it about this book that meant I didn’t finish it? I found the tone irritating and the style worse. It gained the rare honour of having been thrown across my living room the most times due to the dubious attitude towards women shown. Ultimately I didn’t feel compelled to find out what happened. I just didn’t care.

Similarly, I read (or started to read) Hemmingway’s The Old Man and The Sea when it was on the GCSE syllabus as I realised that I might have to teach it. (How to put teenagers off reading in one easy lesson.) Part of the problem was I already knew how it ended and when I got bogged down in the narrative, it just didn’t seem worth it. I quickly realised there was no way I could possibly teach this book as I could barely summon up the enthusiasm to pick it up, never mind try to get the point across to others. Thankfully, I have never worked in a school where they have taught it. Maybe it’s not just me!

Finally, in a doomed attempt at reading more classics (something I keep trying despite the evidence that I will probably never enjoy them), I decided to try The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne. I picked it because the subject matter sounded interesting. However, I soon found myself ignoring the book in favour of something with less dense prose and it was abandoned on my bedside table for a while before eventually winging its way back onto the downstairs bookshelves. Probably I should give it to charity as I will never pick it up again.

DAY 19. – A favourite author – Margaret Atwood

I did not have to ponder very long to decide who to write this post about. There were some other candidates (Terry Pratchett, Ian Rankin, Angela Carter.) but the reason that Atwood remains my favourite author is that I cannot think of a novel of hers that I did not like and I also feel that her novels have been there as I was growing up and have helped me become the person I am today.

The first Atwood novel that I met was Surfacing, over 20 years ago now, It was for my BA and it really opened my eyes. (Interestingly a lot of my favourite novels stem from this time: Ready to Catch Him Should He Fall, The Master and Margarita, The Magic Toyshop. Maybe because I had no idea that such books existed.) What I liked about it are the same things I like about all of Atwood’s novels. Her narrators / characters find life difficult in ways that make sense to me. Their relationships are difficult. And they are not always likeable or straightforward or even easy to understand. But they are always interesting, always compelling and always convincing.

It’s hard to say which of Atwood’s novels is my favourite. How could you possibly pick? I do have a soft spot for Surfacing because it was the first but then what about Life Before Man or The Blind Assassin. And what about the wonderful dystopian vision of The Handmaid’s Tale or Oryx and Crake. Impossible. I love them all. And if I could only read her books for the rest of my life, I know I would never be disappointed.

Day 18 – A book you wish you could live in – Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell

I suppose, as with a lot of people, when I saw today’s subject I first thought of Harry Potter and the magical world where he resides. However, at the end of the day, the main setting in the stories is Hogwarts. I see enough of schools in my day job so I do not particularly want to imagine myself there in my spare time. After all, a magical school is still a school. In fact it would, in some ways, be worse. Think of all the trouble that could be caused by classroom full of fourteen year olds and then add in magic. No thanks!

I am sticking with magic though. What I loved about Suzanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell was the way it mixed magic into the real history of the start of 1800s. It reads like a genuine history of the times, complete with footnotes like any academic book and makes reference to other biographies of Strange and Norrell. Imagine if the during the Napoleonic war, the French were really frightened off by ghost ships

IMG_0024sent to scare them. How much more thrilling than any actual history of this war!

For me, one thing in the Potter books that did not sit well was the use of magic in a modern world with cars and buses and so on. In my head, magic belongs in an earlier time with horses and candlelight and no technology to speak of. The nineteenth century seemed to be more likely a setting for magic than the twentieth. And then there is the dashing, handsome figure of Jonathan Strange who is daring – indeed reckless might be nearer the mark – and will see no limits to his power. I felt strangely sad at the end of the book when he and Norrell disappear into the darkness. As if England were really bereft without the only men who could save it.

Day 17 – Author I wish people would read more – A. L. Kennedy and Patrick McGrath

I want to point out again at the beginning of this post that I really do not know what people read and what they don’t. So, I am only going on my own experience when I mention authors among my friends who read and claim not to know who I am talking about. Also, I could have easily spent the post describing how much I love James Kelman but as I have already written about him when I was talking about underrated books, I decided to choose two other authors. Although it goes without saying that you should read him as well.

My first choice is A. L. Kennedy. My favourite novel by her is Looking

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for the Possible Dance which is about being

female and being Scottish. It discusses all the pressures that are on women, marriage, relationships, children. It has its funny moments – like when she discusses the ways in which she does not fit in on her ‘English, English Literature course’ but is most successful, I think in charting Margaret’s psychological state and her difficulties with fitting into society.

This book also contains one of my favourite images from a book “She remembers seeing waxwings searching the grass when she was at university and suddenly feeling homesick because they were not Scottish birds. There was something a little impossible about them. And that was all it took to make you miss things, a mild impossibility, a slight difference of birds.” It seems a perfect description of homesickness which can sneak up on you at the most unlikely times and for reasons as small as this.

Secondly, I have chosen Patrick McGrath. What I like about his narratives is the ambiguity of his narrators who are always in some ways suspect. They are superbly unreliable and even as you know this, you are drawn into their world, only to discover that you have been duped once again.

My favourite McGrath book is Asylum. It seems an obvious set up; a psychiatrist with a beautiful wife takes over the running of a hospital for the criminally insane. When she befriends a patient, it seems we can see the way that things will go. However, McGrath, while leading us in one direction, is actually taking a very different road and the horror and terror do

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The narrator of the story is the one of the doctors Peter Cleave. He opens his narration with the line ‘The catastrophic love affair characterised by sexual obsession has been a professional interest of mine for many years.’ This perfectly sets the scene for the story to come and the reader is given just enough information to come to the wrong conclusion. This is a masterful psychological thriller that plays with the readers’ expectations in a cunning and clever way.