Tag Archives: BBC Big Read

33. The Pillars of the Earth, Ken Follett

The Pillars of the EarthMan builds cathedral. Hardly the most exciting premise for a book huh?

So it’s probably just as well that Follett’s 1989 masterpiece is about so much more than just the combining of bricks and mortar. Spanning 29 years in the 12th century, The Pillars of the Earth follows all the major players in the building of the (sadly fictional) Kingsbridge Cathedral – from the righteous Prior Philip and his Master Builder Tom to the despicable William of Shiring who does all he can to disrupt Philip’s plans.

That’s the plot really except it’s about much more than just the building of the cathedral. Throughout the 29 years people die, they get tricked into bad marriages, they become business leaders and they lose everything they have. Children are born and raised, pilgrimages are made and behind it all a civil war rages which periodically forces monks and earls alike to choose allegiance to a potential new monarch.

So as you can see there’s a lot going on in this 1076 page novel which definitely makes up for the occasional two page description of a new style of wall. I’ll admit that when Follett goes into depth on the actual building work (which doesn’t happen all that often), I did tend to skim read a little apart from one very exciting section where a young builder invents the flying buttress!

Notre Dame

Pictured above you can see an excellent example of the use of the flying buttress on the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris. They’re the kind of arches on the outside which are used to support the walls from the outside. I have a friend who, when we went to Brussels, spent a lot of time pointing out this particular architectural feature so to read a story of someone inventing it was very exciting for me!

I have to say that I was surprised by how much I enjoyed this book and I would say a major part of this was down to the language used. Although it’s set in the 12th century, the writing and conversation is relatively modern – there are no ‘thee’s and ‘thou’s – which I’ve seen some review complain spoils the realism but for me it’s about making the time period accessible. The prose isn’t entirely modern but it’s up to date enough that the writing isn’t intimidating which I find to be a problem with other books set in the same period. I know language has changed a lot over the last thousand years and that the way this book is written isn’t the way people would actually have talked at the time but if I’m going to commit to reading over a thousand pages, I don’t want to have to read every sentence twice to be sure I know what it says!

My main regret with this novel is that Kingsbridge is a fictional town so I’ll never be able to visit the wondrous creation of Tom et al but Pillars of the Earth was certainly a masterclass in the lives of 12th century folk as well as a very entertaining saga telling tales of both everyday people and the upper echelons who ruled life in the 1100s.


43. The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald


There you go, my opinion of The Great Gatsby summed up in a single word. Or to expand: Did not like.

I wanted to like it, I’ve heard great things about it and I have one friend in particular who is so keen on the 1920’s that she’s theming her wedding after that time period so for her sake I moved Gatsby up the pecking order and tried to like it. But I didn’t.

I found the writing style very hard to get to grips with, I don’t know what was wrong with it exactly but I found that I could read for pages with no idea what was going on and then I’d go back and reread them only to have the same thing happen again. I think it didn’t help that the prose tended to jump about a bit characters would get the briefest of introductions but then fifty pages later you’d be expected to remember who they were and why they had featured (and the book is only 110 pages long). Or time would slip so that you’d be at once in the past and the present without any real clarity on why.

The characters themselves also really infuriated me. I suppose they were the Made in Chelsea of their time, lots of money with no clear indication of how they came by it and no responsibilities that can’t be shirked for a day or three of drinking and driving about the country on a whim. That entire lifestyle is alien territory to me and I find it utterly mystifying as to how anyone can live that way. So I probably never stood much of a chance at bonding with these characters but still.

Having said that our narrator Nick Carraway was also a bit of an outsider. Caught up by mere proximity to Gatsby and a connection with the Buchanans he is pulled along in their whirlwind of champagne and excess to the bitter end. I quite enjoy the outsider narrator theme as it gives the common yokel a point of reference within the book and someone to hide behind when it all gets a bit much so I did like Nick. Right up to the point where he suddenly realised that he’d forgotten all about his birthday on account of being taken to New York and forced to participate in wanton renting of hotel parlours and drinking of mint juleps. I mean really, who lives this way and why?!

There’s a jumpyness to the whole novel which reminded me a lot of On the Road another book I hated (rant here) and to a lesser extent The Secret History which I enjoyed but felt a similar disconnect to (more balanced review here). I think it was this nervous energy which meant that despite it being very short I found Gatsby quite exhausting to read and at entirely the other end of the spectrum from the previously reviewed Midnight’s Children. Here’s hoping my next review will be more positive!

I was meaning to make this a brief post and suggest that for more expansive reviewing you read a review by my fellow Gatsby-hater Becky but I seem to have gone on a while. However I thoroughly recommend her review as it is better thought out and much more entertaining than this driveling stream of consciousness. Read it here.

100. Midnight’s Children, Salman Rushdie

Midnight's ChildrenThere’s a quote right at the end of Midnight’s Children which I think sums it up perfectly:

Padma cries, “Just tell what happened, mister! What is so surprising if a baby does not make conversations?”

These two sentences tell you all you need to know about this book really but I’ll expand slightly in the interest of creating a more lengthy post.

The narrator of Midnight’s Children is Saleem Sinai who was born at midnight on the day that India became an independent country. It takes quite some time (about a quarter of the book) for us to get round to this momentous birth as Saleem starts by going into great detail about his ancestors (which bored Padma to whom he is telling the story as well as me).

What follows is an in-depth analysis of Saleem’s life and times including his overblown interpretation of the most insignificant of events. Because of the historic moment of his birth Saleem feels responsible for the fate and life of India and added to that rather pompous view he also develops supernatural powers which link him to all the other children born between midnight and 1am that morning. There’s also a lot of metaphorical and philosophical type chat which is largely responsible for Padma’s (and my) frustration with the long-winded story-teller. As she says, it’s hardly surprising if a  baby isn’t particularly conversant but to Saleem, the (newborn) baby’s silence was a product of the time of it’s birth and indicative of the significant role it would play in the future of India.

I found a lot of this book hard to swallow as it made very little sense and was frankly ridiculous a lot of the time and I found Saleem’s views of his life to be arrogant and laughable although there was no real humour to be had.

Having said that the story was not unenjoyable and it did make for an…interesting read. I also enjoyed relating the latest crazy developments to my work colleagues.

So I remain confused about why Midnight’s Children is so highly lauded and I’m not sorry it’s over. Having said that I don’t want to put anyone off reading it, I gave it 3 stars on GoodReads because I didn’t dislike it as thoroughly as this review makes out but if you are going to read it then I want you to know what you’re letting yourself in for!

11. Catch-22, Joseph Heller

Catch-22It’s been a good while since I last read a book on The List but I’ve put that right by going for a high one – number 11, Catch-22.

To be honest I knew very little about this book going into it. I knew it was about the war and I knew that my dad loved it, neither of which suggested that it was something I would enjoy. Happily I was wrong.

The story, in a nutshell, is of Captain Yossarian and his crew as they try to survive the last few months of World War II, preferably in one piece. Yossarian gives us a very personal outlook on war. He can’t understand why everyone around him is trying to kill him – there may be a war on but why does that mean that HE has to die? It’s a view that the other characters find hard to relate to but I think that’s exactly how I’d feel if I ever found myself in his position.

Since this is a book about war and dying, I was expecting it to be a bit of a slog and somewhat depressing. The absolute last thing that I was expecting was to find it so funny that I actually laughed out loud but I did, on many occasions. The subject matter may not be particularly funny but the way it’s told is. Yossarian as out main character has a very dry outlook on life which is something I enjoy but aside from that, all the characters are constantly tripping each other up and turning things round on each other in order to get what they want. It’s very cleverly written and very funny.

But of course it IS a book about war and there is a political point being made here. There is a turning point towards the end of the book where things get a lot darker pretty fast and it can be hard to keep on reading but it’s definitely worth it. I have to admit to struggling with the end of the book, it all got a bit weird and dream-like for a while but right at the last minute Heller pulled it back and wrote an ending which had me practically singing it was so good.

50 years after it was published, it’s easy to see why Catch-22 is considered a classic; I haven’t read many books about war and I don’t plan on reading many more but I’m glad I read this one. Heller has perfected the art of discussing a serious message within layers of humour that make it almost palatable. I think the best way to sum it up is with a quote from the book itself:

 “Who’s they?” He wanted to know. “Who, specifically, do you think is trying to murder you?”
“Every one of them,” Yossarian told him.
“Every one of whom?”
“Every one of whom do you think?”
“I haven’t any idea.”
“Then how do you know they aren’t?”
“Because…” Clevinger sputtered, and turned speechless with frustration.
Clevinger really thought he was right, but Yossarian had proof, because strangers he didn’t know shot at him with cannons every time he flew up into the air to drop bombs on them, and it wasn’t funny at all.” 


83. Holes, Louis Sachar

HolesAt 83 on The List Holes is one of the few children’s/YA books I haven’t read. It was published in 1998 when I was 10 and I spent much of the next year looking at a poster of the cover that was on the wall in my school library both intrigued and slightly terrified by the giant lizard on the front. In 1999 I went to high school so didn’t see that particular poster again but I can’t tell you how pleased I was that when I finally got a copy of the book it had that cover, reading a different version just wouldn’t have felt right.

I knew I wanted to read Holes, I didn’t really know what it was about but that poster had stuck in my mind so vividly that I knew I had to read it. I’ve passed up countless opportunities to read it in the past, I feel a bit like the book is Ross and I’m Rachel from Friends, we know we’re going to end up together but it’s a long time coming. Alright, weird analogy but you get the picture.

Anyway, last Sunday I was lying in bed, not quite ready to get up yet so I thought I’d read a few lines and see how it went. Two and a half hours later I turned the last page and thought to myself, ‘Why on earth did I wait SIXTEEN years to read this book?!’ Safe to say I enjoyed it.

To give you a brief summary, Holes tells the story of Stanley Yelnats, sentenced to 18 months digging holes at Green Lake juvenile correction facility for a crime he didn’t commit. Green Lake is a harsh place, in the middle of the desert where water is tightly rationed and there are any number of things hiding in those holes waiting for their next meal to come along. Not only that but being overweight and cursed with the bad luck of his ‘no-good-dirty-rotten-pig-stealing-great-great-great-grandfather’, Stanley is used to being at the bottom of the pecking order and now has to find a way to live with a group of hardened teenage criminals.

Can Stanley find a way to survive his sentence? Why exactly are they digging holes in the middle of the desert? And will anyone ever believe in Stanley’s innocence?

It seems like a pretty grim situation but Holes is a story of friendship, loyalty and repairing past mistakes told with an innocence and a dark humour which makes it impossible to put down.

Interwoven with the main story are subplots which tell the story of how Stanley’s great-great-great-grandfather managed to get his whole family cursed and the tale of how Green Lake lost its lake both of which add depth to and support the book’s overall theme of destiny.

There’s no doubt about it, Holes was definitely worth the wait! And if you can read the final showdown without squirming, you’re a braver soul than I am.

26. Tess of the D’Urbervilles & 48. Far from the Madding Crowd, Thomas Hardy

I have been writing this post since November, so please forgive me if it doesn’t flow as well as it could in places!!

Thomas Hardy. It’s a name which is synonymous with tedium in my house. My mum was forced to read his books when at school and if it would be an exaggeration to say she’s bitter about it, she’s not exactly his greatest fan. Further to this we have a game at home called Echelon in which you’re given two minutes to memorise a passage from a classic book and then answer questions on it. It’s a great game and is part of the reason I was keen to read Diary of a Nobody and The Picture of Dorian Gray but the Hardy passages are usually considered an unlucky draw.

So as you can imagine I wasn’t looking forward to the two Hardy entries on The List.

Anyway The Book Depository recently had a sale on their bargain bin books and I took advantage of this to get both Far from the Madding Crowd and Tess of the D’Urbervilles, the two Hardy novels that are apparently must reads. And I’ll be honest, the naff covers that arrived through my letterbox didn’t fill me with enthusiasm.

I’m reviewing them together because at high school I was taught the value of the “compare and contrast” essay and I don’t want to be accused of forgetting my schooling.

Far from the Madding CrowdTo start I read FftMC because according to my mum it was the worst of the two so I thought I’d get it out the way early.

And how wrong she was; I loved it! I’ll admit the first chapter had me rolling my eyes at the vacuous female lolling in a  carriage checking her makeup while issuing orders but that was the only appearance she really made and didn’t seem to bear any relation to the Bathsheba of the rest of the book.

There’s a tendency in Victorian literature to portray women as very one-dimensional characters who sit around drinking tea and sighing over men but this isn’t the case in FftMC. Instead Bathsheba inherits a farm from her uncle and rather than selling it or employing a man to run it for her, she takes the reins herself and gets involved straight away. Yes she does employ men to till the fields and tend the sheep but so did all the farmers at that time and the actual running of the farm and trading at market is done by her despite the opposition of everyone else concerned. Is that an excellent example of girl power coming from a male writer or what?

Now it is true that amid all this feminism Bathsheba commits one stupid, ‘girlish’ act which haunts her throughout the rest of the book and does a fair bit to undermine her credibility. This is unfortunate and as it was happening I felt that it didn’t quite ring true for her character but it happens amid coercion and peer pressure and doesn’t that happen to us all? I have to say that the book tailed off somewhat after that, form a powerful start I felt it struggled a bit in the middle with some havering from Bathsheba that I found a little trying but then it regained some of its former strength and built to a gripping conclusion that I definitely didn’t see coming.

Tess of the D'UrbervillesSo that was book 1. Book 2 was Tess of the D’Urbervilles which I knew slightly more about. There was a BBC adaptation a few years ago and I watched enough of it to know that Tess doesn’t have a happy life but without knowing all the details. There was a disclaimer in the front of my copy warning any “genteel reader” that they may be offended by what they are about to read which had me intrigued and it wasn’t long before I found out what he meant.

Tess, a young girl from a poor family, experiences almost all the misery anyone can expect from life. Once Hardy’s hit her the first time he just can’t seem to stop. It doesn’t matter how far she runs or how hard she works to put everything behind her, she just keeps getting knocked back down again and it seems rather excessive.

But Tess displays as much (actually more) strength as Bathsheba in that she just doesn’t give up. Despite experiencing all the worst things that could ever happen to a woman, she just picks herself up and moves on. It’s really refreshing when you consider how many books there are about people (frequently but not always women) moping about and working themselves into a frenzy over the slightest little thing.

The two books couldn’t be more different in tone – FftMC is quite lighthearted most of the time, there’s a fair amount of nights in the pub, parties and girlish giggling and it could hardly be described as hard-going. Tess on the other hand is a slog. It makes for very grim reading, even in the brief periods where everything is ok, Tess herself is so worn down by misery and the fear of discovery that the tone is never as light as in FftMC.

I personally enjoyed them both, I think it as a good thing that they were so different as I read them very close together and that can ruin an author but wasn’t the case here. As I’ve already said I was impressed with Hardy’s writing and the ballsiness of his heroines which is so unlike many of my other experiences of Victorian literature. Especially coming from a male writer, and one with a very impressive moustache at that!

I applaud you Mr Hardy and your impressive facial hair

I applaud you Mr Hardy and your impressive facial hair

Farewell 2013, it’s been interesting

2013 was a beast of a year in many ways but as happens with all years it has come to an end allowing me to say so long, farewell and yah-boo-sucks to the nightmare that was. But by far the best thing about 2013 was that I did lots and lots of reading, reaching my goal of 52 books with a couple of weeks to spare So I may be slightly late in doing this but here is my review of the year (we’re still less than 10 days into the new one so I think it’s ok).

  • In 2013 I read 52 books with a combined total of 18,897 pages (which is an average of 363.4 pages per book).
  • 57.7% of the books I read were by male authors making for a pretty even split huzzah.
  • And 68.3% of them were by authors I’d never read before which is also excellent.

new/male authors

  • I only read 4 non-fiction books which on the face of it is pretty poor but I spent a large part of my time reading dry scientific papers at work so I’m unashamed of my need for fiction in my free time.
  • What’s more disappointing is that I only read 14 off The List, something I need to improve on in 2014 otherwise I’ll never get through it all but I have hit the half-way mark (and have some reviews still to do so look out for those in the next month or so!).

list vs category

  • The majority of my books came from a used book store (mostly Skoob on the Brunswick Centre, check it out if you’re ever nearby) or from charity shops – Wimbledon is overflowing with excellent examples and they come with a feel good factor!
  • The average age of the books I read was 30.2 years – the oldest (Gulliver’s Travels) was 317 and I read three published in 2013 (The Universe Versus Alex Woods, Joyland and Mind The Child).

source vs age

  • I gave an average star rating of 3.75 which I suppose makes me pretty hard to please! To hand out some awards:
  • my least favourite book of the year was probably The Red House mostly because I was so disappointed having loved Mark Haddon’s previous work (Anyone expecting me to say Love in the Time of Cholera, you’d be right but I’ve enjoyed ranting about it too much since!)
  • The book that made me most emotional goes to The Universe Versus Alex Woods
  • The most amusing of 2013 is won by The Hundred-year-old Man who Climbed out of the Window and Disappeared
  • The best from the list would be Far From the Madding Crowd (partly because it was so unexpected!)
  • The best series is awarded to the Peter Grant series because it’s funny, set in London and opened my eyes to a genre I previously avoided
  • And the overall winner of 2013 has to go to the triumphant work that is Was by Geoff Ryman for just being wonderful.

So, that’s 2013 done and dusted, what’s in store for 2014? Well I got a reasonable book haul for Christmas including two by Joanne Harris, my first (grown-up) Terry Pratchett and a novel written without the use of the letter ‘e’. So I’m looking forward to tucking into them plus, it’s my birthday this month so here’s hoping some more books will find their way onto my (currently woefully empty) TBR shelf.

I’m also taking on a new challenge which I saw Leah post about a few days ago where you’re asked to read a book from a specific genre every month. It’s hosted on Tumblr by Eternal Books and January’s genre is historical fiction. I’ve only read one HF book before and I surprised myself by really enjoying it so I’m looking forward to getting started with this!

So Happy 2014 everyone, let’s hope it’s a good’un!