chestnut book blog

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My ten most influential / inspiring books

A little Facebook meme has been keeping me and my friendship group amused recently. We’ve all ‘tagged’ to write a list of the ten books that have most influenced / inspired us. I thought I’d share mine here to hopefully inspire a few more recommendations and inspirations!

1. The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
The first time I read this book, the world looked a little bit different after I had finished it. I have read this book countless times now and every time I love it a little bit more.

2. Anne of Green Gables by L M Montgomery
My favourite childhood series and I have a very soft spot for the red headed orphan to this day.

3. Howards End is on the Landing by Susan Hill
* I wrote a little explanation below for my friends on this one, but if you are a regular here, you’ll know how much I love this one already!

Am I allowed non-fiction? This book is virtually unknown, but I turn to it every time I need a comfort read. It describes the author just reading from her own library for a year, without buying any new books. She discovers old favourites, remembers the authors she has met and the stories around her books. In the end she complies her list of 50 essential books…fascinating and inspiring.

4. The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton
Not as well-known perhaps as The Age of Innocence (which is also one of my favourites) but Lily Bart’s story broke my heart. Beautifully written.

5. The Lord of the Rings by J R R Tolkien
My Dad’s favourite book and so I absorbed this from the cradle upwards! A masterpiece.

6. Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte
Just how did a woman who had barely left a Yorkshire parsonage imagine a man like Heathcliff??

7. Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte
As a Yorkshire woman, I feel I am allowed two Brontes on my list. This was the first classic I read around the age of ten or eleven and so it has a special place in my heart. I have a quote from Jane Eyre engraved on one of my favourite bracelets: ‘I am no bird, and no net ensnares me: I am a free human being with an independent will’ …just to remind me!

8. Othello, Shakespeare
Does a play count? I really struggled whether to choose Othello or Macbeth, but went for Othello as I don’t think anyone understands or describes human beings better than Shakespeare and all his genius is displayed in Othello. Having studied both at school and seen them many times, I can quote from them copiously!

9. Atonement by Ian McEwan
The ending astonished me. I couldn’t stop thinking about it for weeks after I had read it. A modern classic.

10. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
Opened my eyes in so many ways.

I apologise to all the wonderful books that I have forgotten to mention, but this was the list that came to me on Tuesday night. My friends’ lists contained some other wonderful recommendations that I have never read: I’ve added the The Deptford Mice trilogy by Robin Jarvis and Shogun by James Clavell to my wish list! What would be on your list? I’d love to know.


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Longbourn and Wide Sargasso Sea

Longbourn by Jo Baker

Longbourn by Jo Baker

I have just finished reading Longbourn by Jo Baker, a re-imagining of Pride and Prejudice, from the point of view of the servants. I am always a bit hesitant about rewrites of classic tales, but Longbourn exceeded all my expectations; it was absolutely brilliant. The action of this novel takes place, in the main, in tandem with activity in Pride and Prejudice. The author, in her end-note, describes how Longbourn examines those ‘ghostly presences’ in the wings of Austen; Hill, Sarah and the other servants. They emerge as vivid human begins with cares, histories and secrets of their own that eclipse the oblivious Bennetts upstairs.  Baker completely avoids pastiche of Austen and her narrative voice and style is completely her own, which I thought was a major achievement when tackling such a canonical work.

The subtle shift in perspective in Longbourn, which alters everything and changes the previously firm foundations of a story, reminded me of the other great retelling of a classic, Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys, which revisits Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre from the perspective of Bertha Mason, the first Mrs Rochester.  I don’t think there is a better retelling of a classic, ever. That is a bold statement, but I have not seen the power, complexity and insight of this retelling matched. It reminds us that there is always another side to a story, always. The mad woman in the attic becomes a human being and the eventual fate of the Jane Eyre characters horrifically inevitable because of their circumstances. Wide Sargasso Sea does of course differ from Longbourn in the extent that it chronicles the immediate past before Jane Eyre, but both have that touch of magic needed for a successful revision of a classic text.

Two great retellings and I’d highly recommend them both for giving an alternative perspective on well-worn tales.


Top Five Books for Autumn

As the air starts to smell of bonfires and falling leaves dance around me on my walk home, my attention is drawn to particular books on my shelves. Some books are just made to be read in Autumn, curled up with a hot chocolate, and here are my choices:

1. His Dark Materials series

Maybe it is the Armoured Bears of icy Svalbard that mean this series is indelibly linked to Autumn and Winter for me, I’m not sure. But what I do know is that as soon as the clocks go back, I’ll be reaching for Northern Lights, Lyra and dust!

2. Harry Potter series

These won’t be all young adult choices I promise, but here is another series which keeps me company in Autumn. Magic, Hogwarts and Harry Potter are made for reading at this time of year. As the Hogwarts pupils go back to school and Dementors creep up in the dark, I’ll be following their adventures again this autumn.

3. Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke

Wonderful, strange and fragile. I return to this book most Autumns. It is one where I feel I have to reread it regularly as I am never sure I have fully understood it. I love it though even though I am sure I miss many of its nuances. Please let me know if you have read this and what you think of it if you have! I’d love to know,

4.  Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte

The wild Yorkshire Moors call to me at this time of year and Jane in particular.

5.  The Woman in Black by Susan Hill

You have got to love a spine tingling ghost story at this time of year and Susan Hill’s The Woman in Black is one of my favourites.

So those are my choices for this Autumn, what will yours be? I’d love to know. If you need any other inspiration, here are Richard and Judy’s Autumn 2013 choices.

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My life in books

I caught an old episode of ‘My life in books’ this lunchtime and it got me thinking about which books I would choose. I believe the format is two childhood books, one formative book, one adult book and one guilty pleasure: five books in total. Phew, it is a hard task to narrow down all those books I love but here goes:

1. My first childhood book is Matilda by Roald Dahl

2. My second childhood book is Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte

3. My formative book is The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

4. My adult book is Atonement by Ian McEwan

5. My guilty pleasure is Katherine by Anya Seaton

The first book from my childhood was the most difficult of this whole list to choose . I have so many happy memories of fairy stories, Enid Blyton, C.S Lewis, Nancy Drew, Mrs Pepperpot, Charlotte’s Web, Anne of Green Gables, Little WomenThe Borrowers etc that I read, and had read to me, in my early childhood. I choose Matilda in the end as it was one of my favourite books when I was very young. I think Roald Dahl mixes the humour and the darker side of childhood better than anyone. Matilda trotting off to the library to read appealed to me as a bookish child and Miss Trunchbull has to be one of the best literary villains of all time.

Jane Eyre was the first classic ‘grown up’ book that I read aged 10 or 11. I remember being precociously proud that I was reading Jane Eyre whilst my friends still grappled with The Famous Five. At last, I had found something I was really good at: reading! Since then, I have reread Jane Eyre many times for pleasure and more recently for one of my early MA essays. It contains one of my favourite quotes from any book: ‘I am no bird; and no net ensnares me: I am a free human being with an independent will…’ Ever since that has helped me remember that I am free to choose, which I do need reminding of sometimes!

The Handmaid’s Tale is a strong contender for my favourite book ever. I was 15 or 16 when I read this for this first time and I vividly remember reading the last sentence, looking up from my chair and feeling like my understanding of the world has profoundly changed. It literally blew me away. Since then, like with Jane Eyre, I have reread it many times for pleasure; studied it for A Level English Literature and chosen to use it for my MA dissertation. I think it is one of the most important books of the twentieth century and I am sure it will stand the test of time.

I have chosen Atonement by Ian McEwan as another for my list. This is again a rare book which fundamentally changed my outlook on life. I was haunted by it after I’d finished for weeks and thought the twist at the end was one of the most clever things I’d ever read.

Finally, my guilty pleasure is Katherine by Anya Seaton. This is one of my favourite books and I am blushing as I type this as I know it is somewhat uncool. I am a complete sucker for a good historical romance and Katherine is one of the best. The research Anya Seaton had done shines through and Katherine emerges as a real, believable woman, very much of her time, but someone who made her own independent choices (see Jane Eyre quote above to know that is important to me!) I recently had to buy a new copy as my original – given to me by my Grandma – was falling apart I had read it so much!

What would your list contain?