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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Comfort reading

Comfort eating is a term we hear all the time, but personally, when the chips are down, I turn to my books. It has been a difficult fortnight for many reasons and so I have been burying myself in a few books to keep my chin up. I thought I’d share them with you in case you do the same or in case they are as helpful to you as they have been for me.

The first thing I consulted was The Novel Cure: An A-Z of Literary Remedies. I thought this would have some wise suggestions and sure enough, it did. Jane Eyre was one of the prescriptions for my particular malady and so I turned to the classic gladly.

The second thing I did was to reach for the books that I know I find comforting. The literary equivalent of a hug. There were as follows:

– Howards End is on the Landing by Susan Hill

A book about books that I have mentioned many times and will, unapologetically, continue to mention. Hill’s gentle memoir is like a long warm soak in a bubble bath, followed by warm, fluffy towels. She describes pouring over pop-up books and reading Dickens by the fire as the rain hammers on the windows. Wonderful stuff and just what I needed this week.

– The Magic Apple Tree by Susan Hill

Another Susan Hill, but no apologies from me for it! The descriptions of her making marmalade in her country kitchen, the seasons changing around her cottage and the moods of the magic apple tree of the title are so comforting. Some of the scenes remind my of my own childhood in the countryside, which is one of the reasons I find it so therapeutic. There is also something about nature being so much bigger and older than ourselves that I find strangely calming. This is just such a gentle, peaceful book and that is just what a troubled soul needs.

The English Country House by Julian Fellowes and James Peill

The English Country House by James Peill

The English Country House by James Peill

Does any one else find gorgeous interiors and big fat coffee table books dripping with images incredibly soothing? This was one of my Christmas presents from my lovely husband and I’ve been drooling over it!

Lord of the Rings by J.R.R.Tolkein

If life is proving a bit tricky, I find a bit of pure escapism is sometimes a balm. How could I worry about my own troubles when there is a dark magic ring to destroy, mountains to climb, rivers to cross and orks to avoid? The central message that friendship conquers all also has a nice feel to it.

So after all that reading, I am now feeling a lot better and ready to return to my blogging. Normal service of two to three posts per week will be resumed and I am looking forward to sharing lots of bookish things with you.


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Favourite Books of 2013

Here are my favourite books of 2013. It has been very hard to choose, but my criteria was the stories that had stuck in my memory and lingered on after I had read the last page. These are books that were new to me in 2013, rather than all books that were published in 2013.

Parade’s End

This was an extremely challenging read and I was relieved to finish it. However, it is in my favourites list because of the massive sense of achievement it gave me, the beautiful sentences and the intriguing characters. I’ve never read a book quite like Parade’s End and that is an accolade in itself.

A Novel Cure: An A – Z of literary remedies

I’ve not done a full review of this yet so I am slightly jumping the gun, but over the last few weeks, I’ve been thoroughly enjoying my rifle through the ailments and literary cures in this tome. Chosen again because it is a unique addition to my collection, it is fascinating and a brilliant topic of conversation as you debate each prescription!

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy

Just wonderful really. This was the biggest surprise of the year for me as a someone who is not a big crime or spy book reader. Exquisitely rendered characters, a sense of menace and desperation and some of the best plotting I have ever had the joy to read – highly recommended!

Howard’s End is on the Landing

I discovered this in June time and if you’ve been reading this blog since then, I’m sure you could have predicted this would be in my favourites list. Susan Hill has become one of my favourite writers this year. Previously, I hadn’t got much further than The Woman in Black, but thanks to blogs like Cornflower and dovegreyreader, I’ve had the joy of discovering her writing, both fiction and non-fiction, this year.

On a more personal note, 2013 will stand out for me as the year my eyes were opened by our wonderful trip to China in particular. The world hasn’t looked quite the same since!

What have your favourites been?

Have a Happy New Year and see you in 2014!


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Spine-Tingling Halloween Ghost Stories

Witch on a broom image

 

With the leaves falling in earnest now and Halloween just around the corner, I thought it was the right moment for a post about books that give us a scare! Ghost stories and horrors are my guilty pleasure, are they yours? What does it say about us I wonder, that we enjoy being scared? Do we enjoy the adrenaline rush when we know it is not really real? Are our lives so comfortable that we have to get our kicks vicariously? Are we curious about what our reactions would be in unusual circumstances? Probably all of the above, but I know that I have certainly imagined myself and what my reactions would be into my favourite stories.

I remember reading an article that claimed the ghost story was dying out, but I’m not at all sure that is true. I think rather that it is just evolving from the ‘slap-you-round-the-face’ gothic horror of old (Edgar Allen Poe I’m looking at you) to a subtler, more modern take. Kate Mosse’s The Winter Ghosts is a very good example of this, as is The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters. Talking of more modern stories, is now a good time to mention the one and only Stephen King as well? I know he is often frowned upon, but is there a scarier story than The Shining? Even the film makes me fearful of going upstairs on my own, let along the book (which is far, far scarier I think)!

Some of my more historic treats include The Turn of the Screw by Henry James. This is on my bedside table ready for a re-read on 31st! I’ve also long had a soft spot for Collected Ghost Stories by M.R. James. Hardly anyone I mention this treasure-trove to in real live has heard of this so I’m hoping my internet friends can join me in singing its praises as a good, old-fashioned set of spine-tinglers!

It would be rude of me not to include Susan Hill’s wonderful The Woman in Black in any post about ghost stories. I’ve mentioned my love for this before, but let me restate it! This is without a doubt the best ghost story I have ever read. Modern gothic and truly terrifying! It is also one of those rare books that made the world change, just a little bit, when you finish it and realise that black print on a page made you feel more alive than you have for weeks or maybe months. I’ve also been to see this on the stage in London. It had been a very long time since I had read the book at that time and so my recollection of it was somewhat hazy. This turned out to be extremely fortunate because I had the joy of being scared out of my wits all over again! There were only three actors and almost no scenery or props and yet it was one of the most enthralling three hours of my life! If you haven’t had the pleasure of seeing it, and enjoy a bit of white knuckle terror go, go, go!!

Have a fun and happy Halloween! You’ll find me, ignoring my door bell, curled up with a fright-fest of books!


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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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Slow reading

Although I mentioned this in a previous post, I thought slow reading was so interesting it deserved a post of its own!

In her lovely book, Howards End is on the Landing, Susan Hill recommends the virtues of slow reading; of savouring words and paragraphs, rolling them around in your brain and digesting them at leisure. This really struck a chord with me as I am more of a gobbler. I am greedy with words. I devour them in large chunks and with unseemly haste.

“It will not get us anything that enters not just the conscious mind but the unconscious. It will not allow the book to burrow down into our memory and become part of ourselves, the accumulation of knowledge and wisdom and vicarious experience which helps to form us as complete human beings. It will not develop our awareness or add to the sum of our knowledge and intelligence. Read parts of a newspaper quickly or an encyclopaedia entry, or a fast-food thriller, but do not insult yourself or a book which has been created with its author’s painstakingly acquired skill and effort, by seeing how fast you can dispose of it.”

She is so right. Since I read this paragraph above in particular, I’ve been trying my best to read more slowly, with mixed success. I find myself racing away without really realising it and then have to draw myself back in. What I am finding though is that slow reading makes certain books a much more nourishing experience than before, but it doesn’t work with every book. Some of my holiday books for example were pacey and easy with few hidden depths and I think they are enjoyed more for reading quickly with the brain off. It helps you enjoy the story for what it is, without being a snob and cringing over the odd awkward sentence, typo* or repetition.

If you would like to know more, here are some useful resources I came across in my slow reading research:

The Art of Slow Reading

Reading Fast and Slow

A Slow Books Manifesto

What do you think? Are you a slow reading fan?

* On an unrelated note, have you noticed that there are more typos and repetition errors in books over the last few years or is it just me? The demise of the literary editor might be a future post!


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Howards End is on the Landing

Susan Hill is a wonderful writer and I have a feeling that if I were ever lucky enough to meet her, I would find a kindred spirit. I have not read much of her fiction, apart from the wonderful The Woman in Black and The Second Mrs De Winter, but her non-fiction is so evocative and well-written I almost prefer it.

I was introduced to my first non-fiction Susan Hill book by my regular blog read, DoveGreyReader Scribbles. DoveGreyReader and her subscribers recommended The Magic Apple Tree as a touching meditation on life in a small village. At the time I read those comments, I was feeling a little overwhelmed by life in London and so jumped at the chance to immerse myself in the changing seasons of the English countryside and I was richly rewarded.

After that, I forgot about Susan Hill until I saw this beautiful book on a table in Waterstone’s. Howards End is on the Landing has one of the nicest covers I’ve seen in a long time.

Howards End is on the Landing by Susan Hill

Howards End is on the Landing by Susan Hill

The blurb evoked a journey through Hill’s bookshelves and the importance of reading. I was hooked and couldn’t leave the shop without it. One reason this particularly appealed to me that day was I’d been having a slightly heated discussion with the love of my life about the problem of book storage. He was asking me to whittle down my collection so we could avoid the double stacking, stacks on the floor, general nightmare of our study cum third bedroom. I was horrified. Give away my books? How could I do that and deprive myself of re-reading them all when I’m too old or poor to buy any more? Or deprive myself of a niggling question about X author or Y last line that a quick flip through my shelves can answer? Or deprive myself of the sentimental value and memories tied to so many of my copies? You can imagine I gave a rather robust defence. Love me, love my books! So this was the conversation I had in mind when I picked up this book about a year of reading exclusively from your own collection and the joys of rediscovery. Perfect.

The first thing to say is that Hill’s home sounds wonderful! Cosy fires, bookshelves everywhere and nestled into the countryside. She describes wonderful autumn afternoons of browsing through the bookshelves and then settling down with her selections at the kitchen table or in a soft armchair, with a fire and a cup of tea. She talks of her reasons for doing this year of rereading as wanting to ‘repossess her books, explore what I had accumulated over a lifetime of reading and map this house of many volumes.’ I think that is exactly what I had in mind when thinking about why I was holding on so fiercely to all my own books.

There were so many gems of ideas, vignettes of Hill’s meetings with many authors and general bookish information in this book that I can’t begin to summarise them all, but one in particular that connected with me was about slow reading. Hill describes how her books deserve to be savoured: ‘Everything I am reading during this year has so much to yield but only if I give it my full attention and respect by reading it slowly.’ Hill is absolutely right that much is missed when reading quickly and it is a fault I know I have. I am so greedy for books I gobble them up quickly without pausing to reflect on the nuances and intricacies. I will now try to read more slowly to see if I get more from my own books.

At the end of the book, Hill lists the forty books that she could not be without. I have read about a quarter of them so that will be a challenge to do later this year. I grew to respect Hill’s opinions so much in this book that I will take her top forty extremely seriously. I suspect that Howards End is on the Landing may just be in my top forty.