Hope you’re enjoying the week so far! I certainly am. Here’s a game you can play whilst you read, this week… spot the books which appear more than once! One particular novel makes three appearances, I believe… and you can probably already guess which children’s author is going to dominate proceedings…
Hayley has been a member of my online book group for many years, and so I was delighted when she finally took the plunge and started up her blog Desperate Reader. She knows as much about whisky as she does about books – which sounds like winter evenings at her house must be rather lovely!
Karyn lives in Australia and has the most niche blog I’ve come across – and deliciously niche, too, since it only covers old Penguin books. Appropriately titled A Penguin A Week, it does when it says on the tin. I recently had the pleasure of meeting Karyn, making her the furthest-flung blogger I’ve met.
Qu.1) Did you grow up in a book-loving household, and did your parents read to you? Pick a favourite book from your childhood, and tell me about it.
Yes – dad had inherited a Victorian house with a library, lots of Wilkie Collins, illustrated bibles, bound copies of Punch
, and mouldering boxes of book club choices in the attic. I wish I’d had more time to explore in there before the house went. My mother is, if anything, an even more compulsive buyer of books than I am (she turned her spare room into a library which works for her because she doesn’t like guests much) so there have always been a lot of books. I remember dad reading The Wind in the Willows
to me but not much else sticks. It took me ages to learn to read and then it clicked pretty much overnight – that was the power of Enid Blyton. I loved the secret series and the famous five – especially the ones set on islands, and Five On A Treasure Island
was an absolute favourite. I only remember sketchy details now but bits have stuck like glue. Blyton was a terrific writer for children, she made me feel like adventure was on the doorstep – and criminals excluded, it was. Nothing could distract me from those books and happily my parents were really good about always buying us loads of books.
Karyn: No, I wouldn’t describe it as a book-loving household. Everyone read, and reading was certainly encouraged, but no one collected books, or thought to assemble a library, or spent any time discussing what they had read. It was romance novels and adventure stories, and reading for entertainment.
I don’t remember being read to; my parents were both very young and they worked a lot of hours saving to buy a house. I can still remember how exciting it was to be given a book though, so perhaps it didn’t happen very often. My earliest obsession was with The Famous Five, and I’m sure I loved every one even though I don’t remember anything about them now. I’ll nominate Five get into a Fix, because I can still remember that cover. I came across the same edition recently in a secondhand book store in Chester and bought it for my daughter.
Qu.2) What was one of the first ‘grown-up’ books that you really enjoyed?
I pretty much went straight from The Famous Five
to Dorothy L. Sayers when I was about 12 but much as I enjoyed herand others who weren’t children’s writers – I was still reading as a child. I think grown up reading probably started a year later with Gavin Maxwell’s Harpoon at a Venture
. My sister and I had moved from one parent to another, from Scotland to England. It was a huge move and we got very homesick; a book about an abortive attempt to hunt basking sharks in the Hebrides really helped.
Like most of Maxwell’s books it’s an object lesson in the best (or worst) laid plans going wrong but with wonderful writing and the sense that you could try anything however unlikely (never mind that it always seems to go wrong for him) it was inspiring.
Karyn: When I was 11 I was rewarded for winning some contest at school with the Penguin editions of Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre, and so they were the first grown-up books I read. I think I understood very little, although I can still remember everything about the moment at which I read of Helen’s death, of where I was and who I was with, and I think it was the most devastated I had felt by that age.
Qu.3) Pick a favourite book that you read in early adulthood – especially if it’s one which helped set you off in a certain direction in life.
It’s not exactly a favourite but Jancis Robinson’s Confessions of a Wine Lover
changed my life. I was working in a bookshop and picked it up one lunch time, her passion for wine jumped off the page and sent me straight into the nearest wine shop. That led to a job and that’s been my life for the last 13 years. Wine is endlessly fascinating – and there are new things happening all the time, this book opened up a whole world of possibilities and excitement.
Karyn: The book that helped to establish the direction of my reading life was John Fowles’ The Collector. I read constantly but aimlessly before I found it, without much idea how to choose what to read. But in The Collector John Fowles alludes to The Tempest and discusses other books and authors, and so it gave me a blueprint to follow. I set about finding and reading every book it mentioned, and then every book they mentioned, and in the 1980s that meant searching through secondhand stores or ordering them from overseas. At some point I noticed that much of what I was reading had been published by Penguin so I just started buying any secondhand book I found with an orange spine, and I’ve never stopped.
Qu.4) What’s one of your favourite books that you’ve found in the last five years, and how has blogging or the reading of blogs changed your reading habits?
There are a lot of favourite books from the last five years and blogs have had a huge influence on my reading. About four years ago I lost two jobs over six months (most careless) after which came a spell of near unemployment. It gave me a lot of time to read and a lot more time to spend online. Blogging was a godsend; it felt like a positive thing to do and had the unexpected bonus of bringing me into contact with lots of new people. Following other blogs has bought my attention to books I might never otherwise have heard of – like Frank Baker’s Miss Hargreaves
– and changed my reading habits entirely. I think more about what I’m reading, and about what I’m going to read. I make sure I finish books now which means I’m less likely to start something I don’t think I’ll enjoy, but the offer of review copies has lead me down paths I wouldn’t have expected. The downside is that there are so many things I want to read that it’s hard to remember it’s not a race sometimes. I used to re read favourite books all the time but rarely do it now, instead I get very excited about something, rave about it, and then all but forget it, however without doubt one of my favourite books of the last 5 years has been Lady Audley’s Secret
. It’s got a bit of everything – a cracking good story with a labyrinthine plot that never slows down and a touch of feminism in a villainess you can feel sympathy for. Proper can’t put it down stuff but thought provoking at the same time. Perfect.
Karyn: Blogging hasn’t changed my reading habits as I have always collected the Penguins in order to read them, but I now discuss these books with an audience that is bigger than just my husband. I find I read fewer books now though, as it takes me a few days to reflect on what I have read in order to write up a post, whereas previously I would have just moved straight on to the next book. The whole point of collecting and reading the old Penguins is to be exposed to books and authors I wouldn’t know of otherwise, and so I make discoveries all the time. My favourite so far has been The Last Tresilians by J.I.M. Stewart, an Oxford don better known as the mystery writer Michael Innes. It is the Penguin I would nominate as most deserving of a larger audience, and I loved everything about it.
Qu.5) Finally – a guilty pleasure, or a favourite that might surprise people!
I save the really trashy stuff for television where I’ll watch any old rubbish as long as it’s super colourful and glossy looking but sometimes (and this may not be a surprise, and I don’t feel very guilty about it either…) that spills over into my reading. I have a soft spot for Jilly Cooper circa Riders
. 1980s bonkbusters with horses and very little political correctness – Riders
was my book of choice for long train journeys back up north and it was a blast (apart from the bit where a horse dies which inevitably caused tears somewhere near Oxenholme). It was totally absorbing with a great villain and didn’t demand much thought which was a great way to bookend a holiday. I tried to read James Joyce’s Ulysses
on the same trip once but it didn’t take.
Karyn: My reading is strictly Penguins or books on maths and statistics, so no guilty pleasures there.
And… I’ve told you the other person’s choices, anonymously. What do you think these choices say about their reader?
Karyn, on Hayley’s choices: With the exception of Five on a Treasure Island these are books I don’t know, which makes it rather difficult have a guess at what these choices say about their chooser (no vintage Penguins!) I’m relying here entirely on the outlines published on the internet . Confessions of a Wine Lover seems the easiest, for it suggests this is someone who appreciates good food and wine, and perhaps this also implies someone who enjoys company and being social. I can see that the book is actually much more than this though, telling the story of Jancis Robinson’s lifelong obsession with wine, and that it is one of two autobiographies on the list. And I read that Lady Audley’s Secret also includes many biographical details, so perhaps this reader has an interest in people, in their stories and in their lives. The subject matter of the chosen titles is varied, but they all seem to share a grand scale; they seem to be complex and elaborate tales full of drama, adventure, and romance, celebrating life. I picture someone female, who is vibrant, outgoing and friendly, and with a wide range of interests.
Hayley, on Karyn’s choices: I would love to meet this person and spend an afternoon in bookish chat (assuming I haven’t already) choosing the Famous Five and Jane Eyre shows that we have common reading ground. I’ve skirted around The Collector for years and would love to get my hands on a copy of The Last Tresilians now I’ve read about it. I also like that this is someone who feels no guilt over their reading and like to think that this is because they see no reason to feel guilty about time spent with a book – it would be intimidating to imagine a person who is so well organised that there’s no time for self indulgence. It hardly needs saying that this is clearly a cultured, thoughtful reader. This list is a nice balance between classics, contemporary, and what I’m guessing was a chance find, I’d also guess that they collect books, and probably other things, as much for the book itself as for what may be inside it, and although there is probably a theme that runs through the books they really love I have an impression of someone who reads very widely to find those books.