Category Archives: Guardian 1000 novels

Guardian 1000 novels challenge – completed!


Rules: Read and review 10 books (1%) of the Guardian’s 1000 novels everyone should read before they die list

Of these 10, you must read 1 from each category and, if possible, 1 should be a book you have never heard of until you saw it on this list.

Timeframe: 1st February 2009 – 1st February 2010

Thanks so much to Jennie: for hosting this challenge and drawing my attention to the Guardians list. I had heard of the 1001 books to read before you die list but not this one. I enjoyed very much choosing books to read for this challenge. I seem to be naturally drawn to books from the love section – science fiction and fantasy and comedy were a bit more challenging! I hope to tick more books off the list in 2010.

Another version of the list in alphabetical order by author is here

Books read:

1. Austerlitz – W.G. Sebald (War and travel)
2. The Blue Flower – Penelope Fitzgerald (Love) (had never heard of this one)
3. To Kill A Mockingbird – Harper Lee (Crime)
4. A Girl in Winter – Philip Larkin (State of the nation)
5. The Woman in White – Wilkie Collins (Crime)
6. The Garden of the Finzi-Continis – Giorgio Bassani (Love)
7. North and South – Elizabeth Gaskell (State of the nation)
8. The Savage Detectives – Roberto Bolano (War and travel)
9. The Colour Purple – Alice Walker (Family and self)
10. Northanger Abbey – Jane Austen (Love)
11. The Victorian Chaise-longue – Marghanita Laski (Science fiction & Fantasy)
12. The Wasp Factory – Iain Banks (Science fiction & Fantasy)
13. Jane Eyre – Charlotte Bronte (Love)
The Picture of Dorian Gray – Oscar Wilde (Family and self)
15. The Time Traveler’s Wife – Audrey Niffenegger (Science Fiction & Fantasy)

The Time Traveler’s Wife – Audrey Niffenegger

The Time Travelers Wife

This is another of those books that has been on my “should read” list for a while but one I haven’t been that motivated to try. I think it was probably the time travel bit that sub-consciously put me off – I’m not especially adventurous with anything fantasty/science fiction related but I needn’t have worried. This is quite simply a beautiful love story and the first book I have ever read that has made me cry.

Henry time travels. Back or forward in time, outside of his control. It appears to be stress related. He always travels naked leaving piles of clothes in random places just as he disappears. He meets Clare in the meadow of her parents house when she is 6 and he is 36. He already knows then that they will marry when she is 22 and he is 30.

The book really is a story of their love and their lives together and quite often apart. The “chronology” is a bit hard to follow as Henry’s age changes back and forth throughout. For the first few chapters I was flicking back trying to piece it all together but in the end I gave up and just went with it and it worked much better.

I connected with both Henry and Clare’s characters. Especially Clare as a little girl trusting and helping this man who would come into her life every few weeks or months or sometimes years, leaving him clothes and food and accepting that sometimes he would arrive from a time when for him, they hadn’t yet met.

The story is told in a down to earth and contemporary way which I liked. It could have all been a bit surreal otherwise but Clare and Henry’s interactions helped to keep it all real.

There were a couple of things I didn’t like so much – Clare’s language when describing how she was feeling at one point was totally out of character I thought and I was quite shocked. Not that I’m overly prudish but I thought it was unnecessary and a bit odd. I also would have liked the “less polite” side of Henry’s character to have been more integrated into the story – I didn’t fully accept that aspect of him.

But they are just small things and didn’t detract at all from my enjoyment of this wonderful, long overdue read. I left it at work once by mistake, and was devastated to have to go a whole night without reading it.

Read for the RIP IV challenge, Guardian 1000 novels, Whitcoulls challenge

Published 2003, 518 pages

The Picture of Dorian Gray – Oscar Wilde

The Picture of Dorian Gray large

“If only it was the picture who was to grow old, and I remain young. There’s nothing in the world I wouldn’t give for that. Yes, I would give even my soul for it”

First paragraph The studio was filled with the rich odour of roses, and when the light summer wind stirred amidst the trees of the garden there came through the open door the heavy scent of the lilac, or the more delicate perfume of the pink flowering thorn.

Oscar Wilde’s only novel is a sensuous, decadent, witty, seedy tale. Straight away I knew I was going to love it. The opening paragraph sets the scene – indulgence of the senses which is one of the major themes of the book.

Young, beautiful and innocent, Dorian Gray’s beauty has enchanted the painter Basil Hallward. The resulting portrait is exquisite.

Lord Henry Wotton meets Dorian Gray through the painter and is immediately taken with him. He takes him under his wing and begins to influence him with his theories on life – art and beauty being the most important things and should be pursued at all costs. Religion, morals, marriage, convention – all undesirable and to be avoided.

Lord Henry Wotton is the sly villian encouraging Dorian Gray to lead in effect a double life, that of a respectable gentleman by day while indulging in unmentionable pleasures of the senses by night.

Lord Henry Wotton is the representative of Wilde’s wit. On almost every page is a statement about life – mostly obnoxious and controversial – and hilarious.

‘Not at all,’ answered Lord Henry, ‘not at all my dear Basil. You seem to forget that I am married, and the one charm of marriage is that it makes a life of deception absolutely necessary for both parties..’

Dorian Gray finds his wish for eternal youth and beauty granted. He remains physically the same while the painting which is under lock and key bears the effects of his sins, slowy growing more and more grotesque.

Of course there is a price to pay for everything and this is the moral side of Wilde’s story.

Controversial when it was first published, hints of homosexual relations and it’s apparent lack of morals meant it was poorly received by many critics. Wilde made several amendments to the second editon in response. The book was also used as evidence against Wilde in his subsequent trial.

None of the major characters were especially likeable or admirable in the story. What I loved about it was the humour, the vivid descriptions and the thought provoking themes. The difference between respectable Victorian London and the dingy night houses on the outskirts of the city were wonderfully written. I came away wanting to learn more about Oscar Wilde.

Published: 1891
Pages: 213
Challenges: RIP IV, Classics, Guardian 1000 novels

Jane Eyre – Charlotte Bronte


“I am no bird; and no net ensnares me; I am a free human being with an independent will.”

 “I care for myself. The more solitary, the more friendless, the more unsustained I am, the more I will respect myself….. Laws and principles are not for the times when there is no temptation . . . They have a worth—so I have always believed; and if I cannot believe it now, it is because I am insane—quite insane: with my veins running fire, and my heart beating faster than I can count its throbs.”

In a way I feel lucky to have read so few classics because of the joy of experiencing a story like this for the first time. Of course I then think what I have been missing for all these years but also what amazing reading there is to look forward to.

What more is there to say about one of the best loved of the classics? Having lived and breathed Jane Eyre for the past week I feel sure it will now always be one of my favourite books. The copy I read was from the library, I will be getting a copy of my own. I don’t tend to re read books (apart from Rosamund Pilcher’s The Shell Seekers which I fall in love with all over again every few years), but this is a book that has so much to say, I’m sure I have missed plenty on the first read and even if I don’t re read it, I just want to have a copy close by if that makes sense?

Jane Eyre original publicaton

Jane Eyre is told in the first person and some aspects of it are semi autobiographical. Parts of Charlotte Bronte’s early life are reflected in the story. Jane is an orphan and has to endure a harsh childhood firstly with her cruel aunt and cousins and then at Lowood, a strict charity boarding school. She is shown some kindness at the school and learns by the example of the superintendant Miss Temple and another pupil Helen Burns who becomes her friend. Later she acquires a position as governess at the imposing Thornwood Hall and meets her dark and brooding master Mr Rochester. Jane is drawn to him, and he to her but he has his secrets which will affect Jane drastically.

There is much more…but I don’t want to give too much away..

There are many elements to the book. It is a love story. It has a definite gothic feel with its atmospheric landscapes and cold, dark nights. The opposing elements of fire and ice appear throughout, the imposing Thornton Hall with it’s secrets and cries in the night. The unconventional Mr Rochester, ghostly suggestions…

And then there is the character of Jane – without family, friends and means, she is dependant and powerless. Despite her situation, she strives to stand by her principles, to mantain her integrity and personal freedom.

Considering this book was published in 1847, (under the male psuedonym of Currer Bell), the bold actions of Jane Eyre caused quite a stir upon first release. It was controversial for a woman of Jane’s station in life to be thinking and acting in an independant way.I think its principles remain sound. It would be wonderful if every young girl had the opportunity to read it.

The classics I have been reading this year seem to be getting better and better. I’m wondering if there will be anything to match this?

Published: 1847
Pages: 624
Challenges: Classics, Guardian 1000 novels, Whitcoulls II, RIP IV,

The Wasp Factory – Iain Banks

The wasp factory

“I had been making the rounds of the Sacrifice Poles the day we heard my brother had escaped. I already knew something was going to happen; the Factory told me.”

The joy of reading challenges! This is a book and an author I would never have discovered otherwise. I found it disturbingly brilliant and loved it.

If the above opening paragraph sounds weird, it is. It reminded me of a combination of Catcher in the Rye, American Psycho and Lord of the Flies. It is the story of 16 year old Frank, who lives on an isolated Scottish Island with his father, a retired scientist. Frank’s father is odd.

Frank narrates us through his upbringing – dysfunctional to say the least. In a manner devoid of any emotion, he calmly recounts in minute detail his history and daily life on the island. In essence, Frank tortures animals, kills young relatives and performs religious type rituals.

“Two years after I killed Blyth I murdered by young brother Paul, for quite different and more fundamental reasons that I’d disposed of Blyth, and then a year after that I did my young cousin Esmerelda, more or less on a whim. That’s my score to date. Three. I haven’t killed anybody for years, and don’t intend to ever again. It was just a stage I was going through.”

Despite his calm exterior, Frank life is full of anxiety. To dispel this anxiety, directed by the “wasp factory”, he has a number of rituals and tasks that he spends his days completing. These mainly involve patrolling the island, checking on his sentries (dead animals on poles), and negating any perceived threats. Frank considers his primary enemies to be women and the sea.

The news that his brother Eric has escaped froman asylum and is making his way back to the island, killing and eating dogs along the way increases Frank’s anxiety levels.

This books is full of secrets. Frank tells us of his “unfortunate disability” and the “unpleasant incident” that turned his brother Eric mad. Frank’s father insists on cooking all of Frank’s meals and has a study that is constantly locked. Frank checks it everytime his father leaves the house hoping he has forgotten to lock it which he never has. Then there is the “wasp factory”, installed in the attic which is the only place Frank’s father can’t access with his dodgy leg. We as the reader need to make out way through the book to have these secrets revealed.

I am soft when it comes to animals. So much so that I don’t even watch Disney movies involving animals in case something happens to them. For this reason I wasn’t sure that I could cope with this book but it didn’t turn out to be a problem. There was only one scene I found shocking. All I can say is that it involves maggots and completely freaked me out.

There is a big twist at the end which changes the whole context of the story.

I enjoyed this book mainly for its humour. The bizzareness and deadpan narration style were hilarious at times. Also the psychological profile aspect of Frank who actually was quite an endearing character. How could that be? And why did I respond to him in that way? Lots of layers to this book which were challenging and fun to explore.

I’m just thinking how I might be able to squeeze another book by Iain Banks into my RIP challenge pool… The Crow Road maybe?

Favourite quote:

”  I didn’t need a pee because I’d been pissing on the poles during the day, infecting them with my scent and power.” Pg 14

Published: 1984

Pages: 244

Challenges: RIP IV, Guardian 1000 novels, Orbis Terrarum

The Victorian Chaise-longue – Marghanita Laski

The Victorian Chaise-longue

Melanie who is recovering from TB and the birth of her first child has been confined to bed rest. Doted on by her husband, doctor and nursemaid, she is delighted to be allowed to repair from her bed to her victorian chaise -longue which she had picked up in a charity shop. The idea of resting on the chaise longue seems like such freedom after the confines of the bed. She settles in for a restful nap…..
… and wakes up no longer Melly but Milly, she is the same person but in another woman’s body and if that wasn’t enough she has been transported back to Victorian times where she is still confined to bed rest, still on the chaise-longue. No matter how she tries to communicate it, nobody believes that she is not Milly. The spiralling events in Milly’s life are happening to Melanie and there is nothing she can do about it.

The concept behind this little book is certainly terrifying. It’s like having one of those dreams where you try to speak or shout but nothing happens or you are desperately trying to look at something but no matter how hard you try it is impossible to focus. I think the feeling of being trapped of having absolutely no control would be very frightening.

Unfortunately though I didn’t feel any of this terror for Melanie as I read this story. I wanted to keep reading to find out what would happen but in a curious way rather than actually caring about what happened to her. While it was a clever idea, I would have liked to have felt more when reading it

Published: 1953
Pages: 99
Challenges: Guardian 1000 novels, R.I.P IV challenge

Northanger Abbey – Jane Austen

Northanger Abbey

I am almost a complete novice when it comes to Jane Austen’s books. Last year I skimmed through Pride and Prejudice and liked it but I kept imagining the movie and tv versions the whole way through. I have watched the BBC’s version with Colin Firth and Jennifer Ehle many times, absolutely love it and have also seen the later movie a couple of times as well so it was hard to assess the actual book.

I didn’t really fancy reading Northanger Abbey just now. I am waiting for a swashbuckling true adventure/spy book to arrive from Green Metropolis and in anticipating reading that book, a gentle classic didn’t seem that appealing. But, once I got started I found it a really absorbing book.

Jane Austen’s heroine in this story is Catherine Morland, an ordinary 17 year old, full of enthusiasm about a pending trip to Bath with Mr and Mrs Allen, trusted friends of the family. Once in Bath she makes the acquaintance of two sets of brothers and sisters, the Thorpes and the Tilney’s. Her relationship with each of these four characters makes up most of the story and on the invitation of General Tilney she finds herself a guest for several weeks at their family home, Northanger Abbey. Encouraged by her new friend Isabella Thorpe, Catherine has been reading some gothic horror novels, in particular “The Mysteries of Udolpho” by Ann Radcliffe and finds herself completely carried away by the dark corridors, sinister looking chests and locked rooms of the abbey coupled with the pre requisite howling wind and creaky floorboards in the dead of night.

I’m not sure why I enjoyed this quite as much as I did. I didn’t particularly like any of the characters and thought the romance in the story was a bit understated. I much preferred Pride and Prejudice on that one! I found some of the narration quite wordy and am not sure what I thought of the author popping up every now and again with her thoughts on the heroine. But I did find myself getting very involved with the characters, more than I have in a while and was almost shouting at the book at one point – when Isabella and John Thorpe were each trying to railroad Catherine into doing what they wanted. Catherine’s naievity was charming but also so frustrating! I guess that is the sign of a good book though if it produces that sort of reaction.

I enjoyed the whole gothic sense to the book and had fun imagining Northanger Abbey with all its apparent secrets.

So, I haven’t fallen in love with Jane Austen just yet but am looking forward to reading another of her books soon. I think that out of curiosity I will have to add The Mysteries of Udolpho to my TBR list.

Published: 1817
Pages: 288
Challenges: Classics, Compass, Guardian 1000 novels, Support your local library

The Colour Purple – Alice Walker

The Colour Purple

The Colour Purple is one of those books that I have had on my mental “should read” list for years. Knowing it is loved and acclaimed but for some reason never being that interested in reading it. The Time Traveler’s Wife and The Book Thief also fall into this category and I am determined to read at least one of these this year as well.

I wanted to read a selection of books for the Southern Reading challenge and it just seemed right to choose this one. It also fitted in nicely to the Colourful reading and Book awards 3 challenges. I am quite challenge focused right now with a few challenges due to finish soon. I also know I have over committed myself re challenges but I just can’t resist. Anyway, that is a topic for another post.

Back to The Colour Purple. I enjoyed it. I don’t think I quite had my jaw on the ground but am sure I was reading with my mouth open in horror at the first few pages. Celie is brought up in the saddest and harshest of environments. Beaten and raped by her father from the age of 14, her mother turning a blind eye to it with relief that it is no longer happening to her. Her two resulting children taken away from her, she presumes killed. No formal education, only able to speak basic English and all this being the accepted norm for a child who is a “girl, black and ugly”.

Celie’s situation only gets worse when she is married off to a man who was really interested in her sister but persuaded to take Celie as he needed someone to look after his children. The cycle continues.

The story is told by Celie in letter form, mostly the letters she writes to God and despite the terrible start, she is able to learn and grow and find happiness. Her saviour comes in the form of Shug, a glamorous singer who Celie admires from afar and eventually grows to love.

I finished the book with a “warm fuzzy” feeling and thought the ending was good and right. I think that for once, I might enjoy the movie at least as much as the book.

Alice Walker wrote in the preface to the 10 year edition that this was always a spiritual book – learning to move from the religious to the spiritual. This overall theme of the book was lovely.

The Colour Purple won the Pulitzer prize in 1983.

Published: 1982
Pages: 272
Challenges: Southern Reading challenge, Colourful reading challenge, Book Awards 3, Guardian 1000 novels, Support your local library challenge

The Savage Detectives – Roberto Bolano

The Savage Detectives

Finally, I have finished this book, which at 608 pages is long but even so it took me ages to get through it. I didn’t do it any justice by putting it to one side for weeks at a time before picking it up again and complaining to myself that there wasn’t much of a plot. There is a plot, it just took a bit of finding.

I can imagine this book having a cult following and being made into a Quentin Tarantino movie, minus the excessive violence, it certainly has it’s moments that aren’t for the faint hearted but the main theme of the book isn’t overly violent. It has the necessary fly by the seat of your pants, quirky, road trip type feel about it though, with the introduction of plenty of random characters throughout.

The story starts off in Mexico city in the late 1970’s and it is Mexico that is the heart and soul of the story. Juan García Madero is 17 years old, studying law to please his family but really just wanting to write poetry. He secretly enrols in a poetry club. Here he meets a group of would be poets, the Visceral Realists, lead by the Chilean Arturo Belano, and his sidekick, the Mexican Ulises Lima. Madero is invited to join the group and is soon spending his days sitting in café’s drinking coffee, writing for hours on end and his nights sitting in café’s drinking alcohol and discussing poetry for hours on end. A lot of time is spent in the house of the Fonts, and the two sisters Maria and Angelica are involved with most of the male characters at some time or the same time. Anything goes, the group being bound together by their idealism around South American literature and poetry. Belano and Lima are on the hunt for the mother of Mexican poetry and Visceral Realism who hasn’t been seen for years. It is this hunt that sees them leave Mexico city at the end of the first part of the book, with Madero in toe along with a prostitute named Lupe and her gangster pimp Alberto hot on their heels.

The first part of the book is crazy and funny and Roberto Bolano does an excellent job of recreating how it would have been to be part of the group at this time in Mexico. The pages ooze with atmosphere and it is this spirit of passion and freedom that is the highlight of the book in my opinion. It is the sort of book that opens your eyes to new possibilities and makes you want to throw a few things in a backpack and just take off for South America.

The second part of the book and by far the longest at over 400 pages was where I came unstuck. It is titled “The Savage Detectives” and refers to Belano and Lima and their search for this elusive Mother of Mexican Poetry Cesárea Tinajero. It took me quite a while to figure this out and even who the book’s central characters were. It would have been helpful to have a list of characters at the front but that wouldn’t have been in keeping with the spirit of the book at all! This second section consists of recollections by many different characters in different parts of the world over a 20 year time span not in any real order. Each recalls their experiences with one or both of the central characters and could be read as little short stories on their own. They are really quite cool, very candid and unique but I felt this section was far too long. It could easily have been halved and would have greatly enhanced my reading enjoyment!

This story is unlike anything I’ve read before and I’m really pleased to have read it. I’m sure it didn’t need to be the struggle I made it. It’s a bit crazy and full of possibilities but also has a feeling of hopelessness that seeped in as I got further into it. The fact that the character of Arturo Belano has so many similarities with Bolano’s own life makes it all the more interesting and encourages me to read more about and by Bolano. I’m not going to tackle 2666 for a while though. I know some bloggers are reading this in parts – one a month I think – if it is anything like the Savage Detectives then I think this is a very good idea!

Published: 2007
Translated from the Spanish by Natasha Wimmer
Pages: 608
Challenges: Lost in translation, Guardian 1000 novels, Support your local library, Orbis Terrarum

North and South – Elizabeth Gaskell

North and South

What a book. Margaret Hale – what a woman and Mr Thornton – what a man. I haven’t read many books from this era but if all the heroines are like the ones I have read about so far, I can’t wait. I read The Woman in White recently and was struck by the similarities between that heroine Marion Halcombe and Margaret Hale. From their shared initials to their challenging personal circumstances and both being the wind beneath the wings of their apprently prettier female relatives. Most importantly their incredible strength of character and selflessness. I loved it.

The story follows the fortunes of the Hale family as they move from a relatively comfortable life in the South of England to what Margaret perceives as the harshness of the industrial town of Milton in the North. She finds the weather colder, the people coarser, the town smoky and misses her previous life terribly. Finding herself in the middle of a strike by the millworkers, she comes to see life in Milton through different eyes and her feelings begin to change.

Despite the many hardships that fall upon the characters, many on Margaret herself, she is the sort of person who strives always for the good and inspires those around her to do the same. There are several transformations in this story.

Just wonderful.. and that is without mentioning her dealings with a certain Mr Thornton…

Published: 1855

Pages: 425 + notes

Challenges: Classics, Elizabeth Gaskell mini challenge, compass, Guardian 1000 novels, Support your local library