2018 TBR Pile Challenge

This year isn’t even over, and I’m already planning ahead for challenges for next year! After a two-year hiatus (while he worked on his doctoral dissertation), Adam over at RoofBeamReader.com is resurrecting his TBR Pile Challenge.

The rules are quite simple: Select 12 books that have been sitting on your shelves for at least one year. These books have to be listed by January 15, 2018 in order to officially take part in the challenge. Also, don’t worry in case you struggle with finishing one or two of the books on your list as you are allowed to select two alternate books. This challenge is going to be so much fun! Not only do you get to knock a dozen books off your TBR list, but Adam also offers prizes as well! Just remember to go to the website above and sign up!

In addition to forming my list on this post, I’m going to add a page to my site that will have all of my 2018 challenges listed there, such as Back to the Classics and Austen in August.

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My 2018 TBR Pile Challenge List:

  1. If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler by Italo Calvino
  2. I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith
  3. Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison
  4. The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt
  5. The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi
  6. Carrie by Stephen King
  7. The Trial by Franz Kafka
  8. Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov
  9. Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes
  10. The Eye of the World by Robert Jordan
  11. The Old Curiosity Shop by Charles Dickens
  12. Moby Dick by Herman Melville (didn’t get to it in 2017, determined to tackle it)

Alternate Selections:

  1. The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell
  2. The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides 

I tried to find a good mix of titles for this challenge. It’s feeling pretty balanced. I’m all kinds of excited to participate in this challenge! You should join too and spread the word. You might even win a prize! CLICK HERE to join. Also, congratulations Adam for finishing your doctorate! Here’s to many more challenges for 2018!

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42. ‘The Murder of Roger Ackroyd’ by Agatha Christie

I was motivated to read an Agatha Christie mystery due to all of the hype surrounding the new big screen adaptation of her classic Murder on the Orient Express. Also, I needed to read and review a twentieth-century work for this year’s Back to the Classics challenge. I’m so pleased with my reading experience. This was such an engrossing read from start to finish that I can see why Christie is referred to as the Queen of Mystery. The Murder of Roger Ackroyd is classic detective fiction at its best!

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When I was a child, I dreamed of being a private detective. I would explore our house and backyard questioning suspects (including our dog) determined to solve the case. I probably annoyed my family with all my sleuthing. It was worth it because I always caught the culprit (it was usually the dog). As an adult, I have always loved murder mysteries. I always try so hard to figure it all out before the big reveal. Sadly, my detective skills never lead me down the correct path so I guess it’s good I became a therapist instead. A good mystery novel always is an excellent study into human behavior, yet another reason I enjoy them so much.

The Murder of Roger Ackroyd is the perfect introduction to the stories of Agatha Christie. It contains so many delicious elements such as a small country village, a brutal murder, a cast of interesting suspects, and lots of misdirection. Christie manages to get you engrossed in the book from the opening sentence. Once I was hooked, I couldn’t put it down. The story begins with the death of local widow Mrs. Ferrars who committed suicide by overdose. We soon learn that Mrs. Ferrars harbored a deep dark secret and sent a letter to her dear friend and confidante Roger Ackroyd. Unfortunately, things don’t end so well for poor Ackroyd (hence the title of the book). The local police are baffled. As luck would have it, the world famous detective Hercule Poirot has taken up his retirement in the village. Poirot is soon called out of retirement in order to help solve the murder.

The story is narrated by Dr. Sheppard who mistakes his new neighbor Poirot for a hairdresser. As it turns out, retirement which consists of growing vegetable marrows doesn’t suit the detective who immediately takes on Sheppard as his Dr. Watson of the story (there’s even a nod to this, nice of Christie to acknowledge her predecessor). I love the character of Hercule Poirot. The Belgian detective with his insight as well as his humor really endeared him to me. He can be overly comical but quite serious when the situation calls for it. The chemistry between him and Dr. Sheppard work quite well as the two work together to solve the case.

Another aspect of the book I really enjoyed was the humor. I love British comedy, and there are some really funny interactions in this book not just with Poirot but also with Sheppard’s meddling sister Caroline. Although she serves as a minor character, she really does get some of the best scenes. The other characters stand out fairly well, each with his or her own motive for wanting to eliminate Ackroyd. Each one is hiding something, and Poirot is determined to uncover each secret (and he does).

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Actor David Suchet played Hercule Poirot for over 25 years on television.

This is a challenging novel to review without revealing too many details which would ruin the unveiling of the killer. I’m determined to go spoiler-free though so I will say very little about the shocking revelation. What I will say is that I did not see it coming at all. Agatha Christie manages to construct the novel in such a way that your ideas of who it could be get thrown off in so many other directions when the murderer is standing right there in front of you. As good detective fiction is supposed to go, there are plenty of red herrings to throw you off the scent. I can understand why Ackroyd stands out as one of the greatest mysteries ever written. Most detective stories lose their luster after learning the truth. However, I would actually read this one again now that I know who the killer is just to catch all the clues that Christie manages to place in front of us the entire way through. It’s just brilliant writing.

In fact right after finishing the book, I watched the television episode of the story with David Suchet as Poirot. Although mostly faithful to the novel, there were several changes. I can understand for reasons I won’t explain why the changes had to be made for television, but overall I would just rate is as alright. Suchet, however, is phenomenal in the role of Poirot so I would definitely watch more episodes of the series.

As I looked through my copy of 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die, I was surprised that while this one made the list, Murder on the Orient Express was absent. Despite this omission, I definitely want to read that one. However, I may actually do the film version first.

The Murder of Roger Ackroyd is an entertaining book, and a work of genius– the method of murder is also cleverly worked out – tightly plotted and well crafted. This will definitely not be my final adventure with Hercule Poirot.

“The truth, however ugly in itself, is always curious and beautiful to seekers after it.”

Have you read this book or are you planning to? I’d love to know your thoughts! Please comment below!

Writing Advice from a Nobel Prize Winner

November is National Novel Writing Month. Each year, aspiring writers participate in NaNoWriMo with the hopes of completing a 50,000 word masterpiece. Once you sign up, the idea is to just write each day and track your word count. You can actually set your own word count goal if you feel that 50,000 just isn’t doable. I participated one year, and my best friend is actually taking part this year so I thought I would write a little motivational article for him (and all you aspiring authors out there). In order to illustrate my points, I turn to recent Nobel Prize winner Kazuo Ishiguro and his ability to pen a best-selling novel in less than a month.

Photo Credit: Francesco Guidicini

The idea of penning a novel seems like a fairly tall order. It requires lots of time, patience, and lots of revisions. While four weeks does not seem to be enough time to complete a work of the highest order, this dream is actually achievable. During my internet wanderings, I came across this excellent article on how Ishiguro’s masterpiece The Remains of the Day was actually penned in four weeks! Let’s take a moment. A novel that sold millions of copies around the world and launched Ishiguro into rock star status was actually drafted in one month!

It was interesting to read about the process Ishiguro undertook to complete the first draft of the book. Basically he committed himself to writing the entire day (allowing meal breaks) Monday through Saturday. Obviously, he had quite a lot of discipline to keep up this rigor even if it was for one month. I really liked what he said about how this schedule affected his state of mind:

In this way, so we hoped, I’d not only complete more work quantitively, but reach a mental state in which my fictional world was more real to me than the actual one.

I love how he allowed himself to be totally immersed within his fictional world, making it a part of his normal life. The reality is most of us cannot do this as we have to take care of little nuisances like going to work, paying the bills, caring for our children. However, I agree with the importance of making that time to write. Whether it’s an hour, or even fifteen minutes a day, time has to be set aside as part of a regular routine. Also, Ishiguro turned off all distractions, no contact with the outside world, no television, no phone calls.

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This is an area where I have struggled time and again. I tell myself that I’m going to get some writing done and never get it completed. Rule one is that writing has to become routine. You have to set down some time for the art of writing. I think it’s best to start with a simple goal of writing for half an hour or say I’m going to write 500 words daily. As with any goal, baby steps are needed to make this part of daily practice.

Another area where I trip myself up is my own inner critic. When I’m actually sitting down writing, I will sit down and stare at a blank screen waiting for the perfect words to come to me or I write something down and quickly regret it. We have to silence our inner critics. They are merciless and will rip us to shreds without mercy. That’s the beauty of NaNoWriMo. You are not expected to make corrections or do any type of revisions at all. Just sit down and write! Here’s what Ishiguro said about the month-long process of composing The Remains of the Day: 

The priority was simply to get the ideas surfacing and growing. Awful sentences, hideous dialogue, scenes that went nowhere – I let them remain and ploughed on.

I remember reading a book on writing from author Natalie Goldberg who talked about the importance of just writing with no cares towards being awful. I liked her technique, which was to purchase the cheapest writing pads she could and just sit down and write whatever came into her mind. She would fill up notebook upon notebook, and some of it was salvageable.

Basically kids, in order to create good writing, you have to be ready to write tons of bad writing.

The other important lesson I gained from the Ishiguro article is on the importance of little moments from life that can add depth to your writing. Whether it’s a scene from a film or a song that truly moves you, these times can help spring inspiration into your writing. For example Ishiguro heard a song by Tom Waits that helped him decide the right time to create an emotionally powerful scene in his novel. It doesn’t even have to be music or film. Our interactions with others in our lives create memories that we can use in our writing. After all, the old saying is write what you know.

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Hopefully, I’ve shared some decent advice when it comes to the act of writing. For those of you participating in NaNoWriMo, or just writing in general, good luck and get to work!

Any writing advice you would like to share? What do you think is the most valuable advice you have ever received? Please comment below!

41. ‘The Book of Dust’ by Philip Pullman

Last week, I did the unthinkable. Despite my very strict regime of only purchasing used books, I actually bought a brand new book! There has been a lot of buzz surrounding The Book of Dust, Philip Pullman’s prequel to his legendary epic His Dark Materials trilogy. I loved the first two books in that series while the third one didn’t quite work for me. While Book of Dust had some faults, I still found it quite an enjoyable read. 

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La Belle Sauvage, the first volume of The Book of Dust trilogy, is set about a decade before His Dark Materials when Lyra is just an infant. The book does an excellent job of setting up intrigue from the beginning as baby Lyra has been placed in secret with a group of nuns in a priory. Due to a prophecy about her, there are several different factions attempting to find her including the religious authorities. The book is told from the perspective of Malcolm Polstead, an eleven-year-old son of an innkeeper who owns a canoe called La Belle Sauvage. After being questioned by a group of gentlemen one night, Malcolm learns of the baby and questions the sisters of the priory. After meeting her, he swears himself as her unofficial protector.

In order for me to give a proper review of this book, let me start out by summing up my feelings regarding the other books in His Dark Materials series. I loved The Golden Compass for creating a wonderfully unique magical world with an intriguing child heroine. While I didn’t enjoy it as much, I thought the The Subtle Knife was good with its excursions into other worlds and all the fantasy elements it contained. The final volume didn’t do it for me because it became too complicated for me with all the religion versus science debates. To be fair, I’ve only read that installment once so perhaps another reading is not a bad idea.

Overall, I thought La Belle Sauvage is a pretty fun children’s adventure story. Stories told from a child’s point-of-view are always fun, and I found Malcolm to be a very charismatic leading character. True, there have been so many tales of the ordinary person who gets swept into huge conflicts but I happen to enjoy those as I did with this one. With La Belle Sauvage we go back to events before His Dark Materials and a story on a much smaller scale. There are no multiple worlds yet and the truth about the material known as “Dust” is unknown at this point. I love Pullman’s world of talking daemons, witches, and mysterious shady characters. It was nice that Pullman could just sit down and tell a fairly simple adventure tale. This isn’t to say that the debate from the previous books is missing. A lot of discussion is spent on religion, magic, and what the term consciousness really means. As I worked my way through the novel, I found it interesting how at times it didn’t feel like I was reading a fantasy story at all.

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This issue might be where I find fault in the book. There is so much time spent regarding Malcolm trying to protect and rescue Lyra. There are multiple factions and often, we don’t know who to trust (although it becomes pretty clear by the end). Often, it felt like more of a thriller than a work of fantasy or even science fiction. This might be my other qualm about the book as it never felt like we had those same science fiction elements that we got from HDM. Although those books had plenty of magical beings in them such as witches and ghosts, there were always scientific explanations for their existence. Often, La Belle Sauvage would lack any fantasy elements or just go full fairy tale mode.

Also, I think this book could have been a bit shorter. It starts out strong with immense intrigue but then becomes a bit rambling during the second half as the flood occurs and magic begins to leak into the world. While I enjoyed Malcolm with his heroism and childlike wonder at everything, none of the other characters truly stood out for me. Another aspect of Pullman’s successful trilogy was his creation of several strong female characters. However, we never really get that here. There are some cameo appearances of course from some characters of the original trilogy (no spoilers) which were fun to see but not necessary to plot development.

Despite my minor issues with the book, I enjoyed it and finished it in three days (some kind of record for me). Pullman definitely captures the boy’s adventure heroism of works like Treasure Island and Robinson Crusoe down but adds his own special brand of magic to it. The writing is solid throughout, and of course ends at an interesting point. I look forward to volume two of The Book of Dust in the near future. Meanwhile, I may have to dust off my old copy of The Golden Compass. 

“And then there was the word Dust, with a capital D, as if is wasn’t ordinary dust but something special.”

 

Have you read this book or are you planning to? I’d love to know your thoughts! Please comment below!

 

 

40. ‘Slade House’ by David Mitchell

It’s almost Halloween so I decided to read David Mitchell’s horror novel Slade House. Mitchell has taken the typical haunted house story and transformed it into something new and different. I decided to read this because of this year’s R.I.P. challenge. Slade House was selected as the group read; otherwise, I might have skipped over this one. I’m happy I read it as it is much more than your average chilling read although there are plenty of frights. 

 

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The entrance to Slade House is located at the end of an alley and only opens every nine years for the right person. The book is divided into five chapters, each one told by a different narrator set nine years apart. For each person, Slade House appears as something entirely different from the one before. However, getting out is a completely different matter entirely. The truth is that guests of Slade House never escape.

I was really impressed with how Mitchell can capture so many different types of characters. The dangers of writing a book with several first-person narrators is that they can all start to sound the same. This isn’t a problem with Slade House. As with my two previous Mitchell experiences of Cloud Atlas and Ghostwritten, I found each chapter to be in a refreshingly different voice. From a young child to a lonely detective to an overweight female teenager with self-esteem issues, Mitchell manages to capture their specific personalities quite well.

My favorite  section was the one following Sally Timms in 1997. Mitchell captures the loneliness and insecurities of being a teenage outcast. This brought back memories, not necessarily pleasant, of my own teenage experiences of budding romance and angst. Although by this point, I got that this person is going to escape either, I found myself rooting for each character just like in watching a horror film.

I really liked that there was a science fiction element to the book, which gets explained more during the final two chapters. We learn more about what is actually going on with the house and how the responsible characters came to exist. It definitely elevated the book beyond the horror of the first three chapters into something else. However, I questioned if there was too much exposition, that possibly this could have been an even stronger book if we hadn’t learned so much about the reasons for the house’s existence.

The ending felt pretty abrupt as well. I was definitely left wanting more when the book was finished. It is my understanding that Slade House is set in the same universe as The Bone Clocks, so I will definitely need to read that one soon in order to heighten my appreciation for this book.

“Grief is an amputation, but hope is incurable haemophilia: you bleed and bleed and bleed.”

 

Have you read this book or are you planning to? I’d love to know your thoughts! Please comment below!