It was Jo’s idea a couple of years ago, and now it’s become an annual event – celebrate the first six months of the reading year by putting six books into each of six categories.

Not quite as easy as it looks. I’ve tweaked the categories to suit my reading style, and because I wanted to push disappointments to one site and simply celebrate some of the books I’ve read and the books I’ve discovered.

Here are my six sixes:


Six books illuminated by wonderful voices from the twentieth century

Lolly Willowes by Sylvia Townsend Warner
The Diary of a Provincial Lady by E M Delafield
The English Air by D E Stevenson
The Castle on the Hill by Elizabeth Goodge
Nine Coaches Waiting by Mary Stewart
The Magic Toyshop by Angela Carter


Six books from the present that took me to the past

The Visitors by Rebecca Maskell
Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke
An Appetite for Violets by Martine Bailey
Turning the Stones by Debra Daley
The True and Splendid History of the Harristown Sisters by Michelle Lovric
Sugar Hall by Tiffany Murray


Six books from the past that pulled me back there

Wired Love by Ella Cheever Thayer
Esther Waters by George Moore
Griffith Gaunt by Charles Reade
Nine Pounds of Luggage by Maud Parrish
The Count of Monte Christo by Alexandre Dumas
Can You Forgive Her? by Anthony Trollope


Six books that introduced me to interesting new authors

Wake by Anna Hope
Still She Wished for Company by Margaret Irwin
The Lie of You: I Will Have What is Mine by Jane Lythell
Mr Perrin and Mr Traill by Hugh Walpole
My Salinger Year by Joanna Rakoff
None-Go-By by Mrs Alfred Sidgwick


Six successful second meeting with authors

The Auction Sale by C H B Kitchin
The Twelfth Hour by Ada Leverson
A Hundred Pieces of Me by Lucy Dillon
Wild Strawberries by Angela Thirkell
Mrs Westerby Changes Course by Elizabeth Cadell
Her by Harriet Lane


Six used books added to my shelves

The Heroes of Clone by Margaret Kennedy
The Serial Garden by Joan Aiken
Portrait of a Village by Francis Brett Young
The West End Front by Matthew Sweet
The Stag at Bay by Rachel Ferguson
Elizabeth’s Women by Tracy Boorman


Do think about putting your own sixes – it’s a great way of perusing your reading, and I’d love to read more lists.

The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas

Oh my goodness, this is such a long book.

I couldn’t understand why it had to be quite so long. After all – I knew from seeing a couple of dramatisations – the story was actually very simple.

A good, upright young man was terribly wronged, by a conspiracy of jealous, lesser men. He fell a long, long way; but he rose again. He acquired a vast fortune, he built a new life, and he wreaked vengeance on the men who had tried to ruin him ….

It is that simple – at its heart – but the telling is so rich and elaborate, for full of details and stories,  that it had to be a very good book. No dramatization, no retelling, could ever recapture the wonder of the whole of this book. I know that now, because I have listened to every single world.

When it was over I was lost, and I could so easily have gone back to the beginning and started the journey all over again. Or picked up the book, opened it at any point and been pulled right back into the story.

Yes,  it is that good.

Not faultless – but a dazzling, bravura feat of story telling.

g39740_u37232_Count_of_Monte_CristoIn the early stages I thought that the story might lack subtlety. It seemed so black and white.

Edmond Dantès was bright, handsome and capable. He brought his ship home safely, assuming command after the death of its captain, winning the love and respect of his men. He dealt with a sensitive situation with great tact and diplomacy. The ship owner, his widowed father, his adoring fiance, were all so pleased and proud ….

A hero with every talent he might need,  and who always behaved impeccably, might prove wearisome, but there was a dark shadow.

The pieces fell slowly into place. There was a jealous collegue with an idea; a rival in love who was suggestible; a disgruntled neighbour who listened; and finally there was a man in a position of power who put his own interests before the interests of justice.

By actions – or by keeping their counsel – they condemned an inncocent man to life in a remote island prison.

I realised that this story was not so black and white, not so lacking in subtlety; it was a story painted in strong clear colours; a story firmly rotted in its period – a time when France was torn between being a monarchy and being a republic.

The young man protested against his imprisonment, proclaimed his innocence to the men who imprisoned him, but he came to realise that they would not listen, they would not understand. They called him mad, and they threw him into solitary confinement.

It was heart-breaking; he almost broke under the torture of solitude and injustice.

It was six years before he had human contact with anyone other than his jailer. He heard a sound from a neighbouring cell, and that made him pull back from committing suicide. He made contact with  a much older man, who taught him, guided him, told him stories. Because he knew that he would never leave prison, but he hoped that one day his protege might.

This part of the story spoke so profoundly about humanity, about the need for contact, about relationships ….

Eight years on the older man died and though Edmond was grief-stricken he saw that it presented him with a chance to escape. He seized that opportunity.

It was an audacious plan – and it succeeded.

He trod carefully as he built a new life, and he uncovered the hidden fortune that he had been told about in prison.

Edmond Dantès was reborn as The Count of Monte Christo: a man who believed he had been appointed by God to set things right.

It was an extraordinary turning point.

The Count of Monte Christo used his fortune, loyal allies he gained as he rose, and a multitude of disguises to change lives. There was prosperity and happiness for those who had been loyal to Dantès ; there was tragedy and loss for those who had betrayed him. The plot was byzantine in its complexity, and it was clear that the plotter was prepared to play a very, very long game.

There were so many scenes, so many moments, that took my breath away. It broke my heart that whatever The Count of Monte Christo did, there was no vengeance that could bring back those long years that had been lost in prison, or bring back happy future that had once been before the young Edmond Dantès.

He knew that. He was a fascinating character, and I could never let go of his story.

But I did wish that he could let go, I did suspect that forgiveness might have given him more than vengeance could.

The unhappy endings didn’t come simply from vengeance, that came from the failings of the men who fell. But I do think that the morality was a little fluid. I don’t want to pick apart the details, but I have to acknowledge that.

The story is stronger than the characters – maybe because it was first published as a newspaper serial. I do wish that I could have read it that way, not knowing the full arc of the plot, where it was going, how much longer there was to go ….

There were times when I would have liked to now a little more, and there were other times when I would have been happy to know a little less.

But the storytelling was so rich, so profound, that it held me from start to finish.

I will read it – or listen to it – again one day.


Let’s Talk About Paris …

That’s Paris in July, hosted for a second year by Karen at Book Bath and Tamara at Thyme for Tea.

A celebration of the French capital, taking in books, cinema, music, food … and I’m also thinking about a little knitting.

I’ve been pondering books for a while now, and I have come up with far more wonderful possibilities than I could ever read in a single month.

There are the older classics

I have never read any Balzac, but I had to order Cousin Bette from the library when I read Lyn’s wonderful review.

That reminded me that I’ve been meaning to read more Zola for a very long time. I can’t remember whose review I read, but I was inspired to take a another look at Thérezè Raquin. I read it years ago, and I’m sure it is a book that I might see differently now that I am a little older, but I do wonder if it is a winter book rather than a summer one. And then at the weekend I read the news that the writer of the television adaptation of Lark Rise to Candleford is working on an adaptation of The Ladies’ Paradise. It’s a book I’ve been meaning to read for ages, I definitely must read it before seeing the (anglicised) adaptation, and the cover of the Oxford World’s Classics edition is so lovely …

And then there’s Dumas and The Count of Monte Cristo. I’ve been slowly working my way through this vast and wonderful tale, and I am sure July will see a little more progress.

There are some wonderful classics from the 20th century.

I read Gigi by Colette for Paris in July last year, but I didn’t get to the second novella that came with it in my edition. So The Cat is a definite possibility for this year.

Nightwood by Djuna Barnes is another book I lined up last year but didn’t get to. So I’m lining it up again.

Tracy mentioned Summer Will Show by Sylvia Townsend Warner, and so I pulled out my copy. It does look interesting, but I’m not sure. I tend to think that STW is not as good at novels as she is at short stories. But I’d be happy to proved wrong.

I have a few historical novels from the lovely Gallic Books to hand too.

There’s The Châtelet Apprentice by Jean François Parot – crime at the carnival in 18th century Paris. it looks wonderful, and the library has the next book in the series, so I should really read that one before the next one disappears from the shelves.

I have already started Monsieur Montespan by Jean Teulé, that story of the cuckolded husband of Louis XIV’s mistress. I had to put it to one side to catch up with library books and the Crime Fiction Alphabet, but I am eager to pick up the threads of the story again.

Murder in the Eiffel Tower by Claude Izner is another historical mystery, and the start of another series. A bookseller is caught up in the investigation of a strange death at the Universal Exposition of 1889 …

I have two books sitting on the dining table, where I keep books that are at the top of my list of priorities.

Conditions of Faith by Alex Miller won awards when it was published ten years ago, and it is being reissued on 1st July. I have only read the first page, but I am already beginning to understand why.

I have read much praise for 13, rue Théresè by Elena Mauli Shapiro, a story inspired by being left in possession of a box of mementoes whose owner had died, and I love the concept.

And I must find time for some non fiction. I have two books waiting on my own shelves, and one that I picked up from the library today.

Liberty by Lucy Moore tells the story of four women caught up in the French Revolution.

When I remembered The Cat I also remembered that I had a copy of Judith Flanders‘ acclaimed biography of Colette.

And I will definitely be reading Coco Chanel by Justine Picardie. I was intrigued by the extracts published in The Telegraph a while back, and I was thrilled to spot this one in the library this morning.

So I have a wonderful pool of books to choose from, and I’m sure I will discover more when Paris in July arrives.

There will be films and music too, but I’ll write about that another day.

Do you have plans for Paris in July? Or recommendations maybe?

Victorian Musings

Since I gave up on Trollope for the Classics Circuit a strange thing has happened. I thought that I would veer away from Victorian novels and towards something else. But that hasn’t happened. The great Victorian authors are calling me loudly.

It’s strange because the eight books I read this year for Our Mutual Read weren’t typical Victorian classics.

I read two wonderful travelogues by Victorian novelists who toured Cornwall: Rambles Beyond Railways by Wilkie Collins and an Unsentimental Journey Through Cornwall by Mrs Craik.

My third Victorian travelogue was an account of Thomas Cook’s first tour to Switzerland that was rediscovered after being lost for many years: Miss Jemima’s Swiss Journal.

Back with fiction I met two gentlemen – Mr Tress and Mr Pugh – with extraordinary stories to tell in Curios by Richard Marsh.

I read two wonderful French works from the Victorian era: The Child by Jules Vallès and One Thousand and One Ghosts by Alexandre Dumas.

And I read two works by Louisa May Alcott for Margot’s All Things Alcott  Challenge. Thank you Margot, for inspiring me! I read Eight Cousins and A Long and Fatal Love Chase. I had intended to read Harriet Reisen’s  biography too, but the year is winding down and it’s not a book I want to rush. Next year, definitely.

Eight wonderful Victorian books and two challenges completed.

But I dropped Trollope and drifted away from Dickens, and now they are calling me back.

This year life got a little too busy and so I think I rushed a little too much at my reading. And now I realise that what I need is to immerse myself in a long slow-paced book, the kind of the books that Victorian Authors did so well.

I’m looking forward to reading some Dickens over Christmas, and in the new year I’m going to pick up The Old Curiosity Shop again. I have learned that one of the great things about reading Dickens is his stickability: I can put his books down for ages but I still remember everything when I pick them up again.

And I’m signing up for The Victorian Literature Challenge at Words Words Words.

I’m not reading from a fixed list, I’m going to read the books that call and the books that I discover along the way.

But a few authors and books are calling particularly loudly:

I’m going to try Trollope again: I just need to pick the right book at the right time, and not go wrong as I did this year.

Lifetime Reader has inspired me to reread Thomas Hardy.

And this might just be my year to read Vanity Fair. My mother had been telling me to read it for years, and she’s generally right about these things.

Mrs Gaskell is one of her favourites, and that’s part of the reason why I’m signing up for the Gaskell Reading Challenge at Gaskell Blog too. I’ve only read Cranford, so I have a good number still to choose my two books from.

My mother is quite frail now and she doesn’t have the concentration or the short-term memory to do much reading, yet she remembers details of books like Cranford and Vanity Fair that she read st school more than fifty years ago.

She will be pleased to see me reading the books that she loves, and she remembers enough details for us to be able to talk about them.

It’s a tribute to the skills of many Victorian novelists, and to the power of a wonderful teacher whose words my mother can still quote too.

One Thousand and One Ghosts by Alexandre Dumas

I was thrilled when I learned that Alexandre Dumas would be touring The Classics Circuit this spring.

You see, I have been intending to pick up his books for ages, and yet I never have. I fully expected to love them, but they are so big, the commitment seemed so huge.

But at the end of last year I decided that it was time. That in 2010 I would read The Count of Monte Christo. I wasn’t brave enough to commit to that book for this tour, but I looked for a shorter book. A book that would act as a warm-up, getting me used to the style and enthusing me before I picked up the big book.

I knew that the Hesperus Press had a little book that would fit the bill. One Thousand and One Ghosts is just one hundred and sixty-four pages long in their edition!

It dates from 1831, a time when the revolution and the guillotine were still in living memory.

It is, I think, a book with a lot to say about that period, but by knowledge of French history is rather sketchy and so it’s difficult for me to say how effective that is.

An unnamed narrator – later revealed to be Dumas himself – is visiting an old friend in the country. He leaves the company to explore his surroungs, and in time he arrives in the local village.

And that’s where the real story begins. He sees a man, clearly disturbed and drenched with blood. Stunned, he watches as the man approaches the village mayor, and declares that he has murdered his wife.

Dumas is caught up in the story as a police witness.

The man is plainly terrified and determined that he must be imprisoned. And equally determined that he will not, as the law requires, accompany the police to the scene of the crime as the law requires.


After much pressure the man declares that that after beheading his wife with a sword while she knelt in the cellar to get wine from the barrel, he picked  up his wife’s  head and she bit him on the hand and wouldn’t let go! And then when he did put the head down it did let go – to say: “You wretch! I was innocent!”


The mayor, the only person who believes the man’s story, invites Dumas to his home. The talk, quite naturally, turns to the remarkable events of the day, and members of the company tell stories of their own experiences of the strange and supernatural. Wonderful, diverse stories, and the revolution and the guillotine are significant in each one.

Dumas leaves, but the stories stay with him.

One Thousand and One Ghosts is a strange little book.

There are lots of loose ends. What happened to the house party? What happened in the murder case? What happenened when all the stories were told? I have no idea. But it didn’t matter – I was swept along by the wonderful drama and storytelling.

And that drama and storytelling carried me through as the book evolved from a record of a visit to the country, to a crime story, to a gothic tale, to a portmanteau novel of the supernatural …

Yes, the pages kept turning and I loved the journey. But there was one thing missing. Characters. The pages were full of people, they spoke, they acted, they reacted, but I could find nothing of their hearts and minds. Difficult of course, in what is effectively a series of short stories and a framing story, to fit everything in.

Is that a fatal flaw in Dumas’s writing I wonder? I do hope not, because there was so much to enjoy in this little book: great storytelling, high drama, fine prose, a real flavour of the period…

Time to visit some other tour stops and find out!

Translated by Andrew Brown

A lovely quotation, and a few other things …

“Books are nourishment to me in a way that visual media, the Internet and I dare say e-book text can never really be. They carry more than words in their pages. They carry smell and memory; they live in their shapes and heft.”

From Helen Simonson’s wonderful essay Books are more than just text.

Please go and read it!

And I must thank Claire at The Captive Reader for the link.

Now to the other things. The picture of books from some of my favourite smaller presses is significant!

You many have spotted two Persephone Books – Making Conversation by Christine Longford and Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day by Winifred Watson. I’ll be giving both away during the upcoming Persephone Reading Week.

And I’m hoping to read the others before too long. Two have definite slots:

One Thousand and One Ghosts by Alexandre Dumas comes from the Hesperus Press, and it’s lined up for the Classics Circuit celebration of Paris in springtime. 

The Child by Jules Vallés lined up for the Spotlight Series celebration of NYRB Classics.

That’s three wonderful events that you really must not miss this May!

What’s in a Name Challenge

Just over a year ago “What’s in a Name” was the very first challenge I signed up for via this blog. And it was the first challenge I completed ahead of schedule!

It’s a lovely challenge, and of course I’m going to do it all over again next year.

Beth at Beth Fish Reads is the new host, and there’s a dedicated blog here.

It’s really simple. During 2010 read one book from each of six categories.

I’ve perused my shelves and come up with a book for each category. So here are the categories and the books I’ve chosen:

  • A book with a food in the title: Clockwork Orange, Grapes of Wrath, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society

The Land of Green Ginger by Winifred Holtby

  • A book with a body of water in the title: A River Runs through It, Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters, The Lake House

Brook Evans by Susan Glaspell

  • A book with a title (queen, president) in the title: The Murder of King Tut, The Count of Monte Cristo, Lady Susan

The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas

  • A book with a plant in the title: A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, Wind in the Willows, The Name of the Rose

Lady Rose and Mrs Memmary by Ruby Ferguson

  • A book with a place name (city, country) in the title: Out of Africa; London; Between, Georgia

Martha in Paris by Margery Sharp

  • A book with a music term in the title: Song of Solomon, Ragtime, The Piano Teacher

A Note in Music by Rosamond Lehmann

Changes are allowed, but I’m really looking forward to my sextet.