The Books that Built the Blogger with Rachel from Confessions of a Book Geek!

 

 

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This week on The Books that Built the Blogger, I have the fantastic Rachel from Confessions of a Book Geek. I had been following Rachel for a while before we realised that we both live in the same town in Northern Ireland! She is a font of all YA knowledge and I love her enthusiasm and insight.

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Hi! I’m Rachel from Confessions of a Book Geek, and I’m here to share with you five books that have shaped my reading, or had an impact on the kind of books I tend to gravitate towards. As a kind-of millennial (I think I’m just a little too old to be considered a “proper” one), it’s so tempting to shout “Harry Potter!” for any and all questions relating to my favourite books, books that made me, books that shaped me, books I’m obsessed with, etc. I’m not sure if it counts as a book that has shaped my reading… but it’s a book that has shaped my life, and that has to count for something, right? I’ve decided to challenge myself with this post though, so I’m not including HP in the official five (though do you like how I still snuck it in there? Had to be done).

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This is a massively under-rated YA novel, set in London, telling the story of four teens; Brie is in love with her best friend, Charlie, who is gay. Charlie lusts after Walker (a bit of a bad-boy), who is obsessed with Daisy, a lesbian. I read this when I was about 15 or 16, and it was the first time I’d ever read anything with LGBT characters. I read a lot of books, and all these years later, I remember the characters and story vividly. It doesn’t feel like that long ago, but the past ten years have made a big difference to LGBT awareness, and back then, this book pushed me out of my comfort zone and made me want to read more books that represent diverse communities.

 

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I always enjoyed History as a subject in school, but I never really engaged with how it was taught, or the fact that we had to memorise lists of names and dates for exams. It made History dull, and often boring. I fell in love with The Tudors TV series, and then The White Queen TV series, so when I realised it was based on Gregory’s books, I HAD to get my hands on them. I fell IN LOVE instantly, and my experience made me chase down more fantastic historical fiction reads. Ones based on true stories are even better (such as my favourite book of 2016, The Double Life of Mistress Kit Kavanagh, *hint hint*).

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This was the first Picoult book I ever read (I’ve since gone on to collect many books by this author), and it introduced me to the world of family sagas/dramas, or “issues” books, as I like to call them. I bawled my eyes out to this book, and I’m not a crier. Picoult led me to Diane Chamberlain (who I got to interview on my blog!), and now if any book is compared to either of these authors’ work, I’m interested. These books are typically very well researched, and focus on a key family dynamic, illness, or struggle, that broadens the reader’s horizons and gives you a new perspective on life.

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This was recommended reading in my school Book Club when I was 17. When I read it, I was surprised our teacher was allowing us to read this, let alone recommending it, but I’m so glad she did. It’s dark, gritty, and incredibly complex. A fantastic novel that recounts a school shooting and mass murder, told from the point-of-view of the perpetrator’s mother, which really examines the “nature v nurture” debate. Not only has this particular book stayed with me, but it opened my eyes to psychological thrillers, and also started my interest in true crime.

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Until Colleen Hoover, I didn’t know “New Adult” fiction was even a thing. In case you’re not familiar with New Adult, check out a guest post I wrote for Dani Reviews Things that goes in to more detail. New Adult essentially focuses on protagonists aged 20-30, who are dealing with all sorts of new experiences as they transition from adolescence, into being adults. At 26 years of age, as you can imagine, these stories are usually pretty relatable for me (even if the romance plots are not!). As with all genres, there are some crappy NA books out there, but when you find a good’un (Hoover is my QUEEN), they could open your eyes to a whole new category of books for you to devour.

What a great list from Rachel and I am delighted to see We Need to Talk About Kevin on there, such a fantastic book. Are any of your favourites on Rachel’s list?

 

 

The Books that Built the Blogger: The Secret History by Donna Tartt

I suppose at one time in my life I might have had any number of stories, but now there is no other. This is the only story I will ever be able to tell.

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When I was in my final year at Queens University in Belfast, my reading habit really took hold. My modules meant that the style of books I was reading was expanding and I really started buying books in earnest. Most days saw me browsing in the University Bookshop near my student flat, buying books because I liked the name, or the cover, or had heard of the author but hadn’t read their work yet.

I can’t remember what drew me to The Secret History by Donna Tartt – the cover was austere, verging on the dull and I had never heard of the author, but something about the title and the premise appealed to me so I bought it on a whim. When at last I read it, it was more than I could have hoped for and it has become the book I have reread most; the book I have lent to friends most and oddly, my comfort read. The Secret History is the book I credit with sparking my interest in crime fiction and it contains themes that have become my favourite in literature – from the campus setting to the unreliable narrator. I have loved Tartt’s other books, but for me, nothing comes close to the power of The Secret History.

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The story is the perfect blend of intellectual pursuit and page-turning thrills as it tells the story of a close knit group of classics students at a private college in Vermont, who, under the influence of their charismatic tutor Julian, kill a man during a Bacchanalian rite and then are forced to turn on one of their own. Taking the themes and atmospheres of classical literature, the book is a brooding, menacing, wildly intelligent tale told in fresh and vibrant prose.

This was my first introduction to the ‘campus novel’ and I was intrigued by the golden glow of this Vermont world, the picturesque setting and the fiercely intelligent students. The campus novel also intrigues because it captures that moment in time when you are set free to learn and play and experiment and work out who you really are. While reading The Secret History, I was planning the next stage of my life – moving to a new city on my own to do a Masters and I could relate to this idea that I was teetering on the edge of new horizons where anything might be possible.

It is easy to see things in retrospect. But I was ignorant then of everything but my own happiness, and I don’t know what else to say except that life itself seemed very magical in those days: a web of symbol, coincidence, premonition, omen. Everything, somehow, fit together; some sly and benevolent Providence was revealing itself by degrees and I felt myself trembling on the brink of a fabulous discovery, as though any morning it was all going to come together–my future, my past, the whole of my life–and I was going to sit up in bed like a thunderbolt and say oh! oh! oh!

The Secret History also introduced me to the narrator as outsider, as potentially unreliable and questionable. Richard, in the prologue, tells us of a murder ‘for which I was partly responsible’ and the joy of the book comes from the apprehension of the ‘why’ rather than the surprise of the ‘what’. Richard, like the reader, is perfectly suited to be entranced by this group of students. He has no other friends, is not close with his family and is ready to create a new narrative for his life. He becomes subsumed in this smart, conceited group and like Nick in The Great Gatsby, he is drawn to their beauty until he cannot look away.

It’s a very Greek idea, and a very profound one. Beauty is terror. Whatever we call beautiful, we quiver before it. And what could be more terrifying and beautiful, to souls like the Greeks or our own, than to lose control completely? To throw off the chains of being for an instant, to shatter the accident of our mortal selves?

This is Richard’s fatal flaw – like all great Greek heroes, he has one – he feels ordinary against the beauty of his friends. He never quite feels deserving. All his hopes are projected on to them and the fact of being a member of their group is enough for him to go along with whatever they say. I have often thought of The Secret History as a companion piece to Lord of the Flies where the isolation of the group is not geographical, but intellectual, and where left to their own devices, the group will eventually turn on itself.

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By aligning the reader with Richard, Tartt invites us, like him, to join this charismatic, elegant select group, to be a witness to their secret history and keep it close. We are in her confidence and we are in awe. She takes you back to that time where everything felt possible and everything seemed perfect and where the idea of growing up and growing apart was impossible to bear.

The Secret History is 25 years old this year and in my mind has become a classic novel and an unforgettable novel, one that I plan on reading again and again.

 

The Books that Built the Blogger: The Twelfth Day of July by Joan Lingard

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The book I have chosen for this week’s The Book That Built the Blogger is Joan Lingard’s 1970 book The Twelfth Day of July – another book that would probably be considered YA today but which opened my eyes to the possibilities of where books could go – and more imp

The Twelfth Day of July was first published in 1970 when I was 9 years old, however I think I was at least 13 when I read it.

Written by Joan Lingard, who spent her teenage years in Northern Ireland, The Twelfth Day of July is the first in a quintet of books, often known as the ‘Kevin and Sadie’ series. Acting as a kind of retelling of the Romeo & Juliet tale, the books follow the lives of Kevin, a Catholic and Sadie a Protestant as they grow up in Northern Ireland in the 1970s, meeting as teenagers and following them until they become adults with children of their own.

Despite living in Northern Ireland in the 1970s, The Twelfth Day of July struck a chord with me for one main reason. It had never occurred to me that someone could write a book about where I came from. Up until that point, I believed that everyone I wanted to read about either went to boarding school in England or high school in America. The idea that the experience of living in Northern Ireland was valid material for a book – and not a history book! – was beyond me.

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Joan Lingard also manages a great balancing act with this novel. She does not take sides. The books two opening chapters focus on the same dinner time in two separate households. One Protestant and one Catholic and the first thing that strikes the reader is the similarities between the two rather than the differences. This probably seems like a sensible approach nowadays, but writing in the 1970s with the actual Troubles as the backdrop makes it all the more striking.

She also created a fantastic female protagonist in the character of Sadie – brash, ballsy and smart, she never sees herself as being anything but equal to any of the men in her life. As the book opens, Sadie and her brother Tommy are getting ready for the biggest day in the Protestant calendar – the 12th of July. A few streets down, Kevin and his mates are planning to deface a mural of ‘King Billy’ – William of Orange – however Sadie catches them in the act and starts a feud between the two which eventually goes horribly wrong, before bringing them closer together.

The Twelfth Day of July could also have gone horribly wrong, by becoming preachy or strident. However Lingard has a sure touch and the books are realistic in depicting both the difficulties of having a relationship with someone from ‘the other side’ and in how ordinary, everyday life carries on even in the middle of conflict. She tells a difficult story with humour and a light touch, but also doesn’t skirt away from the real issues that faced the population of Northern Ireland during those years.

I grew up with Kevin and Sadie, recognised the situation they were living in and relished a book that explored my home country with all its beauty and all its flaws. Although it might read like history now, it wasn’t history when it was written or when I was reading it

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Joan Lingard

 

The books in the ‘Kevin and Sadie’ Quintet, comprise of: The Twelfth Day of July (1970); Across the Barricades (1972); Into Exile (1973); A Proper Place (1975); and Hostages to Fortune (1976) – and they follow Kevin and Sadie as they fall in love, move to England and raise a family, all under the shadow of where they have been born and the religions they have been born into. The effect these books had on me was to make me realise that literature can spring from anywhere and that all experiences, even ones like my own are stories in their own right.

Did anyone else read these books? I wonder if they were just popular in Northern Ireland? It would be great to know if they were read anywhere else.

Join me tomorrow when the fantastic FictionFan will share the books that made her the blogger she is today!

 

 

The Books that Built the Blogger with Naomi Frisby

I’m delighted to welcome Naomi Frisby to kick off The Books That Built the Blogger with her list of five books that have influenced her reading and her blogging.

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Naomi blogs at The Writes of Woman and I love her insightful reviews of books by women writers, her work with championing more diverse reading and her fortnightly feature In The Media, which has a round up of fascinating links to women and women’s literature happening in the media. Here are her choices:

The Busconductor Hines – James Kelman

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The Busconductor Hines changed my life. I was 17, studying for my A Levels in a town described by the media as a ‘Northern wasteland’. I read a lot and listened to music and these two things had brought me, via The NME and Select, to the then recently published Trainspotting by Irvine Welsh. I taped a Channel 4 documentary on three Scottish writers – Irvine Welsh, Janice Galloway and James Kelman – watching each episode at home in ‘free periods’ when everyone else was out. It was Kelman who interested me the most. The next time I was in the town centre, I took myself to Barnsley Library and searched for his name. They had three books by him, two short story collections and a novel. I took the novel.

The Busconductor Hines taught me that you can write about ordinary people and you can do so in their accent. It was the first time I’d seen someone like me represented on the page. It began a lifelong love affair not only with working class literature but also with the work of Scottish and Irish writers and the places they hail from too.

The Electric Michelangelo – Sarah Hall

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When I was at university, I began reading the books shortlisted for The Booker Prize each year. It was a conscious decision to read more contemporary literary fiction and, as I had no other guide as to what or who to read, reading the list seemed as good as any. The Electric Michelangelo was shortlisted in 2004 by which time I was back in the ‘Northern wasteland’ teaching English to secondary school students. This book provided an unusual link between my past, present and future. Past: we used to go to on a family day out to Morecambe in the summer holidays, which is where the first part of the book is set. Present: I was (and still am) obsessed with New York City and its outer boroughs. The second part of the book is set in Coney Island. Future: It would spark an obsession with sideshows and lead to me undertaking a Ph.D. in Creative Writing, the thesis element of which looks at female bodies in circus literature.

Citizen: An American Lyric – Claudia Rankine

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At the end of 2014, I saw a tweet from Nikesh Shukla calling on people doing their end of year reading round-ups to look at the number of books by writers of colour they’d read that year. Mine was an appalling 10%. I decided to do something about it, consciously choosing books by women of colour to read and review on my blog. Citizen: An American Lyric was the first. What I didn’t know then was that the year would end with me co-running #diversedecember with Dan Lipscombe, a reaction to an all-white World Book Night list, and that the campaign would make the front cover of The Guardian Review. Reading Citizen was the beginning of a permanent change in my reading habits and it’s taken me to so many excellent books I might otherwise never have read.

The House in Smyrna – Tatiana Salem Levy

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Like The Busconductor Hines, The House in Smyrna made me realise what’s possible in literature. It wasn’t the first piece of experimental fiction I read but it was the first that I think I really understood; I could see how its seemingly disparate parts fit together to create a complete picture. It’s also the story of a woman and I think I spent so long reading books by and about men that I hadn’t considered the possibilities when it comes to telling women’s stories. Not long after reading this, I sought out more experimental fiction by and about women and I started writing my own.

Homesick for Another World – Ottessa Moshfegh

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Homesick for Another World has only recently been published but it’s on my list because it made me realise just how powerful short story collections can be. Not only does every story in this collection stand-alone but the book, as a whole, creates a picture of current society and finds it hypocritical. It made me take the neglected short story collections (of which there were quite a number) off my shelves and begin to work my way through them. I’ve discovered some real gems so far and am hoping for more as I brush the rest of the dust away.

Many thanks to Naomi for that fantastic list. I’m ashamed to say that I haven’t read any of these! I did read How Late it Was, How Late by James Kelman and marvelled at his use of language and I read Eileen by Ottessa Moshfegh last year and loved it and always welcome a new short story collection!

Have you read any of Naomi’s choices?

Remember, if you’d like to take part in The Books That Built the Blogger, just drop me an email at cmac2708@yahoo.co.uk. I’d love to hear from you!

 

The Books That Built the Blogger

Today on the blog, I am starting a new feature called The Books that Built the Blogger.

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I follow a great number of blogs and am always struck by the different styles and genres of books that people read. It started me wondering how we come to be the readers we are today. What books were key in influencing and signposting us to further reading?

This is not necessarily about favourite books, it is more about the books that have had an effect on us as readers, books that opened up genres, introduced new authors, or brought about new ways of thinking.

I sometimes like to say that if I hadn’t read the ‘Adventure’ series by Enid Blyton as a child I wouldn’t be a fan of crime writing today. That may be a little simplistic, but I think it has a kernel of truth. For me, books don’t exist on their own, they open up my mind to new ideas, new writers and new worlds and there are specific books that I know changed my reading habits and made me the reader I am today.

So, every Sunday, I am going to talk a bit about a book that has built me as a reader and a blogger and then I have invited some of my favourite bloggers to talk about the books that have built them and I’ll explore their lists on a Monday.

Tomorrow you can read about the books that built the fantastic Naomi Frisby who blogs at The Writes of Woman, where she reviews books written by women and publishes the fantastic In The Media.

To kick off my list of influential books, I’m going to talk about Tiger Eyes by Judy Blume.

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“You have sad eyes, Tiger,” he says. “A bright smile but sad eyes.”

When I was young (long, long ago!) YA didn’t exist in the manner it does today. Basically, there were children’s books, then the Sweet Dreams series, then adult books. I can remember visiting the local library with my Dad and realising that I had pretty much read everything in the children’s section and not having a clue where to start in the main part of the library.

Looking back now I can see that Judy Blume was writing Young Adult fiction, but to me, she was just writing really great books, books that made me realise that there was a world of literature out there beyond the romances and school set dramas of Sweet Valley High. Between the ages of 11 to 14, I read all of Judy Blume’s books. From the humour of Starring Sally J Friedman as Herself through to the eye-opening Forever, her books were my constant companions.

It was Tiger Eyes though that had the greatest influence on me and gave me my first taste of the pleasures of good characterisation, open-ended narratives and multi-layered plots.

Tiger Eyes follows Davey, who is just fifteen years old when her father is murdered during a robbery at their family store in Atlanta. Unable to cope, her mother moves the family to stay with her Aunt and Uncle in Los Alamos. Uprooted, alone and with no adult support, Davey is unable to face the trauma she has experienced and is befriended by a boy named Wolf, who is also dealing with his own family problems.

Tiger Eyes, at first glance, is a typical coming-of –age story. There is the outsider trying to settle into a new environment, a tentative romance and the cathartic power of self-awareness. However, Tiger Eyes was a revelation to me for several reasons. Firstly, the themes of loss and grief are beautifully examined. Nothing here feels forced or shoe-horned in, there is an organic nature to way in which Judy Blume marries theme and plot.

Secondly, I don’t think I had read a book prior to this that so convincingly placed itself inside the head of one character. Not that there aren’t a great range of characters here – from Jane, Davey’s friend who has a reliance on alcohol to the mysterious love-interest Wolf – but Blume is clever enough never to take the focus away from Davey, as the reader explores her attempts to make sense of the world, when the foundations of that world have crumbled beneath her.

What also struck me when I read Tiger Eyes was the importance of a sense of place. The wide open desert spaces of Los Alamos echo Davey’s feelings that she has nowhere to hide, that she is vulnerable and open with nothing to anchor herself to.

In some ways, Tiger Eyes was the first character led, quiet novel I had read. There is no big moment of catharsis here. There is romance, but it is never the focus and the ending is far from resolved. There is, instead, a quiet understanding and a belief that even the worst pain can be surmounted.

Some changes happen deep down inside of you. And the truth is, only you know about them. Maybe that’s the way it’s supposed to be.

Davey stayed with me for a long time. I admired her strength, her intelligence and her willingness to stand on her own and not rely on parents, friends or a boyfriend. Along with Deenie, Blume’s other novel about a teenage girl overcoming a traumatic experience, Tiger Eyes showed me that there was more to literature than good plots and happy endings and that is something to be grateful for!

Are there any other Judy Blume fans out there? I’d love to hear if her work had the same effect on you.

If you would like to take part in The Books that Built the Blogger, do drop me a line at cmac2708@yahoo.co.uk