Reading Challenge? Accepted!

Reading challenges are everywhere these days, it seems. Mostly I spot them on Pinterest, but this week I spotted one on the website of Stockton-on-Tees Borough Council and thought it sounded do-able.

Theirs is also a competition and in order to qualify you have to borrow the relevant books from any of Stockton’s libraries, but I decided I’d forfeit the competition and just attempt the challenge itself with books I already have on the shelves, with an occasional library book if I have nothing to fit the bill.

If you happen to be in or near Stockton and fancy going for the competition, the details and book categories are here: Stockton Libraries Reading Challenge.

If, like me, you just want to take on the challenge then here are the categories for easy reference, updated as I go along with my personal selections for each, and you have a year from your start date to get through them all (it took me eight months give or take a few days and as you can see from my dates, I didn’t work through them in order):

        • A book by an author you love
          Desperate Remedies by Thomas Hardy
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          I have been a fan of Hardy ever since I read Jude The Obscure at university (one of the few from my reading list I did read). I enjoyed the storyline of this one very much but am glad that in later works he dropped the idea of breaking each chapter down into stretches of time. It was helpful in some ways – often in novels, you have to somehow divine how much time has passed or not passed between each chapter – but it didn’t lend anything to the plot. I was a little frustrated that, as Hardy is well known for his advocacy of equality for women, he chose to present the “heroine” of this piece as somewhat pathetic and incapable of doing anything much on her own. If you go on to read this particular edition, I urge caution as twice I fell foul of spoilers via the explanatory notes. (Finished on 15th May 2016.)

        • A book that has been adapted for TV
          Pride & Prejudice by Jane Austen
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          The original and best! Oh, Mr Darcy… How many women over the centuries have had a crush on you, I wonder – or on the various versions of the character that have been created since! I had a head start there in that I’ve loved the BBC adaptation of this since it was first aired back in 1995 and so knew how it would all pan out. Because of that, though, I’d been putting off reading the book itself. (My main concern, I think, was that it would turn out to have been an unfaithful rendering but it turns out to have been pretty accurate, albeit with a bit of abridgement in places.) Being so familiar with the TV version meant that, inevitably, I was picturing the characters as they appeared on screen – but who’s complaining when it means picturing Colin Firth striding about the place?! This is now firmly on my “favourite books” list! (Finished on 4th October 2016.)

        • A book recommended by a friend
          The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy
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          This was pressed into my hand by a colleague one morning as I arrived at the office. She, in turn, had had it pressed on her by her daughter who had recently studied it at A Level. I wasn’t really sure what to expect – the cover certainly didn’t fill me with enthusiasm, looking a little too much like an uninspiring set-text study edition (which it’s not) –  but this is a classic example of why you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover. The language is beautiful and I was sucked in from page one, while at the same time not quite knowing what was going on until much further on into the book. Incidents and events are revealed bit-by-bit – as are the natures of the characters – and we are one minute in the present day (of the story, which is 1969) and the next thirty years in the characters’ pasts – a concept which works well in such capable hands as Roy’s. It is only in the last few chapters that those things hinted at throughout the whole book actually come together and we are told how the full events unfolded, bringing those pieces together to form a whole. When I finished the last chapter I found myself sitting with the closed book in front of me, my hands still on it – I was still in that world, and it was a couple of minutes before I managed to put the book aside and think about doing something else. I have a feeling that I’ll be haunted by this book for a long time to come. (Finished on 25th August 2016.)

        • A New York Times best-seller
          The Help by Kathryn Stockett
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          I enjoyed this more than I was expecting to. I’d glanced at the first page some time ago and was put off by how the dialect was written. However, on a proper attempt, I found it was very readable and after a couple of paragraphs it barely registered. Set around the time of Martin Luther King’s “I Have A Dream” speech, and set in Jackson, Mississippi, the occasional mention of the year – mid-1960s – brought into sharp focus just how recent it all was. This, in turn, gave me a pang of guilt – even though I wasn’t born until a little over a decade later. Ultimately it ends on a note of hope for the future, and although things have come a long way since then it is sad to think that racial equality still has a long way to go. (Finished on 19th October 2016.)

        • A book you haven’t read since childhood
          The World of Pooh by A. A. Milne
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          I admit it. I have already read this since childhood, but I needed something quick to read so grabbed this off the shelf and have been dipping into it over the last few days, reading a few stories at a time. The stories and the characters never get old (although as someone on Goodreads points out, it’s a tad sexist to have the only female character [Kanga] as doing nothing other than mothering everyone else. Still, it was of its time, and as they’re all based on real toys – and a real boy – then if that’s how he characterised them then that’s who they were!). I’m going to assume you know all about Winnie-the-Pooh and his friends, but if not, well, this Wikipedia article will help with that one. It surprised me again how many little bits of speech have found their way from these pages into my family’s everyday language. It did NOT surprise me to find myself blubbing at the last story. (Finished on 6th August 2016.)

        • A book that has been made into a film
          Howard’s End by E. M. Forster (Kindle edition)
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          In case you’re wondering, no I haven’t seen the film. It was a conscious decision to pick a book which I hadn’t already seen as a film, and as this was languishing on the Kindle, and as I’ve enjoyed any E. M. Forster I have read before, this seemed like a good bet! I enjoyed the plot, but if I had one qualm it would be the occasional – and in some cases, lengthy – musings, either by a character or the author, on social politics. I know that this is one of Forsters main themes throughout most, if not all, of his novels and if I was reading at the time of publication no doubt I’d pick up better on the subtleties and satire, but it now being over a hundred years after the book was written it loses some of its relevance and, therefore, impact, particularly around the issue of the divide between the social classes (although sadly, not all). But then, one can hardly criticise Forster for this! (Finished on 17th September 2016.)

        • A book set in your local area
          The Hartlepool Monkey by Sean Longley
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          This is a stretch as Hartlepool only features in the last few chapters of the book, but as I don’t live in one of the larger / more prominent towns my options were rather limited. I also had to “make do” with a book about our local legend, albeit a fictionalised version, which I actually resent being associated with and take every opportunity to disown as I wasn’t born in the town. That said, I enjoyed the book a lot more than I was expecting to, given the perceived content. The first two-thirds of the book are all about how said monkey came to even be shipwrecked off the north east coast in the first place. If I see any other books by this author I will definitely check them out. As a side note, the hanging of the monkey mistaken for a French spy is actually not exclusive to Hartlepool. It just became famously linked through a music hall song and has stuck ever since, as can be read about here.(Finished on 4th August 2016.)

        • A crime/thriller
          The Abomination by Jonathan Holt
          18754618This is definitely not the sort of book I would normally read, but I’m glad I did. I picked this up from the library having spotted it while looking for something else entirely and then realised that it slotted in nicely to this category. It was the title that first grabbed me – what sort of abomination? A person? An event? And the blurb on the back further snagged my curiosity. If I had one niggle it would be – spoiler alert! – the affair between the main character and her married boss. As this Goodreads reviewer says, not only is it predictable, it also adds nothing to the story. If anything, it is something of a distraction. Still, as this is the first book in a trilogy (albeit where each book can also stand alone) maybe there is more to be developed there. I will be checking out the other two books in the series as I enjoyed this much more than I expected to, it being a genre I wouldn’t normally touch with a barge pole. The book has since been republished under the new title of The Boatman which I think is much less attention-grabbing. (Finished on 14th August 2016)

        • A book you can read in a day
          The Imaginary by A. F. Harrold
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          In case you can’t immediately tell from the cover, yes this IS a children’s book (early teens) so feel free to call this a cheat. BUT, at 221 pages of standard-sized print, it’s not a “done in half an hour” read. I really enjoyed the story – about what happens to imaginary friends once their person forgets them – and the hunter and his companion are downright scary! I saw a review on Goodreads of a mere one star which seems WAY too low (I’ve given it 5/5 which I almost never do), and with a comment about a lack of character progression. While it’s true none of the characters develop much or at all, the story takes place within just a few months from start to finish. It’s not a grand, century-spanning saga! Oh, and the end made me cry (in a nice way). (Finished [and started] on 2nd July 2016.)

        • A book set in the future or on another world
          The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams
          10439597This is a re-read for me, which I cunningly (ok, perhaps “accidentally” is a more accurate word) left for last so I could carry on with the rest of the five-volume trilogy without feeling like I should be reading something else! I’m enjoying it all over again, although some of it does now feel dated. For example, the far-fetched suggestion that a handheld device might exist which the can be used to search for and find information on pretty much anything – and with a touchscreen, no less, not even actual buttons – would have boggled the minds of readers in 1979 (good year, that, by the way) but reading it in 2016 such things are now commonplace. (Finished on 23rd October 2016.)

        • A book set in another country
          Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift 
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          It is a rare thing indeed that I find myself relieved to finish a book. This was one such occasion. I enjoyed the adventure tales but felt a bit bogged down during the political discourses between Gulliver and the leader of each of the visited – or, more accurately, “discovered accidentally”- lands. On the one hand, and perhaps worryingly, the political commentary is as relevant today as it was in 1726 when the book was first published but, for all I am well aware that this is the main point of Swift’s writing, for me it interrupted the flow of the story itself in much the same way that Melville’s Moby Dick gets broken up too often by chapters on how to dissect a whale. I also can’t help having sympathy for Mrs Gulliver – deserted several times, and on one occasion while pregnant – but if he’s as verbose at home as he is when he’s travelling then perhaps it’s something of a relief that he’s never home for long! (Finished on 29th August 2016.)

        • A book with a blue cover
          The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon 
          3437 (1) I’d held off reading this although it had been on my shelf for a long time! I’m always a bit reluctant to read or watch something which gets a lot of hype in case they don’t live up to it and also to avoid jumping on any bandwagons. That said, I now understand why there was so much hype around this book, and I agree with all the reviews that it is really an excellent read and a tour de force of getting into the mindset of someone with Asperger’s Syndrome. A funny and moving book which I’d urge you, with a due sense of irony, to read. (Finished on 27th Feb 2016.)

        • A biography or autobiography
          Is It Just Me? by Miranda Hart
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          It could be argued that this isn’t an autobiography in the strictest sense. It certainly doesn’t follow the linear “I was born, I went to this school, worked in this place…” format. However, via ponderings on life’s ups and down – the awkwardness of dating, the pitfalls of the workplace – we get little insights as to her history along the way. The use of her eighteen-year-old self as another voice in the books helps this along nicely. This is definitely one for fans of Miranda, the sitcom. Many of the familiar phrases are used in the book, but I’d have to say that a few of them don’t really work in print. You have to imagine her saying them, but I found that got a bit tiresome after a while. It also struck me that the assumed readership is clearly female, although there are some nods to the fact that men may also be reading. (Finished on 12th June 2016.)

        • A book about an animal
          Holy Cow by David Duchovny
          24485855First things first: yes, that David Duchovny. Second things second: I enjoyed the book – ridiculous as the premise is – but it’s definitely not one for the realists! If you’re thinking of reading this one, look at it as an allegory for how we behave towards each other (and why it’s rubbish). However, I struggled to work out the intended audience. To begin with, it feels like it might be a children’s book – older children, if that’s the case – but as I read on it felt less like it was for children and more like it was for adults. The political and ethical themes seemed just a bit too big for a children’s book, and the sheer number of “references that adults will get” convinced me further that this was, in fact, for adults but written in a deliberately ambiguous style. Some reviewers have cringed at all the slang and “cool” talk, as though the author was trying too hard. I got the sense this was done intentionally, knowingly, and with tongue firmly in cheek. In the interview at the back of the book, Duchovny states that Elsie (excellent name for a character!) speaks like his teenage daughter. We also learn that he originally pitched the idea as an animated film which seems to suggest that it is in fact for children. However, as Duchovny points out, “…because there are certain political themes running through the narrative, in some ways it was too adult for an animated film.” This is one of those books you just have to go along with and, for me, the only real sticking point was that some of the references mean very little to anyone outside the US (brand names, for example) and had to be worked out from context. (Finished on 3rd September 2016.)

        • A banned book
          Animal Farm by George Orwell
          26016238The blurb on the back of this 1962 edition describes the book as a “biting satire of dictatorship”. I think that sums it up pretty well! As soon as the pigs put themselves in charge you can sense the way things will turn out and, sure enough, in the end, the rebels become the thing they despised. (Sorry if that’s a spoiler, but I’m working on the assumption that whether you’re read the book or not you’ll be aware of the story at least in a general sense.) I’m no expert on the Communist Revolution in 1917 Russia but, even so, it was all very recognisable – perhaps worryingly, as this is almost 100 years later. For instance, how there can only ever be one pig – sorry, person – in charge, how the masses can be manipulated into doing someone else’s bidding and of being “re-educated” as and when required. If there was an extra chapter at the end of this book I think it would be to tell of an uprising from some of the “lower animals”, or perhaps the younger pigs, who would evict the leaders just as Jones had been evicted at the start, and as one we would sigh and say “here we go again!”. (Finished on 24th September 2016.)

        • A book in an alternative format
          Three Men in a Boat by Jerome K. Jerome (Kindle edition)
          11068342My dad suggested this to me many years ago, but it didn’t appeal at all. So, at last, I thought I’d give it a go. It took me a few chapters to realise that this is essentially a travelogue of a journey along the Thames from London to Oxford, albeit one furnished with a great deal of fictionalising (one assumes) about the particulars of the travelling and the characters involved. The humour is gentle, and I particularly enjoyed the occasional anthropomorphism of the inanimate objects they are dealing with, e.g. the tarpaulin being stubborn and fighting back. It also stands as an interesting before-and-after of that part of Merry England as it’s safe to say that many of the open spaces between the various towns and villages described in the book are now gone, replaced by sprawling towns, industry, and an ever-expanding population. (Finished on 29th June 2016.)

        • A book written about the past
          The Inheritors by William Golding
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           As with several other categories in this list, this one is a bit vague, and given that most fiction is written in the past tense (I say that based on no research other than my own reading, by the way) and therefore about the past, I figured what they actually meant was a factual book about, say, local history or the Ancient Egyptians. However, as I much prefer fiction I opted for this – a fictionalised version of the demise of the Neanderthals. I’d read it before but had forgotten how much I’d enjoyed it. You really get into the mind of the Neanderthals (simple as they are compared to ourselves) and are on their side when the new people are discovered. And when, toward the end, the main character is simply referred to as “the red-haired creature” you find yourself thinking “he has a name!”. (Finished on 13th March 2016)

        • A book recommended by a member of library staff

I’ve crossed out the last category as I’m not going down the library route but, obviously, feel free to include it if you tackle the challenge yourself.

There are some unwritten rules as the challenge is to include 18 books – 17 in my case – so there can’t be any doubling up. For instance, it’s based on using physical books so if most of the books I choose are on my Kindle I’ll be covering two categories without trying so I’ll need to decide which one to tick off. Or if the book I choose for “set in another country” happens to also have a blue cover the same applies.

Some categories will, I think, be easy. On the face of it, the toughest will be a book I can read in a day, assuming Ladybird books don’t count when you’re doing the adult challenge!

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Unless you’re bringing me a cuppa!

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