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From TTT’s Central: “if you could make authors write about these things you would. Could be a specific type of character, an issue tackled, a time period, a certain plot, etc.

For each of these, recommendations are welcome!

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1. Historical Fiction set outside the US, Central Europe and Russia

… as I have the feeling only about 10% of them do. Or at least the ones that cross my path. What a breath of fresh air Dunnett’s Scales of Gold was, set in 15th century Timbuktu.

2. Novels set in Istanbul/Constantinople/Byzantium

I have a fascination with the city. Here’s my Istanbul bookshelf on Goodreads.

3. Novels set in Brussels

When I first moved here I looked for books in English set in the city and didn’t find many. Everyone always recommends the same ones: Brontë’s Villette, Chevalier’s The Lady and the Unicorn and a couple of Poirots.

4. Portuguese Discovery Period seen from the POV of Africans and Asians

The Discovery Period was an interesting time that encapsulated the best and worst of Portuguese history: an ode to human spirit and bravery, but it also marked the beginning of globalized slavery and colonialism (the best of times and the worst of times?).

I’ve only started reading about Portuguese history as seen from foreign eyes in the last 10 years or so. Until then, most of what I knew had the official sugar-coat of history classes.

5. Fiction about the Silk Road

Another source of fascination, especially after last years’ visit to Uzbekistan. I’ve looked around and there’s not much available. Do you know of any books about it? Non-fiction recommendations are also welcome, but a good historical fiction would be amazing!

Ad infinitum

In general, more books about all the stuff I’m curious about, including:

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I think that percentage-wise, I gave 4 starts to a record number of books this year: 40 out of 54! This should be great news and make 2013 a success, but I only gave 5 stars to 4 books (one of them a re-read) and realized it’s actually the 5-stars that make or break my reading year.

So I’m declaring 2013 A Good, But Not Great reading year.

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To Lie with Lions (House of Niccoló, #6) by Dorothy Dunnett

Surprise, surprise! Dunnett has been on my best-of-year list ever since I discovered her back in 2009. After To Lie with Lions, I’m only left with the last two of the Niccoló Series and her stand-along, King Hereafter. Then no more of Dunnett’s historical fiction to read for the first time. What will I do with my life?! I might have to immediately start re-reading.

A Long Walk to Freedom by Nelson Mandela

My bookclub always chooses a chunker for summer and this year, for obvious reasons, we went with this one. I always measure how much I enjoy a non-fiction book by the amount to hours I spend on Wikipedia because of it. This might have been a record.

It also gave me a great insight into all the discussions when Mandela passed (RIP Madiba!).

Bring Up the Bodies (Thomas Cromwell, #2) by Hilary Mantel

From page 1 – oh that description of the falcons flying! – you know Mantel is in a league apart.

Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen (re-reading)

My 5th time around, still genius.

 

Out of my 4 stars, there are eight that deserve a mention. Let’s call them the 4.5s:

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The First Global Village: How Portugal Changed The World by Martin Page

Reading almost exclusively in English means I know more about American and British history than that of my motherland. This book was a great way to remedy that. I thought it would only focus on the Discovery period but instead I got an overview of Portuguese history from pre-historic settlements to the Carnation Revolution of 1974. And because Page is not Portuguese, he refreshingly goes about myth-busting old dogmas and tackling parts of history often neglected by the school system, like the Muslim occupation between the 8th and 13th century.

A Conspiracy of Kings (The Queen’s Thief, #4) by Megan Whalen Turner

I’m hard pressed to remember why I didn’t give it a full 5, but I’m trusting my past-self and keep the 4. It was probably because I read it close to the previous one in the series, which was so amazing that anything would lose by comparison.

How Eskimos Keep Their Babies Warm: And Other Adventures in Parenting by Mei-Ling Hopgood

I’m very curious about parenting difference across cultures and this book was exactly what I was looking for. Hopgood insights include Argentinian sleeping habits, Chinese potty-training and Kenyan baby-transport. Fascinating stuff – really!

Bringing Up Bébé: One American Mother Discovers the Wisdom of French Parenting by Pamela Druckerman

I know all these French-do-it-better books are now bordering on the annoying, but this one hit a cord because I recognized my own education in it. Some of the “technics” Druckerman speaks of are so natural that I was surprise they surprised her. It was like seeing my childhood through the eyes of a stranger. It also gave me a new found respect for my parents.

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Where the Sidewalk Ends by Shel Silverstein

It was a comment by Amy here on the blog that led me to buy Where the Sidewalk Ends and then straight away all of Silverstein’s other books. What a find!

Four Queens: The Provençal Sisters Who Ruled Europe by Nancy Goldstone

This is the type of non-fiction that reads like fiction. There were several moments in the lives of these sisters that seemed straight out of the pinkest of romances or the most violent of HBO series. Highly recommended for all history-buffs.

We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Madeline Miller (audio)

My advice: go into this book without knowing anything about it. Enjoy the growing sense of unease.

O Retorno by Maria Dulce Cardoso

I’ve difficulty finding Portuguese books I really enjoy 😦 Probably a prejudice of mine, but I’ve the feeling my choices are always between light-weight historical fiction and the heavy-weight post-modern, stream of consciousness, experimental novel. O Retorno (The Return, about a Portuguese family that returns to Portugal from Angola after the end of the Colonial War) was a find and deserves all the praise it’s getting. The best Portuguese book I’ve read in a long time.

Happy 2014 readings!

fictfact_logo_200_200I really didn’t need to be in yet another online platform, but couldn’t resist the idea of having my series organised. With FictFact I can track my progress and it warns me of new publications in all the series I follow.

I also like the quick overview of the books I have coming up in my profile page and to be able to nose around the series my friends are following (search sleeplessreader and feel free to add me).

Going through my stats is fun but it triggers the familiar “so many books, so little time” anxiety. I am currently following 61 series, but these include books on the TBR, so of those I haven’t even started 30. I’ve completed 50% or more of only 12 series and shamefully I’m only up to date on two (how is that possible?): the Wolf Hall Trilogy and Juliet Marillier’s Wildwood Dancing.

This is a list of the top 10 series I’m keener to start. Many have been on the shelf looking at me with big Puss in Boots eyes for a while. I’m thinking that the Long Awaited Reads might be a good opportunity to finally start a couple of them.

Go ahead and nudge me in the direction of your favorites 😉

series 1

  • Morland Dynasty by Cynthia Harrod-Eagles
    The Founding
  • Jackson Brodie by Kate Atkinson
    Case Histories
  • Baroque Cycle by Neal Stephenson
    Quicksilver
  • Rivers of London by Ben Aaronovitch, Ben
    Rivers of London/Midnight Riot
  • New Crobuzon by China Miéville
    Perdido Street Station
  • Dune by Frank Herbert
    Dune
  • Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell
    The Sparrow
  • Eleanor of Aquitaine by Sharon Kay Penman
    When Christ and His Saints Slept
  • Welsh Princes by  Sharon Kay Penman
    Here Be Dragons
  • Moosepath League by Van Reid
    Cordelia Underwood

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Have you noticed how most book-lovers are also list-lovers? Someone should look into it scientifically. My favorite lists are of course book lists: I’m a regular explorer of GoodReads’ Listopia universe and have others in the computer that I update regularly, like the seven below.

Some of them were put together by literary experts/critics/academics while others are the choice of the general public. Of the seven, my favorites, and the ones more trust-worthy as a source of recommendations, are BBC’s The Big Read and the 100 Favorite Novels of Librarians (they’re coincidentally the lists where I tick more boxes).

Do you also have book lists you update regularly? Send them my way! I can already imagine the happy times ahead going through them.

1. BBC The Big Read

Read: 65/100
TBR: 6/100

In April 2003 the The Big Read and BBC began the search for the UK’s best-loved novels and then put together a list with the top 100 and top 200. It’s an old list (does anyone know if they plan to updated it?), but still the one of the best.

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2. The 100 Favorite Novels of Librarians

Read: 64/100
TBR: 9/100

Also an old list that deserves an update. Who knows better than librarians?!

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1001 Books to read before your die

Read: 123/1000
TBR: 16/1000

Probably the most famous best-books list around. I use the 2010 edition.

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Guardian’s 1000 novels everyone must read: the definitive list

Read: 149/1000
TBR: 23/1000

This is a 2003 list selected by the “Guardian’s Review team and a panel of expert judges”. It’s an interesting one because it’s divided into eight categories: love, crime, comedy, family and self, state of the nation, science fiction and fantasy, war and travel.

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Waterstones’ 100 Best 20th Century English Novels

Read: 40/100
TBR: 6/100

In 1997, Waterstones announced the results of its Books of the Century poll to find out what the public considered to be the 100 greatest books of the twentieth century. Over 25,000 people participated. It’s similar to the BBC and Librarians lists, but slightly more high-brown.

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The Modern Library 100 Best

Board’s List
Read: 17/100
TBR: 2/100

Readers’ List
Read: 25/100
TBR: 2/100

Although I only update the 100 Best Novels, Modern Library also has a Best 100 NonFiction list. For each they published the books chosen by a panel of experts and another by the general public. It’s interesting to compare both.

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Times all-time 100 novels

Read: 22/100
TBR: 2/100

A 2005 list by TIME’s literary experts. It only includes English language novels published anywhere in the world since 1923, the year that TIME Magazine was created.

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Past Listopia posts

I have this little project going on on Pinterest which involves collecting as many paintings and illustrations depicting women and girls reading as possible. So far, the board has 998 images (possible a few repeated), and I add to it almost everyday, mostly with the help of sites like Reading and Artthomerama and Women Reading.

I’ve been meaning to post here about my favorites, but as the collection grows it becomes more difficult to choose. With some effort I managed my gather my top 50, which I’m sure would change if I chose them tomorrow. The images below are just a sample chosen at random (really randomly, using a number generator!).

What fascinates me about these paintings is how varied they are. You’ll find little girls and old matrons, mothers and maidens, aristocrats and their cleaning ladies, religious women reading the Bible and women on the beach reading Tropic of Cancer, women enjoying some time alone and others reading in a group or out-loud. Some are seen from a distance, almost spied on, others look into our eyes. Some are serious, others on the verge of a giggle, some bold, others shy. They all make me want to go up to them and start up a conversation about what they’re reading and how they’re find it so far.

One thing is clear: artists from different times and cultures have been fascinated by images of women reading. There’s something very intimate and tranquil about them, or maybe the painters (mostly men) are curious and jealous of this personal time. It fascinates me.

I haven’t been able to find the author of two of them – maybe you can help? Any of your favorites that I missed?

The Rest of my Top 50

“Fellow Readers” on Pinterest
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Missed Connection (2004)
Adrian Tomine (USA, 1974-)

This was the the cover of The New Yorker in November 2004. I love the “comics” feel to it and the serendipity in theme. If it was a movie, they’d sit opposite each other the following week.

Seated Woman
Jules Adolphe Goupil (France, 1839–1883)

This is definitely a pose (her choice or the painters, I wonder?) and she knows she looks great.  My favorite thing about this one is the color arrangement between the pastels and the black background. Gorgeous dress.

A Place of Her Own
James Christensen (USA, 1942-)

What the artist said about it:

“I wanted to create a retreat, a secluded little nook filled with art and books where a woman could really get away from it all. Here, the tension melts away as lilting strains of lute music drift across the overstuffed cushions. The objects in the room represent the things that I believe are important to a full and satisfying life: Rembrandt’s painting ‘Aristotle Contemplating the Bust of Homer’ (culture and the arts); the medieval Unicorn Tapestries (magic and belief); maps (curiosity and exploration); sheet music (music and creativity) and the books, treasures which represent the collected wisdom of the ages. Take a close look at the books – there’s one of my very favorite new books buried in there somewhere!”

Les Muses (1893)
Maurice Denis (France, 1870-1943)

Lovely colors. All nine muses are there, I wonder which one is sharpening her pencil – Calliope of Epic Poetry maybe?

 

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David Hettinger (USA, 1946-)

One of the few in my top-50 without a name. I’ve looked on the artist’s website with no luck. The mother is there but her mind somewhere else. Have the feeling I’ve witnessed many similar scenes. Very summer-ish.

A girl reading a book by the River Rhine
Igor Shin Moromisato (Brazil)

This is one of the most repined and liked images in my collection. It could be me in thousands of similar moments in my life, only replace the Rhine with the Tagus.

Elegant Women in a Library
Edouard Gelhay (France, 1856 – 1939)

Yes, they’re elegant, but that’s not what strikes me the most. They look curious, intent, absorbed.

Girl Reading
Alfred Émile Stevens  (1823-1906)

This is one of my favorites of all. She’s so comfortable, so immersed in her book. Is that a party dress and she’s making time until someone picks her up, or is it a morning/afternoon dress and she was distracted away from her knitting duties?

The Communicant (1900)
Julius Garibaldi Melchers (USA, 1860-1932)

How striking is this one? She’s all cool perfection and statue-like. I was surprised the artist was American because there’s something very Dutch about the whole thing. Have you noticed that the girls’ shape is the opposite of blue holy water holder?

Girl in a Red Dress Reading by a Swimming Pool (1887)
Sir John Lavery (Ireland, 1856-1941)

Everything is blue, but she’s red. Like the one above reading by the Rhine,  I’ve been in this pose countless times.

I wish I’d made a similar list when I was in my early teens and twenties just to notice the evolution. I see some patterns in this collection of men: not a lot of Alphas or Bad Boys, there’s a surprising number of soldiers (although their soldering doesn’t defines them), only two of them lived in the 20th century and steadfastness seems a general quality.

I suspect that my past self would include more gloomy types, but intellect and the possibility of an interesting conversation is taking over. Mr. Darcy would have definitely be included in a previous list, but now I’m switching my Austen favorite from the brooding gentleman to the social adventurer. I’ve also noticed they aren’t very original choices, but for that I blame the amazing authors that created them.

10. Jaime Lannister (A Song of Ice and Fire series)

“I think it passing odd that I am loved by one for a kindness I never did, and reviled by so many for my finest act.” (A Clash of Kings)

I struggle da bit about including Jamie because of the whole, you know, pushing a child out of the window thing. But the fact remains that as the series progresses, Martin’s genius is making him more and more interesting and layered.

He stats off with a ruthless reputation, but then on book three he becomes a POV character and we suddenly see the other side of the story. It’s also around that time that Jaime’s life stops being a succession of victories and the first cracks start to show. Although he has a twisted relationship with his sister, there’s true affection between him and Tyrion, always a good sign.

I’ll probably regret this choice in the future because, Martin being Martin, Jaime might be killing baby seals in the next book, but for now, his chapters are the ones I’m most looking forward to.

9. William Dobbin (Vanity Fair)

She admired Dobbin; she bore him no rancour for the part he had taken against her. It was an open move in the game, and played fairly. “Ah!” she thought, “if I could have had such a husband as that—a man with a heart and brains too! I would not have minded his large feet.” (Becky Sharp on William Dobbie)

Becky Sharp saying such a thing about a man should already be an indication of how great Dobbin is. He’s described as shy, ugly, awkward, the complete opposite of his best friend George, who marries the girl Dobbie loves and everyone thinks a hero, but is in fact the scum of the earth. I don’t usually go for the meek characters, but Dobbin is the underdog who sticks around when there’s trouble and one of the noblest literary men I’ve ever read about.

Everyone seems to underestimate him, but Dobbin goes from the son of a grocer to become a Captain, then a Major, and finally a Colonel. He also has a smart sense of humor, although it rarely makes an appearance. In one of the book’s last scenes, after years of constant affection, Dobbin finally stands up for himself after being unfairly mistreated by his beloved Amelia. Although it’s sad, it’s also the poignant scene that sealed the deal and made him enter this list.

It also didn’t hurt to see Philip Glenister play him in the adaptation.

 8. Ron Weasley (Harry Potter series)

“Hermione screamed again from overhead, and they could hear Bellatrix screaming too, but her words were inaudible, for Ron shouted again, ‘HERMIONE! HERMIONE!’” (Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows)

Ron is the real romantic hero of the Harry Potter series and I’m not alone in thinking so. He starts of as The Chosen One’s wingman, the one without any special gifts or abilities and ends up getting the (amazing) girl. Ron coughs up slugs and breaks wands, but he also offers himself up to Bellatrix in Hermione’s stead and, in one of the most amazing scenes of the whole serie, he faces his fears and insecurities and destroys the Locket.

AND he smells of freshly mown grass, new parchment and toothpaste…

7. Gilbert Blythe (Anne of Green Gables series)

Gilbert Blythe was trying to make Anne Shirley look at him and failing utterly… she should look at him, that redhaired Shirley girl with the pointed chin and the big eyes that weren’t like the eyes of any other girl in Avonlea school.” (Anne of Green Gables)

Gil must be in the crushes lists of anyone who’s ever read Anne of Green Gables. He’s Anne’s intellectual equal and challenger, and the epitome of The Good Man.

He’s not afraid to apologize or to stand his ground and challenge Anne. He loves her but is ready to wait until she’s ready… and it also doesn’t hurt he’s easy on the eye.

All of their scenes together make me all mushy inside: calling her Carrot, the The Lady of Shalott debacle, his proposal(s) and basically the whole of Anne of the Island.

6. Captain Wentworth (Persuasion)

“A man does not recover from such a devotion of the heart to such a woman! He ought not; he does not”

Mr. Darcy has The Proposal, but Captain Wentworth has The Letter. The best love letter ever written?

His devotion to Anne, after all those years, after she broke her heart is impossible to resist. For me he has the added value of being the only Austenesque self-made hero and a sailor who’s seen the world to top. It’s a great combination.

He’s also one of the only people in the world who recognizes Anne for the sensible, intelligent and resourceful woman she is: no one puts Anne in a corner!

5. Robbie Turner (Atonement)

“Finally he spoke the three simple words that no amount of bad art or bad faith can every quite cheapen.”

Years of desiring Cecilia from afar and a few stolen minutes in the library sustain Robbie Turner throughout the horrors of WW2. Don’t know exactly why I like Robbie so much, but it’s probably because he carries an undeserved burden with courage, and strength, and always with Cecilia on his mind.

Robbie wears his heart of his sleeve and somehow there’s hope in him, even after Briony’s accusation and all that followed. We can’t help but, be like the narrator, wholeheartedly root for him to come back.

4. Stephen Maturin (Aubrey/Maturin series)

“There is a systematic flocci-nauci-nihili-pilification of all other aspects of existence that angers me.”  (Master and Commander)

This is my most recent literary crush: he’s bright, funny and such a geek! Stephen might not be good looking, but he can tell you all about the Galápagos giant tortoise and how to do brain surgery in a stinking boat in six languages.

Actually, scratch that about him not being good looking, don’t care how O’Brian describes him, he’ll always look like Paul Bettany to me. It’s also attractive that he’s part of one of the best bromances around.

3. Rhett Butler (Gone with the Wind)

“There was a cool recklessness in his face and a cynical humor in his mouth as he smiled at her, and Scarlett caught her breath.”

A cliché, I know, but the millions of fans can’t all be wrong, right? Rhett Butler had me almost at hello, when he stands in a group of righteous Southern men hungry for war and says “Napoleon – perhaps you’ve hear of him? –  remarked once, ‘God is on the side of the strongest battalion’“.

Just like Scarlett he’s an anti-hero, or at least a hero trying too hard not to be one (was there ever a more frustrating relationship?). He’s sharp, ambitious, worldly, cynical, confident and just devilish enough to keep any woman on her toes.

Mitchell never wrote a sex scene, but the pages are full to the brim with sexual tension whenever he’s around.

2. Atticus Finch (To Kill a Mockingbird)

“Courage is not a man with a gun in his hand. It’s knowing you’re licked before you begin but you begin anyway and you see it through no matter what. You rarely win, but sometimes you do.”

You know Atticus is special because he’s the only one on my list without a love interest. He’s very close to what I consider perfection in a man, which is not the same thing as being perfect.

His attraction are his Southern Gentleman  ways and his determination to do what’s right. He also kills rabid dogs and is raising two great and open-minded kids alone. I’m only surprised about how he never feels like a Mary Sue, preachy or self-righteous. I wonder what type of people his wife and his parents were, they must also have been extraordinary.

1. Faramir (The Lord of the Rings)

“I do not love the bright sword for its sharpness, nor the arrow for its swiftness, nor the warrior for his glory. I love only that which they defend.”  (The Two Towers)

He was gentle in bearing, and a lover of lore and of music, and therefore by many in those days his courage was judged less than his brother’s. But it was not so, except that he did not seek glory in danger without a purpose.” (The Return of the King)

“Here was one with an air of high nobility such as Aragorn at times revealed, less high perhaps, yet also less incalculable and remote: one of the Kings of Men born into a later time, but touched with the wisdom and sadness of the Elder Race. […] He was a captain that men would follow, […] even under the shadow of the black wings.” (The Two Towers)

Faramir only makes his appearance in The Two Towers, but he got my attention immediately and became my biggest literary crush. Yep, I liked him even before he fell in love with Éowyn, the only 3D female character in the whole book.

That’s just the cherry on top: Faramir’s a soldier, but his father calls him “a wizard’s pupil” because Gandalf himself taught him the lore of Middle-earth. He’s noble, but human, and his need to please his father, who preferred his brother Boromir, broke my heart. He also resisted the Ring, letting Frodo and Sam go, even though he could be killed for it (“You know the laws of our country, the laws of your father. If you let them go, your life will be forfeit.”)

I’m always secretly happy when I see Aragorn or Legolas in literary crushes lists, because it means that Faramir, the scholarly soldier, is still one of the best kept open-secrets in literature 😉

So, who did I miss?

I’ve only started listening to audiobooks in mid-2009 but now I can’t imagine my literary life without them. I listen to them during my daily commuting, showering, cooking, cleaning and often a bit before going to sleep.

Over two years and 100 audiobooks later, I’m ready to make my first list of favorite narrators. I’d love to know about your own choices, so let me know if I’ve missed any good ones.

(if you click the links you’ll be able to listen to samples of the books)

Stephen Fry

I know that for most Americans Jim Dale in unbeatable, but for me Fry is the voice of the Harry Potter books. They’re still my favorite audiobooks of all time. His voice is so rich and you can tell he’s also in love with the books. Also, if you’ve listen to his podcasts (I particularly recommend the one called “Language”), you know he’s passionate about his native-tongue and its nuances.

I never get as emotionally involved with audio as I do with a paper version (I suspect it’s because there’s an intermediate between me and the story), but to this day these are the only audiobooks that made me cry.  I’ve also listen to Fry read Stories of Anton Chekhov and Montmorency: Thief, Liar, Gentleman and he never disappointed.

Other audiobooks in the wish-list: The Fry Chronicles by Stephen Fry, Stephen Fry Presents a Selection of Oscar Wilde’s Short StoriesThe Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams (for a re-read).

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Alan Cumming

My favorite actor-cum-narrator. He’s funny, great with accents and has a wonderful voice. I listened to him read Scott Westefeld’s Leviathan trilogy and loved it so much that, although I was dying to read the last book, I waited until the audiobook version was available.

Audiobook wish-list: Macbeth: A Novel by A. J. Hartley and David Hewson, Specimen Days by Michael Cunningham.

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Jeremy Irons

Would I’ve liked Lolita (sample *goosebumps*) as much as I did without Irons’ deliciously-creepy narration? Probably not. Also heard to him read Brideshead Revisited and James and the Giant Peach and again got the feeling I appreciated the books much more because of him.

Audiobook wish-list: The French Lieutenant’s Woman by John Fowles.

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Robert Whitfield (aka Simon Vance)

He’s a heavy-weight audiobook narrator, who read about 800 audiobooks and received awards I didn’t even know existed like the Audie® Awards. I first listed to him read Scaramouche and immediately downloaded Captain Blood, also by Rafael Sabatini. Whitfield will forever be associated in my mind with a good sword-buckling adventure, but I’ve recently listen to him read A Week in December by Sebastian Faulks and he was once again flawless.

Audiobook wish-list: His Majesty’s Dragon by Naomi Novik, The Difference Engine by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling, The Prestige by Christopher Priest, The Three Musketeers by Alexandre Dumas, Barchester Towers by Anthony Trollope, The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters, Titus Groan by Mervyn Peake

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Steven Crossley

First listened to Steven Crossley in Enduring Love by Ian McEwan (one of Stephen King’s top 10 audiobooks) and more recently in To Say Nothing fo the Dog by Connie Willis.

Both books have quirky and eccentric characters which I think Crossley nailed perfectly.

Audiobook wish-list: A Room with a View by E. M. Forester (re-read), Kidnapped by Robert Louis Stevenson

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Nadia May

There’s only one woman in this list. I don’t really have an explanation for it, it’s just my honest experience with audiobooks so far, which might change as I get to know more narrators. Still, Nadia May is one of the best and a pleasure to listen every single time (her voice makes me think “She must be a good person, I want her over for tea”). I’ve heard her read Agnes GreyElizabeth and Her German GardenThe Scarlet Letter and The Sultan’s Seal by Jenny White.

Audiobook wish-list: A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous Fourteenth Century by Barbara W. Tuchman, The Wings of the Dove by Henry James, Emma by Jane Austen (re-read), Till We Have Faces by C. S. Lewis, The Enchanted April by Elizabeth von Armin, Parnassus on Wheels by Christopher Morley, Howards End by E. M. Foster (re-read)

(Note: I’ve only heard the following two narrators read one book each, but it was such a great experience that they have to be in the list.)

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Matthew MacFadyen

Matthew MacFadyen could read the phonebook and it would sound like Shakespeare. And you know what’s even better? Matthew MacFadyen actually reading Shakespeare.

I’ve no doubt it was because of him that I gave five starts toThe Coma by Alex Garland.  The only reason why I haven’t listen to more of his audiobooks it’s because he hasn’t any (sniff), unless you count the one single but glorious chapter of Pride and Prejudice.

Someone please give the man a book and a microphone!

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Michael Page

My best audiobook of 2011 was read by Michael Page: The Lies of Locke Lamora by Scott Lynch. His voice is extremely versatile, not only in giving a distinct personally to each character, but also in being able to jump from comedy to drama without loosing a beat. Also think this is a case of the perfect match between narrator and book. Just like Robert Whitfield, Michael Page is probably at its best with an old-fashioned adventure book.

Audiobook wish-list: Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson, The Scarlet Pimpernel by Baroness Orczy, Red Seas Under Red Skies by Scott Lynch, The Three Musketeers by  Alexandre Dumas (Page or Whitfield? Decisions, decisions…)

Honorable mentions:

  • John Castle (Frenchman’s Creek by Daphne du Maurier)
  • Jonathan Cecil (all P.G. Wodehouse’s Jeeves novels)
  • Anton Lesser (Ruby in the Smoke by Philip Pullman, but I like the samples of him reading Shakespeare)
  • Cassandra Campbell (The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot and Can’t Wait to Get to Heaven by Faniie Flagg)
  • Dave John (Starter for Ten by David Nicholls)
  • Ian Carmichael (Three Men in a Boat by Jerome K Jerome and I’d like to try his narration of Lord Peter Wimsey’s novels)
  • Juliet Stevenson (Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen)
  • Jim Dale (Around the World in 80 Days by Jules Verne, have Peter and the Starcatchers series in the audio TBL and heard he did a great job with The Night Circusas well)
  • Nigel Graham (Ivanhoe by Sir Walter Scott)

Second and last part, again in no order of preference.

7. Fly by Night by Frances Hardinge (England, UK)

It’s not a complete unknown (its sequel is on the shortlist of the Guardian children’s fiction prize), but I only know three other people who’ve heard of it.

As I’ve mentioned in my review, someone in Goodreads said that Fly By Night was “written as a gushy Valentine to the English language” and I’m hard pressed to come up with a better description.

Fly by Night is the story of 12-year-old Mosca Mye. She loves words and it’s her favorite treat to find new ones to play with. Before her father died he taught her how to read, a dangerous skill in a world where education is feared and books are distrusted. When a travelling storyteller passes through town, she sees her opportunity to explore the world.

It’s a children’s story, but adults will appreciate it as well (even more?). It has many layers, it’s too subtly political, full of dark humor and clever sarcasm. I’m glad there’s a sequel because, as Mosca said, “True stories seldom have endings.  I don’t want a happy ending, I want more story.

8. The Firebrand by Marion Zimmer Bradley (USA)

The Mists of Avalon (39,925 ratings on Goodreads) is very popular, but Firerbrand (only 2,911) doesn’t have the recognition it deserves. While I agree that The Mists is the better of the two, Firebrand is a (very) close second.

I’m a sucker for Greek mythology, so that might be the source of my amazement. Firebrand is the re-telling of the Trojan War and Homer’s Illiad (that “boys story”), seen through the eyes of Kassandra, the priestess cursed with seeing the future, but never being believed. She’s also the twin sister of Paris, the Prince who brought Helen to Troy.

Great historical detail, a nice dose of magic, a strong female heroine and a wonderful love story.  What more can you ask?

9. The Lymond Chronicles by Dorothy Dunnett (Scotland, UK)

Is it possible to be in awe of a book, to obsess about it, put it in your top-3 best of all time, and at the same time be afraid to recommend it? Yes. This might also be why The Lymond Chronicles are probably the most under-rated books in this whole list.

So here’s a warning: The Lymond Chronicles might be some of the most challenging books you’ll ever read, but also become the best and most rewarding.

They are a series of six novels set in mid-sixteenth century and telling the story of a young Scottish nobleman, Francis Crawford of Lymond, a Renaissance man through and through: polyglot, philosopher, military strategist and musician. We follow him from Scotland to the deserts of North Africa, from Istanbul to Moscow.

The detail is exquisite and the plot extremely intricate, readers are never spoon-fed, but you’re constantly in awe of Dunnett’s genius. You won’t find a staggering amount of reviews online, but notice the high average rating and praise.

10. The Old Man Who Read Love Stories (Un viejo que leía novelas de amor) by Luis Sepúlveda (Chile)

Like Captains of the Sands, this book is very popular in the Spanish and Portuguese-speaking world, but never made the jump to the wider world. I’ve heard it talked off as the Uncle Tom’s Cabin of Amazonian deforestation.

António Proaño is a simple man. He lives in El Idilio, an isolated village in the Ecuadorian part of the Amazon forest. The dentist comes only twice a year and brings with him the romantic novels that António started to love after his wife died.

He wants a quiet life – his hammock, his monkey meat, his rum, his novels – but all is disrupted when gringos start hunting ocelot cubs and push the animal into a killing spree. António respects the ocelot, but is asked by the El Idilio’s nasty mayor to kill it.

The Old Man Who Read Love Stories is a beautiful tale about the jungle, man’s impact and Nature’s response when threatened.

11. The Royal Game (Schachnovelle) by Stefan Zweig (Austria)

I’ve read this novella years ago, but it comes to my mind often, usually in seemingly unrelated situations.

While Dr. B is in a Nazi prison, he keeps a fragile grip on sanity because of a book he stole from a guard. The book is about chess, a compilation of the games of past masters, so Dr. B starts playing chess in his mind, endlessly, voraciously. After learning every single move of any variation in the book, and having nothing more to explore, Dr. B begins to play the game against himself, developing the ability to separate his mind into two: I White and I Black.

After the war, a traumatized Dr. B has given up chess, until on a cruise he’s challenged by an arrogant world champion…

Don’t really remember how I came to read this, suspect it was a book-ring organized by Bookcrossing, but I’m glad I did. Zweig was a friend of Freud and you can see his influence in the way Zweig writes about blind passion, obsessive, over the top, all-consuming, Id-type of passion.

12. Os Olhos de Ana Marta by Alice Vieira (not translated yet, but would probably be something like The Eyes of Ana Marta) (Portugal)

Nymeth over at “things mean a lot” actually offered to translate this book and buy copies to give away through her blog. I’d do the same in a heart-beat, so Editorial Caminho, if you’re listening: we can help promote it, just make it happen!

A girl called Marta thought she didn’t belong to her family. Her mom is “fragile” and her father distant because of The Great Calamity, a mysterious event that happened long ago and no one in the house speaks about. Marta is raised by the house-keeper-come-nanny, in a house with rooms that are always closed and questions that can never be asked.

I had the same thought after finishing it as I did after To Kill a Mockingbird: I’ve just witnessed perfect storytelling. I’m only sorry most of you won’t be able to enjoy it too 😦

So this is it! Hope I’ve increased my karma by spreading The Joy and that I’ve persuaded you to at least try some of them. I’d really like to hear about your own hidden-gems!


If there’s any justice in the world, someday these books will have the recognition they deserve. To be fair, some are already hugely popular in certain parts of the world, so maybe this post should be called “Books I’m surprised the Whole World isn’t talking about”.

Would love to know if you’ve ever hear of/read any of them.

Alphabetically:

1. A Short History of a Small Place by T. R. Pearson (USA)

At the yearly Book Fair here in Brussels I always buy a couple of mavericks. A Short History of a Small Place was my 2007 blind date but it quickly became one of the best of the year. I may have been easy to please because of my soft spot for Southern Literature, but this novel seemed to have all the elements needed to win me over: a small town, eccentric characters, smart jokes and the bittersweet feeling of coming-of-age. Still, I’ve never met (online or in person) anyone who’s ever heard of A Short History of a Small Place.

The story is set in the mid-60s, in the fictional town of Nelly, NC. Our young narrator, Louis Benfield, recounts the tragic last days of old Miss Myra Angelique Pettigrew, a former town belle and eccentric wealthy sister of the late mayor. After years of total seclusion, Miss Pettigrew returns flamboyantly to public view to sing her swan song.

Although events are told by Louis, in a way we see them from the perspective of the entire town. They are those stories told over and over at the kitchen table, in the supermarket line, in the beauty salon and after Sunday service. So often that they become the stuff of legend.

2. Baltasar and Blimunda (Memorial do Convento) by José Saramago (Portugal)

I think I’m not exaggerating when I say that Baltasar and Blimunda is the most popular book by Saramago in his home country, so when he jumped borders it surprised me how rarely it’s mentioned. I’ve discussed this phenomenon with some friends and the only reason we can come up with is that, unlike Blindness, The Double or All the Names, Baltasar and Blimunda is very… Portuguese. Its political and religious message, although not unique, can better be appreciated if you know something of Portuguese history and psyche.

It’s the 18th century, and the Inquisition strengthens its grip on Portugal as gold and diamonds pour in from Brasil and other colonies. The book starts when King John V dutifully visits his Queen to try for an heir. He promises God that if he succeeds he’ll build a magnificent Monastery, and that’s the start of what will become the Mafra National Palace. Baltasar and Blimunda is the story of the construction of the Palace and Saramago takes us on an intimate journey through the Nobility and Clergy who funded it, the engineers who design it, and the lower classes who actual build it.

It’s an historical novel with the social and religious criticism Saramago is famous for, but he still managed to create what’s still one of my favorite love stories of all time.

3. Captains of the Sands (Capitães da Areia) by Jorge Amado (Brazil)

A classic of Brazilian literature which doesn’t seem very popular outside the Portuguese-speaking world and Latin America. I remember it for its emotional punch and my first encounter with a world that is not all black and white. I probably read it a bit too early in life and I clearly remember how it heart-broken I was.

“Captains of the Sands” is a gang of abandoned children living in the streets of Bahia in the 30s. They’re between seven to fifteen years old and survive by stealing and coning. Think Lord of the Flies meets City of God meets Peter Pan. It’s a book that surprised me by the amount of topics it approaches: poverty, social injustice, parenthood, sexuality, gender equality, African culture in Brazil. Read it and fall in love with Pedro Bala, the leader, Professor, the book-lover and artist, and Dora, the Wendy-like figure of the gang. There’s also a movie adaptation. Here’s the trailer.

4. Cities of the Fantastic (Les Cités Obscures) by François Schuiten (art) and Benoît Peeters (story) (Belgium)


These are a series of books started in the 80s that have reached cult status, at least in the Franco-Belgian graphic novels world. Schuiten in particular is so well liked here in Belgium that he got to design his own Steampunk metro station.

The Cities of the Fantastic are an imaginary world where humans live in independent (sometimes isolated) city-states, each with a distinct civilization and architectural style.

There are passages between our world and the Cities (the Obscure Passages), sometimes crossed by people on both sides. Jules Verne, for instance, is a frequent visitor. Most Passages are found in buildings and constructions similar or identical in both words, such as Art Nouveau master-piece Maison Autrique. You can even read reports (complete with photos) of crossings in websites like the Office to the Obscure Passages or The Web of the Obscure Cities.

The series and its spin-offs offer beautiful art with a solid world-building. Pure, unadulterated escapism.

5. Citizen Dog by Mark O’Hare (USA)


It’s a huge mystery to me why Citizen Dog doesn’t have the same following as Calvin & Hobbs or Mutts.

It ran between 1995 and 2001 and it’s about the life of Mel and his dog Fergus. Call me a biased dog-person, but I love that in Citizen Dog cats are (for once!) not portrayed as the sharpest knives in the drawer. Maybe that’s the source of discrimination? 😉

I always get a good laugh out of Citizen Dog books, no matter how often I read them. The lines between master and dog are usually blured and often switched, but somehow Fergus is more lovable than other rebels, like Garfield. Anyone out there also a fan?

6. The King Amaz’d (Crónica del rey pasmado) by Gonzalo Torrente Ballester (Spain)

Very short, but oh-so-delightful.

After sleeping with his best courtesan, young King Philip IV becomes obsessed with an idea. A simple idea, but one which will rock the Court, the Inquisition and the Kingdom: Philip wishes to see the Queen, his wife, naked.

This is the epitome of a hidden gem, a funny, clever and insightful satire about conformity and personal freedom.

I’ve no lack of reviews to write, but the weather is so hot and stuffy I just want to go into revelry instead of entering “Deep Thoughts” mode. So this is the perfect time for a Listopia post with my list of the ten best movies which were BETTER than the book.

I don’t subscribe to the dogma that all books are always better than their adaptation. Sometimes a story and its characters just shine a brighter on screen. That being said, it was only after completing the list that I realize I always saw these movie before reading the books. There’s a clear pattern here.

(PS:  I don’t know about you, but Best Adapted Screenplay is my favorite Oscar category)

#1 Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk


By the time I read Fight Club I’d already read my favorite Palahniuks so ended up short of impressed. It was his first book and I guess he was still trying to get to grips with his style.

It was with this movie that Helena Bonham Carter played for the first time the wacky-women type that just stuck with her (e.g. Bellatrix Lestrange, the girl in the Sweeny Todd).

Favorite not-in-the-book moment: Pixies singing “Where is my mind” while the world is ending.

#2 Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones

This movie deviated quite a bit from the book, but it’s still a great Miyazaki. I did have more fun with it than the book, which was nice but didn’t deliver the magic I got from Studio Ghibli’s amazing colors and scenarios.

I’m afraid I’d probably feel the same thing if I ever decided to read Mary Norton’s The Borrowers, Ghibli’s latest adaptation.

Favorite not-in-the-book moment: The climb up the Castle’s stairs.

#3 The Color Purple by Alice Walker

The book’s first part was so good that by itself it wouldn’t make this list, but the second (after Celie found Nettie’s letters) didn’t grab me enough.

Favorite not-in-the-book moment: Shug returns to church.

#4 The Painted Veil by W. Somerset Maugham

I can’t get tired of this movie and the first time I saw it I thought: what an amazing book this must be. Alas, the book and I didn’t hit it off, and I guiltily know it’s because I was expecting the story to be exactly as the adaptation. I had a hard time accepting that Maugham chose not to have Walter and Walter fall in love.

Favorite not-in-the-book moment: Walter shows Kitty the watermill.

#5 The Neverending Story by Michael Ende

Its movies like this that create perfect childhood memories. How could Ende compete with puppy-headed Luck Dragon? He replaced the pony-fantasy of every kid who saw him. I still think today that I might name a future son Bastian.

The book is interesting but a bit too long and moralistic. Also,  I suspect the translation doesn’t to justice to its elaborate twists and turns.

Favorite not-in-the-book moment: Luck Dragon’s face & voice.

*Alex hums Limahl*

#6 The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje


One of my favorite movies, which not even Ondaatje’s beautiful prose could dethrone.

Favorite not-in-the-book moment: Kip shows Hana the frescos in an abandoned church.

#7 The Commitments by Roddy Doyle


The book was ok, but very short and didn’t allow as much characterization as the movie did. Still, it was the music that made the movie surpass the novel, big time. One of my favorite soundtracks.

Favorite not-in-the-book moments: “What are your influences?”

#8 Out of Africa by Karen Blixen

I gave up on the book half-way through it. It was a similar experience to The Painted Veil: the movie created expectation which the book didn’t live up to.

Favorite not-in-the-book moment:  Karen tells the story of the wandering Chinese.

#9 The Constant Gardener by John Le Carré

The movie had an emotional punch that Le Carré almost detached tone couldn’t match. I’m not a big fan of spy stories/thrillers, but the movie managed to be oh so much more than that. My girl-crush with Rachel Weisz started here.

Favorite not-in-the-book moment: pregnant Tess walks around Nairobi. 

#10 The Last of the Mohicans by James Fenimore Cooper

The movie gives pace to Cooper’s slow burning narration (so dry, so dry…). Have you read Mark Twain’s essay criticizing Cooper? Is as hilarious as only a sharp review written by a smart person can be. A great example:

Every time a Cooper person is in peril, and absolute silence is worth four dollars a minute, he is sure to step on a dry twig. There may be a hundred other handier things to step on, but that wouldn’t satisfy Cooper. Cooper requires him to turn out and find a dry twig; and if he can’t do it, go and borrow one. In fact, the Leatherstocking Series ought to have been called the Broken Twig Series.

Favorite not-in-the-book moment: “No, you submit, do you hear? You be strong, you survive… You stay alive, no matter what occurs! I will find you. No matter how long it takes, no matter how far, I will find you.” *sigh*

What are yours?

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