The league of extraordinary books.

I was recently given the book Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro. I never normally hurry through books, but I enjoyed this one so much – despite a few plot holes – that I finished it in 48 hours.

It’s usually an annoyance when I know an author is withholding information, but Ishiguro has the main character Kathy drip-feed us as she remembers. At times, it was hard to remember there’s a male author behind the words, as her voice is spot-on.

At some point during this 48 hours, I decided to contact the author to give my thoughts. Here’s where I hit a wall. He has an official Facebook profile, but my message was rather long and few people on the site read lengthy posts. There was also a danger that it would be buried under other comments. So I decided to look for an e-mail address.

The e-mail address on his profile, however, was for Random House, but the book was published by Faber & Faber. So I visited the publisher’s website and looked for an official way to contact Ishiguro. Rather quaintly, Faber & Faber insist that readers must contact their authors by post. The picture shows my envelope ready to be posted.image

Yet as I was writing, I realised the power of a physical letter. As more communication becomes electronic, it becomes harder to ignore the few envelopes dropping through your door, just as receiving an e-mail in the late 1990s would have stood out a mile.

The last time I really enjoyed a book, it was The House That Groaned by Karrie Fransman. Some of the twists actually made me gasp out loud, and she incrementally sets up the explosive ending throughout the story, but the reader only snaps together the pieces in the last few pages. I sent her a Twitter message to say I’d enjoyed it so much I’d finished the whole thing in one sitting.

There was a chance she might not have seen this message among tons of others, or she could have easily forgotten about it. However, Fransman did reply, and wisely took the opportunity to tell me about her next book Death of the Artist. Incidentally, I spoke to her briefly at a launch of Death of the Artist, and she jokingly told me not to finish it in one sitting as her books take so long to craft.

I’m always upfront in saying I’m not a lifelong writer, at least not of fiction and poetry. So when I read Starter for Ten by David Nicholls, it didn’t occur to me to write to him. You might know it from the inferior 2006 film.

There’s a chance I enjoyed this book so much because it’s set in a university, and either I was coming to the end of my first time in tertiary education or had recently graduated – I can’t remember which. But even aside from that, the main character Brian Jackson is someone who’s oblivious of his own stupidity, yet painted in such a way that the reader can’t help but feel sorry for him. Indeed, it’s one of the few books I’ve read twice.

Alas, I’m unable to write to the author of my final extraordinary book as Ella Cheever Thayer died in 1925. Her 1880 novel Wired Love was a real eye-opener for me. It tells the story of a young telegraph operator called Nattie Rogers who begins chatting to a mysterious male operator at another station and develops a crush on him. Just like today’s online dating, Nattie reads his messages and tries to second-guess what he really means and wants.

The novel also feels contemporary with its proto-feminist feel. Throughout the story, Nattie remains the one in control of the relationship. All the main characters are female too, with the men portrayed as slightly dimwitted, though both genders appear to run the telegraph network on an equal footing.

The best part is that the novel is now in the public domain so can be read free of charge as an e-book. This website provides more analysis and links to the book.

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My Struggle.

I’ve been keeping a log of all the books I finished in 2014. Note that these were finished in the last year, and that the top one or two might have been started in 2013. Here’s that list in full:

Number Author Title
1 Ella Cheever Thayer Wired Love
2 Nethergate Writers If Stones Could Speak
3 John Twelve Hawks The Traveller
4 Nethergate Writers Whodunwhat?
5 Rachel McCrum The Glassblower Dances
6 Jenny Lindsay The Eejit Pit
7 Luke Wright Mondeo Man
8 Various authors Alternate Hilarities
9 Adam Gopnik Paris to The Moon
10 Virginia Woolf Mrs Dalloway
11 Carson McCullers Ballad of The Sad Café
12 Jayne Anne Philips Quiet Dell
13 Raymond Carver Elephant and Other Stories
14 Kohta Hirano Hellsing

Not all of these were traditional novels. Numbers 5, 6 and 7 were poetry chapbooks, 9 was a collection of essays, while 14 is my first foray into reading graphic novels.

My favourite of these had to be number 1. It was published in 1880 and was ahead of its time both in terms of the technology used in the story and that the main characters are all women, with the men in supporting roles. My least favourite was number 10. This choice will rub up two of my lecturers the wrong way, but while the quality of her writing is high, her books never form much of a story. I had to wait until page 168 for anything major to happen.

Since I became a writer, I’ve tried to finish any book I’ve started even if I find it hard going. I’m currently trying to plough through the abstract concepts in Mein Kampf by Adolf Hitler, and I tackled Crawling Round South Oakwood by Stephen Slaughter a couple of years ago although it read like an unedited first draft. Before then, I would give up after a short time; I didn’t make it past the first few pages of Road to Mars by Eric Idle, nor A Brief History of Time by Stephen Hawking.

Mathematician Jordan Ellenberg has developed a formula based on the latter of these books called the Hawking Index to estimate how far people are reading before giving up. It uses the five passages in each book most highlighted by Kindle users. However, in the time since the publication of the formula, the title of least-read book is no longer Hawking’s masterpiece, but Capital in the Twenty-First Century by Thomas Piketty. You can read the full list here.