Shelf by Shelf: Classics

I used to be a big reader of classics, mostly when I was a teenager. It was at that stage that I read all of Jane Austen’s novels, and I think my reading was very influenced by the idea of what I was “supposed” to read. At that time, I didn’t really know where to get book recommendations from: I knew that I loved reading, but I didn’t follow BookTube at all, I wasn’t on Twitter, I didn’t read blogs, I was too shy to ask booksellers for recommendations… So I basically just read things that were famous. These days, I read a lot less classics. It’s not that I don’t still love the books I read during that phase, it’s just that I come across so many more books, online and in real life, that I tend to put the classics to the back of my mind.

First up, there’s my stack of Shakespeares. I’ve read about half of this stack, and it’s a long term goal to read all of his plays, but it’s one that has stalled recently. It really bothers me that this stack isn’t quite high enough to reach the top of the books next to it and support the book above, but Penguin have stopped printing these editions so they’re a little trickier to get hold of now, which is irritating.

Measure for Measure by William Shakespeare
I haven’t read this and I don’t remember the plot at all.

The Merchant of Venice by William Shakespeare
I remember my mum telling me about this play when I was a kid, because she had studied it for her English A-level and it had stayed with her for that long. Having read it, I can totally see why, it’s a powerful, memorable play. I’m really keen to read Howard Jacobson’s retelling, Shylock Is My Name.

Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare
I mean it’s as famous as it is for a reason, this is some of the most beautiful poetry ever written, even if the plot’s a bit thin. This was my first exposure to Shakespeare, as I played Balthazaar the page when I was about ten in my local youth theatre’s production.

Richard II by William Shakespeare
This is maybe my favourite Shakespeare. I’ve read it two or three times, and saw it in the theatre a few years ago at the Donmar Warehouse when Eddie Redmayne was playing the lead, with Andrew Buchan as Henry Bolingbroke. It was maybe the best piece of theatre I’ve ever seen.


The Taming of the Shrew by William Shakespeare
A lot of people interpret this as a feminist play, but personally I don’t think it was written in that spirit. However, it is open to interpretation and that is what I like about this play. It can totally be played as feminist even if the script is kind of sexist a lot of the time. To be entirely honest though, I prefer Ten Things I Hate About You.

Twelfth Night by William Shakespeare
Haven’t read it, don’t remember what it’s about. Is this the one She’s The Man is based on?

Love’s Labour’s Lost by William Shakespeare
This is my other potential favourite Shakespeare. It’s a comedy, but it’s also much more moving than most of the comedies. I saw it at a local Shakespeare festival a couple of years ago and cried with laughter and then also with sadness.


As You Like It by William Shakespeare
I definitely have read this, but I don’t remember it massively well. It’s about mistaken identity and disguises, but how many Shakespeares could that describe?

King Lear by William Shakespeare
I sort of read this in relation to my dissertation (it’s hard to explain the connection between this and Samuel Beckett but it made sense to me at the time). It’s fantastic though, and I am so so glad that this prompted me to read it.

The Awakening by Kate Chopin
This is my favourite book. It’s about a woman who rejects society’s expectations of her and her womanhood, especially those of her husband. It’s incredible, and I’ll eventually get around to writing a whole post on why I love it so much.


The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Brontë
I haven’t read this, but I’m really hoping to soon. I’ve heard a few things about Anne Brontë recently, I think because a biography came out not too long ago, and I get the impression that she might actually be the most up my street of the three sisters. This little set of Brontës in these beautiful Vintage editions were a gift and I love them very deeply.

Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë
I adored this book as a teenager. I loved the romance and the tragedy and how awful the characters are. I think if I read it again now, I would have a totally different take on it – not that I would like it less, but that I would think about it very differently now.

Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë
Again, I haven’t read this since I was a teenager and I didn’t love it then. But now I think I would understand it more and look at Bertha in particularly differently.


Breakfast at Tiffany’s (and other stories) by Truman Capote
Confession: I have never seen the movie Breakfast at Tiffany’s. But I bloody love the short story (or is it more of a novella) it’s based on. It’s brilliant. Read it.

A Room with a View by E.M. Forster
I bloody love this. It’s a comedy of manners with strong homoerotic undertones, what’s not to love.

Les Miserables by Victor Hugo
This is kind of likely to get culled next time I have a clearout, if I’m being honest. It was a book I read because I thought I should, and in the six or so years since I slogged my way through it, I have realised that I don’t actually like Victor Hugo. It’s a great story in its bones, which is why I’ve kept it, but Hugo constantly breaks out of the narrative to write lengthy political essays.

Far From the Madding Crowd by Thomas Hardy
I read this after having seen the film, and it is fantastic. I loved both, but I think if you were familiar with the book before seeing the film that might not be the case.


North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell
This is about a young woman who moves from the rural South of England to the industrial North. I love this book, I think it combines the political side of Dickens with Austen’s wit and romance. Also, go watch the BBC mini-series.

All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque
I don’t think I really knew what this was about before I read it, just that it was a World War I novel from the German point of view. It’s actually about a group of young soldiers who all joined up together and who are gradually killed as the novel progresses. It’s grim, but fantastic.

Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
This is one of my favourite dystopian novels; it’s very much a classic for a reason. It’s an unusual sort of dystopia, much softer and (seemingly) less oppressive than many are. It’s always compared with 1984, as the two great classics of the genre. I can’t speak to that as (to my shame) I haven’t read it, although I did see the highly acclaimed play last year.

The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
How stunning is this edition? I would eventually like to collect all of Fitzgerald’s works in these editions, but for now I have just the one physical copy (the rest are on my kindle). Again, I definitely feel that this is a classic for a reason, I just love Fitzgerald’s writing so much that I wouldn’t even care if the plot was rubbish (it isn’t).


A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess
I used to call this my favourite book, and I still do love it a lot. What I love the most about this book is what Burgess does with language. The whole thing is written in “nadsat”, a futuristic form of slang based on Russian, so every time I have read it I’ve taken something new from it. I first read it when I was 13, loved it, but didn’t necessarily understand the themes and nuances all too well. Then I read it again at the age of 18, and the themes made more sense to me and I was able to understand it on a deeper level. This was the time when I really fell in love with the language. I have reread it once since then, about a year and a half ago, at which point I spoke pretty fluent Russian, so I was really able to see the workings of the linguistic games Burgess is playing. You totally don’t need to speak Russian to understand and appreciate the novel, but there’s this whole other dimension there if you do. This edition is pretty crap, I bought it for a pound from a book sale because I didn’t own it, having previously borrowed my dad’s copy.

Dubliners by James Joyce
I mentioned this in my May wrap-up so I won’t go on about it. This is the only Joyce I’ve read, and I was kind of meh on it, mostly because short stories aren’t for me. Honestly, I’m far more at home with avant-garde modernism than I am with short stories, so despite not really getting on with his most accessible (supposedly) work, I am not deterred.

Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
This is another one I haven’t read, although I did see the play when it was on at the National Theatre a few years ago. It’s perched up here instead of on the pile of unread books because this edition is so lovely and I’m worried about it getting damaged in the pile.



Shelf by Shelf: Contemporary Novels

This shelf is primarily contemporary fiction, with some of my mini books stacked up at the end, also featuring a Duplo race car driver that I’ve had since I was tiny. It used to be entirely arranged in height order, which was immensely pleasing to me, but unfortunately Ali Smith’s Autumn has ruined that. I like to keep books by the same author together, so I had to make the choice as to whether that or the height order thing was more significant in my shelf-logic.

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead
A slavery narrative in which the Underground Railroad is made literal, this is a really striking, vivid account of Cora’s escape from her master and flight from a terrifying slave catcher. It’s hard not to compare this to Homegoing (which would be on this shelf but I’ve lent it to my boyfriend), given how close together I read them and the thematic elements they share: I definitely thought this was a better book.


The Bricks that Built the Houses by Kate Tempest
This is a really vivid portrait of the people of South London, and stunningly written. It’s nowhere near perfect, but I’ll be excited to read any future novels she writes. (My rule about keeping books by the same author together goes to shit if they write different types of book, so Kate Tempest’s novel is seperate from her poetry.)

Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman
This isn’t out until May, so this rubbish proof cover is not what it will look like in the final version. It’s a really stressful story about mental illness and loneliness, and much, much better than I thought it was going to be based on the blurb.


Spaceman of Bohemia by Jarolslav Kalfar
It’s really tough to summarise this book because there’s so much going on. The titular spaceman is Jakub, on a solo mission to investigate a cloud of cosmic dust and the pride of the Czech Republic. It’s been compared a fair bit to The Martian, but it is a considerably better, more interesting novel. As Jakub moves through space, he thinks back over his family history, and by extension that of the Czech Republic, and his struggling marriage. It’s a very, very weird book and I can’t recommend it highly enough.

The Sellout by Paul Beatty
Man Booker winners don’t tend to be the most readable works, but this is surprisingly fun. It’s also clever and funny and will mess with your head.

This Is How It Always Is by Laurie Frankel
This illegible gold spine is the proof of Laurie Frankel’s third novel. I absolutely tore through this, there’s a certain messiness to the prose which I adored. It’s about the experience of being a parent to a transgender child, which is of course a super important topic, but it’s not worthy and serious about it. It has moments of being ever so slightly preachy and sickly sweet, but it doesn’t shy away from the difficulties the entire family faces.


Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien
Now we enter into my mini collection of this year’s Bailey’s Prize nominees. One of those books that you race through, while simultaneously never wanting it to end. Stunning prose is combined with a sweeping portrayal of several generations of a family in Communist China, with a bit of a fairytale feel.

The Power by Naomi Alderman
Oh this book is just so GOOD. An intense, plotty look at a world in which women have the physical advantage, this was one of the best books I read last year.


The Gustav Sonata by Rose Tremain
I don’t quite know how to talk about this book, it’s kind of heartbreaking and uplifting all in one. It’s about friendship and love and frustrated ambitions, in the apparent peace of post-World War II Switzerland.

Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
I assume that you all know that Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is a genius. This is a study of immigration and race, as well as a love story.


The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt
I reviewed this a little while ago, suffice to say I was disappointed.

The Secret History by Donna Tartt
I bloody love this book. It’s about a group of wealthy students at an East Coast liberal arts college who commit a murder right at the beginning of the novel. The book then takes us back to show us how that happened, and what happens in the aftermath. It looks like a terrifying beast of a book but it’s so plotty you don’t even notice the hundreds of pages going by.

Girl Meets Boy by Ali Smith
It’s a long time since I read this book, but it’s about gender fluidity and sexuality, based on a Greek myth (I won’t pretend to remember which because I know literally nothing about Classical literature). I do remember loving it.


Autumn by Ali Smith
Ali Smith’s latest is an interesting idea – the first in a quartet of novels inspired by what is happening in the real world as she writes. It’s set just after the EU referendum and Smith weaves that in brilliantly, but it’s more about ageing and time. I will say, I found myself with a lot of unanswered questions at the end, but that isn’t necessarily a criticism.

The Tiny Book of Tiny Stories, volumes 1, 2 & 3
These are put out by Joseph Gordon Levitt’s production company hitRECord, and are beautiful collections of stories no longer than a page, with little illustrations. I want more of these to come out, they are absolutely lovely.


Next up I have a stack of the Penguin Little Black Classics, which I’m not going to go into any detail. I love these, and they’re really handy for carrying around if I’m reading a beast of a hardback which won’t fit in my handbag.
Kasyan from the Beautiful Lands by Ivan Turgenev
A Pair of Silk Stockings by Kate Chopin
The Beautifull Cassandra by Jane Austen
Well you are gone, and here must I remain by Samuel Taylor Coleridge
Woman Much Missed by Thomas Hardy
Lord Arthur Savile’s Crime by Oscar Wilde
Come Close by Sappho
Goblin Market by Christina Rossetti 

Shelf by Shelf: Light reads

So I thought I’d do a sort of bookshelf tour, having recently got my bookshelves something close to sorted for the first time in a couple of years. It’s worth noting that my books are organised according to my own internal logic, which I’m not convinced will make sense to anyone else. I group them into loose categories, and then fit them onto the shelves based on how tall the shelf is.

That said, this first shelf is pretty logical. It’s my easy reads shelf, so it contains YA and romcoms (not that all of them are particularly easy but they fit into the loose category). My Austens are also here, but to be entirely honest they’re filling out a space which will be filled by more YA and romcoms as I get through my TBR, at which point Jane will have to find a new home. This is a little bit of a theme through my shelves: I am very willing to break from my organisational system in order to make it look tidy.

Carry On by Rainbow Rowell
It doesn’t make an enormous amount of sense to talk about this before I talk about Fangirl, but such is the order of the shelf (the order is mostly dictated by putting books which are the same height together, so that I can pile more things on top of them). This is a kind of spin off from Fangirl, about gay teenage wizards fighting an evil warlock and discovering their sexuality. It sounds Potter-esque, and it kind of is, but I absolutely fell in love with the characters.

Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell 
I bloody love this book, this is YA at its best. I’ve read all of Rainbow Rowell’s books, and these two are the best. This is about a girl going to college along with her identical twin, and learning to be independent and come out of her shell. I particularly love the roommate character, who is gobby and outspoken and brilliant.

It’s Kind of a Funny Story by Ned Vizzini 
A surprisingly uplifting novel which takes place on the psych ward of a New York hospital, following a suicide attempt by the teenage protagonist. It was made into a film a few years ago, which is also great, I’d recommend both.


A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness
This is the illustrated edition, with illustrations from Jim Kay (who also does the illustrated Harry Potters). It’s about grief and loss and family, with an element of fantasy, or I guess you could call it magical realism. To be honest I’ve found it fairly forgettable, but I love the illustrations.

Looking for Alaska by John Green
I’m not necessarily the biggest John Green fan, but I have read all of his books. I do like the representation of teenage friendship in this, even though I’m not mad on the love story side.

Paper Towns by John Green 
This is, in my opinion, John Green’s strongest novel. It’s deconstructs the idea of  a manic pixie dream girl, and it’s funny and affectionate and considerably more uplifting than anything else he’s written.

The Fault in Our Stars by John Green
I don’t want to admit to how compelling I find this book. I know it’s cheesy and overwrought and just generally a bit much, but I absolutely race through it, and I cry every single time.

Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist by Rachel Cohn and David Levithan
I totally, unashamedly love this book, and the film which is based on it. It’s about two teenagers who meet and spend a mad night together in New York City, and it made me love music again after I went through a weird phase of not really liking music when I was a teenager.


Naomi and Ely’s No Kiss List by Rachel Cohn and David Levithan
Honestly I don’t think anything they’ve written together matches up to Nick and Norah, but this is good fun. It’s about a pair of teenagers, a gay boy and a straight girl, whose friendship is maybe not as strong as they thought it was. There’s a film of this too which is kind of fun, if cheesy. Honestly when I read this I thought it was their weakest, but I kind of want to go back to it.

Dash and Lily’s Book of Dares by Rachel Cohn and David Levithan
This is about yet another pair of teenagers, this time ones who meet by passing a notebook with messages back and forth between them. It’s cute and fun and festive. There’s also a follow up, which is called The Twelve Days of Dash and Lily, but I’ve lent it to a friend and I doubt I’ll ever get it back.

Boy Meets Boy by David Levithan
I find David Levithan kind of inconsistent (I fucking hated Every Day), but this is a sweet little LGBT love story. I have Two Boys Kissing waiting to be read, and it looks to be similarly cute. I would also highly recommend The Lover’s Dictionary.

We Were Liars by E. Lockhart
This is the story of a wealthy family who spend their summers on a private island, and all the difficulties which are going on under the surface. There’s a HUGE twist, so I’d quite like to reread it knowing what happens, to see how that’s set up in the rest of the novel.

Why We Broke Up by Daniel Handler and Maira Kalman
Daniel Handler is better known as Lemony Snicket, and this is a YA novel looking at a relationship after it has ended, through the various gifts he gave her while they were together. Each chapter starts with a beautiful illustration of the object, and it’s worth reading just for those. It’s also a non-linear narrative, which is one of the things that is guaranteed to make me interested in a book.


How to Build a Girl by Caitlin Moran
This was marketed as adult fiction when it came out, but I’m inclined to categorise it as YA. It’s a look at class and sex and coming of age, and it’s very, very funny. I love it.

Nina Is Not Okay by Shappi Khorsandi
This is distinctly not a light read, but I think it’s kind of comparable to How to Build a Girl, so it makes sense to me to put them together. This is a book about a teenage alcoholic and rape. It’s very good, but it’s tough going and I’d definitely consider whether the content is going to be triggering to you before you pick it up.

Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen
I’m sure everyone knows what this is about: the love lives of the Dashwood sisters, who have been cut off by their half brother following the death of their father. Highly recommend both the TV adaptation and the film, but I wouldn’t start here if you’re not already an Austen fan.

Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
This remains one of my favourite books of all time, I reread it frequently. I would also really recommend the audiobook as performed by Rosamund Pike, who does a wonderful job.

Mansfield Park by Jane Austen
You can tell in this photo that this is the least worn of my Austens, because, to be frank, it’s my least favourite. It’s the story of Fanny Price, ward of her wealthy aunt and uncle, and hopelessly in love with her cousin Edmund. Fanny is pretty bland, and I find that the characters you’re supposed to dislike actually seem way more fun than her.

Emma by Jane Austen
I love this story about a young, wealthy woman who cannot stop meddling. Emma is pretty annoying, but she’s also a lot of fun.


Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen
This is supposedly the worst Austen, but I think it’s wonderfully snarky. It’s about an incredibly gullible girl called Catherine Morland, who goes to Bath and falls for a young man who invites her to stay at his family home. Catherine constantly thinks something sinister is going on, but (spoiler) it literally never is.

Persuasion by Jane Austen
This is the Austen I’d recommend to people who don’t like Austen. It’s more mature and more cynical than the others, and is about the ways love can go wrong.

You Had Me At Hello by Mhairi McFarlane
This is about a woman who reconnects with an old university friend who she had secretly been in love with. The two stories of them at uni and in the present day run parallel, and it’s about two people whose lives have gotten away from them. I love Mhairi McFarlane, and I totally recommend all her books.

Here’s Looking At You by Mhairi McFarlane
A woman in her thirties on a string of terrible dates is a bit of a trope, but Mhairi McFarlane is talented enough that this is funny and compelling and fresh. Anna is a successful academic, who is forced to work with her former bully. Suddenly, her old insecurities are back and she’s filled with doubt. Honestly, just summarising it is making me want to read it again.

It’s Not Me It’s You by Mhairi McFarlane
This is about Delia, who’s just found out her partner has cheated on her, so turns her life upside down to move to London and work for a slightly dodgy PR agency. This was the first of her books I read and, given I read the rest of her books within six months, you can probably guess that I loved it.


Who’s That Girl? by Mhairi McFarlane

Edie’s just been caught kissing the groom at a colleague’s wedding, so she’s gone home to Nottingham to hide out/ghostwrite a celebrity autobiography. This is my favourite of her books so far, not least because it’s set in one of my favourite cities. It packs an emotional punch in a way that none of her previous three did for me.

So, there we have my “light reads” shelf, the one I turn to when I need a bit of  a jump start with my reading. Any recommendations on how I can fill the romcom shaped hole until Mhairi McFarlane writes another book would be very welcome!