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Books Picked Up On A Whim

Here is a citation: this post was inspired by Lori’s post in which she diverts from the subject to compile a list of books about New England (it’s worth a read). Lori’s post was in turn her offering for a meme created by Brandy. In addition, Jessica’s own post following Brandy’s meme includes some excellent recommendations.

I hope I’ve got that right!

I’ve picked up quite a few books on a whim in my time, more so before I started blogging when it was harder to find recommendations. Split roughly between the time before the Internet was a thing and the few years before I started writing here, I tended to go by subject, popping into Waterstones or one of the bargain indies we used to have and heading first for the young adult section and then various others. (What I love about bargain bookshops is the way they just pile up the books with no organisation – it can be frustrating but there’s no better way to find books you wouldn’t have heard of otherwise. Jessica’s post reminded me of The Works – a book/art supply chain we have in the UK which tends to have tons of books stacked under tables, disorganised on shelves, and piled high on tables. It doesn’t feel like a bookshop because the decoration is art-focused, but it’s an awesome place to find random books.)

I’ve decided to talk about books I got on a whim that I’ve since read because other than a brief tale of how I got them, there’s not much else to say about the unread ones. I’ve also stuck to books I’d never seen before that I picked up on the same visit I encountered them.

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Anchee Min: Empress Orchid – I remember being drawn to this book because it was about Chinese history and my school education had never looked at China… or Africa, or America, or anywhere other than Europe or the Arab-Israeli conflict, actually – thank god for university and books. I’d actually had enough of modern history by this point but that the book was about China, and an empress at that, was enough of a difference to sway me. I loved it. This is the book that started me on the Chinese history studies I’ll likely never finish. I went on to read Keith Laidler’s biography, I have Jung Chung’s biography ready, and I’ve read around the subject, too. A random choice had a big impact.
Jennifer Donnelly: A Gathering Light – I understand this has become semi-lauded, if I can use that mash-up of words. I liked the sound of it and read it in the year I started blogging. It was okay but not quite as compelling as I’d expected.
Julith Jedamus: The Book Of Loss – I got this from a cut-price store that was closing down; I may have been young enough that I didn’t realise how cringey it would be to remark to the cashier that I couldn’t believe I’d just found this place and how awful it was that it was closing down. It’s difficult to find reviews and references to the author online and I believe it’s out of print – it promises much but doesn’t deliver.

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Lesley Downer: The Last Concubine – One of my first adult books, you can see the pattern. It’s a fair read and I’ve been circling Downer’s second book for years.
Lisa Jewell: A Friend Of The Family – And this was my very first adult book. I had been old enough, not that my parents censored my reading, to read adult books for a while but I’d stuck to YA because adult books just didn’t appeal – the covers were all dull. The day I got this book was the day I decided I should step up and give one of those dull-looking adult books a go. The cover was standard for the time and I felt mature picking it up. It turned out to be a fair enough read and started me off on my Lisa Jewell phase – for a few years afterwards I bought her new releases and gobbled them up. It came to an end when I decided I’d had enough samey main characters and was bored of Jewell’s usage of ‘retard’ in every one.
Madeleine Thien: Certainty – The cover was pretty, the book was small in size (mass market paperback) and the summary sounded nice. A completely random book; one I didn’t like.

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Maile Meloy: Liars And Saints – Another dull adult cover choice. I do know that I never told my parents what it was about because there was a lot of sex in it. I’ve spoken of this book many times over the years I’ve been blogging; the theme work is excellent. I’ve read it three times now and had to get a second copy when I lent it to a family friend who I believed was going to read it overnight but instead took it back home with her; I gave it a year before I realised if I didn’t get another copy soon it might go out of print – the sequel/spin-off, though admittedly not well received, was in that state.
Sheila O’Flanagan: Someone Special – This book took a long time to read; it was 500 pages, which I felt similarly about then as I do 900 pages now. It’s all right; nothing special, ironically, but perfect for summer.
Victoria Hislop: The Return – I expect many of you know this book and more know of Hislop in general. As you can imagine, this turned out to be an excellent whimsical decision.

Whenever I pick up a book on a whim, I worry, but thinking about these books I realise that whilst it may be a snap decision, whimsical book choices are at least 50/50 – there is always a very real chance you will like the book and the possibilities for broadening your horizons aren’t to be sniffed at. As we see many times, for instance in the recent revival in the blogging world of the work of Barbara Comyns, and all those excellent Persephones, the most unknown, random books can be transformed by our picking them up. I very much believe a book diet rich in random choices is important. Even when the book isn’t so good, the act of discovering it can be a boon in itself. And in our days of so many recommendations and publishers going on about book discovery, we need to make time for random choices.

What books have you picked up at random and what’s the story behind your acquiring or borrowing them?


Jo @ Booklover Book Reviews

July 13, 2016, 1:34 am

Such good advice Charlie about having a ‘book diet rich in random choice’ – and so elegantly put too :)

The Return was my first Hislop title too, selected with no rhyme or reason other than it caught my attention, and what a gem that turned out to be. And many years ago, before I read reviews and even knew who David Mitchell was, his novel Cloud Atlas was a title whose gorgeous pink/purple cover art simply caught my eye in a bookstore browse one day. To this day it’s one of my all time favourites.

And sometimes even when a book disappoints that can be healthy for us too. Because those disappointments serve to highlight the quality of all those other titles you’ve read, and all those gems just waiting to be discovered :)


July 13, 2016, 9:02 pm

Thank you for the mention Charlie :-) I haven’t read any of the books you’ve mentioned but I would love to try something by Victoria Hislop.

Jenny @ Reading the End

July 14, 2016, 1:56 am

These days I rarely pick a book up on a whim, unless it’s nonfiction, which you can sort of tell by looking at it for a few minutes whether it’s going to be good for you or not. I don’t like guessing! I have so much better of a success rate with books that bloggers have recommended to me, I can never go back to the old ways. :p


July 14, 2016, 11:27 am

I actually bought a book yesterday on a Whim. It’s a brief history of the Bodleian Library in Oxford. I was a bit overwhelmed about being in Oxford and just thought, ‘stuff it, why not.’


August 23, 2016, 1:22 pm

Jo: :)

Agreed, it is a gem of a book. Some day I’ll get to reading the rest of her work, though The Return was… seven years ago? Long enough that there’s going to be quite a backlog. (I haven’t kept up with her new releases, I have to say.) Your cover of Cloud Atlas sounds like ours over here, it’s lovely. Interesting how you managed to pick such a famous book, it’s quite awesome when that happens.

Yes, it can be healthy. I’ve been thinking recently about where we’d be if everything was great – the great wouldn’t be so great any more.

Jessica: Welcome :) I think you’d like Hislop’s work.

Jenny: That’s true, non-fiction is easier in that way. I think it’d take me a while to remember how I used to choose books, beyond whims, if blogging went away.

Alice: That sounds fabulous. Why not indeed.



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