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  1. Willoyd's Reading 2020

    May reviews In an effort to catch up, all my May books are briefly reviewed below. George IV, King In Waiting by Stella Tillyard *** One oft the concise Penguin Monarchs series. Given the author, I expected quite a lot from this slim volume, but was somewhat disappointed, it being rather vaguer and more waffly than I anticipated. George IV is a fascinating individual, but, whilst it was functionally useful, this book didn't really capture that for me. A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens ***** After the relative disappointment of The Old Curiosity Shop, this was a wonderful return to the form I'd come to expect from Dickens. Benefiting from a leaner and more focused approach than other books of his I've read, I found this almost unputdownable. Still thinking about upgrading to 6 stars, but whatever, this is going to be one of the best reads of the year. Travels With My Aunt by Graham Greene ****** Another cracking read, it's obvious the author had real fun writing this, although there are some distinctly dark undertones. An interesting contrast in style to Dickens, having commented on Dickens's leaner style in the previous review - not compared to Greene he's not. I admire the way Greene conjures up so much with such superficially straightforward prose. The House by Simon Lelic * From the sublime to the ridiculous - a thoroughly mediocre, bog standard, and typically tedious psychological 'thriller'. Given the 'psychological' aspect, why do these so-called thrillers (a misnomer if I every heard) rely so much on plot 'twists' and so little on character development. The thing is, you may not know precisely what the twist will be, but you know for sure it's going to happen. Yawn. How To Stop Time by Matt Haig ** Again, all plot and no character. At least the plot was a bit more interesting, but, as with the previous book I'd read by this author (The Humans) it descended into the predictably tedious, this time the well-worn 'secret society' device, with standard off-the-shelf denouement. Playback by Raymond Chandler ***** After two dreadful drags, thank goodness for the mastery of Chandler. Can say more in one sentence than the previous two authors seem to be able to in ten pages. One of his 'lesser' books, but a joy to read. The Regency Revolution by Robert Morrison ***** An interesting, lightly written and eminently readable history of the 1810-19 decade, that enabled me to pull a lot of disparate threads together, and taught me plenty. Very enjoyable learning! Enjoyed the social history chapters the most. Salt on Your Tongue by Charlotte Runcie **** Described as a combination of memoir about her pregnancy, exploration of her obsession with the sea and, in particular, what it has meant to women, and a tribute to her much loved late grandmother, this was beautifully written, but ultimately fell between all three stools. The sea thread was simply too unstructured and disconnected - almost random thoughts and only part of the time touching on female-maritime links - whilst there wasn't really enough of the author's grandmother to make a complete thread - frustrating, as what what there made me want to know more. I loved the pregnancy thread, and found her description of the birth profoundly moving - this'll probably be the closest I ever get to properly appreciating what a woman must go through (and brought my own experience of partnering at the birth of our son vividly back to life - 28 years later!). I enjoyed this, will definitely look out for more of Charlotte Runcie's books, but hope that she can next time more definitely decide what she is writing about, and tighten things up to match. The Little Grey Men by BB **** A classic children's novel of the last gnomes in England setting off on an expedition up the stream of their home to find its source and look for a long-lost brother. Charmingly dated (with one or two distinctly outmoded views!), it would still go down well with many children today. The real standouts here are the beautifully lush descriptions of the countryside they travel through and the lovely woodcut illustrations - BB was a naturalist of some repute, and it shows. How I Won The Yellow Jumper by Ned Boulting **** Read by Ned Boulting himself, and circulated for free during the lockdown to subscribers to his 'Road Book' of cycling, this was a thoroughly entertaining inside view on a neophyte commentating at the Tour de France. As one would expect, the author comes over well on audio, and is the ideal reader for his book! I hope he does more - I'd even buy them!
  2. Thread Contents Post number 02. Book List 2020 03. Favourite books 04. Favourite authors 05. Tour of the United States 06. Classic fiction: Dickens, Zola 07. Fiction: O'Brian, Sansom, Leon, Simenon 08. Some stats 09. spare 10. spare 11. spare 12. spare 13. spare 14. 2019 review, 2020 preview 15. Accolades for 2019
  3. Two more books completed this weekend: Charlotte Runcie's Salt on Your Tongue and Dennis Pitchford-Watkins' (under nom-de-plume 'BB') The Little Grey Men. Both good reads of their genre (the first a mixture of memoir and marine natural history, the second classic children's fiction). 4 stars (out of 6). Later in day: also finished listening to Ned Boulting read his own book, How I Won The Yellow Jumper. Really enjoyed it, another 4 star 'read'.
  4. Two cracking books completed in the last 24 hours. First of all an ultra-quick read, no more than a couple of hours, was Raymond Chandler's Playback. Typical Chandler with the hardboiled Philip Marlow, the femme fatale, slobs, hoods, and plenty of intricate wordplay. It's a while since I read my last Chandler, and it's easy to forget quite how genre setting and beautifully written his books are. 5/6. A complete contrast: Robert Morrison's The Regency Revolution, a history of the Regency period (1810-19), with extensions into the Regent's reign as the monarch George IV in his own right. Essentially divided into four or five long chapters, each divided into a series of what were effectively mini-essays on a variety of linked topics. Well written and as pacy as a good novel, without losing sight that its prime focus was as a history of the period. It's a time of history I find very interesting, and it certainly added, enjoyably, to my knowledge. The American spelling (Canadian author) in a British publication was the biggest drawback in that it proved far too distracting - it was lazy of the publishers not to change it for the British market.
  5. Willoyd's Reading 2020

    Some more quick reviews And some more reviews, to take me through to the end of April! The Easternmost House by Juliet Blaxland **** Interesting nature read based around what was then the easternmost house in Britain, on a crumbling cliff in Norfolk (the house was demolished last December, a year or so after book was published). More a series of thoughts on aspects of living there and coping with threat, not least the relationship between town and country. Not quite as much depth or nuance as I had hoped, but still a good read. Napoleon by David Bell **** An Oxford Very Short Introduction and, as with most I've read, a concise, well written, reasonably straightforward and balanced introduction to one of the biggest characters in world history. A good starter - I've a couple of biggies lined up as follow ups (Andrew Roberts, who is supposed to be a bit of a fan, and Adam Zamoyski, who is supposedly not!). A Game of Birds and Wolves by Simon Parking ***** History of the hitherto largely unknown Tactical Unit section at the Western Approaches headquarters in Liverpool during the Second World War. Made up of one retired captain, an expert in strategy gaming, and a team of largely young Wrens, it helped prepare the front line officers to combat the U-boat threat in the Battle of the Atlantic. Their development of winning tactics helped turn the battle round, and secure a crucial key to the war. It's a curious book, not even getting to the nub of the book until well over a hundred pages in, but I found it an addictive read. In particular, the author, a gaming specialist himself, provided real depth to the characters, and created a gripping narrative. I like the way it through light on people who undeservedly, not least because of their gender, have slid under the radar of recognition. The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton G ***** A huge book that took me since the beginning of the year to read, admittedly with at least one big gap, but no less a great read. Set in Victorian New Zealand, during the gold rush, it is very Victorian in nature - rich and complex, oozing with personality and sense of place and time. Multilayered, and not an easy read to keep track of it all, I still found it highly rewarding and well worth the effort. Just make sure you keep tabs on the different characters! The Seafarers by Stephen Rutt **** Somewhat of a cross between Amy Liptrot's The Outrun and Adam Nicolson's The Seabird's Cry, this doesn't quite come up to the standards of either, but is nonetheless an engrossing and informative read. It felt a little bit artificially created- the journey round various islands, landing up in the northern Orkneys, to focus on specific species - but there was much that was worthwhile, and chapters flowed well. Harpole and Foxberrow by JL Carr ***** I love James Carr's writing - one of the most varied and individual writers I've ever come across - and whilst nothing quite matches the sublime A Month in the Country (my favourite book), this still a beautifully satirical, drily funny, take on the small publishing industry, a subject upon which Carr was well versed (as he was with most of his books - he had a very varied career). Carr's books are all slim, and he never wastes a single word. I love the way different characters weave a variety of paths through his novels - tricky to keep track of even with the brief resumes in the preliminary pages. Circe by Madeline Miller G *** The autobiography of Circe, nymph daughter of Helios, lover of Odysseus, aunt of the Minotaur. The author, thoroughly well versed in the classics, retells the story through a female perspective, and a whole new narrative develops. I have to admit I found the first hundred pages or so hard going, not least because Circe proved a desperately frustrating, almost irritating, character, and it felt distinctly repetitive, but her later development turned this into a much more interesting, and engaging, story. It certainly generated one of the most detailed and interesting discussions we've had in our book group for a while, even if nobody was an out and out fan. One big positive is that it certainly helped develop my framework of understanding of this area of the Greek myths!
  6. I read it back in 2015, so had to go and check my review at the time. "I found it very entertaining (and thought-provoking) for the first half....but it all became somewhat predictable in the second half...[where]....I found it to taste too much of saccharine, and started to skim", losing me sufficiently to drop to a 2 star rating. I think he has some great ideas, but I find the execution more problematic.
  7. It's more to do with them being book group choices than luck I think. It's rare for me to choose a 1/2 star book for myself, although it does happen, but it's quite common with the groups. With one group, we each nominate 2 books to make up a 14 month list, and there's one individual whose choices have never ranked above 3 stars for me - they keep choosing these Radio 2 Book group choices, and whoever selects them, they and I are on completely different wavelengths. I'm not bothered, as that's the nature of book groups, and we also read a lot of really good stuff, often books I might well have never picked up myself. With the other group, we're dependent somewhat on the local library's selection of books for groups, and I find it a slightly colourless list, heavy on bog standard middle of the road literary fiction. Sorry to report, but my other experience of Matt Haig was The Humans. But do bear in mind that this is very personal, and my preferences, particularly in modern fiction, often run decidedly at odds with the majority. I know quite a few people who enjoyed it. Yes, JS & Mr N looks pretty formidable, not least when looking at the writing style, but I found it eminently readable, and a fascinating premise. Not sure I understood it all though!
  8. Finished a couple of books for reading groups in the last couple of days, neither of which impressed me one jot. The first was the worst: The House by Simon Lelic, a pretty standard 'thriller' (what's thrilling about these books for goodness' sake - they are utterly predictable and tedious), where I pretty rapidly resorted to skim reading just so I could talk some sense at the forthcoming meeting. A Radio 2 book choice - we've had a few of these and I've yet to find one better than disappointing. One star. The second was Matt Haig's How To Stop Time. I usually enjoy this sort of book, time-bending (not quite travel!), but it sadly proved to be rather formulaic with not a lot worthwhile to say, populated by a fistful of 2-d characters and lacking any real sense of place or time (atmosphere needs developing, not just dropping in a few names of famous contemporaries) - oh and a rather silly 'sinister society'. Never developed any real interest in the protagonist nor, indeed, anybody in the book. This is the second Matt Haig book I've tried, and I definitely won't be bothering again. Two stars, mainly for the initial good idea and because I'm feeling generous. It certainly wasn't quite as bad as the previous book.
  9. His is a name that seems to have dropped off the radar this century. I remember reading several of his books a fair way back (in the 70s/80s), but hardly see books of his around at all now. From what I recall, that is thoroughly undeserved - I remember him as both an excellent writer and great storyteller.
  10. Just finished Graham Greene's Travels with My Aunt. Really fun read, lots of character and atmosphere, all with a deftly light touch. Haven't read much Greene, but need to read more on this outing. 5/6.
  11. I absolutely adore the Aubrey-Maturin series, but always think that M&C isn't the greatest opener - I much preferred HMS Surprise and The Mauritius Command amongst his earlier books (I'm just over halfway through the series, so haven't read any of the latest ones yet), although it does lay some essential groundwork out. A lot of people get put off, as well, by the amount and complexity of the technical sailing language. I did actually get to grips with some of it later on (there's a couple of really good companion volumes written by other authors), but found the best way to start was to just let it flow over me, treat it as atmosphere, and gradually I would pick some of it up, but it didn't overly matter if I didn't - that did work until curiosity got the better of me!
  12. Finished A Tale of Two Cities. After the relative disappointment of The Old Curiosity Shop, this was a return to some of the best of Dickens. Absolutely cracking read. Easy 5/6, might get nudged up to a full 6 once I've sat on it for a while. Now on to Graham Greene's Travels With My Aunt.
  13. A Book Blog 2020 by Books do Furnish a Room

    The only part of your review that I disagreed with was the score. I gave it my maximum 6 stars, and it was my book of the year last year (against some tough competition). Just brilliant. That's appalling, Evaristo being referred to as 'the other author'. What makes it even worse (in my view) is that Evaristo had to share it at all!
  14. Finished A Tale of Two Cities today, for a book group meeting tomorrow. Absolutely stonking! Less humour than previous books I've read, but a narrative that, whilst in outline culturally familiar, contained so much more when I came to read it properly (as has happened with other Dickens). Found the last few pages profoundly moving. Initial 5/6 - one of those that I can see getting promoted to a full 6. Not sure next - I've been dipping into a couple of history books to revise my early 19th century social history (Jenny Uglow's In Our Times and Robert Morrison's Regency Revolution) and might read one of those properly, as they're both really well written.
  15. Took a short break from reading A Tale of Two Cities (which I'm loving) to read Stella Tillyard's contribution on George IV to the Penguin Monarchs series. These are a bit like the royal biographical equivalent of Oxford Press's Very Short Introductions. It was decently informative and flowed well enough, but never really reached beyond the competently functional. I've read much better from this author, but it was OK and served the purpose (brushing up on my early nineteenth century history for some tutoring). Also, currently listening to Ned Boulting's How I Won The Yellow Jumper. One of those readers/authors I can listen to for hours.
  16. Willoyd's Reading 2020

    Some quick reviews Loads of reading lately - a dozen books this month, but no reviews since March, so some quick ones to help fill the gap - the first handful of April reads. Stars out of 6. Becoming by Michelle Obama **** I'm not normally a fan of celebrity autobiographies, they are all too often far too self justifying and don't actually tell you anything, but I was looking forward to this one as a book group choice. I wasn't mistaken either: well written (in itself unusual), and, at least for me, some interesting insight into the author's life. As it progressed, it seemed to become more and more episodic, so that by the time we got to the crunch years, there were some fairly substantial jumps. Thus we had a lot about the build up of the Obamas' first campaign up to the initial Iowa caucusus, but then pretty much nothing until after he was elected. The White House years were almost skimmed over, and provided the least insight. So, whilst my respect for Michelle Obama if anything grew slightly, and I enjoyed the overall read, I was left a mite disappointed. I was also rather exhausted - unrelentingly positive about everything (except Donald Trump!!). So, a good read, but not quite the great read I was hoping for. The Reader on the 6.27 by Jean-Paul Didierlaurent *** A piece of light French whimsy, along similar lines to the Antoine Laurain books. Pleasant to read, and a refreshing interlude, but it struck me that the French do this rather better on film. Joy by Jonathan Lee **** Blackly satirical take on the rigours and madness of City life. Joy is a high-powered lawyer in a city firm, about to be made a partner, when she floors several falls in the atrium of her firm's offices. Murder? Suicide? Accident? Using four different perspectives (including Joy's own) we travel through the build-up to find out. Not normally my sort of book, I really enjoyed this, both narrative and Lee's writing style. Pale Rider by Laura Spinney **** A history of the Spanish flu. Didn't fall into the trap of a pure chronological account, something Catherine Arnold did to the detriment of her take on the disease, each chapter covering a separate topic to build up a fascinating picture of the impact of a disease whose death toll makes Covid-19 look almost trivial (so far!). One or two chapters felt a wee bit slight, but that's a minor criticism. Slightly unnerving how many lessons we don't seem to have learned - but then that's history for you. Stoner by John Williams *** Both a book group choice and the book for my visit to Missouri on my Tour of the USA, this was a fictional life of a farm boy made good as minor academic at the University of Missouri, along similar lines to Goodbye Mr Chips and To Serve Them All My Days. Many rave reviews, and there is no doubt of the quality of the writing, but I found myself increasingly irritated by both the main character and the author's narrative. Stoner's wife was, for me, totally bizarre and not very credible - his reaction almost incomprehensible. Staggered to 3 stars on the writing quality.
  17. Finished Madeline Miller's Circe for one of my book groups. In the end I enjoyed it, but found it a bit of a curate's egg, although improved in second half. 3/6 - OK.
  18. Two books finished today: The Seafarers by Stephen Rutt, a journey around British islands focusing on different species of seabirds - a cross between Amy Liptrot's The Outrun and Adam Nicolson's The Seabird's Cry - perhaps not quite as good as either (both scored 6/6 with me), but still an excellent read (5/6). Harpole and Foxberrow, General Publishers by JL Carr. The man was pure genius - a gloriously funny look at the book industry, Carr's invariably short books pack are brilliantly crafted with not a word wasted. One of my all-time favourite writers. 5/6.
  19. Completed The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton. A humungous book which I put down a few weeks ago around half way through (just too many books piling up for book groups etc), and to which I returned at the end of last week. Very complex, rich and demanding. Grew and grew on me. One I will almost certainly return to. 5/6 (Excellent).
  20. Two more books finished to day. First was Napoleon by David Bell, one of the excellent OUP Very Short Introduction series (I'm getting addicted to these!); they may only each be 120 or so pages long, but all those I've read so far have been jam packed and highly readable. The second A Game of Birds and Wolves by Simon Parkin, a history of the man and his Wren team who set up and developed the wargaming unit that trained naval officers fighting the Battle of the Atlantic in how to combat the U-boats. Sounds a bit geeky and dry, but is anything but - an absorbing narrative history that brings the people involved thoroughly to life, even if (or perhaps because?) it takes a hundred pages before it actually gets on the history of the unit itself. 4/6 and 5/6 respectively.
  21. Willoyd's Reading 2020

    Mid-April reading summary I'm not keeping up with reviews as much as I would like, so a quick summary of reading over the first half of this month. After a slow start to the year, lockdown seems to have helped kickstart my reading again, with 6 books finished since the start of the month. These are: Becoming by Michelle Obama ****(*) The Reader on the 6.27 by Jean-Paul Didierlaurent *** Joy by Jonathan Lee **** Pale Rider by Laura Spinney **** Stoner by John Williams *** The Easternmost House by Juliet Blaxland **** reviews to follow Stoner was both a book group choice (not mine) and the book for Missouri in my Tour of the USA, which means 16 books of the 51 now completed - rather fewer than I intended at this stage! Becoming was for my other book group. I'm also currently reading Neil Macgregor's A History of the World in 100 Objects alongside the BBC rerun of the series. Helps absorb the detail of what is a fascinating series. I've acquired a few books, all on the Kindle, mostly with special deals: Little Siberia by Antti Tuomainen Circe by Madeline Miller Overlord by Max Hastings Little Grey Men by 'BB' Down the Bright Stream by 'BB' The Culture of the Europeans by Donald Sasson Napoleon (a Very Short Introduction) by David Bell Marie Antoinette by Antonia Fraser Lockdown has led to a lot of exploring of and listening to podcasts of a bookish nature - a far more relaxing listen than incessant and repetitive news. Really enjoying Literary Friction and You're Booked on top of my regular dose of Slightly Foxed (although they've stopped for the duration, so am reverting to their backlist), as well as back episodes of Radio 4's A Good Read. Tried and dip into a few others, but these are the ones I gravitate towards, although Backlisted is slowly growing on me - some great material if one can get past the slight 'desperate banter' feel to it. Not book focused, but I'm also glued to back episodes of In Our Time and Desert Island Discs, the latter partly because I have just found the present incumbent, Lauren Laverne, just nothing like in the same league as her predecessors - what on earth possessed Radio 4?
  22. Finished The Easternmost House by Juliet Blaxland, describing a year living in a house on the Suffolk coast, threatened with coastal erosion (by the end of the book, the edge is only 19m from the house - it's been subsequently demolished, just before Christmas). More a series of thoughts on aspects of living there, not least the relationship between town and country. Not quite as much depth or nuance as I had hoped, but still a good read. 4/6.
  23. I was in a distinct minority in my book group. I scored it 6/10: one other scored it lower, at 4, whilst everybody else went for 9s and 10s. We low scorers are the only men in the group - may be coincidence, or may be relevant. We often think very differently, but had very similar reactions this time. For me the writing compensated a bit - for my partner in 'crime' it didn't!
  24. A quick break from The Luminaries to read John Williams' Stoner for one of my book groups (it's also part of my Tour of the USA challenge), which I finished tonight. Beautifully written, but utterly depressing, I can't say that I overly 'enjoyed' it, although appreciated its excellence. My grades, however, factor in the former, and I just didn't, really didn't, enjoy it after the first 50 pages or so. 3/6.
  25. Willoyd's Reading 2018

    Thread Contents Post number 02. Book List 2018 - including previous book lists and threads 03. Favourite books 04. Favourite authors 05. Non-fiction focus - Doorstoppers, Slightly Foxed editions, The Wainwright List 06. Fiction authors focus - O'Brian, Ransome 07. Crime authors focus - Sansom, Leon, Simenon 08. Classics focus - Dickens, Hardy, Zola and year list 09. 1001 Books To Read Before You Die 10. Tour of the United States 11. Round Robin (LibraryThing) Challenge 12. TBR size - monthly record 13. 1000 Books to Read Before You Die by James Mustich 14. spare 15. spare 16. The 100 Best Novels in English 17. spare 18. 2017 review, 2018 preview