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willoyd

Willoyd's English Counties Challenge

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You must be almost finished with the challenge now!  I'm hoping to get to 36 by the end of September, but I have to admit, some of the books left for me are ones I'm more reluctant to read. 

 

Sorry to take so long to reply - been snowed under with the start of the academic year and not been here very much if at all the last week or so.

 

I've read 39, so just 9 to go.  Most of those left are predominantly chunky classics, so will take some time to get through even though I'm looking forward to them (Mill on the Floss, Lorna Doone, Sons and Lovers, Tom Brown's Schooldays, Old Wives' Tale) - probably not ones to read one after the other.  I'm currently rereading Mansfield Park, which, whilst it's not my favourite Austen (in fact, it's my second least favourite, just in front of Northanger Abbey), is still an enjoyable read.  Swallows and Amazons  will be OK and a reasonably quick read, although I know it so well that it seems a bit pointless rereading other than for the challenge.  Otherwise the only reread will be Dracula (which I haven't read for sometime, so will almost be like a new read), and the only one I'm actually not looking forward to is Set in Stone

 

As Janet says, Another Place is definitely not a war story.  Not quite what I expected from the blurb either, which was a slight disappointment as that appealed.  Mainly a modern day story, looking at the various stresses and strains operating in a modern day family where the parents have both had previous marriages and children from those relationships.  A relatively straightforward read, but one that left me wondering slightly what was the point of it.  I'd agree with Janet's rating.

Edited by willoyd

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Finished Mansfield Park.  Struggled a little bit earlier on simply, I think, because I was reading in too small chunks.  As soon as I settled down to read it 'properly', I found myself loving it,it became near unputdownable, and I rattled through the last half.  Not my favourite by some way (that remains Sense and Sensibility, with Emma very close behind), but still better than the best that most authors achieve.

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I haven't updated this thread for a while now, but have, since the last update, finished two more volumes in the challenge:

Set in Stone - Robert Goddard (Rutland) ***
Dracula - Bram Stoker (North Yorkshire) ***

As can be seen from the gradings, neither really set my world alight, although they were perfectly decent reads. I didn't expect much more from the former, but was surprised at the latter, given that it was a reread and I remember rating it more highly last time round. This time, though, it rattled along well enough for the first two-thirds, but then seemed to stumble somewhat during the scenes in London, with far too much unnecessary dialogue and padding, before picking up pace again as it moved towards a suitably satisfying climax.

Having said that, it joins The Day of the Triffids in being, at least for me, the most questionable county books to date. At least there were some pages set in North Yorkshire (around thirty), but th county's presence was both brief and not particularly central to the novel. Another time, I'd opt for All Creatures Great and Small.

With these read, I've now completed 42 of the 48 books.

 

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Swallows and Amazons by Arthur Ransome ******
 

Book #43 in the challenge (review copied from book blog thread).

 

This series has long been the gold standard of my childhood reading, although I remembered this first one as being a wee bit episodic, preferring later books in the series, e.g. Winter Holiday, We Didn't Mean To Go To Sea, and Secret Water. Unlike some of the others, I don't think I've reread this one since my teenage years, so approached it with some trepidation as part of the English Counties challenge.

In the event, I needn't have worried, as I rapidly and effortlessly slipped back into a world that feels so real, but now bears little resemblance to modern life (our loss). Far from feeling too episodic, the plotline was clear and strong, with sub-plots neatly overlapping to create a strongly cohesive whole. Ransome's writing is never complex, but nor is it simplistic, whilst his characters, slightly hidebound on occasions by 1930s gender sterotyping, are realistic and individual. I particularly enjoyed some of his internal monologues where the characters and their youthful perceptions, certainties and uncertainties, came to the fore. It may seem somewhat incredible to some modern readers as to quite what the children get up to, but that's more a reflection on modern life than the reality of what could be achieved in earlier years - I certainly remember having similar freedoms. A rock solid 6 stars.

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Posted (edited)

Lorna Doone by RD Blackmore ****

 

Book #44 in the English Counties challenge.  (copied from my book blog thread)

 

Phew - that was a chunky one! I read this veritable tome as part of the English Counties Challenge (Somerset), and it certainly took its time. Written in the 1860s, Lorna Doone is an almost stereotypical Victorian adventure, written from the perspective of the main protagonist, yeoman farmer John Ridd. His family lives on the northern edge of Exmoor, the neighbourhood blighted by the outlaw Doones, robbing and plundering far and wide. He accidentally meets and falls in love with a child of the family, Lorna Doone, who, whilst a member of an outlaw family, is also way above him in social station, and the story develops into a classic tale of frustrated love and adventure at the time of the Monmouth rebellion.

 

I thoroughly enjoyed most of the book. It is mostly a reasonably easy read, if somewhat wordy and full of detail - a classic Victorian trait which I actually enjoy. However, on this occasion, I do have to admit that it does drag a bit in places and I found myself on several occasions getting slightly frustrated at yet another windy diversion from the main plot, or an unnecessarily complicated plot device that moves the story on, but in ever such a cumbersome manner. However, by the end, I felt really satisfied with having made the journey, and, unlike some, thought the ending a good one.

 

Lorna Doone has, apparently, never been out of print (unlike other RD Blackmore novels, which are virtually unknown), and was an American student favourite apparently. It's good, but it's not that good, and I can think of a dozen other Victorian novels that I would go back to before this one, but that's partly because of the quality of what there is available! I am certainly delighted to have read it, a book that I've always meant to get around to but never have (especially as my parents lived in the area for several years), and it's one of the most redolent books on the English Counties list when it comes to sense of place - Lorna Doone positively reeks of the moors of Somerset. A great choice for the list.

Edited by willoyd

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Posted (edited)

Swallows and Amazons by Arthur Ransome ******

 

Book #43 in the challenge (review copied from book blog thread).

 

This series has long been the gold standard of my childhood reading, although I remembered this first one as being a wee bit episodic, preferring later books in the series, e.g. Winter Holiday, We Didn't Mean To Go To Sea, and Secret Water. Unlike some of the others, I don't think I've reread this one since my teenage years, so approached it with some trepidation as part of the English Counties challenge.

 

In the event, I needn't have worried, as I rapidly and effortlessly slipped back into a world that feels so real, but now bears little resemblance to modern life (our loss). Far from feeling too episodic, the plotline was clear and strong, with sub-plots neatly overlapping to create a strongly cohesive whole. Ransome's writing is never complex, but nor is it simplistic, whilst his characters, slightly hidebound on occasions by 1930s gender sterotyping, are realistic and individual. I particularly enjoyed some of his internal monologues where the characters and their youthful perceptions, certainties and uncertainties, came to the fore. It may seem somewhat incredible to some modern readers as to quite what the children get up to, but that's more a reflection on modern life than the reality of what could be achieved in earlier years - I certainly remember having similar freedoms. A rock solid 6 stars.

 

Thanks for that great review, Willoyd. Reminded me that it's a book I've always meant to read but had forgotten about.  Been mulling over what to read next, and this'll be just the ticket!  :)

Edited by poppy

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Posted (edited)

On 04/03/2017 at 2:10 AM, poppy said:

Thanks for that great review, Willoyd. Reminded me that it's a book I've always meant to read but had forgotten about.  Been mulling over what to read next, and this'll be just the ticket!  :)

 

Hope you enjoy it as much as I did.

Edited by willoyd

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Posted (edited)

Two more books completed in the past month towards the challenge:  Sons and Lovers (Nottinghamshire, #45) and Tom Brown's Schooldays (Warwickshire, #46).  I enjoyed both more than I expected.  My only previous experience of DH Lawrence was Lady Chatterley's Lover, a book I so disliked that I just couldn't bring myself to read it for the challenge when it was selected as the Nottinghamshire choice.  Tom Brown surprised me in that I expected it to be dominated by the relationship between Flashman and Tom Brown, but in fact the former was a relatively minor player, only appearing for barely 30-odd pages, whilst Hughes's portrayal of Rugby School, under the leadership of Thomas Arnold, was much more positive than I anticipated.  I'm a bit behind on my reviews so hope to link in to them when I finally get around to completing them.

Edited by willoyd

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Posted (edited)

The Mill on the Floss by George Eliot ****(*)

 

I've read just two of George Eliot's books before, Silas Marner and Middlemarch.  I rated both, and whilst I had a few minor reservations about the former, Middlemarch was an easy 6-stars, and probably amongst my top dozen books ever.  However, knowing a little about the nature of The Mill on the Floss, I didn't approach it with quite the sense of anticipation that I would have done otherwise.  Reading it confirmed some of my uncertainties, or rather this knowledge definitely inhibited my appreciation of what is, I am sure of, an outstanding classic.

 

Claire (chesilbeach) wrote in her review about the differing feelings she had towards the two sections - childhood and adulthood - and I can only concur.  One introduction I read (Bel Mooney?) talked of how Eliot felt she had to rein back the second part because she had felt she needed to put so much into the first half.  Ironically, that reining in, for me at least, made for a much more engaging narrative.  Maybe because it was a bit leaner and perhaps less self-indulgent??  The childhood section did, after all, closely follow Eliot's own, and maybe she was a mite too close to it to know where to draw the line?  I don't know, but whilst I stuttered for almost three weeks through the first three hundred pages, the last third or so flowed beautifully, and I read it in just two sittings, completely wrapped up in it all.  In that time, Maggie Tulliver proved her position as one of the great heroines in fiction - at least in my eyes! 

 

Funnily enough, now I know precisely what happens at the end, I feel I can read the book again in the future in a much more 'liberated' way.  I do intend to, as even when struggling, I absolutely loved Eliot's writing.  Whilst she does on occasions go off on a typically Victorian philosophical ramble (Middlemarch is peppered with these!), her writing is otherwise a model of clarity and descriptive precision.  Her characters are some of the most vividly drawn and real to life that I have enjoyed, and they are thoroughly human in their contradictions and foibles.  One chapter in particular, when we see a completely different side to Mrs Glegg, after all that had gone before, summed up for me perfectly the strength of Eliot's understanding of  human character.  Equally so, when she writes about people as a mass - the chapter where Mr Kenn struggles against the tide of St Ogg's opinion is absolutely spot on.

 

I find it really hard to give The Mill on the Floss a rating.  I know that I have read a genuinely great book, but I can't say, at least on a first reading, that I truly enjoyed it, yet I do feel as if I've had one of my strongest reading experiences for some time.  One part of me wants to say 3*, but I really do feel that would be a disservice.  On the other hand, I don't yet feel ready to rate it a 5* or 6*.  4* is a compromise, but still doesn't feel worthy enough.  Hmmmm.  Well, for the moment, call it 4*, and put a fifth in brackets.  When I come back to it, who knows, but I'll certainly need plenty of time!  In the meantime, I don't feel I've written half as much about the book as I should or want to, but I'll call it a day for the moment!  A brilliant book for discussion, indeed to study in depth but one would need more room than I've got here.

 

So, one more book to go - for which I've saved The Old Wives' Tale for no particular reason other than everybody I know who has read it says it's almost taken them by surprise in how good a read it's been, that it's apparently very much of its place, and I wanted to finish on a book and author I'd not read before.

 

 

Edited by willoyd

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And that, as they say, is that!  Arnold Bennett's The Old Wives' Tale comes in at #48 and last book of the challenge.  Really enjoyed it too, earning 5 stars at least.  Not quite the best, but certainly a writer I want to read more of.  Now on to the US States list.........! 

(Reviews etc to follow) 

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Posted (edited)

The English Counties Challenge 2013-2017

 

Perhaps the most distinctive and pleasurable feature of the challenge has been the variety of books and authors: 48 books, only 5 authors duplicated (Jane Austen, HE Bates, Charles Dickens, George Eliot, Elizabeth Gaskell), and a huge variety of styles and genres, including serious classics, comedy, satire, science fiction, fantasy/horror, saga, crime, adventure, thriller, fictionalised autobiography, and children's novels.   I chose the following as alternative books from the list, mainly because I'd previously read the main books and didn't want to read them again; all four stood up well (and in a couple of cases, better than the original IMO):

 

Bristol:  Evelina (Fanney Burney) instead of The Misses Mallett (EH Young)

Greater London: Mrs Dalloway (Virginia Woolf) instead of The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (Arthur Conan Doyle)

Hertfordshire: Howards End (EM Forster) instead of Pride and Prejudice (Jane Austen)

Nottinghamshire: Sons and Lovers (DH Lawrence) instead of Lady Chatterley's Lover (DH Lawrence)

 

Generally, I've really enjoyed the list, with 50% rating 5 or 6 stars, way above my normal reading (15%):

 

6-stars:    9

5-stars:  15

4-stars:    7

3-stars:  12

2-stars:    4

1-star:      1

 

So, of all this great reading, which was one was the best?  It's a tough call, but one does just about stand out, and it's Middlemarch. I last read this as a teenager when studying it for A-levels, and didn't have overwhelmingly great memories of it, but maybe Virginia Woolf was right, and I have since grown-up!   Two others made the short list and came close:   Emma was another not read since A-level, but had me totally in its thrall (although Jane got it wrong, in that I loved Emma herself!), whilst South Riding, was one of the great surprises of the list, blowing me away with its passionate story of provincial East Yorkshire life.  Far From the Madding Crowd and Mrs Dalloway only just missed out on the short list.

 

Duffer of the challenge without a doubt in my mind was The Stars Look Down which was, unfortunately, also one of the longest.  It may just have dated, but it proved thoroughly tedious and cliched, without even the redemption of a satisfying ending.  I don't think I'll be reading any more Cronin.  Others on the short list were The Well of Loneliness and My Uncle Silas, the first never seeming to rise out of its slough of despond, the latter so over-ripe and bilious that I only just managed to survive to the end of what was, fortunately, one of the shortest books on the list. I can't say I'm a fan of HE Bates humour. 

 

Most pleasant surprise was Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit which was a far funnier and more entertaining book that I had even vaguely anticipated from reviews; The Day of the Triffids was another that proved much more rewarding than expected, even if probably a contender for the least relevant to its county! I've since gone on to enjoy other Wyndham novels with almost equal relish. As already commented, South Riding completely blew me away too.

 

Biggest disappointment had to be Cider with Rosie.  I had anticipated a classic, I actually encountered a rather repetitive, monotonous tome, rather lacking in credibility in the clarity of early memory, that dragged far more than its slim size suggested.

 

Several books were rereads, and it was interesting to find that I regraded quite a few of them:

A Christmas Carol, Swallows and Amazons, Mansfield Park, Middlemarch, Emma all moved up (mostly to 6-stars)

Cranford, Watership Down, Dracula, The Pursuit of Love didn't live up to previous ratings and were all moved down at least one grade.

I was relieved that all the children's books rereads at least matched my previous feelings about them, or were even better! They were all certainly worthy of their places on the list.

 

Books that were particularly successful in characterising their county included, for me:

The Dark is Rising, The Nine Tailors, A Christmas Carol, Jamaica Inn, Swallows and Amazons, The Year of Wonders, Far From The Madding Crowd, South Riding, Mrs Dalloway, North and South, On The Black Hill, The Darling Buds of May, Sons and Lovers, Lorna Doone, The Old Wives' Tale, Emma, Tom Brown's Schooldays, Middlemarch, Cold Comfort Farm, Wuthering Heights, Barchester Towers.  Not a bad list!  Others came close, but these for me were the ones fully steeped in their county setting.

 

In hindsight, I think the list is pretty much as good as it can be.  The main thoughts I offer are:

 

-  Evelina was an excellent book for Bristol, and it and its author remain for me incontestably better known than The Misses Mallett (its currently published by both Oxford World Classics and Penguin). It should be at least added as an alternative choice.

 

-  I would remove The Maid of Buttermere as one of the Cumbria books; it isn't anywhere near as well known as Swallows and Amazons and S&A is a great representative book (I say this knowing that it was only my arguing that led to TMOB being included)

 

-  The Isle of Wight remains slightly problematic.  The Day of the Triffids is a great book, but it is really at no time actually set on the Isle of Wight.  The other books suggested to date aren't that well known either.  What about Moonfleet?  It has an episode set on the island which, admittedly, is not a major part of the book (although an important scene), but is no less of a section than, say, Whitby in Dracula. (I say this a bit reluctantly as I love TDOTT and am slightly ambivalent about Moonfleet, but it's a pretty well known children's classic, and a typically riproaring Victorian adventure).

 

- I'm particularly glad I read Sons and Lovers rather than Lady Chatterley's Lover, as it is a significantly better book IMO, more redolent of Nottinghamshire (and Nottingham), and no less famous, if less notorious.

 

-  It may be worth keeping an eye on books coming through - The Essex Serpent for instance could be an excellent book at some stage for that county.  This could benefit one or two of the counties less well served - not least the North East, where those for Northumberland and Tyne & Wear can surely be improved on at some stage? Isn't it odd how some parts of the country seem to produce a whole host of great books, whilst others struggle to produce even one of any real note?

 

But, overall, a great challenge that has added so much to my reading over the past three and a half years, given me several new authors to explore further, got me to read a few books I wouldn't otherwise have done but have been glad to do so(!) and helped me rediscover authors or books that I'd previously read but maybe not fully appreciated at the time.  Thoroughly recommended!

 

 

 

 

Edited by willoyd

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Congratulations on finishing the challenge Willoyd! I'm hoping to get it done by the end of the summer. :)

 

We had similar thoughts on The Well of Loneliness and Cider with Rosie, but I really enjoyed the Cronin! 

 

Emma is possibly my favourite so far, with An Old Wives Tale also featuring near the top of the list. 

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Congratulations on finishing the challenge! I enjoyed reading your wrap-up summary :).

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