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Willoyd's English Counties Challenge


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#21 willoyd

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Posted 02 March 2016 - 11:22 PM

The Day of the Triffids by John Wyndham *****(*)
(copied from my blog thread, and from the Isle of Wight thread)

I'm not sure how I got through my youth without reading John Wyndham, especially with such enjoyment of science fiction at the time, but I did, and so forty years or so later I come upon him for the first time. Blame the English Counties Challenge for the fact that I ever landed up reading any of Wyndham's books, as I certainly had no intention otherwise.

Which would have been very much my loss, because this has proved one of the best surprises for years. The Day of the Triffids is told in a very straightforward way, by the main protagonist, Bill, a Triffid biologist. The human race has suffered a catastrophic and almost universal total loss of sight after a celestial event, conditions that leave the way free for triffids, a plant mutation that can walk and attack humans, to thrive. Sounds highly unlikely told like that, but it is frighteningly and grippingly plausible in John Wyndham's hands. Some humans, Bill (our hero) included, have been fortunate to escape blindness. But can they survive?


In many respects, The Day of the Triffids is somewhat old-fashioned, not least in the virtual invisibility of technology. Its style is somewhat dated too, not surprising given it was written in the fifties. However, the issues it raises, the questions asked across a whole range of issues are all too topical and challenging, not least in the fragility of our position on this planet, which could so easily be change by events beyond our control, and what might happen if that position was every challenged. And whilst it might feel a little on the older side as a story, it has lost none of its ability to keep the reader enthralled and on their toes.  I particularly enjoyed the relationship with and character of Josella - a love interest with genuine strength; whilst the book may have given away its age in some respects (and none the worse for that), Josella smacked very much of the twenty-first century - or, at least, what one like the twenty-first century to be like.


Overall then, The Day of the Triffids proved itself to be an outstanding book, one of the best in recent months. The one big question that does raise its head though, Is how on earth is this the book in the English Counties Challenge as the Isle of Wight novel? Certainly, the island is mentioned, but not a single complete page of the book is actually set on the island. It's a complete mystery!


Edited by willoyd, 02 March 2016 - 11:23 PM.


#22 willoyd

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Posted 22 March 2016 - 08:32 AM

Have really enjoyed two challenge books back to back: 

 

Jamaica Inn ****  was, almost shockingly, my first Daphne du Maurier. a good, old-fashioned, adventure romp in the mould of Robert Louis Stevenson and others.  It was definitely a good choice to represent a location, as the atmosphere reeked of the moors and the Cornish coast.  Great stuff!

 

Howards End ****** was my substitute for the board's choice of Pride and Prejudice for Hertfordshire.  That's not to say I don't love P&P - as an Austen fan how could I not? - but I wanted the list to encourage me to read a broader range, and I must have read P&P at least half a dozen times, almost the most I've ever read a book.  On the other hand, I've only read one Forster before, A Room With a View.  I remember enjoying the latter, but feeling it a bit inconsequential for the effort.  Howards End on the other hand was a real handful.  It was a remarkably easy read, more so than I expected, but there was plenty to get one's teeth into and, whilst much of the action is actually set in London, there was enough of Hertfordshire to more than warrant its place on the list.  There was even a smattering of Austen, with two sisters not dissimilar to Elinor and Marianne Dashwood, Margaret Schlegel being the more steeped in sense and Helen rather more one of sensibility, and an aunt that comes straight out of Austen's more busy-body characters.  There are some Austenesque streaks, but this is definitely a book of its time, with social issues (place of women, relationship between rich and poor, the importance of property) that, whilst still amply relevant today, are very much seated in the Edwardian period, and which Austen either never considered or avoided.    A book that borders on an instant favourite, I've initially given it five stars, but it may yet go to six.

 

(Later edit:  have now promoted it to six stars)


Edited by willoyd, 02 May 2016 - 08:30 AM.


#23 willoyd

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Posted 03 April 2016 - 09:17 PM

Finished my reread of Cold Comfort Farm today.  After a bit of a struggle earlier on, I galloped through the last 60% or so of the book, loving every second of it, even laughing out loud in places (unheard of in my reading!).  Am now exactly half way through the challenge: 24 out of 48 books read.



#24 Athena

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Posted 05 April 2016 - 09:12 AM

Well done on being half way through :).

#25 Madeleine

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Posted 05 April 2016 - 07:43 PM

Yep well done on getting halfway through the list Will.  I love Jamaica Inn - even though it's probably not Daphne's best-written book, I think it's my favourite escapist read, a good old-fashioned gothic yarn.



#26 Kylie

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Posted 06 April 2016 - 10:58 AM

Glad you enjoyed Cold Comfort Farm! I remember thinking it was humorous, but I felt that I was missing some of the jokes. I'd like to give it another go one day and see if I enjoy it more.



#27 chesilbeach

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Posted 06 April 2016 - 04:04 PM

That's three of us all at the halfway mark in the challenge now! You, me and Janet have all read 24 out of the 48 books. :D  I'm so glad we started it, I've read some fabulous books that I would never have dreamt of picking up without the challenge.



#28 willoyd

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Posted 02 May 2016 - 08:05 AM

I've got a couple of reviews behind, so here they are copied over from my reading blog thread:

Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons *****
I first read Cold Comfort Farm about 12 years ago, but came round to it again as it was on the English Counties Challenge list. Then I had rated it as a 5-star read, and I have to admit that, a couple of chapters in, I was beginning to wonder why. For various reasons, I wasn't able to get a good run at the book, forced to pick it off a few pages at a time (usually at bedtime), and another couple of chapters on I was beginning to doubt my sanity that first time, thinking that this was going the way of most 'humorous' books in my ratings, i.e. bouncing round near the bottom. With a book group deadline looming, I suspended further efforts, and got stuck into that choice (see my previous review, And The Mountains Echoed). Then, a deep breath, an evening cleared, surely this couldn't be so bad if I rated it so highly last time?

Well, no it couldn't, and I read the rest of the book (over half) in one sitting, smiling my way through most of it, and even, on occasions, laughing out loud (the scene of The Counting was pure magic). Which all goes to show how much one's enjoyment of a book can depend on context, mood, and any number of other factors. But above all else, a book has got to have a chance to breathe, and the reader has got to have a chance to immerse him or herself. Reading a book a few pages at a time is no way to treat the animal, and I had been desperately unfair to both the author and her book in trying to do so.

Cold Comfort Farm was written as a send-up of rural dramas by the likes of Mary Webb, Thomas Hardy, DH Lawrence etc, often laced as they are with tragedy and doom ridden atmospherics. Thoroughly practical, modern, metropolitan, but pauperised, Flora Poste goes off to live with her cousins, the extensive, agricultural and deeply conservative Starkadders. The impact is initially fairly gentle, but then Flora starts to get to work, and the feathers start to fly, especially when the family matriarch, Great-Aunt Ada Doom, normally hidden away in her room, starts to get wind of what Flora is up to....

Even if one hasn't read any of the (affectionately) lampooned authors, there is much to enjoy. I have to admit that I thought that some of the jokes were a bit obvious to start with, and that there was a danger that the whole book would slide into a slough of cliche and stereotypes, especially the Starkadders themselves, whose characters initially teetered on the edge of Little Britain nonsense (sorry, but for me it was). But having set it up to look this way, the author rapidly veered away from these dangerous rocks, as Flora's efforts started to reveal previously hidden strengths in the family and they turned into characters one cared for rather than laughed at. And that was the point at which I actually started to laugh - and any book that manages that with me is pretty exceptional!

The Go-Between by LP Hartley ***
I last encountered The Go-Between as a set text at O-level back in the mists of time. I have to admit that I wasn't a particular fan then, and whilst my revisiting the books I studied at school has almost always found me extracting much greater pleasure than when I actually studied them, this particular reread left me comparatively unmoved. There was no doubting the quality of the writing, but some way before the well flagged denouement, I was willing the author to get a move on. The edition I used (Penguin Modern Classics) was also well endowed with footnotes. Normally, I really enjoy the insights these provide, but on this occasion I found much of the symbolism and textual cross-referencing tedious and even pretentious, so fairly soon stopped taking notice of them, enjoying the book rather more as a result. Overall, I still enjoyed this more than first time round, but can't say that it goes down as a classic read. I do seem to have a bit of a problem with 1950s/60s British literature!


Edited by willoyd, 02 May 2016 - 08:28 AM.


#29 willoyd

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Posted 02 May 2016 - 08:26 AM

Completed book number 26 today:

 

Winnie-the-Pooh by AA Milne ******

I haven't read this classic for many years in spite  (or maybe because?) of the fact that I have such joyful memories of it from my childhood (and reading it to my own child).  Indeed, I came to it with slight trepidation, as it really is one of those books which is so ingrained in the fabric of my child-orientated memory that I was worried the gloss might come off it reading it purely as an adult. 

 

I needn't have worried!  Beautifully written, wiith something that strikes a chord on every page, and so much gentle humour, it was easy to see why this continues to maintain its position as one of the great classics of children's literature.  I was doubly fortunate to be reading the Folio Society edition, with the wonderful EH Shepard drawings in colour (along with examples of his original sketches as an appendix) - the book simply wouldn't have been the same without them.

 

Any child who has only encountered Winnie-the-Pooh through the Disney version has surely missed out on one of the great childhood experiences, the film being a very pale shadow of the original.  Words can't really do the book justice; suffice to say, it is sheer genius.


Edited by willoyd, 02 May 2016 - 08:30 AM.


#30 Nollaig

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Posted 02 May 2016 - 10:29 AM

So glad you enjoyed re-reading Winnie the Pooh, it was a cornerstone of my childhood and to this day remains one of my favourite stories!



#31 willoyd

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Posted 05 May 2016 - 07:52 PM

Book number 27 completed earlier today. Review copied here (also on Bedfordshire thread and on my book blog thread)

My Uncle Silas by HE Bates *(*)
Read as part of the English Counties challenge, this is one of the rare books on that list that I really haven't liked - rather contrary to the majority of reviews I have to say. Oh dear. I'm sorry, but I really can't share everybody else's enthusiasm. Indeed, I'd go so far as to say it has been the most disappointing read of the 27 books to date aside from, perhaps, Cider with Rosie, of a similar ilk.

Right from the first, I had concerns, with its overblown idyllic descriptions (how many colours can one cram into a single paragraph? How many adjectives can be squeezed into a sentence?), and this was soon exacerbated by some highly stereotypical characterisation, all of which persisted throughout. As the book progressed, I also tired of the incessant repetition in those descriptions ('wet' lips stick in the mind!), and the predictability of the stories. I can't say I was excited either by the alcoholic japes around which most were centred. There were moments of genuine pathos (I found the ending of The Wedding particularly moving - ironically one of the rare occasions when the author kept it brief and to the point), but they were just moments. I couldn't but help recall Cold Comfort Farm - this could have almost been the original target of that far more strongly written book's satire.

In the end, for me the one strong point was the book's overall brevity, This and the fact that it is part of the Counties challenge are the sole reasons for me reaching the end. I say 'the end', but the edition I read was, in fact, The Complete Uncle Silas, merging the two Silas books into one for the Kindle. I was relieved to put it down after the last story from the first book, and am in no hurry to move on to the others!


#32 willoyd

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Posted 15 May 2016 - 01:59 PM

Completed The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole, aged 13 3/4 this morning. It proved to be a very quick read, having only started it at bedtime last night, which was just as well as it proved to be somewhat dated and repetitively tiresome: basically a one-joke novel. After a run of excellent books in this challenge, the last two have been the most disappointing to date, so am looking forward to things picking up.   28/48 completed.


Edited by willoyd, 15 May 2016 - 02:00 PM.


#33 willoyd

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Posted 23 May 2016 - 11:58 AM

Completed Geraldine Brooks's Year of Wonder (Derbyshire) last night. Sat up late to finish the last 60 or so pages - says it all. Gripping read, firmly embedded in both historical and geographical setting. Another book that I almost certainly wouldn't have read but for the challenge, and am so glad I did. (4/6 stars).  Am now moving onto Kestrel for a Knave (South Yorkshire), as I'm off to see the play next week at the West Yorkshire Playhouse.

Review of Secret Diary of Adrian Mole now posted here.

 



#34 willoyd

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Posted 30 May 2016 - 11:04 AM

On here to update, and realised didn't mention completing Mrs Dalloway in my last post (finished a few days after Adrian Mole). Kestrel for a Knave was read in a day, but then it is barely a couple of hundred pages long. Since then have been focused largely on Fanny Burney's Evelina, my alternative choice for Bristol. Finished that this morning - really enjoyable read, if not one of the greats. Review to follow.  Now completed 32/48, and what a great list it is - loads of variety and some good, even brilliant, books that I wouldn't have read without the incentive.


Edited by willoyd, 30 May 2016 - 11:04 AM.


#35 Athena

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Posted 30 May 2016 - 01:31 PM

How brilliant you read so many great books because of this challenge.You're progressing well with it, two thirds of the way there!

#36 willoyd

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Posted 19 June 2016 - 10:12 PM

Two more books completed: On the Black Hill (Herefordshire - book 33) and next door neighbour, Summer Lightning (Shropshire - book 34).  Both good reads, and both better than expected.  On the Black Hill was a new read, both book and author, so wasn't sure what it was going to be like, but I loved its down to earth evocation of the Marches, and its humanity.  Summer Lightning couldn't have been much more of a contrast, being a typical (actually, more than typical) Wodehouse farce, whose threads get more tangled than ever.  I've gone off Wodehouse the last few years, but this restored some of my appreciation of both humour and art: the writing is far cleverer and slicker than I remember it.


Edited by willoyd, 20 June 2016 - 09:44 PM.


#37 willoyd

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Posted 01 July 2016 - 01:01 PM

Completed Emma last night. A wonderful, absorbing read, with a far greater streak of humour than I remember from when I studied it for A-level - maybe simply because I'm older. Emma really is very knowing, but not quite as worldly-wise as she likes to think, initially as unlikeable as Jane Austen said she wanted her to be, but steadily grows on you. Confirmed its six-star status, with room to spare: not quite my favourite Austen (S&S), but certainly up near the front end.  Just over a quarter of the books, nine of them, I've read so far are six-star reads - not bad going considering I have rated only just over 60 novels at this level overall.


Edited by willoyd, 01 July 2016 - 01:04 PM.


#38 willoyd

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Posted 16 July 2016 - 09:26 PM

I've now written up reviews of all the books read recently for the challenge. Links are as follows:

Emma - Surrey
 
Summer Lightning - Shropshire
 
On the Black Hill -Herefordshire
 
Evelina - Bristol (my alternative)

Edited by willoyd, 16 July 2016 - 09:26 PM.


#39 willoyd

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Posted 18 August 2016 - 10:34 PM

Completed book #36, The Pursuit of Love (Oxfordshire), whilst on holiday.  This was a reread.  It was enjoyable enough, an easy, fluid novel with some depth,  but I can't say that I was anything like as struck as when I read it first time, when I gave it 4/6.  I just couldn't relate to the characters, who all felt thoroughly superficial.  Dropped to a 3 now.  I was going to follow up with rereading Love in a Cold Climate, but given my reaction (maybe partially due to being on holiday, and not in the right frame of mind?), decided not to.


Edited by willoyd, 18 August 2016 - 10:36 PM.


#40 willoyd

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Posted 22 August 2016 - 10:24 AM

Getting a bit bogged down with The Stars Look Down (Northumberland) - I really can't yet see why it's particularly well known or popular other than it's a solidly conventional, saga, if overlong and increasingly dull - so took time off to reread The Wind in the Willows (Berkshire). A lovely, gently novel, with much that is still relevant today, although somewhat dated in some of its underlying attitudes. I can't see many children reading it today - the language is far too demanding for most readers (which is intended to say more about modern day language and reading than about the target age or pitched level of the book).


Edited by willoyd, 26 August 2016 - 08:59 AM.





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