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Desolation Island by Patrick O'Brian *****
This is the fifth in the Aubrey-Maturin series, and the pair are off to the southern seas again, this time on the 'dreadful old' Leopard (which actually isn't as dreadful as it was set up to be in an earlier book, having been extensively refitted), supposedly to provide support to Captain Bligh in Australia, but in the short-term transporting a group of convicts, amongst whom is a dangerous (female!) spy, the focus of Maturin's professional interest, being the reason he's actually on board.

This is different to previous instalments in a number of ways. Firstly, there is superficially far less 'action', with just one, longish, confrontation with a Dutch ship as a solo centrepiece. Instead, there is a far greater concentration on the voyage itself, and the way the crew and passengers interact on such an extended journey and respond to events. This might not sound promising, but it actually makes for an excellent and exciting narrative, with the dramatis personae almost completely isolated from the outside world, and having to be largely self-sufficient in coping with what the southern oceans throw at them.

The other big difference is that the story is not self-contained. Whilst there has obviously been a continous thread running through previous books, making it far better to start with the first book, each story has had a definite start, middle and end. On this occasion, the ending is definitely left hanging, and Desolation Island fairly tightly segues into the next volume, The Fortune of War. It's often said that this series is in fact one continuous novel, but it has not been as obvious as this before now. Having said that, the ending is still an ending...of sorts!

The continuous novel aspect of the series also makes it hard to write a series of reviews (I also want to avoid spoilers!): I pretty much want to say the same thing with each one!  I absolutely love O'Brian's characterisation and settings, whilst his plotting is both intricate gripping and completely credible: I am always so impressed how he develops such a depth of historical detail and language without detracting one iota from the story-telling - so many historical novelists seem to either get it wrong or conversely overload their reader - O'Brian gets the balance just right. For me these books are totally immersive and whilst I'm reading them, I am far away both temporally and geographically, to the extent that emerging out of any one of the books is genuinely hard work - which means I have to give myself plenty of time for reading stints. These are definitely not for dipping into, not even for brief bedtime bouts; no, I have to be fully awake, with time to wallow in this alternative world. And this has not yet been truer than with Desolation Island, where the style is very much one of gradual and deliberate unfolding - even the confrontation with the Waakzaamheid extends over days and thousands of miles, whilst the other events take even longer to develop, be it in terms of distance or time (or both!). This is story telling of the highest order, matching the environment to perfection.

As a single book, this garners a 5-star rating (as are most of the individual books so far), losing its sixth star simply because of it's lack of self-sufficiency, especially in the ending. But, and it's a huge but, the series remains one of the strongest 6-star reads on my list - the ratings of each book simply being equivalent to the ratings of individual chapters in any single volume novel. The series still comfortably sits in my top half dozen reads of all time, and I am so glad that I've still got 15 'chapters' to enjoy!

Edited by willoyd

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Oops - somehow seemed to have skipped past it!  Thanks for the reminder Steve.

 

:theboss:   :D

 

 

 

The continuous novel aspect of the series also makes it hard to write a series of reviews (I also want to avoid spoilers!): I pretty much want to say the same thing with each one!

 

I know that feeling :lol:

 

 

I absolutely love O'Brian's characterisation and settings, whilst his plotting is both intricate gripping and completely credible: I am always so impressed how he develops such a depth of historical detail and language without detracting one iota from the story-telling - so many historical novelists seem to either get it wrong or conversely overload their reader - O'Brian gets the balance just right. For me these books are totally immersive and whilst I'm reading them, I am far away both temporally and geographically, to the extent that emerging out of any one of the books is genuinely hard work - which means I have to give myself plenty of time for reading stints. These are definitely not for dipping into, not even for brief bedtime bouts; no, I have to be fully awake, with time to wallow in this alternative world. And this has not yet been truer than with Desolation Island, where the style is very much one of gradual and deliberate unfolding - even the confrontation with the Waakzaamheid extends over days and thousands of miles, whilst the other events take even longer to develop, be it in terms of distance or time (or both!). This is story telling of the highest order, matching the environment to perfection.

 

Echoes my feelings almost exactly.  They're so immersive, you dive in and you're there for the duration, and it's so hard to surface at the other end.  And that prolonged chase/battle with the Waakzaamheid is, for me, the most memorable, exciting, terrifying sequence in all the books I've read in the series so far.  That, plus the characters, the focus, the espionage plot - I really wish they'd used this story as the basis for the film.

 

I've got three left to read.  At the moment, Desolation Island is still the one I'd hold up and say 'read this one'.  Even if, as you say, it doesn't stand on its own, it's the one that really, finally, pulled me in completely - the point where I went from really enjoying the books to absolutely loving the series.

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I've got three left to read.  At the moment, Desolation Island is still the one I'd hold up and say 'read this one'.  Even if, as you say, it doesn't stand on its own, it's the one that really, finally, pulled me in completely - the point where I went from really enjoying the books to absolutely loving the series.

 

I can see why.  I read the first four books a while ago, but for some reason took a longer break than I intended (don't want to rush them!), so started again.  For me The Mauritius Command is the standout so far.  But that is as a single novel.  This is something a bit deeper, more intense.  It's as if O'Brian has at this point allowed himself to start writing a serial novel rather than a series of books, with the result that he has been more expansive, allowing characters more room to develop, and, indeed, more room for the plot to grow.  It's certainly got the feel of a step change, and I can't see me taking another similar break in the future!

 

I have to say that my enjoyment is definitely being enhanced by reading the series in the Folio Society editions.  It's not just the text, binding etc (which is a real joy to handle), but the very clever use of illustrations: the FS have been really careful in their research, finding contemporary illustrations that are very relevant, and really do enhance the story. It, of course, helps that O'Brian uses so much real world material, but even so, they've done a magnificent job.  (Having said that, I'll probably read the next one on the Kindle, as we're away on holiday!)

Edited by willoyd

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Just got back from two weeks holiday (Scotland and Ireland - and we got some lovely weather!), so a bit of catching up to do. I completed three books - less than I expected, mainly because we were too busy doing other things! - so, rather than trying to complete full reviews, I've just done a trio of fairly quick summaries:

Cranford by Elizabeth Gaskell ***
This was a reread for the English Counties Challenge, having read it as my first Gaskell novel a few years ago. I've loved those I've read since - North and South, Mary Barton - but this, in spite of its popularity and prominence, isn't, for me, in the same league. Much lighter, it's a comedy of manners set in the provincial town of Cranford in Cheshire, based around the lives of a small group of women, mainly single. Very readable, with a nicely judged sense of gentle irony, I certainly enjoyed it, and fairly cantered through the chapters, but in the end felt it had all been a bit superficial - nineteenth century chick lit perhaps? - and left me craving something with a bit more depth. I almost downgraded it to 3 stars, but felt that there was just about enough there to keep it at 4 - and anyway I felt in a rather forgiving holiday mood!

 

Later edit:  Hmmm.  In hindsight, and thinking about it in light of writing the review, I really can't go higher than a 3, so have changed the grade above accordingly.

Julie and Julia by Julie Powell ***
Whilst staying at the cottage (more a converted barn) in Scotland, we found the film of this book on the shelves, a film I'd intended to see at the time it came out but had never got around to.  Loved it, so quickly acquired the book (the advantage of having a Kindle!) . TBH, it's one of those rare occasions I actually prefer the film, which is the parallel stories of Julia Childs, whose book 'Mastering the Art of French Cookery' is one of the classics of the genre and who later became a substantial presence on American TV, and Julie Powells, who took up a challenge of cooking all 542 recipes from Childs' book in one year. The film was beautifully and cleverly intercut, with two excellent and sympathetic leads in Meryl Streep (Childs) and Amy Adams (Powell). The book concentrates more on Powell's experiences, although it's not a rehash of the blog she kept and which garnered a large and passionate readership.

I may have preferred the film, but I still enjoyed the book. It's robust - several reviewers comment on her strong language - and I can now see why Childs didn't like Powell's efforts (not immediately obvious in the film) - but I found it an interesting and revealing take on Powell herself as well as the cooking; she's definitely a more shaded character than Adams's portrayal, if not as likeable. I would have still preferred more on the cooking project earlier on, and was going to give this a straight three partly as a result, but the second half of the book settled down more to it, and showed better balance. Again, I'm probably being generous, but this was just enough to put it in 4 star territory, although I'd probably give both this and Cranford 3.5 if I was being more precise. I'm still intrigued enough, though, to go and read Julia Child's book on her life in France now!

 

Later edit: same thinking as with Cranford: it really has to be 3*.

The Humans by Matt Haig **
An easy read with an obviously deeply felt point (as one can ascertain from the author's note) to make about being human. Professor Andrew Martin has found a solution to the Riemann Hypothesis (one of Maths' great unsolved challenges), a result which threatens to allow humans to expand beyond Earth and threaten the rest of the universe - we are deemed as not yet mature enough to handle this. An alien is sent in his place (the professor has been quietly expunged) to make sure there is no trace of the discovery, an alien from a very different society where rationality and maths is all (Dr Spock eat your heart out!). I found it very entertaining (and thought-provoking) for the first half, as the alien version of Andrew Martin gets to learn about humans, and used to life as a human, but it became all a somewhat predictable in the second half and seemed to lose some of its bite, to the extent that by the time I came to his 'list', I found it to taste just too much of saccharine, and I started to skim.  For me, a book that loses me that much really can't make it beyond two stars: ultimately disappointing, in spite of the fact that it promised much more to start with.

 

Later edit: I really was in a generous mood on holiday!  This was at first listed with three starts, but, on review, a book which leaves me skimming really can't be described as a good solid read: I've edited the last sentence above to reflect that.

Edited by willoyd

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Julie and Julia by Julie Powell ***

Whilst staying at the cottage (more a converted barn) in Scotland, we found the film of this book on the shelves, a film I'd intended to see at the time it came out but had never got around to.  Loved it, so quickly acquired the book (the advantage of having a Kindle!) . TBH, it's one of those rare occasions I actually prefer the film, which is the parallel story of Julia Childs, whose book 'Mastering the Art of French Cookery' is one of the classics of the genre, and who later became a substantial presence on American TV, and Julie Powells, who took up a challenge of cooking all 542 recipes from Childs's book in one year. The film was beautifully and cleverly intercut, with two excellent and sympathetic leads in Meryl Streep (Childs) and Amy Adams (Powell). The book concentrates more on Powell's experiences, although it's not a rehash of the blog she kept and which garnered a large and passionate readership.

 

I may have preferred the film, but I still enjoyed the book. It's robust - several reviewers comment on her strong language - and I can now see why Childs didn't like Powell's efforts (not immediately obvious in the film) - but I found it an interesting and revealing take on Powell herself as well as the cooking; she's definitely a more shaded character than Adams's portrayal, if not as likeable. I would have still preferred more on the cooking project earlier on, and was going to give this a straight three partly as a result, but the second half of the book settled down more to it, and showed better balance. Again, I'm probably being generous, but this was just enough to put it in 4 star territory, although I'd probably give both this and Cranford 3.5 if I was being more precise. I'm still intrigued enough, though, to go and read Julia Child's book on her life in France now!

 

Later edit: same thinking as with Cranford: it really has to be 3*.

 

A really interesting review on the book, thanks! I watched the movie some years ago. I'm a fan of Meryl Streep, and I thought the woman who played Julie Powells was amazing. It was only later on that I saw Amy Adams in other movies and became a fan of her, too, and then much much later realized she'd played Julie Powells. It was the hair! I wouldn't have made the connection on my own :D Such a great movie. Like you, I was instantly tempted to buy the book... But I waited. I've read some reviews of it on Amazon etc., and they have not been very favorable... I also found it really interesting and puzzling how in the movie Childs wasn't taking to Powell, because I thought there wasn't all that much reason. I don't think that part was sufficiently covered. I've sort of given up on the idea of reading the book, but now I'm getting curious again... If there's more insight to why Childs was anti-Powell. Luckily there are copies at the library :) 

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Interesting reviews Willoyd :)

 

I've got Humans on my TBR and will be reading Cranford for the ECC - although I may now go for North and South first after reading your review.

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A really interesting review on the book, thanks! I watched the movie some years ago. I'm a fan of Meryl Streep, and I thought the woman who played Julie Powells was amazing. It was only later on that I saw Amy Adams in other movies and became a fan of her, too, and then much much later realized she'd played Julie Powells. It was the hair! I wouldn't have made the connection on my own :D Such a great movie. Like you, I was instantly tempted to buy the book... But I waited. I've read some reviews of it on Amazon etc., and they have not been very favorable... I also found it really interesting and puzzling how in the movie Childs wasn't taking to Powell, because I thought there wasn't all that much reason. I don't think that part was sufficiently covered. I've sort of given up on the idea of reading the book, but now I'm getting curious again... If there's more insight to why Childs was anti-Powell. Luckily there are copies at the library :)

 

Yes, the movie left me a bit perplexed on that front, but I can see more why after reading the book: she's a rather 'harder' character than the one portrayed by Amy Adams.  Otherwise, there's no real discussion of it - just as in the movie, they move on.  I think I actually need to find and read the blog itself if it's still available.

 

I've got Humans on my TBR and will be reading Cranford for the ECC - although I may now go for North and South first after reading your review.

 

It's all a matter of taste.  My favourite fiction tends more to the meaty than most I think. That's not to say, however, that I don't enjoy the lighter stuff, I just tend not to rate it amongst my favourites.  But, like any heavy food, I'd hate to eat it all the time, so the lighter material is still a necessary part of the diet, and every now and again one comes across the most delectable of light concoctions (my favourite book, A Month in the Country isn't exactly War and Peace!).  Cranford wasn't quite there, but it was still a well written good read.  Whilst not amongst my favourites, I can still see why it is for others.

 

 

Oooh where in Ireland were you? :)

 

West Cork, visiting family on the Mizen and friends on the Sheeps Head.  We spent three days travelling down from Larne around the coast, visiting the Giants' Causeway, Derry, WB Yeats's grave, Galway City, and The Burren, and then had a week on the Mizen, mostly local to Goleen.  Had a fab time. Incredibly lucky with the weather!  Anywhere near you?

Edited by willoyd

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It's festival time locally, or soon will be!  Ilkley Literature Festival starts in October, and bookings opened for Friends last week (public next week).  OH and I have gone a bit mad, and it's going to be a very busy fortnight! Most of the authors we've booked to see are non-fiction writers, the only three fiction I'm going to being Michael Nath, Patricia Duncker and Jane Smiley (really looking forward to her talk).  Non-fiction include: Charlotte Higgins, David Crystal, Tim Marshall, Mark Avery, Rob Cowen (his book, Common Ground, is based nearby, on the outskirts of Harrogate), Peter and Dan Snow, Stephen Bates and Simon Schama.  Roll on October!

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I liked the film Julie and Julia a lot too! I own the book, I bought it after seeing the film, but I haven't read it yet. It's great to read your thoughts about it. I quite liked The Humans. Great reviews :)! I'm glad you had fun on your holidays :).

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The end of August and the beginning of September is always a 'bad' time for reading: too much school work with the onset of the new academic year. At least this year I've managed to keep reading(even if a couple have been audiobooks), even if not writing reviews. The start of the catch up:

On Roads by Joe Moran ****
Bought from a rejects pile in Waterstones, this was an entertaining, informative read focused on the twentieth century development of British roads. It focuses rather too heavily on the incredibly rapid post-war development of the motorway network, and far more could and should have been written about the rest of the road history and infrastructure, particularly some of the older byways, but what it covered, it covered well.  Moran has obviously taken his research seriously, but he wears it lightly, producing an eminently readable account, with lots of interesting, obscure facts that will please all but the most pernickety of aficionados; I was fascinated, even though almost diametrically the opposite.   With the first ever motorway built around the time I was born, and with motorways expanding so rapidly, I definitely feel as I'm a 'motorway age baby', just as the current generation are 'internet age babies' even though I loath the things, and would much rather travel by train!

 

Edited by willoyd

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South Riding by Winifred Holtby ******

(copied from my review on the English Counties Challenge thread)

 

I started listening to the audiobook of this on a long car journey to South Wales, and spent the entire journey absolutely enthralled. I certainly expected to be entertained, but I didn't expect this to be such a brilliant novel.

 

South Riding is one of those big sprawling sagas populated with a myriad of varied characters, spread over a number of years.  I suppose the central character is Sarah Burton, the newly appointed headteacher to the local girls' school, but many others feature strongly, and their different narratives are carefully and intricately woven together by the author to provide a very rich tapestry of life in the fictitious South Riding as it goes through significant social and economic changes. 

 

Winifred Holtby is fairly clearly on the socialist side of the fence, but one of the huge strengths of her novel is that she portrays all her characters, whether reactionary farmer or virtually communist local councillor, with great sympathy, showing us both sides of all the arguments, and never judging. Nobody is all good, nor is anybody all bad - indeed, we are on occasions not even sure what is 'bad' or 'good', as we see events from unfamiliar angles.  As readers, we are omniscient, with the author allowing us to read inside her characters' minds.  Indeed, much of the book is taken up by the internal dialogues that each character has with him or herself, and it is through these that we are able to see how roundedly human each and every person is, whatever their inclination.  Indeed, I'd say that these internal explorations featured rather more strongly than the plot lines themselves, making South Riding rather more character focused than the usual novel.  

 

Having said that, the plotting was still strongly and intricately woven, it just wasn't the be all and end all.  In fact, having worked my way through a number of fairly predictable plot lines lately, I was delighted to be taken completely by surprise on a number of occasions, even standing in the middle of the kitchen in the midst of cooking on one, exclaiming 'OMG, she's never done that.....!'   Yet this was no soap opera - the plotting (including the twists) was thoroughly believable and whilst the individual threads may not have always led to 'happy' endings, they were certainly very satisfying in their sense of reality, and completeness as a whole.

 

I don't listen to that many audiobooks - no more than one or two a year normally - but on this occasion I do think that Carol Boyd's reading was absolutely outstanding.  I've enjoyed others of hers in the past, but this was exceptional even by those standards.  She captured not only the spirit of the book to perfection, but successfully brought each and every character completely to life to the extent that one rapidly forgot that this was a 'simple' reading, populated as it was by so many different and believable voices.  I did wonder if it was the quality of this that persuaded me to give South Riding a straight six stars (i.e. an instant favourite), but I think in hindsight that Boyd simply reflected the quality of the book: after finishing the recording, I went back to read sections of the book itself, and it still stood out under this scrutiny.  Having said that, she is one of those very, very few readers whose work I do pursue, sometimes choosing books simply because she's reading them.

 

So, overall, an outstanding read - definitely a twentieth century classic IMO - and one that, as I indicated above, earned a straight six stars; it will be a serious contender for my Book of the Year.  And to think that I'd probably never have read it without this challenge.......!

Edited by willoyd

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This sounds like a very interesting read. I do like a good saga and as it's only £1.49 on Kindle, I've just bought it.

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Willoyd, did you ever see the TV adaptation of South Riding - it's about five years old I think, and I remember enjoying it. I have the book, but haven't read it yet, but will have to bump it up the mountain. Thanks for the great review :)

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This sounds like a very interesting read. I do like a good saga and as it's only £1.49 on Kindle, I've just bought it.

 

Hope you enjoy it as much - I'll look forward to your review whatever!

 

Willoyd, did you ever see the TV adaptation of South Riding - it's about five years old I think, and I remember enjoying it. I have the book, but haven't read it yet, but will have to bump it up the mountain. Thanks for the great review :)

 

Not yet.  I bought it recently, and intend to watch it in the next few weeks before the details of the story start to fade - I'm a bit of a sucker for doing things like that, as I enjoy seeing what a director makes of the transition from book to film, and how they interpret a book, especially one I've particularly enjoyed.

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Mini-reviews

 

Some mini-reviews to catch up with a short backlog:

 

 

Lady Susan by Jane Austen ****

It might be juvenilia, but the sharp wit and sideways look at society is already firmly in place. Epistolary in form, so harking back to the recent past of the likes of Samuel Richardson, the writing itself is way in front of its time. I thoroughly enjoyed the various twists and turns, and the oh so different angles from which various situations are observed. Austen is very clever in that it's not always obvious what actually is the truth, as one is never quite sure who to trust. I listened to this as an audio book, with a variety of readers to reflect the different letter writers, headed up by one of my favourite voices (and actresses), Harriet Walters. Short and sweet (actually, not so sweet!), this provided a thoroughly entertaining and absorbing 2-3 hours of listening. Just a pity that it wasnt' longer - but then its brevity is one of its strengths.

 

The Silent Wife by ASA Harrison *

Quotes that compared this to Gone Girl didn't exactly prepare me favourably for this Reading Group choice, given my detestation for that massively overhyped fashion trend. The first page didn't help either: reams of telling me quite what Jodi was like - where was the show? Were we about to read a work of genius that broke every rule of a good book and still came up shining? Er, no. What we were actually faced with was a rather tedious recount of the breakdown of a relationship and how this apparently submissive mouse became a killer (no giveaway this - we're told this is going to happen in the first few pages). I just couldn't have cared less, and read less and less as the book progressed, skimming at speed simply so that I could keep up with the discussions at the group. Characters were dull, unlikeable, and predictable, the plot pretty much the same. There were passages of writing that promised, but the overbearing nature of the author's writing style, the dullness of the plot and the lack of any character to relate to precluded any longer lasting interest. They did mean that this book scraped two rather than one star, but I really couldn't see any reason for doing anything other than recycling the paper.

 

Later edit:  In hindsight, I really did not like this book one bit, so can't see how it justifies the second star, so have downgraded to one star.

 

Villette by Charlotte Bronte ***

There are those who rate this a superior novel to Jane Eyre. It is certainly beautifully written, with the authorial connection to Jane Eyre immediately apparent, and the novel gets off to an engaging start with the events leading up to Lucy Snowe's arrival at the school in Villette (Bronte's name for Brussels). Early days at the school kept me involved, but gradually, over the period of a not insubstantial book, the plot seemed to lose the plot. It was there, but it seemed to lack the literary substance to match the physical, with an awful lot of time being taken up by not a lot on the event front.

It's ironic this, as I'm not a major 'plot' reader and am more than happy with character based narratives for instance (any fan of Virginia Woolf has to need something other than plot after all!). However, all the worthwhile story seems to be first of all heavily diluted throughout the meat of the book, with the bulk of it seeming to be going nowhere, and/or backloaded to the end, when a whole lot happens in a rush.

 

I think the problem is exacerbated by the fact that I find the character of Lucy herself somewhat frustrating, being far too passive and self-effacing. Was Charlotte really like that? And, if not, why on earth portray herself like that? Equally, I can see little if any attraction in the character of Monsieur Paul, who, for most of the book, seems to be at best overbearing and, at worst, a bully. Other characters had their irritations too - John/Graham, for instance, seems ridiculously naive about women, and Polly annoyingly needy.

 

So, I found reading Villette thoroughly hard work. Coming at one of my 'slower' times of year when it comes to reading, it took almost a fortnight to complete, and even then needed a concerted effort to wind things up. Yet, writing this up a couple of weeks later, elements seem to have crept under the skin and lodged themselves there - it may have been a largely inconsequential plot, but it's surprising how much of it has stuck, as have the characters. And they are characters that are sufficiently interesting to want to discuss; Villette would have made a great reading group choice. Overall, then, three stars - it didn't grab me enough at the time to rate it as 'hard to put down' (it wasn't), but it was still hard to leave alone - and the writing itself is a real pleasure to read.

 

Regeneration by Pat Barker *****

A blurb and an unconventional plotline that didn't totally grab me initially - rather the opposite - but a book that rewarded persistence. There are plenty of novels about World War One, but this one, without featuring any of the fighting itself, has been one of the most successful in bringing home the horrors, the waste, and some of the very different ways of thinking that existed then. Whilst the inclusion of other historical characters like Siegfried Sasson might initially appear to be the main focus of the book, it's the central character of Dr WH Rivers who comes to dominate: a complex indidividual with his own demons. His motivations may be uncertain (does he really want to get Sassoon back to the front?), but his deep humanity (at least as in the eyes of the author) is underlined by the late contrast with the barbaric activities, surely also by the standards of the time, of other doctors. It was a book that was intensely easy to read, but asked a lot of questions of the reader. I may not have been able to answer them all, I'm not even certain what some of them would have been, but the experience was no less rewarding as a result.

Edited by willoyd

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 I enjoyed Regeneration when I read it, some years ago now, but I haven't ever got round to the sequels.Do you intend to read them?

 

I've skipped over your reviews of Lady Susan and Villette, as I have them both on my Kindle to read at some point, but I'm encouraged by the ratings, even if they didn't get top marks.  :)

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I intend to read Villette at some point, but will tackle Jane Eyre first. 

 

What did the rest of your book group think of The Silent Wife? Not heard of that one, but I rarely read books that are 'the next Gone Girl' or similar unless recommended to me (on here or in real life), it's not sufficient otherwise. Why not try to be something different?

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I enjoyed Regeneration when I read it, some years ago now, but I haven't ever got round to the sequels.Do you intend to read them?

I'm just over half way through The Eye in the Door at the moment, and will probably read The Ghost Road next, or the next but one.

 

I've skipped over your reviews of Lady Susan and Villette, as I have them both on my Kindle to read at some point, but I'm encouraged by the ratings, even if they didn't get top marks.  :)

I try to avoid any spoilers, and aim to focus on my reaction to the book. I can understand you avoiding even that though! I'd certainly rate them as both worth reading. Four stars (Lady Susan) is a strong recommendation. I suspect with Villette I just hit at the wrong time of year - round about the start of the academic year is not a good time to choose a demanding read! (BTW, five stars is effectively top marks in terms of my rating on excellence. The extra star to six is simply one that has the personal spark to be a favourite - the books aren't any 'better' in my opinion, just ones I warm to more - if you see the difference.

 

 

What did the rest of your book group think of The Silent Wife? Not heard of that one, but I rarely read books that are 'the next Gone Girl' or similar unless recommended to me (on here or in real life), it's not sufficient otherwise. Why not try to be something different?

We wer all pretty much of the same opinion - unusually! Nobody gave it over half marks, and the majority didn't read it fully, either skim reading or skipping sections. Mediocre at best was the overall verdict. I agree with you about being different.

[

Edited by willoyd

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The Eye in the Door by Pat Barker *****
Continuing on a few months after Regeneration, the shift in focus is onto the fictional character of Billy Prior who, having left Craiglockart Hospital, is now working for the Ministry of Munitions and its intelligence service. The problem is that those he is tasked with investigating include old associates, acquaintances, and even friends. He is also having to face up to the effects of his own mental illness, stemming from experiences in the trenches, effects that start to impact on his intelligence work. Also further fleshed out in this second volume is the character of William Rivers, now also working in London.

In some respects this is even better than Regeneration, not least because of this more in depth character development, but also with the way Barker is now able to even more closely examine the almost hidden and now largely forgotten world of those who objected to the war. The scenes inside various prisons and the ways that dissenters from the pro-war line are treated both therein and by society are bleak and shocking: the likes of Guantanamo Bay and legalised torture are certainly not new! Meanwhile, Barker's prose remains as beautifully balanced as before, never unnecessarily wordy, incisively descriptive, and yet always keeping the plot moving. It does, however, have the feel of the second volume of a trilogy - there is definitely a transitional feel to the narrative, and the ending is curiously indecisive, not unlike many middle volumes in other series. Even so, this was a joy to read, even more so knowing that there is another volume to come.

Edited by willoyd

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Ilkley Literature Festival part 1
 

Had fun at a number of events this weekend, the first of the fortnight long festival:

Patricia Duncker on Villette
An interesting discourse on a book that some (including Duncker by the sound of it) rate as Charlotte Bronte's masterpiece, in place of the more commonly lauded Jane Eyre. Personally, I can't see it, and still couldn't after her talk, but I did find it very interesting, and I did come away with a much greater appreciation for a novel that had left me previously somewhat unmoved and disengaged. I was intrigued by the closer relationship with gothic novels, such as those of Anne Radcliffe, than I had suspected - particularly given that Jane Austen also used them as a major source (as did others). It was intriguing to find how important this genre was in literary development. It was also good to attend a talk by an author (and academic) who wasn't pushing their own work (Duncker was doing three sessions on this first full day of the festival, one of which was about her latest piece of fiction, Sophie and the Sybil which, ironically, I fully intend to buy at some stage.

Nick Groom and Michael Nath in conversation on 'Britishness'
Two authors, good friends apparently, coming from different angles to this subject. Nick Groom, author of The Seasons, A Celebration of the English Year, and Michael Nath, fiction author, his latest being British Story: A Romance. I wasn't totally convinced by the conversation itself, which started with Nath stating that he didn't like the use of the word 'identity', and preferred the word 'character', as if the two had remotely the same meaning - but it covered some very pertinent issues. The Q&A session afterwards was excellent, other than the massively intrusive attempts by the 'host' (Professor Gweno Williams of York St John University, as she is determined to tell us at every session she does) who very patronisingly insisted summarising every question, even when it was perfectly clear and the author was already answering, even to the extent of interrupting. The buzz of irritation was palpable around the small and rather cosy room! Both books look attractive, and have already bought Nath's book for the Kindle (at less than a fiver), and Groom's book, just out in paperback.

Papermaking workshop by Jonathan Korejko
One of the best sessions at the festival in the past decade or so. Jonathan is passionate and obviously highly knowledgeable about paper, and his workshop buzzed for the three hours on Sunday morning that we (OH as well) attended. He was brilliantly supported by his two stewards, who helped keep the production lines moving smoothly. We made a range of papers with literary themes, including 'Shakespeare' (with rose petals), 'Robert Graves' (with marigolds), 'Wordsworth' (daffodils), 'Dickens' (oakum and silk), and 'Jilly Cooper' (cuttings from her books!). and brought home getting on for ten sheets each (OH worked quicker than me!). Fabulous!

David Crystal on his book Making a Point
OH had seen him as a keynote speaker at a schools language conference a year or two ago, but this was my first encounter with an author whose books I thoroughly enjoy; she said he was worth seeing, and he certainly was. Indeed, he's probably an even better performer than writer (not always the case!), and kept his large audience in the King's Hall thoroughly engrossed and entertained for the hour he was on. I love his down to earth, undogmatic approach to language, grammar and spelling, and his insights into the history and development of punctuation were just the same in style. A really refreshing change from the pedantry that permeates the grammar we have to teach at primary school - underlining some of the nonsense too!

So - a great start to the fortnight, and loads to come. Next up is Jean Seaton on Wednesday, on the BBC. I was looking forward to seeing Charlotte Higgins, whose books on the Ancient Greeks and the Romans in Britain I really enjoyed, especially the latter, but it looks like Seaton is a more than worthy replacement.  I'm gutted that I'm going to have to miss Thursday's debate on the Future of the Book at Leeds University, but work at school cuts right across it. 

Edited by willoyd

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Ilkley Literature Festival part 2

 

Two more events this week

 

Jean Seaton on the future of the BBC

Jean Seaton, now the official historian of the BBC, was a relatively late replacement for Charlotte Higgins who apparently was 'indisposed', although she still managed to appear on the Today programme next morning, so maybe that was inaccurate. I'd really enjoyed two of Higgins's books, and was looking forward to this. In the end, whilst obviously highly knowledgeable, Ms Seaton didn't really live up to my expectations. Knowledge is one thing, but meandering from one subject to another with significant discontinuities, meant that her talk was hard to follow. It didn't help that it was obviously pitched at an audience that included a lot of people rather more up to speed with BBC politics and personalities than I was (there sounded to be a fair number of ex-BBC employees). It was way too easy for the novitiate to be left floundering amongst the assumptions. There were some interesting snippets, but overall this was far too disconnected and aimed at some sort of 'in' crowd. Disappointing.

 

Mark Avery on his book Inglorious

Avery was, until 4 years ago, Director of Conservation for the RSPB. He's now freelance, and directing much of his energies into a campaign to get driven grouse shooting banned. His book lays out his arguments, and so did his talk (at least some of them). An Ilkley audience is likely to be sympathetic - the Friends of Ilkley Moor are certainly against Bradford Council's allowing grouse shooting on the Moor - but even so, his arguments, are persuasive, especially as he is not against 'walking up', which has been extensively surplanted by the rather less energetic and more conveyor belt like 'driven' method. It's interesting that his detractors on Amazon reviews (his book garners either 5 stars or 1 star - nothing in between) are strong on abuse and assertion, but completely lacking in anything of substance. Still, there were a few holes, but his talk was sufficiently thought-provoking for me to buy the book afterwards - my first of the festival. Certainly, the environmental impact, and its consequent cost to everybody with little or no economic benefit to offset it, appears pretty dreadful. I hadn't realised either that this country is the only country in Europe (the world?) to have adopted this form of grouse shooting, which in itself says something.

 

This coming week is busy: Jane Smiley on Tuesday, Rob Cowen on Wednesday, the Snows on Waterloo on Thursday, and then a couple to finish off on Sunday - that's, of course, if I get to them all!

Edited by willoyd

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Glad you're having a good time seeing all of those speakers. I would have loved to have seen David Crystal!

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