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Willoyd's Reading 2016

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1815: Regency Britain in the Year of Waterloo by Stephen Bates ***
 
It's hard recostructing a review you wrote weeks before, but unfortunately that's what I've got to do having somehow accidentally overwritten the one I originally wrote. As a result, this may not be quite as detailed or full as originally completed.

1815 is, as it says on the tin, a portrait of Britain at the time of Waterloo. It's an interesting slant, and means that this book, one amongst a whole regiment celebrating (or is that taking advantage of?) the 200th anniversary of the campaign, has a slight edge in a very competitive field.

It's a light read that fairly gallops along, each chapter covering a different aspect of life and society, rather than taking a chronological approach. This works nicely, emphasising the snapshot approach that taking one year as a study encourages.

Most of the chapters stick closely to the words on the tin as well, but there are times when the author does seem to wander off the point. Whilst I found the sections on the likes of the Congress of Vienna and, indeed, on the campaign itself, nothing less than interesting, they weren't really what the book pertaied to be about. Instead of adding, they felt like padding, and are certainly covered better elsewhere in more specialist books. Not overly thick a volume anyway, it still felt that it had been stretched, and yet there must have been plenty of material to go at.

So, overall, an enjoyable, worthwhie read, but one that would have been enhanced with a tighter focus on the proclaimed theme.

Edited by willoyd

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The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher by Hilary Mantel **

 

I have to confess from the start that the only reason I read this was that it was the reading group choice for this month. If not for that, I wouldn't have touched it with a barge pole, in spite of my liking for Hilary Mantel's writing - indeed Wolf Hall is high on my list of all-time favourite books. But I have developed quite a strong antipathy to short stories over the years; try as I might, I find them perennially unsatisfying, tending, as they seem to, to either try and hit you with a Dahl-esque twist at the end, very difficult to do without it being both all too predictable, or leave me feeling completely bemused: "And? So?"

 

Where these stories score is in Mantel's ability to create an atmospheric sense of location: you really do feel that you are in the midst of wherever she takes you, feeling as her character does, be it a woman's sense of isolation in the heart of Saudi Arabia (first story), the skin-crawling griminess of a rundown bed and breakfast experienced by an author whilst visiting yet another book group, in the midst of family crises centred on infidelity or a daughter's anorexia, or a dusty late-night Mediterranean road.

 

But that is about as far as these stories go for me: vignettes of a place or a character. For the rest, they simply confirmed my prejudices: a couple of very obvious twists, although one did generate a rather wry smile, more of recognition that I'd got it right than feeling of resolution it has to be said, the rest that all too familar end-of-short-story query, which of course may be down to my inability to actually follow what's going on. It didn't help though that, on top of this, they were (as the summaries above may have already indicated) unremittingly sour, with not a cheerful word uttered or thought felt. Talk about grim! It was, I have to say, with a huge sigh of relief that I put the book down after the last, eponymous, story (rather more pointless and tame than I expected after all the hooha over it) and thanked goodness that it was a relatively short volume.

 

I was going to give this one star as I really didn't like it, but then there is the quality of Mantel's writing, and there are my prejudices. I'm torn, but in the meantime, I'll give it the benefit of the doubt and add a second. After all, as my students all too often say without really thinking about the problem, maybe I just "didn't get it".

 

Now to go back to some books I want to read!

Edited by willoyd

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I hope your next book will be more enjoyable, Willoyd. I understand what you mean about the short stories, I have had the same experiences too with some of them. There are good ones out there (depending on one's taste for certain genres), but also some that might not be so enjoyable to everyone. I did enjoy reading your review though, if that makes you feel better.

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I have similar thoughts on short stories - the only ones I've ever really enjoyed are Sherlock Holmes, and his character and place are already long established.

 

I did enjoy Stephen King's Different Seasons, but they are the longest "short stories" I've ever seen! It's a very difficult skill to draw the reader in with well-developed characters while having some semblance of plot in such a short time IMO.

 

I have Wolf Hall on my TBR but for some reason keep putting it off.

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I did enjoy reading your review though, if that makes you feel better.

It did, thank you! It is good for me though to occasionally read books I wouldn't otherwise read, not least for the occasional discoveries, which are all the more enjoyable for being unexpected. Even if this just confirmed my feelings, it will have done good for all that. I do enjoy the discussions we have too, as there's usually a good range of opinion, which makes it all thoroughly worthwhile and rewarding.

 

 

I have similar thoughts on short stories - the only ones I've ever really enjoyed are Sherlock Holmes, and his character and place are already long established.

 

Yes, Sherlock Holmes is very much the exception that proves the rule! I love those stories - but then they are perhaps more like episodes within a longer running 'story'. Similarly the likes of the Agatha Christie short stories around Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple. Or maybe crime better lends itself to this format than other genres?

 

I have Wolf Hall on my TBR but for some reason keep putting it off.

 

Well it is rather daunting, isn't it?! I've been promising myself to read quite a few other chunky books for some time and have never quite got around to them: my son read Les Miserables a couple of years ago, has raved about it to me, but I've never managed to bring myself to sit down and get on with it. Equally, Don Quixote still resides on my TBR shelf, as do several highly readable but big history books. I think we all have our blind spots - I'm intending to tackle a few of them this year (hopefully!!).  FWIW, I recommend Wolf Hall thoroughly - just as long as you get comfortable with Mantel using the word 'he' to refer to Thomas Cromwell all the time; some have find that awkward and a bit putting off, but I barely noticed it.  I should really get stuck into  Bring Up The Bodies though;  can't think why I've never gone on to it.

Edited by willoyd

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US States Challenge

 

I've decided to add a new challenge this year on to those I'm already doing. This may seem a little foolish given that I've got several on the go already, but I'm not in a rush with any of them, and I do enjoy ticking things off a list, however slowly. I'm not even that bothered about completing them, as I enjoy the focus they provide.

 

However, I was browsing back through previous posts, and came across an exchange I had with Julie (who I don't think we've heard from for a while, which is a real pity), about American literature, and about my rather negative views on it (not that I thought it poor, far from it, just that I personally didn't find that much I enjoyed). Well, time moves on, and it struck me whilst reading this that I've been enjoying rather more American writing since, but that I still really don't read that much, being substantially European orientated.

 

So, I though something to encourage me to read more American books wouldn't come amiss.....and I remembered that around that time, Julie had also highlighted one list: the 'best' book from each American state, which she'd made a challenge list for herself. Thanks to various people's help, I've now found that list (here). For various reasons, not least that there were one or two authors on it that I really, really didn't want to read again (eg John Grisham!), I have tweaked it, but it remains a list with one well known, usually famous, book from each state (51, to include Washington DC). I've tried to keep it at no more than one book per author, but theres always rules that prove exceptions, so Barbara Kingsolver and John Updike do feature twice each).  It does look an intriguing list, and, as I've only read 5 of the books, there's plenty to go at. I've added the list to my various TBR and challenge posts at the start of this thread, but, FWIW, this is the list as it currently stands:

 

01. To Kill a Mockingbird- Harper Lee (Alabama) ******

02. White Fang - Jack London (Alaska)

03. The Bean Trees - Barbara Kingsolver (Arizona)

04. True Grit - Charles Portis (Arkansas)

05. East of Eden - John Steinbeck (California)

06. Plainsong - Kent Haruf (Colorado)

07. Revolutionary Road - Richard Yates (Connecticut)

08. The Saint of Lost Things - Christopher Castellani (Delaware)

09. To Have and Have Not - Ernest Hemingway (Florida)

10. Gone With the Wind - Margaret Mitchell (Georgia)

11. From Here To Eternity - James Jones (Hawaii)

12. Housekeeping - Marilynne Robinson (Idaho)

13. The Adventures of Augie March - Saul Bellow (Illinois)

14. The Magnificent Ambersons - Booth Tarkington (Indiana)

15. A Thousand Acres - Jane Smiley (Iowa) ******

16. In Cold Blood - Truman Capote (Kansas)

17. Uncle Tom's Cabin - Harriet Beecher Stowe (Kentucky)

18: Interview with the Vampire - Anne Rice (Louisiana)

19. The Cider House Rules - John Irving (Maine)

20. Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant - Anne Tyler (Maryland)

21: Walden - Henry David Thoreau (Massachusetts)

22. Middlesex - Jeffrey Eugenides (Michigan) ****

23. Main Street - Sinclair Lewis (Minnesota)

24. As I Lay Dying - William Faulkner (Mississippi)

25. The Adventures of Tom Sawyer - Mark Twain (Missouri) ****

26. A River Runs Through It - Norman Maclean (Montana)

27. My Antonia - Willa Cather (Nebraska)

28: Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas - Hunter S. Thompson (Nevada)

29. Peyton Place - Grace Metalious (New Hampshire)

30. Independence Day - Richard Ford (New Jersey)

31. Red Sky at Morning - Richard Bradford (New Mexico)

32. The Great Gatsby - F.Scott Fitzgerald (New York) **

33. Cold Mountain - Charles Frazier (North Carolina)

34. The Round House - Louise Eldrich (North Dakota)

35. The Broom of the System - David Foster Wallace (Ohio)

36. Paradise - Toni Morrison (Oklahoma)

37. One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest - Ken Kesey (Oregon)

38. Rabbit, Run - John Updike (Pennsylvania)

39. The Witches of Eastwick - John Updike (Rhode Island)

40. The Secret Life of Bees - Sue Monk Kidd (South Carolina)

41. Welcome to Hard Times - EL Doctorow (South Dakota)

42. A Death in the Family - James Agee (Tennessee)

43. No Country for Old Men - Cormac McCarthy (Texas)

44. The 19th Wife - David Ebershoff (Utah)

45. Pollyanna - Eleanor H. Porter (Vermont)

46. Prodigal Summer - Barbara Kingsolver (Virginia)

47. Snow Falling on Cedars- David Guterson (Washington)

48. Washington DC - Gore Vidal (Washington DC)

49. Shiloh - Phillis Reynolds Naylor (West Virginia)

50. The Art of Fielding - Chad Harbach (Wisconsin)

51. Close Range: Wyoming Stories - E. Annie Proulx (Wyoming)

Edited by willoyd

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I think, just simply based on what you read, you will have a good time with part of this challenge.  I don't know if you will like Barbara Kingsolver or not, The Bean Trees is older YA, Prodigal Summer I have listed to read in February and is not YA.  I think you might enjoy White Fang, In Cold Blood and Uncle Tom's Cabin.  Interview with a Vampire is another interesting notation on the list, I'll be interested to hear what you think about that one.  And of course, you can't go wrong with Gone With the Wind, my favorite book ever :)  Good Luck, I hope you enjoy some US literature!

 

Edit: This might be a good one for me :)

Edited by Anna Begins

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Nice list, Willoyd! I haven't read most of the books on the list, but I did read To Kill a Mockingbird and In Cold Blood for my English class. I liked both of those. I also liked Interview with the Vampire but I don't know if that will be your sort of thing or not. I wish you lots of good reading with this challenge :).

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Thanks for both your comments.  Yes, there are definitely one or two I'm not sure about, but that's half the fun of these - and it'll be good for me (which is part of the point!).  Anna - I enjoyed Poisonwood Bible a lot, so I'm optimistic about the Kingsolver books.  And of course you can 'steal' the challenge - most of it is not mine anyway, but taken from that Business Insider list that Julie found.  I just tweaked it a bit.  Half the point of posting things like that is to give each other ideas anyway, isn't it?  Hope you have fun with it too.

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I know I said that I was going to make a real effort to keep book acquisition down this year, but I forgot to factor in attractive sales and deals!  The Folio Society are currently running their New Year Sale, and, coupled with various other discounts offered, book prices (they are very attractive books!) have been horribly tempting.......and I've succumbed!!  As a result, my FS collection has been bolstered with:

 

Herzog by Saul Bellow

The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories by Angela Carter

As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner

The Chrysalids, The Midwich Cuckoos, The Day of the Triffids by John Wyndham

The War of the End of the World by Maria Vargas Llosa

 

I'd better get reading......!

Edited by willoyd

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Your US states challenge looks very intriguing. I've only read a very few on that list - despite being obsessed with the country!

 

Well, travelling it at any rate.

 

I really shouldn't add more challenges.... But I've already made a note of the list! Like you I enjoy ticking things off. Even challenges I'm not actively pursuing, eg the Rory Gilmore list, I scan every so often and tick the new reads off.

 

It's a sickness.

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Willoyd, I hope you enjoy your new books :). I haven't read any of them but I think two of the John Wyndham books are on my wishlist.

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I really shouldn't add more challenges.... But I've already made a note of the list! Like you I enjoy ticking things off. Even challenges I'm not actively pursuing, eg the Rory Gilmore list, I scan every so often and tick the new reads off.

 

It's a sickness.

 

Agreed!  BTW, what is the Rory Gilmore list?  I've not been able to work out how it works, or what it's about.

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The Gilmore Girls was a TV show, featuring teenage heroine Rory Gilmore, who was a big bookworm. Someone with way more time than me (!) created a few lists of all the books mentioned on the show.

 

I had about 3 different lists but Kylie kindly sent me a master list collating them all.

 

Im not actively doing that one, I just look it at about once every six months to see if I've read any more of them. Once I have a list, I like to tick!

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Anna - I enjoyed Poisonwood Bible a lot, so I'm optimistic about the Kingsolver books.  And of course you can 'steal' the challenge - most of it is not mine anyway, but taken from that Business Insider list that Julie found.  I just tweaked it a bit.  Half the point of posting things like that is to give each other ideas anyway, isn't it?  Hope you have fun with it too.

Thanks!  I have a few already ticked off!  I've never had a challenge before :)

 

I love the way Kingsolver paints the setting of her novels.  She describes them well, so her Prodigal Summer about southern Appalachia interests me.  I liked The Poisonwood Bible though and all of hers that I have read, actually!

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Ragtime by EL Doctorow ****

The search for the 'Great American Novel' seems to hae been going on for years, and there is a fairly extensive list of books for whom the claim has been laid, but few which truly deserve consideration. IMO, Ragtime is one of the few.

Set in the early years of the twentieth century, the novel focuses on three families whose paths become variously intertwined by events. At the same time, the author weaves in the timeline of a number of historically real characters, sometimes to the extent where one doesn't know where reality finishes and fiction starts (or is it fiction ends and reality commences?!). The effect is a brighly woven picture of a world that has long ceased to exist, but which sucks you in to a narrative even if it neither really gets going until around one-third of the way through the book nor feels 100% credible.  However, it is a narrative that one never quite gets around to disbelieving.

I loved all the interweaving, I loved the way the book bounced along, the lively story thread, the picture painted. Ragtime only some 280-odd pages long, but has enough energy and 'body' for many a novel twice or more its length.  It is not perfect by any means, but is one that I will remember for good reasons.

Edited by willoyd

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Glad you enjoyed Ragtime! :smile2: I read it for a uni (American) fiction course years ago. I don't remember much about it, as it's been so long, and I don't really know if I'd gotten all the great stuff in it, had we not gone through different sorts of things happening in the novel during the course. The way our professor talked about it, the novel's stayed with me all these years. I've been thinking about re-reading it for some years now! 

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Yes, Ragtime strikes me as a book that would benefit from being 'studied'. I'm sure I missed tons by 'just' reading it as a novel. What a good choice as a course book!

Edited by willoyd

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Us by David Nicholls - a non-review!

This month's choice for my reading group is Us by David Nicholls. I picked this up very reluctantly, having tried both Starter for Ten (an earlier reading group choice) and One Day, and tried to bury myself in it. Within minutes (seconds?) I knew this wasn't going to happen, and barely twenty to thirty pages in I'm mentally screaming "I really don't want to read this"; a few minutes later I flicked through an to the end of the book, which confirmed that I definitely didn't want to read it!

 

So, why a non-review? Why not just a one-star grading and the usual sort of comments. Well, I have a problem, because, frankly, I simply can't put my finger on why I so dislike David Nicholls's book so intensely, and any review is liable to be grossly unfair on the writer. My dislike is not founded on any rational analysis, although there are aspects of his writing and his characters that I don't particularly rate, it's far more fundamental, far more instinctive, than that. Just like you can instinctively dislike somebody almost before you start talking to them, I felt and feel the same about these books and, in particular, the lead characters.

 

Much of this is true about other books - are any of our reviews 'rational'? Most of our likes and dislikes are based on instinctive reactions, which is why reviews are often so hard to write - trying to encapsulate our feelings isn't always easy. But for some reason, David Nicholls's books exist right on the extreme end of the spectrum, where my reaction is so instinctive, so strong, that I find it almost impossible to find a way past it, and give the book a fair chance. Indeed, I almost don't want to give it a fair chance, I just don't want to read it, or, at least, read about Douglas Petersen.

 

So - no review, but I definitely won't be trying again!

Edited by willoyd

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I think he wrote Long Way Down? If so, I gave up on that after 100 pages as I hated the horrible shallow characters and couldn't care less what happened to them. Your non-review has made my mind up definitely not to try another! :)

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I think he wrote Long Way Down? If so, I gave up on that after 100 pages as I hated the horrible shallow characters and couldn't care less what happened to them. Your non-review has made my mind up definitely not to try another! :)

The more I think about, and discussed it with OH, it does come down to the characters: I just haven't come across a single character in David Nicholls's books who I either care for or am interested in. Maybe that's the problem.

 

Having said that, Long Way Down was written by Nick Hornby (another writer whom I am not a particular fan of either, but don't feel as strongly about as David Nicholls!).

Edited by willoyd

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I've only read one David Nicholls book - One Day - and I enjoyed it. Nick Hornby on the other hand.....can't stand anything he's written. Just ugh!

 

I wonder if you picked up a David Nicholls book, without knowing it was a David Nicholls book (ie. an unpublished manuscript with no author details), would you still hate it from page one? Because I've only read one of his books, I don't know if he has a certain writing style or only writes a particular genre, and that's what you hate?

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I've only read one David Nicholls book - One Day - and I enjoyed it. Nick Hornby on the other hand.....can't stand anything he's written. Just ugh!

 

I wonder if you picked up a David Nicholls book, without knowing it was a David Nicholls book (ie. an unpublished manuscript with no author details), would you still hate it from page one? Because I've only read one of his books, I don't know if he has a certain writing style or only writes a particular genre, and that's what you hate?

 

 

That's a good point, and one of the reasons why I wrote a 'non-review' - I wanted to make it clear that this may just be down to my prejudices.  Having said that, I disliked Starter for Ten intensely almost from page 1 (my first Nicholls).  That makes me  agree, that a strong part of it may well be a dislike for the genre.  It's certainly a dislike of the characters he chooses to write about: I felt the same about Gone Girl, The Dinner (an extreme case) and one or two others, where I find them completely unsympathetic in that I neither care for any of them, nor find them interesting.  All in all, probably says more about me than about the author.

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