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Willoyd's Reading 2016

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Germany, Memories of a Nation by Neil Macgregor ******

 

I remember being glued to the Radio 4 series, A History of the World in One Hundred Objects, when Neil Macgregor, erstwhile Director of the British Museum, kept me entranced with his straightforward, beautifully balanced short discourses on such a massively wide ranging series of subjects - I still listen and relisten to the podcasts. For some reason I missed both his later series on Germany, and the British Museum exhibition accompanying it, much to my chagrin, as Germany is a country I find especially fascinating, and one we visit regularly. Buying the book when it came out in hardback was a no-brainer, but then I never got around to reading it.....!!

 

This summer we are off on a three week cycling tour of Northern Germany, including my first visit to Berlin, and I was starting to do my usual reading around and browsing. Germany, Memories of a Nation extruded itself from the history bookshelves and landed comfortably on my lap. It's a big book (well over 500 pages), but very attractive, being well endowed with colour illustrations embedded in the text, illustrations that I soon found were directly and immediately relevant to the text - what a joy to read a book where care had been taken to match both parts so closely to work together, rather than rummaging through to separated blocks of illustrations. (BTW, the recently published paperback version has most of them in black and white. OK, but this is one of those occasions where the hardback version is vastly superior, and well worth the difference. The Kindle version does its best, but it's a pale runt in the collective nest).

 

From the start, the author states his case that Germany is different. Whereas countries like Britain and France have a fairly unified, continuous, line of history, Germany really only came together in the nineteenth century. Prior to this it was a veritable melange of small, sometimes tiny, states, rather loosely gathered together under the title Holy Roman Empire (although Macgregor does argue that the old adage that the HRE was not Holy, Roman or an Empire is not in fact true), and even since then, it has been subject to disruption - rather above the average! The history, the identity, of Germany is therefore one based on something rather different than the traditional continuous narrative. Rather it is made up of a collective set of memories, landmarks, ideas that pulled together help to define this contradictory, complex nation. Macgregor also maintains that Germany, at least in western Europe, is unique in that its history is very much a tool for thinking to the future: if ever a country has used, or is using, its history to inform its forward thinking, it's Germany. This book is an examination of those threads and how they are used to contribute to that thinking.

 

I've read a number of more traditional histories of Germany, examining all or part of the German narrative, but nothing quite matches Neil Macgregor's brilliant book. In the same incisive manner with which he took on the history of the world, he homes in on each of the topics he has chosen and uses it to clearly explain its relevance and role in the story of Germany. Whilst it is effectively a series of individual essays, just as A History of the World was, he puts them into a framework that ensures they contribute to a coherent whole, and his writing is so addictive that it was hard to break off at the end of one essay before diving straight into the next. In his capable hands, German history not only became clearer and vastly more understandable than I'd found previously, but it came thoroughly alive.

 

It also made me think very hard about our own relationship with Germany, an ambivalent one if ever there was. My own experiences in the country (and I've now visited it a dozen or more times in the past couple of decades) have never been anything but positive. I have also been impressed as to generally how Germany has accepted its (maybe now not so) recent history and used it to try and move forward: there is a huge amount we could learn from them. Instead, tucked away in our offshore state, we allow ourselves to get bogged down in our past, with many regarding Germany with utter distrust (reading the comments on a BBC thread on Boris Johnston's own recent ill-informed comments was a particularly depressing moment).

 

In summary then, Neil Macgregor's book went beyond the realms of simply a good, informative, read, being utterly unputdownable, and thought-provoking, as well as beautifully produced - an instance of publishers doing a book justice (at least in hardback). I loved every second if it, and was genuinely disappointed when I reached the end, not least because this sort of book is so difficult to follow! In fact, I went back and read several of the essays again, and will continue to do so. It is, indeed, a book that many would do well to read, providing not just a history but thoughtful analysis of a country that should now be one of our closest neighbours and partners.  An instant six-star book - only the thirty-second non-fiction book to achieve that level - and one that goes near to the top of even that pile.

Edited by willoyd

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The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole, Aged 13 3/4 by Sue Townsend **

 

I read this as part of the English Counties Challenge, it being the Leicestershire selection. It came with a reputation for being a classic of humorous writing, dating from the early 80s. The plot needs little introduction: the diary of a teenage boy, geekish, seeing the world through his eyes, with all the accompanying priorities (spots!), angst, and misperceptions.

 

It's a fairly short, quick read, less than 200 pages. This was a distinct blessing, as even over this relatively short distance, the central joke of Adrian's life, his Pooterish failure to grasp what's really going on, steadily palls. The first time he misreads the situation it's mildly amusing (I can't say I found any of it funny - certainly not enough to raise more than a smile), the next time less so, the umpteenth time it's just repetitive and obvious.

 

An additional problem with the book is that it now feels very dated. This is a slightly odd thing, because all books with a contemporary setting effectively date, reflecting the times in which they are written (Dickens, for instance, cannot be anything other than a Victorian writer). What makes them last is if they have something worthwhile to say about their own time, or something that goes beyond the time constraints to which the reader can relate. In theory, Secret Diary should do this - teenage angst, for instance, is as relevant today as it was 30 years ago. And yet, there is something of this book that buries it in that era to the extent that, at least for me, it simply doesn't relate. Whereas I can well remember the local street party to celebrate Charles and Diana's wedding (now that dates it!), I just don't feel any affinity with the event itself. Maybe it's too far away to feel contemporary, yet still too close to be 'historical'?

 

Or maybe, and perhaps more likely, I simply don't relate to the humour, which is largely the sort of cringe-making style that programmes such as The Office fed off (and, guess what?, I find Ricky Gervais seriously unfunny). After all, I described Adrian as Pooterish, and The Diary of a Nobody was a book that I couldn't abide.

 

Whatever the reason, this is, so far, the book in the English Counties Challenge which I have disliked the most. And, whilst it may indeed be set in Leicester, the setting is pretty much irrelevant - it could be any suburban area. All in all, I was wondering whether to give it one star, but it may have just scrambled two.

Edited by willoyd

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The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories by Angela Carter *****
 
I'm not normally a fan of short stories, but was attracted to these firstly by the theme - retelling of fairy stories - and secondly by the author, through both her reputation and having thoroughly enjoyed her book The Magic Toyshop.

Sometimes you need to give the writer some time to get under your skin, for a book to grow on you. Others, it hits you instantaneously. The Bloody Chamber sits firmly in the second category, grabbing me from the very first sentence:

I remember how, that night, I lay awake in the wagon-lit in a tender, delicious ecstasy of excitement, my burning cheek pressed against the impeccable linen of the pillow, and the pounding of my heart mimicking that of the great pistons ceaselessly thrusting the train that bore me through the night, away from Paris, away from girlhood, away from the white, enclosed quietude of my mother's apartment, into the unguessable country of marriage. Phew!

From then on, it doesn't stop, Carter's language rolling over you, immersing you in a semi-surrealistic, marginal shadow-world, intense with colour, texture and emotion. These have to be amongst the most vivid short stories I've ever read - and thoroughly disturbing, almost erotically, certainly dangerously, so. They may have only been short, but I reached the end of each of them urgently needing a break, at least a brief respite, before plunging back into the maelstrom they each create. I was quite relieved when I came to Puss-in-Boots, where the emotional temperature completely changes, and we see the wicked humour that fairy tales can also engender.

The Bloody Chamber is a very slim book - less than 150 pages - and one I stormed through in barely a day (I needed respite, but it was unputdownable for any length of time). It's not entirely even, I couldn't for instance make head nor tail of The Erl-King, but her top notes are way beyond the range of many modern writers, and showed what great short story writing can achieve in the hands of a master (mistress?), even without any understanding of the symbolism and subtexts that many reviewers refer to (I can't make head nor tail of some of the reviews either!).  I did, though, love the way her female characters, so often diminised in traditionally told stories, take centre stage and grasp the narrative for themselves. I definitely need to try more of her work. I will certainly never be able to read or listen to some of those tales' more conventional tellings in quite the same way again!

Edited by willoyd

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Glad you enjoyed The Bloody Chamber. Recently read it myself and was really underwhelmed - I agree the writing was absolutely stunning, but I found some of the stories awfully repetitive or dull. Wolves everywhere. The Beauty and the Beast one had less depth than the Disney movie, I thought! I can be a bit of a cretin when it comes to good literature though, so I'm likely wrong!

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I'm now very intrigued by The Bloody Chamber following those two posts!

 

Sorry you didn't enjoy Adrian Mole - I loved my rereading of it (rather typically, a few months before we decided on the challenge! I can't decide whether to read the next in the series or something else entirely for Leicestershire). 

 

But then I first read it, and the sequel, The Growing Pains of Adrian Mole, as a teenager. I also hate The Office, and although I wouldn't say Adrian is laugh out loud funny, I I do think it's entertaining read. 

 

I'm currently battling through The Well of Loneliness, which I think you said was a slog and depressing. There we entirely agree! I'm reading other things alongside it. 

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Sorry you didn't enjoy Adrian Mole - I loved my rereading of it.... But then I first read it, and the sequel, The Growing Pains of Adrian Mole, as a teenager. I also hate The Office, and although I wouldn't say Adrian is laugh out loud funny, I I do think it's entertaining read.

I think that just goes to underline that, maybe more than most things, humour is deeply specific, both individually and chronologically; there are many things I found very funny twenty or more years ago that barely raise a smile nowadays, and vice-versa. As I've said before on these pages, I don't get much of my humour from books - very little in fact - or indeed TV or cinema (with a few exceptions: Victoria Wood, Dad's Army and Big Bang Theory for three!); I get much more from radio and theatre. Having said all that, I've had at least a couple of laugh out loud moments with my current book (Evelina), so it's not all doom and gloom!

 

 

I'm currently battling through The Well of Loneliness, which I think you said was a slog and depressing. There we entirely agree! I'm reading other things alongside it.

Even with reading distractions, I didn't manage to get through all of it, skim reading the last hundred pages. Good luck!

Edited by willoyd

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Glad you enjoyed The Bloody Chamber. Recently read it myself and was really underwhelmed - I agree the writing was absolutely stunning, but I found some of the stories awfully repetitive or dull. Wolves everywhere. The Beauty and the Beast one had less depth than the Disney movie, I thought! I can be a bit of a cretin when it comes to good literature though, so I'm likely wrong!

 

I think there's more to The Courtship of Mr Lyon than in Disney.  I was certainly struck by the fact that whilst it starts off in the traditional way, with Beauty as ultra-feminine and the Beast as ultra-masculine, there's a change in the story after Beauty leaves for the city, where Beauty gets (in traditional terms) harder and more masculine whilst Beast shows a more feminine side, reflecting the environments they are living in.  I don't think it's a coincidence either that this story follows on from The Bloody Chamber: two male characters, both outwardly 'beastly', but with very different internal characters.  Mr Lyon is then succeeded by Tiger Bride, where the transformation is different again: rather than Beauty changing the Beast, the Beast changes Beauty.

 

I'm sure there's a lot more to these than that, and I'm probably missing a lot too - but those are what struck me immediately as I read them.  It seems that quite a few of these stories set out on similar lines to the originals, but start to diverge, producing in some cases some similar, but subtly different, results, and not always predictably so.

Edited by willoyd

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Admittedly, gender, gender roles and traditional gender stereotypes are not something I really notice much in classic or contemporary literature. I've rarely read any book or watched any film and though about whether there were strong or weak female characters, and I've read a lot of feminist responses to the empowerment of females in The Bloody Chamber etc, but as it's not something I tend to really pick up on I think there's a really significant layer that just went totally over my head.

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So much for my cutting back on buying books: hit Waterstones today, using stamp and points cards up, and came away with 6 paperbacks, making 61 reading books bought so far this year. Trouble is, I've 'only' read 31 books this year (which is, in fact, a record to the end of May, and still a week to go), making me some 30 books in deficit.

Anyway, the volumes bought were:
Who Needs Mr Darcy? - Jean Burnett (pb)
The Driver's Seat - Muriel Spark (pb)
The Stone Diaries - Carol Shields (pb)
The Scarlet Letter - Nathaniel Hawthorne (pb)
Another World - Pat Barker (pb)
Gone to Ground - Marie Jalowicz Simon (pb)
The Poet's Tale - Paul Strohm (pb)

 

plus on-line

The Stars Look Down - AJ Cronin (eb)

The Shields and Hawthorne are for my US Challenge read, and the Barker and Cronin for the English Counties.

Edited by willoyd

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A spurt of reading means that my reviews are in danger of running away from me, so a few short sets of notes to help catch up:

 

Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf   ******

This was a reread and my alternative choice for Greater London in the English Counties challenge; much as I love Sherlock Holmes, I didn't really want to read that again, and for me there had to be at least one Woolf book on the list!  This is the third time I've read it in the last five years, and each time I've found more in it.  This time, given the context, I found Woolf's development of setting through her stream of consciousness style really convincing - it eminently suits the  constantly changing environment of the busy city.  The instant changes in viewpoint also worked really well, something that would (unlike stream of consciousness) work well on film.  Mrs Dalloway comfortably retains its six star rating; indeed, even more securely than before. 

 

A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman *

Someone who should have known better suggested I might like this; they obviously don't know me very well.  Repetitive, self-contradictory, sterotyped, obvious.  it also really niggled me as to how he was meant to be middle-aged but written as if he was old.  Stuck it out for just over a hundred pages, then sense prevailed.  A challenger for Duffer of the Year.  I'm still wondering why I gave it two stars rather than one - may change that. 

 

Later edit: did just that - definitely only a 1-star read.

 

The Running Hare by John Lewis-Stempel  *****

Beautifully written account of a year turning a field in the midst of barren agribusiness in Herefordshire back to traditional farming methods, and the dramatic and immediate effect it had on the wildlife.  I'd have enjoyed it even more if the quotes had been less chunky - I sometimes wondered who was meant to be the writer, which was a pity as I usually preferred the author's own words.  A message of hope before it's too late - but we must be on the cusp in some places. 

 

Year of Wonders by Geraldine Brooks  ****

A gripping fictionalised account of the plague village of Eyam and what happened when they put themselves into self-imposed quarantine when the plague struck.  Read it in double quick time.  Utterly convincing when the stress begins to tell, and thoroughly evocative of the Peak District, making it an excellent choice as the Derbyshire selection for the English Counties list.

 

Kestrel for a Knave - Barry Hines  ***

Can't be faulted in terms of quality of writing, but found the content  thoroughly depressing; no sentimentalisation here, and probably all too true to life. Glad I read it, appreciated it, but can't say I enjoyed it very much.  Will be interested to see how it translates into a play next week.

Edited by willoyd

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I hope you enjoy all your new books :).

 

How interesting, you read one 6-star, one 5-star, one 4-star, one 3-star and one 2-star book! I hope your next read won't be 1 star!

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I hope you enjoy all your new books :).

 

How interesting, you read one 6-star, one 5-star, one 4-star, one 3-star and one 2-star book! I hope your next read won't be 1 star!

 

Thank you - I must make sure I get around to them quickly.  I've only read a bare quarter of the books bought so far this year.

 

Good spot on the grades.  The more I think about it, the more inclined I am to downgrade Ove - I really was being too kind giving it 2 stars.  On the other hand, I'm currently reading Evelina which is definitely not a one-star read.

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You're the only person I've come across who doesn't like Ove - I haven't read it yet. I don't feel particularly inclined to. Year Of Wonders is one I think I put on a wishlist many moons ago and forgot about - glad you enjoyed it, I must get to it soon.

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You're the only person I've come across who doesn't like Ove - I haven't read it yet. I don't feel particularly inclined to.

Dislikers will always be in a minority: other than those reading a book for a challenge or a book group, most will get weeded out at the blurb stage or even earlier.  I would have been, but kept with it because somebody (who I thought knew me better) suggested it.  I'll know better next time!

 

Having said that, there are others, even if we're in a small minority:  one and two star reviews on Amazon.co.uk are running at around 4% of the reviews and in America at around 3%.   Not many, but I certainly don't feel on my own, and I'm used to being in a minority on this sort of thing.  After all, how many read and enjoy the classics nowadays? Having said that, I am surprised that there aren't more dissenters - even Gone Girl got a 15% dissension rate.  But then there is the feel-good factor.....

Edited by willoyd

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Finished Evelina yesterday, a four star read, quite different to the usual classic novel - review to follow.  Started reading Exotic England by Yasmin Alibhai-Brown for next week's reading group.  No idea about this one - a bit out of the blue and very different to our usual selections (although they are very varied).

 

I've, unusually, been reading another book in the background to the others recently listed: Stephen Fry in America, the tie-in book to the TV series he presented a few years ago, and one I've been meaning to read for a while.  I'd have probably never got around to it, but I needed "a book written by a comedian" for my year-long challenge, and it was a toss-up between this and Ben Armstrong's It's Not Rocket Science.  As I'm starting the US States list (well, started, but focusing a bit more on other challenges for the moment), it looked like a good introduction to the list.  Felt a bit bitty to start with, but I'm just over a hundred pages in now, and the cumulative effect is very different, with it turning into an interesting, if fairly lightweight, portrait.  Keen to revisit the TV series now though as I suspect some of it will come over stronger on the screen, which is after all what it was originally designed for.  In the meantime, it fits in nicely with my other reading, as it is fairly light, and in neatly short chapters, good for bedtime perousal when my other current reading material needs me more awake!

Edited by willoyd

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Evelina by Fanny Burney ****

Evelina was first published in 1778, so goes down as one of the earliest novels I've read, preceding even Jane Austen. It's the story of a young woman's entree into fashionable (and not-so fashionable!) society, writtten by a woman who was at the heart of the London scene, as well as later serving some time as lady-in-waiting to Queen Charlotte (a role that effectively removed her from that life, much to her regret). Burney is probably best known for her diaries, but her three novels, of which this is the earliest and the best known, have still managed to last the distance - no mean feat.

 

In epistolary style, mostly from the pen of the heroine herself, it is the story of Evelina Anville, the ward of the Reverend Arthur Villars, her dead mother having been unjustly disowned by her libertine husband, Sir John Belmont, who continues to deny the existence of his daughter. She goes to stay with friends, who, in spite of the Reverend's misgivings, gradually introduce her to the pleasures of London society. She is also discovered by her grandmother, the disreputable Madame Duval, who attempts to claim her and wants to whisk her off to Paris - the very thing that Evelina's guardian was most afraid of. The rest of the novel is about what happens next....!

 

Originally published in three volumes, the book is essentially set in three different places: fashionable London, down-at-heel London, and the spa town of Hotwells, i.e. Bristol. It's essentially a series of adventures, through which Evelina wends her way, encountering all sorts of social and more dangerous hazards, dealing with a wide range of characters, of which by far the most entertaining are inevitably the villains, in search of happiness, and perhaps even her birthright.

 

Given my previous experience of books this age, I was expecting to find this a fairly challenging read, having found others of the same period relatively hard going, but it was quickly easy to see why Burney is regularly compared to Jane Austen. She may not have quite the same bite, facility, or economy of the younger author, but the relationship is clarly visible, and she is certainly as easily readable. Burney is a bit rougher, readier, less subtle in her humour, maybe more a cross between Austen and Henry Fielding than Austen on her own.

 

What I particularly enjoyed though was the insight into eighteenth century society, or at least the society that Fanny Burney knew, as Evelina experiences all the social highlights, and quite a few of the lower bits as well. This was aided by the extensive footnotes in the Oxford World Classics edition that I read, which certainly helped fill in various holes in my knowledge of the London and social history of the time. I was also intrigued by the number of words which were cited as appearing for the first or second time in print in Evelina - it felt quite groundbreaking.

 

Historical interest aside, Evelina is still a worthwhile, enjoyable and relaxed, in places comedic, read. It's easy to see why it has sustained sufficient interest to have remained in print, and why it's of particular interest in feminist studies, particularly when contrasting Evelina with the likes of Richardson's and other contemporary female characters. Again, one can see the links with Austen. So, whilst it's not on the original English Counties list, being my alternative to the main Bristol selection, The Misses Mallet, it's still another addition to the growing roll-call of good books on the list.

Edited by willoyd

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It's not entirely even, I couldn't for instance make head nor tail of The Erl-King

 

I know I'm a bit late with this but The Erl-King was the story I didn't completely get either...

 

 

I got that the caged birds were women and she was going to be next so she had to kill him or give up her own life (which really reminded me of the Jane Eyre 'I am no bird and no net ensnares me' thing) but I do not understand the fiddle. Why does it keep playing after he's dead? And why on earth was it strung with hair??

 

 

The Tiger Bride was probably my favourite, I really liked the ending  :smile:

 

I was completely traumatised by the film version of Kestrel for a Knave (I think it might be called Kes) as a child and I'm guessing from your review that not much changes in the book so I am definitely not reading that!

 

I really liked The Scarlet Letter though so I'll be interested to see what you think of that when you get round to it  :smile:

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I know I'm a bit late with this but The Erl-King was the story I didn't completely get either...

 

 

I'll have to reread it now!

 

 

I was completely traumatised by the film version of Kestrel for a Knave (I think it might be called Kes) as a child and I'm guessing from your review that not much changes in the book so I am definitely not reading that!

The same thing happened to me with Lord of the Flies - completely traumatised by being read it in school as a child. In both cases, I think the mistake was to think that the book/film was for children simply because it was written about children. The one doesn't necessarily follow the other by any means! (I did, however, reread and enjoy LOTF a couple of years ago).

 

 

I really liked The Scarlet Letter though so I'll be interested to see what you think of that when you get round to it  :smile:

Am holding fire for the next couple of months on US books as I've got some others I need to read first, but am champing at the bit to get going properly!

Edited by willoyd

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Exotic England by Yasmin Alibhai-Brown **

 

Exotic England is this month's choice for my book group. In it, the author, a first generation Ugandan Asian immigrant, explores the history of 'exotic England', i.e. the England influenced by (primarily) Asia and Africa, both through those influences arriving on these shores, and through the English going abroad and bringing those influences back with them. Alibhai-Brown's main tenet is that these influences have been far greater than the English have generally recognised, something that we may benefit from recognising at a time when issues of migration, racism etc are so high on the public agenda.

 

Yasmin Alibhai-Brown has obviously done a lot of research for this: the list of influences is extensive to the very least. She cites numerous examples, many of which provide fascinating vignettes of English history. They don't always make comfortable reading - England has plenty of blemishes, or worse, in its history, but it's interesting to read that, even with all its faults, England still has a reputation of being more welcoming than most other destinations.

 

However, it's the sheer extent of this research that is also the downfall of the book for, once having explained the main thrust of her arguments, the rest of the book is effectively just a catalogue of examples, and, however many examples she comes up with, they simply remain anecdotal as evidence. Even with a bookful of exotic instances, the number that she can itemise is still a mere drop in the ocean. Lumped all together, when one considers the timespan they cover, there is still no real weight to the author's arguments, however true her assertions might be (and they might be, for all I know). Instead, after one has ploughed through page after page of the anecdotes, however interesting they may be (and plenty are) it all begins to read like a list, and lists are rarely of more than little interest at best; the whole book begins to distinctly pall.

 

For this book to work, there needed to be a much greater depth to the arguments: for instance, very, very occasionally, we get some statistical support, but there needs to be much more, properly cited. Nowhere is there any real analysis; all we have is a list of individual, and largely independent, instances but little else. One can't draw any significant conclusions from a few pieces of evidence - there needs to be so much more, and I don't mean just more individual instances.

 

So, overall, not a great hit, and one that doesn't merit much more than 2 stars out of a possible 6. In summary, I enjoyed and/or found individual stories interesting, but a book of this nature needs much more in the way of argument with substantive supporting evidence, and on this front it pretty much fails on all counts.

Edited by willoyd

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Sorry this book wasn't better for you :(. I guess Book Club choices can't all be winners. I hope your next read will be better :).

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I'm now tempted to swap Misses Mallet for Evelina after reading your review!

 

Even if I don't, I will definitely read it at some point.

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I'm now tempted to swap Misses Mallet for Evelina after reading your review!

Even if I don't, I will definitely read it at some point.

If you enjoy classics, especially the lighter classics, it's certainly worth reading - for me it was the deeper insight into social structure and leisure that I found unexpectedly the pull, although, as I said, it was distinctly comical on occasions too!  I've not read The Misses Mallet, so can't comment on the latter, although I've heard good things about it. I certainly intend to read it at some stage in the reasonably near future, but felt that Evelina was distinctly the more famous of the two books, so wanted to read that for my Counties Challenge.

Edited by willoyd

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The Battle of the Atlantic by Jonathan Dimbleby ****

 

Largely this does simply what it says on the tin, providing an interesting narrative history of the Battle of the Atlantic. There were some insights that I previously wasn't aware of, for instance the limited impact of Ultra on this particular battle (or so it was argued), and the rapidity with which the U-boat threat collapsed in the spring of 1943, in a matter of a few weeks, almost days, but essentially this was a reasonably straightforward telling of a story that, whilst not unknown by any means, is not the most prominent of aspects of World War Two, however important it was.

 

And that was perhaps the main theme that struck me, how both sides underrated the importance of the battle, in spite of Churchill's rhetoric. The starving of the Royal Navy and Coastal Command of much needed aircraft by 'Bomber' Harris on one side, and the failure to take heed of Doenitz's arguments, meant that both sides almost lost the battle. The fact that the Allies won it seems to be that they put right the mistakes marginally faster than the Germans, but it was mighty close.

 

Dimbleby's narration certainly clarified several events of the Atlantic conflict that I had heard about but never fully got to grips with, such as the horrific story of the doomed convoy PQ17, whilst others, such as the limited impact of the German capital ships (especially the subject of my O-Level project, the Bismarck) were ably put into context. I was disappointed at how quickly he wrapped up the narration after the turnaround, all in a matter of a few pages it seems, leaving a slight sense of imcompleteness, even if I understand that the battle was pretty much done and dusted at that stage (or so I interpret), and it did mean that the book achieved a more sensible length than many narrative histories (it was still knocking on for 500 pages long!).

 

So, overall, an eminently readable history of this crucial but underrated element of the last war. I now need to read Andrew Williams's highly rated history for comparison.

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On the Black Hill by Bruce Chatwin *****

Chatwin's only purely fictional book, this is the story of twin brothers, born and brought up on a farm on the Herefordshire/Welsh border, a farm they never really leave (one brother moves briefly about ten miles away for a brief period). The novel is essentially an evocation of rural life in the first half of the twentieth century, particularly the period before and after the First World War, with the local countryside playing as important a part in the story as any of the characters, and the interaction between characters and country paramount.

I loved the imagery created by Chatwin's simple but elegant prose, very much bringing to life a part of the world I am reasonably familiar with and for which I developed a definite fondness, my parents having retired to the English side of the border some years ago (my father is now buried in a local churchyard, whilst my mother has now moved to Pembrokeshire). The lives of pretty much all the characters are not exactly a picnic, but this never feels like a piece of mis-lit, far from it; life is tough and at times squalid, but there is definitely a streak of optimism spread through the plot.

There isn't much else to say really, other than, whilst it's probably more Welsh in nature than Herefordian, it's an excellent book to represent a county, being so setting orientated. One word of warning though: whilst Chatwin uses real place names, the geography doesn't really add up, with deliberate distortions and mixing up of names. I think Rhulen in the book is, in fact, Hay-on-Wye, whilst there is a Cefn Hill with a nearby Black Hill to the SE of the town - but other names are further north. No matter, just don't spend too long (as I did!) tracking the place names!  More important: just read and enjoy!

Edited by willoyd

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The Racer by David Millar ****

 

David Millar is the cycling who, having been caught drug taking as an up and coming young star, turned his sporting career around completely after serving his suspension, and has been one of the strongest campaigners in the peloton against drugs. He was the co-owner of the Garmin team that preceded Sky as a team set up specifically to promote competing clean. This is the story of his last year in cycling, 2014, with all its trials and tribulations.

 

Millar is a thoroughly readable and intelligent writer, and this book provides both an interesting and entertaining insight into the life of a professional road racer. It's not just about that year, as he uses his experiences during the year as an opportunity to reflect on some of the key elements in his cycling career, sometimes in flashback. It does, however, keep its chronological thread going, thus providing the book with a much needed line of development, whilst there are, effectively, some fascinating, often exciting, short stories of past incidents or races. Having watched these from a spectator's point of view, seeing them from the 'inside' provied quite eye-opening, and certainly taught me a lot about the dynamics of the different types of races. It also has the impression (although its not proveable) of being very honest, not least when writing about his final falling out with Garmin themselves, or at least the management. There's no doubting Millar's feelings!

 

My one caveat was the liberal, but fortunately not overwhelming, sprinkling of bad language. On occasions they gave a certain air of reality to both his thoughts and the plot at that point, but ogten they also felt unneccesarily gratuitous.

 

But this is a minor cavil, and overall I thoroughly enjoyed The Racer, always putting the book down with reluctance. For anybody with an interest in the ways of the peloton, or what makes a pro cyclist tick, this provides some thoroughly readable answers.

Edited by willoyd

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