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Willoyd's Reading 2016

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Reading Update

Not a great week's reading; whilst I'm thoroughly enjoying The Fishing Fleet, not a lot of time for reading means I haven't made a lot of progress, and am only about a third of the way through what is a relatively slim book (308 pages).

Went to three more talks at the Ilkley Literature Festival this weekend. Yesterday saw us with Jenni Murray on her History of Britain in 21 Women's Lives, followed by Mary-Anne Ochota on Hidden Landscapes. Both very interesting and entertaining in their respective, different, ways; I particularly enjoyed the latter's total passion for her subject, which was thoroughly infectious. However, perhaps the very best was left till last: Adam Rutherford talking genetics and ancestry, based on his book A Brief History of Everyone Who Ever Lived - fascinating, erudite and funny; I could have listened to him all evening. Overall, I think the two scientists topped the polls (Rutherford, and Wilkinson last week), with Ochota and Peter Wilson (Holy Roman Empire) close behind.

Came to the end of the festival having bought five books, even if not all of them from there. I mentioned Matt Wilkinson's book, Restless Creatures, previously but have also acquired the Adam Rutherford, the Mary-Anne Ochota, Grumbling for Yorkshire (JB Priestley essays), and Wilson's huge tome. Now I need to read them!

Edited by willoyd

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This is a long festival! I'm glad you had a great time there, and I hope you enjoy your new books :).

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This is a long festival! I'm glad you had a great time there, and I hope you enjoy your new books :).

 

It's a fortnight long.  I think it's one of the biggest, if not the biggest, in the North of England.  Hay, Cheltenham and Edinburgh are better known and probably more substantial, but I think that's about it in the UK.

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The Fishing Fleet by Anne de Courcy ***

 

What with the Ilkley Literature Festival, workloads etc etc, this is the longest it's taken me to read any single book this year, just over three weeks. That's no reflection on the book though, which is an eminently readable history of the eponymous women who, during the years of the Raj, headed out to India, where the shortage of women meant that husband hunting, and thus the maintenance of one's status in Victorian and early twentieth century society, was so much easier. That didn't mean that life was necessarily easy though!

 

I was fairly rapidly absorbed in the book, which was divided into largely thematic chapters. Having one branch of my family established in India for almost a hundred years (my grandfather was the last generation, born and initially brought up there befor returning to Wales just before WW1), this felt particularly relevant, and several place names and anecdotes resonated from my family history. Even so, I still had my eyes opened on occasion: Indian Raj society was certainly 'different' to what we know today!

 

After a while though, I did start to find it beginning to pall a bit. Perhaps as a result of the overlaps between themes, the writing became a little repetitive in places, with various aspects explained on more than one occasion. Women appeared for short bursts, then disappeared only for some to reappear later, or even at intervals, their stories only partially told at any one time, and hard to track; two sisters appeared at opposite ends of the book. After a while I grew a bit tired of reaching for the index to see whether and if so whether somebody had appeared before, and in what context. Exacerbating this, in an effort perhaps to be comprehensive, some of the women spotlighted weren't actually members of the fishing fleet, the book appearing more and more to extend beyond its initial target.

 

This was emphasised by the three chapters which, rather than following the themed route, each focused on one individual. These proved to be far more satisfying to read, and suggested that the author's best course would have been to initially focus on indiviual stories, and then perhaps spent a few later chapters on drawing out threads from their histories, and illuminating those with examples from other women's lives, maybe those for whom she might not have been able to stitch together complete pictures.

 

In the end, this prove a worthwhile and interesting read, leaving me full of respect for the women concerned - India and its heavily patriarchal and repressive society was no soft touch! - but it needed a tighter focus and a greater emphasis on the lives of the women themselves from which themes could then have been drawn, rather than trying to fit them into a thematic framework from the word go. This is after a history of lives led, and needed to focus on the threads of those lives first and foremost.

 

One thing that did surprise me though: how little Indian women were mentioned. I appreciate that white women will have had little, if any, social contact with Indian women, but even female servants are barely mentioned. Almost every mention of Indians, even of servants, was of men. I suspect that says even more about the rigidity of the latter-day Raj social structure; the gap was certainly glaring.

Edited by willoyd

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Wow, I didn't know you have family ties to India. That's nice :). I have family ties to Indonesia, though one generation more distant than your family. Nice review, it's a shame the book wasn't perfect but I'm glad you found it an interesting read. It's a shame about the women not being mentioned much, I find that kind of thing hard to deal with sometimes, if I'm in a mood for it, that kind of thing can really annoy me (at another time I might be a bit less affected).

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Reading Update

Reading has been stuttering along the last three to four weeks as the plot finds itself distinctly lost at work: schools are complete madhouses nowadays, and it seems that it can only get worse (which is why I'm packing in full-time teaching at the end of the year). Now into my second week of reading Dracula, and just over half way through, it's a book that deserves more time and consideration than I can currently give it.

I did manage a quick Saturday morning raid on a couple of local charity/seconds shops last week, which included mainly non-fiction, but also The Art of Fielding and The Secret Life of Bees. Both books in my United States Challenge, I'll probably tackle them early next year, when I'm looking forward to really getting my teeth into this list.

Hope to clear the work decks a bit for the next few days as the Leeds International Film Festival beckons enticingly. This started last week, and I managed one on Friday night (Schneider vs Bax, a sub-titled Dutch black comedy - thoroughly entertaining), but there are several really appealing films to see over the next ten days or so - so reading may not improve after all!

 

Edited by willoyd

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I enjoyed The Secret Life of Bees when I read it last year.

 

Is this your first read of Dracula? I read it last year, and enjoyed it much more than I thought I would. I found it very easy to read, considering I usually struggle a bit with the classics.

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Is this your first read of Dracula? I read it last year, and enjoyed it much more than I thought I would. I found it very easy to read, considering I usually struggle a bit with the classics.

 

No, it's a reread as part of the English Counties Challenge.  I must admit, I'm finding it dragging a bit.  No problem on readability - I read classics fairly regularly - rather more, I suspect, the fact that I haven't had time to sit down and give it a good go for any length of time, more like 15 mins here, 15 mins there, and it's now spread over something more than a fortnight.. Even so, it's lacking a bit compared to how I remember it.  On the other hand, it may be just that my expectations have changed.

Edited by willoyd

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Reading Update

It's amazing how time can slip away: it's exactly a month since I last updated my reading, and it only feels like a couple of days ago. Term time always seems to slip quickly through the fingers, and this time of year it does more so than at most others. Most years, my lowest point tends to be the start of the academic year in September, but for some reason this year has seen that dip shift back to October-November. It's still not been bad in terms of number of books (4 in each month), but the reading itself has all been tucked away into odd corners, such as bedtimes and quick reads on trains - there has been little sense of rhythm or continuity, which has in turn had a knock-on effect I suspect on my opinions of the books themselves. December, on the other hand, is usually my biggest month of the year as I tend to crash into books over the Christmas period, often reading at the rate of one a day, sometimes more if they are on the short side; a couple of years ago I actually managed 15 books in the last 11 days of the year!  I'm therefore hopeful that things will pick up from here on in.

In the meantime, this month has been a bit stuttery, with, as said, just four books completed. Continuing the trend of the past few months, rather than trying to complete full blown reviews and falling even further behind, I've written a set of mini-reviews instead.

Dracula by Bram Stoker ***
This was a reread as part of the English Counties Challenge. I had good memories of what has become the standard by which a whole genre is measured, and it was certainly as easy a read as I remember. I've always enjoyed epistolary novels, although, as this was more based on purportive journal entries, it didn't have quite the sideways looking flavour that is what I particularly enjoy with this format. The first half or so lived up to expectations, but this time it felt as if there was a bit of a hiatus in the third quarter which sagged a bit, before the final gallop to a forgotten but satisfying and abruptly finished off denouement. All in all, this remained a rewarding read, if not quite so much the second time around, although I have to confess that Professor Helsing's cod English grew increasingly irritating, and is the cause of the loss of at least one star. 

In terms of the Counties Challenge, this was one of two books so far which have left me somewhat in doubt about their position on the list, the other being The Day of the Triffids as the one for Isle of Wight. The Whitby episode may well be well known, but it's brief and the role of Whitby isn't that critical; the vast majority of the book is set in London and Eastern Europe. If there was a next time, particularly as there are a couple of ready alternatives, I'd choose James Herriot's All Creatures Great and Small (already a listed alternative) or, perhaps even better, Anne Bronte's Agnes Grey. (The Isle of Wight would be trickier - there's really not that much set there).
  
Claxton by Mark Cocker ****
A collection of articles taken from Mark Cocker's Guardian column, reflecting on the natural history of the landscape around the village where he lives in Norfolk, with one or two others from further afield added in.   The articles have been set out as if to recount the passage of a single year, although they have been collected together from several.  As a technique it worked beautifully, providing a surprisingly coherent picture of the passing seasons;  I read this alongside an Ordnance Survey map of the area which helped my appreciation enormously.  I'm an enormous fan of Mark Cocker's writing (his Crow Country is a particular favourite), and this did not disappoint.  Perhaps not quite the structure and rhythm of a continuous narrative, as in Crow Country or John Lewis-Stempel's The Running Hare, but a book I will certainly return to, especially when I next visit East Anglia (a part of the world that fascinates me).
 
The Good, The Bad and The Multiplex by Mark Kermode ***
Mark Kermode's reflections on the state of the cinema industry today, particularly on the development of the multiplex and 3-D movies.  Kermode writes in a very chatty, entertaining way, so much like the way he presents on TV and elsewhere that I could almost hear his voice through the words, so this was a distinctly easy read.  I also empathise with so much of what he writes about, particularly the stultifying effect that the corporate multiplex industry has had on cinema.  However, that chattiness could have done with some considerable editing; so much of what he said could have been said in about a third of the space.  He also has a thoroughly annoying habit of diverting off on lengthy and convoluted asides (actually the worst example is in another book I dipped into, Hatchet Job, where he continually diverts off a story about an irate subject of one of his reviews, only for the story itself to fizzle out fairly pointlessly tens of pages later).  I think I prefer his journalism; I certainly enjoy his TV work.
 
The Shadow Puppet by Georges Simenon ****
Another wonderfully atmospheric Maigret story, Simenon being the master of less is more.  As I've said before, these are so much stronger in their cumulative effect.  Few, if any, individual stories stand out, and the first one or two could leave one asking quite what is so special about them, but as a body of work they are completely addictive.  Almost universally short, these are best read in a minimum of sittings (one preferably!) to fully savour the mid-twentieth century, murky French ambience - they read as richly textured as the best of black and white films.  I'm just shocked that I've left it as long as I have since the last one.  I must spend some time over Christmas catching up on a few.

Edited by willoyd

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I know what you mean about reading in dribs and drabs affecting your view of a book. It's hard to immerse yourself and get that continuity when you only get 15 minutes here and there. I have been suffering a bit with that lately.

 

The only book in your post that I have read is Dracula and I think I enjoyed it a bit more than you did. It's one of the classics that I found very easy to read which helped the enjoyment factor!

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I know what you mean about reading in dribs and drabs affecting your view of a book. It's hard to immerse yourself and get that continuity when you only get 15 minutes here and there. I have been suffering a bit with that lately.

 

The only book in your post that I have read is Dracula and I think I enjoyed it a bit more than you did. It's one of the classics that I found very easy to read which helped the enjoyment factor!

 

Yes, funny one that one - first time round I remember being really wowed.  Definitely the prime victim of bitty reading I think, as it did take rather a long time to get through - almost three weeks. 

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Reading Update
Two more books completed in the past week as term crawls to an end. I spent a couple of days in bed as child-born bugs finally found their way round my defences. It's been really bad on this front this year, and illness has ripped through both staff and children alike the past couple of months: there's not been a day when I've had less than three children off sick in my class for the past three weeks (the record was seven), and staff have been falling like ninepins - three off on the last day of term yesterday. OH was in bed for a week, whilst this was my first stint off ill with any form of cold/flu/respiratory infection in the fifteen years I've been teaching (they were my fourth and fifth days off for any health reason).

Still, I managed to finish a couple of books, somewhat contrasting in nature:

The Outrun by Amy Liptrot ******
This was a wonderful read! I'm not usually into this sort of memoir, the author recounting her deterioration into and recovery from alcoholism, but it was so brilliantly written, and so atmospheric in the contrasting settings of London and the Orkneys, that I was gripped from start to finish, reading it in barely two days. Inevitably, the part I loved most was her time back in her native Orkneys (from which she felt she had escaped to London as a young adult),and her growing relationship with the natural history side of the islands, especially as I've got such fond memories of a visit there a decade or so ago, but in actual fact she is so searingly honest and such a good writer, able to apparently effortlessly move between the melancholic and life-affirming, from the contemplative to the outward looking in the space of a few words, that there was no moment when my interest flagged. This was my reading group's December choice, and was unaiimously rated as one of the best we've read since the group started five years ago (alongside A Month in the Country, and The House by the Lake. Goes straight into my top three for the year.

Beyond Black by Hilary Mantel **
A bit of a contrast this. I loved Wolf Hall; indeed, it's one of my top twenty all-time reads. However, I've now tried three of Hilary Mantel's other books (including a volume of short stories), and I've not really got on with any of them. This started promisingly enough, plunging us into the world of mediums and psychics, for whom spirits are just as real as 'ordinary' people, and we are introduced to the relationship between Alison (psychic) and Colette (her non-psychic live-in business partner). The backgrounds that brought them together are gradually revealed, somewhat squalid, with more to come. However, things, at least for me, started to spin somewhat out of control after the first third, and I soon was losing grip on the story, both in terms of credibility, and soon after in terms of interest. I can't quite put my finger on why. It's not that I am too bothered about any need to 'empathise' with the characters as was bemoaned in a number of Amazon reviews - it's good when one can, but it's not a necessity for a good read IMO - it's something along the lines that I started to feel that I just couldn't be bothered to spend any more time on it, maybe because of the credibility gap?  Or maybe I do need to empathise a bit more, at least with someone, I don't know, but I just didn't see the point and things started to drag horribly, not for the first time with this author's work, so I skim-read from about half way to the end, without feeling much need to dig any deeper. I've decided that I'll definitely have a go at Bring Up The Bodies and A Place of Greater Safety, but otherwise Mantel's writing doesn't appear to be for me.

 

This last book was number 70 for the year, only the second time I've reached that figure (which I did, last gasp, for the first time in 2015), marking certainly the best in quantity, and one of the best in terms of quality.  Still another two weeks of prime-time reading to come!

Edited by willoyd

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I'm sorry to hear about the illness. I'm glad you're feeling better now! I hope everyone else feels better soon too.

 

Quite a contrast, an amazing read vs one you didn't like so much.

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Two More Reviews

Two very easy, quick reads:

 

High Rising by Angela Thirkell ****

A fairly frothy, light comedy of manners written and set in the 1930s. In spite of the comments in the blurb, this is not quite in the same league as the likes of Barbara Pym, but it is overtly funnier in places, as long as one bears in mind the time it was written. To be honest, if one doesn't, then it's possibly even funnier, if not deliberately so, almost in the mould of Gibbons and Cold Comfort Farm, although one or two instances now grate on modern sensibilities, in particular a couple of casual references to Jewish stereotypes. Bearing all that in mind, the narrative rattles gently along, if rather too heavy in dialogue for my taste, to a suitable denouement. I read this in barely a couple of sittings, and it proved a thoroughly pleasant, if for me slightly unusual, way to start the holiday reading off.

 

Mystery in White by J Jefferson Farjeon **

In some respects, this comes from a rather similar stable to the previous book: rediscovered 1930s writing. This time, it was a part of the British Library's series of republished 'classics' from what is apparently the golden period of crime detection.

 

Well, I have to admit I'm not so sure about that, because if this a good example of the detective story of the time, then I can't imagine it was particularly golden. The initial premise was solid enough: a party of train passengers climbing off a snowbound train and, unable to find alernative transport, seeking shelter in a curiously abandoned house. However, the alarm bells were already starting to ring, as the group already featured the most unlikely collection of characters, or at least a horribly cliched (surely even in the 1930s!) set of stereotypes: the plucky chorus girl, the pimply youth, the bore, the older sage (a member of the British Psychic Association no less!) to go with the two 'normal' ones. A ghastly Cockney, obviously up to no good, soon joins them in a plot that gets more and more silly and artificially constructed, complete with artfully spaced out clues, all conveniently leading the psychic expert inexorably onwards. It was easy to see why this had slipped into obscurity, and I really can't work out why the British Library had bothered to try and resuscitate it - far better for it to have been left to gently rest in peace.

Edited by willoyd

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I agree with you about Mystery in White, Will, apparently it's one of the BL's most successful titles, but I also found it very dated and far-fetched, even for the time it was written.  I must say I've since read a couple more of the BL books and they're much better - The Santa Klaus Murder by Mavis Doriel Hay is a typical country house mystery, but I found it much more enjoyable than MinW.

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I agree with you about Mystery in White, Will, apparently it's one of the BL's most successful titles, but I also found it very dated and far-fetched, even for the time it was written.  I must say I've since read a couple more of the BL books and they're much better - The Santa Klaus Murder by Mavis Doriel Hay is a typical country house mystery, but I found it much more enjoyable than MinW.

 

I'll have to give it a go!  Glad I'm not the only one - most reviews seem to have been far more in praise than mine.

Edited by willoyd

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Book Reviews

Trying to keep up with the usual Christmas rush of reading, otherwise I'll never catch up(!). Four more mini-reviews:

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

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

The Mistletoe Murders by PD James ****
Four short murder mystery stories, two set at Christmas and two (including one of the Christmas stories) involving Adam Dalgleish. I'm not normally a fan of short stories, but enjoyed these a lot, one in particular catching me completely unawares.  Wasting no time in involving the reader, the author packed a lot into the space; I was surprised on review how short these stories were - they certainly felt 'bigger', not least because of James's strong ability to succinctly but very effectively develop both character and setting.     Reminded me that I should read more PD James.

 

The Saint-Fiacre Affair by Georges Simenon ***
The latest volume in my chronological progression through the Maigret series. In this, Maigret returns to his hometown having been warned of a potential crime during Mass in the local church. It started off well, but seemed to lose its way a bit in the second half, which was dominated by one scene and conversation where it all seemed to get somewhat bogged down. An OK read, but not as good as most others so far.

Murder in Advent by David Williams ****
Murder mystery set in a fictitious cathedral close in the Welsh/English Marches. An entertaining, easy read with an interesting plot - not particularly complex but neatly put together. I was initially a little overwhelmed with the mass of characters introduced in the first chapter, but held on to the descriptions in that to guide me through the following pages until they had settled down in my mind. Overall, the sort of reading I enjoy at this time of year, and (unlike the earlier read Mystery in White) well worth the reissue.

 

Edited by willoyd

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I found all the characters in Murder in Advent a bit confusing too, it was very busy!  but enjoyable.

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Book Reviews

 

Another three short reviews:

 

The Soul of Kindness by Elizabeth Taylor *****

I first encountered Elizabeth Taylor earlier this year, with the excellent Blaming, and promised myself to read more. I felt I needed to squeeze at least one more in before the end of the year. I'm glad I did, as this was just as good. As I said in my review of Blaming, Taylor reminds me of Jane Austen and here the central character of Flora is strongly reminiscent of Emma: young, beautiful, sheltered, well meaning, indeed 'the soul of kindness', but in actual fact dangerously destructive and affecting everybody around her. The excellent introduction (but don't read it until you have finished the book!) discusses the development of the 'community novel' in the English literature, and that is exactly what this, the story of those surrounding Flora, both in direct and indirect contact, and the way she influences their lives (they also influence here to some extent, but she seems strangely immune much of the time). I love Taylor's style of writing, particulary how she tells it through the perspective of a succession of characters, almost like a series of lively, internal monologues; the transitions are almost seamless. Perhaps by biggest 'discovery' of the year, hiding behind perhaps the most misleading and poorest covers I've encountered for some time. Somebody at her publishers (Virago - should know better!) needs taking outside and being given a serious lesson!

 

The Sense of an Endling by Julian Barnes ****

I read this five years or so ago, but strangely couldn't remember anything about it when recently discussing it (or, at least, attempting to discuss it!), so decided to revisit it. Inevitably, quite a bit came back to me, not least the perplexing (but not unsatisfactory or uninteresting) ending, which I remember struggling to fully understand last time round. Same again! A trawl around the internet reveals that I wasn't the only one, but also that there's enough there to help me out, so I'm reasonably satisfied now! It was a book that kept me reading, completing in barely two sittings, with a narrator and narrative thread that I never felt sure of - which meant that I kept wanting to find out more. Saying much more will give to much away, but solidly recommended.

 

On The Slow Train by Michael Williams ****

Twelve chapters, and twelve journeys on various branch lines around the British network, mostly lines that barely survived the Beeching cuts, perhaps the greatest act of institutional vandalism in British history (my opinion!), which we're suffering the consequences of more than ever before. The author takes a slightly romantic, view, but there's enough straightforward narrative, description and interchange to give this more meat, and make it more than just a nostalgia-fest. Having said that, it did strike a chord in terms of my own ambitions to take a rather 'slower' approach to life.

Edited by willoyd

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Final book of the year

 

The Year of Living Danishly by Helen Russell ****
Helen Russell's partner is offered a job working for Lego in Billund, on the Jutland peninsula in Denmark. Whist he's keen, the author, committed to her journalistic career, is less so, but is persuaded, and she spends the year reporting on her experiences in what the United Nations pronounce as the happiest nation. Russell wants to find out what makes this so, if indeed, it's even true.

This was a promising premise, even if there was a threat of this turning into one of those desperately 'humorous', falsely deprecating, horrible laugh-at-the-native-style travel journals, typical of writers like Tim Moore, and I was initially worried that this was the way it was heading. Fortunately, as Helen Russell got into her stride, the balance improved, and whilst this was genuinely funny on occasions, it was also a very interesting investigation into Danish life. I particularly appreciated the interviews with a wide variety of Danish commentators, experts and influences, which provided this with more body than too many others of this genre. Even if we are only seeing one individual's perspective (and a couple of reviewers on Amazon suggested that it was slightly rose-tinted as the author was still in relatively early days), it certainly gave me pause to think about key issues in my life and career (the latter especially), and where I want them to go over the next few years.

Overall, I approached this somewhat sceptically, if hopefully, but distinctly warmed to the book and writer as the year she described progressed. It was good to finish the year on such a positive, even optimistic, note, with a book that, whilst perhaps not in pure writing terms perhaps deserving of the status, by dint of its impact on my thinking earns itself a place in my end of year accolades (see my 2016 review on the 2017 thread).

Edited by willoyd

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