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Willoyd's Reading 2020

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Life Without Diabetes by Roy Taylor ***

I've been getting a bit bogged down with my reading, as trying to tackle The Luminaries for one of my book groups has coincided with my annual report writing binge on local birds, which means the book has stuttered somewhat.  Have finished the report now (thank goodness!), but found this interesting looking quick read in the local bookshop, so read that this weekend - iinteresting to me at least as having been found to be prediabetic, I've been reading up on ways of tackling it to ensure it doesn't go any further.  Anyway, the first few chapters on the research the author and his team have carried out at Newcastle University was as interesting as expected, both confirming some of my reading and challenging other parts of it.  Unfortunately, the second half, when he talks about how to implement the results (basically to lose weight, whatever weight you were at to start with) was horribly wishy-washy and vague - and certainly no help for those who struggle to keep weight off once lost.  So, 4 stars for the first 6-7 chapters, and 2 for the rest, averaging out at 3. Definitely worth reading though if this is a topic you need or want to read about - it's important stuff (and by odd coincidence, it's cropped up in the papers today).


Am going to move on to Emma for now. We went to see the film last week, and both loved it, and want to reread the book asap, not least because a little uncertain in some places as to how book and film tie in, and want to review whilst fresh in the mind.  Coincidentally, the film was scripted by Eleanor Catton....the author of The Luminaries. So at least I'm sort of sticking with the author!


Other book acquisitions:

False Value by Ben Aaronovitch

The Beast, The Emperori and The Milkman by Harry Pearson

Ground Work by Tim Dee

Orison for a Curlew by Horatio Clare

Belonging; the Story of the Jews 1492-1900 by Simon Schama (Kindle deal)

The Library Book by Susan Orlean (Kindle deal)




Edited by willoyd

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I have The Luminaries on my kindle and have wanted to read it for a while but I had no idea the author scripted Emma! That's really interesting. 

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Reading Update mid-March

Well, my reading has been a right mess the past couple of months.  First of all I got behind on reading for one book group, so failed to finish The Luminaries in time for that meeting. Then I started Emma as a follow-up to the film, but got bogged down in writing my annual local bird report (150+ species of birds, 50+ pages) so failed to finish that before I needed to swap to A Gentleman in Moscow to read that for my other book group....but swapped so late that I failed to finish that in time too!  So, whilst I've at least completed the report, I now have 3 unfinished books on the go, a situation I can't remember before, and really don't like!  Stupid thing is that I was enjoying all three, so didn't want to swap from any of them.  So, I need to settle down and start finishing them.  I'll start with A Gentleman in Moscow, as that'll mean one less book interrupted than if I go back to the others first.  A very unsatisfactory start to the reading year.


Book acquisition continues apace, much agains my better judgement!  Predominantly from charity shops, those added to my library since the last update include:


Life, A User's Manual by George Perec

Independent People by Halldor Laxness

Till The Cows Come Home by Philip Walling

White Teeth by Zadie Smith

The Ambassador's Secret by John North (about the Holbein painting)

Under the Rock by Benjamin Myers

Admirals by Andrew Lambert

Becoming by Michelle Obama

Edited by willoyd

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A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles *****

This was the March choice for one of my book groups, a book and an author I knew nothing about, so I didn't really know what to expect.  The premise is that the main protagonist, Count Alexander Rostov, has been sentenced to indefinite house arrest in the Metropol Hotel in central Moscow by a Bolshevik tribunal in 1922 - this is the story of his subsequent life.  That didn't seem an overly promising scenario, but I was seriously mistaken.

Right from the outset, I was engaged by both the narrative and the style of writing.  Written with a light almost elegant touch, a strong streak of humour ran through the book.  Indeed, this was a rare novel where I actually laughed out loud on a couple of occasions, and smiled through many others.  There have been one or two criticisms in reviews of the author treating serious events with too much levity, but I felt rather that he was, if anything, focusing on how the characters coped with the difficulties - and finding the humour in a situation is an effective way of retaining one's sanity in dire times.  In its own way this approach underlined the sheer madness of the system. The vast majority of the characters were incredibly likeable and came over as humans trying to cope as best they could with whatever their bizarre world threw at them, even if the setting initially seems almost too  opulent to be truly oppressive - a classic 'gilded cage'.  There are moments of unutterable sadness, made all the more so by their suddenness and the fact that they are not belaboured, occasionally being mentioned almost in passing.

I, and the whole group, loved this book, and spent a very happy hour or so discussing it in more detail.  There were some anomalies and unexplained oddities (we were not sure, for instance, how the Count could afford to live continually in the hotel, although some partial explanations were, at least, implied), but overall we were all rather pleasurably and unexpectedly surprised as none of us, including the nominator herself, had read book or even author before (our nominator had simply been recommended it, and said it looked promising). I can certainly recommend it on to others!  5/6 - Excellent.

Edited by willoyd

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Book Acquisitions

A last fling before everything shut down for a while, mostly hardbacks in my local charity shop:


The Men Who United The States by Simon Winchester

The Blackest Streets by Sarah Wise

Fall Down Seven Times, Get Up Eight by Naoki Higashida

The Priory by Dorothy Whipple

The Seafarers by Stephen Rutt

The Planets by Brian Cox and Andrew Cohen

Mudlarking by Lara Maiklem

Postwar by Tony Judt

Deadliest Enemy by Michael Osterholm


I've also now got some 19 library books to work my way through!


Edited by willoyd

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End of Month reading update

Just managed to finish my third book of the month on the last day today - one of the excellent Very Short Introduction series of books published by OUP, a reread of The Napoleonic Wars.  On the surface this represents one of the slowest starts to a year I've had in a while, even slower than last year (which is saying something!), but I've still had my head into plenty of reading, it's just been a tad different to normal.  I've started tutoring (via Skype) two of my nieces in A-level Maths and the history of the Napoleonic Wars, which has entailed a lot of reading around, mostly extracts and chapters from a variety of books I've got on the shelves - no complete books (aside from this one), but plenty of content!  It's been a fascinating process: for instance, I thought I knew my Napoleonic period, but when it comes to teaching it, I realise I needed a whole lot of work to bring it up to scratch. However, I'm having a ball doing it - just hope the two girls are enjoying it as much as me!  It's been great connecting with them too - they live in Ireland, so we don't get to meet as often as I would like, and this is, believe it or not, my first venture into Skype country.  Should have done it ages ago.


Now I'm in the swing though, hopefully I can use a locked down April to really get going on more general reading.  First up will be Michelle Obama's Becoming, hopefully in time for my book group virtual meeting next week.  I don't read much autobiography or contemporary memoir, but am looking forward to this.


Book acquisitions have been limited to a couple of Kindle maths and history texts - I already have more than enough books to be getting on with.  This lockdown might even do me (or at least the bank account) some good!

Edited by willoyd

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Mid-April reading summary

I'm not keeping up with reviews as much as I would like, so a quick summary of reading over the first half of this month. 

After a slow start to the year, lockdown seems to have helped kickstart my reading again, with 6 books finished since the start of the month.  These are:


Becoming by Michelle Obama ****(*)

The Reader on the 6.27 by Jean-Paul Didierlaurent ***

Joy by Jonathan Lee ****

Pale Rider by Laura Spinney ****

Stoner by John Williams ***

The Easternmost House by Juliet Blaxland ****

reviews to follow


Stoner was both a book group choice (not mine) and the book for Missouri in my Tour of the USA, which means 16 books of the 51 now completed - rather fewer than I intended at this stage!  Becoming was for my other book group.

I'm also currently reading Neil Macgregor's A History of the World in 100 Objects alongside the BBC rerun of the series.  Helps absorb the detail of what is a fascinating series.


I've acquired a few books, all on the Kindle, mostly with special deals:

Little Siberia by Antti Tuomainen

Circe by Madeline Miller

Overlord by Max Hastings

Little Grey Men by 'BB'

Down the Bright Stream by 'BB'

The Culture of the Europeans by Donald Sasson

Napoleon (a Very Short Introduction) by David Bell

Marie Antoinette by Antonia Fraser


Lockdown has led to a lot of exploring of and listening to podcasts of a bookish nature - a far more relaxing listen than incessant and repetitive news.  Really enjoying Literary Friction and You're Booked on top of my regular dose of Slightly Foxed (although they've stopped for the duration, so am reverting to their backlist), as well as back episodes of Radio 4's A Good Read.  Tried and dip into a few others, but these are the ones I gravitate towards, although Backlisted is slowly growing on me - some great material if one can get past the slight 'desperate banter' feel to it. Not book focused, but I'm also glued to back episodes of In Our Time and Desert Island Discs, the latter partly because I have just found the present incumbent, Lauren Laverne, just nothing like in the same league as her predecessors - what on earth possessed Radio 4?






Edited by willoyd

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Some quick reviews

Loads of reading lately - a dozen books this month, but no reviews since March, so some quick ones to help fill the gap - the first handful of April reads.  Stars out of 6.


Becoming by Michelle Obama ****

I'm not normally a fan of celebrity autobiographies, they are all too often far too self justifying and don't actually tell you anything, but I was looking forward to this one as a book group choice.  I wasn't mistaken either: well written (in itself unusual), and, at least for me, some interesting insight into the author's life.  As it progressed, it seemed to become more and more episodic, so that by the time we got to the crunch years, there were some fairly substantial jumps. Thus we had a lot about the build up of the Obamas' first campaign up to the initial Iowa caucusus, but then pretty much nothing until after he was elected.  The White House years were almost skimmed over, and provided the least insight.  So, whilst my respect for Michelle Obama if anything grew slightly, and I enjoyed the overall read, I was left a mite disappointed.  I was also rather exhausted - unrelentingly positive about everything (except Donald Trump!!).  So, a good read, but not quite the great read I was hoping for.


The Reader on the 6.27 by Jean-Paul Didierlaurent ***

A piece of light French whimsy, along similar lines to the Antoine Laurain books.  Pleasant to read, and a refreshing interlude, but it struck me that the French do this rather better on film. 


Joy by Jonathan Lee ****

Blackly satirical take on the rigours and madness of City life.  Joy is a high-powered lawyer in a city firm, about to be made a partner, when she floors several falls in the atrium of her firm's offices.  Murder? Suicide?  Accident?  Using four different perspectives (including Joy's own) we travel through the build-up to find out.  Not normally my sort of book, I really enjoyed this, both narrative and Lee's writing style.


Pale Rider by Laura Spinney ****

A history of the Spanish flu.  Didn't fall into the trap of a pure chronological account, something Catherine Arnold did to the detriment of her take on the disease, each chapter covering a separate topic to build up a fascinating picture of the impact of a disease whose death toll makes Covid-19 look almost trivial (so far!).  One or two chapters felt a wee bit slight, but that's a minor criticism. Slightly unnerving how many lessons we don't seem to have learned - but then that's history for you. 


Stoner by John Williams ***

Both a book group choice and the book for my visit to Missouri on my Tour of the USA, this was a fictional life of a farm boy made good as minor academic at the University of Missouri, along similar lines to Goodbye Mr Chips and To Serve Them All My Days.  Many rave reviews, and there is no doubt of the quality of the writing, but I found myself increasingly irritated by both the main character and the author's narrative.  Stoner's wife was, for me, totally bizarre and not very credible - his reaction almost incomprehensible.  Staggered to 3 stars on the writing quality.



Edited by willoyd

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Some more quick reviews


And some more reviews, to take me through to the end of April!


The Easternmost House by Juliet Blaxland ****

Interesting nature read based around what was then the easternmost house in Britain, on a crumbling cliff in Norfolk (the house was demolished last December, a year or so after book was published).  More a series of thoughts on aspects of living there and coping with threat, not least the relationship between town and country.  Not quite as much depth or nuance as I had hoped, but still a good read. 


Napoleon by David Bell ****

An Oxford Very Short Introduction and, as with most I've read, a concise, well written, reasonably straightforward and balanced introduction to one of the biggest characters in world history.  A good starter - I've a couple of biggies lined up as follow ups (Andrew Roberts, who is supposed to be a bit of a fan, and Adam Zamoyski, who is supposedly not!).


A Game of Birds and Wolves by Simon Parking *****

History of the hitherto largely unknown Tactical Unit section at the Western Approaches headquarters in Liverpool during the Second World War.  Made up of one retired captain, an expert in strategy gaming, and a team of largely young Wrens, it helped prepare the front line officers to combat the U-boat threat in the Battle of the Atlantic.  Their development of winning tactics helped turn the battle round, and secure a crucial key to the war.  It's a curious book, not even getting to the nub of the book until well over a hundred pages in, but I found it an addictive read. In particular, the author, a gaming specialist himself, provided real depth to the characters, and created a gripping narrative.  I like the way it through light on people who undeservedly, not least because of their gender, have slid under the radar of recognition.


The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton G *****

A huge book that took me since the beginning of the year to read, admittedly with at least one big gap, but no less a great read.  Set in Victorian New Zealand, during the gold rush, it is very Victorian in nature - rich and complex, oozing with personality and sense of place and time. Multilayered, and not an easy read to keep track of it all, I still found it highly rewarding and well worth the effort.  Just make sure you keep tabs on the different characters!


The Seafarers by Stephen Rutt ****

Somewhat of a cross between Amy Liptrot's The Outrun and Adam Nicolson's The Seabird's Cry, this doesn't quite come up to the standards of either, but is nonetheless an engrossing and informative read.  It felt a little bit artificially created- the journey round various islands, landing up in the northern Orkneys, to focus on specific species - but there was much that was worthwhile, and chapters flowed well.


Harpole and Foxberrow by JL Carr *****

I love James Carr's writing - one of the most varied and individual writers I've ever come across - and whilst nothing quite matches the sublime A Month in the Country (my favourite book), this still a beautifully satirical, drily funny, take on the small publishing industry, a subject upon which Carr was well versed (as he was with most of his books - he had a very varied career).  Carr's books are all slim, and he never wastes a single word.  I love the way different characters weave a variety of paths through his novels - tricky to keep track of even with the brief resumes in the preliminary pages.


Circe by Madeline Miller G ***

The autobiography of Circe, nymph daughter of Helios, lover of Odysseus, aunt of the Minotaur.  The author, thoroughly well versed in the classics, retells the story through a female perspective, and a whole new narrative develops.  I have to admit I found the first hundred pages or so hard going, not least because Circe proved a desperately frustrating, almost irritating, character, and it felt distinctly repetitive, but her later development turned this into a much more interesting, and engaging, story. It certainly generated one of the most detailed and interesting discussions we've had in our book group for a while, even if nobody was an out and out fan.  One big positive is that it certainly helped develop my framework of understanding of this area of the Greek myths!









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May reviews


In an effort to catch up, all my May books are briefly reviewed below.


George IV, King In Waiting by Stella Tillyard ***

One oft the concise Penguin Monarchs series. Given the author, I expected quite a lot from this slim volume, but was somewhat disappointed, it being rather vaguer and more waffly than I anticipated.  George IV is a fascinating individual, but, whilst it was functionally useful, this book didn't really capture that for me.


A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens *****

After the relative disappointment of The Old Curiosity Shop, this was a wonderful return to the form I'd come to expect from Dickens.  Benefiting from a leaner and more focused approach than other books of his I've read, I found this almost unputdownable. Still thinking about upgrading to 6 stars, but whatever, this is going to be one of the best reads of the year.


Travels With My Aunt by Graham Greene ******

Another cracking read, it's obvious the author had real fun writing this, although there are some distinctly dark undertones.  An interesting contrast in style to Dickens, having commented on Dickens's leaner style in the previous review - not compared to Greene he's not.  I admire the way Greene conjures up so much with such superficially straightforward prose.


The House by Simon Lelic *

From the sublime to the ridiculous -  a thoroughly mediocre, bog standard, and typically tedious psychological 'thriller'. Given the 'psychological' aspect, why do these so-called thrillers (a misnomer if I every heard) rely so much on plot 'twists' and so little on character development.  The thing is, you may not know precisely what the twist will be, but you know for sure it's going to happen.  Yawn.


How To Stop Time by Matt Haig **

Again, all plot and no character.  At least the plot was a bit more interesting, but, as with the previous book I'd read by this author (The Humans) it descended into the predictably tedious, this time the well-worn 'secret society' device, with standard off-the-shelf denouement. 


Playback by Raymond Chandler *****

After two dreadful drags, thank goodness for the mastery of Chandler. Can say more in one sentence than the previous two authors seem to be able to in ten pages.  One of his 'lesser' books, but a joy to read.


The Regency Revolution by Robert Morrison *****

An interesting, lightly written and eminently readable history of the 1810-19 decade, that enabled me to pull a lot of disparate threads together, and taught me plenty.  Very enjoyable learning!  Enjoyed the social history chapters the most.


Salt on Your Tongue by Charlotte Runcie ****

Described as a combination of memoir about her pregnancy, exploration of her obsession with the sea and, in particular, what it has meant to women, and a tribute to her much loved late grandmother, this was beautifully written, but ultimately fell between all three stools.  The sea thread was simply too unstructured and disconnected - almost random thoughts and only part of the time touching on female-maritime links - whilst there wasn't really enough of the author's grandmother to make a complete thread - frustrating, as what what there made me want to know more.  I loved the pregnancy thread, and found her description of the birth profoundly moving -  this'll probably be the closest I ever get to properly appreciating what a woman must go through (and brought my own experience of partnering at the birth of our son vividly back to life - 28 years later!).  I enjoyed this, will definitely look out for more of Charlotte Runcie's books, but hope that she can next time more definitely decide what she is writing about, and  tighten things up  to match.


The Little Grey Men by BB ****

A classic children's novel of the last gnomes in England setting off on an expedition up the stream of their home to find its source and look for a long-lost brother. Charmingly dated (with one or two distinctly outmoded views!), it would still go down well with many children today. The real standouts here are the beautifully lush descriptions of the countryside they travel through and the lovely woodcut illustrations - BB was a naturalist of some repute, and it shows. 


How I Won The Yellow Jumper by Ned Boulting ****

Read by Ned Boulting himself, and circulated for free during the lockdown to subscribers to his 'Road Book' of cycling, this was a thoroughly entertaining inside view on a neophyte commentating at the Tour de France.  As one would expect, the author comes over well on audio, and is the ideal reader for his book!  I hope he does more - I'd even buy them!





Edited by willoyd

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