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Willoyd's Reading Log 2012

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Fantastic review of Jamrach's Menagerie Willoyd :smile: .. I'm so glad you enjoyed it. I enjoyed it immensely too .. I wasn't expecting it to be as powerful as it was. I liked it from the start but it really took the wind out of my sails later on .. stomach clenching stuff.

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Reading notes for week to May 26th

 

One of those weeks where I really couldn't settle: dipped into about half a dozen books, started a couple, but couldn't get going with any of them. This often happens in final weeks of a term or half-term, especially in the summer, with everything hotting up both literally (at last!) and metaphorically (unless you've ever worked in a school, you'll never really appreciate quite how mad it can be!), and this summer seems to be no exception. However, finally, I do seem to be getting going with Dan Jones's newly published book, The Plantaganets, which has had some really good reviews (which is why I bought it!). I've only read the first eighty or so pages, but to date it's living up to them. Dry as dust history this is not! it always saddens me how little of this history is covered in schools - after all, this is where the whole concept of 'England' started; and when so many of our institutions were initially established. Too much obsessing with the Second World War, and including irrelevant histories like the American West, the Aztecs et al. Better stop that line of thinking, as I can feel a real rant coming on!

 

Aside from The Plantaganets, the one other book I acquired in the past few days include Dominic Sandbrook's Seasons in the Sun, another history bought on the back of the reviews, with the added interest of it being focused on the period I grew up in.

Edited by willoyd

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The Pirates! In an Adventure with Moby Dick by Gideon Defoe *

In the midst of reading The Plantagenets and in the need of some light relief (it's good, but it's big!), I was persuaded by a combination of the Kindle Daily Deal, rave reviews of the Ardman film, and some equally rave reviews of the books on Amazon, to download this from yesterday's offering. In the event, it proved to be a brief break indeed, taking barely an hour or so to read.

 

Even so, I was left wondering how on earth I had managed to land up so wasting that space of my life. The story, the writing, the humour could all be summed up in just two words: complete drivel! I know that this is aimed at the younger market but, being a Year 5 class teacher, I've read quite a bit for that age group and enjoyed a fair bit. After all, the reviews had talked about the 'subtle humour' and how it was a good adult read too. Subtle? About as subtle as being hit in the face with a particularly nasty, wet piece of cheap supermarket ham. I don't think I even raised a smile, let along a chuckle or (dare I say it?) a laugh.

 

As for the story, it was disjointedly plain silly. Somebody likened the books to Terry Pratchett. Now, I'm no Pratchett fan, but there is a strong underlying thread of (zany) logic to his novels which bind the books together into a coherent whole. There was none of that here, just what appeared to be a random set of silly ideas which the author obviously thought that brought together would result in general all-round hilarity. I suppose they have, if the web reviews are anything to go by, but then Katie Price is recognised as an author worth reading in some quarters. Somebody is obviously reading them, but I have to be honest, I've no idea why, unless they are quite a young 9-12 year old, where I can see them appealing.

 

All in all, one of the worst books I've read in a very long time. So why did I finish it? Well, I suppose it's like watching a really bad reality show - you know you shouldn't, but you can't quite stop yourself from doing so. It's so bad, it's fascinating, at least at the time. You also know, however, you're never going back.

Edited by willoyd

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^I saw this one on the daily deal and ummmmed-and-ahhhed about whether to buy it. In the end I didn't and based on your review I'm glad I didn't! :smile:

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Full Moon by PG Wodehouse ***

I used to be an assidous reader of Wodehouse in my teens and early twenties, but it's a long while since I read anything of his, so, needing some light relief, it seemed a good moment to give him another try.

 

And light relief he turned out to be. Light, indeed, almost to the point of view of floating off into the vast blue yonder never to return - there wasn't an ounce of consequence anywhere. Which is possibly no bad thing - after all, I don't think Wodehouse set out to write anything of consequence, but, whilst mildly enjoying the novel, I was still left with a niggling question, what is the point? Whilst Wodehouse no doubt employs a fine turn of phrase and has a good line in one-liners, it all seemed rather, well, trivial. Maybe that is the point - maybe Wodehouse is meant to be fairly pointless and trivial, just a good, funny read. So, was he funny? Hmmmm...I'm probably not the best person to ask, as I've come to the conclusion I don't really do humour in books (with the odd, very rare, exception), but no, for me this wasn't, not even close: mildly amusing are more the words that jump to mind.

 

So, why 3 stars then? Well, in spite of all I've said, I did enjoy the story (the plot, by the way, is neither here nor there, other than a fairly typical story of misunderstandings on the way to a happy ending). There are times when you want something a bit mindless, a bit trivial, gently amusing. And to that extent, Wodehouse fits the bill perfectly. I actually liked the fact that the book was pretty much harmless. So, would I read more? Yes I would and certainly intend to, but with no expectation other than to be midly diverted. After all, it all may grow on me.

Edited by willoyd

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The Final Act of Mr Shakespeare by Robert Winder ****

It is 1613, and Shakespeare has returned to London. He finds himself coerced into writing one final play - Henry VIII - but under cover of supposedly doing this he actually undertakes to write a much more subversive one about Henry VII, gathering together a sympathetic group to help put it together. But will they be able to get away with it in a Jacobean London, where paranoia and semi-tyrannical rule is the order of the day?

 

There are to my mind a number of weaknesses with the basic premise of this book, not least that I was never fully convinced as to why Shakespeare decided to risk so much, nor why the others went along with it. I could see reasons why they might, but whatever the motivation, it never seemed strong enough in the story itself. But I absolutely loved the telling of the story: Winder has not only obviously done his research, but his style of writing gave the narrative a richness that completely consumed me: I really found myself living it. The characters, almost all based on real people, came vividly to life, whilst I felt I could touch, feel, smell seventeenth century London. Fabulous writing. I also really enjoyed how the author, almost as asides, explained away some of the imponderables of Shakespeare's life, such as why he disappeared for some years and why there are no records of his work, as well as some lovely little touches, such as when Shakespeare finds a copy of Edward De Vere's work in a bookshop, and tucks it away out of sight as not being worthy of sitting on the top of other books!

 

Yet, after 300 pages, it all fell apart for me. The story had been steadily building, suspense growing, the whole world of the book developing, when suddenly we are launched into a hundred pages of the playscript for Henry VII. And much as this was no mean achievement, so much of it equally simply repeated what had gone before, and the whole rhythm and flow of the story was put on hold for the next hundred pages. What a let down!

 

Reading the reviews on Amazon, it appears that some thought this the highlight of the book. Not me! I know why it was done: it revealed a secret that the book had been building towards, but what a clumsy, wasteful, tedious way of doing it. So disappointing. Still, the rest was brilliant; so what would otherwise have been a book that I was seriously considering for a maximum rating, still earns a respectable four stars. But if only.....!

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Reading notes for week to June 23rd

June is always a hopeless month for reading, and this year is no exception. School work is simply too frantic: exams to mark, reports to write (I'm taking a brief break from these to write this), shows to prepare, sports day to organise, along with all sorts of other events and activities. Chaos! June is the month of living on adrenaline!

 

So, reading takes a bit of a back seat, or at least sustained reading does. I do try to read a book at this time, but I don't know why, as I can only grab one for a few minutes, usually at the end of the day, and can never do a full book justice. I really must start learning to leave this month to short stories, essays, or books like Granta, or magazines like Slightly Foxed. One day I'll learn!

 

In the meantime, I've been dipping into books. I tried to keep going with Quicksilver, having just bought the Kindle edition, but whilst it looks (reads) very promising, it needs concentration, so have put that on hold again. Roll on the summer holidays. Otherwise, I've read a few chapters of The Plantaganets, which has plenty of them, all short and reasonably self-contained. I've also flicked the pages of this month's only acquisition, the latest Ben Aaronovitch book, Whispers Underground. Looks promising. So that makes two recent publications ready for the holidays, as I'm really looking forward to Bring Up the Bodies.

 

In the meantime, maybe I'll go for something really light. Or maybe some short stories or those essays?

Edited by willoyd

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Cakes and Ale by William Somerset Maugham *****

My first Somerset Maugham, this is a slim (under 200 pages) volume telling the story of Rosie, the first wife of the (fictitious) world famous author, Edward Driffield, as seen through the eyes of the younger writer, William Ashenden, the first person persona that WSM adopted for a number of his short stories, and this one novel. It's a satirical take on the world of the literati, heavily based on real characters (Driffield is almost certainly Thomas Hardy).

Half way through, this was heading for a steady 3 star rating - an enjoyable read, but nothing special to recommend it, other than Maugham's highly readable, limpidly clear writing style. However, as the various threads start coming together, and various twists start kicking into place, I was drawn more and more into the story, finding it completely unputdownable by the end. Maugham's short story skills are certainly to the fore: not a word wasted, and yet everything vividly to life. Rosie herself lived up to the blurb, being one of the most vivacious heroines I've read about in a long time, but other minor characters were equally well drawn in their own way. Reading the introduction afterwards (I never read it before, as they always give the game away) brought even morel ife out of the story - lots of interesting insight into how the novel came about and what it was about - an unusually genuine enhancement (most introductions end up disappointing).

I read this as I bought it as part of one of The Book People's special deals (10 volumes of WSM for some ridculously cheap price from Vintage, whose productions I generally really enjoy), and I'd always fancied giving Maugham a go. I'm glad I did, and am looking forward to trying some of the others now!

I've only just seen this. I came *this* close (imagine about ½"!) to buying this yesterday in a charity shop, but I'm trying to be good - I could kick myself now! They had lots of other titles by him too. Next time I go to visit my Mum I will have to see if they're still there. Great review. :)

½

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Whispers Under Ground by Ben Aaronovitch ****

 

This is the third in the series featuring Peter Grant, a detective constable in the Metropolitan Police, who finds that he has a particular sensitivity to the supernatural, gets assigned to The Folly, the branch of the Met dealing with ghosts, ghouls, wizards and their ilk (a branch consisting of one wizard, DCI Nightingale!), and takes off into a London that none of us have really encountered before. And yet we have: Aaronovitch's geography is unnervingly true to life, it's just the supernatural element that changes everything.

 

First warning - one really does need to read this series in order - this would be far harder to make good sense of read out of sequence, and there are too many threads that continue through the series for one to want to do otherwise. Having said that, this episode has its own unique aspects, taking Grant and the rest of the team (it's grown by one now!) into subterranean London - there are some thrilling scenes in the Underground and sewer system. To that end, there are strong elements of Neil Gaiman's Neverwhere here, but for some reason I much prefer Aaronovitch's take. I think it's because it feels so much more routed in the 'real world. and in characters who I can relate to. Apart from the Harry Potter series and Lord of the Rings, I'm not a great fan of fantasy, but this series manages to sufficiently straddle the real/fantasy borderlines to keep me enthralled, and I completed this book in one weekend (barely two sittings) as a very satisfying break from work. I think it's because Aaronovitch doesn't take the books too seriously - there is a dry, almost cynical, and very British sense of humour about them that marks the series out from the mainstream, and keeps me coming back for more. I also love the way the different supernatural characters (especially the river gods and goddesses, most prominently Lady Ty - goddess of the Tyburn) are so effectively integrated into a London that I can completely relate to - indeed the whole way the magic manifests itself. It just works in a way that hasn't elsewhere (for instance, I can't say I rated Neverwhere particularly highly).

 

The first volume remains my favourite - maybe because it was so different at the time, but the series as a whole is turning into a favourite, one of the very few where I will buy the books as soon as they are published - no waiting for paperback versions!

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Pure by Andrew Miller ******

 

I've not read any Andrew Miller before, but have had my eye on this for a while. Then a parent at school had a bit of a rave about it, so just had to give it a go.

 

The story is set in eighteenth century France, just before the Revolution. The young engineer Jean-Baptiste Baratte is given the task of clearing and demolishing the cemetery and church at Les Innocents. It proves to be a huge job, not without incident!

 

The book is dominated by the cemetery itself, its influence, all pervasive and utterly baleful, seeping through the entire neighbourhood, exuded through people's skins, permeating their clothes, food and homes, even manifesting itself in their breath, ultimately altering, undermining, anybody whose character is the slightest bit susceptible, sometimes with dramatic consequences. If Baratte succeeds, it really will be a case of purification, nothing less, but he also needs to ensure that he is not affected, maybe even infected, too.

 

This highlights what was for me one of the strengths of this book: its sense of place; others include the equally important sense of time, and the quality of the characters. To some extent the plot was almost incidental. Indeed, it doesn't surprise me that this was what came in for most criticism from the more antipathetic reviewers on Amazon, but then I think they miss the point: for me this was all about the interaction of place and character, and how the latter developed with the changes to the former, the plot in turn being driven by these changes.

 

I also really enjoyed Andrew Miller's style of writing, building upwards from the little details to create the bigger picture, working the senses and one's inner eye to the full. I never noticed the way he leaves out conjunctions on occasions until I read some of the one star reviews on Amazon, where it seems to have driven some readers demented. When I went back - yes he does, but for me that added to the vividness, piling one element onto another in quick succession, adding to the increased intensity that I had noticed in his descriptions.

 

Overall then, a really satisfying, involving, rewarding read; one to add to the all-time favourites list (the first this year).

Edited by willoyd

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I've only just seen this. I came *this* close (imagine about ½"!) to buying this yesterday in a charity shop, but I'm trying to be good - I could kick myself now! They had lots of other titles by him too. Next time I go to visit my Mum I will have to see if they're still there. Great review. :)

½

 

I think poppyshake's just read it, too, and I think she liked it as well, and I had to add the title to my wishlist because of willoyd and poppyshake's reviews :)

 

Edit: Well, I got it half way correct... she liked it okay but didn't love it, and rated it 7/10.

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I think I have this one on my wishlist; in fact I may even own it on my Kindle. Good review, sounds like I should push it up my TBR pile.

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Reading notes for week to July 7th

Another not-brilliant reading week, but end of term draws ever nearer, and i plan to let rip when that arrives! In the meantime, I've not completed any books this week, but am thoroughly enjoying James Holland's latest, Dam Busters. It's a rollicking read which comfortably fills up odd moments and brief reads before bed, and keeps me coming back for more - no mean achievement when reading patterns are so disrupted.

 

A couple of acquisitions this week, ready for summer reading: Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman, and 11.23.63 by Stephen King. The latter particularly intrigues me, especially as I have never yet read a Stephen King book (tried a couple but subject material didn't really appeal). This sounds and the blurb reads as if it's significantly different.

 

In the meantime, roll on the summer break - not just for the reading and the rest (including a trip to the Olympics and an extended bike tour), as I've got a ton of stuff I want to get through ready for next year's cohort - something I always enjoy doing (unlike the marking afterwards!).

Edited by willoyd

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Dam Busters by James Holland ******

 

Funny things, books. Just like buses - you wait for a really good one for ages, then suddenly two come along at once. Having waited until halfway through the year for my first six star book (Pure) of 2012, it's immediately followed by another one. And, rather more unusually, it's non-fiction too.

 

I love non-fiction reading, especially history, even though in practice I probably average only about one in three, but whilst quite a high proportion score highly, they rarely hit the very top grade. But there are exceptions, and this is one. The story is well enough known - it's fairly obviously centred on the 1943 raid on the Mohne, Eder and Sorpe dams in Germany, the one for which 617 Squadron was formed, for which Barnes Wallis invented the bouncing bomb, and about which the famous black and white film was made. I read Paul Brickhill's excellent account many years ago as a teenager, but this is a bit different. The raid itself doesn't happen until the final hundred pages, and the book focuses far more on the preparation. That may not sound like the makings of a great book, but what I never realised was quite how close it all came to not happening, and if it hadn't been for Barnes Wallis's vision and drive, it in all likelihood wouldn't have. Certainly the higher echelons of the RAF took some persuading, and it was only because of the intervention of the Chief of Air Staff, Charles Portal, that it ever took off. Even then, the design and engineering work had to be done in what would nowadays be regarded as fantasy time, with the formal design work on the bomb itself only completed ten weeks before the raid, and testing still being carried out 3 days beforehand. As a result, a fair number who flew on the raid had never dropped an Upkeep (the code name for the bouncing bomb) before the raid itself! The date of the raid itself couldn't be delayed, as the bomb needed to be dropped whilst the dams were still full, and after mid-May they started to empty as the summer got under way.

 

So, the story is potentially a good one, but it was also very well told. Holland has obviously drawn heavily on personal interviews (he talked to all four of the surviving raiders plus close relatives) and primary evidence. This means that certain people received more coverage than others. For instance Charlie Williams, the wireless operator in E-Easy, features prominently, not least because of the extensive archive of his papers now available in the Queensland State Library (the operation was marked by the number of Australians, Canadians and Americans involved). it did mean that some barely featured (but then there were over 150 flying, let alone others involved), and there were a few about whom I wished I knew a bit more. But it also means that,in Holland's very capable hands, the human aspect of the operation does shine through, and this is what really makes the book come alive, as he puts real flesh and bones on otherwise just legendary names.

 

I also grew up believing that, whilst the dams raid was a spectacular achievement (if anything involving so much death and destruction can be regarded as such), it didn't actually achieve very much in terms of forwarding the cause of the war. Holland puts that myth very firmly to bed, and argues very effectively that it was exactly the opposite - that it had a profound effect, particularly when one considers how few people were actually involved. Put in that context, one can understand why the loss of almost half the squadron (8 of the 19 crews who flew) could be seen as an acceptable price to pay, even if by peacetime standards it seems horribly high.

 

So what we have is an outstanding story told superbly, with conclusions that make it particularly worth the retelling. I really enjoyed this book, both the story and the quality of the history involved, and already have James Holland's earlier book on the Battle of Britain on the shelves ready to read as a result. It's on occasions like this, when I really wonder why I don't read more non-fiction - with history like this, who needs to resort to fiction?!

Edited by willoyd

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The Return of Captain John Emmett by Elizabeth Speller ***

 

John Emmett, WW1 survivor, commits suicide having absconded from his nursing home. His sister, Mary, can't understand why and asks his closest friend to investigate (even though 'closest' doesn't actually mean very close). And so we become involved in an increasingly intriguing mystery.

 

There isn't a lot of action here. Indeed, stripped to its barest essentials, it almost reads as simply a series of interviews that friend Laurence carries out, but then the story revolved much more around the characters and the impact the war had on the them. Even those who didn't go to war have been marked by that very fact, Which all makes for a fascinating read as Laurence feels away through a veritable labyrinth of personal relationships.

 

To achieve all of this, the author has founded her story very strongly in the period. Whilst no expert, it exudes a strong sense of the time, and feels 'real'. This combined with the strong characterisation made the story itself utterly engrossing, even having worked out one of the key mysteries fairly early on, and whilst reading, I found it almost unputdownable. And yet, I came away mildly disappointed, which I think came down to two things. Firstly, the ending - the denouement itself was a mite too melodramatic for me, and the final outcome for the central characters was gratuitously unsatisfying (at least for me). Secondly, there were just too many coincidences and hidden relationships, smacking of an author overstraining at creating the mystery.

 

However, this was felt mostly in hindsight. At the time of reading, I was dragged along, intrigued to find out how the story would resolve itself. A good book for a book club: good enough to get one's teeth into, but with almost as much to discuss about how the author put it together. In two minds whether a three or four star, but went for the higher grade simply for the readability.

Edited by willoyd

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Moo by Jane Smiley ***

 

Jame Smiley's first novel, and a complex one too. A satirical look at university life in the States, Moo University sits in the heart of the agricultural Midwest, its strengths lying in agriculture,its aspirations in higher realms, but its budget under dire threat from the state governor. The result is a maelstrom of politics, both internal and external, and personal relationships.

 

Not having experienced American academe, or indeed even American life, some of the pointedness will have inevitably flown gently over my head, but having worked in one of the new British metropolitan universities, there's enough similarity for it at times to ring deliciously and occasionally awfully close to reality, even if somewhat (and inevitably) overegged - but that's the point, after all!

 

The problem was partly just that though. For satire to work, one has to really have experienced the reality, and not having done so, too much of the point will have been lost. But the biggest issue was that the cast list was just too large, with chapters swapping backwards, forwards and sideways, chopping and changing between characters and situations. The result was that it became quite difficult at times keeping track of who was who ,and what was happening with one situation only being revisited after circulating around half a dozen others. This wasn't helped by the fact that I'd put the book down for a few weeks, and tried resuming near the point I'd left off around halfway through - not a good recipe for dealing with a book with such a structure! The very fact that I took that break though suggests that it wasn't quite as unputdownable as, say, Smiley's brilliant take on King Lear, A Thousand Acres. Having said that, when I did resume, the second half was consumed in barely a couple of sittings.

 

So, whilst it was an enjoyable read, it's not one that I could in all honestly say grabbed me and demanded to be read: it was simply insufficiently focused, based on subject matter just a bit too remote from my own experience to take on board all the humour and irony. Glad to have read it though.

Edited by willoyd

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L'Auberge by Julia Stagg ****

 

Presumably drawing at least partially on her own experiences, this is the first in a developing series of books about the fictional commune of Fogas in the Ariege, in the foothills of the Pyrenees (very topical - apparently just 'round the corner' from where all those tacks were thrown in the Tour de France*). Paul and Lorna are new arrivals, having just bought the local auberge, unbeknownst to them bringing down upon themselves the full wrath and machinations of the local mayor who expected it to be sold to his brother-in-law. Can they survive his and French bureacracy's worst, and make it work, and how will the rest of the village take to them?

 

Written partly as a counter* to the almost ubiquitous ex-pat, "wasn't it wonderful, aren't the locals quaint type of memoir" , this is, instead, a deliberately light, frothy, thoroughly good natured and enjoyable tale of local intrigue, politics and people, which I rattled through in a couple of sittings - even though it's not exactly a hefty tome, the time still seemed to fly past, the end of the book almost taking me by surprise, it arrived so quickly. Fortunately, I've already bought the recently published second volume, The Parisian's Return, so after a brief respite (I can't read a series of books back to back - or, more to the point, I won't), I will certainly be launching myself back into finding out what happens next! I just hope that the author doesn't take too long in writing the rest....or maybe it's just as well, as I can see them being quite addictive! In the meantime, whilst so many of those sorts of travel books completely turn me off a place, I have to admit that the Ariege has in the past couple of weeks moved significantly up my list of places to visit (with the bike of course!).

 

* from a conversation at her book signing in Waterstones, Leeds last week.

Edited by willoyd

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Sky's The Limit by Richard Moore ***

 

Apparently a follow-up to his book Heroes, Villains and Velodromes, which concentrated on the British revolution in track cycling, this focuses more on the road scene and the growing impact of Team Sky. It takes the story up to last year's Vuelta e Espana, so any further edition will have plenty of room for upgrading and chapter adding!

 

It's a good, solid, piece of reportage. Richard Moore appears to have had ready access to pretty much all of the Team Sky staff, including the most prominent players, as well as tapping into those in other teams and positions, and has produced a well-written and absorbing account, which helps fill in the holes and blank spots that one inevitably comes across when a 'mere' fan/spectator. There were quite a few points where I caught myself saying "Ohhh, so that's why that happened!" In spite of Bob Stapleton's comment at one point, it appears to be meticulously researched, and could only have been written by someone with both a strong interest in the sport, and the contacts to go with that.

 

It's not great literature, but then it was never meant to be so. It does occasionally, however, feel a little bit repetitious, or at least too anxious to dot every i and cross every t as to what people said when. With a mite more judicious editing, it could probably have been 20-25% slimmer, to the book's advantage, but if you're interested in the cycling scene (as I am), it's a book not to be missed.

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Reading notes for week to July 28th

A while since I wrote any notes, but have at least kept up with the reviews! It's really been a pleasure to be able to get in some steady reading the last couple of weeks as the end of term marked the end of the mega-frenetic period, although anybody who suggests that the summer break is all holiday for teachers needs their head examining: I've spent the bulk of the past two weeks tackling all the admin and planning work that one never has time for during term, and am barely half-way through it even now, if that. The real pleasure though is having the time to myself - pacing the work as I want to do it, not as the timetable demands!

 

So, the books have been taking over nice and steadily, Mostly fairly light stuff - I still can't bring myself to tackle any of the biggies that I promised I'd have a go at this summer. Whatever, it's turning out to be one my best years, at least on the quantity front, having just finished my 32nd book several days earlier than any previous year (at least of those recorded!).

 

Still can't resist the lure of buying books though - more than I'm actually reading, although trying to keep it down somewhere near the one for one ratio. It's hard to resist though, especially when receiving books and book tokens featured amongst the end of year presents from the children (wow!). So, book acquisitions for the past few weeks since the last set of notes include:

 

Target Turpitz by Patrick Bishop

Evelina by Frances Burney

Waiting for Sunrise by William Boyd

The Sea Detective by Mark Douglas-Home

The Spire by William Golding

Sky's The Limit by Richard Moore (read)

How To Be A Woman by Caitlin Moran

A History of England in 100 Places by John Julius Norwich

L'Auberge by Julia Stagg (read)

The Parisian's Return by Julia Stagg

 

Phew! Quite a bit of reading to do over the next few weeks!

Edited by willoyd

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Reading notes for weeks to August 25th

Almost a month since the last set of notes, not even reviews, as have been on jolly jaunts elsewhere. Had a series of brilliant trips to the Olympics, spectating at the women's football quarter-final in Newcastle, the semi-final at Old Trafford, and the final at Wembley, the last of which was the first night of our main holidays. Next day was spent at the Olympic Park watching the final stages of the women's hockey (including the final, where we saw the British women get their bronze medals - wahey!!), the day after that we were at the Globe to see Henry V, then back to the Olympics on Sunday to watch the men's marathon on the Embankment. We then spent a week cycling home from central London to Yorkshire up through some of the quietest countryside I've ever experienced in England; it was fabulous. Even the weather treated us well. Then back this week to school preparation. So, not a lot of time for reading books (in between reading programmes, newspapers, textbooks etc!), and have just managed two:

 

Soccernomics by Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski ***

A fascinating insight into football from an economist's perspective; a bit like the Freakonomics of football, but because the focus was on one particular activity, I found it far more coherent and thus more interesting. Simon Kuper has written some good material on football (not my favourite sport, but I was into the women's football at the Olympics - so much more enjoyable than the men's), and this was no less so in patches. There was the odd chapter where I wondered what the relevance was, and at times it could have done with a bit of editing to avoid repetition, which is why it doesn't rate about a good solid read, but one that I will keep and dip into again. I particularly enjoyed the way it cut through all the tribalism and emotional fog. Reading this at the same time as going to so many matches, helped me to realise that I do actually enjoy football to watch - but only when I can do so without any particular preference for who wins. it's such a pleasure to be able to sit and watch without all the baggage of supporting. I might even watch more in future, although I'll take some persuading to bother with the silly antics of the men's game..

 

The Warden by Anthony Trollope ***

Picked up Barchester Towers to read (well - turned to it in the complete works volume I've got on the Kindle) and then decided that I needed to reread this before I did. Whilst it's not the greatest of Trollope's work (not a patch on BT, which I'm now in the midst of), it was a pleasant introduction to the characters and environment of Barchester, and helped set BT in context. Given the short nature of the book, there's a bit too much of Trollope's characteristically rambling musings for my taste - again the balance is better in BT - which is partly why it 'only' earns 3 stars. Lacks the humour of it's sequel too. Even so, Trollope remains eminently readable, and I'm not quite sure why I haven't read more. One to put right.

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Ilkley Literature Festival

The press have been banging on about Edinburgh, and I'm sure it's great, but they're some other brilliant, if smaller, festivals around too. Ilkley is one that has grown and grown, and is now bursting at its fortnight's seams. We took out a Friends subscription a few years ago, which means that we get first chance at booking, even if that is still mega frantic when trying to get through on the very limited phone service (you can't book during this period online, and they prefer you to use phone to mail - so do I!).

 

Anyway, once we got through, we (OH and I) booked our biggest chunk to date. In fact we went a bit mad, but are really looking forward to October as a result, when we'll get almost as immersed in books as we were at the Olympics (almost, but not quite!!). We're not going to all the same, but here are my bookings:

 

Sat Sep 29: Gillian Tindall (Three Houses, Many Lives)

Sun Sep 30: Benjamin Zephaniah

Thu Oct 4: Michael Rosen

Sat Oct 6: Tim Birkhead (Bird Sense), Simon Armitage (Walking Home)

Sun Oct 7: Ned Boulting and Stephen Roche

Tue Oct 9: Pete Brown (Shakespeare's Local)

Fri Oct 12: Clare Balding

Sat Oct 13: Richard Ford (Canada), David Stuttard (Romans Who Shaped Britain), Gillian Slovo (An Honourable Man)

Sun Oct 14: Ross King (Leonardo and the Last Supper), Jenny Uglow (The Pinecone).

 

Roll on October!

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Reading notes week ending 22 Sep 2012

Haven't posted for almost a month now, so a quick bringing up to date, for my benefit if nobody else's!

 

Reading seems to have got a bit bitty the past few weeks, mainly with the build up to and the start of the autumn term. New year, new class, with all its challenges (one thing about teaching - it's never boring!). Looking back to the last couple of years, this is probably my weakest time of year for reading. Have managed to finish one book, Barchester Towers, which was a reread. Still a 5 star read - a much better book that The Warden, which almost feels to be an afterthought (although written earlier). A more interesting and intricate plot, and a more varied range of stronger, well-drawn characters, (along with a host of wonderful cameos at the Thornes' party) make for an absorbing, at times funny, read, even if I did want to knock a few heads together at times! It was a favourite of mine as a teenager, and on this occasion the memory has held true as it's not lost any of its sparkle.

 

Since then, I've been trying to read some of the books whose authors I'm going to see at the Ilkley Literature Festival. I say some, but in fact I've not progressed beyond the first, Richards Ford's Canada. It's a good 'un, but the problem is that I've just not really settled down to a solid block of reading, snatching 20 minutes here on the train, or 10 minutes there at night, exacerbated by the fact that some train journeys (followed by a 20 minute walk into school) I've chosen to pick up again listening to Don Quixote on audiobook (unabridged, read beautifully by Roy Macmillan). So, not the ideal way to read a book, not giving it time to breathe and let it suck me in. Having said that, in spite of not doing it any favours, I'm still reading and still enjoying, but must find some bigger blocks of time this week. I've also got An Honourable Man, Three Houses Many Lives and The Pinecone to try and tackle before October. I don't think it's going to happen now though, but will press on for the present - they are all books I'm keen to read anyway. And there's a whole load more mounting up to be read. I've restricted my book buying quite considerably over the past few weeks, but have succumbed to a few Kindle cheap offers including Daily Deals (*) and a couple from the local Oxfam bookshop (**). Aside from those above, this month as so far seen me buy/obtain:

 

Sixty Hours of Edward by Craig Lancaster *

Perfect Rigour by Masha Gessen *

Crisis? What Crisis? by Alwyn Turner *

Rejoice! Rejoice! by Alwyn Turner *

The Smell of the Continent by Richard Mullen and James Munson **

The Future History of the Arctic by Charles Emmerson **

 

The reading list is getting rather long!

Edited by willoyd

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Canada by Richard Ford ****

Well, it took almost a month, but I finished it at last this weekend. The fact that I persisted (not something I always do) for so long shows that I rated this book, but having reached the end, I am somewhat ambivalent, an ambivalence reflected in the range of opinions in the reviews I've read on-line.

 

Dell is a fifteen year old twin, with sister Berner, whose parents commit a bank robbery (that's no spoiler, it's made clear in the first sentence of the book!). The first third of the book focuses on the build up to this and the immediate aftermath, not least in the way it affects the family and Dell's future. The book could, I suppose, be classified as a coming of age story. However, Ford is in no hurry to tell the story, lingering on the minutiae of Dell's life and situation. This is particularly true in the second part, where Dell arrives and settles in Canada - I was left with an abiding sense of the desolation, the openness, almost the back end of beyondism of the corner of plains Saskatchewan he lands up in. I was also struck by the fact that whilst this part of the book represents only six weeks, it felt like it occupied months, maybe because I found it difficult to picture all that detail occupying such a short space of time. It was quite a shock when Dell mentions the real timespan - could it only have been that long??

 

I thoroughly enjoyed the quality of Ford's writing, but have to say that it was a book I found hard to get into. OK, it wasn't exactly the best time of year to be tackling it (the start of the academic year is fairly fraught in terms of reading time), but whilst I wanted to persist to the end, at no stage did I feel so completely grabbed that I must sit down and read it. As a result, it was gradually consumed in short bursts, which probably didn't help with the continuity. Reaching the end after a sustained effort this morning, I came away with the feeling that I've read a very good, even great, writer, but haven't really got the most from him. Not a very satisfying feeling, and one that niggles somewhat. Perhaps I ought to try again when I've got more time, but there again, it's not really left me with any great desire to do so. All in all then, a book that I think I ought to have enjoyed more, but one that has left me not wholly satisfied, either with myself or the book. Hmmmm - I'm off to see him at the Ilkley Literature Festival next weekend, which I'm actually now looking forward to all the more, as it may help resolve some of my thoughts on this one. There again, it may not!!

Edited by willoyd

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I'm off to see him at the Ilkley Literature Festival next weekend, which I'm actually now looking forward to all the more, as it may help resolve some of my thoughts on this one. There again, it may not!!

 

A very interesting session it was too. In particular, the two readings that Richard Ford did: the first 2-3 pages, and a section at the start of Part 3, which is near the end. What struck me was (a) I loved hearing him read - the rhythms and cadences really made the text come alive without any dramatics - very simply but captivatingly read, and (b) how much the story and character of Dell had actually got under my skin. Seems like this book may be a slow burner, one of those that continue to grow on you even after you have finished reading. I've certainly kicked up the rating from 3 to 4, but it could go higher longer term! Particularly interesting was the contrast between Ford and Gillian Slovo, who I went to see a couple of hours later (being interviewed by the same person incidentally). Whilst Slovo came across as very sure of herself and of what was required of a novelist, Ford was a bit more thoughtfully hesitant: clear in his own mind about how he works personally, but either less so or simply less forthright in putting his work into a broader context. Whilst I enjoyed both books, and found both writers interesting, I warmed and related more to Ford. personally. Along with attending another session with the historian David Stuttard, it was a very enjyable, even educational, afternoon. Two more tomorrow (Ross King and Jenny Uglow). Combined with the thoroughly entertaining Claire Balding on Friday night, it's turning into rather a good weekend!

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