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Willoyd's Reading 2018


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Two mini-reviews of Reading Group books


Purple Hibiscus by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie *****

Fifteen year old Kambili lives in Nigeria in a family ruled with a rod of religious iron by her father, a pillar of the local community and respected journalist.  On Palm Sunday, her brother rebels and refuses to take communion.  The shock waves redound and Adichie examines how this came about and the consequences.  In the meantime, Nigeria has been subject to a coup, the corruption of which Kambili's father and paper campaign against, also with consequences.

This was Adichie's debut novel, and the first of hers I have read. I have to admit that it's not the sort of book that I would have normally gravitated towards, and I wasn't particularly looking forward to it, but that's the strength of book clubs.  In a relatively short 280-odd pages, she weaves a remarkably powerful, complex, novel, with innumerable themes that gave my bookgroup a huge amount to think about and discuss (one of the best discussions we've had for a while), whilst retaining a surprisingly light touch.  I particularly enjoyed the way she used the minimum of words, often through speech, to address some complex issues, leaving the reader to work things out for themselves whilst still making it clear exactly what was at issue - really impressive especially in a first novel.  Her characterisations (and settings) were also absolutely on the nail, most powerfully of all that of Kambili's father, Eugene, which was the subject of a considerable proportion of our discussion!  This was a thoroughly rewarding read, and a superb choice for our group as it was book that cried out for discussion.  


All The Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr ****

Pulitzer Prize Winner in 2015, this book has had extensively positive reviews.  It also came to me with a strong recommendation from offspring, whose choices I don't always agree with but always respect!

Two narratives are tightly interwoven in an extended series of short, sharp chapters set mainly during World War Two.  Marie-Laure is a French girl, daughter of an official in a major museum in Paris, who goes blind at the age of six.  As a teenager, she copes with the world with the aid of her devoted father and the models he produces of the city that surrounds her.  Werner, a similar age, is an orphan in Germany during the rise of Nazism.  He is a remarkably skilled mathematician with talents that will define his life, even if not quite in the way one would expect.  Both young people learn to cope with their circumstances, but these do have their effects, an important element of the narrative.  Inevitably, they come together, and it is how that happens and what happens when they do that is the core thread of the book. 

It took me a while to get into this, such a while that, if it had not been a reading group read, I'm not sure I would have made it to the end.  What for many in my group was a richly descriptive and strongly involving novel (one even gave it 10 out of 10), was for me rather patchier.  I found the continuous swapping between the two stories initially far too frequent and irritating, whilst the author's writing came over rather too long-winded and repetitive.  At 500 pages, it started to become all rather daunting.  Fortunately, the second half seemed to pick up in pace somewhat (or maybe I was just simply now engaged in the story!), and I galloped through the last 250-odd pages with growing pleasure.  I suspect part of the cause of this was a significant change in Werner's story which made the whole novel start to feel more tightly constructed. 

That isn't to say I didn't appreciate aspects of the book right from the start.  In particular, I found the author's characterisation particularly deep, especially his portrayal of Marie-Laure.  I've not experienced blindness (although a high degree of short sightedness has always made me nervous of my sight), but his descriptions of her experiences rang very strongly true.  The author's description of the war itself also felt very real in its intensity.

However, perhaps the strongest part of the novel for me was the ending.  I won't spoil it for those who haven't read it, but, again, it felt very real. Unlike some novels, I really could believe in it as a reflection of what might have truly happened.  

I suppose, at the end of those 500 pages, where I became more and more immersed, I still can't totally laud this book to the heights like some of my fellow members, and I can understand the reason why at least one member really couldn't bring herself to finish it (and another almost didn't manage it), but I can say that this was a book that overall I enjoyed, and am glad I read.  Part of me wants to say that a healthy dose of editing would have helped enormously, but I do sort of wonder if I would have enjoyed the second half so much if there hadn't been the longish build up of the first.  Not sure, but a tightening up at various points might well have made this even into a favourite.  As it is, not quite excellence, although there are those in my group who cannot quite believe I don't think that!

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Great Review! I think that there is a pressure nowadays, when reading/watching something everyone is raving about, for you to like it too. It's good that you managed to get to the end of the book!

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On 16/03/2018 at 7:37 PM, bobblybear said:

I can recommend Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. I read it last year, and it was one of the top reads of the year for me. 


Thanks for the rec. Definitely intend to read more of her books after this.

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Two non-fiction books


Jane Austen, The Secret Radical by Helena Kelly **

I've been a long-term Jane Austen fan, ever since my late teens when I studied Emma for A-level, so when a book comes along that says that "Almost everything we think we know about Jane Austen is wrong", I'm intrigued.  Kelly's thesis is that rather than being the cosy romantic writer we all apparently think she is, she was actually highly subversive in her writing - it's just that given the nature of society of the time, it all had to be rather elliptical in the way it was written.


So a serious piece of literary criticism, academically rigorous in its approach?  Well, er, no, at least not initially. Instead we get a fictionalised cameo purporting to show Austen's (oh, no, sorry, 'Jane's', as the author insists on calling her - personal friend I suppose.).  inner thinking at a critical juncture, based on her letters.  After several pages of this taster - and there's one like it at the start of every chapter - we then start on the meat of the book, Kelly's demonstration that everything we thought we knew about Jane Austen is wrong.


Except she doesn't demonstrate anything of the sort.  Even when studying her at A-level (over forty years ago - good grief!) we never thought of Austen as a cosy romantic.  Even then, much of the teaching suggested that she was quite radical in her writing, using techniques that no writer before her had used.  Having said that, Kelly doesn't really touch on any of this, focusing more on how she sees Austen as socially and politically radical.  She does take some of the thinking further than I remember - for instance I found her take on the meanings of 'Sense and Sensibility' and 'Pride and Prejudice' interesting and indeed illuminating - but for every piece of insight, I was totally unconvinced by another piece of second guessing - not what Austen actually wrote, but what 'surely must be', based on virtually no evidence other than Kelly's assumptions.  Basically, she has a point, she's trying to prove it, and like so many with bees in their bonnets, she completely over-eggs the pudding (please forgive the double whammy!).  And yet, by not looking at the writing itself, she actually misses out on some of the most radical aspects of Austen's books.


The problem is that she's starting from a false premise, that everybody sees Austen as a comfortable writer.  They don't, and there is a whole string of commentators who have shown that Austen is anything but.  But Kelly seems to think she's the first, and that what she says is revolutionary. It isn't.


I managed to read the chapters on four of the books, but that was my limit - I just couldn't take any more of the author's  distinctly febrile writing and claims, nor the cameos.  A pity, really, as there is a good book in there, but, in summary, it was all rather spoilt by the author's anxiety to both prove her point, and prove that she's the only one who thought of it.


Darkest Hour by Anthony McCarten ***

The 'book of the film', although fortunately it leaves out the fictionalised parts of the film, and concentrates on the history.  It's an interesting enough read, in a rather chattier style than I favour when reading history, but it tells the story competently enough even if it never particularly gripped or engaged me.  One of those books that does what it says on the tin, but not a lot more.




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March Review

Another steady month's reading, two reading group books and three non-fiction (a variety of genre). Currently reading one of each as well.


Figures are those to date for the year, with figures in brackets being those this month if more than zero.


Books read:  15 (5)

Pages read:  5121 (1557), average 342 (311) pages per book.

Gender : 12 (3) male, 3 (2) female

Genre:  9 (2) fiction, 6 (3) non-fiction

Sources:  9 (2) owned6 (3) library

Format:  8 (3) hardback, 5 (1) paperback, 2 (1) ebook

Round Robin challenge:  2
TBR list: 1462: year -10, month -3


Books for reading acquired this month:

Constable in Love by Martin Gayford (paperback, charity shop)

A Little History of British Gardening by Jenny Uglow (hardback, charity shop)

Palmerston, The People's Darling by James Chambers (paperback, charity shop)

Exodus by Paul Collier (paperback, online: investigation into UK migration patterns)

Time to Fly by Jim Flegg (paperback, online: the science of bird migration)

The Age of Decadence by Simon Heffer (hardback, online)

Emma by Alexander McCall Smith (Ebook)

Selected Writings by John Muir (hardback, Waterstones)


Currently reading:

A View of the Harbour by Elizabeth Taylor (reading group)

Battle Cry of Freedom by James McPherson (history doorstopper)


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H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald ****

For me, this book is a combination of what I would normally regard as opposites: 'misery memoir' (Mark Cocker, The Guardian), a genre I usually abhor, on one side, natural history, a genre I usually love, on the other.  Somewhere intertwined with this was a semi-biographical account of TH White, focusing on his own attempts to train a goshawk as recounted in his minor classic The Goshawk.  All in all a complex book trying to pull off a balancing act between the three relationships (Dad, White, Mabel) that could so easily find itself weighed down too heavily in any one direction.


And, yet, for me, Helen Macdonald manages to pull it off.  This is a book that I've been aware of ever since publication, but completely shied away from reading, mainly because of that abhorrence.   However, because of all the other strands, and in spite of the fact that her grief is central to understanding the whole book, it never quite overwhelms as so often happens with others of that ilk. 


Having said that, I have to admit that after a start that completely knocked me out and left me almost gasping in appreciation, I found that there were times later on when I thought "We've been here before, and not just once", and others where I thought she was over-egging the psychology (or was it psychiatry, especially in relation to White?!).  Each time, however, she managed to pull things back into balance, usually with one of her shifts into one of the other two subjects, so I kept on reading, and wanting to read .  In some books, this sort of topic shifting can irritate, but here it not only worked well for me, it was an essential!


Inevitably, given my prejudices, I most enjoyed and related to the sections where the author worked with Mabel, in particular the later scenes in part 2 where she actually goes out hunting with the goshawk.  I'm no fan of hunting for sport (indeed, rather the opposite), although falconry has a subtly different feel to it, but I found the relationship between the two fascinating, even when we found ourselves almost moving into some sort of therianthropy.  In fact, I surprised myself in how enthralled I was in that.  Indeed, having used birdwatching and 'getting out on my own' as some of my own therapy for dealing with different stress issues, I could relate to a surprisingly good degree of what she was writing about. But, even more, I loved Macdonald's descriptions of the outdoors and events there, all brought vividly to life in her distinctive prose style.  I did wonder if I would have enjoyed it without the other strands, and, yes, I would have, but then it would have been a very different book - more of a straightforward natural history/sporting narrative, lacking the same depth and personality - so perhaps not as much as would first seem.  Whilst the psychiatry/psychology was occasionally overwrought, it was still essential.


So, in the end, this was a book that took me by surprise, pleasantly so.  I wasn't expecting to particularly like it, but I came close to loving it.  Several reviewers have suggested that it has much in common with Amy Liptrot's The Outrun ("If you like X, you'll love Y…"). I suppose it does in terms of being a memoir about nature helping the author's recovery, and they are close enough that the comparison is a almost inevitable, but they are also very different.  In particular, Macdonald's book struck me as darker, more introspective, even more mystical.  None of that is either negative or positive, just how they differ.  However on balance, and mainly because of the caveats above, this doesn't quite reach the heights of The Outrun, but is still a thoroughly recommended read.

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Just returned home from a few days visiting family on Speyside.  Stopped off overnight near Alnwick, and had a few very pleasant, if rather crowded, hours at Barter Books.  Stock was a little bit thin in the areas I was most interested in, but picked up three books, two I've been looking out for in reasonably priced hardback, and one pure serendipity.


Hope and Glory: Britain 1900-1990 by Peter Clarke (Penguin History of Britain)

The Coast Road by Paul Gogarty (loved his earlier book, The Water Road, travelling round England in a narrow boat - this one in a motorhome).


and serendipity:

London, Flower of Cities All by Richard Church, with some lovely illustrations by Imre Hofbauer.


Having finished H is for Hawk, am concentrating over the next few days on James M McPherson's near classic history of the American Civil War, Battle Cry of Freedom.  At just over 800 pages, it may keep me occupied for a while!  Next book after H is for Hawk for the reading group is A Thousand Splendid Suns.  I spent an hour or so trying to get into it, but failed horribly, and skimmed through to the last few pages.  Not my cup of tea at all, and think I'll give this month a miss.

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A View of the Harbour by Elizabeth Taylor ******


This was the April selection for one of my book groups - my choice in fact!  I chose it because at the time I had read one of the author's other books (Blaming), and I was both intrigued by the author and felt that, on that limited experience, her writing lent itself well to book group discussion.  In the intervening period, I read two more of her books (The Soul of Kindness and Mrs Palfrayman at the Claremont), both of which confirmed my growing fascination with Elizabeth Taylor's works, and her choice  as a book group read.


I wasn't mistaken either, as we had plenty to discuss!  Essentially, the novel is set in the small, post-war (it was first published in 1948), rather run-down seaside town of Newby, and examines the interactions of a small group of largely near neighbours living on the harbour front: Robert and Beth Cazabon (a name that struck an immediate chord!) and their children Prudence and Stevie, next door neighbour and Beth's best friend Tory Foyle and her son (largely away at boarding school, and the source of some perceptively funny letters), nosy and irrascible invalid Mrs Bracey and her two long-suffering daughters Maisie and Iris, recently bereaved Lily Wilson (owner of one of the few local attractions, a wax-work museum as run-down as the town), and a rare, but long-term, visitor, Bertram Hemingway, retired naval officer and aspiring (but mediocre) painter.


As with all her titles, A View of the Harbour is soon seen to be very carefully chosen. Superficially, it's the title of a painting hung up in the pub where Bertram is staying, and one to which he has promised a companion piece. As well, It obviously alludes to the reader's perspective, the view of the harbour's inhabitants and their lives, but we gradually realise that it also refers to the fact that this book is all about what people see, don't see, think they see, and don't understand even when they have seen!  The threads connecting, even entwining, the various characters are many, and often become rather entangled.  Our discussion centred very largely on these interconnections, what the author told us overtly, and what was actually bubbling up underneath.


This was all very much mixed up in a discussion about the way Elizabeth Taylor writes.  Her style reminds me of Virginia Woolf and Muriel Spark: incisive and focused very much on the internal characters and how they see the world.  Just like these two, her books are slim but full of meaning, not a word wasted. ("...and, with one of those impulsive gestures she thought out so well beforehand, she tucked her hand under his elbow and strolled with him along the waterside towards the cliff-walk").  


I also find it fascinating how she draws on and refers to other writers: the name Cazabon is surely no coincidence, so close to George Eliot's Casaubon in Middlemarch, although the roles are reversed her, with Beth being the writer buried in her own work and Robert the frustrated one.  The allusions are just that though, as the narrative takes its own distinctive line, perhaps showing how an accumulation of small differences can lead to distinctly different outcomes.  In similar fashion, Taylor's employment of the lighthouse is surely a direct reference to Woolf's most famous work.  Again, one can see the parallels and allusions, underlined by Taylor's use of the weather to introduce chapters, as in The Waves, but the final product remains very much Taylor's own.


There is much else here, and the author keeps one thinking right the way through to the very last line (literally!); it's definitely a book that merits a good discussion!.  Suffice to summarise it here as another outstanding read from an author whose relative obscurity I find completely bemusing, but hopefully part of a wave of writers who are beginning to be rediscovered and appreciated.  I found it interesting to read (somewhere!) that whilst it was the Angry Young Men (Osborne, Braine, Sillitoe etc) who dominated the literary scene at the time and for a while after, longer term it is the generation of female writers who are actually lasting and being read - Spark, Taylor, Pym etc, not least because of the work of publishers like Virago and Persephone.  I hope so.  I found it rather sad that the only previous stamp in the book I borrowed from the library was in 2004, but encouraging that it's not so difficult to find Elizabeth Taylor on bookshop shelves.  I think the best accolade I can pass on this is to say that I've now bought my own copy, as this is a book I am already dipping back into.  As I usually do in this situation, I give it 5* to start with, it is one of the best so far this year, and reserve judgement on the sixth for later.

(Later edit: upgraded to 6 stars).





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April Review

In terms of quality, this has been an excellent month, with two 5* books and two 4*, with the current read heading for at least 5* as well.

Numbers-wise, at first glance, this looks to be a relatively slow month, but in addition to those four books completed, there's 500+ pages of James M McPherson's fascinating tome on the American Civil War period.  I've added these to the page count figures for this month; normally I wouldn't include an incomplete book in any of the month-end numbers, but have made this particular one an exception as it's such a significant part of this, not May's, reading.  There's still 260-odd pages to go, but they, along with the overall book stats, will be included next month!  After a slow start, the number of female authors read this year to date was doubled this month.  The average pages per book for the year to date dipped slightly, but is still the highest for any year so far, reflecting one of the aims for this year (read some of my bigger books).  So, whilst the number of books read may be lower than the past few years, pages read is less than 100 below my highest ever at this stage.


Figures are those to date for the year, with figures in brackets being those this month if more than zero.


Books read:  19 (4)

Pages read:  7244 (1740), average 332 (298) pages per book.

Gender : 13 (1) male, 6 (3) female

Genre:  12 (3) fiction, 7 (1) non-fiction

Sources:  11 (2) owned8 (2) library

Format:  9 (1) hardback, 8 (3) paperback, 2 (0) ebook

Round Robin challenge:  2
TBR list: 1468: year -4, month +6


Books for reading acquired this month:

March Violets by Philip Kerr (ebook, online)

Advise and Consent by Allen Drury (ebook, online)

At the Edge of the Orchard by Tracy Chevalier (paperback, independent)

The Midnight Watch by David Dyer (paperback, independent)

The Life and Death of Sherlock Holmes by Matthias Bostrom (paperback, independent)

Samuel Johnson, A Life by David Noakes (hardback, charity shop)

Raj by Lawrence James (hardback, charity shop)

A Thousand Years of the English Parish by Anthea Jones (hardback, charity shop)

Zoology by Gillian Clarke (paperback, independent)


Currently reading:

Battle Cry of Freedom by James McPherson

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Hi Willoyd, I find these stats really interesting :) 


I too seem to have found myself reading bigger books this year - two 650 pagers done already and three more in the pipeline. Good to see your quality is also high as well as page count! 


Your focus  us on non fiction is also encouraging me to pick up more from my own shelves and all your recently acquired sound intriguing! 

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1 hour ago, Alexi said:

Hi Willoyd, I find these stats really interesting :) I too seem to have found myself reading bigger books this year - two 650 pagers done already and three more in the pipeline. Good to see your quality is also high as well as page count! 

Your focus  us on non fiction is also encouraging me to pick up more from my own shelves and all your recently acquired sound intriguing! 


So glad they are of interest!  It's good to hear from someone else reading more non-fiction (I know Clare reads a fair bit - mostly on the Wainwright list!), as most people do seem to focus very much on fiction. I love fiction (although I find I'm getting distinctly more choosy nowadays), and have a stack of it lined up to read, but there's a whole world of outstanding writing out there on the non-fiction shelves (and on mine - waiting very patiently!)!  Zoology is also my first book of poetry for ages too - I've read quite a few translations of classical and medieval poetry in recent years (Heaney, Armitage, Hughes), but very little contemporary.  TBH a lot of it is really doesn't do much more for me, but dipping into this, I was really struck by some of Gillian Clarke's work (very lyrical), so thought I'd explore it a bit more.

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7 hours ago, ~Andrea~ said:

Love the review of 'I am Pilgrim' Will. That's definitely one to avoid then :D


Thank you.  It was only my opinion though: looking on Amazon and elsewhere, and judging by the books that are popular where I'm one of the volunteer librarians, I'm in a distinct minority!

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Three Books

Quick reviews of the three books most recently completed.


Longbourn by Jo Baker ****

Pride and Prejudice as told by the servants.  Well, not quite, but this is the servants' story told in parallel.  What we actually have is a completely different story - below stairs leading almost completely different lives to their employers - whilst set in virtually the same time and places.  It's interesting, revealing, to see the Bennets and other characters from a completely different angle - almost sidelong - but it's even more intriguing to see a world that is completely invisible in P&P, but still there.  It took me a while to get completely into it, but once I did, I couldn't put it down.


Lock No. 1 by Georges Simenon ****

As consistently atmospheric and addictive as ever, with Maigret at his psychologically incisive best.  Set on the river Marne near Paris, the greyness of the light, the docks and the characters looms large (the cover is spot on).  Once I pick these up, I want to read them in one sitting, but a long one as I love to savour them too.  The individual book may 'only' be 4* (but a top-end one) but the cumulative effect of the series is a very satisfying 6*.


Letters to My Daughter's Killer by Cath Staincliffe **

Read for my reading group; to be honest, this is not a book I would have otherwise even remotely considered picking up.  It turned out to be a fairly standard crime novel, with the added interest of focusing more on the psychological impact of the murder rather than whodunnit; that is actually pretty obvious fairly early on.  Told by the mother, Ruth, of the victim, Lizzie, in a series of letters to whoever did the murder, the conceit is an interesting one, but they really don't ring true as letters, and so it just becomes the story told from Ruth's angle.  It's OK, the court case being the strongest sequence, but I really can't see why this gets such strong reviews, other than because crime stories are popular and always get good reviews, just as it's the most popular section in the library. Overall, I'm glad to have got through it as quickly as I did (a couple of shortish sessions - it's only just over 230 pages long) and am able to move swiftly on without wasting too much time.




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Winter in Madrid by CJ Sampson **


I've tried starting this several times, and this time managed just over a hundred pages (the book itself is 600+ pages).  I think I've given up for good this time. It's not badly written, it's just as dull as ditchwater, tells me much and shows me little.  All that has effectively happened is that a couple of characters have been introduced and placed in the Spanish Civil War, and we have an indication as to what direction it's going - looks like a hunt for a lost love with the inevitable complications.  There's been plenty of historical background, in the guise of backstory, and after much repetition we know for sure that life is pretty miserable, but not a lot else.  The prospect of another 500 pages makes me feel pretty miserable too, so I've decided to draw it all to a close.  Two stars for not being utterly dreadful.

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After several weeks reading, I finally finished James McPherson's excellent history of the American Civil War, Battle Cry of Freedom.  It's big and it's gripping.  Full review to follow, but a solid 5 stars for excellence.


I also decided to upgrade Elizabeth Taylor's View of the Harbour from an initial 5 to a full 6-star favourite.  I finished it a few weeks ago, but it's one of those books that gets under one's skin (at least it did mine!), and I'm still dipping back into it.  An interesting book group discussion animated some of that dipping as there was so much to think about.  I'm very tempted to sit down soon and read it again in its entirety.  As part of that, I decided to go out and buy my own copy as the library book I'd borrowed needed returning.  On a very trivial note (at least for some!), I was delighted to find that Virago has started to change its covers for all their Taylor books, moving away from, IMO, the ghastly photo based covers that for me completely misrepresented the books (covers are important!).


And I went and indulged in a bit of a spending spree in Waterstones, having a couple of loyalty cards to use up, also buying:


This Is Going to Hurt - Adam Kay (strongly recommended by my son's girlfriend, a junior doctor herself, and available for half price if I bought one of the excellent cups of coffee in the cafe - not a difficult decision as it was lunch-time anyway!)

Farewell to the Horse - Ulrich Raulff

The Animals Among Us - John Bradshaw

The War of Wars - Robert Harvey (surprisingly difficult to find a single volume history of the Napoleonic Wars as a whole).


Trouble is, I have a stack of library books to get through to.  Rather than reducing my TBR list, it seems to be growing a bit like topsy!


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Finished Jon Sopel's fairly light but interesting read If Only They Didn't Speak English, his take on the 'two nations divided by the same language' theme in the Trump era, based on his experiences as the BBC's Washington correspondent.  An easy gallop, even if there are some pretty serious issues in there. Now moved on to Rosamund Pilcher's The Shell Seekers, one of my Round Robin challenges. 


Continue to pick up various books! From the charity shop:

The Elephant Keeper's Children by Peter Hoeg

France on Two Wheels by Adam Ruck

All the King's Men by Robert Penn Warren (one of my US Tour books)


whilst I bought new Brian Nelson's recently published (April) new translation of Zola's His Excellency Eugene Rougon, my next read in Zola's Rougon-Macquart cycle.

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Battle Cry of Freedom by James M McPherson *****

The American Civil War seems to propogate large tomes, and James McPherson's contribution to the Oxford History of the USA covering this period is no exception, over 800 well packed pages.  It doesn't even start the fighting until past page 300, which just goes to show how important the background and buildup is.  This was a riveting read that, in spite of its length,  never dragged and never felt overwhelming. It did take me quite a while, more than a month on and off, but I was always pleased to return, and read much of it in fairly large chunks.  It's easy to see why it's widely regarded as a classic.


If Only they Didn't Speak English by Jon Sopel ***

From the US in the 19th century to the US in the 21st.  From Abraham Lincoln to Donald Trump......:(   Jon Sopel keeps language and tone fairly light, but this is still a reasonably incisive and even handed (IMO!) analysis of why the USA and the UK really are two countries divided by a common language.  I did think at times that it erred just a bit too much on the side of lightness, and there were times when I would have liked more evidence and a bit more depth to the arguments, but there were also the 'Oh I see' moments too.  By its very nature, this was a pretty straightforward read, even if never quite in the unputdownable bracket, but I enjoyed reading it throughout.


The Shell Seekers by Rosamund Pilcher ****

A big novel (over 600 pages) that also made the BBC's Big Read list some years ago.  A well written story centred on 64-year old Penelope Keeling, just returned from discharging herself from hospital after a suspected heart attack, this looks back over her life whilst in the present day, her children variously position themselves in relation to Penelope's inheritance from her now fashionable artist father, Laurence Stern. The story works itself backwards and forwards in time, weaving a fairly intricate but never murky narrative. Penelope herself is a thoroughly empathetic character, and there are no ambiguities either over who else we are meant to care for!  This wasn't a classic for me, but there were moments where it struck some very strong reflective chords, and I was always reluctant to put it down and eager to pick it up.


A Shadow Above by Joe Shute *****

Subtitled 'The Fall and Rise of the Raven', the author focuses on the state of play for the raven in Britain today - a topical read given Scottish Natural Heritage's recent decidedly odd (I'm being very kind here!) and massively controversial decision to grant a license for the culling of ravens in Perthshire.   The raven is a massively clever animal, and this book delves into this, and the raven's relationships, mainly with other ravens and humans.  The author isn't afraid to look at both sides of the coin, and his chapter on the impact of raven's on sheep farming in the Flow Country is disturbing, but the overall picture is of yet another species persecuted to near extinction in this country hopefully starting to make a comeback.  A fascinating book, really well written in an easy, thoroughly readable style, and one that I will certainly refer back to (there's at least one chapter, on what Shute describes as Britain's first nature reserve,  which has me wanting to head off and explore the area, not that far from here).  For me, a definite contender for at least the short list in this year's Wainwright Prize.



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Rebels and Traitors by Lindsey Davis **

This looked very promising: a bit of a doorstopper of a novel based on the English Civil War by the very successful author of a range of historical novels, including the acclaimed Falco series of children's novels set in Ancient Rome.  It got off to quite a decent start, with a promising prologue set at the execution of Charles I.  After that, well it all sadly slid away.

Davis is good on her history, and if this had been a non-fiction history of the Civil War then I think she might have held on to me.  Unfortunately, the novel side of things seemed to be a bit of an afterthought.  Far, far too much historical detail and background, telling me the history, nowhere near enough on developing characters beyond the obvious, building up settings, or, indeed, any sort of plot beyond the narrative history, at least for the first 100 or so pages.  Things may have changed, but by then she'd lost me.   It all felt like a rather beefed up children's novel, and I wanted a lot more, especially in a book this length.


The House of Doctor Dee by Peter Ackroyd ***

Another historical novel, or at least one with two parallel time streams, one present day, one back in the late Elizabethan era centred on the Queen's alchemist, Doctor John Dee.  No problem here with character or setting development, even if none of the characters are wholly sympathetic.  I found some of the language and ideas hard to follow, and am sure I didn't grasp half of what the author was getting at, but in a odd sort of way I still found it compulsive reading, almost like finding my way through a dark labyrinth encouraged by the occasional windows of light.  I can understand why some reviewers really didn't like this, but I was hooked to the end.  On balance I have to admit it left me somewhat unsatisfied, so based on that, will initially give ot three stars and see if I think the same after it's had time to settle.  Odd, very odd.


Darke by Rick Gekoski *

Dr James Darke is shutting himself away from the world.  It takes us some time to find out why, and what happens next.  Initially he comes over as a thoroughly misanthropic old man along the same lines as A Man Called Ove, Victor Meldrew and others.  He is, but the story develops.  Whether it develops in a way that makes one want to read on is a different matter. I staggered through to the end because it was a reading group book, but I regretted doing so.  Supposedly it's written "with scalding prose, ruthless intelligence and an unforgettably vivid protagonistic." I think the scalding prose was probably the bad language and slagging off which seems so often to be mistaken for humour by poor comedians, but the rest I found unrecognisable; the second half seemed to descend into sentimental slush rather than anything remotely intelligent. A great pity, as the topic, dealing with the decline and loss of a partner through cancer, is deserving of so much better than what is offered here.



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May Review

A good month's reading, best month so far in terms of books completed, and second best for pages read (bearing in mind that there were also 3 books where I didn't reach 25% which means I don't count them either for pages or books read). In general terms, the non-fiction books have been excellent, whilst the fiction has left something to be desired, with only one (The Shell Seekers) being thoroughly satisfying.  That's mainly down to book group selections, which have been pretty dreadful.


Figures are those to date for the year, with figures in brackets being those this month if more than zero.

('average pages per book' doesn't tie in with total pages read as some of the pages read from the first book completed this month were attributed to last month).


Books read:  25 (6), plus 3 (3) insufficient to count.

Pages read:  9319 (2075), average 373 (438) pages per book.

Gender : 19 (6) male, 9 (3) female

Genre:  18 (6) fiction, 10 (3) non-fiction

Sources:  17 (6) owned11 (3) library

Format:  19 (7) paper, 2 (0) ebook, 7 (2) mixed media

Round Robin challenge:  (4)
TBR list: 1451: year -21, month -17


Books for reading acquired this month (a lot of offers, a lot of books bought!):

Martin Luther by Peter Stanford (paperback, independent)

This is Going to Hurt by Adam Kay (paperback, Waterstones)

The War of Wars by Robert Harvey (paperback, Waterstones)

The Animals Among Us by John Bradshaw (paperback, Waterstones)

Farewell to the Horse by Ulrich Raulff (paperback, Waterstones)

The Elephant Keeper's Children by Peter Hoeg (paperback, charity shop)

All the King's Men by Robert Penn Warren (paperback, charity shop)

The Kill by Emile Zola (paperback, online)

The Palestinian-Israeli Conflict by Martin Bunton (paperback, online)

Coming into the Country by John MacPherson (paperback, charity shop)

The Meaning of Birds by Simon Barnes (paperback, independent)

Birds in a Cage by Derek Niemann (paperback, independent)

Feathers by Thor Hanson (paperback, charity shop)

Birdscapes by Jeremy Mynott (paperback, charity shop)

The Napoleonic Wars by David Gates (paperback, second hand)

Tristram Shandy by Laurence Sterne (hardback, online)

The Korean War by Max Hastings (hardback, charity shop)


Currently reading:

Farewell to the Horse by Ulrich Raulff

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On 30/05/2018 at 8:59 PM, Alexi said:

You’ve had a good month :) Some very interesting reviews too, and have added both The Shell Seekers and Battle Cry of Freedom to the old wishlist :D 


Given how busy I've been, I'm surprised at how much reading I've managed, but I've tried to develop a bit more consistency in the evenings and it seems to be working.  Thanks for the comments on the reviews - you've chosen my favourites of each of fiction and non-fiction this month, and amongst the best this year so far. I hope, when you get around to them, that they prove as satisfying. Set a goodly amount of time aside, especially for the latter! I found it worth it though. The fourth successive reading group read earning just one or two stars; I really hope they pick up.

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