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Willoyd's Reading 2018


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15 hours ago, Brian. said:

Thanks for the link. You are right that looks like a far more diverse list than the more famous '1001 books' list. 


I've just noticed that a new, fifth, edition of 1001 Book You Must Read Before You Die is just out.  Will be interesting to see what updates there are.

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Summary reviews of books since July pt 1


Keepers of the House by Shirley Ann Grau *****

The book for Alabama on my Tour of the USA.  Involving read about the relationship between a white landowner and his black housekeeper as seen through the eyes of his daughter.  Interesting dissection of southern US attitudes, and a good story to boot!


The Cellars of the Majestic by Georges Simenon ****

Classic Maigret with plenty of atmosphere.


I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou ***

A book that has received more than its fair share of rave reviews, and one chosen for my book group.  Not quite sure why it's so applauded, but an interesting enough narrative, well enough told, the author showing remarkably good memory of her early years.  After all that early detail, she then skims quickly through adolescence to her late teens, culminating in the birth of her first child, and setting herself up for a further six volumes.  I doubt I'll be reading them though. Reasonably well received by the rest of the group, but raves thin on the ground.


The Comforters by Muriel Spark ***

A promising premise in the author's usual somewhat anarchic style, but whilst she develops a set of interesting characters, it all slightly fizzles out and never really explains the central conceit - and it needed explaining!  Strangely addictive though, as are most of her books.


WTF? by Robert Peston ****

Peston analyses the mess we're currently in, and it's the first time I really feel as if I have understood some of the issues concerned, particularly the capital vs labour balance (or rather the lack of it in the UK).  For me at least, this was a genuine eye opener in places, although Peston too readily accepts our current economic framework, which urgently requires a thorough overhaul if we are to tackle the environmental challenges ahead.


Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh ******

October's read for one of my book groups.  I dimly remember the Jeremy Irons/Anthony Andrews TV version, but have never tackled the book after a couple of mediocre experiences of Waugh since (neither Scoop nor The Loved One did much for me).  This is a completely different ballgame though, being the story of the narrator's relationship through the inter-war years with an upper class Catholic family, focused initially on the teddybear-bearing Sebastian, and then on his sister.  Superbly evocative, carefully structured, interweaving a host of themes, funny, poignant and thoughtful in equal measure, this for me was a thoroughly beautiful read; unanimously agreed in the group as one of our best ever reads (and discussions).


A is for Alibi by Sue Grafton ***

Easy-read crime fiction following generally in the mould of Raymond Chandler, with a mild dose of Sara Paretsky, if not quite achieving the same heights as either.  Some strong characterisation, although the plot was rather obvious.  Worth exploring further as a series to see if it develops.


Slade House by David Mitchell ****

A reading group choice.  Half strong realism, half completely fantastic, it proved a strong read for those in the group who weren't spooked (several were).  A book where I always wanted to see where it was going and often wanted to flip back to recognise the critical bits I'd missed, even if fantasy rarely absorbs me totally.  Some strong characters too, all of which led to a 2-sitting read.


True North by Martin Wainwright ***

A paean to the North of England, this was just a bit too biased, gushing and thin to convince.  A reasonable enough read, if tending towards the disappointing.


Field Notes from a Hidden City by Esther Woolfson ***

Promoted as a book on the natural history of Woolfson's hometown of Aberdeen, sadly, the one thing that this book was short of was much to do with being 'in the field'.  Indeed, the Hidden City seemed to consist largely of the author's own home, as the greatest coverage of animal life was on those that she kept. There were a couple of interesting sections on specific urban species, but otherwise this was more a personal diary and showed little insight into urban natural history beyond the obvious.  Another book that sailed close to the disappointing.


My Antonia by Willa Cather *****

The book for Nebraska in my literary tour of the United States.  This is one that grew on me, even after finishing it.  Written in deceptively simple prose, it is the story of an immigrant Bohemian girl told through the eyes of a childhood friend of hers (a boy).  There were times when I wasn't wholly convinced of its depth, but gradually the importance of place in Antonia's whole being (and the picture of it that was created by the author) came home to me, and the quality of the writing continues to prove itself as the book lingers on well after finishing; I want to read more from Cather!  This is exactly the sort of book (and author) I started the tour to discover.


Cecile is Dead by Georges Simenon ****

A more conventionally plot driven story than normal, but no less an absorbing read, as Simenon contines to keep the characters and atmosphere to the fore.


The Diary of a Bookseller by Shaun Bythell ****

An entertaining, engaging insight into the day to day life of a secondhand bookseller.  Bookshop, staff and customers all come vividly to life and whilst the author can be somewhat acerbic at times (he has a misanthropic reputation to sustain after all), it usually seems to be with good reason, especially when the challenges of the online behemoths of the book trade are involved!




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I'm glad you liked Brideshead Will, it's one of my all-time favourites (and the series is too!). I used to read Sue Grafton's alphabet series but found the later books weren't so good, sadly she died last year (I think) so I hope she got to finish the alphabet series.

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10 hours ago, Madeleine said:

I used to read Sue Grafton's alphabet series but found the later books weren't so good, sadly she died last year (I think) so I hope she got to finish the alphabet series.


Unfortunately, she didn't - Z is missing, and it will remain missing too, as she insisted in her will that nobody be given the rights to finish the series off.  I'm not surprised to hear that the later ones weren't quite up to early standards; she's not the only one to suffer, perhaps, from overlong series. Janet Evanovich and Patricia Cornwell, for instance, both sound to have struggled to keep their early high standards going.  It must be hard to keep things fresh.

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9 hours ago, willoyd said:


Unfortunately, she didn't - Z is missing, and it will remain missing too, as she insisted in her will that nobody be given the rights to finish the series off.  I'm not surprised to hear that the later ones weren't quite up to early standards; she's not the only one to suffer, perhaps, from overlong series. Janet Evanovich and Patricia Cornwell, for instance, both sound to have struggled to keep their early high standards going.  It must be hard to keep things fresh.

Yes I gave up on Cornwell after a while as her books were getting rather tedious and seemed to have a bit of a holier-than-thou aspect about them (maybe that was just me), I'm up to the teens in the Evanovich books and they're fine for a bit of light relief occasionally.

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C is for Corpse by Sue Grafton ***

This is the second in the Alphabet series of Kinsey Millhone that I've read, B is for Burglar taking longer to arrive from the library! It pretty much confirmed my thoughts after A is for Alibi: some strong characterisation, but an average, at best, plot.  In fact, I had worked out the murderer with at least a quarter of the book remaining (and I'm not skilled at this sort of thing!), whilst the denouement was almost a cliche it it was so predictable.  Best description I can think if is "pleasant reading", and I'll probably continue to read the series as they are an enjoyable way to while away train journeys and similar, but I am, if anything, mildly disappointed so far as I had expected more.  Still manages three stars.

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Reading books acquired

A catch up on the books I've acquired since BCF went into hibernation in August.  These are just the books intended for leisure reading and ones that I have yet to read - those I have read will be covered by reviews.  Not a lot of fiction books as I'm relying on libraries more and more.  I tend to buy a lot of the non-fiction because I often use them for dipping into and referring to as well as straight reading. All paperback unless otherwise stated.



Ten Days in the Hills by Jane Smiley (hardback, ex-library)

The Sealwoman's Gift by Sally Magnusson (Waterstones BOGOHP)

The Killer Angels by Michael Shaara (charity)



Real England by Paul Kingsnorth (charity)

Bells and Bikes by Rod Ismay (charity)

What Nature Does for Britain by Tony Juniper (independent)

Gilbert White by Richard Mabey (charity)

Wilding by Isabella Tree (hardback, online)

Roller-Coaster by Ian Kershaw (hardback, online)

A Lady's Life in the Rocky Mountains by Isabella Bird (Folio Society, charity)

Daughter of the Desert by Georgina Howell (hardback, secondhand)

The Kingdom by the Sea by Paul Theroux (hardback, charity)

The Ascent of Birds by John Reilly (hardback, present)

Churchill, Walking with Destiny by Andrew Roberts (hardback, online)

A History of Food in 100 Recipes by William Sitwell (hardback, ex-library)

Rocks of Ages by Stephen Jay Gould (hardback, charity)

Travellers in the Third Reich by Julia Boyd (Waterstones BOGOHP)

Vietnam by Max Hastings (hardback, WH Smiths)

The Longest Battle by Richard Hough (hardback, charity)









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Finished O Pioneers (Willa Cather) today.  Lovely read, an obvious 5 stars. That's 60 books and 20,000 pages for the year both at the same time.  Reached 60 on September 26th in 2016, but otherwise this is the earliest I've reached this total, which surprises me, as it hasn't felt to be a particularly strong year's reading, maybe because it's been more evenly spread over the year than previously.   

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On 09/11/2018 at 10:09 AM, willoyd said:

1000 Books To Read Before You Die by James Mustich.

A few days ago, I found another 'list' book, this one with 'only' 1000 books to read in one's lifetime, by James Mustich.  Browsing through, it appealed almost instantly because it also includes non-fiction books, which make up around two-fifths of my reading (and far more of my collection!).  I've thus used up one of the spare posts at the start of this thread to add that list to the others I'm keeping a track of.  As usual, I don't seem to have read that many - about 15% of the total in fact.

Like all lists, there are some inclusions that I thoroughly disagree with, but it's full of interesting ideas, and is far more eclectic than, for instance, 1001 Books to Read Before You Die, including also a range of children's books, and reading as diverse as Aristotle and Dan Brown (yes, Da Vinci Code is in there!).  I suppose the biggest disagreement I have is the way that some multi-volume 'books' actually count each volume separately - for instance Laurence Durrell's Alexandria Quartet counts as 4 books, and Proust as 7 (but Gibbon counts as only one), which means that Durrell takes up 4 times as much space as, say, George Eliot (TBH, I wouldn't include any of his books!).  Odd.

But, otherwise, it's a good list, with plenty to think about and ideas to explore.  There's a website that lists all the books and gives brief summaries of the entries for each book, plus space to comment too: 1000bookstoread.com .


I just bought this book on your recommendation, Willoyd. :) It looks like it aligns with my own reading interests a little more. I can't wait to start browsing through it! Looks like I'll have to set up another spreadsheet to start ticking things off. :D

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5 hours ago, Kylie said:


I just bought this book on your recommendation, Willoyd. :) It looks like it aligns with my own reading interests a little more. I can't wait to start browsing through it! Looks like I'll have to set up another spreadsheet to start ticking things off. :D


Hope you like it!  I recently acquired a copy of the new 1001 Books, but have to admit, I'm not impressed.  I've had previous books, so know exactly what it's about, but browsing through again, I'm just underwhelmed.  I think it's partly because it doesn't stick to what it says it does, there being far too many non-fiction books of a certain genre in it, but also too many of the books feel worthy without being books I have any interest in reading.  The latest batch left me completely cold - I've read two of them, and one I thought awful (The Circle - Dave Eggers), and one was good, but just shouldn't be on the list (H is for Hawk) being a memoir, certainly not a novel by any definition.  There are also too many authors where, quite frankly, I think the editors have just got the wrong book(s) - e.g. how on earth could the only Jane Austen they don't select be Persuasion, one of her best?  I'll keep a tally of how many read for now, but I'm certainly not aiming to pick books off the list, and the book itself is on its way to the charity shop.

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I get the feeling that they keep making changes to the list just for the sake of it to sell more books. I agree that the 1001 list isn't particularly great, I tend to use it for a bit of inspiration to try new things more than anything else.

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Summary reviews of books read since July pt 2


The Women Who Shaped Politics by Sophy Ridge ****

A book that pretty much does what it says on the tin: a potted history of women in politics, starting with extra-parliamentary campaigners, such as the Suffragistes and Suffragettes, going on to the first women in parliament, through to the leading lights of modern day politics. It is an easy read, and never pretends to be anything other than a popular celebration.  As a result, it's a bit lacking in depth and analysis to be totally satisfying, but was worthwhile for the overview and anecdotes.


The Devil in the Marshalsea by Antonia Hodgson ***

Crime mystery set in the 18th century Marshalsea prison, an even toughter place than that of Dickens.  Strongest in its setting, both temporal and geographical, other aspects weren't quite to the same standard.  The plot contained some interesting twists, but it seemed that every problem was solved more by luck than judgement, and I got a bit tired of the main protagonist's continual fumbling and bumbling. The story also felt rather overpopulated, with individual characters underdeveloped partly as a result, but then plots like this require plenty to choose from, otherwise the culprits can be all too obvious!  An enjoyable enough read, but I won't be in a particular hurry to read the sequels. 


The Secret Rooms by Catherine Bailey ****

Whilst researching the extensive archives at Belvoir Castle to write a history of the estate during World War One, the author discovers some gaps that seem to be deliberate excisions.  The narrative turns into an investigation into what happened, and why the cover-up?

I enjoyed the detective aspect - this was family history work on a grand scale, but ultimately my main question was, so what?  Yes, there was a scandal and a cover-up, but does any of it matter now, and doesn't it all just add grist to the well-worn mill that there was one rule for the wealthy and another for the rest (plus ca change......)?  It certainly needed a stronger minded editor to make it into a tighter, stronger, book, as it's rather overdetailed and repetitive on occasions (even duplicating quoted letters).  Even so, it's still worth four stars.


A Year of Reading Dangerously by Andy Miller **

A good idea, and a solid enough start, describing a year long project by the author to 'improve' his reading.  Unfortunately, the author seems to lose sight of this, and the book gradually disintegrates into a somewhat self-indulgent, rambling, anecdotal memoir, with little worthwhile to say about the books themselves. Ultimately rather pointless, and a disappointment, if not a book I positively disliked.


A Siege of Bitterns by Steve Burrows ****

The first in yet another crime series, which had a particular appeal because of the birding angle, the lead character, Canadian expat Dominic Jejeune, being a passionate birdwatcher, and the setting being plum in English birding heartland, on the north Norfolk coast.  This may leave me biased, but I found it enjoyable and rather more entertaining than several other recent crime reads, even if I don't know enough about police procedures to judge credibility.  The setting was a strong element of the story, and whilst the dialogue occasionally felt a bit stilted, and betrayed the author's own Canadian origins in the mouths of English characters, there was sufficient here for me to want to read more in the series. 


Bookworm by Lucy Mangan *****

A glutton for this particular punishment, this was another book-reading memoir, but for me this had everything that the Miller memoir didn't.  Warm, witty and affectionate, the author captured the joys (and frustrations!) of childhood reading and books perfectly. Being of a slightly older generation and male, I didn't know all the books she mentioned, and didn't agree with all her likes/dislikes (The Phantom Tollbooth in particular was not a favourite of mine!) but I didn't need to, as her experiences transcended such differences.  Anyway, there was enough which we did totally agree on (her analysis of Enid Blyton was absolutely spot on!).  I subsequently went to see her at the Ilkley Literature Festival, and she lived up to every expectation - one of the most enjoyable sessions in recent years.


Fall Out by Tim Shipman ****

A political journalist's insider account of the last General Election, full of insight.  Indeed, maybe a tad overdetailed in places, but consistently gripping and eye-opening.  No wonder we're in such a mess.


Birders by Mark Cocker ***

Rather more about 'twitching' than 'birding' (there are important differences!), in spite of the title, this is a sympathetic profile of a very strange 'tribe', as the author so appropriately puts it.  I'm not sure how much this book would appeal to non-birdwatchers, but for me the author's writing is always worth reading. 



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Books read in November


This is the final part in the trilogy of posts catching up with my reading since the forum went into hibernation earlier this year, and covers most of November.  C is for Corpse and The Diary of a Bookseller have already been reviewed, but otherwise these are all the books completed during the month, my best November to date in terms of quantity (8 books is a record), and pretty good in terms of quality as well!


The Surgeon's Mate by Patrick O'Brian *****

It's been almost a year since I completed the last instalment in the 20-volume saga on the unlikely early nineteenth century pairing of Jack Aubrey, sailor extraordinaire, and Stephen Maturin, Irish-Catalan secret agent for the British government and naval surgeon, but it proved so easy sliding back into what is effectively one long novel, not least because O'Brian's books are so memorable that the gap seems minimal.  This, the seventh in the series, starts where the previous book (The Fortune of War) left off, just after the famous duel between HMS Shannon and the USS Chesapeake, and extends their adventures across the Atlantic, into the Baltic and back onto the French mainland.  The interest is unremitting, but O'Brian is a master at pacing his novels, and there is plenty of room for the development and dissection of characters in amongst the action. 

I love this series, so, whilst most of the books achieve 'only' 5 stars, mainly because most are not really complete novels of themselves, the whole series is a full six stars - indeed one of my top half dozen novels of all time.  This sustains the excellence.


The Sealwoman's Gift by Sally Magnusson ****

Just as with the Aubrey-Maturin series, this book is based on historical fact, not least the basic premise, a 17th-century pirate raid on Iceland that led to almost 1% of the population being taken into slavery in North Africa; most of the characters are fictionalised versions of real people.  The central character is Asta (pronounced Owsta), wife to priest Olefur who was released to try and bargain a ransom for the captives.  He is quite well-documented historically, not least through his own account of what happened, but she, as with so many women in history, is barely acknowledged.  This has enabled the author to really develop Asta in her own imagination, creating a strong, fascinating, character at the hear of an immersive read that brings to life an episode of history and a way of life that is rarely acknowledged today.  At the heart of this also were the dilemmas and challenges faced at every stage of the story, both by those taken away and those left behind. For me, it didn't quite live up to the standards of  Margaret Elphinstone's The Sea Road, a lesser-known story of a very similar ilk about an historical Icelandic woman and her journeys, but I still found that, once into it, it was very hard to put down; indeed, 4 stars may even be a bit harsh!


O Pioneers by Willa Cather

From Iceland and the North African coast to the plains of Nebraska!  Following on from my first taste of Willa Cather, in My Antonia, this earlier slim novel follows a similar path, examining the life of a young immigrant woman facing up to the challenges of settler life.  I loved the previous book and, if anything, loved this all the more.  Like so many other great writers, she manages to keep her writing simple and direct, yet encompasses so much, creating, in Alexandra Bergson, a true literary heroine.  Cather is definitely my discovery of the year, and deserves to be so much better known this side of the Atlantic!


Treasured Island by Frank Barrett **

An initially promising literary tour of Great Britain that ultimately proved sadly disappointing and superficial.  There are some interesting facts and portraits in here, but it soon became a bit of a tick list and more a set of slightly facetious reviews of the various museums that the author visited rather than providing any real insight.  It didn't help that it took him two-thirds of the book to get as far north as the Midlands, followed by a scant 30 pages for the whole of the North of England, and an even briefer 20 pages for Scotland.  An opportunity missed.


The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton ****

Much lauded historical fiction chosen for one of my book groups.  Set in a similar period and location to The Girl with a Pearl Earring, this initially had a similar feel, but gradually turned darker and more ominous as Nella, the main protagonist, dug up  more and more about the household she had joined.  It's a good read, one indeed that I didn't want to put down, but there were several aspects that didn't quite sit comfortably with me, not least the almost magical-mystical element of the eponymous miniaturist that was never satisfactorily resolved in my mind (and needed to be). I also wished that the author had lingered somewhat longer on the characters and what was going through their minds. I had previously read the author's second book, The Muse, and everybody who had read both books told me that the latter wasn't as good.  For me it was the other way round, and whilst happily recommending The Minaturist, I found The Muse a marginally more satisfying read.


Turned Out Nice Again by Richard Mabey ***

Slim volume examining our relationship with the weather.  What's there is a pleasant enough read, but the book was neither sufficiently coherent nor full enough to engage me beyond passing the time - throughout I expected more and never saw it.  In its current form, I can't really see the point, however pleasurable Mabey's writing is.



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Did you watch the TV version of The Miniaturist Will?  It was on last Xmas.  Personally I prefer The Miniaturist to the Muse as well, I wonder what she'll come up with next, as both books are very different.

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6 hours ago, Madeleine said:

Did you watch the TV version of The Miniaturist Will?  It was on last Xmas. 

No, I deliberately avoided it as I hadn't read the book at that point.  I was going to read it earlier, so I could follow up watching the series, but I knew it was coming up in the book group, even if I didn't know precisely when.  It would be interesting to see what they made of it, and whether some of the more mystical stuff was more thoroughly explained.



Personally I prefer The Miniaturist to the Muse as well, I wonder what she'll come up with next, as both books are very different.

Yes, I'm definitely in a minority! I think I just found it more believable. Given how different the books are, I wonder whether the book preferred is the one read first??


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15 hours ago, willoyd said:



Yes, I'm definitely in a minority! I think I just found it more believable. Given how different the books are, I wonder whether the book preferred is the one read first??


I did read Miniaturist first, but still prefer it, I think the two books are so different that it doesn't really matter which one is read first.


In the TV series, you do find out a little bit more about the Miniaturist (they add in a few extra scenes) and it looks absolutely stunning, some scenes look like the characters are in a Rembrandt painting.

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5 hours ago, Madeleine said:

I did read Miniaturist first, but still prefer it, I think the two books are so different that it doesn't really matter which one is read first.

That's my point: the books are so different that if you read the next because you enjoyed the first, then it might, at least relatively, disappoint.  That's what happened for me, anyway.


5 hours ago, Madeleine said:


In the TV series, you do find out a little bit more about the Miniaturist (they add in a few extra scenes) and it looks absolutely stunning, some scenes look like the characters are in a Rembrandt painting.

I must try and see if I can find a way of watching it. Thanks Madeleine.

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East West Street by Philippe Sands ******

This was a present last Christmas from OH, who thought it might appeal as it looked to be about the author's family history.  For some reason it got tucked away on the shelves, and I've only just found my way round to it.


Well, it IS about family history, but what I also found out very rapidly is that it is about so much more (and, ironically, if OH had realised what else it was about, she says she wouldn't have bought it, as she knows it's not an area that I'm usually much interested in reading-wise).  In fact, it's one of the 'biggest' books I've read in terms of content for a while.  The author is a QC and Professor of Laws at UCL (amongst other things!) - most of his books look to be pretty high powered legal texts.  This is very different.  A few years ago he was approached to do a presentation at a conference in Lviv in Poland, a city where his Jewish grandfather, Leon, originally came from, but a time and place that he had said nothing about.  Sands was also aware that two of the founders of key concepts in international law (Sands's speciality) also had origins here: Hersch Lauchterpacht the originator of the concept of 'Crimes against Humanity' and Rafael Lemkin, the progenitor of the word 'Genocide'.  Both were Jewish as well. 


So, the author starts to investigate the lives of all three men, and that is what the first part of the book is about - their lives up to the end of the Second World War, which all three, particularly being Jewish, were profoundly affected by, all three becoming exiles and losing family members in the Holocaust.  The threads are intricate and difficult to trace, and the detective work is fascinating.  Sands also describes the development of these two foundation concepts in international law - and no, it's not dry or difficult, but equally fascinating, not least as they are so much wrapped up in the characters of the individuals concerned who come very much alive in Sands's hands.


Gradually a fourth man is introduced (there are plenty of women vital to this story, but the central characters are these men): Hans Franck, Hitler's lawyer and the Nazi Governor-General of Poland, latterly including Lviv after Hitler's invasion of Russia.  The lives of all four are, in very different ways, intertwined, and Sands picks his way through the threads as he takes the story into the post-war period and the Nuremburg Trials, in which three of them were heavily involved, and during which so much of the foundation of modern day international law was developed and tested, even if the International Criminal Court only really came into being many years later.  Along the way, other detective work tracks down the lives of key individuals in their respective lives, some of whom are only known through the odd photo or scribbled notes in Leon's few documents.


It's dense, it's complex, it's not an 'easy' read, but it is one of the most rewarding, powerful books I've read in a long time.  I was particularly impressed by how Sands managed so much information and so many different threads and concepts to produce such an absorbing and readable narrative. 


Another feature that stood out was the balance the author retained in the face of so much that could make one really emotional - one of many aspects where Sands's training surely contributes.  In particular, during his investigations into Hans Franck, he meets with Franck's surviving son, Niklas, and the son, Horst, of another Nazi leader, Otto van Wachter.  Niklas has completely accepted his father's criminality, Horst has not, but Sands treats both with respect and empathy (although it's clear where his sympathies lie!) and, as a result, achieves so much more than many of us would.


Normally, this would be a straight 6-star book*, but six stars means a 'favourite'.  This is certainly one of the best books I've read in a long time, if not THE best.  I certainly can't think of one that has so gripped me, informed me, indeed moved me, or one where such a complex story has been told with such clarity.  The research that must have gone into this (and the quality of it is partially revealed in the acknowledgements as well as in the text itself) is phenomenal.  But a 'favourite', a book which I would go back and reread?  I don't know - it's almost too powerful for that, and there's a part of me that wonders if I actually will ever need to - so much of it has 'stuck' first time.  So, just for the moment, it's 5 stars with just a tentative, bracketed, sixth, but there's nothing tentative in its impact and my admiration.  For once, the cover quotes are absolutely spot on - but then, it would be hard to exaggerate!


* Later edit: upgraded to 6 stars.  This is nonsense: it's a brilliant book, why should I feel the need to read a book again for it to qualify as a 'favourite' ?  (Actually, a couple of weeks later, I probably could, there was so much in there, but that's not the point!).

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  • 2 weeks later...

Churchill by Roy Jenkins ****

My biggest book of the year to date (not likely to be surpassed!), this monumental one-volume biography of Churchill comes in at a cool 912 pages, almost a third of a million words.  It's a big read that, unusually for me, has on-and-off taken almost three months to complete (with a complete break for a few weeks in October).  It's received plenty of plaudits, winning the British Book Awards Biography of the Year in 2003, and a few jibes from some lay readers, mostly about the author's complex and sometimes circumlocutory language.


It may be big, but then Churchill's life is a pretty big topic.  He lived into his 10th decade, and had a parliamentary career that lasted 64 years, including stints as Prime Minister, Home Secretary and Chancellor of the Exchequer (spread over 44 years). He was, of course, PM for almost the entirety of World War 2 (not quite there at either end), but there is so much else there: Nobel Laureate for Literature, soldier (India, Sudan, Boer War, WW1), journalist, painter.....and so on and so on.  It's not surprising this is such a big book, bearing in mind as well that Martin Gilbert's authorised biography takes up 8 volumes (2 written by Randolph Churchill); indeed, one might wonder how he managed to fit it all in!


In spite of the size, in spite of those jibes, I actually found this a remarkably readable book.  Yes, the author uses a wide range of vocabulary, and yes, his sentences are longer than the average, but at no time did I find either difficult nor did it get in the way.  Rather the opposite, in fact, the writing flowed very smoothly, and pulled at least this reader along throughout (punctuation was in certain areas a bit idiosyncratic, but I soon got used to it).  I also find it very balanced - this was neither a majorly revisionist biography (trendy name for a hatchet job), nor was it at all hagiographic.  Indeed, the book really revealed to me quite what a quixotic, proprietorial, driven, difficult man he could be, and why at various stages in life he found himself in the political wilderness or the despair of colleagues, friends and family. By today's standards, there was also a strong streak of prejudice, in particular in his attitude to the Empire (and India in particular).  But it also showed why he so endeared himself to people as well, and why he is so widely regarded as one of the greatest Britons of all time.  Convinced of his destiny (that in itself was a problem at times) he was simply the right man at the right time.


However, there were a few frustrations with the book too.  This was obviously a subject and a context that Roy Jenkins was very familiar with, in particular able to draw on his own experience as politician, Home Secretary and Chancellor of the Exchequer too, his career overlapping with Churchill's. On several occasions, it is obvious that the book benefits from this.  Unfortunately, it also suffers, as he sometimes appears to assume that his reader is equally familiar with the background, and it can then be quite tricky to precisely follow events and what caused them.


Churchill was a great politician, and Jenkins rightly focuses on that aspect. He is also quite strong on his writing.  However, this is no 'personal' biography.  Yes, character comes into it (is central indeed), but only in the professional sphere.  Thus, family is mentioned, but usually only in passing, and there is little discussion or illumination, for instance as to why he got on so badly with his son Randolph. His wife Clementine was obviously critically important in his life, but here she is rarely anything more than a shadow in the background.


So the book flows on, and finally we reach the final page, and the final frustration.  In the last paragraph, the author delivers his judgement: "When I started writing this book, I thought Gladstone [subject of a previous biography] was, by a narrow margin, the greater man......In the course of writing it, I have changed my mind. I now put Churchill, with all his idiosyncracies, his indulgences, his occasional childishness, but also his genius, his tenacity, and his persistent ability....to be larger than life, as the greatest human being ever to occupy 10 Downing Street."  And that is it - the entire summary, the entire justification, the last full stop.  After 900 pages of narrative, I would have hoped for rather more depth of evaluation, and more explanation of his judgement.  It's a remarkably abrupt end to a book that has until that stage been anything but abrupt!


So, overall a fine read, certainly not one that felt overlong, which I learned much from and enjoyed throughout, with those few, admittedly relatively minor, caveats.  I would certainly recommend it to the more persistent reader.  I've also recently acquired Andrew Roberts's new biography of Churchill, generally very favourably reviewed, which I look forward to comparing in the not too distant future. That's a mere 1150 pages!






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4 hours ago, Brian. said:

Even though I am getting better at tackling 'big books' I have to admit that a biography of that size would scare me so kudos to reading it.


Thank you! I do enjoy a fair number of bigger books - most of my favourite novels are chunky, e.g. Middlemarch, War and Peace - so it's not something that bothers me too much, but I have found that I'm still piling them up on my shelves more than reading them, particulary history/biography, so promised myself this year to make these non-fiction 'doorstoppers' more of a target.  I've managed three of them, better than previously, but still not as many as I anticipated, so I can see that being even more of a priority next year! I have to say they've all been very good reads.

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Some mini-reviews

Too many books read to do detailed reviews, so some miniatures to keep up:


Where the Wild Winds Are by Nick Hunt ****

The author explores the locations of four of the major named winds in Europe, the Helm, Bora, Fohn and Mistral, so essentially a travel book with some meteorology thrown in.  An enjoyable, easy read, with some interesting insights (I especially enjoyed the Helm and Fohn chapters as they were areas I've explored myself), even if not especially earth-shattering in any department.


The Judge's House by Georges Simenon ****

Well into the series now (this is #22 in publication order), and as consistently involving as ever.  The books aren't written in any particular order, and in this one for some reason Maigret is out of favour and has been posted to the west coast sticks, reasons being somewhat ambiguous.  More to the point, it gives Simenon an opportunity to move Maigret out of Paris.  His sense of place and his characterisation are as strong as ever.


The Lighthouse by Alison Moore *

A reread for one of my bookgroups, shortlisted for the Booker (really?!).  Last tackled a few years ago, I gave it three stars then, but don't have good memories.  The memories were confirmed, the rating wasn't - I really can't imagine why I gave this those three.  Uninteresting and unlikeable characters, a completely pointless setting (the main protagonist is on a walking tour in the Rhine Valley, but he might as well be anywhere), overloaded with symbolism, ambiguous ending, and some of the most turgid writing I've read in a while with episodes that I found distinctly unbelieveable.  I really don't see how some reviewers can describe this as beautifully written, it hads as much variety and interest as a shopping list  (He.... He.... He..... He..... He..... ).  Some of this may well have been deliberate, for effect, but the result was a book that I found thoroughly unlikeable, tedious and pretentious.


Angel by Elizabeth Taylor ***

I have loved this author's books to date, but this one never fully got off the ground for me. Whilst the progression and nature of the central character made for a strong narrative, I found the humour somewhat misplaced. Rather than Angel being a source of amusement, I found her more the object of pity (not that she would have appreciated or even understood that) and the result of a completely messed up childhood.  All this led to some distinctly uncomfortable moments and a feeling that this would have been so much more pointed and effective if Angel had been from a different class.  Not one I'm likely to go back to.


The Postman Always Rings Twice by James M Cain ***

Clever idea, but the writing felt like a poor man's Chandler, particularly the wooden dialogue.  A quick read, but not one to particularly write home about.


At Hawthorn Time by Melissa Harrison *****

Beautifully written story focusing on three life strands in a rural village, one of my favourite novels this year.  I loved the way the author managed to get inside even the most minor of her characters, and how she built in such a strong sense of the natural history whilst not shying away from some of the harsh human realities of rural life.  This book positively buzzed throughout for me. Some reviewers have complained of ambiguity in the ending, but careful reading leaves no room for doubt - the clues are there!



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Christmas Books


Received some lovely books for Christmas this year:


The Wren, A Biography by Stephen Moss

Ice Diaries by Jean McNeil

Far From Land by Michael Brooke

Hares by Nancy Jennings

Hullo Russia, Goodbye England by Derek Robinson


That's the biggest collection I've had in a while, and some of the most interesting books too. Some good looking reading for the New Year!



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