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June 25th 2019
One of the things on my "40 by 40" list is to read 75% of the BBC's top 100 Big Read books, although since I'd already read 35 of them I just had to read 40 of the remaining 65. So far I've ticked off 18, so I thought I'd give some brief thoughts on each of the additional ones I've read so far. Y'know, like a book report, but shorter. Numbers shown are their ranking in the Big Read.

The Princess Diaries (Meg Cabot) - 99
There are quite a lot of children's books on the list, but few that are so clearly not targeted at me as this one. Having seen the film adaptation a few years ago, my biggest surprise is that the princess of the title spends her entire time in the USA - I'm pretty sure Anne Hathaway went off to see Julie Andrews in some made-up European country in the film - but, leaving that aside, the travails of a teenage girl are mostly lost on me. For example, I had always rather thought - inasmuch as I ever thought about it - that young girls like the idea of being a princess. Apparently not this one. She rails against it, in diary form, in a way that was reasonably entertaining but very much not enlightening for a 30-something man.

Love in the Time of Cholera (Gabriel Garcia Marquez) - 97
I struggled with this one. It's one of the few books I've read in translation, and perhaps that had something to do with it as it always felt a little unnatural. It is the story of unrequited love over the decades between Florentino Ariza and Fermina Daza, plus the marriage of the latter to Dr. Juvenal Urbino (who at first appears to be the main character, until Gabriel gives us the old bait 'n' switch). Pages pass without a word of dialogue; every character we meet gets an extensive and meandering back-story, Florentino Ariza sleeps with more or less every woman he meets, and I was already not a fan when I got to the bit where he, as a septuagenarian, has an affair with a 14 year old. This is not presented as being bad.

The Alchemist (Paul Coelho) - 94
The mystical journey of a young sherpherd boy who dreams of finding treasure and goes off seeking it, with the surprisingly minimal involvement of a friendly alchemist he meets along the way. It took me a while to realise that this was magical realism (or possibly not. I can never quite work out what that is): I rattled through it when it was telling the story of the boy's naivety and earnestness, but by the time he turned himself into wind I had become less engrossed. A life-changing book, the blurb claims, but I suspect mostly for people who believe horoscopes.

Cold Comfort Farm (Stella Gibbons) - 88
I'm reliably informed that this is a satire of romanticised rural novels, but since I've not read any it's a satire that was sometimes lost on me - in particular, the lengthy descriptions of rural landscapes. The bit at the start where she says that she'll asterisk the particularly good passages was funny, though. I enjoyed the characters and set-up in this one, as Flora Poste makes her presence felt in a family of grotesques, but I suspect I would have enjoyed it more if I was more familiar with the ideas satirised (unlike Northanger Abbey, a sometime satire of gothic novels, that I love despite not having read any of those either). Oh, and it's basically sci-fi, set in an imagined future sometime in the middle 20th-century, but I'm not sure it needed to be.

Holes (Louis Sachar) - 83
I rattled through this one in a few hours, and enjoyed it a lot. It is, admittedly, a YA novel, and like a lot of those it is pacy and gripping - and thoughtful, if without the depths of novels pitched at actual adults. Stanley Yelnats (I don't recall the palindrome being explained) is sent to a juvenile detention centre, where he and his fellow detainees have to spend all day every day digging holes; alongside this we get a historical narrative that ties up to the main story in a way that is not entirely unpredictable but is still excellent. Being able to remember everyone's surnames would have helped me to see one of the twists coming.

I Capture the Castle (Dodie Smith) - 82
Cassandra lives with her sister Rose, their father and their stepmother in a ramshackle castle and near-poverty, and we follow the sisters' efforts to make money, find love, and persuade their father to write a second novel. I loved this book: the characters, relationships and imaginative setting make it captivating and emotionally fulfilling. In particular, the denouement (which I won't spoil) didn't take the obvious route that I thought it might, and - particularly at the time I read it - I thought it was a superbly fitting ending. Most impressively, it is not twee, which it very easily could have been.

Guards! Guards! (Terry Pratchett) - 69
Terry Pratchett's books are always enjoyable, with a unique sense of humour and a blending of the fantastical and the ridiculous. This one was no different, but I must admit that they all blend into one after a while - I struggled to remember the particulars of this introduction to the Night Watch, especially as I've read at least one of the many others that have the same cast of characters. Fun, but deservedly not as high on the list as some of his others.

Good Omens (Terry Pratchett & Neil Gaiman) - 68
Speaking of which... this collaboration between two of the finest authors of comical fantasy started life as a Just William parody, which was great fun for someone like me who grew up on a diet of William, Ginger, Douglas, Henry etc. - although the book evolved so much in the writing that the Just William parody doesn't start until about two thirds of the way through, and comes as something as a surprise. The main characters are an angel and a demon who, over the years, have formed an unlikely bond akin to friendship, and several other key characters are introduced as the story progresses. It jumps around a bit, but is great fun (and not as blasphemous as I'd been anticipating) and it feels like each author may have reined in the excesses of the other. It also might be the only joint-written novel I've read.

A Tale of Two Cities (Charles Dickens) - 63
My third Dickens novel, after wading through Hard Times at school and reading A Christmas Carol (if that counts as a novel) shortly after Uni. I'm not particularly a devotee of Dickens' sense of humour, but I was drawn to (most of) these characters, and the emotional plotlines were affecting, particularly the novel's famous culmination. There were times when I struggled to remember who was who in various plotlines, and Dickens doesn't half like to go on, but all in all I was pleasantly surprised. Still, Bleak House & Great Expectations look a bit ominous on the shelf.

Noughts and Crosses (Malorie Blackman) - 61
Another YA novel, this imagines a world where the history of whites (noughts) and blacks (Crosses) is effectively reversed - e.g. noughts used to be slaves to Crosses; noughts are only now being allowed into Cross schools; children are taught about notable Cross figures but not their nought equivalents. It is only after a few chapters that skin colour is brought into it; cleverly, Blackman uses only the terms nought and Cross up to that point. The story alternates short first person narratives between Sephy (Cross) and Callum (nought), who are star-crossed... teenage friends. The story gets pretty dark, in a YA sort of way, and doesn't go in the direction I thought it might, and is all the better for it. It's a very good book, and helps the reader think about racial prejudice in ways they might not have before - the point where Sephy realises for the first time that plasters are all brown, so they blend in with Cross skin but stand out for noughts, will stay with me.

Of Mice and Men (John Steinbeck) - 52
My only previous experience of Steinbeck was giving up on East of Eden when it got into the bloodier aspects of prostitution. What a revelation Of Mice and Men was! I loved this book, which I devoured in a couple of days, and it leapt into the list of my all-time favourites. It is a beautiful story of two migrant workers, one of whom has severe learning difficulties, and their dreams of a better life. I was in tears for much of the ending, which is perhaps predictable but nonetheless perfect, and I have to say that I'm now glad that our English literature class had to read Wuthering Heights while the other class was doing this one: I would not have wanted to ruin this book by studying it.

The Secret Garden (Frances Hodgson Burnett) - 51
The first film I ever saw at the cinema was The Secret Garden, so the story was already well known to me, and to be honest the film adaptation left much more of a mark on me than the book itself did. In fact, I'm struggling to remember what was in the book and what was in the film, although I think it was a fairly faithful adaptation (albeit with an earthquake rather than illness killing Mary's parents at the start of the story). Mary is very unlikeable at the start, but is won over to the joys of Yorkshire and nature, in particular the title's secret garden, alongside her new friends Dickon and Colin. The story is perhaps strongest when dealing with the parallel awakening of Colin's father; weakest when we're supposed to believe that children are head-over-heels ecstatic at finding some flowers behind a wall. Pass the iPad, eh?

Far From the Madding Crowd (Thomas Hardy) - 48
The biggest surprise of all for me so far: Thomas Hardy is funny. Like, properly hilarious. I'd never read any Hardy before but I knew his work by reputation as being depressing and unforgiving; far from it, this was full of observational humour that was reminiscent of Jane Austen's best work (although significant tragedies do befall most characters). I'd seen the most recent film adaptation, so the story of Bathsheba, Gabriel, Troy et al was not unknown to me, but the screen adaptation (though good) couldn't do justice to the source material. It doesn't necessarily stand up to rationale analysis - the plotline in which Bathsheba sends her neighbour a valentine as a joke doesn't make any sense at all - but I don't think it's meant to, and despite that the characters are strongly drawn. I look forward to reading more Hardy, although I hear that Tess is less sunny.

Brideshead Revisited (Evelyn Waugh) - 45
One of several books on the list that I suspect got there more because people enjoyed the TV adaptation than because of the book itself. And, given that all allusions to the story that I've heard have tended to revolve around Sebastian and his teddy bear Aloysius, my suspicion is that plenty of people didn't see the whole TV series through. The earlier chapters on Charles's time at Oxford are indeed the strongest, in my view, but as the book moves on through his later life and interactions with Flyte family, I found myself losing interest. At the end of the book I just set it aside and said out loud: "Well, what was the point of that, then?". There are themes of Catholicism, friendship, love, aristocracy, alcohol... but, for me, they never coalesced into anything worthwhile.

Persuasion (Jane Austen) - 38
Pride & Prejudice is possibly my favourite ever book; Northanger Abbey (criminally, not in the Big Read top 100) is also right up there in my top ten; I've also greatly enjoyed Sense & Sensibility and, to a slightly lesser extent, Emma. Mansfield Park I found barely readable, and gave up halfway through. Persuasion, for me, sits above only Mansfield Park in the list of Austen novels: the characters often seemed like less well-defined versions of those from her other works, and I felt minimal affection for Anne Elliot. To be honest, the plot was forgettable to the extent that I only remembered late on that I'd previously seen the film, and I don't think I'll be rushing to re-read this one. A shame.

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (Roald Dahl) - 35
I was a little surprised to discover that I'd not read this one before - I'd seen the film growing up, and while it wasn't one of my childhood favourites, it left a strong impression. It was difficult not to picture it while reading the book, in fact, although I was slightly shocked to realise that the depiction of the Oompa-Loompas was pretty racist (and much less so than in the original version, apparently). The morality tale isn't exactly subtle, but it's lasted as a classic for a reason. It would probably have had more impact if I'd read it as a child and not already known the entire story before I started.

Birdsong (Sebastian Faulks) - 13
The most surprising thing about this book was how long it took to get to the trenches - I'd known it by reputation as a World War I epic - with the early chapters devoted to Stephen Wraysford's time in the French textile industry, and the tempestuous affair he has with his host's wife. This was very involving (and surprisingly, er, detailed), so that by the time the horrors and trauma of the war are described, the impact is that much greater. This is certainly not a novel that glamourises war; the randomness with which friends can be killed, and the ways that Stephen and others try to deal with this, are explored excellently. The parallel storyline in which Stephen's granddaughter tries to find out about his life seems undercooked and largely pointless, though. Still, this definitely comes recommended.

The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy (Douglas Adams) - 4
Confession time: I have spent many years bad-mouthing this book, based on reading the first few chapters when I was a teenager and giving up in confused contempt. As it turned out, I'd actually been reading one of the others in the series - The Restaurant at the End of the Universe, I think - and, now that I read this one... it's fine. Pretty good, in places. So, I apologise for all the nasty things I said about Douglas Adams over the years, but I still didn't particularly warm to the adventures of Arthur Dent and his ragtag band of inter-galactic chums. Some of it is very funny; much of it seems to be trying too hard, and all in all I prefer the work of Terry Pratchett, which follows a similar line but more successfully, for my taste. Still, if you like cult humour and don't mind too much if storylines appear to have been made up on the spot, you could do a lot worse than this.

That's the lot, so far: with another 22 books to go, maybe I'll come back and give my thoughts a bit later. I must admit that I've not yet touched a lot of the longer ones - War and Peace, anyone? - so I may have set myself up for a lengthy finish. Having said that, next on my list is Vicky Angel (Jacqueline Wilson), which I don't expect to be too laborious.
The big hits so far, as you'll have deduced from the above, are Of Mice and Men, I Capture the Castle, Far From the Madding Crowd, and Birdsong. The one I've enjoyed least is not actually in the list above, because I'm still working my way through it: Little Women, which I'm reading on my phone whenever I have some spare time and have exhausted literally everything else my phone can do. It is truly awful.
I don't want to end on such a sour note, so I'll finish by asking if you have any recommendations from the Big Read list (ignoring, for the moment, that I've not told you which 35 I'd already read) - let me know, and I'll take a look.

what am I listening to?
Hot Fuss - The Killers
what am I reading?
Noughts and Crosses - Malorie Blackman
what am I watching?
Toy Story 4
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