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September 26th 2020
In June last year I wrote mini-reviews of 18 books from the BBC's Big Read list, the 100 favourite novels as voted for by the Great British public. For those who don't recall, I'd made it one of my '40 by 40' list to read 40 more of them, having already read 35, so that I'd have three quarters of the list ticked off. I've not yet completed the goal, but I've read another 13 so here they are - again, presented in list order.

98. Girls in Love (Jacqueline Wilson)
Perhaps the most unexpected thing about this list is just how much Jacqueline Wilson I'd be reading in my mid-30s. This one was almost entirely unmemorable, though. I think it involved three girls. One of them... invented a boyfriend? And there was an unpopular kid who liked her? Or was that one of the other ones? I dunno. It's probably fine.

86. Vicky Angel (Jacqueline Wilson)
Listen, they're quick to tick off. This one rings more bells, though, as it was about a girl whose best friend dies and then returns as a ghost. It's quite cleverly done, actually, as the spectral friend becomes more and more monstrous before the main character - whose name escapes me; I'm pretty sure Vicky Angel was the ghost girl - finally lets go. Maybe this is the one with the unpopular kid who likes her. Maybe they all are.

81. The Twits (Roald Dahl)
While I was fond of Danny, Champion of the World and (to a lesser extent) Matilda as a kid, I didn't really grow up surrounded by Roald Dahl. Even as a child I didn't enjoy disgusting humour, and I could never abide cruelty in a story, so I'm glad I didn't read this one back then - things like the worms in the spaghetti would have stayed with me, I think. A strange little book from a strange man, and it wouldn't surprise me if such unpleasantness has fallen out of favour in children's literature.

76. The Secret History (Donna Tartt)
On my podcast I recently nominated this as one of the books I'd most like to see made into a movie, and I think it has all the right ingredients. A group of university students conspire to murder a fellow student - not a spoiler; that much is given away from the start - but a lot of the fascination from the story comes in the way that this odd collective take the narrator (Richard Papen) into their strange world. They're taught separately from everyone else; their studies - and lives - are almost entirely parallel to the rest of the campus; they turn to murder almost as a whim. While it requires a couple of leaps of imagination - that murderous bent in particular - it is compelling and well worth a read. Or a film.

73. Night Watch (Terry Pratchett)
I enjoy Discworld books in moderation, and if someone were looking for a way into that world without wanting anything too weird, this is probably where I'd start them. Some of the oddness of Ankh-Morpork is present - the Librarian, who is an orang-utan, for example - but this is by and large a fairly simple tale of one man, er, time-travelling. But not in a confusing way. It's basically Life On Mars set in Discworld, with Pratchett's trademark humour shining through, as well as some more poignant thoughts on life, growth and being a decent copper. If you like your fantasy highbrow, this one even his a book cover based on a Rembrandt.

59. Artemis Fowl (Eoin Colfer)
I zipped through this one in preparation for the (utterly terrible) film on Disney+. For some reason - possibly the surname - I had thought for a long time that Artemis Fowl was some kind of magical animal, possibly chicken-based, and it turns out I was wrong. In fact, I knew almost nothing about this book when I started it, so it was surprising how villainous the title character was (something that Disney really leaned away from), although apparently he becomes more of an anti-hero in later books. The world is not as well-drawn as that of, say, J. K. Rowling, and some of deviations are too clearly created for a pre-teen audience, but overall it's a fun ride with a nice twist on elves, trolls and other fantasy staples.

58. Black Beauty (Anna Sewell)
Speaking of books I knew little about, I had no idea what went on in this one other than it was about a horse. And that the horse was black. And beautiful. For example, I didn't know that it was in the first person narrative voice of the horse, nor that there were not really any consistent human characters - adaptations (of which I have seen none) tend to focus on the relationship between the horse and one person, I believe, usually a girl. Instead this follows Black Beauty - going through a variety of names depending on the owner - from foal to farm to carriage-pulling etc. etc. The book is lovely and apparently had a genuine impact on improving the treatment of horses, but sometimes gets tied up in its own logic, never quite sure how much the horses understand of human ways or, indeed, human language.

56. The BFG (Roald Dahl)
More Dahl, and again one where I knew the outline but not the detail - and was surprised by how large a part Queen Elizabeth II played in the narrative. I've got no problem with Dahl (well, as he person he probably wasn't the greatest... let's leave that to one side), but I'm not in raptures and I suspect I just came to these books about 20 years too late. The idea of a giant being picked on as small is an interesting one; the weird almost-English words he speaks did not fascinate me for long.

41. Anne of Green Gables (L.M. Montgomery)
I seem to have got through a lot of children's books, looking at this list. This one was a delight, set in lovely Canada and charting the progress of the red-headed orphan from first being adopted to finishing her school days - although the focus seems to be mostly on the early years. She is raised by Marilla and Matthew, who I thought were a married couple until they're finally revealed to be siblings late in the book - an odd descriptive lapse - and changes their lives immeasurably. Some of it seems outdated or baffling - Anne's obsession with the sleeves of her dresses did not chime with me - but all in all this is a wonderful book, with pleasing characters and some truly moving moments. Anne's foibles are covered lightly and with tongue often firmly in cheek, and it is clear why everyone is eventually won over by her charms. All in all, it reminds me of Little Women, if Little Women hadn't been utterly terrible (of which, more later).

39. Dune (Frank Herbert)
There are some books - or films - that are so inspirational to future creators that they seem drab and derivative by comparison. Dune, for me, is one of those. I can see its influence in the Wheel of Time, say, and I can appreciate the strides that Frank Herbert took in the world of sci-fi, but this felt mostly colourless to me. I could not tell you any notable characteristics of Paul, its blandly-named lead character, nor could I often easily distinguish between its roving cast of battle-hardened warriors and sly politicians. The narrative describes tumultuous events but never moved me or even particularly interested me. Still, I'll watch the film when it comes out - still scheduled for 2020 as I write, I think - because of its cast and director, and hopefully will find more to stimulate on the big screen.

31. The Story of Tracy Beaker (Jacqueline Wilson)
I wasn't sure if I'd read this as a teenager, and I'm still not. It ticks all the usual Jacqueline Wilson boxes - I'm becoming quite an expert, now - and seemingly more successfully than the other ones, as this is her highest-ranked book on the list. Again, I'm not the target audience, but the subtext in this one is nicely done and the lead character more sympathetic and memorable than some of the other Wilsons I've tackled.

26. Tess of the D'Urbervilles (Thomas Hardy)
Having found Far from the Madding Crowd surprisingly funny, I came to this one with some hope - and found it as unremittingly bleak as it's reputed to be. Tess, poor Tess, stumbles from one disappointment to the next, tragedy wreaked upon her because she once allowed her innocence to be taken by a nefarious cousin. To a modern reader - even one who, like me, does not share in all modern mores - it is difficult to place oneself in the shoes of anyone in the story, particularly the deeply hypocritical Angel Clare. Indeed, it is not clear if his hypocrisy - he also wasn't a virgin before marrying Tess, but easily forgives himself while refusing to forgive her - is deliberately underplayed as a point about the treatment of the two different sexes, or just didn't cross Hardy's mind. Either way, it's a sad old tale that may have worked better for contemporaneous audiences, and the only funny bit is where they accidentally bump into Stonehenge. And I'm pretty sure that's not supposed to be funny.

18. Little Women (Louise May Alcott)
Every now and then you read something you hate so completely that it's difficult to put into words just how much, or which bits, or why. So it is with me and Little Women, but I'll do my best. Firstly, the characterisation is awful. Even in a book aimed at children, if a character is supposed to be selfish then I'd like to see that in what she does, rather than have the character exclaim "Oh, I'm so selfish". Every characteristic of the March daughters is explicitly thrust upon them or claimed by them - the old 'show, don't tell' rule of story-telling being roundly ignored by Alcott. Much of the text appears to be a series of homilies to show that mother knows best - this is not done humourously or with a sense of irony as in Anne of Green Gables; instead, all moral lessons are forced down our throats, reiterated a few times, and then usually underlined one last time by being explicitly stated by one of the March girls as she promises never to make such a mistake again. Are there any redeeming features? Well, in this country Little Women was published in two halves, the second called Good Wives, so I determined that I wouldn't have to read it. This means I missed out on most of the most dramatic storylines - including, oh joy of joys, the death of the utterly unbearable Beth - but I honestly don't think I could have forced my way through another one. Tell you what, here's a message I sent to Simon while reading it:
"Mr. Brooke looked so strong, and sensible, and kind, that the girls christened him 'Mr. Greatheart' on the spot." Who could not hate this book?

Nine to go - Watership Down, which I'm currently reading, being one of them - and I'll keep you posted.

what was I listening to?
The Captain and the Kid - Elton John
what was I reading?
Watership Down - Richard Adams
what was I watching?
Enola Holmes
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