Desert Island Books: Circle of Friends by Maeve Binchy

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Generous-hearted Benny Hogan and the elfin Eve Malone have been best friends for years, growing up in sleepy Knockglen. Their one thought is to get to Dublin, to university and to freedom…

On their first day at University College, the inseparable pair are thrown together with fellow students: beautiful but selfish Nan Mahon and the handsome Jack Foley.

But trouble is brewing for Benny and Eve’s new circle of friends and, before long, they find passion, tragedy – and the independence they yearned for.

The sixth book I am taking to my desert island to be read endlessly until my sad demise is Circle of Friends by Maeve Binchy.

Maeve Binchy is one of my all time favourite authors, and a huge inspiration to me, as she writes in the genre that I am attempting myself, emotional women’s fiction. Not only writes in it, is the doyenne of the genre. I have been a huge fan since I first borrowed a copy of Light A Penny Candle from my mother’s book shelf in my late teens. From that very first reading, I fell in love with her writing. Her gimlet eye for human nature. Her empathetic portrayal of emotion and the intimate frailties of the lives of real people. Her vivid portrayals of daily life in rural Ireland from the 1950s until modern times, and particularly the lives of Catholic women. Her books are a masterclass in how to write women’s fiction, and I am a true disciple, as my Maeve Binchy shelf will attest. I once saw someone dismiss her writing as ‘chicklit.’ Leaving aside the hot debate about the use of this intentionally derogatory term for books that are enjoyed by millions of women – and men – the world over, to label her work as chicklit is to fundamentally misunderstand it.

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Of all of her wonderful books, Circle of Friends has always been my favourite. It had a big impact on me when I first read it, and that impact has not lessened over the dozens of re-readings I have made of this book over the years, including the latest. The story still moves me emotionally, draws me in to its world and holds me in its grasp until the very last page, even though I know what is coming and how it ends. The ability to do this, to include layers of complexity and feeling so that the reader is held in thrall every time is a rare and beautiful skill that she possessed in boatloads and is the reason that her books have been bestsellers for decades, and are still popular many years after her death. Even now, new stage adaptations of her books are being written to delight audiences who can’t get enough of her intimate portrayals of women.

This book tells the story of the friendship of Benny Hogan and Eve Malone as they grow up as children in rural Ireland in the 1950s and eventually leave their small town to go to university in Dublin, and how the contrast between the small, safe childhoods they have known and navigating the expanded world of college, new friends and the city, impacts them individually and as friends.

Ireland, a strict Catholic country in the 1950s, held specific difficulties for women, but also the same challenges that we have faced the world over for centuries and, how the two girls navigate these challenges and support each other at the same time is at the core of the book and what will speak to women reading this book everywhere. Many of the issues that Maeve addresses are universal and will inevitably lead to the reader being able to identify with at least one of the characters in the book or one of the situations they have to face. Female friendship is an enduring topic in women’s literature, and one that is at the centre of many of Maeve’s books, and this one in particular.

Benny Hogan is one of my favourite ever characters in a novel, and one I always have, and still do, identify with strongly. The author does such an amazing job of portraying her insecurity and vulnerability through childhood and into her teenage years that I defy anyone not to be firmly on her side from the beginning of this book, not to see some aspect of themselves and any fear they have ever had about their place in the world reflected back at them. This then makes Benny the perfect character to draw us in to this story of a young, gauche girl trying to navigate the new and intimidating world of university, far away from home and all the security she has known. These are emotions that most of us can relate to in one way or another and, as such, it is impossible not to celebrate her successes in this new world and suffer her heartbreak at the same time she does. This book takes me back to my teenage years, the overwhelming emotions that you feel falling in love for the first time, how one person can come to mean everything to you and that relationship, the tornado of feelings that are unleashed and seem uncontrollable, how the end of the relationship feels like the end of the world; I remember it all and relive it again through the pages of this book.

Maeve’s writing is so tender and knowing, she really understands what makes people tick and is able to portray this in a way that makes us understand it too, but effortlessly, so you can’t even see how she is doing it. The lives of these women, their relationships and the settings of the stories come alive on the page, it is like watching a technicolour movie, and you can’t even see the joins. She writes the way I want to write, and I have spent a lot of time looking at how she does it, in the vain hope I can emulate her to some small degree. There was a discussion in my writing circle only yesterday about describing settings in books, how to do it vividly but discretely. Anyone wanting to see how it is done could do a lot worse than reading this book.

Maeve’s work led me on to reading a lot of other Irish writers who quickly became huge favourites of mine, Marian Keyes and Cathy Kelly to name but two, and on to people such as Veronica Henry and Erica James, who also write this genre similarly beautifully and who are all heroes of mine. But Maeve Binchy is the reason I feel in love with this genre in the beginning and she will always hold a special place in my heart. I miss her still and my desert island would not feel like home without my copy of Circle of Friends.

You can buy a copy of Circle of Friends here.

About the Author

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Maeve Binchy was born in County Dublin and educated at the Holy Child convent in Killiney and at University College, Dublin. After a spell as a teacher she joined the IRISH TIMES.

Her first novel, LIGHT A PENNY CANDLE, was published in 1982 and she went on to write over twenty books, all of them bestsellers. Several have been adapted for cinema and television, including TARA ROAD. Maeve Binchy received a Lifetime Achievement Award at the British Book Awards in 1999 and the Irish PEN/A.T. Cross award in 2007. In 2010 she was presented with the Bob Hughes Lifetime Achievement Award at the Bord Gáis Irish Book Awards by the President of Ireland.

She was married to the writer and broadcaster Gordon Snell for 35 years, and died in 2012.

Desert Island Books: The Chrysalids by John Wyndham; Narrated by Graeme Malcolm

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David Strorm’s father doesn’t approve of Angus Morton’s unusually large horses, calling them blasphemies against nature. Little does he realise that his own son, and his son’s cousin Rosalind and their friends, have their own secret abberation which would label them as mutants. But as David and Rosalind grow older it becomes more difficult to conceal their differences from the village elders. Soon they face a choice: wait for eventual discovery, or flee to the terrifying and mutable Badlands. . .

The Chrysalids is a post-nuclear apocalypse story of genetic mutation in a devastated world and explores the lengths the intolerant will go to keep themselves pure.

I don’t know whether you are someone who likes to read dystopian fiction, especially in this current time of pandemic, but if you are, then John Wyndham is a writer you should know about and this novel is, in my humble opinion, his best. I have read all of his books and, although he is better know for The Day of the Triffids and The Midwich Cuckoos (which was made into a film called The Village of the Damned which did not in any way do the book justice), none of his other books have the emotional impact of The Chrysalids.

I was first introduced to the works of John Wyndham in my early teens by my excellent high school librarian. Along with Dorothy L. Sayers (one of whose novels will be featured as a Desert Island Book later in the year), John Wyndham was an author I would never have picked up without her encouragement, but who has since become a lifelong favourite. The first of his books I read was Chocky, and it (excuse my language) scared the crap out of me, but it was this book that really made me think and which continues to linger in my mind long after I finish reading it, even after multiple re-reads.

The book is set in a post-apocalyptic corner of Canada. The Earth has been blighted by a tragedy that the reader assumes is nuclear war, but this is never confirmed because the people living at this time don’t actually know what happened to make their world the way it is. Their reality is that vast tracts of the planet are uninhabitable, and the earth is so ravaged by radiation fallout that large proportions of everything are deformed and distorted from what they perceive to be the ‘true’ image. For comfort, the population have grasped on to religion with fervour to control their lives and they ruthlessly pursue what they consider to be gospel as regards how man should look and behave, to the extent that they destroy crops and animals they consider deformed or ‘Offences’ against God and inflict unspeakable horrors on humans that do not conform to their belief of the True Image of God, whom they label as Blasphemies.

The story follows the life of David Strorm, the son of one of the most rigid leaders of their  community, and his group of fellow telepaths, who have managed to say hidden from people as they are physically ‘normal’, but who fear persecution because their telepathic ability is not shared by the majority of people (the Norms).

This is basically a book about bigotry. About fear of people who do not look or act exactly the same as the majority, and who are persecuted for their differences, despite the fact they do not hurt anybody. When I listened to this book a few weeks ago to prepare for this piece, I had no idea just how relevant the story was going to feel when I came to post it.

The Audible version of this book is extremely well narrated and very easy to listen to and, as someone who loves and has read the book many times, I can attest that the story loses none of its impact when consumed as an audiobook.

You can buy a copy of The Chrysalids here.

About the Author

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John Wyndham Parkes Lucas Benyon Harris was born in 1903, the son of a barrister. He tried a number of careers including farming, law, commercial art and advertising, and started writing short stories, intended for sale, in 1925. From 1930 to 1939 he wrote stories of various kinds under different names, almost exclusively for American publications, while also writing detective novels. During the war he was in the Civil Service and then the Army.

In 1946 he went back to writing stories for publication in the USA and decided to try a modified form of science fiction, a form he called ‘logical fantasy’. As John Wyndham he wrote The Day of the Triffids and The Kraken Wakes (both widely translated), The Chrysalids, The Midwich Cuckoos (filmed as Village of the Damned), The Seeds of Time, Trouble with Lichen, The Outward Urge (with Lucas Parkes) and Chocky. He died in March 1969.

Desert Island Books: The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams; Narrated by Stephen Fry

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It’s an ordinary Thursday lunchtime for Arthur Dent until his house gets demolished. The Earth follows shortly afterwards to make way for a new hyperspace express route, and his best friend has just announced that he’s an alien. At this moment, they’re hurtling through space with nothing but their towels and an innocuous-looking book inscribed, in large friendly letters, with the words: DON’T PANIC.

The weekend has only just begun . . .

Is there anyone who needs me to tell them why I would want to take Douglas Adam’s The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, a trilogy in five parts (Yes, I’m having all five books, I’ve got them in a version that is just one volume so it totally isn’t cheating) to my desert island with me? Presumably only someone who has never read it, because noone who has ever picked up these books could fail to fall in love with them.

Look, I know that science fiction isn’t a genre that appeals to everyone; indeed, I myself am not a huge reader of sci-fi, but these books are so, so much more than a simple sci-fi series. They are hilarious and clever and astute and a damning commentary on the ridiculousness of human beings and the futility of existence and a celebration of those very same things. There has never, in my opinion, been anything quite like it before or since and the phenomenal popularity of the series (they’ve been translated into more than 30 languages) bears witness to this. They were a no brainer as an addition to my Desert Island books.

The basic story follows the adventures of Arthur Dent, a rather boring man who is whisked away from Earth by his best friend, Ford Prefect,  moments before our planet is demolished by the Vogon constructor fleet to make way for a hyper-space bypass. It turns out Ford is not an out-of-work actor, as Arthur believed, but an alien from the plant Betelguise who is a field researcher for a kind of inter-planetary Lonely Planet handbook called The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Arthur then accompanies Ford around the Universe, discovering all kinds of extraordinary things.

This sounds far from extraordinary, but the summary does not do justice to the wit and sharpness with which Adams imbues the text and the deft comedy and piercing observations that pepper the book. True fans absorb the comedic prose into their very beings and you will often find in-jokes from the books creeping in to all kinds of discussions and debates. A bunch of EU law experts were referencing the book (and in particular, the virtues, or lack thereof, of Vogon poetry) during a Twitter debate about Brexit last autumn and it made my soul sing. In fact, one of the category headings of my blog is a direct nod to the title of the third book in the series; this is how deeply the novel is woven in to my psyche.

I have recently inducted my fourteen-year-old daughter in to the joys of the book and was delighted to hear her laughing out loud during the same audio version I have just listened to. I must have been around the same age when I first discovered it, and I have been in love with the books ever since, and I will never get tired of them. They make me laugh, and their comedy fills me with joy. They are the perfect eternal companion on my desert island.

The audio version (of the reading of the book, not the original radio shows) is very well done. Stephen Fry is always a delight to listen to, although he is forever associated in my mind with Harry Potter now when I listen to him. I have only made it through the first audiobook so far, but I have The Restaurant at the End of the Universe ready to go and plan to get through them all again this year. These books make my heart happy, what more can I say?

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is out now in all formats and you can buy a copy here.

About the Author

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Douglas Adams created all the various and contradictory manifestations of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy: radio, novels, TV, computer game, stage adaptations, comic book and bath towel. He lectured and broadcast around the world and was a patron of the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund and Save the Rhino International. Douglas Adams was born in Cambridge, UK and lived with his wife and daughter in Islington, London, before moving to Santa Barbara, California, where he died suddenly in 2001. After Douglas died the movie of Hitchhiker moved out of development hell into the clear uplands of production, using much of Douglas’ original script and ideas. Douglas shares the writing credit for the movie with Karey Kirkpatrick.

Desert Island Books: Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood by Rebecca Wells

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When Siddalee Walker, oldest daughter of Vivi Abbott Walker, Ya-Ya extraordinaire, is interviewed in the New York Times about a hit play she’s directed, her mother gets described as a “tap-dancing child abuser.” Enraged, Vivi disowns Sidda.

Devastated, Sidda begs forgiveness, and postpones her upcoming wedding. All looks bleak until the Ya-Yas step in and convince Vivi to send Sidda a scrapbook of their girlhood mementos, called “Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood.”

As Sidda struggles to analyze her mother, she comes face to face with the tangled beauty of imperfect love, and the fact that forgiveness, more than understanding, is often what the heart longs for.

If you want to know if you are going to like this book or not, all you need to do is to read the prologue. It is only a page and a half long, but it perfectly encapsulates the setting, tone and characterisation of the book. It wraps you in the mood, sounds, tastes, smells and feelings of the Louisiana bayou and pulls you in to the book; a literary seductress of a prologue – I defy you to resist its siren call.

This is the third of the books I have chosen to accompany me to my Desert Island, to be read repeatedly in perpetuity and I had absolutely no doubt at all as to whether to include it in the list. I fell hopelessly and irrevocably in love with this book the first time I read it, and that love has remained unaltered – steadfast and true – through repeated readings over the intervening twenty-plus years. It is a book that has grown with me over that time, as I have matured from naive twenty-something to a woman in her mid-forties with now a history of relationships and children to inform my understanding of the book. It is a novel that gives you different things depending on from where in your life you come at it. A novel so rich in insight and understanding of the female condition that it will not age.

This book is, without doubt, the best book about female friendship that I have ever read, and given how much I read that is no minor feat. When I first read it in my early twenties, I was so moved by the depiction of the relationship between the four Ya-Yas, that I immediately bought a copy of the book for each of my three closest female friends, so I could share the experience with them, and I know I am not alone in feeling this. A whole movement of Ya-Ya clubs sprang up around this book as it moved readers to celebrate their own relationships with the women in their lives. Close female friendship is a unique and special thing, and Rebecca Wells portrays this perfectly. Just as in this book, my girlfriends have been there with me through all the important times in my life, good and bad. They have celebrated with me, commiserated, listened, advised, laughed and cried. At times they have literally carried me through periods when I thought I could not go on. They are always on my side, never judging, never criticising. They are the scaffolding that has kept me upright when my very foundations have been shaken by seismic life events, and this book dissects and celebrates the true bones of these relationships and their role in our lives.

As I’ve grown older and had relationships and family of my own, the dynamics of the mother/daughter relationship which is also central to this book have also come into sharper focus for me and meant more. I have come to understand it better from the perspective of Vivi, rather than Siddalee, and it has added an extra layer of richness to the narrative for me. There is always some new perspective to find on every reading, it is a book rich in nuance that takes more than one reading to mine and, as a result, I never get tired of it.

In addition to the above, this book also gives the most magnificent sense of place of any book I have read and was the reason that I fell in love with the Deep South of the USA before I even visited, and Louisiana in particular. I wanted to experience all the richness that this book promised awaited me there, the heavy warmth, the spice of the food, the twanging patois of the vernacular, so unique to this place and its mongrel history and when I finally got there, it exceeded every expectation. This book took part of my heart and planted it in Louisiana and the call to return and find it continues to draw me back to this day. This is an extraordinary feat for any book and reason enough to pick it up, if the preceding praise was not sufficient. If you want a book that transports you to a different time and place, look no further, this novel will carry you away; it is a book you can lose yourself in completely.

This book touches on some difficult subjects, but that is part of what makes it so glorious. This book is real. It deals with real people, real problems, real feelings, real relationships. The characters are flawed but compelling and the reader cannot help but be drawn into their drama. The writing is sublime. It is the kind of book that makes me want to write, to give people this experience, this connection with characters, this sense of empathy. When Rowan Coleman gave a talk at the RNA Conference last year about finding the three words to describe your writing, the top one on my list was affinity. I want people who read my book to feel an affinity with my characters and what they are going through, even if they have not been through the same experience themselves. That is what I feel for the characters in this book, even though they inhabit a different world than mine. And it makes me want to weep, because I know that I will never write anything as good as this.

If you haven’t got the message by now, I adore this book. It is one of those novels that, when you have read it, you feel that it has changed you.

You can get a copy of Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood here and I think I might have to insist that you do.

About the Author

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Rebecca Wells was born and raised in Alexandria, Louisiana. “I grew up,” she says, “in the fertile world of story-telling, filled with flamboyance, flirting, futility, and fear.” Surrounded by Louisiana raconteurs, a large extended family, and Our Lady of Prompt Succor’s Parish, Rebecca’s imagination was stimulated at every turn. Early on, she fell in love with thinking up and acting in plays for her siblings—the beginnings of her career as an actress and writer for the stage. She recalls her early influences as being the land around her, harvest times, craw-fishing in the bayou, practicing piano after school, dancing with her mother and brothers and sister, and the close relationship to her black “mother” who cleaned for the Wells household. She counts black music and culture from Louisiana as something that will stay in her body’s memory forever.

In high school, she read Walt Whitman’s “I Sing the Body Electric,” which opened her up to the idea that everything in life is a poem, and that, as she says, “We are not born separately from one another.” She also read “Howl,” Allen Ginsberg’s indictment of the strangling consumer-driven American culture he saw around him. Acting in school and summer youth theater productions freed Rebecca to step out of the social hierarchies of high school and into the joys of walking inside another character and living in another world.

The day after she graduated from high school, Rebecca left for Yellowstone National Park, where she worked as a waitress. It was an introduction to the natural glories of the park—mountains, waterfalls, hot springs, and geysers—as well as to the art of hitchhiking.

Rebecca graduated from Louisiana State University (LSU) in Baton Rouge, where she studied theater, English, and psychology. She performed in many college plays, but also stepped outside the theater department to become awakened to women’s politics. During this time she worked as a cocktail waitress–once accidentally kicking a man in the shins when he slipped a ten-dollar bill down the front of her dress—and began keeping a journal after reading Anais Nin, which she has done ever since.

Connect with Rebecca:

Website: https://www.rebeccawellsbooks.com

Facebook: Rebecca Wells Author

Twitter: @rwellswrites

Instagram: @mizrebeccawells

 

 

Desert Island Books: The Edge by Dick Francis @felix_francis #BookReview #racingcrime #thriller #crime #bookbloggers #bookblog #desertislandbooks #readinggoals @VIA_Rail @ExploreCanada #TheCanadian #CanadaByTrain #VIARail #ExploreCanada #bucketlist

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Tor Kelsey, an undercover agent for the Jockey Club’s security service is involved in the attempt to rid racing of one of its most notorious villains, Julius Apollo Filmer. The court however, does not go along with their beliefs, but Tor knows that to let Julius even suspect the service are still on his tail would mean certain death for a number of witnesses.

Meanwhile, several racehorse owners have planned a luxurious train trip across Canada, with race meetings fixed for every major city. Julius Apollo Filmer and Tor are on the passenger list. The beautiful journey through the Rockies gets uglier by the minute and Tor finds himself pushed to dangerous limits to defeat Filmer’s wily scheming.

I can’t remember exactly when I read my very first Dick Francis novel, but I know it was some time early in my horse-mad, teenage years. I know that it was lent to me by my friend, Mary, and that the first one I read was one of his books featuring racing detective, Sid Halley. I also know I was hooked from that very first book and quickly raced through his back catalogue. I then waited eagerly each September for his latest book to come out and bought every new one in hardback. He wrote 44 thrillers before his death in 2010, the later ones with his son, Felix, as co-author. Since his death, Felix has continued to write racing thrillers under the Francis name, and I have continued to buy them.

I have huge nostalgic affection for these books, as Dick Francis was one of the first authors I discovered for myself, without the books being parentally approved, and he was an author that was just my own. No one else in my family was particularly a fan, I didn’t have to share the books with my sisters (who never took care of my books properly- remember the Freya North book you left in Australia, Catherine? Remember the book you dropped in the bath, Rebecca?), these were just mine.

Do you want to see my Dick Francis shelf? Of course you do, here it is:-

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Anyway, of all of these excellent books, The Edge is my standout favourite. I must have read it at least a dozen times over the years. In fact I could probably recite it off by heart by now, but I never get bored of it and it was a no brainer as one of my Desert Island Books.

The blurb of this book singularly fails to do the plot justice, so I will try and explain to you what exactly is so marvellous about it, even to people who are not remotely interested in horses or racing.

Although Dick Francis is dubbed the king of the racing thriller, his books are about so much more than horse racing. His plots have involved stories centring around reporters, photography, gold mines, movie-making, wine experts, air taxis, art fraud, diamond dealers, authors, medical experiments, hurricane-chasing and toy making, amongst many other subjects, all of them meticulously researched. To say that he writes racing thrillers does not do his imagination justice, and The Edge is one of the best examples of this diversity in his writing.

The book follows Jockey Club investigator, Tor Kelsey, a man who works undercover investigating racing crimes. When the Jockey Club believes the biggest villain in racing might be plotting a major sting, Tor is sent on the trip of a lifetime across Canada to try and discover and foil his plans.

So far, so ordinary. However, there are things about the book that make it a cut above the average thriller. Firstly, it has the topsy-turvy plot device of the reader knowing who the villain is from the off, but both the investigator, and the reader, not knowing what crime he is planning and having to find this out together. Secondly, the action is set mostly on a glamorous train travelling coast-to-coast across Canada with the elite of the racing world, plus their horses, aboard. There is also a murder mystery being acted out on board for the entertainment of the passengers, so there is fun in trying to work out which parts are the real mystery and which are part of the entertainment. There is also a love interest sub-plot for added spice. A huge cast of great characters, descriptions of a great train journey visiting some of the amazing sights of Canada, and a gripping mystery plot which delivers continual twists and turns and highs and lows – what’s not to love?

This book has a special place in my heart. It has also inspired one of my top Bucket List destinations which I blogged about here (picture below might give you a clue!). Having read it again, I am also struck by how well the book has stood the test of time, despite it being 30 years old and not featuring cell phones, the internet or other modern equipment. There are not many crime books that I can read over and over and still enjoy, despite knowing whodunnit, but all of Dick Francis’s books fall into this category and this is the best of the crop IMHO. Definitely a keeper.

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The Edge might be difficult to get your mitts on new now, but try your local library or you should be able to track down a copy in some format here. Sorry, there is no way I am lending out my copy, no matter how much you beg!

About the Author

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Richard Stanley Francis (31 October 1920 – 14 February 2010) was a British crime writer, and former steeplechase jockey, whose novels centre on horse racing.

After wartime service in the RAF, Francis became a full-time jump-jockey, winning over 350 races and becoming champion jockey of the British National Hunt. He came to further prominence in 1956 as jockey to Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother riding her horse Devon Loch, which fell when close to winning the Grand National. Francis retired from the turf and became a journalist and novelist.

Dick Francis was widely acclaimed as one of the world’s finest thriller writers. His awards include the Crime Writers’ Association’s Cartier Diamond Dagger for his outstanding contribution to the crime genre, and an honorary Doctorate of Humane Letters from Tufts University of Boston. In 1996, Dick Francis was made a Mystery Writers of America Grand Master for a lifetime’s achievement and in 2000 he received a CBE in the Queen’s Birthday Honours list.

Desert Island Books: A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson #BookReview #travel #travelwriting #bookbloggers #bookblog #desertislandbooks #readinggoals

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In the company of his friend Stephen Katz, Bill Bryson set off to hike the Appalachian Trail, the longest continuous footpath in the world. Ahead lay almost 2,200 miles of remote mountain wilderness filled with bears, moose, bobcats, rattlesnakes, poisonous plants, disease-bearing tics, the occasional chuckling murderer and – perhaps most alarming of all – people whose favourite pastime is discussing the relative merits of the external-frame backpack.

Facing savage weather, merciless insects, unreliable maps and a fickle companion whose profoundest wish was to go to a motel and watch The X-Files, Bryson gamely struggled through the wilderness to achieve a lifetime’s ambition – not to die outdoors.

So, the first of the twelve books that I will be taking with me to my desert island for my Desert Island Books feature is A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson.

I love Bill Bryson’s writing, his travel books in particular, but out of all of them this one is my favourite. I must have read it half a dozen times now and it still fascinates me, makes me thoughtful and makes me laugh, all at the same time. I don’t think I will ever get bored of it.

I had a quick look at the reviews on Goodreads of this book just prior to writing this review. The book has an average of 4 stars, but the most prominent review on the first page was a one star by someone who took exception to pretty much everything about the book’s content and the way it was written, which quite surprised me. The review is so prominent, despite being 13 years old, because it has an exceptionally high number of comments on it, as other Goodreads members debated the merits of the review, and the book, back and forth. It is quite clear that this is a book that divides people.

Oddly, the majority of the things people listed as reasons for disliking the book, were the things that make it one of my favourite reads, so I guess you need to decide if these are things that appeal to you.

This is a book about Bill Bryson’s mid-life trek along the Appalachian Trail, a 2,200 mile wilderness footpath that traverses a mountainous route through the forests of the eastern USA from Georgia to northern Maine. Now, I love to read about other people’s travel adventures, and I find this one particularly appealing for a couple of reasons. Firstly, I love the USA and this book covers a couple of the areas of the US that I am particularly fond of – the south eastern states and New England. I  personally have been to the mountains of North Carolina, parts of Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, Vermont, New Hampsire and Maine. I’ve stayed at the Mount Washington Hotel and travelled to the top of Mount Washington via the famous cog railway mentioned in the book. I’ve been to Franconia Notch State Park in Vermont. I’ve visited the town Bryson lived in when he wrote this book, Hanover in New Hampshire, so some of the places he talks about are familiar and I can clearly visualise them and it is always interesting in a book to get someone else’s view of something you yourself have experienced. Equally, there are many places in the book I have never been but sound enticing, and I know for a fact that, whilst I might dream about hiking the Appalachian Trail, it is something I will never do, so I can live it vicariously through Bryson’s experience.

This book is extremely varied as it covers, not only his actual experience of physically hiking the trail, but a lot about the people he meets, the climate and weather of the region, geology and history of this part of the USA, information about the flora and fauna and how that is changing, the development and management of the trail, socio-political history of some of the areas he passes through, and much more. Some people find this annoying and accuse him of ‘hopping about’. I find it all fascinating and, for me, it gives the whole experience a context and a richness that really brings it to life and gives it relevance in the mind of the reader. The author obviously shares my insatiable thirst to know everything about everything he sees on his travels and really understand it. I do huge amounts of reading about a destination and its history before I travel, which deepens my interest and enjoyment of a place, and this is the perfect approach for those fact hounds amongst us.

Another thing some people seem to find a negative about this book is Bryson himself and his authorial voice. I do wonder if this is a matter of national perspective. Whilst Bryson is American by birth, he has spent the better part of his life living in the UK and his humour is very British in nature. He relies heavily on self-deprecation, sarcasm and irony and this is not a type of humour that appeals to everyone. I recall from his book, Notes From A Big Country, (a book about how he and his British family adjust to life in the US after living in the UK for many years) an anecdote about how his wife had to ask him to stop making jokes with his American neighbour, because his neighbour didn’t understand them and their exchanges were giving his neighbour migraines. Some people seem to think Bryson comes across as mean and a bit superior, but I actually find that the biggest butt of his jokes is always himself and he is actually very amusing and gives the book a very light-hearted and entertaining tone, rather than it being a heavy and torpid read, despite the fact in contains huge amounts of factual information. He has a real way with words; his prose is vivid and lyrical. He writes the way I would love to write and I could read it endlessly.

I read a lot of travel writing, because travel is a passion of mine, and for me this represents the absolute best of the genre, mixing anecdotes with a lot of interesting factual information and history, and conveying it all in a clear, fun and pacy package. If you have enjoyed Bryson’s other writing, you will love this book. If you don’t like him, you will hate it because his voice is strong and clear throughout. Maybe the Marmite of travel books, but I, for one, will never tire of Marmite on my desert island.

If you have been tempted by this review to want to read A Walk in the Woods for yourself, you can buy a copy here.

About the Author

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Bill Bryson was born in Des Moines, Iowa, in 1951. Settled in England for many years, he moved to America with his wife and four children for a few years, but has since returned to live in the UK. His bestselling travel books include The Lost Continent, Notes From a Small Island, A Walk in the Woods and Down Under. His acclaimed work of popular science, A Short History of Nearly Everything, won the Aventis Prize and the Descartes Prize, and was the biggest selling non-fiction book of the decade in the UK.

Merry ‘Twixmas! Looking back, looking forward @TheFictionCafe @RNATweets @lord_dodo @moleskine #RomanticNovelistsAssociation #NewWritersScheme #bookblogger #bookbloggers #bookblog #amreading #amwriting #readinggoals #writinggoals #blogginggoals

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It’s a funny time of year, isn’t it, the week between Christmas and New Year? No one knows what day of the week it is or what they should be doing. Everything seems to come to a standstill, the world taking a breath between the excitement of Christmas past and the promise of the new year yet to come. A great time for a bit of introspection, muse on the year past, plan for the one about to start.

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That’s what I have been doing the past couple of days, anyway. My girls were staying with their dad, the Irishman flew off to Dublin for a few days with his parents, I had the house to myself and some time for contemplation and organisation. I tidied up the Christmas detritus, got out my new diary and calendar ready to fill with blogging and writing goals for the year ahead, and had a think about what I want to achieve and how I’m going to do it.

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2019 was a very busy year on the blog. I did loads of blog tours, read a massive 165 books in total. Friday Night Drinks grew in popularity and I had some great guests and I increased my following. On the downside, my TBR grew ever more massive and out of control, I neglected the travel and writing areas of my blog and failed miserably to complete my two reading challenges because I over-faced myself with blog tour commitments and could not devote as much time as I wanted to free reading. My NetGalley backlog also grew to the point where I got turned down for a couple of books because of my abysmal ratio. Something needs to be done.

So, bearing all of this in mind, what lies in store for 2020 and what are my plans?

My Friday Night Drinks and Tempted by… features are both fully booked and planned to June, so they will be carrying on as before. I will be setting my Goodreads Reading Challenge target at 150 again, with the hope that I can exceed it as I have the last two years. I have decided against doing any other external reading challenges, as I don’t need the pressure. Instead, I will make a second attempt at doing my Desert Island Books (more detail on that to come in January.) I am also determined to be more diligent with the Travel, Bucket List and Writing areas of my blog and have diaried in some regular features for these. I’m looking forward to getting a bit more variety in to the blog.

In an attempt to get some control over my NetGalley ratio and TBR, I have decided to go back to the original aim of the blog as set out in my first ever blog post and buy no new books in 2020, or request any more from NetGalley. I’ll just be reading the ones I already have. Unfortunately, these means cutting right back on blog tours to free up reading time. I’m limiting myself to a maximum of two per month after January and February (where I have already committed to more than two!). I am allowing myself to receive my one Book Club book each month, and spend my monthly Audible credit. I have a few books on pre-order which I will let stand. Other than that, I’ll not be buying anything new, but reviewing what I already have, as randomly selected from my book jar. I’m actually looking forward to the challenge. I got a few book-themed Christmas gifts to see me on my way too.

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(Fear not, dear authors with books being published in 2020, I will be making a list ready for when the ban is lifted!)

I had a bit of an epiphany back in the spring when I had Bell’s Palsy and could not read for six weeks due to issues with my left eye. I had always been a little snobby about audiobooks not being ‘proper reading’ and had never counted them in my reading totals. Well, I have to say, audiobooks were my lifeline during those long boring days of illness and now I am as zealous a convert as St. Paul on the road to Damascus. I am listening to them at every opportunity and, in fact, my favourite book of the year was consumed in audio format. So, in 2020, I will be listening to even more audiobooks and reviewing more of them on my blog.

After a couple of lax months at the end of the year, I also plan on making sure I review every book I read or listen to next year (unless I hate it) and being more engaged with other people’s blogs in the new year.

On the writing front, I’m back in the Romantic Novelists’ Association New Writers’ Scheme for the third year, and I am determined that this is the year that I start submitting my book to agents and publishers. I’m planning on attending some RNA events again this year, including conference in July, so I hope to share some of that journey with you. My very kind and wise friends have supplied me with some lovely Christmas gifts to help me along, including this gorgeous Story Box gift from my lovely friend Mary-Louise and a Smithson notebook from the Irishman (a hint to get the book finished, perhaps?)

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As far as travel goes, I currently have nothing booked, which is unusual, but I have last year’s trips still to share and I am sure there will be things planned soon, so watch this space!

All in all, I am excited for the coming year, and all that it is going to bring for me, and for the blog. I hope you will continue on this journey with me, share the highs and the lows and, most of all, the book love. After all, it is fairly meaningless without all of you. Thanks for being here and

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