Book 16 – Notes from a Small Island

Bill Bryson first came to England in 1973, settled here in 1977 and has become probably our only American National Treasure. He has written books on the English language (Mother Tongue is superb!) and then developed into a travel writer with an idiosyncratic style that makes him always a joy to read.

After marrying here and bringing up a family, he decided in the mid-nineties to move back to the USA but before going he wanted to write a farewell to Great Britain. Notes from a Small Island is Bryson’s tribute to this country, written with an eye to detail, a command of language and a heartfelt love of the place that has long been one of my very favourite books. It is funny; it is accurate; it is perceptive. He shows us both the faults of the people and the systems and all that makes them so wonderful.

He packs the book with incidental facts about places that were (and still are) a surprise to me. There’s one part when writing about the Cotswolds where he gives just enough detail for an determined enquirer to find a genuine roman mosaid floor hidden away in a wood. Armed with an ordnance survey map and his hints we managed to find it too!

His perceptions on the way we think here are spot on. The first chapter contains a near parody of a pub discussion about how to travel somewhere that is side-splittingly funny and deadly accurate.

It is quite simply one of the best books about this country that’s ever been written. And as an aside, he has moved back here and now has a followup volume called The Road to Little Dribbling: More Notes From a Small Island that is high on my list of Books To Get Very Soon.

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Book 15 – The Tin Princess

I think I’m going to have to read some more Philip Pullman. Some years back I got hold of the His Dark Materials trilogy, partly because I wanted to see what the fuss was about, and partly because Pullman was quoted as saying that he wanted to use the trilogy “to kill God” – spoiler alert: he doesn’t! The books were a thoughful and entertaining read with some wonderful characters – who could not fall in love with Serafina Pekkala? – but left me somewhat dissatisfied as in the end it all seemed to peter out somehow.

A year or so ago I found The Tin Princess in a secondhand book sale, thought it was a very different looking Pullman novel and therefore decided to try it. But again, it seems to not really have much of an ending and all the anticipation leads to nowhere in particular. As with the trilogy, some of the writing is superb. There’s a description of a small battle in a developing snowstorm that is wonderful and evocative to read, but overall I was left feeling “is that it?”.

This could be because the book is part of a series for young adults (something I was not aware of when starting it) and thus there is a back story of which I knew nothing. And perhaps these days modern young adult fiction is not for me. As I said at the beginning, I’ll have to try some more Pullman before definitely making up my mind.